Fates Worse Than Death: Batman (1943)

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Industrialist Martin Warren, after serving his sentence for an unnamed crime, is about to be released from prison; his niece, Linda Page, asks (her boyfriend? fiancée?) playboy Bruce Wayne to accompany her to pick him up.  Although Wayne’s life of leisure doesn’t allow him to get out very early in the morning, he promises to accompany her.  But before they arrive, Warren is picked up by some other old acquaintances, who coerce him to meet their boss, Dr. Daka.  Daka is a Japanese spy striking at the United States from within, and if Warren doesn’t join Daka’s ring of “dishonored” engineers, bankers, and other professionals and agree to serve his “League of the New Order,” he’ll be turned into a mindless zombie by one of Daka’s inventions.  In the mean time, the costumed crimefighter known only as the Batman, with his sidekick Robin, leave a pair of crooks (complete with the “mark of the Bat” on their foreheads) for the police to pick up.  Who are Batman and Robin, and what do they have to do with Bruce Wayne and his young ward, Dick Grayson?

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There can be hardly anyone reading this who isn’t aware that Bruce Wayne and the Batman are one and the same, of course, and the 1943 Batman serial wastes no time in letting the audience in on that information.  In making the leap from the comics to the screen, only the core trio of Bruce/Batman, Dick/Robin, and Alfred the butler were retained (Batman’s police contact is Captain Arnold, not Commissioner Gordon), but their characters and identities are recognizable to readers of the comic book (for the most part: Alfred is relegated to comic relief, skittish and easily flustered, but he still comes through when his services are needed).  None of Batman’s usual enemies like the Joker or Penguin are present (many of the most familiar villains weren’t created until later anyway); Batman was made during wartime, and the enemy he faces in Dr. Daka is a nationalistic one.

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Even allowing for its wartime origin, it saddens me to report that Batman is incredibly racist.  As a cringe-inducing caricature of the effete, treacherous Oriental, Daka is grossly offensive, but if the serial stopped there Daka would fit in with the pseudo-exotic threats I’ve mentioned before (and he is, after all, supposed to be a villain).  But that isn’t enough: Daka’s lair is located on a street in “Little Tokyo,” which according to the enthusiastic narrator has been nearly empty “since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”  That’s in the first chapter and it doesn’t get any better: even Daka’s own henchmen despise him and throw around racial slurs behind his back.  “I’m not afraid of him or any other squint-eye,” says one named Forrester before rebelling.  Forcing Daka to surrender, Forrester tells him “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin,” when he (briefly) has the advantage over him.  Subtle it is not. (Unsurprisingly, Daka was played by a heavily made-up white actor, J. Carrol Naish, a common practice in 1940’s Hollywood.)

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The wartime angle is also apparent in constant references to America’s fighting spirit and the important work being done by the armed forces and munitions manufacturers.  In a twist from the comics, Batman and Robin undertake secret missions for the U. S. government, receiving coded messages from contacts about threats to America’s intelligence and infrastructure.  (According to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, rigid censorship ensured that serial heroes were never shown taking the law into their own hands.  Since being a vigilante is central to Batman’s identity, in the serial he remains independent from the police, taunting an exasperated Captain Arnold who nonetheless depends on the cases his “best agent” wraps up for him, but ultimately Batman gets his orders from Uncle Sam.)

After the generic “spy ring” of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, Batman has a refreshing specificity: Daka plots to steal radium (both to fuel a superpowered “radium gun” and to build an even larger one), blow up a supply train, steal an experimental plane, jump a claim on a radium mine (truly a magical element that allowed screen writers to add a contemporary touch to the hoariest plots), and more.  The political context may have brought out some ugly, jingoistic racism, but there is also never a question of the time and place and what the stakes of the conflict are.

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The oddest aspect of this propagandistic impulse is in the setup of Daka’s Little Tokyo hideout: the League of the New Order has its headquarters hidden in a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” a wax museum primarily containing tableaux of Japanese war atrocities.  Every time the front of the business is shown, a carnival barker is pitching its importance to the war effort: “See the life-size models of the victims of our savage enemies! . . . See how they treat their prisoners. It’ll make your blood turn cold!”  It almost seems as if the filmmakers intend the barker’s words to represent the serial itself: “Come on in here and spend a dime, my friends, and wise yourself up. It’s not a circus, it’s not a carnival—this is a serious proposition!”  Yet the carnival barker is in league with Daka, sending his henchmen to the secret entrance and selecting victims to be brainwashed.  It’s either brilliantly self-referential, a commentary on the bottomless duplicity of the enemy, or just goofy.  Daka believes in hiding in plain sight, apparently.

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The seriousness of Japan’s Imperial ambition isn’t necessarily foreign to either the serial format or Batman as a character—both have featured their share of would-be world conquerors—but it is an odd fit with the tone of the 1943 production, which is frequently light, even whimsical.  Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin appear to be having a ball whether in costume or out: this isn’t the grim, tortured Batman of Christian Bale, or even the reclusive weirdo Michael Keaton portrayed.  Even Naish as Daka gets to rub his hands gleefully and display a few moments of humor, like when he feeds raw meat to his pet alligators and briefly considers throwing a zombie to them as “something special.”  The actors and narrator embrace even the most absurd contrivances with gusto, and I’m not convinced this is entirely a case of straight-faced material only appearing funny in hindsight: comic relief was an essential component of the serial, and I daresay the funny parts are fresher and more entertaining than the repetitive fistfights and formulaic cliffhangers.  (It became very easy to predict what the cliffhanger would be in each episode, as the same beats were employed to set the stage each time. When, as in Chapter Six, a thug says, “Let’s get out of here before that chemical reaches those wires!” you know exactly what’s going to happen next.)

The 1943 Batman serial is likely to be of interest primarily to Batman completists, but I doubt it will satisfy any fan who would describe themselves as such.  It was rereleased to theaters in the 1960s as a camp film, where it influenced the next wave of Batman adaptations. Fans of the 1966 Adam West Batman TV show will recognize many elements: the deadpan acceptance of ridiculous situations, enthusiastic narrator, and even the two-part episodes with cliffhangers very much in the serial style.

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So what works?  For all the fistfights, Batman engages in quite a bit of detective work in this serial: not only does he find and analyze clues, he goes undercover (he disguises himself as a thug named “Chuck White,” and sends Alfred out in disguise a couple of times), gets information out of Daka’s henchmen through a variety of means, and even manages to turn their traps around on them, all while maintaining his secret identity.  Batman also delegates responsibility to Robin and Alfred, who several times come to the rescue.  The complexity of the puzzles is laughable and the level of thought isn’t that deep, but within the bounds established by the script, it’s easy to believe that Batman and Daka are waging a high-stakes chess game against each other, striking and counter-striking until the big confrontation.

I also liked Lewis Wilson as the title character more than I expected: to cover his real purposes, his Bruce Wayne is vapid and silly, and his excuses for not being around—he took Dick to a polo match or an amusement park; he doesn’t get moving until around noon—are amusingly flip.  He expects Linda to believe him, because what red-blooded man would use such indolence as an excuse unless it were the truth?  When one of Daka’s henchmen suggest that Wayne might be the costumed troublemaker, Daka sneers, “Don’t be absurd—that simpering idiot could never be the Batman!”

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What I Watched: Batman (1943, Columbia)

Where I Saw It: I watched a Columbia Pictures DVD set, but it is on YouTube (in many parts) starting here.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Almost all the chapter titles are pretty great, with the kind of snappy immediacy and hint of exciting developments that all the best pulp titles have.  If forced to choose, I’ll go with Chapter Four, “Slaves of the Rising Sun” (balanced out by the fifteenth and final chapter, “The Doom of the Rising Sun”).

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Thirteen, “Eight Steps Down,” ends with a double cliffhanger: Batman, trying to sneak into Daka’s lair, is threatened by the classic spiked-walls-closing-in trap, while at the same time, Linda Page is about to be turned into a zombie by Daka’s mind control device.  However will they escape?

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Many of the escapes in Batman are of the kind that would infuriate Annie Wilkes: a train bears down on the hero, or an armored car plummets off a cliff and explodes, only to be revealed in the next chapter that Robin pushed Batman off the railroad trestle or Batman leapt from the armored car just in time, all shown from a different angle.  If any of those are cheats, then they all are.  However, I can’t say any of them explicitly undo the setup of the cliffhanger.

Actually, my favorite is the resolution to the cliffhanger of Chapter Fourteen (“The Executioner Strikes”), in which Batman, knocked out and placed in a coffin-sized wooden crate, is carried to Daka’s lair; the box, unopened, is dropped into Daka’s alligator pit.  At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, it’s revealed that Batman had escaped before the crate was even brought to Daka’s lair, and it was Daka’s henchman Wallace in the box.  You can bet he didn’t get the benefit of a last-minute cheat.

Sample dialogue:

Bruce: “Well, we never got to the cave.  It was so hot out, we laid down by the side of the road and took a nap.”

Linda: “Asleep! Just when I needed you both so much.  If it hadn’t have been for the Batman I’d be dead in the cave!”

(Chapter Nine, “The Sign of the Sphinx”)

What Others Have Said: “Where could even a Japanese spy get enough ration stamps for all that meat?” Harmon and Glut, referring to the fodder for Daka’s pet alligators

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I vicariously travel the Western frontier through Fighting with Kit Carson.

Afterlife with Archie: “Escape from Riverdale”

“Sometimes dead is better,” witches Hilda and Zelda Spellman tell Jughead Jones after their magic is unable to save his dog Hot Dog from a fatal injury.  If only he had listened!  Struck by his obvious pain, their niece Sabrina (i.e., the Teenage Witch) uses forbidden magic from the Necronomicon to bring Hot Dog back to life.  Like the resurrections in “The Monkey’s Paw” and Pet Sematary, it doesn’t work out as planned: Hot Dog returns, but as a horrible undead monster with a bite that spreads a terrible infection.  Soon, the town of Riverdale (home of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest) is at the center of a zombie epidemic straight out of Night of the Living Dead.

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Since last fall, the first comic I read when I get it home from the store has been Afterlife with Archie, an unlikely hit from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla.  The bimonthly book recently finished its first five-issue arc, “Escape from Riverdale,” and with the promise of big changes starting in the next issue, this seemed as good a time as any to examine the series (and encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a look: the first arc was just released in a collection last week).

As its name implies, Afterlife with Archie is a spin-off of Archie and the series with which it shares a universe (including Sabrina, Josie and the Pussycats, and more), with the familiar kid-friendly characters run through a George Romero- and Stephen King-style wringer.  As I wrote in my series on doppelgangers and copycat characters, writers often use thinly-veiled pastiches of familiar characters when they want to explore their darker sides; however, it is increasingly common for publishers to give writers free rein with out-of-continuity or alternate-universe stories starring their name-brand characters (Marvel has had a Marvel Zombies series for several years now, as an obvious example).

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At least since the late 1980s, following the success of the dark, adult-themed comics work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, it’s been known that “grim and gritty” sell.  Fashions change, but it seems like every few years there’s another round of “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” stories and another slew of comic anti-heroes committing rape, murder, or whatever transgression it takes to get the spotlight in a competitive field.  (I don’t have a problem with comics tackling adult themes, of course, but it’s often the titles that loudly insist on their “adult” status that seem the most adolescent.)  Even without resorting to graphic sex or violence, “going dark” is a giant cliché, and obviously zombies have been trendy for years now, so it would be easy to dismiss Afterlife with Archie as just another fad book.  Yet it’s become one of my favorites: what gives?

Why does Afterlife with Archie succeed where others fail?  For one thing, the affection the creators have for both the horror genre and Archie Comics is obvious and infectious.  Aguirre-Sacasa knows the characters of the Archie universe and respects them; the darkness isn’t something laid on top of the characters, it’s an artful drawing out of themes already present in their usual, more cartoonish depiction.  Archie Andrews is still good-hearted and willing to go out on a limb for his friends and family; Reggie Mantle is still a selfish snob; Betty and Veronica still fight over Archie while trying to remain “BFFs.”  Francavilla’s semi-realistic art, filled with expressionistic shadows and dramatic, off-kilter angles, is matched by dialogue that is by turns naturalistic—the teens don’t sound like overly-cool caricatures of high-schoolers—and appropriately heightened for the gothic excess of the book.  (Veronica’s father Hiram Lodge probably wouldn’t call Archie an “insolent whelp” in one of his regular appearances, but the dynamic of overbearing patriarch to a young, unwanted suitor isn’t a stretch.)

Even the more ghoulish elements are incorporated in ways that play with well-known character traits: it might seem like a cheap joke that the voracious Jughead is the first infected and becomes a flesh-devouring zombie, but it’s just as equally the kind of twist associated with the EC Comics that are another point of reference.  His first teen victim: “Big” Ethel Muggs, a character who has always made me cringe in the original comics with her slow-witted “hick” speech pattern and unrequited crush on Jughead.  (Ironically, as horrible as her death is in Afterlife, her brief appearance has more dignity than the regular version of the character has ever had.)

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Flashbacks fill in the characters’ history, making them three-dimensional: in issue no. 4, the most emotional of the five, Archie is saved from the undead Hot Dog by his own dog Vegas, and then is confronted by his own father, now an infected zombie.  In both cases, the memories of happier times are intercut with the current struggle. (It’s the rare horror comic for which you’ll need a tissue!) Memory also weighs heavily on Hiram Lodge and his butler Smithers; it’s implied that Hiram was unfaithful to Veronica’s mother, and Smithers, as a second-generation servant of the Lodge family, is a discreet repository of all the town’s secrets.  Along with the incestuous relationship of Jason and Cheryl Blossom and the down-low lesbianism of Ginger Lopez and Nancy Woods (both interpretations that are original to this series, obviously), the constant web of secrets and lies make Afterlife’s version of Riverdale resemble Peyton Place, even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  The tone is very much like a contemporary teen soap opera.

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The “Escape from Riverdale” arc ends with Archie leading the town’s survivors from the dwindling safety of Lodge Manor out of town.  Sabrina, who was banished to another dimension for her actions in the first issue, is scheduled to return to Riverdale in issue 6, presumably introducing a more cosmic angle to the ongoing horror, but who knows what other characters will show up?  Josie and the Pussycats are still out there, somewhere, so far unused, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla indulge in some deep cuts from the world of Archie: most of the weirdest Archie concepts are technically alternate universes, but so is Afterlife, and it’s clear the creative team know their stuff, so who knows? I’m hoping for Jughead’s Time Police, myself.

Or maybe they’ll take some inspiration from Spire Christian Comics (which licensed Archie characters to spread the Good News), and we’ll get the gritty reboot of The Gospel Blimp the world has been crying out for.  Or a grown-up Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika?  After the real-life horrors of that story, zombies should be no problem.

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All kidding aside, I do give Archie Comics a lot of credit for remaining a comics company first instead of a “media” company: although many of the attention-grabbing developments of recent years, such as Archie’s marriage and impending death in Life with Archie (the series which Afterlife with Archie sprang from, initially as a joke) and the introduction of openly gay character Kevin Keller, could be seen as publicity stunts, they’ve remained dedicated to a medium that the Big Two comics companies have increasingly turned into ancillaries of big budget movies and little else.  On the other hand: an Afterlife with Archie movie?  I can think of less likely properties to adapt for film.  In the mean time, I look forward to seeing what else Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla come up with.  (And I just found out that Sabrina will be appearing in another, “much darker” ongoing series following the success of Afterlife; “much darker” than what we’ve seen so far? Wow.)

Fates Worse Than Death: Exploring the Motion Picture Serials

Several years ago I was sitting in Century II Concert Hall before a Wichita Symphony pops concert; the day’s program was to include film music excerpts (some accompanying silent film clips), including selections from John Williams’ Star Wars score.  I don’t remember quite how the conversation started, but an older lady sitting next to me was blunt in her assessment: “People don’t realize it now,” she told me, “but Star Wars was a comedy.  The first time I saw it, I just laughed, because I had seen it all before.  Luke Skywalker swinging across the chasm on a rope? That’s Douglas Fairbanks.”

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I already knew that in a general way before this conversation, of course: not only had George Lucas acknowledged the inspiration he had taken from the adventure and science fiction movies of his youth, Star Wars’ debt to the weekly serials was a big point of discussion among fans and critics of the Star Wars saga.  Between 1913 and 1956, serials, or “chapter plays,” were a unique genre of motion picture: episodic, with a week-to-week continuity and boldly drawn, easy to follow stories that kept audiences coming back for more.  The serials developed in parallel with pulp magazines and comic books and shared many of the same story-telling conventions (and specific characters).  They were best known for the “cliffhangers” that ended each chapter with a character in peril, waiting until the beginning of the next chapter to show their escape.

Although the serials of the silent era were produced with an adult audience in mind, from the mid-‘30s onward, sound serials were increasingly geared to children.  Almost all were livened up with spectacular stunts: fist- and gunfights, chases, natural and man-made disasters.  Whether the story took place in the Old West, outer space, or the jungle, whether it was an adaptation of a classic novel or a story of (purportedly) true crime, the storytelling mode was the same, emphasizing action, adventure, and suspense.

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Serials of the sound era generally included between ten and fifteen chapters (by contrast, one silent serial, The Hazards of Helen, boasted over one hundred; it appears to have been an open-ended “continuing adventure” rather than a single narrative, however).  The first episode introduced the characters and set up future conflict (ending on a good cliffhanger to get the audience hooked!); episodes were around twenty minutes in length (with exceptions: sometimes the first episode would be a little longer, like the pilot of a television show).  Serial chapters were shown in conjunction with full-length features (along with newsreels, cartoons and other “shorts”), part of a weekly moviegoing experience that had little to do with the specific film being shown.

Although I tend to see Star Wars as more homage than parody, there’s no denying that it draws heavily on the language of the serials that were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s, before their thunder was stolen by television. Indeed, watching the 1977 original today with an awareness of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, it’s easy to see just how much the characters and situations were based on very specific models: how, in Terry Gilliam’s words, Darth Vader is just “the cowboy with the black hat”—the “spearhead villain” in the terminology of the serials.

I had seen clips from the original serials, sometimes in conjunction with material from Star Wars (or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s other homage to the format).  As I mentioned in a previous essay, the pop culture of my childhood was marked by a major resurgence of the characters and formats popular in the 1930s and ‘40s: not just the movies, but also the comics, pulp magazines, and radio shows of the Depression and war years.  During the 1970s and 1980s, there were new movies, comics, and television shows based on characters such as Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and many others.  Some were revived in response to the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones; others had been brought back as part of the “adult fantasy” wave that had also swept J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons to cultural prominence in the early 1970s, and of which Star Wars was partially a product.  And some had never really gone away.

Still, it was rare for serials to be shown in their entirety on television when I was a kid: there had been a serial revival in the mid-1960s, coinciding with the popularity of the Batman TV series, but that was before I was born.  Many of the serials had been “featurized”—edited down to hundred-minute movies—for television broadcast, so I might have seen some without even realizing it, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to get the full, multi-chapter experience.  As much as I love the pulpy aesthetic of old movie posters and the juicy, crackling dialogue of the old-time villains, the serials themselves were something of a blind spot for me.

The goal of this series is to explore some of the classic serials, not necessarily as they were originally seen, but at least uncut and at full length.  Of the hundreds of serials that were made, not all have survived, but many are available on DVD and a large number can be seen on YouTube.  Without trying to be comprehensive, I will have plenty of material to examine.

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In reading about the history of the serials, many names pop up frequently: the serials had their own stars, such as leading men Buster Crabbe, Tom Tyler, and Kirk Alyn; and leading ladies Pearl White (“Pauline” of The Perils of Pauline, the archetypal silent serial) and Linda Stirling.  (Stars such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff also made appearances in serials, as did future star John Wayne and television’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore.)  Behind-the-scenes personnel made long careers out of the serials, such as stuntmen Tom Steele and Yakima Canutt, and directors Spencer G. Bennet and the team of William Witney and John English.  One also sees the name Sam Katzman frequently: the corner-cutting producer who, despite the tight budgets with which serials were typically made, was said to have never lost money on a production.

Finally, the name of Republic Pictures is nearly synonymous with the serial.  While other studios made serials as part of their output, Republic specialized in them, and one can hardly discuss the subject without acknowledging them.  After forming through the merger of Mascot (an established producer of serials) with Consolidated Film Laboratories and Monogram in 1933, Republic made sixty-six serials over the next two decades, almost to the end of the serial era.  Republic, along with Columbia, Universal, and a number of smaller studios, brought superheroes like Captain Marvel and the Phantom to the screen for the first time, and eventually created some of their own, such as Rocket Man.  In examining the serials, I intend to examine both the source material from which these characters were drawn and the serials’ lasting influence on the TV shows and movies that followed.

So much for the preliminaries.  I’ve decided to start with one of the most successful serials of all time: in two weeks, I’ll examine Universal’s 1936 production of Flash GordonI hope you’ll join me.

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The Force in Four Colors: Revisiting Marvel’s Star Wars

Recent news that the license to publish Star Wars comics would shift from Dark Horse to Marvel in 2015 probably didn’t come as a surprise to anyone: now that both Lucasfilm and Marvel are under the umbrella of Disney, it was only a matter of time before corporate synergy asserted itself.  Already, Disney-owned properties such as the Muppets, Darkwing Duck, and the Pixar characters have been withdrawn from licensee Kaboom! (not all of them to reappear at Marvel, at least so far).  It’s too bad: Kaboom! publishes some of the best comics for children around, and their books were clearly being written and drawn by creators with knowledge of and affection for the characters.  Still, it makes business sense for Disney to consolidate its holdings, now that it has film, animation, and comic book outlets at its disposal.  I don’t blame them at all; I’m sure it was part of their plan in acquiring those companies in the first place.

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The news has stirred up memories of the often-wacky Marvel Star Wars line that ran from 1977 to 1986, and there have been a lot of jokes at Marvel’s expense.  Heck, I’ve sprinkled Twitter and WordPress with my share of comments about the Zeltrons, a race of pink-skinned empaths whose sexual openness was often a source of comic relief (and pinup-worthy cheesecake) in the series.  No one would deny that Marvel’s version of George Lucas’ science fantasy epic is more remembered for six-foot tall green rabbits, horny pink-skinned aliens, and a seriously off-model Jabba the Hutt than for its merits, especially in comparison to the more straight-faced Dark Horse run.

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Although some of Marvel’s contributions to the Star Wars canon have been picked up and used by others (including the Zeltrons, actually), its run was compromised by its publication alongside and in between the release of the original trilogy’s films.  Before Star Wars (sorry, A New Hope) was released, Marvel was already publishing its six-issue adaptation, including scenes that were cut from the final film: most notably Luke’s conversation with Biggs on Tatooine and Han Solo’s confrontation with a very different-looking Jabba the Hutt in Mos Eisley.  The yellow-skinned, humanoid version of Jabba would appear a couple of times in the comics, until he officially disappeared from existence, replaced by the slug-like Jabba of Return of the Jedi.

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To be fair, it can’t have been easy for the writers (including Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, and Mary Jo Duffy, among others) to spin stories out of a saga that wasn’t completed yet: the challenge was to give readers more of what they loved in the movies without deviating too far from formula or accidentally contradicting or giving away plot twists planned for the sequels (plot twists that were generally secret–Marvel’s editors wouldn’t always know they had crossed the line until it was too late).  Particularly between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, writers were tasked with providing the illusion of change so familiar to readers of superhero comics: Han Solo could not be freed from his carbonite imprisonment, although many issues were dedicated to attempts to rescue him; Darth Vader was off the table, so there could be no answer to the question: was he Luke’s father?

Some of the weirdness in Marvel’s version was also due to the relationship between licensor and licensee at the time.  In those days there was simply not the expectation that film and comics be a seamless continuity: comics were exercises in brand extension, ancillary revenue streams, not sacred texts.  To a large degree, the comics’ writers and artists treated the Star Wars universe as just another sci-fi/fantasy playground to be filled with weird landscapes and monsters (one story arc was repurposed from unused John Carter, Warlord of Mars artwork).  Remember, this was from the same decade as Jack Kirby’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Whitman’s adaptation and continuation of The Black Hole.  Making up and adding material was thought of as giving good value to the reader.  Star Wars and its Expanded Universe would be a major influence in shaping fans’ expectations of continuity across all media, but that tighter approach didn’t emerge overnight.

Still, before I was a Marvel kid I was a Star Wars kid, and the latter was a big reason for the former.  I remember vividly the discovery that piqued my interest: in the box of comics I shared with my sister (about which I’ve written previously), I discovered a copy of Star Wars number 18, missing its cover.  This was the first issue of a major story arc in the early days of the series, the “Wheel” saga, named after a huge space station-bound casino that is the setting of the action.  I didn’t know that at the time (1982 or ’83, I would guess), and it would be a few years before I was able to read the “Wheel” arc in its entirety.  What captivated me was the idea that the characters I knew from the movies were having entirely separate adventures in these comics.  I tended to accept anything official-looking as gospel, so I had no trouble accepting the legitimacy of Marvel’s version (although Carmine Infantino’s square-jawed rendition of Luke Skywalker looked more like He-Man than Mark Hamill).

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For the first time, I became a regular comic buyer, actively looking for new issues on the stands and seeking out back issues to fill in my collection.  Jumping into the series, there were many unfamiliar characters and references to previous adventures from the comics.  I had a lot of catching up to do.  I didn’t live anywhere near a dedicated comic book store, so I relied on trading with friends and mail order: the biggest comic book purchase of my childhood, in fact, was an order for all the Star Wars issues that were available from one of Mile High Comics’ summer sales. Mile High’s yellow two-page ads were once a common sight, and the summer sales were the best, unloading comics for 25 or 50 cents apiece.  It helped that, aside from the first few issues, Star Wars had never been terribly sought-after or valuable, and at most they were only a few years old.  The day the box arrived in the mail with forty issues or so—far from a complete run, but more than I had ever read at once and including many gems—I holed up in my room and immersed myself in “a galaxy far, far away.”  It would be the first of many long afternoons delving into another world through comics.

One of the things I liked about the comics, and which still holds up today, was the focus they were able to bring to individual characters.  Many issues were solo adventures, or featured groups of only two or three characters working together in ways that the epic scope of the films didn’t always have time for.  In the comics you could observe Princess Leia as a diplomat waging high-stakes games of cat-and-mouse with Darth Vader and the Empire (in “The Third Law”); Luke Skywalker’s role in the Rebellion’s space fleet could receive more attention; Han Solo, and later Lando Calrissian, could be shown in their element as smugglers, gamblers, and “scoundrels” (in flashback, of course).  In essence, the Star Wars universe could support stories of action-adventure, espionage, horror, romance, and even comedy, much as the Expanded Universe still does today.  It made sense: the movies were themselves indebted to many different genres, including the science fiction serials of the 1930s and ’40s; Westerns; World War II aerial dogfights; and the samurai films of Kurosawa.  It was only natural for the comic book adaptations to continue in that spirit and flesh out elements that could only be implied on film.  Not all of the stories worked, and not all of the original characters fit into the Star Wars aesthetic, but I still remember them fondly, from the “Wheel” saga to the the twisty, long-running story of Shira Brie, to the many, many attempts to rescue Han Solo.

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After Return of the Jedi, the Marvel series continued without much apparent purpose, introducing its own villains (the Nagai) and tying up threads from the comics.  The writing was on the wall.  I was a faithful reader until the end, but I couldn’t disagree with the decision to cancel the series after 107 issues: it had become a shadow of its former self, and by that time I had gotten hooked on Marvel’s superhero offerings.

I didn’t spend much time reading the Dark Horse series–I guess I was still a Marvel kid at heart–but from what I could see the quality was good, and they made a lot of smart decisions.  Unlike the Marvel series’ focus on the main characters of the film trilogy (understandable, but ultimately limiting), Dark Horse was able to flesh out the Old Republic and other settings within the Star Wars universe.  They even obtained the rights to the Marvel run and released it in a handsome series of trade paperbacks, a fitting tribute to an imperfect but often richly entertaining saga, and a challenge to the assumption that everyone involved would rather forget it existed.  With the distance of time, new and old readers alike can approach these adaptations, see that there was more to it than green rabbits, and make up their own minds.

(Images from Wookieepedia, the Star Wars Wiki)

Points of Connection, Part Four: Mirror Universes

One of my favorite scenes involving the Squadron Supreme is in Mark Gruenwald’s follow-up to the SS miniseries, the graphic novel Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe.  In Death, a mysterious growing blot threatens to erase the entire universe, a danger that brings former enemies together for the sake of survival.  Dr. Emil Burbank, alias “Master Menace,” who has been established as the Lex Luthor to Hyperion’s Superman (although his armor makes him look more like Dr. Doom—this is still a Marvel book, after all) volunteers to travel forward in time in order to develop a solution using the future era’s advanced technology.  (It’s one of many possible futures; as one character points out, the universe they’re in may not have a future.)  Nearly an hour after his departure, his time machine returns.  Burbank steps out, an old man: he has spent fifteen years of intense labor in the future perfecting his device.  Hyperion is shocked at the sacrifice his old enemy has made.  “At last he treats me with the respect one of my stature is entitled to!” thinks Burbank.

From Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe, art by Paul Ryan and Al Williamson.  Source: Comic Book Resources.  Brian Cronin was struck by the same scene as myself.

From Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe, art by Paul Ryan and Al Williamson. Source: Comic Book Resources. Brian Cronin was obviously struck by the same scene as myself.

It’s a little too on-the-nose, but it’s of a piece with Gruenwald’s interest in illuminating the relationships between comic book archetypes.  It’s also, in a way, a rare moment of understanding between two antagonists; comic book narratives depend on direct conflict, and have historically placed emphasis on action, not détente.  It’s clear that Master Menace is acting from self-interest as usual, but he also seems intrigued by the possibility of playing hero, if just this once.  If we accept the notion that villains are most compelling when they reveal something about the hero*, it suggests that what Hyperion and Master Menace share is both a higher purpose and a natural superiority to others (why deny it?), but in Burbank’s eyes only Hyperion has received the acclaim he deserves.  Burbank has had to work for his success, and has seen his ambitious visions thwarted (usually by Hyperion, obviously), but all Hyperion has to do is flex his muscles and punch a few bad guys and he is universally beloved.  What Master Menace really wants is to be seen as a worthy opponent instead of just another criminal, to have his greatness recognized.  I’m probably reading some of the shared history of Lex Luthor and Clark Kent into this scene, but isn’t that the point? (For a similar take from the villain’s point of view, see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.)

Although they aren’t cast as hero/villain, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) and Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) have a similar dynamic in the 1999 film Galaxy Quest.  Bound together by their roles on the long-cancelled television series of the same name, as “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart” and “Dr. Lazarus” respectively, Nesmith relishes the adulation of fans and the chance to relive his glory days as the boyish, heroic starship captain, while Dane mourns that a classically-trained Shakespearean such as himself has become trapped in a one-dimensional, prosthetic-forehead-wearing role defined by a single catchphrase: “By Grabthar’s Hammer. . . .”  To Dane, Nesmith is a hammy showboat; to Nesmith, Dane is a snob who needs to lighten up.

Galaxy-Quest-Lazarus

Of course, it’s immediately obvious that “Nesmith/Taggart” is William Shatner playing James T. Kirk, and “Dane/Lazarus” is Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, and indeed the entire setup, from the canceled cult TV show to the easily mocked conventions, is a pastiche of Star Trek and its real-life fandom.  An early moment in the film, when Nesmith lashes out at his fans, snarling “It’s just a television show,” is undoubtedly inspired by the well-known Saturday Night Live sketch in which William Shatner tells his fans to “get a life;” Dane’s self-loathing is a comic exaggeration of Nimoy, who was so famously ambivalent about his best-known role that he published two autobiographies, one called I Am Not Spock and, twenty years later, I Am Spock. Galaxy Quest gets a lot of story across in a short amount of time because we already know its premise and characters in broad outline, and the casting adds more layers to the joke. Rickman surely knew a thing or two about lending his theatrical gravitas to B-movie genre roles; Gwen DeMarco (the eye-candy communications officer Tawny Madison, whose job is to repeat everything the computer says) is played by Sigourney Weaver, Ellen Ripley herself; Sam Rockwell plays Guy, the unnamed crew member terrified he’ll be as expendable as Star Trek’s “red shirts;” my favorite is Fred Kwan (Tech Sergeant Chen), who admits Kwan isn’t even his real name, played by the Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub (himself frequently cast in Italian, Arab, or Russian “ethnic” roles).

It’s a testament to the strength of the performances and the attention to detail that the pastiche works as a commentary on Star Trek without descending into simple parody.  As the story unfolds, with the cast of the TV show mistaken for actual space explorers and drafted into an alien war**, there are stakes, and there is character growth; there are jabs at cheap sets, formulaic writing, and rubber masks, but they are, in a sense, coming from inside knowledge, an elbow nudge from one fan to another.  The writers and director clearly have an affection for the subject, and like fans everywhere have earned the right to point out the more risible aspects of the show without giving up the reasons they fell in love with it in the first place.

It’s also hilarious.  Based on the films that have already been made, it would seem to be difficult to make a humorous science fiction film, at least one in which the comedy and science fiction elements are given equal footing.  Sure, humorous elements have been present in written science fiction almost since the beginning, Fredric Brown being an early practitioner, but when it comes to putting fantastic visions on celluloid, there has historically been a divide between the self-seriousness of sci fi and the tendency of TV and movie comedians to deflate, to tear down artifice (or at least there was through much of the twentieth century; a balanced combination of comedy and genre elements isn’t quite the rarity it was in 1999).  Galaxy Quest finds a lot of its humor in the backstage bickering and self-delusion of actors, as well as lazy writing that amps up tension at the expense of believability (like the self-destruct timer that only stops at 0:01, or ridiculous obstacle courses that would be safety hazards in a supposedly utilitarian spaceship***).  The phoniness on display is that of show business in general, not science fiction specifically.  When the film finally turns its attention to cheesy special effects, usually the lowest hanging fruit for satire, it’s the deepest moment of pathos, a point of complete disillusionment.

One thing Galaxy Quest doesn’t do is so much as whisper the names Star Trek, Kirk, Spock, Enterprise, Klingons, or anything else that would tip us off; you either get it or you don’t.  Doing so wouldn’t just throw the pastiche into relief as a copycat (who would ask for Brand X when they could have the real thing?), it would rob it of the superlative element that, as I’ve said, is an important element of this kind of storytelling.  It’s one thing, for example, to create a fictional Senator, astronaut, car company, or NFL team, and have them mingle with real-life figures: in that case, they are part of a class, and adding one more doesn’t change things too much.  Cultural objects like television shows or books, however, are trickier: they generally occupy niches from which they must be displaced, not simply added to.  One would think this is obvious, but it happens all the time: Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes look at a distinctly Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, had a lot of problems, but an easily avoided one was constant mentions of Saturday Night Live. If, in the show, Studio 60 was such a groundbreaking program, what was SNL?  In Mike Carey’s ongoing comic book series The Unwritten, Tom Taylor is the unwitting star of a series of fantasy novels clearly based on the Harry Potter series, the success of which is an obvious point of inspiration.  The originality and influence attributed to the Tommy Taylor series is undercut, however, by references to Harry Potter and its author, J. K. Rowling.  It comes down to the old problem of a work-within-a-work having to live up to the claims characters in the story make for it: it’s easier to suspend disbelief if we can imagine the work standing in for something we already know to be successful, but if we’re confronted with both the original and the pastiche existing within the fiction, how can the pastiche not seem like a pale imitation?

Spock_(mirror)

Finally, Galaxy Quest connects to Star Trek through the moral division of its characters: Star Trek confronted this literally with the Mirror Universe (“Mirror, Mirror”), a parallel world full of evil versions of the Enterprise crew, very much in the spirit of the Crime Syndicate of America or Squadron Sinister.  In Galaxy Quest, the division is internal: the actors aren’t evil, but fallible, and the doubles they must face are the heroic characters they play and for whom they are mistaken.  Nesmith, who loves playing the hero, is forced to bear the burdens of leadership and consequences that real leaders face, and is forced by circumstance to admit that it’s all fake; Dane, who already feels like a fraud playing the one-dimensional Dr. Lazarus, comes to realize how much he has meant to his fans, and embraces his role.  Interestingly, it is the villain, General Sarris, who articulates the themes of theatricality most clearly: despite his reptilian appearance, he is more human in temperament than the literal-minded Thermians.  It is Sarris who immediately grasps that Nesmith and his crew are actors, and forces him to explain it to the Thermian leader “as you would a child.” The final role-reversal occurs when Sarris accuses the actors of “playing war,” and Nesmith, fully embracing the role of Commander, tells him “It doesn’t take a great actor to recognize a bad one.”  Ultimately, Galaxy Quest redeems its characters by showing that, as ridiculous as they may be, audiences believe in them, perhaps not literally like the naïve Thermians, but as ideals.  It’s that optimistic spirit that most closely unites Galaxy Quest to its model.

* Batman is generally thought to have the best rogue’s gallery because the villains mirror Bruce Wayne/Batman’s qualities in distorted ways: the Joker reflects Batman’s psychosis, and his reaction to tragedy is to use violence and pranks to unravel the social order Batman strives to uphold; the Riddler mocks Batman’s pretensions as the Great Detective; the Penguin is the plutocratic face of Bruce Wayne’s inherited wealth; Two-Face is as divided as Wayne/Batman, but in an unmistakably public and troubled way, and so forth. (These observations are indebted to Richard Reynolds’ Superheroes: A Modern Mythology and Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.)

** The element of mistaken identity in Galaxy Quest is a standard comic trope, of course, and the specific element of actors mistaken for the roles they play is as old in film as To Be or Not to Be. Galaxy Quest’s basic plot had already been used in Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life, but recognizing the similarity doesn’t ruin the enjoyment.  As with all the pastiches I’ve discussed (or Campbell’s monomyth, or any analytic framework that reduces works to an underlying recurrent pattern), the pleasure is in how the story unfolds rather than recognition of the universal pattern: we first attend to the surface, the specificity of this story, and can then proceed to the middle ground, where comparisons can be made between competing realizations of the underlying myth.

*** A trope still in use, by the way: “chompers,” or some variation, show up in the Star Wars prequels and in the revived Doctor Who series, to cite examples off the top of my head.

Points of Connection, Part Three: Invasion of the TV Doppelgangers

Of course, sometimes less is more: a few carefully selected details can tell us everything we need to know about a character, especially in the visual media of comics or film.  At the very least, putting a familiar character in a new uniform with a new name can work wonders, creating a “reskinned” version of the known character, to borrow a metaphor from video games.  The Justice League are suggested visually in Planetary and The Authority; numerous pulp and comics figures are recognizable in Planetary, and entire worlds where costumed heroes are the norm are presented in works such as Astro City, Top 10, and The Venture Bros.: our escapist fantasy is their day-to-day, and naturally there are connections to familiar characters, sometimes played straight and sometimes distorted like the reflections in a funhouse mirror.

Unnamed Justice League doubles, from Planetary No. 1; art by John Cassaday

Unnamed Justice League doubles, from Planetary No. 1; art by John Cassaday

It can be most fascinating when only a hint is given: Berthold, Albrecht, Adolphus, and Gustavus, the companions of Baron Munchausen (themselves a sort of 18th century superhero team) have little backstory or individuality beyond their extraordinary abilities, but I was captivated by them after seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film. Berthold is the fastest man alive (literally faster than a speeding bullet), to the point that he is shackled to a pair of iron balls to keep him in place; Albrecht is a gentle giant, possessed of great strength; Adolphus is the hawkeyed marksman; Gustavus has incredible hearing and can exhale gale-force winds (two abilities that don’t appear related on the surface, but there is a poetic rightness to their pairing). The simplicity of their characterization is tied into their superlative abilities: comic book and fairy tale narratives alike depend on simple, clearly defined characters, who are often boiled down to the pure essence of whatever they are.  Being well-rounded isn’t required, particularly for those in supporting roles.  Munchausen’s companions compare well to Doc Savage’s team of experts or any other team where diverse abilities and personalities are subordinated to a strong leader who can bind them together.

The best example of the power of suggestion is probably the bounty hunter Boba Fett, a “gadget antihero,” whose cool uniform and badass swagger (as has been pointed out many times before, his bona fides were instantly established with two words from Darth Vader: “No disintegrations”) sparked the imagination of Star Wars fans everywhere when he appeared in The Empire Strikes Back.  Even his ironic, thoroughly non-badass fall into the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi took little shine off his reputation.  Sadly, his origin, as established in the prequel trilogy, has only served to deflate his mythic status (along with everything else in the Star Wars universe).  Sometimes it is really better not to reveal too much.

I mean, just look at him.

I mean, just look at him.

Television has developed its own conventions for doubles, for reasons unique to the medium.  It’s very common for procedurals like Law & Order and political dramas like The West Wing to fictionalize real-life individuals, with L & O especially prone to using cases that are “ripped from the headlines.”  In addition to the changes of names and inessential details involved, the casting of actors signals the added layer of unreality to the audience: like the use of superhero pastiches, it allows the writer the freedom to embroider or change facts (especially important considering the need to wrap up a criminal case every week, as opposed to the sometimes murky and prolonged real-life cases they’re based on).  Indeed, it’s only one step removed from casting a role in a biopic or docudrama, or impersonating a public figure on Saturday Night Live.  In an era where celebrities, politicians, and other public figures are familiar to audiences through their television appearances, the replacement of one heavily mediated figure with another can be accepted without batting an eye.

Animation is fertile ground for the kind of doubling seen in the comics: it is a visual medium limited only by the imagination of the artists, and most animated shows draw on genres and conventions related to the comics: superheroes, fantasy/science fiction, adventure, and humor, all of which benefit from bold designs and clear characterization based on stock types—in other words, the domain of the archetype and the doppelganger.  Animation does add a layer unavailable to the comic book, however: voice acting.  Just as in the thinly fictionalized cases of L & O, the presence of a familiar actor (even if in voice only) can cue the audience to similarities between characters.  For example, TV’s longtime Batman Adam West lent his voice to the Squadron Supreme’s Nighthawk on an episode of Super Hero Squad Show (“Whom Continuity Would Destroy!”), a not-so-subtle nod to Nighthawk’s model (and one in a long string of self-deprecating turns by West).  Likewise, Kevin Conroy (the voice of the title character on Batman: The Animated Series) appeared as  Captain Sunshine (a character superficially resembling Superman, but whose mansion and relationship with his “ward,” Wonder Boy, clearly parodies the homoerotic subtext often attributed to Batman’s relationship with Robin, the “Boy Wonder”) on The Venture Bros. (“Handsome Ransom”).

Shelbyvillelimit

Comedies, however, have really taken the doppelganger concept and run with it in the last decade: it fits perfectly with the self-referential, metatextual idiom that took hold in the 1990s with The Simpsons and Seinfeld, and came to fruition with programs such as Spaced, Arrested Development, and CommunityThe Simpsons had its Shelbyville, a mirror version of hometown Springfield, complete with doppelgangers of the main cast (in the episode “Lemon of Troy”).  On Seinfeld, when Elaine started hanging out with Kevin, referred to as “Bizarro Jerry” in the episode of the same name (a reference, of course, borrowed from Superman’s mythos), she found herself at a different coffee shop and with a group that resembled Jerry, George, and Kramer.  (The fact that Bizarro Jerry and his friends were generous and considerate, of course, ultimately excluded Elaine from their company: she didn’t fit in with them.)  Since then, there is hardly a single TV comedy from the last ten years that hasn’t played with the idea of a character or group that mirrors one or more of the main characters.

bizarro

A theme that runs through many of the examples I’ve cited is one of maturity, even senescence, looking back and reevaluating the follies of youth (the youth of a medium, its characters, or its audience, it makes no difference), what Geoff Klock calls the revisionary narrative. In Gilliam’s film, Baron Munchausen revisits the scenes of his youthful adventures, getting his servants together and confronting the results of his earlier decisions.  The screwed-up lives of professional adventurers and the way their dysfunction is passed from generation to generation is a primary theme of The Venture Bros. (In Gilliam’s film, Berthold was stranded in a cage on the Moon for twenty years after being abandoned by the Baron; Dr. Jonas Venture similarly left trusted companions, experimental subjects, and dangerous inventions behind in the Venture Compound, messes his son Rusty has had to deal with throughout the series.)  And of course, the characters in Watchmen are dominated by the past, ruminating on it, trying to get past it or relive it, digging up skeletons that are better left buried.  Nostalgia, regret, and loss of potency figure in all three narratives.  (Still, I don’t want to overlook the enormous pleasure I get from these stories: even Watchmen, which I wouldn’t exactly describe as “fun,” is exhilarating on account of its ambition and technical achievement.  It has the uplifting quality of a great tragedy instead of just being a giant bummer.)

Special thanks to Matthew Grenier and Adam Byers for helping me sharpen some of my arguments and pointing me toward some examples I hadn’t thought of.  Of course, my wrong-headed conclusions are all my own, and the only blame they deserve is for encouraging me.

Next, I’ll examine pastiche writ large, and a counterexample: Galaxy Quest and Escape From Tomorrow.

Points of Connection, Part Two: A is A . . . or is it?

What can one say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said?  Since its initial publication in 1986-87, more ink has been spilled about the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons than probably any other modern comic book narrative. It’s been named as one of the greatest (defined as most artistically accomplished, most influential, or most successful—take your pick) comic book projects in history, and even one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Novels, period.  Since the release of Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation and DC’s decision to publish the Before Watchmen prequel books in 2012, there has been even more commentary and debate. I don’t intend to add more to the pile of Watchmen verbiage outside of the narrow scope I established in my last Medleyana post: the use of doppelganger characters.* Alan Moore’s influence on the mainstream has lessened as his projects have become increasingly idiosyncratic in recent years, but it is impossible to discuss the reworking of characters and the exploration of archetypes without bringing him up.

Watchmen is probably the best-known use of pastiche on a grand scale in comics. Originally, Moore meant to write his story about characters from the Charlton publishing company, which had been acquired by DC; after DC decided those characters could be profitably relaunched within DC’s established continuity, they were off the table, and Moore chose to create new characters along similar lines: the Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, and so forth.

Here’s where it gets interesting: as established previously, an intertextual double (a misprision, in poetic terms) follows the same broad outlines as the original, but is a character in itself, independent of its source.  Points of connection between the two are also points of departure: in other words, the double is only beholden to the original up to the threshold of reader recognition (for purposes of commentary) or satisfying the needs of a given character type (for narrative purposes); after that, they are effectively a blank slate, just like any other original character.  The difference between an effective analogue and a ripoff, then, has nothing to do with “originality” (a much overestimated quality, and especially meaningless in such a codified genre as the superhero), and everything to do with the creator’s success in infusing him or her with convincing motives and actions.  If a character would live, it must have the spark of life: nothing else matters.  (I’ve alluded to the writer’s role in crafting a convincing character, and that is just as true for “original” characters as doppelgangers, of course.)  For Moore, whose entire purpose was to establish a psychological realism to a degree that had only been spottily attempted in the superhero narrative previously, the inner life was a given, but for the achievement to have impact, the characters would also have to resonate as plausible superheroes.**  The Charlton stable were important models, but Moore and Gibbons also drew on the broader common property of superhero archetypes and the visual tropes of costume, accessories, and even the illustration styles of pulp novels, comic books, and advertising art in order to create a convincing, lifelike world, divergent from ours but believable nonetheless.

To cite an example from Watchmen, I had little familiarity with Steve Ditko’s severely moralistic vigilante the Question, or his follow-up character, the even more stringent Mr. A (whose uncompromising slogan, “A is A!” was taken directly from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), when I first read the graphic novel.  Still, Rorschach is a clear enough character type: a vigilante with a moral code so strict that no one can live up to it, with equal contempt for criminals, their victims, and even other heroes if they aren’t willing to go as far as him.  The details that Moore invents for Walter Kovacs, Rorschach’s alter ego, speak to Watchmen’s interest in both the social problems and individual psychoses involved with superheroics: childhood sexual trauma, a connection to the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, and of course the horrific crimes that sped along Kovacs’ psychotic break.  One doesn’t need to know Ditko’s original characters to appreciate the drama, but it adds some intertextual depth (if anything, reading some of Mr. A’s cases show how little Moore had to exaggerate Rorschach’s ruthlessness and black-and-white morality).

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

Origin of Rorschach's mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Origin of Rorschach’s mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Likewise, I was familiar with the Blue Beetle from his introduction into DC continuity rather than his original Charlton adventures, but I didn’t immediately connect him to Nite Owl when reading Watchmen: he too is a familiar type, a “gadget hero” like Batman (or, to a lesser degree, Iron Man).  Within the narrative, Dan Dreiberg is actually the second Nite Owl, borrowing his name and persona from a Golden Age model, Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl, representing both the ideals and the institutional memory of the original costumed heroes).  This pattern was true of the Blue Beetle, but also of characters such as Green Lantern and Hawkman who had very different Golden and Silver Age incarnations.

Watchmen also benefits from an important opportunity afforded by pastiche: the ability to replace the ad hoc jumble of origins and histories typical of established continuity with a streamlined history that both gives all the characters a common point of reference and allows for meaningful points of connection between them that goes beyond the simple “team-up.”  Although, as Geoff Klock points out, Moore has in many cases deliberately introduced the kind of contradictory history that plagues long-running comic book series into his original stories, in Watchmen he plays it straight, with his “real-life” costumed heroes taking inspiration from fictional comic book characters, and eventually supplanting them.  As for points of contact, in addition to the obvious shared history between them, there are subtle connections: the shape-shifting cloth which Rorschach wears as a mask, and from which he takes his name, is referred to as a spin-off of technologies introduced by Dr. Manhattan, the only truly superhuman character in the novel; other technologies and businesses mentioned are part of the empire of Adrian Veidt, the “self-made” superhero Ozymandias (and a major driver of the plot).

Film adaptations of superheroes often make connections where none exist in the comics in order to tighten up the plot, as for example the Joker/Jack Napier being identified as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman, or Ra’s al Ghul serving as both Wayne’s mentor and eventual antagonist in Batman Begins. Such circularity is more dramatically satisfying, and easier to establish, in a two-hour film or self-contained novel, although asserting such symmetries can be one function of rebooting or “retconning” an established series.  As an example from another narrative, when J. Michael Straczynski rebooted the Squadron Supreme for his 2003 series Supreme Power, he started from the ground up, effectively creating a “trope of a trope:” in Straczynski’s version, the escape pod that brought “Mark Milton” (Hyperion) to earth as an infant was part of an alien battle, the shrapnel from which also gave powers to the Blur (a trope of the Flash, replacing the original Squadron Supreme’s Whizzer, because really: the Whizzer?) and provided the “Power Prism” to Doctor Spectrum (a trope of Green Lantern, here reconceived as a special ops pilot nicknamed “Doctor” because of the surgical precision with which he executes his missions); some of the villains Hyperion faced were created through government experimentation with his own DNA.***  The reboot/misprision allowed Straczynski to focus on the elements that most concerned him: instead of the Squadron imposing its rule in the name of the greater good, as in Mark Gruenwald’s narrative, the Squadron are tools of a shadowy, not always benevolent government that doesn’t reveal its purposes to its super-military (as exemplified by Mark Milton’s upbringing by government operatives instead of Ma and Pa Kent), the expression of a twenty-first century anxiety that remains as relevant as ever.

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

Next time, I’ll examine a few examples from movies and television.

* But for the record, I liked Moore’s original “space squid” ending, and I think it could have worked on film if it had been reconceived in cinematic terms by a director more concerned with duplicating the feel than the look of the book.  How terrifying—and believable—could Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi have made that ending?

** Interestingly, Moore and Gibbons have stated that Mad‘s parody “Superduperman” was an influence on their approach, revealing depravity and greed beneath the slick costumes.  It’s not uncommon for transgressions that are comical to one generation to be taken seriously and developed in earnest by the next.

*** Marvel attempted something similar with its “New Universe” line in 1986, sort of the flip side of DC’s unification of its universe, and showing that it isn’t easy to build a compelling narrative world from scratch.

Points of Connection, Part One: the Many Children of Krypton

Hyperion.  Supreme.  The Sentry.  What do these characters have in common?  All are doppelgängers, or doubles, of Superman, and not just in the sense that all costumed heroes descend from the Big S, or in the debt they all owe to Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, nor even in their monomythic relation to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Rather, they are thinly veiled copies, different enough in detail to escape litigation (or avoid confusing readers) but readily recognized by key elements of their persona, history, and/or supporting cast.

The double, or pastiche, is a powerful fictional technique, in which an established character is effectively remade (and frequently repurposed); it’s especially common in comic books, where “copycatting” is an established (if not especially reputable) practice.  As an example, the core members of DC’s Justice League of America—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al—have been copied numerous times, individually and as a team.  It should be noted that I’m not speaking so much of identical twins or copies of the same characters inhabiting parallel universes, although those are equally common story-telling tropes. The doubling to which I refer is almost always intertextual, allowing a writer to tell a story including (a version of) a character owned by another publisher, or including story elements that would be unacceptable for a well-established (and ongoing) character.

Adhering to genre conventions is not enough: recall that National (DC’s parent company) sued Fawcett over alleged similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel, yet the elements the two characters have in common—super strength and other powers, colorful costumes, secret identities, and an ethos of doing good—are practically universal among Golden Age heroes, and in other specifics the characters are quite different.  Superman, orphaned son of the doomed planet Krypton, doesn’t have much in common with Billy Batson, who is given his powers by the wizard Shazam.  It is precisely those details that a writer can exploit, filling in the pastiche character’s backstory with variations that are functionally the same; sometimes it is as simple as changing a few names (Superman’s Krypton becomes Hyperion’s Argon), at other times a more thorough reworking is undertaken, but the connections are still apparent because of the overall dynamic of the story.  This goes beyond parody, although the line can be fuzzy: Mad’s “Superduperman” and “Captain Marbles” are clearly a joke, but one intended to reveal, among other things, the venality and absurdity hidden beneath the costumed hero’s civic-minded facade (“Once a creep, always a creep!”). Hyperion (from Marvel’s Squadron Supreme) and Alan Moore’s take on Marvelman/Miracleman (instantly recognizable as Superman and Captain Marvel, respectively) are largely dramatic in their treatment, but just as flawed.

The value of the double is summed up by Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, a study that looks at the evolution of superhero narratives through the lens of Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence:

The current character, though obviously in debt to its source, can often act as a powerful misprision [a reflection, or reinterpretation] of that original character, while the fact that it is not actually the original frees the writer from the constraints of copyright and continuity.

For example, earlier in his book, Klock argues that “Warren Ellis’s Four Voyagers [from the pages of Planetary] are a trope of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, which is to say that while the Four Voyagers are characters in themselves, they are also an interpretation/metaphor of characters that have come before” (emphasis added).

Such misprision is most useful when the writer has something to say beyond aping an already successful character: in Klock’s scheme, informed by Bloom’s statement that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem,” well-known characters stand in for their creators, so that one generation of writers can exorcise or assimilate the influence of the preceding generation.  (And obviously, the technique of parody allows the writer to zero in on whatever element of the original character they wish to critique, exaggerating it, sometimes to the point of absurdity–see above.)  One doesn’t have to agree with all of Klock’s conclusions to see the value of this dialectic approach, and in fact the finest realization of a pastiche character isn’t always written by the person who first created it.  Alan Moore took over Supreme, a character created by Rob Liefeld, and transformed him into a meditation on Superman; the resemblance was already present, but Moore brought it into focus.  As another example, Mark Gruenwald used the Squadron Supreme, Marvel’s trope of the JLA (originally introduced by Roy Thomas), to examine the relationships of the characters to each other, bringing out unspoken subtext or real-world concerns (such as the tendency toward paternalistic fascism inherent in the concept of super-protectors; the alienation of super-beings’ human friends and family; and the finality of death, as opposed to comic book characters’ typical return from the grave for shock value, marketing purposes, or narrative convenience) that would halt an ongoing series in its tracks if acknowledged. (Another version of the Squadron, effectively a trope of a trope, was launched in 2003; more about that later.)

Such concerns, when addressed at all, used to be the domain of the parallel universe or “imaginary story:” What if the Justice League used their power to oppress humanity instead of protecting it?  One answer was Earth-3’s Crime Syndicate of America; another was the Squadron Sinister, created as part of an unofficial “Avengers vs. JLA” crossover (since by Comic Book Law, when two characters meet for the first time, they must test their powers against each other in battle; the Squadron Sinister later, of course, became the Squadron Supreme). Later, such projects as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier would address many of these subjects using flagship characters in speculative settings outside regular continuity, but Squadron Supreme (1985) predates the more critical approach to characterization kicked off by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and by Miller himself, and the aforementioned projects benefited from the more fluid approach to continuity that became fashionable after the high water mark of Crisis on Infinite Earths’ obsessive attempt to keep things in fixed positions.

Time is short tonight, so I’ll save a discussion of Watchmen, one of the most prominent and influential reinventions of this type, for next time.