Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Happy Canuck Day with Johnny Canada!

Yesterday I received in the mail my copy of Johnny Canuck, a new collection featuring all of the 1940s adventures of the titular hero, created written and drawn by Leo Bachle for Bell Features' Dime Comics, one of the so-called "Canadian Whites." Appropriately, I received this handsome hardcover volume just in time for Canada Day!

The book was produced via Kickstarter by Rachel Richey, who had earlier helped publish Nelvana of the Northern Lights, another Bell Features hero. Included with my package were a Johnny Canuck bookplate and this stylish "What Would Johnny Canuck Do?" wristband, seen above.

Johnny Canuck has retained some familiarity with we Canadians over the decades, whether it be through his stature in Canadian comic book history (Captain Canuck owes him his own nom de plume) or his relationship to the Vancouver Canucks. For myself, I first saw him in a grade 4 social studies textbook which reprinted a few pages from one of his adventures. I wish I could say this sampling made me a fan, but in those days I had been successfully brainwashed by the US publishers to believe they were the sole purveyors of "legitimate" super hero fiction.

Seeing these stories together in one place, I do have to admit Leo Bachle had some real chops as an artist. Some of his body language is stiff or poorly-proportioned, but his facial expressions were quite good. The stories themselves are fairly familiar stuff - less exceptional than what his US cousins the Destroyer or Spy Smasher were getting up to. Still, Johnny toured across the scope of World War II, from Libya to Berlin to Russia to Yugoslavia to Africa and Japan. The war's end likewise brought about Johnny's end as the returning US heroes gave Johnny the boot.

One way in which Johnny managed to outplay his southern cousins is in his relationship with Hitler. Captain America famously socked Hitler in the puss on the cover of his first issue, yet less-famously didn't meet Hitler at all in the pages within. Johnny, however, caught up to Hitler in his second appearance and gave him a Canadian knuckle sandwich! Strangely, however, Germans in the Johnny Canuck stories tended to call Johnny a "Britisher." The meaning of his surname was evidently lost on them. Johnny also loved to talk about rugby; perhaps that was a popular sport in the Canada of the 40s, but unlike most of the Commonwealth we since given up such British interests in favour of sports beloved in the US (namely, football).

Top: Dime Comics #2 (1942) Bottom: Dime Comics #4 (1942)

If Bachle's stories have one serious failing it's that he would occasionally recycle art from previous tales. Unlike his friend Ross Saakel, he did at least trace his own work, rather than Jack Kirby. There are some typically-disappointing racist caricatures of the Japanese and a very strange jungle in Libya which is inhabited by a tribe of people who stepped out of a Conan novel.

Top: Dime Comics #3 (1942) Bottom: Dime Comics #7 (1943)

How wonderful to have such hard-to-find comics preserved for future generations! Thank you Mr. Bachle for being one my country's pioneering artists. Johnny Canuck lives again!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Missing the mark on Hawkeye in less than three pages

Hawkeye is a fun character. Amongst the Avengers he is one of the physically weakest members, yet the character is traditionally portrayed as holding a bottomless supply of bravado (if not a bottomless quiver of arrows). He's brash, cocky and often a loudmouth who disputes the authority of others. He first joined the Avengers as a hothead who would question Captain America's right to lead the team during their downtime, but over the years he developed - if not a friendship - a high regard for Cap's leadership. Over time, Hawkeye himself honed his leadership skills with the West Coast Avengers and Thunderbolts. He retained his flippant sense of humour but had become a true team player (now that he was finally the one calling the shots).

Allow me now to take you back in time to a scene from Avenging Spider-Man #4 (2012) by Zeb Wells and Greg Land:

Above you see an archery expo suddenly interrupted by Hawkeye's arrows as he ruins the expo for all the participants. Although Hawkeye's loud personality clashes with others, he tends to seek out targets which, to his mind, deserve it; in what way has this expo offended him? As an archer, why would he look down on others for practicing the same skill he enjoys?

But the worst is yet to come as a young male archer asks Hawkeye to autograph his bow.

Hawkeye: "Wha--? A compound bow? Ugh..."
Boy: "My Dad got it for me."
Hawkeye: "Has he always wished you were a girl or something?"

The line between loveable rogue and misogynistic prick needn't be crossed so easily, but by gar, Zeb Wells found a way there by page three! To put this in very simple terms: Hawkeye's characterization can be thought of as "Han Solo with a bow;" writing him as "Ken Titus with a bow" is a horrible mistake. The entire sequence rests on the idea that Hawkeye is someone who "punches down," which is neither funny nor in keeping with his past characterization.

Does Hawkeye look down on the female gender? No, not based on his relationships with formidable women such as the Black Widow, Mockingbird and Moonstone.

Is Hawkeye even someone who disparages compound bows? No, he's used them in past (one is shown in his arsenal in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, above). In fact, since the character's 2007 resurrection he's used the compound much more frequently than at any other time in his history.

Many archers in the real world do disparage the compound bow; they (usually) find a way to do so without insulting children, fathers or the female gender. Or disrupt archery expos.

Let's tally up!

  • Characterization: 0
  • Continuity: 0
  • Gender politics: -5

Let's see... carry the one... that's going on the permanent record. Gentlemen: think about what you've done.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Kieron Dwyer on Kickstarter!

I have a lot of affection for the art of Kieron Dwyer, he being one of the best artists who collaborated on Mark Gruenwald's Captain America run. I don't see his work often, but his name always manages to perk me up a little.

It so happens that Dwyer is presently preparing a new comic book project called West Portal, which you can learn all about through its Kickstarter page. I've noticed in the past how much Dwyer's art has changed from one decade to the next - now on this project, he has a chance to demonstrate his ability to emulate artists as diverse as Alex Raymond and Jack Chick! As the feature's protagonist bounds about from one type of comic book story to another it's a fantastic opportunity for Dwyer to show off his talents.

Unfortunately, the Kickstarter hasn't received much attention. I didn't learn about this project because of promotion via other comic book sites, but simply because I happened to be browsing the Kickstarter site. If this project sounds cool to you, perhaps you can help it out? With a proved talent like Dwyer, you can be assured of a professional piece of work.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Passage to Benares: a tale of mystery and imagination

I gave eight years of my life to freelancing for Marvel Comics. My efforts manifested themselves primarily through the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe series. While working on books whose purpose is to make sense of a fictional universe, you frequently find yourself running up against gaps - information which was never given or thoroughly explained. As much as I enjoyed occasionally connecting the dots of the Marvel Universe, at times Jeff Christiansen (my usual coordinator) had to force me to resolve old mysteries from the comics in print, rather than leave them open ended.

I certainly agreed with Jeff to an extent, so far as wishing to understand the mysteries of the Marvel Universe, but I preferred to find solutions which the texts themselves offered, rather than imagine one on my own. I think that's typical of my approach to mystery in fiction - I try to obey the rules as they're set out within the fictional reality and try not to impose my own rigid standards of order upon them. For instance, the Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer did not reveal Dr. Petrie's first name. Other works named him "James," but I find myself rejecting that name - according to the "rules" of Rohmer, Petrie's first name is a mystery.

During the 1990s, my interest in old-time radio shows began to peak and I searched bookstores and libraries for all the information on them which I could muster (having no internet in those days). Finally, one trip to the bookstore paid off: a set of four cassette tapes, each one featuring two episodes of Suspense, one of my favourite old-time series! I happily bought the tapes and listened to them many times in the years which followed - I even shared them with friends! And after I shared them, I would ask them about the episode "A Passage to Benares" (September 23, 1942), one of the earliest episodes of the series. What did they think of that episode? And how did they interpret the ending? (listen for yourself by downloading the episode at archive.org)

I did not solicit their opinions because I wanted a genial discussion so much as I was simply confused and baffled by the climax of the story. I remained baffled for many years.

In "A Passage to Benares," psychologist Dr. Henry Poggioli is in Trinidad and sleeps one night in a Hindu temple. The next day, a recently-wed young lady is found dead in the temple. Because of Poggioli's background as a criminal investigator, he is invited to help solve the crime, but each clue seems to point directly at Poggioli, until finally he is arrested. In his cell, Poggioli tries desperately to recall the details of the dream he had that night in the temple, thinking it will solve the murder. When the solution at last arrives, Poggioli summons the prison turnkey and presents his solution to him: the victim was murdered by her husband's uncle, believing that if he were executed for her murder their souls would be reunited in India when they reincarnated. Much to Poggioli's surprise, his solution has already been accepted - the uncle confessed everything and was executed. Poggioli demands to know why he was kept in prison if the real murderer had been caught. The answer: "Old Hira Dass didn't confess until a month and ten days after you were hanged." FINISH.

For the better part of two decades, I have been haunted by the closing words. Did they mean Poggioli had been put to death and the turnkey was speaking to his spirit? Had Poggioli himself been reincarnated into another body? Or did the police simply announce Poggioli's faked execution in order to obtain the confession? And in any event, why was Poggioli unaware of how much time had passed since his arrest?

Eventually I learned "A Passage to Benares" appeared first as a short story by T.S. Stribling in 1926. In fact, it was one of several stories featuring Dr. Poggioli and could be found in the collection Clues of the Caribbees. Over the last week, I read the book. They're certainly unusual detective stories and not only because of their Caribbean settings - despite his psychological insights, Poggioli is a fairly ineffective detective, frequently suspecting the wrong person or unable to comprehend the true meaning of the evidence he finds. In this particular instance, he comes to the solution only after being arrested for the crime! He has little in common with the all-knowing sleuths who were his contemporaries; even today's modern psychological detectives follow the pattern of the genius detective. Poggioli was a clever sleuth, but events were always beyond his ability to master them in time.

Now that I have the original text to "A Passage to Benares" I have finally read the story as the author intended it to appear. And I found that... the ending remains as cryptic as before. Well, moreso - the turnkey's response is followed by: "And the lamp went out." It's still abrupt and mysterious.

Although "A Passage to Benares" closed out the collection, Stribling went on writing Poggioli stories up 'til 1957, so I can extrapolate that Poggioli didn't die - likely the police faked his death, as I supposed. But frankly, I don't need to know the "right" way to interpret the story. For twenty years, I've been able to enjoy the tale's ending because it doesn't explain itself. It leaves room for mystery, for imagination. As I learned from toiling on the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, I don't always want there to be an answer to every question. Sometimes, it's enough to have a good question.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The great war on robot junk

Why do you hate my groin so much?
cover to Planet Comics #64 (1950)

No wonder robots hate humanity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

RIP: James Horner

Some time ago a friend asked me if I had a copy of the score to the film Aliens. I answered in the affirmative: "Yes, I have a copy of the score to Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan." The joke (which he understood) was to note the similarities between the two scores, both written by James Horner. Evidently Horner had been in such a rush to complete Aliens on time that he recycled great swathes of Star Trek II in order to meet his deadline.

A month ago I happened to watch the film Wolfen, an unusual horror film which, for most of the run time, leads you into thinking you're watching a werewolf film (the antagonists turn out to be - 34 year old spoilers! - godlike wolf spirits). When the film would shift to show events from the viewpoint of the antagonists, I immediately recognized pieces of Khan's theme from Star Trek II; sure enough, Wolfen was a James Horner score, one which preceded Trek. I let my friend know about this.

Two days ago, my friend fired back by inviting me to listen to the score to Battle Beyond the Stars, which was Horner's second credited film score. Once again, you can hear arrangements which he later reused in Star Trek II! How neat!

James Horner died yesterday.

I cannot praise Horner's score to Star Trek II enough. Amusing as it is to hear pieces of that score in films he composed for either before or after that picture, it's such a perfect blend of music, from the bombastic opening titles to the menacing Khan/Reliant theme to the frantic combat music to the subdued closing. I consider Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan to be the finest Star Trek movie and Horner's music is an important, vital element in the makeup of that film.

I am also a tremendous fan of Avatar, which is not a fashionable thing to admit. Again, Horner delivered a terrific score there, without which I might not have enjoyed the film nearly as much. The soundtrack album to Avatar is the one of the most-frequently played scores in my house.

In addition to scoring some of my favourite movies, I was also very pleased to learn he and I were born on the same day of the year. No doubt that heightened my sense of affection for his art.

With Horner gone, who survives amongst Hollywood's great composers? Brian Tyler, Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin and John Carpenter, I suppose (and a tip of the hat to Daft Punk).

Horner has joined the greats - other favourites of mine who have passed on such as Jerry Goldsmith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann and Shirley Walker.

Rest in peace, Mr. Horner; your music remains vital to me.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Reboot and "planned" fiction

I no longer watch television programs, but I'm somewhat aware of what programs are currently popular and how the stories on such series are told. Programs at present seem much concerned with continuity than they were back when I last had enough free time to spend sampling most of what was on the air (which would be circa 2001). Today's dramatic shows not only tend to feature continual character development but are more likely to explore the ramifications of one episode's events in another than the shows I knew.

Certainly, I do love continuity. Exploring continuity is part of what fascinated me about comic books and that same love for puzzling out the rules, backgrounds and backdrops of 90s television programs from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to ER kept me an interested viewer for many years. At some point, though, programs became much less episodic and show runners spoke more openly about the over-arching plots not only for a season of television but for the show's entire run; some shows which promised big mysteries with big answers stumbled because the creators didn't actually know the answers (or, sometimes, the questions): the X-Files; Lost; Battlestar Galactica. Even though there must be many factors which inhibit TV creators from keeping a firm grip on where the series' story is headed, viewers seem to expect a planned narrative from the creators. It's comforting, I suppose. Only today I saw the show runner of the new series Dark Matter declaring his show would have "a beginning, a middle, and an end." Quite a change from the days when shows were about 99.9% middle!

It seems now to be a forgone conclusion that a series should have a strong creative team with definite ideas about the program's tone, ongoing subplots, character development, themes and even the final episode might be considered before the first has aired. And now, let me talk to you about ReBoot.

Made in Canada, ReBoot began as a partnership between the USA's ABC network and Canada's YTV. Generated entirely on computers, ReBoot was itself supposedly a reality set within a computer, with various characters representing computer programs and commands. The leading character was Bob, a Guardian charged with defending the people of Mainframe from incoming games (wherein computer characters had to compete against the User) and threats such as viruses, notably the insane Hexadecimal, the always-scheming Megabyte and Megabyte's comical lackeys Hack & Slash. Bob was aided in his adventures by the wise old Phong, his love interest Dot, Dot's bratty hero-worshiping kid brother Enzo and Enzo's dog Frisket.

The first season of ReBoot is thoroughly forgettable. Between the limits of the technology which the creators were trying to master and the self-imposed limitations which ABC forced upon them, the program had noticeably thin characters, simple plots and very low stakes. Everything improved for the better in season 2, but ABC dropped them at the end of the season. After a year's hiatus the third season debuted on YTV and brought the show to a good conclusion (followed by two made-for-TV movies).

The great change which came with ReBoot's third year was not only the absence of ABC - thus, the show makers no longer had to consider the restrictive broadcast standards of US television - but a year-long storyline in which saw Bob taken off the table (having been exiled into the Web in the climax of season 2) and Enzo attempting to take his place as Guardian. However, after several episode of barely managing to keep Megabyte at bay and narrowly winning games, in the season's fourth episode Enzo lost a game (something Bob never did) and had his left eye gouged out (a level of violence ABC would never have permitted, especially against a child).

Looking at ReBoot in retrospect with all my love of continuity, part of what I admire is that the show didn't have a plan. Whatever the creators intended at the outset, they surely didn't count on the restrictions which ABC placed on them - that was something the show had to write a way around. Even then, their relationship with ABC had brought the program to wider audience than YTV could have managed, so losing ABC would have been a definite blow. And yet, for each problem the show encountered, the show runners made it seem as though it had been their plan all along. But thank goodness it wasn't!

In the first two season, Bob served as a rather bland protagonist. He was the good guy and primarily a very goody-goody good guy at that. Although he had begun to develop a little bit of snark in season 2, he remained pretty consistently bland up until Megabyte cast him into the Web at the end of season 2. And then, because of his absence, Bob became greater than he had been; with Bob gone, Megabyte roamed Mainframe freely and the characters faced their darkest nanos. Bob's bland heroism had become something greater - the time in which he served as Mainframe's Guardian was now an ideal, a Paradise Lost. Even the comical henchmen Hack & Slash sensed their antics were out-of-place in the darker themes of season 3, leading to this observation:

Slash: "I miss Bob."
Hack: "What?! Ssh! Ssh! Are you crazy?!"
Slash: "Bob always stopped us before we could do anything really bad. Now nobody does."

Bob's exit from the series was sudden and left the cast of characters (and presumably the viewers at home) reeling. But if it had been the intent to build towards Bob's season 2 exit and late season 3 return from the beginning, it wouldn't have served his character as well. I think if the writers had known from the outset he would be the great hero who would be lost, they would have written towards that exit so consciously that it would have been telegraphed. I would now be able to look back and remark, "Ah, here's some ground being lain for Bob's departure," when I think in that instance it's much better to be watching the program in the moment and on the same page as the cast. Likewise with Enzo's eye injury, which is foreshadowed three episodes before it happens, but wasn't something his character had otherwise been building towards. Prior to Bob's exit, Bob was simply the bland protagonist and Enzo was the precocious kid; changing circumstances benefited them immensely, but if that sense of approaching darkness had been in ReBoot from the start, then there would have been less for season 3 to contrast itself against.

I wouldn't go so far as to say the blandness of season 1 makes that year any more watchable, but I think the simplicity of ReBoot's early days was used to great effect on the show. This is really how I prefer to see continuity employed - something organic which takes into account the series universe's past, rather than being hung up about the universe's future.

Am I explaining this well? Are you at least familiar enough with ReBoot to nod in understanding? Are you blinking a message to me in Morse code or do you need some Visine (free for only 99.99.99!)? Let me know in the comments!