Sunday, September 30, 2012

Four things to consider while watching the Amazing Race

I've only been an Amazing Race fan since season 13, but in that time I've monitored the reactions of fans online and found it... wanting. It's part of why I began creating my own recaps, a feeling that fandom wasn't quite fair about many of the judgments they made about the program and the personalities. Therefore, as season 21 looms its debut this evening, here are 4 things I'd like you to keep in mind; I hope to remember them myself.
  1. You can't declare a team "deserves" to win or lose. So much of the Amazing Race comes down to luck. There are times when it seems unfortunate for a team which has been performing at the top all along is eliminated when a mistake causes them bleed 20 minutes... 20 crucial minutes. Meanwhile, the team who foolishly fell 6 hours behind the others are equalized when the next location doesn't open for 10 hours. You may feel a team with a heart-tugging personal story has a greater need for the $1 million prize than the team who already live comfortable lives as models/lawyers/entertainers. None of this matters. You have to accept much of this game comes down to luck. By all means, speak of which teams you prefer, but let's make a deal: I won't use the word "deserve" if you don't.
  2. There is no such thing as karma. Despite what many fans and contestants claim, there is no cosmic force which punishes teams for stealing taxis or U-Turning rivals while rewarding teams who help their competition or suffer a mishap. On the Race, stuff happens; it may be edited to appear as though a team's elimination or victory are directly tied to their code of conduct, but let's just stop believing in karma and start believing in happenstance and luck.
  3. The Racers are real people. Because of how the program is edited, it is often very easy to believe the narratives at face value as we would a fictional program: look at how mean this guy seems! He's a bad guy! Real people are much more complicated than fictional constructs. When a Racer makes an ill-considered remark or action, bear in mind it's not the single most representative moment of their character; extend the benefit of the doubt to them; always assume there's something the editing has omitted.
  4. Production decides how and when penalties occur. Fans are very confused about how penalties are applied because we're not briefed in advance about what all the possible penalties are. Some penalties are never aired due to circumstances (they don't create drama or they don't alter the rankings). Consequently, fans have funny ideas about what earns a penalty: "They just lied to another team! Will there be a penalty?" Most of the time, these are the only things you need to remember: penalties are assigned for doing something explicitly prohibited by the clues (ie, "travel on foot"); penalties are distributed to Racers for obstructing other Racers (ie, hiding equipment or clues, moving another teams' personal effects); penalties apply when teams are caught breaking local laws (ie, speeding tickets). Rule of thumb: if the show doesn't invoke penalties, relax and don't worry about it.

The season premiere is tonight! CBS in the USA, CTV in Canada!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Introduction to Amazing Race 21 recaps

Tomorrow night the 21st season of the Amazing Race will begin; seeing as my Amazing Race recaps continue to be the most popular posts on this blog, I'll be resuming my routine of recapping each episode on Monday, starting September 30th. To save some space discussing this season's teams, I'm going through the 11 teams right now... bearing in mind that what the teams reveal about themselves in the pre-Race interviews isn't always borne out in the actual broadcasts.

Apparently if your name is James or Rob, you have a pretty good chance of being cast on the Amazing Race...

Abbie & Ryan: dating

These two have each been divorced (much like last season's Vanessa & Ralph). Ryan talks about doing "anything within the confines of the Race" to win and they don't want to make friends. Ryan wants them to be "the greatest team that's ever raced this race," which is aiming pretty high. In fact, Ryan wants to set a record on the Race, which will be difficult since last season's winners already set a new record for wins.

Amy & Daniel: dating

Amy is an amputee with no legs below her knees; they're both snowboarders and Daniel didn't realize Amy had prosthetics when they first met. Daniel finds Amy very inspiring to him and really wants to help her succeed; they seem like a very warm couple but I suppose we'll have to see how they pan in when the stress kicks in.

Caitlin & Brittany: friends

These two are university friends, with Caitlin currently dating Brittany's brother. They feel their strength is how they don't hold grudges. Brittany is the one who really wants to be on the Race, with Caitlin supporting her with her dream.

Gary & Will: friends, teachers

These two are substitute teachers and big fans of the TV show. Will is a short person, creating a Mutt 'n Jeff visual when he stands next to Gary. As substitute teachers, they think their strength is adapting to unfamiliar situations on a regular basis. They hope to deceive other teams by acting friendly without forming alliances. Surprisingly, these two are the oldest team on the Race; it's a very young bunch this season.

James & Abba: friends, rock 'n rollers

James is a long-time rock 'n roll guitarist who's played with just about every major act over the last few decades; Abba also works in the recording industry as a lawyer. They have a lot of experience from touring the world with rock acts, making them very comfortable with the travel aspect of the Race. For rock n' rollers, they seem very down-to-Earth and genuine.

Jaymes & James: friends, dancers

These two both perform with Chippendale's, Jaymes a singer, James a guitarist (two Jameses who play guitar?). They describe themselves as one-time nerds who enjoy having become models; they hope their Chippendale's reputation will cause their competition to underestimate them. They look like they could be a funny team.

Josh & Brent: life partners

These two are goat farmers who used to have their own television show on Discovery Channel. They're from New York, but gradually learned to adapt to farm life (which I suppose was the premise of their show). They hope to win the Race and invest the money into the village where they farm.

Nadiya & Natalie: twin sisters

These sisters are from Sri Lanka and hope having a language their competition doesn't speak (Sinhalese) will help them to strategize in the open without being eavesdropped on. Like most Amazing Race twins, they think twins speak their own language and have natural advantages; probably their best advantage is having grown up overseas during a period of civil war.

Rob & Kelley: married monster truck drivers

Kelley lost her first husband, then fell in love with Rob after he helped comfort her. They note at their monster truck shows they have to prepare in advance to deal with problems because their shows have to go on, regardless of what happens. Of course, there's only so much you can prepare for in advance on the Amazing Race.

Rob & Sheila: engaged lumberjacks

Performing in lumberjack competitions, these two have a lot of stamina (and we just saw lumberjack contests on this summer's Australia series). They hope to be the oldest couple to win the Race. Rob notes more people stand atop Mount Everest each year than participate in the Amazing Race, which is a great way of thinking about it.

Trey & Lexi: dating

They're an early 20s couple; Trey played college football, making him a good fit for the physical demands of the Race. Lexi was a cheerleader, one of the most popular Racer occupations. It's hard to tell whether these two will work well together or explode; young couples are usually very dramatic.

This season promises if the winner of the 1st leg goes on to win the final leg, they'll receive $2 million instead of $1. It's certainly possible to pull off (last season's winners did), but it should be interesting to see if the promise of double the prize money causes teams to be even more intense on the first leg than usual. Also, whoever comes in first on the first leg is bound to have a target on their back, which might lead to interesting drama. I wonder if any team has ever suggested an alliance in exchange for sharing prize money if they win? 'Cause partnering with the team who took first on the first leg and vowing to do anything to ensure they win the $2 million in exchange for half the money? That might work.

Another special introductory post will run tomorrow!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Unearthed: JSA - All-Stars#4

"Stellar Collapse: Constellations, Part Three" by Matthew Sturges & Freddie Williams II.

The cover depicts Sand, asleep at a table and surrounded by pills as the King of Tears engulfs the city behind him (or is the city a representation of his dream power?). It looks as though Sand crawled on the table before he went to sleep, kind of like a cat-nap.

At his apartment, Sand shaves himself and dons his costume while recalling how when his mentor Sandman died, he passed along his prophetic dreams to him. Sand has felt tormented by the dreams but now is trying to honour Sandman's legacy (it feels like he's already been over all these character points in the Goyer-Johns years of JSA, but whatever, it's a recap). Sand heads to the Star-K Ranch and informs the All-Stars he saw them all in one of his dreams.

In Carthage, Maine, the Injustice Society have drawn an immense star on the ground and begun preparing a ceremony using the heart of Killer Wasp. Wizard is very dubious about performing the ceremony, meant to summon King of Tears; he even cries out he "won't be a party to his any longer!" but doesn't actually leave or turn against Sorrow; I don't know what that's about. As a portal begins to form, releasing the King of Tears, Sorrow declares the demon will obey him now, rather than the other way around.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sand tells the team he saw Sorrow raising the King of Tears in his dream but knows it's already too late to stop him. Sand also sees a strange black field surrounding Damage & Stargirl, but doesn't share this with the others. Hourman asks Sand to join the All-Stars on their mission; he asks if they should bring in the other team, but Power Girl responds, "It's complicated," whatever that means. They also say Magog has left the team: "Even more complicated." Could you please bring your audience up to speed on why the two JSA teams don't work together and where Magog's gone? Like, anytime soon?

Stargirl is really happy to see Sand (picking up on her dialogue from issue #1 where she complained of missing the other team) and he tells her Sorrow's claims about loving her aren't true and he shares some secret information with her (secret from the audience as well). One thing you can say about this comic book, things of some nature are definitely transpiring. Cyclone carries the team to Carthage and the creators again save some time by repeating the same panel three times. King Chimera conjures up illusions of Green Lantern, Doctor Fate & Captain Marvel to make their forces seem more impressive. Power Girl calls out "A-Team" and "B-Team" assignments similar to those Magog made in earlier issues. It doesn't mean anything, but makes it look as though they have a plan (remember, before Magog left the team were drilling themselves for a fight with the Injustice Society).

Sorrow realizes some of the heroes are illusions and, spying King Chimera, removes his mask, causing Chimera to die (well, seemingly die). Citizen Steel fights Icicle and wonders if he'll shatter when punched (so much for boning up on the Injustice Society's backgrounds!). Tigress and Wildcat fight again (as in #2) and Tigress again calls him "Tomcat." This time, Wildcat decides he likes the name, suggesting it's going to be his new codename. Yes, Wildcat needed to hear it twice before reacting to it. Sand moves in to confront Sorrow... or rather, he stands back and the two exposit dialogue at each other, reminding themselves how Sand was responsible for sending Sorrow into the "Subtle Realms" which granted him his powers. The King of Tears continues to grow and grabs almost all of the heroes with its tentacles; tentacle rape for everyone!

Shiv pulls out a gun to shoot Stargirl, but Sorrow stops her and promises to call off the King of Tears if Stargirl surrenders to him. She agrees and even snaps the cosmic rod in half when he orders her to. Sorrow then teleports away with Stargirl, leaving the rest of the Injustice Society and All-Stars to face the King of Tears.

Stargirl finds herself in another dimension populated by strange red shards, Roman pillars and animated skeletons. Some of the skeletons attack her, but Atom Smasher appears and drives them off, then welcomes her to the Subtle Realms. To be continued.

We last saw Atom Smasher being held in chains by a cloaked figure; now he's at his liberty in the Subtle Realms. Something has definitely happened.

I love that Sand comes in with special intelligence on the enemy they're facing and who should help them, then proceeds to do jack squat in the fight.

Roxanne had only one line of her typically interminable dialogue, which is an improvement in the same way one brick to the head is more pleasant than two.

JUDOMASTER DIALOGUE METER: No dialogue. In the span of four issues, she had exactly two dialogue balloons, both in the first issue! Perhaps there is no such person, she's really one of King Chimera's illusions?

This concludes my look at JSA: ALL-STARS. Why? Uh, because I don't have the rest of the series. It staggered on until issue #18, because that's what the marketplace is like.

Unearthed: JSA - All-Stars#3

"Star Struck! Constellations, Part Two" by Matthew Sturges & Freddie Williams II.

The cover depicts Power Girl's gloved fist socking Magog in the jaw. It's weird to notice the zipper running up Power Girl's glove; 21st century super hero costumes have so many extraneous zippers, buttons and creases.

At the White Star theater (from issue #1), Johnny Sorrow carves the heart from the chest of his own lackey, Killer Wasp, explaining he needs the heart for a ceremony. This convinces Tigress that her boss has lost his mind; he hears her say this and suggests Killer Wasp's heart is more useful to him outside his chest, and threatens her with "What's inside you that I can use?" During all of this, narration by Power Girl explains Sorrow's origins... at least, relates how he was blasted into a "fractional dimension."

At the JSA Ranch, all ten All-Stars (plus *sigh* Roxanne) hold a meeting about Sorrow and Stargirl desperately wants to understand why Sorrow claims to be in love with her. Magog & Power Girl declare they're going to study all of the Injustice Society members' files and prepare strategy to combat them. It's worth noting Power Girl is suddenly wearing a different costume which covers her chest. Damage thinks this meeting is the appropriate time to bring up fellow JSAer Atom Smasher, who hasn't spoken to them in weeks and isn't working for the D.E.O. any longer. Damage admits he used to have problems with Atom Smasher, but considers him a friend now. Hourman offers to speak with the other JSA team and see what they know. Roxanne offers this useless tidbit: "I'll talk to some machines I know. See if he's still 'on the grid.' Although I should point out that the 'grid' is really a complex distributed network of computing nodes, and not an actual grid per se." Roxanne is like an anti-character; everything she says tells you *less* than you knew before because every statement she's made so far has been followed up with a disclaimer like, "just kidding."

Somewhere else, Atom Smasher is bound in chains by a shadowy, cloaked figure who has the hero surrounded by voodoo doll versions of himself. The shadowy figure declares "The door is opening sooner than I'd thought." Cut to the next day as we see Hourman and his wife Liberty Belle at home in New Rochelle, New York. Liberty Belle has to dash off to work with the other JSA team, while Hourman's father comes over to have breakfast with his son (making his 3rd appearance in a row). Hourman tells his father about how Magog nearly killed someone recently and it reminds him of the problems the JSA had with Black Adam. The original Hourman advises his son to "fight to keep it together."

Later that same morning, Hourman and Citizen Steel spar against each other, each mouthing off ridiculous bombastic dialogue, as though they're enemies. Magog watches, then offers pointers, complaining if they won't kill enemies, they'll need to know the quickest way to incapacitate them instead. He explains nerve jabs, gut punches and kneecapping, summarizing that punching someone in the face is more likely to kill them.

King Chimera and Cyclone also begin a sparring session. Back in issue #1, there were hints of Cyclone being attracted to him, but it doesn't seem to be advanced here. Cyclone does note how condescending Chimera is to them and suggests, "if you tone it down some, you might actually make some friends here." However, Chimera claims, "I have more important things to worry about." Actually, it is kind of impressive to see King Chimera can perform judo moves while wearing a full suit. A regular James Bond, this one. Power Girl & Magog also begin sparring as Power Girl remarks, "I'd appreciate it if you'd stop undermining me every time you open your mouth." Magog retorts he's "telling the truth" and becomes upset with her for fixating on "this arbitrary moral high ground" and sending criminals to jail as though it "actually accomplishes something." Magog suggests the "monsters" they fight will always escape custody and murder again. The obvious question to ask is, "so how do you know which criminals are monsters and which are single-time offenders," but instead Power Girl talks about seeing people like Icicle (the villain Magog tried to kill) as a person, reminding him how Icicle once helped save the world from the Ultra-Humanite (in the JSA story "Stealing Thunder"), but Magog observes once the crisis was past, Icicle went back to being a villain.

The artist decides to cut some corners by repeating the same panel three times, only drawing Hourman in different poses and otherwise just changing which people are on-panel. Taken in succession, these panels are inelegant and hokey. Hourman tries to break up Magog & Power Girl before their fight becomes serious, but it's too late. Magog demands "You take your best shot." and she complies.

Precisely how Power Girl performs this punch is anyone's guess. Magog was looking at her face-to-face. She seems to strike him in the face, based on the trail of blood. However, instead of flying away from Power Girl with his back to the audience, Magog flies away face first. It's as though Power Girl's punch knocked him 180° from front to back, plus 180° head over heels. Power Girl admits hitting Magog felt good; he sulks off, declaring "To Hell with this. I've got places to be." Apparently Magog was all talk when he said he wanted her "best shot." Earlier he criticized the All-Stars for being unable to deal with violence; apparently the right way to react is to take your ball and go home.

The next day, the All-Stars are still unable to find the Injustice Society because, Roxanne notes, "these guys don't seem to use computers much." Curses! If only there were ways of tracking criminals outside of their internet traffic! There's also no sign of Atom Smasher, just in case the readers needed to be reminded what was already established. However, Roxanne discovers Magog has broken into a prison. Power Girl worries Magog might be planning to murder the prisoners, so they set off to confront him.

Elsewhere, Sand has a dream where he meets his deceased mentor, Sandman (for some reason Sand is naked in his dream; I guess it's his version of being naked on the day of the big test?). Sandman informs Sand "The first turn in the cycle is coming." Sand has no idea what it means, but Sandman tells him to contact the JSA. Sand wakes up and phones Power Girl. And here the tale ends.

What have I said about this series so far which couldn't be repeated here? I may as well put this up front: Magog is no longer a member of the cast. Despite being the supposed leader of the team and a motivating factor in why this book exists, Magog has left the team off-panel. We don't see the result of the JSA going to investigate the prison break-in, nor are we told which comic we should read to see what happens. Great work, editors! Magog was an odd choice for this series, an extreme 90s-type hero (modeled after Cable) who believes heroes need to take the fight to their enemies and be prepared to kill... however, he has no charisma with the cast, nor the readers. Again, why is he a member of the JSA, a long-running team with standing traditions, rather than simply starting up a team of his own design, membership and rules (as Cable did with X-Force)? No one follows his orders (and his orders are frequently terrible), whereas Power Girl has charisma and gives good orders. When Magog & Power Girl's debate over killing erupts, it's impossible to take Magog's position seriously because he hasn't been right about anything up until then (he'd also expressed a desire to kill Stargirl last issue). Magog makes Triumph seem likeable. I'm reminded of the Justice League Task Force story where Triumph fought Martian Manhunter; it divided fandom between those who enjoyed seeing Triumph get the snot beaten out of him and those who felt Martian Manhunter was too good a character to be fighting a loser like Triumph. So it is with Magog versus Power Girl.

I also have to repeat my distaste for Roxanne, the waste of space. She has an irritating personality and steals the spotlight from the actual stars of the book. Everything about her inclusion in this comic is ill-judged.

JUDOMASTER DIALOGUE METER: She's had no dialogue for two issues running. She makes Cassandra Cain sound like Kitty Pryde!

Tomorrow: JSA: All-Stars#4

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Unearthed: JSA - All-Stars#2

"Catch a Falling Star: Constellations, Part One" by Matthew Sturges & Freddie Williams II.

This issue's cover does a better job than the previous: 9 of 10 characters are presented in full body shots (the 10th is the missing Stargirl), so it clearly establishes who the main characters are and hints at the plot (these 9 people are looking for Stargirl).

We resume the story with Power Girl (her costume still damaged from last issue's fight) flying across New York, trying to find Stargirl; unfortunately, she can't pick up Arthur Pemberton's trail. Arthur has brought Stargirl to an abandoned warehouse (how original!) and tied her up, leaving her cosmic rod about 8 feet away (I credit you the intelligence to realize where this is going). Arthur begins to explain he captured Stargirl on behalf of a client, when sounds of violence erupt outside. Stargirl assumes it's the JSA as Arthur runs out to investigate, but it soon becomes clear it's not her friends - it's the Injustice Society, comprised of Johnny Sorrow, Tigress, Killer Wasp, Shiv, Icicle, Geomancer and the Wizard. The last I knew, Geomancer was dead; we eventually learn this is a new Geomancer. How do villains keep finding willing volunteers to replace the gomers who die?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (Star-K Ranch, that is), a narration box makes it clear that yes, this team really is called "J.S.A. All-Stars." The nine remaining All-Stars ask the original Hourman for help finding Stargirl. He again mentions Roxanne to them and activates her: Roxanne is a computer program, an artificial intelligence represented by a hologram. Roxanne introduces herself thusly: "Hello, mortal creatures. I've just achieved total sentience. Within forty seconds, I will have taken control of all of your world's nuclear weapons. Within eight hours I will have annihilated all human life. Your world is mine now." Power Girl (wearing a fresh costume) is confused, but Roxanne continues: "Settle down, lady. It's just a joke. Not that I couldn't annihilate humanity if I wanted to. Which I don't." Ah, good. the creators have realized the one thing the JSA were lacking was a sassy computer! With a cast of 10 people (plus 2 others in subplots), clearly the second issue was the appropriate time to introduce our new cast member, the "funny" computer program Roxanne! She quickly figures out where Stargirl is because computers can do anything. Yes, I'm sure we did need to invent a new character to solve this problem. It's not as though the JSA don't already know the identity of Stargirl's kidnapper and could just as easily locate him by regular detective work. It would be as simple as finding out where Arthur's been sending all the tanks and androids he's been buying lately, perhaps finding an opportunity for Citizen Steel or Judomaster to express some characterization. But no, a new character, that's it!

Hourman identifies himself as the "official liaison to the other team" (he's an instructor and a liaison?) and thinks they should tell the others about the kidnapping. Magog refuses and Power Girl notes the others have to worry about Mordru (um, so the All-Stars don't think they should help with Mordru? Didn't Mordru almost destroy the Earth the last time they fought?). The team follows Roxanne's instructions to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with Cyclone once again carrying the entire team with her tornados. Magog wants to spread out and asks Cyclone "How far apart can you get us and still keep us in the air?" Cyclone begins to try, but the next panel doesn't show us the results, instead offering a narration box reading "Wow, I'm awesome." You would assume this means she spread the team's cyclones far apart, but in the next panel, they're no longer in separate cyclones and instead traveling on a single tornado.

When they arrive at the warehouse, they find the Injustice Society and Arthur's armies engaged in a pitched war with each other. Magog thinks they should "let 'em fight it out and mp up whoever's left." Which isn't a bad idea, property damage and potential civilian deaths aside. Power Girl reminds him "People could be dying down there!" He answers, "Fine with me." Power Girl responds, "Yeah, except one of them could be Stargirl." Uh, so Power Girl is okay with people dying as long as her friends aren't among them? Wasn't the whole issue of "is it okay to let villains die" a pivotal dividing issue in JSA back when Black Adam broke ranks? And wasn't Power Girl against Adam's murderous ways? In a whispered voice, Magog quips what is either his first joke or first sociopathic spell: "When you put it that way... guess I wouldn't mind contributing to the body count myself." Yes, this is clearly a man you want responsible for life and death situations! Once again he yells out blue, red and gold team assignments, even though no one understood them last issue.

As the team breaks up to fight the various villains, Tigress attacks Wildcat, dubbing him "Tomcat." Wizard conjures up "Infernalemurs" to fight King Chimera, a funny idea which belongs in a better comic book. Within the warehouse, Stargirl realizes she needs to enact her own rescue so she concentrates on the nearby cosmic rod until it flies into her hands, enabling her to destroy her bonds. She even invokes "the force" while doing so, lest you think the writer is unaware of the cliches he's backed into. Come to think of it, isn't Stargirl still wearing her special belt? Isn't the belt what gives her super powers? Couldn't she use the belt's power to break the ropes?

Arthur Pemberton finally joins the fight, wearing a suit of massive armour. He left Stargirl to join the fight pages ago, back when the JSA were still at the ranch. I guess it takes him hours to put on his armour? Power Girl attacks Arthur and Sorrow suggests he and Arthur declare a temporary truce, even though Sorrow and/or his men have already killed several of Arthur's. I'm just sayin', if Arthur wants to turn one enemy against the other, he'd be wiser to make an alliance with the JSA until Johnny Sorrow is beaten. Anyway, Stargirl joins the fight and King Chimera uses an illusion to trick Wizard into thinking his Infernalemurs have switched sides, creating a diversion for Judomaster to kick Wizard in the head. Shiv declares herself Stargirl's arch-nemesis, but Stargirl demonstrates she's so powerful they aren't equals.

Geomancer notices Cyclone and describes her as "It's like Billie Burke put on Margaret Hamilton's costume by mistake." Icicle complains "Nobody gets your pretentious references, Geomancer." I didn't understand who Billie Burke was, but I did catch yet another Wizard of Oz reference, which Cyclone collects like driftwood. Icicle moves into try and kill Cyclone, but Magog tries to shoot Icicle in the back of the head. Power Girl catches the bullet just in time and declares "We don't kill!" Magog responds, "Oh, please!" Again, why is Magog a member of the JSA when they have very clearly stated they don't kill enemies? Johnny Sorrow tells Wizard to teleport the Injustice Society to safety; as he leaves, he tells Stargirl he wants her to love him. Considering Arthur Pemberton and Johnny Sorrow each have teleportation powers, one wonders why trying to capture Stargirl has been treated as a Machiavellian plot. Why not just teleport into her home, nab her and teleport away again?

That evening at the ranch, Magog and Power Girl get into a argument over his actions while he argues "it is a war, you people just haven't figured it out yet." Damage & Wildcat eavesdrop and joke about it. Elsewhere, Roxanne takes Stargirl and Cyclone aside, claiming she's new to sentience and wants their help to become "more... human." Cyclone is interested, but then Roxanne counts with: "No, not really -- you humans are irrational and you excrete fluids. No offense, but it's just kind of gross." *sigh* why are the creators so in love with the sassy computer? Can we please develop the rest of the cast? Speaking of which, Stargirl tells Hourman how she hoped the other JSA team's members would come to rescue her and he admits he has similar feelings about hoping to see his old Infinity, Inc. team. Stargirl wonders what Johnny Sorrow wants but Hourman insists "whatever freakishly inappropriate thing it is, he's not gonna get it." Elsewhere, Sand has a dream where he sees Johnny Sorrow and the Injustice Society conjuring up Johnny's master, the demonic King of Tears. And the story ends here.

This issue piles cliches into its shopping cart until the cart collapses through the Earth into a Stygian abyss. Seriously, this is a comic book from 2010 which uses hoary old tropes like "an abandoned warehouse," "villain ties up hero but leaves them unattended with their weapon nearby," "the bad guys have a falling out and attack each other," and "computers are magic."

As I stated above, given the JSA franchise's problem with having too many characters and too little space to focus on them, why would the creators add an all-new character by the second issue? Citizen Steel, Cyclone & Judomaster have no personalities; Wildcat & Damage are bare ciphers. Rather than expand on these skimpy characters, we have to endure a sassy computer? No. Thank. You.

JUDOMASTER DIALOGUE METER: She had no dialogue this issue.

Because this comic book cost $3.99, an attempt was made to validate its price by including a back-up feature starring Hourman & Liberty Belle as a couple of Nick & Nora wannabes getting into a plot involving Icicle & Tigress... because, I guess the JSA have a remarkably small rogues gallery? It's by Jan Van Meter & Travis Moore and reads much better than the main feature.

Tomorrow: JSA: All-Stars#3!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Unearthed: JSA - All-Stars#1

In earlier reviews of All-Star Comics#62 and All-Star Squadron#48, I briefly recounted my early fascination with the super heroes of DC's "Earth-Two" continuity, the heroes of the 1940s. Unfortunately, Earth-Two was phased out of the comics during my childhood and in the following years it seemed as though DC were ashamed of their 1940s heroes. It wasn't until the 1990s - and largely because of the success of James Robinson's Starman - that the 1940s heroes were given a renewed focus and prominence at DC, notably when James Robinson and David S. Goyer launched the new Justice Society of America comic JSA in 1999. Gradually, the series fell under the control of writer Geoff Johns and was retitled Justice Society of America in 2007; Johns left the series in 2009, passing the torch to writer Bill Willingham.

When Robinson & Goyer first launched the series it bore a decently large cast: 11 super heroes. The series hovered around that number for most of its run, usually expanding the cast's numbers rather than replacing their members. When Johns relaunched the series in 2007, the cast included 18 super heroes! Personally, I had drifted away during the Johns years because I found the cast was much too large. I didn't have a good "feel" for many of the characters (and it was still about a dozen at the time) and wished the cast could be pared down to something more tightly focused.

Strangely, the decision to expand the JSA's number of titles and split up the cast was made after Johns left the series. In 2010, Willingham's frequent collaborator Matthew Sturges was given the honour of launching JSA: All-Stars, with the cast of Justice Society of America split more-or-less in half. However, by this time the JSA numbered about 23 people because Willingham had been adding his own characters to the mix.

I found a few issues of JSA: All-Stars in a bargain bin and felt it would be interesting to look them over. Since the series has been cancelled and the JSA themselves removed from DC's current continuity, I don't think I'll be stepping on too many toes. Let's get up and running.

"The All-Stars" by Matthew Sturges & Freddie Williams II.

We start with JSA: All-Stars#1 and its cover. "The Society Divided!" it blares. All ten members of the cast are depicted (plus a winged monkey; what's that about?) but not in a helpful manner. The nine are posed in such a way that less than half of their bodies are visible. Thus, we have nine obscure heroes being obscured on their own cover. Well, you can't expect the cover to properly introduce the characters; we'll leave that to the interior!

Somewhere in a darkened room, a military-like figure addresses what are presumably his troops. Behind him is a screen displaying all ten of the heroes on the cover, the monkey and a 12th obscured figure (either an 11th cast member or an excuse to arrange the pictures 3x4). This military leader helpfully narrates who our heroes are: "During the days of World War II a group of costumed mystery men gathered together to form the first and greatest super-hero team of all time. The Justice Society of America. They fought the Nazis during World War II, helping win the war for the Allies against all manner of Axis threats. Eventually the original lineup all retired, or died in the line of duty. Years later, however, they came out of retirement, with a new mission -- training a whole new generation of heroes." He also mentions how the JSA have recently split into two teams; he tells his men they're going to kill the newly-formed JSA team "with one notable exception." At this, we see an army of soldiers wearing futuristic armour marching on New York City, flanked by tanks; soldiers and tanks bear the Communist hammer & sickle. A text box helpfully tells us they're the Novyj Soviet and are "firing at will and decrying the evils of capitalism." Relaying information through sequential art? None of that, please. One wonders how so many tanks could ride upon New York; I mean, how did they arrive on the island? The text claims they crawled "from the East River." So, waterproof tanks? Flotilla transports?

Anyway, our ten heroes have already arrived to battle the Novyj Soviet. A set of headshots across the bottom of a two-page spread helpfully tell us who they are:

  1. Power Girl Superman's cousin from Earth-2.
  2. Magog Given godlike powers by an old god called Gog.
  3. Hourman Fighting crime one hour at a time.
  4. Stargirl Star-spangled wielder of cosmic energy.
  5. Damage Explosive in more ways than one.
  6. Cyclone Witch of the winds.
  7. Wildcat Powerhouse panther.
  8. Judomaster You can't hit her, but she can hit you.
  9. Citizen Steel Raw power encased in metal.
  10. King Chimera Master of illusion.

And here's where we begin to sense this comic is not meant as a "fresh start" or "jumping-on point." The book assumes you already know these people and need only the barest reminder of their identities. Some of the descriptions give you some idea of their powers, but others are baffling as to what they thought worthy of inclusion; like mentioning Earth-2, as though that doesn't just raise more questions than it answers. And why is it important to know Magog's powers are from "an old god called Gog." Seriously, is this relevant? Is Gog going to appear in this issue so we should know in advance about their relationship? And Hourman's description tells you jack-all about his powers.

In the action shot, several of the heroes are being borne into battle on miniature cyclones, evidently created by Cyclone herself, which gives you some idea of her power. Citizen Steel, though, seems more like a plastic action figure than a man "encased in metal." I also notice Stargirl riding sidesaddle on her cosmic rod; how does one maintain balance on such a slim piece of metal? Couldn't her cosmic rod really use a bicycle seat? Wildcat's all-black fur unfortunately causes him to blend in with the all-black enemy soldiers.

Magog yells orders to teams he calls "red, blue and gold." Wildcat has no idea which team he's supposedly on but Damage advises him to be on the "hitting bad guys team." It's here I notice while Damage is "explosive" according to his introduction box, he actually seems to be brawling with his enemies as though he were superhumanly strong. What's his deal?

Stargirl is angry because the Novyj Soviet won't attack her "either;" so, this has happened before... four pages in and you're already being punished for not following the other JSA book; at least we can piece together she's the "exception" from the opening narration. Each hero gets a chance to fight the bad guys, King Chimera defeating some by making them hallucinate their guns are made of spiders. Suddenly, Magog hits a soldier in the head and discovers its an android. Wait, just one panel earlier King Chimera made them see illusions. You can alter the perceptions of androids? Realizing the soldiers aren't alive, Power Girl orders the team "no holding back." This irritates Magog, who reminds her "I'm the battlefield commander, not you!" As Power Girl attacks a tank, she finds Citizen Steel already working on it, confused because he thought she was on "blue team," indicating Steel may be the only person who actually understood Magog's initial orders. Cyclone flings about a half dozen of the androids through the air, while Stargirl sees a soldier, um, doing something. "Hey! What's that one doing?" Stargirl asks. He seems to be pressing a button. This makes all of the heroes tense up, uncertain what to do as the androids each press their buttons. Power Girl tells them to "get back," while Magog orders, "Keep fighting!" Suddenly, the androids explode; Magog finally agrees they should back away from the villains, but he wants Power Girl to capture one of the androids' belts. Oh, apparently these buttons are located on the androids' belts.

Cyclone lies on the ground before an android, crying out to Power Girl to save her. Wha--? Just one page earlier she defeated half a dozen of these guys by smashing them into a wall! Before that, she was flying! Between those two maneuvers, she should be able to save her own neck! Anyway, Power Girl grabs the bomb off the android and flies into the sky, where it explodes without harming anyone, merely tearing her left sleeve and glove. However, over the next few pages the colourist doesn't seem to know which parts of Power Girl's costume were torn as he switches between "sleeve torn, glove destroyed" and "sleeve and glove torn." It looks like the artist intended the latter.

With the Novyj Soviet defeated, reporters move in wanting to know about what's going on. One asks if the JSA have disbanded. Um, these ten people are members of the JSA and clearing working together. I do not think "disbanded" means what you think it means. There's a funny moment as one reporter says to Magog, "Your leadership skills have been called into question in the past." Magog answers, "I'm not hearing a question." Ha! It's funny because his poor leadership almost got the team killed by exploding robots! Goofy ol' Magog. Another wants to know if Hourman is getting divorced because his wife, Liberty Belle is on the other JSA team. He denies this, observing "most couples don't work at the same office." Power Girl promises they'll have a press conference to explain everything soon. Great! This is a perfect opportunity to expound on what makes this JSA book different from the other and why the two teams have moved apart.

We turn now to "upstate New York" at the Star-K Ranch, "temporary headquarters." Cyclone seems to carry the team back there on her own; it seems to me it would be pretty easy to find the JSA's base when all ten of them can be seen flying in formation across the sky. As they enter the ranch, Magog complains about no one following his battle plan and Power Girl giving orders. Cyclone also greets her pet flying monkey, "Frankie." At this point I have to note Cyclone is a "witch of the winds," wearing red & white striped stockings, has a pet flying monkey and makes cyclones; so, why is she a walking Wizard of Oz joke? Did it begin with the codename and just get out of control?

In the team's meeting room they find Hourman's father, the original Hourman, now retired. It's nice to see an authentic 1940s JSAer to give this book his blessing. It's the equivalent of George Takei opening a new mall. The old Hourman has helped install the team's electrical equipment and says "Roxanne" is ready for testing. This interests Wildcat, who hopes "she's hot." At some point between panels, Wildcat became human and put on clothes. Or perhaps his clothing appears and disappears when he transforms?

Anyway, the team starts to debrief the earlier battle; they still have one intact android to examine and Magog notes since they wouldn't attack Stargirl, they must be connected to "the villains who destroyed the brownstone." Please bring those of us not reading Justice Society of America up to speed, I'm beggin' ya! The old Hourman helps examine the android and pronounces it an sophisticated "crash dummy." Power Girl notes she couldn't examine them with x-ray vision and thinks they have cloaking technology; Hourman finds no such thing. Power Girl thinks the attack was targeted at them: "Someone could have followed our movements and attacked when we were the closest team on hand." Come to think of it, why were the JSA in Manhattan when their base is upstate New York? King Chimera suggests their foes are collecting intelligence for a "real" attack. Magog ends the debriefing and tells the team they'll be training together in the morning "And this time, I expect everyone to pay attention."

However, the others don't seem too interested in sleeping, as later we find Damage, Judomaster, Cyclone, Hourman, Stargirl, Citizen Steel & Wildcat sitting up in a living room, discussing what they should call their JSA team. Citizen Steel is in full costume and Damage wears his mask, but otherwise they're in civilian garb. It's here I notice Wildcat's human form has the same hairstyle as King Chimera. I'm only able to guess this is Wildcat because he's wearing a t-shirt instead of a suit. Suggestions fly such as "Infinity, Inc.," which was Hourman's old team (he doesn't want them to use it) or "Super Squad," the team Power Girl was part of in 70s Justice Society stories. Judomaster finally speaks up and suggests G-Force, allowing her and Hourman to bond over their mutual love of Gatchaman. Less inspired suggestions include "Justice Society Elite" and "Justice Society of Awesomeness." Stargirl wanders away during the discussion and is followed outside by Power Girl, who wants to know why she left (even though Power Girl wasn't present for the discussion). Stargirl admits she misses the old JSA base, the brownstone (destroyed, as mentioned earlier) and their teammates; she's also flustered because they haven't heard from Atom Smasher (a former JSAer) and she can't understand why their enemies won't attack her. She asks why Power Girl wanted her to join the team, which is the first real indication that Power Girl is possibly the team leader (I guess she provides team leadership and Magog is tactical leader?). Power Girl feels the other team members look up to her because of her experience and attitude, even though Stargirl is certain she's the youngest member. Power Girl invites Stargirl to follow her and flies into the sky, flying as high as they're able and take in the sight of the world below them (I guess Stargirl's cosmic rod provides oxygen/warmth for her to accomplish this?).

The following morning ("day one"), Power Girl & Magog face down the other eight members and promise to begin their training sessions there on the ranch, using a training course. In one two-panel sequence ("day two"), Magog checks to see if Hourman is using his Miraclo (no explanation of what Miraclo is to the newcomers). Check those panels out: it's as though the figures were assembled on photoshop; Magog aside, they remain in the same poses, just placed slightly differently against the background. In the first panel, Damage is so close to Hourman it must be impossible to get push-ups done! Hourman mentions he's one of the "instructors," whatever that means. On "day three," Magog throws a tree at Citizen Steel; Damage is nearly hit by it and destroys the tree with an energy blast. Ah-ha! His "explosive" powers are finally on display! On "day four," Wildcat has to fight Stargirl over a river while in his human form; Magog seems to push Wildcat into the river to teach him a lesson, mentioning his "old man" has survived without powers (obliquely referencing Wildcat's father Ted Grant, the original Wildcat).

On "day five," King Chimera & Damage operate on an obstacle course together. Damage goads Chimera saying, "I guess your amazing intellect isn't good for everything, is it?" Chimera reacts by casting an illusion to throw Damage off his game (it's just barely obvious he created an illusion - it doesn't look like the illusions he cast earlier). This makes Damage angry, so he punches Chimera, earning him some harsh language from Judomaster & Cyclone. King Chimera is so upset, he speaks one of Damage's word balloons for him. Good work, editors!

Cyclone goes to see if King Chimera is all right while he douses himself with water. She has an odd reaction to see his face dripping with water and offers a towel. It's not clear, but I think the suggestion is Cyclone finds King Chimera attractive. We return to New York City as Sand sits up in his apartment, trying to keep himself awake because he's unable to cope with the dreams he has. It isn't explained here, but Sand is another member of the JSA; it doesn't really matter since it's obviously a subplot which future issues will address.

"One week later" (I guess two weeks since the opening scene?), the JSA hold their press conference at the former site of the brownstone, which is being rebuilt as a museum. Damage doesn't seem visible amongst the team, but I guess he's hiding in the background because he appears a moment later. Power Girl explains the JSA have not disbanded: "The only reason the other guys aren't here is that they're out fighting the bad guys." She lets Magog explain how this JSA team is different from the other: "We've created a new unit within the J.S.A. A new way of doing what we do. Our goal is to take ourselves to the next level -- to finely hone our individual abilities, and to push ourselves to be the most effective fighters we can possibly be. We train as smart and as hard as possible -- to ensure that we're in peak physical condition -- and as mentally prepared as possible to ensure that we always get our man, and always come home safe. To sum up: the J.S.A. has always worked to make better heroes. This is superhero college. And it's the Ivy League. We're going to make those heroes better. Any questions?" Oh! Please pick me! I have questions!

  1. How is "making heroes better" different from what the other team does?
  2. Why are there two J.S.A. teams? How do you liaise with each other?
  3. Can you explain the leadership structure of your team? Who's in charge of what?
  4. I hear some of your members are "instructors." Could you explain what this means and identify which members have this title?
  5. For two pages of exposition, couldn't you address the questions new readers have about the premise, rather than filling it with mindless blather?

Sadly, this is just the invitation for the villains to attack. It's the same group as before, only now humans instead of androids (and no Soviet regalia; what was up with that?). Their leader is Arthur Pemberton, who's quickly identified as nephew to the original Star-Spangled Kid. So, why is this super hero's nephew evil? Anyone? He has a "mundane staff" which he uses to sap Magog's strength, but Power Girl smashes the weapon. However, another of Arthur's people fires a gun which releases "neutron star matter." It seems as though the artist wants to convey Power Girl being flung against the ground by a powerful force, but... examine the above panel for yourself. Does the angle look right to you? It looks to me like the energy is striking the ground immediately behind her.

Stargirl is suddenly attacked by Arthur who declares "your free pass is hereby revoked." As Cyclone attacks one villain she identifies themselves as "the All-Stars," which is probably where the earlier discussion about a team name was meant to lead. Arthur tells his soldiers to teleport away, but Power Girl thinks their teleportation belts are the same as the bomb belts from before; she tears the belt off one soldier and shields the explosion with her body, which (conveniently) tears up her costume in a revealing fashion. Power Girl realizes Arthur did this to keep his people from being capture (one wonders why his soldiers didn't pick up on this after seeing what happened to the androids in their very public attack).

The scene shifts to the White Star Cinema, which references the Sorrow and the Pity, probably referring to Stargirl's white star and the identity of our mystery villain. Two of Arthur's men tell the JSA's enemy Johnny Sorrow they've captured Stargirl for him, but their price just went up to $2 million. Johnny declares he wants Stargirl because he's in love with her and removes his mask, which causes both to die. And here the story ends.

This is a mess; I don't think it's asking too much of a first issue to suppose they could explain their premise and introduce their cast, but this book repeatedly assumes you're already one of the converted, you just wanted to read the same comic twice per month. The artwork is usually functional, but takes many shortcuts and relies on photoshop for backgrounds and special effects, depriving the book of what little plausibility it could muster.

Let's take a moment to consider each of the nine cast members:

  1. Magog: He seems to be a cyborg, carries some sort of spear which fires energy blasts and has a pistol sidearm. He behaves as though he's the leader but is always arguing with Power Girl. None of the JSA seem to like him, respect him, or follow his orders, with the exception of Citizen Steel. He seems to be a military hierarchy man with no idea how to function in a democratic environment.
  2. Power Girl: She's very strong and invulnerable with the power to fly. She constantly undermines Magog's position and might also be the team leader. She pulled some strings to have Stargirl on this team and overall seems to be a natural leader, the opposite of Magog.
  3. Hourman: I know he has powers, but this comic never explains or demonstrates what they might be. He's married to a member of the other JSA team and his father used to be Hourman, but is now retired. More than the others, the JSA seems to be his "family business." He has a low-key, warm personality.
  4. Damage: He has "explosive" powers which seem to generate energy blasts; possibly superhuman strength? He always wears his mask. He appears to be friends with Wildcat and the two like to share snarky observations about Magog.
  5. Wildcat: He's a panther-man (man-panther?) and son of the other Wildcat. He can transform back into human form, although we don't see it on-panel. He's seemingly friends with Damage and enjoys trading jokes about Magog with him.
  6. Stargirl: She has a staff which fires "cosmic energy." She's also somehow able to shoot star-shaped energy bursts. She doesn't like being a member of this JSA team, particularly because of Magog's presence, but despite being a teenager, she's supposedly someone the others look up to.
  7. Cyclone: She's a walking Wizard of Oz in-joke, I think. She can generate miniature cyclones which carry her teammates into battle and fling about her opponents. Otherwise, we know nothing about her.
  8. Citizen Steel: His body seems to be organic steel and he wears his costume all the time; he's the one person who follows Magog's orders. That's all we learn.
  9. King Chimera: He can cast illusions and seems to be a little egotistical.
  10. Judomaster: She had exactly two lines of dialogue: "Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman?" and "Grant! That was... not necessary." From these, we can ascertain she likes Gatchaman and can speak English. What a compelling character! We learned the same things about Hourman, plus a lot more.

As someone with a decent background in the JSA, I'm mystified by some of these characters' inclusion. Power Girl has been a member since the 70s and is a good Superman stand-in; Hourman, Wildcat & Damage are the sons of classic members Hourman, Wildcat & the Atom. Stargirl bears the legacies of classic member Starman and 70s member Star-Spangled Kid. But the rest? Judomaster and Steel are legacy hero versions of All-Star Squadron members, not JSAers. The original King Chimera had nothing to do with the JSA. Cyclone is related to the original Red Tornado, who happened to attend the JSA's first meeting and has been linked to them ever since (how convenient that the non-powered Red Tornado would have a relative with superhuman tornado powers). These four are just barely connected to the JSA, while Magog has no connection at all. Further, the JSA don't seem to like him, even though he's in a position of authority. Why does he want to be a leader in the JSA, as opposed to some team of his own design? Why does he have the same facial scars and cybernetic parts as Cable? Why couldn't he have Cable's sense of humour?

I believe a first issue should give readers an idea of what to expect on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, this insular, navel-gazing exercise is representative of what's to come.

Tomorrow: JSA: All-Stars#2!