Comic book reviews: Darkseid #1 (Justice League #23.1)

As I may have mentioned before, I really have not been much of a fan of DC Comics’ much hyped New 52.  There were a few series that I liked, but all of them ended up getting canceled.  The only exception is Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang, which continues to be an excellent read (I really should do a full length post on that soon).  Other than that, though, nothing else has really caught my attention.  But I may pick up Ann Nocenti’s work on Catwoman and Katana when it receives the trade paperback treatment.

So when DC’s whole month-long line-wide Forever Evil crossover rolled around, I had no interest in it.  I did end up picking up four or five of the tie-in issues due to the specific characters or creators involved, and even then nothing especially stood out.  And among those few there was one major disappointment: Justice League #23.1, aka Darkseid #1.

Those who follow this blog will remember that I am a huge fan of Jack Kirby, especially his amazing work on the “Fourth World” titles.  While I do not think any subsequent creators have been nearly as successful in their handling of the New Gods as the man who created them, there have nevertheless been some very good stories featuring them written by such individuals as Walter Simonson, John Ostrander, John Byrne, Paul Levitz and Jim Starlin.  And in the New 52, Azzarello & Chiang have come up with interesting takes on Orion and Highfather in the pages of Wonder Woman.  So I was curious to read Darkseid #1, which presents the New 52 origin of the lord of Apokolips.

Justice League 23 point 1 cover

There was actually some potential to “Apotheosis,” which is written by Grek Pak.  It starts off quite well.  We see that ages ago in another dimension, Darkseid was once a humble farmer named Uxas.  He lived on a world where a pantheon of titanic deities regularly wrecked havoc, brawling across the landscape with seemingly no regard for the tiny mortals at their feet.  Unlike his sister Avia and brother-in-law Izaya, Uxas recognized that these gods were oblivious to the plight of their subjects, and they cared not who was killed during their battles.  Uxas is clearly a man who feels wronged, who resents these gods, and who wishes to gain the power to control his destiny.  It’s an intriguing stepping-on point to understanding what drives Darkseid.

Unfortunately things then get confusing.  We see Uxas climbing the mountain of the gods and, while they are asleep, whispering in their ears that they should go to war.  Then he sits back and watches them nearly destroy one another and, once they are helpless, Uxas comes up to them and slays them all, stealing their power, in the process transforming into Darkseid.

At this point it really felt like this issue had skipped by a whole bunch of stuff.  Everything flies by so quickly.  Uxas’ manipulation and slaying of the gods seems to take place much too easily.  I know I often criticize modern comic books for their decompressed nature.  But this issue is the opposite problem: it felt like a three or four issue story crammed into 20 pages.

In any case, Izaya and Avia approach the last of the gods, praying for his help.  And even though these cosmic beings previously seemed to be completely unaware of their worshipers, suddenly the fallen “lord of the sky” rewards the dying Avia for still having faith by transforming her husband into Highfather.  The empowered Izaya futilely tries to reason with Darkseid.  They fight, and their world is destroyed.

Justice League 23 point 1 pg 11

The story abruptly fast forwards to Darkseid in place as the iron-fisted ruler of Apokolips, planning his conquest of other dimensions.  And some other stuff happens that I think ties in with past issues of Justice League and Earth 2, but I’m not completely certain.  Again, this sudden lurch in time really feels jarring.

I’ve read other comic books written by Pak, and he is usually much better than this.  I cannot help wondering if the bare bones of Darkseid’s story were handed to him by someone like Dan DiDio or Geoff Johns and he was given this single issue to try and flesh them out.  Whatever the case, the results are frustrating and disappointing, as we get snapshots, glimpses of what could have been a memorable story.

I’m sorry, but I just cannot help comparing this to Jack Kirby’s own work.  Maybe I am being unfair.  But just take a look at New Gods #7, “The Pact,” which he wrote & penciled back in 1971.  In the space of a mere 24 pages, Kirby recounted the origins of the longstanding war between Apokolips and New Genesis, in a tale that contained both epic cosmic conflicts and deeply personal moments.

New Gods 7 cover

In contrast, we have the just published Justice League #23.1, which, despite being given nearly the same page count as New Gods #7, just barely manages to begin exploring the origins and motivations of Darkseid and Highfather.  I really do not want to sound like a grumpy old man (I’m only 37 years old) but they really do not make comic books like they used to.

Oh, well, at least the artwork on Justice League #23.1 is quite good.  I am completely unfamiliar with Paulo Siqueira and Netho Diaz.  But they do a very nice job capturing the awesome, cosmic nature of events.  The coloring by Hi-Fi is vibrant.  As for the cover, the super-talented Ivan Reis draws an extremely striking portrait of Darkseid.

As I said before, I actually feel like “Apotheosis” could have been much better.  But it feels like someone dropped the ball along the way.  I don’t know, maybe most of the criticisms I’ve leveled at this issue are indicative of the larger problems plaguing DC as a whole over the last few years.  This is probably why I read so little that is published by them nowadays (or by Marvel, either, for that matter).

Yes, there are many very good comic books being published nowadays.  You just have to look beyond DC and Marvel to find the majority of them.  Yeah, it’s definitely disappointing to see Kirby’s characters & concepts handled in such a sloppy manner by DC.  But, whatever, rather than dwell on that, I’m just going to look for the interesting, original work being done by other creators elsewhere.

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Happy birthday to Louise Simonson

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to one of my favorite comic book writers, Louise Simonson, who was born on September 26, 1946.  When I was a young reader who was just getting into comic books in the mid-1980s, Simonson’s writing played a key role in capturing my interest.  With super-talented penciler June Brigman, she created Power Pack, a series about four young siblings who gained superpowers from a dying alien.  Alex, Julie, Jack and Katie Power used their fantastic new abilities to defend Earth against the belligerent alien Snarks, as well as a succession of other strange menaces.

I had a lot of identification with the four main characters in Power Pack.  They were all around my age.  In addition to fighting aliens & supervillains, they faced much more mundane problems such as disagreements among themselves, arguments with parents who they felt just did not understand them, making friends with other kids their age, and having trouble with homework.  Simonson did an amazing job scripting stories that young readers could relate to without ever talking down to them.

Power Pack 2 cover

Simonson had previously edited writer Chris Claremont on both Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants.  The two of them seem to possess a really good rapport and (in my humble opinion) under Simonson’s editorship Claremont wrote some of his best stories.  Later on, when Simonson was writing Power Pack, her close creative relationship with Claremont resulted in her series occasionally featuring guest appearances by the X-Men, and the Power kids showing up now & again in the X-titles.  Those crossovers were a major part of my introduction to the wider X-Men universe and Claremont’s work.  For instance, Uncanny X-Men #205, written by Claremont with superb artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith, is an amazing story where we see Wolverine through young Katie Power’s eyes.  It was a really great introduction to the character of Logan.

(This is the point where I risk embarrassing myself.  When I was a kid, I used to make up stories where I gained superpowers and had adventures alongside Power Pack.  Years later at a convention I admitted this to Louise Simonson.  She smiled and told me that a lot of other readers had told her they did the exact same thing growing up.)

In 1986, Simonson took over as writer of X-Factor with issue #6.  With penciler Jackson “Butch” Guice, she quickly introduced a mysterious, powerful new villain named Apocalypse.  Her husband Walter Simonson came on-board as regular penciler four issues later, and together the two of them majorly revamped the original five members of the X-Men, as well as building up Apocalypse into a significant figure in the Marvel universe.  Louise Simonson stayed on X-Factor until issue #64, in her later stories working with such artists as Art Adams, Paul Smith, and Terry Shoemaker.  She also had a lengthy run on New Mutants that lasted from issue #55 to #97.

Superman Man of Steel 26 cover

After departing from X-Factor and New Mutants in 1991, Simonson moved over to DC Comics.  There she paired up with Jon Bogdanove, who she had previously worked with on her later Power Pack issues, and the two of them launched Superman: The Man of Steel.  Both Simonson and Bogdanove would stay on the title for a lengthy eight year run.  During that time, amidst the “Death of Superman” story arc, they co-created John Henry Irons, aka Steel, who first took up his armored identity in memory of the (temporarily) deceased Kal-El.  Throughout her issues, while juggling the requirements of tying in with the storylines of the other three monthly books, Simonson managed to give Superman: The Man of Steel its own individual feel, introducing an interesting supporting cast and ongoing subplots.

When her run on Man of Steel ended, Simonson returned to Marvel for several projects.  Among these was Warlock, a really fun but all too short-lived series drawn by Pascual Ferry featuring the wacky techno-organic alien member of the New Mutants, and Chaos War: X-Men, a miniseries co-written with Chris Claremont.  She also penned the excellent X-Factor Forever, which was set in a timeline that picked up right after her point of departure from X-Factor in 1991.  On that five issue miniseries, she worked with Dan Panosian, who showed off his amazingly improved artwork.  He had really grown by leaps & bounds since his debut in the early 1990s.

Warlock 7 cover

There is a major theme running through much of Simonson’s writing.  She often takes a look at the importance of family, of establishing emotional ties to other people.  Power Pack was very much the story of the four Power children, their relationships with one another and their parents.  In her X-Factor issues, Simonson tackled the complicated state of Cyclops’ personal life, at how he had basically wrecked his marriage to Madelyne Prior, and now had to deal with the consequences of that, his confused feelings for the newly resurrected Jean Grey, and having to raise his infant son Nathan who he’d previously had with Madelyne.  (I think Simonson did an excellent job handling the extremely awkward editorial directive handed down to her and Claremont that had forced Scott Summers to leave Madelyne for Jean.)  In Man of Steel, Simonson introduced a young African American boy named Keith.  After his mother died, the orphaned Keith was adopted by Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White and his wife Alice, who had lost their own son some years before.  In Warlock, Simonson had her oddball alien hero forming a sort of family unit with Hope, Psimon, and Chi-Chee the monkey, each of whom had also become outcasts.

XFactor Forever 3 cover

The entire X-Factor Forever miniseries was all about family and relationships.  Cyclops and Marvel Girl are still attempting to reconcile their feelings for one another, and to take care of baby Nathan.  Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman, is continuing his romance with Opal Tanaka, with the pair visiting her parents and discussing the possibility of marriage.  Warren Worthington is in a growing friendship with policewoman Charlotte Jones and her son Timmy, all the while struggling to come to terms with his transformation from Angel to the dark Archangel by Apocalypse.  And Hank McCoy, the bouncing blue Beast, is working on his on-again, off-again relationship with reporter Trish Tilby, who is thinking of adopting an orphan child.

Even Apocalypse is, in his own way, searching for a family.  Born 20,000 years ago to a tribe of primitive humans, the man who would become Apocalypse was a freak anomaly, the world’s first mutant, gifted with shape-shifting abilities.  As the X-Men would discover in the present day, so too did Apocalypse learn in prehistoric times: his powers were a double-edged sword.  When he used them to serve as his tribe’s protector, they reacted with fear & hatred, driving him out.  We can interpret Apocalypse’s subsequent millennia-long mission to insure the future supremacy of mutant-kind as motivated by a wish to no longer be alone, to one day have another family.  In the 19th Century, he thought he had found a kindred spirit in young Nathaniel Essex, and transformed him into his apprentice Mr. Sinister.  One could say that Apocalypse regarded Sinister almost like a son.  And when Sinister rebelled, conducting his own dangerous experiments which threatened to destabilize all of his former mentor’s carefully-laid plans, on some level it must have hurt Apocalypse.  It really shows Simonson’s talent & skill as a writer, that she brought a degree of empathy and pathos to a ruthless schemer such as Apocalypse.

I definitely think Louise Simonson is an amazing writer.  I really enjoy her work, and I hope that we see more from her pen again in the near future.  It would be especially great if she had the opportunity to work with her husband Walter again, or with June Brigman.

Phantom of the Paradise: a reflection on today

I recently saw the 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise when it aired on the Sundance Channel.  I had first seen it quite a number years ago on television, and I remember being struck by how incredibly weird and eerie it was.  Re-watching it now in 2013, I definitely developed a real fondness for it, as well as realizing just how on-the-money writer/director Brian De Palma was in his dark satire of the music industry.  In certain respects, the film was ahead of its time.

Winslow Leach, aka The Phantom

Winslow Leach, aka The Phantom

Phantom of the Paradise is the story of Winslow Leech (William Finley), an ambitious composer who has written a lengthy, epic cantata based on the legend of Faust.  He is overheard performing part of it by mega-successful record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and his lackey Philbin (George Memmoli).  Swan immediately decides that he wants Winslow’s music for the opening of his high-profile concert hall the Paradise; he doesn’t, however, want Winslow himself.  Philbin gets Winslow to give him the only copy of the cantata, promising that Swan is going to look it over and get right back to him.  A month passes, and Winslow finally realizes he’s been tricked.  He sneaks into Swan’s mansion, where auditions are being held for the opening of the Paradise.  Overhearing dozens of would-be songstresses slaughtering his music, one voice captures Winslow’s attention: the beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper).  Coming up to her, Winslow begins singing with her, and he realizes that Phoenix is the perfect voice for his cantata.  There is also an instant attraction between the two.  However, when Winslow attempts to speak with Swan, the producer has his thugs beat up the composer, and arranges for the cops to frame him for drug possession, landing him a life sentence in, appropriately enough, Sing Sing.

Six months later, Winslow breaks out of prison.  During an attempt to destroy Swan’s Death Records manufacturing plant, Winslow’s head is caught in a record press.  Horribly scarred, Winslow makes his way to the Paradise and, donning a cape & mask, begins to terrorize the concert hall.  When he tries to attack Swan, though, the icy producer is unperturbed.  Swan convinces a reluctant, wary Winslow to work with him in completing the cantata, promising that Phoenix will sing it.  Swan, though, later decides to replace Phoenix with a glam rock singer named Beef (Gerrit Graham) and once the cantata is completed has his men brick up the entrance to Winslow’s room.  In a superhuman rage, the composer breaks out.  Winslow threatens Beef in the shower, attacking him with a toilet plunger.  Beef tries to back out of the show, but Philbin strong-arms him into going on.  During the subsequent performance of Faust, Winslow hides in the rafters and hurtles a neon lightning bolt at Beef, spectacularly electrocuting him on stage.  Philbin realizes that Winslow is loose and, to prevent any more deaths, brings Phoenix on stage to perform the unedited version of the music.  The crowd immediately falls in love with her, and Swan promises to make her a star.

Winslow is horrified that Phoenix is falling under Swan’s spell.  He drags her to the rooftop of the Paradise and tries to convince her that Swan will destroy her, but she won’t listen; she’s already enthralled by the lure of the audience worshiping her.  Following Swan and Phoenix back to the producer’s mansion, Winslow spies on the two having sex.  Utterly distraught, he plunges a knife into his heart.  Soon after, Swan comes up and approaches Winslow’s body.  Plucking the knife from it, he informs the still-living Winslow that as long as he is under contract to Swan he cannot die.  Winslow attempts to murder Swan, and is shocked when the knife won’t penetrate his body.  Swan enigmatically comments “I’m under contract too.”

Sometime later, as Phoenix’s Faust tour is winding down, Swan proposes that the two of them get married in a lavish ceremony on live television.  While Swan is busy arranging this, Winslow breaks into his mansion.  He discovers a film recording from twenty years ago made by Swan himself.  The producer was despondent at the thought of growing old and losing his good looks, and was ready to slit his wrists in the bathtub.  However, via Swan’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, the Devil offered to keep him eternally young in exchange for his soul.  As long as the recording exists, Swan will not age a day.  Winslow then discovers that Swan is planning to have Phoenix killed by a sniper during the wedding.  In a rage, Winslow sets fire to Swan’s entire file room of contracts.  He then arrives at the Paradise in time to deflect the gunman’s aim so that Philbin is shot instead.  Fighting through the frenzied crowd, Winslow stabs the now-mortal Swan, killing him.  In turn, his own wound re-opens.  As Winslow lies dying, his mask falls off.  A shocked, saddened Phoenix at lasts recognizes him, and she cradles his lifeless body.

As I said, when I first saw Phantom of the Paradise many years ago, I was almost overwhelmed at how bizarre and freaky it was.  As I recall, the flashback scene where Swan makes his deal with the Devil via his own reflection was especially unsettling.  The film still very much possesses that distinctive atmosphere for me, with its strange characters & unusual visuals.  And it was certainly a judicious move by De Palma to have Rod Serling voice the opening narration, which perfectly sets the tone for the entire story.

The Phantom shows Beef his impression of a Dalek

The Phantom shows Beef his impression of a Dalek

Re-watching Phantom of the Paradise now, I also see what an incredibly prescient quality there is to it.  Yes, back in the early 1970s, the music industry was already very commercialized.  But it has become infinitely worse since then, with record labels, radio, and television all churning out & promoting generic crap from pretty-looking but talentless hacks, appealing to the lowest common denominator.  At the same time, you have American Idol and its countless imitators, where publicity-hungry people flock on to television making fools of themselves in their efforts to seize their fifteen minutes of fame.

In planning Phoenix’s murder, Swan comments “An assassination live on television coast to coast? That’s entertainment!”  I don’t know how that line came across to audiences four decades ago, but nowadays it sounds frighteningly plausible.  The audience erupting into hysterical applause at Beef’s on-stage death also seems like it could really happen.  There is so much insane, degrading material broadcast on both the 24 hour news cycle and so-called “reality television” in order to generate massive ratings.  No actual contract murders that I can think of, but at least a few hundred hellacious catfights and drunken blow-ups have graced TV screens in recent years.  Kim Kardashian may not have arranged to have Kris Humphries killed on television, but her 72 day marriage to him apparently netted her several million dollars.  And after it was all over, I bet there was a part of Humphries that wishes he had just been shot dead at the altar.

As for the character of Swan, he is just plain creepy, a total immoral bastard.  According to a few sources, Swan was based on infamous music svengali Phil Spector.  I’m not sure how much of Spector’s dark side, such as his abusive & controlling behavior towards his wife Ronnie, was known to the public at the time that Phantom of the Paradise was made.  But in later years Spector definitely took a total dive off the deep end, culminating in him shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, and his conviction for her murder several years later.  Talk about life imitating art.

In any case, Paul Williams gives a really sinister, memorable performance as Swan.  Williams also wrote the music & lyrics for the film.  Phantom of the Paradise may have been a dud at the box office, but at least Williams received a well-deserved Oscan nomination for his music.

The satanic svengali Swan

The satanic svengali Swan

Another thing that I picked up on is that Phantom of the Paradise has an almost Objectivist aspect to it, albeit one that seems to be a send-up of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  Winslow Leach possesses certain parallels with Howard Roark, the architect from The Fountainhead.  Both men are passionately concerned with maintaining the purity of their artistic vision, and adamantly refuse to compromise their ideals.  Roark dynamites the building he designed after it was altered without his permission.  So too does Winslow attempts to use dynamite to demolish Swan’s Death Records plant, and he later successfully blows up the Beach Bums, the bubblegum pop band that Swan initially wanted to perform Faust at the Paradise.  He also commits several subsequent murders.

Of course, there is a real difference between the depictions of the two men.  Rand very much regarded Roark as a flawless, noble hero.  In contrast, even at the start of the movie, Winslow comes across as both overzealous and naïve.  By the time he assumes the identity of the Phantom, it is very clear that Winslow is quite insane.  In his efforts to destroy Swan, Winslow kills a lot of other people.  Yes, Beef was a prima donna egotist, and the Beach Bums were cheesy hacks, but did they all deserve to die?  And Winslow’s relationship with Phoenix is also problematic.  I do not think he truly loved her.  It seems much more a case of obsession, driven by Winslow’s belief that only she could ever properly sing his music.

Yes, Swan seems very much to be one of the “parasites” that Rand so despised.  He is a monster who steals Winslow’s work and utterly destroys his life.  Yet by embarking upon his mission of vengeance, Winslow himself becomes a sort of monster as well, bringing to mind Nietzsche’s warning concerning those who fight monsters.  I think that the Howard Roarks of the world may start out as romantic idealists, but their unyielding convictions might very well lead them to the same fate as those who have exploited them.

Analysis aside, Phantom of the Paradise is a great movie.  Brian De Palma directs the hell out of it, with some truly amazing, dynamic shots.  As I said before, the music by Paul Williams is fantastic.  It’s unfortunate but, in retrospect, not surprising that Phantom of the Paradise initially failed in the theaters.  It is a very difficult movie to classify, simultaneously horror, comedy and musical.  But it often seems like these sort of offbeat films are the ones that stand the test of time, and nowadays it is considered a cult classic.

Comic book reviews: Fearless Dawn by Steve Mannion

Yipes! It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve posted an update to this blog.  I’ve been crazy busy with stuff, and with catching up on sleep, and with getting woken up at four in the morning by my cats.  In any case, today I will be looking at a couple of recent projects from someone who I regard as one of the most talented creators currently working in the comic book biz: Steve Mannion.

Fearless Dawn in Outer Space cover

It was in the pages of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #10, a very bizarre, funny, offbeat issue published in 1999, that I first discovered Steve’s amazing art.  Subsequently, he has worked on Batman, the revival of Tales from the Crypt published by Papercutz, and a number of creator-owned projects.  Over the past 14 years, I’ve watched Steve grow in leaps & bounds as an artist.  He has such an amazingly funny, sexy style to his work.  It’s reminiscent of the classic art from the EC Comics titles of the 1950s.

One of Steve’s signature characters is Fearless Dawn, his sexy yet sweet, ass-kicking, pistol-packing, goofball heroine.  Two of Steve’s most recent books featuring the character are Fearless Dawn in Outer Space, published by Asylum Press, and Fearless Dawn: Hard Times, which he self-published through a Kickstarter fundraiser.

Over the last several years, Steve has been experimenting with pencil-only pieces.  He tried out this style on some beautiful commission pieces which can be viewed on Comic Art Fans.  This has culminated in his amazing work on Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  The entire book is shot from his pencils, and it looks absolutely stunning.

Fearless Dawn in Outer Space pg 6

Dawn’s long time nemesis, the nutty Nazi femme fatale known as Helga Von Krause, has relocated to the Moon with her army of fascist zombies.  This, of course, sets Dawn off, and she is jumping at the chance to rocket into space and kick some kraut caboose.  Dawn’s boss, the Chief, isn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of his most impulsive agent going off half-cocked on a personal vendetta, and tries to ground her.  Meanwhile, Helga and her forces discover that living on the Moon isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  After a series of shenanigans, Helga & Co return to Earth, where they encounter Doctor Wigglestein, a super-scientist with more than a few loose screws who is breeding dinosaurs on a tropical island.

(At this point the story is continued in Fearless Dawn: Jurassic Jungle Boogie Nights, but I don’t have a copy of that one.  Hopefully at some point in the future Steve will collect it and the other recent Fearless Dawn specials into a trade paperback.)

Skipping forward, we come to the just-published Fearless Dawn: Hard Times.  The art on this one was even more amazing.  It’s great to see Steve continue to experiment with and evolve his style.  His work here is somewhat akin to Wally Wood meets Geof Darrow.  The change in the atmosphere of the art definitely suits the story.  Dawn’s beloved pet pug has been dog-napped by Helga and her forces.  Dawn, who has a tendency to overreact to everything, shifts into a fatalistic grim & gritty mode, and is ready to go out in a gun-slinging blaze of glory in order to take down Helga once and for all.

Fearless Dawn Hard Times cover

Story-wise, Steve goes in an interesting direction with Hard Times.  In previous Fearless Dawn stories, his plots and continuity were, I will admit, somewhat sketchy, serving mainly to help link together a series of hysterical gags and good girl artwork.  That never really bothered me, because it was obvious that Steve’s main goal was to have fun drawing some cool, funny stories that the reader enjoyed, and he was very successful at that.  With Hard Times, though, there is more of an emphasis on establishing links back to previous stories and the developing of ongoing subplots.  Steve even takes Helga, who previously was pretty much a send-up of the “Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS” type bad girl of pulp fiction and grindhouse flicks, and he begins to develop a back-story for her.  I’m really interested in seeing where all of this goes.

And I guess that ties in with another aspect of Steve’s artwork that I really like.  He draws very beautiful women, but his artwork never comes across as sexist or demeaning.  Steve often renders his women with curvy physiques, so that they look rather more like burlesque performers than, say, porn stars.  I would not be at all surprised to learn that Steve was a fan of Bettie Page.  Even a character like Helga Von Krause, who has very fetishistic overtones, is both played her for laughs and written with a real take-no-prisoners attitude.

Fearless Dawn Hard Times pg 12

Speaking of Helga, a couple of years ago I commented to Steve that I thought his character, if she existed in real life, would be exactly the kind of gal that Sandra Bullock’s sleazy ex-husband Jesse James would go for.  Steve laughed, and responded that Helga would break him in half.  Hmmm, yeah, I could see that happening!

If you are not familiar with Steve Mannion, I highly recommend checking out his work.  You can see what he’s currently up to on his blog, and back issues of his comic books are available at the Indy Planet website.

Frederik Pohl: 1919 – 2013

I was sorry to learn that the long-time science fiction author Frederik Pohl had passed away.  He died on September 2, 2013, aged 93 years.  I haven’t read a huge amount of the prolific Pohl’s work.  But I found each of the five novels by him that I do have to be very interesting, insightful, and enjoyable.

I first discovered Pohl’s work via a gift from my grandmother.  I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time, and she gave me a pair of science fiction paperbacks: The Years of the City and Midas World.  I doubt that she had any idea who Pohl was, but she knew I really enjoyed sci-fi.  In retrospect, I think perhaps she was also trying to get me to stop watching so much TV and read more books.  As for why she chose those two, they were recently published, and the cover artwork must have caught her eye.

It actually took me nearly a decade to finally sit down and read both The Years of the City and Midas World from start to finish.  But once I did, I found them really great, with an engaging style of prose, three-dimensional characters, and a unique sense of humor.

The Years of the City and Midas World are not, strictly speaking, actual novels.  Each of them is a collection of linked shorter stories.  The Years of the City, via a quintet of novellas, examines the future of New York City, beginning in the present day (i.e. the late 20th Century) and ending a few centuries later.  Each of the five tales is told via the perspective of the man or the woman on the street.  Through their eyes, we see the massive urban decline and renewal that NYC experiences over an extended period of time.

By the way, while the cover artwork is striking, the illustrator did take a bit of artistic license.  Yes, in the later installments of Pohl’s book, Manhattan Island does indeed get covered by a giant transparent dome.  Fortunately, though, the Outer Boroughs do not end up utterly destroyed!

Frederik Pohl The Years of the City

Midas World is a much more cynical look at Earth’s future by Pohl.  The unchecked spread of capitalism and production results in widespread consumerism, as people struggle to keep up with each other’s lifestyles.  Consumption has become a psychological obsession for many people.  (Hmmm, this all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)  Meanwhile, a population of robot workers gradually gains emancipation.  As time goes by, the majority of humanity departs Earth to find a new future in outer space, leaving the planet to the robots, who are now happily charting their own destiny.

On my own, I picked up Pohl’s novel Black Star Rising.  Set in the late 21th Century, the backdrop is that the United States and the Soviet Union have wiped each other out, leaving Communist China to pick up the pieces.  And then a mysterious alien spaceship appears, its occupants demanding to speak with the President of the United States.  This is a major problem, since America has not been an autonomous nation in nearly a century.  The story is told from the perspective of Castor, a worker from a collective farm in Mississippi.  Chosen by the Communists to play the role of “President” in order to appease the aliens, Castor finds himself on a journey off-planet.  The farmer comes to believe that the aliens may the key in liberating North America from Chinese rule, but cooler heads perceive that these beings might also inadvertently cause the destruction of humanity.

Probably my favorite work by Pohl was his 1977 novel Gateway, which later became the first installment of his “Heechee saga.”  The narrator is Robinette Broadhead, who served on an ancient space station built by the long-vanished Heechee aliens.  The troubled Rob, now back on Earth, recounts his experiences on Gateway to a computerized psychiatrist who he has nicknamed Sigfrid von Shrink.

Cannibalizing the technology of the Heechee, humanity has been using Gateway as a base from which to explore the universe.  Due to the limited understanding of the Heechee’s spaceships, these are often risky, sometimes fatal expeditions, and the motivation for embarking on them is the dangled promise of great financial reward.  Pohl describes it as “the ultimate game of Russian roulette.”  Rob is a really intriguing, flawed, realistic character, and Pohl does superb work developing him.  There is one moment where Rob attempts to explain his frustration at his existence to Sigfrid:

“When I sit down to the feast of life, Sigfrid, I’m so busy planning on how to pick up the check, and wondering what the other people think of me for paying it, and wondering if I have enough money in my pocket to pay the bill, that I don’t get around to eating.”

God, this just hit so totally at home for me!  Throughout my life, I’ve always had this awful feeling of disquiet.  I am such a neurotic, always fussing about the details, about “what if” and “if only” that I can seldom enjoy the moment.  Then I read this beautifully phrased metaphor by Pohl, and it summed up all of my feelings perfectly.

Frederik Pohl Gateway

The last of the five books by Pohl that I’ve read was The Space Merchants, which he co-wrote with C.M. Kornbluth in 1952.  As with Pohl’s later works, The Space Merchants features a satirical, scathing look at a near-future Earth overrun by rampant capitalism, consumerism, and advertising.  A massive gulf of economic inequality exists between a rich minority and the impoverished majority.  (Again, sounds really familiar!)  The protagonist, Mitch Courtenay, is one of the “haves” who, in the course of various corporate intrigues, finds his identity stolen, forced to assume a subservient role as one of the “have nots.”  These events cause Mitch to drastically reconsider the world-view and principles which he previously held as sacred & infallible.

Looking back on Pohl’s work, it is apparent that he was a very prescient writer.  Yes, in The Years of the City, he did see that there could possibly be an optimistic future if humanity reassessed its priorities.  However, if it did not, and Western society continued upon a path of unfettered capitalism and rampant materialism, it would eventually lead to a very dire state of affairs.  We can certainly see some of Pohl’s fears on display in this current climate of economic inequality and the obsession with the acquisition of fame and material possessions, of coming out ahead of everyone else, no matter what the cost.

There are a number of writers, as well as artists, who I have enjoyed tremendously, but who I unfortunately never got to meet before they passed away, never got to tell them how much their work meant to me: Kirby, Clarke, Bradbury, Harryhausen, Matheson, and so on.  Fortunately, Frederik Pohl is one of those rare exceptions.

I forget the exact year, but it was probably in the mid-1990s.  I went to the I-CON science fiction convention at Stony Brook, Long Island for the first time.  One of the guests was Frederik Pohl, and I was definitely looking forward to meeting him.  At the time, I’d only yet read The Years of the City, Black Star Rising, and Midas World, and of those three books, the first two had gotten pretty dog-eared from me dragging them over the place throughout the years.  So, since Midas World was the least dinged-up volume, I brought that one along with me, hoping to get it autographed.

Once I was at the convention on Saturday morning and I looked at the program, I was disappointed.  I saw that Pohl was scheduled to do a signing on Sunday.  Unfortunately, I was only going to be there for that one day.  He was, however, also going to be on a panel discussion that afternoon.  I figured that if I didn’t get to meet him, at least I would be able to hear him talk about his work.  Regrettably, I don’t remember the details of that panel.  But afterwards, Pohl seemed to make a quick exit via the back door.  I left the building through the front entrance.  Lo and behold, a few dozen feet away, there was Pohl, standing by himself, smoking a cigarette.  I wasn’t sure if he would want to talk to me, or if he preferred to be by himself, but I decided to give it a try.  I walked up to Pohl and politely explained that I knew he wasn’t scheduled to do a signing that day, but I was a huge fan of his work, and since I would not be at the convention tomorrow, could he please autograph one book for me?  He sort of hesitated for a second, and then nodded.  I handed him my copy of Midas World, and he signed it.  I spent about 30 seconds or so telling Pohl how much I had enjoyed his various books and then said my goodbyes before I wore out my welcome.

Subsequently, I had always hoped that I’d have the chance to meet Pohl again, and let him know how much Gateway had meant to me, how I had really identified with the character of Robinette Broadhead.  That was not to be.  But I am very grateful that I did have that one opportunity to talk to Pohl at I-CON all those years ago, however brief it was.

The myth of the fake geek girl

The last few months on the Internet, one of the more interesting, as well as controversial, debates has revolved around the notion of “fake geek girls.”  One of the major aspects of this has concerned the phenomenon of attractive women cosplaying as sexy female comic book characters at comic book conventions.  There has been a lot of back-and-forth about whether or not these ladies are “real” fans.  I’ve had some general thoughts about this percolating in my mind for a while now, but I didn’t really take the time to organize them into any coherent form.

Then a few days ago on Facebook, someone posted a rather humorous image. Someone had created a meme featuring a girl cosplaying as “steampunk gender swapped Joker in a Willy Wonka hat,” stating that this lady was “trying too hard.”  Right next to it was a screen capture from a message board where someone else astutely pointed out that this gal was portraying an actual comic book character, Duela Dent, and that the next time someone accused someone else of being a “fake geek” they ought to do their research first.

Open mouth, insert foot.

Open mouth, insert foot.

I think my initial reaction to this was along the lines of “Oh, shit, the guy who created that first meme got totally pwned! Ha ha!”

(Credit where credit is due department: I just learned that the responses on the right, and the final image epically putting down the ill-informed douche who created the original meme, were assembled by Lizzie Taz Scism, a cosplayer herself and a friend of the lady who was garbed as Duela Dent.)

So I was at my temp job today, doing a whole bunch of data entry.  My mind began wandering, and it somehow conjured up the memory of the above image.  This started a whole row of mental dominos tumbling for the next couple of hours, leading to this blog post.

Please keep in mind, in addressing the “fake geek girl” controversy, I really do not want to make any sort of sweeping generalizations concerning any aspects of fandom.  That is why, as with my other recent post, Old vs new: fan wars and Doctor Who, I am attempting to frame this solely from my own individual perspective and experiences.  I think a lot of people have been dancing around a certain aspect of the reason why these accusations occur, so I’m just going to come right out and confront it head on.  If I offend anyone, I really do apologize.

When I was growing up, I was painfully shy and socially awkward.  I had few friends and mostly kept to myself.  When I wasn’t busy reading science fiction novels or comic books like Captain America, Batman, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was watching reruns of Doctor Who and Star Trek, plus innumerable cartoons.  I had a hell of a lot of action figures.  In other words, I was a major geek.  And the other kids at school knew it.  Throughout most of my public school years, I was taunted on a daily basis, repeatedly called a “nerd.”  I was fortunate enough to avoid getting beat up most of the time.  But, as some people observe, words can be just as painful as physical blows.  And a few times in high school I did get punched in the face.  Once, someone even hit me in the head with a football during gym class.

Significantly to my young self, a great deal of the taunting and mockery seemed to come from the girls in school.  I don’t know, maybe it was my young imagination, but practically every single girl I went to school with seemed to find it especially enjoyable to torment me with those mocking cries of “nerd.”  And when I hesitantly attempted to befriend any of those girls, or even tell them that I thought they were pretty, well, that just encouraged them to redouble their efforts to make my school life unbearable.

By the time I was in high school, it appeared to me that most of the popular guys were the ones who played school sports, or who were in the band or orchestra.  And they were also the guys who always seemed to be going out with one cute girl or another.  I couldn’t think of a single kid I knew who was into stuff like sci-fi or comic books and who had a girlfriend.  The girls seemed to automatically gravitate to the jocks or the musicians.

In my college years and my twenties, I began to gradually come out of my shell.  Even so, I really did not date much.  Most women still seemed to be attracted to the athletic type, or guys who were in bands, or just plain “bad boys.”  I did befriend a few comic book artists who I ran into regularly at NYC comic cons.  Hanging out with those guys at parties and bars, I did notice that a lot of women did think that it was really awesome and cool if a guy was an artist who made their living drawing comic books.  But if you actually read the damn things, well, the ladies still found that pretty unappealing.

Next person to say I'm not a real fan gets decapitated!

Next person to say I’m not a real fan gets decapitated!

So, yeah, in the last several years, when I’ve started to see female cosplayers become more and more prevalent, attractive women dressing up in sexy superhero costumes, there is a part of me that cannot help thinking “What the fuck is going on?!?”  I mean, it seemed like every single cute girl in school made it their mission to inflict as much misery upon me on a daily basis, and that they found guys like me completely unappealing.  So what the hell were all these women now doing hanging out with all those “nerds” and “geeks” that they had derided years before in their teenage years?  Why were they at comic book conventions dressed up as Wonder Woman and Power Girl and Black Widow and Witchblade, when based on all the evidence of my experiences they ought to be on the arm of some jock at a football game, or swooning while their hard-living musician boyfriends belted out tunes on the stage of a trendy nightclub?  And there’s inevitably that extremely paranoid, neurotic, irrational part of my thinking that ends up concluding that the reason why these women are cosplaying as sexy superhero babes is for some sort of ulterior purpose.

I am sure some of you are wondering, what sort of underhanded motives could possibly cause a woman to dress up in a revealing, skin-tight spandex outfit?  Well, let me put it this way: there are a lot of comic book and sci-fi fans who have a lot of money.  I used to work in downtown Manhattan.  There was this one comic shop that was literally two blocks away from Wall Street. And every Wednesday, aka “new comic book day,” at noon, like clockwork, a whole bunch of businessmen & stockbrokers would come flooding in and spend a ton of money.  Even more telling, many people I know in the original comic art hobby will regularly drop several thousand dollars on a single piece of artwork.

Let us say, then, that you had a childhood similar to mine, full of awkwardness & insecurity, marked by a lack of friends, especially female friends.  And from all of your experiences in the past, it seemed like every girl you came across regarded comic books and sci-fi as things only a loser would be interested in.  Now you are an adult, still a fan of those same things, and suddenly there are all these hot babes parading around in sexy, revealing outfits at comic book conventions.  Perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to wonder if maybe some of these women are in fact “fake geek girls” who are looking to sink their claws into a well-off, socially inexperienced guy and milk him for all he’s worth.  It is probably not a logical reaction.  Hell, as I said, it veers dangerously into paranoia.  But from a certain perspective it makes sense that some guys are afraid of this.

Even after all this time, I still haven’t overcome a lot of these types of fears.  I mean, I’ve been in a relationship with Michele for five years now, and a lot of the time I cannot help thinking to myself “What the hell does she see in me?”  I mean, she’s attractive, outgoing, funny, intelligent and clever.  She’s also a talented artist who has been published nationally.  Guys seem to flirt with her all the time.  She could probably have anyone she wants.  And I’m a depressed, moody, neurotic, short-tempered geek who suffers from mood swings who spends half the time either acting like a crab-ass or isolating from people.  So why is she still with me?

Pondering all of this, I have to conclude that two major factors come into play (and, yes, here I am going to risk engaging in generalizations).  The first is that that, after all these years, many adult comic book fans, myself included, still suffer from insecurities that linger from their childhood.  Sometimes those traumas aren’t easily overcome.

The second is a fear of female sexuality.  Let’s face it, not just comic book fans, but the majority of men, at one time or another, have done their thinking with their crotch and not their brains.  Men can do extremely stupid things when motivated by lust.  And so there are plenty of men (again, not just limited to geeks) who worry that a sexy woman is going to take advantage of that and use their eroticism to control them.

On that later point, I think that ties in with society’s misogynist desire to sexualize women yet, at the same time, control them, turn them into non-threatening objects.  But that’s opening a whole other can of worms, and you could write entire books on that subject.

Anyone who accuses Harley Quinn of being a

Anyone who accuses Harley Quinn of being a “fake geek girl” gets a mallet upside the head!

You may well ask where the hell I am going with all this.  Well, my point is that, growing up, many of our peers, because of their narrow-minded views & biases, prejudged and labeled us, put us down as unworthy of their respect.  I believe that when we as adult comic book fans allow the baggage of our pasts to influence our perspectives, to judge a wide swath of female fans as “fake geek girls,” we are doing the exact same thing that was previously done to us.  I realize now that just because you didn’t happen to go to school with any girls who were into comics or sci-fi doesn’t mean that they weren’t out there.

Fandom is full of diversity.  It is made up of an entire spectrum of fans that enjoy many different things.  It is a mistake to offhandedly dismiss any one of those groups simply because of our own preconceptions.  And, yeah, that includes female cosplayers!

UPDATE:  Here is a link to an extremely intelligent article by Laurie Penny of New Statesman that actually addresses some of what I wrote about above.

http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/on-nerd-entitlement-rebel-alliance-empire

I wish I had been able to read this a year and a half ago when I first wrote this post.  Perhaps then I would not have made assumptions that had little to no basis in reality, and would have had a better understanding of an alternate perspective on this issue.  But I guess that is the important thing, that you learn from your experiences & mistakes and going forward don’t repeat them.