#Batman

It’s the 80th birthday of Batman and the 1000th issue of Detective Comics!Related image

I grew up watching the campy Batman of Adam West and the Super Friends who guest starred on Scooby Doo once in awhile. I didn’t really get into the serious iteration until The Dark Knight Returns and later, the seminal Batman The Animated Series.

One thing I’ve always felt about Batman….OK, I love his rogue’s gallery. It’s the best bunch of nemeses in comics. Only Spider-Man’s comes close.

They’re so great that, for me anyway, Batman himself has kinda paled in comparison in terms of interest.  Of course they don’t exist without him. He’s the linchpin that brings them together. But I’ve always been a bit bored of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his nocturnal, perennial one-upper persona (at least, as he seems to be portrayed in the last decade or so).

So I got to talking about this just for fun with my buddy Elliott McMillan – how could one make Bruce Wayne more interesting?Image result for batman bruce wayne

We live in an age of instant gratification and internet pseudo-celebrity. People can make a living and get famous opening boxes of toys on Youtube or ‘influencing’ a bevvy of followers into buying some company’s latest shoe or scent, or scented shoe, whatever. Thousands of people can be herded to a remote island and fleeced without facilities simply because a model pursed her lips on a beach.Image result for the shadow unmasks

Now the original inspiration for Bruce Wayne/Batman and Lamont Cranston/The Shadow and a bevy of other moonlighting capitalists has always been  the 1919 All-Pulp serialized adventure novel The Curse of Capistrano, later republished in the 20s under its more well-known name, The Mark of Zorro. I’m sure there have been other characters, but Zorro/Don Diego Vega is Batman’s direct literary ancestor.
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The central and enduring conceit of the playboy turned masked vigilante was that Don Diego was something of a fop. Watch The Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power.  Don Diego is a well-dressed, handsome, wealthy guy, impeccably groomed whom no one suspects as Zorro, because he practically faints at the sight of blood, and is quick to dab his forehead with a lacy handkerchief at the mention of violence.  How could a guy like that be the daring, swashbuckling Zorro?

This is, I think, where the writers of Batman have kinda gotten away from the concept.

Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, is usually portrayed as more of a James Bond type than a Don Diego. He’s ridiculously handsome and charming, yes, a proven lady’s man, a world traveler, and usually the fittest guy in the room.  Everybody wants to be him.

How does anybody in Gotham not know he’s Batman?

Batman – the crimefighter, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. He would stay the way he is.

But how could you make Bruce Wayne completely unrecognizable as Batman?

The answer jumped out at me.

Make him a Kardasshian.

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Bruce Wayne is from the rich set.

What if he’s constantly posting shirtless selfies on Instagram with models in exotic locales and exclusive clubs?

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Count the sixer! #BDubya #Gettinshredded #Yolo

What if he’s an obnoxious social media guru who goes by B-Dubya, a witless narcissist whom his detractors say rode the initial sympathy over his parents’ double murder to pseudo-celebrity?

“The apple has fallen very far from the tree, Mr. Wayne.”

I’ve heard this line used a couple times, but it never quite strikes true for me. There’s usually no reason for anybody to disparage Bruce Wayne.

But what if he was that privileged, talent-less one per center everybody loves to hate? The shallow, wealth porn wastrel who seems to be on the internet 24/7 pushing products and influencing his millions of devout followers, alternately lamenting some trendy pet cause and flashing expensive wristwatches and magnums of Cristal?

Ooo you’d hate him. Gotham would hate him.

How could a guy like that ever be Batman? With all the posting he does about The Bachelor, he’d never have the time.

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Related imageExcept it’s Alfred, sitting comfily in his easy chair at Wayne Manor, putting aside the Emerson he’s reading during the commercial breaks, to tweet under Bruce’s account about Colton’s dubious taste in women.

It’s Alfred posting a set of pre-prepared selfies taken in the VIP booth of Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge with a passel of fawning starlets, perhaps tagged with mindless webspeak drafted by Bruce or young Dick Grayson, B-Dubya’s obnoxious ‘pet’ orphan, a Jaden Smith style freshman philosopher molded in Bruce’s image.

Bruce snaps a fresh from the shower selfie, duck lipping at his phone….then hands it to his butler.

“Alfred, I want the first one posted in a half an hour. The windsurfing stuff at 3:30. Spread the club shots out over the rest of the night. I’m in Montevideo, so remember the time change.”

And then he pulls back the bust of Beethoven and slides down the pole to the Batcave…

Maybe Jim Gordon is the only cop to suspect anything – because what kind of ally/foil would he be otherwise? Maybe he spots a baseball game on a TV in the background of one of Bruce’s live tweets – a game that actually aired three days ago…(WTF is Batman? #BDubya #1Luv)

Now as I said, I love Batman’s rogues gallery, so in the universe of Hashtag Batman, what are the villains up to?Image result for batman rogues galleryHarvey Dent – Bruce’s frat buddy in college. He came from humble beginnings, and unknown to him, Bruce paid his way through law school via various dummy foundations. Seen as the straight edge, the good one of the so-called ‘dynamic duo.’ The guy who stayed home at night and stuck to the books while the future B-Dubya went out partying. Eventually Bruce dropped out and went traveling for a year. Now Harvey’s Gotham’s star prosecutor….for a little while, anyway. When he goes beyond the law to prosecute one of Gotham’s worst mobsters, the guy’s wife flings acid in his face in front of the courthouse and his inner instabilities come crashing to the front.

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Harley Quinn – An in demand criminal psychiatrist, regularly called upon by Harvey to give weighed psychiatric evidence to get otherwise legally insane suspects jail time. When Harvey’s racket is exposed, she is discredited, and winds up on the Arkham Asylum staff as only Hugo Strange will hire her. Just in time to meet the love of her life…

TRelated imagehe Penguin – The second wealthiest man in Gotham, a sleezebag who made his fortune as a Hollywood producer, a salacious Harvey Weinstein running a popular garish nightspot, The Iceberg Lounge, where women parade around in skimpy penguin costumes and anything goes in the VIP areas. A blackmailer whose club is wired for sound and video. He’s got something on everybody who passes through his doors.

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Art by DanniSketches

Poison Ivy – An extreme eco-terrorist at the head of a pagan, earth worshipping movement who also leads an Anonymous-style legion of radical cyber-terrorists intent on bringing down the lumber and farming industry.  Because I’ve always felt…if Ivy reveres the life of plants, she wouldn’t be a vegetarian at all.

The Riddler – A once brilliant young video game designer (I admit I borrowed this from Batman TAS) fired and disgraced in a Gamergate-like scandal after Bruce Wayne responded to a comment on one of his Instagram posts (“Hey B-Dubya, what do you have to say about the misogynist Ed Nymga, who encourages the harassment of his female co-workers in the Triple A game company Wayne Industries owns?” “I say Ed Nygma’s fired. #BDubya #YaDoneSon #MeToo”). Now he’s been banished to the fringe of Youtube, a raving, alt-right misogynist with a personal beef against Bruce Wayne (“Riddle me this, friends! How does a rich wastrel with no formal training lord it over us all from the headquarters of a mega-billion dollar company? Answer: He spends his dead parents’ goodwill credit. But not for long!”).

Image result for the scarecrow batmanScarecrow – A legendary horror filmmaking auteur in the vein of Dario Argento, John Carpenter, and George Romero, so obsessed with instilling true fear, he’s employed hallucinogenics and subliminal hypnotic suggestion in his weird experimental films (with the help of collaborator Jervis Tetch). He was fleeced in his career by Penguin and holds a grudge. Now, he’s making a comeback on the internet with his bizarre short films. Horror acting icon Matt Hagen often collaborates with him.

The Ventriloquist/Mr. Scarface – Arnold Wesker is head puppeteer on a wildly popular children’s show, but he is implicated in a sexual scandal and cancelled, re-emerging with the Mr. Scarface puppet persona. The puppet is enamored with his former co-star now partner in crime, Baby Dahl (because how has that great character not made the jump from TAS?).Related image

Now if you’ve gotten this far, you must be wondering about The Joker.

The Joker works best when the audience has no idea who or what he is.

The Joker tells three stories about his origins.

He was an innocent man incarcerated on a trumped up charge and disfigured during a prison assault.

He was a veteran, employed in chemical warfare. When wounded and suffering from PTSD, he returned home to find his government unwilling to give him the medical and psychiatric help he needed. He found solace in the fringes of the internet and in conspiracy theories. He detonated a gas bomb of his own devising and was disfigured in the process.

He was a comedian with gambling debts who had his face slashed by debt collectors.

Later investigations by Batman turn up three individuals with matching stories. All of them were admitted at Arkham Asylum. None of them emerged. Their skeletons are found in the basement.

But what’s the Joker’s angle in the universe of #Batman?

This brings me to Jokerphish.

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From Batman Digital Justice – memba THAT?

The comments sections of B-Dubya, The Riddler, and Poison Ivy, as well as various other internet celebrities, are usually rife with discussion. Then a phantom account ‘Joker’ begins trolling every major site, posting the most outrageous stuff, contrary to whatever the popular opinion of the page is (it posts liberal feminist stuff on Riddler’s page, enraging his incel followers, it posts anti-environmental stuff to Ivy’s, etc. Whatever the most contrary opinion is). This invites loads of replies, and every reply initializes a virus that displays a fish with a mouthful of human dentures and locks the system. The virus spreads like wildfire, initiating a temporary shutdown of most major social media sites.

Gotham PD investigates, and Jim Gordon turns up a room of dead hackers, their faces slashed into bloody smiles.

The next day The Joker hits television. He rants about his dislike of the internet and its shallowness, its celebration of mediocrity.  To prove it takes nothing at all to achieve fame there, he demands to be made into the top trending topic on every site, or he will murder ten people a day every day he isn’t trending. His catch is, he won’t set foot on any website. “After all,” he says, “I’d never join a club that would have me as a member. HAHAHAHAHAHAAH!”Image result for joker fish

And the deaths start happening, because Jokerphish has downloaded the personal info of every respondent. Thousands of users have replied. Each one is found dead with a smiling fish on their corpses…

Anyway, happy 80th, Bats.

Amandla Ngawethu!

So I’ve been boning up on Black Panther in anticipation of the movie – have read the character’s two initial appearances in Fantastic Four, the Ta-Nehesi Coates run (too dry – didn’t care for it), Christopher Priest’s (innovative and cool but a little bit too pop culture-y at times for me), and now Reginald Hudlin’s (AWESOME). It inspired me to sit down this morning and write this.

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In Hudlin’s TPB there’s a really brilliant piece he wrote in the back, The Black Panther: A Historical Overview and Look To The Future, in which he writes –
“The Black Panther is the Black Captain America. He’s the embodiment of the ideals of a people. As Americans, we feel good when we read Captain America because he reminds us of the potential of how good America can be, if, of course, we have the convictions to live by the principles the country was founded on. As a black person, the Black Panther should represent the fulfillment of the potential of the Motherland.”
There’s a great exchange between King T’Chaka and a representative of a global economic conference in issue three…
Rep: Your Majesty, we’ll pay whatever price you set for your goods.
T’Chaka: They are not for sale until the spiritual advancement of the West catches up to their technological prowess. It would be irresponsible to share our scientific discoveries with you.
Rep: What? Are you calling everyone here irresponsible children?
T’Chaka: No. More like sullen teenagers who feel more mature than their behavior warrants. The fact that every conversation here is framed in terms of profit and power says it all…you could have made half these breakthroughs yourself, but there’s too much money to be made in misery. Why cure a disease when people pay for medicine? Why provide cheap energy when…
Rep: We get the point, T’Chaka. Heh. I’ve never met a socialist with a crown on his head before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything…
T’Chaka: Who gave you permission to use my first name?
Rep: I…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend…
T’Chaka: I understand your frustrations in dealing with a black man who can’t be bought with a truck load of guns, a plane load of blondes, and a Swiss bank account, but hold onto what little class you have.
Rep: Your Majesty, I truly apologize…
T’Chaka: This meeting is over.
* * *
That scene really hit for me. It’s everything I hope the Black Panther movie is, and why I’m really nervous about it failing. Black Panther needs to be political as all hell, safeties off. I love that it’s on the cover of Time, and that people are excited for it. I love that it’s going to be a celebration of black culture, as Luke Cage was, and I hope it lives up to the cultural touchstone people really want it to be. But I hope it goes a step further. I hope it inspires people. I hope it blindsides them with a truth they themselves suspected, but one that needed to come in under their wires somehow; that a nation becomes great when it cares for its people. I hope people come away thinking….”hmmm….that wouldn’t be so bad. Why don’t we have that? (and I don’t just mean the flying cars)”
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Ah, it’s a lot of hope to put on a Disney movie about a comic book character. Probably way too much.
But so what?

Wakanda is a sovereign nation unconquered, great because of its dedication to instilling pride in and bettering its own citizens with education and innovation, who holds its leader to a strict moral principle which then inspires them to emulate that principle themselves. There’s no want, no ignorance, no lack of compassion in Wakanda. In elevating one, all are elevated. Wouldn’t Wakanda be a great place to live? Couldn’t we come together to make Wakanda wherever we are?

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Published in: on February 11, 2018 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Three Ways To Save Iron Fist

finn-jones-iron-fist-netflixLike a lot of Marvel Netflix junkies I was looking forward to Iron Fist, perhaps more than any of the other Defenders even, not because I’m the world’s biggest Iron Fist fan (full disclosure: I haven’t read the Matt Fraction series and I’m mainly aware of the character from guest appearances in old Spider-Man comics and a few issues I’ve picked up here and there), but I AM a tremendous fan of martial arts entertainment, particularly classic 70’s era kung fu movies.

After the brilliant, brutal choreography of the Daredevil show and the depth of love shown to Afrocentrism and particularly to 70’s Black culture in Luke Cage, I assumed  we had a recipe for a killer Iron Fist show. Sadly, it didn’t go the route I expected.

I’m not gonna bash Iron Fist. Everybody has their favorite criticism. You can read that anywhere. Suffice it to say, I watched the whole thing, and in the end, I didn’t hate it, but I recognize it was not up to the other Marvel Netflix shows.

I’m not gonna list all the ways I think Iron Fist went wrong – that’d be annoying. But I’ll list here three sure fire ways to make Iron Fist right.

EMBRACE THE ORIGINS, CELEBRATE THE CULTURE

Iron Fist was created during the 70’s martial arts explosion that stemmed from the distribution of Shaw Bros kung fu movies abroad, Bruce Lee, and the Kung Fu television series with David Carradine.

kung-fu_tv-master_po-young_grasshopperYes, the one everybody hates but few have seen. I reconcile my love of both Bruce Lee’s films and Kung Fu because of the high quality of both.  Bruce Lee is amazing, unquestioned. The Kung Fu TV show (the original, not the modern day one) is amazing – seriously, watch it. With its dissemination of Eastern philosophy and message of peace and love, I truly think the world would be a better place if everybody did an episode a day.

This was probably also the reason, I think, that the early reviews citing the cultural appropriation inherent in the concept of Danny Rand didn’t affect me overly. Yes, an Asian actor in the role would have been preferable, and we can argue the importance of this all day, but in the end, they went with the original iteration of Danny Rand as the Immortal Weapon.  I’m not entirely sure altering the character’s race would have lessened the amount of pre-judgment, just swung it in the other direction. I would have watched it either way.

Anyway, Kung Fu was about Kwai Chang Cain, a half-Chinese, half-Caucasian orphan being taken into a Shaolin monastery and learning the discipline of the martial arts (sound familiar?) and employing those lessons as a somewhat naive outsider facing the prejudice and injustice of the American West (how about now?).  As Cain faced adversities in the course of an episode, he would invariably flash back to the past and his training as a young monk, remembering some applicable lesson that informed his decisions in the now. It’s practically a template for an Iron Fist show.

maxresdefaultNow these dream-like flashbacks were achieved pretty simply, with minimalist sets, mostly black, a lot of candles and the trappings of Chinese décor. The exterior scenes were actually a redressed castle set from the movie Camelot. There’s absolutely no reason our first glimpses of Danny’s past at K’un Lun couldn’t be depicted in a similar manner. It’d be a great homage, and cheap to film. Not seeing this in this starting season of Iron Fist was a tremendous misstep, like showing that gun in the first act and never having it go off.

return_36th_chamberIn the way Cage was a celebration of African American culture, Iron Fist should absolutely be a love letter to the martial arts genre, full of subtle references to everything from Chang Cheh’s Venom Mob, Jackie Chan, and Gordon Liu to wire-fu, 5ven04Donnie Yen, Jet Lee, and The Raid.  The producers should look to classics like Five Elements Ninjas, House of Traps, Master Of The Flying Guillotine, Kid With The Golden Arm and Flag of Iron for how to handle the bizarre martial assassins Iron Fist should be facing. The training sequences in K’un Lun should directly refer to movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. In fact, the direct inspiration for the character of Iron Fist was a line from the first kung fu movie creator Roy Thomas ever saw (maybe 1971’s Duel of The Iron Fist? Thomas doesn’t remember.) in an Upper East Side NYC theater in the 70’s. What better oeuvre to refer to then the wealth of movies that were shown in those kinds of theaters? This is what spawned this character!

I believe there was an intent to do just that that just got neglected somewhere along the way. Just as the episode titles for Luke Cage homaged black culture, Iron Fist’s episode titles recalled the colorful names for techniques in classic wuxia moves (Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch and Eight Diagram Dragon Palm). And I didn’t miss the drunken master either. The will was there, but it needs to be double downed.

Iron Fist should be chock full of references and cameos from the length and breadth of martial arts entertainment. Show the love! Embrace the source! We should see Sonny Chiba as a Hand leader or something. Or have Benny Urqidez show up, or Angela Mao! Bolo Yeung ! Dan Inosanto! Have Ray Park or Scott Adkins play villains. Jeez, could you imagine Ron ‘The Black Dragon’ Van Clief introducing Danny to Luke Cage?

MAKE MINE MARVEL

Which brings me to the second point.

Iron Fist is a Marvel character. We need to connect him to the Marvel universe in the same way Daredevil did. Daredevil was loaded with sly Marvel references (Stilt-Man, for Crissakes!).  The grainy 1940’s footage of the previous Iron Fist in costume duking it out with Chinese soldiers was great. More! Look to Iron Fist’s stable of villains and bring the kind of mystic martial arts action the character is designed for.  Let’s see Black Mariah, Chaka and the Golden Tigers, Chi’Lin, Senor Muerte, or Triple Iron.

OK, I suspect the long awaited meeting between Danny and future partner Luke Cage will probably happen in Defenders, but man I was really missing it in this first season. I fully expected Cage to notice his own bullet riddled shirt (given him by Claire) and ask Danny where he got it. Heck, when the DEA got involved and Danny was on the run, I thought he’d wind up in prison with Cage as a cell mate (this could have led to a killer Story of Ricky reference, with Danny punching his way out of jail and putting him and Luke on a Defiant Ones-style odyssey as fugitives).

Oh and the first time Luke sees Danny use his powers, take note: there had BETTER  be a Last Dragon joke!

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But I understand that might be best left for another time, another show.

Now what about Shang Chi?

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The early (false) rumors that Starlin and Engleheart’s Master of Kung Fu had been cast had me excited, and, I think, the inclusion of a powerful and savvy Chinese foil for Danny, commenting on the absurdity of his concept as a white savior and kung fu master, would have gone a long way towards deflecting the cultural appropriation criticism. It certainly worked for the last Tarzan movie, with Samuel L. Jackson fulfilling that very role.

Shang_ChiIf Danny Rand is David Carradine, Shang Chi is Bruce Lee, and that symbolic reconciliation needs to happen. Plus, who doesn’t want to see a Shang Chi spin off? I’m aware there were rights issues with the character due to his father being Sax Rohmer’s famous Fu Man Chu, but if The Ancient One can be a Celtic woman and the Mandarin can be a drug addled cockney actor, I don’t see why a single aspect of this character couldn’t be tweaked to make his father an unscrupulous crimelord (maybe even the ‘real’ Mandarin).

He was a big omission in season one, and he’d be a fantastic addition to season two.

And that brings me to my final pont….

BRING BACK RZA

rzaAll respect to HBO’s stable of talented writers and directors, but the standout episode of season one was Immortal Emerges From Cave, where the show touched on the brilliance it could have been. Danny facing off against weird Hand challengers in an honor duel to the death. Writer Dwain Worrell nailed it, but the fact that RZA directed it can’t be ignored.

The grandmaster of Wu-Tang knows his kung fu movies. I’ve seen him speak before a presentation of 36th Chamber at LACMA here in Los Angeles, and his Man With The Iron Fists displayed a love and passion for the genre unmatched. Bring him back for round two.

Buddha willing, there is one.

Namaste!

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DT Back Issues: Unknown Soldier (1997)

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80’s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s SHADOW, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE. Here’s a list of everything I’ve covered so far. 

Unknown_Soldier_v.3_1Today I wanna draw attention to Garth Ennis and Killian Plunkett’s four-issue miniseries UNKNOWN SOLDIER from DC/Vertigo in 1991.

I have never read the original incarnation of the Unknown Soldier comic. The only time I remember ever seeing the character was in ads on the back of THE SHADOW in the 80’s and interspersed in the pages of an issue of GI COMBAT or maybe MEN OF WAR or WEIRD WAR TALES. I actually thought he was a part of Sgt. Rock’s squad or something. The only thing I ever knew about him was that he was in GI fatigues and his face was swaddled in mummy-like bandages. He was supposed to be some kind of battle-scarred master of disguise.

ssws168 unknownHaving never read the original series I have no idea if there’s a level to Ennis’ miniseries I’m missing. Are the various elderly characters mentioned and depicted (like the General, or the Soldier’s handler, Boothe) recurring characters from the first run? The series is pretty self-contained and each of the characters backstories are succinctly told, so I don’t know. It doesn’t suffer in the reading from a lack of acquaintance with the Unknown Soldier’s previous adventures.

Unknown_Soldier_1997_4_cover_3321I think what induced me to pick up the series were Tim Bradstreet’s full color covers. I became aware of Bradstreet during my Vampire The Masquerade days, when he did a series of stark and devilishly good illustrations for White Wolf. I met Bradstreet once when I was in high school at my local comic shop and still have the quick little profile sketch he did in the cover of one of my RPG books.

Vtm3-Brujah Ennis, I was familiar with from Preacher, of course, a series for another time on this blog.

The story opens with the debriefing of a CIA black operative, Agent Clyde, being reprimanded by his superiors for refusing to liquidate two ten year old Latin American witnesses to a company-led Green Beret assassination. Clyde explains not killing the kids, deflecting every interrogative with cold reasoning. The American team was heavily disguised, and never spoke a word. But he finishes up with an ill-advised (considering his profession) moral jab that if part of his mission parameters included the murder of innocent children, his superiors should have made that clearer in the mission briefing. Exiting his reprimand, his shadowy handlers curse him and make the decision on the spot that he’s not cut out for black ops work.

An unspecified amount of time later, Agent Clyde is driving a desk in an office environment full of noncombatants, among which he is something of a pariah for his boy scout demeanor and nose to the grind stone super patriot work ethic.  It seems Clyde, in the midst of a mundane investigation into something called California First, returns from a meeting and boots up his computer to find a name has been added to his list of POI’s (which is mostly populated by thinly disguised Simpsons characters – Lionel J. Hotz, Ken Bruckman, Seymour Skinner, Robert Terwilliger), Joshua Markewicz.  Interdepartmental inquiries as to why Joshua’s name has appeared on his list hit a brick wall, so Clyde heads out to interview the new guy, finding, to his bewilderment, a very old guy, languishing in a retirement home, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

lookwhatourenemyhasdoneClyde soon figures out that Joshua has never had any knowledge of the tax dodging group he’s been tied to, but admits that this is the second CIA agent to question him in the past year, not about California First, but about The Soldier.  He then proceeds to relate the same story to Clyde, about how as a young grunt during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, he witnessed the arrival of a soldier with a bandaged face riding with three high ranking officers. This Soldier becomes enraged at the sight of a mass grave of dessicated Jewish corpses and raves that ‘If this is what our enemies do – if this is what America must fight – then we are ALWAYS right! And anything we do IS RIGHT!” as he grabs Joshua’s machinegun and proceeds to gun down the captured German camp guards. One of the generals orders a radio man to call command and tell them that Codename Unknown Soldier has ‘totally fucking lost it’ and then proceeds to rifle butt the maddened mystery man into unconsciousness.

Clyde returns to the office perplexed. A database search for Unknown Soldier draws a blank but earns him an immediate phone call from his superior, asking him what he’s doing on the computer and ordering him back to work.

In a seedy apartment whose furnishings consist mainly of guns, ammo, and a fax machine, an unbalanced young woman named Screwball aims out her window with a high powered sniper rifle at various passersby apparently out of sheer boredom until a call comes through telling her to silence Joshua Markewicz and ‘put the frighteners’ on Agent Clyde.

In Clyde’s apartment, he receives an unexpected visit from one of his coworkers, a female agent named Wallace with whom he’s up to now shared a mild flirtations. No dark ulterior motives here. Wallace shows up just to invite Clyde to a coworker’s party. Clyde offers her a cup of coffee by way of assent. While brewing up the joe he hears via news report that the retirement home he just visited that afternoon has partially burned, claiming Joshua Markewicz. Wallace comes into the kitchen at the same moment that a bullet comes through the kitchen window and shatters Clyde’s coffee cup, killing Wallace.

ennis_usoldier02_08 Screwball is taken to task by her handler for accidentally killing Wallace, and put on Clyde’s trail, which begins in earnest when he finds three more names mysteriously added to his investigation list. The bulk of the story is then Clyde finding and interviewing the people on his list, hearing their reminisces of brief encounters with the Unknown Soldier (he instigates civil war in Iran, disguises himself as General Westmoreland in order to force a Green Beret unit to massacre a group of Cambodian civilians, and, after destroying a Sandinista hospital, almost singlehandedly fights off fifty guerrilla fighters deep in the jungles of Nicaragua). Typically, soon after the interviews, the witnesses wind up dead at the hands of Screwball.

As Clyde’s journey progresses, Ennis takes a page from Preacher and has him imagining conversations with an idealized spectre of the murdered Wallace, which becomes a device for bringing Clyde’s internalized thinking to the fore, yet also reinforces his naivety/humanity. For an espionage agent, Clyde is more Captain America than Unknown Soldier, decrying the dark deeds of his peers and finally the Soldier himself. When Screwball fails to kill Clyde, a backup wetworks team bursts in to finish the job, and Clyde finds himself on the run with Screwball, tracing the Soldier all the way to his personal handler in the CIA, Boothe, the same guy who put Screwball onto Clyde.

As humanistic and questioning as Clyde is, Screwball is sociopathic and unquestioning of her orders, until they personally contradict her own well-being. She has no compunctions about murdering Boothe’s butler and later his entire family in their sleep. Boothe provides a tantalizingly brief but satisfactory origin story for her. She cut her own parents’ throats at the age of eight and was recruited by the agency, who thought she’d be perfect for wetworks. “They were right,” he observes.

In a way, I guess Screwball and Clyde are two facets of the ‘perfect’ American operative. Clyde is the clean-cut, hardworking, idealistic American boy, blonde haired and blue-eyed – the guy the public likes to think of as the defender of democracy. Screwball is the unquestioning, violent ‘dark side’ of the espionage game, and a counterpoint to Clyde. She’s dark haired (and short cut, the antithesis of the typical moralistic female archetype) and a woman, crude spoken and punk rock-y.

Of course neither of them have anything on the Unknown Soldier himself, when they finally meet.

Desperate to learn more, Clyde (in, I admit, a bit of a leap in logic for plot’s sake) decides to disinter his predecessor in the quest for the Solider, Agent Anderson, hoping against hope that Anderson left something on his body that could help. While Clyde is digging in the rain and having a debate with Wallace in his imagination, The Soldier dispatches the uber-competent Screwball without a fight, proving himself every bit the apex predator he has been made out to be.

img061The Soldier then confronts Clyde in the rainy grave of Anderson, revealing it was him that added all the names on Clyde’s list, without Boothe’s knowledge, because he wanted Clyde to learn about him, and understand him, and finally, to replace him.

Because after fifty years of doing his duty like Screwball, without question, the Soldier can’t do it anymore.

And his reason is Project Winterthor.

The General, the same one present at Dachau during the Soldier’s epiphany, called the Soldier to his deathbed to make what amounts to a final confession. He describes a secret meeting in 1945 between himself, a CIA agent, and a cadre of top Nazi officials. Hearkening to Operation Paperclip, the Nazis regale the Americans with evidence of their technological breakthroughs, which are lacking only America’s nearly unlimited resources to proceed into the practical application stage. They promise to put a man on the moon by 1949. Their only request is safe and secret extradition to South America where they will continue their work under American supervision, along with Adolph Hitler himself.

The Americans agree to terms.

So the United States agrees to fund the survival of the Third Reich in exchange for technological advances, not even cutting England in on the deal, which leads to the unexpected death of the German would-be conspirators when an uninformed, routine RAF patrol shoots them down over the Swiss-German border.

But this becomes the Unknown Soldier’s second epiphany. He smothers his former commanding officer to death in his hospital bed, enraged by what he takes as personal betrayal of his ongoing mission. It all began with hatred for the Nazis as the ultimate evil in the world, and Hitler as its beastly architect, and the government’s willingness to deal with that ultimate evil, for the Soldier, invalidates his justifications for every evil he has committed in America’s name since.

THE SOLDIER: A lifetime spent groping in the guts of horror, in it up to my elbows, committing atrocity to order. And five years ago, discovering Winterthor, knowing at last that the regime that gave me those orders was….tainted.

Winterthor is the reason the Soldier kills his first choice, Agent Anderson, believing the knowledge of the failed conspiracy will dishearten Anderson as it did him. Yet he can no longer afford to keep the history ‘clean’ with Clyde.

THE SOLDIER: The need remains for the one man who can make a difference. The war that I spoke of continues even now. The enemeny has not left us. America’s obligation to do what is right does not end because her masters flirt with devils. There must be someone to accept that obligation. To hold it as a clean, untarnished truth. There must be a soldier….

img058In a way, Clyde and Screwball are the two extreme halves of the Soldier himself. The Soldier is motivated by duty and a real human outrage at the extreme inhumanity of the Nazis, whom he lumps in with all the enemies of America itself.  In the Soldier’s simplistic worldview, if he is outraged, and he is American, than the ideals of America are good, and if the enemies of America are capable of such horror, than all who oppose America must be evil. All actions against evil then, must be justified. But in this, he becomes Screwball. Violent and sociopathic, incapable of making his own moral decisions if they contrast with the will of his superiors.

He totally misunderstands Clyde because while Clyde is a patriotic America soldier and proven assassin, he tellingly defies his superiors’ immoral order in the opening scene. He can still choose between good and evil without relying solely on the paradigm of nationhood to define his morality.

The Soldier is baffled when he lays what to him, is a logical destiny for Clyde at the agent’s feet, and Clyde chooses to utterly reject it, speaking fondly of Wallace and the promise of a woman’s smile, the notion that there are good things in the world.

CLYDE: You justify regimes every bit as bad as the ones you fight against. You want me to do your work even though you no longer believe in it yourself. You would have concealed your loss of faith in what you fight for, and you expect me to carry on as if I’d never learned the truth. Well sir, you are NOT an American soldier. I deny your legacy. I will not let you wash the blood off your hands onto mine.

And with that, Clyde takes out his pistol and shoots himself.

In this, Clyde teaches the Soldier a lesson which in the final panels, leaning on the flag atop the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington, he acknowledges.

Clyde is the true American, unsullied by the dark machinations of politicians and the fog of fanaticism.

img059What’s brilliant to me about this miniseries is that it hardly features the title character until the last issue, and by that time his reputation has been built up so much that you’re sort of champing at the bit to finally meet him. Ennis effectively ratchets up suspense and stakes without ever showing you the object of everybody’s obsession, using only original characters. It’s sort of like a story I once heard Ricardo Montalban tell, about how he was dubious about appearing in Wrath of Khan until he read the script and realized that despite his comparatively meager amount of screen time, every time Khan wasn’t center stage, every other character was talking about him.

It’s in effect, a cold war style mystery thriller, with one unfairly marked man pursuing a line of inquiry for the sake of truth to his own detriment and against the will of unsavory, conspiratorial forces all around him.

The series’ titular character reminds me a bit of a dark Captain America. Consider this, in my favorite bit of dialogue, when Boothe describes the Unknown Soldier –

CLYDE: What is he? Some kind of superhuman assassin?

BOOTHE: No. He’s seventy-five years old, Agent Clyde. He’s in ULTIMATE human condition. He’s been up to his neck in the bloodiest, darkest, most shameful corners of US foreign policy since 1942….but he’s just a man.

It sounds like a description of Cap, doesn’t it? And in a way, this whole conspiracy thriller reminds me of the recent Winter Soldier movie (or rather, Winter Soldier reminded me a bit of this).

img060Killian Plunkett’s art is gritty and wonderfully textured, with the almost lost art of inking showcased perfectly. Every wrinkle of clothing, every strand of hair, every slash of rain is vividly realized. I’d love to see the original black and whites, but I also have to praise colorist James Sinclair’s choices, especially in the ultimate episode, which takes place within a limited palette due to the rainy setting.

The series is collected in trade paperback and listed as (New Edition). No idea what that means, or there’s anything added to it, but I recommend checking it out. In this current climate where nationalism and patriotism are used as tools to not only exploit and distract the poor and oppressed, but to justify all levels of horrendous acts and behavior, I believe this one still has something relevant to say.

unknownsoldieropening

My Coolest Story From Comic Con 2014

Sergio Out Take 3I’m a bit late in posting this, but I wanted to share the coolest thing I saw at San Diego Comic Con two weeks ago. I took no pictures (wish I had) so I guess you’re gonna have to take my word for it. But Sergio Aragones is a genuinely nice man, and I think he’ll bear this story out if you just ask him.

Whenever I go I invariably see celebrities, and my daughter and her friend always grill me about who I saw. This year crossing the street I could’ve reached out and slapped Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans on the shoulder (and got my arm broken by his entourage for it), I shared a train with Anthony Head, and spied Robert Carlyle on the corner with his little girl hanging on his arm.

But I haven’t braved the colossal lines of Hall H since they announced the title for Revenge Of The Sith, and I don’t really go to star watch anyway. It’s Comic Con. I go to buy comics and just generally gawk and mingle.

So I’m a big Sergio Aragones fan, a big Groo The Wanderer fan. I don’t think you can be a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan without liking Groo – or you shouldn’t. It’s wonderful social satire centering around a bumbling barbarian parody of Conan. One of the first comics I ever collected, and filled marging to margin with astounding art. For those that don’t know, Sergio Aragones is one of the best artists working today – a living legend. He’s an Eisner Award winning cartoonist who began his career doodling in the margins of Mad Magazine and he’s probably the fastest cartoonist alive. He’s….aw heck, just look at these samples.

aragones3 aragones4 aragones5 aragoneswoodstock1_3

Mad #500-028-29The way Sergio fills a page is nothing short of extraordinary. A running joke in the pages of Groo was the exasperation of colorist Tom Luth who had to inject color into these staggeringly detailed crowd scenes….a task involved enough to drive anybody insane, but which Luth performed admirably on a monthly basis for a number of years. Sergio packs his splash pages with dynamic individuals and a myriad of hidden side jokes.  The only artist that comes close to what Sergio does, in my opinion, is Geoff Darrow.geoffReally, if I had the money to commission them both, and if they were willing, my dream is to have two pieces of art hanging side by side on my wall, one featuring Groo slicing his way through one of Geoff’s backgrounds, and the other of Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy fighting through an army of Sergio’s cartoon denizens.

geoff-darrow-conanembiggened

Anyway, all gushing aside, I always make it a point to stop by Sergio’s table when I’m at San Diego. It’s always a treat to see what he’s up to, and just listen to him, and once his wife baked a plate of awesome brownies for everybody.  This year I was in line to pick up a copy of his new Groo Vs. Conan comic (something I’ve anticipated for decades), and he was telling a story to the guy in front of me out of the pages of Sergio Aragones Funnies, his anthology series of illustrated autobiographical anecdotes (he has led a fascinating life). I had read somewhere his father had once been a line producer on movies in Mexico, but he was talking about his dad’s work on the movie Animas Trujano, which featured his (and my own) idol Toshiro Mifune as a Mexican revolutionary.

animas-trujanoMifune is one of the all-time great Japanese film actors, who solidified his place in history in movies like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. He was the John Wayne to Akira Kurosawa’s John Ford, like DeNiro to Martin Scorcese, and if he’s been in a bad movie I’ve frankly never seen it. Apparently Animas Trujano, as absurd as his casting may sound, was no exception – Sergio said it was nominated for the Mexican Academy Award, and a little internet digging confirms this.  Sergio told us Mifune didn’t know a word of Spanish, but learned his lines phonetically, like Shih Kien in Enter The Dragon. As we were geeking out about this cool little inside story, Sergio pulled the topper, the thing that put this neat little moment over the edge for me. He reached into his thick, worn wallet, dug a bit, and produced one of those old Kodak photographs where the colors are mostly orange and a bit blown out and there’s a white border around the image – those kind you don’t see anymore and is basically only preserved in Instagram filters and crackling old photo albums.  In the picture are two sun reddened men with their arms over each other’s shoulders buddy style, smiling at the camera through their brushy black whiskers. From the peon costume of one of the men it looked almost like a behind the scenes still from a Sergio Leone movie, as if Gian Maria Volonte had taken a break in his Indio costume and taken a shot with a friend on the crew.

“Here’s a picture of my father on set with Mifune,” he said. “He really looked Mexican.”

Totally blown away. Knowing my tastes as readers of this blog may, it was like all the stars of my fandom aligned perfectly at once in some kind of Great Conjunction. I was standing at San Diego Comic Con, talking with one of my all-time favorite artists, looking at a candid, unpublished photo of one of my all-time favorite actors.

I felt weird asking to take a picture of him holding a personal photo of his dad, so I didn’t. But next time you’re at Sergio’s table, if you’re a Mifune fan, ask to see it.

animastrujano2

 

 

Published in: on August 4, 2014 at 10:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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My Panel At San Diego Comic Con

The Thursday schedule for San Diego Comic Con 2014 is now up at their site, and if you scroll down to the 7pm slot you’ll see a familiar name…..

Word Building –

Robert Roach (Menthu, The Roach), Gini Koch (Alien Collective), Ed Erdelac (Terovolas),Nathan Long (Blackhhearts Omnibus), and Nancy Holder (Wicked Saga) discuss structure and storytelling, the use of pacing, and how certain creators use a timeline to build flow. Moderated by Jeffrey Twohig.
Thursday July 24, 2014 7:00pm – 8:00pm
Room 32AB
So if you’re in the neighborhood of Room 32AB that evening, come by and give a listen.

DT Back Issues Index

comics_11983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80’s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s take on THE SHADOW, THE LAST AMERICAN, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

So this is the index of all the comics I’ve taken a look at in the DT: Back Issues feature of my blog, much the same as the one I did for DT MOVIEHOUSE. It’ll give you something to read about besides Merkabah Riderthe Van Helsing PapersBuff Tea, and anything else writerly I’ve got coming down the pipe.
Unknown Soldier (1997)

Button Man

The Last American

The ‘Nam

The Shadow

Published in: on August 9, 2013 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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DT Back Issues: Button Man

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80′s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s THE SHADOW, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

buttonmancoverToday I look at John Wagner and Arthur Ranson’s crime thriller series BUTTON MAN.

BUTTON MAN ran in the UK’s 2000 AD, a magazine mostly known as the cradle of the popular character JUDGE DREDD (a title I still haven’t managed to read yet).  It was the Kitchen Sink Press collection of the first series that caught my eye on the shelf in my local comic shop, and particularly Arthur Ranson’s realistic art that arrested my attention. The guy in the upper right corner reminded me of the actor Sean Bean, whom I’d dug as 006 in GOLDENEYE, and the guy with the eyepatch on the bottom looked a bit like Pacino. Plus, the title BUTTON MAN: THE KILLING GAME stuck in my head, and reminded me of something I’d heard rumored as the title for a forthcoming John Woo movie. I was heavy into Woo and Hong Kong bullet ballets or heroic bloodshed movies at the time, having just stumbled across THE KILLER on Cinemax.

With its stark, art, striking inks and colors, and oversized format that harkened back to the Giant Sized Annuals I’d loved so much as a kid, to say nothing of the extremely bloody violence that a cursory flip through convinced me was within, I didn’t resist picking up BUTTON MAN: THE KILLING GAME for very long.

BUTTON MAN man opens brilliantly, in classic noir fashion, with a bleeding man stumbling into a psychiatrist’s office as it’s about to close, and demanding to see the doctor. Despite Dr. Spalding’s assurances that he’s not the right kind of doctor, the wounded man produces a pistol and disagrees. Spalding takes the man into his office and lets him lay down on the patient couch.

“I’ve got this problem, doc,” says the wounded man, who introduces himself as Harry Exton. “I can’t stop killing people. They won’t let me.”

“Who won’t let you?” asks Spalding.

“The voices.”

And then Harry begins his tale.

Harry Exton (or Harry ‘Ex) is a British ex-mercenary, down on his luck, when he bumps into an old military buddy, Carl, who invites him to take part in ‘The Game,’ to make a little ‘dosh.’

buttonmanaxeThe premise of The Game is that wealthy backers, called ‘Voices’ because they never make direct contact except by telephone, sponsor hired killers, or ‘button men’ (a reference to the button-like appearance of the back end of a bullet) and then pit them against each other in life and death situations, wagering immense sums of money on the outcome. It’s modern day gladiatorial combat, fought in the English countryside, and on the very streets of London. The only rule is that a button man may choose to spare another by taking his marker (cutting off a finger) instead of his life. The third time’s the charm, and a kill is expected after that. Otherwise, it’s don’t get caught, dispose of the bodies discreetly (Harry and Carl dump their bodies with a farmer who turns the corpses into chicken feed), and above all, don’t quit.

This is a million dollar concept superbly executed, and I’m really surprised that somebody in Hollywood hasn’t made it yet (it turns out one of my favorite directors, Nicholas Wending Refn, is attached as of this writing to adapt it).

I don’t think there’s a more badass, ruthless anti-hero in all of graphic fiction than Harry ‘Ex. Harry is a very competent killer, a believable professional, entirely practical and without remorse, like the James Bond of the early Fleming novels, but with a calculating, vicious, increasingly (as the series progresses) psychopathic streak even Bond can’t match.

buttonmannowarningThe psychopathy doesn’t necessarily come out in THE KILLING GAME, but at the last Comic Con my dream of finally acquiring the two sequels alluded to in the Kitchen Sink introduction by Arthur Ranson, finally came true. I picked up THE CONFESSION OF HARRY EXTON and KILLER KILLER. It’s fascinating to watch the progression of Harry’s character from THE KILLING GAME on.

In KILLING GAME, Harry is a bored predator who enjoys the novelty of the game, and the chance to exercise his old killing muscles, but after he kills a two time loser on a railroad track and the man warns him that the Voices will never let him quit (just before his head is severed by an oncoming express), he begins to rankle. On a whim, he mentions to his ‘Voice’ that he’s thinking about quitting, and the very next Game out he’s set up for the kill, forced to fight alone against a superior number of heavily armed button men, including his friend Carl, with only an eight shot pistol.

Harry still prevails, and when Carl makes it plain he has no intention of killing Harry, somebody kills him instead. With his dying breath, Carl tells Harry something no button man is supposed to know – the name of his Voice.

It only takes one visit to Carl’s Voice with a pair of pliers to learn the name of Harry’s sponsor, Dr. Spalding, to whom he has been relating his story.

bouttodiebuttonmanheadSpalding attempts to poison Harry with some kind of psychotrope, but Harry manages to bring the doctor down with a butcher knife, and leaves his head floating in his office fish tank.

The comic ends with him in the back of a wailing ambulance tearing through the rain-washed London streets at night.

I’ve recommend THE KILLING GAME to everybody I know who’s never read a comic book or is looking for something other than superheroes. It’s a perfectly realistic and clever thriller in the mode of a good 1970’s British crime movie like THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY or GET CARTER, a kick ass, adult crime movie rendered in two dimensions.

So it took about eighteen years for me to finally get a hold of the sequels, and about an hour and a half to tear through both of them.

THE CONFESSIONS OF HARRY EXTON picks up with Harry being wheeled into the hospital, poisoned and suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. He’s put under guard, a known killer, but the police officers assigned to guard him are promptly knocked out by a nurse and a doctor, who sedate Harry and spirit him from the hospital.

Harry awakens in a nice house in upstate New York, with a beautiful redheaded wife, Cora, and a proposition from a blustery downhome United States senator, Jackson. Stay in America with Cora and a new identity, and play the American league of the Game for the senator, where the stakes and rewards are even higher.

Harry agrees, but he’s a changed man from THE KILLING GAME. Maybe it was the death of Carl, but somewhere along the way, Harry’s burned out. He’s lost his heart, his humanity. He’s not out for markers anymore, and though he swiftly rises in the American rankings, he kills just about every button man he goes up against, sometimes even after his opponent is down and out.

buttonman2_3_7In one memorable sequence, Harry is given a red carnation and an assortment of silent weapons and told to play the game during open hours of the New York Museum Of Natural History. His opponent (also wearing a red carnation, to mark him as such), turns out to be the mousy looking on duty security guard. When the conflict escalates past the clandestine stage, and carries out into a full tilt running shootout in Central Park, Harry executes the man at the Alice In Wonderland statue, and heads off for the Cayman Islands with Cora, as cold and unconcerned as if he’d just stepped on a cockroach.

Harry’s ruthlessness and willingness to kill good button men starts to upset the Voices, and he is urged by the senator through Cora to ease up. But telling Harry to do anything is the beginning of the end for anybody.

Cora attempts to reign Harry in, but he’s already figured out she’s doing a job, and finds the last sap Cora leashed frozen beneath the surface of the pond out back of his house.  Cora’s a tool, but she’s careful and has insurance, hidden camera footage of the Game implicating the Senator.

Harry takes the evidence straight to the senator’s Louisiana compound and cuts his way through a small army of guards and button men, all to prove his point – he wants out.  And he gets it.

Or so he thinks.

KILLER KILLER kicks the Button Man concept into high gear.

Harry’s now living off his winnings in a lone cabin deep in rural Montana under an assumed name. He goes hunting in the mountains with a Vietnam vet, pursues an adulterous relationship with the local dentist’s wife, and basically takes care of his dog and does a lot of home improvement (albeit always with a pistol or a rifle in reach). When he hears a radio report about the accidental death of Senator Jacklin, his old Voice, he erases Cora’s VHS tapes and thinks he’s at last done with the Game. His biggest worry is his girlfriend Grace, who swears her husband Dennis knows about them.

After a trip to see said Dennis, Harry’s life starts to get deadly interesting again. He spies a couple out of towners at the local diner with missing ‘markers’ and the next night is attacked at his house by gunmen and chased into the woods. But the pursuers leave off running him down, and drive off.

He receives a telephone call from a Voice, who explains to him that now that the Senator is dead, he is once again, fair game.  The Voice appreciates his skill and offers to take him on as a button man. When Harry refuses, the Voice urges him to run. There are thirteen killers on his trail and they will begin coming for him at 0500.

biggameThe Voice is a wealthy movie producer, Frankie, making a fictional film about the Game entitled Killer Killer, about which a lot of buzz is being generated, both in Hollywood and with his fellow Voices, who are not keen on the idea.  Frankie has gathered the other Voices together for a unique event, a nationwide hunt for Harry, winner take all. They monitor Harry’s flight via GPS on a big board in a room that hearkens to the war room from Dr. Strangelove and was one of Frankie’s old sets.

Harry runs from city to town, altering his identity and appearance, ditching vehicles, only to have a button man show up wherever he goes.

This outing is the most expertly plotted since the original BUTTON MAN, and my second favorite of the three titles. Again, I’m amazed this isn’t already a movie. Harry figures out Frankie’s identity after hearing and seeing him give an interview on some Access Hollywood type show, setting the stage for their ultimate confrontation.

buttonmanhowBut first Harry has to figure out how the hell he’s being tracked cross country, a plot point that seemed kinda obvious to me, though well played out.

buttonmanrewardThis is Harry at his least likable, most cold blooded. He is far from the man he was in KILLING GAME, executing more than a few crippled button men, and a mother turned button (wo)man (“Please Harry,” she pleads, holding up a photo of her children, “remember my kids.” “How could I forget them? I’m the one who was going to put them through college,” Harry responds, before blowing her away), inadvertently causing the death of his friend,  blasting an unarmed guy at a stop light, and murdering a guy he cuts a deal with in front of his young niece in the name of tying up loose ends.

Not to say Harry isn’t justified in his killings, though perhaps not in the one on the last page, but Harry is pure, cold blooded killer by the end of KILLER KILLER.

Button Man02_thumbI recommend this series without reservation. It’s one of the coolest comics I’ve read in a long time and is consistently great from trade to trade. There is a fourth book, HITMAN’S DAUGHTER, which I couldn’t bring myself to pick up at the time as it didn’t have Arthur Ranson’s pencils, but I now feel compelled to go and scoop it up as well. Maybe I’ll add to this review when I do, or give it its own page.

There’s also a book called GET HARRY EX. I can’t figure out where that one fits in continuity, or if it’s a renamed collection or something, but THE KILLING GAME, CONFESSIONS OF HARRY EXTON, and KILLER KILLER are all available now from 2000 AD in nice new trades on Amazon.

Get ’em!

Hasta pronto.

Comic-Con 101: The Difference Between Protesters And Proselytizers

So I just got back from an excellent Comic Con, probably the best one yet.

But something’s bugging me.

Every year I go, I see the young Christian people standing on the corner with their personal PA systems and picket signs with biblical quotes and slogans like GOD IS LOVE. Every once in a while there’s an older guy with a bullhorn saying something stupid. This year there was a guy scolding the passersby for glorifying the serial killer character Dexter, whom he described as “a killer of little girls.”

use-your-force-harry_largeObviously he hasn’t ever seen an episode of DEXTER. My buddy Ryan made this observation as we were passing him on the way into the convention center, and yeah, that’s kind of a dumb thing to say. If nerds are anything, they’re sticklers for facts. If you want to stop up a geek’s ears quick, display a lack of knowledge about one of their beloved properties in the midst of criticizing it.

But that’s not really what I wanna touch upon today. That guy was the exception to most of the proselytizers I saw.

Most of them, as I said, were younger people with innocuous Bible quotes on their signs about love and redemption and the like, and whenever the trolley started to cross and they had a captive audience, they’d launch into a calm, measured, pre-memorized speech about God’s love and Jesus’ acceptance, etc.

Nobody really confronts them or engages them aside, and they don’t really address anyone in particular either. As a matter of fact, it’s like they’re not there.

Yet without fail, every single time I crossed the street, as soon as we were out of reach, I would hear some costumed crusader or video game character nearby begin railing against them, loudly cracking wise on their beliefs, or “cleverly” tying Jesus or God into some comic book or pop culture reference (“Didn’t anybody tell you? Zombies are out, dude!” one cut up shouted at a kid with a JESUS IS LIFE sign in passing).

There is a general misconception among con-goers that A) these Christians are representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church and that B) they are protesting the Con.

There are protesters there, yes (like the Dexter-hater I mentioned – though really, although uninformed, he probably is right about the dubious merit of idolizing/idealizing a serial killer), but they are very, very few in number. I only heard one this year.

god-hates-jedi-20100723-125344

Cool

The Westboro Baptist Church are never at Comic Con. The people there post 2010 have no affiliation with that organization/sect. I was at the con in 2010 during that big, much reported protest and while I do remember the huge and hilarious (GOD HATES JEDI declared a Starfleet officer’s sign) anti-protest, I don’t remember even seeing a WBC representative there. Maybe they were. Don’t know.

zod640

Uncool

I do know I started noticing the Christians with signs in subsequent years. But none of their signs read GOD HATES FAGS or the like. Uniformly they are inoffensive bible passages touting love and salvation, or simple affirmations of faith. It’s possible these people were at the Con before 2010 and I just don’t remember seeing them.

I’ve also noticed the clever counter-protesters out every year since 2010 as well, the signs changing to fit into the latest pop culture fad. KNEEL BEFORE ZOD was a new one this go round.

But the point of all this is, the Con goers are no longer counter protesting. They’re the protesters, and they are in force, and far outnumber the picketers. I’ve kind’ve been appalled at the vitriolic, decidedly un-Jedi stuff I’ve heard people say to and about these Christians.

Guys, they are not protesters condemning you for your spandex or love of She Hulk. They are proselytizers, or street preachers, just trying to spread the message of their faith. You don’t have to listen to them, just like you don’t have to take the ENDER’S GAME handbills the hot chicks in skimpy outfits push at you.  If you have a message you want to spread, why would you not place yourself at the busiest intersection on the busiest attendance day of the year, when thousands of strangers are passing by? The club owners are doing it. The webseries filmmakers are doing it.

Probably the best picket sign I've ever seen

Probably the best picket sign I’ve ever seen

What’s the problem? Why are so many swaggering geeks who can laughingly quote the most un-PC lines of Tarantino aloud word for word in ear shot of little children in Robin and Princess Bubblegum costumes so bent out of shape by the word Jesus?

The Westboro Baptist Church sucks, and the counter protest was awesome. But it’s over, folks. Lighten up. Don’t be douchebags to people with the passion to stand out on a corner in high temp and full sun for hours on end to spread the word of the motivating factor of their lives. It’s the same kind of passion that causes you to band together with your fellow fans to sweat under the nearly unbearable heat of a wookiee costume or full battle armor for hours on end.

So…a little common courtesy, fellow fanboys. A little respect. A little less passion and a little more compassion. Don’t be a bully.

Carry on, and may the Force be with you.

DT Back Issues: The Last American

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80′s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s SHADOW, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

coverThis week I take a look at THE LAST AMERICAN, a four issue miniseries from Marvel’s Epic imprint dating from 1990 and written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, drawn by Mike McMahon.

In 1999, a disgraced, imprisoned Army captain, Ulysses Pilgrim, is approached in his cell by the President of the United States, who informs him that global thermonuclear war is imminent. The United States possesses a prototype single person cryogenic freezer constructed beneath a fallout bunker for the use of the President. Except he doesn’t want to use it. Instead, he offers Pilgrim one last chance to see his wife and son before going into deep freeze and waiting out the holocaust.

“You will lie in wait until the major effects of the disaster are over. If chaos reigns, you will restore order. If an enemy is in control, you will exact retribution. Your rank will be APOCALYPSE COMMANDER – – your powers, ABSOLUTE. You will be the last alive vested with the authority of the United States Government.”

img015 (Medium)Sounds pretty John Wayne, huh? I actually mentally read that block of dialogue in Ed Gilbert’s voice (the voice of General Hawk in the 80’s GI Joe cartoon).

Except that of course, the duck and cover movies are all a lie.

Pilgrim is awakened on schedule twenty years after the nukes fly, and sets out in a Damnation Alley Landmaster style ATV, intermittently broadcasting to anyone left alive to listen. His only companions are a pair of bulky combat/heavy load robots named Abel and Baker, and a smaller ‘bot, Charlie, whose programming seems to include first aid, psychiatry, television, and generally acting as comic relief to keep Pilgrim sane with Hill Street Blues references, a jack of whiskey, and innocuous general encouragement.

img016 (Medium)Pilgrim and the bots traverse a blasted, allegorical landscape in an episodic manner, encountering little more than ants and at one point, a mutated bald eagle.  There is plenty of evidence that humans at least survived the initial strike, but none of it very encouraging.  Pilgrim finds a maximum security prison where the warden ordered all the inmates executed. He finds highways choked with cars, each one jammed with old skeletons, and at one point, a pile of skulls with a grisly handwritten placard from a confessed cannibal professing his innocence of murder.

img018 (Medium)By the time the crew reaches the irradiated remains of New York, which has taken a direct hit, Pilgrim begins hallucinating. The weak point of the series for me comes with issue two’s prolonged delusional sequence in which skeletons dance and sing a macabre Broadway musical with lyrics like

“When you’re flying through the air, think what you’ll  save on taxi fare!”

It crosses over dark satire a bit into maudlin silliness at times.

img017 (Medium)By the end, Pilgrim has given up hope and is suicidal, having already imagined the deaths of his wife and child over and over. But before he pulls the trigger on himself, the radio crackles with a cryptic, thrill inducing message addressed to Pilgrim’s US Deep Reserve Unit. Pilgrim heads out with renewed vigor in search of the source of the signal, somewhere among the eternally burning fires of the Virginia coal seams.  In restless sleep, he dreams of an American heaven populated with a boy’s club of former US Presidents nudging each other about the inevitability of Armageddon.

img020 (Medium)When a crumbling roadway gives way, flipping the ATV, Pilgrim flees out into a pouring toxic thunderstorm, desperate to continue his search, to validate his existence and find proof he’s not alone. At that point Charlie admits the message was a fake he was programmed to deliver should Pilgrim become suicidal.

This would be a crushing Twilight Zone style ending, but in the final issue Pilgrim and company plod on, and come across an automated defense system protecting an underground laboratory, the blast doors cluttered with skeletons of those who died trying to get in. Blasting their way in, they find a nursery, and Charlie deduces the test subjects, pregnant women, fled into the lower levels. Despite the robots’ assurance that no life forms or signals are detected, Pilgrim insists on following their trail, and discovers a handwritten, badly misspelled journal of one of the autistic test subjects, who were undergoing an unspecified procedure when the war happened.

The woman, Melinda, tells a depressing story of herself and her unborn daughter Hope (because she hopes she will be smarter than she is). When one of the scientists opens the blast doors to check on the world post attack, he is dissolved in the chemically blazing air. This induces Melinda’s labor and she has her child. But she doesn’t name her Hope because –

“The doctors said something bad had happened and all hope was gone. They said it was the twilight of the world. So I called her Twilight.”

img019 (Medium)After eating all the food stores, the doctors resort to cannibalizing a baby and presumably each other. Twilight dies and Melinda leads the rest of the women down into the caverns beneath the facility with her prize zippo lighter. Pilgrim finds a half dozen skeletons out of the twenty test subjects, and finds a subterranean spring with evidence of past human habitation, along with Melinda’s zippo and the word AMERICA scrawled in the dirt, with an arrow pointing to a cave mouth. He posits that some of the women may have survived, that their children may have grown up somewhere out there, but wonders if he’s the one to go on looking for them.

He orders Charlie and the bots to douse their external lights and flicks Melinda’s old zippo lighter, thinking Hope, or Twilight?

When  a flame jumps out, it illuminates Pilgrim’s thin, hopeful smile.

And that’s the end.

img021 (Medium)Artist Mike McMahon’s distorted, almost geometric human figures and the bold stars and stripes iconography on Pilgrim’s uniform remind me of  Kevin O’Neal’s work on MARSHAL LAW, and the predominately gray and blue tones are effective if not very eyecatching at a glance.  The inking however is superb and really pops on close inspection. Please click on the scans and get a good look at the wonderful detail. It really is a visually beautiful comic.

The John Wagner (who, with Arthur Ransom, did another of my favorite comics, BUTTON MAN) and Alan Grant script is pretty compelling, carrying what’s basically a one man stage show for four admittedly depressing issues and then managing to inject the dour subject matter with an undeniable and literal spark of humanistic hope in the end.  This was 1990 and the Cold War that had inspired 99 Red Balloons, WAR GAMES, and MAD MAX 2 and a culture of perennial dread was ending. THE LAST AMERICAN perhaps came a little too late to seize the attention of the nuke fearing public, but only just. Comic books were just starting to become accepted in the greater whole of pop culture and were still for the main part sporting spandex so it’s possible the audience just wasn’t there for a serious comic about the futility of nuclear war. However, it’s a harrowing depiction of the true post-apocalypse, in the tradition of THE DAY AFTER and ON THE BEACH, and definitely deserves a second look if even as a sobering time capsule of the insanity of late eighties Soviet-American nuclear paranoia and Rocky IV flag waving.

img022 (Medium)Apparently the collaborative team of Wagner and Grant suffered a breakup during the writing of THE LAST AMERICAN, and Wagner wrote issues 1 and 2, while Grant wrote 3 and 4. Comic.X put out a trade paperback edition collecting the whole series. I have the original issues so I can’t speak for the quality, but it seems like a good way to track this down if you’re having trouble. It’s worth a look.

Published in: on June 21, 2013 at 8:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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