Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Mystery of the Multiple Brotherhoods of Evil

With X-Men and the Doom Patrol already so similar and published close together you'd suspect industrial espionage (although, I'd say the DP are far closer to the Fantastic Four, right down to an orange strongman), they really didn't need even more common ground. But in January of 1964, both teams were introduced to a supervillain team called the Brotherhood of Evil (the X-Men added "Mutants"). No, really, look:
Coincidence? Not really. See, some five years before, THIS book was published:
Not only was it one of the first fact-based books about the mob, but it has seen gone through multiple editions. Crime fact and fiction would surely have interested comic book writers, but even if neither Stan Lee nor Arnold Drake read the book, it seems the title was adopted by a major newspaper headline, on an article about organized crime, around the time both issues would have been plotted out.

Sometimes, there's no such thing as a coincidence.

Babylon 5 #23: Chrysalis

"And so, it begins."
IN THIS ONE... The Shadows "help" Londo by destroying a Narn outpost. Garibaldi is grievously wounded trying to stop the assassination of the president. Delenn begins a transformation, but into what?

REVIEW: I don't know whether to call it the end of a season, or a springboard for the next. Chrysalis is perhaps the season 1 episode that most feels like it's part of a serial, with no real attempt to tell a complete story. It advances story lines in a way that's fairly common on television today - and great for DVD devouring - but only the purview of soaps at the time. That the first time the show does this is just prior to a hiatus between seasons must have been maddening, and yet perfect for fans to invest further in the show, spinning off theories and getting hungry for more during those Babylon-less months. The most complete story strand, for example, is the assassination of president Santiago. Garibaldi investigates and uncovers some portion of the plot, but though he manages to tell Sinclair about it before being taken into surgery, our heroes can't prevent it from happening. Failure isn't a sign of an incomplete story, but by the end, we still don't know who was responsible. The Home Guard is a likely suspect, but how far does the conspiracy go? Garibaldi's security force has moles/traitors, but why does Earthforce refuse to believe the president's death was anything but an accident? Is the VP and new president Clark in on it? His first act is to reverse Santiago's position about humanity's openness to alien influence. With no villains getting their comeuppance, and no resolution to the mystery, this stands as one of many cliffhangers, and there are so many, it may make more sense to call them simply developing stories.

The president's ship isn't the only explosion, of course. A whole Narn outpost is destroyed by the Shadows at Londo's unintentional behest. The finally-named human agent of the Shadows, Mr. Morden, more or less tricks him into owing a huge favor and at the same time corrupting him. Londo is a lot more squeamish about the death of 10,000 Narns than one might have expected, but then, he's always talked a better game than he's played. Self-preservation is such a strong trait in Londo, it may well be dawning on him that he's let the genie out of the bottle (a wish granted but perverted) and gotten into bed with the wrong people. If we can call them people. Our first look at the Shadows, as insectoid-shaped, LITERAL shadows has a high creep factor that whets our appetite for Season 2 as much as anything else. G'Kar's reaction is also surprising. He doesn't blame the Centauri, but fears something new is on their doorstep. He's wrong. It's something old AND a certain Centauri had a hand in it, but perhaps this is why he's suddenly ready to believe his species has been acting like angry abused children. Something "adult" has come back to the universe for a harsh scolding.

Are the Shadows responsible for Delenn's transformation as well? We know she can sense them, and in this episode, she goes to see Kosh - a member of the other most ancient race on the station, those who know something of the Shadows - seeking confirmation of SOMETHING. It's a mysterious scene in which Kosh opens his encounter suit for her - are Vorlons related to Shadows, somehow their cousins or opposites, as we did see light behind a screen in the pilot? From there, she makes her teary goodbyes and goes into a cocoon to become... what? There was a reason we didn't see more than her hand in Babylon Squared's future sequence. Sinclair gets to her quarters too late for her to explain, as promised, what happened during his lost 24 hours. Having just gotten engaged to Catherine with a rough but realistic marriage proposal, he set himself up for a fall. Everything starts to fall apart around him. However, and this is the sad part, Michael O'Hare will leave the show for medical reasons, so though Sinclair may return at a later date, his eventual fate is far less immediate, and his departure must take place in between seasons, off-screen. But that's a disappointment for next time.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: This same year (1994), Deep Space Nine also ended its season with a dangerous "new player" joining the galaxy's political fabric - the Dominion. It too had been presaged earlier, of course.

- Lots of stuff happens to change Babylon 5 forever, but the most important, to my eyes, is the format, as the show finally seems to abandon discreet episodes in favor of a serialized saga.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who's the Silver Ghost?

Who's This? Silver guy on the lower half of page 4 in Who's Who vol. XXI.
The facts: Though the Silver Ghost is a Golden Age heroes enemy, he's (sadly) not a Golden Age villain. He first appeared in Freedom Fighters #1 (1976) and would become a recurring thorn in the Earth-X heroes over the course of the short-lived series. He would also score a few appearances in Secret Society of Super-Villains, and a cameo in the "villains cover" issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths (#9 to be exact).
How you could have heard of him: In the post-Crisis DCU, the Silver Ghost only rated a few panels. He appears as a member of the Joker's superhuman army in The Joker's Last Laugh #4 (2001), and as an informant for Black Lightning in 2006's Justice League of America #12.
Example story: Freedom Fighters #1-2 (1976) by Gerry Conway, Martin Pasko, Ric Estrada, Mike Royer, Pablo Marcos and Tex Blaisdell
Let me catch you up first: After the Quality heroes showed in a JLA/JSA crossover as the Freedom Fighters, they finally beat the Nazis on their world and found themselves with nothing to do. So they made the journey across the dimensions to Earth-1 and set up shop in New York, with the D.A. even sponsoring their castle-like HQ. Their first case would prove as difficult as it was badly executed. Within minutes of showing up on Earth-1, they respond to an attack on a power station by the Silver Ghost, his boyfriend King Samson (a super-strong guy in a hard hat) and some green-clad henchmen.
A superhuman battle ensues during which Phantom Lady discovers she gained Phantom Girl's powers during the trip for some reason, and that saves her from Silver Ghost's silvering touch. A henchman gets it by accident:
One of his best men DESTROYED!!! So this is lethal and irreversible, looks like. The fighting continues, but ends when Silver Ghost and King Samson escape. Back at Van Zandt's mansion, the henchmen get a reaming for their incompetence, not that they had any chance against, say, a guy with the combined strength of everyone in the U.S.A. or, you know, that one guy with the explosive touch. The Silver Ghost's ultimate goal: reclaiming Manhattan, which once "belonged" to his family back in the New Amsterdam days (why they changed it, I can't say, people just liked it better that way). While the Freedom Fighters are acclimating, the Ghost and his pals stage another attack, this one on a Bell Telephone switching station:
This guy was ahead of his time. Phantom Lady, Black Condor and Doll Man are nearest to the action and respond, but get silvered up for trying to save the day without the three teammates who are actually a threat. Oops!
And now Uncle Sam, Human Bomb and the Ray are forced to do Silver Ghost's bidding to ensure he'll turn their friends back into flesh and blood some day. So... they are NOT destroyed? If you were paying attention, this turn of events should hold no sway over the remaining Fighters. Incoherent? This is also the book that changes art teams between the first and second issues, which CHANGES THE LOOK OF THE VILLAINS ENTIRELY. King Samson now looks like an ancient barbarian and the Silver Ghost now sports a cape, but has lost his shorts and visor!
Regardless, he's using the FF to commit acts of terrorism, hoping to force the city into evacuation. But he goes too far when he tries to put nerve gas in the water supply.
This shows Uncle Sam will indeed give in to terrorist demands, but only up to a point. Blowing up a subway train with people inside's fine, but this, this is too much. All parties fight, and silvered friends be damned. It all comes to a crashing halt for the Silver Ghost when, trying to touch the super-fast Ray, he puts his hand into the water reservoir and... short-circuits!
The Human Bomb discovers the Silver Ghost's powers were all technological, and reverse-engineers the "electro-magnetic gimmick" so he can cure his friends. Yay! Now to deal with the police for their part in this terrorism thing. As for the Ghost, he looks pretty dead, but he'll be back again and again, I suppose fulfilling the promise of his name. Missed opportunity: Teaming him up with Goldface.

Who else? Ok, so Silver Ghost wasn't a Quality character, but our next find will definitely have been spawned at another company.

Babylon 5 #22: The Quality of Mercy

"Next! You can start by removing your clothes." "Not without dinner and flowers."
IN THIS ONE... June Lockhart guest-stars as a dying healer who uses an alien artifact, a serial killer's sentence causes havoc on the station, and Londo takes Lennier on a corrupting tour of Babylon 5.

REVIEW: Three distinct threads, only two of which merge into each other, so let's take them one by one. In the main story, Dr. Franklin discovers Lost in Space's June Lockhart (courtesy of Bill Mumy?) is healing people with an alien machine in the decks down below. A natural skeptic, he first dismisses her as a quack and makes it his mission to put an end to her "practice", but then finds he was wrong. The machine works, and Dr. Laura is actually taking years off her own life transferring life force to those in need. Eventually, her own illness is cured when a wounded escaped killer (we'll get to him in due course) forces her to heal him and she reverses the polarity of the neutron flow in self-defense and kills him. It's all perfectly acceptable, if a little predictable, and I like how Franklin is "misusing" medical supplies by opening a clandestine free clinic in the ship's bowels. Even more that he ropes Ivanova into helping. The theme of this thread is that there's a difference between what is legal and what is right, but it's a little heavy-handed. The point is made several times over, and though Lockhart is a charismatic guest star, I don't know what it is about her, but her performance feels like it's from another era of television. The emotions are clear and correct, but her scenes feel old-fashioned because the dialog is delivered so precisely, if that makes any sense. Laura's daughter Janice is fine as a romantic interest for the doctor, but we'll never see her again so, whatever.

If the medical plot, with its point about medical care costs, doesn't make Earth policy in the future look too good, the legal drama of its secondary plot is straight dystopia. In the Babylon 5 universe, humanity doesn't have the death penalty, but judges can sentence dangerous criminals to MIND WIPE! Or as they call it, death of personality, turning people into servile amnesiacs. That's way worse and I don't think Earth society should feel relieved of its guilt just because the person's body doesn't die. The man sentenced to personality death is Karl Mueller, a psychotic serial killer whom Talia must scan as a matter of protocol to make sure something something. If you're going to use a machine, why is this necessary except to unnerve her? The scene inside his mind is properly creepy, but it really feels like this is Talia's thread and that she should "arc" in some way. But nope. She all but disappears from the episode and instead we get treated to Karl's escape - the file on Garibaldi's incompetence is getting thicker by the minute - and death.

And then there's the comedy subplot, with decadent Londo taking straight-laced Lennier to see a strip show, drink (until he hears alcohol makes Minbari psychotic) and gamble. The two of them are a pretty good comic double act, and I like how Londo's only taking him under his wing because he wants to scam him out of his money. Lennier definitely comes out ahead, showing amazing martial arts prowess and an incredible capacity for kindness and honor. The thread puts Minbari and Centauri culture in stark contrast, and yet makes it believable members of each could be friends. Londo's story is disappointing, however. When he hears Lennier is an expert on odds, he takes him to play poker, which isn't so much about odds as it is about bluffing. Blackjack and space craps (or whatever that is) would make more sense. And then the tentacle from Grail's monster is reused as, not Londo's tail, but as one of his sexual organs, which he uses to switch out cards. A massive, filthy dick joke... JMS' trademark "humor" at work. I don't know how this got on television; it's rather disgusting.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Something about Ferengi sexual organs I don't particularly want to discuss.

- Actually more watchable than that, but if I'm being honest, The Quality of Mercy comes off by turns as disposable, dumb, preachy and unsatisfying.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Atlas of the DC Universe Extras: More HQs

If you enjoyed our podcast about the Atlas of the DC Universe last week, here are more cool locations diagrammed that couldn't be included in the book's 1990 snapshot of the DCU, pulled from various Secret Files and Origins that have been published since! I showed a few last week, but kept the superhero headquarters for this one. (Click pics to embigen.)

Aquacave (Aquaman 1998)
JSA HQ (JSA 1999)
Reboot Legion HQ (Legion of Super-Heroes 1998)
D.E.O. (DCU Heroes 1999)
Wonderdome (Wonder Woman #2 1999)
You're welcome!

Babylon 5 #21: Babylon Squared

"Not every conversation has to be the end of the world."
IN THIS ONE... Where did Babylon 4 disappear to? It disappeared to this episode.

REVIEW: So the previous station was caught in a temporal anomaly and tachyon emissions are now leading the B5 crew to it? Geez. Did a Star Trek script get lost in the mail? Trek had done so many of these things, even by then, that it's hard to get enthusiastic about yet another. Babylon 4, all in green, is really a recolored B5, of course, and it's commanded by a mere Major (probably just the skeleton crew's overseer, and he's a terrible over-actor). The station disappeared four years ago, and it hasn't been too long from their point of view, but time flashes throwing people's consciousness backwards and forwards through time are already driving people crazy. If it's all emotionally charged like Sinclair seeing Garibaldi going out in a blaze of glory or Garibaldi leaving Lise, I can understand why.

This is an episode about the future. That's where B4 is heading, and according to the alien Zathras (now here's a worthy performance from a guest actor), there's a war between light and shadow there. Not so far off, then. Sinclair is involved in these events and is considered a savior figure ("the One"). We're definitely seeing JMS' plans for a continuing character here, but with O'Hara's departure from the show at season's end, we'll see if it the future is really set in stone or more malleable. I guess it might have to be, even if future Sinclair can't change things from what he remembers. And can't touch his past self without Blinovitching him into the next segment of corridor. At least he manages to save the crew, by stopping off in 2258, but is that really his idea, or does it only exist in a paradoxical loop? Whatever the case may be, we'll see these events again from the other side one day.

Delenn's future is also in question. She's called to the Grey Council because she's been elected its leader, but refuses the position and is forced off the Council. That's ok, because it would have meant her leaving the cast, and from the quick future scene at the end, it seems her destiny is wrapped up in humanity's. If she's right, it's a great one, and she has the greatest, most passionate speech about our species this side of Doctor Who. It's also lovely to hear the traditional words of the Grey Council, sitting between light and darkness, between the candle and the stars. The Minbari are about balance, and about the whole rather than the individual. Very interesting.

Because the show is a little heavy and esoteric, it's nice to see it open on a couple of comedy scenes. Garibaldi and Sinclair pranking Ivanova is priceless, and I can't decide if Garibaldi is the worst conversationalist ever, or the best. After all, he can talk about anything. As usual, JMS' novelistic approach isn't BALANCED - those scenes should not have both been clumped together - but we appreciate each scene as its own entity, regardless.

Though Trek has done a lot of temporal anomaly stories (and flashing backwards and forwards through one's life is really the purview of DS9's Prophets), the episode really evoked The Tholian Web, with its trapped "ship" and spaceman fading in and out of reality.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A borrowed plot, but is sets up a lot of things for the coming seasons. Hopefully, B5 is able to follow up satisfyingly in spit of its cast trouble.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

This Week in Geek (21-27/07/14)


The rest of my cheapass Deadwood order came in (Seasons 2 and 3) and a book of pulp pastiche edited by Michael Chabon, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.


At the movies: Peace is a fragile thing in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a story that depends, as these kinds of stories do, on people/apes being stupidly mistrustful on both sides. That's not so much formulaic as it is universal, and though the manipulation is pretty obvious, Dawn is nevertheless another superlative entry in the Planet of the Apes franchise (which now has 3 good films to its name, along with the original and Rise). The film wisely opens on Caesar, his tribe and family life, so that we empathize with the apes before we do any humans, but also offers a human hero in Jason Clarke's Malcolm. Misunderstood peacemakers on each side, hatemongers on both sides too, and those who let themselves be swayed on each side. As with Rise, the effect are impeccable, CG apes looking as solid as anything, which means you can concentrate on the action and politics without distraction. Seeing as we know where this is all going (the events of the original film), it's a pretty fatalistic piece of story telling, one where victories are Pyrrhic at best, but still an exciting time at the cinema.

DVDs: I almost didn't want to watch the last season of Leverage (the fifth) because it would mean it was all over, but I still ran through it. Couldn't help it. These 15 episodes have all the humor, drama and action of the previous efforts, this time embracing Portland, Oregon as its location. There are correspondingly a couple of aviation episode including a 70s cop show pastiche about real-world mystery D.B. Cooper. Splitting the team up for a trio of jobs makes for some of the best episodes of the season, including an all-Parker bottle show. And it ends in outstanding fashion in what can only be described as a con perpetrated on the audience where all possible endings, dark and light, are incorporated. The DVD includes fun, rambunctious (and slightly sad because they keep mentioning a 6th season) cast and crew commentaries, a few deleted scenes, and a gag reel.

Still hungry for grifting stories, I then watched Catch Me If You Can, the Spielberg biopic about real-world impostor and con man Frank Abignale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio in another of those roles that require him to star in decadent parties), who as a teenager in the 60s committed bank fraud for millions of dollars and successfully posed as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Tom Hanks is the FBI agent obsessed with bringing him in. While I can fault any of the acting, which is superlative, or the casting, which has a lot of neat cameos, or the look, which recreates the glossy 60s since made very familiar by Mad Men, Catch Me If You Can is, to me, like most of Spielberg's stuff from the past 15 years, rather unexciting. I don't know what it is, but it's like it's almost too polished, too well-produced. Is it lacking in risk and energy? Or in this case, is it just the normal flow of a biopic, missing the thrill often found in grifter movies and shows? I don't know. The performances ARE exciting, but the story telling doesn't take enough chances. The DVD's second disc has about an hour and half of documentary features, focusing on the filming, casting, score, costumes, etc., as well as pieces on the real Frank Abignale Jr. (present and accounted for) and the production's FBI consultant, and a photo gallery.

American Hustle is good contrast. I reviewed it previously when I saw it theaters (though it's nice to see not so close-up, turns out Amy Adams DOESN'T have horribly twisted giant arms), so I'll use this space to explain why it worked for me where Catch Me didn't. After all, both are period pieces about real stories featuring both con men and the FBI. So why do I like American Hustle so much? Beyond the layered character studies, the film making feels DANGEROUS. The emotions are raw, scenes have an exciting improvisational feel, the characters are volatile, and we're not always sure who is scamming who at any given time (which is a must for con stories, it's part of their DNA). That's what makes the story as thrilling as the con itself. And it's danger that's shared by the characters - you don't know if they'll succeed. That's what's missing from Catch Me. The production is as slick as its protagonist, and the way the story is told, you sort of know how it'll all shake out. The DVD here has deleted and extended scenes and a short making of.

All this impostor stuff brought me to Denis Villeneuve's Enemy, an introspective film based on Portuguese writer José Saramago's The Double starring Jake Gyllenhaal as both a listless history professor and his double, an actor the former finds in various bit parts on DVDs. Bizarre and ambiguous, Enemy owes as much to Kafka as it does to magical realism, with just a hint of Guillermo del Toro, a fable about identity and intimacy and how we might hate parts of ourselves. I don't want to say too much because ambiguity is a big part of this, and in any case, I still had questions at the end. I wish I'd watched it with other people. It's that kind of film. And lovely to see Toronto play itself - it's so rare - even as a smoggy dreamscape. The DVD has several featurettes which might all have been edited together as a longer piece taking us from novel to screen, mostly through cast and crew interviews. Enlightening without giving everything away.

Continued my cinematic conversation about identity and intimacy with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon, a comedy-romance full of truth about male/female expectations. It's deftly done, funny and true to life. JGL plays the title character, one of those Ginos who expects women to be like those in porn. His world view is shaken when he falls for Scarlett Johansson's character, who expects men to behave as if they were in romantic movies. Neither is healthy, but they're the fantasies media sells us as realities, and Johnny must find a new truth if he's to become happy. And maybe Julianne Moore's older, wiser woman (but don't call her lady, we learned that from Magnolia!) might just have the answers he's seeking. JGL has fun with playing against type, and as a director too. I like how his world is presented in fast, modern cuts until he falls in love and it turns into sweeping dollies. Each of the three acts has its own look, in keeping with his evolving and maturing relationships. I hope JGL has other films in him! The DVD has strong making of elements and entries for a related collaborative project called "My Favorite Things".

Part of the Hal Hartley Collection, my next DVD review includes two of the auteur's films (well, three, but the short The Sisters of Mercy is more of an actor exercise in staging and line reading, featuring Parker Posey and Sabrina Lloyd). First is the one-hour The Book of Life, an entry in a French contest that required the story to be told on the last day of the Millennium (as the rubes count it, so December 31st, 1999). Hartley came up with an apocalyptic story as the Second Coming of Christ anxiously ponders whether or not to open all the seals on the Book of Life, while Satan tries to corral a few more souls into his service before the end. It's all done in contemporary New York, without effects, made even more mundane by the digital video look (this despite a streaky unreal treatment to some of the footage, or the cute touch of having the Devil find microphones around the city where he feels forced to address the audience). Liked it and what it had to say, though the medium and Hartley's trademark rhythms give it a certain amateurishness. The Girl From Monday is a longer piece in the same video style, and ambitiously, a piece of science fiction. In this world (and Sabrina Lloyd's role as co-protagonist can't help but recall Sliders), everything is marketed, including human intimacy. It's become illegal to engage in relations off the books, for love or lust rather than market share and raising one's value. Things are complicated by the coming of alien "immigrants" translated into human bodies (like the eponymous Girl), and by a counter movement to which the protagonists adhere. Contemporary New York here subs for "the future", which is fine, though the film stumbles whenever it tries to do "genre" too much (show futuristic tech or do fight scenes). As with The Book of Life, the fantastical trappings are merely tools for the film maker to discuss philosophical concerns, and The Girl From Monday comes off as a good little dystopian short story with something interesting to say about consumerism and intimacy, with human performances from Lloyd and co-star Bill Sage. The DVD package includes a short making of for each of the longer films that explains their genesis.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty hits the nail on its message's head perhaps a bit strongly, but it's one we call all appreciate: Live life, guys. So it's about this shy, retiring guy who works at Life Magazine and who, seeking love and a missing photograph meant for Life's last ever cover, goes from dreamer to doer. Ben Stiller stars and directs, and gives the film a sharp photographic look, at least initially, adding movement and color as Walter starts to really live. It looks gorgeous and is definitely a feel-good film, with lots of locations and action worthy of the magazine whose aesthetic is emulated. It's not flawless, however. Seeing as the first act includes a lot of Walter's fantasies, it becomes difficult to trust the film maker when the adventure becomes real, because that adventure itself is somewhat heightened. A more cynical viewer may be in his or her rights to refuse suspension of disbelief, though the clues to the "reality" are there. But I, for one, bought into it. By turns charming, funny and touching. The DVD has too small a stills gallery, and three little featurettes on the look and sound of the piece.

I reviewed Her earlier this year, when it was in theaters, and needless to say I loved it. A second viewing this week made me more critical of the Samantha character, however, and brought a new layer to the film's exploration of relationships in the modern age. Despite the title, I first understood the film to be about HIM, and no stranger to crushing loneliness, identified with the male character, fell in love with Samantha just as he did, etc. By focusing on HER this time, I was taken by the character's intense selfishness, which makes complete sense in terms of Samantha's literal immaturity. In addition to that layer is the mirror between Samantha and Theodore's ex-wife, and between Sam and Theo themselves across relationships. It seems I'm not done seeing something new in this film, but then, it's a Spike Jonze movie. The DVD package is disappointing because I'd have liked to see more making of stuff; we only get a conversation about modern relationships by various people reacting to the film.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - BBC '80

Babylon 5 #20: A Voice in the Wilderness (Part 2)

"Worst case of testosterone poisoning I've ever seen."
IN THIS ONE... Everyone wants the planet below Babylon 5, but only the right person can sit at its heart and prevent it from blowing up.

REVIEW: An aging Minbari looking for a new life and obsessed with self-sacrifice? A dying alien at the center of an ancient planet? I could have told you well before Part 1 ended that Part 2 would end with Draal taking over for that alien. And yet, JMS keeps making the point over and over through the episode. It's a little like how he keeps forcing Ivanova to make comments about her Russianness. What is she, Pavel Chekov? But that's predictability I can stomach. I'm far less enamored of Ron Canada's Captain Pierce, yet another warmonger who won't listen to reason. Earth may be obsessed with getting new technologies - our planet has a severe inferiority complex - but defying presidential orders, squabbling about jurisdiction, putting the lives of a quarter million people at risk, and inviting war with "shows of force" at a diplomatic outpost? Man should be court-martialed. Having Sinclair engage in saber-rattling is all quite entertaining, but antagonists with a single thought in their heads are deeply irritating, especially on a show that prides itself on its cast's complexity.

Though the planet below (Epsilon III) has been explored, its mystery continues to fascinate. What does it have to offer the future when we're ready for it? Apparently, even the last of the inhabitants weren't worthy of it; they were exiled for centuries until the planet's recent upheaval allowed them to find it again. What power does it hold when those exiles have nearly indestructible ships already, and those ships simply evaporate when exposed to Epsilon III's defenses? (Which means Draal's first act as the heart of the Machine is genocide, eech!) That'll hopefully be revealed later, though I get the definite sense JMS is setting up a literal deus ex machina we can't complain about because it won't come out of nowhere. We'll see. For now, the plot allows for some outer space action, and for Londo to find his inner hero. Delenn now owes him a favor for bringing his mad piloting skills to her action, but in a way, she's already paid it in full by lighting a joyful spark in him.

As for the Mars revolt subplot, it gives us some angry and impulsive Garibaldi scenes, until Sinclair finally uses his contacts to help his friend connect with his old flame Lise Hampton. She's alive, but it's too late for him to open his heart to her. She married since he left and is pregnant. A blow given his reasoning for waiting so long (and for an emergency) to call her - and I completely appreciate the psychology behind it - but more than that, it coyly hides the fact Lise would return in several episodes. Her appearance is innocuous, the wrap-up of a subplot on a down note, but it's a fake-out. That much I know.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Deep Space Nine is also sitting on top of an ancient looks-natural-but-is-artificial place that sometimes makes contact and considers him a chosen one.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Several good scenes and no doubt important to the overall arc, but Ron Canada is wasted in such an infuriating one-note part, and the ending was telegraphed more than an episode ago.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Reign of the Supermen #538: Flying Fish Superman

Source: Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane #72 (1967)
Type: Living object
In "Lois Lane's Aquaman Tricks", Lois does a story on a wheelchair-bound scientist who's found a way to control sea life with a special radio. He doesn't want anyone to know about this though because the technology could easily be weaponized. His fears are realized when gangsters grab his stuff and use sea monsters to steal Polaris missiles from a submarine. The only hope is for Lois to go out on a raft with Clark Kent (who's itching to change into Superman but can't) and use the radio to wrest control of the monsters. They get out there, and it doesn't work, so she tries to signal Superman with luminescent flying fish (above). Girl has an obsession and she knows how to manifest it in impressive ways.

But then this is a story with TWO fake Supermen, the other the fake Clark Superman makes from a pirate skeleton and a sea sponge so Lois won't notice he's gone.
Uhm... yeah... well... it worked, what more do you want?!

Babylon 5 #19: A Voice in the Wilderness (Part 1)

"Physics tells us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. They hate us, we hate them, they hate us back. And so, here we are, victims of mathematics!"
IN THIS ONE... Delenn is visited by an old friend, civil war explodes on Mars, and the planet below Babylon 5 is sending messages and missiles.

REVIEW: JMS is back on sole writing duties for the rest of the season and you can really tell. For one thing, it's chock-full of arc elements. For another, his favorite wit-delivery engines are front and center, specifically Delenn (wise wit) and Londo (entertaining wit). It makes for a highly quotable episode. Regardless of the plot, the episode really lives in the "padding" of their subplots. Londo is particularly expendable and yet, he gets all the best scenes, whether it's his negotiations with the Minbari (where we might finally understand Sinclair's role as mediator rather than ambassador), his frustration at human nonsense songs, or his infectious high spirits saving Garibaldi from his doldrums for the (hidden) cost of a drink. Through Delenn's mentor Draal, we find the poetry inherent to Minbari culture, and how the "retire" to the Sea of Stars in the end. Draal feels expendable himself as his post-war culture migrates from the values of duty to those of self-involvement, and surely, his teasing Delenn with a philosophical question about self-sacrifice is a sign of things to come. It's all quite intriguing and well-written.

And it overshadows the plot of the week which, on paper, should have stayed the main draw. I'd been wondering about the planet under Babylon 5 for a while now, whether it was just a lifeless rock providing some measure of gravitic stability to the station, or if it had been chosen for a reason. Neither is the case (so far as we yet know anyway) and it turns out something ancient is still ticking away under its surface. After some somewhat repetitive action from would-be archaeologist day players, Sinclair and Ivanova exercise their space opera prerogative to go down there alone, even if they are the two highest-ranking officers on B5. A bit of SF Indiana Jonesing later, they find themselves in a giant room right out of an Irwin Allen production, and then rather too easily save the planet's sole inhabitant who brings tidings of discomfort and whatever the opposite of joy is. More to come, since this is a two-parter.

The perhaps more important event is the revolt on Mars, which will have important ramifications through the end of the series (as I remember it). On a personal level, Sinclair is a Martian, but it's Garibaldi who is the most affected, having served and still having ties there. He's especially keen on getting through the communications blackout because a former lover presumably still lives there. Let's just say it's obvious we haven't heard the last of Lise Hampton. Interesting name, Lise. It's French and you don't see it much on English speakers, but then this is one of the ways JMS presents the future, by mix-and-matching names between ethnicities, as if to show how the global village evolved over the next 150 years. I don't mind, though I do wish the casting was sharper for many of these roles. Colonel Ben Zayn and this episode's featured TV reporter, Derek Mobotabwe, for example, seem to infer white people will absorb everyone and everything. DNA should follow names is all I'm saying. But then, this is more easily explained by television production realities than the strange bit where Talia thinks Garibaldi is stalking her in every elevator. I don't see the point of that except as JMS' strange sense of humor.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A very witty episode, with lots of important introductions. I can easily forgive its flaws.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Questionable Friday: The Sparrow Legacy

It happened on Twitter. Snell (infamously of Slay, Monstrobot of the Deep) directed this query at me: "Insane theory to launch a thousand fanfics--Capt Jack Sparrow is an ancestor of Sally Sparrow. Discuss." Well... Other than serving to get two Captain Jacks into the same universe and likely shagging, what can we do with this idea?

I guess it all depends on whether Captain Jack sired any children in wedlock (so they'd have his name). Did he? His only family on record is Captain Edward Teague, his father, which means "Sparrow" isn't even his real name. Sparrow is his pirate name, so he can't have sired a son before the pirate life cast a spell on him. Well he's not dead yet (though he refused immortality, so isn't quite as tough as Harkness). Jack's only really had one love interest that I know of (except the sea) and that's Blackbeard's daughter Anjelica. Do they ever get together and can she forgive him killing her father and leaving her on a deserted island? That would give Sally quite the bloodline! In the next film, he'll apparently become enamored of Barbossa's daughter, Carina. Same deal, really.

Let's say he marries a pirate princess down the line, and that eventually, Sally Sparrow is born from this family, one could indeed launch 1000 fanfics, at least some of them a huge crossover with Captain Avery (The Curse of the Black Spot) and possibly the guys from William Hartnell story, The Smugglers. I'm sure Sally looks as good in pirate drag as Amy did, probably better, with Larry Nightingale as her own personal swabby/Rory. Hey, who left a big cemetery angel in the hold?

Babylon 5 #18: Legacies

"It's been my experience that discussions of old battles only interests historians."
IN THIS ONE... A young telepath in search of a future helps solve the mystery of a Minbari general's honored corpse disappearing.

REVIEW: I'm starting to think Ivanova's only viable character trait is her pathological hatred for PsiCorps, and frankly, she deserves better than an episode that makes her completely unreasonable and illogical. Fine, I'll accept that she doesn't think PsiCorps is a very ethical organization, but that's a far cry from convincing the audience that PsiCorps training automatically results in creating an unethical agent. We've had at least four examples to the contrary. Every argument she brings to Alisa would seem to push her towards PsiCorps, not away from it. That she's dangerous and nosy because of her lack of training, that her mother committed suicide because she refused to join PsiCorps (so an orphan with nothing to lose would refuse and risk drug treatment WHY exactly?), that her other options, say as a DNA cow for the Narn, are even bleaker... It's a good thing there was a third, vocational option, even though it's hard to believe a common thief and, as horribly, tooth-grindingly played by Grace Una, a little twit to boot, would fit in Minbari culture. Letting Talia buy her coffee is progress, I suppose, but it doesn't feel like a progression in their relationship, which has always been civil if a little tense. Perhaps if Talia was allowed to be in more episodes...

At least the telepath thread does connect to the Minbari A-plot, in which a great military leader's body is stolen by persons unknown. The show's trained us to mistrust the arrogant jerk that is Neroon, and think he may have engineered these events (after all, he's the one who took human security off the crypt) to start another war. He's kind of like Colonel Ben Zayn from the previous episode. Except it's a big fake out, and after a bunch of red herrings, including a potentially cannibalistic solution, it's revealed Delenn took his remains and cremated them. See, the guy was of mixed caste, his role that of warrior, but his heart of the religious caste, and Neroon wasn't respecting his modest last wishes with the whole universal tour thing. Okay, but how did she think this would turn out? Her gesture almost starts a war, and her plan to spin the body's disappearance as a miracle could not possibly have worked without Neroon's cooperation. Which she gets anyway by pulling rank and invoking the will of the Grey Council. This cows him and shows us just how much power Delenn really has, but... why not start with this? If your answer is because there would then be no episode, that's really a failure of the script.

At least the encounter allows Sinclair to face his bitterness regarding the war, and despite the harsh words exchanged between him and his Minbari homologue, their truce is sincere. Neroon has eaten the humblepie Delenn was serving and still retains a touch of his native arrogance, but Sinclair is very gracious and his tribute to the fallen leader is, it seems, a great step forward, both politically and personally. If Babylon 5 is the best hope for peace, that peace resides in the human-Minbari relationship, and through Delenn, that seemed a given. Now that we know there's a rift between the ruling castes and that, as Neroon proves, all Minbari aren't ethereal elves, there's a little more at stake. And of course, there's still the matter of the Minbari's hidden agenda, and the word "Chrysalis" seen in Delenn's mind by Alisa foreshadows further developments in solving that mystery.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - I like the way it moves the political and personal stories forward, but several characters are taken down a few dozen IQ points for the main plots to work. Might have been a Medium if the guest acting had been watchable.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

July's Number Ones

The summer has put a great many new series on the stands, and I don't really want to wait for August before covering all of July's entries, so let's do a Part 1 right now. As ever, I take the bullet so you don't have to, and hopefully, these short reviews can help you decide where to spend your dollar.
Grayson by Tim Seeley, Tom King and Mikel Janin for DC. We can debate whether or not it was a good idea to kill off the Nightwing persona and spin Dick Grayson off into a superspy genre book, but I still have to say Dick has been, and continues to be, one of the most coherently characterized characters DC has ever published. From his stint as Batman through the New52 Kyle Higgins stuff to this book feels like an unbroken line. Whatever identity he takes on, he's still Dick Grayson. The set-up is pretty good, with Dick infiltrating (but also having to work for) a shadowy group called Spiral, which gets him into international intrigue and action with lots of opportunities for acrobatics. The new Helena Bertinelli (not-Huntress) is his partner, which adds sexiness for the other half of the population, and they even cover why Dick showing his face isn't an issue. I could have done without the appearance of a certain member of Stormwatch (STOP PUSHING WILDSTORM, DC!), but seeing as Spiral wants an end to the masks vigilantes hide behind, he's not likely to be the last superhero who shows up in these pages. Grayson has all the hallmarks of a self-contained story arc, so fans of Nightwing shouldn't despair; he'll be back in costume in a couple years. In the meantime, I think they'll find their same old Dick continuing his journey in the pages of this book. I know I did.
Keep reading? Yes. Nightwing was the only Batbook I was reading and despite the jarring changes, this feels like its continuation.
Head Lopper by Andrew MacLean for Keness. A barbarian fantasy book with a style that recalls Jeff Smith's Bone, though with more extreme violence, Head Lopper is strong on design and features action I'd compare to Samurai Jack's. In fact, I thought at first the book my be completely silent, before the first battle ended (the white-bearded protagonist vs. a giant sea serpent) and characters started speaking. Norgal the Head Lopper isn't an easily approachable character - stoic, really - but his actions speak louder than his words and it's all very badass. The cast will likely keep a young boy who wants to be his squire and the humanity will shine through him. For now, a well-executed action series with cool, nasty opponents and a cartoony art style I quite like.
Keep reading? Yes, it's a neat little book.
Groo vs. Conan by Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier and Thomas Yeates for Dark Horse. I always have a hard time engaging with Conan - and in fact, even though I read all of Brian Wood's Conan, and love all things Van Lente, I can't muster enthusiasm for Conan the Avenger - but if his chocolate isn't to collide with Groo's peanut butter (err--I mean, cheese dip), then I am ALL OVER IT, SON! Aragonés and Evanier keep things fresh in a number ways, and that's a good thing because Groo works on running gags, and those can get a little dull. For one thing, Conan and his world are rendered in a realistic style, and Groo's in Sergio's trademark cartooning. I look forward to seeing how that clash of styles works out across the four-issue mini. The more important innovation, however, is that a large portion of the comic happens in the "real world" where Sergio and Evanier send themselves up. The conceit is that the real world - and the story of a comic book shop in trouble - impacts on the imaginary one, with lots of jokes about the comic book industry thrown in. That couldn't happen in a straight Groo story (even if his straight is most people's crooked) and adds quite a lot to the humor. So in reality, there are three parties in this crossover.
Keep reading? I'll read anything with Groo in it, and this mini has a sharper bite than most.
Dark Engine by Ryan Burton and John Bivens for Image. I'm sticking to sword and sorcery here, but Dark Engine is far from a traditional genre piece. Writer Ryan Burton goes out of his way to create something dark and bizarre, where dinosaurs and demons share the stage, with more than a dash of animistic folklore thrown in. Unfortunately, John Bivens' art is at times too crazy to be understood. It's mostly pretty - if extreme gore can be considered pretty - but the action isn't always coherent, and while I appreciate the writer's wish not to hide too much of it with word balloons and captions (according to the text page), it really needed a little extra to help situate the reader, especially given how alien the world is. I'm not even sure the art is coherent as a style, and wondered if the artist was changing from page to page.
Keep reading? I like the breadth of the creative team's imagination, but they haven't sold me on this world, which needed a lot more set-up than we got.
Black Market by Frank J. Barbiere and Victor Santos for Boom! The premise is definitely interesting: A group in the business of dealing in superhuman DNA with ramifications not yet known. It's also a four-issue mini, so telling a self-contained story, and it does so achronologically, skipping back and forth in time to disclose as little information as possible and keep the mystery going. I hope I haven't spoiled it. I while I don't dislike the story per se, I'm afraid the art has distracting anatomy problems, and I expect more from an established company like Boom. I like the STYLE (as per the cover), and the layouts inventive and well thought-out, but my eye keeps going to oddly-shaped arms or asymmetrical features. Good hook and pretty good characters, but is that enough?
Keep reading? I'm on the fence, which usually means I won't, but the promise of a story done in only three more issues is attractive and may put it over the top.
Spider-Man 2099 by Peter David and Will Sliney for Marvel. I got out of Marvel Comics in 1990, just before it started proliferating into an absurd amount of X-books and lines under different various labels, Marvel UK and 2099 among them. So I've never read a single issue of a 2099 title. But I'll freely admit I've been a big Spider-Man fan since the book went weekly several years ago, and have liked pretty much each of its spin-offs, whether that's Superior itself, Superior Foes, Alpha, or to my surprise, Scarlet Spider. Only the team-up book wasn't to my taste. And since Spider-Man 2099 was reintroduced in the pages of Superior, well, here I am. Miguel O'Hara is trapped in the present, which certainly helps. The reader doesn't need a whole lot of exposition to get his or her bearings. Peter David wrote the original series and is back, so fans will be happy as well. I'd call this a strong start for the off-brand Spidey. His situation is ably recapped, the seeds of several mysteries are sown through his new supporting cast, and David's rif on Terminator is at once exciting, creepy and highly amusing. And watch that Liz Allen, she's a smart character.
Keep reading? Yes, another Spider-Man book makes my pull list. AND I now want to go back and read the original!
Star-Spangled War Stories Featuring G.I. Zombie by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Scott Hampton for DC. Despite the title and the cover, the feature should really be called G-Zombie, or if you will, FBI Zombie. I won't dispute that DC's new undead star wasn't a soldier in a previous life, but this is hardly a war comic. Crime/horror, but not war. Nor is the cover's look indicative of Scott Hampton's interiors, which feel more like Gray Morrow's, with its brilliant penciled shading. That said, it's a pretty good comic. The setting, "Nowhere, Mississippi" is evocative and atmospheric, and Zombie's co-protagonist is a tough and sexy undercover agent. The violence is harsh and properly zombiesque, and the characters have a truth to them. I'm keen on seeing where this goes, and I'm more than a little interested in the revamp of another war comics star announced on the last page. I just hope all the mislabelling won't turn potential readers off.
Keep reading? Yes. DC seems like it's just renewing copyrights with all these anthologies, but the creative teams can do good work within those confines.

So there you have it. I'll be back next week with another 6 or 7 new books out in July. Suggestions accepted. No guarantees given.

Babylon 5 #17: Eyes

"If I kill him, it'll start a war."
IN THIS ONE... Earthforce Internal Affairs investigates Babylon 5, while Lennier helps Garibaldi build a motorcycle in his quarters.

REVIEW: We've seen military witch hunts like the one conducted by Colonel Ari Ben Zayn (and they might at least have found an actor of Middle Eastern extraction for it) on Star Trek, going all the way back to "Court-Martial", and if I invoke TOS, it's because Ben Zayn taking over the station felt a lot like all those episodes where some Admiral, Commodore or Ambassador took over the Enterprise and proved himself a poor leader. Ben Zayn appears to be one-dimensional, but unlike Norah Sati from TNG's "The Drumhead" (another such Trek episode), there's no empathizing with him in the end. He really IS one-dimensional. A ranting, raving villain who wears his jealousy and hatred on his sleeve to the point where you hardly need a telepath to tell us he's crooked. Throw in a comedy sublot in which Lennier overhelps Garibaldi with his vintage 1992 motorbike if you must (JMS, if you're going to do commercials within the show, at least get paid for it - they apparently weren't), but I can't quite muster any enthusiasm. Half the time, it feels like the episode will turn into a clip show, and while Sinclair's solution is his usual "loopholing", the rules aren't set up before being invoked and lack that special something. And where are the Minbari in this? Not trying to protect their pet commander? I even have issues with the direction, which is over-reliant on shaky steadycam walk and talks, creating unmotivated tension in various scenes.

If there's a redeeming feature, it's Jeffrey Coombs as Grey. Coombs is perfect as the atypical PsiCorps member who puts Earthforce duty and honor above the Corps' darker agendas. He's a good guy who just happens to have a creepy job (one he didn't choose nor can get out of). So we feel for him when he unsuccessfully tries to convince Ivanova he won't violate her privacy. We believe him - and ultimately, he saves the day - but this is territory too sensitive for Ivanova, an intrusion on sacred memories shared with her telepathic mother. Though Sinclair is meant to be the dramatic protagonist and Garibaldi the comedic one, it's really Ivanova who's at the emotional center of this. Her properly surreal nightmares (rarely well done on television), her almost reevaluation of Grey, that she would rather quit than undergo mind scan, and the clues as to how she formed that Russian facade of hers, are all good reasons to watch this episode despite the scenery-chewing going on elsewhere. The subplot does make the viewer realize Talia Winters has been M.I.A. now for a long time. Will SF writers never learn that telepaths in the cast always have to be shuffled off-screen because of their plot-breaking powers?

And, of course, even in the weakest of Babylon 5's episodes, one can take some pleasure in the way each chapter is part of a whole, so we have this plot being Bester's attempt at revenge (maybe, he certainly didn't appoint the right Corpsman to Ben Zayn), the Colonel acting on the idea that the Minbari gave the B5 job to someone unworthy instead of him, and the first mention of the Free Mars movement as unrest grows on Earth and its colonies. The science buff in me enjoyed the mention of "Lagrange 2", a reference to a station obviously built at a Lagrange point, places in space that are gravitationally balanced by other astral bodies as to keep them in a stable position. But no matter how much key information is delivered by an episode, the story and acting have to be there for it to have any value.

Jeffrey Coombs would soon become very important to that other show, across the way.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - Watch it for the Ivanova stuff, the rest is just so much cardboard.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Atlas of the DC Universe Extras: More Places

If you enjoyed our podcast about the Atlas of the DC Universe this week, you might wonder what cool maps couldn't be included in the book's 1990 snapshot of the DCU. Well, here's a selection of them pulled from various Secret Files and Origins that have been published since! (Click pics to embigen.)

Opal City (Starman 1998)
Blüdhaven (Nightwing 1999)
The Slab (DCU Villains 1999)
London (Hellblazer 2000)
New Krypton (Superman 2009)
Next week: More HQs!