The Flying Man

This short film makes me think a bit of the Alex Ross illustrated series Marvels that came out in 1994- a citizen’s eye view of what it’s like to live in a world with superbeings and how terrifying that would be.

Young Justice Ends

I just watched the series finale for Young Justice today, and I have to say it ended like it began- with a resounding thud!

I found the very first episode of this series clunky and a little dull, and this finale was pretty much the same- it was supposed to be cool and epic, but instead it came across as rushed and kinda forced. The cool finale was really Episode 2×19- The Summit, and this episode was just 20 minutes of housecleaning that felt like a really forced attempt to bring together all the plotlines this awkward and uneven season had been scattering about.

Season One started so-so, but got better fast and ended strong, Season Two started oddly, got better, and worse, and then really cool for a few episodes before finally it came to its natural but awkward conclusion.

I keep using the word “awkward” because I don’t think there’s a better word to describe this season of the show. Too many new characters, and not enough time to focus on the old characters or the new, so the whole thing just turned into a mess at times. In fact, the only time the show really worked was when it reverted back to the Season One cast and focussed on what they were doing. Most of the new cast, with the exceptions of Blue Beetle (who they were pushing really really hard during the second half) and Impulse were pretty much cyphers, and then on top of that they added another team of young heroes to an already overstuffed season- just because.

I don’t know if they were driven by the toy makers to pack the show with action figures, or just couldn’t wait to expand the team and decided they wanted to get as many cool characters in there as possible. Either way, they messed up what had been a solidly good alternate take on the DC Universe with great continuity and some really good character development in the first season. These characters really felt alive and unique, and the whole story felt more organic than forced. (With a few exceptions, like this week’s finale.)

When it first started, I worried that the show would fail the logic test because each week the characters would be in situations where the “real” heroes should be dropping in to help them but didn’t because the plot called for it. With a single exception (the one with the Injustice League from Season One), the writers did a great job of avoiding that trap, and these never felt like “sidekicks” but actual young heroes in training. The senior heroes did show up, but didn’t overshadow the team except when it made sense for them to, and they felt like mentors instead of guardians.

Actually, the show Young Justice most reminded me of was Naruto, and I’m positive that Naruto was indeed a huge influence on the production end of the show. Robin even does Naruto’s signature clone-jutsu move during one of the episodes near the end of Season One (with a little help from Zatana). The whole feeling of the show, with the young heroes going out on missions assigned them by the senior heroes, who were still there and active in the background, really made me think of Naruto, and if they’re going to borrow, then I think they picked the perfect show to borrow from.

The problem is that while they borrowed Naruto’s style and some of its story structure, they forgot one important element- a central character. No matter how scattered or epic Naruto became, it was always still about Naruto growing and developing as a Ninja, and even if that show wandered off to follow side-characters doing things it was still anchored around him. Even in Season One, Young Justice had a problem with focus, and I always found the team a little bit dull because of it. It kind’ve worked when they concentrated on the personal problems each of them had, but they never really got deeply enough into any of them for my tastes and those problems were all resolved in the Season One finale.

Then, when they hit Season Two, that whole problem exploded like a grenade. Suddenly we were overwhelmed by characters and events, and a show which could be a little unfocused became a mess of people we didn’t know or care about. The action was good, the storylines usually interesting, and the animation high quality, but the show’s heart was missing. What depth it had before now gone under a tide of events not really related to any one character.

Just like the show’s finale.

Yesterday, I thought it was a shame this show got cancelled due to low ratings (among key demographics) and poor toy sales. Today, I’m okay with it ending. It was a fun show that I enjoyed while it was around and might re watch someday (well, Season One), but its time is done.

Thanks to the writers and producers of the show, it was fun while it lasted!

Rob

Do American Comics still mean Superhero Comics?

My friend Don C. proposed an interesting theory to me last night when we were talking, he said that in his educated opinion (and he does know a lot about comics) the age of the Superhero Comic in North America was finished. That while there are still Superhero comics being sold, their future is as limited as their sales. (In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Marvel Comics were selling close to a million copies per title for their top tier, now they sell close to a million comics for their entire lineups!)

His thesis is that although it hasn’t become clear yet, Manga won. Not just in terms of sales, but in terms of being the comic form that captured the imaginations of the next generation of readers and creators. He sees superhero comics are largely running on inertia and nostalgia, and thinks that while they won’t disappear, that superhero comics will be a smaller and smaller piece of the North American comics landscape.

Now, this doesn’t mean all comics will become Manga, or even manga-wannabes (although the market does have a fair amount of both), but it does mean that a generation that sees comics as an open art form that can tell many different kinds of stories is now rising up. I myself agreed with this thesis when I thought about the current webcomics market. Those are the next generation of comic creators, and they’re producing slice of life, comedy, romance, drama, fantasy, sci-fi, and a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t fit into any one genre, but they’re not producing much in the way of superhero books.

Right now, part of the reason we’re seeing so much in the way of superhero movies is because the current generation (my generation) grew up in the great Bronze Age revival of Superheroes in the 70s and 80s. They’re the ones ruling the Hollywood roost, and they’re drawing from their formative reading years in what they’re producing. The upcoming generation grew up on Harry Potter and Manga, so what will they produce when they rule in the roost in 10 to 15? And will Superheroes still hold a place in that world?

While I love superheroes, I have to admit that for a long time I think they’ve been the thing holding back Comics as an art form in North America. Only superhero books seemed to sell, so that’s mostly what got produced, and people came to associate comics with superheros so tightly that I think it was hard to differentiate the two. Given that superhero books are inherently 14 year old power fantasies, it’s been hard for comics to break out of the ghetto society has placed them in. It will only be when we break the comic=superhero link that the art form of Comic Books will truly flourish and they will become an accepted medium in society as a whole.

As Don suggested, that may have already happened. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Rob

The Other Fantastic Fours

There may be arguments over who exactly created the Fantastic Four, and even why they were created, but when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Marvel Comic’s “First Family” there was little doubt as to their goals- Lee concluded that, “For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading…. And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.” (citation)

Many refer to the Fantastic Four as superheroes, but depending on your definition of Superhero that may not be accurate- I’ve always seen superheroes as costumed vigilantes who seek to bring justice to the world, a definition which doesn’t quite fit the Fantastic Four. Yes, they have costumes, and of course abilities “far beyond the mortal man”, but are they really seekers of justice? I would argue that they are not –they are seekers of truth- and therein lies the rub in calling them “superheroes”. Really, they’re no more superheroes than a police officer or soldier, both groups of people who put on a uniform in their duties.

The Fantastic Four are a group of superhuman explorers and adventurers, who while they do often fight “bad guys” in the name of preserving peace, don’t actively seek out and try to defeat said bad guys for the sake of justice or revenge. This is what makes them different from most “superheroes”, and combined with their lack of secret identities, and nature as an actual family instead of a metaphorical one, it makes them a hard group to pin down for many. For some people this is part of their appeal, since they offered an oasis of almost intellectualism in a sea of smash-em-up superhero comic books of the second half of the twentieth century, for others it made them easier to relate to (and form emotional bonds with) than characters like Iron Man or Captain America.

But, whatever the reason, the simple truth is that the Fantastic Four has been running nearly nonstop since the 1960’s, and has consistently been one of Marvel’s mainstays in their publishing history. It has produced movies, animated TV series, radioplays, daily comic strips and video games, to say nothing of legions of loyal fans who have thrilled and wondered at the various incarnations of the characters over the years. However, is it possible for something to become a cultural icon without producing “children” that follow in its footsteps?

Of course, the answer is no. There have been a number of media that have intentionally or unintentionally followed in the footsteps of the FF, and I thought I’d talk a bit about the ones I’ve noticed.

The Incredibles

 

Brad Bird, the creator of the Incredibles, has stated clearly that he wasn’t trying to copy the Fantastic Four in Pixar’s animated superhero film about a superpowered family. He said he came up with the idea of a family of superheroes first, and then they were slowly given powers and the end result just happened to end up like the FF. I think he’s probably telling the truth (and not just trying to stave off a lawsuit from Marvel), but subconsciously he must have had the Fantastic Four in the back of his head when he wrote his first drafts in 1993. Of the three members of the Incredibles three share the same powers as members of the Fantastic Four (Superstrength/Toughness, Elastic Powers and Force-Field powers) and by the end of the movie they introduce the baby’s powers -Fire powers- to complete the set. Apparently Brad Bird also has the superpower to stretch credibility!

In fact, I would argue that The Incredibles is perhaps one of the best versions of the Fantastic Four ever put to film, and really captures some of the comic’s best elements. It’s a great film, and it’s 60’s aesthetic really meshes well with the whole idea of superheroes, since that is the era to which they are most attached.

Tell me if this sounds familiar- a family of four who get superpowers through an accident and then must live with their new abilities and figure out how to use them to help people. Of course, being of a limited budget it’s more of a drama with what I refer to as “TV superpowers” (ie cheap ones to do on film, like superstrength, superspeed, super-intelligence, shapeshifting and telepathy), and they lack the more epic adventures of the Fantastic Four. In fact, I’d say this series wasn’t so much trying to “borrow” from the Fantastic Four as it was from “The Incredibles”, although they did keep the intellectual element by having not one, but two supersmart characters. (None of the Incredibles seem all that smart, actually…)

In the end, the show didn’t last more than a season for whatever reasons, but I do consider it a great example that perhaps one of the best mediums for the FF is actually live-action television. Something that the next TV show more than proves as well.

 

Stargate SG-1

This addition may surprise a lot of people, but if you think about it SG-1 may in fact be the best adaptions of the Fantastic Four ever done. I have no doubts it was by accident, but there are too many elements they have in common to ignore. The four members of SG-1 have no superpowers (with the exception of Teal’c, who is an alien) but they do share the personalities of the FF in a mixed up way (Jack is an older Johnny Storm, Carter is a more focussed Sue, Daniel is much like a young Reed, and Teal’c and The Thing are both “the big guy” archetype), and function much like the dysfunctional family of the FF as well.

Also, the thrust of the show is adventure and exploring new worlds while battling various galactic threats and supervillians they keep coming across. Each episode they must figure out how to deal with a new threat, and in the process make new allies and gain knowledge about the universe in which they live. The early seasons are especially about exploration and figuring out puzzles and difficult situations, the bread and butter of many FF stories.

This similarity wasn’t lost on SG-1 creators, and the lead Jack O’neil actually used the alias Reed Richards at least once while dealing with aliens.

Gold Digger is the story of the Archaeologist/Superscientist  Gina Diggers and her sister the Were-Cheetah Brittany as they explore lost civilizations, ancient mysteries, other dimensions and occasionally other worlds in search of knowledge and adventure. Running monthly for the last 20 years, the series started as a pseudo-manga adventure comic book by the artist Fred Perry who seems to have intended it to be an action-comedy story heavily laced with pop culture in-jokes. That hasn’t really changed, but as the story evolved and Perry’s skill as a writer increased the book took almost a parallel course to the Fantastic Four in many ways. More and more, the book became about Gina and Brittany’s extended family of misfits and adventurers, and while the cast has continued to grow almost exponentially it’s also kept anchored by the main pair.

In a lot of ways, I consider Gold Digger to be a superior evolution of the basic ideas of the Fantastic Four, as Perry is willing to try new things and have storylines literally run for years. This has allowed the characters to grow and change, and let the story develop organically based on what the characters learn as they go. Nothing just goes away in Gold Digger, and the reset button isn’t needed or welcome, unlike the FF.

In fact, recent events in the FF (the death of the Torch, the creation of the Future Foundation organization) are starting to make the current FF more of a mirror of Gold Digger than the other way around!