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Grumpy Old Fan | When not to cross over

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | When not to cross over

For all its attempts at inclusion, Convergence is limited to what DC Comics has “allowed” historically within its shared universe. The three main Convergence time periods are basically 2011, 1994, and 1984-ish, and they each interact with other superhero-flavored genres.

However, through the years there’s also been a thread of DC superheroics set outside the main-line milieu. More often than not, these stories aren’t really concerned with detail-oriented “what ifs” — Communist Superman, vampire Batman, etc. — but with the larger questions surrounding the superhero genre itself. If you’re going to talk about DC and you don’t want to talk about Convergence, more than likely you’re going to run into these stories.

* * *

We begin with DC’s most obvious superhero commentary, Watchmen. Honestly, we begin here mostly to get it out of the way. Watchmen (which turns 29 in about six weeks) is so meta it’s practically a Möbius strip, and it’s as deep as the Book of Revelation. At its most superficial it features three different critiques of Batman — Ozymandias’ billionaire philanthropist, Nite Owl’s romantic gadgeteer, and Rorschach’s misanthropic vigilante — and two of Superman (both Dr. Manhattan and the notion that real-world costumed vigilantes “killed” Superman-the-character); and that’s before you start unpacking the meanings hidden in the miniseries’ very structure.

It really does go without saying that Watchmen could never, and should never, interact with DC’s main-line superhero books. The latter have had almost 30 years to react to and/or copy from the former, but the former’s take is still pretty incisive. In fact, one of Watchmen’s main lessons seems to be that for all of life’s mechanics — mirrored in the comic’s structure — the real joys are in spontaneity and new creations. Time to stop worrying about the world as it is, and imagine the world as it could be. Of course, that message is easier to take if you can resist the urge to analyze every character, panel, and background item.

A little easier to reconcile is the ethos of Planetary, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s odyssey of restoring weirdness to the world. Planetary took on DC characters (or clear analogues thereof) a few times, but its world was never an official shared-universe destination. It’s not that the interaction should never happen (although often it didn’t end well for the super-folk); it’s more that Planetary’s “snowflake” was much bigger than superheroes.

Another DC series with ambiguous connections to the main-line superheroes was the publisher’s 2010-11 take on THUNDER Agents. Created by artist Wally Wood and writer Len Brown, the original series was published by Tower Comics and ran from 1965 to 1969. After an array of short-lived revivals spanning the 1980s and ‘90s, DC published 10 issues of an ongoing series and a six-issue miniseries follow-up. The license then went to IDW, which published eight issues from 2013 to 2014.  Although this run reached into the early months of the New 52, it didn’t bear the New 52 brand, but it was published around the time DC was assimilating (or at least talking about assimilating) characters from Milestone Media and Archie’s Red Circle line. THUNDER Agents would have been a hard fit regardless, since its super-team was only part of a super-spy agency run by the United Nations. By 2010, DC’s version of the UN had already taken a couple of stabs at sponsoring super-folk, including Justice League International and Checkmate, and the New 52 would add a GI Joe-style team of Blackhawks to that mix. That sort of world-building change isn’t really suited to the impermanence of a licensed property.

In any event, THUNDER Agents never really used its premise to comment significantly on superhero tropes, beyond the idea that the people inside the super-suits are ultimately expendable. The Deluxe Comics run of the mid-1980s revealed that Lightning’s superspeed caused him to age rapidly, and the DC issues (written by Nick Spencer) expanded that basic concept to the super-agents generally. However, the DC run was more concerned with conspiracies within the organization, and the expendable super-agents were incorporated into those subplots. Again, the problems with integrating THUNDER into the main-line DCU weren’t really thematic, but logistical.

* * *

Those are just a few of the superhero comics DC has published which fall outside of its main shared universe but might just as easily have been crossover fodder. There are others, super-powered and not, including The Mighty, Thriller, Atari Force and Camelot 3000. Occasionally, too, DC has published quirky “in-universe” series which nevertheless felt like they were too far out to be accepted. Here I’m thinking of mid- to late-‘90s fare like Major Bummer, Sovereign Seven and Young Heroes in Love; as well as the more recent Dial H, which was New 52 in name only.

That brings me to a ’Mazing Man, the short-lived but fondly remembered series which introduced a classic caped crusader and wisely kept him far away from the Justice League. Created by longtime DC writer (and “Answer Man”) Bob Rozakis and relative newcomer Stephen DeStephano, ’Mazing Man had an initial run of 12 monthly issues, cover-dated January-December 1986. Three one-shot specials followed over the next four years, and Maze (as his friends called him) even got a Who’s Who entry and a spotlight in the ‘80s version of Secret Origins. His real name was Sigfried Horatio Hunch III, he won a skillion dollars in the Publishers Reading House sweepstakes but still lived with his best friend Denton in Queens, and one day he found a superhero-style helmet (with an “M” for “‘Mazing”) in the garbage.

However, all you needed to know about Maze and his friends was presented in the debut issue. In the first of two stories, Maze and Denton are wandering through their neighborhood, Maze on the lookout for trouble and Denton all too aware of the neighbors’ condescension.  When one mom exclaims, “You mean to tell me they let a mental case run around loose in this neighborhood,” ther reply is, “he’s harmless.” Another observes, “[h]e’s great to have around, like Lassie — and we don’t have to clean up after him!”

Denton has the head of a cartoon-style dog, so he’s familiar with being treated a little differently. Eventually he launches into a couple of paragraphs about Maze not just being patronized, but risking jail time or even being pounded into “two pints of sweet, ‘mazing poo.”

“Don’t you know they all laugh at you?” Denton pleads. “Don’t you know they don’t like you?”

“Oh, Denton,” Maze explains, “I know they laugh. I know I must look silly. And if they don’t like me, well, that’s okay. I like them! I do what I do because … it’s my job … I have to do it!”

Just then, a mother’s shriek splits the air, and everyone sees that one of the toddlers has (once again) slipped out of his stroller. This time, though, little Jonathan has wandered into the street, and a truck is bearing down on him. Despite Denton’s protests, Maze races toward the toddler, the storytelling slows down, and there’s a very pregnant pause before Maze hauls him to safety. Any lingering negativity is forgotten in the rush of emotion which follows. Finally understanding Maze’s motivation, a tearful Denton embraces him, thinking (via internal narration) “He’s weird … he looks silly … but he’s courageous … and he’s right.”

With the invaluable aid of inker Karl Kesel (who brought out the best in DeStephano’s designs) and letterer Bob Lappan (whose deadpan effects helped establish the book’s unique tone), ’Mazing Man immediately established an endearing style of character-driven humor. The extended cast included Denton’s sister K.P., her would-be suitor Guido, and married neighbors Brenda and Eddie. The last two were taken directly from a mid-‘70s Billy Joel song (minus the sadder parts), which — combined with Maze’s penchant for singing Simon & Garfunkel whenever he was knocked silly — says something about the book’s sensibilities. Like its hero, ’Mazing Man was nothing if not earnest, and much of its comedy came from Maze trying steadfastly to do the right thing. Sometimes this involved stopping a mugger at a Mets game or breaking up a bar fight; sometimes it involved trying to prevent dinner guests from stumbling across a skunk in the bathroom.

It’s almost the inverse of Justice League International. Where JLI allowed its superheroes to be funny, ’Mazing Man’s characters were put in funny situations largely because of Maze’s attempts to be a superhero. Moreover, Maze and his friends only found themselves in mundane, small-scale adventures. When Guido teases Maze about Lex Luthor blowing up California, or when Maze “stalks” Denton a la the Frank Miller Batman, it’s supposed to remind the reader that Maze is unique. There were no supervillains (although that one cat was quite a handful) and no threats more serious than Brenda’s amorous co-worker. Putting ’Mazing Man on DC-Earth might not have had much effect, but it would have subtly undermined that slice-of-life perspective. Maze’s crusade just isn’t as odd if it occurs in a world full of super-people.

Indeed, Rozakis and DeStephano followed ’Mazing Man with the Action Comics Weekly feature and subsequent six-issue miniseries Hero Hotline, set specifically on DC-Earth and featuring a group of misfit superheroes.  From what I remember, its sense of humor was broader than ’Mazing Man’s. Otherwise, I’m reluctant to compare the two because they apparently had different goals. Still, while Hero Hotline wasn’t exactly forgotten — that Wikipedia link mentions that it was referenced in Infinite Crisis — I’d guess that ’Mazing Man resonated more with its readers. Wacky superheroes are one thing, particularly in the wake of Justice League International; but ’Mazing Man’s mundane setting made it stand out. The series debuted during the 1980s’ indie explosion, when alternative takes on superheroes ranged from Nexus and DNAgents to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knock-offs. (For that matter, Maze was making his own statement about the nature of heroism some months before either The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen. ) If ’Mazing Man had come out today, it might well be a webcomic, attracting a loyal audience outside the big-publisher umbrella.

Maze did get animated during a segment of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, so DC can’t have forgotten about him entirely. Still, ’Mazing Man is in an unusual position. Its need to be distinct from the rest of main-line DC puts it in a class with the publisher’s more highbrow fare, but its cult-favorite status makes it increasingly harder to sell to today’s readers. Obviously DC would love it if Convergence could drum up interest in the dustier pages of its back catalog — even Sugar & Spike is getting in on the action — but that sort of marketing can’t apply to books like Thriller or ’Mazing Man. It’s potentially a vicious circle which could end up restricting the scope of DC’s main-line output, despite the upcoming attempts to branch out.

If it sounds like I’ve spent the past 1500 words shilling for a ’Mazing Man collection … well, that would be nice. However, what’s more important is to recognize that every now and then, a big superhero publisher can greenlight something like ’Mazing Man: a series with only the barest connection to the bulk of its output, but which speaks to the superhero genre in new and memorable ways. Although DC is using its shared universe as the proverbial “rising tide,” it must be mindful of where the odd tributary can take it.

+++++++++++++++++++++

And here is this week’s installment of Converbiage.

WHAT I BOUGHT: Convergence #2, plus the first issues of Aquaman, Batman: Shadow of the Bat, Green Lantern/Parallax, Justice League International, Supergirl: Matrix and Superman: Man of Steel (which means I skipped Green Arrow, Suicide Squad and Superboy)

BEST OF THE WEEK: Supergirl, Superman: Man of Steel

NOTES: Issue 2 of Convergence finds the miniseries still not going very deep into the plot, focusing instead on character moments for the Earth-2 heroes. At this rate I expect them to come up with some sort of Telos-defeating plan by issue 5 or so, after they finish touring the other main cities. To be fair, the Earth-2 folks learn a little more about Telos via another fight scene, and Telos has the Futures End Eye-Zombies take out the heroes of Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating. ... Nevertheless, the main focus is on Earth-2 Dick Grayson and Thomas Wayne, as the former meets pre-Flashpoint Alfred and the latter meets pre-Flashpoint Batman (in his initial Batman Incorporated gear). While the Batman-and-Batman meeting is left mostly to the imagination, it indirectly undermines the Dick-and-Alfred interaction. See, the Batman recognize each other as father and son, and Dick (who was married to Earth-2 Barbara Gordon) recognizes pre-Flashpoint Oracle, which makes me think that multiversal counterparts necessarily look alike. Thus, it follows that Earth-2 Dick would look like DC-Earth Dick, but DC-Earth Alfred doesn’t recognize him. I suppose the whole “doppelganger” thing is more of a guideline than a rule — either that, or it’s because Earth-2 Dick was never a superhero and therefore is somehow excused from looking like DC-Earth Dick. In any event, it seems like an unnecessary exception, and it distracted from an entertaining sequence. The main Convergence miniseries is apparently shifting away from flashbacks and exposition, but again, it could use a little momentum.

I swear I thought the couple on the first page of Aquaman #1 were Mulder and Scully. At least they would fit the 1990s timeframe. Otherwise, Aquaman (written by Tony Bedard, drawn by Cliff Richards, and colored by John Rauch) was a rather depressing exercise. It tried to replicate the angry posture of the Peter David-written series without including David’s trademark humor, producing a mopey Aquaman who’s fated to fight a rather one-dimensional Deathblow. The issue itself wasn’t badly-produced, and clearly their starting point wasn’t exactly sunny; but they seem to have doubled down on negativity.

Much the same applies to Batman: Shadow of the Bat #1, written by Larry Hama, pencilled by Phillip Tan, inked by Jason Paz and Rob Hunter, and colored by Elmer Santos. It’s a Batman/Azrael team-up in a Metropolis whose underworld is run by the Kingpin-like Tobias Whale, and it doesn’t have much to do with Convergence beyond a couple of plot elements and the introduction of the multiversal foes in the last few pages. A burned-out color scheme enhances the very serious tone, and there’s plenty of discussion about whose ethics should prevail. Like Aquaman, it’s constructed well enough, but it’s not all that fun.

Also moping around, I’m sorry to say, is the ad hoc Justice League International team. Led by Blue Beetle (Ted Kord), whose technological prowess has provided most of the punch for the powered-down team, they spend the first part of the issue fighting Metallo’s army and the next big chunk pondering their lot in life. The issue ends on a swerve, as the Kingdom Come Justice League shows up for the scheduled face-off. Artist Mike Manley’s work seems to be aiming for something light, along the lines of one-time JLI artist Ty Templeton, but Ron Marz’s script keeps bringing things down.

With that in mind, I wonder why Marz didn’t write Green Lantern/Parallax #1, which features characters he (re)defined. As it stands, writer Tony Bedard, penciller Ron Wagner, and inker Bill Reinhold (with colorist Paul Mounts) risks turning it into yet another exercise in self-loathing. A powerless Kyle Rayner visits a powerless Hal Jordan, who’s content to waste away in a Metropolis jail cell as penance for murdering the Green Lantern Corps. Once the dome drops and the forces of Electropolis appear, however, Hal becomes Parallax again and turns his destructive attention to the invaders. The issue benefits from front-loading its angst, so that when Kyle and Hal take to the skies, the fight scenes help mitigate its effect. Overall, it’s a fine effort (despite some missed details like Kyle’s anachronistic ring-dialogue), but I’m still curious to see what Marz would have done with it.

Man of Steel was produced by the Power Pack team of Louise Simonson and June Brigman (with Roy Richardson inking and Rauch coloring), so naturally it was the most solid single issue I read. With Steel basically unaffected by the dome’s power-drain, it didn’t have to explain a lot of status quo changes and could get right into the action. The issue flowed smoothly from one well-staged fight scene to the next, pitting Steel and his niece and nephew against punks in battle armor, then the Parasite, and then Gen13, before ending on a pretty effective cliffhanger. Characterization was deft and efficient, as one might expect from Simonson, who created the main cast and worked extensively on most of the rest.

Finally, reading Keith Giffen’s script for the frenetic Supergirl: Matrix #1 made me wish DC had let him have another crack at Justice League International. The issue — drawn in what I presume was a ‘90s-style tribute by penciller Timothy Green II and inker Joseph Silver — was full of the arch dialogue and exaggerated staging that Giffen brought to JLI. Most of it is borderline homophobia at Lord Volt’s expense, but Supergirl and Lex Luthor II (sporting a very ‘90s ponytail and facial hair) also engage in some entertaining verbal sparring. I got an “arranged marriage” feel from both couples, although poking fun at Volt didn’t feel quite earned. Still, with Green and Silver’s stylized work bringing everything energetically to life, this was a fun issue, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.

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