Slade, I’m Afraid We’re Going to Have to Let You Go

RAAAWRR! I HAS A GUN!!!

The above line would probably be immediately followed by the distinctive and musical sound of a large sword through my throat.

I’m trying to put together tonight’s story, but my brain isn’t cooperating with me, so let’s prime the pump somewhat by talking about comics. Specifically, the current state of the New 52 in DC Comics, which is now entering its third month. More specifically, the ones that suck.

The first one to get cut was Deathstroke, after only two issues. Now why did I drop Deathstroke like it was a flaming turd in my hands? Hmmm….

Guys [1], remember when you were a kid, and you’d play super-heroes with your friends? One of you would be Superman and one of you would be, I dunno, Wolverine, and after you finished arguing about how Superman and Wolverine can’t fight each other because they’re from totally different comics and that wouldn’t make sense, you would start basically listing off your attacks:

Li’l Superman: I’m gonna hit you with my heat vision! BZZZAT!
Li’l Wolverine: I use my claws to reflect your heat vision back at you! FRINNNG!!
Li’l Superman: Well I can just let it bounce off my chest. Ha ha ha!!
Li’l Wolverine: I’m gonna throw Kryptonite at you! WHAM!
Li’l Superman: Yeah, well I’m gonna take these special metal-eating Kryptonian cockroaches and they’re going to EAT YOUR BONES! HA!

And so on. Point is, each kid would find reasons why his hero was utterly undefeatable and how there was no way the other one could possibly stand against him.

You'd think his codpiece would be bigger.

That’s what it’s like reading Deathstroke.

And that’s a shame, because they have a really interesting opportunity here. Most of DC’s metahuman characters are like football players in their prime years – their twenties and thirties. They’re still fit and clear-minded, they’re still hip and with it. Their careers are fresh and new and their best years are still ahead of them in terms of kicking ass and taking names. But Slade is older. We don’t know exactly how old, of course, because time in comic books is a plastic and unreliable thing, but he probably has a couple of decades on the Justice League at the very least.

Super-soldier or no, time takes its toll. You have to keep learning new skills, keep up with the newest technology and weaponry. You have to continue to improve and adapt yourself to the world, and that gets harder as you get older. So the first issue sets this up very nicely: Slade’s handler Christoph basically comes out and says: “They don’t think you can cut it, Slade. Not anymore.” There. The issue is out in the open, ready to be dealt with. It suggests that Slade isn’t what he once was, that he can’t hold his own against the newer, younger crowd. Like an aging prizefighter, the time has come where perhaps he should think about bowing out gracefully and leaving the ring.

We could then have a really interesting storyline that explores the perils of age and obsolescence, where perhaps Slade tries to accept this new reality but is not allowed to do so. Perhaps he gets his ass kicked in the first issue and has to figure out new ways to defeat his enemy. Or he goes the “old gunslinger” route, where he has to deal with the young up-and-comers who want to make a name for themselves by killing the greatest assassin the world has ever known. Hell, maybe he looks back on his life of murder and bloodshed and sees that there’s more time behind him than before him. Maybe he stops and asks, “What’s it all about, really? What have I contributed to the world?” And despite an earnest desire to make good, to maybe give up his lifetime of violence, he gets pulled back into it, Unforgiven-style. There is so much that can be done to expand this character and make him vivid and believable and interesting.

RAWR!

Instead, they go for a gore-festy fight sequence that is basically the writer with his fingers in his ears screaming, “LA LA LA DEATHSTROKE IS A BADASS I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” He cuts through a whole slew of assassins and soldiers as if he were a young man of twenty, never once having to deal with the fact that he isn’t. And everything that tries to stop him is cut down with absolutely no significant effort. It is proven in bloody detail that Slade Wilson cannot be stopped – not by ninjas on motorcycles, not by guys in ridiculous armored suits with wheels on them, not by the ravages of time itself. He has no doubts, no fears, and no competition.

And that, friends and neighbors, is utterly and fantastically dull.

I swear to you, this was real.

This was actually one of the problems with Superman back before the character was first rebooted in the 80s – he was far too godlike. There was literally nothing that Superman couldn’t do, no battle he couldn’t win and no enemy that could give him more than a moment’s pause. With nothing that can challenge him, there’s really no point in writing stories for him.

So when John Byrne gave him a new start, he brought down his power levels a bit and created new conflicts that would force the Man of Steel to adapt and improve. And, again, he succumbed to power-creep over the years, to the point where J. Michael Straczynski actually decided that it would be more interesting to see him walk across America than punch out giant robots. He had grown so powerful that physical conflict was beyond him, and he needed to start dealing with social and political problems. [2]

He could also use a haircut.

In the New 52, Superman was de-powered again. In Action Comics – which takes place several years before “now” – he’s probably at his “weakest” since he was introduced back in 1939. He can’t fly, he can still be injured and get worn out during a fight. Even in Justice League of America, which is a little closer to “now” in comic book time, he suggests that he has limits to his powers and he knows what most of them are. By putting limits on what Superman can do, the various writers are forced to make the character work harder and be more creative in dealing with problems. The reader knows that it’s possible for the character to fail, and so we are more interested to know how he deals with the problem at hand.

No so with Deathstroke. The writer, Kyle Higgins, is doing his best to eliminate any chance that Slade Wilson could be defeated by anyone – even himself. He slices through his enemies in a single panel, makes bored quips about how pathetic they are, and the artist, Joe Bennett, makes sure that the closest thing we see to an emotion on his face is bemused detachment.

Yawn.

By the time I got to the end of issue 2, I was pretty much convinced that there was nothing holding me to this title. There were no characters that I cared about, no plot elements that interested me. All they had given me was Slade Wilson, Badass With a Sword, and I have no reason to read that.

Well.

That was certainly more than I thought I’d write on the subject. Next up, let’s tear apart Green Arrow. But not right now – I have a story to write.

————————

[1] My analogy here is more geared towards my male readers than my female ones, but I’m sure there was an equivalent for little girls and I’d love to hear about it.
[2] Which, from what I could gather, was such a dumb idea that Straczynski himself got bored with it and went on to do other things.

Love in the Time of Al

I’ll say this right now: this blog post has been rattling around inside my head for a month now. I don’t know why – probably Al is using his mind-control lasers just to make me do it, or maybe Harvery the Wonder Hamster has finally evolved into a great and terrible beast, able to broadcast the thoughts of its master far and wide. But for whatever reason, I have things to say about at least one of the songs off his new Alpocalypse album, so I’m gonna say ’em right here.

First off, let me just say that I think Yankovic is brilliant. For one thing, he’s been producing music consistently for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, which is impressive all by itself. What’s more, as part of that consistency, he produces good work. Parody pop is something that is easy to do very, very badly, and when you hear it, you want to cringe and run away. Bad parodies usually have the cleverness of a room full of elementary school children, and are about as much fun to listen to. But Yankovic is able to take a pop song, find a good hook into the parody, and make it funny and clever and memorable – sometimes more memorable than the song he’s making fun of.

On top of that, he’s done something I know I haven’t been able to do: keep up with the trends in music. I mean, I think a lot of music today blows goats, which makes me feel really old and crotchety, and if I were a parody pop musician, I probably would have hung up my accordion somewhere around 2000. But not Al. He knows what’s hot, he knows what the kids are listening to, and he tackles it with just as much fun and gusto as he did back when he was bleeding Michael Jackson and Madonna dry in the heyday of my youth.

And his original songs sometimes greatly outshine his parodies. He can flip between genres, perform vastly different moods and tones, and has shown over and over again that he knows music better than most musicians performing today.

So that’s out of the way.

There are some really good songs on the new album, and I may come back to talk about a few more in the future. The one that’s been sitting on my shoulder and begging me to think about it, however, is his parody of “Whatever You Like,” originally by rapper T.I. Now I hadn’t heard the original song, but a quick search of the lyrics and the song reveals itself pretty clearly:

Stacks on deck. Patron on ice.
We can pop bottles all night
Baby you can have whatever you like
I said you can have whatever you like.
Yeah
Late night sex, so wet and so tight
I’ll gas up the jet for you tonight and baby you can go wherever you like
I said you can go wherever you like
Yeah

Anytime you want to pick up the telephone you
know that it ain’t nothing to drop a couple stacks on you
If you want it you can get it my dear
5 millions dollars homes drop the business I swear.
Yeah

I want your body. I need your body.
As long as you got me you won’t need nobody
You want it, I got it. Go get it, I’ll buy it
Tell them other broke niggas be quiet

The rest of the song is pretty much in that vein. It’s T.I. telling his young lady how pretty she is, how much money he’s willing to spend on her, and how much he’s looking forward to having sex with her. The video – which isn’t embeddable – reinforces this idea, wherein a fantastically rich young man gives his number to a girl working in a fast-food chicken joint. The video is positively dripping with symbols of wealth: diamond necklaces, a giant swimming pool, a stack of $100 bills, champagne ejaculating all over the place. The message that I get is that this man is so rich that he can afford to keep a girl no matter how much she wants from him, and he’ll make sure that this new girl knows it. Watching the video, I did get the feeling that he was basically purchasing her to add to his collection of pretty things, but that may have just been my biases coming into play.

Now, just for full disclosure: I don’t like hip-hop. Never have. Probably because I’m so white that you could put me through a prism and I’d come out as a rainbow. I’m so white that polar bears tell me to stop showing off. I’m so white that Wonder Bread and mayonnaise constitute “living it up.” Whatever the reason, I don’t like hip-hop, and I think T.I.’s song pretty much exemplifies a lot of what I don’t like about it.

But, to be fair, I only listened to it after I heard Yankovic’s take, and really, T.I. didn’t even have a chance.

Al’s song is an entirely different beast. He keeps the basic flavor of the original, in terms of orchestration and style, but instead of a horny rapper trying to entice a lady into his bed with promises of mansions and buttsex, he turns it into a love poem in the time of the working poor. This isn’t the official video, but it is the song:

The basic story is this: the singer is poor, but despite that, he’s willing to indulge his girlfriend and give her whatever she likes. Unlike T.I., Al doesn’t have very much at all:

Tater tots, Cold Duck on ice
And we can clip coupons all night
And baby you can have whatever you like, if you like
I said you can have whatever you like, if you like
Yeah

Take you out for dinner anywhere that you please
Like Burger King or Mickey D’s
And baby you can have whatever you like, if you like
I said you can even have the large fries, large fries
Yeah

Baby, you should know I am really quite a sweet guy
When I buy you bathroom tissue, I always get the 2-ply
Want it, you can get it, my dear
I got my Costco membership card right here

Yeah you like Top Ramen? Need Top Ramen?
Got a cupboard full of ’em, I’ll keep ’em comin’
You want it, I got it, go get it, just heat it
Dump the flavor packet on it and eat it

In this song, Al really doesn’t sound like he can afford to have a girlfriend. Two-ply toilet paper is a special deal, Top Ramen is a staple food, and large fries is an extravagance. It doesn’t matter, though. He loves her enough to make very real sacrifices to his budget just to make her happy. He’s offering to share his very meager lifestyle with her, with no thought of compensation. The line that resonates the most with me, the one that I find rattling around in my head when I wake up sometimes is this one:

And you can always ride the city bus
Got a stack of tokens just for us
Yo, my wallet’s fat and full of ones
Yeah, it’s all about the Washingtons, that’s right

I don’t know why that verse should be so powerful for me. Maybe it’s because public transportation is often the only thing keeping low-income people from unemployment and homelessness. The city bus, as demeaning as it’s so often made out to be, is freedom. If you can’t afford a car, then that’s the only way you’re going to be able to experience the rest of your city, and he’s willing to share that freedom with her. He’s offering up his own tokens as a dowry to her, making a possible sacrifice of his own freedom in exchange for her love.

This is a theme that pervades the whole song. In nearly every verse, we get the impression that not only is Al willing to spend money on her that would be better spent on himself, we get the feeling that he’s doing so out of a sense of love and selflessness. At no point does he sound bitter or resentful – in fact, there’s only one line in the entire song where he even suggests that she might pay him back for his largess: when he needs gas money to drive her up to see her cousin Phil.

Al’s song is about sacrifice, about giving up his own advantages in order to make another person happy. He has very limited resources at his disposal. If he gave up on having a girlfriend, he might fare better financially. Without her, he might be able to take measures to save money and better his situation. With her, he will almost certainly stay poor. But she means more to him than his comfort, than putting money away for a future where he’s no longer safely employed at Kinko’s, than having a cushion of savings in case his Hyundai should break down. Her happiness means more to him than money, and he’s willing to sacrifice to see her happy.

T.I.’s song is about indulgence. He has so much money that he can throw it away on whatever his girl of choice may like, and it won’t make a dent in his already ostentatious lifestyle. With or without the girl, his life is pretty much the same. In fact, at the end of the video we discover that the whole thing has been a daydream of the girl in question. He gave her a $100 tip, which is lovely, but not his phone number – the key to getting out of a life she clearly wishes to escape. So not only does T.I. not really care about this girl, he seems to either be utterly unaware of the consequences of his actions, or a real cruel son of a bitch. Again, the contrast with Al could not be more stark.

So, in conclusion, whatever Yankovic’s intentions were in recording this song, what he’s made is really a testament to love in hard times, to dedication with sacrifice, something you don’t often see in a lot of modern music. His song is – as many of his parody songs are – superior to the original in every way.

I’ll probably come back to this album later on, as there’s a lot of great music on it. But this one was the one that really wanted to get out.

The New 52 – 4th and Final Week

Well, it’s been a busy month for all of us comics readers. 52 titles, some good, some… less good, and overall a whole lot for us to take in. It is tempting, of course, to paint the whole reboot with a broad brush and complain about the changes – or the lack of changes – simply so we can be aggrieved fanboys who have something to complain about.

What’s important to remember, I think, is that as much as we may be fans of these characters, they don’t belong to us. Hell, they only belong to DC in that picky legalistic sense. These characters belong to our shared culture, and if we want them to persist – and we do – then we have to accept that they’re going to change as times change. If you think that the Christopher Reeve Superman is the best and only Superman out there, then stop reading comics and watch those films over and over. If you think that nothing good has come out of comic books in the last twenty years, then stop reading comics, collect those back issues, and revel in the Good Old Days.

Change is part of the medium, and it’s important to accept that. Our job as readers and fans is to encourage the creators to take risks, explore new avenues and, most importantly, give them the freedom to screw up from time to time. And they will, oh trust me they will. But if they don’t take those chances, then we’ll just end up with the same old safe, boring storylines again and again. And no one wants that.

Okay. Off soapbox number one, onto soapbox number two. Spoilers abound….

Read on, if you dare

The New 52 – 2nd Week

Well, since I had such fun last week, staying up late and burning pixels into my retinas, I thought I’d do it again! The second wave of #1 comics was released this week, with a few gems, a couple of head-scratchers, and an overall sense that the kids over at DC have some interesting tricks up their sleeves. Spoilers will be aplenty, of course, so read at your own risk.

But enough of my yakkin’.

Let’s boogie.

The New 52 – It Begins Here!

Before we begin, let me just say that I’ve really been looking forward to this. I know it’s unsettling to see our favorite heroes and villains completely revamped, especially since DC has a habit of doing universe reboots every few years as it is, but any chance to get a fresh look at old stories is fine by me. And so, here’s what we have so far and, more importantly, my thoughts on it. Fair warning, there’ll be spoilers involved here.

More inside…

Well hello, Tall, Blue and Handsome….

Yup, The Boyfriend and I saw Avatar today, and before I get spoilery with my nitpicks, let me first say that it was one hell of a film. I saw it in 3D, but I think I would prefer not to do that again – I kept wanting to take off the damn glasses so I could see the movie better, and I found that 3D objects in motion were much less clear than things that were stationary.

But still – wow. A great adventure story, visually amazing. And I think we’ve finally found the other end of the Uncanny Valley with this film. At no time during the movie did I look at the Na’vi or their world and think, “Oh, that’s just CGI.” I mean, I knew it was – about 60% of the film was done in the computer, according to IMDB – but nothing stood out and screamed “Look at me, I’m a special effect!” Probably for the same reason no one snowflake stands out in a blizzard. But the world was stylistically consistent – highly influenced by undersea biology, methinks – and the performances were rendered well enough that I could believe in what I was seeing. So bravo right there, Cameron. You got me and kept me for every one of those 162 minutes.

But because I can’t leave well enough alone….
Here’s where I start overthinking it