Sunday, April 24, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Infinite Possibilities

It happens every time a big epic “world-shaking” storyline is announced. The next few months are filled with all manner of speculation, particularly when the story has a vague plotline. And perhaps the mostly highly anticipated story this year is the upcoming Infinite Crisis.

With this in mind, I put forth my own theory about the ultimate outcome of exactly what the nature of this Crisis will be. It came to me in a flash of inspiration as I was rereading Countdown this past week. And as I reread that story, I thought of other stories DC has published in the past few months that have, I believe, hinted at what is coming.

First, let us consider two recent stories by Geoff Johns, who will be the writer of Infinte Crisis.

1. Titans Tomorrow – The Teen Titans are transported to a future where they must confront adult versions of themselves that have adopted more lethal methods of fighting crime

2. Green Lantern Rebirth – We find that the Green Lanterns have been taken over by a force of pure fear, that has managed to corrupt even the most strong-willed of them all and turn them into a force of evil.

One story directly referred to a Crisis yet to happen that would change everything. The other resolved a past one, also concerning a hero who crossed the line between good and evil. What is the connection? None, unless we consider that this is not the first story Johns has written that concerned the idea of heroes falling to their own personal demons. He did the same in Black Reign, a JSA story that showed other heroes crossing the line from hero to more villainous behavior in the name of a perceived greater good.

We should also consider Identity Crisis, which drew much criticism from classic DC Comic fans for being too dark in tone. One subplot of that story, which was picked-up and developed in a later The Flash story by Johns, concerned how the JLA used the reality-altering magic powers of Zatanna to erase or alter the minds and personalities of super-villains who had either learned about their secret identities or become too dangerous. An unmitigated act of wrongness for a group of heroes dedicated to being paragons of virtue in all things.

Johns’ Flash story further explored this idea of the JLA having a darker side, profiling one villain, The Top, who had been forced to become a good guy and was driven to madness as a result ala A Clockwork Orange. Johns’ Flash has also explored the relationship between the various factions of Flash’s enemies. One group of villains turned hero (The Trickster faction). Another that are villains, but villains with an ethical code of sorts (The Captain Cold faction). The final group are the villains who have no ethics or qualms at all.

All of this points to one definite trend: the line between what is a hero and what is a villain slowly thinning. More and more the DC Comics hero, long considered to be the most old-fashioned, the most heroic… are sinking into the depths of the anti-hero.

This darkening tone in DC Comics seems to be the result of more than artistic temperament and editorial dictate, however. Consider, for example, the latest issue of Action Comics in which it is revealed that Eclipso has returned.

For those of you who don’t remember the original storyline, there was a rather big inter-company crossover a few years ago that centered around Eclipso; a long-dormant angel of darkness (and pre-cursor to The Spectre) who could possess people by drawing off of their negative emotions. Many of the DCU’s greatest heroes were possessed by Eclipso and temporarily turned evil.

Perhaps the most telling line came in DC Countdown, when Blue Beetle asks Batman if he has noticed the world getting darker.

Where is all this going? Somehow, I believe that the upcoming Crisis is not one of cosmic battles between whole worlds but a battle that will be in the hearts and minds of the heroes themselves. I believe that some force, perhaps Eclipso or perhaps something acting through Eclipso, is slowly poisoning the inherit goodness of heroes. That the heroes themselves are becoming darker and more wicked and that the big change in the Universe will be a battle for the very spirit of the DC Universe itself.

Of course I could be totally wrong, in which case we’ll all look back at this in a few months and laugh. Still, something to think about.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Who Is Donna Troy?

Who is Donna Troy?

For some, this is the title of a beloved Teen Titans story. For others, it is the title of a much-anticipated trade paperback. For me, however, it is a question that winds up in my e-mail at least once a month from some confused fan just getting back into comics who is confused by the endless, contradictory and just plain confusing history behind the woman known as Donna Troy. And Wonder Girl. And Troia. And Darkstar. And “russin-frackin-so-and-so” for those of us fond of cartoon swearing.

Still, enough people have asked for me to try… and I emphasize the word TRY, even for a DC Comics history buff of my standing this is a tall order… to answer this question. A question that has become so complicated it had even transcended the labyrinth-like history of the old “Who Has The Most Complicated Story” stand-by Hawkman/Hawkgirl. Who the &*#@ is Donna Troy?

It all began simply enough. Back in the day, there was a Wonder Girl. And lo, it was that she was a young Wonder Woman as Superboy was a young Superman. But then the Teen Titans were formed. And so it was that, in order to put a girl on the team, Wonder Girl did join the team. And it was revealed that this was a different Wonder Girl. A new Wonder Girl. A Wonder Girl named… Donna Troy.

Donna went without a background for a good while. Her first backstory came about not too long after the infamous de-powering of Wonder Woman, when she became a martial-artist instead of being the wonder we know and love (Not one of Denny O’Neil’s better ideas, but I digress). Donna was having “sickly” spells and Robin wondered if this was connected to the events that temporarily depowered the Amazons. Donna says that can’t be it, because she isn’t truly an Amazon.

A later story clarified things further. Donna was put up for adoption by her mother, Donna Hinckley, whom was dying of cancer. Donna was adopted by the Stacey family, but was put back up for adoption shortly after her foster father was killed by Doctor Octopus. Following the death of his blood daughter Gwen…

(Just making sure you were paying attention. That was “Stacy” with no “e”, anyway.)

Actually, Donna was put back up for adoption after her foster father was killed in a car-crash. Her foster mother, Fay, proved unable to care for a daughter by herself, so back Donna went into foster care. Or rather, she should have. She was actually kidnapped and put into a baby-smuggling ring. It was here that Donna was saved by Wonder Woman, who rescuing her from the burning warehouse where she was being kept. So Donna was raised by the Amazons, who were able to use their advanced technologies to give Donna the proportional strength and powers of an Amazon warrior though she was not truly of Amazon blood.

Now, there have been some stories which had Donna being saved from the house-fire that killed her parents by Wonder Woman. No business about a baby-smuggling ring. About the only thing all parties agree on is that Donna was saved from a fire by Wonder Woman, regardless of the circumstances as to what was on fire and who was holding her. All well and good either way. Nice and simple origin, right?

Well, it was. Up until Crisis.

Yes, Crisis on Infinite Earths, while having fixed a lot of continuity problems, did not address all of them and actually created quite a few. Donna Troy’s story was one of them. You see, one change to come out of Crisis was that Wonder Woman did not appear until five years after the first appearance of Superman and Batman. But the Teen Titans, made up of the sidekicks of Batman, Green Arrow, Aquaman and The Flash… was formed sometime before Wonder Woman appeared. And Wonder Girl? She was there too.

It was a Catch-22. Wonder Girl was a popular member of the Teen Titans, which was a very popular book back in the early ‘80s. But you couldn’t have her there without a Wonder Woman. Could you?

And so came the first change. It turns out that Donna was not saved from the fire by Wonder Woman, but by a Titan of Myth named Rhea. Rhea took Donna to New Chronus; the home of the Titans. Donna and several other children taken from around the galaxy were raised and trained for 13 years- the plan being to return them to their home-planets with amazing powers that they would slowly develop, eventually growing to replace the god-like Titans who had raised them.

Upon her return to Earth, Donna adopted the surname of Troy and made a costume for herself based on the American flag. Armed with the weapons that Titans of Myth had given her (bracelets and a lasso suspiciously like those of Wonder Woman), Donna began her career as a crime-fighter and went on to become a founding member of the Teen Titans, having no memory of her amazing past, save the memory of a figure saving her from a fire. This was all detailed in New Titans #50 (1989).

Now this was the status quo for quite a while. Donna was Wonder Girl, even as she grew up and got married to college-professor and single-father Terry Long. And sometime during the next few years, Donna took on the name Troia. Why? Well, it sounds like Troy and it sounds all… aggressive female warrior, I guess.

The name change came after Donna was contacted by one of the Titans of Myth called Phoebe. One of the other children, Sparta by name, had gone mad and threatened to destroy all of New Chronus. Donna and the rest of the Teen Titans came to their aid and Donna learned the truth of her past and the origin of her powers. The Titans of Myth were so thankful that they gave Donna several gifts, which she put into a new costume. (This change began, not too long after Donna’s origin was explained, in New Titans #55)

After that, Donna had her first child; a son named Robert. She had to keep from getting killed by people from the Future called the Team Titans, who thought her son was going to grow into a huge threat. (It turned out they wanted Sarah Conner, not Donna Troy) This battle took a huge toll on Donna, who asked for her powers to be removed by the Titans of Myth so she could be a normal, full-time mommy and live on a farm in New Jersey.

(Still with me kids? We haven’t gotten to the bad part yet…)

Her request was granted, but she began to miss being super-powered REALLY quick after she realized that she still had a lot of super-powered villains after her and having a superhero team living with her didn’t help this much. Knowing the life-expectancy for attractive women without superpowers in the comics world, she asked to have her powers given back and was… naturally, refused.

Thankfully, there seems to always be an opening for superhero jobs if you know where to look and Donna was soon offered a spot in The Darkstars. The Darkstars were an intergalactic police-force founded by The Controllers (an even more fascist off-shoot of The Guardians of the Universe) in order to replace the now-dead Green Lantern Corps. And then Zero Hour came along and things got really bad for Donna.

For one thing, her husband was unable to handle the superhero thing anymore and filed for divorce. All of her team, save two members, was erased by the time-flow or went off into deep space to help rebuild Starfire’s planet (which is another long story). And her farm was destroyed, leaving her to move into Titans Tower again.

But it was not all bad. She found a new love in Kyle Rayner, the last Green Lantern, who was himself recovering from a bad break-up. She found new purpose as a Darkstar AND as one of the elder members of a new Titans team, along with Kyle. Alas, it was not to be. She waffled on her decision to be a superhero and decided to quit the Darkstars, become a normal woman again and devote herself to her work as a photographer and being a mommy.

And then, things went from bad to worse to suck.

In Green Lantern #90, we learned through a phone-call that Terry and Robert had died in a car-crash and Donna Troy tearfully broke up with Kyle Rayner as she rushed to get away. She got away into the Wonder Woman books, where her presence was required for John Byrne’s attempts to redefine the Wonder Woman saga. But why did he want Donna Troy? Donna didn’t have any connection to Wonder Woman now. Right?

(Go get a drink and sit down folks. We’re getting into the rough stuff now.)

It turns out that Donna was not really a random girl rescued by the Titans of Myth, granted fabulous powers and raised to become an intergalactic goddess. No. It turned out she was a magically-created clone of Princess Diana of Themyscria.

Yes, at a time when even Marvel Comics was starting to realize that clones were a bad gimmick, John Byrne turned Donna Troy into a clone.

The story now was that Diana, as a young girl, was bored. There were no other girls for her to play with and the Amazons were too busy with their own work to spend much time worrying about keeping her amused. So Diana went to the Amazon’s head priestess and magic-worker Magala, who created a magical duplicate of Diana to keep her company. Magala kept this a secret, knowing Hippolyta would not approve of such magic. Diana had this secret twin sister for six months before tragedy struck.

There was one more change brought about by Byrne that must be noted here. Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, was forced to assume the role of Wonder Woman after her daughter’s death in modern times (Long Story Short: She got better really quick.) While acting as Wonder Woman, she went back in time to the 1940’s and joined the Justice Society of America, fighting the Nazis before returning to modern times.

This had little direct effect upon Donna except for two things. First, it explained away how she came up with the name “Wonder Girl” as there had now been a Wonder Woman in the distant past to inspire her choice of name. Secondly, Hippolyta made an enemy of a Nazi sorceress who went by the name of Dark Angel.

Dark Angel wanted revenge against Hippolyta and was able to use her powers to penetrate the barriers around Paradise Island. She planned to abduct Diana, and use her powers to send her throughout time, having her be constantly reborn into an infinity of horrible lives. Because of Diana’s bond to her mother, this would allow Hippolyta to feel the pain of each life, eventually going mad.

But there was one problem: Dark Angel abducted Diana’s duplicate instead of the real Princess Diana. And as the spell also made Diana forget about her duplicate once she outgrew the need for a companion, Diana came to believe her memories of a playmate were just the normal dreams of a girl’s imaginary friend. And not really being her daughter, Hippolyta felt nothing of the duplicate’s pain.

But something odd happened… and the duplicate became more and more real, the more and more she was “reborn”. Proof of the old saying that whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. And then in one of her lives, the woman was reborn as a girl who was rescued from baby smugglers by a Titan of Myth…
And you know the rest.

Things came full circle, with Donna Troy disappearing from reality as Dark Angel’s curse kicked in, her life now full of tragedy enough as her husband and son lay dead. And she would have been totally forgotten because of Dark Angel’s spell, had it not been for The Flash and Hippolyta being displaced in time when she was taken. Being in a place where magic couldn’t touch them, they still had memories of Donna Troy and did not understand why nobody else remembered her when they returned.

Through a combination of magic and The Flash’s memories of his childhood friend, Donna Troy was restored to life and Dark Angel was destroyed by Donna’s own hand. Somehow, the constant suffering and rebirth had made Donna purer. So pure, in fact, that her touch could destroy beings of pure evil such as Dark Angel. With her past revealed, Donna was adopted as a true Amazon and was treated by Hippolyta as her own daughter.

Despite all this, Donna’s life was still complicated. Having been brought back to life based on Wally’s memories, there was so much of her life that she had forgotten that he knew nothing about. She tried to reconcile things with Kyle Rayner but the two quickly realized that she was literally not the woman he fell in love with. Even the formation of a new Titans team did little to give Donna a sense of purpose. While she still fought crime with the same vigor, she found herself wondering just how much of herself was real.

In short, she went from having a slightly confused background to having a very confusing background. She went from being a fully rounded personality to a shadow of her former self given flesh, fueled by the memories of a friend who might barely make her “Top Five Closest Friends” list.

This all apparently got fixed by another reboot sometime during the Titans run, but I didn’t read any of that title past the first year. I understand I am very fortunate in this regard and was unable to find any other references to what happened on-line.

All of this became a moot point when, during Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day, when Donna was killed by a rogue Superman robot. We saw an image of her running into battle in some other kind of world. But where this is and what it means are beyond me. Hopefully we will get some kind of answer in this in the upcoming “Return of Donna Troy” mini-series.

I think I’ll let someone else review that tone. If I never read another Donna Troy story at this point, it’ll be too soon.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Strange #5 - A Review

Written by: J. Michael Straczynski & Sara Barnes
Penciled by: Brandon Peterson
Inked by: Brandon Peterson
Colored by: Justin Ponsor
Lettered by: Randy Gentile
Editor: Axel Alonso
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Dr. Stephen Strange has been having a rough time of it. Crippled by an accident that made him unable to continue his career as a plastic surgeon, he went searching the world for a cure to his condition. Since then, he has been on a whirlwind trip, chased by beings who want to kill him, found out his best friend is a servant of the dark forces that call for his blood and that he is the believed to be the next person who will stand as the guardian between our world and the other realms, where dwell evil things that make the creatures in the writings of Lovecraft look like Scooby Doo villains.

It is in this issue that Stephen truly begins his training under The Ancient One- a mystic of some power who he first encountered as a beginning med student in the first issue of this mini-series. He proves to be the slowest student in the class alongside Wong, Cleo and Baron Mordo. This last student, a familiar name to long-time Strange fans, is introduced only to quickly betray The Ancient One and summon forth one of the most dreaded of the outer-wordly beings; Dormammu.

It is funny how an issue can be so slow-paced and feel rushed at the same time. And yet, this issue actually manages the feat. We are introduced to Baron Mordo for the first time and his subsequent betrayal of his teacher and summoning of what amounts to a Deep Old One are crammed into half an issue. The other half is devoted to long conversations about the nature of responsibility and the use of magic powers that even the most long-winded lecture about The Force from Episode II was exciting. It is, in short, your typical penultimate chapter of any story. All set-up, no action.

Thankfully, while the contents of the story aren’t very riveting, Petersen’s artwork is able to disguise this fact. His revival of all the characters is well-done. And even in the lackluster action scenes (such as Mordo’s “no-contest” battle with The Ancient One)the artwork is vibrant and gorgeous. As an old construction teacher of mine once said, pretty paint cannot disguise rotten wood. Well, the wood of the story is far from rotten but neither is it freshly cut.

Friday, April 8, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Sin City - A Review

First of all, a clarification. Last weeks Looking To The Stars WAS an April Fools Day joke. To my amusement, most of the readers seemed to realize this but the Nexus staffers didn’t. I got a number of e-mails and private messages (which out of grace to those who were fooled I won’t print) about the column and it looks like my little social experiment in seeing if common sense can be overridden by “fanboy rage” was a smashing success.

For the record, here were my real beliefs going into the column.

  1. While generally wary of the increasing darkness of the DC Comics Universe, I did find Countdown to be well-written if somewhat rushed and lacking in personality. Much the same as Identity Crisis and Emerald Twilight before them, it is a story dictated by editors to bring about another story. I will be giving each of these stories a shot and judging them on their own merits rather than giving up the fight now.
  2. I do find that certain creators (you know who) are having their past works treated rather badly and that it is DC Comics loss in having driven such talented wordsmiths away. Nevertheless, this does not hurt my love for their work one iota. Randy Millholland wrote a pretty good rebuttal to the idea fans have to blindly agree with everything a writer or a company does in his brilliant web-comic Something Positive. While the storyline was about the scandal involving Orson Scott Card and his political beliefs, the same principal applies to the current situation with DC. If you are totally unable to enjoy anything by the company now, rejoice in what happiness their books brought you and move on. If you can, join me in reading the titles you still do enjoy and ignore the rest.
  3. Much as it saddens me to have to explain this, I do NOT really think that Frank Miller having a hand in the direction of the Sin City movie is a bad thing. Honestly… the line about Hollywood being more concerned with quality than the comic book writing professionals? If that were true, than Catwoman wouldn’t have won the most Razzies this year.

In point of fact, I was there at my local cinema stadium at Friday morning, April 1st in order to catch the first showing of Sin City. And as promised last week (the one serious thing I did say), I do have some thoughts upon it for you all this week.

It is good. Oh, good LORD it is good!

It is completely unfair to call Sin City an adaptation of the comic book. The word “adaptation” implies changes. Having just read The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard, I can safely say that nothing noticeable has been changed in taking the books and putting them on the silver screen. Call it a Comic Book Translation, then. For this movie has been transcribed from one media to another, as if Frank Miller himself had painted each individual cell of the film.

It is pointless to try and describe the plot of the movie; there are several plots, each more complex than that of your typical Hollywood movie. The characters also defy easy description. A whole book could be written upon the characters and the relationships between them and I only have so much space. Suffice to say, the movie is well-named as it is just as much about the city and the climate of it than the people within it. Like the San Francisco in the Sam Spade stories, the City itself is a rich character and like everyone who lives in it, Sin City is a maze in which the unexpected can be found.

By way of an example, let’s take Marv- the protagonist of the first third of the movie. I use the word protagonist because “hero” is an ill-fitting word for Marv. Marv is, as one of his fellow barflies puts it, unfortunate enough to have been born into the wrong century. Marv is a big, hulking ugly bruiser who is at his best when he is in a fight. He would have been a good gladiator or a good medieval warlord. But today, he is a thug.

He is violent. He is a little bit crazy. He is a stone-cold killer. And yet, he is not without his good points. He’s befriended a lot of people because he watches out for the people around him and has issues with any man who hurts women. And he’s good to his mother, too. For all the bad things Marv does, he does have a strong sense of chivalry.

It is this sense of chivalry and a fair amount of lust that leads him into spending the night with a woman who he knows on some level only wants him for protection. Protection from what, he doesn’t know. But with her having gorgeous blond hair and a smell “like how angels want to smell”, Marv doesn’t much care. Not until he wakes up hungover a few hours later, with the woman dead (“She called herself Goldie”), the cops at the door and a frame-up apparent even to a slow-on-the-uptake guy like Marv.

The movie goes full-tilt from there through two other stories, which I shan’t say a word about. I’ve spoiled enough of the plot already. The ensemble is perfect, with not a weak performance in the bunch. The action sequences are amazing and the visuals… well, this is the first digitally created movie I’ve ever seen where the lack of realism actually enhanced the movie rather than distracted from it. Because unlike other such effects-driven films (The last two Star Wars and Sky Captain come to mind), the characters ground the movie in reality, making the unreality of the world behind them seem totally natural.

Suffice to say that there is little in this movie to complain about. And if you’re complaining, then this movie is probably not for you. If you’re a fan of good action flicks, you’ll like it. If you’re a fan of the original comics, you’ll love it. If you’re the kinda person who likes movies about men who are men, women who are women and a world where there’s raining even when its sunny, you’ll like Sin City.

Me? I love it. I love it so much, I’m giving it a perfect 10.

And once again, I’m sorry I scared so many of you with the April Fools Day joke.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Friday, April 1, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Get Over Yourselves!

As I’m sure you all know, Looking To The Stars usually runs on Mondays. But there’s a bit of news that demands to be addressed immediately and I couldn’t wait until the weekend was over to get this said.

Perhaps there are some of you who haven’t read DC Countdown To Infinite Crisis yet. If so, skip past the next bar, as this first set of comments is aimed squarely at some of the people I have heard complaining on the message boards and in my comic shop.

Really, people! You think the world is coming to an end because they’re trying to do a dark, mature story in the DC Universe? That the death of Blue Beetle and Booster Gold turning serious are the signs that the party is over and that silly, fun stories are the thing of the past? Well, I’ve got news for you; you’re right! And I for one couldn’t be happier.

I’ll tell you something right now. The genre has progressed past the point where we can do stories about superheroes buying an island casino or corrupt millionaires running a superhero team in any way other than as total despots. We’re more mature than that now and we don’t need a bunch of slapstick humor and cheap gags making us look any more foolish to the Hollywood professionals that are now looking to turn our hobby into fine quality entertainment for the masses.

Lose the comedy, publishers! We don’t need it. And I’ll go on record as saying that the best thing DC has done in recent memory is kicking those moldy old fossils that used to write Justice League to the curb. Good luck writing your funny books for the independent set, you has-beens! You won’t be missed.

Finally, I’d like to address this idea that we should have the people who make the comics actually have a hand in making the film adaptations of those same comics.

On what planet do you mouth-breathing fan-boys come from that you think this is honestly a good idea? Good lord! The people in the movie business are professionals who work in a media that is more concerned with high-quality stories than the comic book industry, which is almost completely dominated by flashy images and cheap gimmicks, all for the sake of the Almighty Dollar. Movies are far too important to be made exclusively by writers. It takes hundreds of professionals to bring a film to the screen and slavish devotion to the ideals of one artistic vision go against the very grain of everything that films are supposed to be.

Of course I may be alone in this. Lord knows most of the fandom community seems to be eagerly anticipating this new Sin City movie because Frank Miller had a hand in the directing and the script. Am I the only one nervous about this precedent? What if some other DGA (Director’s Guild of America) drop-out decides that he can’t make a film version of “Watchmen” without Alan Moore’s help? Can you imagine what kind of farce that will be?!?!

Looking at the footage released so far, it is obvious that Miller has set about turning what might be a brilliant piece of work into an eye-candy extravaganza with very little substance. Typical of an artist turned writer, or indeed all comic book writers. After all, if they were any good they’d be writing movies instead of working in comics. Not that I have any less love for my comic-writing brethren in the writing community. But come on- if you were able to get screenplays published, you’d be out in Hollywood faster than you can scarf down a meatball sub after an hour without a snack.

Sin City opens today. I’ll have a review ready for you next time. We can only hope that Frank Miller didn’t screw things up too badly.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.