The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Uncollected Thoughts

Continued from last year…

Firstly, let me say to those who are depressed or disgusted at Peter Jackson turning the slight, childish The Hobbit into three very long films whose style and tone do not reflect exactly this children’s book, and which contain material not appearing in the book but instead expand upon matters only referred to obliquely by Tolkien (or in the case of Evangeline Lilly’s female elf-warrior, Tauriel, woven out of whole cloth: don’t bother going any further. You won’t agree with a word I say.

I loved the Lord of the Rings films. I did not find them faultless, especially not the middle film, The Two Towers, where I still take great issue with the changes made to the story, but overall, having due regard to the source and considering the requirements of translating books into film, I regard them as superb. Having been reading the book for nearly thirty years beforehand, I could not imagine it being possible to film it successfully.

So I’m already ok with a Hobbit trilogy that takes its cue from the LOTR films, and which – since its story is a precursor to the events of Lord of the Rings – decides not to undercut its illustrious predecessor by turning its world into a hobbit-romp with silly songs. Since the two stories are inextricably linked by Tolkien’s own decision to inextricably link, how the hell else are you going to tell the stories?

I read Lord of the Rings first. I wanted to read The Hobbit for more of the same, without knowing anything in advance of its true nature, and I was awfully disappointed. Peter Jackson’s films are far more what I expected in January 1974.

So: what of Part 2?

I have been firmly instructed not to give anything away to anyone about The Desolation of Smaug at our Christmas meal tomorrow night, so I will restrict comments then to two words: ‘Oh’ and ‘Wow’.

I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey last December, and disagreed with those who found it bloated, but I can understand the criticism now. TDOS moves at a rapid pace, from scene to scene, without ever lingering too long in any one moment. In that sense, it’s like The Fellowship of the Ring, in keeping to the spine of Tolkien’s story, but compressing everything into a more continual period of time.

The film starts, slightly disconcertingly, in flashback, in, of all places, Bree (in the pouring rain). Thorin Oakenshield, pursuing vain rumours that his father has been seen in the wilds, seeks shelter for the night, only to meet Gandalf the Grey. Nor is the meeting by chance: Gandalf is concerned about the North, about the need to shore up Middle Earth’s defences in that quarter. Which means that the Dwarves must re-take the Lonely Mountain and dispose of the Dragon…

From here, we go into the pell mell of the film. There’s no disguising that structurally it is not a distinct story, with a shape and purpose of its own, not even to the extent of The Two Towers. It begins with Bilbo and the Dwarves still in flight from Azog’s Orcs (and even though Azog himself is summonsed off the trail by his master, the Necromancer, the chase goes on, a constant driver of the action, with his lieutenant, Bolg, now in command), and it ends on a cliffhanger, Jackson having opted for that type of ending in the absence of something climactic in the book that does not leave him entirely to close to the end.

It’s all action, all motion all the way between, though the pace does slow somewhat during the time the Dwarves are endungeoned in the Wood-elves’ kingdom, where Tauriel, after being introduced as a doughty fighter, is superficially depicted as a romantic interest: remotely by Thranduil, who forbids her to give his son any hope of love with her, and directly by the young dwarf Kili. Despite reactions of disgust at the idea of a love story being welded into the plot, it’s actually handled quite well. There are no declarations, no snogging and only the very briefest brushing of fingers.

Mostly Tauriel fights, and she’s not only bloody good at it, she looks bloody good at it (always did like Evangeline Lilley on Lost).

The king’s son? Did I not mention his name? Of course it’s Legolas, and where Andy Serkis memorably recreated Gollum this time last year, Orlando Bloom is hurling himself about athletically for a good half the length on the film

The two long scenes are the Dwarves’ escape from the elves, which instead of being comic and bucolic is instead a fight, with the Orc band trying to kill the Dwarves, the Elves trying to recapture them and everybody killing Orcs, and the clash between the Dwarves and Smaug, the Dragon, inside the Lonely Mountain which is the effective climax to the film, and which is bloody brilliant and does not feel in the least overdone or extended. I mean, this is a Dragon, for Iluvatar’s sake, you don’t just hit it with half a brick and it falls over. You need at least half a mountain, and still he’s coming at you.

Whilst the events of this section of Tolkien’s original are followed in strict order, every scene is re-imagined with a dramatic viewpoint. The spine is there, and the essential marks are hit, again in the order of the original, but there is a greater firmness and intensity to each and every moment. This is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings and much is, quite correctly, made of the gathering storm that is to follow.

This is emphasised by the parallel story of Gandalf, leaving the Dwarves on the edge of Mirkwood, as he does in the book. This time, he doesn’t just vanish off-screen, to reappear much later: something in the atmosphere of Mirkwood, and in mental communication with the Lady Galadriel, sends him on a mission to the North, to the Tomb.

This was a moment of some confusion at first for me: Tomb? Whose Tomb? They can’t surely be about to blow it by suggesting Sauron has a Tomb, can they? No, Jackson hasn’t been utterly inconsistent. The Tomb is dark, forbidding, dangerous to access, but what it held is gone, breaking out of barred cells. There are Nine…

Sylveste McCoy reprises Radaghast in an entirely humour-free cameo, before he is sent to Lothlorien, to Galadriel. Gandalf goes alone into Dol Gulder, to confront the Necromancer – a stunningly effective concoction of rushing CGI shadows – and to identify him, as long ago he did offstage, between books in fact, as Sauron.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s brilliant use of material that Tolkien ‘lost’ in the Appendices and it provides an echo of The Twin Towers by giving us a parallel tale to the main story.

As with An Unexpected Journey, I watched the film in 3D, which was again highly effective after the initial unreality of the effect. The film makes very skilful use of it in terms of elf-arrows, which zing around from every point of the compass, but the two moments that stuck in my mind came fairly early on. There’s a bucolic scene in Beorn’s house where fat bumble bees buzz around, slow and contented: I don’t get on with bees and wasps and I damned well didn’t need an absolutely massive bumble bee flying out if the screen and into my face, thank you very much.

The same goes for the Spiders of Mirkwood. There’s a moment in The Return of the King that I can’t watch. It’s where Shelob comes hurtling into the centre of the screen, straight at you. No matter how hard I try, how rational I am about it being only a film, only CGI, I cannot watch it: my eyes slam shut every time. And that was in 2D: the Mirkwood spiders might not be in Shelob’s class but when they’re coming out of the screen into your face they don’t need to be.

So yes, I loved this. I thought it was bloody brilliant, from start to finish and I had no idea of the time passing whilst I had my eyes on the screen. Which, through both glasses AND 3D glasses, is no mean absorption. It’s main flaw? The twelve months to go between tonight and part 3: There and Back Again.

And if Peter Jackson does want to mine some more material from the hidden years in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, if it’s this involving, he has my permission to get right on with it.

To be continued in December 2014…

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier – 1971

Justice League of America 91, “Earth- the Monster-Maker!”/Justice League of America 92, “Solomon Grundy the One and Only!” Written by Mike Friedrich, art by Dick Dillin (pencils) and Joe Giella (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

In the aftermath of the previous issue’s meeting, Hawkman chairs a meeting with Superman, Green Lantern and the Atom present. Black Canary and Green Arrow are absent with leave, Aquaman hasn’t attended, because of what happened last issue and Batman is still searching for the missing Flash. Suddenly, the teleporter activates and Batman appears, carrying the broken body of the Flash in his arms.
We break off to enter a space region called the In-Between, a dangerous zone described as a ‘blind spot’, where some kids are joy-riding. They are aliens: humanoid in form, with big heads, pointy ears, small bodies, yellow skin, and they wear purple head-cowls with eyemasks. S-Kyris piloting when, suddenly, his younger brother A-Rym, and his vaguely dog-like pet, Teppy, fall out of a faulty air-lock. A warp snaps the lifeline connecting the pair and sends them tumbling into separate dimensional worlds, dooming them.
For these aliens have a symbiotic relationship with their pets, and require the physical proximity of each other. If they are separated for 37½ hours, both will die. Already, more than 23 hours have elapsed, and the two beings have undergone physical changes, growing larger and ever more dangerous, in their pain-filled desperation. Teppy is on Earth-1, A-Rym on Earth-2.
On Earth-2, the Justice Society is meeting. Superman, the Flash, the Atom and Hawkman respond to a distress signal from Green Lantern, which leads them to Slaughter Swamp, where Robin is helping a rather battered Emerald Crusader The Lantern has encountered, and been beaten by A-Rym, who has taken his Power Ring, sensing that it might be able to restore him to Teppy, if he can only make it work.
The Lantern is sent back to JSA HQ to recover, whilst Robin is reluctantly accepted onto the mission by a disdainful Hawkman, as a barely-adequate substitute for Batman.
Back on Earth-1, a Thanagarian medical unit saves the Flash’s life. He bursts out at speed just as Black Canary and Green Arrow arrive, but lasts only long enough to mention alien monster and New Carthage, home of Hudson University and College student Dick (Robin) Grayson. However, a summons from Aquaman demanding Batman and Green Arrow diverts them, Canary stays to tend to the Flash and the rest take off.
En route, they see Robin following up the same lead and take him along, with Hawkman disdainfully suggesting he might be a barely-adequate substitute for Batman.
Green Lantern’s ring detects a strange vibe emanating from Earth-2, suggesting another joint peril.  They contact the JSA team and discover this is so. The Atom1 suggests a mingling of teams on a scientifically sound basis: after the swap over, the Earth-1 squad consists of both Supermen, both Atoms and the Flash2, and the Earth-2 outfit of both Hawkmen, both Robins and Green Lantern1 (hang scientific soundness, this is obviously a put-up from Friedrich).
The Earth-2 squad locate A-Rym, who is going through the throes of a very painful cold turkey. They approach him cautiously as he is currently quiescent, but Robin1 is impetuous and starts an attack. This sets A-Rym off: he rips Robin1’s tunic off him. Robin2 goes to the rescue, over Hawkman2’s protests, and has to be rescued. Green Lantern1 sends both Robins off to the Earth-2 Batcave whilst he and the Hawkmen attempt to subdue A-Rym. But the frightened boy’s extraordinary strength beats down the Lantern, seeking out his ring (though GL wills it to become invisible before he goes under). Frightened, A-Rym knocks out both Hawkmen with GL’s body before running deeper into the swamp.
Meanwhile, on Earth-1, the pet creature Teppy is getting bigger, more panicky and more destructive. When that Earth’s outfit finds him, he semi-recognises the Flash2, being reminded of Flash1, and lashes out, starting a fight. The team have more success: whilst Atom1 distracts Teppy, the Supermen and Flash2 scoop out a deep ‘moat’, leaving the pet stranmded on a suddenly-isolated pillar of rock.
With their situation under control, Flash2 and Superman1 vibrate into Earth-2 to contact their squad. This being Slaughter Swamp, A-Rym has finally bumped into its notorious denizen, Solomon Grundy, the marshland monster. Grundy’s presence provides a strange, temporary relief for A-Rym’s pains.
When the augmented Earth-2 squad arrive, Grundy reacts violently to Green Lantern1’s power ring and attacks, taking out everybody, including Superman (his strength is partly magical in origin, hence Superman’s vulnerability). A-Rym beats up GL1 again and a hate-filled Grundy raises Superman, intending to kill the Lantern by smashing the Kryptonian’s invulnerable body down on him.
End of Part 1.

After four pages of contrasting two of each hero with one of Grundy, plus one page recapping A-Rym and Teppy’s plight, the story resumes. Superman fights his way out of Grundy’s grasp and everyone makes a tactical retreat.
Meanwhile, in space, S-Kyr’s rocketship is monitoring the rapidly decreasing life-force of A-rym, who tries to stop Grundy smashing Green Lantern1: he is still desperate for the Power Ring. The heroes mount another fruitless attack and A-Rym, realising Grundy isn’t his solution, leaves.
Back at the Earth-2 Batcave, Robin2 has finished repairing Robin1’s wounds and the two are sympathising about the generation gap as it is being applied to them by Hawkmen everywhere. Robin2 provides his junior with a fresh costume, a slick, sleek outfit in a grown-up combination of red, green and yellow, designed by the Earth-2 Neal Adams. They return to the fray.
On Earth-1, The Flash1 comes out of his coma and tries to stand up. Fortunately, his wife Iris turns up at that point and takes him home for TLC, leaving the Canary on her own.
On Earth-2, the ringless Green Lantern2 is alone until the battered outfit return with their wounded soldiers, Flash2 and Superman1. GL1 summons his Power Battery and creates a duplicate ring for GL2: they take GL1’s oath together (as they took GL2’s oath together in the 1969 team-up), and return to the fray.
A-Rym, whose withdrawal symptoms are getting worse, is trying to work the Power Ring2. On the rocketship, his life-force glows, until, that is, the heroes arrive, joined simultaneously by the Robins, and Robin2’s batarang removes the ring from A-Rym’s grasp: his life-force dims, ending his last hope of being found.
A-Rym’s last burst of strength drains away, allowing Robin1 to best him, and he begins to shrink and fade, falling unconscious into Robin1’s arms.
Elsewhere in Slaughter Swamp, Solomon Grundy is on a destructive rampage, with the two Lanterns trying to halt him. They discover that, individually, neither ring has enough power, but once they combine their willpower, they can finally drain his of power, if not of life. Once Hawkman1 turns up with Power Ring2, however, the Lanterns can make Grundy safe for all time by sealing him into Slaughter Swamp behind an unbreakable green barrier.
On each Earth, the alien monsters are shrinking and fading. But a couple of comments about the coincidence of fighting two such beings, on different Earths, simultaneously, clue in the Robins to the true situation. The heroes bring A-Rym and Teppy back together, saving their lives, and so regenerating their life forces that S-Kyr can track and collect them and go home. It’s such a happy ending, even the two Hawkmen apologise to their respective Robins for under-rating them as kids
So everyone heads back to where they belong, including Robin1 to his interrupted case, musing over keeping his new costume (Schwarz invites the readers to write in and say if they want him to). He muses on how odd it is for Batman to be there at the beginning but not the end of a JLA case, but the caption warns that this is not the end, as we will see next issue…
* * * * *
Just as Julius Schwarz had, from the Fifties onwards, cultivated a small stable of writers and artists with whom he would work, in the Sixties he cultivated a small ‘stable’ of letter-writers, young, thoughtful, articulate, passionate and interesting boys (and in Irene Vartanoff, one girl), whose letters recurred time and again in his titles. It was hardly a surprise that almost all of them (“Our Favorite Guy”, Guy H. Lillian III, being the notable exception) went on to work in the industry.
“Castro Mike” Friedrich (from Castro Valley, California) was one such. In 1970, he replaced Denny O’Neill as Justice League of America scripter, bringing youthful enthusiasm and an eagerness to experiment with, amongst other things, the approaches of Marvel. His JLA stories were intended to be ongoing, as can be seen in this team-up, where the opening is heavily affected by carry-over issues from the previous story, and in which the final panel is loaded with a lead-in to the succeeding story, which follows on from that continuity laden opening.
In a way, that makes the entire team-up a diversion, an interruption to the League’s run of events, and to be honest, the story reads that way, an impression not helped by a letter from Friedrich printed in the comic, bitching about the monumental size of his task in setting up so many heroes in so few pages.
And he’s right: it is a hell of a task, and he makes an uncomfortable, awkward mess of it, from start to finish.
If it wasn’t already noticeable in itself, Friedrich takes no less than three full pages at the start of the second part to belabour the reader over the head with his gimmick for this story – thankfully never repeated – of only using pairs of heroes in the story, even to the extent of dragging in Robin the Teen Wonder as a guest star to complement the first appearance of the grown-up Earth-2 Robin since his 1967 début.
But having gimmicked his story, even to the extent of mixing the teams to get the pairs working in tandem, for “scientifically sound” reasons that are as transparently meaningless as anything ever published in comics, Friedrich does nothing of significance with them. Except, of course, introduce a clumsy ‘generation gap’ theme as the two Hawkmen – both portrayed as crusty, disrespectful veterans – each put down their respective Robins.
The menace itself is also a clumsy gesture by Friedrich. The intentions are good: the set-up is clearly aimed at exploring the misunderstood monster territory that, a year later, Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s Swamp Thing would march into and occupy, but his treatment of it is awkward and ineffective.
Dillin drawing the aliens as identical yellow-skinned humanoids – wearing masks! Did they truly fear that someone might otherwise recognise them and strike back through their loved ones? – and the pets as cute puppy equivalents does not help one little bit. Even when they’re on a rampage, they look stupid rather than menacing.
And at intervals, just to ram down our throats that these guys are more to be pitied than feared, Friedrich treats us to lurid descriptions of heroin withdrawal pains, making an ill-suited comparison that is inappropriate given that A-Rym and Teppy are symbiotes, whose life depends on physical proximity. To illustrate this with addiction is not playing with equals.
There are so many little things about this story that do not hang together. It’s easy enough to limit the JSA contingent to only members with a Justice League counterpart, but not so simple to dispose of the rest of the League: in Friedrich’s world, they can’t simply not turn up to this particular meeting. Aquaman’s apparent snit (I did used to have most of Friedrich’s run but cannot recall anything of it now) takes care of him and his summons of Batman and Green Arrow moves them out, but it still leaves Black Canary as nursemaid, and requires that awkward page in part 2 with Iris turning up to take Barry off her hands.
I’ve already mentioned the “scientifically sound” nonsense, but there’s also this business about A’Rym and Teppy have only 37½ hours to live separately, which is an awkward choice of period. Presumably it’s meant to be a change from the usually state where alien deadlines somehow break down into multiples of 24 hours, but then Friedrich goes on to stipulate that 23 hours at least have already gone by during which the two lost babies were utterly harmless, and only now do they start getting big and in your face menaces.
The story is full of such contrivances which do not derive organically from a thought-through story but which are thrown in to keep things stumbling along, or make things convenient for the writer, like Solomon Grundy. There is absolute nothing in the story to support the notion that this Golden Age creation, with his terrible rages, should in any manner be able to substitute for Teppy and sustain little A-Rym’s life force, except the desperation of the writer to find an excuse to bring Grundy in as someone the heroes can fight who isn’t actually a helpless and scared kid.
Besides, after going so heavy on the heroin withdrawal stuff, Friedrich has painted himself into something of a corner when it comes to A-Rym’s durability.
Frankly, it’s a mess.
Of course, come the end of the day, it’s the much put-upon, sneered at Robins who solve the case. It’s put down to their having been trained by the greatest detective mind in history, Batman, to put infinitessimal clues together to make four where others have yet to spot either two but we all know that it’s really because they’re the Younger Generation, who can see things clearly where the Older Generation have eyes covered with scales. Especially when it comes to making peace, not war (a metaphor badly spoiled by the fact that the first and completely unnecessary punch in part 1 was slung by the Teen Wonder).
As for the two Hawkmen having been selected as the stuffy Older Generation, I’m assuming this was derived from the Thanagarian Hawkman’s role as law’n’order opposite to the hot-headed, ultra-liberal Green Arrow. It’s far less appropriate to the Reincarnate Egyptian Prince Hawkman, though Friedrich tries to justify it by having Robin2 excuse him because he wasn’t present on Adult Robin’s one previous JSA adventure to date.
Which casts severe doubt upon Richard Grayson’s deductive capabilities, because Hawkman2 was very present on that 1967 case.
Having come down hard on Friedrich over what he did do, it’s a shame to also criticise him on what he didn’t do. So far in DC’s comics, the Flashes had teamed-up, the Green Lantern’s had teamed-up, the Atoms had teamed-up, multiple times, but this was actually the first time the Hawkmen had appeared together. Not only do they appear together, they spend most of the story working in tandem, yet despite their similarly stiff-mindedness, there is barely a word spoken to or about each other.
Indeed, this is the only major occasion of which I am aware in which the Hawks appeared together, and they treat each other as no more than fellow team-mates. Not even a two-man flying team trick: Gardner Fox would have burned his typewriter rather than miss that opportunity.
This was Friedrich’s one and only script for the JLA/JSA’s team-ups. His run as scripter would end with issue 99, leaving his successor, another fan-turned-writer, Len Wein, with not only the 100th Anniversary issue, but also the tenth team-up as his first script. An uncommon task. Friedrich wrote only fourteen issues of Justice League of America, including this solitary team-up: Wein would write only fifteen issues, but his spell would include three team-ups, each of different length, and he would make the most significant change to the annual team-ups of them all.

Wonder Woman: Kanigher and the “C” word

The book in question

I’ve read all manner of stuff in comics over the fifty years that I’ve been involved with the things, weird, incomprehensible, brilliant, dull, inspired and just plain awful, but I don’t think I have ever read anything so head-scratchingly, bewilderingly bizarre as Robert Kanigher’s Wonder Woman.
For the last decade or so, DC’s Showcase series has been a cheap and easy way to read long runs of old series, mostly but not exclusively from the Sixties. The volumes provide you with a good long read: Wonder Woman Volume 4 reprints 21 issues from 1965 to 1968, nos. 157 – 177, mostly written by Kanigher and drawn by regulars Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. To make them cheap enough to be attractive, the stories are reprinted in black and white, which is a drawback, but in this instance, nothing that has any bearing on the contents.
I first read this volume several months ago, in utter disbelief, but having just run two Wonder Woman blogposts very shortly before, I decided against doing a post on it at that time. The time has come to read it again – it is equally incredible-in-not-a-good-way – and bite the critical bullet.
Kanigher had been writing Wonder Woman since the late Forties, succeeding creator William Moulton Marston after the latter’s death. His work on the series was already legendary, in the sense of notorious, for its slapdash, wing-it approach, in which incident would follow incident with a complete lack of logic, as if Kanigher did not know, when he typed one page, what the next would contain. And there was the accidental creation of such characters as Wonder Tot and Wonder Girl, who were supposed to be Wonder Woman at different stages of her earlier life but who, instead, started appearing alongside her.
It’s not hard to imagine the comic being the perennially low seller it has always been rumoured to be. Indeed, though I’ve never seen this officially confirmed, it’s long been common knowledge that Marston’s original deal with All-American comics included a clause by which ownership of Wonder Woman would revert to the Marston family if a Wonder Woman comic was not published for a certain length of time, and it was widely believed that the series continued because DC had too much income in licensing deals tied up in the character to afford to lose her, no matter how badly the series sold.
Assuming this to be true, it seems equally clear that as a consequence, nobody gave a damn what Kanigher did with the character. Certainly Kanigher didn’t.
Volume 4 covers the end of one differing phase of the series and all of the rest, although the difference is purely superficial. This is not immediately apparent from the meat of issues 157-8, but a back-up story in the latter, a mind-boggling piece of metafiction that takes what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would do by inserting themselves into stories and beats it, whimpering in fear, to the ground.
But we cannot ignore that two-part story, for many reasons. This is the (in) famous tale that introduces that most incredible of Sixties villains, the Chinese Communist Oriental mastermind, called Egg Fu.
No, let’s just stop right there. Egg Fu. Before we go even the slightest bit further, let us reflect that here is a character whose very name, even in 1965 amidst the Cold War, embodies a hideously embarrassingly, mind-numbing racism.
Egg Fu. Oh God. And who, or more properly what is Egg Fu? Dear reader, I am afraid there is no way of softening the blow in advance, he is an Egg. A gigantic egg, with yellow skin. He has a painted on face consisting of giant bushy eyebrows, eyes slanting inwards at a 45% angle, a gigantic mouth filled with absolutely non-stereotypical buck teeth, and curling moustachios. Oh, and he has the usual oriental incapability to pronounce the letter R, unress it is funny. A word is already stirring in my head.

Now do you believe me?

The actual story-line begins with Wonder Woman’s boyfriend, Col. Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence, being asked to volunteer for a mission that has already claimed the lives of eleven pilots, a mission he embraces with an impressive gung-ho loyalty. However, it being probable to the point of certainty that he too will be killed, Steve is given an hour to make peace with his fate, settle his affairs and say farewell to his loved ones, without of course giving away the slightest clue that he’s not coming back.
Steve being Steve, his only thought is to snog Wonder Woman one more time.
Now Wonder Woman, in this era, is close at hand, playing Lieutenant Diana Prince, also of US Army Intelligence, though Diana is only a glorified typist. Naturally, her Amazonian hearing has already alerted her to her beloved Steve’s suicide mission, and only her Amazonian Code is keeping her from the profuse weeping that she automatically breaks out in any time she is threatened with being separated from her handsome boyfriend by more than ten feet.
It should be acknowledged that in Wonder Woman we have an inverted Lois Lane situation: Wonder Woman loves Steve Trevor as both Wonder Woman and Diana Prince but Steve has only eyes for her as Wonder Woman, to such an extent that his only topic of conversation with Lieutenant Prince is his endless extolling of the virtues and beauty of Wonder Woman.
We are about to see a hideously perverse demonstration of this, a gesture of emotional contempt and self-absorption worthy of a monograph in itself. Steve, having arrived in Diana’s office too quickly for her to turn into Wonder Woman, accepts with comparative ease the fact he’s not going to see his Angel for a last time. So, in flagrant disregard for the secret aspect of his orders, he asks Diana if she’ll spend that hour with him, walking on the beach, talking, even snogging at one point – but solely on the basis that at every moment (even during the kissing), Steve will be pretending Diana is Wonder Woman because he can’t get hold of Wonder Woman, and what woman in her heart would deny him that last pleasure?
We’re only up to page 3 and I am reeling in shock that this very notion is not being greeted by, at minimum, a jolt to the testicles from an elephants knee.
But Diana being Diana, as well as Wonder Woman (and the absolute worst of love-struck simps in both guises), it’s the least she can do. And what if their beach idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Chinese Communist Saboteurs coming ashore and trying to shoot them both? Colonel Steve will save the day!
Pity that he can’t see that Lt. Prince has tears pouring out of her eyes in every frame
Once it comes to the mission, Steve is naturally a winner. The fiendish Egg Fu has created automatic defences that detect the vibrations of aerial photography and blow up anything that tries to use it, but Steve’s already bailed out and is taking pictures on the way down with a camera. Just in case he’s tried something sneaky like that, Egg Fu has him bombarded with X-rays, but these are special X-rays. Instead of wiping out photographs, they lift people fifty feet in the air and fill them with explosive energy that turns them into weapons to be flung against US Navy battle fleets of the kind Wonder Woman is fighting to save, in accordance with her Amazon code, whilst all the time leaking tears left, right and centre over poor Steve. Who, incidentally, as a consequence of said Amazon code, she’s compelled not to even smooch, let alone give him a (sanctified-by-marriage) Amazonian shag.
As it happens, Wonder Woman’s compulsion to touch Steve gets her – and him – destroyed, absolutely blown to atoms, by book end, but here comes Hyppolyta (aka Wonder Queen) with the marvellous ASR machine, which the Amazons have invented to restore mountains destroyed by earthquakes and volcanoes. Wouldn’t you just know it, it does work on humans, but whoops, now Wonder Woman has the same explosive content as poor Stevie, and every time the two hapless lovers so much as touch fingers, they are blown about in painful explosions.
However, the love between this pair is so strong and demanding that, despite the risk of concussion if they so much as brush against each other, they keep attempting to do so every two to three pages, because they are so much a pair of lovestruck idiots that they apparently forget, from what explosive contact to the next, just what happens if they try to cop a quick feel.
The solution to this conundrum is exactly as you’d expect from the story so far. Though Egg Fu is an egg, whose features are painted on, suddenly his moustachios move independently, and capture Wonder Woman and Steve in a trap. In order to get rid of them, he hurls them into space, only for them to make contact with one of a number of anti-matter particles falling on the Earth. But these are special anti-matter particles that do not destroy everything instantly upon coming into contact with positive matter, but instead wipe out atomic explosive particles forced into the body of people, freeing them up to touch without blowing each other seventeen ways to sideways.
Thus freed, Wonder Woman drops her lasso of truth, which forces people bound by it to do her bidding, around Egg Fu and orders him to stop his villainy. But Egg Fu lesists so fuliously that, well, he cracks. I mean, he’s an egg, remember!
You’d think that’d be enough for two issues, but Kanigher follows this up with an eight page back-up story announcing the new phase of the series starting next issue, which is either a brilliantly self-mocking piece of premature metafiction, or a piece of shite. You pays your money…
Murder is about to be committed, and Wonder Woman can’t stay. She flies off in her robot plane, like a true coward (I mean, heroine) whilst teenage protesters gather with placards outside a “certain comics company”, protesting against a “certain editor”, who is “killing” Wonder Woman. Much play is made of how said “Editor” is an untrustworthy psychopath, because he reportedly wears a yellow bow-tie (wait, it’s not… Barry Allen, is it?).
Meanwhile, the entire supporting cast cowers in the editor’s office, awaiting their fate. This means: Steve Trevor, Wonder Queen, Wonder Girl, Wonder Tot, Manno and Mer-Boy, Birdman and Bird-Boy and the Glop. Beads of desperate sweat pearl their collective foreheads.
The fleeing Wonder Woman defeats her very old foe the Duke of Deception, out to destroy Paradise Island as a parting gesture before Mr Bowtie murders him, the Amazons cower in subdued, panicky groups, and even Angle Man (who is equally quickly defeated) is in mortal fear.
Because next issue, Kanigher is taking the series Golden Age. Wonder Woman will henceforth retell all the original Golden Ages stories, starting from that secret origin, with artist regulars Andru and Esposito now having to draw with old Harry G Peters’ stiffness, and the entire supporting cast is killed – by having their photos flung into a desk drawer. Only Wonder Woman herself, Queen Hyppolyta (undergoing an abrupt makeover back from blonde to brunette) and super-cutie Steve are spared.
All this in two issues.

Indeed she was

What follows does not, in all honesty, plumb the depths of execrability of these two issues. It is badly drawn, deliberately, all over the place, repetitive – Wonder Woman for the next thirteen straight issues cannot be introduced without the words “Beautiful as Aphrodite, Wise as Athena, Stronger than Hercules and Swifter than Mercury!” which as descriptive epithets go lacks the concision of “Boy Wonder” or even “Scarlet Speedster” – and starts to display an underlying psycho-sexuality that is disturbing to contemplate.
In truth, the Golden Age stuff doesn’t last long, not that it is easy to tell just where Kanigher’s focus is at any time. It’s partly a re-telling of Wonder Woman’s origins, her coming to America and her taking over the real Lieutenant Diana Prince’s life, mingled in with reintroductions of some of the Golden Age villains in, well, frankly, not really updated forms.
The characteristics of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor do not change. In every respect except actual lust, Wonder Woman is slavering for Steve, repressed only by her sacred Amazonian code and her promise to Aphrodite not to reveal her identity or give up her mission, both of which are utter bars to any kind of relationship with Steve that anyone normal would recognise as emotionally healthy.
She loves him. She yearns to be near him. She will act in any old kind of stupid way to protect him, despite the evidence that he hasn’t got the sense of a rabid gopher.
Because Steve is obsessed with Wonder Woman, or his ‘Angel’ as he insists on calling her to everyone under the sun, most often of all his long-suffering colleague, Lieutenant Diana Prince. Once again, the issue of lust in any recognisable form is absent from this relationship, which, given that Steve is a US Army Colonel before he meets Diana, makes his subsequent less than adolescent passion seem even more improbable. At least Diana has the excuse of complete ignorance about sex (and men) prior to that fateful and ineptly retold moment.

Just another, everyday thing

Indeed, Steve’s obsession is not merely total it is monomaniacal. It doesn’t matter what the situation, where they are, how appropriate it may be, what conditions of peril and danger this pair of prize twits may be in, Steve wants a kiss from his ‘Angel’. And in the face of even the most rational degree of resistance from Wonder Woman, Steve will force that kiss on her, no matter what danger she is preoccupied with saving him/them from, no matter what greater peril or risk he is creating, just as long as she is doing anything that keeps her from fending off his advances.
Yet Wonder Woman does not seem to see anything remotely wrong about this behaviour. She does not even resent it as a momentary intrusion, no matter what effect his inappropriately expressed passion has upon her and the job she is doing. Any normal female would have worn her throat out shrieking variations on “Are you out of your stark, staring, fucking mind?!?!?!” long ago, but this is not in Diana’s vocabulary. Indeed, the slightest thing that removes her as much as an inch from her masochistic goal of being in the divine presence of her suitor brings tears to her eyes faster than snatching a favourite dolly from a two-year old girl. Wonder Woman, outside of the Justice League, appears to be the only superhero who spends over 50% of her time crying.
This emotionally disastrous state of affairs is further heightened by the willingness of both its partners to interpret the slightest signs of any friendly gesture towards a member of the opposite gender as incontrovertible evidence of undying love, and a cue for heartbroken withdrawal from the scene, no matter how implausible the circumstances, though misapprehensions of this nature usually get cleared up (without a backwards mention) in the next panel.
Yet the sight of Diana being nice to someone who, no matter how implausibly old or ugly they may be, happens to be male is not the only thing that can disturb Steve’s unhealthy state of mind towards his ‘Angel’. One of Wonder Woman’s many assets is her lasso of truth, which, if bound about a person, compels them to obey the wielder. Given the sheer power represented by this weapon, it’s already frightening that Wonder Woman manages to lose it and get bound by it in almost every story, usually because she forgets to protect it (forgets? forgets?! FORGETS!!??). Steve is well aware of this, having witnessed Wonder Woman end so many adventures by catching crooks in her lasso, yet when she is in her turn bound and force to obey an enemy who has her act against the United States, Steve instantly bellows his hatred of Diane for turning traitor, no matter how many times she points out that she is helpless to do anything else.
This bull-headed stupidity only serves to torture Wonder Woman more than the mere fact of treason could already do, yet once she frees herself and saves the day, there is not a word of explanation, nor any request for forgiveness over the whole, horrendous affair.
And it is to be contrasted with Steve’s complete hypocrisy in getting his own hands upon the magic lasso, binding his ‘Angel’ with it, and using his control over her to order her to marry him.
Hypocrisy? Hang on, that’s the least of things. Let’s just repeat that. The leading superheroine’s beloved boyfriend – a Colonel in the US Army, in Intelligence, a person of high responsibility – is actually prepared to cheat his loved one into a state of personal slavery, compelling her into a marital and sexual relationship not merely against her express wishes but in complete override of her personal autonomy. No matter how often she pleads with him to let her go, to let her marry him at the right time, freely and of her own love and volition, he takes overt pleasure in refusing her appeals, in insisting on his forcing her, in exercising his blatant control over her.
This isn’t love. It isn’t even obsession, this is an openly expressed intent to rape, enslave and subjugate another human being. In a comic aimed at 8 – 12 year olds.
And when Steve’s grasp of the lasso is jolted from his hands, and Wonder Woman regains control of herself and her destiny again, there is not the slightest suggestion that she holds any resentment towards him, that she regards his behaviour and his attitude towards her as anything more than natural and unexceptionable, nor that he harbours the remotest doubt as to his conduct, nor that he would think for even a fraction of a second before taking exactly the same steps the moment opportunity re-presents itself, thus presenting Wonder Woman with the prospect of sapending her every waking moment in a state of heightened watchfulness against the guy who professes to love her and who has openly stated his intention to obliterate her will. And then she’s also got to watch out for the bad guys.
This isn’t the only aspect of the bizarre and unhealthy psycho-sexual background to the series, which also appears in the revival of the Golden Age character, Dr Psycho. Psycho was a midget, drawn with an overlarge head decorated by a penile nose and a jutting chin that, being also cleft, resembled a scrotum. In mainstream comics: the Comics Code Authority was certainly not as fascisticly vigilant as it might have been.
From his Golden Age origins under Marston, Dr Psycho was an out-and-out misogynist, originally charged with eliminating the influence of women on creating an atmosphere of peace. As written by Kanigher, he’s just a woman-hater whose hatred is based in rejection due to his deformed looks. It doesn’t take much to transfer this generalised loathing into a specific mad-on for Wonder Woman, with Psycho’s determination to force her into a symbolic role as the ultimate in female ability and potential, so that defeating her will be a slap in the face for womankind.

That’s certainly a viable story role, though it’s undermined by Kanigher’s presentation of Wonder Woman as an extremely dodgy role model to begin with. There’s even a sequence where Dr Psycho pretends to want to reform, to become Diana’s friend. It’s all an obvious fake and it does the Amazon no credit that she’s prepared to be so thoroughly taken in by it – as well as it forming the basis for the most absurd of Steve’s outbursts about her abandoning him.
What strikes me throughout this whole sequence of stories, and which I suspect has been going on for many years prior to this particular set of reprints, is Kanigher’s attitude. His control over the series is completely unchecked, and has been since he took over editorial control of the character in the late Forties, following Marston’s death. To have a writer edit himself was unique at DC, and to have allowed the position to continue for twenty years reinforces my belief that the continually weak sales were irrelevant against the licensing income.
Kanigher was in complete control, with only the vaguest of responsibilities to anyone. His heart was, always and forever, in his war books, and it’s notable that the preponderance of the characters he created were in that field. As far as superheroics go, he created Barry (The Flash) Allen in 1956, and Black Canary in 1948, demonstrating an ability to take the form seriously at some point, but Wonder Woman under his hand is the product of contempt: unrestricted, unbridled contempt, for the characters he wrote, and for the readers that bought them.
It’s too sustained, too repetitive, to be anything else, and the only question is as to how much was conscious and how much unconscious. We have his reputation, but the extended Comics Journal  interview in 1982 was enough of itself to demonstrate Kanigher’s innate self-superiority, his pretension and ego. Personally, I believe Kanigher knew what he was doing and that he wrote shit for characters he regarded as inherently imbecilic and readers who would buy any old crap he chose to dish up.
Back in the Sixties, I only once read Wonder Woman outside Justice League of America, in which, like all the other members, she was a cipher with powers. Partly, it was disinterest, partly that I had favourites for those rare occurrences when my parents would indulge me, and a lot of it was down to the small boy’s urge not to have his parents think he wanted to read about girls.
From the few memories I can disentangle, I suspect I bought a virtual reprint issue: it began and ended with Wonder Woman at the comic book shop (!) and in between there was this story that seemed to start in the middle and which looked funny: it was all very peculiar and off-putting.
So to finally read Wonder Woman of that era in extended form, and to have made all the allowances possible for time, space, maturity and everything else that distinguishes then from now, I am still in shock that this was considered, well, publishable. That DC thought it fit to publish not just a comic but so many comics, on and on, eight times a year, that demonstrated such naked loathing towards its subject and, I say again, contempt, for its readers.
It’s a constant, cheerless parade of notions clearly devised on the basis of what-can-we-do-next-that-the-little-fuckers-will-still-swallow? An exercise in trying to find out how inane, bizarre and stupid the story could go before the kids would actually revolt and recognise they were having the unmerciful piss ripped out of them every time they plunked down their 12c.

Post NaNoWriMo update – Day +9

Just so that you don’t think that I’ve forgotten, I am continuing with my NaNoWriMo 2013 novel, and have moved on to nearly 59,000 words after a session of just over 1,500 words this evening.

Though intially I found it easy to maintain the daily discipline of continuing to write – I have gotten myself caught up amongst my trio of characters and enjoy time spent observing them – the last few days have proved difficult. The NaNoWriMo discipline, the working towards a formal, external goal has been removed and requires replacing with a purely internal discipline that has no target date. Inevitably, there’s a certain degree of relaxation implied, not to mention an urge to be back to this blog on a more committed basis. Especially as my hits have, on average, nearly doubled over the last six weeks and I don’t want to disappoint all the new visitors.

There’s been some personal difficulties too: the Council replaced my central heating boiler last Thursday, a job that took nearly twice as long to complete as was anticipated, after which I had to hurry to the Post Office to collect an undelivered parcel. Having been more or less barricaded out of my kitchen, I ended up not eating until very late in the day which, given that I have Type 2 Diabetes, was not sensible. Result, off work on Friday and with sharply impaired levels of concentration until yesterday evening.

It hasn’t helped that I’ve reached a point where I need to do some on-the-ground research that I won’t be able to do until this weekend coming. I’ve been able to jump ahead a little, keep some momentum, leave a gap to be filled when I know what I’m talking about. But it doesn’t half feels awkward now, and a bit unstable, writing on when I don’t know the correct foundations for this scene.

You’ll recall my post about day 20, and the few minutes of thinking in the shower that provided a framework for the next section? I still haven’t reached the end of that yet! There’s some unplanned stuff to follow on the point I’ve reached then a revelation (the one I expected to reach ‘in the middle of next week’ on November 30) that will lead to a massive argument, shattering the growing set-up and bringing phase one to a conclusion. The ‘story’ will then leap forward two months and resume at a point from which I’ll once again be in the dark as to what will happen.

More updates to follow.

It’s Xmas Again

It’s still no easier to listen to with a dry eye, but A Fairytale of New York is my personal signal that the festive season is once again upon us.

The Pogues and Kirsy MacColl classic is once again in the Top 40, crashing in at high velocity at no 16, which, with two more weekends to go before the day itself, arouses my personal hopes of a repeat Top 10 visit for the first time since 2007. Either way, this is the ninth successive year it’s been round again, and the beauty of it all is not that it gets released, there being no need for that in the digital age: people just want to hear it, year in year out.

As usual, it’s second to Mariah Carey’s much more conventional All I Want for Xmas is You, which is two places higher, whilst most of the usual suspects are not on the heels of the Top 40. I suspect we might be in for a bumper nostalgia year: Wizzard have already cracked the top 30.

Here’s the link: as if you needed it. I will go into that personal bubble of regret and pain that we Kirsty MacColl adherents enter whenever we hear this, for the Xmasses she never saw, the years of her kids lives she misses and the songs never written and sung.

At least she sang this one. It’ll outlive us all.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1970

Justice League of America 82, “Peril of the Paired Planets!”/Justice League of America 83, “Where Valor Fails… Will Magic Triumph?” Written by Denny O’Neil, art by Dick Dillin (pencils) and Joe Giella(inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

It’s a beautiful, peaceful day in Metropolis as Superman streaks across the sky towards the Daily Planet building. But he goes straight through it, brings down a metal tower, and crashes into the subway, where he lies as if dead.
As soon as this is reported to the Justice League, Flash and Hawkman arrive to take Superman’s body to the nearest transporter tube to the JLA’s new satellite headquarters. Batman and the Atom await them, and start analysing what has happened to the Man of Steel, but Batman suddenly begins to choke, and collapses into the same state as Superman.
Deprived of Batman’s razor-sharp logic, Hawkman takes refuge in numbers and messages the trio of Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Black Canary, summoning them back from their special leave.
We are then taken to Earth-2. It is once again described as a parallel Earth, separated by its different vibrations, but now we are told that those vibrations have caused Earth-2 to run fractionally slower than its counterpart, so that it is now twenty years behind: therefore Earth-2 would appear to be in 1950. We are also told that the temporal fluxes between the two Earths are such that contact between the two is only possible for 21 days each year.
We then follow the Justice Society’s not-quite-human, not-quite-member, the Red Tornado, alone in space, feeling frustrated and sorry for itself. Detecting an alien spaceship, the Tornado assumes it is the forerunner of an invasion. If he can beat it, everybody will have to like him.
Unfortunately, he is quickly rendered inoperative, and taken aboard the craft. It is commanded by a being named Creator2, who has accepted a job to build a planet. For raw materials, he needs to destroy two other planets in a controlled manner, and he has selected Earths-1 and -2. All that is needed is to bring their vibrations into harmony and the Red Tornado is the perfect tool, being already attuned to the vibrational patterns of both Earths. A harmonising plate is inserted into his mechanical brain and he is placed at the exact midway point between the two Earths, slowing bringing their rates together.
However, it is not enough just to make the planets explode together, it must be controlled in a specific manner. Five of the crew are sent down to Earth-2 to place special explosives at strategic points. In case of interference from the Justice Society, they are equipped with strange nets to overcome their adversaries.
The first to intervene is Superman, who is paralysed in flight and crashes. The harmonisation has already gone so far that what affects him affects his Earth-1 counterpart.
The same thing happens to Dr Mid-Nite and, by extension, his nearest Earth-1 equivalent, Batman. And when The Flash tries to intervene to save Mid-Nite, he suffers a similar fate, causing his Earth-1 counterpart, on the Satellite, to collapse in his turn.
With three members down, the Justice Society calls in all its members for an emergency meeting. This includes everybody, even the Earth-2 Batman and The Spectre, with the exception of the adult Robin and the Red Tornado, whose absence doesn’t seem to be noticed.
But the situation is getting worse. The two Earths are sufficiently in harmony that they have flashes of vision, in which people from one Earth see themselves on the other.
On Earth-1, the absent trio finally arrive. Hawkman berates them for taking so long, and Green Arrow responds sarcastically. The Guardians have temporarily restored Green Lantern’s power ring to full power, and he sets off into space to travel to Earth-2, only to find the ‘doorway’ blocked.
But on the satellite, as the Atom explains what is the real extent of the danger, Black Canary comes to the erroneous, but understandable conclusion that it is because of her: she has transferred from Earth-2 to Earth-1, and there is no-one else common to the two planets.
The solution is obvious: in order to save the two Earths, Black Canary must cease to exist, must die.
End of Part 1.

The tension continues to rise as Black Canary insists she has to die, whilst Green Arrow bullishly refuses to accept it, the Atom is reluctantly starting to agree, and Green Lantern heads off into space to try to find a dimension where the Canary can be deposited in safety. There are only three hours left.
Meanwhile, on Earth-2, Creator2 has decided to pre-empt any further interference from the Justice Society by sending out more men with nets. Starman falls easily, but apparently does not have a Justice League equivalent to take with him, and the same occurs with Hourman.
In space, a shifting of the cosmic balance allows Green Lantern a sighting of the Red Tornado, and the realisation that he, not Black Canary, is the source of this problem. The Lantern tries to get to him to move him from his midway position, but another random shift blocks access. He is then paralysed when the nets trap the Earth-2 Green Lantern in a cage of wood.
The danger grows ever more near. There is another ‘ghost’ vision as the two planets see each other, but everybody is more solid this time. It causes a panic: the Earth-1 Hawkman saves an old woman in a wheelchair from careering into traffic, but is himself stopped when the net takes out his Earth-2 counterpart.
Black Canary grows ever more insistent that she must do something before it is too late. There are only thirty minutes left: the Atom says to give it twenty more before they decide anything.
On Earth-2, the only JSAers left standing are Doctor Fate and Johnny Thunder. Fate decides to risk all on a desperate gamble. He teleports them to a strange place of tombs and mausoleums to find the Spectre. A caption tells us that the reason why the Spectre is confined to this place cannot be given here but that it is indeed spectacular as everyone will see when it is revealed.
The Spectre himself greets his colleagues by reminding them that he cannot leave unless he is summoned as he has been here. The three magically powered heroes head for Creator2’s ship, but when it is in sight, the Spectre leaves his team-mates to attack the ship alone. He enters the netherverse where he stretches out his body and interpolates it between Earth-1 and Earth-2, keeping them apart.
Fate and the Bolt enter the ship, to Creator2’s disbelief. Fate is exhausted and the Bolt has to tackle the crew, but he is only a Grade-3 sorcerer and is not powerful enough to stop Creator2 from pushing the button that will bring the two Earths together. Doctor Fate has to summon his last reserves of strength to cause an explosion that destroys the ship, and everyone on it, except himself and the Bolt.
The explosion rattles both Earths and dislodges the harmoniser plate in the Red Tornado’s head. The menace is over. The two Earths begin to withdraw from each other, but the massive competing gravitational fields tear the Spectre’s corporeal body apart, sending him at last to his eternal rest.
On Earth-1, the Atom tells Black Canary the good news that the danger is over and she need no longer commit suicide. Green Lantern arrives back, having been telepathically brought up to date by Doctor Fate, but Green Arrow refuses to believe that the Spectre is dead: one day he’s be back.
* * * * *
Denny O’Neil really couldn’t write a decent team-up story, could he? Once again, there’s the germ of an interesting idea behind this story, and a technical freshness in producing a team-up where the teams do not meet but work on the shared menace from separate standpoints, but it’s handled so ineptly and half-heartedly that the result is frequently embarrassing.
Unlike the previous year, where the Justice League were clearly the cavalry, this time it’s a firmly JSA-centric story. It’s their Earth and their members who are directly attacked by the absurd and ridiculous Creator2 (who speaks like this: Ex-cellent. Villains with speech impediments should be avoided). All the Justice League actually do throughout this story is fall down helpless every time someone on the Justice Society is overcome.
The exception to this is Hawkman, who gets to save an old lady in a wheelchair from rolling into traffic, which is not much but is the most thrilling thing that gets to happen on Earth-1, and does little to make up for his otherwise demented performance throughout the rest of the story: flying into a blind panic when Batman is taken out, insisting that the lack of his razor-sharp brain has to be replaced by the two Greens and one Black (interrupting and negating the principles of the GL/GA series that had recently started: at least it was O’Neil’s own story it was spoiling). Then he shouts at them for not turning up the next instant, even though, as we will see, they are in practical terms as useful as a chocolate teapot. And he’s only on Earth because he’s fretting over having nothing he can do and even then he’s in a snit because nobody’s looking at him.
There’s an interesting twist in the idea of having Black Canary identify herself as being responsible, when in fact it’s nothing to do with her, but once the idea is raised, and with it the notion that to save the day she must suicide, it lies there flapping, with no development. It couldn’t go anywhere. What could they do, have a scene of the Canary trying to slit her wrists and Green Arrow shooting the knife of out her hands? It was pushing the envelope of the Comics Code Authority’s tolerance to even introduce the subject whilst scrupulously avoiding mention of the s-word.
The first part gives us another unfavourable comparison between Fox and O’Neil as writers of a superhero tea. Fox’s stories feature fights, endless fights, displays of power between hero and villain, because these are the point of the story. The fights are architecture, and indivisible to the story. O’Neil doesn’t think that way and can’t write that way: the scenes of various JSAers tangling with the aliens and being overcome by nets feel inconsequential, something conjured up to help fill pages. This sense that they are an imposition on what really interests the writer is multiplied when, in the second part, O’Neil can think of nothing better to move the story along than to repeat the same thing: aliens with nets, collapsing unrelated JLAers and another two page spread of duplicate populations staring at each other pop-eyed (and, incidentally, if Earth-2 is supposed to be twenty years behind Earth-1 at this point, why are all the fashions and hair-styles identical?)
But the biggest, most glaring defect in this story is the treatment of the Spectre.
Firstly, it’s poor writing even for comics to have him appear as a deus ex machina: god in the machine, descending from stage clouds to override everything that has been established in the story from the beginning. But then there’s this business about the crypt. The Spectre is confined to a crypt. This is a surprise to everybody because, when his solo series was cancelled, he wasn’t confined to any crypt, he was just reading from the Book of Judgement like any other ‘mystery’ comic host. Why is the Spectre confined to a crypt? we can’t tell you, but it’s sensational, honest. Roughly translated as ‘we hope it will be if we ever think of it’.
In the letters page, well-known fan and future JLA writer Marty Pasko pinned that one down accurately. There was no reason, there was no story, it was just a cheap contrivance to try to throw some drama into a story badly leaking at all seams, and it’s internally inconsistent, because if the Spectre is confined to that crypt, and he can only leave it if he’s summoned by someone like Doctor Fate, what the hell was he doing attending the Justice Society headquarters for the mass meeting in part 1?
Incidentally, 43 year years later, we’re still waiting for that sensational explanation of why the Spectre was confined to that bloody crypt.
That is not all. The Spectre places himself between the two Earths to prevent them from colliding, and dies when the gravitational pull between them rips his body apart. We wait for him to reassemble because naturally he’s imbued every molecule of his body with a magnetism that draws them back from all across the Universe, just like he did in 1966. But this time apparently not.  This time, his  Get-Out-Of-Being-Spread-Across-The-Whole-Damned-Universe-Free Card has been left behind in that cheap crypt.
This time he dies, with tears of happiness and relief. Only Green Arrow doesn’t believe so and says so in a closing, valedictory, ridiculous speech that, instead rips open the contrivance: of course he’ll be back, this ‘death’ is an utter waste of time, complete nonsense.
There is another change in creative personnel this, Sid Greene having followed Bernie Sachs into retirement and been replaced by another veteran inker in Joe Giella. Superficially, there’s little change, but a closer study of the art quickly reveals the difference between Greene’s crisp, structural inks, which bring out the firmness in Dillin’s work as they did with Sekowsky before him, and Giella’s softer, less detailed look.
The effect, though subdued, is unhelpful: a decade later, the introduction of Giella to Joe Staton’s pencil’s in the revived All-Star would be disastrous in contrast to the clean, sharp inks of Bob Layton. Something of that is visible here, and it would not surprise me to discover that Giella had been erasing pencils, simplifying the images as he so blatantly would years later.
And we can’t leave without considering O’Neil’s new ground rules for the Multiverse.
When the Golden Age Flash had been revived in 1961, it was as an older man, greying at the temples, still fully powered and in shape (for his age), but an older man coming out of a dozen years’ retirement. Barry Allen’s age was never given, but if he’d read about The Flash when he was a kid, up to Flash Comics’ discontinuation in 1949, that would put Allen in his mid-to-late twenties, and Garrick somewhere around forty. Not too old to be a perfectly feasible elder statesman superhero.
Indeed, the same approach had been used on all the Justice Society: greying, lined, nostalgically enthralled to be in action again, though it’s intriguing to note that the last reference to that aspect had been in 1966, in the form of a passing reference by Sandman to having been out of the crook-catching game so long, no-one recognised him.
But what was enjoyable and realistic nostalgia in 1961 and the immediately following years was growing less plausible in 1970, when Jay Garrick, at the very best, was far closer to 50 than he’d ever been to 40. To an audience of youngsters only slowly becoming leavened by teenagers and the kind of older fan who would never let his attachment to comics go, the idea of superheroes old enough to be their grandfathers was inconceivable.
So it seemed a good idea at the time to contrive something to eliminate that older-hero aspect from the Justice Society, to tune them back to when they were more or less the same age as the Justice League. Twenty years were about right.
But it would have turned Earth-2 back to 1950, to when the Justice Society were still active anyway, wound things back past the existence of any retirement. And that’s when it fell through and big-time, because only the heroes, in complete isolation and in defiance of everything that had gone before, were wound back. Earth-2 stayed the same as Earth-1 (though hardly contemporary with Earth-Prime in 1970: not in Justice League of America that is. Maybe if you tried Green Lantern/Green Arrow.)
As for the post-Crisis canonicity of this tale, it’s another no, and we all feel better for knowing that.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: a Research Nightmare

Sometimes, writing a novel involves some fairly bizarre forms of research.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a comic institution. It was originally conceived and performed as a radio serial, since when it’s developed into LPs, novels, a TV show, three different stage shows, a comic book, a computer game and a Hollywood film. Oh yes, and two towels. It’s outlived its maker: Douglas Adams died unfairly young, in 2001, since when three further radio series, one novel, and the afore-mentioned film, have been added to the body of work.
One of the fascinating things about it is that HHGTTG, as it is conveniently abbreviated, doesn’t have a settled form. There’s an almost consensus core to the essential part, the story as originally developed in the radio series, but this exists in different forms depending on which format the story’s in at any one time.
The radio series was first broadcast on Radio 4 starting in March 1978. Despite a lack of promotion it went down well enough to be repeated that year, and indeed several times over in the next few years. I remember seeing the series’ name in the radio listings in the paper and being intrigued by it never getting round to actually listening to it until August 1979.
As part of my training to quality as a Solicitor, I had one final exam to pass, Solicitors Accounts. This was a short and intensive course, for which my Nottingham firm paid. It involved two weeks in class, a week of home revision and completing past papers, leading to a two hour exam on the Monday three weeks after starting the course.
The reason I mention this was that the course involved five days on Accounts, three days on Solicitors  Accounts and two days of In-Class Revision, on the first of which our lecturer began by referring to HHGTTG. Apart from recommending the series, and reminding us that it was currently being repeated on Sunday afternoons at 5.30pm, he explained that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a book that had on its cover, in large, friendly letters, the words “Don’t Panic”.
I’d done well enough on the course not to panic (the eventual exam is the only one in my life that I came out of knowing that I’d passed), but this reference to the book was the catalyst that made me determined to listen to it myself. So on the following Sunday, I tuned in to ‘Fit the Fifth’ (of Six).
Coming in that late to such a short series might have been a disadvantage, but then again, in such a short series, there is much less risk of the characters having been so established that they are portrayed in elemental fashion, depriving you of knowledge essential to understanding. I simply howled with laughter, that week and the next, and determined to listen to the rest.
But before I managed to listen to Fits the First through Fourth (which I didn’t manage to do until the first double LP came out and I bought it through mail order), I got to hear the Xmas Special at, appropriately enough, Xmas, and in February 1980, the five part series two, stripped over a single week at 10.30pm on Radio 4. (And apparently finished so late that the tapes for broadcast of the final episode were not pulled off the machines in the studio until about 8.30pm on the night of its broadcast).
I loved it. It made me laugh over and again. I got the LPs, I bought the first two books, I eventually assembled tapes of the entire broadcasting series, although these were not wholly original because parts of the series had been improved and upgraded after that very first broadcast. Douglas Adams has clearly had an influence on my own sense of humour, as a fellow-author friend identified a lot of Adams-esque lines in the opening chapter of my first completed novel, Even in Peoria (insert link).
I even enjoyed the TV adaptation (which was more than Douglas Adams did, apparently) though it was very stiff, and reliant upon special effects which were a long way from being effective. Moreover, it did demonstrate that the story was not all that well-geared to video, there being insufficient things for the cast to do, in support of speaking those gem-like lines.
All this was until the third book.
The excitement surrounding Life, the Universe and Everything was immense. When it appeared in 1982, it was the first new material since the second radio series. There were no plans for another radio series, the TV series wasn’t going to return, everybody fell on this book, to the extent that, in Manchester if nowhere else, the book sold out of all the major bookshops immediately, and I was lucky to find a new copy in a fairly scruffy collectors emporium.
I wanted so desperately to like it, to find it funny, but the story meandered (as had the radio series, to be honest) and the comic settings didn’t quite gel. I still think that it would have been immeasurably better as a radio series first: both the two novels to date were thin, as books, but were sustained by our memories of the series, the unconscious projection of the voices, the aural effects. Without that background, without voices for new characters, the novel couldn’t hold itself together.
Then there was the most truly Unfathomable Thing.
Let me go back to the first series, to Fit the Third, when Arthur Dent’s unconsidered use of the Infinite Improbability Drive converts two thermonuclear missiles into a very surprised sperm whale and a bowl of petunias.
There follows a brief but utterly wonderful soliloquy by the said surprised sperm whale as it comes to terms with its sudden existence in the short time it lasts. There then follows a line of utter comics genius: funnily enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell to the ground was, “Oh no, not again.” Scientists have speculated that if we knew why the bowl of petunias thought that, we would know that much more about the Universe in which we live.
I mean, imagine that. That is perfect. That is unbelievably brilliant. It is utterly complete. It is weird, dissonant, eye-popping and hilarious. A moment of True Comic Genius, I worship at its feet. The one thing you don’t do, ever, is explain it. How can you explain it? How can you give an answer to why the bowl of petunias thought that which doesn’t immediately destroy that infinity of possibilities that are the real heart of the line: no explanation can ever be more satisfying than the answer beyond our reach.
No-one with any appreciation of comedy would explain it.
In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams explained it. I couldn’t believe that he did that. It’s the worst, most egregious mistake I’ve ever seen a major writer of humour make. And his explanation was every bit as stupid and rotten and unfunny as it was going to be

Ford, Zaphod and Trillian on TV

The rot set in from there. So Long and Thanks for all the Fish was even worse. It was a non-event that, had it not been another HHGTTG book, would have been rejected for publication. And Mostly Harmless was, from start to finish, the work of a writer whose head was in a bad place. Like Spike Milligan’s unbroadcast scripts for a potential eleventh Goon Show series, the book was the work of a writer who, underneath, really did not want to be writing this again, a writer whose subconscious was determined to pull the whole house of cards down on himself, in a way that meant he could never be asked to do this again.
I didn’t even buy Mostly Harmless, I just waited until it was available in the library. I might have done the same with So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, I can’t remember. The truth is, Adams’ colossal blunder in Life, the Universe and Everything had destroyed my faith in him. And with this at heart, slowly I drifted away from those parts of his creation that had been good, that were good.
It was like the third and final series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Not only had that series been painfully unfunny, having attempted to use what was essentially negative and destructive humour in a positive, optimistic story, the failure of what had been reliable comic tropes to raise a laugh exposed too much of the mechanics of the series overall, with the unfortunate result that series 3’s lack of comedy spread backwards in time, polluting the series at its best.
So too did the Unfathomable Thing, and the two deadly dull novels spread backwards, exposing rather too bleakly the comic tropes upon which Adams relied, to the extent that I ended up losing interest in HHGTTG as a whole, going off it in fact, and disposing of everything.
What is strange is that, despite my decided indifference to the whole thing, so many years later, I have probably quoted from it far more often than from any single source. It’s lines are vivid, they’re instantly recognisable and they seem to have some sort of universal application in any kind of situation. If I had a quid for every time I’ve used some variation or other of Arthur’s line, “This is obviously some esoteric meaning of the word ‘safe’ with which I was previously unacquainted”, I could buy at least one of the seriously expensive R. A. Lafferty’s that I’m still seeking.
Which brings me, by a very roundabout method, to the demands of research.
I was writing a stretch of dialogue, of no particular significance save in how it highlighted the growing relationship between Main Lead and Second Lead. At a certain point, Second Lead used the HHGTTG line, “I can see this relationship is something we’re going to have to work on”. Perfect for the scene, and ideal to bring out a little something in Main Lead’s character by having her identify it.
But Second Lead is somewhat younger than Main Lead: is it believable that she should know the line in the first place? A quick check reveals that the HHGTTG film came out in April 2005, and as the book is set in May 2005: ideal. Except: was that line in the film?
In the absence of a handy source comparing every version of the story and itemising which lines appear in which, I had to download and watch the film (and no, the line isn’t in it, so we end up with an unexpected wrinkle in Second Lead’s background too, though the shared knowledge will support the gradual relaxation in their attitudes to one another).
I hadn’t seen the film before, except perhaps for the last forty minutes or so, on TV one time. It really is as bad as they all said at the time, isn’t it?

The film Trillian, without the t(r)acky bottoms

Ok, it’s a Hollywood Production, so we can’t expect all our four main characters to be English, even though the story’s earth-scenes are very specifically, not to mention stereo-typically English, and the humour is quintessentially Cambridge southern middle-class whimsy, but to have three of them be American was just not on.
As for the individuals, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian is the least offensive. Her performance is fairly undistinguished throughout, and whilst it was too much to expect her to spend the whole film in blue shorts and knee-socks with a horribly clashing pattern, I think it was decidedly stupid to dress her in baggy white tracksuit bottoms that flared manically: I’ve seen photos, she really isn’t twice as big from the waist down as she is in the opposite direction in real life.
As for Ford Prefect, Mos Def underplays his part so much that it’s necessary to use expensive earth-digging equipment to get him noticed, but that’s nothing compared to Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox. Now Rockwell was up against the fact that Mark Wing-Davey nailed, I mean absolutely nailed the part of Zaphod from line one, so Rockwell’s stoner antics had no chance of convincing, but it’s an even bigger disappointment that the film – twenty-five years of advancing special effects and CGI on from the TV series – completely bottles the second head and the third arm bit.
Ok, that’s not entirely true: the second head bit is one that pops up out of Zaphod’s throat half a dozen times, and then gets cut out and basically forgotten, no doubt with a sigh of relief from the special effects department, who really aren’t putting themselves out on this, whilst the third arm CGIs out in the middle three or four times before retiring to Napoleonic rest underneath Zaphod’s shirt.
The artificial second head and clearly false extra right arm of the TV series were completely primitive but at least the TV series gave it a go.
Apparently, Adams once said that of the main cast, only Arthur Dent really needed to be English. Far be it from me to contradict the creator, but he’s talking bollocks there, and completely misunderstanding the form of his writing and his own comedy, which is quintessentially English. However, we are at least on stronger ground with Arthur in the film, except that we’re not that much better off.
I think Martin Freeman is superb as an actor. Quite apart from Tim in The Office, especially in his relationship with Dawn (there is one moment in the second Xmas Special where he completely incarnated me, and I very rarely find any kind of art getting that deeply into my psyche), and he is absolutely perfect as Watson in Sherlock and the only possible Bilbo in The Hobbit, but whilst he’s quite the best out of the principal cast, even he isn’t quite right in the film.
Because again, good as he is, Freeman is competing against Simon Jones who, almost as thoroughly as Mark Wing-Davey, nailed his part first out. Freeman’s voice is a little too northern, a little too downscale to match Jones’s somewhat fruitier tones, which were a perfect match for Arthur from the beginning.
Plus, partly because the increased romantic element to the plot requires it, and partly because Martin Freeman just is that kind of actor, this Arthur is more of a hero than in any other version. Jones’s Dent was a bedraggled last Earthman, alone in the Galaxy, forced to wander round in dressing gown and pyjamas, as out of his depth as he would be at the base of the Marianas Trench, and completely dependant upon Ford and even Zaphod for survival. It’s significant that, instead of having gone to sleep in a pyjama jacket, Freeman’s Dent sleeps in a t-shirt. He’s that much more dynamic, and vocally that much more forceful.
In fact, a lot of the problem with the earliest part of the film is the voices. It’s one of the things about a radio series: the voices are all important. Freeman’s good, but he just doesn’t sound like Arthur Dent, because he doesn’t sound like Simon Jones, and he’s also trying to say his familiar lines in a way different from his Jones read them.
It’s the same with Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Rickman’s good, he’s very good as he always is but, even more than with Freeman, he’s reading someone else’s lines. His voice isn’t altered by any sound-effects so it’s even more recognisably him, which makes it glaringly more obvious that it is not Stephen Moore who, you guessed it, absolutely nailed Marvin first time out.
There are many more points I could make about the film, such as the utterly superfluous Anna Chancellor as Vice President Silly Name, the cleverness of the Point of View Gun being rendered ineffectual by forgetting the sub-plot about getting it for Humma Whatshisname, you know, the guy who’s ransoming Zaphod’s other head, and I’m just not going to go anywhere near the ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Fish’ song and I really wish the film hadn’t either (that was an opening credits nose-dive that Citizen Kane would have struggled to get to get out from).
On the other hand, Bill Nighy was very good as Slartibartfast (many years ago I read the first novel as bed-time reading for my then girlfriend’s ten year old son: he collapsed in hysterics every time that name came up, and later complained that the radio show wasn’t as good, because it didn’t sound like me reading it), but just like everyone else, he’s just that little bit off through not being Richard Vernon. And there’s a nice touch as the TV version of Marvin appears in the Vogsphere office.
Oh, and I did laugh once, at one of the new lines, when everyone turns up on Vogsphere intent on rescuing Trillian, only to have to face Vogon bureaucracy, and Arthur sets himself up as the leader, because he’s British: “We’re experts at queuing”.
But overall, it was awful, and although the film made a profit, I am not in the least surprised that there was no suggestion of proceeding with the flagged sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
And, like I said, the bloody line wasn’t in there. A shame I couldn’t have found that out without having to watch the film, but when you’re writing a book, you have to go where the necessity for research takes you.
I wonder if I can work in a reference to Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge somewhere…

Cheating, I know…