Random Musings: More thoughts on the DC multiverse and the Elseworlds crossover

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Heroes from three worlds

One thing I like about the CW “Arrowverse” is that the producers of Arrow, Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow decided to incorporate, with some changes, the old DC Comics multiverse when it would have been easy enough to just have all the shows take place in the same television universe.

Sure, it’d be harder to explain, in-universe, why Supergirl doesn’t show up in either Star City or Central City more often, but then but by that same logic we’d have to wonder why the Flash can’t take a few minutes out of his day to help out in Star City.

Anyway, as I’ve said before, my first encounter with the DC multiverse was in 1979 when I read Adventures Comics #462 in which the original (Earth-2) Batman died.

To the best of my recollection, I next encountered the “golden age” heroes of Earth-2 in 1981, in a three-part storyline in Justice League of America #s 195-197 in which the JLA of Earth-1 once again teamed up with the Justice Society of America of Earth-2.

I thought I’d revisit it.

The Earth-1 villains Killer Frost, Signalman, Cheetah and the Floronic Man join forces with the Earth-2 villains the Monocle, Psycho Pirate, Rag Doll, the Mist and Brainwave— all led by the Ultra-Humanite— to defeat the JLA members Atom, Batman, Black Canary, Firestorm and Wonder Woman and JSA members Flash, Hawkman, Hourman, Johnny Thunder and Superman.

Ultra has a plan that centers around the elimination of those 10 heroes from the multiverse.

Ultra-Humanite explains his plan

The Ultra-Humanite explains his plan.

There’s no chance he could be lying, is there?

Of course he is. He knows full well the Earth-2 heroes will vanish. When the Earth-1 villains realize they’ve been tricked, they’re not at all happy. They might even go so far as to free the imprisoned heroes.

Trying to free the heroes

Trying to free the heroes.

Or at least try.

The Ultra-Humanite, who first appeared in Action Comics #13 in 1939, is a recurring foe of the Earth-2 Superman who’s transferred his brain into multiple bodies over the years. At this point, it occupies a huge, white gorilla.

In his first appearance, the Ultra-Humanite was depicted as a bald (or balding, depending on how he was drawn) genius. More on that in a bit.

But first, why do the heroes and villains of the 30s and 40s, the original ones from a publishing point of view, live on Earth-2?

In DC Comics Presents Annual #1 (1982), Lex Luthor of Earth 1 and Alexi Luthor of Earth 2 join forces. At one point, they travel to Earth 3, where the analogues of all the heroes are villains. Lex explains who they are and where they’re from to Ultraman, the analogue of Superman on that Earth.

Lex Luthor explains the multiverse to Ultraman

Lex Luthor explains the multiverse to Ultraman.

In the comics, the Earth-1 Flash, Barry Allen, accidentally crossed the dimensional barrier and met Jay Garrick, thus Barry lives on Earth-1 and Jay on Earth-2 because of the order of discovery. By that same logic, since “Jay Garrick” crossed over from his Earth in the Flash TV series in season 2, shouldn’t his world actually be called Earth-1?

I get calling Supergirl’s home Earth-38 because Superman first appeared in 1938 (and without him she wouldn’t exist, either) and the Flash of the 1990 TV series coming from Earth-90, but it’s curious how various characters from different Earths all seem to agree that Barry, Oliver and the Legends live on Earth-1. Even Breacher (Danny Trejo) the bounty hunter father of Gypsy (Jessica Camacho), who has been aware of the multiverse for decades, calls the home of Team Flash Earth-1. From his point of view, shouldn’t his own world of Earth-19 have better claim to that title?

It’s a minor point, but I somewhat wish there’d be an in-universe explanation as to how pretty much everyone agrees that Earth-1 is Earth-1.

Of course, the real world explanation is that the action in most of the “Arrowverse” TV shows take place on that Earth.

On that note, I enjoyed the second and third parts of the “Elseworlds” trilogy from a few weeks ago. It would have been nice if there’d been a quiet moment for the Barry Allen of Earth-1 and the Barry Allen of Earth-90 to have a brief conversation, but it could still happen in next year’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” storyline.

No, I don’t believe the Monitor killed the Earth-90 Flash. He disappeared in the same type of puff of smoke that teleported Supergirl a few feet. I think the Monitor just sent him far away.

It was amusing (and a bit meta) for Oliver to insist that Batman is a myth created by the Gotham City police department and to emphasize that he is the original vigilante. On the one hand, that’s true; Arrow was the first of these shows to air (which is why it’s called the Arrowverse), but in the comics Green Arrow was seen for years as a pale imitation of Batman.

I also liked seeing Supergirl and Batwoman work together, albeit briefly, and their mutual acknowledgement that a team up would be the worlds’ finest.

And it turns out John Diggle is a green lantern on Earth-90. Given how he’s handled so much else related to superheroes and metahumans, how would the Earth-1 Diggle react to receiving a power ring?

But getting back to the comics, I mentioned the Ultra-Humanite’s first appearance. This what he originally looked like:

Ultra-Humanite

The original Ultra-Humanite.

In his earliest appearances, Luthor had red hair. Later, he became bald, but once the multiverse was established, the Earth-2 Luthor retained his hair while the Earth-1 Luthor didn’t.

Lex Luthor and Alexi Luthor

Lex Luthor and Alexi Luthor.

It’s generally believed that an artist confused the Ultra-Humanite with Luthor and Lex suddenly lost his hair. As you can see, there is a bit of a resemblance.

In his 2001 Elseworlds story Superman & Batman: Generations II, writer and artist John Byrne established that the man Superman thought was Lex Luthor was really the Ultra Humanite in Luthor’s body, essentially making the two characters the same.

That tale, and the one before it, imagined Superman and Batman appearing on the scene in 1938 and 1939, respectively and aging in real time.

I’ve always enjoyed the DC multiverse and am glad it lives on in TV’s “Arrowverse.”

Copyright 2018 Patrick Keating.

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Random Musings: Confirmed: The 1990s Flash series is part of the same multiverse as the current series

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Flash of Earth 90

Two years ago, I theorized that the 1990 Flash series and the current series are part of the same multiverse, suggesting that the Barry Allen of that series (John Wesley Shipp) lived on Earth-90 (for 1990).

You can read that entry here:

The current “Elseworlds” three-part crossover between Flash, Arrow and Supergirl confirms that theory. In fact, the tag scene that played at the end of all three shows last week (and at the start of tonight’s episode of The Flash) opened with the caption “Earth-90.”

Earth-90

The scene depicts Shipp, wearing the Flash costume from the 1990 series, confronting the Monitor (LaMonica Garrett) before rushing off, accompanied by a brief sting of the 1990 series’ theme music.

Although Shipp didn’t appear in the actual episode tonight (I thought for sure that he’d show up at STAR Labs in the tag), his incarnation of the Flash will cross the dimensional barrier and meets the Earth-1 Flash (Grant Gustin) and Green Arrow (Stephen Amell), along with Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) from Earth-38 in either tomorrow’s episode of Arrow or Tuesday’s episode of Supergirl.

Of course, when that happens, the Earth-1 Barry Allen is going to have more on his mind than meeting another speedster who looks like his late father, but this time happens to share his name (Shipp has played both Henry Allen and the Earth-3 Flash, Jay Garrick, on the current series); he has to deal with the fact that something has changed reality so that everyone (on Earth-1 at least) thinks he and Oliver are each other.

On top of that, they have each other’s abilities, which took some adjusting on both their parts.

Flash of Earth-90 and Barry Allen Green Arrow

The Earth-90 Flash and the Barry Allen Green Arrow

The viewers know that the Monitor gave Dr. John Deegan (Jeremy Davies) a large book (probably the Book of Destiny), with which Deegan has changed reality, but all the characters know, thanks to Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) using his Vibe abilities, is that the encounter took place in Gotham City.

They still have no idea who either of them are, however.

In last week’s tag scene, the Monitor opened the book and said, “all of you will perish”, implying that he used it to destroy Earth-90, with the Flash as the only survivor.

On the other hand, “all of you” could refer to the multiverse as a whole. In a trailer for the crossover, the Earth-90 Flash warns of a coming crisis, which may or may not refer to the event mentioned in a newspaper article from April 2024, seen as early as season one of The Flash.

The presence of The Monitor in the “Elseworlds” storyline suggests that the crisis in question will be the “Arrowverse” version of the 1985-86 maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The Monitor holds the Book of Destiny

The Monitor holds the Book of Destiny

I discussed Crisis here:

One feature of the Crisis was red skies, which were mentioned in both the 2024 newspaper article and in tonight’s episode (though they weren’t seen).

While the Earth-90 Flash wasn’t part of events in tonight’s episode, Supergirl, Superman (Tyler Hoechlin) and Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) were. After escaping from the STAR Labs pipeline, where Team Flash had imprisoned them in the belief that they’d suffered a shared psychosis, Barry and Oliver traveled to Earth-38 to find out if Supergirl had also been affected.

She hadn’t.

A bit of the Smallville theme played during the first scenes on Earth-38, which might seem odd, but it’s probably a reference to the fact that Kent farm in the episode is the same farmhouse used in Smallville.

There may be another overall Smallville connection, however. Last week’s tag showed someone dressed as that show’s incarnation of the Green Arrow among the dead and dying heroes on Earth-90. Of course the speedster on Smallville was Bart Allen, AKA Impulse (Kyle Gallner), not Barry Allen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Barry Allen Flash didn’t exist in the same universe as Smallville.

Or it could just mean that at least two Earths have similar superhero sartorial styles when it comes to their emerald archers.

At any rate, Supergirl and Superman help Flash and Green Arrow defeat Amazo, a robot (android in the comics) with the ability to replicate their powers.

And with that threat neutralized, they’re off to Gotham City, where they’ll end up crossing paths with Batwoman (Ruby Rose), making her debut in the Arrowverse.

Amazo was activated during an attempted robbery at Ivo Industries. In the comics, Amazo was created by created by Professor Ivo, while the late Anthony Ivo (Dylan Neal) was an adversary in season two of Arrow who operated off a boat called The Amazo. Sounds like someone’s been carrying on his work.

Unless of course the robot Amazo’s existence is due to Deegan’s alterations to reality.

Maybe we’ll learn more about that tomorrow.

In the meantime, while we have to wait a bit for the Barry Allen of Earth-90 to meet the Barry Allen of Earth-1, tonight’s episode had some fun moments. Among those was Barry wondering if he and Oliver were in a Freaky Friday situation, before deciding it was probably a Quantum Leap one— and then asking for a mirror.

Then there was Barry finally getting revenge for Oliver’s “training methods” years ago.

I enjoyed tonight’s opening installment of the “Elseworlds” trilogy and am looking forward to how the rest of the story plays out.

Copyright 2018 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: Hunting for lost money with the Ghost of Dibble Hollow

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Ghost of Dibble Hollow

When 13-year-old Pug Allen moves with his parents and younger sister, Helen, to Dibble Hollow, an 18th century farmhouse is mother inherited, he expects to spend an enjoyable summer in the country. However, from almost the moment they arrive in town, Pug and Helen run afoul of a crotchety old man named Eb Smith, their next-door neighbor, who holds a decades-long grudge with the Dibble family.

On top of that, people in town refer to Dibble Hollow as “that spooky place” and Pug’s dog, Ricky, won’t go into the room Pug chose for himself.

That’s probably because the room already has an occupant, the ghost of 10-year-old Miles Dibble, Pug’s maternal great-great uncle, who introduces himself by asking Pug not to sleep in his bed.

Miles Dibble

Miles Dibble.

Miles, who died 60 years earlier in 1900, had been responsible for the home’s spooky reputation, but is more than willing to help the Allen family, given that Mrs. Allen is a Dibble and that Pug (full name Elisha Nathanael Dibble Allen) is the spitting image of Miles’ brother, Nathanael. When Pug’s parents consider leaving after the well connected to the house appears to be dry, Miles tells Pug how to access a second well, linked to the first.

He also needs Pug’s assistance in helping Eb Smith, his best friend, who is raising his granddaughter, Priscilla, and is in danger of losing his home of Twin Maples because of financial difficulties.

Eb Smith’s feud with the Dibbles dates back to the day of the fair in 1900, when Miles disappeared. According to Miss Woodman, a contemporary of Miles and Eb, the two families had made quite a bit of cash at the fair and Miles’ and Eb’s respective older brothers had charged them with bringing the money home rather than do it themselves.

A suspicious pair of men followed the boys, who split up. Eb was to lead them on a wild goose chase while Miles took the money home. But neither Miles nor the money was ever seen again. The Smiths accused Miles of running off with the money, especially since Eb Smith hadn’t seen the suspicious men, only taken Miles’ word about them; In turn, the Dibbles accused the Smiths of doing away with Miles and keeping the money for themselves.

According to Miles, the would-be crooks doubled back and started going after him. He’d had time to hide the money, but subsequently lost his footing in the dark on a rickety old bridge and fallen to his death in the river below. The men found his body and shoved it into the river current. It was discovered by a man in a neighboring town and buried in the family plot in lieu of his son, who was lost at sea.

Pug visits Miles' grave

Pug visits Miles’ grave.

The problem is that Miles, who can only appear to a Dibble boy under 15, and one other person, can’t remember where he hid the money. He only knows he put it in a tree, but the area is teeming with trees. He needs Pug’s help to find it in order to save Eb Smith’s home and restore the Dibble-Smith friendship.

Pug knows that searching for the missing money alone isn’t enough, so he also makes arrangements with the president of the local bank to do yard work at his house so the banker’s handyman will be free to help get the Smith place in good repair. He would have happily helped out on the Smith place himself, but knows he wouldn’t be welcome.

Meanwhile, Helen and Priscilla have a plan to raise money for Mr. Smith by selling some antique furniture. Pug and one of the local boys helps in that endeavor, too. Ironically, this boy is related to the man who holds the mortgage.

But Pug still needs to find the hidden money in order to save Eb Smith’s farm and repair the rift between the two families. But Miles has had 60 years to search, without success. How can Pug figure out the hiding place based on Miles’ imperfect memories and the scant clues he’s uncovered before the mortgage comes due?

I first read The Ghost of Dibble Hollow, written by May Nickerson Wallace and illustrated by Orin Kincade, in grade school and the story stuck with me long after I’d forgotten both the name of the book and some details of the plot. But I remembered that it concerned a ghost named Miles who was buried in a different town and not under his own name. I think it was a fellow Three Investigators fan who provided me with the title and I was then able to hunt down the book in a used bookstore a  few years ago.

In Pug Allen, Wallace gives us a resourceful boy who not only figures out the identity of the “other” to whom Miles appears and also deciphers the code in Miles’ diary, but also turns a potential adversary into a friend and convince adults to listen to his ideas.

Helen is also depicted as smart and resourceful, something both Pug and Miles acknowledge, though she plays a smaller role in the story and never learns of Miles’ existence.

As for Miles, he may be dead, but he’s still your typical 10-year-old, helpful at some times; a prankster at others.

The Ghost of Dibble Hollow is an engaging mystery that kids will enjoy reading and adults will enjoy rereading. If you find a copy at your local used bookstore, it’s worth picking up.

Copyright 2018 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: Reviewing Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

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Doctor Who new logo

Still recovering from her regeneration, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) finds herself in Sheffield, where she and her new-found friends work to stop an alien hunter.

The episode opens with 19-year-old Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), making a YouTube video about the greatest woman he’s ever met. He also mentions that he can’t ride a bike. We later learn this is because he has a coordination disorder.

The scene then switches to Ryan making the attempt, with encouragement from his paternal grandmother, Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), and her second husband, Graham (Bradley Walsh).

Frustrated, Ryan throws the bike off a cliff. Grace and Graham have a train to catch, so Ryan’s on his own recovering it.

He encounters a floating, diamond-shaped object in the woods and touches it. A moment later, a large bluish object appears. It looks like a large, squat vase (or a giant Hershey’s kiss).

In response to Ryan’s call, police officer Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill) comes out to investigate. She’s on her second year of probation and wanting to handle more than just traffic disputes.

Ryan, for his part, works in a warehouse and is studying to be a mechanic.

It turns out the two attended elementary school together.

At first she thinks Ryan’s pulled a prank but changes her mind when she discovers the object is freezing to the touch.

Meanwhile, something causes the train to stop and a blob of tentacles (as the Doctor will come to describe it) crashes through the driver’s window. It moves in on the passengers, Grace, Graham and a man named Karl Wright.

Ryan and Yaz arrive, too, having come in response to Grace’s call to him.

Then a woman falls through the roof.

The 13th Doctor

The Doctor.

It’s the Doctor, who was expelled from her exploding TARDIS when she regenerated. She’s still disoriented, but she takes charge and gets the others out of danger.

But not before the tentacle-y thing (another term the Doctor uses) hits everyone with slight shock.

The Doctor later discovers that it implanted micro DNA bombs in herself, Grace, Ryan, Graham and Yaz.

Meanwhile, a man named Rahul has taken the “Hershey’s kiss.” His sister, Asha, disappeared seven years earlier and he knows there’s a connection.

He’d been tracking energy signals, looking for atmospheric disruptions that match what happened that day.

It cracks open and an armored creature (Samuel Oatley) emerges (it was a transport chamber, according to the Doctor). This, we later learn, is a Stenza warrior. It tells Rahul he’ll never know what happened to his sister, then kills him and sets of into the night.

The warrior, Tzim-Sha (which the Doctor pronounces as “Tim Shaw”), is on a hunt. If he brings back a randomly selected human, with no weapons and no help, he becomes leader.

Except, he cheated. He used the tentacle-y thing to find the object of his hunt: Karl. It consists of dozens of gathering coils and tracked down Karl. “Tim Shaw” then transfers the data into himself and uses a short-range teleporter to head off on his hunt.

Yaz realizes that Asha had been the subject of a previous hunt.

The Doctor and friends

Grace, Yaz, the Doctor, Ryan and Graham set off to save Karl.

The Doctor and her friends manage to save Karl, who works as a crane operator, and the Doctor sends “Tim Shaw” home empty handed. However, Grace dies from a fall in the process of destroying the tentacle-y thing, which had been guarding his crane.

It turns out that Ryan’s YouTube video was about her. Afterwards, he goes back out with the bike to try it again.

The Doctor watches him from afar.

After the funeral, Graham tells the Doctor that he’s been in remission from cancer for the past three years and that Grace was his chemo nurse. He also tells her that the Doctor’s comment about carrying her family with her, what they would have thought and said and done, is the sort of thing Grace would have said.

After Ryan and Yaz take Doctor to buy some new clothes, they and Graham agree to help her find her TARDIS, which she believes ended up on another planet. She jury-rigs a contraption to let her use the Stenza capsule, but when she activates it, all four of them disappear.

The episode ends with them in floating in space.

Introductory episodes for Doctors have varied in tone. In same cases, the Doctor’s personality is still in flux; in others, the Doctor is incapacitated in some ways.

In this instance, despite occasional gaps in her memory (not only can’t the Doctor recall her name, but she can’t recall the word “tongue”), she immediately takes charge of the situation.

And even though she’s still not fully recovered, she manages to stay several steps ahead. She successfully set a trap for “Tim Shaw”, having turned those DNA bombs against him.

And, as is typical of the Doctor, she gave him a chance to just leave Karl and go home. His own hostile actions sprung the trap.

Also, while in the process of recovering from her regeneration, she built a new sonic screwdriver, which she says is more of a sonic Swiss army knife, except for the knife, because, “Only idiots carry knives.”

Now to address the elephant in the room.

Yes, the Doctor does have three companions (or friends, to use her term), but that’s nothing new for Doctor Who. Lest we forget, the Doctor had three companions from 1963-1965, though not the same three for that entire period. And from 1966-1969, the Doctor regularly had two companions (and three when Jamie McCrimmon first came on board the TARDIS).

The Doctor also had three companions for most of the Davison era.

And, if a companion is not strictly defined as someone who travels in the TARDIS, then the Brigadier and the men of UNIT from the Pertwee era can also be considered companions.

In short, multiple companions are nothing new to Doctor Who.

The most curious thing about the episode is that there are no opening credits (at least not on BBC America). Not even a simple list of the actors’ names.

There were end credits, but they were squished and unreadable.

Jodie Whittaker embodied the Doctor from her first scene and I’m looking forward to what adventures lay ahead for our favorite time traveler from Gallifrey and her friends.

Copyright 2018 Patrick Keating.

 

Random Musings: A look back at “Ruse”

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Ruse #1

“He’s the world’s greatest detective. She’s even better.”

He’s Simon Archard, a detective in the Sherlock Holmes vein. She’s Emma Bishop, his assistant; or partner, depending on which of them you ask. The two appeared in the excellent 26-issue series, Ruse, from the now-defunct GrossGen Comics.

Ruse ran from 2001 to 2004 and reappeared in 2011 in a four issue miniseries, written by original series scribe Mark Waid and published under the auspices of Marvel Comics.

For the record, the line about Archard being the greatest detective and Bishop even better ran on the covers of the 2011 miniseries, but she more than held her own as a sleuth in the original series as well.

The original series was set in the city of Partington in what appears at first glance to be the late 19th century. The main difference is that actual 19th century cities weren’t known for having living gargoyles.

In addition to his partner/assistant, Archard, who makes his home and headquarters in an abandoned cathedral, also employs a number of agents who keep him apprised of goings-on around Partington.

He also has an arch-enemy: His former mentor and partner, Malcolm Lightbourne, who turned to crime and is obsessed with obtaining a certain prism. Lightbourne wreaks havoc on Partington in his quest to destroy Archard and secure his prize.

Archard and Bishop confront Lightbourne

Archard and Bishop confront Lightbourne.

 

Over the course of the first six issues, collected in the trade paperback Ruse: Enter the Detective, Archard and Bishop investigate a baroness named Miranda Cross and what role she may have played in a series of murders.

Cross, whom we later learn has a connection with the prism in question, manages to frame Archard for murder at one point and turn some of his staunchest allies against him.

Archard also realizes that Lightbourne is behind another crime.

The second trade paperback, The Silent Partner (issues 7-12), recounts how Lightbourne and Archard went from partners to enemies and reveals Lightbourne’s machinations in the present day.

Archard and Bishop also investigate a town whose citizenry have a most peculiar affliction. They only emerge at night.

In subsequent issues, Archard and Bishop find themselves the targets of the Consortium of Aggrieved Menservants, go undercover to investigate a series of shipwrecks near a coastal town, cross paths once more with Miranda Cross and confront the fact that some in Partington blame Archard for the disaster Lightbourne caused.

Could one of them be responsible for murdering a city official and pinning the blame on Archard?

I said Ruse appears to be set in the late 19th century. That’s because the adventures don’t take place on Earth, but on a planet called Arcadia, which was apparently the setting for various books in the GrossGen universe. This is never specifically stated in Ruse itself, however.

Another curious thing about Ruse is that Emma Bishop was one of several characters populating the CrossGen “universe” who had special powers (which she used without Archard’s (apparent) knowledge, though infrequently in order to avoid forfeiting a “game.”).

In the first issue of the regular series, we learn that not only does Bishop have powers, but that Archard is actually her student — at least as described by whatever unseen voice admonishes her about using her abilities.

Bishop stops time

Bishop stops time.

She rarely ever uses her powers, however. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Waid explained why.

“The one conceit that never fit into the original series but was a necessary imposition in all the CrossGen books was that one of the leads was to have super-powers regardless of the book’s genre,” Waid said of the main obstacle in his original “Ruse” series. “As you can imagine, that’s not terribly conducive to the high concept of ‘Ruse,’ and it was an element I started ignoring as soon as possible (I think with issue three) and this time have been asked to ignore from jump. Not that there won’t be an edge of supernatural to the series, but ‘Ruse,’ in this incarnation, stars two very human detectives.”

“This incarnation” refers to the 2011 miniseries in which Partington is a city in 19th century England and there’s nothing to indicate that Bishop has any special powers.

The miniseries concerned Archard’s and Bishop’s investigation into who’s behind an attempt to use the gambling debts of powerful citizens— including members of the royal family— to manipulate those individuals. At the same time, someone is targeting Archard’s current and former associates. Bishop suspects Lightbourne.

Ruse was an enjoyable series, as was the subsequent miniseries. I’d like to see it return as an ongoing title. Or at least a regular series of miniseries.

If it does, I hope it includes a feature of both the original series and the miniseries, one that’s a rarity in comics these days — a letter column.

It’s very short-sighted of publishers to have discontinued letter columns. They not only provide some insight into what had happened in previous issues of a series, but can serve as an impetus to track down back issues. Things I read in various letter columns sometimes prompted me to do that.

Those who say we don’t need letter columns now that we have the Internet miss a key point: You can read a letter column in a comic regardless of when it was published. By contrast, a message board or blog thread dedicated to a particular issue will be damned hard to find years or decades after that issue came out— assuming you know where to look (and assuming the website or blog still exists).

Because I happen to like letter columns, I buy individual issues of titles on my pull list that have them; I don’t wait for a trade paperback collection.

Just saying.

Copyright 2018 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A few non-superhero comics worth checking out

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Fax from Sarajevo

As I’ve said before, the medium of comics— like books, music, TV shows and movies— can include any number of genres, not just superheroes. Here are a few examples.

Fax From Sarajevo by Joe Kubert (1996) tells the true story of Kubert’s friend Ervin Rustemagic during the 18-month siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1992-93. Rustemagic communicated with friends, including Kubert, via fax during that time; and Kubert used those faxes (which he includes in the book) as a starting point in depicting— via words and images— the harrowing experiences of Rustemagic’s family and others trapped in that besieged city.

The story opens with Rustemagic’s decision to return to Sarajevo in March 1992. All seems well, but that night explosions rip through his neighborhood. Before long, his family finds themselves without a home (it’s been destroyed by a tank), facing the ever-present danger of snipers and having to cope with various medical needs.

And his daughter’s 10th birthday wish? That they all stay alive.

Through it all, Rustemagic never gives up.

Fax from Sarajevo won the 1997 Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Album and the 1997 Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Original Work. It’s well worth reading.

Usagi Yojimbo

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo (Dark Horse Comics) concerns the adventures of a ronin (a samurai without a master ) named Miyamoto Usagi. In this series, Usagi is depicted as a rabbit, but Usagi Yojimbo shouldn’t be confused with a “funny animal” series. In his introduction to the 1999 collection Grasscutter (which won that year’s Eisner Award for best limited series), Will Eisner, who didn’t initially care for the anthropomorphic characters, said, “I felt I was somehow reading a komikkusu (another word for manga) in Japanese (italics his). Stan’s animal-people faces allow the reader to imagine and insert “real” faces out of their own memory.”

He went on to say that after reading several stories, he was transported into the “fascinating world of Japanese folklore”; and that this has been important in the medium’s progression because Sakai has, “successfully brought to American comics a collection of Japanese fables well told in the American style.”

Set in 1605, the Grasscutter storyline— originally published in Usagi Yojimbo (vol. III) issues 13-22— concerns the lost sword of the gods, Kusanagi (the Grasscutter), which was forged in heaven. A group known as the Conspiracy of Eight believes the recovery of this lost sword (one of three divine treasures; the others are a sacred jewel and a sacred mirror) could help them overthrow the Shogunate and restore the emperor. As one of them says, “the people will look upon it (the emperor once more possessing all three treasures) as a sign that the gods wish the return of the emperor to power.”

Usagi comes into possession of the sword and becomes the focus of this power struggle. He also finds himself in a quandary. If he delivers the sword to the emperor, it would lead to civil war. On the other hand, should he deliver it to the new, unproven Shogun? Usagi concludes that it belongs to the people, “but who can I give it to that would not use it as a political weapon?”

While wishing he’d never found it, Usagi concludes that the gods chose to give it to him, so it’s up to him to make the correct decision.

Usagi Yojimbo: Grasscutter II, which collects issues 39-45, sees the results of a decision made by Usagi and the warrior priest Sanshobo at the end of the “Grasscutter” storyline. Needless to say, their seemingly simple solution regarding what to do with the sword contains problems of its own.

Contract with God

Eisner, (1917-2005), one of the giants of the medium, and one who strove to see that it gained more respect, published his graphic novel (a term Eisner coined) A Contract with God in 1978. In 2006, the Contract with God Trilogy, a book containing the four original Contract with God stories; 11 stories in the 1983 collection called A Life Force and the 1995 story Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood was published, collecting in one volume various tales of ordinary people who live in or interact with those who live in the tenement at 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx.

These stories concern people at their best, at their worst and all places in between.

Age of Bronze

Other non-superhero books of note include Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze, an ongoing series from Image Comics which re-tells the story of the Trojan War; and Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. That graphic novel tells the story of Irish mob enforcer Michael O’Sullivan’s journey of revenge when he’s betrayed by those for whom he works. It became a movie starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in 2002.

Road to Perdition was itself influenced by the Japanese epic Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, in which the Shogun’s former executioner, Ogami Itto, was framed and disgraced by a rival clan. He was forced to take the path of an assassin, accompanied by his 3-year-old son, Daigoro, as he seeks revenge against the Yagu clan. Dark Horse Comics has published the entire story, which can rightly be described as an epic tragedy, in 28 small paperback volumes.

Lone Wolf and Cub

Another non superhero title of recent years is Ruse from the now-defunct CrossGen Comics. Ruse, which I’ll be discussing in more detail in a future entry, followed the adventures of Detective Simon Archard and his assistant/partner Emma Bishop (the two argued over which term is correct) in a setting equivalent to 19th century England.

Again, comics, like any other medium, have stories for pretty much everyone. If superheroes aren’t for you, there’s likely another genre in the medium of comics that is.

Copyright 2018 Patrick Keating

Random Musings: A look at Bloom County, one of the best comic strips ever made

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Bloom County

One of my favorite comic strips is Bloom County, which initially ran from Dec. 8, 1980 to Aug. 6, 1989 in newspapers and was revived online in 2015. It’s written and drawn by Berkeley Breathed, who earned a Pulitzer in editorial cartooning in 1987.

In this great strip, Breathed uses his characters to address (and sometimes skewer) politics, religion, the media and popular culture. In addition, during its original run, Bloom County was also one of those strips that become cultural touchstones, both reflecting and being a part of the times in which it appeared.

While many of the strips from the 1980-1989 incarnation of the series were collected in several softcover volumes, IDW published the entire run in five hardcover volumes called Bloom County: The Complete Library.

Breathed is posting the current run of the series on Facebook. Fortunately for those of us who don’t use Facebook, IDW has also published two collections of the 21st century strips, Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope and Bloom County: Brand Spanking New Day.

The cast of characters is a mix of precocious children, adults and talking animals who live in a small community. However, as shown in vol. 1 of Bloom County: The Complete Library (1980-1982), it took a while for Breathed to introduce them all.

As he himself admitted in a side note to the Dec. 12, 1980 strip, he had no idea at that point what Bloom County would be about, having not read any comic strip but Doonsebury. In fact, his early work shows influences from that strip, as Breathed himself has admitted.

The earliest of the familiar cast, 10-year-old reporter Milo Bloom, was introduced Dec. 11, 1980. Mike Binkley, Milo’s neurotic best friend, was introduced on May 12, 1981. In a note adjacent to that day’s strip, Breathed observed that Bloom County was starting to come into focus.

Steve Dallas, the frat-boy lawyer and carry over from Breathed’s college strip, Academia Waltz, first appeared on May 20, 1981.

But the true heart and soul of Bloom County was Opus the penguin, accurately described in the first Bloom County collection, Loose Tails (1983), as “gentle, but opinionated.” However, it took a while for Opus to show up.

An unnamed penguin, whom Binkley mistook for a German Shepherd, appeared on June 26, 1981. The penguin appeared in three more strips between then and July 3, only to disappear until Jan. 18, 1982, still unnamed.

According to Breathed, the strip found its voice, tone and POV on Jan. 28, 1982 when Opus ordered a herring burger with heavy mayo at a fast food restaurant.

But it was a week later that Opus was first identified by name, during a sequence that parodied the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee. Milo had been doing a school report on the evolution of the penguin and it turned out a new state law had been passed about teaching penguin evolution without including alternate theories.

Over the course of the strip, Opus would hold various jobs at the local paper; work as Steve Dallas’ legal secretary; play tuba in a heavy metal band and serve as the vice presidential candidate for the “Meadow Party” (with the occasionally dead Bill the Cat as his running mate) in 1984, 1988 and 2016.

In 1984, the Meadow Party held its convention in San Francisco, which was also the site of the Democratic convention. In one of my favorite strips, Opus encounters a Mondale delegate who’s wandered into the wrong convention center.

Opus and the delegate

Opus and the delegate.

At one point Opus also worked as a garbage man, but insisted he was a “waste management artisan.”

“You empty trash,” Milo tells him.

“Milo,” Opus replies, “what did the president [Reagan] called his Iranian ransom shipment of weapons?”

“Goodwill gifts.”

“I am a waste management artisan.”

Following the end of Bloom County’s original run in 1989 (Breathed retired several months after gaining full control of his characters, as detailed in Vol. 5 of The Complete Library), Opus would go on to feature in Breathed’s 1989-1995 Sunday-only strip, Outland, and star in the Sunday-only Opus from 2003-2008.

For his part, Milo had an often adversarial relationship with Sen. Lucias Bedfellow. In the Jan. 7, 1983 strip, Milo is the foreman of the jury in Bedfellow’s trial for buying black market Bill the Cat tote bags. The sequence contains one of my favorite Bloom County scenes. In the first panel, Milo declares that the jury finds Bedfellow guilty:

Milo on the jury

Milo on the jury.

In the April 4, 1983 strip, a bored Milo, at the obituaries desk, flips through the phone book and dials a number.

“Just checking, Mrs. Lipshulz.”

Computer hacker and general scientific genius Oliver Wendell Jones wasn’t introduced until Sept. 26, 1983 (by name, at least; an unnamed boy who looked just like him appeared on Sept. 22).

Oliver owns a sentient, philosophical and ambulatory Banana, Jr. 6000 computer, which worships another household appliance.

Banana junior worshiping TV

Banana Junior worships the TV.

Bloom County also has a plethora of Star Trek references, many of which involve the paraplegic Vietnam vet Cutter John, Milo, Binkley, Opus, Hodge-Podge the rabbit and Portnoy the groundhog (in various combinations) having Star Trek-inspired adventures in Cutter John’s wheelchair.

In the May 18, 1986 strip, Opus, Hodge-Podge and Portnoy are acting out a Star Trek adventure as they come across a car illegally parked in a handicap spot.

Load the photon torpedoes

These are just a few examples of the many hilarious adventures depicted in Bloom County over the years.

The five-volume Bloom County the Complete Library is a great addition to any Bloom County fan’s collection. Or, for that matter, to that of anyone who appreciates what a comic strip can offer.

Copyright 2018 Patrick Keating.