Saturday, March 13, 2010

DP02-01 Showcase #94(08-09/77) [b]

.....[continued from part a]

.....According to the full page ads, Showcase #94(08-09/77) went "on sale May 31st!" This comic not only revived the team name as a feature, but the Showcase title itself, which originally ran from #1(03-04/56) to #93(09/70). Keeping with the spirit of that earlier run, this would be the first of three installments seeking to lead into an ongoing series. The only credits are for the four contributors who will see through all three issues: writer Paul Kupperberg, penciller Joe Staton (who presumably inks himself here), colorist Liz Berube and story editor Paul Levitz. As noted in part [a], Levitz had been dropping hints that this project was in the works for at least a year while working as story editor for managing editor Joe Orlando in a few other titles. In the letters' page of one of those titles, he mentions that shuffling of personel at the time had left Orlando in charge of nearly two-thirds of DC's titles (which I've yet to verify) and relying on his story editors to keep on top of details. The details of this debut story are, using a journalist's perspective, in the concretes: who, what, when and where, but not in the abstracts: how and why.

.....With only 17 pages to work with (roughly two-thirds the average story page count of the 1960's), Kupperberg and Staton make great economic use of them to positively establish the names of both old characters such as Robotman, General Immortus and Matt Cable and new characters Celsius, Tempest and Negative Woman. They also briefly cover the nature of the DP's powers. It places the events of Doom Patrol #121(09-10/68) as happening "Mere months ago..." and Cliff's upper body (minus an arm) reaching the shore as "Short weeks ago". The main body of the story takes place "now" in the original Midway City mansion headquarters and stays there (except for a three panel "interlude" on page 9 for foreshadowing). That takes care of the four concretes and all done very concisely. What isn't covered in the minimally invasive captions is worked into conversations without that familiar feeling of running into a brick wall one frequently gets from exposition. By putting the reader so solidly into the events they can be forgiving about the lack of explicit reasons for what they are witnessing.

.....After a non-story splash page and a two-page "Epilogue" briefly recapping the origins and 'deaths' of the original foursome we find the first real new story on page four. (Why did Madame Rouge want to murder them? She was their "old foe". To be fair, in the 1960's that was often enough.) The whole page tells in four panels how Cliff's remains washed up on shore, drawing parallels between the racing accident that ended his human life and his most recent carnage. Is that observant or perfunctory? Is it poetic license and being selective, or is it simply something you'd be stupid not to notice? I'd go with observant and largely due to context. At this point in the team's history they may have known failure or being misunderstood, but they had never died. Death would only become a constant companion to the Doom Patrol with subsequent incarnations. Arguably Cliff hadn't died here, either, but he was immersed in the event that he believed was the death of his friends and the team as a unit. Also, without a readily available explanation for the survival of the other members (it is at least rational that a robot body could withstand the blast) the other obvious way to connect to the team name is by parallel events. Just as in the first story in 1963, the new team convenes in the mansion before setting forth in an adventure involving General Immortus. What better way to prepare Cliff for that experience than to have an echo of what brought him to that first meeting? It also focuses the reader on something to distract them from unanswered/unraised questions. The first being, exactly how long can Cliff's organic brain go without nourishment? Without a digestive system, it's fed by a nutrient tank housed in his chest. It's true that it's as likely to have survived the blast as his brain was, but the attack was "mere months ago"and he surfaced "short weeks ago", meaning that the tank would have needed to feed him for over a month. Well, so be it. Nine years I would have had a problem with, but if Kupperberg had the foresight to know that would be problematic, enough to begin by compressing the length of their absence, I can live with a month or two.

.....Next unanswered question? As Cliff crawls onto the beach in the last panel he begs for help from a figure wearing brown pants and an orange plaid jacket and casting a shadow of a man smoking a pipe. Now, isn't it more than just slightly coincidental that Doc Magnus, DC's resident good-guy robotics expert would happen to be standing on a beach in the Caribbean when a MIA robot hero washes up on shore? Also odd is the decision to not positively identify him. That faceless, one panel cameo is his only appearance in the arc. He is only ever mentioned again on the following page when Cliff reaches the mansion and notes, "It's a good thing the doc was able to reconstruct the code-pattern implanted in my hand..." to bypass the mansion's automated security systems. If Cliff didn't know or couldn't remember what the code-pattern was, how could "the doc" (and we can just call him Magnus from here on out, since he would be identified in much later stories) have known what he was looking for or recognized it when he found it? Even the smartest man in the world needs something to work with. The code is a minor point, but coupled with his fortuitous presence on the island at just the right time and his strong affiliation with the U.S. military in the contemporaneously published Metal Men revival, it makes a strong argument for the possibility that the Chief escaped the blast as well and was manipulating events remotely. Over a decade later Kupperberg would have the Chief emerge from the shadows to reveal he was doing sensitive work for the U.S. government for which they indulged him much. Morrison would have him bring in Magnus as a formal affiliate of the group, as did Pollack initially. Arcudi even had Cliff dreaming of Magnus (as Veridium) converting his friends to robots. After this mysterious cameo only Byrne did without Magnus, although it's not inconceivable that the Metal Men were among numerous 1960's touchstones he would have eventually revisited as he did Metamorpho, had he been given the time.

.....Page 5 shows Cliff entering the mansion; pages 6-8 depict the confrontation between Cliff and the new team, a textbook way to demonstrate the super-powers of each and distinguish them from one another early on. The authors of that particular chapter of the textbook were Lee and Kirby, of course. (Ditko was never one for team books.) Beginning with The Fantastic Four they often used scuffles amongst their heroes as quick tutorials for new readers. It might expose a hero's neurosis, but that in turn could be a more believable plot device than the then-common gimmick weakness (wood, fire, the color yellow...). To my memory only Thor's arbitrary time limit for losing contact with his hammer (lest he revert back to human form...verily...) survived as a gimmick weakness beyond Marvel's early days. They were much more commonly associated with DC, so much so that in political circles a game-changing element that could cost an otherwise strong candidate an election or the passage of a bill is referred to as their "kryptonite". It's a fair bet that's not a reference to bicycle locks. Arnold Drake was one of the first writers at DC to intuitively understand that many of the standards for super-hero behavior that their editors adhered to with the tenacity of a religious acolyte weren't really painting the characters in the good light they were assumed to. If Lee's and Kirby's characters came off as slightly neurotic when squandering their powers, DC's characters would often inform the readers of their abilities by working explicit descriptions of their powers and limitations into what would otherwise be casual conversations and sounded like total asses. A decade later when Kupperberg employs the 'in-fighting' technique, it has already been the basis for nearly every issue of Marvel Team-Up and random issues of various titles from both publishers. While far from innovative it has been used effectively by limiting the scene to three pages and incorporating the new characters' code names into the action.

.....When Cliff recovers, the strangers identify themselves by their real names: Valentina Vostock (Negative Woman), Joshua Clay (Tempest) and Arani (Celsius), "three true names that must remain forever secret!" on page 9. The first half of the story ends at the bottom of the page with a three-panel interlude at Fenwick Military Academy, where Dr. Gilary discusses his examination of a Soviet jet salvaged from the Caribbean with Lt. Cable, whose next assignment is to find Lt. Col. Valentina Vostock, "the defecting Russian cosmonaut who stole the jet..." [More on Matt Cable and this story's position relative to Swamp Thing's continuity, as well as Will Magnus and the Metal Men in the upcoming review of Showcase #95.] This is an obvious, deliberately framed mystery and not an oversight. Anyone who had been reading comics at the time knew, at the end of the story, that no one 'forgot' to explain Vostock's back story. In fact, that scene is an implied 'promise' to reveal something in a future story, sales willing. No, the real mysteries, some of which have not been satisfactorily revealed to this day, come from Arani. First of all, she gives only one name. Second, she claims to know as much about the DP as Cliff himself, but will not say how. She claims to know that General Immortus poses an imminent threat and it is because he may soon replenish his immortality serum. She claims to have brought Josh and Val together to stop him, but doesn't explain how that happened when both "have our reasons for staying hidden from the world". How did she even know to look for them, let alone how to find them? How did any of them acquire the access codes to the mansion? If they need to stay one step ahead of Immortus, why go to the mansion headquarters of the one group who was ever able to stop him in the past and take up their name? For years to come, Arani would become a rarity among comics characters: a designated bottomless pit for plot holes. She's far from being the only character with unresolved questions or mysterious motives. In fact, I can't remember a Mort Weisinger story where anyone had anything resembling a human motive for what they were doing. But Arani seemed to exist to generate these questions. As long as the other characters around her were transparent to the audience (even if they lied to each other or themselves), Arani would remain opaque and readers gradually came to accept that that was who she was. One way of achieving this was to have at least one of her seemingly paranoiac declarations pan out for every three or four she came up with. It would keep readers willing to guess what she really knew, what she thought she knew and what she wanted people to believe. Even more so than in the sixties, Cliff became the readers' proxy after this point and Arani may have been a large part of that. You'll note that in future stories, Cliff is often the first to voice his exasperation over Arani's secrecy and her claims to know things with absolute certainty for reasons she refuses to indulge. And yet, like the readers, he sticks around because he can't risk the chance that she may be right.

.....The final six pages are reserved for an attack by General Immortus and his current army. In the midst of the action, though, a little tidbit about Tempest's past slips out-- two bits, actually. The first was that "even as a child, Joshua Clay knew he possessed unusual powers..." and the second is that he hid those powers "until the day he killed" with them. Obviously (hopefully?) that's a teaser for a more detailed origin, but one we won't be getting in this arc. We also don't get an explanation of why Negative Women remains bonded with the Negative Energy Being when activated, instead of projecting it the way Negative Man and Rebis did. One has to wonder, with only three issues scheduled for the trial run, and of course actual plots such as Immortus and Cable to deal with on top of these backstory mysteries, if it was always Kupperberg's and Levitz' intention to answer these questions in an ongoing series or anthology feature. All of these could be foreshadowing actual intended storylines that were never produced. The difference in Negative Woman's powers could possibly be a gaffe on Staton's part, or not, but the bits of Tempest's past are explicitly stated in the middle of a fight scene. Nothing about that says 'casual banter'. If you're writing captions on the fly (for a book you were planning for a year, keep in mind) you might say any number of things, but you're not likely to blurt out, "Oh, yeah and he killed somebody, too. Now over here on the left we have..." That might have been shrugged off in the mid-1990's, but not in the mid 1970's. With the team captured by General Immortus in a cliff-hanger ending, I'll leave it until the review for the next issue to discuss which questions are addressed (if not answered) and compare them to which are not. I'll do the same for the third and possibly speculate on what an ongoing series might have looked like had it been published.

.....The next post will be devoted to the trivia and historical context surrounding this issue and this arc. There's quite a bit more than I could integrate into the above review, or the history/background essay in part [a], without turning them into mini-books. Therefore, part [c] will be high-concentration geekery which you can skip over if you're just looking for old plotlines in the reviews.