Tuesday, June 1, 2010

DP02-02 Showcase #95(10-11/77)[a]

.....[Happy Birthday Matthew Cable! (see below)]

.....FYI: This is a critical review of a comic book published over thirty years earlier. It was the second issue of a three issue arc. For the perspective of events leading up to the arc, use this blog's internal search to search the term DP02-01[a]; for the review of the previous issue, search DP02-01[b]; for trivia regarding all three issues, search DP02-01[c].

.....A couple of months ago while I was rereading this Showcase arc for review, it occurred to me to try and reconcile conflicting ideas about when exactly in continuity this story takes place. Aside from free standing graphic novels, which don't necessarily need to take place in continuity at all to make sense (even when they feature famous recurring characters), this is always a good first step in reviewing comics. It comes under the heading of an author establishing an environment. If "Wuthering Heights" had taken place in downtown Rio de Janeiro it would have been a very different story. In serialized stories, the other chapters add more than merely events and locations to the readers' understanding of what they are reading at hand. They can give you the frames of reference of the various characters in the story.

.....Choosing an existing character rather than creating one tailored to your story's needs is usually done to cash in on either a character's popular recognition quotient or their critical gravitas. When the character isn't known to have much of either, as was the case when Matt Cable was picked to be the government agent sent to retrieve errant cosmonaut Valentina Vostok, then the choice may be to tie-in further, related characters later (in his case, Swamp Thing). It could also reflect a decision to circumvent the need for exposition or flashbacks to fill out the back story of what will amount to a supporting character whose purpose is to advance the plot, especially when you have a finite number of issues to work with. Why go to the trouble of creating and fleshing out a character when you have one from a title cancelled just a year earlier?

.....For the past two decades comics readers have known Matthew as the raven sidekick to Morpheus in Sandman. He spent the preceding two decades as a human supporting character in Swamp Thing (in the 70's) and then Saga Of The Swamp Thing (in the 80's). He spent the later half of the 80's in a coma and died while dreaming, thus making him eligible to remain in Morpheus' kingdom as his subject. The details of their arrangement, if not his transformation into a raven, are in Swamp Thing #84(03/89), pages 15-21.

.....To get my bearings with regards to where in Cable's life he confronts the Doom Patrol I took some time to scrawl through the priceless chronology at Rich Handley's website "Roots Of The Swamp Thing" at http://www.swampthingroots.com/index.html because while there are plenty of data-rich comics-related sites out there, Handley cites his sources for each event, and in the case of ambiguities where order can't be conclusively determined he steps in to explain his reasons for placing events where they are. Some of what I found I already knew: that Cable was the bodyguard/liaison for the Hollands assigned by an agency called the D.D.I. When they were killed by an organization called the Conclave for refusing to hand over their valuable research for the Conclave's illicit purposes, Cable became personally driven to bring the killers to justice and tracked the Swamp Thing because he believed him connected to the deaths. The leader of the Conclave is paralyzed by a fall trying to escape Swamp Thing and Batman in Swamp Thing #7(11-12/73) and Cable learns the monster is really what's left of Alec in the last issue written by Len Wein, #13(11-12/74).
.....Since I don't own half of the remaining issues of the series Handley's website filled in the missing pieces (and more). The balance of the run is written by David Michelinie and Gerry Conway in turns. Michelinie leaves his first arc (#'s14-18) with a clean break with Alec in the Florida swamps so that Conway's story, intended for a giant sized special of some kind, can begin and end there. This would enable Michelinie to pick up his narrative where he left it in the ongoing series for regular readers who didn't get the special. In the Conway story, a duplicate Swamp Thing, which grew from a severed arm discarded back in the Wein/Wrightson days, wreaks misunderstood-monster havoc and Cable witnesses it being blown up, assuming it's Alec. The plans for the special were scrapped, so the Conway story ran in Swamp Thing #19(10-11/75) and 20(12/75-01/76), right after Alec's first (and for a while only) appearance outside his own title. Oh, and I also learned that Matthew Cable was born June 2, 1948.

.....Brave And The Bold #122 (10/75) is a single issue Bob Haney story in which a showman captures Alec in the swamp and displays him on a flat bed truck for money. While in Gotham, D.D.I. screws up the transport of a biological weapon, unleashing a weed that proceeds to overrun and strangle Gotham. Batman frees the Swamp Thing to attack its root (saving the city), then strong-arms his captor into returning him to the swamp where he belongs. The rest of the Swamp Thing's own series takes him away from the swamp and Matt Cable doesn't appear in it. It was therefore long presumed that the Doom Patrol story running in Showcase in 1977 would naturally take place after Swamp Thing was cancelled in 1976. Yet, on page 10 of Showcase #95, Matt is standing in Midway City across the street from Caulder's mansion and next to a newspaper display box with the headline, "SLIME MONSTER EATS GOTHAM!". Unless there's a Batman fan out there with uninterrupted runs of Batman, Detective, World's Finest and Brave And The Bold who could point to a 1977 story of a giant monster eating Gotham City, my guess is that's the Haney story. If not for this panel, possibly an inside joke on Joe Staton's part or even Paul Levitz (editor of Showcase and assistant editor of Swamp Thing), the Haney story could just as easily taken place before as after the Conway story. But as Rich Handley points out, before Martin Pasko left Saga Of The Swamp Thing in 1983 he described the fallout in the wake of the Swamp Thing's presumed death. Pasko (either forgetting or unaware of the DP connection) explains why readers hadn't seen Cable since the Conway story. He returns to the Fenwick Military Academy (where he was still working in Showcase #94) to close the Swamp Thing file. His superior sees the department's inability to secure the monster to be an embarrassment and considers eliminating anyone with knowledge of it, including Cable. Rather than lose an agent to sudden death, he tries to wipe Cable's memory with electro-shock therapy. It doesn't work, but Cable pretends that it did to avoid being murdered, then quits the service and surfaces later. If the Showcase arc had taken place after the Conway story, Cable would have seen the headline about Gotham, realized that Swamp Thing was still alive and reopened the file. This means that the order of the stories should be:
  1. The Michelinie story in Swamp Thing #18(09/75)
  2. The Haney Batman team-up in Brave And The Bold #122(10/75)
  3. The Doom Patrol arc in Showcase #94(08-09/77)- #96(12/77-01/78)
  4. The Conway story in Swamp Thing #19(10-11/75)- #20(12/75-01/76)
  5. Pasko's flashbacks in Saga Of The Swamp Thing #17(10/83)- #18(12/83)
  6. Michelinie returns in Swamp Thing #21(02-03/76)- #22(04-05/76)
  7. Conway finishes in Swamp Thing #23(06-07/76)- #24(08-09/76)
.....In light of the review of the previous issue, DP02-01[b], I've already established that the compression of time between the devastation of the original Doom Patrol in Doom Patrol #121(09-10/68) and Robotman's restoration in 1977 is a reasonable, possibly necessary conceit for the feature to go forward. (Cliff was the most likely survivor for the sake of maintaining team identity, but only given a narrow window of time to salvage him.) So, the mere fact of the Showcase arc taking place contemporaneously to comics published two years earlier is not a problem in itself. The problems arise when trying to reconcile Will Magnus' cameo in #94, since at the time of the previous issue of Brave And The Bold, #121(09/75) with Batman and the Metal Men, Magnus was still receiving psychological treatment. When their title was revived in Metal Men #45(04-05/76), Magnus was in the care of Dr. Rosen and therapist Isobel Sullivan. Sullivan disappeared without mention after issue #50(02-03/77) despite the fact that there were increasing indications that she was intended to grow into a love interest for Magnus. She's also absent from the Metal Men's guest spot in Brave And The Bold #135(07/77)- #136(09/77), which most databases place during the break between Metal Men #47(08-09/76) and #48(10-11/76). From #48 to #53 there's a continuous storyline ending with the robots walking out on their creator. They are reunited when the series ended with the robots gaining rights as World Citizens in #56(02-03/78).

.....So, the 1977 B&B story could not take place before Metal Men #45 because Magnus was still recovering from his mental condition then. It could not take place between #53 and #54 because it features Magnus and the robots together. Finally, it could not take place after the series ended because one of the key plot points of the B&B story is that robots don't have the same inalienable rights as humans, a problem they circumvented by becoming World Citizens. That leaves the break between #47 and #48. So where is Magnus' Showcase #94 cameo in all this? Ordinarily I would put it between Metal Men #53 and #54. That's when he wouldn't be with the robots and his therapist was already gone. He would be free to do a favor for Caulder (or himself) without anyone knowing. The problem is that the cameo takes place "weeks" before Matt Cable is standing next to a newspaper headline describing Brave And The Bold #122, but the break after Metal Men #53 takes place after Brave And The Bold #'s 135- 136. If it were generally acceptable for B&B #'s 135-136 to take place between #'s 121 and 122, we would have more options to placing the cameo. To the best of my reckoning, the least controversial sequence of events should be:
  1. Brave And The Bold #121(09/75) Batman teams with the Metal Men, w/o Magnus
  2. Metal Men #45(04-05/76)- #47(08-09/76) Magnus returns to activity (cured?)
  3. Showcase #94(08-09/77) pages 1-4 (or just page 4; Magnus rescues Cliff)
  4. Swamp Thing #15(03-04/75)- #18(09/75) Matt and Swamp Thing get separated in Florida
  5. Brave And The Bold #122(10/75) Batman teams with Swamp Thing
  6. (lots of intermediate Batman continuity)
  7. Brave And The Bold #135(07/77)- #136(09/77) Batman teams with the Metal Men and Magnus
  8. Metal Men #48(10-11/76)- #53(08-09/77) Metal Men fight Eclipso, etc. and leave Magnus
  9. Showcase #94(08-09/77) pages 5-17 Matt reports to Fenwick Military Academy and is assigned to find Val before the Russians do (specifically, page 9).
  10. Showcase #95(10-11/77) Matt stands next to terribly out of date newspaper headline
  11. Showcase #96(12/77-01/78) Matt's involvement with Doom Patrol ends (not resolved during story)
  12. Swamp Thing #19(10-11/75)- 20(12/75-01/76) Matt witnesses destruction of ersatz Swamp Thing and believes Alec is really dead.
  13. [flashbacks] in Saga Of The Swamp Thing #17(10/83)- #18(12/83) Matt ends the search for Alec
  14. [Note: In the letters' page of Saga Of The Swamp Thing #6(10/82) either Martin Pasko (writer) or Len Wein (editor) say, "As far as we're concerned, the stories published after #21 [in 1976] never happened, that is, Alec never became predominantly human, he never had a brother,... etc". It is a popular myth that Alan Moore's "Anatomy Lesson" story was the reason for them being 'retconned' out of DC history, but the truth is that such was the case before he even plotted the book. Moore's story famously asserts that Swamp Thing was never Holland but a plant creature born with Holland's memories and believing it was once human. However, these stories don't conflict with Moore's any more so than the first Wein/Wrightson Arcane story in which the Swamp Thing temporarily takes the shape of a human Alec Holland. In both cases artificial means were used to change the plant monster's body to conform to his self image. In both cases it was temporary and its plant nature inevitably reasserted itself. Fortunately, the sequence of events as I've spelled it out above should hold regardless of whether the last four issue of the first Swamp Thing series are in continuity or not.]
.....Well, now that that's settled...

.....Showcase #95 takes place almost entirely in General Immortus' headquarters except for three partial page scenes and an extended flashback. It opens with Robotman (Cliff), Negative Woman (Valentina) and Tempest (Josh) imprisoned and witnessing the villain subjecting Celsius (Arani) to a "psycho-probe". I'm going to stop right here for a moment not merely for 'spoiler' announcements (I consider this blog's banner to be a blanket spoiler announcement) but to reassure anyone who's had the patience to slog through the disambiguation above to get to this review that I am not stupid. I realize that this scene and much of what follows is a textbook "Scott Evil" moment. Scott was the son of Dr. Evil, the villain of the Austin Powers movies. While Powers and the Dr. were literally frozen in time since the 1960's and are content to be living cliches of that period's adventure fiction, the Dr.'s son has no patience for the conventions of the roles they feel so comfortable perpetuating. Why put your enemy in an elaborate, expensive trap with an opportunity to escape? If you have no moral qualms about the trap being potentially lethal, why not simply kill them? A savvy audience knows, or could guess, that the situation becomes a door for exposition as well as a chance to give the hero/protagonist a concrete, quantifiable accomplishment to achieve. But that's only the writer's motivation. What is the villain's?

.....Here we have a villain about whom we have known little for the fourteen years he had repeatedly resurfaced. He is presumed to be immortal (how?). He has had a part in major international military conflicts for thousands of years (why?) He seems always capable of raising armies at a moments notice (how?) If someone were as old as he claims to be and played decisive roles in landmark battles as he claims to have, then even if he were always on the winning side-- especially if he were on the winning side-- then he would know better than anyone the transitory nature of power. The Khan dynasty and Roman Empire were rarities. Most regimes come and go in mere decades. Why squander something as rare as immortality on that? A clue may come in the opening caption; a hint at why he would be so careless- or arrogant- that he would imprison the DP all in the same room so that they could communicate with each other as well as witness the valuable information he is trying to extract from Celsius. The caption reads, "What does a man do with immortality?" The name Fu Manchu comes to mind. I can't think of an earlier fictional villain who routinely led his enemies into a succession of lethal traps requiring not merely an expert grasp of advanced technologies to create but considerable advance planning just to spring. And again in his case there is the factor of immortality. He can afford to play and experiment; he expects to live long enough to try again. He really doesn't need to kill his enemies; he could choose to outlive them. Where Fu Manchu differs from Immortus is not only in personal style (cool and aloof vs. blustering martinet) but in motive. Fu Manchu believes in his innate superiority to others and that his control of the world could only improve it. With Immortus, one is never sure if his perpetual lust for warfare is a means to some unspoken end or an end in itself.

.....Immortus has always been a threat simply by his short term goals. In the case of this story (and the last) his short term goal is the pursuit of the formula for an immortality serum. On pages 6-9 the reader sees the result of the "psycho-probe", a flashback from Arani's memories of meeting Caulder while he was a young medical school graduate volunteering in India. That first half of the flashback takes place before the Caulder's own flashback revealing his own origins to the DP in Doom Patrol #88(06/64), which had been recently reprinted in Super-Team Family #9(02-03/77)- #10(04-05/77). Two pages into the Chief's origin story, Arani's flashback in Showcase resumes with her in the care of "a sect of holy men" to whom Caulder entrusted her. They develop her powers as Celsius and Caulder returns telling her of an anonymous benefactor (revealed as Immortus in the reprints) funding immortality research. He marries her and gives her the first (only?) dose of what he tells her is an immortality serum. Where Arani's flashback ends, Caulder's 1964 flashback continues for another six pages in which he explains discovering Immortus' plans to abuse his work and faking his own death to escape the situation.
.....Telling a story by having two flashbacks weave in and out of each other is a risky venture under the best of circumstances (see the Byrne Period synopsis, DP07-AA). Trying it with flashbacks in different issues compounds the difficulty. When the earlier flashback is an unheralded reprint, split across two issues and published six months earlier in a different title with a higher price point... This could be explained as poor planning, wishful thinking or deliberate obfuscation. I would prefer to believe that Kupperberg's relative inexperience and Levitz' excessive workload were more likely causes than a prior intention to craft a story so that it could be followed only by a small coterie of broad-based collectors. It's almost inevitable that longtime fans will get an enhanced experience reading stories with characters who have a large back story. But that perspective shouldn't be necessary with new characters.

.....Otherwise Showcase #95 is fairly pedestrian. Although Immortus was able to obtain a formula from Arani's memories, he didn't understand that it was customized for her biology and it only works long enough to make him look too young for his troops to recognize him. Unwilling to accept his much needed direction, the DP manages to overpower them and escape. That ending was more in the mold of Stan Lee or O. Henry than Gardner Fox. The question is how this, the new team's first real adventure, would compare to the style of Arnold Drake, the only relevant precedent. It's almost an apples and oranges comparison because of the absence of the Chief, who loomed large in much of Drake's plotting. Celsius may be the new group's leader but she does not function in a script as a 'Chief' character. One element of the older stories that could have transfered to the new group and didn't was the tendency for enemies to plan their strategies around the original DP being put into positions that would threaten their lives unless they complied with the villains' wishes. The DP members, faced with a losing proposition, would surprise their enemies by choosing to 'lose' and suffer injuries (or collateral damage in Cliff's case) to turn the tide. Here they are simply restrained and escape by escalating their efforts. There's no wit or poetry to it.
.....In fact, the issue has four real points of interest. One is Arani's flashback, which does add genuinely new information to the pot in that it provides an origin for one of the new members. It raises other questions, but at the time it was not written in stone that an ongoing series would not follow. The second point of interest are the handful of panels on the tenth, fifteenth and last pages featuring Matt Cable at the DP mansion waiting for the DP to return to arrest Val. Their purpose is obvious- to lay ground for the next issue and facilitate pacing in this one, and they succeed on both counts.
.....The third point of interest is an 'unexpected twist' moment in which the team discovers that Immortus' headquarters is on the moon by trying to bust through a wall and nearly being sucked out into the vacuum of space. It could have been a more dramatic moment if Staton had not been limited to 17 pages and could use a full page panel to emphasize that what the characters are experiencing is the sudden realization that they are operating on a different scale. Still, Jack Kirby only had 12 pages to work in the first S.H.I.E.L.D. story in Strange Tales #135(08/65) when Nick Fury throws a chair (with bomb attached) out a window and the readers see for the first time that the story has been taking place in their flying Headquarters. With Kirby's full page panel of the exterior and tiny chair to show scale the effect is immediate and lasting. The panel with the 'reveal' on page 13 is about the same dimensions as the panels on page 11 in which the team strain against their bonds. Containment and claustrophobia shouldn't be the same size or feeling as being dwarfed.
.....The fourth point is the O. Henry moment in which Immortus has temporarily (and unwittingly) traded his authority for youth, which alone is worthy of Drake. The next issue raises the action quotient and should be a fun read. The next post will be about popular music at the time the 1977 revival was on the racks.