Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Whom the Gods Would Join

When we last left the Champions, Ares and Hippolyta appeared and were looking to play Bachelor and Bachelorette with Venus and Hercules with Uncle Pluto in the role as Chuck Woolery*. I know, that I am fusing my dating gameshows together but I don’t watch the Bachelor or Bachelorette but I used to really like “Love Connection”. There was nothing better than watching two people absolutely despise each other and telling Woolery and America all about it.

* Judging from his tweets, Woolery seems to have moved to the ultra-Conservative side of things, which sorta sucks. Not because he’s a Conservative, but because he’s taking the prick POV about just about everything.

The Champions end up fighting Plato, Ares and Hippolyta and get the upper hand but then the trio disappears. Out of nowhere comes the Olympian, the Huntsman, who’ve never heard of before. Apparently, he’s been given a sliver of Zeus’ power and a staff which he uses to put everyone in suspended animation. Everyone except the Ghost Rider who tosses hell fire at him. This causes the Huntsman to run away, freeing everyone except Hercules and Venus.

The reason? It’s because they’re Olympians. Which kind of seems like a reason for them NOT to be in comas, but that’s comics. Ghost Rider is told to keep watch over the two ancient Greeks by Black Widow. She’s becoming the leader of the group and it seems like Angel has a problem with it. But after Natasha calls him out on it (she actually says, “Do you have an objection, young man?” Young man? The fuck?)  Warren Worthington III told her he was just playing and that’s she’s prettier than his last leader. Way to go, WWIII, you’re so smooth with the ladies.

While this is going on, Pluto and his pals are in Olympus telling Zeus that he better get with the program because if he doesn’t shit is going to hit the fan. The only way to stop said shit from hitting said fan is if Hercules marries Hippolyta and Venus says, “I do” to Ares (who, like I said before is her brother). What Pluto doesn’t tell Zeus, but lets us in on, is that husbands can’t fight wives, so once Hercules and Venus are married, they can attack Olympus and take it over for Pluto. It seems that only Hercules and Venus are the ones tough enough to take on Pluto.

But here’s the thing, they’re in a coma on Earth right this second. Why doesn’t Pluto just attack Olympus right now. I don’t think that Hercules is waking up anytime soon. But there has to be some sort of convoluted plan.

The three go after the Huntsman who creates a Titan that Ice Man and Black Widow pretty easily defeat. But the Huntsman gets the last laugh as he disguises Ice Man, Angel and Black Widow as Pluto, Ares and Hippolyta and the Ghost Rider blasts them out of the sky. It’s kind of funny to watch Ice Man as Pluto call Johnny Blaze, “A stupid jerk.” Then the Huntsman takes their two comrades (more on this word next time) to Olympus for their weddings.

Losing Hercules and Venus sets Bobby off and he’s going to punch the Ghost Rider, but the Angel holds him back. Johnny Blaze is really sad because no one has any idea how to get to Mt. Olympus. But I have a feeling that they’ll figure it out relatively soon because the title of the next issue is: “The Assault on Mt. Olympus”!

The dialogue and art hasn’t really improved much from the first issue. Writer Tony Isabella is fine, I guess. He packs a lot of explanation into his work, but this is really an A then B then C then D type of story. And the characters are sort of there with each other. Even WWIII and Bobby, who have known each other for years are kinda just next to each other. There’s no real sense of purpose why these heroes came together.

Isabella said that he originally wanted to make an Angel and Ice Man go across country and see the “real America” and solve crimes. This is what DC was doing at the time with the Green Arrow and Green Lantern. Those books were supposed to be really good as GL’s conservatism and GA’s liberal ideals were constantly battling. The duo even had this infamous cover (Green Lantern is such a sanctimonious asshole about it too):

Isabella was told no and that if he wanted to use the two, they had to be a part of a team. In that team they needed a strong guy (Hercules), a hero with their own book (Ghost Rider) and a woman (Black Widow). Supposedly that was the formula for a good team book. Which may be true, but there isn’t a lot of sparks flying here.

And the less said about Don Heck’s pencils, the better. There was a panel where Hercules is without his beard. The art is very rushed and very sketchy, which isn’t a style that I enjoy. I won’t spend every blog ripping on this guy, but geez, this isn’t great. I will say that the covers are outstanding. They're really great. 

Two Warren Worthington IIIs out of five:

Friday, May 19, 2017

Champions #1*

* Editor’s note: I’ll probably title each blog post with the title of the comic, but the title of Champions 1 was the same title of my last blog, “The Worlds Still Needs Champions!” and I didn’t want to confuse anyone. I’m cool like that.

I suppose the beginning of every relationship or partnership or friendship needs some sort of coincidence, some sort of synchronicity, some sort of randomness in order for those things to blossom.

For example, I’d never have met my wife if I didn’t know my buddy Tim. My mom went to high school with my other friend Ryan’s mother and they both lived in Tim’s neighborhood (I didn’t live there, but I visited there a bunch). Tim went off to college and three years later, befriended my wife – who actually only stayed at the school for two years before going somewhere else. Now in the real world, Tim and I played fantasy baseball together and we needed one more person since Ryan’s sister dropped out. Tim remembered this girl (my future wife) that he knew in college loved sports so he asked her to play. We played a season and were gearing up for another, she wanted to know which day the draft started. My email was the last one in her deleted box (this was the early 2000s and we did our draft at work via email), so she emailed me. We got to talking, I asked her out and the next thing you know we’re getting married and having kids.

The above wasn’t some sort of look-at-how-precious-my-world-is, but it’s an example of the Butterfly Effect, where if one seemingly small thing is off (say my mother sits next to someone other than Ryan’s mother in ninth grade) then other people’s histories are completely altered in a lot of ways.

The same sort of coincidence happened to the Champions. But instead of the campus of Fairfield University and the neighborhoods of South Lawrence, Massachusetts, the setting is the University of California Los Angeles. The opening pages show ex-X-Men Iceman and Angel in their civilian identities as Bobby Drake and Warren Worthington III* bitching about going to class and wondering if being a normal person is worth it. ** All of a sudden, they and their fellow students are attacked by the Harpies from the legends of ancient Greeks. The two bitchy students spring into action.

* This is such a shitty, 1%, lacrosse-bro sounding name, I kind of don’t mind that the Angel got his wings ripped off his shoulders in the 80s. Stan Lee could be really tone-deaf sometime.

** I wonder how these two got into UCLA anyway? Iceman said that Professor X helped get them into the school, but what does that mean? It’s not like their transcripts from the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters were stellar. I mean are they even an accredited school? Is there a course that Xavier teaches to? Guidelines? What kind of transcripts are Drake and Worthington even sending in to the UCLA Admissions Department? I bet Xavier just mind fucked the head of the Admissions Department and got them in.

As always, remember this, kids:

(You tell 'em, Kitty!) 

Anyway, Natasha Romanov (aka the Black Widow) is on the other side of campus and she’s waiting for an interview with a dean about a position as a Russian teacher. Her bodyguard Ivan (who turns out to be her dad, I think) is hanging out with her. The person she’s meeting with comes through the door and all of a sudden, they’re subdued by Amazon soldiers. The Black Widow leaves Ivan behind and escapes with her interviewer (big points on the interview scale BTW, “Uh, she doesn’t actually know much Russian, but she saved me from being killed! She’s hired!) by busting out a window.

The next scene is Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider, who is monologuing about what he’s doing at UCLA while riding around on his motorcycle. He almost gets plugged in the head by a hammer from Cerberus, the ancient Greek guardian of Hades (are you starting to sense a pattern?). Only it’s not the famous three-headed dog Cerberus, it’s a big, troll looking guy. Blaze transforms into the Ghost Rider and Cerberus tries to one-up him by turning into a one-headed giant purple dog. So sort of like Clifford, the Big Red Dog, except meaner. Ghost Rider leaves.

Finally, Hercules, real name Hercules or if you’re being pedantic: Heracles, is on another part of campus getting ready to guest lecture a bunch of kids about the reality of myths and legends. I think that Hercules took the gig to meet some chicks and get hammered but that’s not really discussed. What is discussed is between Herc and his Lecture Agent*, who is talking about the last guy he got to lecture the kids. He called him an “an off-beat … a real Hitchcock type … a scrawny mop-haired New York writer (italics and bold, their’s) who spends all his time writing about some blood thirsty barbarian named Co –“). He is stopped when a bunch of mutate trolls attack Hercules. I don’t know whether the Lecture Agent is talking about Conan’s real creator Robert E. Howard or his comic creator Roy Thomas, but it’s a nice little burn.

* Is Lecture Agent a real thing? Seems like a comic book-y type, made up job. But I suppose it could be a thing. Who knows?

Hercules fights them off and then sees Ghost Rider. Since GR looks like a demon, Hercules is about to punch him too but Ghost Rider convinces him that he’s a good guy. Then GR tells Herc to ride bitch on his bike because he’s got to find Cerberus. They start comparing notes and find out that the each group of bad guys that they’ve been fighting both have the same goal: find the Greek goddess Venus, who also happens to be at UCLA – plus she’s Hercules’ half-sister!

The demon and the demi-god meet up with the two mutants and the Russian spy and a battle royale occurs. The Champions beat up their tormenters, Venus reveals herself as the Widow’s interviewer (interview, totally nailed BTW!) and they’re about to celebrate. But guess who stops the party, Hercule’s jerk of an uncle, Pluto. He wants Venus to marry Ares (who I think is technically her brother) and Hercules to marry Hipployta (who I think Hercules might be related to). I had no idea that Pluto was a backwards hillbilly. We’ll find out what happens in the next issue.

So that was a lot of explanation, which shares a lot with this issue. Writer Tony Isabella over explains a lot of stuff. Like, really over explains stuff. There’s not a lot of subtly (except for the Conan the Barbarian joke) and everything is laid out so that even a five-year-old could understand it. Which is fine, I get that the first issue of a comic – especially a team comic – is a lot like the pilot of a TV show. You need to figure out a way of explaining why these people came together. It’s easy with the Fantastic Four: four people go up into space because the leader is an impetuous, egotistical dick who doesn’t double-check anything. The X-Men are a bunch of mutants who need to hang out with each other, so that the world won’t kill them. The Avengers are a group of alpha-person heroes who fight the good fight.

But why do the Champions need to be together? Oh, because they had a Meet Cute at UCLA once is about as good of a reason for bringing them together as anything else, I guess.

So I get the reason for the expository language, it just doesn’t have to be so dry. It’s really not that bad, but I’m hoping that it gets jazzed up in future issues.

The art by Don Heck can best be described as “workman-like”. I can tell who the characters are, Hercules doesn’t look like Iceman, but there’s nothing really dynamic about the panels. The cover looks pretty bad ass (see above) but the inside art is very static and there’s not a lot of movement. Even in the fight scenes, the characters look as if they’re just standing around next to each other and their opponents.

All in all, I give this issue three Angel vests* out of five! 

* Trust me, we will be talking about what Warren Worthington III was wearing in future blog entries. Seriously dude, you’re loaded, get a fucking tailor who isn’t blind. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The World Still Needs Champions!

For some strange reason, I have been obsessed with the mid-70s Marvel Comic superhero team, the Champions. I’m not sure exactly why because I came of age reading comics in the 80s, well after the Champions’ “hay day” – and hay day is in quotes because they never really had a hay day. But I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I had heard of all the members, but I never really heard of the team. This was pre-internet days and I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about them. And then they were gone only two years after they showed up.

I remember getting issue 16 in a trade with my friend* once and it blew my mind. Ghost Rider, Hercules, Black Widow, Darkstar, Angel and Ice Man fighting Magneto AND Doctor Doom, with an assist from the Beast and the Hulk? I must’ve read it a dozen times. It was bananas. The team itself was such a randomly thrown together crew: two ex-X-men, a couple of old, not-too-popular Avengers (this is before Scarlett Johanson was Black Widow), a Soviet Super Soldier and Ghost Rider? The hell was this about?

* My friend just wasn't "my friend", she was a girl for one thing and the first girl that I remember liking. This trade was made in fourth or fifth grade. I don't remember what I gave her for it, I just remember being alone in her room and making the deal. 

I just wrote a few paragraphs about this team and if you’ve scratching your head wondering why you’ve never heard of them, don’t be discouraged, like I said not many people had. They weren’t that popular. When people did bring them up (in both comics and real life), they were usually the butt of a joke.

So they’re not the Avengers or the X-Men or even the Defenders, but I kept thinking about this weird team. Even when I stopped collecting comics, this was the one comic that I’d think about. Maybe I just wanted to know more about them, make some sense of this crazily constructed roster. I read as much stuff as I could find on the Internet (not a lot) and with an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my pocket, I ended up buying “Marvel Masterworks: The Champions Volume I*”. What I plan on doing over the next few weeks is to read all of those issues and write them up on this blog.

I’m sure you’ll love it, so stay tuned.

* I’m not sure why Marvel felt the need to include “Volume I” in the title. This book has literally every single appearance of the Champions in it. I don’t think that there is anything left.** And I know that Marvel just put out a new Champions team last year—this team is made up of younger heroes—but that wouldn’t count here.

** This just in, I guess the Champions were also in a Marvel Godzilla comic, but Marvel's rights to Godzilla lapsed, so they aren't included in this treasury. I guess I'll have to search for that one. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Listen Again: “I’ll Be There For You” (aka The Friends’ Theme Song)

The other day I was thinking of an interesting project to do as a follow-up to my Good Songs project now that that is over. If there’s one thing that I learned as an English major it’s that every piece of writing can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways. Some interpretations could be directly contrary to what the writer had in mind, but with enough evidence that interpretation can be justified.

This new feature looks at songs you know and love in a new light.

The first song that I’m chosing for this project is “I’ll Be There For You”. Even though you might not remember the group’s name (the song was performed by the Rembrandts and written by “Friends” creators David Crane and Marta Kaufman) you definitely know the song.

If you were alive in the summer of 1995 and had all five of your senses, this tune—much like the Friends themselves—was inescapable. According to Wikipedia, it reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay, Top 40 Mainstream and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks (of course it did) but reached only 17 on Billboard’s Hot 100, seven on Hot Adult Top 40 Tracks and 23 on Hot Modern Rock Tracks.

A few things before we continue: I have no idea what’s the difference between Hot 100 Airplay, Hot 100 and Top 40 Mainstream. These three lists seem to chart the same things and I have no idea how there could be such a wide discrepancy as all three of these charts seem to overlap one another. Furthermore I have zero clue as to why Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks and Hot Adult Top 40 Tracks are also separated by Billboard. Maybe the guy who owns Billboard needed to find his idiot nephew a job, so he created a list for him to screw around with. I don’t know.

I do like how this incredibly benign-sounding song reeking of 60s bubble gum pop was considered a “hot modern rock” track like. To whit, according to our good friends at Wikipedia some of the groups holding number one in “The Hot Modern Rock” category for 1995 were: Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis, U2, Live and Silverchair. I’ve said it before, but the 90s were a wonderful time.

Anyway, the purpose of writing this wasn’t to remind you of how popular this song was back in the day. Most of you lived through this time, this song (and the show) was ubiquitous. The song itself was all over the radio (including modern rock stations, I guess) and then you’d turn on the TV and see the cast of “Friends” doing stuff (“They’re all ACTUALLY friends in REAL LIFE!”) or you’d stop by a newsstand and view Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe and Monica (or their real-life names) on every magazine cover. It got so that I was seeing TV’s “Friends” more than my real-life friends. And I was in college at the time, LIVING with my friends.

The other day I had this song earwormed into my skull and on it’s umpteenth delivery, I was thinking that this song might not be the uplifting ballad of friendship that we all think it is. The Rembrandts did a masterful job of making it joyous and happy, but underneath all of the bubblegum and sugar lurks something darker and more sinister then is normally found in the Billboards 50,000 different Top 100 lists.

Let’s peer back the shiny, happy veneer by stripping away the instruments and gaze at the song’s words and formulate what was really going on.  

(Lyrics are italicized, but you know these words already.)

So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's D O A
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week
Your month or even your year but

The opening of the song is the narrator is talking (maybe lecturing) to his friend about what a shitty life he has. His friend is very depressed, about what, we are not privy to, but this depression has lasted a long time and encompasses the person’s entire life.

The narrator begins the song by making his friend’s predicament a twisted surprise, by letting him know that, “No one told (him) life was gonna be this way.” In other words, the narrator is claiming that everyone (aside from his friend) knew that life—to borrow from the Buddha’s teaching—is suffering and that you have to go through a lot of tribulations to be happy. The narrator explains to his helpless friend that people who are functioning adults—and who aren’t Richard Gere—understand  this reality. The narrator admonishes his friend for thinking that life was going to be one cake walk after another and now you’re finding out that your life blows and it’s rocked your incredibly fragile world. So in addition to your depression, you’re also dumb and hopelessly myopic.

The narrator continues to torment his friends by reminding him that his job sucks, it doesn’t pay well at all and he doesn’t have a significant other—he’s alone in this big world without any help or guidance. The unsaid exception, which we will see in subsequent verses, is that the song’s narrator portrays himself as this person’s only friend. Why does he do this? I’m not sure, perhaps the narrator is unbalanced too. Maybe he’s a masochist. Maybe he just likes fucking with his friend with the hopes that he’ll push his buddy over the edge into doing the unthinkable.

The narrator continues to harp on his friend, telling him to get his ass moving (“It’s like you’re stuck in second gear!”) but this prodding is actually doing more harm than good. You can’t just tell a depressed person not to be depressed, much like you can’t tell someone with a broken arm to heal faster. The narrator seems like a bright, articulate fellow, I am sure that he understands exactly what he is doing to his friends, which lends more evidence to my theory that he’s pushing his pal to the edge.

Furthermore, showing how hopeless his life has been in all facets (work and love life) is not blazing a path to better mental health nor is telling him that he’s been acting this way for over a year. The narrator does this to hurt his friend more. Now his friends is validated in his suspicions that his life sucks and to make matters worse, he now has the embarrassment of knowing that his friend(s) also think the life that he is leading is terrible. This isn’t just a little salt in the mental wound, the narrator is dumping the entire Morton’s factory on him.  

I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)

In the chorus, the narrator pulls the reigns back a little bit. He seems to be enjoying messing with his unbalanced friend and confuses him by telling him that he’s there for him. He’s always been there for him, just like his friend is there for him when he gets down. But that last line is more than a bit of bullshit because the narrator’s friend is obviously very depressed and has been for a long time, what solace could he give to the narrator?

But why does the narrator do this? Does he develop a conscious midway through this conversation? No, definitely not. I think that narrator is a very disturbed man who enjoys playing with his sick friend’s psyche.

You're still in bed at ten and work began at eight
You've burned your breakfast so far things are going great
Your mother warned you there'd be days like these
But she didn't tell you when the world
Has brought you down to your knees that

After the respite of the chorus, the narrator is back to admonishing his friend, “Work began at eight o’clock, and it’s now ten! What are you still doing in bed?” Not only is he calling attention to the depression—and it’s well known fact that depressed people find it difficult to leave the sanctity of bed—but he’s also sarcastically calling out his friend’s ineptness:

“You burned your breakfast[.] So far things are going great[!]”

Assuming that the song’s subject finally got the resolve to get up from bed and face an unforgiving world and his shitty job, he probably realizes that he’s late. So as he’s rushing around making sure that he’s getting himself properly prepared for the uncaring world, he jams a piece of bread in the toaster. If he’s already two hours late to work, this is quite literally the quickest and easiest breakfast that he can make, eat on the go and be at his desk within a set amount of time.

It doesn’t take much brainpower to make toast, children and the infirmed perform this task daily, yet the subject can’t seem to do this right. At this point in his life, he’s a hopeless failure and the narrator makes it his job to point that out. And he does it in the most obnoxious way possible by alerting him to that fact and then sarcastically telling him how well things are going. “You’re a simpleton who can’t even toast a slice of bread properly. Your life is just GREAT!”

He then goes for the coup de grace by invoking his friend’s mother. Adding a layer of confusion to his diatribe, the narrator tells him that “[his] mother warned [him] about days like these.” This admonishment comes despite the fact that earlier in the lecture, the narrator specifically told his friend that “No one told you that life was gonna be this way.” Is the narrator purposely confusing his friend or his he giving him another subtle—yet devastating—jab by insinuating that the subject’s mother, much like her son, is a no one?*

He then doubles down on the insult by saying your mother lied to you because she never told you that you we were so weak that you will be brought to your knees—not by famine or war or pestilence but by a burnt piece of toast.

* Comedian Rob Paravonian posed a similar connection between the second verse and the first. I think that my point still stands. 

One can almost imagine the scene of the narrator standing over his friend as he lies curled on the floor in the fetal position as he delivers this audial body blow as disgust drips from his last words. I’ll be there for you, indeed.

I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)

Our psychotic narrator begins to realize that he probably laid it on too thick in that last verse and pumps the breaks slightly. He doesn’t want blood on his hands. Like in the first chorus, the narrator is playing the role of good cop here by bucking up his friend’s spirits. He keeps repeating these thoughts to him that he’ll be there for him over and over again, as if it’s a mantra.

No one could ever know me, no one could ever see me
Since you're the only one who knows what it's like to be me
Someone to face the day with, make it through all the rest with
Someone I'll always laugh with
Even at my worst, I'm best with you, yeah

It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week
Your month, or even your year

In addition to the chorus, the narrator continues with the brain games by openly mocking his friend and daring him to end his life. The narrator tells his friend that he should die and the narrator is going to get away with the crime. The reason? “No one could ever know me, no one could ever see me. Since you’re the only one who knows what it’s like to be me.”

Further turning the screw the narrator admits, “even at my worst, I’m best with you. Yeah.” In other words the narrator is basically saying that what he is doing now is probably the worst thing that he’s ever done but at the same time pushing someone to take their own life is also the best salesmanship job he’s ever done. Some day the narrator, whom I am now picturing as Patrick Bates from “American Psycho”, is going to laugh and laugh about today’s events.

To further push his friend into the abyss, the narrator repeats his point verbatim from the first verse: your life is going nowhere and hasn’t gone anywhere for some time. Just do us all a favor and end it.

I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)
I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)

The narrator finishes the visit with the false mantra of being there for his friend. And then finally ends the charade with the sarcastic lie of “knowing” that his helpless friend will be there for him too. His friend can’t get out of bed and he can’t even make toast without screwing it up, how will he be able to lend any support to anyone?

The narrator (and deep down his friend) knows this and loves that he is able to get that last dig in. The final turn of his Machiavellian screw job is done. The friend now understands exactly what the narrator has been telling him all morning. What happens next to his friend is no longer his concern. The narrator wipes the apartment down of his prints and exits the door.