Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Terror & Triumph of Trigon

New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, one of my favorite and most well-regarded comic book runs of all-time, featured a varied and wonderful cast of heroes as well as villains, without any of whom the end product would not be so special (maybe Azrael), but at the end of the day, it’s the story of Raven. She’s the first presence we sense in the first story (not New Teen Titans #1, but the preview in DC Comics Presents #26), she brings the team together, and the scope of her story and the threat she’s on the run from immediately established that this iteration of Teen Titans were more than just the Justice League’s sidekicks, they were the gateway to worlds and stories not yet explored.

In that very first issue of NTT, the Titans ostensibly come together to rescue Starfire from the alien Gordanians, but Raven’s foreboding concern over a larger evil sets the stage that this is an epic in the making; a crafted piece of serial storytelling, not just the relatively standalone adventures of past Titans series and really of the JLA as well up to that point (it was closer to Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men than anything, hence the years-long battle the two titles would wage through the first half of the 80’s for the top spot in the hearts and wallets of discerning readers clearly eager for this type of fare).

Over the next three issues, the Titans would face Deathstroke the Terminator for the first time and have their initial skirmish with Dr. Light’s Fearsome Five, but every step brought them closer to confronting Raven’s greatest fear: her father Trigon.

Short form on Trigon: he’s an incredibly powerful demon from another dimension formed from an entire race’s cast-off evil who killed his mother and everybody around him at birth, destroyed a planet as a toddler and has conquered millions of worlds by adulthood. He comes to Earth at one point as the result of a Satanic ritual, disguises himself, seduces a human woman who gives birth to Raven, then heads back home, occasionally murdering from afar anybody who threatens his daughter. He’s an imposing, impressive, downright scary character created from the combination of Wolfman using his horror writing background and pushing religious aspects generally shied away from in comics at the time, and an unsurprisingly dynamic design from Perez.

Raven is unable to get the Justice League to fight Trigon (Zatanna senses bad mojo about her), so she recruits the Titans, and in issue #5, they fight his henchman, Goronn, who they only barely defeat (not sure if Wolfman intentionally echoed Silver Surfer/Galactus there, but it worked for me), before getting annihilated by Trigon. Raven sacrifices herself and agrees to return home with her father if he leaves Earth alone. The next issue, the Titans pursue their teammate, get beaten by Trigon again, but are able to rescue Raven when her mother, Arella, basically distracts Trigon long enough for them to run back to Earth and close the dimensional portal behind them.

So what’s important to note is that the good guys do not win; they don’t even come close. They’re able to save Earth only because one of them basically surrenders, and then claim a small “victory” not by defeating the villain, but by turning tail and essentially lock the door behind them, keeping the killer outside the house for a bit.

What’s even more important is the restraint Wolfman and Perez then proceed to exercise with Trigon. The Titans escape him in New Teen Titans volume one #6, published in April 1981; he does not appear again until the kickoff of their second volume, over three years later in August 1984.

Between the two Trigon stories, the Titans battle the gods of Olympus, find the Doom Patrol, go to outer space, take a new member into their midst, lose two of their founding members—one of whom comes back with a new identity—get betrayed by that new member who then dies and see one of their own get married. They fight Deathstroke three times, Brother Blood twice, the Fearsome Five and Brotherhood of Evil a couple times apiece and take down the H.I.V.E., who had been orchestrating against them for over two years (our time).

All of this goes down without Wolfman and Perez giving into temptation and bringing back the most powerful Titans adversary. Instead, they namedrop him every so often and in both narrative and visually (seriously, pay attention to the art) show that something is up with Raven.

They had a plan and they did not deviate.

When it did come time from Trigon’s second act, he didn’t need to be revitalized or amped up, because in his original form, he had never been beaten. Indeed, with his first appearance showing off only a fraction of Trigon’s full power, it merely whet the appetite for what he could do unleashed—namely show up on Earth, handily run through the Justice League and transform the planet into a burnt out husk in moments (the most lasting image of the Terror of Trigon story for me is likely Superman turned to stone, an expression of eternally agony etched across his face, as we pan across the destruction).

The Titans are humanity’s last hope, not because they’re the most powerful group out there, but because of their ties to Raven, Trigon’s one weakness, the daughter he continues to believe will be his heir. It’s a touching coda in a way to Wolfman and Perez’s larger story and one of the big points they’ve been trying to make: it’s not about how much power you have, it’s about being there for your friends and family; ultimately, because the Titans focused on looking out for each other first and foremost, they’re the ones in a position to save the world when those who usually would are out of commission.

But they still can’t.

Trigon is way too powerful for the Titans and Raven ends up being corrupted by him. Rather than kill his daughter’s friends, Trigon infects them with his evil as well, creating spooky four-eyed demonic versions of Nightwing, Wonder Girl, Starfire, Cyborg, Changeling and Kid Flash who run their good sides through nightmare scenarios so they can take control. And then, in sharp contrast to the whole “friends and family” trip I was on before, the Trigon Titans turn on Raven and kill her…which allows her to defeat Trigon, though no plan of her own or of her friends’.

The souls of Azarath, the good side of all the evil that created Trigon, have been manipulating the whole thing all along, making sure the Titans got possessed and killed Raven so she could be transformed into a force of purity powerful enough to destroy her father. She does so and then disappears in a blinding flash of light, smiling for the first time and not to be seen again for 17 issues or so.

And Trigon is done.

There’s stuff to talk about there, like how the Titans lost more than they gained in this battle, how no heroic action could defeat the villain and so forth, but the important note for this particular essay is that Trigon perishes due to Raven’s sacrifice and that’s the last we see of him. The final issue of Wolfman and Perez’s initial collaboration, which yielded over 50 issues of story, concludes with the menace they started with being defeated; a perfect circle.

Now of course with comics being serial fiction, the story didn’t end completely, but for the most part, creators have been restrained and respectful when it comes to Trigon. Wolfman bent a few times as he remained on the title over a decade longer, with the seeds of the Trigon story coming back around in the form of the corrupted souls of Azarath, the return of Raven’s dark side and more, but the big red guy stayed buried. Geoff Johns reanimated Trigon’s skeleton to show that the new Brother Blood meant business when he took over the franchise, but he left the real deal deceased. In the first issue of Phantom Stranger from a couple weeks back (which kind of prompted me to write this), Trigon made his first New 52 appearance, but that’s a whole other discussion.

The point is that at the end of the day, Trigon appeared in two stories proper, never lost cleanly, and has never been brought back. If he were to come back, it’s been established that it takes a miracle that goes beyond the combined might of the DC heroes to defeat him, so that right there sets the stage for a whopper of a story (that probably shouldn’t be told).

I believe Wolfman and Perez’s best intentions for The Terminator (he wasn’t really Deathstroke aside from as a fleeting nickname until he got his own book over a decade later) were similar to Trigon in that he had a super arc with a definitive beginning, middle and end. As I said, he was introduced in the second issue wherein we also met his doomed son Ravager who tried and failed to destroy the Titans, dying in the process and honor binding his old man to take on the contract. Slade and the Titans clashed a few times over the next four years, like Trigon with him never really going down in full defeat, but unlike Trigon without him dominating so thoroughly that he couldn’t show up again a couple issues later.

The big showstopper for Terminator is of course The Judas Contract, where he plays the Terra card, delivers the Titans to the H.I.V.E., and then is pretty much ready to coldly walk away from the whole thing, his duty done, until it blows up in his face. His subsequent trial is the cool down and as I’ve said before, “Shades of Gray!” from Tales of the Teen Titans #55, where Changeling is prepared to kill Terminator and Slade says go ahead, willing to pay for his crimes, but they instead end up talking things out and understanding each other, is one of my favorite stories ever. That should have been the end for The Terminator; his story was done, and indeed apart from a Crisis cameo he stayed gone (as far as I know) for around four years before Wolfman brought him back just before Titans Hunt and to set up his solo book as a protagonist.

Part of me likes the idea of Slade Wilson playing his part and then exiting with dignity, but the larger part understands why it makes more sense for Deathstroke to be a larger part of the DC Universe, because he’s a great character who as opposed to Trigon can realistically appear without jeopardizing all of reality. Also, whereas The Terminator was originally the sole property of the Titans book just like Trigon, he’s been able to branch out since, which has led at times perhaps to overexposure, but also some really great stories extending far past Judas Contract.

Ultimately, the comic book medium—or at least the mainstream super hero part of it—needs good recurring villains who can jump around a shared universe, as it’s that larger ongoing narrative that demands servicing. But stories like what Wolfman and Perez did with Trigon demonstrate that finite threads can exist and thrive beyond creator owned and genre comics, and that when done right they can elevate the craft and create villains and stories that further the heroes that survive them better by being closed and gone.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Paragraph Movie Reviews: Newlyweds

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

Newlyweds is a drama/faux documentary/possible comedy written and directed by as well as starring Ed Burns. The thrust is following a week or so in the life of Buzzy (Burns) and Katy, a recently married couple who boast about having a simple and drama-free relationship and watching it fall apart. The plot is framed by Buzzy's wild child younger half sister coming to town trying to recapture the guy whose proposal she turned down while disrupting their home life as well as Katy's older sister and brother-in-law--the former hates Buzzy, the latter set him and Katy up--coming to the end of their 18-year marriage. I didn't like a lot about this movie. First of all and prevalent throughout is the "unexplained documentary" aspect, a trope that sometimes works fine on sitcoms where absurdity is part of the package and you don't need full explanation, but trying to figure out why cameras are following this couple around, why they are sometimes acknowledged and sometimes not, and how they're clearly still present during private moments is annoying, particularly when you get the sense the answer is simply that it makes exposition easier. The relationship between Buzzy and Katy is banter-heavy to start, which made me think romantic comedy, but this movie is clearly not that, though it tries to mix in screwball stuff occasionally with awkward timing. Burns is a winning actor and I liked him here despite being bored by the film itself, his charm lending at least some ease to the spinning wheel; as a director, he's smart and daring, shooting the entire thing on a Canon 5D; as a writer, he can do much better. Speaking of falling short, I've enjoyed Kerry Bishe when I've seen her elsewhere (the underrated final season of Scrubs), but as screw up younger sister Linda she misses the mark completely with a forced accent and extreme mood swings, taking cues the script gave her and shooting past her mark. Caitlin Fitzgerald is fine as Katy; she has good chemistry with Burns, but not a lot to do and is better during the breezy segments than the heavier stuff (though again, I tend to blame the script). Marsha Dietlin and Dara Coleman are the acting MVPs as Katy's droopy-eyed judgmental older sister and pretentiously idiotic ex husband respectively; both are genuinely funny. I've always had a fondness for the concept of Ed Burns, because I enjoy him as an actor and he seems to have good sensibilities, but this makes me want to go back and re-examine some of his older work to figure out if he had an off day or if I was wrong. I don't recommend Newlyweds.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Paragraph Movie Reviews: Game Change

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

My first thought after watching this docu-drama (Would this be classified a documentary? It was listed as one on my cable box, but can documentaries be dramatized almost in full?) about the 2008 presidential election focusing on the McCain campaign and specifically Sarah Palin's role wasn't whether it was good or whether it was bad, but whether or not it was accurate; ultimately, I could have enjoyed and appreciated it regardless, but I would no doubt view it differently if it was a hatchet job. Megan was equally curious and looked into it enough to know that Sarah Palin and John McCain refuse to see it and have denounced the book on which it was based as inaccurate, but pretty much everybody else depicted seems to say it was pretty spot on, so I'll choose to assume it was. With that out of the way, it's a riveting piece of work, with the screen play by Danny Strong (Jonathan from Buffy! He won an Emmy!) condensing several months into a two hour piece that doesn't feel like it glosses over any major events but moves briskly and keeps you engaged. It's really impressive work from Strong who obviously gets politics and the news cycle (there is fascinating insight into how modern media affects a campaign that I felt like I should have known but didn't) and avoids many of the traps documentary makers fall into falling too in love with particular moments and shafting others in the process. I was similarly impressed with director Jay Roach's approach to handling the real life interviews, debates and so on by combining archival footage of Barack Obama, Katie Couric and others with his actors, not detracting from the figures who were the focus of the film by stunt casting major cameos. As for those actors, it's a stacked deck from top to bottom with not a weak link in the principal cast. Julianne Moore has the heady challenge of playing a memorable public figure who had not only herself had extensive media exposure, but had already been memorably mimicked by the likes of Tina Fey; Moore rises to her performance, not making Palin one note or relying on her familiar mannerisms and catchphrases, but using those as the building blocks of a far more complex woman. Moore's Palin isn't just an idiot who makes us laugh, she's sympathetic as a public servant who wants to do good thrown in over her head, but then progressively alarming as a person who becomes drunk on her own overnight success and realization of how far she can go on charisma alone. Indeed the movie is in large part about how close rhetoric and being able to say the right thing the right way at the right moment--in short, putting on a good performance--can get a person to the top, and Moore's eerie performance as a woman who swings from complete control to almost childlike tantrums and back as she needs to underlines the point in a frankly terrifying way. Ed Harris is featured less, but equally compelling, showing John McCain as a good and moral man who is qualified to lead the country, but comes to realize that won't be enough to get him elected President; Harris portrays McCain with the genuine decency he possesses and his performance breaks your heart a little as you see the compromises he feels forced to make. Playing Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, Woody Harrelson has a somewhat different role, as he's not portraying a political layman would know, but he delivers a knockout emotional performance as well as serving up exposition that doesn't feel tacked on as far as explaining why Palin was chosen and what goes into other moves made by the McCain campaign as the movie progresses. The game supporting cast is led by Peter MacNicol as campaign manager Rick Davis--desperation in his eyes at every turn, great sigh of relief/stand up and cheer reactions every time something goes well--and Sarah Paulson as Nicolle Wallace, a Palin aide, doing fine work as an increasingly skeptical Palin booster who realizes what's going on before everybody else and gets two of the film's most memorable moments in my view. Coming full circle, whether Game Change is 100% or even 85% accurate is, I suppose, inconsequential, as it's a smart, well-written, well-directed and well-acted film with something to say about how the political process on all sides has been swallowed up by wanting to win trumping wanting to better the country in too many instances, and how seeming right can get you further than doing right.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Art Attack: January 2013's Coolest Covers

-I don't know if it's the lingering Halloween spirit or what, but covers that evoked creepiness in various forms (some subtle, some over the top) got me going this go around. I'd include Batman #16, Batman Incorporated #7, Billy the Kid's Old Tymey Oddities & the Orm of Loch Ness #4, Haunt #30, Morbius #1, Revival #6 and Swamp Thing #16 all on that list. I'm the kind of guy who is too much of a wuss to watch horror movies, but I read the summaries on Wikipedia right after they come out because I need to know what happened; comic covers like these have a similar effect on me in that my curiosity will overcome my initial fear more often than not.

-Ethan Van Sciver is going to draw such a fantastic Mad Hatter.

-I'm impressed how David Mack was able to make Willow very definitively Willow (i.e. she looks like Alison Hannigan) as well as timeless (i.e. she looks like a younger Alison Hannigan) as well as distinctly his own (i.e. it looks very much like a David Mack cover). I'm interested in seeing him draw/paint more characters based on real people. David Mack should paint an Abraham Lincoln comic.

-That Captain America variant by Alex Maleev gives me chills, not just because it's beautiful, but because Cap feels like a character who should never feel that alone, y'know? He should always be basking in the glow of friendship and camaraderie. He did his time on ice. This image intrigues me for the story inside big time.

-Carlos Pacheco had done my favorite rendition of the new Captain Marvel cover to date in a recent issue of New Avengers, but the suit's designer, Jamie McKelvie, proves he's the master.

-Creator Owned Heroes #8 feels like Amanda Conner channeling Dave Johnson and I dig it.

-What the heck is going on in Dark Horse Presents #20?

-Love seeing Phil Hester drawing Green Arrow again, any Green Arrow.

-Has Mark Buckingham actually done covers for Fables before or just interiors? If not, I'm glad he is now.

-FF is the perfect book to have covers with word balloons, and Mike Allred is the perfect artist to incorporate them.

-I can't wait to see how that Hawkeye #7 cover looks on print rather than a computer screen.

-Damn right there are two Masters of the Universe covers on this list. Loving getting to see these characters done by skilled artists with a modern day sensibility.

-The New Avengers variant cover by Skottie Young is clever, but the Morbius one is adorable. And a bit disturbing.

-Todd McFarlane continues to make me smiles with his Spawn homage covers. I hope he keeps them coming for a long time.

-I was tempted to list Superior Spider-Man #2 with the list of creepy covers that topped this post, as Ryan Stegman definitely seems to be evoking an old school vampire or monster movie vibe, but I think it stands out beyond that. The black background really distinguishes the scene in front--the darker colors are definitely making it feel like a different Spider-Man book--but little touches on MJ like the panic/surprise in her eyes and the way her hair trails off in a weird direction make this one of my favorite covers not just this month but in a while. And that was all tough for me to write, because Stegman is a terrible person.

-David Yardin does top notch cover work month in and month out on X-Factor, so I'm psyched to see what he can do expanding his toolbox to Ultimates.

-Venom #29 makes the list as the first ever choice from my wife, who was looking over my shoulder as I was scrolling through covers and told me it was her favorite.

-Mike Del Mundo's covers on X-Men Legacy make him a dude to watch closely.

-So...does anybody not love Bryan Lee O'Malley's variant cover for Young Avengers? I'd be curious to hear why.

ALL-NEW X-MEN #5 by Stuart Immonen
BATMAN #16 by Greg Capullo
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT #16 by Ethan Van Sciver
B.P.R.D.: 1948 #4 by Dave Johnson
CAPTAIN AMERICA #3 by Alex Maleev
CAPTAIN MARVEL #9 by Jamie McKelvie
CONAN THE BARBARIAN #12 by Massimo Carnevale
CREATOR OWNED HEROES #8 by Amanda Conner
DAREDEVIL #22 by Paolo Rivera
DARK HORSE PRESENTS #20 by Michael Avon Oeming
DC COMICS ARROW #3 by Phil Hester
FABLES #125 by Mark Buckingham
FF #3 by Mike Allred
GLORY #32 by Ricken
GREEN LANTERN #16 by Doug Mahnke
HAUNT #30 by Nathan Fox
HAWKEYE #7 by David Aja
INVINCIBLE #100 by Ryan Ottley
JUSTICE LEAGUE #16 by Ivan Reis
MORBIUS: THE LIVING VAMPIRE #1 by Gabrielle Dell'Otto
NEW AVENGERS #1 by Skottie Young
REVIVAL #6 by Jenny Frison
SAGA #9 by Fiona Staples
SECRET AVENGERS #36 by Art Adams
SPAWN #227 by Todd McFarlane
STAR WARS #1 by Alex Ross
SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #2 by Ryan Stegman
SWAMP THING #16 by Yanick Paquette
TALON #4 by Guillem March
THOR: GOD OF THUNDER #4 by Esad Ribic
THRESHOLD #1 by Kenneth Rocafort
VENOM #29 by Shane Davis
WHERE IS JAKE ELLIS? #3 by Tonci Zonjic
WINTER SOLDIER #14 by David Acuna
WONDER WOMAN #16 by Cliff Chiang
X-MEN LEGACY #4 by Mike Del Mundo
X-TREME X-MEN #9 by Kalman Andrasofszky
YOUNG AVENGERS #1 by Jamie McKelvie
YOUNG AVENGERS #1 by Bryan Lee O'Malley