“Marvel’s Luke Cage” Lives Up to the Hype — A TV Series Review

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I just finished watching the entirety of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, and I must say it was an amazing experience that this life-long comic book fan will not soon forget! It was not without its faults (I’ll get to them), and I never expected it to be perfect. I was, however, hoping it would be awesome, and it truly was despite the imperfections. Marvel Studios, ABC, Disney, and Netflix have thus far consistently worked together to keep our expectations high, so my confidence in a good show and respectful depiction of one of my all-time fav super-heroes was well-founded.
Like all of Marvel’s Netflix series, the 13-episode script is highly intellectual, with a lot of meaningful expository dialogue, so if all you’re looking for is 45-60 minutes of nearly non-stop action and fight scenes, then these are not the shows for you. They are designed to entertain and provide a good amount of spectacle, and they certainly deliver on that; but they are also designed to appeal to the thinking part of the brain, and hence may not appeal to viewers who dislike thinking and only want the spectacle. Admittedly, these types of scripts do result in pacing problems for Marvel’s Netflix shows, with the expository scenes sometimes taking up too much time even for people like me, who appreciates meaningful dialogue. If you can overlook them long enough to get to the true gold of these shows, then you’ll always be rewarded. If you can’t then, well, as I said… you may want to look elsewhere for your entertainment, especially if you consider anything that makes you think to be too “preachy” for your tastes. In that case, I recommend a marathon of football and boxing matches for such individuals.
I. Ah, the ’70s…
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What is special about Luke Cage is how well it preserves the core essence of a series that was born and nurtured in the early 1970s, when the effects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still in its relatively early stages, and black culture had just recently begun to make major inroads into mainstream American society. This was after decades of black culture and entertainment being all but ignored outside of its own racial niche audience. The ’70s decade was thus a glorious era when black super-heroes began appearing within comic books in respectable numbers for the first time, with many headlining their own series. Arguably the greatest of these heroes was Luke Cage, and I’ll get to the why of that in a few moments (or perhaps several, give or take a few).
Most pulp culture buffs who are not comic book fans but nevertheless had the privilege of living their childhood during the decade of the ’70s will remember the many ground-breaking TV series which each had an all or predominantly black cast, even if they were mostly sitcoms: shows like Sanford and Son; Good Times; The Jeffersons; and What’s Happening? were extremely popular and garnered a large chunk of the Nielson ratings, when just a decade prior the tiny number of quality black-led shows like Julia struggled to remain on the air (and usually didn’t). Most of the popular shows of the 1960s had few black characters make even so much as a cameo appearance, let alone featuring a major black character as part of the regular cast (a rare exception being Bill Cosby in I Spy ). In fact, popular sitcoms of the era like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best appeared to take place in realities where everyone lived in idyllic suburbs and no black people seemed to exist at all.
Just one decade later, that all changed, and it was an incredible era to live through. It must have been particularly amazing for black citizens of America, since for the first time in the history of the nation they saw fellow people of color duly represented in all aspects of popular entertainment, including the burgeoning medium of TV and its long-time parent medium of cinema, even if some of these depictions still left much to be desired. Nevertheless, they were considerably more respectful of black culture and individuals than the scant number of black-led shows which actually made it to the airwaves in the past, like the entirely-a-product-of-its-time but now utterly forgettable Amos and Andy. Even the Saturday morning cartoon craze of the ’70s gave culturally significant representation to black people with the long-running Fat Albert, which was charmingly respectful and entirely acknowledging of inner city life rather than some fanciful suburban existence that few blacks knew or enjoyed at the time. Interestingly, Fat Albert — which was second only to Scooby Doo as the longest running and most popular cartoon series of classic American Saturday morning fare — also gave us a super-hero in its later seasons in the persona of the star-faring, comical Brown Hornet.
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He may not have eclipsed Luke Cage in popularity, but you can’t fault a brother for trying.
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Most importantly of all in the ’70s decade was the full emergence of the “blaxploitation” film genre, featuring low budget films that had predominantly (if not entirely) black casts led by black stars, even if they were usually minor stars, and often helmed by black producers, screenwriters, and directors. These films could be a mixed bag in terms of quality, but many memorable characters emerged and really did speak to black culture and delivered to black audiences heroes and other iconic characters they could relate to. This includes the likes of the Shaft franchise; Dolemite; Super Fly; and the variety of strong female characters portrayed by uber-gorgeous blaxploitation queen Pam Grier (e.g., Coffy, Foxy Brown); as well as the black female cop protagonist of the film Get Christie Love and its short-lived but memorable TV spin-off series.

Of interesting note, Pam Grier made a major comeback during the 2000s specifically in the super-hero genre on the TV medium in the role of DC Comics’ cagey and formidable Task Force X director Amanda Waller for Smallville, the longest-running super-hero TV series to date. In fact, Grier originated the newer, sexy slim version of the previously uber-corpulent Waller, played most recently by Viola Davis on the big screen version of Suicide Squad.

In popular sports during the ’70s, black professional athletes garnered more respect and earning power than ever before. This was particularly the case for the sports of football and boxing (respectfully mentioned above, ha!). And of course, black music went fully mainstream during that era, with Motown having a major influence on American culture in a broad and general sense, rather than simply black culture or niche markets. My interest in sports was limited to boxing, but Muhammad Ali was one of my major heroes, and I couldn’t help but notice my family’s love of O.J. Simpson during the heyday of his career, long before his later tragic fall from grace. And in terms of black music, I grew up totally loving the likes of Marvin Gaye; the Stylistics; Earth, Wind and Fire; Sister Sledge; Donna Summers; the Commodores; and Diana Ross, all of which I have to thank my mother for introducing me to. I passed many days in a very difficult childhood listening to the work of these artists, and they did wonders to ameliorate the doldrums of life for the kid I once was (and in many ways, still am).
For those of us pop culture buffs who happened to be comic book fans (during an era when being a fan of that medium was considered ultra-fringe and far from cool), things were even more glorious. That’s because, as noted above, black super-heroes finally became a major force to be reckoned with in the fantastical universes depicted within the four-color pages. That included those who debuted in their own titles, and one of those who led the way was a Harlem-born gentleman of color named Luke Cage.

His title started as LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR FIRE, and would change to the more super-heroey LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN with issue #17. The book, and the character, scored very high with readers during the first decade that Marvel overtook DC as Number One amongst the Big Two of comic book companies. By the end of the decade — specifically with issue #50 of his mag — Luke Cage teamed up with white martial arts hero Danny Rand, a.k.a., Iron Fist, whose own comic merged with his to create the fan favorite duo POWER MAN AND IRON FIST. It continued into the mid-’80s under that title, and has re-emerged in different volumes since then with a present day incarnation ongoing at this writing. Nowadays, Luke Cage detests the name of Power Man, and is only referred to as that in an ironic manner; he has also passed the code name on to a teen hero of color he mentored, who is proud to carry it.

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Cover to LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE #1, where it all began, circa 1972. Both beauty pageant contestants and Wonder Woman now had to deal with the fact that they weren’t the only ones famous for looking good in a tiara. 
Of course, Luke Cage proliferated on his own both before and after he hooked up with Iron Fist. During the ’70s he went on to be perhaps Marvel’s most popular black super-hero, if not the most popular black super-hero in general. He had a lengthy stint as a member of Marvel’s super-team the Defenders in their eponymous comic, and even had a brief stint as a replacement for Ben Grimm (a.k.a., the Thing) in the Fantastic Four. He got around, and he worked hard to cement his status as one of the greatest super-heroes Marvel ever produced, superseding the “color barrier” in short order.

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This is the cover to LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN #17, when Marvel first gave the character an outlandish code name to make him seem more like a super-hero and less like a blaxploitation character.

Luke Cage was heavily influenced by blaxploitation cinema of the time, and has been rightly described as a super-powered version of Super Fly. His back story had much to say to the black experience of the era, and remains timely even now, which is why I was less than happy to see his past somewhat modified for the TV series in a way that wasn’t really necessary or desirable IMO (more on that below). The earliest incarnation of the character was hokey in many ways, something respectfully acknowledged by the much less hokey version seen in the TV series. These hokey elements included his choice of what passed for a costume: a yellow open-chested top with blue spandex pants and matching yellow boots, formerly belonging to an escape artist; metal cuffs around his wrists, a chain around his waist in place of a proper belt, and a metal tiara around his forehead and temples — and unique slang exclamatory catchphrases like “Sweet Christmas!” and variations thereof. It was corny, but it was also charming and in no way detracted from the inherent coolness of the character and the awesomeness of what he represented. These elements also in no way detracted from the gritty drama and hard core action and situations that the character often encountered in the mean streets of Harlem.
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You said it long before I did, Luke. I just agreed with you here 🙂

Luke Cage was a game-changer in the world of heroic fiction, and I’m glad the costume and previous rather silly code names — Hero for Hire and Power Man — though wisely dispensed with since the 1990s, were nevertheless given respectful mention and token representation in the TV series. They were an integral part of his history that deserve to be gone but not forgotten, if such makes sense. And best of all, not only was his exclamatory catchphrases fully retained in the TV series, but a logical explanation for their retention was provided: his minister father and later barber role model and surrogate father figure Pops Hunter were both averse to profanity, so Luke came up with alternative exclamations to those which utilized expletives or obscenities. And they just so happened to stick!

 

II. Who is Luke Cage, and From Whence Does He Hail?
So who, exactly, is Luke Cage? That moniker is not his real name, which is Carl Lucas (though only his last name was revealed during his initial appearance, and his first remained unknown to readers for a long time). In the comic book version, Lucas grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Harlem. The reason was simple and applicable to real life:  the lack of viable opportunities on the right side of the law available for black people and pretty much everyone who grew up in an impoverished ghetto environment. This made the temptation of “easy” money made via illicit means an all too tempting aspect of life for too many young black men who grew up in the economically depressed inner city regions of our lovely capitalist system (I’m sure Ayn Rand would have been proud!). Lucas was such an example, and he and his close childhood friend Willis Stryker quickly began climbing the criminal ladder by pooling their exceptional talents: Lucas was unmatched as an unarmed street fighter and boxer (despite not having superhuman strength at the time), while Stryker was a master of the throwing blade (don’t ask me where he picked up that particular skill on the streets of Harlem, even the Harlem of the Marvel Universe! Most thugs I’m aware of prefer stabbing or slashing with knives, not throwing them!).
As time passed, however, it became clear that Lucas had too strong a conscience and sense of inner scruples to continue on that path. Further, the love of a good woman named Reva Connors cemented his determination to leave a life of crime and turn straight, even if it meant dispensing with the ill-gotten wealth his BFF Stryker was still rapidly accumulating. Unfortunately, Stryker’s conscience and loyalty to his good friend had been eaten away by a combination of the brutal power he acquired and his bitter jealousy over Lucas’s success with Reva, whom he also coveted. Thus, Stryker arranged to have Lucas framed for drug-dealing, and the young man was consigned to the infamous Seagate Prison, whose inmates and staff alike went out of its way to earn that place the not exactly creative but nevertheless apt nickname “Hell”.
This freed Stryker to woo Reva at his leisure, who ended up getting killed in a drive-by shooting that was intended for Stryker. The combination of this horrid betrayal and his culpability in Reva’s murder left Lucas filled with determination to exact just retribution on Stryker… if only the inconvenience of being incarcerated in New York State’s most stringent hardcore prison wasn’t preventing that from happening.
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One can only hope future seasons of Luke Cage  bring us TV adaptations of some of the totally weird ass villains he faced during the ’70s run of his mag. These cats were often equal parts comical and horrific! Examples include the Piscean felon Mr. Fish from issue #29 (and if you think he’s creepy weird, you should see that sycophantic midget who hangs around him)…
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… the other Piscean felon Piranha Jones, from issues 30-31, a guy you definitely don’t want nibbling on your ear if you want to keep it…
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… and this muscle-bound hairy guy called Mangler. Imagine these two getting into a slug-fest on the next bus you ride. 

 

Not only that, but Lucas was subjected to repeated nasty treatment, including periodic beatings, from the cruel racist security guard named Quirt (very appropriate name for some reason!), and enabled by an equally nasty captain of the guards and acting warden named Rackham. This unfortunate situation lasted until a degree of comic book justice came along when a more scrupulous warden named Stuart took over; this guy not only stripped Rackham of his captaincy and demoted him to a regular security guard when he stumbled upon what was going on, but he also graciously locked Quirt alone and unarmed in a cell block with a very angry Lucas. I need not mention the next hour was a very bad one for Mr. Quirt, as his former victims’ fists reduced him to something resembling what his last name sounds like. Lucky for Quirt Lucas was a man of conscience, or he could have more formally made Quirt his “bitch,” if you know what I mean. But if you prefer to imagine that he did anyway, and the creative crew simply didn’t want to show it in order to meet the Comics Code requirements of the day, don’t let me stop you from fantasizing.

However, Warden Stuart was still not about to release Lucas from his sentence, or be convinced he was framed without ample evidence provided, so the matter of the man’s continued incarceration remained a plot obstacle to be overcome.

Up to this point, we have the perfect plot for a classic blaxploitation crime/revenge thriller. But this being the Marvel Universe, things were now about to take a turn for the fantastic, as a truly super hero was about to be born out of this mess.

III. Exit Carl Lucas… enter Luke Cage, Power Man

As is the case often enough for the denizens of a reality like the Marvel Universe, some rather fantastic opportunity was about to come Mr. Lucas’s way. This was in the person of medical researcher and only slightly-less-than-mad scientist Dr. Noah Berstein, who was looking for physically able candidates to participate in an experimental cell regenerative procedure for the benefit of all humankind that his brilliant but wacky mind had concocted. Lucas wouldn’t be the feature character of this comic if he wasn’t the one who proved the most qualified, and though he initially refused to be Berstein’s guinea pig, the death of Reva convinced him that the significant time off his sentence he would earn for stepping into that loony contraption was worth it.

As luck would have it (for the readers, if arguably not Lucas), Rackham was determined to exact vengeance on the man for… his getting caught while beating Lucas up, I guess? So when Lucas was skinny dipping in the water-filled tank of Berstein’s elaborate contraption, the ex-warden snuck into the makeshift medical lab and began operating the controls in haphazard fashion, hoping Lucas would be scalded, or turned blue, or something equally nasty. This being the Marvel Universe, however, that’s not the way it worked, and instead Rackham accidentally elevated the contraption’s energy levels to a point far beyond anything intended. The result: Lucas was enhanced beyond his wildest dreams, including gaining enough superhuman strength to slug it out with Spider-Man, but in his case with steel-hard skin that was bullet and knife proof. Lucas then proceeded to bitch slap Rackham into oblivion and, fearing he accidentally killed the man and would thus be denied the parole promised for his participation in Berstein’s nutty experiment, he decided to use his newly acquired super-strength to pummel  his way clear through the prison walls. He then headed for the sandy shore where miles of ocean separated Seagate Prison from New York City (the prison had to get its name from something!) as security guards pursued the escapee and fired on him mercilessly.

Only Lucas’s bullet-riddled prison shirt was found on the rocky shores near the water, so it was presumed he was mortally wounded and his body washed out to sea. No one knew he had gained superhuman strength save for Berstein (who stayed mum on the matter to avoid explaining his complicity in things), so no one realized he successfully made the swim back to New York. The escapee was therefore believed to have died in an attempted prison escape (don’t ask me how that hole in the wall of Berstein’s makeshift prison lab was interpreted; maybe they figured it was the result of Berstein’s contraption exploding when Rackham made it go haywire). It was quickly revealed to the readers that Lucas succeeded in surviving the repeated shots he received and successfully used his superhuman strength and endurance to swim those many miles to shore. He then spent about a year performing odd jobs wherever he could find them, until he was gradually able to afford enough to return to Harlem to exact just-tribution (I just made that up!) on his ex-BFF Stryker.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a good story if things would have been quite that easy. After all, need I remind you again this was the Marvel Universe? Stryker had gone on to take the identity of Diamondback, where he became a very powerful crime lord and absolute plutocratic dictator of Harlem (I guess Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, wasn’t overly concerned who claimed to be top dog over there, as long as he had Manhattan). As for Lucas, upon arriving back in the Big Apple, he decided to maintain the fiction he had died to keep the law off his back, so he took on the alias of Luke Cage. He also came upon a new idea on how to make a living when he happened upon a robbery at a diner, and acting on his own inner good will, put paid to the criminals. The owner of the diner was so filled with gratitude that he put paid to the newly christened Luke Cage in an entirely different manner by… paying him a reward.

It was then that Cage realized his superhuman powers could be used to find honest work by his becoming a mercenary! Or, as he called it, a “hero for hire” (I guess “soldier of fortune” didn’t cut it on the streets). Using the reward money to purchase wares from a costume shop, the man on a mission acquired those funky yellow and blue tights, along with the tiara and chain around his waist, printed up some business cards, rented an office — above the Gem Theater on the horrid pre-Disneyfied Times Square, no less — and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire was officially in business.

Not only that, but the story was on! This story, it should be mentioned was written by the late, great Archie Goodwin, one of the comic mediums greatest scripters and editors, and a highly competent artist named George Tuska, whose work gave some perfect gritty detail to the world Luke Cage stomped about and kicked arse within.
IV. What Made Luke Cage a Winner Among the Masses of Characters Introduced in the ’70s?
Okay, the TV series brought to us by Cheo Hodari Coker for Netflix did give have some deviations from the comic book saga of Luke Cage, which I certainly expected. Yes, I fully understand that the TV medium is much different than the four-color pages of the illustrated story medium (or “comic books,” if you prefer), and some things play better on the latter than the former. I’m also well aware that this is the late 2010s, not the early 1970s, so some updating of the cast and situations needed to be made. My main concern is thus always this: was the core essence of what made the character work, and basic details of his origin story and what it represented, retained? Despite some changes I disagreed with (be patient, I’ll get to that), the answer is a resounding yes!

This is because many of the issues facing black america and the working/labor class in general during the early ’70s have found revived popular interest in a strong progressive spirit over the past few years thanks to the Great Recession beginning in 2008. A group like Black Lives Matter would have been just as much at home in 1972 Harlem, or anywhere else in America, as they are across the cyber-roadways of Twitter and Facebook in 2016 America. The issues of how the system denies opportunities to make a decent living off of honest work, and the temptations of crime as a result, are just as relevant during the Great Recession of this decade as they were during the recessions of the early ’70s, when nations in Asia and Europe (particularly Japan and Germany) began recovering from the industrial devastation wreaked upon them in World War II, and thus started giving America major competition in the global market again. How this disproportionately impacted upon people who had gotten a slower start on the capitalist system of wage labor in America was of major importance to the readers who became fans of LUKE CAGE in the early ’70s, and not all of them were black. That type of hard core progressive thinking has been further accelerated in America since the latest failed Democratic presidency, with the promise of another such failed Democratic presidency beginning in 2017 as yet another neoliberal hardliner takes office.

 


Cue one of my uncomfortable but relevant interlude segues: My preemptive response to my centrist friends and followers who read this and are tempted to say, “There you go again, Chris! Can you please leave the Democrats and politics in general alone and stay on topic here? Just for once, dude? Geez!”: In all seriousness, your request that I give respect to your stubborn loyalty to capitalism and the mainstream Democratic politicians who support its continued global hegemony would carry far more weight if so many of you weren’t struggling to pay your bills or even with keeping a roof over your head; or at least contemplating bankruptcy; or dealing with mounting hospital bills and/or inability to pay for needed medication; or drowning in college debt and/or credit card debt; or recovering from a housing foreclosure due to subprime mortgages being inflicted upon you by the “too big to fail” predatory bankers who literally gambled with your livelihood (which heaps of our taxpayer money went to bail out while you were left licking your losses); or keeping a job despite being very hard workers and most certainly not the lazy bums so many conservatives insist you all must be if you’re in such a predicament (even though so many of them are, as well!). Until you’re all thriving in this system and being justly compensated for your hard work more often than not, then I’ll consider your contention that the worst thing I can say about the system is that “it’s not perfect.” Until then, please do not expect me to respect your misguided loyalty more than what is really going on right in front of all of our eyes.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, these issues have much to do with the fictional world Luke Cage inhabits, and the factors that not only made him into the man he became, and which also made the various adversaries and supporting characters he interacted with the people they ultimately became. Hence, these issues are not off-topic; hence, I will not ignore them or pretend they’re irrelevant; hence, I will not foolishly try to pretend the saga of Luke Cage — both in the comics or on the small screen — is somehow non-political or that I’m “reading too much into what was always supposed to be just popcorn entertainment.” To the contrary, it’s the saga’s relevance to problems in the world outside our window mirrored in the fictional locale of the Marvel Universe (or whatever iteration thereof) that heavily contributed to Mr. Cage’s popularity and continued relevance in the modern world. Luke Cage has always been an angry mo’ fo’ against the injustices of the system, and while he may not explicitly point out capitalism and its chief policies as the problem for obvious reasons, I think anyone with half an intellect and the honesty to match it know precisely what the main source of most of Mr. Cage’s challenges happen to be.


End another of my uncomfortable but important interlude segues and back to our regularly scheduled review.


V. Let’s Get to the TV Series, Already!
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MAN IN DA HOODIE
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Let’s start my analysis with the one major change to the saga that I wish Marvel Studios, ABC, and Netflix had not made. In the comic book storyline, the man who became Luke Cage started out as the fairly hard core but small time criminal I mentioned above, but with clear scruples that prevented him from taking things too far. These redeeming character traits allowed the love of a decent woman to pull him out of the escalating chaos that his BFF Willis Stryker — the future Diamondback — was descending into. The younger Carl Lucas could readily be identified with by many struggling members of the working class, including the disproportionate number of young black men who were not bad people at heart but nevertheless got pulled into the temptation to try and find their fortune on the wrong side of the law. Nothing about this history as written in any way condoned those early disreputable actions of his, and he paid dearly for them. However, rather than becoming a slave to bitterness, upon escaping prison he ultimately ended up becoming a hero by working his way up to that status.

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The fact that Cage was taking money to help others as a way to make his living added an important element of controversy to the book. He literally started a one-man company called Hero For Hire, Inc. (until years later when Iron Fist joined him, and it was pluralized to Heroes For Hire, Inc.). He then coincidentally ran across Dr.  Noah Berstein (you can always count on coincidences of this sort in the Marvel Universe), who by this point a year after the prison incident was running a clinic for the poor in Harlem alongside a young and (also not coincidentally) attractive female doctor named Claire Temple. Claire would become Luke’s newest love interest, and would further pull him towards the side of the angels, much as Reva Connors did prior to his framing and unjust imprisonment.
This element of controversy, with the question of whether or not Cage could be considered a mercenary who did not have the interests of others as his first priority was a major philosophical issue driving the series, at least in its earlier years. It became clear from this early point, however, that Cage’s heart was always in the right place, and the well-being of the clients and others in his life always came before the money that the system required him to accumulate in order to both make a living and to keep his business operating. The message that sent meant a lot to readers, and went a long way towards making Cage a full-fledged hero and nothing like the truly ruthless mercenary characters of the comic book world like DC’s Deathstroke, arch-enemy of the Teen Titans and later star of his own series, despite any nuances his character may have (depending on who is writing him, which book he appears in, and what any given story plot requires, that is).
This element was not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) version of Luke Cage, however. In this variant of the story, Carl Lucas used to be a cop who was framed by his former BFF. The MCU version of Willis Stryker, however, is also Cage’s half-brother by Minister Lucas’s secretary, which is why their father refused to acknowledge Stryker. This, not a competing love for a woman, is what ultimately fueled Stryker’s resentment and ended their previous close relationship. Still, because Stryker was a tough natural street fighter who excelled at boxing, he taught his younger brother everything he knew about both of these skills when they were still close. Carl Lucas was an avid learner who put these abilities to good use at surviving in the harsh streets of Harlem, gaining a lot of experience along the way, and they later served him well both as a cop and after he was railroaded into prison by the very trusted individual who taught him these skills.
After this, the onscreen story proceeded similarly to how it was depicted in the comics. I cry foul to that particular change because in this version, despite a difficult childhood and a neglectful father who didn’t like him very much due to his high and mighty, holy-rolling, and hypocritical ways, Carl Lucas was never a young man who fell onto the wrong side of the tracks and had to work his way out of it after paying for these mistakes and ultimately having to summon the hero within to move himself out of it, with a little help and support from his friends. Here, he was a hero from the get-go, and was simply mistaken for a villain after being wrongly incarcerated. He paid for mistakes that weren’t his own (unless you consider trusting a half-brother you loved and respected to be a mistake one should ever rightly have to pay for).
Hence, I think it was a mistake to eliminate this element from the onscreen Luke Cage saga, even if perhaps it was done so in an attempt to make him more immediately “likable” to audiences. Nevertheless, IMO it was far from a deal-breaker for the overall quality and faithfulness to the core of the character, as I’ll now explain.
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The next big change in the series came with its depiction of Reva Connors. She was indeed part of the Netflix series, but this time she was a doctor who assisted Dr. Noah Berstein within the prison, and the future Luke Cage didn’t meet her until he was an inmate. He still developed strong feelings for her, and she seemed to feel the same for him despite grooming him as the ideal candidate for Berstein’s experiment. Cage was similarly devastated by her death in a manner similar to what went down in the comics, only it was not yet made clear exactly what ultimate fate befell this version of Reva as of Season 1. All we know is that it was bad, and Cage never seems up to talking about it with anyone.

How does Claire Temple fit into the TV version? She was actually fit into the saga in a rather interesting and pre-meditated manner. The character, played onscreen by actress Rosario Dawson, had previously appeared in Season 1 and 2 of Daredevil, Season 1 of Jessica Jones, and is slated to have a big role in the upcoming first season of Iron Fist (due to be released March 17, 2017). She is, in other words, the proverbial glue that cements the initial quartet of series featuring Marvel’s street-level heroes on Netflix together into a shared universe. As such, she can reasonably be expected to play a big role, and major force, in the upcoming Defenders series that unites these four heroes into a team. Of course, other supporting characters have appeared in more than one of the Netflix series, and references have been made to events and characters between one and another, but Ms. Temple as the emergency room nurse who ends up getting her fate mixed up with several metahuman heroes which results in a unique career of discretely patching up their cuts, bruises, gunshot wounds, etc., is the true connection between them all.

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It should be mentioned that Mike Colter originated the role of Luke Cage on Jessica Jones Season 1, and had a fairly big role on it, so that is further cement on the firmament uniting this shared universe. I should also mention that the sexual relationship he shared with the titular character of that previous series mirrors one they shared in Jones’s comic book series ALIAS (do not confuse with the unrelated TV series of the same name!), and the two eventually united at a later point in the comics to get married, run an Avengers team together, and have a baby girl named Danielle. It remains to be seen if anything like this occurs after Luke and Jessica re-unite in The Defenders Season 1, especially since Temple is in the picture and she and Cage expressed feelings for each other via a parting kiss at the end of Luke Cage Season 1. Could an interesting love triangle be in the future of these three characters? Gotta love drama!
It should also be noted that Claire Temple is an interesting character for an entirely different reason: her MCU version is actually an amalgamation of two entirely separate comic book characters published by Marvel, one of them with a truly unique point of origination.
It’s been well-established in the media that Claire Temple is based on Marvel’s Night Nurse character, who briefly had her own series around the same time LUKE CAGE was first published. NIGHT NURSE was a very experimental series that had nothing to do with super-heroes, but was about college-aged nurse Linda Carter (she was created before the similarly named actress came on the scene to gain popularity in the role of the Wonder Woman TV series of the ’70s) and her two friends, Georgia Jenkins and Christine Palmer, three young ladies from very different backgrounds who struggled to both become friends and make it in the medical profession at New York City’s Metro General Hospital.
The series was clearly a hybrid of romance comics and some of the popular soap operas at the time (including General Hospital on ABC’s line-up), which gave a big nod to the popular theme of hospital work (medical dramas had been popular on TV for a decade, including Dr. Kildare; The Nurses; and the then-ongoing Marcus Welby, M.D. ), relevant social issues, and added elements of dramatic danger — such as a sub-plot in the first issue of a criminal plot to blow up the hospital generator, a scheme Georgia’s brother ended up mixed up in — that was clearly designed to appeal to college-aged readers of a female persuasion. The book was a surprisingly entertaining experiment that didn’t succeed,  cancelled after four issues. Its main featured protagonist was not to be seen again (to my knowledge) until she turned up in Marvel Comics a decade ago in her role of secretly patching the wounds of street-level heroes in various comics, where for this reason she truly gained the epithet of “Night Nurse.”
The reasons NIGHT NURSE failed, and what a truly offbeat experiment from Marvel it was, warrants a separate blog entry for the future. For now, however, I can say that I think it was a brilliant move for Marvel Studios and Cheo Hadari Coker to combine Claire Temple with the purpose and identity of Night Nurse. The comic book version of Temple was black, and Rosario Dawson’s portrayal of a Hispanic version is much better suited as a contemporary role model of inner city people than the blonde and blue-eyed Linda Carter was, even if I must admit the likelihood of meeting a woman of Hispanic heritage with the surname of “Temple,” or even the first name of “Claire,” in the world outside our window is almost as unlikely as meeting a person with Luke Cage’s powers. But it’s a disparity one can easily live with, because Dawson is so great in the role, and you quickly fall in love with her in each of the series she appears in. She does an adept job of combining the comic book Claire Temple’s compassion, street toughness, and impressive medical skills with Linda Carter’s overall saga, even if most of that saga has just been implied on the TV series thus far. Is it possible Marvel Studios and Netflix will bring us a Night Nurse series starring Rosario Dawson in the future? Since anything seems possible these days, let’s keep our digitals crossed!
No discussion of the “glue factor” would be complete without mentioning Rob Morgan’s reliable role as Turk Barrett, the sleazy street thug who migrates from one crime boss’s employ to another, and is based on a comic book character who has appeared in the many volumes of DAREDEVIL since the 1970s, and has occasionally appeared elsewhere. He has appeared in all of the Netflix shows that occur within the MCU, and will doubtless find some other crime boss to do his small time business with in the upcoming Iron Fist. This is a small but recurrent character role that Morgan plays quite well, and does his small but rather significant part in holding the shared universe encompassing all of these shows together.
 —
It was a shame that Luke Cage’s long-time supporting character, his likable and loyal friend and employee Dave “D.W.” Griffith, who was popular enough with the fans to carry over into the title when it morphed into POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, didn’t get a part in Season 1 of the series. Oh well, maybe in Season 2, which I’m confident we’ll end up seeing.

Let’s now get to the show’s main antagonist, adapted from Luke Cage’s debut storyline in the comic books: Willis Stryker, a.k.a., Diamondback. The comic book version of this debut story arc played out in the first two issues of LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR FIRE, as written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by George Tuska. The comic book version of Diamondback was interesting enough, and the strong personal connection to Luke Cage described above lent more pathos to their antipathy, even though it wasn’t necessary to make a good story. The villain’s stock in trade outside of his sheer brutality was his skill with throwing blades, for which he had a weaselly little mechanical genius called Gadget design trick throwing knives that released various sprays from the hilt; or exploded; or emitted brain-crunching sonic waves whenever the tip of the weapon struck or embedded in a surface. Only the one that emitted sound waves proved problematic for Luke Cage when the inevitable battle went down, however, and the Diamondback of the comics was defeated in a fairly prompt fashion, not to mention in a rather ignominious manner, as Cage’s first story arc concluded.

If this character was to be adapted into the scripts for the 13 episodes of Coker’s Netflix series, he would have to be made far more menacing and formidable than his comic book counterpart. And I’m happy to say that the scripts fully delivered on that, as did the truly bone-chilling and empathic performance by Erik LaRay Harvey. This cat totally owned the role, and this utterly remorseless version completely saved the character from the obscurity that the Archie Goodwin-created version incurred and frankly deserved.
Harvey’s Diamondback was every bit as lethal and compellingly disturbing to behold as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin in the Daredevil series and David Tennant’s Kilgrave the Purple Man from the Jessica Jones series. Though he retained his skill with throwing blades, these took an understandable back seat to his preference for firearms, and the trick knives were replaced by the horribly deadly Judas Bullets, which could penetrate even Luke’s steel-hard skin and deliver horrifically life-threatening wounds to him. Later in the series, Diamondback wore another weapon of a much different sort culled from the inventory of Justin Hammer (an Iron Man villain from the comics who had a MCU version in Iron Man 2): a strength-enhancing exo-suit modeled after the snake-like costume his comic book version always wore since taking on the Diamondback mantle. This suit allowed him to throw down with his hated half-brother in a no-holds barred mono-a-mono battle where their fighting skills and sheer determination counted more than physical strength. The fate this version of Stryker met was serious but not final, and we were given a strong indication we may see him again in a new and improved form, possibly in The Defenders Season 1 if not Luke Cage Season 2.
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Willis Stryker, a.k.a., Diamondback, as he appeared during his initial comic book appearance in LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE #1.
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This is Diamondback in  the TV series, where his garish snake-like outfit was actually a functional exo-suit, and not just for looks.  I’m guessing the visor on the helmet must have been to keep the glare of the street lights out of his eyes, right? 
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Another popular character from the comics who was given a fine adaptation in this series was Mercedes “Misty” Knight, a strong female African-American cop turned cyborg adventurer and martial arts hero who debuted in the IRON FIST comic (well, fully debuted, at least, since she first appeared with Spider-Man in an issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP Vol. 1, but we didn’t know it at the time; long story for another time). Knight has been a long-time supporting character of Iron Fist’s alter-ego Danny Rand, and was his lover for a long time, perhaps one of the first passionate interracial relationships in mainstream comic book land, as it goes all the way back to the 1970s. In short, her story in the comics was this: she was a cop who thwarted an attempted bombing by a terrorist at an airport, saving the lives of many innocents but tragically losing an arm from the ensuing explosion. Being a resident of the Marvel Universe, that arm was replaced by a super-strong, fully articulated bionic limb similar to the one given to Colonel Steve Austin on the then-popular TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (and possibly inspired by it).
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Knight then left the force to become a freelance adventurer. She became BFFs with Danny Rand’s friend and ally, the female samurai Colleen Wing, and Knight proved one of those incredibly fast and adept learners of martial arts skills who are so popular in fiction. The dynamic duo of Knight and Wing then billed themselves as the Daughters of the Dragon when working together, and not only did they remain supporting characters and allies throughout the runs of IRON FIST and POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, but also appeared in a few stories of their own, mostly as a recurring series in Marvel’s black and white 1970s mag THE DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU (where Iron First also had a recurring series, as did the comic world’s first Puerto Rican super-hero, Hector Ayala, the original White Tiger, who debuted in the mag… which may also be a whole other future blog entry).

Though it can be argued that Knight should have waited until the upcoming Iron Fist series to debut, her role as a determined and honest police officer who is nevertheless not afraid to break the rules if the situation absolutely depends on it, and if she honestly feels it’s the right thing to do, was an integral factor in this series.

The character was well played by Simone Missick, even if to be totally honest here, I really wish the role had gone to the truly beautiful Nigerian but London-born actress Deborah Ayorinde, who was relegated to playing the minor if semi-significant character of the beleaguered, ill-fated nightclub worker Candace Miller, a relatively thankless role that in no way allowed this talented and awesome actress to shine. I wasn’t one of the show’s three casting directors, and I do not mean to sling aspersions on Missick, who gave the role of Misty Knight her all to good effect, but this is how I feel about this particular casting decision. I think Ayorinde not only has the acting chops, but also the right look for  Misty Knight, and as attractive as Missick certainly is, she just doesn’t hold a candle in that department to Ayorinde. I know looks shouldn’t mean everything in a casting decision, but this is one of those cases where it should have IMHO. Ayorinde’s beauty totally stole attention from Missick in the several scenes they had together, and since both actresses are graduates of Howard University — which Ayorinde walked out of with honors —  I stand by my decision who the roll of Misty Knight should have gone to.

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Deborah Ayorinde — the amazing woman who should  have been Misty Knight.
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That being said, I again mention that Missick certainly didn’t suck as Misty Knight, so I hope no one perusing this review misreads my words and accuses me of saying otherwise. It should be noted that in this season of the series, Misty Knight receives an injury that may or may not presage her receiving a bionic arm by the time The Defenders rolls around… it may have simply been an homage to this distinct feature of the comic book version rather than a true presaging of things to come, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

As for Colleen Wing, she didn’t appear in this series, but will appear in Iron Fist. We received a nice little Easter Egg in episode 13 of Season 1 presaging both her appearance, and explaining how Claire Temple will end up treating the injuries of Danny Rand in his own upcoming series. I’m really hoping Misty Knight will be brought into that show too, so that the Daughters of the Dragon can receive the MCU treatment on Netflix, and Iron Fist will receive the love interest he had for so long in the comics.
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The character of Hernan “Shades” Alvarez, portrayed as an even better weasel henchman than Turk Barrett who knows how to work things to his advantage so as to move up in a crime lord’s employment hierarchy, was played to entertaining perfection by Theo Rossi. Shades happens to be another example of a character who was African-American in the comic book version that became Hispanic in the TV series. Not only that, but in the comic book Shades was a very minor character whom Carl Lucas knew in prison, and didn’t have much to do in the first story arc other than talking shit and to the future Mr. Cage and getting his ass whupped in a prison court yard throw down as a result. In the TV show, he starts out as a less than friendly acquaintance of Cage in prison, but goes on to become something far more than that his comic book counterpart afterwards.
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Afterwards, he  pops up from time to time in the series working for various criminals, until he finally acquires some goggles (okay, “shades”) that allowed him to fire optic beams that was given to him by the criminal mastermind he most commonly came to serve, the genius Tilda Johnson, otherwise known as the scantily-clad African-American female super-villain called Deadly Nightshade. Retroactive continuity eventually decided Shades and his frequent partner, the bow-and-arrow-wielding Commanche, were part of a four-member street gang with Striker and Lucas in their younger years called The Rivals.

 

 

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Only in the Marvel Universe could you expect to run into these guys while taking a stroll through Harlem. 

He also later turned out to be the father to Victor Alvarez, a teen super-hero who acquired the power to absorb the chi energy of his surroundings and channeling it into physical power, where he took on the moniker of the new Power Man and teamed up with Iron Fist in a memorable POWER MAN AND IRON FIST mini-series from the 2000s. It would be really cool to see a version of the younger Alvarez

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Shades in the TV series (on left), and his comic book counterpart after he began wearing a costume and force beam-firing visor that made him into a Cyclops wannabe (on the right). Too bad the X-Men weren’t recruiting at the time. They may be a mutants-only club, but if they were liberal enough to accept Longshot at the time, I’m sure they would make an exception for Shades, especially since their leader would be flattered by his shtick. 

The role of Dr. Noah Berstein (not “Burstein,” as spelled on the IMDb) was played in realistically nervous manner by Michael Kostroff, who did a fine job of portraying the somewhat morally gray, conflicted nature of a scientist who wants to benefit humankind with his revolutionary though experimental technology, but is sometimes willing to go a bit too far to achieve that goal. He has a crucial role in Season 1 of the series, and will clearly have a similarly important role in Season 2, although the implication is that he’ll have a markedly different one than he played as a regular supporting character in the comic book series. In the latter, he was a doctor trying to make up for his past mistakes — a common theme for the book — and acted as Luke Cage’s sometimes unwanted conscience, keeping an eye on the mercenary to make sure he didn’t stray off the path of the angels.

In the TV show, Berstein also regrets his mistakes, but not so much that he isn’t willing to make them again if there’s the chance of advancing medical science, and not so much that he could ever be the conscience of anyone. The MCU version of Luke Cage needed no help in that department other than the support and faith of Claire Temple, the memory of his mentor Henry “Pop” Hunter, and the appraisal of the people of Harlem to keep him on the straight and narrow path.

Other roles of note in the series, not reflected in the comic book’s initial story arc, were the always talented Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, the corrupt politician hoping to go legit, but emotionally incapable of doing so; and Maharshala Ali as her younger cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (but don’t call him that nickname to his face!), the criminal owner of the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, and initial crime lord of Harlem as the show begins.

In the comic book, the character of Mariah Dillard was quite a bit different from the small screen version, and she first appeared in issue #4 of the series. Woodard played an articulate, fairly shapely, and cunning Clintonesque politician with a veritable graveyard of skeletons in her proverbial family closet. This was in marked contrast to the comic book version of the character, a well-known criminal boss called “Black Mariah,” who spoke in awful ghetto slang, was literally 400 lbs. and over six and a half feet tall — her weight and mass making her more than strong enough to knock the average man across the room with a single swipe of her hand, and even to engage in physical combat with Luke Cage — with an M.O. consisting of the disrespectfully ghastly practice of picking up recently killed bodies in fake ambulances and robbing them of whatever valuables may have been on their carcasses before dumping them in the river. Not to mention blowing out the brains of those who crossed her in traditional fashion via use of firearms when necessary.

It appears the MCU version of Mariah Dillard was fused with the character of hefty female crime lord Mama Mabel, who was played with gusto by  LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Mama Mabel was the viciously awesome female crime lord of Harlem’s past who was the aunt and mother, respectively, of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard. Unsurprisingly, her criminal ways provided the evil influence behind both their moves down the path of the dark side, as shown in the series’ obligatory flash back sequences (you can’t have a Marvel series without those).
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Mariah Dillard on the TV show (right) and her considerably more, erm, “big-boned” variation from the comic books (left).
As for the role of Cottonmouth, Ali played that role with deadly efficiency, and he provided the main villainy of the first half of the series before Diamondback stepped in and took over. I’ll say this much, as well, in deference to those who haven’t yet seen the series: Cottonmouth did not step aside as owner of Harlem’s Paradise and de facto owner of that part of the Big Apple  because of anything Diamondback did; the reason was much more terrifyingly close to home than that. Binge the series and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Needless to say, the comic book version of Cottonmouth — he was simply called “Cornell Cottonmouth” with no aversion to his nickname — was markedly different and less formidable than the comic book version. It was a shame that a version closer to the one we got in the comic book, co-created by writer Steve Engelheart, didn’t make it to the TV series. In the comic, Cottonmouth was an older villain with a bald head who had his natural teeth replaced by razor sharp molars composed of a tool steel alloy, and he didn’t appear in the saga until the story arc featured in issue #’s 19-20. At first, he possessed superhuman strength equal to that of Cage (source unknown, but possibly related to the glowing red jewel on his lapel), and was able to fight him head-to-toe (it was never revealed where he acquired that power. The comic and TV story, however, shared the fact that Cottonmouth had possession of the paper files that could exonerate Carl Lucas, since they had proof Willis Striker  was the one who stole the heroin from Cottonmouth, and framed the crime on his former BFF.
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After being defeated in unarmed combat he wasn’t seen again until three decades later, where he seemed to have lost all of his superhuman strength, had his steel shark-like teeth plated in gold, and took on the role of a repulsive and brutal pimp to cash in on the sex trafficking hysteria in the media. In this guise, he worked for Deadly Nightshade and plagued the son of Hernan “Shades” Alvarez, a student of Iron Fist who became the teen super-hero that took the moniker of Power Man after Cage had long since abandoned it.
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LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN #19, where the comic book version of Cottonmouth first bore his teeth. This was well after Luke Cage’s initial story arc, and we were treated to a monstrous version of the criminal who had more differences than similarities to the TV variant. 
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Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, the dangerous enough human criminal seen in the TV version (right), and the far more scary and dangerous version seen in the comic book (left). 
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Even after losing his superhuman strength, the comic book iteration of Cottonmouth was one dangerous mo’ fo’ who enjoyed sinking his teeth where they didn’t belong. He’s shown here in the pimp persona he took on during the POWER MAN AND IRON FIST mini-series published during the 2000s. 
Rounding that out we had the small but extremely important role of Frankie Faison as Henry “Pop” Hunter, a former boxer and now barber whose persona and shop served as the heart and soul of Harlem, who also happened to be the mentor and conscience-nurturer of Luke Cage and many others in the MCU’s version of Harlem. The man didn’t last long, but his influence certainly did, and it’s a role no one will ever forget. His final fate will impact viewers as strongly as it did Cage and the rest of Harlem, including as vile a man as Cottonmouth himself.
Some final nods should go to the great performances of Jaiden Kaine as the wily henchman punk Zip; Karen Pittman as the upright but sometimes overly hard-as-nails Inspector Priscilla Ridley; Ron Cephas Jones as Bobby Fish, the manager of Pops’ Barber Shop who provides continual friendship and moral support for Luke Cage, along with a good dose of always welcome good-natured humor and pity philosphy; and Jacob Vargas as the Mexican crime lord Domingo Colon, who decides to take on Diamondback.
VI. What About the Main Man? (And I’m Not Talking About Lobo!)
Now we get to the main star of the show: Michael Colter as the titular hero himself. In my humble opinion, no actor could have done the role better. Colter not only proved his merits for the role previously in Jessica Jones Season 1, but he totally cemented them here on his own. His now patented use of bullet-ridden hoodies in place of a formal costume became an important plot thread in the show, and is evocative of the more conventional attire the character has used in the comics since the 1990s, when he dispensed with the yellow escape artist suit and the metal tiara.
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No sooner did ripped jeans go out of style than Luke Cage went and popularized this  look. 
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Cage dispenses his classic attire for a new, updated look in the ’90s.
His old yellow shirt had so many bullet holes in it by that time he figured he might as well tear what was left of it apart and break the chain belt just to show how bad ass he was.
Despite the changes in the TV version that removed the character’s full struggle against the temptations of the dark side of inner city ghetto life, Colter nevertheless instilled the character with a massive amount of “everyman” appeal and working class power and pride, becoming the type of icon the common person can relate to considerably more than Captain America — still the greatest hero of them all as far as I’m concerned, but not nearly as relatable as the likes of Luke Cage. Not only that, but Luke Cage as portrayed by Michael Colter was as inspirational as he was relatable, with numerous nods to the black culture  he grew up in.
Harlem was depicted as a character in its own right, and its centrality and importance to the development of black culture in post-Civil War America was evident in every single scene, almost every line of dialogue, and the entire atmosphere exuded by the script and cast performances.
VII. So, in Conclusion…

If Luke Cage had been made by the mavens of blaxploitation production in the early ’70s when the character first debuted, the resulting film and/or TV series would no doubt have been considerably different than what Coker and his cast brought us here in 2016. Would it have been good? There is absolutely no way to tell, as it never came to pass. I’ll let individual readers decide for themselves if that’s a fortunate or unfortunate fact of celluloid history as we know it. What I can give an opinion on, however, is that what Coker and his cast gave us in 2016 was a great interpretation of the character, keeping intact every theme he represents, and respecting the culture he exemplifies. Thus, I conclude that the show we finally got after waiting so many years for it does Goodwin’s and Tuska’s character proud, with its positive points far outweighing the mistakes. As another comic book legend, writer and editor supreme Roy Thomas, served as the editor of that comic book, it would be interesting to see what he thinks of the TV series and how well it held up the standards of a character and saga he was once in charge of.

If nothing else, this show makes it completely clear why Luke Cage has endured for four and a half decades at this writing, and why he is one of the greatest heroes ever created in the comic book medium. What he represents and the world he came from are as relevant today as they were in the glorious era of the 1970s that spawned him, and the great success of this TV series since the weekend it was released on Netflix offers proof of that. As I said in the beginning, this show — like all produced by Marvel Studios for Netflix — is not for every sensibility, but it should be appreciated by everyone with a flare for a character who represents something pivotal to the society we live in, a script that makes you think, exploration of the history of a major aspect of American culture, an inspirational hero the common person can relate to, and strong character development sharing equal space with super-hero action and fight scenes.
I eagerly await both The Defenders Season 1 and Luke Cage Season 2, where the interrupted saga of this character will continue on the small screen. I hate having to wait an entire year for it, but here’s betting it will be well worth that wait!
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Review — “Captain America: Civil War” is Many Levels Above Awesome! (Spoiler Free!)

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I do not exaggerate in the least when I say this was absolutely the most awesome super-hero movie I have ever  seen! Imagine the Captain America movie you always wanted to see, the Iron Man movie you always wanted to see, and the Avengers movie you always wanted to see rolled into a single  two and a half hour film, and you will have a very good idea of what you get here! The Russo Brothers are the best hands that this film could have been left in, and I can hardly wait to see their upcoming 2-part Avengers: Infinity, which is pretty much guaranteed to be epic.
No movie is without flaws, but this one had, IMO, the most minimal flaws of any of the Marvel movies thus far, and not one of the Marvel films released to date has been a total suck-fest. This movie had more heroes in it by far than either of the two Avengers films helmed by Joss Whedon, yet not a single one of these characters were neglected by the script. Every actor shined in their respective roles! Moreover, problems with pacing were close to non-existent in this film, despite some that plagued Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Chadwick Boseman was an amazing Black Panther and Tom Holland gave us a great Spider-Man (a very  worthy successor to both Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield! Nevertheless, I still want a film with the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man!). Both of them were given sufficient screen time to establish them as characters and to encourage a good emotional investment by the audience. Because of this film, their upcoming solo movies are all but guaranteed to be hits!
The conflict that split the Avengers into Team Captain America and Team Iron Man was very logical, and very, very heart-wrenching, leading to a finale that had both a huge emotional impact on me and also brought us a major and very tragic revelation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Let’s just say that nothing can ever be completely right between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark again once this revelation was made. The plot was well-delineated, and didn’t simply serve as a series of filler exposition designed to be nothing more than excuses to get the heroes fighting. Both sides had their view well represented, and no matter what team you side with ideologically, I think most viewers will end up sympathizing with both to some extent.
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Team Captain America rushes towards the most epic super-hero battle featured on the big screen to date!
Also, not only does Robert Downey Jr. once again play a stellar and memorable Tony Stark, he was making no idle claim when he said in interviews that this film is pretty much “Iron Man 4” as much as it’s “Captain America 3.” Those clamoring for a fourth Iron Man film absolutely needs  to see this one, as the personal life of Tony Stark is affected in major ways here and this is as much his film as it is Captain America’s. As for Chris Evans, he does another glorious job as the hero who wears and personifies Old Glory. Both complimented each other on screen as friends who felt forced to oppose the other based on their respective beliefs and principles going in the opposite direction. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the revelation which comes along towards the end of the movie results in a very heated and more than slightly brutal slug-fest between Iron Man on one side and Cap and Winter Soldier on the other for the awesome but tragic climactic sequence that no viewer with the capacity to feel emotion will soon forget.
Not only did we get what may well be the best special effects and action sequences of any super-hero film, but the script was absolutely stellar. This movie proves that it’s entirely possible to juggle numerous characters together and provide an unending number of spectacular action and effects sequences while also crafting a good, well-written, emotional story that is simultaneously issue-driven and character-driven. And as one may expect based on the previous two Captain America films, this one is filled with relevant political commentary that makes it an important movie for this time period. Future generations of historians, philosophers, and fanboys will have a veritable field day analyzing and deconstructing this film.And I totally cannot wait to see my friend and colleague Derrick Ferguson do so on his great movie review blog The Ferguson Theater! (Update: he just did! Woohoo! And his guest reviewer Sean E. Ali did his own great review a week earlier! Another woohoo!)
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Team Iron Man confronts the opposing camp. Friendships and even deeper relationships, along with the airport, are about to crumble with this rumble.
I should note that the version of Baron Zemo as the main villain in this film is a rather drastic re-interpretation of the classic foe from Captain America rogue’s gallery. His long career in the comic books always depicted Helmut Zemo as the brilliant but twisted son of Nazi scientist Baron Heinrich Zemo, who was second only to the Red Skull as Cap’s perennial nemesis during World War II. The degree of this change was comparable to how much the version of the Mandarin we got in Iron Man 3  was a dramatic departure from the comic book version of one of Mr. Stark’s greatest foes. However, as controversial as the re-imagining of the Mandarin was for the MCU, I think the change in Zemo was quite interesting, and this version was no less deadly and destructive to Cap’s life on all levels than the comic book version. Others may not agree with me, but I do not think this change will spoil the film for too many diehard Cap aficionados. Zemo’s influence has a direct bearing on what causes the Civil War in the MCU, and it was in no way forced or extraneous.
I won’t mention much about Crossbones here, except to say he does get a very good battle sequence against Cap and the Black Widow early in the film. I was slightly disappointed in how that battle concluded, but it does have a very significant part in setting the main event of the plot into motion. Considering what followed this sequence, however, I was more than willing to overlook that disappointment, as it’s totally overshadowed by the epic events and memorable character interactions that follow.
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“Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, at your hearts — along with the rest of your viscera — out! I bet you guys didn’t even have  a Captain America in your  universes! Hah!”
I want to end this review by pointing out that the protracted battle sequence between the two opposing Avengers camps at the airport was the most incredible and entertaining battle you have ever seen in a super-hero film to date! Every member of both sides gets in some cool shots and accompanying one-liners, and you see practically everyone on each side slug it out solo for a moment with someone from the other side. As just the tip of the iceberg, we have sequences during the epic airport melee where Captain America goes one-on-one with Spider-Man; Hawkeye goes one-on-one with the Black Widow; the Black Panther gets in some mano-a-mano throwdowns with both Captain America and the Winter Soldier, etc. Not only that, but we also have group and tactically coordinated maneuvers between various sets of the combatants that rival the coolness and complexity you will see in the comic book pages! And just wait until you see what Ant-Man does! I don’t want to spoil it, but I shouted and cheered the moment I saw it! If you happen to see this film in a crowded theater, expect to hear the entire facility resonate with cheers and claps when this happens! (What occurs has been mentioned in speculation various places online already, but I’m still not going to spoil it here! Ha!!)
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Things will never be the same again as the Winter Soldier’s sordid past catches up with him in a majorly tragic way.
Keep in mind that like past Marvel films by Marvel Studios, there are two important 30 second Easter Egg sequences after the main film ends; one in the middle of the end credits, the other immediately following the conclusion of the scroll. The second one sets up a certain eagerly awaited solo hero film, and is worth sitting the extra minutes for.
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Hint!
If you happen to be a fellow super-hero fan, by all means see this movie! Not in a few weeks, but ASAP!! This is the stuff that many comic book fans spent many hours dreaming about seeing “someday.” Thanks to Disney, Marvel Studios, and the Russo Brothers, that “someday” is NOW! It’s my strong opinion that this flick is more than worth paying to see on the big screen rather than waiting until it comes to video or pay-for-view, as many have suggested to me was the best option for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Captain America - Civil War poster02

“Batman” ’66 is Awesome! Well, Except for a Few Things…

I like to think I’m not the only person in this world who grew up watching reruns of the classic late 1960s super-hero series Batman starring Adam West in the titular role. Oh yea, and let me not fail to give credit to Burt Ward, who played Dick Grayson, who was Bruce Wayne’s… well, ward. Interesting, not to mention more than a bit trippy, how things like that tend to work out.

And of course, Grayson was Batman’s useful sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder, the kid who had the courage to run around fighting crime wearing a thin domino mask, a yellow cape, and a pair of green underoos. I guess Bruce Wayne didn’t want his partner to wear a costume that would in any way detract from the coolness factor of his own set of leotards. I think Robin was damn lucky that the Joker never tried to “pants” him during one of their many onomatopoeia-filled throw downs, since you would think that was totally something a sadistic guy like the Clown Prince of Crime would do during such a melee… not only for laughs, but also to get revenge for the humiliation of having his goons get their arses kicked despite enjoying such a huge strength of numbers ratio.

 

Ceasar Romero Joker01

“Look, Batman, the Boy Blunder is returning my smile with a sideways smile of his own! *cue Cesar Romero’s distinctive “Joker” laugh*”

 

You’d also think it would be rather easy to pull off that domino mask and expose something even more private than the Boy Wonder’s derriere  to a gang of criminal miscreants. I always wondered if the Dynamic Duo had some type of behind-the-scenes arrangement with his famed rogues gallery to prevent such obvious things from being done, or at least repeatedly attempted.

Of course, we’re not supposed to ask questions like that. Rather, we’re expected to simply sit back and enjoy a great bit of psychedelic, totally ’60s form of entertainment. I always felt watching H.R. Puffnstuff was the better choice for that, or maybe to catch a showing of the Beatles’ other-worldly exploits in The Yellow Submarine animated flick, or one of the retro-tastic Austin Powers  movies. But hey, you can’t overlook the similar enjoyable elements present in what we are today often calling and fondly remembering as Batman ’66. Because, yanno, that was the year the series premiered, in case one or two of you couldn’t figure out what the numerals were for.

 

Batman '66-01

BATMAN: “Hello, is this the Green Hornet? Yeah, listen, Robin is very upset, so I have to tell you that if you ever pull his underoos down again during a battle sequence, we won’t allow you to guest star on our show any more.

“Listen, smart ass, I already told you that he didn’t mean that low blow, you just happen to be much taller than him!

“And if  you want to accuse my side of fighting dirty, I didn’t exactly appreciate where that chauffeur of yours kicked me, either!”

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I too grew up loving that show, and I still love it to this day. I catch its reruns each Saturday on the Me network whenever I happen to be home. The colorful, campy, and quasi-satirical tone of this not-so-dark version of the Dark Knight isn’t my fav interpretation of the character by a long shot, and it certainly pays no respect to his truly dark comic book roots. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate what it did have to offer, and I can fully understand the resurgence in popularity that this version of the character has had during the past few years. Go, Batman ’66!

Unfortunately, my esteemed readers, nitpicking such classic and iconic TV series is something that I’m prone to do. This has always been among my many shortcomings, and unfortunately I’m not about to change at this point in my life. I must admit that I find this attribute too much fun to change, anyway. So, please do indulge me as I vent about a few things I noticed in the show while otherwise enjoying a rerun on Me TV earlier this evening. These things tend to bother me, so I’ll respond by bothering the rest of you with my complaints and observations about it; that’s only fair, right? Muah-hah-hah!

 

Batman '66-03

ALAN HALE: “*Screams* Geezus, I’m sorry, um, Batman… I thought it was squirrels I heard climbing up the side of the building! Don’t worry, your, um, secret is safe with me. *nervous giggle*”

ROBIN: “Holy flippin’ exposure, Batman! And I do mean exposure! I told you that halfway up the side of the skyscraper wouldn’t be safe for, um, this!”

BATMAN: “Quiet, old bum — er, I mean, old chum — I’ll handle this.

“Citizen, I assure you, all we were doing was testing the durability of Robin’s new shorts against friction — er, the air friction  from climbing up buildings, that is! Understood?”

ALAN HALE: “*Nervous giggle* Erm, like I said, Batman, your secret about Robin’s friction is safe with me. Er, um, you know what I mean.”

 

First off, why in the hell did Bruce and Dick share their secret with Alfred, but not Aunt Harriet? Why was their surrogate father worthy of the truth and allowed to offer a helping hand in their exploits, but not the lady who passed for their two-in-one surrogate mother and maid? At least I think  that what Aunt Harriet was supposed to be doing in Wayne Manor was roughly equivalent to what Aunt Bea was doing in the Sheriff Andy Taylor’s happy but considerably smaller home. I couldn’t see any other purpose for her being there, other than boring the hell out of Dick by making him do things like taking those piano lessons. Then again, she couldn’t possibly have been more useless at Wayne Manor than Chief O’Hara was at what was apparently Gotham City’s only police station.

 

Aunt Harriet02

BRUCE WAYNE: “Um, Alfred, do you think Aunt Harriet would let me borrow Dick for a while? It seems King Tut is on the loose again, and he’s locked the attorney general in an air tight sarcophagus. There’s no time to lose!”

ALFRED: “My abject apologies, sir, but I’m afraid Madam Harriet is adamant that Master Dick finish his yodeling lessons before going out this fine evening.”

 

And c’mon now, Wayne Manor was a big ass manse, so one might think Alfred could use a hand with the cooking and cleaning, right? Or am I missing something here? Okay, maybe it’s best not to speculate any further on this one, considering the stuff that Dr. Frederic Wertham dreamed up while conducting similar musings on the Wayne household during the ’50s in his uber-paranoid book Seduction of the Innocent  that led to the comic book’s editor introducing Aunt Harriet into the series in the first place. Maybe Alfred just got lonely sometimes when Bruce and Dick were off cape crusading and solving the Riddler’s riddles. Okay, I had best stop now.

Aunt Harriet and Alfred

ALFRED: “May I remind you, madam, that Master Bruce and The Dick are planning to be out quite late this evening?” *wink; glare*

AUNT HARRIET: “Oh, Alfred! You manly man, you! Hee hee hee…”

 

Aunt Harriet01

AUNT HARRIET: “You know, your voices sound very  familiar, boys. Good heavens, if I could only place them…”

 

Anyway, back to the original point: what was so inherently untrustworthy about Aunt Harriet? I really can’t accept the argument that the three men of the manse believed that knowing the truth would put Aunt Harriet in danger, because that poor old woman still got kidnapped more often than Alfred did. So much for her ignorance keeping her out of danger! Maybe Bruce and Dick had a sadistic enjoyment of seeing how long they could pull the woolen capes over the myopic eyes of Aunt Harriet, and Alfred went along with it since he didn’t want to ruin the way cool and high-paying gig he had at the mansion (even if it did mean being kidnapped and tortured on occasion; no job is perfect! And as I said, Aunt Harriet  tended to get kidnapped more often than he did anyway…).

 

Aunt_Harriet02

A face that, evidently, only a mother could trust.

 

And sorry, but that’s not all I’m going to gripe about this time around (yup, you correctly discerned the implication that this might not be the last post of this nature that I inflict on my readers! Hey, what can I say? I’ve got a lot of this tripe to get out of my system!).

Next we come to the point of that funky red emergency phone that Commissioner Gordon used to use call Batman at Wayne Manor, while presumably assuming the call went to wherever Batman and Robin actually lived. I’d say don’t get me started on that, but it’s too late, as I already have gotten started on it.

First of all, I couldn’t help noticing that Gordon kept a glass encasement over the phone that he removed just before using it. What purpose did that damn thing serve? Okay, some of you may argue that the glass encasement was to keep dust from getting into what may have been highly sensitive components of that uber-rare, two-of-a-kind type of phone. But I can’t fully buy that explanation, because the identical one at Wayne Manor had no such glass encasement over it. Was Alfred and Aunt Harriet simply trusted a lot more to keep the red phone at the manor clean and dust free than Chief O’Hara was with its counterpart in the Commissioner’s office? I mean, Chief O’Hara had to have some purpose to justify his paycheck, right? Since catching criminals certainly didn’t seem to be part of his job description — Gotham City didn’t seem to  have much use for the police department  as long as Batman and Robin were on the job — I’m guessing that a glorified office cleaner who was allowed to dress in a lawman’s outfit and to be addressed as “Chief” to feel more important may explain things. Hey, it worked for Barney Fife over in Mayberry, correct?

Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara

COMMISSIONER GORDON: “Dammit, O’Hara, you forgot to put the glass casing over the phone again after cleaning it! Can’t you do even a simple job like that around here?”

CHIEF O’HARA: “Blimey! My apologies, sir! It just musta’ slipped me mind since I cleaned that phone before having me afternoon cup of Earl Grey! Ye know I’m always rather wonky between me second and third lunch break!”

 

Which reminds me of another thing about that freakin’ red phone, particularly the one at Wayne Manor. I’m going to go out on a limb here and presume that Bruce Wayne had something like a social life, and at least occasionally had guests over at the mansion. I mean, if you owned a place like that, wouldn’t you want to show it off sometimes?

Anyway, wouldn’t the guests have seen that red phone where Wayne kept it in plain sight? That thing isn’t exactly easy to overlook. And wouldn’t some of them inquire as to why he was the only person in Gotham, and probably on the entire planet, who had a phone that looked exactly like the one Commissioner Gordon had?

For that matter, didn’t Aunt Harriet ever bother to ask about why the hell Bruce kept that odd-looking phone around? Didn’t she ever answer it when it rang (okay, when it beeped), only to be dumbstruck when she heard Commissioner Gordon on the line asking for Batman? Are we to assume that Aunt Harriet would herself simply assume that Gordon had dialed the wrong number? And that he seemed to “accidentally” dial Bruce’s number when trying to call Batman on a regular basis? Okay, I understand that Aunt Harriet wasn’t exactly the sharpest blade in Deathstroke the Terminator’s arsenal, but frankly, is anyone  actually that dense?

 

Commissioner Gordon on red phone

COMMISSIONER GORDON: “Hello, Batman, the Joker is on the loose again, and he just kidnapped the mayor, and has threatened to make him drink a bottle of Ace Chemical laxative every hour until we pay him the ungodly sum of ten thousand dollars, and — wait, who is this? Harriet Grayson? Oh, I’m sorry to bother you again like this…”

AUNT HARRIET: “Hee hee, oh, it’s alright, Commissioner, I’m quite used to it by now. But you really should look into getting the line on your phone fixed. I mean, I was  just eating when you told me that.”

COMMISSIONER GORDON: “Dear lord, my apologies, Ms. Grayson. I can’t imagine why I so often end up getting Wayne Manor whenever I try to phone Batman’s secret headquarters.”

AUNT HARRIET: “Oh, don’t give it another thought, dear. I couldn’t imagine why that would happen either.”

 

Okay, that’s all for now. I’ll let all of my fellow fans of the show go back to enjoying it without thinking about any of the above (not that you’ll be able to get it out of your minds and ever be able to enjoy the show as much now that I pointed all of that out, muah-hah-hah!). But hey, if anyone can provide some answers for the above conundrums, by all means leave them here in the comments section! You won’t get the equivalent of a Marvel No-Prize from me (anyone remember those?), but you will at least give me the satisfaction of knowing I’m not the only person in the world who spends his spare time pointlessly analyzing TV shows like this 😛

 

Aunt Bea01

“Let me tell you, Harriet, I go through the same shenanigans with my Andy and Opie that you do with your Bruce and Dick. At least you have that strapping Alfred to keep you company when those two are out, so your job there isn’t completely without reward. Hee!

“And would you believe that Opie got a C- on his civics test and he and Andy elected to keep me ignorant of that fact? Of all the nerve! I’m sure your boys wouldn’t keep any secrets from you, dearie!”

 

 

 

 

How Important is “Mature” Content for Super-Hero Fiction & How is It Defined?

Batman confronts Sewer King

“Calm down, evil-doer… it’s not like you’ll bleed if I punch you in the nose! The network used up its blood quota in the first episode aired this season.”

This post is inspired, like others before it, by a conversation I recently had with a group of fellow authors in one of the many online groups I’m honored to be a part of. The topic in question focused on whether or not we agreed with the points made by the author of this article. That led into further discussions on what constitutes “mature” content in a movie/TV show/video game (etc., et al.), and whether or not such material (however defined) is required for super-hero fare to be considered good or relevant. My contributions to this conversation were less-than-well-received, which inspired this blog, as I wanted to discuss this topic in a bit more detail, including to better extrapolate my thoughts on this subject. There is also the simple matter of me being me, in that I never back away from an opinion I firmly believe in after a lot of thought simply because it’s outside the consensus.

Nevertheless, I do want to make it clear that I greatly respect the contrary opinions of my fellow authors, I’m often greatly inspired by much of what they write and say, and I do tend to understand why they think in opposition to me regarding some of my more controversial opinions. I’ll endeavor to make all of this clear in what follows.

I. The Double-Edged Sword of Maturity

Before the super-hero sub-genre of sci-fi went mainstream in the 1990s–and achieved its renaissance in mainstream pop cultural sensibilities thanks to great cinematic achievements beginning with the release of Blade  circa 1998 to the present (the successful release of Ant-Man occurring just the previous weekend at this writing)–comic book fans in general were truly a niche audience. Comic geeks were among the least respected amongst the crowd, as the general public had little to no knowledge of the content of comic books. They seemed to presume (much as they still do with animated fare in America) that the comic book format constitutes a genre  rather than a medium,  and were intended only  for children. And very young  children, at that. It was common for ten-year-old comic book fans to be considered “too old” for comics, and to be derided by peers and the oh-so-wise adults alike for reading “kiddie books.” Just ask my life-long friend John, who was amongst many for giving me more than a few sniggers for still being a comic book fan past my eighth birthday (until I successfully convinced him to read Watchmen, but that’s another story!).

This attitude was part of a type of pressure younger people were subjected to by peers back then which insisted that when you “grow up,” it’s necessary to put aside many of the things you cherished in childhood. It was simply considered silly and “childish” to continue to enjoy certain things past a specific birthday. So, for instance, if you were a fan of any material that was widely accepted as being geared towards children, by the time you’re nine-to-ten years old, you were criticized with much vitriol if you maintained interest in said subjects or characters, even if only to a purely aesthetic degree (e.g., you still liked wearing shirts adorned with images of Mickey Mouse). The idea that concepts like the Looney Toons cartoon characters, anything produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, etc., might have appeal on myriad levels beyond being simple juvenile trash was anathema to this bullying mindset that you had to give all of this up to be considered properly mature (or maturing,  at least).

And of course, adults could be just as harsh on kids for not “growing up” sufficiently to give up so much of what we loved and resonated with as young children. Such was the case even as they then turned around and gleefully reminded us that we were “just kids” if we wanted to exercise anything akin to civil rights. Yanno, those freedoms that only legal adults are allowed to enjoy regardless of individual levels of competency or the number of mistakes we vaunted grown-ups routinely make. Yup, my status as a youth liberationist since I was 13 will factor into this, so even though I expect the great majority of my fellow authors not to agree with me on this, please bear with me here; hey, if I’m allowed no civil rights at age 14, then at least allow me to still enjoy watching Looney Toon cartoons, dammit! 😛

Bugs Bunny01

“Network warning: If you’re over nine years of age, and your friends or parents catch you watching this program, you will be ridiculed. Viewer discretion is therefore advised.”

This once commonplace attitude was addressed thusly by the legendary sci-fi author C. S. Lewis: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” I’m sure I’m far from the only person who is thankful that Mr. Lewis didn’t give up his “childish” creativity and interests! I think these words of wisdom from a great visionary author should speak volumes to everyone who has such stringent definitions of “maturity.” Many “childish things” continue to inspire the creative imagination long past our legally extended childhood, and we would be much the poorer for just arbitrarily “giving them up” as the equivalent of mental garbage as soon as we become X years of age.

I personally think it can be cogently argued that “maturity” may be a mixed bag, with both positive and negative points, depending upon which traits in the popular definition of the term one may choose to adopt. Or perhaps depending upon the circumstances at hand in any given situation. I think giving up idealism, creative imagination & ponderings, a love of fun & adventure, and a sense of wonder with the phenomena of the universe are negative aspects of our society’s commonly defined version of “maturity” that fails to benefit us, either as individuals or as an overall culture, and is directly responsible for much of the less than joyous aspects of our present world order. I think there is good reason why so many in our culture poke fun at fictional characters like Ward Cleaver and Mike Brady. We would all have loved to have had them as fathers when we were children, but few of us actually wanted to grow up to be  them! They were depicted as idealized (male) adults: good-hearted, hard-working men who were fountains of wisdom and benevolent authority figures whom their kids could do nothing but respect. However, in many ways they are no more realistic than the idealized children, tweens, and teens that are still commonly depicted in popular Disney series and movies. But at least the latter still have a strong sense of having fun  that appeals to so many real younger viewers, as well as adults like myself who do not consider “fun” as something that largely revolves around sitting around the house while consuming alcohol, smoking pot, and complaining to each other about financial & marital problems (and complaining about how our kids want to do the same things). I also believe the above attitudes are directly responsible for the reasons, commonly attributed to adolescents, for assuming that “maturity” can be defined by waves of gratuitous nudity, sex, gory violence, profanity, and heavy grim & gritty themes.

II. So Are Super-Heroes Primarily for Kids?

As I have argued in a previous blog, I take great umbrage with statements like this one spoken by the author of the above linked article: “Superheroes work best as all ages entertainment because the roots of the genre are in the children’s daydreams: to be able to fly like Superman, to wield a lasso like Wonder Woman, to run like the Flash, or to leap from building to building like Spider-Man. A good all-ages superhero story works to satisfy the core desire that these emblematic heroes embody, while also providing a narrative hook that allows adult readers to enter into the innocence of a fantasy world.”

Here’s the thing: I think it’s very clear that super-heroes truly embody adult power fantasies, along with an assortment of archetypes related to what the entirety of any given society may consider its version of the heroic ideal. These are hardly the sole province of “kiddie” dreams. Conceptions of beings with exceptional intelligence and/or superhuman power fighting whatever aspects of society that the prevailing culture may have considered “the enemy” go back to the roots of classical deities and heroes from world mythology and folklore (not to mention popular organized religious texts). These tales of old were hardly intended to provide lessons, ideas, and fulfillment fantasies to children alone. Jesus Christ is worshiped seriously by many as a Great Martyr archetype, yet definitively fictitious characters who also represent this archetype–such as the character of Adam Warlock from Marvel Comics–are dismissed as “kiddie” fare and mental junk food simply because of the medium in which they appeared.

Note how until just very recently, schools have diligently taught the value of stories and figures from mythology, theology, and folklore while ignoring their modern manifestations in comic books. Let’s not forget that comic book heroes have always included versions of classic mythological heroes (and villains) such as Thor and Hercules, as well as heroes like Wonder Woman, whose backstory is steeped in classical Greek mythology (her mother is Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons), and major villains like Morgan Le Fey (having important versions in both Marvel and DC comics), who just happens to be a major figure from the Arthurian legends. Let’s further remember how heroes like Captain Britain have a mythos that is integrally interwoven with those same Arthurian legends. The same with DC’s classic horror hero Etrigan the Demon, who is likewise tied to the legends of Camelot and other aspects of Celtic mythology.

It’s also important to realize that in the modern world, where adults rule completely with little interest in any feedback from younger people–who are mostly regarded as incompetents who need to be interchangeably ignored and “protected”–it’s adults who wield all the power, both for good and for ill. The type of corporate villainy that Lex Luthor personifies–not to mention villains like Obadiah Stane and Darren Cross, who were the Big Bads of the recent Iron Man  and Ant-Man  movies, respectively–is represented in reality by adult CEO’s, not children. The type of crusader for the common person embodied in larger-than-life fashion by the limited numbers of scrupulous lawyers like Matt Murdock (a.k.a., Daredevil)–who recently had an extremely popular live action series premiere on Netflix–occupy offices filled by adults, not children.

There is good reason why adults began gradually embracing super-heroes in an increasingly open fashion as time went on. This first occurred with the type of more sophisticated takes on the genre introduced by the then upstart Marvel Comics from the early 1960s onwards, embraced during that decade by younger adults on college campuses. Later, they became popular with even older adults in all areas of the mainstream beginning in the 1980s thanks to the success of works such as Frank Miller’s “Born Again” story arc in Marvel’s Daredevil  comic; Alan Moore’s ground-breaking work on the U.K. series revamp of Marvelman  (re-titled Miracleman  for its U.S. run), as well as his work on Saga of the Swamp Thing (which later became Swamp Thing Vol. 2) and Watchmen  for DC Comics; Miller’s subsequent work for a certain costumed DC vigilante with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and the “Batman: Year One” story arc for the regular Batman  title; Neil Gaiman’s title The Sandman,  which spear-headed DC’s “mature” line of titles under their still extant Vertigo line; and the amazingly well-written and sophisticated runs on mainstream Marvel titles like Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men and its first spin-off title, New Mutants, to John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, to Marvel’s introduction of Epic Illustrated–its version of Heavy Metal, as the beginning of its more “adult” creator-owned Epic line of comics; and great runs on mainstream DC titles like Marv Wolfman’s & George Perez’s New Teen Titans  and John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad.

ice cream eater

“Gee, I wonder if I’m now too old to still enjoy Tooty Fruity flavored ice cream! I hope not, or my friend John will start making fun of me!”

By the time the 1990s rolled around, comic books and super-heroes in particular were good to go for the mainstream, and comic geeks were no longer the vilified group they once were. The latter part of the 1990s began the modern era of highly successful super-hero movies, TV series, and video games that have enjoyed great mainstream success in both all-ages projects and strictly “adult” fare like Unstoppable, the Watchmen  movie, and Kick-Ass.

But most non-comic book fans do not realize that adult appreciation for fantastic fiction didn’t start there. The ancestors of super-heroes are the noir-ish and often fantastical pulp heroes from the 1920s and ’30s that preceded the emergence of the modern super-hero as we know with it with the introduction of Superman in Action Comics Vol. 1 #1 circa 1938. The great pulp heroes continued to proliferate in prose magazines, made of cheap pulp wood (which is how the genre got its name) until the early ’50s (pulp heroes have undergone a major resurgence in popularity over the past two decades, both in the prose and comic book mediums, with yours truly having prose work published in this genre). Early American pulp heroes included the likes of the Shadow, the Spider, Doc Savage, G-8, the Green Hornet, and the Phantom Detective. These incredible heroes–who often wore masks and capes–directly inspired Superman, Batman, and the multitude of super-heroes that followed them in the comic book format. In fact, the pulp heroes were often translated into comic book versions that, until more recently, lacked the lurid, dark, and “mature” sensibilities of the pulp magazine format. The pulp magazines were largely geared towards adults, even though, of course, children and teens also read them.

 Punisher and Deadpool

Disney executive to staff:

“C’mon, guys, I see no reason why we can’t produce The Punisher/Deadpool Super Fun Adventure Hour with a TV-Y7 rating!

“We can still show them with guns, we just can’t let them actually hit someone with a bullet, or kill anyone, or have anyone bleed if they get punched in the face.

“And their knives and swords can only be used for cutting wire and rope and stuff like that. We have a cool scene written where the Punisher uses his projectile blade to cut the rope holding a chandelier over the heads of these criminals, which then falls on them and knocks them silly. It’s fucking hilarious!

“Oh, and speaking of which, we can’t have any swearing on the show, but isn’t ‘heck’ a harsh enough word to have these guys and the mobsters use? I never took Jigsaw as the type of guy to cuss anyway. I didn’t think the live action version of him in the movie was very realistic; since when do homicidal mobsters use such language?

“And he’s just as horrifying when he merely threatens someone in a vague fashion rather than actually killing them. Wait until you watch the scene in the first episode when he intimidates this stock broker who cheated him by saying he’ll ‘chop up his numbers.’ Bwah-hah-hah!

“And you ask how we’re going to show Deadpool’s regenerative healing power when he won’t ever get hurt worse than getting hit on the head by a falling log? Well, the network said we can  have him joke about how his healing power made the lump on his head go away real fast. See, it’s totally doable!”

This restriction on comic book format content compared to prose occurred because attitudes of the time felt that comic books should  be geared largely towards younger audiences due to their resemblance to another important ancestor to the format: comic strips that appeared in nationally syndicated newspapers. The wane of the super-hero genre following the end of World War II caused their books to be replaced by the rise of the very lurid and dark true crime and horror genres. Their domination of the medium during the late 1940s and early ’50s largely resulted in widespread social panic that led to Congressional hearings in the early 1950s, which in turn led to the establishment of the major comics companies’ self-censorship board known as the Comics Code Authority (CCA). This fascistic document effectively neutered and sanitized the comic book format until it began to be notably challenged by Marvel, DC, and the underground comics movement in the 1970s. This heavy sanitation of the medium courtesy of the CCA was largely responsible for the great limits to what types of themes and subjects could be explored in comics. This didn’t stop good and fun stories from being told, of course, and I do not want to imply that the lurid material often found in the true crime and horror stories, or even in many tales told in the prose format, were necessary to tell a good super-hero story. Marvel proved this when its modern version came on the scene in the early ’60s and provided confirmation that the medium can produce quality tales which can appeal to children, adolescents, and adults (which we today refer to as all-ages  material).

III. What Did Marvel Accomplish?

Here I reiterate my main point: There were still many themes you could not broach in these early Marvel comics due to a combination of the still omnipotent CCA and general attitudes of the time in the wider world of pop culture. I’ll get to that, but first let me give all due credit to the amazing all-ages material produced by Marvel with the advent of Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #1 circa 1961, and exactly how it was such a game-changer for the medium. This is also to make it clear that I’m far from against quality all-ages material, and I read and watch it with aplomb.

Marvel basically revolutionized sophisticated storytelling in the comic book medium by creating more complex characters that readers could readily identify with as human beings. No longer were invariably heroes one-dimensional characters who were depicted as unflinching paragons of wisdom, heroism, and Ward Cleaver-style maturity. They had foibles and character flaws that all good people have, they made mistakes, and they even sometimes got married. As for the super-villains, a lot more “gray” was introduced into the moral codes depicted in those pages. We had some heroes who started as villains, and later reformed (note Hawkeye, Black Widow, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer, and Marvel’s version of Captain Marvel); anti-heroes (note the Hulk and Eclipso… sort of); bizarre and flatly unattractive heroes who represented the “ugly ducklings” of the hero mold (note the X-Men and the Doom Patrol); and even a few heroes who fell from grace. The first black super-heroes were introduced during this era–including the Black Panther and the Falcon, along with the John Stewart Green Lantern over at DC; more strong female characters were introduced (though still rather weak in character compared to many excellent female heroes we read about today); and despite the many fantasy elements that were part of the Marvel Universe, the Earth we read about in its pages resembled the one outside our window quite a bit more than any previous fictional version of our planet traditionally presented in the format.

This extended to the point that Marvel dispensed with the fictional cities so popular in DC Comics, and based most of their heroes in or near a fictionalized version of New York City (after using the fictitious California metroplex of Central City in the first two issues of The Fantastic Four  only). This, of course, opened the door for the crossover phenomenon that has just recently become hugely popular among mainstream audiences thanks to the cinematic universe established by Marvel Studios. Not only that, but the scripts become much better quality than most of those we saw in the medium prior to that (with a few notable exceptions, such as Will Eisner’s awesome decade-long tales of the masked pulp-style hero The Spirit, particularly the tales that followed World War II). Adults could appreciate and even marvel at (pun intended) the many complex philosophical ideas trotted out by the characters, and be awed by the mind-boggling cosmic themes explored in titles like Fantastic FourThe Avengers, and  Doctor Strange. If you wanted the mind-expanding aspects of taking acid without actually taking the drugs, you only had to read these titles (or watch episodes of Sid and Marty Kroftt’s children’s show H. R. Puffnstuff, which debuted near the end of the ’60s decade… provided you managed to catch it before you turned ten and your peers expected you to give it up or be laughed at!).

There was another terrific aspect of these tales that I would like to mention, as it does justice to the respect that I think younger people should be afforded. Youthful super-heroes in the tweens and teens age group, and even younger, were nothing new to comics in the ’60s. The introduction of Robin to the Batman mythos in 1940 started the super-hero sidekick craze of that era, which gave us such other classic teen sidekicks as Captain America’s young partner Bucky–who has since been re-imagined as an adult who was roughly Cap’s age in certain re-tellings of the story, including in the Marvel Cinematic version of Cap’s mythos–and Green Arrow’s famous sidekick Speedy. These teen heroes fought beside their adult mentors in the most hazardous and dangerous situations imaginable, and provided more direct figures for younger readers to identify with, and be inspired by. Robin regularly stood successfully at Batman’s side amidst a crime-ridden Gotham City and against the likes of the Joker, while Bucky accompanied Cap on the battlefields of World War II and against the likes of the Red Skull.

Robin later gained a solo series in the DC (then National) anthology Star-Spangled Comics. DC later introduced an all-teen team of soldiers with the Boy Commandos, and Marvel (then Timely) had Bucky lead a team of youthful heroes (including the Human Torch’s similarly powered sidekick Toro) called the Young Allies, each in their own titles. DC brought us the Star-Spangled Kid in Star-Spangled Comics,  who was actually a teen hero with an adult  sidekick! Many, many more followed since, but were mostly extinct save for Robin after a few decades… and even the current version of Robin (Damian Wayne) runs largely solo these days. Fawcett Comics’ uber-popular hero Captain Marvel was 12 years old when he first gained the power of Shazam, but he turned into an adult, magickally-derived version of Superman when he summoned his powers (though his two fellow members of the Marvel Family, Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, remained super-powered adolescents). National/DC followed suit (not the lawsuit; that’s another story) with Fawcett Comics by creating Superboy in 1945, who may have been the first adolescent super-hero to (literally) fly solo without debuting under the watchful eye of an adult mentor/partner. That was because creator Jerry Siegel designed the Boy of Steel to  be a younger version of Superman rather than a separate contemporary hero to avoid appearing to rip-off Captain Marvel Jr., especially since DC was already suing Fawcett over Captain Marvel’s similarity to Superman (yes, the comic book world is full of ironies). Of course, this status has changed in more recent decades, when Superboy has been re-imagined as a contemporary young clone of Superman who struck out on his own.

Marvel,  however, brought us Spider-Man in 1962, who began his career as a younger adolescent without ever having an adult partner, and who called himself Spider-Man  rather than Spider-Boy.  This development had far more significance in the wider cultural & political scheme of things than most people today imagine, as it was indicative of wider changes in society at the time whose progress has since suffered a setback. The Spider-Man title depicted a young hero who, despite all of his human flaws and mistakes, nevertheless went solo against a slew of dangerous menaces that his adult counterparts regularly dealt with, and with less than a fraction of the power enjoyed by Superboy. He proved as competent as any of his adult contemporaries without their direct aid or the god-like power of the Boy of Steel (who still called himself Superboy ). Moreover, his youthful exuberance and idealism were presented as an asset to his status as a hero rather than attributes commonly dismissed as traits which adults routinely deride younger people for having.  And he became perhaps the greatest of  Marvel’s many revolutionary heroes of the ’60s.

How is this relevant to the context of what was occurring in the greater world of that era? I’m glad I asked that question for you 🙂 The 1960s was a pivotal decade in the 20th century for many reasons, among which were providing the foundations for the following: a highly thoughtful youth culture that wasn’t pre-packaged for them by adults; the creation of a new Constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and thus granted suffrage to large numbers of people who were previously denied a voice in society; and spear-heading the establishment of the youth liberation movement which began in Ann Arbor, Michigan that made surprising progress during the 1970s until the conservative takeover of the government and popular cultural thought–beginning with the formation of the Thatcher regime in Britain and the Reagan regime in America–derailed all of that progress. That derailment has resulted in even post-’70s liberals and progressives frequently proclaiming that people under 18 need to be protected from viewing or reading “inappropriate” material.

In fact, the average person in today’s society, regardless of political affiliation, will react that way as something akin to a cultural instinct. This is because when it comes to people under a legally demarcated age of majority, conservative thinking is now considered a major facet of overall conventional wisdom that trumps mainstream progressive principles. Spider-Man01

“Oh, damn! I mean, darn ! (Was that word okay for the network?) I had no idea that after defeating Doc Ock’s latest scheme to blow up the Big Apple, and then coming up with that scientific apparatus to circumvent Dr. Doom’s mind-control device, and then rescuing a crowd of people from the Man-Wolf’s attack on that family barbecue, and then  concocting the newest serum to reverse Dr. Connors’ transformation into the Lizard before he clawed his family to bits… I would be late for my curfew, and fail to get my homework assignment for art class done in time to hand in tomorrow morning! Or that on top of it all, I’d be too tired to clean up my room in the afternoon!

“It soooo sucks being a competent, formidable solo hero while still having to live under the full control of adults in my civilian identity just ’cause of my age! I hope Aunt May doesn’t ground me, ’cause you never know when Galactus may decide to invade the Earth, or the Scorpion might try to kidnap Jameson again.

“Ah well, if I bring all of this up to Aunt May *who I think knows my secret identity this week*, she’ll only give me the lecture on what my priorities as a teen have to be, followed by the ‘as long as I live in her house’ spiel.’ *Sigh* I wonder how the Teen Titans deal with this shit (omg, did I say that would aloud? Disney is soooo gonna kill me!).”

Though the youth liberation movement is now back in action, and making modest accomplishments (including getting certain small jurisdictions to lower the voting age to 16), it’s currently largely ignored by contemporary progressives, who often refuse to support it even after discovering the platform. The lessons imparted by what the archetypal meaning of comic book heroes like Spider-Man and the Teen Titans represented alongside the real world political forces which resulted in the creation of that new Constitutional amendment, and what was started in Ann Arbor, have been successfully wiped from the cultural zeitgeist. This wipe, of course, includes any recognition of this platform from the mainstream progressive mindset. Empowerment of the young has been replaced by knee-jerk emotional sentiments to play White Knight protectors and saviors of their perceived blissful ignorance of the world. This tends to translate as a powerful desire to “protect” them from doing all the same things we did as kids behind the scenes… and didn’t  end up ruined as a result. This is not really off-topic IMO, since I think it may well be the crux of the discussion to determine what constitutes “mature” content and why. I will get to that in the next and final section of this blog.

IV. So How Does Our Culture Seem to Define the Term “Mature”?

Yes, during the 1960s decade, Marvel told many great stories that didn’t require sex (or even many allusions to sexual activity), boobs, swear words, majorly dark themes, or violence accompanied by gallons of blood and gore to be good. I fully agree with my friends and colleagues on this. I further agree with them that we got many good all-ages stories and even many dark noir-ish themes with Warner Bros.’s ground-breaking show Batman: The Animated Series that debuted circa 1992. That show went on to inspire a whole group of very good all-ages animated super-hero shows as part of what came to be called the DC Animated Universe. These interconnected series continued into the early ’00s, ending on a high note with the truly excellent Justice League Unlimited. The latter was a vast improvement over the wretchedly simplistic animated exploits of these heroes from The Super Friends  series that debuted in the 1970s. That was an era when super-heroes in animation were directly geared to children only, and sanitized to the point that they are considered a laughable joke today (just check out columnist Seanbaby’s treatment of these “kid-friendly” versions of the characters).

Since The Super Friends were all the mainstream public usually saw of these super-heroes during that era, is it really any wonder that such depictions caused them to automatically assume the material in the comics which inspired them must have been of the same quality and caliber? These shows appealed to young audiences in that era because they were used to watching material that was heavily “dumbed down” before being considered “appropriate” for them. Batman bleeding

“I sure am glad this is all the bleeding that the Fox Network will let me do this season.”

I believe the reasons so many adolescents are attributed as feeling that boobs, swear words, gory violence, heavy sexual content, and excessively dark themes are required for story content to be considered “mature” are the following:

1) Consider our society’s very definition of the words “mature” and “adult.” These are the explicit labels that our various adult-controlled ratings systems place on stories, movies, TV shows, and video games that include the above content. These are most often the very things that we insist that younger people need to be “protected” from viewing or reading, despite the pastime we and our friends all made of gaining “forbidden” access to such material in our own “misbegotten” youth. Hence, younger people naturally tend to associate such content with “maturity” in a general sense, as opposed to, say, simply sophisticated forms of storytelling that respect the intelligence of all potential viewers/readers.

2) Once we cross that legal line into adulthood, we automatically adopt the powerful, socially conditioned emotional belief that it’s now a major obligation of ours to keep successive generations of people under 18 from accessing such material. You would be rich if you were handed a nickel every time you heard a contemporary adult of progressive politics echo that sentiment. The possibility of individual and varied reactions among kids to such material are not considered, and the current progressive view leaves anyone under 18 totally exempt from our empowerment efforts. This results in heavy-handed, condescending efforts at attempting to forcibly forbid all  kids from ever seeing such material on their own volition replacing reasonable efforts at guidance and education to answer their questions in non-judgmental fashion (I’m not  saying that unilaterally exposing them to these things should be our policy!). This, in turn, encourages them to avoid coming to adults for guidance, and to attempt to keep their private lives completely inaccessible to most adults in their lives. It also instantly transforms such content into proverbial “forbidden fruit” that natural youthful curiosity encourages kids to seek out and learn about by clandestine means, sometimes as a way to rebel against adult authoritarian attempts to withhold information. Yanno, just as we did as kids. And since kids aren’t the incompetent fools that adults are encouraged to view them as (we love them more than our own lives, but we don’t tend to respect them much), they tend to find ways to circumvent our attempts to prevent them from accessing it (sorry, Netnanny!). Again, just like we  did as kids. And again, new types of “parental controls” technology are not going to cut the mustard. This is especially the case if your kids secretly know where you keep your stash of Hustler magazines hidden, and they probably do.

3) Because younger people are specifically denied any and all access to such content under any and all circumstances, it shouldn’t be surprising that by the time they reach adolescence, they associate such content with “adult” material. Younger people are repeatedly told that using foul language, sexual curiosity & exploration, the sight of blood, and certain themes or ideas are things that only adults are allowed access to. This is why, I think, that as they grow older, they are encouraged to reject all material–either good or awful–that is bereft of such content, and begin associating only content that contains such elements–again, regardless of quality–to be “adult” or “mature.” We refuse to examine our own complicity in the development of such attitudes, particularly the fact that adults are the ones who create and apply such labels to this type of content in the first place. We could apply disclaimer labels that say something like, “Warning: This film [TV presentation, book, video game, etc.] contains strong material, and may be unsettling for more sensitive viewers. Viewer discretion is therefore advised.” Instead, we most often label such material “adult” or “mature,” or specifically impose explicitly age-based ratings. And then we criticize adolescents (including our own past adolescent selves!) for associating such content with “maturity.”

4) Let’s deal with the elephant in the room now, which I believe is necessary to have a coherent discussion of this topic: aspects of life such as swearing, sexuality, violence, and the darker side of human nature are things that exist in reality. Kids will encounter them, whether we like it or not, and no matter how much we may try to shield them from it. Labeling such phenomena as “mature” or “adult” do not prevent children from encountering them in the real world. Educating them properly to deal with these things if and when they encounter them is, IMO, the key to enabling them to cope realistically and competently. Attempting to hide these aspects of existence from them and keep them blissfully ignorant of the world leaves them unprepared for such encounters, including in how they deal with these things once they reach the age of majority and are legally “cut loose” from our would-be protection and sheltering. What they read and what they view on TV or the cinema can help prepare them for such experiences before they actually have to face them in reality. If they aren’t afraid to ask adults in their lives certain pertinent questions about these topics, and aren’t forcibly denied access to this information, they will not feel obliged to seek out info on their own in potentially haphazard fashion. Nor will they be afraid to tell adults important developments in their lives where they may need guidance.

Like all youth liberationists, just because I believe in youth empowerment over protectionist policies, and do not consider adults as always knowing better in classic ageist fashion, that doesn’t mean I think adult guidance isn’t important, or that parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc., shouldn’t be an important force in the lives of kids. Please note that individuals who do not  read this blog objectively, or who get so angry that they let their emotions take over, will likely ignore or conveniently “miss” that very important acknowledgement I just made, which is something that youth liberationists sincerely believe. You will know this when you see such individuals leaving comments where they angrily berate me for “thinking that parents and other adults are not important to the lives of kids, or should be left out” when that is very clearly not  what I said.

5) As a corollary to the above point, restricting the above content from appearing in stories–whether in the super-hero genre or elsewhere in the medium–limits the type of stories you can tell, and the types of themes you can explore. You don’t need these themes or content for a story to be good and inspiring, and I fully acknowledge that. But it can be argued that stories attempting to deal with certain subjects may lose degrees of their believability if you temper too many aspects of real life. Let’s look at a few examples. Even though you don’t need swear words to make a story good, you do sacrifice a potentially great degree of suspension of disbelief when you deliberately temper the use of language when certain types of characters and situations are depicted. You can indeed argue that swearing doesn’t make one mature, but leaving profanity completely out of certain stories involving rough-and-tumble characters does have a major cost in realism. We probably shouldn’t associate swearing with “maturity,” but since only adults are allowed to do it in “polite” company, and those who impose ratings often refer to it as “adult language,” it’s natural to associate swearing with “mature” content, even though we all know how silly constant swearing actually is. I hope you get my fucking point here! (Please forgive this immature moment of mine, I just couldn’t resist.)

Sexual content isn’t necessarily “mature” at all, especially much of society’s perceptions of it, the crass commercialization of it, and the utterly ridiculous way it’s portrayed in so many venues. Popular attitudes regarding it, including the highly hypocritical and sexist “slut-shaming” aimed at women, certainly shouldn’t be considered “mature,” of course. But it’s a natural and major part of human experience, and alas, curiosity over it is not confined to fully legal adults only. Leaving it entirely out of certain stories can hurt the realism factor even if it doesn’t affect the degree of maturity, and does limit the types of themes that can be explored, such as romantic tales, even though a story can be good without such elements. And since it’s so often insisted that these elements be left out of anything that kids are expected to watch or read, it’s natural for them to associate these elements–no matter what manner they are portrayed, including the sillier contexts–as “mature” or “adult.”

Violence and gore are also, regrettably, natural aspects of the world. War is an all-too common element of our global reality, but strangely and hypocritically, many Americans tend to glamorize it and make its purveyors who wear a certain star-spangled flag out to be heroes while at the same time ignoring the fact that children and adolescents in foreign nations are very often directly exposed to the horrors it wreaks. Yet we do not want our kids to view even simulated depictions of such violence, and frequently express concerns that American children are de-sensitized to violence and more likely to commit violent acts in reality if they view simulated violence. This is clearly a heavily emotional issue, which tends to trump logical thinking, thus possibly explaining this huge contradiction in the American mindset.  Beating someone’s face in to solve a problem certainly isn’t “mature.”

But since we have this powerful love-hate relationship with violence and warfare (just as we do with sexuality), and do not want our children to watch depictions of it (either simulated or the real deal via war footage), we end up with the silliness of the super-hero series that were geared towards children during the otherwise very liberal ’70s that didn’t allow super-heroes to actually punch a villain; or the otherwise excellent Warner Bros. animation of the ’90s-’00s that allowed plenty of punching and smashing, but almost no blood to result from it, and virtually no on-screen murders. That was not exactly realistic, and it caused many viewers to lose suspension of disbelief despite their enjoyment of the high quality scripts and general story-telling. These shows provided terrific all-ages viewing, yet the networks felt compelled to gear these shows towards children since they figured that the majority of viewers would be children simply because these shows were animated, not shown in prime time, and outside the genre of comedy like The Simpsons  or Family Guy (I’ll explore the reasons why this strange bias with animated fare exists in America in a future blog). Hence, violent content is often considered “mature” despite its context.

6) I’ve had some colleagues remind me, regarding the above, that Batman is not the Punisher, and that he shouldn’t be expected to draw blood like the latter does. I think that is true or not depending on what type of milieu you present the Batman, and what type of stories you want to tell by using the multi-purpose archetype he represents. Do you want the goofy but often entertaining Batman from the 1950s and ’60s comics, or the Adam West version from the “Batman ’66” mythos? They are fine for presenting bloodless battles and villains who are more ribald nuisances with gimmicks who simply like to rob diamonds and match wits with the Batman than engage in any type of violence outside of those slapstick brawling sequences peppered with onomatopoeia, and those elaborate “death” traps that give the Dynamic Duo a chance to impress the audience with their skill as master escape artists (and hey, the cliffhangers required death traps!). These exploits can be colorful, light-hearted, and fun with no real darkness, and a dearth of truly atrocious acts by the villains (unless you include the Penguin’s laugh).

But if you want to use the character in a manner consonant with his very dark roots–let’s not forget that his origin tale involved seeing his parents have their brains blown out in front of him as a child–and explore the dark side of human nature, an unflinching look at insanity, or the societal forces that drive the psychotic behavior of both a vigilante like Batman and his adversaries, you need the freedom to compose stories like The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth. In these stories, it would be preposterously unrealistic to show no blood, let alone no murders, resulting from the carnage of the villains; or to limit the vile acts of the villains to robbing jewelry stores or conking people on the head with a blackjack; or to leave all sexual allusions out of the framework; or to disallow any character involved to even say “shit,” to say nothing of having to replace “hell” with “heck”!

I fully realize that Batman doesn’t take lives like the Punisher, but he does deal out a lot of severe beatings, and most of his rogues gallery are ruthlessly homicidal. I understand that many of my colleagues do not agree with me on this, and I have no problem with respectfully agreeing to disagree here. The point I want to make, though, is that the argument over the inclusion of these elements has nothing to do with “maturity,” but simply with the idea of how much realism  you can leave out of super-hero stories before suspension of disbelief becomes heavily impaired. Batman is a multi-purpose character who works well in a variety of milieus, and I think the case is the same for many other super-heroes and -villains, if not most. But in order for certain themes and aspects of human nature and society to be explored, you have to step out of the “all-ages” bubble. You don’t need to step of it out in order to tell good, sophisticated, and entertaining tales in general, but IMO it is necessary to do so at times  if you want to explore certain ideas that our culture identifies with “mature” themes. It all depends on what your preferences and storytelling intentions are. I believe that multiple interpretations of this character and other super-heroes have a place in the cultural spectrum, which is why I like reading all iterations of Batman and other heroes as long as the scripts are intelligent and the themes are solid.

7) One last point I want to state which makes it clear I’m not entirely off the same page as my colleagues and friends who disagree with me on this. A major reason the above described content is attributed to adolescent perceptions of what constitutes “mature” is because due to the great success of the form of sophisticated take on super-hero writing by Miller, Moore, and Gaiman from the 1980s that incorporated these elements, a slew of copy cats were predictably quick to follow. As a result, the “grim and gritty” meme in super-hero fiction became a phenomenon unto itself, with many writers and artists jumping on the bandwagon. The result was a 1990s full of gratuitous use of these strong elements, which too often sacrificed good scripts and deep explorations of the human experience simply to provide readers or viewers with lots of boobs, swear words, over-the-top violence, and exceedingly dark heroes that tried and failed to cash in on the success of grim and gritty characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Lobo. An already overburdened market due to the speculator and multiple cover gimmick nonsense of the ’90s (but these constitute a whole other blog topic) was further glutted by the over use of this deluge of “grim and gritty” characters and stories.

The bulk of these tales were little more than crass presentations of gratuitous gore, swearing, and boobs simply for mindless shock value and titillation (yes, pun intended), and darkness simply for the sake of being dark rather than to tell any kind of coherent story or convey any insightful message.  This type of tale was too often presented as “mature” elements and themes simply due to the classically “forbidden” nature of such content. Quality was too often sacrificed for quantity, and appeal to the intellect was too often sacrificed for appeal to the more banal and prurient aspects of the human psyche. The inevitable backlash against this overkill over the past decade was fully deserved and understandable, and I don’t blame so many of my fellow authors and colleagues for being sensitive over the misuse of the term “mature” to describe such mindless dreck.

With all of the above made clear, I want to point out in summation that I fully understand that many of my colleagues, including many whom I’m honored to consider friends, will not agree with some of the more controversial statements and opinions I expressed. This will be particularly true regarding my stance on youth liberation, which is currently just coming back to the fore after being knocked out of the liberal political loop by the end of the 1970s (due to factors I mentioned above) despite the great work and modest recent achievements by NYRA and the many newer youth lib groups and orgs popping up on Facebook and other social networking forums every other day, youth lib is currently still considered fringe and radical politics, and has yet to be embraced by mainstream progressives… or rather re-embraced, if you consider the open discourse about the platform conducted during the 1970s, including Richard Farson’s book Birthrights and the many publications released during that decade and shortly afterwards by John Taylor Gatto, all well-received at the time.

Because of this, a sizable amount of opposition and even a degree of anger by fellow progressives and colleagues at this time is to be expected. I do believe, however, that I’m providing some food for thought, and the realm of creative people like writers (if not the mainstream progressive establishment itself) are full of very thoughtful individuals whom I’m proud to work with. I know they won’t always agree, and do not expect them to, but I can count on the majority of them to simply listen.

FRIENDS cast

 Friends  cast to readers of this blog:

“Sorry, peeps, but we have no idea why Nigro included us here. Just pretend you didn’t see us, okay?”

The R-Rated Power Rangers Fan Video Debacle – What Are My Thoughts?

mighty-morphin-power-rangers

“We double dare  you to mess with this pristine image of us! If you do, Saban will send us to kick your ass… er, give you a spanking! I can use the word ‘spanking’, right?”

I’m sure by now that many fellow fanboys (and girls!) have heard of the controversy surrounding the elaborate R-rated fan video of the original Power Rangers produced by Joseph Kahn as part of his “Bootleg Universe” series of such film shorts. If you haven’t seen this approximately 15-minute video yet, watch it here, then come back to this post.
The big controversy revolved around the fact that Kahn produced this maverick video entirely without the approval of Saban Entertainment, the company that produced the kid-friendly but high-concept and long-lived American version of the Japanese franchises that began with GaoRangers, and continued with many other similar genre series from there. The fight scenes, along with other sfx sequences, were lifted from these Japanese genre series and inter-mixed with new footage featuring American actors and Saban-produced effects, beginning with the classic Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers circa 1992.

The first few seasons gave us the classic presentation of the American iteration of the show. Its break-out character was the troubled but inherently heroic young martial arts expert Tommy Oliver, a.k.a. the Green Ranger, played by actor and martial arts expert Jason David Frank. He began his career as an unwitting enemy of the rainbow-hued team of monster-fighting heroes, later becoming a valued member after turning against the evil forces that initially gave him his battle armor and weapons, i.e., the Rangers’ arch-enemy Rita Repulsa.  Tommy Oliver later took a hiatus from the team when he lost his Ranger powers, but was soon reintroduced with new armor and weaponry as the White Ranger by Season 3, taking over from the Red Ranger as team leader. This is where he fully solidified his iconic status.

The Season 2 intro that first features Jason David Frank (J.D.F., as his fans like to call him) as Tommy Oliver as a regular character can be viewed here. Many different Power Rangers series and telefilms were produced from 1992 all the way up to the present, as well as a major big screen motion picture featuring the Season 3 crew, all having to change format to make use of the footage taken from different sentai series in Japan.

The result was an extremely popular action adventure franchise on this side of the Pacific, which for a time spawned different series that borrowed footage and basic concepts from the more “mature” Japanese versions. These other kid-friendly Saban sentai series included Masked Rider, Big Bad Beetleborgs Metallix (hate the show all you want, but you gotta love that theme song/intro!), and V.R. Troopers, none of which caught on in America like the Power Rangers did (no crossovers either, unfortch!). Though the more kid-oriented sentai genre in America only had a few years of small screen popularity in America during the early to mid-1990s, the slew of Power Rangers series continued on and off into the present decade, for a time falling out of and then back into ownership by Saban. Many of the series can now be streamed on Netflix, and I encourage all readers of this post to check them out.

Like all shows produced by Saban – both those designed to cash in on the Japanese sentai genre (the theme being super-heroes who battle monsters) and those from other genres (including harmless teen romance series like  Sweet Valley High, based on a popular book series of the same name) they were aimed at what people at the time would derisively refer to as the “kiddie market.” I was and remain a big fan of the Power Rangers, because despite how much the scripts were geared towards a young audience, the concept was fantastic and solid, with characters that were both endearing and inspiring. The writing wasn’t always top-notch, but the charisma of several of the characters, not to mention the compelling backstory of Tommy Oliver when he was added to the classic series, would often more than made up for this. That explains why so much of its American audience remained fans of the characters and the concept well into adulthood; it was much more than mere nostalgia. The series has since become something of a sleeper legend amongst sci-fandom of all ages.

Jason David Frank would go on to reprise the role of Tommy Oliver as a mentor to a new generation of teen Rangers in successor shows of the franchise, and has also been clamoring to appear in a new Power Rangers movie produced by Saban. His fan support for this is quite heavy.

Which brings us to the debacle of Kahn’s R-rated video. J.D.F. and the rest of the original cast had nothing to do with it, but it did star some well-known actors, such as James Van Der Beek of Dawson’s Creek  fame. The problem cuts to the heart of the oftentimes excellent and spectacular slew of fan-produced short films, perhaps best exemplified by Aaron Schoenke’s Bat in the Sun Productions and Kahn’s Bootleg Universe videos, which have begun appearing in large numbers on video sharing sites such as YouTube and Daily Motion over the past decade.

Since these fan films utilize mostly copyrighted characters which are in no way authorized by the companies or individuals who actually own them (e.g., Warner Bros., Disney, Saban, Capcom), they must be offered for public viewing free of charge, with the producers receiving no type of monetary remuneration whatsoever. So no harm, no foul, right? Well, here’s the thing… there are several people in the creative arts community who believe that these fan-produced, non-profit film shorts are crossing the line for the following reasons:

1) Those who own the intellectual property should have full control over the use of said properties, whether money is being made off of them or not. Plain and simple.

2) While the fan-produced films aren’t profiting off of someone else’s intellectual property in a financial sense, they are capable of giving a form of negative publicity to the property if they produce films that are geared towards an age demographic other than the one specifically targeted by the officially approved brand. Particularly, by taking a property essentially aimed at the child market and producing a fan-made short film that alters the characters and concept for adult viewers. A major case in point is Kahn’s Power Rangers video.

3) If the intended target audience of the official brand, or their legal guardians, happen to see these unauthorized fan videos, and for whatever reason doesn’t realize it was unauthorized, it could give the mistaken impression that this is what the official brand is all about, thus hurting sales for the rightful property holders.

4) The usual thing whenever kids are involved: The contemporary Western cultural ideology that children should be shielded from seeing certain things considered to be strictly “adult,” and that viewer prevention is actually possible to accomplish by [name the prevailing draconian measure], especially in the midst of today’s Information Age. And accordingly, if you produce an “adult” version of a brand whose official version is targeted to kids, then it’s believed that kids will seek out the R-rated version and watch it against the wishes of their parents or other adult guardians due to the familiarity of the brand.

5) Because the American conception of Power Rangers is a kid’s brand, this is how so many fans remember it. The fictional world created to fit the age demographic of that brand is considered by many fans and parents to be tainted when you add all of these “adult” elements – profanity, nudity, sexual situations beyond innocuous “puppy love” scenarios, hefty helpings of blood & gore, extremely dark & gritty tone, the portrayal of the characters as having too many serious flaws – and that this constitutes a major departure from, and betrayal of, the world crafted by Saban from an aesthetic view.

So to make a long story short, when Kahn’s video went viral, it became such a huge traffic sensation on YouTube (and elsewhere on social media) that Saban quickly got wind of it, didn’t like what they saw (to say the least), and demanded that YouTube take it down for copyright violations. The YouTube administration promptly did as instructed. Many fans applauded the action; others, however, cried foul due to the opinion that the video was not a legal infraction of any sort, and started an online campaign to have the video restored. Ultimately, a short time later YouTube did put the video back up (and it currently remains viral), with the caveat that Kahn added a big fat disclaimer screen at the start of the video to make it clear that his film is not affiliated with or authorized in any way by Saban Entertainment.

Mighty_Morphin_Power_Rangers_by_Guardian_Draca

Could you possibly imagine any of these sweet faces having a dark side? (That, btw, was a rhetorical question.)

One of my respected colleagues in the field of authoring fantastic fiction happens to be one of those fans who disliked Kahn’s Power Rangers video and denounced it on his blog for pretty much all of the above reasons. Jason David Frank wasn’t happy with Kahn’s interpretation either, as he refers to himself as a “PG-13 guy” who wants to see the brand reserved for a young audience. I want to make it clear that I respect both of these guys, and I do understand why they feel as they do even though I disagree. So by all means, listen to and consider what they have to say while extending the same courtesy to those who view matters to the contrary.
Austin St. John, the original Red Ranger from Saban’s series, was more supportive of Kahn’s film from a purely professional standpoint, choosing to keep his personal aesthetic opinion to himself. Fan critic John of Mr. Weenie Productions, who runs the YouTube channel named after his rather ill-chosen nom de guerre, was appreciative of Kahn’s interpretation of the fan film, and responded to J.D.F.’s critiques here. It can be argued that John – whose videos are quite cogent, insightful, and articulate,  thus allowing me to almost completely overlook his 1970s-style afro – is biased due to a personal dislike for both J.D.F. and Saban, which he makes clear vis a vis  this and this. It can also be argued, of course, that John has a good reason for saying those things, as he does explain why he feels as he does in detail within each of those video critiques, so his opinions are not solely based on any personal bias, if any at all (most often opinions motivated heavily or entirely by personal bias will be filled with more ad hominums  and personal insults than any cogent thoughts; take any of the typical things said in a web site’s comments section for numerous examples). I’ll let individual readers be their own judge, though opinions on either side may be biased due to their agreement or disagreement with Saban over this particular issue (so we should be wary of that, peeps!).

Now let’s get to my personal opinion of the matter. I didn’t think the fan video was perfect by any means, but I did like the work and time that obviously went into it, and I did think this dark and grim interpretation of the concept was intriguing. In short, I didn’t love it, but I did like it. I also like the fact that fans can produce their own interpretations of an iconic series while working independently of the Big Guys, and take chances like this… i.e., chances that Saban themselves would be highly unlikely to even consider taking (for good reason or not? Again, I’ll let the readers decide for themselves).

As is quite clear over the disparate reactions to this fan film by different segments of the fan base, with nothing close to unanimous, I think that what it ultimately comes down to is this:  different fans must be expected to have a highly varying sense of aesthetics. What may be a cool idea for the concept to some fans may well constitute an unforgivable blot on its iconic image for others. It’s never going to be possible to please everyone, especially when it comes to such experimental ideas like those often presented by the fan films. Saban certainly has been inconsistent with the degree of quality for each series making up the franchise as a whole, so one can readily question their own commitment to the brand. With this point made clear, I will take each of the 5 main criticisms of the video that I listed above and explain why I do not agree with them (scroll above to refresh your memory on what each of them entail if you must!).

Point #1: While many believe that Saban should have full control over the intellectual property they own, there comes a problem if such control is considered to hold true in an absolute sense. This is another instance of the business world of private ownership clashing with the democratic principle of freedom of ideas and expression, one of the many conflicts of interest in a system where capitalism and democracy attempt to mesh together (yup, another assault on capitalism! Go, me!). As a published author who is now working on novels and short stories featuring copyrighted characters of my own, I understand the reason why those who have created characters and a concept want to have control over how they make money off the official property; in many cases, our intellectual property is the very bread and butter on which we live.

However, the thing about characters and concepts which leave a huge psychic mark on a large number of people throughout a society is that they become iconic and transcend the limitation of being one person’s or executive board’s private property, or a mere means for a handful of people to make money off of. They become a meme or an idea that works its way into the collective cultural framework. While they never become as important as real people or situations, they do represent many things on a variety of philosophical and sociological levels to the culture in question. They cannot, and IMO should not, be narrowly confined to the wishes and interpretations of one person or corporation that holds the copyright. They have a value and substance to the collective zeitgeist that goes well beyond a simple business patent used to make money for a single or handful of individuals.

So while I understand that copyright has to prevent unauthorized hands from making a living off of someone else’s cash cow for the duration of the copyright’s legal life span, trying to give full control of how individual minds express the concept and characters outside of the business realm where profit is made over it is going too far. It crosses the line between the right to own an intellectual concept you created or purchased, and the freedom of others to express what that concept means to them outside the strict parameters set or intended by the copyright owner.

This is why you see so many pastiches of Superman, Spider-Man, Tarzan, Mickey Mouse, etc., in unauthorized versions. They are variations of the basic concept that helps authors and artists answer many questions about these characters, or what sociological tropes they may represent, that the corporate copyright holder may choose never to express themselves. In other words, what if Superman caved under the immense emotional and social pressures he was subjected to and essentially went nucking futs? See Mark Waid’s Irredeemable comic book series for that. What if all the familiar super-villains in the Marvel and/or DC Universes defeated all the genre’s popular super-heroes and took over the world? See Mark Millar’s Wanted  comic book series for that (and ignore the movie loosely based on it). What if the world’s greatest super-hero team (that would be the Justice League, of course) decided to take over the world with the best of intentions? See the late Mark Gruenwald’s classic 12-issue maxi-series The Squadron Supreme for that. What if the original version of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family lived in a world that mirrored the one we live in instead of the more innocent and whimsical reality created for them by Fawcett in the Golden Age of Comics? See Alan Moore’s 1980s re-interpretation of the copycat hero Marvelman/Miracleman for that. How would Mickey Mouse and his fellow Disney toons act and react if they expressed “adult” needs amidst all the typical hokum of the cartoons? See Dan O’Neill’s short-lived underground comix series Air Pirate Funnies  for that. None of the above series would have been allowed to have been produced if the respective owners had that type of power (in fact, Disney successfully sued O’Neill over Air Pirates Funnies, which is what happens when you consider any iconic copyrighted characters to be sacred cows).

Again, this is a classic example of what happens when business interests collide with that democratic ideal of freedom of speech and expression. In fact, John of Mr. Weenie Productions has accused Saban of being all too quick to block fans from saying much of anything about their product on YouTube that isn’t authorized by the company, as stated here and here. Is this where absolute control of intellectual property by its owners ultimately leads? Pick your side carefully, people!

Miracleman_Vol_1_1_Wizard_World_Portland_Comic_Con_Variant

“Damn you, Alan Moore, for robbing me of my innocence with your deconstructionist bullshit!


“Oh god, did I just say ‘bullshit’? Um, I meant… ‘cowpoop’ or ‘cowdoodoo’ or something like that! And I meant ‘darn’, not ‘damn!’

“Good gosh, I just said it again! Mr. Moore, you’re on my… doodoo list! Wait, should I be alluding to excrement at all? ‘You’re on my bullhockey list, Mr. Moore!’ Was that better and more kid-friendly?

“Wait, you mean kids are allowed to say ‘poop’ and ‘doodoo’ nowadays!? I bet that’s all Alan Moore’s fault! I’d kill him, but I’m not ever supposed to acknowledge the possibility of death. Can I just slap him a few times instead? I promise I won’t do it too hard. Wait, am I even allowed to actually hit  anyone in my book?”

Point #2: I don’t think that any business should have a legal right to stifle any alternate artistic expression/interpretation of their characters by fans who are not producing it for profit. As I see it, that is too much power to give to any corporate entity. I do not buy the reasoning that alternate artistic expression might bring bad publicity to their product that will ultimately hurt sales to a truly discernible extent. I believe including the type of disclaimer that Kahn added to his video was more than enough of a compromise. As I noted, it’s not possible – let alone desirable – to allow powerful corporate entities to try and control every possible expression of a meme or idea that resonates on such a deep level to so many people in society.

I can hear this coming: “Well, Chris, I’m betting you’ll change your tune in a hurry if your characters Centurion and Mike Nero, Beowolf are ever ‘bastardized’ by some fan film producer who interprets them in a much different way than you do.” No, I will not change my tune and agree I should have the right to call a cease and desist on some non-profit-oriented satire or re-interpretation of my characters. If I don’t like them, I will say so and explain why. If I disagree with whatever the point the producer is trying to make, I will say so and explain why. But saying he/she shouldn’t have a right to express this view of my characters? As much as I love and value my literary creations, they will never be real people, and I should not have the right to sue for a business-oriented equivalent of “defamation of character.” At least, that’s the way I see it in regards to balancing business with democracy, to such an extent as that can actually be done.

Point #3: This possibility is just too bad for the same reason mentioned above. As long as that disclaimer is there, both before the video starts and after it ends, then the fan producer should have his ass covered. Beyond that, it’s not his/her fault if people refuse to read the disclaimer, or overlook it for whatever reason. Freedom of expression with various ideas and memes is the price we pay to have even the nominal democracy we enjoy. Total control of an idea or concept is impossible, and attempting to do so leads to all sorts of fascist insanity. Attacking bureaucrats when they do this, but supporting corporate entities who attempt to do essentially the same thing, is basically a case of putting money over what the U.S. Constitution represents. Yes, the Constitution protects the concept of private property, but the Founders also added the Bill of Rights for a very good reason. Again, we the people need to pick our sides carefully when such conflicts arise. We need to stop worshiping money despite the fact that we all have no choice but to earn it in order to survive in this system.

stock-photo-dollar-sign-strong-superhero-success-professional-empowerment-stock-concept-236739349“Why hide the true symbol of my loyalty anymore? I fight for profit, investment, and the Kapitalist Way! Oh yea, and copyrights  too! Can I add ‘bank bail-outs’ to that list? Heh.”

Point #4: I understand that the great majority of my colleagues and friends, including the many who lean to the Left politically, are not youth liberationists. But since I’ve supported that platform since I was 13, I’m going to stand up for that principle even if that puts me on the opposite side of people I love and/or respect in certain instances, especially since I strongly believe people on the Left should be supporting this platform rather than overlooking it, let alone denouncing it. It’s the next logical step on the emancipation agenda. I also understand that a great many people on the Left haven’t read or seen the platform since its revival between the mid-1990s and now, something that was certainly not the case with the Left during the 1970s, when liberals of that era were beginning to take youth liberation seriously until its derailment by the conservative takeover of government in the U.S. and U.K. by the beginning of the 1980s (but that’s a whole other topic in itself that I’ll tackle here in the future).

The bottom line when it comes to this topic is the following: We cannot assign a concept or meme to be the unofficial social “property” of a specific age group. And this holds regardless of what our conception of children or young people in general happens to be. Memes relating to characters and concepts of fantastic fiction have an archetypal value that resonates with people of all ages, no matter what the demographic target of the copyright holders may happen to be. This is the exact reason why super-heroes and various aspects of the sci-fi genre in general rose out of the “kiddie ghetto” they were once assigned (or is that consigned ?) to in America and embraced by the mainstream. They represent ideas and fantasies that transcend strict age barriers. The Power Rangers concept is no different in this regard.

This is why we will see multiple interpretations of Batman and the rest of his teammates in the Justice League that are designed to appeal to different age groups. For instance, we see the live action TV series from the late ’60s (often now referred to as “Batman ’66”) that brings us what our culture would call a “kid-friendly” version of the character despite being designed to appeal to all ages in that time period. We see the Batman animated shows of the 1970s, and The Super Friends, which were clearly designed to depict these heroes in a way that was harmonious to the innocent, idealized world we want children to see in place of the “harsh” reality we all know. We see the animated versions of the Dark Knight from the 1990s into the 2000s – and his super-heroic brethren from Justice League  and its even better successor series  Justice League Unlimited – produced by Warner Bros. that did a much better job of compromising with an appeal to “all ages”; one which recognizes the growing sophistication of children despite the best intentions of adults to keep them in a “blissful” state of innocence about the real world. We see the darker versions from the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan films that are similar to the grim and gritty but “PG-13” atmosphere of the comics, along with the recent very dark and bloody direct to video animated films and video games we and our kids play on the X-box. And we see the “mature only” Batman stories such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke  and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Aslylum  graphic novel. [Update: The recent animated video version of Batman: The Killing Joke officially released by DC Entertainment was given an R rating!]

As another example, the funny animal genre used to be reserved largely for kids in any given medium, while ignoring the fact that the Warner Bros. Looney Toons shorts used to include innuendos that were intended to appeal to adult viewers, something the subsequent cartoons designed entirely for Saturday morning TV completely divested from them. We have seen that the funny animal genre, if not specifically the Disney and Warner Bros. Toons, could be interpreted in an “adult” fashion with creations such as the animated feature Fritz the Cat  and renowned comic book series like Hepcats. This may not seem to be comparable to the above example with Batman and super-heroes in general, until you consider that there are many fans and casual viewers alike who think the entire funny animal genre should be “kids only” material. But the reality is that these fictional entities can be placed into many different milieus that work equally well for many forms of interpretation.

Fritz-the-Cat-2

“I’d tell ya what you can do with yourself, Fritz, but I’m worried Bugs Bunny might hear me, so could ya stick around ’till I can think of a kid-friendly way to say it?”

Then we come to what many may consider the epitome of American idealized innocence that we want our kids to read or watch: Archie Andrews and the gang. This goes all the way back to the introduction of these characters in Pep Comics circa the early 1940s, rapidly displacing the super-heroes who were previously featured in that mag. We could find many fans who would vehemently insist that the good folk of Riverdale should only be geared towards presenting an idealized teen world to ostensibly pre-teen readers, thereby preserving the conception of innocence that Western audiences – but particularly Americans – so highly revere as the perfect trope for their children to enjoy without being “burdened” or “forced to mature too quickly” by presenting them with any material or situations that are considered “adult.”

Except that for a while now, though especially since the 1990s, it’s become clear that the Archie crew are so iconic that the storytelling dynamics which made that crew appeal to so many on such a deep archetypal level that it can work just as well beyond the confining walls of a “kiddie” conception. We’ve had Riverdale visited by the Punisher, human-eating zombies (see Afterlife With Archie), a human-hunting Predator alien, and a “Sharknado” twister (from the SyFy Channel’s gory Sharknado film franchise)… all of which were either fully or co-published by Archie Comics! Not only that, but we have the “mature” horror-oriented antics of Sabrina the Teenaged Witch in the recent ongoing Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic, also published by Archie themselves! There is even a little back up story in Archie vs. Predator #1 where Sabrina – then in her childhood – meets Hellboy, filed off horns and all! [Update: And now we have the Riverdale  TV series on the CW network, which is hardly “kiddie” fare!]

Okay, some may argue, “But that’s different, Chris, because at least Archie Comics, the copyright holder of Archie Andrews, had given their stamp of approval to these projects.” Yes, true, but this legal fact in no way contradicts the point I’ve been making here. No doubt many people who grew up reading or watching the animated exploits of the traditional “innocent” Archie gang would be shocked to the point of requiring a change of pants if they picked up an issue of Afterlife With Archie,  Archie vs. Predator, Archie vs. Sharknado, or Sabrina’s Chilling Adventures [and readers back in the day certainly would never have anticipated something like the Riverdale  TV series, or even the best-selling Life With Archie  comic book series]. No doubt many would shout, “Omg, this is not something I want my kids to read! Archie is supposed to be for kids!” But the truth is, the crew at Archie Comics have realized that their All-American boy and his friends constitute a conceptual meme and set of archetypes that work very well across many genres, and can be interpreted differently by different age demographics in a manner that works equally well for each. They simply cannot be confined to the “kiddie ghetto,” and their successful break from it over the past two decades makes a very important point.

Archie meets the Punisher

And to think Mr. Castle didn’t even give Archie time to draw his squirt gun. This is how unfair it is when an outrageously homicidal vigilante meets an outrageously innocent teenager. It would serve the mean old Punisher right if Archie sneezed into the barrel of his uzi and snotted up the works.

Now let’s return  to the Power Rangers in particular. Are they a concept that can only work in an innocent and idealized type of world with hefty bits of bloodless fantasy violence thrown into the mix? Certainly not, I say. Like Batman and the rest of the DC heroes, like any funny animal characters, and like the Archie gang, they represent a solid concept that can work well in many different interpretations, spanning the conceptions of “innocent world,” or “PG-13 world” (sort of like Archie’s Life With Archie series), or grim and gritty “adult” world.

As John of Mr. Weenie Productions noted, Saban has already approved the White Ranger and Green Ranger going up against Scorpion of the Mortal Kombat  video game franchise and Ryu of the Street Fighter  video game franchise, both of which had received M-ratings in the past, for a pair of  video shorts produced by Machinima for Bat in the Sun’s Super Power Beat Down video series. For those who may not know, an M-rating is the video and comic book rating equivalent of R, which they cannot use because of – ironically! – legal issues with the Motion Picture Association of America, who hold copyright patents  for the ratings system used for ranking movies. And these are just a set of freakin’ letters and numbers used in specific sequences!

Green Ranger vs. Ryu has yet to be released at this writing, but please do check out White Ranger vs. Scorpion. The entire Super Power Beat Down series, not to mention pretty much everything produced by Machinima and directed by Aaron Schoenke, is hardly “innocent” or “kid-friendly” as we Americans love to define these ideals. [Update: Schoenke, upon agreement with his friend J.D.F., did do his best to keep the released Green Ranger vs. Ryu as “PG-13” as possible. The arranger of the fight also gave us a great “nod” to this controversy when, upon seeing Tommy Oliver challenge Ryu he says, “I’m too old for this.”] Does the fact that Saban authorized the use of Tommy Oliver’s two famous alter-egos for these shorts make all the difference in regards to the integrity of the brand?  I’ll let you decide.

Point #5: This correlates with the above point, along with something else I mentioned in this post. Aesthetic appreciation varies from person to person, fanboy to fanboy, etc. Some of us feel “off” about seeing a concept we enjoyed as kids morphed (pun intended!) into something darker, grimmer, and much more “adult,” with elements and imagery we never would have seen in the classic product. I respect that. Others, however, can readily imagine the basic concept and characters operating in a variety of conceptual milieus, and do not visualize it exclusively in an “innocent” world devoid of many of the atrocities of the real world (e.g., where death can occur as a result of fighting; where someone can be sexually assaulted; where bloody wars are fought; where good and evil are oftentimes not easily discernible; where you can suffer from a sudden and unexpected attack of diarrhea); or more heady speculative scenarios (e.g., a post-apocalyptic or otherwise dystopic future setting, or one where Donald Trump can actually become president!). Some of us prefer the Power Rangers as we remember them in their classic conception, and we’ll always have that. Others wonder about how they would operate in a different type of setting in regards to world and tone, and I like to think we should be able to have that too.

Let’s now make note of how the Japanese sentai series that birthed the Power Rangers on this side of the Pacific differed from the latter. Hence, one can argue that Saban’s presentation of Power Rangers actually sanitized another property in its translation to American “kid” sensibilities. Let’s not forget how other famous properties were re-conceptualized in the opposite way we’re discussing here, too.  Specifically, how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out as very grim, uber-violent, and largely no-nonsense characters in a dark satire of the grim and gritty comics that became such a hit with the fans in the early 1980s, particularly in regards to the explosive popularity at the time of Wolverine, Frank Miller’s interpretation of Daredevil, and the ninja craze (including those bloody yet awesome movies with Sho Kosugi like Revenge of the Ninja  and  Pray for Death, not to mention once-popular copycats like  American Ninja). Yet they were later heavily sanitized for both their various animated TV series, subsequent comic book series, and first live action cinematic franchise when all were directed strictly towards a kid’s demographic. The concept never lost its solid appeal to all age groups, however.

Did this make a darker version of the Heroes in a Halfshell any less viable, even if the “kid-friendly” iteration proved more lucrative and far better known over the long haul? How about the newer “PG-13” version that acts as a bridge between the two conceptions, as seen in both the popular comic book series recently published by Dynamite and the new live action film franchise that recently hit the silver screen? How about the recent “mature” fan videos produced for the Turtles’ break-out supporting character, the hockey-stick wielding vigilante Casey Jones, one of them by Bat in the Sun that pit him against Kick-Ass, and which actually featured a guest appearance by the Heroes in a Halfshell?

The idea of copyrights and how they may interfere with artistic expression of ideas and memes is a serious one that we should all consider, regardless of whether we work in the creative arts field or not. The need to balance business interests with democratic principles can be a difficult one at times, but we need to think long and hard about all the issues involved. We may want those who create and/or legitimately own the properties to benefit in a fiscal sense, and I can certainly get behind that as an author who owns intellectual property. But we need to balance this out against giving corporations or individuals full control over ideas outside the realm of business, since what they represent goes deep into the collective consciousness of the entire culture… and some things should  mean more to us than money (*ducks before Thurston Howell the Third and President Donald Trump has me shot*). There are some levels where intellectual creations can be privately owned, but others in which the ideas they represent cannot and, IMO, should not.

superman_vs_bugs_bunny

Bugs: “Can we at least get a ‘T’ rating for this mini-series, Doc?”

Superman: “I dunno, that’s up to the Warner Bros. executives. They’re far more powerful than a mere Kryptonian like myself around here.”

Tribute – Budd Lewis

Budd_Lewis_photo

It’s with heavy heart that I compose this blog, and it’s the most important on a personal level I have yet to write since the one offering a tribute to my grandfather.

 

Budd Lewis, a great writer and very gracious human being, passed away in his sleep the previous evening. His writing was a huge inspiration to me, and it had a great positive impact on the direction of my own work as a published author.

 

He is best known among his fans and writers of the horror/sci-fi/fantasy/adventure genres for his memorable work for Warren Comics during the 1970s and into the early ’80s, before the company went belly up after a long and fantastic run. Budd created and scribed the entire “Hunter II” series for Warren’s famed horror anthology mag Eerie. The feature character of this serial, Karas Hunter, provided a rookie hero struggling to fill the shoes of a legendary figure in his dystopian world, the great Demian Hunter, whose name and symbol he took in the midst of a bleak post-apocalyptic Earth, fighting to save a world that nearly tore itself apart. This served as a predecessor to subsequent storylines exploring the same theme in comics, including the tenure of Wally West attempting to fill the shoes of the his uncle, Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash; and Bucky Barnes endeavoring to do his mentor Steve Rogers, a.k.a., Captain America, proud by taking over the mantle of the star-spangled sentinel of liberty.  But Budd did this first, and provided readers with a much more relatable hero than Demian Hunter was.

Eerie_68_coverCover to Warren’s Eerie #68, featuring Hunter II, Budd Lewis’ masterful creation.

 Budd also wrote many fine stories featuring one of Warren’s most popular characters, the time-traveling hero Restin Dane, a.k.a., the Rook (not to be confused with the much newer pulp adventure hero making the rounds under that handle, and published by Pro Se Productions). He also wrote stories for many other Warren features and stand alone stories, the former including Hunter (the original) and Pantha.

TheRook_element34The Rook (the original!), Warren’s most popular hero next to Vampirella, one whom Budd chronicled many adventures of. Budd had much to do with the level of popularity he reached, and he was one of only three Warren characters to receive their own ongoing title.

 His work continued after the end of Warren Comics, albeit in a different medium. He is credited on the Internet Movie Database for his work on The Smurfs (1981); Spiral Zone (1987); Captain N: The Game Master (1989); and The Class of 1999 (1990).

 

This heavy heart of mine extends to Budd on a more personal level, as well. I had made his acquaintance via Facebook a year ago through my friend and fellow author, Chuck Loridans, the creator of the truly awesome website MONSTAAH, which I am proud to be the current curator of with Chuck’s permission and blessings. Chuck is a long-time friend of Budd’s son, and as a result, he had the honor of meeting and knowing the man in person. Budd’s posts were both scathingly poignant and funny, and he showed a great empathy for his fellow human being based on his complimentary statements to me for my blogs and Facebook posts regarding my progressive politics. Just a few short weeks ago, I invited him to join the MONSTAAH Facebook group, and he kindly accepted. Also just a few short weeks ago, he left me some very complimentary words for my review of Legendary’s Godzilla movie on this blog, and I will never forget that, as receiving such praise from him–a writer whose work I’ve admired and been so inspired by for such a long time–meant more to me than I can possibly put into words.

 

I’ve written much about Budd’s work for Warren on my website The Warrenverse, particularly the index I composed for his series “Hunter II.” His oeuvre of work, and all he contributed to both the comic book medium and elsewhere, will not be forgotten. He will be missed. Wherever you are now, Budd, thank you for everything you did, including (and perhaps especially) your kind words; as a fledgling published author, I couldn’t possibly have asked for anything more.

Why Are Marvel and DC Comics So Resistant To Major Change?

   death_of_flash

“I hope this noble sacrifice of mine inspires many to greatness. I guess I’ll find out once I get better.”

To start things off, let me say that this post was directly inspired by this excellent blog from Josh Costella.  Josh’s analysis of why Bruce Wayne should be expected to die at some point really resonated with my psyche, because it reminded me of a broader topic connected to it:  Why the Big Two comic book companies (that’s Marvel and DC to those who actually may not know in this day and age) greatly limit what kind of growth and change they allow with their most popular and iconic characters by almost always eventually reversing any major alteration to their mainstream status quo. That’s because it’s a question I’ve often pondered myself, considering how enamored I am with the concept of legacy and the generational approach to heroes and villains. That is due to my extensive interest and work with the Wold Newton Universe concept:  Simply have new individuals take over the roles of mortal costumed identities as the originals eventually become too old to continue, or meet the tragic but often noble end that some heroes will inevitably experience (think: Barry Allen… until he eventually got better).  So why didn’t they ever consider this way of doing things? And would it work if they did?

I. To Embrace Change… Or Not

 

 

Josh makes a good argument specifically in regards to Batman, his fav super-hero of them all (and of many, many other people too, including my cousin Gene), as to why DC should allow someone other than Bruce Wayne to eventually take over the identity of his crime-fighting alter-ego on a permanent basis. Yet DC adamantly refuses to allow anyone other than Mr. Wayne to wear the exalted Mantle of the Bat for more than a year at a time (if that!).  Even Dick Grayson himself–who took over the mantle twice–was soon booted back to his duds as Nightwing by DC to allow Wayne to take back the suit.  And we all know that following the epic “Knightfall” storyline from the early ’90s which introduced mega-popular Bat-villain Bane–where Bruce Wayne had his back broken until he got better–successor Jean-Paul Valley (the former Azrael) was set up to fail as the new Dark Knight from the get-go.

 

 

This also begs the question as to why Marvel and DC explicitly refuse to adopt the generational method of explaining the longevity of their characters within their mainstream continuities, instead preferring what my colleague Kevin Heim has referred to as the time-crunching phenomenon. This method is to constantly posit that stories in comic books that were published 40 years ago actually took place only over a time frame of 5-15 years as we reckon time in the real world, with all the resulting anachronistic clothing styles, slang, pop cultural references, etc., from stories published long in the past now explained away as having been nothing more than topical license on the part of the writers and artists. And if that doesn’t preserve the status quo, particularly the static or artificially slow aging of the characters to keep them forever in a certain age group and/or life situation, then DC, at least, will resort to its now famous reality reboots. That entails publishing a mini- or maxi-series where a cosmic event of epic, universal proportions re-sets the timeline from the very beginning, de-aging many characters and restoring certain previously ended status quo elements across the board (their latest such “Crisis” event, Flashpoint, having occurred as recently as the summer of 2011).

 

 

So, why this powerful loyalty to the status quo and resistance to truly fundamental change in the Big Two’s mainstream universes? Why does it seem that the fan base itself seems to prefer, as Stan Lee once famously said, not actual change but simply “the illusion of change”? My theory is that it’s a bit more complicated than simple, stubborn adherence to a certain specific status quo, though I certainly agree with Josh that the human psyche’s strong comfort with the familiar plays a strong role.

 

 

II. What, Me Change?

 

 

I think part of the reason the Big Two comic book companies will never permanently let anyone but Bruce Wayne wear the costume of Batman, or Peter Parker wear the costume of Spider-Man, respectively, etc., et al. has much to do with merchandising requirements. I’m far from the first fan to point this out, so this should come as anything but a “light bulb” moment to anyone, and more akin to a “duh!”  However, I mention it here because I think it’s a very accurate and important explanation that anyone discussing the resistance to change phenomenon in comic books would be remiss in not mentioning. This is also the reason we won’t see other merchandise-unfriendly changes to “stick” for good, such as costume alterations that are a radical departure from the image people have been used to for so long.

 

For example, as popular as Spider-Man’s way cool black costume introduced in the ’80s was, we all knew it wouldn’t be long before the powers-that-be at Marvel would order the writers and editorial team to bring the old one back. The black costume has returned from time to time, but a reason is always found to put Spidey back in the classic outfit, no matter how contrived.  Whether Peter has to give up the black suit out of deference to Mary Jane now becoming unnerved by the sight of it due to a horrific encounter with Venom, or simply the new suit getting torn to shreds in battle and Peter not having enough time on his hands to knit a new black suit (or maybe red and blue thread is a lot cheaper in his universe; I dunno, as I don’t live there), Marvel simply has too much money invested into the classic costume to try and grow an acceptance of a new one, no matter how cool and well-received by the fans. The fan base is not the bulk of Marvel’s or DC’s bread and butter, and the need for recognition value outside our geeky niche audience is of very strong consideration to a corporate enterprise. How often has artistic preferences ever trumped financial concerns in this business-centric world of ours? (If that came off as yet another potshot at capitalism from me… well, that’s because it was. Boo-yahh!)

 

 

Spider-Man_black_costume_introduction

Artistically stunning, it really did the Web-Head justice, and the fans loved it! They were never going to let him keep it.

 

 

 

III. To Change Or Not to Change… That Is Never the Question

 

 

So, yea, this insistence on certain aspects of the status quo always remaining static is built into the overall business mindset of the corporate overseers of the Big Two. Now don’t get me wrong, the Big Two love how their media announcements of major, game-changing events in their popular comics bring a lot of short-term attention and added profits to their comics. Perhaps the best example is the death of Superman stunt by DC back in 1992, but the powers-that-be never had any serious intention of letting one of the four new characters who briefly appeared in the wake of this death to fill his shoes remain the Superman permanently. The intention from the get-go was always to bring Clark Kent back from the dead to fill the mantle, and you didn’t even see DC denying it (even they had too much respect for their fans’ intelligence to claim otherwise).

 

 

Reign_of_the_Supermen_poster

Don’t you love when they ask rhetorical questions on these event posters?

 

As more examples, a lot of fans really like Miles Morales in the Spider-Man costume (I’m among them!), but he will never be allowed to completely replace Peter Parker within the context of Marvel’s mainstream continuity (yanno, the stuff that takes place on Earth-616, for the more geeky amongst my readers). Publishing the stories featuring Miles exclusively within the bounds of an alternate reality, i.e., the Ultimate Universe, is Marvel’s way of having their cake and eating it too, while insuring that Peter remains the main filling (but lately Peter’s counterpart in the Ultimate Universe seems to be back too! Is this just a gimmick–like a clone, android, or shape-shifter imposter–or did the “real” deal really get better after his ill-fated “final” encounter with the Green Goblin?).

 

 

And yes, we got some major success with an older Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker acting as protege’s to their familial* successors, Terry McGuiness and May “Mayday” Parker in Batman Beyond and Spider-Girl respectively, but these two were “safely” sequestered outside the mainstream continuity in alternate futures. Would DC and Marvel have embraced such good characters as Miles, Terry, or Mayday taking over the iconic roles on a permanent basis in the present of their respective mainstream continuities? For that matter, how long did Bucky Barnes remain in the Captain America suit, with Steve Rogers graduated to head of S.H.I.E.L.D.–which I thought was a way cool idea with many story possibilities promising potential growth for both characters in a logical direction–until Bucky was relegated back to his clandestine Winter Soldier role, and Steve back to his familiar gig so soon after he got better from his gimmicky, attention-seeking “death”? The short answer: Not long at all.

 

*Terry McGuiness was revealed in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Epilogue” to actually have been conceived by Bruce Wayne’s DNA. Not the fun way, thought.

 

IV. Not All Change Is Good

 

Of course, we’ve had our share of really bad attempts at shaking up the status quo of top-tier characters. Two notable examples hail from the 1990s, which I personally consider a nadir decade in the comic book industry despite the important growth of creator-owned characters finally finding a huge audience during the Clinton years.

 

One of these was the attempt to throw a monkey wrench into Superman’s long-secure status quo (despite his then-recent marriage to Lois Lane) by radically changing his look and powers. This idea grew out of the semi-intriguing “Superman Red/Superman Blue” story arc–which was actually inspired by a better take on this concept from an old “Imaginary Tale” of Supes from the Mort Weisenger editorial era, not the jingle popularized a long time ago by the Good Will (it’s a lot more appealing when the Whoniverse’s Amy Pond says it). Yes, the Man of Steel became the Man of Energy by having his vast superhuman physically-based powers totally replaced by the power to convert his form into living electricity and put the shock effect on his enemies in place of the punch effect. And let’s not forget (or, maybe we should try to forget) his blue skin and the oddball blue and white costume he acquired while in “super” mode during the too-long period of time that this gimmick was carried out (even a mere year was far too long, as far as moi is concerned). Even worse, this less-than-stellar change soon followed the Super Guy into the recently revived JLA comic, putting something of a damper on Grant Morrison’s highly applauded run on the series.

 

Hell, even Superman’s equally famous logo font style was altered with a less-awesome one to reflect this less-than-awesome change. DC certainly went all-out for this one!  Meaning, DC was grasping at every possible straw during the mid-’90s to find a gimmick to elevate the sagging sales of their (at one point) five Superman titles after the novelties of the John Byrne reboot and the “Death of Superman” event and follow-up events had sufficiently faded from the public consciousness. After all, the late 20th century sales slump of the once super-selling Super Dude’s titles is one familiar aspect of the status quo that DC does not want to maintain.

 

Superman_#123_cover

Some attempts at cool change… just aren’t.

 

 

All discussions of such ill attempts at change would be incomplete without mentioning the infamous, overly-long, convoluted “Clone Saga” in the Spider-Man comics of the 1990s that replaced Peter Parker in the costume with his clone Ben Reilly for an extended spell. Ben wasn’t a bad character, and he had lots of potential as the Scarlet Spider, but things took a turn for the worst when Marvel gave one big mac (I prefer that over “whopper”) of an ill-conceived attempt at a status quo shake-up by presenting the contention that Reilly was actually the real Peter Parker, and the Peter that the fans knew, loved, and followed for the past 25 years was the true clone. (That is, two decades in regards to what we fans experienced as “real” time; it was just a few years in “crunched” time for Pete and Ben, but still long enough even for them!). Ben then took over as Spider-Man in all of the webbed guy’s multitude of titles, with Peter mostly being written out by way of a contrived means of losing his powers.

 

Spider-Man_clone_revelation_cover

Is there such a thing as a rhetorical revelation? If so, the above cover blurb gave us one.

 

 

Had he remained the Scarlet Spider, Ben may have ultimately worked as a character, and achieved a following apart from the Spider-Man mythos. But due to Marvel’s use of him in a shake-up attempt that that played too much with the fans’ collective head, the readership lost whatever affection they may have had for Ben, and Marvel felt it necessary to kill him off and do their best to forget he ever existed (his identity of the Scarlet Spider has since been taken on by a cool but much less likeable Parker clone, Kaine). Peter was back in the costume after a year (again, in “real” time) of having lost his powers, now having regained them along with the union suit.  And, of course, the familiar status quo was now back to appease both the fans and Marvel’s bottom line. Isn’t it nice how things always work out in the end for corporations? (Another potshot against capitalism! Is this socialist on a roll or what? Wah-hoooo!)

 

 

SpiderManvsScarletSpider

Sorry, Ben, but your genetic sire has you outmatched via corporate support!

 

At least Peter was still married to Mary Jane when he was divested of his powers and the spider suit. But that happy marriage was another “violation” of the cherished status quo that Marvel would eventually decide had to be dealt with…

 

 

 V. At Least Good Changes Are Spared, Right? Wrong!

 

 

We may be satisfied when a bad change that we perceive as impeding the growth of a character or legend is reversed… once we get over being pissed that it was ever enacted in the first place, of course. But how pissed do we, the fans, get when genuinely good changes in the status quo that many of us loved are reversed? The short answer again: Very, especially considering that it happens often enough.

 

This adherence to the status quo by the Big Two remains the case even with the likes of their second-tier but still greatly popular and iconic heroes like the Flash and Green Lantern.

 

Cases in point:  Many people loved Wally West and Kyle Rayner filling those respective roles, and they were in many ways more interesting as people than their predecessors, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, not to mention easier for the readers to relate to. Both them weren’t “born” for these roles like typical idealized hero types–which Barry and Hal initially were for a long time–but grew into the roles, doing an admirable job of personal growth and character development over the long haul. Yet even though it took many years in both cases (nearly 25 years in Wally’s!), eventually Barry Allen and Hal Jordan were brought back, each getting better from heroic, self-sacrificing deaths; and Hal eventually redeeming himself from a massive fall from grace in the process. Hal subsequently continued his need for redemption after death by having his soul become the human part of the Spectre, resulting in a version and series run of DC’s literal avenging wrath of God that was much more interesting than the previous Jim Corrigan iteration. But DC couldn’t conceive of anyone other than Barry and Hal in these costumes, so both had to circumvent the meaning and lessons wrought by their respective selfless sacrifices–as well as appreciation for the finality of death that is all-too familiar to those of us who do not inhabit a universe like theirs–by returning from beyond.

 

Wally and Kyle were thus the inheritors of a legacy no longer. DC became the ultimate “Indian Giver” to both of these good characters.

 

Kyle was graciously left around, albeit now more or less shunted to the sidelines, even though at this writing he’s still the main character of the ongoing Green Lantern: New Guardians series. At least the then recently revived concept of the Green Lantern Corps. team allowed space for him to retain the ring and the general name, even if he was no longer considered the Green Lantern as far as DC and the fans were concerned, but conceptually demoted to “a” Green Lantern. His evolving saga as a character striving to be worthy of the ring could at least continue, but he was no longer the main focus of the Green Lantern sub-mythos within the greater DC Universe (wait, that’s Multiverse again this week, right?).

 

Wally, in contrast, didn’t fare as well as Kyle. After so many years of proving himself worthy of the scarlet uniform (over two decades as we fans in “real” time reckon!) after spending many prior years (again, over two decades of “real” time!) in the sidekick role of Kid Flash, he was completely thrown to the wayside. The central focus of the growing “Flash Family,” which both Wally’s loins and capacity for inspiration had largely contributed to, had to be given back to Barry in DC’s eyes. When it came down to it, despite a whole generation having grown up with Wally and Kyle in these roles, DC still decided that Barry and Hal were more immediately recognizable in the scheme of things, and that the next generation should pretty much forget about what Wally and Kyle had been to the previous one for perceived marquee and brand value.

 

Also, this was made so despite the fact that Wally and Kyle have proven to be much more interesting people than Barry and Hal on any day of the week, despite a rather unsuccessful attempt to make Hal more interesting for the first cinematic effort at bringing the Ring Guy to the big screen. I’m not trying to say that truly interesting stories cannot be told with Barry and Hal in the outfits, because we have a few decades of such stories to demonstrate otherwise. I’m simply saying that Barry and Hal do not have to be in those uniforms in order to tell good stories or achieve widespread iconic name recognition, and this has also been amply demonstrated.  I think the generational, legacy-based method of story-telling has a lot of merit that the Big Two are averse to fully embrace or explore no matter how much potential that concept has. Again, this is largely due to business concerns.

 

VII. It’s Not Just About Who Wears the Suits, Though…

 

Even life-altering changes in their personal lives do not last permanently, despite how much support, character growth, and media fanfare each of these may receive. For example, let’s consider how the marriages of Superman and Spider-Man to their long-time lady loves were each milked for lots of publicity and sales, and both lasted a long time (over two decades each in “real” time). However, both were eventually eliminated by reboots; Spider-Man with a god-awful “personal” reboot courtesy of a literal deal with the devil, and Superman courtesy of one of DC’s periodic universe-wide timeline upheavals. Now both of them are not only single again, but “always have been.”  If only 50% of real people had this nifty “retcon” option!

Spider-Man_wedding_cover

A marriage made in Heaven, but annulled by the ruler of Hell.

Superman_The_Wedding_Album

“Lois, I thee wed… until a reality reboot does us part.”

 

I think these frequent reversals mentally condition the fans to prefer the status quo more than they normally would, and to embrace the familiar rather than support truly dynamic, lasting change. This is because the powers-that-be of the Big Two give fans the additional comfort of knowing they can count on the corporate overseers and their editorial lackeys to provide this for them. We may have no choice but to accept lasting change in real life, but we often have a nostalgic yearning for what Barbara Streisand elegantly referred to as “the way we were.” The fictional lives of the characters we follow in books need not adhere to this stringent law of the universe we know all too well, so the expectation of always seeing a youthful Peter Parker in the spider suit the way we’ve always remembered him is something our emotions cling to like… well, a fly trapped in a spider’s web (sorry, couldn’t resist such a relevant metaphor).  The end result is a lack of impetus for investing time and effort into nurturing a dynamic status quo that grows and changes with the generations.  Consequently, our acceptance of change in the comic book universes is only enthusiastic if we know, deep down, that it won’t be permanent.

 

 

For another example, let’s recall  that the Iron Man story arc from the early 1980s that had James Rhodes don the metal suit, taking over from an alcoholism-debilitated Tony Stark, was a great idea that was destined to go the way of too many great ideas in the worlds of the Big Two (hint: that would be the way of the dinosaur, peeps). We all rooted for Tony to recover, but we couldn’t count on him taking a new positive direction in his life that wouldn’t entail him taking the suit back from Rhodey. We had to be content with the two years or so we were given to follow Rhodey’s memorable struggle to fill the iron boots, because the real-life people in the suits would never let it go on indefinitely. We knew right from the onset that the most this could lead to would be the Rhodester eventually being fitted for a new armored suit and code name once Tony got off the sauce and fulfilled his fiduciary obligations to the Marvel executives… er, the Stark Enterprises  executives (Anti-capitalist Freudian slip! Woohoo!).

 

JimRhodes_as_IronMan

“What do you mean I have to give this suit back to Tony after such an inspired run of stories? You’re gonna let him just steel back the glory from me? Yeah, that was a bad pun you heard, since it’s not like you deserve a good one!”

   Then there’s the matter of certain supporting characters who are so prominent that they can never be killed off for good. Not even when doing so after a long and distinguished career results in a heartfelt and highly respectful send-off.  Undoing and undermining such a send-off seems to be the decision of choice for the powers-that-be if a certain big change begins looking too permanent.

 Back in the ’90s (when new #1 issues and bank-breaking gimmick covers were as common as chlamydiae on college campuses… well, almost, anyway), one of the best Spider-Man stories produced during a truly lackluster decade was the latest death of his Aunt May. I’ll never forget that story, because it was poignant and beautiful to behold. May Parker was treated with dignity and with great respect for her intelligence (finally!), when she revealed to Peter during a brief recovery from a life-threatening coma that she knew he was actually Spider-Man for a long time, as it was impossible for her to live in the same house for so long and not know (yanno, like you can’t expect your mom not to know about that sexual orientation you’re afraid to reveal to her). When she was soon back on her deathbed, she explained that her strong will wouldn’t let her just fade away like that without first telling her nephew the truth, and how she was always proud of him, despite being in denial over the dangers he constantly faced. She told him how she accepted that it was her time, and then quietly expired while in the loving presence of Peter and Mary Jane, who then held each other and shared tears to an endearing quote from Peter Pan (actually Peter and Wendy;  and it was the same quote used by the newly de-commissioned Captain Kirk at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,  btw) .

  It was a hard story to forget… until a few years later, when a new creative team on the Spider-titles decided that they wanted us to do just that by revealing that Aunt May never actually died in the first place. No need for a resurrection when you can always rely on that little contrivance, right? Well, at least we can still say that the dying actress disguised as Aunt May and secretly placed into Peter’s life by Norman Osborn to only make him think  his aunt died gave a poignant and beautiful final performance (I wish I was making that up). The explanation given for another Aunt May death turning out to be false (yes, there was another one in the late ’70s) was given in the letters page as, “… we felt that we lost more than we gained.” Well, whatever they gained by bringing May Parker back, it sure as hell wasn’t credibility or respect for either the readers’ or May’s intelligence; the latter due to the fact that she was revealed as not knowing her nephew’s secret for real, which made the lady seem as dense as lead to those who remembered her actress imposter’s dying words.

   AuntMay-death

“Cheer up, dear… you know I never die for good. So no need to make another deal with the Devil the next time I’m on my deathbed, okay?”

VIII. Why Not Do the Generational Thing, Then?

   I’ve read other writers, including a well known comic book writer/artist, say that there is actually a good reason why the same person is kept in the most famous hero suits forever.  This, they say, is because the origins of these individuals have stood the test of time, and that simply having their children take on the role would result in a bland genesis sans the huge emotional impact of the original’s origin.

  I don’t really buy that justification, however. I think there are many ways to give the familial successors interesting backstories in their own right. This, in fact, was done with Mayday Parker, whose efforts to live up to her father’s lessons made for the only book in Marvel’s now defunct ANext line of ongoing alternate future titles that had enough lasting power to outlast the entire line. I also thought John Byrne’s depiction of Bruce Wayne’s successor son Bruce Jr. in his Elseworlds mini-series Superman & Batman: Generations made for a compelling character that may well have paved the way for such successors to take over the Mantle of the Bat on a permanent basis had DC chosen to go the generational route instead of doing the time-crunching thing a few decades before the reality reboot option came into vogue. Thanks to that, in fact, nearly the entire concept of legacy that DC did so well for a while was wiped off the face of the cosmic map thanks to the recent Flashpoint event.

Generations_#1_cover

Ah, What Might Have Been…

  Not only that, but this defense of the perpetual retention of the same person in the costume overlooks the established fact that not all successors would need to be in any way related to the original. This includes the likes of the previously mentioned Miles Morales, along with popular characters like Miguel O’Hara, the Spider-Man of 2099 (another one safely confined to a distant alternate future). They both had very compelling backstories, and proved as worthy of the suit as Peter Parker did. There are no end to good, tragically compelling, and emotionally riveting origin stories which can make for a good successor to Batman or Spider-Man, etc., to set up a similarly driven motivation for fighting crime. And that’s not to say that a different motivation altogether can’t be used:  Just look at the popularity surrounding the recently introduced character of Kamala Khan, a.k.a., the new Ms. Marvel. She has proven a likeable character with great (if currently not fully realized) potential, and this despite her backstory being quite distinct from that of Carol Danvers, the classic Ms. Marvel (and now the new Captain Marvel… don’t confuse her for the DC guy of that name in drag; they’re now simply calling him “Shazam” nowadays anyway).

Kamala_Khan01

   “Watch me fill this uniform as good as Carol Danvers ever did! Um, calm down, I didn’t mean it that way…”

  My closing contention is this:  The generational approach could have worked had writers during the Golden Age chosen to try it. But since the ancestor of comic books, the comic strip features, had already taken the path of ignoring the passage of time, creative teams of the era probably considered this an indelible aspect of illustrated story telling. They were likely already used to it, and simply believed that doing things this way was a given. They were hardly thinking about anything related to “realism.” The parallel universe concept introduced into the comics by DC in the early 1960s was an early semi-attempt at addressing this issue, but even that weak pretense of concern was abandoned as another decade passed and it was obvious that the Silver Age characters weren’t getting any older, and the aged Golden Age heroes weren’t getting any older than that (rare exceptions like Dick Grayson reaching college age and leaving the cave… er, the nest notwithstanding).

   Hence, after seven decades of doing things this way, the Big Two likely now view themselves as having too much invested into their respective mainstream lines–in every conceivable way–to change this policy.

  So, though we can always count on major changes and upsets in these two comic book universes, we can’t expect the biggest ones to stand the test of time. How much they may catch on with the fans will also be mostly irrelevant to the corporate force of change-reversal. The most we will get is tantalizing insights into what could have been by way of alternate futures and parallel realities carefully tucked outside the mainstream continuities of the vaunted Big Two. C’est la vie.

Sam_Wilson_as_Captain_America

Don’t get too comfy in that costume, Mr. Wilson.