Friday, May 13, 2005

Mr. Fantastic, Machiavellian Superhero

Reviewing Fantastic Four: Authoritative Action by Mark Waid & Howard Porter (Collecting Fantastic Four #503-508)

First I’ll admit my biases:

1. I have been a fan of Fantastic Four comic since the late 70s. I loved to read those “World’s Greatest Comics” reprints of the Lee/Kirby days on FF. I loved what John Byrne did with the series in the 80s. Sure, there have been hundreds of truly awful FF comics. But for the most part, I am predisposed to enjoy their tales.

2. Mark Waid made a great positive impression on me when I encountered him in the flesh at the Baltimore Comic Con 2004. He struck me as personable, funny, intelligent, thoughtful, and extremely knowledgeable about superhero trivia and lore. Having experienced his personality, I was strongly curious about his writing and expected something great.

Having said that I will tell you that Authoritative Action is a marvelous Fantastic Four story! It begins after the defeat of Dr. Doom. The FF are attempting to hold together peace and order in Latveria, the country Doom ruled as a malevolent dictator. Rapidly one realizes that a parallel is being drawn to the U.S. effort to keep the peace in Iraq after toppling Saddam.

Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, is not his usual self. One side of his face has been horribly disfigured during the battle with Doom. The interior wounds are even worse.

Ben (Thing) : I think this Doom thing really messed ya up, Reed. I don’t mean th’ scar.

Reed is shown to be filled with fear and rage, mostly directed at the late Dr. Doom. His inner turmoil drives him to take control of the situation with Machiavellian means.

Reed (Mr. Fantastic) : We keep accomplishing half the job. We beat Victor, but we don’t clean up after him. And only we can. Not the U.N. inspectors. Not some Latverian burgomeister in stockings and a tweed hat. This room’s defenses would have cut them in half.

Reed declares himself the new leader of Latveria, claiming this is a temporary measure to hold things together and to prevent any other countries from scooping up Doom’s inventions and armaments. However, he resorts to manipulation and dishonestly toward the team as a shortcut to reaching his goals.

For example, at one point, Reed conceals from the team that he has taken control of the Doombots. When Johnny and Ben uncover a resistance group that is forming to oppose the Fantastic Four, Reed sends the Doombots to attack the clandestine group. Johnny and Ben rise to the defense of the rebel Latverians, doing their best to hold back the Doombots. Later they come to find out Reed sent the attack fully expecting his partners to fight it back. As a result, Reed hoped the people who come to see the FF as the heroes, and not the adversaries Doom made them out to be. In effect, Reed was manipulating the situation in order to generate dramatic propaganda.

Reed: Once word spreads that you saved them from the last of Victor’s rampaging enforcers, that should cement our popularity. Well done. That was the final asset left to be stripped from Doom: his subjects’ allegiance.

Ben: So we wuz part of a show? A set-up?

Johnny (Human Torch) : You’re out of control! Where to you get off playing us? Answer me!

Meanwhile, the governments of the world put pressure on the United States to remove the FF from power, arguing that it appears the FF are U.S. agents taking power unrightfully. Particularly the Hungarian government claims that Latveria belongs under their control, since Doom forcibly annexed it from them years ago. Even though Nick Fury attempts to stick up for what Reed and the others are trying to do, military force is sent to remove the FF from power. Fury attempts convince Reed to walk away before the battle begins, but Reed will not bend. He has a farther reaching plan that he’s concealed from everyone.

The resolution of the plot was a shocker to me. By the end, the FF incur severe causalities, not at the hands of the military, but in battle against Dr. Doom. Yes, that’s right: Doom resurfaces and does some horrific damage. And Reed’s manipulation and secrecy unintentionally has everything to do with Doom’s opportunity to attack. The ending is brutal and tragic. There is a extreme bit of “Gift of the Magi” O’Henry twist. Reed’s sacrifice for his family and their willingness to risk for him ends up in high sacrifice all around. I found myself shaking my head in surprise and horror.

The story is not entirely dark. Waid has a wonderful sense of the banter between the team members. Comic relief is offered in regular doses.

Johnny: Aren’t Doombots normally a little more formidable than this?

Ben: “This one’s too tough! This one’s not tough enough!” Ain’t you ever happy? Check it out, Goldilocks--this one’s just right!

It’s also nice to see that the last page ends with an absurd announcement from Reed. Waid demonstrates his mastery of tone and pace. I closed the book with anticipation of the next collection.

By the way, the art work of Howard Porter and Norm Rapmund is quite nice too. The Thing’s facial expressions are highly emotive, perhaps the best they’ve been drawn. Not once did I find the art lacking in detail or storytelling ability. ‘Nuff said! Check it out!

Thing Gets Reed's Attention

Thing Gets Reed's Attention Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Dark Tower is Reached

Well, it finally happened. I finally got to the last page of Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga. The journey itself, which began for me in 1985 or so, has been packed with thrills, laughs, chills, and sorrows. The characters of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy have become real people to me, friends I had looked forward to visiting again and again.

All along the way, I tried to imagine what the final stage of the story would yield. What exact would the gunslingers find when they reached the Dark Tower? My most fully realized concept was like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien, a fortress swarming with Orcs, hideous monsters wielding battle axes. I foresaw a climatic final battle where some of our beloved gunslingers would perish, but others would prevail and push through into the Dark Tower. That’s about all I had. Vaguely I wondered if they would find the Creator of the universe sitting at the top, working switchboards and dials. Would they meet God face to face?

Book VII did NOT in fact conclude that way. For the sake of those who haven’t reached that point yet, I won’t let anything else slip. Suffice it to say Stephen King did an admirable job of being the scribe of this vision, this tale. Every word is written with loving attention to detail, with honest emotion (yes, love), and with high respect for the characters.

Although my emotional response to much of the book might give away something of the nature of the events (say sorry), I must say I truly experienced grief in this book. I suppose that is to be expected, since it is the last volume in the series, since King had thoughts of retirement as he wrote it. There is loss here, and I grieve because the people and the whole universe of this vision are real to me. And for that I say, Thank ye, Stephen King.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Significance of Pacing in Left Behind

Warning: This entry contains SPOILERS for the novel Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. If you have yet to read Left Behind and think you might, I suggest coming back to this after you have done so. Also note that while this write up does concentrate heavily on my disappointments, ultimately I found the novel inspirational, suspenseful, and intriguing. I highly recommend it!

Over the last few days, I read the first in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The strength of the novel is its engaging characters and fascinating situations. However, I did encounter moments of disappointment in this novel related to pacing. Particularly the last quarter of Left Behind suffers from forced plotting at high velocity. Things happen so fast that the author’s controlling hand is exposed and suspension of disbelief is broken.

The speed at which the Antichrist rises to power is too quick. The problem isn’t the lack of means on the part of the Antichrist, since there are supernatural forces and fulfillment of prophecy at work here. The difficulty is in the duration of time as portrayed in the novel. We are asked to believe that all the events, personalities, logistics, and apparatus involved in his rise to power would fall into place in lockstep and at the pace of a manufacturing die cutter. Within a matter of days after the disappearances, Carpathia, the Antichrist, has gone from being a nobody to the leader of the U.N.. He has also maneuvered the world-wide media, the governments of the world, and the infrastructure of the U.N exactly where he wants it. Given the climatic scene where he demonstrates his hypnotic powers and reveals his ruthless bent for evil, we can see how he accomplished it, but it just happens too fast. The supporting sub-structure of power would not coalesce that quickly. There’s not enough time for the cause and effect reactions to pan out.

Additionally, there is the immediate domino effect of what happens to Buck‘s career in news reporting. Since Carpathia effectively makes it appear that Buck was not present at an important meeting and press conference, Buck’s boss comes down hard on the reporter, removing him from the managing editor position and trumping him back down to a staff writer role. Not only that but the boss is so outraged and distrustful of Buck, he insists that Buck be moved to Chicago. The boss seems to have gotten amnesia about Buck’s previous skills and performance. Up to this point, we haven’t seen anything to suggest that Carpathia has a direct influence over Buck’s boss, so we can only guess that his outrage and distrust is based on his own reaction to Buck being apparently absent from the media coverage. This about face of the character from high admiration and trust of Buck to complete condemnation strikes me a contrived device of the authors to maneuver Buck where they want him, in Chicago, near the other Christian heroes who are plotting their resistance against Carpathia. And come to think of it, I’m left to wonder why Carpathia would stop at having Buck discredited if he suspects Buck might oppose him or even be ambivalent. A number of people, including a fellow reporter, have already been murdered to protect Carpathia’s unquestioned rise to power. Why not Buck too?

On the flipside, the authors were controlled and steady in their depiction of both Chole’s and Buck’s process of coming to a decision to about Christ. Neither character’s acceptance of the gift of salvation seemed rushed or forced. Both characters are shown to be intellectual and skeptical about the situation and Rayford’s offered explanation/solution. Neither wants to jump into a life of faith without having thought about it awhile. The overall message that comes across due to the pacing of these scenes is that Christians should never jump to conclusions that their witness is not having an effect on those they witness to. This is illustrated in Rayford’s internal thoughts about how Buck is responding his witness. Rayford jumps to the conclusion that Buck is offended and/or bored, when in fact, he is stirred. Often it does take time for people to sort through their biases and assumptions, their intellectual criteria and pride. Don’t expect an immediate response. And don’t jump to the conclusion that you are not getting through.

I’m guessing that the authors of Left Behind had to make an artistic choice about where they could slow down and speed up the pace. The novel is after all 468 pages long (granted with very wide margins). More pages and a slower pace at the end probably wouldn't have improved it over all. Perhaps it makes complete sense for them to have stretched things out during the exploration phase for Chole and Buck, emphasizing the realism of their conversions. The maneuverings in the last 25-50 pages are less significant because they are simply setting up the stage for the next phase of the series. I’d much rather have them rush the aspects they did rather than rush the dramatization of the conversions. The realism of the conversion process has much more significance for Christian readers and may in fact help encourage us all to be more persistent and patient in our witness for Christ.