Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Friday, Jun 12, 2009
In the Wildstorm universe there will be no Silver Age of superheroes. "Mystery archaeologist" for Planetary, Elijah Snow confronts three remarkably familiar objects, with no ability to explain or even recognize them.

The Wildstorm Universe is just the obvious shiny surface of an Earth with superheroes, Warren Ellis writes in the original 1997 proposal for Planetary. What if, underneath all that, there was an entire classic old superhero world? What if there were huge Jack Kirby temples underground built by old gods or new, and ghostly cowboys riding the highways of the West for justice, and superspies in natty suits and 360-degree-vision shades fighting cold wars in the dark, and strange laughing killers kept in old Lovecraftian asylums… what if you had a hundred years of superhero history just slowly leaking out into this young and modern superhero world of the Wildstorm Universe? What if you could take everything old and make it new again?


In a surprise reversal of over-hyped emotions on the cusp of the new millennium, Ellis would offer Planetary as a meditation on the promise of tomorrow by delving into the history that prepared the world for things just about to come. Planetary was about the future of the Wildstorm Universe, but only in that it was an exploration of a past that shaped that future. Over the course of 26 issues, Ellis and artist John Cassaday would treat readers to a heady mixture of hard sci-fi, superhero archaeology and strange, but also familiar analogs of pop-culture. Ellis would draw a continuous narrative thread through a century of superheroes, laying down his own vision of Golden and Silver Age for the Wildstorm universe. Doc Savage, Tarzan, the Shadow, Ellis offers a near-exhaustive list of pop-culture icons. “It’s a strange world,” the series blurb reads, “Let’s keep it that way”.


In perhaps the most heart-rending of twists, Ellis offers the Fantastic Four as a template for group of villainous scientists who secretly dominate the globe. Simply known as The Four, these scientist-explorers have withheld technology that could have supercharged human advancement. Although the “mystery archaeologists” of Planetary have already skirmished with The Four in issue #6, it is here in “Magic & Loss” that readers discover exactly how The Four have made themselves a true adversary to human growth.


In the issue’s framing device, protagonist Elijah Snow crouches over three artifacts in an abandoned Four laboratory. Unable to explain them, but awash in a deep sense of loss, Snow finds his resolve to dethrone The Four strengthened. The artifacts themselves, a blue lantern, a red birthing blanket and a pair of magical wristbands are emblematic of the DC superheroes Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman. The current Planetary issue tells the stories of how these artifacts’ owners were assassinated by The Four.


Encountering these very familiar objects through the eyes of character wholly unable to recognize them, explains the sense of loss felt by the Wildstorm universe. These three characters, Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman would have been the vanguard of a Silver Age of superheroes. Because of The Four, the Wildstorm universe would never know a world where superheroism is legacy passed from one generation to the next.


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Thursday, Jun 11, 2009
The Devil stalks the Old West, luring the souls of evil men into committing bad deeds, thus ensuring Hell's claim upon them. Finally in the town of Halo, Sheriff Moses Stone traps el Diablo in the town cemetery. Having led a posse to track down a killer he believes to be no more than an ordinary man, Moses just about gets the drop on his bounty.

It began slowly enough, but over the course of four issues Sheriff Moses Stone proves to be the most seductive of untrustworthy narrators. “I’m not a killer, but I have killed”, Moses reminds readers in captioned narration. At the opening of the story, “Holy” Moses Stone is a man in search of redemption. A retired bounty hunter now working to keep the peace in Bollas Raton, Moses hopes to bury the past that brought him to this point. But within pages of establishing Moses’ well-intentioned nature and his only-too-human search for inner peace, writer Brian Azzarello begins chipping away at his fictional creation.


Azzarello forces readers into one fork of morality after the next. Immersing his audience in the mystery of what originally brought Moses to Bollas Raton, Azzarello writes a piece of noir fiction set in the Old West. When Stone uncharacteristically agrees to pursue el Diablo for a bounty, readers’ interest remains piqued. Why would Stone jeopardize the life he built for himself in Bollas Raton? And why would el Diablo leave only Stone alive after a bloody shootout on Main Street? Why mark Stone with the word “Halo”, rather than kill him?


As the questions mount, Stone’s moral descent becomes ever more clear. From pursuit of money, to lying, to outright murder, Azzarello’s talent lies in animating Stone in such a way that readers ultimately excuse the violence in hopes of finding answers. All the while, Stone and his ever-thinning posse hunt down the elusive el Diablo who seems to continually circle back and chase down his pursuers.


In this short sequence of panels, artist Daniel Zezelj plays visually on the idea that el Diablo can never be surrounded. Unarmed and with his back turned to Stone, el Diablo seems finally to be at the mercy of his last remaining pursuer. But rather than having entered a trap he is unable to escape, el Diablo has played out his final ruse. Just as Stone lowers his gun to el Diablo’s neck so too Stone finds a gun pointed at his own. Cal Chaney, the Halo sheriff, has finally put the pieces to together, and Holy Moses must now answer for a trail of bodies.


No devil, only you.

No devil, only you.



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Wednesday, Jun 10, 2009
Combing through the wreckage of the just-decimated Flash Museum, Wally West (current super-speedster and nephew to former Flash, Barry Allen) stirs up old ghosts of his family and his superhero lineage. In an effort to console Wally, Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick utters words that will prove pivotal to the denouement of Blitz, and offer Barry Allen one last chance for heroism.

Even though bearing the mantle of the Scarlet Speedster, Wally West was always reluctant to associate himself with the Flash Museum. For Wally the Museum was a debt of honor, paid to his uncle, mentor and Flash before him, Barry Allen who died saving the universe. The Flash Museum, at least to Wally, was a shrine he would forever remain distanced from. Struggling to keep his own achievements from rivaling those of Barry’s (and to Wally’s mind, thereby replacing his mentor), Wally would continually fail to appreciate the full legacy of the Flash and his role as icon for a new generation of Central City residents.


Memories never die

Memories never die


But with the destruction of the Flash Museum, Wally turns a corner. The physical objects that connected him with both his youth and his mentor have now been decimated. Palpably, a connection with Wally’s legacy has been severed. It is in his state of distress that Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (whose boots and tin helmet are modeled on the Roman god of swiftness, Mercury) offers Wally some comfort. “Memories never die”, he reminds Wally, “They were just statutes”.


Jay’s words will prove prescient. By the end of events detailed in Blitz, Wally will confront possibly his greatest mistake; revealing his secret identity to the world. It was this decision that would ultimately cost him the lives’ of his unborn twins, at the hands of supervillain Professor Zoom. In an attempt to protect his family, Wally will forego his alter ego as the Flash. It is at this point that Barry Allen returns from the distant future. Here to offer Wally one last piece of advice, Barry will then travel back even farther in time to sacrifice himself while saving the universe. “But that’s ok, my race is run”, he admits to Wally, underlining his own heroism.


There should always be a Flash, Barry reminds Wally. The Flash stands as a symbol that people are worth saving, time and again. And with the Spectre at his side, Barry offers Wally a way to continue being the Flash, yet reclaim his secret identity. The world will forget the identity of the Flash. And along with it, forget the heroism of Barry Allen. In his final moments, Barry Allen makes an impassioned plea for the ideals of heroism. Geoff Johns writes a single panel that offers Barry Allen a final act of heroism, one perhaps even greater than saving the whole world.


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Tuesday, Jun 9, 2009
In House of Secrets Steven T. Seagle re-imagines the haunted house genre. At Reichuss Mansion, the living are brought before a jury of ghosts to be judged on the secrets they still keep. In "Blueprint", the series' seventh issue, Seagle expounds five stories of supernatural horror involved in the creation of Reichuss Mansion.

It is the discipline of form. Not unlike writing in pentameter, Seagle tells the five stories of “Blueprint” in single-panel exposition, only allowing only two panels per page. Like his fictional architect William Babcock, Seagle weaves these five tales into a single work, a perfect narrative line. For readers to easily join the panels to their correct stories, Seagle writes each tale in distinctive narrative form, and unique captioning style. Babcock’s story around his occul inspiration for the Mansion’s design, takes the form of a letter captioned in ornate penmanship.


Through Babcock’s letter, the story of a love affair between construction foreman Ed and Missus Reichuss, and the story of a power-struggle within the Duwamish tribe who originally used the Mansion’s property as a place of exile and punishment, Seagle unfolds a prehistory of horror around Reichhuss Mansion. Along with the more esoteric vignettes wherein Babcock’s blueprint and the Mansion relate their ‘own’ stories, Seagle unveils a supernatural conspiracy by which unseen forces influence events to ultimately make the Mansion’s construction inevitable.


The richness of “Blueprint” lies in exactly this lingering sensation of the unseen winding its way through coincidence and happenstance. Seemingly unconnected events intersect each other until a perfect chain of consequence leads to the Mansion being built and the ghostly jury being ‘awakened’ to take up residence. Just as each panel is nothing more than a segment, luring the reader into the false sense of being momentarily afforded a glimpse of a fully-developed world, so too do the unseen spirits become the central characters animate the lives of Babock, Foreman Ed and Audrey Reichuss.


Originally detailing the story of Rain, a refugee of the Seattle grunge scene of the ‘90’s, House of Secrets’ seventh issue provides readers not only with an origin for the possessed Mansion, but also a comment on comics crossovers as the tales of Ed, Babcock, Audrey and the Duwamish intersect to produce something of enduring horror.


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Monday, Jun 8, 2009
Like most other superhero stories, 2001's "Absolute Progeny" ends with the hero's fist planted firmly against the villain's jaw. But for X-Men team leader Angel, this punch signals a bitter defeat at the hands of the Vanisher, a D-list villain turned corporate rival.

The X-Men have tasted defeat before, but never of this kind. “Feared and hated”, as their splash page introduction reminds readers, “by a world they have sworn to protect”, X-Men count their victories by stemming the loss of life and preventing the outbreak of racial violence. Their steely resilience has always stood in sharp contrast to more glamorous teams like the Fantastic Four who regularly save the planet from galactic-level threats and enjoy the adulation of crowds. More an emergency rescue and intervention team facing the growing species tensions between human and mutant, the X-Men resolve simply to train and prepare for the worst.


In a surprise inversion of the conventional rescue-mission genre then, writer Joe Casey presents a tale ending with the X-Men being simply outclassed. Adding insult to injury, their most humiliating defeat comes at the hands of the Vanisher, a relatively inconsequential villain relegated to the dust-pile of X-Men lore.


In 2001’s “Absolute Progeny”, the Vanisher returns, only to be exposed as the head of an international drug cartel. By harvesting mutant genetic material (in the process killing ‘donors’) and marketing mutant ‘designer genes’ as the latest fad at teenage rave parties, the Vanisher has cornered the market on billion-dollar illicit industry.


In the closing pages of a story where the usual narrative conventions of the superhero rescue story are readily deployed, Angel leads a team to confront the Vanisher in his ‘lair’.


But it is at this point that the conventional narrative is overturned. Instead of a hideout overrun by henchmen, the X-Men find a technologically sophisticated environment. Here is fully-developed corporate headquarters, complete with onsite genetics laboratory, located in a country with no extradition treaty. As the X-Men prepare to engage their target, the Vanisher pontificates. Stating simple facts, he points out the impossibility of physical conflict. Even with the dissolution of his corporation, even with his removal as figurehead, the designer drug and marketplace it spawned will continue to flourish. Yet removing the Vanisher as corporate officer will require lawyers not fists.


Shortly before his exit, the Vanisher himself momentarily yearns for the halcyon simplicity of physical confrontation. “You know, I remember your fist against my jaw”, he confesses to Angel. The Vanisher’s ostensible moment of weakness, although remaining unexpressed, is marked by artist Ashley Wood’s homage to the original artwork from Uncanny X-Men #2, where Angel won a victory by striking down an adversary he ultimately dismissed as ineffectual.


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