Sunday, January 30, 2011

PB&J (&K) #5: Kiri's New Boyfriend

PB&J (&K) #4.5: Family Sucks

PB&J (&K) #4: Contractual Obligations

PB&J (&K) #3: Not Based on Actual Events

PB&J (&K) #2: Justin Discovers the Basement

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Human Torch (Strange Tales #101-134 and Annual #2)

You remember all those bad things I had to say about Ant Man? How it should have been awesome, but it was actually just really, really boring? Well, forget all that nonsense, because things are way better this time! Given the Fantastic Four’s ever increasing popularity in the early 60’s, the folks at Marvel decided to do a spin off book. Since the Human Torch was the closest in age to their target readers (or something), he got to be the one with the solo book- though the rest of the team showed up almost every issue.

While the Human Torch solo adventures in Strange Tales don’t really have the “golly-gee-wilikers” feel that the Fantastic Four stories have, they’re certainly perfectly suitable and fun comics. Almost all of the stories are still scripted by Stan Lee, so Johnny Storm is still his hot tempered self, they just change the scenery from New York City to the suburb of Glenville, where Johnny and Susan Storm live in their civilian identities.

One of the great things this series allowed was an expansion of the Marvel Universe B-list villains, without taking up time in the larger books (Strange Tales was an anthology book, and all of the Human Torch stories in it were the first of a double feature). There are, of course, your obligatory appearances by evil communists and alien invaders. Namor and the Puppet Master show up. Sure, the Wizard is a pretty big time villain (for the FF, anyway), but the rest... well, they are AWESOME.... just NOT IN A GOOD WAY. Guys like the Eel and Plant Man aren’t all that much to write home about, but are kind of fun. This guy called the Acrobat shows up a couple of times and impersonates a certain star-spangled hero from the Golden Age (and is promptly never heard from ever again). The Mad Thinker and the Beetle would go on to be second tier villains for a variety of heroes. Then there are my two favorite new villains to the Merry Marvel Comics Group...

First up, the wonder glue wunderkind himself, Paste-Pot Pete. Now, I know Paste-Pot Pete grew up to become a slightly less lame villain called the Trapster, but frankly, I prefer him in his earliest appearances, before he attempted (and failed) to become serious. He’s a dude in a giant beret and green clown suit, who robs banks with a big glue gun. Seriously! How can you get more stupid and hilarious than that? And he’s surprisingly effective, too, which makes it even better. Pate-Pot Pete is all kinds of awesomesauce.

And then there’s the Asbestos Man. Just think about the name alone for a moment. The Asbestos Man. Whatever you’re imagining, I promise it’s ten times better. The Asbestos Man was a brilliant but greedy scientist, who decided to use his fabulous intelligence to make it as a master criminal. Only problem was, he was a spectacularly bad thief. After narrowly not getting caught robbing a safe, he decides to learn to be a criminal by joining the under world. This would be a good plan, accept that while attempting to “join the underworld” he learns that walking up to suspicious looking people and asking if they’re part of “the underworld” is really just a good way to piss them off. Thus, in order to prove himself to be a worthy ne’er-do-well, he makes himself a special full-body asbestos suit, grabs a net and an iron shield, and promises to take the Human Torch out once and for all!

The fact that the Asbestos Man has only appeared once in the entire history of comics is truly a crime.

Nearer to the end of the book, the Thing joins Johnny on all his adventures, and that’s pretty great too. This book’s got everything- there’s all kinds of Silver Age villains; there’s Doris Evans, the Torch’s rich and beautiful girlfriend who frankly isn’t convinced her boy-toy should be bursting into flame all the time; rocket ships; atomic explosions; spies; the Beatles (yes, really)- if you can’t find something to like about this book, then frankly you probably just don’t like comic books, in which case, why are you still reading this review?

One of my favorite stories is the very first one in the book. The story opens with Johnny racing an atomic missile, because.... well, that’s the type of stuff he does in his free time. After that, he goes home to Glenville, mentioning how popular the place has become, ever since the world learned his sister was the Invisible Girl (this is important later, promise). We get a tour of his bedroom, a quick refresher on how the Fantastic Four got their powers in case anyone missed it, and then it’s time to meet our mysterious villain, the Destroyer!

The Destroyer’s nefarious plot involves.... causing an accident on a roller coaster so that the bad publicity will close the amusement park down. Yes, really. Thankfully, Johnny Storm is there and notices the coaster has been sabotaged, except there are people around him and he can’t flame on without giving away his secret identity! Let me unpack that for you: Johnny Storm- a sixteen-year-old who builds and races hot rods, hitchhikes rides on-board illegal rocket ship test rides, and lives with his sister who is a PUBLICLY KNOWN superhero while SIMULTANEOUSLY being a superhero himself and being known for yelling out “Flame On!” whenever he wants attention (with little regard for the possibly of that statement being misinterpreted)- Johnny Storm is worried about subtlety while a bunch of people are about to fall to their messy deaths. That right there? Hilarious.

Luckily, through a clever use of someone else’ lighter, Johnny creates a distraction and is able to rescue everyone. I won’t give away the rest of the story (all of that’s by page 5), but suffice it to say that the Thing shows up, and the plot may revolve around Zodiac-esqe cryptic letters, a local newspaper editor, and those dirty commies. And you thought the Human Torch’s identity was public? It is. The explanation for Johnny trying to hide it so much comes a few issues later, and is almost as hilarious as Johnny freaking out about keeping his identity a secret in the first place.

This book is no FF, don’t get me wrong. But its fun, and light-hearted, and I enjoyed it. You could spend fifteen bucks on worse.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The One, Absolute, Sure-Fire Way to Find Extraterrestrial Life

Alright, so, like anyone who grew up watching Star Trek, the idea of different alien races all hanging out appeals to me. That being said, anyone who’s checked with the experts will tell you that the odds of life in the 24th century being much like it was on Deep Space Nine is pretty low. Sucks, but it’s true.

That being said, I don’t believe in a no-win scenario. There’s no such thing as a problem that you can’t out-engineer, and this seems to me to be no different. So, how do you find alien life in a universe that’s infinitely expanding, especially since we really have no way of breaking the universal speed limit of 671,000,000 miles an hour? Well, let’s check the math with the time honored Drake Equation,

The Drake Equation:

N = R* X fp X ne X fl X fi X fc X L

N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Developed by Prof. Frank Drake in 1961, the equation is far from perfect, but can provide a rough draft for how many civilizations humanity theoretically rooms in the galaxy with. Obviously, the number you get is going to vary depending on all the numbers you put in. Drake’s original answer for N was 10, but that was 50 years ago, and our data is much better now. So, in the interest of expediency, let’s swipe the current estimate found on Wikipedia as of 1/17/11:

R* = 7/year, fp = 0.5, ne = 2, fl = 0.33, fi = 0.01, fc = 0.01, and L = 10000 years
result in
N = 7 × 0.5 × 2 × 0.33 × 0.01 × 0.01 × 10000 = 2.31

So, with there only being two species in the entire galaxy being able to communicate with each other (based on current estimates), one of those being us, and the galaxy being roughly 100,000 light years long (a light year is 5,878,625,373,183.608 miles, in case you’re wondering), we’re.. well, we’re pretty screwed if you want to talk to aliens.

Luckily, I have figured out the perfect solution. There’s no way this wouldn’t work guys, I promise you. The only thing we need to run into intelligent extraterrestrial life is this-
-A time machine.

Okay, stay with me here. Any culture with the technical ability to build a time machine would. That’s the only way to find out if your time machine works, after all. Building a time machine is really, really hard, so doing it requires a huge amount of knowledge. And a society smart enough to have that much science, well, they’re going to ask a lot of questions. Questions like, “How did the universe begin?” So, if scientists on any planet had a time machine, they would go watch the big bang, simply in the name of science.

Therefore: Every species in the entire history of the universe- past, present, and future- that has the technological ability to travel through time can be found at the Dawn of the Universe. Also, probably at the probable Heat Death of the Universe too. And they’re all there, all at once, because that’s how time travel works. If you time travelled to the Big Bang, you would witness everyone else who ever was or would be there as well.

From there, you could learn who and when is out there. Cultures already have a time machine, so they could go visit each other and open diplomatic relations. Time travel would automatically lead to interstellar connections.

Holy shit, guys. Star Trek can be real. Except instead of just being about space, IT’S ALSO ABOUT TIME. Someone start working on Time Trek right now.

*= Wow. Maybe I did watch Star Trek too much. But probably not, as that is a mathematical impossibility.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beeman: Coming Soon to an Internet-Device Near You

I got a new Wacom tablet. Beeman? Oh yeah, he's coming soon in my new webcomic.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Ant-Man (Tales to Astonish #27, 35-69)

Hank Pym is a dick.

There, I said it. With apologies to Scott Tipton over at Comics 101 (who really is pretty great, by the way), I can totally see why Ant-Man would eventually become known as “the superhero who beat his wife”. Hank Pym may be a genius scientist who not only developed technology to change the size of matter but also the ability to communicate with insects, but man… what a douche bag.

But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself. Hank Pym’s first adventure is in ToA #27, “The Man in the Ant Hill”, and it wasn’t a superhero story at all. This was right around the time the Fantastic Four were making it big, and all of Marvel’s other books were still mostly sci-fi and monster books. Hank Pym was a scientist scorned by his peers, mostly due to his (admittingly) crazy theories about changing the size of objects with a chemical process. None of it made any sense, but hey, it’s comics. Anyway, Pym’s formula’s worked (of course), but due to an accident Pym himself was shrunk (of course) and got stuck in an ant hill (hence the title). Hijinks ensued. A few months later, as Marvel was realizing it had struck upon a superhero goldmine, they decided to incorporate Dr. Pym as Ant-Man, the pint-sized hero who can talk to ants!

Now, none of this is all that crazy by 1962 Marvel standards, but I think that quickly became the issue. Ant-Man is a book that, in my opinion, never really quite got completely off the ground. I think it’s telling that of all the Marvel superhero launches between 1961 and 1963, only Ant-Man and Dr. Strange don’t currently regularly star in books today, and Dr. Strange lasted a heck of a lot longer than Ant-Man. You can see it even in the book itself- Pym’s costume changes from panel to panel in some occasions, mostly due to artistic and editorial neglect. Even by Silver Age standards of internal consistency, things… just kind of seem to happen.

By ToA #44, Marvel tried to spice up the book, by introducing socialite Janet Van Dyne as Pym’s assistant and sidekick, the Wasp. But in true Ant-Man fashion, this is done in the most convoluted way possible: We start with Pym flashing back to his never before mentioned wife, Maria. Maria and her father had been political dissidents in Hungary before defecting to America (the USSR occupied Hungary from 1945 to 1991, just so you know). However, upon marrying Dr. Pym, she convinces him that their honeymoon should be in her native land, because surely no one will remember her there. This level of obvious stupidity is pretty par for the course in Ant-Man, I should mention.

Pretty much upon arrival, those dirty commies capture and kill Maria, and Pym is forever emotionally scarred. Years later, Pym- now Ant-Man- meets Dr. Vernon Van Dyne, who wants to talk to him about communicating with aliens. Pym’s all set to brush off the old coot, until he meets Van Dyne’s daughter Janet, who NATURALLY looks EXACTLY like Maria. Then aliens kill Janet’s father (yes, really), and Pym decides that given her emotionally troubled state, this is the perfect time to graft wings onto the poor girl, shrink her down to an inch height, and make her his assistant. Remarkably, she seems pretty okay about all this.

Now, I know what you’re thinking- “This book sounds completely insane!” The kind of glorious, Silver Age insanity that I, the Amazing Justin Palm!, love. The kind where absolutely anything could happen because why the hell wouldn’t it happen like that? 60’s comics at their best!

But it’s not. I can’t really explain what it is about this book, but it’s just… tedious. Maybe Ant-Man really is just the red haired step-child of Marvel superheroes. I mean, they try so hard to keep it interesting, it just always falls flat. Either Pym or Wasp’s costume changes nearly every three issues. Pym goes from Ant-Man to Giant Man, then gets even taller as Goliath. (And that’s not even beginning to get into the gender issues of having a female character who can only get small, but a male character who gets bigger and bigger. The Shrinking Violet syndrome was alive and well in comics during the 60’s.) Maybe it’s for that very reason Pym’s popularity never rose to that of any other Marvel character. Iron Man may have changed his armor all the time, but he was always Iron Man. Pym on the other hand… his identity was just too fluid.

I could get into a whole thing about how later comics would use all this to suggest mental illness, that Pym’s own subconscious was splitting. And hey, to be honest, while reading this book, that angle totally works for me. But what I found much more… well, interesting isn’t the right word, but much more in the forefront is that Ant-Man and the Wasp generally seem to hate each other. They both talk about loving one another in theory and stuff, but in actual practice, they bicker and argue constantly about each other, and I really have no idea why they’re supposed to be attracted to each other. It’s like they’re just staying together because they both are deeply troubled, which is probably accurate. She’s sticking it out because he’s a substitute father figure who was there for her when she was weakest, at the death of her father. That being said, she knows nothing of science, and hero business is more of a hobby than anything else. Meanwhile, he’s an emotionally stunted (if understandably so) old stiff who fell in love with a girl for all the wrong reasons, and now he just wishes she’d stop talking because he has MAN WORK to do.

And maybe there’s a formula for drama in that, I don’t know. But reading it cover to cover, it just comes off as obvious and tedious. And the villains don’t help. Oh god, the villains…. Lets just say when your arch-fiends consist of Egghead (a fat, bald scientist with severe Luthor envy), the Human Top (later known as Whirlwind, he, uh, spins around real fast), and the Porcupine (seriously, whatever you’re picturing, its way worse, don’t even ask.), you’re flat out scrapping the bottom of the barrel. The villains are just plain boring, and when villains are boring, comics are boring, no matter how much “drama” you can draw out of the relationship bickering.

Honestly, I was originally going to add a description of a particular issue here- ToA #58, “The Coming of Colossus”- because it pretty much personally illustrates all of the problems with the series, but honestly, what’s the point? The central problem with Ant-Man was and is that he lacks a narrative focus. Spider-Man is about responsibility, Hulk is about rage and control, the Fantastic Four are all about wonder and possibility; what the hell is Ant-Man about? He’s just yet another scientist turned superhero, and those are a dime a dozen. And in trying to make the character more interesting then he actually was, the seeds of his eventual downfall 15 or 20 years later really are sewn here.

So, if you really like Hank Pym, or you really want to understand why he’d end up he jerk he became, read this I guess. But anyone else? Honestly, it’s not really worth your effort.

Sorry, Comics 101.