Sunday, January 14, 2018

Lois Lane: Special Victims Unit

Back in 2014, when my friend Kristin still lived in North Carolina, I went to visit her for a few days. We went to thrift stores and sight seeing, I made her watch the "Saved by the Bell" Lifetime movie, and while we were at the only comic store that she knew of in her city (it somehow never occurred to either of us to google and see if there were others), I bought the two issue "Lois Lane" miniseries from 1986.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

This miniseries is important to the publishing history of Lois Lane in a few different ways: it's her first miniseries, and it is the first Lois Lane comic that doesn't also have Superman's name on it, despite there having been over a hundred issues of her own series. That one was technically titled "Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane".

This miniseries is also important because it is the weirdest, darkest Lois Lane story ever published.

I honestly can't believe DC Comics published this at all, and I get the impression that they initially didn't want to. It seems like something they commissioned and paid for, and then decided to shelve for a while. I don't know for sure that I'm right, but here's why I think so:

1) It was published in 1986, but takes place during the plot structure of the Superman books in 1983. Specifically, it follows almost directly out of "Superman" #388, and picks up a subplot in that book. Why write a miniseries about a subplot from three years earlier?

2) It was clearly written to be 4 issues long, which was the size of most DC miniseries at the time, but was then published as two double sized issues, with four chapters total, that both stop on a cliffhanger exactly halfway through each issue that is immediately resolved on the next page.

3) This miniseries was never referenced in comics again.

While this book was being published and sold, DC was already in the process of publishing the "Crisis on Infinite Earths" 12 issue maxi-series, which rewrote and streamlined their entire continuity. One effect of that rewrite was that the Superman books were rebooted entirely, which means that DC was publishing this book even while they knew it would immediately be wiped from their continuity. Everything about this just seems like they paid someone to write it, saw how badly the story doesn't actually work, let it sit on a shelf for a few years, and then said, "Hell, we might as well try to make some money out of it anyway," and dropped it onto the news stands.

Given that much buildup, you're probably wondering what's so terrible about this story, and that's a little harder to explain. It was clearly written with the best of intentions, and was intended to be a serious, "real world issues" book of the type that DC had published before with varying degrees of success. This book is a little different, though, because it not only tries to be ultra-serious, but it's also one of DC's earliest attempts at publishing the kind of grim and gritty work that independent publishers and their competition had already been doing. It slightly predates "Watchmen" (the second issue of this series has an ad for the upcoming "Watchmen" series), predates the Joker beating the second Robin to death, and came out at a time when DC was more or less seen as the CBS network of comics: old, kind of stuffy, and mostly filled with the kind of stories your parents might like.

Lois Lane, whose comic for decades involved scheming to get Superman to marry her, turning into monsters by accident, and getting caught up in wacky schemes, wasn't quite the right character for a super-serious story about child abduction and murder, but damn, they sure did try.

Our story opens with everyone at the Daily Planet newspaper worried about Lois, and pretty much assuming she was in the middle of a breakdown. She had recently broken up with Superman, and had recently blown a big story about the Middle East. Lois was supposed to be conducting a joint interview with fighting Middle Eastern leaders, but the peace talks fell apart. At the same time, Lois and Superman's relationship fell apart, so he flew her off somewhere (at her request) to think about her life. While she was doing that, the peace talks suddenly got back on track, and since nobody could find Lois, Lana Lang flew in and conducted the joint interview for her job on the nightly news, where Clark Kent was her co-anchor and boyfriend.

In the previously mentioned "Superman" #388, Lana is collecting her accolades from her colleagues at an office party:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

when Lois arrives to congratulate her. Lana responds in typical Lana fashion by throwing some of the shade that she's so famous for:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

Lois responds by throwing punch:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

and Lana responds to that by actually trying to drown Lois in punch:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

They end up in a knock down, drag out fight in front of all of their coworkers:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

and then Lois is suddenly clawing at a Superman recycling poster and weeping:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

Again, this took place in front of everyone from the newspaper department and everyone from the TV news division. That's why everyone is convinced that Lois may be cracking up: because maybe she is.

And then Lois' miniseries starts, and things go fully off the rails. The story starts with Lois pushed to the back pages of the newspaper, and trying to go on dates with guys who aren't Superman. Our story begins with Lois ditching her date, and taking his car, to follow some police cars to the docks:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

At this point, there's still a chance that we're about to end up in a regular Lois Lane story. "Maybe it's treasure from a shipwreck!" Yes, maybe! Or, maybe not.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Again, this could have been a very serious story about child abduction, but the writing goes so far over the top that it lands somewhere on the other side. "A grotesque parody of a cabbage patch doll." Just let that wording sink in for a minute.

Lois is, understandably, shaken by this.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Lois is, apparently, also a former Republican voter, giving the familiar "I never cared about this problem until it was my problem" that anybody who watches the news has heard dozens of times. She heads home to get some sleep before work, and the book decides to introduce a subplot that goes nowhere: Lois' sister Lucy, a flight attendant, tries to get in touch with her between planes.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

This will come up several times during the story, but Lucy's presence will never actually be important to the story.

Lois goes to work the next day, determined to write a hard hitting investigative piece about missing and exploited children, and the editor is having none of it. Lois no longer commands the front page after blowing the Middle East story, but he's willing to throw her a bone and let her write something for Janice, the Features and Lifestyles editor. Lois responds in predictable Lois fashion:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

"Your section of the paper is garbage, Janice." She doesn't actually say that, but she might as well. Janice, rather than firing her, decides to let Lois go work on her story anyway, and Lois immediately heads out to interview the head of a child-finding agency. Again, the writing tries so hard to make this lady seem gritty and real world that it's almost laughable:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

"I stopped, for a while..." and then she launches into two or three pages of the terrible things she's seen, the missing kids, the families getting called about bodies, and the kids who are never found at all. Lois takes lots of notes, especially when a family whose toddler daughter was just kidnapped at the hamburger stand comes rushing in, weeping and blaming each other.

Meanwhile, Lucy is still trying to get in touch with Lois, and goes to Clark and Lana's apartment.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Lana just can't help those shady side comments. She and Clark do try to get the sisters in touch:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

and Lois is as nice to Lucy as she was to Janice. Lana, sensing an opportunity for drama, immediately takes action:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Her motives are predictably Lana-esque:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

but again, this side plot never goes anywhere. Clark isn't in the mood for it, anyway, because he's worried:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

He's also getting his hair combed there because he and Lana are about to do the nightly news broadcast. I assume that, normally, Clark combs his own hair.

After some more investigating, Lois comes home to find that the doorman let Lucy into her apartment, and they have another heated conversation while, weirdly, Lois strips down and takes a bath in front of her sister:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Is this something that sisters do?

Lucy stomps out, and the next morning she and Jimmy Olsen cook up some sort of plan:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

They're going to somehow help Lois with this story by pretending to get married.

Lois is out helping herself, going to interview the mother of a girl who was abducted and then found.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Patty's mom is happy to answer questions, but she also wants to talk to Lois about breaking up with Superman:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois redirects the mother, finally, and we get to their story:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and then, in case you're not sure what they mean by "did things to her", DC goes all the way over the top again:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

explaining that a toddler "wuzn't no virgin anymore". In a Lois Lane comic. Between some wacky hijinks with Jimmy and Lucy faking a wedding and Lois talking to a stranger about not being in love with Superman. This book veers wildly in tone the entire way through.

Heading back to the office, Lois runs into Lana on the sidewalk out front, and Lana suddenly wants to help:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois isn't having it.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

And there we are. This is a super serious, grim and gritty real world story with sad detectives and jaded chain smoking social workers and sexually abused little girls, but now we're about to throw in a few panels of Lois and Lana fighting over Clark. Fortunately, Lana isn't down for it.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois IS raving. She's screaming at Lana in the middle of a sidewalk and Lana, for once, walks away. She, at least, remembers that this is supposed to be a serious comic, and will not lower herself to pulling hair or shoving Lois into traffic. Lois, friendless and alone, heads to a halfway house for troubled teens.

The troubled teens want to talk about her breakup with Superman.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

At this point, it's almost hilarious that every stranger on the street wants to discuss her relationship, but as she leaves the halfway house she finds another person on the sidewalk wanting to discuss it:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois isn't waiting, Clark. She's got a cape and a coat and a purse and no more time for your crap.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Did I mention that, at this time, neither Lois nor Lana is aware that Clark and Superman are the same person?

Meanwhile, Lucy and Jimmy have turned their fake marriage into a story about... something... to help Lois:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and Lois continues not to have time for them:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and that's it for that subplot. The book never tells us what the story was about or why it required Jimmy and Lucy to pretend to be married.

On her way to a press conference about another abducted child, Lois runs into Lana, who invites her into the green room for coffee:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Wait, why does Lana need support? And why does she break down during the police briefing?

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

It turns out that Lana got upset when the police mentioned that the baby's ear had been sent in by the kidnappers, and the reason why is where this story goes all the way into bonkers territory:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

DC Comics decided to use the last four pages of the miniseries to reveal that Lana, while absent for a few years in the Superman comics in the early 1980's, had a secret marriage, had a secretly kidnapped and murdered baby, was keeping the baby's ear in her bank box downtown with her savings bonds because she didn't know what else to do with it, and then they never referenced any of this in a DC Comic again.

And that's it.

Lois and Lucy make up:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois' story gets published, they all go to a funeral for the child from the beginning of the story:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and there's a six month later epilogue showing that the killer was never found:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and that's it. The miniseries just ends.

And DC Comics never speaks of it again.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Final Books of 2017

2018 is now upon us, but before I can get started on it I have one last chore to wrap up: I need to discuss the last few books I read in 2017.

73) Simon Garfield's Mauve was way more interesting than it seemed like it should be from a summary. It's a biography of chemist William Perkin, the man who invented the color mauve and the process for using it to color other objects, mostly through a laboratory accident. It's also the story of the growth and recognition of chemistry as a science, the ways in which industry impacted governments, commerce, the environment, and public health, and the ways in which our lives and world will change once fossil fuels, the source of so many artificial colors and dyes, are exhausted. There was a little bit in this book for everyone: science, history, fashion, and humor, and it was written at a conversational level that made it easy to get into.

74) Coming off of "Mauve" I went straight into Kassia St. Claire's The Secret Lives of Color, which tells the story of mauve but also of dozens of other shades of the rainbow. In short chapters of a few pages each, St. Claire describes when a color entered human history, how it was used and manufactured, and how it was and still is viewed. From colors restricted to only royalty (Imperial Yellow) to colors that led to the extinction of species (Tyrian Purple) to colors made from human remains (Mummy), this is a fascinating trip through history and a nice compliment to "Mauve", telling a similar story on a much grander scale.

75) While I enjoyed those two books, Mark Frost's Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier made me kind of angry, because it tells a bunch of stories we should have seen on the recent third season revival. Narrated by FBI Agent Tammy Preston, one of the key players in the third season, this is a report on all the main families and characters from the first two seasons of "Twin Peaks", and my problem with it is that this is the show I wanted to watch. Twenty five years later, I wanted to know where Donna Hayward was. I wanted to know what happened to Annie Blackburn. I wanted to know how James Hurley ended up working security at the Great Northern, and how Bobby Briggs became a deputy sheriff, and instead I got ten hours of hoping Agent Cooper would finally remember how to talk.

This book, to me, feels like a cheat. It feels like Mark Frost knew that fans of David Lynch would love the surreal, bizarre third season of the show, but fans of the show itself would walk away disappointed, and this book seems to be the attempt to appease both groups. Lynch fans got to watch 19 hours of unrestrained, bizarre television, and Twin Peaks fans get a two hour book report of everyone that the show didn't have time to cover.

76) A year after finishing the second book in Gordon Merrick's "Charlie and Peter" trilogy, I finally finished the third book, Forth Into The Light, which barely features Charlie and Peter at all. When they do show up, it's to muddle through the same conflicts as the last two books: do they really love each other, does being gay make them less manly, will they stay together or be torn apart by circumstances and their own self doubt, etc. In addition to the casual racism that the earlier chapters featured, this one has a side helping of condoning spousal rape and domestic violence, an attempt by Peter to become more heterosexual by convincing a lesbian to fall in love with him, and at least one suicide related to sexual orientation. Gay people, and gay literature, deserve way better than this book and, really, this whole trilogy.

77) Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians is a glittering, entertaining soap opera set in Singapore. Rachel Chu, a professor in New York City, agrees to attend a wedding in Singapore for her fiancé's best friend from childhood, unaware that Nicholas' family is one of the wealthiest families in the country and that her sudden appearance among them will ruffle the feathers of their complicated social structure. Is Nicholas planning to marry this girl he's bringing home? And who is she? What does she want? Now Rachel finds herself in a treacherous world of social climbers, private planes, luxury yachts, and a family that will stop at nothing to protect their ideas of class and the reality of their wealth.

This was a great vacation read, and I'm excited to see that it's a trilogy. Hopefully I'll end up enjoying it more than the one above.

78) L.A. Jacobs returns to the world of magical convict Mike LeBonte in Grimaulkin: Tempted, the second book in a series. When Mike's sister gets married, Mike agrees to housesit her apartment and dog while she and Dom are on their honeymoon. It sounds like it should be a quiet, restful couple of weeks, but then Mike's cousin, Becky, is being followed by the Mafia and by the creepy church cult she's trying to get out of. Possibly worse, Mike's boyfriend, Scott, is getting a visit from his ex. Mike is still forbidden from summoning entities to perform his magic, and all he wants to do is burn all his problems down. Will he succumb to the temptation of forbidden power to solve his mounting problems? Or will he manage to stay on the complicated path his parole officer has assigned him? This was a good read, but fast.

79) Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall is a short, slightly creepy story of music and tragedy. A few decades ago, the surviving members of British folk band Windhollow Faire spent a summer in the country at Wylding Hall, recovering from the suicide of one of their founding members. While there, they recorded an album that made their reputation and careers, but it would also be their last album, because their lead singer, Julian, disappeared inside Wylding Hall and has never been seen again. Now, in the present day, the surviving band members, their producer, a reporter, a photographer, and a member's former girlfriend all come together for a documentary about what happened that summer, and they each try to explain their part in it.

The band is on the edge of something great, but the house isn't what it seems. There are parts that are recently constructed, but they're built on top of older parts, that are built on top of even older parts. Doors are locked and unlocked at random, rooms seem to come and go, and the local farmer who brings their groceries each week constantly cautions them to stay out of the woods. Something lives in Wylding Hall, and it wants Julian. Even scarier, Julian seems to want it just as badly, and the rest of the band is caught in the middle.

This was short, but very atmospheric, and is a great haunted house story.

And now, with those books out of the way, it's time to start reading my way into 2018.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve in Gotham City

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house (said house being stately Wayne Manor, home of the Batman) not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

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“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Our story opens with Batman coming to the aid of a beaten, robbed Santa. This is the sixth beaten Santa that Batman has attempted to help tonight, but this one explains that he helped himself a little bit by cracking the mugger with a wooden pallet:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Santa has apparently been working out. Batman pursues our injured mugger, but comes to a dead end:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Or does he?

Out of nowhere, there's:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Not only does the guy beat the hell out of Batman with a tree, but then he pulls down some Christmas lights and really gets to work:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Batman somehow gets the upper hand, eventually, and then starts working on the guy's self esteem, too:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Bush league, Batman? Really? Because it looked like he was doing a pretty good job beating you up with a Christmas tree. Batman's about to bring the guy in when, in front of a church with a fully lighted manger, the mugger pleads for mercy:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

I'm surprised he didn't just start hitting Batman with the Baby Jesus, too.

Even though this guy just beat him with a tree, and mugged six Santas, Batman accompanies him home to his tenement apartment, where he finds out why Tim was stealing:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

He has to take care of his niece, little Betsy. When he got laid off from his job at the toy factory, the factory owner promised the workers that he would rehire them for the holidays, so Tim didn't get another job. Then when the owner sold the factory instead, it was too late, and there was no money for Christmas. Batman agrees with him that this is a terrible story, and offhandedly suggests that really this is all that old man who owned the toy factory's fault. Tim silently agrees that this is all the old man's fault, and decides to take his revenge.

There's just one thing standing in his way.

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Remember, Batman wants us to believe that this guy who beat him with a tree, with a string of lights, and now with a lamp, all on a bleeding injured leg, is strictly bush league. While Batman's knocked out, the guy ties him to a radiator, and when Batman wakes up Betsy won't untie him.

That's ok, though, because Batman doesn't need untying:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

You know what's not going to help their poverty-stricken Christmas get any better, Batman?

Ripping their only source of heat out of the floor and breaking it.

Everyone in Gotham doesn't have a fireplace and a butler to tend it, Batman.

Knowing that he talked Tim into a murderous rampage, Batman gets ready to go after him, with a surprising new partner:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Meanwhile, a kindly old man who just wants some peace and quiet sits in his home alone talking to his toys, a perfectly valid lifestyle choice:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Little does he suspect that he's about to get attacked by a raging bush league unemployed uncle with a bad leg:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Batman's trying to get to the house to stop him, but there's trouble. The Batmobile has bad snow tires, apparently, and is stuck on the road up the mountain.

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Deciding that the best place for a child in his care is outside in a deadly blizzard (there may be a reason why three Robins have died over the years), Batman starts to carry Betsy through the storm. Apparently he wants to be sure she sees her uncle getting beaten up and arrested or, more likely, seeing her uncle get the drop on Batman again. They're not in the storm for long, though, because they hear some bells...

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

They ride the sleigh up to the house, arriving just in time to find Tim carrying the old man down the front steps:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

MAYBE HE WANTS TO BE ALONE AT CHRISTMAS, TIM. SOME PEOPLE FIND IT RESTFUL.

Anyway, they get to the hospital, and the doctors start working on the old guy while Batman, Betsy, and Tim wait:

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

And what happened, then? Well, in Gothan they say - that the Batman's small heart grew three sizes that day. And then - the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Batman found the strength of *ten* Batmen, plus two!

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

And all that was left after releasing a dangerous serial mugger from his custody was dealing with the horse and sleigh.

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”, DC Comics 1971

Who, indeed?

Merry Christmas, everybody.