Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Three Jacks

[SPOILER ALERT: The following will discuss the last episodes of Lost, 24 and Law & Order.]

In a little more than 24 hours, three landmark television series came to an end. And in the world of cosmic coincidences, each had a major character named Jack.

The most ballyhooed conclusion was that of Lost, the end of which has been in the works for more than three years since the producers set a fixed target for wrapping up their story. Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) was established as the hero from the very beginning (though there were originally plans to kill him off halfway through the first episode). Like all the other people who survived the plane crash, he had major character flaws. And, as in any good story, he overcame them and became a better person.

Opinions about the finale are quite mixed. Many fans complained that there were not enough answers. What was the deal with the electromagnetic energy? What was the significance of the numbers? What was the Island? Lost started out seeming to be a straight adventure show with some sci-fi elements thrown in (the monster) and we expected a logical explanation. We had to suspend our disbelief and accept a smoke monster, then time travel, then "magic."

But this was a show about people... and, as in real life, we will never get all the answers. There are plenty of things happening around us all the time and we will never know why or how they happen. And through it all, one thing remained logical and consistent -- the people. They evolved throughout the series and I don't think there is one of them that you could look at and say, "Wow, that's way out of character." That is the beauty of the story they told.


Unlike Jack Shephard, Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) of 24 seemed to be infallible... and indestructible. In his most recent "very bad day," he was shot, stabbed twice and beaten up numerous times, yet he managed to carry out all his plans. And, as usual, his understanding of the situation was always the right one.

This season's adventure seems to have received more jeers than cheers from fans. There were numerous elements that echoed previous seasons, perhaps the most annoying being the discovery of yet another mole inside CTU. For a government agency pressed to battle terrorists and uncover plots against the nation, they have the worst record for vetting potential employees ever. An ex-boyfriend and a county sheriff did better at finding the mole than the personnel department at CTU.

As always, Jack uncovered the plot behind the plot and forced the exposure of it all by the end. As a result, President Taylor is about to resign and former President Logan has committed murder and suicide. (Talk about out-of-character actions: Taylor went from being the most level-headed 24 president since David Palmer to being one step removed from whacko Charles Logan, who became her advisor.)

And, also unlike Jack Shephard, whose final reward really was a reward, Jack Bauer ends the series as a fugitive from both the American and Russian governments, with the possibility of a theatrical movie in the works. Of course, Jack could just change his name and apply for a job at CTU. Given their record, it is unlikely they would discover him.


The final Jack is District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) of Law & Order. Though no longer a central player in the program, having moved up from being the tilting-at-windmills Assistant D.A. to barking-at-A.D.A.s boss, McCoy has been a mainstay of the program for sixteen years. (Does anyone even remember when Michael Moriarty filled the A.D.A. chair?)

Since the announcement that the show would not be renewed for a 21st season just came a few days ago, the season finale was not that different from many other episodes. It did bring to a close the career of Lt. Anita Van Buren, which they did know about because S. Epatha Merkerson announced she was leaving the series after seventeen years, but we get no other closure here.

I don't know that we will actually miss Jack McCoy the way we will miss Shephard and Bauer. Despite being part of our TV world for more years than the other two combined, we know very little about McCoy. Until recent years, the L&O formula did not allow for much character development, and what there has been since is minimal. Other than the promotion, the 1995 McCoy is not much different from the 2010 model.

Which is as it has to be. The police and the district attorneys will continue to protect the people of New York for many years to come, in reruns if nowhere else, so except for particular "ripped from the headlines" cases, what worked fifteen years ago should still be working fifteen years from now.


All three programs have made their mark. Law & Order established a format for police procedurals/legal dramas that has been successfully copied numerous times. 24 took the action/adventure format, glued it to the old movie serial concept, and provided a roller-coaster ride that often kept us on the edge of our seats, wondering what could possibly happen next. And Lost gave us a one-of-a-kind saga that is likely to be imitated but never equalled.

And for each, we say, "So long, Jack... and thanks for all the entertaining hours."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Collect Them All

With magazine sales dropping ever lower, more and more publishers seem to be trying to boost sales by creating "Collector Editions." Specifically, publishing the same issue with a variety of different covers. Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide do it from time to time; if the cover feature is about a hot TV show or movie, there will be a set of covers, each featuring a different star or stars from it. It makes me wonder, though, how many extra copies they sell. Is there really much a collector's market for old issues of EW?

The variant covers have become a mainstay in the comic book business. In the first two weeks of May, for example, DC Comics produced a dozen comics with variant covers (and one of them had two). One can only presume that there are still enough fanboys out there clamoring to have one of every version that makes this viable.

But while this is now a gimmick to sell more copies of an issue, its origins in the comic book business were for the opposite reason: We had sold too many copies.

In the autumn of 1989, DC was releasing the first issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, a new Batman title. It was a period when comic book shops were plentiful, there were multiple direct market distributors of the books, and competition was fierce among them. Anticipating major sales of a new #1 issue starring the Dark Knight, the shop owners ordered substantial quantities.

[A quick aside to those who don't know how the "Direct Sale" comic book market works: In the traditional publishing business -- for books, magazines, newspapers, et al -- the stores receive copies on a returnable basis; whatever they sell they pay for and what they don't sell can be sent back for a credit. In the comic book business, the store owners order copies of the books at a substantial discount, but they cannot send them back, so they will order only what they think they can sell.]

When the orders for Legends of the Dark Knight #1 came in, they were much higher than expected. Bruce Bristow, who was head of the Marketing Department at the time, feared that there would be many thousands of copies unsold and that that could have a critical impact on the cash flows and financial stability of many of the shops. So he proposed a way to make the copies more collectible: We would add an "over-cover" to the issue, producing four different versions, that would prompt collectors to buy four copies of the book instead of one.

And that is what we did. LoDK #1 had four versions -- the same Bat-emblem with a lime green, blue, pale orange or magenta background. (You can get a look at them here: http://www.dcindexes.com/gallery/browse.php?select=!dc/legendsdarkknight) As hoped, the variants did increase the sales of the books for the shops. And a whole new marketing ploy took hold in the comics business.

One amusing note about LoDK #1. As the Production Director, I was directly involved with this, including ensuring that equal numbers of each version would be shipped to each distributor and, through them, each store. To that end, I was in the Ronalds Printing plant as the books were being bound and watched as one of each version came off the machine consecutively, over and over. Every carton of 200 books contained 50 of each and if you pulled any four consecutive copies out, you would have one of each.
Within the first week of sales, however, we started getting reports about how the blue version was the rarest or how we had under-printed the orange version to make it more collectible. All of this supposition was based on someone going to his local shop and finding differing quantities of each color. But the reason there might be no more of a color was not that we had under-printed them; it was that that color was the most popular. Not everyone was going to buy four copies of the same magazine; those readers who bought only one picked the color they liked best. In fact, if the shop had only the magenta ones left, that is the version least likely to be in collections... and it would ultimately be the rarest!

In the two decades since, all the comic book publishers have jumped on the multiple-cover bandwagon. So it must still be working as a way to pump up sales or they presumably would have stopped by now. But with standard comic books selling for $2.99 to $3.99 each, how many readers can afford to buy more than one? And after you've read one copy, are you going to even open another?

Too bad I'm not selling this blog. It would be interesting to see what would happen if I posted this same essay with four different titles...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Law & Order: Comic Book Unit

Last night's episode of Law & Order began with a man who was murdered, apparently by someone who stole his collection of rare Golden Age comic books. That the victim was locked in a dog cage and run through with a sword, well, I suppose that was their not-so-subtle jab at comic book fans being odd.

The detectives visited a comic book shop and a discussion of the missing books began. Green Lantern #6 was mentioned, as was All-Flash. But then, presumably to drive home that these were not million-dollar copies of Action Comics #1 or Detective Comics #27, they mentioned Johnny Thunder, Doctor Mid-Nite, and the Gay Ghost. The latter resulted in a raised eyebrow from one the detectives, but it was explained that the term had a different meaning in the 1940s. "He was cheerful." (In the 1970s, when DC reprinted one of the stories, the character was rechristened the Grim Ghost.)

As the comic book readers among you know, neither Johnny Thunder nor Doctor Mid-Nite nor the Gay Ghost had their own magazines. The first JT, he of the magic Thunderbolt that was summoned any time he said "Cei-U" (pronounced "say you," so he said a lot more often than he planned), was a back-up feature in Flash Comics through much of the Golden Age.
A cowboy hero of the same name debuted at the end of the 1940s and starred in All-American Comics and All-American Western. The only time there was a comic book titled Johnny Thunder was in the 1970s and it featured reprints of the cowboy's adventures.
Doctor Mid-Nite, the blind crimefighter with an owl as a sidekick, prowled the night in All-American Comics and was a member of the Justice Society in All-Star Comics.
The Ghost appeared as a back-up in Sensation Comics and never had his own title.

The missing comic book collection turned out to be part of a larger scheme. The victim had intended to hide his money from his wife by claiming to have lost a fortune by investing in a less-than-collectible assortment of comics. Other than another comment about the Gay Ghost, it did not come back into play until the courtroom scene at the end.
During questioning, the D.A. holds up a comic book (in a Mylar Snug) as one of the books in the collection. Rather than using an actual Golden Age book, it was a dummy titled Team Action.
Team Action?! Really? If you're going to go to the trouble of making a fake book, why not at least continue the thread and have a fake issue of The Gay Ghost?

One final note on the episode: As soon as I saw that comic books were involved in the plot, I expected to see that the writer was long-time L&O and comics scribe Gerry Conway.
'Twas not the case, however. If it had been Gerry, it's a safe bet all the comic books mentioned would have been real.

Monday, May 10, 2010

MIA: The Secret Society of Super-Villains vs the Freedom Fighters

Of all the comics I wrote, what quite often comes up is a trio of issues that were never published. Those would be #s 16 through 18 of Secret Society of Super-Villains, featuring an epic battle between the SSoSV and the Freedom Fighters. The first two of the three were "published" in Cancelled Comics Cavalcade, a Xerox-copy compendium of books that were written and drawn, but bit the dust as part of the "DC Implosion." The third chapter exists only as a script.
For the benefit of those who have recently asked (and those who might in the future), I'm reprinting a lightly-edited version of the recap that appeared in my online column for Comics Bulletin some nine years ago.

Those of you who are not comics fans can click over to something else now...

A figure in the shadows says, "This is your ultimate assignment, Secret Society - destroy the Freedom Fighters!" Being blasted by Mirror Master and Chronos (with Copperhead standing by, ready to pounce) are all seven of the FFers: Human Bomb, Doll Man, Uncle Sam, Firebrand, Phantom Lady, the Ray, and Black Condor.
Yes, it's Secret Society of Super-Villains #16, with a cover by Alex Saviuk and Dick Giordano. "Murder Times Seven" (scripted by yours truly, with art by Dick Ayers and Mike Vosburg) opens with the Silver Ghost, perpetual foe of the Freedom Fighters, hiring the SSoSV to kill his enemies. Paying the tab by turning a desk to solid silver, Ghost tells Mirror Master and Copperhead that he wants them to recruit Chronos, Killer Moth, Quakemaster and Sizematic for the job. When Mirror Master points out that "some of your choices are strictly second-rate," Silver Ghost replies that he's the one footing the bill.
We switch to Provincetown, Massachusetts and Kane's Kolossal Circus, where the Freedom Fighters have taken up residence and new identities as "Travelin' Sam's Six Man (and One Girl) Show." Darrel Dane gets a phone call from girlfriend / newswoman Martha Roberts, advising him that the Silver Ghost has been spotted in Metropolis, Central City, Sun City, and Coast City.
Uncle Sam decides the team should split up to investigate. He and Doll Man will go to Sun City, while Phantom Lady and Black Condor fly out to Central City. The Ray does not like this plan… seems he wants to spend more time with the FFers distaff member. When she rebuffs him, he storms out, saying he'll handle Metropolis himself!
Shortly, in the sky above Superman's home town, The Ray spots the Silver Ghost flying right towards him. However, his target turns out to be Quakemaster riding on the back of Killer Moth, disguised thanks to KM's "illusion gimmick." The hero is zapped a number of times by Quakemaster and crashes to the streets below. When Killer Moth remarks that non one could survive such a fall, Quakemaster replies, "I know - but maybe we'd better check the body just in case." (It's a good idea, especially since we already know that The Ray was to turn up alive in his own solo series in Black Lightning.)
Killer Moth and Quakemaster can find no trace of a splattered Ray on the streets of Metropolis, but give up their search when Moth says the hero was "a being composed entirely of light energy. It's quite possible that the impact with the ground completely disintegrated his form and scatter The Ray like a million fireflies."
Deciding this must be the case, they head back to tell the Silver Ghost they've succeeded. But, "many hours later," we find the battered hero crawling out from a pile of newspapers in the alley. Seems he spotted them at the last second during his fall and they cushioned his landing. (A footnote advises readers to next seek The Ray in Black Lightning#11. Amusingly, that story had The Ray falling into Metropolis Harbor rather than onto a pile of newspapers.)
Moth and Quakemaster arrive at SSoSV headquarters with news of their victory as the Silver Ghost is watching a TV monitor. On it, Uncle Sam and Doll Man seem to be chasing the Silver Ghost. This time, it is Copperhead and Sizematic pulling off the illusion and the confrontation is the cliffhanger for this issue.

"Congratulations, Freedom Fighters - you've been suckered!" So taunts Sizematic, who, along with Copperhead, has lured Uncle Sam and Doll Man into a trap in Sun City, Florida.
That's the splash page as penciled by Dick Ayers that would have appeared in Secret Society of Super-Villains #17, had there been one.
As Copperhead wraps up Uncle Sam, Doll Man shrinks to escape the huge Sizematic, only to discover (as the Teen Titans learned when they faced the villain) that there are actually two Sizematics; one who can grow larger and one who can shrink. Though the heroes fight valiantly, both are eventually overcome.
And we switch back to SSoSV headquarters where the Silver Ghost has been watching the battle with Killer Moth and Quakemaster. After boasting about how he will see to it that all seven Freedom Fighters will die, the Ghost switches channels (and so do we) to Central City, where Black Condor and Phantom Lady are following their own lead to their foe.
As the heroes fly (Condor carrying Phantom Lady in his arms) above the city, Sandy asks him why he's never made a pass at her the way The Ray and Human Bomb have. But, before he can answer, the world seems to turn upside down. Turns out to be the handiwork of the Mirror Master, creating a massive optical illusion. When Chronos tosses his Time-Toller, with which he can make time seem to pass incredibly fast or amazingly slowly, the two heroes are overcome and fall out of the sky right into the villains' ship.
Back at the Sinister Citadel, with the four captured heroes encased in Lucite blocks, the Silver Ghost dispatches Quakemaster and Killer Moth to take care of the Human Bomb while he sets out to confront Firebrand himself. Meanwhile, aboard a plane heading for Coast City, Roy Lincoln is explaining to Rod Reilly how he became the Human Bomb. (As I'd done in issues of Freedom Fighters with the other members of the team, I worked in a one-page recap of the Bomb's origin.) When the two men deplane in Coast City, they are confronted immediately by the Silver Ghost.
Quakemaster and Killer Moth battle the Bomb, defeating him after Moth covers him in a cocoon-spray that prevents him from using his explosive powers. As the fight concludes, Firebrand sneaks up behind the FFers' foe. "Not too bright, Ghost. You've dropped your guard - let me walk right up and get you."
"On the contrary, Firebrand, this entire battle has been orchestrated to bring us face-to-face again."
"Again?! We've never met before."
"Of course we have, Rod Reilly!"
"R-Reilly!?! You know my other identity?"
"Certainly. Just as you know who I am!" With that the Silver Ghost unmasks and Firebrand shouts, "YOU?!" And as we stare at the unmasked face of the Silver Ghost, the bottom blurb (this being page 17, after all) advises us that the explanation will have to wait for next issue, leaving everybody wondering just who it is beneath the mask.
And that was all of the story that appeared in Cancelled Comics Cavalcade.

Well, of course I wasn't going to leave you hanging without the answers to the Freedom Fighters / Secret Society battle. Especially since the script had been written and I have (probably) the only existing copy.
"The Final Encounter" opens in the Sinister Citadel, where the Silver Ghost and his crew of villains have the six captured Freedom Fighters securely wrapped up. (The Ray, remember, was presumed dead, but instead turned up in his own back-up series in Black Lightning.) In the center of the room, Firebrand is bound into a chair and the Silver Ghost is berating him.
"Twelve years, Reilly. For twelve years I've waited for you to show yourself on this Earth. That is how much revenge meant to me."
The Ghost explains via flashbacks that he is actually Richard Von Zell and that he was chief Nazi magistrate of America back on Earth-X. Firebrand, posing as a collaborator, would bring information about rebel movements to Von Zell. However, they would actually lead the Nazi agents into traps, where, as Rod Reilly, the resistance leader, he would capture or kill them. Von Zell vows to kill Reilly, but learns that he had escaped to Earth-1. The villain, carrying an armload of silver bars to use to pay his way, crosses the dimensional barrier as well. But just as the journey changed or enhanced the powers of the Freedom Fighters, it turned Von Zell into a Midas with a silver touch.
With his new power, Von Zell became Raphael Van Zandt, amassing power and wealth. "When the Freedom Fighters appeared, I was convinced they had come looking for me. I created the Silver Ghost identity so I could destroy them! How fortunate it was that they lured YOU into the open before I was able to kill them."
Though the Freedom Fighters expect The Ray to show up at any moment, the Ghost tells them their compatriot is dead; and that Firebrand will be next, with a bullet in the head. But Firebrand has broken free of his bonds and a fight between them ensues. The hero charges the villain and grabs him, but the touch of the Ghost starts turning Firebrand to solid silver. Momentum carries hero and villain crashing through the window and they plummet to the ground far below, locked in a death-grip.
Back upstairs, the other five Freedom Fighters break free, leading to a free-for-all with the villains. With lots of teamwork, the heroes wrap up the seven villains.The battle ended and the police on the way, Condor goes to check on Firebrand and the Ghost. "I was hoping Rod would have survived in that silvery state, but the impact shattered his body into a million slivers of silver."
"What an irony," says Phantom Lady, "that he should be the last casualty of a World War that took place on another world."
"Rod Reilly - Firebrand - was a true American on any Earth," adds Uncle Sam.
With the Silver Ghost dead, the Freedom Fighters realize they have no way to ever prove their innocence. Rather than continue to live as fugitives on Earth-1, they decide to return to Earth-X. "After being joined by newswoman (and soon to be Mrs. Darrel Dane) Martha Roberts, the Freedom Fighters add one more "crime" to their police records: An unauthorized use of the S.T.A.R. Labs transporter in San Francisco."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was how the story was going to end.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Updates on This and That

Less than a week after the pool was opened, the water temperature was into the high 70s by Wednesday afternoon. That made it perfect for a dip after I rode home from work on my bicycle. (Obviously, I had also ridden the bike to work Wednesday morning, but there is no pool at the office end of the trip.)

Snorkleduck emerged as the most optimistic with a reading of 79, followed by Swanee at 78 and Ducky at 77. Even Tommy Turtle reflected an increase in temperature, moving all the way up to 66 degrees.


The bags of leaves, clippings, et al, which had reached five in all by Sunday, were finally taken on Monday by the recycling truck.

From the start of the program, they have been tossing the newspapers into the same truck with the cans, bottles and plastic containers. Now, it appears, they also toss in the bags of "garden waste." One has to wonder what happens at the other end when they empty the truck; does some poor soul have to go through and sort it all at the dump?


You may recall that in last November's elections, the candidate who ran on a "tax revolt" platform was elected to the county legislature. Last week we received a newsletter from him, proclaiming that he had procured $46,000 for the renovation of the baseball diamonds at two of our elementary schools.

These fields are used by various Little League teams during the spring and by adults playing pickup games on Sunday mornings. They have been in the same condition -- all dirt on the infields and scrubby weeds in the outfield -- since before Chuck played t-ball two decades ago. I have no idea what $46,000 will buy in terms of ball field renovation, but I'm sure there are better ways to spend that money in light of all the cuts being made in the funding for the education of the children in those elementary schools. "Sorry, kids, we couldn't afford math books this year, but let's get out there and play some baseball. We can add up the runs!"


Speaking of school budgets, the local school board announced that this year's increase is only 1.96%. One can only presume that they worked really hard to make sure that number ended up below 2% because, as we all know from shopping, $1.96 is a lot less money than $2.00! Psychologically, anyway.


And, finally, in the "What do critics know anyway?" Department: Despite negative reviews from every corner, "The Addams Family" appears to be pulling in the big audiences -- and the bucks.
But one really does have to wonder how the totally lackluster score managed to get a Tony Award nomination. Are the rest of the musicals on Broadway this year even worse?

Monday, May 3, 2010

First Dunk 2010

Though the temperatures were in the low 40s the night before, we had the pool opened up this past Thursday. Just in time, it turns out, as the weekend saw another round of "instant summer" with temps in the low 80s.

As those of you who know me (or read last year's First Dunk installment) would expect, I was in the pool on Saturday. Our "Temperature Team" of thermometers said the water was somewhere between 67 and 70 degrees, with the ever-optimistic Swanee at the top and Ducky and Snorkleduck agreeing. Alas, Tommy Turtle, ever the slowpoke of the group, said the water was 54 degrees; though he'll continue to be part of the team, we won't be giving much credence to his readings. Needless to say, the water was "bracing," but quite refreshing after I had been replacing some fence slats and digging up a new section of garden for the vegetables.

The water was slightly warmer yesterday; by 4:00 Swanee had it at 73 and both ducks were at 70. After the usual assortment of Sunday chores, I had some time to sit and read poolside and also got in a few more dunks.

With the warm weather forecast to continue through the week, I expect a couple of after-work bike rides will be followed by a dunk. But it will be awhile yet before the first midnight swim...