Monday, March 29, 2010

Terror! Chills! The Current Price of Gasoline!

Justin Pollock, that dude who is totally me, has a new story up on MicroHorror:

This is, in fact, the very sort of thing I worry about all the time.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Communists of the Marvel Universe #002: The Chameleon

(Part two of an ongoing series analyzing the role of communists in the early Marvel Universe and how they have been adapted - or, in some cases, how they glaringly haven’t been adapted - by comics creators in a post Cold War climate.)

The Chameleon, master of disguise, debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #1 as the first villain Spider-Man ever fought. (Chronologically in publication, at least; Kurt Busiek retconned in one or two between Amazing Fantasy #15 and ASM #1, did he not?) He appears here as a spy planning to steal U.S. missile defense plans, and it’s made explicit he’s selling them to the Soviets (“The Iron Curtain countries will pay a fortune for these plans!” he says, and he has a rendezvous at one point with a submarine bearing the hammer and sickle). He decides to impersonate Spider-Man and frame him for the theft, but is eventually apprehended.

If you believe the standard line about alien shapechangers and body snatchers (like the Skrulls Stan Lee introduced not long before this issue in Fantastic Four #2, and the Space Phantom which would come a couple months later in Avengers #2) being a symbol of Cold War paranoia – spies and invasion, your neighbors turning against you, all that stuff - what’s interesting about the Chameleon is that he’s a much more literal take on this theme; he’s not an alien that's supposed to represent the Soviet Union, he’s actually a spy who can make himself look just like you.

The Chameleon is in many ways a very good adversary for Spider-Man. One of the many things Peter Parker represents is our neuroses and paranoia, but of course, in the comic book world, everybody really is out to get him. Since the public at large could be said to be one of Spider-Man’s archenemies, the Chameleon is effective because he can be anyone in that public. The Chameleon can pose as Spider-Man, commit some crimes, then pose as Jameson and write an editorial condemning Spider-Man for the crimes, then pose as civilians demanding he be brought to justice, then pose as the chief of police and declare Spider-Man a wanted criminal, etc. etc. The Chameleon never seems to go that far, but the point is that he could, and there’s got to be a part of Peter Parker’s brain at his most paranoid wondering, “What if they’re all the Chameleon? Every person who’s ever made it tough for Spider-Man and Peter Parker … what if it’s all been one guy all along playing all the parts?”

There’s mileage to be gotten out of the Chameleon, you know!

But while the Chameleon is a moderately popular Spider-Man enemy, he’s never been quite in the A-list for a couple of reasons. For one, he’s not a hand-to-hand fighter, so you can’t fall back on that crutch of just having the good guy and the bad guy punch it out at the end of your story. For another, shapeshifters and face-changers are numerous in a comic book universe, and I suspect many people have the impression that there’s not much that’s unique about the Chameleon (a notion I intend to explode momentarily, just you wait for it). And third, the Chameleon’s motivations are very different than most of Spider-Man’s other enemies. When Spider-Man rips off the door to the fleeing Chameleon’s helicopter and shouts “End of the line for you, commie!” it feels a bit out of place, doesn’t it? Similar to how Spidey rarely fights aliens the way he does in Amazing #2; Lee and Ditko were still toying with the new characters and hadn’t hit upon the now-standard formula of Spider-Man’s adversaries being motivated by base, ugly, selfish desires – money or power or revenge - as opposed to a political cause.

So we’ve got two problems here – the Chameleon is an enemy rooted in politics, which is not the Spider-Man series’ strong suit, and those politics now belong to a bygone era.

Ah, but Stan Lee has helped us out possibly without even knowing it! Look again at the line “The Iron Curtain countries will pay a fortune for these plans!” Why, he’s not an enemy agent doing his duty after all, he’s in this for the money. Neophyte, na├»ve Spidey is wrong - The Chameleon’s not a “commie,” he’s a freelancer!

Which brings me to my point about what makes the Chameleon unique in a universe of villains who do the same thing as him. It’s because most other shapeshifters in comics have a “true” face. Skrulls “really” look like green dudes with pointy ears and weird chins, Mystique looks like a blue chick with red hair. But the Chameleon? He looks like this:

The Chameleon has no “real” appearance; he doesn’t change his face, he puts one on. He’s a blank canvas. At some point he made the transition from wearing masks to actually having his skin replaced with some sort of synthetic shapechanging material (although he seems to be back to masks as of a recent, and actually quite good, arc on Amazing Spider-Man). The '90s Spider-Man cartoon took this a step further by never having the Chameleon speak unless he was “in character”; at least once he even turned into somebody else solely for the purpose of delivering one line.

When he was writing the books, J.M. DeMatteis noted all this himself and came up with a backstory to explain. The Chameleon was born Dmitri Smerdyakov and was Kraven the Hunter’s boyhood servant (and possibly half-brother). He idolized young Kraven, but Kraven treated him like crap, so Chameleon developed a sense of worthlessness and became the Chameleon so he could sublimate his own identity in favor of others’. DeMatteis got some good stories out of this (he seemed to have a fondness for the character), but it didn’t exactly turn the Chameleon into one of Spidey’s archenemies (though to be fair, DeMatteis probably wasn’t shooting for this anyway). His motivations are still a bit murky; Spider-Man’s villains aren’t usually quite so complex (both a strength and a weakness – they don’t threaten to steal the spotlight from Spider-Man like some other heroes’ villains do, but it makes them a bit interchangeable). I don’t know, maybe it’s a bit of a Batman villain idea?

Or, perhaps, a bit selfishly, a bit snottily, but probably honestly, it’s not what I would have done.

“What would you have done, Justin?”

Gosh, since you asked:

I’d make it so you don’t know who the Chameleon ever really was. Fred Van Lente’s set this up a bit, actually, in that recent arc I mentioned by having him insist that Dmitri Smerdyakov was “just one of his faces.” For whatever reason, the Chameleon makes himself faceless and has a talent for disguise; if you like the DeMatteis feelings-of-worthlessness thing, you can read it that way, but I’m not going to bring it up. He’ll basically work for whoever’s willing to hire him, but his rates are considerably reasonable considering the level of skill and expertise he brings to the table, and that’s because the money he makes only covers running his operation and a few creature comforts (I’m not going to ditch the fact that this is a dude who looks sharp in a robe). The reason he’s available for hire is because he’s a blank canvas not just in appearance but also in motivation; these missions give him a superficial sense of purpose in the same way that the masks give him a superficial sense of identity. He has no loyalty, no agenda. He’ll work for HYDRA, the Red Skull, Al Qaeda, the Leader, Doctor Octopus, no questions asked, no judgment passed. Hey, he’d even work for the good guys if they’d be willing to pay him (one of my favorite ever comic book moments is in JLA: Rock of Ages when Batman simply outbids Lex Luthor for the Mirror Master’s services).

He still isn’t motivated by a simple base desire like most of Spider-Man’s villains, but it’s okay now. A Chameleon with no motivation, rather than a political one, is such an outlier that he becomes unique and interesting – the exception to the rule, rather than a data point that just doesn’t quite fit.

Or, if you like, maybe he does have a selfish motivation – maybe this is all done out of boredom!

All of which is a lot of elaboration to say that the Chameleon is easy to remove from the Cold War aesthetic because it’s not important to him in the first place. If you ignore the hammer and sickle on that submarine in Amazing Spider-Man #1, there could be anybody in that submarine; it doesn’t matter. Because there’s always somebody out there who’d like to get their hands on the nation’s missile defense secrets, and there’ll always be somebody who’d be willing to steal them.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Such strange things did I viddy in my dream, O my brothers…

All right, you guys, I had the weirdest dream. So weird, in fact, that I felt I had to tell it in detail here.

This dream was long, uninterrupted, very vivid, and extremely geeky in all respects, which is extremely odd because my dreams are usually none of those four things. I had not had a particularly geeky day; I had read no comics, watched no movies or TV, not even thought much about anything to that effect – I fell asleep on the couch at one point reading A Clockwork Orange, but that did not factor into my dream in any way (thank goodness for small favors, one supposes). I also want to stress that I am getting over a cold, but I had not taken any NyQuil or anything like that which might be blamed for the dream. I had one bottle of hard cider, essentially equivalent to a single bottle of beer, at around 10 p.m., and anyway the dream must have started after 6 a.m. sometime, so I do not think that ought to have played a factor.

I was, however, extremely tired that night.

I am going to provide links in the anchor text for people who might not get every single reference (hello, Zach … and possibly my dad). I just had to share it because I do not remember ever having such a concentrated pop-culture dream.

I swear, what you are about to read is not exaggerated from my recollection in any way.

* * *

The earliest part I can remember begins with Batman protecting a mobster in the basement of police headquarters in Gotham City. The headquarters was basically the one from The Dark Knight, but Batman was a very ‘90s looking comic book Batman (not actually Kelley Jones, but someone who would have drawn part of Knightfall or something), and the mobster was Al Pacino, but Al Pacino as Big Boy from Dick Tracy.

Now, in my dreams I tend to, like, “transfer consciousness” a lot, where I’ll be “playing” one role in the dream, and then halfway through I’ll transfer to another “character” in the dream. So in this one, I think I started out as Pacino, because I remember being worried that the Scarecrow was coming to kill me (hence being under police and Bat protection), but at some point I must have switched to Batman, because Pacino excuses himself for the bathroom and didn’t come back. As Batman, I investigate the bathroom and find there was a large, loose panel that must slide back and lead to some hidden tunnel. But I’m terrified to look in it. Like, horribly, deathly terrified that if I slidd it open, some horrible thing would come out and kill me.

So I get Agent Scully to do it. The deal was, she’d point her gun at the panel as I (suddenly Mulder) open up the panel. There was somebody cowering in the bathtub as well. Maybe it was Pacino/Big Boy, although he was supposed to be gone. So I open it up, and Scully assures me there was nothing moving inside. It looks, in fact, just like some weird cave that leads into the darkness. Scully goes in, and I follow her.

And suddenly I am no longer Mulder in the tunnel, but I am me reading a comic book of these events at a picnic table in the park on a sunny day. The comic book is an issue of Fantastic Four, and the FF are going through the tunnel, and it winds up in some sort of buried underground New York filled with the sort of denizens you would expect to inhabit a comic book underground New York. I finish the comic, and I am convinced that this is the greatest issue of Fantastic Four I’ve read in years and years, and I look back at the credits and see that it is apparently a contemporary issue of Fantastic Four drawn by Steve Ditko.

So I’m going on and on about how great this issue of Fantastic Four was to the guy sitting at the picnic table with me, and that guy is Kurt Busiek, who asks me if I’d like to tell Ditko that myself (Busiek, for whatever reason, has Ditko’s phone number). So I say I would, and I call Ditko on my cell phone and discover, contrary to his reputation for being a recluse who never talks to fans, very friendly and open. I keep gushing, just wretched fannish gushing, about how great I thought this comic was, and Ditko tells me where he got the idea for the underground city, the backstory he’d created for it, all of it.

And then suddenly, I see Ditko’s lips moving, and they’re surrounded by a fluffy white beard. The camera pulls back (I am no longer in the park on the phone, but rather watching TV) to reveal it’s John Travolta, except that he looks like he’s been cast in the lead of the new Santa Clause movie, and he’s “playing Ditko.” (It should be noted that Steve Ditko in no way looks like that, of course.) He hangs up the phone and says, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

So I guess I’m watching Saturday Night Live, right? And Travolta in his Santa beard is hosting. And we go right into the first sketch, which, in defiance of all reason, is another sketch in which Travolta is playing Ditko.

The conceit of the sketch is that Steve Ditko and Stan Lee are corresponding to each other, except it is Victorian London, and Ditko is basically Bob Cratchit, and Lee is basically Ebenezer Scrooge. And Travolta-as Ditko-as Cratchit is wearing some kind of footie pajamas and standing on the cobblestone, and I’m aware of how hard and sharp and hot the ground is on his feet because suddenly I am Travolta-as Ditko-as Cratchit, and I start walking toward where I know Lee/Scrooge’s office to be, and every step is painful.

And then, all of a sudden, I am me again, and I am in the Mall of America with my father and brother (the three of us are actually going to Minneapolis for something this month, so this is not altogether weird yet). We’re walking by a bunch of movie company boutiques – there’s a Disney store and a Warner Bros. store. And then, strange though it may seem, there is a store devoted entirely to Ghostbusters memorabilia, as indicated by a sign that’s nothing but the logo.

So I pull my father and brother into the store and I am just ecstatic (as one would be if one discovered against all odds that a Ghostbusters store would be profitable enough to stay in business). Stranger still, inside the store, the ceilings are very high – we’re talking three stories, maybe, and the ceilings were molded white plaster (apparently we were supposed to be in the Ghostbusters firehouse, although I do not recall the Ghostbusters firehouse looking anything like that).

Now, not only is there Ghostbusters memorabilia in this store, there is also some kind of weird nightclub at the back of the store, and all the employees are wearing like Ghostbusters uniforms. My dad asks my brother and me if we want anything to drink, and I consider a rum and coke, but it seems weird to have a rum and coke at a nightclub in a Ghostbusters store at the mall, so I just order a Diet Hi-C (I am not sure that such a product exists). It comes in a paper cup like at a fast food restaurant, and I grab a lid, and just like I always do in real life, the first lid I grab is a size too small and so I have to take a bigger one too, and now I can’t put that small lid back because I’ve already touched it and I feel bad for being wasteful.

So I’m drinking my Diet Hi-C and we’re leaving the store, and the three of us talk about where we’d like to get dinner in the mall. My dad suggests Burger Hole, and my brother is not having any of that. He’s like, “Burger Hole? That place is a hole!” And I’m trying to remember where I know the name “Burger Hole” from, and I think, Isn’t that the name of the restaurant in the movie Role Models?

And then I wake up.

* * *

So that’s the dream. I shudder to think that any of it means anything. My wife and I bought a crib and changing table that night, so I’d hate to think this is some sort of weird metaphor for impending fatherhood in some way.

That is all.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A True Conversation With My Brother (Only Very Slightly Dramatized, By Virtue Of Me Not Having Thought to Tape Record It)

JUSTIN (as soon as Zach has picked up the phone): So you know that Gwen Stefani song, “Cool”?

ZACH: Yyyeah.

JUSTIN: So do you think those lyrics are sincere or ironic?

ZACH: (Long pause.) I…

JUSTIN: Because, you know, it seems like it’s supposed to be coming from a sincere place, with all the stuff about them being totally happy for each other. But then I think, well you know, they say that if you take the time to write a whole song about how you’re totally okay with the way the relationship ended and that you’re both totally moved on … that maybe you’re not.

ZACH: Well, I…

JUSTIN: What I’m saying is I think maybe they’re not cool…

ZACH: (Long pause.) Um … I guess the lyrics sound pretty sincere to me.

JUSTIN: Yeah, I mean it is Gwen Stefani, right? It’s all heart-on-your-sleeve stuff; there’s never really many layers there. But those lyrics are kind of awful on their own, aren’t they? So I think … I think it would be a much better song if she were an unreliable narrator, that she’s really not over him.


JUSTIN: Next time you listen to that song, pretend that she’s just totally lying. Or, like, deluding herself. It’s a much better song that way.

ZACH: I guess. But if the lyrics are sincere, she really is deluding herself.


ZACH: (Pause.) I smell a blog post.

JUSTIN: Really? I was going to write one about the Chameleon…

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Short Story What I Wrote (Justin Pollock's Debut)

I have written a short story (and by "short," I mean, "less than 500 words") that's been put up here:

You will notice it's credited to "Justin Pollock." A few years back I became concerned about the marketability of the name "Zyduck." I mean, that's the end of the alphabet; any book I would actually be able to get published would get jammed in the lower-right-hand corner of any bookshelf - awful visibility. So I went through a couple of pen names. My first choice was "Justin Pierce" for no particular reason at all, but it turns out there is a late skateboarder/actor of some note by that name already. Justin Leonard (Leonard being one my grandfathers) is a famous golfter. My middle name is Paul, so I tried working with that, but there are a couple of Justin Pauls out there already.

Eventually I settled on Pollock as a last name; it's got the "Paul" sound in it, and I like that "ock" at the end, which also sort of retains the "ock/uck" sound in my last name (my wife's too, actually - Poles, the both of us). It sounds nice if you say it if your voice is raspy when you have a cold, as I do now. It sounds like some kind of weird tribute to Jackson Pollock, which it isn't, but I like that one might think it was, for some reason. Best of all, though, though it's not a totally bizarre name by any means, there are not terribly many Justin Pollocks out there - a Google search for it has my story on the first page already, actually, not too shabby.

All of this is to assure Pillock that I did not try to usurp his online identity with a clumsy typographical error.

Anyway, the story itself - I've been writing horror for going on a year and a half. Had to take a break from writing the novel during the recent move, and then lost all my momentum. So I've been writing shorter pieces (I've got three stories just about ready to go out to a couple of publications, hopefully for actual money) to get working again. Then I found, which is a neat idea - all the stories have to be under 666 words (you get it ... you get it ...). I decided to write something as an experiment - I think that short form works well for horror, and the super-short word count frees you up to write something loose and quick and send it off without too much laborious self-editing and second guessing. The story I've written here is a little different in style and language (overegged, a bit) than the other stuff I've got in the hopper, but I thought I'd take advantage of what I viewed as a chance for experimentation to write an "old-timey" horror story.

More to come, possibly.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Communists of the Marvel Universe #001: Igor Drenkov

(Part one of an ongoing series analyzing the role of communists in the early Marvel Universe and how they have been adapted - or, in some cases, how they glaringly haven’t been adapted - by comics creators in a post Cold War climate.)

So this guy is arguably one of the most important figures in the history of the Marvel Universe.

He was, you may recall (though you’d be forgiven if you don’t), the Soviet spy sent to infiltrate Bruce Banner’s gamma bomb project. Tries to get Banner to give him his notes, but Banner's all "I don't make mistakes." And when Banner goes to warn Rick Jones off the testing ground because the bomb’s primed to go off, Igor (he’s not given a last name until much later than this story) decides not to halt the countdown – he’ll let the bomb take Banner off his hands if he’s not going to cooperate. This, of course, results in the creation of the Hulk.

So yeah, this is the dude directly responsible for the Hulk’s existence, so you figure such an important guy’s gonna keep popping up in the Hulk comic, right?

Except that after Incredible Hulk #1 in 1962, not counting flashbacks to the origin, he does not appear again until issue #393 in 1992.

That’s a phenomenal time span, especially for superhero comics. Comics writers and editors seek out and extrapolate and elaborate upon the tiniest, most obscure details of continuity and ephemera, and yet nobody except Peter David wanted to use this huge player in the scheme of things. He appears in that ’92 issue of Hulk where he’s driven insane after realizing that he’s responsible for all the destruction the Hulk has caused, but also for the good things the Hulk has done. And I didn’t know it before I did a bit of research, but Igor appeared just a couple months ago in a Winter Guard one-shot where he, ah, gets turned into a monster by The Presence and fights Russia’s answer to the Avengers. Modern-day Marvel, you guys are scamps. Anyway, it’s totally not important.

So why is it that, even before the Soviet Union collapsed and enough time had passed to make the Red Menace irrelevant to modern-day readers, nobody wanted to touch poor Igor?

Igor, I would suggest, was made irrelevant very early on in Hulk history when Stan Lee & Co. decided to depoliticize the series.

Because that first story is pretty explicitly political. The amoral scientist Banner is a weapons maker to put Tony Stark to shame; Marvel historian Peter Sanderson points out the gamma bomb is, after all, a “dirty” bomb that he’s making on behalf of the U.S. Government. It’s a pretty standard sci-fi trope for its time – a scientist blinded to the consequences of his actions by his own hubris is made to pay himself for the horrors he threatened to unleash on mankind. It’s the political and military presence that makes it interesting. There’s incredible potential for black comedy and satire – here you have this weedy intellectual who has trouble communicating with his girlfriend, so he builds a weapon of mass destruction as an expression of his surpressed emotions. You’ve got General Ross, who hates Banner for not being a “real man” and dating his daughter, and yet he can’t just totally dismiss him because otherwise he won’t build that bomb they need. Igor seems oddly dejected by Banner’s refusal to show him his notes; it stops being a matter of his spy mission and becomes almost an affront to his dignity. The whole thing’s entering Dr. Strangelove territory, and if they followed through with it, you could take this places Kubrick wouldn't've dared to tread.

But then the Hulk becomes about psychology instead of politics. You know the drill – an uncontrolled, unhealthy expression of repressed emotion, the conflict between brute force and intellect, struggling with base desires, loneliness and alienation, multiple personalities – all that stuff Peter David took and ran with. Okay, I’m not fond of the multiple personality angle, but I can’t say this new direction was a terrible idea. It’s fertile ground and it’s clearly touched a nerve in the public consciousness, and anyway they’d soon come up with Iron Man to do political stuff with. The military that's always after the Hulk becomes just a symbol of authority.

But where Igor comes in, or rather where he doesn’t, is because if you’re going to set up the Hulk series as internal conflicts externalized as a giant monster, the whole damn thing is muddied up by Igor acting as an external prime mover for the series. It weakens the dynamic; Igor becomes a cheap device who’s more trouble than he’s worth, and that’s why he’s forgotten. You’ll notice the movies and TV series don’t want to deal with Banner the bomb-builder; he’s invariably portrayed as a guy who’s trying to use gamma power to help mankind rather than blow it up, but tampering with nature is still tampering with nature, and thus is punished. But it’s always a freak accident, or some matter of hubris getting back at him. There’s no Igor or Igor stand-in. It’s just Banner.

If the Hulk is about personal demons and personal mistakes, it’s got to be Banner’s finger on the button, not some Commie spy who never shows up again. So Marvel hasn’t really had to rehabilitate Igor or make him relevant for the 21st century (although John Byrne did try to retcon, in that particular John Byrney way of his, that Igor was a Skrull). He’d been phased out long before changing political fortunes would have necessitated it.

Although you know, if I were handed the keys to the Hulk franchise and told to write whatever I want … frankly, I think the psychodrama aspect’s been so thoroughly mined I’d be pretty anxious to swing it back into the political arena, to exploit that potential for satire and commentary. And if the Hulk were back in that mode, maybe Igor could come along for the ride.

But then again, we’d have to figure out just what Igor’s deal is if he’s not a Soviet agent, so we’re right back where we started from. SORRY FOR WASTING YOUR TIME, EVERYBODY.