Monday, June 27, 2005

Inspecting the Spectre

John Ostrander's The Spectre was one of the better series of the 1990s. He took a character traditionally so powerful that other writers had struggled, and managed to weave a fascinating tale of evil and morality.

So it irritates me to see how the Spectre is treated in the Days of Vengeance mini-series. I'll let writer Bill Willingham explain: "Since the new Eclipso is a female now, she basically seduces the Spectre, and convinces him that if he really wanted to stop evil in the world, he needs to destroy magic....the Spectre is a little screwed up right because he’s coming off a weird trip with a human host, and is now without a human host for the first time in a long while. Without that guidance, that conscience, he’s a little wigged out, so that when someone makes what may or may not be a good argument about destroying a whole lot of evil, he falls for it."

This is so far removed from what Ostrander established about the primal, hostless Spectre that I wonder if Willingham ever read the series, or if DC editorial cares about that particular mythos. But since I prefer a Wrath of God that is nigh-omnipotent, not nigh-incompetent, I feel like expounding on the Spectre's backstory.

First of all, the Spectre and Eclipso have something of a common history. Their relationship was explained by the Phantom Stranger in #14:

"There are many sides to the Almighty - many names by which God is called. Even his wrath has a name and, in the beginning, it was what became known as Eclipso. In the name of God, Eclipso swelled the waters and blanketed the Earth. Only one lone vessel escaped: Noah and his ark. But even when God forgave, Eclipso did not. He overreached himself and that which made him mighty brought him low. Unyielding in his anger - in his pride - Eclipso was banished into a prison, one that should have lasted for all time, save for the perfidy of man.

"So the Lord brought forth another spirit of wrath - one more directed, more suited to God's anger. Men would call it the Spectre."

It was not until #60 that we learned the details of how the Spectre came to be. A demon named Aztar, who had taken part in Lucifer's rebellion against the Almighty, returned to Heaven to repent and accept his punishment. God's judgment was to burn out all of Aztar's memory and awareness of self, and for him to become the vessel for God's wrath: the Spectre.

The Spectre was intense and unforgiving. It was the Spectre who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and turned Lot's wife into salt. It was the Spectre who performed the plagues of Egypt, including killing all the first-born sons. And it was the Spectre who brought down the walls of Jericho and stopped the sun in the sky.

When Jesus was born, the Spectre was cast into limbo, for vengeance and forgiveness could not walk the earth simultaneously. But when he died on the cross, the Spectre exploded from limbo. It was the Spectre who tore the Temple curtain from top to bottom, and who raised the dead.

Finally, he was approached by the Archangel Michael, who had a message. "The rules are changed. Since the Godhead assumed mortal form, it has been decreed that all beings such as yourself must be linked with human souls. You can no longer walk the Earth unfettered." The Spectre resisted, but Michael forced it into submission, declaring "We must find a soul for you to mel with, one that suits you - an angry soul, crying out for justice, for revenge."

Michael looked to India, and found a man named Caraka. His wife and child were slain in front of him, and then he was murdered too. He agreed to join with the Spectre-force so as to seek vengeance. And so the Spectre lived on, passing through different people and different cultures over the years.

There were two occasions during Ostrander's series that Corrigan was removed as the Spectre's host. The first was in #17-18, after the Spectre was Eclipsed. Corrigan's soul was magically extracted, but that still left Eclipso in control of a manic Spectre intent on destroying the Earth.

The second was in #35-36, when Neron granted the Spectre-force's wish to be free of Corrigan. Corrigan went to Heaven and asked why this was possible, since the primal Spectre was required to be bound to a human soul. Michael replied that none of Heaven's edicts were being violated, and Jim subsequently discovered why: Neron had joined the Spectre with the soul of Louie Snipe, the man who arranged Jim's murder. The presence of Snipe's soul satisfied Heaven's rules, but he was too weak to curb the Spectre's primal instincts. Thus, the unemcumbered Spectre desired to continue his vengeance for the death of Christ.

In other words, when hostless and left to his own devices, the Spectre-force is not a glossy-eyed and easily-manipulated schlub. It's a focused and cruel agent of destruction and vengeance. It doesn't look mopey on its own; it appears skeletal, particularly in the face, and has a tendency to hiss more than speak. The host's function wasn't to guide the Spectre-force so much as restrain it. It isn't "wigged out" without a host; it knows *exactly* what it wants to do. And it's a reformed demon, not a mere physical male, so being seduced by a pretty woman borders on being an insult to the character.

Basically, it's just one more reason for me to avoid Infinite Crisis, if this is how DC intends to twist and manipulate its characters for the sake of an editorially-driven story.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Black Panther: Family Ties

One of the most powerful moments in Batman Begins was the murder of the Waynes. After two shots, young Bruce is left standing over his parents' bodies in an otherwise empty alleyway. Nolan captured the atmosphere and pain of the scene perfectly, closing with the suddenly-orphaned Bruce standing alone, no police or passersby spontaneously rushing to his side. His loneliness is palpable, and I actually teared up a bit.

Being an orphan is one thing that T'Challa has long shared with Bruce. He's always been the only son of King T'Chaka and Queen N'Yami, but his family was torn apart very early on. N'Yami died while T'Challa was still very young, possibly in childbirth. T'Chaka remarried a South African woman named Ramonda some time later, and she became the only woman T'Challa would ever call "mother." But even that wouldn't last, as Ramonda was kidnapped when T'Challa was about eight, and she was held captive for years thereafter.

Thus, when Klaw came to Wakanda, T'Chaka was the only family that T'Challa had left. As such, T'Challa idolized his father ("To me, he was more than father - more than warrior - to me, he was like a god!"), T'Chaka looked upon his son as the most important person in his life, and their relationship was all that a father and son could hope for. But Klaw ended all of that, and took the life of the single most important person in T'Challa's life. T'Challa was left on that battlefield not only a newly arisen king of Wakanda, but also as an orphan. By the age of 13, he had lost every loved one in his life, and was left alone to rule over a nation.

Presumably, Hudlin didn't like this dynamic, jettisoning T'Challa's orphan status and reforming his family. N'Yami no longer died when T'Challa was young, but was instead present at her husband's murder, and is still alive during the current 'Year One' arc. Plus, she was pregnant at the time, and subsequently gave birth to T'Challa's younger sister, Shuri. Ramonda, presumably, has been completely retconned away. Hudlin also gave T'Challa a younger brother, who was killed by Klaw during T'Chaka's assassination.

So all of the drama of being orphaned and alone is gone. Instead, T'Challa has a mother to go home to. There's a world a difference between losing one parent and losing one's only parent, between losing a loved one and losing everyone one loves. Imagine the scene from Batman Begins, but with Bruce having an older brother to turn to. It's not nearly as powerful. (And the Silver Age tried messing with that, creating a brother in Thomas Wayne Jr.; is it any surprise he was promptly forgotten and never mentioned again?)

(It's worth mentioning Priest's addition of Hunter, T'Challa's adopted step-brother. I liked him, but he doesn't really function as a brother in this context. Given the twelve-year age difference, their relationship is closer to uncle-nephew than that of brothers, and T'Challa has long had extended family members. Plus, their relationship is not at all a close or loving one, as exhibited by T'Challa's prompt disbanding of Hunter's secret police upon becoming king and Hunter leaving Wakanda for foreign work.)

When I've argued this elsewhere, some have said that T'Challa still suffered a great loss. I don't dispute that; losing a father is never easy. But what Hudlin's done with the family has changed what the effect of that loss will be on T'Challa, and it changes the drama and symbolism of the event for the reader. And I cannot see how the change is an improvement over the original.

Consider the murdered brother in isolation. Being dead, he doesn't particularly affect T'Challa's life after the assassination. But does he really add anything? Is T'Challa's origin actually improved by having him lose a father AND a brother? Particularly a brother who I'm not sure is even named? Furthermore, the addition of a sibling interrupts the singular father-son bond between T'Chaka and T'Challa, of icon and heir. At worst, the brother lessens the uniqueness of T'Challa; at best, he's merely a superfluous and unnecessary character.

Like Batman, I view the Black Panther as someone who was greatly affected by the loss of his only family. Once orphaned, both turned inwards, seeking to steel their hearts and better themselves, so as to improve their respective communities. Both overcame their losses and made themselves into pinnacles of what man can achieve. But both still dwell on those fateful days, and their struggles to make themselves self-sufficient has left them both unable to relate to others normally.

But that's not true of Hudlin's Panther. He lost half his family, but he still had the other half to rely on. His loss is still significant, but not nearly as great as before. And as a result, the story is simply less powerful.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Black Panther: The Death of T'Chaka

The story of how T'Chaka, the father of T'Challa and the previous king of Wakanda, died was first told in Fantastic Four #53. T'Challa relayed the story to the visting superheroes (with the Thing responding unusually insensitively; "I can recite ya half'a the 'Bomba the Jungle Boy' books by heart! So yer little bedtime story ain't impressin' me!').

As originally told, Ulysses Klaw was a greedy scientist who came to Wakanda to take its vibranium. He intended to use the element, which only existed in Wakanda, to power his sound technology and become wealthy. King T'Chaka confronted him and told him to leave the country, but Klaw ordered his men to shoot the king and his soldiers. T'Challa then ran to see what had happened, and found his father dead. So he stole one of Klaw's sound-blasters in order to avenge his father. He found Klaw's men ransacking and torching his village. He fired the sound-blaster at them twice, destroying Klaw's hand and successfully running away the invaders.

When Christopher Priest retold this origin in Black Panther #5, he fleshed it out a bit (better dialogue with fewer exclamation points, for instance), and made one significant retcon. Instead of Klaw's men gunning down T'Chaka and his Wakandan troops, Klaw himself used the vibranium-powered sound-blaster to annihilate them.

Now Reginald Hudlin has given given this story a serious overhaul, as described in April's Black Panther #3. Klaw is now a "high-level Belgian assassin," whose great-grandfather was killed during a failed Belgian invasion of Wakanda in the 19th century. Since his ancestor was killed by a Black Panther, he seeks revenge. He decides to make his strike when T'Chaka accepts an invitation to participate in the Bilderberg Conference in Europe. Klaw hides himself under the floorboards of T'Chaka's room days in advance, and then at the opportune time, erupts through the floor and uses an assault rifle to gun down T'Chaka and one of his sons. Before he can kill everyone in the room, T'Challa recovers a gun and shoots Klaw in the arm. Klaw then escapes out the window.

Pretty radically different, no? And I'm not alone in disliking the change. It's not merely because I dislike change, either. I quite like the alteration that Priest made, for two primary reasons. First, it makes the Wakandans look less foolish. A great king and his army being felled by some goons with guns is not the stuff of legends. An apocalyptic weapon, powered by their own treasured natural resource, isn't nearly as demeaning. Second, it makes for a stronger parallel when T'Challa defeats Klaw by using the same weapon that was used to murder his father. Thus, the small change not only remedied a flaw in the original origin, but it added to the drama of it.

I see neither of those benefits in Hudlin's revamped origin story. Some have argued that security at the exclusive conference (or Wakandan security, at least) shouldn't have failed to notice a man hiding under the floor. I suppose that may be true, but it's within my suspension of disbelief, and that's not what really bothers me about the changes. Rather, it's all of the symbolism that is sacrificed.

Previously, T'Chaka died a leader, in the course of protecting his nation from invaders. Klaw was there to ransack his kingdom of its most valuable natural resource, and kill any Wakandans who got in his way. So T'Chaka, being the king and protector of Wakanda, took to the front lines in defense of his nation and its people. And he died for his courage.

Now, T'Chaka died as a mark. He didn't fall in the course of fighting invaders in his homeland, but instead while entering a hotel room on a different continent. He didn't die for his bravery; he was ambushed unexpectedly. And while he still didn't go easily, he wasn't fighting as a king for his nation; his interests were confined to the people in the room. In short, all of the noble and kingly aspects of T'Chaka's self-sacrifice have been stripped away.

Similarly, it used to be the case that T'Challa made a similar choice to put himself at risk. As a young teen, he could've retreated to safety and let the trained soldiers do the fighting. But after seeing his father dead, his people murdered, and his kingdom assaulted, he put himself in harm's way so as to fulfill his duties as the king of Wakanda. He succeeded, and saved Wakanda in the process.

But now, T'Challa made no such choice. He was in the hotel room when Klaw opened fire, and was a target himself. He did not place himself in harm's way for the sake of his country; he found himself trapped and facing inevitable harm, and reacted largely in self-defense. He saved the remaining people in the hotel room, including his pregnant mother, but that pales in comparison to a young king saving a nation. The new version simply doesn't give T'Challa the same heroic self-sacrifice that he exhibited before. A hotel room shooting is fine for a boy who loses his father, but it's lacking for the story of a prince who ascends to the throne of an exotic kingdom.

Those are the big reasons why I dislike the retconned origin, but there are some smaller reasons too. I preferred it when Klaw's motivation was vibranium, and not revenge. Seeking retaliation for an ancestor's war death gives the Black Panthers and Klaws something of a 'Hatfield-McCoy' relationship, which I just personally think is a kinda lame reason for a king to die.

Omar Karindu also pointed out that the changed circumstances carry a potentially disturbing message for T'Challa. Under the old origin, it was partly the threat of invaders and Wakanda's inability to adequately defend itself that drove T'Challa to look toward the outside world. As king, he opened up new diplomatic channels and initiated trade so as to better his nation from within, and thus protect it from future threats.

But as told by Hudlin, Wakanda was completely untouchable up until T'Chaka chose to leave his nation's borders. And then within hours of arriving in Europe, the king of Wakanda was assassinated. What does this tell young T'Challa? After all, if his father had merely continued to shun the outside world, he would never have been at risk. T'Challa is not encouraged to reach out to the rest of the world; the lesson he's been taught is that Wakanda was better off when they kept to themselves.

And that's about it on Hudlin's treatment of T'Chaka's death. It lessens T'Chaka's nobility and T'Challa's heroism, it turns the reason for T'Chaka's death into a joke, and it teaches T'Challa the exact opposite lesson in leadership. Not what I would call an improvement.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Black Panther

I've been a fairly vocal critic of Reginald Hudlin's new Black Panther series, for various reasons. The one particular complaint that has perhaps garnered the strongest reaction from fans is the book's somewhat loose approach to continuity and the character's history.

For those of you unaware of what's taking place in the new series, Hudlin has basically rewritten the Black Panther origin story, a la "Man of Steel" or "Spider-Man: Chapter One" (at one point, it was suspected that it was more like Byrne's "Doom Patrol," and he'd retconned away T'Challa's entire career to date). The broad strokes are still there, but a great many of the details have been changed, some more dramatically than others.

I believe this is very significant for the character of T'Challa, because of the type of origin story he has. Most comic book heroes' origins are the stories of how they got their powers. They got struck by lightning, or exposed to radiation, or were given a power ring or a serum, and subsequently put on a costume and proceeded to have adventures.

But a handful of the more iconic characters' origins don't merely involve how they obtained their powers, but also rely on a formative event in the character's history. For Spider-Man, it was the death of Uncle Ben. For Superman, it was Krypton's explosion and his being sent to Earth. For Daredevil (particularly post-Miller), it was his father's murder.

Chief among these 'formative event' origins is that of Batman. The motivating event in Bruce Wayne's life was when he was a boy, years before he ever donned a costume. It was when his parents were gunned down in a common mugging, and young Bruce was left an orphan. The occasional writer or adaptation has tried to tinker with this (i.e. giving Bruce a brother, or making Joker the murderer), but it doesn't take long for those changes to be abandoned or rejected, and for the traditional details to be reestablished.

Of all the major comic characters I can think of, T'Challa's comes the closest to Batman's 'formative event' origin. Whereas Bruce's defining moment was his parents' murder, T'Challa's was when his father died defending Wakanda, and T'Challa chose to defend his country and his nation by responding in kind. It's not an origin that tells why T'Challa is a superhero. It's an origin that tells how T'Challa came to be the person he grew into. How he became the king he is.

Thus, to make significant alterations to that formative event is to change what most shaped T'Challa's character as a boy. It's akin to retelling the Batman origin where Joe Chill is an employee that Thomas Wayne laid off. Or where the Waynes murder took place during a home invasion. Or giving Bruce a baby sister who was with Alfred when Thomas and Martha were shot. Any of these changes would have distinct effects on Bruce's character, and they'd also affect the iconic nature of the event.

The same goes for what Hudlin has done with T'Challa's formative event, by scrapping T'Challa's family makeup, changing Klaw's motivation, and completely overhauling the circumstances of the murder itself. And these aren't changes that have merely been made for a stand-alone Black Panther movie, but rather replace the tradiational details of T'Challa defining moment in the Marvel Universe itself. How do these changes affect the story of the Black Panther, and why do I disapprove of them so? That's what I plan to address through a series of posts over the coming days.