Reflections on Ten Years

Wednesday marked my tenth anniversary at Diamond Comic Distributors.

Part of Diamond’s culture revolves around the daily “Service Anniversaries” e-mail.  HR sends out an e-mail to the entire company acknowledging those employees who are celebrating an anniversary, and then people throughout the company, some you’ll know, some you won’t, will send you congratulations.  Suffice it to say, my email inbox was overflowing with congratulations on my ten years on Wednesday.

Some people reply to these congratulations individually.  Others wait and send out a group thanks.  I’ve done both over the years; it’s easier to keep up with the former, the latter takes a little work.  Heck, some people don’t even acknowledge the congratulations at all.

I sent out a group reply at the end of the day.  I’d finished writing a catalog section for the July issue of PREVIEWS — my one hundred and twenty-first issue — and, without any other pressing task, started to compose.  I had a rough idea of what I wanted to say on the occasion of my tenth anniversary — I knew the anniversary was coming and had pondered it for a few weeks — but when I knuckled down to write I struggled to begin.  I don’t know how many openings I tried, nor did I keep track of the material I discarded, but the openings were many and the blind-alleys were extensive.  Eventually — two hours later! — I had something I was happy with, though I see now that it needed a little more polish.

What follows is that group response:

I wanted to take a moment and thank you for the congratulations and well-wishes on the occasion of my tenth anniversary with Diamond.  I spent part of the day trying to think of something profound and witty to say, but in truth words fail me.  Marketing gave me a card this morning, and I truly had to fight back tears; it wasn’t the kind of thing I expected.

When I think about when I started with Diamond a decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined being here ten years later.  Honestly, I thought I’d stay six months, leaving when my grandmother died.  But she lingered on, I had a talent for the work (writing at the scale that I do doesn’t daunt me and I learned more about VBA programming than I’d have ever learned otherwise), and after she died I’ve stayed.

I would struggle to point out things that I’ve worked on these last ten years that I’m truly proud of because I’ve worked on so much over the years that they recede into the distance; I finish something, I’m already into something else, and the feeling I remember is not the satisfaction of completion but the stress of the process.  I’m very self-critical, as anyone who has read my self-appraisals knows, and I almost always feel better about what I’ve done, once I’ve had time and distance to reflect; I may hate what I wrote in PREVIEWS one month, but if I reread it two months later I find it’s nothing to hate at all.  I think that I make what I do look easy, when it’s really nothing of the sort, or like magic, when really all I did was to solve a problem that anyone could have solved given the time and understanding.

I enjoyed going to the Retailer Summit in Chicago this year.  As I said to anyone who asked, it was my first Diamond trip in my ten years here.  I didn’t know what to expect, I wasn’t always sure what to do when I was there, I certainly enjoying signing copies of PREVIEWS for people who came to the booth at C2E2, and I saw some things that we can do better in the future (things that I’ve made notes on but haven’t yet turned into anything coherent).  But what I enjoyed the most came when we were handing out the exclusive comics to retailers after the dinner Friday night.

I handed the retailers three comics — two Dark Horse titles, one IDW title — but that wasn’t, for me, anyway, the thing that truly mattered.  What mattered was that I said, to each and every retailer, “Thank you for coming.”  Sometimes, “Thank you for being here.”  Or, “We couldn’t do this without you.”  Our retailers are our customers, we’re in business thanks to them, we value them, and it was important to acknowledge that and say that.  The thing I always tried to instill in my staff as a manager for EB Games (where our company value statement was “It’s all about the customer”) was to treat our customers like they were friends, to welcome them into our space, and to thank and appreciate them.  It’s a little thing, and those little things go a long way.

I’ve rambled on a fair bit, as anyone who knows me knows I’m wont to do.

Again, thanks for your kind wishes.  I couldn’t do this without you.

The Meaning of Superman

With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice out next month, The Atlantic takes a look at Superman’s history and asks whether or not DC Comics and Warner Bros. understand how and why the character works.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the article’s conclusion is that sometimes they do, but that mostly they don’t.  The writer, Asher Elbein, points to the various reboots/retoolings that DC has attempted over the years (going back to the Silver Age, then Jack Kirby and Denny O’Neil, then John Byrne, and finally the New 52) that have tried to update the character and make him relevant to the times and the audiences of those times.  And the article especially notes the look and feel of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman (which, weird as this may sound, I view as what Superman would be like in the universe of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen; watch Man of Steel as a sequel to Watchmen and it actually works) and criticizes them as missing the point.

bvs-supermanI see where Elbein is coming from.  I even agree with much of it.  Elbein’s right that Superman’s greatest power is his infinite empathy.  He’s not flashy or showy about it.  It’s something there, under the surface.  He’s a role model because he demonstrates it; he uses his god-like powers for compassion, not malice.  (This is why interpretations of the character that play up Superman as an asshole — like Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns or the New 52 — don’t sit well with me.)

But where I disagree with Elbein is that I think Man of Steel, the movie, gets this.  We see Clark using his powers to help people; it’s Jonathan Kent who advocates that he hide his powers and not help people.  Some argue that’s a character assassination on Jonathan, and I see where that’s coming from, especially as someone who loved the post-Crisis relationship between the adult Clark and his parents, but I also see where Jonathan is coming from in the film — Clark is his son, he loves his son, and he doesn’t want people hating or fearing his son because he’s different.

I feel like Batman v Superman will make it clear who Superman is and what drives him.  We’re going to see the stark contrast between Superman and Batman, their methods, their worldviews.  Batman is a character driven by vengeance and anger and pain.  Superman isn’t.  I think the contrast with Batman will show audiences that there’s a better way than Batman’s way and remind them why Superman matters.

Because Superman is about hope.

And we need hope in this world.

When Mars Attacks Equestria

I have crazy ideas sometimes.  Often, I can do absosmurfly nothing with those crazy ideas, like several years ago when I wrote about the Doctor Who/Uncle Scrooge crossover I would love to write.

The latest The Daily Post blogging prompt brought another one of those unusable ideas to mind.  It’s not exactly an original idea; on Friday I saw another writer talk about it online.  There’s clearly a market for the idea, but for reasons that will quickly become apparent executing it is simply impossible, and so I don’t feel that I’m giving anything away by talking about it.

Mars Attacks My Little Pony!

Here’s my pitch.

Equestria, a land of friendship and peace.

Mars, a world of insane science and war.

When a Martian battlefleet invades Equestria and takes Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Twilight Sparkle prisoner for horrific experimentation, it falls to Doctor Whooves, Derpy, and DJ-Pon3 to enter the Martian battlecruiser, rescue their friends, and end the devastation of Equestria when Mars Attacks My Little Pony!

The My Little Pony gang, striking a Kevin Maguire posesI should tell you right know that I don’t know jack about My Little Pony.  Though I have never watched it, I write about it not-infrequently at work, so I’ve picked up a little over the years.  I have a friend who used to attend My Little Pony conventions, years ago, before the Bronies.  Some of my coworkers are deep into it.  In short, I’d have resources if I were ever tapped to write such a story.

But.

Just because IDW Publishing holds the comic book rights to both properties, there’s no way that Hasbro would ever let Equestria be invaded by comically homicidal Martians who go around vaporizing dogs just so they can laugh about it.  Finding the right balance of the mismatched tone between the two properties would be a real challenge.

If I think about this more, I’ll actually work out the problems.  I’m starting to see, for instance, that one of the Mane Six needs to escape capture by the Martians so she can join the Resistance.  And there needs to be a role for the Princesses Celestia and Luna.  Oh, and John De Lancie’s My Little Pony character is somehow tied into all of this.

But I don’t want to work out the problems in the idea and how to make it work.  It’s an idea that’s best left as an idea.  No one will ever have the opportunity to write this.  And that’s probably for the best. :)


Topic taken from The Daily Post‘s “BYOB(ookworm)” prompt.

Robin Rises Omega

Robin Rises Omega
DC Entertainment
Written by Peter Tomasi
Art by Andy Kubert and Jonathan Glapion

Several years ago, Grant Morrison introduced comics audiences to Batman’s son, Damian Wayne.  The product of an encounter with Talia al Ghul, the daughter of long-time foe Ra’s al Ghul, Damian had been raised by Talia and trained in the techniques of the League of Shadows, but now that Damian was ten he wanted to discover for himself the truth of the man who fathered him.

The story of the relationship between Damian and the Bat-family is long and complicated and very much beside the point here.  Suffice it to say, Damian became the fifth Robin (following Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and Stephanie Brown), he partnered for a time with Dick Grayson (during a period where Bruce Wayne was believed dead due to Darkseid and his Omega Beams), and when Dick resumed his Nightwing identity Damian remained Robin to Bruce’s Batman.  When Talia unleashed a plan to destroy Gotham City and her own son, Damian attempted to stop her and was forced to battle his own cyborg clone.  Then when Ra’s al Ghul stole his grandson’s body, Batman embarked on a quest to recover his son — and find a way to restore him to life.

This last part, the quest to recover his son’s body, was chronicled in Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman and… series over the past year.  Frankly, I haven’t been following it.  I did for the first few months.  There was the “Requiem” issue, a silent issue in which Bruce and Alfred mourned Damian’s death.  This was followed by a series of issues that introduced Carrie Kelly (the Robin from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) and saw Batman alienate Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Barbara Gordon in his single-minded quest to find a way to resurrect Damian.  My interest in this flagged, and I dropped the title.

Then DC announced that Damian was going to return.  And Wednesday, the one-shot that kicks off the storyline, Robin Rises Omega, came out.

My hunch is that this is, essentially, the issue of Tomasi’s Batman and… series that follows the most recent issue, albeit one that’s double-sized and drawn by Andy Kubert instead of Patrick Gleason.  Because it starts with Batman, Ra’s al Ghul, Frankenstein, Man-Bat, and their army facing off with an army from Apokalips on the side of the Himalayas.

Wait.  That’s not exactly true.

The first eight or so pages is a pretty decent summary of Morrison’s Batman epic (including Final Crisis and Batman’s journey through time), the early “New 52” Batman and Robin storylines, “Death of the Family,” and Bruce’s alienation of the rest of the Bat-family.  If you’re curious how it all fits together or if you’re not familiar with the past ten years’ worth of Batman storylines, even though it doesn’t make any sense how Batman can have a ten-year-old son in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe’s abbreviated timeline, Tomasi lays it out.

After that, there’s a lot of exposition, a lot of fighting, a lot of exposition while fighting, a punk-ass Captain Marvel, Lex Luthor getting punched in the face, and a really pissed off Batman.

(Some quick tangential thoughts on Lex Luthor’s role.  For those who don’t know, Luthor, arch-enemy of Superman, realized he could be a hero and a force for good in Forever Evil.  The newly reformed Luthor has joined the Justice League.  He is now, essentially, DC’s Tony Stark — a know-it-all genius asshole in super armor.  I like this change in Luthor, and I hope it sticks around, especially because Luthor now knows too much, like Batman’s secret identity, for it to ever go easily back into a box.)

Overall, I felt a bit “meh” about Robin Rises Omega.  It’s effective at what it does, there’s enough exposition so that someone could figure out what’s happening, it has a good cliffhanger.  But, it’s also Batman fighting Parademons and the forces of Apokalips, and, to be frank, that’s not exactly the kind of Batman story I like.

Batman and the New Gods are a bit incongruous.  Batman is a rational, highly trained human being.  He’s a gritty, street-level hero.  There are some fantasy elements, but he’s basically grounded.  The New Gods, on the other hand, as far in advance of humanity as we are in advance of frogs.  They are basically magic.  I accepted it in Final Crisis because I understood what Morrison was working with — ancient mythologies are replete with stories of man challenging the gods, and final Crisis sees the ultimate man, Batman, challenge the ultimate god, Darkseid, and murder him to free the humanity from the gods’ dominion — and I’m not sold on the idea that Batman must go to Apokalips to resurrect his son.

I’m going to quote Star Trek V here — “I need my pain.”  Batman needs his pain.  A Batman without tragedy driving him simply isn’t Batman.  Batman isn’t emotionally well-adjusted.  When Jason Todd was murdered by the Joker (and it took about fifteen years for Jason to “get better”), Batman went off the deep end.  It took the Bat-family and the introduction of Tim Drake to pull him back from the brink.  If Robin Rises Omega is the story of Batman going to any lengths and going too far, breaking all the laws of man and nature in a single-minded quest to restore his son in which he ultimately fails, I’m down with that.

But I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see.  I think we’re going to see Batman going to Apokalips like Denzel Washington in Man on Fire, laying waste to everything and everyone until he gets what he wants — his son back and restored to life.  And, to me, that’s too much magic in the world of Batman. 

Still.  On its own, Kubert’s art looked nice, the opening sequence is effective and good, it’s action packed, there are mysteries laid, and Batman punches Luthor in the face.  If you’re interested in the mechanics of Damian’s return to the DC universe, then this is an effective starting point.  And if you think Batman shouldn’t be fighting the New Gods, stay far, far away.

On a Comic Book Script

Yesterday I wrote a comic book script.

Totally random, that.

The idea came to me a few days ago, and it was consuming many mental processing cycles.  I clearned some time yesterday and knocked it out.

I took another look at it this morning.  I revised the staging in two panels, and rewrote the description for another panel to clarify something.  I added a Cast of Characters.  In other words, it wasn’t a complete overhaul, just some clean-up.

I like it.

I know what I’m going to do with it, too.

And it’s no longer consuming my every waking thought. :)

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #5
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward

It’s safe to say that after the fourth issue of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 that I was ready to give up on this series.  My two favorite science-fiction franchises, sharing the same story!  How could it possibly go wrong?  But, just as the Chicago Cubs find new and interesting ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Assimilation2 was taking something that should make every Star Trek and Doctor Who fan feel excited like they’re thirteen again and making it plodding and underwhelming.  After four issues of that, I had no expectations for the fifth issue.

Let’s just say that the fifth issue is a stay of execution for Assimilation2.  It’s not great, it has the same problems as the previous four issues, but it actually does something and it does it competently even if it’s unsurprising in its development.

When we left Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the eleventh Doctor on the bridge of the Enterprise-D, the Borg-Cybermen alliance had shattered, and the Borg were asking for Picard’s help — or, rather, Locutus‘ help — in defeating the Cybermen.  Picard, however, rejected the Borg’s entreaties out of hand because of his assimilation at the hands of the Borg, and he brushed off the Doctor’s insistence that the Cybermen posed a greater threat than the Borg.

Everything that happens in this issue I expected.  When writing of the fourth issue two weeks ago, I said that that the Locutus twist “seems like something designed solely to create more conflict between Picard and the Doctor as the Doctor clearly thinks that Locutus is a good thing, not knowing that this would actually be a bad thing” and that “I assume that the Doctor will take Picard into the future (much as he did to Sarah Jane Smith and Marcus Scarman in ‘Pyramids of Mars’) to show Picard the result of not cooperating with the Borg.”  Both happen, and they’re tied together with a flashback, conversations, and more conversations.  If this were a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, we have a clip sequence, no guest cast, and a lot of standing set use, particularly Picard’s Ready Room.  In short, we have ourselves a budget-saving bottle episode issue here, and it’s one of the passive, talky ones at that.

Yet, it mostly works.  And we get our first sign that there’s actually a Doctor Who story going on here as well as the Star Trek story.

Is there anything new to the conversations?  No.  Guinan once again tries to push Picard to trust the Doctor’s judgment.  Picard once again states his firm decision not to work with the Borg, firmly.  Rory and Amy once again have pointless conversations with Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi so that we can pretend the Ponds have a role to play in a story that has no narrative room for them.  And then Picard finally decides to listen to the Doctor — and then suddenly we’re in a Doctor Who story.

The Doctor’s trick of taking a recalcitrant local on a trip into the future isn’t new.  The fourth Doctor does it to Scarman in “Pyramids of Mars.”  The Doctor of The Infinity Doctors takes the Sontaran and Rutan leaders into the future to show them the result of their eternal conflict.  And here, the Doctor takes Picard for a little spin in the TARDIS, visiting both Star Trek and Doctor Who planets, showing Picard the remorseless march of the Borg-enhanced Cybermen across the galaxy, decade by decade, and the consequences of inaction.  At last, five issues in, with the six pages of the Doctor in the TARDIS it beings to feel as if the promise of the series is about to be fulfilled.

But getting to this point isn’t perfect.  The bits with Guinan feel, like they did in the fourth issue, like nothing more than reprises of other Guinan scenes.  Amy’s conversation with Picard is reminiscent of her conversation with Kazran in “A Christmas Carol” and Lorna Bucket in “A Good Man Goes to War.”  The conversation she and Rory have with Troi doesn’t feel authentic at all; what reason do Troi and Crusher have to trust anything about the Doctor and his companions?  And Picard’s final decision in the issue doesn’t feel like a decision at all because it never feels like a choice.  The dubious plotting of the series, which Stuart Ian Burns has addressed in his reviews of the series continues unabatted, then.

The artwork is also variable.  We continue with the Gordon Purcell and J.K. Woodward team from the previous issue, but this issue’s artwork doesn’t appear as rushed or unfinished as previous issues.  There are also some sequences that look as if they’re Woodward flying solo, in particular most of the Picard-on-the-TARDIS sequence.  Purcell’s Karen Gillan likeness is better than in the previous issue, though there are panels where she looks more like a titian-haired Anne Hathaway.  Purcell’s Arthur Darvill likeness, however, is atrocious; if anyone can tell me who that is on page 11, please let me know.

And, let’s be honest, the story is absurd.  Star Trek: The Next Generation fans know that the Borg are a serious threat — they assimilated Picard, they trashed two Starfleet task forces, etc.  To accept the story that the Doctor ahd Guinan are telling Picard about why the Cybermen are a threat on the same level, you first have to accept that the Cybermen are a galactic, nay universal threat.  Really? On paper, maybe.  But have you seen “The Tenth Planet”?  “Attack of the Cybermen”?  “Silver Nemesis”?  The Cybermen are a bit crap when it comes to plans.  They can barely overrun a moonbase, it’s not likely that the Cybermen could overrun a galaxy.  The Cybermen aren’t a cosmic-level threat and have never been a cosmic level threat.

Still, the visuals of Picard’s journey into the Cyber-ized future are fabulous.

One problem with the Cybermen and their threat is the series hasn’t made the threat posed by the Cybermen and Borg credible.  To date, they have been conceptual rather than actual threats, and on the basis of nothing whatsoever the Doctor is able to explain to Picard what the Cybermen want and how they’re going to accomplish it.  The series has an unfortunate habit of telling and not showing.  The Away Team mission in the previous issue gave the characters some information, but there should have been some indication of how the Doctor arrived at his conclusions.  Of course Picard doesn’t trust the Doctor’s assertions; I don’t trust the Doctor’s assertions.

So why do I say it “mostly works”?  Two reasons.

As absurd as the story is, I avidly turned the pages to see what would happen next.  My inner thirteen year-old, who would have loved to see Colin Baker striding across the bridge of the Enterprise-D, loved this.

And, I honestly have no idea where the story is going from here.  In broad strokes, this series has been ridiculously easy to predict.  I suppose that if I were looking for a plot twist in issue #6, it would be a betrayal by the Borg, but I don’t know how to get there from here.  Basically, at this point, Assimilation2 is capable of surprising me.

Also, the fifth issue has the strongest final moment of the series to date.  The way the fifth issue ends is the way the fourth issue should have ended.  Late though it may be, it’s welcome.

I was fully prepared, before I read the issue, to post a JPG of Enchanter Tim with the caption “Get on with it!” as the sum total of my thoughts on this issue.  However, this issue worked for me, in ways that previous issues did not.  I’m not to the point of liking Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 yet, but neither am I on the verge of dropping the story unfinished.  The fifth issue, while not perfect, was satisfying enough to earn it a stay of execution.

I am, curiously, optimistic.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #4
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward

For two weeks this review has defeated me.  I wrote a draft.  I didn’t like it.  It was, I thought, harsh.  I wrote another draft.  This one I didn’t like, either.  Then deadline madness descended upon me with all the weight and force of Thor’s mighty hammer, and with the fifth issue only two weeks away I wasn’t sure I was going to say anything of the fourth issue of this series.

Then I saw the cover to the final issue of the series.  We’re not there yet.  The concluding eighth issue isn’t out until the end of December, four issues away.  Yet, I couldn’t not think about it.  And I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.  As a fan of comics history, it’s… fun.  Totally unexpected.  As a fan of these franchises, Doctor Who and Star Trek, it’s taking the piss.  That piss-taking cover shouldn’t bother me — comic books should be fun, after all — and yet it does irk me somewhat.  Based on the series to date, it’s not earned.

I’ve not been happy with this series.  The first issue had a cover that promised more than it delivered, giving us essentially a Doctor Who comic with a Star Trek: The Next Generation cameo.  The second issue reversed that — a Star Trek: The Next Generation comic with some Doctor Who stuff — and gave us the meeting of the two franchises, but then it left the interesting things, like the Doctor and Picard talking, in the background.  The third issue, where we should have finally seen plot movement, instead spent its time on a flashback.  The series, to that point, committed an unforgivable sin — it was boring.

I’ve been critical of the series, but I’ve always held out some hope that something, anything would happen to redeem this, to make suffering through the boredom worthwhile.  I really wanted this series, after all.  But there comes a point where a person has to accept that their aspirations don’t reflect reality.

And the reality, after four issues, is that Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 is not good.  It could have been good.  It should have been good.  But it’s not, and frankly, it doubt it’s going to get better.

Let’s break it down.  The series has had four major problems.  Three of these I’ve discussed before, one I’ve not.

First, poor pacing.  Assimilation2 has not been written to be read in single issues.  The Oncoming Storm Podcast, in their review of the first two issues, has compared the pacing to the decompression of Brian Michael Bendis’ work.  Even I wrote after the first issue that “I suspect that, like many of IDW’s Star Trek comics (excepting John Byrne’s work, the vast majority of which is one-and-dones), this will read better in a single sitting in the inevitable collected edition.”  I’ve yet to feel satisfied after an issue of this series because the story isn’t plotted or paced to fit a monthly chunk of twenty pages.  (I think that the better format would have been, like JLA/Avengers, a four-issue 48-page prestige format mini-series.  Same story, same pacing, but the format would mask some of the obvious pacing issues.)

Second, a lack of meaningful plot development.  The series has raised a number of questions, and it’s made no effort to answer them.  How did the TARDIS land in the Star Trek universe?  Why is the Doctor having painful memories?  Why doesn’t Picard trust the Doctor?  (More to the point, why is Picard so badly characterized?  He’s acting like the Star Trek: First Contact Picard, not the season five Picard.) Why were the Borg and the Cybermen working together?  And what do the Borg and Cybermen want?  The fourth issue adds a plot complication to these questions — the Borg and the Cyberman have had a falling out and have turned on one another — but this complication has no justification based on what we’ve seen before, so it adds another question to the mix: Why have the Borg and the Cybermen fallen out?  Even allowing that this story isn’t meant to be read in single issues and should be read in a single volume, we should have started to get answers to these questions by this point because the protagonists’ attempts to resolve these questions and solve the problems should have lead us to a definite climax that introduces new problems and launches the second act.  To this point, the series hasn’t done that.  It continues to muddle along.

Third, a too-large cast.  Star Trek: The Next Generation has a large ensemble cast.  Doctor Who doesn’t have quite as large an ensemble.  While other Star Trek crossovers (the X-Men crossovers, the Legion of Super-Heroes crossover) have managed to incorporate the other cast well, usually by pairing off characters between the two franchises and giving each a plotline, Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 has yet to find a role for Amy and Rory.  Essentially, Assimilation2 reads like a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that guest-stars the Doctor.  The problem, as I’ve said before, is that Amy and Rory simply have no role in a Star Trek story.  As a window into the setting, they’re unnecessary; everyone knows the Star Trek world, the way it works, the way it behaves.  As characters whom the story affects, they’re useless; there was no good reason for them (the Doctor, yes; Amy and Rory, no) to join Riker’s Away Team in the fourth issue.  If this were the episode “Sarek,” then Amy and Rory are as useful as Ki Mendrossen.

Finally — and this is the new problem, the problem that in the background of all the others — the series is a conceptual misfire.

Start from the premise that this can be read as a Star Trek: The Next Generation story with the Doctor as the guest-star.  I’ve yet to identify anything about the story that requires the Doctor.  When the first issue comes out next week, take a look at Brannon Braga’s Star Trek: The Next Generation mini-series Hive.  The first issue of that series and the fourth issue of this series end in exactly the same place — the Borg Collective asks Picard to rejoin them and lead them again as Locutus because there’s a bigger enemy that threatens them both.  Are there Cybermen in Hive?  The Doctor?  Of course not.  This could be a case of similar stories (Borg and time travel) hitting similar story beats, but even if it’s a coincidence it points to the lack of necessity in the crossover elements in Assimilation2.  This story could be told without the Doctor quite easily.

There’s a word of advice I remember former Star Trek novel editor John Ordover making years ago to aspiring writers during the Strange New Worlds contest.  Paraphrasing from an old and musty memory, it went something like this: “If you can tell your story with other characters, then the characters aren’t intrinsic to the story.”  Since then, I’ve asked myself these two questions when writing a story.  What about this story requires those characters?  What about these characters motivates that story?  Insofar as the Doctor and his companions are concerned Assimilation2 fails those questions, if viewed from the perspective of a Star Trek: The Next Generation story.  Viewed the other way, as a Doctor Who story with Star Trek: The Next Generation characters, those questions are impossible to answer because the story is incoherent seen in that way.  There’s nothing intrinsic about this story and its characters.

After four issues of Assimilation2, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that the point of the series is simply to see the Star Trek and Doctor Who characters sharing the same page, that’s all the creators intend, and any quibbles with story are beside the point.  The story, basically, is an excuse for Picard to act constipated around the Doctor, for the Doctor to be a force of chaos on an Away Team mission, for Guinan to say cryptic things, for Amy and Rory to worry about the Doctor.  Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, in their critiques of “The Five Doctors” in About Time 5 summed up that story thusly: “It’s a party, so they all do their party pieces.  [SNIP] Like the Star Trek movies, what we have here is an on-screen convention.  In those terms, nobody’s really in a position to grumble.  But it could have been something much more radically odd, like Doctor Who used to do before it started playing safe.”  Sadly, that sums up where Assimilation2 is at the halfway point.  And based on everything that’s come before, what’s to come is unlikely to be any different.

That’s in the future, however.  What of the fourth issue, since I’ve spent the last fifteen hundred words waxing theoretical on the problems of Assimilation2 as a whole?

The story develops some plot.  The Doctor talks with Guinan, and, just as in “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” Guinan recognizes that something has gone wrong with time and that the guest-star shouldn’t be there.  The Borg and the Cybermen suddenly turn on each other.  Picard is content to let the Cybermen destroy the Borg when the Borg ask for his assistance, but the Doctor wants Picard to ally himself with the Borg and become Locutus again to defeat the Cybermen.

Yes, it’s nice that the Doctor and Guinan have a sit-down, but there’s nothing new here.  Guinan says cryptic things, the Doctor plays mysterious and says cryptic things, everyone else is confused.  We’ve seen this very conversation before.  For Guinan, “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Time’s Arrow,” Star Trek: Generations.  For the Doctor, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “The Wedding of River Song” come quickly to mind.  The only thing different here in Assimilation2 is who the Doctor and Guinan are having this cryptic, pointless with — each other.  This isn’t something we would get on television or on film because they never met on film, but that doesn’t make the same conversation new, it just makes it different.

Yes, it’s nice that there’s some development of the Borg/Cybermen alliance.  We’ve seen that they’re together in past issues, but we’ve had no idea why they were working together or what they wanted (beyond the obvious modus operandis of assimilate and/or destroy).  Before the story can even answer those questions, suddenly they’re at each others’ throats.  This development, interesting though it may be, feels ungrounded and unearned.  Ungrounded, because we can’t understand why the allies are fighting each other if we don’t understand why they’re allies to start with.  Unearned, because the Borg/Cybermen alliance, after the attack on Delta IV way back in the first issue, have been a conceptual menace, and they haven’t been built up enough that their sudden falling out has any meaning to the reader.

And yes, it’s nice that the conflict between Picard and the Borg is brought up (though as I said earlier, it feels like a later characterization of Picard and not of the “I, Borg” Picard), but this feels like an arbitrary development.  Unless the story actually follows through with Picard allying with the Borg, this seems like something designed solely to create more conflict between Picard and the Doctor as the Doctor clearly thinks that Locutus is a good thing, not knowing that this would actually be a bad thing.  (And for an example of how bad that would be, see Hive #1.)

In short, it’s nice that these things happen, but I don’t see them, at least the first two, moving the narrative chits forward.

Amy and Rory actually do stuff in this issue.  It’s not interesting stuff — the Doctor convinces Picard to let them go on an Away Team mission, where they don’t do anything at all (except, curiously, behave like Legolas and Gimli at Helm’s Deep).  When they went on the Away Team mission, I was hopeful that Rory would be captured by the Borg and assimilated, not because I want something bad to happen to Rory but because something needs to happen to increase the characters’ jeopardy and their involvement in the situation, and I was mildly disappointed that it didn’t happen, especially as the mission then led to a pointless conversation with Troi.

The artwork takes a turn.  Gordon Purcell, an artist with Star Trek comics credits going back to the 1980s, is now providing the pencil foundation for J.K. Woodward’s paints.  This looks to be a permanent change for the remainder of the series — Purcell pencils, Woodward paints — and the resulting artwork has a different flavor.  It looks similar to the previous three issues as Woodward’s paints keep it visually consistent, but and Purcell’s artistic quirks, like gangly characters and lots of finger pointing, are present.  The fourth issue isn’t as photo-realistic as the previous issues, and some of the character likenesses, especially Amy’s, are wildly off.

And finally, we get a cliffhanger.  It’s not the game-changing cliffhanger I was hoping for — this issue also doubles as the final issue in the first volume of the collected edition, so I was expecting something major to happen at this point in the narrative — but it’s certainly better than previous issues’ final images.

Overall, the fourth issue just there.  On its own, it’s adequate.  If the goal is to show the Enterprise crew and the TARDIS trio on the same page and nothing else, then it succeeded at that.  If it had higher ambitions, though, it’s another middling chapter in a disappointing series.  I’ll carry on with the series.  I can’t not read it, I’ve been a fan of these franchises for as long as I can remember.  But I’ll carry on without enthusiasm and without expectations.

What do I expect going forward?  The cover to the fifth issue shows Picard stepping out of the TARDIS.  Assuming that this reflects the issue’s contents, I assume that the Doctor will take Picard into the future (much as he did to Sarah Jane Smith and Marcus Scarman in “Pyramids of Mars”) to show Picard the result of not cooperating with the Borg.  The sixth issue depicts the Doctor and a Borg working together, so presumably the Doctor will be allied with the Borg (possibly led by Locutus) against the Cybermen.  And the seventh issue, which is the latest cover to be made public, shows the TARDIS at Wolf 359, which indicates that the key to stopping the Cybermen is in the past and the Doctor has to go and get it.

Maybe the Doctor should get assimilated by the Borg.  That would certainly be different, though if the Dalek Asylum’s nanomachines didn’t convert him into a Borg drone, then Borg nanites probably would assimilate him, either.  However, that would make a killer cliffhanger to issue #7, an image of the assimilated Doctor announcing his Borg identity.

No, I shouldn’t think that way.  I’ll only disappoint myself.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #3
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Art by J.K. Woodward and the Sharp Brothers

Two issues into IDW Publishing’s Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 and I was feeling indifferent.  The first issue, discussed here, was okay but not especially engaging; the cover promised the Doctor and the crew of the Enterprise in a single adventure, and what we got instead was the Doctor having a runaround in ancient Egypt while the Borg and the Cybermen did Borg-y/Cybermen-y things, which felt like a weird way to launch a series that Whovians and Trekkies have wanted for years.  The second issue, not discussed (though some of my thoughts can be found on Stuart Ian Burns’ blog), was a Star Trek runaround, and while the fannish moments of the Doctor meeting the Enterprise crew finally happened midway through the issue, I still felt like the story wasn’t going anywhere as I turned to the final page — which then, quite suddenly, promised a whole lot.

stdw3As the third issue opens, the Doctor and the Enterprise crew discover, in orbit of Delta IV, an armada of Borg cubes and Cybermen ships.  Massively outgunned, Picard decides that retreat is the better part of valor, and he quizzes the Doctor on the Cybermen.  Meanwhile, Data does his own research, and he discovers that there are Starfleet records of the Cybermen — on Stardate 3368.5, Captain Kirk of the Enterprise, on a mission to investigate an incommunicado research facility, encountered the Cybermen on planet Aprilia III, alongside a mysterious man in a floppy hat and scarf who called himself “the Doctor”…

I like Assimilation2.  But I don’t love it yet.  And I think that the third issue encapsulates why.

After three issues, what are the Borg and the Cybermen up to?  We have no idea.  What is Picard planning to do to combat the Borg?  Again, no idea.  The pacing continues to be languid.  It still doesn’t feel like the story has started.  Instead of moving the plot forward and building tension, the three issues are giving us fannish moments (like a discussion of the Doctor’s age and the final page of this issue).

The tone is off, and this issue highlights that.  There’s a flashback to an adventure the fourth Doctor has with Captain Kirk’s crew (similar to the flashbacks in Tony Lee’s graphic novel, The Forgotten), and the artwork is done by the Sharp Brothers (Star Trek: Year Four).  In comparison to J.K. Woodward’s painted artwork, the Sharp Brothers’ artwork is penciled, with sharp and bright colors that evokes the original series.  The contrast compared to Woodward’s artwork highlights the odd tone of the story; while his artwork matches the tone of the story, that tone feels too dark for the “classic” period of Star Trek: The Next Generation and would suit better the movie-era of the Next Generation.

There are too many characters to work with effectively.  Amy and Rory barely appear, and they’ve done nothing of significance since the first issue.  (I expect that, around issue #5 or #6, Rory will be captured and assimilated by the Borg because that’s the kind of thing that happens to Rory.) Their non-presence contributes to the feeling that Assimilation2 is a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that happens to guest-star the Doctor; I’m not getting a Doctor Who vibe from it right now.

That said, there are things I like about this issue.

The 23rd-century flashback, though brief, is nicely done, and it has a lovely moment of Kirk fighting the Cybermen, using all of his classic moves — the two-fist punch, the flying-leg kick.

The dialogue continues to ring true.

The mystery of the Doctor’s mismatching memories is intriguing.  (I expect the payoff will be, as Stuart Ian Burns suggested at the link above, that the Doctor is developing the memories he would have had if his adventures were in the Star Trek universe instead of the Doctor Who universe.)

The final page puts us on the cusp of a moment I’ve been expecting since the first issue.

I continue to hope that something will happen in Assimilation2, and if anything major and game-changing is about to happen, next issue will be the likely moment because the fourth issue cliffhanger also doubles as the cliffhanger to the first volume of IDW’s collected edition.  (In September, a week before issue #5 reaches stores, IDW is publishing a trade paperback collecting the first four issues of the series.) I’m still waiting to be wowwed by this; it hits my fannish buttons, but it’s not hitting my narrative buttons yet.  I like reading Assimilation2, but I want to love it.

Some continuity notes…

  • The stardate for Kirk’s mission to Aprilia III puts it somewhere in the vicinity of late-1st season/early 2nd-second Star Trek.  Due to the way stardates were used in the original series, you can’t really nail it down to between specific episodes.  On the other hand, Kirk lands on Aprilia III in the shuttlecraft Galileo II, the successor to the Galileo (which was active at least through “The Immunity Syndrome” in late season two).
  • Based on the fourth Doctor’s costume and his lack of companion, the adventure of Aprilia III probably takes place prior to “The Face of Evil.”  However, it could take place between “The Invasion of Time” and “The Ribos Operation” (which is where Jean Airey’s “The Doctor and the Enterprise” falls) and the Doctor simply left K-9 in the TARDIS.

ETA (7/21/12): Paul Simpson of Sci-Fi Bulletin (and the former editor of Titan’s official Star Trek magazine) reviews the third issue here, awarding it a 7 out of 10.

And Stuart Ian Burns continues his series of insightful reviews of the comic series with this review of this issue.  What follows below is the comment I left on his blog in response:

It is boring, isn’t it?

I see people raving about the third issue online, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  It’s amiable enough, I’m not totally indifferent to it (I’m reading it, after all), but I don’t feel any great love for it.  It’s just there.

I know this will read better in a single collected volume.  Most of IDW’s Star Trek work reads better that way.  (The exceptions are John Byrne’s work, any of the “anthology” series like Captain’s Log or Alien Spotlight, and recently the ongoing movie comic — which, as you say, started off poorly but has become enjoyable and interesting.) But that doesn’t absolve the individual issues of their inability to work on their own merits.  If I’m going to put down my money every month, I want to feel satisfied when I’ve read it.

Instead, the only feeling I have is anticipation (for something to happen) and dismay (since nothing’s happening).

It’s almost as if the writers decided that the pinnacle of Star Trek storytelling was the passage through V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the ultimate Doctor Who moment was that episode of “The Sea Devils” where it seems like Pertwee spends the entire episode sitting in the depressurization chamber, and they wanted to emulate all that.

Though the flashback was cool (Kirk’s two-fisted chop and flying leg kick were undeniable fannish moments for me, and I imagine there are readers who were humming the Kirk fight music), I think it was a misstep at this point in the series.  We’d just gotten the leads working together, now they knew their enemies were working together, and rather than explore that and move the narrative forward, we have a flashback to another crew and another Doctor.

Oh.  Except maybe that’s the point.

I’ve started thinking of this as a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that happens to guest star the Doctor.  Star Trek stories have antagonists, but they often serve as a catalyst for the characters’ personal drama.  “The Best of Both Worlds” (to use a Borg example) isn’t really about the Borg, it’s about how Riker copes with an ambitious replacement and his own unexpected command.  You mentioned “A Matter of Time”; the situation that brought the Enterprise to wherever wasn’t the important thing, the real meat of the story was Picard’s debate over predestination and free will.  The antagonists are just a way of getting to the character drama in a Star Trek story.

(Which, by the way, is not something that always works.  In “Relics” the Dyson Sphere was infinitely more interesting than Scotty.  Yes, it was nice to see Scotty again, but dammit, I wanted to see more of the Dyson Sphere!)

The point is, I think it could be whatever’s causing the flashbacks the Doctor is suffering (since he’s now suffered two — the vision of the Borg in the first issue, and now the full-blown memory of his fourth incarnation) that’s important and the Borg/Cybermen alliance is merely incidental.  A catalyst for bringing the Doctor and Picard together.

Or I could be overthinking it.

I’ve also begun to wonder if Amy and Rory will play any meaningful role.  I harbor some doubts, because they don’t have a function in a Star Trek story.  The TARDIS has landed in a world that everyone knows; the questions the companion(s) would ask so the Doctor could explain are pointless because the audience already knows.  They’re in a story where the audience identification and expository functions of the companion(s) are unnecessary.

Yet, I still think that Rory will be assimilated.  Or, at the very least, captured.  I imagine it would have to play out like this.  The Enterprise sends an Away Team to a planet or a Borg cube.  But Picard sensibly refuses to let the Doctor and the Ponds go.  (They’re not Starfleet personnel.) The Doctor decides that he doesn’t like that answer, so he and the Ponds pop in the TARDIS and arrive on the planet/cube.  Riker gets stern — “Doctor, the Captain told you to say on the Enterprise — but everyone accepts this, until things go wrong and they’re all ambushed.  Rory gets captured.  The rest of the Away Team beams out.  End of issue.  Next issue, Picard lectures the Doctor, says he doesn’t trust the Time Lord, and the Doctor grudgingly admits that he made a mistake, but now that the mistake is done they have to put aside their differences and work together to rectify the situation.

The trouble with trying to guess where this story will go is that it’s still wide open.  How did the TARDIS land in the Star Trek universe?  Why is the Doctor having painful memories?  Why are the Borg and the Cybermen working together?  And what do the Borg and Cybermen want?  Going back to what I was saying earlier about this issue as a misstep, at this point in the game the series should have started answering these.  Not full-on answers, obviously, but something.  Instead, we had the flashback, and we’re still running in place.

Still, I want to see the Doctor do Doctor-ish things.  The best thing, in my opinion, would be the Enterprise crew hopping in the TARDIS and going with the Doctor on a tour of important moments in Star Trek history.  (Think “The Chase” but not stupid, or “The Daleks’ Master-Plan” without Mavic Chen.)

Maybe, if this story is a Star Trek story with the Doctor as guest star, IDW will do a second next year that’s a Doctor Who story with a Star Trek crew in the Doctor’s universe.

On Lining Up Future Conventions

I’ve started the process to apply for press credentials for this October’s New York Comic Con.

Yesterday morning I read an article on Comics Beat about the press application process — and it is a process — and since I have to hold down the fort at the office every July when San Diego happens, I thought to myself, well, why not New York?

The first step of the process was to fill out an online questionnaire.

The second step of the process, which I’ve not completed as yet, is to complete a five-page application and submit with it three published articles on comics (for which I will have to explain why they’re not bylined), my business card, and my boss’ business card.

Trying to weed out the chafe, I guess. :)

The application isn’t a priority at the moment.  I’ll look at it over the weekend and knock it out.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

John Carter: World of Mars
Marvel Comics
Written by Peter David
Art by Luke Ross

A few weeks ago I saw John Carter, director Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the first of his eleven books set on Barsoom (better known to us as Mars), for Disney.  John Carter has become legendary as one of the biggest box office failures of all time, which is unfortunate because the film is really quite good.

Before I saw John Carter I reread A Princess of Mars to refamiliarize myself with a place I’d not visited in a quarter century.  I had also intended to read John Carter: World of Mars, a four-issue comic book mini-series that Marvel Comics published last year that served as a prequel to the film, but an inability to find where I’d filed the issues in my longboxes and a shipping error on the trade paperback edition when I gave up on trying to find the singles, resulted in a delayed read of JC:WoM.

And, to be honest, that’s not a bad thing.  John Carter: World of Mars is enjoyable and I’ll gladly recommend it to anyone who liked John Carter, but I think it works better after you’ve seen the film, even though it’s about events before the film.  Having seen the movie before reading this, I have the benefit of knowing where the stories in this graphic novel end up, and thus things in the graphic novel have a greater resonnance than they would have had I read the issues in February as I’d planned.  If that makes sense. :)

Basically, John Carter: World of Mars answers two questions about the world of John Carter.  First, how did Tars Tarkas become the Jeddak of the Tharks.  Second, what the root of the animosity between Dejah Thoris of Helium and Sab Than of Zodanga.  John Carter, though he only appears on four pages in the entire book (the first three pages of issue #1 and the final page of issue #4), narrates the story — these are stories that Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas individually told him about events that occurred to them about twenty years prior to John Carter, and the narrative style suggests that this is part of the manuscript that Carter’s nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs reads about Carter’s Martian adventures.  And though Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas never realize it, their stories intersect for one brief moment and then diverge once more.

Tars Tarkas’ story is basically a road trip story.  Two buddies, one a coward full of bluster, the other a quiet, unassuming sort, set off on a trip to prove themselves, and the quiet one’s nagging girlfriend tags along.  The blustering coward is Tal Hajas, the quiet one is Tars Tarkas, and Tars Tarkas’ girlfriend is a new character, Loas.  Their quest?  To find Gothan, the ancient leader of the Warhoon and defeat him in battle to prove their worth as warriors.  The quest plays out as a kind of Indiana Jones-like story, albeit one with Martian White Apes and heroes with four arms.

Dejah Thoris’ story is a Burroughs-esque tale of love and kidnapping.  You think I kid, but that’s a standard trope of Burroughs’ work — villain is in love with woman, villain kidnaps woman, hero tracks down villain, hero battles death traps, hero defeats villain and frees woman, hero wins woman.  This is the way Dejah Thoris’ story plays out… except there’s no Burroughs-esque hero (in other words, John Carter) to save her, so Dejah Thoris has to brave the death traps (in this case, a sandstorm and a Warhoon arena filled with calots) on her own and save herself from her kidnapper, Sab Than.

And then their two stories intersect when Dejah Thoris’ escape from the Warhoon just happens to coincide with the buddy Tharks finding their quarry…

Peter David gives John Carter: World of Mars a Burroughs-esque flavor throughout.  One thing that marks Burroughs’ writing is the way that the story changes every few pages.  Some new plot element will appear, a new character will surface, and everything you thought was going on gets shoved aside as the story goes somewhere else instead.  JC:WoM has the same kind of breathlessly episodic feel.

Is the story accurate to Burroughs, though?  No, it’s not.  The Red Martians wear too much in the way of clothing, and the identity of Tars Tarkas’ love differs from the backstory given in A Princess of Mars.  However, the clothing is the way John Carter portrays the world (a Burroughs-accurate film would have netted an NC-17 rating), and one could rationalize the clothing by saying that this story (and John Carter, too, for that matter) takes place during Mars’ six month-long winter.  And though John Carter never identifies the mother of Sola it would have been nice to have an acknowledgement of the story in A Princess of Mars (where Sola’s mother is a Thark named Gozava), one could argue that 1) Loas is a nickname for Gozava, 2) Tars Tarkas lied to John Carter about the name of his true love in JC:WoM, or 3) Sola was misinformed about her mother’s identity in A Princess of Mars.  The important thing is that Loas and Gozava are clearly intended to be the same person, just with differing names.

But I should note that John Carter: The World of Mars doesn’t need fidelity to Burroughs.  It only needs to be true to the world seen in John Carter, and that it does very well.  Luke Ross’ artwork evokes the world of Andrew Stanton’s film, and though the likenesses of Dejah Thoris and Sab Than aren’t always accurate to the actors from the film, they’re certainly recognizable as the characters that they’re supposed to be.

The graphic novel collection reprints the four issues, along with a sketchbook and Peter David’s script for the first issue.  If you’re interested about the process that goes into creating a comic book, this is quite interesting material.

I liked John Carter: World of Mars, and if you like Burroughs’ work (and can accept that this doesn’t match up exactly with Burroughs) or you liked the movie John Carter, then I have a hunch you’ll enjoy this as well.  It’s a neat read, it’s nice to look at, and, like John Carter, it’s fun.  And while Marvel is publishing adaptations of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, I hope they won’t ignore the world of John Carter because I’d like to see more stories in Andrew Stanton’s version of Barsoom./i