Geek Bowl IX answer recap

And now, the Geek Bowl IX answers!

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Geek Bowl IX question recap

Well, another Geek Bowl is in the books, and once again, I am happy. We didn’t win, but we came in 2nd place! Given that 134 teams played, and that the 2nd place prize is $3000, we feel pretty damn good about that. This year, sticking with the “Mothra” theme from last year, we were “The Mothras of Retention.” (No, not that kind of retention. Like, retaining facts. Come on.) We had the same lineup as last year, and boy do I love this team. Not only is it a great mix of specialties and styles, they’re also just a lovely group of people, with whom I always enjoy spending time. Not a blowhard or prima donna in the bunch. Oh, and did I mention that they’re all really frickin’ smart? Oh my god, I can’t even tell you. (But I’ll try.)

Mothras Of Retention team photo

L to R top row: Larry, Don. Bottom row: Brian, George, Jonathan, me

This year the bowl was in Albuquerque (henceforth ABQ), at an Indian casino called Isleta. I drove down from Denver, which was mostly fun. I’m always up for a road trip, but boy is there a whole lotta nothin’ between, let’s say, Colorado Springs and Santa Fe. (Uh, no disrespect to anybody’s town in “driveover country.” You could make a case for Pueblo.) Anyway, I got into ABQ around 5:30pm and checked into my hotel. (As always, hat tip to the awesome “name your price” feature on Priceline.) Teammate Don is a former ABQ resident, so he made reservations for us at a great New Mexican restaurant. Our team met up with another team, comprised of a couple former members of the Anti-Social Network and the friends they recruited to play along. That team’s excellent name: “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rutter.” Also, teammates Brian and George had brought their wives, and Don invited a couple of ABQ friends. It was a big table. Great meal, too.

After that, about half of us headed to a house rented by Shane Whitlock and his wife, where a towering collection of trivia minds ate awesome food, drank good wine, and answered question after question, most prominently a Buzzer Battle tournament run by “Not Rutter” member Bill Schantz. There was also a really fun pub quiz created by Jeremy Cahnmann, whose game you should totally check out if you’re ever in Chicago. Ah, a fine time indeed. The next day I slept until 10:30am, which I mention because it is an AMAZING occurrence which never ever happens in my life anymore. The team got together at 4:30pm to run warmup rounds for 90 minutes or so, and then it was on to the main event!

As we gathered near the door, George passed around a small sheet of paper, upon which he had written down some guidelines that we’d always talked about but never formally codified. We quickly came to call them the Commandments, and here they are:

  1. Read/listen to the damn question.
    1. Read it again.
    2. Pay attention to the category.
    3. Don’t interrupt the question/audio. Let it finish before guessing.
  2. If you think of an answer, say it/write it, so the whole team knows.
  3. Everyone look over each answer sheet before turning it in.
  4. If the answer is a name and surnames are enough, don’t write the first name.
  5. If spelling doesn’t count, don’t sweat it.
  6. If an answer is used once in a quiz, nothing prevents that same answer from being used later in the same quiz. (The Quincy Jones rule – so named because QJ was an answer twice in one Geek Bowl.)
  7. “No” is not enough. Offer a solid alternative or a clear reason why the suggested answer is definitely wrong.
  8. Avoid facetious answers.

Following all these rules consistently is a lot harder than it sounds, and in fact we flubbed one of them one time at this Geek Bowl, but more about that in the answers post.

The event was held in a large auditorium, which apparently serves as a Bingo hall most of the time. It was very well suited for this night — good sound, lots of space, broad tiers with no fixed seating, friendly staff, etc. As has been the case for the past few years, the Bowl itself was very, very well-organized. Geeks Who Drink (GWD) has really got this down to a science now, and it came off expertly. The big change this year was that they had a headlining musical act, an outfit known as The Dan Band. In case you’ve never heard of these guys (I hadn’t), they’re a comedy/music group led by a guy named Dan Finnerty, who dresses like a gas station attendant (literally) and sings all songs by women. They were the wedding band in Old School, and also appeared in The Hangover. Knowing nothing else about these guys, I feared they would be boorish and obnoxious, but they actually turned out to be pretty funny and charming. As Don pointed out, the concept could be done in a very lazy way, but these guys weren’t lazy. For instance, their opening number — a medley of “Genie In A Bottle”, “No Scrubs”, and “I’m A Slave 4 U”, was proficient and professional, from the actual instrument-playing band to the smooth choreography. Sure, it’s a goof to have this guy singing these songs, and he throws in a lot of “fuck”s, but they don’t expect the gimmick alone to do the work of the act.

The Dan Band

In fact, the same thing can be said of Geek Bowl itself. As I’ve said before, the signature GWD tone is “self-consciously edgy”, but as time has gone on they’ve gotten a lot less self-conscious. I even noticed a considerable difference between this year and last year in terms of the questions. Last year had a round about nasty team names, songs about sex, and historical figures’ faces Photoshopped into vintage porn. This year had half a round about incest, and that’s about it for the raunch. It used to feel like GWD had a compulsory smut/obscenity quota, and that it could get in the way of, y’know, actualy having good or interesting trivia questions. Now it feels like they’ve got good question writers who don’t happen to be constrained by the bounds of good taste, but aren’t particularly obligated to leap over them either. (Nothing against sex and swearing, by the way — these are a few of my favorite things, actually — I just don’t like it when they feel mandatory in writing.)

Now here’s the part where I copy/paste and adapt the rules & disclaimers from last year’s post. If you don’t care, you can skip ahead to the questions, directly after the video.

As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!) Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink, and I have not been supplied with question material. The recap below is not a verbatim representation of the Geek Bowl 9 questions. They are reconstructed from my notes and memories, which are very fallible. This year I had the bright idea of taking photos of some of the question slides — cameras are allowed at Geek Bowl as long as they can’t receive data. However, even those slides are very frequently paraphrases rather than verbatim reproductions of the questions as read. I am certain I have left out some of the cleverness, some of the humor, and some of the pinning precision. Anything in the questions and answers below that is wrong or crappy is my fault, not theirs.

Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters. (Though the final round has a 5-minute timer.) The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions — usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, one other round was upgraded from 8 potential points to 15 — we could see from the pre-printed answer sheets that question #8 in Round 4 would have 8 answers, for a total of 15 answers in the round.

Finally, teams can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 15 or 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. The Round 2 threshold was 14 — in other words, if we felt very confident about 14 out of 16 answers in Round 2, we would joker it. We didn’t end up settling on a Round 4 threshold, but it turned out not to matter. We probably would have jokered on at least 13, and failing that we’d automatically joker Round 8.

Now, for posterity and enjoyment, the questions of Geek Bowl 9. I’ll note our team’s experiences in [square brackets.] As I did last year, I’ll put the answers in a separate post, since this one gets long enough as it is.

Round 1: Duking It Out In The Duke City
Albuquerque is apparently nicknamed “The Duke City”, so this round was all about dukes.

1. Born in 1899, Duke Ellington came to be a major participant in the “Renaissance” of what New York City neighborhood? [I think all of us answered this one in unison.]
2. If you wanted to correctly spell the name of Duke University’s basketball coach, how many “z”s would you use? [I’m so out on questions like this, but between Larry, Don, and Jonathan, we got there.]
3. Patty Duke played both roles, Helen and Anne, in separate film versions of what play?
4. Here’s something you won’t understand: what band, on the album track following “How I Could Just Kill A Man”, sampled the song “Duke Of Earl”, by Gene Chandler? [We were clueless on this one. Took a wild guess.]
5. Due to a 1982 contract dispute, cousins Coy and Vance briefly replaced what TV siblings? [Brian (who served as our scribe) actually has a running “Coy and Vance” replacement joke on one of his podcasts, — I think he was writing the answer before they finished asking the question.]
6. Which was longer, the infamous gap between Duke Nukem 3D and Duke Nukem Forever, or the infamous gap between Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums and Chinese Democracy? (Just answer “Duke” or “GnR”.) [We guessed wrong on this one.]
7. What “P” word means the entire system of noble titles? [Slam dunk by George.]
8. According to Channel Islanders, and despite her presumable lack of male sex organs, who is the Duke of Normandy?

[Not our best round. We ended up with 6 correct answers.]
See the answers

Round 2: Dude Sings Like A Lady
Round 2 is always a music round, and for the last few years, they’ve had 8 different live bands each play about 25 seconds of a cover version of some song, and then performing that same 25 seconds again. This year, though, since they’d gone to the trouble of obtaining a “name”(ish) band, Round 2 was all about The Dan Band performing snippets of 8 different songs. Same approach — about 25 seconds, repeated once. The extra twist was that the round was “Bechdel Tested, Mother Approved” — true to The Dan Band ethos, all the songs were both by women and about women. The round description made a fairly big deal of specifying that we were to name both the song title and the “original female PERFORMING artist” for each tune, for reasons that will become clear below. As usual, this round can’t be described without giving away the answers, so here for you are the 8 Dan Band songs of Round 2:

1. Katy Perry – “I Kissed A Girl”
2. Alanis Morrisette – “Thank U”
3. Destiny’s Child – “Independent Women” [Because of the whole “female PERFORMING artist” thing, we debated whether to put Beyoncé, but decided that no, dammit, Destiny’s Child was the correct “performing artist” for that song.]
4. Kristen Bell – “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” [So this was why they emphasized “PERFORMING artist” so much in the explanation — they wanted us to be sure to name the person singing the song, not the movie character. Don had an incredible pull on this song.]
5. Alicia Keys – “Girl On Fire” [The team was debating the exact title of the song, but I was quite certain that it’s “Girl On Fire.”]
6. Shania Twain – “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” [A new corollary for the commandments — if spelling doesn’t count, punctuation counts even less.]
7. Melissa Etheridge – “Like The Way I Do” [This one couldn’t possibly have been more in my wheelhouse, though Brian clearly knew it too.]
8. Whitney Houston – “The Greatest Love Of All”

[We felt really, really good about this round, and jokered it without hesitation. We were right to do so, as we aced it. So that gave us 32 points, plus our previous 6 made a total of 38.]

Round 3: Red Or Green?
Round 3 at Geek Bowl is pretty much always some kind of 50/50, speed round, or multiple choice situation. This year it was a 50/50, based around New Mexico’s official state question: “Red Or Green?” In case it’s not clear, the question refers to what kind of chile you’d like on your food. (Though when I was asked on Friday night, I was also offered the option of both!)

1. Who bought Reddit in 2006: Condé Nast or Yahoo? [We guessed wrong on this one, and I’m sorry to say I was one of the ones steering us wrongward.]
2. Which team wore a green shirt at the 2014 World Cup: Italy or Mexico? [Don’s a soccer guy, and was all over this one.]
3. Which chain has more U.S. locations: Red Lobster or Red Robin?
4. In which book did the Red Wedding occur: A Clash Of Kings or A Storm Of Swords? [Don is also a Game of Thrones guy, and once again, was all over it. Go Don!]
5. Did Greenpeace’s initial cause concern nuclear testing or whaling?
6. Not including gulfs, which has more Red Sea coastline: Egypt or Saudi Arabia? [Jonathan drew a map for us that looked not terribly different from the one that accompanied the answer.]
7. The Green Book is the credited work of which controversial political figure: Gerry Adams or Moammar Qadaffi?
8. Which color of light is most conducive to photosynthesis: Red or Green? [Jonathan got to this by knowing about optics, Brian got to it by knowing about the habits of Colorado pot growers. We all got to it! (Not that Brian is a Colorado pot grower, mind you.)]

[We got 7 of 8 here, for an updated total of 45.]
See the answers

Round 4: The World According to LARP
Now, here is where things started to get seriously awesome. I mean, they were already good, but this is where they started to get awesome. This round was done all in cosplay, with each new cosplayer coming out and defeating the previous one, and then asking a question, in character, somehow related to the character. Not only that, sometimes the character was a clue to… well, you’ll see. Now, my account of this is going to be a little bit compromised by the fact that I was furiously taking notes while it was going on, but I’ll try to give you the gist.

The first thing that happened was a wizard took the stage, with resplendent robes and staff and so forth. After an impressive pretend-magic display, she asked us this question:
1. With a name that comes from the Latin words for “heap” and “rainstorm”, what kind of cloud normally produces lightning?

Suddenly a knight emerged, in full Crusades regalia! A mighty battle ensued, in which the wizard was struck down, the knight emerged triumphant, stepped to the microphone, and asked:
2. While we were killing Muslims during the Crusades, Paladins like myself called them by what slightly longer term, which is the same as the name of the quarterback on the show Friday Night Lights? [I knew the word, Don and Brian know Friday Night Lights. Cross-referencing FTW!]

Like a shadow, like a ghost, the ninja struck. The knight never stood a chance. Over his dead body, the ninja asked:
3. Speaking of things white people know nothing about: every year, dozens of people go to the Aokigahara Forest to do… what? [Boy did we struggle with this one. I’ll put the full story in the answers post, but suffice to say we got it wrong.]

Zzap! The phaser blast of a dour Klingon proved in short order that no pajama-wearing human is a match for an honorable descendant of Kahless The Unforgettable. The Klingon approached the mic and asked us a question… in Klingon. We could make out the words “falcon”, “eagle”, and “kestrel”, but that’s it. Then on the screen behind her appeared a translation:
4. What bird is biologically closest to a falcon: a hawk, an eagle, or a kestrel?

Klingons are strong with honor, but you know their challenge area? Friendship. Especially the magic of a magical friendship, which can really be magically friendly, and magical. Thus it was that a very approximate human equivalent of a My Little Pony character defeated the Klingon, and asked:
5. Ponies are defined as measuring less than 58 inches at what specific shoulder area, which the composer of “Lean On Me” would be proud of? [I knew the “Lean On Me” part, and as soon as I thought of it the horse part made sense.]

POW! What puny pony can withstand the full fury of the Rampaging Hulk? Down went the pony, and Hulk asked:
6. WHAT 2012 NBC DRAMA CENTER ON KATHARINE MCPHEE TRYING TO PLAY MARILYN MONROE IN BROADWAY MUSICAL?

You have a Hulk? Well we have a Quiz-Bot! A large robot, carrying a large pencil in one claw and a large drink in the other, with a digital crawling display on its chest reading (I think) “42… 42… 42…” battled the Hulk. Hulk is strongest one there is, but Quiz-Bot is smartest one there is, and it was victorious. It asked us:
7. In statistics, the standard deviation is signified by what 18th letter of the Greek alphabet?

Finally, the players’ mom stepped onstage. Everyone got up, and she distributed some tasty snacks from her purse to all players. Everyone munched happily, while she strode to the mic. Remember how I said that we could see from the answer sheets that question #8 in this round would have 8 possible answers? Well here’s that question:
8. Besides Barbara Walters, name eight of the nine women to date who have been panelists on The View for more than one season. [The full team collaborated to come up with seven, and at the last minute Brian pulled an eighth. WHOO!]

[A strong round – we got 14, raising our total to 59.]
See the answers

Round 5: LandMark Wahlberg
This was a video before and after round. The idea is that we’d see a landmark, and then a famous person would show up in the frame. The name of the landmark and the name of the famous person would have a common sound — not necessarily a common word. They even provided an example — a shot of Machu Picchu, and then a cutout of Yo-Yo Ma climbing it. The answer: Yo-Yo Machu Picchu.

The video was quite well done indeed — funny, clear, and well-clued, with very satisfying answers. The questions went fast, but we got them well enough. It was pretty much everything you could want in a video round, and with any luck at all the Geeks will post it on YouTube, as they’ve done with previous years’ Geek Bowl video. In the meantime though, all I can do is provide the answers:

1. Kanye West Point
2. UluRuPaul
3. Westminster Abbie Hoffman
4. Mount Vernon Davis
5. La Sagrada Familia Earhart
6. Hagia Sofia Loren
7. Dome Of The Rock Hudson
8. Notre Dame Edna [I recognized Notre Dame right away, and then Don Kreskined “Dame Edna.”]

[We aced this round. 59 + 8 = 67 total points now.]

Round 6: The Round You And Your Sister Have Been Waiting For
This was a round on inheritances and incest — that old-time GWD spirit shining through, or at least partway through.

1. According to the King James Version of the Bible, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit” what?
2. Named Adult Video News #21 All-Time Greatest Porn Film, what 1980 family fuckfest shares its name with a family board game from Hasbro? [Oh, Geeks. Then again, George later said, “I had it at ‘family fuckfest.'”]
3. Named for a geneticist called Reginald C. Something, what’s that quadrilateral chart that biologists use to determine the likely genotype of offspring? [Jonathan came through here.]
4. A pair of federal agents encounter an inbred Pennsylvania clan called the Peacocks in “Home”, a classic 1996 episode of what TV series?
5. A product of over 100 years of inbreeding, the drooling, slow-witted Charles II was the last Hapsburg to rule what nation?
6. Owners of most of Colorado’s sports teams, plus a few others, the Kroenke familly actually got most of their cash by marrying into what Southern family? [Larry knew this one right away.]
7. Unpublished for almost 150 years, The Inheritance was the first novel by what precocious teen, who later quite extensively covered the March family? [Yay, a literature question! I had this one right away, and Jonathan was a half-second behind me.]
8. What famous actress thankfully inherited her looks from her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, rather than her father, the title star of Midnight Cowboy?

[Another perfect round for us. 67 + 8 = 75.]
See the answers

Round 7: Bust A Movie
Okay, so I’ve been a trivia guy for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of great, clever concepts for questions and had a lot of fun. And I am here to say that Round 7 of Geek Bowl 9 was, I think, my favorite trivia round I’ve ever seen. As the moderators explained, “We’ve had video rounds, audio rounds, movie rounds, singing rounds, celebrity rounds, and lots more. But tonight, for the first time ever, we are having a dance round at Geek Bowl.” Here’s what this means: GWD hired a dance troupe called the Keshet Dance Company to re-enact 8 dance scenes from movies. Players had to name the movies.

Keshet was phenomenal — exuberant, fun, and accurate. They drew enthusiastic cheers throughout, and a MASSIVE, IMMEDIATE standing ovation at the end. God, I loved it. My descriptions could not possibly do justice to the round, but lucky for me, there is video!

The dances in that video are slightly out of order from how they were performed at the event, and there’s also one dance missing. But don’t worry, I’ll break it all down in the answers post.

[Brian was an absolute star on this one, naming 2 dances the rest of us didn’t know at all, and getting there first on several others, even sometimes before they started dancing. Thanks to him putting us over the top, this was another perfect round for us, bringing our total to 83.]
See the answers

Round 8: Random Knowledge
Round 8 of any Geeks quiz is always called “Random Knowledge”, and random it is. At a regular pub quiz, it’s 8 questions whose point values vary anywhere between one and four, for an ultimate total of 16. At Geek Bowl, the Random Knowledge questions are all worth two points each. In addition, at Geek Bowl 9, the Random Knowledge round was EXTREMELY FREAKIN’ HARD! There were 16 points theoretically possible, but according to their official recap post, the highest anybody scored was 13, and the average was SIX points. Out of sixteen. It was brutal. And here it is:

1. According to Statista.com and several other sources, what two countries have the most Facebook users?
2. Which two cable shows were the last ones to win the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama series more than once?
3. a) What is the relative minor key of C-major? b) What’s the mathy-sounding name of the wheel that shows the tones of the chromatic scale with their major and minor relative tones? [Hooray for Jonathan, who spent his middle and high school years as a cellist.]
4. a) The Pleiades and the Crab Nebula are both in which Zodiac constellation? b) The Australian flag features the Southern Cross, otherwise known by what Latin name?
5. a) Now in Lebanon, what ancient Phoenician city lent its name to the purple dye favored by ancient rulers? b) Chemically, that dye owes its color to the presence of what halogen element?
6. a) What sort of environmental sensor did Apple add to the iPad Air 2? b) To the nearest hundred, what was the U.S. retail price of the original entry-level iPad?
7. a) The Bhagavad Gita takes the form of a conversation between a Hindi prince and his driver, who is actually what deity? b) They spend a lot of time discussing what Sanskrit word, which signifies the Hindu concept of “what is right”?
8. a) Half the people currently on the International Space Station are from what country? b) Since it’s expedition #42, they made a mission poster that’s ultimately based on the works of what novelist?

As with last year, there was a pre-emptive tiebreaker, a great idea to reduce the awkwardness of two teams standing on stage answering an extra bunch of questions. Also like last year, this was a convoluted and time-consuming question:

Take the number of ounces in a bomber of beer (B), then subtract the number of living original members of the Wu-Tang Clan (W). Multiply the difference by the number of landlocked member countries of the European Union (E). Add to the product the number of seasons the show Gossip Girl (G) ran. Or, in simplified form:

[(B-W) x E] + G

Thankfully, this round had a five-minute countdown to write down answers rather than two minutes.

[We scraped out of this one with 8 points. I sure am glad we didn’t wait to joker! So, our final Geek Bowl score was 91.]
See the answers

And there they are, the questions of Geek Bowl IX. If and when the Geeks release new video from the rounds, I’ll incorporate it here. Until then, see you next year!

$3000 novelty check made out to Mothras of Retention

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 15 – The End Of The World As We Know It

“To me, when we talk about the world, we are talking about our ideas of the world. Our ideas of organisation, our different religions, our different economic systems, our ideas about it are the world. We are heading for a radical revision where you could say we are heading towards the end of the world, but more in the R.E.M. sense than the Revelation sense. That’s what apocalypse means — revelation. I could square that with the end of the world, a revelation, a new way of looking at things, something that completely radicalises our notions of the where we were, when we were, what we were, something like that would constitute an end to the world in the kind of abstract, yet very real, sense — that I am talking about. A change in the language, a change in the thinking, a change in the music. It wouldn’t take much — one big scientific idea, or artistic idea, one good book, one good painting — who knows?” — Alan Moore, 1998

Today’s topic, friends, is the end of the world. I say unto thee: behold and beware, for I bring you multitudes of Watchmen spoilers. Also, I suppose, Bible spoilers? Can the Bible be spoiled? Besides via misinterpretation, I mean? :)

The Christian holy book is at issue today because of an observation made by the Annotated Watchmen, v2.0, about page 24 of chapter 1:

The band name, “Pale Horse,” refers to Revelations 6:8, where the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, is said to ride a pale horse.

watchmen-ch1-pg24-panel1

(The words “Pale Horse” are partially obscured in this panel, as frequently happens in Watchmen, but they show up plenty of other places, such as emblazoned above the dead bodies in Chapter 12.)

So, in quite a tonal switch from reading DC and Charlton comics, I read the Bible. Well, the last book of it anyway.

It makes sense that Watchmen would refer to Revelation. They are both stories of apocalypse, and not in the R.E.M. sense either. The modern meaning of “apocalypse” relates to catastrophic destruction, irrevocable change, the end of the world. But etymologically, “apocalypse” derives from Greek, meaning “uncover” or “reveal.” The book of Revelation encompasses both senses of the word. It describes destruction on an epic scale, with God visiting one catastrophe after another upon humanity — the earth quakes, the waters turn to blood, meteors fall and set the forests ablaze. Locusts with human faces and scorpions’ tails boil from a bottomless pit, slaughtering people alongside avenging angels, amid fire, darkness, starvation, drought, hailstones, and disease. These themes repeat throughout the book, starting with the four horsemen representing conquest, war, famine, and death. At the same time, Revelation is, well, a revelation, partly because it was revealed in a vision to its writer, John of Patmos, and partly because it demonstrates the final judgment of God, the creation of the New Jerusalem, and the vindication of Christian believers, who are of course separated from the Earth before all those horrible things happen to it.

Watchmen certainly includes the horror; Moore and Gibbons devote six splash pages in a row to making sure we know it as Chapter 12 opens. However, in the first of many inversions of the Biblical model, Veidt’s apocalypse is explicitly antithetical to revelation, demanding instead that everyone to whom it is revealed either keep it secret or be destroyed to preserve the secret. Revelation 12:9 refers to Satan as “the deceiver of the whole world”, and describes how he is defeated and thrown down to earth by the archangel Michael. The book equates deception with evil, and describes Jesus as bringing a fierce and disturbing truth — it refers no less than five times to a sword coming from Jesus’ mouth. Salvation of the world depends on this truth, and on the overthrow of Satan the deceiver.

In Watchmen, though, Veidt is the deceiver of the world, and in his mind at least, he deceives the world in order to save it. “Unable to unite the world by conquest…” says Veidt, “I would trick it: frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” The sword comes not from Adrian’s mouth, but from somewhere altogether more hidden and secret — the bottom of the world. Not only that, he makes the other characters complicit in his secret, asking “Will you expose me, undoing the peace millions died for? …Morally, you’re in checkmate.” And the other characters agree, all except for Rorschach, who meets his own personal apocalypse at the hands of the book’s most godlike character. Where Revelation shows war in heaven, Watchmen‘s pantheon reluctantly unites, after destroying its lone dissenting vote.

Rorschach himself is the book’s prime examplar of the moral sense on display in Revelation. In many parts of the New Testament, Jesus’s teachings complicate and problematize the old vengeful approach of the Old Testament God. Take for example, this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:38-42

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

(All my Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version, BTW and FWIW.) But in Revelation, no cheeks are turned. The book couldn’t be more dualistic. God and Jesus stand on one side, Satan and his beasts on the other. Babylon the whore stands on one side, New Jerusalem the bride on the other. The 144,000 of Israel, along with a “great multitude” of the faithful from every nation are preserved in heaven, while the rest of humanity is condemned to round after round of torture and disaster. No Limbo, no Purgatory. Nobody gets just a mild punishment. Nobody even repents, despite what you’d have to think are some pretty convincing reasons to give it a shot:

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20-21)

(John of Patmos really loved lists.)

In other words, as Rorschach’s journal tells us just a few panels down from the first Pale Horse reference:

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(The word “Armageddon” itself comes from Revelation too — it’s the gathering place of the armies of evil in preparation for their final battle: “And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.” (Rev 16:16))

In fact, Rorschach’s journal has another connection to Revelation, in which God several times makes the point, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Rev 21:6) So if God is the Alpha and Omega of Revelation, what is the Alpha and Omega of Watchmen? Why, it’s Rorschach’s journal. Chapter 1, page 1, panel 1, at the very top of the panel, reads: “Rorschach’s Journal. October 12th, 1985″. Then, at the very bottom of the final page of the final chapter is an image of Rorschach’s journal. In between the word and the image lies the full comic, the rest of the world. Watchmen‘s world leads us to wonder: what if God were like Dr. Manhattan? But Revelation presents a God who is much more like Rorschach, preserving the innocent and casting all the rest into a lake of fire.

Watchmen itself is an inversion of Revelation — all flawed humans and shades of grey, which contrasts so well with Rorschach’s dualism and the usual Good vs. Evil conflicts previously inherent to the superhero genre. In fact, one could argue that both Revelation and the general thrust of the superhero genre are expressions of the ancient combat myth pattern, which follows a familiar trajectory. Biblical scholar Adela Yarbro Collins, who has thoroughly made the case for Revelation’s connection to combat myth, maps out this trajectory:

A rebellion, usually led by a dragon or other beast, threatens the reigning gods, or the king of the gods. Sometimes the ruling god is defeated, even killed, and then the dragon reigns in chaos for a time. Finally the beast is defeated by the god who ruled before, or some ally of his. Following his victory the reestablished king of the gods (or a new, young king in his stead) builds his house or temple, marries and produces offspring, or hosts a great banquet. These latter elements represent the reestablishment of order and fertility.

(Crisis And Catharsis: The Power Of The Apocalypse, pg. 148)

Now, superhero stories don’t tend to be festooned with dragons, Fin Fang Foom aside. But if the dragon in ancient tales stood in for a force too overwhelming for ordinary humans to fight, then supervillains fill that role nicely. They threaten to overthrow whoever’s name is on the cover of the book, or that hero’s home city, country, planet, or galaxy. A mighty battle is joined, and the hero or team often is defeated or nearly defeated, before coming back and defeating the villain, restoring order. Due to the serial nature of the comics, we tend to skip over the final portion, since we understand that restoration of order is only temporary until the next issue arrives. Still, the X-Mansion gets rebuilt again and again, the Fantastic Four affirm or restore the safety of their children, and the Justice League shares convivial bonhomie at the beginnings and/or endings of its stories.

No such celebration happens in Watchmen, because the dragon is not defeated. Veidt carries out his plot and succeeds. He does not reign in chaos, but creates a fragile order based on deception. Moore upends the familiar and comforting story arc we’ve come to expect, and asks us whether we really wanted that story anyway. He shows us gods whose reign brought fear and uncertainty to their kingdoms, and were deposed (with varying degrees of success) by their subjects. But in their absence, the world finds still more chaos, brought about by ordinary human avarice, venality, and lust for power — no dragon necessary.

Indeed, Veidt sees himself as the king of the gods, and from his point of view the story does follow the combat myth pattern — he even throws a party for his scientists… as a means of killing them. He believes himself to have built a New Jerusalem of the world, but several signs point to his fallibility, the great distance between himself and the God of Revelation. Watchmen‘s most godlike figure questions the worth of Veidt’s plan, and the final scene intimates that the house of cards will tumble. Even Dan and Laurie gesture at fertility in the denouement (Dan’s comment, “Y’know, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea of your mother’s…”), but immediately turn away. (“Children? Forget it.”)

In her study of the psychological power of apocalyptic tales, Yarbro Collins tells us, “The task of Revelation was to overcome the unbearable tension perceived by the author between what was and what ought to have been.” (Ibid, p. 141) Ozymandias authors his apocalypse for the same purpose, hoping to finally prove to the Comedian in his head that he wouldn’t just be “the smartest man on the cinder.” The artificial space squid’s appearance at the Pale Horse concert associates Veidt’s plan with Revelation’s fourth horseman of the apocalypse, and let’s not forget that John of Patmos saw those horsemen as a good thing, since the faithful would be spared from their destruction. John’s apocalypse never came, and Adrian’s is a pale shadow of it, because contrary to his apparent beliefs, Ozymandias is no savior, and certainly no god.

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It’s Never Over

It’s another year of music from me, and this year I think a little bit of a theme emerged in a few songs: saving people. If there’s one overriding neurosis in my life, it’s my desire to rescue the people I care about from the danger they’re in, at least as I perceive it. Or sometimes even people I’ve just met, or never met. I could blame it on too many superhero comics, but I suspect the cause and effect goes the other direction. In any case, this is not the worst personality flaw in the world, and in fact I think it has some pretty positive aspects, but I do have to watch it, lest it override my better judgment. For instance, it drew me into and kept me trapped in a very toxic relationship when I was in college, and has sometimes prompted me to lead with my emotions at work rather than my rational brain — not always the most productive approach. So I maintain awareness, and do a reality check every so often, but it’s no surprise that I find myself drawn to songs about transcendence, or pulling people out of the dark. This is not a “concept mix” by any means (except for the usual concept: songs I listened to and loved in the last year), but I find this theme recurring in several of the songs that compelled me.

1. Melissa EtheridgeEnough Rain
Case in point. Melissa came out with 4th Street Feeling in the fall of 2012, but in my typically belated fashion, I listened to it in early 2014. I don’t think it’s one of her stronger works, but it’s flawed in some interesting ways. Like this song, where the speaker is reaching out to a troubled friend. “Haven’t you had enough rain?” she asks, implying that the subject wallows in misery, but the metaphor is telling. Somebody who is suffering from a mental or physical illness (or a spicy combo plate of both) can no more shut off their suffering than somebody who’s sick of bad weather can say, “Okay, I’ve had enough rain.” Well, I guess they can say it, but that doesn’t make the rain stop. A close friend of mine went through a lot of trouble with a sleep disorder this year, so the line “Don’t go back to sleep” hit home with me. But when it’s raining, it’s raining.

2. Arcade FireIt’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
Here’s the rescue-iest song of all the rescue-y songs. I reviewed an IF game that invokes the Orpheus myth, and part of what I wrote is pertinent here, so let me quote myself: “I identify very strongly with the Orpheus myth. There have been various times in my life… when I find myself questing about desperately to find the magic that will retrieve a loved one from the underworld into which they have descended. And even when it seems like I’ve succeeded, it is very difficult to maintain a belief in that success.” This song speaks directly to that experience, making the point that unlike finding your way out of Hades, when it comes to ongoing relationships, there is no finish line. Crises come and they pass, and they do the damage they do, some of which might even be averted by great effort on everyone’s part, but there’s no crisis that we can call final, save of course for the end of life itself. Because I’m in the midst of an ongoing Watchmen analysis project, I’m strongly reminded of Dr. Manhattan’s final words to Adrian Veidt: “‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” Needless to say, I love this song. It’s probably the thesis statement of the whole mix, and hence its title.

3. The CureThe Hanging Garden
As Arcade Fire emerges from the underworld, The Cure dives deep into it. I revisited their album Pornography this year, and my GOD is it dismal. I don’t mean it’s bad — it’s excellent — but it is just the pits of depression. Even for The Cure, it’s a depressing album, and that is saying an awful lot. But this song has always stood out to me. There’s a reason why it was the single. Where the other songs are dirgelike, it is propulsive, and angry where the other songs are helpless. I mean, yes, the animals are still screaming and dying, but those drums carry me through.

4. David GilmourMurder
Robert Smith and Roger Waters know how to be depressed. David Gilmour, on the other hand, never quite got the knack. Even this song, meant to be an angry cri de coeur, tends to feel mostly mellow. But I absolutely love Gilmour’s voice, and his guitar playing evokes emotion from me like no other guitar player I have ever heard. Gilmour and Waters needed each other, and on their own neither one ever reached anywhere near the heights of Pink Floyd’s best work. But after they split, I was never able to tolerate a Roger Waters solo album, whereas I could listen to Gilmour’s over and over, which I did again this year. This is a little odd for me — I always think of myself as a lyric person first, with music a distant second. But with Gilmour, the music makes up for even the most labored lines. The sweeping crescendos in this song get me every time.

5. Death Cab For CutieWhy You’d Want To Live Here
I embraced Death Cab a few years ago, and since then I’ve been slowly making my way through their catalog. This year I spent a little time with The Photo Album, and this song jumped out at me. It’s a scathing anti-L.A. track, and while I’m no L.A.-hater, Ben Gibbard does a fabulous job of making me want to hate it. A great riff, a great melody, and most especially great lyrics sung in Gibbard’s sweet-angry voice, with (again) a giant sweep into a bridge full of spitting venom, make me put this song on repeat.

6. Stevie Ray VaughanWall Of Denial
Less a song about saving somebody else than saving yourself, Stevie Ray wrote this song (and many others on the In Step album) to document his own recovery from alcoholism. By coincidence, I happened to be listening to this album when a friend of mine disclosed that he had finally faced and surrendered to the reality of a lifelong addiction that had controlled him for decades, and entered a 12-step program. As I talked with him, these lyrics kept ringing in my head, so much so that I was practically reciting them by the end of the conversation. I’ll always associate this song with that day in 2014.

7. Cocteau TwinsHeaven Or Las Vegas
Rememember when I characterized myself as somebody who cares about lyrics much more than music? I still believe it’s true, so how is it that I have always been utterly enchanted and fascinated by The Cocteau Twins, who are notorious for having absolutely incomprehensible lyrics? I tried to learn any of the lyrics to their Heaven or Las Vegas album, only to find that they almost never print their lyrics, and even their most ardent fans, who put together encyclopedic web sites full of lyrics, tend to say stuff like “These lyrics transcriptions are almost purely hypothetical… what you see is what I imagine them to be, or what I have managed to piece together from my own ideas and those of others.” Nevertheless, I can’t get over how gorgeous this gibberish sounds. Apparently I am large and contain multitudes. Also, I had a stroke of amazing luck when I was in Vegas for a conference in 2014, so that’s why I picked this song in particular.

8. PinkWicked Game (live in Melbourne)
I finally got to see Pink this year, and while my seat wasn’t the greatest, I still had a great time. Being up in the rafters isn’t so bad when an artist can fly. :) She played lots of hits, and lots of tracks from her latest album — there’s some crossover between these categories. But for me the most memorable moment was when she played this cover. First, I love it when an artist does the unexpected in concert, either a surprise cover or an album track you’d never expect to hear. Second, in keeping with this song’s sexy image, the staging for this tune involved Pink doing various trust falls and being caught by a cadre of men, then hoisted, passed around, flung, etc. Whew! It was a whole thing. Here, it looked like this. Kinda stuck with me.

9. The Alan Parsons ProjectGames People Play
I am a fan of The Alan Parsons Project. In fact, the first CD I ever bought was their their Best Of album, partly because their sound is so clean and full at the same time — that was the first digital music I wanted to hear coming out of my own speakers. After spending time with both “Best Of” volumes, I dove deeper into their albums, mostly on cassette at the time. I’ve been slowly replacing those, going digital with them once again, and this year I spent some time with their Turn Of A Friendly Card album. They did such a beautiful job of braiding some of the very disparate strands of music from their time — progressive rock, California harmonies, disco, funk, soul. Soul and prog are not normally heard in the same sentence, let alone the same song, but many Alan Parsons songs, especially those with Lenny Zakatek on vocals, marry them effortlessly. “Games People Play” is a perfect example, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.

10. Jonathan CoultonYou Ruined Everything
When Jonathan Coulton’s daughter was born, he quit his job as a computer programmer to become a full-time musician, figuring that if he didn’t go for his dreams immediately, he’d never have the courage to do so at all. Besides, he wanted to set a good example for her, trying for the brass ring. I just read an Alan Moore biography that says he did pretty much the same thing — quit his day job as soon as his first child was born. I am risk-averse, and cannot relate to these people, but I do relate to this song. It’s a love song Coulton wrote to his daughter, about how a kid changes everything, into something often even better than before.

11. The Magnetic FieldsGoin’ Back To The Country
The Magnetic Fields’ album Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is 15 tracks of typical Stephin Merritt cleverness. I spent some time with it this year and this song called out to me. Merritt is a modern-day Cole Porter to me, with rhymes so literate and clever that they’re the intellectual version of fireworks. “Let Laramie take care of me til they bury me.” I also love Shirley Simms’ voice on this and all Magnetic Fields songs she sings.

12. RodriguezCan’t Get Away
I had a long journey with this song. I saw Searching For Sugar Man in late summer of 2012, and wrote about it here (well, back when “here” was LiveJournal) a couple of weeks later. I was surprised and honored to get a response from Eva Rodriguez, the artist’s own daughter, who shows up quite a bit in the film. I enjoyed the music too, so put the soundtrack on my wish list. By the time I’d gotten it and worked through the backlog in front of it, 2014 had arrived. There are quite a few songs on that soundtrack that really resonated with me, so it was a bit of a toss-up to decide which one to put on this mix. The melody of this one hooked into me, and I found myself singing it at odd times throughout the day. I love the sense of foreboding and doom in the lyrics, the sense that when something is ingrained in you, it doesn’t matter how far you run.

13. “Sirvana”Cut Me Some Slack
Dave Grohl’s documentary film Sound City is about the studio where dozens of classic albums were recorded, including parts of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s got tons of great commentary by Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, and a bunch of others. Of course I was going to love it. The other part of the plot, though, was that Grohl recovered the Sound City’s big mixing board after the studio went under, and recorded an album’s worth of new music with his various guests, using that board. Consequently, the Sound City soundtrack has some pretty special moments, including a new Stevie song that doesn’t appear anywhere else. However, this song stands out for me, even above the Stevie tune. It’s Paul McCartney basically taking Kurt Cobain’s place in Nirvana — Grohl on drums and Krist Novoselic on bass. That sludgy Nirvana sound, with the rockin’-est possible version of Paul Freaking McCartney singing lead, is AMAZING. To me. I didn’t even know that version of Paul still existed. I love the way he sounds on this track.

14. TotoRosanna
Toto was one of the first bands I ever got into — their Toto IV album was huge in 1982, when I was 12 years old and just starting to tap into popular music in any kind of attentive way. I played that LP over and over, starting with “Rosanna” and going through to “Africa“. I wasn’t terribly taken with the music they made after Toto IV, but I never stopped liking that album. Still, I hadn’t heard it for quite a while when I started learning a little more about Jeff Porcaro, their drummer. My friend Trish’s son is a drummer, and through him I learned that Porcaro is seen as a virtuoso, a genius among drummers. It’s not the sort of thing I have an ear for, but when I watched a video about how he created the Rosanna beat, I was able to get the sense of why he’s so revered, and why that beat is seen as such a challenge. Last year, my Sony credit card rewards people ran a deal that essentially resulted in me getting a bunch of free CD’s from them, including “The Essential Toto.” I listened to that CD this year, and heard the song with new ears.

15. Thompson TwinsIf You Were Here
I think the Thompson Twins are a pretty underrated band, and this is definitely one of their most underrated songs. Its music feels intimate and romantic in an 80’s, 16-Candles-Soundtrack kind of way, but its lyrics are just the opposite — detached, depressed, uncertain. I burned a CD of soundtrack songs this year, and this was the one that jumped out at me. Its contradictions hook me.

16. Florence And The MachineShake It Out
And now, a return to transcendence. Florence Welch’s voice is perfect for this song, gathering in power (and multi-tracked) as the synths swell, the drums kick, the choir bursts free. I never fail to get gooseflesh at “tonight I’m gonna bury that horse in the ground” — such an incredible image. I want nothing more than to pull that devil off people’s backs, but Florence acknowledges the truth, and ownership, of that situation: “Looking for heaven / found the devil in me / Well what the hell / I’m gonna let it happen to me”. I can’t hope to keep up with this song vocally, but I love to sing along — it feels like flying.

17. The Beach BoysDon’t Worry Baby
So, on one level, this song is about racing cars, male competition, and teenage insecurity. But after those opening lines, nothing else matters. “Well, it’s been building up inside of me for oh, I don’t know how long / I don’t know why but I keep thinking something’s bound to go wrong.” Who can’t relate to that? Plus, it’s just one of the most beautiful damn melodies ever, matched with a perfect vocal.

18. StingSomeone To Watch Over Me
I first learned this song through Sting’s version, and it wasn’t until I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s that I understood how Sting’s gender-flipping of the song did some damage to it. It was originally written to be sung by a woman, which is how it got internal rhymes like “a certain lad I’ve had in mind.” Somehow “a certain girl I’ve had in mind” doesn’t quite have the same snap. But in another way, the flip is rather subversive. “I’d like to add her initial to my monogram,” Sting sings. How often do we hear that sentiment from a man? In any case, I love this song, whoever is singing it. And I feel it too — each of us needs someone to watch over us, even those of us who are self-appointed guardians ourselves.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 14 – Across The Universes

I grew up a Marvel kid. I can absolutely tell you the names of every founding member of the New Mutants, or where Spider-Man went to college, or why the Avengers first got together. I knew about DC heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but I latched onto Marvel first (or maybe it latched onto me), so I never read a lot of DC comics, and that pattern continued through most of my life.

That’s not to say I didn’t give them a chance. My youthful comics obsession led me to check out pretty much every comic-related book in our local library (Dewey 741.5, baby!), which included a number of DC-oriented books. This was in the mid-to-late 1970s, when superhero comics still lacked the cultural cred (and numerous trade paperbacks) that would get actual stories stocked on public library shelves, but I checked out the Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman editions of the Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes several times each. Maybe the word “encyclopedia” got them in the door. Anyway, I dutifully read up, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that compared to my beloved Marvel heroes, the DC stable was just kind of… flat. Bland. Corny. And worst of all: silly. (The contemporaneous Super Friends cartoon, with its Wonder Twins and their super-monkey, surely didn’t help matters.)

What I didn’t realize back then was that DC was paying the price for blazing the trail. Those heroes had come along first, and by 1960 had become the Establishment against which Marvel rebelled, with their “real people and real problems” approach to superhero stories. In comparison, DC looked stodgy, and they were. Not only that, DC had learned to tread carefully in the wake of anti-comic hysteria and the Comics Code Authority. Their heroes were, in fact, flat, bland, and corny, to ensure that they would remain inoffensive and therefore not a target for any further congressional hearings. Not only that, the 1966 Batman TV series ushered in an arch, campy approach to masked heroics that drove the stories’ tone in the same direction. For a while, they got to explore territory that Marvel was (mostly) ignoring, but the Batman fad was short-lived and led to an even deeper crash.

Add to this the fact that they had already lived through one boom-and-bust superhero cycle. After Superman’s introduction in 1938, followed by Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, and others in the next few years, superheroes were big business in the comics industry, and DC (known at the time as National) had the vast majority of popular superheroes. They published many adventures of these marquee stars, and pulled them (as well as a number of lesser lights) into a supergroup called the Justice Society of America. Superheroes and groups like the JSA were the perfect American power fantasy at a time when the world seemed enmeshed in a stark good-versus-evil struggle, and they dutifully marched (or flew) off to fight Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini as well as the usual legions of scheming supervillains and ordinary crooks. However, after World War II ended, the country’s mood shifted, and superheroes seemed to lose their luster. By the late 1940s, DC had ceased publication of all but a few superhero titles. The Golden Age was over.

About a decade later, though, editor Julius Schwartz decided to give superheroes another try, with a revival of The Flash. The new Flash had a different identity, different costume, and different origin than the Golden Age Flash — about the only thing they had in common was the power of super-speed. Heartened by the story’s success, DC revived and revamped more heroes, and brought back the supergroup concept, though this time they were called the Justice League rather than the Justice Society. The stories caught on, and superheroes came charging back. The Justice League in particular inspired Stan Lee to try doing a supergroup his way, from whence sprang the Fantastic Four and the whole ever-lovin’ Marvel Universe.

In a brilliant move, Schwartz found a way to bring his Golden Age heroes into the new DC continuity, and once again The Flash was the key. In a 1961 story, Schwartz directed writer Gardner Fox to have The Flash “vibrate his molecules” (as it were), resulting in a sudden and unexpected teleportation into a parallel Earth. There on “Earth-Two”, he meets the Golden Age Flash, and the two of them team up to save the day before the newer Flash returns to Earth-One. The story was a smash success, and once again, success spurred expansion of the concept. So it was that a couple of summers later, DC published “Crisis on Earth-One!” and “Crisis on Earth-Two!”, a two-part story in the Justice League Of America comic, in which villains from Earth-Two find their way to Earth-One, defeating and imprisoning the JLA inside its own headquarters. Batman suggests that they conduct a seance, using a magic crystal ball left over from some other adventure, and from there they use the crystal ball to summon the JSA from Earth-Two! The two supergroups team up, defeat the villains, and set everything back to status quo.

The next summers brought “Crisis on Earth-Three!”, “Crisis on Earth-A!”, “Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two!”, and so forth. Every summer, for years, some crisis prompted somebody to cross the “vibrational barrier,” and the JLA and JSA met to adventure across various alternate versions of the primary world. It quickly became clear that the DC Universe was no longer just a universe — it was a multiverse, teeming with parallel Earths. There was an Earth whose JLA was villainous, an Earth where the Nazis won World War II (featuring the Freedom Fighters, heroes acquired from the defunct Quality Comics), an Earth with the Charlton Heroes, an Earth with Captain Marvel and the Fawcett heroes, a post-nuclear-war Earth, an Earth where Superman was raised by apes, and so on, and on, and on. After a while, the concept had clearly become a victim of its own success. The surfeit of Earths was confusing, unfriendly to new readers, and, again, oftentimes just silly.

In 1985, DC decided to remedy these problems via a landmark 12-issue “maxi-series” called Crisis On Infinite Earths. Lots of stuff happened in this story, and it made such a big impression that despite the fact that there had been about a zillion story crises leading up to it, now when people say “Crisis” in reference to DC, what they mean is Crisis On Infinite Earths. Fans routinely refer to “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis” DC continuity. The biggest change of all was that it eliminated the multiverse. Due to the cosmic machinations of a Big Bad and a reality-shattering battle that ensues, all but five Earths get destroyed, and those get fused into one single Earth. The JLA, the JSA, the (Captain) Marvel family, the Freedom Fighters, and the Charlton Heroes all existed together, and none of them ever remembered having been apart. There were no more crises, because there was no more barrier to be crossed.

Harbinger explains the history of New Earth, from COIE 11.

So it remained, for about 20 years. But big-business superhero comics are a cyclical milieu, and no possible attention-getting or moneymaking idea remains untouched forever. DC pulled in thriller author Brad Meltzer to write a dark, violent JLA story that he cleverly titled Identity Crisis. That story began a long “uber-crossover”, in which crossover events were no longer events, but rather one long mega-story along the spine of the DC universe, divided into major movements which sometimes piled atop one another, sometimes contradicted one another, and always tried to be ultimate and unmissable, with mixed results. Following directly on the heels of Identity Crisis was Infinite Crisis, in which characters from Crisis on Infinite Earths checked in on 20 years of story development, and were disappointed in what they saw. The resulting battle ended with Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman all taking a break from the hero business for a while. Of course, DC couldn’t exactly write their books without the main characters, so they invoked a time-jumping gimmick. Suddenly all the books were branded “One Year Later” — a year’s worth of continuity had elapsed and there were various changes in the status quo, but the heroes were back.

The story of the missing year is chronicled in 52, a yearlong, 52-issue series in which (as you may have deduced) a new issue was released every week. The biggest effect of 52 is that it undoes the major change of Crisis On Infinite Earths by restoring the multiverse, or at least a portion of it. Due to some stuff that happened during Infinite Crisis, and a rampage by a giant worm that eats time and space (no, really), the DC Universe was full of differing parallel Earths again. 52 of them, to be exact. (Funny coincidence, that.) And this, my friends, is where the Watchmen annotations finally come in, continuing their discussion of the Charlton heroes:

Completing the circle, in the 2007-2008-2009 DC Crossover series 52, Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis, it’s established that Earth-4 is the new home of different versions of the Charlton Comics heroes homaged in Watchmen. Writer Grant Morrison notes that Earth-4’s Question owes a certain amount to Rorschach, while in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond (2 issue limited series, writer Morrison), the Captain Atom of Earth-4 looks and acts much more like Dr. Manhattan than he does any previous version of Captain Atom.

So, possessing very little of the background provided above, I read 52, Countdown To Final Crisis, and Final Crisis. I found them utterly bewildering. We pick up on various characters dealing with developments that are never introduced or explained, because they happened in other books. Characters arrive in dramatic splash pages, with zero explanation as to who they are. Moments of unexplained history get casually referenced, like the untranslated French or Latin phrases that used to pepper literary novels. It gave me a real sense of what it must be like for a new reader to try to pick up a Marvel comic and understand what the hell is going on. These big event comics are the most heavily advertised books in the business — and sometimes garner mainstream press due to killing off some character, or making somebody gay, or what have you — but they are the very worst books for a new reader to pick up, because they presume a graduate degree in fictional universe history. You’re far better off with a copy of Watchmen, in which every reader of Chapter 1 starts on equal ground. Ironically, these are the very sorts of problems that Crisis On Infinite Earths was written to alleviate, but today’s crossovers complicate rather than simplify their universes.

Lucky for me, learning more superhero stuff doesn’t exactly feel like a chore, so I read a lot of background material and then returned to the crossovers. This time they made more sense, though not complete sense. There’s still a whole lot I don’t know, and the works themselves vary pretty dramatically in quality. In particular, Countdown to Final Crisis is rather a mess, starting out as a mirror-image of 52 (another weekly series, but this time starting at #52 and ending at #1) but changing title halfway through, and (quite literally) pushing characters around on a chessboard without much regard for the accuracy, consistency, or integrity of their portrayals. However, there was also plenty of interesting stuff to be found in the various series, some of which relates pretty directly to Watchmen. From here on out, you’re in a spoiler zone for Watchmen and all DC crossovers.

First of all, despite the annotations’ suggestion that 52 is what established the Charlton heroes on Earth-4, that designation happened way back in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Issue #1 of Crisis appeared in April of 1985, a couple of years after DC had acquired the Charlton heroes, and a little over a year prior to the first issue of Watchmen. Crisis #1 marks the introduction of Blue Beetle as a DC character, and thus the introduction of Earth-4, though it isn’t named as such until issue #7. Of course, Earth-4 gets wiped out a few issues later, as cataclysmic events force the five surviving universes into one, combining the histories of different stables of heroes. That’s what brings the Charlton heroes into the DC universe, a fusion which wouldn’t have happened if Alan Moore had been allowed to use them for Watchmen. But since Watchmen ended up with original characters, The Question and the rest ended up in the DC universe. In fact, The Question ends up being one of the main characters of 52, but more about that in a bit.

So Crisis took up most of 1985 and the beginning of 1986. Watchmen started in the middle of 1986 and went through to the middle of 1987. In between landed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, its beginning slightly overlapping the end of Crisis. Where Crisis was concerned with cleaning up the wacky mess that had been made of the DC Universe, Watchmen and Dark Knight wanted to interrogate the superhero genre itself, to reveal (among other things) the political, sexual, and moral implications of a world where people got dressed up in tights and punched each other. All three series were extremely popular, which meant that while Crisis made way for new stories, those new stories were ushered in by Dark Knight and Watchmen.

Unfortunately, many of the writers who followed in Miller and Moore’s footsteps did so based on a rather shallow reading of their work (especially Watchmen), taking the dark, oppressive atmosphere but leaving out the variety of viewpoints and the psychological depth. The result was a wave of “grim and gritty” comics. Formerly simon-pure heroes became morally grey. Already morally grey heroes got really morally grey, sometimes becoming outright villains, or at least crossing boundaries that were formerly sacrosanct. The hair, the muscles, the guns, and the shoulder pads all got a lot bigger. Violence, gore, and horror climbed steadily. What would the heroes of an earlier era think of what they had become? Infinite Crisis would dramatize the answer.

Cover of Infinite Crisis trade paperback

Infinite Crisis was conceived as a kind of sequel to Crisis On Infinite Earths, and a marker of its 20th anniversary. At the end of Crisis, a few characters had walked off stage: an alternate Superman & Lois Lane (from Earth-Two, making them the Golden Age versions of the characters), an alternate Superboy (from Earth-Prime, where he was the only superpowered person), and an alternate son of Lex Luthor (from Earth-Three, where alignments are reversed and his father was the sole superhero fighting evil versions of the Justice League.) They all went to a netherworld “heaven” outside the universe proper. In Infinite Crisis, we learn that they’ve been watching how Earth-One has developed (and perhaps devolved) since, and they eventually come to the conclusion that they made a terrible mistake leaving its heroes on their own. These personifications of the pre-Watchmen comics era decide that it’s time to turn back the clock, to return the world to its more innocent times.

But of course, the genie is out of the bottle, and they themselves are part of the post-Watchmen landscape. Superboy-Prime’s rage amps up and up with his frustration, and he ends up going completely berserk battling Earth-One Superboy and a bunch of Teen Titans. In a heated moment he actually decapitates some poor D-list superheroine (albeit accidentally.) Try finding that in a Silver Age comic. Similarly, Earth-Three Luthor turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the whole thing (a 180-degree pivot from his Crisis persona), ruthlessly kidnapping heroes and eventually smashing planets together trying to create the perfect Earth. Earth-Two Superman finally decides he’s fighting on the wrong side, and sacrifices his life to defeat Superboy-Prime.

Several times in the course of the story, the Crisis exiles claim that Earth-One is a corrupting influence, and that it has ruined its heroes. In the context of the story, we’re meant to understand that this is a delusion, and that those characters are, at best, tragically misguided. On the symbolic level, though, I wonder. Superhero comics really did change forever in the mid-eighties, and Watchmen was one of the prime reasons for that. Once that book took superheroes apart, something shifted between writers and audience. Part of it was writers chasing the enduring success of Watchmen by imitating it (often very poorly), but part of it was an audience for whom simple good vs. evil conflicts seemed to have paled. If Earth-One is the superhero mainstream, it truly is a different place now, and while people are still writing stories with that more innocent feel, they are exceptions and curiosities. Our heroes will never again be “big, brave uncles and aunties”, for better or for worse.

52 reinforces that point. With the superhero “Trinity” gone, and much of the rest reeling from the events of Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, 52 weaves a story from multiple viewpoints, each of which explores the nature of heroism, much like another book I could mention. 52 is no Watchmen — for one thing it’s far more sprawling, and far, far less self-contained — but it does visit some corners of superheroism where Watchmen didn’t travel, or at least not much.

For instance, Watchmen treats superheroes as a strictly American phenomenon, but 52 casts its net wider. We see the Great Ten, a Chinese supergroup with names like “August General In Iron” and “Accomplished Perfect Physician.” The group finds itself autonomous from the rest of the superhero universe, as China signs the Freedom Of Power Treaty, which bans foreign superbeings from operating within its borders. Beyond that, one of the series’ major plot threads is the ascension of Black Adam (basically Captain Marvel’s evil twin) to the throne of the fictional Middle East country Kahndaq. Adam starts out as a ruthless dictator, but his brutality becomes tempered by love, and he empowers a former refugee to become his queen Isis. Of course, love interests are always in the comic-book crosshairs, so Isis dies and Adam goes berserk, murdering pretty much an entire country and decimating the army of superheroes which comes after him. It isn’t until Captain Marvel sneakily changes Adam’s magic word that the madness stops.

Thus is each book a product of its time. Watchmen was a British writer’s dystopia of American dominance granted by godlike superpowers, and the missiles that could fly when that dominance evaporates. 52 isn’t fretting about nuclear war, but it is quite anxious indeed about a rampant Middle East, its power unleashed in a fanatical campaign of revenge killing that slaughters the innocent population of a nearby country. It is surely no coincidence that the writing team of 52 is 75% American. (The other 25% is Grant Morrison of Scotland, about whom more in a moment.) While Watchmen envisioned the national god as detached and unemotional, as indifferent to humanity’s fate as an atom bomb, 52‘s national god is motivated by the deepest human sins — lust, wrath, pride. He is a nihilist, a terrorist.

52 also marks the final destination of the Denny O’Neil incarnation of The Question. Charles Victor Szasz dies of lung cancer, high in the mountains of Tibet, passing his mantle to an alcoholic and lost Gotham City detective named Renee Montoya. Szasz becomes Montoya’s mentor over the course of 52, always peppering her with the question, “Who are you?”, until she finally answers it by becoming the new Question. By this point, The Question was just the most recent of the Charlton characters to become unrecognizable or extinct. The Ted Kord Blue Beetle is killed in a one-shot called Countdown to Infinite Crisis (not to be confused with Countdown To Final Crisis). Captain Atom bounced back and forth between hero and villain several times, and at the point of Infinite Crisis had flipped into a different identity called Monarch, then gone AWOL into another dimension. Nightshade had joined a team called Shadowpact, which got written out of the DC Universe for a while simultaneous with the publication of 52. Peacemaker had died in an early 90s issue of Eclipso, and Thunderbolt never made much of impression on the DC Universe in the first place. 20 years of continuity past Watchmen had killed, erased, or transformed most of its inspirations.

Enter the new Earth-4. By the end of 52 there’s a new 52-world multiverse, and world #4 in this lineup is pretty clearly shown to contain versions of the Charlton characters, which hew much more closely to their original versions rather than the DC mutations. But they can’t really be the original versions, not in this post-Watchmen world. Grant Morrison says in a post-52 interview that the idea of this “Megaverse” was to allow DC a banquet of franchise opportunities — “If you miss Vic Sage as the Question, you should be able to follow the adventures of Vic’s counterpart on the Charlton/Watchmen world of Earth 4.” However, a few breaths earlier in that same interview, he avers that “If you think you recognize and know any of these worlds from before, you’d be wrong,” insisting that the concepts would be revamped and rethought.

Those imagined franchises never launched, so we didn’t get to find out what that new “Charlton/Watchmen” world was like. However, we do get a taste of Earth-4’s Captain Atom in another Morrison series, Final Crisis, or more specifically, an offshoot of it called Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. In that book, certainly one of the trippier superhero comics I’ve ever seen, Superman travels in the interstitial spaces between the 52 universes, a space the book calls “The Bleed.” He’s accompanied by four alternate supermen:

Ultraman (the evil antimatter Superman), Captain Marvel (a more innocent Superman), Overman ("guilt-ridden champion of Earth 10, where the Nazis won the second world war"), and quantum superman Allen Adam

The last of these, “Air Force captain Allen Adam, the ‘quantum superman’ of Earth 4,” clearly owes far more to Alan Moore than to Steve Ditko. He is clothed, and he shares his name with Captain Atom, but otherwise he is straight-up Dr. Manhattan. He’s blue. He’s got the image of a hydrogen atom on his forehead. His size varies depending on necessity or mood. He says stuff like “Allow me to demonstrate quantum super-position as used defensively,” at which point he replicates himself into a bunch of duplicates. He also says this, to the super-evil antimatter Ultraman: “I am the endgame of the idea that spawned the likes of you, Ultraman. I am beyond conflict.”

Superman, Captain Marvel, Ultraman, and Overman are all the “mightiest mortal” of their respective earths. But quantum Adam is no mortal. He is, essentially, a god, and perhaps beyond good and evil, as a certain Mr. Nietzsche might say. But Morrison plants some seeds to problematize that notion as well. First, there’s the fact that Adam takes drugs to “dampen his quantum sense to acceptable levels.” Why would a god need to do such a thing, unless there were some human part of him, struggling to mitigate the full experience of divinity? Second, he does become a force for good in the end. He fuses Superman and Ultraman for a moment, releasing tremendous energy from the matter/antimatter blast. He does this in order to help Superman obtain some “bottled Bleed” in order to save Lois Lane’s life, for which purpose Adam must obtain enough energy to “broadcast [Superman’s] pure essence to a receiver in a higher dimension.” His final words in the series? “Only Superman can save us now.”

It’s tempting to think that Morrison’s version of Dr. Manhattan is partly Captain Atom, but I would suggest that in fact, Moore’s character has these same qualities. He is not beyond emotion — witness his freakout at the press conference when he is told that he caused Janey Slater’s cancer. As much as he pretends to be above emotion, he can be far from rational when under duress. Also, his insistence on keeping Veidt’s secret at the end, and his murder of Rorschach to ensure the secret would stay safe, suggests that (perhaps due to Laurie’s revelation on Mars) he still has a vested interest in protecting humanity.

Of course, almost immediately afterwards he departs our galaxy, just as Captain Adam in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond says, “I must return to my world.” But unlike Dr. Manhattan, we may see the “quantum superman” again — if 52 and its successors prove anything it’s that in the DC Universe, nothing ever ends.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 13 – In the Form of a Question

In the last two entries, I superverbosely examined all the various Charlton “Action Heroes” upon whom the Watchmen characters are based, and noted that Alan Moore had to create his own characters because although DC had acquired the Charlton heroes, DC editor-in-chief (and former Charlton executive editor) Dick Giordano wanted to integrate them into the DC universe rather than, y’know, corrupting and killing them.

So Watchmen got new characters while some of the Charlton characters found their way into various inhabited quarters. Captain Atom got his own series, Blue Beetle landed in the Justice League, and Nightshade joined the Suicide Squad.

Then there was The Question. Unlike those other, more generic superheroes, who could be slotted pretty easily into an ongoing comic universe, The Question was a bit of an oddball. He didn’t have a costume, really (besides the lack of a face), and he didn’t have any superpowers. Most importantly, his strident Objectivism was a deeply idiosyncratic Steve Ditko expression, one that stood pretty much alone in the mainstream comics world. How could anybody who wasn’t Ditko keep writing a character like this?1

The writer DC chose for the job was Denny O’Neil, and the choice made it clear that The Question would be changing. (And this is probably a good time to note that spoilers follow for Watchmen and O’Neil’s Question series.) Like Ditko and Giordano, O’Neil was another Charlton veteran who arrived to shake up the rather stodgy and stale DC stable in 1968. He really made his name a couple of years later, with a brief but legendary run on Green Lantern, which became Green Lantern/Green Arrow under his watch. In that series, O’Neil teamed with artist Neal Adams to bring a street-level realism to the formerly rather cosmic and abstract Green Lantern tales. Suddenly, the prototypical DC hero, a rather bland and one-dimensional “big brave uncle”, was forced to confront situations in which the law wasn’t always on the side of the righteous, and social inequity loomed larger than supervillainous plots.

Green Arrow was introduced as a fiery progressive foil to Lantern’s true blue Establishment values, but O’Neil wisely avoided blatant partisanship by keeping both heroes heroic and flawed. Arrow in his way is as shrill and didactic a voice for liberalism as The Question ever was for conservatism, and sometimes Green Lantern’s cautiousness saved Arrow from making crucial mistakes, even as Arrow opened Lantern’s eyes to a raft of problems he’d never noticed or cared about before.

The book took on racism, slumlords, cults, corporate oppression, and even heroin addiction, in a story that followed immediately on the heels of Stan Lee’s Comics Code-breaking anti-drug story in Spider-Man. Evenhanded though O’Neil was, the book’s depiction of these issues make it pretty clear that his sympathies are on the left. In one of its most famous and repeated passages, an elderly black man angrily confronts Green Lantern, saying, “I been readin’ about you… how you work for the blue skins… and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins… and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with–! …The black skins! I want to know… how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” And Mr. Green Lantern has no answer, just a feeble, “I… can’t.”

question 1 cover

So how would perhaps the most famously liberal writer in comicdom do justice to the famously Randian Question? Well, the first thing O’Neil did to the character was to kill him. Issue 12, page 1 of O’Neil’s Question series begins with the caption, “Hub City, Friday, November 21, 10:45 P.M.: Charles Victor Szasz has exactly 25 hours and 15 minutes to live.” But wait, what does that have to do with The Question, whose name is Vic Sage? Well, it seems O’Neil applied a bit of retcon to Ditko’s character, declaring that “Vic Sage” is in fact only a pseudonym for an orphan born Charles Victor Szasz. He kept Sage’s television career, his relationship with professor Aristotle Rodor (who he calls “Tot”), and his violent investigative techniques as The Question, but applied a hardboiled noir filter and drained out Ditko’s unsubtle philosophical and political commentary.

True to its word, that first issue’s last panel shows Vic Sage, aka Charles Victor Szasz, lying at the bottom of a river for at least ten minutes after being beaten lifeless and then shot in the head, his Question mask floating slowly upward. He was defeated by a martial arts expert named Lady Shiva, and then abused and pummeled by various generic punks before being shot with an air gun, the slug traveling all the way through his head. Aforementioned punks then dumped him in a river. Hardly an auspicious beginning for a hero’s new series! In fact, it reads more like a series-ending story.

And in fact, that’s what it was. Oh, the character came back, miraculously3 nursed back to health by that selfsame Lady Shiva, for reasons of her own. But Ditko’s version of Vic Sage was dead forever, to be reborn as someone quite different. After reviving him, Lady Shiva took Sage to her mentor Richard Dragon (a character created by O’Neil in a novel and later transferred to the DC universe.) Spending a year with Dragon, Sage discards his old self to adopt Zen philosophy and meditation. In fact, the book embraces Zen and Eastern philosophy so enthusiastically that O’Neil not only dramatizes various koans throught the run, he also provides a “Recommended Reading” text at the end of each issue, encompassing titles like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Wandering Taoist, and The Art Of War.

O’Neil also revamps The Question’s driving passion. In the Ditko stories, that passion is pretty clearly for the capital-T Truth, which naturally in Ditko’s viewpoint exists as objective fact, waiting only to be announced by that hero noble and unafraid enough to tell it. According to O’Neil, The Question’s passion is in fact… curiosity. Where Superman has altruism, Batman has revenge, and Spider-Man has guilt, O’Neil’s Question just has a burning desire to know things. As superhero obsessions go, it’s certainly different, but not very propulsive. “Gee, I’d like to know more about that” isn’t exactly bursting with narrative tension.

To compensate, O’Neil places his hero in Hub City, which he depicts as the very archetype of urban decay. Unlike Marvel, which generally sets its superheroes in real locations, DC tends to set its stories in fictional metropolises such as, well, Metropolis. Then there’s Gotham City, Coast City, Central City, Star City… you get the picture. Usually this approach leaves the stories feeling more abstract, less grounded, and a touch sillier. In the case of Hub City, however, the distancing tactic worked to the stories’ advantage. Because he wasn’t naming real names, O’Neil was free to make Hub City the worst city in America — corrupt cops, rampant crime, drugs everywhere, government incompetent and/or corrupt, orphanages bankrupt, and so on. If O’Neil had explicitly set his Question stories in East St. Louis, Illinois (upon which he based Hub City), he’d surely have endured angry letters and maybe even legal trouble. But with “Hub City”, he was free to portray the blight we know exists without the discomfort of disparaging someone’s actual home.

The fact that The Question lived in Hub City forced him into dramatic situations that curiosity alone could not have produced, while at the same time pushing O’Neil’s social justice themes to the fore. Supervillains were rather thin on the ground in Hub City, but human misery was everywhere Vic Sage looked. That misery drove most of his stories, in one fashion or another. Vic may be curious, but in Hub City, all his questions had tragic answers.

Predictably, Objectivist fans of the Ditko character freaked out at these changes, writing in to tell O’Neil that his storyline amounted to a cult brainwashing, but the die was cast. Or, at least, mostly. Vic never came off like a junior Ayn Rand again, but neither did he settle in Zen calm. In Hub City, how could he? He struggles constantly with feelings of anger, bitterness, and helplessness, falling further and further away from his meditation practice as the series goes on. One of these “behavioral dips” impels the story that brings you today’s entry. For as the annotations tell us:

The connection to the Charlton Comics heroes was recognized by the writers that carried on those heroes. In a late 1980s issue of The Question, the Question reads a copy of Watchmen and tries to emulate Rorschach’s methods.

The issue in question is #17. Things haven’t been going particularly well for Vic. In issue #15, he meets a hardcore racist named Loomis McCarthy, whom he despises. Then that selfsame McCarthy takes a bullet meant for Vic, sacrificing his own life even as Vic was in the midst of telling him, “I loathe you and everything about you — and everything you stand for.” Vic gets furious at a bystander who calls McCarthy a hero:

question 15

Then in #16, there’s an assassination attempt on the Hub City chief of police, who is seemingly the only honest cop in the whole burg. (At least, he’s the only one with a name.) At the end of the issue, The Question apprehends the assailant, who goes by the handle “Sundance.” As #17 begins, the imprisoned Sundance has summoned a fancy lawyer from Seattle.4 Vic is there in a journalistic capacity as the lawyer arrives, and thus witnesses the twist: the lawyer isn’t a laywer at all, but rather the assassin’s partner in crime, who sure enough goes by “Butch.” So Butch and Sundance escape back to Seattle.

This escape infuriates Vic, so he buys an airline ticket to Seattle, hoping to chase down the criminals. At the airport, Tot gently chides him, “Two things drive you — anger and curiosity. I sense that the anger is in control. I wish it were the curiosity.” Rodor leaves, and Vic picks up a little reading material for the flight: Watchmen. Not surprisingly, he tunes into Rorschach, thinking, “Maybe a bit over the edge, maybe a little bigoted and he sure as hell is angry, but he does have moves.” Vic dozes off in his seat, and dreams the end of #15, but with himself as Rorschach, complete with crinkle-edged speech balloons and italicized text.

question 17

Almost immediately after arriving in Seattle, Vic gets drunk with an underworld type, attempting to get information, only to get himself badly beat up by that same guy. He eventually wins the fight, and steals his attacker’s ID. As The Question, he drives up outside the thug’s house, and thinks, “I could sit here in this rental car and keep an eye on the bastard’s house until something happened. But I ask myself, what would Rorschach do? He’d kick ass.” So The Question dives through the picture window, threatens the dude, and then gets clocked by a partner who was also in the house. On orders from Butch and Sundance, the two guys drive him up into the wintry mountains, planning to break his arms & legs and then let him freeze to death. Sitting in the car, he thinks, “Tot said my anger was in control and he was right and when I’m riding anger I make mistakes. Stupid mistakes. Why didn’t I listen?”

The Question manages to leap out of the moving car, and flees into the snowy wilderness, thinking to himself, “How did Rorschach end up? Oh yeh… dead. He ended up a wet spot in the snow. Why’d I have to remember that? Why do I have to keep learning the same lessons over and over? Being tough is not enough…” Then the wounded, exhausted, and frozen Question collapses. The thugs find him, and one points a gun at his head, saying, “Any last words?” The Question’s reply: “Yeah. Rorschach sucks.” Then a sudden surprise rescue from Green Arrow, and finis for that issue.

So now we have a triangle, its three points being Ditko’s Question, O’Neil’s Question, and Moore’s Rorschach. Ditko’s creation was the wellspring and inspiration for both of the other characters, and this issue draws the line connecting those characters to each other. As a means of character development for O’Neil’s Question, it works very well. One of the book’s major themes is Vic’s search for identity — as an orphan and a wanderer among philosophies, The Question’s central question is, “Who am I?” In that context, of course he’d explore adopting a persona based on this funhouse reflection of himself.

The trouble is, Vic does a terrible job of reading Watchmen. His takeaway about Rorschach seems to center on violence, anger, and toughness. It’s almost as though he has Rorschach mixed up with The Comedian. As a result, he misses the attribute of Rorschach which is most opposite Vic himself: his certainty. Rorschach is not seeking identities — ever since the Blaire Roche case, his identity is rock-solid. He knows exactly what he stands for and never wavers, much like Ditko’s Question. He’s about the last person in his universe who would ever say something like, “Maybe there are no heroes… and no villains, either.” Putting those words in Rorschach’s mouth shows us just how much distance is between those two points in our triangle.

The next incident also underlines their differences. Where Rorschach threatens and injures criminals in an attempt to get information, Vic tries to buddy up to them, only to get injured himself. Can you imagine Rorschach ever offering to get drunk with a criminal? Or for that matter, a common thug getting the jump on him? Where Vic isn’t sure what to do, and therefore tries new methods, Rorschach knows exactly what his methods are, and does not waver from them.

Those methods, I would argue, do not include charging into unknown situations to “kick ass.” Most of the times we see him go into action — investigating Blake’s death, hiding in Moloch’s fridge, eliminating Big Figure and his henchmen in jail — he is quite deliberate about everything, and appears to have thought through the angles either ahead of time or very quickly. Even when we see him act spontaneously, such as his cooking fat attack, he’s not acting impulsively — his facial expressions and body language are placid. Malcolm Long’s description of the subsequent actions says that they “dragged” Rorschach away from the scene, which suggests fighting or agitation, but immediately afterwards, he says that Rorschach “spoke to the other inmates.” Not screamed, not shouted… merely spoke.

We see an angry Walter Kovacs, but Rorschach’s affect remains flat, be it in therapy, jailbreak, interrogation, contemplation, or trying to save the world. Only at the very end, when he knows he’s about to die, does his composure shatter. He becomes a wet spot in the snow, but not because of his anger. His demise results from having so much of what O’Neil’s Question lacks: certainty. Vic, on the other hand, gets himself into trouble by letting his emotions rule him, and wavering from his convictions. He leaves Objectivism behind, he leaves meditation behind, he leaves moral clarity behind, and reaches out desperately to a book to help him find direction. But because of his unskilled interpretation of the material, that direction leaves him bleeding in the snow, and thinking that Rorschach sucks, when in fact, the main thing that sucks is The Question’s reading comprehension.

Endnotes

1 Ditko himself was mostly doing short stories for indie presses at this time. [Back to post]

2 Released in the same month as Watchmen #6. [Back to post]

3 Something about the diving reflex, and the bullet being so low-caliber that it failed to damage Vic’s brain, and his mask slowing the slug, and Shiva being “as skilled at healing as she is at harming.” Not that logic really enters the equation much when it comes to the resurrection of comic book superheroes. [Back to post]

4 Real cities do sometimes show up in the DC Universe. [Back to post]

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 12, part 2 – Who’s Down With O.P.C.?

In the previous installment, we looked at some of the Charlton “Action Heroes” created or co-created by Steve Ditko, upon whom the Watchmen characters were based: Captain Atom, Nightshade, Blue Beetle, and The Question. However, there were a number of O.P.C. as well — Other People’s Characters. They too had their Watchmen equivalents, so watch out for Watchmen spoilers as we round out the Charlton stable.

Judomaster

First, however, there is one action hero who did not have a Watchmen counterpart: the Frank McLaughlin character Judomaster. Rip Jagger is an Army sergeant in 1943, fighting the Japanese on an unnamed South Pacific island, when one of his trigger-happy privates shoots an unarmed girl. Jagger rescues the girl, but is pinned down by enemy fire. Suddenly, kendo-wielding natives ambush the Japanese soldiers, then knock Jagger unconscious. He awakens in a cave, where an ancient sensei thanks Jagger for rescuing (what turns out to be) the sensei’s granddaughter, but tells him that the rest of his unit is dead. Having nowhere else to go, Jagger trains under the sensei to learn judo, becoming so good that he achieves a black belt. Joining forces with the natives to fight the Japanese, Jagger dons the symbolic identity of Judomaster, whose uniform includes a samurai-esque high ponytail and a yellow-on-red rising sun flag motif.

That was the origin as told in Special War Series #4, a comic which was immediately discontinued. Judomaster reappeared the next month as a backup feature in Sarge Steel (who we’ll discuss below), and then a few months later got his own series. In that series, he joins back up with the Army, fights a variety of martial-arts-themed villains, and even picks up a sidekick called Tiger, who you may recall would later on become Nightshade’s trainer.

The theme of Judomaster’s stories was, well, judo. McLaughlin was quite a judo enthusiast, having trained since age 18 and even taught judo classes at the local YMCA. Even before he created Judomaster, he was drawing judo instruction backup features for Sarge Steel, panel after panel patiently explaining complicated throws and always ending with an admonition to be safe and work with an instructor. Those features continued into Judomaster, blurbed with cover copy like “SPECIAL BONUS: Judomaster’s defense against a bully… see how… step by step!” Similarly, Judomaster’s stories make an ongoing effort to teach judo principles and terminology. A typical piece of dialogue: “Judo is developed in three phases. Renshindo is physical development — shoubuho develops proficiency in combat and shushinho results in mental development! We work at these three things here in the dojo, our room where we meet for lectures and practice!”

Between its didactic focus and its WWII setting, there isn’t much here that would adapt easily into the Watchmen milieu, so this is one action hero who doesn’t make the leap into Moore’s world. However, there are some elements that arguably come across nevertheless. First, because of its setting in the previous generation, Judomaster serves as a prelude to the rest of the action heroes, just as the Minutemen set the stage for the Watchmen. Similar to Captain America’s juxtaposition against the 1960s Marvel universe, Judomaster appears in a world where there is no ambiguity, where the enemies are always clear. Also like Captain America, Judomaster fought a skull-faced Nazi, this one called the Smiling Skull. That name hearkens pretty clearly to the Screaming Skull, who Hollis Mason mentions running into at the grocery store. So although Watchmen didn’t inherit Judomaster, it may have (just slightly) inherited one of his villains.

charlton judomaster 92

Sarge Steel

Before Judomaster, the guy giving out judo advice in the backs of Charlton comics was a tough private eye named Sarge Steel. However, unlike Judomaster, Steel wasn’t created by McLaughlin but rather by Pat Masulli, the guy who initially hired McLaughlin at Charlton. In true “Captain Adam” fashion, the character’s real name is… Sargent Steel. He was also an Army sergeant, just to cover all the bases. During a Vietnam tour of duty, he makes an enemy of Chinese terrorist Ivan Chung, which results in a series of attempts on Steel’s life. While Steel is on R&R furlough in Saigon, a grenade is thrown at his feet. He tries to throw it out the window, but it’s been covered in glue, and it destroys his hand. For some reason, the Army doctors replace the missing hand with a clenched steel fist. What the science of prosthetics has gained in function, it has surely lost in badassery.

After the glued grenade ends his Army career, Steel becomes a private detective, and later a CIA agent who maintains a cover as a private detective. His stories are pretty much Chandler/Hammett pastiches, albeit with a bunch of spy stuff rather than seedy California underworld characters. The cliches pile up thick and fast, as do the cars and bodies. Femmes fatale are everywhere, as are initially tough female allies who inevitably crumble into damsel-in-distress mode so that Sarge can save them. The steel fist becomes a prominent feature in every Sarge Steel story. It can deflect bullets, knock out angry animals, break through doorways, and other amazing feats. It’s a rather, uh, hamfisted symbol for Steel’s primary quality, and in fact the predominant theme of his stories: toughness. In fact, Steel is occasionally billed as “The Toughest Man In The World!”, and panel after hardboiled panel tries to prove the point.

charlton sarge steel

The annotations say that “the Comedian shares some attributes with Sarge Steel,” and it’s easy to see what they mean. In his way, Edward Blake tries to live out the agent/detective’s hardheaded, womanizing image. As he says to Moloch, “The world was tough, you just hadda be tougher, right?” Only unlike Sarge Steel, The Comedian’s toughness didn’t win him any happy endings, and it didn’t protect him from much either. He says the line above while weeping inconsolably in front of his longtime enemy, his face is disfigured by the results of his own evil, and he doesn’t even survive to page one of the story. As for his attempts at womanizing, they get him publicly excoriated as a rapist, and alienate him permanently from his only daughter. So much for toughness.

The Peacemaker

Though he’s got plenty of Sarge Steel in his personality, the Comedian is said to be patterned primarily after The Peacemaker. This is a character created by Joe Gill and Pat Boyette, who originally appeared as a backup feature in a war/espionage comic called Fightin’ 5. In his civilian identity, he’s diplomat Christopher Smith, who travels around the world with his efforts to advance the cause of peace through détente and negotiation. However, when negotiations break down or prove futile, he breaks out a helmet, uniform, and panoply of technology to become The Peacemaker, a dude who punches people and blows stuff up. The first panel of his origin sets out the notion: “This is a man who detests war, violence, and the dreadful waste of human life in senseless conflicts between nations… a man who loves peace… so much so, that he is willing to fight for it!!”

charlton peacemaker panels

You’d think that this would have to be a short-lived gimmick. Of course, as it turned out, the entire Action Heroes line was short-lived, but one wonders just how many issues Christopher Smith could have continued failing at his job so that he could assume his other identity. As Alan Moore says in a 2000 interview, “I could see the holes in that one straightaway.” DC must have seen them too, because after they acquired the character, they retconned his contradictory philosophy as a mental illness caused by having a Nazi death camp commandant for a father. Thus, although the ostensible theme of Peacemaker stories is peace, I’d suggest that their most prominent attribute is in fact contradiction.

It’s easy to see how The Comedian takes after Sarge Steel. His relation to The Peacemaker isn’t so clear. The Comedian certainly doesn’t love peace, though he’s gung-ho about the fighting part. He’s not a genius who designed a bunch of weapons. Lord knows he’s no diplomat. So in just what way does he take after the Peacemaker?

I suppose the biggest similarity between the characters is in their internal contradictions. The Peacemaker is a supposed pacifist who spends most of each story attacking people. The Comedian is a supposed hero whose scenes mostly involve rape, murder, mayhem, tear-gassing civilians, and so forth. While I don’t think the Peacemaker was intended as any sort of ironic critique on national foreign policy, The Comedian is certainly written with an eye towards the absurdity of enforcing world peace (or any other kind of peace) through brutality and force. The idea of taking a guy like Blake and sending him out to pacify riots, end wars, or clean up crime… well, all anybody can do is laugh.

Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt

The final figure in our O.P.C. lineup is a fellow named Peter Cannon, written and drawn by the enigmatic P.A.M. Charlton stated that it was not at liberty to disclose P.A.M.’s identity, and letter columns were full of speculation about it. The closest the company would come would be to occasionally shoot down a reader’s theory. In the end, P.A.M. turned out to be Peter A. Morisi, who did indeed have an interest in keeping his identity secret — his day job was as a New York City policeman, and he was worried that he’d be fired if his moonlighting was discovered. It’s a rather superheroic conundrum really, except that the crimefighter is the true identity while the mysterious pseudonym belongs to the struggling artist. His character’s situation, though, was a bit different.

When Peter Cannon was just an infant, his parents brought him to a secluded lamasery in the Himalayas. Dr. Richard and Mary Cannon were a medical team fighting an outbreak of black plague in the area. They succeeded in conquering the disease, but it claimed them as its final victims. In gratitude for their sacrifice, the “high abbot” promises not only to raise Peter, but to “develop within the child, the highest degree of mental and physical perfection! Then, we will entrust unto him, the knowledge of the ancient scrolls.” This draws objections from “The Hooded One” who until Peter’s arrival had been slated to receive that knowledge. (Apparently, There Can Be Only One.)

With both mentor and archenemy thus in place, Peter set out on his training, which was a bunch of exercise and education, combined with “the mysteries and power of the mind!” See, what the ancient scrolls teach is the old saw that “Man is capable of all things, but lacks the strength of will to attain his potential, for he uses but one tenth of his brain, throughout his lifetime!” (Despite having been thoroughly debunked for ages, this myth is such a compelling origin for superpowers that it’s still getting used today.) Thus Peter is taught “concentration, thought patterns, mind over matter, meditation,” and so forth, until he emerges as a hyper-capable hero.

charlton peter cannon 3

He’s as physically fit as a person can be, but not superhumanly so. He’s very well-educated, but he doesn’t present himself as a polymath. No, his superpower, as well as the primary theme of his stories, is willpower. The “high abbott”1 posits “strength of will” as the reason why 90% of the brain remains unused, so it is through strength of will that Peter accesses his abilities. He even has a catchphrase for when he’s about to do something awesome: “I can do it… I must do it… I will do it!”

After passing the final tests that complete his training, Peter is sent from the lamasery into our world, accompanied by his childhood friend and assistant Tabu. He’s rather disappointed in what he finds — the sometimes squalid and venal world is no match for the monastic culture that raised him. Consequently, he becomes a rather reluctant hero. In pretty much every issue, Tabu has to wheedle and cajole Peter into donning his Thunderbolt costume and going out to save the day. A typical exchange:

TABU: Can you forever deny the benefits of your power of will to this society in which we live?
PETER: Uh-huh! As long as civilization deals in greed, hatred, and violence, I want no part of it!

Cannon prefers to keep to himself, training and studying, but inevitably there is always some situation that forces him into action. Or at least, there was for about 10 issues, after which he was gone along with the rest of the Action Heroes.

charlton peter cannon 2

Adrian Veidt’s parents were no medical saviors — all we know about them is his description: “intellectually unremarkable, possessing no obvious genetic advantages.” He grew up not in isolation but luxury, here in the world with the rest of us, eventually orphaned like Peter Cannon but not until he was 17. His intake of Asian wisdom was limited to a ball of hashish he procured in Tibet. (Thunderbolt’s true successor in the Eastern philosophy department may in fact be Denny O’Neil’s version of The Question, but more about that next time.) Thus there was no guru and no ancient scrolls — his only teachings were the promptings of his own intellect and ego.

We only have his word for all of this, and he may not be exactly reliable, what with being the villain of the piece and all. He deludes himself in some important and visible ways, which means that his account of his life may be questionable as well. So, he may not actually be the smartest person in the world, though at the very least, we have to admit that he’s a hell of a planner. And like Peter Cannon, he has considerable contempt for the world he means to save. While he speaks of “humanity’s salvation,” he sees it in terms as abstract as a math problem, and doesn’t hesitate to kill millions of people, even as he may claim to have made himself feel every death. It’s as if his left brain, the analytic and logical side, is in complete control, to the exclusion of the feeling & compassionate right brain. Thunderbolt may use 100% of his brain, but Ozymandias looks like he’s running right around 50%.

So while Veidt2 is certainly no dummy, he seems to lack any wisdom to match his exceptional intelligence. What he clearly does have in abundance, though, is willpower. Through his own desire to do so, he perfects his body and reflexes, so much so that he can even catch a bullet. He amasses a personal fortune well beyond his inheritance, through his scientific successes and business acumen. And as he gazes at the half-burned map in the abortive Crimebusters meeting, one can almost see the thoughts forming in his head: I can do it… I must do it… I will do it.

Final Thoughts

Thus concludes our trip through the Charlton inspirations for Watchmen characters. What I think becomes clear is that although Moore worried that his superhero murder mystery wouldn’t work without established characters, Watchmen is actually a much better book for the freedom it has from established continuity. In nearly every case, Moore’s changes to the characters made them deeper and more intriguing, and he was also able to entirely eliminate or amalgamate characters as he saw fit, thereby eliding the woolliness and baggage that tends to accompany existing characters.

Watchmen is a jewel in so many ways — Moore and Gibbons are just so perfectly in control, and one aspect of this is that Moore got to decide exactly what everybody’s past was, and didn’t have to engage with messes like The Question’s Objectivism or The Blue Beetle’s tangled history. He could write Under The Hood in a viewpoint that worked perfectly for the story, rather than one that would have to be wrenched in there from established continuity. And he could tap into the keystone theme of each character and ring changes upon it in ways that resonated with each other.

Of course, that’s not to say that Alan Moore isn’t adept with O.P.C. While nearly every generalization about his work falls apart in the face of his astonishing prolificity, I think it’s safe to say that he’s very good at engaging with other people’s characters and revealing startling new depths in them. From Miracleman to Swamp Thing to Batman & Superman to the dizzying array of literary characters in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, and even the historical characters on display in From Hell or the eroticized rewrites of Lost Girls, Moore can reveal fresh angles on established figures, with deftness and economy. No doubt the book would still have been great if he’d been given free rein over the Charlton characters.

The fact that he wasn’t, though, means that we got not only reinterpretations but entirely new creations, while the Charlton characters were allowed to continue growing and evolving in the DC Universe, free of the Armageddon that ends Watchmen. In fact, in one instance a Charlton character even got to react to Moore’s version of himself, even as he had already become someone quite different from his origins. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.

Endnotes

1 I have to scare-quote “high abbott”, because whoever heard of an abbot running a lamasery? It would be like a lama running an abbey![Back to post]

2 In my comic-book-history research, I stumbled across something interesting about this name. In 1928, an actor named Conrad Veidt had the title role in a film called “The Man Who Laughs”, based on a Victor Hugo novel about a noble scion who has face carved into a permanent grin. According to Patrick Day of the L.A. Times, “Stills of Veidt were used as inspiration by the Joker’s creators, artist Bob Kane, writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson.” Moore’s definitive Joker story, Batman: The Killing Joke, appeared shortly after Watchmen. Since we know that Moore is a guy who does his research, could he have drawn inspiration for the name of Watchmen‘s villain from the inspiration for one of the greatest villains in all of comics?

2013 XYZZY Best Individual PC review

I’ve belatedly realized that I never posted about this here, but like last year, I was recruited to write reviews for the “Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews.” Unlike last year, the category I chose had only one game in it: Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura was the sole nominee, because it was so good that no other game garnered more than a single nominating vote.

What made it so good? That’s the topic of my review.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 12, part 1 – Ditko Fever

Greetings, fellow Watchmenites. I have not been derailed, merely distracted. It’s crazy how fast six months can go by. Doesn’t seem like it ever used to happen that way twenty years ago, but then again, it’s crazy how fast twenty years can go by. In any case, it’s been a while. Sorry about that, but I did have a lot of reading to do. Let me tell you why, and as usual, I warn that Watchmen spoilers are ahead.

For the first time since this project began, I’m jumping a considerable (well, comparatively so) gap in the Annotated Watchmen v2.0 While the last couple of references, which turned out to be more or less red herrings, were on pages 12 and 15 of Chapter 1, we now jump all the way to page 23, having completed Rorschach’s tour through the main cast:

Now that we have met the main characters, it’s useful to look at the characters that they are loosely based on.

Moore’s original plan for Watchmen was that it would involve the Charlton Comics heroes, whom DC had purchased from the defunct Charlton in the early 1980’s. DC eventually decided to insert these characters into its own super-hero universe, leaving Moore to rework the characters in Watchmen. The Charlton characters and their Watchmen analogues are as follows:

  • The Question: Rorschach
  • The Comedian: The Peacemaker, though the Comedian shares some attributes with Sarge Steel as well
  • Nite Owls I and II: Blue Beetles I and II
  • Silk Spectre: Nightshade
  • Dr. Manhattan: Captain Atom
  • Ozymandias: Pete Cannon, Thunderbolt

The annotations then go on to briefly describe each Charlton character, but I’m not quoting that part, because I’m going to cover the same ground, albeit with trademark superverbosity. But first, a little history.

Once upon a time, in a town called Derby, Connecticut, there was a publishing company. Founded by Italian immigrant John Santangelo in 1931, the company’s first business was publishing lyric books for current popular songs. Unfortunately for Santangelo, this business model was illegal, and he ended up with a year-long jail term in 1934 for copyright violations. In the pokey, he met an attorney named Ed Levy, and the two went into business together after paying their debt to society. They both had sons named Charles, which is how the name “Charlton” came to be. They got hold of an old cereal box printing press, and made it part of a publishing venture. Where other companies contracted out for printing and distribution, Charlton put everything under one roof. They published (legal) music magazines (including the long-lived Hit Parader), fiction magazines, crossword puzzles, and, yes, comics. They published all kinds of comics — science fiction, funny animals, licensed properties (e.g. The Flintstones), crime, romance, war, horror, and when the circumstances dictated, superheroes too.

They were never a prestigious comics company, and they paid some of the lowest page rates in the business. In fact, the main reason that they published comics at all was that it was cheaper to do so than to shut the presses down, or so the story goes. Consequently, they were never known for their quality — writers and artists pounded out work quickly in order to make a living at such low wages. Nevertheless, for a time Charlton was a place where talented creators could hone their craft at the beginnings of their careers. Because the audience was small and the work high-volume, beginners could acquire a great deal of practice with a low public profile, and earn a few bucks in the process.

One of these beginners was a gifted, serious artist named Steve Ditko. Ditko did his first Charlton story in 1954, and continued working for the company throughout the 1950s, illustrating eerie tales and science fiction stories with an unusual flair and distinctiveness. However, after enduring a bout of tuberculosis in the mid-50’s, Ditko began taking side work at another company: Atlas Comics, which was soon to become Marvel. Ditko turned out the same kind of stories for Atlas as he did for Charlton, though at the former he was partnered with a veteran comics writer named Stan Lee.

As the 1960s dawned, superheroes were starting to gather a bit of steam again, so Ditko collaborated with Charlton writer Joe Gill to create a new superhero for the atomic age: Captain Atom! More about him later. Over at the company now known as Marvel, Ditko and Lee also got together to create a quirky superhero, whose debut was exiled to the final issue of an ailing anthology series called Amazing Adult Fantasy.

This was the birth of Spider-Man, one of the most famous and successful superheroes of all time. Month after month, Ditko and Lee turned out compelling, surprising Spider-Man stories, in the process generating an enduring supporting cast and rogues gallery for the instantly popular hero. They also collaborated on an even weirder creation: Doctor Strange, Master of The Mystic Arts, whose journeys through surreal extradimensional landscapes had college kids convinced that Ditko must have been on drugs.

The joke was on them, though, because not only was Ditko sober, he was straight and rigid as a steel arrow, and an arch-conservative Ayn Rand follower to boot. Lee, on the other hand, was a classic New York liberal, and not only that, he adhered to the notion that credit for a character’s creation should go solely to the writer. So as Spider-Man’s popularity skyrocketed (along with the rest of the Marvel line), the die was cast for these two guys to come into conflict. In fact, they weren’t even on speaking terms for the last year or so of their Spider-Man run, meaning that Lee would provide a line or two of plot summary, then Ditko would turn in full pages of art, into which Lee had to figure out how to slot his captions and dialogue.

When Ditko finally left, after Spider-Man #38, he never publicly said why. Onlookers have speculated about political conflict, character ownership claims, royalty disputes, and even a disagreement over the true identity of the Green Goblin. We will likely never know, as Ditko became more or less a media recluse, refusing most interviews and most questions.

charlton crimebuster letterWhat we do know is that after leaving Marvel in 1966, he returned to Charlton. By this time, he’d secured his place in the pantheon of legendary superhero artists, and a new Charlton executive editor named Dick Giordano wanted to capitalize on the opportunity. Thus was born the Charlton “Action Hero” line, including four Ditko-drawn heroes: Captain Atom, The Blue Beetle, The Question, and (briefly) Nightshade. To these, Giordano added other creators’ characters, such as Joe Gill & Pat Boyette’s Peacemaker, Peter A. Morisi’s Thunderbolt, Gill & Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster, and Pat Masulli’s Sarge Steel. Sadly, while the Action Heroes line had its fans, it couldn’t sustain itself, and by the end of 1967 the whole thing had been scrapped.

Fast forward to 1983. By this time, Giordano had left Charlton, and had in fact become editor-in-chief at DC Comics. Charlton itself had fallen on hard times, publishing only reprints of its old material year after year. DC Executive Vice President Paul Levitz bought the rights to the entire Action Hero line from Charlton, as a gift to Giordano, who was encouraged to use the characters however he pleased.

Meanwhile, Alan Moore was contemplating a superhero murder mystery with established characters, and mapped out a pitch based around the recently acquired Charlton heroes. Giordano, wanting to use the characters as a part of the mainstream DC universe, balked at the changes that Moore’s storyline would force upon them, and encouraged Moore to create new characters for his project. And so here we are, with a book full of characters who share DNA with their Charlton ancestors, but who have also mutated in important and interesting ways.

Let’s look at each Charlton action hero in turn, along with how they map to their Watchmen analogues. In this entry I’ll focus on the Ditko characters, and then next time around I’ll pick up the rest.

Captain Atom

Captain Atom premiered in March of 1960, as the heroic alter ego of… Captain Adam, an eye-roller of a “secret” identity name if there ever was one. Captain Allen Adam, at least as he’s described on the first page of his origin story, is pretty superlative even before he gets his powers: “the Air Force career man who knew more about rocketry, missiles, and the universe than any man alive… a specialist of the missile age, a trained, dedicated soldier who was a physics prodigy at eight, a chemist, a ballistics genius!” For some reason, this invaluable genius is inside an Atlas missile, making final adjustments with just three minutes until blast-off. Wouldn’t you know it, he drops the screwdriver and can’t extricate himself in time, so he is launched into the stratosphere alongside an atomic warhead, preset to explode in space.

And explode it does! Captain Adam is disintegrated, but… “at the instant of fission, Captain Adam was not flesh, bone and blood at all… the desiccated molecular skeleton was intact but a change, never known to man, had taken place!” In point of fact, he mysteriously reintegrates, but as a (literally) radioactive man. His first task is to find himself a suit that will protect others from his radioactivity, and so his military buddies fetch him something called “dilustel”, which “converts the escaping rays to another frequency in the light spectrum.”

charlton capt atom reintegrated

Captain Atom possesses a wide variety of powers, some of which seem to fluctuate at the writer’s whim. There are a few constants. He can fly and survive outer space like Superman. He can disintegrate and reintegrate to phase through solid matter. He can project heat from his body, and is strong and invulnerable. Otherwise, he can do whatever the plot needs him to do.

The main theme to Captain Atom stories is American superiority. Early on, these tended to take the form of short, fantastical red-baiters like “The Second Man In Space,” in which Captain Atom rescues a Russian astronaut who is dying in his capsule but ignored by Russian leaders on the ground, desperate to score a propaganda victory over the USA. (The astronaut lands safely and proclaims that an American saved him, meaning that the Russian was not the first man in space, hence the title.)

Later, the Captain turned his attention to marauding aliens, and finally, in the 1966 revival, to supervillains like Doctor Spectro, Thirteen, and The Ghost. Throughout all his stories, he remains a military officer whose loyalty is to the United States government. Even the supervillainy of his supervillains tended to be along the lines of “I stole some of the Air Force’s valuable equipment!” (In fact, his most frequent nemesis The Ghost was that worst of all blackguards, a former military adviser turned traitor.) All of CA’s victories, whether over Communists, aliens, supervillains, or rogue asteroids, were assertions of American invincibility1, and when they were complete he always returned to his life as Captain Adam, USAF.

Like Allen Adam, Jon Osterman has considerable scientific knowledge, and like Adam, he finds himself locked in an inescapable chamber upon which the power of Big Science is unleashed. Osterman is similarly disintegrated, and then reassembles himself again, albeit rather more gradually and gruesomely than does his predecessor. Finally, like Captain Atom, Dr. Manhattan can do pretty much anything he wants to, and for a time he even does it in the service of the United States government, lending it the same air of total indomitability.

Such are the similarities. But the differences mean more. Where Captain Atom is a military captain, representing armed aggression and might, Doctor Manhattan is an academic Doctor of Philosophy, representing intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Consequently, the Doctor soon loses interest in the kinds of hegemonic operations that occupy the Captain, moving his sphere of exploration to another sphere altogether. In any case, the Doctor’s government is a far cry from the unquestioned source of good that government represents in the Captain’s world.

Moreover, Dr. Manhattan’s persona takes Captain Atom’s godlike powers to their logical conclusion of godhood. For someone who travels among the stars and witnesses the wonders of the universe, the Captain seems content to keep his energies focused on the rather small beer of supervillain battles and national defense. The Doctor, on the other hand, comes to view such topics with utter indifference, finding fervency only in quantum miracles and the spontaneous creation of life. Reflecting this schism, the American people love the Captain2 but are utterly terrified of the Doctor, and perhaps rightly so. They realize that his loyalty is not to the United States nor even to humanity, and that therefore their own safety hangs always by the thread of his whims.

Nightshade

In issue #823 of the rebooted Captain Atom, the Captain picks up a partner. This is a heroine named Nightshade, “The Darling Of Darkness.” Nightshade is basically the punching kicking type, but she does have the superpower to change into a shadow (although she hates to do it), and also carries an arsenal of stuff like “ebony bombs” and a “black light gun.”

Of all the Charlton heroes, she bears the least resemblance to her Watchmen counterpart, and for good reason: Moore has said that he found her the least interesting, and that he patterned Silk Spectre II more after heroines like the Phantom Lady and the Black Canary. Stay with me though, because it’s still worth looking at how Nightshade herself made her way into the character of Laurie Juspeczyk.

Nightshade didn’t have too many Charlton appearances. She was created by Ditko and Joe Gill for Captain Atom, but she only showed up in a handful of issues before that series was canceled. However, she did have three solo stories as a CA backup feature, written by Dave Kaler and drawn by future Batman artist Jim Aparo. The predominant theme of these stories was childhood trauma, specifically centered around the character’s mother. Eve Eden is a senator’s daughter and jet-setting party girl, but this is merely a front for her deadly serious vigilante activities as Nightshade. She trains relentlessly on different fighting styles under the tutelage of Tanaka, also known as Tiger, the former sidekick of Judomaster4. (More on Judomaster next time.)

Why is she so driven, and why the deception? Well, it turns out that Nightshade has a nightmare in her past. One day when her father was away, her mother Magda brought Eve and her brother Larry into a room, drew the curtains and turned out the light. She explained that “once I was a princess in the land of the nightshades! And you’ve inherited the power of the royal nightshades from me!” She had fled this fairy/fantasy world because of a monster called The Incubus. So, for some reason, she decides to take her kids back to that land, and who should immediately show up but minions of The Incubus himself? They seize Magda, who yells at the children to run away and turn into shadows. Eve successfully does so, for the first time in her life, while the demons kill Magda in front of Larry.

charlton nightshade

Eve runs toward Magda, who grabs her hand and uses the last of her power to bring Eve back to our world, then dies, but not before extracting a promise from Eve that she will never tell her father, and will go back for Larry. Unfortunately for Nightshade, the Action Heroes line was cancelled before she could ever fulfill this promise. It wasn’t until years later, after the character had been well-integrated into the DC universe, that the story continued, albeit with slightly altered post-Crisis continuity.

So it’s true that Silk Spectre II does not have the power to turn into a shadow, or do anything supernatural at all. She is no princess from the land of the Nightshades. But what she does have is a mother who, recklessly and unwisely, drew her into a mysterious and shadowy world at a very young age. Sally Jupiter doesn’t bind her daughter with a dying wish, but she certainly makes it clear what she intends for Laurel to do, and the obedient girl tries her best to live up to that demand. Thus begins her life as an adjunct, first to an atomic-powered superhero and then to a millionaire gadget freak. Her powers and her look may have been based more on the Black Canaries of the world, but the legacy of Nightshade lives on in Silk Spectre II.

Blue Beetle

“Millionaire gadget freak” is a nice transition to Ditko’s Blue Beetle, but first we must once again hop into the wayback machine. Further back, I mean.

The Blue Beetle didn’t start out at Charlton. No, he was created in 1939 at a company called Fox Comics. Here, let’s ask Jim Steranko to slip into comic book historian mode and tell us about it:

Fox Publications was the poverty row of comic books and their superheroes were completely derivative. Their most important hero was the Blue Beetle. I remember one day I talked to Charlie Nicholas, the creator of the Blue Beetle, and I asked him what was it that inspired him to create this rather unusual character named after a bug. And he explained everything about the Fox mentality to me in two words: Green Hornet.

So Blue Beetle began as a pulpy masked detective, but very quickly morphed into an extremely generic Superman clone. His civilian identity was Dan Garret, rookie cop, who made sure to bumble through his job so that nobody would suspect his secret. He got pestered by a girl reporter, who was suspicious about all his disappearances. Sometimes he took something called “Vitamin 2X” to turn into the Blue Beetle, and sometimes he just changed without any help at all, with perhaps a handwave to radioactivity maybe being the source of his powers somehow. His stories were almost incoherent, at least to my modern eye — very stylized and elliptical. He’d acquire new superpowers every issue, whatever happened to fit the plot, but he was always your basic flying, invulnerable, super-strong guy with eye powers like x-ray and heat vision.

By 1950, Fox had crumbled, and its assets were put up for sale. Charlton picked up the rights to the Blue Beetle, and reprinted stories from Fox’s inventory. These didn’t catch on, though, and it wasn’t until 1964 that Blue Beetle saw the light of day again, this time in a reboot from Joe Gill and Tony Tallarico. In this second incarnation, Dan Garrett (who had somehow picked up an extra “t”) was no longer a rookie cop, but was instead one of those comic book science types who knows everything about everything. He’s ostensibly an archaeologist, but can produce knowledge of physics, chemistry, linguistics, or whatever as the plot demands it.

This time around there’s at least a clear explanation for his powers, which he acquires when investigating a pyramid. He opens a casket, which releases the kind of great evil for which pyramid caskets are famous worldwide. However, he also finds a scarab nearby. When he picks up the scarab, he has a vision of a mighty ancient pharaoh, who tells him it is now his duty to fight evil as the Blue Beetle.

He’s still no less derivative — his base powerset is flight, x-ray vision, strength, invulnerability, and heat vision. And again, he displays random new powers on cue from problems in the story: he can “transmit electrical energy” past a broken wire or use his “micro-vision” to analyze broken machinery. However, he’s not just derivative of Superman — he also gets a Captain Marvel code word (“Kaji Dha!”) to say whenever he wants to switch back and forth between identities. Or sometimes clasping the scarab itself gives him his powers. It varies.

This Blue Beetle ran out of steam in early 1966, and so the character was shelved for a while. But a few months later, in the back pages of Captain Atom #83, an entirely new Blue Beetle took the stage, created and drawn by Steve Ditko. This one wasn’t Dan Garret(t) at all, but was instead a (you guessed it) millionaire gadget freak by the name of Ted Kord. Kord had a more interesting costume than the previous Blue Beetles, and his fighting style was dynamic and acrobatic, in the vein of Spider-Man. However, Kord had no superpowers, relying instead on a bug-shaped airship which ferried him from one crime scene to the next, entering and exiting his secret lab via an underwater entrance. Along with his fists, he used a variety of high-tech gimmicks designed to protect himself and beat up the bad guys.

So where did this new Blue Beetle come from, and what happened to Dan Garret? That’s just what the police would like to know, in an ongoing subplot depicting dogged Irish cops from Central Casting, who hassle Kord and his lab assistant/paramour Tracey about Garret’s disappearance. Readers are kept in the dark too, at least until the new Blue Beetle gets his own series in the summer of 1967. Issue #2 of this series reveals all. It seems that back when Kord was a junior scientist, he fell in with his Uncle Jarvis, working as a lab assistant and doing mysterious tests. Jarvis is mum about the purpose of his work, but Kord’s genius helps him solve all his operational problems. Finally, the lab explodes, with Jarvis apparently inside, and Kord uncovers the true purpose of his work: to create unstoppable super-strong androids. He also finds a map, to the mysterious Pago Island.

Kord, conflicted and confused, turns to his mentor, a college professor by the name of… Dan Garret. (Who once again seems to have lost his extra “t”.) Kord strongly suspects that his uncle faked his death, and is completing his scheme on Pago Island. He and Garret agree to investigate, and indeed they find an army of androids on the island. Garret becomes the Blue Beetle to fight them, but is killed when Jarvis makes his robots self-destruct. As Garret is dying, he makes Kord promise to keep his secret and carry on the legacy of the Blue Beetle. Legacy is, in fact, the overriding theme of the Ditko Blue Beetle stories. Kord decides to use his genius to whip up a fancy ship and an arsenal of crimefighting tools, and a new superhero is born.

charlton blue beetle legacy

Moore mashes up various parts of this story to make Nite Owl. Like the early Blue Beetle, the first Nite Owl is also a cop, though there’s no mention of the incompetence ruse. Such a tactic probably wouldn’t last long in Watchmen’s more realistic milieu anyway. And like the latest Blue Beetle, Dan Dreiberg is a brilliant tinkerer whose closets are bursting with suits and gizmos with which to fight crime. Archie the owl-ship is pretty much a copy-and-paste of Blue Beetle’s bug-ship, right down to their propensity for dramatically emerging from beneath the waves.

As with the Blue Beetle stories, the idea of legacy permeates the Nite Owl stories. The first time we see Dreiberg, he’s reverently absorbing hero anecdotes from the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. There’s clearly a warmth to the relationship, and Dreiberg later tells Laurie Juspeczyk that he idolized Mason. As he says, “I guess that’s pretty obvious.” There’s no Pago Island and no heroic sacrifice — in fact, Dreiberg just approached him as a fan and asked for the use of the name Nite Owl. However, the elder Nite Owl does end up dying violently, and as with Ted Kord and Dan Garret, the mentor’s death is an indirect result of the protege’s actions, in this case freeing Rorschach from prison.

It’s not just Mason, though. Dan Dreiberg is a throwback in all kinds of ways. He doesn’t listen to Devo — he listens to Billie Holiday and Louis Jordan. He wishes the Crimebusters meeting would have worked out, because he wants to belong to a “fellowship of legendary beings” like the Minutemen, or the Knights of the Round Table. He wonders aloud what’s happened to the American Dream. He’s trying not only to carry on the name and legacy of Nite Owl, but to carry on the Golden Age ethos as a whole. Like Blue Beetle, he wants to extend a tradition, and as with Blue Beetle, it doesn’t always work out so well.

The Question

Just as the newest Blue Beetle began as a backup feature for Captain Atom, The Question began as a backup feature for Blue Beetle. The cover of Blue Beetle #1 (volume 4, that is) dramatically asks: “WHO IS THE QUESTION?” I’ll tell you: The Question is the most Ditko-esque Charlton hero of them all. Vic Sage is a “hard-hitting TV newscaster.” (Gosh, that sounds awfully dated now, doesn’t it?) He’s not afraid to ask the tough questions, not afraid to hold people strictly accountable for their actions. He alienates many of his co-workers by being so unflinchingly dedicated to the Truth, so unwilling to compromise his principles one iota. Moral weaklings are constantly trying to get him to avoid controversy, which he nobly refuses to do. Consequently, his enemies at the TV station (who fear the loss of revenue that controversy could bring) keep trying to get him fired, but his friends are completely loyal, as is the station owner. And yet, his excellence is all too often unfairly ignored by a docile and apathetic public.

When it appears that the relentless broadcast Honesty of Vic Sage isn’t enough to bring down the forces of corruption and venality, Sage slips into a secluded place and applies a latex mask to his face, which obscures his features. He then releases a special gas invented by a Professor Rodor. The gas binds the mask to his face and changes the appearance of his clothes to a pale blue. He beats up the bad guys, and freaks them out as the eerie gas flows from his hands, revealing hitherto unseen question marks on innocent objects. A precursor to clench-jawed vigilantes like The Punisher, he gleefully sends criminals to the electric chair, or kicks them into the sewer and lets them drown.

charlton question sewage

In case it’s not clear, the overriding theme of all The Question’s stories is Objectivism. Like Ayn Rand, Vic Sage (whose 3-letter/4-letter naming pattern is surely no accident) holds that morality is not relative but absolute. He adheres to a black-and-white set of principles that leaves no room for compassion (or as he would view it, coddling.) He ensures that his version of justice is always done, meaning that the criminals he has judged pay the maximum consequences for their actions. He also frequently asserts his right to control his own behavior, and of others to control theirs, as when he narrowly escapes an assassination attempt via bombing at the office. The station owner says, “I can’t expect anyone to face violence for me!”, to which Sage replies, “No one can force me to face violence! But neither can they stop me from facing it! That is my decision! What’s up to you is whether or not I’m allowed to continue broadcasting!”

Everybody talks like this in Question stories. It’s page after page of polemic, with Sage boldly declaiming Objectivist views on TV (“I repeat, rights can only belong to individuals! Groups, by themselves, have no rights! The rights belong to the individual within the group!”) while his enemies at the station say things like, “Why does he have to stir up so much trouble? With this many people against him, he must be wrong!” The criminals in his stories cry, “He deserves everything he gets! He didn’t have to pry into my affairs!”, and The Question laughs in their faces when they try to offer him a cut of their loot. Seriously, if he’d lasted long enough to establish an archenemy, it would totally have to be Strawman.

In Blue Beetle #5, the last published issue before the Action Heroes line was cancelled, Ditko lets loose completely. The villain of the Blue Beetle story is an art critic, Boris Ebar, who praises a depressing sculpture on the opening splash page, in a long speech peppered with references to “man’s inevitable weaknesses” and “man’s inability to solve or control the illusion we call existence.” Ted Kord (who, as the hero of the story, has suddenly become an Objectivist) is disgusted at this rejection of objective reality, and couldn’t be more pleased when Vic Sage (in a rare crossover appearance) tells the critic, “That thing and your views belong on a junk heap!” A depressed janitor adopts a costume to resemble the depressing statue, and goes around town trying to destroy more valiant-looking art, cheered on by a bunch of moral relativist hippies. Luckily, the Blue Beetle stops his downer rampage while an admiring Vic Sage looks on.

charlton vic sage junk heap

Then, in The Question backup story, that same Ebar tries to bring a depressing painting into Sage’s TV station (“It represents… the refusal of man to help his fellow man get out of the gutter!”), and as recompense for his gift asks for Sage’s termination. Then Sage’s loyal assistant Nora confronts the critic with a more noble and uplifting painting, which gets him so upset that he hires thugs to go into Nora’s apartment and destroy the painting. Luckily The Question is there to fight them off. In a final climactic scene, Nora again confronts Ebar with the bold painting, and he breaks down in tears, addressing the figure on the canvas: “Why won’t you let me lie to myself? Why do you keep making me see what I left myself become… stop it! I must destroy you… to destroy the proof of what I once wanted to be!” It’s the only superhero comic I’ve ever seen where heroic art defeats the villain, and it is just about as uptight and didactic as you could possibly imagine.

With Rorschach, Moore copies The Question’s absolutism and fierce sense of purpose, as well as his tendency to moralize, albeit to himself in a diary rather than to a city at large. (Well, perhaps that changes after the story’s final panel.) Like The Question, Rorschach sees the world in black and white (“…but not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.”) Like The Question, Rorschach does not hesitate to maim or murder those he sees as scum — he’d just as soon drop a criminal down an elevator shaft as listen to him. And like The Question, he sees himself as a warrior for The Truth in a degraded and corrupt world.

The crucial difference is that Rorschach exists in a world of human beings rather than cardboard cutouts designed to represent caricatured worldviews. Those humans tend to view Rorschach as, well, insane. And with good reason. But Moore does not even let us off that easily.

Yes, Rorschach’s civilian “profession” of carrying a doomsday sign seems like a clear parody of Vic Sage’s televised proclamations. And yes, his tendency towards violence can seem extremely misplaced when applied to harmless cranks like Captain Carnage. And yes, his casual contempt for the majority of humanity is quite obviously at odds with his self-professed heroism. And yet.

And yet in the end Rorschach becomes arguably the most admirable figure in the story, as his refusal to sacrifice his principles in the face of Veidt’s monstrous deception gives him a level of heroism which none of the others can claim. Forget about the Keene Act — even in the face of Armageddon, Rorschach will never compromise.

Not only that, Chapter 6 lets us in on Rorschach’s own humanity, the horrors he has seen which make him the horror that he is. We see him as a child, weeping as abuse rains down upon him, furious as he strikes back at the cruelty around him. We see him shaped by a real incident (it’s vital that the incident be real) in which a docile and apathetic public is accessory to murder. We see the utter blackness of sadism and violent crime which brings out his absolute opposition.

In short, we see enough to understand Rorschach, and to have compassion for him. That compassion is the key to such a character is, perhaps, the final satirical twist on Ditko’s own stiff brand of storytelling, and on the Randian disdain for emotions.

There are more action heroes and more Watchmen counterparts to discuss, but this entry has certainly gone on long enough. Next time: Peacemaker, Thunderbolt, Judomaster, and Sarge Steel! I’ll try to take less than six months to write it this time.

Endnotes

1 The one exception to this is the couple of stories where Captain Atom takes a paternalistic role to a young boy in trouble. In particular, a story called “The Boy And The Stars”, originally from Space Adventures #40, has Captain Atom taking a sick child “to a star which does not appear on maps of the solar system… a lovely star which emanates a ray that I have found useful.” There’s a particularly touching panel in which CA holds the boy’s hand as they stand in a fantastic landscape of swirling Ditko smoke.
charlton capt atom boy[Back to post]

2 Though in one issue of the 1966-67 revival, Captain Atom suffers a public backlash highly reminiscent of Spider-Man. [Back to post]

3Charlton’s issue numbering is notoriously weird, presumably from their attempts to skirt postal fees for new publications by changing the names of existing ones instead. So issue #83 of the rebooted Captain Atom is really the 6th issue of the relaunch, since Strange Suspense Stories was renamed to Captain Atom with issue #78. [Back to post]

4Crossovers between the Charlton heroes are rare, and their letter columns at the time explained this policy as intentional, saying that they wanted to focus on establishing their line of heroes before they started mixing them up. However, Nightshade seems to have been the exception to this — between the fact that she’s partnered with Captain Atom and the fact that she trained with Judomaster’s sidekick, her stories probably have the most connective tissue of all the Charlton stable. The uncharitable interpretation of this might be that writers believed there would be no interest in a girl character unless there was an already popular man in her stories. Or, to put another spin on it, she’s a minor character who just coincidentally happens to be the only female of all the “Action Heroes.” [Back to post]

This Promise Of Paradise

Another year, another music mix. I’m a little later with the liner notes this year — sorry about that. For the past few months I’ve found myself with a whole bunch of short-term, unduckable, hard-deadline projects. (Christmas counts as one of these. :)) My time is opening up a bit more now, so I’m finally able to get to these notes! This year’s mix is heavy on the Neko Case, a singer/songwriter I’ve loved for a few years but really dug deeper into during 2013. It’s also got plenty of the usual suspects (Folds, Nicks, Beatles) and some other stuff that grabbed me this year for a variety of specific reasons.

1. Ben Folds FiveHouse
I got hold of Ben’s box set in 2012, but it didn’t reach the front of the queue until early 2013. The discs are themed — rarities, live stuff, and “greatest hits.” He also got back together for a few tracks with the other two guys in Ben Folds Five (the Five was always a trio), and the hits disc has a couple of new songs from the band, including this one. I loved this song almost immediately. It reminds me of people I’ve known who have been traumatized in a family setting and then left the house behind. Maya Angelou talks about leaving her childhood home of Stamps, Arkansas — not just the place but “the condition that was Stamps, Arkansas.” The places where you go through great pain live inside your head themselves, and even if you can’t burn the house down, you can certainly choose never to re-enter that condition again.

2. Neko CaseAt Last
Oh Neko. Her songs are mostly short but I find them so electrifying. First, there’s her lyrics, elliptical and evocative in that Stevie Nicks way, but with an earthy, bloody touch that gives them a different tang in the brain. Then there’s the music, spooky melodies on country instruments, folk rock with the occasional jagged edge. And finally, the voice oh my god the voice. Neko has one of my favorite voices of anyone, ever. It is almost literally intoxicating to me — I can feel my nervous system lighting up like fireworks when I hear it — my breath gets short and my pulse gets quick. This song has a Dickinsonian quality to it as well, contemplating death with equanimity even as it embraces and longs for life.

3. Neko CaseRed Tide
One reason I dove depeer into Neko’s work last year is that I bought a ticket to see her sing in September, and wanted to know her ouevre a little better before I saw the show. As it turned out, she was sick for the concert, so although she still sounded PERFECT her energy was muted. I think my favorite performance was of this song, which is from the first album of hers I really got to know, a record called Middle Cyclone. Like many of her songs, it is compelling, immediate, and vivid to me. She sings it with this incredible full-throated authority, and again, it makes my brain buzz and my whole body want to be alive.

4. Johnny CashFolsom Prison Blues
I keep falling farther and farther behind on current music, because I find myself fascinated by filling the gaps in the knowledge I grew up with. Johnny Cash was one of those gaps. I’m not usually a country guy, but Cash to me transcends genre. He’s another one with an unforgettable voice, though in a whole different way than Case. (Hm, one letter difference. How about that?) But I only ever knew the barest outline of his work, so I got hold of an “essential” collection for him and added to my repertoire. This song is one of his most iconic, and for good reason. It’s got the great storytelling of folk music, delivered in a way that’s solemn, knowing, and a bit playful all at once. And he performs it *at the prison*. It’s a stunt, but what a stunt. (Apparently the cheers for “I shot a man in Reno” were added in post-production. Cheating!)

5. Ben Folds FiveAway When You Were Here
The BFF experiment on the box set was so successful that the band decided to get together for a whole new album, released in fall of 2012. My musical shelf being what it is, I didn’t listen to it until 2013. It’s very typical of their work, which is to say it is part rockin’, part silly, part thrilling, and part heartbreaking. This song falls into that latter category. I just love his lyrics, the way he can capture the interior experience with an image — “Sometimes a phrase or a manner that’s you / Comes through me and goes in a flash” — and then enact that image by paralleling “You seemed lost in clouds” and “When I’m lost in clouds.” God, that’s good.

6. R.E.M.The One I Love
In February 2013 I went once again to Austin, Texas, to compete in a big trivia contest called the Geek Bowl. That was the second time I’d gone, and as we’d done the first time, some teammates and I went to a great record store there called Waterloo Records. There among the incoming used CDs was R.E.M.’s Document, an album I’d always had on cassette but never had a digital copy of. So I snagged it for some low low price and revisited it later that year. It’s funny to come back to albums that came out when I was in my teens. (Document came out in 1987, when I was 17 years old.) I remember at the time wondering what it would have been like to be alive and aware when something like Sgt. Pepper, or Pearl, or Surrealistic Pillow was released. Well, now I know, and it’s lovely to get the same pleasure now that I got from the album 25 years ago. It felt like a classic at the time, because it was.

7. Glen HansardLies
I saw the movie Once when it was in the theaters — in fact, I didn’t know this at the time but the showing I saw was the very last movie shown at the movie theater on 30th and Pearl in Boulder, before they tore it down to build a Barnes & Noble. (Boulder used to have at least 4 different movie theaters — now it has one. Apparently the town can’t support that many movies?) I really liked the movie at the time, especially the music, so I put the soundtrack on my wish list some time later, and finally got it in time to listen in 2013. It’s hard to pick a song from this album, but this one seemed quite emblematic of the angst, longing, and fierceness that runs through the film and its music.

8. Lindsey BuckinghamThis Nearly Was Mine (instrumental)
I get impatient with a lot of Lindsey’s solo work lately, all breathy vocals and superfast virtuoso picking. It’s fine, but it gets pretty samey, especially compared with the record I see as his masterpiece, 1992’s Out Of The Cradle. That collection had some of his picking and sing-talking, but it also had fantastic pop songs like “Countdown” and “Don’t Look Down”, lovely ballads like “Surrender The Rain” and “All My Sorrows”, and beautiful instrumental passages like this one. I got the mp3 album from Amazon, burned it to CD last year, and spent some time reacquainting myself with it. “This Nearly Was Mine” is actually a Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, from South Pacific — it was a favorite of Lindsey’s dad, so it got included here as a kind of tribute. Lindsey’s treatment of it is uncharacteristically gentle — even his softest songs tend to have an aggressive edge to them, but not here. (Though the only link I can find is to a live version where he can’t help himself from slipping into virtuoso mode at one point.) He brings out the poignancy of the melody so much that I had to look up the lyrics, and having done so I decided to quote them for the title of this collection, promises of paradise kept, broken, and found at last.

9. The BeatlesHow Do You Do It?
Most of my Beatles Anthology listening was in 2012, but a bit spilled over into 2013. This is from the first one, which had lots of very early stuff from their formative days. That has limited appeal for me, but this tune I found fascinating. I’m used to stories of Lennon-McCartney compositions not recorded by the Beatles but made famous by other artists (e.g. The Rolling Stones having one of their first hits with “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which the Beatles only recorded later.) This song, though, wasn’t by Lennon-McCartney, but fits that early Beatles sound nicely. They recorded it but didn’t release it, and then Gerry & The Pacemakers took it to a giant number one. Great going, Beatles. Of course, they had their revenge when “From Me To You” knocked it off the charts. :)

10. Steven WrightCross Country
For Christmas 2011 I made my sister some comedy mix CDs, which allowed me to go out and collect lots of comedy I didn’t have digital copies of before. Steven Wright’s I Have A Pony was one of these. Picking a favorite Steven Wright joke is like picking a favorite Far Side cartoon, but one I’ve always loved is: “Last summer I drove cross country with a friend of mine… The whole way across we only had one cassette tape to listen to. I can’t remember what it was.” Seems like a fine inclusion for a music mix.

11. Iggy PopLust For Life
I’ve been doing an independent learning/writing project revolving around Alan Moore’s Watchmen, pursuing all the cultural texts it references (or is said to reference by fans.) There’s a panel in Watchmen that quotes Iggy’s “Neighborhood Threat”, which led to me getting the Lust For Life album and reading a biography of him. (I wrote up the Iggy/Watchmen connection here.) There are plenty of great songs on that album, but this one is just so magnetic to me, even after it’s been worn smooth by Trainspotting and endlessly repeated cruise commercials. I learned that Iggy actually improvised all the lyrics to this on the first take. Wow! Though I suppose it does explain the “hypnotizing chickens” and “had it in the ear before” parts better than anything else can…

12. Greg WellsDisarm
Okay, so here’s an odd one. This guy Greg Wells? He played a big part in my life recently — he hired me into my current job. Though an IT guy by day, Greg’s true passions are music and photography. He’s a talented musician with a home studio, and during my first couple of years on the job he was developing his most recent album, which is mostly covers with a couple of originals thrown in. He plays all the instruments on all the songs. Greg knew I was a music guy, so he’d periodically bring in draft copies of the album for me to listen to and give feedback on, which was a lot of fun. I ended up really liking this Smashing Pumpkins cover. I think his phrasing is actually better than Billy Corgan’s. I owe Greg a lot — he helped me out of a really bad work situation into something much better — but I’d enjoy this even if I didn’t know him.

13. Ben Folds FiveThe Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
I couldn’t restrict myself to just one song from this album. Nick Hornby wrote the lyrics for this one, as he did for Ben’s previous album Lonely Avenue. I absolutely love the Taupin-John thing those two guys do, and this time Hornby’s lyrics seemed to tap into Folds iconography, recalling the bright but dissatisfied Sara (spelled without an h) from “Zak And Sara.” I have a special affection for people with noisy brains, and I just adore the portrait of how disconnecting it can be to live among people who engage life on a different level, as well as how profoundly satisfying it is to find the life of the mind at last. Plus, this song rocks like a mother.

14. Ben FoldsNot The Same (live)
One more tune from the box set. I got introduced to Ben’s music when I saw him open for Tori Amos at Red Rocks. He played this song at that show, and he did the thing you can hear on this recording, introducing the harmonies to the audience so that they could sing them when the time came. At the end of the song, he climbed on top of his piano and conducted 9,000 singers. Our voices rang off the rocks, in three-part harmony, and I knew I had to find out more about this guy.

15. Neko CaseThe Pharoahs
This is another song from Middle Cyclone. It came very close to being included in the mix from a few years ago, when I was listening heavily to that CD, but in the end it didn’t quite make the cut. I decided to resurrect it since I was doing so much Neko this year — I’d always regretted just a little bit my decision to leave it out. I find the melody so hypnotic and elevating, along with the fucking brilliant imagery — “I listened in when you thought you were alone / Calling the sphinx on a tornado’s phone.” It’s such a perfect vignette of a young crush, that moment of growing up when “the wanting in the movies and the hymns” crashes up against the facts of real life and real people. And my GOD, that voice.

16. Stevie NicksBattle Of The Dragon
This song and the next one are from the same source: a Christmas 2012 mix CD I made for my sister called “Good Songs Bad Movies.” This pensive Stevie rarity is from the perfectly awful movie American Anthem, a starring vehicle for Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord. Mitch plays a guy who, uh, wants to be a gymnast. Anyway, this is pure 80s Stevie, a picture of a complicated and vexing relationship, played over sparkling, chiming synths. It deserved a better fate than exile to the American Anthem soundtrack.

17. EvanescenceBring Me To Life
Then there’s this song, which appeared on the Daredevil soundtrack. I’m a big fan of the character and I really, really wanted to like the movie, but I just couldn’t, which should tell you something about how bad it is. The song, on the other hand, I absolutely love. Amy Lee is like a heavy-metal Stevie herself, and this is my favorite thing she ever did — I always have to turn it up loud whenever I hear it. I relate to the lyrics probably more than I should. What I mean by that is they tap into that part of me that wants to save the people I love from their misery and pain. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I always have to keep an eye on how much it drives me, because it can lead to distorted decision-making. It’s really the perfect song for superhero movie, as it addresses the part of the superhero metaphor that I’ve imprinted upon very deeply. Too bad it couldn’t have come with a better movie.

18. AdeleHe Won’t Go
Speaking of rescues, this song is very personal to me. A major feature of my 2013 was watching a close friend spin into an extended crisis, which actually just hit its peak (Jesus, I hope so anyway) a couple of weeks ago. As I watched him go through cycles of recovering and relapsing, I worked hard to blunt the edges coming at him, to ensure he wouldn’t lose everything to a force he couldn’t control. I don’t know how much of that was being a loving friend and how much was my rescuer complex, but I think I did some good things in the end. So when Adele says, “If this ain’t love, then what is? / I’m willing to take the risk,” I hear it right down to my core.

19. Thompson TwinsLay Your Hands On Me
One more song about love and healing. I always thought the Thompson Twins were underrated, and this song is probably tied with “Hold Me Now” for my favorite of theirs. I was listening to a greatest hits collection last year, and this one jumped out at me for reasons similar to the Adele song above.

20. Bob MarleyHigh Tide Or Low Tide
Okay, perhaps more than I realized, the theme of this past year for me has been loyalty and dedication in love. Funny how you don’t always know what something’s about until you make it. I saw the movie Marley in 2012, and listened to the soundtrack in 2013. Bob Marley has always been a greatest hits artist for me, and he still is, but I really enjoyed digging a little deeper into his catalog. This is a gem that was overlooked until the movie featured it prominently — I don’t think it was even on any of Bob’s albums, though as I said I’m not an expert. In any case, it fit perfectly into my year.

21. The BeatlesThe Long And Winding Road
Yes, this song continues the love and loyalty theme, but the reason it featured in 2013 for me was that I finally got around to acquiring Let It Be… Naked, the version of Let It Be without all the Phil Spector overdubs and instrumentation. The biggest difference was on this song, stripped of the choir and orchestra that Spector layered onto the original version. I loved the original, but I think I like this one a little more. It is more powerful in its simplicity.

22. Neko CaseI Wish I Was The Moon
I close with one more from Neko, a piercing melancholy ache. I think I want to let this song speak for itself. “How will you know when you’ve found me at last? / Cos I’ll be the one, be the one, be the one / With my heart in my lap / I’m so tired, I’m so tired / And I wish I was the moon tonight.”