Saturday, December 23, 2023

Merry Christmas, Eric Masterson!

You may find it hard to believe, but Thor #444 is the only Christmas issue of the title’s 60-plus years. Maybe I missed another issue or two with a reference to Christmas, this is the only issue that you could say, beginning to end, is pure holiday schmaltz. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that it came during Eric Masterson’s time as the Thunder God while the Odinson was exiled beyond the known universe by acting All-Father Heimdall for killing Loki. An Asgardian and a Christmas issue don’t exactly mix given the North American view of the holiday and its origins. Taking a regular guy who happens to gain the powers of god when he taps a cane on the ground and putting him smack dab in the middle of a good ol’ fashioned holiday depression, though? That’s classic bordering on cliché.

“How the Groonk Stole Christmas!” lives for the holiday cliché. Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, well into their creative partnership, manage to take a fairly regular issue of their Thor run and deck it out with as many Christmas clichés and references as they can manage. From the titular Groonk being a friendly allusion to the Grinch, from his green appearance and Santa suit to his dog Max with one antler to a little girl named Cindy Lou that sticks up for him. Beyond that, there’s every holiday movie about a parent feeling estranged from their kid, or down on his luck due to money issues, or feeling like a worthless human. DeFalco and Frenz rip off the classics from A Christmas Carol to It’s a Wonderful Life. And, surprisingly, it works.

What could be eye-rolling never quite crosses the line because, firstly, DeFalco and Frenz are pretty clear that they know how cheesy and sappy this comic is. Every reference comes with a little wink that lets you know that they’re in on it too. Mostly, it’s that those elements are flourishes added here and there to what could be a non-Christmas issue of Thor. The entire issue is rooted in the ongoing struggles of Eric Masterson with the holidays acting as a focal point to magnify some of them. That root in Eric and his problems carries the issue past the Christmas clichés and actually lets a few of them land. By focusing on the genuine goodness of that character as he struggles to get through the day, DeFalco and Frenz transform Christmas clichés into a moving finale that feels earned – and welcomed.

The issue opens on Eric having spent nearly five hundred dollars on a gift for his son. Broke, about to lose his apartment due to superhero-related destruction, his architect career barely hanging on, and the general feeling that he’s a failure as Thor, the first page and a half is one long self-pitying monologue over a dozen or so thought bubbles. When a fellow shopper is robbed of only one of her many presents, the superhero plot of the issue is introduced. Apparently, there is a mugger who has been stealing a single present from people, seemingly at random (the people and the present). It seems like a simple criminal to take down and one that Eric feels good about trying to stop. There’s a sense that, if he’s able to catch this thief and return the stolen presents, he’ll have done something good at the holidays. He never says it outright, but the alluded outcome is that he’ll be saving Christmas, in a sense.

The visit with his son, Kevin, does little to lift his spirits. Despite giving him a much-desired gift that he can barely afford, Eric feels like a letdown to Kevin. His ex-wife is married to a professional football player and Eric feels like he can’t measure up to the lifestyle that they’re providing for Kevin. Even though his relationship with his ex and her husband is amicable, especially since he willing gave up custody of Kevin (to spare him the fallout of his double life as Thor), the strains of his superhero alter ego and the time away from his son turn it into a competition in his mind. He readily acknowledges that the expensive gift is an effort to ‘bride’ Kevin into overlooking his failings as a father and he’s so wrapped up in those feelings of inadequacy that he blows off Marcy’s invitation for him to join them for dinner and spend more time with Kevin.

His self-sabotage and desire to prove himself is a recurring feature in the issue, especially when he finally confronts the robber. It turns out to be a giant, hulking green monster in a Santa outfit that only yells the word “Groonk!” Their battle takes them into a shopping mall and Eric’s need to take down this seeming monster causes him to go all out and not do the best job at keeping the innocent people around them safe. At one point, he ducks an eye blast from the Groonk before realising that it was meant for a beam that, now broken, allows part of the ceiling to fall in. When the battle leads into the sewers, Eric almost fights against a group of homeless people living there until a little girl, Cindy Lou, intervenes and explains the situation. The Groonk is normally a gentle creature that, inspired by a story about Christmas, has been stealing presents to give everyone living in the sewer a proper Christmas. As I said, it’s a little cloying except for the way that it works against your typical superhero story.

Captain America would later chastise Eric for his handling of the situation: Eric takes back the stolen gifts, but doesn’t turn the Groonk into the police. He’s able to see that there’s no justice as it was a well-meaning gesture by someone who didn’t know any better. And that’s without getting into the question of whether or not it was wrong at all and what more could be done to help the group of people living in the sewers. Eric’s willingness to not do the typical superhero thing and treat the ‘bad guy’ with genuine respect and compassion is one of the things that sets him apart. Not many superheroes are willing to give a seeming villain a chance – and the comic’s continued use of Captain America’s ‘disappointed dad’ lectures is meant to drive that point home.

Like many Christmas stories, that decision to do something nice and good almost seems to provoke a chain of good fortune for Eric. Visiting his assistant and friend in the hospital, she finally wakes up from a coma that Loki put her in; running into Captain America on the street, the Avengers leader offers Eric a room at the mansion since he’s losing his apartment; and, returning home, he finds that his son and friends have organised a Christmas party for him. They all know that he’s going through a rough patch and want him to know that they’re there for him. This reveal is alluded to in a couple of earlier scenes where the beginnings of it come together via Kevin and one of Eric’s friends. That he has a group of people who care about him and love him is that reminder he needs that he’s a good guy and he’s not a failure. None of them (save Hercules in his ‘Harry Cleese’ persona) know that he’s Thor and the good that he does all of the time – but they know Eric and the good that he exudes in his daily life. The sort that we see when he’s Thor and, instead of continuing to punch the Groonk in the face, he hears out why this seeming monster is stealing Christmas presents and, then, acts with compassion rather than some rigid concept of justice that does no good for anyone.

Even with all of this, DeFalco’s dialogue can lean into the cheese a bit, whether it’s melodrama or hamming it up with the jokey quips, and Frenz’s art carries a big part of ensuring that the emotional beats of this issue land. He’s so good at pacing those scenes and giving the perfect panel when it’s needed. Like the genuine shock on Eric’s face when he returns home to find his son waiting and, then, to see the party that everyone has made for him. Or the chastised look of self-pity when Captain America lectures him. Or, my favourite, the three panels of Eric hugging his son goodbye where the moment lingers too long because neither one wants to let go. All of my favourite Ron Frenz Thor moments are between Eric and Kevin because Frenz depicts the genuine love between them in a way that transcends words. It’s so obvious and immediate when you see the art on the page. It always hits me hard.

And that’s what I mean when I said that this is a regular issue of the DeFalco/Frenz Thor run with Christmas elements added on top. While the two use those elements to play up the problems that Eric is going through, they rely on those pre-existing, ongoing problems. These aren’t new difficulties that arise when the issue begins and are solved when the issue ends. Taken by itself, I think that the final pages are earned by what happens throughout the issue leading up to them. I’m sure some will dismiss it as a bit too much of It’s a Wonderful Life with the whole group of people coming together to throw Eric a party – for ongoing readers who have seen the build up of Eric’s various problems, things like Susan waking up and Eric coming home to a party thrown by his son and friends is the exact thing that a Christmas issue needs. It needs a sappy feel good ending.

And so does Eric Masterson.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Schrödinger’s Robin: The Meaningless of Batman 428: Robin Lives! #1

It has long been the ultimate ‘what if?’ in mainstream superhero comics. In 1988, DC Comics ran a call-in phone poll where readers voted on the fate of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Should he live or should he die? It was callous and cruel and what a gimmick. Mostly, it stemmed from writer Jim Starlin’s lack of affinity for the character, as he admitted in The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life in Words and Pictures:

I tried to write stories that didn’t involve Robin the Boy Wonder.

It had always struck me that if you were fighting crime in a dark and murky costume and chose to bring along on these dangerous adventures a teenage sidekick, whom you dressed in bright primary colors: this could only be considered child endangerment. But it had been going on for more than 40 years and, so, was now tradition. Just turn off your brain and write the story, Starlin!

The four-part A Death in the Family ran from Batman #426-429 with issue 428 containing the oh so crucial moment that readers voted upon. Given the production demands of monthly comics (they’re produced incredibly close to when they’re released, particularly in comparison to other media, but still), the issue was written and drawn with two different versions of events, one where Robin lives and one where he dies. Starlin succinctly summed up what happened: “The vote comes in, Robin gets the thumbs down, and A Death in the Family sell through the roof.” As such, the published version contains the pages where Jason Todd doesn’t survive an explosion engineered by the Joker. While some of the alternate art has been published for the version of the issue where Jason won the vote, this new edition of Batman #428 is the first time that readers get the complete alternate issue. Now, you can read the first two parts of A Death in the Family and opt for a slightly happier version of events in the third part... but does that matter? Isn’t this just another gimmick?

Putting the two versions of the issue side by side, four pages have completely or partially altered art, while a fifth has slightly tweaked caption boxes. That Jason lives is the only substantial change to the comic, one whose overall structure and story remain unchanged. Instead of burying Jason and his mom at a funeral in Gotham, it’s only one coffin. Even the only scene that amounts to a truly ‘alternate’ one, after the funeral, contains most of the same dialogue. In the originally published version, Alfred asks if he should get in touch with Dick Grayson and Bruce says not to, that he wants to handle things alone from now on. In the new version, Dick is visiting Jason at the hospital and asks Bruce if he wants help tracking down the Joker. Bruce turns him down, saying that he wants to handle things alone from now on. Call it an incredibly crafted issue to allow for minimal disruption from a publicity gimmick; or call it for what it truly is: Robin’s death was immaterial to the story, even though it has grown to define it. Even the fourth part of the story barely hinges on Jason’s death: there are only four specific mentions of it in dialogue and captions, all of which are easily altered or omitted.

Putting aside the gimmick of the call-in vote, Starlin’s desire to no longer write stories involving Robin shapes A Death in the Family completely as the two alternate versions show. Whether or not Jason lives or dies does not matter. It means some art changes, some dialogue tweaks, some different scenes, but the substance does not change. If you believe Starlin’s version of events, his parting with DC came about due to the backlash to the death of Jason Todd (fans, merchandise licensing, even the theory that the vote was rigged), so, say Jason had lived and Starlin continued writing Batman well beyond this story. Do you think that Jason would have been back as Robin in issue 430? 431? 432? Or ever while Starlin was writing the title? The Joker blew him up. It’s clear that Starlin was writing a Batman that had no interest in having a sidekick from that moment on. In both versions, he makes it clear that, from now on, he’s going it alone. I don’t know how the conversation about the call-in gimmick went, but it’s clear that, one of the reasons why Starlin went along with it is that it had very little impact on the story that he was telling. The sheer violence of the act of the Joker blowing up Robin was enough. If the readers had voted for Jason to live, it most likely would have led to a future issue where Bruce tells him that his days as Robin were over and he’s being sent away to some boarding school where the character would have been ignored or become fodder for some solo stories or a possible return to Gotham eventually... Maybe Tim Drake would have still happened, maybe not. In the short-term, following A Death in the Family, Robin was dead no matter what the readers decided.

Seeing these two versions of the comic side by side, it strikes me as typical Starlin that Jason’s death doesn’t matter in the slightest. He’s always been a writer with a “it’s my way or the highway” attitude, singularly focused on seeing his vision through or walking away. There’s no way that he would leave the story that he wanted to tell up to chance, to the whims of the readers. And it’s such a Starlin move to disguise his true story under some meaningless element that everyone would focus on. His trio of Infinity events in the 1990s (none of which would have happened if not for his leaving DC after this story, by the way) are filled with meaningless subplots featuring the popular Marvel heroes while the actual story is dealt with and resolved by Adam Warlock and Thanos. Take out the filler and you get a couple of issues’ worth of actual comics, if you know where to look. Everyone else sees these big events that span the entire Marvel Universe and feature all of their favourite heroes. Not that they are used as cannon fodder, distractions, and general dismissed as not being up to the cosmic tasks at hand. Starlin likes to give people the spectacle that they want in order to tell the story that he wants. The (possible) death of Robin is such a spectacle – and everyone has been dazzled by it for three and a half decades.

A question I’ve grappled with for years is where to place his Batman run within his body of work. The majority of Starlin’s comics work is what he’s most known for: cosmic. Over the decades, he’s done a handful of ‘realistic,’ decidedly non-cosmic comics with his run on Batman being the only sustained work that no one refers to as cosmic. It deals with many of the same themes as his cosmic work, particularly the focus on the meaning of death, but it’s a fairly grounded, ‘realistic’ book comparatively. Except for the vote for Robin’s fate. That is the transcendent moment of the run, the one that approaches the cosmic. A truly unique moment in Starlin’s career, it’s one where the fate of a character was taken outside of even his hands, left up to some nebulous, unknowable power. It’s the closest that any of his work (or anyone else’s, honestly) has come to being left entirely up to chance. Just like life. Call it a readers’ vote, call it god... life and death determined by a faceless, uncaring void is pretty damn cosmic. The final kicker, of course, is that, like one of his characters facing the same sort of forces beyond their control, Starlin planned for it and made sure that any result would accomplish his goals.

Robin dies? Robin lives! Robin’s gone. It doesn’t matter.