Today's theme is: old mutant superhero comics brought up while talking about other things.

*52 Dept: Remember back when I said I sort of liked the resurrection cult plotline because it reminded me of something I might have seen in X-Statix? Well, the bits this issue involving Lex Luthor’s rockin’ superteam also reminded me of Peter Milligan’s and Mike Allred’s work, only completely stripped of anything interesting, witty, playful, attractive, or surprising. I’m going to hold off on ‘original,’ since X-Statix was hardly the first to tackle the whole superheroes-as-media-stars thing, but a strong execution of an old idea and a capable sense of how to temper your themes to the current cultural climate goes a long way toward making a book seem fresh, regardless of anything else. The Luthor’s Freedom Toastmasters Brigade plot, meanwhile, has now provided perhaps the four most uninspiring pages of 52 thus far.

That leaves us to the tender mercies of Lobo, who shows up to conclude(?) the Planet TERROR plotline and whisk the cast away to something else. I recall Grant Morrison commenting a while back that he found Lobo to be surprisingly fun to write - given that all of Lobo’s word balloons are left blank this issue, I now have to wonder if Morrison was telling a joke, though I presume that the character’s purported religious conversion will provide some sort of fresh dimension to future participation (all of this is providing that the story doesn’t get bounced around between writers like the Steel plotline apparently has; and isn’t it cute how I presume the breakdowns are telling the truth, what with their occasional tomfoolery!). I did enjoy Starfire’s shutting down of Animal Man’s explanation of the truth behind how the universe works as terribly depressing, once you think about it from the perspective of comics characters.

Also: Red Tornado. I’ve heard he’s so awesome...

Golgo 13 Vol. 4 (of 13): The Orbital Hit

The first thought in my head upon reading Dirk Deppey’s review of The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation:

Wow, it sounds like Golgo 13!

I didn’t only think that because Takao Saito’s beloved creation deals in all the loud sound effects, declarative sentences, tense politics, and pulpy posturing suggested by Dirk’s review; I’m also utterly convinced that very few subject matters are so touchy that the anonymous worker bees at Saito Production might not want to transform it into fuel for another bullet-in-the-head manga epic.

For example, this latest installment of VIZ’s Golgo 13 greatest hits reprint project places invincible antihero assassin Duke Togo at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. I don’t mean there’s references made to the event, or that it ‘happens in the background’ or anything - I mean Duke rides alongside the limo on a motorcycle, shoots someone in the skull, then witnesses that infamous vehicular smash, the reader’s eye happily guided inside the wreck for a few panels of Her Royal Highness slumped over in the back seat. Oh, Saito Pro restrains their collective enthusiasm a bit - Dodi Al-Fayed’s name gets changed to Ahmad Al-Farid, and Lady Di is scrupulously never mentioned by any name at all, though it’s so bleeding obvious who she’s supposed to be that VIZ just straight-out calls her "Princess Diana" on the book’s back cover. It’s almost rendered more stunning for Saito Pro’s resoundingly unconvincing attempts at adding a gloss of fiction to the involved parties.

But then, maybe a US comics fan finds it a bit more stunning than average due to our pop fantasy industry’s own little dalliance with the topic. Getting back to X-Statix - everyone remember Milligan’s and Allred’s original plan to revive Princess Di and have her join the mutant superhero team for a storyline? Hey, superheroes suffer dramatic deaths only to come back from it all the time, and if the series truly sought to position superheroes as analogues to modern celebrities, why not have celebrities behave the same way? The concept looked to fit in quite marvelously with the book’s running themes, but pressure came down. Some of it from fans - oh how I recall the message boards buzzing with how beloved a figure dear Di was, and how dare a superhero comic tarnish her memory with its satirical hi-jinx and, oh gracious that awful Bill Jemas has finally gone too far and must be stopped before he kills again. There were other considerations at play behind the scenes as well, I’m sure. Tabloids commented. I expect someone thought of the Hollywood money. Some even believe Milligan and Allred and Marvel themselves never really planned to use Diana in the comic, and merely played at the idea (to the point of producing finished art, I guess) as a means of drumming up publicity for their flagging book. Regardless, the story never happened in its announced form. Many feel it was a blow X-Statix never recovered from (it had been headed downhill for a while already, in my opinion); some even consider it the end of the Bill Jemas era of Marvel as a whole.

And now here’s Duke Togo. Shooting one of the principal players in the drama. In an 80-page story entitled English Rose (story #369), published in November of 1997.

Less than three months after the event itself.

I’m sure some of it’s cultural; Japan isn’t nearly as attached to English affairs as the US, and Saito & company could easily have seen all the attention surrounding the event and simply thought it would make a neat comic. And for my money it’s fascinating to sit down and ride through a researched (albeit thinly fictionalized) view of events from a detached, thorough, non-Western perspective, one seemingly devoid of emotional or political concern with the actual events. They certainly did their homework, as they always do - the story is rife with both popular conspiracy theory (was Di pregnant with Dodi’s baby?!) and careful attention to detail (the limo struck the thirteenth pillar of the tunnel!). It’s plainly aware of the criticism heaped upon paparazzi, as it takes a somewhat sympathetic view of them.

No, the true villains here are the conservative elite of England and the money men behind the news; a star chamber of high-powered political and business officials, including a media mogul named Mr. Margate, head of noted tabloid The Orb, are terribly pissed over Diana’s liberal stances and massive popularity, so they hire an aging, retirement-ready English secret agent to utilize neat gadgets in pumping the limo driver up with alcohol and making it all look like an accident. Meanwhile, MI6 hires Duke to nail the Dodi character, since they feel he and his father are threatening to make serious inroads to English power and money. “Frankly, I don’t see why he can’t leave England alone, and just go to America where respectability is more of a straight cash affair,” laments G13's weary contact.

In some ways it’s an oddly self-referential story; Duke observes the English agent at one point, musing “A longtime assassin for MI6. He seemed to recognize me too.” Saito Pro, of course, used to produce James Bond manga in the mid-‘60s; some view Duke’s very existence as owed to the loss of that lucrative license. Needless to say, it’s the British killer that delivers the obligatory moment in the story where Duke’s inherent awesomeness is affirmed by some other character: “Quite a compliment to have Golgo 13 sent as backup on one’s very last job... bit of an ego boost, that.” Indeed. But the story’s really about conflicting ideas of honor, and rancid money-grubbing cloaked in national pride, though none of that takes the edge off the story’s sheer bluntness, its gaze as icy and unblinking as that of its lead character. But even if the carefully-rendered panels of a downcast Charles, William and Henry smack of bad taste, at least regions above the mouth appear to be in operation as well.

This volume’s other story, 1978's 126-page The Orbital Hit (story #137), can’t help but dim in comparison, though it does feature a bit more of the zany G13 antics we’ve all come to know and love. A US nuclear doomsday space thingy has run into trouble, and is now threatening to crash the big Apollo-Soyuz link-up and ruin the world forever. President Ford decides to summon Duke Togo to launch into space and literally shoot the danger away, though the assassin has been filled in on the mission before even arriving via his bugging of the Oval Office (“Y... you... you were listening in on us?” “Well, this is Washington... it happens all the time.” OH SNAP). Duke is then handed control of seemingly all US armed forces for his mission, much to the chagrin of a racist military official, and even gets to have one of those scenes in the action movies where the rebel hero throws all the learned experts out of the room to bring in his own crew to really help him out. Meanwhile, a sleazy reporter is lurking around, we all learn the truth about America’s top-secret second space program, and there’s an ending wonderfully similar to that one story Steve Ditko did with the Question where the villain ultimately isn’t as much stopped as intimidated into the depths of shame by the righteousness (awesomeness?) of the story’s hero.

It's ok. One suspects someone at Saito Pro got the image into their head of Golgo 13 aiming his sniper rifle while floating around in space in full astronaut gear, and convinced everyone to build as serious a story as possible around such a ridiculous notion. You will learn how a gun might operate in zero gravity. You'll also learn about all the different weapons Duke likes to use in the 11-page File 13 bonus section in the back, sample story appearances of every deadly thing cited in full by name and number, as if a brief is being filed in nerd court (to borrow Tom Spurgeon's phrase). But not much of it will stay with you, so potent remains Duke's encounter with touchy things. You may feel, here in our impossible action comics entertainment world, he really can go to impossible places.