JSA Strange Adventures

I saw this graphic novel on the shelf of my local comic shop and pointed it out to my wife. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, I’m a fan of the first superhero team in comics, the Justice Society of America, who first appeared around World War II. What’s more, this comic was penned by Kevin J. Anderson, a writer I’ve long enjoyed and one I’ve had the privilege of working with. Not only that, but one of the truly legendary science fiction writers, Jack Williamson, both wrote the introduction and plays a starring role in the story. I was pleased when the graphic novel turned up as one of this year’s birthday presents.

The graphic novel collects comics originally released in 2004-2005. It tells the story of Lord Dynamo, an intellect with amazing powers and an army cyborgs at his command, who promises to end World War II and bring peace and prosperity if only Green Lantern will give up his power ring and Starman will give up his Gravity Rod. The Justice Society, of course, doesn’t believe things can be solved this easily and works to uncover the truth behind Lord Dynamo’s plans. In the meantime, Justice Society member Johnny Thunder, whose sole power is summoning a genie called Thunderbolt, wants to be a science fiction writer. Because the public is clamoring for Justice Society tales, famed editor Hugo Gernsback teams Johnny up with Jack Williamson.

The art in the graphic novel is beautiful. Barry Kitson and Gary Erskine did a great job of bringing the Justice Society to life on the page. Anderson’s story feels like the classic Justice Society stories that appeared way back in All-Star Stories comics during World War II. I was especially amused to see Jack Williamson ponder a trip to one of my frequent college haunts, the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico, for a green chile cheeseburger, though it would be out of the way given Williamson’s road trip from New York to Portales!

I’ve been fortunate to know Kevin J. Anderson for several years now. Our stories appear together in the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone. The photo above shows Kevin and I together at the signing event for the book in Denver, Colorado. Kevin is also the publisher of Maximum Velocity, the anthology that collects eighteen exciting science fiction stories about everything from pirates to ghosts to battles in space.

I was also fortunate to have met Jack Williamson in person. He was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1908, but his family moved to rural New Mexico when he was young. He sold his first story to Hugo Gernsback in 1928. In the 1930’s, teenaged Isaac Asimov was one of his fans. He served in World War II as a weather forecaster, then in the 1950s he earned degrees in English from Eastern New Mexico University. He won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for his writing, was inducted in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement plus a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association.

I had the opportunity to speak to Jack Williamson a few times at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He liked the fact that I encouraged new writers through the magazine I edited at the time, Tales of the Talisman, and told me I was doing a good job.

The graphic novel of JSA Strange Adventures appears to have limited availability, but the individual issues are still in print and they’re available digitally at Amazon and Comixology. If you want to check out Maximum Velocity, which includes short fiction I’ve both written and edited and which is published by Kevin J. Anderson, you can learn more by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/Maximum-Velocity.html

An Apocalypse Ends

In 2016, I discovered the comic book Scooby Apocalypse. It was part of the Hanna-Barbera Beyond initiative, in which various Hanna-Barbera animated characters were imagined on the pages of DC Comics in darker, edgier situations than the original cartoons. In Scooby Apocalypse, the gang from Scooby-Doo Where Are You? found themselves trapped in a hellish world where a nanite plague has swept the world, turning most people into horrific monsters. Most books in the Hanna-Barbera Beyond series lasted no more than six issues. A few lasted for twelve issues. Scooby Apocalypse was definitely the longest lasting with a three-year 36-issue run.

The original Scooby-Doo Where Are You? debuted in 1969 during my preschool years. It was one of my favorite shows for many years. As a kid, I found the ghosts and monsters genuinely spooky. For that matter, the spooky space kook, a glowing skeleton in space armor with a cackling laugh still sends chills up my spine. Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne, and Velma were all genuinely likable to me. I worried about them and was always relieved when they discovered the villain was just a criminal in a costume. The premise, no doubt, helped to give me some genuine skepticism, even if one of the characters was a talking dog!

As far as I’m concerned, Scooby had two really good seasons and the third season, The Scooby-Doo Movies, which went to an hour format and featured celebrity “guest stars” wasn’t too bad. As with many Scooby fans of my generation, I lost interest when Scooby’s plucky nephew Scrappy-Doo was introduced.

I did regain interest in the series when Warner Brothers started making direct-to-video Scooby-Doo stories. Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island came out in 1998 and I still think it’s one of the finest Scooby stories made. It imagined the team as adults. Fred and Daphne worked for a TV station on a show investigating paranormal claims. Velma owned a bookstore. Scooby and Shaggy were bouncing from job to job. To me, this felt like what the gang would be doing. They get together to look into claims of zombies in the Louisiana Swamp and they discover there is some truth to the claims. Now that I’ve been to Louisiana a few times, I feel like the story really captures some of the haunted mystery of the bayou country.

Now, this wasn’t the first time Scooby and the gang encountered “real” monsters, but earlier incarnations often made the “real” ghosts silly and cheesy and dropped them into the stories with no explanation. Zombie Island felt like a real continuation of the series. Other movies like The Witch’s Ghost were also fun.

Scooby Apocalypse is set in an alternate world where the gang meet up as adults. Like in Zombie Island, Fred and Daphne work for a TV station. Velma works at a research lab. Shaggy is a lab assistant and Scooby is part of an experiment giving dogs the power of speech. Over the course of the three-year run, we learn about Velma’s role in the creation of the nanites. We also meet two of her brothers. The gang gains allies in the form of Cliffy, an orphan boy with one arm and one of Velma’s sisters-in-law. We even meet Scrappy-Doo, who like Scooby is part of the program designed to give dogs intelligence and enhanced abilities. Scrappy starts out as a villain but ultimately becomes one of the good guys. One of my favorite elements was a romance between Shaggy and Velma. Watching the original series as an adult, I always felt the chemistry was there, but some reason, most later iterations ignored it.

The series also took some dark twists and turns. This really shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s apocalyptic fiction, but some moments were stunning given the source material. After three years, the series came to a generally satisfying conclusion. As it stands, it drags a bit in the middle and the ending felt a bit rushed. I think this is just the nature of comics publishing. You don’t get to plan the lengths of your story arcs very far in advance. On the whole, I’m glad I stuck around for the ride. Looking back on different incarnations of Scooby and the gang, I wouldn’t rate this as my favorite, but it’s still up in the top tier.

Steampunk Batman

One of the appeals of alternate history and steampunk is the ability to imagine wrongs of the past made right. Of course, one of the most notorious villains of the Victorian age was Jack the Ripper. For me, my first Jack the Ripper tale wasn’t alternate history, but science fiction. It was an episode of Star Trek written by Robert Bloch called “Wolf in the Fold” in which Chief Engineer Scott is accused of committing some very Jack the Ripper-like murders.

One of my earliest exposures to alternate history was the graphic novel Gotham by Gaslight written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Mike Mignola. It imagines that Jack the Ripper travels to Gotham City and starts his murder spree again, only to confront Batman. I bought and read the graphic novel soon after it was released in 1989. I was in graduate school at the time and comics were one of the few things I had time to read. It’s hard to call the original Gotham by Gaslight steampunk. The story pretty much limits itself to technology that was well established in the nineteenth century. That said, the artwork reminds me more than a little of Jacques Tardi’s artwork in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Also, it’s worth noting that Robert Bloch, who wrote the Jack the Ripper Star Trek episode, also wrote the graphic novel’s introduction.

Earlier this year, Warner Brothers produced a direct-to-video animated adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight. I knew I wanted to reacquaint myself with this story. I watched it on Netflix and liked it enough, I went out and bought a copy. I discovered Best Buy has a special edition that includes a reprint of the original graphic novel—very cool because that meant I could refresh my memory of the original without damaging my first edition.

As it turns out, the plot of the movie is quite a bit different from that of the graphic novel. This becomes apparent right away when it opens with Pamela Isley (better known to many Batman fans as Poison Ivy) working in a burlesque house and becoming the Ripper’s first murder victim. I have to admit to mixed feelings on this point. One on hand, it feels a bit like a betrayal of character to make Pamela a victim. On the other, it establishes right away that you can’t take your expectations of certain characters for granted and that does pay off as the movie progresses.

It’s pointed out in the commentary that the graphic novel was only 40 pages long and that doesn’t really provide enough material to fill out a 70-minute movie. What I like is that they didn’t add stuff just to add stuff. They fleshed out the mystery and we got to see my favorite aspect of Batman—we got to see him working as a detective, hunting for clues and actually figuring out who the Ripper is.

They also made it more steampunk than the original, but it’s not a gratuitous addition of gadgets. Instead, they added a World’s Fair, which was very much a showpiece of technology at the time, and they gave the police an airship. This latter works because in Batman: The Animated Series the police are shown as having airships, so it was great to see that idea explored in this alternate history version. They also gave Batman a couple of steampowered gadgets. Of course, Batman always needs cutting-edge technology in his work.

There’s great voice acting in the movie with Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Anthony Head as Alfred the Butler, and Jennifer Carpenter as Selina Kyle. The DVD’s special features are pretty much teasers for other DC/Warner film projects, but the Blu Ray includes a couple of bonus Batman cartoons, a commentary and a making-of featurette. All in all, this ended up being one of my favorite adaptations of a DC comic book. It seems like the makers of the live-action DC movies could learn a thing or two from the animation department.

Of course, if you’re in a steampunk mood, you should check out my Clockwork Legion series. I have plenty of airships to go around, plus there’s even the New Orleans World Cotton Exposition in the fourth book—one of the original World’s Fairs. You can learn more about the series by visiting: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion. If you’re in Las Cruces, I’m signing copies this morning at COAS Books downtown from 10 until noon. If you miss that, I’ll be at Branigan Library tomorrow from 2 until 4pm.