30 June 2013

But Who Would Be More Insulted by “Blind as a Bat”?

At Comic Vine, Gregg Katzman summarized last month’s discussion on the all-important question: Who would win in a fight, Nightwing or Daredevil?

Even current Nightwing scripter Kyle Higgins weighed in:
In my opinion, it all depends on how quick (if at all) Nightwing can figure out that Daredevil relies on heightened senses/radar. If he can deduce that, he’s a few gadgets away from screwing with DD’s navigation system enough to make it a fight. Of course, there’s also the variable of “what kind of mood is Mark Waid in while he’s writing this” (come on, is there ANYONE else you’d rather see write this fight?!?). I’m pretty sure he could come up with sixteen clever ways to take down either character without the other breaking a sweat.
Higgins’s comment acknowledges the dirty little secret of superhero battles: the fix is always in. The outcome of the fight depends on what’s necessary for a compelling, satisfying narrative. Early in a story, we’ve seen the Condiment King take down Robin and Black Canary together. But at the end of a rousing tale, and given the right circumstances, Jason Todd can conquer Mongul.

Adding fan popularity to the question further complicates the issue. In 1996 DC and Marvel collaborated on a miniseries that pitted a number of their brands against each other. The outcome of the major battles was determined in advance by readers’ votes. That resulted in the extremely popular Wolverine and Spider-Man beating the extremely powerful Lobo and Superboy.

That miniseries didn’t include Nightwing or Daredevil, but it did feature Tim Drake as Robin. He was set against Jubilee, a young mutant in the X-Men who could generate fireworks. Despite having no powers, Tim sneakily managed to pin Jubilee down without hitting her (he has trouble hitting girls), and they ended up making out, thus satisfying nearly all readers. Simpler times.

(Photo at top by Osvaldo Eaf 2, via Flickr.)

27 June 2013

Big-Budget Action Movies Losing Their Wit

Last night I saw Man of Steel. It reminded me of Oz the Great and Powerful in that both movies are carefully made to trigger our memories of modern American myths, and in doing so both put spectacle over coherence, character, or wit.

Man of Steel does a fine job of showing us exactly what, say, a punch-out between two superpowered humanoids on a satellite would look like. Likewise, Oz the Great and Powerful swoops all over its digital locations, making them more convincing than the plot twists.

But does either of those movies have more than three quotable lines? (Check out these attempts to muster a quota of quotes.)

There’s no wit in either movie’s screenplay. Almost all their dialogue sounds like it was the first choice of tired screenwriters at the end of a long day. Most characters speak in simple, unimaginative ways, stating their emotions or desires baldly. (All the better, perhaps, for easy translations for the international market?) And the actors usually deliver that dialogue slowly, either to fill time or to ensure that no one in the audience can fall behind.

Consider Oz’s arrival in the strange fairyland:
Oz: Where...Where am I exactly?
Theodora: Where do you think you are?
Oz: I have no idea. It’s...It’s like no place I've ever seen.
Theodora: You’re in Oz.
And compare that to the hero’s lines from the parallel scene in MGM’s 1939 film:
Dorothy: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more. . . . We must be over the rainbow! [Glinda arrives in her bubble.] Now I...I know we’re not in Kansas!
Okay, Dorothy’s speech includes #4 on the American Film Institute’s list of all-time best movie quotes. But those words are powerful because they’re understated and fresh. They could therefore be delivered with emotion instead of stating emotion. And the next line is actually metaphorical.

Even throwaway lines in the 1939 movie are evocative: “Now you go feed those hogs before they worry themselves into anemia!” “Of course, some people do go both ways.” “And the last to go will see the first three go before her.” Yes, sometimes the vaudeville shtick underlying that script shows through, but the words are still entertaining. It’s not just that repeated viewings have made the movie memorable. Rather, lines with verve have made it possible to view the movie over and over.

Last year’s big-budget popcorn movies showed that they don’t have to lack wit: The Avengers and Skyfall are powerful action movies with good scripts. They offer a lot to look at, but also a lot to hear besides explosions. Oz the Great and Powerful and Man of Steel offer only half that package.

26 June 2013

“Tottenhots” in the Baum Bugle

The new issue of The Baum Bugle, which arrived today, includes my article “The Troublesome Tottenhots.” It discusses a set of people L. Frank Baum wrote about in The Patchwork Girl of Oz and briefly in Rinkitink in Oz whose name is obviously based on the “Hottentots” of southern Africa.

Most of the article explores how Baum didn’t just play on the Hottentot name but also invoked a centuries-old tradition in British and American thought that cast Hottentots as the lowest form of humanity, perhaps even a separate species. This article is the first time I’ve been able to cross-pollinate my Oz writing with my research on eighteenth-century history.

The last part of the essay discusses how Baum, despite building on racist stereotypes, also provides his Tottenhots with a voice and a place in Oz. I don’t think he was consciously arguing for racial equality and inclusion. Rather, he couldn’t help having his greatest strength as a writer, the ability to portray different points of view sympathetically, come through for the Tottenhots.

25 June 2013

Contradictions and Coincidences in Oz the Great and Powerful

During Sunday’s panel discussion on Oz the Great and Powerful, Caroline Spector pointed out that we don’t see Theodora the witch perform any witchcraft.

That made me think of the scene in which Oz saves Finley the winged monkey from being devoured by scaring a lion away with flash powder. Theodora is nearby, but apparently doesn’t think to throw fire the same way. Nor does she protect herself from the flying baboon with her magic in the preceding scene. How much of a witch is she, anyway?

Of course, when Theodora turns evil (as shown here), she starts tossing fireballs around like there was a fire sale. Does that imply she must become bad to deploy her powers?

Other questions that arose during discussions at the Winkie Convention:
  • If Oz is such a fan of Thomas Edison, why doesn’t he use any electrical effects or machines in his magic act? (One old-fashioned projection machine in his trailer doesn’t count.)
  • If China Doll needs to sleep (Oz tucks her in one night), why is she unaffected by the Poppy Field?
  • Why does Finley struggle to carry Oz’s bag along the Yellow Brick Road but have no trouble flying with it?
  • How can a small, jury-rigged hot-air balloon lift so much gold? Gold is heavy.
And then there are the plotting coincidences of the sort that Hollywood often asks us to accept. There’s no reason for Oz to keep his final plan secret except to increase suspense for us. And that plan depends on him correctly calculating exactly what the wicked witches will do, down to the split second. In addition, China Doll returns Glinda’s wand not a second too late or too soon.

Those are all internal incongruities of the script. Trying to reconcile Oz the Great and Powerful with other versions of the Oz mythos would of course produce even bigger questions.

What’s your favorite, or least favorite, inconsistency within Oz the Great and Powerful?

24 June 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful Impaneled

Yesterday I moderated a panel at the Winkies Convention on Oz the Great and Powerful and its place in the history of Oz movies. The distinguished panelists were:
I laid out the topic by noting that Oz the Great and Powerful is the first financially successful cinematic version of Oz since 1939 (and perhaps, depending on how much one interprets Hollywood accounting, ever). Journey Back to Oz, The Wiz, and Return to Oz were all box-office failures, though the last has since won a cult following. But Box Office Mojo says that as of last week Oz the Great and Powerful has taken in nearly $500 million worldwide.

At the same time, Rotten Tomatoes says that both critics and audiences are split on the movie’s merits, with rankings hovering around the 60% approval line that defines the difference between a ripe red tomatoes and a messy green splat.

The discussion was lively, with Caroline pointing out the problematic ways that Oz the Great and Powerful treated its female characters. While working hard not to work blue, she noted how Oz seduced women by giving them cheap music boxes. On the other hand, Caroline said that China Doll was the most appealing character in the film.

Freddy pondered whether Oz the Great and Powerful would eventually gather a following like Return to Oz from people who watch it in childhood and find it speaks to them. But is there enough in the movie about a twentysomething hound dog to appeal to kids? I asked Peter about the visual effects. This is the first Oz movie in the era of CGI—but did the filmmakers put that technology into creating a world as obviously artificial as MGM’s matte paintings?

The audience offered great comments and questions. A lady wearing Theodora’s ruby ring pointed out how the three witches’ powers were color-coordinated with their outfits. Sam Milazzo asked how Theodora’s name related to Dorothy’s, which leads to larger questions of whether the movie’s Emma Gale will become Aunt Em or the Wizard and Glinda will become parents of that Oz’s Ozma. We all pondered whether this movie is a dream that no one’s yet woken up from.

I delayed calling on Carrie Hedges, president of the International Wizard of Oz Club, to ensure that she would have the last word. She spoke about how the many versions of Oz each bring their own fans to the overall mythos. And if the Wizard offered her a music box, Carrie said, she could gladly take it. That brought down the house and closed the convention in a lively way.

23 June 2013

Little Gotham and the Rough Edges

I read through Batman: Little Gotham, #10-12, this month. It remains one of the last vestiges of the DC Universe that existed before the current “New 52” continuity. Or rather, it’s a particular reflection of that universe.

In Little Gotham, not only are there no dead Robins, but most of Batman’s protégé(e)s are on good terms with him and each other. Jason Todd and Cassandra Cain are hanging around Wayne Manor. Nightwing and Oracle are still dating. Damian brings his (sometimes) little friend Colin home with him for play dates instead of keeping him secret.

In other words, this is the universe that many fanfiction writers seem to prefer imagining, where all interpersonal friction among the heroes has been sanded down to nothing more than amusing grumpiness. (Oh, that Jason!)

Little Gotham’s Damian continues to act out of character, as defined by his interpretations in the main comics. He was raised within the al-Ghul clan of assassins and world-conquerors, and in #10 he doesn’t recognize the name Napoleon. (He calls it his favorite ice cream. Overly obsessed Robin fans know that Neapolitan ice cream was Jason’s favorite. Not that I know that fact. No.) Like the Robin of the Teen Titans Go cartoon, this Damian seems greatly concerned with food.

In another panel Damian comments on American men’s fashion from the 1980s and ’90s, when he wasn’t even supposed to be alive. While the Little Gotham Damian has the same lack of patience and politesse as the character in the main comics, his history and outlook are unrecognizable.

That change seems to be part of the same process as the change in the rest of the Batman family: this Damian has become more cute, at the cost of the rough edges and details that made him distinct and more interesting in stories.

A couple of these issues left me with questions about their editing. The villain of #10 is Bane, and about halfway through he develops an accent (“d” for “th”). Batman fans of Latino descent disagree on the use of Spanish words and phrases in this story.

Another editing issue was word-balloon placement in #10-11. (Usually editors handle that job and letterers carry out their instructions.) On several pages I struggled to find the right flow from one balloon to the next unclear. The credited editor, Kristy Quinn, has years of experience with Wildstorm and DC. But maybe those issues were a learning experience for an assistant.

22 June 2013

Phearse Competition

Last night, the first night of this year’s Winkie/International Wizard of Oz Club Convention, director David Maxine recruited me into being one of the players of the “It’s the Baum!” game show. My team, named the Horners, included Miriam Goldman, Robin Olderman, and Jim Vander Noot. Our opponents were the Hoppers—named in honor of the feuding nations in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, published 100 years ago.

The game required pairs from each team to identify people associated with Oz in some way: characters, creators, adapters, performers, etc. One player saw the person’s name on a screen and gave clues to the other, facing away from the screen. This required both players to recognize the people—or to arrive at the correct answer some other way.

My young mind was wired for trivia, and I retain a lot about the Oz books: the predecessor of King Krewel (King Phearse), whose name begins with the word “high” (High Boy), what young hero of an Oz book shares a name with Batman’s partner (Robin S. Brown).

I haven’t absorbed as much about more recent adaptations, such as who played Glinda in the original Broadway production of The Wiz (Dee Dee Bridgewater). But watching this game played last year showed me the importance of being flexible in how one passed clues to one’s partner. Therefore, when faced with the unfamiliar name of the nerve specialist in Return to Oz, I went with “The professional title of a physician…Comedienne Jo Anne” (Doctor Worley).

Some of the names were even more obscure—to the point that we joked their association with Oz was being the person in history least associated with Oz. At one point my partner and I got the name “Bebopma,” which is a throwaway joke in Jack Snow’s reference book Who’s Who in Oz. Game judge Eric Shanower later told me that he got so frustrated that we didn’t just say “Pass” to such a ridiculous challenge that he sounded the alarm for an illegal clue. But that probably saved us time we put toward earning another point.

Which turned out to be crucial. Our team got off to a good start, thanks in part to my juvenile mind. We added a couple of points in the next round. By the Hoppers’ last turn, we Horners were ahead by seven points.

But then Anil Tambwekar and Glenn Ingersoll pulled off a comeback as exciting as a Ray Allen three-pointer and tied the score. And since there were no tie-breaker questions prepared, everyone won a prize. It was the Baum.

21 June 2013

An Election Doesn’t Even Slow Them Up

For over a year, the FBI says, a man named Scott Crawford worked on building an X-ray device which he described as “Hiroshima on a light switch.” He wanted to use this nuclear weapon on Muslims and sought out support from groups he thought would be sympathetic to that sort of mass murder. One of them alerted the federal authorities instead.

This scheme is a product of OIP Derangement Syndrome. Crawford reportedly identified himself as a former member of the “United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” The Albany Times-Union said he’s active in Americans Demanding Liberty and Freedom, a “Tea Party” group. The New York Times reported that the FBI’s complaint quoted Crawford as saying, “You know what? After this last election, the electoral process is dead.” Because, obviously, most American voters didn’t see things his way.

Talking Points Memo reported that on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, before any suspects or motivation had been identified, Crawford sent a series of messages that added up to:
Well, tell it to your treasonous bedwetting maggot in chief. He started bringing the scumbags have wholesale as he got in charge. He directed the ins to start bringing muzzies here without background checks. Your background was scrutinized more to join the army than any muslim scum gets to come here. They don’t have to follow any laws, and this administration has done more to enable a government sponsored invasion than the press can cover up. Be pissed, but get the word out that obamas policies caused this.
By that time, undercover officers were already inside Crawford’s bigoted little conspiracy, which was aimed at killing many more people.

(Cartoon by Charles Addams, of course.)

20 June 2013

Raised on Harry Potter

One of the calls for papers from the Northeast Modern Language Association reads:

Into The Pensieve: The Harry Potter Generation in Retrospect

As professors, we now teach the first generation of students to grow up reading Rowling’s books and watching the movies based on them. How have a generation of children, now adults, been shaped by this phenomenon? What future is there for Harry Potter studies? Are we still in the Harry Potter Age, or have we entered a Post-Potter age? This panel seeks papers that address the idea of a Harry Potter Generation broadly, with perspectives including fan studies, pedagogy, and traditional theoretical lenses. Abstracts to lauere@sunysuffolk.edu.
Back in 2007 I noted how kids all over the English-speaking world were sharing the same experience. Some of the links are broken now, but the generational milestone—perhaps one of the last of its sort?—remains.

(H/t to Comic Book Masculinity.)

19 June 2013

Suburb Reverting to Nature?

Early this month, a coyote bit the dog of one of my writing-group friends, Karen Day. This was, the local newspaper reported, one of more than fifty recent coyote sightings in town.

In addition, our suburb’s police killed a black bear that was hanging in a tree over the highway. Wild turkeys are walking the roads—twenty roosted in my side yard a couple of years ago. I routinely see rabbits on the sidewalks.

Indeed, there are so many rabbits in the suburbs close to Boston that Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters has invested in a artificial coyote (as shown above) to scare them away from the plantings. It doesn’t seem to be working; the site’s Facebook page featured a photo of a rabbit sitting happily beside the coyote figure. But perhaps the coyote that bit Karen’s dog will make its way there.

I grew up in this area, and the only wild mammals I remember seeing are raccoons, squirrels, and chipmunks. I saw ducks and geese down at the ponds but no turkeys. I was a kid; I would’ve gotten all excited about bunnies, and my parents would certainly have taken note of coyotes and bears.

What’s changed? One possibility is that we’re simply seeing the result of population cycles among those species. Another is that decades of environmental improvements have made this neighborhood more hospitable to turkeys, rabbits, and other wildlife, and the predators have followed. And then there’s the opposite explanation: that more development further out from the city has driven those animals out of their previous homes into ours.

18 June 2013

Smirkus to Tour the Emerald City

Circus Smirkus, my favorite youth circus, is adopting an Oz theme this year:

Grab your Ruby Slippers and click your heels together, as Circus Smirkus goes "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with a new spin on the Wizard of Oz. It will take acrobatic thinking, highwire hearts, and courageous clowns to embark on this Emerald City adventure! This time it’s all flying monkey business as we cartwheel down the yellow brick road to a new twist in the tale. Pull back the curtain and discover fun for the whole family as Circus Smirkus presents Oz Incorporated.
This circus tours New England each summer, with venues and show times on its website.

17 June 2013

A Great Pig Story

I enjoyed Louise Erdrich’s memory of summer reading for the New York Times Book Review. She was reading well above grade level at about age nine:

And then I found “The Nylon Pirates,” by Nicholas Monsarrat. I thought it would be about pirates stealing women’s nylon stockings, which seemed shockingly tempting. It must have been the last straw, because the librarian refused to check it out for me.

Instead, she gave me “Animal Farm.” “Let me know what you think,” she said.

I loved it. “Well?” she said when I brought it back.

“A great pig story!” I told her.

She renewed the book with her special red stamp and handed it back to me. “Read it again,” she said.
The librarians in Erdrich’s story start out as trying to shoo her away from the adult books, at least without parental permission. But really they’re concerned that she read what’s right for her. This one chooses which adult book to recommend to young Louise—and makes sure she gets everything out of it.

16 June 2013

Teen Titans Gone Bad

Every so often I’ve peeked in on Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go, and I’ve been increasingly disappointed. After watching the recent episode about Beast Boy turning into a gorilla and challenging Robin for alpha-male status, I’ve decided to give up on the series entirely.

There is, as far as I can tell, almost no heroism in Teen Titans Go. The plots are built around the boys’ gluttony, laziness, or egoism. (The female characters react but have rarely driven the action.) The cartoons end with few valuable lessons about life, particularly by the standards of children’s television, and no development from one episode to the next.

Every so often the cartoons show us a villain from the old Teen Titans cartoon. Usually that character has no lines, thus saving on voice-actor costs. (Most of the episodes have been performed solely by the regular cast. Scott Menville as Robin once did double-duty as that character’s rival Speedy.) But we rarely see the team defeat those villains. In some cases, they don’t even notice their old enemies. And in the gorilla episode, Beast Boy actually refuses to stop the bad guy.

There’s a lot of action in Teen Titans Go, to be sure, but these Titans rarely use their powers for anyone else’s benefit. Instead, they’re usually trying to get more stuff—especially food—for themselves. So far I’ve seen the team’s activity help Jump City only once as they defeated some sort of slime monster, and the story that followed was all about Robin trying to sneak out of doing the laundry.

And that’s just wrong. That’s not what Robin, or any other hero, would do. Those characters aren’t defined by their powers and abilities—they’re defined by what they do with those powers and abilities. A Robin or ex-Robin has usually led the Teen Titans not because his ego demanded it but because he’s devoted to justice and helping people, and ultimately more badass-effective than anyone else.

Of course it’s possible to create Teen Titans drama around leadership conflicts, insecurity, wish for recognition, and other foibles. But the best stories show that drama playing out within a plot of actual heroics—i.e., helping other people. The producers have presented Teen Titans Go as what the old team does in their off-hours, but their stories depict those characters as petty and foolish and ultimately unheroic.

All that said, the network just ordered new episodes, so the series is apparently working on a commercial basis. I suppose all those stories based around eating might do a good job selling fast-food and candy commercials.

15 June 2013

Timberline and Sprayberry

Six years ago I marveled at the Dickensian names of two young actors in 28 Weeks Later.

Today I’m celebrating the Pynchonian names of two younger actors:

Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry

They play the young Clark Kent at different ages in Man of Steel. Both are acting in other projects.

For nostalgia’s sake, here are pointers to Marc Tyler Nobleman’s interviews with the actors who played young Clark Kent back in 1978.

13 June 2013

The Spy Who Came In From the Web

This thriller starts with Steve, a former employee of a surveillance agency, contacting a libertarian-minded reporter and making a very public disclosure of government secrets. Though many professionals and outside observers say Steve’s revealed nothing new, the US government makes a lot of noise about arresting him. Steve holes up in Hong Kong with his Chinese-Australian girlfriend Rosalie and starts speaking to the Chinese press about what he spirited away from his last job on a thumb drive.

The Chinese intelligence agency decides to steal Steve’s thumb drives, figuring there’s even more information on them than he and the news media have revealed. Unknown to the Chinese spies, the US government wants them to do exactly that. The whole defection has been a way to get tracking software and bugs installed on those thumb drives into the mysterious Shanghai compound where the best Chinese hackers work.

But in the process of stealing those thumb drives, the Chinese intelligence agency kidnap Rosalie. Or were those men from Hong Kong’s criminal triads? Now Steve has to rescue his girlfriend without the help of US intelligence. Or was she an agent, too, just pretending to be his girlfriend and encouraging him to defect? And if they can’t get the thumb drives, will any of the government agencies be willing to work with Steve and thumb screws instead?

12 June 2013

What’s New in DC’s New Digital Formats?

Wired reports on two digital storytelling techniques that DC Comics is touting this month. First up:
“DC2, which will feature “dynamic artwork” that unfolds as the reader taps on the screen. . . . Rather than flipping through pages, readers will “tap on the screen to bring the next element of the story to life, whether it’s a whole panel, or a word balloon or a sound effect,” DC Entertainment Co-Publisher Jim Lee told Wired. “What’s cool is that you really get to challenge the rules of traditional storytelling. You aren’t beholden to a strict left to right western culture narrative. You can have elements that leap back and forth.”
“Dynamic artwork” is making its debut in a comics adaptation of the 1960s Batman TV show. So I expect it will let readers make sound effects that say “POW!” and “BAM!” pop up over the art, amplifying the campiness those comics are probably seeking to replicate. But that wouldn’t really “challenge the rules of traditional storytelling.” Will it do anything else?

Already Mark Waid, John Rogers, and colleagues at Thrillbent.com have been exploring how to employ the technique of changes within a panel in a digital comic. Their storytelling remains sequential, but tapping to bring up new elements can move the story forward at a deliberate pace or draw our attention to particular details. It’s not a gimmick like the the picture-book apps where the young reader can poke around for an element on each page that moves or makes sounds.

DC’s other proclaimed innovation is “DC2 Multiverse, a choose-your-own-path format that will allow users to make decisions at key points that will unlock different storylines.” That seems like an actual challenge to traditional storytelling since it might affect character choices and endings—an author’s basic prerogatives. It’s no surprise that the tryout title for that format is a videogame tie-in, an entertainment medium that’s all about branching storylines.

11 June 2013

Are Those Gargoyles? Is That a Mangaboo Sun?

From Flavorwire’s roundup of “Twenty Embarrassingly Bad Book Covers for Classic Novels”:

Some of the other covers on this list are simply out of fashion, or designed for other cultures. But a lot reflect the underside of digital publishing: outfits slapping any old art onto a public-domain text in order to squeeze a few dollars out of some bargain-hunting reader.

(Hat tip to Gili Bar-Hillel, whose Hebrew translation of The Marvelous Land of Oz will have a much more traditional John R. Neill image on the cover.)

09 June 2013

A More Realistic Robin

Cartoonist Dan Piraro once again explored the nuances of Batman and Robin in today’s Bizarro.

And on his blog, Piraro reveals that he took another stab at the same joke in 2010.

04 June 2013

“I’m going to see that tornado one day.”

Last week tornado chaser Tim Samaras died chasing a tornado in Oklahoma. The same storm killed his son, twenty-four years old, and a colleague.

National Geographic then ran an interview with Samaras about his work, some of which had been funded by the society:
How did you get into it?

My background is in engineering. And I've always had a fascination with weather.

I watched The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid and vowed to myself, "I'm going to see that tornado one day." Tornadoes have pretty much become a focus of my life.
Rationally, that makes as much sense as deciding to breed monkeys with wings.

01 June 2013

G-Man, Come Home!

G-Man: Coming Home brings a lot of delights, but I found it less satisfying than G-Man: Cape Crisis. This book picks up just after the end of that previous volume when G-Man (Mikey) and his older brother Great Man (David) have regained the magic cape and belt that provided their powers. The world thinks of Great Man as dead, but that isn’t worrying him because it gets him out of the house.

One plotting problem for G-Man writer-artist Chris Giarrusso is evident on the back cover (visible by scrolling down on this page): he’s created a world that’s too fun for his heroes. Below portraits of the brothers is an assemblage of other characters with special powers. We see the boys’ five loyal buddies: Kid Thunder, Suntrooper Solazzo, Tan Man, Billy Demon, and Sparky. We see the seven Color Girls, who function as a single source of unfathomable energy and emotion (the way many middle-grade boys view girls). We see this world’s mightiest adult hero team: Racing Stripe, Miss Victory, Cool Wraps, Captain Thunderman, Lugg, Color Queen, and Suntrooper Captain Davis. Also on the scene but not shown are the boys’ mentor, wizard Glendolf, and the godlike creature they rescued in the last volume, Khrysomallos.

In sum, for something to threaten G-Man and Great Man in this volume, it would have to be tremendously powerful and/or to strip away those allies. The first bad guy (also shown on the back cover, the only antagonist there) has a giant robot. Well, in the first chapter he does. After the Color Girls bring him down, he has nothing on his side but a fake moustache.

The second antagonist is the head of the Suntroopers, upset that the boys’ magic cape and belt can negate his troops’ solar suits. The Suntroopers function in this universe like the Green Lantern Corps, a space-based patrol system. Everyone sees them as heroes. They would be a formidable enemy for G-Man and Great Man, except that, well, the boys’ cape and belt can negate the Suntroopers’ solar suits. Plus, the head of the force and his chosen deputies quickly come across as incompetent hotheads. There’s a moment at the end of chapter 3 when it appears Suntrooper Captain Davis will follow orders rather than protect the brothers, but otherwise that conflict, explained and re-explained, produces more parties at superhero headquarters than anxiety.

Furthermore, adults handle a lot of the major problem-solving in this book—often without even telling the kids. Almost needless to say, Suntrooper Captain Davis has a clever plan all along. “We didn’t have time to tell you the plan!” Captain Thunderman tells his son. Cool Wraps informs the brothers that he kept them “incapacitated so you wouldn’t accidentally give away the plan!” The result is less satisfying, as well as less nerve-wracking, than if the kids were on their own.

But then comes chapter 5, when G-Man and Great Man are on their own as their parents race off to the hospital to deliver their baby sibling. (No, David and Mikey didn’t see that coming, either.) This single issue has everything I love about G-Man: out-of-this-world plot twists, snarky humor, obdurate personalities, and family dynamics where no amount of friction can break the underlying bonds. The rest of G-Man: Coming Home has all that too, but not in such concentrated form.