Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Child Endangerment! Fun for the whole Bat-family!"

And now, a salute to that most deranged trope of comic books of the 1940s - The Kid Sidekick.

KID FLASH - Winning the award for laziest transition from hero name to sidekick name, it’s Wally West! He’s actually from 1959, but he’s such a prime example I have to include him. I can honestly declare that Kid Flash has the stupidest origin of any comic character ever. See, Wally is the nephew of the girlfriend of  the second Flash, Barry Allen (The first, Jay Garrick, had retired.), and he was a huge fan of the Flash. Upon learning this, Barry revealed his identity to the spunky tween, and decided to tell him how he got his powers. Why is the first person to whom he’s revealed this incredible secret a child he barely knows? Narrative contrivance! Anyway, rather than just saying “A lightning bolt struck some chemicals I was working with and they splatted me, so now I run real fast,” Barry demonstrates by setting up the chemicals exactly as they were when the incident happened, and oh gosh wow wouldn’t you know it, they get hit by lightning. Wally now has powers, and Barry decides to make him a mini-Flash outfit, (which Wally quickly dumps in favor of a the usual “easy target” look of the kid sidekick.) and off they go to fight crime.

In the first example of what you’ll see a lot of here, Wally took up his hero’s mantle, becoming The Flash after Barry died. Eventually, a descendant of Barry from the future, Bart Allen, came to our time and had his own teen superhero gig as Impulse. But after deciding to take things more seriously, he took Wally’s old costume and went out as Kid Flash, to honor those who came before him.

DO YOU HEAR ME? Barry Allen is DEAD. Wally West is THE FLASH. Bart Allen is ALIVE AND IS KID FLASH. Any comics being published the last few months that say otherwise are the result of a MADMAN‘S FEVERED IMAGINATION.

ROBIN - Ah, the classic example. Robin came into being when the editors of Batman decided that since Bats is a detective, he should have a Watson-like partner he can talk with. GOOD IDEA! They decided said partner should be an 8-year-old. BAD IDEA! The idea was to make Batman lighter and more sympathetic and appeal to young readers. So to be fair, it’s two bad ideas. Dick Grayson was a circus acrobat whose parents were killed by a mobster. Bruce Wayne, who was in the audience, decided to take the boy into his house as his ward, being unable to adopt him because he’s single. Ah, the ‘40s. When the kid figures out his fake daddy is Batman, he becomes the big man’s sidekick, with a costume and name inspired by Robin Hood. (Robin Hood? Dammit, that guy follows me.)

Well, after being “The Boy Wonder” for years, Robin went away to college, where he spent an embarrassing period going solo as “Robin: The Teen Wonder”. The Teen Wonder comics from the ‘70s are hilarious because the artists are making an effort to draw him like a college student, while he’s still wearing those ridiculous little pants. Anyway, readers responded well, so they gave Batman a new Robin and had Grayson go solo in an even more unfortunate costume as Nightwing. His current costume is classy and cool, which is why I used a picture of his old one. Nightwing distanced himself from Batman, until his hotheaded second Robin, Jason Todd, got beaten to death and blown up by the Joker (He got better). Anyway, Batman got blown up in a helicopter crash, and after three of the four Robins briefly dueled (triueled?) over the duties of Batman, Dick gave in to predictability, becoming the new Batman.

I should mention that the helicopter crash is only true in the main Batman line of comics. There is another comic that shows he was actually teleported away from there so he could help stop the insane god Darkseid by shooting him with a magic gun, so Darkseid blasted his consciousness back to cavemen times as a punishment, leaving a corpse in the present. Thankfully, those of us who don’t read the big event comics are free to ignore this, thanks to a perfectly serviceable helicopter crash. Batman using a gun to fight a god? Pfft. That’s like saying Barry Allen is alive.

BUCKY - Well, we’ve heard a lot out of DC, but I don’t want you thinking it’s all about them. Marvel gets in on the child endangerment action, too, in a big, big way. See, back in the ‘40s, Marvel was called Timely. And when they came up with the hot new hero Captain America, they did the “Timely” thing, and copied the more popular company, National Publications, soon to be known as DC. Since Robin was popular, Timely’s Captain America needed a kid sidekick, and that was Bucky Barnes. One eeeeeensy weensy problem. Captain America’s milieu was the goddamned front lines of World War Fucking Two. The comics of the time justified Bucky’s presence as… ugh, the “Camp Mascot.” Mascot, yeah, that’s a great reason to put a 13-year-old in Guadalcanal. Bucky was eventually killed in action after a missile he and Cap were attempting to defuse blew him to smithereens. The death stuck even after Captain America was revived, leading to the old saying, “No one stays dead in comics except Jason Todd, Bucky Barnes, and Gwen Stacy.”

Then he came back to life! Just like Jason Todd! And Gwen Stacy got cloned! Old sayings are bullshit. Anyway, in 2005, Bucky got two major retcons. The first was that he was 16 (going on 17), and his small stature and sneakiness got him recruited by the army for covert assassinations. The second was that only his arm was blown to smithereens, with the rest of him being one rather large smitherando. His frozen body was thawed by the Russians in the ‘60s, and what with the amnesia and all, they decided to give him a robo-arm and make him The Winter Soldier, a top-notch assassin and nogoodnik. He regained all of his memories following a few encounters with Captain America, and after Cap died, he Wally Wested himself into a role as the new Captain America, with a pretty ugly new costume, and a gun that the media made way too big a deal over.

TORO - Toro is easily the dumbest thing on this list. Even more than Kid Flash. See, the Human Torch was the first ever Marvel hero, debuting in Timely’s Marvel Comics #1. And the interesting thing about the Human Torch was that his name was a big fat lie. He wasn’t a human, he was an android, created by the hilariously named Professor Phineas Horton. And he was a completely perfect replica of a human, except for the slight error that his skin burst into flame on contact with oxygen. Also he could fly for some reason. Anyway, he eventually figured out how to control that, and got a secret identity and a superheroing gig. Toro made the scene in Human Torch #2, the first issue of the Human Torch comic. (Don’t ask, I barely understand it myself.)  Toro was the son of Professor Horton’s former lab assistants, orphaned since their death in a train accident. He was found at the site of the accident by some circus folk, who noticed that he didn’t burn in the fire. The circus adopted him (Apparently a billionaire can’t get custody of a circus boy, but a circus can get custody of a trauma victim.)  When the Human Torch visited the circus, the boy’s true flame powers activated. Now keep in mind that the Torch’s flame ability wasn’t something intentional, it’s just a side effect of his oddball robot body. So why does the kid, a human, happen to have the exact same powers? It’s just insane! Anyway, he started sidekicking, calling himself Toro, which is Spanish for “bull”. So that makes sense.

To make up for his deranged origins, he was allowed to lead a remarkably dignified life, remarkably NOT becoming the new Human Torch. He made it out of WWII sane and healthy, got married, and settled down. In 1969, he resurfaced to stop the Mad Thinker, and was killed. To date, he has remained dead, but nobody cares.

SPEEDY - Oh, Speedy. Speedy was Roy Harper the orphaned (surprise!) son of a park ranger. After his dad died saving a Navajo medicine man, Brave Bow, from a forest fire, Brave Bow raised Roy and trained him in archery. When Roy was a teenager, he entered an archery contest judged by superhero Green Arrow. At the competition, Roy helped G.A. foil a robbery. When Brave Bow died, Roy became the ward of Green Arrow’s alter ego, billionaire Oliver Queen, who was never suspected of being Green Arrow despite his ludicrous beard. Needless to say, sidekickery soon followed. Wow! A sidekick position, a billionaire dad, a cool car… What could go wrong?

Um… a whole lot.

When Arrow loses most of his fortune, he begins neglecting Roy. What with that, his girlfriend dumping him, his team breaking up, and a whole heapin’ helpin’ of other crap, Roy learns that he still has one friend he can turn to… Heroin! When Green Arrow finds out he reacts with maturity and understanding by punching Roy in the face and kicking him out of the house. After kicking the habit, Roy cuts off all ties with his former mentor, and bums around as a private eye, a DEA agent, and for one mission, a member of the Suicide Squad. He finally decided to get back into the hero game, but this time as his own man, rather than in the shadow of Green Arrow. So he got himself some high-tech weapons, and made his debut as Arsenal. Then he dropped the weapons, got his bow back, and changed his costume. Then he changed it to a Red Version of Green Arrow’s costume and started calling himself Red Arrow. Way to be your own man, Roy. He says it’s symbolic of him moving past his old issues and letting bygones be bygones but I think it seems a little dependency disorderish.

CAPTAIN MARVEL, JR. - Can Wally West come over here for a second? Yeah, we need to take away your lazy naming trophy and give it to this guy. Interestingly, Freddy Freeman here is actually a boy sidekick to a young boy, in a way. Captain Marvel was a young newsboy who would become the adult superhero Captain Marvel whenever he said “Shazam”, the name of the wizard who gave him his powers. Well, once upon a time, Captain Marvel was fighting Captain Nazi, whose powers include a lack of naming subtlety, and punched him into a lake where Freddy Freeman was fishing with his grandfather. Unaware of Nazi’s identity, but suspiciously not turned off by the big ol’ swastika on his chest, they pull him aboard. Captain Nazi comes to, drowns Grandpa, and beats Freddy senseless with an oar. Man, some people have no gratitude. Finding out that Freddy was left crippled by the attack, Captain Marvel took pity on him, and gave the boy some of his own power. Now, any time Freddy says “Captain Marvel”, it affects a similar transformation. He’s still a teenager, but a buff, noncrippled one. He was given the name Captain Marvel Jr, which unless I miss my guess, leaves him unable to introduce himself without turning back into a gimp.

Actually, he did okay for himself as Captain Marvel Jr. In addition to his role in the main Captain Marvel series, where he was part of a large stable of sidekicks which included Mary Marvel, the Lieutenant Marvels (Tall Marvel, Hill Marvel, and Fat Marvel), Uncle Marvel, Mr. Tawky Tawny the Talking Tiger, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny… Hold on, I need to readjust my brain… They had a club song, you know… Anyway, in addition to that, he also had his own book, which eschewed the… well, let’s be nice and say ‘whimsy’ of the main book’s stories and told some pretty straightforward crime, espionage, and war stories, as well as describing the plight of the urban poor in WWII, with Freddy living his civilian life as a cripple in a run-down orphanage. As the ‘40s ended, Freddy became more a sort of standard sidekick, fading in and out of obscurity as the licensing rights and origins of the family got tossed from Fawcett Comics to DC Comics, and legal action was taken by Marvel comics. In an effort to stem all issues that come from having a guy named Marvel, The Captain has become the wizard, and all the other marvels got depowered. Freddy made a rather epic journey to regain his powers and now looks like Captain Marvel, but goes by the name Shazam. I don’t think it’s gonna last.

STRIPESY - Who’s ready for some wackiness? It’s a middle-aged sidekick to a boy superhero! WHOOOOOOAAAAA! Now, who’s ready for another stupid origin? See, on July 4, 1941, wealthy teenager Sylvester Pemberton and middle-aged mechanic Pat Dugan and a whole bunch of undercover Nazis went to the movies. Separately, I should point out. When the Nazis saw the pro-US theme of the film, they got violent. Way to be undercover, guys. Pemberton and Dugan helped stop the resulting riot and catch the nasty nutsy Nazis. The next day, Pemberton was getting his car fixed at Dugan’s shop when they overheard a customer talking about how they wished the American flag could come to life and beat up Nazis. Seriously.  Anyway, our heroes both got the same idea, and go out fighting crime in themed outfits, still separately. They seem to be keeping themselves open to partnership, though, as Pemberton is the Star-Spangled Kid, and Dugan is Stripesy, with neither being the entire flag. Eventually, they run into each other working the same case, and figure since they have matching outfits, they might as well team up. Dugan gets a job as Pemberton’s chauffeur to make the job easier, and builds a gadget-intensive car for them to use. I’m not sure why the older, tougher, smarter guy wound up as the sidekick. Some say it was due to his inferior social rank, but I’m inclined to think it’s because he called himself Stripesy. That’s such a sidekick name.

And he’s still side kicking to this day. After his stepdaughter decided to annoy him by taking up adventuring as the new Star-Spangled Kid and later, after acquiring Starman’s old cosmic rod, Stargirl, Pat decided to get back in the game himself, building a powerful robotic suit of armor and mentoring her as her sidekick, S.T.R.I.P.E. He remains a member of the Justice Society and is respected by the heroing community. Good for him.

SANDY THE GOLDEN BOY - The Sandman was a fascinating hero, bridging the gap between the pulp heroes of the 1930s to the superheroes of the 1940s. His costume was a business suit, fedora and gas mask, he was aided by his girlfriend Dian, who knew his identity and was portrayed as his equal, and his weapon of choice was a gas gun that compelled villains to tell the truth or simply put them to sleep. Eventually, the editors decided this nuanced noir bullshit was boring, and gave The Sandman a purple and yellow spandex costume and, of course, a tagalong kid named Sandy Hawkins. Sandy was - SURPRISE! - an orphan, adopted by Dian, his aunt. Eventually, Dian died, so there would be no icky girls messing about, and Sandy, with tedious predictability, became the ward of Wesley Dodds, the Sandman. And you know what? I can’t find a damn thing about him. All the information online references modern stories and retcons, all the classic Sandman reprints I’ve read are from the first two years before the change, and the insanely good reboot, Sandman Mystery Theatre, specifically leaves Sandy out entirely. What does all that tell you?

Despite the urge the comics community seems to have to deny that he ever fought alongside Sandman, they’ve also reworked and retconned him into a pretty groovy character for the modern age. Apparently, some science-accident left him turned into a giant sand monster. Wesley put him in suspended animation until a cure could be found, and as Wesley turned into a wobbly old man, Sandy stayed frozen, eventually emerging with a silicon-based body that could turn into sand and exert limited control over the earth, and look sexy and young while doing it. He took up heroing again and got himself a slick gas mask and gun. Lately he‘s been victim to one of the worst things that can befall a hero: An Alex Ross costume redesign. *shudders*. And now he has a trench coat and fedora and calls himself Sandman. Hey Alex! Some of us like growth in our characters!

(For those who don’t know, Alex Ross is an excellent painter who seems to think that all superheroes should be exactly like they were in the mid-70s, and all villains should be however he feels like painting them. He is renowned for his painting skill, his massive ego, and his ridiculous fetishism of a time in comics history that, all things considered, was mostly shit. And with the notable exception of his Batman, which has become the standard, pretty much every costume he’s ever redesigned has been really stupid.)

GORDITO DELGADO - Best. Kid. Sidekick. Ever.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Really? I always thought it was pronounced vah-LAY."

THE KICKER : Kato, the monomial valet of the Brit Reid, wealthy publisher of a major newspaper. When Reid goes out fighting crime as the Green Hornet, Kato accompanies him as... his valet, Kato. But he wears a mask, so it's cool. Was Japanese until World War 2 came along, at which point he started being Korean in the movies and Filipino on the Radio, but since they just pretty much wrote him as “Oriental”, and didn't worry much past that, it didn't exactly make an epic difference. Eventually he became Chinese on the 1960s TV series. I mean, I guess. The actor was, anyway.

WHO THEY'RE KICKING : Brit Reid, a member of the classic “rich idiot with no day job” school of vigilantism, with the classic “suit, fedora, and mask” school of costuming. Depending on which version you see, his unique hook is either that he lets everyone think he's a criminal mastermind to get the bad guys to respect and fear him and to throw the cops off his scent, or else you're watching one of the later versions where they realized that after a while everyone would notice that he just went around stopping crime without committing any. Then his unique hook was a snazzy green hat.

WHAT THEY BRING : As has become a recurring theme, we find ourselves changing with the times. In the older versions of the story, to everyone's amazement, I have no doubt, Kato was a clever inventor and chemist who created the Hornet's miscellaneous gadgetry and fancy car, with the tradeoff being that he was played by some white guy on the radio and dweeby Keye Luke in the movies. On the TV series, he had the good fortune to be played by a handsome young unknown actor, but his mechanical aptitude and chemistry skills became less important and he became a kung-fu master instead. This may seem a wee tad racist, but since said newcomer was Bruce Freaking Lee, nobody cares. Besides, it was also less racist in a way...

WHERE'S THE LOVE? : See, in the old radio\serial days, Kato spoke stilted and broken English with a thick, generically Asian accent. On TV, Lee spoke perfect idiomatic English, with a faint and realistic accent. What's odd is that what people seem to remember is that he did kung-fu and had a thick accent. Were I one for writing more cerebral fare, I would wonder at this perhaps being indicative of some deeply-ingrained racism in the cultural zeitgeist, but I'm really more in the dick and fart jokes category. Speaking of which, Seth Rogen is currently writing a Green Hornet movie, if you can believe it. When asked what kind of Kato would be featured, Rogen said that depends on the actor. Apparently, they're going to look for an actor they like, and write the role to fit him. A sensible way of doing things, I feel. They could, of course, get someone smart, funny, attractive, and martial-artsy, but Stephen Chow already said no, so it's back to square one.

Actually, as I made to post this, they announced the casting of this guy. He seems okay? He's mostly a musician, which is a bit of a red flag, but he's done some acting and directing, too. So bully for him.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Holmes, where did you get this sour fruit?" "A lemon tree, my dear Watson."

THE KICKER: Doctor John Hamish Watson, a friendly and well-regarded medical practitioner. After graduating from medical school, he spent some time in the army. Returning to his hometown of London, Watson finds himself looking for a place to stay, and a friend of his introduces him to a chemistry student by the name of Sherlock Holmes. More on him later. Watson is an average guy of average height, medium build, and with nothing more noticeable about him than a mustache. He’s intelligent, but not intensely clever. He’s brave, but no better a fighter than the average retired army surgeon. The only instance in which he is remarkable is in the sack, having "an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents."

WHO THEY’RE KICKING: Sherlock Holmes, his roommate and friend. Watson meets Holmes when they are just starting out their respective careers as a doctor and chemist, but they quickly settle into the roles we know them in, where Holmes is a detective of great renown. A severe eccentric, Holmes is capable of minute observations and connecting them in obscure but ingenious ways. Also, he loves him the coke.

WHAT THEY BRING: Simply put, Watson brings two things to the table. Knowledge and humanity. ‘Knowledge?’ you ask, as well you might. Holmes is famous for his breadth of knowledge. Well, that’s actually an exaggeration from the books. Watson points out that while Holmes’s basic knowledge of science is formidable, and his analytical mind keen, he has no technique in science, (save chemistry, where his living is made) and he knows sweet fuck all about philosophy, astronomy, politics, and any literature that’s not a lurid true crime story.

Watson, on the other hand is well-versed in politics and current events, and as a medical doctor, knows much about the human body. Apart from the areas of his expertise, he has a general working knowledge on a lot of subjects. So Holmes knows a lot about little, and Watson knows a bit about a bunch. I did not mean to alliterate there, but I‘m not sorry I did. The idea that Holmes is a crazy genius comes from the fact that Watson tends to be brought in mid-case, after Holmes has been studying up on things, and he reads a lot and remembers trivia well. (There’s another reason, but we’ll get to that.)

And the humanity? Well, Holmes is kind of… socially retarded. He’s cold and disconnected to a rather shocking degree. Watson is at hand to smooth over rough edges, and deal with their clients as people, when Holmes couldn’t give a shit.

One more thing he brings to the table is his gun. Holmes doesn’t seem to remember he owns one, and is all the time telling Watson to get his. Come on, man, you’re a detective. You may be an expert at judo, baritsu, and boxing, but if that’s as handy as you act like it is, then you wouldn’t have to borrow your roomie’s gun all the time. To be fair, the only use Holmes ever put his gun to was shooting a “V.R.” into the wall of the apartment in an oddly violent show of patriotism.

WHERE’S THE RESPECT?: Slowly increasing. For a long time, Watson was looked at as a fat idiot that followed Holmes around for god knows what reason. I don’t think it’s fair to blame any one person for this, but let’s go ahead and blame Nigel Bruce. Nigel Bruce was a comic character actor who played Watson opposite Basil Rathbone’s Holmes in a dozen or so movies and a couple hundred radio shows. The producers of these entertainments seemed to think that audiences would be uninterested in the adventures of two capable, intelligent people, and figured that since Holmes is so smart, Watson must be so stupid. Bruce’s Watson was a bumbling oaf who was so bad at deduction he needed Holmes to tell him what his breakfast was half the time.

“An egg? Why Holmes old boy, what makes you say that?”

“Elementary, my dear Watson, it’s round and white, with a squishy yellow bit.”

“Brilliant, Holmes, just brilliant!”

He probably had time to work cases with Holmes because he had scared off any patients he hadn’t poisoned or mutilated.

This Watson stayed prominent in the minds of the public for some time, and any version that put him on Holmes’ level was a deconstruction, a la the 1988 film Without a Clue, where the genius Watson (played by Ben Kingsley) hired a bumbling actor (played by Michael Caine) to be his front man, or Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution, where Holmes (played by Nicol Williamson) was depicted as a drug-addled lunatic who made up Moriarity because his math teacher had sex with his mother, with Watson (played by… Robert Duvall? Huh.) running around cleaning up his messes. But little by little, the love started coming in. The most prominent example was the BBC series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, whose producers were well aware that Holmes, being a serious-minded fellow, would want a partner who could find his ass with both hands, a map, a flashlight, and an electrified ass-finder.

And most subsequent versions have held to this. The sci-fi cartoon series “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century” held Watson so vital to Holmes that the police that cloned him gave him a robo-Watson. (I have seen one episode of this show. It was an adaptation of “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, and it was better than it had any right to be.) In the upcoming BBC pilot “Sherlock”, a modern-day adaptation, Watson will be played by Martin Freeman, who though schlubby and goofy, is also eminently likable. (Holmes is being played by a guy called Benedict Cumberbatch. How awesome is that?)

On top of all that, Guy Ritchie is releasing a Sherlock Holmes movie this year, and I’m sure that Watson will be…

Oh, come on. There’s respecting a classic character, and then there’s just overcompensating.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Side Project: The Prologue

SIDE PROJECT!!! THE PROLOGUE… Online dictionary defines sidekick as “a close friend or companion.” That is, of course, a stupid thing to say. Indiana Jones and Sallah are close friends and companions, but only one is a sidekick. Same goes for Batman and Robin, Kramden and Norton, Al and Tim… One dictionary says “A confederate or assistant” and here we come closer to the true definition that we all know. A sidekick doesn’t just hang around, he assists! But is assisting all he does? No, for that we have to go to the lexicographical big dogs, Merriam-Webster. Take it away, George, Chuck, and Noah! “A person closely associated with another as a subordinate or partner”. Bingo! A sidekick needs to be the second banana AND the second wheel. Someone who is inferior in status to the main character, who helps them out, and who is so closely associated with them that they are seldom thought of without them. If they’re lucky, they get a spotlight episode, if they’re REALLY lucky, they get a spin-off. But they are mostly happy to toil away in the background. They may be incompetent or they may be indispensable, but they’ll never be the star. Except here! It’s time for sidekicks of all kinds to shine out and be noticed. we’ll discuss who they are, who they kick for, what they bring to the table, and what we think of them. Let’s delve now into the annals of those who Ogden Nash was the first to call “side-kickers”. Of course, he also said “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” which may tell us where the term “side-kicker” originates.

Oh, and Veronica Mars has four sidekicks, and the one she's holding in the picture there gets more respect, screen time, and closeups than any of the actual human people.