Sunday, July 15, 2007

Guns, Germs, and Giant Kickass Dinosaurs!

When Rob Bowman's 2002 film, Reign of Fire, came out, I remember thinking how fun the central idea was. Dragons vs. attack helicopters. Dragons vs. tanks. Dragons vs. soldiers. If the dragons are done right--as in, not like sissy dragons that talk with the voice of Sean Connery--then it's a concept that could work, or so I thought. Then I saw the movie, and while the dragon stuff was pretty well done, and the film featured a few exciting sequences, the human storyline bogged the movie down into mediocrity. I haven't seen it since 2002, so it's not fresh in my mind, but I remember thinking that the movie almost worked, but not quite. The plot was just an excuse to have soldiers fight dragons, and after a while, even soldiers fighting dragons isn't as cool as you want it to be.

I feel kind of the same way about The War that Time Forgot, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated (mostly) by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. As you can clearly see by the cover of the Showcase volume, TWTTF has a simple conceit: army vs. dinosaurs. These stories were originally published in DC's Star-Spangled War Stories in the early-to-mid 1960s, and I know the belief in those days was that a reader should be able to pick up any issue of a comic and find a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, but Kanigher takes that assumption to a ridiculous extreme in this series.

Each issue not only features a complete story, but it basically features the same story. Over and over. The story goes like this: In the midst of the "big war," a group of soldiers come across a strange island, an island on which a GIANT DINOSAUR attacks them (and although I use the word "dinosaur," sometimes it was just a dinosaur-looking monster, or even a giant ape, just to break the monotony). The soldiers knock the dinosaur for a loop and escape, barely.

Every issue. For years.

Sure, sometimes there was more than one GIANT DINOSAUR, and the cast of main characters kept changing (which was part of the problem, as I'll get to in a minute), but it was the same plot again and again in each consecutive issue. And not in the way that a Silver Age Flash comic had the same stories again and again, either. At least in those stories, the different villains and conflicts caused some slight variations. For example, a Gorilla Grodd story would have a different feel than a Captain Cold story, because the villains would create problems that were unique to them. In TWTTF, although one dinosaur might have giant teeth while another might have GIANTER teeth, they were all pretty interchangeable. Even if one could fly and one could swim underwater, they were just basically mindless monsters. Issue after issue. For years.

I can understand the philosophy of providing a complete story in every issue, to give the new reader something entertaining without forcing them to track down any of the other issues, but I don't see why you'd want to do that at the expense of the readers you already have. Sure, a new reader might think, "wow! Cool story. I'll pick up another issue of this comic now that I've had such a great experience reading it!" But how many issues would it take for the reader to think, "okay. Not as cool this time, since it's the same story I read last month. I'll give it one more try. Oh. It's the same story again. Um, this is kind of repetitive"?

Kanigher was surely aware of the repetitive nature of the stories, and like he did with Sgt. Rock, he tried to create a recurring cast of characters to keep regular readers from growing bored with the comic. Except, unlike Sgt. Rock, none of the regular characters seemed to stick in TWTTF. You can tell the series started with just the simple idea inherent in its premise. The first appearance of TWTTF has, on its cover, the slogan "Dinosaurs vs. Tanks! Who Will Win!" and it's really as simple as that. I can picture an editor telling Kanigher (although Kanigher may have been the editor on the war books back then, so maybe it was his editorial side talking to his writerly side), while chomping on a cigar, "kids love these dinosaurs. Bring 'em back." So the first handful of issues make almost no logical sense as a group. Each issue features a group of soldiers unwittingly landing on monster island, and then reporting, in disbelief, back to their commanders.

Did the military have such terrible communication that nobody told the other outfits about this ISLAND FULL OF GIANT MONSTERS??? Even if the military wanted to keep it a secret, and there's no explanation of why they would, wouldn't they at least tell their troops to STAY AWAY FROM THAT ISLAND during the war! Didn't they have Nazis to fight or something?

Anyway, once Kanigher begins to realize that this dinosaur stuff is going to keep going, he starts introducing the potential recurring characters. And they all flop.

He tries characters like "The Flying Franks," trapeeze artists brothers who now fight together and use their high-wire skills to kick dinosaurs! Flop.

He tries the "Joe and the G. I. Robot," which basically consists stories in which Joe talks to himself a lot and then the G. I. Robot accidentally (or maybe not) saves the day. Flop (mainly because Joe is annoying and the robot doesn't have any personality at all).

He tries the "Suicide Squad," which you might think was a success, because it later became pretty famous as a concept in the DC Universe. But in these stories, "Suicide Squad" basically refers to any team which shows up on the island on a desperate mission. The suicide squad "members" don't communicate with eachother, and don't refer to other members we've seen in previous issues. My favorite, however, are the absolutely ridiculous "Morgan and Mace," the Suicide Squad team with the most personality. Morgan walks around with a gun to Mace's back, and literally keeps repeating lines like this, "You'd like that, wouldn't you? Then you could blow this mission! Just like that toboggan run you made that killed my brother--because you panicked! Remember?"

How can he forget, Morgan? You remind him of it on practically EVERY PAGE of every story you two guys are in. Mace, apparently, killed Morgan's brother when they were in the Winter Olympics together. A toboggan run of death! Morgan won't let it go, and Mace doubts himself at every turn: "I'll never get another make good...for failing Bill Morgan...and Uncle Sam--Never--Never---Never..."

The message of the story, kids, is that if you accidentally kill your bobsled partner in the Winter Olympics, you can make up for it by fighting GIANT DINOSAURS as your commanding officer (who, coincidentally is the brother of the very man you bobsledded to death) sticks his pistol in your spine.


Are you surprised?

Sometimes even tanks vs. dinosaurs aren't enough. Turns out, they're not as cool as you want them to be.


Frank said...

How much is related to have television was written back then..even written now? It seemed that every episode of "The A Team," one of my favorite programs as a kid, was written the same way: A Team meets a group of exploited people, A Team sends a warning to the exploiters, exploiters fight back and cause damage, A Team creates an elaborate plan with a potato shooter and car armor to defeat the exploiters once and for all...Yet, we still tuned in week after week. I could come up with a ton of examples: McGyver, Leave it to Beaver, Three's Company...Law and Order...Penthouse Letters...

ATOM HOTEP said...

Ahh, good old Bob Kanigher. I am not nearly old enough to have collected any of this Silver or Golden Age stuff, but thanks to the push for TPB's over the last ten years, I have been devouring the Essentials and Showcase collections. On the DC side, I plan on picking up most of them, but there are a few I have been yet to be sold on. I'm not entirely sold on Batgirl or Supergirl. I'm not sold on the Atom, or Unknown Soldier or Phantom Stranger. Usually this comes down to preferences in writers/artists - Kirby, Swan, Fox and Broome are names I look for when I expect to thoroughly enjoy something, but man, I have been awfully sour on Kanigher. I do agree with the notion that he seemed to think he could fob off anything on some unsuspecting kids. It especially pisses me off because you see something like War that Time Forgot and just assume it's awesome because it's got dinosaurs getting gunned down by tanks. You suck, Bob Kanigher.

How many Showcase volumes do you have? I have Green Lantern, Superman, Justice League, Challengers of the Unknown and Batman vol. 1. I have always believed when more experienced comic fans told me that Marvel's Silver Age totally blew DC's Silver Age away with the grounded, realistic characters, heady moralism, cosmic themes and grand spectacle of Kirby, Ditko, Lee, et al. In retrospect, that may be true but I had no idea that the partisan nature of superhero comic fans kept me from reading some really, really mindblowingly cool stuff. Would you suggest any of the other Silver Age stuff?

Timothy Callahan said...

Frank: you're absolutely right, but the key difference is that those television shows at least have the same recurring characters that you (presumably) love. And that's why you keep watching. The War that Time Forgot didn't even have that.

It's like, instead of B.A. and Hannibal and the gang, each A-Team episode featured the same formula AND a brand new cast of main characters in almost every episode. That would be strange, no?

Atom: I MUCH prefer the DC Silver Age to the Marvel, especially the Silver Age Flash and Legion stories. But I also only like those in the Archives format, because they just aren't the same without color. The war books and mystery books I have no problem with in the Showcase editions, but for super-heroes, I go with the expensive reprints. I highly recommend the Legion archives, and if you can't afford those, try the Showcase.

ATOM-HOTEP said...

What's weird is that I haven't gotten the Legion book yet because I've been getting Superboy reprints with Legion backup stories from a flea market dealer at 25 cents a pop. I love that Legion stuff and someday I might commit to buying the 15 archive books or whatever.

The sometimes pettiness and subtle cattiness of the characters really works for me in a way that doesn't seem "60's" to me, but like how all teenagers are, all the time.

Timothy Callahan said...

You should definitely save up for the archives. I love them to death.

Your comment is right on the money about teenagers being teenagers. It's the SUBJECT, in fact, of an essay (written by Chris of the Invincible-Super-Blog) that's going to be included in the project I'm working on now: "Teenagers of the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes." Should be available in Spring of 2008!