A few memorable moments from 2006...
In place of the more elaborate things I would normally do on our toonmag.com site...and that will return sometime in about two weeks if I'm lucky...I'd like to commemorate some of the geeky events that meant a lot to me in 2006.
The Boondocks, "The Return of the King"
It aired January 15. It was the most audacious and most political episode of Aaron McGruder's show, a fantasy of the would-be radical kid Huey Freeman. In this story, Martin Luther King did not die; his assassination sent him into a coma until the 2000's, and he tries to continue his crusade. He does meet some white resistance - a Bill O'Reilly clone on Fox News asks King "Why can't you say you love America? Why can't any liberals come out and say you love America?" But the biggest problem King has is revealed when Huey and his brother Riley produce a rally/revival/meeting for King.
In the meeting, McGruder attacks the faults he finds with the black community. King sees partying, drinking, sexual excess and stupidity in the people gathered for his speech. And McGruder, speaking as King, speaks from his anger, a speech which deserves to be posted at length.
Warning: The following is the verbatim words written by Aaron McGruder, who is black. He is allowed to use words that I, a white man, cannot. Please don't drive-by me for saying this, because I'm not saying this, a black man is. Okay?
"Is this it? Is this what I got all those ass-whoopings for?
"I had a dream once. It was a dream that little black boys and little black girls would drink from the river of prosperity, freed from the thirst of oppression. But lo and behold, some four decades later, what have I found but a bunch of trifling, shiftless, good for nothing niggers.
"And I know some of you don't want to hear me say that word. It's the ugliest word in the English language. But that's what I see now...niggers. And you don't want to be a nigger."
He concludes with: "I've seen what's around the corner. I've seen what's over the horizon. And I promise you, you niggers have nothing to celebrate. And no, I'm not going to get there with you. I'm going to Canada."
Only a black man could make that kind of statement. And a lot of people in the black community didn't even want McGruder to speak at all. The Reverend Al Sharpton, one of many people who have tried to stake a claim as King's predecessor, practically screamed at him. Black advocacy groups demanded that episodes of The Boondocks that "demeaned black people" be removed.
But McGruder has as much right to speak about what he sees in the black community as anyone else. More than me, that's for certain. And to my knowledge, no one elected Sharpton to be king, or to be "King." That a cartoon show could prompt debate and controversy for something besides nudity or crudity is a tribute to McGruder as a creator, and animation as a medium.
I've said that too much of Adult Swim is written by, and for, the "dorm and bong-water crowd." The Boondocks shows that it can do much more. Giving creators a great deal of control has its disadvantages - witness Twelve Ounce Mouse and Squidbillies. (Squidbillies is guilty of the racism - against poor Southern whites - of which The Boondocks is innocent.) But every once in a while, a Boondocks comes along, making it worthwile.
52, DC Comics
DC Comics had, as its Big Event this year, "Infinite Crisis." Without recounting that mess, the end result was Superman losing his powers, Wonder Woman committing murder and retiring to ponder what she had done, and Batman suffering a loss of confidence and misison. All three of them disappeared for a year.
The comics did not stop; all DC comics had "One Year Later" posted on their covers, and everything changed for everybody. But that left obvious holes...what happened during that year? So, a book entitled 52 would be printed, once a week, to show what happened in that year without the Big Three.
What could have been a terrible imitation of NBC's 24 turned out to be the most interesting comic DC has created in years. It concentrated on groups of distinctly minor heroes, coping with different problems. Renee Montoya, the ex-police detective of Gotham City, discovers that her wealthy lesbian lover has become Batwoman - a character who we already know will die, with Montoya becoming the new Batwoman sometime in the future. Montoya is hired by the mysterious "zen paranoic detective" The Question and gets involved in a Middle Eastern revolution, in which an ancient nation is taken over by Black Adam and a new "Black Marvel Family."
Other story lines have The Blue Beetle, the glory-seeking egomaniac, publicly humiliated and then killed as he tries to redeem himself. The Metal Men, the intelligent robots from the 1960's who have never been satisfactorily updated, get assaulted and disassembled, and their creator Dr. Will Magnus kidnapped to an island of mad scientists. Lex Luthor finds a way to give super powers to many people, powers he can turn off to kill the new heroes at any time he wishes. On New Years Eve he seems poised to kill all of them, angered that he cannot give himself powers.
Few of these heroes are major players in the DC Universe. They are just people using their limited powers as best they can. And their stories have become the most compelling writing done in comics for years. It is also a solution to one of the biggest problems in comic books.
Comic book writers have always talked about how hard it is to write for iconic characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. What they don't dare to say is that, after so many decades and so many stories, there's nothing much to explore about them. Superman is the Big Blue Boy Scout. Wonder Woman is the Strong, Erotic Amazon. Batman is the Obscessed But Controlled Seeker of Vengeance. They are known quantities. They are explained. And increasingly they are boring.
52 avoids that by eliminating the known quantities. Only a shadow of the Big Three remains; the non-powered Clark Kent, still married to Lois Lane, knowing his powers will return some day, but trying to understand a world with unusual and uncertain new heroes. And Clark has no powers for defending himself or those he loves. Meanwhile, the second and third squads must take care of business. It is an intoxicating freedom to write about people who aren't legends carved in stone, and although 52 is half-finished, I am already dreading its coming end this summer.
Given what I said about superheroes above, creating a TV series based on superheroes is clearly full of pitfalls. Smallville on the CW (previously the WB) has added more real superhero content, including a young version of their old left-wing non-Batman vigilante, the Green Arrow. That addition has not made things more exciting. The series is afraid of letting Clark become Superman, because Superman (as mentioned above) has been fully explained. (Again, the Smallville creators hesitate to say that Superman is fully explained and hard to write for.)
At first light Heroes seemed to be a ripoff of Marvel Comics's X-Men. It is actually closer to a published series of novels that most of the public know nothing about; the Wild Cards novels written by a group of authors, but primarily edited by George R. R. Martin, part-time story editor for the Beauty and the Beast TV series.
In Wild Cards, an alien virus hits Earth. 90 percent of the people who catch the Wild Cards Virus die quickly and horribly. Nine percent become twisted, almost-human creatures with powers called "Jokers," who suffer terrible racial prejudice. One percent become "Aces," with attractive human looks and dynamic powers.
Heroes adapts this concept that super powers may be more trouble than they're worth, and don't automatically make your life wonderful. The "Heroes" are hardly heroic, and most of them don't know each other or their own capabilities. And they all react differently to their powers. Most geeks would probably act like Hiro Nakamura (played by Masi Oka), the Japanese salaryman who can "bend time and space," is a comic book fan and is determined to be heroic. (Not surprising that he's the most popular character.)
But there's a guy who uncontrollably emits radiation; he unintentionally killed his wife with cancer and may eventually go thermonuclear, blowing up New York City. There's Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), who in an Incredible Hulk analog is schitzophrenic. Her Jessica persona (which we learned is named after her dead sister) is strong enough to rip a human being in half, is amoral, cynical and ruthless. Congressional candidate Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) can fly, but it's more important for him to grasp political power, even if he must compromise himself to criminals. And the apparently non-powered scientist Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) is the only one who understands that all these people are powered, but doubted it severely and almost gave up on his research - which would have doomed them all.
In other words, like many successful stories, Heroes is character-driven. It is the superhero equivalent of Lost, except unlike that series and its imitators, Heroes has a direction and a purpose. Series creator Tim Kring has said that he has five years worth of stories plotted out, for the characters he has and others who may join the series later. Which, not coincidentally, is what J. Michael Straczynski did when he created Babylon 5, the only series that can stand up to Star Trek as a television epic.
After half of the first season, it's possibly presumptive to assume, but if Heroes keeps this level of quality, I'll be along for the entire five-year ride. And I'll cry when it's over.
Here's to the Losers...Bless them all.
"Here's the last toast of the evening
To all those who still believe
That all losers will be winners
That all givers will receive..."
I don't want to excessively bash these disappointments and failures, but they need to be commemorated along with the good stuff.
Snakes on a Plane. The Internet's geeks cheered the cheesiness of this imitation grindhouse campy film even before it was released. But it wasn't like the campy films of other decades, made cheap by people who loved the stories and the genre. It was made by people wanting cash only. It was no different in spirit or content than the big-budget garbage films that are the "A" products of the studios. It was like having your money stolen by streetcorner thieves rather than by Enron executives; it's still theft.
The Street Superheroes on Jimmy Kimmel Live. These are struggling actors who, to make a buck, pose for pictures on Hollywood Boulevard in front of the studio where Kimmel does his show. It's not bad enough they have to share the street with druggies and hookers. They also are indebted to Kimmel, who is at least as crass as David Letterman (remember Kimmel's involvement in the sexism of The Man Show and the crank-call crap of Crank Yankers). He occasionally tosses a $200 mininal scale check to these poor folks, dressed as Superman, Supergirl, Spongebob Squarepants and the Hulk, to appear on his show and perform grade-school Thanksgiving skits or do stupid "Olympic" stunts. Like much of Letterman's early stuff, this is humor on the level of setting fire to a cat and laughing. If any of these actors ever get a break and become bankable stars, I hope they bring an aged Kimmel on their shows and make him prance around in a diaper or something equally humiliating.
Bratz. Let's overlook the base principal of the original dolls, intended to make teenage sluts look "cute" to little girls. After all, at least they have personalities, if personalities that little girls can't really understand, and they deserve to replace the bland and synthetic Barbie as the number one fashion doll. No, it's the hideous and creepy CGI series that troubles me. The girls, and their supposed "yuppieish" antagonists, rank with Winx Club as the most hideous character designs and personalities on contemporary TV. And their stories are mostly based on "bling" and spending money, the same consumerism that made Barbie so creepy. Bratz should make girls afraid of the dolls, not merchandise them.