Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Southern Knights #34

In the early 80’s there was an explosion of black-and-white comic books cranked out by  anyone who thought they had a good idea for a story and the phone number of a publisher. Arguably one of the more unusual products of this inundation was Southern Knights (The Crusaders until Archie threatened to sue), about a superhero team operating out of Atlanta.

Unusual, because in a flood of ridiculously transparent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knock-offs and comics that thought the key to their success was pushing racy imagery and hard language, it tried to get on the bandwagon while staying true to old-fashioned heroic ideals. To be a light, optimistic superhero saga in a corner of its medium infested by the darker side of human nature. To be dramatic while still having a sense of humor about itself.

Unfortunately it wasn’t produced by talent who could actually create sophisticated characters, be funny or deliver evocative themes. Perhaps worst of all, it fell into one of the most common of Suefic traps where the author's favored characters could do no wrong in his eyes. Anyone with any grievance against them was evil and/or a petty jerk. And the Knights usually weren't afraid to let them (and us) know it.

While the book had a certain appeal because of trying to break away from its B&W brethren, the creators seemed to think they were being more witty than the actual comic would indicate. For what it’s worth the gap between imagined and actual wittiness wasn’t as wide as in the same people’s X-Thieves.

Originally titled Henry Vogel Hates the IRS. With Aliens.

But once again I must be the only guy on the planet who doesn’t get it, because Southern Knights managed to run for the better part of a decade. And at the end of their run the characters had a multi-issue crossover with the Champions comic where they battled the goddess Morrigan through time and space. Which Heroic Publishing is releasing in full color, should you be interested.

The Knights are Electrode, a scientist who’s a huge comic book fan and gave himself powers so he could be a superhero too; Kristin Austin, a blonde bombshell with super-strength and a typical brash personality; Connie Ronnin, an Olympic fencer whose power is a “psychic sword” that stuns her opponents rather than killing them; Mark Dagon, actually a centuries-old dragon who can assume human form; and Aramis Merrow, a teenage wizard from the days of the Salem witch trials who the Knights accidentally woke up when they moved into his old house. Which isn't to say familiarity with their roster makes all that much difference in this particular comic.

Like issue number one of Champions, the inside cover has an editorial that caught my eye. This one’s by Henry Vogel, the writer, and it’s about the nature of money, and how people like comic book writers would be asked to contribute to the good of the governing body if there was no such thing as money to tax.

Click on it.

Now, I’m not much of a philosopher, but if that’s Henry Vogel’s idea of deep thinking, perhaps it’s not so surprising the comics he wrote regularly had trouble delivering satisfying payoffs. Like, if we'd never moved past the barter system, what makes him so sure there'd be such thing as an independent comic book industry? Or maybe it's just that it's coming from a guy who at the time was making his living bitching about things he didn't like via the stories he wrote.

The issue opens on Peggy, Electrode’s girlfriend, enjoying her eggnog a bit too much and being put to bed (and yes, Icestar hit on her).

Right then a short guy in a trench coat knocks on the door and says he’s from the CIA. “The fatman” wants to meet them, apparently.

Car broke, phone yes?

After a limo ride they find themselves outside Santa’s workshop. The guy in the coat’s an elf, and he really is with the CIA. The Christmas Intelligence Agency. And he has to go check the nice/naughty list thrice because everything’s done in triplicate these days. Wow, that’s…really amusing that even Santa’s all bureaucratic.

For more hilarity Santa doesn’t know the elves actually factory-order all the toys they send out. They even have one of those rooms that flips around to look like an old toy workshop when the guy watching the door warns them Santa’s coming. Where they make it look like they build computers and Nintendos out of wood. What the hell…? It’s weird and unexpected, but it’s not funny. Which I’m pretty sure was what they were going for.

But why has Santa dragged the Knights all the way to the North Pole when there’s all kinds of crime they could be preventing, you ask. He’s too sick to make his annual run, and needs them to make the toy deliveries for him. The reindeer have caught his bug, too. The reindeer who are up and about, playing poker and smoking cigars.

The only replacement for the reindeer Santa could think of on such short notice was Dragon. And Kristin has to wear the suit and beard because Santa’s bag is pretty heavy.

Since the others are there already, Santa makes them go too. And they also have to dress up. And for some reason, the reserved Connie has to dress like a stripper at a rich office Christmas party. Gee, if only this comic had been published in the 50’s, that might’ve been fresh and humorous.

And Dragon refuses to wear the fake antlers. False advertising!

Now that we’ve spent TWELVE of this issue’s TWENTY-TWO pages on boring non-humor, could something actually happen now? Well, something does. They get caught by a kid waiting up to see Santa, scold and send him to bed. And the head elf sent along to give them pointers keeps chewing them out and forcing Kristin to eat the cookies left out for Santa.

How do the Knights take this criticism? Kristin threatens to punch him in the mouth if he doesn’t shut up. Which is in the vein of how they usually respond to people they don’t like.

And rather than being immature and the kind of thing that has people picketing outside their headquarters, I’m pretty sure we’re meant to see the Knights as heroes who aren’t afraid to tell stuffed shirts where they can stick it. As interviewer Julie Woodcock (another writer for the same company) said about the writer, “he makes very sharp and funny attacks on whatever authority figure offends him.”

It's all in here. Check it out.

Could the elf have been nicer? Probably. Was he teaching a bunch of greenhorns how to do Santa’s job on the night his operation prepares for all year? Definitely. Would tempers perhaps be running a little high as he tried to make sure they didn’t ruin an entire year of work? Likely. As superheroes who routinely take it upon themselves to protect others’ property and lives, shouldn’t the Knights be striving to do the best job they possibly can? Especially tonight, when they’re rewarding kids for trying to grow up into productive members of society? Yes, they should. Cry me a river, Kristin.

But wait, could it be…? Yes, it’s the Grinch, come to steal all the Christmas presents! Does Geisel’s estate know about this comic?

Are we sure that's not Pitch?

Realizing the Grinch has been following them around and stealing the toys they’ve been leaving, they leave the toy sack out on a roof, hide inside (because it’s the TARDIS), and grab him when he comes close enough.

They find out the reason the Grinch steals presents is he doesn’t have any friends and if he’s going to have a miserable Christmas, he wants everyone else to have one too. And wouldn’t you know it, the super-critical elf Kristin threatened to flatten like a pancake is only like that because he’s never known true friendship either! That somehow makes him and the Grinch kindred spirits! Two birds with one stone! Forever!

And pay no attention to Kristin saying he was going to be the Grinch’s friend whether he liked it or not! It’s Christmas magic!

I really like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and think people could stand to watch it and actually WATCH it, if you get what I’m saying. Despite having the same villain, however, I don’t get any Christmas spirit off of this comic. I only see a bunch of people who want to go home seizing a convenient opportunity to get rid of two annoyances at once. After all, several of the Knights had to be guilted into their roles with “think of the children!”

I know this comic’s trying to be fun, but when you’re writing something, especially when you use it as a mouthpiece, you really want us to sympathize with your chosen characters. And when a team of superheroes, one trying to be positive and upbeat when most indie books weren’t, seems resentful for being asked to help Christmas come off smoothly, well I don’t feel like they deserve my sympathy. Not unless they learn they were wrong in doing so, and threatening to unleash your super-strength on someone who gets on your nerves isn’t learning you were wrong.

The humor of this comic is so misguided they actually thought the Christmas Intelligence Agency bit was worth coming back to one more time. Unbelievable.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of little kids?

The final insult comes when everybody’s so tired from saving Christmas they all fall asleep in the living room. Electrode’s girlfriend, not finding anyone in their beds, assumes everyone got up early and wakes them up by enthusing about all the things they get to do now that it’s Christmas day. Those poor guys, they saved Christmas and they didn’t even get to sleep in! And if they weren’t superheroes and the jokes were funny I might feel sorry for them!

There’s a good reason I attempt humor so rarely in my stories. I suck at it.

Southern Knights and X-Thieves, not to mention League of Champions, can be bought in eBook format from Wowio

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