REVIEW; End of Month Reviews #68 - August 2009 [spoilers]

Saxon Brenton saxonbrenton at
Wed Sep 30 10:21:14 PDT 2009

[REVIEW] End of Month Reviews #68 - August 2009 [spoilers]
Reviewed This Issue:
     Academy of Super-Heroes #100  [ASH]
     Journey Into... #6  [8Fold : Contest]  {High Concept 2}
Also posted:
     Cry for Iran  [Misc : Contest]  {High Concept 2}
     High Concept Challenge #2  [ASH : Contest]  {High Concept 2}
          {also reposted as Time Capsules #12}
     System Corruptors #31  [LNH]  {High Concept 2}     
     Running out of time... Running OUT of TIIIME... and while there has  
been quite a bit if stuff happening to cause lateness, nowhere near  
enough to justify *all* of it.
     Hold up, what's this from _Beige Midnight_ #5?  'The Curse of  
Saxon Brenton's Apathy'?
     Oh sure, mock me while in pain, why don't you?
       [A dozen figures appear on screen from stage right.  They are chibi  
        versions of various RACC characters.  They are dancing.  And they  
        sing a number from an old Warner Bros cartoon.  
         "Oh we are the mockers of chorus,
          We hope you like us so.
          We know you've been waitin' for us,
          But now we have to goooo."]
     Rassing' frassin' massin'.
     Spoilers below...
Academy of Super-Heroes #100 
An Academy of Super-Heroes [ASH] series
by Dave Van Domelen
     So.  This, as an even casual perusal of the header indicates, is the  
hundredth episode of the _Academy of Super-Heroes_.  It's been posted as  
a quadruple sized anniversary special (technically five posts, but there's  
a lot of prologue and end notes).  I'll note that each post corresponds to  
an individual chapter and structurally they are essentially the same as an  
individual issue of the series, both in size and the way that plot  
development climaxes with some sort of cliffhanger.  If there wasn't an  
anniversary number to celebrate (or if Dvandom had chosen not to celebrate  
it) then with a little shuffling of the endnotes these could easily have  
represented issues 100 through 104.
     Are you sitting comfortably?  Then we'll begin.
     Now, since this is an anniversary issue special story I thought I  
might try something a little different.  So I decided to examine how its  
'Wow!' moments - or what TV Tropes Wiki would probably call 'Moments of  
Awesome' - fit together.  After having looked at it, one thing that  
finally came to my *conscious* attention was the simple fact that issue  
100 is the climax of a story arc, and that previous issues also started  
out with wow! moments.  In other words the story arc starts out with big  
idea concepts and explores them with plot twists and gradual increases,  
rather than starting out comparatively small and then escalating.  (Which  
means is that I'll need to give a brief (hah!) summary of the main cool  
moments for the basic premise of the whole arc.)
     However before I get around to the summary I should probably  
emphasise the point, and it will be reiterated later.  Different stories  
can be structured different ways.  In this case rather than start off  
small and escalate the action, Dvandom decided to start off with a bang  
and continue from there.  Fortunately this should not/is not too difficult  
for him to sustain, because his writing style tends to be heavy on  
character scenes - not just characterisation, but entire small vignettes,  
usually a few sentences to no more than a few paragraphs, of the third  
person narrator summarising how the character is reacting to a situation.   
This relatively straight forward technique has two advantages.  Firstly,  
by having characters that the reader can understand and empathise with,  
the writer does not need to rely solely on plot driven action.  Secondly,  
even when the plot driven action is what is needed, it doesn't have to  
be continuously escalating action: occasional lacuna of characters  
reacting to something as though it's a big deal can be a useful in subtly  
easing off story pressure so that the next piece of action appears to  
have narrative weight.
     Anyway, the basic story concept itself is simple enough.  The  
remaining members of the Light Brigade are (for a variety of reasons, some  
at cross-purposes) trying to recreate/resurrect their leader, the super-
villain mastermind Doublecross, who perished back in the 'City of Lights'  
arc.  To do so they had created a shell of photonic moths around the sun  
to intercept enough power, and as a result the light levels on Earth had  
dropped, prompting members of the Academy of Super Heroes and some of  
their allies to attempt an intervention.  The heroes settled on a twin  
pronged attack: while some heavy hitters remained behind in the real world  
to guard, another group took advantage of Netwalker's virtual reality  
powers (bolstered by the abilities of others) to infiltrate and undermine  
the defences of the photonic shell maintained by Goldmind.
     In and of itself bringing someone back from the dead is not  
particularly thrilling.  In general terms it must be acknowledged that  
in a superhero setting people come back from the dead all the time, and  
sometimes it's not planned out very well.  Worse, sometimes it's not  
planned at all.  
     Not that this actually matters in this case.  A large measure of what  
devalues resurrection in comics is when it's treated casually, and in this  
case it isn't.  Specifically the story is not about the return of  
Doublecross, but rather about the efforts of the Light Brigade to bring  
back Doublecross.  Remember, Doublecross is one of the big name twentieth  
century supervillains who has already come back from the dead, and each  
time the heroes from Academy get wind of something like this they react  
along the lines of "Oh my God! Not him!"  Which means that the plot  
structure is better described as 'fanatical cult trying to bring back the  
object of their devotion' - which is a great race-against-time horror  
movie setup.  Okay, so 'fanatic cult' may not be all that original a  
concept either, but it acts as a story framework into which various plot  
coupon activities can be fitted.  (An aside: Not that there are a lot of  
plot coupon activities that the Light Brigade need to carry out in this  
case: essentially they need to perfect the engineering to surround the  
sun with photonic moths and intercept its energy output (which happens  
off-panel as a lead-in subplot for various issues back prior to this arc),  
actually surrounding the sun with photonic moths and intercepting its  
energy output, and then using the collected power for the resurrection  
itself.  Most of the plot couponing have been from the heroes as they try  
to cobble together a way to respond to the Light Brigade's plan.)   
Nevertheless, with the fanatic cult plot it's more or less implicit that  
there will be struggle and emotional extremes involved.  The latter in  
particular was nicely illustrated in #100 when Irrlicht realises they  
haven't got enough power and briefly goes to pieces. 
     What makes the Light Brigade's scheme memorable is the sheer scale  
of it.  Their power source doesn't involve stealing an experimental  
antimatter generator from an R&D lab, or setting off a nuclear bomb along  
a geological fault and harvesting the kinetic energy of the resulting  
earthquake.  They collect the entire output of the sun for nearly a week,  
in the process leaving the Earth to freeze.  And since this is a good  
'fanatic cult' horror movie plot, this isn't being done by the Big Bad.   
It's being done by the Big Bad's minions in his name.  The impliction  
being that once he's back Doublecross will be intrinsically so much worse,  
so the heroes are working against a deadline to defeat the Light Brigade  
because they'll be way out of their league if the Light Brigade succeed.   
An implication that is palpably false when you actually examine the  
details, by the way, since the last time we saw him Doublecross was only  
threatening a city, while the Light Brigade's actions are threatening the  
entire planet and only as a by-product of their main goal.  This is  
actually one of the problematic consequences of examining a story too  
closely: sometimes the writerly tricks that make it feel like the story  
is moving forward in a series of events of rising emotional intensity is  
only a sleight of hand.  Ah well.
     So: the heroes decide to disrupt the photonic shell by attacking  
Goldmind's control of it.  They combine their powers to create a virtual  
reality paradigm something like (but not exactly the same as) what  
Netwalker normally does, choosing a paradigm based (in some cases *very*  
loosely) the Second World War's Pacific Theatre.  It's nowhere near as  
grand a scale as what the Light Brigade have done, but it’s nevertheless  
a creative twist and an intriguing synergy of powers that provokes a  
"Can they do that?" moment of wonder.  It's so cool that Dvandom uses it  
again in issue 100 when Star Knight observes that if it were easy to turn  
a hyperdrive into a hyperbomb then everyone would be doing it, to which  
Solar Max shrugs that not everyone has access to both magic and mad science.
     Which brings us to this issue.  The Light Brigade makes an abortive  
counterattack in the real world, while in the virtual world the attacking  
heroes continue through a number of WW2 style encounters and which  
culminates in  an attack analogous to the Enola Gay atomic bomb drop.   
The Light Brigade then draw together what power they had managed to  
gather, find themselves forced to move from plan A to plan B (feed the  
power to Irrlicht's unborn child), promptly get attacked by the Titan  
Phaeton and the Impossible Five member Chiaroscuro who both want to further  
hijack the purloined power for their own purposes - and since the ASH  
members don't trust any of the aforementioned, they decide to try and  
disrupt all of them with a extremely large explosion.  Chiaroscuro  
survives.  Phaeton, who has earned the ire of Apollo, is poisoned via the  
power he grabs and  dies rather spectacularly.
     Now, as mentioned at the start of my interminable babble most of the  
big ticket concepts were in the setup of the story arc.  But there are  
still some big surprises left.  For my money these would be the arrival of  
the Space Battleship Musashi, the decision to blow up the Light Brigade's  
second sun with a hyperspacial inversion, and the death of Phaeton.  Of  
these only the second is structurally necessary to the plot as a climax  
that finishes off the adventure.  The others are just wow! moments that  
look *really* cool - but which if you look at them carefully, you'll  
quickly realise that their listing as big ticket items relies mostly on  
their size (a flying battleship, the death of a Titan).  It's perfectly  
possible that a reader with different tastes might prefer some other  
moment as a big ticket item.  For example, Noire's moment during the real  
world attack by the Light Brigade of developing a new aspect to her power  
and annihilating Oblivion comes very close.  Even a moment of humour,  
such as when Fury wakes up but is still thinking of herself as the Red  
Widow and exclaims "Who stole my butt?"
     See, the thing is that apart from setting up a big action for the  
story (siphoning the power of the sun in order to resurrect a supervillain)  
and needing a big action to put a finish to it (using a jury rigged  
hyperdrive to create a big explosion) a lot of the fun things from the  
arc in general and issue 100 in particular come from trying new ideas for  
how to defeat the villains, then watching the results and the character's  
reactions to the results.
     So, for instance, across the arc the ASH members who are cosplaying/
psycheplaying the WW2 era Freedom Alliance get to fight Japanese military.   
Moreover, as is appropriate (and dare I say, traditional) for a setting  
where costumed superhumans existed during the Second World War, we've also  
gotten to see supervillains/military sponsored superhumans for the Axis  
powers.  The name of the Bakajin (roughly 'stupid people') suicide troop  
super soldiers is cute even if the concept is not necessarily original.   
Nevertheless suicide troops are always good for underlining the fanatical  
nature of an enemy.  However, despite the warnings about the 'classic anime  
reference' in the precogs post I was not expecting a blatant Space  
Battleship Yamato pastiche.  I *should* have expected something like that,  
of course.  It was explicit from the start that the Freedom Alliance  
scenes were a virtual reality construct and that construct was being used  
as a tool for a specific end, so it makes sense that either or both sides  
could and would warp the parameters for their own ends.  (That said, given  
Dvandom's abiding interest in transforming robots I genuinely wonder how  
he restrained himself from throwing in giant mecha rather than a flying  
     Some final general observations.  This story arc isn't in a crossover  
with an other title in the ASH imprint, so although the threat of shutting  
off the sun and letting the Earth freeze is one that could be used as a  
springboard for a hero/villain team up, in the way that the _Pyramid  
Scheme_ or the 'Four to Never' stories did, it doesn't actually follow  
that route.  Structurally the story is all the stronger for that.  Obsessive  
continuity nerds such as myself may wonder about every character, but even  
in the largest story there only needs to be at most a representative token  
appearance by characters other than the protagonists and antagonists, simply  
to give the impression that events aren't happening in a vacuum.  Dvandom  
typically uses that writing trick anyway, and in this instance the viewpoint  
of the common man comes from a centaur name Entelaus on patrol duty.  
     That said, among the small number of villains and groups of villains  
who have laid claim to taking recurring parts in the plot, the machinations  
of Q'Nos and his advisor Simon Smith are of particular interest.  Phaeton  
and Chiaroscuro can legitimately lay claim to significant parts of the  
story simply because they become involved in the action at the climax by  
trying to highjack the collected solar power.  By contrast, the only  
actions that Q'Nos and Smith take is to recruit the Phaeton in order to  
preserve the habitability of Q'Nos' kingdom, and thereby establish the  
Titan in the cast for his later actions.  Q'Nos and Smith also provide  
background detail presented during their discussion of the political  
implications of the situation, but that information could just as easily  
be provided by TerraStar with the implications of it fleshed out by  
Peregryn.  The only difference that I can see is that Simon Smith, as the  
template from which the most recent iteration of Doublecross was  
ultimately derived, can provide it more succinctly because he's had time  
to worry about it.  In any case, as two characters close enough to the  
action to understand what's going one yet at the same time no directly  
involved in the conflict, they come across as Greek Chorus for the entire  
     Yet at the same time the commentary of Q'Nos and Smith gives a rather  
detached air to proceedings.  I'll explain by way of a comparison.  Back  
in the mid 1990s when John Ostrander was writing DC's _The Spectre_, his  
ongoing story was interrupted - as is quite common for comics in shared  
superhero universes - by a crossover Event; in this case 'Final Night'.   
For an issue the ongoing story was put on hold, the Earth was threatened  
by a Sun Eater that was cutting off any light from reaching the planet  
(yes, that is an obvious similarity with Dvandom's 'Starslayers'; no, it  
isn't the one I'm thinking of), and the threat was averted.  Then, in what  
I've always taken as a meta-commentary, the regular series villains who had  
been watching proceedings on a monitor screen effectively say, "Okay, so  
that's taken care of.  Now let's get back to work."  The post-mortem by  
Q'Nos and Smith in part 4 has that sort of feel, and by extension brings  
to mind the way that the Academy members are continually fighting to  
preserve a status quo of stable world peace that is constantly being taken  
advantage of by villains who are too entrenched to burn out.  
     Still, from the Academy's point of view it must be viscerally  
satisfying that they had another rare opportunity to be the one's who  
weren't building something, but instead could simply lob the equivalent  
of an explosive into the midst of their opponents.  Or at least they  
would if they weren’t busy trying to work out which of the Light Brigade,  
Phaeton and Chiaroscuro survived the hyperspacial event.
Journey Into... #6
'High Concept Drifter'
An Eightfold [8Fold] series  {high concept 2 contest}
by Tom Russell
     To recap from last month, the second high concept contest had joint  
themes of 'superhumans worrying about their superhuman offspring' and  
'intelligent animals'.
     Now, this story has a plot.  However, it also has a twist ending,  
and as a result what nominally counts as the plot (you know, the  
sequence of narrative events) is actually just the main characters  
going through the motions of doing a job for supplemental income and  
incidentally providing the opportunity for characterisation.  Which  
is not to say that incident is unimportant.  Going bounty hunting for  
a gang of train highjackers led by a ghost, and along the way teaming  
up with an intelligent horse who can fire ravening beams of coruscating  
energy from his headdress, and getting into a shootout... these things  
do not count as unimportant.
     Nevertheless I would say that plot and incident are easily  
overshadowed by characterisation and most particularly mood.  The story  
is strongly styled along the lines of a western (appropriately enough,  
given its setting).  The narrative text is laconic, and the main  
characters are even more so, which is almost stereotypical for Western  
protagonists.  However in places the mood goes beyond that of Western  
(or Weird Western, in this instance) and into noire.
Saxon Brenton   University of Technology, city library, Sydney Australia
     saxon.brenton at 
The Eyrie Archives of Russ Allbery which collect the online superhero  
fiction of the rec.arts.comics.creative newsgroup and its sibling group  
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