Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Scott on the JLI, Part 7

[Scott continues his look at the JLI. For more in this series see the toolbar.]

The Gray Man

So, wasn't Dr. Fate supposed to be a member of this team? He conveniently disappeared back in the first issue just before the League took on the terrorist at the UN and hasn't been seen since a couple of pages in the second issue that introduced the Gray Man subplot. In issue five, we see that he has since been held captive by The Gray Man. The Gray Man is the central plot of issues 4 and 5 is resolved at the beginning of 7. So who is the Gray Man? He is an ancient priest who in a ceremony many thousands of years ago summoned and came face to face with the Lords of Order. As his 'punishment', he was granted immortality and forced to live on a solitary island while his other 'selves' roamed the world collecting the dreams of the recently deceased for the Lords of Order (a plot point Neil Gaiman would later use in Season Of Mist, where the Lords of Order offer Morpheus these dreams of the dead in exchange for the key to Hell). Well, after thousands of years he, of course, has gone rogue and now seeks to take the dreams from the living as well and turn the world into the gray dreary landscape he has been forced to endure.

Jason's recent X-men post about Proteus got me thinking. Could the Gray Man be meant to represent anything? So much of this series placed an emphasis on having fun and they are now facing a character called 'the Gray Man.' At this point, the 'Grim and Gritty' era of comics had already began. It may not have been called as much but superhero comics were already beginning to get unbearably serious. The Gray Man's internal monologue is an overly serious, almost poetic prose where he says things like "If I could, I would laugh. Perhaps, weep. But such luxuries are not permitted me. I am The Gray Man" and he also goes around sucking the dreams out of the living, much the way the current serious tone in comics was sucking the fun out of superheroes. So, who better to fight the Gray Man than the colorful and jolly Justice League?

In issue five, Dr. Fate manages to get a call for help out to the League and Batman sends Captain Marvel to scout ahead before the rest of the team follows him to the town of Stone Ridge. There's a nice little bit of self doubt on Captain Marvel's behalf as he begins to consider how over his head he is despite being, potentially, the most powerful member of the team. I'm not sure if Giffen and Dematteis were the first to do this, but they portray Captain Marvel as still having the mind of Billy Batson. In the old days, when the transformation took place, Captain Marvel was always portrayed as an adult. Now, in this revisonary period, he has become much more of a superheroic take on the movie Big... which I think is really fun. However, Giffen and Co. may be potraying him as a bit overly Naive... at least more than most '15 year olds' that I know. In an early issue, the League vetos his suggestions to sing 'Row Row Row, Your Boat' to pass the time (once again I go back to my theory of the Marvels as the Osmonds of the DCU).

Also, isn't he endowed with the Wisdom of Solomon? Can someone be both wise and naive? (Actually, someone once told me that's what the word sophmore means, roughly translated).

The rest of the team arrives by the end of the issue and The Creeper shows up for a 'special guest appearance.' I kind of wish he'd become a permanent member of the team since the interplay between him in Batman is nice:

Creeper (off Panel): Tee-Hee
Mister Miracle: What was that?
Batman: I believe it's called giggling.
Creeper: Or Perhaps it was a titter! I know in fact it wasn't a guffaw!
Batman: The Creeper!
The Creeper: Where?!
Batman: What are you doing here?
Creeper: Oh, You know, creeping around.
Black Canary: I assume you know this wacko?
Batman: We've met.
Creeper: Ah, yes... I'll treasure those memories forever! The moon, the stars... drinking champagne out of your cowl.

Not only is Creeper's wackiness a nice balance to Batman's seriousness... but he's normally depicted as a sort of superheroic version of the Joker (the exchange also toys with some of the pseudo-sexual tension between Joker and Batman that Miller played around with in The Dark Knight Returns)... which could have been used nicely in the series. The issue ends with the Creeper guiding the team to a full-page view of the town of Stone Ridge which has now been transformed by the Gray Man into a nightmarish landscape that would be more at home in The Sandman (still a year away at this point).

Issue 6 starts with a great full page shot of the team by Maguire. Once again, his knack for subtle expressions cannot be underestimated in terms of the effect that it would have on shaping the team. In this instance, we have the experienced heroes, Mister Miracle, Batman, and Martian Manhunter, all sporting pretty stereotypical expressions of shock and anger, their expressions indicate that, while they're horrified, they are prepared to swoop in to save the day. Booster and Beetle, the two unlikely candidates who would eventually become the stars of the series, are sporting very different expressions both of which clearly indicate that they're in over their head. Booster's expression seems to be saying "We're not really going in there are we?" while Beetle's, quite simply, says "Yeeesh!"

As the team enters the town, we learn that the Gray Man has now managed to capture Captain Marvel and Dr. Fate, effectively putting the League's two most powerful members out of commission. The Gray Man is quite the intimidating adversary but, nevertheless, the team presses onward:

Batman: We're not dealing with any criminal here Beetle. This Gray Man has taken down Dr. Fate. I'd say he's quite capable of taking us all down.
Blue Beetle: So naturally we're going in there.
Batman: Naturally.

This team may have been big on the laughs but, at the end of the day, they were always heroes.

Batman: The only way we can help these people is to get to the root of the problem. We've got to find the Gray Man.
Booster: If we keep standing around out here in the open,he's going to find us pretty soon.
Batman: Good Idea, Booster... we'll stay right where we are and let him come to us.
Booster: But I wasn't Suggesting...
Batman: I like the way you think. Keep up the good work.

This is a nice bit of Booster playing accidental Robin to Batman... just try re-reading it using Adam West for the Batman voice and you'll see what I'm talking about (uhm, and use whatever voice you normally use for Booster Gold).

The team soon finds themselves confronting Captain Marvel, his hair colored gray to indicate that he is being mind controlled by the Gray Man. He quickly flies off with Booster and Canary and flings them off in the distance which results in one of my favorite exchanges in this series:

Booster: Canary, I'm not really up on every one's powers. you can fly, can't you?
Black Canary: No.
Booster: No?
BC: NO!!!
Booster: oh
[Batman dispatches Mister Miracle to save Canary]
Mister Miracle: Hang on Canary... I'm Coming!
BC: Go away... I can save myself!
MM: How?
BC: I haven't figured it out yet.
MM: Don't worry. I've got you.
BC: But I don't want to be 'got', I hate being saved.
MM: What if I promise to let you save me next time?
BC: Swear?
MM: Swear.
BC: Then it's okay... this once!

Nevermind that this exchange couldn't possibly happen during the time it takes Black Canary to fall, it's still great fun. As I mentioned before, there isn't a lot of character development with Black Canary; she's mainly served as a foil to Guy and to act as team's resident girl. But, she's not meant to be a girly girl. She's a modern woman after all which is why she doesn't want to be saved and finds her predicament rather embarassing. That's why I think it's so sweet when Mister Miracle, following along with his characterization as an all-around nice guy who appreciates his teammates, promises to let her save him next time; he manages to both save her life and soothe her ego at the same time. I think this could also serve as a nice little revision on the most famous flying-super hero rescue of modern popular consciousness: Superman: The Movie

Instead of: "You've got me? Who's got you?" We get "I don't want to be got" Not sure if this is what Dematteiss had in mind but it's a nice reference nonetheless.

Martian Manhunter, since he's the only one capable of doing so, rushes in to take on Captain Marvel and we have another familiar comic book trope: two good guy powerhouses going at it because one is being manipulated/mind-controlled (or is, occasionally, a robot). It ends with a laugh out loud moment when, since Dr. Fate has now broken free, the Gray Man's control slips from Captain Marvel. This is indicated to the reader as we see his hair change from gray to normal over a three panel spread. Unfortunately, Martian Manhunter, who had been knocked to the ground, misses the change and belts the Big Cheese with all his might which effectively sucker-punches the naive strong man headfirst into a stone wall.

Martian Manhunter: Captain Marvel?
Captain Marvel: (his head buried in the wall) uh-huh
MM: Is it really you?
CM: uh-huh
MM: I'm sorry, I was dazed... I didn't notice the shift in minds at first. Did I hurt you?
CM: UH-HUhhhhhh.....

This another great of example of the book taking a classic comic book cliche and having some great fun with it.

With Guy still unconscious back at headquarters and Marvel and Manhunter now going at it, the team finds themselves lacking their most powerful members as they go to confront the Gray Man... that is, of course, if you don't count Blue Beetle.... okay, not really... but still, they do have Batman. He'll figure something out right? Well, not really. The Gray Man (or more accurately his duplicates) very easily take out the remainder of the team leaving only Dr. Fate standing at the end of issue six. It is at this point that Dr. Fate let's us in on a secret.

Dr. Fate: You pathetic little man... I've been holding back in order to help you!

At the beginning of issue seven, Fate has teleported himself and the Gray Man to an unknown location.

The Gray Man: You're a fool Dr. Fate, if you think teleporting this building out of stone ridge will change anything.
Fate: A fool. Of Course.
TGM: I'm the gray man! I have power equal to you and your fellow lords of order!
Fate: Of course you do.
TGM: Again and again, you've tried to stop me... but it's clear now that... I'VE WON!

If it seems Fate is patronizing the Gray Man it's because he is.

Fate: You don't understand do you? You never had a chance.

And, with a wave of Fate's hand, The Gray Man finds himself confronting The Lords of Order and he very quickly shifts from thinking that he has won to grovelling. We learn that his 'punishment' was actually inteneded to be a reward, the Lords of Order were impressed since no other mere mortal had managed to summon them before. With the misunderstanding cleared up, The Gray Man begs them to take back their 'gift' and he disinigrates into nothingness. This is a nice twist. Fate could have ended this conflict at anytime and, as a result, saved the world at anytime but that was not his goal... his hope was that, with the help of the League, he just might be able to save the Gray Man from himself. It's pretty unique ending if you think about it, it was a story where the team was supposed to save the villain and, while the world ended up being saved, the fact that the Gray Man wasn't kind of means that... the team failed. Again, this series wasn't just about the laughs, it was also very clever and the Gray Man tale is further proof of that.

Next: The Earth Shattering Conclusion! (Ok, maybe I'm overselling it a bit... but it will be pretty good... promise).

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