Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Longbox Memories: Fables (1988)

            Probably not the Fables you were thinking of…

            In the summer of 1988, then DC editor Mike Gold proposed a crossover to fellow editor Denny O’Neil between Green Arrow, The Question, and Detective Comics. It was a natural fit… in addition to being the editor of the Batbooks, O’Neil also wrote The Question for Gold, and of course in the seventies had pretty much defined what Batman and Green Arrow would be for the rest of those characters’ respective lifetimes.  Thus was born the three-part crossover “Fables,” which ran in the very first annuals published for each respective title, all written solely by O’Neil. Taking inspiration from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, O’Neil set out to fashion three standalone stories that ultimately came together to form a larger narrative with the three characters he was most closely associated with, during what was perhaps the most exciting decade in DC Comics’ near-century of existence.

            These are the comics that have been forgotten by time, relegated to fifty-cent graveyards in musty stores that sadly grow more increasingly rare by the day. Welcome to Longbox Memories.

            The story begins in Detective Comics Annual #1 with a flashback to Manchuria circa 1895. A Japanese officer and Taoist monk face off against each other. The officer has promised the monk that if he can best him in single combat, the Japanese forces will let him live. Growing impatient, one of the soldiers shoots the monk in the back. Ashamed, the officer decides to take the monk’s place and becomes the O-Sensei, devoting his life to peace and nonviolence thereafter. Flash-forward nearly a century later to 1988, and the monk is still alive. He requests that his disciple Lady Shiva take him to America and recruit three warriors to help him on some mysterious quest. Their first stop takes them to Gotham City, where Shiva enlists the aid of a certain caped crusader, who already has his hands full dealing with a plot that involves the League of Assassins, Talia al Ghul and the Penguin.

            It’s an odd start to an odd crossover, as the Penguin/Talia business has nothing to do with the overarching story of the O-Sensei, whose sole act in the Batman portion of the story is to… deliver a fable to the title character that doesn’t do much other than reconfirm that Batman is sad. It’s not exactly the height of drama, and the issue is not helped by its main story--the plot of which sees Talia return to her beloved’s life, enlisting his aid once a rogue League of Assassins agent sells the Penguin a chemical compound that only kills women and children. As far as villainous plots go, it’s a pretty lame, threadbare idea that even the ’66 Batman show would have had trouble parodying, the climax of which sees Batman take on a pair of Peguin’s oversized pet birds.

           The saving grace of the issue are the appearances of Shiva and the O-Sensei, characters O’Neil created in the seventies in the short-lived Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter comic series (which itself was an adaptation of a novel that O’Neil had co-written previously). This is the story that brought Shiva into Batman’s world, and the character would continue to show up frequently in the Bat-books over the next decade and change--even siring a member of the extended Bat-family in the process in Cassandra Cain, the Batgirl of the double-aughts. Shiva is one of O’Neil’s best creations, a character who you never know what she’s going to do next, as she only follows her own whims at any given moment. Another bonus is the art, ably handled by the team of Klaus Jansen and Tony DeZuniga, both of whom were already well-established in comics by that point.

            The story picks up again in Green Arrow Annual #1, where Shiva and the O-Sensei travel to Seattle and seek out the Emerald Archer. Wait, Seattle… not Star City? Green Arrow had been going through quite the reinvention in the late eighties thanks to writer/artist Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters. Much like Frank Miller did with The Dark Knight Returns and John Byrne with The Man of Steel, Mike Grell refashioned Oliver Queen into a grim urban avenger. Ollie lost his Errol Flynn-esque duds, traded his trick arrows in for regular old bladed ones and wasn o longer opposed to using lethal force when he had to. The Longbow Hunters led to a new ongoing Green Arrow series written by Grell that took the character further and further from his superheroic roots, planting him from DC’s fictional Star City to the real world of Seattle to tackle real-world criminals as opposed to super-villains with a gimmick. O’Neil picks up from Grell’s lead for this first annual of the Green Arrow ongoing series, although the Oliver Queen here doesn’t seem all that different from the one he was writing in the seventies--one gets the sense that O’Neil wasn’t comfortable with Ollie’s newfound “take no prisoners” attitude. The main story sees a copycat archer staging murders to look like Green Arrow is responsible, but thankfully, the O-Sensei arrives to provide yet another parable which proves to be exactly the thing Ollie needs to hear to overcome his demons and defeat his new foe.

            The main story once again has nothing to do with the overarching plot, but is at least more interesting. The rival archer is little more than a caricature, but his final showdown with Ollie is philosophically perfect in the way O’Neil typically excelled at. Other nice moments are peppered throughout--Shiva continues to be a source of infinite story possibilities, as this issue sees her annihilating a group of would-be attackers, letting only one live with a kiss because he managed to draw blood on her forehead. This issue is also the first meeting of Black Canary/Dinah Lance and Lady Shiva, who would go on to have quite the rivalry/partnership in later series, with Shiva even taking Dinah’s place as the White Canary in one memorable storyline. O’Neil also handles the relationship between Dinah and Ollie rather well, which is fitting, as it was he who put them together in the first place. Their banter in this issue make them feel like a real couple who have been together for a long-time (it’s worth noting that O’Neil’s wife Marifran is mentioned in a “Special Thanks” column in the credits). The artwork from Tom Artis and Tim Dzon is another good showing, far more cartoony and exaggerated than what was popular at the time but handling action and character both in great detail.

            And that brings us to the final chapter in this mini-crossover, The Question Annual #1, the best of the three mainly because it’s the one where we finally discover just what the hell Shiva and the O-Sensei are up to. It turns out that the O-Sensei knows his time is drawing to a close, and wishes to be taken back to Japan and buried alongside the wife he left behind all those many decades ago. The only trouble is that his former wife’s father had ties to the Yakuza, and by leaving her behind, the O-Sensei has been banned from returning home by the entire family--which is why he enlists the help of Batman, Green Arrow and the Question (who somehow grew a mullet between here and his previous appearance in the Detective Comics annual). Or, at least, Green Arrow and the Question--Batman sits the actual trip to Japan out at the last minute, with the rather lame excuse of not wishing to rain on the Question’s parade by being the better version of him, or something like that. I get that bringing all three characters together in a compelling way is a storytelling challenge, but having Batman drop out in such an abrupt way is a cop out, and belittles the whole point of having a crossover between all these titles in the first place.

            Other than that, this is easily the best issue of the crossover, and one gets the sense that The Question was where O’Neil’s heart was at the time. Created by Steve Ditko in the sixties for Charlton Comics as a crusading, Objectivist hero, O’Neil refashioned the character into a Zen martial arts philosopher who was constantly struggling against his worse impulses, and not always winning the battle. The ongoing Question series was O’Neil’s most ambitious, literary work in the comic field, a place where the long-tenured writer was finally able to cut loose and  tell the types of stories he always wanted to tell, unencumbered by content restrictions or jokers in colorful get-ups on every other page. Granted, when read today, it feels like an older creator who was used to writing all-ages superhero comics trying his best to write a “mature readers” book and unable to escape his earlier style, but The Question remains a monumental work in the DC cannon, despite its occasional hiccups. A big part of the run’s success was the art team of Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar, who drew most of The Question and provide the sequentials here, as well. Their artwork is suitably gorgeous, with particular care to the many scenes of martial arts fight sequences, including a memorable flashback where the O-Sensei slices up his father-in-law’s lackeys in a beautiful display of choreographed violence. Batman’s relatively short panel-time is doubly disappointing after seeing him drawn by Cowan, but the artist would go on to do more than one memorable Batman tale, which helps alleviate the sting a bit.

            It ends with a whimper as opposed to a bang, as the O-Sensei is washed overboard during a storm during their trip overseas, never to be laid to rest with his wife in his homelands. Distraught at his failure to save the old man, the Question insists that they continue on with their journey to Japan, eventually discovering that his wife never made it back to her home country either, her remains also lost at sea during a violent storm… meaning that the trio hadn’t failed in their task, after all, and leading the Question to reminisce that perhaps “there are no failures.” An odd ending to an odd crossover, but definitely worth the three dollars it cost from the dollar comics bin at my local bookstore.

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