Saturday, October 16, 2010

Recent Reading: PS238: When Worlds Go Splat!

Somebody once pointed out that there's a problem with serial genre fiction - in any medium - which starts out as a lot of interesting images and entertaining episodes, but then goes on. What happens is that the creator feels obliged to give it some structure and a coherent plot, which has to explain all the interesting stuff from the early, incoherent episodes... And it's all downhill from then on. It happened to The X-Files, which started out with a couple of pretty FBI agents running through amusing stock horror plots and encountering weird stuff, then slumped into a tiresome and horribly extended load of drivel about horridly powerful government conspiracies which still failed to do anything about the annoying heroes (punctuated only by silly bursts of religiosity). And it happened to Planetary, which started out as a string of beautifully depicted, inexplicable episodes in which a team of super-non-heroes observed the remnants of a world of twentieth century genre fiction - then slumped into an unconvincing battle between the non-heroes and an evil but not very competent version of the Fantastic Four.

In his own way, Aaron Williams has displayed an above-average gift for handling these difficult transformations. Nodwick started out as a string of gags about an archetypical D&D party and their long-suffering, much-resurrected henchman, then turned into a moderately exciting and oddly surreal fantasy saga, which even ended before it had outstayed its welcome. And PS238 started out as a string of gags about a school for the super-gifted children of a generic superhero universe, but evolved into a genuinely readable comic. The plots actually worked as slightly twisted superhero stories, without losing track of the fact that many of the protagonists were primary-school-age kids, and the jokes remained good. Even some of the characters from the early short gag episodes developed into, well, two-and-a-half-dimensions - notably Zodon. Initially appearing as a flying-wheelchair-bound, would-be-world-conquering scientific genius who, being trapped in the body of a small child, found himself subject to a sophisticated form of parental discipline, Zodon has never exactly been a sympathetic character - he's a selfish megalomaniac intellectual snob, after all - but his frustration at being trapped in a world which he never made, and his sarcastic perceptiveness, must appeal to the long-suffering intellectual snob in us all. Even the non-powered, rather Nodwickian Tyler Marlocke, a poster child for excessive parental expectations, avoided becoming cute, but grew into a genuine child hero without losing too much of his childishness.

The latest PS238 trade paperback, When Worlds Go Splat! - volume VIII, collecting issues 40-45 of the comic - may represent a tricky and unfortunate turning-point, though. This no longer reads as the story of a school for "metaprodigies" and its pupils, but as a story about a rather blandly generic superhero universe, which happens to feature the school when it suits the plot. Much of the focus of this volume is on the origin stories of two of the parents; Atlas, who discovers that his origin is much less like that of Superman than he thought, and Emerald Gauntlet, who discovers that his origin isn't at all like that of Green Lantern, really. This brings their sons to the fore; Ron, who has at least long been a major figure in the series, but whose main feature for a while has been his troubles over his parents' divorce, and Kevin, who's never been much of a character at all. But they don't drive the plot much, and indeed, the most interesting character for much of the book is the recently-introduced Alexandra von Fogg, older sister to Zodon's chief rival, who gets to handle the smart-cynical-adult viewpoint role, while defending her family from the pious criticisms of heroic adults with a certain amount of passion.

Well, we also get more of the likeable 84, whose inferiority complex slowly seems to be coming under control. Unfortunately, there's not a lot more to her, and when much of an episode is taken up with her and Kevin running a dull maze, things really have slumped. And we get some of Tyler - but he's now been equipped with an array of gadgets by his tutor, the Revenant (Batman with the angst taken out and replaced by a little wit), enabling him to fend off Superman-level opponents on occasion, and he's been forced to accept lumps of responsibility, so he's not quite the uncomfortable, battered, sympathetic Tyler of early episodes.

Like I said, this volume makes PS238 look distressingly like an ordinary superhero comic. Even the good new minor characters - the useless Atlas 2.0 and the ludicrous Near Mint - are adults. And the need to have the characters jump into heroic action from time to time leads to some iffy moments, as when a bunch of eight-year-old kids are apparently applauded by the writer for taking on what might be an alien invasion of Earth and might be an embassy from an alien species, while two other young characters who responsibly hold back are dismissed as pathetic and lacking initiative. It's also dangerously symptomatic that the back of this book is taken up with a joke-free series of in-character descriptions of the comic's universe, which hardly seems necessary given how little it differs from the stock Marvel/DC pattern. I think that PS238 needs to go back to school.