Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Lives Of The Many...

In a way, I'm almost glad that I didn't come across many stories in Marvel comics which were based on something written and/or conceived by famed author Harlan Ellison. That's no disparagement of his body of work; it's just that, in comics form, when wedged into a title's regular continuity, you come away from the story feeling that it's been left unfinished. Also, since Ellison's story has to be adapted to other characters not present in the original plot--comic book characters--the characters may come across somewhat uncharacteristic.

Take, for example, Ellison's plot which resulted in the classic Avengers/Hulk two-parter, "The Summons of Psyklop"/"The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom!", as well as "Five Dooms To Save Tomorrow!"appearing in a later Avengers issue. In the earlier story, all we really know of Psyklop is that his race used to dwell beneath the Earth until the "Dark Gods" sent them into hibernation--and Psyklop is using the Hulk as an energy source for them in exchange for the awakening of his race. The Avengers story is mainly the catalyst for the Hulk story it segues into, where the Hulk encounters Jarella's sub-microscopic world for the first time. In the end, Psyklop fails, and the Dark Gods take their vengeance on him.

I haven't read Ellison's eight-page synopsis from which Thomas created the overall story, but I have the feeling that this particular scene might have been its focal point:

Everything else is left up in the air. The Avengers, who had confronted Psyklop and attempted to rescue the Hulk, were zapped to New York with no memory of what had occurred. (How convenient, eh? An Avengers story to put on the racks that also sends readers to buy another title, yet it's as if it never happened.) As for the Hulk, he escapes from Psyklop's lab, leaving Psyklop to the tender mercies of the Dark Gods he's failed. To be fair, though, we get much more out of the Hulk story--where Bruce Banner's mind controlled the body of the Hulk, and found happiness with Jarella before Psyklop retrieved him. And of course there was the poignant ending:

Which perhaps we shouldn't take too literally, given that the Hulk has returned to Jarella's world in future issues, and I'm guessing he'd changed his pants long before then. (Or let's hope so.) But again, the Hulk's character is none the worse for wear, and it's as if Psyklop never appeared at all.

Which brings us to "Five Dooms To Save Tomorrow!", an Ellison plot involving a man named Leonard Tippitt who was faced with the choice of murdering five innocent people in order to save the entire human race. If the premise sounds familiar, it's probably because it plays on that old question, "If you could go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler when he was a boy..." Tippit considers himself a wholly unremarkable human being, a person who makes no impact whatsoever on the world and has no significant contribution to make. But the Watcher begs to differ, identifying him as a focal element of time. I'm going to leave the description at that, because the Watcher explains it in a very contradictory fashion:

If you can explain how Tippit can "belong equally to each of the possible time-branches," yet at the same time be "neither of one time nor another," my hat's off to you. I think the real reason Tippit looks so shocked at the revelation is because the Watcher's flip-flopping explanation is driving him crazy trying to figure it out.

But you know the Watcher. Why stop with driving someone crazy when you can push them over the edge with a vision of armageddon?

Funny how the Watcher always rationalizes his role, isn't it. "The future is mine to see--but never to affect, except in most indirect ways." You know, Watch, ol' pal, if you admit your intent to affect the future, even indirect involvement would STILL MAKE YOU RESPONSIBLE FOR AFFECTING IT, you big hypocrite. But for the sake of argument, we'll go along with this outlandish reasoning and let him make Tippit the fall guy. Since Tippit occupies this null place in time--or doesn't, depending on how you digest the Watcher's explanation--the Watcher is able to turn him into a being of pure mental energy, capable of carrying out a deadly task:

The role of the Avengers, of course, will be to foil Tippit's plans, if they can--for they've been made aware of Tippit and what he feels he must do by the man's own subconscious, who brought the info to them in a vision in the hopes that they would be able to stop him. Unfortunately, one by one, Tippit successfully takes out all five of his targets, despite the Avengers' attempts to intervene. But after Tippit drops his last victim, the Scarlet Witch drops him with a hex sphere, and he's brought back and fitted with a "mentality-retrogressor" whipped up by Iron Man that returns him to normal--a device made possible by the mental prodding of (you guessed it) the Watcher, who takes Tippit captive with the intention of locking him outside of space and time. The Avengers then learn from the Watcher that it was Tippit himself whose existence would have caused the devastating war--and that Tippit was told otherwise so that the Avengers would enter the fray and thus unknowingly assist in draining his power.

Still, to their credit, the Avengers aren't about to let the (supposedly non-interfering) Watcher snatch away a human being and imprison him for eternity. But it's Tippit himself who stops them from closing ranks with the Watcher:

As for the people that Tippit supposedly killed, we're assured in the last panel that they're alright, and probably "convinced this was all just a bad dream." The abruptness of the wording makes it seem like it was added as an afterthought, since there's been no impression left on us that Tippit's victims were merely unconscious. Perhaps the alternative was deemed too harsh to suit a comic book; and I suppose it would read awkwardly for Thor to be saluting a guy who killed five innocent people. Though I must admit to being curious if Ellison detailed his plot to the extent that Tippit faced more damning consequences of his actions. In the absence of the Avengers--and the Watcher--it's possible he ended up taking his own life upon discovering the war's true cause, if he discovered the truth at all.

At any rate, there are any number of Marvel stories where characters have been faced with hard "damned if you do, damned if you don't" choices to make, where it's the lead characters themselves who are in the hot seat--which to me makes for more interesting reading because I'm buying that book specifically to read about those characters.  An excellent example of such a story, by Ellison himself, is the "City On The Edge Of Forever" episode appearing in the classic Star Trek series, which puts Kirk directly in the same position that Leonard Tippit faced: sacrificing one life (or, in Tippit's case, several) to save millions.  In the comic book, the decision the Avengers make is a clear one for them, despite their knowing the consequences; for Kirk, it's gut-wrenching, and it's only in the heat of the moment when he's able to make his decision.  Only when Ellison is adapted to a comic book story are we returned to status quo--the Avengers and ourselves get a nice, tidy ending, and it's the hand of the Watcher that decides Tippit's fate.

I think "Five Dooms To Save Tomorrow!" might have worked better as a two-part story, with the Avengers interacting more with Tippit--and each other--in terms of what was at stake.  We know that Tippit has agonizing misgivings about what he's doing, yet he quickly sets them aside while he strikes down his victims.  Can't we see even one of his victims give him pause by appealing to his conscience? And if Tippit is so at odds with what he's doing, why won't he listen to the Avengers' reasons for wanting to stop him--particularly from Captain America, whom he idolizes?

This may be due more to salesmanship than anything else, but there's a caption on the issue's cover which reads, "Harlan Ellison Strikes Back!!"  I wouldn't go quite that far.  An Ellison story, when it's unleashed, can strike much more powerfully than this adaptation takes us.  I don't know if his plot ever made it to novel form, as a subsequent letters page indicated it might, but I'd be curious to read this story without an Avenger--or a Watcher--in sight.

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