Sunday, March 18, 2007

Back to the Shortbox: It's about time

The original conceit (and name) of this blog involved a tour through the one shortbox of comics that I had kept after more-or-less disassociating myself from collecting accumulating. That concept as a driving force has gone by the wayside, since I discovered all sorts of other things to talk about and because participating in the interblogwebosphere actually enticed me (for a while) to buy more singles. But I've been meaning to dip back in, and here's a great title to break the dry spell:

Metacops #1 - #3, February - July 1991
Link Yaco & John Heebink, Monster Comics

This oddball title chronicles the adventures of the Metaphysical Police (the titular Metacops) as they travel the time stream to prevent those who would manipulate time for their own ends from changing history. This is a pretty common concept in science fiction and comics (cf. Van Damme and Jughead Jones), but this series puts a particularly anarchic spin on the idea: these guys turned the weird up to eleven. Take a look:

In the first story, Captain Jayne Mansfield, and Officers Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein, and Delmore Schwartz discover that some BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) have made a deal with LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) to help him win the Vietnam War by reversing the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The BEMs send female Foreign Legionnaires on Stone-Age moas into the battle to defend the city; they are countered by the Metacops and their AK-47-wielding were-centurions, who help the attacking Ottomans. After some reverses, Captain Mansfield leads her troops to victory, although the BEMs in their flying saucer escape the Metacop zeppelin.

In the backup story, Officers Jimi Henrix and Nicola Tesla accidentally broadcast Purple Haze through an experimental amplifier, destroying the asteroid Ceres and disturbing Queen Boadicea, a renegade Metacop in exile in a suburban Mars community of 3,000 A.D. Boadiciea steals a time machine and goes on a rampage, trying to kill the human ancestor of her Martian neighbor (who looks a lot like Tars Tarkus), whom she believes was responsible for the noise. Captain Mansfield, Hendrix, Tesla, and Amelia Earhart chase her through time as she sinks the Titanic and the Lusitania and destroys the Hindenburg in futile attempts to kill her hapless victim before being caught.

Issue two contains what the Silver-Age considered a "novel-length" story. Commander Makeda (The Queen of Sheba) and Delmore Schwartz are stranded in 19th century North America while returning from a triceratops hunt with Hendrix and Einstein; history seems to have been changed, however: bison-riding Chinese are in a war with forces from higher-tech New Rome. The Metacops intervene on the side of the Chinese in order to obtain kerosene from New Rome to fuel their time scooters; they discover that this version of reality is the "true" one, and that the one they (and we) knew was an illusion. They decide to change things back anyway, tinkering with Chinese fishing ships and Christopher Columbus's diet to put things back to "normal" before returning home.

Issue three shows how Ada Lovelace, Hannibal of Carthage, Tesla, and Earhart, with the aid of Agent-in-Place Queen Kristina of Sweden, pit T-Rex-riding Aztec mercenaries against World War I-era fighter planes to keep Pan-galactic Weasels from preventing the concept of zero from moving from India to the west; the forces fight to a stalemate, but the Metacops successfully mitigate the damage to history.

The final back-up story in the series starts with the recruitment of Boadicea into the Metaphysical Police by Marie Antoinette, Sigmund Freud, and Leonardo. While accompanying Captain Bourbon to visit Agent-in-Place Kleopatra, the druid queen is tempted by access to Atlantean technology to seize power, and recruits three stewardesses in a plot destroy Tesla's lab in 1936 in order to prevent the Metacops from ever coming into existence (Tesla invented the Time Engine.) The incompetence of her associates sends her back to ancient Sumeria, where (when?) she is captured after a brief struggle and exiled to the 31st century Mars, winding up exactly where we met her in issue one, right down to Hendrix playing on the neighbor's radio.


That little bit of chaotic plot summary doesn't even begin to get across the psychedelic nature of the series. Did I mention that the elephant Mansfield and Schwartz ride on at Constantinople talks, for no particular reason? Or that Amelia Earhart, for all her presence as a supporting character, never speaks and has blank thought balloons?

Or that all the time-displaced warriors keep up a constant stream of background chatter?

Or that we get a throwaway scene of Gilgamesh and Jesus Christ having a chat?

And one of Albert Einstein on mushrooms?

Or that the interstitials make Stan Lee's hyperbole sound shy and retiring?

None of this quirkiness is ever explained; neither is most of the history. While early issues held some biographic information on the main cops, the creators seems to expect the readers to have some familiarity with major figures, events, and tends in world history; I had to look some stuff up just to do the summaries. I like stories that presume some intelligence on the part of the audience.

I also like that most of the leads are strong women who are portrayed realistically - well, as realistically as anyone in this strange universe is. But the creators generally eschew the usual "good girl art" tropes: there are no gratuitous costumes and no pin-up posing, no "women in peril" stereotypes, and the main protagonists (and apparently all the commanding cops) are women. Somehow within this sensibility of anarchic fun, there's a more balanced treatment of gender roles than in is found most current mainstream comics.

But don't let that all good sense and intelligence stop you from just joining the party and enjoying a wild time! These books are not history lessons or social tracts; they are ripping yarns, full of action, adventure, puns, slapstick, and fun!

From my favorite panel: an exasperated Captain Mansfield.

PS: There is a fourth issue, that was put out by a different publisher, but I prefer to consider it non-canonical, because it pretty much sucks. Same creators, but the story seems rushed and feeble, and they went for some cheap T&A stuff, and there was a lot of filler included - not to mention that the cover has the crappiest registration ever seen on a "real" comic. So let's just pretend it doesn't exist, okay?

PPS: Sorry this post is late (although what else is new?) - I started it Saturday night back in Seattle and am finishing it Monday morning on the beach in Maui. Yowza!

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