Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Larfleeze is Not a Star

I've never been the world's biggest Larfleeze fan. I know I'm not the first to make the comparison, but he's kind of the Jar Jar Binks of the Green Lantern universe: overly obnoxious, weird speech patterns, naive/immature to the point of often being plain stupid, etc. I don't hate him with the same vehemence many others seem to feel, either. When he was introduced during the Blackest Night lead-up, he was neither the most nor the least annoying new character created as part of Geoff Johns' expansion of the spectrum of light. He was just minor enough not to ruin anything, and interesting enough that I got a decent amount out of pleasure from the pages on which he appeared.
     But he was such a supporting character, greed personified as a grouchy alien, that I was baffled when DC announced he'd be fronting the back-up feature in their Threshold series several months back. Even for ten-page stories, he didn't feel fleshed out enough to be a protagonist. I was so surprised by this decision, and drawn to Keith Giffen as the writer of a goofball spaceman, that I had to buy Threshold #1 out of sheer curiosity. It wasn't something I wanted to read but something I needed to try.
     It was not horrible. Well, the main series was ("The Hunted"), but the Larfleeze story actually had some bits that made me laugh, and it looked way better than it had any right to. Scott Kolins was a great fit for the character, getting both the unbridled anger and complete childishness of Larfleeze just right. Kolins does outer space stuff well, the empty enormity of the setting and inventive designs for new races and planets and such. The art was what I liked most about this initial taste of Larfleeze-centric comics, but Giffen didn't slack off, either. He added Pulsar Stargrave as the wry and under-appreciated butler, a job that suits the character and is the right kind of role for someone meant to be part of the cast of a Larfleeze book. And having the conflict center on Larfleeze trying to figure out who robbed him made a lot more sense than, say, cooking up a complicated new villain or cosmic-level threat. It was a narrative tailored to its hero, but still containing its share of intrigue and surprise.
     So I kept buying Threshold, even though it cost $3.99 I hated the first 2/3 of every issue. This went against everything I believe in when it comes to comicbook shopping, but the Larfleeze material kept being juuuust strong enough to bring me back. Every chapter had a couple of solid jokes, and Giffen tried to explore the Larfleeze concept as much as he could. How do you take a character who's whole deal is "I'm greedy!" and make him into someone worth following for more than a scene or two? It looked like Giffen had some answers, like making Larfleeze's powers more effective when he was trying to prevent theft, having him literally not understand the concept of paying someone for something, or his definition of "fair fight" being one that he wins. It wasn't the most in-depth development work I've ever seen, but it was admittedly more than I thought Larfleeze had to offer, and it was getting done in ten-page chunks that also included splash pages, chaotic fight scenes, additions to the cast, and an ever-evolving mystery. The story may not have left my jaw on the floor, but it always had me grinning, and Kolins' artwork kept up its quality all the way through. It was fun, funny, vibrant, and energetic, good enough that when Larfleeze became a series of its own, I followed.
     That's when things went downhill. The new book is plotted by Giffen with scripts from his long-time collaborator J.M. DeMatteis, and still drawn by Kolins but now off of Giffen's breakdowns. And it STINKS. Three issues in, I'm already completely turned off of the whole experiment, as disappointed by the full-length Larfleeze material as I was pleasantly surprised by the back-ups. Instead of building on the little bit of progress made in the Threshold pages, this book has decided to let its stars flounder in their worst, simplest, most one-dimensional forms so that a bunch of epic sci-fi junk can go down instead. Larfleeze no longer gets to display the many faces of avarice, reduced to a constant string of temper tantrums punctuated by combat he loses. His new foes are big bad space monsters from another dimension, threatening to unmake our existence for simple amusement now that their home world has already been totally destroyed (by them). It's the wrong kind of narrative for Larfleeze, one that calls on him to be a world-saving epic hero instead of the pissed off kid he usually is. Giffen and DeMatteis do their best to give Larfleeze a dog in this race by having the new villains take control of Stargrave, but that's a weak motive, one made even less convincing by Stargrave's own passivity and grating sarcasm. It worked in small doses during the ten-pagers, but in these twenty-page installments Stargrave becomes just as major a character as Larfleeze. That's too much responsibility for someone who uses most of his lines to make fun of and/or undermine what other characters just said.
     Kolins is still Kolins, but the tone of the story has become graver and more significant, which consequently means the art doesn't get to be as uninhibited and silly as it used to be. There's a lot more angry Larfleeze now than the mix of fury, confusion, fear, and hubris he brought to the table before. Of all the characters to darken, this one needed it the very least, and it shows when comparing the Threshold-era visuals to the current ones.
     I'm not going to say Larfleeze could never support his own comic. If nothing else, Giffen and Kolins taught me that the potential exists. Put him in the right setting and handle him with the right approach, and this clown can definitely carry a story. But I wonder if he'll just always operate better in a smaller space. If you asked Larfleeze, of course, he'd demand as many panels and as much dialogue as possible. Yet that extreme personality of his may be what makes him more entertaining in fewer pages. I don't know how much the character is to blame, how much falls on the creators, and (as with all of DC's line these days) how much is editorial nonsense. But I do know that after five months of back-up stories convincing me Larfleeze was worth my attention, it only took three months of stardom to undo all that work and reverse my opinion of him all over again.

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