Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The International Museum of Obscure Comic Book Characters, Exhibit 2: Johnny Carpetbag

Johnny Carpetbag. Yes, that's his name. No one knows if his parents gave it to him, or if he came by it during his years of riding the rails during the Great Depression. Created by the amazing Bob Haney-- aided and abetted by Art Saaf and Nick Cardy-- Johnny Carpetbag first appeared in Teen Titans #42. If he's ever been in another DC comic in the years since, I'm not aware of it.

I'm surprised some hot-shot writer hasn't revived Johnny and turned into something horrifying. Johnny Carpetbag would make the perfect villain for some 12-issue mega-crossover where he powers up to appropriately bad-assian levels then stalks the grown-up Teen Titans, kills whichever one editorial deems unnecessary to Time-Warner's bottom line yet important enough to have impact on nostalgia hounds and hardcore geeks, then dies himself in some horrifically violent way at the hands of some character usually not known for doing such things, which somehow reboots the entire DC universe and launches a comic starring an "updated" version of said character.  Lots of gore, too.  A comic book is nothing without evisceration depicted in all its scarlet glory.  If there's anything Teen Titans #42 lacks, it's evisceration.

Of course, this completely hypothetical yet oh-so-dreamy narrative would be accompanied by interviews with the creative team where they explain why Johnny Carpetbag was never used up to his full potential and then pat each other on the back for sullying what was once a pleasantly bizarre little comic and, by extension, every comic its characters ever appeared in before or after.

While we're waiting for the return of the new and improved Johnny Carpetbag, we can still enjoy the Teen Titans in "Slaves of the Emperor Bug." It's a simple story, with an insanely random plot.

Ah.  The opening sequence, tranquil and with just a hint of blossoming young romance.  It lulls us into thinking the rest of the book will be sane.  Wonder Girl and Speedy (pre-heroin addiction) bid on a beetle-shaped brooch. What's really cool is how Speedy refers to Wonder Girl's "little Amazonian heart." What a smooth operator. Her heart will play a major role in the story. Her metaphorical one. Don't you imagine it gets pretty old for Wonder Girl to always have the male Titans condescending to her like that?  Especially when her "little Amazonian strength" could have Speedy shaped into a human pretzel if she so desired?

Notice how the auctioneer instantly recognizes Johnny Carpetbag. Not just because he's holding the object he took his name from, but apparently the guy's a sort of local character and held in fairly high regard by the citizens of whatever small town this is.

And why not? They think he's a righteous dude. For a dirty hobo. Who has an unlimited income. Maybe he's Howard Hughes in disguise, Wonder Girl! Give him a ride to Las Vegas and see if he puts you in his will!

The golden beetle brooch soon shows its magical powers-- it tells Wonder Girl and her less gullible friend Lilith it once was a mighty warrior king and needs to return to the Yucatan so it can regain its former glory. This leads to the entire team heading down to Central America where they run into all sorts of trouble in the jungle. Here's where things get ever so slightly... um... far-fetched.

Kid Flash almost loses a leg to a hungry caiman, Wonder Girl fights a jaguar then sees a fish swallow her beloved brooch. When a hungry eagle snatches up the fish, Wonder Girl gives chase only to run afoul of a poisonous snake. The eagle flies directly overhead while the Titans are looking for Wonder Girl, and Speedy shoots the fish out of its talons. Non-powered but quick-thinking Titan Mal cuts open the fish and finds not Wonder Girl but the beetle brooch inside. What luck!

In Lilith's hands it leads the gang to the dying Wonder Girl and Robin injects her with all the anti-venom he can find in his little first aid kit. That first aid kit really comes in handy on this trip, so I recommend when you take a magical golden beetle brooch into some swamp or jungle you take one as well.

Reunited, the bold super-teens enter a skull-shaped island or temple or palace. And here our pal Johnny Carpetbag makes his second appearance.

What's this?  He's not the nice guy he first appeared to be?  And Wonder Girl's golden warrior is actually a giant rhinoceros beetle?  His name is Lord Beetle, and his love for her is still true, even if he plans to devour her friends.  It's at this point Wonder Girl begins to suspect she just may have been had.  Gesturing grandly, still smelling of what we can only assume is the accumulated sweat and urine from dozens of years sleeping on steaming sewer gratings and in abandoned automobiles, Johnny Carpetbag explains everything.

I really like Wonder Girl.  She's endlessly vivacious and physically strong beyond reason, but not the smartest person in the room.  In any room, including rooms filled with circus clowns or even the cadavers of circus clowns.  Ever so slowly, she comes to the realization she may have screwed up.  In fairness, none of the Teen Titans are exactly what you might call "geniuses."  I'm not sure any of them exhibit even merely average intelligence.  That's why it's so entertaining when Wonder Girl and Johnny Carpetbag start to debate the morality of a carnivorous diet.

As if he's spent many a late night contemplating this exact discussion with Wonder Girl, Carpetbag offers the what I consider the most compelling pro-meat argument-- we're all animals and most animals eat other animals.  This includes as apex predator giant talking insects with magic powers eating intellectually-challenged teens with super powers.  Or vice versa.  One devours the other in the great circle of life.  Wonder Girl, on the other hand, employs a kind of moral relativity and draws the line at the consumption of people, but thinks nothing of resorting to violence to drive home her point.

I'm sorry to say vegans and vegetarians are not represented in this debate, but I'm sure they could come up with plenty of reasons why both Wonder Girl and Johnny Carpetbag should embrace cruelty-free alternatives.

Bondage fetishists no doubt also enjoyed this issue, or at least two panels from it.  And here's where the icky "other plans" line of dialogue falls.  Care exercise your imaginations and come up with a few ideas of what these "other plans" might be?  Unless they involve sending Wonder Girl back to the United States rather than long white gowns with veils of lace, I don't.

After tying up Wonder Girl with "royal filament" (from his royal butt spinneret... mercifully not shown), Lord Beetle lets her go to wander his temple alone.  But soon enough Wonder Girl plays to her strengths-- not thinking or debating.  No, she doesn't care for those.  Dancing and general hedonism are more her bag.  Okay, while in other stories, Wonder Girl often gives into her more fun-loving impulses, doing the frug, the mashed potato, the monkey, the Watusi or the Madison won't help her in this situation, so instead-- egged on by a talking skeletal salamander lying in pit-- she grabs a golden double-bladed sword and pulls with all her Amazonian might.

And so ends the life of Johnny Carpetbag.  Not with a bang or a whimper, but an "I-- I tripped!" and an "AIEEEEEEE!"  Because when push comes to shove, or trip, if you're dumb enough to work for a giant insect, you're probably dumb enough to destroy yourself accidentally.  Even poor, dim-witted Wonder Girl knows better!

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