Monday, April 07, 2008

Totems: The Justice League of Dementia

Anyone remember Totems? A one-shot published by DC's Vertigo imprint, Totems was published in 2000, and was designed as a "reunion show" of sorts for Vertigo's earliest stars, most of whom were exports from the DCU. I find it interesting, as it is the closest Vertigo has come to having its own super-team.

The story is narrated by and focused on Bernie Madden, a nutty conspiracy theorist who begins the tale by sneaking into his old home to barge in on his ex and her new husband in their bed. Dave jumps out of bed, but Bernie pulls a gun and instructs the two to stay put. We learn that Bernie has been obsessed for years with strange phenomena and conspiracies, to the point that it ruined his marriage. Bernie explains that clues and sightings had led him to believe that things were building to a millennial event, and that he It wanted to have a ringside seat for the big event:

Bernie learned that John Constantine would be holding a New Years party with all his Vertigo pals, so he managed to get a gig as a waiter at the big bash. He attaches himself to a group of his idols, including Animal Man, Cliff Steele, Shade, and Black Orchid and proceeds to badger them with annoying questions while markedly not bringing them drinks. Constantine is spectacularly drunk nearby. Eventually, Swamp Thing arrives:

I don't really consider myself a Swamp thing aficionado, per se, but I do have the entire Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, and Mark Millar runs in my collection, so apparently I am a fan of the big guy. That said, I think his time in the Vertigo stable has long since expired. Swampy's been "dark horrored" to death, and should be returned the DC Universe ASAP.

Oh yeah, the story. Bernie somehow talks all these fantastically powerful beings into ringing in the new millennium by joining hands and bridging the elements:

Bernie's big hippy-dippy Y2K mind meld ends up going wrong, and as midnight and millennium arrive, the whole city before them is transformed into a nightmare of red skies, mystic pyramids, and time tossed future/past weirdness. In other words, just the ingredients needed for a super team origin:

This patchwork future turns out to be toxic to Swamp Thing, so Animal Man and Black Orchid set out to find and help him. Robotman and Shade stay behind to fight off the aliens and laser-wielding Egyptian warriors:

Totems is full of Cliff Steele being awesome. Morrison and Case's Doom Patrol is one of my all time favorite series, and his put-upon everyman Cliff Steele became a favorite character. It is also my humble opinion that Robotman was at his best when he was allowed to swear profusely.

Then we return to Swamp Thing, Black Orchid and Animal Man:

Animal Man was my introduction to Grant Morrison, and a great, mind-bending series it was. but after the switch to Vertigo, Morrison was long gone, and somehow, Buddy Baker became an eco-terrorist hippie anarchist, eventually turning into an animal monster, and...well, it was really weird, lets leave it at that. I was glad to see Animal Man returned to "normal". Of course, Buddy and Black Orchid soon figure out how to save Swamp Thing, and rejoin the others back in the city.

Long story short, Bernie was the problem all along. By plugging himself into the ceremony earlier, his obsessions became manifest and zapped New York with Vertigo blah-de-blah. Bernie was basically a colossal fuck-up, as we see, and became obsessed with the weird stuff almost immediately after his wife became pregnant. The UFO whackadoo lifestyle was his way of avoiding responsibility and change. The gathered elementals then join hands and fix the warped reality:

The crisis ends and the big players vanish back to their realms and lives. Mr. Steele, appropriately, gets in the last word:

Dave opens the window, and the world is normal. The millennium has come and gone, and Bernie has to face his failures. Bernie doesn't shoot anyone, and at the conclusion, he's decided to get a life. Given the unreliable narrator, we're left uncertain if any of this "really happened" but I have to wonder what would have happened if this issue had been a breakout smash hit. Would we have gotten a Totems ongoing? Or maybe they would have gotten a real team name, like "Absurdity Inc" or "The Impossibles".

These days, Vertigo has shed itself of most of these characters. Hellblazer continues uninterrupted, and every so often, they give Swamp Thing another go, but Animal Man, Robotman, and Black Orchid have returned to the DC Universe. Shade is nowhere to be found these days, but is probably due to be exhumed any time now.


Bill said...

I totally agree with you about Cliff Steele, although I can't say I care for the way he is drawn in this strip. The Doom Patrol actually does what all the other angst-y books try to do-- it gives you a real sense of how alienating it would be to exist in the world like that, and Robotman most of all. In an early story that I remember from my boyhood Cliff complains that, "I can't even change a typewriter ribbon!". When you think about all of the things that the Code wouldn't let him complain about being able to do, that's pretty sharp writing.

joe bloke said...

wow. i missed this. completely. this is almost the coolest super-group ever. like, ever. if they could've just found a way to work ambush bug in there, as well. . .

cheers for sharing.

oh, yeah. by the way. . .WHAT WAS OUT THE WINDOW?!!!

Stephen said...

is vertigo even considered it's own universe?

Brian Hughes said...

The world was normal. I just edited the post to make that clearer.

Kinda sorta. The R-rated Vertigo "universe" is kept strictly apart from the all-ages DC Universe as a matter of corporate or editorial policy (not sure which).

Yonatan said...

It is always nice when we get little glimpses of the Vertigo DCU.

I think the most recent one was in the arc of Hellblazer right before issue 200 when Swamp Thing, Tim Hunter and Lucifer all make apperances.

The universe used to be so big too
Swamp Thing
Doom Patrol
Animal Man
Shade the Changing Man
The Books of Magic


Anonymous said...

Man I gotta get this!!!!!!