Friday, July 28, 2006

PSA: Keep your rubber band ball handy

I was in Office Max the other day, picking up computer paper and other sundries, when I came upon this comic, being offered for free at the checkout counter:

Apparently, there is an organization called TeachersCount, whose mission it is "to raise the status of the teaching profession and provide resources to the education community." (Office Max looks like one of their bigger sponsors - it seems a natural tie-in with all their back-to-school stuff.) In furtherance of those ends, they held an essay contest in which students described their "super" teachers. This comic commemorates and celebrates those teachers, the students, and teaching and learning in general.

Of course, we can't celebrate education without a little action, can we? So the comic starts with a doombot menacing HS teacher Peter Parker:

I love that half-and half face business that goes all the way back to Ditko. Do they still do that in the regular comics?

Anyway, the Human Torch shows up to help Spidey, and the FF fills him in on the deal: Dr. Doom has drained the minds of "the best and brightest students" (coincidentally those who had won the essay contest) for some undisclosed purpose. The zombie kids are in FF care:

The heroes plan to track Doom down and enlist the help - say it with me - of the teachers! Here they are in all their plain-folks glory:

So, the whole crew heads down to Office Max to get compasses, maps, calculators, pencils, paper and more" in order to work out Doom's whereabouts." Because, you know, the entire Baxter Building was apparently out of all that stuff, and doesn't have any computers or anything, I guess.

Hey, quit complaining - it's a public service comic. Besides, they needed to get a box of rubber band balls. Didn't you see the foreshadowing on the cover? And check out Ben Grimm here - apparently you can't do science without plenty of rubber bands:

So, Doom's hideout is calculatored and the usual generic superhero action follows for a few pages. Spidey and the FF are captured in Doom's castle, but luckily all the teachers have come along in the Fantasti-Minivan. They figure out Doom's plan and free the superheroes, all while spouting their catch phrases (the original sources are available in the actual essays that are contained in the book) in true comics hero manner:

(It seems she really does say that! Well, without the "despair" part.)

And we must not forget the critical role of a rubber band ball:

So, Doom is defeated, and the children are rehabilitated with the help of their wonderful teachers.

All in all, it's a goofy and charming little comic, and I think it does its job of honoring teachers and advocating for education. In addition to the text piece containing the essays and some profiles of TeachersCount people, the book features superhero-themed ads from Brother, Avery, and Hewlitt Packard that range from clever to lame. This is clearly a fine work in the tradition of the Superman Family- Radio Shack team-up. Pick it up if you see one of these - it'll be fun.

And remember, education starts with rubber band balls!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Moment of wow-ness

Hot on the heels (ish) of the final page of Wonder Woman #1, we get this wonderful bit from Justice League of America #0:

Not just an homage, but an actual flashback to the mod-era, depowered, boutique-owning, Peel-esque Diana Prince, The New Wonder Woman!

What's more, the scene was set on the old JLA satellite, and the art even looks like it culd have been done by that old stalwart, Dick Dillin. (I don't know which of the 23 artists credited in the book did the page, but I suspect Dick Giordano had a hand in it.) It sure warmed this old fan's heart.

Of course, I really couldn't make heads or tails of the book. I mean, I recognized that the yesterdays were little snippets of history, and I can guess that the tomorrows were previews, but are these real pasts and futures? Does this mean that Wonder Woman White is part of accepted continuity? Is that a new Earth-2 on the monitor doohickey? Why do I even ask these questions? My head hurts.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Definitely not in Kansas

This was going to be a review post, but it was transformed by circumstance into sort-of a hybrid review / link-post.

It started when I tripped over, I think via Comics Worth Reading (although I've lost the reference), a project that's been being published for a while now called Dorothy. This is a series of graphic novels, I guess, that feature a retelling of the Wizard of Oz story. It looks like a straightforward modernization / updating, with a pretty hip-looking Dorothy, but the most unusual aspect of the project is that it is a photo-comic (the 'model' for Dorothy is promoted as a bit of star). Don't go thinking Comic Life or cheap fumetti crude, either; the gallery shows a great deal of talented rendering work on top of the source photos. I think I would like to get my hands on one of these.

Well, this project made me think about an item that is actually in The Last Shortbox: The Oz Squad, a different kind of spin-off of the Oz myth. This was an action series from the early nineties that featured a superspy Dorothy, a not-so-cowardly Lion who was also able to transform into a human, a Tin Man who was essentially Robot Man (real close to the Cliff Steele variety, in fact), and a Scarecrow who was a chain-smoking, punk-styled, nihilist detective-type. No, really:

Now, being a scholar-type, I did a lit review prior to starting the post and found that Dave across the Sound at Dave's Long Box did a write-up on this series a year ago. Check it out, then come back; I'll wait.

First of all, I have to say that I beat Dave's collection because I have the first four in issues in the series. Hah!

Now, I think Dave's review got the series down well; his line about its being an intersection between Wizard of Oz and Commando is pretty accurate. But it was neither of those things that attracted me to the series; I am not a particularly big Oz fan and I don't like excessive violence in my comics (or movies). What was (or could have been) cool was the alternate reality that writer Steve Ahlquist created.

The heroes are members of Gale Force, a division of the CIA whose charter it is to investigate incidents related to U.S. - Oz relations. Apparently, Oz has joined the community of nations to some extent; travel and trade may be infrequent, but they do exist, and someone has to respond to the social, economic, and political consequences of intercourse with a magical realm suddenly existing in the 20th century.

And Oz isn't the only magic around: when Rebecca Eastwitch (the current Wicked Witch of the East) is auctioning off stolen Tik-Tok technology, the bidders include representatives of mainland China and South Africa, as well as one of Santa's elves and a delegation from Liliput. It is this last group that provides the most charming visual of the entire series:

The idea of Lilliputian' riding service dogs, complete with "Please do not pet me" signs, is genius. Unfortunately, there's not enough of this genius to go around: the world is not nearly as well-developed as Will Shetterly's, (it's even a bit unclear if Dorothy works for the U.S. C.I.A. or an Oz C.I.A) and all too frequently the story wanders into standard nineties grim 'n' gritty mayhem.

Speaking of which, look at the cover again: doesn't that have more a goofy feel to it, from the Charlie's Angels pose struck by Dorothy, and Face from the A-Team standing next to her (that's actually the Lion, not Dirk Benedict), to Cylon-eyed Tin Man and the comically grumpy Scarecrow? I think that's the note this comic could have struck more successfully.

And perhaps it did - one of the things I found out in my research was that the series actually lasted ten issues altogether. The artist changed with number five, but apparently the stories didn't get much better. Who says this? The same site that says the Oz Squad is making a comeback!

Apparently, the original writer and a new illustrator are readying a new version of the series for the 21st century. It looks pretty cool, and the site was updated last just a few days ago, so it's not dusty. I wonder if Dave knows?

Well, that revelation was not the last surprise on the yellow brick road leading to this post. The site that had the Oz Squad news was actually an Oz comics compendium page; as such it talked about Lost Girls, Alan Moore's reportedly pornographic story about Dorothy, Wendy (from Peter Pan) and Alice (the Wonderland / Looking Glass one). Now, I hadn't paid this project much mind (since I think Moore is a great writer but a crazy man who gets enough attention from the rest of the world and doesn't need any more from me), so I was only vaguely aware of its content; when I read a summary, though, something clicked: I had seen these three women meet in another story. It's a web comic called Cheshire Crossing, and here's a grab:

The premise of the story is that the young ladies are being kept in some sort of institution that wants to make use of their unique abilities; rebellion and hijinx, of course, ensue. There are some nice touches - one of the warders at the institution is a hardcore Mary Poppins - but generally, the girls have grafted-on generic action story personalities, the writing is pedestrian, and the art hurts my eyes, so I never really read it. Somehow, I'm guessing Moore's version will be more popular.

And now we have reached the Emerald City.

Bonus note: I own a DVD copy of the Wizard of Oz, and I don't know why. My brother gave it me one birthday. It is not one of my favorite movies, nor, to my knowledge, one of his; it was never a family tradition to watch it and as far as I know it has no significance in either of our lives in any way. I have no idea why he gave it to me.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Not so brave, not so new

So, I have been testing out the waters of new comics again, and in that effort bought and read Brave New World, the showcase for several new series (and, I guess, some new underlying themes in the DCU continuity). Working from the back of the book forward, here are come responses:

The big reveal: I was the opposite of thrilled. I thought this was a slapdash character from the start and have zero interest in any more variations on this theme. Nice range of facial hair styles, though. Bonus: the final word balloon only made me think of this - anybody else out there remember it?

Shazam: The most visually interesting, this story also had a nice brisk pace and flow. I don't think I am interested enough in the characters to care to follow it.

The All-New Atom: I was predisposed to like this: Atom is one of my A-list characters and like Gail Simone, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was re-reading the Ant-Man's fantastic voyage inside the Vision in that Avengers comic from, what, 1969? The sensibilities seemed the same and the action too similar. Beyond that, there wasn't any new emotional core to make me care about anyone in the story.

The Creeper: Justiniano's pencils just didn't do it for me, and while the story contained many of the elements that I like about Jack Ryder (why is he a lefty now?), the last-panel set-up seemed silver-age silly.

Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters: Let me get this out of the way: the way Phantom Lady is presented makes her look flipping stupid, particularly in the context of how the other Freedom Fighters have been revisualized. The super-heroes-as-government-team theme has never pushed my buttons, and this tease didn't change that. Great last panel, though.

OMAC: Y'know, I only ever read two issues of IC, and if I never saw another one of those robots again, it would be too soon. I can't imagine how y'all can stand it.

Martian Manhunter: J'onn has always been my number-one man in the DCU, and this story held my highest hopes.

I try not to reify characters or over-emphasize "the purity of the concept" or anything like that, and the Martian Manhunter has had more than his share of changes. After all, J'onn started as more of a science-fictional detective than a super-hero, back when he was "The Manhunter from Mars."

His own strip moved him from that position to more traditional superheroing in a clear break with his origins.

(He even took a detour into man from U.N.C.L.E. territory in a long series in which he adopted the identity of Marco Xavier to infiltrate an international gang.)

All along, however, he was growing as a character in the Justice League, and I personally loved seeing him alongside Superman. Even when I couldn't articulate it well, I could sense that there was a variation on a theme to be found in comparing the two: they were both immigrants, but Superman looked like a member the dominant culture of the country; Manhunter didn't. There was something going on there about assimilation versus multiculturalism, although I didn't consciously think about it all that much. I just liked that there was an alternate to Big Blue - a bald, green tough guy with a really lame weakness.

As time went on, J'onn got the bejeezus ret-conned out of him, with his Martian history getting altered and his finding his space-gumby "true form." In the main continuity, the road was bumpy and sometimes silly, but through it all, J'onn developed into what seemed to be his most successful and enduring role: the heart of the league, the wise mentor, the father-figure, the counselor. This seemed an appropriate and useful position for him to occupy, one that honored his long history in the DCU and at the same time recognized his generally secondary place in the pantheon.

Some of these changes were particularly well in non-continuity stories. Jones & Barretos American Secrets did a great job of pulling together various threads of J'onn's mythos, and Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier was a wonderful re-imagining of the character's roots.

After all these sometimes wrenching changes, which have barely been reconciled, I can't imagine why anyone would want to add more. And if some sort of change were editorially mandated, why couldn't it have been a natural growth or evolution of the character, or failing that, even just a new deal slipped in with the rest of the punched-by-Superboy reality shifts? Why did it have to be the lame everything-I-have-ever-known-is-a-lie schtick? How many new histories can there be? Can the reader (or even J'onn) remember the details of what now is supposed to have been not the case anyway?

Maybe that's what bugs me: not that the character is changing (again) but that he is changing in a way that seems unimaginative and unfruitful. After all, isn't this New Earth stuff supposed to be getting away from the overdone grim 'n' gritty? Doesn't this hardcore, take-no-guff avenger routine seem a little old to anyone else?

I guess you can figure out that this new Martian Manhunter doesn't grab me. There's plenty of the old Manhunter from Mars to keep me happy; this new version can go on without me.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Rediscovering Justice

Last Wednesday, I met with a bunch of people at a kosher vegetarian Chinese restaurant before heading off to see Superman Returns in glorious Imax 3D. (While that movie is not the subject here, just let me say that liked it; I didn't love it, but I liked it. And that 3D effects still look like Viewmaster slides.) One of my buddies gave me this, saying that he wanted to get it out of his house and that I would appreciate it.

Oh, and appreciate it I did.

If you were of junior-high or high-school age in the late sixties or early seventies and possessed of a certain set of interests and tastes - those which might also lead to reading comics - you almost certainly read the Bantam Doc Savage paperbacks, with the fantastic James Bama covers, which reprinted the pulp stories from the thirties. My friends and I devoured them - I can remember turning over my 75 cents at Lowen's drug store one day after school, taking one of Doc's adventures home, reading the whole thing, and then returning to splurge on another before the store closed for the night.

If you were really lucky, not only could you find and enjoy Kenneth Robeson's best-known hero, you could also find his strongest second-stringer, Richard Benson, The Avenger. His adventures were published by Coronet under the Paperback Library imprint, and the cover formats and art were clearly imitations of the Bantam series. While Kenneth Robeson did not in fact exist except as a house name used by Street & Smith, the publisher of the original pulps (most of the Doc Savage stories were written by Lester Dent and those of the Avenger by Paul Ernst), the same rough exuberance and page-turning (though formulaic) plotting could be found in both series, so the packaging similarities were not misleading

In some ways, Doc and the Avenger could be looked at as embodying the same opposing aspects of "heroing" as Superman and Batman (or Achilles and Odysseus) do.

Doc was all glittery and bold, not only a man at the pinnacle of human abilities, but also a public figure, a celebrity who had pull with politicians, someone dedicated to doing good because he was a good man. Benson's impetus was darker: his mission for justice started as a personal quest to find who murdered his wife and child. His methods were darker; chief among them was impersonation, a skill gained when the shock from the loss of his family deadened his face, making it pliable. He worked in secret, not headquartered at the top of a skyscraper, but hidden behind a drugstore.

Doc Savage had skin and hair of bronze and gold flake eyes; Richard Benson had white hair, snowy features and steel-grey eyes. Gold and silver, marked down for the pulps.

I think I dug the Avenger even more than I did Doc. Maybe because his smaller stature - five-eight compared to Doc's six-six - and his mantra of "there's quality of muscle as well as quantity" made him more identifiable to me than Doc. Maybe it was the minimalism of Mike and Ike, his matched throwing knife and .22 caliber pistol. Maybe it was because his gang of sidekicks was integrated; he had a married African-America couple on his team, compared to Doc's all-male, all-WASP Fab Five. Or maybe it was because his adventures had a more urban feel to them.

DC Comics tired to capture the Avenger's appeal in comics twice. The first attempt was in 1975, not long after the first paperback appeared. While none of the four issues published remain the The Last Shortbox, I had them all, and remember them most for Joe Kubert's stunning covers and Jack Kirby's muscular interior art. The stories, however, seem to miss the spirit of the original series, and the comics aren't worth seeking out. If you trip across any, though, give 'em a look.

The second adaptation DC made was in a two-part graphic novel (or were we calling them prestige format comics then?) in 1989, which I still own. This one gets a bit meta: Andy Helfer's story (moodily illustrated by Kyle Baker) essentially turns the entire pulp canon into the retelling of Benson's life story by the entertainment media:

Although the impersonation motif is still present and central to the story, all the pulpish trappings are gone and any vestiges swept away as Benson gets drawn into a byzantine Cold War espionage plot that unfolds over more than two decades and reveals J. Edgar Hoover (sort of) to be the antichrist (sort of) and Benson himself to behind the increasing democratization of the world. No, really.

The book makes wonderful use of fantastical and science-fiction elements to make some compelling points about geopolitical realities in the last half of the twentieth century and is well worth a read. It's just not the Avenger. So, I'll keep watching for another comics adaptation that more closely captures the magic I first felt when I encountered that paperback more than thirty years ago.


A big shout out to Robert Lenihan, whom I haven't seen in twenty years and who first handed me a copy of the paperback shown above.

Here's a scan of the interior of the book, complete with the cardstock cigarette ad that was bound into it. Time have sure changed, no?