Sunday, December 31, 2006

An approximate milestone

Well, it's been 370 days and 71 posts since The Recreation Annex, formerly known as Troll Dwarfs with Tommy Guns, nee The Last Shortbox, opened its doors for business (or pleasure). While that's not exactly a precise milestone, I'll take it, seeing as it's New Year's Eve and all.

Although - or perhaps because - I have had a ball participating in the comicsweblogosphere (as Mike Sterling would have it), the mission of this site has drifted a bit in a year. I have become less concerned with reviewing just the contents of that actually-exists shortbox full of memories, and have gotten more involved with newer comics and graphic books than I have been in a while. I don't expect to be giving that up, but I'll try to dip into the old gems a bit more frequently.

Mostly I am enjoying being part of a community of people who have impressed me with their generosity of spirit and their material generosity, as well as their enthusiasm and talent. I enjoy reading, sharing, remembering, and reflecting with all of you. While this community has had its share of conflict and snark, overall I have found it a very pleasant place to linger. Thanks to all of you out there for helping me keep the fun in a lifelong hobby.

Happy New Year!


The Fortress Keeper has (once again) delivered a fine essay that sums up how if feel about certain issues in comics. The Keeper uses The Ray as clear example of how modern comics differ from the gold and silver days in the treatment of superhero characters. The retconning of Happy Terrill's "ballooning accident" into part of a government conspiracy is typical of the grim-n-grittifying of superhero comics. And I'm sorry, but I just don't see it working. Superheroes are inherently a least little silly and require a lot of suspension of disbelief to work at all. When they do work, they can deliver gripping adventure, human interest, and even morality tales; but mix them with "real world" drama, and the result often seems to me like what I imagine watching Wiley Coyote kill and eat the Roadrunner in a naturalistic manner would be like. It's cognitive dissonance.

Birds of Prey appears to have this flaw. I jumped on at issue 100, because I heard a Spy Smasher was coming back. The story in #100 and #101 concerns Lady Blackhawk, Big Barda, Judomaster, Huntress, and Manhunter infiltrating a Mexican prison to free a mobster's daughter in return for his testimony. With very little rewriting, the story could have been a straight action-adventure script, no superheroes required: there's the attorney getting inside, the fake fight for a distraction, the taking over the guard tower, the explosions in the parking lot for further distraction, and so on. All the fireworks are set in a world of corrupt officials, ruthless government agents, and cynical deal-making.

And in the middle of all of it, we get this:

Is it just me, or does the whole changing-into-costume bit seem a bit out-of-place? Do we really need superheroes to take on crooked corrections officers? This seems more like a Mission: Impossible episode than anything else. I could practically hear the crash as the two idioms smashed into each other.

I dunno. It was great fun watching the Birds go through their paces. Zinda is a hoot, and it was cool to see Barda take on a fighter jet. But the juxtaposition of that kind of action with the nasty agent stuff just doesn't gel.

Oh, and this set me off, too:

Spy is not equal to terrorist.

In the real world, spies are professionals for the most part, usually regular combatants, and there exists international law regarding their treatment. In fiction as well as fact, spies are the focus of some ripping yarns. Nathan Hale was a spy. Mata Hari was a spy. Moe Berg was a spy. George Smiley was a spy. Spies and spying can serve as useful devices in adventure stories.

Terrorists are not spies. Terror is an awful and problematic feature of contemporary geopolitics, and does not lend itself well to simple action tales, particularly those featuring superheroics.

So why don't they call Katarina Terrorist-Smasher?


So as not to leave this milestone post on a complaining note, I want to spin off this quote from the Fortress of Fortitude post I mentioned at the start:

Back in the day, “Happy” Terrill was simply a good-hearted guy who attained crazy powers in a ballooning accident.

(’Cuz that happened a lot back then … )

I had forgotten this aspect of The Ray's origin, and I was so tickled by the idea of a ballooning accident (BA) as a plot device, that I did extensive research on Googled the phrase, and here's what I came up with:

Commissioner Gordon's son Tony used a BA as a way to fake his death so he could spy on/in Red China. (I am Batgirl's Brother; scroll down about halfway).

A BA is the fulcrum on which the plot of Ian McEwan's novel Enduring Love (and the Daniel Craig movie that was based on it) swings.

A Harvard alum chose a BA as his fake death, this time to avoid solicitation of donations, when the university mistakenly thought him deceased. (Death by Junk Mail; scoll down to July 11, 2003).

Apparently, one of the characters on the television show Lost is on the island because of a BA (Re: Will the 'Others' get angry now?, scroll down to 02-16-2006, 07:20 PM).

The hero of this mystery novel is almost killed in a BA.

Coe College offers a science class that investigates the mystery of an alchemist's BA. (FS-110-18 STEALTH SCIENCE , about halfway down).

And finally, an Air Force pilot injured in a BA may be the source of the first "live alien" sighting. (Injured Air Force Pilot, the very last entry).

Huh, maybe it's time for another name-change to the blog...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy holidays

It ended yesterday, but Menorah Man (along with the rest of the Jewish Hero Corps) hopes you had a Happy Hannukkah!

And here is the best Superhero Holiday Special story I have ever read, bar none. Although it came from a LiveJournal community as part of a spoof of such comics, if DC editorial doesn't commission it for next year, they have neither heart nor brains.

The Big S Christmas Story.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Hit and miss

So, I did go to the LCS to look for Birds of Prey. They were out of #100, which I am presuming is a good jumping-on point; I did look through #101, in which the new Spy Smasher presents herself as a unlikable bully. I dunno. Keeper says he has hopes for the character; I guess I will find that #100 and make another run at it.

I did take Loren's advice and get Darwyn Cooke's Spirit #1. It was a great romp, one that I enjoyed even more than the crossover teaser issue. I still felt a bit unstasified at the end, though: $2.99 for 22 pages still seems like too much to me, even if the paper and production values are so much better. (Based on inflation alone, an 80-page Giant from 1967 should only cost $1.42 today.) Somehow the TPBs just seem like a better buy.

I also picked up the DC Infinite Holiday Special, because as I was flipping though it, it looked kind of funny. My overall rating: meh. It brought the funny and some sweetness, but the book would have been more successful in both aspects if the individual stories had been a little shorter and tighter.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Not really so grumpy as all that

This isn't exactly in the Last Shortbox, but it's at probably as old as the oldest comic in there:

This is a lobby card for the 1944 Republic serial Spy Smasher. It may well be an original, since I got it in about 1973 or so, when I was in high school.

I was nutsy for Spy Smasher. I think first read about him in a book called The Great Movie Serials by Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, under a section subtitled The Subversives' Dread and with a pretty good photo. I read all about the comics version in The Steranko History of the Comics (Volume 2), which chronicled Spy Smasher's career and his cross-over with Captain Midnight, whose popularity eventually exceeded his. One of the best pieces of my juvenile art was a swipe of that sketch in the lower left corner of the photo. I wrote what would now be called fanfic about Spy Smasher. I learned to translate "Death to Spies in America!" in French class. I even - and I'm not kidding - had "Spy Smasher Lives!" engraved on my high school graduation ring instead of my name. (The guy taking the orders in the auditorium thought I was crazy.)

Spy Smasher never got the comeback I thought he deserved. I understand he made some appearances that I missed, and I guess he even actually appeared in the JLU aimated series once, but it looked like he was more-or-less consigned to the dustbin of comics history.

Which was why I got excited when I heard about this:

A new Spy Smasher! She has the same last name as the original, which bodes well for some sort of flashback, at least. I'm not sure I like that she's a government agent (I usually prefer my mystery men and women to be independent vigilantes) but I like the goofy way she's presenting her I.D. She has a great outfit and she looks pretty tough, too.

So, although I couldn't make it today, I guess I will be off to the LCS tomorrow to pick up Birds of Prey #100. Because sometimes I still wish I could find that ring.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Meme time

From Sleestak via Bully.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Who's reading?

Item: The Fortress Keeper writes a very thoughtful post regarding the quality (or more precisely, the lack thereof) of current comics (from DC in particular). He follows it up with another on Marvel offerings, which is slightly more hopeful, but still pretty pessimistic.

Item: I read those posts on the heels of finishing Comic Book Nation, Bradford Wright's solid examination of American comics as cultural artifacts. One element of his broad and deep survey of the history of comic books stays with me, chapter after chapter: just how many comics used to be sold in this country, month in and month out, when they were just disposable entertainment, and how few are sold these days, now that they achieved some "respectability."

Item: I am in my LCS, looking for something to buy. On the "new" rack, a see a leftover Birds of Prey:

I immediately recall the source of this hommage cover; I can picture it quite accurately even before I locate an image on the internet:

I smile a little in my nostalgia, and then I think, as I look at the cover, that the source for this pastiche has got to be almost forty years old. Why would anyone who is not in my demographic care about this? As cool as I may think this is, does it sell any comics to new readers? I flip though the book. It doesn't even sell the comic to me.

Item: I am in a Barnes & Noble, looking at a spinner rack of current comics. A woman comes up with a four- or five-year-old boy, and encourages him to take a new comic. I look at the titles displayed and, knowing a little bit about their content, blanch at the thought of a young child looking at them. The kid selects something based on Sonic, the video game hedgehog; I try to recommend a Krypto to the woman as an additional choice. I leave the spinner rack and head over the the TPBs and graphic novels.

Item: I am back in my LCS and spy Darwin Cooke's Spirit #1. I am sorely tempted, since I liked his one-shot crossover with Batman so much. I put the $2.99 single back on the shelf, and decide to wait for the trade.

I love comics; I can't seem to let them go. I keep reading them, reading about them, writing about them, and using them in my classes. I don't think I'll ever stop reading graphic books.

I also think I'll live to see the end of comics books as I knew them. The seeds of this demise were sown with the rise of the direct market; the paradigm shift from comics as a broad entertainment channel to comics as a fan-priority enterprise followed and further limited the growth of the industry. The perceived need for and almost sole focus on darker or "mature" themes excludes many potential new readers; the increasing "sophistication" of story arcs and crossover events has left in the dust the old axiom (Jim Shooter's?) that every issue is some reader's first. The advent of classier formats and the new alliance with legitimate booksellers scores with the base and introduces prestige work to a new readership, but does nothing to promote the bulk of the production or pull in new entry-level readers. In fact, collections and big volumes draw even some of the converted away from the monthlies, continuing the shrinkage.

I don't believe that comics will go away; I do believe the face of comics will change. Singles will continue to lose ground; I imagine a lot of them will disappear. Perhaps we'll see more of the European model, with original material presented only in hardcovers or paperbacks, even in the genres.

I don't worry about my not having comics to read. But I fear that someday, the kid carrying around a folded eighty-page giant, being exposed to wonder and science and morality and history and adventure and yes, literacy, all while just thinking it was great fun, will be nothing but a quaint image from an almost forgotten past.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Not much

I am in the middle of an end-of-quarter grading jag, so just a few comments to follow my spontaneous joy at the return of Lady Cop.

Agents of Atlas is the most fun comic right now. Even though it spends a lot of time filling in continuity details, it's just a kick. I wonder if (when?) issues one through six will be a TPB - and should I have just waited, or has the monthly schedule added to the fun? I'll buy the collection anyway.

I haven't seen Absolute New Frontier out yet - is it?

Is it just me, or does anyone else think Batman Confidential is going to be as pedestrian as Superman Confidential is sparkling?

It's not superheroes, but it's sure super: is anyone else dialed into Planet Karen over at It is simply the best webcomic on all the internets.

Click the pic for web-comicky goodness!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

This just in!

She's back!

And she hasn't changed a bit!

I read the rumors. I waited for the day. And today, I actually bought The All New Atom #6, featuring the spectacular return to the DCU, after more than thirty years, of Liza Warner, Lady Cop. There she was, on the very first page! It's only a cameo, really, but her wattage is still there.

And, of course, she actually has changed a little bit: She is now Chief of the Ivy Town Police Department, rather than a rookie officer for NYPD, and the position seems to come with slacks instead of a skirt. She still has the blonde hair, but is wearing it a little longer now, and has given up on the home permanents. She still looks quite fetching in her uniform, and she still radiates that same aura of command and competence that she has always displayed.

Oh, and she still sticks her head out of the tops of panels.

If anyone is cop enough to keep the lid on in wacky Ivy Town, it's this judo-throwing, grenade-tossing, head-butting, ice-cream-buying, hat-thrashing, VD-lecturing queen of the beat.

Let me be the first to welcome - Lady Chief!

Friday, December 01, 2006

That's the spirit

For all the reasons this is so wrong

this is so right.

Batman/The Spirit #1

Darwyn Cooke is clearly the master of depicting old-school superheroics. His renditions of Batman and The Spirit, as well as supporting characters such as Commissioners Dolan and Gordon and Classic Babs Gordon, not to mention the villians (too many to name!), are all spot-on, capturing just the right combination of adventure, silliness, menace, and whimsy that makes up a ripping yarn.

Jeph Loeb's script has its shining moments, usually in dialogue and characterization. The plot is workable, but the action, after the stunning opening sequence with Denny Colt, relies perhaps too often on ellipsis: several scenes are set up but never played out, including (presumably) dramatic rescues and action-packed fights. Nonetheless, it was a fun read.

Favorite lines:

Robin (being told to drive): What? But I'm only thir--!

Batman (to The Spirit): Hush.

If the new movie is half as good as this one-shot was, it'll be ten times as good as the poster makes it out to be, and probably worth watching.

Because Ragnell asked for it...

and because Ragnell must be obeyed.