Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ending the year on a high note: Manhunter

A couple of days ago, my sweetie wanted to stop at a place with the unexciting but clear name of Half-Price Books to sell some CDs (which she no longer needs since some nice fellow gave her an iPod for her birthday), I tagged along, and while she went about her business, I dug through the comics. The store has a pretty good collection of graphic books and a not-inconsiderable back issue collection, and it was there that I browsed, shuffling through all of the bins looking for something that would capture my attention. I passed up a NM Dell Turok, Son of Stone for $10; that'll probably turn out to be a mistake, since the price will likely double when the movie comes out. But I did find this wonderful book:

Manhunter: The Special Edition
Archie Goodwin, Walt Simonson, Klaus Janson
DC Comics: 1999

That less-than-wonderful image above is the gold-foil cover, so here's a better shot: a pin-up from the interior:

This was actually the second collection of this 1973-1974 back-up strip from Detective Comics; the first was published in 1979, and this special edition shortly after the death of writer/editor extraordinaire Archie Goodwin, who created the character.

And what a back-up this was! Like the recent Dr. 13 strip that seemed to overshadow anything else about Tales of the Unexpected, this strip commands my memory of 'Tec from back in the day: it was quite simply one of the most imaginative and wonderful strips ever.

Goodwin took a minor character from the forties - Paul Kirk, The Manhunter - and used his backstory as a springboard for a contemporary adventure that blended the spy genre and the ninja motif into a quest saga, and even managed to work The Batman into its climax without losing its own narrative integrity. The story was visualized by Walt Simonson, whose stylistic drawings managed to accommodate more plot and action in eight-page episodes than many artists could fit in a full book. He was particularly adept at filling each page with ten or twelve panels without sacrificing any necessary detail or falling into a grid pattern.

Here's an example of an extended action sequence compressed into one page, as Kirk (in red) takes on some evil clones (in blue) after he discovers the intrigue that surrounds his resurrection almost thirty years after WW2:

Simonson's beautiful artwork is matched by Goodwin's prose, which slides through the registers from hard-boiled to lyrical without missing a beat. This sequence, which describes Kirk's foray against the "legendary blind zen archers of Pendrang," the guardians of a hidden monastery, is perhaps my all-time favorite comics page, and is inarguably an example of comics storytelling at its best:

The Manhunter's search took him though six back-up strips and then found its conclusion in a full-length story that featured the magazine's star, Batman. This version of the Darknight Detective is so much more appealing than the perfect strategist/living encyclopedia that we currently know. Here's Batman checking out an assassin's rifle, found at a crime scene:

That's the kind of scene that speaks to pulpy roots of The Batman. He doesn't need to know everything; he knows people who knows lots of things. He is a detective - asking questions and finding information. Cool.

Manhunter's quest plays out to its formally necessary conclusion; I don't think anyone will be surprised to learn why this character has not appeared in any new adventures in thirty years. Perhaps that closure is one of the reasons the character is remembered so fondly; like celebrities who die young, he wasn't around long enough to be in anything crappy. Or maybe it's something bigger than that: maybe when Goodwin and Simonson created a story with an ending in mind, the storytelling became deeper and more meaningful that that done for a franchise or a open-ended serial. Whatever the case, the seventies Manhunter series is a masterpiece, and discovering this gem allowed me relive the thrills I had when I first encountered it.

You can check out the original comics if you have the spare change, or find the 1979 "Complete Saga" version, but this edition has some nice bonus features, the best of which might be a sort of coda: a follow-up strip completed by Simonson after Goodwin's death, from a story they co-plotted but never had a chance to produce.

Bonus note: I am the proud owner of a DC Direct cold-cast porcelain hand-painted statue of The Manhunter, number 456 in a limited series of 900 made in 2ooo, a gift from a great and good friend who has graced these pages before. It's pretty sweet:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Two years down

Today is the last day of the second year that I have been blogging about comics.

I don't know where the time has gone: there has been so much from The Last Shortbox® that I haven't gotten to yet.

The first twelve issues of the wildly exuberant American Flagg.
The only twelve issues of the nearly incomprehensible Thriller.
The thirteen issues of the spectacularly bitter Haywire.

Keif Llama, Dalgoda, Evangeline.
Somerset Holmes.
The Desert Peach.
Gilgamesh II.

And yet, I have pretty much kept to my once-a-week publishing schedule.

I hit my hit-high over last summer, and viewership has been declining since. In the last few weeks, however, when posting has been especially spotty, the numbers are going back up. I can only conclude people like the blog better when I don't write new things. That sure makes it easy.

Along the way, I have been distracted by a dalliance with buying new comics, a commitment to waiting for the trades, and a habit of spending way too much time reading other people's blogs. (I have no idea how y'all make enough time for the (usually) entertaining posts I keep reading.)

I am seriously considering a PhD program with a focus on comics, if I ever get my teaching situation completely sorted out. If that plan pans out, who knows what will become of this place?

I am also seriously considering re-structuring all of my blogs into a different sort of web presence, so even without any life changes, this site might have (another) new name and a new address.

I guess this blog is of excruciatingly minor importance in the grand scheme of things, but it's worth continuing if it's still fun.

And it's still fun.

And as Captain Fear would say,

'Appy 'Olleedaize and a 'Appy Noo Jear!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bangs, not Bams

I have been seeing stuff talking about Evan Dorkin's new book, Biff Bam Pow. The title rang a bell but the comic didn't look at all familiar (although it does look promising). It only took a second to remember what I was thinking of, and it was the work of moments to find it in the Last Shortbox:

BIFF BANG POW! #1 and #2
1991 & 1992: Paisano Publishing Company
Edited by Ivan Brunetti, with various contributio

I'm sure I picked these up new at Zanadu Comics in Seattle, In the nineties, I wasn't buying much regularly; the grim 'n' gritty, Liefield/Image era held no interest for me at all. This kind of oddball publication would have been the kind of thing that I sought out.

And it was oddball: an anthology title with a few continuing stories, it has an aggressively hip, art school, anti-establishment vibe to it that seems (from the perspective of fifteen years or so) a little contrived and pretentious.

The Fine Art Force, by Brunetti and Thad Doria, was a JLA-esque group of superheroes-based-on-art-styles (Impressionist Girl, Ms. Minimalist, Dr, realistic, Captain Cubist, and so on). It combined traditional spandex antics with art-based puns and in-jokes; it could have been insufferable, but it had a breezy charm that was hard to resist. They had adventures in both issues: "Hello, Dali!" and "Lend Me Your Ear" (and I'll bet you can guess who that one featured).

Brunetti contributed to a lot of the features. Here's his illustration of a slice-of-life story by Joe Schmitt:

And here's some early work by the great Jessica Abel:

Besides arty superheroes and the dread b&w autobiographicals, the series had all kinds of weird stuff. Ben Spide, Arachnid Investigator cast a big round spider in a hardboiled detective role; the Hanson Family Circus modified Keane panels in gruesome ways; Hitler's Sunday Comics gave Calvin's dad, Dagwood, Hi Flagstone, Dennis the Menace and others the dictator's hair, mustache, and evil personality; and It's the Precocious Little Shit was about -- well, you probably get the picture by now.

There were other, less crass features. Thad Doria tried some formalist tricks in a totally graphic story that had not word-balloons, but rather glyph-balloons: Agent C.:

My personal favorite was Lone Wolf and Bob, by Ken Hite, Doria, and Schmitt. Starting from sound-play with the title of the seminal series, the strip gave us the premise (without explanation) of a 16th Century ronin traveling in the cab of a contemporary semi driven by a tough trucker. In their brief career, they meet ninjas, a rival samurai clan, and an alien, coming out on top by a combination a eastern and western ass-kicking tactics. It was full of rollicking action and some surprisingly dry humor. Here's a sample joke, after Bob shotguns some evil samurai to help Lone Wolf out:

Overall, the books haven't aged extremely well: while the writing is sometimes inspired, it is often merely shocking for its own sake and generally undisciplined. The art demonstrated promise and potential, but occasionally careers into crappiness, and little details (like the lettering!) are often amateurish. In point of fact, there probably weren't a whole lot of resources available to Paisano Publishing (which I suspect was just Brunetti) and in that context, the books represent pretty good product. Check them out if you happen to run across any copies.

Note: Issue # 2 contains a house ad for issue #3, but I'm not sure it ever came out. The Great Comics Database Project has no listing at all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Twelve-step review: Samurai: Heaven and Earth

Samurai: Heaven and Earth
by Ron Marz, Luke Ross, Jason Keith, and Dave Lanphear
Dark Horse: 2006

1. Shiro, a samurai in 1704 Japan, loses his beloved Yoshi during the final battle between his master and Chinese warlord. Finding she has been abducted, he follows her trail first to China, and then westward along the Silk Road, eventually finding her in France, at Versailles, in the Court of Louis XIV. Adventures, of course, ensue as he attempts to reunite with her.

2. Yojimbo Meets the Three Musketeers is such an inherently cool high concept that I can forgive the historical inaccuracy of placing the story eighty years after the heyday of Dumas's heroes, one Louis later, and yet still featuring the famous quartet.

3. While the French swordsmen are not named, in dialog and affect they are clearly Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan. It is actually my third-favorite realization of the characters, after Dumas's own and the 1973 Richard Lester film.

4. Ron Marz's script is engaging, merging classic tropes and fresh ideas seamlessly. His dialog varies between old-movie formality (not a bad thing) and real-sounding naturalism a little less smoothly, however.

5. One small sticking point in the story is Shiro's preternatural ability to learn languages, which is never adequately addressed or given background. We just have to accept it, and since the story won't work unless the protagonist can speak French, we sort of just do.

6. A bigger flaw in the plot is the apparent maintenance of Yoshi's virtue throughout her abduction. We know she is not a virgin even at the beginning of the story, so the "keeping her unsullied to maintain her high value" trope is out; without it, it would be hard to imagine her not being sexually abused, given her circumstances, no matter how "disagreeable" she is to her captors. And since the love between Yoshi and Shiro is what drives him to cross Heaven and Earth for her, it's hard to imagine this aspect would not come up, but the book basically asks us to ignore it. And, once again, in the moment, we sort of just do.

7. Luke Ross's art is just gorgeous: his set pieces, landscapes, and establishing shots are are like museum-quality oil paintings, but he's not afraid to get "comicky" and use technique to advance the story. His attention to detail might be responsible for sucking some of the dynamism out of his action sequences at times. Jason Keith's colors are wonderfully rich and textured and complement the graphics nicely.

8. One technique that Ross used involved a two-page sequence combining one large, borderless image that establishes the action with a couple dozen small panels that shows its progress. Oddly, he uses this format twice: once to depict Shiro and Yoshi making love, and once for a bloody battle. I found the juxtaposition jarring, but I don't know if it was deliberate or if I would even have noticed had I read monthly magazines rather than a collection. (Another unintended consequence in the shift away from serial narrative.)

9. Ross also occasionally uses that photshoppy blurring business I have been seeing in comics lately. Maybe I'm just a geezer, but I don't like it much.

10. The collection features several pin-ups, in styles from cartoony to faux-Japanese print. I liked them, but wanted to see more other characters besides Shiro.

11. The other special feature was a sketchbook, which includes some unused cover designs. I found this section particularly instructive.

12. Volume Two of Samurai: Heaven and Earth follows Shiro to North Africa to confront the slave trader who abducted Yoshi (and some other no-goods, I am sure). I'm certainly going to pick it up.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

By definition

One of the trickier intellectual challenges surrounding the study of comics is coming up with a definition of what "comics" is. On the one hand, creating a definition may be an empty enterprise; it could be said that poetry and prose get their share of analysis without anyone needing to pin down a universally accepted definition of either. On the other hand, as more scholarly study of comics is conducted and colleges and universities have to decide which programs will focus on the research and offer the classes and degree programs &c., a definition - particularly one that addresses the literary/artistic divide - might be useful.

Several candidates vie for our attention, Scott McCloud's "sequential art" proposition (after Eisner) and Robert Harvey's "juncture of word and image" articulation among the foremost. An argument is leveled against the first as being too broad (is the Bayeaux Tapestry really comics?) and the second as being too narrow (is there really no such thing as a wordless comic?). In the blogosphere, Eddie Campell has jumped in, and Patrick Lewandowski, each offering definitions that
to my mind are less rigorous and useful than idiosyncratic and interesting.

On the academic front, Greg Hayman and Henry John Pratt offered a comprehensive definition
("x is a comic iff x is a sequence of discrete, juxtaposed pictures that comprise a narrative, either in their own right or when combined with text") in their article "What Are Comics?" (which I haven't read); this definition was deconstructed by Aaron Meskin in his forthcoming article "Defining Comics?", in which he decides that the effort of definition is not worth the trouble.

And of course, there's Neil Cohn's Visual Language Theory, which, since it rises from a psycholinguistic frame rather than an aesthetic, will need a great deal more clinical research to establish its usefulness.

There are others I am not naming; my intent is not a full inventory but just a sketch of the terrain. I also offer no Unified Field Theory of my own; I confess that I am here to muddy the waters further. My impetus comes from perhaps an unusual source: children's literature.

I am not going to revisit the problematic "are children's picture books comics?" question; my question is, I think, deeper and applicable to more creators and creations in the comics world. The question has its origin in a mention to me last Friday by one of our campus librarians of this new acquisition:

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press: 2007

The librarian knows my interest in comics, and thought that I would be intrigued by the book. It tells the story of a resourceful orphan boy, living in a Paris train station, who gets involved in a series of adventures while he reconstructs a clockwork man that is somehow related to the pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies. She told me that the story was part prose, part illustration, and that the illustrations actually advance the story and are essential, not extra, to the overall narrative. She mentioned a dilemma inside Library-land: that everyone loves the book, but no one is sure whether it should be nominated for a Newberry Medal (for literature for children) or for a Caldecott Medal (for picture books). Of course, I was intrigued, checked the book out, and read it this weekend.

First of all, it's a great book; the story is compelling and real and the characters are engaging and complex, no matter how old you are.

It's also a hefty book: over 500 pages. I think it's aimed at the same crowd that reads about that Potter fellow.

But here's the rub: about 300 of those 500 pages are (imho) comics. There are no panels or word balloons in sight; these are wordless comics, to be sure, and each two-page spread is one image. There is, however, the definite control of the narrative through sequenced images, and the actualization of McCloud's "choices" - of moment, frame, and image - is very much in evidence.

The other pages? Straight prose.

How do these work together? Let me illustrate by example:

Page 205 ends this way:

Hugo stopped short and stared at her.
"I don't know anything about you," she said. "You know where I live, you know about my parents. If we're going to be friends, then I think I should know about you. Why won't you tell me?"

Suddenly, Hugo started to run.

"Hugo!" she yelled. "Stop! Wait for me!"

The next text appears on page 222, and begins:

Hugo helped Isabelle to her feet, but he couldn't stop staring at the key. Isabelle noticed and tucked it back in her dress.

Doesn't make much sense. does it? It does if you insert these panels in between:

1: Train station lobby, full of people; Hugo is to the left of the panel, running away from Isabelle, who is right center.
2: Closer image of Isabelle crashing into a hatted man; they both lose their balance.
3. Isabelle, looking scared, falls backwards; a small key on a chain around her neck swings out.

4. A close-up of Hugo's face, looking toward the right, shocked.

5. Near repeat of panel 1; this time, Hugo is running toward Isabelle, who is on the floor.

6. Close-up of Hugo's hand as he offers it to Isabelle.
7. Isabelle reaching up to take Hugo's hand; the key hangs around her neck.

8. Close-up of the key on its chain; it has a distinctive heart shape, and a clever reader may have seen the keyhole already!

Wow! What do we do with this? The whole book is like this: some sequences are presented as wordless comics and some as straight prose. If you just took the text bits, you would have an incoherent story; if you just took the illustrations, the result would be the same. It's not a comic book; it's a book-comic! I have to wonder why Selznick took this path, and what his creative processes were like: how did he choose which instances to illustrate and which to write?

The author is not much help in figuring out the work. On the official website, he says that the book is "
not exactly a novel, and it’s not quite a picture book, and it’s not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things." Maybe it really is a new, hybrid form, but the illustrated sections are definitely comics in even a narrow sense of the term, employing the techniques that we commonly associate with the form.

So, the question: do we shelve it in the literature section or the art section or the graphic book section? Or does it matter?

Non-web resources:

McCloud, Scott.
Making Comics (Harper Collins: 2006)
McCloud, Scott.
Understanding Comics (Harper Collins: 1993)
Varnum, Robert and Christina T. Gibbons, eds.
The Language of Comics (University Press of Mississippi: 2001)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book report

Soon I Will Be Invincible

by Austin Grossman
Pantheon Books: 2007

I have been trying to carve out time to read more "proper books" lately. As a teacher of rhetoric, what I mostly read are student papers, and I have been feeling a need for more finished prose. In between academic articles, I have been reading some popular fiction and literature, and in the middle of that lot was Austin Grossman's superhero novel.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this book. On the one hand, Grossman is a clearly capable writer: he balances plot and character development nicely, and the book moves along briskly. He has a deft hand with description, even detailing the costumes various heroes and villains wear without sounding silly, and he handles shifting points of view well - the book is narrated in alternate chapters by the villain Dr. Impossible and the hero Fatale - giving the book a strong voice in either case. He even narrates in the present tense without getting tiresome.

On the other hand, I'm not sure what this book is. Is it a serious literary novel using the conventions and tropes of superhero fiction? Well, sometimes it seems so, with Dr. Impossible musing at length on the ebb and flow of power and control and the nature of identity, but then it winks at the reader and gets a bit campy and too self-aware. Is it an attempt to write a realistic superhero story? Maybe, but the plot doesn't require all that much less suspension of disbelief than your typical Haneygram, however much naturalistic dialogue is grafted on. Is it just disguised fanfic, better-written and promoted? I don't think so, but sometimes it is tempting to think oh, that's Batman and Wonder Woman making out and if those are the Avengers, then those guys must be the Justice League and so on.

Overall, I got the impression that if the book were read by someone not already steeped in the superhero tradition, it would be too outre to make much of an impression, and if were read by someone familiar with the spandex set, it wouldn't contain enough new insights or treatments to be exceptional or even unusual.

I guess I enjoyed it, but I'm still not sure why.

Bonus review preview, How the heck did I miss this? Department:

I picked up a copy of Samurai: Heaven and Earth Volume 1 today.

A ronin versus the Three Musketeers? All four of them!?

How did this slip by me for over a year?

I've only given it a quick read so far, but I like what I've seen. More soon.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

I read stuff

Wow, this might explain why I am behind on reading student papers: I've picked up a bit of stuff over the past week or so and have actually been reading stuff!

First of all, I finally got my hands on a copy of the Fletcher Hanks collection I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! This thing is even more of a mind-blower than I thought it was going to be. None of the work in it (with the exception of the expository strip by editor Paul Karasik) can be called good in any sense of the word: the plots of these Golden Age stories (from the sci-fi, jungle girl, and tough-guy adventure genres) are fantastic and implausible, the characters are mere stereotypes and collections of cliches, and the art demonstrates an imaginative grasp of human anatomy.

And yet - and yet there is something grand about these stories; something sets them apart from the mediocre and the mundane. It might be the energy of Hanks's art, compelling in its gusto and harshness and in the grandeur and ugliness of the figures; it might be the sheer bravado and scope of his melodrama, defying you to suspend disbelief for the frankly unbelievable and the unaccountably bizarre. Whatever they are, these comics are not ordinary, and do not fail for lack of brio.

I can't honestly say I expect anyone to enjoy reading these, but I am glad I had the chance to.

In a bit more traditional vein (and only a dada convention could be less traditional than Hanks) comes this offering from Steve Rude:

The Moth
Gary Martin & Steve Rude
Dark Horse/Rocket Comics, 2005

This collection presents five issues’ (and some additional material’s) worth of adventures of the Rude-created bounty hunter/sort-of super-hero, The Moth. By all rights, I should love this comic; it’s got so many great elements: a pulp-style mystery man who is actually a circus manager/performer, a sexy bearded lady, a bald strongman in a leopard-skin loincloth, African were-lions, Chinese acrobat jewel thieves, and a pistol-packing, star-spangled aviator named Amercian Liberty who is both a commercial spokesmodel and an FBI operative. Wow.

Unfortunately, Gary Martin’s scripts, while presenting competent plots and conflicts, seem to stop dead for exposition every now and again, totally throwing off the rhythm of the stories so we can hear Who He Is and How He Came To Be. The comic relief seems equally disruptive - the stories either take a break so the hero can get shit on him (literally) or detour to spend some time with the least funny collection of circus clowns that have ever seen print. I know this collection covers the very beginnings of the series and there s a lot of information to get across; I just wish the backstory and character bits had been incorporated a little more smoothly.

Luckily, Steve Rude’s art makes up for any shortcomings of the script. He seems to be channeling the raw power of Kirby, adding some Ditko bounce, and drawing it all like the master draughtsman that he is. His character designs are exquisite, and his action scenes practically jump off the page.

While I can t recommend it unreservedly, this book was a solid read; if you liked Dave Stevens’s Rocketeeer stories, there are probably enough chills and spills in The Moth to make you happy.

There's a phenomenon I have noticed: TV shows that aren't quite the same thing as their more famous inspirations, but rather a more lightweight treatment of same same themes in the same genre. The success of Star Wars begat Battlestar Galactica; Raiders of the Lost Ark gave us Tales of the Gold Monkey, and long ago, The Three Musketeers with Oliver Reed spawned Panache with Rene Auberjunois. Even when the heritage is more direct, the TV show seems a pale imitation: Stargate SG-1 is no Stargate.

In some ways, that also-ran vibe attaches to this comic, yet I like it a lot:

The Perhapanauts: First Blood

Todd Dezago & Craig Rousseau
Dark Horse Comics, 2006

This trade collects the first four adventures of the Bureau of ExtraDimensional Liabilties and Management's Blue Team: the leader Arisa, a telepath/telekinetic; Molly, a ghost; MG, an interdimensional traveler; Bigfoot (yeah, the Bigfoot); and Choopie, a chupacabra. The agents are dispatched to scenes of paranormal trouble (sort like in an X-files MotW episode) and try to protect the fabric of our reality from rips and the creatures who find their way through them.

You might be forgiven if you are reminded of Hellboy and the BPRD. Although haven’t been devoted follower of Earth-Mignola, I sure get the sense that if Hellboy was the big-screen blockbuster, Perhapanauts is the TV series that airs on the sci-fi network on Saturdays at midnight. This is not just a case of post hoc, propter hoc, either; the world of BEDLAM seems derivative, in theme and mood, of the Hellboy universe, and the characters are similar, but a bit sketchy and formulaic, and a little too contrived.

This feeling is made harder to shake by Craig Rousseau's art, which seems very evocative of Mignola in character design and some compositions, but without the use of heavy blacks. And although this similarity is there, there is none of the idiosyncratic style in architecture and artifacts that marks Mignola's work; Rouseau's world has a more generic comic book look. Nonetheless, he does a good job with both fight scenes and the quieter moments, and I can't really fault the art.

Todd Dezago provides some exciting action, dropping us "In Media Res" (the title of the first story) and filling us in on the cast with integrated (if still obvious) exposition that barely slows the plot at all. The menaces that the team faces are clever, and the relationships among the agents are falling nicely into place.

While nothing in the book struck me as genius, or groundbreaking, or breathtaking, I had a great time anyway. The adventures are fun, the good guys are good, and there's no gratuitous violence or T&A. It's solid genre entertainment. If this were a series, I would even stay up late to watch it.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Trailer Reel/PSA/Clip Show

Well, I can quibble all I want about how late is late, and whether this post counts as last week’s or this week’s or next week’s, but the unavoidable fact is I missed a week. I think consistency is an important characteristic of a blog, and even though I set the bar for myself pretty darn low, it is irksome when I don't meet it. (On the other hand, RAB posts only sporadically on Estoreal, and I think he has one of the finest blogs going, so go figure.)

I think part of the problem is an identity issue (not to be confused with an Identity Crisis). I still haven’t decided what I really want to do here. I do know for sure what’s not on the list: I don’t want snark or irony or smug hipness (hip smugness?) to be what this blog is about. I think from the beginning , I wanted to stake out the territory articulated by our dear pal Squirrel Girl here:

At its best, this approach is fun; at its worst, it turns into wallowing in nostalgia and yelling at those kids to get off your lawn. (For some of the best, check out the Keeper in the Fortress of Fortitude.) There’s charm in looking back at old school features like Cap’s Hobby Shop

…and wondering what it says about how the audience for comics and their place in our broader popular culture have changed. (It's also just fun to wonder why they were called “Turkish Towels” and if anyone still calls them that and whether this cunning plan merely delays the dripping until the towels become saturated, but that’s a horse of a different color.)

Sometimes I worry about merely living in the past, however, and I want to talk about new and exciting comics, especially the ones that aren't trying to be The Sopranos in spandex. Things like the American launch of The Ninety-nine

… the Islamic-themed superhero adventure series (which has potential) from Teshkeel Comics. That would be fun to do, but I am so slow on the draw that most people will have already read the comic and several reviews before I get around to posting about it. And my new and evolving policy of waiting for the trades (notice that The 99 preview was free) gets in the way of this plan as well.

I am also interested, particularly in light of my the recent additions to my prose library (and you can add Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman to that list), in exploring the connections between traditional literature and comics. For example, this excerpt from Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

…led me right to these images from the Grand Comic Book Database

..and to the knowledge that first title actually pre-dates Bryson’s comic reading heyday, making me wonder if he actually remembers it from reading back issues or if he inserted it into the narrative after some research.

I guess what it comes down to, in the end, is time. We all only have so much of it, and we have to choose carefully what we spend it on. With my new full-time faculty position, I am still sorting out just how much time I have available to me; on top of that, I would be wise to devote some, if not most, of my comics-related writing energy to scholarly articles, the kind of stuff I might present somewhere like this conference, and I doubt that stuff would make compelling blog reading, at least not in this context. But in another – maybe. And that possibility is there.

So, this has turned into a kind of apology for erratic posting, a self-exploration of motives, a plug for some other blogs, and fair warning that there might be some major changes coming down the pike.

Thank you. We now return you to your regular programming.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Early or late?

Thursday may seen like an early next-weekend entry, but really it's a late last-weekend entry. Social life and work life have combined to keep me pretty well occupied since last time I was here, but I'm not dead.

I finally got a copy of Architecture and Mortality and I must say I enjoyed it immensely. Cliff Chiang's artwork was nothing short of wonderful - he has a dynamism that borders on the cartoony (for want of a better word) yet can handle nuance of expression and dramatic composition as well (and the beautiful people - like Traci 13 and Captain Fear - looked beautiful).

Brain Azzarello's story used cleverness and brio to overcome the tendency of meta-narrative toward turgidity - in other words, it was fun! I loved seeing all these obscure characters - some quite dear to my heart - running through their paces, I got most of the in-jokes (I think), and I enjoyed the slapstick (I almost felt sorry for Dr. 13, but then I remembered that he really was a prick a lot of the time).

A pal suggested that the story might have worked better as initially presented: short back-up features, where the bits of humor could be discovered like jewels, each one a surprise. At first, I agreed with him, but on second and third readings, I felt that with a few small flaws, A&M works very well as unified piece. Of course, the sheer amount of intertextuality in the piece and the immense background knowledge of conventions, tropes, and facts necessary to understand it render all but inaccessible to anyone who isn't a long time comics reader, sort of like some of the short fiction the Baker Street Irregulars put out from time to time or a collection of Dickensian puns.

Anyway, I liked it, and of course I would get the next Team 13 book, if ever there is one.

The same aforementioned pal has lent me his DVD collection of the George Reeves Superman television series, and my Delightful Companion has been encountering them for the first time (as opposed to my nostalgia-wallow every time she puts one on). She really digs them for their period charm, corniness, and comforting predictability. Upon rediscovering them, I realized two things:

George Reeves was a heck of an actor and did a great job in this series. His death was tragic in many ways, and if there is any justice in the multiverse, the Earth-2 George had a long and productive career.


Phyllis Coates was hot! Tough and no-nonsense, she would have made a great Hildy Johnson or Sarah Connor.

As hokey as these episodes can be, catch them if you get a chance; they are worth another look. Get a pal to lend them to you.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Happy returns

There is no insightful commentary or deep analysis or pungent wit this week (not that those are normal anyway, but this time I have a reason) because my Delightful Companion threw me a surprise birthday party (and man, was she sneaky about it). Since this celebrated my attaining the half-century mark, she decided to do it up with dignity and decorum, and the whole thing had a superhero theme!

All the guests came in costume; DC led the way as Force of Nature, inspired by the Layla character in Sky High.

Other guests included Celtic Power Girl, Spawn of Hellboy, Crowella, Social Justice Man, Mighty Pretzel Woman, and the super-team of Electro & Cute (get it?). My friends aren't terribly comics-savvy.

In addition to six huge bottles of Russian lager (and that'll lose a weekend PDQ) my thoughtful guests also gifted me with the following books:

The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios (Gotham Books)

A "scintillating survey of superpowers" that attempts to explain how (and if) super-feats could actually work. Here's a feature and interview from Newsarama.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (Broadway Books)

Bryson is the best and funniest non-fiction writer I know, and while this memoir of growing up in the fifties is only incidentally about comics, I am sure this book is hilarious and engaging. Here's a review from Powell's City of Books.

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden (Harper Collins)

This book is only tangentially related to superheroics, but it's got codes and ciphers, plans to build a treehouse, instructions for making a battery out of coins, the seven wonders of the world, a Navajo code-talkers dictionary, and "Extraordinary Stories" about arctic explorers and such. I'll bet Grant Morrison has a copy. Here's a little HC-sponsored piece on Neatorama.

But the wildest of all gifts was this:

That's right: it's a vegetable peeler designed like a monkey. A shiny orange monkey.

I have no idea what this means. But he reminds me of Cryll or Zook or someone like that, so we'll let it slide.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


I didn't get a chance to get to a comic shop until Saturday this week, and as a result I missed the Dr. Thirteen trade, Architecture and Morality. I went to five different stores - no luck! Drat! I wish I had a Muttley I could blame this on. I guess I'll have to wait for the re-orders.

One of the reasons I didn't get to the shop was attending a reading by Douglas Wolk, the author of Reading Comics, who was appearing at a bookstore here in Seattle. The actual reading part of the evening wasn't so much fun, since I had already read the sections of the book from which he selected excerpts. On the other hand, his Q&A time was quite engaging. There were only a dozen or so people in attendance, but they were all interested and informed. Wolk's approach differs from that of Scott McCloud's in that he appears to be less interested in pure formalism and more about the social constructs around comics; his analysis is clearly that of a critic rather than a scholar, but it is still comprehensive and well-considered.

It was also a fun event for the folks I met there, one of whom was Leonard Rifas. Mr. Rifas was known to me by reputation; he teaches at a local community college and developed one of the first classes in comics (scroll down to HUM 270) in the region. We had never met, so it was good to make contact. I found out that Mr. Rifas was also the editor and publisher (at Educomics) of I Saw It, Barefoot Gen, and Gen of Hiroshima, which comprise Keiji Nkazawa's memoir of the atomic bombing of Japan. These books appeared about the same time as Maus but are overlooked. Gen of Hiroshima was one of the first graphic novels I bought for the library way back when, and Leonard was nice enough to give me a copy of I Saw It. Good stuff, the book and the evening both.

Tom Spurgeon started it as an audience response post, but Steve Flanagan turned it into a meme, so I'm chiming in with my "five good superheroes created since 1950 and not published by DC, Marvel or Image" in no particular order.

1. Captain Confederacy (Shetterly/SteelDragon) Pick any version you want, or even one of the other international heroes that inhabit Will Shetterly's alternate reality: they are all strong concepts and interesting characters. I raved about them some time ago.

2. NoMan (Wood/Tower) Again, just about any of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. agents cold qualify, but the inherent loneliness and alienation of the character, buried deep in the sci-fi-spy trappings that surrounded him, is still fascinating. Wally Wood was doing better even work that he thought he was, I think.

3. Mr. A (Ditko/Witzend) As a pure, unrefined actualization of a creator's vision, it would be hard to top Steve Ditko's Objectivist Avenger. Although far from Ditko's best work artistically or narratively, the small ouvre is both challenging and compelling.

4. S'amm S'mmith, the Martian Manhandler (Friedrich/Charlton) A member of the Bestest League of America appearing in the Blooperman spoof strip, I have to give this guy props just for the best parody name ever and for being an antidote to the current Angry Broccoli Man characterization of the original. (Anybody have a scan of this strip?)

5. Jack Staff (Grist/Dancing Elephant) I think this is my only repeat from anyone else's list (Steve's was one) but that's okay: he only represents everything that should be good about superheroes and superhero comics today. But I've gone on about that before, twice.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Blatant filler

Turn your volume down just a bit - I think there was a little too much gain.

Ragnell's original post.

Reading Comics on Amazon.

Cape Spotting.

Where Stan Lee lived. (Apparently, the NYT has something called Key Magazine now. Who knew?)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Earth D-lightful

It's no secret that I am a big fan of alternate histories, whether in prose or in comics. The what-might-have-beens - of history and fiction - are as compelling to me as the facts or the canon; I guess I like how they illuminate the essential or important elements of the original by showing them in a different light, or maybe I just enjoy seeing a twist on an established concept.

In any case, it was the appeal of alternaty that made me partial to DC's parallel Earths construct and sorry to see it go in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths over twenty years ago. The latest mega-event but one, 52, seems to have brought the multiverse back; I wonder if the imaginative fun of numbered and lettered Earths will also return, or if we will just see a host of different backdrops for the same overwrought and convoluted storytelling.

I had the good fortune the other day to pick up a comic which met my alternate-world jones in a direct and old-school way:

Legends of the DCU:
Crisis on Infinite Earths #1

DC Comics: 1999
Writer: Marv Wolfman;
Penciller: Paul Ryan; Inker: Bob McLeod

Legends was one of those showcase titles that DC puts out from time to time to highlight established characters or house miniseries. In this issue under the nameplate, Wolfman revisited CoIE fourteen years later to reveal an "untold story" of the crisis. It details the destruction of Earth-D, one of the "infinite earths" to fall to the Anti-Monitor (man, that even sounds overwrought in summary, doesn't it?).

Rather than explicate the nearly-non-existent plot (suffice to say heroes from two worlds join together to act heroic and the world ends), I'd like to just focus on the Earth-D versions of the JLA. While this world hasn't been seen yet in any schematic of the "52 worlds" I have encountered, I can always hope, eh? It's apparent that diversity was a deliberate theme of Wolfman's in building this world; the heroes of earth-D are a veritable rainbow coalition, and quite frankly, I think it works as device for inclusion. And while ethnicity is certainly not all it takes to build a character, it's as good a place to start as any other single characteristic, and it would be great if this group was revived, just for the variety and visual verve of the characters.

So here's a list of these forgotten heroes, the Justice Alliance of America. With the scant facts about them we can glean from this story, this is more in the nature of an exploratory essay than a thesis.

Superman and Supergirl

Real name(s): Kal-El (also referred to as Clark) and Kara

Diversity factor: Black

Exclamation: Great Krypton!

Superman and Supergirl are Kryptonians and their position as heroes seems to be the same as on other Earths: the leaders of the pack. Kal and Kara both act as leaders of the JAA and display the same powers and fill the same role of "Big Blue" as elsewhere in the multiverse.
The "real" Superman seems to connect with them deeply.

It is stated explicitly several times in the dialogue that they are a married couple and not cousins. This exposition is almost unnecessary, since they are given to public displays of affection throughout the book.

Superman has a Fortress of Solitude (but in the Antarctic), which made me wonder is Supergirl had one of her own, too, since they are portrayed as equal partners. You might think Kara came to Earth after Kal, as on Earth-1, and he had already established the Fortress before he met her, but Kal at one point says "we came to Earth three years ago," and Kara talks about "one family" being saved when Krypton exploded and how they were married "ten years" prior, so it's clear they came to Earth together, as adults. Hmmm.

I seem to recall an old map of Krypton that showed an island where the black Kryptonians lived; the story was that Krypton had never had slavery, so the majority whites and the minority blacks had kept pretty much separate. I think this was DC's way of explaining why Krypton was all-white. The island was called Vulto or something like that; maybe that's where the House of El lived in this universe.

Batman and Robin

Real names(s): Unknown and Dick (no last name)

Diversity factor: Still white

This Batman has the old-school bat-emblem; it is curious that although the grim-'n'-grittification of Batman has brought him back to this symbol, eight (or twenty-two) years ago it was the stern and angry Batman of Earth-1 who had the yellow oval, and the happier, family-man Batman of Earth-D (he calls Robin “chum”) in the plain bat.

This Batman is indeed a family man: it is not revealed whether he is Bruce Wayne, but Dick is his son, and he has a living wife and two other children as well. No psychotic loner here.

Also no outlaw. Batman tells Lady Quark that the Alliance heroes are “officers of the law, not vigilantes.” He recalls the fifties Batman more than anything.

Robin is full of wisecracks (but no “Holy Flypaper”-type remarks, thank goodness); he’s very much a young Robin Hood.

Wonder Woman

Real name: Di

Diversity factor: Middle-Eastern (At least, she’s colored that grayish-brown that comics seem to use for anyone with origins between the Levant and the Kush.)

Exclamation: Athena’s Wisdom!

Earth-D’s Wonder Woman sports the star-spangled spandex (with a skirt), flies an invisible jet, and has a golden lasso. She exudes that same formality, almost a stiffness, that many writers give the character. At the same time, in one exchange, Atom calls her "Di" and she calls him “Hon” – there’s no other indication of a relationship between them, but that does see awfully casual.

There are no references to Amazons or Amazon Island in the story; it’s hard to tell whether there’s a Middle-East connection in her backstory or if that change was made for it’s own sake.


Real Name: Unknown

Diversity factor: Humanoid with pale skin, scaly ears, and gills

Exclamation: Neptune’s Trident!

Although he’s never called by name and looks very different, this Aquaman has a lot in common with Arthur Curry: he refers to himself as “King of the Sea,” controls fish (dolphins, actually), mentions Atlantis, and refers to his family.

On the other hand, he seems a little more casual and less distant than Aquaman has been presented lately (although admittedly that wasn’t always the case). Even with the gills, he doesn't have any problem breathing air.


Real name: Tanaka Rei

Diversity factor: Japanese

Exclamation: Mercury’s Wings!

We see a lot of Flash on Earth-D, since it is Barry Allen who is our hook into the story, and he connects with Tanaka in a typical comic-book coincidence. Tanaka knows Barry in the same way Barry knew Jay Garrick: he has comic books that feature the Flash of Earth-1 as a fictional character. Oh, the irony!

Tanaka is very much like Barry in that he seems to be a mainstream, middle-American, suburban family man. He even has a brush-top crew-cut like Barry used to. We meet his wife Hoshi and two children who go unnamed; a brother, Hank, is also mentioned. The Earth-D Flash operates in Central City and has a Mirror Master for a foe. His powers are exactly like Barry’s, except he’s never built a Cosmic Treadmill (maybe he missed that issue).


Real name: Unknown

Diversity factor: Black

This Atom seems like a pint-sized Adam Strange more than anything else. He can fly, and although he refers to his “atomic punch,” he carries a kirbytech rifle later in the story. He is never seen without this helmet, but it’s clear that he has a mustache (which is about as unusual in costumed heroes as is racial diversity). We never see him shrink or grow, though.

Green Lantern

Real name: Jose Hernandez

Diversity factor: White Brazilian

The Green Lantern of Sector 5134 in the Earth-D universe has a short and glorious career. He gets his ring from Tagin Sur on page 36 and never makes it to page 49. In those few pages, he projects both power and humility, and is quite engaging.

Like Hal Jordan, he is a fighter pilot, but unlike Hal, he seeks out his injured predecessor (to offer help) instead of being summoned.

Martian Manhunter

Real name: J’onn

Diversity factor: Still green

We don't get much on the Manhunter; in fact, no one calls him anything besides “J’onn,” so it's only a guess that he’s a Martian. He looks a lot like an early draft of the animated MM and less like the current “angry broccoli man” version. All he does is fly and be strong, so it's hard to say how much of an analogue he is other than visually.

Green Arrow

Real name: Unknown

Diversity factor: First Peoples

In both look and attitude, the Earth-D GA seems more like Hawkeye from the Avengers than Oliver Queen. He spouts what Bully has called the “unsettling slang of Mr. Clint Barton” and appears to be the Alliance’s blue-collar guy. His arrows have specialty heads, but we never get to see them do anything more exotic than generically explode.

Hawkman and Hawkgirl

Real names: Kator and Shay (also called Sher)

Diversity factor: Unknown. (Both are colored a pale yellow, different from any other character, so your guess is as good as mine.)

Exclamation: Daxxon’s World!

This is another relationship-switch for a pair of heroes: Katar and Shay are brother and sister, not husband and wife. Withal, they are still most reminiscent of Joe Kubert’s take on the Silver-Age Earth-1 versions, ancient weapons and all. Their costumes emphasize more of an Egyptian motif, and two panels show Hawkgirl’s wings apparently growing from her back, so perhaps there are more differences than that, but we never find out.

JAA Headquarters

The Alliance members meet in an undersea complex instead of a satellite, and I have to tell you, pneumatic tubes are almost as high a cool factor as airships when it comes to alternate worlds.

There they are – ripe for revival and ready for retconning, the Global Guardians with the “obvious” dial turned down just a hair, the Super-Friends played a little straighter -

the Justice Alliance of America.

Formalist note: If you notice something odd about the pictures, check out the word balloons. Throughout the comic, Earth-D characters speak in word balloons that are not quite as wavy as thought balloons, but definitely curvier than the standard oval dialog balloons which the Earth-1 characters use. The sustained effect is a little eerie.

Disclaimer: backgrounds of the clips may have been changed to make the panels a little more pinup-y.