Sunday, June 17, 2007

Awesome anniversary edition

Before there were company-wide, universe-spanning crossover-events That Would Change Everything Forever ™, some of the biggest occasions in comics were anniversary issues like the one pictured above. Showcase #100, published by DC in May 1978, was one such special issue. The story included every character every to be featured in the title, including Fireman Farrell from issue #1, before the title became a super-hero tryout book. If I recall correctly, there was some time-and-space-continuum-warping disaster that needed the response of all the heroes, but the ultimate savers-of-the-day were Lois Lane and Angel O’Day (from Angel and the Ape), with a little last-minute assist from the Phantom Stranger.

Well, I can't promise a visit from every character who has ever been featured in this blog, but this marks my 100th post, so I thought I would make it at least super-sized, if not super-special.

Movie review:
Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer

(minor spoilers)

I was one of the few people who actually enjoyed the first FF movie, as demonstrably bad as it was, so I went into the sequel both predisposed to like it and with low expectations. I was neither disappointed or surprised: I liked it, and it wasn’t very good.

It seems like the FF franchise is like the classic C-student in one of my classes. I don't dislike him: he works consistently, shows up most of the time, and turns in assignments regularly. It’s just that his work is always average: uninspired, unimaginative, and unexceptional; he tries hard enough, but just doesn't have what it takes to really shine, at least not in class. Similarly, the FF movies go through the motions, have all the right elements, and project a positive attitude; they just never get past being merely okay and enter the great (or even good) category.

Some pluses in this film: Reed Richards is portrayed as both a genius and a leader; Johnny Storm acts both annoying and admirably; The Silver Surfer is cool in both body and voice; the Fantasticar by Dodge is cute; we get to see Dr. Doom on the silver surfboard; there are decent action sequences.

Some specific minuses: Sue Storm is portrayed not as a smart scientist but as a flighty girl preoccupied with a “perfect wedding” and a “normal marriage”; Ben Grimm wears oversized clothes as the Thing, detracting from his inhuman appearance; the Galactus appearance is a cheat; the crappy technobabble is annoying; there's pedestrian acting all around and uninspired direction; and there's way too much Stan Lee (remember, a little goes a long way).

Overall, I enjoyed in the same way I would enjoy reading an old 80-page giant: mostly in spite of itself.

Graphic Book Review:
Halo and Sprocket, Volume 1: Welcome to Humanity

I mentioned this book in one of my earliest posts, but it has taken me this long to find a copy and read it all the way through. A sincere word of advice to you: don't be the dolt that I was. Run, don't walk, to your LCS, or jump online and order this book right now. It is one of the most charming trade paperbacks you’ll encounter.

Halo and Sprocket are, respectively, an angel and a robot who live with a young woman named Katie. Halo is helping Sprocket learn about people and develop as an individual, but is often distant from humanity himself and needs Katie’s perspective. No back story is given as to how this arrangement came about; it just is.

The circumstances lead to hijinx, of course: wordplay, misunderstandings, and even slapstick punctuate the lessons and inquiries. Kerry Callen builds a world that is both real and whimsical, with characters that are round and rich in situations that are totally plausible while being completely unrealistic.

The book is light-hearted and humorous, but Callen reveals from time to time that there is a real wisdom and search for truth going on in the strip. Here’s Sprocket responding to Katie’s demonstration of the hoary glass-half-full question:

And here’s Halo coming upon the ancient Egypt display at the natural history museum:

I am so going to work this text into my critical thinking lessons.

I wish I had acquired this book a year ago, because I would now be on my twelfth read instead of my second. Go get it right away.

Halo and Sprocket, Volume 1: Welcome to Humanity by Kerry Callen. Published by Amaze Ink (a division of Slave Labor Graphics) in 2002 and 2003. Collects issues #1 through #4 of Halo and Sprocket and includes additional material.

Graphic Book Review:
The Plain Janes

I had high hopes for this book. I was interested in the whole Minx line from DC and wanted it to be good: as I have said before, I think the more viable diversity there is available in comics, the better off the form will be. This particular offering, a high school drama, appealed to me the most, and I went into it wanting to like it. Unfortunately, it let me down.

Cecil Castellucci is an apparently big-name indie-punk author who was brought over from “real books” to write this graphic novel; Jim Rugg provides the art. Unfortunately, Castellucci’s story disappoints, and I don’t think it’s because of the transition from prose to comics. The book seems to work on a formal level; there’s not a lot of experimental or exciting graphic work going on, but it’s good straightforward story telling, like a Ron Howard movie as opposed to a Brian DePalma film. It's just that the story never seems to click together. The characters’ motivations seem unclear or underdeveloped, the plot developments often implausible or off-key, and the narrative arc stumbling and ultimately unsatisfying. There are a number of important themes in the book, but they never cohered for me into any unified message.

That said, I gave the book to my significant other, who is both a female person and an artist, and she loved it. And she isn't a comic reader, so maybe the book did meet its goals with others, and it's just me who doesn't get it.

In any event, I still applaud Minx and I will give another of their titles a try.

The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg. Published by DC Comics in 2007.

A meme

I usually don't respond to this kind of meme, but I was tagged by RAB at Estoreal, and my esteem for him is so high, and my pleasure at being seated at the same table with The Fortress Keeper is so great, that I have succumbed. Here it is:

I have to post these rules before I give you the facts.

Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.

People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.

At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.

Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

1. I don't own a pair of jeans and haven't in more than ten years.

2. I have never broken a bone*, had a stitch, or spent a night in the hospital.

3. It took just shy of 27 years to go from my first day of college to my being awarded a bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, it took me just eleven months to obtain my master’s.

4. I had a hamster named Henry. When I was 42.

5. I once drove from NYC to Chicago with my girlfriend and her friend and her friend’s boyfriend in a Buick Estate Wagon. We dropped him off at the University of Chicago, had some pizza, and drove back home.

6. I was a police offer for almost six years and in all that time I managed to avoid ever having to help carry a dead body. It became sort of a game with me; I would watch the M.E. out of the corner of my eye and make sure that I was otherwise occupied when he would look around for a hand wrangling the corpse into the van.

7. When Frank Gorshin appeared in a commercial for the Batman TV show, another neighborhood kid challenged me to name the character he was playing. I bluffed and called him “Mr. Question Mark” as if I knew what I was talking about. I was wrong, of course; the kid knew it was The Riddler. I had no idea who the character was.

8. When I was in high school and we were applying to colleges, I wrote to the University of Iceland in Reykjavik asking how I could apply to their school. I think we had just been reading the Elder Edda or something. I got back a very nice letter that basically told me to get lost. It made it clear that they only infrequently accepted foreign students, and that I should attend a U.S. college for two years first, and that if eventually accepted I would take only Icelandic History and Icelandic language instruction for the first year, and that all further classes would be taught in Icelandic. I didn't apply. Thirty years later I visited Reykjavik and went to the University. Three-quarters of the books in the bookstore were in English.

*I might have broken a pinky-toe bone once, but that doesn’t really count.

Tagged: Marionette, Ami Anglewings, Irate Canadian Lass, Capt. Infinity, Bully, Katherine, Steve, Skipper Pickle.

Thanks for a great ride through the interweblogosphere. This has been a voyage of discovery for me, and the best thing I have discovered so far is a community of bloggers who care about comics and can speak about them articulately but who at the end of the day don't take all this sturm and drang too, too seriously. After all, to paraphrase a little stuffed bull, "comics blogging should be fun!"

Monday, June 11, 2007

The silver lining in the cloud

After complaining about my emotional fallout from attending the comic con last week, I felt I needed to balance up the scales a bit with a bit of bright news from that day. These covers are pretty darn bright, so they should serve nicely:

Freedom Fighters #8 & 9, DC Comics, 1977: Bob Rozakis, Dick Ayers, Jack Abel
Invaders #14 & 15, Marvel Comics, 1977: Roy Thomas, Frank Robbins, Frank Springer

The first item of note about this purchase says more about me than the comics: I have had these four issues on my want list for some time, but I haven't purchased them yet because this was the first time I could get all four at one go. I have gone into comics shops and visited online stores and could have purchased two or three of the four issues, but I wouldn't do it. Something - a version of OCD? - made me want to wait until I could get all of them at once. And I did - at a good price, too!

Why would I want these four issues at all, much less all in one bundle? Neither series was particularly noted for quality or for momentous developments. Freedom Fighters was DC's showcase for the heroes acquired from the Quality stable: Uncle Sam, Doll Man, Phantom Lady, the Human Bomb, the Ray, and the Black Condor, after finally defeating the Nazis on Earth-X, became yet another group of super-powered crimefighters in the present day. Invaders was Marvel's period piece, a revival of the WW2 team: Captain American & Bucky, Human Torch & Toro, and the Sub-Mariner, with the addition of the female Spitfire, fought the Axis in the nineteen-forties. Neither series wrought any major changes to the comicscape, and most of the stories have probably been retconned away by now anyway.

But what these two two-part sagas have is a feature that is a particular favorite of mine, which was the subject of one of the first posts on this blog: the stealth crossover.

You see, the Freedom Fighters meet some new costumed heroes while on the run after being framed for a crime they did not commit. Their opponents are patriotic hero Americommando and his sidekick Rusty; flying flaming guy Fireball and his sidekick Sparky; and the fish-man tough guy Barracuda. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, in the other publisher's universe, the Invaders come into conflict with a heretofore unknown group of costumed adventurers. Their opponents are patriotic American hero Spirit of '76; little guy DynaMite; the hard-to-see-clearly Ghost Girl; the explosive Thunderfist; the bright and crackling Tommy Lightning; and the flying guy Captain Wings. Hmmmm.

So yes, over the summer of '77, Marvel's and DC's old WW2 groups took turns whaling on each other in a cross-company cross-over mega-event! Who needs JLAvengers?

Needless to say, the comics actually weren't all that hot. The crossover characters were basically one-off gimmicks; I don't think any of them ever returned, much less received the development that Squadron Supreme or the Champions of Angor did. They were inserted into the ongoing stories and came and went without making much of a dent. And while there is some classic Frank Robbins art in these issues (and a Kirby cover), the production values are so crappy they are hardly noteworthy as artistic artifacts. No, the saving grace these comics have is their sense of fun.

Take a look at this sequence from the denouement of the Freedom Fighters story:

That's Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Archie Goodwin getting turned into superheroes by a villain named the Silver Ghost. Yep, comic creators actually having a good time, spoofing each other and each other's creations, and not taking all of this So Damn Seriously. How cool is that?

The comics also provide some nice examples of pre-decompression narrative. Take a look at this sequence, wherein the faux Freedom Fighters literally introduce themselves:

(Scipio would call this introposition, I believe.)

Now, an issue later, Lady Spitfire recounts it all for you, in case you missed last month:

I'm not saying I'd want a steady diet of that kind of dialogue, but it sure makes the comic accessible, doesn't it?

So, mark one purchase of the list and put it in the win column. Now to start looking for the complete Captain Fear...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Comicons make me sad

Over the weekend, I went to a comic book convention. Before you get excited and think you missed something, this was the Seattle ComiCard Convention, which compares to CCI as Yakima Valley Community College compares to Columbia University. It was basically just a dealer room with a three-table artist's alley, and it only lasts seven hours, and it draws about .1% of the attendance at San Diego, but it only cost $3 and a can of food to get in, and all I really wanted to do was look for some back issues, so it was all good.

Well, maybe not all. It had been a long time since I had been around a large group of comics fans, and I hated to see the stereotyping about lack of social skills being borne out. I have been to a lot of conventions, conferences, and trade shows, and there is a certain etiquette that everyone, by and large, abides by to make moving a lot of people in a small space feasible; this social agreement involves being aware of where your body is in space, recognizing that you are not the only person in the room, and so on. This agreement was honored more in the breach than the observance at the con, but that's not what made me sad.

I was also disappointed by the apparent lack of concern on the part of most of the dealers for simple customer service. I could tell they all wanted to make sales, but few of them seemed to be reaching out to the customers in any valuable or productive way; they seemed more concerned with talking and joking with each other. I was looking for some back issues on Unknown Soldier at one booth; the dealer told me he had only brought his DC comics from A to Sh, because that's all that would fit in his truck. "By alphabet" seemed an odd way to choose stock for sale. But dealer behavior was not what made me sad.

It was great to see on display all the old silver and bronze age stuff that I remembered buying back in the day, long gone from my collection: Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. covers, titles like Tales to Astonish featuring two different series, John Severin covers for Sgt. Fury; all the Neal Adams covers for various DC titles, anthology books like Our Army at War and Star-Spangled Battle, The Brave and the Bold books with Jim Aparo covers. I could recall the sense of wonder that I had thirty-five years ago, finding these books and encountering all these new possibilities - in art, in narrative, in characters, in whole universes. Was it Isaac Asimov who said that the golden age is twelve? Looking nostalgically at these comics, I realized that I did not really want to buy them so I could read them again; I wanted to read them for the first time, with wide eyes and an open heart. But it was not the realization that my youth has fled forever that made me sad.

What made me sad at this con was looking around at where superhero comics have gone since they filled me with that wonder. I don't want to give up on the genre; I grew up with it, it helped form me, and I actually enjoy its tropes and conventions. But the industry has not only forsaken the young, it has not developed much for the eager adult, either. Comics today seem to be Soprano-style soap operas in tights: convoluted plots, written for the cognoscenti, routinely involve rape, murder, and dismemberment, feature morally ambiguous if not repugnant protagonists, and frequently span titles in company-wide mega-events that are more flash than substance. All the blood and thunder doesn't seem to be in service of anything: Cymbeline and Titus Andronicus are gory tales, but as well as shocking and entertaining the audience, they say something bigger than "violence is cool." I don't know if that can be said of Identity Crisis. And let's not even get started on the juvenile objectification of women that is so prevalent in the genre.

I know that there are some great comics and graphic books out there, and I have written about some here. Pride of Baghdad. Jar of Fools. Castle Waiting. I love and appreciate the work creators are doing in all sorts of genres. But what has happened to the cape and cowl set? If you like the current preoccupation with sex and violence, you're all set; if not, what? Where am I to turn, not just for a superhero comic suitable for my niece or nephew, but one that is suitable for me? Where are the idealistic action tales, full of the wonder and the glory of science and adventure and exploration and justice, for the kids? Where are the more complex treatments of superheros, the noir-themed adventures, the picaresque romances, the allegories, the comedies, for the adults? Are superheros mutually exclusive to both innocence and sophistication?

I don't want warmed-over memories or ultimately vain attempts to recreate the books of my youth; I want robust, intricate stories, set firmly in the genre, that engage my imagination, intellect, and emotions. Is that too much to ask?

Because it would make me really sad if it were.