Sunday, September 23, 2007

Thwarted

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.

video

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.



Aquaman

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.



Flash

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).



Atom

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.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

ENO TAERG BPT!

A book and ten reasons to love it:


JLA: Zatanna's Search
DC Comics: 2004
Written by Gardner Fox (with an additional story by Gerry Conway); art by Murphy Anderson, Bob Kane, Joe Giella, Gil Kane, Sid Greene, Carmine Infantino, Mike Sekowsky, Romeo Tanghal, and Vince Colletta

1. While the claim that this saga is the first major crossover event in comics is overstated (even without researching it, I would say that the Spy Smasher/Captain Midnight and Sub-Mariner/Human Torch meetings from the Golden Age qualify), it is clearly of historical importance. This book collects six stories from five different comic titles published over two and a half years, which taken together all form one narrative. Gardner Fox, that stalwart of the Silver Age, wrote all of the stories with his usual puzzle-solution structure; each teams Zatanna, the backwards-talking magician, with various heroes. While each story works as a done-in-one for the individual heroes, each is but one chapter in Zatanna's quest to find her missing father. The denouement comes, of course, in a JLA story featuring all the heroes Zatanna has previously met in her search. Such specific, tight, cross-story continuity was almost unheard of at DC in the mid-sixties. (And now that I think of it, this tale seems to foreshadow the wandering of Steve Engleheart's Mantis/Willow/Lorelei through various strips (and publishers) some years later.)

2. The introduction is by Steven Utley. He hasn't written an earth-shaking intro or anything, but it is nice to hear from a knowledgeable commentator who isn't one of the usual suspects. Besides, any collaborator of Howard Waldrop's is okay with me.

3. The TPB includes extras. Besides the six main stories, there is a cover gallery and a sort-of prequel published in 1980.

4. The stories have narration captions, thought balloons, and editorial notes. I like to see comics that are self-consciously comics; too many contemporary books seem to be movies-in-disguise, and I think creators are often overlooking the textual component of comics in an often misguided attempt to be cinematic.

5. If you are of a certain age (like me) this collection will transport you to a former time and place. You may have read all of these comics upon their original publication (I think I did, even the lame Batman/Outsider story); you may only recall two or three of them and have never known the full narrative. In either case, you will feel once again like you have scraped together a whole quarter for an eighty-page giant, and lose yourself in simple wonder again.

6. The art. Here's Zatanna and Hawkman by Murphy Anderson:




7. The art. Here's Zatanna by Gil Kane and Sid Greene:



(This team did the Green Lantern story, too.)

8. The art. Here's Zatanna by Carmine Infantino:



9. The art. Here's Zatanna and the JLA by my man Big Mike Sekowsky and the ubiquitous Sid Greene:



10. The cover has got go-go checks across the top! How can you resist?!

Lat week, I talked about picking up Superman For All Seasons at the library, and being glad that I could get to read it without having to purchase it. I also borrowed this book on that same visit, but this one I think I will eventually buy for the bookshelf. I had missed this when it was first published, and would likely not have tripped over it except for the library.