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.