Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Fox, The Beetle, and The Gray.

Archie has announced a new series based on one of their original superheroes, the Fox. Here's the first paragraph of their press release:Eisner Award winning writer Mark Waid (Daredevil, Thrillbent) and Emmy winning writer/artist Dean Haspiel (Billy Dogma, HBO’s Bored To Death) are teaming up to launch a brand new series – THE FOX. Taking place in the Red Circle universe, this exciting creative team will deliver an innovative, action-packed superhero story starring the fabled pulp hero.

AAAAARGHH!!. NOT A PULP HERO! It seems fashionable these days to call every character that comes down the pike who debuted in the 1930s and 40s, "pulp". Green Hornet: radio, movie serial and comics, not pulp. Captain Midnight: radio, comics, big little books, movie serial but not pulp. Miss Fury: comic strips and comic book reprints, not a pulp. The Fox: comic books only (and even then a back-up player in anthology books in the 1940s).

What's annoying is one of Archie's heroes did make it into the pulps, but that was the Black Hood. One of the few to start in comics and branch out into pulps and not the other way around.

Is it a big deal? Well, imagine if they said that Mark Waid was the Emmy winning writer and Haspiel was the Eisner award winner. They're both award winning writers so it doesn't matter if you got the specifics wrong, right? If you are going to talk about the history and pedigree of the character, at least get the terms right! It's funny in that they even say he's a "fabled pulp hero" as if these non-existent pulp adventures are well known! Just further drawing attention to the ignorance of the writer. 

Can you imagine any other industry not knowing their own history, apparently superhero writers, editors, publishers and fans not knowing or caring about the distinction between comic strips, comic books and pulp magazines? Would you say Peyton Manning is known as a professional Rugby or Soccer player? Would you read a newspaper or watch the news that regularly called North Korea South Vietnam or take seriously a sportscaster who didn't know the difference between referees and umpires, said that the players, cheerleaders and band members wore costumes but the mascots wore uniforms and that a "match" of football was divided by "innings"? Or a retrospective on Andy Griffith talking about his home-state of Alabama which also served as location for the fictional town of Mayberry, the movie drama where he played a police commissioner? This is not the first time. It's a recurring problem with articles, CBR, the companies and the writers, all using the term with a fairly specific meaning incorrectly. It shows a ignorance of their own history and industry terms. I expect a press release to KNOW what they are talking about and since they are advertising the character and trying to talk about his history to actually get it right.
Black Beetle: No Way Out #3. Franchesco Francavilla's Black Beetle mini-series appears to be a success. Francavilla has been making a name for himself with his covers and artwork, reminding me of old-style movie posters from the 1960s and 70s but his subject matter incorporating all kinds of kitsch and love of campy horror and science-fiction television, movies and pulps. Much as Mike Mignola has done with Hellboy and his interest in giant monsters and the late Dave Stevens did with the Rocketeer, Francavilla has channeled his interests into his own character and series, the Black Beetle. The Black Beetle has his roots in pulps and pulp-styled characters, and while there's a hint of mysticism and darker going ons in the "Zero" issue, this mini is more crime oriented, with him investigating who would put the hit on several mobsters as well as having a colorful, larger than life villain lurking in the shadows. The artwork and limited color palettes that Frankavilla loves so much makes it seem both rich but full of shadows and atmosphere.

If there's a weakness, it's in that we don't really get a sense of who or why the Beetle does what he does. In this issue, he's seen without a mask though his face stays partially obscured by shadow most of the time and even then we discover, it's a mask. Now, there are several pulp heroes who we know little or next to nothing about, but in those cases it's also clear that it's a deliberate part of the character's mystique. Also, unlike the Black Beetle, those characters are surrounded by other people who we do get to know a bit about. In writing The Shadow, Maxwell Grant dubbed "proxy heroes" as a term for heroes that could investigate and drive the story while keeping the Shadow mysterious and in the background.  The Black Beetle doesn't have proxy heroes though, nor normal people such as agents, aides, or friends that he can interact with, to give us more of an idea of what kind of man he really is.

I also didn't care for the big fight scene this issue as it goes meta-fictional on us, appearing as if shot from a comic book that wasn't properly lined up so everything at an angle and panels running off the page and the proper order of reading the panels obfuscated by the bizarre layout. It takes the reader out of the world and the immediacy of the action. Interestingly, it shares this with the other pulp-like title that came out this week.

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray #2. The second issue is a rocking roller-coaster ride from start to finish. Fabian and friend are captured by some odd natives and taken to be sacrificed to giant spiders at the supposed abandoned temple. They make friends with a martial artist who carries a charm that has some kind of link to Fabian's powers. And, we see where the powers can be truly dangerous, especially when one of the ghosts you call up is blood-crazed vampire.

The first several pages is an example of decompressed story-telling where it works. No words, but we see who the woman in the coma is and what she means to Fabian. It uses cinematic storytelling and widescreen panels to good effect. However, it also fails in that it goes just a little too far in being clever for clever's sake and not simply for good storytelling purposes. Because, the method is that each panel on the page is from a different point of Fabian's past. The top panel of each page tells one narrative, the second from each another and so on. However, it's more than two pages and starts on page 1. It's only when you turn the page that you see what they are doing. And, then to properly follow the sequence of events, you have to turn the pages back and forth for each narrative. This would work fine on a two page spread where you can read straight across the spread, but doesn't really work for more than two pages as it makes the reader aware of the mechanics of following the story.

Likewise, the sequence really was needed to have been in the first issue as it explains a lot of the motivations and relationships of the characters especially in terms of this specific story. Probably will read fine when read in one sitting or in the eventual trade.

Masks: It appears as if Masks is throwing the other conceit or premise the mini-series was based on out the window. The first being that this is a team-up of various pulp characters. Several are not only not pulp, but others are given new origins and back-story for the purpose of the mini, so it's not the characters at all but thin copies. The other premise was that this is supposed to be a retelling of sorts of a specific Spider novel. Thus, you expect some fidelity to that source material. However, the latest issue that I've received seems to be setting up the Clock as the main bad-guy. Now, I've not read the original Spider novel this storyline is from, but I'm reasonably sure that the Centaur/Quality hero was not behind it all. Not to mention the cliche of having it being a former hero going bad or trying to justify extreme actions through "ends justifies the means" excuse. Again, the premise works when the creators byword is "fidelity". As the series is winding down, can only wonder, what's the point of it?
 One of my favorite revivals was in the 1980s when Archie published The Mighty Crusaders. Of the many times that companies have dusted off old properties and characters, this is one of the few times that I thought a company did it right. At least in the beginning. At the time, I had no awareness of the original comics of these characters or the history of them other than what the press releases told us that these guys had been around for awhile.

See, it didn't matter that the last time most of these characters had been seen were almost two decades before. The series played it as if it was just two months ago.  The series didn't act like they had been retired or away for any extended period of time. A nod to the 1940s history of the original Shield, but no one asking where the others had been since they last appeared. The first few issues worked great at reintroducing these old characters, allowing them to have their history without bogging a new reader like myself with continuity knowledge. The fact that each of the heroes could have their whole origins explained in about six panels in the back is a testament to the power of a good concept and compressed storytelling.

Recognizing they were a little light in diversity, instead of changing the gender or race of established characters, they created a couple of all new ones! Won't say that Darkling and Malcolm Reeves were necessarily stellar creations, but they could be accepted on their own merits without sacrificing the standing of any other characters.

Every revival of the team since then has been "let's not do that". Admittedly, that revival didn't last long, but I chalk that up to the quick downturn in quality. Dull writing, lackluster villains, even the printing became cheaper. Somewhere, they forgot that Steel Sterling should be the equivalent of Superman and became just a body-builder hero with teen hanger ons and social interest storylines that felt almost like recycled plots from afternoon specials. I think if they kept up with the richness of the superhero-verse they started with: giant robots, space aliens, beings from other dimensions, magic and science-fiction, dangerous supervillains, etc. Heroes being heroic fighting villains being bad, it might've been something really good.

So, not much interest in Archie's current take. Most of the heroes are back long enough to be shown to have gotten old and then getting killed. The focus is on a diverse cast of teens taking on the predecessors' names. Right off the bat, it's more like the other attempts with these characters in that it's about people with the same names. And, despite all the death and teen angst, the artistic style is cartoony as if that's all it takes to make it "fun".

Remember when DC wanted to youthen the JSA a bit so they brought in a grown up Robin, a time-tossed Star Spangled Kid and CREATED Huntress and Powergirl. Later, Thomas would create Infiniti Inc., new characters that didn't automatically overwrite the old ones

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