Thursday, December 27, 2007

Flip Falcon returns from the 4th Dimension

Talk about a little serendipity. I was reading some Golden Age tales, getting a few more villains for my home website. In the bunch were a couple of Flip Falcon stories. Flip is your standard non-costumed adventurer that was prevalent back in the day. His home was in FANTASTIC COMICS from Fox. His hook was he had a dimension machince that allowed him to travel into the 4th Dimension. More than just the dimension of Time, the 4th Dimension was home of all sorts of otherworldly and supernatural beings.

So, when I head over to Comic Book Resources, they reveal that as part of the first comic from The Next Issue Project from Erik Larsen and Image Comics will be Flip Falcon himself! Handling the writing is Joe Casey and art by Bill Sienkiewicz. Bill S. is thankfully using a bit more of a straight forward style though unmistakenly still his scratchy bizarre self (not one of my favorites, but that's alright).

One of the things I like about this project is that while some of the creators like Allred seem to be creating almost pastiches, Casey and Sienkiewicz are handling it as if the most recent issue with this character was last month, not over a half century ago. It looks to be a pretty straightforward modern take on this character. It's just a shame the colorist didn't follow that lead, and instead we have the artwork printed deliberately out of register. Which kinda gives the whole thing a late 70's - early 80's type of vibe.

Can't wait.

Meanwhile.... Read THE TWELVE #0, a reprinting of several of Timely's more obscure heroes that wil be featured in the upcoming mini-series by that name. It also reprinted several of the promotional pieces that had been circulating the web and found on the artist Chris Weston's blog as well as the opening pages to the mini. Have to say that color adds a lot of much needed vitality to the previously seen stark b/w art.

However, in those opening pages, the Phantom Reporter serving as narrator refers to himself as being seen as a "tourist" next to the super-powered and brightly costumed crowd as he and Mr. E only wear suits plus a mask and capes as costumes and with the Laughing Mask and the Witness, have no superpowers but rely on the use of guns, wits and fists. Which is fine as a bit of character narration, it tells us a little about the character.

Only it's not just narration. From an interview, we know this is actually Straczynski's own point of view: In selecting his roster, Straczynski asked Marvel for a laundry list of unused characters that hadn't been seen or heard from in more than half a century, and simply picked his favorites. "[Editor] Tom Brevoort, knower of all things Marvel, gave me a list of, I think, 20 or 25 characters," Straczynski explained. "I went through them carefully, researching each one individually, looking for characteristics that might make for good combinations and good conflict."

"I eventually opted for splitting them into three groups: the typical super-hero/scientifically created hero like Captain Wonder, Dynamic Man and Electro; those with a touch of the supernatural such as Black Widow and Master Mind Excello' and those I classified as 'tourists,' heroes with no powers, just a cool costume and a .45 caliber such as The Phantom Reporter and Laughing Mask."

"This gave me a really good cross-section of the kind of heroes you had back then."

See, the term is that of JMS' own classifying the type of heroes he was researching. While it shows up in story, such as the Phantom Reporter looking down at himself in a self-deprecating manner, it still stems from what seems to be JMS' shallow understanding of the characters and their historical context. And sadly, that point of view is then being reinforced by his projecting it into the words of the characters so it makes it into story continuity.

He uses the term`tourists' because frankly he's a tourist in regards to the history of superhero comics. Like Knowles' analysis of Superman & Action Comics #1, he's not looking at the real context & evolution of the genre. To a tourist, especially one whose appreciation of the genre really extends to the Silver Age if that far, superheroes are about powers & tights. To the mindset of a tourist, the superhero genesis must go no further back than superman, a footnote. Thus, the likes of the Phantom Reporter, Witness, and the Laughing Mask are considered second rate character types even alongside the likes of equally obscure Rockman & Fiery Mask. In reality, they come from an older and richer pedigree, the pulp heroes. The
Phantom Reporter's heritage is even richer with his name putting him in that subset of Phantoms running about, which also included Timely's Phantom Bullet. Instead of downgrading the character, it should be recognized that the Phantom Reporter is a bit more purer to the time and the heritage. What should be celebrated and the character should be likened to are the likes of the Shadow, the Spider, the Green Hornet, the Phantom, and the Phantom Detective. If anything, the likes of the super powered Joes should be the tourists, heroes more because of the posession of power than desire and drive to see the innocent protected and justice to be done.

Also released over the web, the cover to issue #3, an "homage" to two Doc Savage covers, specifically the Bantam reprints of THE MAN OF BRONZE and THE MYSTIC MULLAH. Questions raised got me thinking about the differences between parody, homage and swipe and the legality of it all. We see swipes and homage covers, so often, we don't really give a second thought to legal issues behind them.

Copyright and trademark law do allow fair use in terms of Parodies and Satires. So, parodies are actually protected. Swipes are not. Homages are a bit trickier, and I'd say they are NOT protected legally. So, it's fine for Marvel to do homages to infinity of FF#1 and they might turn a blind eye towards DC doing so, but it wasn't that long ago that Guice using an Amy Grant cover for Doctor Strange that got Marvel into some legal trouble (though one could argue that would fall under a parody/satire of taking an album cover from popular crossover Christian singer and putting it on a comic book with vampires and sorcerors). However, a parody or satire means poking fun at the original AND that the audience would recognize it as such, it is making a comment on the source material. I'd be hard pressed to make that case here. A swipe is usually done in the hopes that others won't recognize the original source, putting a vaneer of your own style over someone else's work. An homage is in between the two. It's usually up front about the source (so not a swipe), but it's using that source to make a statement about the current work and not the other way around as in the case of satire and parody. In other words, here we are using Doc Savage's trademarked and copyrighted paperback covers to build up and legitimize the Fiery Mask. That's a very good argument for a lawyer to take to court as trademark infringement (and it's being used as promotion and advertising material, more ammo for trademark lawyers, it's EXACTLY the sort of thing copyright and trademark laws are in place to prevent). And when you consider that Marvel couldn't even get permission to reprint the MARVEL-TWO-IN-ONE that their comic book version Doc Savage appeared in, ouch.

Now, what would have been funny is if in this cover, the pic of Doc was based on their version with the bare chest, short vest and white pants... And that indeed would have been considered a parody and satire, a backhanded comment on them not being able to reprint that take on the character.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The End of the Golden-Age?

Comics fans like to break things down into their component parts. Especially in this day and age of continuity obsession. It's not enough to tell stories that are more or less free of continuity errors, stories must be continuity driven. DC is cannabalistic in its continuity obsessions as each of their mega stories destroy much of the history behind them while replacing characters right and left with "legacy" characters no matter how obscure.

One of the early products of the fandom, especially in regards to superheroes was the creation of the Comics Ages. Taking its cues originating with Hesiod's "Work and Days", the beginning of comics with Superman was termed the Golden-Age and the then present time of the 1960's as the Silver Age (Hesiod, referred to his own Age as the Iron, one of toil and hardships). Of course, as comics history became a bit more mainstream and better known, a "new" age was created to pre-date the Golden, to refer to the pre-Superman comics which were mostly reprints of newspaper strips as well as a few new non-superhero characters as "Platinum".

Interestingly, while the beginnings of the Comics Ages are usually agreed upon, the endings are not. Partly because one can point to a watershed moment, such as the publication of Superman (1938) and The Flash II (1956) as when things took off for the superheroes. But, when did the Golden Age end? Like the dinosaurs, it's probably not really one significant life altering event, but the culmination of small ones and a slow decline that seems sudden and stark in retrospect.

Just like the dinosaurs, superheroes didn't ALL die out much less at one time. It's just that by 1951/52, they were mostly all gone and many of the companies also leaving the field. But DC continued on and continued publishing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a few others. And a few companies tried introducing new ones but not finding foothold. And, DC being the major company of the time got to be credited to starting the Silver Age with the creation of the new Flash. Although, the character really doesn't seem to be that much more popular than the others that preceeded him at other companies. He debuted in Showcase in 1956, had another appearance in 57, 2 in 58. The next superhero after him was Green Lantern in 1959, 3 years to the month after the Flash's debut, the same year the Flash finally got his own series. Interspersed in those issues of the Flash were sci-fi adventurers like Challengers of the Unknown, Adam Strange, and Space Ranger. Not quite the explosion you would expect. At least Green Lantern would have 3 successive appearances in SHOWCASE before graduating to his own series in 1960. Showcase still doesn't leap onto debuting more superheroes though as it shows off characters like more Rip Hunter and Time Masters and the Sea Devils over the next year before bringing in Aquaman who was currently being published in ADVENTURE. In late 1961, two years to the month after Green Lantern and 5 from the Flash, the new Atom debuts.

If you look to the years preceding the Flash, you will see all sorts of superheroes and pseudo superheroes being created at about the same pace if not moreso. I think it's safe to say DC gets the credit just because they were able to last. I don't see many signs in their published material that they had a lot of confidence in the superheroes to take off. It's not until Marvel gets into the game that you can really say you have the beginning of a new Age.

But, DC really confuses the issues of the delineation of the ages. All the other companies went bust, and Marvel at least stopped publishing straightforward superheroes for some time and changed their company name. DC continually published at least some superheroes. And then "Flash of Two Worlds" came about which put most of their Golden Age heroes on a separate Earth, Earth 2. It became a bit of a fun debate and speculating what was the last adventure of the Earth-2 Superman, Batman, et al and the first solely Earth 1. Unfortunately, the terminology of Earth 1 and 2 became synonymous with Golden Age and Silver age, leading fans to consider the Earth 2 heroes the "original" heroes. Thus there was a big uproar when DC killed off the Earth 2 Superman in one of their mega crossovers a little bit back. How dare they kill off the original Superman? Don't recall as big an uproar when they killed off the Earth 2 Batman, Robin, and Green Arrow. But that was pre-internet fandom.

See, Earths 1 & 2 are not historical delineations, they are continuity retcons. There was NO Earth-2 much less an Earth-2 Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al until the publication of "The Flash of Two Worlds". Until then, all stories featuring Superman were of the same Superman as much as he has always been, just as today's Phantom, Mandrake, and Dick Tracy are historically the same characters that first appeared in the '30s. Because of the "Eternal Now" conceit, one has more or less willingly ignore that in 1955, Robin is still a teenager, that they had WWII era adventures and so on. As such, the Earth-2 Superman is not the "original" Superman, he's a retcon character who incorporates little forgotten aspects and retconned out trivia that was no longer "true" of Superman no matter what cut-off date you choose, his backstory was constantly having small retroactive changes (such as the source of his powers). And those little forgotten pieces are now cemented as being non-canonical of the Earth 1 Superman. Even then, we only had the concept of an Earth 2 Superman, he wouldn't appear for some time. DC could have just as easily decided there wasn't an Earth 2 variation of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, that they were so iconic, they were unique to Earth 1. The transition from one to the other is a fan exercise, but it doesn't really have historical significance beyond the mostly dead continuity of the DCU Multiverse.

When talking the Ages though, one needs to look at the actual historical record, the context of the comics, the growth and abandonment of themes both in-story and in culture in regards to the comics. Dates to look at:

1949: Doc Savage and the Shadow cease pulp publication. Captain Zero is the last of any new pulp super hero titles created and lasts only a handful of issues. Read one and you'll see a character that would fit in very well with the style of heroes created by Stan Lee in the '60s.

1950: Marvel Boy... the last new Golden Age hero from the company that would be Marvel? Or the first of the proto Silver-Age heroes?

1951: The JSA closes it's doors and All-Star Comics becomes All-Star Western, a clear reflection in the changing trends and movement beyond Superheroes. 3 Months later we get Captain Comet

1952/53: Fawcett loses on appeal the lawsuit from DC Comics and closes shop.

1953: Captain America, Human Torch, and Namor are brought back only with then more modern sensibilities, the atomic bomb and Red Menace now fueling the stories.

1953: The Phantom Detective, the last of the pulp superheroes, retires from the pulps.

1954: The Shadow retires from Radio

The Black Cobra (1954), Captain Flash (1954), The Avenger (1955) The Martian Manhunter (1955) are all created, owing more to modern and future Silver-age times than the sensibilities of the Depression and WWII golden-age.

1955: Better drops out of pulps.

1956: Standard/Nedor/ Better closes. Pines Comics, a spin-off company continues for a couple of years, no straight superhero titles.

1956: Showcase #4, Barry Allen Flash

1959: Showcase debut of Green Lantern

1961: Fantastic Four #1: Debut in their own title.

My own take, from Captain Comet on, all "new" continuing titles and characters are post-Golden- Age. After Fawcett shuts down and sells off the next year, no title is really a golden-age title. We're in a bit of no-man's land. Call it the "Atomic Age" or what have you. Superheroes are around, but they aren't the dominant species any more. By the mid fifties, almost all of the chief influences on the Golden-age of superheroes are gone: the Depression, WWII and the pulps, replaced by Communism, atomic bombs, rockets, television, EC comics, Frederik Wertham, cowboys and interest in space. But it's really 1961, with the publication of Fantastic Four #1, that it all gels into something starkly new and the superheroes are made relevant once more.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Secret Secret Origin of Superman?

We got letters! If you wish to read them in full, just scroll down to the past blogs, specifically the Stardust and Green Lama focused ones. However, I do want to call attention to them and a couple of links they provided. Paul Karasik reminds me that the name of his Fletcher Hanks book is “I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!” and is currently on its third printing! Way to go Paul! Also, there’s a link provided to a Fantomah story not found in the book if you cannot just get enough of Hanks’ oddball style to:

Writer/artist of the Green Lama mini coming from AC Comics has a preview of the first issue up at his site (there are a few more pages in the printed book, he promises). So, if you a bit more of a sample than the cover image:

The Secret Secret Origin of Superman

In talking about his upcoming book “Our Gods Wear Spandex”, Chris Knowles compares Joe Shuster’s iconic cover of Action Comics #1 to the renaissance painting “Heracles and the Hydra” by Antonio Pollauoio. By comparing angles and such he scores a few hits in making an objective and informed argument, even if to do so, he must in one instance have Superman be the same size as the Heracles figure and in another, change the size of the figure so as the Hydra and car line up properly.

But, where he falls is when he tries to take the arguments further and what he actually ignores. A problem I had in my younger days with English teachers and criticisms. They become so concerned with intellectualizing a story, with dissecting and codifying it into themes, metaphors, and symbolisms that would put Dan Brown to shame, they forget the actual story and confuse it all with actual intent and fact. Many times, the symbols and themes that one sees in a story inform us more about the readers than the authors, it’s what they bring to the book not necessarily what’s really there or intended. Ask Roy Thomas about the sexuality of Union Jack and Dynamite in THE INVADERS sometime, something many readers and some creators thought was very obvious. Until someone actually thought to ask Thomas what he intended.

Despite his objective hits, in his subjective arguments Chris Knowles shows many holes in his reasoning. First, we’ll look at the painting. 1) While Kane is known for using swipes, Joe Shuster used models and tons of assistants. But no one before has really shown a link to any swipes. 2) While swipes was indeed a common practice, most of these artists were pulp and comic strip fans and indeed aspired to working for them and as such, swipes tended to be from those and other illustrator sources. Not museum pieces. (And for a painting that he claims is famous, as someone who read a lot of mythology and was an art major for 3 years in college, I cannot say if I ever saw this painting before). 3) I’ve never seen in the history of swipes or homages or what you want to call it, where the energy and direction of the two pieces would be so dissimilar resulting in a completely different effect.

The last part is where I really have trouble with it. He argues that the anatomy of the Shuster figure seems off, yet I don’t see any inconsistencies in it especially compared to his other drawings. What it does show is a very different style and approach to drawing, more akin to the pulp and comic strip illustrations. Whereas the painting Heracles does look stiff and awkward and suggests impending action. He’s rearing back, preparing to strike, all the energy and the viewer’s attention is being pulled into the Heracles figure. Shuster’s cover instead is action personified, a violent explosion emanating from the Superman figure as he is shoving the car forward while in full run, the dashing against the rock with parts flying and people fleeing outward. The two works are almost complete polar opposites in the way they actually read which is not something one aims for when choosing to actually reference an earlier work. You use the reference to gain a similar effect, to help get it right. Not to do it differently (unless you are purposely parodying or critiquing the reference).

In looking at pulp covers, I came across a cover from 1935 that is very simlar to the running pose of of Superman on that cover. In fact, other than the position of the arm, I think it has more in common with the Superman figure than the Heracles does. For one thing, much of the energy, the suggestion of forward movement is the same. And, then there’s this 1936 issue of MORE FUN COMICS, a title Siegel and Shuster were doing Doctor Occult. Look closely, and you’ll see the same triangle frame-work that ACTION COMICS #1 and the Heracles painting share though reversed. But, noting the similarity and actually arguing the intent are two different things.

As Knowles goes on, it becomes obvious that he’s over-intellectualizing in his approach to Superman and other early comics. He sees similarities and relationships without taking into account contexts, without actually looking at the creators or the time period they and their works exist in. From his interviews:

This all started with a nagging question: Why would Superman wear a cape? It would be a liability in a battle; it could blow in your face and block your vision at the worst damn times. And what about the Spandex? Superheroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage were around before Superman and most of them didn’t run around in skintight clothing, right? Well, perhaps it’s because the guy who created Superman had his sights set on an earlier role model.

… Well, I got to thinking that it reminded me of Hercules and his lion skin, which was always flapping around in the breeze. Of course, I thought this until I saw "Heracles and the Nemean Lion" by the Renaissance relief sculptor Antico, which pictures Hercules almost exactly as Superman is today: short, wavy hair, long, flowing cape and naked, muscular body. Well, OK, add the Spandex and the underpants and it’s Superman.

Except for a few other nagging details. Because, instead of looking to the sources, to the accounts by Siegel & Shuster, to the context of the times and the types of works that they and other creators stated as serving as inspirations for the characters, he runs with what the character reminds him of. Right away, he's judging the work through his own eyes and perceptions instead of actually being objective.

If you look at Siegel and Shuster’s own accounts and such, we know they read pulps. In fact, the pulp that inspired both of them, the one that contained the first Buck Rogers story, but whose cover of a flying man (not Buck) seemed to be a watershed moment for many early science fiction fans and wannabe writers, I’ll be danged if it doesn’t look too different from a superhero type costume. Tights were already being worn by the Phantom in the comic strip pages. An early drawing of Doctor Occult in superhero costume shows him in cape, tight shorts and boots, looking very much like covers and the St. John drawings of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. And you have Tarzan himself flexing his muscles fighting lions and such. There were covers of Doc Savage where he wore just shorts, looking very much like a superhero. Keep in mind that Carter’s abilities and all were Superman in reverse, an Earthman on a warlike planet with lesser gravity giving him vast powers and able to bring about justice through that greater strength. Circus performers, weight lifters and other professional strongmen ( and had been sporting similar outfits for years whereas Lee Falk credited portrayals of Robin Hood in tights inspired the costume of the Phantom. Either way, there’s plenty of direct popular sources for adopting such a look that don’t require a trip to the library or museum. The precedent is in place without them re-inventing the wheel. And Knowles doesn't provide a logical reason as to why his Heracles theory should carry more weight.

No one is arguing that Hercules, Samson, Gilgamesh and Beowulf aren’t the grand-daddies of them all. But, Knowles wants us to believe that they are the direct sources, the direct links. Because it makes the comics sound more intellectual and cleverer than they in reality were, drawing inspirations not from classical literature but the pop culture of the time. It sounds better that they are using renaissance paintings and classical sources for their inspiration instead of some decades old pop culture source a couple of times removed that the general public will never have heard of.

Just as he also suggests that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seemed to be into the occult and that Lex Luthor bears a strong resemblance to Aleister Crowley. Forgetting that Luthor wasn’t bald to begin with, the argument is spurious at best. Shuster’s drawings were primitive and cartoony in likenesses for all the energy and luster they could have. To say any one character bore a strong resemblance to a living person would be hard to prove. Why not say that it was the actor Lionel Barrymore that fueled the likenesses of Luthor, especially in the post “It’s a Wonderful Life” years? Why would anyone base a mad scientist on Crowley anyways?

And again, to say that early comics were interested in occultism… where’s the charge that Siegel and Shuster were interested in law enforcement and spies since they did strips starring such characters? The real truth is messier and more mundane. First off, both were Jewish just as I’m a Christian. With that comes a bit mythos in upbringing and heritage. One doesn’t have to look any further than the Old Testament to see where the likes of the Spectre comes from. It’s not a question of some esoterical and exotic interest that makes the creation and artform more glamorous, but one of simply heritage and religious background. An everyday humdrum background and heritage that millions share. A lot of comics did deal with ghosts, vampires, magicians and sorcerers, things a little bit out of the purview of that background.

You want an explanation for the ghosts, ghouls and other nightly creatures? Just look again to the pulps. Even by the time of the creation of Doctor Occult, the extremely popular WEIRD TALES had been around for over a decade with tales of Atlantis, heroes on other planets, and ungodly creatures. A steady diet of the likes of Lovecraft William Hodgson’s Carnacki, Seabury Quinn, Manly Wade Wellman and Robert E. Howard will give you enough inspiration to last a lifetime without doing any kind of formal research. You also have the Universal Horror mo vies Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy; the popularity of magician characters such as Chandu and Mandrake, and so on. You don’t need a deliberate interest in the occult more than a general liking and reading of such tales, gaining information second hand from the gestalt of the popular culture of the time any more than Jerry Siegel needed an interest in Entomology to make the comparison of Superman’s leaping ability to a human sized flea. And, the truth is, these comics weren’t all that intellectual. I’ve recently read several werewolf comic book stories, one where the creatures could turn others into creatures like themselves just by their howls and could be killed by bombs and another that stated the preferred method of killing such a creature was a stake through the heart! There's very little indication of any serious research beyond one of today's youth writing a vampire story based on knowledge solely gleaned from watching Buffy and Angel and never reading Dracula or even more obscure tales.

These are people making it up as they go along, pulling bits and pieces from all these different sources that are part of their individual make-ups, from what movies they’ve seen, what books they’ve read and just from what they see in their culture every day. It’s messy and inexact and inaccurate so the method to kill a werewolf is taken from how to kill a Hollywood vampire. It’s not pretty. It’s not people going to the museum or the library to do hours of research as much as it is pulling from various sources just laying around and looking at what succeeds on the next rung up. It’s not glamorous and offends our ideas as we think artists and creators should be all about creation and being Artists. And, too often, comic book fans want to legitimize their hobby and hold it up as high Art by denying the true fact that it is a craft and trade as much as art, meant to tell stories and to entertain and excite. Read some golden-age comics. They are fun and full of potential, rawness and creativity. And many are poorly drawn, stories badly structured and full of latent racism. But, they ain’t intellectual.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Secret Secret Origin of Batman.

Tell me if you heard this story before: A wealthy young man whose family is a victim of crime with the help of the family butler puts on a dark costume inspired by bats and seeks justice. His secret hide-out is a cave.

Or maybe you’re familiar with how a hero gains the inspiration for his identity: “he must become a figure of sinister import to all of these people. A strange Nemesis that would eventually become a legendary terror to all of crimedom...he glanced at the oil lamp burning on a table. Then he swung around, suddenly tense. In the shadows above his head there came a slithering, flapping sort of sound.”

…”leaped back instinctively as something brushed past his cheek.
Again the flapping of wings--a weird rustling sound. Terror overcame him
for an instant as something brushed against his hair, caught in a tangled
lock. Something that seemed unspeakably evil.”

“He reached up, tore at it with fingers that had suddenly grown frantic.
He flung the thing aside. As he did so he saw that it was a bat. An insectivorous
mammal, with its wings formed by a membrane stretched between the tiny
elongated fingers, legs and tail.”

“As the creature hovered above the lamp for an instant it cast a huge
shadow upon the cabin wall.”

"’That's it!…. ‘I'll call myself…’"

If you’re thinking it’s Batman, you’d be wrong.

The first is the story of The Human Bat who first appeared in Britain in THE FUNNY WONDER, March 1899! It’s the story of John Holloway whose father is swindled out of his wealth and title. Holloway is given the masquerade costume by the family valet/butler with a distinctive cape t hat allows him glide around. Another bat-winged fellow could also be found in the same magazine, the Spring-Heeled Jack. These “newspapers” seemed to be predominently proto comic strip style along the lines of how Prince Valiant has been done for decades, panels of the strip with paragraph of text under each one.

The second is the story of the Bat, a minor pulp character appearing in the pulps’ Popular Detective circa 1934. It concerns a private detective who is framed for a crime and adopts the masked identity of the Bat to fight crime. He carries a gas gun and leaves little stamps of bats on the crooks he catches. The latter was a popular motif with pulp characters and the later pulp-inspired masked men of comics.

The reason for the history lesson is that I came across a website: that discusses how struggling artist and would-be cartoonist Frank Foster created a character actually called Batman in the early 30’s and even shopped him around to the comic publishers later that decade. Imagine his surprise when just a little later, one of those publishers would come out with a title called Batman! Another coincidence on top of that is the fact that as an alternate name scribbled on the back is “Nightwing” a Batman-esque identity adopted first by Superman when in Kandor (1963) and then by Dick Grayson/Robin in the 1980s.

On the surface, it seems pretty damning for DC. Kane has a history of not only doing swipes in his artwork but also for a long time claiming sole credit despite the fact there’s heavy contributions to the story and later the art by creators Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, among others. Plus, we know Kane was in the area at the same time that Foster was working on the World’s Fair mural, the two could’ve met. The editor of that Superman story is Mort Weisinger who brought many things to Superman that were taken from the pulps such as Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude.

On the surface. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with an older man’s memory and his recounting doesn’t really add up to what we know. First, we can go ahead and discount the Nightwing coincidence as being just that. Weisinger didn’t start working at DC until 1941 and the writer Edmond Hamilton in 1946. As Foster claims his work was returned to him, there is no way to connect the name to either of the gentlemen responsible for creating the DC Nightwing character. And, frankly, it just seems highly unlikely in comics’ early days scrambling to reproduce the successes of Superman & Batman, an editor or creator would remember the name Nightwing and yet hold onto it for nearly two decades while various Phantoms, Ghosts, Ravens, and other dark winged birds flitter across the superhero landscape.

Despite Bob Kane’s rather dubious history, it’s also hard to lay blame at his feet. Again, there’s no direct connection. We don’t even know if the editor that he dealt with was the same as whom Foster showed his drawings to. Then you have to wonder why Kane would take time developing an idea that had already failed to sell at DC. You can put both at the World’s Fair. Dollars to donuts, probably half the people in the comic and pulp businesses in New York at the time were also at the Fair at some point.

Sure, it’s all extremely coincidental. But recall that almost simultaneously as Batman’s debut was the debut of the SECOND Black Bat character with a costume looking a lot like Batman’s with the scalloped cape and dark colors. It’s even more familiar to modern readers as Kane at Finger’s suggestion did “borrow” a design element from the Black Bat, the fins on the gloves. Batman originally wore very standard gloves that ended at his wrist. And as I stated there was another Black Bat before that one, though he didn’t wear a costume and we never learned his real name, he was just a detective called the Black Bat. And you had the Bat before that (which Finger almost had to have read and borrowed Batman’s origin scene, it’s too specific). Across the seas there was that Human Bat (though more than likely almost completely unknown over here at the time). Couple that with the Shadow and detectives and rogue heroes called the Shadow, Spider, Ghost and plethora of Green Ghosts and Phantoms, a character called Batman seems almost inevitable. More than a circumstantial case is needed.

Foster’s own faulty memory really messes the issues up. He didn’t remember the editors or people or exact dates (and no real reason he should after all that time). But, those facts are significant as this time period covered 1936-1939. Superman didn’t debut in comics until 1938! Before 1938, DC Comics might be a vehicle for some of his cartoons, but Batman would have been too different. Superman had the luxury of a sympathetic editor, space in a new book to fill and the fact that Siegel and Shuster were already doing a variety of strips for DC. Post – Superman and we’re looking at DC turning down an idea when they were looking for just such an idea and then somehow for some reason passing it off to another creator in a very short period of time.

Yet we know Foster’s Batman (as well as Siegel & Shuster’s Superman) pre-dated 1938 according to the notes. But even then there’s conflicts between history and testimony that needs reconciling. Foster described this in a 1975 interview with a Boston attorney: “ … he got me interested enough to make some ideas up. And it seems to me that in those days, and even now, that most all of the strips were the heroes of the day – such as, flying through the sky during the day and doing good deeds and so forth and so on – and I thought, well, why couldn’t that be done at night? Have a good guy do stuff at night. So, I started working, just briefly, very briefly, not too seriously, with Al Capp, and cooking up a couple of ideas. … one of the things was Batman … “

See, the site says the early drawings are 1932. Superman didn’t debut until 1938. So, who the heck is he talking about flying and such? Just what was his inspiration for the character because the obvious ones just didn’t exist according to the dates on the drawings. Mandrake the Magician was 1934, the Phantom (1936), Flash Gordon (1934). The closest thing to these drawings in the strips was Buck Rogers but it’s quite a leap from Buck Rogers to Batman, even if you have Buck’s anti-grav belt.

Doc Savage maybe? Except Doc didn’t debut until 1933. The only notable hero before this drawing is the Shadow and he was hardly flying around doing good during the daytime. Foster’s other hero on the site is of the Raven, complete with a council of agents it appears is dated the same year as the Shadow’s appearance. But, once you start looking at the pulps, the costume being tights is an anachronism.

Beginning to see the crux of the problem? Foster’s Batman not only pre-dates Kane’s, but it also conveniently pre-dates many of the evolutionary steps along the way, as if he sprung out Athena-like from Zeus’ forehead as a fully realized conceptual costumed comic mystery-man. Foster’s Walt Gibson, Lester Dent, Siegel and Shuster, Alex Raymond and Lee Falk all rolled into one. With a touch of Dave Cockrum/Gil Kane as his costume is very stylized with its design elements compared to the far more simplistic and minimalist costumes of the early mystery men. His cowl alone with the flanged eye pieces is more a design element that would be at home more than a quarter of a century later. Foster talks about his creation as if it’s in response to other characters out there which should place the drawing 1937 at the earliest, but the dates the site claims are the dates of creation would indicate that instead he was creating something truly revolutionary, the first American comic crime-fighter ever to wear a distinctive mask and skin tight costume.

Yet, in 1998, the Boston Globe did run an article on Foster and Batman. You can search for it on the archives of their website. And, as far as my research online reveals, Al Capp was indeed in Boston in the early 30’s.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Stardust/The Twelve/Black Dossier

Stardust is one of the more obscure golden-age heroes out there. He was the brainchild of Fletcher Hanks, one of the oddest artists of the Golden-Age, ranking up there with Basil Wolverton (Space Hawk, Powerhouse Pepper) and Harry G. Peters (Wonder Woman, Man O’Metal). His style seemed to be a combination of primitivism, art-deco, and some kind of bad acid trip. The stories were outlandish with all sorts of bizarre punishments inflicted on the guilty anticipating the 70’s Spectre stories by several decades. Hanks himself seems to have been a low-life, an alcoholic and child and wife abuser if a recent book is telling the truth, the kind of person deserving the kind of divine retribution that Stardust regularly dished out. He worked under a several pseudonyms, but his distinctive style always stands out. And, he created Fantomah, one of the big contenders for the first woman superhero and is every bit as unique as Stardust. Despite this, Stardust has been reprinted online here and there, he popped up at one of Bill Black's bw reprint comics. Which seems to have generated a bit of interest in the character. Some local people actually borrowed a copy of my reprint in order to do some research on writing a new Stardust story. A large book has been devoted to reprinting various Fletcher Hanks stories including Stardust and Fantomah.

And, as part of Image's anthology The Next Issue Project he will be revived along with other public domain characters in new stories. Stardust is being done by Mike Allred of Madman fame. Now, I've never been a big fan of Allred, his work is too pop-art, too self-aware of its artificiality for me. However, that works for him here, his work is every bit as stylized as Hanks' (the chief difference being Allred's is more deliberately stylized and polished). It ought to be an interesting combination. I fear it may tip the story towards being more pastiche though, a little too much effort being spent on capturing another creator's form and style and not really the character himself. It's instead of trying to doing the best Batman story possible, trying to do the best Dick Sprang type Batman. So, part of me would like to see someone that actually does strange horror be the one to take him on, like Guy Davis, Walt Simonson, or Mike Mignola. All artists that are heavily stylized but with very different sensibilities.

Allred's version of the character.
Who is Stardust?
Stardust: December 1939, Fantastic Comics #1 (Fox). Despite being billed as “the Super Wizard,” Stardust didn’t have magical powers. He was a wizard in the sense that through his super-science, he could do almost anything from flying through space unaided like a comet to a variety of rays that can make things big or small, levitate items, turn invisible, etc. Then he has the gadgets such as crime detectors that alert him to evil and crime and his costume that provides protection against a variety of destructive forces. Stardust maintains a base on a private star and fights various outer space menaces but also holds a fondness for America and is quick to defend her against crime and Fifth Columnists. Stardust himself seemed to vary in size, a huge man with arms like tree-trunks and a bull neck and is very formidable in a fight even minus his powers.

But, despite all of these powers, Stardust wasn’t seen after 1941, his last adventure recorded in FANTASTIC COMICS # 16, never gracing the cover.

The Twelve
Also in December is coming a preview issue of The Twelve. The upcoming mini that's casting them in a more modern and realistic (read gritty, dysfunctional and complete with deaths) style by writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Chris Weston. The Zero issue will feature the origin story of Rockman from USA Comics #1, 1941 by Charles Nicholas and Basil Wolverton; Laughing Mask from Daring Mystery Comics #2, 1940; and the Phantom Reporter from issue 3. Also included are character sketches by Weston and some preview pages to the upcoming mini. 48 pages in all and at a very affordable $2.99. I'm looking forward to this more than the actual mini since I've not plopped money down for any of Marvel's GA hardcover volumes. It is interesting to note that the comic they are looking at is Daring Mystery #3, where the Laughing Mask after his one outing took on the identity of the Purple Mask and is on the cover.

The Black Dossier
Jess Nevins has already put together a remarkably lengthy and complete annotations to Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The Black Dossier, the latest sequel to League of Extraordinaly Gentlemen. I've not cracked open the book yet, I'm sure it's just as excellent as always, but it sounds like it's far more metatextual than the other two, almost a travelogue through the nature of heroes in fantastic literature in the 20th Century than an adventure story with everything and the kitchen sink thrown in, but ultimately bogged down by the all-inclusive conceit of the original concept. If it wasn't for Nevins' annotations, I doubt I'd appreciate the stories as much, seeing all the stuff one misses while reading through and patting yourself on the back for the ones you caught.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Mighty Return of the Green Lama

Briefly in the 40’s, the Green Lama was a multi-media star. Starting out as a pulp hero, he branched out briefly with a radio show and two distinct comicbook runs. Since then, he’s languished in relative obscurity. Mention his name in a comic book store, and people are liable to think he’s a parody hero by the name of the Green Llama.

While the upcoming SUPERPOWERS is supposed to use the Green Lama in a big way, for awhile now, AC Comics has made some minor use of the Green Lama in the past as part of their vault of heroes (various public domain golden-age heroes that had been kept in suspended animation) and has also reprinted a few of his adventures. Like SUPERPOWERS, their version of the character in the present day is as a magician type hero when that's not really true to any of his past incarnations. Some time back they had put into the works a mini-series and it has been done for about a year I believe but only now just being solicited as well as a "0" issue. As I provided the writer with background info on the villain Stopwach (from GL's last appearance in PRIZE COMICS, the cover to which is ironically the image of the Black Owl and Yank & Doodle used here in my Hero Goggles logo), I have a little vested interest in it. The solicitation for it is as follows (with some minor editing for length):

"Title: Green Lama, Man of Strength. Writer is James Ritchey, artists are James Ritchey and Loki Dolza Intended Audience: All-ages fans of thoughtful, character-driven modern style superheroics and Golden Age character revivals. Format: Standard comic book size, 40 pages, b&w with color covers; saddle-stitched. Retail Price: $6.95 (maximum discount 50%) Ship Date: March 5, 2008

“Synopsis: An unsuspecting college student falls heir to the powers of The GREEN LAMA, in a darkly contemporary version of the AC Universe. World War III has come and gone, demons run free in the streets- and only The GREEN LAMA can restore order. Guest-starring The FEMFORCE and GOLDEN LAD.”

“Special Notes: Almost seven years in the making, this "Elseworlds" - style take on the classic Golden Age hero created by Ken Crossen is the product of hot new writer/artist James Ritchey. Refined in consultation with Kendra Crossen Burroughs, daughter of (and executor to the literary estate of ) Ken Crossen, this intro to the smart new series gives a darker, edgier, more modern take on superheroics, and should appeal much more easily to current comics readers. Unlike AC's normal "classic" approach to heroes & storytelling, these characters are more ambiguous, with unknown agendas hidden around every corner. In addition to guest-appearances by Mr. Ritchey's versions of mainstream AC heroes, see the revival of other costumed characters from Crossen's Spark Publications group of the mid-1940's; each with it's own unique spin.”

I give them big props to working with the creator’s heir though the character has apparently fallen into public domain. Although, I’m not a big fan of the reincarnation/legacy angle, I prefer to just see a story with the original characters. And, I find it interesting that the term “Elseworlds” has apparently entered the public lexicon enough to be used in advertising. The term originally was a type of story that DC published, familiar characters and archetypes in non-continuity stories. Another slipping trademark is the term DC uses for their hardback reprint line, “Archives”. I use it for my online reprints of the Fighting Yank, and Dark Horse not only uses the term but the whole look & package for their hardback reprint line they’ve done of classic characters such Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom and Magnus. And they are using it again for a 2 volume reprinting of golden-age Green Lama tales: “THE COMPLETE GREEN LAMA FEATURING THE ART OF MAC RABOY
On sale Apr 30 FC, 208 pages $49.95 HC, 6 1/4" x 10 1/4"

"Chanting 'Om Mani Padme Hum,' the wealthy Jethro Dumont transformed into the Green Lama--a flying freedom fighter made famous in comics by the distinguished and imaginative artist Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel Jr., Flash Gordon). A unique 1940s Buddhist superhero, the Green Lama used special powers gained in a pilgrimage to Tibet to fight master criminals, monstrous dictators, and inequality across the globe. He made his debut in April 1940 in the pulp fiction anthology Double Detective, but he is most well known in his comic book incarnation--especially the stories drawn by Raboy in the eight-issue Green Lama series. Dark Horse Archives presents the entire Green Lama run in two high-quality hardcovers, starting with these first four issues. In addition to Raboy's classic covers and stories, these issues contain entertaining and adventurous bonus stories following the adventures of Lieutenant Hercules, Rick Masters, Angus McErc, and others!
• Our first volume also features an introduction by free speech activist and patron saint of comics collecting Chuck Rozanski!
• Long-deserving archival treatment, these enchanting, historic Golden Age tales are now available to fans who can't spend thousands of dollars on original issues!”

BE WARNED and read that solicitation carefully. See, while it’s titled “The Complete Green Lama”, even if you ignore his pulp series and radio show, the Green Lama ran from issues 7 to 34 in PRIZE COMICS before he was re-invisioned by Raboy for Spark which aren't part of this set. Also, they are only doing 4 issues of his comic each in the archives. If the GCDB is correct, there is only one story, 12 pages, in each issue. So, out of the 200+ pages in each archive, only 48 pages in each is Raboy's Green Lama. 3/4 of the $50 book is actually non-Green Lama material. Raboy's beautiful stuff, and one of the other strips contains work by Mort Meskin but, still, their advertising is more than a little misleading. They could have easily added about 60 pages, and done one volume with all of the Green Lama’s PRIZE COMICS appearances as well as Raboy’s work. Also missing, is the story that takes Magga, a supporting character from his pulp appearances, and turns her into a distaff version of Raboy’s take on GL. Wait and get it cheap on Ebay is my advice. If you don't want to spend thousands or even $50 bucks, here's a sample of Raboy's take for free:

And to sample his radio show:

The Green Lama's original pulp adventures have been getting reprinted by Adventure House over the past year. They are interesting. A bit pedestrian in some ways but still have a charm of their own. Stories aren't static either, the aides he starts off with aren't the same as he ends with as romantic subplots unfold.

So, just who is the Green Lama?

Green Lama: 1940, Double Detective pulp (created by Kenneth Crossen). After graduating Harvard, Jethro Dumont went abroad and studied in Tibet. In the pulps and early comic appearances, he had ventriloquism, various mesmeric abilities, disguise skills, able to generate electrical shocks due to radioactive salts he digested, and above average but not super strength as well as some scientific knowledge in addition to his philosophies. His adventures in the pulps, he was aided by a few assistants that were unaware of his true identity. He seemed to go through some pains to keep his identity a secret. While Jethro Dumont was known to be a lama, he did most of his investigating as a Dr. Charles Pali and was usually disguised as him when operating as the Green Lama, so if anyone did suspect the Lama’s identity, it would be as Pali. In fact, his first two aides Gary Brown and Evangl thought just that, despite being well aquainted with Jethro Dumont, who served as best man at their wedding after which they shortly retired in September of 1940. However, his true identity was uncovered by a mystery woman who also was a student of Buddhism, who would slip him clues and information, giving as her name Magga. Possibly, his servant Tsarong knew his secrets as well. Magga seems to have been a woman by the name of Pat Dell, though it’s a bit unsure if Dumont figured that out.

His adventures were also chronicled in PRIZE COMICS #7, Dec. 1940 – 34, 1943, though one didn’t see his aides. It had been a few months, so one can assume that Gary and Evangl retired from adventuring to lead a respectable life as farmers. Along the way he had attracted the friendships and aid of Ken Clayton and adventuress Jean Ferrell as well as the mystery woman Magga, but they seem to have moved off scene as well. Maybe there were other unrecorded cases somewhere that explains their absence from this period of adventures. Likewise, Dumont seems to have shedded the Dr. Pali identity. These cases were covered apparently by the same man who did his pulp adventures. His foes were getting more powerful such as Stopwach, the man who was also a master of Tibetan hypnotism and helping the heroes Black Owl, Yank & Doodle, and Dr. Frost take down the Frankenstein Monster.

In 1944, another publisher would take on publishing the Green Lama’s adventures, starting off with a slight retelling of the origin. Though this too is supposed to be from Ken Crossen, the Lama had undergone some mighty big changes. He still wore a green hood, but instead of the green robes, his costume was green tights complete with cape and his meditative phrase (Om! Ma-ni pad-me Hum! “Hail! The Jewel in the Lotus Flower!”) now gave him super-strength and flight as it telepathically linked him to monks in Tibet who echoed the phrase. It all looked very good as done by Mac Raboy. By this point, Tsarong definitely knew his identity.

Around this time, Magga would re-appear, only in a solo adventure sporting the powers and Raboy designed costume of the Green Lama and called Magga the Magnificent {April, 1946, Atoman Comics #2 (Spark)}

A few of his adventures got reprinted, but he wouldn’t be seen again fighting crime for several decades until he was brought out to help FemForce and a bunch of other golden-age heroes to fight the Black Shroud in the mid ‘80s. Strangely enough, he had undergone yet another transformation. Still wearing the tights version of his costume, he now displayed not the physical superpowers, but mystical abilities to cast various spells and such (though still able to fly), something he hadn’t shown any talent in before. He’d hang around a while lending mystical aide when Nightveil or Dr. Weir aka the Purple Claw were unavailable. The Green Lama of SUPERPOWERS seems to also follow this vein as he’s being talked up as being akin to Dr. Fate. There’s also the AC mini-series that will look at a modern day Green Lama in a different reality, a descendent and possibly reincarnation of the earlier hero who had fallen in battle with Magga and other allies.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Countdown ArenaIn an interview with, Keith Champagne talks about the comic COUNTDOWN: ARENA that he's writing. The purpose of the book is that Monarch nee Captain Atom is scouring the multiverse to build his army. In doing so, he realizes he has several versions of different characters to choose from. It's not a matter of picking Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but which Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. Nevermind that the smart thing to do would probably be to pick as many Supermen, Green Lanterns, and Flashes as possible and let fly. Anywho, in order to pick the best ones, Monarch is going to pick 3 likely choices of each and let them fight it out. What potentially makes this book is fun, the modern DC multiverse is made up of all the elseworlds and variations that DC has come up with in the past. So, it's the Victorian era Batman of GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT vs Batman of a JSA of the JSA: THE LIBERTY FILES and vampire Batman of RED RAIN. And so on (sadly, some battles like Superman and Green Lantern feature alternates never seen before this series). And for Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, readers get to vote for the winners.

But what gets me in the interview and indeed leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth (other than this being part of COUNTDOWN which I've pretty much avoided) is in the interview Champagne twice invokes the word "sacrilegious" in regards to the fact that he would have liked to use THE WATCHMEN Nite Owl in the Blue Beetle battle and the DARK KNIGHT RETURNS Batman.

Excuse me? What's the difference in using those characters and the ones from GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT, RED RAIN, or RED SON? How is Moore's characters or Miller's version of a character which will have zero impact on their mini-series more sacrilegious than the others? How the heck is it more sacrilegious than DC actually killing off both Ditko's Blue Beetle and Question to make way for lame politically correct versions? More sacrilegious than killing of Kirby's Fourth World characters? For actually having in a book that stars the Justice League characters, the rape of a long-time supporting character by a stock super-villain and then having her killed off by another long-time supporting character? Or how they killed off half of the JSA years back only to now have a book made up of mostly carbon copies and "legacy heroes", making a book that should be about celebrating the original heroes into a book about the generation of heroes. You know just like you can get in the Outsiders, Teen Titans, Justice League... Want to talk sacrilegious, you cannot get mores o than what they've done to the DCU already.

What's really funny is that as they are running roughshod over their heroes and histories, one of the things that made THE WATCHMEN work is the fact that it's not really the Charlton heroes. DC at the time wisely realized to let THE WATCHMEN actually be the Charlton characters it would render them largely unusable in the future, it would take them too far from their starting points. By letting Moore use the characters as templates for his cast instead, it allowed Moore to take his story as far as he wanted to. DC got to have their cake and eat it too. So, DC wants to somehow hold these duplicates sacred now, while they have killed off and ruined the originals, which was something creating THE WATCHMEN was to protect against.

Seems to me, it's a little late to worry about sacrilege of using certain characters. DC has gone far past and done far worse to their classic characters already.

Another thing that bugs me a little is how the multiverse is being used. The multiverse originally had very few duplicates and those were done deliberately. Instead it was to incorporate the various companies' characters. You had Earth-1, 2, and 3 as being the one with the most duplicates due to the way history organically unfolded. Fandom posited an Earth-B for The Brave & the Bold stories and a few others that didn't really fit into continuity because Haney didn't really bother with Earths 1&2, it was all the same Earth as far as he was concerned. But Earth-X didn't have another Superman, Batman, etc. Neither did Earth-S. And up to CRISIS, neither did Earth-Prime. But, right into exploring the new Earths, we now have a Green Lantern on Earth-5 (more or less Earth-S). Why? Why not explore the characters that are already there that can be used such as Ibis or Diamond Jack. We don't need MORE Green Lanterns, there are hundreds to choose from. Each Earth had a pretty clear delineation and purpose to it. And the characters were far more unique. Captain Marvel and family was on Earth-S, nowhere else. Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters didn't have counterparts on S or 1. And so on. Now, the multiverse is almost more like hypertime before it, a fail-safe in case the mainstream-verse gets screwed up too much.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Captain Compass

A site I like to check out about once or twice a week is Toonopedia. A great site that is dedicated to comic books, comic strips and animation, scanning decades and media. I almost always learn something new. Today's Toonopedia entry is on Captain Compass:

I've read a few stories with him and found him to be an interesting detective character (of course, that partly could be because of my fondness for the seas). It was one of the reasons I got that Detective 500 that had a story with him and all the other back-up detectives over the years of Detective Comics' run, all wonderfully rendered by the master Jim Aparo. My first exposure to Captain Compass may have been in one of those little digests which reprinted a bunch of different individual detective stories with some of those same detectives. A quaint but enjoyable detective story where the clues to the mystery are in front of you.

However, what struck me about the Toonopedia entry was the panel of artwork that Don posted with it (He always posts an image, usually from the character's prime or original run). In this case, it is a panel from one of the stories. In terms of dynamics it's almost boring really; Captain Compass is simply pacing while musing in front of his chief in the office. On second look though, I was really struck by the amount of detail yet with an economy of line. Compass' head and shoulders are bowed in a defeated manner, his boss is watching with his head resting on the palm of his hand. The desk has panels, we see the blinds in the window, labels on the file cabinet as well as a shadow for depth. There's a model ship on the cabinet and a topographical map on the wall above it. The chair is completely rendered with the struts and Compass' clothes are realistically wrinkled, yet all with a sparsity of linework. Nothing fights for dominance, you have no trouble reading the scene, yet it's very detailed and very non-generic looking in that it does look like an office that someone head of a ship line might have thanks to little things like the model ship and map. It's the very type of scene that many of today's artists would fill up stray crosshatching lines, fancy angles (and today's writers would fill at least 3 panels, breaking up the dialogue and close-ups). And the colorist would fill it with gradients and photoshop effects. It is detailed, but it isn't busy or overly rendered or complex.

It's not the first time I've noticed things like this, a lot of times on some of the old art that is posted here or elsewhere. Taking the panel out of context (or in reprint books, sometimes the very fact the color printing is now in-register or bw so the bad printing is not a distraction), I see the artwork anew, not breezing through it to get to the next panel. And I'm struck just by how good it really is. Just how much detail that the artists manage to get in the scenes and still have it all be clearly legible. Often, less is indeed more.

Not saying I don't like detailed or busy art. John Byrne, if anything, puts more detail in his backgrounds now than he ever did. I love Perez and you cannot accuse him of skimping on details. However, what these two gentlemen do that many today seem not to is make it clear as to the story that each panel tells. Detail is fine as long as the purpose of the panel isn't lost in it, as long as the main idea that panel has to get across is loud and clear. You don't have to hunt in a Perez picture for the story it has to tell, if there are a hundred figures on the page, it's because it serves the scene. If it distracts you, it's not because you have to stop to figure out what the heck is going on, it's more because of what more former boss would call "The D**N factor". I.E. when you see it, you stop and go, "D**N!!" And you marvel at all that he managed to include in one scene.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Captain America's Return and stuff

Alex Ross Captain America
Irv Novick Shield

Marvel has just revealed a new Captain America debuting in January from Brubaker's glaciarly slow paced CAPTAIN AMERICA comic. This one carries a gun and a knife, so it's probably the bloodthirsty retconned alive and trained-assassin Bucky in the threads. But maybe not. As much as I generally like Alex Ross designs, the new Cap's big design change echoes another patriotic hero, the Shield. They say the triangular chest design is in homage to the shape of his first shield. However, I always heard the reason he switched to a round shield after his first adventure was from threat of lawsuit and trademark infringement of the MLJ (Archie) character whose costume it resembled. And when he was revamped when licensed to DC, his costume even went shiny!

Impact Shield

Have to say, Alex Ross does a great Fighting Yank for the upcoming Dynamite series SUPERPOWERS. Of course part of that is it's accurate to the way the character looked and it ranks up there with some of Alex Schomburg's work with the character.
Alex Ross Superpowers

In the "Lying in the Gutters" column at Comicbookresources, we have a copy of an article revealing that Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) is in line for a movie based on the Italian Dylan Dog horror comic. What, Rupert Everett isn't available? See Rupert Everett starred in the movie CEMETARY MAN, based on a novel by the writer of Dylan Dog while Dylan's look is actually based on Rupert Everett. Dylan's comedic side-kick is none other than Groucho Marx, a similarity that had to be toned down in the American reprinting of some issues by Dark Horse Comics a few years back.

It’s the Golden-Age Again

It’s a good time to be a golden-age fan. Doc Savage and the Shadow are being reprinted again, with the original covers and interesting articles and insights to behind the stories. Did you know that overseas in England, the Shadow novels were heavily re-edited and names of the characters and such were changed to give them an England locale? If the story had a really strong or uniquely American flavor, they changed him to the Phantom Sheriff in the Old West! G-8 and the Spider have their facsimile editions regularly coming out, Adventure House still does High Adventure every other month, giving us all of the Captain Zero stories (very excellent by the way), Green Lama and Ki-gor stories. And there are other pulp facsimiles that come out such as SPICY MYSTERY, SUBMARINE STORIES, DON WINSLOW, etc.

DC has had pretty good success with the JSA (even if it’s by killing off various golden-agers and replacing them with legacy characters, not matter how minor a hero). So, other companies seem to be getting on the bandwagon.

First, Marvel is revisiting various of their Timely GA heroes with THE TWELVE by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston. In a nutshell, twelve of Timely’s GA characters get captured by the Nazis near the end of the war and placed in suspended animation for research. The end of the war interrupts things and they are on ice until the present day. Now, they have trouble adapting (some were killer vigilantes after all) and one or two may go bad and not all make it out alive. So it’s basically going “realistic” and making the heroes grim and gritty. Weston’s art is very detailed, but I find he relies on models just a bit too much. It saps his artwork of dynamism and everything tends to look too posed. Couple that with his realistic style errs on making everything mundane, playing up more the ugliness of the human form, it doesn’t go well with superheroes in general unless you ARE going for that grim, ugly, heroes as fascists theme that it seems all superhero comics have turned into. To see samples of the work, you can search on newsarama or go to Weston’s blog and search some of the archives from the summer:

Dynamite has hired Jim Kruegar and Alex Ross, fresh off of JUSTICE to also do a mini with various public domain golden-age heroes. Actually, Ross is only doing promo art, redesigns and covers, so you can stop drooling. The Fighting Yank takes center stage as a man today racked by guilt from something near the end of the War that lead to many of the heroes retiring and such. And he finds out he’s about to die and might have one last chance to change things. It’s a lot of revisionism, the golden-age Daredevil is the Death Defying Devil, Miss Masque is Masquerade, the Face is Mr. Face. The Green Lama at least keeps his name and looks close to his comic incarnation, but gets a complete power overhaul as he’s compared to Dr. Fate (the Lama was a pulp detective with very limited powers per se in the pulps, his radio show and his first round in comics. In his second round, he traded robes for tights and got Superman type physical powers). Again some retire, some die and some go bad. Where is the sense of fun that can be had with these characters?

Well, that might just be with Image and Erik Larsen as they launch something titled ISSUE AFTER NEXT. It’s various creators from today doing stories of public domain characters from the 40’s. Each creator is pretty much left to their own devices, so there’s bound to be a wide range of takes as we see Larsen on Samson, Allred on Madman, among others.

So, there are some interesting looking titles coming out that I have some hope for as being fun. And some that I’m just going to have to adopt a wait and see attitude.

Monday, October 08, 2007

You Can Be a Hero

"We walk because they walk" For food, for water, for education, for medication. For 60 years people have participated in CROP walks, born originally out of desire to help the needy in post WWII Europe. Up to 25% of monies raised go to local charities. You can go to to find out more about CROP and other efforts that Church World Service are involved with in fighting poverty and world hunger.

I walked in Raleigh's CROP walk this past Sunday. Nowadays it's a 5K (3.2 miles) walk. Back when I did one as my Eagle project as well as helping my Church sponsor the city's official walk the following year, it was 10 miles! My Eagle walk was during the summer if I recall correctly, along a 5 mile stretch of under construction highway that was still cordoned off. Now, that was a walk! A few years later as I participated in one at Chapel Hill, it was 10K, approximately 6 miles. I remember looking down on that measly little hike.

Now, I'm personally glad they are shorter. I am definitely not in as good a shape as I was at the age of 17 and 18. And while I would normally heartily endorse having the walk in October, North Carolina is in a record breaking drought, and the temperatures sadly are inching back up. Yesterday, it was a nice 85 degrees. However, I count my blessings as today and the next it's back in the low 90s! But aside from the sweating and heat (and no Diet Cokes as part of the soft drinks at the end), it was good being out and doing just a little bit of something to make a better world. A sweaty Sunday afternoon and slightly sore feet is in reality a very little cost on my part. It was time well spent with friends and my girl friend as we talked and laughed. And amusingy watched teenagers with all their energy chaffing to walk faster and out-distance their parents trudging along at a snails' pace (with my girlfriend and me somewhere in between).

I enjoy superhero comics and pulp literature. Great escapist fun. A big part of that enjoyment stems from I like stories about good vs. evil, though nowadays it seems hard sometimes to tell the good guys from the bad. However, there are many charities and organizations that require only a little of your time to help be a positive force in the world. A 3 mile walk. An hour of effort. Cannot really complain about that.

Now, my friend Richard who is running a 29 mile marathon for Leukemia and cancer research in South Carolina? And he's older than me! Now that's a Superhero!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Writers Passing

The last couple of weeks, a couple of writers of certain note passed away, Madeleine L'Engle on September 6th at the age of 88 and Robert Jordan (real name James Oliver Ragney Jr) at the age of 58 on September 17th. I won't attempt to recap their lives or even the totality of their works. By this point most news sites will have given most of the details on the latter and the former has a wonderful official website:

It's interesting that both writers really helped me think and see things and yet I've read exactly one book of theirs each.

With Madeleine L'Engle, it was A WRINKLE IN TIME. I read it when I was much younger than I am now (leading me to the impression that I thought she was currently a bit older than 88. It was one of those books that I would pick back up occassionally and read yet again and always be surprised at some little detail that I had missed or forgotten about the first time around. I remember being struck at the idea and dilemma of how would you describe the concept of color to someone that has never seen? And that to a kid, she described the perfect concept of Hell, leastways to me when she talks about houses all alike and at a set time, all the kids come out of the houses and bounce a ball exactly in sync. Even though I loved to read more than play sports and such, such discipline and exact order was anathema to me. I'd squirm to even read and think about it. I still have that beat up paperback from 30 years ago stashed away somewhere.

Robert Jordan, it's a different case. I had long ago read and re-read Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS as well devouring all the mythology I could as a kid. Yet, when I cast about for other fantasy novels, they mostly just fell short. They either struck me as being too much like Tolkien without the actual charm and breadth of his vision. And I gave up. Until around the time they made the movies and I revisited the world of Fantasy and thought I might try my hand at it. And, I read a bunch of Fantasy novels from the likes of Drake, Feist, Weisman, Simak, Goodkind, Brooks, Martin, Leiber, Howard, etc. And I worked my way towards Jordan, though I wasn't seeking to start such a major series already in progress. But I found a good deal on a paperback version of the first book and I was shortly going on a trip overseas and the book would make good airplane reading.

From all of this reading, I discovered several things. One, unless you're reading the novels based on role playing games, there really isn't much in the way of the European folklore based fantasies. There really aren't that many with elves, dwarves, and goblins and such. There were many good ones, some better than others with intriguing worlds, characters and such. Though I realized few really approach the likes of the older writers or even seem to try. Although one friend did say he liked Jordan's take on the Howard characters, that he was one of the better writers of the character, which my friend considered high praise.

Two, almost all fantasy novels are parts of a series and rarely self-contained in one volume. This is where the curse of Tolkien is truly felt in the Fantasy genre. I don't mind series books in that the characters continue from book to another. I love finding in the Mystery genres detectives that I like to follow from one story to another. But, with Fantasy, each book is usually part of a finite series, a trilogy or such even if the characters will continue on past this particular trilogy to another trilogy and another. You cannot just pick up ONE book to get the story.

Third, there really is a set formula that links almost all of these books, even when the styles and such differ wildly. And this really gelled for me while reading Jordan's WHEEL OF TIME book. First off, despite the fact there is world-building going on, the defined world of this particular fantasy world in whatever book you're reading is pretty small, about the size of South Carolina. Often there's a reason, some impassable mountains or seas, but the operating world is isolated instead of feeling vast and big. Second, the novel must start even smaller. The hero will be some common man from a smaller backwater community of this world. There's a certain logic to this, it allows the reader to quickly get on the same level as the main character(s) in the book. Of course this means very quickly the character must leave this small sheltered area and enter into the much larger world. There's a reason for this structure, most fantasy novels are mileau novels, they exist to explore the fantastic world they are set in and for this they must travel away from their comfort zone. The other all too familiar tropes brought out, the hero of destiny. The hero is destined to be the champion of the realm, is heir to be king, a prince or princess in hiding, the end result of prophecy. It's basically shifting the focus from Frodo in LORD OF THE RINGS to Aragorn. And you cannot have a Child of Destiny without having the Big Evil. Only, frequently the Evil is ill-defined, they are evil because they do evil things and they do bad things because they are evil. As such, the bad guys have no real charisma, no real motivations, they just are.

Not to say these books are bad or anything. Just that these patterns emerged. Some books play with those patterns or change them around some, they'll keep one or two and discard others. WHEEL OF TIME pretty much has all of them though and while there were some scenes I liked, for the most part I just didn't see a reason to continue past it. I think part of that may be that since he was telling a mileau type story, I just didn't find this particular world all that interesting or fantastic with the first novel, pretty much my same response with Goodkind's WIZARD'S FIRT RULE. It didn't draw me in, making me want to search out the immediate next book. Instead, I was a bit relieved, thinking, "well, I finished that."

Jordan has loads of fans, and for their sake I do hope that maybe someone can be found to finish that last book, to give the heroes and villains the send-off they deserve while remaining true to Jordan's vision. Guess it depends on far he had gotten and how extensive his notes are. As a fan, I'd hate to be a book shy of finishing an epic.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ka-zar The Great... the Brunette?

ka-zar comic artWell, finished up the reprint of two of the Shadow's official London adventures. Have to admit, London and castle grounds make for a good location for the Shadow, almost as much as Chinatown. I kinda wanted to see the Scotland Yard inspector Eric Delka come off a bit better, I'd have liked to see him in his own mysteries.

So, next up is "The Lost Empire" from KA-ZAR THE GREAT pulp circa 1937. Now I read the first one some time ago so there's a few things I didn't really recall. But Ka-zar is depicted on the covers much as Fiction House's Ki-gor, a bronze giant with darkish blonde hair and he was blond in his few golden-age comic reprints that I've read. And he's of course blond in the present day adventures.

Yet the text in the story talks about his lion-mane like black hair that falls to his shoulderska-zar cover art (notice on the cover how short his hair also is). But despite his appearance inside the story, it's obviously the cover images that have dictated how he'd appear for the next 70 years.

I remember Zar the lion (Ka-zar means "brother of the lion") but I don't really recall Trajar the elephant or Nono the ring-tailed monkey, but again that could be because it's been a couple of years since I read that first story.

Then when it talks about Ka-zar being heartbroken over feeling betrayed by his love and who he had sent away by the name of Claudette (!?), I realized this is the third issue of the pulp, not the second. There's a whole issue I'm missing! Sigh. Anywho, this is shaping up to be crackling good yarn complete with a hidden lost race.

We'll get the negatives out of the way first. There's the practically sentience of his animal pals and the fact they can all talk to each other in the language of the beasts that can derail your suspension of disbelief. But, there's not a lot of it, to the point it's not much worse than some of Burroughs' liberties (such as a prehistoric man being close enough to the apes, that he can talk to modern day ones with no problem in THE ETERNAL SAVAGE, one of many problems with that book). There's also the latent racism that exists in books like this. Some of which can be defended if you pause and think about it objectively a bit (it is about uncivilized and uneducated areas of the jungle and natives do tend to be more barbaric as well as superstitious) but there are other areas where you just shake your head and be thankful we've become a little more aware since then. For the most part though Ka-zar dislikes all men equally. It's no more than what's usually found in Burroughs or Howard.

It's a good book though. In some ways it's better crafted and more ambitious than Burroughs, it almost reads as the type of book Lester Dent would have come up with if he chose to write a Tarzan type character. It's not as fantastic or atmospheric as Burroughs and he doesn't really get into explaining the nuts & bolts of the strange lost world to the point of almost boring you as ERB is wont to do at times such as TARZAN AND THE ANT-MEN.

Basically, Ka-zar is travelling the jungle with his animal companions in order to forget his heartbreak over the seeming betrayal of Claudette which has caused him to distrust all mankind. However, his elephant causes a landslide and while Trajar the Elephant escapes harm, Ka-zar, Zar the lion and Nono the monkey fall into a deep sheer chasm and knocked unconscious. Unable to scale the walls, he follows a cavern into a nestled valley with an Egyptian city complete with degenerated in-bred slaves and their "white" Egyptian citizens. But it's a civilization posed on revolt as their old ruler has died under mysterious circumstances. It's now ruled by his proud haughty daughter, worshipper of the good goddess Isis but fears the machinations of the two chief priests, one of Seti and the other of Pthos, the dark god of the slaves. Into this comes Ka-zar, too proud to bend to the will of the young Queen and feared by everyone else. It differs a bit from Burroughs in that the Queen is played as being young and thoroughly royal. She reacts emotionally and quick to punish to the point that while beautiful, to Ka-zar's eyes (and this reader), she comes across cruel at times. And it's a situation that Zut, the wily priest of Seti is quick to exploit, eager to set himself up as ruler. If this was a Burroughs story, he'd be the bad guy because he was a coward and had the hots for the Queen, but here he's a schemer through and through. And while there's the usual Queen has the hots for the hero situation, she doesn't really come off quite as weepy and subservient because she is a female. That a lot about her stems from her relative youth, suddenly being thrust into a situation beyond her, and just being raised as being royalty and above everyone else.

So, for a while the story is Ka-zar in a situation where neither party is necessarily the "good" side. In a much longer novel and under slightly more deft hands, there's a lot to be mined here that only really gets touched on. But then this is supposed to be an action/adventure story and it eventually does develop in open battle and he has to choose somewhat obvious sides. And the story ends on a somewhat bittersweet note through the machinations of again the too smart lion.

If you like jungle lord stories, this one is definitely worth seeking out.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Who's Going to Watch the Watchmen - Watchmen movie confirmations

the WatchmenMy brother sent me this blog link at Rorschachs Journal saying the Watchmen movie cast has been confirmed. The only cast member I recognize is Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Supernatural, Grey's Anatomy) cast as the Comedian - an important role, but not a very extensive one! While we're on the topic of Morgan, I find it interesting that last season both of his characters were both killed off on their shows, but this past season he was able to reprise both roles and yet remain dead in both!

It's interesting that the Watchmen movie may be coming to fruition now, on the heels of DC's Identity Crisis saga. The Watchmen story originally was an exploration of the heroes from Charlton comics that would have left these iconic characters unusable:

  • Dr. Manhattan = Captain Atom
  • the Comedian = Peacemaker
  • Ozymandias = Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt
  • the 2nd Nite-Owl = the 2nd Blue Beetle (Ted Kord)
  • Rorschach = the Question
  • Captain Metropolis = Judomaster
  • the 2nd Silk Specter = Nightshade
What Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore (who has a history of mucking about/deconstructing established characters) chose to do instead, was to create characters from scratch that built on the archetypes of the existing characters, so that they could express their story while leaving the originals intact. DC, on the other hand, has recently chosen to take another route to revise old characters by introducing successors after killing off the originals.

I've always had a fondness for both of the Blue Beetle characters and felt that Ted Kord's death in Identity Crisis was pointless, as they could have easily used any number of characters that have lapsed into obscurity, such as one from the Bloodlines story arc, for the same effect. And why not resurrect a youthful Dan Garrett with a new look (Ditko left plenty of room for even a writer of limited ability) in stead of giving the scarab to a new kid?
- But I digress!

While they may have a cast lined up it's still way too early to start planning your Watchmen parties as we've seen time and again great comic to movie concepts fall victim to a variety of early deaths and indefinite delays. That being said, Warner Bro's has set up an official site, though there's nothing there but the proposed date of March 6, 2009, and IMDB has a listing for the Watchmen movie. Additionally, according to a Wikipedia listing, this single frame of Rorshach was imbedded in Frank Miller's
300! Again, this is Wikipedia, so this may not necessarily be true, but possibly may be! I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

Watchmen movie