Wednesday, October 21, 2009

More Invisible Jets!

Last week, I wrote about the synchronicity of reading the Doc adventure "The Man Who Fell Up" which had a brief scene of Doc using an invisible airplane and then the new reprint of the earlier Avenger adventure "The Sky Walker" and an interview from Will Murray talking about how Dent had earlier written a story about an invisible airplane and thus might have talked to Paul Ernst, the writer of the Avenger stories, about the idea.

The synchronicity continues. Thanks to Toonopedia writing about two minor GA characters named the Wasp, I found myself searching out those stories to correct and update the info on my site. Lead to reading several obscure titles put out by Hillman, one of them being Rocket Comics. In issue #2, there's the Defender, an obscure hero "created" by Jack Cole who's more famous for Plastic Man but has a long history of other GA work for many companies of the time. Even though this is the first Defender story, it's a complete rip-off of the Avenger story "The Sky Walker" by Street & Smith. The Avenger has a face with putty like flesh that can be molded into resembling other people, the Defender has a plastic like mask that can be manipulated likewise as well as disguising his disfigured face. The Defender is helped by strongman Lucky, the Avenger has Smitty. The Defender has a right-hand man in Dr. Samuel Drew, the Avenger has Fergus MacMurdie. The plots to both involve crumbling skyscrapers and men that appear to be walking in the air only to be revealed to be flying invisible planes!

"The Sky Walker" would be officially adapted to comics by another GA legend in the 70s, Jack Kirby! An odd pairing of artist and character as the Avenger is noted for near lacking emotion, his face is unable to display any, and comes across as power controlled like a tightly wound spring. Whereas Kirby is one of the most bombastic artists around, whose artwork is power personified.

The full comic and many other public domain GA comics can be found at

An interesting blog devoted to Jack Cole

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Comic Reviews and Doc Savage musings

Astra #1: Astro City and Kurt Busiek are exceptions to the rule for me in regards to the longer stories. Instead of feeling like he's stretching things out, he seems to pack more things in whether its character development or plot twists. He takes advantage of the longer story arcs to flesh things out but without forsaking the thrill of telling a story with superheroes. The longer stories are just denser and more layered instead of simply padded. Each issue is a satisfying read even if it leaves you hanging. The problem has been it has just taken so long between issues, but now there seems to be a renewed commitment to making Astro City more regular. The other thing is Busiek doesn't just tell the long big stories, but also the small short ones. Such as this, the first of issue of 2. It's more light-hearted than the recent storyline of Astro City, but it still manages to capture the times and cultural references, in this case the today of Hannah Montanna, Paris Hilton, celebrity tabloid journalism. Brent Anderson continues to excel at being a realistic artist with an organic line while still being able to capture the outlandishness and gosh-wow of a Jack Kirby designed world and make it all fit together seamlessly.

The Brave and the Bold #27: JMS delivers a fairly strong story with excellent art by Jesus Saiz (other than the cover with Batman's utility belt pouches being ridiculously big and out of place looking). Most of the story mines the human interest personal angle that Busiek does so well in Astro City. Sadly, the story ultimately fails in the end as it has to lessen the heroic nature of Robby Reed, that he was willing to let someone else die in his place and Batman just lets him off the hook.

Justice Society of America #31: Dissension in the ranks of both heroes and villains, the story moves forward with little character bits all the way around. Magog makes good arguments but only because it IS stupid to have the heroes just blindly allow people to walk right in without any type of clearance checks. Although it's one of those things like characters using the toilets. It's so obvious that I don't need to see the heroes do it in order to reassure me that they aren't all seriously constipated. If something is a completely logical and natural thing that any normal person would do, it doesn't really need to be shown unless it actually serves a plot point. What is stupid is that no one replied to his arguments pointing out that superhero teams aren't just about being armies, but also police force and rescue personnel.

JSA vs Kobra #4: Proving to be an excellent mini. Of course, part of that is this is how the JSA and JLA should have been treated all along, with them actually investigating and fighting villains, showing them off to be heroes. The focus is a little too much Mr. Terrific as if he's the only smart guy and the leader of the JSA, but otherwise a strong story. Thing is, this story could have easily been told with the original JSA as well since it's not a story ABOUT continuity but more of an action-thriller that superheroes naturally are and thus a natural fit to spotlight and show off any superhero team. Instead of Mr. Terrific, you'd actually have Hawkman showing up to be the tactician and leader that he was supposed to be, that carried the team for 40 years and Kobra being the world-threat that he always should be. Tell stories like this with the original JSA and no one would be wondering if the team was past its prime.

Marvel Mystery Handbook:
I almost didn't pick it up as I don't normally get the handbooks, but there were so many characters I barely knew by name in there which made me just have to pick it up. Chock full of information and artwork.

However, the book is schizophrenic in just what it was trying to be and how it was to present the information. Just the format alone, in the first half of the book, there are power grids, ranking the powers using bar graphs., then for the shorter entries in the second half, it was decided the grids were too big and presented just the numbers for the scale of the powers. From a graphic design perspective, on projects like this consistency is the key. Keep in mind that reference books like this are not required to be read from front-to-back so a consistent approach is all the more important. If the grids are too big for some of the entries, chuck them entirely. Use the same format for each entry. Likewise, keep in mind that some people don't read all of the handbooks, so in the beginning should be an explanation as to what the power grids and numbers actually mean. How does a normal person have an energy projection of one and not zero?

Likewise, if you are going to divide a book like this into two sections so the entries are NOT in absolute alphabetical order, some kind of table of contents is required!

This is carried through with the artwork. Some pieces have art from the original stories, others have modern artists' takes on the characters. Some artwork is cited, others are not. Again, how the main artwork is cited in the longer entries in the first half is different from the second half. Again, there is reasoning based on the page layouts, but there should be consistency throughout the book. If the smaller entries require it to be alongside the pictures in the margins, then it should be that way throughout the book. If the artist is unknown, that should be mentioned instead of left blank. Settle on a single format and be consistent throughout the book.

One could argue that the reasoning behind some having art from the original stories as the main illo and others not is because of the difficulty in getting a good enough scan of the original art or an image from the one appearance that would be appropriate. Except when you get to the Namor entry. His main illo is of him with a modern look as done by a modern artist. There is NO WAY THAT A DECENT IMAGE BY EVERETT OR EVEN SCHOMBURG COULD NOT BE FOUND TO BE USED. Heck, even the small John Byrne pic would have been better since that was at least more consistent with the way he originally looked.

Which gets at the core of the other problem, what is the purpose of this book? Ostensibly, it's to celebrate the heroes who first appeared in 1940 and prior of Marvel Comics. That's fine. No Captain America, no All-Winners Squad, no Union Jack, Dominic Fortune, Two-Gun Kid, etc. Yet, the book is a big failure in that regard. It's full of modern continuity and retcons and does not distinguish between information found solely in the original stories and what is part of modern continuity. Thus for Namor, we get as his main illo artwork that is nowhere close to how he originally was presented. The same is true for Red Raven, Thin Man, Mastermind Excello and the Eternal Brain. The first sentence of the entry of Mr. E is retcon information from The Twelve, a mini-series not even done yet. While the Phantom Reporter leaves out interesting tidbits actually in his original story (his mask seemed to glow and he had another identity of a rich playboy with a different name). That's just wrong. At this point, you're not celebrating these characters from 70 years ago, you're celebrating modern continuity and too worried over how they fit in the scheme of things today.

The biggest example of this is the entries for Hurricane and Mercury. They don't have one. Instead they are a small part of an entry for Makkari. It's a prime example of why I don't like that retcon, it completely subverts the original characters for a much later one. He does not deserve an entry, much less a two-page one in a book about GA heroes. He was created in 1971 and his GA ties are retcon ones. If his retcon adventures qualify him, then they should qualify EVERY character whose stories take place 1940 and before including all the Atlas Western heroes, the medieval Black Knight, Freedom's Five and the WWI Union Jack, etc. This is a handbook of the GA characters that were introduced 70 years ago (or a little prior as the case of Ka-zar) and that's the history that it should celebrate. The retcons and modern continuity should take a backseat to the originals. It's as I always said about making the characters Mercury/Hurricane part of Makkari's identity, we lost them as characters. They are now footnotes of the Eternal's character, it's two pages of information that has nothing to do with the actual GA characters where he deserves no more than a sentence in their entries. And, this just highlights that fact. The one place where they could be given to shine and stand as equals among the other heroes created at the same time, they are treated as less than Leonard McKenzie. I'd rather have seen two short entries, and used the space to highlight some villains. Likewise, Namor's entry could have just ended around his revival in the FF and the role he played in the revival of Captain America and just a summation sentence that he was still active today instead of going on. And on. And on. Red Raven who appeared in ONE Golden-age story has a two page entry!

It's just too full of retconned and modern history without any clear-cut demarcation between how the stories were originally and what they mean in modern continuity. As a true golden age reference book, it's not very useful except for the few characters that haven't been touched by modern hands.

The Ka-zar entry is the way I would have preferred all of them to be, focusing on information found in the original stories, with little to no mention of modern-day continuity. Of course, it makes him a contradiction as well. Judging from the other entries, one would expect that we'd have just gotten the history of the modern-day Ka-zar as his appearance pretty much negates the GA Ka-zar stories as they relate to Marvel continuity.

Lastly, I would have loved to have seen more villains and other colorful characters and less of the secondary characters such as Professor Horton and Namor's parents. Seriously, how does McKenzie rate a full page entry when everything needed to know about him is covered in the Namor bio? Ditto on Horton. How big of a role is he as a character in the actual GA Human Torch stories? Almost all of the information is from stories decades after the fact. Did we really need to have separate entries on Zog and Electro? Less waste and less focus on all of the modern continuity, we could have possibly gotten EVERY GA Timely character that held his own strip in a book not much larger than this, maybe even a timeline of characters' appearances and history from a strictly Timely perspective.

Project Superpowers: Chapter 2 #3: Chapter 2 continues to be an improvement over the first mini, though it's still stuck telling basically one long drawn out story. At least, there's a feeling of progression as lots of things happen and most of them not good for the heroes involved. Although, the revelation concerning the Black Terror's kid partner Tim is very reminiscent of the fate of Tim in the Terra Obscura minis. Overall though, the over arcing meta story is really kind of boring and a tired concept.

Surprise, surprise, I even approve (or at least understand) of the small change to Skyman. In this day and age, a character using that name just because he pilots a specialized airplane just isn't going to.. um.. fly. So, it makes a bit of sense to actually have him be able to fly. Although, by jet-boots? It doesn't really work with the look of his character.

Project Superpowers: Meet the Badguys #2: Joe Casey manages to make the most out of the rather non-sensical status quo of the Fighting Yank in this "story". I also find it interesting that the Revolutionary has on his chest a ring of stars as that's the look of Roy Thomas' retcon character Spirit of '76, distinguishing him from the Fighting Yank who he was visibly based on.

Sadly, that's all that recommends this book. As per Casey's habit, the character the book is supposed to be about is not explained at all. No motivation for any of his actions. No backstory. No explanation of just what are his powers or the source of them. Like almost every story I've read by him, it's all set-up and no actual story. He seems to be trying to paint him as a possible hero or anti-hero and the fact that the seems a cross between Lobo, Ghost Rider and a cracked mirror reflection of the Yank is enough for the readers to know. As we have no motivation for his anarchic behavior and willingness to use potentially lethal force, we don't know why he is supposed to be considered a possible hero. Also, these are supposed to be the "bad guys" yet this issue and the last remove the teeth from the characters they introduce. It seems to be more of showing the feet of clay of the heroes vs the more pure if violent anti-heroes. Are they villains or not? And, when you have your heroes set up to be terrorists, what exactly makes these guys the bad guys?

The artwork is painted prettily in places but is bad at sequentially illustrating a story. Pages are often too dark while simultaneously being just unclear as to what actions they are supposed to be depicting. Of course, so is Casey's script, so in that regard they are a perfect marriage.

Sherlock Holmes #5: A bit anti-climactic in the ending as it's just a quick and easy trial, with little real drama as Holmes pretty much reveals that he already knew everything. Some things seem a little unexplained as issue 4 built up a master mystery thief but that goes nowhere other than to serve as part of the frame job of Holmes. Overall, not a bad story but a little bland.

The Torch #2: Great cover. The story is decent too in that we see what makes the Thinker a formidable foe. But, it's not really going anywhere either. Two issues into the story and all we really have is the original Human Torch revived as a weapon. Too much of the story is too busy being about continuity and explaining the continuity and not the actual title characters doing anything. At this pace, it's going to be an 8 issue mini that could have been done in three.

The problem is that writers today don't really know how to pace out story lines and subplots. A more talented writer would have found a way to have Toro in the main story being active fighting villains and finding his place in the modern world of heroes and as a civilian, while having the Thinker, his research and fan-boy need to over-explain every little thing serve as a sub-plot or second tier to the main story, building to a head. What we got is mostly boring and do we really care about this fine detail of why Toro catches on fire too? Is there going to be a big enough payoff in the relevancy of these details that has taken two issues to detail in such a dull way? Because, right now, it's not the story that's carrying the book or the title characters, it's the personality of the Thinker. Other than his characterization, it's not hard to see that this is largely the same creative team behind the above Superpowers book.

Witchfinder #4: Continues to be an excellent creepy and eerie book, a throwback to what made the Hellboy books so entertaining before they became about their own continuity. A shame that the timing couldn't have made it be a complete read in time for Halloween.

Pulp Matter:
An interesting synchronicity of pulp stories lately. At a recent trip to a local used bookstore, I came across a Bantam Doc Savage double reprint I didn't own. I think it may be the last of my holes with the doubles, now it's just hunting down a couple of the omnibuses. The two stories are "The One-Eyed Mystic" and "The Man Who Fell Up". Both are excellent stories with wonderful "impossible" occurrences drawing Doc into the action. In the pulps, only Doc and Monk actually have their hair color mentioned, so it's interesting that in the "Mystic" story we find out that Renny's hair is not red as that is his hair color in the DC comics from some years ago.

In "Mystic", Renny is on his way flying out for a vacation when he gets into an argument with a mystic on the plane. He falls asleep and wakes up as a two-bit crook, even looking like him when he looks in a mirror. He finds out that while he is this crook, there is evidence linking his real body to a murder that he knows nothing about. When knocked unconscious, he wakes up again as his old self in the town he was heading to. The mystery is compounded when later Doc has trailed the mystic aboard another passenger plane and under the cover of smoke while in flight, the mystic completely vanishes off the plane and is replaced by someone who insists he never boarded the plane.

Meanwhile, in "The Man Who Fell Up" the story centers around a body that falls out of a skyscraper only to fall up instead of down, a mysterious green fog, and strange attitudes by Monk and Ham.

While originally, these stories were written years apart, it's no coincidence they are paired together in this double. Despite wildly different beginnings, the inventions behind the actions of the bad guys are remarkably similar. There are other familiar tropes and storytelling choices that are cliched if you read many of these, so it's not too terribly hard to figure out who some of the bad guys are.

Meanwhile, Sanctum Books has released the second two-story reprints of the Avenger, reprinting the stories "The Sky Walker" and "The Devil's Horns" (as well as a Whisperer short-story "Boulevard of Death"). While The Avenger pulps advertised as being by the creator of Doc Savage, "Kenneth Robeson", the reality was that Robeson was just a house name for other writers. Lester Dent who wrote the majority of the Doc novels and had a hand in most of the ghosted ones, had little to do with the Avenger written by pulp writer Paul Ernst However, "The Sky Walker" involves a jet made of transparent materials, something that Will Murray ruminates about a bit in an article in the book. According to Murray, Dent apparently wrote a short-story involving a similar plot device early in his career but never published. Murray doesn't go into any more detail than that about this short-story. Even if not true, the plane in "The Sky Walker" still pre-dates Wonder Woman's by some years. What's not mentioned is Dent did get around to using that idea eventually. In the Doc Savage story "The Man Who Fell Up", Doc has a mostly invisible jet. Like "The Sky Walker", everything is invisible except for the engine. To aid the invisibility aspect, in the Doc story, the engine is painted to mimic the sky on the bottom and the ground on the top. It even mentions the one drawback, it doesn't take long for soot and all to gather on the otherwise transparent aircraft. And, like many of Doc's planes, it doesn't last 5 pages before it gets blown out of the sky, in this case by a man falling up. As far as I know, it's not mentioned again, presumably Doc saw it as a failure and by that point Wonder Woman was zipping along everywhere in her not too original Invisible airplane. It does give credence to Murray's wondering if there was at least some collaboration between Ernst and Dent though, especially if there's that unpublished short story out there somewhere. Maybe, we'll see it see print some day too.