Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Random Thoughts: Costume Design and Telepathy

Here is a pet peeve of mine. One of many I guess. The artwork to the left is from JMS' new series Superman: Earth One. Forget that the concept itself is a bit over-done and only serves to dilute the power of the original and we saw exactly where this kind of thinking and publishing goes with Marvel's Ultimates line. No, my peeve here is about the costume redesign as it illustrates perfectly one of the more inane features of 21st Century costume designs. In ten years or so, we'll be talking about the bad designs of the early two-thousands and this will stand out much the same way we talk about 1990's costumes with mullets, shoulder-pads, bulky pouches on every single body part that could conceivably hold one and over-sized handguns that are in inverse proportion to the size of the hero's wrist holding it. This modern costume feature? Piping. Blow the image up and you'll see it, clearly used to define the edges of the chest and overly rendered sixpack abs. Another bit is on his inner thigh.

The stupidity here is that the piping in superhero costumes come from movies and television shows such as "Who Wants to be a Superhero". There the piping makes a bit of sense as its purpose is to do for real life costumes worn by real people what the comic book artist does for the costumes and characters in the comics. In real life, a person wearing tights, the costume isn't going to show off or delineate his muscles. Depending on the costume and fabric, it's going to wrinkle and be a little bulky looking or it's going to flatten the build and muscles (the difference being the George Reeves Superman look and the Christopher Reeve Superman look). Depending on the person's build and proportions and the costume design, the large areas of flat color with no detail may not be all that flattering a look. Thus, piping makes sense. It generally follows the contours of the human body, highlighting the shape and musculature of the body underneath while breaking up large blocks of flat color/no detail area. It's not needed here because you have the artist already working overtime to render every single muscle as if the hero has been flayed open. Here, the only purpose the piping could serve is to re-assure the reader that Superman is indeed wearing a costume and not just having his body painted blue and big "S" sticker affixed to his chest.

No Ordinary Family: This has been a guilty pleasure of mine. I say guilty because in many ways it isn't really very thought out or well done. Chiklis is a police artist, his job is drawing pictures of suspects, yet he routinely goes out to fight crime without the least care in disguising himself, especially since he is physically very memorable looking. Last week's episode showed the dangers of such and he does attempt a bit of a disguise with a hood, showing they are aware of the problem. This week? Back out confronting criminals with no type of disguise. Julie Benz keeps doing things with her super speed that works fine in comics but when you see it played out on the screen, it just screams that in no way it would work. The son deciding to use his math play football makes sense as a decision that a teenage boy would come up with, but again, the reality of it would play out very different. Knowing the angles and what to do is one thing, being able to physically do it is another. Thanks to this week's episode, I got to thinking about telepathy and mind-reading. It is so ingrained in us through tv, comics, classic sci-fi, and movies, I don't think anyone has really given it that much thought. Even when not talking about telepathy, when we see/hear/read people's thoughts in novels, comics and film, it's almost always in printed form, we get their thoughts spelled out for us in complete sentences. To the point, that we take it for granted, forgetting that the presentation is really a short-hand for something that is abstract and nebulous. We don't actually think that way (or only that way) and thus telepathy would probably work very differently.

Think about this, you're driving down the highway with the radio on. Your mind is doing several tasks at once. One, paying attention to where you're driving. You may be singing to the radio, thus you're also thinking of the song and the words coming up and the tune. You're also processing all the fall leaves and color, reading the signs for your exit. The song itself may summon up images of a childhood sweetheart or a scene it's illustrating. Now, as a writer I spend time driving thinking about things to write, or in this case, telepathy. Otherwise, most times, we don't think in concrete direct complete sentences. Trapped in a secret or to tell a lie, we don't think in sentence about what we're trying to cover up, but often what can we say instead and does the person in front of us believe us. If I look at someone that's attractive, I don't usually literally think, "wow, she's attractive" but is a far more visceral response. If I tell you to think of a Pink Panther, are you thinking the words, the cartoon character, Steve Martin, or Peter Sellers or all of the above. A telepath wouldn't hear sentences, and if they did, most of them would be jumbled, stream of consciousness or one word responses. They should pick up the various stimuli the person is being exposed to and maybe in the varying degrees of strength that those are imprinting on the person's thought processes jumbled with words and abstract thought that the person may be going through. A few times, someone will be shown to be telepathic in such a manner, but in those cases, the thought processes are even more fragmented, to be almost all dream-like and nebulous, as if the person being read is high on some kind of mind altering substance, it's all external stimuli but no reading of actual thought processes.

Imagine what it really would be like being a telepath in high school and not being able to turn it off, able to read the minds of every hormone sexually charged and frustrated teen-ager, of all their insecurities, focusing on class subject matter, dreading tests. It would be a nightmare. And, probably not at all conducive to any kind of linear storytelling.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Halloween equals good comics

I am finding that October and the time of Halloween is a time for some good comics. It's been perfect time in past years for dipping into the back-issue trades and picking up some of the Horror-hero characters from Marvel such as Essentials starring Ghost Rider, Doctor Voodoo, the Living Mummy, and the Scarecrow. This year there is a nice smallish volume featuring some of the b/w magazine stories featuring their various vampires including Morbius (one of my favorites, especially when done by Gil Kane). There is also a hardcover sampling of Dick Briefer's Frankenstein stories, a series that ran the gamut of being straight forward horror, to a supervillain, to an almost cuddly affable monster ala Herman Munster, years before that series ever did it.

Angel vs Frankenstein II: John Byrne returns this Halloween to Angel & Frankenstein. As with the first one, the only real drawback is that it could use another issue or two to really bring out the tension and horror as there is so much for one issue to do. It's a period piece, so it has to establish both the physical place but also the status quo and supporting cast and make us care for them and worry about them. Byrne manages in a few short pages to introduce various characters, some with secrets, relationships and pasts all of their own and make them compelling enough that a one issue story just seems too short for them. His version of the Frankenstein Monster is in keeping with the classic novel. He's bizarre and scary looking and presented as a sociopath and not some misunderstood Romantic Hero. The story presents about as definitive a death scene as you can possibly get when dealing with a creature that seems too tough to die.

Batman: Hidden Treasures: Most new fans think of horror comics and they no doubt think of the likes of the dark fantasy of Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. Older fans will think of the works of Tom Sutton, Mike Ploog and the legendary Berni Wrightson. Berni is one of those creators like Steranko, Barry Windsor Smith, Dave Stevens and Neal Adams, men who don't have many lengthy credits or long stretches of work to their name, but the little they have done was game changing and influential on so many levels. Wrightson's name is inextricably linked to Swamp Thing, but he's proven to be a great Batman artist. This book presents two Batman stories, one previously unpublished and one that has been published many times when he and Swamp Thing first crossed paths.

The first story part prose and part pin-ups as Batman investigates a serial killer of homeless people and it leads him to Slaughter Swamp and comic's first swamp monster, Solomon Grundy. The prose of the story is a little confusing at first as the identity of the narrator is kept purposely obscure until the end. However, I spent considerable time in the first two pages trying to figure out the point of view of the story, who the narrator was as it doesn't make it clear that the narrator is not supposed to be a witness to the events of the story. It's only by the tone that you first rule out Batman and then Commissioner Gordon and after that point, I was sufficiently hooked into the story to not care. In fact, when the revelation did come, it just seemed a bit too cutesy and I really no longer cared.

Wrightson's art is excellent and strong enough that Kevin Nowlan's usually overpowering inking was kept to a minimum annoyance. Most of the time I could forget Nowlan was the inker until certain panels with people's faces and his habit of going cubist on straight on head-shots of characters by making their mouths look like they are being viewed by an extreme angle, at odds with the rest of the face. It tends to give all his faces this puckered or constipated expression. Plus, his line is often thin and inorganic, something I wouldn't think to match up with an artist like Wrightson whose art is practically synonymous for being natural and organic. However, for the most part the pairing works surprisingly well.

The second story is the reprinted "Night of the Bat" by Lein Wein and Wrightson from Swamp Thing #7, first series. The story has obviously been re-colored which makes its presence known in several places, such as putting a leaf pattern in Swamp Thing's thought balloons. I miss this version of Swamp Thing, when he really was Alec Holland and before he went all supernatural and elemental.

JSA 80-Page Giant 2010: This is one of those books that if I looked at it first I would have returned it. It was a JSA book so it got put in my bag automatically and I did not realize it was not the regular monthly title since it had the Justice Society of America title logo in the usual place. Instead it's just a big book focusing on the legacy characters in short story bits with varying degrees of lameness. The Obsidian story contained the overpowering and scratchy inks of Bill Sienkiewicz in a story that was little more than the writer recapping Obsidian's lifestory and homosexuality, reinforcing his total misinterpretation of Obsidian's story in the JLA. And, as the plot is about Obsidian and his boyfriend trying to adopt and thus the regaling of his life-story, it's lame in that we don't get a reason they are turned down. Especially as the most logical conclusion of him being a superhero is denied. Told what it's not, but not what it is. The Jesse Quick story was passable with nice art but otherwise unforgettable. Mr. Terrific's story was confusing as it starts with a guy in a coma, I at first figured everything after that was meant to be a flashback on how he got to be in a coma. Instead, it was supposed to be about him coming out of the coma. A pity the artist drew him asleep then. And, we see Mr. Terrific now flying with some kind of jet-boots? Cyclone's story reinforces her contradictory nature. In many ways she's annoying and she's meant to be and yet I find her all the more likable and fresh for that. The best thing about the Wildcat and son story was that for once his son didn't annoy me in a bad way too much and the artwork was far better than I had seen by Williams in JSA All-Stars. Sand and Dr. Fate were just boring, to the point that I kept nodding off in between word balloons in mid panel. Then there's the whole idea that the latter story is telling readers it's ok to commit suicide in order to be reunited with the ones you love.

Magnus #2: A solid comic that updates the future of Magnus for modern sensibilities but still has enough of the style, themes and background to be familiar with the other versions. The artist at times seems a little overwhelmed at times in depicting the action scenes or small things like a character's hairstyle. As the story concerned itself with white slavery and exploitation of women, the comic veers close to being too adult and prurient when it doesn't really need to be.

We get signs that in the future, there are other threats other than just the robots, including cyborgs and what appear to be aliens that consider human meat a delicacy. This brings a needed variety to Magnus' future world. Even more development of that world is needed, though. The book was originally created in the 1960s, we could use a book that is more multi-cultural, with more strong female characters other than Leeja who offers herself up as victim-bait this issue.

Warlord of Mars #1: Calling the book "Warlord of Mars" and I'd expect that ideally, John Carter would be on Mars by the third page. I don't think you need to drag out his past, it's not really that important. However, this is a Dynamite book so I don't really expect to see John Carter get to Mars until the fourth issue, they like their decompression too much and dragging out the origins of the characters.

Surprisingly, it didn't bother me too much with the first issue in that they decided to tell a dual story giving us the backgrounds of both Carter and Tars Tarkas so we see still get quite a bit of Mars. I think the backdrop at least gives us an idea of what kind of man John Carter is, fiercely loyal and quick to fight if the situation demands it. What is missing is the idea from the books that Carter is some kind of immortal with little memory of his past but always finding himself embroiled in conflict and battles.

Sadowski delivers on the art and it's not so colored that the pencils are lost. However, the story is a bit confusing as Union Soldiers are colored to be wearing grays, the short-hand identification of the Rebels. Maybe the colorist didn't know that the bad-guys in the story were supposed to be the Northerners and not the South for a change?

Multiple covers, so I chose the Joe Jusko one myself. Reminded me of when I first discovered John Carter, Deja Thoris and Tars Tarkas and those paperback covers.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Legend of the Guard, Baltimore, and Dr. Solar

Was cleaning up for my girlfriend's visit and came across a few books that I had thought were worth recommending and somehow just fell by the wayside.

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #3: Mouse Guard is one of the best Independent comics out there and something that is designed to appeal to a wider range of ages and audiences than your typical superhero comic now put out by the major companies. I normally don't get it for a couple of reasons. One, the price on them always seemed a bit high to the actual time it would take to read it. Two, the art which I like on browsing the comic I discovered didn't really work for me in large dosage after I sat down to read one of the trades that I checked out of the library. In small doses, for a page or two, I find the art and print quality striking, but I cannot put my finger on why it doesn't work for me in the longer form. However, Legends of the Guard #3 has smaller stories by other creators such as B.P.R.D.'s and The Marquis' Guy Davis. The other creators in this issue I'm not as familiar with, but the stories are all top notch, most with a humorous bent. "The Ballad of Nettledown" by Nate Pride has a certain Jeff Smith feel in places and delivers a wonderfully whimsical tale. The final story is a truncated adaption of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" with appropriately gloomy art, perfect for reading in October.

Baltimore: The Plague Ships: A while back, Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden wrote the novel Baltimore or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. As a novel, it fits firmly the style of Mignola's original Hellboy comic book tales though it does not take place in that world. Instead, its action is in the final days of World War I, where Captain Baltimore discovers something worse than the War, vampires who are responsible for widespread sickness and deaths that are being passed off as a plague sweeping England. Plus, he earns the personal enmity of one that he had dared to defy and scar during the War and whom he vows to hunt down and kill. Most of the novel, Baltimore is little seen, as it centers largely around several of his friends that are waiting for him in an inn and their sharing stories of horrors and terrors they have personally seen and experienced.

"The Plague Ships" is a mini-series set largely in the missing years of the novel, after Baltimore's experience in the War but before his climactic meeting with his friends and the final confrontation. As such, the mood and atmosphere of a world that is gray, dismal, and claustrophobic in its feel of impending doom is carried over from the novel. The second issue slows down the story to take time to visibly recount Baltimore's war-time experiences and encountering the vampire. The art by Ben Stenback is not as stylized as Mignola's but it grounds the story with a relative down to earth realism that underscores the horrors. Colorist Dave Stewart knows his craft well, how to use color to supplement the mood and atmosphere of the story without being distracting.

Another beautiful book by Mignola and the people at Dark Horse is the slim hard-cover volume The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects. The book collects various one-shot stories and stories produced as part of anthologies: "The Amazing Screw-On Head", "The Magician and the Snake", and "Abu Gung and the Beanstalk" (which is actually re-done and expanded for this volume). To round it out are also a trio of stories done specifically for this book and a sketchbook which are always fun to look at. It is also one of the most affordable buys around, $17.99 at full US price. That's cheaper than many trades and this actually has substantial new material and will look good on any bookshelf.

The only drawback is a backpage of advertising for other books by Dark Horse and collections of Mignola's. Not something I look for in my hardbacks.

Lastly, also from Dark Horse, is the trade paperback collecting the first seven issues of Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom. First published in 1962 and 1963, one can see how the title reflects the times but manages also something different. Think of the first issues of Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Justice League. Think of the first few stories of Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. While Stan Lee talks about how he was trying to write superheroes for a sophisticated audience, Western's take on superheroes seemed to really walk the walk. Doctor Solar was the type of science fiction hero one would almost expect to see on television. His powers had a severe drawback that provided tension between him and his would be girlfriend. The stories themselves were more along the lines of popular spy shows or science-fiction shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. There was something more literary and even more real-world than anything going on at DC or Marvel. While Charlton had the similarly powered Captain Atom whose appearances bracketed these stories, it might be their Peacemaker that came closest to reflecting a real-world superhero. Added to that are early stylistic covers by Richard M. Powers reflecting many of his science fiction covers at the time while the later painted covers by George Wilson was reminiscent of many 1950s lurid paperback covers (I believe he also painted the covers of a few Phantom paperbacks). Wilson painted covers for much of Western Publishing's line, easily separating them visibly from the standard comic book covers of the other companies on the racks. His covers alone are often worth getting the books for, Dark Horse should do an art book just collecting all his various covers, though that may mean working out a deal from the property holders of Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Dark Shadows, etc.

Likewise, the artwork by Bob Fujitani and Frank Bolle are decidedly not flashy as Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, or even Don Heck. This is interesting as in the 1940s, Fujitani was one of the more bombastic and stylistic artists around. Otherwise, the illustrations looked like it belonged more to a slick magazine than one of a superhero. Even when he finally does get in a real costume like a more standard superhero, it's still very utilitarian looking and possessing wrinkles and folds.

Looking back, at least to this volume, the stories might seem a little dull. His powers are ill-defined and powerful yet often leaving him vulnerable to wearing himself out. In fact, that was the biggest danger, no one was really a direct threat. In that way, the stories were not too dissimilar to the adventures of various television heroes in the 1970s where we saw the likes of the Bionic Man, the Invisible Man, and the Incredible Hulk taking on fairly mundane type threats. Yet, it's this grounding that makes the character and stories seem more serious about the science and basic realism that it's going for. It's not the 1950s science fiction and characterization still fueling DC nor the over-wrought teen-age angst and pop culture science fiction storytelling that drove Marvel. Doctor Solar and the rest of their line looked like they were truly offering something for more discriminating readers.

And, this carries over into the trade's appearance as well. With the cover being a reproduction of one of Richard Powers abstract covers on the front and the more pulp-paperback influenced painting by George Wilson on the top half of the back, even the trade looks like it takes itself a bit more seriously than most comic book reprints.

I'm glad to see Dark Horse reprinting these in paperback as well as the Archives, which are just a bit out of my price range.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Todays Comics Looking to the Past

Since I probably won't be getting any new comics this week and I've not talked about comics in a little while, here's my chance to plug away.

Captain America: The Patriot: Two issues have come out and I'm conflicted on the book. General consensus on the web seems to be as well. Most seem to praise the artwork over the writing (I guess because Kesel is not Brubaker) whereas I'm a bit the other way around. Kesel does seem to be writing Brubaker-lite, but I think he does an admirable job at writing the history of a man whose history is generally known. He succeeds in doing so without actually changing known facts and keeping the focus and point of view on Jeff Mace and his view of things. The art is passable in most places and is in keeping in toning down the gosh-wow factor of superheroes and their costumes that passes for good superhero art these days as half the artists seem embarrassed at drawing superheroes.

The second issue is where it really begins to falter. The problem is that while it is telling a good character-centric story and makes Jeff Mace seem like a decent and likable lunkhead, it and the art never get across why the characters are cool characters. The highlight of the whole issue is when he gets fed up with Namor's snarkiness and attitude and punches him. There you see his passion. Otherwise, as soon as Mace puts on the Captain America costume he becomes a second-rate hero in his own book. Every story of the fill-in Captain Americas center around why they were bad Captain Americas. As this is his chance to shine, it would be nice that the focus went the other way, why he was such a good choice for Captain America. Maybe the best choice for the time period. There are little bits where he shines such as the afore-mentioned conflict with Namor, but otherwise it is more about his shortcomings.

Other little things that bug me, Kesel seems to forget that the Bucky he's writing is not the original Bucky, at least in the way he writes him. Bucky comes off as a better fighter and hero and constantly berating Patriot-Cap, even though Patriot would have been a superhero for much longer. And, this Bucky has only been Bucky for just a couple of months longer than Jeff has been Cap, so it seems especially strange for Bucky to constantly be talking and acting as if he has so much more experience.

Kesel also uses the term "blue ticketed" to explain the discharge of a friend of the Patriot's and his subsequent suicide and why Jeff cannot appear as Captain America at the guy's funeral. It is also used to explain why Jeff would never become the Patriot again as his appearance and impassioned speech at his friend's funeral in the guise of the Patriot would make that identity a pariah. However, what Kesel doesn't do is explain what "blue ticketed" actually meant. He gives us the effect, but the closest he gets to the cause is the Whizzer asking if his buddy had a girlfriend. A Blue Ticket discharge was a way to get undesirables ie blacks and homosexuals out of the service without it actually being a formal dishonorable discharge and such a discharge haunted the men back in civilian life. Sure, we don't want clunky exposition, but it could have been handled a little better.

One of the pleasures was seeing the focus on Miss Patriot in this series. Appearing only once in the Golden-Age, here and her identity as a fellow co-reporter of Jeff Mace's she plays a central role. From the start of the second issue, we get the hints of bad things to come, that is if you know the history of Captain America and Bucky. After WWII, there was an explosion of good-girl art and characters. Most of them were jungle queens, but Timely/Atlas/Marvel explored shapely female heroines along the lines of Sun Girl and Golden Girl. Thinking that Captain America might do better with an adult female sidekick, Bucky is shot by a lady criminal called Lady Lavender and Cap recruits the help of Golden Girl who is Betty Ross, a long recurring character and possible romantic interest in the Golden-age Captain America tales.

That's a lot of threads being tied together in this one comic. We see Mary/Miss Patriot several times with a mention of her Lavender perfume each time. One discussion even centers around Jeff accusing her of hoping that Bucky is shot so that she could become his partner. Then you factor in that Jeff is generally oblivious of her romantic feelings for him and that he pretty much ruins her career as Miss Patriot when he destroys the Patriot's reputation. Mary's path is obviously becoming a sad tragic one. And, when Bucky is shot at the end of the issue with the smell of lavender in the air, Cap will get a future female partner but it will not be Mary. What we don't really get is the feeling that Mary has gone over the edge. We see her as being sad, but we don't actually see the bitterness. You feel sorry for her but don't see that final step or sign that she has gone over the edge, it's a huge gap in the portrayal of her characterization. It might be Kesel just trying to be coy for just a little too long, or a sign that she's not really the villainess (after all other women probably wear the same perfume). Either way, it's obviously going to be a story that doesn't end well for Jeff or Mary.

DC Universe Legacies #5: I had sworn off this book, didn't get issue four because the writing had so many holes and internal discrepancies in it that it was a chore to read to try to figure out exactly what the point of it was. However, issue five shows this book's perspective of Crisis on Infinite Earth's and with it, the wonderful George Perez doing what he does best: drawing scores of superheroes on model in big battle scenes. Not only that, we get an appearance by one of my favorite wonky silver-age characters Ultra, the Multi-Alien, who was left out of the original mega-mini. Couple that with a great little back-up with art by Walt Simonson teaming up Space Ranger, Adam Strange, Captain Comet and Tommy Tomorrow. Other than Adam Strange, the others don't have much to do, but it's great seeing them again looking the way they should.

And, as I usually come down hard on colorists, this is a book where the colorist gets it. His skin tones are natural and subtle, no obvious banding to the point that under most lighting conditions, people's skin appears only to have two tones, you generally don't have bright highlights on skin. No blurring of speed lines and edges of super-speed characters, no obvious texture fills, etc. In general, no special effect that actually draws attention to itself, the coloring instead serves to help the art to tell the story, something important in artwork that's dense like Perez.

While the writing still makes as little sense as ever (we have references to Judomaster as a modern day hero and Captain Atom in a costume he didn't actually wear in the DCU other than as part of government cover-up suggesting a career that was longer than it was), it's at least a book that looks good.
JSA #43: It read like a setup issue by a writer who is not the regular writer of either principle character of the story or title with a plot that has similarities to the upcoming story arc by the new regular writer, the JSA take over the running of a town. Just as Robinson's JLA/JSA arc featured heavily Obsidian going bad/being taken control of immediately after a series culminating with Obsidian stating that would never happen again. Serious, what is the editor doing on this book?

I think part of this was to actually give some kind of reason that Robinson's storyline mattered. Because, otherwise, it's no big deal that Obsidian and Jade cannot be in proximity because other than their days as part of Infiniti Inc, they rarely are featured together, each following different paths and teams. And, she's been dead. So, he needed this bit of durm und strang to make it seem like what just happened was this really big deal. However, just how much time has passed between issues? For everything that Alan Scott has done on the moon it would have to be close to a year at least, that he's been able to master talking to different races in their speech patterns, broker truce treaties with various worlds and realms AND research with Fate Obsidian and Jade's condition and the various futures.

Project Superpowers: Chapter Two #12: The final issue of the second series, the big Claw battle seems almost like an afterthought. In many ways it's a retread of the previous battle with Zeus, the heroes fighting a giant god-like being that they don't have the power to kill. The Claw battle has a bit more of a philosophical/moral dilemma in that his body is made up of innocents and thus to defeat him means killing or condemning thousands of people who don't deserve to die, drawing parallels to dropping the Atomic bomb to end the war with Japan. It's an anti-climactic ending though. Part of that was rendering the heroes ostensibly immortal and another that the Claw is such an ill-defined threat. And, you have the heroes apparently readily accepting Dynamic Man and Power Nelson into the folds despite their traitorous crimes.

In Chapter One and the Death Defying Devil minis, the Claw was a terrorist organization and an almost demonic entity that possessed others. It was a storytelling device that could have been used to fuel quite a few different type of stories or a long series in and of itself ala the mostly excellent JSA vs Kobra mini. But, much of that is dropped in making him a more physical threat. He goes from some kind of long plan insidious goals to one of more direct physical confrontation and easily handled. The actual terror of what he is and what he does doesn't really come across as it has been too far into the background of the storyline that focused more on Zeus and the identity of DDD. What could have been a heart and gut wrenching tale is ho-hum. After all, the Claw only absorbed one person we could even possibly care about.

The drawing AND the coloring improve. In a book like this, cannot really separate the two, but for the most part, the two do merge to make single whole. Although, the style has its shortcomings such as a page that has a 15 panel grid of single heroes in battle. The panels are too small, the detail needed too tight for such over done coloring.

Time Masters: Vanishing Point: The mini suffers from not having any clear direction or plot. We know the over-arcing plot, that the small group of heroes are traveling through time to rescue Batman. But, as his return is the focus of another book, that's obviously not the point of this one. So, instead, we have a battle alongside heroes of other times against other ill-defined threats. Meanwhile some classic mastermind villains are exploring the remains of Booster's headquarters, Vanishing Point, for some clues and power to reshape time. Despite these villains each being scientific masterminds, they are give little to do. The Ultra-Humanite is used mainly to being a short-tempered foil and for his brute strength. Jurgens does little to really explain or characterize many of the characters, some of whom who haven't appeared in comics for decades.

With the second issue, I noticed the art looked off. It looked a bit like Jurgens but it seemed to be more of all of his shortcomings and not his strengths, that bodies looked stiff and disproportionate, reminding me of bad Jim Starlin in places. I looked at the credits and saw that Jurgens was only the layout artist and with two different finishers, explaining the inconsistencies. With issue three, we still just have Jurgens on layouts but at least only one guy doing the finished art. However, it still looks like "bad Jurgens" art. One of the big problems is that with both issues, the art is trying hard to have all the principle characters with their bodies facing the reader. Heroes are constantly fighting threats behind them and looking over their shoulders, having conversations while not facing each other, and so on. One panel has Booster and Starfire talking about being surrounded. Not only are they hardly surrounded, but half of their foes are not even looking at them. It looks more like a group of people just milling around than any kind of threat. The one good news is that either the coloring is not as bad with the computerized effects or it just distracts you from it.

And, why is the Black Beetle almost completely red?

The only reason to get this book is the chance to see Bronze-age characters like Claw and the original Starfire, Despero and Per Degaton in their original looks. For that, I'm a sucker.

Peter Cannon, Whereforth Art Thou?
The story goes that shortly after DC canceled his series and he made a couple of appearances in Justice League Task Force, the rights to Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt returned to his creator Peter Morisi, shortly before he died. As such, he was the only character that was part of a Justice League book to not appear in the JLA/Avengers mini. Of course, there was some justification that that the heroes that appeared in Task Force were never actual JL members and so didn't require an appearance, but he is still the sole notable exception. Even Hourman from the same story was in there.

However, we have Thunderbolt appearing in TWO different DC books this past month. One, alongside the other Charlton heroes in DCUniverse: Legacies #5 which admittedly has other problems in the same panel: the WWII Judomaster and Captain Atom appearing in his red, blue and silver outfit when he wasn't really on the scene at this time, in this costume, both being government fabrications. Meanwhile in Justice League: Generation Lost, we have a retelling of the scene in Kingdom Come where the Charlton heroes alongside Magog track down the Parasite who uses his powers to split open Captain Atom and setting off an atomic explosion and is pretty much the kick-off event of that mini. In the comic, Thunderbolt is identified by name and is show in the more GA Daredevil influenced costume.

Makes you wonder what is going on. Do we have two blatant examples of editors just not doing their jobs and allowing the exact same copyright infringement? Is the original story about the character's rights reverting to Morisi just a comicbook legend? Did DC buy the character back? Of the three, I'd say the latter is the most unlikely. Why buy the rights back and debut him back into the DCU in what are largely throwaway scenes where the character does absolutely nothing? Either of the other two are the most likely though it's strange to see him appear in two completely different books out of the blue. But, no love for the Son of Vulcan (I like the name, design and concept of the character, his actual comic though was beyond bad).
Black Terror Canceled. Been seeing references that the Black Terror book has been canceled. A shame but not surprising. The book never gelled, the plotlines and the stories never actually developed the character other than to add kewl pirate motif elements. What could have been a decent book about a super-powered Batman type character fighting super-criminals and bizarre mysteries never became anything more than a book about a perpetually angry and gruff hero. No supporting cast or characterization was developed over just following up plot threads left over from the Superpowers book itself. A shame as I believe Dynamite was right in focusing on him as a character to launch a single character title. He has one of the more iconic costumes, names and storytelling potential. If only they had approached it as they were telling a single character comic and not a "comic universe" comic and actually looked at the source material that made him such an enduring character and concept to begin with and not just the revisionist ill-tempered Black Terror of Superpowers.

The Return of the Originals: On the subject of pulps, I have started my own blog reviewing various pulp novels and characters. So far, two entries. One, a Secret Agent "X" novel and two, the Doc Savage rift Thunder Jim Wade and his final novel. This blog started off as a pulp and comic review site, but it's difficult to do both subjects justice in one place. Plus, the overlap may not be all that great as many fans and readers of pulps don't translate to being fans of modern comics, as we will see below.

Moonstone is getting ready to launch what they call the "Return of the Originals", ie seeing many of the original pulp heroes into their line of comicbooks. They've already been using Domino Lady although the first issue failed to me in any way other than just being badly done and the Spider has been appearing in some illustrated prose "comics". They have also published a couple of really good books, one being radio scripts of Doc Savage written by Lester Dent and an Avenger anthology of short-stories by modern writers, most of whom get the character far better than anyone at DC does (it could have used an editor overseeing the original stories as many centered around introducing various characters from Richard Benson's past).

This website has a host of interviews with people involved in reprinting and writing modern pulp stories and comics as well as many of the people behind Moonstone's upcoming foray (you'll have to scroll down to get to them).

One of the standard questions they ask is how the interviewee feels about DC's take on Doc and the Avenger and modern revisions/reimaginings of the characters. It's almost funny at the spin that each writer gives as they are all doing pretty much the same thing to different degrees. I give Hopkins a break with the Golden Amazon because she did have a couple of different irreconcilable back-stories. Sort of like the Alec Baldwin Shadow movie which tries to combine both the radio Shadow and the pulp Shadow into one character. The creators behind the Green Ghost and the Phantom Detective both talk about using as much of the original published history as possible. But, both decide to give them powers. While the writer of the Moon Man changes the gender of his chief assistant for no good reason (there's already a capable love interest in the original stories).

The Ghost gets his new powers through a new mask and the Phantom Detective gains abilities through using performance enhancing (and mind altering drugs). What's really funny about this is the Phantom Detective writer brings out all sorts of psycho-babble to justify it, that he feels he's being made obsolete due to the explosion of costumed heroes with real powers. This is sorta true meta-fictionally. The pulp heroes did give way to the costumed comicbook heroes. In fact, the Phantom Detective was also in the comics as his publisher was one of the big companies at the time. HOWEVER, Moonstone does not have that superhero-universe. There are no true super-powered heroes bursting on the scene unless this writer creates them. Plus, it's a flawed argument in that the presence of superheroes does not make police, soldiers, firemen and detectives superfluous. It's a writer that truly does not get the character or subject matter.

Likewise, the interview concerning the Black Bat goes along the same lines. The character debuted the same time as Batman with a similar look. More importantly though, his origin was pretty much lifted for both Dr. Mid-nite and Two-Face, at a trial he has a vial of acid thrown at his face which scars him (and leaves him blind). After a secret experimental surgery, he discovers he can see in the day and night and with a small gang of aides, he fights crime. He's not above killing criminals especially the ringleaders beyond the touch of the Law, but he doesn't set out to kill them. Of course in the one online preview, we see him killing drug dealers execution style and driven by voices in his head. Yet, this complete revision of the character isn't seen as being the same as Azzarello's handling of Doc Savage? Maybe it's because they talk about how much they love the characters vs his professed disdain of the source material.

What's sad is that this was not their approach to the Phantom. They wrote the character as he was classically but with modern threats and credibility. The character stayed in keeping with the way he was portrayed in the strips. You could go from their comic to the newspaper to old reprints and still see character as being completely recognizable, that you're obviously reading about the same character. But, their interviews are along Ross' and Dynamite's promos and talking about their Phantom comic. "Here's how much I love the character, so I'm going to change all this stuff about him."

Secret Agent "X" is about the only one we know that's going to be appearing that they haven't talked about. "X" has a lot of potential, especially as his past is a complete mystery so there's plenty that could be developed. However, based on what we've seen so far, I expect a lot to be changed concerning what the character already is.

A little interesting tidbit, the principle characters we know are being used, this is not their first time in the comics. As noted, the Phantom Detective appeared in the Golden-age comics, mostly intact. Secret Agent "X", Black Bat, and Captain Future all had their first stories pretty much straight-forwardly adapted though they all became Phantom Fed "X", the Mask, and Major Mars (the Captain Future id was used by a "standard" superhero). The Moon Man also made it into comics but with a name and costume change to that of the Raven. The Ghost got re-imagined in comics as superhero magician with true magic powers, dumping much of his pulp influences.

The comic store I frequent actually has several pulp fans, about five I think. Plus, he just got one more whose tastes seem to mirror mine own in modern comics only he gets even fewer than I do. However, he's only getting one issue each of these books and it's not going on the shelf. As the longest customer apart from the owner, more than likely I'll get first refusal. But, it doesn't speak well when the books don't even seem designed to appeal to those who should be their most core basic audience. Especially considering that pulp reprints are fairly popular these days and very pricey. If we're willing to spend $12-$16 for a forty year old reprint, we might be very willing to buy a comic for a fraction of that price if it at least played fair with us instead of pulling a bait and switch.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Sorcerers Apprentice

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
That old sorcerer has vanished
And for once has gone away!
Spirits called by him, now banished,
My commands shall soon obey.
Every step and saying
That he used, I know,
And with sprites obeying
My arts I will show.

    Flow, flow onward
    Stretches many
    Spare not any
    Water rushing,
    Ever streaming fully downward
    Toward the pool in current gushing.

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,
Take these rags and wrap them round you!
Long my orders you have heeded,
By my wishes now I've bound you.
Have two legs and stand,
And a head for you.
Run, and in your hand
Hold a bucket too.
    Flow, flow onward
    Stretches many,
    Spare not any
    Water rushing,
    Ever streaming fully downward
    Toward the pool in current gushing.
See him, toward the shore he's racing
There, he's at the stream already,
Back like lightning he is chasing,
Pouring water fast and steady.
Once again he hastens!
How the water spills,
How the water basins
Brimming full he fills!
    Stop now, hear me!
    Ample measure
    Of your treasure
    We have gotten!
    Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.
    Master's word I have forgotten!
Ah, the word with which the master
Makes the broom a broom once more!
Ah, he runs and fetches faster!
Be a broomstick as before!
Ever new the torrents
That by him are fed,
Ah, a hundred currents
Pour upon my head!
    No, no longer
    Can I please him,
    I will seize him!
    That is spiteful!
    My misgivings grow the stronger.
    What a mien, his eyes how frightful!
Brood of hell, you're not a mortal!
Shall the entire house go under?
Over threshold over portal
Streams of water rush and thunder.
Broom accurst and mean,
Who will have his will,
Stick that you have been,
Once again stand still!
    Can I never, Broom, appease you?
    I will seize you,
    Hold and whack you,
    And your ancient wood
    I'll sever,
    With a whetted axe I'll crack you.
He returns, more water dragging!
Now I'll throw myself upon you!
Soon, 0 goblin, you'll be sagging.
Crash! The sharp axe has undone you.
What a good blow, truly!
There, he's split, I see.
Hope now rises newly,
And my breathing's free.
    Woe betide me!
    Both halves scurry
    In a hurry,
    Rise like towers
    There beside me.
    Help me, help, eternal powers!
Off they run, till wet and wetter
Hall and steps immersed are lying.
What a flood that naught can fetter!
Lord and master, hear me crying! -
Ah, he comes excited.
Sir, my need is sore.
Spirits that I've cited
My commands ignore.
    "To the lonely
    Corner, broom!
    Hear your doom.
    As a spirit
    When he wills, your master only
    Calls you, then 'tis time to hear it."

I quote this poem because this will be an unusual post. I've talked in the past about creators and critics trying to glamorize their profession and hobby as high art, drawing correlations between high art and pop culture with badly conducted so-called scholarly studies, articles and books. In some cases, they do overlap though. While doing research for my website, I came across Red Band Comics #1 (and 2 which was just a reprint of the first) and a story called "The Sorcerer and his Apprentice". Like most, I'm most familiar with the story through the Disney cartoon, but it's easy to see that it's a pretty straight adaptation. The GA story takes a few liberties but one can see the elements from the poem.

What struck me as especially interesting wasn't just the story being lifted from the poem or even the wonderfully illustrative quality of the artwork but how it connects to some popular literature of the time and upon other research, some of the works of Alan Moore. When he's casting his first spell, he calls on both Cthulu and Melek Tawus. Cthulu is of a fictional cosmic being from the mind of and works of H. P. Lovecraft. Melek Tawus is a bit more complicated. Melek Tawus is of the Yazidis faith. He is the head of a group of seven angels who oversee the Earth. According to their faith he's rewarded for not bowing down to Adam (he received conflicting orders from God). Because of this, by Christians and Muslims identify him with Lucifer and Satan and the Yazidis as devil worshipers. Reputedly, Yazidis and their faith were portrayed as evil devil worshipers in at least one work of Lovecraft as well as his collaborator E. Hoffman Price. This would seem a bit strange as it implies that the Sorcerer is then calling on evil gods for his spell and possibly a devil worshiper himself. Of course, wizards, warlocks, and witches have long been identified as devil worshipers and consorts of demons according to many religions but much fictional literature draw certain distinctions between "white" and "black" magic.

Where does this connect to Alan Moore? Well, Moore is a fan of Lovecraft's and has adapted some of his works. Plus, Melek Tawus is identified as being the Peacock Angel. A major character in Alan Moore's Top Ten comicbook is a superhero police officer King Peacock, who is generally portrayed as a sympathetic character. Of course, Moore does little straight-forward and being Alan Moore, he must put a twist in there to stab at and offend Western culture and societal norms. Thus, it's not enough for King Peacock to be of the Yazidi faith, but identifies himself as actually a devil worshiper. This would be an actual affront to those of the Yazidi faith who do not identify Melek with Satan and would consider it taboo and deeply offensive.

Thanks to for the scans