Friday, March 23, 2012

Gone In a Flash

Prince Valiant ended this past week its stealth Flash Gordon appearance. The man Aleta calls "St. George" has just helped Valiant and company defeat a large golem when he announces his amnesia is gone, he remembers his name and where he's from...

An enjoyable fun romp without over-staying its welcome.

So, it's a bit appropriate also to lift up the life of one man who has done quite a bit for fans of comic strips, cartoons, and comic books. Without his work as editor and historian, it's doubtful I'd be aware of the great art that Dan Barry did on Flash Gordon, would have come to appreciate the wackiness of Krazy Kat, or discovered the world of Barnaby by Johnson Crockett whom I solely knew as the creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon. Never warmed up to Modesty Blaise though.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been quite a few deaths of creators. Don Markstein whose passing was announced March 11th was not a comic creator, but a historian. I first encountered his name when I started regularly reading "Comics Revue" that he edited and co-created with Rick Norwood. When I started reading Revue, it was mainly devoted to story strips but it printed both current and old strips. So, it would run Sy Barry's Phantom, Lieber Spider-man, Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Infantino on Batman alongside Dan Barry's Flash Gordon, McDonnell's Modesty Blaise, classic Gasoline Alley, etc. Over time as many of the current adventure strips failed to hang on, it focused more and more on the classic strips. I was overjoyed when they started Roy Crane's Buzz Sawyer strip. More a Cap'n Easy fan myself, but his artwork wows me regardless. Then Russ Manning's lush Tarzan strips. Wow.

The magazine took a hit when Diamond decided to only carry books that earned so much profit margin, causing them to change the way they were published and their pricing structure if they wanted to still be listed. Something to keep in mind when you're talking about the high price of comics, it's not just the publishers that dictate that price, Diamond's actions affected the pricing structure of quite a few independents.

For fandom, Don's big contribution was his site Toonopedia. It's scope encompassed comic strips, cartoons and comic book characters of all types and eras. Each article was well researched, giving you insight into the lives of the creators, publishers and context of the times as well as the influence different ones might have had on the larger genre. It was almost always interesting to read, a smorgasbord of information and characters. The only limitation seemed to be whatever struck Markstein's fancy at the time. One week might be an article on Flying Jenny and the next article be Eek! The Cat. The articles were informative but also unabashedly from his own point of view, he let you know how he felt about the art, quality, or viability of a character. I differed in point of view of whether a character like Peacemaker was a hero or not (I'm on the pro side) and he had a stubborness in listing all of the Quality characters as having been bought and owned by DC despite the lack of evidence in that regard.

Apart from enjoyment, Toonopedia was often became the first place I looked to verify a date or some information on a DC or Marvel character and was definitely an influence on me and my site, sometimes imparting leads of some obscure character worth tracking down. It was some time after I had been aware of the site before I made the connection of where I had heard Markstein's name before ie in the pages of "Comics Revue" that I had been getting for some years.

It's sad to think there are no more updates to his site, no little seen or forgotten gem uncovered or maybe new appreciation given to a character or concept otherwise written off. I wish his family well. His presence and love for the media will be missed.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

John Carter of Mars book

A buddy that runs a comic book store was looking for cheap copies of some hard to find masterworks and archives, and I told him I could get the one for USA Comics for him from a local to me used bookstore. As I was spending just store credit on it, I basically traded it for Dark Horse's b/w John Carter volume reprinting Marvel's series from the 1970s which he had for sale.

Reading the USA masterworks, I was again struck by the wasted potential of so many of the characters. Some, like Captain Terror and Major Liberty have hardly been seen at all. Others like the Young Avenger, Vagabond, the Defender, and Rockman have been featured in modern stories. Only to have the sense of wonder and excitement and even zaniness wiped out. The mini All-Winners Squad: Band of Heroes killed several characters in the past such as the Vagabond or in the present, the not-so Young Avenger. But, it was all about putting a veneer of realism on the characters while it placed costumed heroes undertaking war missions (not missions to stop the Red Skull or Master Man, mind you, but straight-forward military missions). The Romance aspect of superhero fiction is gone. The mini was mercifully killed at issue 5. JMS meanwhile is completing The Twelve where he takes a group of heroes from Marvel's golden-age and then does the most mundane things with them. Mr. E who hearkens to the era of the Shadow and who fought a super villain in his first appearance... none of that is mentioned, he is made into a self-hating Jew and portrayed generally as a pathetic figure. The Fiery Mask likewise became a man with feet of clay while the fantastic and exciting parts of his origin story seem to be done away with. Even the pet character of the Phantom Reporter is made into a very mundane version of the character glimpsed in his first story. Where is the sense of fun? Some years ago, Bendis brought the Defender out of the mothball just so he could kill off a hero in the story to make the bad guys look good.

Coupled with recent announcements and images of what DC is doing with Earth-2, yes, there are some things worse than just being in limbo. At least in limbo, you still have all that potential that your original stories can fire in the minds of readers discovering them for the first time. As opposed to reading them and knowing what sad fates would befall them.

Reading the John Carter omnibus is not for many modern readers. Much like reading the Doc Savage reprint of Marvel's magazine series, these are comics that actually use caption boxes to help tell the story. They underscore moments of dread and extreme emotional states, they provide a narrative voice, telling things that pictures alone cannot tell. In short, it's a marriage of words and images and requires the reader to, gulp, read! They are mostly adaptions of various John Carter serials, some into stand-alone stories, still they are written and paced as comics, adapted by pros like Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont. You get dense stories with no padding or decompressed pacing. The sense of action that Burroughs is known for is evident. It takes Wolfman and Gil Kane three-and-a-half pages to recount Carter's back story, how he got on Mars, met the Princess and Tars in the middle of an adventure already in progress. Vs it taking Dynamite a whole comic just to get him off of Earth! Mind you, they are doing two different stories, but the older comic moves faster and is a whole lot more exciting with a sense of urgency and desperation.

One of the smartest decisions made was putting Gil Kane on the artwork, although replaced by others later on. Kane and John Buscema are probably the best artists of the time and even now when it comes to Sword & Sorcery style books. In my mind, Kane is the best artist possible for John Carter and Buscema about the best possible for Conan. All others operate in their shadow.

Pairing Kane with Rudy Nebres on inks is seemingly an odd choice at first. Normally, I'd prefer if we saw Kane inking himself. However, Nebres has an ornate and organic style. He gives the details of Kane's art an exotic feel and a depth of texture that's not normally there and seems perfectly at home with a series set on Mars. I look forward to getting to the rest of the stories contained in this volume.

If you want to check out some of the glorious work of Rudy Nebres' work on John Carter, both over Kane's pencils and sketches of his own, I'll point you here. Though he had been in comics for awhile, I first became aware of him by name from his work on covers for Archie's 1980s revival of their heroes, where he inked covers by Buckler, Ditko and others, some of which I'm showing here.  Like Kane on the covers of comics at Marvel in the 1970s, Nebres' work on the covers tended to make sure the cover of the book looked far more interesting and exciting than it did on the insides!