Monday, September 02, 2013

Understanding Comics and the Phantom Magician

I am starting to work on a Masters program in Library Science. Which of course means taking some basic level classes, explaining terms we use every day without giving much thought to, putting into words things we already think we know. Such as what constitutes information, knowledge, language, etc.

One of the books we're reading excepts from is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics which does much the same thing. Deceptively simple, explaining stuff that we think we already know but never really gave much thought about.  Whimsical and really gets across the roles of writing, art, language and touching how we interact with information and art and the processes of absorbing as well as creating works. He touches on various subjects such as how most human minds are wired, in recognizing faces and patterns in almost everything.

A basic concept that the class and the book is getting across is that an information object (such as a book, paper, painting, even words themselves) is not the same as information itself. They are simply the representation of the real thing or idea behind it.

What was interesting was that a few days before reading the assignment, I was reading at Famous Funnies #32, 1937 by Eastern Publishing, specifically "The Adventures of Patsy". Famous Funnies is a reprint anthology, so the strips are a bit earlier than the book. In this, we see the appearance of the Phantom Magician, dated to 1935. Some consider PM the first original comics superhero, some Mandrake the Magician (1934), depending on the criteria and how you parse the definition of "superhero" and for that matter, "comics". Personally, if you'd consider either of those, I'd say that Hugo Hercules (1902) and The Handyman from Timbuctoo (which I don't have a date for but it's roughly as early). Regardless of the "comic superhero" debate, it's interesting to see that here in the early days of cartooning, the Phantom Magician touches on a similar concept!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Comic Reviews

Adventures of Superman #3: Got this as more of a protest buy, to support a more classic take of Superman. The art looked passable, if over the top and definitely over-computer colored. 30, 20 years ago, this story might have been considered pretty good. It's exploring some of the same ground that Alan Moore used to do and Busiek does regularly, but unfortunately it fails miserably at it. The conceit is that it is a look in the day of life of Superman, talking about how other people dream of flying, which of course he doesn't.

One of the problems is that it is setting up a false premise in order to turn it on its ear. In this case, to explore how Superman is not like us, only to make him all that human at the end. Except, the whole set up does too good a job at alienating us from Superman. He's too super, too beyond human concerns for the twist at the end to pay off.

The other is conflicting themes. Again and again, it talks about flying. But, the story is really about how FAST Superman is. He flies to an inhabited world under his own power, he does all these various big epic adventures in under an hour, he can hear super-fast, move so fast to be invisible, etc. If taken place on Earth, it would be a Flash story.

Last, there's just a lot of stupid writing going on. It would be invisible to a kid reading it, but keep in mind this is a "serious" story, it's meant for us to THINK about Superman and what it would be like to be Superman. He can hear things we can, and thus pick and choose what he responds to. He hears a call from an alien Green Lantern and flies across millions of miles in minutes. Then, he doesn't wait for an explanation but just does his own thing. Why she calls him and not a score of Green Lanterns that might be closer? Who knows.

He then stops a war on an alien planet. Here the writer shows Superman acting with complete naivete in his approach to stopping the war. Not to mention that it raises the ugly head if he can do that on an alien planet, why can he not put an end to wars here? Because, the reality is war cannot be stopped or resolved in that simple of a manner. Plus, Superman is lucky in that he can recognize what alien libraries look like, can decipher their language and styles instantly and that this advanced race still uses books with pages!

Then he's basically kidnapped to Apokolips. This section isn't really written badly but it does show shortcomings of the artist. He gets the characters to look more or less on model, but nothing about Apokolips looks Kirby-esque. You'd think most artists would leap at the chance to design a couple of alien worlds and races on their own AND be able to riff on Kirby, but nothing there. Then he gets back to Earth to save some un-named man from being shot and Lois from being blown up (another badly drawn scene as the action of that panel moves from right to left while we read left to right so it takes a second look to actually read the scene correctly).

What's really funny is how this comic could be lampooned. Superman constantly acts, but is too busy to stop and analyze, too busy to talk to anyone. His walking Lois Lane to work takes precedence over actually talking or taking time to think. It results in almost disaster at several points and makes Superman seem more of a Super-prick know-it-all busybody butt-insky. By the time, I was done I had in my head comments being made by all the other characters, of how he actually screwed everything up and made things worse, not better.

A good idea and germ of a story... sloppy execution on every front though.

Astro City So good to have this back as part of my regular reading material. Busiek does a good  job at updating, acknowledging that time has passed for characters, especially after the really long arcs. The first issue is an interesting look at Gaiman/Morrison-esque weirdness and meta-fiction and followed by a two parter looking at the support staff for Honor Guard, who fields the phone calls asking for help. Solid storytelling by Busiek and Brent Anderson, again the weakest part being the coloring, often too dark or working too hard to make faces and things look 3-D or realistic which only competes with line-work.

Buck Rogers Ok, this comic is pretty much complete crap. See, on Free Comic Book Day, they released a free comic featuring a classic Buck Rogers story. While a little primitive in style, that story was amazing complex, creative and dense. I can only assume that it was released to show that it's 180 from the direction they were going. Knowing Chaykin was involved, knew it was going to largely depend on which Chaykin showed up. The Chaykin that likes pulp related stuff or the one that cannot resist in twisting it, making it adult and somewhat sleazy.

While Chaykin at least gives Buck a perm so that he looks differently from American Flagg/Dominic Fortune/Blackhawk/Nick Fury, his Buck is the same prickish thug that he normally writes. Actually, that's not fair. Buck is a fanatical Communist prickish thug who even actually calls someone "comrade". Not making this up.

On the very first page we have swearing. Nothing extreme, very moderate, but to not even get past a first page... Then on the second, we have a nice blood splatter from a breaking nose. A little more swearing and a couple bloody exploding heads later, the writing is pretty much on the wall. I'm not a prude, swearing and blood & gore is fine if you're doing a comic like The Walking Dead. When it's applied to Buck Rogers, it comes across as superficial, trying to be edgy without providing content of substance to justify it. What's funny is that some words are more acceptable than others as when this version of Black Barney swears while using a current day exclamation it gets symbolized: What kind of chicken#%*s outfit is this? Seriously, that's where you draw the line?

The plot is a bit back to basics, but it is not only simplistic, instead of making Buck different from Flash Gordon, it makes him MORE like him by taking his storyline: that the various gangs of people left over from America are too busy fighting each other that they will not unite against their common foe and it's going to take Buck to do so. Now, the original stories you did have the Han taking over America and the people existing in small groups called orgs or gangs. But, the problem was of disparity of technology, strategy and tactics. It was Buck's knowledge and experience as a veteran that made him into a leader able to organize the groups into effective fighting units not the groups fighting amongst themselves.

The comic has the honor of being one of those that I really wish I could return and ask for my money back.

Captain Midnight Another return of a really old character. Fairly solid story dealing with the man suddenly yanked from his past and discovers a complex world. Because of a secret mission he was on and the time travel involved, he's sorta wanted by the Government because of stuff he knows. Of course, he apparently doesn't trust people because of what he knows as well. It's a bit Captain America crossed with Nick Fury and James Bond and an enjoyable comic. The only really stupid part is when some of the agents go rogue, they gain glowing green skulls and no one reacts to this. They are shocked that the men are traitors, but not by the glowing green skull heads?

Five Ghosts The book often feels as if being written backwards, constantly giving information or story developments that should have probably occurred earlier in the book. In this case, we get a major revelation in the last issue just how unsympathetic and criminal of a character that Fabian was before his curse as he's shown to willing betray a partner and shoot him in the back over a treasure. The art and its storytelling continues to be top notch, but as a mini-series it reads like a rough draft. Trying to be clever with its structure and doling out secrets but not really organic or doing so in the best possible way. The announcement at the end promises it to continue from this mini as an ongoing and I really want to like it as it is full of potential. But, the writer needs to actually write, get at the meat of the story and not rely so much on the art.

Half Past Danger Another mini-series with a great high concept: WWII, island of dinosaurs and an Irishman, a super strong Yank, a British woman and a Japanese Ninja go to it and fight the dinosaurs and figure out what the Nazis want with them. Sadly, the writing isn't quite up to par. The first issue alone, we have the Irishman leading a platoon on the island. His squad gets eaten and he comes back but it seems as if he's not believed and so he's drinking himself to death until he meets up with the Yank and Britisher and a bar room brawl begins. It gives us the set-up and the major points of the plot, but what it doesn't tell is the STORY. We don't get to know the individual soldiers, they aren't drawn or written in any distinctive way to tell them apart or to care for them or their relationship with the leader. The author needs to go back and read some of those old war comics by Robert Kanigher and see what he actually did in so few pages. Just because it's a multiple part story doesn't mean that the individual issue shouldn't have its own story to tell, that you should care for the characters beyond laughing at the kewl bits of attitude. And, someone should kick the colorist in the butt and tell him to stop doing color knockouts on a blond person's head but nowhere else. It makes his hair look like it belongs to a different sort of reality than the rest of his head and body and the hair of everybody else.

Overall, it is a fun comic mini in that it's a bit like a roller-coaster ride. But, it reads like it's being written or developed for hopes for a film offer such as a SyFy Channel movie.

Dynamite Comics After watching Masks slowly circle the drain and go down the tubes, really wanted to bail on them, but they followed up with some intriguing comics, doing a bit more right than wrong for a change.

Lords of Mars Tarzan goes to Mars. Ugly cover as it looks like Ross has been taking lessons from Jusko and delivers such muscular men that one can only wonder how they move. Whereas, the insides has a pretty competent and clear artist drawing characters with lean muscular bodies. For comics these days, the heroes almost look emaciated, especially compared to the cover! There's great character moments introducing the main characters and there is some story contained here. It's decompressed, Tarzan doesn't end on Mars by the last panel. However, there is good groundwork and mystery that's established, to let you know that more is going on than readily meets the eye. The decompression is not to stretch out a thin story, but to tell it and fill it. Now, if it can keep that clarity in art and storytelling and not peter out by the end like the Gulliver of Mars and John Carter team-up in Warriors of Mars.

The Owl Yet another old hero that finds himself coping with the present day. Here, they show that they've learned from the Black Terror series in that we see Nick Terry aka The Owl dealing with personal issues. He's trying to get a job and figure out his place in the modern world. He is dealing with real ramifications of having everyone and everything he knows being gone, having moved on without him. There are some hiccups in the writing. Apparently, the writer has never applied for a real job beyond retail as he seems to think that someone would turn in a resume and get an interview if the company wasn't looking to fill a position. Not to mention that getting a job as a policeman is not the same as getting a normal job. As the Owl he seems to have purpose, but when he finds a modern Owl-Girl who is far more violent and keeps the money she takes from the crooks, he has to wonder how much the world has changed and not for the better. It's a bit of a false premise. The 1940s comics and heroes were NOT the sanitized ones from the mid 1950s and 60s. This isn't necessarily something that would be so abhorrent to him, even if he disagreed with it.  And, the redesigned costume and powers/tricks aren't really an improvement.  But, these days I'll settle for a simply average superhero comic where the hero is about being better than the bad guys and wanting to do the right thing.

Shadow - Green Hornet: Dark Knights Ignoring that they met in Masks, this series presents them as meeting again for first time. Written by Michael Uslan, it starts off strong as far as the writing is concerned. He knows the history of the characters and the time period and works a lot of it in without resorting to simply name dropping (and notes in the back explaining some of those bits). You have to deal with the fact that apparently the Shadow's ring is some super-power source/weapon maguffin for the plot. He does an admirable job at presenting the Green Hornet/Britt Reid as being a peer of the Shadow/Lamont Cranston and juggling the similarities and differences of the characters. There's the Shadow suspicious of Kato's loyalties while Shiwan Khan thinks a crook like Green Hornet with an Asian side-kick would make him prone to team up with him (in the 1940s, there were a few issues where the Green Hornet does pretend to team-up with a Japanese spy leading the Black Dragon Society).

The artwork is detailed but often dark, confusing and inconsistent on people and is the weakest part of the book.

Then, there's the implied lesbian relationship between Margo Lane and Lenore Case. Apparently, knowing each other years before when their men leave them to make excuses to each other to cover their secret identities, they decide to talk about the "bad old days" over wine. When we next see Margo, it's when Harry is calling on her at her hotel room and there's some naked buttocks going by in the room behind her. Nice cuckolding the men heroes there that is completely purposeless. And, that sexual fantasy attitude that women are just a bottle of wine from enjoying a lesbian encounter.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Secret Origin of the American Eagle

The good guys at have posted America's Best Comics  #2 which features the origin of the patriotic hero American Eagle. The title of the comic might seem a little familiar as it is where Alan Moore got the name of his imprint featuring Top Ten, Promothea and Tom Strong which featured some revamps of characters from Standard.

Before this, I always found American Eagle to be one of their more uninteresting heroes. Most of them were variations of themes: superstrength, bulletproof, but susceptible to blows on the head. Doc Strange, Liberator, Captain Future, and the Scarab all belonged to a subset wearing t-shirts and in some cases shorts. Some flew, Fighting Yank had his ancestor that would intervene, Captain Future and Pyroman threw around lightning, and so on.

But, in this first outing American Eagle does stand out. Many of the heroes were a bit timid or physical weaklings before becoming heroes (in his early appearances, the Liberator was drawn scrawny with his clothes hanging off of him before he'd take his secret formula to turn into the hero). Tom Standish on the other hand is shown to be scare of practically his own shadow and a bit clumsy before accidentally gaining his powers. Although, until he puts on the costume, he doesn't seem to be able to fly, or at least is unaware that he has that ability.

His sidekick on the other hand is super-powered for no other reason than being the son of a circus strongman. Now, it made sense for Robin to be acrobatic as he was not only a son of trapeze artists but trained in the skill and not shown to be superhuman so. But, Bud's strength is on the superhuman side as if it was merely genetic. This isn't unheard of in the comics of the day as there are several heroes who boast extreme skills and talents by virtue of circus parentage. As far as I know, Bud's parents aren't mentioned again. Bud's story would pick up in the second appearance over in Exciting Comics #22 where he gains a costume to become the Eaglet.

The Batman similarity continues with the American Eagle's costume. Notice the scalloped cape, the fins on his gloves, the shape of his boots. Even his belt looks a bit distinctive. Now, the American Eagle had one of the more inconsistent costumes, individual elements would change or appear and disappear depending on the story. Each of those specific elements would be gone in .

Exciting Comics

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Comics and DC's Golden Age

 Comic Strips: With Comi-Con, it appears a few of the strips over the last couple of weeks wanted to get in on the act. Gotta love "Fox Trot" for embracing the various ages. Where else are you going to run the gamut of Hit Girl to the Jay Garrick Flash? Even DC Comics doesn't want to do that. OK, the "Get Fuzzy" comic has nothing to do with superheroes. Sometimes a pun is its own reward.

Herogoggles: Speaking of Golden-Age DC, over at my golden-age superheroes/supervillains website, I have added pages devoted to DC's heroes and villains of the Golden-Age.. As my brother pointed out, I basically am admitting the project will NEVER be completed because there's no real way for me to read all of DC's comics of the Golden-Age. I don't have the money to buy them and that limits me to the ones they are willing to reprint. And, most of the reprint books like the Archives are devoted to characters, rarely the whole comics. Luckily with the All-Star Archives, they included the Hop Harrigan text stories for example since that wasn't part of the JSA. Marvel's output was a bit smaller with titles and characters having much smaller runs once you look past the big three of Captain America, Human Torch, and Namor. So, it's a bit easier for them to devote a hardback to Mystic Comics for example. It does mean, that certain stories tend to get reprinted a half dozen times. Such as their recent "Marvel Firsts" devoted to the Golden-Age. I was tempted, but I already had half the book in other volumes!

In putting together the lists of characters that I wanted to cover from various sources, I started also looking at the copyrights of a few of the early titles. It was interesting to discover that "New York World's Fair Comics" was not renewed. In addition to having a few Superman, Batman stories in public domain, it's also the first appearance of the Wesley Dodd Sandman! It also occurred to me that some of the public domain comics might actually be availabe. And, a few of them are, over at! Of course, the quality of the scans vary wildly. Which is sad, since stories with characters like "Wing Brady" and "Barry O'Neil" look like they'd be fun to read. The latter especially has wonderfully dense and detailed artwork, heads above much of what was being published at the time or even years later. You'd have to look at Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, or Alex Raymond for comparable work. However, this makes the strip pretty much a strain on the eyes and unreadable when it comes to low resolution or microfiche reproduction. Barry O'Neil's ongoing war with the Yellow Peril menace Fang Gow continued from the public domain comics over to Detective Comics.

What's enjoyable is to see all of the Siegel and Shuster strips: Radio Patrol, Dr. Occult, Henri Duval, etc. The artwork is open and expressive. Plus, the duo really exploded the limits of the medium, they exploited the visual sides of the medium. The heroes were men of physical action, the menaces larger than life. It's a shame there are a few holes, but how great to see Dr. Occult in action. Henri Duval was a musketeer hero whose storyline just sort of ends to be replaced by an adaptation of The Three Musketeers itself.  The duo must have liked the name as they used it again for a villain to face Dr. Occult.

Sadly, the comics they have seems to run out before getting to Captain Desmo and Nadir. Nadir is a fascinating character. In some ways, he seems to borrow a bit from Chandu, Mandrake, the Shadow... a man brings knowledge gained in the Far East to fight crime. The difference is Nadir reverses the status quo. He's a prince of India! His origin might seem a little familiar, his parents killed when he was a lad he decides to turn his back on his title and devote his life to fighting crime! He masters not only ancient knowledge of the East, he also masters the sciences of the West and now makes his home in New York City!

Then there's the Flying Fox. An aviation hero whose aviator's cap doubles as a fox mask. Sadly, he's not public domain, so the only way to see that character will be buying the original comics or hoping DC makes it available some day. DC would be smart to really gather a lot of this material for posterity and preservation. Even if not making any plans for printing, just making them available digitally for historical purposes. Although a volume of Siegel and Shuster's work would seem to be easily feasible. Most of these were b/w or one color to begin with so reprinting would be cheap enough and you'd imagine there would be some interest in seeing these stories from the creators of their flagship character.

While DC has acknowledged the Crimson Avenger as pre-dating Superman as a masked hero, it's interesting to see Dr. Occult as a brief caped hero with super-powers. Captain Desmo, who like the Flying Fox was an aviation hero whose cowl doubled as a mask, also squeaks by debuting before Superman.  Desmo had some kind of issue, he wore the cowl constantly, even when lounging in his own home. His sidekick asks him about it, but Desmo doesn't get around to sharing that information. The Flying Fox would debut just a few months later.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

More Fred Guardineer

I've mentioned before I'm a big fan of Fred Guardineer. His strong, deliberate line, his use of parallel lines to define shapes, mass, and patterns and juxtapose them against other lines. And, knowing when to leave space open to define shape and dimension. With Zatara, he'd become famous for magician characters, especially the backwards speaking variety. There couldn't be too many companies for which he didn't do a magician hero or two.

Yet before that, he worked at the short-lived Centaur comics where he seemed to be their go-to artist. He did illustrations for various text stories, most notably Dan Hastings, but also other he-man adventurer types. He did sci-fi comics in the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers type. While he didn't have quite the natural feel of Alex Raymond, he was quite a bit slicker than the art found in the daily Bucks. He also did illustrations for advertising, and slice of life pieces. In this day and age where the time period seems to be one of black and white, his pieces were full of vibrant color.

During this time, his weaknesses came from his strengths. That deliberate line lent a certain artificiality to the world. He was great on patterns, but rarely captured textures and atmosphere as things were often a little too pristine, too ordered and organized. He was Art Deco when he could stand to be a little Art Nouveau, to let a little wildness and seeming arbitrariness in. Figures were often stiff and posed, as life-like as store mannequins. In ten years, he'd show that he conquered some of these shortcomings when working on Durango.

Still, looking at his artwork in the context of what would come after, what would make up the great variety of 1940s comicbook art, and his technical skill and mastery is undeniable. Admittedly, during the later years, many of the more technically proficient artists would be at War as well as being influenced by the bombastic styles of Lou Fine and Simon & Kirby. And, Guardineer was here a bit before them, showing the level of detail and clarity that was obtainable. When looking at his backgrounds and scenes, it's not hard to see echoes of it in Simon & Kirby's depictions of city life or Fine's fantastic buildings, weapons and explosions, the clarity in C.C. Beck's Captain Marvel story-telling, and Mort Meskin's own atmospheric use of lines, patterns and shapes.

These few illos are from 1938 issues of Star Comics and can be found on With that one Dan Hastings pic from below, he came close to doing the first patriotic themed hero!



Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Fox, The Beetle, and The Gray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 14, 2013

5 Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray

I was in the comic store talking with the owner. We go back a ways but nowadays because of my schedule, I don't see much of him when I visit the store. He returned a Sherlock Holmes book I had loaned him and we were talking Holmes and pulps and Dr. Moreau. As I was checking out with my single purchase of a Shadow reprint, he said, "you may be interested in this" and handed me the Image comic Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray by writer Frank J. Barbiere and art by Chris Mooneyham. Rick tells me, "It's about a man who's possessed by 5 spirits, only they are spirits of fictional characters." The spirits aren't named beyond their types as if they are found on a deck of Tarot cards: The Wizard, The Detective, The Samurai, The Archer, The Vampire. Obviously Merlin, Sherlock Holmes,..., Robin Hood, and Dracula. Only the samurai stumps us. With Dracula in the mix, it doesn't necessarily have to be a good guy.

The set-up echoes that of Fawcett's Captain Marvel, a well they went to many times in the creation of his extended family and several villains. The difference here is the artist comes up with a different visual language in communicating Fabian making use of his talents. His movements are echoed by the relative spirit whose talent he's using. The action takes place all over the world in the days of WWII though the actual date is not specified.

In the first issue, we are introduced to Fabian with him in the middle of the action, fighting Nazis and using his unique talents. Over the course of the issue, you realize he's being hunted by some creepy guys, he's looking for magic artifacts and a cure, apparently for himself and a woman friend who seems to be comatose but who he hears calling out to him.

The writing may be the weakest part. There's a lot that is introduced here, but there's nothing to anchor the story. We see him in action but we don't really know how his abilities work. Does he consciously call on each spirit, or is it innate and each one is always there, guiding him and coming to the fore when their particular skill set is needed. Are the two guys looking for him part of the same group or unrelated. The scene that Iago reveals his name to us is set up like it's supposed to mean something, but other than "Othello" it's meaningless... and that beat of the sudden full page reveal is lost..  How does the one woman survive being blown up by hand grenade? Why are the people hunting him? What happened to the woman who's comatose? And, exactly who is she to him or to his friend?

I don't expect that the first issue reveal all, that we necessarily get an origin story right off the bat, and a little mystery is good. However, there's a difference in starting a story as far into the action as you can and starting it so that it seems like you walked into a movie 15 minutes after it started and that you're missing some relevant information for it to make sense and hang together. I checked to make sure that I was indeed reading the first issue, although in this day and age of comics with Zero issues and point-five issues, a number one on the cover doesn't mean much. I wonder if it's a case where the writer is so familiar with the characters and the story he's telling, he forgot that the readers weren't. I also can sympathize in not wanting to write a "Basil Exposition" or "As you know, Bob" speech to get across information known by the characters but not the reader. They can be clunky and difficult to do. However, to have  relevant information on the back cover of the comic about his powers and that they are LITERARY ghosts and not that this is a world where Holmes, Dracula, Robin Hood, Merlin and nameless samurai guy all lived and died is even clunkier and worse structure than any bad internal exposition would have been.

That's the kind of information that's needed IN THE STORY, not after I finished reading the comic (or being told to me up front by someone who read it). Despite this, the idea, the concept and the storylines being set up are intriguing enough and strong enough to make up for it.

Fortunately, the artwork likewise is more than strong enough to carry the weight of the story. Mooneyham's artwork is reminiscent of Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar's work on The Question. The right balance of texture, exaggeration, grittiness, shadow and detail.. Fantastic use of layouts for dense action and epic feeling action and straight forward grids for quieter moments. The only complaint of the artwork that I could make is I couldn't tell if the woman he was in bed with and whom he retrieved some jewels for was supposed to be the same woman in the store that keeps hand grenades handy to blow up spook men. Neither writing nor artwork was particularly clear in that regard.

The pencils are backed by incredibly strong colors. As the color credit to S. M. Vidaurri is as "color assists" I'm assuming the reason it is so strong is that it's directed by Mooneyham. Either way, this is using color to set mood and tone and to supplement the line art, not to try to do the penciler's job or make "corrections" ie filling empty spaces with textures and gradients that don't need it or doing all the 3-D rendering of the figures and faces: providing cheekbones and muscle definition, and high contrast on every bit of skin that shows. The colors are lush and warm where need be, and cool, dark and moody where need be and the end result is where the artwork and the colors all work together.

After the first issue, I want more. I would like to read a novel based on this. I want to see the tv series and the movie. I wish I could buy stock in the character because I'd be surprised if a deal wasn't already being floated. The rest of the mini is as strong and ships regularly, this is already shaping up to be the best book of the year. And, competing against the Black Beetle, that's saying something.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Superhero novels

Nobody Gets The Girl - James Maxey. Heard about this novel on NPR some time back. When I picked it up from the library, was a bit surprised to see it was from 2003.

The novel concerns a young man by the name of Richard Rogers. He has a good day job, a devoted wife, and a home. Yet, he's bored with it all, feels his work as a stand-up comic in the evenings is his true calling. He sees the world as being a joke. It's a world where scientists talk about enclosing cities in domes, where a 100 ft baby doll with a giant pistol for a head sows havoc and destruction in Seattle. He fantasizes about going on the road as a full-time comic, leaving his life behind. Be careful what you wish for.

He wakes up the next day, only his house has different furniture and an older couple lives there. What's worse, he finds that he's invisible and intangible to them.

Eventually, he falls in with Dr. Know, a wealthy mad scientist who thinks he created the universe and is bent on saving the world from Rex Monday, and Know's beautiful daughters: the Thrill who can fly and make people do as she wishes and Rail Blade, a woman with complete mastery over iron including seemingly building metallic rails to skate along and armor and weapons from trace elements around.

The main strength of the novel is it tells the story completely from the point of view of Rogers, now calling himself Nobody. His everyman status, with his small hopes, dreams and fears, given both the gift and curse of non-perceived ably portrayed and contrasts well against the larger craziness and absurdity of the world and a war he doesn't understand.

The other strength of the novel is its brevity. There's no excess padding, and moves at a quick pace with plenty of suspense and action.

This is a strength primarily because despite the claim to have read many comics, the story is that of "superhero as literature".  As many modern comics and other superhero novels, it seems to miss the actual point of superheroes. The modern take seems to be that for superheroes and their stories to be taken seriously they have to be about the ineffectiveness of superheroes. As Nobody, the narrator is often a voyeur, the Thrill uses her mind control abilities to make people give her things as opposed to paying for them, while Rail Blade has shut herself off from empathy and willing to kill. Meanwhile, Dr. Know follows the cliche and fate of other comic superheroes whose chief power is that of super-intelligence or "superhero as god" ie a step from insanity and ascribing to a super-morality that allows him to pursue his goals of the greater good despite the loss of life and collateral damage.

Despite all those comics the author supposedly read, the influence of Moore's "Watchmen" and Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan in particular loom large over the character of Dr. Know. For the literati of comicbook creators seem unable to truly envision geniuses that are truly smarter than their writers nor heroes as being nobler than ourselves (or that we should truly aspire to such concepts). He gets some kudos to recognize the true barrier of peace is that hate is so strong and indoctrinated when young. Take away the tanks and guns, and in places where hate and the divides are so strong, they'll just pick up rocks and sticks. I'm reminded of recent news of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. Guns and bullets aren't needed. Despite that positive turn, it's still Dr. Know not being smart enough to recognize that himself and ultimately coming to the same conclusion and resolution that Ozymandias does, Peace not through uniting people in Hope, but in uniting them in Fear of an even worse Other out there than the one we know.

If superheroes originally were expressions of wish fulfillment of young men (many minorities) in time of War, crime, poverty and the Great Depression, Superheroes as Literature are more concerned with the fetishness of heroes and involved in their sex lives. I was reminded of  "Fort Freak", a Wild Cards novel edited by George R. R. Martin, where writers seemed more concerned having their characters act out fantasies of being with younger women and menage a trois relationships. Here, the narrator, a voyeur himself, serves as an avatar for the reader and manages to be the ideal sexual partner of the superhero babes (while the traditional relationship is portrayed as boring and dull, an ideal life for those that are content to be "nobodies" but not for those who aspire for more).

City of Heroes: The Freedom Phalanx: The late lamented City of Heroes game seemed to get superheroes better than the actual comics did. When comics were mocking heroes, especially with capes, the game embraced them. When it was first launched, capes weren't part of the costume package, reportedly through the difficulty in the animating of them across the board. However, it was one of the most requested features to be added! It just shows how far out of touch those that think superheroes need to be made fun of really are.

I've had "The Freedom Phalanx" book in my possession for awhile, but only recently got around to reading it, mainly because of going through withdrawal of playing the game. Reading the book was only partially successful in that once it was done, I missed the game more because I WANTED MORE! I want more books like this. I want more comics like this. I wanted to play the game again, to design my own heroes or revisiting some that I created like Mr. Muscles, The Horned Owl, and Captain Amazon.

The book is set in the past of the game, when the current legendary heroes of The Freedom Phalanx were a mixture of novices and established heroes who don't necessarily play well with each other. Novice heroes Positron and Synapse are seeing Paragon City crumbling under disillusionment and apathy. The original Freedom Phalanx has long disbanded, it's members dead or scattered. There are new heroes about, but none of the new ones have the clout and name recognition to truly rally the city. This pair wants and hopes to get some of the experienced heroes together to reform the old group in an attempt to turn the city around. However, there's also a criminal plot, their own arch-nemeses and their own concerns they have to face, and that it's somehow all tied to the Mayoral race.

Robin Laws is able to keep the heroes heroic and still come across as human with human wants and desires and real life concerns. Statesman is basically immortal and he's sidelined by watching his wife basically slowly die in old age from cancer and realizing that he will probably see this happen to everyone he loves, his daughter, his grand-daughter, his friends. The only constant in his life seems to be the fighting with his arch-enemy Lord Recluse, with neither gaining an upper hand for long. Synapse wants a regular life that his powers make impossible for him. Manticore, a cross between Batman and Green Arrow, is obsessive. He's obsessed with holding up the legacy of his father, the original Manticore. And, he's obsessed with bringing down his father's chief foe. Sister Psyche's mental powers are so strong that she basically shuts the world out and seems to slowly be spiraling into full blown depression. Despite this, the book doesn't come across depressing or mocking the heroes. It embraces superheroes and that their stories are ones of characters overcoming obstacles, both external and internal. And it recognizes that the genre is one of action and adventure as well as mystery. The plot of the super-villains is full on pulp/supevillain mastermind style but it all works and hangs together. It's the type of story you long for the days when the Justice League and Avengers comics were like this.

A fun read and a wonderful George Perez cover. And, sadly, no more.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Carmine Infantino - RIP

Just heard that Silver-Age great Carmine Infantino has passed away. Infantino is an artist who made such a significant mark at DC during the Silver-Age, it's easily forgotten that he got his start at the tail end of the Golden-Age and did some 1970s work at Marvel.

He's so associated with revamping the Flash in the 1950s at DC, giving him a modern streamlined look, most probably don't realize that some of his earliest work was on Jay Garrick the golden-age Flash. And, while he did some wonderful science fiction stories for DC, especially Adam Strange, during the 1950s he did some wonderful work on Westerns and characters like the Trigger Twins and Pow-wow Smith as well as the intelligent spy thriller series King Faraday of Danger Trail.

His 1950s and 1960s work shows similarities to Alex Toth and Dan Barry. In his earliest works, his use of shadows and blocks of black to give shape, wrinkles and depth to clothes echoes the works of Caniff, which may be where his more stiff, angular posing of characters came from. Clean and concise art style with an emphasis on natural proportions and physiques and clear storytelling. His style quickly developed an angular and almost mechanical artificial style. The same design sense that gave us cars with hard edges and fins was echoed in his comic style. On the Flash, he gave us some iconic covers as well as some of the more surreal images. Whenever I hear people talking about how the Doom Patrol was about weirdness, I like to point them to a handful of Flash covers that outdo anything that appeared in the DP. His covers were often ones of action, heroes or villains rarely stood still, something was happening or about to happen. As far as I know, he developed the cover of two teams charging/facing off against each other from either side of the cover like opposing football teams. He had a quirk of often setting the action on some plaza with the skyline of a city in the distance. I often wondered where these remote plazas or staging areas were with nothing for yards around other than the distant city a mile or so off. Even the "Flash of Two Worlds" cover has the man about to be crushed by a metal beam with apparently no other structure a mile around other than the brick wall he happens to be kneeling by. Talk about bad luck! I want to credit that it was Infantino that was also ultimately behind the "new look Batman" ala the yellow oval around the bat on the chest.

I tended to like Murphy Anderson as inker over Infantino. Anderson appropriately rounded off some of the edges of his characters, making them more natural without sacrificing the actual power of Infantino's figures

In the 1970s, he'd go to Marvel working on titles such as Nova, Spider-Woman, and Star Wars. By this time, his figures were all hard corners and angles. It was bold but eccentric. He was a strange choice for their John Carter, Warlord of Mars book but buried under Rudy Nebres inks, the combination gave us possibly the best of both artists: clear, powerful layouts and storytelling of Infantino and more organic, lush, detailed line found in the Filipino school. In the 80s, he'd return to the title that made him famous, the Flash. Like Kirby, his style by this time is stiffer, blockier, and more epic in proportions, yet it's compelling in sheer bombastics and storytelling. He also revisited his Danger Trail series, with some excellent art, though the covers had Paul Gulacy, an artist with a completely different and photo-realistic style, almost a complete antithesis of Infantino's. About the only thing the two really shared was their use of stark highlight and shadow, with little sense of grays or gradation.


Saturday, March 09, 2013

Bob Larkin needs help

Most of the pulp fans are probably already aware of this. But, I thought I'd share this with some of the comic fans that may be unaware.

I first became aware of Larkin's name when he became the main replacement for James Bama on Bantam's Doc Savage series. He was a good choice in that he had much of the same sense of heroic realism of Bama and Boris. He also managed to get Doc in some other clothes for a few of the covers. It was only in retrospect that I realized I had seen his art for awhile as he did quite a few painted covers for Marvel's comics and paperbacks as well as the painted and pulpish covers for Warren's Rook magazine among others.

Bob's wife, Fran, has been fighting cancer for the past 12 years and the medical bills has put them under an incredible financial strain. She is currently recovering from her latest surgery and Bob has become her caregiver around the clock, leaving him unable to take on new work.

Thankfully, has been working with Bob the past few years, doing primarily Doc Savage based items with the profits going to Bob and family.

They've also been working with Bob about putting together a sketch book featuring Doc Savage as well as Batman, Stewie, the Shadow, and a bunch others. It has finally come to pass as the books are fresh from the printers. Each is square bound, 8 ½ x 11" 48 black and white pages and are individually signed and numbered by Bob. The paperback is b/w, signed and numbered of 500 copies and is $20 per. The special hard cover includes an extra 8 pages of color of new paintings of Doc and friends. Thirty signed and numbered copies for $60 apiece. The Deluxe has the extra 8 pages plus choice of original water color illustration (5x7 on 8 1/2x11 board) along with custom storage case. Only 20 copies and is $500.

100% of the sales are going directly to the Larkins as well as anything else that might interest you on the site.