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 existence.is 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.