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December 17, 2008

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Yet another blogger hangs it up…

June 4, 2006
Well, the time has come to set this little blog aside. I loved writing this when I had the time, but, unfortunately, I’ve often not had enough time to write, and I think that’s caused the blog to suffer. I’d like to thank all of you who have read it over the last year and several months, and you can still frequently read reviews by me at silverbulletcomicbooks.com.
 
Thanks again, and I’ll see you at the conventions.

What If? #36 (1982)

June 1, 2006
After enjoying John Byrne’s artwork so much in yesterday’s blog entry, I decided to pull out another Byrne comic from his golden era. This one’s from four years later than the one I discussed yesterday, and it was released in the midst of Byrne’s famous run on Fantastic Four, which is still being collected these days. The story is "What if the Fantastic Four had not gained their super-powers?" and it’s actually rather fun. Instead of stealing a rocket and going into space, Reed waits and is able to travel to another galaxy and become a hero. One day, New York is attacked by a giant monster, the very creature from the cover of Fantastic Four #1, and Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben try to find out what’s going on. Of course, the monster is sent to the surface by the Mole Man, and hilarity ensues.
 
It’s actually a very nice story. Byrne obviously loved the interplay between the characters and the way they integrated as a family, so he plays up the relationships between each of them. The story zips along, in some really pretty silly directions, but Byrne’s confidence and passion for the material helps it along.
 
He artwork also helps it along. This story is both pencilled and inked by Byrne, so we’re pretty much getting unfiltered John Byrne in this one. The art, on the whole, is pretty nice. He was an odd habit of doing sketchy drawings of undifferentiated blobs to take the place of backgrounds, but his illustrations of the main characters are just wonderful, and he uses some clever storytelling tricks. When Sue and Ben escape through an air shaft, the cross-section view of the shaft is really nice and clever.
 
I’m not a big fan of Byrne’s current work, but this older stuff is wonderful.

Avengers #181 (1978)

May 31, 2006
In 1978, the two big artists were George Perez and John Byrne. Then as now, Perez was known for his amazing work with crowded super-hero comics, while Byrne was known for his ability to make his characters seem very human.
 
So it’s neat to contrast two pieces of art, one by Byrne and the other by Perez, of the same scene. It’s intriguing that Byrne’s piece is clearly the better of the two.
 
Look at the two images. They’re really almost exactly the same. The characters all appear next to each other in basically the same places and poses, but notice how much more life Byrne gives his illustration. Hercules, for instance, has a completely sort of rage on the Byrne page, more typically heroic for the character. Or notice how the Vision and Quicksilver both seem to hover around their beloved Scarlet Witch, showing how protected she was. The Black Panther is content to be himself, regal and open to the events, while Hawkeye is hostile to the government sticking its nose into the affairs of the Avengers.
 
It’s really kind of cool to be able to compare and contrast like this. I wonder what some other artists would have done with the same scene.
 
(by the way, I apologize for the poor scan – I’m breaking in a new scanner)

Micronauts #1 (1978)

May 30, 2006
Best. Toy comic book. Ever.
 
So I picked up this comic book when on vacation in Victoria this weekend (had a wonderful time, thanks for asking, though it was a pain taking three extra ferries to get over there) and read the comic for the first time probably since I bought it back in the day. And the damn thing is wonderful. It’s exciting, it has stunning artwork, the story moves like a rocket – the whole thing is so intriguing and interesting that it’s easy to see why everyone loved this comic when it came out.
 
Much of the credit has to go to artist Mike Golden. Golden’s been pretty much invisible in the industry over the last few years (I know he drew some Jackie Chan comics several years ago, but I have no idea what he’s done in the last while), but he did some fantastic work during the Carter Administration. Golden, at least when paired with inker Josef Rubenstein, looks a bit like a more dynamic version of Bernie Wrightson, all full of emotion and action and a certain very particular feeling of strangeness that makes every scene look uniquely special. His depiction of the bizarre Time Traveller, slightly out of focus with the world around him, is spectacular, especially in light of the extremely limited production values of the time. And his depiction of the evil Baron Karza is stunning: when we first see Baron Karza, he’s wearing a centaur’s outfit, which makes the bad guy look very strange. Later, when he’s got legs, it has the subtle effect of making readers wonder just what in the world the character is capable of.
 
It’s generally agreed that Micronauts is writer Bill Mantlo’s best work, and his writing really shines in this first issue. He does a terrific job of creating the settings of this comic without explaining too much, creating a setting that promises much more to come in the future. The writing is a bit florid, but it completely fits the grand action-adventure style of the comic.
 
I really don’t remember how this series went after the team came to Earth, but now I really want to know. This was a terrific comic book.

Ms. Marvel #6 (1977)

May 29, 2006
On the short list of absurdly stupid super-hero outfits would be a charming little number worn by tonight’s starlet, the one and only Ms. Marvel. No, your eyes don’t deceive you. Marvel’s latest super-hero sensation (in 1976, that is) flew int battle wearing a distaff version of Captain Marvel’s costume. Well, a spectacularly sexist version of Cap’s outfit. She had the wore the same chest symbol, bikini briefs and boots, but she wore an open belly (and open backed) version of the uni, along with bare legs, a scarf, and Farrah Fawcett hair. In other words, no, it is just as it looks: the woman has long sleeves, gloves and a scarf – and a bare midriff, back and legs.
 
Who is the genius who came up with this outfit, which is equally badly suited for very hot and very cold days? Chances are that it was comics great Johnny Romita, who worked as Marvel’s art director in the mid-’70s. Romita designed most of the super-hero outfits of the era, and his style was sometimes quite bizarre. I wonder if Romita ever thought to run this cover past his wife, or one of the female Marvel staffers of the time, or one of his daughters. From their suggestions, maybe they would have given Ms. Marvel some flip-flops or snow boots to go either with the hot or cold theme. Ms. Marvel – the McDLT of her era. The hot side stayed hot while the cool side stayed cool.
 
Inside, Ms. Marvel was just as jumbled. She was created by the infamous Gerry Conway, who was notorious (at least with me) for his bizarre and poorly-thought-out heroes and series. In his short run at DC in ’75 and ’76, Conway bowed to fan pressure to revive the legendary Justice Society of America in their own series, but brought them back as supporting characters to a much-despised Super Squad. He revived Blackhawk, that book with World War II flying aces, but never had then actually fight in World War II. At Marvel, Ms. Marvel might have been Conway’s most notorious book.
 
Setting aside the likelihood that the character was created mainly to keep copyright on the name, the character is a bizarre match of good ideas and ridiculous sexism. For instance, Ms. M. is actually Carol Danvers, who made a mint writing a book about the space program and her involvement with Captain Marvel. Okay, that’s interesting enough. From there, Carol persuades J. Jonah Jameson, the guy who hates Spider-Man, to give her seed money to start a new magazine called Woman.
 
So stop right there. A confident career woman, with a background of security behind her, making her way in New York as the editor of a glamorous magazine published by a sexist pig, in mid-’70s New York. That could be a fun comic book. A bit silly, a bit romantic, a bit period. But this being Marvel, they had to have an overlay of heroic stuff on top of the plot. Okay, then, give Carol some limited powers that help to convey her independence and power at the time.
 
But noooo, to use a catch phrase of the era, Conway had to mess up a great concept. First, Ms. M had to wear in absurd costume. And have derivitive super-powers. And have an extra power, a "seventh sense" that is kind of a magnification of her woman’s intuition that allows her to see the future.
 
Say what?
 
So what I guess I’m saying is that this whole thing is a big damn mess, but it shouldn’t be. If only Marvel had been a little more Ms. in the Equal Rights Amendment sense of the word. If only they had played up something, anything, that would make Carol a unique heroine. but, really, they never do, and in the end it’s just kind of sad and pathetic. This particular issue does feature some very early writing by Chris Claremont, and it’s fine as far as it goes but he’s still learning at this point. The art by Jim Mooney and Joe Sinnott is awfully nice in that kind of generic mid-’70s Marvel style that sends my mind in paroxyisms of glee. But in the end. Ms. M is just a lot of wasted potential.

Best of the Legion Outpost (2005)

May 25, 2006
The Legion Outpost is one of the oldest and most well-respected of all the comics fanzines. In 2004, as a sister title to their Legion Companion volume, TwoMorrows released an anthology of the best articles from the legendary zine. What is presented has some good, some bad and some odd aspects to it.
 
THE GOOD
Like all good fanzines, The Legion Outpost was driven in great part by passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Legion fans are justifiably famous for their love and encyclopedic knowledge of the longtime series. Thus we get articles such as an article about politics on the planet Bismoll (home of Matter-Eater Lad, don’tcha know?) or a look at the astrological signs of the heroes. While those articles are fun, a little of them go a long way for the casual fan.
The nicest feature of the book is the plethora of commissioned art presented. The book includes art by such luminaries as Curt Swan, Dave Cockrum, Walt Simonson, George Perez, Sergio Aragones and many more. It’s a joy to see all this wonderful art, and it really enlivens the book.
 
THE BAD
The low point of the book to me are some of the interviews. While some, like the interview with Jim Shooter, are very revealing, others are obscure and impossible to follow for the non-initiate. For instance, there’s a nine-page interview with Roy Thomas. Thomas is a great and important figure in comics history, but he wrote maybe a half dozen Legion stories. What purpose is served by running a long interview with such an unimportant figure in Legion history?
 
The interview with longtime Legion editor Mort Weisinger is disappointing in a different way. Weisinger seems defensive about his long editing career, taking great pains to defend himself against fan criticism of his work. It’s a strange interview; I imagine a grandfatherly Weisinger lecturing youthful interviewer Matt Lage while Lage makes complaining faces behind Weisinger’s back. It’s not that Lage is disrespectful; it’s more that Weisinger clearly has his own agenda and bitterness about some aspects of his career.
 
THE ODD
In the end, a lot of the material presented in BOLO is as obscure as it could possibly be. The interviews with pros are fun in an "inside comics" way, but there’s just not a lot that crosses over to the non-Legion fan. A little bit more context would have helped a lot. Perhaps a time line of Legion history in the comics would have helped; I’m a casual Legion fan and but there was a lot of material in this book for which I just didn’t have any context.
 
With all my complaints, this is still a 3½ bullet book due to the passion of the contributors and the nice art that’s presented. If you’re a Legion fan, you probably already have and love this book. If you’re not, your mileage might vary.

Testament #5 (2006)

May 22, 2006
"Do you see, now? Do you understand?"

This line is said near the end of this issue between one character and another, and the great irony is that though we see what’s going on, we don’t really understand it. Not really.

Testament‘s first story arc ends with this issue with some questions answered and many more left unanswered. For the first time, readers start to get a feel for all the odd cosmological events that have happened in this series this far. We see that events on Earth are in part a reaction to bizarre battles between different pantheons of gods. Events on Earth, past and present, are abstract cubes for the gods, worlds for them to access and influence, manipulate and create conflict. But what is the ultimate purpose of the gods on Earth? Is there indeed a purpose or is it all really, in an existential way, purposeless?

Your reaction to this comic will really depend on a few things.

First of all, it’s absolutely necessary to read all five issues at once. I pity any reader trying to make sense of this comic who begins with this issue. The whole complex plot of the series simply doesn’t make sense at all unless you can really get a feel for the characters’ arcs.

Secondly, you need to be a tolerant reader. You have to be tolerant of Old Testament stories turned upside down and seen in different lights. You have to be willing to see religions directly in conflict with each other, literally battling each other for supremacy. You also have to be tolerant of nudity and sexual activity, under various different circumstances.

But mostly your enjoyment of this series will be directly proportional to your willingness to read a story that’s full of bizarre moments, unexplained complexity, and odd mysteries. Testament is a book in which very strange things happen in very strange world to very strange people. Not a lot is explained. Much is implied, often by analogy, but little is actually spelled out for readers. For example, readers receive no explanation of the evil Mr. Fallow, with no explanation for the bizarre libertine lifestyle that surrounds him. It’s not even clear if Mr. Fallow is a literal presence or one of the Gods, since his world is so abstracted from the real world of the story. The series seems to carry the promise that Mr. Fallow’s motivations and background will come out in time, but without that, the reader is left to interpret cryptic pieces such as the weird cover of issue #5 or the bizarre things shown in the background in his mansion without a lot of help from writer Douglas Rushkoff. Readers are told that Fallow is the face of evil, but in a world with a vast cosmology of godlike entities, what does that term actually mean?

Personally I really have enjoyed this first arc. It’s a ballsy move for Vertigo to release a comic that so boldly pushes the boundaries. I haven’t looked at the Diamond sales charts, but I’d be shocked if this comic wasn’t one of the lowest selling comics in the line. This isn’t a book like Y: the Last Man, Fables or DMZ, where the central concept of the comic can be contained in one pithy line. In fact, at the end of the first arc, I’m left trying to explain the comic by describing its themes: mankind’s struggle for independence against almost insurmountable odds, perhaps. Or mankind’s struggle for deeper meaning in a world driven in part by a group of self-serving manipulators.

There’s heroism in this comic, but it’s an odd sort of heroism. When Abraham fights the giants, or when Jake and Miriam fight to free their friends, neither is done out of altruism, really, nor are they done out of simple self-interest. Their lives and actions seem to be driven by a higher purpose, a loftier goal somehow. People are striving to transcend their nasty and brutish lives, find some great kernel of individuality in worlds where individuality is only tolerated within specific limits.

In the end, what makes Testament remarkable is its expectations of readers. This is simply not a comic book in which good triumphs over evil, or in which a hero goes on a quest to find or resolve a great personal problem – though there are elements of each in this comic. Instead, Douglas Rushkoff challenges readers to embrace a different sort of story, something that defies tradition and finds its own pace and style and feel, in which characters reveal themselves in odd and interesting ways. It is a comic book that embraces ambiguity and complexity. It is a comic book where the reader is asked to form his own conclusions about the characters and the plots and the motivations of everyone in the book. Rushkoff asks a lot from his readers.

I should also mention the remarkable job that Liam Sharp does with the art. Sharp adds immeasurably to the comic with his complex and detailed depictions of people and places. I have no way of knowing how much Rushkoff’s stories give Sharp, but it seems he’s given pretty free reign to create his vision of the world of this comic, and given the freedom to experiment with some very strange page layouts. As much as Rushkoff’s writing, Sharp’s art pushes the comic literally off-center with his unique page designs and thoughtful character depictions. Rushkoff asks a lot of Sharp in this series, and Sharp consistently delivers work that lifts the comic to some uniquely exciting heights.

In these days of hyped-up civil wars and one year time jumps, isn’t it great that one of the largest comics publishers in the world offers something with real complexity and ambiguity? Testament isn’t a perfect comic book, but it’s a damn interesting one.

Firestorm: the Nuclear Man #25 (2006)

May 21, 2006
What a fun comic book. And what a pleasant break from comics with all-out world shattering events that will change comics as we know it forever. Firestorm is a very solid, very traditional super-hero comic where readers can have wonderful non-ironic, non-post-modern fun watching a good guy fight some bad guys.

In this case, Firestorm battles old arch-enemy Killer Frost, who’s teamed up with the Batman’s nemesis Mister Freeze to make ol’ flamehead’s life miserable. Killer Frost forces Firestorm to fly to the sun, where the two people who inhabit Firestorm’s body, Jason and Lorraine, get help from an unexpected source to defeat her. That unexpected source leads up to the great OYL mystery of this series, and should lead to interesting plot threads in the future.

Stuart Moore’s script crackles with clever lines, whether it’s Killer Frost, on her way to the sun, talking about how she needed to travel more, or Batman’s stunning speech to Firestorm. That script makes for a fun, fast and charming read. Igle and Champagne’s art, along with David Baron’s coloring, is appropriately light and bright for this comic. There are clever moments in the art, such as many different incarnations of Firestorm defeating Killer Frost, but those moments don’t take away from the story at all.

This is a tremendously solid super-hero comic, well worth reading.

Strangehaven: Brotherhood (2000)

May 20, 2006
Strangehaven is a town somewhere in the middle of nowhere in England, where people stray by accident and never leave. "If she doesn’t want you to leave, then you ain’t goin’ nowhere. …The village, Alex. She’s a living thing, just like you or I. You’re here for a reason. We’re all here for a reason. This is where you’re supposed to be right now. Don’t waste time trying to figure it out." one character says to another as they discuss their unusual town. The fact is that it’s a damn interesting town, with its predilection for strange characters. There’s Megaron, who’s half Amazonian warrior, and Adam who thinks he’s a space alien. There are many more ordinary folks too, including a strange predilection the town has for twins. And there’s also a secret society in the town, acting on its own behalf, carrying great secrets.
 
This is an extremely odd book. On one hand, it’s a very languid and charming look at the ins and outs of a small town. Writer/artist Gary Millidge takes great pains to really explore his characters, and make the readers get a feel for who they really are and for the lives they’ve led. He’s quite fond of two or three page autobiographical flashbacks in which characters tell their stories. It’s an interesting technique because it literally allows the characters to speak for themselves in this narrative. We get involved in the characters, really being involved in their odd lives.
 
There’s one scene that especially caught my imagination. There’s a character whose life is spinning out of control. He sits in front of the TV watching Fawlty Towers thinking about his wretched life when Basil Fawlty steps out of the TV and begins lecturing the man about his life. Sure, it’s not a totally original twist, but damn it, it’s Basil Fawlty, John Cleese! How cool is that?
 
At the same time, something odd is going on in the small town of Strangehaven, and we readers have trouble really focusing on it. Just what is the magnetic focus of the town? How does it keep people in its orbit without them spinning out? Just what is the secret society, and how does its inexorable movements cause the fascinating ending which concludes this issue?
 
If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that the drama of the secret society is too hidden within the pages. Millidge is subtle, and there are undercurrents of tension in the story, but they’re not tremendously overt. Maybe that’s a British thing, but as an American I always want to see more menace.
 
Anyway, wonderful book. Check it out.

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