Archive for March, 2005

Batman: Detective #27 graphic novel (2004)

March 30, 2005

It’s a bit of a misnomer to have Batman in the title of this graphic novel. Bruce Wayne is the hero of the book, and he’s perhaps his world’s greatest detective. But Bruce never dons the cape and cowl. (In fact, there’s a funny explanation of why inspiration never strikes) Instead he becomes a more conventional detective, the 27th in a line of a secret society of detctives whose mission it is to prevent a group of evil-doers from creating destroying a major city.

As you might have guessed, this is an Elseworlds book, so everything Batman-related is just a little bit distorted. From a fun take on Alfred to use of familiar vllains and motifs in the story ("Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?") to the big revelation at the end, writer Mike Uslan enjoys playing with our familiar takes on the characters. He also mixes the fictional characters in with historical figures – Babe Ruth appears, as do Franklin Roosevelt, Charles Darwin and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. The effect is clever, making the book feel like an alternate reality just outside our window, as if with just a few small changes, this could have been our world.

Uslan creates versillimitude with this take, but it still feels a little bit stale. There have been so many Elseworlds books created in the last fifteen years that it’s very hard to come up with something that feels completely fresh. In a format that depends on freshness, this is a real problem. Uslan’s take, while clever, just doesn’t have the extra splash of freshness to make it really special.

Peter Snejberg’s art is perfect for this story. So much of the twists and turns of the plot depend on facial gestures, and he’s one of the best at using slight exaggerations to convey a character’s thoughts. His take on Superman – portayed here as a sort of 30s take on heroism, complete with belt and lace-up boots – is a real treat.

Overall this is a solid, professional book that’s a fun take on its characters. It’s definitely not the best Elseworlds book, but Uslan and Snejberg deliver a solid and entertaining story.

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ArmorX #1 (2005)

March 29, 2005

Full disclosure up front: I’m part of a message board with writer Keith Champagne. I don’t think I’m biased in favor of liking his work, but please read this review with that in mind.

ArmorX is a scary comic.

It’s scary because the story’s protagonist, Carson Deeds, is a Columbine shooting waiting to happen. He’s lonely. He’s a brain, left out of the activities of most of his classmates. Lately he’s been talking about bringing a gun to the school prom and getting his revenge on all the kids who put him down. That’s scary enough, but what’s more scary is that Carson is pretty damn unlikable. He’s a jerk, mean to the people who like him and obnoxious to those who hate him. You can see why Carson is out down; hell, it’s easy to want to put the guys down. If you knew him in high school you would have hated him, too. Even when he’s getting his ass kicked, you’re rooting against him.

Then imagine a guy like Carson Deeds getting ahold of a super-suit that’s capable of flying him to the moon and blowing holes through solid rocks. Oh, and he finds the suit accidentally on prom night, after being a victim of violence from one of the high school students who hates him.

Yeah, that’s scary. It creeps the hell out of me.

The smartest aspect of the plot, it seems to me, is the way the story plays out. We first see Carson in the armor, experimenting with its use on the moon. Comics readers are so used to origin stories that we expect the man in the armor to be a hero, to perhaps fly back to earth and stop some bank robbers or drug runners or something. Instead, Carson returns to hurt those who taunted him.

Champagne, Smith and company have so successfully subverted the usual super-hero style that I have no idea what to expect in issue #2. That happens so rarely in comics these days. It’s especially nice for such a cliffhanger to be based more on the characters than the powers. In a sense the armored suit is just an extension of Carson’s angst. Even if he didn’t have the suit, Carson might have done something crazy. With the suit, he now has an excuse to go over the top.

This isn’t the most cheerful comic you’ll ever read, but it’s extremely well done.

Shanna the She-Devil #3 (1973)

March 28, 2005

They call the era between about 1971 and 1980 the Bronze Age in comics. I assume this is because the ’40s were the Golden Age, the ’50s were a dark age (except for EC Comics and a few others), the ’60s were the silver age. What comes after silver? Gotta be bronze, right? It’s actually an issue of deep debate among comics readers where one age ends and the next begins. Did the Silver Age begin in 1956, with the first appearance of the Barry Allen Flash, or when the Martian Manhunter first appeared, or with Fantastic Four #1 if you’re Marvel biased. It’s like the old debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin after awhile.

Oh yeah, since it’s my blog, the golden age ran from 1938 to the end of the Spirit section in 1952. The Silver Age began when the Flash first appeared and ended when New Gods #1 came out in 1971. New Gods signaled a new era (Kirby is HERE! the cover screamed) and ended with the introduction of Elektra in Daredevil #168. Oh, and an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin because they have no mass or size, just spirit. But I digress.

The nice thing about Ages is that you can paint an era with a very broad brush. After JFK was assassinated, they called his time as President Camelot, despite the fact that the US almost got into a nuclear war with the USSR, blacks were still segregated in the South, and Kennedy’s personal habits would make Bill Clinton blush. In the same way, fans can point to the so-called Bronze Age and highlights like the aforementioned New Gods, and Swamp Thing, and Howard the Duck, and Steve Englehart’s Doctor Strange, smiling to each other knowingly and praising the era as the best ever.

They forget one key fact. During every era in comics there is a hell of a lot of schlock produced. Schlock has, in fact, been the historical norm for comics over the years. Every era of comics was plagued by comics ranging from mediocre to terrible, and in every era those comics are alternately forgotten and celebrated. Such a comic is Shanna the She-Devil. Shanna was a kind of ersatz queen of the jungle type (note the similarity of her name to Sheena, who was around long before Marvel’s version, and who, by the way, has perhaps the sexiest comic book cover ever to her credit.). Shanna’s series ran five issues in 1972 and ’73, and is infamous for being part of a short-lived and ill-considered line of feminist hero comics, which also brought us The Claws of the Cat and the horrific Night Nurse. Later Shanna would become the girlfriend of Ka-Zar the Savage in the terrific Bruce Jones/Brent Anderson series of the early ’80s, and of course she is currently appearing in her own mini-series by Frank Cho.

Okay, enough, Sacks, I hear you say, enough. Stop talking around the comic and start talking about it. Did you get the idea I was avoiding talking about this comic? Well, let me tell you, in that ’80s series… oh damn, you caught me.

Okay, Shanna the She-Devil #3. Written by Carole Seuling, illustrated by Ross Andru and the infamous Vice Colletta. Shanna lives in an African jungle with her two pet leopards Ina and Bini, running around in a leopard-skin bikni and living in a tree house. In this issue, she finds out about the destruction of a village by a cape buffalo and, while investigating, stumbles over a lost city that worships a magic golden bull. Yeah, it’s based on that Shakespeare play, You know the one, it’s called ummm… not Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice. The name slips my mind….

Yep, shlock. The dull art by Ross Andru and Vince Colletta doesn’t help at all. I’ll save my Vince Colletta rant for another posting, but Andru is a real pro whose work isn’t destroyed by Colletta’s inks as much as some artists’ work is.

With issue four, the great Steve Gerber would arrive and drive the comic into mediocrity, then with issue five it was gone. Just another average mid-’70s assembly line Marvel Comic. The same month this comic came out, a real feminist comic was released: the classic "Song of Red Sonja" in Conan #24. Now that’s a woman who knows her way around a fight.

Classic X-Men #1-5 (1986, reprinting comics from 1975)

March 27, 2005

Man, this stuff triggers so many thoughts.

The first thing I think of is that it’s too damn bad that Dave Cockrum never got rich from his work on the new X-Men. Poor guy. It was a thrill to design his website to help raise awareness of his tenuous financial situation, but it’s a shame that was even necessary. Marvel in the mid-’70s was a strange place. It was a time of dramatic expansion in the line, and a time when many fans turned pro and happily created new characters for the comics they loved. The problem is that every character created on company time belonged to the company. That means that characters from Blade (created by Marv Wolfman) and Storm (created by Dave Cockrum) to Shanna the She-Devil and the Rocket Racer belong to Marvel Comics lock, stock and barrel. It was a situation as bad as the one that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster found themselves in after signing over their rights to Superman to DC Comics for next to nothing. The difference here is that the ’70s era creators didn’t even get a modest amount extra for creating these characters.

It’s a situation that slowly changed. I’m sure that Wolfman is getting royalties from DC for creating Cyborg, Starfire and Raven in the Teen Titans in 1980 or so. The cartoon is a hit and Wolfman is appropriately making a few bucks from his creations. But work from before that era is a complete gray area. Companies have the moral obligation to help those who created their greatest characters when they hit hard times. But how many corporations act unless they feel a financial imperative?

Marvel did sign an agreement with Dave and Paty Cockrum by which they have a nice little nest egg. I know that the Cockrums are happy with the arrangement. But it’s too bad that they lost out on so many years of royalties from Dave’s work on the early issues of X-Men. Giant-Size X-Men #1 has been reprinted so many times over the years that even a small pittance would have gone a long way.

Sure, and it would have been nice to have gotten a great job straight out of college, too. Reality sucks.

The next thing that I wonder is just what in the hell was in the mind of Marvel’s editors when they planned this title. For a comic called Classic X-Men, there sure is a lot of little bits of tinkering in these first five issues. For instance, instead of reprinting all of Giant-Size X-Men #1, we get only thirteen pages of the orginal story. That’s only a third of a length of the original. The rest of the 32-page comic contains a four-page prologue and 15 pages of epilogue. I suppose I can see the merits of adding extra supplementary material, and this makes more sense as the series rolls along, but why remove the original content to add new content? Was Chris Claremont jealous of Len Wein’s writing credit in the original story? Or was there a drive to add continuity implants in the back of the book to bridge the gap?

In any event, this approach is very frustrating. In some ways it gets worse as the series moved to 18-page stories with X-Men #94. In CXM #2, reprinting X-Men 94, we get three supplemental new pages mixed in with the originals. Whose genius idea was it to add new pages eleven years after the fact? Cockrum draws these new pages, but his style has changed so much in the intervening years that the transitions are awkward and frustrating.

But what’s most noticeable in these early issues is how Claremont is struggling to find his voice and style on the book. Wolverine hasn’t yet become the breakout character he would become, Phoenix wouldn’t appear until X-Men #101, and Magneto wouldn’t reappear until #104. In the meantime the comic features such lightweight villains as the evil Count Nefaria and his ani-men, and features a bizarre, unexplained battle with a demon in #96. We also witness the death of Thunderbird, surely one of the most pointless and most obvious deaths in comics history. I assume killing the character was meant to give the series a feeling of tension, that almost any character could die at any time – and perhaps make the death and resurrection of Jean Grey as Phoenix more dramatic heft. But killing Thunderbird feels kind of perfunctory in these issues. Oddly enough, TBird seems the best characterized of all the characters before his death. Sure it was a cliched characterization, but at least he seemed to have some some inner life compared with the other characters.

At least the art is wonderful throughout the comics. Cockrum’s art, especially in CXM #2/X-Men #94, where he inks himself, is just wonderful. The backup stories contain drop-dead gorgeous art by John Bolton in service of what feel to me to be mediocre Claremont stories Issue #2’s backup has Jean Grey horrified by the site of Ororo nude in her presence – guess she doesn’t go to public gyms – and #4 has a cloying story about Nightcrawler being at peace with his appearance, which seems its point directly contradicted by the pages added to X-Men #97 in CXM #5. At least the backup in #5 is nice, with a wonderful last page by Bolton.

I believe that almost any comic is worth a quarter. If it’s good, you’ve scored a prize. If it’s mediocre, it was worth 25¢. And if it’s crap, you only wasted a quarter. I picked up the first 22 issues of CXM for a quarter apiece at half price books. They’re definitely worth that much. Hey, that’s what I paid for the original comics back in the day!

A note on Firestorm’s girlfrend

March 26, 2005

The great Rafael Kayanan mentions that Firestorm’s girlfiend (pictured on the cover of Crisis on Infinite Earths #12) is named Firehawk and that he designed her costume. Unfortunately, I don’t have any issues of the series, but I found a cute cover inset from Fury of Firestorm #25 that’s drawn by Rafael and inked by Dick Giordano. Enjoy.

Sin City: the Big Fat Kill

March 26, 2005

The Sin City movie will be in theatres next week, so this is the last chance to read the comics without the movie influencing my opinion. Here’s my opinion of the comic: the cinematography is great, but the plot seems weak.

There are some absolutely gorgeous scenes in this graphic novel. It done completely in stark blank-and-white – there is no color anywhere in this book, nor even any shades of gray. The art is binary. It is either black or white. This provides stark contrasts and bold arrangements of panels. This style helps amplify the stark lives its characters live within its pages. Their lives are ones of clear contrasting moral choices. The art illuminates the themes of the comic in a striking and bold way.

Which is why it’s a damn shame that the plot is so, well, I hate to say it, but it’s comic-booky. Because there’s nothing but a binary contrast, there’s no possible subtlety in the story. As with the art, the story can use a number of clever and striking tricks to keep the reader engaged in its progress. But because of its lack of depth, the story in this graphic novel just doesn’t have the depth of feel that it deserves.

One of Miller’s great tricks on Daredevil and on Batman was to add an extra level of subtlety to the characters that added versillimitude to the events that happened to the characters. When we read "Born Again" and see Matt Murdock/Daredevil move from being crushed by the Kingpin’s machinations to finding true inner peace, we see a nice character arc, real movement of Matt as a person. Similarly, the arc of Bruce Wayne in Dark Knight really moves the character from one place to another. We never really see an arc in "The Big Fat Kill".

One of the points of Sin City may be that some people never change or are able to change due to the stark world they live in. Maybe these characters, like many of us, are only able to move forward without reflection, without true growth. Their stark world never allows such change. There’s merit to that concept, but it feels to me like it lacks the depth of feeling necessary to really make the story feel satisfying.

Or maybe the point is that there is no point, that there are some people for whom the world is black and white, and for whom violence is a way of life. Fair enough.

In the end, for me, this is a comic that I admire for the amazing artwork, but for which I can’t muster any enthusiasm for its story.

 

Crisis On Infinite Earths #12 (1985)

March 23, 2005

Just look at that cover! How many heroes can you identify? There’s the regular Superman and the defunct Superman from Earth-2 with the grey temples. Hawkman’s there, and the Martian Manhunter, an old Wonder Woman, Superboy to go with the two Supermen. Then there’s a ton of old crappy DC heroes: the female Dr. Light, Firestorm’s girlfriend who was also a superhero (what was her name, Stormhawk or something?) and Robin in a weird costume and Black Lightning and a few characters even I’m not geeky enough to know (is the dude shooting bolts out of his hands the dude from the hated version of Doom Patrol?).

Then you open the cover and the splash page has such front-runners as Dolphin (a one-shot undersea heroine), Captain Comet (the resident hero from the Secret Society of Super-Villains, the Atomic Knight (so obscure even I’ve never read a story with him in it), Rip Hunter Time Master, Animal Man (long before his ’80s-’90s series) and Adam Strange. Yeah, the most famous character is Adam freaking Strange.

Crisis on Infinite Earths is the ultimate fan-geek heaven, a long celebration of the sheer power and goofiness of the costumed hero. Every hero from everyplace unite to fight some weird obscure bad guy that is only defeated by the greatest of them all.

I remember dreaming about a comic like this when I was in elementary school. "Let’s team up all the heroes and have them fight all the villains," my friends and I would daydream, and Crisis is the ultimate version of just that. Is it good? Is it well written and drawn? Well, it’s really damn well drawn, panel after panel of pure great George Perez obsessiveness and eye for detail. It looks fantastic. Storywise, well, Marv Wolfman’s done much better, but the story serves its purpose.

Crisis is the kind of comic that it’s hard to be critical of. The comic succeeds in doing exactly what you want it to do. It fulfilled my grade school lust, and fulfills it off in an exciting and profesional way. Frankly I found this issue kind of inpenetrable plotwise, but I could always fall back on the amazing artwork. Look at that cover again. Look at the background this time. There’s a whole cityscape there! It’s not enough that George Perez drew upwards of 40 heroes on the cover. He also drew all of goddamn New York City. The whole issue is full of bits like that.

I hear that Wolfman is working on a prose novel of the Crisis; wonder what that will be like? And how will he replace that amazing art?

The Eye of Mongombo #6 and 7 (1991)

March 22, 2005

My wife Liisa and I moved to Seattle in 1990 from Portland, shortly after she got a job offer to work at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Reserach Center. Since I had no specific job prospects in Portland at the time – I was mainly working shit temp jobs and scrambling to find work with my Poli Sci degree – it was an easy choice to move up here. Not having any special skills aside from writing long essays on Chilean military coups and reading comic books, I decided on a lark to apply for a job with Fantagraphics Books, a small independent publisher of such famed series as The Complete Crumb Comics, Love & Rockets and the Comics Journal. At the time, Fantagraphics was also publishing a lighter companion to the always-controversial Comics Journal, called Amazing Heroes. Kim Thompson, co-owner of Fantagraphics along with his partner Gary Groth, called me in for an interview and hired me to assistant edit AH.

At that time Fantagraphics was publishing a half-dozen or so comics and collections a month. Their collection of titles reflected the various interests of Kim and Gary. Gary was the high-brow fan who helped shepard the publishing of European imports and fancy underground collections. Kim, however, had a more mixed taste in comics. He always seemed to like the higher brow stuff, but he also helped push such series as Critters (a funny animal anthology), Fission Chicken and the Eye of Mongombo. (by the way, my perceptions might be completely wrong on this. But what the hell, misperceptions are the lifeblood of the blogosphere)

I last read Mongombo back when it first came out in the late ’80s and remember loving its manic sense of self and style. For years, the comic loving section of my thick skull had wanted to revisit the world of writer/artist Doug Gray and enjoy his manic energy. I stumbled over these two issues at January’s Emerald City Comicon and thus my comic loving brain got excited.

Darn.

Maybe their time has passed, or maybe Gray had lost his enthusiasm by the time these two issues came out, but silly as they are, these comics just don’t have that spark. They’re fun. Issue 6 has a funny chase scene and 7 has a funny scene with a narcicisstic body builder type, but I missed the manic energy I expected from this series. As I put down #7, I began wondering just what happened to Doug Gray? This series finished with #7, three issues before its promised conclusion. Did Gray go to Hollywood to pursue animation, or just drop out of drawing comics altogether? Does he do commercial art? Is it possible he’s another schlub working for some anonymous corporation like I am?

Supergirl #2 (1996)

March 21, 2005

My friend Mike turned me on to Peter David’s wonderfully unique take on Supergirl, and I’m really glad I listened. Mike has extremely good taste in comics, and he was right about this series. The first fifty issues are a kind of long character arc. The series starts with Linda Danvers as a troubled teen whose life is saved when the kind of gloopy Matrix takes over her body, and concludes with Linda/Matrix/Supergirl as a kind of earth angel, a spirit of goodness and redemption.

Yeah, it’s not your father’s Supergirl, and I can see why it might be off-putting for some. But I enjoyed it. Lex Luthor barely appears at all in the series, and while Comet the sort of super horse appears, he does so in ways you might never expect.

It’s nice seeing this whole thing start relatively quietly here in issue two, but pretty soon Supergirl will be rolling into some interesting territory.

Daredevil #172, 173, 174 (1981)

March 20, 2005

My god, Frank Miller had chops. Daredevil #172 was only the fifth issue of Daredevil that Miller both wrote and illustrated, but it’s an unbelievabley creative and exciting achievement. Miller’s writing and art were dense, thoughtful and creative, using classic Marvel icons and also-rans in interesting an unique ways. And his storytelling… wow, that storytelling. You can see the deep Eisner influences in the art, but Miller took Eisner’s lessons and built his own iconography.

Issue 172 is filled with dizzying cityscapes, drawn from different perspectives and in a style that implies rather than conveys a city. They feel like those helicopter shots of New York City that show up in every film set there, while conveying a certain mood and menace. The city is a place of shadows, of struggle, a place where the small people on the street have no idea of the kinds of battles that are happening above their heads. The greatness of Miller on Daredevil lies in creating the impression of a city great and terrifying, of endless possibility and fright, protected by one athletic blind man in red rights who protects the place he loves from the venal Kingpin and his insidius machinations.

When Miller took over on Daredevil, I remember he was like a bolt of electricity hitting a formerly quiet title. He was part of a newly emerging sense of excitement that comics were transcending their more childish roots and growing into an artform that offered something special and unique compared with any other artform. Like Claremont/Byrne on X-Men and Moore on Swamp Thing at the time, Miller showed that the icons and symbols of our childish joys held a deeper resonance. I was in high school at the time these comics came out, thinking of work and cars and girls. In another era, this would be the time that I would have given up on comics, moved on to more adult concerns. Thankfully, as I moved to adult concerns, comics changed with me. For an amazing period from my entering high school in 1981 to my graduating college in 1989, the comics industry seemed to be growing mature at the same time I was. Miller and Moore became Gaiman and Pekar, Eddie Campbell and Art Spiegelman. There was a feeling of endless, growing possibility around the industry. Fantagraphics was putting out comics that ranged from the sublime (Love & Rockets) to the ridiculous (Critters, Eye of Mongombo – the subject of a future blog entry BTW). DC had Blue Devil and Miller’s Dark Knight Returns coming out at the same time. Comics seemed to be filled with endless possibility, with the feeling that the industry was right on the verge of something special.

And one of the places it started was with the masterful work of Frank Miller on Daredevil. This stuff is as fresh and wonderful as the day it was published. None of Miller’s tricks became a cliche, because few artists really copied his stylistic quirks. He’s since moved on to his Sin City work, working with a very diffrerent style and format, leaving behind this work.

The one thing I wasn’t prepared for is the density of these comics. Those long arcs that Brian Bendis writes on the series now might fill half an issue in the Miller era. There are pages that contain 11 and 12 panels each, all arranged in different panel arrangements and each of which contain word balloons. Miller stretched out more as the series progressed, but these earlier issues seem positively crammed full of ideas and content, as if Miller had thought about his ideas for a long time and found he had not nearly enough space to add all of them.

If you haven’t read Frank Miller’s Daredevil for awhile, pull out your old mouldering copies of his early run and check them out. Then please let me know if you agree or disagree with me.