Archive for April, 2005

Doctor Strange #15 (1976)

April 30, 2005

What happens to a hero after he’s saved the universe? For most heroes, nothing special. Saving the universe is all in a day’s work for a super-hero, after all, so why should it shake him up? That’s true of most action heroes, but it’s not true of Stephen Strange. Strange is a hero of the mind, one whose mental commitment to his mystic arts helps him in the work he does to save the world. So it should be no suprise that his reactions are different.

In Doctor Strange #15, we see exactly how different Strange is from most heroes. In previous issues, Strange has seen the Earth destroyed and recreated again by the great cosmic entity Eternity. With most heroes, this would be no big deal. After all, those sorts of odd moments are part and parcel of the business of saving the universe. If the world gets destroyed and recreated, then what is the end problem? The world exists, that’s what’s important. Quit moping and brooding on the negatives of it. But Strange just isn’t that kind of hero.

Instead, we see that Stephen is tortured by these events. Even though he knows intellectually that the new Earth is exactly the same as the old Earth, Stephen is still bugged by a feeling of inauthenticity in the world. He says on page 7, "Everything is the same, and yet different! I cannot tell it is different – it looks and feels the same – but I know! I know so much that other men could never even expect – and I worried before that I had opened byself to too much! What sort of victory did I win, when Eternity re-created the world? I knew reality was but an illusion, but to be reminded every minute by everything I see… The mind of man needs the illusion."

Even more, the ramifications of this revelation profoundly affect Strange’s relationship with Clea, his disciple and lover. Clea senses that Strange is keeping a secret from her, so she resents her man’s attitude. At the same time, Strange knows that revealing the truth to Clea would upset his fragile disciple’s mind. It’s truly a no-win situation, and a truly adult dilemma for a simple comic book.

The issue improves from there, with the bizarre suicide attempt of James Mandarin, and the amazing, shocking conclusion, but I should leave those scenes as ones you can discover for yourself.

The art in this issue shows perfectly the strengths of the Gene Colan/Tom Palmer team. Colan is one of the finest artists in comics history at conveying subtle emotions, and he’s at his best in this comic. His depiction of Mandarin  shows the over-the-top desperation of the man, while his illustrations of Strange and Clea show the conflicted feelings each have. He also uses panel grids in an interesting and subtle manner: in the non-mystical scenes, Colan uses standard page grids, but when the comic turns towards the mystical, the page turns akimbo, with odd and unique panel arrangements. He obviously gave deep thought to the feel he wanted to convey at different sections of the tale, and does a magnificent job of doing so in a subtle way.

I’ve gone all this way without identifying the writer of this wonderful comic. Steve Englehart is the man’s name, and he produced several wonderful ’70s comics. In this one he’s especially strong.


Astronauts of the Future (2003)

April 28, 2005

I’ve been hearing the name Lewis Trondheim recently, usually with good comments about his work, so I decided to check out one of his graphic novels. I picked up Astronauts of the Future with no expectations. I finished reading it as a fan of Trondheim.

This is a deceptively simple tale of Martina, an elementary school-age girl who is convinced that everyone around her is a robot. Everyone else is predictable, she says, as she wins yet another game of checkers against yet another student. She is by far the smartest and most creative kid she knows, which only helps to reinforce her opinion. One day she meets Gilbert Halibut. Gilbert not only claims he isn’t a robot, but he claims to be an astronaut, a war machine sent to exterminate hostile aliens. Naturally, the pair quickly become inseparable friends, going on adventures together to try to uncover the great conspiracy that rules their world. The pair, along with Gilbert’s kid sister, try all kinds of schemes to destroy the conspiracy, until their story takes an unexpected twist and everything goes in an entirely different direction.

To say I was shocked at the twist would be an understatement. My jaw dropped when the twist happened, and I actually gasped in surprise. It happens in such a completely unexpected, matter-of-fact way that the moment feels a little unreal, even in the context of the story. However, it fits the story beautifully, casting all that happened before the moment in a completely different light. After that twist, the story continues with even more twists and turns that seem unexpected while also seeming completely logical in the context of the story.

A lot of the credit for selling the story has to go to artist Larcenet. His style looks like a more polished and professional version of art that a child might draw. With such a deceptively simple style, Larcenet gives the reader the feeling that the story is being seen through the eyes of the story’s main characters. Even when horrific things are happening in the story, Larcenet’s art retains a lightness and charm that keeps things from getting too intense or scary.

Trondheim’s writing is a wonderful match for the art. He has a nice ear for the way that kids talk, and he was a wonderfully witty style. I’m not sure if he’s better known as a writer or artist, but his writing skills are certainly well shown off here.

Astronauts of the Future is a really fun and exciting all-ages comic book. Adults will love the nuances that the creative team bring to the story, while teens and tweens will identify with the dilemmas that Martina and Gilbert face. I was really very pleasantly surprised by this graphic novel.

The new Doctor Who, episode 4: “Aliens of London”

April 27, 2005

Oh what the hell, why not a TV review? It’s my blog, I can do what I want.

Last night’s Doctor Who, "Aliens of London" was the best of the new series so far. It starts with a wonderful scene of Rose returning to London. Soon after, an alien spaceship crash-lands in the Thames, which triggers widespread panic and chaos. Of course the Doctor gets involved in the situation in his own inimitable way, but not before we get some wonderful scenes of Rose’s family and friends. This is definitely not the same Doctor Who that I loved in high school, but the new version of the show is so wonderfully true to the original that the new scenes feel like a re-energization of the character. This episode moves along at a wonderful pace, Eccleston doing a wonderful job of playing a slightly more complex Doctor than I’m used to, while still having the energy and spirit of his predecessors. Even the two scenes in the episode that annoyed me when they first happened ended up having interesting explanations.

I liked the show before; now I’m completely hooked.

Klarion the Witch Boy #1 (2005)

April 26, 2005

Wow, what an odd comic. I mean, Klarion is just plain strange. It seems there’s an extradimensional place where an odd civilization of creatures live. There are witches, of which our guy Klarion is one, but they’re an oppressed minority who seem to be on the outs with the rest of their civilization. There are hints of supernatural creatures, and there’s a Kit Kat wrapper in there, too. It’s all very strange feeling, which I’m sure is part of the point of the book.

It’s also tremendously intriguing. What is the story with the Grundies, who are dead people brought back to life for manual labor? What is the strange fairy-like creature that Kalrion’s cat Teekl kills? What is the creature at the end of the book? And what is this strange place Croatoan? Lots of questions, almost no answers. Which is immensely exciting to a reader. Being thrown into a strange world where there are no answers provided helps make the reader feel off-balance, like we don’t know what to expect from the story. We know that we can trust Morrison to provide answers, so the journey itself can be a pleasure.

Frazer Irving’s art, and especially his coloring, are absolutely sensational. With his use of mostly blue and gray shades, Irving creates a world that seems extremely claustrophobic. Except for Teekl and the mystical beings, everything is blue. Blue faces, blue fingernails, blue ground. When Horrigal appears on the last page, his purple highlights explode off the page. This all helps lead readers to feel what Klarion is feeling. We want to be free of this world, but at the same time, the world of Croatoan is intriguing.

Klarion is a very strange comic, but it’s wonderfully written and drawn, and is very intriguing. Of the four first issues so far of the Seven Soldiers series, it’s my favorite.

Spectre #3 (1968)

April 25, 2005

This is another comic drawn by that master of comics art, Neal Adams. This time it’s a color book from DC, starring perhaps their greatest cosmic hero, the Spectre. Well, it sort of stars the Spectre. He has his name and face in the title (cool ’60s logo, huh?), but the comic actually features Wildcat more than ol’ Spec. He’s in a more prominent position on the cover, and the first 13 pages of the 24-page story focus on him. Even the title page looks like a Wildcat solo comic. The title is "Hang ‘Em Up Wildcat — You’re Finished" and that page has a very large logo for Wildcat.

Just what in the world happened here? Were DC’s writers already bored with this near-omnipotent lead character? Was this a lost Wildcat solo story that ended up getting slotted in an issue of Spectre? It’s just so odd to see something like this. I’m not sure where this particular comic falls in the career of writer Mike Friedrich. Is it possible this was one of his first scripts for DC? The story doesn’t read any less polished than any other comics of the time – it has some awkward moments and a weird vibe – but for a naïve DC comic of its era, this is a perfectly reasonable comic book. And Adams’s art is just wonderful. Here he’s doing classic pen-and-ink work, and Adams’s art has a certain spark that very few cartoonists have ever had. There is so much energy in Adams’s action scenes. It’s easy to see why he was such a star back in the day.

But Wildcat? I just don’t get that at all.

The Destructor #1 (1975)

April 25, 2005

This is one of those comics that seems normal on the surface, but where the story behind the story is much more interesting.

First of all: the Destructor is a teen-age boy who as we meet him is a wannabe hitman whose father is a brilliant scientist. Just as the dad is about to make a great breakthrough, the gangster decides to have the dad killed. Suddenly the boy realizes where his loyalties should lie. He finds a costume his father had made for him, and vows to become "a smasher, a destroyer; a destructor… and with all I know about how Raven’s mob works… I can be that in spades."

Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but this is a really solid comic series that could have turned into something. Unfortunately, it was launched for the short-lived Atlas line of comics rather than Marvel or DC.

Atlas was an extremely short-lived comic company in the mid-’70s. Dubbed as "Vengeance Inc." by Comic Book Artist magazine, Atlas/Seaboard (as it’s more often referred to) was created by Martin Goodman, who was angry at Marvel comics. For details on the history, click here. Like most revenge plots, this one made sense for a time, but very quickly fell apart. The company only lasted a few short months before imploding under a poor business plan, series that never got a foothold, and an indifferent market. The world moved on, but the memory of Atlas Comics has lingered in the minds of a small cult of fans.

Destructor is a good example of where the line started and where it ended up. Despite the awful title, this could have been a good comic. Written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Steve Ditko and Wally Wood, the first two issues had a stellar creative staff. If the title didn’t start in a high gear, the same could have been said for plenty of other comics that ended up being great. Certainly the staff had been capable of great comics, and given the opportunity, could have turned the book around. Instead, the Goodmans’ meddling did the comic in, and it limped to a conclusion four issues later. It’s too bad. At the time, we had no idea how rare and special the combination of Wood and Ditko would be in comics. They are an ideal team for each other, but in an odd way. Both Wood’s and Ditko’s art have always seemed stiff and posed. You might think that combining the work of the two men might create some of the stiffest art in comics history. Instead, the pair’s art has an odd, uncommon grace to it, a grandeur that you rarely see. Just as in Stalker, the mid-’70s barbarian strip the pair drew for DC, there is a pretty amazing feel to the art here.

Imagine where this comic could have gone. It will always be an opportunity lost.

Last Exit Before Toll (2004)

April 23, 2005

One day Charles Pierce leaves home to go out of town for a work seminar. He’s vaguely dissatisfied with his life but doesn’t know why. On the way to the seminar, his car breaks down in a small town far from everywhere. It will take a week to get the part necessary to fix his car. Charles opts to stay in the town while repairs are made, and slowly finds the town affecting him in deep and meaningful ways.

This is an extremely affecting and unusual graphic novel, told in a way that is immediate and accessible. Charles Pierce is an average guy in his 30s, doing his workaday job and feeling vaguely unhappy with the road his life has taken. He has a big house, nice car, and a successful life that somehow feels empty to him. One small change in his life creates a shift in his perspective and makes Charlie see life from a completely different viewpoint, one that shakes him deeply.

Pierce discovers an America that exists in the country’s imagination, a landscape away from urban America, a small town where, as one character puts it, “This ain’t like other places you travel. Ain’t really no place at all. See, this place ain’t got a name. All it’s got is a highway nobody uses and a buncha locals who can’t do nothin’ but stay. And it’s OK that way. I’m sayin’ nobody belongs. You stay more than a couple days and you’ll know what I mean. The whole point is to pass through, and that’s why people ask. You’ll become a ghost, like me. Like all of them.” It’s an amazingly romantic vision of an America where hard work pays off, where people are generous, the pot roast is delicious, and a jack and coke costs a dollar seventy-five. This is America that we want to believe still exists, a country of people who aren’t in a hurry all the time and can take time for friendship. An America that isn’t about glory, power or money but about just doing what’s right and making deep connections.

This is a true graphic novel. Pierce grows and changes through the course of the book, and those changes are reflected in the fascinating ending. Pierce is confronted by a man from his old life, what Pierce does when confronted is unique and intriguing. What does the last page really mean? There is much room for debate in it.

Christopher Mitten’s art is perfect for this very unique story. He’s got a great eye for faces and ordinary settings. His art really tells the story of the changes Pierce makes in his life, subtly conveying the path he has made. He’s perfect at conveying quiet moments.

Final Word:
Last Exit Before Toll is one of the best original graphic novels in recent memory. It has no gunplay, no super-heroes and no bloodshed. But there’s a magic to the story, a unique and special feel to the story that touches a reader deeply.

Nexus #21, 22, 24 (1986)

April 21, 2005

Nexus was perhaps the greatest comic book space opera comic of all time. Combining the amazing artwork of Steve Rude with the vibrant and charming writing of Mike Baron, Nexus was a breath of fresh air, a harbinger of newer and greater comics, and a wonderfully original and creative comics experience. In short, it was everything that comics should be.

Nexus the man is a killer. That’s his responsibility and his curse. In return for the amazing powers he controls, Nexus is haunted by dreams of mass murderers. He is compelled to hunt down these murderers and assassinate them because he is ordered to do so by the Merk, a bizarre and sometimes insane alien who lives on Nexus’s home world, Ylum. Ylum is a free world where refugees from around the universe go, a planet where people can escape the repression of the Sovs – hey, it’s ’80s sci-fi – or the boredom of the Web, the free part of the galaxy. Ylum is home to refugees and misfitsm and also home to a group of disembodied telekinetic heads. Oh, and Nexus’s best friend is named Judah Maccabee, who’s the son of Dave. And… umm…

Maybe I just put my finger on what’s both great and frustrating about this comic. It has its own idoisyncratic, in-jokey beat. Nexus’s universe is full of odd references- there’s a pirate ship in issue 21 called the Zatoichi Maru, and Nexus is friends with a great Gucci assassin – that make the book feel like the coolest thing in the room. For long-time readers, the book is a constant joy of new discoveries and long-unfolding plotlines. But for newcomers this world has to be frustrating as hell. Who are these superpowerful disembodied heads? What’s with that alien slang? And if Nexus is supposed to be an assassin, why does he do stuff other than kill? It has to be baffling as hell, as if the whole thing is a bizarre joke that everyone but you gets.

There’s no ambiguity, though, about the art of Steve Rude. Rude is a real master. His figures are animated but real, passionate but intelligent, fun but serious. He has a clean line style that is so graceful, so full of life, that it’s a joy to behold. It’s a shame Rude never became a real star, because his work is wonderful.

I’m part of the cult of Nexus. Great Goulessarian, I love this stuff!

Eerie #125 (1981)

April 20, 2005

Neal Adams was arguably the second most influential comics artist between the mid ’60s and early ’80s, trailing only the great Jack Kirby. Adams always had a unique art style that combined tremendous dynamism and flash with a seemingly realistic rendering style. Looking at the art now, the work looks less realistic as it does distorted in ways that bring out the energy of the stories. John Cassaday seems like a more realistic artist now, but back in the day, Adams was big time.

It was fun picking up this special issue of Eerie magazine, which was an all-Adams special. Eerie, along with its sister magazines Creepy and Vampirella, was a mostly black-and-white, magazine-sized anthology horror comic. The magazines ran between 1964 and 1985 or so. The quality of work in the magazines varied, but overall there was a tremendous amount of quality comics published under the Warren Magazines imprint.

Adams was only an irregular contributor to the Warren books, but this issue collects seven different stories he did. Interestingly, Adams seemed to really experiment in these stories. "Curse of the Vampire", for instance, features some wonderful wash work, employing gray shading along with his regular linework, to produce a painterly style. The story feels like a moody old black and white movie, where danger is always lurking around every corner.

"Goddess from the Sea" and "Voodoo Drum" are reproduced directly from Adams’s pencils, and have different feels from each other. To me, "Goddess from the Sea" looks washed out and muddy, giving the story an untidy, unfinished look. This may be because this is a reprint of a story published previously, or may be a case of ambitions outstepping technology, but the art just doesn’t really come alive. "Voodoo Drum" works much better in my eyes. It feels like Adams’s pencils are tighter in this story, and this story really shows off his ability to create drama and energy by subtlely adding conflict to even mundane scenes.

You might notice that I talk about the art in these stories and not about the stories. That’s because, as you might guess from the titles, these stories are not all that special. The stories are kind of cliched in general. Although the wonderful Archie Goodwin wrote the majority of the stories, the writing is consistently below the quality of Adams’s art.

The one story in this collection where the art matches the story is "Thrillkill", nominated by the Warren Companion collection as the best story Warren ever published. It is a really cleverly-constructed tale. The story of a rooftop sniper in Seattle(!) and the life that drives him to this horrific crime, it also uses a unique storytelling device. Adams’s art shows the murderous acts of the sniper, using his style of reality intensified to show the horrific and somehow banal results of the man’s crime. Meanwhile, writer Jim Stenstrum’s half of the story consists of an interview with the assassin’s priest, which almost persuades the reader, in spite of our horror at the cold-blooded nature of the act, to fel empathy for the killer. It’s a terrifically effective strategy, seperating the reader’s head frim his heart and asking each to make their own decision about the criminal.

These are fun stories, but "Thrillkill" hints at something even greater that might have been. Still, we’re lucky that Warren collected seven of these stories in one place. Now if only they could figure out how to put out new reprints of this stuff!


Common Grounds #1 (2004)

April 19, 2005

A donut shop called Common Grounds is a neutral meeting-place or heroes and villains. In the first of two stories, a news reporter meets a super-speedster called Speeding Bullet at Common Grounds. Speeding Bullet tells the reporter about his life, finally revealing that super powers ain’t what they’re cracked up to be. In the second story, two arch-enemies, Man-Witch and Mental Midget, run into each other as they each dash to Common Grounds to use the bathroom. While both are there, they have a heart to-heart talk about their lives and their relationship with each other.

The Good:
You might get the impression that there is a lot of talk and only a little bit of action in this book. That’s mostly true, but Troy Hickman is a skillful writer who does a great job keeping the reader interested in the stories. There’s just an echo of Astro City in these tales that explore the real lives of super-heroes while still giving them their super-powered dignity.

The tale of Speeding Bullet is very moving. It seems super-speed may not be the greatest power to have, as along with Bullet’s super-speed comes an insatiable appetite for food, a short attention span, and real difficulty communicating with people. What would you do if everything about you moved at super-speed? How would you watch a movie? How could sports stay interesting? And what do you do when your super-speed just won’t help a bad situation? Hickman handles this story with warmth and feeling for the character. Bullet is not just a dude in a suit kvetching; in Hickman’s hands, Speeding Bullet becomes a real character. The art by Dan Jurgens and Al Vey is as wonderful as you might expect from that team of real professionals. They were the perfect team to work on a story like this – by getting a pair of experienced and very recognizable professionals to draw this story, the story gains much more of a feeling of realism, as if it lies just outside of the Marvel of DC Universes.

The second story is much lighter in tone. I can’t say I’m crazy about setting a story in a bathroom, but it does result in some very amusing scenes, such as the one where Man-Witch magically transports a piece of toilet paper to Midget’s stall. Oeming, who has brought such a unique feel to Powers, here does the same wonderful job of having one foot in the humorous world while keeping the other in a serious world.

The Bad:
I wasn’t thrilled by the setting of the second story. It was a funny place to set a story, but I prefer to not think of super-dudes on the potty.

Also, I would have loved to read more background on Troy Hickman and the world of Common Grounds. I would have loved to have read about how Troy came up with this concept, and get a preview of some of the other donut-eating crime fighters who might appear in the future. Also, I found myself wondering who else will be illustrating stories in this series.

"Mmmm… donuts!"
This has the promise of being a wonderful new series, taking a position somewhere on the less-serious side of Astro City. I can’t wait to see what kind of crullers Hickman cooks up in the future.