Archive for May, 2005

The Question #6 (2005)

May 31, 2005

And so ends one of the most unique and interesting DC mini-series in recent memory. In The Question, Rick Veitch and Tommy Lee Edwards deliver an intriguing storyline, one that plays out on multiple levels simultaneously due to the unique storytelling that Veitch and Edwards employ. What sounds like a standard action story in outline – the Question uncovers a group of criminals who live in the subways and rob Metropolis – becomes a fascinating multifaceted exploration of obsession, crime and life with Superman in the
hands of Veitch and Edwards. It’s bizarre, interesting and exhilarating all at the same time.

Veitch and Edwards use some very interesting tricks in this mini-series to create their unique story. Frequently they use the trick of having narrative and commentary combined with each other. Action will happen within a panel, while the Question will comment on it from another standpoint. Because of this device, we’re seeing deeper into each scene, getting an impression of it at the same time as the actual facts of the scene. This is obviously a trick Veitch learned from his days working with the great Alan Moore; like Moore, Veitch has the ability to offer multiple levels of meaning of a scene without the need for lots of explanation for the reader. It’s exhilarating and exciting, in this era where captions and thought balloons are antiques, to see a writer use them in innovative ways.

Tommy Lee Edwards’s art perfectly suits Veitch’s story. It’s glossy and flashy when it needs to be, surreal and impressionistic when the story asks for that element. His portrayal of Superman is especially effective; his Superman looks just slightly different from Christopher Reeve, while maintaining Reeve’s classic sense of the character. I can’t wait to see what Edwards works on next; based on this work, he’s already one of my favorite artists.

My favorite aspect of the book is the strange status that the Question and his alter ego Vic Sage seem to have in Metropolis. Both Vic and the Question are quiet outsiders, men who comment on the world around them but don’t seem to actually live in that world. When Jimmy Olsen teases Lois Lane about a college crush that Sage had on her, the forces that helped drive Sage to his obsessive crime fighting become revealed. He’s a loner, a brooder, a man
who fights for what he thinks is right. In many ways he’s a kind of avatar for his creator, Steve Ditko. It’s easy to see the reclusive, thoughtful Ditko in Veitch’s Vic Sage. In some ways Veitch’s Sage is a commentary on Ditko’s legacy.

This is a superlative mini-series, one that deserves a wide audience.

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The new Doctor Who, episode 8: “Father’s Day”

May 30, 2005

This was the worst episode of the new series of Doctor Who thus far. It starts with an interesting premise but is so dull and silly in its execution that the episode is just awful.

The premise sounds good at first blush. The Doctor’s companion, Rose, had her father die when she was just a young girl. She only knows him through pictures in her mother’s photo album and through her mom’s stories about him. Now that she knows the Doctor, Rose has a chance to go back in time and see her father’s death, and perhaps give him a moment of comfort as he’s dying. Instead, Rose saves her father’s life and unleashes events she could never have expected.

This basic plot could open the doors to all kinds of interesting storylines. Unfortunately all it leads to in this episode is for Rose, her father and mother, and a set of boring characters to sit around a church hoping for the Doctor to save them from the bizarre creatures created by this time paradox. The plot is dull, there is no sense of forward momentum in the story, and the CGI for the demons in this story is just rotten.

Of course, the core of the episode is supposed to be Rose and her dad finally meeting each other, and Rose having closure on his death. The problem is that that plotline doesn’t sound like a Doctor Who. I realize that this is supposed to be a Doctor Who for a new generation, but in this episode, at least, the character stuff felt like a bad TV drama. Unlike the wonderful "Aliens of London", where the character parts were a nice contrast to the rest of the story, here they are the main story. And I was bored to tears by them.

One bad episode out of eight isn’t too bad.

Star*Reach #8 (1977)

May 29, 2005

Back in the 1970s, when gas was cheap and the world of comic books was mostly rotten, there were two types of comics. There were the mainstream books from Marvel, DC, Warren mags and their competitors, and there were underground comics. I know it’s a generalization to say this, but key topics for undergrounds were sex, drugs and general revolt against society’s norms. (I know there were undergrounds that explored more sophisticated issues, but they were the exception). Into that world in the mid ’70s emerged a third type of comic, a comic that, for want of a better phrase, was called a ground level comic. Ground level comics still featured sex and drugs, but debauchery wasn’t the sole or main focus of the comics. Instead, many of the ground-level books were philosophical in nature, exploring the nature of man in the universe, while others were clever artistic romps or space action series.

The leading ground-level comic was called Star*Reach, and yes, in the spirit of the ’70s, the little asterisk was officially part of the title. Star*Reach was created by Mike Freidrich, an ideal person to bridge the gap between mainstream and underground. Freidrich was one of the "second generation" of writers to emerge at DC Comics in the late ’60s along with Denny O’Neil and Len Wein. This second generation showed more real-world concerns in their comics of the day than their predecessors did, and were more free in their stories’ characterization and spirit. Freidrich also lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, still perhaps the most open and free-spirited part of the country at that time, and, not coincidentally, one of the homes of underground comics. He thus was at the crossroads of two movements when he released the first issue of Star*Reach in 1974.

Star*Reach (I love typing that name) featured some of the finest writers and cartoonists of the day, including such luminaries as Dick Giordano, Steve Englehart, Steve Leialoha, Dave Sim (before Cerebus), Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin and Walter Simonson. It’s pretty clear that Star*Reach filled a big need at the time, as creators needed a safety valve for their more unique pieces.

Star*Reach #8 is no exception. The feature story is the first of P. Craig Russell’s many opera adaptations, this one being of the Wagner opera "Parsifal" Russell obviously worked on this at the same time as he drew "War of the Worlds" for Marvel, and you can see his passion and energy on every page of the story.

Next we get a bizarre metaphysical comic by Canadian artist Ken Steacy. Steacy would do some fine work later in his career, but I honestly couldn’t figure this story out at all. Nice art, though.

A second featured Canadian artist is Gene Day, who draws a future horror piece, "Give Peace a Chance", which features an ironic ending that seems dated today. But Day’s art is as gorgeous as it would later be in Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu comic. Day died way before his time in the early ’80s. He was a brilliant cartoonist with a magnificent design sense, and I still miss his work.

Last we get the most underground piece in the comic, "Aphrodite" by John Workman, the longtime artist and letterer. The story retells a Greek legend, but the story is obviously all about drawing naked girls, which Workman does in abundance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Star*Reach was one of the few alternatives to Marvel and DC in the mid- and late-1970s. It was great for what it was but, as you might have gathered, it seems a bit dated now. Of course, in our era, the whole reason for a magazine like this has gone by the wayside. In a way, it’s a shame that we’ll never see the likes of this comic again. With the strange constraints of the industry, some interesting comics emerged.

El Cazador #5 and 6 (2004)

May 28, 2005

I love picking up comics for a quarter. It’s one of the joys of my life to go to comic shows and conventions and buy recent back issues four for a dollar. You literally can’t go wrong at that price. If the comic sucks, you’ve only wasted a quarter. And if it’s great, you have a wonderful little prize.

One of the best comics I’ve found recently in the quarter bins is CrossGen Comics’ pirate series El Cazador. With a very entertaining story and gorgeous artwork, El Caz is rollicking enertainment. It’s also a very unique comic. Aside from the small-press comic Bloodthirsty Pirate Tales and the story-wihin-a-story in Watchmen, we haven’t seen pirates in American comics since the 1950s. And reading this comic it’s clear that we never knew what we were mssing.

El Cazador is the story of Captain Sin, a female pirate captain during Europe’s era of colonization. We see Sin’s battles with other pirates, her struggles among her crew, and really sense the power of her personality.

Artist Steve Epting does an astonishing job on this comic. Issue #5 begins in the Caribbean island of Tobago, and his art of the island is so gorgeous it makes me want to take a vacation there. He does a brilliant job of conveying the feel of places, of creating a wonderful sense of place.

If you’re lucky, you can pick up all six issues of this comic for $1.50. I know I did. It’s a steal at that price.

Captain America #112 (1969)

May 27, 2005

There’s a legend about this issue. As the story goes, the legendary Jim Steranko drew Cap #110 and #111. Steranko was a brilliant cartoonist, and his work hit the comics world like a lghtning bolt. Steranko’s comics were psychedelic, brilliantly designed, and kinetic in their own stylized way. He also had an unprecedented amount of freedom. In issue #111 he seemingly killed Captain America. Cap got better, but few at Marvel doubted that he had the cojones to actualy kill a living legend.

As the story goes, Stan Lee got nervous that Steranko wouldn’t produce the following issue on time. Steranko denies the issue was running late, but Stan made the decision to slot in a fill-in story anyway. The only problems were that the story needed to be delivered at the end of a weekend, and that Captain America had to stay dead for Steranko’s next issue.

Enter the great Jack Kirby. Steranko might be a legendary figure in comics, but Kirby was the King, unquestionably the most influential comics artist of his time. He was also unbelievably fast, drawing four 20-page comics per month – an astonishing four pages a day. So if there was a man who could draw a 20-page story over a weekend, Jack was the man.

Hence we get Captain America #112, the album issue. In it, we get a recap of Cap’s career highlights up to that time. Amazingly, Kirby’s art looks as dynamic and wonderful as ever; the man was such a pro that even rushed pages look wonderful. Either old pro George Tuska smoothed out the rough spots or Kirby did an impeccable job because the comic is wonderfully drawn.

The epilogue of the story, however, isn’t quite as nice. Steranko came back to illustrate #113, another classic issue, and then left Cap forever over a dispute about this album issue. Apparently Steranko had many future issues planned, issues we will never see.

Still, Gene Colan soon started drawing the comic, illustrating a tremendous sequence that introduced Cap’s longtime partner the Falcon. Time marches on.

Charlton Spotlight #3 (2004)

May 26, 2005
The history of comic books is filled with dozens of unique and idiosyncratic artists. Some are legendary, while others are mostly forgotten except by a small subset of fans. Tom Sutton is unfortunately one of those artists whose career seems to have quietly slipped into history. Not that his work didn’t have merit or his career wasn’t interesting. Far from it. Sutton had a very interesting career, and, more than that, was an fascinating character. Unfortunately for Sutton, he did work for so many different comics companies, and spent so little time on established characters, that he is much less well-known than his contemporaries such as Gil Kane and Wally Wood. Sutton, like Steve Ditko, spent many years toiling for Charlton Comics, a relatively small and obscure publishing house that was notorious for allowing their creators unparalleled creative freedom in exchange for the lowest pay rates in the industry.

Thankfully there’s a magazine like Charlton Spotlight to discuss Sutton’s career. This 72-page fanzine is a treasure trove of tributes and interviews by and about Tom Sutton. A Tom Sutton special (issue one was a similar tribute to the similarly underappreciated Pat Boyette), this issue contains a plethora of historical art, articles and interviews devoted to one of the most interesting personalities at Charlton.

Editor Michael Ambrose presents a wide diversity of content in this issue, from a wonderful eight-page interview with Sutton, where he shows himself to be as much a whoring artist as anything else. Several times in this interview, Sutton seems to talk about his creative impulses coming into conflict with his need to make money it’s exciting to hear his opinions and at the same time sad to think that his outrageous creative vision never really was allowed to flower.

Other creators weigh in on Sutton’s career. Writers Steve Skeates, Bhob Stewart, Jim Amash and Nick Cuti contribute wonderful reminiscences about their friend, while Stefan Petrucha presents some never-before-seen pages from their abortive collaboration on a second "Squalor" series from First Comics. What emerges from these reminiscences is a three-dimensional portrait of a man who was lonely and bored much of the time, who drank excessively but had a tremendously unique artistic vision, and who ultimately never quite produced as much brilliant work as his legion of fans would have wanted him to.

The Sutton section of the zine is rounded out by a reprint of a strip Sutton and Cuti did for Warren over layouts by Wally Wood, a Sutton checklist and a cover gallery that presents a wonderful portfolio of Sutton’s work – his covers for the romance comics are real treats.

Rounding out this issue are an interview with longtime Charlton and Wonder Woman artist Jose Delbo, a short interview with artist Henry Scarpelli, a long column by Ron Frantz and an actual real live letters column.

Charlton Spotlight treads a unique middle ground. It’s not as slick as something like Comic Book Artist and not amateurish, either. It is a devoted and professional fan effort that any fan of the medium will enjoy. Charlton Spotlight #3 is a bargain at $7.50 per issue from Argo Press, P.O. Box 4201, Austin, TX 78765-4201

Marvel Preview #12: The Haunt of Horror (1977)

May 24, 2005

I miss the days when some comics would come in magazine size instead of the regular comic book size. For years that size was a viable alternative: artists could spread out a little more and be a little bit more experimental. Writers didn’t have to worry about the comics code, so the stories could be a little bit edgier, a little bit more scary or intense.

At least that was the idea. The fact is that, while there were some wonderful magazine-sized comics from Warren, Marvel and a host of other publishers (DC only published two magazine sized comics, BTW, which I should talk about eventually in this blog), most of them were mediocre at best. For instance, Warren published some amazing artwork and stories by some of the greatest creators in comics history. They also published some drek. Marvel’s line was more even-keeled than Warren’s, mainly because they published work by mainline Marvel creators. But much of the work in those magazines were also mediocre.

Marvel Preview was a black-and-white anthology comic, a showcase for ideas that they wanted to try out before launching them in their own series. Preview presented oddities: a two-issue Sherlock Holmes story, two issues about UFO aliens, a slightly more adult version of Thor, a wonderfully-drawn Kull the Barbarian story. But when the deadlines were running tight, Preview could also run inventory stories that were bought and paid-for but hadn’t seen the light of day. I assume that’s the story with this issue.

The first story in this issue is the continuation of a serial featuring Lilith, Daughter of Dracula. Lilith was a kind of vampiric ghostly spirit that possessed the body of Angel O’Hara, a young woman just starting her life in New York with her new husband. She’s also pregnant in this story, though you wouldn’t know if from her slight figure. When her husband takes a job working in an evil chemical company, Lilith attacks the evil-doers, channeling Angel’s frustration and anger. The story’s written by Steve Gerber, who’s one of the most dependably interesting writers of his generation, but this yarn is a bit dull and without character. The bland art of Bob Brown doesn’t help at all.

Bland art isn’t a problem in the second tale, "Psycho Ward," as it features a rare Marvel art job by Michael Kaluta. However, the story is short and cliched, and left me wondering if this was just an old piece of fanzine art dressed up for use in this issue.

The most effective story in the issue is a typical twist-ending tale. "Picture of Andrea" involves a New York detective obsessed with a strange murder case in which a woman’s dead body is found, drained by blood. Investigating the murder, the detective encounters Dracula, and their confrontation leads to a fun ending. The writing by Doug Moench on this story – he also wrote "Psycho Ward" – fits the story’s mood perfectly, and is fun. Sonny Trinidad’s art was also fitting, but it really made me miss the art of Drac’s artist on the color Tomb of Dracula series, Gene Colan. Colan could have made these scenes sing!

Overall, another mediocre ’70s Marvel book. It’s not terrible, it’s not filled with masterpieces. It’s just… okay.

The new Doctor Who, episode 7: “The Long Game”

May 23, 2005

The Doctor, Rose and their new companion Adam randomly travel several thousand years in the future and find themselves on an orbiting communications satellite. The satellite has 500 levels but nobody moves up or down in the levels, unless one gets ‘promoted’ to level 500, "where the walls are lined with gold," as they say. Naturally, the situation on the satellite is much worse than it first seems to be, and so the Doctor must stop everything that’s going on.

This series has really settled into a pleasant groove. It’s not a complete reinvention of the series like the new Battlestar Galactica is, nor is it a dull retread of common themes like Star Trek: Enterprise. Instead, the series plums old themes in order to reinvent the series for modern viewers. It definitely has me hooked. An episode like "The Long Game" is a wonderful mix of adventure, satire and character.

My favorite bits were the elements of media satire in the episode. The idea of a villain being a character who continually broadcasts propaganda of vague threats in order to keep the people in a state of panic would cause a sensation in the US among the Bushies. Here, though, the satire was kept broad enough that it didn’t seem pointed at one network as much as it did all of them. It helps, too, that a British program has a different perspective on the media than our navel-gazing culture.

I thought the acting was fine in this episode. The concluding confrontation between the Doctor and Adam was wonderful – exactly what I was hoping he would do to the young jerk. It was nice to see a character travel with more venal goals than the other companions, and the reaction to it was just perfect. I also really enjoyed Rose’s growing affection for the Doctor. This might not turn into a romance – I’m not sure if Time Lords are hard wired for that – but the sparks between the two are quite charming.

Overall, a very solid episode. Next week’s (actually, tomorrow’s – "The Long Run" was delayed to the weekend due to election coverage in British Columbia) episode looks especially interesting, dealing as it does with one of those recursive time paradoxes that always are fun but also make one’s brain hurt.

Common Grounds #1 (2003)

May 22, 2005

Summary:
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 was a wonderful six-issue series, taking a position somewhere on the less-serious side of Astro City. It was recently collected, and hopefully there will be a second volume of Common Grounds. I can’t wait to see what kind of crullers Hickman cooks up in the future.

Warrior #17 (1984)

May 20, 2005

Star Wars made me think of Natalie Portman, and Google News led me to the report that she’d shaved her head to play Evey in the forthcoming V For Vendetta movie. And that got me thinking about the early days of Alan Moore’s career.

Almost everything by Moore in 1982, ’83 and ’84 were blockbusters. His work on Swamp Thing was, of course, the first shot across the bow for those of us in the US, quickly followed by imports of his slightly earlier work in Warrior. Warrior was a strange magazine from England. It was on that odd-sized paper that British magazines used, and the stories all felt different, fresher, as if the perspective of the Europeans helped them to see heroes in a completely different way than we did in the USA.

Marvelman was the break-out hit from that magazine. It may have been the first really post-modern hero serial, as much about the history of super-heroes as it was about the heroes themselves. The stories by Moore were astonishingly original for their time, and introduced concepts that are still being played with, twenty years after he brought them to comics.

V For Vendetta was Moore’s second strip in Warrior, and it was a completely different strip from Marvelman. In fact, it’s hard to find a less likely comic-based movie than V. The story takes place in a totalitarian near-future England, where a Fascist government has taken power after a nuclear holocaust. Into that world of extreme order comes V, an anarchist in a Guy Fawkes mask dedicated to bringing some freedom to that oppressive world. It’s an amazing comic, one of the very few political works to appear in comics, even more so by the fact that it’s about personal politics as much as it is about government politics.

DC Comics will, no doubt, release a new edition of their V collection to coincide with the movie. But I doubt the new edition will contain Moore’s wonderfuly open and friendly notes on the strip that appear in this issue. In this article, written right on the cusp of Moore’s rise from ordinary bloke to living legend, we see a modest and charming Moore give equal credit to artist David Lloyd for the conception and execution of the strip, largely seeming to credit its success to luck.  It’s always fascinating to read an article about a classic that was written before it became a classic, and this article is worth seeking out for exactly that reason.

And I hope Portman is better in V For Vendetta than she was in Star Wars!