Archive for December, 2005

Eerie #135 (1982)

December 31, 2005
After writing the other day about Steve Ditko’s work drawing Batman, it put me in the mood to find more Ditko comics. I found one of the nicest collections of Ditko’s work, the all-Ditko issue of the Warren magazine Eerie. Ditko drew horror comics for many years, both before and after his epochal work on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and built up his repertoire in such a way as to become a master at them. His mastery is on full display in this magazine.
 
Collecting ten stories drawn by Ditko from Warren’s golden age of ’65 and ’66, these stories show Ditko as a master of light and shadow, intelligent styling and passionate storytelling. Just look at the depth of the images he shows below and the intelligence of his design. Ditko took some fairly pedestrian stories and turned them into masterworks.
 
The only flaw in this issue is that only ten of Ditko’s sixteen strips are collected here. Now I have to seek out the comics that contain the other six.
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Infinite Crisis #3 (2005)

December 30, 2005
Okay, so there are about 327 different reviews of IC #3 out there on the Internet, so I might as well add to the general buzz about it with my usual insightful review. Ready for the great insight? I liked it.

I liked the battle for Atlantis, and I even like that most of the story is continued in this month’s Aquaman – that’s cool epic action stuff. I liked the Amazons and their Purple Death Ray – that’s just wacky fun superhero crap. I liked the Earth-2 Superman visiting Batman and somehow trying to persuade Bruce that things would be better if he was dead or something – that was just crazy stupid comics logic. I liked the Earth-1 Superman saving a building in a way that completely violates the laws of physics – again, wacky comics stuff. I liked Luthor vs. Luthor and that crazy tower with the Anti-Monitor and the evil Alex Luthor.

Fun comic. I liked it. Now go read the other 326 reviews out there on the ‘net.

Nexus #4 (1983)

December 29, 2005
Great Goulessarian, this is a great comic. Early issues of Nexus were full of wonderful art, snappy writing and gorgeous coloring. If things were sometimes a little bit awkward around the edges, they were offset by the cleverness of the whole thing.
 
In this issue, Nexus, the man who dreams of mass murderers and then must kill them, dreams of a woman who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. He finds that she’s living in a ziggurat, or temple tower-shaped building, on a planet mostly covered by water. He finds the woman, and she dies.
 
Okay, that’s vaguely interesting, but the greatness lies in the exciting ways that creators Baron and Rude fill in the details. Nexus lives on a moon called Ylum, a place for refugees from the galaxy’s wars. Nexus is a hero to those creatures. They call him Great Nexus, idolize and deify the man. Wonderfully, as the series progressed, all of those plot points progressed and became more complicated. First Ylum started filling with refugees, forcing the colony to decide its admission policies, which then forced politics to enter the picture. The adulation of Nexus changed as the series progresses, too, as he often lost face with the people of Ylum. The story progressed in interesting and unpredictable ways, just like real life.
 
Anyway, Nexus leaves Ylum and travels to the water world. First, he tries to be the heroic alpha male, attacking the ziggurat. But it turns out that the attack would deplete the planet’s sun, so Nexus has to commune with the planet’s dwellers, some very intelligent frogs, to help him decide what to do.
 
And on and on the comic goes. We see the heads encased like President Nixon on Futuarama, except they have amazing kinetic powers, and we see the old murderer take a heroic end after a wonderful conversation between her and Nexus.
 
None of this would work without the magnificent art of Steve Rude. Even at this early point in his career, Rude’s art was gorgeous, with its clean lines, wonderful composition and thoughtful fanboy love. Rude’s art is pure energy and intelligence, a perfect match for the story.
 
I guess Dark Horse is collecting these early issues of Nexus in Archive-type books. Great. They deserve it.

Man-Bat #1 (1975)

December 28, 2005
Steve Ditko is one of the most distinctive artists in comics history. He’s best known as the creator or co-creator of Spider-Man (accounts and interpretations of history vary on this point)and had his hand in many classic comics. I thought that Ditko had never drawn Batman, though, until im picked up a beat-up copy of this comic.
 
Man-Bat #1, logically enough, guest-stars Batman, and the issue is drawn by Ditko and inked by Al Milgrom. Ditko’s Batman is very intriguing: dark and mysterious, with his face always hidden in shadow, a truly mysterious creature who seems unknowable. It’s a different interpretation than that of almost any other artist. The color that best describes Ditko’s Batman is black. Black in silhouette, black in the shadows, black even in the light. He’s a frightening man, a man who has secrets and does things for his own reasons. It’s a wonderful interpretation, as innovative and interesting as you might expect from this great cartoonist.
 
The story? Written by Gerry Conway, it’s incoherent crap that demands knowledge of obscure continuity that no person with half a brain in their head would care about.
 
But wow, that art!

Hot Stuf’ #4 (1977)

December 27, 2005
Hot Stuf’ was another example of what was called a "ground-level" comic back in the mid-’70s. That term is almost meaningless in 2005, but in the ’70s, it was used to describve a comic that was neither an underground (meaning R. Crumb or S. Clay Wilson-type creation of comic strips that were pure expressions of the id – meaning mostly sex and violence – onto the page) nor an overground (meaning sacrificing one’s values at the altar of getting a steady paycheck from Marvel or DC. Much like Star*Reach’s publications (I wrote about their Quack earlier this month), this comic represents a middle ground where craftsmanship is competent and stories are linear. Of course, those definitions don’t imply anything about quality, but what else is new?
 
Actually, there are a few nice stories in this issue. The best is a piece by the legendary Alex Toth, starring his adventurer The Vanguard, as he breaks up an illegal mob-run gambing operation. I have no idea of Toth ever reused this character, but he looks like a jet-setting playboy with a beautiful girlfriend who wanders around helping his rich friends. Toth’s art is, as always, gorgeous, and the printing job on the story is spectacular.
 
Which brings up another important point about the ground-level books: the production values were much higher here than they were in the mainstream or underground books. The big publishers were always looking to cut corners with cheaper printing technologies and paper, which often made Marvel and DC book unintelligible. Meanwhile, the ugs were always run on a shoestring, preventing good quality printing for the most part.
 
Hot Stuf’, however, was published by a man named Sal Quartuccio, who primarily printed art portfolios and posters. The portfolios were absurdly overpriced sets of art by well-known artists; their best quality was in the spectacular printing quality of the pieces. Sal Q, as he was known, applied those same principles to his comic, which resulted in a terrific-looking comic.
 
Anyway, back to the comic. Then-fans Jan Strnad and Ken Barr presented a short piece about aliens taking over a spaceship. Later on in the comic, the team of Bob Keenan and Ernie Colon revisit the spaceship setting for a tale that seems influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Neither piece is special, but neither is especially bad either, and Colon’s art especially has a really interesting touch to it.
 
The funny piece in the issue is "The House on Whore Hill" by Mike Vosburg, a longtime fan-turned-pro who worked for Star*Reach and also for Marvel and DC. Voz always seemed to play up the sex and nudity in his ground-level stories, and this cute piece about the ghosts of a brothel taking over a beautiful real estate agent has that. It’s a cute story.
 
The other main piece is a bit of oddness, a Japanese Samurai yarn with a twist ending, by someone named William Thomas Stillwell, M.D.. I’ve never seen anything else by the good Doctor, but this is a solid little eight-pager that probably had a really unique setting in ’77 but seems old hat now. Dr. Stillwell has a nice wash-oriented style that looks really pretty with this nice printing. Who was this guy and did he do any other comics?
 
Hot Stuf’ is a neat find, and one of the reasons I’m so fond of ’70s comics. There was so much that was odd and unique that came out in that era that there are always a few more obscure treasures to be found.

The new Doctor Who: the Christmas Invasion (2005)

December 26, 2005
Tonight I had the pleasure of watching the new Doctor Who special, broadcast by CBC, and I have to say I loved it. So much of what I enjoyed about the revival of the series was on display in this episode, and as expected it still had a wonderful sort of nostalgia for the original series.
 
First and foremost, the new Doctor, David Tennant, is wonderful. From the moment he steps on screen and speaks, he seems to command things, in a way that the Eccleston Doctor didn’t. As he appears, the new Doctor makes a wonderful speech about how he doesn’t know what his personality will be like yet – a common problem when he regenerates – and then quickly shows his true nature. This Doctor is a man of action, a man not afraid of confrontation or battle, a man who’s capable of deep anger and vindictiveness. In short, he seems a man of great passionate emotions.
 
Of course, the Doctor being the Doctor, his greatest passion is helping his beloved Earth, and we get that plenty in this episode. Earth is under attack by a group of nasty aliens who have discovered a British space probe, found the drops of blood included there as information about people, and come up with a nasty scheme for conquering the Earth. Things seem in dire straits, especially since the Doctor’s latest regeneration has, as it often did in the past, knocked him unconscious and vulnerable.
 
I’ve recently watched Jon Pertwee’s regeneration episode, "Spearhead from Space," and it’s wonderful to see how much this episode is a tip of the hat to that one. Not only does the Doctor act much like he did 30 years ago, but UNIT is involved, and the Doctor by the end shows that he’s his own man.
 
Harriet Jones, the MP from the Slitheen episodes is back, and she’s gotten a terrific promotion – though there’s a wonderful twist to that as well. We also see Rose’s family, Mickey and her mom, which is only appropriate for Christmas.
 
Viewers also got previews (also available online) of next season’s episodes, which will include the return of K9 and Sarah Jane, as well as redesigned Cybermen – and the Doctor and Rose kiss!
 
There are some flaws in the episode, but the wonderful introduction of the new Doctor offsets them. I can’t wait to see more of him.

Christmas with the Super-Heroes Special #2 (1988)

December 25, 2005
Isn’t this a nice cover? Behind it is work by an all-star group of creators: Paul Chadwick of Concrete fame on Superman, Dave Gibbons and Gray Morrow on Batman, Eric Shanower on Wonder Woman, John Byrne and Andy Kubert on Enemy Ace, Bill Loebs, Colleen Doran and Ty Templeton on the Flash (Barry Allen) and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), and Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano on Deadman. All of them celebrate the Christmas season in grand style in this book. Reading it on Christmas night is the perfect capper to a wonderful day.
 
This comic is a real treat, each story as charming as the one before. It’s obvious that all of these creators were doing top-notch work.
 
Paul Chadwick’s Superman story is a sweet and wonderful story about Superman’s real super-power: his never-ending love of life. The art and story are as humanistic and thoughtful as any classic Concrete tale. 
 
Gibbons and Morrow’s Batman story features some gorgeous art, saturated in black (and unfortunately a bit hard to make out on the printed page) as we see why Batman needs a family.
 
Wonder Woman by Shanower is up next, and it’s clear that he has a grasp on what makes the post-Crisis WW such a neat character: she’s truly heroic, but it’s a heroism that comes from her internal doubt and growth, not something from the outside.
 
John Byrne’s silent Enemy Ace story might be the best in the comic. It’s a wonderful poignant piece about how Christmas can change people, and shows a side of the Lord of the Killer Skies that is right out of the work of his creator, Robert Kanigher. You don’t have to know the character at all to enjoy the story. Byrne’s been bashed a lot lately, but in 1988 he was a star for good reason.
 
Fans longing for the Silver Age versions of the Flash and Green Lantern will find that in Bill Loebs and Colleen Doran’s story that might have come right from a Julius Schwartz-edited comic from the ’60s or ’70s. Barry and Hal go to a small town where they meet a millionaire who doesn’t believe in Santa. To prove Santa exists, they go around doing good deeds, finding the holiday spirit in a family that’s down on its luck. It’s a charmer.
 
In the final tale, Deadman is visited by a special spirit who had recently died in a giant crossover tale. Brennert always keeps the story grounded as we see the Deadman find the spirit of life within himself. and Giordano produces art that’s wondefully humanistic and alive.
 
This comic fills me with the holiday spirit. It’s absolutely wonderful.

Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2005
Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa!
 

Gotham Central #38 (2005)

December 22, 2005
In Gotham, honest cops are rare. Virtually the entire police force is on the take, the only exceptions being Commissioner Gordon and the cops of the Major Crimes Unit. Only the MCU officers seem to be driven by a need for justice, and it’s that drive that puts them in direct conflict with their fellow officers.
Detective Crispus Allen is one of the most honest cops on the force, and he’s made it his personal objective to take down Jim Corrigan, one of the most corrupt cops. Corrigan is pure evil. He treats police investigations purely as ways to enrich himself, stealing drugs to resell, and driving a fierce loyalty from those who work for him, at pain of death. Jim Corrigan is a lot like Office Vic Mackey on the TV show The Shield; he’s so steeped in corruption that there’s just no redeeming him.
This issue details Cris’s efforts to take down Corrigan. Cris patiently gathers evidence, talks to informants, does everything he can by the book to do the right thing. But, in a shocking ending (do not skip to the last page), it appears that evil might triumph over good.
 
This is a sensational police comic from the keyboard of Greg Rucka and the hands of Kano and Gaudino. Readers see, panel by panel, as the story matches inexorably towards a tragic conclusion. We get a feel for who Cris Allen is, the sacrifices he makes to do good, the way his dogged determination forces him to make decisions. In issue 37, readers saw Cris desperately try to come home to his family in the midst of the Infinite Crisis; that history adds even more
intensity to the story.
 
Parallel to Cris’s story is the increasing depression and violent attitudes of his partner Renee Montoya. For the last few months, beginning perhaps with a confrontation she had with Corrigan, Renee’s been getting a quicker and quicker temper. Finally in this issue that problem comes to a head. Will she grow from the experience, or will she sink further down into her problems?
After last issue’s IC cross-over, this issue is completely superpower free and it gives the comic a wonderful feel. We can predict that Corrigan will eventually become the Spectre – it’s hinted at on the cover – but this issue has a wonderful street-level feel that fits the characters well.
 
The art by Kano and Gaudiano, along with art by Lee Loughridge, is perfect for the story. There’s a sense that Gotham is a city in decline, where life is tough and danger lurks around every corner. The scenes at the climax are especially dramatic – I was on the razor’s edge watching the confrontation between Cris and Corrigan.
 
It’s too bad there’s only two more issues left of this series. This was perhaps the best issue of the series so far.

Hard Time Season Two #1 (2005)

December 21, 2005

I’m so glad to see this comic back on the newsstands. Steve Gerber has always been a great writer at exploring moral ambiguity, and Hard Time is all about that moral ambiguity. Protagonist Ethan Harrow was involved in a school shooting, which landed him in a maximum security penitentiary. He also has an ancient spirit living in his body, for reasons yet unexplained. "Season one" of Hard Time, the first dozen issues, explored Harrow’s bizarre and frightening life in prison and his interesting reactions to it. Harrow’s emotions never could be completely pinned down in "season one." At times he seemed motivated by his idea of right and wrong, while at others he seemed willing to leave things alone. He seemed oddly able to get by in prison for a 17-year-old kid, and that fact added an odd sense of edge to Ethan.

Season two begins with a return to the events of the first issue of season one. A legal aid team comes to Ethan’s prison to interview him about the shooting and the events leading up to it. Ethan tells the story of his life as an outsider, of getting beat up by the biggest jock at the school, and at finding fellowship with another outsider, Brandon Snodd. Ethan and Brian create their own secret world – Ethan to escape his small size, Brian to escape his mother, who "slept all day and entertained ‘guests’ all night." Ethan tells of the boys humiliations and the ways they tried to escape them. Even though it was a hell, the boys seemed to be able to learn to get by somehow. At least it seemed that way until the jocks escalated the battle.

The pair’s friend Inez was the victim of an attempted rape, which Brian breaks up, only to find himself the victim of a much more evil stunt. Finally the boys had enough. Without thinking, they decided to go to school, wave around some guns, and scare their bullies. But it was in that moment that everything went wrong.

Much of this information is new to the comic, and adds an extra level of moral ambiguity to everything. When a boy is attacked so cruelly and endlessly, eventually something has to snap. His actions can’t be condoned, but they can be understood and analyzed. Who can say that if they were in Brandon’s position, they wouldn’t do something similar?

Season two seems to be all about exploring the intense ambiguity of this story in greater depth. Ethan and Brandon’s crimes can never be condoned, but they can be understood. To what extent that understanding should mitigate Ethan’s blame for these horrific crimes is a difficult question. On the flip side, however, the bloodthirstiness of the judge in Ethan’s case, out to throw the book at a boy who was vilified in the media to help gain re-election, can’t be ignored either.

These are deep questions. I trust Steve Gerber, along with co-writer Mary Skrenes to not give definitive answers but rather let the reader decide what they think. Moral ambiguity has always been Gerber’s great strength as a writer.