Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Let There Be...LIFE!" (Fantastic Four Annual #6)

Geez, I just realized that it's been nearly a month that I've been doing this new blog, and I have yet to write anything about a Marvel comic.
Well, I suppose it's time to rectify that oversight, and if I'm going to write about a Marvel comic, I might as well pick one of the greatest single issues they've ever published, as well as my personal favorite story from the seminal Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Fantastic Four Annual #6, featuring a story entitled, with typical Stan Lee bravura, "Let There Be...Life!"
Stan the Man himself sums up the story this way in a blurb on the splash page: "Featuring: The Glory of Birth, 'Neath the Shadow of Death!", which neatly distills the essence of the tale into a handy catch phrase.  From a continuity and historical standpoint, it is notable for including the first appearance of Annihulus, the Living Death That Walks, and the birth of Franklin Richards.
Sue, whose pregnancy was revealed in the previous year's annual, is in the hospital preparing to give birth, but there are complications.  It seems that the cosmic radiation in her blood that granted her  and her three teammates their fantastic powers is now endangering the lives of both her and her soon to be born child.  Reed is frantic with worry, but he has discovered that there is a rare element that can save his family, though it exists only in the treacherous anti-matter realm known as the Negative Zone.  Dismissing Reed's entreaties that this is something he must do alone, the Thing and the Human Torch join him on an excursion into the Zone to retrieve the element, which, they soon discover, just happens to be in a vial which the evil Annihulus just happens to wear on a chain around his neck. 
Reed and his companions now must defeat Annihulus, retrieve the precious rare element, and get back to their own dimension in time to save Sue and the baby.
What makes this my favorite FF tale is that it epitomizes the very quintessence of the Fantastic Four concept.  When The Comics Journal listed its choices for the Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century as that century drew to its close, Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four was the highest ranking super-hero comic on the roster, and this issue demonstrates why it deserves that honor.  If FF isn't the best super-hero  comic ever, I'm at a loss right now to tell you what is.
For all the cosmic bluster of such apocalyptic stories as this one and the Galactus Trilogy, Fantastic Four was, and to this day remains, at its heart, the story of a family.  While the threat of Annihulus is a menace on a cosmic scale, the real stakes here are personal: Reed battles Annihulus not to save the universe, but the people he loves most. This juxtaposition of the everyday against the outlandish; the perfect balance of the human and the cosmic, is what made Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four stand out not only from the books of the "Distinguished Competition", but the other comics in the Marvel line as well. Only here was that delicate balancing act acheived. Thor by  this point was a full-on cosmic tale of gods and demons with the human elements provided by Thor's human identity of Don Blake and his hopeless lusting after nurse Jane Foster having long since fallen by the wayside, and The Amazing Spider-Man offered tales of an all too human young man struggling with the realities of supporting himself, dating, and taking care of his frail old aunt, who just happened to put on a costume and fight super powered nutsos every once in a while.
Another thing that's interesting about this story is that it was published during what is generally considered a fallow period in Kirby's creative career.  According to most accounts, the King was really unhappy with how Stan had mucked up his original concept for issues #66 and 67 and was simply marking time by this point until his contract with Marvel was up. Despite that, here he gives us some of the finest work of his career, and a true high point of the Silver Age.
The best, and cheapest, way to read this story is by picking up Essential Fantastic Four Volume Four, which contains not only this tale, and  the earlier annual announcing Sue's pregnancy, but the controversial issues #66 and 67, as well as many others, which, even if Kirby was "hacking it out" during this period, as the conventional wisdom would have it, still stand head and shoulders above the other super-hero comics of the day.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Just WRONG: Justice League of America #147

To be honest, the story contained in Justice League of America issues #147 and #148 is one of my favorite of the annual pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths teamings of the League and their Earth-2 counterparts, the Justice Society of America.  It features the JLA and the JSA teamed with the 30th century heroes the Legion of Super-Heroes facing off against old Legion foe Mordru and veteran League enemies the Demons Three in a quest for a trio of mystical objects that spans time, space and dimension.  This type of wild, far-fetched epic is everything I love about super-hero comics.

There is a sequence early on in the story that just makes me cringe.  The best word to describe it is "icky."
As the 147th issue of Justice League of America begins, the JSA are guests aboard the League's satellite headquarters after having captured the Psycho Pirate, who fled to Earth-1 in an attempt to elude the Society, a story related in the JSA's own feature in the recently revived All-Star Comics.  Just as the Earth-2 heroes are about to head back to their own dimension with their prisoner, Green Arrow, not wanting this reunion of the super-teams to end too soon, shoots the infamous boxing glove arrow at the controls of the dimensional transporter, shutting it down. As the machine needs an hour to warm up again, the Society members are forced to hang out for a while longer.
Now comes the creepy part.
One member of the JSA, Power Girl, seems delighted with the delay.  She's hanging all over Earth-1's Man of Steel as she purrs, "I'm beginning to really like this place!  It has a much nicer brand of Superman, y'know?"  Kal-El is, understandably, a little uncomfortable with this, but offers to show her the JLA's trophy room anyway.  As they head off, Black Canary snipes, "Incredible! And I used to call you a fast worker, Oliver!"  Ollie's response is "*CHUCKLE* I guess they've got Women's Lib on Earth-Two, too, Pretty Bird!"
Thankfully, a giant disembodied mystical hand invades the satellite right at that moment and spirits members of both teams away through time to the 30th century..
Power Girl was essentially the Earth-2 analog of Supergirl.  Like Supergirl, she was the cousin of that world's Superman, who was essentially the same person on Earth-2 as he was on Earth-1, unlike, say, the Flashes or Green Lanterns, who shared only their heroic name and super powers in common.   In essence, she's coming on to her cousin.
Like I said: "icky"
The sexist language notwithstanding, Ollie's reaction is taking the whole "liberal" schtick a bit far. He might be OK with it, but even when I first read this as a kid, I found that whole sequence disturbing.  Fortunately, it's only three panels long in a story spanning two double sized issues, and is thankfully not revisited.

Back Issue

Even if I hadn't come right out and said it in my last post, you might just get the impression as you read this blog that I harbor a certain fondness for the comics of the 1970's and 80s, the era often referred to as the Bronze Age.  If you share this particular affection--or should I say "affliction"-- I would recommend that you do two things:
  1. Keep reading this blog.
  2. Check out a magazine called Back Issue.

Back Issue is published by TwoMorrows Publishing, who put out a whole line of comics related magazines and books, with perhaps their best known being The Jack Kirby Collector, devoted entirely to the career of the King of Comics.  BI's particular niche happens to be the aforementioned Bronze Age,  and each issue is centered around a theme which unites most of the articles, although a couple of non-themed pieces are usually included.  For example, the latest issue, whose eye catching Joe Kubert drawn cover is shown here, focuses mainly on war comics, although that is rather broadly defined to include super-hero comics set during the second World War. Among the features are articles on Lynda Carter-era Wonder Woman comics, Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle's early 80's revival of Blackhawk, the Unknown Soldier, Marvels WWII super team The Invaders, a little known Marvel war comic called Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen, and, of course, Sgt. Rock, as well as such non-thematic pieces as an essay on biographies of comics creators and a look at Marvel's short-lived line of religious themed comics. Other recent themes have included issue #34's  look at "cosmic" comics, which featured a Jim Starlin Warlock cover, and  the following issue's focus on super-villains, including an examination of the classic "Kraven's Last Hunt" storyline in the Spider-Man titles and an article on Kobra that inspired me to write my own. The tone of the articles is a mix of loving tribute and critical analysis.  Thankfully missing is the snarkiness too often found on many web-sites and blogs when Bronze Age comics are discussed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

DC Super Stars #10 or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bronze Age"

The 1970s and early 1980s, the period known to comics fans and historians as the Bronze Age, is often dismissed as a low point in the history of comics.  The rap on the era is that the mainstream comics of the day were bland, uninspired, and unimaginative.  However, I find just the opposite to be true, and Bronze Age comics are among my all time favorites. Part of this is because I was a kid at the time, and these are some of the first comics I ever read, but even today, as a middle aged man with slightly more sophisticated tastes, I can still enjoy these stories for their wild imagination and, in some cases, inspired silliness. With sales of comic books slipping on the news stands, and the direct market either not yet existing or still in its nascent stages, publishers, in order to lure readers, seemed willing to  throw almost any wild concept up against the wall to see if it stuck, experimenting with all kinds of styles and genres and twists on old concepts.  This is the era of "relevance" in Green Lantern/Green Arrow; Jack Kirby's Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, The Eternals, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Devil Dinosaur; Kobra; Tomb of Dracula; Conan the Barbarian; The Warlord; Prez; The Green Team-Boy Millionaires; Swamp Thing; Howard the Duck; the Super-Sons, and dozens of others, many rightly forgotten but many that have come to be considered classics.
Now, although it's generally agreed upon that the Bronze Age came to a screeching halt with DC's universe realigning mini-series Crisis On Infinite Earths in 1985, there is a little dispute as to when it actually began.  Quite a few people date the beginning of the age to the publication of Giant Size X-Men #1 and the debut of the "All-New, All-Different" X-Men in 1975, while others have it beginning right on the heels of the Silver Age when Jack Kirby left Marvel to create the Fourth World over at DC.  For the purposes of this and future discussions of the Bronze Age, I'll be going with the latter  start point.  I read one article that termed the interim between the end of the Silver Age and Giant Size X-Men the "Weird Age," but for my money, it was all pretty weird. 
Just tonight, thanks to Mike Carroll, who brought this to our regular Wednesday night meeting of cartoonists, I read what just might be the quintessential Bronze Age comic: DC Super Stars #10, featuring Strange Sports Stories.  In front of reprints of sports themed stories from Strange Adventures and Green Lantern, which has GL sparring with an alien boxer, the issues sports (pun fully intended) an all-new lead story entitled  "The Great Super-Star Game," written by Bob Rozakis, with art by Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin, which tells the tale of a baseball game between teams consisting of super-heroes and super-villains.

The story starts with married villains Huntress and Sportsmaster having a little spat.  Convinced that villains can never win against heroes, she's ready to switch sides.  Sportsmaster comes up with a plan to prove that villains can win--at baseball, if nothing else.  Huntress is to recruit, or, more accurately, kidnap, a team of super-heroes, while Sportsmaster gathers together a roster of villains.  After shanghaing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Plastic Man, Uncle Sam, Robin, and one other who's slipped my mind, the villains bring them to a baseball stadium filled to capacity with a crowd of hostages to face off against a team of villains that includes the Joker, Lex Luthor, Amazo, the Tattooed Man, and the Matter Master, among others. 
By the eighth inning, the villains are behind, but Sportsmaster is determined to win, even if he has to cheat. Though both sides had agreed not to use their super powers, he encourages the villains to break the pact and use any means they have to in order to prevent the heroes from winning.  Of course, with the villains using their powers, the heroes are free to use theirs as well, and ultimately, they emerge victorious.  At one point, Green Arrow draws his fabled bow to shoot down a baseball that had been given wings by the Matter Master, thus preventing the villains from scoring a run--a sequence of panels that pretty much epitomizes the sheer brilliant goofiness of this entire story. 
Now to save space, the story skips straight to the eighth inning, but, for those who really have to know, a text page gives a full play by play of the entire game.  I can just imagine reading this aloud in the style of a real play by play announcer, and in fact, I did do my best Harry Carey impersonation on the first inning. HOLY COW!
Big thanks to Mike Carroll for sharing this with me.  I may just have to track down a copy of this gem for myself, as it truly embodies just about everything that critics hate, and that I love about the comics of the Bronze Age.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Stewart the Rat

In 1980, after being unceremoniuosly bounced from Marvel Comics and his greatest creation, Howard the Duck, and in the midst of a battle with the so-called "House of Ideas" for ownership of said creation, writer Steve Gerber once again teamed with HTD artist Gene Colan, joined by inker Tom Palmer, to create the graphic novel Stewart the Rat, published by Eclipse Comics.  A few years ago, the book was reprinted by About Comics, and that edition, the cover of which appears below, is probably easier to find if you're interested in reading STR. As one of the earliest graphic novels, its probably worth checking out for that reason alone.
 Beyond reuniting the creative team, Stewart had other similarities to Howard.  Both featured an talking animal struggling to get by in and understand the world of humans, as well as a strong vein of social satire informed by Gerber's somewhat skewed world view.

 Although, whereas Howard was a displaced refugee from a world of talking ducks, Stewart came to be as a result of the manipulation of human and rodent DNA by a brilliant but socially inept geneticist, who commits suicide after Stewart's creation.  Stewart is taken in by a sympathetic human woman who feeds him, clothes him and puts him to work on her ranch until an attempt on her daughter's life by a disco dancing zombie, under the control of an ex-boyfriend turned self-help guru, leads to Stewart becoming the daughter's bodyguard.  It is truly as bizarre as it sounds.  Unfettered by editorial restrictions or the Comics Code(Stewart's first words are "What the fuck?"), Gerber let his imagination run wild, creating a range of bizarre would be assassins, all satirizing a then current trend, and Gerber's powers of observation and biting wit are as sharp as ever as he dissects the zeitgeist of the dawning decade of the 1980's.

It pretty much goes without saying that the art in this book is beautiful, as you can see from the example to your left. Colan's art is always gorgeous and Tom Palmer is one of the best inkers in the history of comics.  He could probably even make Rob Liefeld's pencils look good. Together, both here and on their other collaborations such as Tomb of Dracula, Colan and Palmer produce an absolutely stunning product.  One of Colan's forte's is drawing beautiful woman, and Gerber, both here and previously on HTD, wisely takes advantage of that by hooking his protagonist up with attractive female companions.
The book's fatal flaw is that it's too short.  Forty-eight pages was alot back then, to be sure, before graphic novels were common and when regular monthly comics contained a paltry seventeen story pages, but this story really could have benefited from maybe fifteen or twenty more.  The real problem is the pacing.  Gerber spends most of the book introducing the characters and setting up the situation, leaving only the last ten pages for a somewhat rushed conclusion. Perhaps if he'd had a few extra pages, or if this had been the first issue of an ongoing or even a limited series, Stewart the Rat might have developed into one of Gerber's finest works, as there are a lot of good concepts and characters here just begging to be fleshed out. As it is, however, STR is merely a failed attempt to make lightning strike twice and a minor footnote in the history of comics and the careers of its creators.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Favorite Comics: Batman #280

From time to time, when I feel like posting here but am stuck for something to write about, I'll be digging through the boxes of comics in my living room closet and pulling out one of my favorite comics, either an individual issue or maybe an entire series or storyline, rereading it and telling you all about it and just why I like it. Now, I will freely admit that in many cases, especially with many comics from the 70s and 80s, the reasons that the comic may be one of my favorites will have less to do with the merits of the story itself than with how old I was when I first read it or the circumstances under which I first aquired it. Such is the case with the comic I'll be discussing today.
My upcoming trip to Cleveland for Genghis Con has got to thinking of an earlier journey to that area, my first, in 1976.  My family lived in Linesville, Pennsylvania, a comatose little town in the Northwestern corner of the state near the border with Ohio.  When it came time for my father to trade in his 1968 Chrysler Newport for a brand new Chrysler Newport, he, for reasons that were never made clear to me, went to a dealership in Euclid.  Perhaps that's where he'd purchased the first Newport.  I honestly don't know, and, sadly, can't ask him, since he died in 1979.  Anyway, one day Dad packed the entire family; himself, mom, my brother and three sisters and me, into the old Newport to drive to Euclid to buy a new car.  Before getting underway in earnest, we stopped at the drugstore in Linesville, where we kids were allowed to pick out a comic book to read during the trip.  The ones that I remember are my older sisters choice of Isis #2, based on the live action Saturday morning kid's show then airing on CBS, and my own purchase of Batman #280, featuring a story entitled "The Only Crime In Town" written by David V. Reed and drawn by Ernie Chua and Frank Giacoia. It's the memory of that family outing, plus the fact that this was the first Batman comic I ever actually owned, that make this issue one of my favorites.
That's not to say that the story itself isn't good.  It is, in fact, a very clever little mystery tale concerning a plot to steal a collection of rare gold coins. 
The story begins at 12:55 a.m. as the Caped Crusader comes across a gang of criminals breaking into a safe.  He swings in to foil the robbery and is surprised when, precisely at 1:00 a.m., the perps simply surrender.  Later, Commissioner Gordon reveals that during the previous week, not one major crime had occurred between the hours of one and two a.m.,  with one exception, and the man who pulled that job was murdered "mobster style" the next day.  Apparently, the Batman deduces, there is a "crime curfew" in effect, but is baffled as to why or who would have the muscle to be able to enforce such a restriction. 
The next morning, the Gotham papers are full of news of the curfew, and that night, a coin dealer who's in town for a numismatics convention is robbed in his suite at the Gotham Plaza hotel during the curfew hour.  The next night, Batman is tipped off to another crime that's slated to pulled during the curfew.  The victim is another coin dealer.  Batman captures the crooks, ties them up in a closet with the loot, and tells the press that they got away.  You see, he figures that the purpose of pulling the jobs during curfew was to get publicity, so he lets it appear that the second crime succeeded so that he can find out why. Batman has also noted that among the list provided by the victim of what was supposedly stolen are extremely rare coins from the "Leopold Saxony Collection," yet those coins are not among the the loot Batman recovered, and several coins from that same collection were also "stolen" in the first robbery.
The next day, Bruce Wayne consults with lovely blonde numismatics expert Nola Roberts, and learns the history of the collection, as well as the fact that the remaining coins are owned by a collector who lives in Gotham. That night, the owner of the remaining coins, rightly assuming that he's the next target of the robbers, hires an armored car to transport them to safekeeping. The robbers, however, plan to hijack the truck, take the drivers place and take delivery of the coins themselves, but are stopped by the Batman.  As the stunned victim looks on, Batman reveals the identity of the robbers and the secret behind the "crime curfew". 
This story was also one of my first exposures to the "dark avenger of the night" Batman that had been re-introduced in the comics a few years earlier  by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, though Reed's version of the Caped Crusader was not as grim as that of other writers. Still, it was a far cry from the campy humor of the 60s Batman live action show and the harmless goof in a Batman suit who hung out with the Super Friends in their early Saturday morning adventures

Friday, November 13, 2009

Genghis Con

For as long as I've lived in Columbus, up until two years ago, the weekend after Thanksgiving meant Mid-Ohio Con, then the new owners of the show, having no respect for tradition, went and moved it to the first weekend in October.  This year, however, if you're really missing going to a comics show that weekend, you can head over to Cleveland and check out the first, hopefully annual, Genghis Con on Saturday, November 28 at the Beachland Ballroom. 
Actually, this show sounds to be less like MOC, with its emphasis on mainstream and super-hero comics and  special "media" guests, and more akin to Columbus' own Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, or SPACE, which features independent and self-published creators hawking the work they have poured their hearts into.
Now, I'd be telling you  about show anyway, 'cause it looks to be a pretty good one, but it just so happens that I just got an e-mail from GC promoter Scott Rudge, and my humble request for a table, for which Rudge is charging not one red cent, has been accepted.  I'll be riding down with fellow exhibitor and SPACE organizer Bob Corby, armed with copies of my books reprinting the first two years of my strip, Wasted Potential, which I will once again attempt to foist on the unsuspecting comics readership.
A little more info on the con is in the official press release below, and here's an article that  appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Then, of course, there's the show's web-site.    

Comic Show Features the Unknown Work of Local Graphic Storytellers
You won’t find Superman, expensive back issues or fading Hollywood celebrities at Genghis Con, a comic book convention organized to showcase the work of independent artists and writers from the Midwest. The event will be held at the Beachland Ballroom on Saturday, November 28, 2009 from 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm. The convention will feature the talent of approximately 50 graphic storytellers from around the Midwest whose work does not fit into the normal perception of what a comic book should be.
For 70 years the part of the country known as the “rust belt” has provided the world with an incredible abundance of creative talent in the art of telling stories with pictures. This form of communication has reached its pinnacle of popularity in the form of the beloved comic book. Many of the biggest names in comics today hail from the Midwest.
Comic readers are familiar with such Ohio natives as Brian Bendis, Brian Vaughn, Fred Van Lente, Harvey Pekar and Jeff Smith. These and many others from around the Great Lakes are the modern personalities shaping graphic storytelling as we know it today. The common thread through each of these current and rising stars of the industry is they began their careers creating and publishing their own material.
Like their famous brethren, the participants of Genghis Con use skill, imagination and craftsmanship to create engaging, original graphic storytelling art. Their work, however, remains largely unpublished outside of the creator’s own trips to the local copy center. Genghis Con exists to bring this creative talent together in one place and to provide a venue for interaction with potential readers who may not have any other opportunity to see this work.
The organizers of Genghis Con are committed to creating an event which is unique in many ways. Early in the planning stages, the convention organizers decided to break most of the rules of a normal comic convention. These changes include eliminating the dealer’s room and the endless rows of fading TV celebrities. Perhaps the most radical difference is participants will not be charged for table space as they are at other comic conventions. The organizers feel this will free the artists from feeling the pressure to “make up their costs” and allow them to focus on promoting their work.
"We are not doing this to make money,” says Scott Rudge, one of the Genghis Con organizers and owner of Astound Comics in Westlake, Ohio. “We want the creators to use the money they save on renting space to offer inexpensive copies of their work. This benefits both the artist and the audience in a way not seen at a typical comic con. We want those attending the convention to feel comfortable interacting meaningfully with the creators and we hope to do that by making the communication of ideas as inexpensive as possible.”
To further break down the barriers between the artists and readers, Genghis Con attendees will be able to build their own comic book containing the work of each artist at the show. This book will be included at no additional charge with normal admission of $5.00.
“We are looking for creators who use a comic book style format to tell their stories, but we also have accepted some ‘zine and poster artists,” says Rudge. “While we may have some of the next generation of mainstream stars displaying their work, we are also looking forward to offering the work of those who have no interest in promoting their material beyond the desire to simply tell a story.”
The call is out for artists wishing to participate in Genghis Con. Artists are welcome to submit samples of their work for consideration. The organizers of Genghis Con will be accepting submissions until November 15th. For complete details and submission guidelines, creators should go to the event website,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Life and Times of The Deadliest Man Alive: A History of Kobra

No less an authority on super-villainy than the Batman has called him the second most dangerous man he's ever met. Beginning with the fifth issue, the covers of his own short lived series proclaimed him the deadliest man alive.  Although not the first DC villain to be given a series (that honor goes to Batman's arch-nemesis, the Joker), he was the first to debut as the star of his own book.  Call him Naja-Naja or call him Jeffrey Burr, just don't call him late for a ritual sacrifice.  He is the lord of the Cobra Cult; the would be world conquerer known as Kobra.
What follows the jump is a rather lengthy article on the history of the character, concentrating on the years from his first appearance in 1975 to 1985's Crisis On Infinite Earths.  That's why I've included the jump break, so that if don't care to read this long-winded discourse, you can more easily scroll down to something you might find more interesting.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

V: The Aliens Are Back

This post is only vaguely related to comics (hence its classification in the new category "only vaguely related to comics"), but there was a V comic book published by DC back in the 80's, and there probably will be again if this series is successful, though probably published by one of the newer, smaller publishers.  Probably IDW, as they seem to be getting a lot of the hot licenses, like Star Trek.
In the original V mini-series, the Earth was visited by apparently humanoid aliens who had ostensibly come in peace and friendship.  It was soon revealed that they were reptilian creatures who had really come to conquer us, steal the water from our oceans and harvest human beings for food.  More than that, V was an allegory for the rise of Nazi Germany. It was an attempt to answer the question that has plagued philosophers and historians for decades: How did this happen? How could seemingly decent people go along with this unspeakable evil committed in their name?  Finally, that mini-series was four hours of the best science fiction ever made for television.

Unfortunately, the mini-series did not spawn a regular series right away. There was a follow-up mini-series, V:The Final Battle, in which most of the plotlines were wrapped up and the alien invaders repelled, and then there was a regular series, lasting only one season, in which the Visitors returned.  By the time the regular series debuted, the allegorical subtext had gotten lost somewhere along the way and V had devolved into a standard Earth vs. the invaders saga, such as we'd seen dozens of times since H.G. Wells created the template with War of the Worlds.
Last week, the Visitors returned yet again, in a all-new V, airing on ABC.
It's...okay.  It's early yet, though. The aliens have just landed, and most of humanity still thinks they are benevelent, though a resistance is forming.  If there's any allegory here, it's has either yet to emerge, or it's very subtle. So far the new V seems to be another one of  those Earth vs. the invaders rehashes I decried above. Still, it's a fairly well done one, and one that is very much in the vein of other recent hits such as Lost and Heroes, with multiple characters and crisscrossing plot lines intersecting and diverging several times each episode.
While I like the idea, new to this version of V, that the aliens have been amongst us for years, posing as humans and paving the way for the day when they would invade full force, I don't like that all of Earth's problems of the last few years, such as war, terrorism and economic insecurity, have been fomented by the Visitors.  It's too easy, and it lets the human race off the hook. We don't need aliens, the human race has made a royal mess of things without any outside help.  The original did not let humans off the hook, instead showing them complicit in their own subjugation.
As I said, it's early, as I write this the second episode has just begun, and I'll reserve a final judgment and stick with it for a few more episodes.
The new version does have one advantage over its predecessor.  Anna, the new Supreme Commander of the Visitor Armada, is a lot hotter than the original's Diana.

The Metal Men by Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire in Doom Patrol

As an added incentive to pick up the new Doom Patrol series, we are treated to a second feature which revives a much beloved team from comics past.  I'm not talking yet about the Metal Men, the stars of the series, but about the creators.  The new adventures of the Metal Men mark yet another reunion of plotter Keith Giffen, scripter J.M. DeMatteis, and penciler Kevin Maguire, the beloved band of misfits who brought us the early adventures of the Justice League International way back in the 1980's. 

Now there is probably no bigger fan of the Metal Men alive, or at least none that I know of, than my friend Mike Carroll. When I asked him if he was picking up the new DP series, he answered that he was paying $3.99 for a ten page Metal Men story that just happened to be accompanied by a Doom Patrol series.  According to Mike, Giffen and DeMatteis have gotten it right, creating a Metal Men series in keeping with the spirit of the team's fondly remembered Silver Age adventures.  Having read very little Metal Men, comparatively, myself, mostly team-ups with Superman and Batman in DC Comics Presents or The Brave and the Bold as well as the serial in this summer's Wednesday Comics, I shall trust Mike's judgment. The characterizations are certainly in keeping with the way the characters have been portrayed in those appearances. 

What I can speak to with a bit more authority, having read the entire run of Justice League/International/America/Europe/Quarterly by Giffen and his various collaborators, is how this stacks up against earlier efforts by the same team.  The answer is quite well, indeed.  They've managed to recreate the magic of those early JLI stories here in a way that their previous reunions, on the mini-series Formerly Known as the Justice League and its follow-up I Can't Believe It's Not The Justice League in JLA Classified 4-9, didn't quite pull off.   Perhaps it's because they'd said all they really had to say about those characters a decade previously, and working with a new set of characters have got the old creative and comedic juices flowing once again. 

On the art side, Maguire is better than ever. He was a talented newcomer when he started on JLI, and now he is a seasoned master. His mastery of expressions was a big part of the JLI formula, with the characters reactions making the jokes even funnier, and that is very much still the case in Metal Men. 
The latest story, in Doom Patrol #4, is the best yet, as the team finally face a "serious" threat in the form of a trio of female robots called the Clique, who either want to rule the world or just kill the Metal Men and get on with their shopping spree.
It's been a big year for the Metal Men, what with this new series and their exposure in the Wednesday Comics experiment, and it looks like the best is yet to come.

Doom Patrol # 4

These days, picking up an issue of an ongoing comics series that you don't regularly read can be a daunting experience. With so many writers either writing their stories with the collected edition in mind, or for an audience of aging fanboys who've memorized every comic ever published since Siegel met Schuster, or both, reading a single issue is akin to walking in in the middle of a foreign film with no subtitles. Writers today have simply forgotten, or perhaps never learned, how to write an accessible single issue. Throw in the complication of an endless stream of universe changing company wide multi-title crossovers intruding on the book's storyline, and new readers become hopelessly confused.  Thus, one of the things that really impressed me about Doom Patrol #4 is that the story could be understood by almost anyone, even if they'd never read a Doom Patrol story before or aren't reading The Blackest Night, DC's latest mega-crossover.

A good crossover, to my way of thinking is one where you can read the core mini-series without buying any of the crossover titles and still get a complete story.  Too many of these minis are just collections of beginnings of scenes followed by "Continued in..." Conversely, a good crossover issue is one that someone who isn't reading the core mini-series can understand and which doesn't interupt the flow of the book's storyline. John Ostrander is a master of this. In books such as Suicide Squad, Spectre and Hawkworld, he managed to seamlessly integrate the latest ill conceived crossover into the story he was telling. And Keith Giffen does a very good job himself in DP#4.
When I first heard about Blackest Night, which involves dead characters coming back as "Black Lanterns" with the aid of a black version of the Green Lantern ring, my first thought was "Is anybody in the DC Universe still dead?" After all, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman and a host of others have all beaten the Grim Reaper over the years.  The current members of the Doom Patrol  have all risen from the dead as well, some more than once. Still, there are quite enough former DP members who've remained dead to give the team a run for its money. And when you consider the array of offbeat menaces the Patrol has faced over the years, the walking dead sort of fit right in.
The issue begins with a brief history of the team seen from the perspective of the Chief's erstwhile wife, Arani Caulder, a.k.a. Celsius, founder of the second Doom Patrol, just before she is ressurected to stand beside the other charter members of the "New" Doom Patrol,  Josh Clay (Tempest) and Valentina Vostok (Negative Woman). Next, the current team is seen returning home from their last mission, and the Chief recieves an e-mail message outlining for him, and the reader, all we really need to know about Blackest Night in order to enjoy the issue at hand. Then the fun begins in earnest, as the team is menaced individually by one of their deceased counterparts.  Arani goes after the Chief, Tempest goes after Elasti-Girl, Negative Man faces off against Negative Woman, and Cliff meets....Well, that's the big surprise twist that ends the issue, so I'll save any discussion of that for when I write about issue five. 
All in all, a solid issue of an entertaining series and a good place for new readers to start picking it up if they feel so inclined.  As an added bonus, I got a cheap plastic trinket.  As a promotional gimmick, DC is giving out various colored rings, representing the newly established rainbow of various Lantern corps, with the purchase of certain Blackest Night crossovers, and for plunking down my four bucks for Doom Patrol #4, I got me a yellow "Sinestro Corps" ring, which I'm wearing as I type this.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Return of the Doom Patrol

The original Doom Patrol were unusual, to say the least, especially for DC Comics in the early 60's.  Whereas heroes like Superman, Flash, and even Batman were beloved by the public and accepted by the constabulary, not to mention mentally and emotionally well adjusted, the DP were a band of embittered outcasts, freakish in appearance, looked on with mistrust by the world, and none too bloody happy about it.  They might have fit in better over in the Marvel universe, and much has been made of the similarities between the Patrol and Marvel's original X-Men, who debuted about the same time. Both are teams of outcasts led by a guy in a wheelchair, however, at least at first, I think the concept was presented better in Doom Patrol.  After all, the five founding X-Men, even the Beast, all looked pretty normal in the early days.  If you saw one of them on the street, you wouldn't be able to spot him (or her, in the case of Marvel Girl) as a mutant.  However, except for Rita Farr, who looked fairly normal, even pretty, if you saw one of the Doom Patrol, you'd know it.  A metal man and a radioactive guy wrapped in bandages don't quite blend in with the crowd.  And despite the lip service paid to their being "feared and hated by those they've sworn to protect", the early X-Men really didn't seem all that upset with their lot in life, whereas the DP where rather vocally bitter about their fates.   These guys didn't really want to be heroes, but, hey, what the hell else were they going to do?

The Patrol's enemies were just as weird as they were.  The DP's Rogues Gallery included a disembodied brain, a talking French gorilla, and the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, who could change his form into almost anything. 

Unfortunately, that weirdness and freakishness was lost when writer Paul Kupperberg created a new Doom Patrol some nine years after the original team sacrificed their lives in the final issue of their series.  The new Patrol, especially the members added once they gained their own series in 1986, were all normal looking, even good looking, and their opponents were fairly standard issue super-villains. 
Then, with the nineteenth issue, the series was handed to up and coming Scottish superstar writer Grant Morrison,  who took the team back to its roots, and made them weird again.  I plan on writing a loving tribute to Morrison's DP at some future date, so I'll save my ravings for that.
Subsequent writers of the DP have failed in capturing the spirit of both the original team and/or Morrison's version.
Until now.

In the new Doom Patrol, the fourth issue of which came out last week, writer Keith Giffen takes an approach to the team that, while it differs greatly from Morrison's, is also, in its way, very "back to basics".  For starters, this is the original team, miraculously risen from the dead.  Actually, the previous DP series, by John Byrne, introduced the original team as if they were brand new characters, but during the Infinite Crisis crossover mini-series, their past continuity was restored.  (I can't explain it, don't ask me.) Byrne added some new characters to the group, but Giffen starts off by killing them off, dismissing Byrne's ill conceived series and leaving us with the original line-up of Cliff Steele (Robotman), Larry Trainor (Negative Man), and Rita Farr (Elasti-Girl), who are once again a trio of embittered outcasts, unhappy with their fate and only reluctantly playing the role of "hero" at the direction of an aloof manipulative Chief.
The opponents they've faced so far have also been very much in the spirit of the original series, though nowhere near as surreal as those they encountered during the Morrison days.  The first story line pitted the group against a sentient "black hole" which could possess people, which manifested itself by their faces being replaced with by a black hole. In the latest issue, which ties in with the latest megacrossoverwhothehellcaresbigevent,  The Blackest Night, they face the re-animated corpses of dead former members. (A full review of issue four is planned.)

To my mind, the only way this series could be better is if Keith Giffen were drawing it as well.  There's a sequence in issue two where the "black hole" takes over a scientist and I thought as I read it how much cooler that scene would have looked drawn by Giffen.  Oh well, we can't have everything, and Keith is a busy man. Still, regular penciler Matthew Clark and issue four's guest penciler Justiniano, abetted by inker Livesay, have done a fine job so far.
As an added bonus, you also get a back up series featuring the Metal Men for your four bucks.  However, I've gone on enough for this one post, and that series really deserves its own review, so  I'll get back to it later.

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug Volume One

Alright, so in my last post, wherein I lambasted the latest  Ambush Bug mini-series, I recommended that fans of the Bug should pick up the recent Showcase Presents Ambush Bug if they're really hurting for some Schwab.  (That's Irwin Schwab, the Bug's "secret identity")  Ok, then, let's take a closer look at that tome.

Buggy's appearances through the years have been few and far between, which is actually a good thing, as his brand of humor would be quite difficult to sustain over the course of an ongoing series, and his infrequent appearances become true events.   It also allows this one volume to contain nearly every appearance of the character, starting with his debut in a Superman/New Doom Patrol team up in DC Comics Presents to 1992's Ambush Bug Nothing Special.  There are a couple of stories, like the DCCP issues with the Legion of Substitute Heroes and the Bug bugging Supergirl in issue #16 of her 80's series, that I didn't even know existed.  The Supergirl story is a bit of an anamoly, as apparently the Bug's creator Keith Giffen isn't involved with it. Paul Kupperberg is the writer, and Carmine Infantino drew it.  However, this story is an important turning point in the Bug's life, as in his initial appearances he'd been nominally a "villain", but here decides to try his hand at being a super-hero.  Thus, I can't believe that, even though his name isn't in the credit box, Giffen didn't have a hand in it.
Most of this stuff has never been reprinted before, at least not in its entirety.  In fact, the only AB reprint that I'm aware of is a Best of DC digest from 1983 that presented one of his Action Comics back up stories with several pages missing.
There's a lot of funny stuff here, but my favorites are the first Ambush Bug mini-series, especially the first two issues, and DCCP #81. In the DCCP story, the Bug finds a glowing red rock while he's golfing and decides to polish it up as a gift for his pal Superman and pops up to Fortress of Solitude to give to him. It just so happens that the rock is red kryptonite, whose effects on the Man of Steel are unpredictable and last for 48 hours.  In this case, the red K causes Supes and Buggy to switch bodies. While they're switched, the Bug battles Kobra, making his return to comics after a four year absence, while Superman finds himself mistaken for an imposter by his robot duplicates and tossed into the Fortress of Solitude's brig, unable to figure out how to make Ambush Bug's power of teleportation work.  This issue includes the great line, "With great power...goes great responsibility! No skill or grace...but loads of responsibility!" which the Bug in Superman's body thinks to himself after his first attempt to land after flying back to Metropolis.
The first issue of the mini-series features the dynamic debut of the Bug's sidekick, Cheeks the Toy Wonder, who is, as the name implies, a stuffed doll, and a battle against Republican terrorists holding hostage what they think is a warehouse filled with nerve gas. (It probably doesn't sound too funny from that synapsis, but just read it--it's hilarious)  In the second issue, he takes on a mad scientist who, while doing research into the essence of cuteness, turns himself into a giant koala. Issue three is a guided tour of some of the more obscure and sillier characters of DC's past, including Wonder Woman villains Egg Fu and the Glop, Bat-Mite and Ace the Bathound, Green Lantern's pet Itty, Archie rip-off Binky, boy millionaires The Green Team, and many more too ridiculous to mention.  The fourth issue promises a battle with the villain Scabbard, from the comic Thriller, but that ends abruptly when Scabbard realizes he's in the wrong comic book, so writers Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming, who, by the way had written Thriller, introduce Ambush Bug's arch-enemy Argh!Yle, a talking sock with arms and legs and a Dr. Doom-style metal face mask.  Each issue ends promising a coming confrontation with Darkseid, which sort of occurs in the final chapter.
In the remainder of the volume, Ambush Bug battles a rogue comic book writer called the Interferer, stands trial for contempt of comics and is banished from the DC universe, tries to avoid revealing his "secret origin" (why do you think it's called a "secret" origin?), and travels through time battling the head of his former editor Julius Schwartz (or something like that).

One minor problem. Now in most cases, it doesn't bother me that these Showcase Presents volumes, like Marvel's similar Essentials line, are in black and white.  It certainly helps keep the cost down, and a more than five hundred page comic book for seventeen bucks is a bargain, believe me, bunky.  I mean, how else, other than by picking up the first five volumes of Marvel's Essential Fantastic Four, are you going to get Jack Kirby's entire run on the title for under a hundred bucks? Nowhere, baby, and you can take that to the bank.  However, in the case of Ambush Bug, a few of the jokes actually depend on color.  In the world of Irwin Schwab, nothing is sacred, and everything is fodder for spoofery, including the book's creators, right down to the colorist.  Even though you can get the gist of the page making fun of colorist Anthony Tollin from the text, it still suffers from being in black and white.  Another color based gag is the cover of Action Comics #565, but fortunately they used that as the cover of the reprint book, so it does get presented in color, otherwise it wouldn't make any sense, as you can see if you shift your eyes upward.
So, why are you still reading this?  Get your butt to the nearest comic shop and go pick up a copy of Showcase Presents Ambush Bug
Go on! Git!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ambush Bug: Year None #7

This is going to be a very short review, since there's not much to say about this book and , sadly, none of it good.
Yes, nearly a year after the previous issue, the final installment of the latest Ambush Bug mini-series finally hit stores last week.
Do you care?
Probably not.
Should you.
Not one damn bit.

Now let it be known throughout the land that I absolutely love Keith Giffen. I love the Bug, I adore Justice League International. I'm really digging the new Doom Patrol series, especially the Metal Men backup feature. Hell, I even liked Trencher.
But Ambush Bug: Year None #7 is a sad waste of paper.
This issue epitomizes everything that's wrong with the mini-series as a whole:
It was late.
It makes absolutely no freaking sense, even for an Ambush Bug story
And worst of all...especially for Ambush Bug...
It's NOT FUNNY. (I laughed a couple of times while reading this issue the first time, but I was drunk at the time.)
If you love the Bug, go pick up the recent Showcase Presents volume collecting all previous appearances of Irwin Schwab and try your hardest to pretend that this latest travesty never happened.
Don't worry, Keith. I still love you.

Superman: Secret Origin

John Byrne must be rolling over in his grave.
Oh, wait, he's not dead--just irrelevant.
However, you can bet that if there is an afterlife, longtime Superman editor Mort Weisinger is pretty happy.
Over the past few years, a new generation of superstar writers and artists have been systematically undoing the changes to the legend of Superman made by John Byrne and Marv Wolfman in the wake of Crisis On Infinite Earths and bringing back many of the Weisinger era concepts once abandoned and dismissed as "silly". Now, one of those writers, Geoff Johns, along with artists Gary Frank and Jon Sibal, are carving these retcons in stone as the official continuity in a six issue mini-series called Superman: Secret Origin.

In the second issue, we see Clark going into action as "Superboy," and witness his first meeting with representatives of the 31st centuries Legion of Super-Heroes. Later in the issue, another Kryptonian spaceship lands in Smallville, this one carrying the Kryptonian puppy Krypto. Another recently restored element of the pre-COIE Supes bio is the idea that Clark and Lex Luthor had known each other as teens in Smallville, and the issue ends with Lex, having just murdered his father, preparing to leave behind small town life and head out for the "City of Tomorrow," Metropolis.
One thing that Byrne established that remains in the new telling is the reversal of the pre-Crisis Clark/Superman dynamic. Before Man of Steel, the Superman persona was treated as the real identity and Clark Kent as the disuise. This is epitomized by the phrase from opening of TV's The Adventures of Superman, "...who disguised as Clark Kent," and by the fact that when, in Alan Moore's elegy for the Weisinger era Superman, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Superman's secret identity is revealed to the world, it is the Kent persona he abandons to become Superman full time. Byrne established that while Kal-El may have been born on Krypton, his upbringing on Earth has conditioned him to think and feel as a human being, thus Superman is a disguise to protect Clark Kent's privacy. Whereas Byrne tells us this in one of Superman's thought balloons, Johns shows us through the fact that Secret Origin is one of the few retellings of Superman's origins that begins on Earth rather than Krypton.
One of the first things that struck me as I looked at the art, especially in the first issue, is the influence of the Superman movies on the look of Superman's world. The brief glimpses of Krypton we get are of a world of gleaming crystalline structures and when Jor-El appears, he is clad in his Marlon Brando hand-me-down toga, complete with "S" shield crest. There's probably a big Smallville influence as well, but I don't watch that show, so I can't really tell you.
As for the art, I've always liked Gary Frank's art going back to his days on The Incredible Hulk, but here something about it seems a little off. The figures are a little stiff and mannequin-like. I'll blame it on the inker.
For fans of Superman, this is obviously a must have mini-series. After all, as the saying goes, you can't tell the players without a program, and this is the program. Still in all, I'd recommend giving it a pass until the trade comes out. You know the story, so the appeal of this mini-series is how it's told, and you can probably appreciate that better when you read the whole thing at once.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

24 Hour Comics Day Survivor's Journal

A 24 Hour comic, as you may know, is a 24 page comics story totally created within a 24 hour period. Originally conceived by Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud as a challenge for his friend, Swamp Thing artist Steve Bissette, in 1990, the idea has caught on amongst comics artists and hundreds have taken the challenge to date. Since 2004, there has even been an annual 24 Hour Comic Day, sponsored by publisher Nat Gertler's About Comics, on which artists gather in groups, mostly at sponsoring comics shops, to attempt this feat.
This year, however, that day fell on the same weekend as Mid-Ohio Con here in the city of Columbus, Ohio, where I live and blog, so most local cartoonists were there. Thus, the local cartoonists group known as Sunday Comix sponsored their own 24HCD, held this past weekend at the Crimson Cup coffee house in the Clintonville neighborhood.

One of the reasons I haven't posted anything here for a couple of days is that I'm still kind of wiped out from staying up all Saturday night doing my second 24 Hour Comic.
We started out with eight people gathered around 4 tables drawing, but by the following morning only three hardy souls, myself, SPACE promoter Bob Corby, and Jonathon Riddle, remained to see the challenge through to the end.
As soon as I get my comic scanned, I plan on posting it on my ComicSpace site, and I'll post a link here. I've also decided that while the comic has the makings of a good story, I'm really going to treat it as a first draft and rewrite and redraw it at some point in the future. I'd like to have that ready for SPACE, but I'm not promising anything.
I'm now ready to go back to writing about comics as if I know what I'm talking about.