Sunday, October 31, 2010

Obligatory Halloween Horror Comic Review: Swamp Thing #54

So, it's Halloween, which I suppose means I'm expected to write about a horror comic. 
Not feeling especially contrarian today, that is exactly what I'm planning to do, even though, to be frank, I'm not a huge fan of the genre.
My favorite horror comic is Swamp Thing #54, an issue that the title character doesn't even appear in, so maybe I am being somewhat  of a contrarian after all. Swampy was at the time presumed dead after some fracas with the Batman in Gotham City. Honestly, I'm not exactly sure of the details.  While I was making an effort to pick up this book regularly at the time, I had managed to miss the previous issue.  As I've stated previously, I didn't have access to a comics shop at the time and newsstand availability of this book was somewhat erratic. However, all that doesn't really matter.  In fact, "The Flowers of Romance" could probably be read and enjoyed by someone who'd never read an issue of the series before with only a minimum of confusion.  
The story reintroduces Lizabeth Tremayne and Dennis Barclay, who were major supporting players during writer Martin Pasko's tenure on the title.  In the time since the final showdown between Swamp Thing and the General Sunderland, Dennis has turned into an abusive bastard who lies to Liz about the continued threat from Sunderland in order to keep her weak, fearful and under his control.  Left alone by Dennis for extended period, though its never stated exactly why, Liz sees news reports of Swamp Thing's death which feature interviews with his lover Abby Cable, who Dennis has told her is dead.   Overcoming her Dennis instilled fear of just about everything, Liz sets out to visit her former friend. 
Needless to say, Dennis is none to happy to arrive home and find his prisoner of love has dared to leave.  Deducing where Liz has gone, he grabs a gun and follows.  When he arrives at Abby's home, she grabs Liz and heads toward the swamp with Dennis in pursuit. Abby is forced to overcome her grief over the loss of Swamp Thing in order to save both their lives.  Using the knowledge of the swamp she gained from her time spent with Swamp Thing, she manages to lead their pursuer into a trap that results in his gruesome death.  Apparently the whole macabre episode restores her will to live, as the last page shows her making arrangements for planning a memorial service for Swamp Thing and starting to move on to the next phase of her life.
The story is, of course, a hell of a lot better than my description of it.  After all the writer was Alan Moore, and I am not.
Despite Moore's sophisticated and literate story telling and the revelations of Swamp Thing's true nature in issue #21's story "The Anatomy Lesson", Swamp Thing was still at its core a horror comic about a good monster who fights bad monsters.  In "The Flowers of Romance," though, Moore shows that he is just as adept at portraying more down to Earth horror such as domestic abuse and human monsters like Dennis Barclay as he is at tales of supernatural terror. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Second Annual Post In Commemoration of My Mother's Birthday

What do DC Comics  and my mom have in common?
Both turn 75 years old this year.
Today, in fact, in the case of my mom. 
Happy Birthday, Mom!
(Of course, you realize this doesn't get me off the hook.  She's still expecting me to call her.)   

Friday, October 29, 2010

Gutter Talk's 1st Anniversary

So, last October, more than two years after I quit updating my previous blog, The Word From On High, on a regular basis, I got the itch to write again, and what I wanted to write about was comics.  After all, its a time honored cliche that you should "write what you know,"  and, for better or worse, the thing I knew best was comic books.  Well, I also consider myself something of a minor authority on Richard Nixon, since I've read so many books about the man, but I don't think I could have kept up a blog about him for very long.  
Anyway, exactly one year ago today, I began Gutter Talk, by introducing myself and my intentions for this blog to the world.  Since then, this blog has served its intended purpose of allowing me another outlet for both my creative energies and my often odd and offbeat opinions on all matters relating to the sequential arts.
I was disappointed that I couldn't get the URL that I really wanted.  I would have liked to have had simply as opposed to "guttertalkcomicsblog", because it's "purer," not to mention shorter and easier to remember.  However, I discovered that it was already taken by someone who'd put up just two measly posts and hadn't even bothered to update the thing in over three years. At least I got my second choice and didn't have to waste a lot of time wracking my brain for various other permutations of "gutter talk" that might be free.
At first, I honestly didn't care if anyone was reading, partly because I really didn't think anyone would be.  However, along the way these past twelve months I've picked up a small readership for my rantings.  I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who's visited this blog, and most especially those who weren't put off by raving and have come back for more.  I hope you continue to do so.
There are a couple of people I would like to single out.
First, I don't believe that I have publicly thanked, at least not here on this blog, Mr. Max Ink for designing the Gutter Talk logo which began gracing the top of every page of this site way back in February.  So, here goes: Thanks, Max. I really appreciate it.
Then there's Jonathon Riddle, who, in addition to being one of my best friends in the so-called "real world" outside of cyber-space, is one of this blog's most loyal readers and consistant commenters.  He is also, in a way, an unofficial contributor to the blog, in that several of the ideas for posts here have sprung from our many rambling and wide ranging conversations about comics new and old.
That's enough self-congratulation for now. I'm getting tired. After all, its actually pretty hard to type with one hand while patting yourself on the back with the other.
Before I go, however, I do want to take this opportunity to welcome any new readers who are reading this on Open Salon, where I've been reposting Gutter Talk  for about a week now.  I figure it can't hurt to have a few more readers.   Glad to have you aboard.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Everything You Know Is Wrong--Justice League: Generation Lost #12

Another fortnight, another issue of Justice League: Generation Lost.  
Not much for Boosterific! to talk about this issue, at least in regards to Booster Gold, as Michael Jon Carter only appears on the next to last page.  For fans of Ice, however, this issue is a treat. Or a nightmare. I guess it depends on  how hung up on continuity you are.  For instance, Boosterific!  used most of its review to complain about how this issue screwed up continuity.
Issue #12 picks up where the previous one left off, with Ice, traumatized after a battle with the Metal Men, having lost control of her powers.  Almost the entire issue is taken up by Fire's attempts to bring Tora to her senses, interspersed with flashbacks to Tora's childhood.  These flashbacks serve to give Ice a new origin and recast everything we thought we knew about her, including all previous published origins, as "lies," seemingly created to cover the repressed memory of having accidentally caused her father's death.  The final pages set up what looks to be another issue long fight in #13 between Captain Atom and Magog.
I actually enjoyed this issue much more than I have the last couple.  I found it to be a well crafted single issue of an ongoing super hero epic.  The art was pretty decent, too, and effectively told the story.  
I can see, however, how those who obscess over continuity might be upset over this issue, especially  if they've got an emotional investment in the character of Ice.  I've always valued good stories over rigid adherence to continuity, and "The Cold Truth" was a pretty good story.
By the way, my friend Jonathon Riddle saw that cover blurb and joked that "Ice Berserk" would make a good name for an alcoholic mixed drink, but wondered what would be in it.
Any thoughts? 

Questions and Answers: "The Great Super-Star Game"

I got a comment today on my post from last November about DC Super-Stars #10.  That issue contained the wonderfully goofy story "The Great Super-Star Game" in which villains Huntress and Sportsmaster recruit teams of heroes and villains to play a baseball game. It seems that Huntress is ready to switch sides and become a hero because she's convinced that villains can never win.  Sportsmaster proposes the baseball game in order to prove her wrong.  You can probably guess how well that works out.
Anyway, Matthew H. Camp had a question for me:

This was reprinted in miniature form with a different cover. The cover had the line up of teams facing each other down, with uncle sam in the center, on a yellow background. 
Can't seem to find a copy of that online. Any idea what the title of that reprint was?

As it turns out, not too long after I uploaded that post, I acquired a copy of the very book about which Mr. Camp is inquiring.   A friend of  mine found a copy at a used book store and, knowing how much I liked "The Great Super-Star Game,"  bought it for me.  This demonstrates once again that I have better friends than I probably deserve.
The book in question is DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest #13, cover dated September 1981 and featuring, according to the cover blurb, "100 Pulse-Pounding Pages" of Strange Sports Stories.  As you can see, aside from the background being white rather than yellow, Matthew described the book pretty accurately:
The issue also includes stories reprinted, for the most part, from the short lived Srange Sports Stories series from the early 70's. Among these are a story in which a man plays tennis against a robot with a grenade for a ball, a 31st century athlete pole vaults through time to 1972, a murderous lumberjack plays hockey against the vengeful ghost of a man killed by his father, the wizard Merlin helps a team of scrubs win a college football game, and four other odd little tales.
I hope you manage to find a copy of this, Matthew.  It's worth the effort to track down.

Where's Johnny? (Dredging Up The Past Part X)

(This is probably going to be the last of my re-posting of old pieces from my past blogs.  This one is from The Word From On High and is presented here for no other reason that it happens to be one of my favorite posts from that blog.  Note that I was writing for a more general audience on that blog, not just comics fans, who are the target audience for this effort.  Thus the parenthetical phrase defining my terms.)
The Silver Age of Comic Book Art, written and designed by Arlen Schumer, is a beautiful over-sized coffee table book featuring heavily illustrated profiles of eight prominent comics artists of the 1960's, the era known to comics fans and historians as the Silver Age. (The Golden Age, by the way, was the era that began with the publication of Action Comics #1, featuring the debut of Superman, in 1939 and lasted until approximately the end of the Second World War. The Silver Age begins in 1956 with the first appearance of Julius Schwarz's updating of DC's Golden Age Flash character in Showcase #4 and most historians have it ending somewhere around 1970--which seems to be the cut-off date that Schumer uses in this volume.) The artists include are: Carmine Infantino, Steve Ditko, jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Gene Colan, Jim Steranko, and Neal Adams. All had distinctive styles that made them fan favorites. Ditko, Kirby, Steranko and Adams were also groundbreaking visionaries whose innovations changed the ways that comic books told stories. All eight are worthy of inclusion in a book that purports to present an overview of one of the comic book industry's most creative periods.
Now, some might make a case that Don Heck should have been included. I have never been a fan of Heck's work, but he was perhaps the 2nd hardest working artist of the early Marvel Age, surpassed only by the "King" himself, Jack Kirby. Heck followed Kirby on such features as The Avengers, Giant-Man, and The X-Men,and was the first artist on Iron Man--though the character was designed by Kirby. 
A more significant omission, in my opinion (nothin' humble about it, baby!), is "Jazzy" John Romita. Romita began at Marvel on Daredevil, and soon took over as artist on The Amazing Spider-Man with #39 (thus paving the way, by the way, for Gene Colan's lengthy run drawing Daredevil) when Ditko left the "House of Ideas"for reasons that have never been fully explained but that most assume to be "creative differences" with Stan "The Man" Lee. Romita came to the world of super-heroes from a background in romance comics and the style he developed working in that genre perfectly suited the slick, sub-plot intensive "soap-opera" style of stories that Lee was turning out. Romita's depictions of Peter Parker and his friends and enemies would define the look of the feature well into the 1980's.
A man who contributed so much to the success of Marvel Comics is certainly worthy of recognition as one of the greats of the Silver Age.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Legion of Legions: "Snapshot: Revisions!" in DCU: Legacies #6

Each issue of DC Universe: Legacies so far has featured a back up story spotlighting various nooks and crannies of the DC Universe largely untouched upon in the main feature's narrative of DC history as seen through the eyes of Metropolis policeman Paul Lincoln.  To date, these "Snapshot" stories have focused on DC's magic based heroes, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, non super powered adventurers such as the Challengers of the Unknown and the Sea Devils, and DC's war and outer space heroes.  I haven't written about them so far because, frankly, their hasn't really been anything to write about.   They've been good but unremarkable. 
The most recent issue (#6) contains "Snapshot: Revision!" (all the subtitles of these stories so far have begun with "R"), an amusing story, written by Len Wein with art by Keith Giffen and Al Milgrom, which gently pokes fun at the convoluted continuity of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Teenaged Clark Kent is working out in the fields of the Kent family farm in Smallville when a Time Bubble appears carrying Legion founders Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl.  They've traveled back in time one thousand years to invite "Superboy", although Clark never actually called himself that in the current continuity, to come back to the 31st century with them and join their super-hero club.
So far, things have proceeded pretty much the way they did in the Legion's first appearance in Adventure Comics #247.  Soon, however, another Time Bubble appears carrying older versions of the Legionnaires warning of dire consequences for Earth if their younger selves take Clark back to the 31st century and seeking to prevent that from occurring.  They are soon joined by yet another Time Bubble carrying yet another group of Legionnaire's seeking Superboy's help.  Then comes another Time Bubble. And another. And another. And another. And another, and so on.  This goes on until the Kent cornfield is filled with Time Bubbles, all bearing representatives from all of the various revisions, revamps, reworkings and regurgitations of the Legion that have occurred over the past couple of decades.  Confusion reigns as the many Legions take to bickering amongst themselves while a confused Clark can only stand by helplessly scratching his head and wondering what the heck is going on.
It's really nice to see a lighthearted, somewhat silly story like this in a modern super-hero comic.  In the darker post-Identity Crisis Dan DiDio/Geoff Johns DC Universe it sometimes seems that there just isn't room for this type of story.  I'm glad that an exception was made in this case, and I'd like to see more stories like this.

Interview with 2009 SPACE Prize Winner Bill Knapp (Dredging Up The Past Part IX)

(For a brief period, I was the "official blogger" of SPACE, the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, and in that capacity I was allowed to break the news of the winner of the first annual SPACE Prize. In conjunction with that, I conducted an e-mail interview with winner Bill Knapp.  Since I've been re-posting some of my old stuff this month, I thought I'd dig this one up because A Thorn In The Side, Bill's prize winning book, is a darn good graphic novel and I want to do whatever I can to make more people aware of it and maybe even convince them to read it.)
Bob Corby, organizer of SPACE, the Small Press And Alternative Comics Expo, is pleased to announce that the winner of the first annual SPACE Prize is Bill Knapp, who is honored for his graphic novel A Thorn In The Side: The Story of Johnny Hopper. The SPACE Prize, established to honor excellence in self-published small press comics, consists of a plaque and a check for $300 to be presented during an awards ceremony to be held at the 2009 SPACE show.
The SPACE Prize is the successor to the Howard Eugene Day Memorial Prize, popularly known as the Day Prize, which was awarded by Cerebus and Glamourpuss creator Dave Sim in honor of his late friend and mentor Gene Day, at SPACE annually from 2003 to 2008. Shortly after the 2008 SPACE show, Sim announced that he was curtailing all future convention appearances to concentrate on his new series Glamourpuss, thus ending the Day Prize. Shortly thereafter, Bob Corby announced the creation of the SPACE Prize to fill the void.
Entries for the SPACE Prize are submitted by the exhibitors at SPACE, then read by Bob Corby, who selects a short list of finalists. These were then voted on by the exhibitors at SPACE 2008, with 5 points awarded to the highest vote getter, 3 points for second and 1 point to the third place finisher. Next, a panel of judges selected their picks for first second and third place, with point values assigned in the same manner as the exhibitor vote.
Sixty-one entries were received from the artists and self-publishers exhibiting at SPACE 2008, which Bob Corby whittled down to a slate of nine finalists. This years judges were Matt & Carol Dembicki (acting as one judge) the winners of the 2007 Day Prize and Tim Corrigan, publisher of the pioneering Small Press review zine Small Press Comics Explosion and a past recipient of the SPACE Lifetime Achievement Award. Between the judges and the exhibitor vote, A Thorn In The Side received 10 points to become the first SPACE Prize winner.
A Thorn in The Side tells the story of Ian “Johnny” Hopper, a British born resident of France at the time of the German occupation during WWII. When the Nazis march into his village, he and his wife, Paulette become involved in the resistance efforts, which ultimately lead to his capture and detention in a German prison camp.
In the following interview, Bill discusses A Thorn In the Side, as well as his past work, which includes the Day Prize winner Faith: A Fable, and his philosophy of comics.

1) Tell us a bit about yourself: Where and when you were born, where you went to school, your family--that kind of stuff.

BK: I was born in 1962 in Cleveland, Ohio and grew up in rural Hinckley, Ohio. I am pretty much a self-taught artist. I’ve always believed that you become an artist by doing and observing, not by sitting in a classroom listening to someone else tell you what art is or is not. I’ve taken some live model drawing classes but that’s about it. I’ve been married since 1992 and have lived in Lafayette, Indiana since 2002.

2) Your bio in "A Thorn In The Side" says you've worked in comics for over 20 years. Other than "Thorn" and "Faith: A Fable", what have you done?

BK: My first professional work was working on stories for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor back when he was self-publishing it. I drew a number of stories for him in the early/mid-80’s. I was involved in DC Comics New Talent Program in the late-80’s drawing a Flash-related story and production-type work for a few other projects. In the 90’s I did work for Now Comics on their Green Hornet title, art for a small, defunct publisher I’d rather not legitimize by naming, and a Firearm story and Hardcase story for Malibu Comics. In 1995 I first started self-publishing my take on a superhero comic called The Furies, publishing eight issues of that. From people I know in the self-publishing side of comics I’ve done a couple stories for Michael Cohen’s Mythography book, a short story for a Scott Mills book and a story for an anthology released by Brian Clopper.

3) How, and why, did you get into comics?

BK: Friends of mine in grade school were into comics which got me interested in them at a time when my interest in art was developing. So for me, comics were pretty much all I wanted to do. I love the combination of story and picture. Naturally for the late-70’s, the only real options for comics work was Marvel or DC and so for many years my goal was to work for one or the other. Today, I don’t see the material they are putting out to be good comics and what I’ve seen of comics editors these days is that they are more interested in office politics and promoting themselves as the ones responsible for the success of the books, than in knowing how to tell a good comics story, so my interest in being yet another X-book artist is non-existent.

4) Do you have a "day job" or are you lucky enough to support yourself doing this?

BK: Art is what I do. If I’m not doing comics-related work, I’m painting or writing.

5) What was behind the decision to self-publish "Faith" and "Thorn"?

BK: I decided back in the mid-90’s to self-publish. At that time, the industry was imploding and I figured that if an editor was looking for an artist and had a choice between me and someone who had worked for the company before, he would take the safe choice and choose the guy with a track record of work and Image-style artwork he could comprehend. Today if I could find someone to publish a book for me, I would go that route but publishers are antsy about material. What I do isn’t superheroes, it isn’t slice-of-life autobiography and it isn’t Fantagraphics-style “art” comics so the possible publishers are few.

6) You were also the first winner of the previous incarnation of this award, The Day Prize. How did winning the Day Prize affect your life and/or art?

BK: It was very nice to win it, but I can’t say it changed the way I live or work. Unfortunately, when that first Day Prize was announced, September 11 happened a few days later. SPX was cancelled and thus a great opportunity to promote the Prize. We take internet promotion for granted now, but even in 2001, it was harder to get press about something like the Day Prize than it is now. The instantaneousness of blogging wasn’t really being done and the old models for promotion were still being used. On the plus side, my wife and I had a terrific dinner with Dave and Gerhard before the 2002 SPACE show, I have a nice plaque and I received $500.

7)Besides winning the SP, how has "Thorn" been received critically and commercially?

BK: How is any self-published book being received these days? I have received some good reviews that really seem to understand what I’m trying to do with this story. It seems to me though, that my take on comics is difficult for some people to get a hold of. By that, I mean that the material I do doesn’t fit the catagories of what people now expect comics to be. As I noted in Question 5, it isn’t superheroes, it isn’t autobio, it isn’t expanding the boundaries of comics art. What interests me is telling a good story, regardless of genre, in a way that anyone reading the book could understand. My influences in comics are very old school with an emphasis on storytelling and clarity. Batton Lash, of Wolff & Byrd fame, has talked extensively about the true mainstream of comics, which are works that don’t fit the narrow ideas of the comics industry’s interpretation of mainstream. If A Thorn In the Side was a prose book, no one would question its theme or style. The only thing that would matter would be “Is it a good story”. In the comics field though, people seem to want material to fit the narrow definitions of what they define comics to be. Take people out of their comfort zone and there is a lot of resistance.

8)What exactly drew you to the story of Johnny Hopper?

BK: Quite simply, it’s a fascinating story. There isn’t much that has been written about Hopper and I wanted to try to do something that would keep his memory alive.

9) You say in the introduction that you first encountered Hopper's story in 1993, but didn't begin work on "Thorn" until 1999. Why, after the better part of a decade, did you feel that the time was right then to tell this story?

BK: At the time, it just wasn’t a story I was ready to do. I was still trying to get on the freelance merry-go-round. When I began self-publishing I had other stories I was trying to tell. After I finished Faith: A Fable I felt it was time to give it a go. I think it turned out to be a good thing I had to wait on it as it gave me experience writing and working on other types of stories before trying to tackle a true-to-life story.

10) A friend of mine is illustrating a Graphic Novel set during WWII, and another friend of ours asked him if he was afraid of comparisons to "Maus" Now, especially, given that approximately the entire second half of "Thorn" takes place in concentration camps, I put that same question to you.
BK: This isn’t a story about the Holocaust and concentration camps and Jewish persecution during the war. It’s a story of one man’s experiences during the war, part of which took place in a prison camp. I think if someone tries to compare the two stories, it’s really an apples and oranges thing. So many really fascinating stories came out of World War II, amazing experiences of survival, courage and fighting for what you believe, and many of them involve some stretch of time in a prison camp. If they didn’t shoot you outright, it was pretty much the Nazi response to problem individuals. You can tell your friend that on a historical accuracy level, there is also quite a difference between the extermination camps the Jews and Russians were dumped into purely so they could be killed out of sight and the prison camps people like Hopper and the group he was with went through. The end result was expected to be the same but the events leading to it were very different.

11) What's your next project, and when can we expect to see it?

BK: Since I finished A Thorn In the Side I’ve been doing a lot of painting and having a lot of fun with it. Working in color on single-image pictures isn’t something I’ve done much of over the years, so I want to see what I can do with it. I’m scheduled to have my first solo show at a gallery in Lafayette later this year, so I guess that would be my next project. I’ve been looking at a lot of work over the last few years by the great illustration artists of the 20th Century and like the idea of telling a story with one image. There are a couple comics-type projects I’ve been working on too, but I work so slowly and they are in such early stages that it’ll be some time before they would be finished.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

They Don't Write 'Em Like This Any More: Action Comics #646

One of the rituals around which I organize my sad little life is my bi-weekly trip to the Graceland Shopping Center.  Every two weeks, as soon as my paycheck is deposited in my bank account, I head up there to buy two cartons of smokes, then go to the Half Price Books across the street to browse through their selection of old comic books.  On my most recent such excursion, I picked up a copy of Action Comics #646, published in 1989.
What's so special about this particular comic?
To be honest, absolutely nothing.
That's not to say that it's bad, because it isn't, not at all. In fact, it's really quite good.  It's just that there's really nothing especially noteworthy about it.  It's not an anniversary issue or a first or last issue, nor is it part of any major story line or company wide, universe changing crossover and no major character either debuts nor dies in it. 
For my part, I picked it up because it happened to be drawn, as well as plotted, by Keith Giffen with Roger Stern scripting. Those who've been reading this blog over the past 362 days most likely know by now of my undying and somewhat disturbing love for Giffen.
The story is called "Burial Ground," and features Superman fighting a giant slug from outer space in the Antarctic. Sure, there are a few panels recapping the last couple of issues by way of explaining just what Superman is doing down there, one page checking in on events in Metropolis which sets up the "Brainiac Trilogy" story beginning in the following issue, and an ominous hint of things to come even farther down the line in the issue's very last panel.  The bulk of the issue, however, is taken up by the Man of Steel slugging it out with a giant slug. Like I said, nothing especially special.
What it is, though, is an example of something you don't see a lot of in super-hero comics these days.  You don't need to have read the previous several decades worth of issues or have an encyclopedic of DC Universe history and continuity in order to understand what's going on in the story and enjoy it. Nor are you expected to buy thirty other comics in order to get the whole story.  While it evokes the lighter mood of the Silver Age Superman tales, it does so subtly without expecting the reader to have actually read or be familiar with those stories.  Also, unlike a lot of  super-hero comics put out recently, this is a comic I wouldn't have second thoughts about actually letting a kid read. "Burial Ground" is a completely self-contained and totally accessible single issue story that can be enjoyed by all ages.
Above all, Action Comics #646 is pure, simple, mindless fun. After all, mature, sophisticated and thought provoking comics are all well and good, and I enjoy reading them, but sometimes you just want to see Superman beating up a giant outer space slug.  Unfortunately, you just don't get enough of that in today's super-hero comics. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Legacy of "Legends"

DC Universe: Legacies #6 takes the mini-series' ten issue retelling of the history of the DC Universe beyond the multiverse shattering Crisis On Infinite Earths through the events of DC's second major company wide cross-over event, Legends.  Basically, the issue is a Cliff's Notes version of that mini-series, compressing the events of all six issues into a mere few pages.  Some of the dialogue is quoted verbatim from the original. This should surprise no one, as Legacies writer Len Wein wrote that dialogue in the first place, working over a plot by first time DC writer John Ostrander. 
It does seem a little odd to do a recap of Legends that doesn't even mention the main villain of the story, Darkseid.  This is, as I observed in my review of the previous issue, a consequence of the story's Marvels inspired man on the street approach to DC history.  A Metropolis beat cop would have no idea who Darkseid even is, much less that he engineered the wave of anti-hero hysteria that is at the center of Legends. It occurs to me even some of the heroes involved in the story might have been unaware of Darkseid's involvement, as only Superman actually encountered the Lord of Apokolips, and that was in his own titles, not in the Legends mini-seres.
Anyway, I've decided to use Legacies #6's retelling of Legends to talk about my feelings about the original and why it is my least favorite comics work by John Ostrander.  I'm not saying that I don't like it, but that I've never enjoyed it as much as I have most of Ostrander's later work such as Hawkworld, Spectre, The Kents and Suicide Squad, or his pre-DC work for First Comics, like Grimjack. While re-reading Legends a couple of months ago, I realized why this is. 
What I realized is that John Ostrander doesn't write super-hero stories.  Not really, anyway. Sure, his stories have all the trappings of the genre. He writes about characters with colorful costumes, strange powers and weapons, secret identities and slightly silly code names. Yet, at its core, the super-hero genre is fairly black and white. It concerns itself for the most part with a fairly straightforward conflict between good and evil, wherein the heroes are pure of heart and the villains are the blackest evil.
In Ostrander's stories, however, everything, from the characters and their underlying ethics and morals to the situations they find themselves in, are painted in shades of gray.  Likewise, the themes Ostrander deals with generally go deeper than good versus evil.  His stories have dealt with rascism, politics, religion, patriotism, and many more tough themes in a much more mature and thoughtful manner than you'd expect to see in a super-hero comic.  
In contrast, Legends is, as editor Mike Gold emphasizes in his introduction to the trade paperback collection, very much a traditional super-hero story. It is one of Ostrander's few attempts to create a traditonal, black and white, good versus evil, super-hero tale.  As such, it just doesn't quite ring true.  It's as if to write this traditional super-hero story, he's purposely suppressing his tendencies to write more nuanced tales, and the end product suffers as a result, coming off a bit trite and formulaic.
Legends did get Ostrander in the door at DC, and it actually is a fairly enjoyable, diverting read.  Furthermore, it led directly to Suicide Squad and Firestorm.  These two, Firestorm in particular, were head and shoulders above much of the super-hero comics DC was pumping out at the time. They were followed by even greater works such as Hawkworld, and Spectre, which I consider to be the finest thing Ostrander has ever written.
It's a shame that most of John Ostrander's output for DC remains uncollected in trade paperback.  Only Legends, The Kents, and the first four issues of Spectre, plus a more recent Suicide Squad sequel mini-series have been given that treatment so far, as far as I know.  Ostrander's works really deserve to be collected and reprinted and kept in print so that they can continue to entertain people and make them think for years to come.

Beating A Dead Horse To Death--AGAIN: My Last Word (Maybe) On GenLost #10

Ok, I promise this is the last time I'll write about this. 
Until the next time, at least.
Seriously, while I may be, as an anonymous commenter suggested, in the minority concerning my opinion of Justice League: Generation Lost #10, I  am most certainly not alone.  As I discovered a couple of days ago, at least one other netizen out there in  cyber-land happened to detect, shall we say, a marked lack of activity in that issue, or, as I say in my original post: ABSOLUTELY FREAKIN' NOTHING HAPPENS!!
The webmaster of the site Boosterific! expresses a similar sentiment in his overview of JL:GL #10.   He says, "...most characters spend the issue's 22 pages talking about their emotions..." and the issue features "...precious little action..." 
Hmm...Sound familiar?
If you're a Booster Gold fan, and you've got a few moments, or hours, to spare, I'd recommend poking around the rest of the site.  Boosterific! is a virtual shrine to the Corporate Crusader.  The centerpiece of the site is a Booster Gold time line organizing every single comic book appearance of the character into a coherent, linear sequence.  There are also profiles of the major writers  and artists associated with Booster, and basically just about everything you could possibly want to know about Booster Gold.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

By The Time We Got To The Statehouse We Were 60,000 Strong And Everywhere Were The Signs of A Celebration (Dredging Up The Past Part VIII)

(The election coming up a week from Tuesday is being hyped as an important one for both major parties.  The GOP has dreams of taking over Congress, and the Democrats want to prevent that from happening.  In order to forestall losing his tenuous legislative majority, President Barack Obama has been on a last minute, whirlwind get-out-the-vote tour across the nation and sometime last week, he stopped here in Columbus, Ohio.  While I didn't make it out to see him this time, I did attend his last minute rally on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse two days before the election that voted him into office two years ago. The next day, I wrote about the event for the Sunday Comix blog.  What does a political rally have to do with comic books, you might ask?  I managed to make the connection.  Read on to find out how.)
Did you know that the next President of the United States of America is only two inches tall?
Or so he appeared to me at the Barack Obama rally at the Ohio Statehouse yesterday. It could be, of course, due to the fact that I was quite far from the speaker's platform. In a crowd of 60,000, however, I suppose I was lucky to have been able to see him at all.
I am, either by nature or due to certain events in my past life, if not a full blown cynic then at least a dedicated skeptic, and while I did vote early for Obama, I didn't quite buy the whole hope and change message. Until yesterday. Perhaps it was because I was surrounded by 60,000 cheering true believers, or maybe it was something about actually hearing what was, to be honest, mostly the standard issue stump speech that he has delivered hundreds of times and I've heard most of on the news, in person and from the man himself. I can't really say, but by the end of the rally, I had, to quote a sketch from Saturdays SNL, "drunk the Obama Kool-Aid." I wish I could vote for him all over again. Hopefully, I will be able to vote to re-elect him in four years.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a comics blog, so I'm going to connect this to comics presently.
The 60,000 attendance figure, more than twice what had been expected, comes from National Public Radio's All Things Considered. The NPR correspondant also noted Obama's muffed attempt to reach out to the geek vote. Challenging his opponents self-styled image as a "maverick," the candidate repeated his charge that John McCain voted with George Bush over 90% of the time on economic issues, saying that McCain was more a sidekick than a maverick, "like Kato with the Green Lantern." The NPR reporter correctly pointed out, and I got as he said it, that Kato was, in fact, the sidekick of the Green Hornet.
This gaffe, is in an odd way, reassuring. After all, the POTUS has more important things to do than read comic books, especially super-hero comics.  I bet Dubya knows the difference between the Green Hornet and the Green Lantern, although I picture him as more of an Image comics reader. I can picture him, in the summer of 2001, poring over every detail of the latest issue of Spawn or The Savage Dragon while the now infamous briefing paper entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Targets Inside US" languished unread in the bottom drawer of his desk beneath a half-eaten bag of stale Cheetos.
I end this rant with a reminder--no--an admonition to all of you to get out and VOTE!

The Man Behind the Magician: Meher Baba and His Influence On The Works of J.M. DeMatties

Does the man in the picture to your left look familiar to you?
If you've read J. M. DeMatteis' Dr. Fate or Seekers Into The Mystery he should. 
In the former, he shows up as the Guide, a.k.a. the Old Man, who leads the souls of Eric and Linda Strauss to their ultimate destiny.  In Seekers, he is seen in the form of the Magician, the enigmatic guru who holds the key to Lukas Hart's redemption. 
In real life, he was Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual leader who believed himself to be the latest manifestation of the Avatar, or the incarnation of God in human form.  According to Baba, the Avatar shows up on Earth every 700 to 1400 years or so and past incarnations have included Jesus, the Buddha and Muhammed. Baba taught that all major religions were equally true and valid and that the true path to salvation was faith and devotion to God.  As the article "Who Is Meher Baba" from the web-site The New Humanity Times states it, "To truly love God requires that we love and embrace everyone and everything as a dimension of God."
The influence of Baba's teachings are obvious in most of J.M. DeMatteis' work, and in Dr. Fate and Seekers Into The Mystery he makes it explicit.  Both works concern the evolution and perfection of the human soul through reincarnation and both feature Baba as a character in the story.
At the end of his Dr. Fate run, in his farewell message on the letters page of #24, J.M. DeMatteis sums up the philosophy behind the story and essentially dedicates the tale to Meher Baba:
In a comics universe that seems to be getting progressively more cynical and down beat, we tried to do stories that looked the darkness square in the face and said, "No. This life is worth living, this world is a rare and wonderful place, and the God that rules over it is compassionate, loving, and sitting on a throne in our very hearts." That vision would not have been possible without the love and guidance of Avatar Mehar Baba.  Jai Baba!
You know, I may not buy into the stuff he says about God, but there's certainly something to be said for the notion that not all super-hero comics have to be dark, cynical and downbeat, or, as they were often referred to in the 80's and 90's, "grim and gritty."  Look it up in your thesaurus; "violence" and "pessimism" are not synonyms for "realism." The idea of embracing your fellow humans with love and respect, God or no God, appeals to me as well, despite the way I behave and the things I say sometimes.
You'll notice as you read Dr. Fate and Seekers Into The Mystery that the Guide/Magician never speaks.  That seems to be a reflection of the vow of silence Meher Baba took in real life and stuck to for nearly half a century.  From July 10, 1925 to his death in 1969, he reportedly spoke not one word, communicating instead through writing and gestures.  His silence was supposedly part of what he termed his "universal work."  In his own words, "Because man been deaf to the principles and precepts laid down by God in the past...I observe silence."
In recognition of this, many of Meher Baba's followers, including DeMatteis, observe Silence Day every July 10.
More info on Meher Baba can be found in his Wikipedia entry, and at what appears to be his official web-site.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Casper and The Spectrals

In an earlier post on Superman: Secret Origin, I opined that a comic had to be pretty special for me to still care about after a months long gap between issues.  To my surprise, Casper and the Spectrals  is just such a comic.  Even though the seven month wait for the second issue was frustrating, I eagerly snapped it up when it appeared on the stand.
As a kid, and thus a member of Harvey Comics ostensible target audience, I never really dug Casper the Friendly Ghost.  Even back then, I found them bland, simplistic and overly cutesy.  I've long suspected that the real target audience for Harvey Comics, and Archie Comics, as well, for that matter, were "concerned" parents looking for "safe" reading material for their kids that wouldn't turn the little angels into juvenile delinquents, homosexuals, devil worshippers, communists, or all of the above. 
Given all that, I'm still not sure why I picked up the first issue in the first place.  I'll admit, however, that I was curious about how Arden Entertainment planned to revamp Casper and his friends Wendy and Hot Stuff, and the art style did kind of appeal to me.  Whatever my reasons for buying it, I'm glad I did.
The basic premise of the series owes a little bit to the Pixar film Monsters, Inc. Casper, Wendy and Hot Stuff live in the other dimensional world of Spooky Town, whose residents travel to the human world and scare people in order to collect their "fear energy."  In this case, the energy is used to imprison the evil Volbragg, a power mad ghost who once ruled Spooky Town with an iron fist.  Casper, being the friendly ghost and all, doesn't see why they have to scare people and kind of thinks that Volbragg is just a myth.
Spooky Town is divided into six boroughs, Ghostburg, Deviland, Ogreville,  Goblin Gulch, Witch Way, and Monsterton, which are separated by walls and have nothing to do with each other.  Eventually, Casper, Wendy and Hot Stuff defy the laws and conventions of Spooky Town to become friends. 
Meanwhile, on Earth, a scientist has tapped into an other dimensional energy source which just happens to be Volbragg's magical prison.  His experiments free Volbragg who goes on a rampage, swearing revenge on Spooky Town for defying his will.
This, as you can see, is not your fathers Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Given that former Arden Entertainment Editor-In-Chief J.M. DeMatteis is co-credited with coming up with the plot for the three issue mini-series, and that I put off reading the final issue until after I finished reading his run on Dr. Fate, I half expected Volbragg to be defeated by love.  That wouldn't be totally out of the blue, of course.  Casper has been winning over his enemies with friendship and love since before J.M. DeMatteis was born.  He does, in fact, make a brave attempt at befriending Volbragg, but ultimately the trio must do battle with the villain.  Still, if not for their unlikely and forbidden friendship, Casper, Wendy and Hot Stuff never would have been able to work together to defeat Volbragg, so maybe, in a way, it is a kind of love that brings him down.
The third issue just came out a couple of months ago, but I'm sure that a trade paperback is on the way.   Whether you wait for the trade, or get the individual issues now, this series is worth checking out.  Adults who loved Casper as a kid, adults who hated Casper as a kid, and kids who've never even heard of Casper will all find something to like here.  I showed the first issue to my 12 year old niece, Tamara, and she enjoyed it just as much as I did.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Seekers Into The Mystery

Reading Dr. Fate made me want to go back and reread Seekers Into The Mystery, the 15 issue 1996 series by J.M. DeMatteis and various artists initially published by DC's Vertigo imprint. Unfortunately, I no longer had copies of the series.  Then Sunday, on a trip to Yellow Springs, Ohio, I picked up the first four issues--I'd forgotten that #5 was an epilogue to the initial story arc-- at a place called Darkstar Books, and reread them over the next couple of days.
In a way, Seekers Into The Mystery is comparable to Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" series, not in content, certainly, but in circumstance. Each was meant to be its author's magnum opus, a vast, sprawling epic that would go on for many years and thousands of pages and encompass all the various themes and ideas that had bubbled under the surface of their various other works throughout their entire careers.  Likewise, both came to a premature end after less than two years.  However, unlike the beloved and oft-reprinted "Fourth World" comics, Seekers was, until recently at least, almost forgotten.  That's a shame, as while this may not be DeMatteis finest work, it certainly ranks high among his best.
Seekers Into The Mystery is the story of people on a spiritual quest for enlightenment.  The key to that enlightenment seems to be an enigmatic guru known only as the Magician. The first arc introduced Lukas Hart, a burned out, washed up, divorced, substance abusing  screenwriter forced to confront repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse by his father as the first step on his pilgrimage to universal mystery and enlightenment.  Taking place in 1987, "The Pilgrimage of Lukas Hart" is narrated by the "present-day", a.k.a. 1996, Lukas, who at times breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly.
The biggest drawback of Seekers is that DeMatteis spreads on the New Agey mystical psychobabble a little thick at times.  Despite his intention, stated in an "On The Ledge" column which ran in all Vertigo books the month of the first issue's release, not to lecture the reader, sometimes DeMatteis, through Hart, does just that.  I've no problem with DeMatteis expressing his personal views and philosophy through his work.  It's part of the reason I like his writing, in fact. Still, I'd prefer he let it emerge organically through the narrative rather than have his lead character look us in the eye and hit us over the head with it. Perhaps he knew on some level that this series would fail to find an audience and he wanted to get in as much of the philosophy of the series as he could in whatever time he was allowed.
When DeMatteis lets the story tell the story, it's a really good story. DeMatteis' gift for creating fully rounded and interesting characters is on full display, as is his ability to craft a compelling story that will make the reader want to follow these characters wherever it takes them. 
For the most part, this series remains uncollected, though the first five issues were recently reprinted in trade paperback by BOOM! Studios, though they currently have no copies for sale.  You can, however, order it on Amazon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire Do Marvel--The Defenders: Indefensible

While I was reading Dr. Fate, I thought that J. M. DeMatteis could probably write a mean Dr. Strange story as well.  It turns out that he did write a short run of Strange tales back in the late 80's, but I've yet to read them.  The closest thing I have read is the five issue Defenders mini-series from 2005, collected in book form as Defenders: Indefensible.  Of course, since this mini is yet another reunion with his Justice League International cohorts Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire, you can be pretty sure that Indefensible is not a serious meditation on love, reincarnation and human destiny as Dr. Fate is.  I wrote in my post on Dr. Fate that there seem to be two sides of DeMatteis; the serious and mystical and the silly.  It is the silly J.M. who's driving the train here.  Indefensible is a full on BWAH-HA-HA-fest in the jovial JLI tradition.
Love, in fact, is in pretty short supply here.  Most of the main characters don't even seem to like each other much at all.  The fighting between Hulk and the Sub-Mariner gets so bad that Dr. Strange transports the three of them to the realm of the dread Dormammu to put a stop to it.
Dormammu is the villain of the piece, teaming with his sister Umar to steal the power of Eternity and become a god.  He uses this power to reshape the Earth in his own warped image as part of his endless quest to destroy his old enemy Dr. Strange.  
To stop him, Strange gets the band back together, essentially guilt tripping the Hulk and Prince Namor into joining him.  The fourth Defender, the Silver Surfer, has found a group of what he believes are kindred spirits in others who "ride the board," a bunch of surfers on a California beach.  The Surfer refuses to rejoin the Defenders, preferring instead to hang with his new buddies, participating in clambakes and limbo contests.  Throughout the series, Giffen and DeMatteis cut away from the main action to check in on the Surfer and the surfers.  The funniest such bit is when the Surfer is so lost in his philosophical musings that he fails to notice that Dormammu has altered reality and his surfer buds have turned into hideous demons.
The Defenders are famous as Marvel's "non-team" and it seems from this mini-series that the reason they never became a formal team is because they can't stand each other.  Much of the humor comes from the bickering and barbs between the characters, particularly Hulk/Bruce Banner and Namor.  Immortal siblings Dormammu and Umar do their share of infighting as well. Meanwhile, just about all the characters get in a shot at Dr. Strange's somewhat pretentious speech patterns.
Maguire's mastery of facial expressions is put to good use here, wonderfully capturing all the various degrees of disdain the characters feel for each other and the situation.
The reshaped Earth that Dormammu creates includes altered versions of several familiar Marvel heroes, such as Spider-Man and Daredevil as well as the Defenders themselves. As in I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League, a Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire JLI sequel that came out about the same time as this, part of the fun of this story is seeing the Defenders meet and interact with their alternate universe counterparts.  The Banner of Dormammu's universe is particularly amusing.
While I can see hard-core Defenders fans objecting to some of the characterizations and the overall tone of silliness in this book, if you're a fan of Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire's past collaborations you should definitely seek this out.  Defenders: Indefensible is definitely the best work this team has done for Marvel Comics. 
Of course, it's also the only one.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

J. M. DeMatteis' "Masterpiece": Dr. Fate

Greg Burgas, in his sporadically published column "Comics You Should Own", on the Comics Should Be Good blog at Comic Book Resources, says of J.M. DeMatteis' Dr. Fate that it "...might be his masterpiece." It is certainly one of his most personal and heartfelt works.  It is also one of  his most creatively, if not commercially, successful, since, unlike Seekers Into The Mystery, which dealt with similar themes, DeMatteis was actually allowed to bring his story in Dr. Fate to its intended conclusion. Furthermore, while it may not be as famous or celebrated as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, it does just as much, if not more than, those more notorious series to explore and expand the boundaries of the types of stories and themes that the super-hero genre is capable of tackling.  Surprisingly, all this comes in what was marketed, at least initially, as another goofy Justice League International spin-off.
Not that there isn't plenty of goofiness in the series.  It sometimes seems as if there are two J.M. DeMatteises. There is the serious, even grim at times, DeMatteis who will often infuse his work with his obviously deeply held philosophical beliefs inspired by Eastern religion and mysticism.  Then there's the comedic genius who occasionally partners with Keith Giffen to write silly dialogue for second string super-heroes.  Perhaps appropriately, given the nature of the series' title character, it is on Dr. Fate that the two sides of DeMatteis acheive a near perfect balance to create a series combining, in DeMatteis' own words, "bathroom humor and Eastern philosophy"
Said title character is not the same Dr. Fate who'd been a member of the Justice Society for four decades.  This is a new Fate, formed by the merging of two people. They are Linda Strauss and her stepson Eric Strauss, who was mystically aged from a ten year old to an adult by the original Fate, just as had been done  by the Lord of Order known as Nabu to the young Kent Nelson before he became the first Dr. Fate. It is revealed that Fate was always supposed to be two people, but Nabu had hidden that knowledge from Nelson and his wife Inza in order to control Dr. Fate.  He at first attempts to control Eric in the same way, but sees the error of his ways and allows him to merge with Linda to become Dr. Fate. Eventually we will learn that both Eric and Linda are "old souls" who have been together through countless lifetimes and reincarnations and have a very special destiny ahead of them.  After the creation of the new Dr. Fate, Kent dies, just as Inza had before the series began, and Nabu inhabits his body to act as mentor to the new hero.
The passing of the torch occurs in a four issue mini-series by DeMatteis with art by Keith Giffen, who had earlier illustrated the characters adventures in a series of back up stories in The Flash. The story continues in an ongoing series illustrated by Shawn McManus.
The first issues of that  series expand the series' cast with the addition of Linda and Eric's neighbor, a lawyer named Jack Small, and Petey, a demon brought to Earth by inept sorcerer Joachim Hesse, who speaks in a Yiddish accent and disquises himself as a dog when other people are around.  
Jack and Petey provide much of the humor in the series, as Petey tries to adjust to his new home and Jack struggles to cope with the weirdness he has reluctantly been drawn into. In fact, during the final third of his run, as the main story turned more philosophical and serious, most of the comedic bits would be left to these two characters.  Another source of humor throughout the story was Nabu's efforts to adjust to life as the human Kent Nelson.
McManus' art is well suited to Dr. Fate. Dark and moody, but at the same time slightly cartoony, it perfectly captures the tone of DeMatteis' writing.  
Ultimately the series is about LOVE.  More specifically, it is a meditation on the power of love to redeem and transform us, both as individuals and as a species and to guide us to our ultimate destiny.  The evil plans of the villains in the series, from vampire Andrew Bennett, of the "I, Vampire" stories from House of Mystery, to the original Dr. Fate's oldest and most persistant foe, Wotan, are stopped not by the power of the hero but by the power of love.  One by one, they are shown the love which shapes and guides the universe and are transformed by it. This love, which you could call God, is depicted here as a glowing semi-circle of light, a giant cosmic smile which is mirrored on the faces of all who encounter it.  Love, in this case the love that Eric and Linda have for each other, is so great a force that even the mighty Darkseid cannot stand against it.
This may seem like some pretty heavy stuff, but DeMatteis leavens it with humor even at the darkest moments.  Plus, his gift for creating a compelling narrative and interesting, well rounded characters keeps the story from reading like a religious pamphlet. Instead, he shows that such deep and mature themes can be handled in an entertaining way within the framework of a mainstream super-hero story.   I would argue that Dr. Fate, through its subject matter and its approach to it, does more than the ultra-violent and supposedly "realistic" Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns to demonstrate the true potential both of the comics medium and the super-hero genre.
This is a series that I would highly recommend reading.  However, you're going to have to go digging through the back issue bins to do that.  Unfortunately, none of the series, not even the initial mini-series, has been collected or reprinted, and appears unlikely to be any time soon. Still, it's well worth the effort. Dr. Fate is a wonderful series that will leave you, like many of its characters, with a huge smile on your face.

Monday, October 18, 2010

J. M. DeMatteis Week

So, I was looking over some of the stuff that I've been reading, or that's on my pile of recently purchased back issues yet to be read, and that I'm planning to write about, including Dr. Fate, Casper and the Spectrals, and Seekers Into The Mystery, and I thought that if I wrote about most of these back to back it would look like I had another theme event going, kind of like March's "Green Arrow Month." Then I thought, "Why not go for it?" Thus, I welcome you to Gutter Talk's "J.M. DeMatteis Week", spotlighting the writer of the above named titles and many more. 
While I will be writing about those works and a couple of others, I don't plan on writing at any length about the Spider-Man story "Fearful Symmetry," more popularly known as "Kraven's Last Hunt." There are two reasons for this. The primary reason is that I do not currently own a copy of the story and it has been several years since I read it.  Furthermore, as perhaps the most famous and best loved story that DeMatteis has ever written, it has been reviewed, recapped, analyzed and annotated pretty much to death elsewhere on the web and in print.  
However, I will list below some links to a few of those reviews:
  1. The Wikipedia entry for the story
  2. 4th
  3. SpiderFan Comics
  4. Pulp and Dagger Graphic Novel Review
  5. Comics Bulletin Line of Fire Review
  6. Rambles: A Cultural Arts Magazine
  7. Classic Comic-book Review
  8. Fifty Books Project 2010
  9. A list of the 40 Most Violent Comics Ever, where "Kraven's Last Hunt" is No. 20
  10. Finally, J.M. DeMatteis himself on the story behind the story
Also, I'd recommend checking out the interview with DeMatteis and artist Mike Zeck in Back Issue #35.

Watchmen As Alternate History (Dredging Up The Past Part VII)

(Another post from the Sunday Comix blog.  This one was posted around the time the movie Watchmen hit theaters and addresses an aspect of the comic that few other analyses of it have.) 
One of the most common comments I've read about the Watchmen movie from people who didn't read the book is “Why is Nixon still president?” and now that I think about it, I'm wondering that myself. To be honest, upon close examination, writer Alan Moore's alternate version of American political history seems poorly thought out and doesn't quite make sense.
In Moore's telling, Nixon sent the super powered Dr. Manhattan in to Southeast Asia and won the Vietnam War, and kept Watergate from coming to light by having Woodward and Bernstein arrested. He then got the Constitution's term limits on the presidency repealed, allowing him to still be in office as Watchmen's story opens in 1985.
Watchmen is one of two comics published by DC in 1986—the other being The Dark Knight Returns-- that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the 1980's, and while the name and face of the president of Watchmen's United States are Nixon's, the foreign policy that Moore is reacting to is Ronald Reagan's.
Therein lies my major problem with Moore's alternate history. Quite frankly, I cannot see Richard Nixon, a president who prided himself on his statesmanship and foreign policy expertise, allowing U.S.-Soviet relations to decay to the point, as is the case in Watchmen, where the bombs are just moments from flying, especially with Henry Kissinger at his side as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Under Reagan, however, this scenario was frighteningly plausible.
If Nixon is merely a stand in for Reagan, why not use Reagan? In the early stages of Watchmen's development, DC nixed the use of the characters from Charlton Comics defunct “Action Heroes” line of comics, which DC had recently acquired the rights to. Moore was forced to create new characters that roughly parallel the Charlton heroes. Dr. Manhattan stands in for Captain Atom, Nite Owl II is Blue Beetle, Rorschach is the Question and so forth. Did DC also put the kibosh on Reagan as president, perhaps afraid of portraying the sitting chief executive in a negative light? Well, I've never heard or read anyone else even speculating about this possibility, and DC's publication of The Dark Knight Returns that same year, which does depict Reagan and not flatteringly, seems to argue against it.
Having Nixon still in office in 1985 does serve to establish that Watchmen is set in an alternate universe. Of course, the presence of a blue, glowing, naked man who can see into the future is enough to do that.
I'll just say that I honestly have no idea why Nixon is still president, especially as it seems to serve no real purpose storywise.
Another thing that bugs me is the business of Dr. Manhattan winning the Vietnam War. If he could do that, why didn't LBJ send him in years earlier?
So, I've worked out an alternate alternate history for the world of Watchmen that makes a little more sense to me, and still makes the story's events of 1985 possible.
In 1968, after the Tet Offensive, with the war going badly and public opinion turning against him at home, president Lyndon Johnson reluctantly orders Dr. Manhattan to 'Nam to end the war. It is precisely this victory, perceived as a grossly unequal use of force and a display of American arrogance, that inflames the left wing of the Democratic party against him and drives Johnson to withdraw his name from consideration for his party's presidential nomination.
As in real life, Nixon defeats Democrat Hubert Horatio Humphrey and independent candidate George Wallace to become the 37th president of the United States. His dirty tricks never come to light and his opening of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China makes him quite a popular president. Despite Nixon's disdain for domestic affairs, Dr. Manhattan has made electric cars possible, so the US is not dependent on Arab oil, and other innovations and new industries made possible by the good doctor help to keep the economy on track. Nixon serves out his Constitutionally allotted two terms and is still quite popular when he leaves office.
With that popularity, you would think that his vice president would be a shoo-in to succeed him. However, while Watergate never blew up in Nixon's face in this reality, apparently the entirely separate scandal that drove Nixon's first veep, Spiro Agnew, from office did, and Jerry Ford replaced Agnew. I only recently learned that Ford made a promise to the Senate during his vice presidential confirmation hearings that he would not be a candidate for president in 1976. Of course, in our world, by the time '76 rolled around, circumstances had changed. Ford was now president, and he reasoned at the start of his truncated presidency that to announce he wasn't going to run in the next election would make him a lame duck from day one and even more politically ineffective than he ultimately proved to be. In my alternate alternate world of Watchmen, however, Ford, being an honorable man, honors his pledge and sits out the campaign. The public is still in the mood to elect a Republican, however, and former California governor Ronald Reagan's political star had been rising throughout the sixties. With no incumbent in the race, he sails to the nomination and easily defeats Jimmy Carter.
Reagan proves to be as popular with the American people as he was in real life, and his handling of the Iran hostage situation by sending in Doc Manhattan, ending the crisis in about six hours and restoring the Shah to power, makes him even more popular. At the beginning of his second term, it is Reagan who uses his immense popularity to ram through the necessary Constitutional changes to keep him in office as long as the American people will have him. Thus, we find him in 1985, as the story of Watchmen commences, at the beginning of his third term and engaged in a deadly game of nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union.
I haven't seen the film yet, but from what I've heard, Moore's alternate history of the American comics industry did not make it into the movie. This aspect of Moore's alternate history seems a little better thought out , which is only natural, since he worked in the industry, but still doesn't quite ring true. In Moore's version of events, the emergence of real live costumed crime fighters nips the nascent superhero genre in the bud, as no one wants to read about fictional super heroes when they can read about real ones in the newspapers. Thus by the 1950's the dominant genre is pirate comics. As it serves the story, this does make sense, as it sets up the parallel story from the “Tales of the Black Freighter” reprint comic, which also was left out of the film. However, logically, it seems backwards. After all, the existence of real life cops and doctors and lawyers has never dulled the public appetite for books, television shows, movies, and even comics about them. Going to the moon didn't kill science fiction. In fact, it seems to me that the emergence of real super heroes would only increase demand for fictional accounts of super heroic adventure.
None of these petty quibbles detract from the brilliance of what Moore accomplished in Watchmen. After all, when people talk about what makes the book great, they speak of its intricate structure, its deconstruction of the super hero genre, and its realistic portrayal of its characters. The alternate history is merely background detail.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Ten-Cent Plague (Dredging Up The Past Part VI)

(The latest in my series of retreads of old posts from past blogs comes not from The Word from on High, but from the group blog of Columbus, Ohio cartoonists group Sunday Comix. I'd originally written it for a proposed magazine about comics that the group was going to put out, but which never materialized.  I posted it on the group blog because I thought the piece deserved to be read, and I re-present it now because I think the readers of Gutter Talk might like a chance to read it as well.)
The heart of David Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America is the story of Janice Valleau Winkleman. We first meet her, in the book’s prologue, living with her husband Ed in a Florida retirement village. But this retiree harbors a secret past that not even her children were aware of: She once made her living drawing comic books. Hers is one of over 800 names listed in the book’s appendix of people who were driven from the medium forever by the backlash against comic books that culminated in the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings on Juvenile Delinquency and the subsequent adoption by the industry of the draconian Comics Code,the most restrictive set of content restrictions ever enforced on any medium, which drove many publishers, most notably EC Comics, to abandon the field. Throughout the narrative, Hajdu returns to Winkleman’s story, tracing her career from her first job at MLJ Comics (known as Archie Comics these days), obtained at age 19 through connections at the art school she attended, to her final, reluctant, decision more than a decade later to walk away from the industry for good. Though she eventually took up painting as a hobby, Winkleman would never again attempt to make a living as an artist, in comics or anywhere else. When asked why, she responds, “I was scared to death. Don’t you know what they did to us?” Hajdu does indeed know, and in the remainder of this unforgettable book, he lets us know as well.
To be honest, and this isn’t a criticism but merely a caveat, the book doesn’t really live up to its subtitle. This isn’t really a story of how the backlash against comic books changed America, but of how that backlash was an extreme and tragic example of the changes that swept all aspects of American culture and society at the midpoint of the 20th century. The book’s greatest strength is Hajdu’s ability to convey his sweeping social history in starkly human terms. His focus is squarely on the people, from industry giants such as Spirit creator Will Eisner and William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics and a central figure in the controversy, to those like Winkleman, who toiled in relative or even complete obscurity, not even allowed, in most cases, to sign their name to their work, whose lifes were forever altered by the events he details. He also provides insight into the characters and motivations of those who fueled the backlash against comics. These instigators include the infamous Dr. Frederick Wertham, whose sensationalistic book of spurious pseudo-pyschology, Seduction Of The Innocent, provided much of the grist for the anti-comics mill of the Senate subcommitte and other comics detractors, and the ambitious Senator Estes Kefauver, who hoped to use the publicity generated by these hearings to jumpstart his bid for the White House. Aiding them at the grassroots level were the mostly well intentioned, if ultimately misguided, community and religious leaders who took their protests to the extreme of organizing mass burnings of comic books in mostly small towns across the nation, and the children, members of what at the time was the intended audience for comic books, who aided them, sometimes reluctantly and with regret but surprisingly often willingly and with relish, in their crusade by gathering up comic books to fuel the funeral pyres and applying pressure on local merchants, often in the form of a threatened boycott, to stop selling them.
Through striving, and succeeding, to put a human face on this tragic yet, outside of the community of comics professionals and dedicated fans, nearly forgotten episode from our recent history, Hajdu has produced not only one of the most important books of comics and social history yet published, but he has crafted a page turner of a story as involving and compellingly readable as Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning novel covering the same historical period, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, to which I would heartily recommend The Ten Cent Plague as a companion volume.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My Favorite Comic Books: King Kong (Dredging Up The Past Part V)

(I've written, and will continue to write in the future, quite a bit on this blog about my favorite comics, especially the comics I first encountered and loved as a child.  Here is one of the earliest such posts from back in the early days of 2006 when I was doing The Word From On High.)    
So, I was scanning some other blogs to try and find something to write about and I came across a recent entry from Mark Evanier's News From ME in which Mark reminisces about the over-sized "Treasury Edition" comics of the 70's. Y'know, I loved those books, mainly because they were BIG, just like the pages of the newspaper Sunday comics sections that first sparked my love for the comics medium. Plus, being mostly reprints, they gave me a chance to see classic comics stories that I was too young to have seen the first time out, such as the origin of the Earth-2 Flash, Batman's first clashes with arch-foe Ra's Al Ghul, Superman's races with the Flash, and my all-time favorite tale of Marvel's super-team The Avengers, issue #58's "Even An Android Can Cry."
My favorite book in this format, however, was a Gold Key adaptation of the original King Kong. I came home from school one day to find it lying on my bed. My dad, despite his frequent bitching that I spent too much time reading comics, had bought it for me, and for that reason, along with my inexplicable affection for giant ape stories, it was one of my favorite comics.
Unortunately, I left most of my comics at home in the care of my brother when I went off to pursue my short-lived radio career in Kane, Pennsylvania,and when I retrieved my collection I discovered that almost half of them were missing; lost or stolen--we never found out which. I've since purchased new copies of most of the lost comics.
But not Kong. That book was irreplaceable.