Friday, June 29, 2012

Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 Reviewed

We all agree that the very existence of the entire "Before Watchmen" project is a slap in the face to poor, mistreated Alan Moore and a heretical desecration of one of the sacred texts of comics literature, am I right?
So, does the fact that I actually enjoyed the first issue of Before Watchmen: Minutemen make me a horrible person?
Hell, that surprises even me, especially after I just got done dismissing the Casablanca prequel/sequel As Time Goes By as unnecessary and unimaginative, two charges that have been leveled against this very comic.  However, about midway through reading Minutemen I found myself appreciating the issue on its own merits, something that I was never able to do with As Time Goes By.  
Of course, it is impossible to forget or ignore this comic's connection to Watchmen.  Darwyn Cooke is no Alan Moore.  The good news is that he isn't trying to be.  He is, however, one of the best storytellers working in comics today and here he tells a well written and drawn retro super hero story about a group of masked adventurers in the 1940's.  On those terms, the comic is a success.
The opening issue introduces the large cast through the reminiscences of the newly retired Hollis Mason, the former Nite Owl.  Through Mason, Cooke gives us a quick sketch of each character without simply regurgitating what Moore wrote in Watchmen
There's not really much in the way of an actual story, however, at least not until the last couple of pages, which set things up for next issue, when, I presume, the Minutemen will actually come together as a team.
I still have no intention of reading any of the other "Before Watchmen" mini-series.  It was only Darwyn Cooke's involvement with Minutemen that drove me to sample this one.  Therefore, I haven't even bothered to read the "Tales of the Crimson Corsair" back-up story, as it runs through all the books and I won't be getting the whole story.   For that reason, I don't see any point in reading it at all.
I still feel that the entire "Before Watchmen" project was completely unnecessary.  Watchmen told a complete and self contained story that really didn't need any further extrapolation.  Still, if prequels must exist, Minutemen, at least after one issue, seems like a good example of how they should be done.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Fundamental Things Apply

We are not here today to debate the wisdom of DC Comics attempting to produce prequels to the most revered graphic novel of all time.  That debate continues on a host of other sites all throughout cyber-land.  No, I wish to dispel, instead, the notion that the mere existence of  "Before Watchmen," no matter its quality, will somehow diminish Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' original.   The truth, most likely, is that in a year's time, Watchmen will continue to be a bestseller and "Before Watchmen" will be all but forgotten.  
After all, who remembers As Time Goes By?
See.  I didn't think so.
I loved Casablanca the very first time I saw it on television.  Of course, I was high at the time, so I didn't quite trust my judgment.  Therefore, I went out and  rented it on VHS a few days later and found myself loving it even more.  I've enjoyed it just as much each of the countless subsequent times I've seen it.  The most recent was just a couple of weeks ago, when Casablanca kicked off this year's CAPA Summer Movie Series at the Ohio Theater in downtown Columbus, Ohio. 
Anyway, back in the 1990's, there was a minor trend of producing novels that were sequels to classic motion pictures.  This was around the time that Scarlett, the follow up to Gone With The Wind, showed up in bookstores.  As Time Goes By by Michael Walsh serves as both prequel and sequel to Casablanca.  It seeks to answer all the questions that fans of the film were supposedly dying to have answered.  The novel begins by detailing the exact events that made it impossible for Rick Blaine to return to America, then picks up after the movie, reuniting Rick and Louis Renault with Ilsa Lund and Victor Lazlo.
The problem with the book is not that its bad, because it really isn't.  It's just completely unnecessary.  Like Watchmen, Casablanca is a whole unto itself.  While there may be some questions raised as to Rick's past, the film leaves the answers up to the viewer's imagination, rather than  spelling everything out in dreary detail.
Another problem is that the book's revelations are so painfully obvious. 
In spinning his tale of Rick's past, Walsh draws inspiration from the moment in the film where Renault ventures to guess the circumstances that brought Rick to Casablanca.  Louis wonders, "Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man. It's the Romantic in me."  Rick replies that it was a combination of all three.  Well, Walsh strained his somewhat limited imagination to come up with a scenario that truly is a combination of all those elements.  
Of course, its really no spoiler for me to reveal that this festival of fan wish fulfillment culminates with Rick and Ilsa ending up together, and Lazlo dead for good measure. 
For me, As Time Goes By adds absolutely nothing to my appreciation of Casablanca.  More importantly, and more to the point of this post, it takes nothing away from it, either.
The same is true of "Before Watchmen."  I broke down and bought a copy of the first issue of  Minutemen last week.  I'll have a full review of it coming up. However, whether I liked it or not, just the fact that DC published it in no way affects how I will view Watchmen in the future.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Skeates To Be Honored With Bill Finger Award for Excellence at Comic-Con

Plastic Man #15 from 1976 remains to this day one of my favorite comic books.  In that issue, written by Steve Skeates, Plas battles an a killer robot and an amnesiac dressed as a giant carrot.  The name of the diminutive West Coast based hired killer who sends the mechanized monster after the stretchable sleuth is "Rice" O'Rooney, The San Francisco Threat.  That name still makes me laugh every time I think about it.
Two decades later I published my first small press comics and joined a couple of small press "co-ops".  These were clubs for small press publishers who traded comics with each other and contributed columns to the club's newsletter.  One of these groups folded shortly after I joined.  I believe I only got one issue of the newsletter.  This was enough to allow me to start up a correspondence with one of the other members, who turned out to be the very same Steve Skeates who had written Plastic Man #15, as well as many other comics, of course, twenty years previously.  At first, I wasn't sure it was the same guy.  It seemed hard to believe that someone who'd been at the top of the comics profession as a writer for DC would now be self-publishing obscure photocopied mini-comics. (I was much more naive in my youth.)  But if it was, I knew I couldn't pass up a chance to get to know him a little bit.
I sent him my somewhat amateurish attempts at a humorous action/adventure comic and in return he sent me a series of surreal, silly, and slightly philosophical mini-comics that he drew himself in a wonderfully loose and simple cartoony style.  While I might at first have viewed mini-comics as a step down for him, these comics were actually, in many ways, superior  to his mainstream work.
They were accompanied by somewhat rambling letters filled with  anecdotes and reminiscences, as well as constructive criticism, advice and encouragement.  I was thrilled that the writer of one of my favorite comic books actually seemed to like my work. 
Recently, I learned that Steve Skeates is to be honored with the Bill Finger Award For Excellence in Comic Book Writing during the Eisner Award ceremonies at this year's Comic-Con International. 
Begun in 2005, the Bill Finger Award is the idea of veteran Batman illustrator and political cartoonist Jerry Robinson.  Its sort of a lifetime achievement award for the comics industry's journeyman creators. The recipients are writers who have built up a respectable body of work over a long career but never quite achieved super-stardom or racked up a bunch of flashy awards.  Each year two comics writers, one living and one dead, are chosen to be honored.
The selection is made by a committee of five comics professionals chaired by Mark Evanier, who himself could be a candidate for the prize.
This year's other recipient of the Bill Finger Award is Frank Doyle, long time writer for Archie Comics who passed away in 1996.
Unfortunately, its been quite some time since I've written to Steve.  I'll have to drop him a line through Facebook and offer my congratulations for this great achievement.
Speaking of Facebook, thanks to Matt Dembicki for alerting me to this bit of news by posting about it there.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Influencing Machine

My  two main sources of news and entertainment these days are comic books and National Public Radio, and one of my favorite NPR programs, due both to the subject matter it covers and to the way said subject matter is presented by hosts Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, is On The Media.  (Though, due to the fact that my local NPR station no longer carries OTM, I have to keep up with it by subscribing to the podcast.) Combine all of that and you get a book that I just knew from the moment that I learned of its existence that I absolutely had to read: The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld.  A couple of weeks ago, I finally aquired a copy and have read it through from cover to cover twice now, partly to prepare to write this review, but mostly because it is a fun, engaging, and informative book that I absolutely love, as I knew I would.
In the world of graphic nonfiction, dominated mostly by self-indulgent autobiographical comics, the only thing comparable to The Influencing Machine is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, which also seeks to translate complex ideas and theories into sequential art form.  However, while, in retrospect at least, the idea of doing a book on comics theory in comics form seems something of a no-brainer, The Influencing Machine, which distills Gladstone's quarter century of writing about media into an examination of the media's past, present and future and our relationship to it then and now, seems a slightly riskier proposition to attempt as a comic. It is, however, a gamble that pays off. 
In interviews at the time of the book's release a few months ago, Gladstone stated that she chose to present what she calls her "media manifesto" in comics form in order to foster the same kind of intimate relationship with readers that she feels she attains with her radio audience.  In this regard she succeeds even more fully than she might have hoped, due to the nature of comics, which is what Marshall McLuhan termed a "cool" medium, which more fully engages the reader's mind than the "hot" medium of radio and and creates an even more intimate connection between author and audience. 
This is my first time seeing Josh Neufeld's art, but whoever brought him and Gladstone together should get a bonus as he seems the perfect choice to convey Gladstone's message and create that intimate connection with the reader which she sought.
It goes without saying by this point that I highly and heartily recommend this book to one and all.  To whet your appetite, here is an animated version of the book's intro from YouTube:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Free Comic Book Day Comics Part 4

I shall attempt to keep my remarks short, as I begin to grow weary of this series and am glad to see it come to its conclusion. I have a mere two free comics yet to cover, and I have been saving what is perhaps the coolest Free Comic Book Day offering ever for the very last.
That is not to imply that the first comic under consideration this day, Antarctic Press' Zombie Kid, is bad. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact.  Not, strictly speaking, a comic, per se, Zombie Kid, designed to resemble a handwritten journal with one or two illustrations per page, in the manner of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, tells the story of Bill Stokes, who, along with his mother, became a zombie as a result of an experimental virus she picked up while a volunteer for a medical test.
Being a zombie is not without certain drawbacks, especially when you're attempting to keep your transformation a secret and continue with a relatively normal life as a typical middle school student, complete with tests, school bullies and everything else that entails.  Still, Bill finds that there are certain advantages to his current condition, especially in regards to his ambition to be a champion professional video gamer.  For example, he notes that his reflexes have greatly improved and that he is able to stare at a TV screen for hours at a time without blinking.
It is Bill's dreams of gaming glory that set up the conflict of the main story here, as he schemes to get out of going on a class field trip which all his friends are looking forward to but that conflicts with a video game tournament that he badly wants to enter and win.
Overall, Zombie Kid is a well written and illustrated book that is perfectly pitched to appeal to its obvious target audience of teenage boys.
They, whoever "they" might be, say that "You get what you pay for," and with Free Comic Book Day comics that is, unfortunately, all too often the case.  I've encountered quite a few that aren't even worth the cover price.  On the other hand, there's Archaia Entertainment's free sampler for 2012, Mouse Guard, Labyrinth and Other Stories: A Free Comic Book Day Hardcover Anthology.
This is a beautifully put together full color fifty page hardcover book featuring complete, albeit short, stories, not just snippets of longer tales, previewing six of Archaia's graphic novel series; Mouse Guard,Labyrinth, based on the Jim Henson film; The Dapper Men, Rust, Cursed Pirate Girl, and Cow Boy.  I really can't believe that Archaia was just giving this book away.  For a product of this quality, I would happily pay around five dollars.  I'm not just referring to the book as mere physical object, either.  The contents reflect some of the best, in both writing and art, that the comics medium has to offer, and all of them are definitely worth reading more of. I certainly hope the investment  Arhaia Entertainment made in producing this truly unique Free Comic Book Day giveaway pays off for them in terms of increased sales of the featured books.
That wraps up Free Comic Book Day for this year.  I'll be back soon with posts about comics I actually paid for, and maybe some I wish I hadn't.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It Was 40 Years Ago Today--Nixon, Kirby, the Great Disaster and the End of the 60s

It was forty years ago this very morning that the 1960's ended. 
Allow me to clarify that seemingly chronologically challenged assertion.
You see, I vaguely recall having read something in Reader's Digest many years past about the concept of "sociological decades", measured not by calendar years but by the duration of the social trends that come to define the decade in the mass consciousness.  Thus, the 1960's began when shots rang out from the Book Depository in Dallas, Texas in late November of 1963 and ended, by my reckoning at least, on a late spring night in Washington, D.C. when five men, later revealed to  be in the employ of the Committee To Re-Elect The President, were apprehended in the act of breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate apartment building.  
In Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, "The slow-rising central horror of 'Watergate' is not that it might grind down to the reluctant impeachment of a vengeful thug of a president whose entire political career has been a monument to the same kind of cheap shots and treachery he finally got nailed for, but that we might somehow fail to learn something from it."
Yet the human animal is not especially noted for the ability to learn from its mistakes. We tend to either learn nothing, or worse, gradually forget what we learned when the crisis passes. Worse yet, we will learn all the wrong lessons and forget them eventually nonetheless.  In the Watergate scenario, the case appears to be a sad combination of the latter two pathways.  Any half-hearted attempts by a Congress newly emboldened in the aftermath of Nixon's downfall to rein in the power of the executive branch and make it more accountable to the legislature and the American people have long since fallen by the wayside.  During the first dozen years of the 21st century, this proud nation has drifted farther in the direction of a so-called "imperial presidency" than that poor doomed bastard Nixon ever dared dream even in his most megalomaniacal moments.  The only executive power that Congress in recent memory has seemed interest in curbing is his power to get a blowjob from a starstruck intern in the Oval Office while simultaneously talking on the phone to the President of Russia.
When I was casting about in my mind for some way to tie the remembrance of Watergate and  reflection on its legacy that I wanted to inflict on the blogosphere on this unhappy anniversary to comics, I remembered Kamandi #15.  I dug it out of one of the nearly dozen boxes of old comics piled precariously in the corner of my bedroom closet, but didn't actually get around to rereading it until I'd already composed the first portion of this post.  Thus, I was actually pleasantly surprised to discover that with only a minimum of rhetorical sleight of hand I could bend my analysis of the issue to fit the themes of the first part of this post.
Like many comics scribes of the Bronze Age, KIrby, when acting as his own writer, plundered liberally from the prevailing pop culture and current events to fuel his mad masterpieces.  The Kamandi series itself, set in a future world after something called the Great Disaster, when intelligent animals rule and the  remnants of the once proud human race  are reduced to mere pets, or worse, seems little more than Kirby's take on the Planet of the Apes concept, with not just apes, but bears, tigers and even snakes among the ruling class.  Thus, the idea that Kirby would use Watergate as fodder for a comic book story comes as little surprise to anyone who really knows what they're talking about.  In early 1974, when this comic would have been appearing on the nation's newsstands, Watergate consumed a very thick slice of the American zeitgeist.
At last we arrive at the story itself, which picks up pretty much where the previous issue left off.  In order to save Kamandi's life, Tuftan, the Tiger Prince, has apparently made a mysterious bargain with the department store owning snake Mr. Sacker.
In fulfillment of the pact, Tuftan and his Tiger Troops, accompanied by Kamandi and the dog scientist Dr. Canus, ride off toward the fabled mythical city of Washington, D.C. in pursuit of the legendary Watergate tapes.  Its not made clear why exactly Sacker wants them, though his emporium is filled with pre-Disaster artifacts looted from the ruins of human civilization and it is likely that he wishes them to be but one more item offered for sale to wealthy collectors of antiques and curios.
After a long hard ride, Tuftan and his party arrive at a place called "Stake Out" on the outskirts of the legendary city.  I assume that "Stake Out" is meant to be what remains of some real life locale in our nation's capital, but I can't tell exactly what is supposed to represent.  As the troops settle in to explore the place, Tuftan and Canus soon find themselves abducted by a troop of gun toting apes who take them to the headquarters of their arcane cult in the ruins of the Capitol building.
Soon, the two captives are taken to the "hearings," a bizarre ritual that mocks the Senate Watergate hearings which were taking place on national TV at the time that Kirby would have been writing and drawing this issue.  There they are confronted by a panel of apes who "indict" them for "planning to steal the sacred Watergate tapes--the voices of the Spirits!"  For this, Tuftan and Canus are sentenced to death by means of a strange weapon that uses soundwaves to kill.
Kamandi and Tuftan's Tiger Troops arrive, as the cavalry always does in tales like this, in the nick of time to rescue their prince and the scientist.  After defeating the apes, the tigers dismantle the sound weapon to discover the very Watergate tapes they had come there in search of used as the source of the machine's deadly sound waves.  Canus attempts to play one of the tapes, but it breaks after playing only a snippet of what I assume is meant to be Nixon's voice saying, "I want to make this perfectly clear--".   Tuftan decrees that Canus should not bother to mend the tape, for, as Kamandi observes, "It doesn't mean much--NOW--".
Kamandi #15 is not one of Kirby's best works.  In his greatest stories, the events move at such a frantic pace that questions like my above query as to why Sacker wanted the cursed Watergate tapes in the first place would never have occurred to me until long after I'd finished reading.  Here, though, that lapse in logic threatens to derail the whole endeavor, but doesn't quite bring it down completely.  Nonetheless, the tale serves the purposes of this post well enough.  For the apes who worship the spirits of Watergate have learned from the affair, but the lessons they have absorbed are quite obviously the wrong ones.  They endlessly and pointlessly rehearse the charade of "hearings" again and again in the manner of subsequent Congressmen who seem to think that the way to make a name for themselves is to uncover any little hint of scandal, motivated not by altruism  or patriotism or a quest for the truth, but by self-aggrandizement or simple, mean spirited vengeance.
Ultimately, in the wake of Iran-Contra, the Clinton Impeachment and the depradations of the George W. Bush administration, we must every now and then take time to remember the lessons, if any, has our country learned from the Watergate scandal and  ask ourselves whether they are the right ones.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Evening News & Rants: June 15, 2012 Edition

This is the first installment of what may just turn out to be a regular feature.  It all depends on whether or not there's any news that I deem worth writing about or commenting on.
CAKE banner designed by Chicago artist Laura Park

My readers in Chicago (and I'm told that I have at least one occassional reader in the city) who couldn't make it to Columbus for SPACE have another chance to hang out in a roomful of small press and alternative  comics artists, writers and publishers this weekend when the inaugural edition of CAKE--the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo--takes place this weekend. 
Ok, the acronym doesn't quite work.  I guess they were trying to have their CAKE and eat it too.  
In case you're wondering, the answer is yes.  My main purpose in reporting this item was just so I could make that dumb joke.
Full details on the show, the exhibitors and the line-up of panels can be found at the CAKE web-site.
In mainstream comics news, DC recently announced the cancellation of four of its original New 52 titles.  This was paired, because the company remains inexplicably obsessed with the number 52, with the announcement of four new ongoing series to replace them.  
The new books, all debuting with zero issues as part of DC's line wide "Zero Month" event celebrating the first anniversary of the New 52 reboot (not to be confused with 1994's "Zero Month" that followed the end of the crossover mini-series Zero Hour), are Talon, yet another Batman related title springing out of the recent "Night of the Owls" storyline; Sword of Sorcery, an anthology book anchored by a revival of Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld; Team 7, a revival of an old title from co-publisher Jim Lee's Wildstorm imprint; and The Phantom Stranger. The cancelled series  whose spots on the schedule these new titles are taking are Justice League International, Voodoo, Resurrection Man, and Captain Atom.
The bad news, as far as I'm concerned, is that, despite his exit from Green Arrow and the cancellation of Captain Atom, J. T. Krul continues to draw a paycheck from DC Comics. 
To the right of these words is a cropped version of Krul's photo from the DC web-site.  He appears to be either angry or in pain.  You don't suppose he just read one of his own Green Arrow comics, do you?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Free Comic Book Day Comics Part 3

I'm sure no one's going to be too disappointed if I skip the lengthy, rambling preamble this time out and get right to the comics.
I was in college when Voltron debuted back in the mid-80's.  While I enjoyed the series, mine was more of an ironic, detached appreciation.  I was laughing at it, whereas fifteen or even ten years earlier I would have bought into the premise unquestioningly.  Thus, I don't have the same nostalgic attachment to the show that people that much younger than me might.   Still I can tell a well written and drawn comics story when I read one, and VIZ Media's Free Comic Book Day offering, Voltron Force: Shelter From The Storm, written by Brian Smith with art by Jacob Chabot, presents the opening pages of what looks to be a very well done graphic novel.
Shelter From The Storm picks up several years after the events of the cartoon series with the original Voltron Force training a trio of new recruits to eventually take their places.  On a training exercise, the newbies encounter a runaway robeast created by the team's arch-nemesis King Lotor.  I would definitely consider reading the full graphic novel, though unless you're a real diehard Voltron junkie, I might recommend checking it out of the library.
The free comic from Red 5 Comics, with previews of the cover featured Atomic Robo, as well as NeoZoic and Bonnie Lass, and including stories featuring pirates and dinosaurs, seems shrewdly calculated to appeal to readers' inner child.  Nonetheless, it does hit most of the right buttons.
The titular Atomic Robo of the lead story is a robot created by Nikola Tesla in the 1920's who today leads a globe spanning scientific troubleshooting organization known as Tesladyne. In this tale, Robo is tricked by his old enemy Dr. Dinosaur, a super-intelligent talking dinosaur, naturally, into unleashing a super evolved dinosaur, or Futuresaurus Rex, intended by Dr. Dinosaur to destroy him.   While I didn't enjoy this quite as much as last year's Super Dinosaur free sampler, I can see that Atomic Robo has the potential to be a lot of fun.
I believe that in one of last year's posts in the wake of Free Comic Book Day I expressed a preference for free comics that give you complete stories rather than teasers continued in something you're expected to pay for.  This sampler from Red 5 contains a mix of both of those.  The Atomic Robo story is complete in this issue, while the other two stories are merely the beginnings of longer tales.
NeoZoic posits a world where dinosaurs never died out and have existed side by side with humans, giving rise to an organization called the Predator Defence League whose mission is to protect humanity from the beasts.   This eight page preview provides just enough  of a glimpse into that world to leave me slightly confused about just what's going on, but somewhat curious as to what the deal is.  Adding to the confusion is the art, done in sort of an Americanized Manga type of style.  The story features three female characters and they are all drawn with basically the same face.  The only thing differentiating them is hair and skin color.  If this were a black and  white comic I'd have been totally lost.  This is definitely a comic I'd want to check out from a library before shelling out any of my hard earned cash for it.
Bonnie Lass chronicles the adventures of the daughter of a famous pirate in what appears to be some sort of alternate history present day.  Bonnie and two of her companions have gotten themselves captured by some sort of cult or something looking to retrieve an object she stole from them.  They end up being rescued by probably the last person Bonnie wants to save them. With its cartoony art and irreverent tone, Bonnie Lass looks like it might be the most fun of the three series previewed here.
Finally for today, we come to Donald Duck Family Comics, presenting two vintage stories by legendary "good duck artist" Carl Barks.  The first deals with yet another scheme by the nefarious Beagle Boys to hijack Uncle Scrooge's money bin, while the other details Donald's efforts to be free of the nightmares which plague him whenever he tries to get some shuteye.  Rounding out the issue are a series of one page strips by Barks featuring Donald and Scrooge.
As to the question of whether the full books that this comic is promoting are worth buying, the answer seems pretty self-evident to me. Any collection of Barks' duck comics would make a worthy addition to anyone's bookshelf.
You know, its kind of funny, to me at least, that two of the best comics for young kids this Free Comic Book Day, this one and Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, come from Fantagraphics, a publisher not exactly known for its kid friendly fare.  That they both contain material written and drawn over a half century ago is not so surprising to me, however, as I'm rapidly turning into a cranky old man who thinks everything new sucks.
I've still got two more free comics to write about, but I'll get to those next time. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Origin of The Earth-2 Flash--Take 1

When I started this blog some two and a half years ago, I gave it the tagline "All Things Sequential" and set out to write about, as I say in my mission statement over there in the sidebar, "anything...even remotely related to comics.  That's a pretty broad mandate, but I think I've done a fairly decent job of living up to it.  Thus far, I have written about comic strips, reviewed classic comics from the Silver and Bronze Ages as well as the latest releases, looked at TV shows based on or inspired by comics, and given my opinions on the latest news and developments in the industry.  One thing I have not done in the 250 posts prior to this one, however, is to take an in-depth look at a comic from the Golden Age. 
Well, the time for that has at last come.  With the just released Earth 2 #2 relating the revamped tale of how Jay Garrick becomes the Flash, I thought I would take another look at the original version of the story as told in Flash Comics #1. So, I pulled my copy of the Famous First Edition reprint of the issue out  of its over-sized Mylar sleeve and set out to reread it for the first time in at least a couple of decades. 
You certainly got a lot for your dime back in 1940.  Even for the dollar that I originally paid for the reprint in 1975, the book is quite a value. At sixty-four pages, the first issue of Flash Comics contains six comics stories featuring, in addition to the Flash, the debuts of the Hawkman, Johnny Thunder, the Whip, and Cliff Cornwall: Special Agent, as well as the first installment of a two part story of a ventriloquist falsely accused of murder.  There's also a two page prose story that, in all the years which I have owned this comic, I don't believe I've ever read.  I'm probably not the only one.  If I remember correctly the story was only included because of some bizarre postal regulation that mandated that magazines had to include a page or two of text in order to qualify for third class rates. 
I'm just going to cover the lead feature here.  I sincerely hope all the Cliff Cornwall fans out there won't be too disappointed.
Titled simply "The Flash," the story was written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Harry Lampert.  Fox was a mainstay of DC Comics throughout the Golden and Silver Ages and was still writing comics into the 1970's.  The last thing I know of that he wrote was an early issue of Marvel's Tomb of Dracula.  Lampert began his artistic career with the Max Fleisher animation studio, going on to a long career as a comic book artist and gag cartoonist.  Following his retirement from cartooning, he embarked on a second career as an author of books on how to play bridge. 
The story moves at a rapid clip, packing Jay's origin and first adventure into fifteen briskly paced pages.  It begins by introducing us to university student Jay Garrick and his female acquaintance--not yet girlfriend--Joan Williams.  
Of Joan's brief appearance in last month's Earth 2 #1, Martin Gray wrote at Too Dangerous For A Girl, "James Robinson makes a longtime supporting cast member thoroughly unlikable."  To be fair to Robinson, however, he was merely following Gardner Fox's lead.  True, in her brief scene in Earth 2, Joan comes off as shallow and bitchy, but she fairs just as badly here.  She turns Jay down for a date because he's merely a benchwarmer on the football team, calling him " old washwoman."  Never mind that he's a good guy and a brilliant science student, all she cares about is how many touchdowns he scores. 
Later, Jay is in the lab to conduct an important experiment, the culmination of his three years of research into the gases produced by "hard water."  After working deep into the night, Jay pauses for a smoke break at three thirty a.m.  (That may be why he's a washout on the football team.)  While enjoying the feel of the smoke filling his lungs, he accidentally knocks over a beaker of "hard water" and is overwhelmed by the fumes.  
Discovered by his mentor Professor Hughes, he is taken to a hospital where he lies in a coma for weeks before making a miraculous recovery.  His doctor tells the professor that Jay may have become the fastest thing that ever lived because, "Science knows that hard water makes a person act much quicker than an intake of its gases, Jay can walk, run, and think swifter than thought..."
Science, of course, knows no such thing.  This "explanation" is pure B.S.  Hard water, in the real world, will clog your pipes, not give you super-speed.  Fox often used real scientific principles which he would then twist to suit the needs of his story, but this time he was pulling it straight out of his ass.
And just how is it possible for anyone to think faster than thought?
Its best not to dwell too long on it, however.  Fox certainly doesn't. Soon, Jay discovers his powers for himself and uses them to impress Joan. He asks her out again, and she, having a one track mind, accepts on the condition that he use his powers to help the football team win Saturday's game.  
The story skips ahead to Jay and Joan's graduation, as the couple prepare to go their separate ways, he to an assistant professorship in New York and she to assist her father in building his "atomic bombarder."  Soon, Jay is reading in a newspaper of gangsters who have eluded capture by authorities and decides to go after them himself, donning the costume of the Flash for the first time.  
Shortly thereafter, he receives a visit from Joan, who seeks his help in finding her kidnapped father.  The elder Williams has been abducted by a group calling themselves "The Faultless Four."  The Four want the secret of the atomic bombarder to sell to a foreign government.  As the Flash, Jay rescues Major Williams and defeats the Faultless Four.  Actually, they kind of defeat themselves.  One of them kills the other three in a failed attempt to destroy the Flash, then crashes his car and dies while fleeing from the speedster. 
Super-heroes were a bit more cold blooded back in the old days than they are now.  If not actually killing the villains themselves, as Hawkman does in his story in this issue, they show no remorse when the bad guys end up dead.  After watching a corrupt businessman plummet into a vat of acid in his initial adventure, the Bat-Man calmly remarked, "A fitting end for his kind."  Here, Flash races to the bottom of a ravine in order to witness the demise of the final member of the Faultless Four for himself. Standing triumphly, arms akimbo, over the wreckage, he declares, "Thus ends the threat of the Faultless Four," then heads home for a celebratory drink with Joan and her father.
The art in Golden Age comics has a reputation for being crude, however Lampert's art in this issue, while it may not be up to today's professional standards, isn't half-bad.  Sometimes he skimps a little on the backgrounds, but he conveys the story pretty well.
That's all I've got to say about Flash Comics #1 for now.  Perhaps I'll revisit this issue when and if James Robinson brings back Johnny Thunder.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Earth 2 #2 Reviewed

So.  Alan Scott.  He's gay, huh?  
To quote the leader of the black 'Lectroids from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension (because I am THAT big a geek), "So what?  Big deal."  
It would be a shame if all the hollow hype surrounding one panel in the middle of the book eclipsed the fact that there's an actual story in Earth 2 #2, and quite a good one, at that, in which Alan Scott is, for the time being, a minor character.  His brief scenes are but a prelude to his star turn next issue.  
The real star of the issue is Jay Garrick or, as he shall be known henceforth, the Flash.  The story also introduces to the book's burgeoning cast Mr. Terrific, fresh from the final issue of his own short-lived series, and the new Hawkgirl, as well as a character with a familiar name, a hero in the old continuity, who for now, at least, appears to be a villain in his new incarnation.
You can't really call Jay's new origin a retelling.  This version is completely different from the character's Golden Age debut in Flash Comics #1. The new tale, quite frankly, more closely resembles Hal Jordan's beginnings as Green Lantern than any previous Flash origin. Reduced to bare bones, the plot is as follows:  A dying being from beyond plummets to Earth and with his final breath bestows awesome power on a deserving human.  That synopsis could just as easily be applied to "SOS Green Lantern" from Showcase #22 as the story in this issue.  
This time it isn't an extraterrestrial officer of an interstellar police force but  Mercury, the last survivor of the ancient gods who seeks to pass on his power.  This Flash's powers are based in magic whereas all previous versions of the character were predicated upon science, or as close to actual science as you get in super-hero comics. 
Along with his gift of power, Mercury also carries a dire warning.  A new threat, even worse than the fairly recently defeated Apokolips, is headed Earth's way. In promising a menace that makes Darkseid, one of the greatest comic book villains ever, look like small potatoes, writer James Robinson has set the bar pretty high for himself.  Only time, and future issues, will tell if he can live up to the expectations he's engendering.
My one, very minor, quibble with the story is that the conversation between Jay and Mercury goes on a little too long.  This is mostly due to the fact that Jay appears not to realize that it is considered rude in some circles to interrupt a god and keeps butting in as Mercury relates his tale.   This does, however, allow Robinson to inject some light humor into the scene as Mercury has to repeatedly tell Jay to shut up and listen.  It's a good sign that the series apparently will not be as utterly grim and ponderous as it has the potential to become.  
Robinson has been given an opportunity with this series that few writers working on super-hero comics for the big two mainstream publishers ever get.  He has an entire world to himself to chronicle unfettered by events in other comics or reality.  So far, he seems to be making the most of this freedom.  He's showing us the aftermath of an alien invasion in the way that no mainstream super-hero comic has ever been able to before.  Usually, once the ETs are sent packing things quickly return to the pre-invasion status quo and no lasting effects of struggle remain.  Earth-2, on the other hand, is a world still struggling to recover and deal with the physical and psychological costs of the war five years later. 
Aiding Robinson in delineating this new world is the beautiful art by penciller Nicola Scott and inker Trevor Scott.  (Between the two of them and this world's future Green Lantern, things could a little confusing.)  They render quiet conversations and cataclysmic explosions equally breathtakingly. 
I am looking forward to future issues of Earth 2 more than I have any super-hero comic for quite some time. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury 1920-2012

After I posted my previous entry here this evening, I was taking a look at the blogroll over in the sidebar and noticed that two separate blogs had recent posts entitled "Ray Bradbury."  I clicked on one of the links, fervently hoping that this didn't mean the only thing that it possibly could mean.  Reading the post, however, confirmed my fears.
Ray Bradbury died last night.  He was 91 years old.
Bradbury was, as I'm sure you know, the author of, according to the obit in the Los Angeles Times, 27 novels and over 600 short stories, among them Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man,  and Something Wicked This Way Comes, and many others.  The short story "A Sound of Thunder" is a personal favorite and, in my opinion, the best time travel story ever written.  Many of his most famous works, including all of the ones I listed above, have been adapted for television, movies and comic books.
To say that Bradbury was a great writer of science fiction is to do a grevious disservice to the man and his legacy.  Consider the opening paragraph of Fahrenheit 451:
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see them blackened and changed.  With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to the bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.  With his symbolic helmut numbered 451 on the his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.  He strode in a swarm of fireflies.  He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house.  While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
That, my friends is simply great writing period.  Its that kind of literary prowess that makes me wonder when I read it why I even try to write when never in a million years will I ever produce anything that painfully good.
I met Bradbury once, extremely briefly, back in 1993 or '94, I'm really not sure which, at Marcon, the science fiction convention held each spring here in Columbus, Ohio.  I make no claim to have actually gotten to know the man or anything.  In fact, I can't remember whether there was any conversation at all between the two of us.  I simply watched as he scrawled his name on a piece of paper I had given him then handed it back to me.  Then I quickly moved out of the way to allow my fellow autograph seekers their turn.  I'm sure that I at least thanked him.  Still, I will always consider it an honor just to have been in his presence.
It goes without saying that Ray Bradbury will be greatly missed.  Yet, as long as the grim future he envisioned in Fahrenheit 451 remains but a distant nightmare, as long as books continued to be printed, sold and read, he and his work will always be with us.

Free Comic Book Day Comics Part 2

The three books I'll be looking at today are all flip books, so it'll be like getting double the reviews for your money.  Not that you pay anything to read this blog, nor should you.  If you had to, I could honestly think of several dozen blogs or other forms of reading matter far more worthwhile than this one for you to blow your paycheck on.  
Actually--returning, however briefly, to my topic--of the nearly dozen free samplers I picked up on Free Comic Book Day, the majority of them featured previews of two or more series or graphic novels.
By the way, you may be wondering how I came away from the day with so many books when I only visited three shops.  True, all the stores I went to did have a limit of one, or at most, two comics per person.  However, my last stop on the tour, Packrat Comics, had a deal wherein if you threw a buck or two into a jar for donations to a charity that aids wounded veterans you could snatch up as many comics as you liked.  It was for a good  cause, and I do have to find stuff to write about on this blog somewhere, so I tossed two George Washingtons into the kitty and grabbed anything that I hadn't picked up at the Laughing Ogre or Comic Town that looked interesting or that, at the very least, I thought I might be able to get a halfway entertaining bad review out of.
To digress yet again, isn't it the bad reviews that are more fun to read than the good ones, especially if the reviewer really despises the comic, movie, or TV show in question? Its the same basic appeal that American Idol held for people, at least until Simon Cowell left.  We were all slightly embarassed by Paula Abdul's tearful gushing over any sixteen year old Whitney Houston wannabe with even a moderately decent singing voice.  What we really wanted, what we tuned in for, was to see mean old Simon make that poor little girl cry. 
Now, I don't know how entertaining my first review is going to be--that, as always, is for the you, the people I'm seeking to entertain, to decide--and I sincerely hope no one cries, especially not the "title character." Atfter all, there are few sights more pathetic than that of a washed up actor/"pop culture icon" on his knees and bawling like a damned baby. That said, however, I really have nothing at all nice to say about BlueWater Comics' Burt Ward: Boy Wonder.
The concept is similar to last year's BlueWater freebie, The Misadventures of Adam West, in that it features the actor transformed by magical/super-scientific means into a younger version of himself from when he was at the height of his popularity and becoming the swashbuckling crimefighter he only pretended to be in front of the TV cameras.  In this case, Ward is walking a couple of dogs in L.A.'s Griffith Park out near where the exteriors for the Batcave where filmed back in the 60's. Before he really knows what's happening, he finds himself chasing some masked stranger who kind of resembles the original Red Hood (that's the man who became the Joker, not Jason Todd) through a teleportation device which, oddly for a denizen of a world in which such things don't exist outside of science fiction, he instantly recognizes as such.  Then the story does a reverse Wizard of Oz as the art goes black and white when Ward emerges from the space-time warp on Pluto in the distant future, forty years younger, a hell of a lot thinner, and still in pursuit of the mysterious masked stranger.
Whereas the Adam West book had a certain campy charm, not entirely unlike the TV series that made West famous, Ward's book is just this side of unreadable. I  shall not be paying for any more of this story, nor do I recommend that you do so.
That wasn't so bad, was it, Burt?
The flip side of the BlueWater book is Wrath of the Titans.  This is set up like a children's picture book, with full page illustrations on one side and text on the facing page describing in tediously painstaking detail exactly the scene depicted in the illustration.  Ok, obviously I am not the target demo for this book, but this seems to me the kind of book that would make even the most dim-witted kid feel that he was being talked down to. Needless to say, this one's a pass  as well.
We come now to the Bongo Comics Free-For-All 2012, featuring "Tales From The Springfield Bear Patrol" in which the titular semi-official law enforcement body consisting of Homer, Barney, Karl and Lenny rise up to save the town from a horde of marauding ursines set loose by a vengeful TV traffic reporter.  This is a very funny story typical of the Simpsons style of humor.  I'm sure I don't have to tell you what I mean by that, as the TV series has been running since the dawn of time---first there was the Big Bang, then, after a word from the sponsor ("The universe brought to you by GOD Brand Supreme Deity.  Accept no substitutes---OR BURN IN HELL!"), there was the first episode of The Simpsons.
This half of the book also includes a short autobiographical piece by Sergio Aragones.
Flip this book over and you get SpongeBob Comics Freestyle Funnies. The main story has SpongeBob reading the latest issue of his favorite comic book, Merman Comics, to Squidward, who just wants the little yellow pest to go away.  Eventually, SpongeBob gets the message and leaves without finishing, leaving Squidward, to his chagrin, obscessed with learning how the story.  The story includes pages from the comic book adventures of Merman, a parody of Aquaman, and those are drawn by comics veteran Ramona Fradon, who pencilled many of the real deals exploits back in the Silver Age.  The story overall is excellent, but the real treat is seeing all too rare new art from Fradon, which looks just as great as it did back when she was the Sea King's regular artist. 

Finally, we have a preview three of DC's comics for younger readers.  On one side there's an excerpt of Superman Family Adventures, written and drawn by Art Baltazar and Franco, the same team responsible for the late, much loved Tiny Titans. From the little taste we get here, it seems that this new series has all the charm and energy of their previous effort.  I may not actually buy this.  My niece Alison was a huge fan of Tiny Titans, and she'll probably get this as well, so I'll read her copies.
The other side spotlights two titles based on shows appearing on Cartoon Network, Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice.  Even though the GL story is written by Baltazar and Franco, I'm not quite taken  with it.  It borrows too heavily from the post-Rebirth Geoff Johns mythos for my taste. I'll skip this one.
I can't really say anything about the Young Justice sampler.  At a mere six pages that don't tell us what the full story is about, there's just not enough here for me to decide whether or not I'd ever want to buy this comic.
So, I'm only about halfway through my FCBD haul.  Next time: Barks, robeasts, and Dr. Dinosaur.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Free Comic Book Day Free Comics Part 1

So, what exactly is the point of reviewing comics from Free Comic Book Day?  The big day was a few weeks ago, and those comics aren't widely available right now, so its not like I can urge you to go out and grab your own copy if you didn't already.  However, FCBD comics are essentially promotional items whose intent is to get you to start following an ongoing monthly series or perhaps to interest you enough to invest a huge chunk of change in a hardcover reprint of some obscure but supposedly "classic" old comic.  Therefore, the rating system I shall employ here shall be simply "buy" or "don't buy" based on whether I would for a second consider laying out the cash for the item being flogged by the free comic.  Of course, there are degrees of "don't buy", there being comics that I would consider checking out of the library if I ever get around to paying off my heavy fines, and books that I wouldn't give a second look to. 
I almost wish I'd been alive back in the early 1940's so that I could have followed Crockett Johnson's wonderful classic comic strip Barnaby, chronicling the misadventures of an adventurous and mischievous little boy named, of course, Barnaby and his bumbling but well-intentioned fairy godfather Mr. O'Malley, when it first ran in newspapers.  I've seen very few examples of the strip, but have loved what little I've been able to get my hands on.  That includes Fantagraphics' FCBD offering,Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, which includes the first two strips, featuring the meeting of the two principles, and the beginning of a long storyline in which Barnaby, his friend Sally, and Mr. O'Malley set out to investigate mysterious goings on at a supposedly haunted old house and find it occupied not only by a ghost who happens to be an aquaintance of O'Malley's but also by gangsters who are using it to stash the loot from the coffee shipments they've been hijacking.  These gems are but a taste of the first of five hardcover volumes to be published annually over the next five summers reprinting the entire ten year run of the strip.  I'm going to rate this one a "buy".  Sure, each volume's probably going to cost something like forty or fifty bucks, and I might not be able to afford it right away, but I'm definitely going to have to seriously consider picking up at least one of them at some time in the future.
By the way, you might recognize the art style in the cover image up above. After Barnaby, Johnson went on to write the children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon and its several sequels, which are every bit as delightful as his comics work.
Though there is precedent for it--Dell published Peanuts comics in the 50's and 60's, many of them drawn by Jim Sasseville, Charles Schulz's assistant on his short lived second strip It's Only A Game--the idea of Peanuts material being produced by anyone but Schulz seems today almost like sacrilege.  The strip was not just his life's work, it was his life, and when it ended, so did he.   That's why the preview of the new Peanuts book from Boom Studios kids imprint Kaboom is definitely in the "don't buy" column.  The writers and artists of the new material do a somewhat passable job of imitating Schulz's style of art and humor, but when they are presented alongside classic strips by the man himself, it becomes sadly obvious that something is missing, and that something is Schulz's soul.
The flip side of the book is a preview of Kaboom's Adventure Time series.  While I can see the appeal of the series to some people, it's not really my cup of tea.  Again, it's a "don't buy", at least for me.
Hermes Press, an outfit I'd never heard of before, offered up My Favorite Martian, reprinting an issue from Gold Key's adaptation of the fondly remembered 1960's sitcom featuring Ray Walston as the titular extraterrestrial "Uncle Martin" and Bill Bixby as the only Earthling privy to Martin's true nature, which ran fifteen issues, a long time by Gold Key standards, with most of their TV adaptations lasting only three or four issues, if that.  The story, "Destination Mars", tells of Martin's efforts to hitch a ride back home on a NASA space probe bound for the Red Planet.  It's actually a lot better than I expected from a Gold Key TV based comic.  The art is by veteran comics illustrator Dan Spiegle.  He doesn't quite capture Walston and Bixby's likenesses, though he gets it close enough that you can tell who they're supposed to be.  
This is a teaser for Hermes' hardcover reprinting of the entire series.  I wouldn't mind reading more, but I'm not sure I'd want to read it more than once, and I don't really want to spend fifty bucks on something I'm going to read once and then sell to Half Price Books.  So, My Favorite Martian: The Complete Series is a "don't buy", though I would check it out of the library.
I hit several stores on Free Comic Book Day and came away with nearly a dozen free comics, so this is just the first of several parts.  In the next installment, I'll look at free comics from DC, Bongo, and Bluewater.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Gay Thing

Sometimes, if you have nothing to say, it is best to say nothing.  
Thus, I was initially not going to post about DC's recent announcement that they would be reintroducing one of their "iconic" characters in his New 52 incarnation this month and that the rebooted version of this previously hetero character would be gay.  I didn't really think that I had anything cogent to say about it other than recycled opinions from other blogs.  Still, with a tagline that proclaims coverage of "All Things Sequential," I feel I would be remiss if I did not mention at least in passing THE story that has had the comics corner of the Wild, Wild Web all abuzz for the past week or so, especially since it is unfolding in one of the few current DC titles that I'm following.
Since the news hit the ether, speculation as to who this previously unnamed character would be was running heavily in favor of Alan Scott, the once and future Green Lantern of Earth-2.  Early Friday morning, DC finally let the cat out of the bag and it turns out the smart money was on the nose.  Alan Scott's newfound sexual orientation will be formally revealed in the second issue of Earth-2, arriving in comic shops this coming Wednesday.
You can question whether Alan Scott, a character whose solo series ended more than six decades ago, really meets the definition of "iconic," but that's really beside the point.  Still, I'm going to go there anyway.  Don't bother to look up the definition of "iconic."  J. Caleb Mozzocco at Robot 6 has done that bit of research for you.  The way I see it, there are only a handful of characters from either of the big two comics publishers that really fill the bill.  There's Superman, of course, along with the other two points of DC's "trinity," Batman and Wonder Woman, and maybe Aquaman, plus Spider-Man, the Hulk and possibly Captain America from Marvel.   Green Lantern might be considered an iconic name, but if you asked a random sampling of non-comics geeks who Green Lantern is, I'd guess that those who are familiar with the name at all would say either Hal Jordan, due to last summer's attempted blockbuster film, or John Stewart, who filled the role in Cartoon Network's Justice League series.
Of course, DC has always employed a much broader definition of "iconic."  I saw a recent solicitation that applied the term to Looker from The Outsiders.   I guess in that case, the word "iconic" means "a character who has never really mattered to anyone except her creator, Mike W. Barr. "
There has been, amongst the comics commentariat, questions of DC's motives in making one of their oldest characters gay.  To me, that's pretty obvious.  DC's sole motivation since 1935 has been, quite simply, to sell comic books.  Toward this end,  both major comics publishers have eagerly, though sometimes a bit belatedly, jumped on whatever bandwagon was passing by.  You probably remember the spate of martial arts inspired characters back in the 70's when Kung Fu movies and the TV series Kung Fu were the current next big thing.  Then there was the CB radio fad, inspiring a small wave of CB lingo spouting, truck driving super-heroes such as Marvel's Razorback. Need I remind you, as well, of Dazzler, who looked like a living disco ball on skates.  Thus, following the trend of following trends, DC and Marvel have surveyed the zeitgeist and realized that "gay" is the was hot last month.
The ideal scenario would be if DC's announcement, and Marvel's announcement that its highest profile gay character, the relatively obscure even to geeks Northstar, would be getting married to his boyfriend in an upcoming issue, were not news at all.  In a perfect world, DC would introduce a character who just happened to be gay and the response be a collective shrug because, you know, that's just part of life.   But the big two aren't even there in regards to minority or gender representation yet.  It's sadly still big news when either of them introduce a character who isn't a white male.   So it seems that instead of indicating how far comics have come, DC's big news has only pointed out how far comics, and society as a whole, have yet to go.