Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rushes

(Note: I composed this post before hearing the news of the shootings during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado.  I gave some thought to not posting this, as perhaps some people might find a somewhat snarky post about DKR to be inappropriate at this point in time.  Of course, this piece has nothing to do with that tragedy,  just as it is likely that  the tragedy had nothing to do  with DKR.  The shooter was obviously a very deeply troubled individual and the film that happened to be on the screen when he chose to launch his assault was probably completely immaterial.  Nonetheless, I sincerely apologize to any who might find fault with the timing of this post.)
One of the most astounding traits of the American people is our nearly limitless capacity for outrage.  We are able at the drop of a hat to get ourselves all bent out of shape at the most trivial of provocations.   This quality is not limited to the pundits of the extreme right, though they tend to be the most vocal about and thus garner the most mainstream media attention for their lunatic rantings.  The latest case in point concerns our old friend Rush Limbaugh, who worked himself into a lather on his show a couple of days ago over the fact that the villain in The Dark Knight Rises is Bane, whose name just happens to sound like Bain, as in Bain Capital, the suddenly controversial firm headed by Republican Presidential nominee-to-be Mitt Romney back in the 80's and 90's.
"Do you think that it is accidental," Rush bloviated, "that the name of the really vicious fire breathing four eyed whatever it is villain in this movie is named Bane?"  
(I know that films based on comics often take a lot of liberties with the source material, but does DKR's Bane really have four eyes and breathe fire?  If so, I have got to see this movie!)
While I am familiar with the concept of rhetorical questions, this one deserves an answer.  It is not "accidental" that the film's villain is named Bane.  Few screenplays are written by accident.  It is, however, completely coincidental that the villain's name sounds like the name of Romney's former employer.  
It has, of course, been repeatedly pointed out elsewhere in cyber-land that the character of Bane was created in 1993, long before Mitt Romney even got into politics, much less thought of running for  President.  More germane to to this so-called controversy, however, is that DKR director Christopher Nolan apparently conceived of his Batman films as a trilogy right from the start.  Therefore, it is likely that he had the whole series, including Bane's appearance in the final installment, mapped out before the cameras even rolled on Batman Begins.  That film hit theaters in 2005, three years before Romney's first, unsuccessful quest for the GOP nomination.
Anyway, Rush seems to think that people are going to see this film and come to associate Mitt Romney with a comic book super-villain.  Maybe he's got a point.  After all, I believe it was legendary showman P.T. Barnum who said that no one ever went  broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.  (...which sort of sounds like it could be Rush's motto, come to think of it.)  And aren't the voters of this nation so easily misled that four years ago they were tricked into electing a Kenyan-born Muslim Socialist to be their leader?
Because of Rush's comments, Chuck Dixon, writer of Vengeance of Bane, the character's debut appearance, has felt the need to defend himself by asserting that he and VoB artist Graham Nolan are two of the comics industry's staunchest conservatives.
That got me to wondering about something.  If Nolan really is the rock-ribbed Republican that Dixon says he is, how did he feel about drawing Hawkworld, a comic with a unabashedly liberal point of view?   He probably, I suppose, viewed it as just another job.  There's certainly no indication in the issues he drew that he was giving the assignment any less than his best effort. 
I've noted before that there seems to be something almost inherently right wing in the very concept of the super-hero.  This sort of makes me wonder why I remain a fan of the genre.  According to a quiz that I recently took on Facebook, my own political views would appear to be more in line with those of the Presidential candidate of the Green Party.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

THIS Is The Best You Got? Seriously?!?

It has often been observed that prior to John Byrne's 1986 revamp of the character, Superman had become so ridiculously powerful that it was difficult for the writers to come up with credible challenges for him.  To me, that sounds like a lame excuse for churning out mediocre stories.  Still, I suppose there is some truth to it. If Superman #299 is any indication, it certainly seems to have been nigh impossible for Silver and Bronze Age writers to come up with decent villains for him to fight.
"The Double-Or-Nothing Life of Superman" was written by Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin and drawn, it pretty much goes without saying as we are talking about 1970's Superman here, by Curt Swan with inks by Bob Oksner. It is the concluding chapter of a four part epic (that should probably be in quotes) centered around the machinations of Clark Kent's mysterious neighbor, Mr. Xavier.  It turns out that Mr. Xavier is really Xviar, an agent of an unnamed alien planet referred to only as "Homeworld" which plans to destroy the Earth in order to make way for a hyperspace by-pass, because, of course, "by-passes have to be built."  
That is not just a random Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy allusion that I threw in just for the heck of it.  It's the actual plot of the story.  Ok, so Bates and Maggin don't call it a "hyperspace by-pass".  Instead, its a "teleportation route", but the basic effect is the same. 
Anyway, as part of his plan to use Superman's powers to destroy the planet, Xviar rounds up Superman's "9 Deadliest Foes".  There's a panel early in the issue where the villains are all convened in Clark Kent's apartment before being dispersed to the far corners of the globe by Xviar. (Funny that none of them questioned why they were summoned to that particular apartment and put two and two together to deduce that Clark Kent just might be Superman.)
Those gathered include:
  1. Lex Luthor
  2. Brainiac
  3. The Parasite
  4. Terra-Man
  5. The Toyman
  6. The Prankster
  7. Mr. Mxyzptlk
  8. The Kryptonite Man
  9. Amalak
This bunch of clowns are Superman's deadliest foes?
Ok, Luthor, the Parasite and Brainiac I can buy. They are legitimate bad asses. The rest, however, are kind of lame.  Who's even heard of Amalak?  If he was really one of the Man of Steel's "deadliest foes," how come he didn't rate even half a page in Who's Who?  Furthermore, I've never really thought of Mxyzptlk as a "fearsome super-villain" but as more of a pain in the tuchus.
And why only nine? Was Superman's Rogue's Gallery really so weak that Bates and Maggin couldn't even muster a top ten?  
If they were having a lame villain convention, maybe they should have invited Whirlicane, so named because he is "dual master of whirlwind and hurricane!" as he tells us in #303.  I don't think Blackrock had been created yet, but he would have fit right in with this pack of losers.  The same goes for the Purple Pile-Driver. (No. I did not just make him up.)
You might be wondering why Bizarro and Metallo didn't make the scene.  Without asking Bates or Maggin, I cannot account for Bizarro's absence.  Metallo, on the other hand, was at the time spending a few years dead for tax purposes.  (That, by the way, IS a Hitchhiker's reference.  More specifically, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.)
Actually, the original Metallo would remain dead. About a year later, Martin Pasko would create a new Metallo, the brother of the first one.  He also brought back from comics limbo Titano the Super-Ape, who would have fit right in with crowd listed above, though he might not have fit into Clark's apartment.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

GONZO: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson Reviewed

Here, then, before we get to the meat of the review, are the basic facts of the matter before us.  Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson, written by Will Bingley and  illustrated by Anthony Hope-Smith with an introduction by Thompson's former editor Alan Rinzler, was originally published a couple of years ago by a British outfit called SelfMadeHero, and has just been re-released in a new edition by Abrams here in the States.  The 192 page paperback will set you back $17.95 if you still want to buy a copy after reading what I've got to say about it.
My opinion, I must say, seems to be in the minority.  I Googled the title and found several reviews written around the time of the original edition's release, and most of them are, if not glowing, at least positive.   I myself found little of value between those bright orange covers other than Rinzler's introduction, which I shall deal with in more detail presently.  First though, I must dash off my dismissal of the main body of the book.  
Bingley and Smith attempt with this book, as they state in this interview, to get beyond the public persona of "Dr. Gonzo" that Thompson built up around himself and that is perpetuated in such films as Where The Buffalo Roam and Terry Gilliam's version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to, in Bingley's words, "tell a more interesting story."  There is a more interesting story to be told, but you won't read it here.  Bingley's narrative is written in the first person as if by Thompson himself in a semi-convincing pastiche of Thompson's style at its most lucid that may fool some with only a passing familiarity with his work into thinking that they are reading some sort of lost manuscript by Thompson himself.  However, Thompson's seemingly dashed off prose style was deceptively easy to imitate on the surface, but full of depth of meaning and insight combined with an inventive use of  language that his imitators, myself at times among them, rarely even attempt to duplicate beyond repeated and inappropriate use of the word "shitrain" and references to "bad craziness".  Ultimately, Bingley barely manages to scratch the surface, failing to capture the true complexity of Thompson's life and work.
The book focuses mainly on the 1970's, which I suppose is only right as this was his most productive period.  However, the final decades of his life are also important to an understanding of the man and his ultimate fate and deserve better than to be dismissed in a couple of scratchily drawn and sparsely captioned pages.  The book ends, of  course, with Thompson's death at his own hands.  Bingley seems to be among those who want to paint Thompson's end as some sort of noble or brave and heroic act, when, in fact, suicide is neither of those things.  I will have to admit that as much as I continue to admire Thompson's literary accomplishments, I lost some small measure of respect for the man because of his final act.
Of course, Bingley's failure to capture the essence of Thompson's soul is no surprise if he can't even get straight the basic biographical facts of the man's life. On page 17, "Thompson" states, "My first job was as a sportswriter in New Jersey in   1957," which is not accurate, or even true. While it is certainly a fact that Thompson began his civilian career as a journalist in the small town of Jersey Shore, that town is, as I learned in college when I met a young woman who had grown up there (and I wish I could remember her name), neither in New Jersey nor anywhere near a shore.  Instead, it is located near the center of my home state of Pennsylvania.  Apparently, Bingley wrote his caption based on an assumption made by simply looking at the town's name rather than doing any actual tedious and time consuming research.
I came away from this book with no greater understanding of its subject than I'd had before.  The only real insight into Thompson's personality is offered in the introduction by Alan Rinzler, who was Thompson's editor on what he calls "...four of his best books": Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail '72, Amerika, The Great Shark Hunt, and The Curse of Lono. The intro seems a bit odd to me, as it reads as if it were not specifically written for this particular book.  At the very least, Rinzler appears not to have even read the volume he's supposed to writing an introduction to.  Not once does he make any reference to the book we are about to read or its authors, focusing instead on his personal recollections of working with Thompson.  Sadly, though, those scant eight pages of prose give us more insight into who Thompson truly was than the entire 180 page sequential narrative that follows.
The one good thing I got out of this book was a renewed desire to re-read some of the classic pieces by Thompson referenced within.  Thus, I set out to pick up a new copy of The Great Shark Hunt, which, as far as I'm concerned, is, along with Campaign Trail, Hell's Angels and Songs of the Doomed, all the biography of Thompson that anyone really needs. For in Thompson's case, more than for any of the other so-called "new journalists" with whom he is often lumped in, his life and work where truly of a piece and inseparable.
If Gonzo inspires anyone else to go out and re-read, or, better yet, discover for the first time, Thompson's literary legacy, then I suppose that its existence will have been justified.  Personally, I would advise anyone curious about Thompson to skip this book and use the eighteen bucks you save to purchase the books I make reference to above.  That would be a much wiser investment of your cash and reading time.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

It Ain't Necessarily So

Just because I feel like playing Devil's Advocate this afternoon, I want to address one other aspect of the advanced criticism of "Before Watchmen" that showed up again and again across the Wild, Wild Web.  That is the notion that prequels to Watchmen were going to automatically suck because Alan Moore wasn't writing them, which seems to carry with it the assumption that any follow-up to Watchmen that was done by Moore would have been brilliant.
That  ain't necessarily so.
It is entirely possible that a Watchmen sequel by Moore and Dave Gibbons could have been awful, and a bad sequel by the original creators would have done more to damage the reputation of the original than anything done by a bunch of hired guns.
I can, just off the top of my head, come up with a long list of sequels  to classic works by the original creators that didn't even come close to matching the brilliance of the originals.
Need I mention the Star Wars prequels?  I'm sure that even a lot of hardcore Star Wars fans would prefer that I didn't.
Then there's The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which, while it may have charms of its own for certain readers, comes nowhere near matching the sheer visceral gut-level impact of The Dark Knight Returns.
While I've never read them, I've heard that the sequels to the novel MASH, and there are quite a few, are fairly awful, and all of them are written by Richard Hooker, the author of the original.
One of my favorite Superman stories is "The Super-Cigars of Perry White" from Action Comics #436.  The story was written by Elliot S! Maggin and drawn by Curt Swan.  A couple of issues earlier, in a story I've never read, Daily Planet editor Perry White had apparently aided Superman in overthrowing a dictator on an alien world.   In gratitude, a pair of teenagers from that planet are dispatched to Earth to bring a gift to Perry.  Without telling White, they substitute his normal cigars for stogies that will give him any super-power that he can think of while he is smoking them.  On a trip to New York City, accompanied by Clark Kent, to accept his latest Pulitzer Prize, awarded, I believe, for reporting on that same extraterrestrial civil war that he and Superman had intervened in, Perry uses his newfound powers to aid the Man of Steel in rescuing the very plane he and Clark are traveling on and defeating a nameless criminal driving a nuclear powered super-tank.  Only after deducing that he was gaining any super-power that he asked for and asking for the power to know where his powers come from does Perry learn the source of his mysterious new abilities. Realizing that he has only one super-cigar remaining, Perry locks it a wall safe concealed behind his framed Pulitzer Prize certificate in case of a later emergency.
One thing that I love about this story, aside from its sheer brilliant silliness, is how absolutely politically incorrect the very concept is.  You just know that "The Super-Cigars of Perry White" would never get printed today.  Given the political and social climate of the last couple of decades, no comics publisher would dare to present a story that even hinted at any positive effects of smoking.  Hell, I'm a little surprised that it got past editor Julius Schwartz's desk even back in 1974.
Anyway, to get back to my point in even mentioning this story, in 1982, after a few years away from the Superman titles, Maggin returned as of Superman #376 with a story entitled " The Ozone-Master Comes Calling!" which was a direct sequel to "The Super-Cigars of Perry White."  Perry White is attacked in his home by the eponymous Ozone-Master in order to prevent Perry from publishing incriminating photos in the Planet.  From his hospital bed, he directs Superman to bring him his last super-cigar from the wall safe in his office.  Perry uses the powers granted by the alien stogie to temporarily restore himself to full health and aid Superman in bringing the Ozone-Master to justice.  
While just as politically incorrect as its predecessor, Superman #376 possesses none of the original's goofy charms.  Instead, it is a fairly bland Superman tale, pretty typical of the stuff that DC was cranking out in the half decade prior to John Byrne's 1986 revamp of the character in The Man of Steel.
Well, I think I've managed to make my point and I got to talk about one of my favorite comic book stories.  All in all, a good day at the keyboard.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Living In The Past (Action Comics #463)

Perhaps, as has been theorized, a nation still reeling from the upheavals of the 1960's and the trauma of Watergate was desperately seeking a reason to feel good about itself.  Perhaps it was a natural and predictable expression of some inborn American tendency toward hype, excess and spectacle.  Perhaps the occasion actually warranted all the hooplah.  
Whatever the deeper reasons, in the summer of 1976, as the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence neared, the United States of America was a country in the full grip of "Bicentennial Fever."
Everyone wanted in on the gig, including the nation's oldest publisher of comic books.  That's only fitting, of course.  By the mid-70's, DC Comic's flagship character, Superman, had become as widely recognized a symbol of "truth, justice and the American Way," as the intro to his 1950's TV series put it, as Old Glory and Apple Pie. Somehow seeing a drawing of the Man of Steel standing alongside the Founding Fathers at the signing of the Declaration didn't seem all that odd.
That is the image that graces the splash page of Action Comics #463, DC's contribution to the celebration of America's 200th birthday.  "Die Now, Live Later," written by Cary Bates and drawn by Curt Swan and Tex Blaisdell, is actually the concluding chapter of a four part story.  However, you don't need to have read the previous three installments to get a clear picture of what's going on in this issue.  I never have and I really don't feel the need to.  Bates does such a good job of laying out the story so far that reading the previous issues seems kind of redundant.  
Of course, before he does that, Bates lets us wonder just what the heck is going on for a page or five.   After that splash page I mentioned before, which depicts a scene that doesn't actually occur in the story, we see Clark reporting for work.  However, he's reporting to Ben Franklin at the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the assignment he receives is to cover the signing of Declaration of Independence later that day, July 4, 1776.
As is often the case with super-heroes trapped several centuries in the past, Clark has no memory of his life as Superman in the 20th century or of his extraordinary powers.   Gradually, however, his powers begin to manifest themselves, such as when he instinctively acts to subdue a ruanaway horse, and every time he looks in a mirror he sees not the colonial garb that everyone else sees, but his Superman costume.
This is where Bates breaks in to tell us what's really up.  You see, it turns out that Superman's "deadliest foe," a weird looking, white skinned, red haired alien named Karb-Brak, the amazing palindromic man, has exiled Superman in the far reaches of history so that he can survive.  Karb-Brak ended up on Earth after being forced to leave his home planet, a place where everyone has super-powers, because he happens to be fatally allergic to people with super-powers.  He thought he could live out his life in peace here, but he seems to have been about the only person in the whole Milky Way galaxy who'd never heard of Superman.  Desperate to survive, Karb-Brak uses his multi-purpose Psi-Machine to erase Superman's memory, send him back to the past, and cause everyone there to see not his super-suit but typical attire of the period, unless they happen to be looking in a mirror.  The amazing Psi-Machine also allows Karb-Brak to see into the past and check up on how Superman is doing.
It's too bad that with all the other things it was capable of, the Psi-Machine wasn't able to remove Superman's powers, especially his power to travel through time.  After Clark suddenly finds himself seeing through the walls of Independence Hall, he regains his memory just in time to foil a plot by British spies to steal the Declaration of Independence before it can be signed.
With America's future thus secured, Superman returns to 1976 Metropolis to do battle with Karb-Brak, who "dies" as a result of his contact with the Man of Steel.   Superman takes the clinically dead alien to his Fortress of Solitude where he cures Karb-Brak's fatal allergy, then revives him.  ( Thus the story's title "Die Now, Live Later.")  Then Superman uses Karb-Brak's own Psi-Machine to force him to use his shape changing powers to assume human form and forget that he's an alien.  The story ends with Clark Kent sitting on a city bus next to construction worker Andrew Meda.  (Oh, I forgot to mention that Karb-Brak was from the Andromeda galaxy.  Get it?)
While the story is certainly fun and enjoyable, with great art by Swan (especially his crazy design for Karb-Brak),  when you stop and think about it plot holes that you could fly the Death Star through become glaringly apparent.  If Karb-Brak is allergic to super-powers, yet possesses super-powers himself, how come he isn't allergic to himself?  Why does sending Superman to the past seem to alleviate his fatal allergy?  What about Supergirl and the dozens of other super-powered beings running around the DC Universe by 1976?  And why, once he's cured Karb-Brak, doesn't Superman send him to his own planet rather than force him to stay on Earth disguised as a human?  After all, as Bates tells us in a caption during his recap, Karb-Brak isn't actually evil.  It was only his will to survive that brought him into conflict with Superman in the first place.
This, of course, simply proves what I've said many times.  With super-hero stories, especially a lot of Bronze Age DC comics, its best not to think about them too much and just enjoy for them for what they are.  What Action Comics #463 is happens to be a pretty good Superman story and a fun salute to America's Bicentennial.

Monday, July 2, 2012

And The Winner Should Be...

Though its been around since 2005, I did not know about the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing until I heard the news that my old friend Steve Skeates is one of this year's honorees.  Now that I do, I'm glad that such an award exists.  Its long past time that the comics industry got around to acknowledging the tireless workhorses who gave their lives to an artform they loved for little pay and, in many cases, no credit, forming the backbone that has supported the industry for eight decades.  Too often, their only "reward" was to be pushed aside when it was deemed they had grown too old in favor of younger talent willing to work for less money, or blacklisted for having the temerity to meekly ask for fair and proper compensation for their work or maybe some benefits from the giant corporations profiting by their labors.  
Its kind of a shame that there has to be a posthumous component to the award.   It would have been nice to see men such as Gardner Fox, John Broome, and Bob Haney given their due during their lifetimes.
I wonder if Mark Evanier and his selection committee might be open to suggestions for future recipients of the Finger.  Regardless, I have one.  Actually, I have several.  But the very first name that lept to mind when I heard about the award was Tony Isabella.  He's the ideal candidate for this prize.  It almost seems as if the Finger Award were created with him in mind.  Though if it were, he'd probably have won it by now.
Best known as the creator of Black Lightning, Tony's accomplishments in comics are many and varied.  In four decades, he has been involved with all aspects of the industry, both on the creative side, as an editor and writer of and about comics, and on the retail end, as owner of his own comics shop for many years.   In addition to Black Lightning, Tony's writing credits range from Black Goliath, Ghost Rider, The Incredible Hulk, The Champions, Daredevil,  and many, many others for Marvel, to Green Arrow, Hawkman, and Star Trek and others at DC, to Comico's Justice Machine, to Satan's Six with Topps Comics, to The Grim Ghost for the revived Atlas Comics.  A more complete list of Tony's comics work can be found here.  He is also the author of the book 1000 Comic Books You Must Read.  You can read Tony's latest writing at his blog.
Another one of the funniest things I have ever read in a comic book is the opening line of Welcome Back, Kotter #3.  While the line has stuck in my mind for thirty-five years and still cracks me up every time I think of it, I do not , unfortunately, currently own a copy of that issue.  Therefore, I'll be quoting it from memory and might not get it exactly right.  However, it goes something like this: "There are a million stories in the Naked City.  There are almost as many in Brooklyn, but here we keep our clothes on.  It makes it easier to conceal weapons that way."  I was eleven years old when I read that and I didn't pay too much attention to who created the comics I read.  Thus it was only recently, while researching my post about Welcome Back, Kotter, that I learned that issue, and that joke, was written by none other than Tony Isabella.
Of course, once I put my mind to it, it wasn't hard to come up with a list of other writers, both living and dead, who deserve the recognition of their peers and comics readers.   Below are just a few of them:
I'm sure all of you can think of long time comics creators also worthy of some overdue recognition.   Why don't you share some of those names with me and my other readers in the comments section?