Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Focus on Firestorm: The Fury of Firestorm #1 (1982)

At last, I remove this particular sword of Damocles that has been hovering over my big fat, football shaped head for something like nine months now.  Below is the repeatedly promised second part of my series reviewing all of Firestorm's debut issues.
Up until the early 1980's, when a canceled comic was revived, the original numbering was picked up rather than starting with a new first issue.  This apparently had something to do with postal regulations regarding fees for registering a new publication.  It was cheaper for a publisher to revive an existing publication than to launch a new one.  Thus, when Green Lantern was revived in 1976 after a four year hiatus, it picked up with issue #90.  Blackhawk was revived twice, first for a mere seven issues that began with #244 in '76, then again with #251 in 1982.  When a character was granted a new first issue, the new series was given a slightly different title from the earlier volume.  For example, Teen Titans became The New Teen Titans, Swamp Thing returned in The Saga of the Swamp Thing, and the focus of this post, Firestorm, came back to newsstands in 1982 in The Fury of Firestorm.  This incarnation of Firestorm's title would prove to be the longest lasting to date, enduring to its 100th issue in 1990.
In the first issue's text piece, Firestorm's writer and creator Gerry Conway admits to not being to thrilled about the new title, especially the word "Fury."  He envisioned the Nuclear Man not as an angry hero, but as one who reveled in his powers and enjoyed being a super-hero.  That lighthearted tone is established in the very first scene of the new series, as a tired Firestorm attempts to take a nap a half mile above New York City, only to find that his control over his powers disappears when he's asleep, causing him to plummet comically earthward.
After the somewhat slapstick opening scene, readers are introduced, or re-introduced, as the case may be, to Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Martin Stein and Bradley High student Ronnie Raymond, the two men who merge to form Firestorm, as well as Ronnie's girlfriend Doreen Day and his schoolyard nemesis Cliff Carmichael.  From my rather limited reading of Conway's Firestorm, it seems to me that while Ronnie had a stable supporting cast, Professor Stein only ever seemed to have such friends and/or relations as were called for by the story at hand. We also meet two new characters who are to play important roles in the issue's story, Bradley High teacher John Ravenhair, and his great-grandfather, a shaman of the Native American Bison Cult.
Following a brief recap of Firestorm's origin and early adventures for those readers who may have blinked and missed Firestorm's first short-lived series, the story begins in earnest.  While Mr. Ravenhair takes his class on a field trip to the New York Museum of Natural History, great grampa, sensing that he hasn't long left to live, heads to Central Park to perform a ritual apparently meant to pass on his magical buffalo shaman type powers to his great grandson.  The old man's death comes sooner than he expects when he is attacked and killed by muggers before he can complete the ritual.  The unfinished spell transforms John Ravenhair into the super powered menace Black Bison, who runs amuck at the museum.  Pulling Stein out of a meeting, Ronnie initiates the transformation into the nuclear man.  After a brief tussle, Bison escapes, heading ultimately to the residence of Senator Walter Reilly, father of Lorraine Reilly, who will eventually become Firehawk.  Firestorm takes off in pursuit of his erstwhile teacher, but his search comes up empty.
Storywise, this is a solid, if fairly unremarkable, super-hero story, pretty typical of the times.  Conway does a decent job of balancing the demands of longtime fans who stuck with the character during the lean years and those new readers who might have picked up the book just because it was a #1.  He is, after all, a professional.
As opposed to Firestorm's previous debut issue, which suffered from an excess of Al Milgrom, the art by Pat Broderick is the best thing about this comic.  In fact, it will come as no surprise to those who know me well that this issue has my favorite art of all the Firestorm first issues DC has yet put out.  I have been a fan of Broderick's work since I first saw it on, if I remember correctly, a Batman story in Detective Comics back in the late 70's.  Since then, I've marveled at his beautiful work on books such as Captain Atom (which, though there's no indication of it in the credits, I suspect he had a hand in plotting, as the quality dipped pretty sharply pretty much the minute he was off the book), Green Lantern, and Ragman.  Ragman, by the way, was the first book I actually bought specifically because Broderick drew it.  Though, with a story by Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming, I didn't regret the decision. 
You know, the most surprising thing to happen at this year's SPACE show was that I learned that there is at least one person out there who's actually reading these Firestorm posts and looking forward to more.  So, maybe there won't be such a long time before the next one.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Meeting Mr. Danny B

I know that this is supposed to be a blog about comics, yet try as I might I can't come up with any way to connect what I'm about to write to that topic.  It is about art, however, and, as anyone inside the Columbus, Ohio alternative comics scene will tell you, comics are just as valid an art form as any, so there. 
Anyway, I find myself unable to decide between two leads for this piece, so I'm going to use them both.
1) In the wake of the rather dramatic rent increase accompanying the recent remodeling of my apartment, I've given serious thought to moving once again just as soon as I can set aside enough money to pay for the deposit/first month's rent.  Last night confirmed for me, however, that if I do move, I want to stay in this neighborhood, identified by a pair of arches on both ends as "Old North Columbus," so called because this area actually used to be a separate municipality named North Columbus until it was annexed by Columbus proper  sometime in the 1840s. (I jokingly refer to it as the CVS District, because on the corner by both of those identifying arches is a CVS/Pharmacy.) 
2) As I begin to write this, it is a warm Memorial Weekend Sunday morning.  The sky is, as my first girlfriend, Kelly, once said on a similarly warm and sunny spring day in the late 1980s, "...just the perfect shade of blue" and even the fluffy, white, non-threatening clouds that served only to add a touch of contrast to the azure expanse have drifted on.  Across Wilcox Street from my apartment building, two dozen or so paintings still lean against the south facing wall of Andy's Carry-Out.  If you were to come by right this minute, you could grab one or more of them to brighten up your own abode.  That is, after all, what they are there for. 
Ever since I moved here little more than a year ago, Jonathon Riddle and I had occasionally noticed these paintings on boards propped up against Andy's wall, prompting Jonathon to wonder just what the heck they were doing there.  He mused that perhaps some sort of tragic automobile accident had occurred at that corner and this was some sort of memorial to the poor victims.  Fortunately, the real story, which we learned on Saturday evening, is nowhere near that sad and bloody. 
We had just gotten in Jonathon's car to go to a party for a friend of ours , a fellow member of the Sunday Comix cartoonists group, who had graduated high school that afternoon when I glanced over and noticed a car parked by Andy's and a young man in shorts and a grey t-shirt pulling paintings out of the back seat and placing them against the wall.  I mentioned to Jonathon that if he wanted to know the meaning of those enigmatic paintings then this would be a good time to ask.  
That's how we met Danny, or, more properly, "Mr. Danny B," which is how he signs his work when he signs it at all.  "I'm not doing this to get famous," he told us.  Well, then he shouldn't object to me writing about him.  Nobody's going to get famous from being mentioned on this blog, where my page views stay pretty consistent at about fifty per day regardless of whether I post anything new or not.  Of course, one must wonder how much Blogger's stats can be trusted when they're telling me I had almost five hundred page views in the month before I even started the blog. 
Back to Danny B.  What follows is my best attempt, relying on my middle aged memory, to reconstruct the conversation, which might be easier if I hadn't had so much to drink at the party.  I wish I'd had a note pad or a tape recorder with me, but when I left my apartment, I hadn't planned on encountering anything worth writing about.
Danny told us a bit about himself and his art while never pausing in the task of arranging and rearranging the pieces against the wall of the beer distributor.  A lifelong resident of Columbus, he has been placing his works on that corner for about three years now, dating back to the time when he used to live in the Old North area, in, I believe, the very building in which I now reside.  He estimated that he's set outer some two hundred pieces during that time. Its his way of making the neighborhood, and the city, a more colorful and interesting place.  His form of street art is reaction of sorts to graphiti, which he dismisses, for the most part as not art.  Though he does admit that sometimes, in places such as under bridges or on train cars, it can indeed be worthy of the name.  Apparently, according to Danny, as long as the numbers on the side of the car remain visible, nobody will bother to paint over the graphiti.  I got the sense that he had delivered this talk before to others who'd wandered over to talk to him, curious about what he was up to.  Still, he sounded spontaneous and genuinely excited about what he was saying.
 When he lived here, he revealed, he used to watch that corner after putting out his latest display and observe as passers by would stop and look at the painting and perhaps grab one or two.  He chuckled as he said that the liked to imagine someone sitting in their living room and staring at one of his paintings while they were high.   However, alteration of your brain chemistry is not a prerequisite to appreciation of Danny's work.
A drummer in a local band which he didn't name, Danny told us that, late at night, when he can no longer practice his instrument lest he disturb the neighbors, yet his creative juices still run high, he will turn to creating what he calls his "splatter paintings" on found boards and bits of wood.  Many of them are enhanced by gluing on photographs of models taken from magazines or found objects.  He especially likes to work with used lighters, shell casings and remote controls.  To  hang them, he attaches lengths of old power cords or phone or computer cables.
One piece, strung with an old phone cord, painted in bright colors and adorned with a row of discarded lighters, a spent shell casing, a volume knob from an old stereo (I want to make a Spinal Tap joke here, but, unfortunately, this one did NOT go to 11.) and a rubber toy shark, similar to ones that I'd played with as a child, caught my eye and I picked it up as a quite literal last minute gift for our young graduate.  Jonathon picked out a mostly blue piece with a black and white photo of an elegant young model pasted pretty much square in the center for himself and cajoled the artist into attaching a rare signature to it with a rapidly drying out old Sharpie.
To wrap this up, and to tentatively tie it to comics, we later told Max Ink, founder of Sunday Comix as well as, more importantly to my tale, writer and artist of the acclaimed graphic novel series Blink, about our encounter with Danny.  Max's stories all take place here in Columbus, and he takes great pleasure in spotlighting the people and places that make this city unique and a great place to live.  One of my first thought as Danny spun his tale for us is that Max should meet this guy.  He might be able to use Danny in his comic somehow or, if not, at the very least the two could engage in a spirited discussion of art in general and it relationship to the life of this city.
Of course, I have no idea how to get in touch with Mr. Danny B, or when he might show up again with more paintings to put out.  I bet, though, that if I put a note on the telephone pole right there by Andy's on Wilcox, he'd see it eventually.  Hell, there's always the remote chance he'll stumble on this blog post.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Earth-2 #1 Reviewed

I was going to start off this post with the old cliche "This isn't your father's Earth-2", but then, while reading other reviews of this comic trying to find one that I wanted to link to later on, I noticed that Martin Gray at Too Dangerous For A Girl, whom I mistakenly remembered as the source of the quote I was looking for, had already used that line, or at least a version of it, and I wouldn't want to be accused of plagiarizing a fellow comics blogger, especially one who occassionally reads this blog.  (At least he is listed among the "members" of this site down there near the bottom of the page, so its somewhat safe to assume that  he checks in here from time to time.) It occurs to me though, that, being old enough to remember the pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths multiverse, what I really meant to say is that this isn't MY Earth-2, or at least not the Earth-2 that I once knew and that Roy Thomas spent a good chunk of his career mapping out.
Back then, Earth-2 was the place where the characters and stories from DC's Golden Age lived and where their adventures continued.  This Earth-2 is a new world whose past, along with its future, remains largely unwritten. The spirit of the old Earth-2 is preserved, however, in that this is a world that is just slightly different from the one we know and where the heroes may have familiar names and powers but almost everything else about them is different. It is also once again a world that had super-heroes well before ours, though not quite as early as World War II.
Speaking of which, it seems to me that the old Earth-2/Justice Society of America characters were overdue for a reboot.  Even in comic book terms, it was beginning to stretch credibility to have a bunch of characters who must have been in their mid-20s in 1940 still running around and fighting crime as if they were in the prime of their youth.  This had been something of issue since about the mid-80's, but all previous "solutions" to the conundrum, including sending them off to limbo to fight in a neverending cyclical Ragnorok, magically de-aging them, or flat out killing several of them off in Zero Hour, somehow failed to take hold permanently.  But that's neither truly here nor there, and ultimately irrelevant to the topic of this post, so screw that blather and let's get back to the review at hand.
The first issue of Earth-2, the series, begins with an ending.  Earth is in the midst of what has come to be called the Apokolips War, besieged by hordes of Darkseid's parademons under the command of his uncle (at least he was Darkseid's uncle in the old continuity, in the new 52 multiverse I'm not sure of his familial status) Steppenwolf.  The world's greatest, and, it appears, only, heroes, Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, prepare  a desperate bid to turn the tide in humanity's favor. It is a gambit that succeeds, but at a terrible cost.  The "trinity" of heroes give up their lives for the cause, while their young proteges, Supergirl and Robin, are whisked off in a stray Boom Tube to a strange new world and their own adventures as Power Girl and the Huntress in the companion title Worlds' Finest.
Five years later, media mogul Alan Scott puts the finishing touches on a web documentary commemorating the anniversary of the heroes' sacrifice as he sits aboard his private plane enroute to China.  Meanwhile, recent college graduate Jay Garrick has himself quite an eventful day.  First his girlfriend dumps him and heads off to take a new job on the West Coast, then he is confronted by Mercury, the last survivor of the gods, who carries a dire warning of a new threat arising.  Mercury says that the Earth now needs a hero, and it seems pretty obvious that Jay is going to be that hero.
Along the way we are introduced to diminutive Army sergeant Al Pratt, and Jay's erstwhile girlfriend Joan mentions that her new job is with an outfit called Tyler-Chem, providing hints of possible future developments to those with even a passing knowledge of the old continuity.  
Now, if I read fewer blogs maybe I'd be able to keep them straight.  The review of this issue at The Back Issue Bin, in a sentiment that I, as I stated above, mistakenly attributed in my mind to TDFAG (hmm...perhaps I'd best not use that initialism anymore, lest I be accused of hate speech), states that the comic " felt more like a 'zero' issue" than a number one.  If by that the writer meant to imply that the story is more of prologue than the true beginning of an "epic", despite what the cover blurb decries, then I agree with him one hundred percent.  But it is a prologue that accomplishes beautifully what it sets out to do, which is what a prologue is meant to do.  It establishes the world of the story and draws the reader into the world, filling him with anticipation for the beginning of the tale proper.
This is not, by any means, a startlingly original story.  Tales where the old guardians have long since disappeared and new heroes must rise up to meet a new or reborn menace litter the annals of super-hero comics and all of fantasy literature in general.  That's not a criticism.  After all, I heard it said that all storytelling is simply a series of endless variations on a mere seven basic plots.  The merit of any story, then, is judged on how well the tale is told, and writer James Robinson and artists Nicola Scott and Trevor Scott (coincidence? or kinship?) tell this particular tale exceedingly well.
I began this review with the comment that this wasn't my Earth-2, but ,truth to tell, I was never all that invested in the stories of that long gone alternate world, although the annual epics wherein the veteran heroes of the JSA would cross dimensional space to team up with their younger counterparts in the Justice League of America and perhaps some other team of long forgotten Golden Age heroes who'd been set up on their own alternate Earth remain some of my favorites of the Silver and Bronze Ages.  (By the way, I don't see much potential for a new series of JLA/JSA team-ups, at least not as long as the basic premise of Worlds' Finest depends on the near impossibility of bridging the gulf between dimensions, leaving that books protaganists stranded on Earth-1 or whatever its official New 52 designation is these days.  Still, the fact that the old guard of heroes on Earth-2 died while fighting off the hordes of Darkseid while their counterparts on another Earth were coming together as a team in the first arc of the relaunched Justice League of America to face the lord of Apokolips and his parademons on their own world does seem to me to be fodder for a future crossover somewhere down the line.)  However, I did thoroughly enjoy this comic and as long as Robinson can keep up this level of quality, this is, in fact, MY Earth-2.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Comics You Could Have Picked Up At SPACE Part 2

Hunter S. Thompson has been much on my mind of late.  A couple of weeks ago, I purchased a copy of the new edition of  Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith's "graphic biography" of Thompson, Gonzo, a review of which shall be forthcoming. I have long been a fan of Thompson's work, but over the years, my collection of Thompson's books had dwindled to zero, with my copies being either stolen, lost or borrowed and never returned.  Slowly, I have begun to rebuild it, first picking up a new (new to me, at least, it's an early printing that I picked up at Half Price Books) copy of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and just a few days ago, inspired by Gonzo to reread some of the classic Thompson pieces referenced in the comic, I purchased The Gonzo Papers Anthology, which collects in one hefty brick of a trade paperback the three of Thompson's books that carry the "Gonzo Papers" subtitle: The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine, and Song of the Doomed.  (Anyone who's looking for something to get me for my birthday in September should note that I still need a new copy of Hell's Angels.) Readers of my various blogs over the years should be able to spot when I've been re-reading Thompson, as I am overcome by a barely controllable urge to imitate his prose style.
At such times, I also tend to emulate Thompson's tendency to careen wildly off topic, thus explaining the above paragraph about my favorite writer and my book buying habits in a post that is meant to be about comics I purchased at SPACE last month.
Of course, the tangent about HST isn't entirely off-topic, as it does segue neatly into the discussion of Bill Volk's 24-Hour Comic The Dewey Decimal System Is Decadent and Depraved.   From the cover, it is apparent that Volk is as big an admirer of Thompson as I am.  Not only is the cover design and lettering reminiscent of Ralph Steadman's work on Campaign Trail and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the very title of the comic harkens back to Thompson's seminal "gonzo" article about the Kentucky Derby.
The cover, though, is as Thompsonesque as the comic gets.  The story itself displays a style that is, I assume though I've never read anything else by him, uniquely Volk's.   It concerns Bill's experiences after he got a job shelving books at a library. He discovers that Maus gets shelved in the "History" section apart from the other graphic novels.  At first, this upsets him and he sets out to discover the reason for it, but no one he turns to can answer his questions about who assigns the Dewey Decimal numbers.  The bulk of the comic is taken up by a hallucinatory fever dream in which an astral Volk goes on a spiritual journey, confronting the specters of Melvil Dewey, Art Spiegelman and Fortuna, who seems to be a sort of personification of Fate, attempting to find the enlightenment he seeks.
In the end, Volk awakes to a conclusion that mirrors a point I've been making for years.  He realizes that there shouldn't even be a separate "graphic novel" section in libraries, or, I might add, in bookstores, for that matter.  Maus should go in the History section, fiction comics should be shelved with other fiction and literature novels. Likewise, I have long contended that Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics should sit besided Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media (speaking of potential birthday gifts, my copy of that book seems to have disappeared somewhere along the line), and American Splendor should be found in the "Biography" section. 
It doesn't seem right to talk about the art in a 24-Hour comic.  To say it seems rushed is kind of silly, as that is the very nature of the beast, and the creator may not even be an artist normally.  Still, I want to say that art has a certain simplistic charm about it and tells the tale clearly and cleanly.
You can order a copy of The Dewey Decimal System Is Decadent and Depraved at Bill Volk's web-site.
Jack C. Harris and Joe Quesada's 1991 mini-series The Ray turned out to be one of my favorite comics of that year, but due to the fact that DC barely promoted this book, I had no idea what to expect from it.  In fact, the reason I initially picked it up when I saw it at a convenience store in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania--where I was living at the time--is that it had my name on the cover.  This same self-centeredness also motivated my purchase at SPACE of Nathan Kissel's Cosmic Raymond.  Once again, it turned out to be a good decision.  Raymond tells the story of an ordinary office worker who recieves a message from outer space telling him that he has been "chosen" and finds himself whisked off to another planet to stand in line with others who have been "chosen" to be tested to see if they are the king of a race of odd looking aliens whose return has been foretold by prophecy.
This is an clever and amusing, well drawn comic.  I especially like the way Kissel uses pictograms to depict Raymond's thoughts. 
In an introduction, Kissel says that he wasn't able to finish the comic, at least not to his satisfaction, so he calls this a "preview edition."  Personally, I think it's just fine the way it is, but I'd like to see the "finished" edition someday.
Also at Kissel's table, I picked up Deserted Aisles, a really nice looking little twelve page comic that tells an amusing story about a chance encounter between a supermarket stockboy and an unlikely looking genie in the canned goods aisle.
The last book from this year's SPACE that I want to talk about is Morgan Pielli's Indestructible Universe Quarterly #8. Morgan described the book to me as a series of Twilight Zone inspired short stories. The first tale in the book certainly fits that description. "The Worry Tree" is an an odd, eerie and haunting tale about a man who stumbles upon a mysterious hidden cemetary at the center of which is a strange tree upon the bark of which is inscribed the secret, hidden anxieties of the people, and cats, buried there.
The second, and cover-featured, story, "A Forged Man" is also quite weird, thought provoking and a little disturbing.  It concerns a space faring super-hero on a seemingly routine mission suddenly confronted by the shocking truth not only of the nature of his mission, but his own nature.
I hope Morgan comes to SPACE next year, so I pick up some more of these.
Oh, by the way, my birthday is September 3rd.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Comics You Could Have Picked Up at SPACE Part One

So, I've been away from the blog again for another extended period, though a mere month this time, due to various "real world" circumstances, among them the remodeling of my apartment which had me staying with my sister for a few days.  This has only increased the backlog of stuff that I want to write about, as during this latest down period has occurred the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE), and Free Comic Book Day, not to mention that DC, Marvel and other publishers have continued to put out new comics during this time.
So, let's get started with some of the comics I picked up at SPACE.
I am not even going to pretend to attempt any sort of objective review of A Bowl Full of Happiness, an anthology of comics and pin-ups about Sea Monkeys published by Columbus cartoonists group Sunday Comix and benefitting the Hero Initiative in their efforts to provide assistance to comics creators in need.  After all, I am a founding member of Sunday Comix and I have worked with the Hero Initiative before, and, of course, I have a piece in this book, as do several of my closest friends and, most importantly, my niece Tamara Marshall, which is the reason I cannot be objective about this book.   This is a great book for a very good cause, and if  you didn't get your copy at the show, I recommend that you do so as soon as possible.  Hopefully, by the time I get this post, editor Canada Keck will have updated the web-site to allow you to order your own copy.  If not, shoot me an e-mail and I'll arrange to get you a copy.
Speaking of my closest friends, I got my copy of Matt Wyatt's Joking Victim #0 well before SPACE, and you can pick a copy at various locations around Columbus, including What The Rock, Kafe Kerouac and the Laughing Ogre, or order a copy through Matt's web-site.  He will also be appearing at Ratha Con in Athens, Ohio this coming weekend.  Once again throwing objectivity to the wind, I highly recommend that you do so.  Featuring a variety of comics and cartoons by Matt, Joking Victim is loaded with parody, satire, silliness, wordplay and puns, and a heaping dose of what MAD artist Will Elder termed "chicken fat", little throwaway visual gags in the background. The mention of MAD is apt, because this book is very reminiscent of early MAD, when it was a comic book and reflected the sensibility of one man, Harvey Kurtzman.
Another comic to which I personally contributed (That's an excerpt from my contribution down there in the lower left corner of the cover.) is the SPACE Anthology 2012, a full color trade paperback collection featuring work from many of the artists who were present at the show this year. This is the third year, I believe, that there's been a SPACE Anthology, though in the past it has been available only as a pdf download on-line.  This is the first year that the collection has  been available in physical book form, with proceeds from sales at the show going to fund the SPACE Prize, recognizing excellence in small press publishing.  You can download a copy of the anthology here, or go here to get a print copy.
Small press veteran J. Kevin Carrier did not have a table at the show, however he was present on Saturday carrying copies of the latest issue of his long running anthology Fantasy Theater, a showcase for his extensive reportoire of comics characters.  FT #22 features brand new adventures of Kevin's futuristic sword and sorcery warrior Glorianna and second generation super hero Cappella.  You should be able to order a copy at Kevin's blog
I'll  close out this post by mentioning Suzanne Baumann's As Eavesdropped Volume Three, in which Suzanne illustrates in her charming and simple style dialogue that, I assume from the title of the book, she has actually overheard.  This comic is free, and, I assume, available at her web-site, along with all her other great comics.
That covers the comics from me and my friends.  I did actually get out in the room and talk to some people whose work I wasn't previously familiar with and who weren't among my closest friends and associates, and I'll be looking at the comics I got from them soon.