Sunday, July 21, 2013

Grant Morrison's "Supergods" Reviewed

Ok, let's start right off with the one major problem with Grant Morrison's Supergods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. (At least, that's the subtitle on my copy of the book, which is apparently the British edition.  It's amazing what you can come across at Half-Price Books, ain't it?  [My copy of Scott McCloud's Making Comics carries the warning "Uncorrected Proof: Not for Sale" on the back cover.]The American edition carried the tag "What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human."  The AV Club called that "ponderous."  I kind of agree, but as the entire book tends to be a little ponderous, perhaps its totally appropriate.  Still, I prefer the British version of the title.)  There are, as you might have inferred from my parenthetical asside just now, some other smaller problems with the book, but only one that really bothers me.  Its a problem I've noticed, but chose to overlook in most cases, in other histories of the comics, but find a little more egregious in this case.
I don't think that I've ever read a history of comics that didn't include at least a couple of factual errors.  I am usually forgiving of  these because most of those books are written by "outsiders" with a particular thesis to prove or agenda to advance, little things like research or accuracy be damned.   Morrison, however, is an industry insider and a self-professed life long fan, so such errors are somewhat harder to overlook, especially when they concern properties on which the author built his considerable reputation in the business. 
Now that I've got the nit-picky stuff out of the way, let me say that I quite enjoyed this book, actually.
Morrison does have his special thesis to advance in this book, which is equal parts history of comics and autobiography of Morrison himself.  That only makes sense, as for the past twenty-five years or so the two have been intimately intertwined.  
Morrison's thesis is that we all have the potential to become superheroes, and, with the aid of 21st century technology, in fact already are, and that tales of fictional superheroes have been there for us over the decades to show us the way.  To be honest, there's really nothing startlingly original in Morrison's theorem.  It's really just another variation on the old "superheroes as modern mythology" trope that's been with us for ages.  Morrison, however, does manage to bring to the table an understanding of psychology, alchemy, and magic as well as a knowledge of world mythologies that goes beyond the Greek/Roman pantheons that are the traditional basis for the metaphor.
The main appeal of Supergods, especially for Morrison's fans, is Grant's breathless, hyperbolic prose, most on display during the comics history parts of  the narrative.  He details the real life history of superheroes in the same mythopoeic terms that he applies to  their fictional adventures. Here's a sample from the very first page of the first chapter:
"From the beginning, the ur-god and this dark twin presented the world with a frame through which our own best and worst impulses could be personified in an epic struggle across a larger-than-life, two-dimensional canvas upon which our outer and inner worlds, our present and future, could be laid out and explored.  They came to save us from the existential abyss, but first they had to find a way into our collective imagination."
"Ur-god and his dark twin...?"  Couldn't just say Superman and Batman, could you, Grant?  That passage, besides setting the tone for most of what's to come, also serves as a fairly succinct synopsis of Morrison's central theme.
When he turns this same technique to his own life story, its just as fun to read, for the most part, though it at times comes off as immodest self-aggrandizement.  Of course, we long time fans expect that. Though I suspect it might put off mainstream readers, who are at least part of the target audience for this book. 
As I said above, the narrative can get somewhat ponderous, as when Morrison discusses his infamous "alien abduction" in Kathmandu, during which he was supposedly shown the true nature of reality by a bunch of fifth dimensional silver blobs.  This was actually part of the book I was looking forward most to reading.  However, before it was done I was waiting for Grant to get back to talking about writing Flex Mentallo, which, unfortunately, he never did.
Despite its over 420 page length, I burned through Supergods in under two days, and it would have been less if I hadn't taken time out to go to my job and sleep.  That is due, I suppose, not only to my intense interest in both of the books main topics, Grant Morrison and superheroes, but to the frenetic pace with which Morrison leads us through our journey of seven decades.  Though, as I said, the book gets bogged down when it should have been its most compelling, for the most part its an exciting and involving read. 
If you're a fan of Morrison, I recommend this tome in no uncertain terms.  If you're not quite the Grant-o-phile that I am, its still worth reading.  If you're someone who doesn't read comics, but might be curious about them (or if you know such a person), I could think of worse places to start your journey into their 2D universe.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What DC Expects People To Pay Good Money For In October

Following in the well worn footsteps of  fellow comics bloggers J. Caleb Mozzocco and Tom Bondurant, I now present my take on some of the items that DC Comics will be shipping out to your friendly neighborhood comics shop in October that look even halfway interesting or worth checking out.
The list of things that could possibly entice me to buy an Aquaman comic is very, very short.  The credit line "written by John Ostrander," however, would most definitely be up near the top.  One of comics' finest writers returns, if only briefly, to the company where he did most of his best work with October's Aquaman Annual #1.  According to Bondurant, if sales of this issue warrant, it could lead to an ongoing series featuring Aquaman's former teammates The Others.  If so, DC could do a lot worse than let Ostrander stick around to write it.
Earth 2 #16 may be the last issue of the series I buy.  Its writer James Robinson's swan song, and my decision to continue with the book will rest entirely on whose name replaces his in the credit box.
Justice League 3000 #1 offers up yet another reunion of the classic Justice League International creative team of Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire (Attorneys at Law--sorry couldn't resist.)  However, I'm not expecting a JLI style BWAH-HA-HA fest, as there seems precious little room for that brand of irreverent humor in the New 52.  This title replaces Legion of Super-Heroes and involves the members of the Justice League seemingly thrown into the far future.
I thought Damian Wayne was dead.  Apparently, he gets better by October when the first issue of the six part mini-series Damian: Son of Batman ships.
Adventures of Superman #6 is a decided "NO!", at least in these parts.  The issue is written by J.T. Krul, and regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my longstanding and passionate contempt for everything the man has ever written.
Green Arrow Volume I: Hunter's Moon collects at long last the first six issues, comprising three two part story lines, of Oliver Queen's first ongoing series written by Mike Grell, with art by Ed Hannigan, Dick Giordano and Frank McLaughlin.  Even though I am one of the world's biggest GA fans, I won't be buying this.  You see, sometime during the two and a half decades that it took DC to deem these stories suitable for reprinting, I went ahead and aquired the contents of this book in individual issue form.  (And I picked them up Packrat Comics for a buck apiece, thus paying less than half what DC is asking for the collection.) Still, the fact that this book exists after all this time makes me happy.  I certainly hope future volumes are in the offing. 
Meanwhile, in issue #24 of the ongoing Green Arrow series, writer Jeff Lemire introduces the New 52 incarnation of Grell creation Shado.
Speaking of Green Arrow, he and ladylove Black Canary also show up this month as guest stars in the trade paperback The Joker: Clown Prince of Crime, reprinting for the first time the entire nine issues of Joker's eponymous series from 1975.  This is another one I'll be leaving on the shelf.  I've read about half of the issues to be reprinted here, and despite a laundry list of top talents of the day that includes Dennis O'Neil, Martin Pasko and Elliot S! Maggin on the writing side, and Ernie Chan, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez at the drawing board, those stories just weren't very good at all.
 Ever since the publication of Sandman #1 a quarter century ago, series writer Neil Gaiman has assured us that there's more to the story of Morpheus' capture by Roderick Burgess than we were shown in that issue.  In years' since Sandman #75 rolled off the presses, he has repeatedly assured us that someday he would share that tale with us.  Someday has come, just in time for the Silver anniversary of Sandman #1's publication, as the first issue of The Sandman: Overture, a six issue mini-series that finally lifts the veil of secrecy that has long shrouded the events that weakened the Dream King sufficiently to allow Burgess' spell to entrap him, comes to comic shops in October.  The only question in my mind is whether I wait for the collection or buy it in installments.  I guess that really depends on just how excited I am about new Sandman material after all this time.   My gut reaction is to wait for the trade.  We'll see how I feel, and how much disposable income I have, in October.
As I said above, whether or not I actually purchase any of the above comics depends on a combination of my mood and my financial well-being.  However, I'm highly likely to tell you all about whatever I do purchase on this blog when the time comes.

The "Forgotten" Superman Movie: Superman and the Mole Men

With the debut of a new ongoing comic and, of course, the release of a new movie, there's been a lot of buzz about a certain Man of Steel recently.  I haven't yet seen the new film, and based on the evidence of  the reviews I've read and the reactions of my friends who've seen it, I'll probably be defering that singular pleasure for some time yet.  No, I'm here today to discuss an earlier Superman movie, though not the one that probably leapt to your mind when you read that last clause.  The film under consideration in this post is one you probably didn't even know existed, even though its likely that you may have seen it.  If so, it probably wasn't in its original form as a movie, but re-edited into the two part episode of The Adventures of Superman that closed out that series' inaugural season.
Superman and the Mole Men (or "The Unknown People" as it was retitled for its television debut), released to theaters in November of 1951, effectively served as the pilot for that long running show, introducing the world to George Reeves, the man who be intrextricably identified in the eyes of the world with the character of Superman for the rest of his life and for another two decades thereafter until Christopher Reeve donned the cape and tights in the late 1970s.  Reeves, an amateur boxer in his youth, had, by the time Superman and the Mole Men began filming in the summer of 1951, been a working actor for a decade and change, even landing, as his film debut, a blink and you'll miss it role in an obscure, low budget B-movie called Gone With The Wind in 1939.   Among his other film credits, and I single this one out only because it happens to be one I've actually seen, is the Charlie Chan mystery Dead Men Tell.  However, it was, of course, The Adventures of Superman that would make him a household name.
Mole Men also introduced moviegoers to the new Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates.  Coates never became associated in the public consciousness with Lois in the way that Reeves did with Superman, as she played the part for only the first of Adventures' six seasons.  There was a two year delay between the filming of the first and second seasons, and when time came for the cameras to roll on the second set of twenty-six episodes, Coates had already committed to another project and was thus unavailable.  She was replaced by Noel Neill, who had played the part opposite Kirk Alyn in the serials Superman and  Atom Man vs.Superman.
Billed on its promotional poster as Superman's "FIRST Full-Length Adventure," "full length" obviously not meaning the same thing in 1951 as it does in today's era of three hour epics, Superman and the Mole Men clocks in at a mere fifty-eight minutes. The film was written by co-producer Robert Maxwell, under the nom de plume of Richard Fielding.  The director was Lee Sholem.  Sholem would go on to split the directing duties on the remaining twenty-four episodes of The Adventures of Superman's first season with Tommy Carr, who had done similar duty on the Kirk Alyn serials. 
Perhaps because it had been told a mere three years earlier in the first serial and thus was fresh in viewers' minds, Fielding/Maxwell's script glosses over Superman's origin in a short opening narration and gets straight to the story.  That's not to say that The Adventures of Superman didn't produce its own version of the origin, but it would be early 1953 before "Superman On Earth" aired, kicking off the series' run.
Curiously, aside from Lois Lane, most of the familiar trappings of the Superman mythos, from the majority of his supporting cast, to his Achilles heel, Kryptonite, to the city of Metropolis itself, are noticeably absent from Superman and the Mole Men. The story is set in the small Texas oil town of Silsby, which, as a sign that is the first image we see following the introductory narration informs us, is the home of the world's deepest oil well.  Big city reporters Kent and Lane have travelled all the way from Metropolis to do a story on the well, only to find upon their arrival that the well is being shut down for reasons that foreman Bill Corrigan tersely refuses to elaborate on.
The mystery deepens when "Pop" Shannon, the aged night watchman at the well site, is found dead of a heart attack later that evening.  The tragedy is enough to loosen Corrigan's tongue, and he tells Kent the story behind the well's closing.
As the drill bored deeper, soil samples began coming back with a strange, possibly radioactive glow.  At approximately six miles deep, the drill bit seemed to be hanging in mid-air, as if it had broken through to the center of the earth.  Strange microbes were found on the drill bit, leading Corrigan to speculate that more complex life forms may be living down there.
He's right, of  course, and now a pair of diminutive, hairy creatures with big bald heads and exhibiting the same mysterious glow found in the soil samples have come up to explore this strange new world that has invaded there own.  Unfortunately, the first person they encounter is poor old "Pop", who is so frightened by their appearance that his ticker gives out.
The death of "Pop" and other sightings of the creatures get the townsfolk of Silsby worked into a lather.  Kent tries to calm the populace, but his entreaties of understanding fall on deaf ears.  Worked into a murderous frenzy by a nasty character by the name of Luke Benson, the frightened citizens form a mob to hunt down the invaders. 
It is only then, twenty-eight minutes into this less than hour long film, that Kent ducks into an alley and changes to his super-heroic alter-ego in order to protect the aliens from the lynch mob, as well as protect the people of Silsby from the creature's possibly radioactive glow.  This is fairly typical of the pattern that The Adventures of Superman would fall into.  Like the later TV adaptation of The Incredible Hulk, due mostly to the limitations of a TV special effects budget, Superman usually only showed up near the end of each episode as a sort of deus ex machina to clean up whatever mess Lois and Jimmy Olsen had gotten themselves into that week.
Benson and his mob succeed in critically wounding one of the aliens with a shotgun and trapping the other in a burning shack.  Superman rescues the alien who gets shot and takes him to the local hospital.  His compatriot escapes from the fire and heads back down the well, re-emerging with reinforcements and a big sci-fi ray gun in order to rescue his wounded friend.
Superman and the Mole Men has more in common with The Day the Earth Stood Still than with your typical Superman tale.  Even moreso than in that Robert Wise genre classic, the aliens here are presented as peaceful and sympathetic.  They are shown as innocent and childlike.  In fact, the only person in Silsby who befriends them is a little girl.  She is frightened not by the creatures, but by her mother's hysterical reaction to them.  The real monsters in Mole Men are Luke Benson and his cronies.  Though their fear of the unknown is understandable, they let it get the best of them, blinding them to reason.
The comparison to The Day the Earth Stood Still is apt, as Superman and the Mole Men is truly representative of the best of 1950s science fiction films.  It also represents the best The Adventures of Superman. Based on the color episodes, after producer Whitney Ellsworth, who replaced Bob Maxwell in the second season, decreed that the show should be essentially dumbed down to make it more "kid-friendly", its easy to dismiss the entire series as insipid pablum.  However, the black and white episodes, especially Maxwell's first season, are among the finest examples of 50s TV.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

All Their Ducks In A Row: Finger Awards Honor Steve Gerber and Don Rosa

Never before in their nine year history have the Bill Finger Awards for Excellence In Comic Book Writing had anything approaching what you could reasonably call a "theme."  There is little, for instance, beyond the long decades they each spent toiling in the unforgiving vineyards of corporate comics, to link the work of last year's recipients.  Frank Doyle spent the bulk of his career relating the misadventures of amiable every-teen Archie Andrews for the company that bears that character's name, while the majority of Steve Skeates' professional output consists of super-hero comics produced for the likes of Charlton and DC.  
This year however, the two recipients of the 2013 Finger Awards, who will honored in a ceremony at next weekends Comic-Con International in San Diego, are linked by a common thread.  Each is primarily known for their work with talking ducks. 
An aside, before we go any further, for those of you reading this who may not be familiar with the concept and history of the Finger Awards.  I wrote a somewhat serviceable synopsis of the concept in my post about last years' awards, and, as I thus see no need to wrack my brain trying to reword it, I shall employ my computers copy and paste function to re-present it below:
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...
 Now, where was I?
Oh--right...Ducks.  Talking ducks, at that.
In another first for the finger Awards, Don Rosa is first recipients to have also drawn the stories he wrote.  (Although, as I mentioned last year, Steve Skeates is quite an adept cartoonist, it really wasn't his early 1990s mini-comics that earned him the Finger.)  From the late 1980s until his 2008 retirement, Rosa followed in footsteps of the legendary Carl Barks as the historian of Duckburg, chronicling the new adventures of Donald Duck, his nephews Huey, Louie and Dewey, and cantankerous billionaire waterfowl Scrooge McDuck.  His signature work--some might even say, if they wanted to be so grandiose and somewhat slightly pretentious, his masterpiece--remains the graphic novel The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, in which Rosa wove together the fleeting and ocassionally contradictory hints to Scrooge's past that Barks seeded throughout his many stories over the years into a coherent and compelling epic tale.
This year's posthumous honoree, Steve Gerber, enjoyed a four decade career in the comics industry spanning from the early 1970s until shortly before his death in 2008.  During that time he lent his unique voice and worldview to such titles as The Defenders, Omega the Unknown, Man-Thing, Stewart the Rat, Nevada  and Hard Time.  Gerber's most enduring, and endearing, contribution to American pop culture lies in his creation of a certain cynical, cigar smoking duck from Cleveland who goes by the name of Howard.
Both of these prolific and talented creators are richly deserving of this recognition. It's somewhat of a shame, though, that the Finger Awards didn't get around to honoring Gerber during their first three years, when he was still alive to enjoy it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Stolen Crisis (or Crisis On Infinite Whos)

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent a good chunk of the past weekend listening to the commentaries on the DVDs of Doctor Who Series Four.  Listening to then Executive Producer Russel T. Davies talking over the two part series finale "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End", I was struck by the parallels between that apocalyptic storyline and DC Comics' seminal company wide crossover Crisis On Infinite Earths.  
Davies talks repeatedly about how the story unifies the so-called "Doctor Who Universe," consisting of characters from the core seres, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, in much the way that Crisis brought together all the characters in DC's comic book universe in one big story.  The parallels go beyond that, however.  There are references in the Who finale to the destruction of multiple alternate universes, similar to the destruction of the Multiverse in Crisis.  Davros' master plan in "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End" to destroy all of reality, leaving only himself and the Daleks, bears a great deal of resemblance to main Crisis villain The Anti-Monitor's plan to destroy every parallel universe except his own.   The Anti-Monitor even "steals" the Earth in the final issue of Crisis, dragging it into Qward, the anti-matter universe, in much the same way that Davros and the Daleks spirit the planet away to the Medusa Cascade.
Maybe not.
After all, by his own admission, Russell T. Davies, who wrote the episodes in question, is not unfamiliar with American super-hero comics.  In the commentary for "The Stolen Earth," he reveals that Captain Jack's last name was inspired by Agatha Harkness, the aged sorceress who was nanny to Franklin Richards in The Fantastic Four and mentor to the Scarlet Witch.  She is, he claims, one of his favorite characters.
If Davies is enough of a geek to even know who Agatha Harkness is, much less to claim her as a favorite character, then it is perfectly reasonable to assume that he is at least aware of the existence of Crisis On Infinite Earths.  From there, its not a huge leap of logic to surmise that he may have actually read the series and been so impressed by it that he wanted to write his own version of it. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Matt Wyatt's "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" at Ohio Art League

Saturday night I took a short break from listening to the commentaries on my DVD set of Series Four of Doctor Who (more on that in a later post) while consuming copious quantities of ramen noodles and occasionally dozing off to attend the gala opening reception for Matt Wyatt's exhibit of artwork from his book How I Spent My Summer Vacation, which you can purchase at the  gallery, on display through July 26 at the Ohio Art League gallery in the South Campus Gateway.  The book and exhibit consists of drawings taken from the sketchbooks that Matt brings along on his vacation travels throughout the USA and to the islands of the Caribean to record his experiences enlarged and colored with markers (except for one piece done in watercolor pencil).  
Apparently, according to Matt, I partly inspired this exhibit.  As willing as I usually am to take credit for other people's accomplishments, in this case I have no memory of saying to Matt that he should collect his vacation sketches into a book, though I've no doubt that I most likely did.  The idea to accompany the release of the book with a gallery show, however, came from Nix Comics entrepreneur Ken Eppstein, who is credited as "creator" of the exhibit, thus making his absence at Saturday's event somewhat puzzling.  (It's unlikely that I missed him, as I arrived fairly early and was there until the end.)
Though Matt has participated in several group shows, including a couple that I've had pieces in as well, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" is his first solo show, and, as Matt told me Saturday night, it nearly didn't happen.  Ken and Matt's original application was turned down by the OAL membership.  However, in late May, he received word that there'd been a cancellation, leaving him scrambling to get the exhibit ready for its Friday, July 5th debut.
In the end, everything came together, and although you missed the opportunity to meet and hang out with Matt Wyatt himself, you can still see his artwork and purchase his book at the Ohio Art League Gallery through July 26.