Sunday, March 23, 2014

On The Horizon: Infinity Man and The Forever People

I have, for reasons that are primarily financial in nature, taken a break from purchasing new comics in recent months.  However, while looking over J. Caleb Mozzocco's monthly rundown of upcoming comics from DC at Everyday Is Like Wednesday, my attention was caught by one particular item that might just be enough to pull me back to the Laughing Ogre for at least one Wednesday a month.
The second week in June sees the release of Infinity Man and the Forever People #1.   This is yet another updating of one of Jack Kirby's Bronze Age concepts by Dan Didio, Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish. That's the same team responsible for the late OMAC title.  Given the success, or, rather, lack thereof, of OMAC, that might not really be something to brag about.
I enjoyed OMAC quite a bit and it was widely hailed as one of the best  books of the original New 52.  Sales, as is too often the case, did not match the critical acclaim and the series met a premature end after eight issues in the first wave of New 52 cancellations.
With just the limited information provided by the solicitation to go on, there are a couple of things about this new series that strike me as interesting or curious.  The first is the title of the book itself, which gives top billing to the Infinity Man.  In Kirby's original series, Infinity Man played a very small part, appearing in less than half, four out of eleven to be exact, of the issues.  He was, quite literally, a Deus Ex Machina, showing up at the end of an issue when the Forever People touched their living computer, Mother Box, and shouted a magic word in order to mop up the bad guys and get the Forever People out of whatever mess they'd gotten themselves into in the preceding twenty pages or so.  Infinity Man was never much of a well rounded character in his own right.  He spoke in cliched heroic platitudes and displayed little personality beyond a selfless nobility and devotion to the Foerever People.  His true nature and origins were never explored, though perhaps, if the book had continued past its eleventh issue, they might eventually have been. The series was, to be honest, much better off without him in my not so humble opinion.  Giffen and Didio have a lot of work to do with Infinity Man if they're going to develop him into a character worthy of star credit.
Secondly, as I looked over the cover, this little detail caught my eye:

It appears that in this new series, Giffen and Didio have made Serifan a woman.  While I don't really think this is such a major change to the original concept and won't make too much of a difference, I do predict howls of outrage all over the Wild, Wild Web from Kirby purists.  For me, it all comes down to how its handled, and I generally have pretty high expectations of Keith Giffen, so I'm somewhat optimistic.
That is, I'm optimistic for the creative success of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  Commercially, I honestly don't expect it to do much better than OMAC.  That series managed to match the eight issue run of Kirby's original series, so my prediction is that Infinity Man and the Forever People will do the same and last a whole eleven issues before being cancelled.
Giffen has been doing the best art of career in the past five years or so, and his stories are always entertaining, so I'm sure that Infinity Man and the Forever People will be worth reading however long it lasts.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Swamp Thing Artist Stephen Bissette to Appear at the Wexner Center in April

Stephen R. Bissette
The Comics Code is widely regarded by comics historians and fans alike as the most repressive set of content restrictions ever imposed upon any entertainment medium.  From its adoption in 1954 following the public shaming of the comics industry during Senate hearings on the causes of juvenile delinquency through the height of its power and influence during the 1960s and its long, slow slide into irrelevancy in the 1970s, 80s and into the 90s until its final dissolution in early 2011 the Code and its ubiquitous Seal of Approval stood as symbol and reminder of a dark chapter in the history of not only comic books but America itself. 
The Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts, in co-operation with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, has invited Stephen R. Bissette, renowned artist for much of Alan Moore's historic run on Swamp Thing and creator of the short-lived independent comic Tyrant in the mid-90s, to give a presentation entitled Swamp Thing and the Birth, Life and Death of the Comics Code Authority in the Wex's Film/Video theater on Tuesday, April 29 at 7 p.m.  The event is free and open to the public, and there's a Facebook event page where you can RSVP if you're planning to attend.
It is quite probably safe to say that Bissette's talk will deliver, as the saying goes, exactly what it says on the tin, covering the origins and  six decade history of the Code from the Senate hearings until its ultimate demise just three short years ago with emphasis on the role that Bissette's own work with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing played in that history.
Swamp Thing began life as a standard format Code approved newsstand comic, but shed the Seal of Approval shortly after Moore came aboard as writer.  The story, at least as I've heard it told, is that after months of just automatically rubber stamping the book with the Seal, someone at the Code Authority actually bothered to read it and wasn't happy with what they saw.  DC, rather than ask Moore to tone down his stories in order to comply with the Code, decided to continue publishing the series without the Seal.  The creative and commercial success of Swamp Thing inspired DC to publish other non-Code approved mature readers titles, including the Swamp Thing spin-off Hellblazer and Neil Gaiman's almost universally beloved Sandman, and led eventually to the 1993 formation of the mature readers imprint Vertigo.
Other factors, of course, contributed to the weakening and eventual demise of the Code.  Chief among these, by my reckoning, was the rise of the direct market and with it the plethora of independent comics publishers who bypassed the traditional system of newsstand distribution and offered their product exclusively through comics shops without the benefit of Code sanction. This development roughly coincides with the arrival of Moore on Swamp Thing and the genesis of DC's mature readers line.  Both of these developments were contributing factors to the final revision of the Comics Code in 1989.
The history of the Comics Code has long been a subject of special interest to me.  I've read several books about, including David Hadju's excellent The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America and Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, Amy Kiste Nyberg's more academic and analytical approach to the subject.  Thus I will be particularly interested to hear Bissette's take on the topic.  While I don't know if he'll be able to tell me any facts that I really don't already know, it will be interesting to get his unique perspective on those facts as someone who battled the Code's restrictions on the front lines.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Two New Exhibits Opening at Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum This Weekend

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum
Columbus' newest and, if you ask me, coolest museum, The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, launches two major exhibits this weekend that will run throughout the summer.  The one that everyone's talking about, of course, is Exploring Calvin & Hobbes, a retrospective of the work of beloved cartoonist Bill Watterson.  In addition to original strips and other artwork by Watterson, the exhibit also includes examples of  work by cartoonists who influenced Watterson.  Among these are Charles Schulz, Gary Trudeau, Berkeley Breathed and Ralph Steadman.
The other exhibition is The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object: A Richard Thompson Retrospective spotlighting the work of the Reuben Award winning cartoonist whose comic strip Cul De Sac ran in national syndication from 2007 to 2012.  
Both shows kick off with a free, public reception on Friday night from 6 until 8 p.m. (I'll be there and I hope you can make it) and continue on until August 3.
The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum is located at 1813 North High Street on the campus of THE Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio and is open to the public from 1-5 p.m.  every Tuesday through Sunday.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Greatest G'Nort Stories Ever Told

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, we turn our attention to one of the super-hero genre's proudest wearers of the green; a most distinguished member of that fabled cadre of interstellar policemen known as the Green Lantern Corps.  I speak of the greatest being ever to wear a power ring, none other than the inimitable G'Nort Esplanade Gneesmacher.  From the moment that he burst upon the scene in 1987's Justice League International #10, this furry wonder immediately captured the hearts and minds of comics fans the world over, and quickly became a beloved fan favorite.
Well, maybe not, but I like him.  Thus, I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the five best stories featuring the character. 

5. Justice League America #36 
"G'Nort by G'Nortwest"
by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Tom Artis and Art Nichols
For the number five spot on my list, it was a toss-up between this issue and Justice League Quarterly #2's "Designing Humans."
"G'Nort by G'Nortwest" finds G'Nort's "arch-enemy", by virtue of being the only criminal G'Nort ever actually apprehended, the Scarlet Skier, former "locater" for interplanetary designer Mr. Nebula, coming to Earth after being released from prison to seek revenge on the Green Lantern who put him behind bars.
The JLQ issue, in which Mr. Nebula comes to Earth looking for the skier and the Justice League must prevent him from redecorating the planet, is actually, in my opinion, a better story.  However, JLA #36 features G'Nort more prominently, so it makes the list.

4. Green Lantern #9-#12 
 "A Guy And His G'Nort"
by Gerard Jones, Joe Staton and Bruce Patterson

Although this was billed as the first ever Guy Gardner solo story, the JLI's brain damaged ring-bearer isn't exactly going it alone for these four issues.  He's got ol' G'Nort in tow as the two go on a quest to uncover G'Nort's true origins.  After the newly returned Guardians of the Universe reveal that they've never seen or heard of G'Nort before, Guy and G'Nort uncover a plot by the Thunderers of the Anti-Matter universe of Qward to discredit the Green Lantern Corps by distributing fake GL rings to idiots like G'Nort.  G'Nort, however, proves himself truly worthy of the ring when he sacrifices his power to save Guy.

3.  Mister Miracle #6  
"Barking Up the Wrong Tree"
by Giffen, DeMatteis, Mike McKone and Peter Gross

When some two-bit gangsters try to get a protection racket going in Bailey, New Hampshire, the small town where Scott Free (a.k.a. Mr. Miracle) and his wife Barda have settled down, Oberon contacts the Justice League for help and G'Nort answers the call.  Any story that contains the line "Help! A giant dog is trying to sell me insurance!" has got to be a classic.

2. Justice League America #51
 "My Dinner With G'Nort"
by Giffen, DeMatteis, Adam Hughes and Joe Rubinstein

I actually have two copies of this issue.  One is to read, and the other is bagged, boarded and signed by artist Adam Hughes.
When G'Nort drops by the JLI's New York embassy for a surprise visit, a bored of his skull Kilowog invites his "brother alien" out for a night on the town.  J'Onn J'Onnz, the Martian Manhunter, tags along to keep the pair out of trouble.  You can imagine how well that works out.  You've got to wonder who thought that taking G'Nort to see Cats was a good idea, and things only get worse when a super-villain attacks during dinner.
This issue was a serious candidate for the top spot on the list, but after some consideration I decided to give it to:

1. Justice League America Annual #4 
 "What's Black and White and Black and White and Bl..."
by Giffen, DeMatteis, McKone and Bob Smith

 After inadvertantly foiling a robbery, which they themselves had intended to commit, the quintet of inept second rate super-villains known as the Injustice League find themselves hailed as heroes and decide to go straight, offering their services to the Justice League International.  Together with G'Nort and the Scarlet Skier, they become Justice League Antarctica and soon find themselves facing a horde of genetically engineered, man-eating penguins.
There you have it, dear readers.  The Top 5 G'Nort stories.  Proof, if any were needed, that G'Nort Esplanade Gneesmacher is indeed the greatest canine Green Lantern of them all.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Remembering Harold Ramis

Second City Television, or SCTV, as it came to be known, was, from the very beginning, a program that  demanded a certain level of dedication from its viewers.  It was a show that you had to really want to watch.  That was due mainly to the fact that watching SCTV, and this was back in the days before VCRs or other so-called "time-shifting" technology were in common usage, meant staying up until the wee hours of the morning.  This was especially true during the show's early years  when it was a syndicated half hour, before  it got picked up by NBC and expanded to ninety minutes. Back then, the show usually didn't even start until after two a.m. in the morning, at least that was the case with the station on which I initially encountered it.  (That station was Cleveland's WEWS [Channel 5], for those who care.  I grew up in Linesville, Pennsylvania, a small town in the northwestern corner of the Keystone State, right on the border with Ohio where we could pick up over the air TV stations from Erie, PA, as well as Ohio cities Youngstown and Cleveland.  If weather conditions were right we could also get a Channel 10 from across another border in Canada.  But, of course, this has little to do with the topic of today's post, so let's out of these parentheses and back to business, shall we?)
There were, of course, more than ample rewards to be had by SCTV's loyal followers for the herculean effort required merely to see the show.  SCTV was off-beat and quirky, intelligent, experimental, often hilarious, and utterly unlike anything on television at the time.  Produced  on an extremely limited budget, the show actually looked like the type of cheap local programming that might be produced by the kind of small, struggling independent station that SCTV pretended to be.  To me, this sort of gives the show a weird brand of authenticity which further served to endear the program to me.
The real key to SCTV's success, however, lie in its talented  ensemble of writer/performers that included John Candy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Joe Flaherty.  Even among such a powerhouse assemblage of comedic talent, for me one person stood out.  I'm not just saying this because he died early last week and this is my somewhat delayed tribute, rather I'm pretty sure that I'm remembering events of almost four decades ago fairly accurately when I say that my favorite member of the original SCTV cast was none other than Harold Ramis.  I honestly can't quite pin down why that is, but something about him; his appearance, his personality, his unique comic delivery; made the man stand out.  Furthermore, although I really wasn't paying attention to such things at the time, as head writer Ramis was in a very large part responsible for imbuing SCTV with it unique comic voice.  I really did miss Ramis' presence on the show when he retreated from performing after the initial season, and although it would remain the best late night comedy show on TV, SCTV lost just a little of its magic when he left to pursue his destiny in the movies.
Most of the talk of Ramis since his death has focused on his achievements as a writer and director, and while those are indeed worthy of praise, I have, as you can see, chosen to focus on his much more limited role as a performer, which I feel is equally worthy of recognition yet has recieved little attention.  While Groundhog Day has been singled out as his greatest achievement in the former fields, and despite how good he was in his SCTV days, Harold Ramis' greatest achievement as an actor came in 1984, as Ghosterbusters' Egon Spengler.  This highly intelligent, somewhat nerdy, socially awkward character was perfectly suited to Ramis' personality and comic style.  No surprise there, of course, as Ramis co-wrote the screenplay.  Still, its hard to imagine any other performer who could have delivered a line like "I collect spores, molds and fungus" in such a way that it stands out as one of the film's funniest moments.  
While Harold Ramis' work behind the camera may indeed have overshadowed, and perhaps rightly so, his work on screen, now we are to be denied any more of either side of Ramis.  Still, we are left with our memories and a mostly excellent body of work, on camera and off.  (...and Meatballs, which despite Bill Murray's best efforts is barely watchable, but in light of the rest of his career, he can be forgiven for that one stinker.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Happy "Ash" Wednesday

'Cause nothin' says "Easter is just around the corner" like zombies.  After all, the holiday is all about a dead guy who gets up and walks around, ain't it?

Sunday, March 2, 2014


We just can't stop talking about Alan Moore, can we?
Never mind that its been years since he's produced any truly significant work. The output of his 1980's heyday remains worthy of reading, discussion and in-depth study. To say that he almost single-handedly changed the comics art form, as well as the public perception of that art and comic industry's image of itself is only a small exaggeration.
Increasingly, however, when Moore is discussed these days, it is not his work that sparks the debate, but rather his progressively problematic persona and especially his prickly public pronouncements. The latest dust up is actually a couple of months old. However, I only really delved into it recently when I spent, or perhaps you could say wasted, as there was a whole list of other things I really should have been attending to, almost an entire Saturday afternoon on the Internet losing myself further and further down the rabbit hole of responses, replies and rebuttals to Moore's so-called “last interview,” which appeared on-line in early January.
Its not so much an interview, really, as a rambling, epic length screed ostensibly in response to a handful of e-mailed questions from blogger, and noted Moore friend and apologist, Pádraig Ó Méalóid. Prior to embarking upon the writing of this piece, I looked up the word “jeremiad” in order to assure that I would be using it correctly should I chose to do so. Sure enough, my dictionary defines the word as “a tale of sorrow, disappointment, or complaint.” If you actually invest the time to read the whole thing, I believe you'll agree that that definition comprises a fairly accurate assessment of Moore's tirade. 
I don't want to accuse Moore of lying, however he inarguably does exaggerate and distort certain facts. Its entirely possible that this is due more to faulty memories or skewed perceptions rather than any intentional effort to cloud the issue and make himself out to appear even more the wounded party. Still, its difficult to reconcile journalist, and target of Moore's wrath, Laura Sneddon's account of her brief interaction with Moore and his wife with Moore's more Machievellian and conspiratorial version of events.
To be fair to Moore, his critics have engaged in a certain amount of hyperbole of their own. The blanket statement that Moore has included a rape scene in every single thing he's ever written is patently ridiculous on its face. I seem to have missed the rape scene in “Mogo Doesn't Socialize” and glossed over it in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (Although, Julian Darius at Sequart points out the irony that Moore's chosen example of a work of his that is free of sexual violence actually does contain a rape scene in an early issue, thus further undercutting the credibility of Moore's arguments)
On the other hand, the argument that white males should not attempt to write minority or female characters is one that I seen refuted by any number of white male writers over the years. However, I cannot recall reading any instance of anyone actually seriously arguing this position. It is a text book example of a classic “straw man” argument. It certainly appears, from the reactions to Moore's accusations that I've read, that no one was saying that in this case. Rather, Moore's critics are doing exactly what he implores them to, taking him to task for a specific portrayal in a specific work.
Honestly, I, being a middle aged white guy who grew up in a nearly all white small town and never really interacted with people of color until I went away to college and have never really experienced any serious racism, I feel spectacularly under qualified to discuss matters of race. There's also the fact that I've not read the work in question. However, for an in-depth examination of the issue, you can read Pam Noles (who, by the way, is the unnamed African-American woman whom Moore claims confronted Kevin O'Neil at a book signing) detailed deconstruction of the history of the character of the Golliwog and its use in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen here.
I cannot say that Moore's depiction of sexual violence has never bothered me. I do remember have some difficulty in my early readings of Watchmen with Sally Jupiter's forgiveness of Eddie Blake. Still, I find Brad Meltzer's trivialization of the rape of Sue Dibny into a retconned plot device in Identity Crisis to be far more “problematic” (by which I mean “reprehensible”) than anything I've encountered in Moore's work.  For an examination of the most commonly stated problems with Moore's depiction of sexual violence, I recommend this piece.
Not content with re-imagining the past in order to bolster his sense of outrage, Moore resorts to belittling and denigrating his critics. This is especially true in the case of the un-named by Moore “Batman scholar” whose tweets in reaction to a public appearance by the writer apparently kicked off this current controversy. Moore characterizes the man as a disgruntled middle-aged fanboy upset not over issues of sexual violence and race in Moore's work, but rather using these as a smoke screen to cover his outrage over Moore's cavalier dismissal of the fan's beloved super-heroes in a newspaper interview. It appears that Moore's cynical assessment of his nemesis could not be farther from the truth. Other sources on-line have revealed the so-called “Batman scholar” to be Dr. Will Booker, who is, in fact, a bona-fide scholar who has written an intelligent and insightful book entitled Batman Unmasked, that examines the Dark Knight's place in popular culture. As an aside, I just want to say that I have read and enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. Booker himself has written a long account of his part in this controversy that expands on his issues with Moore and his work and what inspired his Moore-offending tweets.
Moore's worst outpourings of venom, and most of his most outrageous distortions of reality, are reserved for Grant Morrison. He has inflated a handful of semi-serious comments by the Scottish writer into a three decade long sustained campaign of stalking and harassment. Moore's most serious accusation against Morrison contends that Morrison has never had an original idea in his life and has stolen everything he's ever written directly from Moore's work. It is true, and Morrison himself has admitted this in numerous places, that the first four issues of Animal Man represent a conscious effort on Morrison's part to write like Moore, since this was, as he has explained, what he believed his American editors at DC Comics wanted. With that exception, it might be more accurately contended that Morrison's career output, particularly his work in the super-hero genre, has been a reaction against Moore's work and his perhaps disproportionate influence on the way super-hero comics have been written ever since Moore's early 80's rise to prominence in the field.
I wouldn't go so far as to suggest, as one on-line pundit does with the eye catching headline that initially drew my attention to this whole mess, that Moore has gone insane. There's nothing in this rant that even remotely approaches Dave Sim's level of crazy as exhibited in the latter years of his Cerebus run. However, while he starts off seeming perfectly reasonable and level headed in refutation of his straw man critics, his rant becomes increasingly vitriolic as it progresses. Still, its only right at the end that Moore turns into an out of touch, totally unreasonable asshole. Moore actually has the nerve to demand that anyone who enjoys Grant Morrison's work should never again read any of his comics. It is undoubtedly the very height of unmitigated arrogance for Moore to believe even for a second that he actually has the right to make such a demand. In the very same sentence he claims “respect and affection” for his readers, yet it is abundantly and painfully obvious that he does not respect us enough to allow us to make our own choices concerning what else, other than his supposedly sacred texts, that we wish to read.
I'm somewhat torn. I don't know whether I should gather up all my Moore written comics and sell them to Half-Price Books, or pick up my copy of Watchmen and read it from cover to cover, followed by a re-reading of Morrison's Flex Mentallo as a symbolic “Fuck You” to Moore.
At one point relatively early in his jeremiad, Moore states that “...while everyone is entitled to their informed opinion, this is actually the full extent of their entitlement.” Besides being true, this is the most reasonable and rational statement Moore makes in the entire screed. However, it would seem from his subsequent mad demand that his readers forsake all other comics writers, or at least those who have done him some perceived injustice, that Moore does not believe that sentiment actually applies to himself.
If this is truly Moore's last interview, and if it truly represents what Moore has become, then its just as well that we, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, won't have Alan Moore to kick around any more. (Perhaps its worth pointing out that Nixon made that statement in 1962, well before he was elected President in 1968.) It might perhaps, as Moore suggests, “ better for everyone concerned, not least myself,” if we let him continue the process of disappearing further and further up his own ass and leave the world with his body of work to speak for itself, which, he claims, is all he's ever wanted anyway.