Saturday, May 31, 2008

Characters I Love: Dani Moonstar, Mutant Ecdysiast Extraordinaire!

In honor of Marvel's belated release of New Mutants Classic vol. 3, here's a classic of my own-- an appreciation of one of the most marvelous mutants ever, Dani "Psyche/Mirage/Valkyrie Jr./Nudist" Moonstar. I wrote this post thousands of years ago, when comics were chiseled out of stone instead of printed on paper or posted on the Internet. So... I suppose sifting the soil and brushing off the years of accumulated grit in an archaeological manner also honors the return of globe-trekking adventurer (and casual Dani Moonstar enthusiast) Indiana Jones. Not to mention his fabulous Kingdom of the Phony-Baloney Fake Crystal Skulls.

When we first meet Dani Moonstar in Marvel Graphic Novel 4: New Mutants, she's a rough around the edges tomboy who enjoys romping in the mountains with her mountain lion friends. And occasionally threatening to plunge Black Eagle's war-knife into craven hearts.

And she has a good reason: the guy in the magenta armor killed her grandfather, the afore-mentioned Black Eagle. But notice how she demonstrates her nascent team leadership skills-- she prefaces her threat with the phrase, "If you've no more need of this butcher --" That's right, like all great leaders, Dani is nothing if not pragmatic. Under normal circumstances, Dani would certainly stab the man's "craven heart," but if the Professor and her newfound friend Rahne object from a continued butcher utilitarian standpoint, she'll defer to their wishes.

Because she's cool like that.

Soon enough, Dani and Rahne make the journey to the X-Mansion in Westchester, New York and join Charles Xavier's new team of super-powered teens, the New Mutants. And it's in their company that Dani begins to explore self-expression not via heart-stabbing, but rather through fashion. Not content with the basic black and yellow school uniform, she customizes her with some culturally appropriate Native American details. Namely, a turquoise and silver belt, and some fringed deerskin boots.

Usually, Professor X would use his mind powers to force students to conform, but he decides not to in Dani's case because, like myself, he's taken with her strange mix of anger, rebelliousness and angsty cowardice. But unlike myself, Professor X is the host for a Brood Queen embryo, and begins to slowly drive Dani insane.

Why Dani? Why not Xi'an Coy Manh, the team leader? Wouldn't that be more tactically sound? I'm not sure why the Brood-Xavier chooses to pick on Dani, but it definitely put her in the spotlight. The initial thrust of the series is Dani's battles with her own expectations and fears of mental illness.

And, as apparent in this scene, her love for safari-wear in yellows and tans. It's during this phase in her education that she discovers Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and becomes a huge fan of Jim Fowler, Marlon Perkins' crack field operative. So much so that she even dresses like him during the team's downtime. Which they spend watching their dance teacher give Xi'an various haircuts.

Dani also displays a propensity for being captured, rendered unconscious, and then stripped and re-dressed. The first instance comes when she falls prey to the minions of Hydra. She'd been possessed by the spirit of... I don't know... some damn motorcycle riding gestalt thing, which leads to evil super-terrorist organization Hydra's interest in her. And their random changing of her clothes.

Weird outfit, indeed. It's a skintight green jumpsuit with yellow jackboots. It's identical to the one Madame Hydra or Lady Viper or whatever her name is wears in the story. Maybe it's some sort of weird "mother-daughter" bonding attempt on Madame Hy-Viper's part. She sees in Dani the daughter she never had but always wanted.

Unfortunately, the team is unable to save Xi'an, who apparently dies when the Hydra castle is blown to hell. They mourn Xi'an for... oh... about two days. Then it's off to Rio for the Carneval! Xi'an? Xi'an who?

Dani soothes her wounded heart by dressing like a Las Vegas showgirl. Possibly an extra in the 1995 Paul Verhoeven softcore sex-fest Showgirls:

To Dani, it's modest. At this point, it becomes increasingly clear that Dani is not only strong-willed and independent and has issues with authority... but she's also an exhibitionist. Not shy about her body is our Dani.

Nor is Dani shy about others' bodies, especially that of her Scottish burr-wielding li'l buddy, Rahne "Wolfsbane" Sinclair. Trekking through the Amazon rainforest, Dani shows a great deal of concern for Rahne's well-being and mode of dress. Solving Rahne's problems by rendering her naked, Dani happily removes her own clothes and jumps into the piranha-infested waters:

Soon after, the entire team is captured by anachronistic Roman soldiers and taken to Nova Roma... where again Dani is rendered unconscious and re-clothed:

Once Rahne shows off her wolf-transformative powers, though, the team becomes enshrined as semi-demi-gods and Dani gets to indulge herself fully in dressing and undressing. And being dressed and undressed. This, for Dani, is a little slice of heaven in the Andes. Even more so in that she gets to share it with the more demure Rahne.

Rahne also demonstrates her own burgeoning obsession with Dani's hair. But to be honest, everyone is obsessed with Dani's hair. It's lustrous and thick and looks like it belongs in a shampoo commercial. Just when Dani's beginning to enjoy herself, she's knocked out again and put into yet another outfit. This time it's slave girl bikini, one of Ghita of Alizarr's hand-me-downs. This sequence had a powerful effect on my 14-year-old self that I won't go into here:

Escaping Nova Roma, Dani finds she must now share the series lead with Chris Claremont's new underage writer's pet (latest in a long line that begins with Kitty Pryde and ends approximately with Jubilee), Colossus' little sister Illyana, who joins in issue #14 and immediately gets to narrate... an honor Claremont bestowed on her alone. Illyana is a kid who morphed into a teenager after spending several years in Limbo, an extra-dimensional otherworld.

Yep, this is where Claremont first demonstrates his gift for making shit as convoluted as possible. From this point, every X-character comes factory-equipped with multiple origins and extra-dimensional doppelgangers and future fates.

This is also where Claremont has teenagers throwing around words like "eldritch," which rarely appear outside of sword-and-sorcery pulp fiction or AD&D fan fiction.

While fighting the White Queen and her Hellions, Dani also ends up in yet another bizarre, skin-baring outfit. This time it's some kind of sexed up Native American warrior/stripper get-up complete with assless chaps and a breechcloth. Keep in mind that she's perhaps as young as 15, but certainly no more than 16 or 17 during this sequence.

Coming back to earth, Dani decides it's time to confront the demon bear that slew her parents. In order to do this, Dani must honor her Cheyenne ancestors by donning their traditional battle-wear- warpaint and a superhero costume.

This is actually a really cool look for her. With Bill Sienkiewicz on art, Claremont's writing takes a darker turn and the stories really come to life. Sienkiewicz combines Neal Adams with Ralph Steadman (sometimes he lays on the Steadman a little too thick, though) and fills the backgrounds and foregrounds with neat pop culture references, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Casey cameos while Dani fights for her life.

Another cool look is Gunfighter Dani, courtesy Barry Windsor-Smith:

It's amazing what you get when you put good artists on a series.

After Sienkiewicz comes Steve Leialoha, who makes the figures cartoony and geometric, and then a brief run of Mary Wilshire with Sienkiewicz inking. With all the artist changes, the look is still more consistent than with Brett Blevins, who takes over pencils on the book for a lengthy and less-than-stellar run. While Blevins is actually an excellent artist, his angular and, frankly, ugly work on New Mutants is a downer. The characters are teenagers, yet they frequently look withered and aged, their faces full of meaningless lines and visual noise.

Especially Dani, who suddenly has a mountainous helmet of rock star hair.

They also rarely look like the same person on any given page, or even from panel to panel. Given his current work, Blevins' take on the Mutants is really shockingly bad. You're better off perusing his blog where he posts gorgeous life drawings and paintings. I should work harder at my own art so I can one day be half that good.

And once Claremont gives up the title in favor of Louise Simonson, Dani completes her transformation from hardnosed little rebel to complete Valley Girl fashionista, adopting the most "outrageous" of 80s fashions, perhaps in order to compete with Jem and the Holograms, or their rivals, the Misfits.

And her obsession with using Rahne as a couture test subject-- long simmering in the back of her mind on a low heat-- soon becames a flaming urge she's compelled to act upon lest it consume her.

Poor Rahne.

But not content with humiliating Rahne, Dani dons ripped-up workoutwear borrowed from "Let's Get Physical" era Olivia Newton-John and attacks Birdbrain, a hideous mutant animal-human hybrid the team briefly adopts.

At this point, the team's antics degenerate into self-parody and cutsy-pie "teenagers are so impulsive" John Hughes comedy bits. And somewhere in there, the team also receive their "graduation" uniforms:

There's an old saying: Keep it simple, stupid. Someone got a little mixed up and thought it was "Keep it simply stupid." Evidently, all the good ideas had been completely used up by the time the Mutants got their own personalized suits. These uniforms are so ugly and garish, they actually only rarely wear them, and only for punishment when they bomb a test or put a scratch on one of the school's fleet of sports cars.

This is another view of the suits, courtesy legendary artist John Byrne. We can't blame Byrne for this one; he was just going with the pile of shit they handed him. I really don't understand the aesthetic that's at work here. Random stripes? Cyclops had already cornered the market on yellow, so Sam's forced to go with pumpkin orange? And Dani's wearing boots she copped from Belinda Carlisle around the time "Circle in the Sand" hit big.

But the Mutants and their fashion disaster ways could defeat any artist. Even the normally brilliant Alan Davis tries to make them look individualistic and cool and fails miserably.

Purple, red, pink and orange. The colors of ass, 80's style.

Feeling discontented with the winds of change blowing, Dani attacks Birdbrain again. At least she's giving poor Rahne a break.

But Dani's worst look is the one she adopts on her final trip to Asgard. Fairly early in the series, Claremont thought it'd be a great idea to make Dani into a Valkyrie. I know what you're thinking, Dani's Native American, the Valkyrie are some sort of Scandinavian myth, it's a natural and totally non-forced combination. Unfortunately, this just adds yet another level of convoluted nonsense onto a character who was quickly picking up a lot of this kind of continuity dryer lint... much like EVERY X-character at the time.

Eventually, Louise Simonson must've just gotten sick of it and decided to write Dani out of the series. The end result is a flaming red Dani showing signs of emaciation that would give Nichole Richie pause:

Skeletor Dani rides again!

Being a smart cookie, Dani decides to stay in Asgard with her Valkyrie friends as Rob Liefeld (famous for drawing comics with a pencil actually shoved up his rectum) inherits the art chores with issue #87. It's a shrewd move, because pretty soon the old stand-by characters are shouldered out by freakishly pinheaded monstrosities with names like "Cable" and "Rictor" and "Assmodio, the Assular Ass Boy."

Too good a character to stay in Asgardian narrative purgatory forever, Dani makes a return to the Marvel Universe, only to have several more layers of unnecessary backstory painfully grafted onto her. She's a mutant terrorist, she's undercover, she has new powers that have nothing to do with her original ones.

But as her outfit reveals, one thing about Dani remains consistent: she still loves being naked or nearly naked. Our mutant exhibitionist. Now depowered, but still kicking it, Dani-style.

My beloved Dani Moonstar. Tomboy. Rebel. Leader. Self-doubter. Frequently naked. Other than the naked part, I immediately identified with her from her first appearance. We had the same anti-authoritarian tendencies, the same fiercely independent, willful "do it your own way and possibly die trying" streak and we both suffered similar bouts of near-crippling doubt. But it's hard not to like Dani because the writers- Claremont and Simonson- always seem to make her the center of attention. From the early "crazy Dani" Brood storyline, to the "Demon Bear Saga," up to her Asgardian swan song, Dani dominates.

I still think a road trippin' mini- or continuing series with Dani and Xi'an driving around the country in a Chevy conversion van, helping people here and there and frequently skinnydipping would be a hoot. Especially if they dragged Rahne around with them. I'd buy it. Possibly I'm the only one.

Oh, here's an image where she actually is naked:

Looks like she finally got to make that shampoo commercial! Rahne TIVO'd it. Actually, she made two of them:

So there you have her in a nutshell, Dani Moonstar. Let's let Dani herself have the last word, as she ably sums up her personal philosophy to her reluctant protege, Rahne Sinclair:

That's right, baby! Keep flaunting it!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"The Education of Hopey Glass:" A Comic Review!

The Education of Hopey Glass
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Writer/Artist: Jaime Hernandez

I'm including this because 1) I'm proud of it and 2) Love & Rockets began back in the days of my teenybopper comics addiction. Has it been 26 years since the Locas made the scene? They were in their late teens then, which makes them in their middle 40s now. And Hopey, the seemingly ageless punk rocker deals with issues of responsibility and getting older in the latest collection of Jaime’s stories from Los Bros Hernandez’ Love & Rockets volume 2.

In "Day by Day with Hopey," Jaime Hernandez details a week in Hopey's life as she prepares for her new job as an assistant teacher and contributes to the dissolution of her latest relationship. Hopey’s new glasses become a visual metaphor for the changes she’s gone through in her life, a reading further reinforced by the book’s reproduction of an L&R back cover featuring various snapshots of La Hopita from her innocent toddler days through her emotionally troubled pubescence to her “boy-looking peesashit” period, complete with tuxedo.

While Maggie and Ray Dominguez have most obviously visually aged, with Maggie becoming voluptuously heavy during the series’ first run and Ray eventually taking on middle-aged heft, Hopey has remained curiously youthful. Good genetics, I suppose. Some people just age well. Where Jaime most reveals the years and mileage on Hopey’s petite frame are in the scenes where she’s showering or having sex. He shows her nude form as vulnerably tiny and visibly sagging. And it adds a welcome humanizing touch…

As does her mystifying new career. Hopey as a teacher, even an assistant one? How will the kids survive her temper and self-absorption?

Hopey has always been the least self-reflective of Jaime’s characters, yet one of the most charismatic. She’s an unrepentant flirt with the almost unerring ability to pull almost any woman she wants, possessed of a checkered career including stints in punk bands, homelessness, various run-ins with the law, an existence pinballing from one relationship to the next, various low rent or temp jobs including her current gig as a bartender at a club that’s seen better days (Charles Mingus once sat in on a jam there, according to Honest Joe, the ancient regular who trades jibes with Hopey on her final shift).

In Education's penultimate installment, "Monday is Attila the Hun Day," Jaime transposes a hilarious and poignant flashback to Hopey’s elementary school days with her current daily life to depict an early development in the Hopeymonster growth process as she belatedly assumes adult responsibilities, and not without trepidation. While it’s definitely possible Hopey’s had conflicted feelings about almost every mishap she’s caused herself, her lovers and friends over the years, never have they been so blatant. Characteristically, she expresses them externally. While Ray gets narrative captions and Maggie gets thought balloons, Hopey has never had an obvious internal monologue; almost all her character development has been through action or dialogue. Her surface motives are usually extremely transparent, even hilariously so, as depicted in the Maggie and Hopey Color Fun (collected in the essential yet seemingly out-of-print Locas in Love trade) sequence where she blatantly attempts to seduce her brother’s fiancĂ©e. And her various mouthy utterances. She’s not shy, and she’s pretty fearless. But the Jaime's deliberate withholding of her thought processes and clarifying captions have left her inner life delightfully obscure.

Education is no different, but now she’s willing to share her anxieties with others (Hopey has anxieties? Wow, now I don’t feel so bad!), and her concerns are a bit deeper than getting’ some. But not to worry… she’s not going soft, as Maggie discovers.

Ah, Hopey. Still breaking hearts after all these years.

The second part of Education deals with Ray Dominguez’ romantic misadventures with Vivian the Frogmouth, a gorgeously curvy stripper/would-be actor he's sexually obsessed with. Ray is Jaime’s most sympathetic and fully-dimensional male character. Usually Jaime’s stores are given over to the trials and travails of Maggie, but he’s occasionally slipped in a bit of Ray here and there through the years. Finally, Ray gets his turn in the spotlight, and makes the most of it with a self-lacerating, almost nourish look at his nocturnal urban existence and constant search for love. Or at least lovin'.

It's a semi-sordid tale of casual violence, taking place in seedy locales. And the occasional audition. It also displays Jaime's amazing ability to draw fascinating women in all shapes and sizes and body types. Frequently and dazzingly nude. To read this story is to become Ray.

Also of note are "Angel of Tarzana" and "Angels of Tarzana," in which Jaime presents Angel Rivera, Maggie's roommate at the apartment complex she manages. Angel is a Star Wars-loving athlete who eventually crosses over into Ray's world to share a late-night skinny dip with Vivian. She once again demonstrates Jaime's unerring ability to limn a memorable, sympathetic character with just a few telling vignettes. Angel experiences all the pains of being a young jock but never lets it get her down.

It's a helluva a book, gorgeously illustrated (Jaime's slick art makes me happily high), written with humanity and insight into all the shadowy recesses of the human heart. It's also hardcover, with a real heft. It's a bookshelf type of book and you need it on YOURS. Hopey Glass expects no less!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Characters I Love: Big Barda!

She’s big. She’s Barda. Put them together and what have you got? Big Barda, the warrior woman of Apokolips. Born and bred for war, Big Barda discovers her humanity thanks to the tutelage of the sensitive Scott Free and from the tragedy of Auralie, the beautiful dancer. Apokolips was not meant for delicate things such as they, so Barda helps Scott escape. Otherwise a dutiful soldier, Barda remains behind and rises in the ranks to become an officer in Darkseid’s fearsome Female Fury force, second only to the gruesome Granny Goodness.

Alliteration rules!

What does comics master Jack “King” Kirby say about her? This:

And Jack should know; after all, he invented her. Yes, she is tough. And oh my brothers and sisters, she is strong. But how strong is strong in Barda’s case? Take Jack’s advice and see her. See how she exercises. Look at her as she windmills during her morning calisthenics. She’s tall and muscular and completely unashamed of her body.

So after seeing her doing her warm-ups on the damp grass of an early morning in spring, you’re thinking Barda must be athletically strong like one of those volleyball players, Olympic swimmers or track and field stars she somewhat resembles. A jock. A healthy young woman, maybe works out on the Weider machines down at Bally Health and Fitness, loves early morning runs when the dew shimmers on the spiderwebs lacing the azalea bushes.

Pssshh! What the hell's wrong with you? We're talking about Big Barda here. You’re thinking small! Check this out:

There. Now you’re catching on. That’s how strong Barda is. Not only can she lift a Civil War-era cannon, there’s a chance she might actually damage it. Our human weapons need to be protected from Big Barda.

But how did Big Barda enter our world? Let’s go back a couple of months:

Mr. Miracle #4. Scott Free allows himself to get caught in one of Darkseid’s deadly traps. Wait… that’s redundant. All of Darkseid’s traps are deadly. No matter. One of Darkseid’s minions- with the somewhat on the nose name Bedlam- has poisoned an entire building worth of nobodies and driven them insane. Paranoia strikes deep, as a group of filthy, degenerate singing hippies once warbled. Indeed it does, you hairy pinko creeps. Deep enough that Mr. Miracle finds himself in serious trouble.

And into the situation comes Barda. Bold and beautiful, fearless and prejudiced against little people:

Her language is as blunt and hurtful as that futuristic mace with which she smashes the kitchen table. Hmm… her choice of weapon is interestingly phallic, especially considering the gender-role reversal Jack Kirby later plays at in her relationship with Scott Free. Big Barda swings a giant penis substitute, a visual symbol of the traditionally masculine power she freely wields, an authority usually reserved for males. She and Scott are both soldiers. Not that Scott is by any means a wuss, but he couldn’t hack it and Barda is the one who became an officer. So she gets the big metal schlong to wave around and smack fools with.

Barda is also something of an amateur psychologist, but her diagnostic methodology is extreme even by Dr. Phil’s inexact standards. No, she’s not exactly sympathetic to the mentally ill. She also prescribes a non-traditional therapy:

That's kind of like the time I was visiting my therapist and she told me, "Look, jackass, my diagnosis of you is you're batshit crazy! Prescription: high risk behavior!" It worked! Someone might try to prosecute Barda for practicing psychology without a license. And to that person, I say, "Good luck, brother! You'll need it!" Probably going to end up with a cracked skull.

Despite her military background, Barda is not one to ignore the arts. In this she resembles that ideal warrior, the samurai, who frequently mastered more delicate forms such as calligraphy, painting and the serene perfection of the tea ceremony along with swordplay and tactics. In this capacity, Barda’s also a drama critic:

Sure she’s a little harsh, not really up on her Shakespeare (probably because she was so busy training her body to be a living weapon... she can kill you with her baby toe), but at least she bothered to review their performance. There are local theatricals that never draw press attention, so these amateur thespians should feel honored. A negative notice from Barda is still a notice.

Finally she reunites with Scott. At this point they’re still in “just friends” mode, but Kirby hints at their personal histories. Scott makes a disparaging remark, then immediately checks himself because he’s generally an insightful kind of guy:

One theme running throughout the Fourth World stories is that of one’s intrinsic nature. Orion is seen as the protector of New Genesis, but his true nature as a son of Apokolips comes through. Likewise, despite having been subjected to the rigors of Apokoliptian military training from earliest childhood, Scott Free never fully relinquishes his inner pacifist. As for Barda, let’s let those who know her best, her colleagues as it were, give us their opinions. Bedlam?

As is often the case with new characters, Barda’s first appearance lets us appreciate her at her purest. In just a few action-packed panels, Jack Kirby gives us the essence of the character. Ruthless. Rough around the edges. Barda is not a diplomat, Barda is not a negotiator. Barda is action personified. She is violence on two legs. Fortunately, there’s also something innately good about her, something her friendship with Scott caused to blossom and flourish.

Do you really think some sleazy porno guy could mindwash this Big Barda into appearing in his pervy videos? Do you think some cosmic killer could pull this Big Barda's heart out? I laugh to scorn such notions. As does Big Barda.

She still really has a problem with little people, though:

Here's some deathless Jolly Jack copy summing up the Big Barda phenomenon:

Oops! Sorry, that was actually a note from Professor Vundabar and his Murder Machine. Nice guy, that Vundabar. Not so sure about his Murder Machine, though. So... what's next for our warrior woman?

Pancakes! Let's eat!

"Tales to Astonish:" A Book on Comics Review!

Tales to Astonish
Writer: Ronin Ro
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

Okay, let's travel through space and time to the swingin' 60s, where we find Stan and Jack shoving a scientist, his test pilot buddy, the scientist's girlfriend and her kid brother into a poorly-designed rocket in order to beat those Reds into outer space...

Tales to Astonish is like one of those John Lennon versus Paul McCartney-type Beatles biographies. Two disparate personalities coming together, create amazing pop culture relics, get pissed at each other, part company, leave behind controversy. Some people are Stan "the Man" Lee supporters, others are Jack "the King" Kirby followers. You can probably make various assumptions about a person's personality depending on which side he or she takes and how vehemently they argue about it.

Or you could not be so reductionist, dealing in arbitrary dichotomies. Why be either-or?

Ronin Ro gives us a light but readable overview of about 50 years of comic book creativity. That's approximately how long Jack Kirby's career lasted. From his birth and hardknock upbringing as Jacob Kurtzberg to his Horatio Algeristic self-transformation into the dynamic art-hero Jack Kirby, with a brief jaunt to Europe to face off against Hitler's "supermen" and those bone-dry 50s years... to the amazing, fantastic, incredible Marvel years when he and Stan Lee created a universe and changed American pop culture forever and the final, inevitable decline, Ronin hits the major storypoints. The rise and fall paradigm we've seen in various media over the years.

Stanley Leiber begins in almost as dire circumstances, becomes Stan Lee, floats in and out of Kirby's life before the two partner after the accidental death of Joe Maneely (incredibly talented, Stan's favorite artist and go-to guy in the 50s, all but forgotten today) to produce a run of monster comics starring characters like Fin Fang Foom and others celebrated for their silly names. And then comes a little idea about four adventurers and their fateful first flight...

If you've ever read just about any interview with Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, and especially if you're a reader of the various TwoMorrows publications like Jack Kirby Collector, Alter Ego, Comic Book Artist or its successor Back Issue!, know all this stuff. Even if you haven't, you probably have a rough idea of the Marvel story. For many of us, Ronin Ro isn't introducing anything new. In fact, his section on Jack's wartime service seems to draw exclusively on a single issue of Kirby Collector with no addititves. Not a lick of in-depth, self-generated reporting, no dates or facts vetted. He doesn't even mention Kirby's unit... if I remember correctly. That in itself is pretty disappointing.

Ro interviewed as many living participants as he could, and it's a role call of the elite: John Romita, Sr., Joe Sinnott, Gene Colan, Jim Steranko and more. Even Will Eisner. They're pretty forthcoming, and some of Romita's contributions bite and hard. All those pro's and witnesses must have given him material for a book twice this size and detailed. For the rest, he relies on familiar old quotes. Honestly, I'd already read most of this stuff, and recently. Tales actually picks up steam and starts including more specifics (dates, events, exact moments) as Kirby's career enters its twilight phase; perhaps these fairly recent events were more ingrained in the participants' minds.

The overall story itself remains by turns fun and tragic, but even with all the big name contributions, reading it is like watching a TV re-run of some old I Love Lucy; saw it, enjoyed it, prefer newer stuff. By covering Stan's side of things and including accounts of Kirby's muddled testimony from the Sky Masters lawsuit, the dispute over Spider-Man and his infamously contentious Comics Journal interview, Ro avoids outright Kirby hagiography (by the mere gutter-width between a couple of comic book panels), but contributes nothing more than collecting all this material into a fast-paced, easily digested narrative.

Still, reading this is like getting Marvel History 101, or maybe the slower-paced Marvel History 085. You still need to take 090, then pass a test to actually get course credit. If you don't have the stomach for hitting the source material, Tales to Astonish will at least give you a breezy read, and if you're not an outright Kirby geek (like me!), you'll learn a bit about the once-and-future King of Comics... plus you'll get to see how mainstream publishers royally screwed their artists back in the day before royalties and artwork return.

Oh... and Jim Shooter probably shouldn't read this at all. If anyone comes across as a villain in Ro's book, it's Shooter. Deserved or not? You be the judge!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Gene Colan's Family Needs Your Help!

I just read that Gene "The Dean" Colan is having severe health issues and his family is facing some major financial burdens. This is heartbreaking. I'm all about Gene Colan, have been ever since I was a teeny little kid and picked up How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, with Stan the Man's hyperbolic prose and John Buscema's hyperbolic pencils... plus lots of gorgeous Gene Colan/Tom Palmer panels by way of illustrating just how to make your comics more compelling, more dramatic, flat-out better.

Gene Colan's panels imprinted themselves on my young psyche. They're still there, flashing in my mind as I type these words. Go look at the book again. You have it, right? Of course you do! And go look at Tomb of Dracula, the Essentials version. That's within easy arm's reach, right? Sure it is!

Check them out. In How to Draw Comics, the unusual worm's eye view angles, the dark shadows, the sinister, gothic atmosphere make them stand out even among all the other samples from giants like Jack Kirby, Neal Adams and Buscema himself. Read in its proper sequential context, a Gene Colan panel makes you dream of mystery, horror and noir. The first time I read How to Draw Comics, I didn't know Gene Colan's name, but I recognized his art by sight each time the new comics came out until the day came when I realized I was...

A Gene Colan fan.

After that, I had to possess as many examples of his work as possible. Whenever a new comic graced with his pencils appeared, I thought, "Wow... Gene Colan! Gotta buy it NOW!" Buy on sight, no hesitations, no reservations. Daredevil. Batman. That ever-lovin' Tomb of Dracula, baby. That's my kind of poison. Even John Kricfalusi loves Gene Colan... the proof is on his blog!

You can read more about Gene's troubles on the Journalista! blog, which also gives a couple ways you- yes, you, the comic fan now reading these words- can give a little something back to Mr. Colan and his family in their time of need. Tom Spurgeon has more information at The Comics Reporter. Heidi MacDonald also chimes in at The Beat, and her report comes illustrated with some super-sweet Gene Colan Escapist artwork and a Dracula sequence where the Lord of the Undead's bats attack the Capitol Building you really have to see. Not content with just talking about it, Clifford Meth has organized a super-pro benefit. Check out the names involved. It's a WOWZA! list. Unless I'm mistaken (and I often am but I'm fairly certain I'm not this time out), I think he did something similar for Dave Cockrum. I like this guy a lot!

And Adrienne Colan's letter about her husband's health can be found here. I like this blog post especially because it includes this address, which I'm going to steal and post here in case someone reading this isn't much for clicking links:

Gene Colan
2 Sea Cliff Avenue
Sea Cliff, NY 11579

... where you can send cards and letters and get well wishes. And following that, there are some lovely pro-Gene Colan comments.

All Mrs. Colan is asking for is patience from people who commissioned artwork from her husband (and she mentions some fabulous upcoming projects he was working on before illness struck), but I think we can all do better than that. Journalista! includes a simple way to donate via PayPal to help defray the Colans' mounting medicals costs and another way that's maybe somewhat less simple but no less effective and perhaps nets you some of Mr. Colan's artwork. I already sent something (too little, far too little, I'm afraid) and a note telling the Colans just how much I've appreciated having a life with Gene Colan's shadowy chiaroscuro-filled art in it.

Last, but certainly about as far from least as you can get, Mark Evanier has a personal tribute to Gene Colan. Evidently, Mr. Colan is not only a giant in terms of his art, but also one of the nice ones.

I know this blog doesn't have any juice in the comics world, but if you're passing by and happen to read this- if you love comics, especially the good comics, the ones with gorgeous art- at the very least send a positive thought or a prayer winging its way towards the Colans.

I'm starting a new blog...

There are too many comics not to talk about them. But with new comics scarce and hard to come by here in Japan and not really floating my boat, these days I'm focusing on older stuff. Comics pre-1990, but with a very few digressions to cover good things of more recent vintage. And most of those involving era-spanning characters and creators.

Mainly I want to talk about comics from the 1950s through the 1980s. Tales from the Crypt, The New Mutants. The DC and Marvel comics I love. Yeah, it's an exercise in nostalgia. Praising and mocking, discovering and deconstructing. Educating myself on comics' vast legacy of creators, characters and storylines.

Batman before he was a borderline psycho asshole, Karma and Moonstar, the Micronauts, the Fantastic Four before they became shills for Dodge and Diet Mountain Dew and Jessica Alba inexplicably became Sue Storm to the movie-going public. Those bizarre Planet of the Apes magazines. The Fourth World. Peter Parker when he was the coolest, unluckiest dork around. Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Marie Severin, John Byrne, Al Williamson, Nick Cardy, Michael Golden, Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood and more. Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Alan Moore and others. And a few of today's creators who I think are keeping the true craft alive- Steve Rude, Mike Allred, Los Bros Hernandez.

The comics they created had a the feeling of newness, of discovery that today's often lack. While cheesiness knows no era, the kitsch factor of the older comics tends to render them charming. Maybe it's because these comics have achieved a status as pop culture artifacts. There's something cool and funny about Capt. Kirk shouting "Yikes!" in an old Gold Key Star Trek comic versus... I don't know... any of the post-modern quips in Mighty Avengers. I don't enjoy keeping up with this year's massive crossovers, don't really have an interest in what classic character is dying or coming back. The only character I've really enjoyed in the past 10 years has been the Cassandra Cain Batgirl... and we all know what happened to her.

But I don't want to turn this into a false dichotomy, an exercise in reductive either-or thinking. It's not about how much better yesterday's comics are than today's. There were a lot of stinkers back then, just as now. And a lot of gems around today. I just happen- perversely, no doubt- to enjoy the old stinkeroos more than today's future classics. For the most part. It's the MST3K in me. To that end, I just want to create an angst-free zone of pure enjoyment and frivolity. Make people laugh. And think. Those seeking controversy and anger will have to look elsewhere.

I mean, look at that title image. Ridiculous.

Any Japanese comics I read, you'll find reviewed on my Japan blog.

I'll probably start by posting some relevant entries from my old I Against Comics blog. Let's look back at that old stuff and see what we can find! Also, wear a respirator or at least an anti-allergen mask. If you're like me, these old dusty comics make you sneeze. They also smell kinda musty. I'll try to keep that to a minimum here in the archives.