Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hey, They Finally Nabbed the Joke!

According to the Associated Press, police in Three Rivers, Michigan, arrested a fully grown, adult 20-year-old man dressed like the Joke. The Joke was allegedly stealing posters and other memorabilia related to a popular comic-book inspired movie of some some kind.

Disappointingly, there's nothing in the AP story to indicate if this puckish fellow arrived at the theater accompanied by gnomes or leprechauns. Also uncertain is whether or not his pockets were filled with pennywhistles and roman candles. Or even moonbeams and starlight. There are precious few hints indicating he also tried to steal lollipops or candy bars, or if he leaped into the air with elfish glee and clacked his heels together during the attempted childlike mischief.

No word about how the little pixie planned to make his getaway. Perhaps on rollerskates? In a paper airplane decorated with stars crudely drawn in crayon? Rubber-band propelled toy duck?

The young man (pictured in his police mug shot wearing his "the Joke" makeup and without) also hasn't revealed to the world why he felt he had to dress like the Joke. Personally, I think he looks more like Max Fischer from Rushmore. If only he were wearing a private school uniform jacket, we might assume he was trying to get a teacher fired.

"I don't think that's such a good idea, Max." Max Fischer is a charming, precocious character. Perhaps cosplaying as Max Fischer is overly subtle, especially when it's still almost 3 months until Halloween.

Maybe over the next few months we'll see others proclaiming themselves also to be the Joke. Lord knows, we all take our turn as the Joke. Almost all of us do stupid, silly things from time to time. Not all of us do them dressed like the Joke, though. But for now, this delightfully absurd little fellow is the closest thing to the real Joke we have in today's topsy-turvy media-crazed society. I hope being the Joke makes him happy. I hope being the Joke is every bit as fulfilling as he thought it would be.

Anyway, ladies and gentlemen... comics fans... children of all ages... I give you...

The Joke.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg" as Futurology, Part One

Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.
-Jim Dator

Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg was a cutting edge comic for its time. It incorporated a lot of storytelling techniques later borrowed by any number of creators. The use of television screen iconography and pop culture references to provide depth, to amplify and make ironic comment on the action would later serve Frank Miller very well indeed in his acclaimed series The Dark Knight Returns. Thanks to letterer Ken Bruzenak, who served almost as a co-illustrator, Flagg incorporated text and graphic design into the art in creative and original ways, although it can be argued Will Eisner (his Spirit title splashes) and Jim Steranko and Bruzenak (on Marvel's FOOM magazine) did some of the earlier experimentation along these lines. All that’s well and good. Very good indeed.

“Forget all that crap! What about American Flagg’s success as a work of futurology?” you ask. "How accurate are its predictions?"

Well, I’m glad you asked me that particular question because it's been on my mind lately. Futurology is fun for me because I’m a dork. And as a dork, I especially love it when we actually reach the era described in a futurological work and we can see just how accurate or not the author’s predictions were. Just for kicks, because Howard Chaykin probably intended American Flagg to be entertaining first and foremost, not a visionary work of hardcore speculation.

Because that would be stupid. So let’s be stupid. All two or three of us. Together. Being stupid is much more enjoyable in a group. Let’s examine American Flagg as an attempt to predict the future.

Chaykin makes it easy on us because unlike Nostradamus and his poetic vagaries that could mean damn well anything, he provides us with a specific date. 1996, called by Flagg himself “The Year of the Domino.” An anno horribilis. What happened to make it so?

In American Flagg, actor Reuben Flagg (obsoleted former star of Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger, which seems like something that could've aired on late-night Showtime, Cinemax or even the old USA Network) comes to Earth from Mars to join the Plex Rangers. As a newcomer, he’s the perfect fictional vehicle for Chaykin to describe his futuristic setting. In the first issue, after he’s learned a bit about the PlexMall and the current state of America, Flagg sits down and records a diary entry where he tells how this all came about.

Get your scorecards ready! And… here… we… go:

East coast meltdown. Some sort of nuclear accident. In 1983, when First Comics published American Flagg, the 1979 Three Mile Island incident was still fairly recent news. That was also the year Columbia Pictures released the Jane Fonda/Jack Lemmon/Michael Douglas thriller The China Syndrome. So nuclear safety was a controversial topic around that time. But we didn't have a major nuclear catastrophe in America in 1996, or any major accident in the years since Three Mile Island. The Soviet Union, yeah, and it happened a mere 3 years after American Flagg's premiere. You should read up on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Fascinating stuff. I'll bet if Chernobyl had happened before he started American Flagg, Chaykin would've incorporated something along those lines.

Massive crop failure. Nope, didn’t happen in 1996 and ideally modern growing techniques will keep us in food for the indefinite future. Have we had even a minor crop failure recently? Florida oranges? Georgia peaches? Oh the shifting fortunes of those dependent on the weather.

USSR collapses in Islamic insurrection. Now we’re getting somewhere. The USSR collapsed, only it happened in 1991, 5 years earlier than Chaykin's prediction. The same decade! That's at least as accurate as any TV psychic, right up there with that woman who predicted all the Kennedy assassinations. And even though the Soviet Union's downfall wasn't due to an Islamic insurrection, don’t forget the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was still 5 years away when this comic debuted. Ultimately, the closest analog to Chaykin's prediction was the horrific First Chechen War, a Muslim separatist conflict which lasted from 1994 to 1996. Huh? Huh? Unfortunately for futurology-accuracy's sake, that was a post-Soviet conflict and the region remains a Russian federal subject. Still, coming that close to the correct collapse date trumps any causal considerations so I have to give Mr. Chaykin a lot of credit for this one. And also for his correct reading of some of the internal regional religio-political strains underlying the external image of Soviet solidarity. I mean, around the same time, Mike Baron and Steve Rude had a Soviet Union still existing 500 years into the future in Nexus!

Food riots shake Western Europe. Not even close. Although French farmer Jose Bove has led protests against McDonald's. Does that count?

International bank system collapses. Nope.

Iran-Israel nuclear exchange. This one is scarily prescient. It still hasn’t happened but recent events make it seem all too likely; Mr. Chaykin may merely have the date a decade or two too early. What’s amazing is that it’s specifically Iran, and not say, Syria or Jordan or some made up Trans-Arabic Alliance. But then again, likelihood isn’t actuality. So any points will have to be deferred for now.

Germany reunited, nukes London. This one is, I think, a little bit of a joke. Mr. Chaykin having a little fun. West and East Germany reunified in 1990, but throughout the rest of the decade they seemed pretty peaceful. Certainly not out for any revenge. Being a mere six years off on the political half of this 2-part event practically qualifies Chaykin as a full-fledged psychic. I also remember a David Letterman Top 10 List on France's jittery preparations for German reunification. Close enough. So partial credit for historical accuracy, partial credit for anticipating a Letterman joke.

California sinks. Physically or metaphorically? Hasn't happened. And may not unless Paris Hilton relocates there. I’ve always been skeptical about this whole notion of California “falling into the sea.” Small islands have blown themselves apart volcanically, and yes, I’ve heard practically my entire life that the Big One will one day drop California into the Pacific. But since California is anchored to a land mass and not floating on top of the water, I’m not sure what the geological mechanics of such an event would entail. Is there some sort of continental shelf drop-off directly off the California shoreline where an earthquake could tumble the entire state into the sea?

Plague spreads. What plague? A plague of annoying smart-ass comic book blogs? If so, well done, Mr. Chaykin! You were only off a few years. Other than that I don’t recall any world-shaking pandemics in 1996.

The U.S. government and major corporations relocate to Mars. Sounds like a good idea to me, but it didn’t happen.

H.G. Wells and Jules Verne tend to get high marks for some of their futurological fictions, while the Star Trek series’ background details seem more irrelevant all the time as we sweep past important dates without Eugenics Wars and WWIII. My favorite sci-fi film series, Planet of the Apes, is getting increasingly ridiculous. There were no faster-than-light interstellar launches in 1973 and where's our 1991 dog and cat plague? What if the world doesn't end in 3955 or 3978? See? Those crazy futurological fools couldn't even keep their years straight!

George Orwell meant his 1984 more as metaphor and criticism than prediction, but that didn’t stop pundits from giving it a thorough workout when that year actually rolled around. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick hung a specific date on their famous space odyssey, but 2001 didn’t see any monoliths excavated on the moon, or artificial intelligences going slowly psychotic in transit to Jupiter.

Actually, that last one is interesting too because it predicts defunct airline Pan Am would one day deliver space-tourists and government scientists to giant rotating space stations that haven't yet materialized and we also now know Velcro-bottomed shoes have yet to come into style for our many thousands of dedicated space flight attendants who must serve microwaved chicken and beef meals in zero gravity.

So, to answer your original question. Is Howard Chaykin the visionary equal to Verne, Wells and Clarke? Is American Flagg a startlingly prescient work of futurology? What the hell do I know? In 1983, I was a junior high kid at the time and mostly into comic books and video games. My idea of 1996 was I'd be a rock star making the fabulous sum of $30,000 a year and living in a space dome with Paulina Porizkova on the dark side of the moon. So basically, I have no idea. Sorry I wasted your time!

NOTE: In our next installment, we’ll examine the futurology of Reuben Flagg’s hyper-violent, hyper-sexualized world of 2030 and see what’s already come to pass and what seems to have been made less likely thanks to various developments in the years between 1983 and now. You know… if I get around to finishing the damned thing.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Well, There Goes My Big Plan to Invite Alan Moore to See the "Watchmen" Move with Me!

Alan Moore is not a fan of either the book 300 or its film adaptation so he's none too pleased with Zack Snyder's handling of Watchmen. Or, more accurately, that it's being filmed at all, I guess. In that article, he also has a few choice words about DC Comics:

"I don't want anyone who works for DC comic books to contact me ever again, or I'll change my number."

Not a fan, huh? Not fond of those people, huh?

Unlike Alan Moore (and despite myself), I mildly enjoyed the atavistic violence contained in the comic book 300. Well, for the one issue I read before the brainlessness of it all tossed me out of the story. It's one of those works where you deplore the contents but feel exhilarated by certain elements of the execution.

Not the dumbed-down writing. And not the drawings themselves, because Frank Miller's art has become so ugly over the years it's like violence against the eye. Still, he can compose a panel and pace the action on a page like few others. A Miller comic usually reads like you're watching a movie. Although for my comic buying-money no one tops Kojima Goseki, from whom I believe Miller liberally swiped to learn these chops.

However, it turns out Mr. Moore and I are of one mind when it comes to the movie. Despite my mingled horror and amusement at its loud-ass spectacle and a growing desire to turn the channel to anything (even an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger), I managed to watch the entire thing. Cinematically dumb, homophobicariffically dumb and racistastically dumb. If there's a brain located anywhere within 1000 miles of that movie's production, we've been unable to detect it despite employing some of the most sensitive devices yet invented by science.

But Watchmen? I've had hopes that Snyder's slavishly faithful approach taken with superior source material might produce a superior film. But it cuts both ways, doesn't it? If the thunderous flaws of 300 were mostly Miller's, then we're in the clear. If not...

On one hand, the trailer often looks like the comic come to life. Jackie Earle Haley is an inspired choice for Rorschach. Dr. Manhattan looks like Dave Gibbons (who's a fave of mine, by the way) drew him into the movie somehow.

But on the other, now that I've seen footage and can gauge a little better some of the Snyderian aesthetics at work in Watchmen, there are a couple of nagging things that trouble me.

"Like what?" you eagerly ask.

Well, the music choice for the trailer is the same sort of heavy handed goth-metal/industrial emo oafishness that maybe appeals to the demographic 300 was aimed at.

What's the opposite of promising?

You know what would've been really inspiring? A trailer featuring snippets of the film's Vietnam imagery set to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son." That song features a lot of the angry atmospherics of patriotism curdled, civic virtues betrayed and growing cynicism in the face of a hypocritical nation Moore reveals in the comic and its dystopia-disguised-as-a-utopia setting. Two minutes of blistering, angry rock and sci-fi elements intruding on a seemingly real world setting.

You know- you lull the audience into thinking they're seeing Brian De Palma's Casualties of War Redux or a prequel to Coming Home and suddenly a giant naked blue guy steps over the trees and disintegrates the Viet Cong with his mental powers.

But no one ever listens to my bright ideas.

Also, given the stoopid excesses of 300, I'm a little afraid that some of Moore's grace notes- such as Dr. Manhattan's melancholy sojourn on Mars where he creates a delicate crystalline construct reminiscent of a watch's inner workings, a moment where the character's mental state is as fragile as this thing he's willed into being- will come across as brutally plodding, leaden set pieces.

Jeez, I hope not. I tend to go with my optimistic mode. I just know my respect for Alan Moore as an artist is much higher than any similar feelings for either Frank Miller or Zack Snyder so far. Actually, I don't have similar feelings for them at all. I like Moore's work. Still, Snyder wants this to be the Moore adaptation Moore will embrace, or at least not badmouth so much. And personal quirky qualms aside, I'm still planning on seeing it at the theater.

Sigh... It's just... I guess I'll have to go alone...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"American Flagg" to Finally Flap in the Breeze!

This comes to us via the "About Damn Time" department. Image is finally releasing their American Flagg hardcover. It contains the first 14 issues (and a new story) of Howard Chaykin's groundbreaking sci-fi comic series from the 1980s. I think this was one of those First Comics books, along with E-Man.

Think. I can't actually be sure because it's been a long time and I really don't feel like looking all this stuff up again. So, from memory... American Flagg tells the story of Fred Flagg, an itinerant flag designer and all-American patriot who, infused with the power of a thousand American flags, becomes American Flagg, the red-white-and-blue defender of all things American: motherhood, apple pies, college football, celebrity worship, reckless overseas adventurism, stratospheric gas prices, obsession over American Idol and a natural spirit that combines both a shrill puritanism and a prurient pop culture. As a comic series, it was incredibly accurate in its prescience!

Thank god for my photographic memory, because until this book's street date, that's all any of us have to rely on- our memories of Flagg, his stylish leather jacket, his somewhat effeminate boots and Lester McWhiskers, his Garfield-inspired imaginary cat companion.

Why the long delay? This book was announced what seems like an eternity ago, and I was convinced at one time I'd missed its one and only printing. Then I had this vague idea legal issues had tumbled it from a state of exalted grace into developmental hell. After that, I thought it was a UK-only book. Eventually it turned up for pre-order on Amazon.co.jp and I put myself down for a copy, with little or no hope of actually getting one. Now I'm thinking it's a 50-50 proposition and yet I'm still stoked about it.

Actually, it seems the delay was technical. The original art is long gone, so they prepared this book from the comic books themselves. That brings up a myriad of difficulties- look at Checkers Book Publishing Group's delightful Gold Key Star Trek reprint books for one approach to using the printed comics. The people at Checkers seem to just photograph the comic pages, and that's fine; to me, the rough edges add charm to the Trek stuff and bring back memories of the days when comics were ephemera. But American Flagg was state-of-the-art in its day, so a big expensive hardcover full of moires, blurry art and fat linescreens just wasn't going to cut it.

You can read all about the reconstruction work at PW Comics Week, where they have the straight scoop from people who actually know what the hell they're talking about. I find this story fascinating because I'm a former Photoshop jockey/graphic designer and can appreciate the difficulties that went into this. And also that they took it upon themselves to update the colors somewhat. Evidently, Flagg wore "salmon" boots in the original printings. Yikes!

Purists might scream, but one problem I have with all these giant "omnibus" editions and archival reprints is the colors become way too garish, too harsh. Back in more primitive times, purples washed out and passed for certain shades of brown, pinks became subtle, use of magenta was probably subjective and meant to stand in for some other more reasonable color that wouldn't reproduce. Colorists avoided other colors altogether. Slavishly copying these colors themselves may be historically accurate but doesn't take into account the colorist's intent when dealing with poor reproduction and cheap materials. Color schemes that looked fine years ago on cheap, ink-absorbing newsprint often look like a carnival barfed on the slick white papers used today.

I suggest if you must hew completely to the original palette for accuracy's sake, at least take off about 5% or desaturate and soften the harshness. The black line work will stand out that much more and that's really what we want to see. The color should accentuate shape, depth and perspective, not actively compete with or obscure them. Judging by some of the info in this article, the American Flagg restoration team seems to have taken that into account. I really can't wait to read this stuff again.

Considering some of the subject matter, I probably shouldn't have been reading it at all when I was 14.

Monday, July 14, 2008

4 Out of 5 Dani Moonstars Agree...

Comics costumes from the late 1980's were really, really bad. And judging by their dialogue, maybe the rest of the New Mutants concur as well...

These are from the otherwise beautifully drawn (by Alan Davis) New Mutants Giant Size Annual #3, published in 1987. The reigning costume aesthetic at the time included imagery from Danny Terrio's Dance Fever and random elements drawn from Jai-Alai... the World's Fastest Sport!

For the record, Dani is stunned by her teammate Sam "Cannonball" Guthrie's choice of a white helmet, magenta visor, purple jumpsuit... with shoulder pads and a white cummerbund. He watched Sigourney Weaver's performance as an arrogant business exec in power suits from the Melanie Griffith-Harrison Ford romantic comedy Working Girl over 100 times before designing this outfit. Or else he was hoping to become a charter citizen in Janet Jackson's start-up kingdom, otherwise known as Rhythm Nation 1814.

No explanation given as to why he's wearing Dani's bedroom slippers over his superhero boots, though.

And at first, Dani's frightened and more than a little appalled at Roberto "Sunspot" DaCosta's disco getup with pink mask, plus gold wrist and ankle bands... but then she thinks, Heads will turn on Castro Street and maybe that's what he wants. So being the supportive friend and leader she is, she smiles and realizes if it makes him happy, she's all for it.

Doug "Cypher" Ramsey has merely confused her by time travelling to our time and winning an E-Bay auction for a padded vest and a jumpsuit stolen from the Capt. Power and the Soldiers of the Future wardrobe van. After returning to the past, he evidently gave the helmet to Sam and kept the rest for himself. Boys are strange, Dani thinks. And stupid!

She just feels sorry for Rahne "Wolfsbane" Sinclair who, as the youngest member of the team, was forced by Professor X to wear Kitty Pryde's old hand-me-downs.

Only Illyana "Magik" Rasputin retains any semblance of dignity, but Dani has to wonder why an other-dimensional sorceress would use the University of Georgia Bulldogs team colors, before deciding her friend must be a big SEC football fan.

And then she looks at herself and her "Princess Tiger Lily" khaki Danskins in the mirror and vomits uncontrollably for nine hours and has to be put on an IV drip to prevent dehydration.

With these choices, it's no wonder Dani prefers nudity.