Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson in New Mutants #21

A surprise on a Friday morning in Japan-- Michael Jackson has died at age 50. Love him or hate him, there was a time when he was just a man on the pop charts. And throughout his adult career, he was a man about whom we ultimately know nothing. Constantly publicized yet essentially obscure, a musical Jay Gatsby-- a creation willed into being by both himself and the expectations of the public sphere into which he'd practically been born. Through the scandals and the physical metamorphoses, a chameleon and a chimera. A frighteningly talented yet oddly frightened man hiding behind an image, an outsized Wizard of Oz persona.

During his most creatively vital period, the 80s, before he became more mythological than human, Jackson's presence extended even into comic books. In 1984's New Mutants #21, the gang invite a gaggle of local girls to the X-Mansion for a slumber party and, invevitably, thoughts turn to Michael Jackson. Here someone named "Manoli" demonstrates a Michael Jackson dance move and"Diana" mis-states Jackson's official title. Crown Prince of Rock'n'Roll?

It seems strange to rely on non-castmembers to explain Michael Jackson to the culturally ignorant Amara. The showcase dance panel is given over to some one-shot obscurity (unless I completely overlooked the subsequent The Incandescent Manoli: Pajama Dancing Machine comic book series). But I suppose Rahne would not, Dani (confined to a wheelchair after suffering grievous injuries while fighting a demon bear) could not... and poor Xi'an was still presumed dead at this time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

But... Where Is Cass?

That's something that's really bugging me. Worrying me. Troubling me. Vexing me. I am very... vexed. And yes, I have nothing more pressing to worry about. Life is pretty good right now. So tell me: where is Cassandra Cain?

She appears to have vanished completely from DC's books. I can understand this to a certain extent. There's a new Batgirl series starting in August, the whole hook to its premiere is the question of who will be in costume. Wendy? Stephanie Brown? Barbara Gordon? Cass? The initial promos feature teaser images carefully drawn by Phil Noto to hide Batgirl's face. These are very nicely rendered, by the way. Kudos to Mr. Noto. I wish he'd drawn that Batgirl: Redemption Road miniseries from last year.

And that practically anyone else had written the damned thing!

But there remains the nagging inconsistency of a character so intrinsic to the Batman family and the Outsiders team suddenly vanishing without a word being said by any character in those related books. Or have there been some mentions of her and her whereabouts and I've just missed them because I can only read snippets of the actual comics and reviews due to my living in Japan and not having regular access to monthlies? And if they truly haven't mentioned her, isn't that odd when you consider Bruce Wayne recently made her his daughter (Cassandra Wayne?) and all the massive changes currently going on in the Bat-books, what with Dick Grayson finally donning the main man's costume and some new little asshole kid masquerading as Robin?

It eerily reminds me of the whole One Year Later fiasco, when the DC universe flash-fowarded a year into the future minus Cass and Batman, Robin, Nightwing and-- even more incredibly-- Oracle, her closest mentor, said nothing at all about her absence until she re-emerged in the gruesomely stupid Robin #150 and equally bad Supergirl #14 as a horrific Dragon Lady villain, complete with "fiendish Oriental sexuality" straight out of a Terry and the Pirates strip circa 1934. Jesus, Fu Manchu couldn't have asked for a better daughter. DC had a lot of work to do fixing that mess... even though they eventually botched even Batgirl's redemption.

So by removing Cass from the narrative, they've cleared the board for the new Batgirl, whoever she may be. And perhaps Cass has outgrown that role and is ready for a new secret identity and all will be explained come August. She may still be in the cast mix for the Batgirl relaunch, and Dan Didio has said the character is still "very viable." But for now it brings up uneasy memories, associations and once again gives short shift to one of the few DC characters I actively care about. Hopefully DC won't make the same mistake twice.

But where is she now and what is she doing while her allies, her friends and even her family are going through so much drama? Couldn't they at least show her chilling at Wayne Manor or name-check her or something? Couldn't she at least pop up and say, "This new Robin is a total dick... and by the way, at one time when I was drugged out of my mind I-- like my mother before me-- was the leader of the secret organization that produced him, for which I now must apologize. I'll be in the jacuzzi until August, have a nice summer!"?

Have they done that and I'm whistling some tune that somewhat resembles "Dixie," a song I actually never whistle because I actively dislike it? Can someone clue me in, or point out to me the books or sequences I should look for?

Where is Cass?

At Last! The New Batgirl Revealed! Well... the New Batgirl Toy, Anyway

And here it is, just in time for August's new Batgirl comic book series. This is the new Batgirl action figure from DC Direct's "JLA Classified" line, apparently based on the artwork of Ed McGuinness:

It's a re-paint of the previous Batwoman figure with a new head plopped on top, which explains the less-than-comic-accurate thigh high boots. They didn't really do Mr. McGuinness any favors with this toy. His 2D artwork looks a lot better than this figure.

The sculpting looks soft, almost as if it were crafted from Playdoh instead of whatever medium toy sculptors generally use. There's a strange flatness to the biceps and the hands are square-ish and lack detail, the feet are mere wedges. The thighs, however, are heroically proportioned. Looks like a skilled custom, not the work of a professional toy company. And I wouldn't mind the boring pose if the figure were highly-articulated. DC Direct tends to concentrate on clean sculpts with limited articulation, which is fine. I own some of their Silver Age-inspired toys and I'm perfectly happy with them. But when the work is this underwhelming you need something to give it a little oomph, right? Right?

Flaws aside, it's of interest because it's only the third Cassandra Cain Batgirl action figure, and the second from DC Direct.

Here's DC Direct's previous take on the character, the "First Appearance" figure:

The sculpt here is tighter, giving the figure a more finished, professional look. I love the crazily dynamic cape, but the odd torso twist and the right fist and leg poses make the figure look bizarrely distorted. The giant cranium and cut abdominal muscles accurately represent Damion Scott's more cartoony, stylized Cass Batgirl. A rarity among comic book super-women, Cassandra Cain wasn't all about being garishly sexy or even particularly pretty; she existed to kick ass and possibly chew bubblegum, but with little or no bubblegum remaining from deliberately limited supplies of said bubblegum. And while I greatly admire Scott's take on Batgirl, this is one ugly-ass toy.

Mattel produced a Cass Batgirl as part of their DC Superheroes line. Their Cass actually looks superior to either of these more "premium" offerings. It's not easy to find and re-uses the body sculpt from their Barbara Gordon Batgirl. The arms are a bit thin and short, the gauntlets aren't exactly comic book accurate and the boobs are a little oversized. But she sports some nice silver highlights and her belt is a vast improvement over either of the DC Direct figures. It also features fourteen or more points of articulation. I'm of the opinion a kinetic character like Cass should always be represented by a highly poseable toy. After all, she's a martial artist of blisteringly quick moves, not a cover girl frozen by the shutter into a statuesque pose.

Now that Cass is seemingly poised to relinquish her role as Batgirl (and has vanished from the DC universe narrative completely as of this writing), these may be her final attempts at action figure immortality.

Because Cass has generally gotten and probably will always get the shaft from toy producers. And yet this is understandable. If you're a parent in a Wal-Mart toy section and you spot a faceless ninja-style Batgirl, you're bound to be confused. Face it, for most people Batgirl is a lithe red-head with hair spilling out the back of her cowl and ultra-feminine high heels. That's the look most associated with Batgirl, the one in the cartoons and so far, most of the Batgirl licensed goods have been in this traditional, familiar style, and many of them have been visually attractive images, statues and toys. More so than these poor, deformed Cass offerings. This primacy of the Barbara Gordon Batgirl paradigm is probably a factor in DC's phasing Cassandra out as Batgirl in the comics, as well.

If that's what they're doing.

But I'm a Cass fan, and my dream Cassandra Cain Batgirl action figure combines a more plausible, somewhat realistic sculpt with lots of articulation. I'm not so concerned about "cut line joints" or whatever spoiling the aesthetics. Toy first, statue second.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Superman Thinks Teachers Are Heroes...

Apparently. You know, as one of your regular, run of the mill, blue collar-type comic bloggers I spend a lot of time seething with anger or boiling over with rage and all the colors of fury inbetween... when I'm not shooting dogs with pellet guns or sticking heroin needles between my toes to hide my track marks. It's a brutal life when you hate the thing you love and it hates you back, and I'm not sure what it all accomplishes.

But every once in a while, you read a story that gives you hope. Like the story about 13-year-old Hakeem Bennett, who wrote an essay about how his teacher is a real-life hero so DC put the eighth grader in a Superman story. Stories like this make me want to put out that Dan Didio effigy I'm burning and... smile. Let's see if I can. Trying... trying...

Well, no, I can't do it. Years of comics blogging have frozen my mouth into a permanent rictus of pure hate. But right now I don't feel that hate inside. My tiny, shrivelled heart is growing... if not three sizes then at least two and a half. One and three quarters. All right, I admit it-- I don't have a heart. But if I did, it would be warm right now.

All jokes aside (those were jokes?!), I'm actually happier when the big cats get something right than I am angry when they screw up, and I wish more comic book publishers did things like this with more frequency. Involve the fans, put things on some kind of personal basis in some way, impart a positive message. Remember the old days of letters columns and Marvel's No Prizes? That sense of belonging? I suppose we get that from message boards, but those seem a little cold sometimes. A little perfunctory. Here's a kid who's actually going inside the story. When I was a little younger than Bennett is now, there was a comic book contest every few months. Win a 10-speed, submit a story for Wonder Woman, invent a villain for some cereal campaign. When my first letter was published in an issue of Sgt. Rock, I was thrilled for days.

Bennett's principal, Jennifer Glidden, puts it best in the news story: "We really think he's going to be a real success. This opportunity, I personally feel, really has boosted his self-esteem."

And while I'm not sure if Superman actually does think teachers are heroes, I wouldn't be surprised at all if he did. I know I do. I had a few truly excellent and inspiring teachers growing up. They don't get paid nearly enough, they're practically the first government jobs that suffer wage freezes and cutbacks and yet we could not have civilization without teachers of some kind. Education is an absolute necessity and there is no good substitute for it. The only one I can think of is to remain ignorant, and we know that doesn't work.

So kudos to Hakeem Bennett, his teachers and to DC Comics for putting them in the spotlight for a change.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tokyo Visionaries: Images of Japan from Western Comics

As an American comic book fan living in Japan, I'm fascinated by depictions of my adopted home in my old favorites. My inspiration for living here is more pop cultural than spiritual or financial. I'm more of a live show and contemporary Tokyo person than a temple and garden type. And I'm not all that into manga or anime; I have a few favorites. No, my earliest imaginings of Japan consisted of images drawn from Speed Racer, Ultraman, Space Giants, Sonny Chiba movies, James Clavell's Shogun and-- for some reason-- Pink Lady.

As I got older, I became enamored of Japanese noise rock and street fashion, cinema and subcultures. I'd be lying, however, if I said in all of that I didn't find some inspiration from American comics and depictions of Japan found in them. These were and remain heavily reliant on Clavell-esque storylines of Westerners getting deeply involved with modern-day samurai, ninja or, in a more recent switch, yakuza gangsters seemingly born from both Michael Crichton's anti-Japanese paranoia-laced Rising Sun and Kitano Takeshi's ultra-violent films, among others-- the yakuza film is a longterm genre in Japan, just as gangster films have been in America for decades. Lots of arrogant, angry, high-strung characters like Silver Samurai, Katana, the female Dr. Light and occasional X-Men ally Sunfire, references to revered ancestors and "losing face" and "retaining honor" and life debts and all that junk...

Well, the chances of encountering genuine ninja in contemporary Japan are just about nil, and meeting up with yakuza thugs with ancestral castles only slightly more likely. But if the storylines are somewhat ridiculous, how do their visuals match up to the real thing? Let's take a look at some carefully selected examples. It's by no means a comprehensive overview because it consists only of comics I've actually read.

First up is the Chris Claremont-scripted, John Byrne-illustrated The Uncanny X-Men #118, "The Submergence of Japan." In this story, the X-people have escaped the Savage Land and traveled by the research ship Jinguichi Maru to Japan, where they find the ship's "home port of Agarashima," a fictional seaport ablaze in a fire so hot they can feel it from "ten kilometers from shore." Byrne treats us to an epic double-page splash with our heroes in the foreground, a backdrop of the devastated cityscape spewing massive, lurid red flames and billowing smoke, Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets streaking overhead and with a snow-covered Mt. Fuji off in the distance, as if gazing impassively at the destruction. The buildings are a little exotic-shaped, but it does give one a feeling of place; Agarashima, if it existed, would probably be somewhere on the southern coast of Honshu, somewhere between Shizuoka prefecture and Tokyo, an area where there are plenty of coastal cities hugged to the Pacific by mountains.

Coming ashore, the X-Men make their way through the ruins. Neither Claremont's narrative captions nor Byrne's art dwell much on travelogue, so we miss a chance to see if Byrne can match his ultra-detailed North American settings-- that counterfeiting of reality that adds so much verisimilitude to the X-Men's superheroic antics during this classic period-- with some postcard-perfect Japanese backgrounds, albeit ones crumbled by an earthquake. Byrne gives us just enough to make the setting at least seem real:

The story quickly replaces modern Japan with more James Clavell-style fantasies, and Byrne deftly draws all the shoji (paper sliding door) and wooden walkways you could desire in a comic book story before he and Claremont send their protagonists off to some secret island base to fight Moses Magnum, a nut who wants to sink Japan. Interestingly, this idea of Japan's submergence has been a theme in Japanese science fiction literature. Magnum's hideaway is right out of the 1967 James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice, also set in Japan and the poster for which carries Western sexual fetishization of subservient Japanese women to ludicrous extreme.

Sorry... I digress...

Even in such a fast-paced story, Wolverine finds time to meet and begin wooing a character who would become intrinsically linked with him, at least throughout the 1980s, Lady Mariko Yashida. He even presents her with a chrysanthemum and displays a heretofore unknown ability to speak perfectly fluent Japanese!

In the 1982 Wolverine miniseries, Claremont teams up with the artist most known in America for the influence of Japanese comics and cinema on his stories, Frank Miller. Together, they send Wolverine on a very Bond-like adventure in a modern day Japan practically overrun by crazed ninja assassins. This story is like a compendium of the American popular mythologizing of Japanese culture-- all samurai honor and Asian exoticism but set against the sleek electric cityscapes of the late 20th century. Clavell meets William Gibson, with Sonny Chiba as interlocutor.

In this image, Wolverine has checked into either an upscale apartment or the fanciest hotel on earth. It appears to be in Minato ward, because that's Tokyo Tower in the background. Minato is home to Roppongi and Roppongi Hills and in places is pretty much the skyscraper forest Miller illustrates here. Later, Wolverine finds himself drunk in an "alley off the Ginza." Ginza is a shopping district within the Chuo ward. I've never heard it referred to as "the Ginza," but who knows?

While I'm doubtful about the presence of anti-foreigner thugs in that particular area of Tokyo, again Miller's backgrounds prove surprisingly accurate:

Not too shabby, eh? He even appears to have gotten the streetlamps correct. Still, I think if Wolverine were really looking to get his drunk on in a seedy part of Tokyo, he would have been better off hitting Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku. Ginza features its share of hostess bars, but is a bit more upscale and pricey. Kabuki-cho is often referred to by my students and friends here as the "most dangerous place in Japan." It's a down-and-dirty fun zone where at night you can see prostitutes, street-level yakuza, Nigerian gangsters and perhaps even members of Chinese tongs if you're lucky. They'll be mixed in with lots of businesspeople doing the after-work drinking thing and young couples in search of exciting nightlife so you may not even notice them. Sounds more like a Wolverine kind of place.

This is interesting:

As Claremont describes it in the caption, Meguro is indeed an "upper class" area. A number of celebrities make their homes there. What you need to remember, however, is the phone-shaped building. It will become important later.

The story's climax and closing actions take place within the castle-like Yashida family "ancestral stronghold." Miller's architecture even more accurate here, but given the unfortunate destruction of most castles during the Meiji Period and flattening of Japan's major cities during WWII, it's pretty unlikely any private family would be living in something so... historical. In comic books as in life, sometimes coolness must trump accuracy. Would you want to read a story where a vengeful Wolverine scales the less-than-impressive walls of a fancy apartment building?

Perhaps, but Wolverine in a Edo-style castle is a bit more visually compelling.

The 1980s were prime time for Japanese influences in American pop culture. The decade began with the hugely successful TV miniseries adaptation of Clavell's Shogun and the major failure of Pink Lady and Jeff, a bizarre yet energetic attempt to make two talented J-Pop singers variety stars in the States. Later American television audiences would pretty much ignore The Master, an absolute bullshit adventure TV series starring Lee Van Cleef as a blue-eyed ninja; it would last a mere thirteen episodes and become Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder. This probably says as much about Western cultural misappropriation as having Canadian-born Wolverine described as "more truly Japanese than any Westerner I have ever known" by one of his allies. At least Claremont qualifies it somewhat. Wolverine can master the language and cultural mores, defeat the yakuza boss and win the hand of the nigh-unreachable Lady Mariko, but as a mutant as well as gaijin, he remains an outsider in Japan as well as in the West. Lee Van Cleef bests even the Japanese at their own martial arts, then walks away for personal reasons.

But I digress yet again...

Perhaps inspired by Wolverine's Japan sojourn, Batman would take his Outsiders to Tokyo in 1984's Batman and the Outsiders #11. In this story writer Mike W. Barr and penciller Jim Aparo tackle the increasingly cliche story themes of the Japanese concept of honor and family loyalty as native-born Japanese Katana (described the following issue as the "She-Samurai") confronts her past and we learn all about her magical sword. The story is heavy on the ninja tropes but how do Aparo's Tokyo cityscapes fare as accurate depictions of that particular megalopolis?
Not too badly, if this image is any clue:

He gets the omnipresent advertising signs correct. Many buildings here do feature giant signage on their rooftops and various kanji and katakana or hiragana running down their sides. This particular panel is somewhat reminiscent of the Kabuki-cho side of Shinjuku Station, although there's no "Tokyo Hotel" in the station, and there'd be a small plaza to the right instead of what appears to be a parking lot of some kind. Those types of lots are extremely rare here in land-starved Japan; more likely would be a high-rise parking deck looking like a big steel Rubik's Cube, but not nearly so colorful.

And again:

I have no idea if there is now or if there ever was a building with a gigantic telephone on top, but Frank Miller and Jim Aparo seem to insist upon its existence. Maybe it was a famous landmark of the 1970s and 1980s and both artists saw it on some kind of comic book publicity junket here. Or else Aparo is paying homage to the work Miller did with Chris Claremont. Since this story hits some of the same cultural notes, that's a distinct possibility. Aparo's buildings are a far cry from the Meguro seen in Wolverine, though. This looks more industrial (and generic) than "upper class," so perhaps the phone building is merely a fantasy.

A more recent comic book look at Tokyo comes courtesy Vertigo Pop: Tokyo! by Jonathan Vankin and Seth Fisher. Vankin's story is another "Japan-as-other" fantasia, this time seen not through the eyes of superheroic adventurers but those of an ordinary American electronics geek. To that end, Vankin's protagonist is somewhat dull and colorless, his Japanese are laughable flakes and the story is a vibrant romp through newer paradigms of our outsider's view of contemporary Japan. As someone who actually lived in Japan, Vankin obviously has an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese pop culture and presents it in a comically extreme form for our amusement. Gone are the samurai and ninja, replaced by ditzy fashion girls and would-be flight attendants, incompetent gangsters, sci-fi pop stars, perverted old men and fast food restaurants. Candy-colored Japan.
I don't know if it's exacly an improvement, but it is closer to what you might actually find if you came here.

Like Vankin, Fisher (who tragically passed away much too young) actually lived in Japan, so I imagine he was able to do a lot more first-hand location scouting than Byrne, Miller or Aparo. Consequently, despite the story's comedic exaggeration, Fisher's Tokyo is almost documentarian in its accuracy. Oh, like Vankin, Fisher takes some license here and there, but only in the service of the narrative. Here's his version of Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo's busiest but somewhat second-rate districts. Sorry, Ikebukuro! I love you but I mean "second-rate" compared to trendier wonderlands like Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku:

To my eyes, the backstreets of Tokyo-- the places where people actually work and live as opposed to shop and play-- look like this. A bewildering jumble of high-rise buildings in dull concrete, stretching from horizon to horizon. No comic book story (and few movies) can prepare you for Tokyo's immense scale. Once inside, you are in an artificial world of steel and glass and after a while, it's hard to imagine there are any other environments on earth.

Here's a photo I took in Ikebukuro:

As Vankin's story unfurls, Fisher treats us to backdrops of some of the coolest places on earth. Here's a panel where crazed schoolgirl (another trendy stereotype) Maki has kidnapped her idol Hike to show him off to her Harajuku girl friends. This is more than likely Takeshita-dori, which during the 1990s was the epicenter of Japanese youth fashion culture:

That's one problem with Vertigo Pop: Tokyo!-- Japan's trends change so fast what was current as recently as 2002 is practically antediluvian now. And a lot of the elements in the story seem more contemporaneous with the mid- to late-1990s. Well, perhaps not a problem, per se, but more a transmuting it to a kind of literary time capsule or period piece. Jidai geki for the visual-kei set. And here's the real Takeshita-dori as it appears today:

As you can see, Fisher pretty much nails it and I was standing in almost the exact same spot the panel appears to depict. If an artist draws Takeshita-dori as crowded as it truly is, we wouldn't be able to see the main characters at all. Behold Takeshita-dori in all its glory:

It can take you thirty minutes to an hour to walk its length on the weekend. Unfortunately for this story (and Gwen Stefani), the classic Maki-style "Harajuku Girl" doesn't really exist in that form anymore. She's been name-branded out of existence in Harajuku, subsumed by gothic lolitas and cosplayers and driven by photo-happy tourists to quieter, trendier neighborhoods like Kichijoji (where my own personal version of Maki eventually settled). But FRUiTS magazine continues to document her colorful, creative stylistic heirs faithfully so there's still some hope. Here's an image set just outside Yoyogi Park proper, crossing the Yamanote Line rails in Harajuku:

Here's the park itself, in reality. Fisher almost perfectly matches the real-life location. The lower wall is bit taller in the real world and there are some slight differences in the end caps, but it's instantly recognizable:

You can even spot the exact location crazy-pops Maki daringly tightrope walks along the wall. It's roughly between the guy in the light shirt and khaki slacks and the person in the face mask in this photo:

But I don't advise you to duplicate her stunt. If you fell and were injured or killed, I'd feel somewhat responsible and your friends and family would sorely miss you. Part of the action takes place on the pedestrian bridge overlooking the park:

I end up on this bridge every time I visit Tokyo so I can attest to Fisher's accuracy, even with a bit of artistic license. While the color is wrong (although it may have changed from 2002, the year the story is set, to today), Fisher gets the basic look of the bridge itself down, and even includes some of the surrounding greenery:

There's one moment where two characters fall off the bridge and land in the park plaza below, which is almost impossible. The bridge doesn't span the park; it crosses the street over a busy intersection. If they'd have fallen, they would've instantly been run over by cars, as you can see here:

Also, notice that it's not a single span but several, in a rectangular shape. Here's in interesting scene where a nearly naked Maki attempts to escape the chaos she herself has caused, dragging a completely nude Hike behind:

And this is my best guess as to where this event occurs:

I stupidly shot this photo from the top rather than matching the comic book panel's lower angle from the bottom. Oh well, maybe next time.

So how do our comic book artists fare with their depictions of Tokyo? Not bad at all. Fisher obviously takes the prize, but the old school dudes pleasantly surprised me. In my memory, they were all much less accurate but I'm gratified to be wrong and actually able to praise these guys for how "right" they got Tokyo rather than rag on them for falling far short. Sure, each could've done a bit more research and gotten it exact, but I doubt either Marvel or DC were willing to spend that kind of money for location sketching. Plus deadlines and all.

Remember-- it's pretty easy for a writer to type "Wolverine hops a jet and lands in Tokyo, then takes a taxi to Shinjuku. On the way there, fighting jet lag, he marvels at his own face gazing down at him from various advertisements in the wild neon lights down the sides of buildings along the street," but the artist has to take those words and make them at least somewhat visually plausible. And Byrne, Miller, Aparo and Fisher accomplish that with their work in these books.

I still have this desire to find some of the actual locations from Yazawa Ai's glorious comic book creation Nana, including Jackson Hole where I plan to try a Jackson Burger (Hachi swears by 'em). Yazawa gets around the accuracy and time constraint issues by using actual photographs as her backgrounds.

Until then:


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Help Kitty Pryde Fight Hemophilia!

The things you find when searching through all the blog links and referrals relating to your own site! You should definitely check out the "Full of Pryde" art auction to benefit the Hemophilia Treatment Center at Oregon Health & Science University. Lots of awesome art featuring the ever popular Katherine Anne Pryde, AKA Ariel, Sprite, Shadowcat, Kitty, Juno, the Cautionary Whale... you name it, she's used it as a codename... and it's on sale for a great cause.

The artwork features almost as many styles as Kitty's had costumes and nicknames, from the extremely cartoonish to the almost photo-realistic and her every look and era seems well represented. So many talented people! Where do they all come from? Also, I notice at least one person in the photos drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can, which means I probably would've felt right at home among the opening night attendees. The Kitty Pryde cosplayer is just the visual icing on the cake. Why not combine personal obsessions-- a beloved comic book character-- with personal interests in public service?

Dani Moonstar and Xi'an Coy Manh on

Longtime When Comic Books Ruled the Earth readers know my interest in and appreciation of the Marvel mutant characters Dani Moonstar and Xi'an Coy Manh dates back to the early 1950s when I was involved in secret (recently declassified) government comic book testing. As a high-level science operative for the United States government, I was able to study Dani and Xi'an and their superheroic careers at length. The results were enlightening, to say the least.

And yet somehow, in all the hoopla over the new New Mutants title from Marvel, I overlooked last April's "New Mutants Week" over at, the official website for Marvel Comics where some unknown online editor poses the question: "Without her powers, can Dani Moonstar still find a place in the reunited New Mutants?"

To which I might reply, "She's probably better off without powers the way various writers constantly changed them."

From her ability to manifest psychic images of anyone's deepest fears or desires to her non sequitor stint as a Valkyrie and beyond, it seems poor Dani fell under the well-meaning ministrations of writers who just weren't satisfied with whatever set of powers she possessed... that month. She remains a cautionary tale of what happens when too many writers craft a narrative with conflicting views of what a character is all about-- a confused hodgepodge of concepts and nonsense. Frippery and whatnot. Dumping her powers undoes a lot of damage and allows writers to concentrate on the one thing about her that's remained fairly constant-- her edgy personality. With that intact, Dani doesn't need magic arrows or flying horses to demand attention.

Xi'an is like the reverse image of her pal Dani. She's kept her initial powers but has gone through a bewildering array of physical and personality changes. The New Mutants' first leader by virtue of being the oldest and most serious, the retiring Xi'an came forth with a tragic backstory and the burden of younger siblings in her care. In the first volume of New Mutants, Chris Claremont seemed relatively uninterested in Xi'an, giving her mostly the thankless narrative position of resident kill joy while Dani got the juicy role of team rebel and mental case. Then Claremont bumped Xi'an off, only to bring her back as a massively obese parody of her former self. Eventually she came out as a lesbian and went through a stint as a carefree dyed-haired-body-pierced raver (almost a 180-degree switch from her initial characterization). I think she's back to her more conservative appearance and sense of adult responsibility these days, and I have no idea if her sexual identity has been dealt with at any great length since she came out.

In the profiles, New Mutants writer Zeb Wells discusses both characters' pasts as he sets them off on some new adventures. Hopefully this time around, Xi'an will get her due. I can't complain much about Dani's run in the series' first volume because she was its de facto star until Claremont's apparent fascination for Magik placed that character in the forefront, but I want to read some Xi'an-based storylines and really get into her head the way she gets into others'.

Missed New Mutants Week? Around this blog EVERY week is New Mutants Week!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Comics That Destroyed My Mind 6: Berni Wrightson-- Master of the Macabre #2 and #3!

There are just some things that stick in your mind. Just to give you one example from Berni Wrightson-- Master of the Macabre, axes. Axes certainly stick in the mind. But also comic book stories. One sunny day circa 1984 (might've been 1985), my dad drove two of my friends and me to a coin shop that was going out of business and we found a couple of longboxes of recent comics going cheap.

Which was good because some of them had the unheard-of cover price of $1.50! Insane! The Uncanny X-Men, the best comic book in the world at the time (according to everyone around me) retailed for less than half that. But I was a lover of fine sequential art and knew of this Berni Wrightson guy from the rad and gory Creepshow adaptation I read at Waldenbooks a million times but was too chickenshit to buy because each peep gave me nightmares, so I bought issues two and three of Berni Wrightson-- Master of the Macabre and gladly paid...

Well, thinking back, I believe we got a ton of fairly new comics for a quarter each! Some poor numismatist's loss was my gain. My dad dropped us off at my friend's house and we went to his bedroom to read our new comics and I promptly discovered a new source of nightmares-- one of the most disturbing and memorable comic book stories of all time. I'm talking about "Jenifer," a tale of pure nastiness. "Jenifer" bows in issue #2.

Some poor jackass goes on a hunting trip, hears someone sobbing among the trees and bags a would-be murderer instead of a trophy buck. He also gets possession of the homeliest child since the Wayan Bros. sprang Little Man on an unsuspecting public. The hunter also has the disquieting realization the person crying wasn't the poor, dishevelled girl but rather the man who was attempting to kill her.

I'm going to spare you the sight of Jenifer's face. But I will tell you she proceeds to insinuate herself into the hunter's life by driving away his squeamish family and then by occupying his wife's former place in the bedroom. And when hobos and neighborhood children disappear and the hunter can no longer live with his icky obsession, he discovers Jenifer's true power. Despite my having read it in a brightly lit suburban bedroom on a perfectly sunny afternoon, "Jenifer" creeped me out more than a midnight visit to a moonlit cemetery or a dilapidated, moss-covered manse inhabited by neo-gothic weirdos ever could. For two or three nights afterwards, I couldn't sleep for fear Jenifer would appear at my bedroom door and I'd be unable to resist her mute entreaties...

One thing I've noticed about Berni Wrightson. Or is it Bernie these days? Whatever-- the guy draws autumn forest scenes like nobody's business. You can almost hear the wind rustling through the trees and the dry leaves crunching underfoot. With a few slashes of black ink across a figure's body to indicate the shadows cast by tree limbs and lots of he manages to capture the slanting sunlight and parched, cool air and give it a disquieting effect. I guess it also has to do with the unexpected encountering of a horrific tableau in an otherwise serene setting. I know Wrightson has done this kind of thing a number of times, so I have to declare him not only the master of the macabre but also of making a daylight forest scene as frightening as any set at night.

Issue #3 leads off with "King of the Mountain, Man," a shaggy-dog story about a Lee Marvin-esque frontier type who literally knocks the brains out of his more genteel business partner with a long rifle then takes all his possessions. He gets a dog he immediately stomps into bloody goo, a rifle that explodes in his hands, liquor that's gone bad and a whole lot of worthless iron pyrite. Which leaves only the woman, a nubile Native American gal wearing almost nothing.

In the story's final panel, we learn she's not exactly right, either. But to be honest, the reprint's coloring obscures her secret so I'm not exactly sure what it is we're supposed to think is wrong with her; I just know Lee Marvin isn't so happy. And yes, the sexual and cultural politics involved in the Native American character-- she's totally objectified, completely mute, evidently owned as property and instantly ready to put out for this foul-tempered, none-to-bright, one-note mountain man despite his having killed her husband or lover before her very eyes-- would make for a fascinating essay by someone much smarter than myself. I don't want either to excuse or defend it, but it's pointless to look for depth or sensitivity in what's essentially a bawdy joke where even the main character remains a broadly-drawn caricature.

Still, considering that "King of the Mountain, Man" was written and drawn in 1971, I'd like to think comic book social conscience had made great strides over the following ten or so years. Unfortunately, Chris Claremont and Sal Buscema put Dani Moonstar in an almost identical Native American sex-girl outfit in The New Mutants #17, which came out roughly around the time I was reading Berni Wrightson-- Master of the Macabre #3. And bear in mind Dani as a character is probably all of sixteen during that storyline. Hell, a quarter century after that and it still seems without erotic fetish imagery repeated to the point of cliche, we'd almost have no female characters in American comics at all.

The other stories in the two comics are just as gorgeously delineated by Wrightson, and there's plenty of blood and guts for the Fangoria crowd, and for the literary-minded, an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation introduced by a decapitated Cousin Eerie (of all people) and a truly... er... creepy parody of Little Nemo in Slumberland. And "Jenifer." Wow. "Jenifer" is one of those amazing, once-in-a-lifetime stories I guarantee remains prominent in the memories of anyone who dared read it.

Pretty cool stuff.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pacific and First Comics...

Come to think of it, when I was really hardcore into comics back in the early 1980s, I read mostly independents. Sure, I'd grown up on a steady diet of DC and Marvel, but by the time I'd hit junior high, I wanted something more than superheroes and war comics. You couldn't have asked for a better time to have those kinds of yearnings, because Pacific and First Comics put out some incredible titles in those days, on better paper and with more advanced production techniques than either DC or Marvel could offer.

Of course, Pacific and First cost a bit more. But it was worth it. And yeah, a lot of their titles were also superheroes, but they generally had a more sci-fi/fantasy take on the standard tropes. Plus Pacific had Groo the Wanderer, which was as hilarious to me as anything else in my comedy diet at the time-- Eddie Murphy, SCTV, Bill Murray movies and the like. Pacific Comics also offered Jack Kirby's Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers (creator owned!) and Silver Star, Roy Thomas', P. Craig Russell's and Michael T. Gilbert's Elric of Melnibone, Bernie Wrightson Master of the Macabre, Twisted Tales, Alien Worlds and Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer. First Comics put out Nexus, Howard Chaykin's vastly influential American Flagg!, Jon Sable and possibly my favorite of them all, E-Man by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton... and then more Elric.

Elric was everywhere in comics in those days. Why didn't he become a bigger star? Some blame his increasing dependence on narcotics and subsequent work interruptions and stints in both rehab and jail (not to mention the public relations disaster that was his quickie marriage and divorce to Melanie Griffith), but I wonder if it wasn't somehow related to anti-albino bigotry on the part of comic book publishers. Also the alarming incident where he used his magic sword Stormbringer to kill Jim Shooter and absorb his soul at a New York comic convention.

Whatever the reason, Elric's publishers at Pacific and First certainly put out some gorgeous-looking books. And they were fun to read. Not run-of-the-mill. I probably shouldn't have been reading some of them-- American Flagg! I'm looking at you with all your little double entendres and lingerie-clad women-- but read them I did, thanks to the people at Unicorn's Retreat, one of two comic book shops. The owners, as I recall, were a kindly married couple who happily stuck my crappily derivative comic book drawings on the wall and once commissioned me to reproduce a Captain Marvel cover with a Nexus poster signed by Mike Baron and Steve Rude as my payment.

I still have that poster. The amazing thing is, while I admired the Dude's slick art and Nexus' Cyclops-like visor (I was an Uncany X-Men fan at the time, too), I didn't actually read an issue of Nexus until almost ten years later when Dark Horse started publishing the title.

Thinking about these companies makes me want to revisit some of those titles. I still own a number of these books, so I'll start thinking of ways to critique and deconstruct them for your entertainment in this little corner of the comic book blogosphere. It'll beat my nigh-incessant whining about how DC's ruined Cassandra Cain any day of the week!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Batgirl, Batgirl... Who Is the New Batgirl?

I'm still trying to find out. More accurately, I'm still trying to find out what DC has planned for Cassandra Cain, but you can't do a Batgirl search these day without finding lots of speculation about who will assume that role in the Bat-Family. Favorites include Cass, Spoiler, Wendy, Vicki Vale (ehhhh?!), Ravager and other characters who are complete mysteries to me because of my only occasional following of DC's products.

If you've read much of this blog, or any of my previous blog, you know I'm a hardcore Cassandra Cain fan, at least when she's written properly. She's the character that got me back into reading mainstream superhero comics after a long lay-off. And actually, I might have been better off staying away considering how DC has abused and misused that character over the course of her fictional crime-fighting career. From mute bad-ass to talkative wimp. And now, apparently, a completely different direction.

Whatever they plan to do with her next, the first teaser image of a smiling Batgirl and her happy boobs and the new one with a subdued Batgirl slipping her foot demurely into a yellow boot both seem to rule out Cassandra continuing in that costume. I mean, really, can you imagine Cassandra Cain bending her wrists and pointing her toes like that? She'd throw herself into the costume in a completely butch sort of way, her body language full of aggressiveness. Er... barring yet another non sequitor personality change a la Adam Beechen's haphazardly written version.

I also tend to doubt it will be Barbara Gordon again, as attractive as that might be to most old schoolers. She's doing just fine as Oracle, and even if she were to regain use of her legs and begin costumed adventuring again, why give up that identity in favor of Batgirl's? She's outgrown that label. Batgirl is-- and should be-- a teen. That leaves only a passel of characters I'm not that interested in and know little or nothing about.

But then there's the infamous "DC Picture Board." Under the category "Batgirl," they've posted five images: Spoiler, Oracle, Batgirl (C. Cain), Misfit and Calculator. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Calculator's a guy, so that rules him out (for the most part). Some people are theorizing this means there will be a Batgirl team with Cass, Spoiler and Misfit each taking turns and headed by Oracle. Possibly. But it's just as likely the many of the images on the board are red herrings. A fish I don't particularly care for.

Sure, the new Batgirl is pictured there according to Mike Marts:

Mike Marts: Correct. We've released the fact that it's coming out in August as well as the creative team. This is very much a question mark. We've been intentionally coy about Batgirl information. We don't want people to automatically assume Cassandra Cain is Batgirl. I will say that the person who becomes Batgirl is indeed on the board.

But other than that? Not much on what exactly is in Cassandra Cain's future. So don't worry, Mr. Marts. This Cassandra Cain fan isn't automatically assuming she's going to be back in black. If DC's done anything successfully over the past few years, it's to program me to approach with pessimism almost anything having to do with Cass. Try as I might, I can't imagine DC will take Cassandra Cain in a direction that will please me. I don't really care if she continues as Batgirl or not. I tend to think she's outgrown that role as thoroughly as Barbara. But I've always wanted her to achieve her true potential as a character-- DC's answer to Kill Bill and Lady Snowblood, with emotionally wrenching yet blood-drenched stories of coolness and ultra-violence. She can do that just as well out of costume as in.

For the more optimistic, there's always Dan Didio's take on Cass:

Dan Didio: Cassandra is appearing in one of the Battle for the Cowl one-shots – I think the Network one shot. She will also be appearing in the Streets of Gotham. There are bigger plans down the road, as she is a very viable character.

That does give me one small glimmer of hope. I'm not a complete cynic on this issue.

Here's what I imagine will happen: we'll get a clumsy yet game'n'spunky new red-haired Batgirl who happens to look identical to all those Silver Age images of Barbara Gordon in the costume. And don't forget all those animated series, statues and toys, the financially lucrative licensing potential of a Batgirl with familiar red hair streaming behind. It makes perfect sense-- why have a title in which the main character in no way resembles the ancillary merchandise? For most people, Batgirl isn't an Asian killing machine (or even Barbara Gordon... I doubt many outside the comic world know her "real" name or that she's someone called Oracle now despite that one brief TV series); she's Yvonne Craig or a blonde Alicia Silverstone.

So if they decide to go that route with Batgirl, that's fine by me. I gots nary a problem with that. My greatest fear is simply a Cassandra Cain storyline where the character is either killed off in an attempt to give the story emotional resonance, or turned into a villain again to give nouveau Batgirl someone powerful to humiliate in order to establish her "cred" on the message boards among the fickle fanboys and girls. What better way to gain support for the new Batgirl than by having a dying Bat-Cass endorse her in the role, or by having her face off as an underdog against an angry, once again out-of-character Cass and kick her ass against all odds?

Oh, and Mr. Marts, if you're reading this-- I would be quite happy for DC to prove me completely wrong.

And anyway, eventually Bruce Wayne is going to come back as Batman and most of this will be undone.