Wednesday, September 30, 2009

October is Spookey Month!

October, the month of Halloween. It's the creepiest, kookiest, scariest month of the year. You might even say it's the spookiest. And the coolest, grooviest band in Hamamatsu is Spookey, the all-girl punk/pop trio that rocks my musical socks lately.

That's why in conjunction with myself over at my "living in Japan" blog, Super-Gaijin '76, I've decided to declare October "Spookey Month."

Spookey shows you how to rock Halloween:

This month, I'll mostly post about horror comics, both Western and Japanese. Let's celebrate Spookey and Halloween together, shall we?

Steve Rude... Out of Comics?

Steve Rude? No longer in love with making comics?

From his official website biography:

Currently, Rude’s focus is on fine art paintings.

According to an announcement on his MySpace blog and linked to his Facebook feed, it looks like one of my artistic idols-- a giant among pencillers-- has called it quits with the comic book sequential stuff in favor of fine art and gallery shows. Steve Rude, perennial art student and questing soul evidently just wasn't finding the inspiration and love in comics that he once felt. I think it's common sense-- if something no longer moves you, you move on to what does. Here's what Rude himself wrote recently about this decision on his blog:

As we all know, comics have always been my first, second, and last love, so I couldn't help but wonder what was happening in recent months to my once seeming unconquerable creative spirit. Comics were the beloved field which launched me into the world of pros and gave me my greatest creative highs, from whose challenges I never tired.

Steve Rude has long been a favorite of mine-- part Captain James T. Kirk, part Bruce Lee-- so on one hand I'm a bit bummed by the news. On the other, it's not as if he's died or something tragic. He's simply evolving to a new, higher state of artistic being.

He feels today's comic book industry is too dark, not life-affirming enough:

Around the mid 90's is when I noticed the point of no return taking place. Comic books went from the fun, upbeat, virtuous, and dramatically wondrous periodicals that entertained me for a lifetime--to be displaced by dark, morose, and let's not forget..."adult" versions that we currently find. That's my take on things. I wish it were better.

And I have to agree to a certain extent. I rather like the dark and morose, the "adult" comics-- but only if I consider the material truly mature. You know, like Rude's and Mike Baron's Nexus series itself. From the beginning, Nexus dealt intelligently with complex issues of morality, ethics, religion, science and personal relationships. A truly adult-- and sometimes dark-- comic book for adults. What I could never get behind is the way mainstream companies mask themselves in this "mature" or "adult" approach but actually cynically pander to a kind of prurient, stunted, regressive, adolescent worldview based mainly on Saw-style gross-outs. For example, a canine character originating in a Saturday morning cartoon attacking and maiming another character from the cartoon show.

To me, that's about a step above viewing photos of traffic accident victims for kicks.

For some reason, pessimism, negativity and nihilism are considered more realistic than optimism, positivism and having an ethos. Superman's not cool and even arch-asshole Batman no longer thrills; as much of a crazed bastard as he became before they sent him out of the narrative in a massive publicity stunt, he just wasn't extreme enough. The kids are dressing like Heath Ledger's the Joker instead. That portrayal seems to speak to them in ways I wish I couldn't fathom as well as I do.

It's also a matter of economics. Rude simply lost a lot of money self-publishing. According to Jaynelle Rude:

Steve is then turning his focus to gallery paintings. Steve is a brilliant artist and we've been living hand to mouth for the past 3 years. Losing over $5,000 in the last 2 printings we have been unable to pay our mortgage have have no desire to lose our house.

The wonderful thing about this career shift is, it probably means we'll actually see even more Steve Rude artwork than we have in the past. Rude has long devoted himself to the study of art, producing non-comics paintings in his free time. Recently, he's had works accepted into juried exhibits at Sundust Gallery and won honorable mention for his watercolor piece, "Egyptian Queen" in MyArtSpace's Spring 2009 competition. And he's still accepting commissions.

What does this mean for fans of Rude's sequential artwork out there? With the publication of the Nexus Space Opera trade paperback this October, Nexus and Rude Dude Productions have come to conclusion, at least for now. Apparently, this leaves the next four issues of The Moth in limbo and a lot of characters put away sight unseen. I just wish we could've seen those and at least something of his and Mike Baron's character Origami.

As an ex-pat living in Japan, any kind of Western take on my adopted home intrigues me, and Rude's initial drawings for Origami are, of course, gorgeous to behold.

There are a few hints at Rude putting out a trade here or there, or maybe becoming so inspired he jumps back in again. In the meantime, I think the American comic book industry needs to take a long, hard look at itself and its future and reassess things if it means losing talents like Steve Rude. If a guy as brilliant as Steve Rude can't make a go of it, then something is seriously wrong here. But most importantly, I want to wish Steve Rude the best of luck in his gallery career. Follow that muse wherever it may lead, Dude!

And-- if by chance-- it's back to Nexus, The Moth or Origami, I'll be there!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Wish I Were in... Ohio?

Michael Golden has been named guest of honor at the Mid-Ohio Con, scheduled for October 3-4. This year! So much for that "Reclusive One" label, huh? Bernie Wrightson will also be a guest of honor. If they stopped right there, I'd be in geek heaven. Those two rank fairly high in my personal pantheon of influences-- if either of those guys are handling art on a book I automatically buy it no matter who the writer is.

Mid-Ohio Con also has Marv Wolfman, Mark Evanier, Dick Ayers, Herb Trimpe, Gary Friedrich, Len Wein, Chris Sprouse, Josef Rubinstein, Fred Hembeck, Mike Grell and... gasp... can't contain nerdish conniption fit... P. Craig Russell! It's as if my long-dead childhood suddenly reanimated as a zombie with an appetite for devouring my soul...

Because I live in Japan, not Ohio. Oh well, that's the choice I made. I always wondered what it would be like to have a reason to go to Ohio. Ohio. What could possibly attract anyone to Ohio? What kind of people live there?

But I could never could come up with one compelling enough to actually make the effort to breath Ohioan air before now. This strange confluence of events will probably never happen again.

I believe Golden will be doing some sketches at the convention, but he's not taking any "take home" orders because that list is full.

Watchmen: Special Collector's Edition DVD (Japan Version): A Comic Book Movie Review

Watchmen: Special Collector's Edition DVD (Japan Version)
Studio: Paramount
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriter: David Hayter and Alex Tse
Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson

Capsule Review: "Visionary" director Zack Snyder and company adapt the classic Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel that changed comics forever and moved literature itself into a new millennium of glorious achievement the likes of which were undreamed of by Miguel de Cervantes and Lady Murasaki. It affected even our lives. Verily, upon its initial publication Watchmen inaugurated the dawning of a new age of godlike humanity, a triumphant evolutionary leap in perception wrought by the single greatest artistic work ever produced. The movie version is enjoyable but slightly less successful at doing the same thing for the cinema.

Alan Moore's favorite movie of 2009 has finally come to Japan in DVD form. Its theatrical release here lasted... oh... about half the length of one showing. About an hour and fifteen minutes into the film, the manager of the one theater where it opened took one look at the empty seats and pulled the plug. Well, that solved my own little problem-- whether or not to spend 1800 yen on a movie that seems to have divided its viewers. Instead, I waited until fall and then whimsically paid 3170 yen for the DVD.

I'm not sure what the marketing people mean by "Special Collector's Edition," because I can't read Japanese. Is it somehow different than the regular release? The case contains two DVDs, and the cashier dug around in a cardboard box behind the register to find and present me with a cute little metal button I suppose I could pin to my leather superhero armor while assassinating John F. Kennedy from the grassy knoll. The main feature on disk 1 seems to be merely the theatrical cut of the film. No extended director's cut non-rated redux version. Disk 2 has a few mildly interesting documentary features-- all of which are annoyingly hyperbolic when talking about the graphic novel and the film's fidelity to it-- and the music video for My Chemical Romance's atrocious soundtrack version of the Bob Dylan chestnut "Desolation Row," minus the band shouting "Fuckin' right!" at each other in self-satisfied glee at having dug up and sexually violated Sid Vicious' corpse for money. They aimed for Sex Pistols and got Onanistic Firecrackers.

Oh, I'm supposed to be reviewing the movie? All right then, let's go! I began looking forward to seeing this film before its release because I'm one of those geeks who read Watchmen when it first came out and promptly lost my mind to its overall awesomeness. But then I made the mistake of watching Zack Snyder's 300 on TV and it killed my desire to ever see another Zack Snyder movie. 300 made me physically ill with visual bombast and glorification of the kind of hyper-masculinity formerly reserved only for elite branches of our armed forces and fraternity houses. In that sense, 300 would be homoerotic except the movie goes out of its way to depict its hatred and disgust with anything remotely gay, despite featuring as its protagonists the ancient Greeks for whom such things weren't particularly an issue. And someone could probably write a scholarly paper on its racial coding.

Yeah, no thanks.

But time has a way of dulling hurt and increasing curiosity so now I actually own a DVD of a Zack Snyder movie. I feel I've betrayed Alan Moore on so many levels I will never be able to fully make it up to him no matter how many copies of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier I buy. Sorry, Mr. Moore!

Because it largely eschews 300's pro-dood fanaticism, Snyder’s Watchmen surprised me, mostly on the strength of the performances in its three key roles. Jackie Earle Haley so nails his portrayal of psychotic "hero" Rorshach I doubt Watchmen could have been made without his participation. I also have this frightening idea some maladjusted fans have dual shrines to Haley's portrayal of an uncompromising nutcase and Heath Ledger's award-winning turn as sick, nihilistic Joker. He has that kind of twisted charisma and kids today are really disturbed what with all the MTV video awards and violent video games… and don’t even get me started on My Chemical Romance again.

Billy Crudup also finds an odd vulnerable nobility within the glowing blue god Dr. Manhattan; he conveys Dr. Manhattan’s detachment from humanity by giving him a gently distracted voice. Jeffery Dean Morgan plays reprehensible thug the Comedian with an amused cynicism and just enough lonely self-awareness you're almost-- but not quite—able to understand him if not forgive him for his crimes. He has the increasingly weighty presence of an athlete gone to seed.

Too bad the rest of the cast isn’t quite up to those standards. Poor wooden Malin Akerman comes off like she’s doing a Demi Moore-in-Striptease impression. And it's almost as if Matthew Goode intended to aid Snyder’s feature-length apology for the inadvertant racism of 300 by making his Ozymandias a goonish Nazi-- sneering most of his lines and walking around with an Adolf Hitler forelock but zero charisma-- rather than the avuncular, would-be Greek god of the comic. He's like the poor man's Eric Braeden. It’s far too easy, too intellectually lazy to "other" Nazis, those historical-monsters-turned-movie-bugbears. It's more difficult to look within ourselves and admit how our own do-gooder nature turns on itself and to deal with the attractiveness of bad ideas when they’re couched in “world saving” terms.

Snyder also betrays a certain unease when dealing with these emotional elements that gave Moore's story its genre-evolutionary power. It's as if he has an artistic block when it comes to believable conversations or emotions that don’t involve screaming, “THIS IS SPARTA!” His inability to elicit a convincing performance from Ackerman severely hamstrings all the emotional gymnastics the story puts her through, which defeats a lot of Watchmen’s purpose. Any David Fincher film can give you a similarly dark mood, and any Jackie Chan film can give you breath-taking action. What is it that Watchmen offers beyond that to recommend its existence? And the three sex scenes are... to put it kindly… laughably shitty beyond belief. In fact, they get progressively silly which in itself is kind of an impressive accomplishment since the first one features Ackerman sucking on a glowing blue finger while porn-breathily telling us it’s like “licking a battery.”

Where Snyder shows complete assurance and even earns a little bit of that "visionary" marketing adjective are the film's thrilling and sometimes disgustingly graphic action sequences. Snyder's fight scenes flow beautifully. With each action and result clearly set-up and then resolved emphatically. This is especially true in the film's opening battle between the Comedian and a shadowy assailant and the sequence later in the film where Nite Owl and Silk Spectre invade a prison during a riot. The two heroes move down a cellblock annihilating prisoner after prisoner in a ballet of violence. Superhero comic book pencillers who have a bit of trouble drawing clear action-to-action fight sequences should freeze-frame and study this sequence to learn how it's done. Action, reaction. Punch, kick, follow-through, result. Snyder frequently gives us wide shots, rather than the choppy close-cutting of Nolan's Batman movies. Nolan's violence is certainly visceral, but Snyder's is like dance. With broken bones and blood. It's as if Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly got addicted to kung-fu flicks.

You know, I kind of wish Snyder would do a remake of West Side Story. Imagine his putting this kinetic expertise to use on those classic Jerome Robbins dance sequences. Only he’d need to get Ang Lee or someone similar to handle all the dramatic, romance stuff. Could be quite a collaboration. Ah, scratch that. Ang Lee could do the whole thing by himself and it would probably work just as well. But I definitely would love to see Snyder do something outside his comfort zone using some of these techniques.

Like most comic geeks, I find it impossible not to watch Watchmen the movie and not compare it to Watchmen the book. Tasha Robinson at the Onion A/V Club has already done a point-by-point breakdown the similarities and differences with special insight into some of the specific thematic breaks between the movie and the novel, so I won't do that. I don't have enough space or time here!

I do want to address a few things, though, because I'm a prolix bastard at heart. Watchmen the comic not only offers up a ripping story that's part heroics, part myth, part psychological portrait of a bunch of damned souls and also serves as a metafictional critique of superhero comics themselves. Using the comic book format itself-- exemplified best by artist Dave Gibbon's timelessly clean art and adherence to the traditional three-tier panel page format-- Moore uses the very idea of a comic book to look at the pop culture mythology of Superman, Batman and the rest by grafting real world neuroses and sexual twists onto them, the ones only subtextual in more conventional comics at the time. In Moore's fictional world, superheroes are as ultimately superfluous to fixing their society as the superhero comic books and their gaudy "punch it, that'll fix it" morality are in dealing with the real world's problems.

Snyder really has no way to match this in his movie because as a medium film is artistically more mature than comic books and as a genre superhero movies haven’t yet established themselves in our cultural consciousness. More people may believe Batman to be Christian Slater but it's the two-dimensional comic book version that's embedded in our collective pop mythos. Moore and Gibbons also can get away with wrapping their cerebral, novelistic approach to character and motivation in a lot of crazy, garish notions we comic book readers accept mostly without question (not that we don't make fun of these conventions as well) within the four-color world of the printed page. But these same elements don't quite work in live action, even if Snyder wisely changes the one that might have been the most objectionable.

And while Moore's story gives us a more sophisticatedly ambivalent view of the central conceit of all superhero comics and thoroughly subverts it throughout-- this incredibly silly idea the world can be improved by brawny men and sexy women in colorful tights punching the shit out of evil-- Snyder's version ultimately favors funny book vigilantism. In a stunted, adolescent way, it is quite attractive but it strips the story of some of its maturity. Which, if I recall correctly, was one of the Watchmen comic's strong literary selling points. Here is where the movie becomes regressive; Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight deals much more effectively and definitively with a similar theme. Maybe choosing My Chemical Romance and their overblown and hamfisted musical stylings as the movie's soundtrack coda seals the deal.

Actually, almost all of the music in this movie is poorly chosen and presented, other than the “Times They Are A-Changin’” credits montage which is all kinds of fun and Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which comes at the same point in the movie it’s referenced in the book. But that one was a gimme via Moore, so no credit, Mr. Snyder. Hendrix knew how to cover a song. The credits roll on this movie and we get the smirky, plodding...

Jeez, I just can’t get over that My Chemical Romance, can I? It’s like I have some kind of personal bone to pick with them or something.

Ultimately, we're left with an exciting, visually-inventive action flick that manages to be somewhat more cerebral than either Fantastic Four film or the X-Men series but not up to the standards of the new Batman flicks, with some effective performances and impressively kinetic fight sequences. Unfortunately, it’s going to suffer by comparison because it’s based on such a seminal work. As such, it’s an adequate rendering of the graphic novel, slavishly faithful in some respects down to the actual dialogue and imagery, but altered in some ways that seem to suggest Snyder read a different Watchmen than the one I did. Which is fair enough; it’s his adaptation after all. It’s just that he ends up championing a lot of the things the book actively questioned. And while Snyder gets his film across successfully and entertainingly, it doesn't quite take the nascent superhero film genre to the same exalted places the Watchmen novel took comics.

Not that we can fault the movie for failing to reinvent cinema the way Watchmen supposedly reinvented American comics. Although come to think of it, Moore's right-- the big comic companies for the most part have never followed-through on Watchmen's shining moment. The best they've been able to do is repeat its least interesting elements ad nauseum and with the law of diminishing returns in full effect.

Marvels? Kingdom Come? Identity Crisis? Since I’m always given a choice, I'd rather watch this movie again. I wonder what Dr. Manhattan would say about that.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics: A Book Review

The DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics
Publisher: Watson-Guptill Publications
Writer: Freddie E Williams II
Foreward by Brian Bolland

Did you know Brian Bolland creates his artwork digitally? I learned that about a year ago and it freaked me out. All those fine little cross-hatching lines! That's insane! Brian Bolland... digital artist.

I've been drawing for as long as I can remember. My mom has a small spiral-bound notebook I filled with scribbles of Saturn V rockets and football players with cleats longer than their bodies when I was about three years old. As I grew older, people frequently told me I was good at drawing and I foolishly believed them to the point where I made it my goal to become a comic book penciller and follow in John Byrne's footsteps as the writer/artist of Marvel's Fantastic Four title.

Then I got into music and making an ass of myself on stage pursuing equally unrealistic rock star dreams and put aside art. A stint in a graphic design program geared more for page layout and typography didn't help. The head of the program was a calligrapher and stone-carver whose knowledge of comic book illustration began and ended with Jack Davis (who I got to telephone interview for a class project... and that was actually a dream come true!). By the time I got chewed up and spat out there a whole new world of digital illustration had come to pass and I was stuck doing ugly red-and-yellow ads for newspapers and, later, magazine layout.


In my free time, I dabbled with creating artwork on computer. As a lefty, inking has long been problematic for me. I can make some pretty lines and sooner or later, my hand will drag through the ink and smear it. Or else the lines aren't pretty at all because I'm so nervous and I freeze up. Far from being simple tracing-- as the famous Chasing Amy scene would have it-- inking is a skill set with different demands from penciling and I have nothing but admiration for its able practitioners. However, if you suck at it like I do, having a way to easily correct your blobs and smears is so damned tempting. Attractive. Sexually compelling...

Uh... er... forget that last one, okay?

With computer art programs, corrections are just a "ctrl-z" away. And since you're doing your finishes digitally, why not also do your initial sketches and pencils that way as well? But working digitally can be time-consuming. A simple drawing that took me an hour or so the old-fashioned way sometimes ate up 8 or more hours on computer. And the results are sometimes too slick, too mechanical.

I'm already painfully slow as it is when it comes to drawing sequentially, and I've been looking for ways to speed things up so I can finally finish my one-and-only comic book project-- a 1-issue ode to misspent youth and failed friendships. Wrote the script, got a tablet, a copy of Manga Studio (Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons uses this, I believe). Ran into all kinds of trouble deciding on the best approach to the artwork itself.

So for the past 10 years of so while I've been laboring on this stupid ass thing, I've also been laboriously re-educating myself in comic book illustration and looking for ways to speed up and fake a bit of that old analog organic quality. I've probably read every "how-to" book there is on the subject, from Will Eisner's indispensible volumes to Draw Your Own Manga (actually fairly helpful even if you plan on doing your art Western-style). Some are too general to be really helpful, and many tend to skip vital information or gloss over it. DC Entertainment has this on-going line of "DC Guides to..." which are kind of hit-or-miss. None, however, specifically address doing comics digitally from thumbnails to finishes-- which is kind of strange because web comics seem to be the Next Big Thing. Or already are. Digital pre-press for completely digital publication seems to scream out for an instructional volume, never mind traditional print. Freddie E Williams II's The DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics is definitely that book, definitely a hit.

Williams, a seasoned pro, has been doing his artwork digitally since around 1999 and gives would-be comic book creators a reasonable and detailed set of working instructions. That's the big selling point here. Williams describes the workflow and tools in detail, based on how he does it in Adobe Photoshop.

It's not for raw beginners. There's nothing on anatomy or perspective or panel-to-panel flow here. Williams presupposes not only your drawing abilities but also your familiarity with Photoshop and proceeds to explain the steps in dealing with that work environment and its toolbars exactly. It's a bit technical, but if you meet the book's base requirements you should have no trouble either matching Williams' workflow or adapting it to suit your own needs. But that specificity is exactly what someone of my level needs-- Williams covers everything from creating page templates to drawing roughs to making corrections on the finished art. You supply the art skills.

Working digitally has its pros and cons. Using a tablet can be somewhat counterintuitive unless you have the cash to buy one of those babies where you can draw directly on the monitor. And as I've already mentioned, the resulting artwork can be cold and mechanical. And if you really just can't draw, doing it on a computer just gives you way to suck in a more technologically advanced format. On the other hand, it can be a quicker process to the digital output than traditional working methods, art mistakes are easily fixed and you can create a massive library of background elements and photo reference to make the work still faster.

That's one amazingly helpful tip I gleaned from Williams' book. He takes photos of interesting buildings and then creates templates of their facades he can use to create background environments for his characters. In Photoshop, these can be distorted to fit perspective guides and re-used when needed. Williams warns you not to rely on this too much, though-- repeat the same elements too many times and I guarantee you'll end up on Daily Scans receiving the same gentle treatment experienced by arch-tracer Greg Land or genius anatomist Rob Liefeld. We comic book geeks are a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted bunch. Williams mentions a helpful and free 3D art program called Google SketchUp that I'd never heard of but may prove useful in making a believable world for my own characters. That's just the sort of helpful tip I was looking for when I ordered this book.

If you're sold on doing it digitally despite the drawbacks-- and I am-- and you're already armed with some artistic chops and Photoshop knowledge, The DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics will be an invaluable resource in your how-to library. I'm very impressed with it and Williams already has me excited once again to put computerized stylus to virtual paper and create my own amazingly mediocre comic book hoo-ha's. This is the best of the DC Guides I've read and by itself justifies the series. Although maybe the one on lettering and coloring might also prove as useful.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cassandra Cain... Is That You?!

I wrote about the relative lack of Cassandra Cain-related merchandise a few weeks ago. You have to be careful what you ask for, the ol' saying goes, because you just might get it. Here comes the Cassandra Cain Batgirl as you've never seen her before-- showing some skin and with her legs all wrapped up in her cape like a clumsy yet sexy oaf. It's the Ame-Comi Batgirl, due from DC Direct in October 21, 2009. $59.99 gets you this... interesting... piece of manga/anime-inspired plastic.

It's hard to judge what the actual statue will look like in person from a photo but we can still critique some of the design choices. Whoever sculpted this really worked the Cass stitch motif. Stitches making laces down around her inner thighs, up her sides, a single laced stitchwork detail where her mouth is hidden by the mask. Some of the Ame-Comi statues attempt sexy-cute (and the Huntress looks bad ass-cute), but our Cass is more creepy-sexy-cute with that flash of flesh. Kind of funny when you consider how they gave the Barbara Gordon Batgirl statue a more battle-ready outfit including a big futuristic helmet. Cass, the least overtly sexual Batgirl, gets all fetishy on us. Vampirella's teen cousin. Oh well, I guess that's no more bizarre for Cass these days than any of her recent comic book appearances. The bats over her shoulder, however, make for a fitting touch. Perfect for Halloween.

Anyway, it's manga Cass. No, I'm not going to buy it. I don't really care for comic-related statues of any kind or in any style-- even the really good ones are too kitschy for me-- and this one is probably going to be twice the MSRP here in Japan. The big question is...

What's she going to do with that cape wrapped all around her calves and feet? Fall over?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Kirby Heirs Are Not Suing Anybody

Once again, I have to use the "I'm in Japan so I don't hear about these things until after everyone else has already beaten them to death and then I come in a kick the corpses" defense. Which, to be honest, is no defense at all. But I just learned from the Onion A/V Club the Jack Kirby estate is suing Marvel/Disney or whatever it's called now for the copyright reassignment of all the characters Jack created or co-created there and just as quickly learned there's no lawsuit involved in this at all.

Here's what the Los Angeles Times (a newspaper, if you can believe that!) has to say about all this:

Under copyright law, creators and co-creators can seek to regain copyrights they previously assigned to a company 56 years after first publication and can give notice of their intentions to do so up to 10 years before that.

Kirby's children would be eligible to claim their father's share of the copyright of the Fantastic Four in 2017, while the Hulk would come up in 2018 and X-Men in 2019. The copyrights would then run for 39 more years before expiring, after which the characters would enter the public domain under current law.

I know nothing whatsoever about copyright law and, if it's even possible, less than that about any working agreements Jack Kirby might have had with Marvel when he worked there in the 1960s, but not knowing anything about something has rarely-- if ever-- stopped me from giving an opinion on it.

I checked with a Guild navigator and he told me in no uncertain terms, "The comics must flow."

Paul Maud'Dib, on the other hand, maintains, "He who has the power to destroy a thing, controls a thing."

Even now the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV has established a beachhead from space on the lawn of the Kirby estate where he expects to confront the King's heirs over this situation and ensure the protection of our precious Fantastic Four, Mighty Thor and Uncanny X-Men lest we lose them forever and the very fabric of our interstellar empire of dorkiness be torn asunder.

These characters are all trademarked as well. I have no idea how that plays into all of this stuff, either. In the immortal words of Benjamin J. Grimm, "Sheesh!"

It seems the Kirby heirs are simply asking for a share in the copyrights for various characters, not complete ownership. Even if they're granted that share, I don't see anything in this that would prevent Disney or Marvel Entertainment from continuing to exploit Kirby's work for every dollar, pound or yen they can make from it. We'll still have our comics and movies because there's no way Marvel or Disney will swallow the poison pill and kill these properties just because they no longer get 100% of the loot.

According to the LA Times:

Should their claims stand, the Kirby children could choose to assign their portion of the rights to current copyright holders for a fee or sell them to a new licensee. The actions could possibly benefit Disney if the Kirby children were to take movie rights to Spider-Man or the X-Men, currently held in perpetuity by Sony and Fox, respectively, and sell them to Disney, for instance.

I don't understand why Spider-Man would be included in this. I'm pretty sure that was more Steve Ditko's baby-- Kirby took a crack at it and Stan Lee apparently hated what he was doing and gave the assignment to Ditko, who made it into the Spidey we know and love today-- and he seems to want nothing to do with it whatsoever. Objectivist philosphy or something.

At any rate, if Iunderstand this correctly, Jack Kirby's family stands to get at least a little bit of all the Marvel moolah, which is up in the billions of dollars now. Jolly Jack made a lot of other people quite a bit of money with his ideas and his labor. So I firmly believe a percentage of this money should've been his family's all along. And I furthermore believe the same should be done for Stan Lee and his family for Lee's part in coming up with all these characters. And Steve Ditko and his, whether he wants it or not.

But that's just me siding with labor over capital, especially when capital in this case consists of an impossibly huge multi-national entertainment corporation that could buy and sell me practically an infinite number of times and so certainly doesn't need my hysterical defense of its massive profit-taking. And siding with the creators over the suits. And also because I love Jack Kirby and all who sail with him.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Usui Yoshito Definitely Identified...

Police recovered and identified mangaka Usui Yoshito's body Sunday, September 20th, according to a report in the Japan Times Online. As you know, Usui was the cartoonist responsible for the frequently hilarious Crayon Shin-chan manga, which has spun off into TV animation and motion pictures, including the current live-action hit Ballad. Authorities believe Usui accidentally fell to his death while hiking. Very tragic and I want to offer my heartfelt condolences to his family.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Usui Yoshito Update

The Japan Times Online reports a body found by a climber on Mount Arafune may be that of missing Crayon Shin-chan mangaka Usui Yoshito. The 51-year-old comic creator has been missing since September 11th, when he told his family he was going hiking in the mountains in Gunma prefecture. Obviously, we're still hoping for the best, but realistically over the course of the week, this kind of bad news has seemed more and more likely. Very sad indeed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Spider-Man 4's Release Date: May 6, 2011

I probably should be posting something about the newest of the comic book apocalypses, that big shake-up going on at Time-Warner and its creation of DC Entertainment. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Will you miss Paul Levitz? That's all super-insider stuff and if anything, this blog models itself after the sterling work of The Onion's Jackie Harvey. So instead of unloading on that heavy-duty topic about which I know nothing (not that absence of knowledge has ever stopped me before), I want to talk about something near and dear to me. Something about which I have strong, personal feelings. As opposed to weak feelings borrowed from someone else, I guess. And in-depth knowledge gleaned through the secret labors of my army of genetically-enhanced super-ninja who can kill with their eyelashes and move through the shadows as silently as one of my father's incredibly aromatic "sofa specials."

And the first example of said arcane knowledge, my reader, is the Spider-Man 4 release date. According to my sources, Sony Pictures plans to release Spider-Man 4 (which I believe has something to do with a spider-like... man... of some kind and follows two or more earlier films in what we might broadly term a "series") on May 5, 2011. Actually, according to another source with better copy-editing, it's May 6.

Which is perfect for me, because I really have no plans for that day. I suppose there's an off chance I might be dead or otherwise incapacitated, in prison for some unspecified charge, stumbling through the creepers and entangling vines of a steamy jungle in search of fabled Aztec gold or simply lost in a trackless desert wasteland on some alien moon. But failing any of that, Sony, I'll be there to see your new Spider-Man picture.

Despite the third one having been a poorly-scripted disaster of the "tell, don't show" variety:

I'm not a bad person. Just had bad luck.

And so on. Lots of expository junk passing for dialogue, and precious little wit in the rest, kind of like this blog. You can go on the Onion A/V Club and find a few commenters on the story about this release date doing the fan-thing and laboriously explaining what would have made Spider-Man 3 a better movie-- stretching it into two films, adding this subplot, dropping that one, resolving the Goblin story in the third, moving Venom into a fourth film, casting someone other than Topher Grace as Venom, hiring any one of the similarly-speculating Onion A/V Club commenters as the producer/director. Oh screw all that. You know what really would have made Spider-Man 3 a better movie? Keeping everything else exactly the same but having a better goddamned screenplay.

Well, now they have a chance to do it right. Two chances, because apparently, they're going to make not only a fourth but even a fifth of these Spider-things with Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.

And yes, here I will reveal my second bit of movie-biz Spider-Man 4 intelligence. According to the few super-ninja who made it back to my high-tech lair hidden here on the dark side of Earth's moon, rumor has it the list of villain possibilities includes Carnage, Lizard, Vulture, Dan Didio, Octomom and Bruce Campbell as himself in a story where he kicks Spider-Man's ass, shoots a lot of zombies with a shotgun and makes sweet love to Mary Jane Watson by candlelight surrounded by roses while being serenaded by a full-sized swing orchestra. Personally, I'd pay double the ticket price to see that last idea... twice!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Crayon Shin-chan Author Missing

According to a story in the Mainichi Daily News, Crayon Shin-chan mangaka (comic creator) Usui Yoshito has gone missing, possibly in the mountains of Gunma prefecture. He left home on September 11th and Usui's worried wife reported him missing the next day after he failed to return. Calls to his cellphone have gone unanswered and police are combing the mountains in an effort to locate the missing artist.

Crayon Shin-chan is a popular comic book and television animation character here in Japan, a mischievous youngster known for driving people insane with his antics, which include dropping his pants at every opportunity. There have been numerous Crayon Shin-chan movies, including one called Crayon Shin-chan: The Legend Called: The Singing Buttocks Bomb. I remember a film trailer for one a couple of years ago where Shin-chan launches himself through the air, rocket-style, by lighting a fart so he can fight a giant monster. In one TV episode I watched, Shin-chan's halpless father attempts to take a photographic family portrait, only to have Shin-chan strip naked the moment he lays eyes on the camera. Bad little kid!

We can only hope Usui returns safely to his family.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wednesday Comics #7: A Comic Review!

Wednesday Comics #7
Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Various
Artist: Various

Not often but every once in a while DC does something that seems aimed directly at me and my sensibilities. Usually it's a reprint book of some kind rather than any of their new material. In the case of Wednesday Comics, it's not the tabloid format but rather the contents.

When I went to Tokyo to see Melt-Banana a few weeks ago, I made a point to hit Harajuku's Blister to buy some American comics. When I first saw Wednesday Comics, I thought it was one of those free give-away papers, some kind of marketing publication with previews of upcoming books. Some of the names on the front looked interesting-- well, Mike Allred, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Paul Pope and Joe Kubert immediately get my attention. I wanted to see what projects they had in store for the comic book market so I could add them to my comic-buying budget.

Imagine my surprise when I opened this thing expecting house ads and found it instead contained stories like an old fashioned Sunday comics section. This ended up being the one thing I bought from DC that day I actually enjoyed reading and looking at. The format hearkens back not only to the golden age of newspaper strips before almost all of them became teensy, poorly-drawn gag-a-day filler but also to the art-forward DC era when Carmine Infantino was art director and made Joe Orlando and Joe Kubert editors. I wish the regular monthlies looked as good and read as well.

The stand out is Dave Gibbons-Ryan Sook Kamandi story told in the Prince Valiant style. The story and its visuals share an epic sweep and Sook makes the most of the larger tabloid page to open up some of the panels in a kind of Cinerama boldness. A lot of artists these days use wide panels to ape cinema, but they tend to mitigate the effect by zooming in and cropping figures-- laziness. Not so here. Sook gives us a panorama of a tiger army in disarray, lost in a vast ruined landscape. I'm not exactly sure how the future barbarian girl got her finely manicured nails, though. They're so pearlescent and lovely!

Wednesday Comics also gives us Pope, Allred, Kubert, Garcia-Lopez (with Kevin Nowlan inks, no less) and Kyle Baker doing their art-thang on various under-used characters. Allred gives a few flourishes worthy of Alex Toth, Pope's work is reminiscent of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Baker works the Al Williamson angle in his Hawkman story, complete with dinosaurs and jungle mushrooms. Kubert hasn't lost a step artistically in a career stretching more than sixty years. Sixty years! To comprehend what an accomplishment that is, imagine Mickey Mantle still alive and batting clean-up once or twice a week for the Yankees. Kubert's work seems as fresh and vital now as it did back when first encountered him as the regular Sgt. Rock cover artist and in a few reprints here in there where his art would grab me with its expressionistic power. You've still got it, brother.

One thing that stuck me about the Neil Gaiman/Mike Allred Metamorpho story is how similar it is to Allred's Madman series. In both you have a family-like team of really bizarre characters led by the strangest one of all... usually in a cave. Gaiman's script is as clever as you'd expect and, of course, Mike and his wife Laura provide clean, pop-art visuals that-- much like Wednesday Comics itself-- combine the strong underpinnings of past craft with modern sensibilities. This version of Metamorpho, along with the Kamandi and Hawkman stories, really deserves to live and breathe in its own book.

But I'm an unabashed fan of most of those creators and the Kamandi concept. The real charm in Wednesday Comics is in giving readers a taste of other characters, artists and writers they might ordinarily ignore. Brian Stelfreeze also brings back the more visually experimental DC days of yore with some rare non-painted artwork that reminds me a lot of the great Filipino artists like Alex Nino and Nestor Redondo, and the Spanish artist Esteban Maroto. Other artists go the animation route, like Ben Caldwell's Disney-meets-Kricfalusi Wonder Woman. Such a plethora of styles, each page giving the eye something different to feast upon.

Visual variety.

The Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner give us a Supergirl in her old-style costume minus the trashy club kid bare mid-drift. The story's not much more than a conversation as Supergirl interacts with Aquaman. Palmiotti and Conner explore a Supergirl made up of youthful compassion and inexperience; finally, a story that acknowledges some teens are more concerned with other people's-- or animal's-- problems and not just acting out as emo-angsty borderline delinquents. Palmiotti's and Conner's characterization of Supergirl in this vignette is pleasantly similar to one I envisioned a while back when Dean Trippe did that "re-design" Supergirl meme in his blog. A smart, almost nerdy Supergirl whose biggest problem isn't how she's going to screw up or what super-boy she's going to screw but being too engaged with trying to save the world her good intentions frequently get the best of her. Not that I had anything to do with it, but I do feel slightly vindicated. And poor, poor Aquaman. Palmiotti and Conner acknowledge a lot of the humor inherent in being a guy whose power base is confined only to sea-life, but also find a poignancy, a loneliness in the concept I hadn't considered before.

It's not all four-color glory, though. The Brian Azarello-penned Batman story looks good because Eduardo Risso's art is moody and shadowy in a dark Tothian mode. But it reads as sleazily as many of the recent Bat-monthlies. One giant, icky, depressing page of Batman torturing a guy to get information. Batman torturing a guy... again. Complete with a close-up of a burning cigarette about to touch the guy's eyeball. Hooray for comics!

Dan Didio provides a serviceable script for Garcia-Lopez and Nowlan, but its blandness really doesn't serve the art team at all. When you have Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez doing sequential work again you really need to give him something worthier to illustrate. The John Arcudi-Lee Bermejo story also has strong visuals due to its painted artwork, but it could be an excerpt from any given Superman issue; I really prefer Arcudi on BPRD. Something similar can be said of the Eddie Berganza-Sean Galloway Teen Titans. It's a pleasant enough story but about what you'd expect from the monthly book; it also includes a bizarre visual gaffe where Starfire is described in the narration as being nearly "7 feet tall," but appears in the story as roughly the same height as Robin. Is he also nearly 7 feet? Is this Teen Titans also some kind of barnstorming basketball team a la the Harlem Globetrotters in other installments?

And as much as I love those old comic strip masters like Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Milt Caniff, Noel Sickles, Al Capp and Walt Kelly, the tabloid format just seems a novelty and not particularly appealing unto itself. What excites me most is the basic idea itself-- gathering a disparate group of writers and artists and setting them loose in an anthology-- is just a hop, skip and a jump away from what I think DC really should do, which is drop most of their monthly books and consolidate the lesser titles into large manga-style phonebooks. You could still have your Bat books and your Super books and your JLA, but all the borderline titles could be contained in one big, relatively affordable and totally disposable volume. Not that they'll do this-- retailers might have a fit and hardcore collectors would soon run out of storage room.

Plus we love to archive our monthly magazines in pristine condition on the off-chance we can sell them at some indefinite future date and fund a secret headquarters on the dark side of the moon and live in sci-fi splendour for centuries. My copy of Wednesday Comics #7 is already falling apart. I paid 760 yen for it (USD$8.35) versus 570 yen (USD$6.27) for the glossy, state-of-the-art Batgirl #1 and guess which one left me feeling completely ripped off?

Still, I'd rather risk a cheaper, less-durable format and have great stories at a reasonable price and then get a trade collection of the ones I enjoyed the most later on than get some slicked up glossy magazine full of dreck any month. Or week. Or cherry-pick the good books from the dross and end up with something fragmentary, incomplete. I'm more than likely alone in this, but I'd love to get my DC fix in a more economical way via the big, cheap phonebook, which I could recycle after reading and-- once again-- grab a more archival trade collection later to preserve the better stories for my personal library.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cassandra Cain’s Prominent New Role and My Smartass Speculation on Same!

Isn’t it sad—or funny, depending on your worldview—whenever DC announces a “prominent role” for a character many of us automatically cringe? Especially when the character in question is poor ol’ Cassandra Cain. She had her own fairly successful series, then DC decided to make her a villain, make her good, give her any number of new personalities and motivations. Batgirl used to be so simple and clean a concept—she went out and kicked ass and let her fists and feet do her talking. Now she’s a textbook example of how not to treat a character.

So when I heard Dan Didio made reference to DC's having some sort of storyline for her in 2010, as a Cass fan (that most wretched of character-based fandoms) my stomach dropped. Then I set aside my comic fan negativity and went into full-on Batman/Dark Knight Detective mode. Investigation. Research. Obsession. Plans within plans. Snarling at my butler and teenaged ward. Prominent role? That doesn’t sound too bad… does it?

Actually, I ran into a snag trying to verify Didio's exact quote on this subject. Newsarama says "prominent role," but I wanted to read those exact words for myself. Prominent. Role. I don't like to attribute words to people without first confirming them, unless I'm doing something silly and not to be taken too seriously; that's almost everything I write in this blog, by the way. A reply to a comment at Daily Scans held a link led me to Funnybook Babylon where they "liveblogged" the DC Nation presentation and all I found was this:

Final updates - Batgirl moving into the old Batcave with Babs Gordon, big Cass Cain storyline in 2010 where she will not be a villain.

She won't be a villain? Funny how they now have to qualify all Cass-related stories that way when announcing a Cassandra Cain storyline. No, this time she won't be a stock baddie so cliched, so horrifically stereotyped they briefly considered changing her codename to Girl Manchu. Cass, not a villain. It made my heart leap.

So there I was, with a dropped stomach and a leaped heart. I immediately made my way to the nearest hospital emergency room where doctors working around the clock saved my life with an experimental procedure and warned me to give up comics or risk death. I promptly came home and started researching the "prominent role" quote on Funnybook Babylon again. The closest thing to the "prominent role" remark I can find is in Didio's exchange with a Connor Hawke fan during the DC Editorial presentation:

Question: Is there any chance of him playing a prominent role in the DCU again?

Answer (I'm guessing Didio): ABSOLUTELY. That's something we have going on for next year. We have some dangling storylines, and we're going to be playing out on that, and we know where that goes.

So it's a question of semantics. Whether we term it a "prominent role" or simply a "big storyline," something's a-cookin' with our girl Cass. And because I can’t help but make fun of things, I started thinking. Speculating. Most of it came in the form of smart-assery. Then I realized, “Hey! I have a blog! Why just think stupid things when I can write them and share with my friends so all the world can see?”

Here goes—

1) Batgirl. Stephanie Brown gets herself killed again or otherwise incapacitated and Cass reluctantly takes up the mantle again in order to avenge her. Or, alternately, a second Batgirl in that “team o’ Batgirls” concept a few people floated on the message boards. Not likely, huh? Nah, I didn’t think so either… I think it’d be stupid to mess around with Steph so soon after giving her a book.

2) Batgirl’s Mentor. Stephanie Brown does an okay job as Batgirl, but Cass sees room for improvement and offers to train her in the weirding way. Or some such. You know what would be nice about this? If they also decide she once again prefers action over talk. She feels more comfortable expressing herself physically than verbally, so she goes back to being small-talk avoidant. They could get a lot of mileage out of contrasting Steph’s chatty nature with Cass’ taciturn one: “A picture—and my foot up your ass—is worth a thousand words.”

3) Villain. I just can't leave well enough alone. The wounds inflicted by the Dragon Lady Cass Era are just so delightfully painful, I must poke at them. So Cass, despondent over the apparent death of Bruce Wayne, decides genetics win out over willpower and years of good intent and gives into her darker urges once more, this time without even the story-crutch of having been drugged. She adopts a sultry costume (after all, she is half-Asian so she’s at least half-Dragon Lady, right? Maybe she can even own a chain of opium dens!), becomes increasingly verbose, raises hell from time to time in various books—mostly Red Robin (she has a sexual obsession with him) and Batgirl (pure jealousy and hissy catfight potential)—and gets her ass handed to her repeatedly in increasingly ludicrous ways by characters known to be inferior martial artists until she becomes the laughingstock of the DC message boards.

Some of this involves her teaming up with her mom, Lady Shiva, and possibly her dad, Cain (despite several storylines in the past having alienated her from him conclusively). The upside of this for DC is they can re-use the racial stereotype from Cass’ previous villain-stint, completely contradict all the painstaking work writers like Kelley Puckett and Chuck Dixon did on Cass in the past, render her entire back-catalog of magazines and trades completely worthless and cause Cass fans either to erupt in another Internet free-for-all of interest-generating publicity or… just quietly acquiesce because they just don’t care anymore and start reading manga exclusively. And DC would never have to worry about them or Cass again.

4) Nightwing. As far as I know, this spot is still open. Sure, Cass seems Bat-averse now but who knows—Steph, Dick or even Alfred might have a heart-to-heart with her and renew her sense of purpose. Then DC could put her back in Batman and the Outsiders and even do a more adult-oriented Nightwing series with her using all those great influences and helpful hints I’ve been yammering about nonstop for years. I’m telling you—such a book would rock. And it would definitely bring a lot of unhappy Cass fans back into the warm embrace of the DC family. Awww

Of course, when Bruce Wayne returns, he’s going to want his suit back, which means Dick will need his.

5) Something Different? Cass may completely renounce her Bat-family affiliation in favor of something totally freelance. She could reclaim the League of Assassins and forge them into a fighting force on the side of good, become a costumeless martial artist just kind of wandering here and there righting wrongs like her semi-namesake from the old Kung Fu TV series (if it's good enough for Jules, it's good enough for Cass), or come up with some completely new costumed identity and go solo or work with the Outsiders in some capacity.

6) Bruce Wayne. No, I’m not suggesting she'll become Bruce Wayne (although I firmly believe she would’ve tried to take his mantle as Batman from Dick in some fashion... kind of bizarre she didn't play a major role in "Battle for the Cowl," but then that's corporate authorship for ya). But since Cass’ newly-established basic motivation seems to be Bruce-centric enough she’d give up her beloved Batgirl identity, a storyline where she goes on a long quest to bring him back would prove most interesting. At some point she’s going to learn he’s not dead, right? And if he’s so damned important to her, and given her compulsive, driven, action-first nature, she’s bound to try to do the impossible and somehow rescue him, right? Not only does his absence seem to be preying on her mind, she’s the most logical Bat-family member to try it. Everyone else has a job to do right now, and she’s the odd girl out.

7) Nothing. It just doesn’t pan out for whatever reason, kind of like what happened with the Milestone characters. Maybe they just don’t get around to it. Maybe various writers have other plans and no one can find a way to slot Cass into them. Maybe Grant Morrison wakes up in the middle of the night and sends a quick email to Dan Didio detailing the basics for his hottest idea yet—Crisis of the Multiple Infinite Blackest Night Lantern Identity Crises of Infinity Crisis—which grows to involve a weekly series and a monthly, plus tie-ins with every major DC book. The DC universe’s status quo changes yet again.

Characters change, books are cancelled and rebooted, and painstakingly developed plotlines are derailed and rerouted. During the overall storyline, Stephanie Brown is killed and resurrected twenty times, but Cass remains completely absent. In the end, Bruce Wayne is Batman once more, Dick Grayson has de-aged to become Robin again, the other two former Robins are infants, Stephanie Brown is a red-head and still Batgirl, Barbara Gordon has de-aged and can walk but is still Oracle for some reason—and Cass has yet to make an appearance, or even have her name referenced in dialogue.

A year later, she comes back as a Dragon Lady villain with no explanation of where she’s been or why she wasn’t affected in the least by anything that happened to her friends, just a major sexual attraction for Dick Grayson, whom she repeatedly attempts to seduce and/or kill.

Sorry. I had to poke it again just to make sure it's healed. We'll see in 2010, huh?

8) Batgirl. They hire me to write a self-contained-continuity series that’s equal parts Kill Bill, Battle Royale, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lady Snowblood and Lone Wolf and Cub. Mostly silent Cass puts a hurting on all kinds of nasty suckers while battling her own death wish and increasingly scaring the bejeezus out of Batman and his pals with her intensity and risk-taking. It’d be both poignant and disgustingly ultra-violent by turns. Unfortunately, because she’s a tragic figure, after about 50 blistering, emotional issues or so, Batgirl would have to die fighting both Lady Shiva and David Cain. Because at her base, she's a tragic character and that’s how Koike Kazuo and the Greek dramatists would’ve done it. And it would hurt so good! Chances of this happening? Yeah, right. In my dreams!

9) None of the Above. I'm usually wrong whenever I make predictions about this funnybook stuff, so don't bet on any of my ideas happening.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mary Blair Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, July 18th-October 4th

I really dig Mary Blair's art and it's hard to overestimate her influence on graphic arts. I seriously doubt we would have had The Powerpuff Girls without Mary Blair. I'm sure we could make a long list of animation designers, graphic artists and illustrators who have at least tried to cop her deceptively simple, somewhat geometric style and superior color sense. But I was late discovering her work, much to my embarrassment.

How'd I finally come around? Well, a couple of years ago, the art museum here at the Hamamatsu Castle Park held a Disney show with lots of recently rediscovered hand-painted backgrounds from actual Disney movies, cells, pre-production artwork and sketches dating back to "Steamboat Willie." The standout artist of it all was Mary Blair; seeing her paintings up close just about popped my eyeballs out of their sockets. You know, in a good way. I even bought an expensive hardcover art book so I could scrutinize the woman's colorful, fun work. When I was in Tokyo a week or so ago, I noticed these big train station advertisements for a Mary Blair show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo:

No great feat that. They're pretty big and fun to look at. A gorgeous photo of the artist-- herself quite striking in an South American-style peasant blouse-- and a bright-colored Alice falling past a mirror. Pure visual joy. I hope to see this show in person before it closes. It'll be a near thing. My entertainment expenses are tapped out thanks to Melt-Banana. Not that I'm complaining; that show was worth every yen and the toe-blisters, too.

But Mary Blair? Her artwork in a show with planning support by the fabulous Studio Ghibli, home of Miyazaki Hayao, maker of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro among other animated enchantments? Actually, I may already have seen at least some of these paintings; she was well-represented at that Disney show. This might be something I'll regret not at least trying to see, though. A day trip? Why not!

Oh, and while you're here-- go see Ponyo!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Still Not Sure What Hit 'Em: Batgirl #1 Review

Batgirl #1
DC Comics
Script: Bryan Q. Miller
Pencils: Lee Garbett
Inks: Trevor Scott
Colors: Guy Majors

Capsule Review: Wow! I remember this TV show! It was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A pretty blond teen with special abilities has to hide her nocturnal comings and goings and balance schoolwork with crime-fighting. And, apparently, take showers. Bryan Q. Miller's story is fast-paced but reads like a mediocre filler issue of Dark Horse's first Buffy comic adaptation; artist Lee Garbett even makes the main character resemble Sarah Michelle Gellar in a few panels. Choppy action sequences don't help.

After the climactic action in which she somehow survives a building explosion, new Batgirl Stephanie Brown thinks to herself, "Everything I did last night was wrong. Everything." Thanks to the muddled storytelling in this comic, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is she did. I don't think I've ever read a superhero comic this averse to showing how one action-- cause-- leads to another-- effect.

Did Bryan Q. Miller's script ordain this, or does penciller Lee Garbett have no interest in simple action-to-action storytelling? You know, the idea that if you show someone doing something in one panel, you should depict either the action's continuance or its result in the next so that things make sense and the reader doesn't have to invent the causes in his or her head. In Garbett's sequencing, he has Batgirl fire a tiny grappling gun in one panel, then swan-dive from the air in the next. I suppose she swung up there during the interval, but why can't Garbett show her doing just that instead of using the now-cliched "widescreen" panel page layout and skipping major action beats?

On the next page, which begins with a jumble of panels that confusingly violate the Western tradition of reading from left to right, a thug apparently fires a pistol through the roof of a speeding car. Apparently, because we see neither driver nor gun, just the bullet trajectories emerging from the roof of his Chevy "Impaler."

Really, if we let our imaginations do the work Garbett should have done with his pencil, we can visualize almost anything happening in this scene. Maybe the driver is super-powered and can spit sunflower seeds at supersonic speeds, fast enough to puncture the car's headliner and sheet metal. Maybe those are large yellow-orange ropes descending from a helicopter. Maybe someone had previously drilled holes in the roof and now the driver's shining a flashlight through them, or going supernova inside the car while shouting, "PANG! PANG! PANG!"

Or maybe those are pangs he's feeling for how confusing this book has become in just three easy pages. We know Batgirl does something because she gets "POOT" as her sound effect. But because she's minuscule and obscured by the car, we're not exactly sure what. Maybe she cuts the bat-cheese? Man, that black bodysuit probably holds the stink in and channels it right into her face mask, too. Nasty.

I believe Batgirl is somehow using her bat-ropes to tie the two cars together because suddenly, they magically lose their rear axles and there seems to be a rope involved.

"Not my best plan," Batgirl nonsensically tells herself, as if there were some less destructive way to stop drag racers in full flight using only your body and some rope. Perhaps she should have simply phoned the police and let them handle it. But then we wouldn't have Batgirl #1, we'd have the first and last issue of Stephanie Brown, Neighborhood Watchperson.

From a distance, the new Robin watches the action through binoculars and remarks, "Tsk-tsk. Sloppy."

We could say the same thing about the artwork. Even more ridiculous is a sequence a few pages later where Barbara Gordon beats up a trio of guys on a subway-- and they haven't done anything to deserve it, beyond looking like stereotypical urban gangstas from central casting. I suppose we're to understand merely from their clothes they're up to no good. After all, Barbara's alone in a grimy, gritty subway car and we all know from movies nothing positive ever happens to women alone on subway cars when gangbangers are near. Garbett can't seem to decide if these walking cliches are behind Barbara's wheelchair or in front of it-- there's a tangent between her chair and one guy's arm that makes it unclear. Garbett doesn't give them a particularly aggressive posture; their clothes and and hip-hop accouterments are enough to make them suspect and ripe for a cathartic beating by the life-enraged Babs.

Notice, too, the one-sided fight happens in a black-out panel and we only get to "listen in" via sound effects. Maybe they should've just gotten some voice actors and foley artists and done this comic book as a radio show.

Later, during the story's climax, Batgirl manages to somehow get little bat-shaped shuriken into some thugs' hands, but we don't get to see her actually throwing them. She does punch a guy, but all we see is a close-up of his squashed face and her disembodied fist. That hand could belong to anyone. It's also an example of Rambo Syndrome, where the hero just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Despite being in the jungle, Rambo knows the singular tree out of thousands an unsuspecting Soviet soldier is going to stop underneath to smoke a cigarette or wipe his sweaty forehead. So Rambo hides in it a few minutes earlier, then drops down at the right moment and cuts the man's throat; he also knows the exact spot of mudbank to squish into to surprise and kill a Vietnamese trooper. Possessed of a similar psychic ability, Steph knows beforehand (or beforefist) what window a criminal's going to peek out of during a tense standoff with police.

Even better, once actually inside the building, Batgirl merely poses with crossed arms while the cop she's ostensibly there to rescue does all the fighting for her. "Oh, he's pretty," she thinks. "Look tough, Steph."

Or contribute. After all, you got all dressed up for the occasion, kid.

With her thrill addiction and self-deprecating wit, Stephanie Brown could be a mildly appealing protagonist in a suburban chick kind of way, and it looks like there will be some tension in the Bat-ranks as she tries to fill a new role some think is above her abilities. I mean, she did get herself almost killed as Robin not so long ago, right? How's she going to make out on her own as Batgirl?

On the other hand, she apparently has the ability to survive smashing through the windshield of a speeding car, dancing on its roof and then jumping off the back with nary a scratch. Hell, she ought to take on the role of Supergirl after that performance. Sloppy, Robin? Let's see you do that, kiddo.

So this is how fan-favorite character Stephanie Brown takes over as Batgirl from the disillusioned and by-now unrecognizably-characterized Cassandra Cain, whose brief appearance in a flashback sequence makes her a meta-textual stand-in for DC’s readership. Poor Cass quits her Bat-family position in seeming despondency over recent storylines, no doubt including the badly-garbled Resurrection Road miniseries that was supposed to restore her to full hero status but only succeeded in alienating readers with its incompetence. I can only assume Stephanie's comment that Cass seems "less chatty than usual" is meant to be taken ironically, but when did Cass ever use a term like "self-delusion?" Kudos to the kid's ESL teachers; they've done a bang-up job and in less than a year or two.

And this is how we go from a hero who once stopped a man’s heart momentarily just to teach him a lesson to one who yawns through class and doodles bat-symbols in her notes. And takes steamy showers.

Progress, baby.

Oh well. Taken as a whole, Batgirl #1's not the worst DC comic in recent history. Any given issue of Amazons Attack still comes away with top honors in that category, although a few single issues of Supergirl from a year or two ago come close, and any book featuring poor Cassandra Cain since her own series ended, with the sole exception of her brief stint in Batman and the Outsiders.

Yep, the action in this book is laughably bad. But Bryan Q. Miller has a way with dialogue-- there's an amusing exchange between Stephanie and the cop-- and his first-person narration isn't as clunky as most. It really seems as though Stephanie's internal monologue depicts her real-time thought process, rather than the bizarre stream-of-conscious autobiographin' a lot of heroes seem to do. And Garbett knows how to draw a mean toothbrushing.

But beyond those meagre charms, Batgirl's biggest problem isn't its botched action sequences. It's that this book doesn't do anything special with the Batgirl concept itself besides put a cultish character in the suit... and the muddled art certainly isn't doing Miller's already overly familiar story situations any favors. Although not having read the raw script, I can't be sure if Miller's script didn't let down Garbett's pencils.

Either way, I really don't see this book as appealing to anyone beyond hardcore Stephanie Brown fans or readers who feel compelled to purchase every single tie-in issue-- even the crappy ones they end up complaining about later-- to whatever over-arcing narrative the Bat-books have happening in any particular month. I might buy it again if Miller injects some worthy Cassandra Cain action into the book. But my fannishness over a supporting character, especially one that's been so badly served over the past few years, is a pretty paltry selling point for a comic.

Buffygirl #1.