Saturday, October 31, 2009

Spookey Month: "Night of the Reaper" from Batman #237

Here's a Halloween treat-- "Night of the Reaper," with Batman and Robin in Rutland, Vermont, for the annual Rutland Halloween Parade plus a swingin' shindig for all the groovy cats and chicks at superfan Tom Fagan's house. And more Nazis than you can shake a roll of Smarties at. Kids of all ages (and Nazi war criminals) love this classic candy treat.

Ah, what a pedigree this story has. The script is by Denny O'Neil "from an idea by Berni Wrightson with an assist from Harlan Ellison" and the art is by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.

It opens with an eerily atmospheric splash page, a dark image of the lonely body of a dead Batman bathed in the light of a Halloween full moon. The narrative captions tell us a light is blinking on and off on top of the house in the background, but it's not visible.

What is visible, however, is Dick Grayson and his college pals on their road trip to Rutland. Since it's 1971, guys unashamedly stroll around in public wearing purple vests or full-on safari outfits and tall leather boots. Of course, it is Halloween. Dick's vest is only slightly more flamboyant than what the other revelers have on. Another clue that it's the 70s is Dick's nonchalant attitude towards one of his friend's possible drug use when someone mentions the guy's weird behavior:

"Right!... and gulping coffee and who-knows-what-else to keep his eyes open."

Dick, possession of schedule 1 narcotics is a crime. You're a crime-fighter. Why are you making with the quips when you should be punching this guy straight? I mean as Batman's partner should Robin be so casual about this one-man Fear and Loathing at the Rutland Halloween Parade?

I knew a guy in junior college who sold LSD to truck drivers who needed a little pick-me-up on cross-country hauls, so maybe this guy is tripping to stay awake. He seems intent on the parade floats in a manner consistent with hallucinogen use. But perhaps he's on methylamphetamines or PCP. Whatever's got him so twisted, Batman is going to be really disappointed his ward puts being a "big man on campus" ahead of doing his sworn duty as a superhero sidekick.

No matter. There's a party at Tom Fagan's! And as the bespectacled fellow in menacing black jackboots says, "Where a party is, girls is." Unless that party involves sausage, my friend. Ever been to one of those? Nothing but lighting farts and watching Rambo movies, not a girl in sight.

Who is Tom Fagan? Tom Fagan was a real person, who lived in Rutland. He was a newspaper reporter and comic book fan who served as the Halloween parade's chairman. Fagan built the parade into a major event featuring floats from both Marvel and DC, and according to an October 2008 story in the Rutland Herald, 181 different comic characters at one point. A caption in the lower left corner of page two of this story promises "any similarity to actual persons or places depicted in this tale is probably a stranger tale than you'd ever really believe!"

Not really. Comic book companies send costumed representatives to a Halloween parade. Some of their employees and artists go there to enjoy the festivities. Wrightson and Ellison pitch a story about it, O'Neil writes it, Adams puts a lot of his young comic book proteges in the story, along with Tom Fagan himself. Cool, but far from strange.

But it sure makes it seem these comic book guys were living out wacky adventures beyond the ken of us fans, huh? I remember thinking so when I read this story in some reprint book years ago. Batman From the 30s to the 70s? The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told? Oh, how I wanted to draw them funny books and go to Rutland in them thar days. But mah gold claim came a-cropper an' I had to change professions to muleskinnin' and then thar was mah stint dealin' faro in Tombstone. I remember when them Clantons threw down with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday outside of Fly's Photography Studio...

Where was I? Oh yeah, Rutland not the Old West. How often I get the two confused; they're quite similar. Since this is a Batman and Robin action joint and not a college romance or some kind of Cheech and Chong story, O'Neil quickly sends Dick Grayson into a fight. He spots a guy in a Robin outfit getting the snot beat out of him and-- imagining it's himself-- goes to help. The drugged-out safari guy blunders around, oblivious to the violence around him and causes Dick to take a blackjack to the skull. Recovering, Dick slips away from the DC arti-- er-- his college pals, switches to Robin and chases the thugs. But look!

It's the dead Batman from the splash page! Robin mistakes the corpse for the real Batman:

Then Robin gets his ass handed to him for the second time that night and falls into some kind of drainage ditch or broken sewer line:

Yes, for any purpose Robin is useless. Well, that's not true. He's good as a sparring partner because he's easy to beat. Managers of third rate boxers often hire him to build their fighters' confidence. I've never been a proponent of the sidekick, and this story illustrates why.

And just as Robin drowns, our story's comedic relief passes by, hoping to discuss floats with someone, or in the parlance of the time, rap. He wants "to lay it on" someone, "to groove" and perhaps even "to grok." He would like "to talk turkey," without any "jive hassles" or "the Man coming down" on him. He wants to do these things with anyone but furtive little guys in purple robes. Those he ostracizes as unworthy of float-rapping. He's starting to remind me of that "Eat at Joe's" bear from the classic Tex Avery cartoon "Jerky Turkey."

Robin awakens upstairs at Tom Fagan's house and there's his old pal Batman and... GAAAAHHHH!

Oh, sorry. It's just kindly Dr. Gruener. For a second there I thought Robin had died and that dessicated visage was the Grim Reaper. And here's where the plot kicks in. Gruener, a concentration camp survivor, recently spotted Nazi fugitive Colonel Kurt Schloss in Rutland. He reported the war criminal to the authorities and they sent Batman for some reason, instead of the FBI.

Now that Batman has shown up, O'Neil and Adams pay tribute to Tom Fagan buy having him meet the dread Batman himself. And Adams takes the opportunity to draw more friends and poke fun at the Distinguished Competition... wait. That's Marvel's name for DC, not the other way around. Anyway, here's a muscular oaf dressed like Thor with a colander on his head:

When he gets off that guy's foot, he's going into the kitchen to strain spaghetti for the "dead witch" routine.

The plot has to do with Nazi gold and an assassination attempt on Schloss by his former friends. Batman starts kicking ass and taking names, as Batman is wont to do. We even get an early iteration of the now-cliched "Batman threatens to kill a guy in a high place" scene, despite there being no record of Batman ever having actually killed anyone:

There's a twist in that Dr. Gruener isn't exactly on the up-and-up and things get a bit dodgy plotwise. It starts off well: Robin's motivation for being in Rutland is natural; he's trying to have fun and meet some cute chicks. That Nazis are also in Rutland the very same night trying to kill one of their own (who conveniently loves costume parties) and this somehow means also murdering Batman and Robin or people dressed like them is overly coincidental.

I find that's frequently a problem with the Caped Crusader-- actually having a logical reason for him to investigate or otherwise involve himself in whatever crime is going on. You can't just have him overhear the criminals and jump off a rooftop onto them every time. Here, Batman has been sent on official business but the story turns on a surprisingly slapdash decision by one of the supporting characters that spoils its twist. At least we get one of those patented Denny O'Neil "Batman succeeds but he fails" downer endings. Batman in the 1970s was fallible and self-questioning and a whole hell of a lot more likable than the more recent version, who I find reprehensible and random.

But despite some awkward turns this story is a lot of fun, especially around Halloween time. You can find it reprinted in Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volume three.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Spookey Month: I Love Marvel's Tomb of Dracula Series Even When It's Silly!

I’m a horror traditionalist. I don’t enjoy “torture porn” like the Saw series or the movie Hostel. Those kinds of horrors you can find in real life if you look hard enough. I’m more into the classics—ghosts, Frankenstein’s monster, werewolves and vampires. I do have a weakness for Japanese horror, mostly for its dream-logic and different feel from our Eurocentric horror tradition; but many of these stories also involve ghosts.

The king of Halloween for me is Count Dracula. And Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula is one of my favorite series. I’ve always admired Marv Wolfman’s slightly hysterical prose. That mid-70s heavyhanded narrative stuff suits Tomb’s dark, atmospheric storylines. And of course Gene Colan and Tom Palmer as an art team are second to none. Palmer ably translated Colan’s chiarascuro-laden artwork into printable form, and Colan’s page layouts and oddly-angled panels are just thick with mood and menace.

And our star! Wow! Marvel’s Dracula was an anti-hero masquerading as a villain. A pontificating killer with an out-of-control ego and equal parts misogyny and misanthropy, but Wolfman imbued him with charisma. It’s hard not to admire this hateful bastard as he escapes time and again, turning into mist or a bat to elude his clumsy enemies. Every so often the creative team would have to introduce someone even nastier than Dracula to liven things up. One of these antagonists was Dr. Sun, a disembodied brain obsessed with usurping Dracula’s powers and killing the Count.

What is it with comic books and Red Chinese plots to remove people’s brains? DC’s Weird War Tales had a story in which an American officer gets his brain cut by the Chinese Communists out to power a supercomputer. Batman’s vaguely Arabic enemy R’as al Ghul once took out a scientist’s brain for some nefarious purpose; R’as is neither a commie nor Chinese so maybe this trope is just evidence of a generalized western paranoia against the East. Then again, Nazis tend to do this as well so maybe I'm completely off base.

Anyway, Dr. Sun is another of these floating brains from Asia and he and his organization of sycophants and henchpeople have infiltrated America. Dracula crosses the Atlantic by stowing away in a Royal Air Force fighter only to get himself killed by Dr. Sun.

Which sets up the strange turn of events in Tomb of Dracula #41. It would be ironic if it wasn't actively stupid. Drac’s long-time enemies, led by Quincy Harker, enlist the US Army to fight Dr. Sun but Sun hypnotizes the soldiers and makes them his slaves. So Harker and company turn to the one person—in all the Marvel Universe, populated by fantastic quartets and avenging and defending superteams—who can help them. That's right.


Well, one member of the group has a very personal reason-- Aurora Rabinowitz has a crush on Dracula, so much so she thinks "even his ashes are cute." Love-- even the arbitary love enforced on an annoyingly dense comic book character by her creator-- makes people think and do ridiculous things. But vampire hunters? It's really difficult to understand vampire hunter logic: "We were fighting Dracula and a brain. Then the brain killed Dracula and we only have to fight the brain now. So let's bring back Dracula so we can fight the brain and Dracula again, only Dracula will probably kill the brain for us so after that we can..."

Maybe this kind of plan makes sense if you've been fighting the undead for years and you're really low on sleep and sanity. Only Rachel van Helsing-- possibly because Dracula's bats scarred her pretty face a few issues back-- attempts to convince them not to do this stupid, stupid thing and they vote her down. But even she fails to make the ultimate argument against this counter-intuitive plan to bring back their arch-nemesis.


What about Iron Man? He was always fighting the Reds. Even a psychic Red in a big pickle jar wouldn’t stand a chance, right? And Thor. Being a Norse god, Thor could… No, the choice is Dracula, dammit. We tried the army and they failed, so why bother the superheroes who regularly defeat nigh-omnipotent earth-eating entities with casual ease? We need our filthy vampire back.

Well, we know the real reason they have to revive Dracula. It's because his name is in the book's title. If the book had been called Rachel van Helsing's Common Sense Brigade, Dracula would have stayed dead until some editor-writer team needed him for another book. And despite Dr. Sun's having taken several issues to weaken and then kill the Count, Wolfman brings him back in within a few panels (beautifully drawn, by the way) in such a ridiculous, perfunctory way good taste and respect for Marv Wolfman prevent me from telling you how it happens. It involves the insipid Aurora, though.

Blade shows up, too. He really razzes the gang and gives them the business for bringing back Dracula. Such cads and bounders are they, in league with a scoundrel; they're in dire need of a good ostracizing and Blade is just the toff to do it, indeed. Blade company argue for two whole pages in circular fashion before Rachel kicks Blade out. And then Wolfman gives us a casual reminder that Marvel's universe is full of fabulous super-people who are much better choices for aid than an evil vampire; two kids go out trick-or-treating, one dressed as the amazing Spider-Man.

Oh yeah, forgot to tell you-- this story takes place on Halloween!

The kids get only an hour to rack up the candy, though. What a strict mother they must have! But she hasn't given her kids any more smarts than this story's main characters, because the little dumbasses promptly make their way to Dr. Sun's house. Yes, house. He's a brain in a jar trying to conquer the world and his secret base is in a house in an ordinary residential area.

The kids notice something is... well... a little strange about this place. After all, you don't often see hundreds of heavily-armed soldiers lounging around in suburbia. There must be some tanks and jeeps around, too because just three issues before they'd all gone off to battle Dr. Sun with a full combat brigade, right though the heart of the city.

National emergencies involving the mobilization of US Army troops on American soil are no reason to cancel the fun of Halloween, though. And I'm not sure what Dr. Sun really wants with these soldiers because they're not very competent at guarding his house:

Two kids in costumes infiltrate right up to the front door and ring the buzzer. Let's see what's happening inside:

Oh, they're not guarding him. They're just standing around letting him scream at them via mental waves or some kind of electronic voice device. They're supposed to go round up all their friends and bring them back to Sun's place for a big Halloween shindig/mind control party. It's kind of like an Amway recruitment drive.

As for the kids, they never get their candy. Blade and Dracula crash the house and start tearing the place apart, dancing to the latest tunes and putting the Misfits' version of Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt-kickers' "Monster Mash" on repeat play until Dr. Sun makes them stop and they all settle in to eat candy corn and watch the Halloween movie series on DVD, then tell ghost stories while passing around a flashlight to hold under their chins. Scary stuff!

It's too bad our impatient trick-or-treaters didn't ring the doorbell one more time instead of running off, because Dr. Sun gives out those fun-sized chocolate bars. Milky Way, Snickers and more!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spookey Month: Museum of Terror 3: Long Hair in the Attic: A Comic Review

Museum of Terror 3: Long Hair in the Attic
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Stories and Art by Ito Junji

Now that my favorite anti-hero Tomie has met her fate-- or has she? Cue ominous music-- Ito Junji tells a series of one-off horror stories in volume 3 of Dark Horse’s wonderfully disgusting Museum of Terror series. Actually, the stories in Long Hair in the Attic pre-date the Tomie Saga (as I like to call it). These are from early in Ito’s career, when he was still working as a dental technician.

I don’t know how much influence working in an industry so devoted to pain and torture had on Ito’s oeuvre, but I’m guessing there’s at least a teeny bit of orthodontic cruelty hidden in each and every story.

Long Hair opens with “Bio-House,” a distaff vampire tale that seems equally influenced by Bram Stoker and David Cronenberg, or perhaps even Stanley Kubrick with its opening aerial shots of a traveling car. Kubota, a young biotechnology company employee, is invited by her boss for dinner at his country house. It seems they share a “yen for unusual cuisine,” which is the hook Ito uses to explore various aspects of zoophagy and haemophagia.

He's obviously partially inspired by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining:

In this offering, Ito’s linework betrays a certain lack of confidence. But as the stories progress, Ito quickly gains in skill and self-assurance. That’s one of the charms of volume 3- watching Ito’s growth as an artist and writer, and his introduction of his various ongoing concerns and themes.

Like many modern horror auteurs in various media, Ito relies grotesque imagery relating to various violations of the human body. This may be relatively restrained, as in “The Face Burglar,” where a vicious gang girl gives a mutant her comeuppance, or almost rococo in its ornately gory detail; for example, when Ito depicts the fate of both protagonists of “Den of the Sleep Demon,” literally turning them inside-out as they merge, “on-camera.”

While chock full of this sort of delightful nastiness, Terror 3’s main attraction is in charting the growth of Ito's distinctive voice. Even in the crude early tales, his nightmarish story-logic and recurring motifs and concerns are already evident, developing rapidly over the three year period covered by these works. Along with the first two volumes, this collection also adds to an already strong case for Ito as one of horror’s finest practitioners. He's definitely pre-eminent in the graphics form.

Because he’s not content with merely pushing the boundaries of physical transformation, Ito’s horror stories at their best are crafty dissections of cherished institutions. He delights in revealing all their nasty little secrets as he both subverts and perverts government, religion, friendship, romantic relationships even that most ostensibly secure of social units, the nuclear family.

In “Village,” two young adults return to the rural village they abandoned years before to visit their parents. They find the place in thrall to a massive siren that sounds all night, every night.

As Japan’s population ages and economic necessities force the abandonment of the traditional family structure (younger generations living with and caring for the older), it’s becoming increasingly common for young people to leave smaller towns for places like Osaka and Tokyo.

But what happens to their cast-off parents? In Ito’s imagination, they fall prey to reincarnated sorcerers and transformation into demonic, bat-winged creatures, a scenario with apocalyptic implications. Still, true to form, Ito's vision doesn’t lend itself to a simple conservative reading; the young people who stay behind to do their duty suffer madness and death. As horror is by its nature a nihilistic genre, even adhering to societal values offers no escape.

The title story combines many elements of Ito's subtextual favorites. In “Long Hair in the Attic,” a young woman suffers through a painful breakup with her shallow lover, despite her having grown out her luxurious black hair. Desiring change, she asks her sister to help her chop off it all off. So far, pretty prosaic stuff, almost slipping into romance comic-land… but the hair has ideas of its own, including designs on the old boyfriend.

Malevolent, sentient hair? This is one of the earliest indications that Ito is a true original, and the story’s key visual, that of the lovelorn woman’s head being borne up the steps into the attic on a spidery wave of hair is fairly unprecedented. Unless you count some of the grisly images from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

But if you want something really dark and worrisome, let me direct your attention towards “The Bully.” This queasy short begins with Kuriko breaking up with her current boyfriend to enter a relationship with a man she tortured as a child. After their wedding, Kuriko's former victim fathers a child with her, then abandons them both as his revenge. Driven to madness by parental responsibilities and increasingly obsessed with her child’s resemblance to the boy she once knew, Kuriko reverts to type in a sequence that is absolutely pitiless. With the mother-child bond being one of society’s most sacred, “The Bully” is a profoundly disturbing tale.

While its final page and a half doesn’t match Ito’s other climaxes for overt violence, this perversion of motherhood and its promise of further physical and emotional violence is easily Ito’s nastiest achievement in this volume. Its counterpart can be found in “Heart of a Father,” another dark exploration of family ties, this time with a malevolent father causing all the trouble. It’s creepy, but since it involves a group of siblings it can’t equal “The Bully” and the lonely fate of Kuriko's innocent child.

The book concludes with “A Deserter in the House,” where a rural family has been hiding a friend who went AWOL from the Japanese army during WWII… although it's now eight years after the atomic bombs ended the war. They even stage visits from a phony army inspector hot on the man's trail as part of the family's elaborate revenge over the death of a sister in an American air raid. The shock ending is effective, but surprisingly conventional for Ito.

Once again, Dark Horse has put together an excellent package, containing all the strengths of the first two volumes. And yes, again, one positive adding a great deal to the book's enjoyment is the fine translation work by Naomi Kokubo and Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh. I especially like the line, "It blows my mind that such a pretty thing like you would be into gross food."

Under the loving caress of Ito Junji's relentlessly dark imagination, gross is a well-chosen understatement! And really, all of Volume 3 is food that's at once gross and delicious... even if it's a apt to lead to indigestion and sleeplessness. Just toss some of those miniature chocolate bars on top for the perfect Halloween.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 1: A Comic Book Review

DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams Volume 1
Publisher: DC Comics
Scripts: Various
Pencils: Neal Adams
Inks: Adams, Nick Cardy, Joe Kubert

Wow, DC has really been pushing these Neal Adams books in recent years. First the three volume Batman Illustrated By set, books of his Green Arrow/Green Lantern and Deadman work and now this, a collection of Adams stories and filler from all across the DC line. If Paul Levitz’s introduction is to be believed—and why wouldn’t it—when Adams was trying to get started, you practically had to inherit an art job at DC when a staffer dropped dead and legally willed it to you. Can you imagine, holding this super-deluxe “remastered” hardcover in your hand there was a time when DC didn’t want Neal Adams drawing their superpeople for them?

Were they stupid or something? No, they weren’t. There were just a limited number of books then and, consequently, very few slots for writers and artists. Hard to imagine nowadays when practically every supporting character with a fanbase gets a shot at carrying a title and you’ve got people clueless about basic action-to-action storytelling, laying down half-assed scribbles Adams could top holding the pencil between his toes. But back in the 1960s, Neal Adams, with his slick illustrative chops and his ability to draw everything from starships to taxi cabs and make them believable, had to do spot jobs for Archie Comics and spend time drawing Ben Casey for the newspapers before he could throw down Batman, Superman and the Teen Titans in graphite on Bristol board.

Oh, and generic war titles. That’s how Adams broke in at DC—drawing back-up features for Our Army At War and Star-Spangled War Stories. Neal’s figures are as neatly rendered as anything he produced during his heyday on Batman and Detective Comics, but his uniquely shaped layouts and Marvelous posing dynamics don’t suit the interchangeable GI’s and their wan combat misadventures. Nazi sniper infiltrating a patrol of dogfaces? Of course, he forgets to lose his Nazi rifle. Pow! Take that, you stupid Aryan ubermensch! The “War That Time Forgot” story is nifty in that it features WWII sailors fighting dinosaurs, but its secondary protagonist is a complete plot construct—his single-minded obsession with taking over from the skipper borders on the psychotic. How’d he ever get a naval commission?

Adams jokingly explains it all away in a semi-apologetic introduction to the war section, but notice how these stories are relegated to the book’s final pages, as if the war stories are now something of an embarrassment, or too quaint for today's audience perhaps. You do get an eye-popping collaboration between Adams and Joe Kubert on a ludicrous Enemy Ace story. Interesting how when later drawing Hans von Hammer’s descendant in the Batman story “Ghost of the Killer Skies,” (Detective Comics #404, reprinted in Batman Illustrated volume 2) Adams loosened up and made him look as though Kubert had stepped in to handle that character exclusively. That’s respect, baby.

No, Neal Adams was born to draw superheroes, not Hogan’s Heroes. Though he downgrades it, Adams fares much better on a middling Elongated Man story for the legendary Gardner Fox, complete with deathless dialogue like, “Crooks who steal together… Have their downfall together!” Adams seems a bit more engaged here, and his Elongated Man stretches and bends all over the page. The facial expressions probably give the story more energy than it strictly deserves.

And coupled with one of my faves, Nick Cardy, on a three-part Teen Titans tale that makes virtually no sense whatsoever, Adams really starts to cut loose. Monsters, bizarre extra-dimensional aliens, filthy hippies and what may be the first appearance of the classic Adams “I’m lecturing you while pointing upward” panel. This, apparently, was something of a rushed job with an interesting backstory of its own. Writers Len Wein and Marv Wolfman attempted to introduce an African American superhero with a lot of political stridency and it blew the Madison Avenue minds of those uptight reactionary-type plastic toy soldiers at DC. Adams had to step in and give the character Jericho a bleach job (along with many of the supporting characters) and name change to Joshua after Cardy had about twenty-three pages finished. Eventually Wein and Wolfman returned to DC so all’s well that ends well… I suppose.

All this and lots of covers and promotional art as well, pencil layouts for a Superman story where Supes fights pollution, plus sketches for his early 90’s Robin redesign and a misfire of a Batman costume.

It’s all been re-colored except for one sequence nostagicially reshot from printed magazines. Here’s one area where Adams has improved a great deal recently. His touch-ups on the Batman Illustrated books served mostly to muddy the artwork and hide all the fine lines and crosshatching characteristic of classic Adams. This time around the colors are less modeled and not nearly so obtrusive. The war stories suffer the most from dropped lines; I’m guessing this is because they had to rely on inadequate source material—photocopies or damaged negatives from reprints.

Which brings me at long last to the book's weak points— this is the first volume consisting of late 60s/early 70s stuff; why then are there some anachronistic elements like his 9/11 tribute included? This seems to be an inevitable conceptual flaw. Perhaps throwing in another complete story or two would have thrown off the content in the next couple of books. And because this is strictly Neal Adams work, some of this stuff is fragmentary and without context—we get the Adams-drawn wraparound segment from a Justice League of America issue and two pages from Mark Evanier’s and Sergio Aragones' Fanboy comic where Adams pokes fun at himself.

So don’t go into it expecting extended epics. If you want something to sit down and read over a long, lazy afternoon, you should probably look elsewhere. Here’s hoping putting Adams’ latter-day promo and "cameo" work in this book means volume 3 will include the entirety of the awesome Superman versus Muhammad Ali. That by itself would justify this set.

That and The Adventures of Jerry Lewis.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Spookey Month: Former Prime Minster Koizumi Junichiro's Silver Mane to Inspire Ultraman to Greater Heights of Heroism

It's not very frightening news-- unless you're completely phobic about controversial and charismatic retired prime ministers-- but Koizumi Junichiro will provide the voice for Ultraman King, mentor of the Ultras, in the upcoming release Dai-Kaiju Battle: Ultra Ginga Densetsu, The Movie (Great Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legend, The Movie).

This is, if its title is to be believed, a movie of some sort. I'm guessing it features monster battles. Perhaps even great ones.

In other entertainment news, Mr. Koizumi's incredible swept-back hair has been signed to a multi-album deal by SonyMusic.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Spookey Month: 13 Great Halloween Reads... and Jeffrey!

Here’s a list containing an unlucky 13 or so books-- okay, I cheat throughout the list so it's way more than 13-- to keep you shivering all October. Read them around sunset as the dark, bruised tree shadows lengthen and the sun sits above the horizon like a fat orange jack-o-lantern, with the world poised between the sunlight of reality and the twilight of some ineffable mystery…

1) Essential Tomb of Dracula volumes 1-4, by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer plus others. It’s the Lord of the Undead himself, the veritable king of Halloween. The fourth volume features some occasionally dodgy stories from the b&w Dracula Lives! and The Tomb of Dracula magazines, and the others have some hit-or-miss tales from the “Giant Size” comics Marvel put out, just Chris Claremont doing some Lovecraft pastiches and tossing in Dracula to justify them. They only serve to interrupt the flow of the monthly narrative; the hot, delicious blood running through the first three books consists of stories from the regular series. Wolfman’s prose purples ever so delightfully and Colan and Palmer work atmospheric magic that looks better in black and white than it ever did in that cheap four-color process they used back in the day.

2) Swamp Thing volumes 1-4 by Alan Moore and others. You know all about these, right? Just a couple of years after a low-budget Wes Craven movie dud, Alan Moore takes our ol' pal Swamp Thing down the strange, soggy paths of his fertile imagination. The first book opens with the classic “Anatomy Lesson” and closes with the genuinely scary “A Time of Running,” about a freaky demon-monkey that feeds on fear. Volume 3 has the Halloween-perfect stories where Swamp Thing learns he’s been charged with saving the planet from doom and has to fight a city of underwater vampires and a menstruating werewolf in a supermarket. Volume 4 has an atmospheric haunted house tale that doubles as an anti-gun screed and still has room for an apocalypse. After that, the series becomes more weird romantic fantasy.

3) Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 3. As far as superheroes go, Batman is made for Halloween. And this book has the atmospheric but somewhat self-indulgent “Night of the Reaper,” the Halloween-themed classic where Batman and Robin go to Rutland, Vermont and experience the fun of the annual Rutland Halloween Parade. Turns out Robin’s college pals are all DC staffers or freelancers and Batman gets to attend one of super-fan Tom Fagan’s legendary Halloween parties.

The 2007 Rutland Parade:

4) Museum of Terror volumes 1, 2 and 3 by Junji Ito A rarity among horror comics—stories that will scare the living hell out of you! Ito Junji is a horror master. If you can find these books, you’ll meet Tomie, the girl whose beauty drives men to murder. Lots of really repulsive short stories that will make you shudder. These are out of print, so if you get to read them consider yourself lucky. And warned.

5) Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell and Richard Corben. A collection of Hellboy short stories and the two-part "Makoma" illustrated by Corben. Any Hellboy trade will do, actually. I just happen to have this one within easy grabbing distance.

6) EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt volumes 1 and 2. You can’t go wrong with these wicked horror tales. They’re so nasty they caused the creation of the Comics Code Authority. But they’re also funny and occasionally amazingly advanced in terms of social consciousness. In a pinch, Vault of Horror will suffice. Or any of the EC Archives books; they all feature art by such giants as Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, Johnny Craig and others. Warning though—they may be over 50 years old but they do not stint on the gore.

7) Uzumaki volumes 1-3 by Junji Ito More Ito nastiness. In these stories, a seaside town falls victim to the increasing horror of… the spiral. Ito succeeds where HP Lovecraft failed—making geometry scary. Your blood will congeal as you watch a slothy high school boy turn into a giant snail, a man so obsessed with spirals he throws himself into a washing machine to become one, the joys of giving birth turn obscene and the catastrophic finale as nature’s ultimate spiral—the typhoon—visits devastation on the hapless citizens of the town.

8) The Best of HP Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. Speaking of Lovecraft... His prose is leaden and he overuses adjectives like "hideous," "loathsome" and "foetid" in a vain attempt to scare the bejeezus out of you. And there must be something somewhere in the universe that isn’t out to drag the Earth off to some nameless dimension for sinister purposes. Imagine if Lovecraft had scripted E.T.: Elliott would have ended up in an insane asylum and the guy with the keys would be narrating the story in a stentorian tone that leeches all tension save for those overworked descriptive terms. But the ideas behind the stories are wonderfully bizarre-- evil elder gods and strange cults devoted to them, alien races hidden in the hills and mountains of New England. Lovecraft, along with Jack Kirby, Kurosawa Akira and J.R.R. Tolkein, is one of the most ripped-off... er... homaged popular artists of the 20th century. Why not see where it all comes from? Standouts include "The Dunwich Horror" in which the monstrous Wilbur Whateley attempts to deliver our world to invisible presences from another dimension; "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" where we learn the secret origin of Tori Spelling; and "The Call of Cthulhu," where an intrepid investigator puts together various accounts from eyewitnesses, newspaper articles and diaries to catch a glimpse of something best left unseen.

9) Showcase Presents House of Mystery/House of Secrets by Various. These interchangeable volumes are like watered-down EC, but you can’t go wrong with the artist line-up. Alex Toth, Nestor Redondo, Neal Adams, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Bernie Wrightson and more. Salted among a lot of Code-neutered “horror,” you’ll find a few classics like "The Demon Within" in House of Mystery volume 2. In this Jim Aparo-illustrated story, a little boy with a special talent freaks out his family of suburban conformists and an authoritarian surgeon. The final panel chilled me the first time I read it at the comic spinner rack as a child. It still does!

10) Creepy Archives volume 1 by Various. The classic Warren horror magazine reprinted in super-expensive format. The art-- especially the Frank Frazetta covers-- is unimpeachable, the stories less so. But it’s still retro-fun. This is probably true of the Eerie reprints, as well.

11) Salem’s Lot by Steven King. The novelist’s second book, when he was still hungry. A rippingly good yarn about how the banal evils of a small town enable a vampire to lay its collective soul to waste.

12) Hardboiled/Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto. Two novellas. The first provides its protagonist with a sort of supernatural catharsis. Along with Yoshimoto’s trademark spare prose and subdued emotionalism, it features some Lovecraftian touches. Yoshimoto admits to having a Stephen King influence in her writing.

13) Dracula by Bram Stoker. The original 1897 novel; it still holds up well today. Told in epistolary style (that is, through letters, diary entries and even newspaper clippings), its familiarity shrinks its fright-quotient down to nothing. But Stoker’s prose is vigorous enough to make Dracula a vivid, fast-paced read over 100 years after its publication and endless adaptation into various media.

Jeffrey) October Country or From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury. The former is a short story collection and the latter is a short story collection masquerading as a novel. October Country has "The Small Assassin," which anticipates Stewie Griffin by about five decades. Family Guy, have you no original ideas whatsoever? The Elliots of Indiana in From the Dust Returned will remind you of the Addams Family; there's a reason for that. It contains ample amounts of Bradbury's poetic prose, especially in the heartbreaking "The April Witch" and the tender "Uncle Einar." Nothing stays, everything goes!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Spookey Month: 20th Century Boys... the Movie Trailer!

Because a mysterious millennial cult spreading biological terror is pretty scary stuff, right? This is the trailer for the first film in a trilogy adapting Urasawa Naoki's sci-fi mystery manga 20th Century Boys.

The third and final film was released here in Japan in August 2009 and made quite a stir. I'm not sure when the films will be released in North America, but the English translation of the Urasawa's manga series is available from Viz Media in a large and quite cool-looking edition. I just bought volume 2-- I didn't look closely enough at the cover; the interior art was so striking I got too excited about buying it and didn't know I'd bought the wrong one until after I'd read halfway through it!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Totally Unrelated to Spookey Month: Kodansha to Publish in the US!

This isn't particularly scary-- unless you're one of those unfortunate mangaphobes-- and it has nothing to do with celebrating Halloween but it is cause for personal celebration. According to a story on Publishers Weekly, Japanese comic publishing giant Kodansha plans to partner with Random House and publish comics directly for the US market. Apparently, this won't affect the publishers who have already licensed Kodansha properties.

Well, other than TokyoPop, it seems.

As a comic book internationalist, I'm happy to have another major comic book player entering the field. I've never understood the "us vs. them" mentality of a lot of comic book fans, especially in these troubled times. These are comics, baby, comics! Kodansha will launch with their classic titles Akira and Ghost in the Shell-- I haven't read Akira but Ghost is superior to just about every offering from Marvel and DC without the word "Watch" in the title for the past 20 years or so. If you took Alan Moore and gave him the art chops of Moebius, you'd have Shirow Masamune.

Actually, Ghost in the Shell is a book I recommend to all my Philip K. Dick/Neal Stephenson/William Gibson non-comic book reading fans in the same sentence as Watchmen.

And I don't know if this will even succeed. Kodansha has probably done a lot of feasibility studies and aren't going into this blind. And they certainly don't need my inexpert advice, just my financial support. The interview accompanying the story includes this tidbit:

PWCW: Are you concerned over the state of the economy and its effect on the manga market?

Yoshio Irie: Yes and no. Any publisher of print product anywhere should be concerned over the state of the economy right now. In the short term, for the manga market in the U.S., it has meant that the strong growth of recent years has slowed and reached a plateau. In Japan, publishers have, over many years, developed and changed manga formats and pricing to suit changing markets. Manga also evolves on a creative level, and it isn’t just what you see being sold in stores right at this moment. We’re confident that in the long term there’s room for more growth.

Obviously, I'm no comic market analyst, but I have lived through several pop culture boom-busts. The initial video game craze, for example. Initial excitement that ended in a glut of inferior product and a collapse. The independent comic boom-bust of the 1980s. Same deal. The "new universe" boom-bust in the 1990s, fueled by Image and Valiant. Suddenly everyone was doing superhero universes. Where are these publishers and their characters now? As the manga growth phase in America seems to have reached its peak, is Kodansha entering a manga marketplace that's reached a similar implosion point?

I'm sure there will be lots of speculation and expert analysis in the days to come.

Still, it's a major player entering the US market in a major way so I'm excited.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Totally Unrelated to Spookey Month: Paul Pope vs. Paul Atreides

In a titanic clash of two mythic Pauls, THB writer/artist Paul Pope (yeah, he's done other stuff but I really dig me some THB) takes on intergalactic space messiah/part-time sandworm wrangler Paul Muad'Dib. The only flaw in this gorgeous page is Pope's eccentric spelling "M'uad Dib." Pesky apostrophe! Whenever I type Muad'Dib's name (which is surprisingly often), I always have to do a half dozen or so Google searches to make sure I put it in the right spot.

Better than spelling it "Maude'Findlay," I suppose.

Pope's commentary on the piece also contains his observations on how to deal with a page in the "Wednesday Comics" format-- you know, based on what he learned from working on that series from DC. I love when the top art people explain technical things like that. Do you?

What really jazzes me about Paul Pope doing this is... I finished reading Frank Herbert's Dune just a couple of weeks ago. I've read it a few times since 1984 when the campy David Lynch movie came out. Everyone complained at the time how difficult it was to follow the plot. I had no problem, and I immediately became both a Dune and a David Lynch fan. Later I realized what a mess the movie is, but I still love the art direction. I tried to watch the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation a few years ago but quit because I found myself thoroughly hating the costume designs and much prefering Kyle MacLachlan's portrayal of Paul Atreides/Muad'Dib to whoever that guy is on the TV version. TV Paul reminds me too much of Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers and the costumes look like something out of a video for Styx's Kilroy Was Here concept album.

Pope writes he based his designs on "paintings John Schoenherr did for an illustrated edition of Dune published by Berkley Books in 1977." I have no idea about that; Pope obviously knows what he's talking about. I like the vaguely Moebius-esque look to the linework and the Lynchian take on the Fremen's stillsuits; they look cool in black with the nose plugs. Those exposed faces show poor water discipline, though.

Plus, Pope's Muad'Dib looks a little like Kyle MacLachlan, and I'm in favor of that.

I love these moments of pop culture synchronicity. And that Paul Pope enjoys Dune as much as I do, if not more. Here's hoping the Herbert estate puts him to work on an adaptation of the novel as soon as possible!

PS-- I learned of this from Heidi MacDonald's blog entry over at The Beat. If wormsign credit can go to Duke Leto Atreides, then we should also acknowledge the original spotter of this li'l piece of coolness.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Spookey Month: "All Hallows" From Twisted Tales #1

Back in the old days, before any of you were born, there suddenly appeared these new upstart, upscale comic book companies with names like First, Aardvark-Vanaheim and Pacific. Pacific printed their comics—which were pricey for the times at $1.50 a pop—on state-of-the-art Baxter paper. What is Baxter paper?

I didn’t know then, and and I don’t know now. I only know it was whiter than newsprint and made the comics printed on it look better than their shabby convenience store-dwelling cousins.

It was probably during this time I first began to drift away from the mainstream; thanks to the husband-wife owners of our local comic book store, I learned about books like American Flagg!, E-Man, Groo the Wanderer, Elric of Melnibone and… when I dared… I read Pacific’s gruesome Twisted Tales, written and edited by masterful horror scribe Bruce Jones and illustrated by some of the top talent of the day—Alfredo Alcala, Mike Ploog, Richard Corben, John Bolton, Val Mayerik, Rand Holmes and even Doug “Jonny Quest” Wildey.

The stories in Twisted Tales mostly copied the old EC Comics formula, which is a pretty good source from which to swipe your story format. Lots of twist endings and poetic justice comeuppances. Every once in a while Jones would break the mold and do something truly disturbing like “Banjo Lessons,” the controversial story told in a series of flashbacks each more detailed than the last until the awful truth stands fully revealed. And my personal favorite, “Me an’ Ol’ Rex,” a bucolic tale of a dirt-stupid country boy and his pet dinosaur and the various stereotypical assholes he feeds to it, only the dinosaur turns out to be his grandfather. As Daniel Plainview might say, “There will be blood.”

And lots of it.

By the way, did he say that in the movie? Or did he just drink milkshakes?

Ah, forget it.

There are gallons of blood. And lots of sex, too. EC sometimes featured some tame cheesecake, especially in their sci-fi books. Twisted Tales has boobies galore and delightful ideas such as a rotten, foul-smelling corpse screwing its murderous wife one last time before murdering her in turn. Twisted Tales is pretty heavy on the "shrewish or sluttish woman henpecks or otherwise emasculates the innocent man" trope, too. I wouldn't mention this, but there are a lot of awful women in these stories, occasionally two an issue. Why do horror and sci-fi stories, which might otherwise be charming, truck so much with that kind of demeaning junk?

That aside, one of the coolest stories is "All Hallows," from Twisted Tales #1. It opens with some high school juniors as they self-consciously set about trick-or-treating one Halloween night. One by one they gather, a devil, a hobo, a skeleton and then bitch about having to walk across town to collect their friend Skeeter.

Colorist Steve Oliff bathes the pages in autumnal hues, and Tim Conrad's art has a fun, atmospheric quality. Dark shadows and fall leaves blowing about. Using four archetypal Halloween costumes for the main characters adds to the Halloween feel. There’s almost something comical about Binky Bradshaw with his pimpled face and his chubby body squeezed into the undersized devil suit. He even plays devil’s advocate at the outset, questioning the necessity of this yearly tradition now that the boys are all in high school. But soon enough he’s stuffing his face with doughnuts and all objections are forgotten.

The comedic aspect presented by these unlikely trick-or-treaters unravels as soon as they visit the first house. The woman who answers the door proclaims her innocence. Not your usual Halloween response. In my day, the rednecks we visited didn't shriek, "Oh! Oh my God! W-what do you want of me?" as soon as we appeared; they just took potshots at us with their snub-nosed .38s.

At this point, you know something is not as it seems. The kids collect Skeeter, who waits for them by the cemetery gates. Silent beneath his ghost costume, Skeeter completes the set and the group proceeds to spook the bejeezus out of various people. One wild-eyed old man declares them to be "monsters" and berates them for terrorizing the neighborhood. At the last house, a distraught father offers up his young son Eddie to the gang. And we learn the secret. It turns out they’re not only gathering candy and cakes, but they’re also on a mission of vengeance. Seven years before, some Halloween pranksters burned down Skeeter’s house…

And Skeeter didn’t survive. Each Halloween the boys have gone from house-to-house, visiting Skeeter's vengeance on the hapless children responsible. Now Eddie is their final victim. You might wonder why the town allows them to do this—well, apparently, someone once tried to stop them and it ended badly. Jones elaborate, but it's enough he hints at it and allows your imagination to do the rest.

Beyond Skeeter's presence, the story hints at some supernatural compulsion that motivates the boys. They wear the same costumes each year, proceed according to a set route. Yet they seem so normal, and there's the hard-won acquiesence of the families which makes it all the more eerie and terrible. Eddie seems a bit young to have done anything particularly dastardly seven years before, even as a tag-along. He could only have been five years old or so. And it’d be nice to have some sort of explanation as to why the boys didn’t just kill all the jerks that first Halloween instead of drawing it out so long.

But then we wouldn’t have a story and we’d have to do without Conrad‘s drawings of Bradford bursting out of his costume and the awkward spectacle of these trick-or-treaters who should’ve long outgrown the tradition. Well, the regular one, not their own nastier sort. And we get a nice panel showing Skeeter’s face in all its rotted gory… er… glory just before the kids set fire to little Eddie in the ruins of the burned out house. It also ends on a somewhat poignant note.

All-in-all, a wicked little Halloween treat.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Spookey Month: So Much For Mr. Aso's State-Run Manga Cafe!

This is gonna be a scary post, kids! The scariest! You'll probably barf up all your kiddy cereal that you eat in the mornings, not expecting to be so scared by posts like this one!


See, kids, Japan's last prime minster, Mr. Taro Aso, was one of the scariest imaginable creatures alive-- he was a comic book fan! Isn't that scary? A horrible, terrible, flesh-eating comic book fan who probably didn't brush his teeth and spent all his time reading comic books and... and... running the country of Japan! Which is a very scary place where giant, radioactive monsters crush buildings and breath radioactive fire!


Anyway, Mr. Aso loved comics so much he wanted to use government money to build a kind of museum for manga and anime. That's Japanese for "comics" and "cartoons." See how scary Mr. Aso was? But in the last election-- which was probably held in a haunted house on some stormy night somewhere in Transylvania or even in... you know... Japan-- Mr. Aso's party, the LDP, lost big time. The new party, the DPJ, took over everything. Everything! Like... like zombies! Like brain-eating zombies, taking over Japan, lumbering down the streets of Japan, devouring... you know... eating people's brains and building coalitions, passing laws and rejiggering... budgets... and all those scary things governments do.

So what did this scary party do? They cancelled plans for Mr. Aso's manga museum!

See? Wasn't that scary, kids? When the Japanese government changed? That was terrifying, I tell you. Okay, okay, maybe it wasn't the scariest thing, this post. Really... it's probably a bit of a let-down. But I promise you my next post will be so scary you probably won't sleep for a week. Or more! Maybe you'll never sleep again! And you'll walk around all bleary eyed... like a zombie! Yes! You'll become a zombie yourself! Won't that be scary, kids? Joining the legions of the undead as a zombie?