Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Savage Sword of Coraline

This morning the delivery guy-- middle aged, tousled black hair, short and stocky, all bundled up against the late winter rains but as cheerful as ever-- just dropped off my most recent purchases: Coraline, adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel by P. Craig Russell and The Savage Sword of Conan volume one, reprinted by Dark Horse from the old Marvel b&w magazine, apparently beloved by our president.

At first glance? Coraline is gorgeous. P. Craig Russell draws the mundane as beautifully as he draws the fantastic, and this story seems to allow one to bleed into the other. A very handsome book; I can't wait to dig in and get to reading it. This is the kind of book I'm generally talking about when I talk about "comics." A book book. Hardcover, nice slipcover, a self-contained story of the kind you could give to just about any non-comic reader and say, "Check this out and let me know what you think."

There's an odd visual dissonance to this book, though. When you see the animated movie Coraline, and it's all stylized and cartoony and moodily lit, something like black buttons for eyes creates a different effect than when you see the same concept rendered semi-realistically and frozen on the page in fairly brightly-colored comic book panels. Not that this is a bad thing; it's just really creepy. The pages with "Other Mother" give me same queasy feeling even the mild moments in those old Clive Barker short stories used to. Other Mother looks disconcertingly like Tea Leoni, as well.

But wow, what a lovely book.

The Savage Sword of Conan is an obese, economical volume with a lot of fantastic artists trapped inside its pages. Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema (frequently inked here by Pablos Marcos), Neal Adams, Jim Starlin and... strangely enough... Alex Nino, an artist whose work I've always admired but never associated with sword and sorcery. The most breathtaking pages are the ones where Alfredo Alcala inks Buscema. As a team, they blow all the other couplings apart. It looks like fine book illustration, lots of etching-style fine line work. Wondrous. Windsor-Smith's work doesn't fare as well. A lot of the lines just don't seem to have reproduced well here, and I'm guessing they didn't have the resources to gather the original artwork (if it still exists) and instead shot from old issues of the magazine itself, losing some resolution in the process. Too bad. It's not enough to wreck the whole book, unless you're pretty exacting. And I'm not. Not all the time, anyway.

The Boris Vallejo cover painting is about what you'd expect if you grew up in the 70s era of custom vans and airbrushed murals-- sun-bronzed Conan looks fierce in his horned helmet, wielding a blood-splattered scimitar while a nearly-naked woman in chains kneels helplessly behind him. They appear to be in two different light-sources, which is certainly intentional on Vallejo's part, and there's a mighty phallic spire rising directly behind the woman in what must be some blatant sexual symbolism. It's easy to admire the technique but then feel more than a little uncomfortable the subtext. Or, in this case, the text. It's not exactly subtle.

I noticed on a few hardcore Savage Sword and/or Conan fans criticizing this book for not being of archival quality. I can understand their point of view; I'm just not as into it or in the same way as they are. I dig this old stuff, but it's also the sort of material I prefer to get at a low cost (bear in mind I'm paying inflated import prices here in Japan, too, even with the more favorable exchange rate I'm getting these days).

In the U.S., you can get three of these fat bastards for under forty bucks and considering the page count (over 1500) and the artists represented, that's a freakin' bargain. And I seriously wish Dark Horse would do the same thing for the Marvel-Curtis Planet of the Apes magazine. "Terror on the Planet of the Apes" and the "Future History Chronicles" are just begging for reprints. The world must see these again! Do it big and cheap, just like Savage Sword and I'll love you for days.

With money!

The other book I received is Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago. According to the cover copy, Military Bookman has declared this to be "the best Patton biography," and it's one of the sources for the classic 1970 George C. Scott film. But it's beyond the scope of this li'l comic book blog...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"If I Ran DC" by Dr. Seuss, Jr.: My Dan Didio Power Fantasy Gone Horribly Awry...

My plan vould necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous comic book
reader relationship... Regrettable, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the sequentially-obsessed segment of the human race.

Recently, over at Occasional Superheroine, Valerie D'Orazio asked her readers what they would do if they were in charge of DC. I answered her there, but my response was off the cuff and under-developed. And who wants to write a novel-length comment to someone’s blog? So, because no one demanded it, I’m expanding my answer and developing it further right here in my own li’l secret corner of the comics fan blogosphere.

Where no one will ever see it.

My strategy is threefold. First of all, I'm not at all worried about alienating and losing longtime comics readers as I am interested in tapping the potential market for people who haven't been reading them. Current readership for these kinds of mainstream products is a shell of what it was in the 1990s and I think that's a state of affairs that has to be addressed rather than accepted as the norm. Actually, I can't imagine putting out a product where you're merely interested in carving a piece out of a very limited demographic, accepting gains and losses on a temporary, short term scale, when ideally you should be attempting to increase the overall pool of consumers for a healthier industry overall. And greater profits for your shareholders. Secondly, I think slavish adherence to long term continuity-- and especially the current form of "company-wide crossover"-- can, and often does, cripple creative storytelling. And thirdly, as we all know, currently there are also major economic considerations.

Basically, I want to build readership, cut costs, increase profitability and produce better quality stories. Those are my primary concerns.

I can't take full credit (or blame as the case may be) for these ideas. Some were suggested by others at Occasional Superheroine and I latched onto them because they fit my strategy and just seemed like excellent ideas.

1) Digital Comics. Nothing new here. This has been bandied about forever, and I think the time is ripe. My initial plan was to phase out the monthlies entirely and end the overall "DC Universe narrative" completely, as dinosaurs who have been obsoleted by evolution but still haven't realized they're extinct. Then someone else suggested digital comics, and it seemed a worthy compromise: Put the monthlies online-- offering them in full color-- instead of printing them on paper.

In this way, we could placate the current readers by keeping their precious ongoing DC narrative and save everyone a lot of money which will help appeal to new readers. After all, 3.99 is a ridiculous amount to pay for a flimsy 24-page comic book, no matter how glossy the pages or overworked the computer coloring. Already newspapers are starting to abandon print editions in favor of strictly online content. Like it or not, this kind of change is rapidly becoming commonplace, especially in the current economy. You either control your fate and extend your life, or the marketplace buries you.

To go digital, we'd have to figure out which online model works best. Free stuff with advertising (similar to The Onion), or subscription stuff you could download. A Kindle-style system available through Or a combination of all of those methods. As editor-in-chief or CEO, it wouldn't be up to me to come up with the delivery system; that's what I'd be paying others to do. Believe me, we'd come up with something workable.

Failing that, I'd employ...

2) The Manga-esque Solution. The other idea, which is one that I sort of half-assedly wrote about at Occasional Superheroine and Torsten Adair fleshed out brilliantly, is combine all the monthlies into massive Shonen Jump-style phonebooks. I like this idea more than the digital comics one, but both could be linked together.

In the interval between my comment and Torsten's, I thought more about this and came up with a variation on what he suggested. I’d do two of these!

One, I’d call The Brave and the Bold and it’d have all of DC’s second tier characters. The other I’d call World’s Finest and it would feature Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman plus the Flash and Green Lantern or some other front rank character that fits. There'd be all kinds of reader involvement items too... fan profiles and drawings (an in-print DeviantART, if you will), creator info, contests, connections to our online content. Things that make readers feel involved with the company, part of a culture.

I’d have these books printed on super-cheap paper, in black and white with just a few color pages, and they’d be completely disposable, which would also solve the storage problem. My idea is for the reader to read it then recycle it. Recycle, recycle, recycle. Good for the environment.

Shonen Jump hits readers with over three hundred pages of material for 4.99. If we kept production costs down we could probably price these things at 7.99 each for five hundred pages. Under ten dollars, anyway.You’d get all your seventy-odd years of continuity and massive crossovers, but they’d be all in two easily affordable books. And they wouldn’t come out on the same day. One would come out the second week of the month and the other on the fourth.

These would be the place for all your journeyman writers and artists and all the pedestrian ongoing DC universe narrative junk I’m about as interested in as I am in following the storylines of Days of Our Lives. Maybe work a superstar in there once in a while in case things get boring, but the idea would be to tell the stories efficiently… and cheaply. And, as Torsten Adair also wrote, these could be colored and offered online a la point the first above, and collected into trades.

I know this is problematic. Some people prefer to buy twenty color magazines they can hold in their hands each month, damn the costs. There's also tradition and comic readers seem notoriously reluctant to mess with the familiar. Still, I believe they'd gripe and complain and go Internettishly ballistic, and then they'd come back.

They might not like sharing their little pop culture esoterica with a few hundred thousand or more new readers who are part of the heathen uninitiated, but eventually new alliances would be formed and they'd have a larger pool from which to draw their lynch mobs and effigy-burners whenever we screwed up their favorite characters.

Retailers would probably hate this, too. These manga-style books would be big, bulky products. Difficult to display, difficult to store. But I imagine they’d hate not having any comics in their shops at all even more, if we went entirely digital. Oh, and I suppose it would also kill the back-issue collectible market as we know it.

Still, I think the trade-offs are more than worth it.

3) The Kirby Book Model. Now we come to the meat. The entrée, if you will. The big hamburger a la Grant Morrison. Jack Kirby should get credit for this because he posited something similar in interviews years ago when he was doing his Fourth World stuff at DC.

The other thing I’d do in conjunction with these changes is to start printing stand-alone creator-driven graphic novels, just like a real book publisher. In these, there'd be no company-wide continuity and they could be in any style or take place in any era. For example, when you buy a Dan Brown novel you don’t expect it to relate to one of John Grisham's. Why do comics automatically have to be interrelated to the point of forcing buyers to buy 20 books a month just to keep up?

Here’s how it’d work: You’re an industry leading writer and/or artist. The toppermost of the poppermost, as the lads from Liverpool used to say. You have an idea for a great story featuring Superman. You pitch it. If I like it, we publish it as a book. You’re not bound by page counts or someone else’s massive epic. It would involve abandoning continuity as we know it, and the emphasis would be on the story and how you tell it rather than its place in some enormous yet turgid narrative involving seventy years of people flying around in tights punching each other. The only continuity that would matter would be the story’s internal continuity.

And the sky would the limit on plot, tone and subject matter. If your Superman story involves his grisly demise, then so be it. Why should that interfere with another writer’s graphic novel about Superman the super-dog catcher? You want to write a Barbara Gordon Batgirl story? Fantastic! We’ll put it on the schedule alongside the Cassandra Cain book. Adult, juvenile, whatever. We’ll sort that out on the cover and make sure it gets into the right part of the bookstore.

From inception to final product, these would be handled exactly like prose novels. The only difference would be the sequential artwork.

The idea would be to get these babies on the New York Times Best Sellers list, sell a few million, have complete, self-contained stories that could then be optioned off to Hollywood (or not, if you don’t think it should be) and everyone can have a big slice o’ the pie.

That’s what I’d do if I ran DC Comics.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Let's Celebrate Xi'an Coy Manh Why Don't We?

Karma. Besides being the thing that snaps back on you when you do bad things and controls the fate of Earl J. Hickey on My Name is Earl, Karma is the codename of that nearly forgotten yet quintessential New Mutant, Xi'an (Shan) Coy Manh. She is older than the other New Mutants, a bit uptight, and with her dumpy bob style, has the group’s third worst haircut… next to Rahne’s pre-Sinead buzzcut and Sam's yokel... er... buzzcut.

Shan's hair was so central to her character concept,
Chris Claremont has the team's ballet teacher Stevie
Hunter spend the first two pages of issue 1 giving her
a haircut and washing her hair while all the other kids
watch and make fun.

I think subconsciously, Claremont must’ve hated Shan. Which is why we must love her.

Along with Dani Moonstar, Shan generally gets the worst of Chris Claremont’s dialogue. But while Dani says exciting and stilted things like, “Oh, Black Eagle, why didn't you tell me?! We could have faced them together! Whoever they are, I will make them pay for your life. I will have vengeance," Shan says dull and yet equally stilted things like, “All this sounds wonderful, Professor, but I have a problem. I must care for my brother and sister. Between my job and your school, I shall have no time left for them.”

Significantly, we never actually see her brother or sister, or anything of Shan's life outside the team. For all we know, her siblings don't even exist and are just an excuse for her to get the hell away from Chris Claremont from time to time.

A typical Dani moment. In his 1980s prime,
Chris Claremont thought 14-year-old Native
American girls talked like this. Well, to be fair,
Claremont thought everyone talked like this...
except hicks and foreigners.

Even in his best stories (and he wrote some dandy ones back in the day), Chris Claremont’s characters are forever making pretentious self-justifying speeches-- or laboriously describing themselves and their recent histories in internal monologues-- that bear little or no relationship to things an actual human being would say in similar circumstances. There's no such thing as a "simple answer" in a Chris Claremont story.

Typical Shan moment. Look at Rahne's reaction. Even she can't believe
Chris Claremont is forcing Shan say all this in one panel. And "There's a
great deal she isn't telling us?" What the hell's left to tell? Well, it later
turns out there's one thing...

The only time they seem to have a voice apart from Claremont’s, or even each other’s, is when they’re from one a’ them funny-talkin’ countries in Europe and Asia. Like Nightcrawler, who speaks standard Claremontese but when startled exclaims things like “Unglaublich!” or “Mein Gott!” and Colossus, who goes around calling people “tovarisch,” and shouting “Lenin’s ghost!” Or Sam, who speaks in Claremont's idea of Southern redneck dialect... er... Appalachian English.

If they actually speak in a language other than English, they get less-than and greater-than signs around their dialogue… which is again in standard Claremontese… and an asterisk leading to a small caption where an editor informs the readers “*Dialogue translated from Japanese.” Saves money on translators and Cyrillic or katakana/kanji typefaces, I guess.

However, in Shan's case, when she speaks Vietnamese, they do away with the word balloons and mathematical symbols altogether and just have her pal Roberto say, "She's speaking Vietnamese-- I can't understand her!" I'm not kidding. That's how Claremont handles it.

Way to spectate Shan!

Almost... almost... come on, Shan! You can do it! She's either going to
possess that guy or pass a canteloupe trying!

Screw it! A machine gun is much more direct and effective than psychic
possession powers.

Or not.

Claremont allows Dani to expound on her Cheyenne heritage and possible vengeance against whitey; she just never does it in the Cheyenne language. Poor Shan appears to have learned English just to discuss her many responsibilities as a surrogate parent or to advocate "caution." With contrasting takes like that, Dani is so obviously the most interesting character, the one with the most personality, she quickly takes over New Mutants and pushes Shan to the side.

Probably because Claremont found Dani fascinating and Shan and her maturity boring, which is exactly how he wrote both of them.

Dani gets a cool subplot where she thinks
she's going crazy and Professor X is trying
to kill her. Shan gets a subplot about misplacing
her car keys.

I always think it’s funny when a writer complains about the boring characters they create. For example, Stan "The Man" Lee always compares Gwen Stacy unfavorably to Mary Jane Watson and apologetically concludes, “We just couldn’t make Gwen Stacy interesting.” Yeah... because that would require writing. But I pick on Mr. "The Man" because that’s the only example of this phenomenon I can come up with now, on the fly, without buying every back issue of Comic Scene magazine or The Comics Journal.

But there's really no objective proof Claremont ever felt this way about Shan; I’m just projecting unfairly because she seems so underserved as a character.

Yeah, Claremont features her prominently in the opening pages of #6,
but by the end of the issue some mysterious voice in her mind tells her,
"I have come to claim you, body and soul!" and she gets blown to hell
when Silver Samurai pushes a button on a festively colored death yacht.

No shit, Charlie! You ARE a psychic!

I like to poke a lot of fun at them, but I seriously believe the first four issues of The New Mutants are carved from a solid block of frozen amazing floated down from the Arctic amazing fields at great personal risk by wildcat amazing miners. Unfortunately, around issues #5 or #6, after the resolution of Dani's psychotic reaction plot, things grind to a halt with bizarre and lame-ass guest stars like Team America taking over the stories.

And, soon enough, what to do with drab ol' Shan-- at 19 she's already a legal adult and therefore not as exciting to undress... er... write about as the other New Mutants-- is solved handily when the secret villain base she's inside blows up real good, James Bond-style. Everyone mourns her for half the next issue before jetting off to Brazil so Dani can wear a sexy carnivale outfit… kind of odd and more than creepy considering her friend has just died a day or two before and Dani herself is maybe 15 at the time.

Her New Mutant friends mourn
Shan's tragic loss.

Then The New Mutants seemed to into a dull holding pattern with mediocre art and uninspiring storylines. I briefly dropped the title, feeling a sad for poor Shan and a little fannishly betrayed. Suddenly, fracturing my mind the way an exploding Mount St. Helens tore apart the earth's crust, Bill Sienkiewicz signed on as artist, reigniting my interest.

Splashing pints of black ink as if he were a brush-wielding Sweeney Todd, Sienkiewicz helps a reinvigorated Claremont send Dani into dreamland to kill a demon bear while Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo appearance. The stories become darker, with plots about black magic, drug abuse and teen runaways, insane kids with multiple personalties and-- in a sudden burst of cross-cultural confusion-- Dani becomes a valkyrie in Asgard because of her mystical, Native American connection to the animal kingdom (all Native Americans have mystical connections to nature, especially wolves and horses and winged faery folk... just ask the fine people at The Bradford Exchange)...

Dammit! Dani’s even taking over this blog entry! Shan! Come back, Shan!

Okay, deep breath and let's get back on chronological track to just before all the valkyrie junk happens...

Through the early Sienkiewicz issues, the voice in Shan's head remains unexplained, a completely fogotten subplot lost in a bubbling magical cauldron of dark Illyana-Dani team-up weirdness until the long-awaited The New Mutants #31, where Shan makes her triumphant return as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon:

What a fantastic cover. Interesting color palette, striking symbolism
of the story's plot, a little bit of Gustav Klimt thrown in to increase the
graphic interest... But wow! Isn't that the nastiest, cruelest caricature
possible? Shan looks horrible. She saw this and cried for days. The slanty
eyes and buck-teeth really disturb me. I think you can guess why.

It turns out poor, forgotten Shan has spent the intervening years as the psychic host for this nasty scumbag guy, who apparently used her body for a new lease on life. And to eat. To humiliate, confuse and complicate her even further, and maybe undo the physical damage, her friend Illyana accidentally teleports Shan to some kind of desert where she walks off her weight using the Jared Subway plan of one 6-inch sand lizard sub a day and some light aerobics.

Karma during the phase when her powers consisted solely of writing
Buffyverse Angel/Spike slash fic.

I’m not sure in what issue she had all the loose flesh surgically removed, but at the end of the process it was as if none of it had ever happened. Oh yeah, years later, she comes out as a lesbian, but I haven't actually read that story yet.

Evidently, at one point she suddenly also has pink hair and a devil-may-care attitude. While that might arguably be more interesting than how Claremont wrote her in The New Mutants, it seems pretty arbitrary and contrary to her original personality. Why couldn't they just acknowledge her timid past and write her as a smart, serious, sensible young gay woman... who is also interesting... and leave out the "dork-ass comic writer tries to understand hipster subculture" bullshit? Mainstream comics are never so uncool as when they self-consciously try to be cool.

She remains an underused character, and one undeservedly neglected even in the stories in which she appears. Maybe her new writer, Zeb Wells, will give her a little more of the spotlight she deserves. I don't know, but I hope so. All I know is, Dani's been depowered and Shan hasn't, but beyond that she's elusive and opaque, because info on Shan is difficult to come by.

Xi'an Coy Manh, Karma, as she currently appears pending the arrival
of the new The New Mutants series.

In fact, I probably more than trebled it just by writing this blog entry about her. Wherever you are, and in whatever form you return, Xi'an "Shan" Coy Manh… the forgotten mutant… we salute you!

Now, let's get back to talking about Dani…

Friday, February 20, 2009

And Then Dani Went All Weird On Us...

With the new... The New Mutants series forthcoming and a pre-order in with Amazon Japan for The New Mutants Classic volume four, I'm on sort of a Dani Moonstar kick again these days. The New Mutants was one awesome-ass series in its day, and it's still a fun read now, twenty-five or so years later. Dani was my favorite mutant then, and she remains so to this day. But now I want to broach a serious... perhaps even delicate... topic relating to her.

Why the hell did they keep changing her powers?

Take the events in The New Mutants Annual #4, for example. I'm not ready to blame writer Louise Simonson. Chris Claremont had already added a layer of ridiculous to Dani Moonstar, our Favorite Mutant, by pointlessly turning her into a valkyrie in The New Mutants Special Edition #1. This left Dani able to see a "death glow" above those in mortal peril and gave her as a pet Brightwind, a winged white stallion with a mohawk. Quite a bizarre turn of events for a Native American teen from a Colorado reservation, a kind of cross-cultural fusion that fizzled.

And the X-editorial group still wasn't satisfied. Because as a result of the so-called "Evolutionary War," Dani's powers take an even stranger turn. And it starts with a cover pulling the "ol' bait and switch." Or, as Waylon Jennings might have said while narrating an episode of the Dukes of Hazard, a little "shuckin' n' jivin'."

Purple rain... purple rain... I just wanna see Amara screaming in the purple rain...

Well, the cover copy is correct: a New Mutant is changed forever. But it's not Amara. Her appearance is just a clever deception. So sneaky! But this cover is ugly. Ugly! It's so unbearably purple I'm looking around for a little bald kid with a crayon. And if he didn't do the colors, who did? Prince? Yellow, red and various shades of lavender and purple, and some kind of green dentist tool dangling there in the middle. Prince after eating about five pounds of habanero-laced guacamole.

June Brigman is generally a fine artist. But here? This cover is kind of slick, the open spaces and lack of contrast make her figures look weirdly hollow and the poses aren't very dynamic. But the real problem is the design team didn't do her any favors by weighing it down with that massive title and text block above. How could any self-respecting artist pull off any kind of interesting composition when space is so cramped and badly cropped?

This is Marvel's late 80's look at its worst. Brigman's interior art, inked by New Mutants artist emeritus Bob McLeod, is much better. There she gets to showcase a deft touch with body language, facial expressions, and youthful characters. She and McLeod are the perfect art team for a New Mutants story.

The story inside is fairly standard, a mix of characterization and fight scenes. And people with dumb names like "Purge," foreshadowing some of the worst Image character codenames. But then what of Marvel in the '80s-- specifically the X-books-- didn't prefigure Image in the '90s?

Louise Simonson gives us reams of dialogue and a plethora of cutesy teen character business in the Chris Claremont style, and it's pretty decent stuff for its time. She was following the Great X-Creator, after all. Her dialogue is still overly awkward and largely expository ("In truth, I am more sickened by these humans' persecution than I am the hazardous waste which surrounds our domicile" and the examples in the illustrations I chose for this blog), but no more so than usual during its era, and not nearly as stilted or pretentiously poesy as Claremont's got on this title.

But lord, Simonson foreshadows like nobody's business.

As the story opens, there's some comedic relief where Dani's powers cause Sam to crashland while he's cannonballing around, and then the other kids interrupt, setting up this Magneto lecture:

Poor Dani. Magneto is pretty harsh with her here. While the art's "press box" composition looks a bit ridiculous (just how short are Magneto's legs anyway?), and there's a bad tangent where the upper panel border meets Dani's hair, Brigman puts the girl front and center where we can see and feel every bit of the awkwardness as Magneto calls her weak and worthless in front of her friends, followed by Warlock's innocently dismissive, "Bye..." making Dani's teen years just a little more traumatic.

But what's really happening with this sequence is Simonson giving us our first story clue after the cover's misdirection ploy. At this point, you still think something really terrible's going to happen to Amara. The kids discuss her repeatedly, worry about her plight (her dad's got her back in Nova Roma, the archaic Roman civilization hidden away in the Andes, where he's betrothed her to someone politically advantageous and she's in love with a guy may or may not have brainwashed her), and soon the scene shifts to Nova Roma itself where Amara's causing earthquakes and shooting lava in her anger.

And sure enough, some generic-looking armored assholes kidnap Amara. They're part of a plot to strip her and all mutankind of their powers. One mutant at a time. Evidently, their boss, the High Evolutionary (the purple armored geek on the cover), has some sort of schedule and if you're not on it, you just have to wait your turn. When the baddies snatch Amara, they leave her boyfriend Empath... because he's not on the list. With the way mutants were proliferating on Marvel-Earth in those days, going about their plan this way seems akin to trying to sweep the waves back into the sea with a pushbroom.

And isn't it comically easy to kidnap or disable the New Mutants? This is like the fouth annual in a row where one or more of them has been captured or held prisoner. That's a The New Mutants formula- they're easily defeated in the story's opening, then overcome all odds as a team in its conclusion. Kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon where the Globetrotters invariably lose in the first half, then score 100 points in the second to win.

No matter. The target is Amara, not Empath. Only it's Dani, during the rescue mission, who ends up falling onto the "power removal machine" (as it's actually called). I'm no geneticist, but it seems unlikely anyone could develop a machine to remove characteristics imparted to you by your DNA. At least not with this kind of lightshow:

It seems like extracting DNA-based powers would involve radically rewriting a person on practically a molecular level. It's like trying to change your height or remove your Dutch heritage. The short explanation is-- it's magic! Mutant powers are a kind of magical energy mutants possess, and that energy can be drained by other forms of magic. Science content of this annual? Zero!

Some plug-ugly muscle guy named Bulk breathes his last turning the power-removal lever back to the opposite setting. How convenient. You make a machine to remove mutant powers that also has a setting to amplify them. Dani comes forth with her former image-projecting abilities enhanced to the point where she can make those images solid and "real." But she can only make one thing at a time. Make another wish and the first object disappears. The best she can come up with on short notice is a spear she calls her "spirit lance.

Since the spirit lance is the embodiment of her power, she feels she has to tote it around everywhere on the off chance she'll need to fight evil or protect herself. This leads to a scene where she's bummed because it'll be a hassle dragging it to parties. And to clear her mind and forget her troubles, she hops on her living My Little Pony from Asgard and takes a flight in a lovely splash image:

The big red block letters frighteningly conflict with the otherwise dreamy atmosphere, but the soft sunrise (or sunset) and the bold sweep of Brightwind's wings, plus Dani's beatific expression give this image a lot of soul. A little adjustment and this might've made a better cover than that purple monstrosity I've already abused. While frolicking across a sky of pastel pinks and golds, Brightwind spots an available female horse and bucks Dani off, causing her to fall 1000 feet and... No more to use the sky forever but live with famine/And pain a few days...

Actually, she only sprains her ankle; Dani has supple bones. Not knowing where Brightwind is, and needing a way back to the X-Mansion, she changes her spirit lance into a sweet sportscar:

It would've been much cooler and more appropriate to the series if this car had been an exact replica of Thomas Magnum's Ferrari 308 GTS. Dani hops into the driver's seat and goes tear-assing down the road, and a cop pulls her over. Since she's out in the countryside, the cop is a stereotypical smokey-bear hatted oaf. Unfortunately, Dani doesn't have a driver's license. Wait! With her new powers, that's no problem. She can just summon one out of thin air:

Oops! Now the cop (I think it's Sheriff J.W. Pepper, on loan from the 1973 Bond film Live and Let Die) believes Dani's an alien and drags her to his patrol car. And then salvation arrives in the form of Brightwind the Horny Horse, back from making sweet sweet love to his lady friend. As if disappearing sports cars weren't enough to send him reeling, the sight of a winged horse causes the cop to freak out. Dani escapes into the sky once again:

And the driver's license incident has taught her that she doesn't need to carry around a giant spear. She can wear a cute little one around her neck. I'm not sure if all of this spear/lance/winged horse stuff is some sort of phallic/sexual metaphor. Actually, I am sure and I'm preparing a ten thousand word blog entry analyzing it, for which this is merely a preview.

As we fade out, big daddy Magneto finally has some kind words for worthless, useless, not very helpful Dani-- he likes her new necklace:


And exactly what we want most is more Dani Moonstar! And I think we're gonna get it!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Many Styles of Daffy Matsumoto

Daphne Matsumoto, known to her friends as Daffy, is one of the original protagonists along with Maggie, Hopey, Penny Century and Izzy in Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets epic "Locas." A Japanese-American from either a wealthy or at least upper middle class family, Daffy is kind of a hanger-on and interested observer, just outside the group's inner circle. At one point, she's important enough to rate a small headshot ("I love Curly!") among the strip's stars. But over the course of the series Daffy’s appearances grow more infrequent, and these days she appears to have dropped out of the current narrative altogether.

Major character or supporting player, like all of Jaime’s creations in this long-form tale, Daffy changes quite a bit visually during her fictional lifespan. And because Jaime uses the flashback technique pretty often in his stories, to fully document all of Daffy’s various styles, we have to begin with an image from late in volume one, during the “Wigwam Bam” storyline:

This is Daffy as she appears when she first meets Maggie and Hopey. Note Daffy’s Go-Go’s sweatshirt. The Go-Go’s began as a punk-related act but soon courted mainstream success with a softer, more pop-oriented New Wave/rock sound influenced by various girl groups of the 1960s. By giving her a more conventional suburban teen look, Jaime has visually marked Daffy as a softy within the social boundaries of the hardcore punk world Maggie and Hopey inhabit. Indeed, the two proceed to play a cruel trick on her, taking her to a house where she’s terrified and threatened with violent sexual intercourse by one of Jaime’s most outrĂ© minor characters, an angry female wrestling fan who sports hardcore S&M gear and a spiked… toy… of some kind.

Here you can see Daffy transition from naive teenybopper to only slightly less naive young woman in two panels marking the end of that sequence:

Despite her new friends' initial viciousness towards her—or because of it—Daffy becomes obsessed with Maggie and Hopey and allows them to use her and her rich girl trappings to their advantage.

Under their influence, Daffy quickly adopts an edgier image. With her hair bleached blonde and spiked wildly, she could almost be Hopey’s equal in terms of radical appearance. Here she is from one of the series’ earliest issues:

The stories from this era feature science fiction and superhero trappings. Maggie sometimes visits exotic, pulp mag-like locations while she pursues a career as a "pro-solar mechanic," helping the dashing Rand Race repair spaceships. Jaime frames these sequences with interludes depicting Daffy and Hopey as they hang out waiting for Maggie's latest letter from Zymbodia or parts unknown. One wonders if perhaps these letters are creative fancies on Maggie's part as she accompanies her aunt on professional wrestling junkets, or endures fractious family vacations.

During this period, Daffy's and Hopey's personal styles sometimes overlap. Here, they both appear to have shopped at the same secondhand store, heavy on 1950s items:

Turbulent Hopey and ditzy Daffy make for a strange, uneasy coupling. Fortunately, Hopey's self-interest and Daffy's need for some sort of connection and purpose in the group often coincide:

At other times, Hopey seems to delight in challenging or attacking Daffy's more Middle American hopes, dreams and aspirations. Here’s an image from "At the Beach," where Daffy sunbathes with Maggie, and looks quite fetching as she broils away in her bikini:

Daffy tells Maggie how when she's married to some rich guy, they'll sail together on a yacht to the islands every weekend. Within moments, Izzy and Hopey arrive dressed in vampiric black, a disconcerting image of noncomformity on the sunny sands, and Hopey gleefully goads Izzy into destroying Daffy’s romantic notions with a grotesque story that sends the poor girl fleeing back to her safe suburban enclave. Perhaps this incident is indicative of why Daffy no longer hangs out with Maggie and Hopey; she just doesn’t quite fit, as much as she’d love to.

At one point Daffy begins to metamorphize into the most fashion-forward of the original Locas, increasingly appearing as a chic young woman capable of taking chances with her outfits. Here's a panel detail from the 1987 story (just two years after "At the Beach"), "The Night Ape Sex Came Home to Play:"

Here’s a sequence from "In the Valley of the Polar Bears, Part 2," in which she seems to be channeling Hopey with a more hardcore look. Ape Sex is a fictional band frequently referenced in the stories, apparently a local punk act that hit the big time:

Here, Daffy allows her hair color to revert to its natural state and teases it up to almost Phyllis Diller-like proportions. This is Daffy during her sexy punk chica phase:

Here’s a gorgeous panel depicting Daffy and her sister Nami, with friend Itsuki. Daffy wears a stockperson's smock, but notice her sweet buckled, fat-treaded boots or perhaps monk shoes adding a little edge. After years on the fringe music scene, she’s developed a personal sense of style that’s quite unique even while working a minimum wage job. The smock almost becomes an ironic accent piece here, similar to how hip kids of my generation sometimes wore gas station shirts:

Check out the language footnote. Jaime and Gilberto frequently employ those to fill in cultural aspects of their casts readers might not be familiar with. Oba-chan is Japanese for "grandmother,” but Nami’s a typical American teen with typical American suburban ideas and substitutes a California permutation. Interesting also that Daffy's sister has a Japanese given name while Daffy's is European in origin.

Home on college break, Daffy begins an obsessive search for news about Maggie. At one point, she goes to Izzy's house in Hoppers. In this panel from "Wigwam Bam" part four, Daffy is quite striking with her short, teased hair and her all black ensemble, a cropped a-line coat, short-shorts, thigh high stockings and high-heeled pumps:

One of Jaime's most startling and alluring Daffy drawings. This represents a stylistically confident Daffy, her mature appearance somewhat at odds with her continued over-identification with Maggie and Hopey. If only her personality were as forceful as her fashion sense, she’d be quite the strong young woman.

After Love and Rockets volume one gives way to the incredible (and much-missed) Penny Century series, Daffy’s appearances become even more sporadic. She's as rare and elusive as a cryptid cat. Here, in a panel from the first issue story "Locas," she seems to have taken a job in a research lab, a doctor’s office, or a dentist’s:

Tellingly, Jaime never bothers to inform the readers of Daffy’s professional status. Since the unnamed coworker in the background refers to a “Doctor Ziff“ and addresses Daffy more informally, we can infer she is not a doctor herself. Perhaps she’s a medical technician, or a nurse. The scissors in her pocket indicate some level of technical proficiency.

Daffy’s next appearance is in the flashback-driven tale "Everybody Loves Me Baby," from Penny Century #7, where she appears only to impart Hopey with some vital exposition. Other comic book writers should take note of how Jaime handles this; it’s not as direct or as clumsy as you’ll find in many other books. Instead, Jaime has it naturally flow via character business between Daffy and Hopey. The truly inspired work of a master storyteller at the top of his game:

Here, Daffy appears in a classic black shift dress. Slick and grown up, impeccably groomed even hanging out with the more casually tomboyish Hopey, Daffy has achieved a fully mature style befitting a young professional with taste. Her short, spunky hairstyle even hints at a slight bit of uconventionality. Evidently, Maggie and Hopey have affected her for life.

Who knows what future Jaime storylines will bring? Perhaps he’ll return Daffy to the narrative fold in some form or other. After Jaime wraps up the superhero stuff he’s onto now in Love and Rockets volume three, I would love to see a Daffy-centric storyline, perhaps one that recapitulates the series in its entirety via flashbacks from Daffy’s point of view. With the change to the new book format, it’d be a fantastic way to get new readers up to speed on who these people are, and Jaime could also update those us few Daffy fans in the audience on what she’s doing these days while Maggie continues to spin in place and Hopey gropes towards a belated sense of responsibility.

But I'm sure Jaime has better things a'-cookin'.

In the meantime, here’s a scene from Daffy’s lone appearance in Love and Rockets volume two. It's yet another flashback, and in her one line of dialogue, Jaime says a lot about her status within the gang:

Poor Daffy. Only she could take something like a pissing contest over who was molested the most and the earliest and turn it into a personal crisis about her place among these fascinatingly flawed characters. Don’t sweat it, Daffy, you’re doing all right kid!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Oh, Wikipedia, You Say the Dumbest Things!

I was doing a little Wiki-reading about Cassandra "Batgirl" Cain and came across this little gem in her entry:

Batman no doubt disappeared because he was thoroughly confused. As stupid as the recent Batgirl miniseries is, it doesn't feature any plot developments as wacky as that. Actually, Wiki's version would have been more interesting than anything that did happen in the book.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Let's Shan-cercise: How to Get Yourself Into Shape the Xi'an Coy Manh Way!

Looks like Marvel is giving those fabulous new mutants, the New Mutants, a... new... book. Set to star are our classic friends Dani, Sam, Xi'an, Roberto and Illyana and I couldn't be more excited. Dani and Xi'an are perhaps my two absolute favorite Marvel characters. Suck on that, Wolverine! Now's the perfect moment to stoke the New Mutants-mania with a smart ass deconstruction of a classic tale.

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I give you... the story of how Xi'an went from blob to bad-ass in the pages of New Mutants Special Edition #1 by Chris Claremont and Art Adams.

One of the subtexts of the New Mutants series is the forcible undressing and redressing of its female characters-- usually Dani-- in bizarre, fetishy outfits. In this story from circa 1985, the subtext overwhelms the text as the entire New Mutants team undergoes a plethora of strange clothing changes and physical transformations.

In fact, this book is in such a hurry to get to the skin, it opens with the gang frolicking on a beach, their nubile teen bodies on display in skimpy swimwear. In this way Claremont and Adams prefigure the 1990s "bad girl/good girl" art craze. Comic readers might have criticized later books such as Gen13, Lady Death, Witchblade and Fathom for gratuitous cheesecake, but these comics merely extended concepts present in New Mutants practically from the first issue. And nowhere is this more apparent than in this particular tale.

While her pals have fun in the sun, the morbidly obese Xi'an hides out wearing a muumuu in what appears to be some kind of dingy housing project apartment. If you'll recall, world-class gourmand Amahl Farouk had stolen Xi'an's body a while back.

Hello, Bonnie Grape! Not only did Farouk ruin Xi'an's youthful physique, but he also impaired her abilities to put her pink undies away in the bedroom where they belong, instead of in the drawers in the living room. But this is an action-packed Marvel mag, not an issue of Love and Rockets. Within a page of this personal drama, the Enchantress and her flying Viking horde attack.

And since Claremont's plot demands the kids end up in Asgard so he and Adams can work them over, they're ridiculously defeated within the narrative captions of a single tier of panels! It's a plot development every bit as contrived and arbitrary as something in a Jackie Treehorn epic starring Karl Hungus and Bunny LaJoya. This book should be subtitled Mutantjammin'.

Once in the mystic realm of Asgard, we get to what this story is really all about. Dani becomes an armor-clad valkyrie; Amara drinks some kind of magic mead and turns into a faerie who looks like a cross between an Elfquest character and one of the sex-nymphs from Ralph Bakshi's Wizards; and the Enchantress turns Illyana first into a baby (trapped in bondage-y wall chains no less, and still wearing her white bikini from the beach scene... shudder), then into an evil avatar of herself in chain mail and a Darth Vader helmet. Tragically unfunny comedic relief character Warlock changes himself into all sort of stupid things in a vain attempt to induce deliberately the kind of laughter the rest of the story causes inadvertently. Uh... with love.

But most dramatic and happiest of all is what happens to Xi'an. Thanks to one of Illyana's transporter spells, Xi'an ends up in a desert wasteland. But as one of those relentlessly verbose Chris Claremont characters, she retains her ability to state the obvious. Out loud. To nobody:

The problem with deserts is, while they may seem lifeless, they're actually home to all sorts of dangerous fauna. For example:

Giant snake-like monsters! Fortunately for Xi'an, her powers are still working. She can even possess shai hulud! Xi'an Coy Manh no longer needs the weirding module, Stilgar! Long live the fighters, Maud'Dib! Yikes! Too many apostrophes! And as you might expect by now, Xi'an will also soon display copious amounts of bare flesh. Months in the desert leave her muumuu in tatters:

Strategic tatters. Because after a few more months of desert-tracking and sweating and eating only tiny lizards, she has the body of an Olympic swimmer and her rent garments conveniently lend themselves to Xi'an's adapting them into a sexy, savage desert princess bodysuit:

She still has that Claremontian ability to tell, not show. Despite having been so incredibly obese, she displays nothing in the way of stretch marks or excess skin. And she must have somehow had with her an impressive selection of lady's shavers, shaving gel and moisturizers to maintain smoothness in her underarms, legs and bikini area.

Finally, she runs into some friends who are shocked not only by her advanced hygiene but also the recapitulation of her former svelteness. Doug proves himself a master of the obvious as well:

Thanks, Doug. Without your genius for observation, we stupid readers might not have picked up on the subtle differences in the way Adams drew Xi'an at the beginning of this epic and how he depicts her on this page. Well, whatever. It's lucky she's back in fighting shape, because no sooner have they reunited than they're set upon by some human-shaped screentones mounted on what appear to be horse-shaped screentones and she's going to start kicking ass:

Kicking ass and reverse-stabbing people, Hong Kong cinema-style. This is where Butch Coolidge got the idea for killing that one guy with a katana in Pulp Fiction:

Yes, thank heaven you only wounded him, Xi'an. Because an injury caused by a broadsword being driven completely through the small intestine, a kidney and out the back heals quickly and easily and leaves scarcely a scar. Being a war orphan and thus underexposed to pop culture, Xi'an thinks the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is from a documentary.

Hmm... Pulp Fiction. I've always thought it was kind of odd that such a crappy pawn shop would have an actual katana on display, rather than one of those cheap-ass knock offs shops here in Japan generally sell. Those things wouldn't cut butter, but the sword Butch uses goes right into a man's torso with little effort on Butch's part. And I've always wondered what happened to the Gimp after that scene. Butch just leaves that freak chained and unconscious as he hightails it out of there. I imagine Marcellus Wallace and some of his men killed the Gimp soon after they completed their medieval workout with "Mr. Soon-To-Be-Living-The-Rest-of-His-Short-Ass-Life-In-Agonizing-Pain Rapist." But I bet the Gimp enjoyed it. He would've been right at home in this comic book story.

There. That's how the New Mutants got naked and Xi'an got herself back into shape. And killed some people. Now you can do the same thing. Get fit, get healthy, backwards stab your enemies. Get the new New Mutants book when it comes out in May! I mean, if you're interested. I'm enthusiastic and definitely going to give it a try, but I don't want you to think I'm mindlessly shilling for it. At the very least visit the announcement and check out the sweet preview images by original New Mutants artist Bob McLeod and superstar painter Alex Ross.

Imagine that. Marvel is actually producing a book I want to buy.

A New Comic Book Toy: Triad's "Lone Wolf and Cub" Figures

Toy maker Triad Toys is making figures based on the classic manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (or Kozure Okami in Japanese). Which means 1/6th scale toys of ronin Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro. There's a little discussion on the Sideshow Freaks forum (a message board for fans of Sideshow Toys and pop culture collectibles) on whether they should be based on the movies or the original comic book series. Movie-version backers want a realistic figure and fear a "manga-style" sculpt.

But I disagree. Kojima Goseki's art would lend itself to a really nice-looking sculpt, and it could still look like a real person. His art style is of an older vintage than some of the newer, ultra-slick, stylized stuff that most people associate with Japanese comics. The supporting or incidental characters can be kind of caricatured or cartoony, but Ogami Itto himself is a steely-eyed killing machine.

To me, the real Lone Wolf and Cub are the comic versions. I'd love to see the movies someday (they look super-cool and the guy who plays Ogami Itto also plays the Japanese coach in The Bad News Bears Go to Japan), but Kojima was the best storyteller in comics, period-- and I'd prefer to see a figure that honors the original inspiration.

Evidently, Triad isn't basing their figures on the movies or the comic. And this kid probably won't get to play with them: