Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The International Museum of Obscure Comic Book Characters, Exhibit 1: Captain D'Ark

She appears to have anticipated Vera Wang's 2006 Spring/Summer collection (check out the seventh photo there especially) by about twenty years, but because she's an evil minion of crazed scientist Baron Karza, Captain D'Ark puts her own kinky spin on black with puff sleeves. Captain D'Ark. Captain D'Ark. Who the hell is Captain D'Ark? That's the whole point, kid!

What is my fascination with extreme characters, even nasty pieces of work like Captain D'Ark? I don't know. Similarly, Captain D'Ark's origins are a mystery. There was a Major D'Ark who perished by the sword on the Acroyear planet way back in issue #10. Perhaps this Captain was intended to be his wife, or sister or daughter or niece. Or even his resurrection, although that doesn't explain her crazy uniform with its strange mixed signals of both the butch and the femmy. Perhaps military service and loyalty to Karza runs in the D'Ark family. When her father/uncle/brother/husband gave his life for Karza, she decided she could do no less. Speculation, because we learn absolutely nothing about her back story. She remains something of an enigmatic figure, pure villainy destined for disillusionment and destruction.

She guest stars as the secondary villain in Micronauts #57. We first meet her in her role as bold commander, standing on the bridge of one of Karza's courier ships, then engaging Marionette in a savage swordfight. The bold commander with a dog collar and a puff sleeved cropped top. Captain D'Ark captured my attention with her fashion sense, where she combines such disparate elements as militarism, fascism, sexy and cute into one unique uniform. Or did all of Karza's female officers sport this look?

I really can't get over that all-black outfit. I think it's the puff sleeves that put it over the top, even more so than the punk rock dog collar, the opera-length fingerless gloves or the thigh-high boots with cut-out detailing, or even the bare middrift. Basically, her uniform is a fairly modest bikini accessorized with a web-belt. We've actually seen something similar before, in the 1962 James Bond flick Dr. No, but in that case the bikini was white because the wearer was on the side of good. Capt. D'Ark is our enemy in wicked black, but those puff sleeves really soften her look. I dunno... despite myself, I kind of like her. In the words of Crow T. Robot, "She's just really, really neat."

I can't remember if Crow said that about Beverly Garland, Kim Cattrall, Estelle Winwood or Gamera the giant turtle, but no matter.

With her dramatic visual presentation, Captain D'Ark is saying, "Yes, I'm a bad-ass... but I have a soft side, too. See, I don't just love combat and discipline. I also frequently enjoy cuddling with my Hello Kitty goods... when I'm not destroying rebellion and rockin' out to Joan Jett."

When she and Marionette cross blades, it's not only a sword-fight, it's also a philosophical discourse. Yes, these two warriors are poles apart. One is a determined killer and the other is a killer who's determined. One wants to help her beloved Baron Karza rule the Microverse and the other wants peace and freedom and to chop off your head if you disagree.

What I really admire about both of them is the strength of their convictions. Captain D'Ark is no dupe or conscript; she's a willing volunteer, totally committed to being a dog soldier, to upholding Karza's dictatorial regime, of supporting genocide because she wants to "better bask in the greater glory of Baron Karza." She's proud of her status. Her mentality is certainly horrifying, but we have to accept that Captain D'Ark is something of a twisted idealist and a hero-worshipper. And she's capable of defending these seemingly indefensible beliefs with not only weaponry, but also her argumentative abilities. Marionette is also totally committed to murder, but only if it serves her more personal purposes.

Of course, Marionette kicks Captain's D'Ark's ass and is ready to kill her. But then Commander Rann, who has become a wimpy pacifist peacenik commie pinko loser, steps in with a disparaging comment. Add sexist to Rann's list of asinine characteristics. Micronaut? Microasshole is more like it.

Then, the Micronauts use these glowing Tinkerbell fairies to extract information from Captain D'Ark about Karza's latest nefarious scheme, but they don't bother to secure their prisoner. As soon as the Microdumbasses turn their backs, Captain D'Ark leaps into an escape pod and rockets away. She's tenaciously evil. And that's the best kind of evil!

Her reward for failure is she gets to hang out with her idol, Baron Karza. I don't know why Karza doesn't kill her for giving away his plan. He once slaughtered a pizza delivery boy for coming to the Body Banks three minutes late. Maybe he's mellowed after being repeatedly killed and resurrected. Whatever his reasons, Karza lets Captain D'Ark bask in his greater glory while the whole Micronauts gang sneaks up on them on some wintery planet populated by feline creatures whose culture is entirely derived from Native American tribes.

What kind of ludicrous crap has Captain D'Ark gotten herself involved in? Well, Karza is planning to burn the planet lifeless with a giant mirror, despite having a mighty spacefleet at his command that could probably accomplish the same destruction more efficiently and safely from space. But what's the point of being an evil genius if you can't come up with ridiculously complex plans that are easily foiled?

Sure enough, the Micronauts attack, and Marionette and Captain D'Ark, both now dressed slightly more sensibly against the frigid temperatures, go at it again. They've become mortal enemies in just a few short days. Their philosophies diametrically opposed, their methodologies mostly the same. They're sort of like Joseph Conrad doubles, a la "The Secret Sharer."

Then Karza does something that shatters Captain D'Ark's entire belief system-- he starts killing his own soldiers. Here's where Captain D'Ark's philosophy fails, where her proud speech defending her life-choices suddenly rings richly ironic. "Fuck this," Captain D'Ark thinks, then hightails it.

Never to be seen again. We never learn where she came from, never learn much more about her motivations than that "bask in the glory" speech and her instincts for self-preservation, never discover her fate. Did she escape to safety? And after such a devastating philosophical wound, would it matter to her anymore?

She's a loathsome human being, but in a way, I kind of feel sorry for her. She hitched her wagon to the wrong star, fell completely for Karzaian propaganda. I imagine D'Ark spending many dim days ahead wondering how she could have been fooled so completely, overcome with with despair at times, perhaps even suicidal thoughts. "What a fool I was to give myself over so completely to that madman... I was ready to kill for him," she remonstrates herself, "Ready to die for him!"

Perhaps she eventually finds her way to the Prometheus Pit entrance and emerges normal human-size in the ruins of the Human Engineering Life Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center. Eluding the military police with some of her dog soldier training, she makes her way to New York and seeks solace by drinking alone in a Manhattan bar. There she makes some helpful acquaintances, repents her militaristic past and gets involved in the fashion industry where she influences a generation of designers, culminating in her successful collaboration with Vera Wang.

Or, more likely, she just slinks off to some distant corner of the Microverse to lick her wounds and rebuild her sense of self. I wonder what Bill Mantlo's plans for her were, or if he even had any. He did one more issue of Micronauts with no further Captain D'Ark appearances (she doesn't even warrant a trial for war crimes), and then Peter B. Gillis took over for Micronauts: The New Voyages.

Captain D'Ark... she combined the hateful and the cute. And lost everything on the ice planet.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Museum of Terror Vol. 2: Tomie 2: A Comic Review

Museum of Terror Vol. 2: Tomie 2
Publisher: Dark Horse
Written and drawn by Ito Junji
Translation: Naomi Kokubo

Tomie, you’re so beautiful. Won’t you please be my girlfriend? Oh sure, that’s how it begins- with flowers and hugs and kisses and sharing an umbrella in the all too frequent Japanese rain. But it ends with jealousy and insanity and chopping Tomie into little tiny pieces- pieces that each have the ability to blossom into a brand new and equally entrancing Tomie.

Volume 2 of Dark Horse’s Museum of Terror series kicks off more Tomie madness as the crazed and supernatural seductress Tomie goes to war against… crazed and supernatural seductress Tomie. For the various Tomies, this means finding new dupes to carry out their nasty work. In the first story, an average guy named Tetsuo falls under Tomie’s spell. As Tetsuo can probably testify, if a gorgeous someone makes a dying wish for you to bury her in a secluded spot, it’s not a good idea to dig her up again. Even if she begs you to.

Because the next thing you know, you'll have severed heads whispering to you from the wastepaper basket and knife-wielding creeps with bowl haircuts like Moe Howard barging in and making demands like “Give me the woman!” Kind of makes it difficult to get any studying done.

Tomie doesn’t just subvert romantic relationships; she also attacks the notion of family. In “Adopted Daughter,” she insinuates herself into the lives of a childless rich couple and in “Little Finger,” she completely destroys a tight-knit clan, leading to a particularly grisly denouement in a damp, murky cave. Pinkies may be the smallest and most helpless of the fingers, but when the pinky belongs to Tomie, she lives to laugh last.

Oh look! Tomie heard we were discussing her comics career and brought us a snack. How nice of her:

Whatever could it be? The bottom of the bag seems kinda soggy... and red...

While Tomie freely indulges herself in selfishness and narcissism, one recurring theme in her stories is the punishing of vanity in others. In “Hair,” Chie and Miki discover a lock of hair with amazing beautifying properties. You can just stick one to your head and it begins to grow as if it were your own. But their need to hew to societal standards of attractiveness leads to hirsute tragedy. This is pretty typical of the Ito story set-up- protagonists make a singularly bad decision that deliberately plays on audience expectations to generate tension. Then, the inevitable consequences, which are usually strangely logical and still appallingly gruesome.

One of the weirdest stories that follows this pattern is “Gathering,” where yet another young guy ends up in Tomie’s thrall, and joins a strange Tomie-obsessed enclave. The Tomie presiding over this mess enjoys being their object of worship but eventually finds it hollow. I’ll tell you her solution involves lots and lots of knives and scissors and leave it at that.

This volume ends with “Old and Ugly,” where the themes of beauty, narcissism and familial ties come together as two of Tomie’s victims- one gruesomely maimed by her machinations- conspire to trap her in a block of cement for decades, all for the joy of releasing her as an aged crone.

This image isn't found in volume 2, but it's a damn fine piece of Tomie art by Ito Junji:

For some reason, there's a vocally ignorant chorus of American comics fans who think Japanese artists can't draw. Yeah, right.

Ito glories in detailed and downright disgusting renderings of all the carnage Tomie causes, accompanied by solid storytelling that shifts from standard issue Japanese houses to romantic dreamscapes to quiet gardens. Panel layouts and compositions are clear and easy to follow, but his figure work tends toward stiffness, and he relies on the same basic body types, leaning towards the gangly. Sometimes it can be difficult discerning between unrelated characters from different stories because Ito also repeats faces and hairstyles. Still, his clear, uncluttered drawings make the gory “money shots” all the more effective.

With his wickedly twisted plots, Ito is like a sick O. Henry, and, for my money, the finest horror writer in comics today, and one of the most original working in the genre in any media. These stories are short and nasty, each iteration serving to heighten the suspense. And these stories don’t even represent his finest work.

Because ultimately, the Tomie 2 stories can’t quite match the vigor or baroque horror of those in Tomie 1, and it seems Ito’s interest in Tomie is flagging in this collection; perhaps it’s a matter of extending the concept past its natural expiration date. Still, compared to the standard zombie or vampire fare most American horror comics offer, these nightmarish Tomie stories feel much fresher.

Ito’s stories are also some of the truest expressions of what we mean by "horror." In a true horror story, trusted institutions (boyfriend-girlfriend, family, friendship, cultural norms) are subverted and the status quo is damaged forever, certainly not reestablished by heroic intervention; indeed, in stories like “Assassins,” Ito depicts the traditional male protagonist as not only ineffective, but as doomed by his very impulse to help Tomie. In a true horror story, altruism turns on the altruistic and dooms them to tragic fates. At his best, and in this spirit, Ito’s nasty stories linger on in a poisonous feeling of dread and mistrust that resides in the stomach or even the soul, rather than in the mind. Ito accomplishes this not only in these Tomie tales but in his other works, such his masterpiece, the Lovecraftian Uzumaki.

Once again Dark Horse puts out a superior translation. I discussed this in my review for the Museum of Terror Vol. 1: Tomie 1. All too often, Japanese comics translations fall flat, being either bland or else overly cutesy. Here, Naomi Kokubo and Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh combine to give the characters distinctive, believable dialogue. It’s conversational and natural without relying on distracting slang; I doubt it’s any kind of literal transcription of the original Japanese into English but truer in spirit. To me, this is the very definition of a good translation.

Note: Lately, it seems Ito has been working less in the continuing series format and doing more stand-alone tales. Dark Horse needs to get Kokubo and Waugh cracking on volume 4. I’ve got a Japanese graphic novel collecting some really cool and disgusting stories by Ito that I really want to read in English… a friend gave me the gist of them, but my own Japanese studies are progressing so slowly I’ll be as old as Tomie’s final enemies by the time I can read it on my own!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Comics That Destroyed My Mind 5: Micronauts #2!

Pursued by the relentless minions of the cruel despot Baron Karza, the freedom-fighting crew of the Endeavour breach the Space Wall and emerge on a strange and dangerous new world-- a planet known as Earth. They fight a galumphing dog, then befriend Steve Coffin, a bare-chested, shirtless lad who hasn't any shirt, and his equally semi-nude lawnmower. Cross-cosmos relationships form just in time for a close encounter of the tiny but deadly kind...

Now here's a comic of such monumental impact in my life I remember exactly where and how it came into my possession. My brother Mark worked at a Sing Station on Stuart Avenue, not far from K-Mart and the Albany Mall. One day he took his little brother to his place of crappy employment for some snacks and I came away with a bottle of that brand-new citrusy taste sensation Mello Yello and Micronauts #2. And possibly a Twix bar, although it may have been either a Marathon or a Chunky. Or even some Tangy Taffy. But there was definitely a Mello Yello involved, back in the days when it came in an actual glass bottle and a label printed on very thin insulating foam. The year was 1979.

Mark is still nice, still my brother. And I'm still a Micronauts fan three decades later.

In 1979, I was neither a strict Marvelite, nor was a I DCer. My loyalty wasn't given to any particular comic book company, but rather to the titles they printed. Within two years, I'd be a fanatic about the Uncanny X-Men and reading mostly Marvel, but around the time Micronauts #2 came into my life, I was equally into The Incredible Hulk and Superman or Action Comics, and not too snobbish to pick up things like Gold Key's Buck Rogers adaptation (you know, the one with Gil Gerard). Huh. It seems the media drove a great deal of my comics buying, Superman at the movies and the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno Hulkster on TV. Also, I was a huge Curt Swan fan; in fact, I still am.

Oh yeah, that's another thing about my fannish ways in the 1970s, also true today-- I follow artists and writers even more so than characters. And Micronauts would give me a new artist whose work fired my imagination.

I'm talking about Michael Golden, inked here by Josef Rubinstein. What an art team! See, almost thirty years later, I'm not sure if I actually opened the comic at the Sing Station. After all, the title and the cover were enough to make possessing it a must. Despite the uncertainties of remembrances of things past, the only thing of which I'm truly certain is when I got home and read it, I went completely head-over-heels in love with Michael Golden's art. How could I not? All those high-tech settings and weird lighting and shadow effects he placed all over his characters... Karza's gleaming armor, the spaceships... were all the stuff of kid dreams in the Star Wars/Battlestar Galactica/Star Trek movies era. I have been a Golden aficionado ever since, even when he illustrates properties I couldn't care less about!

But getting back to Micronauts #2 itself. The most exciting thing about this comic when I first laid eyes on it on the spinner rack at the Sing Station was its mere existence. Chuck "The Lucky Duck" Mancuso, my best friend, and I were Micronauts freaks in those days.

Chuck had practically every Micronauts toy, while I could merely gaze at them on the shelf at K-Mart. They were pretty pricey, and I had frugal parents. Toys were for birthdays and Christmas and only rarely for those in-between, non-holiday months. Which meant if I wanted something, I had to save up for it myself. And there were Star Wars figures to buy... and Mego Star Trek figures... and Tangy Taffy... and comic books...

Beyond the subject matter and Golden's glorious artwork, Micronauts #2 had a lot to offer an eleven-year-old idiot from south Georgia. One facet that absolutely delighted me was the way the Micronauts were normal-sized in their own universe, but scaled down to match the size of the eponymous toy line in ours. It made our toys seem almost alive. That Acroyear or Space Glider would start moving around at any moment... like now... or... NOW! Damn. Foxed again!

A linguistics note-- Bug seems to ask, "Eel?" No, my little friend, he's not confusing a boy for some kind of serpent-like sea life. He's speaking his native Micronausian language. Michael Golden often sprinkled little bits of the Micronausian alphabet in the backgrounds of his panels, and to placate curious fans, Marvel later published a translation key. However, because each letter directly corresponds to one in our English alphabet, the Micronauts must actually write in English; they just have a funky way of spelling it. Yep, that's how their supposedly alien language actually works. I wonder if anyone ever called bullshit on that and won a No Prize...

Of course the comic's scale isn't always accurate to the toy line's. The Biotron toy, if I remember correctly (and if nothing else, this series of posts has proven what an incredibly poor memory I have), towered over the other Micronauts and they could inhabit it and perhaps trash it up with their lax, loutish Micronausian ways. In the comic, he's about the same size as his teammates. And the Galactic Cruiser wasn't quite so large as Golden depicted it in the climactic battle scenes of Micronauts #2, but it was still a hefty toy. Chuck had one of those, too.

Where are the Mancusos of yesteryear?

Another attractive aspect of this comic was how its story takes place in settings very familiar to child-me: Cocoa Beach, Cape Canaveral, Daytona Beach. I'd either already been to these places, or would soon visit them. I was a NASA fanatic in those days, and my grandparents lived in Tampa. We spent a lot of vacation time in Florida, visiting them or at one beach or another. A trip to the Kennedy Space Center was inevitable. And here was this brand new comic book taking place... in Florida!

Florida, of all places. While Batman fights crime in Gotham City, Superman flies over Metropolis and the Fantastic Four eat lunch in that fabulous American Brigadoon, New York City, who ever imagined adventures could occur in Florida, a place I actually set foot in? A place where I, on many occasions, took dumps.

Because few things bring a story's setting to life like having dropped a load in the same place yourself. In the novel Fires on the Plain, Ooka Shohei's narrator muses that our whole life sense "depends upon this inherent assumption that we can repeat indefinitely what we're doing at the moment." I agree for the most part, but I think we also get some of it from the familiarity derived from where we defecate.

When Murakami Haruki makes his The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle protagonist sit for two hours on a brick wall along a flower bed just outside Shinjuku Station until a homeless man walks up and begins haranguing him, I can't help but think, "Wow, buddy, I've actually been there, trod that exact same concrete beneath my Converse sneakers... while needing practically to run back to my hotel because I had to take a massive shit." I've crapped literally hundreds of times in hotels in and around Shinjuku Station, therefore stories taking place there are that much more real to me.

So a comic book adventure taking place in Florida? Starring toys I saw every day on my very own dresser at home? As Steve Coffin might say, "Far freakin' out!" I really don't remember if young people said things like "Far freakin' out!" in the 1970s. Among my friends, we were more likely to be using 1940s slang and referencing 1950s pop culture thanks to Looney Tunes repeats and Bugs Bunny cartoons. In fact, if I'd been assaulted by tiny spaceships from inner space, I probably would've put on my best Liberace voice and lisped, "I wish my brother George were here," without even knowing why I was acting so fey. We were still looking to buy war bonds, for Christ's sake! Another comics culture note from the 1970s-- even though the blurb at the end of the book demands that I not miss "Death-Duel at Daytona Beach" the following month, miss it I did.

I wasn't being contrarian; comics distribution was just that spotty in those days. We didn't have comic shops and pull lists in my hometown in 1979. That's why I started buying Micronauts from the second issue rather than the first; either the premiere issue never made it to the Sing Station, the Kwickee store or any of the groceries near my house, or else it was snapped up all over town by cannier comic book fans than I. And while I searched everywhere for #3, it would be years before I was able to read it, thanks to some disposable income from my job as a part-time English instructor and the inventory patterns of the local comic book shop.

So until about sixteen years ago, my Micronauts collection had gaping narrative holes. Fortunately, during the series' initial run, Bill Mantlo and the helpful editor made it easy for readers to catch up. There were little editor's notes, or else quick dialogue-based recapitulations of last issue's events. These gave a sense of continuity to the narrative, so it felt to the readers the story events were happening even after you closed the book. It would feel like forever before I found another Micronauts issue...

But it was worth the wait. With Mantlo and Golden, it always was.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Quinn Martin presents Batgirl... in Color!

Marker practice starring my favorite comic book character. These have all my favorite mistakes including smearing and ink bleeding, blotting and running. Plus whatever goofy anatomical stuff I'm guilty of. Still, Batgirl is fun to draw, even if I prefer not to put her in her "official" costume and rarely put the mask on her. I'm more of an old schooler.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tokyo Days Bangkok Nights: A Comic Review

Tokyo Days Bangkok Nights
Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Jonathan Vankin
Art: Seth Fisher, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Shawn Martinbrough

First off, I'm not reviewing the Bangkok story that makes up the second half of this book. Why? It's totally arbitrary on my part. I bought this book to dig on all the drawings of Tokyo, a city I consider my spiritual home, not to read about Bangkok. I was briefly acquainted with a Georgia state trooper who fought professional mixed martial arts bouts and he loved Bangkok the one time he fought there and did the whole Thailand sex tourist thing in his free time. My mom might read this so I won't go into detail about the erotic activities he said he was into, but if they were only half-true (and that's probably all they were), Bangkok just isn't my place.

Tokyo, on the other hand...

While I'm sure there's a lot more to Thailand than just the sex industry, I'm absolutely certain there's more to Japan than the over-the-top stereotypes bandied about in the US, on the Internet and in comics and movies. So here we go, taking a look at Vertigo/DC's Tokyo Days... minus Bangkok Nights.

Young American dude Steve is jonesing for the latest electronic doohickeys, so he does what any addicted tech-head would do—he jets off on a whim to Japan to visit Akihabara’s Electric City. High-tech gadgets aside, Steve’s totally unprepared for what he finds there. Dragged to a koban (police box) by some less-than-helpful Tokyo cops for the crime of “dialing while gaijin,” Steve’s rescued by a pink-haired girl named Makiko and spirited away for a whirlwind adventure involving incompetent yakuza thugs, a kidnapped visual-kei rocker, Harajuku's fashion scene and a food fight at a burger joint. You haven’t gone mad… you're not hallucinating... it's merely Steve's culture shock in communicabe form invading your brain cells... these things are happening right now, in real time. It’s Tokyo courtesy of writer Jonathan Vankin and artist Seth Fisher.

Their vision of Tokyo is a colorful mixture of practically every Japanese pop culture element circa the turn of the century. Makiko, also known as Maki, is a loopy high school girl with dreams of becoming a star like her rock idol Hike. Her purple-haired friend Mizumi seems doomed to a life as a flight attendant. Your average Japanese high school student tends to be overworked and stressed out, but Maki and Mizumi are a couple of trouble-making freaks, not the kind to be involved in school clubs, cram school and college entrance exams.

When the two rudderless girls set out so Mizumi can practice her English on foreigners, Maki stumbles across the hapless Steve. Maki is pretty much a wish-fulfillment figure—shrill and silly, wild and unpredictable, unbearably cute whether she’s in her sailor suit school uniform or her vinyl visual-kei rocker suit… and, of course, sexually aggressive. She represents the ever-popular Western fetishizing of the hot, hip young Japanese girl as human cartoon, completely out of control and irresistible. In fact, Maki never gives Steve the option of resistance-- she completely takes over his life, thus rendering Steve her more-than-willing victim. Former idol singer Hirosue Ryoko played just such a hyper-active candy confection/Japanophile wet dream in Luc Besson's Wasabi, and Roger Ebert panned her for it. Guess it works better in comic book form.

The comic book version.

But if Maki is an exaggeration or symbolic of Western objectification of Japanese high school girls—which is no less than an extension of their objectification in Japan itself—one is tempted to allow Vankin to get away with it because the story itself is so light-hearted and comical.

However, what Tokyo does by presenting the narrative from Steve's skewed point of view is make the Japanese seem wacky and weird, a kind of updated Oriental romantic exoticism filtered through the post-modern. Hello Kitty with a knife in her hand. And Steve is literally the only normal character in the story. It's a criticism also leveled at Lost in Translation, a movie I enjoyed but found similarly troubling. Lost in Translation accurately expresses the alienation a visitor can feel here in Japan, but it also reduces the country to a caricature of itself, something otherworldly for Scarlett Johansson to react to. Similarly, Tokyo captures the vibrancy of its eponymous megalopolis, but then doesn't balance its portrayal of fashion crazies, goofy gangsters and Keystone Kops.

While I certainly wouldn't go so far as to call Tokyo racist by any means-- I think it has a great deal of genuine affection for Maki and her friends, perhaps Vankin should have completely eliminated Steve as our masking character, our "in," and told the story from Maki's viewpoint, or Mizumi's. In that way it would've been a more immersive experience and not another one of those "dopey white people experience a bizarre, alien culture."

Instead, Tokyo's Japan becomes the Other in a very familiar process that really should have run its course, and the story itself presents a modern Japan of our Internet-skewed imaginations. More William Gibson-meets-Viz Comics-on-LSD than Donald Richie. As such, even with some of the disturbing subtext, it's a hilariously garish lampoon of the real thing, a bento box (if you will) of all the various Japanese pop culture trends all at once. The basic elements are truthful. These things exist, but when they're all we see via the media, we get a very dysfunctional view and Tokyo serves to further reinforce it when it could have gone for a deeper truth.

At one time there were insanely colorful fashionistas inhabiting Harajuku; it’s not Vankin’s fault Gwen Stefani chose to misappropriate, colonize and market a subculture that basically died out there circa 1998 and evolved into new forms, which you can still taste in any given issue of Fruits. And of course there is a yakuza, but they’re hardly as humorous as Vankin’s incompetent thugs, who owe as much to the Three Stooges as they do the Yamaguchi-gumi. And girls (and some boys) do dress up in crazy outfits to attend visual-kei concerts; but you’re more likely to see them doing the gosu-rori thing in petticoats and lacy frills than donning sci-fi vinyl like Maki's, however. But... I've seen people in vinyl here, too.

The real thing, courtesy the latest issue of Fruits, #141.

And Seth Fisher’s art is nothing short of phenomenal. He deprives his characters of certain humanizing traits (noses, for example) but compensates by giving them expressive eyes and mouths, by decking them out in specific costumes, and posing them in completely accurate Tokyo cityscapes. You could almost use his Harajuku as a walking guide to the area immediately outside the station, all the way down to the pedestrian bridge leading into Yoyogi Park. While certain elements are fictionalized, a single day spent walking around Ikebukuro or Akihabara would serve to authenticate Fisher’s settings. Tellingly, he lived full-time in Osaka and seemed to be on his way to becoming American comics' go-to guy for Japan-based adventure stories.

It's colorful and manic and perfectly in tune with the Tokyo I've visited so many times. Very tragic to lose an artist and a family man so young. When I first saw bits and pieces of this story, I really wanted to meet the guy.

Fast-paced, frenetic, completely over-the-top, if you don't take it as anything other than tongue in cheek, Tokyo makes a fine primer on Japanese pop culture as it stood around 2002. However, if you're interested in going deeper into the various subcultures and understanding them from a more organic viewpoint, I recommend Tokyo Schoolgirl Inferno by Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers, with hilarious paintings by Kazumi Nonaka. Nonaka's illustrations themselves are worth the cover price, but the text is a fun and informative historical overview of the various Tokyo style tribes, tracing their development over the years. Tokyo Look Book by anthropologist Philomena Keet, with gorgeous photographs by Yuri Manabe, is a more scholarly, but no less enjoyable report on the same phenomenon.

Both books feature interviews with people involved in Tokyo fashion culture, so you get their perspective rather than relying on some bland fictional effigy to fill you in. From there you can find your way around Tokyo on your own, discovering and illuminating a city that I find endlessly fascinating.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More Batgirl Fun...

Despite the inanity of her recent miniseries-- which shed more than 13,000 readers over the course of its lackluster six-issue run according to Comichron -- I'm still a fan of the Cassandra Cain Batgirl character.

Did you ever see the movie The Sand Pebbles? Epic flick, just wonderful. At the end, Steve McQueen gets shot. Dying, he shouts in frustration and confusion, "What the hell happened?" That's how I feel about the Batgirl miniseries. What the hell happened?

Look here… in July, Batgirl's debut issue ranked 66th—one place ahead of Batman and the Outsiders, which also features her as a supporting character—and moved 34,404 copies. Not especially spectacular, but not bad for a relatively minor character. Perhaps it was a little disappointing considering the Internet controversies regarding all the mishandling of Batgirl and the supposed build up of anticipation of her return to a starring role. But still, Batgirl #1 outsold Supergirl #31 by 5,597 copies.

Then what the hell happened? Batgirl #2 sold 27,695 to Supergirl #32’s 28,099. Batgirl lost 6,709 readers while Supergirl shed just 708. As the cliched story meandered and went nowhere, the erosion continued. Batgirl #3 sold 24, 925; #4 sold 23,498; #5 sold 21,591; and #6—the standard-issue climax—sold a mere 20,747. That’s right—of the thousands of people who bought the first issue, 13,657 no longer cared how the story ended. Wow! That’s a pretty steady decline in readership, don’t you think? Batman and the Outsiders #14 sold 32, 158 that month. Supergirl #36 climbed all the way to 45,485 units sold!

I know it’s tempting to blame the character. To say, “Well, readers really don’t care about Batgirl after all.” Tempting, easy… and wrong. The wrong lesson to learn from this debacle. The character is compelling, Batgirl... wasn’t good. It was the opposite of good. If you started at good and walked in a straight line, you would be approximately halfway to Batgirl's quality if you stopped at mediocre.

It's not the series' basic premise that's at fault. After all, you'd expect someone manufactured to be a killing machine, someone who's severely emotionally damaged, to seek revenge for having been brainwashed and turned into a racist dragon lady caricature of cartoon villainy. You just wouldn't expect such a plot to play out over six issues of perfunctory, cliché-ridden, early 1990s video-game-like fight sequences—small combats with anonymous henchpeople leading to boss battles. Koike Kazuo used to do these kinds of revenge plots the right way. Quentin Tarantino made two whole movies about a wronged bad-ass on the vengeance trail. So it could've worked if more effort and research had been put into the front end.

And as crappy as all that is, most of the plot not dealing directly with the drug-induced brainwashing mess is just nonsensical.

A major component of Batgirl’s appeal is that she is unique, a twisted freak trying to make good. But in the miniseries, she's at war with literally dozens of girls almost as capable as she is in the fighting and killing. They train right in the open in Gotham City, in a dull brick building (the art is the best part of the series and even it’s merely banal). Deathstroke spends millions of dollars putting this army of unbeatable martial arts women together, then blows them all up for no particular reason. Batgirl puzzles out the secret behind this nefarious yet idiotic scheme in a flash of non sequitor insight at the end of issue #5 because the writer's wasted the previous issues on bland fight scenes and inane conversations and now has to wrap things up in an “exciting” climax.

What the hell happened? The story's end is... wow. Complete with a quote stolen from Batman Begins (the last thing you want to do in your crappy story is reference a good story and make the readers long for something more competent) followed by a cop-out, followed by the ol' "We saw what you did and even though the artist sort of botched it, we're going to fix it with some expository dialogue" ploy. Again... wow.

What the hell happened? Once again, Batgirl is plagued by some embarrassingly poor characterization. How did we go from a Batgirl who, at one point, gives away her real identity to a government agency so she can be Batgirl full-time without any of that boring civilian stuff, a girl who literally makes a death pact to get back her fighting skills in order to stay Batgirl, one who defies Batman when he "fires" her and then fights him toe-to-toe to establish herself once more... to one who whines about how unfair life is and just wants to be “normal?”

I remember that from all those early episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; but I don’t remember it from any issue of Batgirl. The world-beater who just wants to fit in, who just wants to be like everyone else.

Remember Jen Yu from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? She has all these amazing skills and wants to be anything but normal. She's in furious rebellion against a world that would confine her to mere normalcy. Of course, because society so limits her everything she touches ends up ruined and she destroys herself, but still she has moments of glory on the rooftops and in that absolutely insane restaurant fight. To exist and exult in action and capability no matter the cost, even if briefly. I always felt Batgirl was somewhat kin to Jen Yu, what with her death wish, love for her abilities and unconcern with personal safety.

You know, Batman digs her skills but fears for her, Barbara Gordon's terrified for her. Nope, turns out all along Batgirl just wanted to be a normal teen girl and go shopping and write about crushes on boys in her diary. Brilliant. It takes a special kind of genius to impose something so counterintuitive and familiar and wrong on a character like Batgirl.

Oh, and to that end, Batgirl gets a lame love interest. Of course she does. We can't have a girl character without a little romance in the story. Batgirl instantaneously falls in love with some random, uninteresting character she meets at a coffeehouse (how unoriginal!) and we know this not because the story builds to it or the artwork makes us believe there’s any kind of frisson between the two or that the dude has anything resembling a personality, but because Batgirl simply tells us in a few narrative captions. Because bad storytelling dictates there must be several cutesy-pie scenes in a coffeehouse with a nice-boy lover. Yawn.

Months ago, when this miniseries was first announced, I begged DC to put someone other than Adam Beechen on the book. To put someone unexpected, someone top-notch, someone edgy and gutsy and original on the script. Someone who could do something dark and hard-hitting, a la Kill Bill meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Someone who had read and absorbed Koike Kazuo’s Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood, rather than someone who had written the most generic episodes of Hi! Hi! Puffy AmiYumi and couldn’t even get Ami and Yumi right.

Beechen is probably a nice guy and generally adequate doing kiddie stuff, and he said all the right things in the interviews before the series' release. So I was willing to give Batgirl a try. What a letdown. Once again Beechen proved he's never grasped the essence of Batgirl as a character or the dark, tragic yet strangely giddy tone her stories require.

Despite DC's inability to do anything interesting with Batgirl, I still love the character and her unfulfilled potential, and often doodle her in my sketchbooks. Here are a couple of recent drawrings I did...

The first one is a swipe of Alejandro Garza's cover to Batgirl #60, slightly modified. Pretty heavyhanded, unfortunately. I want to draw it a few more times to see if I can't get it right!

I think it's funky how huge some artists make Batgirl's breasts, especially in her skin-tight costume. Is the original supposed to be leather, or some heavy, protective material like Batman's? Is it something like the Lycra stuff top swimmers or gymnasts wear? In any of those cases, even if she did have large breasts, they wouldn't jut out perfectly round the way so many artists depict them; they'd be sort of pressed down and much less prominent... and Garza's one of the mildest offenders. Anyway, I have my own version of Batgirl's costume I like to use and I imagine the material as fairly heavy, similar to athletic wear, and her body as smaller, more wiry/muscular. The stitched-mouth mask seems obsolete now that she can talk as well as anyone, and I've always felt she wanted to embody the Batman legacy moreso than the Batgirl one. So I split the difference and gave her some sort of old school Batman garb.

The next one is totally original:

Yeah, it's a butt shot. Sorry, folks. It's not so much that I'm against rear views as such; mostly, I get tired of them as an excuse to reduce female comic book characters to two sexual elements, literally tits and ass. Also, when drawing these artists usually twist the torso way too much so they can get more boobage into the drawing. Mine isn't meant to be sexy or anything. Batgirl's expression sort of says, "Oh, I didn't see you back there. Time to turn around and kick your ass!"

I like putting a short cape on her as an accent piece. I'm with Edna Mode-- a long cape is just wrong, and dangerously so. Especially for a swirling martial artist like Batgirl. She'd be fighting the cape most of the time instead of the villains.

I'm going to do full-color marker renderings of these sometime this week! I need to fix some proportions first though. And work. And clean my apartment. And eat. Life just interrupts my comic book-based fooling around on a regular basis.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Comics That Destroyed My Mind 4: Planet of the Apes #5!

Ahhh... the old Marvel/Curtis Planet of the Apes magazines. How I love them. Lurid painted covers by Bob Larkin, Earl Norem and even Grey Morrow, twisted stories by Doug Moench, black and white art by Mike Ploog, plus Tom Sutton, Ed Hannigan, Alfredo Alcala and more…

Looking back, my parents probably shouldn't have allowed me to read these. But they did. Why?

Well, my dad was not very literary; he fell asleep reading the sports pages almost nightly. So I doubt he had even a vague awareness of the kind of crazy crap I was being exposed to via comic books, although he shared my love for Li'l Abner and Dick Tracy in the funny pages. My mom, on the other hand, was always taking me to the library, always had books on hand and, despite her own conservative leanings, never once banned a book in our house, never once tried to restrict my reading material. I was reading John Irving before puberty, for crying out loud!

But the Planet of the Apes magazines were aimed at older teens and adults, not overly imaginative first graders who began reading at age four. And far more importantly in our two-income-out-of-necessity household, they were expensive. One dollar might as well have been one million to a kid whose personal economy relied heavily on finding pennies under the sofa cushions. And even when I came into birthday or Christmas wealth, who the hell would pay a dollar for a stupid funny book? In 1974, no sane six-year-old would.

And these days? Only a lunatic, a victim of backwoods inbreeding, or some irradiated mutant comic book fan squatter living in the abandoned city of Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, his mind ruined from all the tellurium and rubidium radioisotope-infused air he's been breathing for more than twenty years, would even consider forking over such an exorbitant sum for a damn comic. Right? Am I right? Of course I am. You and me, we're good, normal people, not money-wasting degenerates! Or worse, hippies!

In 1974, I could get four regular-sized color comics for a buck, and those rarely caused me to sleep with the light on. But somehow or other I convinced my mom to pay a ridiculous price for Planet of the Apes #5 so I could have a big, scary magazine about my favorite movie series. She must've thought it would be as harmless to my psyche as the watered-down TV show with the forever-awesome Roddy McDowall.

Speaking of the late Mr. McDowall, the chimp on the cover looks a lot like him in Cornelius make-up. I eventually decided it was Roddy McDowall after spending countless hours just staring at Bob Larkin's gorgeously weird cover illustration. I felt enormous sympathy for the human-ape friendship, soon to be spoiled by some angry gorillas waiting in ambush. That poor wounded duo dragged their asses miles across a desert wasteland-- and you can almost feel the dry heat pouring down on them from the orange sky-- only to run into what appears to be a prototypical ape general (note his studded collar denoting senior rank) and a couple of his gorilla thugs. Ape society frowns on inter-species fraternization.

Well, if my mom bought it for me (possibly to shut me up before I caused a scene) because she was convinced this magazine would prove harmless, she was wrong. Seriously wrong.

"Reading is good for your growing brain," she probably said to me at the time. She really should've at least scanned its contents before tossing it into the shopping cart with the ice milk and bananas. If she had, she'd have known the lead story was a little horror piece by Moench titled “Evolution’s Nightmare.”

No, Dougie-doug, your story was my nightmare. As in the bad dreams it caused me every time I dared pluck it from the stack of Spider-man, Sgt. Rock, Archie (including Spire’s Christian Archie), the Gold Key Star Treks and Richie Rich comics I buried it under, hoping to muffle its wicked siren call…

Never to read it again. Never to spend another sleepless night with the room light on and the covers pulled up over my head, a little breathing hole to let cool air in instead of breathing warm, stale air. But read it I did, time after time, always with the same damned result!

Anyway, "Evolution’s Nightmare” is, like many of Moench’s Apes tales, totally outside the scope and continuity of the movie series that inspired it. In Moench’s imagination, starkly rendered in ink for all to see by Ed Hannigan and Jim Mooney, humans and apes went through a sort of medievalist period where they wore ornate armor (fashions by Conan of Beverly Hills) and fought with swords and axes. As the story begins, two armies of men and apes prepare to battle it out for species supremacy in the Forbidden Zone. In floridly written captions and dialogue, Moench relies on repetition and parallelism to compare and contrast the two groups, then annihilates them. He leaves just two survivors, but gives Jovan (the human) shattered legs and Solomon (the ape) useless arms.

They reluctantly team up for survival, Jovan secured atop the Solomon’s shoulders with bandages. It’s a sci-fantasy version of “The Defiant Ones,” with the same lessons in tolerance, only this time taught by giant mutant boars and deformed bunny rabbits with frog eyes. After a few adventures, the ape and the man heal under the care of Mordecai, a mysterious hermit who appears to be a hybrid of human and simian.

Then, because their hate is so strong, they beat each other until they both collapse in a heap from exhaustion. Mordecai boots them from his cave, telling them, "Go now. I do not wish to know who has 'won' your contest. I do not wish to look upon either of you ever again... ...for while I am neither human nor ape... ... I am both-- and you have shamed me twice-over this day."

Shamed as well, the duo make their way to a ruined San Francisco, marvel at its desolation, then resolve to become friends... and once again Moench provides an ironic parallelism as mutant apes and humans devolved to a Stone Age state choose just that moment kill our protagonists and repeat the same aggressive posturing that opens the story. “Circles,” Moench concludes, “They repeat themselves. Circles. They stink.”

Oh yeah, I definitely had no business reading this as a child. I'd only been literate for about two years and still had very poor reading comprehension, especially versus Moench’s overwrought narration. I could barely parse sentences such as, “And still it continues, corpses gathering... ...Combatants dwindling. Conservation of exploding energy transmuted to lifeless matter littering dead ground soaking wasted blood.” Corpse, corpse, corpse. I think I learned the word "corpse" from this story.

But I could easily grasp the story’s overall theme of the cyclical destructiveness of hate. I mean, Moench hammers it home with all the subtlety of Rocky's fists pounding those sides of beef in Pauly's meat locker. This story is so heavy-handed just to read it gives your forearms and biceps an amazing workout. You'll feel the burn about three pages into it, and at that point you really need to check your heart rate. Consult your physician before reading "Evolution's Nightmare."

I suppose most disturbing-- even more so than Hannigan's vivid artwork-- was that relentless pessimism, which matched the film series’ downbeat tone. Rarely is popular entertainment these days so bleak as it was in the 70s. Moench suggests humanity’s flaws are genetic, primates of any species are hopeless, so even if we learn our lessons, there are still others who refuse to, and they’ll clop us in the heads with stones and all that newborn love will spill out uselessly onto the shattered, radioactive asphalt.

Here's the ultimate reason I shouldn't have been allowed to read this-- precocious as I was, I was not capable of metaphoric thought. So I believed “circles” to be the name of the savage mutants at the end, and they scared the living shit out of me. To me, Moench's final lines about how they repeat themselves meant the mutants ran around saying everything twice. My middle brother tortured me whenever he felt particularly impish—“I’m a circle! I’m a circle!” he would croak. “I’m going to get you! I’m going to get you!” And I’d scream and scream until my mom got pissed at the both of us.

A recurring fear of mine was I'd open the wooden shutters of my bedroom one night and the circles in their furry loincloths and with their long, pointy fingernails would be cavorting under the streetlights and jumping up and down on our neighbors' cars in their driveways. And they'd see me looking out at them... little itsy-bitsy me with my Beatles haircut and my stupid freckled face and gapped baby teeth...

Circlephobia aside, by daylight, I loved drawing clumsy imitations of Hannigan’s body-strewn panels. You know, the battle’s aftermath, piles of the dead with swords, broken spears and torn banners poking out of them. The twisted arms, the lifeless eyes rolled back in their sockets. I covered huge sheets of cheap newsprint sketchbook paper with vistas of dead apes and men in a tangle. What a freak I was! Young Tim Burton would’ve shuddered.

After the madness of the issue’s lead feature, the backup story was soothing. It’s a chapter from Moench’s rather straightforward adaptation of the first Planet of the Apes movie, the Heston one. Familiar stuff, since CBS ran the flick not long before. But George Tuska’s art didn’t really impress me as a kid. It seemed prosaic, sort of cartoonish, and not in an especially good way. But then, I was more of a Russ Heath/Neal Adams/Alfredo Alcala kid in those days. Stylized bombast is fine in a superhero comic, but out of place in a science-fiction story. Especially one so depressing. And Tuska’s Taylor looks like some kind of hyper-muscular hippie dressed in a cheap Tarzan suit for a costume party, although he still says many of Charlton Heston’s lines.

The funniest sequence is where Nova runs off by herself, and Zira comes back to tell Taylor, “She thinks that if she does not return to her people-- --She will die!” If I remember correctly—and at this point, I sincerely doubt I do—this is a remnant of a discarded subplot from the film itself. Nova is actually supposed to be pregnant, which explains why Tuska gives Taylor a gaping, shocked response that seems over the top compared to the stimulus. Who cares that much about some stupid, primitive belief?

Look at the actual drawings. Nova staggers away holding her stomach, then drops to her knees in the tall grass. She's obviously yakking her guts out. Morning sickness! Even I can figure that out, and I'm an idiot. But how exactly does Zira come up with her silly alternate theory? As a veterinarian, she'd obviously recognize pregnancy symptoms. She’s also an animal psychiatrist… but Nova has no language and no culture, no way for Zira to infer anything beyond Nova's physical state because Nova exists on a thoughtless, animal level.

There's even a strange chunk missing from the top of Zira's head, as if a paste-up job went slightly awry. And it probably doesn't matter. Fear of death or pregnancy, Nova's subplot is dropped and never mentioned again. She doesn't die in the story, she doesn't carry Taylor's bastard child to term.

Still, I like thinking about these things. I can understand why the producers of the movie would self-censor; after all, in 1968, it was safer to hint around at their romance than to admit outright Taylor and Nova were mating in their cage like beasts. Unmarried beasts at that, and Taylor an evolved, thinking creature. Kinda sick, that power exchange, huh? But the pregnancy dialogue remains intact in the four-color monthly, which was supposedly more child-friendly. So why change the pregnancy dialogue in the more adult-oriented magazine, especially after the first story includes so much carnage and even a rape metaphor?

Only Doug Moench knows for sure!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

And Here's an Old Picture of My Batgirl Redesign...

The costume is based more on old school Batman's suit than on Batgirl's. And while I usually put her in her full-face mask, sometimes I drop it because she doesn't really seem to care one whit about having a secret identity. And I don't have much use for capes, so I used hers as more of an accent piece. It says, "Batgirl" without the danger of tangling around her legs when she's doing her whirling, twirling, putting her foot through your teeth fighting style.

That's Horizontal Adama to the right, and above him is Yo-Yo Shibuya Schoolgirl Cop or some such.

I Took the Liberty of Redesigning Superman...

And I really improved him, I think.

Someone Should Do a Comic About High School Life Circa 1985...

The characters could look something like this. I'd do it myself, but I'm really more of an "ideas" person.

Coming up on When Comic Books Ruled the Earth-- reviews of Tokyo Days Bangkok Nights and a Conan comic I forgot I had and still haven't read, at least two more entries in our popular "Comics That Destroyed My Mind" series and more art by me!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Comics That Destroyed My Mind 3: Batman #265!

Why is Batman swinging on a rope inside a shack? Just how high is that ceiling? The cover promises mysteries galore as we leave the war comics—and fabled year 1974—behind to look at a Batman comic from 1975, Batman #265 to be precise.

The script is by Mike Fleisher (although the letters page references a recent story by legendary Bat-writer Denny O’Neill) and the art is by Rich Buckler… inked by Bernie Wrightson! Whatta combination! Fleisher later sued Harlan Ellison and Gary Groth for libel, and Buckler went on to draw Reagan's Raiders.

I don't know what happened to Wrightson. Seems to have lapsed into obscurity. Perhaps this was his only comic book work. Shame, as he shows great promise...

This, then, is the revelation of Batman’s greatest failure, a tale Fleisher calls, strangely enough, “Batman’s Greatest Failure!" And fail Batman does, but like most hyperbolic statements, the title’s not very accurate. I mean, this case occurs relatively early in Batman’s career, so it seems almost like hubris to proclaim it as his greatest failure; who knows how spectacularly he might fail in years to come? Why tempt fate?

It’s fast-paced and ripping with said failure as its clever hook, a comic from back in the days when a writer used a single issue and pared things down to fit. An arrogant movie star named Robert "Bob" Trenton botches an exploding car stunt on the set of his latest film, and neither Batman nor Trenton’s hulking bodyguard Brutus can rescue him from the flames before he’s horribly disfigured. Embittered and more than a little crazy, Trenton escapes the hospital with revenge in mind. After electrocuting the movie's director, Trenton gets a taste for the killing and starts sending Batman taunting notes.

What was it with 1970s-era DC and burn victims or facial scarring? There’s the commander from “Glutton for Punishment” in Weird War Tales #32 who gets cooked, Jonah Hex (also written by Fleisher) and his scarred visage, and recurring appearances by Two-Face. Then there's the antagonist of this story, whose reveal horrified yet fascinated me when I was a mere seven years old. Perhaps facial scarring should be listed as a story motif along with the old “injury to the eye” and the number three.

Speaking of threes—notice how Fleisher’s plot also uses that device. Three people appear to die. Two would’ve been too few, four too many. Three, again, is the magic number. Three deaths are exactly how many you need in this case. The first one bothers Gordon, but he can write it off as a fluke, the second one angers him and the third one makes him go completely apeshit. The story structure here is as solid and as well-constructed as the playhouse my dad built for me around the time I first read this comic-- that little house is still standing, and will probably outlast my childhood home.

Obviously, Batman comes through in the end, tracking Brutus to Trenton’s hideout and setting fire to the place during a vicious fight. Trenton perishes in the flames, and Batman tells Gordon to book Brutus for attempted murder. "Attempted murder?! What--?" a simply astonished Gordon shrieks, as if Batman has finally lost his mind completely.

"Brutus didn't kill anybody, Commissioner! All three of his intended victims are alive and in hiding!" Batman cooly replies, then explains how he anticipated Trenton's plans and faked the murders in order to buy enough time to find Trenton before someone really got hurt. Gordon slaps Batman on the back, all is well… or is it? Batman’s gaze lingers on Trenton’s empty wheelchair, as the flames rise all around it.

But as well-organized as the story is, there are some problematic areas that didn’t occur to my seven-year-old self when I first read it and worried about Batman's inability follow through on his vow to protect those seemingly luckless movie people. Or any of the subsequent times I read it, for that matter. And I read it a lot because it was the only Batman comic I had for a quite some time.

Here's my biggest qualm: Why couldn’t Batman inform Commissioner Gordon of his plan in the first place and spare the both of them a lot of grief? Batman had plenty of time to set up the whole ruse with the actors and the special effects crew, so it makes no sense he couldn't also tell the police commissioner, his closest ally and friend.

This leaves a Gordon who's more a plot construct rather than a fully-realized character. He’s worked with Batman for a few years and knows his operating methods are… shall we say… unorthodox. But rather than give Batman the benefit of the doubt, he berates him whenever an actor seemingly dies. Of course, he has to do that for the reader’s benefit—this is “Batman’s Greatest Failure!” and things are supposed to seem pretty bleak for the Darknight Detective, right? But it’s such an obvious plot-based artifice, Gordon never seems believable. And his threat, “One more botch and I'm taking you off this case!”

Here's another: When did Gordon appoint himself Batman's boss, with the ability both to assign and fire him from a case? Realistically, what could he do if Batman decides to pursue a crime independently—write him a nasty letter? Uninvite him to his birthday party that year? Even Batman doesn't take Gordon's blustering very seriously in this story.

And another: As muffed as his Gordon characterization is, Fleisher’s Batman is right on. He has Batman act like a detective. He works to solve the case, uses his brain in a realistic way to formulate a trap, then gathers clues and finds Trenton’s hideout.

Unfortunately, the clues don't really play a huge part in the climax. Batman could have just as easily chased Brutus to Trenton's lair-- which is really just a junkyard shack on the edge of town. I doubt Fleisher could've stuck the guy in a place more obvious or less creative. But Fleisher's story at least pays some tribute to Batman's detective aspect, rather than treat us to a lot of scenes where Batman grits his teeth and alienates everyone around him, then puts it all together in a flash of inhuman insight, because not only had he prepared for Trenton’s turn to madness several years before before his accident, but he'd also set up several alternate plans which were triggered automatically the moment Trenton’s car blew up. Plans which somehow pit Nightwing against Batgirl, with Robin caught in the middle, none of them privy to any of their mentor's asinine methodology.

And finally: When you get right down to it, I'm not sure Batman is really necessary to this case in the first place. The villain is merely a pissed-off Hollywood (former) pretty boy, he's none too subtle about his threats and it would've been a lot more logical to put regular police on the set to protect everyone while Batman goes off and fights hardcore freaks like the Joker instead. But then would could've known Trenton would give the vaunted Batman so much trouble?

You know what? All nitpicking aside, I like this fallible Batman more than the inflexible asshole he’s become over the years. He's without that Frank Miller-style borderline psychosis so many writers like to play with nowadays. Sure, he’s still kind of a dick—he mocks Gordon's window padlock, then hints at having tapped the commissioner's official phone-line—but he does it with a smile. Batman… smiling? Written by Fleisher, he's human enough not only to smirk a little but also to get conked on the head by beefy lug Brutus, and actually has trouble with him in the final fight, thinking, “No matter how much you've trained-- an opponent's size and weight... can make a -- UNNGGH-- difference!"

If this fight scene were written today, there’d be several first-person narrative captions salted among the panels where Batman tells us, “He’s big. Stupid. Slow. I snap his wrist back. It breaks. He loses interest in the fight.” Do DC editors force writers to script that stuff, or do they come up with it on their own after reading Dark Knight Returns a million times in one week until it overloads their ability to think for themselves? 1975-era Batman is edgy but has charm and class; modern-era Batman is a thoroughly unlikeable prick (unless you're really into joyless fascists) and therefore a lot less interesting as a character.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Comics That Destroyed My Mind 2: Weird War Tales #32!

Hmm… another war comic. No, I wasn’t a little war-monger in 1974; I was merely an imaginative kid steeped in the martial traditions of my country. America’s direct military involvement in Vietnam had ended the year before with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, and in the coming year the war itself would conclude with a victory for the communist North and that infamous scene with the helicopter taking off from the roof of a Saigon apartment building.

I’ve read about soldier-boy toys like GI Joe losing their popularity as America’s disillusionment with the military-industrial complex grew in the early 1970s, but you would never have known it if you lived in south Georgia suburbia, where we fought massive battles with the Marx Toys “Guns of Navaroneplayset, watched syndicated re-runs of The Rat Patrol on TV and un-selfconsciously waged war amongst ourselves with plastic rifles and kid-sized army uniforms.

And we read war comics unapologetically and even semi-patriotically; the Americans were always the good guys and always won, and while we might sympathize with individual German or Japanese soldiers (like Enemy Ace or the kamikaze pilot from the famous U.S.S. Stevens tale by Sam Glanzman), we also expected them to die at the story's end. We read of Sergeants Rock and Fury, and also DC's bizarre hybrid of war and horror, perfectly poised to fit whatever peacenik zeitgeist was supposedly floating in the air of the Me Decade, Weird War Tales, the comic hosted by Death.

But more important to me personally, Weird War Tales #32 is yet another comic containing a single panel so shocking to my six-year-old self it’s come back to haunt me time and again over the years. But, as I learned while rediscovering Our Army at War #271, memory is a very tricky thing. It’s faulty, very subjective, especially as the chronological gap grows between initial observation and later remembrance.

Once again, I have no idea how I came to own this comic. Maybe my parents bought it for me. I loved Godzilla movies when I was a kid, and who can argue with the cover-- a giant, fire-breathing beast killing the snot out of a bunch of Nazis? It looks a little like something out of Marvel's pre-Fantastic Four monster titles. Too bad there's nothing remotely resembling this image anywhere inside the comic. It would've made one helluva story.

The two things I actually thought I remembered about Weird War Tales #32 were the robotic Japanese soldiers... and the general who made a deal for immortality and paid a horrific price for it. But my brain really did a number on those stories over the years, twisting them all out of shape like those ink images we used to pick up from the newspaper funny pages on Silly Putty, then bend and stretch until Dick Tracy or Charlie Brown looked even more like sideshow freaks. Obviously, I'm not one of those eidetic memory people, although some of my friends seem to think I am.

No, I may have Rainman's social skills, but I'll never have his card-counting abilities. No trips to Vegas for this kid.

Take, for example, how my brain mish-mashed the story “Mission Into Madness.” It’s just a two-pager. Two measly pages! But over the years, I really embellished it. I remembered it being much longer, with the US Marines hitting the beach of a Pacific island in a massive amphibious assault only to run into much stronger resistance from the Japanese than they’d expected. And in the end, they get a shock when they discover they’re fighting not men, but robots. About the only thing I remembered correctly were the Japanese robot soldiers. Actually, a mere three OSS agents paddle a rubber raft onto the beach, and from the dialogue, they’re very much aware they’re tangling with mechanical men.

Well, that was a cool little tale, but hardly frightening, even with its implication future iterations of the war-robots will be more effective. The story that scared the shit out of my six-year-old self was “Glutton for Punishment” by Jack Oleck, with art by someone named Jodloman. And even that one wasn't safe from the ravages of my creaky brain-waves. The way I remembered it was some Greek general from Alexander’s army makes a deal with Satan for immortality so he can conquer his own empire.

Actually, the protagonist is a Crusader knight, a fat gourmand at the head of a large company of men who hate his guts. I’d completely forgotten the food aspect, as the commander and his men haven’t eaten for several days as the story begins.

Instead of Satan, a ghostly Saracen named Ibn Said-- is he demon, sorcerer or djinn? The story never tells us-- comes to the commander's tent and offers a feast, but with a catch. If the commander accepts, he can live as long as he wants, until he requests to die, after which he’ll be Ibn Said’s slave in the afterlife for eternity. Being a fat pig, the commander can hardly resist and digs into the food with relish, sneers at Ibn Said’s terms. After all, who would ever ask to die?

His courage bucked up by his seeming invincibility, the commander throws himself into the campaign with surprising vigor… only to lose an ear to a Saracen’s scimitar. Shocked and in pain, he orders his men forward, then confronts the spectral Ibn Said. The commander shouts, “You! How-- Trickster! You lied to me! You promised me I wouldn't be hurt! Liar!" And Ibn Said gently replies, “Liar? I promised that you would live until you asked to die, Commander, nothing else. Remember? I regret your injury, of course, but-- ”

No matter, it’s just an ear. The knights attack another Saracen city, and this time, the commander loses his left eye. Now he’s really getting pissed at Ibn Said, and his troops are starting to think he's not only an asshole but an insane asshole.

One thing that makes this story so effective is Oleck’s use of the traditional motif of threes. You know how that goes—in folktales and jokes, the third time is always the charm. The first odd prime number, Dante's Divine Comedy has three parts of thirty-three cantos each, the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, the Holy Trinity, the original Star Wars trilogy, their crappy prequels, Three's Company starring the late John Ritter as Jack Tripper, good things and bad news come in threes, three is the magic number. After the commander receives two wounds, Oleck has foreshadowed something nasty. What body part comes next? What loss will cause the haughty commander to beg for death, giving him his richly-deserved comeuppance?

The greedy, hateful bastard meets his doom trying to get to safety at Jerusalem, after allowing the Saracens to wipe out his army. Forced to take shelter in some ruins, the commander and his few remaining knights suffer bombardment from Greek fire (the half-remembrance of which I think altered the story’s time period in my mind over the years). The smarter knights flee, but the enraged commander chooses to stay. After all, he’s immortal now. Ibn Said taunts him as the Saracens score a direct hit on our livid fatso with their fiery weapon…

And here’s where things get gruesome. In the aftermath, we see Ibn Said standing triumphantly over what’s left of the commander… a burnt, limbless hulk. Hair singed off, naked and in excruciating pain. But his mind is still working. He manages to argue his way into an alteration of the original bargain and has Ibn Said “put [him] back together.”

The result resembles an overcooked baked potato that somehow rolled behind the refrigerator, picking up dust bunnies and cobwebs, a thing with no arms but with over-sized hands sticking out of its buttocks. The commander begs for Ibn Said to kill him, but the ghostly Saracen is walking away. Death, the narrator, gloats that the commander can still eat, “If he finds someone to feed him, that is.”

Now that last page scared the living shit out of me as a six-year-old. The hideously deformed commander is bad enough, but the thought that Ibn Said just left him alive and immortal and in that condition gave me nightmares that night. For weeks afterwards, I had this fear that one day, I might actually meet the commander, perhaps in my own bedroom. He’d be standing there on his gnarled hands, his flabby body naked and crawling with scar tissue under the incandescent light that ordinarily seemed so comforting but now offered only a brightly illuminated view of the follies of both gluttony and war.

But the way I long remembered the last panel was as a full-frontal shot of the commander’s new form. Instead, it’s a shadowed rear angle. You get to see his burnt ass, though. And we all love burnt asses, right?
I don’t really understand why Ibn Said didn’t take his soul. There's nothing in the dialogue suggesting they changed that part of the deal. Ah well, it's just a small plot hole, not enough to ruin the story. Or prevent me from carrying its final panel in some form or other around in my mind for more than thirty years.