Friday, April 30, 2010

This Is What I Do When I'm Not Reading Comics...

This is Melt-Banana. They are the best live band in existence today.

Today I'm meeting friends and going to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. Tomorrow, I'll try to find Blister and celebrate Free Comic Book Day.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Excuse My Brief Hiatus...

At least I hope it'll be brief. I'm about to take off on my victory lap around Tokyo, so I doubt I'll be able to update here. But in a couple of weeks expect more Maggie and Hopey, more Planet of the Apes, more whining about how DC isn't treating Cassandra Cain right and a lot more stuff about how cool Dani Moonstar, Dr. Spektor and the Star Trek gang are.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Return of Dr. Spektor and His Crazy Occult Files!

Okay, maybe my characterizing them as "crazy" is a bit over the top. But you have to admit that Dr. Spektor is one strange dude. He dresses kind of like Sherlock Holmes and, most alarmingly, he also sports rather longish hair... and a full beard, like a common hippie! Dr. Spektor and his mad, mod secretary, Lakota Rainflower, shamelessly co-habitate in a manner best reserved for man and wife; a scandalous flouting of our social mores. And rather than work an ordinary, salaried job and enjoy the benefits won for him by our valiant American fighting men in Europe and Asia, Dr. Spektor spends his time investigating vampires, ghosts and other assorted supernatural freaks. At one point he even becomes a werewolf!

I rather suspect he eschews gun ownership and does not worship in the church of his choice on Sundays.

Taken all together, my fellow Americans, this evidence suggests Dr. Spektor poses a threat to the very fabric of our society. To our way of life. I'm not saying he's part of the International Communist Conspiracy; I merely suggest he might possibly be a communist who's engaged in some sort of conspiracy on an international scale.

Now Dark Horse Comics is bringing back this notorious subversive and his paranormal adventures in a 200 page hardcover book reprinting the first seven issues of The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor. Created by Donald F. Glut-- who would go on to write scripts for a variety of TV shows that have since entered the pop culture canon, plus the "novelization" of The Empire Strikes Back-- and artist Dan Spiegle, Spektor was an early prototype of characters like Kolchak, Fox Mulder, even Hellboy and the BPRD. Filipino artist Jesse Santos provided the art for the regular series; his illustrations have a rich, noodly line that adds a strong graphic element to Spektor's world. It reminds me a bit of Alex Nino's artwork.

Santo also largely ignored ruling his panel borders unless necessary for clarity. As a result, the page layouts seem very open.

I only remember owning one issue of The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor and that was #11, the beginning of a story arc where the good doctor finds himself cursed with lycanthropy. As I've probably told you, Gold Key comics were notoriously difficult to find in my hometown, so that may have been the only Dr. Spektor I ever saw. I was seriously disappointed Valiant didn't revive him along with the other Gold Key characters during their early 90s heyday; Spektor wouldn't quite have fit in with the likes of Dr. Solar (who nevertheless once guest-starred in the original comic) and the Harbinger kids, but somewhere might have found a way to work him into the mix. After all, The X-Files was quickly achieving its status as the cult show of the hipster cognoscenti. I think having been exposed to Dr. Spektor and Carl Kolchak as a child made me susceptible to Mulder and Scully's moody adventures, and to Hellboy's as well. Perhaps even Ghostbusters, although I probably approached that from the Saturday Night Live connection; I was as big a fan of comedy as I was of comics and the outre.

Anyway, I never found out what happened to Dr. Spektor and Lakota after that single issue. Did he remain a werewolf? Did she find the rest of her clothes? The ending satisfactorily concluded the issue's plot but left that story element curiously open-ended. It was a mystery to haunt me the rest of my days...

Or at least until the advent of the Internet and comic companies like Dark Horse. Dark Horse seems intent on reviving every part of my childhood. It's almost as if they've gone into the attic of my brain and started opening dusty cardboard boxes there. Creepy and Eerie, Savage Sword of Conan. And now The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor. Pinko hippie commie or not, the good doctor needs to investigate Dark Horse and see what kind of bizarre psychic powers they're channeling over there!

And now the bad news. The suggested retail price is $49.95, which puts this book a bit out of the range I'm willing to pay. Dark Horse's archive books are nice and hefty but expensive. As much as I enjoyed that one issue of The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor, I need a more consumer-friendly softcover edition before I shell out cash to revisit this series. I hope there are enough Spektor-freaks out there to justify Dark Horse's venture and make this happen.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bob McLeod Accepted My Friend Request on Facebook!

That ends several anxious weeks of waiting. As you know, I have a mild interest in comic books and the art they contain, so when I saw a friend of mine had inker extraordinaire/New Mutants co-creator Bob McLeod on his friends list, I had to make a request too. McLeod isn't as active as Steve Rude or Michael Golden-- those guys are always posting updates and eye-popping artwork-- it's just a nice feeling to have made a connection with another of my favorite artists.

In other news, I may not be able to make it to Blister for day one of Free Comic Book Day. Fortunately, these wonderful peeps do it for two days. Don't we deserve a second helping of Free Comic Book Day? I think we do and the Blister staff apparently agree.

I now have lunch plans with a former student in addition to the visit I'll make with friends to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. I'm still going to give Blister a go on day one, but I may not be able to make it over there until nearly closing time. We'll see what happens. Last year they had long boxes full of books at a major discount and I hate to miss out on that in case the good stuff has been thoroughly picked over by discerning comic consumers.

I'm desperate to do this one more time even though I'll have ample access to four-color funnybooks starting next week. At regular cover price rather than the import mark-up. They're still overpriced, though. Most of them. That carping aside, it's fun to check out American comics in Japan, even more so than in the States. Here they're an oddity, a little side-niche not even as prevalent as Japanese comics are back home. Which is probably a more accurate assessment of comic book demographics worldwide: Japanese comics big, American comics small.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Future Technology of Gold Key's Star Trek Comics!

Here's an amazing device featured prominently-- and with little justification as far as the rest of the plot goes-- in Gold Key's Star Trek #39. The Enterprise crew has just recovered a floating coffin from deep space and now they have to endure "steri-rays."

Which tickle you. This is a moment dauntless space pioneer James Tiberius Kirk did not record in his captain's log.

By the way, the coffin contains the body of one Dr. Alfred Bleikoff, a combination of Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi. He's the deceased leader of a 20th century peace movement, and once revived by the amazing super-tickling science of the 23rd century, he starts all kinds of trouble. If you thought Gene Roddenberry's conceptualization of the United Federation of Planets was something of a liberal's paradise, apparently it's not. According to Dr. Bleikoff, it's practically a fascist police state. The only four who remain unaffected by Dr. Bleikoff's ultra-pacifist teachings are Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott, who, for some reason, also gets to order even his superior officers to take off their clothes for some nude tickling in what appears to be a Radio Shack warehouse.

I'm not sure why he's in charge, but a page or so later he's also calling them "fools" and generally bullying both McCoy and Spock during a medical procedure. I'm also not sure why our heroes dance in the steri-ray machine, but there you have it. Nude, sterilizing, tickling rays and manic disco dancing. So rest assured, comic fans-- science will someday make some great strides in these closely related medical fields.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

That New Kid Over in Riverdale...

I don't write about Archie Comics here very often. They don't give me reason to. But I'd feel pretty left out if I didn't offer my stupid opinion on Kevin, the first openly gay character in the Riverdale cast. I'm sure everyone else is going to, so why shouldn't I? And I wrote "openly" because we don't know who might or might not be closeted or questioning.

Anyway, here comes Kevin in a splash of self-congratulatory publicity and potential blog-blowhard (like me!) explosion. And I have a mostly positive view on this, with a few caveats.

It's not as if Kevin were the first openly gay character in comics. So it feels a little odd patting Archie Comics on the back for doing this so far behind the curve. Gilberto Hernandez frequently features gay protagonists with zero fanfare (just his usual topnotch storytelling skills), while both DC and Marvel often trumpet their characters' sexuality for a quick publicity jolt and possible short term sales boost. But the fiction-writing aesthetics and ethics of that kind of stuff are two essays unto themselves (or possibly one giant essay), and probably not one I'm qualified to write. On the other hand, Archie Comics isn't Fantagraphics, so perhaps the comparisons aren't completely fair. People think of Archie Comics primarily as kids' comics, perhaps the last ones aimed at the medium's original demographic; I can see a few commentators of a particular political or religious stripe taking dead aim at Archie in an attempt to fight one of those "culture war" battles over this.

I'm more concerned with characterization. I wouldn't want "Veronica's gay friend" to become Kevin's sole defining characteristic. While depth of characterization and Archie Comics aren't two concepts that usually go together, I hope Kevin grows beyond the initial "world's hunkiest guy who can do anything and... hey, he's gay!" introduction. Give him a real personality and interests outside simply being "the gay character we stuck in a story or two, then decided not to use again because that's pretty much as far as our thinking carried us."

They also need to have Kevin date. If they really want to show progress, he shouldn't be gay in character description only. Once he's part of Archie's world, they need to do some stories where Kevin has the same kind of romantic quandaries as the rest of the gang, with the same level of fun and lightness as any of Archie's love triangles. You don't have to explain it or justify it, just make the stories entertaining and funny.

And finally, I wonder why it couldn't have been an established character rather than this newly-created person. The obvious candidate would be Jughead, but that's too easy. Reggie would be an intriguing choice, but that would eliminate Archie's greatest rival. Still, the Riverdale cast is huge, so there are plenty of others to choose from and I'd bet on one or more of them being gay, bi, transgendered or some combination just from a statistical analysis. They've got more people walking around than in Hoppers and Palomar combined.

On the other hand, and this more than trumps my little concerns... it's a gay character in Archie Comics, where no doubt his portrayal will be positive and affirming:

"The introduction of Kevin is just about keeping the world of Archie Comics current and inclusive. Archie's hometown of Riverdale has always been a safe world for everyone," said Archie Comics Co- CEO Jon Goldwater in the release. "It just makes sense to have an openly gay character in Archie comic books."

I like that. A safe world for everyone. I like the idea of Riverdale being the kind of place where your worst experience is having to choose between two equally awesome dates for the high school prom rather than your high school cancelling your prom simply because you exist.

Occasionally Archie Comics does something that fills me with a kind of nostalgic warmth and makes me want to start reading them again. The last time was when they introduced Kumi, the exchange student from Japan, and hired Misako Rocks! to script (they need her to write and draw a few more, by the way). As a result, Kumi is one of the few believably Japanese characters in American comics, with an authenticity of voice not found in the usual offerings. Without all the stereotypical martial arts trappings, samurai ancestors, yakuza relatives or blue hair for no reason. You know, Katana from Batman and the Outsiders, Armor from Astonishing X-Men, Surge, Silver Samurai, the second Dr. Light, Colleen Wing and the like. None of that stuff would fit Riverdale, but the Archie people could have botched Kumi and her family in any number of other ways. Instead, they got it right.

That in itself was a hell of an achievement for an American comic company. If Kevin's conceptualization comes close to Kumi's, then Archie Comics will really have cause to celebrate themselves. And we will, too.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Happy Retirement, Leonard Nimoy!

It's not comic-related, unless peripherally, but Leonard Nimoy just announced his retirement from show business. It isn't sad news, because it's not like he's going away. Certainly, he played a wide variety of other roles, but Nimoy has left an indelible mark on pop culture with his Mr. Spock characterization. I just finished watching the first season of the original Star Trek and spent a great deal of that time largely focused on Nimoy's performance. It's subtle, engaging, shows a flair for the comedic and incredibly sympathetic; all this while playing a character supposedly without emotions. He also managed to keep his dignity while sporting a bowl cut, pointed ears and shaved eyebrows.

Sure, Mr. Spock and other charming aliens are familiar to us now, but imagine how bizarre and silly he must have appeared to audiences tuning into NBC back in 1966. Yet by the end of the show, Spock-- as portrayed by Nimoy-- was a star. Even during the first season, you can see writers adding more and more Spock to the stories. I give the credit almost solely to Nimoy's ability to pull off something that must have seemed impossible at the time; once writers saw what he could do with the character, it unfettered their imaginations and we ended up with so many wonderful moments in episodes such as "City on the Edge of Forever" and "Amok Time."

And not once do you see Nimoy flinch or give even the most ridiculous scenes and dialogue anything less than total commitment. Even lumbering around in the atrocious "Spock's Brain," in which the dialogue and personality-free nature of what he was given to do in the script strikes me as the producer's punishment for Nimoy's protectiveness and stewardship of his role, he tries to make it work.

That the real Nimoy is so dedicated, likable and thoughtful is a bonus. Those of us who are Star Trek nutcases have been lucky to have had him around for so long, willing to put on those ears and bring Spock back to life on so many memorable-- and occasionally, ludicrous-- occasions.

So congratulations, Mr. Nimoy, and thanks!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jillian Tamaki's Indoor Voice is Out Now...

I'm late. It's been out for a week or so now, but since I live across the ocean I don't always get to learn of these things in a timely manner. Jillian Tamaki did the exquisite artwork for one of my favorite graphic novels of the past few years, the Eisner-nominated Skim (equally beautifully written by her cousin Mariko). And now she has a new book, which doesn't seem to be a narrative exactly. Hey, to be perfectly honest, I don't know what it is but I want it. The Amazon description is a bit cryptic and the description is in Japanese. I don't have to have it explained to me. That it contains Tamaki's art is enough.

I feel a little guilty for not having read Emiko Superstar by Mariko and Steve Rolston. Both these books are going on my Amazon wish list as of tonight.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Comics/Music Connection 3: Wrapped Up in Comics!

What is it with these British rock bands and their ability to combine strong melodies, intelligent, insightful lyrics and hooks into tasty musical confections you can listen to endlessly? Here's a video for Belle and Sebastian's "Wrapped Up in Books:"

And if my love for Belle and Sebastian hasn't forever branded me a twee hipster past his expiration date in your eyes, I present this startling image from the video:

I can't tell you how many hours I've spent tracking down the comic this pixie-cut young woman hides in some no doubt headier volume for her sneaky enjoyment. At first, I thought it was a vintage issue of Love and Rockets volume 1, from around the "In the Valley of the Polar Bears" era. I could have sworn that was Doyle in the second panel. It seems to be one of his characteristic poses, at least before he was forced to use a cane due to some unspecified injury.

After going through every Jaime Hernandez story I own page by painstaking page, I couldn't locate this scene in any of them. But I may have skipped an issue or two inadvertantly; there are some gaps in my collection. Then I thought perhaps it's from one of Gilberto's Palomar stories. I'm not as up on Palomar as I am on Hoppers, but I searched as many of those as I could as well. My theory at that point was the woman was none other than Palomar's sheriff, Chelo, but the hair doesn't match.

Finally, I just said, "To hell with it" and gave up. I now believe it to be some fabulous British comic I've never heard of, much less read, available only to the ultra-cool cognoscenti of which I am not.

And if the young woman in the video knows...

... she's not telling.

Kind of leaves us hanging, doesn't it? Where's the revelation? Where's the catharsis? In life, unlike in most comics, there often is none.

The Comics/Music Connection 2: The Ramones Cover the Spider-Man Theme!

It's always the right time for this classic Ramones cover version of the theme to the Grantray-Lawrence Animation/Ralph Bakshi Spider-Man cartoon from the 1960s. I used to get up very early on Sunday mornings before church to try to catch this show on WTCG out of Atlanta-- you know, the station that later became WTBS and then the whole TBS/CNN Ted Turner media empire before Time-Warner absorbed it.

Unfortunately, I usually didn't wake up in time and would only get to see the closing credits of Spider-Man. Then I'd watch Speed Racer and Ultraman back-to-back, which was some consolation. Spider-Man and the 1980s Mighty Mouse are the only two Bakshi cartoons I can stand; his movies depress me with their overwhelming misogyny and make me feel unclean, so I try to avoid them whenever they air.

Be that as it may, I feel almost the opposite about the Ramones, and when they take on Spidey's most familiar musical theme-- so entrenched in our popular culture Sam Raimi felt the need to include it in each of his Spider-Man movies-- it's pure pop culture magic. Er... Raimi did include this song in some form in Spider-Man 3, right? I seem to have blocked that fiasco from my memory.

My friend Brian and I used to entertain each other with our own rendition while working way past midnight on Thursdays and Fridays trying to complete a certain soul-devouring weekly shopper for its Saturday morning distribution. Only in our version, Spidey used his incredible powers and their weighty responsibilities to complete banal tasks:

Spider-Man, Spider-Man

Does whatever a spider can

Goes to work

Comes back home

Eats dinner

Watches TV

Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man!


Spider-Man, Spider-Man

Does whatever a spider can

Walks the dog

Takes a nap

Calls his mom

Eats a sandwich

Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man!

There were approximately 6,500 verses to this song. Let that be lesson to you graphic design hopefuls: don't work for weekly shoppers or you'll go insane.

Here in Japan, the Blue Hearts are the cultural equivalent of the Ramones, by the way. This connection is acknowledged in 2005's high school comedy Linda Linda Linda starring Bae Doona, Maeda Aki and Kashii Yu. In this low key charmer, four girls attempt to learn some Blue Hearts songs to perform at their school festival, the last they'll attend before heading off to college the following year. Kashii's character has a vivid dream in which she's given a set of larger hands so she can better play rock guitar; the stunned and delighted girl goes off to give a solo performance at the storied Budokan in front of none other than the Ramones. Here's the trailer, which doesn't feature that scene but is still entertaining in its own right:

Who says this isn't the Marvel Age of... Ramones... and other unrelated stuff...


Friday, April 16, 2010

Whither Cassandra Cain?

I often ask myself this. I often ask DC this in this blog. I suppose I should write a letter to some editor or other and ask directly, but it'd go straight into the crank file or something and being ignored in this venue takes less effort on my part. Why am I asking this question again, this unanswerable question? This stupid, pointless, infuriating question? The kind of question idiots like myself ponder late at night when they should be drunk or drugged into a stupor? The kind of question I should have stopped asking about a year or so ago when the abysmally written Batgirl: Redemption Road miniseries tanked?

This time it's because over on Occasional Superheroine, Valerie D'Orazio posted a pic of an iPad with the caption, "[A]rtist's rendering of what Batman would look like on an iPad if DC got their act together," but the image on it is of the Cass Cain Batgirl swinging into action with Batman. DC's iPad offerings will probably never look like that because they don't seem to want anything to do with poor ol' Cass.

On April 5th, Comic Book Resources published a story about the recent DC Editorial presentation at WonderCon in San Francisco. It features this tantalizing exchange:

Another fan asked about the future of Cassandra Cain. [DC Senior Story Editor Ian] Sattler cryptically responded, "There's a plan. I don't know if it's in action."

If DC's own senior story editor doesn't know what's going on, how are we, the few remaining Cassandra Cain fans who haven't completely given up, supposed to hang onto those remaining shreds of hope? Obviously, we've long since abandoned our dignity.

The only other mention of Cassandra Cain outside of fan-produced porn I've been able to find recently is Amanda Tarbet's nifty Sequential Tart review of the new ongoing Batgirl series starring Stephanie Brown. Tarbet makes some good points about Cass, especially this one:

[E]ven though it wasn't so long ago that she told Bruce she fought for the symbol and not him[.]

This echoes a post I illustrated with exactly the panel in which Cass tells Bruce that very thing, from issue 50 of her own late, lamented book. A post that pre-dates Tarbet's review by one week, I might add. So I feel validated by her agreement and have to thank her for backing me up. We don't agree about the quality of the new book, though. I think it's pretty wan stuff even by the meagre standards of mainstream superhero books and not nearly as memorable or engaging as the initial issues of Cass's series. But I can enjoy the enthusiasm evinced over Stephanie Brown's inheriting the Batgirl identity; if any character deserves it, it's Stephanie Brown.

See, I'm very much in favor of Stephanie as Batgirl and don't begrudge that change one little bit. I simply don't like how the changeover was handled and how Cass has disappeared most ridiculously from all the Bat-books despite a massive new storyline that would involve her emotionally if we're to buy the last couple developments in her character history.

Actually, if the new Batgirl ongoing did anything we haven't already seen in dozens of equally generic superhero books, I'd probably be buying issues on a semi-monthly basis whenever I could make a trip to Tokyo to look for it. Being a Cass fan doesn't make me predisposed towards disliking the Stephanie Brown-starring Batgirl, and I could not care less if DC used Cass in that identity again; the editors and creators there could make me happy by giving her a completely new costume and codename.

A non-Dragon Lady n0n-villainess new costume and codename, natch.

Like someone with the deviantART handle FSbot drew: Cassandra Cain as Nightwing. It may not be a new name or costume, but that's a pretty sweet idea, as far as I'm concerned-- and FSbot's artwork looks very professional. I am a-diggin' it, but know this isn't going to happen. I'm only bringing it up here just to share FSbot's conceptual art and because it's a great example of what DC could do with Cass.

You know, as oppposed to... oh... the nothing they're doing with her now. Even though it makes absolutely no fictional sense whatsoever for her not to running back to Gotham City excited as all get out over the merest possiblity her adoptive father is still alive somewhere in time.

Ah, superhero funnybooks. I suppose I'm a fool for expecting you to make sense. At least Marvel gave me Dani and Xi'an back in a kick-ass way.

Thanks, Marvel!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Free Comic Book Day in Tokyo...

I'll be heading to Blister's new location wherever the hell that might be on Free Comic Book Day here in Japan. Here's hoping I can find it. And expect a full report about it and the Studio Ghibli Museum sometime in early May.

These Are the Comics I Read Regularly...

I'm in the process of moving back to the United States and all my hardcover archive books and whatnot and frippery are now resting in cardboard boxes I took from the supermarket downtown. I'm a bit stressed and running low on inspiration. So in lieu of anything timely or relevant or even interesting, here's a list.

1) Love and Rockets. Even though it only comes out once a year, a new issue of Love and Rockets is a major event for me. Perhaps because it only comes out once a year.

2) New Mutants. The only superhero book I can stand. After 11 issues I realized just how much I'm enjoying getting to know these characters again. I'm enjoying Zeb Wells' versions-- and Kieron Gillen's-- and really digging how Dani Moonstar is once again dominating the storylines. Now I'm hooked!

3) BPRD and Hellboy. Pretty much anything with a Mignola connection, but I'm taken with the characters and concepts. Guy Davis is a revelation on art, and I enjoyed Duncan Fegredo's work here a lot more than I did when his X-Statix... or was it X-Force... fill-in issue underwhelmed me. And Richard Corben? Wow!

4) Nana. I'm not sure when Yazawa Ai's going to take up where she left off. I haven't had an update on her condition in a while. Nana is every bit as addictive as Love and Rockets.

5) League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century. Black Dossier was pretty cool-- especially the color section devoted to Orlando's life story and the vicious slam job on James Bond-- and merely whetted my appetite for more. Which "1910" sated temporarily. Now Mina and Allan are going to take on the 60s when London swung like the pendulum... did? Sign me up, please. I'll watch Hard Day's Night back to back with Help and Yellow Submarine one thousand times to get in the mood. I can't wait to see who Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill weave into their plot.

And that's about it. Torpedo rocks, but it's sealed in a box right now and I can't get at it. I'm very into Dark Horse's Creepy and Eerie and Nexus reprints, and Fantagraphics' Blazing Combat volume is one of my favorite books of any kind... ever. But while I've enjoyed a few other titles here and there, like 20th Century Boys, nothing current has really sparked an obsession like the five books listed above.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

New Mutants #11: A Comic Review!

New Mutants 11
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Art: Niko Henrichon

I’m going to spend this review gushing fannishly about how the writers have been handling Dani Moonstar in the current New Mutants ongoing. Zeb Well's characterizations of all the characters were mostly wonderful, especially in scenes spotlighting my favorite New Mutants Dani, Xi’an and Sam. And now here's Kieron Gillen taking on Dani as a Valkyrie.

Let's be honest: I love Dani. I hate Dani as a Valkyrie.

Not only that, this comic also features something else I can't abide-- it's apparently part of a massive meta-arc. I live in Japan, so I can only buy comics irregularly, and even if I had access to every issue each month, I'd still avoid these humongous crossovers and storylines that expect you to buy ten or more different titles to get the complete plot. Fortunately, all I need is Marvel's inside-front cover blurb to fill me in on the story's context and I'm good to go. The kids are in Las Vegas and there's something going on in Asgard, but Asgard is in Oklahoma. Play on!

Hey, I've been to Oklahoma. It's hot and humid in the summer and frigid in the winter. The Arkansas River might have had water in it at some point, but evidently realized it was flowing through Oklahoma and committed suicide at the Colorado border. All I saw of this so-called river was a wide mud flat below giant flaming smokestacks that turned into a Blade Runner hellscape at night. The air reverberated with the sound of Oral Roberts's Bible being slammed shut repeatedly by the "Praying Hands" sculpture at his university. I took a Greyhound bus the hell out of there through a lot of rolling farmland and brick ranch-style houses with oil pumps in their backyards instead of swimming pools. No mystical Viking cities, though. I might have hung out longer had there been.

Enough digression. With Dani, it's never been about her mutant abilities; ditching them has only made her more compelling. There’s just something interesting about a character with anger issues tempered by compassion, a natural-born contrarian who somehow finds within herself a capacity to lead. She's definitely the kind of person who'd join a mutant liberation front and just as abruptly quit it; you can imagine her doing so because she believes it's the right thing to do, even without the double-agent justification.

However, out of all the Dani-alterations over the years, I’ve long thought making her into a Valkyrie was the least necessary. So, yes, I approached this issue with some trepidation. Valkyrie Dani in Oklahoma, in the midst of a multi-book storyline. Yikes! In fact, so prejudiced am I against the whole notion of flying horses and Dani doing sword-and-sorcery, I came at it moaning and preparing all kinds of mean-spirited smart-assery. If you think I'm tough on Oklahoma, wait until you get a load of me bitching about stupid Asgardian, Ren Faire, mead-drinking...

Anyway, in some comic I haven’t and won’t read, Cyclops needs more muscle on his team to deal with Ares, and being the master field commander he is and willing to make hard decisions, pulls out his New Mutants back issues, finds the Asgard storyline and says, “Hey! Let’s use Dani and her magical flying horse!” So he gets her to forge a magical contract with Hela of Hel. Not a nice person to deal with. Also, apparently, Cyclops is the kind of guy who invites friends out to dinner at fancy restaurants, orders the big ticket items on the menu and the fine after-dinner cigars, then tells everyone he must have left his wallet in his other costume. This time, it's our girl Dani who's stuck with the bill.

The perverse logic of Hela's magic-- and I don't think I've ever read a story where a writer so cleverly explains the drawbacks of magical contracts-- forces Dani to become a biker chick version of Frank Frazetta’s "Death Dealer" and off she goes to screw things up by following her heart instead of her head, in classic Dani style. Gillen makes her internal conflict palpable throughout, from her griping and attempting to argue her way out of the ordeal to the point she breathlessly admits to her... sigh... flying horse that she's missed being a Valkyrie—the power is a rush and try as she might, she can’t deny it. Instead of making me hate the whole thing, Gillen has Dani do it for me and when she finally finds herself uneasily enjoying it...

I was doing the same. Actually enjoying a Dani-Valkyrie story despite my self-programming. Only Gillen makes it easy for me to cop to a sea change in attitude.

Simply because Gillen presents fast-paced, action-heavy story spotlighting a recognizable Dani Moonstar throughout. She absolutely doesn't want to go through with this, but does it because that's the deal she's made. That's exactly the kind of thing Dani would do; her conscience demands it of her. Eventually caught up in her Asgardian persona, she lets fly with some Bruce Campbell-style badassery. And, being Dani, immediately deflates herself with a self-conscious aside. Everything occurs as the result of her choices, and her choices proceed from a Dani consistent with the one we've known for years. She's still the willful, sometimes pigheaded idealist.

And this is how you wring drama and conflict from a character—even one with so many conflicting concepts foisted upon her by other writers-- without deconstructing her in such a way as to alienate the fans. Gillen's a skilled writer who approaches his protagonists with respect, takes something as counter-intuitive as Dani-the-Valkyrie and turns it into something entertaining and heart-wrenching. And it's so seamlessly integrated with regular writer Zeb Wells's take on Dani, I had no idea Marvel had switched scripters on me until after I read the book and went back to check the credit line so I could write this review.

Another thing I've enjoyed about the current New Mutants series is how the editorial team takes some chances with the artist choices. Yes, Diogenes Neves turns in solid work in a fairly slick modern vein, lots of cross-hatching and widescreen panel layouts; it's attractive enough superhero work, very now. But editor Nick Lowe seems to like mixing things up with sports like Zachary Baldus in issue five and now Niko Henrichon's mangaesque work. This might seem like a strange choice for a foray into Tolkein fantasy-land, but by the time Dani's talking to ghosts and fighting teeth-monsters, Henrichon's created a very striking visual tableau, a little like Kojima Goseki meets Cary Nord on a Hyborian battlefield. He helps Gillen make even the nasty Hela a sympathetic figure by giving her appropriately pouty facial expressions at the proper times. John Kricfalusi likes to talk about "acting" in animated shorts; this concept holds true with static comic book art as well, and poorly-chosen facial expressions can wreck a writer's intent.

I'd like to see them push further in this direction. Keep Neves but also fill-in some stange, new talent with outlandish approaches to sequential art.

What I don't understand is why they'd go to the trouble of getting someone like Terry Dodson to draw the cover, then chop it in half for some kind of cityscape graphic and some duller-than-dull sans serif typeface. Dodson is an ace renderer, although he gives Dani the standard Dodson face and goddess body-- all lean muscle and giant boobs, approximately 6 and 1/2 feet tall; quite unlike the slender girl found inside the book. But hey, I've never been a Valkyrie. Maybe physical idealization is part of the magic.

But that's not the problem. The problem is when you have Dodson on cover duties and the image is a mighty warrior queen in a winged helmet, a M-60 machine gun set to rock-n-roll in her hand-- why crop it in half? Such a waste. Go for the epic, dammit! This could have been a poster. It demands a full-on leap into Boris Vallejo insanity, but instead we get a kind of half-assed Saul Bass.

You know, if Dani stays a Valkyrie, I'm strangely okay with that after reading Gillen's tasty version. Just so long as she stays Dani. Oh... and isn't it amusing how Dani is still elbowing her co-stars out of the center stage, just as she did back in the days when Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod were handling the stories?

Friday, April 9, 2010

What Does Michael Golden Have Brewing?

Comics legend Michael Golden recently hinted at a "new project on the horizon" on his Facebook feed. The only thing I really like about social networking is having your art idols as "friends;" you get all the little tidbits direct from the person most involved. I'm thinking and speculating and dreaming about this mysterious project quite a lot lately. Is it...

1) A new comic?
2) The Spartan X trade he promised?
3) Something to do with the classic Golden/Bill Mantlo Micronauts series?
4) Some art wonderment as yet undreamed of by Michael Golden fans?

Since Marvel already fulfilled my wish for a The 'Nam reprint trade, I honestly haven't a clue as to what Golden is teasing. Whatever it is, it'll look fantastic. I generally hate fannish gushing, but Golden has just gotten better and better over the years. Unlike certain other fan favorite artists of that era who seem to have peaked at some point in the late 80s or early 90s and gone into a slow, disappointing decline, Golden puts out tasty imagery to this day, with an ever-growing grasp of what makes an image work. Strong design sense, dynamic anatomy, lots of little visual extras and not a line wasted or had for cheap.

Another constantly improving artist who goes by the name of Steve Rude is extremely active on Facebook, too. This is a guy who won awards right out of the box back when I was a teenybopper and his artistic vision has only grown over the ensuing years. Now his focus is the fine arts, but he still keeps a hand in the comics game by taking on commissions and drawing whatever character strikes his fancy that day. And every few days, he and his family post his latest works. Commissions, personal artwork, sketchbook pages, some in black and white, some in color markers, all eye-popping and worth getting sucked into the whole Facebook vortex.

Just the other day, the Dude showed off a gorgeous watercolor he did of a figure skater, one he made up completely, sans life model. The sense of motion, the athletic grace of the skater, the cold, wet texture of the ice-- pure Dude imagineering. I seem to be getting more of a Steve Rude fix now that he's retired from sequential work; comics' loss is our gain.

But man, I need to know what Michael Golden's up to!