Friday, December 30, 2011

Gary Friedrich loses fight for Ghost Rider movie money

Poor guy.  A New York judge ruled in favor of Marvel in Gary Friedrich's lawsuit against the company over the movie rights to Ghost Rider.  I didn't see the movie, but enough people did there are piles of money lying around, enough for a sequel and with plenty left over for everyone involved except Friedrich.  I really feel for Friedrich here, especially after reading the quote from his deposition where he states "he stopped doing freelance comic-book writing in 1978 when his alcoholism got 'completely out of control.'"

At the same time, I don't see how this lawsuit could have ended any differently.  From the article:

He said he thought he had given Marvel the rights to use Ghost Rider in comic books, but that he retained the rights for movies and anything else.

"Was that understanding ever reduced to writing?" Marvel attorney David Fleischer asked.

"No," Friedrich answered.

Quite the opposite from the denouement of Stan the Man v. Spider-Man, where Stan Lee had it all in writing and sued his way to a ten percent share of the Sony Spidey loot, which is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of several billion dollars and a couple of those new earth-like planets the Kepler space telescope investigators recently discovered, or however they divide that stuff up with all the crazy studio accounting and pay-offs and financial frippery and monetary mumbo-jumbo.  Only true Hollywood geniuses understand that stuff and people like us got no chance of standin' up against 'em.  Friedrich's case is very much in line with what happened when Jack Kirby's heirs sued Marvel, though.  Work-for-hire and freelance means you give away all your creator rights in favor of an immediate paycheck.  Ask George Lucas what he thinks about retaining certain rights whenever you create something, even if that something is made up of bits and pieces of better creations.

Here's a sweet blog with a scan of a 1978 Marvel work-for-hire agreement, and someone quoting one from around 1990 in the comments.  I don't know what one of these consists of today, but that's the kind of thing you had to sign if you wanted to work for Marvel not long after Friedrich and the comics company parted ways.

Anyway, for what it's worth, it was a noble effort, Mr. Friedrich.  I wish it had worked out for you.  I'm glad I didn't see Ghost Rider, though.  There's only so much Nicholas Cage screaming I can stand, unless it's Nick Cage in Raising Arizona.  Man, that movie rocks!

New Nexus update!

According to Jaynelle Rude, her husband Steve Rude has finished the thumbnails for the new Nexus story (coming at you in 2012 from Rude and writer Mike Baron courtesy the fine people at Dark Horse Comics) and is now hard at work on the actual pages themselves.  Plus this little tantalizing tidbit:  "Steve went over the page count so they're trying to figure out how to fit it in."

A longer story?  Or a little bit of editing, and a bonus extra-length version for the hardcore Nexus fans (like me) when it's collected as a trade?  Either way, it's a win-win situation for those of us who love our comics in flavors of awesome and super-cool.

Look, you don't have to take my word for it!  If you have Facebook, you can see for yourself.  Isn't that cool?  You can look right over his shoulder (it's rude of us to do this to Rude) and if you pay attention, you will see how genius creates a legend.  I didn't realize Rude used a blue pencil to lay down his initial lines.  I've learned something already.  Check out the photo reference of head shadows/lighting, "B&W design" and the little notes and panels scrawled out in what appears to be red marker.  Rude's even got the layout for Ylum's "new concourse" up there so he can keep it consistent with the older comics.

I don't know about you, but I'm suddenly excited for this new year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Happy Belated Birthday, Stan Lee!

Oops!  Do I feel like a chump!  I knew December 28th was Stan Lee's 89th birthday, but I forgot to commemorate it here.  Well, I'm doing it now.

Despite having written who knows how many stories from the 1940s up to the present day, Stan Lee's greatest character creation has to be himself-- the Stan the Man persona.  Who would have thought a middle-aged man slinging WWII army slang and Madison Avenue-type sloganeering profusely peppered with amusing alliteration would make such a hit with the younger generation?  Who would have thought he'd still be at it 50 years later?

Lee knew how to sell comics, how to build a brand, how to create a house style like no other.  At a time when the comic book industry was moribund, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and a cast of... well... maybe a half dozen or so Marvelites-- people like Sol Brodsky, Artie Simek, Flo Steinberg, whose names we learned thanks to Lee's always enthusiastic cheerleading-- somehow Frankensteined it back to life.  Stan Lee made you feel part of something bigger than yourself, something fun, something forward thinking and fast moving, always colorful and dynamic.  Sometimes silly, frequently self-deprecating (even while playing at self-aggrandizement for the laughs, or engaging in it for real), occasionally pretentious, never less than entertaining.  The rest is comic book history, repeated thousands of times in books and better blogs than this one.

Well, I wanted to celebrate the day after Stan Lee's birth with a scintillating scene from the old Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends TV cartoon, which he narrated beginning in the show's second season-- giving the raucous Rococo revelry his personal imprimatur and improving its quality immensely in the bargain.  While I'd certainly read his "Stan's Soapbox" columns in my monthly Marvel magazines, Amazing Friends was where I first heard the Man's mellow and mellifluous voice, and ever since I've been trying and failing to channel it for my own nefarious ends.  But wouldn't you know it, all I could find were episodes without the voice overs!  I suspect someone over at the Distinguished Competition is laughing his fool head off at playing that little prank on yours truly.  But that's all right, Marvelites-- Smilin' Stan and Rascally Roy assure me Irving Forbush is on his way over there now to even the score!  So while we await the inevitable ambulance bells, here's a random clip where your ol' pal Stan the Man talks about a video game:

Face front and hang loose, true believers! Mighty Marvel's mightiest marvel marches on! Excelsior!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Baron and Rude return to Nexus!

This is the season of giving that keeps on giving... to little old me!  But also to you, the savvy comic book fan and possessor of fine taste in illustrated literature.  First came word Boom! Studios is reprinting Terror on the Planet of the Apes and now some even better news:  Mike Baron and Steve Rude are working on a new Nexus story for Dark Horse Presents.

Not only does this mark Steve Rude's return to sequential comics-- long overdue, since he actually attempted to break back into the business on at least one occasion last year-- but it's a new story starring Horatio Hellpop and his cast of thousands.  Nexus is my favorite hero of all and I was disappointed when Dark Horse's previous Nexus series ended and Rude's attempt to self-publish fizzled.  The Nexus universe is full of memorable characters-- Judah Maccabee, the happy-go-lucky avenger/pro wrestler/chef and lover of many women; Sundra Peale, Nexus's own lover, former spy, ace business-person and mother of his child; and Ursula X.X. Imada, the ultimate "dragon lady" with surprising depth.  She's the iron-fisted ruler of the planet Procyon and also the loving mother of Nexus's other children.

There are hundreds more, some funny, some menacing, all richly written by Baron and gorgeously drawn by Rude.  I have to salute Dark Horse for publishing the series, returning the ownership of the characters to Baron and Rude and also keeping the title alive with their lavish hardcover Nexus Archives books.

More Nexus in 2012!  Rude doing comics again!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm sorry to say I don't really know all that much about Joe Simon

I only know the basics about Joe Simon, who passed away Wednesday at the amazing age of 98. He came up with Captain America with his partner Jack Kirby, then the two of them went on to invent romance comics. How many people can say they created an entire genre?

Other than that, I'm most familiar with Joe Simon as the co-creator of the Boy Commandos, one of any number of "kid gang" comics he and Kirby produced in the 1940s and 1950s. A group of boys from each of the major allied nations of WWII, the Boy Commandos took their orders from Captain Rip Carter, but guff from no one. Not even Hitler, whose ass I feel certain they must have personally kicked at some point.

And I only know this because I own the hardcover America at War:  The Best of DC's War Comics, the Michael Uslan-edited book full of amazing tales from the 40s to the 70s starring characters like Sgt. Rock, Gunner and Sarge, the Haunted Tank, Enemy Ace and the Unknown Soldier-- it includes Simon and Kirby's "The Romance of Rip Carter," (Detective Comics #82, December 1943), where Carter takes the boys on a mission behind enemy lines (is there any other kind for comic book commandos?) aboard a B-17 named the "Rosalind K." after Kirby's wife. Simon and Kirby turn the bomber into a character in its own right, personifying it effectively without resorting to anything like overt anthropomorphism. It's actually pretty touching, mixed in as it is with all the slam-bang punch-the-Ratzis-in-the-face action.

Because I didn't read any of their adventures until they showed up in Jimmy Olsen, I tended to associate the Newsboy Legion more with Kirby solo.  Not really fair.  I wish I'd done my homework on Joe Simon, his life and his career.  He's another of those legendary figures we have too few of these days-- Jerry Robinson having recently passed as well.  As comic book aficionados we have to treasure these men and women while they're still with us.  They've provided us with a lifetime of knockabout entertainment, some of it even thought-provoking to go along with the fun.

A very belated thank you, Mr. Simon, on a job well done and a life well lived.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My favorite bits from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol III): Century #2 - 1969

And by "bits," I don't mean all the boobies and wieners on display. Although there are a lot of those this time out. It's the Swinging 60s and our fab heroes Mina, Allan and Orlando are back in London to tune in, turn on and occasionally have sex with multiple partners across the gender universe.  Which is only natural, the 60s being the time of Free Love, and especially with Orlando spending the story slowly transforming into a woman.  Mina even adopts youthful slang and Mary Quant-type mini-dress fashions in an effort to stay relevant.  It's definitely a tour de force for Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill this time out-- a regular kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamline baby.

An electric kool-aid acid test of a comic, if you prefer.

I've been on board with this series from the start. It really tickles the former literature student in me. I consider myself well-read, but obviously Alan Moore has me beat, because there's no way I can keep up with every single reference and cameo appearance. I don't think it's important that I-- or any reader-- do. It's enough to follow the immediate story and later, if you're curious, find one of those websites where they've annotated every player, background element or in-joke. This time out I really felt on top of my game because every page was an experience where I'd go, "Ah ha! That's based on Brian Jones's drowning death, he's Mick Jagger's character from Performance, and there's everyone's favorite drunken spouse-abuser Andy Capp! And that guy is Michael Caine from Get Carter.  And look, it's Sean Connery threatening Roger Moore with a golf club for some reason!"

Okay, it's now obvious my frame of reference tends more towards pop ephemera, comic strips, cinema and music than literature, despite my having a worthless piece of paper from a university that says I read more Melville, Shakespeare and Chaucer while drunk than most do sober. I'm just very attuned to the 1960s, which I tend to think of as a very British time-- what with all those Mersey beat bands and bowler-hatted spies running around at the time. Twiggy and Ray Davies and The Who wearing the latest in mod fashion, spending more on clothes and replacing smashed instruments than they earned.

This is the first issue of League where I've felt very much at home, up to and including the punk scene post-script (where the lower eyelashes on some of the characters make O'Neill's art strangely echo Mort Drucker's). What really made me laugh, though, was the silly "Jumping Jack Flash" joke, and the shout-out to one of my oldest brother's favorite movies, the 1968 generation gap sci-fi thriller Wild in the Streets.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Onion A/V Club interviews Jack Davis!

And it's amazing how closely it echoes the talk I had with Davis many years ago when I was a graphic design student, right down to the mention of the kind of brush he uses for inking.  Well, for the most part.  He's probably answered these same questions from people like me a thousand times over the years.  We didn't get into biography all that much.  He did tell me the chain gang story and how he went from the University of Georgia to the Navy in WWII and then pounded the pavement in New York city before he broke into the comics business, and we briefly touched on his time at EC.  In the A/V Club interview he paraphrases what he told me about his feelings about today's Mad.  I asked him what it was like to work with Wally Wood.  But mostly, as an artist, I wanted to know about process and that's what I got.

Here's how I remember it:  His agent faxes him jobs and he picks and chooses the ones he wants to do, otherwise he's on his boat or playing golf.  His initial sketches start off as a "lot of scribble-scrabble" and he inks with a No. 3 Series 7 Winsor & Newton brush.  Seeing that mentioned really brought back a lot of warm memories of our phone conversation, where he was so genial and patient with my hero-worship gushing that I walked on air for two days afterward.  It remains a highlight of my checkered college career.  Somewhere among all my own crappy art files I still have the notebook where I jotted down as much of what he told me as I could.  If I'm ever back in the US, I could dig it up and read through it and try to recapture a little bit of that magic.

Jack Davis is overdue for widespread acclaim.  Not that he hasn't had accolades and praise.  The Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, the Reuben Award and the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonist Society are certainly that.

It's just he needs to be one of those names dropped alongside people like Charles Schulz and Walt Kelly (although Davis's attempt at a syndicated newspaper strip never really got off the ground), Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner and Wally Wood.  He needs to be right there in the forefront of your consciousness whenever you think of cartoonists and cartooning.

After all, he worked for EC's most infamous titles-- and interviewer Sam Adams brings up perhaps the most notorious story of them all, the Davis-illustrated "Foul Play"-- as well as for Mad magazine.  Then he did covers for Time and TV Guide, designed the characters for the Jackson Five cartoon, created movie posters and all sorts of amazing stuff.  There's a trade paperback book, now out-of-print, about the man and his art called-- appropriately enough-- The Art of Jack Davis, and it was a decent enough tribute.  Considering the man's done so many high profile jobs and associated with so many other cartooning legends in his time, he really needs something more deluxe.  Something spanning the entirety of his eclectic art career.

That Fantagraphics volume is a must-buy, but I'm thinking even at 208 pages it's a little light.  I think he needs a hardcover series collecting all of his sequential work with color plates of his magazine covers and movie posters to round it out.  Your floorboards should buckle under its weight.  If only someone published, say, a collection of some of his other humor magazine work, or if you could buy a book with some of those horrifying EC stories he drew with mixed feelings but incredible skill-- what a world that would be!  Oh well.

Jack Davis is an American treasure.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don't you just love Esteban Maroto's artwork?

I know I do!  I've been really getting into Creepy and Eerie and so I've rediscovered my love for Esteban Maroto's artwork.

When I was a kid back before you were born, I was very into those Lancer/Ace Conan paperback collections. I'd either buy one of those or a Choose Your Own Adventure book with my allowance each week. Most of the Conan covers featured teensy Frazetta paintings, but I remember some of them contained a few Maroto illustrations.  I could be mistaken, but I'm pretty certain I first encountered Maroto's work in the context of Conan's world.

Yeah, the mind plays tricks on you and all that kind of thing.  Well, whatever.  The point is, I liked what I saw and I copied his style in my school notebooks every day for a while. Badly, of course. Maroto never seemed to lift the pen or brush off the paper until he completed the image, leaving one sinuous, amazingly attractive line that formed-- usually-- some lush-lashed (yes, they had Maybelline before the dawn of time) princess or queen naked except for lavish jewelery Conan would probably steal from her after they made savage, prehistoric love or whatever it was barbarians did back in the Hyborean Age when they weren't killing giant snakes, trampling thrones beneath their sandaled feet or hanging out with Sandahl Bergman or Wilt Chamberlain.

According to Maroto's website, he also designed Red Sonja's metal bikini armor. Not the most practical battle-wear, but it's served to make her a fairly popular character over the years. I can understand Maroto's motivation for drawing her that way, but I can't figure out why the character herself would go around dressed like that. She must be a mass of scar tissue.  Then again, in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comics our favorite barbarian did his sword thing wearing a fur loincloth and some boots, so he probably wasn't much better off.  They were made for each other, these two legendary warriors, disfigured as they were because they dressed stupidly for battle.  Put some clothes on, fictional people!

The page above is what re-sparked my Maroto interest.  It's a lovely pastoral scene from "Wings of Vengeance" (Creepy #81, July 1976), which he also co-wrote with Bill DuBay.  I'm very into Art Nouveau, and Maroto's compositions here and his controlled use of negative space and "designy" plant life recall another fave of mine, Aubrey Beardsley.  Specifically, the first four panels.  The single female figure, the framing, the poses are all ultra-Beardsley-esque.  Any of them could be blown up into a poster worthy of adorning an undergraduate's dorm room wall.  This page shares with Beardsley's art the same sense of romantic decadence within a kind of fairy tale atmosphere.  The draped and folded gown the woman wears seems very inspired by Alphonse Mucha as well.  I love the subtle gray tone on their skin, which helps separate them from the from the white backgrounds.  Enjoy this lovely young couple while you can.  She's later tortured to death and he has his face cut off.

If you happened to open a Warren magazine in the 1970s (something I rarely did because the covers were enough to scare me into insomnia), you stood a very good chance of finding Maroto's work.  He was one of their most prolific artists during that period.  Now imagine finding it beside some full-color Richard Corben nightmare, a Russ Heath axe-murder tale, an Al Williamson story with a space hero fighting alien dragons in a jungle, John Severin bringing horror to the Old West and maybe something drawn by Luis Bermejo.  There might even be something set in the 1930s by Alex Toth!  Don't forget Bernie Wrightson's frontispiece!  All packaged by genius editor Louise Jones, who is now Louise Simonson and who also happened to edit and write some nifty comics for DC and Marvel-- including New Mutants.

Which brings us full circle, I suppose.  Anyway, Esteban Maroto!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Boom! Studios is reprinting the classic Terror on the Planet of the Apes!

Finally, my demands have been met and I can release the hostages. Wait-- a gorilla sniper! KA-POW!  Damn you, Dr. Zaius! Thank God, I die a true human...  But... first... let me push... this button...

With the frivolity finished, I can announce the happiest comic book news I've heard in quite some time. BOOM! Studios, holders of the Planet of the Apes license from 20th Century Fox and publishers of fine Planet of the Apes comics since about April 2011, will reprint the rambling and mostly off-the-rails epic Terror on the Planet of the Apes by Doug Moench and Mike Ploog, plus contributions by other artists. The geniuses behind this decision at BOOM!  haven't set a release date, but if the cover image holds, it looks like they'll be using the old painted covers from the Marvel series as well. Time to introduce a whole new generation to the lurid charms of these images by Bob Larkin and Earl Norem.

This is what I've been begging for since I started comic book blogging.  The way Dark Horse has been publishing old Marvel/Curtis magazine material, I expected them to come through for me.  But it was BOOM! Studios all along.  I'm grateful to them for doing this, and to all the Apes fans who helped make it happen.

And now the bad news.  This series is going to be difficult for me to come by.  I had problems getting issues of BOOM!'s regular Planet of the Apes title when I lived in the States.  They're also publishing Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes, starring a young Dr. Zaius.  I'm dying to read this book!  How can I get my filthy, stinking paws on these Apes comics here in Japan?

I will not rest until I solve this problem!*

*Actually, I think they have international subscriptions.  And there's always EBay.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Oh, Dani, don't you ever change!

Which is ironic because she's already changed so often.  At first she could pull images of a person's greatest fear from his or her mind-- and she barely had control of that power-- and later she started manifesting various objects and things, became a Valkyrie, fired some kind of magical arrows, acted as some kind of double or triple agent in the war between humans and mutants, then lost her powers completely.  But to understand Dani Moonstar, you really only have to understand a few simple things.

She's got a temper.  And it's a violent temper.  She's forever threatening to stab people in their craven hearts, or to punch them.  That's when she's not actually punching them.  She does that a lot, too.  For Dani, a day without punching someone is a day without structure.  If you look at her daily planner, it's the first thing she writes for each entry:  Find someone and punch them.  Punch them HARD.  Sometimes she does her punching early in the morning, as a kind of preparatory exercise for all the hard work she has to put in the rest of the day as a non-powered team leader in the X-family.  Sometimes she schedules it as a noon release, a way to blow off a little steam.  Every once in a while, she slots a punching in just before bedtime.  It sends her off to pleasant dreams of flying horses and punching people.

But Dani's not strictly about the punching of punchable people.  She's also compassionate.  Dani cares about the folks she punches.  Whether it's Sam Guthrie and his bruised jaw or Shan and her robot bird-claw leg, Dani tries her best to nurture them.  She doesn't just go at it randomly, either.  She's as systematic about compassion as she is about punching.  Take this guy-- Gus Grim, the cognitive therapist.

  Dani's known him for a long time, and in New Mutants #28, she brings him to Utopia, the ugly and  dehumanizingly high-tech and steel-walled nightmare Marvel forces the X-people to live in, and allows him to rip her teammates apart in the interest of helping them deal with their neuroses and post-traumatic stress disorders.  Because living in an environment that resembles the latest nuclear submarine or a futuristic prison certainly isn't helping.

Another aspect of Dani's personality is her directness. She has a straightforward way of discussing things and she admires that quality in other people, as she tells Grim here.

She's a leader, which is why she might beat someone in the head, but she won't do the same around the bush.  And she's refreshingly free of self-pity.  Of all the superhero character traits, bemoaning one's status is my least favorite.  Nothing turns me off a character faster than a scene where he or she whines about wanting a normal life or just complains in general.  Writers have twisted Dani around so much her character history is the prose equivalent of that balloon animal guts thing Cowboy Gil made at Kevin Buckman's birthday party, but you don't find too many scenes where she mopes about it.  That's for us fans to do.

Dani also loves to talk to animals.  She's kind of like Dr. Dolittle, minus the racism.  I mean the original Dr. Dolittle books, not the Eddie Murphy movie version, which would be minus the CGI mouths and celebrity voice-overs.  From her early days cavorting with mountain lions in the mountains of her Colorado home to her psychic rapport with wolf-girl Rahne to this little supernatural bird-familiar in New Mutants #29, Dani has always had the uncanny ability to empathize and communicate with other species.  She would be a natural at some kind of Animal Planet show where she travels the world curing the PTSD of gorilla babies who have seen their parents poached, or maybe simply helping pet owners cope with difficult companion animals.

Writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are doing a smashing job writing Dani these days.  From the simple story of Grim (who's very Dr. Gregory House-like in his approach to healing) to the involvement of Dani in Marvel's "Fear Itself" crossover, they keep the focus on characterization.  Zeb Wells had a nice take on the team that offered continuity with the past-- I especially enjoyed the scene where he has Dani and Sam argue about whether or not Sam's a good kisser complete with a call-back to Lila Cheney, the intergalactic rock star he dallied with for a while-- but too often he had to force the team into crossovers where the action reduced them to bit players, not even appearing on their own covers.  Abnett and Lanning have a denser, more dialogue-heavy style that works wonders in making the team seem alive to the readers.

I wonder if the renewed focus on characterization has something to do with Axel Alonso as editor-in-chief.  He edited the brilliantly off-kilter X-Force/X-Statix, which for a time was the only Marvel book I read.  Putting Peter Milligan and Mike Allred on that book was an inspired decision and it led to some twisted and satirical but still characterization-oriented issues deconstructing the very idea of an X-book.  The stories didn't lack for comic book violence in the classic Marvel tradition, either.

I was a little irked at Marvel when Abnett and Lanning took the team in an intriguing new direction-- tying up the loose ends of about 30 years of ultra-convoluted storytelling in the X-books-- and then had to abandon that almost immediately in favor of "Fear Itself," but with a character-first approach, the tie-in issues won me over.  And I haven't bothered to read any of the rest of the story.  I just don't care about crossovers!  I never will!

Dave Lafuente's art impresses me, too.  The characters are recognizable, but in a way that's reminiscent of the art experiments from the first New Mutants series.  Not all of those worked.  Bill Sienkiewicz's issues were visually arresting, but some of the later art teams produced a lot of sketchy, scrawly stuff.  Lafuente has a heavily stylized look, with a little Barry Windsor-Smith, a little Paul Smith and a whole lot of Kevin O'Neill in the mix.  It's a pleasure to look at and I hope he gets more work, especially on this book.  They seriously need to find an art team and stick with them for a while to continue to build this title's identity.

Yes, I'm enjoying a superhero book.  A MARVEL X-people superhero book.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Alex Ross takes on the New Mutants!

Isn't that a nice cover?  I tend to hold Alex Ross somewhat responsible for the death of storytelling in modern comics, probably unfairly.  His rise to popularity seems to have coincided with an era of too much emphasis on photorealism, an over-reliance on photo reference or outright tracing, too many people getting hung up on cool individual images rather than thinking a page through as a sequence of panels arranged to express mood, movement and action.  I say "seems" because I might have the chronology completely wrong.

But even if I'm right, it's not really Ross's fault so many young artists start their careers telling themselves, "Hey, Ross does it and it looks amazing and sells even better than it looks, so why can't I?"  Blaming Ross is like blaming the Beatles for Strawberry Alarm Clock.  And yet I sort of do...  I just can't help it.

The static, awkward results probably also have a lot to do with artists using tools like Poser and various digital paint programs-- not that these things are in and of themselves negatives.  In the past, greats like Russ Heath, Al Williamson and Wally Wood used photo-reference-- Wood even advocated tracing.  According the Mark Schultz in his amazing and indispensable book Al Williamson's Flash Gordon:  A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic, Williamson relied on tracing at times during the middle stages of his career.  Photo reference, Poser, Photoshop, tracing.  These are useful tools, and artists shouldn't necessarily shy away from their use.   Mis-using might be a better term for what today's artists frequently do.

Williamson didn't just trace-- he would then adjust the drawing to match the heroic proportions of his original images and to fit the scene.  He achieved consistency in this way, something one frequently mocked comic book photorealist would do well to remember when he's so intent on making things "real" he forgets to make them believable.  Not that he gives a rip.

But I digress.  Whatever else you can say about the Alex Ross, he knows how to respect characters and put together an iconic image, then render the heck out of it.

Oh sure, Ross might have taken some photos to get a sense of the poses, to nail the anatomy and stage the lighting, but he manages here to sublimate the photo referencing and stay true to the classic look of the characters.  Dani Moonstar-- right up front, dominating the image where she belongs-- looks a lot like Bob McLeod's version, rather than a model in a bodysuit from a photoshoot in Ross's living room.  Unfortunately, the under-lit Sam "Cannonball" Guthrie looks disconcertingly middle aged.  Life must have been hard on him in the coal-mining regions of Kentucky before he met Charles Xavier.  This is the work of an artist moving away from duplicating photographs towards an artist justifiably confident in his ability to draw and paint anything he can imagine.  An artist who has finally put technique at the service of the artwork, rather than the other way around.

There's also the possibility Ross just made this all up out of his head.  I do believe he's just that good.

Well, however he achieved this cover, it's quite excellent.  A fitting tribute to my favorite of Marvel's super adventure teams.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How do people find this blog?

Overwrought and poorly written, I suppose.  But no, I mean what search terms do people type into Google, only to have this disaster of a blog pop up in their results?  Allow me to share them with you.

1.  alicia silverstone batgirl
2.  roddy mcdowall
3.  cassandra cain
4.  dani moonstar
5.  harlem globetrotters cartoon
6.  batgirl alicia silverstone
7.  batgirl boobs
8.  dave toschi
9.  heavyset girl body stocky big short nude sex pic movie
10.  claude akins

What can we learn from this?  Apparently, I write a lot about Batgirl, Dani Moonstar and Planet of the Apes.  That's true.  I think I mentioned Alicia Silverstone (256 hits) one time and one time only in one of my many Batgirl blog posts, and now her name is going to haunt me every time I check my traffic sources.  She's a popular woman.  I probably knock off some ill-informed rant about Cassandra Cain once or twice a month, and I know I've frequently criticized the way various artists have drawn her breasts.  Somehow I don't think that's what the "batgirl boobs" searchers (65 total, including 11 this month alone) have in mind when they go a-lookin' for that kind of stuff.

Actually, I get a lot of hits from people searching for things like "batgirl porn" (21 this month, but I'm surprised this isn't my search leader), "batgirl big boobs" (5 this month) or "bat girl boobies" (a semi-literate 2).

I honestly don't remember writing anything about the Harlem Globetrotters, but I probably did.  Maybe a shout out to one of their cartoons from the 1970s, of which I was a huge fan.  Roddy McDowall and Claude Akins starred together in Battle for the Planet of the ApesDave Toschi is a retired San Francisco police inspector whose unusual upside-down shoulder holster rig Steve McQueen copied in the movie Bullitt.  He later investigated the Zodiac murders and was portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in David Fincher's movie about the case-- which I highly recommend.  A modern classic and instantly one of my top 5 favorites of all time.

But number 9 on that list?  I'm guessing that's the result of a post I wrote about Xi'an Coy Manh when she briefly became morbidly obese.  Amazingly, 51 people typed in those exact same search terms.  Or else the same person typed them 51 times.

Some amusing oddball searches:

1.  comic female quarterback
2.  sexy phyllis diller
3.  hayley kiyoko
4.  styx kilroy was here
5.  billy zabka red jacket

I have no idea where that first one comes from.  Number two is a "whatever floats your boat" kind of thing.  I love Phyllis Diller, but I'm not sure I've ever found her sexy.  Hayley Kiyoko is a multi-talented up-and-comer who played Velma in a couple of Cartoon Network live-action Scooby Doo movies and recently starred in a Disney musical called Lemonade Mouth, which I understand was something of a smash hit.  Ten of her fans found my lousy blog clogging up their Hayley Kiyoko Google stalking this month because I made an off-handed reference to someone's drawing of Cassandra Cain resembling her facially.  My apologies, Kiyoko-ites.  Or, if you prefer, Kiyokians.  Billy Zabka-- better known as William Zabka, better known as Johnny Lawrence of Cobra Kai-- I salute you!

Yes, I'm a fan.

Comic Report: Japan!

After a long break back in the States, I'm in manga heaven again.  Not that I'm a fan of manga in and of itself.  I enjoy a few titles, consider myself a fan of a few creators, but I don't separate Japanese comics and Western comics.  Comics are comics.  Sure you read Japanese comics right to left and that takes some getting used to, but with the borrowing and blending of elements over the past few decades, a comic story consists of drawings and word balloons arranged in a particular order according to the creator's intent no matter where it comes from or who wrote or drew it.

If you're a regular reader of various Western monthly comics, you have to work a bit harder to find them here in Japan.  There are online sources and if you happen to live in a large enough city, you might find a few odd titles in the English language section in a bookstore.  Just be prepared to pay three to four times the suggested retail price.  I haven't tried downloading any digital comics yet, but I'll give that a try later when I'm more settled and have my own Internet connection.

In the meantime, I'm making do with the comics I brought with me:  the superb Solo #7 (2005) by Mike Allred and family, and the award-winning Nexus: The Origin (1992) by Mike Baron and Steve Rude.

Solo #7 is one of the best things DC's published in the past ten years.  Maybe twenty.  It serves as the perfect antidote to all those gloomy, doomy negative portrayals of their own characters DC's dished up in the years since Identity Crisis, and it's a lot more fun than their similarly nostalgic Wednesday Comics.  Yeah, not every superhero comic should be this kind of poppy fun.  We like our supergods with a touch of realism these days.  But as Batman's faithful butler Alfred points out here, "Why is it the good things are never 'real life,' only the bad?"

Who can argue with Allred's winning cover depiction of Wonder Girl doing the batusi?

Nexus:  The Origin is a bit darker.  It starts with genocide, includes a starvation death and Nexus excusing his own killings by claiming self-defense.  This is the comic that hooked me on Horatio Hellpop, Sundra Peale and all the frog-like aliens and hairy Thunes that inhabit their universe.  Baron condenses the entirety of Nexus's early years into several poignant vignettes and Rude illustrates with his strong sense of anatomy and page design.  Inker Gary Martin perfectly complements Rude's pencils-- I've seen a number of inkers on the Dude, but Martin is far and away my favorite.  Rude "re-mastered" this book in 2007.

These are a couple of thick, meaty magazines that invite you to chew slowly and savor their delicious taste.  Which I suppose taken literally would mean you should eat them and enjoy some paper.  But you know what I mean-- read them over and over again.  Both were well worth dragging thousands of miles across an entire continent and ocean.

Well, I promised you a comic report, didn't I?  If you happen to be in Minami-Funabashi, Chiba prefecture, go to Vivit Square.  The Tsutaya there has a huge selection of Japanese comics, plus a teensy-weensy grouping of some translated ones in their English language book section.  Unfortunately, I can't remember which ones.  Probably Death Note and Vagabond.  The Japanese originals, though, boggle the mind.  So varied in genre and style.  Why aren't there comics about baseball and basketball teams in America?  Where are the simple stories of high school kids falling in love?

I guess they're in the manga section at your local Books-A-Million.  Which, combined with their Western graphic novel section, can't hold a candle to what they have at Tsutaya in Minami-Funabashi.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

More Cass Cain Batgirl fun times!

I drew this with my trusty Kuretake Fudegokochi brush pen. When I moved back to the United States from Japan, I brought a few of these with me because they're very fun to use. If all went well and we landed safely last Friday, I'm back in Japan but lack an Internet connection. So this was actually posted Wednesday before I left. Confusing, isn't it?

The clumsily constructed Kamandi figure is based on a panel from one of Jack Kirby's comics, but I added the wonky body and really went off-model on the futuristic pistol.  Peter Parker is fun to mock.  I love the character, especially during his glasses-wearing phase.  I based the Cassandra Cain Batgirl figure on a photo of a Japanese pop singer/actor.  And once again, I make fun of Batman.

I'm not sure when I'll have regular net access.  So talk amongst yourselves while I sort things out.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I don't know who this is!

She's lovely and fashionable. Another sketchbook page, another Kuretake Fudegokochi brush pen ink job!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Another Batgirl-based sketchbook page...

I drew this with that same Kuretake Fudegokochi brush pen I used for the previous Cassandra Cain/Batgirl sketchbook pages, but I colored it with Copic Ciao art markers.  The paper didn't fit on the scanbed, so Batgirl's legs got cut off.  But the Hulk still has his Charles Bronson pec/shoulder tattoo.  That's something, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, Steve Ditko!

Steve Ditko is 84 years old today.

The first Ditko artwork I remember seeing came to me inside Dr. Strange Master of the Mystic Arts, one of those Marvel trade paperbacks featuring Marvel's "Sorcerer Supreme" in a selection of memorable tales from the 60s and early 70s.  This was sometime in 1979, or maybe 1980.  I greatly preferred the Barry Windsor Smith's story to any of the Ditko-drawn ones, but something about Ditko's rendering of Spider-Man felt right to me. I also enjoyed the way Ditko drew all the magic radiation coming out of Dr. Strange's hands whenever he cast a spell.  No one bought the book and it ended up on the clearance table.

As soon as I saved enough money (from picking up pine cones in the yard and digging in the sofa cushions), I snagged Dr. Strange for myself-- along with its companion volume Captain America Sentinel of Liberty-- and read it over and over again, usually while eating cornbread. So even now I associate Steve Ditko's artwork with the delicious taste of my father's country cornbread, baked in the oven and covered with butter.

Sometime that same year or the next, I bought Micronauts Annual #2 at a small grocery store across the highway from the beach down in Florida one year and felt appalled by the interior artwork, which was by Steve Ditko again!  I'd been hoping for more of the Pat Broderick/Armando Gil team or a return engagement from Michael Golden.

Ditko's work was not a love at first sight kind of thing for me.  Clearly, at age 12 I had a lot to learn about art.  As I grew older and supposedly more sophisticated in taste, I came to appreciate Ditko.  His run on the early issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, his punchy graytone work for Warren's horror titles-- Ditko's take on human form is as idiosyncratic as Jack Kirby's, but more down-to-earth, no matter how strange the setting.

Peter Parker is a skinny little worm, Flash Thompson beams with misplaced confidence and egotism, the Vulture is a gnarled old man.  The back alley thugs Spidey fights look muscular and slow-witted.  There's a nitty-gritty feel that adds weight and believability to their soap opera antics.  Ditko's Dr. Strange is slender but with a hauteur befitting his magical prowess.  He journeys through Escher-esque worlds and dimensions where he might find the lovely Clea reclining on a floating island made up of some kind of magical or quantum particles, or engage in a mystical duel with the Dread Dormammu!  And then it's home to Greenwich Village and a cup of hot cocoa whipped up by his old pal Wong.

Ditko made the Marvel Universe feel more like our own.  And he did it his way, and continues to do so.  It's difficult to understand someone like Steve Ditko.  He's like comics' answer to J.D. Salinger, although their worldviews are probably as different as the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak are from the Eye of Agamotto.

More of the same Batgirl!

Another version of the same ol' Batgirl. My theory is she had so little regard for protecting her secret identity, she would often leave her mask at home. I enjoy drawing Batman acting like a freak almost as much as I enjoy drawing Batgirl and Supergirl. Poor Robin. If you look closely, there's a Todd McFarlane-era Spider-Man picking lice out of a Neal Adams Superman's hair. Todd McFarlane-era Spider-Man loves to groom his friends!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Back when she was Batgirl...

Here's another sketchbook page.  I seem to draw Cassandra Cain, Supergirl and the Hulk pretty often. I did this freehand with a Kuretake Fudegokochi brush pen on a sheet of marker paper.  Batgirl on the left is apparently pitching some kind of fit; she's really angry about something.  The center Batgirl shows a zen-like calm, but I'm not sure about the weird feathery line I gave her shadowed areas.  What inspired that?  The Hulk looms overhead like something she's dreaming.  The way I attached his hand to his beefy wrist isn't really working.  And then there's a cheerful, freckle-faced Supergirl with goofed-up shoulders.  All that modeling I did on her right side (left to us!) was my attempt at emulating the awesome Nick Cardy; it came out vaguely Dr. Seussian, though.

Cass is in her DC Batgirl suit rather than the one I made up for her.  Slap a pointed mask on her and she's practically Black Bat.  I'm happy DC has their sales up, and I'm pretty pleased Cass will "appear in Batman, Incorporated in a very big way" along with Stephanie "Spoiler/Robin/Batgirl" Brown.  Whether or not I'll bother to read it is another story.  The overall aesthetic of what they're doing these days just doesn't interest me and I find I can't really get excited about it, and we're always a year or two away from a new universe-changing Crisis.  I'll be in Japan where American monthlies are hard to come by, but maybe I'll download a digital copy of Batman, Incorporated from DC when Cass reappears.  Then again, maybe I'll forget.

Monday, October 31, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Hoppy Halloween!

Some stories just stick with you.  Take "Hopping Down the Bunny Trail" from DC's Unexpected #202 (1980), for example.  I read this in a supermarket in Brevard, North Carolina, while visiting my grandparents.  On Easter, three ordinary kids die at the fangs of human-sized, talking rabbit they mistake for the Easter Bunny, their only crimes gleefully biting the heads off chocolate bunnies and being slightly dim-witted.  It gave me the creeps in broad daylight, and while I didn't buy the comic, it never completely left my thoughts.  Through the years, I'd occasionally remember it, slightly altered over time thanks to the transformative power of an imperfect mind.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who found it impressive, because someone made it into neat little .pdf with a short analysis.  Finally, after 30 years, I was able to read it again.  It's still a nasty little tale that should have wider acclaim. 

Some horror tales-- especially the ones in those old EC comics, the early Creepy and Eerie magazines and most of DC's titles-- rely on an ironic twist where some jerky moron gets his or her comeuppance.  The philandering murderer can't get rid of the betrayed spouse, even in rotted corpse form; the abusive parent suffers a more horrific version of the abuse heaped on the child; the greedy boss hoists himself by his own petard, usually fatally; the blowhard suffers blowback; the foolhardy self-appointed expert destroys himself and those who foolishly believe in him.  No matter what gruesomeness occurs, we're usually reassured in some way that cosmic justice has been served, scales have been balanced and the underlying order has been reaffirmed.  We get a kick out of what happens at least partially because these stories play into our sense of moral superiority.

But in this Michael Uslan-scripted story, the worst you can say about the characters is they're all a little dim-witted and unimaginative. The parents fail in their responsibility to protect their children because they just assume the city's somehow behind the Easter egg hunt that's been completely unpublicized until colorful signs appear overnight. Sure, it's at the local haunted house, which is probably firetrap or at the very least a tetanus shot and a lawsuit just waiting to happen. Send the kids!

These jokers are pretty blase, aren't they? This was the era before the ominously narrated news stories intended to stoke every parent's more morbid prescient fantasies, before 9/11, the anthrax letters, terror alerts and Dateline NBC and Inside Edition. This was two years before the Chicago Tylenol poisonings. And yet as we've seen so many times, even today's supposedly hyper-vigilant adults slip up. They leave kids locked in daycare vans in the middle of summer, fail to recognize or simply ignore the warnings signs before school massacres, leave the gate to the backyard swimming pool unlocked. Even if they're frequently driven to complete paranoia by stories about Internet perverts, Satanic cults and poisoned candy, they-- just like the parents in this story-- can be lulled into complacency by the promise of colorful eggs and treats for the kids.  After all, nothing bad ever happens on holidays!

The kids are pretty dull themselves. They walk right up to the "Old Krieger Place" despite Tenny Henson's having drawn storm clouds looming over it menacingly. I suppose their imaginations have been dulled by too much mediocre television and brain-rotting Saturday morning cartoons. Here's a human-sized talking rabbit and rather than recognize something completely bizarre and even threatening about it-- shoot, some kids bawl at the sight of Santa Claus-- these little chocolate lovers just assume it's Old Man Snyder in a costume. That's some costume! To sweeten the deal, the Easter Bunny offers toys and candy. If that isn't a tip-off, I don't know what is. But these numbskull kids take the offer at face value.

They only start to wise up when the other kids vanish and they find themselves all alone in a perfectly creepy house. And then only a little. They're so confident that everything's fine, that they're going to grow up and go to college and get married and have kids just like themselves one day.  And should something bad happen, Mom and Dad will be right there to save them.  Right?

Well, the universe doesn't really work that way.  Not only to bad things happen to good people, horrors beyond horrors happen to them.  Cars and planes crash, nuclear plants leak, cancers strike, young dudes accept odd jobs from John Wayne Gacy.  In the face of the ongoing tragedy we call living, we'd love to believe someone benevolent is in charge, that there's some underlying order to it.  Certainly there are natural laws and forces at work.  We can calculate the orbit of the earth around the sun with precision because we've figured the most obvious of them out.  But they also guide bombs onto blameless schools and hospitals and bullets into innocent spines.

Some horror stories offer a glimpse of a universe of limitless chaos where we are all in immediate danger.  They tell us order is an illusion, that good intentions invite catastrophe.  People are punished far out of proportion to their wrongs, or become victims of circumstance.  You bite the head off a chocolate rabbit.

A demonic rabbit bites off your head.  Note the complete lack of gore.  Just a transition from the brightly colored world of a sunny Easter Sunday to a dark and stormy place where wicked things happen to kids because they and their parents are careless and sort of dumb.  When I was 12, I could easily imagine myself as one of these dopey kids.  I was a dopey kid.  "Hopping Down the Bunny Trail" lifted the lid off the field and revealed something much better hidden.  And that was terrifying.

Now close the comic and try to sleep.  Happy Halloween!

No! I can't leave you on a downbeat note like that. Here's Spookey to cheer you up again and reassure you the world's a loving place!

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Happy Halloween!

I've got one more horror comic post in the pipe, but I haven't had time to finish it yet. Later this afternoon! In the meantime, here are a few more of those delightful Tales of Terror videos. First up: a spooky sleep-over!

Looks like another of those ubiquitous school trips. Japanese students go on these excursions each year. Some stay within Japan, like these unfortunate girls, and others go abroad. Do you think this experience will cure Yuki of her school trip insomnia?

Here's yet another school trip.

Most school trips are meant to be educational experiences. From this one, I learned that if I leave my lip cream in the bathroom, I should just wait until morning to retrieve it.

Of course, terror doesn't confine itself to creepy old ryokan in the middle of the night. Sometimes it sneaks up on you around lunchtime in ordinary city apartments.

That was a lovely little flat. Didn't the sister decorate it nicely? Love the dot motif, but it's too bad about the visitor problem.

Well, there are dozens of those Tales of Terror on YouTube. But there are very few Spookey ones. Here's a favorite of mine:

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Bernie Wrightson takes on H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is strange case. His influence in horror literature is undeniable and yet he was a pretty lousy writer. When you hear one of his stories described or read a synopsis, it sounds exciting, weird and even a little frightening. Malevolent elder gods from beyond Pluto manipulating scholars into plumbing the depths of forbidden knowledge, whispering aliens hiding in the dark forested hills of Lovecraft's native New England states, a city where the inhabitants are devolving into amphibians. Then you actually read it and the experience is like tediously climbing a steep hill made up of adjectives, exclamation marks and racism. And still they fascinate me.

Comic book adaptations of his works are bit easier to take. Skilled writers eliminate the excesses and hone in on the things Lovecraft did well, and when the artist is Richard Corben or Bernie Wrightson-- someone with real imagination and the rendering chops to provide appropriately chilling visuals-- the results often transcend the source material. "Cool Air" is one of Lovecraft's shorter works and heavily derivative of Edgar Allen Poe, but those are two points in its favor. Two points in favor of the comic book version are the script and art by Wrightson, whose vision meshes so well with Lovecraft's he produces a horror fan's delight. A true classic.

It's not one of Lovecraft's mythological tales. There is no Cthulhu and no Yog-Sothoth, just a simple situation that plays itself out to its logical-- but unfortunately predictable-- conclusion. And while it's not scary by any means, Wrightson's expert adaptation make it worthwhile anyway. Lovecraft allows his rather gentlemanly prose to become a bit vague during the final scene, despite his narrator's insistance that "[b]lack terror, however, preceded me" and his use of florid adjectives like "hellish" and "nauseous," characteristic of his writing when he's really straining for effect. Wrightson just shows us, creating a shock Lovecraft might have appreciated while deploring its directness.

This story first appeared in Eerie #62 (1975), and you can see Cousin Eerie's apparently decapitated head serving as a candlestick holder there on the title page. These color images are from Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre #2 (1983), which is where I first read it. That comic also contains the infamous "Jenifer," which frightened me so badly I didn't sleep for two nights. You can't ask much more from a comic book than a sleepless night or two. I'm sure H.P. Lovecraft would agree.  Dark Horse just published a volume collecting Wrightson's Warren work and it includes both of those stories.  I don't own it yet, but be assured I will.  Oh yes, I will!

I wonder what Lovecraft would have thought of this:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: What does Halloween have to do with the Banana Splits?

And comic books for that matter? Nothing, really. But since I go on a Spookey kick every Halloween, I thought you might enjoy comparing their cover of "The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)," the theme song to The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, to the original and the versions by the Dickies and Liz Phair. Here's the original:

And here's the circa 1979 cover by the Dickies. They upped the tempo a bit for that punk rock feel:

Liz Phair and Material Issue covered it in 1995 and this was the result:

And here's a live performance by Spookey:

I wish that video had better sound quality. Their rendition of the song from their Shakin Pop 'n' Roll album sounds a lot better. Not really surprising, considering the whole "recorded in a studio" versus the "recorded onto some person's digital camera" thing, right?  Their take owes a great deal to the Dickies's version, especially with the nearly incomprehensible verse sections. The studio cut is especially hilarious because you can actually hear them not really give a damn about what they're singing. They make the barest effort to enunciate, instead putting all of their energy into simply having fun with a ridiculous song.

Yes, I know the Dickies version was used in the movie Kick-Ass.  While researching this little article I forced myself to watch that particular scene-- you can find it on YouTube if you haven't already seen it.  While using this song was an inspired choice, the overall effect was lost on me.  I didn't find the crude language or the over-the-top violence offensive; it just struck me as a dumbed-down version of much cooler fare.  Voice courtesy Dirty Harry Callahan, cursing from your junior high locker room, setting from Pulp Fiction, fight choreography and editing nicked from Hong Kong cinema, gore from Kill Bill Vol. 1.  Watching it made me feel like I'd stepped on a soiled diaper with my bare foot and did nothing to convince me to read the comic or watch the rest of the movie.  I'd rather just listen to Spookey-- their cover predates the movie-- or watch this:

Didn't see that coming, did you? Hey, I'll shoot straight with you-- neither did I!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Disney's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

Ah! Now that's some good Halloween-ing. The mellow voice of Bing Crosby, the delightful prose of Washington Irving and some of Disney's finest scene designs and animation. The autumnal backgrounds are also quite lovely to look at-- Mary Blair did some of the color styling on this film, and they look very similar to her work.  This short was originally the second part of the 1949 anthology film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but I don't think I've ever seen it in that format. In fact, I doubt I've ever seen the Mr. Toad part of the film at all, although I once did go on the Disney World ride based on it.

Some nice cartoony slapstick business that doesn't interfere too much with Irving's comedically formal prose.  And I love Crosby's droll delivery.

The climactic chase is a masterpiece of design, rising tension and animated action. They pull out all the stops to create suspense. Credits for Ichabod and Mr. Toad list three directors: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronomi and James Algar. That makes it difficult for an animation neophyte like myself to praise the efforts of any one person. And don't forget the actual animators, layout artists and background painters responsible for these eerily effective and yet still hilarious visuals.  They're too numerous to list, but the supremely talented Blair contributed some amazing conceptual paintings and Disney greats Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston (they were best friends, which warms my heart to no end), John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Rietherman supervised or else actually did the animation for this sequence; they're listed as directors of animation for these characters.  Reitherman's Headless Horseman is especially impressive.  What a menacing character throughout!

I've tried to be as thorough in my ignorance of this stuff-- I like to watch 'em, I don't make 'em-- as I could, but some super scholar or animation pedagogue to rival Ichabod himself may feel free to set me straight on this if I've gotten any of it wrong. Even if I react much like Brom Bones.

The sound design matches the imagery for impressive creativity (so much so Tim Burton later referenced it in his own Sleepy Hollow), while Crosby's narration is brilliant in the way he drops the vocal twinkle employed in the earlier, purely comedic sequences and becomes mournfully atmospheric; it's almost as if a beloved uncle-- well-known for his masterful storytelling-- is relating Ichabod's fate, employing every vocal tool at his disposal. Disney's take on Irving's story is the finest version of this often-adapted tale, the one all others attempt to measure up to and fall short by varying degrees. What doesn't fall short of anything, anywhere, is this Halloween-themed performance video featuring Spookey, inspiration of my annual Spookey Month. I know I've posted this one before but it's sooooooo good!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Disney's The Great Cat Family

Look familiar? It's a 1956 Disney short illustrating the history of cats, introduced by Uncle Walt himself from the comfortable confines of a studio set made to look like a handsome book-filled study. Like all good Halloween stories, it begins in Ancient Egypt. But the most memorable part takes place in Europe at a somewhat later date. Watch...

You may remember an excerpt from the second video as part of A Disney Halloween, a TV special that aired in the 1980s and 1990s. I used to look forward to it every year in October in no small part because of this mysterious scene.  I had no idea what movie or cartoon it came from and I researched it on and off for years, until some nice person at a message board devoted to obscure Disney animation finally clued me in and ended my torment.

The Disney artists did a knock out job with this one-- it features some gorgeous animation with lots of creepy mood, and a wonderfully melodramatic narration. I'll never forget the dark, hand-like clouds clutching at the full moon on a stormy, wind-swept night, the shadowy traveler making his way through the cobblestone streets of a medieval town in the rain and the look of sheer terror on the old woman's face when her cat freaks out: "For night was the time of evil spirits."

In lieu of Spookey, please accept this offering of more Toy Missile as a musical Halloween treat.  This performance took place just behind Shinjuku Station.  And I was there!  Sadly, their official website seems to have vanished... which leads me to believe they exist now only in my memories.  And a few YouTube videos.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Enjoy some Japanese horror shorts because I don't feel like writing some long, involved post about Halloween today!

That's a pretty lousy elevator. I don't think I'd enjoy riding that one, either. I rode some creepy elevators during my time in Japan, but I was lucky in that I never had that poor girl's experience. Nice job with those English subtitles by "montecristo73returns," though. What else can we find? How about this one?

Lesson learned? Cram school sucks! Again, great job on the subtitles. But if you stay out of elevators and cram schools, you're completely safe, right?

Yikes! That looks a lot like my old apartment! Nice job, KuljeetChauhan. I have no idea where these short films come from. Shown on television? From a DVD? They're pretty cool and there seem to be dozens of them. Now... here's a movie I made. You may have seen it before!

Monday, October 24, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Tomie Unlimited Introduces Tsukiko into the film series!

While we're on the subject of Japanese horror, the Tomie film series is apparently as unkillable as their eponymous villain. Tomie Unlimited is the newest offering from Toei Company, LTD. and it seems to be at least loosely based on the "Tsukiko" stories from Junji Ito's manga. This makes me happy, because I'm a big fan of those particular Tomie stories and of the character Tsukiko, the cheerfully amoral purveyor of candid photos of cute guys she sells to the girls who have crushes on them.

While the movie Tsukiko eschews her comic book counterpart's pixie cut and happy-go-lucky capitalist demeanor, Miu Nakamura makes quite a convincing Tomie.  Several of the scenes from the trailer look astoundingly like panels from Ito's stories.  It would be too much to ask for a completely faithful adaptation-- here, Tsukiko is Tomie's little sister rather than simply a classmate.  However, the publicity materials promising a Tomie who "reveals her true face only when she is with Tsukiko" make this the most intriguing series entry in quite some time.

In the comic, Tsukiko makes a fun and vivacious enemy for Tomie, and Tomie's position as the head of her school's Public Morality Committee provides a bit of ironic counterpoint to Tsukiko's scheme.  Just as Tsukiko abuses the privileges that come with being a member of the photography club-- access to a dark room and materials to make her illicit yet lucrative prints-- Tomie soon has her own club lackeys pursuing her unfortunate enemy.  And it becomes apparent that Tsukiko's crimes pale in the face of Tomie's monstrous true self and the bloody murders she causes during their personal war.

The stories also benefit from a unity of setting, unlike the other Tomie tales which are only loosely connected.  The idea of a beautiful yet thoroughly evil young woman who drives her lovers to madness and murder-- and yet cannot be killed herself, no matter how hard everyone tries-- is good for a few chills here and there, and benefit from Ito's trademark gross out scenes.  But by grounding her in a specific locale and taking some time to develop her victims Ito creates a cycle of stories that have no problem standing alone.  If character development is Ito's weak point as a writer, with the introduction of Tsukiko he solves this problem, and it helps bring Tomie herself into focus.

Even if you probably won't want to see what develops as a result.  Isn't that right, Tsukiko?  Tsukiko?  Oh yeah, the school officials suspended her.  Oh well.  That gives her plenty of time to get to know her new best friend, Tomie.  Here's Toy Missile, one of my favorite Japanese bands!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Chiaki Kuriyama in an early horror role!

Okay, okay. It's not a comic book, although Miki Rinno later did a manga adaptation-- published in the US by Dark Horse Comics. It's a scene from the original direct-to-video Ju-on (2000) that spawned the movie series, the American remake and its sequels.  I have no idea about the Ju-on mythology or back story, but I do know the American release of the first theatrical movie has a redundant title, and the Japanese release of the American version has a silly one.

While we tend to like our ghost stories set in the fall during Halloween season, Japanese culture favors the late summer during Obon time.  This scene establishes mood early with the oppressive cicada static in the background; that's the soundtrack of summer there in Japan.  They still ring in my ears and the I last experienced Japanese summer two years ago.  The school bell briefly heard brings back a lot of memories for me as well.  The cellphone is a neat plot device-- a more modern conduit for mysterious messages and voices from the other side, but its size and simplicity instantly date this movie.  It's a period piece.

The message with the repeating 4s may not seem particularly chilling to Americans like myself, but the Japanese word for 4 is "shi," which also means death, so this is a pun commonly used in J-horror.  Come to think of it, it might not be all that frightening even for a Japanese audience, because it's probably cliche by now.  Remind me to ask!

Still, four is just not an auspicious number; I used to go get check-ups at a local hospital that had examining rooms numbered 3 and 5, but not 4.  But it must be Kuriyama's lucky number, because she also appeared in a movie called Shikoku, the name of one of Japan's main islands (which uses its more benign meaning), but can also mean "land of the dead."

At least in that one, she gets to play the ghost rather than its victim.

Chiaki Kuriyama is one of the coolest people on earth.  Unfortunately, I don't find the little kid ghost anywhere near as creepy as Sadako from the Ringu series, or even Tomie. Heeeeeeeeerrrrrrre's Sadako:

Friday, October 21, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Bernie Wrightson!

How about that, eh? It's Cain, poling his little boat through a swamp-- a haunted swamp, no doubt.  Or basement.  Haunted basement.  Well, wherever it takes place, it's a very nice splash page drawing by Bernie Wrightson, published in House of Mystery #205.  Wrightson's career began at DC the same year I was born so I've had a lifetime to associate him with the finest in horror comics illustration.  Over that time, I've dug many artists who've excelled at horror:  Richard Corben, Nestor Redondo, Umezu Kazuo, Ito Junji, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Joe Orlando, Jack Davis, John Bolton to name a very few.  All those EC cats who worked for Warren Publications.  Then there are all those Italian guys who drew those bizarre and erotic comics where characters are often naked or rotten or both covered (so to speak) over at The Goovy Age of Horror.

You can find horror artists better at anatomy and with slicker finishes, but few who match Wrightson's ability to concoct instantly iconographic horror images, with gobs of chilling atmosphere and sinister mood to spare.  Throughout, Wrightson has used varying approaches to his finishes-- from feathering and modeling in ink resembling the classic works of Graham "Ghastly" Ingels and Frank Frazetta, to etching-like fine lined hatching to rich ink washes.  Whatever his approach, Wrightson kills.  Figuratively.

My first encounter with Wrightson was his work on Swamp Thing, no doubt in some house ad or other.  I didn't read that comic until DC released the second volume when I was a teen.  By then, I'd seen this choice Wrightson image:

EEP!!  The worst tricks or treats ever!  And it's the kind of thing that sticks with you when you're an imaginative and impressionable young doofus looking for the latest Hulk and Spider-Man stories.  Now I think what a good thing for that axe murderer he's so beefy-- he's wearing about 40 pounds worth of human heads.  He's going to need those powerful leg muscles if he ever hopes to add those two kids' noggins to his collection.

That came out about the time I read Creepshow.  Soon after that I contaminated my brain with the issue of Bernie Wrightson:  Master of the Macabre containing the infamous "Jenifer," one of the sickest stories I've ever read.  It affected me so badly I had to give the comic away the same afternoon I read it to a less-squeamish friend, and yet I still lost sleep over it that night.  Of course, its hold on my imagination proved too strong over the years.  Every so often, I'd get the urge to draw Jenifer's twisted face in the margin of my notebook page, and I'm pretty sure I drunkenly described the story to various people whenever we started talking about things that frightened us as kids.  I finally tracked it down again and it proved every bit as disturbing as I remembered.  When a story does that to you, someone, somewhere, has done his or her job!

In this case, that person is Bernie Wrightson. Well, Wrightson and writer Bruce Jones.

Here's another wicked Wrightson splash:

Much like Jones's tales, Bill DuBay's scripts gave Wrightson the opportunity to make our nightmares come to life on the magazine page.  "Nightfall" first appeared in Creepy #60 (1974), and features a kid bedeviled by sinister goblins who come into his room at night, only to retreat whenever his increasingly exasperated parents come in to check on him.  DuBay's script accurately captures the way a child's imagination transforms shadows into malicious monsters, and the impossibility of getting this across to well-meaning but lunk-headed adults who just want a peaceful night's sleep.  Wrightson's creatures cavort and caper in the moonlit bedroom in a way that's dreamlike yet completely convincing.

Reminds me a lot of those nights I grew up experiencing thanks to Bernie Wrightson's art!  And speaking of disturbing, here's Hanatarashi's legendary 1985 "Bulldozer Gig" in slideshow form:

Eye, that's what I call music!

Monday, October 17, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Get this guy some Halloween candy... fast!

On second thought, never mind. Candy goes right through him. DC's old timey horror comics are pretty cool. Obviously, my first love is The Witching Hour, because Mildred, Mordred and Cynthia are the hosts with the most personality and endlessly entertaining byplay. But Cain of House of Mystery and Abel of House of Secrets are pretty nifty, too. Of those perpetually battling siblings, Cain is my favorite because he's the dominant one. Abel is a lovable soul, but he's a little on the soft side. Cain has the gleeful, almost manic, demeanor befitting a horror comic host. I prefer the active over the passive. The Unexpected has some fantastic stories, but I'm just not that into the Mad Mod Witch.

House of Mystery #207 not only features this macabre (is there any other kind?) Bernie Wrightson cover-- not quite as gory or as frightening as some of his other work-- but has a strange little story by Sheldon Mayer of Sugar and Spike fame.

It's called "This Evil Demon Loves People," and it stars Geoffrey, an adorable little tow-headed lad who delights in sing-song rhyme and shrinking humans down and imprisoning them in bottles as if they were insects. His father's most annoying employee goes first, followed by the babysitter. Mayer, a master plotter, doesn't allow Geoffrey to stop there, as his singular talent escalates from the mildly amusing to the bizarrely apocalyptic.  The somewhat banal art works in the way a dead-on parody of a 1960s family sitcom might, if the producers got all the little details of a living room set just right and then Gidget or Laura Petrie suddenly started chopping up their friends and family with axes.

Comic book horror stories work best when they don't cop out, and Mayer's story is no exception, despite a complete lack of the usual violence or gore.   What makes it fun how Geoffrey, with a childish lack of any sense of proportion, passes judgement and metes out a completely unfair punishment on everyone, everywhere.  The protagonist in "Last Ritual Last Rites" deserves his fate.  A cheating husband poisons his wife, meets a gruesome demise; it even has the usual EC-style twist at the end, complete with a rotting corpse.  What elevates it beyond cliche is the gorgeous art by Bill Payne is a style that favors heavy black-spotting giving way to psychedelic linear freak-outs.

Who is Bill Payne?  According to the Who's Who of American Comic Books, he was a cartoonist sporadically active with DC, Charlton and in Heavy Metal magazine during the 1970s and early 1980s, but I can't seem to find anything else on him beyond people on message boards asking, "Who is Bill Payne?"

New Spookey videos are even more elusive than the mysterious Mr. Payne, so how about some 5678s instead?  Here goes:

Friday, October 14, 2011

2nd Annual Spookey Month: Uzumaki... spiral into... Halloween!

Ito Junji's disturbing horror manga Uzumaki was made into a film back in 2000. While the comic ended on a Lovecraftian note, the movie keeps the horror on a more personal level. Possibly because the budget for a more faithful adaptation would have been enormous. Uzumaki the movie is also pretty campy, sometimes substituting goofy comedy for the truly nauseating terror of the original. It's lots of good fun if you can stream it or Netflix it or whatever it is you youngsters do nowadays. But if you haven't read the comic, you really need to.

Unless you have a weak stomach. It made me feel queasy, but I couldn't stop myself from turning each page.  Still, I would feel terrible if I became responsible for cookies being tossed, lost lunches or even a chuck being upped.

The middle chapters are a bit formulaic, but what a formula! Ito creates the perfect atmosphere of growing dread by setting up each vignette and letting them lead to each inexorable conclusion. When Shuichi's father kills himself under the spiral's spell, his mother grows to fear and loathe the shape to the point of injuring herself to rid her body of it. At one point, Shuichi consults with a doctor and in a moment of horror, realizes there are spirals just inside our ears. At that point, he'll do anything to prevent his mother from learning of this... The beautiful girl with the crescent-moon scar on her forehead. The classmate of Kirie's with the gorgeous, curly hair. The boy who likes to spring out at people and scare them. A slow-moving classmate during snail season. Pregnancy. A typhoon. It just gets worse and worse until only Shuichi and Kirie are left to escape, or failing that-- to confront the spiral where it's most powerful.

When I lived in Japan, I had a collection of delightfully disgusting Ito stories.  I have no idea what the title was; it was all in Japanese.  I bought it simply because I recognized his art on the cover.  Inside were stories about teens with pimples, a bully who grew up into the worst mother ever, a particularly nasty circus and the absolute lousiest way to lose weight ever invented.  Because I couldn't read it, a friend of mine translated it fairly loosely for me.  It was also her first encounter with Ito's work and it cracked her up.  Or maybe she was laughing at me for liking it so much.

I don't have a new (or even an old) Spookey clip for you today, but here's something you might enjoy: