Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Black Queen of Sogo-- Barbarella's Enemy!

Stab on, Slupe/Slupe, stab on...
Back when we were little creeps in the 1970s, my friends and I would hear from time to time of Barbarella, an almost mythical sci-fi softcore (so we imagined) film based on a French porn comic (so we assumed) starring none other than Jane Fonda, once of Barefoot in the Park, Cat Ballou and A Doll's House, soon to be of Coming Home, The China Syndrome, On Golden Pond and the 1980s workout craze.  A sci-fi movie reference book at the library across from our school yielded a few black and white stills, the comic book panel where Barbarella gives a post-coitus critique to a robot with a very suggestive name and a short synopsis that our imaginations no doubt filled in with baroque details of forbidden love ways, all kinds of weirdness far beyond what we finally encountered years later as a junior college students when we rented the VHS on a whim one... er... smoke-filled evening.

Barbarella was kind of amusing but even in our chemically-altered state we found it far less decadent than we'd been led to expect.  Despite the infamous scene where Barbarella's inexhaustible sexual energy burns out a machine designed to orgasm her to death, these days it's practically tame, hardly even as risque as 1980's Flash Gordon where Ornella Muti wears a skirt slit all the way up... to... there...

Why am I telling you all this?  Because this weekend I got on one of my Swingin' Sixties kicks and decided to watch the last scene of Barbarella on YouTube.  I've always liked the last little exchange between Fonda and John Phillip Law as they fly into the credits.  The last lines of Barbarella are cleverer than the entirety of most sci-fi movies these days-- the Star Wars prequels don't contain a single memorable line through six or so tedious, joyless hours-- and it's possible to enjoy even the seams in it when they show and its retrograde sexual revolution nonsense later spoofed by Mike Myers in his international man of mystery flicks.

The movie version!
I dig all kinds of trippy 60s psychedelia.  I'm a fan of the unfairly maligned Casino Royale spoof featuring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress and Orson Welles.  Alongside that movie and viewed as a period piece, Roger Vadim's Barbarella proves as agreeably campy with its lava lamp-based aesthetic as any of the various James Bond imitators so popular around the same time.  It's fun watching a wide-eyed Fonda do the 60s sex kitten thing, cheerful and invulnerably innocent, especially considering her immediate political future and artistic reputation as an actor.  Barbarella has sex.  A lot of sex.  Some of it involves taking pills and touching palms, and there isn't any actual nudity (there is in the comic), but Barbarella spends a lot of time having sex between adventures where she's trapped, tied up or otherwise abused before escaping to have sex again.  But when you think about it, Barbarella only does what James Bond does (including being tied up and abused a lot), only she does it in outer space, in zero gravity, while wearing skin-tight outfits and high-heeled boots.

So off I scampered to YouTube to get my fix...

And damned if I wasn't suddenly struck by the thunderbolt that is Anita Pallenberg as the Great Tyrant.  As a movie trivia buff, I'd known this but I suppose it had never registered before now.  Like the character she portrays, Pallenberg was some kind of formidable woman back in the day.  She was born in Italy to German-Italian parents, spoke four languages as a child, studied medicine and graphic design, became a model, an actor, a musician, lover to Rolling Stone Brian Jones.  Later she definitely some children with Keith Richards and supposedly had an affair with Mick Jagger.  I've also heard she was very into Black Magic, so it's no wonder Jennifer Saunders tapped her to play the Devil opposite Marianne Faithfull's God in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous  Then there was the incident in which she had to be cleared of manslaughter charges.  She's almost 70 now, younger than my mom but looks ten or even twenty years older.

Kind of makes me like tyranny...
 In the comics, her character is just the Queen, but in the movie she's known as the Black Queen of Sogo or simply the Great Tyrant.  What a name!  Anyone with ambition can dress all in black and be a black queen, but you have to be pretty successful at it for people to stick you with a label like the Great Tyrant.  Not just an ordinary tyrant, but a great one.  A tyrant who is supremely gifted at tyranny.  That's what every space adventurer needs in an adversary.  Ming the Merciless-level tyranny.  A planet of fear.

Pallenberg was only 23 or 24 when she played the Great Tyrant and when she smiles her face takes on a freshness-- an adorable quality even-- that belies both the character's nastiness and her own reputation.  And the frequently idiotic costumes, like the one where they strap a horn to her forehead.  Oh, and also the somewhat haggard overdubbed voice they stick her with.  I don't know what Pallenberg's own voice sounded like at the time.  Was it wispy and too girly for the Black Queen, or was she just not much for line readings?  A sweet-voiced villain might have been interesting, especially contrasted along with that smile against the character's depravity.

Sweet dreams in Studio 27.
Whatever the reason, in the role Pallenberg looks impossibly young and undeniably charismatic.  The Great Tyrant rules her city of Sogo with an iron fist and the ominpresent threat of Matmos (unnamed in the comic)-- I'm not exactly sure what it is, but it seems to be a huge pot of boiling water.  Faced with rebellion, she eventually unleashes this watery destruction on Sogo.  After watching a few clips, I spent the rest of the day researching all I could on Pallenberg and the Great Tyrant.  I looked on to see if I could order an English-language edition of whatever Barbarella graphic novel she appears in, but no luck.  But like Barbarella on her mission, I remained undaunted!

The Queen isn't friends with it the way she is in the movie.
My persistence found its reward.  Thanks to the intriguing Femmes Fantastique blog, I was finally able to read in its entirety the original strip (and find some art to illustrate whatever the hell point it is I'm trying to make with this ludicrous attempt at an essay) featuring Barbarella's encounter with the Queen.  Here's how it happens:  After a lot of misadventures involving heroism and sex, Barbarella finds herself trapped in a labyrinth outside the infamous city of Sogo.  She finds a helpful old man named Durand-- in the movie, he's called Durand-Durand to the delight of Simon LeBon-- who tells her all about how Sogo is the most perverted city in existence.  She also meets the beautiful blind "ornithanthrope" Pygar.  He looks like a Renaissance angel.  Or Angel from the old X-Men comics.

Continuing on her way, Barbarella runs into a couple of creepy "beggers."  They intend to do her harm, but a petite one-eyed woman in a skintight black bodysuit stabs them from behind, then tries to put some serious moves on Barbarella herself, despite only speaking broken English.  Making her way to the palace, Barbarella gets involved in a revolt and learns her wicked little savior is actually the Queen herself.  The Queen throws Barbarella into a giant birdcage where the birds conveniently peck off most of her clothes.

Barbarella learns the evil Queen has her own problems-- when she isn't coming up with new forms of perversion and torturing angels to "extend the frontiers of human pleasure," she's suffering from remorse-driven insomnia.  She's like a one-eyed female Caligula.  After a busy day making his horse Incitatus consul, torturing prisoners to death, spoofing religious rites, having sex with noblemen's wives right in front of them and dressing up like Venus, Caligula would spend a sleepless night wandering his palace inviting the moon to come to bed with him.  Supposedly.

She just wants to be friends!
Come to think of it, given her escapades incognito among her subjects, the Queen's also a bit like Nero.  Among all his other decadent amusements, Nero used to disguise himself and hit the fleshpots and bars of Rome's back alleys with his rowdy buddies, kind of like a frat boy with unlimited political power.  She goes out by herself, though.  Much braver and bad-ass.

And like both those emperors the Queen has her enemies.   Barbarella is one, for righteous reasons, and even her own palace locksmith is completely fine with allowing Barbarella into the Queen's secret room of dreams to assassinate her.  He betrays Barbarella as well.  He locks her in with the helpless Queen as the deadly dream energy swirls.  Waking, the Queen begs Barbarella to save her in exchange for submissive sex.  Barbarella turns her down for the second time and they escape through a secret passageway in the Queen's bed.

But this little episode merely showcases one of the major flaws of being evil-- you attract other evil people as your followers and you can never trust them.  I don't believe in this concept of evil.  Usually the things we end up declaring evil take the form of groups of people convinced of their own virtue.  The Nazis were the good guys in their own minds, terrorists of whatever stripe either political or religious feel their murders will improve the world somehow.  Only in comic books and movies like Star Wars do we find antagonists who consciously embrace evil, and it almost always blows up in their faces.  Sometimes that's even an intrinsic part of the evil system they follow.  What Sith Lord hasn't been murdered by his apprentice?

You can't always get what you want...
Anyway, like the Sith and untold other genre villains, the Queen put her faith in evil and ends up paying for it.  She takes Barbarella on a tour beneath her palace which includes such sights as hundreds of scientists working on new forms of decadence to "extend the frontiers of human pleasure," and a nameless, liquid creature that festers beneath Sogo like that river of slime under New York City in Ghostbusters 2.  At this point, realizing her reputation has caught up to her as far as Barbarella's concerned, the Queen makes sure to tell her she had nothing to do with this ultimate evil.

Oh, but she does have Pygar down there with his wings pinioned to what appears to be a giant bowling ball.  For some reason, the Queen is especially proud of this detail, but it only succeeds in finally pissing off Barbarella, who attacks her, takes her prisoner and frees Pygar.

The threesome flies off into the labyrinth only to crash.  Barbarella and Pygar reunite with Durand and all hell breaks loose.  It seems some idiot-- the obvious suspect is the crazed Queen-- has let loose the watery monster and it's angrily poisoning everyone as it washes through the city and the labyrinth.  Trapped, Barbarella and friends engage the city guards in a brief fight before the Queen shows up in what appears to be a flying Venetian gondola.  Stepping out of it onto the rampart where the survivors wait, the Queen happily greets them.  See, she really likes Barbarella.  It's not just sexual attraction but a genuine fondness.

"Barbarella, my pet," the Queen says, cheerfully waving.  "I was sure I'd find you safe and sound!"

Still miffed by the Queen's mistreatment of Pygar and completely outraged by the wanton destruction of life and property she's now witnessing, Barbarella's ready to finish her off-- "What nerve she has coming here!  I'm going to disembowel her," our hero growls-- but the Queen explains this latest madness isn't her doing it all.  In fact, although she politely declines to say so, it's kind of Barbarella's fault.  Believing the Queen kidnapped by Barbarella, Gronf II, the "caretaker," chose to take advantage of the power vacuum by leading a palace revolt.  Then he stupidly unleashed the beast.  What a total jerk!

The Queen enlists Barbarella and Pygar to help her take back her throne, but it's too late.  Even her mighty palace has collapsed.  Beaten, the Queen laments, "Ah!  Sogo's ruined, it's gone!  Good-by my pleasures, my bed, my throne, good-by to life, good-by my crown!"  She declares her end fitting, as "the queen cannot outlive her city" and prepares herself as her flying boat falls from the sky towards the deadly waters.

Barbarella turns to Pygar as her last hope and the angel flies her to safety.  But he also takes the Queen, who hangs from his arm like a limp doll.  Barbarella asks him why he saved her, and Pygar tells her, "An angel has no memory," and Sogo-- like Edgar Allen Poe's House of Usher-- consumes itself.

Like anyone adapting a comic, Vadim made a lot of changes great and small in the story.  Durand-Durand becomes a villain, the Queen owns her evil a bit more, being linked to and gaining power from the Matmos beneath her palace rather than somewhat frightened by it.  She puts some moves on Pygar in the movie and even dreams of him in her secret chamber, while in the comic she's more into Barbarella and just sort of offhandedly disposes of the angel.

It's true.  We don't.
Vadim's budget and the special effects technology of the time probably limited certain sequences, like the dream assassination.  In the comic the bed swirls away on the dream imagery, but in the movie Vadim just has Fonda wander for way too long in front of a lot of rear-projected nonsense blobs and move between these spiny plastic plants, like she's looking for her coke dealer in the world's worst discotheque.  You'll have to track down and watch most of the movie itself to see it.  Amazing as it seems, there aren't so many clips online of Pallenberg in character.  Most of what you find involves Fonda in the "excessive machine," a minor detail in the comic but blown up into a major set piece for the movie.  Allowing the Queen to destroy her own realm in a delirium of vengefulness is a nice switch from the comic, but Vadim really could have left out the bird cage scene.

Forest makes it quite terrifying, the queen's one attempt at executing her enemy, but in live action it's just Durand-Durand's way of torturing Barbarella for the audience's supposed titillation and to pad the film's running time.  It appears vaguely Hitchcockian, like the clumsier moments of The Birds, but without the Master's touch to make it work anyway.  While a number of sequences threaten her dignity-- scantily-clad Barbarella spends a great deal of time being tied up-- Fonda usually pulls through by relying on Barbarella's essential positive outlook.  She cries for help when things get too bad, but mostly she just seems unfazed by all the insanity.  Unfortunately, in the bird cage Fonda only looks ridiculous lying there pretending to be distressed while colorful birds flutter around playfully, completely sans aggression.  Plus, she's already been pecked or bitten by tiny dolls once before in the movie; twice is gratuitous even by Barbarella's standards.

But here's the most important thing.  Instead of dangling almost comatose from Pygar's arms with her hair in disarray and her face turned from us in abject defeat the way her comic avatar does, despite being measurably a worse person, the Black Queen of the movie gets to look directly into the camera with a kind of enigmatically pleased expression.  Sure, she's ruined, but it makes one think she's already plotting a phoenix-like return to power.  Or perhaps it's simply the afterglow from some well-played destruction.  As played by Pallenberg, the Black Queen will never know true defeat.  Fonda's Barbarella can only look on her persistent rival in dismay.

The look of love...
I love that about Pallenberg's Black Queen/the Great Tyrant.  That inexhaustible spirit.  And to honor her I'm not going to apologize for it, either.  I'm also not going to apologize for feeling grateful Robert Rodriguez's planned remake fell through.  There's no way a modern film-- especially one directed by Rodriguez-- could combine this kind of playful sexuality with Sogo-ian decadence in the right quantities.  You'll never find another Pallenberg, that's for sure.  The only result I can imagine is a monochromatic CGI slog closer in spirit to The Chronicles of Riddick or the unfortunate Aeon Flux.  Or worse-- Sucker Punch, a Barbarella for the cynical post-modern audience of... apparently no one; they make genre movies and superhero comics almost exclusively for these boorish, jaded people these days and yet they really don't seem to exist in very large numbers.  Barbarella may live in the 40th century, but she's a child of the 60s.  Let her stay there, please.

Speaking of... I need to re-read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:  Century #2 - 1969 to see if there are any Pallenberg references.  This is the kind of thread-chasing I enjoy.  The story opens with a riff on Brian Jones's death, so it just seems natural Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill would do something with his lover or at least her 1960s image as a kind of real-life Black Queen of Sogo.  If not, what a missed opportunity.  Then again, she could probably consume the League in less than a page and put that Moon Child to rout.  She probably would have cooked the damned thing in a spoon and injected him into her veins.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interested in buying American comics in Japan?

Yeah?  Well, forget about it.  The monthlies at least.  I know I've touched on this subject before, but if you're addicted to the American-style four color slender magazine we popularly refer to as the "comic book" and you live in Japan you'd better get ready for some hard cold turkey time, complete with DTs and hallucinations of Batman crawling under your skin.  Your best bets are either learn to live without, start buying digitally, order from overseas or have some sympathetic pusher-type friend mail you your fix.

Another thing you can do is make a pilgrimage to Blister.  This is problematic because it's not all that easy to get to these days and involves figuring out the Tokyo subways, being very patient while waiting for your arrival at the proper stop and then a fairly long walk through what will no doubt be unfamiliar territory to a small store that may or may not have what you're looking for.

It used to be easier.  At one point there were two comic book shops in Shibuya that sold American monthlies, with Blister being the largest and most exciting.  It was right in the heart of the shopping area just outside the station and across the famous Shibuya scramble intersection you've certainly seen in movies and in photographs.

In those days, Blister was an orange multi-story geek heaven and had one of the actual screen-worn Spider-man movie costumes on display!  All the action figures you could ever want and then comics and trades in the basement, plus a really cool young staff.  It moved to smaller digs in Harajuku and that's where I used to drop 100-200 bucks on comics and more whenever I hit Tokyo.  I experienced my first Free Comic Book Day at the Harajuku store, and it was marvelous.  So many people packed into the comic book section you had to wait your turn to flip through the longboxes.

Then Blister moved again and shrank to a less impressive storefront in a hard-to-reach neighborhood that isn't nearly so cool as either Shibuya or Harajuku, but probably leases space at more affordable rates for people selling comics apparently only I want.  My second FCBD at Blister's new location wasn't so exciting and a day or two later, I was jetting back over the Pacific Ocean, leaving Japan behind me forever.  Or so I thought.

Man, I loved Blister back in the day!  I still do, but I'm not sure I'll be making a return trip there this year.  Sorry to give you the bad news.  Now for the good.

If you love collected trades, graphic novels or English-translated manga, you're totally in luck here in Japan.  Japan's got you covered.  More than covered.  It's an embarrassment of riches, really.  You can order COD from (currently my favorite source).  Sometimes you can even find things that are out of print in the US still available at Amazon.  At the very least, anything you can get from Amazon in your own country, you can get in Japan.  And the exchange rates make them comparable in price, or even cheaper.  And if you're in Tokyo, it's easy to hit up Tower Records in Shibuya and Kinokuniya in Shinjuku.  Tower Records is a straight shot from Shibuya Station and Kinokuniya is right behind Shinjuku Station. 

But don't take my word for it.  Ask Christopher Butcher, who found out in 2007 what I learned about the same time:  that Fantagraphics is majorly represented here at Kinokuniya (and also at Tower Records, although I don't think he went there).  You can also find your precious superhero books at Kinokuniya as well.  But the English-language manga section is the store's real appeal.  Butcher's right on about how large that section in Kinokuniya is.  It's large and stocked in-depth with all kinds of titles and genres.  While Kinokuniya does maintain a shelf of superhero trades, it's nowhere near as breathtaking as their English-translated manga selection.

Here's another good point he makes:

So, here’s my closing thought: A Japanese bookstore in Japan has a better selection and diversity of product for English-language graphic novels, including manga, bd, superheroes, artcomix, strip collections, etc., than 90% of comic stores in North America; if Kinokuniya can develop a market for that material then North American stores could too, and there’s nothing stopping them.

You have to understand Kinokuniya did this within the context of a market where comics are already widely accepted by a population-wide general readership, but as a business person, Butcher obviously understands the scope of what Kinokuniya offers.  I also enjoyed Butcher's photos of the Shinjuku night-scape, complete with the NOVA sign that no longer exists because that NOVA branch went belly-up along with the company not long after he shot it.

Which is to say in Japan terms, this photo essay is old news.  And also in the world of American comic book fans.  That doesn't mean it still isn't useful.  The info about Kinokuniya was still accurate as of May, 2010, the last time I set foot in the store.  I just happened to tumble across Butcher's photos this morning while thinking about whether or not American comics are popular here in Japan and if any new outlets for them had popped up since I my departure and return.  The late, lamented Journalista! once linked to it, so you may have already read it.  I didn't, much to my chagrin.  Wish I had.  Wish I'd known he was in Japan at the same time I was.

Not that he knows me or vice versa, but I could have clued him into Blister.  I miss Journalista!  Journalista! once linked to someone else's link to my angry evisceration of that overblown toilet paper-worthy book Identity Crisis and called it the "ultimate take-down" of said book.  And then I died and was no longer relevant to comics fandom!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Another Nexus update-- inks and coloring!

The official word is Steve Rude will ink himself and also do the lettering for the new 42-page Nexus story dropping this May in Dark Horse Presents from... wait for it... Dark Horse.  Well, not all 42 pages, not right away.  Dark Horse Presents isn't formatted for that.  Expect 10 or so in the first installment.  Glenn Whitmore will do the coloring.

Mystery solved thanks to the Rudes themselves.  I can't wait to read this!  I'm sure Rude and Mike Baron have something amazing in store for us.  But then, they usually do!  And the Dude inking the Dude sounds good to me!

Monday, February 20, 2012

A touching moment with Sarah Rainmaker...

She tries her best not to look...

I’ve been re-reading the original Gen13 series from Image.  It’s one of my guilty pleasures, thoroughly enjoyable in a stoopid way—sort of like Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video.  Because it's a cheesecake-heavy comic very much of the 1990s,  it has me thinking a lot about the male gaze, without which there probably wouldn’t have been a Gen13 in the first place.  It emphasizes ogling its female characters to the point where the Gen13 Zine (1996) informs us their measurements are the same as those of Elle McPherson, Stephanie Seymour and Natalie Portman.  Wow!  Readers know exactly what they're looking at.  That’s a level of objectification that’s breathtaking in its specificity.  

 The regular creative team tosses in a running joke in which Caitlin Fairchild, the red-haired, highly intellectual muscle of the team, ends up unclothed at various points in practically every issue and sometimes comments on it in a metatastically ironic way.  In Gen13 #3 (July, 1995), when Fairchild washes up half-naked-- her lower half, naturally-- on a tropical island, the moment involves breaking the fourth wall, with Fairchild covering her genitals from the readers in an embarrassed way as if she's aware of the artist functioning as an imaginary camera eye.  It’s a kind of “Aren't we the cutest?  Can you believe what we’re getting away with here?” nudging of the readers.  Come on, it’s all in good fun!  Even Fairchild can see the humor in it!

My favorite version of this joke comes in Adam Hughes’s two-part Gen13:  Ordinary Heroes (February/July 1996), which he also wrote.  The characterizations are sharper and the inciting element is smarter than anything found around the same time in monthly magazine.  Fairchild-- Hughes gives her an appropriately heroic physique rather than base her on a willowy swimsuit model-- goes back to her old university to pick up some junk, then the Gen13 team shows up in a sci-fi rocket ship to take her on an adventure.  As Sarah Rainmaker provides useful exposition, Hughes has Fairchild undress all the way down to implied nudity-- we don't get to see that, but given her costume's configuration, there's no way she's wearing anything under it, at least not the undies Hughes shows Sarah and the reader-- so she can put on her superhero costume.  

... while Caitlin remains clueless.
The two girls are alone together and the sight of Fairchild revealed proves too much for poor Rainmaker.  In the Hughes version, you’re invited to ogle Fairchild as per usual—but in order to do so, you have to mask yourself as, or at the very least identify with, the team’s resident lesbian.  This is accomplished first by a series of panels focusing on Rainmaker's face, ending on the first page with a circular panel with a background in a complementary color scheme (opposites on the color wheel; this creates emphasis) compared to the more traditional rectangular panels that come before it.

This stands out in my mind because I recently read a Facebook post from Bob McLeod where he touches on using circular panels.  I can't find the comment and his exact wording escapes me (it may have had something to do with an editor he worked with on a job for the European market not liking them), but as you can see a circular panel really stands out.  It's something that has to be used sparingly as a result.

It’s funny to see Rainmaker give into the same sort of sexually admiring stare the regular monthly book usually gives over to its male characters—most frequently the team’s good-natured horndog Grunge.  Grunge all but salivates each time Fairchild either disrobes herself or due to circumstances beyond her control.  As Fairchild's first person narration takes over from Rainmakers's expository dialogue, the humor becomes more about Fairchild's obliviousness about the source of her teammate's discomfort.  Oh, she's aware enough that Rainmaker's voice keeps trailing off, but assumes it's because of her emotional response to the disturbing story she's telling.

Rainmaker personifies the 90s fan.
However, Hughes takes the gaze one step further-- to its logical conclusion-- when he hints both visually and in dialogue that Rainmaker is actually going to masturbate as a result.  Finally dressed in her costume, Fairchild goes to join the rest of her teammates and asks Rainmaker—who on this page is suggestively depicted with her hands between her thighs— if she's coming.  Rainmaker responds in a way that creates a double entendre: “In a minute.”

By this point, the gaze has returned to its more customary form, as Rainmaker recedes into the background and even loses her head and face in favor of a panel-breaking image of Fairchild zipping up her costume.  The Gen13 status quo is largely restored and we're all smirking as required, but Hughes is a smart storyteller so it's subtler than Grunge with his tongue hanging out and Freefall reacting jealously.

In the next issue, Hughes gives Rainmaker one more moment of glory.  In the monthly, at least under the original creative team, Rainmaker functions as another element of comedic relief:  a shrill, politically-correct killjoy and college-age feminist caricature whose sexuality is largely played as a tease or as a kind of Girls Gone Wild or YouTube party video same-sex kissing thing aimed largely at hetero males.  At her best, when sensitively portrayed, Rainmaker functions as the team's conscience, with Fairchild as the intellect in a kind of absent-minded professorial way, a la Reed Richards.  Which I suppose makes Grunge the id.  And Freefall and Burnout simply along for the ride.

Smarts, huh?
Here, Burnout has said something characteristically asinine and Sarah swiftly destroys him.  Hughes doesn't play this as a comedic moment where the readers are supposed to chuckle at Rainmaker's mindless recitation of some lefty or environmentalist talking point.  Oh yeah, Rainmaker is pretty harsh with Burnout and reduces him to tears, but she alone among her teammates has shown complete understanding of the situation and the enemy they face.  She alone among them has guessed team mentor Lynch's motivations and she's not afraid to confront him with this knowledge.  As she slams Burnout, Hughes breaks the panel borders with a sober portrait of a deadly serious Rainmaker, nothing cheeky or mocking about the moment.  Burnout's tearful reaction is pretty apt.  Rainmaker lays his hollow center bare for all to see and because he's basically a decent kind of guy, it hurts.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Nexus Update!

According to his wife Jaynelle, Steve Rude has finished the pencils for the new Nexus to be featured in Dark Horse Presents starting with issue #12 this May.  And get this-- it's forty-two pages!  Forty-two pages of Mike Baron story and Steve Rude art.  This means it's going to run for a while and then come together in book form at some point.

That's thrilling news for a die-hard Nexus fan like me.  Back in 1997 I was pretty sure we'd seen the last of Horation Hellpop, Sundra Peale, Dave, Ursula XX Imada and all the rest-- hundreds of them-- and it truly depressed me.  Those were dark times for my favorite titles; just a year before, our beloved Xenozoic Tales faltered and faded away.  Nine years later, Rude tried self-publishing.  That didn't take and the Dude turned his energies towards fine art and gallery shows.  It seemed once again Nexus had gone the way of everything good and fanciful.  Because it's all infinite and crisis now.  Post-modern irony, graphic violence, massive crossovers full of miserable characters,  massive crossovers full of second- and third-hand ideas, crossovers of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclopes in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me.

Not that Nexus ever contained cucumber trees or three-legged cyclopes.  It never needed them; it has riches aplenty.  There are some four-armed aliens, though.  So here we are in 2012 and not only is a brand new Nexus story on its way, it's a huge one!  The Dude's done it!  He's back in comics, which so desperately needs artists like him.  And he's brought Baron with him; comics also need writers of his caliber.  Isn't it beautiful? It's like a dream come true. It's the dawning of the age of lovely, intimate things.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen —

I wonder who's inking it.  Gary Martin has provided a sympathetic brush on Rude's pencils for a number of years now.  I really enjoyed their teamwork on The Moth, which Martin wrote as well.  He'd be my first choice.  But I'm sure they wouldn't pick some incompetent to replace him if he's not available.  I suppose I could go do some Google searching and find out if Martin's coming back...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Whither Micronauts indeed!

Noel Murray and I must have had very similar childhoods.  We both got into the Micronauts toys, but neither of us had very many of them.  I had a few of the more generic-looking (and more importantly, cheapest) figures and one of the vehicles.  Eventually I traded with a friend for an Acroyear whose metallic parts I promptly painted red.

I'm just establishing what everyone already knows:  I am the supreme Micronauts comic book nostalgic on the web.  Well, I know it because I'm the kind of jerk who knows things like that, things that make me out to be the kind of jerk I am.  Others may know more, may show more devotion but I... Okay, I'm a sham.  A fraud.  I admit it.  But I do love me some Micronauts toys.  And I especially love the old Micronauts comic.

Murray just wrote a short think-piece on how the Micronauts' place in pop culture is currently occupied by something of a void.  There's a fan base out there, but as a property, Micronauts is stone dead.  Or at least comatose.  Meanwhile, new Star Wars figures hit the toy store shelves at an alarming rate, even of characters appearing for nanoseconds in the movies or cartoon shows.  Of course, these characters all have backstories of their own now thanks to the exponentially increasing Star Wars narrative, but the point is they exist and thrive while our beloved Micronauts barely register on the cultural radar even for jaded hipsters whose entire frame of reference consists of ironic nostalgia for things they may or may not have had as children.

I've wondered, much like Murray, why there hasn't been a Micronauts reprint book.  The first twelve issues of this comic comprise an almost forgotten classic.  Bill Mantlo's epic, sprawling tale takes the toys and provides them with a surprisingly rich milieu made of parts lifted from here and there and artfully combined.  Michael Golden's art is better than a comic based on a toy line deserves.  While the one we got was certainly fun in a campy sort of way, Micronauts was the Star Wars comic we all really wanted.

And like Murray, over the years I've done some research and it seems the rights are a bit too entangled for a proper reprinting.  What we have here is a toy line from Takara Tomy Co. Ltd. licensed in the US by Mego overlaid with characters owned by Marvel or, ultimately, Disney.  The in-house characters created by Mantlo still appear from time to time in Marvel comics, but they're now known as the Microns.  Someone else-- Takara or perhaps the mysterious entity known as Abrams/Gentile Entertainment-- owns other key characters like omniscient exposition-provider Time Traveler, robotic comedic relief team Biotron and Microtron, the heroic warrior-king Acroyear and arch-villain Baron Karza.  While working out some kind of financial and legal arrangement that probably isn't worth the money or effort, a would-be Micronauts reprint publisher faces a battle along the lines of reassembling the complete Beatles.  I mean back in the 1970s when there were still four of them.  Difficult though it may be, I doubt putting out a Micronauts reprint would be nearly so daunting a task as putting the Beatles back together these days.

In the meantime, other comic book companies have taken up the Micronauts license and attempted to recreate the magic, only to fail.  There may be a movie version in the works, and possibly some new toys from Hasbro, but I wouldn't waste time making plans to camp out for tickets or hassling the stockers at your local Toys-R-Us just yet.

However, should the movie happen maybe-- just maybe-- someone will find a way to cash in with a reprint of the Mantlo-Golden book.  Or maybe some well-connected superfan with more money than common sense will somehow make this happen.  After all, Bill Sargent once offered the Beatles fifty million dollars for a reunion.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

John Severin Passes

This is heartbreaking newsComics great John Severin, 90, passed away on February 12th.  I haven't written about him here, but he was one of my all-time faves.  He truly was.  Years ago I bought America at War: The Best of DC War Comics, a book full of-- you guessed it!-- DC war comics.  One of the standouts was the John Severin-illustrated "Push-Button War!", (originally printed in Our Army at War #67, DC, 1952) about a B-17 bombadier and how "easy" his war was compared to that of everyone else.  He had a distinctive way of drawing eyes that was instantly recognizable, and a unique crosshatching method to build up tone.  There was no mistaking whose work it was.  Plus, it was signed.  This story was from the guy I knew and enjoyed for his humor work with Cracked magazine at the time.  I was astounded.  I was a fan.  It made me appreciate his comedy stuff all the more.  When he drew Cracked's E.T. parody, the caricatures were dead-on.  Subtler than Mort Drucker's or Jack Davis's, but no less amusing for it.

I was in junior high at the time and drawing my own epic comic, a completely insane story in which every Marvel character along with whatever other pop culture property caught my attention-- Indiana Jones and Jake Cutter from the TV show Tales of the Gold Monkey plus John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in their parts from Steven Spielberg's flop panic-comedy 1941 play secondary roles-- fight a war against the Theragran-M delivery man for some reason.  Severin's version of Elliott tossing the softball into the garden shed makes an appearance, painstakingly copied line-for-line as best I could at the time.  In fact, I copied every figure in the story from various comics.  It didn't matter that none of them were stylistically compatible.  I just knew I had to work some John Severin into the mix.

In those days it had simply never entered my thinking artists could cross genres, or if they did, they could do so at John Severin's lofty level.  Later I learned just how many genres Severin worked in.  War, western, horror, fantasy, superheroes.  Science fiction?  Sports?  I'm not sure.  I feel like he did it all.  I know he did it all with an amazing sense of verisimilitude.  From the gunner positions in the heavy bomber of that first story I read to his EC stories in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat to the pirates in his Warren classic "Drink Deep" (Creepy #7, February 1965) and stories in Blazing Combat to more recent work for Marvel and Dark Horse, everything Severin drew looked and felt authentic.  Real, without the crutch of photorealism.  I think one of the highest compliments you can pay an artist is to recognize him or her as being able to "draw anything."

John Severin could draw anything.

I can't think of too many artists with Severin's career longevity.  He did his first professional work at age 10, later served in WWII, broke into comics in the late 1940s (probably 1948) and just last year illustrated Witchfinder:  Lost and Gone Forever, a five-issue miniseries for Dark Horse--  with no appreciable drop in quality!  His last published job looks every bit as fresh as anything he did in the 1950s and 1960s for EC and Warren!  That in itself is almost superhuman!

Many artists follow a kind of bell curve trajectory in their careers.  There's the rise to competence-- or in some lucky cases, pure genius-- followed by a peak period, then a long decline.  Few artists appear fully-formed, and if it appears so it's more than likely because he or she spent those formative, rising years working in secret.  We discover them and enjoy their peak time, which, if they stay mentally and physically healthy, can last decades.  If not, the decline makes an abrupt and steep downturn on the chart, a cliff-like drop off in output.  Even with geniuses like Jack Kirby and Al Williamson, we can trace a late career decline in quality.  For some tragic individuals like Wally Wood and Reed Crandall, the end comes suddenly, shockingly.

In John Severin's case, the rise took place way before I was born.  "Push-Button War!" came early in his career and it was still eye-catching to me when I first read it even during a time when Neal Adams, John Byrne, George Perez, Michael Golden and others like them had become the gold standard.  The fan faves.  The ones we all wanted to draw like.  I'm happy I had the good taste to pick up on John Severin.  Those others were and still are idols of mine, and their work figured largely in my stupid self-drawn comic book.  But my love for good art recognized no trendiness.  I saw "Push-Button War!" and I knew at once I was looking at some fantastic stuff.  I had to try and assimilate it as well.  I had to seek out more John Severin.  He never disappointed me.  A fill-in issue of The 'Nam?  Sweet.  Rawhide Kid?  Well, okay!  Working with Mike Mignola and John Arcudi?  Holy Hellboy!

As far as I can tell, Severin spent the entire duration of our overlapping time alive on a high-altitude plateau of brilliance.  He really skewed the charts on maintaining one's gifts.  He's left behind a lot of richly deserved admiration and a generation-spanning body of work a comic fan could spend a lifetime examining.

Well done, Mr. Severin.  I will miss you dearly.

The Loomis sisters loom large of late...

You know the Loomis sisters, right?  Creations of that amazing comic duo, writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude.  Ring a bell?  You know, the Loomis sisters!  Stacy, Lonnie and Michana Loomis, beloved daughters of General Loomis.

We first meet them in Nexus #25 (First Comics, October 1986).  Much like today's developed or industrialized nations, the Web, the galaxy-spanning league of planets of which the Loomis sisters are citizens, requires vast amounts of energy and resorts to ever more dangerous means to gain it.  To meet this need, the Web government builds the Gravity Well, a vast Goldbergian machine that uses white dwarf stars to provide almost unlimited energy.  With General Loomis as its chief, the project comes at a cost:  the destruction of the Planet Periwinkle and its 500,000 sentient inhabitants.  Elvonic extremists attempt to assassinate Loomis to stop the Gravity Well, but Horatio Hellpop-- better known as the super-powered executioner Nexus-- gets there first.  Despite some misgivings, Nexus executes the general after promising to provide for his girls.

 Back home, the seemingly ordinary suburban sisters close ranks and vow revenge on their father's killer.  And symbolically, they make this pact in that homeliest yet blandest and most cliched of suburban settings, the living room.  Complete with a comfy sofa.

The trust fund he sets up for them and his guilty conscience aside, Nexus soon becomes the Loomis's target.  These kids are smart and it was only a matter of time before they realized who did the deed that broke their hearts.

In The Next Nexus miniseries (First Comics, 1989), the sisters receive Nexus's power when he quits being the cosmic avenger for all of humanity.  Here Baron plays on the old theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely.  The ability to blast people and aliens into atoms has long troubled Nexus, so imagine if you will how it affects his greatest, youngest enemies.  Stacy becomes Ahab-like, conscience drives middle sister Lonnie from her siblings and Michana, the youngest, goes kind of batshit.

When Stacy and Michana finally meet a largely helpless and disillusioned Nexus, they have to fight Scarlett and Sheena, his own daughters by the delightfully formidable despot Ursula X.X. Imada.  It's classic generational warfare, a story as old as the concept of family itself.  This is how the crappy things parents do live on in their children, who repeat them, an object lesson in the way our past continually returns to us in a new shape that's really just a reflection of the old shape.

General Loomis is decent guy, an upstanding officer and widower devoted to his daughters.  He offers them stability and discipline with unconditional love, but unknowingly infects them with the darker aspects of his military profession.  Nexus kills mass-murderers, but struggles with self-recrimination as his own body count rises. Neither man can escape the consequences of his actions.  In the end, can any killing be redeemed by another?

The Loomis sisters would suggest violence in response to violence only creates a cycle of destruction that corrupts as much as power.  Their revenge invites a change that would horrify the father they seek to honor, something especially embodied by Michana whose adorable exterior can barely contain her lust for destruction.  While Lonnie eventually settles into the life of a single woman making her own way in the world, Michana spends her childhood assassinating Ursula XX Imada's enemies and when she screws that up, runs a highly successful teen gang on a mass murder and armed robbery spree.

Angelically pretty, clothing herself in punkish leather and fishnets and toting around a small doll to which she's devoted (another symbol of her warped childhood, she communes with it for advice), Michana's a monstrously narcissistic Bonnie Parker and makes Hit Girl from Kick-Ass look like Cindy Brady.  She terrorizes ordinary citizens, enchants a dimwitted thug, bedevils Nexus, ends up in jail.  In Nexus Nightmare in Blue (Dark Horse, 1997), Michana resurfaces.

 Instead of violent mayhem, Baron involves her in an amusingly sitcomish digression from the main narrative, expertly drawn in all its domestic splendor by Rude.  While Nexus struggles to decide his next mission-- eventually turning to the readers for help-- the surviving Loomis sisters set up housekeeping on Mars.

Reconciling with her sister Lonnie, who now holds the somewhat pathetic yet imminently respectable job of "junior assistant to the mayor's secretary," Michana still dreams of power.  She drops the punk look and adopts the guise of a typical suburban teen, but sneaks out at night to indulge her wild side and meet up with a member of her former gang.  You get the idea it's only a matter of time before she cuts off someone's finger to get a ring.

Biding her time, Michana contents herself with helping Lonnie with her relationships, much to the detriment of sleazy Tom Cruise-lookalike Tom Zeus, a lawyer who specializes in something called "jewelry fraud."  Zeus turns out to be the kind of creepy perv who would sleep with an underage girl and video all his other sexual encounters.  Hundreds upon hundreds of them.  Wealthy, handsome, self-assured and not afraid to get his hands dirty helping out the bouncers of his favorite haunt, a stylish bar, Zeus has it all.  A smitten Lonnie breathlessly recites his possessions:  "A Lambo, a Slambo and a Pomerini GT," no doubt coached by Zeus himself.  I don't know what those things are, but they're probably expensive.  Zeus never fails to mention the pride of his fleet, a 250-meter S&J star cruiser that "sleeps twelve."

S&J, by the way, stands for "Sundra and Jil."  Sundra is Nexus's lover and Jil is her business partner in their very successful star cruiser venture.  A posh, arrogant ass like Zeus would only have a starcruiser from S&J.  The ultimate status symbol.

Zeus never ran into someone versed in military tactics, assassination, spycraft and crime of every type before, though.  Michana learned from the best; that Ursula is no joke and there's probably a bit of her father mixed in as well, plus Nexus.  In the aftermath, Lonnie tells Michana her methods are "extreme," but she's grateful to baby sister for putting Zeus in his place.  The Greek God will no doubt survive to seduce another night, but in the future he may be a bit wiser about how he does it and more honest with his partners.  We hope he learned his lesson well.

The ultimate lesson taught us by the Loomis sisters is you don't want to mess with the Loomis sisters.  Actually, you also don't want to mess with Ursula XX Imada or Scarlett and Sheena.

As Baron and Rude prepare a new Nexus story for Dark Horse, I can't help but wonder if Lonnie and Michana will make another appearance.  It doesn't seem all that likely, but one can always hope.

The Nexus cast consists of hundreds of characters, and the most recent storyline-- the "Space Opera" issues self-published by Rude's Rude Dude Productions-- mostly involve topical religio-political machinations and the birth of Nexus and Sundra's son Harry.  Nexus battles the shade of his father and the two weird little aliens who were his companions when he was a child, more of that recurring "sins of the parents" thread that runs through so much of Nexus.  That makes me think it's the appropriate time for some more Loomis action.

While Lonnie has forgiven Nexus, how can we be sure Michana has?  Various assassins have already targeted the newborn and he seems like a natural target for Michana Loomis.  She could continue to be a powerful enemy for Nexus.  She's deadly as all get out, but it doesn't seem likely the conscienced Nexus could equal Michana's amorality by killing her.  It would mean a powerful ending to her saga, one as horrifying as imagining the psychotic thoughts behind Michana's deceptively sweet countenance.  There's still a lot of unfinished business between her and Scarlett and Sheena.  On the other hand, maybe the influence of her big sister really does have Michana on the path to rehabilitation and redemption.  Or is Lonnie truly as upright as she appears.  Could she be hiding something herself?

I'm pretty confident Baron and Rude will wow us when the time comes.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni celebrate 75 years of Prince Valiant!

Hal Foster debuted his legendary Prince Valiant strip 75 years ago on Saturday, February 13, 1937.  My mom was one year old.  She was an early reader, but I doubt she was reading early enough for Prince Valiant's premiere.  Foster wrote and drew Prince Valiant for many years before turning it over the art duties to John Cullen Murphy, who later had his son Cullen Murphy script.  Now it's a collaboration between Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni.  In the interest of full disclosure, I'm more of a Schultz fan than I am a fan of either Prince Valiant or Hal Foster.

Shocking, huh?

Schultz's Xenozoic Tales is one of my favorite books, one of the comics that got me reading them again after years of anti-comics snobbery.  If I had one comic-related wish, it would be Schultz returning to the fabulous Xenozoic Era for a few more stories and a completion of his unfortunately truncated epic.  In the meantime we have Schultz writing this classic comic strip.  He's an amazing, award-winning artist in his own right and a solid storyteller in the classic mold.  The perfect fit. 

I'm not as familiar with Gianni's work, but what I've seen of it has been dazzling.

Their anniversary installment features a whole lot o' Valiant characters.  I don't know who all these people are.  There's a woman who looks kind of like Dani Moonstar, though.  And Inigo Montoya.

Wow. I really need to start reading some Prince Valiant.

And meanwhile, as an art form, comics have never been better!

You know what?  Screw both DC and Marvel.  All the talk about the health of the industry centers around whatever those two companies are doing.  Well, logically so because they're the big players.  And they do put out some good books here and there.  They've got some great talent working for them.  But screw them.  I'm sick to death of discussing the future of the medium as if it totally hinges on whether or not the New 52 brought in new readers (it didn't) or The Avengers will make millions that will be forever denied Jack Kirby's family (it will).

The form itself is stronger than ever.  You don't have to be concerned with whatever new books come out this month and how they sell.  Step back and look at comics as a whole.  You can draw from the entire history of comics for your entertainment.  You can cross oceans and experience comic culture in Europe and Asia.  There are millions of comic book stories out there we haven't even read yet.  Dark Horse puts out some amazing books, both new and reprinted, American and international.  Fantagraphics publishes all kinds of amazing titles like Love and Rockets, Buddy Does Seattle/Jersey, Wandering Son and huge books containing entire years worth of Peanuts strips.  Don't forget Charles Burns's Black Hole from Pantheon.  Have you read that yet?  Dan Clowes's Ghost World.

There's a new book on Alex Toth coming out, but in the meantime there's Torpedo and Zorro.  Viz puts out some fantastic Japanese comics like Nana to name only one.  People are putting out their own comics online or through print-on-demand publishers.  If you must-- and you know where to look-- you can download practically every comic ever printed for free.  People are spending their free time scanning entire runs of books and putting them online and they're not charging anything for this!  Others are translating and localizing Asian comics and making them available totally for free, too!

Flesk recently printed an incredible book collecting Al Williamson's entire Flash Gordon-related output, compiled and edited by Mark Schultz.  There are Alex Raymond reprints.  There are Creepy and Eerie archive books (or even Vampirella if that's your taste), Vanguard Productions has a massive book of Frank Frazetta strips, Fantagraphics put out a softcover version of their Blazing Combat book, there are Hal Foster books, Carl Barks books, books like the amazing Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Wendy and Richard Pini have their entire Elfquest saga online for free, Image has tons of stuff available, Drawn and Quarterly with Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant (one of the best things ever to exist in this world or any other) plus books by Lynda Barry, Oni Press, Slave Labor Graphics, Top Shelf Productions, Knockabout Comics, Archie Comics and Checker Book Publishign Group with their Gold Key Star Trek reprints and more.

And more and more and more.  I'm just tossing out some things off the top of my head.  I love comics.  If DC and Marvel went away today, I'd still love comics and I'd still have plenty of comics to read.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

I'm not surprised by DC's Nielsen survey results because I live backwards in time, kind of like T.H. White's Merlyn...

DC's big reboot brought readers a-flockin' to the banner-- but mostly people who already read comics.  Those elusive brand new readers continued to shun superheroes the way financial success does me.  That's pretty much what I predicted would happen way back  in June, 2011.  Remember?  No?  Luckily for you, I do!  I remember everything because I'm a wizard.  Allow me to educate you by turning you variously into different types of furry animals, birds, insects and fish.

People describing themselves as "avid fans" seemed to love the new DC, accounting for 70% of the sales.  "Lapsed readers" like it, too, making up "a quarter of in store consumers."  But new readers make up a whopping 5% of the buyers.  And most of these are guys.  Women seem to have stayed away in droves.  But then when you step back, most people of whatever gender tend to do that when it comes to comics.

Here's what really interests me in the discussion about this survey:  while reporting a 1% drop in female readership, the DC Women Kicking Ass blog got another one of those "leave DC alone!" type comments from someone claiming women are nothing more than a niche market hardly worth DC's while to approach.  The comments in response to that genius are worth a read, especially when yet another person chimes in to reiterate it.  It's like certain comic book guys go to some kind of school to learn how to miss the point.

The idea is to appeal to as many people as possible.  Because, face it, tiger, comic book readers themselves are the niche market the way things stand.  Everyone else seems to have something better to do with their time.  Or so they think, and nothing DC's tried so far-- or Marvel, for that matter-- has done anything to change this.  You know-- the endless reboots, taking heroic characters and thrusting them into nihilistic stories, the casual misogyny, the massive multi-part stories that undermine any forward momentum the individual monthlies might have, the deaths and rebirths and creative team shuffling.

Nothing really seems to appeal to the general public, of which somewhere around half are women.  Which boggles the mind when movies starring superhero characters are all the rage at the box office.  People in general seem to like Superman and Batman in the talkies, but don't want anything to do with them on the printed page or even in digital form-- which, according to this survey, hasn't turned into either the industry's savior or the death knell of paper and ink-- just the most recent iteration of the infamous chromium-covered variant edition of the regular printed edition for people obsessive enough to need multiple versions of the exact same thing.

What's to be done?  Well, trying something new, some heretofore unseen strategy-- whatever that might be-- could possibly help.  But you know what never will, kid?

Yelling at the girls to keep their icky cooties out of your super-secret he-man boys-only tree fort.

My guess is DC would love to have a vast new readership even if that means losing people like you and the other people who endlessly shift their loyalty from book to book depending on whatever's trending that month.  But you know what?  After reading about this survey, I think you'd probably still buy comics even if they were suddenly colored a gross-out pink and dolled up in ribbons and lace and Batman and Superman started doing a bunch of sissy stuff like talking about their feelings and spending all their time-- ewwwwww-- kissing their girlfriends!  Who probably also have icky cooties, no doubt!

You're a comic book fan!  Buying comics is what you, almost exclusively among your fellow citizens, do!  And to be honest, I don't see those vast new audiences ever showing up to buy comics, so your furtive little hobby is safe in all its sexist glory, buddy.  You did it!  You defeated the fangirls.  Enjoy.  Enjoy the onanistic pleasure of double-bagging your superhero comics in monastic solitude.

Weirdly, over here in Japan, where comic sales are slumping, the reverse is true.  It's hard to throw a rock without hitting a comic book reader.  Let's leave aside the Nielsen survey and some sticky questions about its validity and methodology-- which actually I think are beside the point if DC commissioned it and plans on relying on its data-- let's look at some other numbers.  The top selling Japanese title vastly outperformed the top American book.

I'm talking One Piece, an international sales juggernaut of epic proportions, versus Justice LeagueOne Piece sold 37,996,373 copies in 2011.  That's just in Japan.  DC's Justice League of America sold in the 40,000-50,000 range before it spiked to 180, 709 in September for its second issue after DC chopped off the geographical signifier and entitled it simply Justice League as part of their New 52.  In total, it sold 1,026,441 copies during all of 2011.  To get this figure, I added all the Justice League of Americas and Justice Leagues, including the second month sales of Justice League #1, but I don't know anything about math.  It was never my good subject.

Still, even if I left out a few or a lot we're not anywhere near One Piece's numbers and we live in a world where more people care about what happens to Monkey D. Luffy than to Clark Kent.  If you want to be a stickler, feel free to add things up yourself and toss in Justice League International, Justice League Dark, various Justice League-related trade collections and possibly Marvel's top selling book as well. See how many American titles it takes to equal One Piece.

Look at it this way:  Japan's population is 127, 450,460.  Just over a third of them bought One Piece.  If I ride the train here tomorrow and look at the person sitting on my left and the person sitting on my right, there's a pretty good chance one of them has read One Piece.  How niche-y do you feel now?  Think DC wouldn't love to figure out a way to push their books on a third of the North American population?  Think Time-Warner, Inc. and its stockholders wouldn't love that?

Any strategy that involves concentrating on a very few declining readers while ignoring new markets isn't one that's very viable for the long term.  My palliative-- which is all it can ever be because I really don't think those readers are out there-- is always tell better stories, with better art.  Care more about the characters than the events.  Give books time to grow their readership without involving them in crossover events.  Experiment with genres.  Scout for and cultivate new talent from unexpected places.  These things would bring me back as a regular reader to DC (as opposed to sporadic whenever I go on a jag related to one character or another), but I'm not sure any of that would work for a wider audience because the days of kids riding their bikes to the convenience store to find a spinner rack of brightly colored fun are long gone.  These days they ride their virtual robots to the virtual battlefield to shoot virtual bullets at each other online.  Or something that seems like some kind of horrifying magic to my Neanderthal mind.  Everybody else is too busy voting for American Idol or whatever it is people do.

Gail Simone, however, dissents.  She's pretty sure there's something fishy about these Nielsen numbers.  Hey, she may be right.  I hope she is.  But whatever, I'll keep finding ways to entertain myself over here in my own little niche.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dark Horse celebrates women in comics with a sale!

It's super appropriate because if there's anything women love more than shopping, it's shopping for 50% off items! Right, ladies?

Oh lord, I'm so, so very sorry for that.  Sincerely sorry.  I haven't had much sleep lately and I'm starting to hallucinate. I blame a severe serotonin deficiency. And while my lame attempt at ironic humor has more than likely undermined any serious point I wanted to make here let me just say how much I truly respect and admire all the women who make comics. From Marie Severin to Jan Duursema, Lynda Barry to Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Rumiko Takahashi to Ai Yazawa and Kate Beaton, Misako Rocks!, Sana Takeda, Chika Umino and many, many more-- your work just knocks me out. It thrills me. It makes me happy.  You're the best!*

This is how my train of thought has been working lately.  As my reader no doubt knows, I've been really getting into Creepy magazine which features some of the early editing work of Louise Simonson who went on to shepherd the books that made me the insanely obsessed comic book fan I am today, namely Uncanny X-Men and especially The New Mutants. As such, it's difficult to overestimate Simonson's impact on my pop culture-lovin' life. This extends even to her hair, which apparently made a cameo appearance atop character Maddy Prior in Uncanny X-Men #168, thanks to artist Paul Smith. And via Simonson's The New Mutants I just started enjoying the amazing artwork of both Mary Wilshire and June Brigman.  I would have sooner, but they worked on that book after I'd given up comics in favor of being a rock star.

And we see how well that's worked out for me!

To connect this back to Dark Horse, it's mainly due to Dark Horse's Creepy reprints I owe this belated recognition of some prime movers in my comics consciousness. Dark Horse is the once and future home of my all-time favorite series, Nexus. When I discovered Nexus, the editor of record was the amazing Anina Bennett, whose letter column replies to all sorts of controversies never failed to impress me with her candor, intellect and willingness to mix it up. I always felt confident Mike Baron and Steve Rude were in good hands with Bennett. And she's a creator in her own right, too.

And even though Dark Horse rejected my own little effort at getting into print, that's one comic book company that hasn't disappointed me.  From Nexus to Hellboy and points in between, they just keep rocking great product.  Publisher Mike Richardson even returned the Nexus rights to Baron and Rude.  Think about that during all this talk of boycott and petition signing.  A comics publisher that returns rights to comic creators.

* I'm the worst!

I signed the pro-Kirby petition...

Yes, I did.  Even though I doubt online petitions have much weight, I felt it important to take a moral stand on this issue.  I also signed the one about Gary Friedrich.  I think it's ridiculous Marvel is trying to get $17,000 out of the man when they've already made so much money off him.  That amount is such a pittance to Marvel and Disney and a huge amount to Friedrich it seems like gratuitous bullying, like giving a wedgie and a swirly to a kid after stealing his lunch money and giving him a black eye.  Marvel probably wastes that much in Post-it notes and toilet paper in a week.  He sued and lost, Marvel.  Let it go already.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Fantagraphics has a Valentine for Jack Davis!

Look at that line-up of artists! This makes me wish I lived in Seattle, Washington, instead of Asahi-shi, Chiba-ken. Jack Davis is one of the nicest people ever to work in the industry and it's wonderful to see Fantagraphics showering the man and his work with well-deserved love. I'm really looking forward to their Davis art book. That along with the Alex Toth book by Dean Mullaney are musts!

On a personal note, not only did I once interview Davis by phone-- a treat for me-- but I also sent Peter Bagge an embarrassingly fannish email to which he replied in a gracious manner. He even had a nice compliment for some of my stupid art, a t-shirt I'd designed for a local Athens band. I've been pretty lucky in my interactions with various creators. I've only had one somewhat sour experience and that was due mostly to a misunderstanding. I'm one of those foolish hero worshipers and I treasure these moments when the people whose work I admire so much turn out to be genuinely pleasant types who find a moment to answer my gushy-mushy love notes with gentle good humor instead of the restraining orders or the visits from paid assassins I so richly deserve.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Things I, as a comics blogger, must have an opinion about: DC's Watchmen prequel comics and a pro-Kirby boycott!

Watchmen Prequels

Is Watchmen a sacrosanct text?  Maybe, if your frame of reference consists entirely of comic books and graphic novels.  Or you just like to get pissed off about things.  This is the Internet; that's what we do here.  Watchmen is a great book, a fantastic achievement in fiction, but I don't think it's any more untouchable than Catch-22-- one of the most influential novels of the 20th century on impressionable undergrads.  Author Joseph Heller went one step beyond and produced a yawn-worthy and largely unnecessary sequel to it, Closing Time

I rank Watchmen ahead of Mario Puzo's The Godfather as a work of art, yet Francis Ford Coppola adapted that into a classic movie... with an equally-classic sequel.  All we got from Watchmen was that shitty Zack Snyder thing.  And go ask Michael Winegardner and the suits at Random House if Puzo left anything unsaid about his characters and their lives.  For that matter, consult Alexandra Ripley and Warner Books about Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.

So while I believe Watchmen makes a definitive statement then gracefully ends-- a rarity in American comics where characters are nothing more than trademarked entities to be endlessly recycled-- and even though the word "sequel" only makes me slightly less queasy than the word "prequel," DC's decision to expand the story is genius of a sort.  We're talking about it, people will probably buy it and I have to admit the idea of seeing some Adam Hughes sequential artwork has me drooling like a contented baby.  I'm not big on either Brian Azzarello or J. Michael Straczynski, but Len Wein has never wronged me and I'm starting to warm up to Lee Bermejo's artwork.

The best thing to do if you don't want more Watchmen is just to ignore the prequels.  Then there's no way they can sully the original for you.  Especially if your first name isn't Alan and your last name isn't Moore.  Moore does have a point about DC being "dependent on ideas [he] had 25 years ago."  Speaking of dependent on other people's ideas...

Jack Kirby Boycott

I was going to skip The Avengers anyway, because it takes more than sticking a red white and blue suit on some actor and calling him Captain America to interest me in a film even if you toss in Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo (their first work together since Zodiac!) and Samuel L. Jackson.  Iron Man was a pleasant surprise and both The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 are genre classics. 

The rest have been mediocrities at best and most of them have been outright stinkers.  Fantastic Four movies, I'm looking at you and your bombastically fakey action sequences, over-abundance of lame humor and crass product placement.  DaredevilGhost RiderThorX-Men Origins:  WolverineKick-AssSuperman Returns?  I'm sure there are people who love these movies and make it a point to see every super-flick that comes out, but I'm not among their number.  You've got to wow me with things beyond CGI puppets flying around, a bit of latex and a familiar hero name.

 But beyond all that, according to a story on Slate, there's another reason to give The Avengers a miss and extend that to everything Marvel because Jack Kirby's family isn't getting a cut from all these characters he co-created.  A Marvel boycott.

I'm absolutely pro-Kirby, but that doesn't mean I'm anti-Stan Lee.  These kinds of false dichotomies reign in fandom and I'm not giving into them.  Having said that, I do firmly believe the Kirby family should be compensated for what Jack did for Marvel.  Without Jack, there would have been no Marvel.  That's also true of Stan, but "the Man" sued Marvel successfully, while the Kirbys lost.  The decision may have been according to the letter of the law, but it's still one of those painful things where the right thing and the contractual thing don't coincide even in the slightest.

Kirby got screwed.  He had to allow the screwing so he could provide for his family, but that doesn't mean the screwing was justified or deserved.  Face it, if any one of us had done even a fraction for a company what Kirby did for Marvel but received only his compensation compared to their profit margin past, present and future, we'd be ranting day and night until we get what we feel is equitable.  And even then, it would be such a small slice for them and a huge one for us.  You may claim to feel differently, but you're not going to convince me you're sincere.  Unless you want to sign a piece of paper for me where I own your imagination and can profit from it until the sun consumes the earth while paying you merely a living wage.

We, the fans, whether we're all that aware of Kirby or not, have benefited over the years from all the characters he illustrated and created.  Marvel has made an ungodly amount of money of this man's labors-- Disney paid 4 billion dollars for this company based on how much money they can make by exploiting its Kirby-created properties-- but his family gets nothing because he cashed his checks back in the 60s.

 I doubt any Marvel boycott will affect The Avengers.  The allure of Marvel heroes cavorting together on the big screen is going to prove too much of a lure to the casual fan who is probably only vaguely aware a man named Jack Kirby ever existed.  And the rest probably don't read comics at all and will come away only mildly confused as to why Superman and Batman weren't on the roster.  As for buying Marvel products-- that's already pretty difficult for me because I'm living in Japan.  I can order graphic novels from or buy digital comics, but getting my hands on an actual monthly magazine is incredibly difficult.  I have an associates comic book store of my own, but to date I haven't made a single sale.  It's chockablock with Marvel trades.  So what would my role in such a boycott be?  Skipping a possibly craptacular summer action flick is the easiest step to tak.

What then?  Ditch the Marvels from my failure of a comic book shop?  Stop writing about Marvel books on my loser blog until the Kirby family gets its due?

Hmm.  I think I can do the former this weekend, but the allure of pop culture mockery is too strong for the latter.