Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Here's a little something about the Kyoto International Manga Museum

According to a story appearing in the Japan Times Online, the Kyoto International Manga Museum attracts "200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year, including some 30,000 from abroad."  The museum, which opened in 2006, features a "wall of manga," called, appropriately enough, the Wall of Manga.  It's about 200 meters long and features over 50,000 comics dating back to the 1970s.  There's even a computer search kiosk available so you can locate the exact manga you want to read.  Pretty helpful if you know the one you want.  But if you're not intimidated by the sheer size of the Wall, you can approach it and choose a volume at random.  Whatever catches your eye.  Yeah, you can read the manga.  Take it off the shelf, open it up, start reading.

Since the museum's website claims about 10% of its visitors come from overseas-- bearing out the Japan Times story, I suppose-- they even have a number of international manga.  That's comic books to you and me, Russ.  The largest group is made up of Japanese comics in translation:  970 in English, 670 in Korean and a whopping 1330 in Chinese!  Also represented are German, Italian, Spanish and Catalan and "other European languages."  There are around 400 volumes of homegrown North American, European and other Asian comics, too.  I wonder if they have that one Wolverine where he had an eyepatch and used his claws on those dudes...

"Summer School" at the museum just started today, August 1st, and runs through the 26th.  I'm not out to earn my PhD in manga, but I'd love to attend some of the art instruction classes.  They're in Japanese only, naturally.  The museum accepts donations of materials, as well.  If I leave Japan again that's what I'll do with my rapidly growing comic collection-- donate it to the Kyoto International Manga Museum so people from Japan and around the world can enjoy my impeccable taste in sequential literature.

Even though I've lived in Japan off and on since before this museum opened, I have to admit I still haven't made my pilgrimage.  While I've been to Tokyo and scoured Akihabara, Shibuya, Harajuku and Ikebukuro for comics so many times I've lost count, I don't go to Kyoto very often.  Twice.  And both times I encountered cold weather and nasty rain.  Kyoto and I just haven't been able to see eye-to-eye on what constitutes a pleasant visit.  One of my good friends went to the museum, though, and he's not even a comic book reader.  Before his visit, he'd read Ghost World, and that's about it.  The museum deeply impressed him.  Then he went down the street to a local bookstore and bought some English-translated manga for himself.  Knowing my love for comics he texted me while he was doing it like some kind of pervert performing some weird and gross act we won't even begin to try to imagine and having to share it to increase his sick, disgusting pleasure, and like a similarly perverted individual I jumped right in to join him and demanded he buy the first two volumes of Ai Yazawa's Nana for me.

And that's how I became addicted.  Addicted enough I need to hit Kyoto and visit this place.  Unfortunately, I can't do it during my summer break.  I'm already committed to yet another Tokyo junket, but that's mostly for business.  My passport needs renewing!  But since I recently became engaged and my fiancee is returning to Japan in October so we can start our life together-- I know, it's sickeningly sweet-- there's more than likely a Kyoto trip for two in our near future.  Now she could give a rip about manga but she cares about me, so we'll stand in front of that Wall of Manga and maybe she'll share with me the ones she read when she was a kid.

Is this heaven?

No.  It's not even Iowa.

Monday, July 30, 2012

More leftist art...

Your guess is as good as mine as to why these people and a giant gorilla are all raising their left arms.  I think Batgirl is going to kick that erzatz Uncle Fester's ass (if she can ever untangle herself from that flowing mess of a cape), and Enid is confused as to how she got involved in this mess.  Frazetta's happy monkey wants to play.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A smile is something special, but honestly, ribbons are readily available almost anywhere

Just re-reading Ghost World yesterday.  The part where Enid regresses emotionally while listening to one of her childhood favorite songs is very touching.  It's a very fatherly gesture for her dad to drag out her little turntable and put the single on her bed.  Does anyone listen to 45s anymore?  I had a stack when I was a kid, but most of them were outlaw country by guys like Waylon Jennings.  I especially like the
panel when Enid wakes up in the morning still in her beanbag chair with her hair sticking up all over the place.  I'm almost completely bald and look like some kind of effeminate mirror universe Ike Eisenhower, so of course I'm jealous even of someone's terrible morning hair.

Anyway, I'm doing a deep study of the way Daniel Clowes draws eyes and hands.  You have your slender Alex Toth fingers with prominent fingernails, your dynamic yet claw-like Gil Kane hands that seem rippling with muscles, and then your Dan Clowes hands which are largely featureless.  They're not perfunctory, though.  They're typically well observed in whatever pose he chooses to place them.

Eyes vary.  Weirdo comedian Joey McCobb-- is he for real, or is he simply a hack with an outsider gimmick?-- has wrinkly cartoonish eyes, kind of pointy and football shaped.  Visually, he reminds me a little of Peter Lorre.  Very little.  Mostly just the eyes.  Enid and Rebecca have more nuanced eyes, at least at the beginning of the story.  Eyelids, lashes, little lines underneath to show the roundness.  Eyes protude slightly.  There's at least one panel later in the book where Enid's eyes are simply a curved arc above and below, but they're somewhat obscured by the drawing of her glasses frames.

I could be mistaken.  I'm writing my impressions the next day, at work.  It will be interesting for me to go home this evening and see if I really saw what I remember seeing, or if I'm just making things up in my head.

As an artist myself, I've never settled on a particular way to draw eyes.  Sometimes I want to do sort of abstracted, simplified shapes with full outlines, but other times I go nuts with the detailing.  I change frequently depending on who happens to be influencing me that day, or if I've seen someone new I want to rip off.

Jaime Hernandez has a simple yet convincing way of drawing eyes, the footballish upper and lower arcs, with rounded irises in the center.  The top arc can be flattened and thickened, with a few strokes for lashes.  Interestingly, in a fairly recent story arc, he chose to use the "injury to the eye" motif regarding Hopey, a character whose motivations I often think about.  But prior to that, she spent the story "Election Day" (Penny Century #5, June 1999) hiding her eyes behind dark sunglasses, so much so one of the minor characters mentions thinking she's blind.  At the end of the story she lifts the sunglasses while staring at herself in the mirror, revealing deep lines under them and some kind of enigmatic unhappiness.  What's going on in that head of hers?  Hernandez generally characterizes her as someone not given to introspection.  The eyes are expressive, but they tell us nothing.

His art is slick and appealing, believable yet not exactly realistic.  Steve Rude has a similar approach, but the character he's most associated with usually wears a visor.  No eyes.  When I picture a Rude face, I imagine narrowed eyes drawn as horizontal lines, squinting, the body straining, twisting and moving.  Action eyes.  Some of his aliens have big round insectoid eyes.  Good for science fiction, not so much for earth-bound romance comics-- which is a genre I'm very interested in working in.  I like to say "social realism," but if I'm really being honest with myself, I'm writing romance comics.  They'll never see publication, but it's fun to churn out scripts full of emotional torture for my shabbily realized characters.

Alex Toth and Mort Meskin sometimes drew eyes as little slashes of black ink, or maybe a line up top and then a dab of ink below for the iris.  Very simple and effective.  Alex Toth is my primary influence for drawing eyes, but like Clowes, Hernandez and Rude, he employed different methods.  His sketchbook pages, which are frequently just big piles of faces and heads, show all kinds of approaches.  Some of them are extremely simple, just quick enclosed triangles and ovals.

Simply put, there's no one right way to draw eyes.  Do what works best for you, what's appropriate for your characters.  Above all, observe real emotions and learn to draw them.  If you're good at acting on the page, more than likely you're rarely drawing eyes the same way twice anyway.

And work on those hands while you're at it.

Here's another of my doodles...

If only I could draw!

Well, you see...

... in this comic book blog culture, things get confused out there; power, ideals, the old morality, practical artistic necessity. But out there with a pen and blank paper, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature." Every man has got a breaking point. You and your friends have one.  This detail from my last post proves I've reached mine. And very obviously, I have gone insane.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain: The Love Canal Girls

Can comic book characters become toxic?  I'm not sure if they can, but I certainly know those lovable, laugh-a-minute kids at DC love to stir up all sorts of comical trouble!  First the irrepressible scamps went all over town posting charmingly misspelled homemade posters trumpeting the appearance of a version of long-neglected fave Stephanie Brown as Nightwing in their Smallville Season 11 comic, which they planned to print on a jury-rigged press down at their dilapidated clubhouse.

Then Butch and his henchman the Woim gummed up the works with a lot of mean-spirited pranks, causing the darling ragamuffins who run DC to canter away in their mule-drawn taxi cab with its goose-powered horn, shouting over their threadbare sweater-clad shoulders, "Oops, sorry.  That's not Stephanie Brown, isn't gonna be Stephanie Brown.  It's Barbara Gordon instead!"

Given their record with female characters in general and with Stephanie Brown and her fans in particular, the DC people had to know replacing even an alternate universe version of Steph with an alternate universe Barbara Gordon-- the regular version of the latter having already supplanted the regular universe version of the former-- wouldn't go over too well.*  And it hasn't!

But the gang at DC are a group of never-say-die youngsters who just can't keep out of mischief!  Whether it's crashing some hoity-toity catered charity affair and embroiling a lot of stuffed-shirt types in a massive food fight or rebooting their entire universe for the umpteenth time because they've run out of original ideas while denying it's a reboot, you can be sure of sidesplitting laughter and tear-jerking moments of pure sentiment when the latest Our DC Gang short comes to your local theater! 

Here's where it gets surreal.   Corinna Lawson, senior editor at Geekmom over at Wired, says sources tell her it's because Steph and her pal Cassandra Cain are considered "toxic" in the DC offices.  At practically the same time, a writer going by the name LOLtron over at The Outhouse quoted similar sources-- multiple this time-- one of whom is quoted directly as saying, "Toxic?  Yup, that about sums it up."

While I find anonymous sources suspect and toxic might be just a buzz word, it might be true.  Both characters have easily roused fans who feel slighted by DC's treatment of them, including me.  Maybe Dan Didio or Jim Lee or someone else at DC just said, "To hell with it.  Using these two is thankless."  This might be especially true of Stephanie Brown.  Her death and DC's bizarre refusal to acknowledge her importance in the family of books in which she appeared inspired a website protest movement, and her fans and others were disturbed just last year when DC shunted her aside in favor of putting Barbara Gordon back in the Batgirl costume, a move that also alienated a lot of fans of Barbara's previous identity as the Oracle.  Lots of baggage there, lots of hurt feelings that are still pretty raw.  People are convinced certain elements at DC have it in for Stephanie, and not without some justification.

Supporting the idea DC doesn't want either Steph or Cass in their books anymore, perhaps inadvertently, is a Tumblr post by Batgirl writer Gail Simone, a straight shooter, who chimed in with the insider info the switch came because Smallville Season 11 writer Bryan Q. Miller, a nice guy who earned Steph-fan gratitude by writing her own Batgirl series was asked to use someone other than Stephanie Brown.  Was asked.  That says someone made a conscious decision to kick this hornet's nest again.  Perhaps in emulation of a recent movie based on another movie adapted from a best-selling line of books.  Comic book companies love to imitate success!  Hence Smallville Season 11 in the first place, DC's version of Dark Horse's popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation.

Simone, of course, didn't address toxicity or reference-- to use another phrase I read about Steph, Cass and the lack of certain others from the DC narrative-- their having been "benched."  As in Cass and Steph have been deliberately benched, along with those other unfortunates.  Unlike people who speak without using their names and titles, Simone is definitely too smart and probably too discreet to let something like that slip even if it is true, and I wouldn't blame her.

On the other hand, if these anonymous ones are telling the truth and toxicity is the DC policy towards Steph and Cass, that would make it more than a little strange DC would let Scott Snyder say, "We talk about where in the stories they're going to show up" at one of their roundtables as recently at their panel at C2E2 as recently as last April.  And the extended, remixed version:  "They are characters that we love too, we talk a lot about using them.  We want to bring them back in a way that really matters.  They're on the table, we promise we want to use them as well."   Oh, and I was sure at one time I  heard no less a DC personage than Grant Morrison promised Cass would be back in the New 52 Card Pick Up or whatever it's called, but all I can find to confirm that are old comments from people saying they also heard the same thing.  In 2011, apparently.   Something more recent with a direct quote might have been more reassuring.

You'd think everyone there would be instructed to stay on message and not make promises, vague or otherwise.  You know, if DC really has no plans to use them, Snyder or someone could just say, "Sorry, we don't have any plans to use them at this time."  People get upset at that kind of bad news, but a lot less so than they do when they feel a company has deliberately screwed them over.  And in this easily avoidable case, there's no way for Steph fans to feel otherwise.

Whether the put-upon duo has been declared toxic or are still viable, this whole thing just seems odd to me.  Maybe I lack a true insider's frame of reference or mindset, but I'm just thinking how easy it would be just to throw Steph and Cass back into the mix.  It's not as if other changes to these characters required any creative heavy lifting in the past.  Just re-set Cass to her silent super-dangerous former glory while still calling her Black Bat and tell us in the New 52 she never was a Batgirl-- and finally ditch all those nasty lingering elements from her bad old days.  They turned her villainous, brought her back, had her quit being Batgirl in ludicrously off-hand ways, so why stick at this one like it's some kind of quest for the Unified Field Theory?**

On the other hand, I'm not sure how Steph fans would react to bringing her back as Spoiler minus her Batgirl stint.  Since they were so excited about even a fake-Steph outside the regular continuity and with only loose ties to the version they truly love, maybe they would accept this as well as long as the writers wrote her in a dignified way.  I'd hope so, anyway.  Considering the alternative, it certainly seems preferable.

Whether all this will translate into lower sales for DC's other comics, the current Batgirl title or Smallville Season 11 remains to be seen.  I doubt it.  Smallville's got this digital first print thing and should have a lot of appeal to fans of the TV show, which I never got into.  I just remember a number of them demanding Bryan Singer-- hey, another Bryan-- cast the show's star in his eventual dud Superman Returns.***  DC's probably counting on them to jump all over this book from their home computers and iPads or whatever the heck it is people read comic books on these days.

And as far as the dedicated comic book readers go, from what I gather, while there are some people giving up on DC, other people irked by the switcheroo are still going to buy DC titles featuring other characters they like or written and drawn by creators they want to support, so any negative impact on DC's bottom line, the true arbiter of toxicity, will be negligible.  DC's actually going to make money off the whole thing.  So the end result is, the small vocal core of fans truly upset by these events, or non-events, the ones eating waffles, will just have to get used to this new reality.  One where a character they care about simply does not exist for an indefinite period.  Perhaps permanently.

 The Outhousers have dubbed the easily avoidable Smallville fiasco "Stephgate."  Do you think it's likely we'll get an announcement from DC directly addressing Toxicgate?  I'm not exactly waiting around for the press release.  We'll probably see a book called BFFs:  The Adventures of Steph and Cass before that happens.

*God, how I love funny books!
**Unless, of course, you really don't have plans to use her again.  For whatever reason.
***That was on the IMDB message boards, and I'd sooner say "Bloody Mary" three times in a mirror at midnight than link to that here and risk calling down that hell.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dell's Andy Griffith comics...

Aunt Bee:  not in this issue!
Andy Griffith was always a big favorite in my family.  My dad introduced me to The Andy Griffith Show when I was a small child and despite our being lifelong pals in the classic dad-kid way, our mutual love for the show was one of those few things we really had in common.  Since it came on almost every night of the week, he and I watched the series all the way through from black and white premiere to color finale five or six times and individual episodes dozens.  Ol' Dad was also pretty fond of Griffith's "What It Was, Was Football" monologue and I lost count of how many times he paraphrased the "Buddy, have a drink/Well, I believe I will have another Big Orange" exchange while pouring himself a glass of tea or whatever.

So it wasn't much of a coincidence I'd been planning to write a little bit about the Dell Andy Griffith Show comics when I heard about Griffith's death.  I think about my dad every day and if I reminisce about him long enough, it invariably leads me to thinking about Andy Griffith.  I just wrote about No Time for Sergeants, a hilarious flick that hasn't gotten its due over the years.  It helped bring about Mayberry, all its citizens and spin-off Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., for which we'll forgive it.  We're generous that way.

They sure move around a lot.
Dell published two issues of The Andy Griffith Show comic in their long-running Four Color series, the first  numbered 1252 (January-March 1962) and the second 1341 (April-June1962).  Both sport attractive full-color photo covers and some fun blurbs-- witness the anonymous copywriter's description of Opie as Andy's "courageous son."

I'm not sure what makes Opie so courageous.  The story inside is called "Opie's Secret," which turns out to be pretty lame as far as secrets go.  Andy worries that the boy's spending too much time in the woods outside town, but instead of wandering off with a crinkled paper sack of porn for furtive masturbation sessions like Joaquin "Leaf" Phoenix in Ron Howard's own Parenthood, Opie's just caring for a litter of puppies.  Plus, we know the Mayberry woods are about as dangerous as a daycare center, and not one of those ones with the careless teachers who leave matches lying around and rusty knives.  The good daycare centers.

None of Opie's wholesome activities require much in the way of bravery, or, if you will, courageousness.  I tend to reserve the label "courageous" for kids who sail solo around the world, do something wonderful for the disadvantaged in the face of community disapproval, rescue their families from burning houses, inspire others with their perseverance against some fatal disease or take a stance against bullies.  But perhaps the people at Dell were mild-mannered to the extreme and in their eyes Opie was some kind of free-spirited adventurer, living life on the razor's edge of danger.

Ron Howard wore this cap in "Eat My Dust."
Andy's dialect is over-done and reminiscent of the broad, grinning way Griffith plays Sheriff Taylor in the show's early episodes-- a more sophisticated, educated variation on his Will Stockdale characterization from No Time-- before he realized he was better off as the straight man for everyone else's antics.

On the other hand, the writer captures quite a bit of the show's flavor, especially in the way Andy relates to Opie and Barney.

Ron Howard's Opie was one of the more "real" kid characters on TV, neither a smart-aleck nor a naif.  And unlike poor Theodore Cleaver, who seems to have been a bit slow at times (putting it politely), Opie was more than capable of handling his own problems with just a smidgen of guidance and advice from his pa.  And avoiding embarrassing scenes like getting his head stuck in iron fences or falling into giant bowls of fake soup.

In episodes like "Opie the Birdman," (which aired a year or so after these comics hit the newsstands) the show's writers give father and son a mutual respect and even allow for a little anger between them.  Opie would learn from Andy, but occasionally Andy would also learn from Opie.  The heart-to-heart talk scene between Andy and Opie in "Opie's Secret" captures this dynamic quite well and so gains its own mild emotional resonance.  I can't imagine Pa Kent talking to Clark as honestly as this in a Superboy story.  Come to think of it, Superboy is usually portrayed as a dimwit anyway.

The comic manages the other relationships with a similar steady hand.  When Barney brags of his prowess as a woodsman, Andy sarcastically declares him the "Magellan of Mayberry," a teasing monicker you can easily imagine Griffith applying to Knotts in one of those scenes where the laid-back sheriff can't help but needle his overly sensitive deputy and best friend.

This page has a "Love and Rockets" vibe.
Ellie Walker, charmingly portrayed on the show by Elinor Donahue (a Father Knows Best alum whose lengthy career after Mayberry includes a Star Trek guest spot and a role as Chris Elliot's mother in the cult TV classic Get a Life alongside Elliot's real father Bob), appears mid-story to banter with Barney.  Barney all but declares her an idiot because she's a woman, his point of view undermined not only by its sexism but also his costume-- a ludicrous Boy Scout uniform with Smokey Bear hat and short pants.  This conversation features some mild early-1960s battle-of-the-sexes dialogue reminiscent of episodes "Ellie for Council" and "Those Gossipin' Men."  Ellie justifiably sneers at Barney's braggadocio, with Andy caught uncomfortably in the middle.  There's a real sense of Ellie's anger here, even a bit sharper than what you'd find on the show without Donahue's incandescent smile to soften it a little.  Admittedly, social issues and especially gender politics were not The Andy Griffith Show's forte.

Ellie disappears from the comic after the first issue, and Opie barely appears in "Undercover Man," the story making up the second issue-- just long enough to mock Deputy Barney, who's on a crime-busting kick involving crazy disguises-- but what's really lacking in both is more of Mayberry's vividly realized citizenry.  The most glaring omission is Floyd the barber.  Floyd is a Mayberry essential.  In the show's first two or three seasons, the barber is kind of an energetic loud mouth, a bit excitable and with a wife and teenaged son (although they seem to have been dropped down the same memory hole as Ellie about the time Floyd started courting a woman via romantic letters in "Floyd, the Gay Deceiver").  When veteran comedic actor Howard McNear suffered a debilitating stroke, the show temporarily dropped the character before bringing him back as the soft-spoken, addle-pated soul so uncannily parodied by Eugene Levy on SCTV.

It's just not Mayberry without a visit to Floyd's barber shop, but the comic's version is a mean-spirited lout named either Joe or Charlie.  Barney never makes it clear which is which.  He only refers to them using both names.  Joe, or Charlie as he may be called, vaguely resembles McNear, but his physical humiliation of Barney is a step beyond something Floyd would do, not that first season Floyd was shy about dogpiling on the excitable deputy with the other Mayberrians.  Or Mayberrites.

Green, red, purple walls, orange uniforms!
Barney claims the barber as one of his old classmates, but Floyd was at least a generation or two older.  This makes me wonder if the writer screened a few episodes featuring the Andy-Opie dynamic but absent McNear's character, while artist Henry Scarpelli had a vague idea there was supposed to be a middle-aged barber with a thin mustache somewhere in the mix, with the end result this bizarre mutation.  Whatever his origins, Joe-Charlie the Barber is a complete dick, and gets his comeuppance later when Andy threatens him with jail for obstructing a police officer-- and he walks away with his equally dickish friend talking about how attractive they find Barney in drag.

We get a token appearance from Aunt Bee, who helps Barney with his cross-gender disguise, but I can picture an entire spin-off series starring Ernest T. Bass, with the Darling family as his supporting cast or antagonists.  You know, Bass as an anti-hero, kind of like Marvel's Tomb of Dracula minus the supernatural horror, murders and misogyny but with a heapin' helpin' of bluegrass music and Denver Pyle blowing into a jug.  Speaking of, there's nary a hint of either Pyle, Gomer or Goober.  And Helen Crump had not yet made her way onto the faculty of Mayberry's elementary school.

Who are these jackasses?
Scarpelli's attempts at likenesses are acceptable, but in "Opie's Secret," he constructs figures indifferently, awkwardly at times.  Their bodies don't really hang together the way they should.  Heads seem off-center and there's a lot of variation in proportion.  Barney walks around on little pin-like legs with his feet pointing in opposite directions.  Knowing what he was capable of in strictly humor cartoon style and later in the Archie Publications house style a la Bob Montana and Stan Goldberg, I get the feeling Scarpelli hacked these out as fast as he could.  He inked a lot of Archie rip-offs for DC Comics in the late 60s before handling the genuine article; that makes me wonder if he skipped the pencil phase on some of these pages and drew them straight to ink.  I have a feeling the page rates on these comics were pretty low.  A comic book artist is a commercial artist and that means taking jobs that pay, but you have to forgive someone who might rush things a bit in an effort to keep food on the table and clothes on his or her family's back.

I have to say his acting is a strong point in "Opie's Secret."  First rate, even.  Scarpelli rarely repeats a facial expressions, and when the focus is on the faces, his drawings are absolutely fun and appealing.  Some of the faces remind me of Daniel Clowes's work, where he seems to be illustrating a specific type of human being.  There's no ironic distancing or sense of alienation in Scarpelli's drawings, just successfully adding interest to scenes that are mostly just two or three people standing around talking to each other.  I really love Ellie's pissed off looks and Andy's obvious discomfort in "Opie's Secret."

For the Barney-centric "Undercover Man," which features a lot more crime-busting action than "Opie's Secret," (i.e., some) Scarpelli adopts a more naturalistic approach.  Bodies are degrees more realistically proportioned and not nearly so exaggerated.  Scarpelli attempts caricatures more than Alex Toth did with his No Time For Sergeants adaptation and the characters are easily recognizable, despite a few lapses.  There's Barney's occasional weasel-like nose, but the lips are pure Don Knotts, even coated with bright red lipstick.  While there's plenty of Griffith in him, Andy also frequently resembles character actor Hoke Howell, who played Dud Wash on the show before being supplanted in the part by Bob Denver, TV's Gilligan.  It's still reasonably close.

Show accurate Mayberry!
What really freaks me out, however, is Scarpelli's insistence on drawing Andy with a gunbelt and pistol.  Not just in an odd panel or two the way he sometimes adds a black tie to the sheriff's uniform, but consistently and throughout both comics.  Andy did arm himself in the very few episodes where law enforcement actually plays a part in the plot, but one of the show's repeated gags was Barney's single bullet in his shirt pocket, symbolic of his failed approach at enforcing the letter of the law with depersonalized  tools and technology.  Barney wears a hat, tie, black leather gun belt and totes a service revolver in emulation of police officers far more effective than he will ever be, while the more casually-dressed, unarmed Andy takes a laid-back approach to public safety and successfully relies on his wit and understanding of human behavior.  A few years after Dell published these the show did its own meta-spin on the issue with a two-part episode in which Andy, Aunt Bee and Opie head to Hollywood to visit the set of a movie loosely based on a magazine article about Andy entitled Sheriff Without a Gun.  As an Andy Griffith Show fan, believe me, it matters!

Dick Tracy villains think Barney's cute.
In the first story, Scarpelli makes Mayberry a generic suburb.  Oddly enough, this is probably a more accurate depiction of the south in the early 60s than the show's.  The TV Mayberry was practically antiquated even in its day, closer to the nostalgic 1920s depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Even today, in my own Deep South hometown, you can trace the architectural progress of the region by moving west from the Flint River bounded by houses and apartments built in the early 20th century to the Cape Cods of the immediate post-WWII to the modern red brick suburbs that sprang from the early days of urban sprawl contemporaneous with The Andy Griffith Show's first season on CBS.  By the second issue, however, Scarpelli seems to have gotten his hands on some photo reference of the show's outdoor and indoor sets and adjusts his artwork accordingly.  The courthouse, an iconic location to Griffith fans, sports the familiar portico and big plate glass window with blinds.

Of the two comics, the second is the most artistically successful and appealing.  Scarpelli is a fine choice as artist, and his work is adequate, if not quite as inspired as his later Archie strip.   I don't know who else you'd give this job to with my own first choice Jack Davis doing movie posters and covers to TV Guide, high paying, high prestige gigs and second choice Mort Drucker holding forth in Mad.  The Andy Griffith Show isn't a property that would necessarily benefit from photorealism or some of the sub-Hal Foster flourishes you find in Dell's adaptation of the Kirk Douglas epic The Vikings, for example.  Or even the kind of moody black-spotting someone like Alex Toth would have brought to it.

Nobody's perfect!
What's really nice about these is, as with all the Dells, kids got a lot of comic for their 15 cents.  Besides the lengthy main stories, the comics have these funky one-page gag strips on the inside and back covers.  They have the slapstick feel of something from Archie, and aren't as true to the show as the rest of the material.  These gag pages also rely on the simplistic idea that Barney, as the comedic relief, would be capable of any ol' ridiculous thing-- in one he challenges Andy to a shooting contest which he handily wins after substituting the sheriff's live rounds for blanks.  And then the stories themselves, where the writer or writers generally avoid outright jokes, and instead poke fun at Barney's foibles.  Occasionally there's even a little pathos, a little self-awareness on Barney's part that hint at some real potential for a continued series.  "Opie's Secret" is a bit on the bland side, and the meat of "Undercover Man" isn't about barbershop humiliations but rather Barney's female disguise as so inexplicably successful various men fall for him.  In fact, the closing joke is kind of a weaker version of the final scene of Some Like It Hot.

These are just pleasant trifles, but I'm surprised at how they generally respect their source material.  Nothing world-beating, though.  These aren't lost early efforts from creators later recognized as genius-- like coming across an Our Gang comic written and drawn by Walt Kelly-- and the world hasn't suffered due to a lack of more The Andy Griffith Show comics from Dell.  Scarpelli drew the Archie syndicated strip for fifteen years, and his art there is slick and easy on the eyes.  Here, his work on the first issue hovers uncomfortably between realism and caricature, where masters like Jack Davis and Mort Drucker excelled.  Scarpelli isn't up to their level, but that's like damning someone for being physicist without equalling Einstein.  I'd be happy if anyone thought highly enough of my art to label me "not a genius."

No geniuses involved?  Some expert will probably prove to me these were written by Jules Feiffer or a 9-year-old Alan Moore.

Given the choice-- and I often am-- I'd rather just watch an episode of the TV show.  On the other hand, I wonder what Ron Howard thought about becoming a comic book character as a boy.  No one called me "courageous" when I was ten.  "Rotten little shit?"  Oh man, all the time!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Very sketchy...

Some ink sketching I did today while looking at a book by a Japanese artist and one of the Al Williamson Archives from Flesk Publications.  I am not one of the greats or even one of the merely competents!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I did it! I ordered Ghost World!

I know you're fascinated by this Ghost World saga and relieved to know I'll have a brand new copy sometime in the next two weeks thanks to my good friends at Amazon Japan and Sagawa Transport.  I also ordered New Mutants Classic volume 4, two Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men books and John Byrne's Compleat Next Men 1.  What a dork!

Along with those I sent for Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and On the Beach by Nevil Shute.  I'm not just a sucker for comics about disaffected youth and mutated super-beings with soap opera-ish personal issues but also for the nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies.  I'm a big fan of the apocalypse.  When you grow up party to a murder-suicide pact involving you, your government, its chief ideological rival and every other higher order of life on the planet, you tend to find such concepts as missile gaps, fallout, mega-deaths and half-life fascinating and fun.  My first words were, "Mein Fuhrer!  I can valk!"

So I've read On the Beach multiple times, but I read Alas, Babylon only once, when I was a child.  All I remember about it is someone gets blinded by staring at an atom bomb blast.  Probably some punk teenager.    Teenagers are always staring at things.

I remember that, and Chef Boyardee's Little Pizzas, which were a staple of my summertime diet in those days.  The rich, probably artificially-flavored with chemicals later proven to be carcinogenic tomato taste of Chef Boyardee's Little Pizzas is forever linked in my mind with Alas, Babylon and the novelization of George Lucas's early film THX-1138, my copy of which apparently had a few pages missing.  I assume the movie has a happy ending like most of Lucas's other films, right?  I stole Alas, Babylon from my older brother who read it for a high school class and THX-1138 came courtesy a used book sale at the public library.

Holy moley, I'm like Proust with brain damage.

Speaking of Love and Rockets...

Fantagraphics promises a "major Love and Rockets-related announcement" to be made at the San Diego Comic-Con this year.  Well, they are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ground-breaking series from Los Bros Hernandez, and they have a lot of Hernandez-produced books coming out shortly, including Love and Rockets New Stories #5 and Gilbert's all-ages graphic novel The Adventures of Venus, the cover of which looks adorably appealing.  And here's their slate of signings and what-have-you's, which I took from the email they sent, not because I'm special but because I signed up for their emails:

Wednesday, July 11th:
7:00 - 8:00 PM Gilbert & Natalia Hernandez/Mario Hernandez

Thursday, July 12th:
12:00 - 2:00 PM  Gilbert & Natalia Hernandez/Jaime Hernandez/Mario Hernandez
2:00 - 3:00 PM  Esther Pearl Watson/Trina Robbins
3:30 - 5:30 PM Gilbert & Natalia Hernandez/Jaime Hernandez/Mario Hernandez

Friday, July 13th:
10:30 - 12:00 PM  Gilbert and Natalia Hernandez/Jaime Hernandez/Mario Hernandez
12:00 - 1:30 PM Dave McKean
12:00 - 2:00 PM  Gilbert Shelton
2:00 - 3:30 PM  Gilbert and Natalia Hernandez/Jaime Hernandez/Mario Hernandez
3:30 - 5:30 PM  Justin Hall/Trina Robbins/No Straight Lines special guests
5:30 - 6:30 PM  Mark Kalesniko/Shannon Wheeler

Saturday, July 14th:
11:00 - 12:30 PM  Gilbert and Natalia Hernandez/Jaime Hernandez/Mario Hernandez
12:30 - 2:30 PM  Johnny Ryan/Steven Weissman
3:00 - 5:00 PM  Gilbert & Natalia Hernandez/Jaime Hernandez/Mario Hernandez
5:00 - 6:00 PM  Mark Kalesniko/Michel Gagne

Sunday, July 15th:
10:30 - 11:30 AM  Mark Kalesniko/Michel Gagne
11:30 - 1:30 PM  Gilbert & Natalia Hernandez/Jaime Hernandez/Mario Hernandez

I would LOVE to meet Los Bros, but also Trina Robbins.  Frankly, some of the other names are just mysteries to me.  But I've always been... one step... BEHIND!

A Xenozoic tease...

Is this what I think it is?  Mark Schultz's Xenozoic Tales and Other Stories over on a certain social network is making me drool in anticipation of what-- if it is what I believe it to be-- the most eagerly awaited and anticipated comic book event of my lifetime so far.  I mean, if you think Mike Baron and Steve Rude returning to Nexus made me excited, the potential for another issue of Xenozoic Tales to go along with said Nexus has me in severe need of heavy sedation.  I mean, really, Xenozoic Tales, Nexus and Love & Rockets fulfill my comics needs.  They are filling enough they leave me satiated.  When I have new stories from any of those series to look forward to, why should I care about re-boots and crossovers and capes and underwear and all that?

Apparently there will be some sort of announcement at one of Mark Schultz's panels at the this year's San Diego Comic-Con.  He has several:

Thursday, 7/12/12
10:00a.m. - 11:00a.m.
Room: 32AB
Flesk: Celebrating a Decade of Publishing

Thursday, July 12
Room 4
Spotlight on Mark Schultz's Unlikely Career

Friday, July 13
Room 23ABC
The Artists’ Way

Friday, July 13
Room 7AB
75th Anniversary of Prince Valiant

Sunday, July 15
Room 25ABC
Cover Story

Being as ah'm a-way over here in the south-- south central Japan, that is-- I'm going to miss out on seeing one of my writing-and-drawing idols in person, the man who inspired me to try dry-brush on my graphic design entrance portfolio at the University of Georgia.  The man whose comics I spent money on even when I didn't have money to spend on food.  There hasn't been a new Xenozoic Tales comic since 1996, just the odd print and sketchbook now and again.  And the damned thing ended on a cliff-hanger!

If you have the fat Xenozoic volume from Flesk Publications, which reprints the Schultz-illustrated stories from the 14 issue run of the original series (but unfortunately leaves out the Steve Stiles back-ups), you remember the promise near the back:  "The adventures of Hannah Dundee & Jack Tenrec will continue.  Look for more mystery, mayhem & intrigue in future Xenozoic stories!"

I will!  I will look!  You started something!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Is it that time again? Time to re-read Ghost World?

Ghost World.  You've seen the movie.  You've read the book.  So have I.  Let's form a club, okay?  We'll meet in my tree fort out back and read Ghost World over and over again, and act out the scenes and we won't let anybody join we don't want to join!

That's a stupid idea.  Sorry.  But the feeling I should read Ghost World one more time is growing deep down inside, a brilliant idea which somehow sprang from the exact same place as that stupid one.  To read Ghost World again requires the purchase of Ghost World, which I can easily afford.  I have a battered pre-movie version back in the States.  Yes, I was into Ghost World before it became a movie.  I'm not bragging or trying to pose as some hipster cognoscenti.  It's a matter of chronology.  Time and setting.

Ghost World just crept up on me in a melancholy, mysterious fashion that seems completely fitting.  It was the way back when, during that time we called the mid-90s because we were in the middle of a decade that started 199 and finished with a number somewhere between 3 and 7, Bill Clinton was president, Kurt Cobain had just died and I was in college for the second time, studying art, spending a lot of free time between classes at the student bookstore.  I kept finding Ghost World on the shelf among the humor books for some reason.  I guess because a lot of them were cartoon-based.  Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, The Far Side.  College faves.  And, for some reason, the trade paperback of DC's Camelot 3000, which they probably still have.  Every once in a while I'd pick up Ghost World, scan a page, get some kind of misjudged message from it and suddenly feel very alienated.

Which wasn't an unusual feeling.  I lived in a party dorm with a series of the most mismatched roommates possible-- first an Eagle Scout/Eagles fan/outdoorsman who littered the room with belongings and food, and over the course of our semester together completely coated the mirror with his sebaceous eruptions but objected my my beard shavings in the sink; then two jocks who pledged frats, one of whom would bring his girlfriend back to the room for strangely chaste yet very loud make-out sessions early in the morning after Date Night or whatever event it was her sorority sponsored that weekend.  That I was drunk or high myself most of the time did nothing so smooth our relations.

With 8 a.m. studio classes and an amateur 24-hour a day casino open in the room next door, I developed a hyper-sensitivity to noise which led to several confrontations with other students, culminating in the most excruciating one of all.  When you can't ask someone to please close her door or at least make sure she's actually inside her room when she wants to enjoy loud music without being asked later that evening by your RA to fill out a form stating you're not a racist, then you have no place in dormitory life.

But I've always been an Enid Coleslaw.  Too smart to accept life at face value, too stupid to do anything about it.  It's only in the past few years I've dropped at least some of my cynicism and contempt for pop culture and tried to embrace it.  Probably as a result of over-exposure to post-modernism, where ironic enjoyment of the kind Enid and her pal Rebecca Doppelmeyer specialized in has become mainstream.  Mass culture has appropriated our outsider stance, leaving us with nowhere to turn except sincerity.  Like Enid, I even had a somewhat more popular best friend who shared my sense of alienation and otherness, with whom I could heap mocking scorn on such daring targets as America's Funniest Home Videos and generic dance music.  Like Enid, I left town to start a new life.

Unlike Enid, my Rebecca turned out to be even more dysfunctional than I was.  Instead of growing into a beautiful young woman, he died of an accidental overdose in 1999, in a hotel room, on a business trip.  So maybe I was Rebecca after all and all my Enid-isms-- so Enid I even to this day occasionally wear ugly plastic rimmed glasses and occasionally have for years and years and years-- were just a pose.  Well, I don't know what to think about that.  I guess I'm just one more of those people.

By the time we buried that guy, I'd finally read Ghost World.  Multiple times.  Flash forward two years and I was so excited about the movie.  I watched the trailer at work-- a private office, a souped-up Mac with the fastest Internet connection available at the time made that possible-- then went with friends to the little shopping center theater where the movie played. Liked the parts that captured the disconnected, ambivalent tone of the book, felt a little let-down by the emphasis on jokes and linear plot.  Good performances.  Kinda want to see it again, too.

Yes.  It is decided.  Today, I order Ghost World.  After all, if I do produce my own comic, I need something to rip o-- I mean, provide inspiration.

Oh, yeah.  I also relate to Clowes's original "Art School Confidential" short story.  Hilariously accurate, perfectly acidic take-down of art school.  The movie, on the other hand?  It stinks.  Maybe I need to read that story again, too, while I'm at it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

You know who you are? You're the two idiots what want your comics on the Internet...

When I'm not teaching kids the English, reading comic books, writing about comic books, solving crimes for Scotland Yard and hunting the wily and elusive wookalar, I'm thinking of comic book stories.  Comic book stories I half-assedly try to get into print by sending them to a single company, taking two years of silence as the rejection it is, then abandoning the idea entirely until it starts welling up inside me again, which I, in my advanced case of idiocy, assume means it's a story I simply must tell, somehow, someplace, to someone.

How wrong I am.  And yet I must.  Unless I prove too lazy, which is possible.  Drawing a comic is hard work.  It's easy for fools like myself to complain about them or mock them online.  But when you're making a comic you have to think about characterization, pacing, page design, story flow, anatomy, perspective, black spotting, mood.  All kinds of things that have to work in harmony so you don't end up with something embarrassing that people can hold against you while saying, "And you have the nerve to make fun publicly of Superblubber #987?  You ass!"

So here I am, once again threatening the world like some kind of pathetic super-villain.  I may or may not put my skills where my mouth is (or something like that) and show you what I can do.  I have the scripts, and I think they're neat.  They need an editor's tender touch.  That editor will have to be me.  They need an artist.  I'm okay with drawing single figures, or groups of figures doing absurd things as a single image, but I'm not so sure I can sustain storytelling panel after panel, page after page, with perspective and angles and all that good stuff.  I know what that takes and I'm not convinced I have it.  Sure, I could enlist an artist but that would entail nasty contractual matters and legal briefs and boxers and cheekys and thongs and possibly some sort of support girdle and who has the time?

As an artist myself, one who's been burned financially by people well-intentioned and otherwise, I'm not sure I want to involve someone else. I'm also not sure I can afford to commission someone or pay someone up front, which is how I'd prefer to handle it and there are too many horror stories of would-be comic book entrepreneurs ripping off naive young artists.  I've been the latter, not interested in becoming the former.  And should this story become popular enough to involve other media, how then to slice the pie?  How large a slice is equitable?  How can I not become Marvel to someone else's Jack Kirby?  We're talking a very large pie here.  Perhaps as large as the moon, metaphorically speaking.

So the artist will also be me.  While I'm no doubt incapable of doing the work, at least when it comes time to rip me off I'll have my laziness as a way to rationalize it.  "I'd deserve more of the money I earned for myself if only I'd worked harder."  Or something.  I'll be the penciller and the inker.  As well as the letterer, the colorist, the graphic designer and the publisher.

Publisher.  Which means finding a host service.  Is it best to reserve your own domain, or to sign on with one of those web comic hosts?  Those seem to go out of business too often for comfort.  The market for substandard web comics seems pretty well glutted at the moment, too.  Maybe online distribution isn't the way to go.  Would on-demand publishing or something Kindle-related be a better choice?  What I'm looking for is the way to reach the largest number of potential people to ignore my work.

But I advise you not to hold your breath waiting for this miracle of a comic book, this industry-changing phenomenon that will inspire a generation and lead to a new Siglo de Oro for pictorial literature.  I'm always brainstorming these ideas then running out of energy to make them so.

Also, I've just heard of the murder of the Lord and Lady Morley and must put aside dreams of glory to rush off with my intrepid partner Inspector Winship for the Morley mansion deep in the wilds of unexplored England...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Alex Toth hasn't a moment to spare for noncommissioned officers...

Here's the time on this blog where we spend a few moments comparing a hilarious scene from the 1958 Andy Griffith service comedy No Time for Sergeants (directed by Mervyn LeRoy, in case you were wondering) to the Alex Toth-rendered version from Dell's Four Color #914 (July 1958).  Here's the movie:

And here's Toth's take:

As you can see, Toth's staging is quite different from the film's. Toth has flipped the composition-- in the movie, the captain enters from the right, but here from the left. This has to do with directing the eye through the page. It's called storytelling, for those of you who like to simply reproduce photographs or still frames.   For some reason, he's added an officer.  This officer isn't present in the film, says nothing, does nothing and adds nothing to the comic book page.  I think of Toth as more an artist of subtraction, so it seems uncharacteristic of him to stick some extraneous guy in a scene, but there he is.

Toth doesn't attempt perfect likenesses of the characters, either.  Study the faces.  Toth's Bartlett Robinson, Myron McCormick, Nick Adams and even his Andy Griffith are only approximations.  I've always felt Adams resembles the later Our Gang member Froggy in No Time For Sergeants; he doesn't really, except here in the comic where he could be played by the same actor.  But the important thing to note is how Toth goes for the gist rather than either a portrait or a caricature.  There may have been image licensing problems, or maybe this was a conscious decsion on Toth's part.  Whatever the reason, it frees Toth from the constraint of relying too much on photo reference-- although from some of the poses it's obvious he saw some or screened the film beforehand-- and allows him to manipulate his figures freely according to his needs and, more importantly, animate the faces.  A good storyteller "acts" for his or her characters, and this means giving each one distinctive facial expressions and trying not to repeat them.  Go read John Kricfalusi's blog where he writes extensively about acting in animation.  It holds true for comics.

Because Toth was a superb storyteller and artist each of his characters has a look that remains consistent within the story and wonderfully plays each scene (the sergeant's hands upraised in dismay despite his head being cropped by the lower half of the first panel on page two, the Griffith character's happily clueless reaction in the second), and those are far more important than exact likenesses.  I can't think of anything that  spoils my suspension of disbelief when reading a comic than some static, overly-rendered attempt at a perfect likeness after a lot of panels where there's only a passing resemblance.  Only Al Williamson could do that and get away with it.  And even worse is a failed attempt at a portrait.  DC's Star Trek books and the later issues of Topps' The X-Files used to just kill me with that kind of stuff.  A page and a half of tiny Picards or Mulders and then a big, expressionless, crosshatched head staring straight out at you-- with crooked eyes or the cheeks too flabby. 

Better just to internalize the characters and put your own vision on the page the way Toth does here-- and Charles Adlard so brilliantly did in the first issues of The X-Files.  I wonder how the licensing people at 20th Century Fox Television felt about that.  According to Bruce Canwell in Genius, Isolated:  The Life and Art of Alex Toth, at one point while working for Dell, Toth got grief from Danny Thomas when he drew Thomas's nose too large for comfort in the comic version of The Danny Thomas Show.  Zazu Pitts complained he made her look too old.  She was 66 when Toth drew her in the Dell adaptation of her show Oh! Suzanna.  Dealing with Hollywood must be a real bastard at times.

Licensing.  Nowadays any property worth its CGI bombast has statues, toys, t-shirts and all kinds of add-on "universe-building" novels and comics.  Back before I was born, movies like No Time for Sergeants got only these funky comic book adaptations-- and who the hell knows what kid this was really meant for?  You have your Superman, your Batman, maybe a gruesome dog-eared EC Tales from the Crypt... and then this.  What self-respecting kid would turn up at the treehouse with No Time for Sergeants rolled up in his back pocket?  Pre-teen Bartlett Robinson fans?  Precocious aficionados of character actors like Myron McCormick?  Mervyn LeRoy fanatics?  Or me?  I was all of those things at one time, and while I certainly love this movie if I had my choice I'd prefer a Toth-drawn adaptation of Mr. Roberts.

Well, I'm digressing.  Let's just say if you're obsessive enough to need the definitive portrait of Andy Griffith in this story, he's right there on the comic's photo cover.

For some reason, though, Toth sticks Griffith's garrison cap in his shirt epaulet, a detail conspicuously absent from the film scene. No Time for Sergeants features the first on-screen pairing of Griffith with Don Knotts (he made his Broadway debut playing the same part in 1955), who would later play Deputy Barney Fife opposite Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor. The No Time adaptation leaves out their brief scene in the interest of page count. But don't worry-- Knotts would get his shot at comic book immortality a few years later in Dell's adaptations of The Andy Griffith Show.

At the end of the book he gets the pony anyhow!