Friday, August 30, 2013

Fantastic Four #29: It's not just Yancy Street that needs help!

Yancy Street is in a bad way, with young hoodlums tossing garbage at our friends, the Fantastic Four.  The heroes have only come to help.  This is how it begins on Yancy Street, but before it's over the FF have wandered all the way to the moon where they fight cosmonaut apes produced by the dastardly Red Ghost, a dome-headed, long-haired mad scientist of the Commie persuasion.  More important than that to Marvel history, it's in Fantastic Four #29 (August 1964) our adventuresome quartet meets the Watcher, who has a dome head of his own.

It doesn't take the ever-curious Reed Richards to run afoul of the Watcher's outlandishly futuristic devices, the likes of which no sane species would create outside of a Marvel comic.  Like this little baby:

Whoops!  Turn that off right now, Reed!  Is it just me, or does the Watcher look like Orson Welles with a shaved head in the first panel?

Sorry.  Forget that noise.  Look at how Jack Kirby views the future of human evolution in the third frame.  Since our brains are responsible for most of what we've accomplished, they will enlarge along with our skulls-- and our ears?  It's a little throwaway gag to establish how far above humanity the Watcher and his people are.  And it's just like Reed to pick something up out of scientific curiosity and activate it, damn the consequences.

But no, it's not Yancy Street that needs your help.  Comic creators do, too.  That's why I finally got off my butt and donated to the Heroes Initiative in the name of Kirby4Heroes, the fund-raising campaign run by Jack Kirby's granddaughter Jillian, who explains it in this video courtesy of Nerdist.

What I did-- and I still don't think it was nearly enough-- was donate a bit more than the amount I've spent this year on Fantastic Four comics at the Comixology site.  Comixology sells them for 1.99, and as far as I know, the Kirbys get nothing from this.  So while it's well and good to honor Jack Kirby's accomplishments and legacy by reading his works, I felt I really needed to do something for the campaign run by an actual Kirby to help Hero Initiative aid artists and writers whose stories I've also enjoyed.  People like John Ostrander, Bill Mantlo and one of my super-faves, Russ Heath.  This is going to be an annual thing for me from now on, every August 28th.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

So how did you spend your Jack Kirby Day?

Maybe this has been building for a while and I'm just now noticing it, but it seems there was a lot more Jack Kirby celebration this week than in the past.  This isn't timely merely because it would have been his 96th birthday.  Currently, the Kirby influence rules at the box office where movies featuring his creations are all the rage.  This is why it is important now more than ever to make sure people recognize the guy who made all this entertainment possible, the mighty creative mind and spirit that willed this into existence.  It's the least we can do as fans of his work when it looks as if his family will not share even in a small way in the billions of dollars Kirby has earned for media corporations that jerked him around.

But let's not give into bitterness.  Let's take a little look at the festivities instead and honor our favorite comic book creator!  Here goes...

Time ran a nice appreciation of Kirby online last week (avoid the comments after the first two, though), this week MTV celebrated his work and even the A.V. Club website added a "beginner's guide to the King of Comics, Jack Kirby."  I'd love to link you to those, but I'm writing this at work and I can only dare so much.

My Facebook feed lit up with Kirby messages.  The best, I think, was and is the Kirby4Heroes Hero Initiative campaign.  Run by Kirby's family, this organization posted some of his art and asked comic book readers to donate to the Hero Initiative.  The charity drive also featured something called "Wake Up and Draw," where pros woke up and drew a lot of wonderful Kirby-inspired art.

Which I admit I have not done, but I will as soon as I get home tonight.  Despite this deplorable lapse on my part, the outpouring of Kirby love was a joy to witness.  Of course, my sudden realization here is more than likely a case of confirmation bias, since I recently added a lot of pro-Kirby feeds to my social media.  It stands to reason they'd be popping on August 28th.

On this blog, just about every day is Jack Kirby Day.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fantastic Four #37: You want us to do what?!!

Here's a Jack Kirby gem from the Chic Stone era-- Fantastic Four #37 (April 1965), "Behold!  A Distant Star!"  It starts with Johnny Storm burning off his tuxedo.  Why is he wearing a tuxedo?  Because Reed Richards and Sue Storm are getting married, that's why.  The Fantastic Four are right in the middle of preparing for the single most important nuptial event in Marvel universe history, and the groom suddenly takes it in his head to fly them to the Skrull homeworld to fight the whole planet.

This is a book filled with wedding plans and power rays (Reed:  "To put it simply, it's a variation of a power amplifier!  It draws energy from an unknown source from somewhere beyond the confines of our solar system, and converts it into raw, usable power!"  To which the Thing replies: "Thanks a heap for puttin' it simply!  Now how about sayin' it in English?") and alien vistas full of creatures that would give Commander Hoek and Cadet Stimpy nightmares.  And it has a moment where the Thing aptly sums up just what's wrong about Reed's plan.

Take it away, Thing:

Despite the Thing's completely sane objections, off they go to the Skrull planet in another solar system. Faster than light travel is nothing for the Fantastic Four these days, or for us readers. We're starting to take Reed's inventive genius for granted at this point.

But let's never take Kirby's for granted.  I may not be giving Stan Lee his due here (the dialogue between the team members crackles with wit) but that's probably because of Kirby's art in this issue, which makes me feel drunk.  Drunk in a good way, right when the buzz is taking hold and you feel funny and energetic, ready to dance.  The visuals pretty much run the FF gamut, the family drama (it's not everyday two superheroes have a wedding rehearsal) and then the pan-galactic, realized in one of Kirby's collages.  There are elements of tongue-in-cheek and operatic drama and Kirby gets to draw both tuxedos and space finery, design interstellar starcraft for two species and then a lot of alien flora and fauna.  This is evidence of a man truly feeling the material.  The earliest issues are timid compared to the full-blown Kirby... well, Kirbyness we find in "Behold!"

It's not just that collage.  There's a scene where a Skrull monologues and Kirby cuts to an exterior view so he can draw freakish space critters running across a planetary landscape.  It's weird, man.  Weird and wonderful.  Stan the Man must have cackled with glee when he saw that page.  I know I did.


Happy Jack Kirby Day!

It's Jack Kirby's birthday (he would have been 96!), which, around here, is a major holiday.  For me, anyway.  And if I have my way, one day it will be a holiday for everyone.  I don't care if it becomes a national holiday with government offices and schools closed or anything like that.  I'd just love to buy a calendar and see August 28th labeled Jack Kirby Day.

And maybe some parades in his honor or fireworks shows.  Here's a favorite splash page of mine, from the classic Fantastic Four #29 (August 1964).

I'd tell you the credits right here, but they're already in the artwork!

This color recreation is probably pretty close to the originals.  Some of it is a bit too intense, but I'm happy they didn't try to model a lot of shadows and light effects on the figures.  But what I like best about this isn't the Thing having stepped in gum (although that is a nice touch); it's the way Mr. Fantastic plants his feet on the concrete and then uses just his torso to dodge the tossed garbage.  There's a strong contrast between Reed's sturdy, pre-Vietnam-America-can-do legs and his swirling mid-section that draws my eyes.  I keep imagining Mr. Fantastic's texture as sometimes like taffy, and at others, like in this instance, almost a liquid.

And there's Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, in the center, saying something completely sensible.  Call the police, not the superheroes.  It's not fear talking.  Sue isn't playing the dithery, do-nothing citizen trying to stay out of trouble at all costs.  Sue's objection has to do with prioritization.  She knows the team has more important things to worry about, like communism and Dr. Doom.  She probably also has practical concerns.  While I'm sure she'd agree the crime rate on Yancy Street is something of a concern, and it's admirable the FF want to pitch in, what can they realistically do about it?  Burn the Yancy Street Gang to death?  Bully them with the Thing's strength?  Build a community center with the wealth generated by Reed Richards' patents?  Psssh.  This isn't for the Fantastic Four to bother themselves over.  It's more a Spider-Man-level situation.

But I agree with Sue.  What's truly needed is police involvement.  Those lazy bums.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Amazing Re-colored Spider-Man!

Here's the book that started it all. Sort of. While Fantastic Four was the book that inaugurated the "Marvel Age" of comics, Spider-Man was the character that became the company's Mickey Mouse. As we all know, Spidey bowed in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962), which had formerly been titled Amazing Adult Fantasy, which sounds like a shop that sells sex toys and latex lingerie. Weirdly, #15 wasn't merely the debut of Spider-Man; it was also the final issue. The Amazing Spider-Man came next and ran for decades until Marvel killed it in favor of whatever it is they're doing now. I don't know, I don't wanna know. I do know this...

Painted Amazing Fantasy, huh? What about the original line work?

Recolored, by gum!  Did they do the same for the interior art?

Yep!  This isn't the worst recoloring job I've seen, but it's a bit too intense and the computer-generated smoothness of the gradients and color modeling (to create an illusion of roundness and depth) doesn't mesh with Steve Ditko's rough hewn finishes.  Ditko's treatment of anatomy was expressionistic and unique.  He wasn't trying to recreate the world in any kind of photorealistic way.  It's better to just leave it alone rather than try to interpret it with a lot of extra tones where you can only conflict with it or else muddy it up.  We also don't really need some latter-day color artist's impression of an artistic treatment of foliage in the trees.  Big open areas were good enough for Ditko; they're good enough for you.

On the other hand, just because something was originally printed with 100% magenta/100% yellow* to make red, or 100% red (depending on the inks used-- I worked for a newspaper that ran cyan, magenta, yellow and blue in its four-color printing process, but some substitute true red in there, and you have to adjust accordingly) doesn't mean the reprint has to follow suit.  When Marvel's reprints do that, on glossy, slick paper, the end results are often hideous, from the early days when color palettes relied largely on primary and secondary colors and even on material from the mid- to late-1980s, when the company's colorists apparently had a love affair with magenta, purple and big untouched areas.

The old schoolers needed that intensity because the paper was low-grade newsprint.  The press workers don't seem to have put much effort into registering the plates, so you ended up with floating reds or yellows or blues and characters with apparent milk mustaches.  Or pages that looked as if they were intended to be read with 3D glasses.  The paper wasn't even white.  It was slightly gray, and it yellowed or browned pretty quickly in direct sunlight.  Marvel covers from the time tend to flake or chip, as well.  These comics weren't intended as museum pieces or to compete visually with National Geographic.  Steve Ditko probably had no idea people would still be reading this book more than fifty years after he drew it, much less on archival paper or digitally.  Who could have foreseen that?

Well, now that we're reading comics on computers we're free from all those limitations.  But companies with deep back catalogs need to balance the sweet nostalgia of the historical with the flaw-fixing capabilities of modern technology.  Use naturalistic colors if you want, but mostly just try not to compete with what better artists than yourself did.  If you can't match the artist's intent, at least try not to compete with it or obliterate it.  You can make it look brand new to a certain extent, but above all, color restoration has to preserve the clarity of the original artwork.  Don't cover it up with a lot of extraneous visual noise or someone else's interpretation of anatomy or form.

Especially avoid going nuts like with some of the Neal Adams reprints I've seen in recent years where digital painting on top of the original inks has just covered them or rendered almost all the values the same--  some of those went from gorgeous to absolute mud.

*My original 50/50 formulation would have made "pure" orange, not red.  That's what being out of the game for over a decade will do to ya...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The mental powers of Liana and Jason... and Xi'an Coy Manh!

The other day I bought the digital version of Colleen Doran's remastered A Distant Soil: The Gathering. I read the first ten or so pages, just enough to get interested. It reminds me of what Chris Claremont was doing with the X-Men around the same time, especially the Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills (November 1982) which introduced some darker, more mature elements. Specifically, kids getting killed for being mutants. Right at the start, too.  This kind of stuff-- and gorier-- happens all the time in the regular monthlies these days, but back then it was startling.

At least it was for me.

By now we're all pretty familiar with the "teens with powers in the hands of sinister researchers" trope.  I'm wondering if good ol' Stephen King isn't the father or at least godfather of this theme in comics.  It wouldn't take much reconfiguring to work Firestarter (1980) into Uncanny X-Men continuity.  And then there's his earlier telekinetic horror classic Carrie (1974) with its epistolary elements for added realism.  I read that for the first time this year and it gave me a strong sense of deja vu.  If only Professor X had detected Carrie White with his Cerebro a lot of kids could have been saved.  Even some jerky ones.  And we shouldn't forget Tia and Tony from Alexander Key's 1968 novel Escape to Witch Mountain, which I first encountered via Disney's sunnier 1975 film adaptation.

When people are working on stories with this element, there are bound to be some similarities.  Why am I telling you all this?  Because right at the beginning of A Distant Soil, I came across this scene:

And this one:
Which immediately reminded me of this, from Marvel Graphic Novel #4: The New Mutants (September 1982):
And this:

Liana and Jason, Colleen Doran's leads, aren't possessing anyone in the same manner as Xi'an Coy Manh as drawn by Bob McLeod, but I'm sure Xi'an would be pleased with how Doran depicts whatever it is they're doing here.  Actually, this early in the story I'm not exactly sure what kind of powers Doran's siblings possess.  They have telekinesis, but the I haven't seen what they can do to the fullest as yet.  I'm looking forward to finding out. 

What's the point of this?  That there are only so many ways to depict mental powers visually and have it read on a comic book page.  McLeod and Doran could just as easily have used the black dots Kirby favored for energy bolts and the movement of water or curvy or dotted lines.  Instead they both hit upon this weird radiating rectangles device and it looks cool as all get out.  And it's just pleasing to me to make a lot of little connections between things.  Magical kids, evil laboratories.  Feeling different or special, identifying with characters who are different and special.  Beautiful artwork in black and white or in color.  Xi'an Coy Manh in just about anything.  After just a few pages of A Distant Soil I'm even more surprised I wasn't all over this back when it first appeared.  It's apparently right in my wheelhouse.

The nutty things you learn when you're a comic book fan: Gil Kane inked with markers

Lately Gil Kane has been on my mind.  I've always liked Kane's art.  Very distinctive anatomy, instantly recognizable unless deliberately inked not to be so.  Few things I love more in comics than a Kane self-inked cover.  Today I learned he inked a lot of his own late-period work with markers.  So a number of different blogs tell me, anyway.

It makes me respect Kane even more.  When you check out the lines-- the actual strokes-- on the printed covers there's little that indicates he worked with markers.  Maybe a little bit of same-width quality in the diagonal lines he used sometimes for tone.  Or maybe I just never really considered the tools Kane used for his finishes, which are crisp and altogether pleasing to the eye.  If I ink with a marker, it looks like a fool used a marker.  Lengthy moves, such as the curve along a character's thigh, for example, sometimes appear shaky or are too obviously made up of two arcs poorly joined.  With Gil Kane, the same areas just look...

Gil Kane-ish.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Colleen Doran's "A Distant Soil" is another one of those books I've been meaning to read for years!

This was inevitable.  Last night I bought the digital version of the new remastered A Distant Soil.  I may buy a printed copy, too.  In fact, I will.  Apparently, it's inescapable.

I've followed Colleen Doran's career through interviews and magazine articles for about as long as I can remember, but I'd never actually read a comic she worked on before this year.  I've always admired her artwork-- it's gorgeous-- and respected the way she broke herself into comics at the age I was still just reading them and vaguely dreaming of drawing Uncanny X-Men "when I [grew] up," and how she fought through a lot of crap that would have beaten a weaker person. 

A couple of months ago, I saw through a friend's feed she was on Facebook, thought what she had to say was interesting, started following her.  She's one of those pros who actually engages her followers.  She'll "like" your comment if it's a good one, respond if it moves her to and dispute you if she thinks you're wrong.  There are probably a lot of pros who do the same thing (I wouldn't know, since I'm pretty shy about friending the ones who have personal but not fan pages and I'm too Facebook-averse in the first place to spend a lot of time searching for "official" pages to follow), but I consider this kind of engagement above and beyond, especially from someone writing and drawing a ongoing series. 

Then I bought the Shade the Changing Man issues she penciled.  While I really dig Peter Milligan's work on X-Force/X-Statix (I consider this run flawless in every way), the story itself is mediocre by the standards of some of the other contemporaneous Vertigo titles and that supposedly edgy inking job doesn't do Doran's pencils any favors.  Then I bought the latest two issues of A Distant Soil.  Beautiful books, not sure what's happening in them because I've missed so much already, the Comixology guided view format isn't the best way to experience the story due to the way Doran designs pages.  That's no complaint about the book, because obviously you're meant to hold the actual paper thing in your hands and read it that way.

Taking all this together, with the release of this "definitive" edition of the first part of A Distant Soil it seems now is the time to crank things all the way back to the beginning and finally read something I believe I should have been reading all along.  This is the kind of thing that pleases me.  Something buzzing in the back of my mind, some recurring encounter with material and finally, when everything aligns, a chance to get into it in a major way right from the beginning.  Love and Rockets, Xenozoic Tales, Jack Kirby's Fourth World books, Creepy and Eerie magazines, Lone Wolf and Cub and now A Distant Soil.

So that's another one we'll be talking about here before much longer.  I'd have started with a little more today but I've only read a few pages.  Hey, I also bought the first year of The Amazing Spider-Man plus some later issues and I didn't even get to open them.  Something about jetlag and just not having enough time to do everything I'd like to do in a day!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

And we're back...

The long-awaited wedding trip to my hometown is finally over, which means this blog is open for business again.  I'm not really sure what I'll be dragging out of my imaginary longbox to poke fun at in a good-natured way.  I didn't buy anything old school while I was away, didn't even think that much about them other than during one brief stop at the local comic book store back home.

But I do promise whatever I write will be just as dumb as you've come to expect from When Comic Books Ruled the Earth.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Gold Key Star Trek #2: Some of these characters are instantly recognizable!

Gold Key's Star Trek #2 came out the same month I was born.  We've grown up together.  We're both awesome.  Star Trek #2 edges me by just a hair in the awesome department.  And that hair is comic book Scotty's mousy brown versus James Doohan Scotty's glossy black.

Scripter Dick Wood takes the Enterprise and its crew to a mysterious glowing asteroid, but the story's title gives everything away-- "The Devil's Isle of Space."  While Targu, the leader of the asteroid's castaway population insists they're simply victims of an unfortunate accident, Captain Kirk soon learns they're actually a prison population.  Their culture has a novel approach to incarceration.  Prisoners go to various asteroids to await execution at some unspecified future time.  They're not even to know how they're to die.  Spock adds the rather alarming extra bit of information that the asteroid is going to turn into a "super nova."  I thought only stars did that, but Spock is a United Federation of Planets scientist, science officer of Starfleet's finest exploratory vessel and all-around genius so I'm going to bow to his superior space knowledge.  Firing squad, gas chamber, electric chair, injection, exploding asteroid.  Don't do the crime if you can't do the time, or so Sammy Davis, Jr. once advised us.

Spock certainly keeps his eye on the sparrow.  He goes right to work doing what he does best-- solving problems.  But this is a doozy, with moral implications.  Spock's boss Kirk has a bit of a personal objection to the execution methodology and he's got even more of one when said methodology includes his own execution and those of his crewmembers, for whom he feels at least partly responsible.  The obvious solution is to get the hell out of Dodge.

There are two complications.  The first, an energy field trapping the Enterprise in orbit around the asteroid, lasts only as long as it takes Spock to apply his vast intellect to solving its problem.  He invents "counter energy" to "flood the area," and that does the trick.  The second isn't so easily done away with.  Since the Enterprise transporters-- called the "teleportation chamber" here-- seem to lack the discriminatory circuits of the TV show's version, the landing party can't beam up... er... teleport back to the ship without bringing along a random selection of Targu's hardened criminals.

Fortunately for the landing party Spock isn't merely a top-notch astronomer; he's also a master of strategy.  He has pseudo-Scotty and company build a flying replica of one of the prison rockets and fools the inmates into believing they're receiving a missile's worth of fresh fish.  Surprise!  It's pseudo-Scotty and his merry band of rescuers with "fire bombs," apparently some sort of relatively harmless flash-bang devices they use to chase away the convicts.

Within minutes, the Enterprise rockets to safety and all's well except for the criminals who die when the asteroid explodes.

Let's take a look at some of artist Nevio Zaccara's embellishments to the Star Trek universe.  First, there are the knives he puts on the landing party's belts.  Well, you never know.  Some away missions may require whittling or making scrimshaw.

Also, he has Kirk mistake his tricorder for his communicator.  Well, not just Kirk, but everyone, including the narration.  Incredibly, it's a very screen-accurate tricorder as well, which makes it even more glaring to a hardened Trekker like myself, especially contrasted with Zaccara's free-wheeling version of the Enterprise interior and the crew's weapons, finally referred to in the comic as phasers.

Zaccara has a unique take on rendering likenesses among the secondary characters, i.e., anyone not named Kirk, Spock or McCoy: don't even attempt them.  Here's a typical scene:

Spock appears Nimoyish but with that makeup an artist could hold the pencil with a couple of toes and stand a chance of drawing a passable caricature. Next to him is McCoy, in a green shirt.  The eyebrows are sort of reminiscent of Deforest Kelley's.  That guy in the red shirt, however, is the Scotty I've been telling you about.  And between them, looking on from the back is Uhura.  Other than drawing her hair a little shorter than it appears on the show, Zaccara has done a bang-up job on Uhura.  Come to think of it, while Zaccara caricatured him accurately in the first issue, in this one Kirk often looks a lot like Sean Connery rather than William Shatner.  Interesting bit of casting that would have been, huh?  If not for that spy movie series...

Speaking of Uhura, the character actually has a non-speaking cameo earlier in the story and Zaccara produces a reasonable facsimile of Nichelle Nichols, but the colorist botches it in a way that's more obvious and egregious than Scotty's hair or anyone's service tunic.  And I'm not talking about the bright yellow dress she sports for some reason known but to our anonymous colorist.

Zaccara can draw this stuff any old way he pleases as far as I'm concerned.  Yeah, it's fun to pick at it but at least Zaccara produced vigorous stuff.  Because he seemingly wasn't tied to producing perfect images for licensing purposes-- make the bridge look like the TV show because we've got a playset coming out and we need the extra advertisement, please-- he just invents using his own unique visual flair and we get something kind of weird, kind of funky, definitely fun.  It's not his fault my brain has been trained over the years into an encyclopedia of useless crapola, but with startling gaps.  What Zaccara's art lacks in Trek accuracy it makes up for with energy and a kind of EC-ish feel.  That's a more than fair trade-off, plus it gives me something to write about 45 years later.

On that note, one final observation.  In what had quickly become a Gold Key Star Trek tradition, the plot ends rather abruptly and violently.

"The Devil's Isle of space-- nothing but a floating cloud of dust now!  It seems brutal to have left those people there..." Kirk says in the last panel.

"Execution by asteroid explosion is the way of their society!  We had no other choice but to leave them, Captain!" Spock concludes.  In other words, "To hell with them."

NOTE-- I'm off for a couple of weeks, so no updates until later this month.  I'm sure you're breathing a sigh of relief there!

Gold Key Star Trek #1... when Yeoman Rand wore the Phrygian cap!

I bought a lot of the Gold Key Star Trek comics last night.  I've owned the Checker Book Publishing Group reprint books for a while, and in all this time one thing has troubled me-- why does Yeoman Rand wear a red Phrygian cap in the first issue?

This morning I finally realized it's not a Phrygian cap at all.  It's the crazy cone-head braided wig Grace Lee Whitney wore as Rand and the Gold Key colorist-- whoever he or she was-- simply mistook it for a Phrygian cap.  Understandable when you consider how ridiculous and un-hairlike that wig looks in the first place.  I'd almost prefer a Phrygian cap to the thought of Whitney laboring under twenty pounds of lacquered yak hair or gorilla fur or whatever they made it from.

Comixology doesn't have the most accurate credits for this book.  Checker must have just provided them with a list, so they added everyone.  No matter, I enjoy reading blogs by those who know more than I do.  According to Martin O'Hearn at Who Created the Comics, it was scripted by Dick Wood, a writer I know nothing about.  Wood isn't listed on Comixology at all, but maybe someone can contact them and provide details.  O'Hearn also informs us Nevio Zaccara drew the comic.  That I actually knew.

The story is called "The Planet of No Return," but the planet itself is called K-G.  That's K-G for, as the script tells us, "Kelly Green," not K-Y for you Trek fans out there who are also into body lubricants and turning everything into a sex joke.  The space explorers investigate because as the Enterprise flies through a "space cloud," tiny spores seep through the ship's hull-- I'm no NASA scientist, but even as a layperson it seems that's some pretty slipshod ship construction-- and start raising hell within by transforming common guinea pigs into tentacled plant monsters.  In the immediate aftermath of the struggle, Spock directly contradicts scripter Wood by declaring the reason for the transformation is they tested the guinea pigs outside the ship a few weeks before and that's when the animals picked up the spores.

Make up your mind, Star Trek #1!

Kirk and his away team put on really slick body-hugging gray jumpsuits and beam down (from inside a transporter imagined as a glass chamber) to find K-G a planet where ambulatory plants have achieved dominance over animals.  As you can imagine, a group of animals transporting themselves down to investigate such a situation would soon find themselves quite literally in a world of trouble, Phrygian caps or incorrectly-colored tunics notwithstanding.  Blaster guns, as they call them here instead of phasers, are little help.  It takes the redoubtable Mr. Spock and his mathematical genius to calibrate the Enterprise's lasers (again instead of phasers) to a pin-point accuracy so he can fire it at the planet and free the landing party without cooking them.

Along the way you might have noticed most of the crew wear green shirts rather than gold, blue or red, although one unnamed crewperson does wear a red one.  This leads me to conclude the colorist had very little in the way of color reference to go by.  The same might be said of the Zacarra, who seems to re-use the same publicity stills for a few panels here and there and then his fertile imagination freely to create Enterprise interiors more fanciful than the show's.  A reader might at this point get the idea Gold Key took a somewhat casual approach to their Trek verisimilitude.  Hey, in the second issue Captain Kirk carries a knife on his belt and talks into his tricorder at one point, too.  Well, you don't go to Gold Key for accuracy.  These books are more about having fun.

That's probably why Wood has Kirk and company stammer uncharacteristically and use exclamations like "S-suffering solar showers!" to complain about their predicament.  And the rather abrupt and violent solution Spock comes up with for the dilemma of proliferating plant spores threatening the galaxy.

Comixology has a pile of these joyful little Star Trek books for 99 cents each, which is one reason we're going to be talking about them a lot as soon as the wife and I return from our overseas trip.  The other reason is simply that I love them!

Friday, August 2, 2013

With friends like these, huh?

Here's an oddly-shaped panel from Justice League of America #173 (December 1979), by Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin.  This is the story in which the JLA don disguises to test Black Lightning rather than just approach him directly and ask him if he's interested in joining the team and would it be all right if they observed him in action for a few days.

 But with the Flash suddenly and angrily concerned they're attempting to tokenize Black Lightning (Barry Allen experiencing a personality change because he's bereaved) and the equally hot-tempered Green Arrow (Oliver Queen being the political firebrand he always was) freaking out and suggesting the Scarlet Speedster is the world's worst racist for even suggesting such a thing, the JLA can't be bothered with doing something reasonable like actually asking Black Lightning his opinion on the future of his superhero career.

Then Superman, acclaimed by the others as the wisest, fairest and most reasonable among them, suggests they haze Black Lightning to see if he's worthy enough to hang out with the most powerful group of brightly-costumed humans and aliens ever to hang out on rooftops and do nothing while a man fights desperate criminals armed with guns on the street below.

Putting aside the fact they're crime-fighters and assault itself is a crime, the incognito JLA spend the rest of the day attacking Black Lightning at random, kind of like Cato, that guy Inspector Clouseau pays to keep his martial arts skills sharp by... well, attacking him at random.

Amazingly, despite being charged with the protection of the entire earth (and the region of space around it, in the case of Green Lantern), they have lots of time to play this elaborate frat-like prank on a prospective member.  During these tests, Black Lightning fights a giant gorilla, which he recognizes as a female giant gorilla because she's wearing a blond wig and a stainless steel bikini.  She's also got what appears to be a SCUBA mask as well, which kind of makes her kind of a call-back to the infamous 1953 sci-fi flick Robot Monster, known for its gorilla in a diving helmet.  

Gorilla girl is Zatanna, by the way.  And surprise of surprises, before the test is over, the JLA have driven this bright, articulate, conscientious man to the point of animalistic bellowing and attempted murder.  After Black Lightning backs down from throttling him, Green Arrow takes off his mask and says he wasn't worried, all he had to do was reveal himself because when a superhero does it, that means it's not illegal.  Our heroes!

In the end, Black Lightning pulls himself together and refrains from telling the JLA to go get fucked, but he does turn down their membership offer.  He says it's because he has too much work to do around Suicide Slum, but we know the real reason.  Even Green Arrow, dense as he is in this story, wonders aloud, "You think we made him mad with our dumb test?"  Superman's like, "Nahhh... Black Lantern is just one of those loner type guys who don't work well with others."  Of course Superman has to say that.  I mean, it was his stupid idea after all.

Okay, so this story barely makes any sense.  But I love it for exactly that reason.  The world's greatest heroes acting like a bunch of college kids.  A proud man who only wants to help others wasting an entire afternoon being physically attacked by people who are supposed to be on his side.

Black Lightning himself is a major draw as well.

That leads me to this.  My absolute favorite thing about this comic-- what makes me love it desperately (although the clean-reading Dillin/McLaughlin artwork plays its role, too)-- is the high priority Black Lightning gives his teaching job, even if some of its specific duties wear on him.  It's the middle of the afternoon and he's on his way home to rest up because he has to be at school early.  No running errands, no fighting crime.  The kids and their educations come first.  When you see a dude walking around in broad daylight with a huge disco collar and his shirt open almost to his crotch, the last thing you imagine he's thinking about is mimeographing history tests.  But there you have it.  That's what Black Lightning thinks about.

And because he does, if at this point you haven't concluded one Black Lightning is worth more than twenty Batmans, then you really should have your head examined.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Fantastic Four #30 demonstrates why you should never go on any vacation Reed Richards plans for you

You'd have to be crazy to go on a Reed Richards-planned vacation.  For one thing, there's no such thing as a leisurely Reed Richards-planned vacation because Reed's idea of leisure is to culture bacteria or tinker with a device to allow inter-dimensional travel.  Those are his spare time activities.  He does really heavy-duty stuff when he's working.

For another, if at the moment he's interested in traveling, he's not going to set up a Hawaiian itinerary or a couple of weeks in the Riviera, although he could easily afford either with all his patent money and licensing fees.  No, he's going to take the whole party to Transylvania so he can do a little field research.

Check out what he does to his friends Sue, Ben and Johnny in Fantastic Four #30 (September 1964).  Reed drags them all the way behind the Iron Curtain-- and I thought the guy absolutely despised communism-- for a visit to Dracula country.  Stan Lee's narration calls Transylvania a "kingdom," but that was true only in his active imagination, no doubt full of Bram Stoker-inspired fantasies.  In reality, during the time frame of the Fantastic Four's ill-fated visit, Transylvania, as part of Romania, had only recently emerged from under direct Soviet control and established a certain level of political and economic independence from the USSR, it labored under the rule of Georghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a hardline communist and former Stalinist who instituted one of the harshest regimes in Eastern Europe.

It also harbored anachronistic alchemists like Diablo, with his green horned cowl and jaunty purple tights.

The first thing Reed does on this so-called vacation is to lose the team deep in the Transylvanian forests.  He does this so quickly, Kirby and company don't even bother with set-up.  There's no Baxter Building prelude where Ben and Johnny get into a fight and Reed intervenes only to have Sue step in and tell everyone they're only squabbling because they've got cabin fever and need some time off.  Nope, right from the splash page they're lost and the only explanation for the how and why we get is in a caption.  Anyway, Reed is probably faking it so he can surreptitiously search for a rare slime mold or fungus from which he can synthesize a chemical he needs.  It is a scenic forest, though.

There are few inkers I enjoy on Jack Kirby so much as I do Chic Stone.  Chic Stone makes Kirby's art look like a cartoon, and I mean that in the best sense of the word.  Take that cover, for example.  Check out how Kirby and Stone depict the transitional, less-rocky Thing-- thick contour line around the outside, dotted lines on the inside.  And bald.  Also, how cool is it on the splash page that Ben is plucking a tree right out of the ground while complaining about the very topic of this blog post?  The tree's not even in his or anyone else's way; it's just there for the plucking.  This is fun.  Comic visuals that are pure fun.

But look at Reed stretching himself out there, pretending he doesn't know exactly where they are and what he's doing.  A few moments later, he's all like, "Hey, look, gang!  I found a ruined castle I totally never suspected was here all along!  Why don't we... oh, I don't know... investigate it?"  Obviously, Reed wasn't after just some botanical specimens...

Then this Baron Hugo character shows up and tells them to stop being lost before they hurt someone or disturb something best left undisturbed and that they can sleep over at his house.  That night, Ben sneaks out into the forest and-- in a creepy sequence that anticipates Mike Mignola's Hellboy-- goes to an ancient castle where he pulls a giant stone stopper out of some kind of cylindrical stone architectural feature for which I don't know the name.  The narration refers to it as a "crypt."  Well, okay.  This frees our old pal, Diablo.  Diablo, the Transylvanian alchemist with the Spanish name that means "devil."

It doesn't take Diablo long to exploit festering personal divisions within the FF, using his chemicals to restore a limited humanity to the Thing, with a promise of more to come.  That's all it takes for the disgruntled Ben to turn his back on tour guide failure Reed Richards and declare himself Diablo's buddy-for-life.  Diablo goes on a chemical rampage, rejuvenating a geriatric millionaire named Featherstone (he wears a top hat!), transforming the Iranian desert blossom into a floral wonderland, raking in the money with government contracts and using Ben as overseer to exploit local labor.

Reed, smarter than your average alchemist, soon discovers Diablo's formulas are all phony-- suddenly, the blossoming deserts revert to their infertile state, the millionaire ends up hospitalized for an advanced case of being a moldy old bastard and the anti-missile shield (don't know how a chemical potion produces something like that and wisely no one bothers to even try to explain it).  And poor Ben has his heart broken yet again.

With the tacit approval of the United Nations itself, the Fantastic Three spring into action, only end up trapped in glass vials.  Ben redeems himself and Reed promptly gets them lost in the woods yet again.  Because he still hasn't found the prized fungus, no doubt.  And I have no doubt this is exactly the way things played out in Reed Richards's mind before they even left New York.

Some vacation!  That's the kind of crappy vacation experience you're going to have if you let Reed Richards choose your destination.  The man's a workaholic, I tell you.  Doesn't know how to have fun.  Or where.  Now if you want me, it's summer vacation for me, too, and I'll be spending a fabulous fortnight in glamorous Pyongyang, cosmopolitan capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  I hear it's a swingin' town and a real shopper's paradise!