Thursday, November 28, 2013

Close encounters of the mail order kind starring Marvel Super Special #3: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Bob Larkin painted the cover for Marvel Super Special #3: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) and it's typically gorgeous work.  Larkin worked in bold, vivid colors.  Larkin wasn't painterly or as dynamic as as his stable-mate, Earl Norem (they both contributed memorable covers to Marvel's Planet of the Apes black and white magazine).  Larkin favored a sharper finish, not quite photorealistic, but startlingly close enough for a kid in the 1970s who wanted to see what his favorite superheroes would look like if they came to life. 

I don't know who the key figures on this cover are.  Let's call them Not Quite Richard Dreyfuss and Sort of Melinda Dillon.  I seem to remember in those days you couldn't always get the licensing rights to do exact likenesses of actors, so Larkin flexed his screen-accurate art muscles on the UFOs and the cosmic light show around the Devil's Tower in the background, which they apparently could get the likeness rights to.  Just kidding.  Everyone knows the Devil's Tower is in the public domain.  No wait, actually I own it.  I'd forgotten momentarily, but I'm pretty sure I have the papers around here to prove it.  Please send my back payments, Mr. Spielberg and the new ownership of Marvel.  Thank you.

The point is, when you find a copy of Marvel Super Special #3 for yourself, you end up with this Bob Larkin painting that will knock out your eyeballs with its startling beauty even if he had to settle for brushing in a couple of stand-ins for the movie's real stars.  And inside the book, you get an Archie Goodwin adaptation of one of the prime 1970s blockbusters-- second in our youthful instant-classics pantheon in those days to a little flick called Star Wars (and Close Encounters is in every way the superior work of art even if its pop culture cachet has never equaled that of its cinematic big brother)-- over Walt Simonson pencils and Klaus Janson inks.

Script: Archie Goodwin/Pencils: Walter Simonson/Inks: Klaus Janson/Colors: Marie Severin

Think about that for a moment and ask yourself, "Was this magazine worth the $1.50 they charged for it back in 1978?"  Admittedly, it's a silly question we can only answer in the affirmative.  Resoundingly so.  I paid slightly more for mine and now I'm going to bore the hell out of you by telling why.  First, we have to time travel back to 1979 or 1980.  We either had Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan in the White House, or maybe in some alternate universe, both fused into a two-headed creature that could never come to an ideological agreement with itself, and so ran around in circles before collapsing exhausted in the Lincoln bedroom, panting and begging for an end to its misery. 

In our reality, this was before the direct market, or at least its earliest days, and before my town had anything resembling a comic book store.  We had to get our comics at bookstores, convenience stores, pharmacies and the occasional gas station.  None of those places would reliably stock oversized comic book magazines.  And back issues?  Back issues were what your big brothers or their friends gave you when they were finished with them, and my brothers and their buddies were all sports playing guys into muscle cars, funk music and girls, not comic books.  I once received a hand-me-down Weird War Tales from one of these cool dudes-- instead of a beating-- and it was one of the happiest days of my life.

Script: Goodwin/Pencils: Simonson/Inks: Janson/Colors: Severin
So I didn't even know a Close Encounters comic existed until almost a year or so after they printed it.  There used to be this mail order outfit called Heroes World.  Marvel eventually took them over, but in the 1970s and early 1980s, they put ads in comics for things like Mego action figures and those huge "Treasury Edition" magazines both Marvel and DC used to put out.  One day I was reading some comic or other-- probably Micronauts-- and my eyes landed on a list of Marvel Super Specials and there it was, a comic based on one of my favorite movies at the time. 

We didn't have DVDs or even VHS then, so the only way to repeat the experience of movies you loved when it left the theaters was to buy comic book adaptations, or novelizations (or the occasional Foto-Novel), then wait for ABC to buy the broadcast rights.  I already had scattered issues of Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and this huge King Kong magazine from either Gold Key or Whitman.  This meant I had to add Close Encounters to my film comic library.  You're looking at me as if I had a choice.  Trust me.  I didn't.  I can't remember how I got the money, or the exact price (although $2.25 plus shipping and handling comes to mind), but I do remember it took forever to come in the mail.  So long I assumed I'd been ripped off, which happened to kids sending money to companies that advertised in comic books from time to time.  Then it came in a cardboard envelope and I was not disappointed.  In fact, it not only impressed me as a story but it also changed the way I thought about comics.

First of all, it accurately recreated the movie experience in a way no film adaptation had for me before.  Star Wars was fun, Battlestar Galactica adequate.  Close Encounters topped both.

It didn't matter that the inside wasn't photo-realistic, or that we wouldn't have Dreyfuss, Dillon, Teri Garr or even Francois Truffaut going through their motions.  Despite Marvel's inability to score the license for the actors' likenesses, Simonson and Janson occasionally came litigiously close enough as far as I was concerned.  I can imagine other kids reeling in disappointment when they first laid eyes on the off-model Roy Neary carving his mashed potatoes into a lumpy hill while his stunned family looks on in panel designed specifically by Simonson to showcase their growing emotional distance from their troubled husband and father by isolating them in a flat black space.

I was relieved Simonson and Janson at least got his "type" right.  After all, George Tuska's Taylor in Planet of the Apes looked more like screen Hercules Steve Reeves than screen Ben-Hur Charlton Heston.  At least the comic book Dreyfuss wasn't nine heads tall with a physique out of a Renaissance fresco.  The Truffaut character, on the other hand?  I still don't know who that hawk-nosed guy resembles, but it's not the man who directed The 400 Blows.  But he is a relatively minor part of the story and on-panel just a few times in the comic, so I gave Simonson and Janson a pass there, too.

Script: Goodwin/Pencils: Simonson/Inks: Janson/Colors: Severin

As far as the other visual elements go, Simonson's panel layouts and sequential moments are some of his most cinematic storytelling in a career full of the stuff.  You can tell he was just as enthralled with the material as anyone buying this book would have been and he gives it his all, what one of my brothers' baseball coaches would have called "110 percent." I say it's more around 150 percent.  Simonson exaggerates body language a bit striving to match the film's emotional beats, but he also does these action-to-action panel sequences that transpose Spielberg's framing and pacing to a static page as well as any artist I've seen.  I wanted my usual superhero fare to duplicate these kinds of panel-to-panel action transitions as well, because it meant something closer to the way we perceive time than the usual dynamics and poses with speedlines.  This was my introduction to that sort of comic storytelling years before I ever heard of guys named Eisner, Krigstein, Steranko or Kojima.

Sometimes I'm not so keen on Klaus Janson's heavy-handed inks, but he and Simonson are matched well here, and the way he treats lighting in this book hasn't been equaled, at least not in any comic I've seen.  This is of utmost importance when dealing with Close Encounters, because light is practically a character in the movie.  People mock J.J. Abrams and his supposed lens flare addiction, but Steven Spielberg had cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond practically paint the screen with light, and Janson follows suit, especially in the climactic encounter where he manages to do something I would have considered possible-- make static drawings look not simply like dazzling lights, but moving ones as well.  Seriously.  Janson manages to mimic moving lights with inked lines.

In his afterward (which I read as often as I did the comic part), Goodwin cheerfully explains some of the concerns a writer has when adapting from one medium to another.  You don't get a soundtrack when you read a comic, so Simonson came up with all kinds of innovative ideas for full-bleed artwork and panel arrangements to try and capture a bit of the John Williams magic.  There's also a problem with timing jokes.  In the movie there's a funny bit involving gas masks and Goodwin and team duplicate it, eliciting almost as much laughter from me reading it as the movie did when I was watching it.  Goodwin also takes time to praise Marie Severin's coloring job, and it is indeed first rate.  She really shows what a colorist can do with the limited and flat palette available in those days.  And so Goodwin gave me my first lesson in writing for comics as a craft, and the kinds of things pencillers, inkers and colorist do as well. 

Up to that moment, I had been used to experiencing a comic as simply a thing unto itself.   Words, pictures, colors make a story as if by magic.  I knew artists' names because I loved to draw, and had a vague idea of what went on behind the scenes because I read Marvel's Bullpen Bulletins and the editor's messages in DC's books, too.  But in an essay probably shorter than the one you're reading now, Goodwin educated me on a writer's responsibilities and how the artists actually thought about what they were doing and planned images for effect.  I also learned the word "onomatopoeia."  A comic didn't just poof itself into existence.  People like Goodwin, Simonson, Janson, Larkin and Severin made them with their minds, their hands, their talents.  Knowing that didn't take away any of the wonder of reading a comic book.  It added to it. 

More than thirty years later, it still does-- no matter who the writer or artist or colorist is-- and I will always have Archie Goodwin to thank for that.

Monday, November 25, 2013

X-Men #101: Phirst Phoenix... and Wolverine gets all wiggly?

Uncanny X-Men #101 (October 1976) brings a bruised and battered group of X-sters back from a mission into space.  In the preceding issues, they'd taken a Starcore space shuttle-- accurately drawn for the most part (as was the Harrier jet in X-Men #94) by Dave Cockrum, even though NASA's real thing wouldn't get off the earth for another five more years-- to an orbiting space station (nothing like anything anyone's ever put up there, but still pretty cool) where they fought Stephen Lang (or, as some authorities have it, Steven Lang).  Lang is human, but more than that, he's a complete nutjob who hates mutants the way lions and hyenas hate each other. 

Maybe even more so, because Lang stoops to murdering even a non-mutant USAF officer who calls him out on just how insane his schemes are and lions and hyenas only kill each other in their feuds.  I can't think of a single lion who went so far as to bump off a leopard for telling him he's gone around the bend with the anti-hyena robot building enterprise.  Lang captures the team and forces them to fight for their lives in space.  It takes a couple of issues, but the good guys eventually prevail and, on the way home, fly through a solar storm.  Only Jean Grey (or Marvel Girl as she was known then) can pilot them safely back. 

The intense radiation, depicted psychedelically by Cockrum, triggers Jean's transformation into Phoenix, the all-powerful.  But let's let Chris Claremont tell us what the new Jean Grey is all about as only he can:

X-Men #101, script by Chris Claremont, art by Dave Cockrum and Frank Chiaramonte

Ahhhh!  My, that's some good Claremont.  "I am fire!  And life incarnate!" has always struck me as a characteristically Chris Claremont phrasing.  This may be because he was the guy who taught me the word "incarnate" in the first place.  It's certainly not a word one slips into everyday conversation, at least not when I was a southern kid and living in my childhood home, where people were letter carriers, school secretaries and baseball players, not all-powerful mutants.  And so this is the exact moment "incarnate" entered my vocabulary.  To me, "incarnate" and "eldritch" are forever Claremont words, and when I read them in other comics, I always assume the writer has stolen them from Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men.  And by shouting this phrase, Phoenix lets us know she's here, she's for real, and readers look out!

This is the issue where Claremont found his X-voice.  While he’d already shown a sure hand at characterization, giving each rookie in his cast (and even the previously-established veterans) distinct personalities and moods, the first few issues trot out a tired Avengers villain, a random to the point of being non sequitor demon attack and some story elements from the first X-Men series.  The new faces and the ultra-detailed Cockrum art are the draws, not the stale plots.  I know things were beginning to spark before #101.  Claremont had already started one slow-building subplot about Professor X's strange dreams of distant interstellar conflict.  This has a major pay-off later, and for the moment it meant Professor X gained what he'd largely lacked before-- a personality. 

But the Phoenix story as it begins here is something else altogether.  Claremont allowed it to flicker around the edges of succeeding issues as he dropped clues and intriguing interludes before the whole thing blazed up into major event unto itself, at once epic in scope and intensely personal as well.  Jean Grey’s transformation into the most powerful of all the X-Men also serves notice Claremont’s stories will be about the women as much as the men of the group.  Jean and Storm wouldn’t act as cheerleaders or simple love interests, or worse, damsels in distress, with the stories really being about the boys in the band.  They wouldn’t be co-stars in someone else’s adventures.  They’d be stars, too.  The women would get to drive the narrative as much as anyone.

Cockrum emphasizes this moment in all its drama by having Phoenix dominate the page in a fury steam and lightning, one of those razzle-dazzle comic book light shows.  It's also significant her rebirth takes place as she bursts from water-- both Claremont and Cockrum would have been fully aware of the symbolism.  As she rises we see she's got this startling new costume and even seems to have more hair.  The rest of the team end up crowded into those narrow panels on the left so Phoenix can own the entire space to the right.  If you were holding this comic, this would be the outside part of the page, and this placing promises more Phoenix to come because she's the last thing you see before you turn to the next.  Jean Grey and X-Men would never be the same.

But what's this?  Back in those early, free-wheeling days before the X-Men became one of the major pillars holding up the Marvel cosmology, there was another little subplot happening, one Claremont didn't choose to develop into a major storyline.  Back then, Wolverine wasn't a huge fan favorite and star of every single comic Marvel puts out each month plus his own movie series.  In the first year or so of X-Men, he was just a short asshole mainly known for having fought the Hulk, but Claremont wasn't about to leave him as simple or one-note as all that.  So the team rebel, the loner who doesn't need anyone (needed by no one in return, it seems) turns out to have a bit of a sweet side.  Seems Wolverine has a cute little crushy-crush on none other than Jean "Phoenix" Grey herself.

X-Men #101, script by Claremont, art by Cockrum and Chiaramonte

Aww!  Like a lovestruck high school boy, he's not sure how to go about wooing her, but in his insecurity he plays the arrogant fool in his mind.  Little bit of the caveman, I suppose.  Claremont's narration is pretty harsh on the poor guy, though, don't you think?  I mean, yeah, Wolverine thinks some dickish thoughts while awkwardly trying a tender gesture, but does he deserve the caption box hectoring he gets here?

X-Men #101, script by Claremont, art by Cockrum and Chiaramonte


In the last panel Claremont really lets the guy have both barrels, even though everyone involved knows there's a heart inside Wolverine's gruff, hairy, somewhat psychotic exterior.  Actually, I've always thought of the intrusive, judgmental narrator as representing Wolverine's self-recriminations.  That he didn't really like himself.  It would be a while before they humanized him... and then overexposed him... but isn't it fun to see Wolverine getting a case of the goofies over Jean?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Steve Rude does Black Friday the right way!

From the Steve Rude Art Newsletter e-mail

I love getting these updates from the Rudes.  And the Dude has been hyper-creative lately.  There's a new Nexus storyline appearing in Dark Horse Presents and now this Black Friday Blitz.  If you're interested, this may be your big chance to get a Batman drawn by Steve Rude.  He usually refuses to draw Batman commissions.  I'm seriously considering asking for a Dani Moonstar.  It's pricey, but it's worth it.

Edit-- Oops!  Rude's not doing commissions right now because of his Nexus schedule.  So that gives me time to think of something truly special to ask for when he opens his commissions list again!  Although I'll happily do without as long as it means he's drawing Nexus.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dani Moonstar versus Sarah Rainmaker (or How I learned to stop worrying and love Gen13)

Epitomizing 90s fluff, Gen13 was a kind of MTV Real World look at superheroics on one hand, an excuse for near-nudity and fart jokes on the other, and just some guys good-naturedly riffing on their favorite New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men storylines, plus throwing in a Trent Reznor clone as a villain for good measure on the third.  Or one of your feet, if you're not an alien or mutant creature.  Outrageously derivative, cluttered with pointless storylines that go nowhere, at times little more than a vehicle for J. Scott Campbell's "good girl" art-- and also so light and breezy entertainment I couldn't get enough of, so much so I even wrote a fan letter.  That's something I had done only once years before, to the fine folks responsible for making Sgt. Rock

And a lot of other readers felt the same way, at least for a while, because Gen13 inspired Gen13 Bootleg, a spin-off series with stories and art by the likes of Alan Davis, James Robinson, Walt and Louise Simonson, Adam Warren and even a two-issue miniseries by Adam Hughes which I think of as a largely forgotten near classic.  No less than Warren Ellis himself took a hand at writing the team's adventures in one regular series annual and one for Bootleg.  Image/Wildstorm also published DV8 and a number of mini-series.  Then the fun stopped.  Writer Brandon Choi and Campbell decamped and new creative teams came aboard.  They tried to use the comic's powers for good, but its zeitgeist had passed and subsequent attempts at revival in the years since have failed.

But back in those days, most Gen13 readers wanted to read about super-strong, super-smart, super-bodied team leader Caitlin Fairchild and the various ways she would lose her clothes, the "youngest and spunkiest member of the team" Roxy Spaulding and gross-out comedic relief -- with a code name dated even then-- Percival Edmund "Grunge" Chang.  There was also Bobby "Burnout" Lane, who had kind of an emo personality and a soul patch but otherwise made little impression on anybody.

But I, being forever contrary, preferred little-regarded Sarah Rainmaker, who was slightly more popular than Burnout only because, well, the main purpose of Gen13 wasn't beefcake.  I liked her because the creative team didn't seem to, and because she was more than a little similar to my beloved early-teens hero Dani Moonstar.  I mean, besides both being Native Americans. 

Poor Sarah Rainmaker.  The original writers used her mostly as a straw-figure to mock feminism, campus activists and also to do a bit of that MTV-style "amorphous sexuality tease aimed at hetero boys" stuff that later made such a star of Kate Perry.  But written sympathetically by Hughes in Gen13: Ordinary Heroes a more interesting, deeper character comes through and makes me wish they'd tweaked Rainmaker in the monthly to something a bit less... well... insulting.  Sometimes they did.  Often they didn't.  Anyway, maybe what I really I liked all along was this alternate Hughes-inspired version of Sarah Rainmaker I had in my mind.  One more righteous and less of a strident punching bag with a lot of "Take that, Political Correctness!" dudebro-humor wear and tear. 

Still, if you're going to do your own version of The New Mutants, of course you're going to do your own version of that book's most vital character and obvious star.  You know who I'm talking about from the title of this post, so with no further ado, here are some Dani Moonstar moments echoed by Sarah Rainmaker.

1.  Fabulous footwear.  In Marvel Graphic Novel #4 New Mutants (September 1982), Dani makes damn sure Professor X recognizes not just her individuality but her cultural heritage by accessorizing her one-size fits all uniform to something more unique.  The Gen13 kids received their own super suits right from the start, but obviously Rainmaker was paying attention when Dani set a precedent.  Because I'm about as Native American as Vladimir Putin, I have no idea how appropriate Rainmaker's boots are-- Dani is Cheyenne, Sarah is Apache and those are two distinct cultures-- but I do know when things look similar because I watched Sesame Street growing up.


Marvel Graphic Novel #4: Script by Chris Claremont, art by Bob McLeod


Gen13 #8: Script by Brandon Choi, Jim Lee and J. Scott Campbell, art by Campbell and Alex Garner... or Richard Friend!

2. Swimming nude.  Dani makes a point to swim au natural in New Mutants #3 (May 1983) and Rainmaker follows (birthday) suit in Gen13 #1 (March 1995).  Chris Claremont treats this moment seriously and tastefully and it leads to a revealing (personality, not body) moment between Dani and her friend Xi'an Coy Manh where they bond and we get to know both of them better.  When Rainmaker takes a dip, Choi and Campbell play it as a striptease and while we do get to know a little more about the cast from this (Sarah likes to show off, the guys are pantingly hetero-sexist), the characterizations are roughly at the level of a beer commercial.


New Mutants #3: Script by Claremont, art by McLeod and Mike Gustovich


Gen13 #1: Script by Choi and Campbell, art by Campell and Alex Garner... or Sandra Hope!

3.  Jungle adventures with anachronistic cultures that result first in wearing rags and then even more revealing outfits.  In New Mutants #8 (October 1983), the kids travel to the Amazon rainforest, have a lot of misadventures in which Dani first has to wear a swimsuit and then torn clothing.  When she and the rest of her team end up in Nova Roma, a hold out from the days of Imperial Rome, they adopt cultural-appropriate clothing.  Then a sorceress shows up and tries to sacrifice Dani, which requires her to wear a chain-mail bikini outfit stolen from a Red Sonja comic and then a low-cut evil sorceress gown.  When the Gen13 gang takes a similar journey to Africa in issues 3 through 5 of their comic (July-October 1995), they come across an all-female society of supermodel Amazonians who favor skimpy metal swimwear of their own.  Rainmaker quickly goes from ragged prisoner to shiningly metallic masturbatory fantasy warrior before you can say "Psyche-Mirage-Moonstar-Spellbinder-Dark Rider."


New Mutants #10: Script by Claremont, art by Sal Buscema and Tom Mandrake


Gen13 #5: Script by Choi, Lee and Campbell, art by Campbell and Garner, Friend and Scott Williams 

4.  That leadership thing.  Despite being a year or two younger than Sam Guthrie, the more capable Dani quickly takes over the top spot in the New Mutants team after first leader Xi'an Coy Manh goes missing.  In fact, she's already pushing Xi'an out of the top slot as early as New Mutants #4 (June 1983), with her friend standing right beside her!  When leader Caitlin Fairchild temporarily quits, Rainmaker makes an attempt to do the same in Gen13 #12 (August 1996), only to have mentor John Lynch (supposedly this ultra-tough black ops veteran) appoint his own dopey son over the smarter, more mature and combat-skilled Rainmaker in what's obviously a decision based solely on nepotism.  Burnout has shown absolutely zero leadership skills to that point, and kind of a mopey, shrinking-violet personality, while Rainmaker's intelligence is second only to Caitlin's, plus she's much wiser and more self-assured in many ways.  No wonder she reacts unfavorably to Lynch's completely illogical move (although in Lynch's defense, he may be pitting the two against each other in a "survival of the fittest" competition-- although that could also wreck team morale and field effectiveness in the long run as well, so maybe he is an idiot after all).  This also positions Sarah as the Dani-style team rebel.  In the same vein, both characters seem to have an innate talent for combat tactics, as well, with the New Mutants becoming more of a fighting force to be reckoned with under Dani's command, and with Sarah frequently barking out orders of her own during the many confrontations in Gen13.


New Mutants #4: Script by Claremont, art by Bucema and McLeod


Gen13 #12: Script by Choi, Lee and Campbell, art by Michael Lopez and Troy Hubbs (I think) 

5.  Tussles with teammates.  I seem to remember Dani doing this a lot more, but I must be more than a little mixed up and fully conflating her with Sarah at this point.  I'm surprised Dani didn't beat up those two idiots Sam and Bobby two or three times a day with that temper of hers.  Instead, she seemed to take out her aggressions more on inanimate objects.  And despite frequently referencing the martial heritage of her Cheyenne people, she wasn't all that adept at fighting.  Oddly enough, in New Mutants #1 (March 1983), it was Xi'an who first went fisto-a-fisto with Dani-- well, actually, she choked the hell out of Dani and slammer her head against the floor with good reason: Dani had accidentally used her powers to pull images of her Xi'an's violent, tragic past out for all to see.  While the New Mutants had their share of inter-team arguments, it would be more than a year later, in New Mutants #14 (April 1984), before we'd see another instance of Dani-on-friend violence, this time a playful shove into the snow for Roberto DaCosta.  Sarah, on the other hand, goes full on kung fu queen on Bobby Lane after he made a poorly-timed snide remark at her expense during their leadership crisis. It happens in Gen13 #12.


New Mutants #1: Script by Claremont, art by McLeod and Gustovich
New Mutants #14: Script by Claremont, art by Buscema and Mandrake


Gen13 #12: Script by Choi, Lee and Campbell, art by Lopez and Hubbs (I still think)

Okay, now I'm obviously reaching.  But I believe I've made my point-- there are certainly parallels, enough so Sarah Rainmaker became my favorite Gen13er.  What's been fun for me looking for these little moments is contrasting the writing on both series.  While Claremont's dialogue is sometimes stilted and a bit advanced for his characters' ages, his stories and characterizations are nothing if not sincere.  He genuinely cares about his cast and immersing the readers in their world.  Plus he displays the literary chops of a true writer's writer, someone in love with language.  If any of his work here is derivative, it's of real life or novels.  And occasionally movies.

By comparison, the Gen13 characters-- scripted by no less than two writers at a time!-- usually speak casually and naturally (unless there's need for some hard expository dialogue, that is). Actually, their dialogue is almost exclusively made up of then-current catchphrases and youth lingo.  While as individuals they're amusing enough, they're more tongue-in-cheek, broadly-sketched types owing most of their personalities to television shows and other comics (and not just New Mutants).

There are some interesting comic book characters in Gen13, but it would take other writers to flesh them out into real characters, especially under Warren who managed to make the book as smart as it was funny and sexy.  And, oddly enough, that's when the Gen13 finally died.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Part Two: "Kirby’s Unfinished Opera" by Gary Chapin (another guest essay!)

(Here's the second part of Gary Chapin's epic look at Jack Kirby's Fourth epic.  Part one is here.  You're really going to enjoy this!)

Now’s the Time

Mark Evanier, in the closing essay for Volume 3 of the Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, points out the critical reaction to Kirby’s treatment of Deadman. Kirby, said this critic (I paraphrase), clearly did not get the Neal Adams Memo. Graceful lines, art school realism, and noir subtlety “were” the way of “now.” Kirby represented “the past.” Adams and company represented the future. This is a point of view I would have heartily, and stupidly, embraced at the time.  “The future” is not a fixed point, however. And even the present is a bit slippery.  My “now” is different from your “now.” There’s a joke that says, “The golden age of music is 12.” My golden age of Kirby is 45. This is my “now.”

But Then Was Not

After around a year, the wheels came off the bus (or super cycle) of the Fourth World. Sales dipped, and books were canceled. The remarkable achievements that were “The Pact” (New Gods #7) and “Himon” (Mister Miracle #9) and “The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin” (New Gods #8) were not seen as masterpieces at the time.  The combat between Orion and Kalibak in the Turpin story will remind you what sort of glory can be found in a slugfest. 

New Gods #7, March 1972 (Jack Kirby with inks by Mike Royer)
But then it ended. The last issue of the New Gods (“Darkseid and Sons,” #11) was, in fact, brilliant (the run from #7 through the end is worth everyone’s time). The story didn’t end as Kirby wanted it to, but it was a very effective stopping point with a lot of “What?? What just happened???” moments. It was very satisfying. The end of the Forever People was much more of a mess, possibly because their action was always peripheral to the New Genesis/Apokolips story being told in NG and Miracle.  “The Kids” end up stranded on a paradise planet in a faraway dimension when the Pursuer’s lance blows up, “destroying” the Infinity Man. While it technically makes sense, the pretext is as weak as it sounds.

Mister Miracle lasts a bit longer than the other two, but when the Big Story falls away, it becomes a series of one-off monster stories. This didn’t have to be a problem. Kirby spent the ‘50s being the master of one-off monster stories.

New Gods #8, May 1972 (Jack Kirby with inks by Mike Royer)

According to Evanier’s essay, though, Kirby was feeling demoralized and his heart wasn’t quite in it. You only have to notice that one of the stories begins with Miracle and Barda stumbling on a “haunted” house while walking in the woods near their house. Yeah, time for a new direction (which took him to the Demon, Kamandi, et many al., so one can’t entirely complain).

The Problem with Endings

Kirby’s vision from the beginning of the Fourth World was an enclosed story that reached through a number of books and ended in a Fourth World Ragnarok, closing the book on these characters for good. I don’t know how he ever thought that was going to happen. 

New Gods #11, November 1972 (Kirby with inks by Mike Royer)
It seems almost quaint, looking back from the other side of the graphic novel naissance, but in 1972, DC Comics was not going to let Kirby develop amazing properties – which is what he was brought in for – and then have them succumb to irrevocable destruction.

This may have been the one place where Kirby – a man preternaturally in synch with comic book aesthetic – may have had an ambition for something that can never exist in the superhero-comic book medium: an ending. This wasn’t a function of the times Kirby was writing in, but a function of the medium. Just consider the New Gods. We’ve had The Hunger Dogs, Kirby’s own imperfect – but beautiful! – attempt at an ending. We’ve had Death of the New Gods. We’ve had Final Crisis, where Darkseid is “finally” killed. 
Wait, who was that who was featured in the new Justice League 23.1?
To butcher Fitzgerald, “There are no last acts in comic book superhero lives.” Even characters who are never brought back, are constantly being brought up (e.g., Jor-El, Gwen Stacy). I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that while Crisis of This, That, and the Other Thing had all the hallmarks of a Ragnarok, they lacked the one key element:  the end of the world. They weren’t resetting the DC universe, they were resetting the DC stylebook.

DC Graphic Novel #4: The Hunger Dogs, January 1985 (Kirby with inks by D. Bruce Berry)

I think Kirby really wanted the end of the world for his characters. He had the Wagnerian urge. But like so many great creators he was an inventor, not a destroyer. He began things. He began great things. And not a single one of them – not Cap, not the FF, not the New Gods – has ended. And even if they fall into a space where they seem to have ended – books get cancelled – there is always a new issue coming down the line.

But this is not the problem with endings. The problem with endings is that our experience of the work is shaped by “how things turn out.” Forget how things turned out. These are astonishingly rich stories, executed to a ridiculously high degree; the creation of a visual aesthetic that’s analogous to Tolkien’s linguistic aesthetic. This will always be true, no matter how things turn out. Kirby could not achieve his operatic ambition, but that’s irrelevant. I love these books.

Gary Chapin usually blogs about French accordion music over at

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fantastic Four Annual #3: Stan and Jack can't catch a break

I've always felt ambivalent about annuals.  The best are the ones where the regular creatives use the extra room to tell an epic story that's either too large an idea for an ordinary issue or else climaxes a storyline, or someone you've wanted to see handle the characters shows up to write or draw the book.  The worst are when some ill-suited guest team butts in with crap that's essentially filler or else it's simply part of a storyline from some other book.  Back in the 1960s, the gang at Marvel really knew how to put together an annual, although Fantastic Four Annual #3 (October 1965) consists of a regular-length story and some "most requested" reprints.  It's just the main story is nothing less than the long-awaited wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm.

And lemme tell ya, brothers and sisters, everyone who is everyone shows up and it is fun, fun, fun from panel one!  Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Dr. Strange and all the X-Men, plus Patsy and Hedy, (at least rumor has it) Millie the Model and possibly Irving Forbush headline a stellar guest list, with Nick Fury and SHIELD providing security.  The only problem is, with such a major event there are bound to be crashers.  The Puppet Master, the Red Ghost and his apes, Mole Man and the Super-Skrull all cause problems, because Dr. Doom himself has some kind of crazy emotion ray controlling their minds.

The heroes prove capable of handling the initial wave, but more and more villains attack so we get the like of the Mandarin and Hydra plus a lot of other clowns whose names escape me barging in and smashing up the place (kind of like Owen Wilson's mescaline-addled Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums only without the death of a single Buckley), giving Fury a raging headache.  When Attuma and his Atlantean armies emerge from the harbor (Doom meant to call Namor, but the King himself was on some deeper quest according to Stan Lee's little editor's note; he also tells us why the Hulk isn't there) and Richards puzzles out what's behind it all, even the Watcher has to take a hand.  He takes Richards on a dazzling yet possibly superfluous trip through the "fourth dimension" (isn't that time?) to retrieve a device that beams all the baddies backwards in time to a moment where they would forget the whole thing happened.

Kirby uses one of his patented collages to depict the dimensional trip and we have to take a moment to gaze upon its wonders.

And here's that aforementioned device in action.

My god, Reed Richards is so smart, he could tell just by looking at it what it is and what it's used for!  I'm looking at it and all I can think is maybe I could use it to project transparencies onto some kind of fabric screen or perhaps even the wall itself as a visual aid for one of my classes.

This panel sums up the whole of the rather jangled plot, which is almost entirely given over to fight scenes, as you can imagine.  Kirby's on fire with some incredibly energetic poses as he presents practically an encyclopedia of Marvel's contemporaneous characters and we get a lot of villainous monologues and heroic wise-cracks from Lee.  Vince Colletta's inks are typically scratchy and rushed-looking, but I also recognize the herculean task faced by the art team here in working with this many characters on deadline.  They're serviceable finishes and a few odd figures and faces actually have a becoming elegance (others look kinda haphazardly slapped together), but certainly this book would have looked slicker with Chic Stone doing the honors, or Joe Sinnott.  Then again, Reed and Sue might have had to delay their ceremony another year or two waiting for this issue.

Another thing to consider is we're looking at restored art here.  I'm not sure what process Marvel puts their back catalog through to produce these color reprints, but I doubt they used the original inked pages or old separations (if any of that still exists).  I'm guessing they cleaned up some stats or decent-quality printed books as best they could,  retouched things here and there but said, "Eh, good enough" at the loss of finer lines after the digital coloring.  And these lines look like they were thin enough to begin with.

On with the wedding!  Here comes the--

Stop the music!  Stop the music!  Hold the sub-atronic time displacer!  What's this?  Two more wedding crashers?

In the immortal words of a certain bashful, blue-eyed boy, "Wotta revoltin' development!"

Monday, November 4, 2013

Nick Cardy 1920-2013

I'm really into Nick Cardy's art.  He's one of those "I wish I drew like him" guys.  He turned pro as a teen, served in WWII, came home to the US and went back to drawing.  I haven't read any of his Aquaman books, but his Teen Titans work has made that one of my all-time favorite books and propelled him into the top tier of my comic art pantheon.  It's a joy to look at Cardy's Titans, either in color on Comixology or in B&W in one of the two Showcase Presents volumes.

Cardy could draw anything.  Giant conquistador statues walking around, jalopies, hot rods, "Big Daddy" Ed Roth, the Tokyo Olympics, go-go dancers, teenaged cavepeople, outer space, you name it.  His Teen Titans issues are just full of that elusive element we call "appeal."  There's something bright and optimistic about it and if you spend an afternoon immersed in Cardy's Teen Titans art (and digging on Bob Haney's wild and woolly socially-aware plots), it will lift your mood.

Cardy excelled at facial expressions (there's a lot of Norman Rockwell in his work at times), bodies in motion and this characteristic style of ink feathering that's loose sometimes to the point of being curvilinear zig-zags that follow the exterior contour lines at times and at others are parallel to them (see this the cover to Teen Titans #5 right here), or diagonal to them or almost perpendicular.  However Cardy did it, these touches create a distinct sense of roundness-- as if the curved surfaces of a body are falling away into shadow-- that's unique to Cardy's work.  Sometimes he'd do just a series of diagonal single hatch mark lines, but I've never seen anyone else do the zig-zag thing as successfully as Cardy.  Whenever I see that, I'm pretty sure I'm looking at Nick Cardy art, self-inked or on someone else's pencils.  Sometimes tight, sometimes loose, always beautiful.

And then there are all those covers.  What a sense of drama and design!  And masterful control of eye movement.  Teen Titans #5 (October 1966, by the way), the two foreground figures swing at you on that wrecking ball thanks to the sweet tilting action and then you go from the logo to the Ant's head, then follow the arc of movement down his leg to Robin's face, which points us as the background element of his teammates as they watch in dismay.  Robin's going to die!  An entire story in one image.  No wonder he moved on to doing movie ad work.

Nick Cardy drew the sunniest, sassiest Wonder Girl, too.

Teen Titans #5 (October 1966), Writer: Bob Haney/Pencils and Inks: Nick Cardy

Anyway, thanks for making comics a lot more fun, Nick Cardy.  You will be missed.

Friday, November 1, 2013

When Comic Books Ruled the Earth News!

Hello, loyal reader.  We've had a lot of fun looking at horror comics and superhero comics sort of peripherally related to Halloween, but I'm exhausted from all this blogging stuff.  Not only that, I'm blogging about comics more than I'm reading comics, which means I've got a huge backlog of books to read.  Oh, and there's this whole marriage thing and my actual day job.  And my own art to create.  So I'm cutting back on posts here.  There may be entire months where you won't hear so much as a peep.


Yeah, I know, what will the Russian porn spam sites link to from now on, and where will the robot advertisers go to annoy me with their fake "This blog contains good information/I will read it often/  Now here are some leather jackets for sale in Hong Kong" comments?  Don't worry.  I'm sure they'll all land on their feet.

What does this mean to you, the reader of this blog?  Well, not a whole lot.  I'm going to try to post something of interest or value once a week, unless I'm really inspired and energized by a topic to run off a whole bunch of posts.  Don't really count on that, though.  I want to get back to relaxing and enjoying comics so I generate the enthusiasm necessary for writing about them.  There's Gary Chapin's spectacular second part to his musical-themed overview of Jack Kirby's Fourth World still to come, and believe me, you want to read that!

Please stick around for Gary's essay and some fun stuff about Jack Kirby, Dani Moonstar, Lonnie Loomis, the Micronauts and the Teen Titans to come!  Just not all at once.  At least not until next year's Spookey Month!

October is Spookey Month: Swamp Thing fights male and female werewolves!

To end our month-long celebration of Halloween, horror comics and all-girl Japanese pop punkers Spookey, here are a couple of stories where Swamp Thing fights that old school monster favorite, the werewolf.  Male and female varieties.

The first one, Swamp Thing #4 (May 1973) is by Len Wein and  Bernie Wrightson.  They lean on the familiar Universal Studios style, setting their tale in the Scottish moors and within a creepy old mansion.  Their werewolf is the tragically cursed son of some very worried parents.  They're in luck when Matt Cable and Abby Arcane crashland their plane close to their ancestral home, but definitely unlucky in that Swamp Thing is also on board.  This means their plans to use Cable's blood to cure their boy of his lycanthropy (and give it to Cable; but isn't this what any concerned parents would do for their child?) is doomed from the start.

While the werewolf on the cover looks more like a satyr to me, inside the comic itself Wrightson uses heavy black silhouetting for its first appearance, which gives his beastie a very Frazetta-ian touch, almost amorphous in the night fog.  It's very reminiscent in its first appearance of Frank Frazetta's aptly-titled "Werewolf!" from Creepy #1 (1964).  Kind of impressionistic.  Shoot, why am I telling you all this when I can just shut my fool mouth and show you?  Here:

There is nothing not to like about this comic and its classical approach. 

But what a difference a decade makes!   We hear a lot of talk about the "curse of the werewolf," and writer Alan Moore and his merry art crew of Steve Bissette and John Totleben set out to explore what this means both literally and metaphorically-- because there's also this other monthly thing sometimes referred to as a curse.

In Swamp Thing #40 (September 1985), Brit Moore unspools an episode in "American Gothic," an extended story arc where Swamp Thing battles traditional horror creatures suffused darker elements of the United States' national narrative-- the unintended consequences of progress, the preponderance of gun violence, the genocide of Native Americans and the lingering effects of slavery and the Civil War.  This time, perennial fan favorite character John Constantine pits Swamp Thing against something more personal-- the perpetual state of war between the genders, specifically the daily battles waged by a typically American suburban couple.

As with the Len Wein-Bernie Wrightson werewolf tale, "The Curse" is very concerned with blood.  It's just Moore is interested in a deeper exploration of this sanguine symbolism.  Our werewolf this time is a modern woman so empathetic to the anger and resentment felt by long-ago Pennamaquot tribeswomen sequestered in a special lodge (she and her husband live in a house built on the site) while they menstruate she turns into a massive wolf creature and goes on a rampage.  Male privilege has finally loosed a beast, and after a brief fight, Swamp Thing comes to as much of an understanding of the woman's plight as a male-gendered plant elemental can.

Tragically, our tragic werewolf is a stand-in for all of womankind, so she learns there's another aspect to this blood curse-- women are bound by it to men and vice versa.  As a result, she cannot bring herself to kill her husband (even though she contemptuously notes he's "soiled himself" from fear).  Giving in completely to her primal, savage anger, she crashes through the front window of a pornography shop where a customer has just asked the cashier to show him something he euphemistically refers to as more "unusual."  Perhaps as a matter of tastefulness, we aren't permitted to see the resulting carnage.  In the end, Swamp Thing cannot offer succor and the werewolf impales herself on the knives in a supermarket display, ironically labeled, "Here's good news for housewives!"  The supermarket setting itself represents the sterilizing effect consumerism has on our lives and its place in the continuing subjugation of female power, having been referenced satirically in the same vein by Ira Levin's 1972 novel The Stepford Wives and its 1975 film adaptation.

And with our tale of two lycanthropes, we bring this year's Spookey Month to a close!