Friday, January 24, 2014

Kirby's Kustoms! A selection of Jack Kirby's creative conveyances...

Jack Kirby created so many wonderful characters in his long career, but he also came up with all sorts of wild contraptions to get those characters to and from their adventures.  Your typical Kirby vehicle is somewhat outlandish, certainly futuristic, but also surprisingly plausible at a glance, as if he generated detailed plans before inserting them into his stories.  You're likely to find jet fans, air intakes and plexiglass cockpits along with all kinds of valves and pipes.  A Kirby vehicle is as instantly recognizable as one of his muscular, almost steel-like heroes.

Let's start with a one of his first from the fabled Fantastic Four comic.  Whatever happened to that?  Are they still publishing it?  Anyway, here we go--

Fantastic Four #3 (March 1962), inks by Dick Ayers

The Fantasti-Car!  The Fantasti-Car debuts in Fantastic Four #3 (March 1962), which also saw the adventuresome quartet donning their blue costumes for the first time.  Like those plain but functional-appearing duds, the Fantasti-Car is a simple design, just a tub with headlights for safety and what appear to be four fans underneath for generating lift.  I'm not sure how Reed Richards controls pitch and yaw or generates forward thrust in this version of the Fantasti-Car, but I'm sure Kirby could have explained it if I'd been around in 1962 to ask him.  Unfortunately, this isn't the most visually impressive design, and I'm guessing Kirby must have been a little dissatisfied with it, because about a year later, the Fantastic Four upgrade to a hotter version.

Fantastic Four #12 (March 1963), words by Stan Lee, inks by Dick Ayers

Yeah!  That's more like it!  The Fantasti-Car, Mark II made its debut in Fantastic Four #12 (March 1963).  This one has aerodynamic styling and possibly a much greater range.  Ignore Ben Grimm's little griping remark.  Some people just aren't pleased with anything.  The Fantastic Four use this Fantasti-Car to travel cross-country and take on the Hulk.  But what about ocean-hopping, when the team needs to cross hemispheres, date lines and other such geographic demarcations?

That's where this baby comes in--

Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963),  words by Lee, inks by George Roussos

The Pogo Plane.  The Pogo Plane previously appeared in issue #3, but it really gets to strut its strato-stuff here as the FF prepare to face the Hate-Monger in Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963).  Kirby gives this aircraft a state-of-the-art appearance (at least for the 1960s), like something the USAF or NASA might have been toying around with in the early days of space exploration.  The X-51 or  the Lifting Body.  Man In Space Soonest.  The Flying Flapjack.  The Apollo Applications Program.  Somebody stop me or I'll go on forever.  I love aviation history!

This could be a wild, right-off-the-drawing-board design lifted from a Popular Mechanics article of the time.  It's got huge stabilizing fins and even flaps.  Plus it's a tail-landing VTOL aircraft.  That's "vertical take-off and landing," to you and me, Russ.  I'm no aeronautical engineer, but Reed Richards has that skill set among his many, and you can imagine he saw this one through from the initial design phase to wind-tunnel testing with a scale model to prototype production to flight test with none other than Ben Grimm at the controls.

Now that we're on the topic of his piloting skills, here's a little Ben Grimm-related aside-- Ben generally plays the fool with his gruff street-style patois, but he's actually vastly intelligent himself, the kind of guy who would have made the Mercury Seven if he'd actually existed.  Ben was a highly-regarded test pilot with a fighter background before he became a superheroic freak, which means he's got quite the expertise in engineering.  Tom Wolfe in his book The Right Stuff describes how Ben's closest real-world analog Chuck Yeager (no mean engineer himself) influenced not only aviation history but also how pilots of the era spoke-- I don't know if it's true or not, but Wolfe makes a hilarious and compelling case for airline pilots of the time doing their cockpit announcements in pseudo-West Virginia drawls in imitation of the man at flying's apex.  I can imagine in the Marvel world the same thing happening, only with pilots shouting, "It's clobberin' time!" when pushing the outside of that o' envelope, or making reference to their Aunt Petunias in put-on Brooklyn accents. 

If not for that fateful rocket flight...

Coming up next is a stripped-down sport model--

Fantastic Four #45 (December 1965),  words by Lee, inks by Joe Sinnott

The Airjet-Cycle.  This one has neat nozzles and tanks, but it's mostly just pipes and doesn't really look capable of lifting Reed alone, much less Ben and Sue as well.  Not the most practical of earthly designs, although it looks like something NASA might have considered for lunar mobility.  Leaves the passengers kind of exposed and vulnerable, too-- I love the look of sheer embarrassment on the Thing's ever-lovin', blue-eyed face as he holds on for his very life.   The Airjet-Cycle probably comes in handy for jetting to the supermarket, or getting little Franklin to school when he misses the bus.  Not as spectacular as either the Fantasti-Car or the Pogo Plane, the Airjet-Cycle nevertheless makes further appearances in Fantastic Four #46 (January 1966), #48 (March 1966) and #57 (December 1966), to name three.  The Avengers also use a version.  You can look it up.  I did!

And now--

Fantastic Four #50 (May 1966), words by Lee, inks by Sinnott

Oops!  A ringer!  Don't ever think Jack Kirby couldn't bring things down to earth (relatively speaking-- Johnny's got one unearthly ride there) and draw realistic cars.  This one reminds me of the classic 1967 film The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols.  Dustin Hoffman actually drives a 1966 Alfa Romeo Spider 1600 "Duetto" in that movie, but Johnny Storm here has a 1966 Triumph GT6.  Yeah, a Spitfire might have been more appropriate for the Human Torch, but Triumph introduced the GT6 the year Marvel published Fantastic Four #50 (May 1966), so leave it to Johnny to pick up the latest thing in sports cars.  Maybe he's auditioning for a part in The Undergraduate.

Let's leave behind the fast and the furious for the slow and reliable--

Kamandi #1 (November 1972), words by Jack Kirby, inks by Mike Royer

We're also ditching one comic company for another.  Just as Kirby and family left New York for California and Marvel for DC, in the first issue of his eponymous book (November 1972), Kamandi leaves his bunker home in this utilitarian military contraption with a very interesting outboard wheel arrangement.  They're heavy duty wheels, too.  Probably made of some kind of metal or composite alloy for years of wear.  Shovels clamped to the side, weatherproof tarp over the back.  This is a very appropriate get-about for Kamandi, and just the kind of thing you'd expect to find at a former military outpost.

Even after the Great Disaster, off-roading offers thrills and spectacle.  Witness--

Kamandi #6 (June 1973), words by Kirby, inks by Royer

As you can see, Kirby anticipated the ATV craze.  For a while there in south Georgia, you couldn't take a drive without a three- or four-wheeler loaded with people in camouflage barreling out in front of your car from a side road or a trailer park entrance.  In fact, you still can't.  They're a menace, I tell you, and in this panel from Kamandi #6 (June 1973), you can see why.  Kamandi and his tragic girlfriend Flower have found yet another hard-working cargo carrier to explore the world, but suddenly they're capsized by a gang of three-wheeling lions!  They're huge, too.  Look how they dwarf Kamandi and Flower in their little cart.  These hot-doggin' felines think they own the dunes.  They're wrong.

Because there's one vehicle that's gonna shut 'em down, just like that little Cobra from a long ago Rip Chords song--

Jimmy Olsen #133 (October 1970), words by Kirby, inks by Vince Colletta

The best is last, but not for long!  In this spectacular image from Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (October 1970), we first greet the Whiz Wagon, custom-built by the Newsboy Legion just in time to explore the Wild Area with a certain cub reporter.  Or photographer.  Whatever the hell job it was Olsen did when he wasn't driving Perry White to distraction.  Look at the rear spoiler and those crazy intake pipes.  Is that a hint of a jet turbine beneath them?  Looking like the love child of the second Fantasti-Car and Speed Racer's fabulous Mach 5 by way of a maternity ward in the deepest, darkest, most top secret ward of Area 51, there's almost nothing the Whiz Wagon can't do.  The Newsboy Legion uses it to roar down the highway, chase after the Mountain of Judgment with the Hairies from the Habitat, fly, even travel underwater.  This is the ultimate in Kirby vehicle design. 

The Whiz Wagon by itself is an amazing visual, but Kirby doesn't simply fill two pages with a car and call it a day.  He loads this spread with details to help you believe in this phantasmagorical creation.  There's the spare tire with Newsboy Gabby perched on it (where do they buy those?), Flipper-Dipper and the forward cargo-hatch, plus tools galore and even some kind of liquid draining away in the background.  Hydraulic fluid?  Oil?  Tears from other artists who saw this and realized they'd never create anything even half so cool?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Steve Rude announces the end of Nexus

That's tough news to take, but every story has to end sometime.  According to the latest Steve Rude newsletter, jauntily titled "Old Year, New Year, Easy on the Cold Beer-- It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," when Rude and writer Mike Baron finish the Nexus story currently running in Dark Horse Presents, they will "suspend things for now."  Or, as Rude writes, "[We feel] our finest work is yet to come, as represented with the upcoming climax of the Nexus/Clayborn saga in Dark Horse Presents comics."

Baron will continue writing novels, and Rude will do some mysterious project for DC West, then jump back into his personal, creator-owned properties with the return of The Moth.  You may remember a certain 5-issue miniseries Rude worked up with Gary Martin a while back for Dark Horse.  I liked it a lot.  The circus setting, the diverse cast of characters, the old-fashioned heroic virtues on display and all that kind of thing.  Right in my comics-enjoying wheelhouse, as it were.  This won't be self-published; it's coming out under the Flesk Publications banner.

So here comes the end of about thirty years of exciting and provocative space adventuring.  I'm not sure what more Baron and Rude could have done with Nexus and Sundra.  Nexus has quit being Nexus, come back again, killed more mass murderers than any handful of Wolverines, Ursula X. X. Imada met her long-fated demise, other characters have died and lived and aged, and now there's a newborn child in the mix.  While I don't know how Baron and Rude will leave their little family and cast of thousands, I have a feeling there will be a fitting valediction that will leave us satisfied.

And yet still wanting more.

At least they have the opportunity to conclude Nexus where they want, unlike with "Nightmare in Blue" where economic factors forced them to leave things kind of hanging.  That was truly heartbreaking in a way this latest announcement isn't.  I wanted to weep at the time.  Similar causes seem to have crashed Rude's attempt at self-publishing, too.  Hey, I forget that story and it's too cold here to spend a lot of time looking it up.  You probably know more about it than I do.  We Nexus fans were definitely lucky Mike Richardson at Dark Horse acted the way I wish all comics publishers did: making sure Baron and Rude got their character and story rights back, then giving them a place to tell more Nexus stories when they felt it was time.

One thing I really regret about this is, they had just introduced long-anticipated character Origami into the storyline.  I don't think the character is exactly as they intended.  My guess is they took the concept and folded (ha ha, aren't I clever) it into the Nexus universe just to make sure the name and costume didn't go to waste.  I would love for them to revisit her sometime.  Or someone under their supervision!  It's hard to resist a character whose catchphrase is, "I like to fold things" as she zips away from the mayhem she's caused.

Well, I'm looking forward to more Baron and Rude.  And The Moth!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

How did Josie and the Pussycats get on Saturday morning TV anyway?

Philosophical minds have been asking this question for years.  As if to finally answer them, Archie Comics pulled some stories out of their archives for a Best of Josie and the Pussycats collection and thoughtfully included the story "Quiet on the Set" from Josie and the Pussycats #50 (September 1970), written by Dick Malmgren and illustrated by ace Josie artist-creator Dan DeCarlo and inker Rudy Lapick.  An example of cross-promotion, this story shows the band making a visit to Hanna and Barbera studios where they're caricatured and animated in time for their September 12, 1970 debut on CBS television.  Which I probably watched, despite being all of two years old.  Something hooked me on it, anyway.

Perhaps it was the basic idea of the Pussycats tooling around in their Chevy van improvising songs on whatever event they're currently involved in and accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars, so in tune with each other's creativity they can even do it in three-part harmony!

Josie and the Pussycats #50 (September 1970), script by Dick Malmgren, art by Dan DeCarlo and Rudy Lapick

Top that, Archies.  In fact, top that, Beatles!

The band arrives at Hanna-Barbera and none other than Joseph Barbera and William Hanna (charmingly caricatured by DeCarlo and Lapick) turn out to greet them on the homey front step.  I'm not sure who these two guys are or what their relation to the animation studio might have been, but they look very friendly.  Dapper dressers, too.  They must have been fairly important if we're to judge by the Pussycats' impressed reactions.  Generation gap be damned-- the kids take to the two smiling older gentlemen right away.  In fact, it's a mutual admiration society.  But something's amiss, as William Hanna observes.

Script by Malmgren, art by DeCarlo and Lapick

No way!  Josie, Valerie, Melody, Alan.  That's everyone!  Who could they have left out?

She's Josie #1 (September 1970), script by Frank Doyle, art by Dan DeCarlo and Rudy Lapick

Actually, missing are those squabbling siblings, Alex and Alexandra Cabot.  They show up in a sweet limousine.  Alexandra proceeds to sweep into the studio as if she's Elizabeth Taylor and starts dropping advice to all the artists and animators on how she should be depicted in the series. 

Script by Malmgren, art by DeCarlo and Lapick

And Valerie's looking back at us as if to say, "Isn't this the most?" 

The two Hanna-Barbera employees here are Ken Spears (inexplicably referred to here as "Bill") and Joe Ruby.  From what I can gather, they were writers and story editors, but the comic shows them happily working together in the storyboard department.  Barbera's description of their duties is informative and vague at the same time.

Ruby and Spears, like Hanna and Barbera, are real people, as are many of the unnamed employees throughout this story, each of whom DeCarlo has obviously caricatured from life.  Ruby and Spears are the only two important enough for the story to name, and would later create Jabberjaw for the studio.  While it's a mistake to discount the magnetic qualities of its titular character, a talking shark gifted with Curly Howard's comedic persona, 70s kids with discerning Saturday morning cartoon tastes considered that show little more than a store-brand version of Josie and the Pussycats, delicious in its own way but suffering by comparison to its fantabulous inspiration, in much the same manner as Publix Super Markets' Magic Stars cereal versus General Mills' fresher-tasting Lucky Charms.

Simply appearing in a Josie and the Pussycats comic is enough for me to nominate the duo for immortality, but a few years after that, the Ruby-Spears team would found an animation studio of their own.  There they would co-produce The Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour with former employers Hanna-Barbera, then famously team artists Alex Toth and Jack Kirby on Thundarr the Barbarian to the delight of Steve Gerber fans everywhere.  Along with their production of the revived Alvin and the Chipmunks series, It's Punky Brewster and a personal favorite of mine, Mister T (I conflated it with Marvel's The New Mutants comic), Ruby and Spears contributed the bulk of my childhood/early teen weekend entertainment that didn't involve reading about stars and wars, drawing stars and wars, or dropping quarters into video game machines and participating in stars and wars.

Back in our story, Alexandra's repeated self-aggrandizement leads only to humiliation for her animated counterpart as the Hanna-Barbera artists somehow manage to design, write, storyboard, animate, film, develop, loop, edit and print (or whatever order they do that in) for a short sequence in which she gets hit in the face with a pie during the band's visit.  Pretty fast turnaround, and it brings to mind the classic line, "Very few cartoons are broadcast live.  It's a terrible strain on the artists' wrists," from the classic eighth season The Simpsons episode, "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show" (February 9, 1997).  At first angry, but then acquiescing to the joke like the good sport she secretly is (possibly), Alexandra accompanies Hanna and Barbera to an impromptu concert put on by the Pussycats, who have changed into their famous feline-themed performance attire for the occasion.

Script by Malmgren, art by DeCarlo and Lapick

A happy ending.  The original Josie and the Pussycats TV cartoon ran for sixteen episodes during the 1970-71 TV season, then mutated into Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space for another sixteen the following year.  They beat musical rivals the Partridge Family there by two hundred years.  And there you have it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kitty Pryde and Wolverine #1 (November 1984): Bad News Mutants Go (Back) to Japan!

When I was a much younger comic book fan Japan was mostly just that place Speed Racer and Pink Lady came from.  Then at some point, I must have gone insane because I moved there to start a new life and go to Melt-Banana shows whenever I damn well feel like it.  While it's not nearly as exciting a place as Pink Lady and Jeff would have you believe, Japan is still a pretty cool place to live.  I've had a lot of misconceptions corrected since I was a young comic book reader living in south Georgia, and I've probably formed more than a few new ones now that I'm an old comic book reader living in south Shizuoka.  This is why I love taking a look at American comics depicting my adopted home.

Marvel Japan!  I can't know for certain (since I wasn't working for them), but I get the feeling Japan was Marvel's go-to country for remaking characters back in the 1980s.  In their classic and influential 1982 Wolverine mini-series, Chris Claremont and Frank Miller sent Wolverine there, tore him apart, put him back together again and cemented his place as one of Marvel's top draws.  Along the way, they created a fabulous fantasy Japan (we've discussed this already), where the high-tech marvels of modern Tokyo form a backdrop for a lot of pseudo-mystical martial arts tough guy nonsense.  In the Marvel Japan Claremont and Miller invoked you could still encounter hordes of ninja and stoic old people still living the ways of bushido in their ancestral castles.  It's silly, but it's the best kind of silly.  I dug it, you dug it, lots of people dug it, so much so this story recently formed the basis for The Wolverine (in Japan it's called Wolverine: Samurai) starring Hugh Jackman.

In Kitty Pryde and Wolverine (November 1984-April 1985), it's Kitty Pryde's turn to visit Japan and experience life-changing events.  And you couldn't ask for a better protagonist, or one more in need of a fresh start than 1984 Kitty Pryde.  Lovingly written here by Claremont, our heartbroken yet smart'n'spunky (TM) Kitty is plenty interesting on her own to have headlined a two or three issue romp through 1980s-era Tokyo, capital of a country then enjoying a huge resurgence in economic prowess, self-confidence and cultural energy-- Shinjinrui!  Visual kei!  Para Para!  With New Wave artists already appropriating its looks and imagery, Japan's youth culture stood poised to conquer the pop culture world, and this could have provided plenty of material without anyone resorting to martial arts clichés.  Instead, in the second issue, Wolverine muscles his hairy way into the plot and the series becomes a deadly serious remake of his solo story, only with Kitty fighting ninja and yakuza for redemption.  Those aspects just don't provide the same kick or appeal the second time around. 

But rather than shoot my figurative BB gun at a comic for not doing what I want it to do, I'd rather focus a positive spotlight on the way-cool first issue, which has Kitty lost in translation all by herself, desperately in over her head.  So let's take a long, loving look at Kitty Pryde and Wolverine #1.  How do Claremont and artist Al Milgrom depict Japan?  Is it believable?  Does it make a reader feel as if he or she has been there?  That's what you're asking me right now, isn't it? 

No?  Well, okay!  I'll tell you anyway!

First, there's the trip journey itself.  To get to Tokyo, Kitty stows aboard a JAL flight from Chicago, and I can promise you there absolutely is such a flight, known as JAL Flight 9.  These days, the aircraft flying the route is a Boeing 777-300ER, but Kitty hops a 747-400 (I think).  That's the same plane I took, only I didn't phase onto it through the cargo bay.  I had a ticket, so my arrival at Narita Airport was a lot smoother (and drunker, thanks to JAL's liberal free drinks policy at the time) than Kitty's.  Not having my good luck, Kitty then spends a page or so escaping Narita.  Today's Narita doesn't look much like the one Milgrom draws, but I first visited it some twenty years after Kitty, so it probably underwent a renovation or two in the interim.  Oh, there's a funny bit where Kitty phases onto a bus and accidentally slaps a salaryman on the ass as she solidifies.  Today we're more likely to get to Tokyo proper by way of the Narita Express, because Narita is actually way out in the rice fields of rural Chiba prefecture, a fair distance from the urban neighborhoods the where the rest of the story takes place.

Now we come to the meat of this post:  Tokyo.  Godzilla's Stomping Ground.  Where the Bears played the Japanese Little League champs.  Kitty visits Tokyo in winter and let me tell you-- Japanese winters are cold!  Cold and windy!  Because her trip is on the spur of the moment with no time to pack or dress more appropriately, Kitty's skater costume is cute but hardly practical for running around outdoors here.  And to top it off, she gets soaked by the rain.

Script by Chris Claremont, art by Al Milgrom

Claremont's Kitty may be impulsive at times due to her youth and naiveté, but she's also a thinker.  During this sequence, she's sizing up her situation after receiving a pretty heavy duty system shock and already figuring out not only has she made a sizable error in judgment trying to help her dad, she'll also be lucky just to stay out of jail herself.  Then the weather takes a dump on her, too.  It actually rains a lot in Japan (while Kitty can't because she lacks money, less desperate visitors should buy a cheap umbrella at a convenience store; the wind's just going to destroy an expensive one anyway), so this vaguely Blade Runner-esque cityscape looks pretty accurate.  Milgrom inks his pencils with a bold, energetic line and spends more time on the rain shower than the surroundings, but those squiggly blacks Kitty's running across are reasonable visual shorthand for the wet streets and reflective lighting of a rainy Tokyo evening.  The vertical signage creates a convincing Tokyo look as well.

In the next sequence, the rain lets up a little so Milgrom shows us more of the city.

Claremont, Milgrom

It looks as though Milgrom uses some paste-up lettering here, possibly clipped from Japanese newspapers or magazines, or even actual photos of Tokyo.  That's a smart idea.  All that lettering would have been a pain for either him or the book's letterer to recreate, and they would have had to hire a translator to make sure they weren't just slapping down squiggles and squares or accidentally writing something rude.  Plus, Japanese comic book artists sometimes paste up entire pre-drawn backgrounds from special manga-tool artbooks, or use half-tone photographs.  Milgrom does the last, too, but I forgot to capture a screen image of it so you'll just have to take my word here.

Milgrom's version of a Japanese ATM is fun.  Since it's the 1980s, Kitty can't quite decide what to call it.  "Compu-teller," huh?  Now you find ATMs all over the place in Japan-- in banks, post offices, malls and convenience stores.  Inconveniently, some of them are not open 24 hours so sometimes you have to be prepared to wait until business hours the next day to withdraw money.  Imagine Kitty's dilemma here when she needs cash, it's after hours... and she doesn't have an ATM card or even a bank account.

Don't do it, Kitty!  Don't steal that money!  Not only is it illegal, but it's also not worth the guilty feelings and depression!

Milgrom waits until almost the end of the issue to give us a widescreen Tokyo cityscape.

Claremont, Milgrom

Ah!  The "Rising Sun" motif!  How Buckaroo Banzai, baby!  Now we really know we're in 1980s Japan.  Milgrom enjoyed this effect so much he used it again in the fourth issue, rising behind a Japanese castle.  After a spectacular overview of the big city, Milgrom zooms in on a neighborhood, finding a sick and miserable Kitty huddles in a doorway.  And she hasn't even hit bottom yet.  Kitty's back alley/sidestreet hideaway in the second panel tier looks reasonable to me.  Granted I spend most of my time in the hip, upscale districts hobnobbing with trendsetting fashionistas like Chiaki Kuriyama and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, but I've occasionally glanced at just these kinds of lowly city spaces as we've swept by in our motorcycle-escorted limousine motorcades.  That pay phone looks pretty generic, but a phone is a phone, I guess.

"I can't stop shaking.  I doubt I'll ever be warm again."  I get the feeling Chris Claremont visited Japan himself some winter prior to writing this.  Anyway, welcome to a country where few buildings feature insulation or central heating even now.  Think how rare that must have been almost thirty years ago when Kitty came.  These days, I pile on the layers starting with Uniqlo Heat-Tech and ending with a quilted hanten, and my wife and I run an electric heater in the mornings when we get up.  I still shiver all winter.  And Kitty spent the night outdoors with only her wet skater dress and some tights to protect her.  She also swam through a sewer pipe a few hours before.  No wonder she's in no mood to enjoy the sunrise.

The rest of the mini-series stages fights inside office buildings or on rooftops (Tokyo Tower makes a background appearance as Wolverine's friend and sometimes lover Yukio dangles an unfortunate oaf over the distant street) and martial arts training sessions at secluded castles right out of Akira Kurosawa flicks.  Claremont and Milgrom score high marks on the Japan scene-setting throughout, and while I wish they had kept things Kitty-centric and lighthearted, at least she comes out of it with a spiffy new costume (a softer version of a leather outfit she wears as part of a disguise later in the story), some boss fighting skills and a grown-up codename:  Shadowcat.

She does get an ugly New Wave haircut, though.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Whatever happened to Josie's friend Pepper?

We've long neglected Archie Comics here and that's a huge mistake on my part.  When I was a kid, an Archie digest was a comic book bargain.  Double Digest, however, was priced out of my range.  Sure, Archies, as we called them, rarely featured superheroics (my friends and I considered cosmic crimefighting more boy-appropriate comic book subject matter than the slapstick romantic shenanigans experienced by the Riverdale bunch), but for comic-loving kids on a budget, the various Archie digests consistently provided a two or three day reading adventure full of fun and humor, and you'd return to them time and again to repeat the experience. 

They were perfect for rainy days during beach trips or keeping my imagination occupied during my oldest brother's weekend baseball tournaments, which meant getting up before sunrise, six-hour car rides, broiling days at ballparks and nights with the entire family crowded into a single motel room.  As the youngest in the family, I had no choice in the matter so I, too, became a baseball migrant.  Archie Andrews and his gang, with an occasional appearance by their friend Sabrina, the Teen-Aged Witch, helped me survive those summers.

Archie was a pal, Sabrina an acquaintance... but Josie and her band were something else entirely.  They were a personal phenomenon.  While I enjoyed the ever-popular boy redhead who provided a name for their publishing company, I was an even bigger Josie and the Pussycats fanatic back then.  I was completely in love with Josie, Melody and Valerie.  There was something more appealing about Josie and her musical adventures, some quality that really captivated me above and beyond either Sabrina's witchcraft or Archie's misadventures.

I'm referring to the TV cartoon here.  Because the tragic thing is, I don't think I ever dared step outside of gender-segregated reading to own a single issue of anything with Josie's name on the cover.  I watched the TV show every Saturday we were home, but I was too insecure about my gender expression as a sports-averse artsy-fartsy kid to dare buying the actual comic.  Therefore, despite how important the television series was to my early childhood and how influential, my present knowledge of Josie's backstory and her cast of characters is sadly lacking. 

I can sing the hell out of the show's theme song, though!

Well, times have changed, and help is here because Archie Comics just released She's Josie, an all-digital 100-page collection of Josie stories before the rock-and-roll storyline made the character a childhood sensation.  At $3.99, just like its supermarket check-out line dwelling ancestors, it also provides some major entertainment bang for buck, especially compared to the similarly-priced new superhero angst that takes about five minutes to read being put out by a couple of larger companies I could name.

And there's no denying the power of that black and white checked minidress and stacked boots outfit Josie's sporting on the cover.  That is some full-blown 1960s fashionista magic.  The outfits inside are all pretty spectacular, too, and they should be since they're largely drawn by the masterful Dan DeCarlo.

She's Josie #1 (February 1963); script: Frank Doyle; art: Dan DeCarlo and Rudy Lapick

While the cover flaunts the psychedelic looks of a few years later, throughout these stories Josie and Melody sport some adorable and hip Kennedy-era girl threads.  You know-- Patty Duke as identical cousins and Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Leg hugging capris and white canvas sneakers.  Stuff like that.  And Josie bops around with a bouffant variation on the Jackie Kennedy flip, all Connie Stevens or Sandra Dee with a cute black bow.  But the coolest clothes have to be the ones worn by Josie's friend, Pepper.  She rocks a prep school look with a v-neck sweater and plaid skirt ensemble which she improves by adding cat-frame glasses and knee socks.  Today's so-called hipsters have nothing on her.

The best part about Pepper is she's not just a smart dresser-- she's also a smart-ass who's already fighting the battle of the sexes years before it became the basis for a full-blown political movement.  With Melody all but oblivious to her effect on boys and Josie occupying the middle ground, Pepper demonstrates an awareness and a willingness to comment directly on gender roles and expectations.  You can easily imagine Betty Friedan in her personal library at home and maybe a bootlegged copy of Sylvia Plath novel that wouldn't see publication in the US until 1971.  Or that she even has a personal library (actually, so does Josie, as evidenced by the sequence in her bedroom that leads off this collection).  Armed with this knowledge, Pepper provides wry, knowing commentary throughout, contrasted with Melody who creates chaos wherever she goes but blitheringly chalks it up to the boys being clumsy.  Pepper would certainly experience an expansion of her social and gender consciousness as she travels through the rest of the Sixties.  Pepper would have involved herself.  She would have been the woman asking, "And what did it do for the consciousness of the chick?"

Okay, that's a obviously a flight of fancy.  More than likely, if she'd made the transition to music star with the rest of the cast, Pepper would have continued to provide the same (very) mildly subversive presence she does in these stories, a vehicle for the comic to address changing times in a shallow way, kind of like how Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies or even The Brady Bunch would spend an episode clowning around about "women's lib" by having some kind of boys versus girls or women versus men competition where everyone learns a very soft lesson about how we all need to get along and play fair so we can make babies together.  Still,  I can't help but lament the creative team gave Pepper the axe when the book made the transition to hard-rockin' Josie and her music industry/crime-fighting career. 

The least they could have done was spin her off into her own title.  She's Pepper.

NOTE--  Not long after posting this, I actually bothered to do a little research and found a very informative and well-written article about Pepper and how and why Archie dropped her.  It only serves to make me wish we had more stories about Pepper in the 1970s, or Pepper today.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Kamandi #20 (August 1974): This is the image that made me a Kirby fan for life!

Here's a double-page spread from Kamandi #20 (August 1974), the first Kirby comic I ever owned.  I've already talked about that issue at some length here, and I'm sure you were fascinated by my commentary.  It's here again because a black and white version popped up on Facebook and I was struck by its personal significance to me as a comics fan, and also because a big name professional clued everyone into something peculiar about it.  Can you guess what it is?

That's right!  Perspective!

Did you notice how nutty the perspective is in this drawing?  Despite having studied art at a major university (I learned nothing because I'm an idiot), I never particularly gave it much thought until that pro pointed it out.  As he also commented, despite the crazy perspective (or maybe even because of it), the image still works.  Unless you make a living drawing this stuff everyday, or you're a lot smarter than I am, you probably wouldn't give two farts whether or not Kirby gets all the receding lines going to the correct vanishing points or not.  And even if you do give those two farts, the important thing is whether or not this image has impact and makes story sense.  It does!

What we glean from it, the most important information Kirby provides, is the shocking revelation that this tommy gun toting mobster is a robot.  With such a wild and wooly concatenation of figures and a startling storytelling moment, the focal points are that robot face and Kamandi's reaction.  This moment takes place during a police riot, which provides not only context but also a lot of energy and movement, like a similarly staged fight scene in a movie.  Spartacus, for example.

Notice how you're reading from left to right, so your eye goes right from the gangster's shattered visage to Kamandi's wide-eyed reaction.  The barrel of the machine gun, despite ostensibly being aimed somewhere over the reader's shoulder (involving YOU in the danger!), also serves to point to Kamandi.  The foreground is an eyeballed one-point perspective.  The lines on the green building on the left do not go to the same vanishing point as the ones on the paddy wagon on the right.  But they do serve to draw the eye back to Kamandi, creating a zoom effect within a single panel.  And check out the angle on that sidewalk.  Where is it heading?  The background mob hides its destination, but if we follow it, we'll actually end about halfway up one of those buildings in the distant background, the ones Kirby partially obscures with flames-- and which are drawn in two-point perspective!

I'd also suggest the faked perspective adds to the drunken, dreamlike quality here, on a subconscious level for the average reader (like me).  Kamandi, with his long, feminine blonde hair, is reminiscent of Alice from the Lewis Carroll stories, or at least the various Sir John Tenniel-derived versions that form our mental impression of her.  Carroll played games with language, math and logic in his prose, and Kirby does something similar with his visuals.  Kamandi, like Alice, takes an at-times rather nasty, almost psychedelic, trip through a land of talking animals, where reason and rational thought are overturned or inverted in favor of nonsense.  So it's appropriate for vanishing points and perspective planes to play tricks on our perception.  Kirby helps it along by having the figures relate to each other proportionally and because they seem to be standing on roughly the same plane.  Their environment may be illogical, but they, for the most part, are not.

The end result is a magnificent expressionist image that conveys dynamic action and provides more thrills than any six Hollywood summer blockbusters you could name.  It's also just a really cool picture.

And it's the coolness of it all that made me love Jack Kirby's work.  That, and the talking gorillas.

Come for your love of the King and his work, stay for the interminable comment slap fights!

Boy, when will I learn better?  We had some fascinating rocks in the shaded garden on the side of our house when I was a kid.  They were about the size of small bowling balls and they were pockmarked with little trilobite fossils and had these mysterious holes and tunnels running through them, but if you picked them up to look at the evidence of past life, they were cold and slimy and beneath them the soil stayed dark and damp no matter what the weather.  You almost always exposed skittering centipedes and moistly glistening slugs that would go fleeing from the light, or some wriggling worm digging its way to safety.

Better to go ride bikes in the sunshine.

Similarly, I just enjoyed a short stint in one of the more active Facebook fan groups devoted to one of my most beloved artists, but I think I'll enjoy my much longer stint out of it even more.  But I discovered that same creepy feeling from childhood-- nowadays there is nothing more shudder-inducing to me than to look at a gorgeous double page spread from some old comic and below it find one hundred comments of frothing near-psychosis from guys who've apparently memorized the entire sordid history of American comics but have developed diametrically opposed viewpoints on what it all signifies.

It's as if the lower the stakes, the greater the rage.  I've always felt you don't fight a battle unless by winning it you gain some advantage or benefit.  A lot of these comic fans seem to feel the opposite.  They risk crushing ego defeat in hopes of winning a victory that's so paltry and pathetic it amounts to almost nothing.

And let's not even get into the rage storms that invariably follow every news release about a comic book-related movie or change in a character.  I know.  Oh, how I know.  I've been there and back.

This disillusionment has spread even to whatever it is I'm attempting to accomplish with this blog.  I spent a few days struggling with a post deconstructing a vintage miniseries, and in the end, all I could think was, "Ain't never seen anyone so shit-all stupid as you writing this post. You musta got manure for your brains."  Complete waste of time and energy.  I finally just deleted the stupid thing except for the images.  I'll do something with them instead.  Something I hope will be interesting and illuminating and only a little bit asinine.

Anyway, despite my sour mood at the moment, nothing can stop my love for comics or my need to read them and then figure out what a story means, to analyze it in a literary way, put it into some kind of historical context, or simply to find something amusing about it to share here.  I still want to write about my favorite artists, stories and characters.  I still want to write about things I find a little weird or funky.  But I also want to try to keep things lighter and more positive.  Which means posting here to resounding silence.  I could probably garner more hits by turning into one of those slugs or centipedes, but as I said...

I'd rather we ride our bicycles in the sunshine.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Enjoy my retro take on Don Knotts...

I'm practicing inking techniques and washes.  My goal is eventually to draw something that doesn't infuriate me with its incompetence.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Everything old is new again or ten things I'm excited about in 2014!

1.  Barbarella.  Humanoids, Inc. will publish a brand-new English language version of Jean-Claude Forest's sexy 1960s space adventure featuring the coolest 1960s space adventurer with updated and modernized whatchamallits by Kelly Sue DeConnick.  Dialogue?  Worldview?  I don't care.  Her adventures have been out of print in English for some time now, which is kind of ridiculous when you consider her pop culture significance.  There wouldn't be a Vampirella without Barbarella, and possibly not even a Red Sonja series.  As a character, Barbarella kicks much ass.  Despite her reputation as a sex kitten, in today's terms, she has what you would call "agency."  Therefore, she's a sextacularly retro space ace for today's on the go post-modern libertine!  Or something like that.

2.  Teen Titans.  With the publication of the long-awaited volume two in the Teen Titans DC archives hardcover series, it's just a matter of time before individual issues pop up on Comixology.  And this means more Wonder Girl with art by Nick Cardy.

3.  Pepper.  Last week I bought an Archie Comics digital exclusive containing 100 pages of gorgeous Dan DeCarlo-drawn pre-"ears for hats" She's Josie comics, which led me to discover the star's witty erstwhile best pal Pepper.  Pepper didn't make the transition to rock stardom with Josie and Melody, and that's a real shame because she's super cool with her cynical attitude and wild cat-framed glasses.  Those would have been so appropriate for the band.  Don't get me wrong-- Valerie is great.  But why couldn't the Pussycats perform as a quartet?  You know, Pepper on bass?  She could have been their Kim Deal, for crying out loud!  Anyway, 2014 is the year I bore you to tears celebrating Pepper.

4. X-Men.  Marvel has been dropping John Byrne-drawn issues on Comixology like they're on fire (that cliché worries me-- is this a good quality or a bad quality for something to have?), which means we're about one or two away from having a complete run available stretching from the initial Dave Cockrum issues (glorious) all the way to the celebrated "Days of Future Past" storyline that's being adapted into the latest film in the X-Men movie franchise (as my wife says, "I don't give a shit about that," but you might, so there!).  They'll probably get to the second Dave Cockrum run, which suffers from lackluster scripting but looms large in the early days of my initial fandom because those were the ones I bought in convenience stores and newsstands as Marvel published them.  I subscribed during the Paul Smith days, which saw Chris Claremont return to form.  Those should be on Comixology this year, too.

5. Fantastic Four #51.  Marvel and Comixology have every issue of Jack Kirby's legendary company-building stint on Fantastic Four through #50, which is the overall narrative's natural climax.  But it's in its anti-climax Kirby and Stan Lee produced the humanistic "This Man, This Monster," which is as close to superhero comic perfection as you are ever likely to find.  Kirby and Lee turned out a few solid stories and even some classics after this, but this is Marvel's 1960s apogee.

6. Samurai Executioner Omnibus.  Dark Horse is putting out a single book containing 798 pages of ultra-violent samurai slashing action from masters Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima.  A guy named Frank Miller would mine their stuff for his own reputation in the 1980s, but this is the 1972-76 original from a couple of legitimate geniuses.  Their Lone Wolf and Cub is essential, but Samurai Executioner is pretty darn close to necessary, with plenty of cinematic, evocative storytelling at its finest.  Oh, and it's only $19.99 for something that provides a meatier reading experience (as in the meat that Yamada Asaemon carves from his foes) than its equivalent in monetary (if not aesthetic)value-- about 5 flimsy 32-page issues of any given new monthly from Marvel or DC that will take you about 5 minutes to read and forget.  Okay, I admit I'm being unfair.  But even the best current series from either of the Big Two cannot hope to measure up to this work and you're paying less per page for it.  This should be the Event Comic of the Year.  Trust me-- you will never forget Yamada Asaemon.

7.  Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus Volume 4.  Speaking of... here it is.  As I wrote above, these are essential.  Everything I gushed about with Samurai Executioner goes double for these.  This one is 696 pages for $19.99 and it's simply one of the greatest comics ever published.  I will be purchasing all of these in 2014.

8. The EC Archives:  Vault of Horror Volume 3.  Dark Horse does it again!  This is a very pricey book, but it's the continuation of Dark Horse's deluxe reprints of EC classics.  The Archives series started at Gemstone (I own several of them as well), but hit a rough patch.  Dark Horse re-launched the series in October 2013 with Tales from the Crypt Volume 4.  Fantagraphics is putting out books spotlighting individual artists (and those are beautiful), but here's your chance to see their work in context, with colors recreated from Marie Severin's originals.  Volume 1 of their Weird Fantasy reprints follows in April.  I'm more of a horror and Weird Science freak when it comes to EC, but any of these archives would be a welcome addition to my library.  And yours.

9. Warren horror.  Yeah, I know I'm going to sound like a Dark Horse shill, but they consistently put out products I love!  They're not only giving us EC and influential manga, but they're also continuing their long-running Creepy and Eerie Archives series this year.  I received Creepy Archives 10 for Christmas, and I'm certain 2014 will see me adding to my collection.

10. New discoveries of amazingly cool old stuff.  Like Pepper up there.  A couple of weeks ago, I had no inkling she even existed.  My knowledge of comics doesn't extend much farther than the ones I read when they were new and the artists and writers I grew up admiring, so I'm discovering wonders almost daily.  Certainly there are Jack Kirby stories out there and more I haven't read that I'm looking forward to uncovering and sharing with you, the reader of this blog!

Note:  Oh yeah, there are some new comics coming out this year that I'm also looking forward to.  Fantagraphics has Love and Rockets books coming out and their reprinting of Takako Shimura's heartbreaking Wandering Son.  Plus a whole lot more from Dark Horse, Image and even Marvel and DC I'll be checking out.  And there's a slight chance for some more Nana-related artwork from Ai Yazawa.  She revisited "Junko's Place" last year and apparently produced a Christmas card for Cookie magazine.  And even if we don't see new Nana, my big wish for Ms. Yazawa in 2014 (and in the future) is recovery, health and happiness.