Friday, June 20, 2014

Katana's first foray: Batman and the Outsiders #1 (August 1983)

Katana’s first appearance is in the first DC Sampler giveaway comic, but for our purposes and because I no longer have that (I did all those years ago, though!), we’re going to say it was in Batman and the Outsiders #1 (August 1983).

As we've discussed before, I’ve always considered Katana a pretty cool character.  Well, except for her original ketchup and mustard color-schemed costume.  It’s really a shame what happened to her recent solo series.  Out of all the New 52 redesigns, hers is the most visually arresting and appropriate.  But we're old school hereabouts, so we're going to spend some time with the original Katana, from back in the day.  DC and Comixology just released for sale the first two issues of the 1980s Batman and the Outsiders series and, of course, I jumped at the chance to buy them again. 

The plot mechanics show through.  There's trouble brewing in made-up country Markovia, and that's where Bruce Wayne has sent trusted employee Lucius Fox (the guy played by Morgan Freeman in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy) there.  Rebel troops capture Fox and hold him hostage, but wouldn't you know it, Superman has told the United Nations the Justice League will sit this one out, and if you're a member of that team, his promise is legally binding.  When Batman finds out no one's going to help him rescue Fox, he flips out and quits, thus finding and exploiting the one small loophole in the United Nations charter as it relates to solemn promises made on everyone's behalf by a guy from another planet.  Even with Batman giving everyone yet another snarled recounting of his origin, this is still an all too convenient way to get Batman out of the Justice League and together with the Outsiders-- all of whom just happen to be in Markovia at the same time for their own purposes.

Well, to hell with that.  This was-- and remains-- a cool book.  You really can’t, or shouldn’t, argue with Jim Aparo’s artwork, and writer Mike W. Barr builds a strong team dynamic once he gets past the set-up.  The unique mother-daughter relationship he establishes between stone-cold killer Katana and naïve amnesiac Halo helps set this book apart from its ensemble-cast predecessors Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans and keeps Outsiders from becoming too generic—the DC equivalent of The Defenders.  Geo-Force is a real zero, though.  His brown costume is dull, as is his origin.  Fortunately, there’s Black Lightning and super-freak Metamorpho.  Black Lightning gives us someone badass to root for who isn’t a jerk like Batman, and Metamorpho adds visual interest.

What does Katana add besides maternal love?  Why, dead bodies by the truckload!

The all-murder-all-the-time team member element hearkens back to the early days of Uncanny X-Men and the Wolverine character arc, before he became overexposed and watered down by revealing his many origins and future demises.  I can’t get over Batman sort of standing back and letting Katana murder so many people, but it certainly makes her more interesting than blandly heroic dopes like Geo-Force.  She doesn’t have any powers to speak of, although because she’s Asian and in a comic book, she’s adept at all martial arts, and because she’s Japanese, of course she is a samurai.

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

See?  The very first thing she does is kill that general, just as a disguised Black Lighting (he's not in the JLA, so he's legally allowed to help Batman all he wants) has successfully tricked him into believing he's Fox's brother and wants to trade lovely gold bars for his lovely fake brother.  Black Lightning's thought balloon and clinched fist both show he knows this ruins Batman's scheme.  He quickly strips off his civilian clothes to reveal his super-costume and starts fighting the enemy troops. 

Okay, let's take a break from all the killing to talk about the very thing from which Katana takes her codename.  What?  You thought Katana was her birth name?  No, her parents named her Tatsu Yamashiro, but only her close friends who know her in her civilian identity call her that.  And even they don't call her that.  They call her Yamashiro-san.  Or Ms. Yamashiro. 

And a katana is a type of samurai sword.  I'm far from an expert, but I do know samurai had more than one kind.  There were longer ones and shorter ones, and they all have names which I don't know.  We say "katana" when we mean the basic samurai sword.  Unless we say "samurai sword" sword instead.  This is Katana's main weapon, her version of Green Lantern's ring, Green Arrow's bow and arrows and Green Keyboard's magic computer.  Anyway, Katana uses a katana.  You know Katana talks to her katana, right?  That’s one of her “things.”

Why would anyone do that when there's a perfectly good Batman standing right there?  I'll tell you.

Like Katana herself, Katana's katana has its own special name:  The Soultaker.  It does that.  It takes souls.  If Katana kills you with it, your soul goes into the sword with all the other souls, but Michael Moorcock doesn’t sue you or anything, so don’t worry about it.  I think a cooler codename than Katana would have been the Japanese phrase for Soultaker, which is something like 魂を取る人, or “Tamashi o toru hito,” or を盗 (“to steal the soul”) according to Google Translate.  Hm.  Maybe not.  Kind of clumsy, huh?  Looks as if Barr and Aparo had a good idea all along and I'm wrong, all right?  I'm Wrong Roy.  Toby!  You are close to death!  Come out here!

So her husband's soul is inside Soultaker.  They talk a lot.  In the new series, she sleeps with the sword as well, which is all kinds of kinky especially when you consider most of her pals don't believe her husband's soul (or anyone's) is inside the sword.  But trust me, in the original series, he's in there and she talks to him and he talks back and gives her advice.

 Anyway, she--

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

Oh, look!  Katana's second kill.

She's not really in the first issue of Batman and the Outsiders all that much, but with two kills in two pages, she's made quite an impression.  Batman hogs most of the story space, the same way he hogs the front part of the title, as if this were one of those noisy rock combos the kids like nowadays, where the lead person has their name up front and everyone else is kind of smashed into a collective to the rear.  And then the named artist quits and starts producing music that sounds just like the original group’s, only not as inspired or interesting.  As a result of Batman’s outrageous ego, Katana barely gets into the comic, but she has an impact much greater than you’d expect given the few panels in which she appears.

Another interesting aspect of the character is--

Script:  Mike W. Barr/Art:  Jim Aparo

That's our Katana!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movie Adaptations #1: An overview of those colorful Marvel Super Specials!

Before they started putting out their graphic novels and Epic Illustrated magazine, the Super Special series was Marvel’s most visually arresting product.  Their black and white magazines usually featured attractively lurid covers by Bob Larkin, Earl Norem and, occasionally, guys like Neal Adams and Grey Morrow.  But face it—the interiors varied wildly in quality from the knock-out gorgeous or even thrillingly bizarre (John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Rudy Nebres, Mike Ploog, Tom Sutton) to the serviceable and even the slap-dash (I won’t name names, but I have my suspects). 

The Super Specials, on the other hand, featured fully-painted color jobs, at least on many of the earlier issues.  Regular monthly comics came printed cheaply on grayish newsprint.  But a Super Special came on slick, white paper.  A Super Special was more than a comic.  It was an event unto itself.  It was super.  And special.  There'd be a painted cover, or one featuring photos or artwork from whatever movie the comic was adapted from.  It would have a full-length comic book story and then a few breathlessly informative articles or interviews related to the magazine's subject matter.  All this... and a higher price tag! 

The very first Marvel Super Special, which was officially a Marvel Comics Super Special, stars rock group Kiss and word on the street is the group contributed some of their blood to be mixed in with the ink.  It's hard to get more super or special than actual rock star bodily fluids inside your comic!  But no thanks.  The second issue features tried-and-true fan favorite Conan in adventures too epic for his regular monthly.

Then Marvel adapted Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first of many Marvel Super Special film adaptations.  A Wiki check shows Close Encounters penciller Walt Simonson complaining about working on that book.  Worst experience of his career.  If so, I sympathize, but you can’t tell he was unhappy by looking at the finished product.  He and Klaus Janson turned in a spectacular effort, making the story work in a Marvelized format even though the conflict is largely internal—Roy Neary thinks he’s going crazy for most of the movie before he figures it all out and goes UFO-hunting—and co-stars every lightbulb in California.  They invented so many ways of depicting lighting effects I’m surprised they didn’t go blind from staring at them too long.  This was the first Marvel Super Special I bought, and it came to me via mail order.  It would not be the last, as these magazines quickly became one of my favorite Marvel purchases.

And this is where we come in.  Marvel’s other movie adaptations.  Jaws 2 swam up next, accompanied by a musical motif ripped off from Stravinsky.  This one was the first Super Special drawn by Tomb of Dracula team supreme Gene Colan and Tom Palmer.  They’d do a few more, each time absolutely rocking the results.  Colan had already done underwater horror in black and white for Warren Publications, but here Palmer adds vivid colors that make the book both gorier than you might expect in a comic and, strangely enough, also more attractive.  Jaws 2 is one of those shitty movies that are actually pretty fun, eschewing the Steven Spielberg original’s emphasis on characterization and suspense for schlocky, unintentionally hilarious setpieces (the shark eats a helicopter!) that do nothing to help its ludicrous premise—essentially shark-shaped lightning striking twice.  While not nearly as dire as subsequent films in the series, the movie suffers from diminishing returns.  The comic book holds things together by simply giving the material a more lavish treatment than it deserves.  I would have loved to see the same team go back and re-tell the first film.  That’s a real missed opportunity for a matched set.

While the Super Specials had already given us a bowdlerized Beatles biography, their adaptation of the infamous BeeGees-starring musical flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band never saw print.  This meant Marvel’s next offering was actually of a TV movie that similarly cribbed from a superior source and suffered from comparisons.  We knew it as Battlestar Galactica.  I had the Marvel Treasury Edition because it was huge and therefore caught my notice.  This one has art by Ernie Colon of Richie Rich and Jackie Jokers fame, and while his linework is looser than the Colan/Palmer stuff, and the colors flat rather than richly painted, it’s an energetic retelling.  It differs from the televised movie in some respects.  A villain gets a bloody comeuppance here, which would make his reappearance a bit… er… unlikely.  And yet there he was, on our TV screens every Sunday evening until ABC punched not only his ticket but everyone’s via cancellation.  And broke my heart.

The next film adaptation to see print?  Crappy sci-fi disaster film Meteor, a major flop with Sean Connery as an astronomer fighting an oncoming… well, you know.  A meteor.  What else?  The movie, which co-stars an unhappy Natalie Wood, forces Brian Keith to speak with a fake Russian accent (a few years after playing a small-town cop comedically contending with “invading” commie submariners in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, and not long before using this accent again for one of those WWIII TV movies the kids used to love so much back in the 1980s), with Henry Fonda as the President, putting it kindly, is complete dogshit.  On your shoe, after you stepped in it.  The comic, with Colan/Palmer art, is not.  In fact, it’s quite a visual treat.  There’s even a double-page spread of a massive tidal wave destroying Hong Kong.  Palmer not only handpainted the colors, but there’s also what appear to be Craft-Tint tones involved as well.  I’m not sure what their lead-time was for the artwork, but nothing looks rushed, especially towards the end when the meteor unleashes hell on New York.  Once again the Marvel comic proves better than the film on which it’s based.

From here out the Super Specials would consist almost entirely of movie material, with one exception-- Tarzan of the Apes.  Because they generally went for blockbusters and had to prepare the comics in advance of the films’ release dates, Marvel took on hits and misses alike. 
The adaptations of misses are a lot more fun than the ones of hits as far as I’m concerned.  How could you not love mondo-strange-o comics like Xanadu (#17, Summer 1980), Annie (#23, Summer 1982, with Win Mortimer pencils and lots of crossed eyes courtesy the Vinnie Colletta inks, no less), Rock & Rule (#25, 1983 with art consisting of stills from the movie itself)?  And sometimes the results would be miracles both major and minor, like Marvel’s lovely Dragonslayer (#20 , 1981), the storybook-like Santa Claus: The Movie (#39, 1985, richly drawn by Frank Springer and adapting one of the lousiest movies ever made) and the beautiful Labyrinth (#40, October 1986, with breakdowns by John Buscema and finishes by Romeo Tanghal, an unlikely pairing on this fairy tale material and killing on it). 
And then there’s Bill Sienkiewicz’s Dune (#36, 1984), the perfect meshing of artist and subject matter.  Space princesses, screaming magical messiahs, bloated barons with skin diseases and desert warriors dressed in skin-tight black rubber are visuals tailor made for Sienkiewicz’s “Neal Adams drops acid and hangs out with Ralph Steadman too much” artwork with its heavy blacks.  And giant penis monsters.  I mean worms.  Yeah.  Shai-hulud.  Those spice worms look nothing like a bunch of dicks springing up out of the sand.  Sure.  Seinkiewicz brilliantly translates into two dimensions the general weirdness of David Lynch’s fever-dream take on Frank Herbert’s novel.  And you get the added benefit of not suffering through the pacing problems created by trying to chop a huge novel down into a manageable running time, from not being able to tell all the spaceships are obviously teeny-tiny miniatures and not having to endure the repetitive, whispered voiceovers.  And dumb additions like the “weirding modules.”

Occasonally, though, Marvel would adapt a hit and blow it.  Raiders of the Lost Ark (#18, 1981).  What the hell happened there?  John Buscema and Klaus Janson provide curiously unfinished-looing and flat artwork, with none of the film’s retro-romance.  Dull, off-model colors add nothing to the art and the final product is lackluster at best.

That’s not to say the rest of the hits aren’t pretty sweet.  There are three Al Williamson/Carlos Garzon jobs—The Empire Strikes Back (#16, Spring 1980 and my personal choice for best movie adaptation of all time), Blade Runner (#22, September 1982) and Return of the Jedi (#27, 1983).  Much like with Seinkiewicz and Dune, Williamson was the perfect choice to adapt the second and third Star Wars films.  He seems an odd choice for Ridley Scott’s downbeat sci-fi noir, but he, Garzon, Dan Green and Ralph Reese generate all the film-accurate rainy cityscapes you could hope for, even if a number of panels seem a bit too photo reference-heavy and static.  They reproduce the film’s atmosphere to a startling degree, sort of making up for that lack in the Raiders book.  Should have put them on that one, too. 
Buscema pencils and inks himself on the two Conan movie adaptations, too, both for John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (#21, 1982) and the lighter, less boob-filled Conan the Destroyer (#35, 1984).  He doesn’t try to make his barbarian look anything like Arnold Schwarzeneggar, which is a good thing.  Although the Destroyer Conan sports Arnold’s headband.  You can never go wrong with Buscema inking himself on a Conan story, whether or not you appreciate Milius’ heavy-handed philosophizing and libertarian politics (I actually kinda dig it, even if I don’t agree with it) or director Richard Fleischer’s duller, less edgy and politicized take.

I’ve skipped around a lot.  What about the rest?  Well, there are two crappy and then crappier Roger Moore-era James Bond flicks (For Your Eyes Only achieves mediocrity by pairing otherwise appropriate Howard Chaykin with a disinterested Vince Colletta and then dumping a dull, standard monthly-comic-type color job on the results, totally wasting the format’s color possibilities); the tragically doomed Dark Crystal; another Indiana Jones flick with improved art but a sillier story; a nicely cartooned version of The Muppets Take Manhattan; desultory passes at clunkers like Krull, The Last Starfighter and 2010; the ahead-of-its-time Buckaroo Banzai (#33, 1984), all hip and tongue-in-cheek, makes a bow and turns immediately into a cult film; and Marvel even attempted both Sheena (#34, 1984, decent artwork by great Gray Morrow wasted on dreck) and Red Sonja (#38, 1985, a worthy effort by Louise Simonson and Mary Wilshire, with surprisingly deft Colletta inks, doomed from the start by its source material but finally sunk by the decision to go the cheap route yet again with a standard color palette).

The best, however, they saved for last.  The final Marvel Super Special, lucky #41 (November 1986) adapts George Lucas’ long-neglected masterwork Howard the Duck.  No knock on writer Danny Fingeroth or artist Kyle Baker, but this comic fairly cried out for some Gene Colan or Val Mayerik artwork.  Only they could have possibly salvaged this one. 
It has an appropriate cover date, though, doesn’t it?  November, towards the end of fall.  An inbetween time, a neither-nor time, a waiting time.  The happy Halloween graveyard ghost-dance past, the joys of Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s yet to come.  Despite Thanksgiving, which I really conflate with the Christmas holidays, November is a dull, gray month.  Too bleak to be tedious, too tedious to be fun.  The first cold rains come, and we’re given our initial glimpse of the dying of the year and the bleak winter that comes after our holiday revelry.  That’s all that November means to me.  The promise that, after the gifts and pretty lights, winter will be hard.  Long and hard and dead.  And with this, with the arrival of Howard, our symbol of the death of everything summer-bright in the world, Marvel Super Special was no more.
What I'm hoping to do with this series is take on each of these books, probably in order, and try to find some nice things to say about them.  We've already looked at two of these in detail, so we don't have to worry about them again!  Whew!  Some of the rest will be easy, even if the movies they're based on were complete stinkers.  Some won't be so easy.  But therein lies what I hope will be the fun.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Coming soon: a look at Marvel's movie adaptations!

Hola, amigos.  I know it's been a long time since I last rapped at ya, but things have been pretty crazy around here lately.  It's not as if I'm not reading comics.  I am.  I'm reading some fantastic old comics with art by cats like John Buscema and John Romita, Al Williamson, Jim Aparo and Alex Toth.  But, as I've told you, I'm also working on my own comic.  Plus I'm married and have a regular job that takes up about ten hours a day (if I'm lucky).  Man, I get home, all I want to do is read the comics, not write about them.  Or work on my own.

Anyway, what I'm here to tell you is I have a few posts coming up.  They're largely finished but I need to tweak a few things here and there, check a fact or two so they live up to the high standards for comic journalism you've come to expect from When Comic Books Ruled the Earth.  You deserve no less. 

Comixology and DC just released the first two issues of Batman and the Outsiders by Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo.  That's one of my favorite series, and features Katana, a character I've dug for the longest time.  Well, ever since I bought Batman and the Outsiders #1 when it first came out way back in August 1983.  I've written about Katana here before, but it's time to do a closer reading of her first appearance.  DC and Comixology have made that possible, and for that, I'm happy and thankful.

I'm also very excited about one set of posts in particular.  I was writing a bit about Williamson's artwork for the Marvel Blade Runner comic when I realized Marvel has a lot of other cool movie adaptations we could pick apart and have some fun with.  Others have written beautifully about Gene Colan's killer work on Jaws 2, and I've already covered Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dragonslayer.  You can even find a few funny articles here and there about things like Xanadu.  Well, now I'm going to take them all on, one by one, and in no particular order.  I won't be mocking them, although I'm sure there will be a few attempts at humorous deconstruction, because I'm stuck in post-modern mode and will probably never change.  Mostly I just want to appreciate some of the odder ones for attempting something different, for introducing new genres to comics even if those genres don't really translate into the format very well or comfortably.

You know, like musicals.

I'm not sure when the first post will appear, nor can I say for certain when we'll finally see the last of them.  All I can tell you is they are coming.  And maybe, down the road a ways, I'll make an official announcement of some kind about my own comic and let you know a little bit about it.  I just want to get enough done to make it more of a real thing rather than just a dream I'm chasing.  Consider that a promise.  Or a warning.  Or both.  I hope you enjoy the upcoming posts.  I think you will.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Kindle is Creepy...

Getting my hands and eyes on American comics can be a bit of a hassle here in Japan.  Luckily, I'm more into vintage comics than the new stuff (except for a few titles from Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Boom! and IDW, that is) and I can buy all the Essentials, Archives, Best ofs and Collected Editions I want from  They're a bit pricey, though, and while I love the feel of a nicely-designed hardcover archival comic collection printed on quality paper, those take up a huge amount of space and they're heavy.  Buying them digitally from the Dark Horse website or single issues from Comixology means transferring money home and keeping track of my US funds and that's a huge headache because the post office bank here isn't open on weekends for that kind of stuff.

So what to do?  Why, find a way to pay with my Japanese money. makes that easy when you want a paper version.  You can order COD, for crying out loud, a system that resulted in my receiving a box a day there for a while.  You can also go to the nearest convenience store, input your order number into a special machine and print out an invoice, then pay at the register.  A day or two later, a delivery person shows up with your package.  It's fun.  But that doesn't help now that I'm married and I have to share space.  I can't just pile up a huge library of gigantic comics reprints anymore.  Plus, we're kinda trying to save money for our future, something I never considered having before transforming myself from a single person into one half of a couple.

Switching my collection to mostly digital makes a lot of sense, but it entails a new set of solutions.  Comixology has been fantastic, but there's that bank transfer thing, and Dark Horse has its archival material exclusive to its website which involves doing that even more.  Rats.

Luckily, there's Kindle.  Dark Horse has generously provided Amazon with Kindle versions of its Creepy and Eerie books, and DC has done the same with a lot of its collected editions.  IDW even put out a Kindle version of Torpedo with Alex Toth art.  I don't have a Japanese credit card, but I can buy an Amazon gift card for myself and go nuts.  The best thing is, instead of paying the equivalent of 40 or 50 bucks for a book, I can get a digital copy for about 17 dollars.  This means even more of the Creepy and Eerie volumes become desirable, whereas before I had to cherry-pick them based on material I considered "essential."

Now the Kindle I have is the base model and it's pretty old now-- in relative terms as these gadgets go.  It won't display graphic novels.  And I should have checked to see if I could read them on my Windows Kindle app before I bought them.  That would've been the smart thing to do.  But I was so excited by the prospect of buying Creepy cheaply (say that five times fast) I jumped the gun.  The end result is I'm contemplating buying one of those full-color expensive Kindle things and I have Creepy Archives Volume 1, Torpedo 1 and DC's Jack Kirby's OMAC on my iPhone now.  That's where I'll leave things for a while.  I'm not in any big hurry to buy the new Kindle and it's the kind of thing I have to vet with my wife before I do.  Major purchase.  It's a good system we have, and luckily for us both I've inherited my dad's Depression-born reluctance to spend more than 100 dollars a year unless it's on food.  It took me two years to work up the nerve to buy the computer I usually read comics on these days and even then I felt sick to my stomach for a month.

On the other hand, I'm addicted to books and old comics.

Now with Amazon having bought Comixology, it will be interesting to see how the payment plans shake out.  Will Comixology start accepting Amazon gift cards, for example?  And will they furthermore accept them if they're bought with Japanese yen?  That doesn't seem likely, but it would certainly make my comics buying-- even of new titles-- much easier.  And what about Dark Horse?  How do they fit in since they have their own proprietary digital comics-reading engine?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Flash Thompson's swingin' send-off party!

Oh, wow. Sorry I haven't been chatting up the old comics lately. I'm making one of my own and it's taking all my free time. I take a break from it only to work my day job and sleep. I eat at the drawing table (so to speak; I draw on one of those razzly-dazzly Cintiq monitors these days) just like one of those old school guys who made comics back in the day and then died of alcoholism-related complications well before their natural times. Cheerful, ain't it?

Well, here's something that will certainly lighten the mood. Remember when Flash Thompson went off to fight the Vietnam War and everyone at his party looked incredibly mod and gorgeous and they all thought it was a wonderful, happy, pleasant thing he was doing, with no negatives about it whatsoever? It happened in Amazing Spider-Man #47 (April 1967).

Here’s a largely cheerful story about a bunch of friends putting on a going-away party for Flash Thompson, who is leaving for the service, possibly to fight in a war in a jungle that pointedly avoids even the suggestion such a thing might be in any way, shape or form at least the slightest bit controversial or even worrisome.  Of course, given the time, the implication is Flash has been drafted, but the closest we get to acknowledging that is a few issues back when Pete says something about Flash’s “induction notice,” a term less loaded than “draft notice.”  Not a soul even whispers Vietnam or Southeast Asia, and no one seems to think Flash is going to have anything other than a simply fine ol’ time.  Of course, criticizing at Stan Lee and Marvel Comics for not taking sides over Vietnam or making an issue of it is kind of like condemning The Beverly Hillbillies for not doing an episode where Jethro gets drafted, loses a foot and joins an anti-war rally in Washington while banker Milburn Drysdale talks the Clampett family into investing in a napalm factory.

On the other hand, despite what you might have read otherwise in the book Spider-Man Chronicle: Celebrating 50 Years of Web-Slinging, this issue isn’t even as topical as the April 8, 1965 episode of The Munsters where Herman tries out for the majors and Leo Durocher cracks, “I don’t know whether to sign him with the Dodgers or send him to Vietnam.”  Harry’s “Only don’t bother looking for the goalposts!” joke when another guest compares the jungle to a football field does seem eerily and cleverly prescient now that we have more than forty years of hindsight on the matter, though.  And Spidey does at last obliquely reference the potential dangers of war to callow young men when he wonders in the final panel why he keeps thinking of Flash in the past tense when the guy hasn’t even left yet and will probably come through all right.  “He'll make it-- somehow! good guys always win,” he muses, before adding a little ambiguity with the tag question, “Don’t they?”

I don’t think Lee was or is particularly interested in politics, and certainly not in wading into a political Big Muddy and more than likely drowning his company there.  He didn’t mind using the Commies as bloodthirsty villains and outright creeps whenever possible, but who at the time gave a rip what a communist thought about comic books?  If they even read comics when they weren’t murdering babies, knocking over Asian dominoes or stealing our space secrets, they probably stole them off the racks anyway, and that did nothing but harm to Marvel’s bottom line.
Plus, there probably wasn’t a lot of readership overlap between Marvel’s magazines and The New York Review ofBooks where in February of that year Noam Chomsky published “The Responsibilityof Intellectuals.” And Dr. Martin Luther King told 3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York City that the civil rights and anti-war movements were essentially the same struggle and condemned the war in Vietnam as US imperialism in the same month Marvel cover-dated Amazing Spider-Man #47.  Check out Time magazine's reaction, and the Washington Post's.  You know, those bastions of liberal thoughtNot so surprising when you consider a Gallup poll the same month showed 50% of respondents believed our escalation in Vietnam was not a mistake versus 37% who thought it was.  The believers were down from 59% the previous year, but still represented a significant majority over the skeptics.  This is a little different than outright support for the war, but risking controversy by directly addressing Vietnam and its complexities and uncertainties wasn’t going to sell Spider-Man to the middle Americans buying this stuff for their kids and still largely assured we were doing the right thing halfway across the world.

Lee had books to move, and Warren Publishing’s Blazing Combat had recently addressed the war directly with distinct disapproval and quickly folded.  In the course of entertaining the heck out of us—its primary purpose—this story acknowledges in the vaguest and safest of terms what couldn’t be ignored and takes no sides.  No more, no less. 

In fact-- YOWZAAA! Look at Gwen Stacy's knockout outfit!

Script:  Stan Lee, Art: John Romita

I don't know who designed it.  Dormammu of Beverly Hills?  Purple and blue abstract design, with fishnets and a animal-print coat in decidedly unnatural hues of... purple again.  Jazzy John Romita was the perfect guy for this soapy stuff and he visualizes Gwen as the height of mid-60s cool.  It doesn't get any better, does it?

Yes it does!  Because here comes Mary Jane Watson in an op-art inspired checkerboard dress and some wild white boots with contrast black toes.  Shame about the orange coat, but she quickly dumps it once they hit the shindig.

Pretty much everyone there is a sharpie.  Smart jackets and ties for the gents, ultra-modern flips and bobs for the ladies.  The guest of honor, Flash Thompson himself, sports a brown coat with a black tee for an athletically casual take on dressing up.  That guy on the left of the top panel has a Beach Boys-looking striped shirt, possibly by Gant.  The only guy who looks anachronistic is poor Harry Osborn, with his green bowtie and jacket like something he borrowed from Barney Fife down in Mayberry, NC.  And he's supposed to be a rich boy.  He looks as if he popped in from a 1949 issue of Archie's Pep Comics.  He's even got Jughead's plate of hamburgers.

Script:  Stan Lee, Art: John Romita

Gwen steals the show-- much to Mary Jane's displeasure-- with a dance that rivals the one Audrey Horne would do a generation or so later on the premiere episode of Twin Peaks.  All eyes on Gwen.  Stan's blatantly sexist catcalls crack me up.  These are just a few, but they run all through this part of the comic, with Harry and Pete congratulating themselves on having such beauties for girlfriends and Pete secretly leering at Gwen every chance he gets.

Don't you wonder what music Gwen's dancing to?  This was right as pop was going psychedelic and becoming undanceable, and I doubt anyone wriggled and swayed to folk songs or protest tunes.  If this were a TV show of the time, it would be some outdated-sounding jazzy stuff the network squares thought of as "close enough to that rock junk no one will be able to tell the difference anyway." 

You know, like when Opie needs a little background noise while sweeping the courthouse floor for his dad and flips on a little white transistor radio and upbeat guitar noodling comes blaring out.  Then Ope starts doing some kind of frantic moves with his broom still in hand says, "Gee, Pa, isn't this the most?"  And Andy's like, "The most WHAT?"  But because he's pretty open-minded for a Southern sheriff of the day, he and Helen Crump end up championing the fresh-faced kids at the high school who want to add a couple of the exact same generic rock tunes to the annual play instead of doing the same old "founding of Mayberry" junk the older teachers favor.

Anyway, beautifully drawn, hilariously written bit of scene-setting before the issue's bad guy makes an appearance.  Kraven the Hunter.  You know what?  Who really gives a rip about that jackass when you've got these kinds of lovely John Romita pages to look at?  Interestingly, Romita is doing a Steve Ditko impression throughout, and even Kraven's face in a few panels looks more Ditko than Romita.  Artistic continuity, and at times Romita's line looks so impressively close to the guy's who he's imitating, it's almost as if Ditko himself inked this book.

Well, it's a fine book and I wish Lee and Romita had spent even more time just hanging out with the kids.  But I guess the readers came for the action, but I'm more in love with the soap opera/character-building sequences during this era.  I'd hang out with all of these characters even without the superheroic spider-bite antics.  We don't even have to talk politics.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Here's a negative review of Genius, Animated: The Cartoon Work of Alex Toth (not by me)

I don't know how I feel about this, mainly due to not having read the book in question.  But I do own the first two volumes, and I've enjoyed the heck out of those.  Does the reviewer have some solid points about them?  More than likely.  Do they paint Alex Toth in kind of a bad light?  Probably.  But at the same time, as this review notes, Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell wrote these books with the cooperation and support of the Toth family.  Maybe something can be overly critical and yet overly sentimental about its subject at the same time.  My slow brain needs time to process and comprehend the reviewer's definitions of cartoonist and illustrator, too.  And you know what?  You know what this review has done, which is probably opposite its intended effect?

I wasn't particularly planning to get this volume despite having enjoyed the others simply because I'm not as into Toth's animation work as I am his comics.  Now I think I will, simply because it has that color Dune Patrol presentation art.  As with the first two, it's full of stuff like that, examples of Toth's art that make the cover price bearable, even if this reviewer quibbles with the actual choices (and I tend to agree with those points now that he's broached them).  You could spend one hundred thousand words telling me a book is the shittiest thing in human existence, then show me a few gorgeous Toth drawings included in it, and I'll start salivating to own it like I'm a starving dog.

The comment attached is something you definitely need to check out for its link to a fascinating and poignant online comic by Dylan Williams about his longterm via mail relationship with Toth himself.  I wish I'd thought of mailing my art to Toth for the privilege of pissing him off and having him rip me a new asshole.  The closest to that experience I've come is when I made the mistake of expressing a mild enjoyment of both Toth's and Iwao Takamoto's (and, I suppose, Doug Wildey's, though I didn't know it at the time) animation designs to John Kricfalusi on his superb blog.  Kricfalusi didn't take my opinion seriously enough to blow his stack like he has with others, and like Toth did with guys like William Stout and Steve Rude, both of whom-- along with Kricfalusi, for that matter-- occupy the rare artistic elevations cats like I will never climb to.  He just brusquely dismissed me as the fool I am with a comment about how dumb it is to like their "little flesh-colored eyes."  His silence on the art I dared show him spoke plenty, too.  I'd rather be told I suck, though.  Receiving a black eye, even a figurative one, is better than being wussy enough in your skills a pro won't even fight you.  Imagine what Toth would have written to me.  I get goosebumps just thinking about it!

Anyway, getting back to the art choices in this Toth series.  Adding non-Toth stuff without proper attribution is certainly problematic.  That just seems kind of goofy, doesn't it?  I love Wildey almost as much as I do Toth, but I don't want him as a substitute when what I'm really in search of perpetually are complete Toth stories rather than excerpts.

That points out just how neglected up until now Toth has been, perhaps because of the artist's mercurial nature.  The reviewer mentions some of the few good books of Toth art out there, and they're absolutely indispensable.  If you can get them.  I own both Setting the Standard (which seems to be slipping out of print if the listing on Amazon is any indication) and the Zorro volumes (it may be going out of print now, too), and like the reviewer, I prefer them to these because they're collections of Toth's sequential work, with complete stories.  The first volume of Enrique Sanchez Abuli's Torpedo has two gorgeous period tales by Toth (plus Jordi Bernet as a bonus), so that one is a must, too.  But far too many books where his art exists are either out of print or inconveniently feature Toth folded in with a lot of other artists because he did so many short stories for anthologies.  There's no DC Universe by Alex Toth out there with every single thing he did for that company, in the same style of their Neal Adams books or the Gene Colan Batman one.  There's no big collection of his Dell work-- something titled Alex Toth in Hollywood with everything he did for Dell would be my pick for Book of the Year in whatever year some far-thinking publisher chose to put it out.  Oh my stars, there was!  Not one, but two volumes.  Now try to track one down and possess it, though!  Might as well dig for diamonds in your backyard.  And, most frustrating of all, Bravo for Adventure isn't in print anywhere!

Anyway, I'm pretty happy with these giant books because they give me back some of the sketches and examples of Toth I left back in the States when I moved to Japan and for the complete stories they do contain.  But what we really and truly need are some dedicated Toth volumes of just his stories.  Toth's DC Horrors, Toth in Space, Toth Goes to the Movies, Toth at War, Creepy and Eerie Present Alex Toth.

We need more Toth, publishers!  Let's snap it up and get on the ball here!