Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It's October is Spookey Month time again!

I know, I know, you're excited about this annual tradition here at When Comic Books Ruled the Earth where we take all of October and examine various horror comics.  We're going to take a break from Marvel movies and spend some time chilling with some chillers.  The eccentric spelling of "spookey" is in tribute to a local rock band called SpookeyThey once did a Halloween-themed live show-- a video of which you can find on YouTube-- and I bought one of their albums after watching it.  The album features a fun cover of a fun cover of the Banana Splits Adventure Hour theme song and some other feel-good pop-punk rockers.  They don't seem to be very active at the moment but that doesn't mean we have to stop being fans of cool local music and cool local musicians.

And it has nothing to do with mylove for horror comics, but this is my blog and I can do whatever I want with it.  I haven't decided on an itinerary for this month's journey through the darker realms of four-color fantasy.  I imagine it will lean heavily on Creepy, Eerie and EC once again.  A smattering of Batman, my go-to Halloween superhero.  In fact, I have a certain issue of Batman in mind for my first Spookey Month post.  Or maybe it's an issue of Detective Comics.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A little bit on the Disney/Marvel-Jack Kirby settlement...

I spent a great deal of time over the weekend on Facebook reading Kurt Busiek's responses to another Jack Kirby fan's skepticism over the Disney/Marvel-Jack Kirby family amicable settlement.  I couldn't read the fan's comments (he earned a block for excessive negativity a while back), only Busiek's replies.  Which were lengthy and not in the least combative.  He just explained-- much more patiently than I ever could, and certainly more cogently-- why the fan was badly mistaken this is somehow a bad thing.  Or at the very least why someone with zero stakes involved would get upset about it when both Disney/Marvel and the Kirby family, with major stakes involved, both seem so pleased with the outcome.

Late in the game another fan added some commentary.  Busiek jousted with him as well and knocked him off his horse more than once.  Each time the game fan remounted and took up his lance, only to have it blunted and knocked aside no matter what attack he chose.  Greedy heirs*.  WHACK.  Stick to a contract, even a lousy one.  WHOMP.  Copyright law was meant to do something else.  KRACK.  If I pay you to build a house...  THUMP.

The last I saw before averting my eyes the fan was hurtling himself down the tilting lane, this time without even a horse.  The horse had long since retired to the clubhouse for some hot toddies and a massage.  I believe the fan had armed himself with the only weapon he had left in his arsenal, a wet noodle, which he was waving around while shouting, "Now we'll never have a New Gods movie!" 

I just couldn't watch any longer.

So I started drawing.  I drew all day and into the night.  I drew that lousy Hulk you see below.  That version is number four of four.  The first three suffered fates more ignominious than the naysaying arguments in the Facebook thread.  When you consider how many outright shitty drawings I've posted here over the last few months or even years, you can imagine just how bad something must be if I don't even try to post it.  Pretty bad.

But what's pretty good is this settlement between Disney/Marvel and Jack Kirby's family.  I can't see anything negative about it for either party, cannot fathom why anyone would naysay it.  I see it as a major win-win situation for both the big corporation and the little family that could.  The Kirbys get to enjoy some of the fruits of Jack Kirby's decades-long labor, Disney/Marvel can add the Kirbys to their marketing plans for all their future movie and multi-media extravaganzas along with Stan Lee. 

After all, Kirby's fantastic creations aren't the only things marketable here.  The man himself is an amazing story of unrelenting creativity and hard work spanning generations.  The guy co-created Captain America with Joe Simon then went off and fought in the last good war, for Thor's sake.  You want to show him off, and Stan, too:  "Look at what these plucky, grandfatherly guys did for all of us.  Enjoy their work and buy a lot of our licensed stuff, which we will produce at a record-breaking pace, relatively guilt-free for a change."

Disney/Marvel may be paying out to his family, but they're going to cash in on this, too.  I've never been opposed to that.  I just wanted the guy who made that possible for them to get a little more than the kick in the pants he got way back when.  Since he's not around anymore, giving it to his children and grandchildren is the best of all possible things.  If you can't grasp that, you are an alien to me.  Or I am to you.  Norin Radd, at your service.

Settling like this makes good business sense.  And it feels good to this fan, too.  Thanks to this and the things I've heard about Marvel's relationship with Bill Mantlo (the guy who made that little Guardians of the Galaxy movie possible in the first place), I have warm, gooshy feelings about Disney/Marvel I've never had before!

*In the interest of accuracy, if not engaging storytelling and myth-making, this point may have come from someone else, in another thread or even on another site entirely.


I did this crappy drawing yesterday to celebrate the best comic book-related news story to come our way in decades.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Remember back in the old days, during the Cold War, when there weren't so many nuclear-armed superpowers?  Things have gotten way out of hand with the proliferation of mass destruction.  I'm pretty sure there's plenty of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium circulating around out there thanks to the Soviet Union's collapse.  But back when they were the other potential driver of human extinction, we Americans had our atomic secrets and people like Colonel Steve Canyon of the USAF to keep them safe.

This was back when we atom-bombed the shit out of the Nevada desert and all those Pacific atolls we had lying around after beating Japan, when all those old school European imperialists were licking their wounds and going soft on the commie menace.  Or else turning Red themselves.  Nothing like a balmy tropical paradise for testing hydrogen bombs.  Or T-bombs, whatever those are.  Canyon could tell you, but he's not talking because you might be a mole or a fellow traveler and a guy can't be too careful.

Looking back, I have no idea what we were thinking.  Sure, you'd find magazine articles on how the domino theory would lead to Southeast Asia becoming a Marxist staging point for invading Japan, then Hawaii and then Boise, Idaho.  But there had to be a better way to protect and preserve our way of life than blasting our obsolete battle fleets with nuclear bombs and polluting the atmosphere with fallout.  I wonder why these damned things had to be tested so often anyway.  Once you have a trigger mechanism that works, why do you need another?  And if it's the fissile material that's in doubt, you can't un-blow a proven sample and use it again.  I think all these Pentagon brass hats and physicist types were more or less like kids with really big firecrackers-- the largest-- and some really super keen model ships they couldn't help blowing up for kicks.

These happy images with their subtext of promised global apocalypse are from Dell Four Color Comics #641 (October 1955), reprinted in Hermes Press' new-to-digital offering Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon: The Complete Series Volume 1.  This one stands out for me because I find myself reading accounts of weapons testing in my downtime.

And who would dare argue with that swanky painted cover, which has a "Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew meets James Bond" charm about it?  I'm not a big proponent of painted interior art because it tends to look more like a collage of pretty still images rather than a sequence of events, but give me painted covers anytime.  One of this book's strengths is its full-page reproduction of these beautiful paintings.  The front cover itself features a dramatic image of Canyon and his enlisted driver gritting out a rocket launchpad fire that's too close for comfort.  You can almost feel the heat and the frenzied background action gives the scene a sense of urgency that's only helped by Canyon's raised arm and grimace-creased face.  The interior art may have a few Caniff touches, but it's largely by Ray Bailey and William Overgard, two names with which I'm not familiar.  I will be getting acquainted as I dig into this book.

The point is, here's some sweet 1950s espionage action that falls right in my wheelhouse.  My dad and I used to follow the daily Steve Canyon strip in its latter years, but I've neglected Caniff and people like Noel Sickles for far too long.  I'm not just a student of comic book art filling in the gaps in my education, I'm a student of this historical era, and comics like these give us a feel for time, when we Americans felt ourselves surrounded by danger and locked in a death struggle with a diametrically opposed ideology.  Our good guys sometimes wore white cowboy hats and sometimes they wore blue service caps with eagles pinned to them.


Friday, September 5, 2014

"Forget it, Kitty! You're not good enough for us 'X-Babies!"

Ah, I remember New Mutants #13 (March 1984) when Kitty Pryde was like, "Oh, guys, can I hang out with you?" and Dani Moonstar was all, "Nuh uh!  You called us 'X-Babies,' so you can take your sorry butt right on out of these woods we're hanging out in and suck an egg!"  I was thinking about that the other day.  I've always loved the cover by Tom Mandrake.  Crying Kitty's in the foreground in her garish green circus costume, phasing sadly through a fallen tree, and the New Mutants are behind her looking fierce.  Especially Dani, who Mandrake places in this pose of haughty dismissal.
The story inside is heavy on Amara, Kitty and Doug Ramsey, none of whom I had the least interest in back in the day.  I briefly gave up reading the series right around this issue because the book seemed moribund.  No more Bob McLeod art, the team's central conflict-- Dani versus a Brood-controlled Professor X-- had long been resolved and the X-Men were back from space, where everyone had believed them dead.  There was really no need for a junior X-Team, unless it was to give Chris Claremont's complex narratives in Uncanny X-Men extra space to play out as a kind of main story footnote.  Hardly a compelling reason for another title, although it's standard operating practice at both Marvel and DC these days.
Rather than establish a distinct identity, New Mutants in its second year tended towards dull, generic super-kid stories. It hooked me again when Bill Sienkiewicz became the regular artist and Chris Claremont re-established his unique authorial voice by taking the kids and their narrative in a darker direction.  Demon bears, slumber parties, shape-shifting cyber-aliens from outer space.  All classic stuff.

But I loved this conflict between Kitty and Dani.  I took Dani's side, of course.  Who wouldn't?  Dani is only Marvel's greatest post-Jack Kirby creation.  Kitty's fine, but there's no competition there.  Mandrake's cover stuck with me for years after I'd forgotten Amara gets her codename in the story, long after I'd given up comic book reading for serious literature only to start in with them again, kind of the same way I did with New Mutants.

Every so often, I want to revisit that cover image, only my brain invariably turns it into something that only slightly resembles the Mandrake original.  Like with this drawing, which I knocked out the other day before work.  I felt like working on a foreshortened pointing pose, because I'd convinced myself Mandrake had drawn Dani that way.  Actually, if you take a look at New Mutants #13, she's just sort of waving her hand at Kitty.  And I really thought since Dani was establishing herself as team leader and spokesperson she was the one who let Kitty have it with the cover dialogue.  How wrong I was!  Well, my little sketch is poor Kitty Pryde to Mandrake's powerful Dani Moonstar.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Things to be excited about: Silver Age Teen Titans, Ghosts and Dark Horse's reprints of Marvel Star Wars...

I dropped some mega-bucks on DC's Silver Age Teen Titans Archives volumes 1 and 2, Showcase Presents Ghosts and Dark Horse's Star Wars Omnibus:  A Long Time Ago... volume 4.  These four massive books are on their way to me as I type this, through wind and rain.  Yeah, it's a dark day here in Japan with changeable weather threatening to wash out any weekend activities people may have planned now that the temperatures are easing off from the sauna range they stayed in all summer long.  Of course, with dengue fever closing Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, it's probably just as well.  Yet within my heart is a bright, warm light and its source is anticipation of some classic comic book reading material.

The Silver Age Teen Titans Archives books particularly delight me, since this is one of those series I've fallen madly in love with.  I just cannot seem to get enough of Bob Haney's socially aware writing or Nick Cardy's art.  Most especially the latter.  I've bought this material both in digital form and in Showcase format.  The digitals, on Comixology, never seem to advance past the five or so comics available in Silver Age Titans Archives volume 1.  The relatively inexpensive Showcase Titans books seem to be going out of print now.  I have copies of both volumes stored back in the US, I only have one here in Japan.  No luck getting the other one for a reasonable price.   So my unreasonable solution was to complete my Haney-Cardy-Neal Adams-and-others Teen Titans collection by paying even more for hardcover full-color stories I already own in multiples.

Teen Titans is no mere comic book series.  It is a way of life.

And since I was on a classic DC kick, what better choice to complement the superheroics than yet another Showcase Presents book featuring a horror anthology?  The artist line-up in DC's old horror books reads like a list of my favorites:  Cardy, Alfredo Alcala, Frank Redondo, Nestor Redondo, Sam Glanzman, Ramona Fradon, Jerry Grandenetti, Wally Wood, George Tuska, Gerry Talaoc and so many more.  And with Halloween coming up, I need some fun and spooky reading material.

Finally, my addiction to Al Williamson inspired my purchase of the Dark Horse Star Wars Omnibus:  A Long Time Ago... book.  I have the first three, which means I have Williamson's The Empire Strikes Back adaptation.  It also means I need his Return of the Jedi work.  And I certainly am not going to complain about having to look at stories by Carmine Infantino, Walter Simonson and Ron Frenz with inks by Tom Palmer.  This book also contains Star Wars #74, "The Iskalon Effect" (August 1983), with art by Frenz and Palmer.  It's one of the few non-Al Williamson Star Wars comics I bought during Marvel's original run of books.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #9: Conan the Barbarian (Marvel Super Special #21, August 1982)

John Milius and I are probably diametrical opposites politically (and in most other ways), but I have to admit I admire the hell out of him.  The guy simply fascinates me.  He's collaborated with people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and a fella name of Francis Ford Coppola on a little flick called Apocalypse Now.  Lucas based the John Milner character from American Graffiti on Milius, and he served as partial inspiration for Walter Sobchak in the Coen Brothers' Big Lebowski

On his own, Milius has made a number of romantic adventure films laced with a lot of his personal philosophy, which is somewhere to the right of right wing.  He's got kind of a sketchy commercial record, but he's never bored me with his movies.  At its best, his work achieves a kind of powerful macho poetry and beauty, and I find myself exalted by themes and moments I wouldn't ordinarily celebrate.  The Wind and the Lion, Big Wednesday and Rough Riders come to mind. 

Sometimes his movies are just sort of silly.  Red Dawn

Or poetic and silly at the same time.  Which brings us to Conan the Barbarian (Marvel Super Special #21, August 1982). 

Other than the rough outlines of its fantasy setting and few names and incidents here and there, this movie has little  to do with Robert E. Howard's most famous creation.  Milius and co-screenwriter Oliver Stone (yes, THAT Oliver Stone; Milius doesn't seem to let ideology affect his choice in collaborators, which is another reason I respect him) reinvent Conan to suit their revenge story and also because of Arnold Schwarzenegger, in just his second dramatic role (his first being as Hercules in a low-budget comedy with Arnold Stang), didn't have the acting chops to carry the film's narrative.  This reduces the title barbarian himself to kind of a passive meathead thoroughly out-charismaed by his partner-in-crime and lover Valeria, played with scene-stealing verve by Sandahl Bergman.

Script:  Michael Fleisher/Story and art: John Buscema

But Arnold as Conan-- Schwarzenegger, not Stang-- probably contributes the largest portion of the public's perception of the character.  Thick accent, not a lot to say, and most of that borrowed from Genghis Khan.  The rest more than likely comes from Marvel's comic book series starring Conan, which hews closer to Howard's version without quite getting it right, either.  And since Marvel was also in the business of adapting movies, their doing a Conan the Barbarian film comic was inevitable. 

Who better to adapt and draw it than John Buscema, the top Conan comic artist of the day?  As a geek, I tend to associate Buscema with the character almost as much as I do Robert E. Howard himself.  Buscema has Michael Fleisher provide the words for his adaptation, which may or may not have been a smart move.  I say this only because I wish we could have read something even more purely Buscema just to experience what his word choices and tone might have been like.  Together, Buscema and Fleisher reduce the naked sex and sexy naked parts and expurgate most of the gore to produce a newsstand-ready Conan magazine that's Marvel and Milius at the same time.

Script:  Michael Fleisher/Story and art: John Buscema

Buscema draws Conan how he was used to drawing him in the Marvel comics rather than try to depict him as Arnold.  In fact, Buscema makes no attempt to caricature anyone other than James Earl Jones as villainous Thulsa Doom.  And even his Doom is more or less a general likeness, aided by Jones' distinct look as the character. 

Doom is a mean guy with a Bettie Page hairdo and a pack of horseback raiders who follow him around in search of money and murder.  They slaughter everyone in Conan's village and then Doom hypnotizes Conan's mom and chops off her head.  The orphaned Conan spends a number of years pushing a stone wheel around until he's as big as a bodybuilder.  Sold as a gladiator, he learns swordplay and Nietschean philosophy while also providing stud services.  Freed, he sexes up a werewolf witch, meets pro surfer Gerry Lopez and soon learns Doom has reinvented himself as head of a cult that sells snake-worship franchises throughout the land.  Conan also meets Valeria, who doesn't dominate the story in the comic quite as much as she does in the movie.  Buscema draws Valeria as the standard Buscema beauty, with thick eyelashes and high cheekbones.  Like Bergman, she's statuesque and blond, but that's where the resemblance ends.

And that's really enough.  If I wanted the characters to look exactly like the actors, I'd just watch the movie again or look at some photos.  I love when an artist does caricatures or likenesses, but it's not always necessary.  If likeness is an artist's strength, then he or she should focus on that.  If not, then filling the pages with a lot of off-model faces poorly copied from stills and publicity material is simply a distraction.  Some can do both, but either way the storytelling is much more important.  Things like pacing and clarity of sequence.  Vigor.  You don't find many storytellers more vigorous than John Buscema in sword-and-sorcery mode.

Script:  Michael Fleisher/Story and art: John Buscema

And in contrast with the disappointing Raiders of the Lost Ark, Buscema inks himself this time.  He's well within his comfort zone, and, as with Al Williamson on Empire Strikes Back, we've got an artist perfectly matched to the material.  Whoever made the decision to return to the painted color style of some of the earlier Super Specials needs singling out for praise, too.  D. Pedler (sorry, I don't know who this is, but I wish I did) and the legendary Lynn Varley do a sensational job here, giving Buscema's already gorgeous art a luminous quality, giving each location a rich look full of depth and atmosphere.  Snowy woods look cold, the barren wastes look hot and dry.  This Super Special is a visual treat with a richness a few of the preceding issues sorely needed.  The result?  It's classic Buscema Conan guest-starring in the Milius movie

The writing preserves many of the movie's best lines except for my favorite part, which is Conan's prayer, which it truncates to get to more action.  Conan's prayer is probably the most bad-ass prayer ever capture on film next to the ones for George Bailey at the beginning of It's a Wonderful Life

And I must quote the film here:

Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!

Before we toddle off to Crom's mountain where we'll laugh at the four winds, here's a page with a funny panel a Buscema group I'm in on Facebook hashed over recently.  Look at the middle panel of the bottom tier:

Script:  Michael Fleisher/Story and art: John Buscema

"Valeria!  No-- please no!" 

Neither Howard's nor Milius' Conans spend half a second begging like that.  Where the word balloon arrow points is to the rescued princess, but considering her ungrateful characterization the rest of the way (and the fact she didn't know who the hell Valeria even was) make me believe this is Conan speaking.  Hardly the stuff of the guy who tells his own god to grant him revenge or go to hell.

Who gets the blame for this?

Fuck it, Dude.  Let's go bowling.