Thursday, August 31, 2006

Space Adventures #52

Space Adventures #52, July 1963, Charlton Comics Group

Extraterrestrial bubbles that enslave humans.

A space explorer trapped on a silent planet with a half-cat/half-ape.

Two interstellar fighters that witness the end of their universe, unaware that they live in a forlorn fiancée’s snowglobe.

A stranded astronaut-ambassador that falls in love with a winged alien.

Two tiny cosmic scouts attacked by creatures of the planet they were sent to explore – some odd orb called Earth.

What do these subjects have in common? In 1963, they were worthy concepts for sci-fi comic shorts. Although these stories are cliché by today’s standards, through a culturally retrospective lens, they are quite amusing and entertaining. And, frankly, refreshing after yesterday’s dud. Unlike previous posts, in which I’ve offered a lengthy analysis of the issue’s contents and context in the grand scheme of comicdom, I feel compelled simply to list my impressions of the book as a whole, in the hopes that these brief observations provide the necessary insight. Away we go:

Although a part of me is growing tired of these four-or-more-in-one compilation comics – the “training grounds” for beginning illustrators, as I’ve called them – I appreciate efforts like Space Adventures that keep their conceptual exercises to a minimum. In other words, the reader is in and out of the writer’s idea, without the burden of unnecessary narrative or explanation. Further, these stories began in the midst of the action, sparing us the superfluous build-up many writers used to pad their skeleton plots back in the day. Like good sci-fi, some of these little tales actually left me in wonder. Go figure.

A few favorite lines: The half-cat/half-ape to the human explorer carving a spear, “How fortunately situated your digits are! You can do many things which I find impossible to achieve!” About time those alien animal hybrids realized how far up the cosmic food chain we earthlings are!

The chauvinist ambassador’s thoughts after an argument with his winged beloved, “Idiot, she called me . . . The Atwood women never spoke that way to their men! But she’d learn that in time . . .” Later, when his mission of peace is revealed and he scores the girl, “Peace treaty? With her sharp tongue and dictatorial ways, I had a strong hunch the war was just beginning . . . a war inevitably I’d lose but which promised some pretty stimulating battles!” Whoa! This guy’s talking about landing on the moon before the rocket even launches, for crying out loud!

As different as these stories were, all of them hinged on the strengths and capabilities of humanity – specifically, white, middle-aged earthmen. I wonder if a modern sci-fi jam comic would be any different. The first story in this issue was about bubbles, but the real bubbles of that era were perhaps the one these writers were living in.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Captain Paragon #1

Captain Paragon #1, December 1983, Americomics
editor: Bill Black

After an exhausting day of work, I come home hoping read an exciting comic book. Instead, I read Captain Paragon.

Captain Paragon is a patriotic hero that was trapped in suspended animation since the late ‘50s, now revived to fight for justice in the ‘80s. The first of three stories featured Cap hiring a private detective to help him remember his secret identity, but this chapter ends inexplicably when the dick’s investigation begins. Unfortunately, my interest in the issue ended, as well. Oh, I read it all to abide by the A Comic A Day regulations, but I won’t waste your time as much as this comic wasted mine.

If you turned in work that read twenty years out of date, obviously based on a colleague’s more notable, previous work, how would your boss react? Who was holding these derivative creators accountable for their well-shrouded plagiarism?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

DC Super Stars #9

DC Super Stars #9, November 1976, National Periodical Publications (DC Comics)
various creative teams

I thought this series was titled The Man Behind the Gun, since those words were emblazoned across the cover and included in the introductory text of each of this issue’s stories. The publication print, however, reveals that this series is actually dubbed DC Super Stars, presumably with an emphasis on a different genre with every issue, as the next issue blurb boasted, “Strange Sports Stories on Sale 4th Week of September.” Guns, sports . . . is this a guy’s comic book or what?

This issue featured not one, not two, not even three, but five epic tales about, well, guns, from a variety of eras, and in the hands of a variety of characters. The feature story actually stars Superman, at the mercy of Lex Luthor’s former cellmate who has built a gun that can harness the Man of Steel’s powers and use them to repel him. More interesting than the X-Gun is its effects of old Big Blue, as it hurtles him first into the sun, then through the time barrier itself. Talk about an armor-piercing bullet! With the help of Jimmy Olsen, Superman willingly exposes himself to Kryptonite to taint the gun’s strength, proving that a weapon is only as strong as its target is vulnerable, I suppose.

The other stories aren’t as interesting, and in fact, they literally decrease in quality and entertainment factor until the reader finally stumbles upon a carefully shrouded futuristic history lesson in the creation of the first hand held destructive laser. I understand what these writers, including Batman scribe Bill Finger, were trying to do, to analyze the power of the gun through various contexts of fiction, but the structure obviously became more important to the concept than the intrigue. Although the settings ranged from the Old West to a crippled but still capable submarine, each yarn adapted a formula that became too apparent with five similar back-to-back stories. “Here’s a gun, here’s the guy pulling the trigger, and here’s what makes this yarn so interesting.” Okay. I get it. I’ll never sneak a peek inside that shoebox in Daddy’s closet again.

When I, as a reader, spend more time pondering why the creators took the artistic routes they did, an issue like this becomes less about the men behind the guns and more about the men behind the comic. Although this stratum of the reading experience is still a form of escapism, the comic just doesn’t pull you in enough. It just shoots blanks.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Gunfighters #12

The Gunfighters #12, 1963, Super Comics

I never played cowboys and Indians as a kid. Westerns always struck me as too outdated to be fun. I mean, with the whole breadth of history and futuristic science fiction available to the young role player's imagination, why pretend to gunfight in a dusty old road with measly six-shooters? Why not drive an imaginary tank over enemy trenches in World War II or navigate a space class battle craft through mutated alien asteroids? To each his own, I guess. So, as you can imagine, I read this issue of Gunfighters with a reluctant heart. My inner child groaned.

Admittedly, if The Gunfighters wasn't so heavy with the excessive narrative and superfluous dialogue characteristic of its era, I might've enjoyed it more. (The authors and artists are uncreditied, as well.) As is, between the four comic tales and the two-page text short story, most of these yarns were too padded for my taste. Oftentimes I felt like the characters were dragging me through their adventure behind their carriage than inviting me to join them in the dynamics of the frontlines. Further, by the fourth comic strip, the issue seemed to forget its own concept, and none of the characters actually wielded guns during their conflict. Gunfighters and Arrow-slingers would've been a more appropriate title.

Interestingly, two of the strips were told from the Indians' perspective, an element I wouldn't have suspected from these old, usually stereotype-ridden tales. In both of these adventures, the Indians were generally characterized as suspicious and intolerant of "the palefaces," save the one post-modern-minded standout among them whose views were proven right by the end of story. Although I'm sure these tales were written by white men themselves, the idea that such stereotype-driven prejudice between cowboys and Indians was a two-way street is a welcome change from the "white guys as bad guys" trend that permeates most contemporary politically correct works of fiction.

Two of the stories, including the pulpy short detective story, deviated from the cowboys and Indians shtick for a welcome breath of fresh air. The short story featured a predictable murder mystery; it must have been written before red herrings were invented, because the primary suspect is proven guilty by the sheer tone of his shady introduction. Still, I liked the story, as it struck me as a Hardy Boys tale featuring Frank or Joe all grown up. The other comic strip starred a shady entrepreneur bent on establishing a crooked casino in a quiet Western town. Fortunately, an old cowpoke and his donkey expose the fraud and drive the swindler away. With this kind of track record, NBC should consider incorporating a donkey into their Las Vegas series.

The gem of the entire issue is this line of introspection from the young Indian chieftain Wolf Claw, who fancies the same woman as his rival Little Turtle. The squaw's name is what's inspiring:

WOLF CLAW: I would have Pretty Beaver for my own, but she has eyes only for Little Turtle! And by our laws that is her right!

Did I just quote a comic or a porno?

Despite anyone's genre of choice, this challenge proves that everyone's tastes find a common ground in comic books. Unlike the cowboys and the Indians, we don’t have to fight over that territory. The comic book is a fertile land we can all share. So keep that peashooter in its holster, ya varmit.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Astronauts in Trouble: Space 1959 #1

Astronauts in Trouble: Space 1959 #1, January 2000, AiT/Planet Lar
writer/letterer: Larry Young
artist: Charlie Adlard
cover artists: Kieron Dwyer & John Heebink
editor: Mimi Rosenheim
editorial assistance: Adam Beechen

As I type this review, the Emmy awards are unfolding on television behind me, an appropriate soundtrack for a comic book about the dawn of pop culture’s two most important sciences: space travel and broadcast journalism. If these two professions have anything in common, it’s that its most notable pioneers often have their heads in the clouds. Heh.

This issue is the first in a miniseries and successfully establishes a murder mystery meets government conspiracy yarn, with an L.A. Confidential meets Armageddon feel that surprisingly blends in the gumshoe era of the '50s. While covering a police officer’s alleged accidental shooting of a janitor, a premiere field news team is led to an experimental island launching pad, where they are sequestered by the paramilitary group to secure America's successful role in the space race. Indeed, this first issue is that easy to summarize, and just as pleasant to read, with a dialogue occasionally too bulky for the panel, but consistently rife with noir and intrigue. Adlard's art is crisp and fitting for the black and white format, by way of Brian Stelfreeze and with some similarity to Phil Hester, in my opinion. AiT was just as fun to look at as it was to read.

As I've written here before, issues like this offer not only a glimpse into a series, but also a company, as I’ve never read an AiT book before. (I take that back: I believe Brian Wood's Channel Zero is from AiT. Let's just over look that, shall we?) Just as the Valiant sampling from over a month ago revealed a superhero comic book universe desperate to establish its own identity and continuity, AiT seems less concerned with weaving an ongoing tapestry than it does just telling a good story. I know Young has a foundation laid for his Astronauts in Trouble books, but this issue didn't obligate me to dig up any back issues to fully understand it. In fact, I dare say it's a good jump-aboard book for interested newcomers like myself. Rather than ally his company with the superhero genre, Young obviously sought to exploit another niche of adventure fiction, to his benefit, I reckon. His company, its logo, and its library have created a productive impression on the industry.

John Stewart and Stephen Colbert just finished presenting the award for best reality show competition series, or some such category that I'm sure didn't exist five years ago. Entertainment is changing. Larry Young could really be one of its new architects.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

World's Finest #263

World's Finest vol. 40 #263, June/July 1980, DC Comics
various creative teams

As a superhero fan with an inclination toward DC's roster of icons, I've been looking forward to reviewing this issue. Packed with five full-length features, I've been saving this dose for a day with little else on the agenda; obviously, today's the day. I read the headlining story this morning (like 3 a.m. this morning), and the rest of the issue piece by piece throughout the day, to fully digest all of its campy '80s goodness. I've concluded that the more I devour books like this, which multiple stories starring multiple characters, the more I miss the format in contemporary comics. Characters are much more accessible in episodic installments, and B-listers like Adam Strange and Captain Marvel, Jr. share the spotlight with Superman and Batman. Without books like this laying the foundation of the DCU's versatility, epics like Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis may not have been possible. Well, maybe I can live without these titles, then . . . but that's another topic entirely.

In the first story, written by Denny O'Neil, the "Final Secret of the Super-Sons" is revealed, with enough shoddy science and contrived emotion to fuel an entire season of Deep Space Nine. Not to mix mediums. The tale begins with a computer simulation of Superman's and Batman's sons in combat, which is apparently an exercise in paternal fulfillment on the heroes' part. Nevermind that Batman raised Dick Grayson as a surrogate father, and that Superman has a young Kryptonian cousin in need of guidance in the real world. Anyway, when Batman forgets to end the simulation, the computer overloads, and thanks to Superman's deposit of a radioactive ore in the Fortress of Solitude's disintegration pit, the boys come to life. Their existence is brief, as their radioactive forms create an instability that threatens the very Earth itself. With as much grief as one silent closing panel can offer, the World's Finest tell their faux spawn to hop in the pit from whence they came. Even Superman's fake son is selfless 'til the end: "Aw, I didn't really want to exist anyway!" Nice. The best parts of the story revealed Denny O'Neil's unwavering faithfulness to Batman's investigative intelligence: when the boys were still in the simulation, Batman, Jr. deduced that they were "only two dimensional creatures living in a three dimensional universe!" Close enough. Later, in the real world, when they first confront the Caped Crusader, a speechless Batman excuses himself to sit and analyze the possibilities of the kids' existence. As much as these characters are driven by action, quiet moments of thought and introspection like this are just as compelling. Compelling, yes, but not enough to garner any real sympathy with the Super-Sons. O'Neil took a fifteen-page story concept and wrote an appropriate story without overdoing it. That's a legacy we all can live with.

The other stories varied slightly in plot and artistic quality, but were all essentially fodder for their respective hero's canon and character. In "Hell's Acre Savior," Green Arrow uses his dual positions as a vigilante and an editorial columnist (?) to expose a business man's plans to build a reclamation center as a plot to cover up a decades old mob burial ground. The activism that O-Neil -- there's that name again -- established with Arrow back in his Green Lantern team-up dates was still ripe for the plucking, apparently. In "Zeta-Death," Adam Strange infiltrates an enemy compound to secure technology necessary to win their ironic Peace War. Those Zeta beams are as fickle as an alternator in an old '67 Chevelle; you never know if you're really going to get where you're going, you know? "Return to New Venice" is essentially an Aquaman origin piece, with a prelude or two of adventures to come, apparently including an inter-dimensional quest to save the mayor's brother. Finally, in "The Graybeard Gang," Captain Marvel, Jr. battles a threesome of extremely elderly gunslingers, seemingly still alive by their sheer desire to do evil. They may be performing in next year's Superbowl half-time show.

Oh, and I should note that the Flash makes an appearance in this issue, foiling the Destroyer's attempt to topple a dam with those tasty Hostess Twinkies, the world's finest sweet treat!

Although some of these stories have some tragic undertones, including a touching (and potentially fatal?) shedding of tears from Aquaman, all of these yarns were light, fun, and easy to read by today's standards. Those were the days when a hero could face a crisis and stand tall, maintaining their integrity as an icon and incorporating the moment as an inspiration to continue their mission. Further, as dire as some of these circumstances were, none of these stories dramatically altered the character beyond their recognizable core. Adam Strange faces the possibility of never seeing his family again, of certain death, and emerges with a quip on his lips. Remember those days, when heroes smiled? As I said in the beginning, epics like Whatever Crisis might not have had the desired impact without series like World's Finest establishing the totality of DC's heroic role call. Still, these epics should remember what makes these heroes the finest in the first place.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Invincible #1

Invincible #1, Image Comics (from the Ultimate Collection compilation)
writer: Robert Kirkman
artist: Cory Walker

I spent more quality time at the library today, this time with the Invincible hardcover that dominated a shelf space suitable for three or four lesser graphic novels. I had to see what all the fuss was about, both in its size and the rave reviews I've read of the series. I was impressed as much as I wasn't. Before you call me a son of a hero-turned-alien-dictator, let me explain.

First of all, the last time I read an offering at the library, I scribbed the comic's credits so I can list them in my heading, as I've done from day one. This time, I figured I'd be able to dig 'em up in the Internet, as Invincible has become a premiere book for Image's new all-genre . . . well, image. Sure, Kirkman, Walker, and his artisitic successor Ryan Ottley were often credited for their work; the letterer (probably Kirkman himself, but nevertheless) and the colorist were both no where to be found. Of course, I spent mere minutes scrolling through Google results, clicking on the occassionally promising link, and if I had spent a few more minutes I'm sure I would've been successful, but alas, misson incomplete. In this creator's rights driven age of give-me-credit-or-else, why aren't the colorists and letterers getting their due in print? Sometimes poor quality in either department can break a book; other times, either element can save an issue. They are artists, too, and their work should be critiqued. I'm not going to analyze them this time, but you catch my drift. Letters tell the story, and colors wrap the gift. Without them, comics would be glorified coloring books.

Furthermore, my Internet search tainted my review, because my impression of Invincible hinged on its similaries with Ultimate Spider-man, another acclaimed series I intentionally avoided, albeit for different reasons. I wasn't the only one to realize this. I mean, lanky high schooler gets super-powers, gets in trouble beating up the school bully, and wise-cracks his way through muggings and bank robberies? Classic Spider-man. In the first issue, Invincible does have a relatively happy home life, unlike young Spidey's ongoing strife with girls and the ever ill Aunt May, but his bliss was nearly contagious if not consequential to the formulaic structure of the story.

Therein lies my problem with Invincible #1. I know future issues expose his father as an uber-villain, establishing a melodramatic subplot that has made the series the darling of Oedipal complexes everywhere (sans the mother-lust, I think), but in this issue, the kid's too darn happy. He gets his powers, and he mutters, "Finally," as if his father's abilities inevitably entitled him to super-skills. Further, seemingly hours later, he's on the street knocking bad guys around, in what Kirkman could've only described as "garb from the clearance section at Home Depot." Mom and Dad have no problem with their son's recklessness, with willingness to put himself in harm's way when there's no proof that his abilities are permenent or as limitless as his father's? He's half human, too, isn't he? Without these basic conflicts coming into play, Invincible #1 makes for a boring read. I only enjoyed the tale as a superhero romp because I knew (through on-line press, mostly) of the drastic domestic dispute in his future.

The formula is the same, and I know so because I've written it myself: introduce character in action, flashback to origin sequence, introduce supporting characters in stride, one page at a time, then return to introductory moment to resolve conflict. Established the status quo for a dozen issues or so, then take the story in a "bold new direction." Been there, done that. Apparently, even Invincible isn't impervious to this structure. Still, again like Ultimate Spider-man, the series is a success. Perhaps superhero fans simply needed a fresh start. Maybe a few issues into the series, I'll get it. As is, I'm ready for another revamp.

Is Formulaic a good name for a superhero?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Flaming Carrot Comics #31

Flaming Carrot Comics #31, October 1994, Dark Horse Comics
writer & artist: Bob Burden
letterer: Shannon T. Stewart
assistants: Gabrielle Greene, John Eaton, Chris Hunter

I don’t know how Bob Burden was inspired to create the Flaming Carrot, but I’m sure if he hadn’t, some ‘90s grunge band would have secured the name in no time. Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers . . . Flaming Carrots. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

As much sense as this issue. In the first of two Flaming Carrot stories, Herbie, a robust young man that derives super abilities from lollipops, recruits the Carrot in his time-traveling quest to determine if Shakespeare truly wrote his plays. The Flaming One and Herbie find “Billy Bob Shakespeare” only to learn that the Bard is a simple-minded hick, ably assisted by fellow time traveler Buddy Hackett, who simply seeks a legitimate forum for his less comedic artistic expressions. I loved this story for its sheer frivolity factor. If Burden had a point, it’s fairly far-fetched, best summed up by Hackett, “Ya know, nobody respects anything unless it was written long, long ago . . . if it ain’t old, it ain’t good! And I agree! I feel so creative, so full of inspiration in these old days!” Oh-kay. So where in the plotting process did Burden conclude, “I can analyze the irony of classic versus contemporary literature with a team-up between Buddy Hackett and Shakespeare?” You won’t see this stuff in the X-Men.

Reading Burden’s supplemental essay, I realize that his story was potentially an expression of his frustration with the comics medium, more specifically, his inability to produce new material as quickly as he was writing it. Prior to its success on the silver screen, Burden apparently had three or four Mystery Men comics scripts collecting dust on his desk, with no available artists to help him complete the creative and publication process. His compromise was surprisingly ingenious by early ‘90s standards: Burden sought to publish the scripts as text-intensive comics, with a colorfully illustrated cover and a few interior pieces here and there for the feint of heart, dubbed Version-A Comics. Although scripts have since been included in trade paperbacks and graphic novels as “Easter eggs” for the faithful collector, the creative process for comic books was still a mystery to many of its fans at this time. A few books from Eisner and the classic How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way were the only reliable texts with true behind-the-scenes insight. No Warren Ellis e-newsletters. No Wizard magazine or Scriptwriters on Scriptwriting. Yet. Burden’s Version-A Comics may have been alternative form of comics reading, but ultimately, they were the foundation for the educational angle scribes like McCloud have capitalized on since then.

I wonder what came of the idea. When Mystery Men took off as a franchise, did Burden toss Version-A to the wayside? Would the market embrace a project like that from another established creator? Interestingly, Burden comments that, “I have a small but loyal audience, and a need to keep my work in front of them with a monthly book.” This commitment and humility was shocking to read from a comic book creator, who, from my limited experience, usually act like God’s gift to graphic literature, like a month or two off here or there is worth the reader’s wait when it comes to their work. Further, I never would have thought that a writer would reveal the size of his audience. That’s proverbial locker room squabble I thought comic professionals reserved for after their signings at comic book conventions. More so than his actual comic, Burden’s insight into his process and the industry in general is enough to make me want more. The carrot may be flaming, but here is an artist truly on fire.

I don’t need a time traveling grandfather clock to prove that Burden is the genius behind this literature. If only he had one to see where his work would end up.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Strangers in Paradise vol. III #36

Strangers in Paradise vol. III #36, November 2000, Abstract Studios
by Terry Moore

Strangers in Paradise is perhaps the most celebrated contemporary independent series in the comic book industry. More so than any effort distributed by Image, Dark Horse, or any of the other hundreds of small press publishers, SiP has always struck me as the most successful one-man show on the shelves, right alongside Cerebus and Bone as contenders for the title. Even if you don’t read it, you’ve heard of it. That’s me. Further, as much as I’ve heard of it, I have no idea what it’s about. And this issue certainly didn’t help.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the read. In this issue, Tambi and Katchoo rescue David from presumably dangerous adversaries, one of whom is Tambi’s sister. While Katchoo rushes David to safety, Tambi battles her sister and her cohort to the death. That’s it, near as I can tell. From the letter column (which deserves an essay in its own right – I thought lettercols were extinct until I read some of these popular indie series), I deduced that this issue is the penultimate installment in a longer arc, so I don’t feel terrible for my disorientation. I get Moore’s point. The only two guys in this book are either whimpering kidnappers or helpless kidnap victims. The chicks have the upper hand . . . without even chipping a nail.

The success of SiP undoubtedly stems from its inherent feminism, in its ability to depict strong women in stereotypically masculine roles. Additionally, these women are modestly dressed. I’m sorry, “modestly” isn’t the right word. “Appropriately” is perhaps more accurate. See, these ladies are obviously tough, but also vulnerable, and despite Moore’s feeble attempts at character distinction (if all of the women were bald, they’d look exactly the same), I think we’re being led to believe they’re cute, too. What they aren’t is scantily clad, or spandex shrink wrapped, or even tremendously top heavy in the biological sense. Even the most established female leads in comicdom, like Wonder Woman, Storm, and Witchblade, have to show off a little skin to sell comics. Moore’s women truly are strangers in this regard.

Unfortunately, this issue does not pass the investment test. That is, based on this impression, I wouldn’t invest further in this series. I picked up this issue cold, from a back issue bin at the Comic Con, and this deep into the SiP mythos, the title is obviously one long in thing with its core readership. If it pays Moore’s bills, there’s nothing wrong with that. I just wish a series with so much mass-market appeal could appeal more to the mass market. I’m taking my mother’s advice on this one. No talking to strangers.

Oh, like you weren’t thinking that line.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Wyrd the Reluctant Warrior #3

Wyrd the Reluctant Warrior #3, September 1999, Slave Labor Graphics
writer/artist: Jim Starlin

Comicdom has always had its superstars. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane – pseudo celebrities that have generated exposure for the industry through their talent and dynamic personalities. Students of pop culture know these names even if they don’t actually read comics, and diehard collectors pursue their careers as if the very medium hinged on their works and reputation. As often as I’ve seen his name in print, I would not count Jim Starlin among these ranks.

I’m not trying to be mean. I’ve just never heard a fanboy go nuts over a Jim Starlin comic book. I wonder if his name, almost as bold on this issue’s cover as the title itself, actually boosted sales for Wyrd the Reluctant Collector. If not . . . what’s the point? If Wyrd needs the credibility of his creator to sell his stories, maybe his stories are best left untold.

For your consideration: Wyrd (I presume pronounced “wired”) is the sixty-ninth hero in the Wyrd legacy and, with the help of an imaginary gremlin, is dedicated to saving the world from the inter-dimensional Nexus Combine corporation. Unhindered by his predecessor’s gay lifestyle and his father’s association with the enemy, Wyrd 69 uncovers the Combine’s telemarketing scheme and defeats his demonic pursuers’ leader. It’s actually less harrowing than it sounds. Starlin’s thin allegory of the office cubical lifestyle is as insightful as a Dilbert strip, and his attempts at controversial humor – this parallel dimension’s answer to Superman is the former Wyrd’s lover – are too divisive to be effective. Do I need to be specific?

WYRD: We must thwart this nefarious plot!
D’GINN (the imaginary gremlin): Nefarious plot? By any chance, did you read a lot of comics when you were a kid?

Please. Why must writers with weak concepts insist on including some inane commentary on the inherent “campiness” of comics to boost the supposed cleverness of their story? Just a few pages later, that same scoffing specter identifies himself by explaining, “I’m a mentor-class construct not a demon warrior. I observe and advise.” Which sounds more hokey?

Artistically, Wyrd is a combination of hand-drawn characters, by Starlin himself, on a computer-generated background, which, in a digitally printed black and white comic, makes for some obscured visuals. The “camera” was often pulled back too much to show off this use of multimedia, clipping the action’s already low-flying wings. I was impressed with how unimpressed I was.

Can you tell that this issue left a bad taste in my mouth? Perhaps I was just frustrated by the gratuitous use of the creator’s name on the cover, as if who he is in the industry is enough to sell what he’s doing. Even if I knew who Starlin was (a former Marvel EIC, right?), it doesn’t matter whose name is on it: crap is crap.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Monster Hunters #2

Monster Hunters #2, 1977, Modern Promotions
writers: Nicola Cuti, J. Molloy, T. Sutton
artists: Gumer(?), Steve Ditko, T. Sutton

What do you think of when you hear the word monster? Do you think of Frankenstein or Bigfoot? Do you think of a mass murderer or the bully that beat you up in grade school? Maybe your thoughts aren’t so morbid, and you think of the furry, friendly My Little Monster from the ‘80s. Whatever your reaction to the term may be, it clings to its basic definition: an unknown, most likely intimidating creature. Not the kind of thing someone in his right mind willingly pursues. So, I don’t know who the real stars of the show are in today’s issue: the fiends hunted, or the nutjobs doing the hunting. Both really boggle the mind.

Monster Hunters is another hodgepodge of Bronze Age talent, with three tales featuring three distinct storytelling style and three different artistic interpretations. The one element each story does have in common is its muse-like narrator, Colonel Whiteshroud. Apparently, the rich old codger’s travels around the global supplied him with plenty of tales of the obscure and unknown, and this series is his opportunity to recount them. The colloquial way the Colonel addresses the reader is an interesting break from the medium’s usual form and function. The comic book as an artistic entity has written so many restrictive rules for itself, despite any given issue’s material, they all read essentially the same. Whiteshroud was a welcome change of pace.

The first tale, “The Phantom of the Moors,” was a brief account of a surprisingly clever monster that nearly got the drop on his predators. Jason Travers picked up where his father left off, pursuing the Phantom of the Moors, reminded of his mission by the beastly statue his departed dad erected in their yard. After saving a beautiful woman from the Phantom’s clutches, Jason shows her around his grounds, but not before the monster actually takes the place of his stone look-alike! Fortunately, Travers and his aid Wilkins elude the monster and kill it. That’s it. I liked this story because the twist was truly unexpected, and writer didn’t dawdle with the action. Short and sweet, the way it should be.

The second yarn, “Fish Fry,” wasn’t as courteous. Illustrated by Steve Ditko, of early Amazing Spider-man fame, “Fish Fry” features a mysterious college campus epidemic of death by electricity, not from lightning, but seemingly from the ground up. The kooky professor experimenting with electric eels is the primary suspect, but when he turns up dead, as well, a butt-kissing student/adventurer(?) tracks down the real killer: a mutant with Electro-like abilities. A no-brainer for Ditko to envision, I imagine. The student doesn’t defeat the mutie in combat but manages to flee the fire that consumes him, apparently developing a macabre fear of peculiar smells. Something stinks, all right.

The final story, “The Kukulkaton,” is one of the worst I’ve read during this challenge. The first two featured monsters in this issue, the Phantom and the electric mutant, are tangible creatures with motive, method, and fatal measure. At the end of this tale, starring a greedy bounty hunter, his eager elderly guide, and the geezer’s beautiful airhead of a daughter, the monster is revealed to be a gaggle of human hearts. Yeah. The hearts sacrificed to this monster in the first place, I reckon. By the third page, the real monster was the story itself. It was a bear to finish.

But I did. Another issue down. I’m curious to research how long this series lasted. Its concept is interesting, but I can’t imagine that its potential is limitless. This is issue two, and the last story was so far-fetched that I had a hard time believing that the writer even conceived it. Monsters may come in many different incarnations, but another thing they have in common is, we rarely know where they come from. It’s one thing to hunt them. How nuts is the guy that conceives them?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #50

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #50, Early September 2003, DC Comics
writer: Dennis O’Neil
artist: Bret Blevins
colorist: Digital Chameleon
letterer: Willie Schubert
editors: Goodwin & Kaplan

After a weekend of unfortunately brief reviews, I’m hoping to make up for lost time with this anniversary issue of the Legends of the Dark Knight. This series has been touch and go with many Batman fans because of its intended steady rotation of creative talent. Some story arcs have been extremely well written, but visually lacking the impact to elevate the tale to canon status. Sometimes the title has been an obvious showcase for artistic talent with a scab story for momentum’s sake. In this issue’s case, the story and the art are enough to make an impression, if only for forty pages’ time.

I’m a Bret Blevins fan. When I see his name in any given comic’s credits, I’m confident that I will enjoy it on an artistic level, regardless of its plot. I actually liked Marvel’s Sleepwalker, particularly because of Bret’s ability to balance Rick Sheridan’s awkward adolescence with Sleepwalker’s surreal dreamscape. (Proof: I didn’t even have to dig up any back issues to remember Rick’s name.) This experience paid off in his run on Shadow of the Bat, as Bret’s depiction of Batman combined a strategic use of shadow and perspective to help the hero appear mysterious and sometimes even less human. Until I read this issue’s letter column, I didn’t realize that this work was first, prior to Blevins Shadow run, because he handles the Dark Knight incredibly confidently right out of the gate. As a fan, if I picked up this issue at the time of its release, I would’ve wanted more. Mission accomplished.

Denny O’Neil, on the other hand, needs no introduction. His experience with Batman and the hero’s rich history entitles him to handle a story of this caliber: the Joker’s first crime spree. Now, The Killing Joke is by far the definitive Joker tale, featuring his tragic origin and arguably his greatest feat, the abduction of Commissioner Gordon and the molestation of his daughter. As I’ve asserted on some message boards recently, I believe that, since Alan Moore masterfully crafted the hallmark narrative, flashbacks or developments of that story neuter its effects and create an unnecessary logic to the Joker’s supposedly chaotic persona. Fortunately, in this proverbial sequel, O’Neil uses TKJ as a catalyst, not an outline. This Joker isn’t as crazy as his latest incarnations, not unsure, mind you, but simply inexperienced. In fact, the first physical confrontation between Batman and Joker is so ironically anticlimactic, outside of the context of his legend the Clown Prince could come off as a petty pasty one-hit wonder. But we know the truth, don’t we?

I’m listening to the news behind me as I type, with headline reports including the return of that accused child killer to Los Angeles and the pedestrian disguises of international terrorists. The dramatic element to these stories reminds me of O’Neil’s responsibility in this issue: to establish the evil essence and career of a true criminal. The Joker has such a reputation as Batman’s arch nemesis, I wonder what O’Neil endured to prepare for this retelling of the classic Finger/Kane yarn. Of course, only a comic book villain would use a virtually untraceable acid to make his victims literally die of laughter. Still, the implication is the exploitation of happiness to achieve fatal and dreadful ends, happiness derivative from, say, America’s liberty or a child star’s innocence. The name of this story, “Images,” says it all: evil has many faces, but just one mentality. The Joker is a good ambassador. He’s a tough nut to crack.

The Joker’s origin is another potential point of contention among hardcore Batman fans. In the 1989 Tim Burton film, the Joker was a mobster before his uncanny transformation; on the other hand, his awkward inability to pull off a crime in The Killing Joke makes an attempt to establish a sympathetic element to the character. Who knows how his upcoming role in the next Batman film will reshape the villain? No matter how the tale is told, this series best sums it up: it’s a legend. Legends can’t help but find themselves on the lips of many storytellers.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth #29

Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth #29, May 1975, National Periodical Publications
writer and penciller: Jack Kirby
inker and letterer: D. Bruce Berry

Let's talk the end of the world. A cheerful topic, no?

Still on the work retreat, but I had a half hour to read and review Kamandi, yet another Kirby classic. Like The Mighty Samson, Kamandi is stranded in a post-apocalyptic world of ruin, apparently run by tribes of intelligent apes. In this issue, Kamandi and his friend Ben Boxer encounter an ape clan dedicated to the memory of "the Mighty One," a hero from yesteryear that demonstrated great feats of strength and selflessness . . . oh, and that wore an "S" on his chest. The desperate believers dub Boxer their super man's reincarnated successor, and Kamandi encourages his friend to endure their tests to preserve the Mighty One's memory. Forced to dodge bullets and move a mighty boulder, dubbed the "daily planet," Boxer almost succeeds, until the threatened cult's leader reveals a certain super suit under their encampment and tries to claim the title once and for all. After a struggle, Kamandi vanquishes the power-hungry ape, and as victors, he and Boxer demand that the suit remain preserved until its true owner emerges from exile. In the end, the legend lives.

Like the allusions in Superman Returns, Kirby uses this narrative to boast about Superman's legacy in comics and pop culture. As a story, it's an enthralling homage and allegory, and perhaps the first of its kind. I enjoyed it, and with Back to the Future II playing on TBS in the background, I truly felt the effects of a hopeless future. The lesson: our need for heroes, especially in our darkest hour, often makes us heroes, as well -- perhaps even the heroes we longed for in the first place. It's no wonder I'm on a leadership retreat.

That's the joy and anomalous nature of this A Comic A Day challenge. Much of the material I read will be perceived through the context of my day, and how many comics can offer an insight into the big scheme of real life. Okay. Back to work.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Serenity Rose #1

Serenity Rose #1, October 2003, SLG Publishing

I'm on a leadership retreat for work, so I don't have a lot of time to post a thorough review of today's offering, Serenity Rose. Needless to say, this title is the premiere goth book on the mainstream market, and by far the best. Its multi-media texture pulls you into Serenity's dark world of adolescent angst and pessimistic despair. Her astute judgments of the various social high school archetypes are poignant, and oftentimes unfortunately true. Serenity is as lovable as she doesn't want to be, and I want more.

Or maybe I'm projecting. I'm trapped in a time share with folks from work. What do you think?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Don’t Eat the Electric Sheep

Don’t Eat the Electric Sheep, 2002, Knee Deep Press
by Joe Flood

I have two issues that claim to be Don’t Eat the Electric Sheep #2, but I think today’s issue is actually a reprint from the first in the series, with an additional back-up story for fresh, added value. Only its creator, Joe Flood, would really know for sure. I’m not too terribly concerned about the discrepancy in continuity. When a story stars an insane robot trapped in a secret asylum, linear thought isn’t much of a factor.

I’ve referenced Don’t Eat the Electric Sheep before, categorizing it with other breakout indie books like Pop Gun War and Finder. These titles dangle within the realm of reality by a thin thread, with just enough familiarity to distract the reader’s attention away from the strange, surreal subtext that permeates the plot. Don’t Eat the Electric Sheep stars a robot drone, Myles, struggling for its freedom, and although he breaks his bonds and initially eludes his captors, he eventually succumbs and submits to their will again. The weird part is, this robot appears to be human, with “bio fluid” that could pass as blood and an artificial heart that “can fool the even the wariest female.” I wonder if Flood is constructing a carefully satirical allegory, or if we are supposed to think so. The line between cleverness and coincidence is too thin in the world of indie comics nowadays.

The follow-up story apparently began as a conceptual homage to Flood’s favorite cartoonists, presumably including the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His protagonist, a humanoid duck named Bill, fights monstrous alligators in the sewer alongside his friends Frank (a Frankenstein monster) and Cricket, a carefree young lady. The tale is simple and fun, with allusions toward continuous adventures.

So, one issue, two quacks. Sorry. Had to say it.

I confess, I picked up issues one (?) through three of DETES at the Con because I actually had issue four, from where, I don’t remember. But I remember enjoying it, thematically and artistically. Looking three issues into the past, Flood certainly came a long way in the interim, and having previewed art from an upcoming project of his, his skills are exponentially improving with each of his offerings. This issue is good, but visually sloppy compared to his later installments. I can’t tell if much changed between the four issues by way of its characters – they seem to be in the same predicaments from one episode to the next – but the real story is Flood, anyway. If you haven’t heard of him before now, something tells me you’ll hear from him again.

Speaking of hearing from folks, I’m not sure what this weekend has in store for the A Comic A Day challenge. My co-workers and I are going on a calendar planning retreat, so although I will still read and review a new issue daily, I may not be able to post until Sunday. We’ll see what happens. Now I know what Myles feels like. There are some things you just can’t escape.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Super Powers #1

Super Powers #1, September 1985, DC Comics
writer: Paul Kupperberg
penciller: Jack Kirby
inker: Greg Theakston
colorist: Joe Orlando
letterer: David Cody Weiss
editor: Andy Helfer

I was four, maybe five years old. I was sick. My grandmother and grandfather (henceforth addressed in my blogs by their proper names, Mima and Papa) surprised me with a Super Powers Superman and Supermobile. Eventually, my young body healed, but by then, I had caught another fever. I was addicted to superheroes.

I must confess, as a kid, I didn't read a lot of comics. I was enamored with the little issues that came with each Super Powers figure (and I had a few Marvel Secret Wars figures around for good measure, but they never mingled), but I fairly consumed by the adventures I created myself. To this day, I'll never forget them . . . Wonder Woman and Hawkman's controversial romance, the Flash's death and imminent return, Darkseid's Red Tornado virus that nearly compromised the Hall of Justice defense systems. Oh, yes. I was into it. So, you can imagine my child-like excitement when I saw an old issue of Super Powers for a buck at the Comic Con. I wondered if the League's full-sized adventures were as intricate as the ones I had enacted on my bedroom floor.

Indeed. First of all, Kirby was the man behind the pencil, which elevates the book to a level of legitimacy I wouldn't have assigned an action figure spin-off. I assumed "Super Powers" were affiliated with Super Friends, but with Martian Manhunter, Red Tornado, and Green Arrow playing prominent roles in this story, all of whom didn't appear in the old cartoon series (to the best of my recollection), I obviously assumed wrong. No, Super Powers was a Justice League/DCU vehicle, putting characters into the hands of lay-kids like me that would've have heard of Firestorm otherwise. Interesting, the writer of this tale is Paul Kupperberg, I name I recognize from my two-part promo comics series a few days ago. Looks like he was legit after all.

Speaking of the story, Kupperberg and Kirby actually reference other tales in conjunction with this series, again affiliating the Super Powers franchise with the grand scheme, an effort I wonder if the old Total Justice line sought to do. Nevertheless, in this first issue of the second SP mini-series, Darkseid has been de-throned, and he and his minions retreat to conquer his favorite plan-B planet, Earth. Desaad uses his new Star Gate to attact the League on their divided fronts, first sending Martian Manhunter and Aquaman to confront King Arthur and Lancelot in old medieval times. Meanwhile, Darkseid has planted some large, alien "seeds of doom" which are sprouting roots headed toward the Earth's core. We can only imagine that these spores will transform Earth into an Apokolips reject. Ah, Darkseid. So predictable.

The most gratifying page of the entire issue is the splash featuring the heroes assembled for the first time: DC's big seven (sans Aquaman, who joins the action later), with Robin, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Red Tornado, and Firestorm. Like I said before, I didn't really delve into the comics as a kid, and since Martian Manhunter was offered in a later Super Powers wave, I didn't realize how critical he was until much later in my collecting career. Robin rounded out my big seven, which included Hawkman, so I actually had a big eight. (Still do. Heh.) Man, this is bringing back some memories . . .

That tears it. My girlfriend is going out of town next weekend. I'm dusting off the JLU figures that have been idle on my shelf and I'm having a reunion! Perhaps Darkseid will kidnap Waverider and use his time-traveling abilities to disrupt Superman and Batman's first meeting, splintering the League in the present day.

Uh oh. I don't feel so good.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dim-witted Darryl #1

Dim-witted Darryl #1, June 1998, SLG Publishing
by Michael Bresnahan

Another book by Slave Labor Graphics. Dim-witted Darryl, billed as the world’s dumbest mammal, is a simple-minded creature starring in a simple-minded comic book. Neither of these descriptions are intended to imply that Darryl and his comic book are stupid; although this genre, cartoon/humor, isn’t my forte, I can definitely understand its appeal, and Bresnahan manages to construct a few well-paced puns and gags. At the beginning of the first tale, for example, Darryl meets a new kid in his neighborhood, Chuck. Later, on an errand for his mother at the grocery store, Darryl spots a pound of ground chuck and assumes the worst has happened to his new friend. He buys the beef and buries it solemnly, while the neighbors watch:

HUSBAND: Honey, that stupid neighbor kid just buried a package of hamburger meat.
WIFE: Well, so dig it up while I light the grill!

Am I to interpret the neighbors’ compassionless retort, both for Darryl’s dim-wittedness and his unnecessary but still legitimate grief, as a commentary on society’s dim-wittedness in general? Or did Darryl drag me through six pages just to hit that punchlines? Either way, I was pleasantly surprised.

Unfortunately, the rest of the stories weren’t as, ahem, sophisticated, at least not in the category comedy. As comic strips, however, Bresnahan demonstrates some solid ability to utilize the logistics of the page to his advantage. Characters bursting from panels, heavy doses of black to contrast the otherwise stagnant background, all imply that this series is destined to get better with age. This is, after all, the first issue. But with the term dim-witted in the title, how complicated can things really get?

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Scrapyard Detectives #3

The Scrapyard Detectives #3, July 2006, Smiles for Diversity
writer: Jesse Leon McCann
penciller & colorist: Bill Galvin
inker: Robert Hawkins
letterer: Dave Lanphear
creators: Bill Gavin and Chad Denton

Comic books are incredibly educational. Comic books have introduced us to the uncanny sciences of gamma rays and zeta beams. Comic books have taught us how to build web-shooters and lunar watchtowers. Comic books have shown us how accessorize with green jewelry or blue fur. Comic books have warned us of the dangers of time travel, black magic, cloning, and now, thanks to the Scrapyard Detectives, prejudice. What would we have done without them?

When I began yesterday’s post, I didn’t intend to kick off a two day analysis on the nature of specialty promotional comics, but when I realized that The Scrapyard Detectives were just a few issues below the Tandy Computer Whiz Kids in my stack of finds from the Comic Con, I embraced the opportunity. See, despite the twenty-one years between them, both comics have a lot in common: both feature investigative youth utilizing cutting edge technology in an adventure of moral fortitude and righteous. Also, and more importantly for the sake of this review, both comics were published by a special interest group that is using the graphic medium to market their cause to kids. In yesterday’s case, Radio Shack used the Whiz Kids to promote Tandy Computer products. Today, the Diversity Foundation used the Scrapyard Detectives to promote equality and acceptance. Which is more enduring?

I will confess, I have read The Scrapyard Detectives before. Issues one and two were available at the Comic Con last year, and I scored a small stack of each for the kids at work. I enjoyed them, actually. The art wasn’t jaw dropping but the inking was solid, achieving a traditional style that was highly complemented by the issues’ crisp, contemporary coloring. The stories weren’t sappy or sloppy, but carefully constructing to guide young readers through a series of incidents that build to a climax rife with purpose and sincerity. This issue was no different, and in fact, I was pleased to read the three detectives endure a falling out before mutually solving the cases at hand. The lapse in teamwork may have been only temporary, but kudos to the writer for realizing that even children – especially children – often have a difficult time working together. Little brats.

See, Robert, an African-American, presents the case of Mrs. Valenti’s missing dog, while wheelchair bound Jinn suggests that the team investigate the whereabouts of missing things from their hideout, but Ray, of Hispanic decent, insists they probe the strange behavior of his football teammate, Ben Crenshaw. Robert and Jinn refuse, dubbing Ben a heartless bully, so Ray stubbornly decides to fly solo. Through varying circumstances, each member of the team realizes that Ben deserves some looking into, and they discover that he has been swiping goods from their scrapyard in an effort to run away from his overbearing stepfather. Ben’s mother has ventured to New Orleans to help hurricane relief efforts, and in her absence, his stepdad has commanded him to stay away from kids of other races. (You didn’t think I distinguished each detective without a reason, did you?) Equipped with their awesome hover-scooter, the detectives track Ben to an abandoned building where they save him and his stepfather from a fatal fall. In the end, everyone realizes they may have misjudged someone they really didn’t know. Yes, the Scrapyard Detectives actually solve the greatest mystery: Why can’t we all just get along?

Don’t worry. They found the dog, too.

Seriously. The Scrapyard Detectives accomplish the duality of their mission with a generous helping of action and adventure. First, four distinct scenes offer more than adequate elements of suspense, including Ray’s plot to ding-dong-distract Ben’s father while a robotic spy sneaks into the house to unearth the truth behind a bloody sports bag. (Solve this: Why do these kids hang out in a scrapyard when they have technology like robotic spy drones at their disposal?) Second, the comic as a whole conveys the inadequacy of prejudgment, both on Robert and Jinn’s part toward Ben, and on Ben’s stepdad’s part toward the other kids, one of whom he wryly dubs “Poncho.” Some of this story may be cheesy, but moments like that are undeniably real. Considering their young audience, the creators don’t pull their punches, so the message is both entertaining and effective.

So, in a Marvel vs. DC style confrontation, who would win the Whiz Kids versus the Scrapyard Detectives crossover? Ray, Robert, and Jinn have my vote. First of all, their equipment far exceeds the capabilities of the Tandy Color Computer 2 with color disk drive. Most importantly, the team behind the Scrapyard utilize the comics format to its fullest, using the latest in lettering and coloring techniques to create a product that would stand up to any other issue on the stands today. Heck, this series, although published too infrequently (three issues in two years?), is perhaps a step above the average newsstand title, because it addresses its intended audience in a respectfully mature manner. It doesn’t dumb things down for kids, so everyone can read it. The Whiz Kids just use an anti-drug message to strategically shroud a proverbial order catalogue. Retrospectively, it’s a funny read, but it isn’t as timeless as The Scrapyard Detectives.

Comic books are educational. Comic books teach us that, if a promotional comic book is actually a contemporary, entertaining read, comic books can actually teach us something, too.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids: The Computers That Said No to Drugs

The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids: The Computers That Said No to Drugs, July 1985 (second printing), Archie Comic Publications
writer: Paul Kupperberg
artists: Dick Ayers & Chic Stone
editorial director: William Palmer

Superman has his Kryptonite. The Green Lantern, the color yellow. The Joker . . . Hostess Fruit Pies. Anyone that has been reading comic books since their Silver Age remembers how frequently these tasty treats incapacitated even the most vile villains, and more impressively, in just the breadth of a single page advertisement! Even Batman and Robin often needed a solid issue’s worth of detective work to track down the Clown Prince of Crime. What is the secret crime-fighting ingredient in those delicious snack pies?

The world may never know. Wait. I’m getting my sweet treats mixed up.

For decades, comic books have been an influential vehicle for corporate promotion to America’s youth, from food to toys to electronics. Hostess is the most popular example, thanks to the sheer frequency of their inside front cover ad strip, but sometimes, corporations actually published their own titles to attract kids’ attention to their product. Without demographic research from these old corporations, the success of these marketing ventures is difficult to determine; perhaps the absence of a series like “The Wacky Adventures of Wal-Mart’s Night Shift” from the Diamond catalogue is indicative of their overall effect. Nevertheless, without their effort, dollar bins around the world wouldn’t have the pleasure of claiming a comic like The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids amidst their discounted ranks.

Despite the recurrent plugs (no pun intended) for Tandy Corporation computer products, the Whiz Kids’ adventures are surprisingly exciting considering their context. Alec and Shanna are butt-kissing teacher’s pets, and with all of this issue’s stretches of the imagination, the biggest shock is how all of the other kids in their class don’t absolutely hate their guts. The Whiz Kids get the exclusive privilege of ditching class for day to help set up a local museum exhibit, and their classmates cheer, “Yay, Alec and Shanna!” Yeah, right. Try telling this story today. “Screw you, Alec and Shanna. I’m not coming to school tomorrow, either, just so I can meet you outside the museum and kick your –”


Fortunately, the Whiz Kids were in the right place at the right time. During their voluntarism, Alec and Shanna used the Tandy Color Computer 2 to help Detective Shaw track down the crooks that kidnapped investigative reporter Judy Baker and planned on using the museum’s traveling exhibit, including the new DWP-210 Daisy Wheel Printer, to smuggle drugs into Coastal City. Whew. That was a close one. Can you imagine a time when kids used computers to fight crime instead of creating spam viruses and teasing middle-aged pedophiles with their MySpace profiles? If only the Whiz Kids’ legacy endured.

Retrospectively, the continuous, contrived pitches for various Tandy computer products reveal how new, and in some cases impressive, many of these advancements were for the time. Consider Judy Baker’s amazement when she realizes that she can type her article about the boatload of drugs while still secretly aboard the ship: “The Tandy Acoustic Couplers on the telephone will let me hook up my Model 200 with the computer at the newspaper. The staff there will call the police narcotics team.” Ah, perhaps she wouldn’t have been captured if she had wireless DSL. Still, reading from the future, I can’t help but feel that this technology was still a luxury back then, even for police and investigative reporters, two occupations that benefit from its use the most. I feel like a caveman posting some of these reviews from dial-up. The Whiz Kids would be ashamed.

The textbook style supplement pieces at the end of the issue, including “Bits & Bytes of Computer History” and “Student’s Guide to Computer Language,” were dry but educational, and frankly, this information would have been better received if woven into the main story. With so many other awkward computer references, what would’ve been the harm? Any comic book distributed through Radio Shack can’t be judged on the sophistication of its dialogue, after all.

However, The Computer That Said No to Drugs should be commended on its strong anti-drug message, as characteristic of the mid-‘80s as its hilarious techno lingo. With this sociopolitical theme, the Whiz Kids bridge the gap between comics published to promote product versus comics published to push public service announcements. To answer our original inquiry, we may not be able to determine how many computers the Whiz Kids sold, but books of this genre somehow convinced certain special interest groups that comics were a significant means of reaching America’s children.

Enter: The Scrapyard Detectives. To be continued.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Zot! #29

Zot! #29, December 1989, Eclipse Comics
writer & artist: Scott McCloud
plot assistance: Ivy Ratafia
editor: Catherine Yronwode

Most fanboys know Scott McCloud from his insightful analyses of the comics medium in the books Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and the soon to be released Making Comics. I had the pleasure of seeing him in action at the Comic Con during a workshop premiering and promoting ideas from the new book. I knew that he had created a comic called Zot!, but like many others, I'm sure, I had never read an issue . . . until today. Not to my surprise, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

First of all, I'm sure McCloud himself will admit that he is not the best artist, but his distinctive style has a tenacity that pulls the reader past its faults and deep into its strengths: his characters' consistency, his skill with shading and crosshatching, his attention to background detail. Even in this issue, which was published four years before Understanding Comics, McCloud demonstrates some of the visual principles he has explored in his texts since. He paces his panels very carefully, with strategic interplay between the characters and critical plot advancements. Considering this issue with what was to come in McCloud's future, it was interesting to see through the analytical empire at a small part of its the carefully laid foundation.

McCloud's scholarly approach to the medium is evident in his exploration of the superhero in society, as well. Zot is a hero from a parallel utopian Earth that has traveled to this dimension to fight evil. Although this issue begins with a romantic subplot that exudes awkwardness effectively for both its participants and the readers alike, the bulk of this story features Zot looking for crime. He literally lands in the middle of a busy New York intersection and loudly asks, "Anyone know where I can find some crime?" Initially ignored by the midday business crowd, Zot coerces some pedestrians to point him in the right direction, and all of the well groomed office types suggest the various neighborhoods housing a more, um, ethnically diverse population: Harlem, South Bronx, Hell's Kitchen, the lower east side. When Zot hits Harlem, he notices the difference immediately, and much of the ensuing narrative flirts with the racial angle: "Try Wall Street, man! Yeah! Or the White House! That’s real crime!" Interesting.

Zot demonstrates flight and invisibility, but he isn't very super. He requests the assistance of an unwilling pedestrian to help him carry an ailing homeless man to the hospital. In the end, Zot saves them both, the hobo from death, the stuffed shirt from apathy. No strength, no real fighting skill, Zot's most endearing qualities are his idealism and naiveté. Throughout his venture in the city, Zot sulks at his inability to find crime, then when granted an opportunity or two to help someone, he laments his inability to do more. In the end, thinking about the city's racial divide, he wonders if our history differs from his America's past. McCloud closes with a thoughtful presumption from Zot: "Maybe the south won." Again, interesting.

In the letter column, readers offer feedback from a previous issue's handling of homosexuality, and one reader in particular seems disappointed and angered in the story's failure to address the topic holistically. A similar argument can be made for this issue's racially charged plot. I agree with McCloud's response and believe it represents the comics field, not to mention art in itself, as a whole: "If I have just one small observation to make about a social issue, I should be allowed to do so, without being expected to provide a whole encyclopedia of political dogma to back it up." Comics have been dabbling in this issue quite frequently lately, with Batwoman's public outing last month and the silly tabloid debate about the Man of Steel's orientation in Superman Returns. (The former strikes me as a deliberate publicity strategy that might warrant some criticism, more of a corporate ploy than an expression of orientation.) To elaborate on McCloud's retort, despite any artists' efforts to address a hot button topic, the subject is always conveyed through the respective artist's perspective, complete with his presuppositions and subconscious inclinations. Consider this story: by exploring the reality of a potential superhero's mission, McCloud conveys the loneliness and ultimate impossibility of such a cause . . . a rather pessimistic opinion for a genre that hinges on its happy endings. The very nature of art allows its creators the opportunity to express and elicit such emotion. This letter writer may have had an adverse reaction, but because it was heartfelt, McCloud did his job successfully. If only comics took themselves that seriously.

Considering this complete context, Scott McCloud has obviously always played a critical role in the comics world inspiring discussion with his work. Although many of his contemporary fans may not understand the breadth of his experience in the field, McCloud has never had to reinvent his image as an artist. He's remained consistent in his sophistication and skill, albeit improving along the way, successfully making a name for himself as an influential voice for our generation. I was grateful for his contributions before. Now with a Zot! in my hands, I have plenty more to think about.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Same Difference and Other Short Stories

Same Difference and Other Short Stories, July 2005, Top Shelf Productions (second edition)
by Derek Kirk Kim

I decided to take a break from my Comic Con stash, which still has plenty of sustenance for the A Comic A Day challenge, to explore what the local library boasts for a comic book section. To my surprise, the selection was incredibly diverse, with representation from every major comics publisher on the market today, from the “big two” to Dark Horse, Image, and Top Shelf. The superhero fare didn’t dominate the independent stuff, and the varying dimensions of the lesser-known material (from digest to tabloid sizes) made an impression against the standard sized trade paperbacks. Even as an old, hardcore fanboy, as much as I wanted to read those Batman graphic novels I’ve been too lazy or broke to read, I was drawn to indie digests, the stories I haven’t even seen in specialty shops. I can honestly say I was drawn to Same Difference and Other Short Stories.

Today is another first for A Comic A Day, because I do not have the book I’m reviewing here in front of me. No, I didn’t check it out; I read it right there in the library, several hours ago now. Yet, I remember the digest’s minimalist cover, its meek but enticing book design. And the art . . . fairly cartoony, but drawn with a steady, confident hand. The characters were distinct and expressive, and the backgrounds were detail oriented and oftentimes more impressive than the foreground. Kim spreads a few silent moments throughout his main story to establish mood and imply the universal nature of his themes. The story was mainly dialogue driven, but the art kept me anchored and guided me throughout the protagonists’ respective introspective journeys.

As for the characters, Same Difference stars friends Simon and Nancy, both of whom travel to Simon’s native Pacifica, California, to experience two different but thought provoking encounters. For weeks, Nancy had received mail from a previous tenant’s tenacious admirer, Ben Leland, and in amusement, began a correspondence on the lost love’s behalf. When Simon reminds her that his family lives in the same city as the dedicated Leland, she persuades him to take the trip home so they can see what the futile romantic looks like. In Pacifica, Simon bumps into Irene, a blind classmate from high school he rejected before the Sadie Hawkins Dance. Plagued by guilt because of his consuming lies toward her, the unexpected encounter offers the chance to mend fences, ironically not with her, but ultimately with himself.

Now, this story is exactly what I expected to find in a deliberate search for indie comics material: an existential allegory littered with aren’t-we-hip pop culture references and in woe-is-me soliloquies on the strife of twenty-something life. What I didn’t expect was to like it as much as I did. Although the story had a rocky start, with its primary characters huddled around a helping of pho like Seinfeld and company sipping coffee at Tom’s Diner, once Simon and Nancy hit the road, their snappy dialogue was reactive to their surroundings and circumstance, thus less contrived and seemingly peripheral to the artist’s core. Kim explores the nature of time throughout his tale, encapsulating the grandiose force through a layman’s discussion on the disappointments of the future (the old it's-2006-so-where’s-my-jetpack argument Warren Ellis has been bouncing back and forth in his on-line forums), through the irony of domesticity as both a catalyst for stagnancy and change, through the tumult of true love and loss.

As much as we often ponder the elusiveness of time, these situations are all too familiar. How many times have you bumped into burned out acquaintances from high school? Even if you’re confident that your job is better than theirs, if they seem enraptured by marital bliss, you can’t help but envy that maturity. Well, if you’re single, anyway. It’s that quarter-life crisis, life-passing-me-by thing. You know what I mean.

Honestly, I didn’t spend much time with the other short stories in this compilation. Same Difference was eighty solid pages, a “single issue’s worth” by my estimation of the original A Comic A Day regulations. The other tales looked a bit lighter in nature anyway, and I wanted the sophistication of Same Difference to stick with me a bit. Most of the indies I’ve read so far are high concept pieces, featuring anti-superheroes or surreal pretenses to propel the story. I enjoy those books, but sometimes, I like a comic that drags me into it, that makes me think about its context in the real life experience. What better place for some quiet introspection than the library, eh? Patrons that pass up material like this for another Spider-man tale are really missing something.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bombaby #2

Bombaby #2, January 2004, SLG Publishing
by Anthony Mazzotta

If you’re wondering why I’m reviewing another book by Slave Labor Graphics (SLC), I purchased a brown-bagged “dinged or damaged” five-pack of back issues at the Con for a mere dollar. I first partook of this package deal at the Alternative Press Expo back in April with mixed results. This time around, I’ve been quite pleased with this quintet of pleasant surprises. Spookgirl was a fun read and Finder was an educational experience, both offering unique insight into the creative spectrum of indie comics. Today’s dose, Bombaby, not only provides yet another perspective artistically, but culturally, as well.

Bombaby (her real name is Sangeeta), a busty heiress in India, is engaged to a shifty businessman that she obviously doesn’t love, I presume through an arrangement made with her father. In this issue, during a jaunt through the city, Bombaby is nearly assaulted but thankfully narrowly saved by a pedestrian beefcake, Alexander. The two hit a discotheque and apparently fall in love (I may be jumping to conclusions there), but their tryst is cut short when Alexander must take Sangeeta home. Since most of this installment settles on these two’s blossoming forbidden romance, some of the primary characters of the story, like Bombaby’s fiancée, make little more than cameo appearances. Assuming these characters don’t have much substance beyond their stereotypical role in the plot (i.e. the stubborn disapproving father, the snobbish unworthy groom-to-be), cameos are probably the way to go until the story reaches its inevitable climax.

Yesterday, I explored the critical role of art in independent comics, and how many indie creators supplement text for visual sequence to spotlight their illustration skills. In Mazzotta’s case, his style has the clout to carry a word-free sequence rather successfully. Bombaby is the first independent comic I’ve read in color, and the computerized tones establish a vibrant world that’s really easy for the eye to explore. Since India is not a common setting for American comics (at least not any comics I’ve read in the past twenty years), the artist’s wide, establishing shots are critical in creating the vibe of Sangeeta’s city, and he combines intricate line art with an expert balance of warm and cool hues to exude mood and character in an otherwise foreign city. Sure, Bombaby’s proportions were sometimes questionable, but since the issue was top-heavy in talent as well, I won’t complain.

This tale may take place in India, and the creator does lace certain scenes with Indian music lyrics, but the storytelling structure is pure western world. The illicit love and smoldering sexuality, the conflict of tradition versus contemporary individuality . . . it’s Romeo and Juliet in comic book form. To his credit, Mazzotta obviously has a bigger picture in play, a plot with long-term conditions and consequences, so I hope he maintained a faithful readership with his run. As for me, the international romance shtick isn’t my bag – even if this comic book came in one.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Spookgirl #3

Spookgirl #3, July 2000, SLG Publishing
by Mike Macropoulos

Trixie McGillicutty is Spookgirl, an agent for a mysterious global organization collecting data on the paranormal.

Thanks to this concise synopsis from Spookgirl’s inside front cover, I now prefer the a series description over the standard “last issue” summary. The way I see it, if I can understand the primary characters and the overall concept, I should be able to pick up on any given installment’s circumstances fairly quickly. When the story requires a lengthy explanation, the writer reveals that he’s working less on an epic and more on an episode. I prefer long-range thinking. If comics weren’t meant to be something bigger than a single issue or story arc, they wouldn’t be numbered consecutively.

That said, this issue features a self-contained story that presents some stark contrast with the more classic comics I’ve read during this challenge. When I hunker down with an issue of Cheyenne Kid or Forbidden Worlds, I prepare myself for a long read. Those old writers were long winded, and sometimes I wonder if they frequently forgot that an artist had to try to squeeze pictures around all of that text. Contemporary indie comics are often one-man acts, with a single artist providing the story and the words, so the pictures usually work more interactively with the plot than usual. Heck, most publishers won’t even accept writers’ submissions, so the only way a storyteller can break into the business is to illustrate his own work. In these cases, words taper off to showcase the artwork, and mainstream writers have embraced this minimalist style with their writing, as well, whether they’ll admit it or not. The various eras of comics are undoubtedly hinged on this word/picture interplay.

Back to Spookgirl. In this issue, Spookgirl’s dog fetches a baby that summons a robot from space to cremate its alien soul. I think. Spookgirl engages the robot in a game of cat-and-mouse to protect the baby, which is later exposed as a robot itself that wants to be caught. Looking on, Spookgirl’s musings are baffling and, I assume, easier to understand in the context of earlier issues: “So that’s it. Duh. The Nipponese have long been dissatisfied with traditional cremation methods. The chi can be contaminated if not stored properly.” Oh, yeah. Duh. Silly me for not figuring that out. Even amidst the confusion, the tale ends poignantly, as the creature’s ashes “snow” on the city: “So now Neutron City is left with an empty two ton husk and a sky full of wet, flaky chi residue. I guess this is all supposed to be beautiful and tragic somehow. But it’s just kind of disgusting.” Typical teenaged response. Good characterization.

Macropoulos has an art style perfect for franchising. I see Spookgirl shirts and buttons and patches under glass at Hot Topic. He’s tapped into that adolescent angst meets the paranormal in the way that made the Emily brand so successful. Heck, I even really like the name Spookgirl. However, this book is six years old, and I haven’t heard of Spookgirl before this read, so maybe the opportunity never came up. I wonder if Macropoulos focused more on the reason I was drawn this issue in the first place: its concept. Spookgirl tells a good story. That’s all it needs to do.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Cheyenne Kid #87

Cheyenne Kid #87, 1978 (originally published in 1971), Modern Comics
writer: Joe Gill
artist: San Ho Kim
editor: Sal Gentile

Here comes the cavalry.

The Cheyenne Kid is an army scout that lives by his own rules. He disobeys orders, fraternizes with the enemy, and employs bizarre tactics to defeat his foes. I only wish this comic book was as cool as that abbreviated description. The Cheyenne Kid stars in two of the three reprinted tales in this issue, although why Modern Comics decided to repackage this material is beyond me. Their first printing should have been sufficient for anyone. But I digress.

These stories aren’t terrible. In fact, a few moments actually shine as clever and entertaining by this genre’s standards, but therein lies the trouble. The Cheyenne Kid may be an army scout, but the backdrop is early America, where Native Americans still obscure the road toward Manifest Destiny and patriotic morality, and where saloons are still bastions for gambling and gun-slinging justice. So, I don’t know if this is a western or a military comic book, and the attempted balance between the two made for a fairly disjointed reading experience.

Still, as I said, the Cheyenne Kid has his moments. In the first story, his commanding officer takes an Indian chief prisoner and plans to use his execution as an excuse to start a war with the tribe. As hard as the Kid tries to reason with both sides, he ultimately finds himself trapped between the ungrateful Indians and the ignorant army. Fortunately, the troop respects the Kid’s courage more than their colonial’s bloodlust and work with him to drive the Indians away to safety. His snippy exchange with the commander at the end of the conflict reveals that this Kid has all kinds of guts:

COLONIAL: You did it, Cheyenne, robbed me of my opportunity to make a reputation! I’d write charges against you but the men in this fort think you’re a hero!
CHEYENNE: They think you’re something too, Wiley . . . but I’m not sayin’ what it is!

Oh, snap!

In Cheyenne’s second adventure, he ventures to the Red-Eye Flats, “a town with ten buildings, seven of them saloons and gambling dens!” A veritable Las Vegas, by Old West standards. When Cheyenne calls out a hustler, the cheat shoots him in the chest, but like a square-jawed Clint Eastwood (or to a lesser degree, a dirt-smudged Marty McFly), Cheyenne stands seemingly unwounded and decks the shifty card player. Word spreads of the Kid’s invulnerability, but a gunman figures (correctly) that Cheyenne is “wearin’ steel under his shirt.” The gunman takes his shot at Cheyenne but the Kid inexplicably predicts his moves and lands the winning shot himself. Actually, the explanation is quite simple; counting on word traveling fast, Cheyenne concludes that his challengers will aim for the noggin to bypass the armor. “The body armor gives me an edge . . . even when I’m not wearing it!” You go, Kid.

The third tale is a bit more bizarre. Still a Western, its protagonist, simply named Wander, is a lost “celestial visitor” that “learned his English back in the time of Shakespeare.” Oh-kay. I’ve never heard a cowboy say something like, “Our departure was unhindered which causes suspicion to take shape!” Obviously, Wander isn’t meant for our primitive world, but fortunately, at the end of this short story, some of his brethren from Sirius V return for him. His cowpoke friends Jeb Dooley and Professor Phineas T. Bloat accompany him for the cosmic journey, “never again to be seen on planet Earth!” So long, gentlemen. I like comics and you were all a bit too strange for me. That’s saying something.

The lesson learned with these kinds of comics is that someone somewhere liked them. If they were made, they were read, and in this case, the Cheyenne Kid went twice around the bend. I’d be interested in a modern interpretation of the character, more modern than just the name of his publisher, anyway. I don’t have a taste for western or military comics, but if a writer can combine them on the shoulders of a likeably rebellious army cowboy, I’m listening. In the meantime, this book was something . . . “but I’m not sayin’ what it is!”

Monday, August 07, 2006

Content #1

Content #1, March 2002, published by Di
by Gia-Bao Tran

If last month's theme was first issues, this month's is independent titles. I don't have a problem with that. One of the benefits of kicking off this challenge the same month of Comic Con, I suppose.

Content was one of the few Small Press titles I actually purchased; the rest, like Saturday's God the Dyslexic Dog, were kindly offered for free. At the Con, where the senses are overloaded with graphic, visual stimuli (i.e. Storm Troopers and Klingons), the challenge of any comic distributor -- from retailers to corporate publishers to Small Press exhibitors, is to stand out. Folks like DC Comics and TokyoPop have the benefit of space (which in itself is a benefit of budget), so the only thing the little guy can really depend on is his product. Content is this product.

Content passed the "flip test" -- that initial thumbing through of the pages to determine if the art style was something I could enjoy. See, I'm a story man, so I'm happy if I can tolerate the art. Following the flip is the skim -- the perusal of some captions or word balloons to get a grip on the narrative and tone. A varied art style to express a different aspect of the story, like a flashback or dream sequence, usually helps the skim. Content had it all. I dropped the three bucks. In Small Press, that's a gamble.

It paid off. Content #1 was the perfect book to read with a hot cup of coffee on an overcast day like today. It exudes mood without sap; it expresses emotion without baggage. The story focuses on an experiment during which the subject sleeps and dreams of his future self. The scientific jargon isn't as important as the relationship between the tester, the dreamy Stefania, and the testee, the geeky Elin. After a few failed attempts at flirting, Elin experiences the experiment and it works -- he sees his future self, but also his younger self, who confronts him briefly before the test abruptly ends. The rest of the issue tells the tale of Elin's attempts to befriend his inner child; the experiment has a limited lifespan, and each time Elin delves into his mind, he emerges unsatisfied with the results. The twist is, after scoring the girl and an apparently content life, he cannot help but return to his mind one more time, the last time, and his desperation costs him everything. I'd like to say I didn't see that one coming, but even though I did, the impact was still emotional effective. Gia-Bao Tran tells a good visual story.

The basis of this story has hints of The Matrix and Vanilla Sky, but with more of a Being John Malkovich sense of disorientation and dreamy surrealism. I'll confess that Tran lost me a few times, but the story never lost its structure, and I wonder, was I supposed to wonder how affecting a dream would alter Elin's reality? The point deals less with the logistics of life as it does the essence of self-esteem. Elin demands his third grade self to be happy, no matter what happens (so, we are to assume something happens). Did Elin actually believe that his younger self would heed this advice, thus erecting a more pleasurable life when he woke up? In a true tale of time travel, the changes would ripple from external circumstances; interestingly, in Content, the ripples come from within. The true nature of change, eh?

Story, art, and a few lingering afterthoughts. Just what I like in a comic. I wonder if this is an episodic series, like Brian Wood's Demo, featuring different characters every time, or if we actually see Elin again in the subsequent installments. Frankly, I'm done with Elin. The guy doesn't know how to appreciate what he has. Me, I'm content with Content.

Er, sorry. Had to be said.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Freedom Fighters #6

Freedom Fighters (vol. 2) #6, January-February 1977, National Periodical Publications (DC Comics)

I've been referencing the A-Team in my blogs a lot lately, but I would be remiss not to suggest a parallel with this incarnation of the Freedom Fighters, because in this issue, Uncle Sam and company are operating incognito, trying to clear their names of a crime they didn't commit. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Now, the Human Bomb is a far cry from B.A. Baracus, but their wardrobe's are just as dated! Seriously, some of these old '70s comics are easily comparable to early '80s TV dramas, as their lead characters often find themselves in some precarious situations. Ever see the episode when the A-Team defeated an old ranch despot by effortlessly riding around town on horseback? Well, at the beginning of this issue, the Ray and Black Condor stumble onto a racetrack mid-battle and inexplicably saddle up with ease to bring down the Silver Ghost's helpless henchmen. Funny, how the adventurous exploits of the past are considered cheesy folly by today's melodramatic standards.

Later this issue, while the Freedom Fighters continue to elude law enforcement, they uncover a cult and narrowly thwart its attempt to usher in the end of the world through the resurrection of a powerful demon. I don't know if the Fighters often encountered the supernatural, but, while the conflict was an excellent exhibition of their superpowers, I presume that the nature of their team is best served combating international threats on a more political spectrum. With a leader like Uncle Sam, I assume America is always your number one priority. I was more intrigued by this issue's subplot, and it left me wondering how Uncle Sam would really react in this troubling legal context. It's one thing when Americans become too apathetic to protect our nation's founding ideals, as explored in the Vertigo Uncle Sam miniseries by Alex Ross, but what if the U.S. used those ideals -- upholding the letter of the law -- against him?

Despite their serious predicament, the Freedom Fighters skate through this installment with very little legitimate concern for their welfare; the Human Bomb is more preoccupied with his inability to shed his protective suit safely, and in the end, the team goes undercover in a superhero-themed parade. Therein lies the usual goofy but lovable fanfare of the '70s. I know DC is relaunching another Freedom Fighters series in the wake of their latest crisis, but I don't know how well these characters can stand up on their own in today's cultural context. Frankly, if the series doesn't deal directly with our current tumultuous international climate, what kind of "freedom" are these heroes really striving for? The A-Team fought for their own freedom. How long can the Freedom Fighters simply do the same?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

God the Dyslexic Dog #1

God the Dyslexic Dog #1, July 2004, Bliss On Tap Publishing
writers: Brian and Philip Phillipson
artist: Alex Nino
lettering & book design: Dan Nakrosis

Snoopy. Krypto. Marmaduke. Now, God the Dyslexic Dog. Man's best friend is no stranger to comics, either.

Since I phoned in yesterday's post (and I'll have to review another Grist book later this year to really do him justice), I took my time with this one, just as I expressed I should earlier last week. I read this issue, another Small Press freebie from the Con, late this morning and mulled it over during the course of the day, occasionally flipping through it for a reminder of its highlights. God the Dyslexic Dog is about, you guessed it, a dog, apparently the pet of the "primordial philosopher" that creates mankind and his subsequent mythologies. Writers Brian and Philip Phillipson do a decent job streamlining most of humanity's prominent legends into one worldwide history, featuring the Greeks, Egyptians, and the Mayans mostly. As the story unfolds, the focus falls upon Bacchus (otherwise known as Dionysus) and his "experiments with grapes," or, in layman's terms, the advent of booze. Bacchus takes advantage of a cultural diversion to entice Pandora into opening her box, thereby ushering in an age of reason that ultimately vanquishes the era of the gods. Speaking of gods, God the Dyslexic Dog bears witness to this cosmic drama and futilely attempts to stop Bacchus. Some best friend!

Thousands, maybe millions, of years later. Pavlov's lab. God has survived history and found himself among the drunken scientist’s salivating hounds, yet despite his hunger, he cannot muster even a drop of drool. The last we see of him this issue, God is under Pavlov's angry fist; I wonder if God's aversion to Pavlov's experiment implies that the deistic dog is immune to mankind's "rebellious" science. Either way, the story ends with a broadcast of the Art Tinker radio show (a nice poke at the real life late night Art Bell radio show, dedicated to investigating real life X-Files), and an allusion that the end of the world is near by a rise in animal attacks. Something tells me God will be fetching our slippers, paper, and salvation in subsequent issues.

I must admit, based on this book's title alone, I assumed this series was about a child and his supernatural dog, romping through spiritual adventures with insightful glee and folly. Although we are introduced to a child at the end of the issue that will undoubtedly play a large role later in the story, this introductory installment was, obviously, nothing like that. This "buddy movie" mentality with animal oriented stories is a side effect of successful series like Herobear and the Kid and Pigtale. The assumption is an animal protagonist either can't carry a story by itself or needs a human companion to relate more easily with the audience. Whether or not God the Dyslexic Dog proves this insight inaccurate, time will tell.

The art of Alex Nino is extremely intricate and at times extremely excellent. His ability to capture the celestial scope of this story's narrative is impressive, although many of his pages appear too busy and unfortunately indecipherable. With just a little variation in the thickness of his ink stroke, his most detail-oriented panels would have the depth necessary to make a real impact. As is, Nino is an incredibly talented artist; anyone that can make a dog look as expressive as he does deserves some respect.

I was surprised that the Phillipson brothers (I assume they're brothers), as the creators of this series, didn’t include the usual essay at the end of the issue. Their narration deftly described the concepts they wanted to establish, and despite the grandiose nature of their material, the text was sophisticated without getting too scholarly, or in other words, boring. I was hoping to read a more colloquial take on the series, a diatribe about their inspiration or motivation for writing such a story. I hope it’s more than something like, "We were playing Boggle one day and realized that 'god' spelled backward is 'dog' and thought that would make a good comic book." Establishing a character like this takes some skill. I mentioned Snoopy and Krypto; this is admirable company to keep. And with a name like God, you really can't roll over after one issue. I guess I’ll check on the book's status at next year's Con. Like this very issue, you can't always judge a story by its beginnings.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Kane #31

Kane #31, June 2001, Dancing Elephant Press
by Paul Grist

This is going to be a quick one. Old friends in town tonight. Must karaoke.

I've read some Paul Grist before, a little Jack Staff here, a little Burglar Bill there. He's an excellent storyteller that has mastered a variety of genres, and his artwork is distinctive, expressive, and easy on the eye. At times, his inking seems a bit rushed, but since Grist is the one man band behind quite a few successful titles, I can understand the effects of crunch time. His use of heavy blacks creates a crispness to compensate for potential emptiness on the page.

This issue of Kane combines Grist's strengths, telling the tale of a fallen cop investing a superhero murder. Something tells me the genre crossover is a single-issue event, but Grist shines with his emphasis on character and hard-nosed crime noir. Consider Kane’s opening monologue: "I'm a cop. You can call me Detective Kane. My first name? Call me Detective. It's who I am. It's what I do." Nice. A superhero fanatic rides the coattails of this case, and in the end, abandons his faux "Mega Man" persona for Kane's implying a future doppelganger storyline. Or not. The wanna-be's use of the introductory monologue brings the yarn full circle with a mentally unstable, quirky cleverness.

Grist's artwork in this issue is best of his I've seen. The stark blacks and whites are ripped right out of a Sin City yarn. In fact, I wonder if Grist was doing a Miller impersonation this issue, with the thin lines used for the gang of Mega Men at the tale's confrontational climax. (The image of Marv choking another Grist character on the inside front cover reinforces this observation.) So, if I had to describe this issue even more briefly than this review, I’d throw out, "It's 'Who Killed Retro Girl' meets 'That Yellow Bastard.'" Still, with Grist's clout, it's safe to say he may be more the teacher than the student to those stories. Comics is obviously who he is. It's what he does.