Monday, July 31, 2006

Forbidden Worlds #135

Forbidden Worlds #135, May-June 1966, American Comics Group
writers: Zev Zimmer, Pierre Alonzo
artists: Pete Costanza, Chic Stone

The cover of this issue promises "Stories of Strange Adventure," and I'll admit, each of the three tales within contain a peculiar element that would make even Agents Mulder and Scully cock a melodramatic eyebrow. Forbidden Worlds was another serial series, or as I'm calling them now, another training ground for up and coming artists of the era. Who knows if Zev Zimmer or Chic Stone are pseudonyms, but when the creators' names are cooler than their heroes' – i.e. Magicman – I think strange is the appropriate word for it.

Indeed, the first tale features headliner Magicman, and, although his adventures seem rather pedestrian from the start – he saves his dimwitted friend from plummeting off of a rollercoaster – things take a turn for the peculiar when they return to their hotel room. Magicman dreams of his medieval father's demise and conjures a spell to travel back in time to rescue him. Yes, an image of a doomed patriarch vaguely resembles a Shakespearean influence, as does the swashbuckling sword fight with the wizard's dissenter, but in this case, Rosencrantz saves the day. Magicman's tubby sidekick, the same oaf he saved from the treacherous rollercoaster, literally catapults to the hero's rescue, and in an odd digression from the story's tone, nearly marries a princess until she inexplicably falls for this adventure's villain on his way to jail. It's as weird as it sounds. By the end of the yarn, the magical time travel seems almost commonplace compared to these fickle, unconventional characters. Their quirks made the short as entertaining as it was strange. Magicman's proclamation of note: "I'm Magicman – I've got muscles and I've got strong magic! What can beat that combination?" What, indeed?

The other two stories are less character, more concept pieces, the first of which is entitled "The Vengeance of the Vine!" Explorer Roger Dennis plunders a golden idol from a "missionary post, deep in the backcountry of the Amazon," and the scientist among them sends Dennis a chunk of the living vine that protected it. Despite Dennis's best attempts, the vine reproduces on its own, consumes his home, and nearly takes his life. In the end, he turns himself in to the FBI. Who wouldn't? This tale is the epitome of the "man versus nature" conflict paradigm we all learned about in elementary school reading class. Interestingly, although this is the only story of the three without creators' credits, I thought these pages were well illustrated, its characters extremely expressive. For a tale that could've been a bunch of talking heads, the artist branched out and established some roots for himself in the industry. I'm sorry; I couldn't resist.

The final tale is a macabre and predictable tale about "Ghostly Revenge!" Steve McWhyte, "the most dangerous criminal of the age," is executed, but his sheer hatred is enough to keep is spirit alive long enough to kill the people responsible for his fate. Fortunately, a visit to the Institute for Psychic Phenomena offers the Travana Smoke, an odd vapor produced from burning a mysterious ash that repels ghosts. This story is very wordy for four little pages, and although the story was a simple one, it could have been stretched out for dramatic effect. I mean, we scarcely see any real death, except for a newspaper headline that proclaims, "Man Who Arrested Steve McWhyte Mysteriously Dead in Room Locked From Inside." Wouldn't life be so much easier if all headlines were that specific?

Speaking of headlines, to conclude, this comic lives up to its byline more than its title. Strange, yes, but forbidden? We the readers were granted complete access to these worlds, via their creators' odd storytelling styles. I hope these guys were proud of what they produced. Individually, these stories may not be gems, but they were packaged together for a reason in the first place. As one solid read, they're magic.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Rai Trade Paperback

Rai Trade Paperback, reprinting material that originally appeared in Rai #0-4, March-June & November 1993, Valiant
writers: Bob Layton, David Michelinie
pencillers: David Lapham, Joe St. Pierre, Sal Velluto
inkers: Charles Barnett III, Kathryn Bolinger, Tom Ryder
colorists: Dave Chlystek, Jade, Knob Row
letterers: Jade, Brad Joyce, George Roberts, Jr.
editors: Don Perlin, Barry Windsor-Smith
trade paperback design: Simon Erich

Whew. That's a lot of credits.

My girlfriend's uncle was kind to give me a few old TPBs yesterday, and this compilation of Rai was the jewel among them, as I have never read the series before. Today, I had an hour or so to kill while waiting for America's only Monkees tribute band to take the stage at a free concert in the park, so I devoured nearly five issues of material in one sitting. I must confess, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. (Oh, and the concert was great, too.)

I'm familiar with David Michelinie's writing from his nearly 100 issue run on Amazing Spider-man. When comics were booming in the '90s, Michelinie was driving the Webhead bandwagon; his run included the advent of Venom, the return of the Sinister Six, and the rise of superstar artists like Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, and Mark Bagley. Fortunately, he bailed before the Clone Saga tainted Spidey's good name, but for as much as he accomplished in an era when the spotlight was on comics' "next big thing," I doubt many remember him by name. All eyes were on artists and crossovers. (Remember "Maximum Carnage," anyone? Anyone?) Well, I remember him, and although Rai was written just prior to the height of all that Spider-mania, I was happy to hear from him again.

According to his tell-all intro, when Michelinie received the assignment to write the Rai series, the character had a little bit of baggage. Rai had appeared in a series of popular back-up stories that, as soon as they established the status quo of the concept, shattered Rai's world completely. So, here's the recap: the year is 4001. Japan is governed by a super-computer named Grandmother, which is in turn protected by the Rai, a warrior legacy. (Yes, the similarity to Darkseid's Mother Box is all too obvious.) The current Rai repels an alien invasion by raising Japan from Earth, but the floating city sustains too much damage to return! What's worse, at the end of the conflict, Grandmother literally elopes with another super-computer and disappears! Don't you hate it when that happens?

So, Rai's opening monologue of this TPB sums up the story's dilemmas quite nicely: "Japan floats in space. I float in Japan. Which one of us is more alone?" Although the subsequent captions are just as melodramatic, the tone establishes an mythological integrity to this series. Yes, Rai takes place in the future and boasts the trappings of a standard sci-fi epic, but its characters are rich with legacy, introspection, and political strife. The driving force of these first four issues is Rai's struggle over which faction to defend; he is sworn to protect all of Japan's people, but the "healers" work to restore the old order of things (albeit through terrorism), and the humanists have established a new progressive government. Rai's wife works for this government, so he eventually chooses the humanists, if only to regain the rights to visit his seemingly neglected baby in the Happy Cloud Executive Child Care Facility. This connection with his child is his only link to the way things were, a tragic trace of nobility in an otherwise chaotic civil war.

Again, for a story with the potential to amount to sci-fi fluff, Rai offers moments of intriguing political commentary and allegory. Consider the government's sanction of alternative drug abuse, because the general public seems less apt to fight the system when they're complacently high. When Rai goes renegade and stops the drug trade, even the people turn against him: "[The drug was a] momentary escape from our our fears, from a world changing too fast! It was all some of had!" Later, Rai's father, a former Rai himself, sides with the humanists to distract his son from the real action, the height of their plan (which was, incidentally, to coax Grandmother to return). The idea of father/son legacy, the should-I-do-as-Daddy-did dilemma, is one the modern American political theater knows all too well. In the end, we see Michelinie gain some practice for his stint on Spider-man with Rai's woe-is-me mentality: his Pyrrhic victory inspires him to retreat into exile. Aww.

Unfortunately, this is how the epic ends. I would actually love to find the next installment, to see how Rai redeems himself with his father, his wife, and his country. Wait a minute . . . Japan is floating above the Earth. Where the hell is he going?

My only other experience with Valiant is the
Eternal Warrior, and I must confess, both series' artists seem remarkably bland. The background work is commendable for its detail, but it all seems to textbook, so void of personal flavor. Also, the coloring scheme in all of Valiant's books seems flat. I'm not sure what the common coloring techniques were back in the early '90s, but I remember what Image was producing, and Valiant's impressive cast of characters could have benefited from some visual overhaul. In the #0 story included in this TPB, we see Magnus Robot Fighter, Solar, and Turok, all respected properties, but ultimately lost in the shuffle of indie companies in that era. The market was flooded. As I said before, readers weren't looking for stories then. They wanted action-packed art and cool looking characters.

After reading Rai, remembering that collector-centric time, two words come to mind: their loss.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Lego Batman: Secret Files and Origins

Lego Batman: Secret Files and Origins - Prepared for Lego of America by DC Comics
writer: Stephan Nilson
penciller: Marcus Muller
inker: Joe Rubinstein
colorists: Rench & Mayer
letterer: Phil Balsman
editor: Jaye Gardner

Yes, Lego Batman. A comic book's a comic book, okay?

Distributed at the Lego booth at Comic Con, I assumed this one-shot would offer a shallow story designed to shamelessly promote the Lego Batman franchise. I was half right. While the characters are literally drawn like their Lego counterparts, and the story is a simple Arkham-escape affair, the issue maintains enough self-depreciating humor to remain an entertaining read. Consider this introductory exchange:

LEGO TWO-FACE: We're going to take this town apart, brick by brick.
LEGO JOKER: I don't know what's more fun; breaking this place apart or watching them put it back together.

The writer is virtually telling the smirking reader, "Yes, I know I'm writing a Lego comic book, but it's still Batman, you know? Now let me break into the industry in piece. I mean, peace. Damn." I don't envy the artists of this issue, and I must commend their ability to draw these products with enough agility and expression to still tell a story. Kids can certainly use this comic as inspiration for recreating their own Lego Batman adventures, which I'm sure is the point anyway, yes? I doubt Lego sought to publish a comic book that would actually get reviewed somewhere . . . that's what the A Comic A Day challenge is for.

Throughout the issue, Lego advertises their various Batman related products through "Secret Files and Origins" pages that are formatted just like the real thing. Again, I don't know if the self-inflicted sarcasm is intended, but a line like isn't written (or read) without a smirk or chuckle: "Orphaned as a young mini-figure due to the actions of a criminal, Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to fighting evil. Now he has rebuilt himself as the Batman." Nice. Actually, although these descriptions are sprinkled with references to the Lego-verse -- and Crisis on Infinite Playsets can't be far behind -- they're actually surprisingly accurate to the true characters' core. For instance, Robin's origin reveals, "Young Tim Drake did what few others had . . . he figured out that Bruce Wayne was secretly Batman!" Without dragging in the baggage from the "A Lonely Place of Dying" saga, this description concisely, and rather energetically I might add, sums up Tim Drake's dedication and ingenuity. Like good Lego directions, it's precise.

Generally speaking, I think this issue frightened me, because I liked it. With the whole Jason Todd/Red Hood arc, and now the Crisis/One Year Later thing going on, I've been distant from the Bat-titles, just waiting for the whole thing to blow over. In this issue, villains break out of Arkham, Bats and co. touch base with Commissioner Gordon, and the Dark Knight ultimately brings the bad guys to justice. That's a decent Batman story, no matter how it's built. Sometimes fluff can be filling.

Note: Although I was tempted to digress into an argument on comics and licensing, I want to keep the A Comic A Day posts focused on reviewing comics. You can check out that rant at my
LiveJournal. That's a shameless ad, for ya.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #141

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #141, September 1971, National Periodical Publications (DC Comics)
writer/artist: Jack Kirby
inker: Vince Colletta

Jack Kirby. Jimmy Olsen. Don Rickles. The holy trinity of comicdom.

When I saw the cover of Jimmy Olsen #141 at the Comic Con last week, I had to have it. Superman and the Guardian cradling a photograph of famous insult comedian Don Rickles? So long, Action Comics #1. Nice knowing you, Amazing Fantasy #15. I’m telling you, I’ve never been more excited by a comic book’s cover before.

Unfortunately, while reading today’s anticipated issue, its cover literally came off in my hand. Thankfully, I only dropped a dollar for the find, and besides, I’m less interested in the quality of a comic than I am its content. Sadly, I’m not sure if this story is any more durable than its binding. The most fascinating aspect of this yarn is its Superman-centric subplot; when we first see Clark in this issue, he’s trapped in a “bizarre space craft” and lost light-years from Earth! Ten rife-with-Rickles pages later (more on that in a moment), a “native to this star system” mysteriously appears to the rescue and introduces himself as Lightray! Anyone familiar with the tapestry Kirby created around the perilous mythology of Apokolips and New Genesis would understand the significance of this scene. I mean, Superman catches his first glimpse of Darkseid’s fire-pit planet in an issue of Jimmy Olsen – worse, an issue of Jimmy Olsen with Don Rickles on the cover! Who’d ‘a thunk an issue thirty-five years old would offer a fresh plot twist like that?

So, yes, Don Rickles. Prior to the comedian’s first appearance, Kirby introduces his “zany look-alike” Goody Rickels, who, like Jimmy, is suffering from a chemical that will consume them in a fireball from the inside out in less than twenty-four hours! (Of course, the Guardian recovers the cure from Intergang boss Mannheim just in time.) This issue offers little explanation of the Don-ppleganger’s origin, if at all unique other than his uncanny resemblance to Rickles, and when the two collide, the meeting’s peculiarity is cut short by the technicalities of the story. If Goody was a mere plot ploy to create this celebrity cameo, the attempt was shallow and would’ve been better served in an even more random context. I’ll take random over awkward any day.

Now, Don Rickles is one of the founding fathers of contemporary stand-up comedy and by far the best insult comedian of all time. This is not my opinion; it’s an established fact. Those early, classic Friars’ Roast specials wouldn’t have been half as memorable without the Rickles. That established, Rickles’ genuine wit is watered down and not well represented through his comic book incarnation. He’s less comedian, more foil, as he recoils from this issue’s events more than he cuts them down to size, which is what a good Rickles appearance should do. I expected Kirby to indulge us in some true self-depreciating humor, perhaps even at Superman’s suspense. In the end, like a bad Scooby-do cartoon, Rickles is begging the cops to drag him away, too. Hey, Don, can I join you?

Comic book connoisseurs would enjoy this issue’s back-ups, introduced by a self-caricature of Kirby and an interesting essay about the Golden Age history of the Newsboy Legion, whose first appearance from an April 1942 issue of Star Spangled Comics follows. The Guardian appears here for the first time, when rookie cop Jim Harper creates the disguise to fight the various thugs threatening his neighborhood. His inaugural war cry, “I probably look like a comic magazine superhero, out to grab crime by the horns,” would’ve annoyed me if it weren’t possibly one of the first statements of self-parody in the history of the superhero genre. Honestly, these features were the most entertaining of this issue. Makes me wonder if the “Jimmy Olsen comic” concept would’ve been better served simply as a series starring young, unlikely heroes, sidekicks, slack-jawed spectators, and rapscallions. I’d call it The Whippersnapper Brigade or something. Damn, I shouldn’t have typed that! If you steal it . . .!

All in all, I’ve always questioned the validity of celebrity cameos in comics. I’ll never forget the issue of Amazing Spider-man featuring ol’ Web-head lifting Jay Leno on a motorcycle over his head for charity. Did Leno benefit from the three panels’ worth of exposure? Did Spidey’s sales soar as a result? Probably not. These obscure links to reality shatter the escapism comics promise to offer. Tony Stark is just as famous as Leno in the Marvel Universe; Spider-man could’ve bench-pressed Wonder Man, for crying out loud. If the real world celebrity has something to contribute to the story – for example, if Don Rickles offered Peter Parker some stand-up training to hone those wisecracking skills – I could see the purpose. To sell comics? Honestly, if a goof like Jimmy Olsen made it to issue #141 without help, he must’ve been doing something right already.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Nick Fury and His Agents of SHIELD #5

Nick Fury and His Agents of SHIELD #5, October 1973, Marvel Comics Group
writers: Jim Steranko and Roy Thomas
letterer: Sam Rosen
editor: Stan Lee

To honor Joe Quesada's appearance on The Colbert Report tonight, not to mention the premiere of Stan Lee's Who Wants to Be a Superhero? on the Sci-Fi Network, I decided to read a classic Marvel missive, commandeered last week at that cavalcade of pop culture, the San Diego Comic Con. In recent memory, this early issue of SHIELD (any from this era would have sufficed) is the first I've sought based solely on the merit of its artist, Jim Steranko. I'd heard of Steranko's psychedelic style, but other than the occasional retro promo image, had little opportunity to experience an entire issue's worth. When I found some of these books for over $30 at the Con, I thought my chances were sunk, but I uncovered this ragtag reprint for a mere dollar. (The original story appeared in '66.) You can't beat Nick Fury, and you can’t beat that price.

So, does Steranko live up to the hype? Was the read a mind trip through classic "graphic literature," as Quesada dubbed it on Colbert? I guess. I mean, Steranko implemented some interesting visual effects, presumably derived from the more commercial art of the day, and the colorist (either completely anonymous or Steranko himself) uses stark contrasts to establish a mod mood, but by today's standards, this adventure is a textbook example of the mighty Marvel manner. Despite his personal touches, Steranko is of the Kirby school – he inked Kirby's original Fury tales in the mid '60s – and the alliterative lingo littered throughout this super spy serial smack of Stan Lee's insufferable influence. When your cutting edge technology has hyphenated titles like the heli-carrier, the vorti-control center, and the epiderm-mask machine, you’re living in the Marvel Universe. (Did I just create the geek version of "You Might Be a Redneck?")

Like Quesada during his interview, this issue simply needed to breathe. With explosive cufflinks and android assassins, Fury was Bond-meets-Tron, the perfect pop culture combination for that era. Steranko was on the edge of something spectacular, and he certainly made his mark on the industry though this early work, but alas, this issue is too busy being a Marvel comic to let its creators explore the depths of their potential. Even under Steranko's direction, nothing could shield Fury from that fray. When Stan comes up with the spin-off "Who Wants to Be a Cigar Chomping Psychedelic Super Spy," maybe he'll have another chance. If there's anything more cutthroat than the hordes of HYDRA, it's reality television.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Attack #3

Attack #3, Fall 1964, Charlton Comics Group

If I learned anything flipping through all of those back issue bins at the Comic Con, I discovered that, if an open-minded reader like me wants to sample comics from a variety of genres, he need not look farther than Charlton Press. In addition to seeking diverse titles and genres to fuel the A Comic A Day challenge, I've been interested in testing as many publishers and companies as possible, as well, if only to explore the medium's vast, century-old tapestry. So, you can imagine my frustration when nearly every definitive genre issue I pulled boasted the Charlton logo. From B-list superheroes, to teenaged love stories, to gritty war tales, to gun-slinging cowboys, Charlton had it all. It was difficult to know where to start.

Today I settled on Attack, a quarterly war book. I was mentally prepared for the digression. Earlier this evening, I engaged an acquaintance in an in depth conversation about the current state of global politics, and even earlier today, like around 1 a.m., I caught an episode of the A-Team on the Sleuth network. I was ready for the call of duty. Still, that doesn't mean I understand it. War books like Attack must have been extremely popular in the '50s and '60s, as they were produced in abundance, but with World War II still fresh in the nation's consciousness and the Vietnam conflict right around the corner, comics about war don't seem like much of an escape for time. Following Sgt. Rock or another iconic, consistent character through wartime is one thing, but these brief, episodic adventures of anonymous soldiers seem less fictional, and more like a bitter reminder of the world's dangerous climate. Perhaps therein lies the appeal. As much as war comics were reflections of reality, they were still comics, with just enough exaggerated illustration to create a distance or disconnect from any inconvenient truth. For thirty pages, you're in the trenches; when the battle reaches its tidy conclusion, you have the convenience of closing the book.

Attack contains several varied short stories about war, from one-page narratives on firearms to ten page adventures about Chinese Commies. Some of these features are as dry as the deserts our soldiers endure, especially the two-page essay on the history of Civil War machine guns. Others were engaging and insightful, particularly in the context of the early '60s. My favorite tale, "Hot Wire," starred a determined troop ordered to lay a communications cable a few clicks beyond the enemy lines. The unknown artist, either in a hurry to meet a deadline or extremely dynamic in his storytelling technique, pointed his camera on his heroes' hands and toward other obscure angles to keep the expositions interesting to the eye. The only enduring character throughout the issue is an undying spirit of determination – I almost typed "patriotism," but surprisingly, America is rarely if ever actually mentioned as the solders' motives in combat. Simply put, war is their way of life. They seem to know little else. Perhaps that's the point all along.

Books like this wouldn't survive on today's comic stands. The word war seems so imbued with bias nowadays, the genre has suffered from the harshness of its own inspiration. I do miss the format, however. I don't remember if Kurt Busiek or Tom DeFalco said it, but during a writers panel at the Con, someone lamented the loss of these jam books as the training ground for new talent. I assume these bland one-pagers were someone's first work in the field. In this vein, with their diverse range, Charlton must have been like a comic book boot camp. I wonder why they aren't around anymore. Did their diversity ultimately distill their overall impact? Did they spread their forces too thin . . . and lose the war?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Conan Funcom Special

Conan Funcom Special, July 2006, Dark Horse Comics
writers: Joshua Dysart & Timothy Truman
artists: Tone Rodriguez, Sean Parsons, Cary Nord
colorists: Michelle Madsen & Dave Stewart
letterer:Richard Starkings & ComiCraft
assistant editors: Matt Dryer, Dave Marshall, & Ryan Jorgensen
editor: Scott Allie

Another Comic Con freebie, from our friends at Dark Horse Comics. On the cover, this issue's title is Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, but the title noted above, perhaps more accurate for filing purposes, is derived from the inside cover's fine print. Funcom is apparently the company responsible for the Conan video game with the more comic-friendly title. This bears no significance to the story, but I thought the differentiation was interesting from a marketing and collecting perspective.

I'm sure I would have read a Conan story at some point during the year, but I'm glad Dark Horse met me half way with this give-away, otherwise, I wouldn't have known where to begin. With well known indies like Bone or Cerebus, I literally just picked an issue from the bin; Conan, in a league with longstanding characters like the Phantom, has so much history, the wrong issue could have alienated me completely. So, this sampling accomplishes its two goals successfully: (1.) it introduced me to Conan and his world, and (2.) it enticed me to read more, with little pressure. Nice.

Two stories, two entirely different settings, but the same Conan shines throughout the issue. In the first tale, Conan is the king of Aquilonia, "the jewel of the dreaming west." The backstory is established in brief, elegant tones, introducing Conan's new bride, who we find out later is with child. Check this out: "Zenobia, with eyes pitch as ocean depths and dark foam for hair, had won the warrior king's wild heart. So where once was a harem girl now was a queen. Just as where once was a barbarian . . . now stood a king." Short and very sweet. I don't know if classic Conan fans like this royal incarnation of their otherwise wandering warrior, but the seemingly bored barbarian shows off his chops in dealing with a couple of traitors: "I'm sure you both expect public crucifixions, where the street children . . . piss in the nail holes in your feet . . . Instead I offer you a kindness you never would've granted me. . . Guard . . . hand over your arms to the prisoners. Come. Die like men." Yeah, that's the abbreviated version, and you get the point. At this stage in his life, Conan will obviously take any excitement he can get.

In the second story, Conan seems younger, more spry, and initially heroic in rescuing some traveling priests from a band of thieves. Alas, he not only accepts their gifts of appreciation but in turn robs them himself of everything save their undergarments. Cary Nord's artwork tells the tale most effectively in this episode, his expressions less exaggerated than the Tone Rodriguez yarn but more effective in the savage grace of Conan's fighting style and generally cocky character. I think these are scanned pencils, reflective of our warrior's rough-around-the-edges demeanor. I see from the ads throughout the issue that Nord is the artist on the ongoing. Good choice. If the storytelling is this consistent in Conan's regular series, I see the attraction.

In a week or so, the A Comic A Day challenge will be one month old. In this first month, I've already knocked the Phantom, Bone, Cerebus, and now Conan off of the list of old or indie characters at my disposal -- characters beyond the standard scope of the "big two," but still readily available staples in the medium. Fortunately, the Con offered some cheap sci-fi, western, and war-related material for future consumption, so in upcoming posts I can focus less on iconic characters and more on genre and obscurity. I'm digging the variety.

And coming soon: If this be . . . Don Rickles? Who says I can't have a teaser?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Cerebus the Aardvark #53

Cerebus the Aardvark #53, August 1983, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc.
by Dave Sim

I've been looking forward to this one. Cerebus is perhaps the most highly respected creator driven comic book of the modern age, if not of the entire medium. During the Reagan years, when well-established superheroes were all the rage with their Saturday morning cartoons, breakfast cereals, and underroos, Dave Sim was quietly but steadily revolutionizing the industry with his little aardvark that could. One part fantasy epic, one part political satire, Cerebus was an ongoing adventure that seemed to offer consistently engaging, dynamic line work with enthralling, mature dialogue. I guess. I mean, I've only read one issue, but I completely understand how and why Sim earned his prestigious reputation. He was cranking out comics starring peculiar animals long before any turtles were eating pizza.

Although Cerebus #53 was one of many cheap, random buys from the dinged-or-damaged indie bin at Comic Con, a refuge for samples of series beyond the mainstream, I did encounter Cerebus once before from his cameo in an early issue of Spawn. Since that appearance was more allegorical in nature, I wasn't well aware of the character's quirks; the issue in hand this evening is more insightful. Here, from what I gather, Cerebus is fresh off the strife of a tense political conflict and has sought respite with a reclusive countess so he can work on his book. Although some of their rapport is sprinkled with inexplicable references from previous stories, much of their exchange is an astute commentary on the aftereffects of authoritative power. What happens to a leader when he's no longer at the forefront?

Cerebus often refers to himself in the third person, which I might find annoying if Sim didn't delimit the effect with a pompous charm. In fact, Sim infuses Cerebus with a wisdom generally unbecoming a cartoon aardvark. The excerpts from his books, titled "On Governing," are sharp and witty. Discussing money, the little gray guy muses, "Most wealthy people are wealthy people first and whatever else they are second." Brilliant.

I wonder if that was Sim's point all along. Cerebus could have been a platypus of all things, but the commentaries explored through his adventures are universal tenets that exceed any genre of comics. Midway through the tale, I'm less dumbfounded by the fact that I'm reading the words of an aardvark and more intrigued by the circumstances surrounding his fall from grace. Sim sucked me in under the skin of his wayward hero. That's writing, folks.

Other elements of note: In her introductory essay, editor (and presumably Dave's wife) Deni Sim mentions their Con tour, including San Diego, of '83. Also, in the letter column, Dave expounds on some fans' feedback from the previous story arc. These personal touches, which have become franchise fluff and shameless self-promotion in the modern comics era (I’m looking at you, DC Nation), are undoubtedly what kept Cerebus afloat for so many decades. Not only were the characters dynamic, but the creators were interactive . . . throughout the year. The Con wasn't the only chance the reader had to pick the pros' minds. Screw the Internet; I miss those simpler days.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Detective Comics #517

Detective Comics #517, August 1982, DC Comics
writers: Gerry Conway & Paul Levitz
artists: Gene Colan & Tony De Zuniga
letterer: Annette Kawecki
colorist: Adrienne Roy
editor: Dick Giordano

The San Diego sky is overcast today, and a rainstorm from the north is undoubtedly on its way just in time for the close of the Comic Con, to wash the streets of the sheer geek that has infested every cranny of this poor city these last five days. I'm ready to wash my hands of the Con, as well. I spent some time and a considerable amount of money in search of a variety of comics to keep this challenge rolling for the next few weeks. The little doses of diversity from the antique stores and hobby shops I've frequented lately have gone a long way; at the Con, it's one big wave, and it's overwhelming. My head feels as hazy as the sky overhead.

Speaking clouded minds, Detective #517 (a welcome return to the mainstream after my brief marathon of indies) is an issue about obscure transformations. In the lead story, Batman stumbles back to Wayne Manor, suffering from an infectious vampire's bite. Resisting the urge to sample a penny's worth of Alfred's blood (I couldn't resist), the now rampaging Batman hits the streets again and effectively disappears for the rest of the story. In the meantime, a mysterious priest visits the Manor and offers an origin sequence for the responsible vampire, who, I assume from the priest's explanation, is a revamp of the classic villain the Monk. (Revamp. Get it?) Personally, my favorite issue is the cameo of Christopher Chance, a.k.a. the Human Target, summoned by Alfred to impersonate Bruce Wayne during his macabre absence. Chance is an excellent supplemental character for Detective, and the short-lived Human Target Vertigo series is well missed by yours truly.

But I digress. Considering this issue's subplots aplenty, I now realize how frequently circumstances in Batman's world are recycled for every new generation of readership to enjoy. Apparently, around the time of this uncanny tale, James Gordon was no longer Police Commissioner and ran (futilely) for mayor. I remember a similar storyline in the '90s, post "Knightfall," during Moench and Jones' run on Batman. Coincidence? I doubt it. Further, the priest identifies an "Obeah Woman" in his telling of the Monk's origin, and in much later issues of 'Tec regarding the death of Tim Drake's mother, the Obeah Man is introduced and ultimately responsible. Hmm. Hey, didn't Moench and Jones write an Elseworlds or two featuring a Batman-turned-vampire? By then, based on this very issue, the concept was already in continuity!

Sigh. Maybe I should stick to indie books. They don't have the baggage.

This issue's back-up tale is classic camp, even for the early '80s, as Batgirl transforms into a serpent thanks to a bite from the evil Lady Viper. Of course, extracting the villainess's venom enables doctors to create a cure, but alas, Lady Viper is consumed by her own vices and becomes a snake by the end of the tale. Does Arkham have a zoo wing?

Overall, Detective #517 was an enjoyable read, and surprisingly, a nice transition back to reality . . . well, if turning into a vampire or a snake lady is part of reality. I'm coming from the Comic Con. Yesterday, I bumped in a Klingon on the way to the bathroom. At this point, I'll take the bite.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Johnny Blaster's M-Force: The Marshun Menace #2

Johnny Blaster's M-Force: The Marshun Menace #2, Marshmallowville Media
creator: John De La Valdene
writer: Jason M. Burns
artist: Dustin Evans

Today, the penultimate day of the San Diego Comic Con, was a fruitful one. I found several obscure Silver Age issues to review in future A Comic A Day posts, and a perusal of the Small Press Area resulted in a Johnny Blaster's M-Force freebie. Now, as I've griped in my
LiveJournal for the past few days, K.O. Comix, my self-publishing venture, is usually among those desperate wanna-be professionals, so I sympathize with the effort to create and distribute (ideally through sales) an independent comic. I try to find a redeemable quality in every peer's contribution to this lowest end of the industry totem pole. In that context, Johnny Blaster was a challenge.

In this issue, the M-Force battles various animals possessed by "marshun" invaders. Their weapons of choice? Marshmallow blasters. Apparently, Professor Fluffernutter's experimental marshmallows have the ability to vanquish alien despots and infuse their champions with superhuman bravery and strength. Don't ask me why; the Professor doesn't seem to know, either. The story is fueled by fluffy dialogue (pardon the pun) with inept attempts at modern youthful vernacular and pop culture wittiness, offering no explanation as to the tale's obscure situation. If the story didn't take itself so seriously, such an explanation would be unnecessary. If the story were written for kids (as its circumstances might imply), such an explanation would be superfluous, even. As is, I need an explanation to complete the story, to make it a yarn I could get into. As is, I was waiting for the sales pitch for Kraft Marshmallows on the inside back cover, like a classic promo for an issue secretly published by Little Debbie or something.

I was close. Marshmallowville Media is selling marshmallow blasters for a lowly $25. The real money is in toys, anyway.

As for the comic book, I'm sorry, but the art stunk. I know children capable of this quality. I hate to be so harsh of a peer in the field (heck, I'm not even their peer -- they have a table!), but the Comic Con is a competitive forum for talent and sales. Geeks aren't known for their fortunes. A comic, especially one sold on merit alone rather than history or hype, should offer a compelling story, engrossing artwork. The M-Force is as soft as their weapons of choice.

I hope to pick up a few more Small Press books tomorrow to review for the future. I wonder if I should invite their creators to read their reviews. If I do, and we do land a table next year, we might not have the most comfortable experience. In the Small Press arena, the strength isn't in numbers; it's in how few other books you have with which to contend.

Friday, July 21, 2006

B.A.B.E. Force: Jurassic Trailer Park #2

B.A.B.E. Force: Jurassic Trailer Park #2, forcewerks Productions
writer: Kirk Kusnin
artist: Diego Barreto

San Diego Comic Con, day three. I still haven’t purchased a comic book. I’m practicing discernment. Really. Ever go to the grocery store when you’re really hungry? Everything looks good, right? That’s what the Comic Con is like when you’ve accepted the A Comic A Day challenge.

Fortunately, although I haven’t coughed up any cash, eager exhibitors are still dishing out free comics, which is ample fuel for the fire for now. Consider B.A.B.E. Force. The average comic connoisseur probably hasn’t heard of it. So, at the world buffet of all things comics, why not pass out a few free samples, to whet the public’s appetite?

Okay, enough with the food based analogies. All that walking around works up an appetite.

Of course, I have heard of B.A.B.E. Force, thanks to their Free Comic Book Day sampling a few years ago. I’ve read that issue a few times, because, in my opinion, it offered everything I expect from an introductory issue: two solid stories establishing character and tone, with an interesting text-intensive supplemental piece fleshing out the concept. Usually, such text is an essay by the author. In that FCBD issue, the “essay” was actually an excerpt from ChaosCo’s merchandise catalog. See, the “villain” of the story is Dr. Chaos, the heir of the Chaos fortune, and rather than use his father’s criminal technology to take over the world or something . . . he sells it. He’s a huckster. Annoying, but not evil, and ultimately hilarious.

B.A.B.E. Force is Charlie’s Angels meets Die Hard. Their “major domo” is a mute clown; their enemy’s henchman is a Mexican wrestler. It’s pure pyrotechnic fun, with robot dinosaurs and car chases and the old slam-on-the-trailer’s-brakes-so-the-boat-in-tow-goes-air-born trick. Oh, and did I mention the riotous old folks? B.A.B.E. Force takes not taking itself seriously very seriously but avoids the transparent satire that makes adventures like theirs too vapid.

I think B.A.B.E. Force is packaged as an on-going mini-series, with each arc its own title, so this issue is the last in a two-part story. Smart idea. Every installment is accessible to potentially new readership, and I should mention that the art is easy on the eye, as well, with crisp line work and effective use of heavy ink in an otherwise colorless series. In fact, I wonder if color would taint the purity of the artwork’s intensity and expressionist flair. Ho hum.

Yes, the Con offers an overwhelming menu of international comic delights, and today, B.A.B.E. Force was that free tasty sample of orange chicken on a toothpick. It’s dinnertime.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Virgin Comics #0

Virgin Comics #0, July 2006, Virgin Comics
writer: Siddharth Kotian & Shamik Dasgupta
artists: Mukesh Singh & Abhishek Singh
colorist: Sundarakannan & Ashwin Chikerur
letterer: Ravikiran B.S.
editor: Mackenzie Cadenhead & Gotham Chopra
assistant editor: Mahesh Kamath

I've managed to slip the surly bonds of the San Diego Comic Con to write this review, appropriately of an issue I received for free minutes after entering the convention last night. Virgin Comics #0 features two tales introducing characters that the company will launch in their own titles later this year. Interestingly, the cover of this freebie is comics page that doesn't appear in the issue, mostly obscured by the highly recognizable Virgin logo. Clearly, the intent is to sell the concept that this company is creating comics, rather than selling the comics on the merit of their ideas.

Fortunately, though, the comics have good ideas on their own, so this sampling is a package deal. Inspired by mythologies from India and developed for the most part by Deepak Chopra, these tales are both well illustrated and handsomely packaged. Con freebies are usually too thin to count as a legitimate comic, but Virgin Comics #0 is definitely an issue I will "bag and board." The first tale stars Devi, an apparently ordinary (yet incredible beautiful) girl inhabited by an ancient adventurous goddess. The otherwise action-packed episode is interrupted twice by text-heavy splash pages of spiritual backstory, which may be interesting for students of Eastern lore, but is generally obtrusive to the tale's fluidity. The clout of those pages is coupled with Devi's husband's thoughts on her transformation from commoner to goddess, which is more effective in establishing the grandiosity of her plight. If only the story didn't end with the tired old "Gosh, now I'm a superhero!" shtick. New comics are often compelled to make this unnecessary commentary/self-parody, if only to set it apart from other titles. Now, in so doing, it becomes the cliche it was trying to avoid.

Although the second tale, "Ramayan Reborn," avoids the superfluous myth-based subtext, the lead's inner monologue chokes pages that could have been just as epic visually. This is a David versus Goliath yarn. I liked it, too.

Very little occurs in this issue, aside from the action and graphic pyrotechnics. Yet, through the characters and overall tone of the two stories, I have a clear impression of what Virgin Comics wants to accomplish and contribute to the industry: like the infusion of Japanese culture into our comics and cartoons, Virgin wants to expose the potential and excitement of Indian mythology to America. Look at this issue's credits. You know my spell check with nuts with that one. These guys are talented. They have something to contribute. And the Con is the best place to break in. And you can't beat the price.

For more commentary on the Con, visit my
LiveJournal. I'm trying to post some pictures but am struggling with my free Geocities site capacity. I might create a Flickr account this weekend to compensate. I think it's called Flickr. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Will Eisner’s John Law: Angels and Ashes, Devils and Dust #1

Will Eisner’s John Law: Angels and Ashes, Devils and Dust, #1 April 2006, IDW Publishing
writer/artist: Gary Chaloner

Making this one quick. We’re off to San Diego within the hour.

I’ll confess, I’ve never read Will Eisner. I know, I know. That’s like loving Jesus, but never reading the gospels. I intend to change that. I just don’t know where to start.

So why not with this issue by Gary Chaloner, featuring characters created by Eisner? John Law is solid detective noir: a reclusive straight arrow gumshoe, a dame in need, the shoeshine boy with just enough chops to be useful, all expertly depicted in a black and white as stark as Law’s sense of right and wrong. Two stories in thirty pages, lacking a bit in the action department, but pouring on the suspense and emotional grit. Chaloner’s deceptively cartoonish style is fitting for this cast of characters; he nails the square-jawed detective and the round-faced sidekick, who actually steals the show in both stories. If this is what an Eisner admirer can do, I’d love to read the original.

Some housekeeping: not sure what my Internet situation will be in San Diego. If I can’t log on, I will write reviews daily and post them all on Monday. How can I not continue A Comic A Day at the gosh-darned Con? That’s like loving Jesus and not going to church.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eternal Warrior #1

Eternal Warrior #1, August 1992, Valiant
writer: Jim Shooter
artist: John Dixon
colorist: Paul Autio and Knob Row
letterer: Jade
editor: Bob Layton

When I began collecting comics, Dark Horse and Valiant were the only "other companies" I knew. Their characters, while not rich with history, were visually appealing and marketed fairly well, especially Valiant's Solar. Still, I never ventured into that universe. I stuck with the heroes with household names. I stuck with the franchise.

Just as I began to expand my scope as a reader and collector, Valiant folded. I haven't researched why, but I wonder if Image's more visually appealing and marketing hype had anything to do with it. Something about Valiant went stale. Being an "other company" wasn't as unique as it used to be.

That said, Eternal Warrior #1 is not only my first taste of a series, but it's but my first impression of a company. Of course, you can't judge every Marvel comic by an issue of Cloak & Dagger, but in my opinion, any given comic is a window to that respective universe, no matter how large, small, or secondary, no matter how cosmic or down to earth. You can't make a final judgment, but you can derive a first impression.

So, my first impression of the Valiant universe? Bigger than its own skin. The first issue of Eternal Warrior not only offers an origin of its hero, which spans thousands of years, but also ties in to a multi-title epic event. While the first half of the issue is light on text and heavy on action, the second half pours on the dialogue in an attempt to bring its characters, and readers for that matter, up to speed. Although I rarely challenge an artist's ability to lay out a page, I often found myself backtracking to keep up with the time period or the setting. The writer's transitions were poorly translated, I reckon. If this were television, I would have flipped back and forth from this episode, interesting to see where it was going, but intimidated by the way it was getting there.

I like the idea. The Eternal Warrior is just that, a man with an inexplicably long lifespan, super-strength, and a high tolerance for pain, often finding himself in the middle of a battle. From David versus Goliath to Punisher versus the mob, all in one issue. Oh, and the guy's brother is along for the endless ride as well, but devoid of the lust for conflict, has resigned to wandering the streets of Los Angeles. Where else.

Makes me wonder. If I lived eternal, which archetype would I be, the tireless adventurer or the apathetic observer? How much history can one man stand before he decides he's seen it all? What do you do with forever on your hands? A difficult question for anyone, I assume . . .

Or for any comic book company. Unfortunately, not all of them get to answer that question. So long, Valiant. Maybe I'll see you again.

I feel compelled to mention that this issue's cover is excellently crafted by Frank Miller, although the piece offers little resemblance to the actual story. His career may benefit from the pontifications inspired by this issue, but we'll save that argument for another time.

After all, tomorrow, off to San Diego. Speaking of an universe in and of itself.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Beavis & Butt-head #8

Beavis & Butt-head #8, October 1994, Marvel Comics
writers: Johnson & Marcil
artist: Rick Parker
colorist: Robert Camacho
assistant editor: Scott Marshall
editor: Glenn Herdling
consultant: Glenn Eichler
creator: Mike Judge

And now for something completely different.

Anticipating this review, I caught a few episodes of Beavis & Butt-head on MTV2 last weekend, and although I wasn't a fan of the series when it originally aired, in retrospect I completely understand its appeal. With Beavis and Butt-head, Mike Judge managed to capture the cynicism of the grunge rock era and the awkwardness of adolescence, crudely but effectively animated before Adult Swim made nihilist chicken scratch a successful software program. In their Marvel Comics incarnation, Rick Parker recreates these visuals perfectly, accenting the Mike Judge school in an R. Crumb-meets-MAD Magazine manner without completely restricting his own unique style (versus the Matt Groening stencilism over at Bongo Comics). I can't imagine another artist tackling this responsibility so respectfully, if drawing two kids in their underwear is a respectful responsibility.

Yes, for most of this issue, Beavis and Butt-head strut around in their underwear. While poking around in a radio with screwdrivers, they're electrocuted, or as Butt-head says "radio-activated" with superpowers, so they don the guises Coolman and Doctor Weird to fight crime. The funniest moment of the book is when, in their search for supervillains, the "dillweed duo" pick on Martin (I think his name is). When the wimp whines, "C'mon, man! This isn't cool," the crappy crusaders dub him "C'mon Man," their archenemy. Clever.

Also, a page of this issue is partially illustrated by Andy Smith and features Quasar, as Beavis and Butt-head do some superhero research. Like time itself, Beavis and Butt-head are not kind to Quasar. First, they critique music videos on MTV; then they poke fun at cosmic goofs in Marvel Comics. The thought of Beavis and Butt-head as the universal conduits for a medium to make light of itself is an amusing idea; I hope other issues in this series seized that opportunity. Now, I won't go so far as to reference the Hamlet play-within-a-play idea; I wouldn't want to insult Beavis or Butt-head.

So, what role does this comic play in the grand scheme of comics? How does Beavis and Butt-head fit in the whole picture? Heh heh heh. I said "hole." Does that answer your question?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Strange Adventures #209

Strange Adventures #209, July-August 1969, National Periodical Publications (DC Comics)

yesterday's post, I mentioned Star-Spangled Comics, an old DC series featuring B-list characters' adventures, like the Star-Spangled Kid, "Batman's two-fisted partner" Robin, and Tomahawk. Of course, that series was one of many like it, and today's review of Strange Adventures #209 is proof of the "compilation" comic trend of the Golden and Silver Ages. As much as these issues kept fan favorites like Adam Strange in the spotlight, in this case through reprints of earlier stories, I'm sure their true purpose was to keep struggling writers and artists in the business. "Space Cabby" is an interesting concept, but I doubt Otto Binder, Gil Kane, and Bernard Sachs could've kept an entire series afloat, even with Kane's clout.

The cover boasts the series as Adam Strange Adventures, but the first page's fine print drops the "Adam," possibly revealing that the addition of the proper name, and more importantly its familiarity with fans, was to boost fledgling sales. Adam Strange isn't even on the cover; rather, we're treated to Joe Kubert's "The Cave Men of New York!" from the secondary Atomic Knights tale. The feature tale is typical Adam Strange: a zeta-beam transports Strange to Rann, where the reunion with his love Alanna is interrupted by an invasion of giant alien robots. The piece is predictable but fun, and in an American age where an escape to the moon was on everyone's minds, I can understand why Adam Strange, the one man on Earth that "already knows the secret of instantaneous space-travel," was so popular. He was, after all, just a normal guy with some scientific smarts in a world advanced enough to grant him a jet pack, an easy-to-relate-to foil. Unfortunately, although we haven't reached jet pack status yet, Adam Strange offers us nothing more than nostalgic camp, nowadays. We have telephones smaller than the fin on his helmet. We've passed him by.

The Atomic Knights' view of the future isn't so bright. Similar to
Mighty Samson, the Atomic Knights are lost in a post-war radiation-ridden world, and in this episode, they're in search of a food cache below an abandoned New York. In the raid shelter, they combat cro-magnon men, quickly (and unsurprisingly) revealed as atomically de-evolved human beings. The Knights, literally protected by medieval armor that shields radiation "due to a peculiar molecular structure, aged by the centuries since it was made," redeem the cave men's lost humanity and split with some supplies, sustaining their bodies and their spirits. Although this tale doesn't pack as powerful of an apocalyptic punch as Mighty Samson, I enjoyed the yarn and was grateful that it ended before the concept ran out of excitement. I hope to pick up the next installment sometime, in which the Knights "glider-fly west and discover . . . the lost city of Los Angeles!" With no memorable mention of the west coast in any of these post-war pieces I've read, I've feared that California wouldn't survive a nuclear holocaust!

Finally, my favorite story in this threesome was "Space-Cabby," not because of its plot twists or insightful social commentaries, but because the hero is a genuine cheap ass! Finally, a protagonist I can relate to! This episode begins when Space-Cabby needs a new atomic battery for his taxi, so he visits a second-hand space-ship parts shop and knowingly digs to the bottom of the bin where "they always hide the good batteries!" Later, we see the Cabby lodge on an asteroid for the night with his own inflating tent because, and I quote, "Space-motels are too expensive!" Eventually, the Cabby helps cops uncover and capture a gang of space-thieves, and when the police confiscate his newly purchased atomic battery for evidence, he gasps, "You mean I have to buy another one out of own pocket?" Awesome! Of course, the cops give Cabby a reward for his efforts, but his constant complaining about the price of his chosen profession is more memorable than his unwitting exploits as a hero! I hope to hitch a ride with Space-Cabby in the future . . .

And his tale is an interesting lead-in to the editors' note at the end of the issue. In the apparently personally typed missive, the editors apologize for the three-cent increase in the title's cover price, bumping it up from twelve to fifteen cents! Culturally, their explanation is hilarious, disclaiming, "Everything costs more today than just a few years ago. Your parents have to pay more for food, clothing and rent." When I started collecting comics over ten years ago, the cover price for an issue of The Incredible Hulk was one dollar. Now, nearly tripled, I feel lucky to find a back issue for that price. I don't remember ever reading a letter from an editor explaining the need for a price hike in my decade-plus of collecting, not that I needed one, but this retrospective puts things in perspective. The readers were a critical part of the complete comic book experience, back in the day. Hell, Space-Cabby's tale ends with the blurb, "Want more Space-Cabby stories? Your demand is our command!" If I were a kid back in '69, with everything happening in our country that year, I would've felt empowered by that invitation! The editors let me in on their financial decisions, and I have a say in what goes in these comics?

Just goes to show. Characters, even a compilation of B-list characters, don't carry a series. The readers do. What's really strange is how often we forget what we're capable of.

San Diego in three.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. #1

Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. #1, August 1999, DC Comics
writer: Geoff Johns
penciller: Lee Moder
inker: Dan Davis
colorist: Tom McCraw with Heroic Age
letterer: Bill Oakley
assistant editor: L.A. Williams
editors: Chuck Kim & Mike Carlin

Okay. Another “number one.” Although I was initially disappointed in my inability to find and review issues in the triple digit standing, since this is the first month of the A Comic A Day challenge, I figure this is the best time in this process to analyze how a successful comic book series begins. Of course, success is a relative term in the comic book medium; a critically acclaimed book, like one of my favorites Human Target, may not achieve the sales necessary to achieve the status of “a hit.” Further, as we’ve discussed already, the fluidity of creative teams from one project to another may stunt the growth of a title before it reaches its true potential. A team’s run could be successful, but when those creative powers hand the wheel the someone else, the series could crash mere issues later.

Then again, some comics were simply never meant to be. For some reason, in the late ‘90s, DC Comics decided to revitalize characters from its rich past, granting them their own updated series hyped solely by name recognition and the undeniable power of nostalgia. Some characters, like Starman, blossomed for a new generation; other characters, like the Star-Spangled Kid and S.T.R.I.P.E., simply flopped. Now, in addition to dissecting this issue, I did a little research regarding the history of the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripe. The characters originally appeared in Star Spangled Comics, and, sparing you the details, failed to carry the series on their own. Eventually, Robin’s first solo adventures premiered to keep the book afloat. So, considering the context, why would DC opt to revisit characters that were general failures even in the era of their incarnation?

DC thought they’d rewritten the “comeback” formula: respect the history but update the attitude. Like the more favorable Starman relaunch, Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. featured characters from the original adventures, in this case, the original “Stripsey,” alongside a new contemporary, ‘tude-fueled cast. Older and presumably retired, Stripe’s new teenaged stepdaughter discovers his old superhero souvenirs and dons the Golden Age alias as a prank, unwittingly uncovering a citywide plot to recruit students for some sort of terrorist shadow group. Stripsey comes both out of retirement and to her rescue in an armored getup dubbed S.T.R.I.P.E., an acronym hopefully explained in a later issue or otherwise extremely derivative. So, same names and kick-butt-for-justice motives, but mixed with modern adolescent angst and a big cool robot. Who wouldn’t want to read that?

Many people, obviously.

Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. presents another interesting element of comicdom that we’ve yet to discuss: the controversial “created by” credit. This issue is written by Geoff Johns; I don’t know if he had attained the status then that he undoubtedly has now in the industry, but by way of story, Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. #1 is predictable and thin, its characters cookie cut and shallow. The Star-Spangled Kid, a.k.a. Courtney Whitmore, is every chick from The OC or Laguna Beach that has ever really annoyed you. Yet, title page credits actually boast, “Courtney Whitmore created by Johns and Moder.” I don’t get it. They made up a name and pinned it to a stereotype, and suddenly they have as much clout in print as Siegel, Shuster, Kane, and Stan Lee. As much as this would upset me, I’m instantly sedated by the thought that these guys really didn't create anything; they reshaped a dormant, preexisting DC property. They’re as dispensable as the character itself. The credit doesn’t enhance the story or the series’ integrity; the credit is an ego boost, a footnote for a resume. Let the babies have their bottle, I guess.

The Star-Spangled Kid is still around in the current Justice Society book, I presume. As much as these characters struggle in the vastness of their comic book universes, they’ll always resurface when another idea completely fizzles out. These characters aren’t icons as much as they’re ideas in the stable, kept on the shelf just in case, “old reliables” used to flesh out pages and careers. I wonder how many comics are casualties of their own shaky pasts. Ironically, every series starts with “number one,” but very few comics stay number one.

San Diego in four days.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Omega the Unknown #9

Omega the Unknown #9, July 1977, Marvel Comics Group
writer: Steve Gerber & Mary Skrenes
artist: Jim Mooney
letterer: Susan Fox
colorist: Janice Cohen
editor: Steve Gerber

Two weeks later, I'm finally reviewing a Marvel Comic in the classic sense. This issue, from the presumably long lost adventures of Omega, "Mystery Man from Beyond the Stars," features the classic formula: superhero struggles with his place in society and inevitably fights villain in New York, illustrated in cosmic-dotted Kirby-esque detail. In my experience, despite the ongoing self-imposed sufferings of their heroes, early Marvel issues from this era are relatively episodic and easy to understand beyond the continuity of the entire series. Specifically, the superhero stuff is fairly uniform; you could swap Peter Parker from an Amazing Spider-man yarn with Matt Murdock from a Daredevil tale and experience the same story with little change to both the inner and external conflicts. Omega uses elements from this formula, but generally strikes me as a higher end concept, potentially controversial in the formative years of the Marvel Universe. Maybe that's why I've never heard of Omega 'til today.

In the character summary above the credits (and hokey element I miss from today's comics), Omega is described as "the lone survivor of an alien world, a nameless man of somber, impassive visage, garbed utterly inappropriately in garish blue-and-red." Hmm. I wonder if Omega's creators intended to parody or satirize any other characters in comicdom? Omega is Superman without the moral compass, his only apparent tie to humanity a boy "raised in near-isolation by parents who (he discovered on the day they 'died') were robots." Now, that sounds interesting, but we scarcely see the kid all issue. Even with the series glossary from the intro page, this story makes it difficult to get to know these characters.

Speaking of this story, I almost forget to mention the other Marvel mainstay of the mod mid-70s: a bunch of twentysomethings talking in a loft for a few too many pages. Spidey's buddies did it, the Avengers did it, and Omega's pals apparently did it. I can't begin to assume what that subplot is about. The only other plot element worth mentioning is Omega's motives in fighting the token tough guy in the issue's climatic finale. Shunned by the loudmouthed pedestrians around him, Omega vows to buy a suit and forsake crimefighting forever, so much so that he almost leaves robber and general bruiser Blockbuster to his own devices, 'til the storeowner offer a $1000 reward for the villain's capture. Omega's motivation is money, for the suit, I presume. Apathy turned to greed . . . Superman with the morale, indeed.

And without the fanbase. Consider this excerpt from a letter about a previous issue: "Omega #7 possessed nothing of value." Wow. They printed that, like it was the least severe of the criticisms they received. This is the high end concept I started talking about; I doubt the issue was void of value, but its hero was definitely valueless at his core. For all of Marvel's emotional baggage, their icons still fought for truth, justice, and the American way (or at least, the New York way). When they fight for themselves, there's really nothing marvelous about them. Like Omega, they're too alien to understand.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bone #20

Bone #20, October 1995, Cartoon Books
by Jeff Smith

I don’t like yearbooks. Never have, for many reasons. Yearbooks offer a singular snapshot that offer a potentially endless impression of a person that is undoubtedly so much more than that moment in time encapsulates. A yearbook is like one patch in a large quilt, with significance to the whole, but definitely not the whole. That’s how these "A Comic A Day" experiences have felt.

I picked up four comics for two bucks at a pawnshop earlier today, and one of those issues was Bone #20. I had the choice between #5 and #20, so I opted for the issue that might offer more depth into Bone’s world. See, Bone is a book that lives and breathes by its reputation. From the acclaim I’ve read about Jeff Smith’s series, I expected an incredible tale rife with entertaining escapism, and although the book has a rich history, I figured its twentieth issue was a now-the-ball-is-rolling-but-we’re-not-in-too-deep chance to jump onboard.

Unfortunately, in regards to this issue’s story, I felt like I’d opened a yearbook. In the grand scheme of Bone’s life, I’d picked an awkward moment to observe . . . at least, awkward for someone that doesn’t know him. The inside cover offers a brief synopsis: "After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, are separated and lost in a vast, uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures . . ." Sounds interesting, eh? I was surely ready for an adventure . . .

. . . for naught. Fone Bone (I didn’t know there was more than one Bone) was lost in a forest with two unidentified companions, while the other two cousins were reunited in a tavern running a scam to sell the most beers. The focus of the issue is Phoney and Smiley’s dishonest entrepreneurship, which does Smith’s artistic ability a disservice. Bone was a bimonthly book; although I know comics don’t work in the "real time" they’re distributed, I would expect such an issue to look like two months’ worth of work. Bone #20 is a Sunday morning comics strip. I should’ve tried #5.

The glimpse we get of Fone’s travels through the forest are artistically impressive. Smith uses the black and white format to its fullest, with heavy shadow, varying lines of thickness, and depth that rivals the richest pallets. Although the Bones seem initially simple in design, they are extremely expressive, perhaps the best example of how less is more in good cartooning. The other characters, all humans, have a pinch of Bruce Timm here, of Scott Morse there (Ancient Joe is still on the brain), defining our generation’s concept of the cartoon, just as Chuck Jones and his apprentices did over thirty years ago. The beer-selling subplot may have been a drag to read, but it was lovely to look at.

Based on this issue’s letter column, Bone had a diverse, faithful following. Two of the letters were from wives that became hooked on Bone when their hubbies brought it home from the comics shop. (No pun intended. Grow up.) What would it take to entice these women to pick up the books on their own? To frequent a comics shop themselves? Maybe I’ll save that analysis for Women’s History Month in March.

Also, unbeknownst to me at the time of purchase, this is the last issue of Bone before the title became another on the mid-90s Image roster. I doubt the series changed much with that big "I" on its cover, but in retrospect, I wonder who truly benefited from that move? For a company supposedly based on successful creator driven properties, Image sure was quick to devour them all.

Another thing about yearbooks. Most of the time, all of those people, you’ll never see them again. By "A Comic A Day" standards and practices, I can't review another issue of Bone, and considering the time it’s been taking me to read and analyze a single issue every day, I can’t imagine revisiting this series until the challenge is over. Based on this initial impression, I’m looking forward to it. Yearbooks may offer lasting impressions, but reunions often offer a second chance.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Phantom #50

The Phantom #50, June 1972, Charlton Press

Every era of literature, from classical mythology to modern graphic fiction, has a pantheon of characters that embody its dominant genre. For Greek mythology, Achilles and Odysseus come to mind. Victorian detective fiction, which was more expansive than modern literary scholars remember, Sherlock Holmes. Early superhero comics, the Phantom. Superman may have set the standard and raised the bar through his omnipresence in print and broadcast media, but the Phantom was always holding down the fort back on the newsstands. He’s a staple.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about the Phantom, and the fiftieth issue of his fifth volume of comics by Charlton doesn’t help much. Featuring four extremely abrupt short stories, the Phantom’s adventures are surprisingly diverse considering his setting, the reclusive tribal jungles of his people, the Bengali. In this issue, the Phantom rescues a crashed spacecraft from a warring tribe, reforms a fugitive while suffering from a venomous snakebite, and escapes from a Romanesque citadel of despots. Other than resourcefulness and strength of will, the Phantom doesn’t exhibit any extraordinary abilities, save perhaps to preserve the fashionable integrity of full body purple tights. I shudder to think of how his costume would be interpreted in today’s pop culture.

This issue presents two other interesting tidbits: a graphic exposition of nature’s most powerful “jungle killers,” with man of course on the top of the list, and a dry page of pure text offering a lesson in Mandarin Chinese. I don’t know what the point of these pieces is, but as I read them, I felt like a vindicated boy scout devouring this comic with a flashlight under his comforter. I don’t know why. These pure, preachy, pointless pieces struck me as very mid-70s Americana, with a pinch of Highlights magazine.

So who is the Phantom, this man oft dubbed "the ghost who walks?" I think he’s the specter of superhero comics long gone. Creditless adventure fluff, continuity free, stagnant in its revolutionism. I was entertained as long as the story lasted, with no lasting impression. Like a ghost, reading the Phantom, I thought I saw something, but when I took a closer look, it was nothing. Just a whisper from the past. Classic mythology that nobody worships anymore.

Many of the comics I’ve sampled have been from the ‘70s when, by their wear and tear, I thought they were older. I need to go to the library and find something from the past before its time . . .

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Justice #1

Justice #1, November 1986, Marvel Comics Group
writer: Archie Goodwin
artists: Geof Isherwood, Joe Delbeato, Jack Fury
letterer: Rick Parker
colorist: Bob Sharen
editors: Michael Higgins, Jim Shooter (editor-in-chief)

I know, I know. We were almost on a roll. After two older issues with unique offerings to the medium, I dig out another "number one" to another long-dead series. Justice is the last of my Independence Day weekend shopping spree, so, aside from the handful of Silver Age books I picked up at the hobby shop yesterday, which I intend to spread out over the rest of the month, I'm back to square one. I have to look for comics again. The search has become as enjoyable as the result.

Or in the case of the issue in question, more enjoyable. When Archie Goodwin passed away awhile back, I remember reading pages of fond farewells from his peers and admirers. Honestly, as a newbie to comics (to know as much as some of these statesmen of comics do, you'd have to collect for much longer than fifteen years), I'd barely heard of him. I was all McFarlaned and Liefelded. The way I read it, Goodwin was a pioneer, a true craftsman of comics. He earned the respect of those above and below him through his handling of the genre as an art and a business. I'm glad I got that impression.

Because if my opinion of Archie Goodwin sprang from my impression of his series Justice, I'd think the guy was a looney tune.

In Marvel's short-lived New Universe (the point of which still eludes me), Justice was a dimensional outcast, stranded on our world with an ability to see the auras of evil people. With one hand, he could generate a hard-light shield, with the other, a blast of energy he oddly calls his "sword." He's dressed like a hair band front man, gaudy even by late '80s standards. And the class of evil he encounters, punks with names like Slits, Pink, Snap, Regis, and Nester, speaks the true volume of his righteous plight. Justice is dated and ridiculous, a pyrotechnic display that gives fodder to any critic of superhero comics. I barely made it through this issue.

Give me strength.

Even Shakespeare wrote a dud or two, right? For every Good Will Hunting, an entertainer has a Reindeer Games to his credit, as well, yes? Sometimes a work -- a book, a comic book, a movie, whatever -- is so difficult to swallow, I actually try to imagine its originator at the keyboard, grasping for inspiration, producing that pile of pop culture crap. I try to sympathize, as one who has been held hostage by the blank page myself. As one who has had a job to do, a boss demanding results, and all that. Sometimes it helps the heap go down easier.

Time helps, too. When the "New Universe" hit the stands two decades ago, I imagine Marvel hyped these series as the second coming of comics. Justice and its brethren were probably perceived as potentially cutting edge material, by mainstream comics' standards. Now, finding this 75 cent #1 issue for 25 cents twenty years later, I can read the book with some perspective. I can see the book for what it is, rather than how it saw itself, hot off the press.

After all, justice is blind, eh? (If you think that's a cheesy way to end this post, how 'bout this line from Justice, from a drug dealer hustling a broke, eager junkie: "I knock chicks who yell at me flat on their keisters." Okay? 'Nuff said?)

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Brave & The Bold #124

The Brave & The Bold #124, January 1976, National Periodical Publications/DC Comics
writer: Bob Haney
artist: Jim Aparo

This issue is the most ambitious Batman story I've ever read (and I've read a lot of them) because its creators play pivotal roles, and I don't mean behind the drawing board. As Batman and Sgt. Rock pursue a terrorist group that has stolen 1000 rifles from the military, some of the terrorists pursue artist Jim Aparo and demand that he illustrate the heroes' deaths! Fortunately, Aparo, with the help of his collaborators, stays one step ahead of the hooded villains, until Bats and Rock defeat the group right outside Aparo's secret hideaway. Forget the fourth wall; in this issue, the creators are as brave and bold as the comic itself!

In my last post, I eluded to the damage certain creators' celebrity has inflicted on the medium at large; oftentimes, the fact that a certain writer or artist is tackling a title overshadows the title itself. This attention has fostered a need for frequent rotations of creative teams, the whole "Look who's on Superman now!" thing. I don't like this phenomenon, or more specifically, its inevitable inconsistencies, and sometimes, inadequacies.

The best recent example I can think of is the critically acclaimed Batman "Hush" tale by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee. In the first issue of that arc, Killer Croc is a deformed rampaging monster, mutating before Batman's very eyes. The hope of his "cure" is mentioned briefly, but we don't see results by the end of the epic. In the very next storyline ,"Broken City" by the 100 Bullets team, Croc is not only back to normal, but he's the most human he's ever been, essentially coming off as a pimp with a skin condition. Both interpretations of this character can be valid and entertaining in his grand scheme, but in back-to-back episodes, new readers that picked up the last issue of "Hush" and the first of "Broken City" could have been, and should have been confused. I've been a Bat-fan for 15 years, and I was confused.

Admittedly, naturally, I am a fan of certain writers and artists, and I will check out a book I wouldn't read otherwise if I see their names on the cover. However, I have become fans of certain writers and artists because I've grown with them on a title, because I've experienced the range of their ability in a single series. Telling stories and drawing pictures are a major part of comics, but something can be said for staying power, too.

In fact, I picked up this issue (from the antique shop, for those of you keeping track) because of Aparo's appearance on the cover. Aparo drew Batman in several titles for over thirty years, maybe more, most notably in the well publicized "A Death in the Family" arc of the late '80s, in which Robin (Jason Todd) died. Aparo himself recently passed away, so I was eager to read an adventure with him in it. I wonder what inspired the creative team to feature themselves. Was it excitement at the very idea (the fantasy of fanboys everywhere, I'm sure), or a lack of story that simply required filler? Either way, it surprisingly works, if you stretch the bounds of your imagination. Or, with this pinch of reality, should you restrict the bounds? It's an interesting dilemma.

When this issue hit the stands back in '76, did readers and critics scoff at this use of self caricature? Did they bill it as ego-fueled fantasy fulfillment? Perhaps, but now, knowledgeable of Aparo and company's reputation, I interpret the tale as an homage to their endless efforts for those characters. In a few years' time, will I think the same way of these other "celebrity" contributors?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Mighty Samson #5

Mighty Samson #5, March 1966, K.K. Publications/Western Publishing Company

Have you heard? Korea is testing nuclear missiles with the potential to reach the United States. Larry King is talking about it. The Los Angeles Times is dissecting it. The American people . . . couldn't care less. Hey, it's summertime. Can't a guy watch America's Got Talent in peace?

Why isn't the common man in fear for his family? Building fallout shelters? Wondering what to do if he grows a tail? Could it be he's heard it all before, and aside from a change or two in the world's political climate, his life was fairly unaffected? His fears were for naught? Or perhaps because the Silver Age of comics has offered a road map for a world "razed by nuclear war." Yes, that's it. We shan't worry about nuclear fallout, because we have a plan. We have Mighty Samson.

Mighty Samson, his liege the scientist Mindor, and Mindor's daughter Sharmaine, are heroes in the post-nuclear city N'Yark, doing their best with the remnants of a lost world to save this "second Stone Age" from the ramifications of its past. For instance, in issue #5, pockets of radiation, or "death-glow geysers," are bursting through the earth, and Mindor dedicates himself to their eradication before innocent lives are lost. Their mission is temporarily interrupted when Samson rescues an adrift stranger, Vaxar, who, unbeknownst to his new friends, changes into the beast Oggar when exposed to a death-glow geyser. Despite his many attempts to sabotage Mindor's efforts, Samson defeats him, and in a seemingly lonely world, Mindor and company lose a potential ally. Yeah. It's sad.

In my last post, I mentioned my desire to plunge more into comicdom's past, and a visit to a hobby store this afternoon offered that window, with inexpensive Silver Age comics aplenty. (Mighty Samson #5 and the other issues I snagged put me back a buck each, and their damaged covers add to their charm, you ask me.) I looked for books beyond the DC and Marvel universes, and although Samson boasts the Gold Key logo on its cover, the first page's fine print credits K.K. Publications and Western Printing and Lithographing Company, with no other creators' credits throughout the issue. Ah, the good old days, when characters and content sold comics over their frequently rotating creative teams.

But I digress. Frankly, Samson's artwork looks like a great John Buscema imitation, if it isn't Buscema himself. The story is a little wordy but otherwise entertaining, with tongue-in-cheek commentary like, "How clever, Samson . . . using one of those old-time matches father found!" Very Planet of the Apes in its references to the "old world," except we the readers are Heston, shouting our damn-yous at every other page.

Question. A few days ago, I reviewed Image's Casanova. Here we have a protagonist named Samson. Is our generation incapable of coining a new name for our characters, or are we too dependent on myths of the past to encompass our new heroes' trademark traits? Samson is cunning in a crisis, but clearly Mindor possesses the smarts of the group. I mean, his name is Mindor. The He-Man villain that never was? Is that the best we can do?

Again, digressing; back to the issue at hand. Interestingly, the inside covers boast "modern" facts that set-up or reinforce the plot fairly effectively, in this case, about the Empire State Building. If this is an ongoing feature, I like it. N'yark is obviously New York, and this insight into the author's research and inspiration is both an anchor and an eerie element of realism for the reader . . .

. . . which gets me thinking. You know, the post-apocalyptic thing, or the parallel-doomed-world-that's-really-Earth thing, has been done so often now that I wonder how readers reacted when the concept was new. First of all, to Samson's credit, this story isn't too dated; with some modern vernacular, this tale could be a natural reaction to today's news. But in the chaotic '60s, what were these artists thinking? Were they simply spinning an epic adventure, or did they want their readers to think about it? What would you do if America cowered in the crosshairs of a nuclear attack? What if Samson wasn't there to save you from magnetic eye monsters and flying swordfish?

The concept makes for a cool comic. Reality . . . not so much. I would visit Samson's world again, but I hope it doesn't become mine.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Automatic Kafka #2

Automatic Kafka #2, October 2002, Wildstorm Productions
writer: Joe Casey
artist: Ashley Wood
letterer: ComiCraft
editor: Scott Dunbier

Celebrating one week of A Comic A Day. Let's take a look back, shall we?

I'm surprised that I've only read/reviewed one DC comic thus far. (Today's Wildstorm imprint doesn't count because: [1.] I imposed the "four books from 'the big two' weekly maximum" rule based on their availability and Wildstorm books aren't as well distributed, and even if they were, [2.] ACAD began on a Saturday, so the ACAD week henceforth begins on Saturdays. My allowance begins anew.) Of course, aside from the first bulk purchase at the antique store, the holiday weekend afforded the luxury of frequenting two popular specialty shops where obscure books and quarter bins are readily available. In the autumn, when the vacation and blockbuster movie season ends, my options will become much more limited.

Also, I'm enjoying the variety, even if most of the new-to-me titles aren't my usual fanfare. The Epic experience was by far the most eclectic and educational of the week's samplings, and I hope to uncover more books beyond my standard scope sometime this month. I acknowledge the need for older books, for less superhero stuff. Less faulty first issues (the price of digging around the discount drawer at Meltdown), more books with some history. Hey, give me a break. I'm just getting started.

Automatic Kafka boasts itself as a superhero book, and I've always had my eye on it, but I've never actually read an issue until this morning. This second issue (to start our second week . . . get it?) is so comprehensive in its explanation of the series' concept, I wonder what could've happened in issue #1. I get it: a Howard Hughes-like, seemingly psychic eccentric abandons his political/big business philanthropy to fund his own superhero effort, and the government (or some such shadow agency) wishes to acquire the now-retired members of his group, including the outdated robot Automatic Kafka. An interrogation between the eccentric and a government agent (aptly named Stahl, a potential play on the spook's inability to intimidate) reveals these points in a masterful dialogue, the highlight of the issue, really. The only time we see the series' namesake is when Kafka gets "high" from the dormant energy of an abandoned amusement park. Interesting and pointless, if only to fashion a way for the government to find him. No wonder his benefactor won him in a poker game, supposedly.

Ashley Wood's chicken scratch art strikes me as both minimalist and highly detailed at the same time. As a wanna-be artist myself, some of his panels have an I-can-do-that quality, while others are too ambitious to imitate, let alone dissect through the conventional comic lens. He uses color strategically, effectively. Only Wood and Ben Templesmith have managed this style successfully, from what I've read of the modern slam comics. Fortunately, in both cases, the scratch does well with the script, if that makes sense. I'd better bail out before I start mixing metaphors.

Automatic Kafka is the reason I accepted the A Comic A Day challenge. I don't know if I would've read this book without the incentive to experience a different title every day. If this second week is as interesting as the first, I have an exciting year ahead.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Casanova #1

Casanova #1, June 2006, Image Comics
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Gabriel Ba
Letterer: Sean Konot

This one's a squeaker. That's why this is a challenge.

Reading a comic book every day is no big deal. As I suggested in my introductory post, millions of geeks do it. Reading a comic, reviewing its contents and ultimate role in the overall medium, and posting these thoughts online, in the midst of a ten hour workday, is not so easy.

I intended to read and review DC's Brave New World, an 80-page $1 special offeritastesets of upcoming titles in the wake of their "Infinite Crisis" crossover. I wonder, if some of those characters, like the Atom and the Creeper, couldn't carry a series prior to this latest crisis, what makes DC think they can now? Realizing this, the 80 pages, even in small helpings, were difficult to swallow.

So I moved on to Casanova #1. If you thought you had a busy day at work, consider this episode from Casanova's planner: kidnapping a sex-bot for an alien underlord, battling your militant father's worldwide sanctioned foot soldiers, attending your beloved sister's funeral, slipping through the space-time continuum, and accepting employment from your family's worst enemy, who is working with another incarnation of your sister, who tries (successfully?) to seduce you. This is Casanova #1: an enjoyable roller coaster of spy games, science fiction, and macabre melodrama.

I liked some of the uses and abuses of the comic book medium in this issue. During the funeral scene, sympathetic mourners surround Cass, but their speech balloons are empty, revealing the meaningless of their words. Throughout the story, each character is introduced with an "aside" monologue, which doesn't interrupt the tone or pace of the adventure too distractingly. They don't contribute to the story, but they do heighten its entertainment value.

Incidentally, in his article at the end of the issue, Fraction reveals that Casanova is using the Fell format, but #1 is 28 pages. I assume subsequent issues will only present 16 pages of story, for a meager $1.99 even, like Warren Ellis's Image crime opus Fell. With seemingly so many angles to his universe, I wonder how Fraction will do it. I also wonder, why bother? I know Ellis intended for the Fell format to offer affordable, meaty comics, but to use the format for its own sake seems counterproductive. "I'll make it short because it can be!" Maybe a new format is in order: the Fell format, and for those with an extra buck, an extended version, with a few splashes or something.

Gabriel Ba's artwork is reminiscent of the 100 Bullets team, with a pinch of one of my favorites, Jim Mahfood. His ink work is so finely crafted that I almost didn't notice the book's lack of color; shadow is emphasized with just a flat pine green, adding a mod noir feel to the already off color tale. (Remember Rucka's run on Detective after "No Man's Land?" The colors look like that.) From both an artistic and a literary standpoint, with an introductory issue like this, it's difficult to determine if the contributors blew their wad too soon or if the series will offer such successful consistency. In contrast to Brave New World (which, because I started reading it, is now eliminated from the ACAD challenge), I'd place my bet with a newcomer like Casanova, rather than old horses like Martian Manhunter and Captain Marvel.

He may have a heavy workload, but with just one fun issue under his belt, Cass doesn't have the baggage.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ancient Joe #1

Ancient Joe #1, October 2001, Dark Horse Comics
created, written, & illustrated by C. Scott Morse

First Grim Jack. Now Ancient Joe. No, I am not on an obscure-adjective-meets-common-name marathon.

Have you ever been invited to a party where you're sure you wouldn't know anyone, but with the hopes that you'll meet someone cool enough to become a new friend? Where, a half hour into the shindig, you realize you'll probably never see those people again?

That's how I feel about these unknown comics, or more specifically, their feature characters. The Fighting American, Grim Jack, Ancient Joe . . . someone, somewhere, liked these characters enough to give them a chance in print, then to order them for their store, then to add to their comics collection. My brief encounters with these characters are like the awkward conversations over chips and dips at the party: short, sweet, and ultimately pointless. I'm left holding my drink in the corner.

Now, Ancient Joe has potential, if not for its content, then for its creator, Scott Morse. In my opinion, despite his best attempts toward dialect in dialogue, Morse is not a prolific writer, but his unique Picasso-on-paper style blows me away every time. Unfortunately, the first issue of this Ancient Joe series features too much conversation, not enough ambiance. With so many head shots, Morse fails to let the sequences breathe, and even this chapter's climatic blow-by-blow boxing match seems too tight, like a movie shot close to conceal the inconsistencies in the choreography.

Again, like Grim Jack, I don't know much about this story's protagonist based on this singular issue. From what I gather, Ancient Joe is an ageless widow, trying to buy his wife's way out of hell. An old friend is willing to help, but for a price: a gentleman's boxing match, just like the good old days. I don't get it either, but Morse hooks me 'til the end, with a cliffhanger that leaves me wanting more, not from the next issue, but from the cliffhanger itself. Morse could be one of the most unique artists of our time, if he just shut up and drew.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. I just selected this issue from my quarter bin batch in the hopes of escaping the capes and tights for a day. I wanted a slice of life. I guess I got one, but this life ain't mine. These friends aren't mine. If I see Ancient Joe again, I might strike up another conversation to see if something clicks, but tonight, I'm going home early.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Grim Jack #24

Grim Jack #24, July 1986, First Comics, Inc.
writers: John Ostrander, Steven Grant
artists: Timothy Truman, Paul Smith, Steven Haynie

Another find from the antiquing expedition. Not an impressive one, I'm afraid.

Having already eliminated Captain America and a Superman title from the ACAD roster, I'm making an effort to find comics I've never heard of before. Unfortunately, I haven't sought true indie or small press material yet; the only alternatives to "the big two" I've reviewed thus far are still superhero/adventure books, and as I assumed, these issues are crap with a cover. I mean, who the hell is Grim Jack? And why didn't this issue, touted as a "special anniversary issue" complete with a reprint of Grim Jack's first published story, answer that question? Near as I figure, Grim Jack (whose real name is John Gaunt, which sounds a bit cooler than his "street name" if you ask me) is a failed wizard/bounty hunter with a heart of gold. He's tough and corny, considering the book is sprinkled with dialogue like this:

DOORMAN: You goin' in here, Gaunt?
DOORMAN: There gonna be a fight?
DOORMAN: Guess I better move, then.

The comic almost makes fun of itself, which would be a good enough read, if it weren't laced with lofty, over-explained mythology. In fact, the most interesting part of the story is its setting, which, though the characters explain the concept a few times too many, is boiled down in this intriguing intro: "The city's real name is Cynosure . . . built where the multiverse meets . . . The laws of physics change from block to block. Magic works here, science over there." If Grim Jack was a series about this city, rather than its hero, I'd look into it. But as these excerpts are from the reprinted tale, and the too brief new yarn settles on Gaunt's birthday, I presume I'm supposed to care about him. I don't.

I'm a superhero fan. Even a B-list superhero fan. (I have nearly every appearance of Cloak & Dagger, for example.) But if this comic is an example of what other publishers have offered the genre, Teenagers From Mars, here I come. The outlook for these Judge Dread-era knock-offs are just like John Gaunt: in a word, grim.