Wednesday, February 27, 2008

WWWednesday: Gilligan's Island Doujinshi

WWWednesday: Gilligan's Island Doujinshi
by Sharon Gauthier

I was browsing through ComicSpace for possible WWWednesday fodder when I discovered this, Gilligan's Island Doujinshi. It's potential status as fan fiction initially deterred me from considering it for review, but the more I read it, the more engrossed I became. This doujinshi (roughly transliterated, "self-published magazine") may star the characters from Gilligan's Island, but Sharon Gauthier really just uses the TV Land classic as a vehicle for traditional horror storytelling. Let me tell you, the Minnow may have been lost, but her focus as an artist is sure and steady.

Plot synopsis? Gilligan goes nuts. There's really no other way to describe it. After one too many hat slaps from the Skipper, or accusations of blatant sabotage from Ginger or the Howells, Gilligan just plain loses it. His first kill is of course the Skipper, a gruesome surprise unfortunately void of the climatic confrontation true Gilligan fans might have suspected. No, it's the Professor that proves to be Gilligan's greatest foe, since his intelligence apparently includes forensic expertise and his physical strength makes him capable of climbing trees, out of the "little buddy's" machete range.

Heed my warning, though: Gilligan's Island Doujinshi will leave you wanting more. At sixty-one pages, Gauthier isn't done, with only the Skipper, Ginger, and half of the Howells dead and done. Its almost cinematic pacing is what elevates this piece above mere fan fiction to me; it's a legitimate horror comic with all of the conventions and suspense one would expect. While some of her pages aren't as strong as others (and, believe me, while the weak ones are weak, the strong ones are really strong -- and moody, and creepy), Gauthier experiments successfully with varied angles and perspectives, bringing the reader to the tops of the island's trees one page, into the thick of its brush the next. Oh, and another warning: This material is for readers 18 and over. I had to log in to view it, so don't share this with the squeamish.

Fans of GI shouldn't be too disappointed, as long as they don't take themselves too seriously. Gauthier retains a fair amount of humor about the series to nudge-nudge-wink-wink loyal viewers, even incorporating its famous theme song as an eerie soundtrack. If this were adapted to film, I could see Marilyn Manson covering it. Or am I thinking about it too much? Can you tell that I really liked it, much to my own surprise?

I mean, Gilligan's Island? What was Gauthier thinking? Are the Harlem Globetrotters going to show up and save the day, or what? And what's next on Gauthier's plate, a Get Smart spoof in which Agent 86 goes rouge, using his shoe phone and cone of silence as . . . Wait a minute. I'm onto something there. Get Smart . . . or Die SLOW. It's mine, people! Mine!

The Gray Area #2

The Gray Area #2, July 2004, Image Comics
writer: Glen Brunswick
penciller: John Romita, Jr.
inker: Klaus Janson
letterer: John Workman
colorist: Bill Crabtree

Blogger's note: Entry for Tuesday, February 26, 2008.

If the afterlife was simply an extension of your earthly existence, would you be so afraid of death? As much as you might hate your job, isn't an eternity of working a familiar relief compared to the other more disturbed condemnations mankind has imagined over the years? Yet what if this shallow echo of your terrestrial life was really just a test to determine whether or not you should advance to heaven or be condemned to hell? Would you be able to find joy in those mundane moments at work? Would you be able to conjure compassion in place of contempt for your fellow man?

Welcome to the Gray Area.

Of course, my hypothetical introduction assumes that you hate your job. If you don't, you wouldn't end up in the Gray Area in the first place, so forget I even mentioned it. For the rest of you, consider Rudy Chance, this series' protagonist, your guide to "Living a Successful Afterlife." Chance, a corrupt cop killed in the line of duty, is pulled into this peculiar purgatory, and, thanks to his law enforcement skills and street smarts, is recruited by the Gray Watch to protect his fellow meandering souls. Among them exists an army locked in perpetual combat, and the victims of a riot actually trapped in a purgatory for the purgatory, if you can believe that. Chance initially declines the offer, but when his spirit guide Jordan reveals the painful alternative, Rudy accepts his fate -- which takes almost half of this issue! Chance is definitely a glutton for punishment, but his greatest nemesis is himself, as struggles with finding the compassion he needs to exhibit the cosmic powers available to him in the afterlife.

Indeed, The Gray Area has a very tangible message: kindness and compassion are empowering characteristics, even when you're dead.

Like I said, a good half of this issue is dedicated to Chance accepting Jordan's offer, and while his episodic torture becomes a bit repetitive, these scenes give artist John Romita, Jr. a chance to stretch his supernatural legs, as I suggested in my review of The Gray Area #1 a year or so ago. This three issue miniseries is an excellent vehicle for Romita's strengths, as this afterlife retains distinctive urban traits usually typical to Romita's native superhero fare, yet we readers get to experience this existential aspect to his art, as well, a very visually rewarding return for this issue's four dollar cover price. A solid 32-pages, The Gray Area #2 is a hefty, engrossing read that actually stands on its own as an introspective look at personal integrity and death. Rudy is always a like able character -- and, therefore, is extremely realistic.

So, like The Craptacular B-Sides, I'm two issues deep in a three issue miniseries, and I actually care about how it ends. Here's to hoping I find The Gray Area #3 in another quarter bin! Does that mean I'll have to extend A Comic A Day for another year, just give you some closure?! Arg, maybe I'm already in hell!

B-Sides #2

B-Sides #2, December 2002, Marvel Comics
writer: Brian David-Marshall
artist: Brett Weldele
letterer: David Sharpe
colorist: Matt Madden
assistant editor: Lynne Yoshii
editor: Andrew Lis

Blogger's note: Entry for Monday, February 25, 2008.

What happens when a title like The Craptacular B-Sides is cancelled and its characters are lost to back issue obscurity? Are its characters demoted to C- or even D-list status? Actually, a quick reference to the B-Sides' Wikipedia entry explains that theirs was intended as a three-issue miniseries. Forgive my skepticism when I wonder if that was always the plan. I've seen plenty of personally favorite characters lost to the annals of barely chronicled continuity when their publishers realized that I was the only geek buying their books. "Oh, it was a miniseries! Yeah, that's it! A perfectly rationally numbered nine issue miniseries!"

Yes, I'm talking to you, Anarky -- a character we could desperately use in the midst of this finger-pointing election year. Speaking of which, I discovered a certain Presidential candidate's appearance in an old issue of Superman: A Funeral for a Friend earlier today. Yes, that's Bill and (a blonde!) Hillary Clinton publicly grieving for the Man of Steel. Hey, at least she didn't don a cape in his honor or something. Now there's a picture Obama could've kept in his pocket for the right time.

But I digress . . . unless Hillary's cameo establishes her as a Y-list comic book character, in which case, she fits right in with the likes of Jughandle, Fateball, and Mize.

Who? Exactly.

The B-Sides basically remind me of the Justice League International without the preestablished reputations, experience, and capital. Charley Huckle, part time con artist, is their benefactor, and it remains to be seen if his intentions with the team are noble, and perhaps even redemptive. He really couldn't have found a more useless group: Jughandle can transport in and out of a little time pocket, Fateball can determine the future by asking yes or no questions to her magic 8-ball, and Mize and accelerate the deteriation of things. Okay, actually, having any of these powers would be pretty cool (and a fateball would come in handy on a lonely Friday night . . . please don't make me elaborate), but in a world of Avengers and X-Men? Yeah, pretty lame. Case in point, this issue's throwdown with Doctor Dark.

Huckle sends the B-Sides on their first official "case," capturing the bail-jumping hero-turned-villain Doctor Dark. They find him wallowing in self-pity, explaining that bullies often called him Doctor Dork, or worse, Doc Ock . . . thanks to his old friend Charley Huckle?! Before the B-Sides can explore the truth behind their mutual acquaintance, Dark loses it and fires his, well, darkness everywhere. Suddenly, enter the Fantastic Four, and to be continued. If you actually click open the B-Sides' Wikipedia entry, you can read a synopsis of the next (and last) issue, but knowing what's in store won't stop me from finding it. First of all, I already have the first two, so what's the harm in owning them all? Further, while the plot is neatly summarized, I'm genuinely interested in these characters' development. Who can't relate to a trio of adolescents trying to find their place in a world of giants?

As I mentioned in my review of B-Sides #1, the art in this issue perfectly compliments this issue's story, with a rough, angular style that compliments the uncertainty and candor of youth. The Sam Keith cover and Evan Dorkin title page are eye-pleasing extras, which makes one wonder who else could've contributed to these obscure tenn heroes had their series continued.

Honestly, though, a ragtag group of Marvel superheroes? Warren Ellis' Nextwave cornered that market. Doesn't it seem like B-listers are in lately? The prison break that inspired the new Avengers series was a virtual who's who of old Marvel baddies. Further, universe-spanning crossovers like Countdown, and animated projects like the endlessly rostered Justice League Unlimited and Legion of Superheroes have enabled characters like Steel, Timberwolf, and Shining Knight to, er, shine. Will Marvel's upcoming Skrull invasion reveal the fates of Jughandle, Fateball, and Mize? They're really capable of more than three issues, no matter what their status on the alphabet of heroes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Prime #2

Prime #2, July 1993, Malibu Comics
writers: Gerard Jones & Len Strazewski
artist: Norm Breyfogle
letterer: Tim Eldred
colorist: Keith Conroy
editor: Chris Ulm

Blogger's note: Entry for Sunday, February 24, 2008.

In the context of reading and reviewing a different issue from a different series every day for a year, I thought that revisiting a few titles from A Comic A Day: Year One would be a refreshing opportunity to further explore some of the stories or concepts I experienced during that first exciting 365-day analysis. Unfortunately, this sophomore effort hasn't been as liberating as I'd hoped; first of all, I read many of these comic books over a year ago, and assuming I've read well over a thousand comics since then (combining my A Comic A Day reads with my personal monthly purchases, not to mention everything else I've read lately), I can't even remember some of these titles' most important details. Of course I remembered that Shatter billed itself "the first computerized comic," but until I read my old review I'd forgotten its inclusion of RNA-oriented crime or its coincidental connection to Utopiates. I guess even alternate versions of the future can be lost in the annals of the past.

When I recently found Prime #2 in a four-for-a-buck back issue bin, I was excited for the chance to re-review this Norm Breyfogle vehicle. I've said it plenty of times before: I'm a huge Norm Breyfogle fan, and, to summarize, I feel that this runs on Detective Comics and Batman are the most underwritten in the caped crusader's crowd of contributors. Breyfogle pencilled Detective on the heels of The Dark Knight Returns' unprecedented success, then moved to Batman in the thick of the Tim Burton film franchise. In the midst of this mainstream success, his interpretation of the Batman family never wavered from honoring their comic book roots, and Breyfogle's art flourished into a style that suited the '90s-era dynamic duo. So, when I looked up my review of Prime #1, I expected to find it lavished with such fanboy praise.

How could I remember that I had just flipped through The Dark Age: Grim, Great & Gimmicky Post-Modern Comics by Mark Voger which documented the crossover-ridden, kill-'em-off mentality that began with Crisis on Infinite Earths? Who would've thought that I'd compare the work of one of my top ten favorite artists (hm, a list I should compile someday) to one of my least favorite trends in comics? Ah, therein lies another lesson about reading a comic a day, young ones: one's reviews are often susceptible to other daily media influences, like the news, talk radio (see Saturday's Leo Laporte reference), and entertainment. Indeed, these stimuli could even overshadow fanboy adoration, like mine for Breyfogle.

So, did this influence extend to my second impression of Prime? No, I really didn't liken Prime #2 to its "grim 'n gritty" peers of the early 1990s. Instead, this issue's plot reminded me more of the early 1960s, specifically the Stan Lee movement to ground fantastic superhero characters with a pedestrian, even awkward civilian identity. Ben Grimm, Peter Parker, and Matt Murdock all had very tangible flaws, either physical or emotional, and in the case of Prime's alter ego, Kevin Green, his brute strength in one persona is matched only by his social inadequacies as the other. Kevin is pure Peter Parker, even willing a Hulk-like transformation into Prime to impress, and inevitably put in harm's way, the girl he likes. Waiting for Prime to ping their radar, the shadow agency tracking him unleashes Organism 8, a toothy blob that manages to capture our musclebound hero. The darkest part of this entire issue is Kevin's adolescent angst and his inability to gauge the consequences of his actions. If that's what makes for grim 'n grit, we all through that Deathblow stage in our lives.

What I'm saying is, this issue really didn't offer anything new to the strata of comics. It's a fairly entertaining read, but so is the dozens of other series or characters that follow the same pattern. Essentially, Prime is Peter Parker-meets-Billy Batson that turns into the Hulk-meets-Captain Marvel. Prime's slimy origin is perhaps the only distinguishing feature within the realm of the story (unless it takes a Captain America/government secret soldier spin); on the other hand, Norm Breyfogle's art is the only compelling contribution in the issue's overall presentation. Gratefully, the writers didn't attempt to infuse scenes about Kevin's awkwardness with campy '90s dialogue; the high school sequence is in fact almost timeless in its presentation, as if Lee and Ditko had composed it themselves. The only reason I have to pick up more issues of Prime is to finally complete my Breyfogle collection.

Perhaps that's the irony of the A Comic A Day challenge. Coming up with a new thought to write about a series might be as difficult as implementing an idea for one.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shatter special #1

Shatter special #1, June 1985, First Comics
writer: Peter B. Gillis
artist: Michael Saenz
editor: Mike Gold

Blogger's note: Entry for Saturday, February 23, 2008.

My review of Shatter #3 became inadvertently connected to my review of Utopiates #1, as both shared similar plot points about the swiping of human RNA and the subsequent sharing of personality traits. Fortunately, Utopiates writer Josh Finney cleared up my questions on the subject in an exchange I included in my review of Propeller Man #6, creating an interesting ring of links I never even intended but that maintain a particular sense of intrigue for me to this day. See, during that first year of A Comic A Day, I discovered certain seemingly spiritual connections between comic book series I never would've otherwise affiliated with one another, all while shopping for the fodder for my yearlong challenge in a wide variety of places and selecting what I read daily at random. I began to suspect that either comics as a whole had conspired to create a harmony just for my blog and me, or that the creators and contributors of comics over the years must share some Jungian connection to certain themes and storytelling nuances that, despite style and genre, will always pop up over a comprehensive look at the medium.

I'm willing to settle for the latter.

Nevertheless, despite its connection to Utopiates, Shatter was a comic book that strived to stand out from the rest. The sales pitch over on top of this first issue's cover says it all: "The First Computerized Comic!" Imagine, you're a kid in the summer of '85, fresh out of school for three months and looking for something to pass the time. How would you've reacted at the sight of the words "computer" and "comics" in the same sentence? Remember, it's 1985 -- a time when every kid did not have a telephone/camera/Internet interface the size of a pack of baseball cards in his pocket! (Indeed, just using the word "interface" and comparing an iPhone to a pack of Topps betrays my age, eh?) My exposure to computers in the '80s can be summed up in two words: Oregon Trail. That those big black floppy disks could reproduce my name on a tombstone as a result of my catching typhoid fever was an incredible technological achievement for me! Also, that my only use of computers actually attempted to recreate an ironically colonial experience escaped me. I wasn't old enough for irony yet. Typhoid fever seemed much more realistic.

Fast forward twenty-three years. This Shatter special is very proud to tell you that it was created on a Macintosh Apple III, and that such computers are unquestionably and unapologetically the drug of the future. I wonder if editor Mike Gold (in quoting Timothy Leary)knew how accurate he was; just a few hours ago, I was listening to Leo Laporte's radio show and heard him describe his son's "jonesing" to IM and text when his computer and cell phone privileges were taken away. This is America's youth -- practically cybernetic in their dependence on technology, not to mention its miniaturization and assimilation into every day life. If a child in 2008 saw "The First Computerized Comic" on top of a new release this Wednesday, he'd think, "Well, duh. What took so long?"

What I'm saying is, the Shatter revolution didn't last very long. Within a decade of its release, comics were regularly colored and lettered on the computer, though I'm grateful the entire creative process hasn't been completely hijacked. Drawing tablets come dangerously close, but at least a human hand still holds the stylus. Is it really only a matter of time before a computer superbrain computes the statistical success of certain genre/character archetype/art style combinations and thus self-produces comic book series on a truncated timetable to keep the industry sustained for a determinate number of years?

Until then, Shatter can be enjoyed in one of two ways: as a dark prophecy of the Terminator-like future of comics, in which a Skynet-type system replicates the kinds of issues I just described, or as an optimistic exercise in the raw potential of a new, life-altering technology, which looks entirely dated some twenty years later except for that drive to use computers for any application possible. Again, I'll take the latter, if only to save myself the brand of techno-paranoia that would put me more in tune with George Noory's audience than Leo Laporte's.

I liked this issue of Shatter much more than its third ongoing issue, most likely because of its efforts in slowly introducing readers to this RNA-swiping world of the future. "Shatter" is actually Jack Scratch's real name, a freelance police officer that bids for cases and lives off of bounties. In this issue, Shatter is on the trail of a murderous woman, who, when caught, reveals that the executives she slaughtered stole her lover's RNA. When a competing officer thwarts Shatter's case in an attempt to claim the bounty for himself, the suspect gets away, and Shatter apparently lets her, forgoing the $75,000 reward and the authentic case of Coca-Cola syrup he was going to buy with it. Yes, a future without Coke. I don't care how comics are made -- I'd want no part of that.

Despite this issue's visual dynamics, writer Peter B. Gillis just tells a fun, simple story, driven with a pulp detective-like dialogue. This, in my opinion, likens this installment of Shatter to my recent look at The Scrapyard Detectives. While Scrapyard obviously retains the intention of establishing a moral compass for its readers, fan and Collected Cases introduction scribe J.M. DeMatteis makes the effort to explain the series' "story-first" appeal. An all-ages socio-political undertone is noble, but without a strong vehicle (i.e. the Scrapyard Detectives' fun stories and characterization), it wouldn't go anywhere. Such is the case for Shatter. The "first computerized comic" would be nothing but a series of dot-matrix print-outs without a story to string the images together, and a dynamic protagonist to intrigue readers is an even more compelling hook to keep them coming back for more.

This is the connection all literature has maintained throughout humanity's millennia of storytelling. From the Bible to Homer to Shatter, readers need a character they can connect with and understand. Yes, I'm relating the forty-year plight of the Jews in the desert to the connectivity of mankind via today's twenty-first century technology. It's all about keeping in touch through any means necessary, the very and only means at out disposal. Can comics share a more spiritual connection than that?

The Holy Terror #2

The Holy Terror #2, October 2002, Image Comics
writer: Jason Caskey
penciller: Phil Hester
inker: Jim Woodyard
colorist: John Warren
letterer: Gary Peterson

Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, February 22, 2008.

When I reviewed The Holy Terror #1 in November 2006, I commented on the connection between the worlds of wrestling and superhero comic books. The parallel is similar to my recent analysis of the kinship between superheroes and football players -- in short, all three genres of entertainment feature spandex-wearing musclebound men locked in competitive battle. While superheroes often fight to save the world, and football players play to win the Superbowl, wrestlers claim no pretense to their combativeness. It's fighting for fighting's sake, and though a championship belt may be involved, the real victory is the status as an expert (or just plain ruthless) brawler. Add a layer of demonic possession in the mix, and you have a sport that boys with a penchant for rough and tumble play simple cannot resist.

Welcome to The Holy Terror -- as if the wide world of wrestling actually needed a supernatural kick in the pants to up the ante of adrenaline-induced violence. Last issue introduced Max, a struggling young wrestler whose manager unwittingly condemned him to a collision course with the macabre via the mask and persona of the Holy Terror. In this issue, Max's struggles with the Terror's identity go to the next level as he experiences inexplicable fits of righteous rage. When his manager demands that he throw his next fight and retire the Holy Terror, Max, presumably under the influence of the mask itself, refuses, nearly killing his opponent and earning the adoration of his audience. This issue's cliffhanger propels the series' supernatural subplot and sets up the reader for an inevitable collision of Max's two new worlds, which makes me wonder, which is a more possessive force: the darkly magical roots of the Holy Terror's origin, or the praise and admiration of wrestling's' hardcore fans?

I really can't say anything more about this issue that I didn't say for number one. Caskey's engrossing script allows plenty of room for Hester's art to breathe, particularly during the fight sequences, when some choreography is necessary for the story's sequential nature. In the climatic battle with Dion "Big Trouble" Huffman, Hester particularly shines, and while I might normally criticize the scene's lack of background detail, isolating the two characters epitomizes the otherworldly nature of their combat. The contrast with Hester's early work in Rust #1, which I reviewed last month, is also evident, particularly under the influence of Jim Woodyard's crisp, moody coloring. Overall, I would say that The Holy Terror #2 is definitely worth a hop in the ring. Just don't expect to come out in one piece.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Scrapyard Detectives: Collected Cases volume 1

The Scrapyard Detectives: Collected Cases volume 1, 2007, The Diversity Foundation
excerpt: "The Mystery of the Stolen Junk!"
writer: Batton Lash
penciller/colorist: Bill Galvan
inker: Robert Hawkins
letterer: Artmonkey's Dave Lanphear

Blogger's note: Entry for Thursday, February 21, 2008.

Before I dive into this review, I owe Bill Galvan an apology. Bill was kind enough to cite a small part of my The Scrapyard Detectives #3 review on the back of this, their first collected volume, and send me a complimentary copy. Further, as I compared The Scrapyard Detectives with The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids, jokingly commenting that his characters would win in a DC vs. Marvel-like confrontation, Bill whipped up a personal sketch of the crossover, which is currently hanging above a Anarky vs. Mr. Freeze drawing from Min Ku in my new man-cave:


So, how did I repay his kindness? I waited almost a year to finally review The Scrapyard Detectives: Collected Cases. Honestly, I hadn't even opened the volume until today, in anticipation of completely enjoying it. The three issues of Scrapyard that I've acquired at the San Diego Comic Con have been nothing short of incredibly entertaining, so much so that I've helped myself to a stack or two so I could share them with the kids at work. (I work for a prominent after school program. What, you didn't think I blog for a living, do you? Sigh, if only . . .!) Yes, considering the sketch on my wall and the poster hanging in my office, you'd think I was the Detective's biggest fan!

You'd be close. In an insightful introductory essay to Collected Cases, J.M. DeMatteis (yes, that J.M. DeMatteis) explains his whole-hearted appreciation for the Scrapyard Detectives' all-ages appeal, as a writer, fan, and parent. While DeMatteis credits Galvan and company for their inclusion of socially relevant themes, he asserts what I like best about this series -- "that it never forgets that a good solid story has to come first." Working with children and striving to elevate my position past "babysitter" to "role model," I've seen plenty of kid-oriented materials that attempt to instill a moral compass via content with a "youthful edge," but oftentimes these efforts fail to impress. Too contrived. Trying too hard. In fact, I'd venture a guess that such curriculum is frequently created without a consultation from real live children. A statistical analysis of what children need is not an experiential equivalent to filling up a room with fifty of the little brats. Believe me.

Therein lies the strength of The Scrapyard Detectives. Reading the first three issues and now the origin story that premiered in this collection, I don't get the impression that Galvan and his legion of writers are trying to ram a morality message down their readers' throats. I'm sure the temptation for a G.I. Joe-like "Knowing is Half the Battle" moment at the end of each issue presents itself during their creative process, but like DeMatteis insists, their strength is in telling a dynamic story first. The Scrapyard Detectives isn't a series about social injustice but about three kids that find a mutual satisfaction in solving little local mysteries. That these cases happen to include a context of prejudice or abuse is simply an unfortunate truth in today's America. Scrapyard spares us the kid gloves, and in so doing respects anyone that might read it, kids included. Simply put, by presenting a realistic story about children, The Scrapyard Detectives appeals to children, or the inner child in all of us comic book readers.

Who thought we could escape into another incarnation of our own harsh world? Perceiving a place such as this optimistically really is just a matter of perspective.

Regarding this never-before-published origin story, Batton Lash presents a concise eleven page adventure in which Robert meets Raymond and Jinn for the first time. When Robert talks about his father's salvage yard in class, the three meet there to explore its treasures and inadvertently observe a thief swiping his own fair share of junk. The kids separately form their own outrageous theories about the burglar's motives, but when they realize that the culprit is an artist from their classmate's mother's museum, the case takes on a much more down to earth tone. Still, Lash writes a well paced tale, with plenty of clues and red herrings to make this simple mystery complex enough to keep any readers' attention. The Scooby-Doo moment at the end -- essentially akin to, "And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you . . . you . . . Scrapyard Detectives!" -- has a rewarding Year One quality about it, as if long-time fans like me would respond, "Oh, so that's where they got the name!" Hey, so what if I did, okay?

Also, Galvan's artistic supplementals are really easy on the eyes, and I must say I highly prefer his pencil sketch of this collection's cover over the final glossy product. The fact that these pages are planned so intricately elevates an otherwise free, and therefore potentially throw away series to a legitimate collectors' item . . . not to mention a contending contributor to the medium as a whole.

Finally, while I once criticised the Detective's paradoxical use of highbrow technology amidst the garbage of a scrapyard, I now have a comprehensive understanding that Robert uses said junk to build his little robot spies and stuff. It's the one fantastical element this series allows itself; in the midst of schoolyard bullies and abusive fathers, the kids get a hover scooter and such. Fortunately, Galvin blends these two concepts seamlessly, confirming that a world that isn't always kind to kids might still afford them the resources to express themselves creatively. I don't know who's having more fun -- the characters when they use these gadgets, or the creators that get to write and draw them.

I take that back -- I do know who's having the most fun. We, the readers, are. Trust me, if you pick up an issue of The Scrapyard Detectives, you will not regret it, and I'm not just saying that because I'm quoted on the back cover. It's really the other way around. Why mainstream superhero comics aren't for kids anymore will be a mystery that plagues the industry for decades to come, like all of their other cases, the Scrapyard Detectives present a viable solution. Join them in the pleasure of being a part of the answer.

WWWednesday: The Night Owls

WWWednesday: The Night Owls
by Peter & Robert Timony

Blogger’s note: When I began this year’s A Comic A Day challenge, I explained that my recent move limited my Internet access. Well, I’ve finally set up a personal wireless connection at home, which means I hope to begin and maintain my daily vigil of comic book readin’ and reviewin’ as soon as I catch up on the installments I’ve missed. No more retro posts, like this one. What I’m saying is, my WWWednesday reviews should actually fall on Wednesdays again, starting the day after tomorrow! Now, speaking of catching up to the unknown . . .

If the science fiction of the twentieth century was obsessed with the space adventurer, then the science fiction of the twenty-first century has become gripped by the paranormal investigator. Think about it -- characters like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, all gripped by the endless expanse of space. Only in the late nineties, as the twenty-first century loomed on the horizon, did the paranormal investigator steal the spotlight, and even then a preoccupation with the stars set the stage, as Agents Mulder and Scully looked upward and wondered if we (humanity) are alone in the universe. Enter Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hellboy, NBC’s Medium, and CBS’s The Ghost Whisperer, characters all in pursuit of, not the extraterrestrial, but definitely the otherworldly. Interestingly, except for Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, all of these paranormally minded protagonists are also beautiful women, a far cry from the bravado of last century’s Flash Gordon or Captain Kirk. Perhaps ghosts simply need a gentler touch.

Comics have embraced this trend wholeheartedly, thanks in part to Mignola’s B.P.R.D., but also no doubt in response to this trend in pop culture fiction. John Constantine achieved a modicum of mainstream appeal thanks to his incarnation on screen, and The Goon, The Perhapnauts and Proof are all recent series that feature the paranormal investigating the paranormal. (Further, in the latter two cases, Bigfoot is involved.) So, it goes without saying that the realm of webcomics is equally susceptible to such trends . . . hence, The Night Owls. Unlike, say, The Perhapnauts, The Night Owls is one part paranormal adventure, one part period piece, taking place in what I presume to be a turn of the century New England. (Er, turn of the last century, not this one.) Its panel layout and muted gray tones mimic a silent film motif, even including full panel text descriptions of forthcoming events. While the creators retain tradition dialogue balloons, the effect is enough to transport the reader back in time, to establish a certain post-industrial spirit before any other spirits can come into play.

Yes, believe me, this strip has plenty of spirits to go around. Its cast is diverse enough, boasting a Reed Richards-type allergic to sunlight, a scrapping young woman named Mindy, and a wise-talking gargoyle. The Night Owls’ cases range from one strip gags to multi-part mysteries, which isn’t nearly as inconsistent as it sounds considering the creators’ worthy attempts to keep things light-hearted, even if we are dealing with the undead and such. In one such one-two strip, a potential customer strolls into the office, and Mindy innocently offers him a glass of water. When the guest’s head explodes, the pitcher is revealed to have the label “Holy Water,” followed by Mindy's one-liner, “Vampires. I can spot 'em a mile away!” The gag was unsuspected (at least by me), blending humor and supernatural intrigue in a concise, entertaining way. This timing becomes the Night Owls’ equivalent to Hellboy’s small-lettered, “Oh, crap.”

Additionally, this strip’s art remains consistent, undoubtedly a challenge when dealing with differently paced stories. When the storyline continues into another strip, like when a husband tries to elicit his wife’s appreciation by conjuring his astral projection and pretending he’s a murdered ghost, the characters retain their statures and personalities from one installment to the next, as if the reader were flipping through the pages of a comic book rather than clicking through a perpetually loading web page. The style is cartoony without going overboard, maintaining a Sunday funnies vibe right alongside that cinematic scope I describe earlier. In other words, Night Owls is seamless even if you are haunted by a slow Internet connection.

I decided to read The Night Owls when I saw its ad on the back of this week’s Comic Shop News. Coincidentally, an article about the upcoming Perhapnauts ongoing series was also featured, which prompted my comparison and inspiration that this century belongs to the paranormal investigator. I wonder why the sudden shift in science fiction -- from Buck Rogers to Fox Mulder just like that, eh? Perhaps we geeks have realized, why venture upward and outward when there’s plenty of weirdness all around us? Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to explore brave new worlds when we barely understand the truths of our own.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ancient Joe #3

Ancient Joe #3, December 2001, Dark Horse Comics
by C. Scott Morse

Blogger's note: Entry for Tuesday, February 19, 2008.

This review of Ancient Joe #3 is the first in a series of sophomore looks at series I reviewed during the first year of A Comic A Day. The attempt to garner a second impression of any given series kind of contradicts one of the implied purposes of this project -- to approach each comic book as if it were my first, free of preconception about its creators, characters, and context. At the same time, assuming this first impression is worthy of a second, finding an issue from the same series is exactly what a first time comics reader would do. It’s safe. This time, you have some idea of what you’re getting into.

Ancient Joe is a good place to start, because, having read the first issue in this three issue miniseries over a year ago (it was actually the sixth issue I ever reviewed!), with essentially another comic book filling the gap for every day in between, I don’t remember much about it, and that’s okay. Scott Morse obviously approaches every issue as an individual piece of sequential art, establishing a rich atmosphere and sense of ambiance before diving into the momentum of its respective story. The first page of #3, for example, takes its time establishing Joe’s tropical setting. Whereas the last issue of most minis would waste no time picking up where the previous installment left off, Ancient Joe #3 might as well be number one in its reverence for pacing and mood development.

Another element worthy of analysis is Morse’s minimal use of dialogue. As his name implies, the tale of Ancient Joe is rich with mythical undertones, and when his search for a friend’s lost daughter reveals that she’s dead, the macabre mystery takes a supernatural turn as Joe accidentally travels to a makeshift purgatory, where he also uncovers some truth about his own wife’s disappearance, too. Morse tells a strange tale, and he doesn’t waste his time trying to explain it. Unless the previous issues so established this series’ lore that one last explanation was unnecessary, Morse leaves plenty to the reader’s imagination, which inadvertently creates a pseudo two way street storytelling technique. Further, the lack of lofty dialogue encourages the reader to spend more time studying Morse’s rich brushstroke, which are a joy to behold even in black and white, to mention simple and elegant in their execution. Morse is the type of artist that makes a reader want to try their hand at a similar style of art, then curse him when the attempt fails miserably.

So, if I were a comics novice reading Ancient Joe for the second time, would I come back for more? Absolutely. Morse has a quirky style that infuses his work with a sense of cultural relevance, affirming another of my implied approaches to A Comic A Day -- that, when the comic book medium is executed properly, every issue is a virtual museum, as every page is a proverbial exhibit of individual pieces that comes together to make a singular statement. True, they’re not all going to be the Mona Lisa, but one of them, either in its composition or text, should touch an observer in such a way as to build an emotional connection . . . you know, like art is supposed to do. It’s an ancient tradition that has spanned the test of time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Prez #4

Prez #4, February/March 1974, DC Comics
by Joe Simon & Jerry Grandenetti
inker: Creig Flessel
Blogger's note: Entry for Monday, February 18, 2008.

The meaning of Presidents’ Day becomes much more perceptible during an election year. As we celebrate past presidents, we contemplate our future leader, and we hope the nobility of one thought and the gamble of the other reconcile into a palpable hope for things to come. John McCain and Barak Obama are their parties’ frontrunners, and in coming weeks, their respective stances on the issues will come to define them. How do they feel about the war in Iraq? What are their positions on immigration? Do they experience successfully balancing a budget? Are they equipped to deal with a vampire invasion in the White House?


Okay, perhaps that last “issue” isn’t a pressing matter in today’s turbulent world, but for Prez, the First Teen President, the matter became an incredibly pressing matter after his good will effort in Moravia inadvertently cursed the dark neighboring nation of Transylvania. Ah, perhaps I should back up a bit. In the 1970s, DC Comics published a series called Prez, starring Prez Rickard, the most coincidentally named character in comics and the country’s first teenaged president. Issue #4 doesn’t provide the usual origin summary typical of Silver and Bronze Age comics, so ‘70s DC was pretty daring in assuming that a new reader -- like me -- would just easily accept a kid in the White House. The way folks talk about Barak Obama’s age and experience, you’d think we were facing the possibility of a teenaged Commander in Chief for real.

But I digress. So, yes, Prez Rickard is “the Prez,” and his right hand man -- er, man-child -- is Eagle Free, a Native American and “Chief of the FBI.” (I’m still pondering if “Chief” is the best title for such a character. Was “Head of the FBI” unavailable?) In this issue, Prez and Eagle oversee U.S. aid to the barren Moravia, but the new canal accidentally drains the water supply of the neighboring Transylvania, which decides to retaliate by infiltrating the White House with a legless vampire hidden in a violin case-like mini-coffin. When the Secret Service deflect the invalid vampire, Transylvania takes their revenge a step further by nearly bombing America with a cache of rabies-infested bats. Fortunately, Eagle Free can speak to animals and he commands a legion of kamikaze birds to bring their plane down. The ramifications of their birds-first policy don’t fall on deaf ears, though, as in the end Eagle asks Prez the hard-hitting question, “If Transylvania surrenders, do we send American dollars to build her up again, as we have done with our vanquished throughout history?”

I don’t know what’s more hilarious -- this issue’s campy context, or the creators attempts to infuse a comic about a teenaged president attacked by vampires with some degree of political viability. Indeed, when Prez reports the rabies attack to Congress, they call him crazy and demand a federal investigation. One of the old codgers asks, “What have you kids been smoking, anyway?” While this sequence appears satirical, demanding attention to the dichotomy between established politicians and America’s youth, its outrageous context doesn’t encourage readers to laugh with it, but at it.

Then again, if this title was intended as one in the humor genre, perhaps I’m not too far off. Of course, when I’m flipping through back issues, I’ll be on the look out for Prez, if only to get the whole story, and a more comprehensive impression of DC’s intentions with such a lofty concept. Comics could use a little levity like this from time to time. Heck, American politics could, too. So, this election season, while we look to past presidents to help us pick the best one for our future, let’s not forget the ones that didn’t actually exist. Hey, who would have time to quibble over petty partisan issues when vampires are attacking our homeland with bat rabies? Prez might be what our ailing country really needs!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jumper: Jumpscars #1

Jumper: Jumpscars #1, January 2008, Oni Press
writers: Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir
artist: Brian Hurtt
colorist: Jared M. Jones
letterer: Douglas E. Sherwood
editor: James Lucas Jones

Blogger's note: Entry for Sunday, February 16, 2008.

“Anywhere is possible.”

This is what the number one movie in America, Jumper, would have us believe. This tagline-turned-mantra has appeared on countless movie posters, Internet ads, and television promotions over the past few months, and, while it hasn’t inspired me to go see the film, it has rung true in one aspect of its shameless self-endorsements: its comic book. I found this free issue of Jumper: Jumpscars at a Gamestop in Buena Park, California, and I confess I prefer this strategic marketing technique over a pop-up of the film’s lead character obscuring two-thirds of my TV screen while I’m trying to watch Prison Break. If you’re going to kick off a science fiction franchise and feel compelled to initiate a back story, what better way than to publish a free comic distributed at video game stores? Talk about a target audience.

Unfortunately, Jumper: Jumpscars #1 didn’t blow me away. This prologue doesn’t feature a jumper but a paladin, a jumper-hunter with the solemn task of killing these superhumans before they realize their full potential. Did I mention that her target, a fifteen-year-old, is apparently older than most jumpers? So, her job is to kill confused children, a detail carelessly overlooked as we explore her past via a flashback in which she goes undercover and sympathizes with a young jumper/petty thief. When a store clerk gets caught in the jumper’s wake, materializes in the middle of the street and gets his by a car, I presume the cold look in the kid’s eyes is enough to elicit our hatred of all jumpers. This issue ends too abruptly for us to feel anything different. The guy gets run over and our paladin and her mentor bound after him, then . . . the end? The back cover ad dubs Jumpscars a graphic novel, so I presume that this issue is just a teaser for the larger product, but this explanation is an inference at best. Therefore, this freebie didn’t hook me so much as it just poked me. Made an impression, not enough to stick.

(Plus, "jumpscars" isn't really a word. Was "scars" just not enough? How 'bout "Hopbooboos?")

Frankly, when I saw the movie trailer for Jumper, I wasn’t that impressed in the first place. I thought, “Huh. Somebody must have liked the first few minutes of X-Men 2 and decided to make it a whole movie. Nightcrawler as a Laguna Beach reject with a conspiracy at his heels.” Some reviews have elevated Jumper to a greater degree, likening its developing mythology to The Matrix. I wonder if every superhero flick unconnected to a previously established comic book franchise is destined to this designation, so that a “mainstream audience” has a reference it can understand. I can appreciate its mimicry of The Matrix’s utilization of comics and animation to capture an audience, that’s for sure. Alas, when courting an audience as critical as the average fanboy lot, the only jump I perceive here -- is a leap of faith.

Anywhere is possible. Is that their assertion, or their hope?

Howard the Duck Annual #1

Howard the Duck Annual #1, 1977, Marvel Comics
writer: Steve Gerber
artist: Val Mayerik
letterer: Joe Rosen
colorist: Jan Cohen

Blogger’s note: Entry for Saturday, February 16, 2008.

I wasn't an avid follower of Steve Gerber's work, but I mourn any time a comic book creator passes away, particularly when his name surpasses the very breadth of his work. Steve Gerber either created or contributed to some of the most quirky characters in comics, stretching the bounds of the medium to its next natural level and championing creators' rights all at the same time. His recent death has inspired pages of fond remembrance on-line, including Steven Grant's personal essay on Comic Book Resources. The easiest contribution this little blog can make is a look back at one of his comics, starring the character that, as Grant describes, "made and broke Steve Gerber," Howard the Duck.

(Howard the Duck Annual #1 isn't A Comic A Day's first look at the foul-mouthed fowl, inadvertently contributing to my upcoming series of "second impression" reviews. I wish the timing wasn't so unfortunate.)

In the beginning of Howard the Duck Annual #1, Howard suffers from cabin fever, but by this issue’s end, he and his friends are nearly stranded in the Middle East, fighting a prince consumed with the ways of the West and willing to sell out his land’s legacy for oil and profit. An interesting leap, eh? If only the means to this end weren’t as peculiar to explain! See, when Howard’s friends try to cheer him up with some fresh décor, their new carpet flies Winda and Beverly to Bagmom (a nation more mired in Oedipal lust than Baghdad, I presume), where they unwillingly join the king’s harem. Howard and Paul follow when they best a pair of Bagmomian (?) soldiers and use their lamp to wish transport. There, the fearless fowl learns of the prince’s seedy dealings with Roxxon, infiltrates the castle as an offering, and thwarts the evil heir’s plan to enslave his people and mine his land’s oil. This global adventure is a frivolous romp with subtle political implications.

Howard the Duck Annual #1 celebrates the five-year reunion of the character’s original creative team, and Gerber and Mayerik’s collaboration shines as the only way an oddball like Howard can materialize on the printed page. Howard is obviously a humorous hero, but what kind of humor is difficult to describe. Since Gerber infuses his work with political undertones, and Mayerik’s artwork occasionally resembles a daily political cartoon, a comparison with another billed comic bird, Doonesbury. Fortunately, Howard’s adventures lack Doonesbury’s biting reverence and boast a fair share of cartoonish pratfalls, sometimes fueled by Howard’s own anger or frustration, not unlike Donald Duck dealing with his three nephews. So, am I claiming that Gerber created the perfect Doonesbury-meets-Donald formula? Eh, I’d be more inclined to insist that Howard’s adventures add a relevance to those other feathered icons, accomplishing in one character what it took at least two to accomplish in the budding sociopolitical landscape of pop culture illustration and animation.

That’s the thing about Steve Gerber’s work. I’ve read some Howard the Duck and some original Omega the Unknown, and while each title betrays an apparent love for campy dialogue and outrageous circumstance, they also inspire the feeling that one should read those mere comic books as more than they really are, as if Gerber is trying to tell us something between the lines -- something important, something global. Perhaps we shouldn’t ignore the fact that most of Gerber’s most memorable works also boast the theme of inherent alienation, from monsters like Man-Thing, to aliens like Omega, to . . . well, ducks like Howard. Was Gerber trying to tell us something about himself? Surely, in the comics industry, he was never alone, evidenced by the many admirers that have spoken up about him since his passing. Further, thanks to his expansive body of work, novice fans like me can look forward to reading plenty more Steve Gerber in the future.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Teen-age Love #30

Teen-age Love #30, February 1963, Charlton Comics

Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, February 15, 2008.

Dion and the Belmonts captured in song a question every man and woman asks themselves at that critical period of life: "Why must I be a teenager in love?" I envy the teenagers of the '50s and '60s; music, television, and comic books were downright therapeutic regarding issues of adolescent romance. I mean, the lyric, "One day I feel so happy/Next day I feel so sad/I guess I'll learn/To take the good with the bad?" Is there a verse that describes those emotionally tumultuous years better than that? What does today's youth have? Gossip Girl and R. Kelly's "Real Talk?" No wonder divorce rates rise with every passing generation.

I wonder if a comic book like Teen-age Love would make a difference nowadays. Based on the two stories in this issue, Teen-age Love didn't skirt the hard-hitting anxieties about teenage love, nor did it dodge the socially weighty topics that usually surround such matters of the heart. Consider this issue's lead story, "Beyond My Years," in which Jane falls for her middle-aged biology teacher who coincidentally begins to date her aunt. Jane, convinced that she had first dibs, tries to win Mr. Weeks' affections by pointing out her aunt's old age, and later by faking her own drowning at the beach. Mr. Weeks comes to her rescue but is disgusted by the false alarm. He resolves the situation by introducing Jane to his eligible nephew, who seems to share his irresistibility, but thankfully lacks the awkward years between Weeks' and Jane's ages.

Now, while Jane's mother dismisses her daughter's love as a harmless crush, Jane isn't really deterred by Mr. Weeks' age until the end of the story, when she's introduced to the wrinkle-free charms of his nephew. Had the shoe been on the other foot, and Mr. Weeks had admitted an affection for Jane, surely Chris Hansen would've made a cameo appearance in this issue (even if he hadn't been born yet). I mean, if Jane could fall for her beloved's nephew, why couldn't Weeks fall for his lady's niece? Ah, but age elicits clear-mindedness, and Mr. Weeks traded up in the family! See, Teen-age Love addressed the tough issues, and offered solutions that perfectly, not pervertedly, justified. For every pedophile that pursues a child, simply introduce him to the kid's aunt (or uncle, depending) -- and Dateline will have more time to pursue on-line identity thieves instead!

The second story in Teen-age Love #30 is a simple exercise in social class warfare and adolescent inadequacy. Jim Holden, teenaged mechanic, falls in love with Joan but doesn't want to pursue a relationship with her, afraid that her family wouldn't accept the lowbrow life of a self-taught greasemonkey. The joke's on him, though, when Joan's dad introduces himself as a renowned racecar driver, and the two get along swimmingly. The moral isn't so much "believe in yourself," as it is "cross your fingers and hope the girl you like has a family that already understands your potential for social inadequacy." If only my girlfriend's dad hosting a blog server or ran a comic book shop . . .

Alas, the lesson throughout Teen-age Love is relatively simple: when one is a teenager, one's biggest obstacle in finding and keeping love is usually oneself. As quick as an adolescent is to discover romance, he or she is usually just as quick to create some degree of drama between the discovery and the desired result. That's the difference between the kids in Teen-age Love and a 'tween-oriented television series like Gossip Girl; the kids in Teen-age Love couldn't live longer than just a few pages before finding a happy ending, whereas the kids on Gossip Girl are seemingly happy to endure a whole season of hardship before settling for a resolution. Kids today aren't living for the finale -- they're living for the cliffhanger. No wonder it's called falling in love, eh?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

I (Heart) Marvel: Web of Romance #1 & Spider-man's Tangled Web #11

Blogger’s note: In order to compensate for my extremely delayed posts lately, I’ve decided to review two comic books for Valentine’s Day, Thursday, February 14, 2008! As an added bonus, both issues star the spectacular Spider-man in two separate but equally entertaining Valentine’s Day adventures! Of course, this wouldn’t be a A Comic A Day review without some superfluous, embittered commentary, so let’s let the torrid love affair with comics truly begin!

I (Heart) Marvel: Web of Romance #1, April 2006, Marvel Comics
writer: Tom Beland
penciler: Cory Walker
inker: Cliff Rathburn
colorist: Avalon’s Matt Milla
letterer: Dave Sharpe
cover artist: Gez Fry
editors: Aubrey Sitterson & Tom Brevoort
EIC: Joe Quesada

Spider-man’s Tangled Web #11, April 2002, Marvel Comics
writer, penciler: Darwyn Cooke
inker: J. Bone
colorist:Matt Hollingsworth
editor: Axel Alonso
EIC: Joe Quesada

I didn’t read Spider-man: One More Day. Actually, I did read some of it -- ten years ago, when Aunt May was on her deathbed and Peter was blessed with one more day with her, in which she revealed her knowledge of his dual identity before kicking the bucket for good. Well, not for good, as she returned when the Clone Saga subsided, sans knowledge of her nephew’s web-swinging. It’s the vicious cycle in which our favorite heroes are trapped; their editors decide to alter what we’ve always accepted as canon (or worse, mortally wound these icons, betraying a projected streak of masochism in the higher ranks of DC and Marvel), then send a press release to the appropriate media outlets and attempt to garner naïve eBay-happy collectors, until, when this fleeting attention fades, return things back to normal to satisfy seething or forsaken fans. I’ve said it before -- our favorite superheroes’ worst enemies are often the men and women behind their contemporary storytelling.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you this. You’ve discovered this phenomenon yourself and read about it in countless other blogs. I’m not writing this for you, though; I’m writing this for me, to see if I really understand it. One year, Batman’s back is broken and he’s wheelchair bound, the next, he’s back to swinging effortlessly around those Gotham rooftops. Eh, whatever, right? This Batman is preferable to the one in those goofy old ‘50s yarns about time-traveling and fighting dinosaurs, or fighting weird little aliens in flying saucers?

So, what does all of this have to do with I (Heart) Marvel: Web of Romance #1, you ask? Well, quite frankly, I’m not sure if this issue still exists. I mean, it obviously still exists, as I’m holding it right here in my hands. What I’m struggling with is, is its content still relevant, or “in continuity,” as it were? I know Marvel’s EIC Joe Quesada has claimed that the stories from Spidey’s past are essentially intact, including Mary Jane yet not as our hero’s betrothed, and further that stories like this should be enjoyed as the singular pieces of graphic art they were intended to be, but I cannot accept that. I can take enjoying any comic book sans context or continuity baggage, but the truth is, this creative team -- these artists -- intended to tell a story about a married couple on Valentine’s Day. To strip away their intentions is to cheapen the impact of comic book storytelling as an art. It’s like Photoshopping the Mona Lisa into a lunch lady by adding a hairnet and everything; it’s still the Mona Lisa as Di Vinci captured her, but you’ve tweaked his work so it’s dishing out crap. Countless web pranks do just this kind of thing.

Or would the comic book community simply dub such a project an “homage” for the sake of humor and respect? I know, I know -- bitter much, right?

Well, Web of Romance is a story that cannot shake the apparently evil notion that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker were once wed and in fact living in Avengers’ Mansion. In this issue, Spidey struggles with what to get his wife for Valentine’s Day, since, in the past, the likes of his picture frame for her have been consistently trumped by the likes of her iPod for him. It’s a struggle every man endures this time of year, though we don’t get to hash out the problem with Captain America and Power Man during a battle with Dragon Man. When Pete puts together his wife’s resourcefulness with her contrasting unsuperpowered nature, he enlists Iron Man’s help and give Mary Jane a pair of web-shooting bracelets -- fashionable and practical in a world of Electros around every corner. Thankfully, she loves them and is totally willing to show Spidey -- on the roof no less. I guess those skyscrapers aren’t just for web-slinging and brooding, eh?

Writer Tom Beland writes a very light-hearted tale that references past and present elements in the Marvel Universe to establish a quaint story of superhero domesticity and adventure. In one sequence, MJ watches football with Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, and Luke Cage, laughing it up with the boys while Pete admires her from the kitchen with Aunt May and Jarvis. That’s right, seven completely different Marvel mainstays, dwelling together naturally and comfortably, in a scene that invites fans of these characters to virtually pull up a chair alongside them. Later, Peter recounts a “classic” Marvel sequence in which he “punks” the girl-crazy Johnny Storm with a web-bat, a story that elicits MJ’s appreciation of the web-shooters’ technology. My favorite moment in this issue is the obligatory origin panel, but Beland pulls it off most effectively. Spidey literally wraps up decades worth of MJ continuity in a few simple reflective captions (even mentioning Jonathan Caesar, a nefarious character from when I read Amazing Spider-man in the ‘90s), giving the reader a true sense of why she, above all of the other women in Parker’s life, stole his heart.

So how can Quesada expect us to toss those nostalgic stories to the wind? When the incredible talented Cory Walker is illustrating a love story like this one, who would dare relegate it to mere continuity fodder? I suppose this is where Tangled Web #11 comes in.

Darwyn Cooke is a master comic book storyteller. The fact that his Justice League: New Frontier is coming to DVD this month is a testament to the many facets of his skills as a writer and an artist, and though Spider-man's Tangled Web #11 is really just a footnote in his overall career, it’s still an excellent example of his process with any of comics’ superhero icons. In this issue’s tale “Open All Night,” Spidey tussles with the Vulture and falls into the old bird’s best laid trap, which results in ol’ Webhead plummeting mask-first and passing out in an alley. Meanwhile, business as usual proceeds at the Daily Bugle, as two women prepare for a date with Peter Parker and Jonah’s latest intern succumbs to a barista’s jealousy and accidentally gives Mrs. Jameson an Exlax-laced coffee. Jonah surely gets his revenge against the angry coffee boy, and both girls stumble into a beaten Peter Parker to express their mutual outrage, but his charms get the best of them and apparently they both agree to nurse him back to health. It’s a happy but peculiar ending to an upbeat but outrageous Valentine’s Day story.

Of course, this issue left me with a few questions. Since Jonah mentions that Peter is a teacher, I assume that this story parallels the J. Michael Straczynski era of Amazing in which Spidey teaches science at Midtown High and is temporarily separated from MJ, allowing for the time to date. Still, I don’t know how Peter could reconcile the irresponsible error of scheduling a date with two women on Valentine’s Day, unless the unspoken threesome that results from their shared sympathy for his beat-up state was a part of his plan. In the end, when the Vulture presents the diamond ring he stole to a long lost love some twenty years removed, the old lady embraces the villain and proclaims, “Let’s make love!” Surely, Cooke, in all of his breathtaking renderings in this issue, tops his best efforts with the shocking unseen sequence that must follow! Yes, I’m talking about the Vulture swiping a bottle of Viagra from Rite Aid! I wonder, with this issue’s implications, would Spider-man prevent that crime, or finally find a common ground with the winged geezer. “Hey, you go do whatever a spider can, big guy! Spin a web, any size!”

So, these two issues, both starring Spider-man on Valentine’s Day (and brilliantly drawn, period), essentially represent both sides of the “One More Day” argument. One issue perfectly captures the strengths of the Parker marriage, while the other shows the potential of a swingin’ single bachelor. Did either of them give me an idea of which I’d prefer? Hey, why not both? Both stories are richly entertaining and certainly do not fail in capturing the attention of an all-ages audience (no matter what Quesada thinks kid make of a wedded webslinger -- because, oh, yeah, the life of a bachelor is much more relatable to youth) -- so why not offer both? What if, at the end of “One More Day,” Mephisto created two parallel worlds in which both realities coexisted? Rather than publish Amazing weekly, why not tell Spider-man’s story through both lenses, with two issues a month starring either option? Marvel could call one title The Wedded Webslinging Spider-man, and the other The Swingingly Single Spider-man! Hey, in a medium where two Spider-men could coexist for the better half of a decade, though one called himself the Scarlet Spider, why couldn’t this come to pass? Couldn't everyone have a virtual one more day of the hero they’d prefer?

Friday, February 15, 2008

WWWednesday: Last Kiss

WWWednesday: Last Kiss
by John Lustig

When I signed up for John Lustig's Last Kiss e-mail newsletter at the San Diego Comic Con two years ago, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. At the time, I was accumulating a variety of comics, and the clean, "traditional" art style of Last Kiss appealed to my Silver Age sensibilities. Of course, when I opened that first e-mail a few days later and discovered some such woman lamenting about her sex life, I knew the weekly strip would be more than I bargained for. This week, with Valentines' Day a veritable specter of romance looming over everyone's shoulder, Last Kiss is really the perfect web comic to review, if only as a reminder that love can be laughing matter, too.

Since Lustig faithfully e-mails his strip freely every week, so I don't think he'd mind if I posted the latest example:


As you can see, the strength of Last Kiss is the power of contrast. Now, I'm not about to go all Joe Piscopo explained the art of stand-up comedy to Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation on you, but needless to say we comic book fanboys understand the inherent reverence attached to the clean art style of the '50s and '60s, particularly native to war and romance titles. Romance comics in particular were usually little morality tales about the importance of patience, faithfulness, and communication in relationships; really, they were the Dr. Phil of '50s, as countless 'tween girls turned to those pulpy pages for stories to which they could relate or aspire. Yesterday's Falling in Love is a perfect example; in each of those three stories, despite the female characters' respective insecurities, the male figure is the one at fault for each couples' challenges. The innocence of these heartstring pluckers oozes off of the page, epitomizing the romance genre but also betraying the sheltered mentality of an entire generation.

Enter Last Kiss. Imagine these very same images, these classically rendered panels by the likes of legends Dick Giordiano and Jim Aparo, suddenly perverted by contemporary, sexually charged quips and punchlines. Yes, it's like putting Sarah Silverman in a Sally Worth strip, and the result truly is charming -- in a chilling kind of way. Browsing Lustig's website, I learned that these images are really old Charlton Comics panels; apparently, in 1987, the rights to Charlton’s entire library were for sale, and by the time Lustig found out, the good stuff was gone. Undaunted, he bought the forty issue Last Kiss series, which, he says, loaded with “shlock!” Still, the enduring quality of that old style, coupled with the liberal sensibilities of a new generation of readers, created a chemistry Lustig obviously couldn’t avoid. The result is a proverbial Pleasantville of sluts, horn-dogs, and unbridled desperation. And I get it in my inbox every week.

Last Kiss is definitely an acquired taste, with a fair amount of shock value and toilet humor. Still, after reading some of the strips I’ve missed and learning of the series’ real roots in classic comics, I’m grateful for its weekly embrace. Taking these comics that took themselves so seriously not so seriously has ironically preserved them for at least another decade, propelling the comic reader’s torrid romance with all things “classic” to dizzying new heights. I wonder, when Lustig has had his way with the seemingly unending content of those forty issues and decides to sell them himself, what will the next buyer have in store for us? When will Last Kiss truly be its last? I’m broken up just thinking about it.

Falling In Love #83

Falling In Love #83, May 1966, DC Comics

Blogger's note: Entry for Tuesday, February 12, 2008.

"Would it shock you to learn that deep down, all men are afraid of girls?"

Falling In Love #83 is an absolutely exquisite example of comics' Silver Age romance genre. By 1966, I would imagine that titles like this were on the decline in popularity, what with the infamous "Summer of Love" a mere three years away, but Falling In Love bottles the innocence and insecurities of a bygone era and offers an interesting analysis of how romantic themes have changed over the past forty years, particularly during this Valentine's Day week.

Falling In Love #83 features three different romantic tales, different in their circumstantial context but stunning in their similar insight into the male/female dynamic. In “I’ll Wait for You,” Heidi meets her boyfriend Drew’s father, the wealthy attorney, who insists that no woman should chain Drew down with marriage until he has passed the bar exam and joined the family firm. When Drew goes away to take the test, Heidi doubts his commitment to her, and several weeks later when her friend sees a disheveled Drew hiding away in Ellenville, Heidi travels to the small city to find him. Sure enough, she finds Drew residing in a flophouse, where he admits to failing the bar and disappointing his father. In the end, Heidi and Drew resolve to face their torrid fears together. (Artistically, this story was the most daring, with a pulpy panel design and dramatic character blocking.)

In “And Soon Perhaps Love,” Karen refuses to believe the rumors that her boyfriend Greg is a lying, cheating sleazeball. Tom, the nice guy next door, seems more persistent than Karen’s other friends, even inviting her to coffee in the hopes to get her mind off of that gruesome Greg. When Karen sits Greg down and tells him she wants to ignore the rumors, he slyly replies, “You’d better -- or I’ll be pretty mad at my little girl!” While most women could take such degradation in the ‘50s, like I said earlier, the ‘70s were right around the corner, so Karen only needed one more panel of puppy-eyed sheepishness to see through her boyfriend’s sleaziness. Perhaps Tom was right about him, and more, after all!

Finally, in “Deep Down, All Men Are Afraid of Girls,” Suzy simply cannot get over her fear of men! What? Doesn’t the title of this tale explain that men are afraid of girls? Ah, but look further, dear reader . . . Although Suzy freezes every time she’s out with a man, resulting in a paralyzing silence, her latest beau, Jerry, elicits the most self-inflicted disappointment, as he’s the most romantic guy she’s ever met! Just when she thinks it’s over, Jerry shows up on her doorstep -- to apologize to her! When Jerry confesses his fear to open up, Suzy realizes she isn’t alone, and in the end, their mutual social inadequacies are just enough to finally bring them together.

So, what can we learn from these different yet eerily similar stories? Here are the lessons no relationship expert would ever admit!

1. Women have incredibly high expectations, but will go to the lowest standards to meet them. Heidi, Karen, and Suzy are all on the prowl for Mr. Right, yet they seemingly settle for men with daddy issues, borderline abusive tendencies, and social inadequacies, respectively. The only man with any redeeming quality is Tom from “And Soon Perhaps Love,” who obviously suffers from Nice Guy Syndrome and is essentially described as “good enough.” Hey, most guys can pull that off, right?

2. Every woman’s emotional paranoia is the natural and acceptable result of her man’s equally natural and acceptable shortcomings. In “I’ll Wait For You,” Heidi’s fear of abandonment borders on manic, yet when we learn that Drew failed the bar and sought to abandon his presumably disappointed loved ones, her obsession is practically justified. Further, until Karen sees Greg for the scumball he is, his perfection is well established and even the reader is almost completely deceived. Even Suzy’s fright is reciprocated with the assumption that all men are afraid of girls! Now, I don’t know who wrote these old tales, as genre-specific titles like Falling In Love were usually published sans credits, but assuming the comic book industry was dominated by middle-aged men, this issue is a classic example of self-inflicted emasculation for the sake of sales. “Surely young girls will relate to these emotional plights, but the characters’ shortcomings must be justified by their boyfriends’ inherent faults, lest we alienate female readers altogether!” The last page ad for other romance titles sums up the creators’ mentality with its tagline, “Love problems every girl can understand!” Read between the lines and you’ll find the subliminal message, “Because men are the cause of those problems, right, ladies?”

Indeed, the easiest way for me to understand a series like Falling In Love is to liken it to other comics I genuinely enjoy. So, I insist, it isn’t too great leap to claim that, while the man/woman dynamic boasts a lovers’ strength in these stories, it also betrays a hero/villain formula. The men are obviously out to thwart their women, yet their women exploit their weaknesses to conquer them. Heidi, Karen, and Suzy’s respective concerns were conveyed as so dire, I almost expected the outcomes to these tales to have a “Weird Romance” quality to them. Perhaps Drew was trapped in a pocket dimension so he couldn’t write Heidi, or Karen’s friends were really seeing Greg’s twin brother gallivanting around town. Still, the question remains, would it shock you to learn that deep down, all men are afraid of girls?

If Falling In Love is accurate, who wouldn’t be afraid of them?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Superman: A Nation Divided

Superman: A Nation Divided, 1999, DC Comics
writer: Roger Stern
artist: Eduardo Barreto
letterer: Bill Oakley
colorist: Chris Chuckry

Superman: A Nation Divided represents everything I loved about DC Comics’ Elseworlds brand, before it became fodder for the latest crisis and inadvertently an excellent example of what happens when you have too much of a good thing. A good Elseworlds story really wasn’t an elaborate recreation of a character’s mythos; rather, it simply tweaked one element of the character’s legend and explored the natural repercussions of such a change. In the three of my favorite Superman-oriented Elseworlds tales that come to mind, Krypton still explodes and young Kal-El is still rocketed to Earth, where a yellow sun bequeaths him abilities far beyond those of mortal men that he eventually decides to use for the betterment of his adopted world. In one series, the Waynes discover Kal-El’s spaceship, and when they die, Superman becomes Batman. In another series, a nail, the most minute, thus brilliant of continuity interruptions, prevents the Kents from finding their alien son, and without the moral standard of a Superman, the world isn’t as quick to embrace its inevitable Justice League. In this issue, A Nation Divided, my newest favorite, Kal-El still plummets to the kindly Kents’ farm . . . but in 1845. Say it with me, Scott Bakula: “Oh, boy.”*

What transpires is a natural exploration of how the Superman mythos would’ve evolved had Siegel and Schuster lived some eighty years earlier and decided to create a superhero to boost the spirits of the Union army. Also, considering the length of this story, writer Roger Stern crams a lot of content in a well paced wartime adventure, forsaking Superman standards like Lois Lane and Lex Luthor in favor of Abraham Lincoln and General Robert E. Lee. A red-haired, freckle-faced soldier does ride “Atticus Kent’s” coattails, but his name is Jeremiah and his role is less “pal” and more spokesperson, at least in the beginning of Kal-El’s career as a super soldier. Leaving out an obligatory Perry White (for instance) creates a concentrated analysis of Superman’s integrity in this brutal Civil War era, and without a car to lift over his head, it seems the standard measure of strength is heaving a canon . . . not to mention running faster than a locomotive, a spectacular feat considering how important locomotives were back then. Considering that Superman epitomizes the American dream (and in this issue he bookends his trademark “S” with an “U” and an “A”), the best part of this story is beholding his frantic desire to put the country back together again.

Artist Eduardo Barreto was the perfect choice for this story’s artist. Also the artist for Superman: Speeding Bullets, the Superman-becomes-Batman plot I mentioned, Barreto's style is realistic and expressive, and when his Superman hangs in the sky, the reader truly understands how fantastic the image of a flying man really is. Further, his style is the perfect compliment to this story’s time frame. Since it is a Superman yarn, A Nation Divided is by definition a superhero comic, but its subject also classifies this as a period piece; serious sequences featuring the violence of war or the Kents sequestering a black family from slave traders betray national weaknesses that don’t hold a candle to Kryptonite, and Barreto’s work is respectful to this dire context. In a splash page of Confederate soldiers, Barreto notes “To Joe” in a subtle signature -- obviously paying respects to Joe Kubert and his definitive work on war-driven books. Though not World War II, A Nation Divided is a bit more heady, because Superman isn’t battling the obvious evil of Hitler or the Axis Powers. He’s battling fellow Americans. Even while Superman discovers the depths of his strengths, he pulls his punches, and while Barreto illustrates a juggernaut of a man, the best moments are the ones in which he simmers in his own torn nature. In other words, when Superman stifles himself, the art really shines.

Well, if you didn’t know, today is the day we celebrate President Lincoln’s birthday, so reading A National Divided is a great way to celebrate. Also, with Fredrick Douglas’ appearance, it makes for a tidy resolution to my weeklong Black History Month reviews. Though the Civil War was the end of a tumultuous time in American history, it certainly wasn’t the end of the Civil Rights Movement; in fact, it was just the beginning. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a Superman during either period to guide our collective journey -- indeed, when it comes to solidifying peace in America, this looks like a job for . . . the common man!

*Quantum Leap, anyone? Yeah, I know the 19th century is a bit beyond Sam’s leap scope, but . . . ah, never mind.

Mr. T and the T-Force #1

Mr. T and the T-Force #1, June 1993, Now Comics
writers: Neal Adams & Pete Stone
artists/colorists: Neal Adams & Continuity Studios
letterer: Andrea Albert

Blogger's note: Entry for Sunday, February 10, 2008.

I make no apologies for my love for Mr. T. Mr. T appeared three times during last year’s A Comic A Day project, and I really can’t promise any less this time around. The guy’s a real-life superhero, plain and simple. He has a costume, a torrid origin, and best of all a motto that ranks right up there with “In brightest day . . .”

Yes, I dare say that “I pity the fool” should make its way onto U.S. currency. Recession would be a problem of the past.

I can understand the criticism. To say that Mr. T is nothing more than glorified cartoon character is an understatement. He was a cartoon character, complete with his own cereal. He’s been a bobblehead and two action figures that I know of, he’s headlined lunchboxes and children’s puzzles, and he’s even tried his hand as a motivational drill sergeant on his short-lived TV Land reality show. Some might call him a sell out for any multi-media opportunity to come his way. I call him a proud self-promoter. Really, what could be more successful than making yourself the product of your own business? You are a resource you produce in abundance! Mr. T has embraced this concept and applied it to television, film, animation, and comics. He’d be a fool not to.

Further, and most importantly, Mr. T has made himself into a product he can live with. His message has always been a positive, all-ages friendly mantra about self-respect and determination, with a pinch of “love your mother” in there for good measure. Corny it may be, his sense of morality is also timeless, assuring the solidity of its multimedia success. Seriously, have any other black celebrities achieved as diverse an entertainment career? Yet Mr. T is often considered a “black celebrity,” perhaps because the purity (and camp) of his persona elevates race altogether . . . which, in my opinion, makes him an incredibly noteworthy black celebrity.

Yet, to say that this first issue of Mr. T and the T-Force is strictly a vehicle for Mr. T would be an injustice. With critically acclaimed artist Neil Adams at the helm, a certain level of comic book clout graces the project. Unfortunately, the sway ends there; in this issue, like in #3 I reviewed last year, Mr. T inexplicably demonstrates inhuman strength, stopping a gang of drug runners by smashing their car, shaking off a taser blast, and bending back the barrel of a gun. Later, when trying to talk a member of the gang straight, Mr. T finds an abandoned crack baby in a dumpster with seemingly little more than some sort of “T-sense.” He actually trusts the infant to the drug peddler, effectively recruiting the wayward kid into the T-Force, and just when this urban fairytale couldn’t get weirder, the story ends in a cliffhanger that pits Mr. T against a shadowy, Kirby-esque crime lord. If only an Intergang crossover were possible.

Yes, Neil Adams and his Continuity Studios provide some dynamic visuals, yet at the same time some of the panels are sloppy, almost just barely post lay-out stage. The caricature of Mr. T maintains its consistency, but the proportions of the supporting cast vary from standard comic book fare to almost satirically cartoony. Perhaps this is the style that best suits such a story, one that balances urban warfare with the exaggerated tactics of Mr. T’s ambiguous superheroism. Still, T’s methods remain just this side of vigilantism, since, rather than a firearm, he lugs around a huge video camera, capturing inarguable evidence against all of the criminals he encounters.

So, no, do not write off Mr. T as some mascot for the bygone ‘80s. He’s more than B.A. Baracus and Clubber Lang. Mr. T is quite simply your inner child grown up, and his T-Force is that reckless defense to his right for self-preservation -- and everyone else’s, too. His lesson? As long as you stand for what you believe in, you have no reason to feel sorry for yourself. It’s those other fools you should pity.

Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21

Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther #21, May 1976, Marvel Comics
writer: Don McGregor
penciller: Billy Graham
inker: Bob McLeod
letterer: Harry Blumfield
colorist: Phil Rachelson
editor: Marv Wolfman

Blogger's note: Entry for Saturday, February 9, 2008.

I hadn’t heard of Jungle Action prior to 2006’s San Diego Comic Con. I had just begun the A Comic A Day challenge and hadn’t thought much of themed reviews, but as I flipped through the variety of back issues at my disposal in that vast exhibit hall, I discovered a few patterns I could easily incorporate into a year-long look at comics. For example, as I’ve mentioned before, Santa Claus has made numerous appearances in multiple comic books, from hamming it up with Mickey Mouse to fighting alongside the Justice League, so a series of Christmas-oriented reviews in December during a diverse daily exercise like A Comic A Day just makes sense. The entire horror genre, from its pre-code days to the contemporary masterpieces of Steve Niles, befits October, just as the war genre suits Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. So, as I formulated this comics-driven syllabus, my mind recalled Black History Month, and the necessary characters quickly came to me: Steel, Storm, Luke Cage, John Stewart, Black Lightning, Black Panther . . .

No sooner did I think his name than did Jungle Action #19 appear under my thumb in that quarter-priced back issue box. Yes, I understand that Black Panther is otherwise known as T’Challa, king of the Wakandans native to a jungle island, so the potentially offensive title didn’t strike me as much as that issue’s chosen enemies: the Ku Klux Klan. Even if I wasn’t aiming for comics featuring prominent black superheroes, for a quarter, who could resist? Not only was one of Marvel’s first black superheroes called the “Black” “Panther,” starring in a comic book called “Jungle Action,” but he also fights the Klan? Does Reverend Jesse Jackson know this title exists?

Seriously, Black Panther is undoubtedly the brainchild of a racially ambivalent era, in which writers and artists wanted to thrust black protagonists into the mainstream, yet couldn’t do so without subconsciously recreating the very stereotypes they wanted to avoid. At the time, it was the only language they knew, and fortunately their character-creating skills were more influential than anything else. Interestingly, as I read some of those other titles I mentioned over this past week, I discovered that the writers’ internal struggle isn’t over yet; in both Steel and Luke Cage and Power Man, street slang that might be too “hip” for a “straight edge” audience to understand is footnoted and interpreted. Considering the decade spanning these two issues, these proverbial glossaries offer intriguing insights into the editorial decision to include them; both 1980s Marvel and 1990s DC assumed that their readers would be progressive enough to read comics with urban themes, but not understand them. At the very least, they asserted these captions as shallow attempts to appear hip to the jive, and I don’t know which is more disturbing.

Jungle Action featuring Black Panther #21 brings the Ku Klux Klan story arc I began a year ago to an unsettling conclusion, or so I assume, as the next issue blurb diverts T’Challa on a time travelling mission. Thanks to some well crafted, introductory dialogue, I was quickly reacquainted with this story’s details; when reporter Kevin Trublood decides to investigate a new coworker’s apparent suicide, the trial leads him to the victim’s sister Angela, the Klan and its splinter group the Dragon Circle, and of course the Black Panther. Since we last saw him, the Panther has been captured by the Klan, strung to a wooden cross, and set on fire! Fortunately, our hero conquers the psychological aspect of this deathtrap enough to escape -- indeed, in one of the most exciting, melodramatic escape sequences I’ve beheld in a long time. (Okay, in brief, the flames lick T’Challa’s feet enough to burn through the ropes binding them, so he swings his feet up to snap the cross in half and ram it through the slack-jawed Klan like a battering ram!) In the end, the Black Panther obviously cannot dissolve the Klan, but, with the help of Angela’s family, he demoralizes them, which is a presumably satisfactory resolution for all. Perhaps like the stigmas attached to writing such stories, the implications of tales featuring bigotry and violence sadly boast a certain tenacity that reflect their reciprocal roots in reality.

Still, at least in the realm of comics, society can derive a shallow satisfaction from the justices our superheroes claim over such evils. Further, the joy of beholding these adventures told in the Might Marvel Manner is a timeless guilty pleasure, in this issue specifically thanks to the craftsmanship of artists Billy Graham and Bob McLeod. This issue was much less cluttered than I remember of #19, thanks to McGregor’s well paced story and emotional conclusion, in which fewer words were actually best. As we get further away from the tumultuous times that birthed Black Panther, and the necessity of his heroic island jungle-to-urban jungle crusade, perhaps this issue’s lesson is one worth adapting -- that fewer, more intended words are better than too many that we might not even understand, anyway. Thanks to Black Panther’s escape, I’m reminded of the old saying, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Who says will has any defined language other than itself?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mac Afro: Sleeze 'N Crackers One-Shot

Mac Afro: Sleeze 'N Crackers One-Shot, August 2006, Atomic Basement Entertainment
writer: David Walker
artist: Rafael Navarro
colorist: Guy Lemay
letterer: Johnny Lowe
creator: Mike Wellman

Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, February 8, 2008.

I had the pleasure of shaking Mike Wellman's hand twice last year during his promotional tour of Star Trek: The Manga: Kakan ni Shinkou (which I reviewed here); though I was on the heels of his fellow writer/Trek contributor Wil Wheaton, briefly meeting Wellman also introduced me to his brainchild Mac Afro, whose adventure in this Sleeze 'N Crackers one-shot offers excellent insight into the complications of interracial space travel. Before I proceed, I should clarify that I completely endorse interracial space exploration; in fact, some of my favorite sci-fi characters are black. (I’m looking at you, Tuvok!) All I’m saying is, before we venture into the cosmic unknown and meet races from other planets, we obviously must attempt to conquer the differences amongst us on Earth.

Consider Captain Buck Trustwell. In Mac Afro: Sleeze 'N Crackers, Captain Trustwell befriends Afro for help traveling through the Mau Mau Nebula to confront the Starbuckian rebels that have kidnapped their virgin Princess Falopia. You’d think Trustwell would be grateful for Afro’s help, but when the Starbuckian forces get the drop on them and the going gets tough, the good Captain and his men let loose with a string of racial slurs, calling our hero everything from “porch monkey” to “jigaboo.” Despite a few casualties, they rescue the princess and make it back to the ship, where Afro’s undeniable charm wins the day . . . and Falopia’s “first time,” reducing Trustwell to tears. Didn’t anyone tell him that all’s fair in love and interstellar war?

This issue of Mac Afro is an excellent introduction to its character, if writer David Walker’s Shaft-meets-Buck Rogers interpretation is true to Wellman’s original intentions. I can understand Wellman’s inspiration for his contribution to the Kakan ni Shinkou anthology, which features Captain Kirk on trial for a crime so ambiguous that even the reader is left guessing the accusations. His phasers first, ask questions later mentality? His blatant (green) womanizing? Try all of the above, and probably one or two more crimes I’ve forgotten -- and while Kirk must defend his smoldering masculinity in the context of the 24th century, Mac Afro makes no apologies for his hubris. In fact, it seems to be his greatest asset, and while Walker’s decision to use hard-hitting racial slurs makes this story unavoidably controversial, Afro’s confidence in the face of Trustwell’s insecurities overpowers their potential to offend. Interestingly, aside from an initial disbelief, Afro doesn’t even comment on the name-calling and instead relies solely on his sense of self-preservation to conquer his obstacles, not to mention the girl. His attitude is a lesson to be learned by all of us.

I’d be remiss not to mention Rafael Navarro’s art, which is a perfect compliment to Mac Afro’s blaxploitation space romp genre. His style is obviously of the Kirby school, what with the “Kirby dots” accentuating Afro’s, er, afro, and his brushstroke balances the humor of this issue’s more sordid scenes with the seriousness of the characters’ galactic peril. The best part of Navarro’s contributions is this issue’s cover, as its rich blue and purple cosmos betrays a ‘70s grooviness within that seeming endlessness of space. Princess Falopia’s writhing bikini-clad body is really just a bonus. Gratefully, the cover is reproduced sans title on the back of this issue -- particularly for me because Wellman and Navarro were kind enough to sign my copy at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

Mac Afro: Sleeze ‘N Crackers might not be one’s first choice as a representative for Black History Month, but to me, it’s an excellent addition, if only to indicate what the future might be like for all of us. While traversing the galaxy doesn’t defeat Captain Buck Trustwell’s shallow racism, trekking the stars also keeps the likes of Mac Afro ironically well grounded, instilling in him a character that most men would love to be, and that woman would love be with. Indeed, this is one afro I’d pick any day.