Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Mercury Chronicles #0

The Mercury Chronicles #0, Summer 2005, Speakeasy Comics
writer: Vito Delsante
artists: Mike Lilly & Shawn McGuan
colorist: Ben Hunzeker
letterer & designer: Jeff Powell
editor: Ron Hill

Blogger’s note: Entry for Sunday, April 20, 2008.

In his back page blurb about The Mercury Chronicles, Speakeasy Comics President Adam Fortier describes the Golden Age of comics as “a time when individuals in this fledgling industry were literally creating a medium of entertainment from the ground up and one that had a very uncertain future.” Indeed, considering his comments, and this zero issue’s use of an old time news reel to establish the setting and prominent characters of this series, I’m reminded that our culture’s most influential media are still very new considering the context of human history. Whether or not or believe the world to be 7,000 or 3.6 billion years old, the advent of film is just a small, and conveniently the most current, fraction of that time; further, while the printed page has been around a bit longer, we often forget that the comic book industry was the first to pioneer the press’ two major elements -- words and pictures -- in a combination of sequential storytelling. This was just about hundred years ago. Out of thousands to billions of earth history.

Wow. And sometimes I muse about life before the Internet. You know, that dark era known as the ‘80s . . . when cell phones were the size of your forearm.

The Mercury Chronicles takes place in that tumultuous post-World War II, pre-Civil Rights Movement period in American history, that awkward decade when we the people realized that we needed a war to rise out of our Great Depression and we suppressed the thought with the hope that life was as perfect as one of those new black and white sitcoms on television. Heroes were easy to define -- from fictional characters like Superman and the Lone Ranger to our own military soldiers, heroes were obviously men and women (mostly men) that put everyone else’s lives before their own, readily sacrificing their own liberty for the call of duty so that the rest of us were spared the responsibility. Heck, everyone else still pitched in where they could, though, buying war bonds, recycling paper, and sending care packages overseas. It was the twentieth century’s post-adolescent, responsible thirty-somethings.

(Yes, I’m implying that centuries take twice as long to “age” as the average human being, likening the ‘00s-‘10s to childhood, the ‘20s-‘30s to adolescence, and all the way up to the ‘80s as its proverbial midlife crisis. But that analogy is for another day, and definitely warrants of other centuries, too.)

Enter Commander Champion and Mr. Mercury, the world’s finest heroes of writer Vito Delsante’s interpretation of events. Though both fought bravely during World War II, only Champion survived to tell his tale . . . until 1947, when a mysterious flying saucer crashes in New Mexico, and the military converges to discover the ship’s sole occupant: a travel-weary Mr. Mercury! His three-year absence is a mystery, shrouded in the supernatural context of that strange period of history, and I confess an interest in his story.

When I picked up The Mercury Chronicles #0 earlier this year, I wasn’t sure what the thin 10-page story would offer, other than the stunning art I encountered while initially flipping through its pages. Indeed, this kind of prologue is the perfect way to kick off a series -- a simple enough launching pad that can be summed up in just a few panels’ worth of story in the follow issue #1, yet poignant enough to stand on its own as a teaser for the greater concept to come. Mike Lilly’s sketchbook section is also more comprehensive than I would’ve expected, complete with color studies and insightful notes into the visual development of the series. As I’m sure was intended, this little peek behind the curtain has inspired me to find the whole series to see if it lives up to its pre-development potential.

Fortier concludes his introductory blurb by describing The Mercury Chronicles as “an authentic homage to the era [the ‘30s-‘40s] rather than a haphazard interpretation,” perhaps like the one I rattled off above. From what I’ve read so far, I agree. Since the comics of that era are relatively black and white compared to the mired subplots of today’s graphic fare, Delsante seems determined to use war, the mystery of space, and superheroes in a way to exploit the true vulnerabilities of that otherwise innocent time. In other words, his Mercury Chronicles is checking the barometer of America’s then-developing pop culture. It’s all in the name.

The Future 5

The Future 5, 2005, EdFund’s Communications Department
writer: Hillary Haas
design & illustration: Miracle Studios
layout & art direction: Lindy Dunlavey
production coordinator: Chaz Smith
editor: Jason Warburg

Blogger’s note: Entry for Saturday, April 19, 2008.

Working for a youth-oriented nonprofit organization, sometimes I’m fortunate enough to come into quirky little public service comics. Last year’s Spider-man/Power Man/Storm American Cancer Society comic is one such example; The Future 5 is another. Published by EdFund and the California Student Aid Commission, The Future 5 is a tight ten-page comic starring, of course, the Future 5, a team of college graduates that, under the guidance of Professor Nightbird, promote the benefits of high education and thwart those that dissuade youth from pursing it. Roll call: Chef, a culinary school grad who “whips up powerful combinations of food and spices to combat evil; Techno, a computer guy; Luna, a licensed veterinarian with a special connection to animals; Sky, the team pilot and engineer. In this story, “The Power of Your Mind,” the five battle Dr. Know, who, despite his philanthropy for homeless kittens (really), has devised a grassroots scheme to take over the world by bullying kids away from college. Fortunately, the good guys arrive just in time to list the types of universities Know’s potential victims can attend, and the various financial aid options at their disposal. It’s a hilarious infusion of textbook-like terms regarding applying for college, but, I must confess, if I’d read this issue my junior year of high school, I think I’d have had a better grasp on the whole financial aid situation. Writer Hillary Haas retains just enough of a colloquial demeanor with her lead characters that their sudden exclamations of EdFund rhetoric aren’t too much to bear, though still unwittingly comedic in contrast. Also, Lindy Dunlavey and Miracle Studios’ artwork is truly above average for a public service comic book; though some panels betray an amateurish quality, most of the pages’ layouts are innovative and eye-catching, and the characters are expressive enough to convey their points and personalities effectively. The bottom line is, I would have no problem sharing The Future 5 with a teenager struggling with making the right post-high school choices, as long as he understood that the comic was intended to inform and not purely to entertain. Then again, the future is what you make it -- so why should the Future 5 be any different? If you’re like me, you enjoy seeing the comic medium used for varied purposes. It’s a truly educational reading experience.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Donatello: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle #1

Donatello: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle #1, February 1986, Mirage Studios
by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird
Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, April 18, 2008.
Black Panther. Darkseid. The New Gods. Kamandi. These are just a few of the thousands of comic book characters attributed to the creativity of Jack Kirby. Further, for all of the characters that came from Kirby's pen directly, how many more were inspired by his style and originality? Well, I can definitely think of four: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
This Donatello one-shot actually explains a lot of things for me. First of all, when I saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode "King" a few years ago, I was both intrigued and confused by its surreal context. In that episode, much like this issue that inspired it, Donatello meets an artist named Kirby, who has bound a magical stone to his pencil and is able to make his drawings come to life for a few seconds. When Don and Kirby stumble into a portal the artist had drawn, they discover a dimension full of Kirby's exotic creations, and they work together to defeat the monsters that have begun attacking the people. Unfortunately, in the end, the portal begins to shrink and only Donatello makes it in time, and though he mourns the loss of his new friend, we're left to assume that Kirby has found a comfortable new home as a god among his creation. Like his note to Don says, "Life at best is bittersweet."
At the time I saw the cartoon, I didn't know there was a twenty-year-old comic book that had inspired it, and my friend and I were just finishing a comic book project of our own, in which an old artist gets lost in a comic book world of his own creation. I thought bitterly that the Turtles had managed to beat us to it. Of course, now I know just how behind the times we were, considering the likes of The Brave and the Bold #124 and other issues like this. Still, while my friend and I sought to explore the logistics of a "real life" comic book universe, Eastman and Laird's foray into extradimensional comic book lands were intended as an homage to the man that inspired their initial collaboration . . . which eventually spawned the world's favorite heroes in a half shell. According to Laird's introduction t his issue, his bond with Kevin Eastman began over a piece of original Kirby art hanging in Laird's office. While I always imagined these two guys playfully sketching in a dark, cramped office, unwittingly building a multi-faceted franchise, I knew much thought about how they got there. It's nice to know that corner piece of the puzzle.
Interestingly, when this issue was published, Jack Kirby was still alive, and when it was adapted into a cartoon some years later, Kirby had passed, so what began as two young artists' love letter to their favorite industry giant inadvertently became two established artists' eulogy for a legend. Either way, the point is clear; a great artist's work can come to life before your very eyes and, more importantly, pull you into his world. It's a place you can both envy and appreciate the man for creating.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Star Trek/X-Men #1

Star Trek/X-Men #1, December 1996, Marvel Comics
writer: Scott Lobdell
pencillers: Marc Silvestri, Billy Tan, Anthony Winn, David Finch, & Brian Ching
inkers: Batt, D-Tron, Billy Tan, Aaron Sowd, Joe Weems, Victor Llamas, Team Tron, Jose "Jag" Guillen, Viet Troung, Mike Manczarek
colorists: Tyson Wengler, Steve Firchow, Jonathan D. Smith, Richard Isanove
letterer: Dennis Heisler

Blogger's note: Entry for Thursday, April 17, 2008.

Weirdest. Crossover. Ever.

I'd heard of Star Trek/X-Men, but until I found it in a fifty cent bin, I didn't believe it. Having read it, I think it's definitely worth more than a measly fifty cents. This issue is a piece of '90s treasure, and proof that, even in comics' arguably darkest era, good old fashioned camp still had a place. This kind of material has value, perhaps not monetarily, but by way of morale. It evokes that wondrous "What the --?" factor that folks must have experienced when they first encountered the likes of Marvel's mainstays in the early '60s, the ones we now take for granted. Come on, how did the American general public react when they first saw the Fantastic Four's ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing? What did comics markets overseas think when they saw that orange mound of rough-talkin' rocky heroism come from our imagination? (Well, really, it was Stan Lee's under the pressure of his publisher wanting to compete with DC's Justice League, but you see what I mean?! Capitalism, baby!) It's pure double-take, something the embittered masses of '90s comic book readers needed -- and perhaps need again today.

So, when both classic Star Trek and X-Men fans saw this peculiar team-up, you know they must've beheld it with some skepticism. Heck, after reading it, they probably still beheld it with some skepticism: "Did I really just read this? Did I really just kind of like it?" Yes, no matter what anyone blogs, you can't help but secretly like Star Trek/X-Men, even just a little bit. The moment writer and reader seem to mutually realize that both teams have a doctor named McCoy is the moment they both realize that perhaps the Marvel and Star Trek universes can be one in the same, with the Beast an odd but intelligently natural ancestor of the one belovedly dubbed "Bones." Indeed, whether or not the two teams are from alternate realities, different dimensions, or just plain different points on the same timeline remains intentionally unclear.

What is solid is the highly fan-fic-like Wolverine/Spock confrontation, as anticipated as it is quick, with Spock pulling out the old Vulcan nerve pinch, then using a bit of logic to talk himself out of any further tusslin'. (How he managed to implement the pinch past Wolvie's massive shoulder pads is anyone's guess, but, hey, those Starfleet folks are used to journeys into the unknown.) Gratefully, we're spared the possibility of a "whole Enterprise crew versus the X-Men" match, as the two crews promptly discover a mutual foe (actually, a combination of two, respective foes, which is even better) and join forces to combat him, er, them, or whatever. The winning blow from the good guys came from a clever combination of constellation class starship technology and mutant power manipulation, revealing how homo sapien superiors might've actually come in handy in Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future. Alas, since few mutants seem to exist in Earth's 24th century, Cyclops and the rest simply take comfort in Kirk and his crew's embrace of otherworldly cultures -- in a moment that seems oddly fable-like, with a transparent moral like from the end of an old G.I. Joe episode. Hey, like I said, this issue is all about morale, and the realization that some comics are willing to go where others have not gone before.

I won't ruin this optimistic review by talking about this issue's art. Look at the credits listed above. Did they really need that many people working on this issue? Apparently, yes, and while their styles are so indistinct, revealing the monotony of many '90s trends, visually Star Trek/X-Men, as Scotty would put it, "was barely holding it t'gether, Captain!" The caricatures of the Star Trek cast were inconsistent, compensated for by extreme melodrama, and their scale with the X-Men made me wonder if holographic rations are really good for human growth and evolution. Still, all of these characters are giants of pop culture, transcendent of any one writer's or artist's interpretation, and I'll leave it at that.

Isn't it obvious? This issue had me from "hailing frequencies open, bub." Goes to show, you'll get out of a comic usually what you're willing to put into it -- like any uncharted trek.

WWWednesday: Delayed!

Blogger's note: Because I'm in a mad rush not to get a whole week behind, I'm postponing this week's WWWednesday! Expect two reviews of the web's finest comics next Wednesday, April 23 (which, based on this posting's date, is actually this coming Wednesday -- just go with the flow, people)!

The Intimates #1

The Intimates #1, January 2005, Wildstorm Productions
writer: Joe Casey
artists: Giuseppe Camuncoli, Jim Lee, & Sandra Hope
colorist: Randy Mayor
letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft's Rob Steen
editor: Ben Abernathy

Blogger's note: Entry for Tuesday, April 15, 2008.

High school is the only four-year period of your life that absolutely rules you forever. You vividly remember every success and failure from high school as if they happened yesterday, whether you care to admit it or not. You'll never love your husband or wife now as passionately as you loved your prom date then, unless your husband or wife was your prom date, in which case now you wish you went with someone else. You'll spend the rest of your life either running from or back to those four (or more, depending) most formidable years, but you'll never get there, either way. Why else do we have high school reunions? What else in our lives warrants a reunion? Elementary school and college usually doesn't elicit the need to reunite. Old jobs? No way. See, high school is to our lives what 1955 is to Back to the Future -- somehow, you'll always end up there.

Enter The Intimates, high school for superheroes. Yes, the idea has been done before in Stan Lee's original X-Men, what with Professor Xavier and his school for gifted youngsters, but The Intimates takes that sliver of the X-Men mythology and expands into a series all its own, emphasizing the teacher/student dynamic, and exploiting the adolescent angst. Also, these kids aren't outcasts like Professor X's mutant apprentices, instead they're more like Avengers in training. They know their lives will be dedicated to selfless heroism, so, like most "youngsters," they're taking advantage of these high school years to indulge themselves. Didn't you?

The opening scene of this first issue is what inspired my parallel to high school, as writer Joe Casey presents the reader a proverbial Breakfast Club of young superheroes, from the jock to the wiseguy, from the brain to the snob, to the goth girl so shunned that she is, literally, invisible. These characters fit and maintain their molds pretty steadily throughout the issue, and Casey is careful to exploit their relationships without blowing his wad in this inaugural chapter, leaving plenty of potential for the rest of this series. Interestingly, while the professors in this superhero seminary should be superb role models, presumably having once set a high moral standard for society as a successful do-gooder, the teachers are the most comedic characters of all, including a Sgt. Slaughter type coach that steals the show (in my opinion). Under the obvious art direction of Jim Lee, Giuseppe Camuncoli pulls off the impossible and makes the high school experience uniquely dramatic, unlike countless 'tween television dramas that . . . oh, you know what I mean.

Of course, we are experiencing this brand of "heroic high school" vicariously, which makes the experience less guilt-ridden and more pleasurable. Yes, we've all wondered what high school would've been like if we had superpowers -- Haven't we? The opportunities to impress the chicks, get revenge on the bullies . . . but, don't forget, they'd have superpowers, too. What use would invisibility have against the tough guy with X-ray eyes? How could an insecure pencilneck impress a psychic girl when she can see past his optic beams right into his quirky neuroses? Perhaps some things are best left in the funnypages.

The most unique aspect of The Intimates is its tickertape caption at the bottom of every page, sometimes offering insight into the background of this little universe, sometimes distracting us with chuckle-worthy irrelevant factoids. It's as if Casey understands the attention deficit disorder high school elicits and is responding with the very notes we might doodle ourselves in the margins of our notebooks.

Speaking of writing things in the margins, the thought just now occurs to me. Dig up that old high school yearbook. The class pictures, the montages . . . Doesn't it look like a photographic comic book? Ah, yes, high school -- reality's own infinite crisis.

Batman: Death Mask #1

Batman: Death Mask #1, June 2008, DC Comics
writer/artist: Yoshinori Natsume
cover colorist: Jonny Rench
letterer: Rob Leigh

Blogger's note: Entry for Monday, April 14, 2008.

I received an e-mail from Allan Cypes, Media Manager for Harvey Dent's District Attorney campaign in Gotham City, last Sunday. I was too late to view Mr. Dent's live press conference on his website,, but I imagine that the candidate was quick to respond to recent allegations of corruption and malice. He seems like a very proactive politician, not one that would leave his political career up to, say, the flip of a coin.

Yes, the viral marketing campaign for this summer's The Dark Knight has been innovative, entertaining, and interactive, from the Joker's gang recruitment to Harvey Dent's run for D.A., which, though a deter to respect Heath Ledger's untimely passing in light of the marketing's Joker-heavy imagery, is a sly parallel with the real world's current controversy-ridden American Presidential election. As with any year Batman makes his way to the big screen, Warner Brothers is making the usual multi-media, cross-franchising rounds, from this pre-release Internet presence, to a new DVD anime Batman film and proposed The Brave and the Bold Cartoon Network series, to this, Batman: Death Mask, a continuity-free manga comic book adventure readers of all ages can enjoy. Yes, the manga/anime niche seems to be the way to go to assert Batman's approachability and relevance, considering how mainstream Japanese-inspired entertainment has become.

I don't want to say that I've been resistant to this insurgence of manga and anime in the Western world; indeed, comic book stores now have as much manga as anything else, thanks to the sheer volume of material available. Therein lies my point -- I'm intimidated by the medium. (I was going to call it a "genre," but surely manga is a medium in itself just as a traditional "comic book" differs from a "graphic novel" in the scope it conveys its content, or mediates, to the reader.) I wouldn't know where to begin! I assume that manga and anime have their own sub-genres, just like comics. So, while some fanboys would insist that The Dark Knight Returns or The Watcnmen are the best starters for newbies (if only to prove that those caped types are all camp and can be sophisticated, too), those less dedicated to the superhero shtick might suggest Strangers in Paradise or Preacher. Does manga have its own equivalents? Is there a Manga for Dummies or Anime 101 course I can take?

I thought that Batman: Death Mask would be my bridge. I was sadly mistaken. I have problems with this issue on both a technical and creative level, and while neither facet actually consumes me enough to completely dislike this inaugural issue, that both co-exist is cumulatively bothersome. First of all, Death Mask retains the traditional manga right-to-left format, but it also retains the traditional American comic book size, which, in my opinion, is an unfair compromise. If DC sought to publish a fresh manga Batman story, I would have preferred the complete experience, specifically a digest-sized manga volume. This might have meant including the entire story arc in a single offering, since a twenty-two page single's worth of content would make for a very thin digest, but if you're going to go manga, go manga. As this issue stands, I will file it with my other, regular Batman comics. If it were truly manga-sized, it would most likely end up on a bookshelf, where I might revisit it more often.

Remember, this is the size kids like -- the kind of thing they can put in the front pocket of their backpacks (where mom, dad, or their teacher might not suspect to look for a "funnybook") or roll up into their back pants pocket. It's portable, relevant, and more suitable for their little hands -- I'm serious.

So, since I felt a bit of a disconnect with this issue's format, I thought I'd find some solace in its story . . . for naught. Unfortunately, Death Mask is one of the least original Batman stories I've read in a long time. Oh, visually it's beautiful; Yoshinori Natusme is a very accomplished comic book artist and successfully combines iconic stature with fluid motion and character expression, which is what most folks like about manga, myself included. No, it was the plot was just too vapid for me, a veritable piecemeal of concepts we've seen in plenty of Batman comics already. Here's this first issue's summary: As our hero wonders which is his true identity, Batman or Bruce Wayne, a rash of gruesome murders plagues Gotham City, and when Wayne Industries' latest negotiations with a visiting Japanese corporation culminates in a cultural exhibit of masks, Bruce is confronted with a mysterious woman from his years of training and a dark version of his vigilante self. When you put it that way, Batman fans should realize, we've seen it all before.

If you need tangible examples, this is what readily comes to mind: Death Mask is Shaman (from Legends of the Dark Knight #1-5) meets Darwyn Cooke's Batman: Ego, with the potential for a Year Two or Mask of the Phantasm connection if this woman from Bruce's past becomes a significant player in the mystery.

Still, the first few pages of this issue betray this series' real intent: to show the world what a manga Batman adventure looks like, and probably to prime the audience for this summer's Gotham Knight anime DVD release. Those first few pages recapture the Waynes' murder and boast a two-page spread of Bats' most classic villains, and, really, the whole issue could've ended right there. Of course, I'm going to pick up issue #2, in the hopes that I'll be proven wrong -- in the hopes that I'll find something new. Like I said, I'm not resistant to manga, but instead I'm merely intimidated . . . especially now, as I begin to think that the sheer mass of material available might just regurgitate the same thing over and over . . .

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mega Man #3

Mega Man #3, November 2003, Dreamwave Productions
writer: Brian Augustyn
artist: Mic Fong
backgrounds: Pak Lok & Ching
colorists: Stuart Ng & Susan Luo
letterer: Paul Villafuerte

Blogger's Note: Entry for Sunday, April 13, 2008.

Mega Man was the first video game that ever made me forsake the open air of a beautiful summer day and shut myself up indoors to fiddle my thumbs over a handheld controller and mutate my eyes into the radiated pools of barely functioning optical sensors that they are today. Actually, I take that back. Berserk for my Atari 2600 was the first, and though I haven’t researched it on-line, I’m certain that Berserk was a game that had no end. Like the robotic apocalypse itself, Berserk was a perpetual onslaught of 8-bit eternal adventure -- during which the only hope was a deceptively dangerous bouncing happy face. No, Mega Man was the first multi-level “boss”-driven video game that captured my attention, complete with transitional story sequences and a subconscious sense of fledgling identity founded on overwhelming daddy issues. What adolescent child of a single mom wouldn’t dig it?

So, I picked up Dreamwave’s Mega Man #3 with both enthusiasm and caution. See, as much as I fondly remember “the Blue Bomber,” I haven’t indulged in his latest incarnations, thanks in large part to my impatience for and inability to operate today’s newfangled gaming systems, and frankly I was afraid that reading this issue would have been like watching somebody play a current Mega Man over his shoulder. In other words, I was afraid that it would be confusing, and even if I got a turn I wouldn’t know what I was doing. Fortunately, this issue boasts fluid, linear storytelling and crisp, manga-inspired art, so while it boasts a very definitive genre, it isn’t mired in continuity (yet) to forsake old school fans looking for a graphic Mega Man fix. It’s a comic book first, then a video game adaptation. Thank goodness.

This issue’s inside front cover “previously” blurb must have been a misprint, because, rather than explain what had happened in the first issues, it summarized the story to follow. I guess I didn’t mind -- it was like an instruction manual for this different kind of interactive experience. (The arcade game design was much appreciated, too.) In this version, Mega Man is in high school, and after an intense battle with Multiple Man, his highly anticipated night at the dance is interrupted by some boom box bot that may or may not be from a Mega Man game I haven’t played yet. Unfortunately, the attack was a distraction, as the Blue Bomber discovers when he goes home, and Dr. Light is gone. It’s actually very much the Splinter-is-kidnapped moment from the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arc (a series also adapted by Dreamwave at one point), and the emotional connection elevates Mega Man’s plight from multi-level cosmic adventure to multi-dimensional personal quest.

Interestingly, though Mega Man’s purpose has always been to conquer Dr. Wiley’s evil “men,” becoming a man is this little hero’s greatest challenge. Like all of us, the ultimate boss at the game is Who-Will-I-Be Man. Yeah, and you though Shadow Man was tough. Fortunately, if I remember correctly, the greater the villain, the greater reward.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink #0

Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink #0, June 2004, Dork Storm Press
by John Kovalic and Christopher Jones

Blogger's note: Entry for Saturday, April 12, 2008.

If superheroes truly dwelt among us, I believe they would all share one mutual, deadly foe -- one bald, wealthy man that has managed to secure public affection via a false philanthropic persona yet secretly contribute to the downfall of society's elite, thus, society itself. No, I'm not talking about Lex Luthor -- I said if superheroes dwelt among us, not their archnemeses. No, the man I'm talking about if more nefarious than any evil enemy fiction can create.

I'm talking about Dr. Phil.

In recent months, Dr. Phil has meddled in some of America's most prominent headlines, from the Britney Spears debacle to the most recent "epidemic" of teen girl beatings. (If you haven't heard, Dr. Phil paid the bail for one of the bullies in the hopes of landing her for his show. When the news of his, uhm, helpfulness hit watchdog websites like TMZ, Dr. Phil quickly retracted his intentions.

So, you can only imagine how Dr. Phil would react if the superheroes we know and loved actually existed. Would he speak out against rampant sidekick-ism? Would he comment upon why female superheroes seem to save the day only three-fourths of the times male superheroes do? When Batman goes undercover in Arkham Asylum, would Dr. Phil blow his cover and try to spring him in the hopes of having the Dark Knight on his show? Yes, the possibilities are endless . . .

Fortunately, we don't really have to imagine it anymore. John Kovalic and Christopher Jones have already explored the possibilities with Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink. This #0 issue introduces Dr. Blink, a struggling psychologist that was reduced to shrinking pets before a superhero battle smashed through his office and gave him an epiphany: Superheroes are people, too! They must have problems! His book on the subject elevated him to best author status and in turn opened the floodgates for more superheroes knocking down his door -- but, this time, they want his help. Featuring the likes of "Captain Omnipotent," "Nocturne," and "Speed Freak," Dr. Blink essentially explores the potential for emotional instability that must come with anonymously fighting crime, often with hilarious, sometime pratfallish results.

Unfortunately, considering the relatively short time I've decided to indulge myself a different comic book every day, I’ve become tired of these frequent satiric imitators, which is no fault of Kovalic and Jones, especially since their concept is a natural extension of the superhero genre’s integration into mainstream society and pop culture. We've become a nation of pop psychologists, diagnosing problems based on the snippets of the science we've actually experienced, either via our own time on the couch or through the likes of celebrities like Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew. (I don't know about you, but any doctor that prefers you follow his official title with his first name can't be the real deal. Dr. Strange has more credibility. At least that's really his last name.) At this point in such satirical works, the real creativity comes from renaming the characters we've known for years -- "Captain Omnipotent," for example, is a pretty decent moniker, or at least more inventive than Astonishman in The End League. Isn't the End League’s Batman simply named "Black?" Makes you wonder where his sidekick is: Grayscale.

Fortunately, Kovalic and Jones present a decent enough product to overlook just how close to the line of plagiarism it treads. Kovalic's writing style is well-paced, and he doesn't dwell on any one gag for too long, which is a good thing. Jones' art boasts heavy Bruce Timm influences, which may be what he thought was best for such an exaggerated interpretation of pre-existing characters, but some panels betray a fledgling sense of individuality that may rear its head again in future issues. Fortunately, both writer and artist understand that the characters must come first, so while plenty of psychobabble makes the page, its pure comedy fodder for the development of Dr. Blink as a straight man with real motivation in a world of outrageously powered nutcases.

Hey, we fanboys can relate. We have plenty of issues.

Monday, April 14, 2008

World’s Finest #279

World’s Finest #279, May 1982, DC Comics
writers: Keith Pollard, Joey Cavalieri, Bob Rozakis, E. Nelson Bridwell
artists: Keith Pollard, Mike DeCarlo, Trevor Von Eeden, Larry Mahlstedt, Alex Savuik, Frank Chiaramonte, Don Newton
letterers: John Costanza, Adam Kubert, Phil Felix, Milt Snapinn
colorists: Gene D’Angelo, Tony Zuiko, Jerry Serpe, Adrienne Roy
editor: Mike W. Barr

Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, April 11, 2008.

If I’d been born ten years earlier, I’m convinced that World’s Finest would’ve been my favorite comic book series. If I remember correctly, it was on a sunny summer morning and I was eleven years old when I first began taking comics seriously -- as a habitual lifestyle rather than a casual hobby -- so, had I been born in ’69 instead of ’79, I would’ve encountered World’s Finest #279 very early into my collecting career. Think about it: four stories starring five of DC’s stable superheroes, only for a dollar. (Of course, I say only for a dollar now, recognizing the fortune a buck would’ve been to a kid in ’82. Still, when I started collecting in the early ‘90s, regular thirty-pagers cost a dollar and usually only featured one story, and managed to find the 100 cents then. What would I have scrounged together for a monthly anthology? Ah, but I digress . . .)

The best part of World’s Finest is its characters’ campy camaraderie. Consider the first page, which shows Batman training Superman in hand-to-hand combat. When a crime alarm interrupts their session and Supes asks to tag along, Batman replies, “Superman, old buddy, I was hoping you’d join me!” Now, I understand that these corny colloquialisms are what inspired Frank Miller to take the world’s finest heroes’ relationship in a different direction, but I don’t see the harm in maintaining this light-hearted fare, particularly since the divisiveness of Miller’s Dark Knight continuity is arguably responsible for the dark state of DC’s current direction. (Seriously, if headliners like Superman and Batman always got along, would writers even consider subversive tactics by the likes of second-stringers like Zatanna? Or, since mind-wiping really is as old school as Bats calling Supes “buddy,” would the Justice League even throw a fit over it?) Incidentally, the newly organized “Army of Crime,” boasting a roster of villains with inherent ranks like Major Disaster and Captain Cutlass, have been abducted Gotham’s elite so Bruce Wayne and his spit-curled bodyguard go undercover to crack the kidnapping ring. You see, that’s friendship.

Speaking of mind-wiping, in this issue’s second story, Green Arrow tackles a religious cult that has brainwashed his friend’s daughter. The Emerald Archer first confronts the zealots on the street, but when Ollie Queen decides to take them on legitimately, he discovers that the counter-group he befriends is actually a front to weed out the cult’s enemies. This tale has interesting roots in current events, as authorities attempt to sift through the facts surrounding pedophilic polygamist cults in Texas and Arizona, and while I don’t find Cavalieri’s script as socially demanding as Denny O’Neil’s take on the character, the consistency of civil consciousness is an appreciated thematic vein that runs through this era of Green Arrow’s history. (When the mess with Connor Hawke is finally cleared, an Arrow/Black Canary sojourn across America would be fantastic, considering our country’s current challenges. You listening, Winick?) I mean, I know it’s rude to point, but that’s basically Green Arrow’s super-power. Only fitting that he points that thing toward the folks that really need to hear the point.

(Still, this social servitude is Arrow’s only real distinction at this point in his evolution. Think about it -- he works at the Daily Star, and he has an Arrow-cave, an Arrow-mobile, etc. He even comments on his new lock-pick, “It may be arrow-shaped, but at least that’s all it is . . . Batman probably named his the Batpick, or the Bat-lock-debolter . . .” Considering these two vices, Ollie is the world’s finest all rolled into one!)

Hawkman’s adventure this issue is a swash-buckling space romp, as his search for Shayera lands him in the crosshairs of alien pirates! He almost takes the foursome out single-handedly, but they trick him with a projection of his beloved Hawkgirl -- dastardly fiends! The Marvel Family’s story is a little more grounded, as Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, and Captain Marvel, Jr. deal with an old man determined to live as long as possible. In fact, he has attached a device to his cardiac and respiratory functions, so that if either fail, respective missiles are launched either into the atmosphere or into the very Earth’s core. Of course, the speed of Mercury and the wisdom of Solomon help the Marvel men thrust these WMDs on a collision course in space, while Mary actually saves the old codger with CPR -- oh, and a visit from Asklepios, the Greek god of healing. Yes, writer E. Nelson Bridwell manages to convert a Golden Age Captain Marvel, Jr. classic starring Sherlock Holmes into a mystery about the varied appearances of “impossible people,” culminating in a guest spot from Kid Eternity. Although this twist seems mired in a little (undoubtedly retconned by now) continuity, I appreciated the mention of that old campy yarn. It reminded me of what Morrison’s trying to do in Batman right now.

Yes, it is possible to make the old seem new again. It is possible to make an embittered old geek like me feel like it was his first day of collecting comics all over again. It actually isn’t that hard, which is probably why many of DC’s and Marvel’s attempts at “innovative,” well marketing storylines seem so labored nowadays. They aren’t called the world’s finest for nothing . . . if only we on this side of the printed product weren’t the only ones to remember that.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pop Life #2

Pop Life #2, March 1999, Fantagraphics Books
by Ho Che Anderson & Wilfred Santiago

Blogger's note: Entry for Thursday, April 10, 2008.

I picked up a few issues of Pop Life a few months ago at the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, and while I don't regret the decision I wonder if these issues are appropriate for the A Comic A Day challenge. For several personal reasons, I've made a conscious effort to keep the material I review all-ages appropriate, and though He Che Anderson's writing boasts many universal themes, his stories strike me as sexually charged and definitively adult. There's nothing wrong with that. Pop Life is an obvious and tender labor of love, by an adult for fellow adults, but I simply feel compelled to note its uniqueness in the context of the hundreds of comic books I've reviewed over these past few years. Yes, it certainly pops.

And what is it about? Well, I'm having a difficult time with that one, too. Granted, I read issues #2 and #5, which are vastly distinct in both design and content, but both feature an array of uniquely crafted, introspective stories, which either explore the realms of music, sexuality, social inadequacy, or all three. Consider the lead story in issue #2, which features Danny and his band trying to score a suitable practice space. Unfortunately, their respective homes just can't cut it, considering the protests of their significant others. In the meantime, Danny spends the day hooking up with his wife and his mistress, and chatting with his mom. I'd imagine it the real life of a struggling musician -- the one most of us envy. The following tale, "Miles From Home," is the continuing exploration of a young woman's newfound independence, though in this second chapter, Mo is struggling a bit with loneliness and a sense of impending responsibility. It's a slow bit interesting yarn with a particularly sympathetic scene in a coffee shop, in which one of the kindly townsfolk tries to spark up a conversation with Mo. The sequence reveals that, as much as she wants to find a place in the world, she needs times to herself, as well, and the two hopes aren't necessarily getting along. Dichotomy reigns supreme in Pop Life.

From what I can tell of this issue's design and themes, Anderson with artist Santiago sought to established a "mixed tape" feel to this work, as if the various stories each represented a different track on the same homemade album. Their art styles are vastly different but remarkably cohesive in this series -- Santiago has a confident brushstroke, while Anderson incorporates photography and creates a really textured reading experience. I liked the monotone of "Miles From Home," as it turned a relatively down to earth urban allegory into a vibrant pop art experience. Again, the artists' love for the work exudes from the page.

Which makes issue #5 a bittersweet read, as it's unexpectedly their last. Still, Anderson has experienced quite a bit of success since Pop Life, with his biographical King the recipient of rave reviews. Goes to show where having a dream can really get you -- something someone at any age can easily understand.

WWWednesday: Bee Power

WWWednesday: Bee Power
by K.C. Green

With Free Comic Book Day right around the corner, I remembered past Keenspot anthology compilations I've acquired on a few of those frugal funnybook festivals and finally decided to look up the webcomics compendium. I quickly selected Bee Power for its potential Mr. Toast quality, and I was not disappointed in its absurd surrealism. For the past five years, K. C. Green has commented on life's quirkiest characteristics, beginning with squiggly talk heads on notebook paper to fully colored sequential allegories. Indeed, his webcomics career (if indeed it began with Bee Power) mimics the margins of every high school nerds' notebooks across America. The question is, does he have the sense of humor to match? Two words: "Dog bong." I'm not sure where the bees come in, but if you're in the mood to let the darkest parts of your inner adolescent chuckle, nothing comes sweeter than Bee Power.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Loaded Bible 2: Blood of Christ

Loaded Bible 2: Blood of Christ, May 2007, Image Comics
writer: Tim Seeley
penciller: Mike Norton
finisher: Mark Englert
colorist: Rex Justice
letterer: Brian Crowley

Frankly, I don't know why we don't see Jesus in comics more often.

Never mind that he may be the redeemer of all mankind. Consider Jesus simply as the star of the best selling book of all time. Consider what he, as a hero in the context of his story, is capable of: transforming matter, healing illness, conquering death, just to name a few. Why aren't more writers drawn to this potential? Why hasn't Jesus joined the likes of Frankenstein and Bigfoot as one of the most frequently used icons of mystery in all of comics?

The three have enough in common. Jesus and Frankenstein have both conquered death, and Jesus and Bigfoot are often "seen" by delusional mid-westerners, if not in the forest, than on a tortilla.

Well, Loaded Bible still doesn't technically star Jesus, but rather his clone, who endures a Bourne-like quest for his identity in the midst of an apocalyptic invasion of vampires. Walking on water, no problem, but holding his own against a blood-thirsty army growing their own purebreds Blade II-style? No so much. Still, Christ's sympathy for his fellow man is his greatest power, as he temporary cares for a vampire infant despite its status as atrocity-to-all-that-is-holy.

Norton and Englert's artwork is what propels this issue to greatness, as their crisp renditions of Jesus, vampires, and all things Vatican conspiracy make even the slowest talking head sequences compelling. A conspiracy brews behind the scenes of this perpetual battle, and with cowboy-like bounty hunters in the mix, Loaded Bible's next book is sure to rival a certain revelation of the apostle John.

This is why Jesus should be in comics more. He knows how to bring the pain! It's almost like he lives for it . . .

Monday, April 07, 2008

Noah's Ark

Noah's Ark, 1975, Spire Comics
by Al Hartley

They say April showers bring May flowers, so I can't think of a better month to review a comic book adaptation of the story of Noah's Ark. Interestingly, Al Hartley's take on this Biblical tale places Noah and his family in an inexplicably contemporary context -- well, as contemporary as 1975, anyway. With the exception of this modern imagery, the pacing and play-out of this issue's plot is familiar to anyone that has spent any time in Sunday school; Noah builds an ark, is mocked by his neighbors, gathers two of every animal, and watches them drown as God cleanses the Earth with forty days and nights of rain. I'm assuming the contemporary context is a mere feeble avoidance of drawing these characters in the ragtag wardrobe of Old Testament times, to make the tale more approachable to youth. Such vivid imagery certainly could be enough, as Hartley is obviously a very capable cartoonist. His pages are colorful and expressive, to be sure, but by the middle of this issue, every other sentence out of Noah's mouth amounts to "Shut up, guys, God knows what He's doing." As much as this may be true, the repetition became counterproductive, and if I was a younger reader, might even strike me as boring. Therein lies the ultimate challenge when adapting any material of a faith-based nature; as much you want to convey your message, you want to tell an entertaining story, lest you lose the audience before your point is fully realized. Heck, Jesus himself understood this, since his sermons were rife with imaginative imagery to maintain the attention of his audience. Otherwise, he would've drowned the crowd with his message like, well, forty days and nights of rain.

Will this Noah's Ark make a believer out of you? If you want to know my religious convictions about the whole thing, feel free to e-mail me. (Hint: Read Preacher.) Above all else, this issue maintained my faith in comics, which was the only reason I picked it up. The medium is really capable of preserving any message, like an ark in itself. Hallelujah!

Supplemental: Irony -- this issue's cover price? In fact, the original cover price of all of Spire's "Kiddies Christian Comics?" 69 cents. Hilarious!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Mighty Thor #138

The Mighty Thor #138, March 1967, Marvel Comics
writer: Stan Lee
penciller: Jack Kirby
inker: Vince Colletta
letterer: Artie Simek

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: when you review a different comic book every day, sometimes the stars align and offer an uncanny insight into the medium's undeniable synchronicities. Consider The Mighty Thor #138 and The Last of the Viking Heroes #5. I found both issues in the same dusty old box in an antique store in Pomona, California. Both issues feature the work of Jack Kirby in some way or another, and both star Norse warriors. Most specifically, both issues feature a villain using a damsel in distress to bait the ever-suffering hero, so much so that I'm now wondering if Michael Thibodeaux was inspired by this titanic tale by Stan "the Man" Lee. By Odin's beard, indeed!

Yes, in The Mighty Thor #138, the god of thunder must rescue the goddess Suf from Ulik, "deadliest and most powerful of all the trolls!" While Thor and Ulik rumble in the streets, the troll king Gierrordur summons the power of the demonic Orikal to strengthen his forces against Asgard, where Odin himself must take up arms for battle. This issue's cliffhanger is incredibly perilous, as all seems lost on the Asgardian front, and, what's worse, Thor has lost his hammer and will resume his human form any second! Fortunately, an adventurous back-up story lightens the mood, as Thor, Fandral, and Hogun battle Ogur, the one-eyed guardian of the cave of Wazir, the Prophet, whom our heroes seek to learn the location of the Mystic Mountain. This issue is a Marvel masterpiece, plain and simple, boasting Stan Lee's consonant-cornering creature creations, Jack Kirby and Vince Colletta's dynamic drawings, and Marvel Comic's frivolous faithfulness to its frantic fanbase. 'Nuff said.

(Why even bother running a spell check on this review, I wonder.)

Reading and reviewing this issue reminds me an anecdote I've been meaning to share for a few months now. Several weeks ago, I attended a comic book convention in Yorba Linda, California, a small affair with an emphasis on retailers selling Golden through Bronze Age back issues. I found a few tattered "reading copies" of World's Finest, Justice League, and some other strange titles, but more importantly I wore a Mighty Thor T-shirt I'd purchased from Steve & Barry's, an excellent source for such inexpensive geek wear. While I was flipping through a back issue bin, an older gentleman approached me and asked, "So, what do you think about Thor coming back?" Now, I know he was referring to Thor's recent resurrection and the new title written by J. Michael Straczynski, but that's it, so I sheepishly answered, "Oh, I don't read Thor, so I don't really know . . ."

"I see," the guy responded flatly. "You just wear the shirt." He promptly turned heel and walked away.

I wanted to call out, "Wait a minute, Sir! I've been reading comics for over fifteen years! I just haven't gotten around to Thor yet! Please! I read and review a different comic a day! I'm not a poser . . .!"

I thought wearing a Kirby-drawn Thor shirt was solidarity enough. I was wrong. Hopefully this weekend's immersion in Nordic mythology begins to make up for it. Maybe someday I'll finally become a real fan, based on that critical gentleman's judgment. He certainly dropped the gavel and rendered a hasty verdict, 'tis for sure. Zounds, hath the hammer of Thor no mercy for e'en the lowliest of mortals?!

The Last of the Viking Heroes #5

The Last of the Viking Heroes #5, June 1988, Genesis West Comics
by Michael Thibodeaux with Mike Royer, Trisha French, Linda Yamasaki, Joe Sinnot, and Palle Jensen

Blogger’s note: Entry for Saturday, April 5, 2008.

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been playing catch-up this week. Last weekend, I became surprisingly and pleasantly distracted by the unexpected reunion of my favorite punk band Face to Face, and I attended their first show in four years last Thursday night. (Feel free to check out my comic strip leading up to the concert here.) I’d never been to Pomona, California’s Glass House before, and before the show I wandered its surrounding Antique District a bit, and since the shops were already closed for the night I was determined to return and search for fanboy treasure. Sure enough, I dragged my girlfriend back there this very weekend and found a few old comics worth buying and reviewing. The Last of the Viking Heroes #5 is foremost among them.

Honestly, I purchased The Last of the Viking Heroes #5 for its cover alone. Its interior could’ve stunk to high heaven (it didn’t, but we’ll get to that in a minute) and I still would’ve been completely satisfied sinking a measly dollar into this issue, namely because of its cover’s collaborative effort. Five words: Jack Kirby and Dave Stevens. ‘Nuff said, right? It looks like Stevens inks Kirby’s pencils for this issue’s dramatic cover, starring some Vikings (duh) mourning the death of their warrior prince, and, man, is it classic comic book goodness. The traditional Kirby characteristics are present and accounted for, from the square-jawed faces to the round, bubbly muscles to that squiggly-line fore-shading, but Stevens’ inks help it all pop more than usual, with a reverence for both the style and genre they represent. Greg Theakston’s colors bring the piece home with a royal brilliance, heavy on the blues and purples. The more I look at this thing, the more I’m glad it’s a part of my collection.

Fortunately, Michael Thibodeaux’s story lives up to its cover’s hype, which is probably why esteemed artists like Kirby and Stevens decided to contribute in the first place. (An ad later in this issue reveals that Arthur Adams crafts an alternate cover to #7. Great company!) Basically, this issue tragically continues the tale of Prince Sven’s attempt to save his beloved Embla from the demonic Marik, and despite his orders to the contrary his three loyal friends follow close behind to help. When Sven finds Marik, he’s tricked into gruesomely severing his left hand so that one of Marik’s men could mystically inhabit his body, and though Sven’s friends arrive and vanquish their foes, they’re sadly too late to save their prince. Thibodeaux’s storytelling style is truly merciless, yet he balances the violent subtexts of this issue’s events with humorously campy divergences, perhaps in an attempt to explore the duality of Vikings’ harshness and hubris.

In one particular sequence, Tomgar, the brute of the bunch, forbids Jon the Magician from using his “powers” to fight their enemies, despite the fact that Jon is really getting his butt kicked. “You’re going to learn to fight if it kills you!” he commands. Such dialogue reminded me of the candor in Iron Jaw, a delicious exercise in unadulterated old world masculinity. Here, when Tomgar finally secedes, the sage’s skills ironically amount to smashing a smoke bomb and hitting his attacker in the head from behind. This comedic scene precedes the horrible revelation of Sven’s death and adds a moment of well-deserved levity in the midst of battle. Thibodeaux widely builds the reader up only to let him down, making the tragedy of these warriors’ loss all the more palpable.

His art is a bit less consistent, though at its best is certainly a joy to behold. The inking might have something to do with it, as Thibodeaux shares credit with Mike Royer and Joe Sinnott, and who does what is really kind of vague here. Still, The Last of the Viking Heroes #5 is a well paced issue with fluid, brutal, action-packed adventure and suspense, and every panel seems to offer something by way of mood or character to contribute to the greatness of the whole. I was afraid this issue would suffer from some Prince Valiant-style blandness, but I was sorely and gratefully mistaken.

I don’t think The Last of the Viking Heroes #5 will be the last I see of this series. Kirby, Stevens, Ditko (according to his letter on the letters page!) and a slew of other artists seemed to dig it, so I guess I’ll have to dig for it, like the buried treasure it seems to be. Like a favorite band’s reunion, or the patient search for back issues, some things are worth the wait . . . and therefore really never end.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Tale of One Bad Rat #1

The Tale of One Bad Rat #1, October 1994, Dark Horse Comics
by Bryan Talbot
Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, April 4, 2008.
I purchased The Tale of One Bad Rat #1 because of its stark, simple cover, which, I didn't realize at the time, mimics the look of Beatrice Potter's classic collection right down to the font. (Thank you for the observation, Comics Worth Reading.) I hadn't realized plenty of things about The Tale of One Bad Rat #1 before I read it -- namely, that I've been a fool to have waiting this long. The Official Bryan Talbot Fanpage notes that this series is the second most requested graphic novel after Maus, which makes me wonder why I've never heard of it before. For all of the comics that I've read in- and outside of this A Comic A Day challenge, am I still that out of touch with this medium as a whole?
Fortunately, the best comics make sure it's never too late to catch up. Bryan Talbot's Beatrice Potter inspired urban fairy tale about a suicidal, delusional, homeless young woman is as viable today, fourteen years after its original publication, as it was then, when Neil Gaiman described it as "a story of strength and pain and survival." One Bad Rat is definitely a vivid portrayal of homelessness, as Helen, its protagonist, wanders the streets of London, feeding and protecting her pet rat from the cold while fending off seedy offers from street evangelists and recruiting prostitutes. Interestingly, through Helen's paranoia, we the readers perceive these characters in the same light, as potential offenders that strive her exploit her vulnerability. When a band of streetwise ruffians rescue Helen from yet another grabby transgressor, she takes a risk and trusts them enough to board with them, where her peculiar visions and painful memories prevent her from positive social interaction. By the end of this first issue, one wonders if Helen will ever find a place that feels like home.
Well, what can I say about this story that Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore haven't? It's obviously a masterful, insightful piece of graphic storytelling, with narrative skill that matches fluid, expressive illustration. What I appreciated most about One Bad Rat was its ability to capture the determination of adolescence even in the face of abandonment and dire circumstance. Helen's relationship with her rat is reflective of her own need for acceptance, as she undoubtedly projects her own shortcomings onto the supposed grotesqueness of a rat. In this issue's first act, a child reaches to pet Helen's rat until her mother dissuades her in disgust, a physical manifestation for how many of us feel when we encounter a homeless person, whether we admit it or not. The dangers of the world are more apparent to these people -- the spheres of stability that surround us have been stripped away from these people. In many ways, their lives are like fairy tales, but in all the wrong ways. Even the smallest of threats could have some serious consequences.
Which is why it might just take one bad right to survive it.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Har Har Comics #1

Har Har Comics #1, March 1990, Fantagraphics Books
by Mike Kazaleh

Blogger’s note: Entry for Thursday, April 3, 2008.

I decided to follow up on Tuesday’s theme of general hilarity with Har Har Comics #1, yet while Wha . . .Huh? satirized long-established subject matter, Har Har Comics creates its own cartoony characters with a decidedly Looney Tunes motif. Mike Kazaleh’s vignettes starring Hyper Al are the comic strip equivalent of a Bugs Bunny Merry Melody (which, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve just now realized was Warner Brothers’ way of mimicking Disney’s Silly Symphonies, if only in name), though Al’s adventures are more self-depreciating and almost tragic, depending on your sensitivity to comics’ ability to utilize real life as a source terrible humor.

Consider this issue’s lead story, which depicts the monotony of Hyper Al’s day, beginning with the long line he has to endure in his buildings communal bathroom. “Will today be a day unlike all others? I think not . . .,” he tells himself. What he doesn’t know is that a spaceship has arrived and is looking for the perfect Earthen specimen for their zoo. They find Al and abduct him in his sleep, then, in his exhibit, they decide to mimic his native environment. So, when Al wakes up, he finds himself behind cardboard cutouts of his neighbors . . . in the bathroom line. It’s a great visual gag, but it’s also absolutely terrible to relate to. And many of us can.

The recreation of Al’s native environment reminds of a line uttered by Mitch Hedberg in his stand-up, about capturing a frog in a box with a stick and leaf, because “that’s what he’s used to.” I’m sure you can YouTube it.

This issue’s longest story is called, “Hey! Suppose All Our Pets Were Anthropomorphic!” There’s that word again. Longtime A Comic A Day readers know that I pursued anthropomorphic themes last year to coincide with the theatrical release of TMNT, then again this year for Groundhog Day and Easter. For most of those reviews, I couldn’t put my finger on the word I needed to describe that animal-centric genre, but the revelation that Fantagraphics was practically founded on it, what with series like Critters and Usagi Yojimbo, finally jogged the term. This story, about a man simply walking his dog, explores the concept in a highly animated yet completely realistic context. The dog walks and talks like a man, but he still acts like a dog, panting for his master’s attention and whimpering when he doesn’t get it. This little yarn is an excellent exploration of the human/pet dynamic, one that even a cat lover like me can understand.

What sells this issue in its entirety is the consistency of Mike Kazaleh’s artwork. His style varies a bit depending on his strips’ characters or circumstances, but his brushstroke is solid and confident, rife with motion and feeling. These pages could be storyboards for animated features, but in this case the story is complete, from set-up to unmitigated punchline. If a comic book is going to parallel these humdrum aspects of real life, at least it pads those punches with an appreciated kid glove. Otherwise, the joke . . . is on us.

WWWednesday: The Trek Life

WWWednesday: The Trek Life
by David Reddick

"I'm just a Red Shirt in the Star Trek episode of life."

When I read that line, I became a fan of David Reddick's The Trek Life. I've confessed in many previous posts now that I'm a Trekkie, but I must elaborate that I'm a very selective Trekkie. I've yet to embrace Deep Space Nine, and I have't seen every episode of Enterprise yet. While these confessions may seem sacrilegious to my more faithful Trekkie peers, I insist that they make me the better fan. Some facets of the Trek Universe are still unexplored to me! Don't you remember when you watched those episodes or read those books for the first time? I'm still there, man, and since Trek has become a finite franchise for the time being (at least on the air), I'm stretching out the experience for as long as I can.

Similarly, I hadn't read much of The Trek Life before today. I'd read a strip here or there on, but I found many of the strips pandering to the fanbase. I mean, yes, Klingons are perpetually angry and Orion slave girls are perpetually hot, so does that makes them perpetual punchlines? This was my first impression, and I was wrong to jump to such a hasty conclusion. I took the time to read The Trek Life in significant chunks today, and I've developed an appreciation for writer/artist David Reddick's commitment to source material, specifically in regards to its applications to real life. His Trekkie protagonist, Carl, is in some strips a fanboy's Dilbert, balancing his obsessions in the workplace, and in other strips a fanboy's Charlie Brown, suffering from the fair share of hard luck that comes with such a, er, focused lifestyle. Star Trek is really used as the fulcrum for a grander scheme, with a frontier as boundless as space itself.

Hence, my appreciation for that line: "I'm just a Red Shirt in the Star Trek episode of life." While one would have to be a Trekkie to understand Carl's sentiment, a layman could use context clues to determine its oppressed (albeit fatal) undertone, and thus relate to it. The beauty of Trek's more familiar alien races is that each of them represent a facet of humanity, perhaps in a way that Gene Roddenberry sought to exploit in his own fable-oriented way. In one strip, when Carl decides to dress up like a Tribble for Halloween, his purpose is clear: like the Tribbles, his desire is simply to be there, to immerse himself in all that is the Enterprise. Hey, I can relate, buddy. I've been on the bridge of the Enterprise. The chair has power.

But I digress. Ultimately, The Trek Life is a palpable exploration of obsession in its finest form, which is something everyone can relate to whether they admit it or not. For one, it's a Trek life. For another, it's a football life. For me, for today, it's a Trek Life life. Such are the perks of boldly going where I haven't before.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Wha . . . Huh? #1

Wha . . . Huh? #1, 2005, Marvel Comics
writers: Brian Bendis, Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughn, Marc Andreyko, Nick Thompson, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer, & Stan Lee
artist: Jim Mahfood
colorist: Shaughn Struble
letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
associate editor: MacKenzie Cadenhead
editor: C.B. Cebulski
EIC: Joe Quesada
publisher: Dan Buckley

That’s it. What . . . Huh? #1 is the most self-indulgent comic book I’ve ever read, and its shameless sense of self-promotion and indulgence, which takes the concept of “comics contributor celebrity” and elevates the industry’s biggest names to unapologetic divas, has turned me off to the medium altogether. That’s right. I’m finished with comics. This blog is officially over.

Happy April Fools.

After some of the garbage I’ve subjected myself (and consequently, you) to over the past year and three months, did you actually think that a little Marvel mayhem would be responsible for my throwing in the towel? Oh, don’t get me wrong -- I meant what I said in my description of this issue, but fortunately the writers retained just enough self-degradation and satire to keep What . . . Huh? just this side of literary decadence. Actually, it’s Jim Mahfood’s art that sweetens this pill, and he’s the reason I picked up this issue in the first place. Only he could pull off what these writers sought to accomplish. After all, Mahfood’s hip hop sensibilities are already engrained with a sense of self-promotion, so a comic book that stars the very writers that dabble in comic books is the perfect project for him (aside from Image’s Felt, which sucked me into his career in the first place).

Uhm, the thing about reviewing Wha . . . Huh? is, there’s no right way to do it. Imagine every train of thought your favorite contemporary comic book writer has ever had, completely derailed into the ditch of Bronze Age Marvel camp. Most of the issue explores such critical inquiries and subsequent alternate realities as “What if Black Panther were actually white?” and “What if the Avengers all had beards?” and “What if M.O.D.O.K. had an itch?” A few of the concepts are interesting, like “What if the Identity Crisis happened in the Marvel Universe?” in which, midway through, many heroes realize they didn’t know the Thing’s Aunt Petunia that well anyway. The most ambitious gag in the whole ish is “What if Stan Lee was the writer of Ultimate Spider-man?” Spoiler alert: What follows is the beginning of a straight Amazing Fantasy #15 reprint. Great gag, man, and indicative of the lack of originality plaguing many mainstream comics today.

Well, if this blog has proven anything, it’s that I’m in this whole comic book thing for the long haul. My girlfriend can attest to that. In the meantime, if your faith in comics ever wavers, find What . . . Huh? It’ll remind you of everything you love to hate.

You’d be a fool to feel any different.

Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey #1 (volume 3)

Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey #1 (volume 3), November 2000, Dark Horse Comics
by Tony Millionaire
designer: Cary Grazzini
editor: Philip D. Amara
publisher: Mike Richardson

Blogger’s note: Entry for Monday, March 31, 2008.

Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey is another one of those series I wonder if I would’ve ever read if I wasn’t proactively seeking an eclectic batch of comics to read every day. The idea of toys come to life certainly isn’t unappealing; in fact, I reckon every geek has at one time or another fantasized about his little plastic menagerie coming to life at one point or another. Yes, I mean to say every geek in his or her adulthood. Busy schedules and a judgmental society may prevent us from sprawling on the bedroom floor with our action figures, creating hours’ worth of adventurous stories and battles, but those toys still unlock a corner of the imagination that projects the personalities of our favorite icons on to these little plastic incarnations. Remember The Indian and the Cupboard? Toy Story? Even Marvel’s upcoming 1985 threatens to blur the line between those fantasies and our reality.

Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey
appears to be ahead of the game. Its star characters, the Monkey and his buddy Mr. Crow, strike me as the Winnie the Pooh and Piglet for today’s youth, sans the human muse older audiences had in Christopher Robin. No, Sock Monkey and Mr. Crow are capable of pursuing their own adventures, and in this first issue, a trophy-ridden hunter’s house inspires them to acquire and mount some specimens of their own. Because of their diminutive size, they opt to hunt insects and lizards, but they quickly sympathize for the little critters and their tiny community, and together they decide to pick flowers. When Sock Monkey realizes that plants are alive, too, they settle for a rock collection. For an anthropomorphic comic book starring stuffed toys, this first issue (in the character’s third volume, but, still) is an appropriate and sensitive exploration of the quality of life -- not matter how small, not matter how seemingly mundane or insignificant.

Regarding the busybody bugs, here’s a hilarious snippet of dialogue and an excellent example of the reverence of Millionaire’s work as vaudevillian graphic goodness:

LADY MOTH: That Molly Titmouse was flitting around under the bluebells last week with Ed Wasp . . .
LADYBUG: Gracious!
LADY MOTH: . . .and when the woodpecker found out about it, he was so jealous, he pecked his own heart out!
LADYBUG: Tch! These birds and bees!

Wouldn’t it be great if that’s where the expression really came from? From the infamously torrid love affairs of birds with bees?

Sock Monkey encourages these childlike thoughts, not through the lens of immaturity, but with legitimate wonder and an imaginative sense of exploration. Of course, Millioanaire’s artwork makes it easy; his detailed use of crosshatching and shading offers a sense of depth and expressionism that gives these otherwise inanimate objects real personality. The bugs are true to nature’s design, but Millionaire’s expert implementation of gothic, illustrative animation makes their personification as natural and believable as the more humanized animals that have gabbed their way through comics through the years. The way these insects gossip over a tea party, I’m surprised Animal Planet hasn’t considered a pilot for The Desperate Houseflies of Orange County or something.

Wait! No! It’s mine, I say! Miiiine!

Millionaire’s famous strip Maakies makes an appearance in the supplemental art section of this issue, confirming my philosophy with a cameo from Raggedy Ann and Andy. When Mr. Crow inquires about Ann’s perpetual smile, Andy attributes it to mushrooms. Yes, the staples of our childhood can coexist with an adult sense of humor, if the world was more to such a synthesis. Sure, the programs on Adult Swim and similar dark comedy comic strips published in urban progressive newspapers across the country venture into this realm, but it is by no means mainstream. Again, the best of pop culture seems reserved for geeks like us. When will the rest of the world get down with us -- down on the floor, where our Secret Wars Tower of Doom is set up and ready for an all-out action figure war?

Okay, I’ll settle for their reading comics like this. Millionaire’s monkey can really sock it to ‘em.

Addendum: Here's an interesting, somewhat related story regarding the "lives" of stuffed animals. On the same day I posted this review? Coincidence?

Nobody #1

Nobody #1, November 1998, Oni Press
writers: Alex Amado & Sharon Cho
artist: Charlie Adlard
letterer: Sean Konot
editors: Bob Shreck & Jamie S. Rich

Blogger’s note: Entry for Sunday, March 30, 2008.

I was sitting in a local cafĂ© when I wrote Saturday’s review of Superheroes Battle Super-Gorillas #1. I’d ordered a vanilla latte, and the barista (I assume they’re called baristas anywhere they work) told me that the espresso machine needed a few minutes to warm up. A few minutes turned into twenty, and as more customers came in and received their frozen yogurt before I received my order, I wondered if the guy even remembered that I was there. Several times, I was the only customer in the store, and he was in the back, presumably prepping for the day. I stood at the counter a few moments to no avail. I began to wonder if I was even there.

Of course, finally, the guy apologetically whipped up my drink and throughout the rest of my hour-long visit tried to smooth things over by showering me with offers of free samples. I went from feeling like a nobody to feeling like a somebody again.

This example is a rather mundane (albeit recent!), definitely spoiled instance of feeling like a nobody. Thousands, if not millions of similar instances plague our planet every day, ranging from the dull to the dire, and it seems Oni’s Nobody wants to explore them all. Based on this first issue, Nobody is a spy thriller starring a shape-shifter that infiltrates a Satanic sacrifice and stumbles onto a supernatural conspiracy. Yet, based on writer Sharon Cho’s supplemental essay at the end of this inaugural chapter, this series’ concept is much more than that. The Nobody identity adapted by its shape-shifting protagonist is actually a grander exploitation of colloquialisms attached to that anonymous identity. Cho asks, “What is ‘nobody’ wants to die? What if ‘nobody’ can do the impossible? What if you trusted ‘nobody’?”

In short, what if every time you said “nobody this” or “nobody that,” you were actually talking about somebody?

Assuming Nobody explores the bottomless theme of identity confusion, I will proactively pursue it -- I’ve enjoyed this subtext in comics ever since I read Vertigo’s Human Target series a few years ago. (You know, J.M. DeMatteis’ “Shrieking” story arc in Amazing Spider-man was actually my first exposure to the depths comics could explore regarding identity confusion and frustration. “Shrieking” is a dark story, wedged between Aunt May’s eventual death and the Clone Saga, but it’s worth a peak if only for DeMatteis’ exposition and Mark Bagley’s pre-Ultimate take on the ol’ Webhead.) Artist Charlie Adlard’s art is big draw, too (pardon the pun). His balance of thin, finely detailed pen work and stark dark/light contrast truly utilize the black and white format to the fullest, also complementing the suspense and supernaturalism of this issue’s opening sequences.

So, with its fair share of spy intrigue, mysticism, and character introspection, Nobody should have a little something for everybody.