Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blue Beetle Blues

In his recent "The Buy Pile" at Comic Book Resources, Hannibal Tabu comments that the latest issue of Blue Beetle is the penultimate one. While I haven't read the series, its cancellation saddens me for three distinct reasons:

1. As Hannibal explains, the current Blue Beetle, Jaime Reyes, is one of the few "ethnic" heroes offered by one of the major comic book companies, not to mention a Hispanic hero. In a medium where the Latino community is often exploited as "gangstas" for action-oriented fodder, Jaime's potential will be sorely missed.

2. Jaime is the first Blue Beetle to receive so much mainstream exposure! His frequent appearances in Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold (kudos for admitted geek and favorite blogger Wil Wheaton for his performance as Ted Kord last week), and the subsequent action figures, have made the Beetle a household name, relatively speaking! Remember, I work with kids (85% of whom are Hispanic, to boot), and they know who the Blue Beetle is! Of course, this doesn't inspire them to buy his comic at $2.99 a pop . . . not when they can get six bags of Hot Cheetos for just as much.

3. Every time a second-stringer's solo title get cancelled, I remember and lament some of my own favorite B-listers, like Marvel's Cloak and Dagger, or Batman's wayward teen-aged nemesis Anarky (whose recent appearance in Robin seemed to deviate from the character I remember, though I like the new threads . . .). Beetle's thirty-six issues make up a remarkable run for a character of his stature, it seems, especially since his third-generation alter ego is a name unfamiliar to longtime readers. When will DC and Marvel finally exclusively concentrate on their core properties, the ones with mainstream potential and decades' long history? Just kill off everyone else in some crazy cosmic crisis, already -- it's not like you haven't been doing that slowly in the past fifteen years, anyway.

Based on Hannibal's brief review, I've been missing out on a great series. Though I think Jaime will continue his adventures with the Teen Titans, the silver lining is the cancellation of Blue Beetle will inevitably condemn it to the quarter bins, where I can now collect the whole series for less than ten bucks! Take that, Seniors Barnes & Noble, with your graphic novel section!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Keep It Up: An Anti-List for 2009, part 3

This week gave us Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the newly appointed Divorce Day, and of course President Obama's inauguration, and as such is pretty much the last week one can pontificate about what's come before in the wake of an exciting new future, so I have a twofold desire to remember the highlights of comics in pop culture last year and to make some comics-specific resolutions for 2009. Although we're only nineteen days deep, these two years already stand in stark contrast to each other. How so, you ask?

First of all, 2008 was a year directed by the influence of comic books (pun intended). Consider that, in a single year, moviegoers had the chance to experience real-world incarnations of Iron Man, the Hulk, Batman, the Punisher, Hellboy, the heroes of Wanted, and the Spirit, not to mention the return of beloved franchises like Speed Racer, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and the X-Files. Sure, these films represent the gamut of box office success, but each of them equally shared the responsibility of exposing a mainstream audience to characters that are pillars to fanboy culture. Further, from the tragedy of Health Ledger's death to the tabloid interest of David Duchovny's sex addiction, most of these films offered some tidbit that contributed to the grand scheme of entertainment news in 2008, the actual respective movie not withstanding. In short, 2008 took the topics of message boards and late night gaming tournaments and dragged them into the daylight, around the office water cooler. I'm not sure if we geeks should thank '08, or vice versa!

On the flipside, 2009 has become the year comics bend to the news, rather than the other way around. Message boards are abuzz with the current Obama trend in titles like Amazing Spider-man and Savage Dragon, and the cover price debate rages in the face of a challenging economy. Movies like The Watchmen and the resurrection of franchises like Star Trek are certainly stirring the pot, but sans another unfortunate celebrity death, I don't think pop culture will maintain its love affair with comics until the next Iron Man becomes reality. Right now, comics are pop culture's booty call, "blowing it up" only when nothing else is going . . . and some action is better than none.

On the homefront, I appreciated 2008's premiere of, Mattel's adult-oriented on-line toy store, primarily featuring DC Superheroes in both realistic and animated forms, and a new He-Man action figure line currently exploiting the characters' classic look via today's advanced action figure sculpting and articulation styles. While the idea of Internet exclusivity sparked debate among earnest fanboys accustomed to scouring Target and Wal-Mart aisles for the latest action figures, the site has been obviously well received, since many of its products are sold out despite arguably high shipping rates. I'm as financially strapped as the next guy, but the chance to own an exclusive, high quality He-Man figure is perhaps the strongest opiate to face my inner child ever . . . and if I'm buying He-Man, he needs a bad guy to fight, right? Masters of the Universe is plural, right?

Therein lies my motivation as a collector for 2009: now, more than ever, collect to my inner child. I began this resolution early, thanks in large part to the latest wave of Marvel Legends action figures. See, when I was a kid, I owned the first wave of Marvel's Secret Wars figures, and since I didn't avidly read comics at the time, those eight toys were my Marvel Universe. Thanks to the now mainstream availability of Kang (and my girlfriend's diligence on eBay to score a Magneto), I decided to recreate those eight characters in modern toy form and effectively end all other Marvel action figure purchases. Mattel's adult-oriented DC and He-Man franchises will remain my only plastic guilty pleasures, so much so that I'll in turn eBay some fringe items in my collection to obtain them all -- or as close as I can get, considering convention exclusives and my own budget. So, while obtaining some of these elusive figures will condemn me to an ongoing crisis, at least trimming the fat of my fanaticism doesn't pit me against a proverbial infinity gauntlet of spending. Yes, I said it!

Regarding comics, the steadfast cornerstone of my collecting compulsions, I aim to continue purchasing series that appeal to my need for relevant stories and dynamic character development. I define "relevant" as all-encompassing; that is, if I can hand a comic book story (whether or not contained in a single issue, or a mini-series, or within an ongoing -- the story withstands any format) to a friend and recommend it as an excellent piece of approachable literature, it's relevant. Joe Kelly's I Kill Giants quickly comes to mind, as those seven issues tell a compelling story about a teenaged girl whose inner turmoil manifests into a fantastic allegorical struggle. If you know the series, you know that the context is socially significant, presented through a filter of dark humor and schoolyard antics many people can understand. Conversely, Grant Morrison's "Batman: R.I.P." stars one of the world's most recognizable icons, but I could never recommend it to a friend. It's too mired in classic Batman continuity to make sense to anyone not familiar with the comics' lore, and it's too dependent on Final Crisis and other events in the DC Universe to retain a self-enclosed identity. If I were to recommend a comic starring a hero driven to avenge the death of his or her parents, one in which the hero is a regular person tests the limit of his or her own abilities even in the face of impossible odds, I'd point to the Luna Brothers' The Sword. It's still a relatively young series with true cinematic potential -- and if it does find it's way to the silver screen, my friends can feel like they were on the ground floor of a brand new franchise!

Of course, I'm still prone to purchasing my guiltiest of pleasures: comics starring superheroes fighting social injustices like illiteracy or gang violence. Expect to see more of those comics here soon . . .

Finally, 2008 brought many changes to personal life, as well -- a few that required me to downsize my living quarters, a trend I understand has afflicted many an economically-challenged fanboy of late. Still, despite the limited space, I've effectively managed to recreate the bedroom I had as a child through an adult standard of organization and functionality. Collecting comics and toys is interesting in its adaptability to life: a boy's bedroom is supposed to have this stuff, and in high school and college the clutter becomes a quirky celebration of pop culture, not without its vulnerability to trends or social rejection -- but for me, that just meant focusing more on practical items like a Spider-man toothbrush over a more lofty purchase like a Bowen bust of Starfox or something. Now, in my late twenties, I've come full circle; I've been saying lately that my Christmas list at 29 differs little from my list from just nine. Kang, He-Man, Hawkman . . . Kids today don't know how good they have it! What does an adult do with a comic book long box tower eleven high? He keeps it up. What does he do with an action figure collection cluttering his shelves?

Keep it up.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Twelfth Day of Comic-mas: Twelve DC Drummings

Finally! "The 12 Days of Comic-mas" is officially the most overdue holiday celebration ever (in writing, anyway), and I'm as eager for it to end as you are! We have a whole new year of graphic goodness to tackle, and with an upcoming President appearing in comic books as frequently as Wolverine guest-starred in every Marvel title from the '90s, we're on the verge of truly experiencing a comic a day in one way or another. Still, first things first: this season's DCU Holiday Special, which, ironically, coincidentally, or both, boasts twelve stories on its table of contents (excluding the beautiful cover by Frank Quitely, and crisp table of contents by letterer Travis Lanham. Since this is the most bountiful anthology I've ever reviewed (not necessarily in page length but in said titled content), I've decided that the most effective way of reviewing this issue is through a succinct "top 12" countdown, like the very twelve days of Christmas that inspired this snail's pace series of entries.

Here we go!

12. "Introduction" -- A splash page featuring the Kents: Ma and Clark greeting a dressed-as-Santa Supergirl at the front door, while in the background Lois and Lana pet Krypto by the tree. I assume writer Sterling Gates simply told artist Karl Kerschl what to draw, and that it didn't sound much different than, "A splash page featuring the Kents: Ma and Clark greeting a dressed-as-Santa Supergirl at the front door, while in the background Lois and Lana pet Krypto by the tree."

11. "The Man in Red" -- Beautifully illustrated by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado, this allegory likens Superman's origins to Santa's, from the powers of flight and "seeing when you are sleeping" via X-ray vision, to the benevolence of selfless do-gooding, to even the arctic hideaway, a parallel I hadn't considered before. Still, this ambitious tale is purely conceptual, and considering its beautiful renderings, I would've appreciated a little more linear substance, i.e. a story.

10. "Somewhere Beyond the Sea" -- Aquaman summons a huge octopus to vanquish some pirates that have tried to hijack a man and his pregnant wife at sea. A good old-fashioned Aquaman story like this would've been a gift in itself, but that the woman's unborn child is somehow royal, and that our hero inadvertently becomes one of the "three kings" paying respect to him, is a holiday twist that pulls off such allegory a little better than the previous tale.

9. "Good King Wenceslas" -- I'll never bad mouth Paul Dini. Ever. But this Batman-oriented fairy tale confused me. Dustin Nguyen's painted artwork is breath-taking, though -- a visual masterpiece that elevates the whole anthology.

8. "A Day Without Sirens" -- Joe Kelly has found another fan in me this year, between I Kill Giants and the potential of Four Eyes. In this short story, Gotham City Police actually experience an entire day without a single 911 call, an initiative advertised by a private party that pull off an emergency-free twenty-four hours. I won't spoil it only to say that the responsible party has a special interest in Gordon's and Batman's happiness. Consequently, I felt some, too.

7. "It's a Wonderful Night" is a cheesy Nightwing/Robin story that seemed a few years behind the times, if not for Tim's grief over the death of his father. Nightwing's Christmas gift for him is lame, something a new Robin would never really need and could frankly see in the Batcave anytime he wanted.

6. "Christmas with the Beetles" -- I've heard of a few comics coming out this year that spotlight or are told from the perspective of villains, and this story kicks off that trend effectively with one thug's family legacy of encountering the Blue Beetle legacy! It's a quaint tale of redemption and intervention, one that addresses the concept that, if heroes experience different incarnation and identities, so must even the lowest of goons. And change could be for the best.

5. "An Angel Told Me" -- In this Huntress story, her alter ego is the real hero. A high school teacher by day, the Huntress decides to guide a bully toward responsibility by taking down his abusive father and supervising his community service, which she swerves to actually serve him. By day, I work with children, too, so I was touched by this story's heart, and the acknowledgement that some heroics can be accomplished without fisticuffs, before nightfall, and after school.

4. "The Night Before Christmas" -- I haven't been following the Teen Titans latest series, let alone their latest roster, so this story, mired in their continuity, starred a bunch of strangers to me. Robin, Wonder Girl, Blue Beetle . . . sure, I know them, but I wonder how influential the Teen Titans relationships really are in comparison to these youngster's respectively solo tales. As apparently easy as it is for the entire DCU to fight a cosmic crisis, try getting something as simple as a romance to transcend a single writer's motivation.

3. "Party Animal" -- This current Justice League tale reads more like a classic Justice League International yarn, thanks in large part to Kevin Maguire's expressive art, but writer Alan Burnett spares no comical expense in detailing the Shaggy Man's happenstance participation in our heroes' annual Christmas party. Simple, fun.

2. "Let There Be Light" struck me as more of a pitch for a solo Dr. Light series than a contribution to a holiday anthology, and I wish it preceded the Justice League story rather than end this otherwise generally enjoyable issue. Not that the story wasn't good, but it wasn't good enough to wrap things up, nor was it comprehensive in spirit or scope. Rodolfo Migliari's photo-realistic art was muddy at times, too, seemingly incomplete at times -- actually pretty dark for a story about light, but that might've been the point I missed.

1. "Ending" -- This issue ends as it began, with a pin-up. From one lookout point in the orbiting Justice League satellite, Superman and Stargirl smile upon Green Lantern and Hawkman, in another wing of the Watchtower. Sans some hanging ribbon and DC's corporate good tidings, the scene is actually pretty creepy . . .

Yet perhaps this page is also indicative of the superhero holiday anthology phenomenon, and how the characters we know and love can only touch upon the spirit of Christmas, watch it from a safe distance, lest one of the two mired mythologies consume the other in a tale of imbalanced fantasy. Superman, Batman, and company are like any family that visit for the holidays; it's great to see them, but after awhile, you just can't wait for them to leave so you can really enjoy the yuletide. Even superheroes can only save the day . . . by flying away!

DCU Holiday Special was published for February 2009 by DC Comics and was written and illustrated by too many talented contributors to list here!

The Eleventh Day of Comic-mas: Christmas Pays the Piper!

Christmas is definitely the neediest of holidays. It always needs saving! Threats from thieving grinches or embittered Scrooges plague Christmas almost as much as tidings of comfort and joy! So, when I saw the title to Archibald Saves Christmas, I predicted that the issue would follow the usual formula: villain tries to vanquish the holidays, underdog hero stands against him, villain caves to the overwhelming feelings of good cheer around him. Boy, was I wrong.

Archibald Saves Christmas is actually the first of now several one-shots starring Archibald Aardvark, a down-and-out cartoon star from the earliest days of American animation, when Micky was still a dot-eyed tugboat captain. Archibald was accused of killing his brother/co-star, and as his other co-stars were mysteriously slain, he was driven nuts by the suspicions and apparent conspiracy against him. In this issue, the studio signs Archibald to a new picture with Santa Claus, who rightfully fears for his life but also takes pity on the wayward aardvark. Santa's always been a softy that way.

Archibald is rife with paradox, from its dynamic visuals to the very context of its story. First of all, its plot is at heart a murder mystery and spares no expense in exposing the blood and guts that come with a crime scene. At the same time, its characters are all cutesy cartoons, hailed from the glory days of Disney, Warner Brothers, or Fleischer Studios, complete with a charcoal-style shading indicative of old black-and-white film. Further, despite the title, Archibald is barely lucid enough to save his own career, let alone Christmas. Spoiler alert: Santa dies, and although Archie apparently catches the real killer that has been tormenting his career, Christmas is inexplicably left in the wind. Understandably, the holiday season is just a backdrop for the story and a gimmick to attract readership, no doubt, but I'm still concerned. What person ruled by their inner child wouldn't want to know about the potentially fatal fate of Christmas?

Finally, I feel compelled to keep the culmination of this issue's story a secret, in case folks that haven't read the Archibald series decide to take it on, but I'm genuinely confused by the final panels' "twist." It actually doesn't leave me in any kind of suspense at all, but rather ties things up quite nicely, yet the dialogue implies more to the mystery. Gah, it's hard to explain -- chalk it up to another of the issue's many paradoxes. If someone can shoot me a comment to clarify, I'd appreciate it. You'd save my Christmas, at the very least.

Overall, Archibald Saves Christmas is a fun issue that kicks off an undoubtedly fun series of one-shots, and you haven't seen cartoon characters this "real" since Top Shelf's Three Fingers, which in tone is practically a companion piece. In spite of my inner child's old flights of fancy, I'm glad old cartoon characters like these don't inhabit our world. TMZ has already proven we can barely contain human celebrities! An aardvark with a murder rap stumbling out of the Ivy? That would just beat all, folks.

Archibald Saves Christmas was published in December 2007 by Image Comics and was written by Dwight L. MacPherson, illustrated by Grant Bond, and lettered by Jason Hanley.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Tenth Day of Comic-mas: Terror Learns a Lesson!

Christmas isn't a holiday void of fear. Shoppers desperately scrambling for the perfect gift, families frantically cleaning their homes for the big dinner, children staying up Christmas Eve night with their fingers crossed . . . behaviors all rooted in fear. Fear of failure, fear of criticism, fear of disappointment. Everybody can relate to at least one of those fears, and most can probably add to the list. Consider the characters in this special holiday issue of Terror Inc.

In Terror Inc., a mob informant on death row is afraid his family will experience the holidays without him, so he hires Terror to utilize a few of his posthumous body parts and create a final Christmas memory. Huh? Apparently, Terror is a creature that can attach others' body parts to his and experience their skills and memories -- which comes in handy when the mob tries to capture the informant's family, and Terror uses that failed Olympic track star's legs to race them down, and that circus bearded lady's whiskers to disguise himself as Santa Claus. In the end, the typically greedy, naturally creepy Terror softens up a bit, bringing down the mob and giving the informant's family something to remember him by, in the form of holiday origami figurines about the house. It's the warmest feeling a comic book like this can offer its readers, I suppose, particularly at Christmastime.

I pulled Terror Inc. #8 from a discount bin several months ago, drawn to its twisted holiday imagery, not to mention the clever cover blurb: "You'd better not shout, you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout, get ready to die . . ." I'd never heard of Terror, though, so I was grateful for the classic Marvel-style exposition that somehow incorporates the title character's powers or origins into the natural dialogue of the story. The ability to take and use body parts is Frankenstein-esque in its appeal, but Terror himself is pretty peculiar looking, his face adorned with these odd whiskers that demand as much explanation as his abilities, but they're still a mystery to me. Since he teeters the border between life and death . . . are they for balance?

Fortunately, this issue was well balanced, between the semblance of holiday nostalgia it sought to evoke while also offering the right amount of carnage its faithful readers undoubtedly expected from its monthly installments. Oh, no, not that Carnage, who was just rising to popularity in Amazing Spider-man -- but Terror Inc. apparently does tether itself to the Marvel Universe with a Wolverine team-up next issue. If I ever see that ish, I'll consider picking it up, to see how a gruesome hero like Terror finds his place in the Marvel Universe. Obviously, he isn't around anymore . . . but considering the recent trend to resurrect apparently failed or C-list characters in both the DC and Marvel realms, I wouldn't be surprised if we see him again.

Fear has a way of doing that. Even during the most wonderful time of the year, terror always finds a way to rear its ugly head.

Terror Inc. #8 was published in February 1993 by Marvel Comics and was written by D.G. Chichester, illustrated by Horacio Ottolini, lettered by Steve Dutro and Rick Parker, and colored by Steve Buccellato.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Ninth Day of Comic-mas: Fine Ladies for Ransom!

By most standards, Claus #1 is not a really good comic book. The script is long-winded and plagued with melodrama and flat humor, the art is amateurish and lacks the dynamic inking its ambitions dimensions demand, and the digital effects are comparable to something generated in a Microsoft Publisher basics course. To its credit, the issue is published on nice paper and well bound . . .! I'm usually not this critical of comics I dislike, and in fact the negativity ends there, but I don't think the harshness is out of line since this issue is eleven years old and surely its contributors have developed as artists by now. No, just as Claus himself puts most of his efforts in the good list rather than the bad, I do want to focus on this story's strengths, because it certainly does have a few . . .

. . . namely, its contributions to the Santa Claus legend. Most comic books starring the Jolly One attempt to add something to Santa's fantastic story, from Paul Dini's creation of St. Nick's daughter Jingle Belle, to DC's latest holiday special aligning his origin to Superman's -- a rather confusing tale in its allegorical parallels, actually, because I'm not sure what doomed icy alien planet Father Christmas is really from. Thankfully, Claus opts to focus on Santa's current digs in the North Pole, specifically the fact that, if inherently good, fantasy-oriented characters like St. Nick exist, evil ones do, too, and further that those baddies would be out for Santa's powerful resources for their own ends. In this case, a band of militant orcs storm Santa's village and demand he use his mass-production resources to make guns and other weapons. Take that, Saddam!

Also, when the orcs infiltrate Santa's shop, they manhandle Mrs. Claus, who in this incarnation is not the frumpy homebody most holiday tales make her out to be. Artist John Kennedy Bowden draws every woman in this issue like a ten, from the scientist excavating in the North Pole near the Claus residence, to Mrs. Claus herself, to even an ice sculpture Frosty the Snowman tries to hit on. Interestingly, and the funniest part of the issue albeit most likely unintentionally, the missus still calls Santa "Papa," like in those cartoons of old, adding a whole new dimension to the phrase "Sugar Daddy," assuming Santa really likes his cookies. Further, the Draco Comics logo is basically a naked lady holding a gun, which reinforces the company's slogan on this issue's back cover: "The comic book your mother did not want you to read!" I can certainly appreciate an indie publisher's attempt to corner a definitively adult market, but the overtly sexual imagery is too insistent -- perhaps the butt of its own joke.

Okay, so I had one more point of criticism. Let it be recorded that I expressed this issue's potential, that the concept and story in themselves were interesting . . . and who doesn't want to see Frosty and Rudolph kicking a little tail to save Christmas? We were raised on this imagery, and while it was much more innocent when we were kids, I don't blame Draco for trying to mature the material with its audience, even at the risk of its own peril. As I mentioned earlier, I'm interested in how these artists have matured since Claus, too. Who knows? They might yet make my "nice list."

Claus #1 was published in December 1997 by Draco Comics and was written and illustrated by John Kennedy Bowden.

The Eighth Day of Comic-mas: Milking What Makes a Hero

What if you could get super powers for Christmas? No, I don't mean the '80s toy line (though that would still be pretty cool), but rather real-life super powers, distributed by a fringe scientific laboratory specializing in nano-technology? Enter the Power & Glory Holiday Special. In it, Plex/Biomatrix, the organization responsible for giving the world a real superhero in A-pex, "the American Powerhouse," raffles off an opportunity to be a similar superhero for a week, and just our luck, a religious fanatic wins. Only in America!

If that doesn't say "Christmas" enough, Epiphany St. McMiracle (yes, that's her name) leads the First Church of the Internet -- I wonder if its high holy holiday is Cyber Monday -- and after a week's worth of temple-constructing (which beats the old car wash method of raising building funds!), she decides to skip the powering-down process and keep her new abilities . . . like we couldn't see that coming. Just like a spoiled brat on Christmas morn, she refuses to share, and the token fight between her and corporate vigilante Michael Gorski ensues. Fortunately, the scientists that created the super nano-bots weren't dumb enough to overlook the need for a fail safe -- a clever little lyric that disbands McMiracle's molecular structure for good. It's definitely the "ew" moment of the season.

I've never read Power & Glory before, so I can't tell if the tone of its holiday special is the norm for this series (or if I understand the characters' role correctly), but I rather enjoyed the heavy context of this issue's story in contrast to its light-hearted, even satirical tone. From Plex/Biomatrix's marketing of the super-lottery, to the page interviewing celebrities on what they'd do with powers (Nixon's is the best: "If I were super, I'd still be here."), to Gorski's pontifications on the dangers of religion -- this issue tackles a topic world-shattering in proportion and boils it down to social commentary and superhero spectacle, all with an air of holiday cheer. And while there's nothing overtly Christmas about the whole thing, the pomp in contrast to this story's circumstance is enough to maintain a semblance of good cheer even in the midst of potential cyber-religious terrorism.

So, what's the moral of this little holiday parable? Well, super powers are only half of what makes a super hero, of course. I mean, geez, it's already over three weeks after Christmas, and how many of your new toys have you broken, lost, or exchanged for store credit? (I've almost lost my new mp3 player twice!) How responsible would any of us be with flight, or super strength? Keep the power . . . it's not worth the glory!

Power & Glory Holiday Special was published in December 1994 by Malibu Comics and was written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Bu' Tones.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Seventh Day of Comic-mas: Frankensteins A' Dini!

Oh, I know what you're thinking: "Finishing your supposed '12 Days of Comic-mas' is an exercise in futility now! Christmas came and went two weeks ago! Let it go!" Ah, Christmas itself may be nothing more than a 90% clearance sale at Target now, but the 12 days of Christmas ended a mere two days ago, on the holiday known as the Epiphany, or Little Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas actually begin on Christmas Day and countdown to January 6, the day many religions celebrate the three wise men's arrival to that infamous manger, and their gift-giving to the little baby Jesus. So, if anybody really is keeping track, I was a good five posts early, and now just a mere six posts behind . . . which isn't really different than pivoting around December 25 anyway. Oh, just grant me the New Year's guilty pleasure of prolonging the holiday season as long as possible, okay? Who says you can't resurrect the most wonderful time of the year . . . any time of year?

Speaking of resurrection, the latest Christmas comic book I've read was also the latest installment in Paul Dini's annual adventures of Santa Claus's little known daughter Jingle Belle. Santa vs. Frankenstein is a light-hearted one-shot that takes a stab at the recent "holiday crossover" phenomenon, perhaps best known from the Tim Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas. While Halloween isn't mentioned overtly, Frankenstein is undoubtedly a mascot for the hallowed holiday, capturing its haunting spirit. Further, Jing's best friend is Polly Green, the self-appointed "official witch of Halloween," so what's a few months between pals? No, Dini was right to bring the two seemingly contrasting mythologies together. Think about the way we teach the holidays to children, the way we maintain and illustrate holiday tradition; we've essentially asserted that a realm of fantastic characters work parallel to our year, ringing in the new year, then making people fall in love, then granted folks good luck, etc. Why wouldn't these characters work in concert? Heck, we're lucky they haven't unionized and gone on strike! How would a Santa scab hit all those homes on Christmas night?

In Santa vs. Frankenstein, the real St. Nick is facing a similar dilemma, his output distracted by an anti-Santa special interest group making a successful effort to ban the jolly old elf from Christmas! If only his daughter were at her sock monkey assembly line, and not whimsically skiing, where she stumbles onto the frozen form of the Frankenstein monster! She brings the goliath home, where Santa makes the wayward weirdo feel welcome by putting him in charge of assembling goth toys. When Franky discovers the anti-Santa plot, he relates the torch-wielding conspiracy and attempts to foil it, inadvertently giving St. Nick a chance to publicly fight "a monster" and save the day. It's a win-win, as both Santa Claus and Frankenstein reinforce a world friendly to these figureheads of fantasy.

Paul Dini's writing is both jovial and poignant when necessary, and his love for old animation is obvious through artist Stephanie Gladden's traditional stylings. Paul Dini has influenced some of my favorite franchises, from Masters of the Universe to of course Batman: The Animated Series, and his ability to contribute to both the Christmas and Frankenstein mythologies is not only no surprise, but a pleasant holiday treat, to boot. Interestingly, based on his back-page essay, this issue launches his "Dinicartoons" imprint, a subset of Top Cow Productions featuring titles by Dini and his fellow favorite writers and artists. I'm actually surprised that he took this long to accept such an offer, that his ability to spearhead franchises didn't inspire him to create his own until now. Still, you know the old saying . . . and when it comes to a monster like Frankenstein finding a home or a little ol' blogger like me wrapping up a Christmas series, it certainly applies . . .

Better late than never.

Jingle Belle: Santa vs. Frankenstein was pubished in December 2008 by Image Comics and was written by Paul Dini, illustrated by Stephanie Gladden, colored by Felix Serrano, and lettered by Troy Peteri.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Sixth Day of Comic-mas: Sick Secret Santas!

Made-for-television Christmas specials are a holiday season staple, from stop-motion animation classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to more traditionally animated shorts like A Charlie Brown Christmas. Considering how quickly these specials and their featured characters have become household names in the grand scheme of holiday mythology, it makes sense that other similarly popular characters would try to make their impression during Christmastime -- characters like the Powerpuff Girls with their 'Twas the Fight Before Christmas, or Batman in the recent The Brave and the Bold episode "Invasion of the Secret Santas!" Originally aired on December 12, the episode has been saved in my girlfriend's TiVo since, and I recently watched it again with her . . . which became a gift in itself, as the show introduced her to aspects of the DC Universe she'd never otherwise experience.

So, yes, I'm going to review "Invasion of the Secret Santas!" for my patented Twelve Days of Comic-mas. I know it's not a comic book, but it's a definitively comic-based property, and I don't mind braving the deviation. Heh.

First of all, I think I've seen every The Brave and the Bold episode so far (thanks to the aforementioned TiVo), and I've enjoyed the series' campy look -- a welcome alternative to the Dark Knight's other most recent animated incarnation, The Batman. While that show set the new standard for rockin' opening credits sequence, even riffing the Adam West "biff"/"pow" effects via electric guitar, it suffered from comparisons to its beloved predecessor, Batman: The Animated Series, whose continuity ran concurrent to The Batman through Justice League Unlimited anyway, thus perpetually overshadowing it. In my opinion, The Batman's greatest nemesis was its inconsistency between kid-friendly, action-oriented stories and its shallow attempts at continuity-oriented character development, two aims not necessarily exclusive but difficult to balance in any given twenty-two minute Saturday morning cartoon. In the end, The Batman was really just a commercial for new character designs and related franchising, relegated to waiting for Robin until Teen Titans was canceled then hastily introducing a Justice League to follow in its older brother's footsteps, to no avail.

But this really has nothing to do with The Brave and the Bold, if only to contrast that this newer series has shed the skin of any preceding molds and has found the balance between appealing to kids by embracing the Batman camp of the Silver Age, and beckoning to fans with DC's B- and C-list heroes. (Interesting, the recent "Batman: R.I.P." arc mined old presumably forsaken Silver Age material, too, though not necessarily in a kid-friendly way.) This is the magic of watching Etrigan the Demon brawling with knights and dragons. Further, the series' format essentially grants viewers two adventures, a brief brawl prior to the opening credits, then a more developed plot afterward. In "Invasions of the Secret Santas," viewers see Batman and Blue Beetle best the Sportsmaster, then the Dark Knight and Red Tornado take down the toy-mastering Funhouse (apparently actually spelled "Fun Haus," but I'm going phonetically, here). Talk about playing to a child's short attention span!

Further, enter: my girlfriend's exposure to the DC Universe, in all its inconsistently campy glory. "The Sportsmaster is a weird idea for a character," she mused as we watched the baddie trap competitive bowlers in big, clear pin-shaped cages. After Bats and the new Blue Beetle take down the jerky jock, the real tale unfolds, featuring the original Red Tornado as he explores the holiday spirit, and Batman regretfully reminiscing his spoiled childhood during Christmastime, as the villainous Funhouse infiltrates homes across the city with little sentient, jewelry-stealing action figures. (What's the difference between his scheme and the twelve bucks I'm paying for Mattel's DC Universe Classics at Wal-Mart? Highway robbery, either way!) Red Tornado's rigidity and characteristically robotic voice offers some comic relief (my girlfriend mentioned her amusement about him the next day, so the gags stuck!), yet a shadow looms over this episode, as viewers see the infamous Crime Alley flashback, obscured for youngsters' sake by the darkness of the alley, yet ironically more ominous and tragic in its ambiguity. Hence, my claim toward DC's inconsistency, which in this case isn't a bad thing at all. A show parents can watch with their kids, and that adult, fanboyfriends* can inflict on their girlfriends? That's pretty bold, considering the dichotomy of today's television.

So, in twenty-two minutes, my girlfriend unwittingly found herself exposed to such new glossary terms as "Ulthoon" and "S.T.A.R. Labs," right alongside familiar imagery like Christmas trees and Santa Claus. The holiday spirit storms your home front every year through the television, really whether you like it or not. The comic book goodness I've loved for years has finally taken the same front, in this case hidden in pretty Christmas wrapping paper for the unsuspecting child in all of us. The Santas have truly invaded.

* Fanboyfriend (noun): a favored male companion obsessed with comic books, toys, video games, et al.

The term has been loosely used on-line, but not yet clearly defined. My New Year's gift to pop culture speak.