Saturday, February 28, 2009

Reading Reminds Us What's Fundamental in "The Scrapyard Detectives" #4

Monday, March 2, is Read Across America Day, a nationwide educational celebration of Dr. Seuss's birthday. As an advocate for youth by day and a comic book geek by night, I've often tried to reconcile these two passions by introducing kids to comics, since they know many of the medium's iconic characters from television and film anyway. Unfortunately, the likes of Batman and Spider-man are usually too mired in continuity for younger readers. Can you imagine trying to explain Spidey's "Character Assassination" or Batman's "R.I.P." to a seven-year-old? I know that DC and Marvel produce one-shots or child-friendly series free of these stories' bonds, but I regret that today's youth can't pick up any issue featuring their favorite superhero and find instant entertainment, like I did as a kid.

Enter: Jinn, Raymond, and Robert -- the Scrapyard Detectives. I've reviewed The Scrapyard Detectives twice before and was quoted on the back of the series' first trade paperback, so it isn't hard to guess that I really like this book. Creator/artist Bill Galvan has kept in touch over the years and was kind enough to send me complimentary copies of this latest issue for the students in my after school program. This kindness is indicative of the spirit of his series -- getting entertaining comics into the hands of kids, no strings attached. While Jinn, Raymond, and Robert certainly have an ongoing story with their own respective character dynamics, the series' rotating writers assure that each issue is its own reward, including previous tales' themes and relationships while avoiding the loose ends that dissuade new readers. In short, I can think of no better way to encourage reading than by handing a child The Scrapyard Detectives #4.

Further, an appreciation for reading is only half of what this series strives to instill in children. This fourth issue, written by none other than J.M. DeMatteis, takes place on the two-year anniversary of the accident that left Jinn in a wheelchair, and while she copes with the young driver's hope for forgiveness, her teammates deal with the adoration of their biggest fan, Raymond's little cousin Katie. These two plots collide when the Detectives individually shun the people that want their attention the most, inadvertently bringing them together in a climatic moment of revelation and resolution. I won't spoil this issue's ending, because a mere synopsis would stifle the last page's emotional impact and I'd really like everybody reading this review to attain the issue themselves, but needless to say DeMatteis gives readers of all ages a reason to examine their attitudes toward friends and foes alike.

What I like most about The Scrapyard Detectives is its realistic depiction of youth. Its three protagonists aren't perfect. Just like any kid, their tender friendships are just as vulnerable to rash anger and bullying, to emotional outbursts and name calling. Still, these characters remain fictional role models because of their ability to deal with these feelings in time. Also, as this is a youth-oriented detective series, writer DeMatteis tips the proverbial hat to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, acknowledging the roots of the genre while maintaining a sense of humor about itself. Of course, Bill's illustrations are the consistent spirit of this book, and I'm grateful that his kids look like kids. Too many comic book artists are snared by their inclinations to exaggerate musculature and unwittingly draw children like little adults; Galvan's style keeps things simple and expressive. His attention to detail is admirable, too; this might sound silly, but I like that his depictions of suburbia include power lines. When I look at the Scrapyard Detectives' neighborhood in the background of the main story, I see the cul-de-sac from my childhood. In every way, Jinn, Robert, and Raymond could be the kids next door.

Finally, The Scrapyard Detectives is an unapologetic example of a comic book first. Unlike many other nonprofit or special interest groups that use the comic book format to convey a message, thus producing a sub par product, Diversity Ink seems determined to offer a quality package, from cover to cover. Consider that this issue has three variant covers, one by the legendary Joe Staton, the other by the talented Shawn McManus, not to mention the fun pin-up by J.J. Harrison. Consider the inherent pride that comes with this issue's branding by the Comic Code Authority. Consider its appeal for letters and artwork, and its rewarding said efforts with an exclusive "Secret Case Files" issue. (Bill, does this count as a letter? I want that comic!) The excerpt from the Detectives' forthcoming novel proves that any character with a firm foundation in comics can transcend the medium -- that the power of words and pictures put together make other storytelling efforts want to rise to the occasion, too.

Sometimes I wonder what I'd read on a regular basis if I wasn't such an avid fan of comic books. Would I have developed more appreciation for novels, or nonfiction? Would I read historical texts, or plays? I wonder, would I even really read at all? For me, the comic book has been a gateway medium, instilling an appreciation for the sequential nature of theater, for the vivid imagery of poetry, for the economy of words necessary in short fiction. Today's kids aren't much different. While television, film, and video games offer a basic understanding of plot, the thrill of a comic book can still excite the imagination and inspire new heights of interaction with literature. If society is lucky enough, the right kids get their hands on comics like The Scrapyard Detectives #4 -- the kinds of comics that teach the integrity of good storytelling right alongside the value of having integrity as a person, too.

For more information about The Scrapyard Detectives, please visit The Diversity Foundation's website.

The Scrapyard Detectives #4 was published by the Diversity Foundation, written by J.M. DeMatteis, illustrated by Bill Galvan and Rob Hawkins, and lettered by Dave Lanphear.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jivin' with Black History Month: Justice League of America #173

When I saw the cover to Justice League of America #173, I knew the issue would be the perfect send off to Black History Month. Consider this image’s implications, before even cracking the comic open: Black Lightning refuses to join the team based on the impression of the no-name “jive bunch of turkeys” behind Superman. Would Black Lightning really refuse the Justice League based on the awkward physical appearance of other heroes? Is Black Lightning really judging the proverbial book by its cover -- leading me to do so, as well? Further, one has to wonder, did black people really talk like that back in 1979? Themes of discrimination and stereotyping abound, and we haven’t even read the story yet.

Fortunately, though the issue’s plot goes in a slightly different direction than its cover implies, Justice League of America #173 is a tale about testing one’s character, which is just as integral to Black History Month. When Green Arrow recommends Black Lightning for JLA membership, the Flash misunderstands his motives, saying, “I never thought you would suggest we take in a token black . . .” The accusation sparks a heated debate that results in the decision to test Lightning’s mettle -- through fisticuffs. The League disguises their identities (as the weirdoes on the cover) and attacks the unsuspecting hero quite mercilessly, and though Black Lightning defeats Green Lantern and Zatanna’s villainous alter egos, the Flash’s speed overwhelms him. Enraged, Lightning almost chokes out Green Arrow, and when the League reveals their motives, he declines their offer. “You just better get yourself another boy!” he retorts. Though his statement is dismissed, its undertone brings the racial theme full circle.

I’m grateful writer Gerry Conway didn’t pull any punches with his dialogue in this issue. Although Flash’s rash judgment is chalked up to grief over his wife’s recent death, Green Arrow’s reputation as “Mister Liberal” (Barry’s words!) does dictate many of his decisions and the heroes were right to examine the context of the recruitment. That even the world’s greatest superheroes have to deal with social impressions and implications is a refreshing take on their roles as public figures, in 1979 and now thirty years later.* Could you imagine a super-team of exclusively white heroes in the crosshairs of today’s media? Would their recruitment of a hero like Black Lightning be hailed as historical, or outdated obligation? I wonder how the rest of the world hails our inauguration of a black President, considering other countries' acceptance of minorities in leadership.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Black Lightning's name, as his superhero alias purely denotes his skin color and nothing more. Surely a character created nowadays wouldn't face a potentially demeaning moniker like this, yet Lightning's character has transcended that distinction and become timeless in both his name and role as a representative of his race in the DC Universe.

To that end, interestingly, a brief subplot about the impending Metropolis Vigilante Act raises questions about Conway’s mentality behind mentioning it. When a detective warns Black Lightning that his antics might attract political and legal attention, the hero replies, “Any law that’s gonna affect this boy’ll also hafta affect Superman . . . and no way is that gonna happen in this town.” The statement seems true enough in the DC Universe, where Superman could do no wrong, but was Conway establishing an allegory for the contradictory judgments of society, as well? Was he trying to combat social injustice and assert that the law of the land is applicable to anyone, despite racial stereotypes that certain youth are more prone to criminal activity?

Although Black Lightning’s dialogue is definitely dated (if even accurate to the vernacular of the time, rife with words like “jive” and slang contractions like “hafta”), his integrity as a hero is unquestionable. Although his electric powers are offensive in nature, he primarily uses them defensively and takes down his opponents hard and quickly, an interesting contrast to the League’s preference to just jump right in and throw punches -- even against a fellow good guy, even as just a test! The world’s greatest superheroes come off as the world’s most arrogant, too, in their assumption that Lightning would embrace their offer. I’d say this hero passed the test, staying true to his passions rather than succumbing to the temptations of celebrity.

I wish they still made comics like this. First of all, while it wasn’t critical to my review, I’d be remiss not to at least mention that artists Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin deliver amazing, engaging work here. Further, although your typical super-villain schemes in the background, setting up the next issue, this issue surely stands on its own, offering real characterization, fun action, and a few poignant questions about real life. Judging Justice League of America #173 based solely on its cover doesn’t do it justice.

* This issue was released in December 1979, the month and year of my birth. It would be interesting to track down all of the comics published that month, to understand what was happening in my beloved medium as I was entering the world. Hmm . . .

Justice League of America #173 was published by DC Comics and was written by Gerry Conway, illustrated by Dick Dillon and Frank McLaughlin, lettered by Ben Oda, and colored by Jerry Serpe.

Never Toy With An Octomom!

The media's willingness to call Nadya Suleman "Octomom" is a comforting notion for fanboys like me eager to see superheroes in real life someday. I mean, if real news people can say "Octomom" with a straight face, names like "the Shocker" or "Bronze Tiger" would roll right off the tongue. Considering this connection to comics, I thought I'd draw one about the infamous Octomom, in her inherent role as a super villain. I called the strip "Vs. Current Events" with the hopes that in the future other celebrities or fame-seekers will adopt aliases with similar appeal. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Making a Monkey of Obama!: The Power of the Political Cartoon

As a comic book fan, I often underestimate the importance of the political cartoon. Often placed in the most sophisticated sections of the paper, like "Business" or "Opinion," the political cartoon takes the comic dynamic of word and image interplay and presents to the most general audience ever, and presumably those smart enough to keep up with current events and relevant social dialogue. So, I shouldn't be surprised that a political cartoon has sparked such a fervent debate today.

Consider this piece that appeared in The New York Times.

Yes. I've already showed the piece to a few different people, and they all react the same way. "Oh, it's calling Obama a monkey." I usually don't cry racism in a crowded theater, but, man, this political cartoon is racist! Now, political cartoonists only get one panel a day, and in this twenty-four news cycle world, I know they often try to kill a few birds with one gag. Still, likening the monkey shot in Connecticut for mauling a woman with the President's attempt to stimulate the economy . . . I can't even think of a just comparison that isn't racist!

The Times editor is defending the strip and claiming that outraged parties like Reverend Al Sharpton are merely seeking publicity, which he is, but if the point isn't racism, what is it? That Obama's stimulus package is so stupid, monkeys helped him work on it? Even if the President weren't black, a trait that carries the historical racist comparison to monkeys, this punchline would be weak at best. The cartoonist should've realized that his connection between these stories would pale to the negative impression his strip might have, even unintended. This isn't a grand leap; it's simple algebra. If Monkey = Stimulus Package, and Stimulus Package = President Obama, then Monkey = President Obama. This is common sense.

In a world where Don Imus is fired for say the word "nappy-headed," pop culture's opinion makers and proclaimers need to choose their words wisely. When those words are tied to an image, as in the beloved nature of the comic, the responsibility is doubled. Yeah, yeah -- they just have to live with that monkey on their backs.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Global Heart Warming: Millennium Fever #1

As I was flipping through a myriad of back issue bins at today's monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Sci-Fi Convention, pulling up the occassional issue and mulling over its potential to join my collection, my girlfriend sarcastically asked me, "Hey, did you just judge that comic book by its cover?"

I replied, "Of course. That's what I've been doing for all of them!"

Consider Millennium Fever #1. When I picked up this issue in a similar twenty-five cent bin blitz almost a year ago, I reserved it for a Valentine's Day read, since its cover seemingly depicts two youngsters falling in love. Further, since these youngsters are African-American, what better way to acknowledge Black History Month in the midst of Cupid's annual target practice? If only President Lincoln made a cameo holding a groundhog, based solely on its cover, Millennium Fever #1 could be the perfect February comic book!

Of course, every time I make a wide-sweeping generalization about a comic book like this, I underestimate its impact. Millennium Fever is actually a complex coming-of-age story, certainly tackling issues of love and racial identity, but also dabbling in macabre, potentially apocalyptic science fiction, that binds its hero's quest for identity into the fabric of the entire universe itself! Okay, maybe it isn't that complex, since I did only read the first issue, but writer Nick Abadzis laces teenager Jerome's persistant inner monologue with a haunting tone that transcends his typical adolescent circumstances. It starts simple enough, as Jerome laments his virginity at his grandmother's funeral, an odd contrast for sure, but then grows more intricate when his reminiscing about his diverse family tree become a treatise about the beauty of music and communication.

The love story boasted by this issue's cover kicks into gear after Jerome's failed, drunken attempt to hook up with his high school crush, when he desperately responds to a personal ad and meets the girl of his wet dreams. I won't spoil this issue's ending, especially since it's so weird without the next issue's presumed explanation that I probably couldn't do the sequence justice anyway, but needless to say, between that, his blossoming ability with language, and a doom-and-gloom subplot about global warming and oncoming catastrophe, Jerome is in way over his head.

Artist Duncan Fegredo and letterer Ellie DeVille expertly choreographed their efforts to ensure that Abadzis' captions didn't choke the visual flow of the story, and the package comes together nicely. Fegredo keeps his characters expressive and animated while retaining the necessary realism to keep this introductory installment "slice of life" until the strangeness rears its head on the last page, and I assume the crammed paneling was intentional, preserving the moment's mystery for next issue's elaboration. The more spacious paneling was preserved for character-oriented moments like Jerome listening to music in his bedroom, which must've been Abadzis' hope anyway. Get to know your heroes before they save the world from itself, that's what I always say!

While writer Andrew Kreisberg would have us believe that his latest issue of Green Arrow/Black Canary is the best Valentine's Day gift for your sweetheart, I challenge you to thumb through your local stash of discounted back issues for Millennium Fever #1. Its lesson? The quest for true love might not be the end of the world, but it certainly helps postpone it. Also, if you're lucky enough to have someone in your life that will endure your hunt for this or any other obscure back issue, like me -- count your blessings. If it were the end of the world, I'd feel fine!

Millennium Fever #1 was published by DC Comics' Vertigo for October 1995 and was written by Nick Abadzis, illustrated by Duncan Fegredo, colored by Nathan Eyring, and lettered by Ellie DeVille.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Putting the "Bat" Back in "Bat Crap Crazy!"

Christian Bale's tirade on the set of Terminator: Salvation has swept the mainstream news this week, and I love that most outlets are equating his rage with his role as Batman. Here are my favorite highlights of this week's Bale-istic tantrum:

- TMZ releases audio of Bale's rant against the Director of Photography on the set of Terminator: Salvation.

- "Christian Bale" calls and curses out David Letterman. (I couldn't find an on-line clip of that, but The Tony Mendez Show hilariously jumps on the Bale-wagon . . .)

- Jimmy Fallon satirizes the rant on the blog promoting his upcoming late night talk show.

- A Batman flips out for tourists and passers-by in front of the Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

When I played that last clip for a co-worker, he astutely pointed out that, as much as comedians and wanna-be Internet superstars are riffing Bale, none of them have been as funny as the real thing. Agreed!

Addendum: Apparently, Bale has publicly apologized for his behavior. Over twenty-two pages' worth of comments on the MSN story about his regret practically exclusively chastise the actor's initial tirade, and then even the apology itself, so I took the opposing stance with the following post:

I'd love to put a recorder or video camera in any of your cars, you hypocrites! Or maybe the last time you and your significant other really went at it? Everybody flips out sometimes, and sometimes it lasts LONGER than four minutes! Who cares if he's sorry for the sake of publicity or damage control -- Don't you make your kids say "I'm sorry" even when they don't mean it? His attitude is EXACTLY why we like him -- everybody loves the tough guy. That's why he's been in Batman, and now Terminator, two of the biggest film franchises ever. We want to see him kick butt . . . and we're hypocrites when we can't take him doing it for a few minutes in real life, especially if he and the DP really cleared the air and moved on THAT DAY, MONTHS ago.

Re: Bale as a role model. Your kids will only hear this rant if YOU let them access TMZ or the nightly news. Heck, ever think that maybe a few seconds of the rant might be a good chance for parents to talk about anger management? Remember when parents used chances like this to teach lessons about life, rather than rave about the perpetual victimization of their kids?

And I bet your daughter HAS dated "that nut." You just don't know it yet.

Yes, many of the comments addressed Bale as a role model, and that last jab was intended for the dude that said he'd never let his daughter date a nut like that. Talk about rubbing another man's rhubarb . . .!

This Meets That, and Another Thing: Anticipating Johnny Monster #1

Browsing through Image Comics' upcoming releases, I read this description of Johnny Monster #1:

Johnny Monster is the world's foremost super-star monster hunter, but what the world doesn't know is that he was raised by the same monsters he's "hunting"! Now, in order to save his adoptive family... he must fight them! From the acclaimed writer of DEAR DRACULA and Necessary Evil, Johnny Monster mixes Tom Strong with Godzilla movies by way of Tarzan and the Phantom to create a compelling and different monster mash!

I'd read some press about this series before and was reminded of my excitement for it, until that critical last line soured my impression by representing everything I hate about today's conceptual summary driven society. Consider: Johnny Monster is described as a "compelling" and "different" series through comparison with four other well known stories! Honestly, the plot's description had me at "he was raised by the same monsters he's 'hunting,'" and the illusions of both Tarzan and Godzilla were evoked naturally (especially via the cover image), so I didn't need the help. I know I'm a more intuitive reader than some, but now it's to my detriment, because I'm afraid the book's uniqueness actually ends there.

Johnny Monster and the folks at Image that wrote this description aren't too blame; this "X meets Y to make Z" way of describing art has become a culture-wide phenomenon, from describing the TV show Fringe as The X-Files meets CSI to the music of Nickelback as Creed meets Three Doors Down. (Which is an ironic comparison in itself, because Creed is really just Pearl Jam meets a bullet in my friggin' head, but I digress.) The implication is potentially twofold: either contemporary originality is only the combination of ideas that have preceded us, or modern audiences aren't smart enough to understand something new without some comparison to the past. I shudder to think which is true, or, worse, that this phenomenon is one meeting the other. Tell me that didn't blow your mind.

I sympathize with Johnny Monster, and, beat all, I'm buying that first issue. We're being raised by the monsters we've created, and I don't know how we can kill them in good conscience.

Johnny Monster #1 is coming out February 18, 2009 from Image Comics, is written by Joshua Williamson, and is illustrated J.C. Grande.