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I first started reading the Fantastic Four during John Byrne's run. Lots of great material there, and that's what really got me hooked on the characters specifically, but comics more generally. Byrne worked on the book for a couple more years before he bowed out just before a couple of big anniversary issues. Much as I didn't want to see him leave the book, by the time he did, I understood that his long tenure as the writer/artist on a single book was unusual. So then there was a period of creative change-ups until Marvel found a regular creative team, but since John Buscema was doing most of the artwork, I didn't mind. They eventually landed on the team of Steve Englehart and Keith Pollard.

I didn't initially care for dropping two of the main characters and replacing them with love interests for the remaining two. But once some of that seemingly forced soap opera-y stuff got out of the way, there were some decent stories going. Even the "Inferno" stories weren't too bad for being part of an unnecessary crossover.

But then this John Harkness guy started writing the book. The Fantastic Four were captured, an evil clone version of the team replaced them, and readers got several months of nothing but dream sequences. I was thrilled when Walt Simonson finally took over with #334.

Of course, what I didn't know at the time was that Englehart and Harkness were the same man, and that he was using a pseudonym because he himself didn't like what he was being told to do with the stories. So what was being done?

Englehart was brought in under Jim Shooter's rein as editor-in-chief to shake things up with the book. In Englehart's words from his own site...
The FF was always the "real life" adventures of superheroes, but as the series atrophied many people forgot about the real life part; growth and change went out the window. I identified the hermetically-sealed group of Reed & Sue & Ben & Johnny as a main reason the book has grown stale - and Reed & Sue had been saying for years that they should pay more attention to their perpetually 6-year-old son Franklin - so I let 'em. Thus, Ben & Johnny had to find two new members and do new things.
A few months after Englehart began, however, Shooter was fired and Tom DeFalco was given the editor-in-chief role. Initially, he seemed to leave things alone, presumably as he was getting a handle on the new job. But when the next Annual came around -- which tied into the "Evolutionary War" story that ran through many of the 1988 Annuals -- DeFalco evidently started demanding changes that book editor Ralph Macchio put in place.

Changes were also being made on his West Coast Avengers title, and he tried to salvage some of the storyline he began there in FF #322-325. In an open letter Englehart wrote in 1990, he noted...
#322 through #325 were plotted as [West Coast Avengers] stories and shoehorned into FF when WCA was yanked from under Al [Milgrom] and me--that's why the FF is fighting [WCA] villains. #325 originally ended with the Surfer and Mantis getting together and leading into the shelved Surfer #23; in the end, I had to use it to kill Mantis with dignity, because she'd already been trashed behind my back...
That's when DeFalco demanded that Englehart bring Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman back into the book. Englehart then removed his name from the book and began using the Harkness pseudonym. Again, from that open letter...
As always, I did the best I could, because the fans ought not to suffer in these situations, but anyone reading them with the knowledge of what was going on will find them filled with cries of outrage--not the least of which was the entire plot. Alien freezes real FF, sticks 1962 FF in their place -- the man who raised stealing from Jack Kirby to Official Policy never got that, and if you understand that fact, you understand everything that's gone wrong at the House of Ideas. In fact, the 1962 FF was such a hit in the offices, they want to do a mini-series starring them. Almost all the 1962 FF's dialogue in the series was lifted verbatim from FF #1-3, by the way; it actually took a lot of extra time to make that work, but that's what their stunted characters required.
Englehart now recalls that period as "one of the most painful stretches of my career." He tried to do the stories he wanted during this period, but basically had to relegate them all to dream sequences...
Anyway, the dream stories at the end were bare bones versions of the stories I would have done for real if I'd been able to; the last one, how Frank made Alicia leave Ben for Johnny, was the plot that got me the FF in the first place (over the then-not-in-charge Tom DeFalco). In one of my early FFs, back when they had letter columns, I said I had a long term plan working for the book; that was the first half of it. But in the end, as the titles very clearly said: "Bad Dream--And You Can't Wake Up!"
I've never been able to find anything where DeFalco specifically talks to his view of what happened. The closest I've come across is an interview that he conducted with Macchio for Comic Creators on the Fantastic Four in 2005...
Why did Steve leave the book?

We had a parting of ways, creatively. I remember there was a storyline he embarked on and I knew right away that we were beginning to see the characters differently. There were stories he wanted to do that just didn't work for me. I liked a lot of his run, but I didn't like the way he wanted to go so I made a change.
It was an unfortunately inglorious end to what had been a very interesting take on the title. While I disagree with Englehart's initial premise -- that Reed and Sue were fundamentally problematic to the book moving forward -- I can respect some of the ideas that he was able to develop out of that. I didn't like that "John Harkness" period for years until I began hearing about some of the behind-the-scenes problems years later. I'll end with a small request from Englehart's 1990 letter...
Anyway, now you know, so when you think back on my work, as you will from time to time, don't damn me for the stories I wrote under duress. There's a lot of ignorance and aggression around these days... but I'll continue to bank on the understanding of an informed public (still sounds like Captain America, doesn't it?). Let me reiterate that I did write every word of the best stories I could produce under the circumstances, even if every word didn't make it into print...
Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberlan is often lauded as one of the earliest works of comic art genius. Justifiably, if you asked me. Consequently, any number of creators over the years have paid homage to both McCay and his strip in various ways. The most recent one I've come across is Frank Pé's Little Nemo from Magnetic Press. Pé, if you're not familiar, is a Belgian cartoonist who's been working since the mid-1980s from titles like Spirou. He's a notoriously slow artist, however, and I don't believe much, if any, of his work has been translated into English before this.

Many creators trying to honor McCay try to copy his imagination while maintaining the original strip's basic story structure. This seldom works especially well, regardless of how beautiful the illustrations are. They frequently seem to miss the spirit of McCay's characters. Pé has a slightly different approach, however. While the strips do (mostly) follow the same structure of wild events happening before they're interrupted by Nemo being jolted awake, Pé tweaks the idea by presenting Nemo's adventures as the dreams not of Nemo, but of McCay himself. In some cases, even borrowing somewhat from the idea of McCay's other famous strip, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, by having McCay wonder what caused such strange mental wanderings.

The comics here have no continuity whatsoever. The 70-some pages of art were created over several years and for different purposes. About a dozen, in fact, were created very deliberately as stand-alone pieces for different comic festivals. Which means they follow different formats and lengths and rhythms, and focus alternatively on the story or the art. It's almost more of an anthology and detailed sketchbook combined. The pieces range from clever to funny to whimsical to metatextual to just pretty.

And that's really the selling point here. Pé's illustrations are all gorgeous. The stories are a bit scattershot. They all certainly try to pay homage to McCay and his work, but they all do so from slightly different vantage points and in different ways. But the consistent element through all of them is Pé's wonderful art. His linework is natural and fluid, his characters detailed and expressive, his colors vibrant and engaging. Think equal parts Jack Davis, Bill Watterson, and Frank Cho.

I hope Magnetic Press is able to get more of Pé's work translated and into the American market. The brief description I read of Mémoires de l'élan sounds brilliant in addition to being, I'm sure, wonderfully illustrated. While perhaps not the most faithful or cohesive honoring of McCay's Nemo, it is an absolutely stunning book, and a sure hit for fans of the original Slumberland strips.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: Commercialization Ain't New
https://ift.tt/2VZiCHA

Kleefeld on Comics: Load Up on Bookmarks!
https://ift.tt/3u0nqZz

Kleefeld on Comics: The Bird's Eye Kids Go Shopping
https://ift.tt/3CC5OGQ

Kleefeld on Comics: Four-Fisted Tales Review
https://ift.tt/2ZgbveW

Kleefeld on Comics: Thomas Nast's Ignorant Vote
https://ift.tt/3lUA499


The Ignorant Vote by Thomas Nast
The Ignorant Vote by Thomas Nast
The headline image here is the Thomas Nast cover cartoon from an 1876 edition of Harper's Weekly. The title of the image is called "The Ignorant Vote" and ran shortly after that year's elections.

That particular election was very contentious. Without getting into a lot of details, a close modern analogy would be the Bush/Gore race from a few years back. Eventually, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the presidency; however, it's generally believed that it was on the condition of ending the Reconstruction in the South, which was a Democratic goal. While Nast was an abolistionist and often depicted Black people with a level of dignity not afforded them almost anywhere else at the time, he was also a strong supporter of Reconstruction and was upset at its ending. He blamed ignorant voters for making the election so contentious that the compromise needed to be struck. And, in his eyes, ignorant voters were recently freed slaves and Irish-Americans, both caricatured here.

Over at this wikispaces page they summarize the comic this way...
By setting the Irish and Blacks as equal on the scale, he is asserting that their votes are equally inferior. On the upper portion of the scale, “North” is inscribed on the side with the Irishmen, and “South” is inscribed on the side with the Black man. This suggests that Nast believes that North and South are equally negatively affecting United States’ politics. The controversy regarding the Election of 1876 was not just the Black man’s fault; the responsibility is equally shared by Black and White. In both instances, there are outside forces affecting their voting decision other than their personal political beliefs. For the Irish, it is the Roman Catholic Church; for the blacks, it is the white people that they depend on for their livelihood. Both the Church and the white Southerners generally supported the Democratic party; whereas Nast and Harper’s Weekly subscribed to Republican doctrine.
The Irish were racially stereotyped very poorly for generations. They were considered lazy, perpetually drunken louts, not very far removed from apes. In that respect, they were viewed similarly to Black people but, by virtue of their skin color, they just weren't quite as bad. Absurd as it seems to me, I've seen old references where someone makes the comparison, verbally or visually, of apes evolving to Africans evolving to Irish evolving to Caucasians.

Interestingly, while Nast did have a prior history depicting Blacks in America with a level of dignity, rarely resorting to even the generally accepted visual tropes of the day, he evidently had few qualms portraying the Irish in a negative light. He regularly showed them as drunken neanderthals, and here is no exeception. A German-born immigrant himself, one wonders if Nast felt more resentment against the Irish because he was in more direct competition with them. Allegedly, when he was a child in New York City, he was frequently bullied for his small size and he may have transferred that general resentment of a handful of local Irish boys to the Irish as a whole.

Despite being perhaps the most widely recognized American cartoonist at the time, Nast's career began going downhill not long afterwards. His importance diminished significantly after he left Harper's Weekly in the 1880s (and, ironically, Harper's Weekly's significance declined without Nast) and Nast lost most of his wealth in 1884. While he continued working in a variety of (mostly) artistic capacities, he experienced a number of commercial failures but was eventually given a consulship by President Teddy Roosevelt, largely due to his work from years earlier.
Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat is Ben Towle's latest book, which came out last month. It's in an anthology format, telling the stories of various animals that have been used in human warfare. Some of the stories focus on a particular animal, while others look at how a species was used more broadly, and still others fall somewhere in between by providing snippets of stories of individual animals to provide a kind of overview.

One of the things that quickly stood out to me while reading this was the variety. Certainly in the animals he chose to write about (from slugs to seagulls to dolphins to elephants) but more poignently in how he told their stories. He never anthropomorphizes any of the animals, so none of the tales are expressly told from their perspective, but he still finds a number of different approaches to relay them. Some are told by the humans they helped, others from the enemies who stood against them, some are in the present tense, some are past, some relay a single incident, some cover an entire career... Towle has clearly made an effort to ensure the book doesn't get repetitive in any manner, and I suspect that helped spur him to make some very clever decisions in creating this. I thought his dual-storytelling technique on the story about rats was especially clever and well-executed, and his wordless story about Wojtek the bear, while clearly inspired by Larry Hama's famous "Silent Interlude" story in G.I.Joe, is more creatively successful than any of Marvel's "Nuff Said" event books from 2002.

Another standout element for me was that Towle's choice of subjects is surprisingly uplifting. I'm aware, for example, of how some animals have been essentially used as suicide bombers, unaware that they're sacrificing their lives for the sake of killing others and just racing into enemy areas with bombs strapped to them. But none of that is here. In fact, the vast majority of examples fall into the categories of either providing communication or detecting enemies and their equipment. So there's an emphasis on their saving lives, not taking them. In fact, none of the animals presented here are even shown at the ends of their lives -- if their deaths are mentioned, it's generally in a kind of mini-epilogue after a summary of a long and valiant career.

The book is printed with only two colors: black and a kind of beige-y green. This tends to serve Towle's art style well, showcasing some really punchy spotted blacks while still providing tone and texture with the green. It's a style he's certainly used before, and it especially suits the historical material giving it something of an air of fading, but not yet forgotten, memories. An you all know I do enjoy those history comics!

If I had to lodge a complaint, I might say that I was thrown a little by the lettering. It's not bad, by any means, and it actually took me a little while to pinpoint what stood out about it. At first, I thought he was using different font sizes between stories or, if they were the same size, the pages themselves were scaled differently. But I don't think that's what's going on. I think that he's just using different types of fonts for dialogue and captions. They're both Blambot fonts with a hand-written feel, but the dialogue is rendered in all caps as is traditional and the captions have a capital/lowercase mix. Which isn't a problem conceptually, but I think he may have been using the same font size for both -- but with one of them being all caps, it appears larger visually even if they do have the same overall heights. That would be a difficult balance, trying to get that just right, I think, and it's a fairly minor issue ultimately. But, hey, I have to call out something so this doesn't read like Towle just paid me off to write a glowing review!

(Although, Ben, I can delete that previous paragraph for a small "donation!" 😄)

I was really pleased with this. On top of being just a good book of the type of material I usually enjoy reading, the anthology format helped serve the reading/focus challenges I was talking about last week. The book retails at $24.95 and came out from Dead Reckoning last month. Worth picking up!
You know, I get that some companies think it's a neat idea to make comics to promote themselves. And I get that creators hired to do those comics have a lot of constraints placed on them, not the least of which is trying to make a reasonably coherent and vaguely entertaining story out of absolute drek. But this is right down there with the worst.
Not that you're interested, but that big white box on the bottom of the cover was where a small box of crayons was glued. (You can see some of the residue stained the inside of the cover as well.) The yellow box above/behind the dog on the cover could be used for an individual grocer to put their own name/logo.
Although I certainly have my preferences when it comes to comics and I tend to focus on particular creators and styles and genres that I like, I do try make an ongoing attempt to gain as broad an appreciation of comics as possible. So while I picked up the Kamandi Archives because I really like Jack Kirby, I got the Justice League Archives so I had a better understanding of Kirby and Stan Lee were reacting to when Martin Goodman told them to come up with their own superhero team. Consequently, I have a number of comics and graphic novels that I don't necessarily enjoy for their own sake, but appreciate them from a historical perspective and find them sometimes useful for research.

One problem, though, is actually reading older Golden Age stories to conduct the research. Setting aside the horribly sexist and racist attitudes many of them display, many of the stories are just drek. The plots are shallow, the dialogue is stilted, characterization is minimal... plot holes abound, the storytelling is confusing, the illustrations are crude...

I get it. Comics were basically a commodity item, and publishers were trying to churn out as many as they could. They hired anyone who could string two sentences together to write them, anyone who'd ever sat at a drafting table to draw them, and they had to crank out whole issues in sometimes as little as a single weekend! Making comics wasn't a craft, it was a job. It was just a notch above putting bolts on a car in an assembly line. That's why we have differentiated artists, inkers, colorists, etc. -- that was Will Eisner's idea to streamline comics' production and make it more like an assembly line.

But that also means the stories aren't as good as they could be. Which maybe wasn't so bad if you were eleven and spent a dime for a single issue every other month. There was enough of a gap between readings that you didn't notice that Batman was being drawn in the same eight or ten poses every issue. Or that Daredevil was repeating the same handful of plots. Or that Nelvana hadn't actually done anything heroic herself in a dozen issues.

But reading them in a more condensed form, whether that's in a fancy Archive edition or digitally via comiXology or even copies of the original comics, that can be hard to wade through for extended periods. They can become a chore to push through.

I don't know that I have a real point to this, other than to suggest, if you're reading through many of these GA books, I recommend having a number of bookmarks handy! I can't tell you how many of reprint books are only part-way read because I just had to put them away for a while.