Friday, March 31, 2006

Farewell, Andrea

Well, it turns out that Andrea DiVito will be leaving The Thing after the Hercules issue. Naturally, I'm disappointed as I've really enjoyed his work on the book thus far, and I had planned on writing several posts here about how great Andrea's work was.

That said, we can look forward to the work of Kieron Dwyer on the book. I know Kieron's work largely from his run during Kurt Busiek's Avengers a few years back. Including one of their "Nuff Said" silent issues, where Kieron could not fall back on Kurt's script to describe anything. For me, I felt that was one of the better of the Nuff Said issues. I think that says a lot to Kieron's storytelling abilities.

Now, personally, I like Andrea's illustration style a little better but, ultimately, I'm more concerned with the overall storytelling. Although I came to Andrea's Thing with few preconceptions of his artwork, but with Kieron's work, I comfortable that readers will be in good hands.

Farewell, Andrea and welcome, Kieron!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Coloring The Thing

Continuing my series on why you should pick up The Thing, I'm going to address today one of the parts of the book that I have yet to see highlighted anywhere: the coloring. Yes, the portion of a comic that didn't even warrant a credit until the late 1960s.

Let's take a look at two images of the Thing, shall we...?



On the left is the cover from Fantastic Four #535, while on the right is the cover to the upcoming Thing #6. Even at this smaller size, you should be able to discern a difference between how the Thing has been colored. In the FF, Ben's coloring makes each of the rocks that make up his hide somewhat three-dimensional. Each rock has it's own highlight and shadow, giving each rock its own depth. In The Thing, though, we see a textured appearance. The individual rocks still get their own attention, with their own light sources, but the rocks aren't nearly as smooth. They've been battered and bashed over the years, and so they are no longer uniform across the surface. The little dings and divets over the surface of each rock shows a series of smaller highlights and shadows, giving a more mottled, or textured, appearance.

Now, is either approach more correct than the other? No, of course not. While you can certainly have an individual preference for one over the other, I'd like to point what I see as a logical (and again, nuanced) reason for the difference. The Thing is centered on one character and, something like Stever Gerber's run on She-Hulk, he's rather isolated from the rest of humanity. The colorist here (Larura Villari, by the way) has chosen to highlight that fact by texturing him in a manner noticeably different than the other characters. Compare her coloring of the Thing against Spider-Man, the thug, and the woman in that image. You'll notice that, of the four of them, Ben is the only one who doesn't have a slick, polished sheen to him. He's rough, textured and stands apart from the norm.

That's the attention to detail that's going into The Thing. That's the level of quality and devotion these folks are putting into it. Personally, I think that's really slick and worthy of our attentions. Personally, I think you ought to pick up the book and have your local shop start pulling it for you every month.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Slott Subtlety

One thing I appreciate in any story is when a writer provides his audience with all the necessary information, but refuses to hit them over the head by connecting the dots for them. I tend to not like Spielberg films precisely because he tends to pander down to his audience, force-feeding them plot points and themes so that even the most dense viewers "get it."

Dan Slott doesn't do that however. Looking at Thing #4, for example. When the Thing arrives home on page six, he encounters his friend and teammate the Invisible Woman handing him her youngest child to look after while she storms after her husband, Mr. Fantastic. She presently finds him tinkering with his equipment and she is enfuriated because their older child "lying in bed sick to his stomach!" Reed expresses surprise at how soon that happened, to which Sue resonds that, even though their son said his father was experimenting on him, she refused to believe it. Reed is left stammering to explain as we change scenes.

We later learn that the equipment Reed was playing with was, in fact, a hologram. He explains that it was "an excuse to get Ben out of the house with the kids." The story continues by following Ben's day with his god-children, including the obligatory super villain. His god-son -- the one who was sick -- spends the entire day moping about until late in the evening, Ben asks what the problem is. The child explains that Reed's experiment on him was to give him $1,000 dollars and spend it as quickly as possible on himself, with the thinking being that the child would indulge in any number of frivolities. There's no surprise to learn that he does indeed spend the money on toys, comics, and candy. In relaying the story, he notes that "there's just so much candy I can eat before I get sick of it."

The beauty of it, in my mind, is that that the phrase "sick of it" is almost exclusively used as a metaphor and not meant to be taken literally. By switching that around and using the term in a more literal sense, it nicely ties back to the reasoning behind Susan's agitation early on. While the bait-and-switch tactic was employed more obviously with regard to the scientist conducting a social experiment instead of a stereotypical "hard science" one, the more nuanced approach with the child's sickness makes for a surprising little gem in the midst of what could have been a very straightforward story.

It's that type of attention to detail about Slott's writing that I really enjoy, and that's why I'm continuing to suggst that you tell your local shop dealer to have them pull The Thing for you every month.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Slott Continuity

One of the reasons that the Marvel Universe is popular is it's continuity. As Brian Hibbs recently noted in his "Tilting at Windmills" column, the Marvel brand is rather saleable in and of itself precisely because of the continuity among its various titles. But Dan Slott goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to continuity.

In Thing #1, Ben defeats a villain called Cauldron. As SHIELD carts away the foe, he swears justice and revenge. More recently, in She-Hulk #6, Ben approaches Jen to ask if she would represent him in a case that has recently come up. Interestly, Jen has to turn down the job precisely because her law firm has already given her the same case to represent Cauldron!

The Spider-Man/Human Torch limited series was absolutely dripping with continuity, noting such memorable events as the creation of the Spider-Mobile and the alien symbiote costume saga. As I've noted before, I am on the Board of Directors for the Marvel Chronology Project and it was brilliantly easy to drop each of those issues into context with everything else.

I could go on listing all the instances of Dan's acknowledgement and/or use of Marvel's continuity, but his She-Hulk and Thing titles dovetail each other very nicely, despite the fact that neither is required reading for the other. So the question becomes, if Marvel fans buy their books for continuity and a Dan-Slott-written book is one of the best places to get that these days (I could go on about how Brian Michael Bendis can't even keep his OWN continuities straight, no matter how well written it is) NOT TO MENTION that Slott is an excellent writer with a great sense of humor, how is it that Thing and She-Hulk are not selling better?

Here's a thought: when you go into your comic book shop next, tell them to put those two great titles on your pull list? You'll thank me for it.

Unless, of course, you're a DC person or something and don't care about Marvel continuity or good story-telling or anything. :)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Money Can't Buy Happiness

I thought I'd start my talks about The Thing by looking at the basic theme of the first four issues: money can't buy happiness. Over in J. Michael Straczynski's Fantastic Four, one of the plot developments he made was to make the Thing a multi-billionaire. It's largely a sub-plot within that book, but it's an interesting notion to take a classic blue-collar archetype character and see how they handle the, for them, unique situation of suddenly coming into a lot of money.

Now, I'm not certain if the plot point came up first and Dan Slott starting playing it up more, or if Slott specifically asked to have Straczynski write that in so it could be a launching point for the new series. In either event, it's provided a nice backdrop for Slott's storylines, allowing for Ben Grimm to have some classic plots reminiscent of Marvel Two-in-One but still create some new forms of interaction with his companions.

Take, for example, issue #1. The book starts off with the Thing and Black Goliath fighting a new villain named Cauldron. The story reads much like a classic superhero fisticuff, with the somewhat more modern twist at the end of some bystanders claiming that they'll sue for pain and suffering. More interesting, however, is that Ben learns after the fight that Black Goliath had only invited him over in the first place to help pay for some of his research. Not to make Goliath a cold and impersonal character, he still seems to maintain his friendship with Ben and cares about his personal life -- a more distinct tip of the hat to the old Two-in-One stories where they first met -- but the subtext of using his friend's wealth as a means to further his own ends seems to taint the relationship somewhat. Even in #4, his oldest friend, Reed Richards, hits Ben up for money and, although Reed's intentions are shown to be more altruistic, Ben's impression is that the relationship is again tainted by his financial status.

The message is abundantly clear, certainly by #4, that a man's measure is not tied to the size of his bank account. Many people dream the "American dream" of "making it big" and "striking it rich" but those dreams aren't really worth having if you aren't aware of what you truely enjoy and what really makes you happy. When was the last time Marth Stewart was really happy? Has Paris Hilton ever been truely content? I'm not about to pass judgement on either of them and, despite their charicatures in the book, I don't think Slott has either. But it's a question that he does seem to think that we should all ask ourselves. Is the money we earn (or are given) what makes us happy, or is it something else? Does the money have value if we can't be content?

And you thought this new series was just another directionless superhero slugfest title! So, if you haven't already, tell your local comic shop dealer to put The Thing on your pull list.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Pull Dan Slott's Thing

After the past several days of (what I consider) somewhat thoughtful analysis of Steve Gerber's She-Hulk, I was concerned that today's post would be rather disappointing in it's content. But I read Dan Slott's recent call to action and it sparked some ideas.

The short version of the story is that Dan Slott's new series, The Thing, isn't doing so hot in terms of sales numbers, and creators Slott and Andrea DiVito have put together a contest to help raise the sales of the book that they love working on so much. You can read about the contest over at Newsarama. So over the next days and weeks, I'll be talking (among other things) about how The Thing really is a great series and worth picking up.

Let me start off by saying in that past year or two, Dan Slott has quickly become one of my favorite writers. He does an excellent job of plot development and characterization, not to mention having a great sense of humor. His books are some of the few that I read that have the same sense of fun and simple enjoyment that I got out of comics as a kid.

I don't have a lot of time to go into all the nuances and great storytelling in his book just at the moment but, like I said, I'll be taking some time out over the next days and weeks to plug all the great reasons to... ahem... pull Slott's Thing.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Seven Soldiers of Steve: Epilogue, Part 3

This is the third and final installment of my contribution to the Seven Soldiers of Steve blog theme started over at plok's A Trout In The Milk. I've been looking at Steve Gerber's run on Sensational She-Hulk as an epilogue to the themes he began and established back during his run on Defenders.

Bob Doom
I have to admit up front that I think Sensational She-Hulk #18 is probably the weakest story in Gerber's run on the series. It doesn't seem to have the sub-text of Gerber's other stories, and the main joke is on the cover.

The basic premise is that She-Hulk gets a client who discovers that his dentist has implanted a receiver into his mouth in place of a filling. The receiver picks up the local radio station and the client wants to sue. It turns out the dentist is Dr. Doom -- Dr. Bob Doom, the fifth cousin of Victor Von Doom. The receiver was actually designed to pick up "an ultra-high-frequency digital signal and transmit it directly to the nervous system." Basically it's a mind-control device, which Bob plans to use to have his richest patients sign over their wealth to him. She-Hulk beats up Bob, and everything's right with the world.

I'm just not seeing any sub-text at all. I'm not seeing anything but a straightforward superhero story, with the exception of the one-note joke about Jen fighting Dr. Doom's fifth cousin. I suppose I could argue that Bob's jealousy of his more famous cousin is some kind of comment on appreciating what you have, despite the relative successes of other family members, but that doesn't seem to ring like a message per se. It seems out of place with the rest of the arc, but fortunately Gerber doesn't end his run on this story.

Nosferata
In many respects, Gerber's last two solo issues of Sensational She-Hulk have a lot of similarities with #10-11, making for a nice bookend effect on Gerber's run. Superficially, there seem to be a lot of comments on some rather trite and superficial aspects of marketing; however, we see again the subtext commentary on living on the fringes of society.

Issue #19 is essentially an origin of a new character: Nosferata. It's largely a parody of Tim Burton's first Batman movie which had come out the year before. It follows the basic plot of the movie, occasionally mimicking the dialogue. Tim and Blair Hayes' daughter Purple (yes, her name's Purple Hayes, but Gerber uses restraint and never uses her complete name like that, allowing the reader to get the joke without drawing excessive attention to it) sees them gunned down by a thug, and she grows up spending her family's resources training herself to avenge her parents' murder. As She-Hulk sets up her law offices, she sees the city blanketed in bat symbols and merchandising that permeates every aspect the city -- down to the toilet paper in the hotel bathrooms -- symbolizing that Nosferata will soon make her presence known.

Issue #20 takes a departure from the Batman movie, but still plays off the Batman mythos. Readers are treated to a romp through Dorkham Asylum with residents like Three-Face, Dogwoman, and Big Al G'houl. They're all led by Jack Serious, an obvious parody and polar opposite of Jack Nicholas' Joker. The plot heads back to Burton territory as Jack Serious tries to inflict his death-dealing chemicals on the population, only to be thwarted by Nosferata in much the same way that Batman defeated Joker in the movie, while She-Hulk takes care of Three-Face, Dogwoman and the others.

On the surface, it doesn't seem much different than a version the movie as seen by the usual gang of idiots at Mad Magazine. We do have two things, though, that stand out.

First is Jack's motivation. Rather than simply being an insane madman, Jack was evidently quite the psychologist. His mandatory villain rant includes the following diabtribe: "The concept of the self evolves along a parallel curve to that of the society it inhabits! As economics eclipsed art, literature, and even science in the cultural consensus of what is significant -- as 'freedom' was reinterpreted to mean merely 'free enterprise,' a radical redefinition of humanity became necessary. To maintain our sanity, we would have to re-conceptualize our selves as disposable ingredients in the industrial process..." Much like She-Hulk's recognition of society's change to a media-driven, commercial enterprise from #11, Jack sees himself as individually irrelevant in the grand scope of what America has become. But in that recognition, whereas She-Hulk -- the hero -- took solace and contentment in her isolation, Jack -- the villain -- wallows in the "fragile wisps of despair." In #11, Gerber was showing the readers the positive aspects of enjoying one's marginalization, whereas he shows the negative aspects of becoming consumed by societal isolation in #20.

Second, it is the combined efforts of She-Hulk and Nosferata both that defeated Jack and his cadre. Gerber had earlier established She-Hulk as an individual on the fringes of society, and he creates Nosferata as a Batman anagram to quickly establish this character as a lone wolf. But -- and here is the important message -- even individuals living on the outskirts of society need companionship from time to time. The message is rather subtle throughout most of the story and indeed most of the arc, but Gerber indulges readers in the final panel by providing his message somewhat more obviously. As Nosferata drives She-Hulk back to her hotel, she notes, "The Dark Princess must walk alone. But a little company on the road is sometimes welcome."

In Conclusion...
Steve Gerber spent a large portion of his run on Sensational She-Hulk treating readers to a wide variety of jokes, gags and puns. Not to mention some classic, old-fashioned superheroics. There's also some social observations -- sans commentary -- that he points out with regard to media and marketing.

But running beneath the surface of the whole series, it seems to me, is Gerber commenting on the position of those pushed to the margins of society. That one can embrace one's "otherness" and live happily on the fringe. But at the same time, one of these marginalized individuals does not need to live in complete isolation. From time to time, one can -- and should -- meet up with other like-minded individuals. We may need to walk alone, but a little company along the way is sometimes welcome.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Seven Soldiers of Steve: Epilogue, Part 2

Today, I'll be continuing my examination of Steve Gerber's She-Hulk, looking specifically at #14-17, the "Cosmic Squish Principle." This is part of plok's Seven Soldiers of Steve theme, discussed on his A Trout In The Milk blog.

The Cosmic Squish Principle
I'm going to TRY to start with a simple plot explanation first. Quite frankly, though, simple is hardly the word I'd use to describe this story!

Picking up from the previous issue, #14 starts with a Critic (a splinter faction of the Watchers) examining a black hole that is literally plungered, creating the "only known trans-dimensional blowhole in the continuum." This spews forth a plethora of small, black boxes that seem to emit magnetic anomolies (the cause of She-Hulk's car breaking down in #13). When Jen reaches her hand into the four-sided box, though, it disappears as it passes through, reappearing in Howard the Duck's refridgerator, much to his surprise.

She-Hulk takes the box to Brent Wilcox, a physics professor she knows, where he explains what it is: "If there are multiple universes, there must be some control principle governing how many and which ones survive. You know -- the way natural selection manages the perpetuation and extinction of species. At least two types of universe would have to be eliminated: those not viable on their own, of course and those which encroach on other universes in a way that threatens the multiversal structure...Now suppose the, ah, 'encorachiverses' never really die. Suppose that like viruses, they can be contained, but not eradicated. The frame could be some natural -- or technological -- or even mystical device -- that keeps them in quarantine and occupying as little space as possible." Got all that?

Now here's the problem. All these encroachiverses were what spewed out of that black hole, and breaking the seal on them allows the encroachiverse to actually encroach on the rest of the universe. Given humans' curiosity, and that all of the boxes got shot to Earth, they'll eventually all be poked and prodded until all of these encroachiverse send the universe into chaos. The Critic decides that he needs a non-indigenous life-form to help set things in order. Enter Howard the Duck.

Howard's unwilling arrival knocks Brent into the box he and Jen were examining. Naturally, She-Hulk dives in afterwards, taking Howard with her. The universe they find themselves in is "the Baloneyverse -- a cosmos of cold cuts" which changes She-Hulk into plain Jen Walters.

That takes readers all the way to the end of #14. Since I'm eager to get into some actual analysis, let me sum up the rest of the story by saying that She-Hulk undergoes several more changes, there are several dues ex machina style rescues from The Critic, we get several such-n-such-verse gags, and it all ends with She-Hulk using the human Black Hole to suck in all the encroachiverses that got spewed out at the beginning of the story.

All of this villainy is actually the work of Dr. Angst, an old Howard the Duck foe who calls himself the Master of Mudane Mysticism. His ultimate goal is to rule the universe. But instead of trying to usurp all of the various worthy leaders, he instead intends to eliminate all but the "dullest places in all of what currently comprises existence." He intends to create the "Insipiverse -- the quintessential distillation of cosmic tedium! A universe of spiritual topor, aesthetic monotony, and intellectual inertia!" His thinking is that a universe so bland would make someone as mundane as himself look brilliant, creative and original thereby making him the most powerful being in the universe. This is, of course, the warped sort of brilliant thinking that Steve Gerber made himself known for while writing Howard the Duck.

Let me start some analysis here by looking at the cover of issue #14. Or, I should say, covers...



The first one I'm showing here is Brian Bolland's original pencil sketch for the cover. Bolland was something of a hot commodity at the time, and his cover work was a key selling point in the original solicitations. Curiously, however, when the book was published, readers saw that second image, a cover drawn by Mark Texeira. It's virtually an identical image, so clearly Texeira had seen Bolland's work at some point. The third image is Bolland's final cover. This was sent separtely to subscribers and comic shops about a month after #14 came out. It is, in fact, just a cover that is used to promote the Cosmic Squish storyline.

The promo cover says that the Texeira cover was spewed out by one of those "squished" universes, but that clearly didn't happen for real. It seems to me that the Texeira cover was banged out quickly to make a deadline. The color trapping is slap-dashed (not that you can really see that in the scan) and the inking seems rather rushed as well. I can well envision that Bolland faxed his original sketch over to the Marvel offices and -- due to his relative isolation in Great Britain -- was somehow not able to get his final version to them by the time the cover had to go to the printer. In a Stan Lee-ish fashion, someone (perhaps editor Bobbie Chase) grabbed a readily available artist (Texeira) to crank out a finished version of the cover, based on Bolland's fax. Note that some of the more intricate background details like the blender and beaters are absent in Texeira's version.

Now, this has nothing to do with Gerber's writing of course, but I think it's particularly seredipidous that a man who's been writing on this theme of isolation or marginalization has the cover of one of his book's subject to a very real effect of that theme. Bolland's remote location, relative to Marvel, seems to have impacted the very book itself!

Getting to the actual story, there are plenty of instances of physical isolation from society: She-Hulk's physicist friend is thrown into the Baloneyverse by himself; She-Hulk and Howard are dropped into this alien landscape following him; Dr. Angst and his partners/minions are all in positions of social ostricization (Angst himself is in prison, Tillie the Hun works for Hefty Huggable Women's Health Club, the Spanker takes his cues from the solitary Punisher, the Black Hole works as a circus sideshow attraction, and Sitting Bullseye operates in a seemingly remote Survival Course training facility); She-Hulk is at one point sealed in one her cousin's old vaults; The Terror is housed in a nursing home; and The Critic is, by his nature, separated from society.

Interestingly, though, there's something of a shift in the theme here. Throughout the story, the encroachiverses start taking up the space formerly occupied by the universe. Rather than erasing that space, however, it is simply compressed to allow for the encroachiverse's existence. What this means is that towards the end of #17, London's Big Ben can be seen from downtown Manhattan. It is a visual represenation of Marshall McLuhan's global village. She-Hulk notes at one point that "we've cross all of Kansas and Missouri in under five minutes" in her flying car. Even more interesting is that She-Hulk's computerized trip meter notes that, when they arrive in London, they've travelled nearly 300,000 miles in the past 6,000 hours despite the impression of having only flown for ten or fifteen minutes. An indication that world is not, in a literal sense, getting smaller, merely that it appears to be getting smaller. It's easier to "commute" virtually from New York to London given the technology at our disposal.

Further, McLuhan wrote that "unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence." And indeed, we see here that most of the characters run around in terror (possibly the reason Gerber saw fit to include the character The Terror) of the superimposed co-existence of the multiple universes until they finally realize what is happening. It is only in the last few pages of the story in which they divine the actual threat and, working together, beat the villains. It is also interesting to note that The Terror becomes mysteriously absent just as She-Hulk takes advantage of the relative proximity of Big Ben during her fight with Tillie. A physical representation of the panic terrors receeding with cognition of the situation?

The question then arises, if She-Hulk is indeed to be considered part of Gerber's Defenders storyline, does this in fact really fit thematically with everything that preceeded it? I say, "Absolutely."

With "The Cosmic Squish Principle," we see Gerber continuing his theme of individuals working on fringes of society. The protagonists largely work in relative isolation, and are only drawn together to defeat the greater threat. But extending that theme, Gerber seems to be saying that the global village allows us to reach out beyond our normal geographic confines to seek aid. At the beginning of the story, She-Hulk and Weezi were in Vermont, Howard was in Cleveland, Brent was in New York, and The Critic was "at the fringes of the galaxy, in the vicinity of the Magellanic Cloud." By the end of the story, they've all met and worked together, thanks to the various technologies available to them -- only to go their separate ways again on the very last page.

It would seem that Gerber, in the years between his original Defenders work and 1990 when he took over Sensational She-Hulk, found that technology can be used to overcome some of the societal marginalization that occurs for many people. That we are still individuals and occasionally find ourselves pushed to the fringes of society, but that we can utilize the technology at hand to find others who have also been pushed to those same fringes. Although technology breeds specialization which can breed feelings of isolation, that same technology can also be used to bring together the specialists to form a loose society in and of itself.

This theme is even more directly addressed in Gerber's final She-Hulk stories, and I'll address those in tomorrow's blog.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Seven Soldiers of Steve: Epilogue, Part 1

Over at plok's A Trout In The Milk blog, the comic blogosphere was challenged to discuss Steve Gerber's Defenders as The World's Longest Graphic Novel. If you haven't read the premise, you might want to go check out the Seven Soldiers of Steve section of A Trout In The Milk before continuing here.

One thing that plok did not mention in his original outline/premise is Gerber's later work on Sensational She-Hulk. Since all of the "main" titles were spoken for, I offered to tackle this as a sort of epilogue to Gerber's work on Defenders.

John Byrne started the Sensational She-Hulk series as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to the superhero genre within comics. She-Hulk was fully aware that she was in a comic book and would not only break the fourth wall by talking to the readers, but the book took on something of a commentary about physcial aspects of the medium. In one instance, She-Hulk -- in an effort to escape the inevitable death trap -- ripped off a corner of the comic page, raced across the "ad" on the next page, and jumped back into the story next to the villain, promptly whacking him in the jaw. Readers were also treated to "discussions" between the editor and the writer/artist in the form of Post-It notes left on the art pages.

Byrne left the book after issue #8 over a creative dispute with the editor. The next issue was a fill-in, following much the same tongue-in-cheek format, and Steve Geber arrived for #10 with artist Bryan Hitch ready to take the book in a new direction.

What's immediately noticeable is that the fourth wall is put back into place. She-Hulk no longer discusses plot points with the reader, or takes advantage of the comic book medium. It appears to have shifted back to a relatively standard superhero title. Steve also makes a drastic shift away from the legal aspects of the book by having She-Hulk's boss fire her in that same issue. Despite her various attempts over the years to fit in with the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, or even the District Attorney's office, she's now cast adrift and pushed to the margins of the superhero set. Under John Byrne, She-Hulk saw mainstream guest-stars like Spider-Man and Mr. Fantastic. Those are gone entirely now, leaving her to contend with Gerber's own creations like: Howard the Duck, Pseudoman, Tillie the Hun, and Nosferata.

The Adventures of Pseudoman
Gerber's first two issues, as noted above, change She-Hulk's status quo rather dramatically. After being fired, She-Hulk is accosted by billionarie Lexington Loopner. He's the head of a high-tech marketing agency that is able to use "symbols to generate pseudo-meaning for a society that gags on substance." It turns out that a disgruntled employee has stolen a pseudonic imaging helmet that essentially allows the wearer to physically become his/her idealized self-image. The thief expands the helmet's range so that New Yorkers are treated to 20-story tall monsters in the guise of Uncle Sam, Ronald McDonald and ET (well, legal approximations of them, at any rate). She-Hulk eventually stops him by frying the helmet's circuits with a high-voltage cable, for which Loopner offers to continue marketing She-Hulk as a client.

What I find intersting is that the story and message of the piece is deeply hidden, despite the obvious references to Superman, Mickey Mouse, and Star Trek. There really is no commentary on the incorporation of symbols, of the utilization of "pseudo-meaning." They're presented simply as the reality of the world in which we live. Loopner says, quite frankly, "... for approximately a decade now, intellect has been passe. We live in a visceral culture... Law and government are now a show. When they bore or discomfit, attention drifts elsewhere." Communication without content is the way things are. "Reality and perception are two very different things... I'm in the business of managing the latter."

The commentary is actually at the very end of the story, as She-Hulk thinks about Loopner's offer. She chooses to accept that marketing is pervasive and exploitative, and that many people willingly subject themselves to its mercy. But she (and I can't help but assume Gerber is speaking for himself here as well) "just can't see getting involved with all that media manipulation and craziness... I'm conent to lead the lifestyle of the impoverished..." She (and, again, I would assume Gerber) actually like being on the fringe, out from the mainstream, and there's contentment and validity in that.

Village of the Darned
Issue #12 was a fill-in by Peter David, so the next story comes in Sensational She-Hulk #13. The basic story here is simple enough: She-Hulk and Weezi find themselves stuck in a small town, where everyone is completely wholesome. There's no swearing and even the relatively innocent thought of spooning with one's girlfriend literally brings a meteor down onto one's head. It turns out that an alien who survives on psychic energy has taken control of the town pastor who, in turn, has convinced the entire town to repress anything resembling indecency. She-Hulk is able to get a hailstorm of meteors to rain down on her as she tackles the alien, and turns him into a puddle of goo, thereby saving the town.

Here again, She-Hulk has the role of the outsider. Of course, one could argue that the alien was as well when he first appeared, but within the context of the story, it's She-Hulk who's pushed to the fringes of society.

I might take this opportunity to point out that She-Hulk is not left completely isolated. She has with her, as a sidekick of sorts, Weezi Mason -- formerly the Blonde Phantom. Weezi was very much a typical superhero back in the 1940s, but disuse over the intervening years let her age a bit, and she's no longer quite as capable as a bona-fide superhero. One could argue, though, that she bears some similarities to She-Hulk in that regard -- despite her previous involvement with the All-Winners Squard -- she no longer has ties to that group and was left, again, on the margins. One could view that even more literally, since the Blonde Phantom did not see print in any capacity for four decades before she was brought back into the main pages of a printed publication. While bringing the Blonde Phantom back into action was Byrne's idea, isolating her solely with She-Hulk was Gerber's.

Tomorrow, I'll continue looking at Steve Gerber's She-Hulk and discuss "The Cosmic Squish Principle!"

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cover Comments

I had a brief discussion with my local comic shop manager as he was ringing up this week's batch of books for me. As he was flipping through my stack to check the prices, he made a brief comment on each of the covers. I found it an interesting notion as to how someone might actually scan and analyze the titles they see on the shelf on any given week...

"Nice cover. Is that Mayhew? No, looks like Horn."
"Not bad."
"S'okay."
"That's kind of funky."
"That's kind of out there, too."

I happen to know this guy well enough to know that he's not going to be really interested in any of these books anyway. He's more of a die-hard Silver Age fan -- which accounts for the quality of their back issue selection. But I find it interesting as a commentary on what someone who might not be reading these books regularly might think as they scanned across the rack of new material. Does "kind of funky" warrant picking the book up? How does "out there" rate on the scale of attracability? Do either of those hold a candle to "nice cover"?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Jack Kirby Collector #45

Just a quick note to say that I got my copy of Jack Kirby COllector #45 in the mail yesterday, and I've just finished reading through.

It always amazes me how much great material there is in every issue, and how inferior my meager column always seems by comparison. But I always get engrossed in each issue and The Wife even noted that I was unusually quiet and withdrawn while I was reading this particular issue.

In any case, check this one out. It's got a great interview with Jack's son, Neal, plus Mark Evanier's Jack FAQ is brilliant as well. Plus, an interview conducted by Ray Zone back in the day, a 3-D back cover, and the usual round of Kirby columns -- including my own Incidental Iconography.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Non-Fiction Comics

You know what I'm surprised we don't see more of? Non-fiction comics. Jim Ottaviani and his GT Labs have produced some wonderful science-related books, as has Jay Hosler. Then we've got Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. And what else? Not a whole lot.

I'm sure the comparative sales of the above books are somewhat less that your average Marvel and DC title, but Ottaviani, Hosler, and Gonick have produced some great works that are entirely based on real events. Because of that, they're entertaining AND educational. There's plenty of drama and interest in real life events -- it only takes a decent storyteller to keep the story from becoming boring. And what are comic creators but good storytellers?

I'm sure a lot of creators have interests outside standard comic book fare. I know John Byrne, for example, is an avid gun collector and Salvador Larroca was a cartographer before he started drawing comics. Joe Sinnott is a big sports fan. I'm sure there are plenty of great stories there.

Now there was a series of rock and roll comics that gave some histories of various rock stars. I seem to recall a couple of books on the life of Pope John Paul -- one of them by Marvel of all companies! But those (at least the ones I've read) were actually rather dull. All it would take would be a good creator and they could really create some dyanmite pieces.

Now, admittedly, you wouldn't be able to realistically sell them in the "traditional" direct market. But the bookstore market has opened up dramatically in the past few years and the actual educational market certainly has a lot of potential. So where are all the great non-fiction stories?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Galactic Bounty Hunters

Holy cow! Only a few days ago was I railing in disappointment about Marvel's lack of interest in their history, and then at Wizard World this weekend, they announce Lisa (daughter of Jack) Kirby is working with long-time Kirby collaborator Mike Thibodeaux on one of Jack's unfinished projects: Galactic Bounty Hunters.

I have to say that I'm nearly speechless. This really doesn't strike me as something Marvel would be doing. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, I'm a big fan of Kirby's work -- even if it is something that's being filtered through his daughter. This just totally strikes me as something very unexpected and surprising to come from Marvel.

Um... wow.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Singularity of Vision

I'm a relatively visual person, and that's an easy explanation of why I like comics over "traditional" prose. But that doesn't explain why I like comics more than TV, movies or other more visual media.

Have you ever read through the credits on a TV show or movie? They go on forever; you've got several script writers, editors, producers, actors, directors, set designers... the list goes on and on. And the problem I have with that is that there are SO many people working on the project that the original message(s) get diluted in the final result. Even if you have one person writing, directing and producing a piece, the actors all bring their own unique interpretations to the table. The few movies and shows that I like are the ones whose creator had such a powerful vision that it shines through DESPITE the number of other people working on it. Not surprisingly, those works are ones who are generally associated quite directly with the name of the main creator. Friz Lang's Metropolis. Orson Wells' Citizen Kane. Joss Whedon's Serenity. To a somewhat lesser degree, Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek. George Lucas' Star Wars. Joss Whedon's Firefly.

That's not to say, certainly, that those individuals are the only ones who had something to say, and enough power/drive to get their message through, but they also had a message I appreciated hearing and was well done.

Comics, by their nature, have considerably fewer people working on them and, of those that do, there are generally only one or two people who really have a key role in presenting the message(s). Namely, the writer and the artist. Those two people, if they have a strong vision, find it presented nearly undiluted at all. Take a book like Planetary or Watchmen. Powerful stuff put out by essentially two guys. You want to make something even more powerful? Have only one person working on the whole thing.

Will Eisner. Jack Kirby. Frank Miller. Jeff Smith. These are guys who write and draw very well, and they have something to say. That's partly, I think, why they're legends in the comic book community. At least moreso than, say, Curt Swan or John Buscema. Not to slight either of those two excellent artists, mind you, but I think Miller and Smith will occupy a somewhat different place in the comic book hall of fame than Swan or Buscema.

But it's that type of singularity of vision that I appreciate in my media and why I don't really care for mass-market TV and movies. No matter how well scritped or acted (or whatever) it is, it does not have the same singular voice that you get with comic books. And I think that's why Hollywood has been looking to comics for good ideas lately, because they recognize at some level that voice and are responding to it. (Obviously, though, they generally want to put their OWN stamp on the piece at that point and dilute the message. I doubt many Hollywood execs put that much conscious thought into WHY comics often have better stories than movies and TV.)

But that boils down why I like comics better. After all, why would I want to bother with one medium whose modern conventions inherently make it less powerful than some other medium? Why not just skip right to the more powerful medium in the first place?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

History of Fandom


I mentioned earlier that I was reading Harry Warner, Jr.'s All Our Yesterdays -- a history of science fiction fandom -- in the hopes that it would give some insights about comic book fandom. I amazed at he parallels between this book and Ron Frantz's Fandom: Confidential which covers a good portion of comic book fandom in the late sixties up through the 1980s.

There's definitely a lot of interesting and historical material in both books, but I can't help but see an over-indulgence on the part of both authors to focus on some of the petty squabbles among fans. Neither of the authors speak only to those feuds, mind you, and there is quite a lot of good material in both books. But there are significant portions that are just dreadfully dull, as they talk about what have turned out to be entirely inconsequential disagreements. The names are largely meaningless since most of the players in those little dramas went on to do nothing of consequence for their respective fandoms. Both books, I believe, inadvertently leave the reader with something of a distaste for the notion of fandom.

To be sure, the history of something as vaguely defined as fandom -- whether it be science fiction or comic books or whatever -- is hard to clarify and organize into a cohesive, logical format. Very little was actually recorded, and little of that has survived. Memories become hazy, and the view of fandom changes radically depending on one's role in it. Bill Schelly did an excellent job with his Golden Age of Comics Fandom book, but it sadly only covers up through the 1960s. Henry Jenkins has also written some excellent pieces on science fiction fandom, but their focus is generally on the psychology of fans in general.

All of these authors are well worth reading, in my opinion. But what I'd like to see is a historical view of fandom that indeed covers the whole history of fandom. If I had the time to do a great deal more research, I'd be tempted to write it myself. But with my decidedly -- and not entirely intentional -- isolated view of comics fandom, I'm not even sure I'm the guy to do it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Atheist

The latest issue of The Atheist came out this week. It's published by Desperado and sold via Image. The basic premise is that wide numbers of people have begun channelling spirits, which are forcing them to do various things like driving nails into their foreheads. The number of incidents in Winnipeg is markedly high, and the local police call in the assistance of a sort-of off-kilter investigator with nigh-supernatural cognitive abilities, and who's driven almost exclusively by logic.

It's certainly an interesting premise, and the story and art have kept me intrigued enough to wait the eight months or so between the second and third issues, but there's something about it that's nagging at me for some reason.

I like the art. John McCrea does a good job of storytelling and has a illustrative style that's based largely on shapes, and not on lines like most comics. Phil Hester's writing is better than I would've anticipated -- many artists seem to have stilted or awkward sounding dialogue. The premise is, like I said, an interesting one. So what am I not putting my finger on here?

I don't honestly expect to find the answer myself as I'm sitting here typing. And given that the second issue only sold a little over 3,000 copies, I'm not entirely expecting to encounter anyone else who's even read it. (Although, curiously, one of the employees at my local shop thought that SHE would never see anyone else who had bought it.) This is kind of a wondering-out-loud post, I suppose, but if anyone else who's reading this has also read The Atheist, I'd appreciate your thoughts on it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Playing the Market

I was scanning through Marvel's issue solicitations for June and saw that they've got some books reprinting some of their old Westerns coming out...
MARVEL MILESTONES: RAWHIDE KID & TWO-GUN KID
Written by STAN LEE
Penciled by JACK KIRBY & DON HECK
Cover by JACK KIRBY
Is the Rawhide Kid really a cold-blooded killer? Why do they fear his guns from Abiline to Tombstone? See how the Kid became an “outlaw” in RAWHIDE KID #17 (August 1960). Plus: What is the strange secret of Matt Hawk? Find out in TWO-GUN KID #60 (November 1962).

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: RAWHIDE KID VOL. 1
Written by STAN LEE
Penciled by JACK KIRBY, DON HECK, DICK AYERS & PAUL REINMAN
Cover by JACK KIRBY
Saddle up, buckaroos! It’s time for the Marvel Masterworks to tame the wild, wild West with the one and only Rawhide Kid! Back before Stan “The Man” and “King” Kirby spun stories of sensational super heroes, they told the tale of a young man who bore two Colt six-shooters and his mission to bring law to the American frontier. After his Uncle Ben Bart was killed at the hands of outlaws, Johnny Bart made it his personal mission to bring justice to the town of Rawhide. Packed full of shootouts and showdowns, renegades and rustlers, guns and girls galore, these Western yarns will be sure to please you in the Mighty Marvel Manner! We guarantee you won’t be able to hold on to your ten-gallon hat when you read the tale of the Terrible Totem, the Kid’s battle against the bank robbing Bat, and the war with Wolf Waco! Lasso your copy today, True Believer!
Collecting RAWHIDE KID #17-25.
Great stuff, to be sure. It's also clearly aimed at trying ramp up interest in Dan Slott and Eduardo Barreto's upcoming Two-Gun Kid story, "Tooth and Claw."
What strikes me as disappointing, though, is that they're reprinting early Silver Age stories, and completely skipping over the Golden Age stuff. Note in particular that the Masterworks book reprints Rawhide Kid #17-25. The first sixteen issues came out several years prior to those. The book was cancelled for low sales, but brought back when Westerns started becoming en vogue again.

Now, to be fair, the stories in those first sixteen issues featured a character who bore little resemblence to the one we grew to know later and trying to sell two different characters with the same name at the same time could be confusing. Except that DC has been doing exactly that with their Archive books for several years now. They have Golden and Silver Age books for Flash, Green Lantern, Superman, Batman... They do have more material to work with, as their characters were certainly bigger and more popular at the time than Marvel's, but I think this is just indicative of the company's two stances. DC seems more willing/able to continue to promote their older material while maintaining their dedication to producing new material. Marvel -- with the exception of a few editors -- seems more keen to cut most of their ties to the past and simply look at what the next big thing might be.

I find that approach somewhat disappointing. As a company policy, Marvel seems more interested in whatever flash-in-the-pan fad might come available next. And while that was certainly how Martin Goodman ran the company back in the day, it wasn't until they stopped jumping on every bandwagon and ran with the superhero genre that they started to really make their mark as a company. I don't want to pin this current approach solely on Joe Quesada's shoulders, but DC is proving that there is a viable business model for publishing new AND old material. I don't think there should be really all that much guesswork involved on Marvel's part. Yes, it would require some upfront capital to print large stocks of books and keep them in circulation for several years, but Marvel's not in the painful financial position it was ten years ago when they first started actively rejecting the idea. Put out a little cash and really go to town with the Masterworks. Let's see more Golden Age Captain America and Sub-Mariner. Let's see more Golden Age Westerns and romances and monsters and every other genre they tried.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Storing Comics

I like to think that I have a pretty reasonably-sized collection of comics. Something like 6,000 individual issues and another 2,000 comics in TPB, microfiche or CD-ROM formats. To no one's surprise, I'm sure, that takes up a bit of room. The question naturally arises, where do you put it all?

When I only had maybe ten or twelve long boxes worth of books, I kept them upstairs in my office. I had my computer in there with an internet connection, so it was easy for me to spin around and pull out an issue if I was trying to answer a question or something. The few issues I had on CD-ROM, too, could easily be thrown into the drive to pull those up, and I kept a database record of all my comics on the machine as well.

By the time I got to around 15 boxes, though, I began to worry about the structural intergrity of the floor. That's a lot of weight to be sitting all in one place, and I don't like the idea of falling through into the dining room when I'm reading the latest haul from the comic shop. So I decided to move everything into the basement and begin a bona-fide comic area.

The first problem, of course, is that it's a basement. They tend to be a bit on the damp side, especially if you have things sitting right on the floor. So the first thing I did was put a dehumidifier down there. (Fortunately, I already had one that wasn't being used.) The next thing I did was rig up a shelf system to get my long boxes off the floor. We were replacing several of our old hollow-core doors anyway, so I used those as shelves, stacking them on sets of concrete blocks for stability.

I then hooked up an older computer with my database hard drive so I could continue to catalog my collection. An old bookshelf became re-appropriated for TPBs and The Wife's old reading chair became the centerpiece, so I could comfortably lounge while I was reading or looking up old books. Over the years, I've aquired more than a handful of posters and prints as well. Many of those went up to cover the ugly cement walls of the unfinished basement.

A year or two later, I picked up many old Timely comics in microfiche format and bought a relatively inexpensive microfiche reader to go with them. That's sitting next the computer on a small night stand. Various comic related toys and games have also made their way into the area and I now have a Mage action figure defending my Dark Knight statuette. My Mego Fantastic Four figures stand guard over my pewter Sandman figures, as my custom-made Super-Skrull mask looks on.

For the amount of resources I've put into the area, I'm quite happy with it. It looks like a room whose sole purpose is to house comics and comic book memorbilia. (It's a smallish room, but a room nonetheless.) My father had to wait until he was retired until he could afford to build a true library to house his collection of magic books, but I really hope I don't have to wait nearly that long to get my own library for my collection of comics.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Big Daddy?

This weekend, my grandfather-in-law became seriously ill and was moved from his nursing home facility to an actual hospital. Not surprisingly, we've spent a fair amount of time at the hospital this past weekend. While we were sitting in one of the waiting areas for a bit, I glanced down at the coffee table and noticed a small booklet next to the day's newspaper. Bright yellow and with a picture of an ape on the front of it, I was intrigued enough to pick it up.

I was surprised to see it was actually a comic book! And, as I started flipping through it, I quickly realized that it was attempting to prove that evolution was a complete load of bunk and that Jesus Christ was the only thing to believe in. I don't want to get into the evolution argument here, but I found it striking that it was presented in a comic format and left in a hospital.

My first thought was that, since it was by itself, someone else must have picked it up from whatever pile it had been in originally and simply discarded it in the waiting room. My next thought was that we were in a decidedly Christian hospital and I shouldn't be surprised to see Christian literature lying about.

I tried reading through it without passing judgement on the message, and just looking at it from a media-centric point of view. The artwork is passable, but not great. The story situation is a bit forced, but that tends to be the case in most literature aimed at preaching a specific message. Most of the booklet is black and white, but there are two pages (the front cover and the double-page spread in the center of the story) that judiciously use yellow to catch your eye. And the title -- "Big Daddy?" -- with the ape drawing is certainly attention getting as well. (It got me to pick it up, if no one else!) Plus, you can't argue with "free."

All in all, it was a pretty reasonable package. I don't know if it was Jack Chick (the writer/artist) or one of his associates who specifically left the booklet in the hospital, or if it was a hospital worker who felt that it had a good message, but I will give them a great amount of credit for the marketing behind this particular comic. It knows who to target and when, and it does a pretty good job of making itself seen.

I bring all this up because I think it's proof that comics are a great format for providing information, when done appropriately. There is no way I would have even flipped through that booklet if it were just solid text. I wouldn't have read through it if it were just a poster on the wall. I might not have even seen it without that ape staring out at me. So, kudos to Chick for developing a method to getting his message out.

Of course, the content itself is a load of bunk, but that's another debate for another site.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Sean's History in Comics, Part 4

Late in the 1990s, I stumbled across a job opening that allowed me a brief "career" in comics. A company called American Entertainment had recently started an online magazine called Mania. The idea was that they could use their magazine to sell some of their goods. The job opening itself was for a person who could review the Heroes Reborn comics, which had recently begun coming out.

I called up the editor and we chatted for a bit. He was looking for someone who could not only talk about the new comics, but put them in context to their larger history. He was interested in comparing these updated stories with the originals. Even though I hadn't read more than a half dozen issues total of Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers, I was armed with the knowledge I had picked up from repeated readings of the old Marvel Handbooks. I convinced him that I knew what I was talking about and I became a paid comic book reviewer.

Of course, that only lasted for a little over a year, when it was discovered that there there were some shady financial dealings at the corporate level. Mania closed down and American Entertainment was not long after. Ross Rojek has since been arrested for, among other things, mail fraud.

Thus came to an end my brief brush with comic professionalism.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Creators of Note

One of the interesting trends over the history of comics is the transition from a character-based following to a creator-based one. In the early days of comics, creators were rarely given any credit, much less how much they deserved, and readers tended to follow their favorite characters. Indeed, the story about how Superman gained his own title -- that kids were asking newstands for "the comic with Superman in it" -- is completely indicative of that mindset.

Sometime during the past decade or three, though, there's been a transition to more of a creator-centric following. I know that, when I was a kid, I kept an eye out for anything John Byrne did and made a point to avoid anything written by David Anthony Kraft. I think it would be hard to pin down exactly when that transition took place, although I think it's safe to say that Avengers #88 is a milestone, being the first time a creator's name was promoted squarely on a comic's cover.

What's interesting to me is how that transition has occurred within myself. When I was very young, I looked for characters I knew -- Spider-Man, Batman, etc. I could recognize that a different person wrote and drew the stories from one issue to the next, but I had no interest in who they were. Shortly after I re-discovered the Fantastic Four, I saw that much of what I liked came from how John Byrne treated the book. So when he switched over to DC's Man of Steel, I followed.

Sort of. Byrne wasn't able to keep my interest in Superman too long, but it was then that I saw that certain creators handled different characters and situations with different levels of skill.

These days, I've got a short list of creators whose work I hold in some regard, regardless of what they're doing. Fabian Nicieza, Dan Slott and Stuart Immonen get high marks from me pretty much all the time. Kurt Busiek, Mark Bagley, Roger Stern and Paul Jenkins always get at least a casual perusal. (Naturally, I'm only talking about current creators. Kirby and Ditko ALWAYS get top marks, but they're not putting out much new work these days.)

By contrast, David Anthony Kraft, Robert Kirkman, and Grant Morrison do not get the time of day from me. I haven't read everything they've done, but everything that I have read has been so absolutely dreadful that I've made a point to completely avoid their work if at all possible. I simply do not understand what people see in it, and I'm forced to wonder what sort of blackmail material they must hold over editors' heads to keep getting jobs. I've found everything they've written as largely unstructured with clumsy dialogue and terrible characterization that doesn't even hold up internally, much less with any prior characterizations of the characters. I don't pretend to be a great writer, by any stretch of the imagination, but I know enough to see that their work aren't at all cohesive.

Did you see that?

In talking about creators -- not characters -- I got more worked up. I was more jazzed talking about Nicieza and Slott than I do talking about the FF. I got more irked talking about Morrison and Kirkman than I do talking about a mis-written Dr. Doom. Just an example of how, as a fan, my focus has gone towards the creators over the characters. What I'm left wondering is if that transition is indicative of maturity -- either mine as an audience member or that of the medium as a whole.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Sean's History in Comics, Part 3

After The Wife and I graduated from college, we moved into an apartment complex not far from where we both worked. One Saturday, we were in the Half Price Book Store and I happened across a copy of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. It was cheap and I'd heard good things about it, so I went ahead and bought it.

For some reason, we opted to spend all day Sunday reading in bed. I think we've done that two, maybe three times ever, but that was the first time we'd ever done that. I sat there and read Understanding Comics in one sitting, and when I finished, I was awestruck. For years, I had thought that I was a fan of comic books, when I realized that in fact I had been a fan of superheroes. McCloud's book caught me at exactly the right time, and -- even though I had read much of my father's collection of indie comics as a teenager -- I then and there became of a fan of comic books as a medium. I've kept an ever-increasing eye out for different titles, themes and genres since I first reading UC, and I've been quite grateful for it.

What surprises me, though, is that Understanding Comics -- while still revered as one of the definitive books on the subject -- is still so under-valued within the comics' community. I can't count the number of people I've talked to who claim to be comic fans but have never even heard of, much less read, the book. I think there's a LOT to be learned from it, and I think it ought to be a staple of every comic collector's and comic shop's collections. If you haven't already, and you're reading this, go buy the book right now.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Continuity Police

As you may well know, I'm a long-time fan of the Fantastic Four so I had to pick up this week's First Family.

One of the things that I've been doing the past few years in an effort to enjoy my comics more is to NOT expect anything from them. I try coming to each issue with as little information as possible and, that way, I'm more often than not pleasantly surprised by what I read. If I come to the table expecting X, Y and Z to happen in a story, it inevitably will not transpire like I anticipated and I'm left disappointed.

In the case of First Family, I have to say that I was quite surprised. I knew it was to be the story of the Fantastic Four's "first" adventure, but that was about it. What surprised me was that writer Joe Casey actually seems to have done a fair amount of research to make the continuity with existing material relatively tight. From the subtle inclusion of the helicopter landing scene at the outset to bringing back Ben's then-girlfriend Linda McGill, who's appeared in exactly one story ever before. And that was a backup story in an anthology book, not one of the "main" titles!

Did Casey have to do that to tell his story? No. He could've left things well enough alone and let the folks at the Marvel Chronology Project sort it out. But he didn't. He did his homework, and added some nice nuances that long-time fans like myself will appreciate.

Kudos to Casey on this one! I've enjoyed his stories in the past, and I greatly appreciate the care with which he's put into this first issue.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Switching Media, Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about movies and TV get translated into a comic format; today I'd like discuss comics being transferred to film.

Generally, I have no problem with this. There are a near-infinite of directions one can take. From the campy Adam West portrayal of Batman to the more series portrayals in the X-Men movies. From the almost literal translation of Frank Miller's Sin City to the I-wouldn't-have-known-it-came-from-a-comic-if-you-hadn't-told-me approach of Men in Black. All of those and more are equally valid, and I know that I for one certainly appreciate that it's not just superheroes making the transition from the comic pages to the big screen.

However, I do have a problem with so many people citing the superhero movies AS comic book movies. The History of Violence, Road to Perdition, and American Splendor were all excellent movies that were based on comic book properties, but the source material from those are often ignored by the general population for whatever reason(s).

Here's the issue that ends up confusing many people: comic books are a medium. They can be about any subject matter and can be created in any genre. Films are a medium and they, too, can be about any subject matter and can be created in any genre. Superheroes are a genre that happens to be popular in the comic book format. Film noir is a genre that is generally out of vogue right now, but was quite popular in the first part of the 20th century. The notion of a "comic book movie" is really invalid because you're effectively saying that you're using the two very different mediums simultaneously. Although, one could make a cogent arguement that Sin City was indeed a "comic book movie" that blended the two mediums, those arguements would by and large be invalid for Batman Begins, Superman Returns, or any other movie based on a comic book property. Even animated shows like Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans owe little more than the original character designs to comic books -- the stories, framings and formats are based more directly on the accepted norms of the TV format. The only animated show that seems to owe more allegiance to comic books would be the 1966 Marvel Super Heroes cartoon, which lifted panels directly from the comics and did the most minimal of animations.

Again, I have no problems moving stories from the comic medium to a film medium, but I would like people to recognize that "comic book movies" really should include the excellent (and, let's face it, not-so-excellent) material that aren't superheroes. Let's not dismiss Ghost World and Bulletproof Monk just because the characters don't wear capes. Let's place credit where credit is due and highlight the vastly more creatively free medium of comic books (which is another post for another time!) when we talk about "comic book movies."

Monday, March 06, 2006

Switching Media

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Joss Whedon's Firefly. Serenity, not surprisingly, is one of my favorite movies. Why they're my favorites is the subject of another post, but what I'd like to discuss today is the crossover from the film format to comic books.

I think this particular series highlights exactly the issue surrounding switching from film to comics. The story is written, in part, by Whedon so the plot and story structure make sense given the other stories about this 'verse he has written. The problem is that we're dealing with characters who are known by the actors that portrayed them. Malcolm Reynolds, for all intents and purposes, IS Nathan Fillon, just as sure as Luke Skywalker IS Mark Hammill and Indiana Jones IS Harrison Ford. The actors were able to step into the roles so well, and make the characters their own, that it becomes difficult to separate the actor from the role.

Which means that any version of the character we come across later is directly compared to the actor. In the case of novels and prose, we don't see the character visually so as long as the basic content of their dialogue is in-character, we can "hear" the actor's voice delivering their lines. We can take the often-vague, verbal descriptions and easily drop in the actor's face.

With comics, however, that's not really the case. We see a visual representation of the actor, and as an audience we expect it to look like consistently like the actor. In some cases, the artist gives us a great deal of flexibility. For example, Matt Feazell (famous for his Cynicalman comics) represents characters so simplistically -- literally stick figures -- that his reasonable approximation of Fillon would look exactly like his reasonable approximation of Ford. By contrast, Will Conrad -- who drew the Serenity comic -- proved on many occassions throughout the book that he can draw an excellent Fillon (and Staite, and Baldwin, and Glass, and...) that every panel that doesn't look exactly like the actor stands out like a sore thumb. Indeed, compare the drawings of Fillon on pages 2 and 3 of the first issue...

On page three, Malcolm indeed does look more like Ford than Fillon!

Granted, being able to draw an actor well is difficult, and being able to draw them well repeatedly throughout a story is exceedingly difficult. By no means am I trying to single out or slight Conrad for his work here, but he's been put into a very difficult position of trying to capture the look and the spirit of several actors in a variety of postures, poses, and expressions that are going to be scrutinized by fans. But that's the inherent problem with moving from film to comics. Frank Miller's drawings are abstract enough that you can put some prosthetics on Mickey Rourke and make him look like exactly like Marv, but going from the specific (an actual actor) to the abstract (a drawing of him/her) is insanely more difficult and will likely plague comic artists for many years.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Comic Lounge

You may have noticed in the past several years, that a number of large book store chains have been popping up. Most notably -- at least here in Ohio -- are Borders and Barnes & Noble. That's largely because, in simple terms, they're successful. Nothing breeds success like success, after all. But what makes them successful and can those elements be applied to comic book shops?

Well, the first thing they have going for them is selection. You can find almost any new book at either store, and if you ask a clerk to order something they don't have, they'll be able to do that fairly quickly, provided the book is still in print. I think more comic shops need to do this. Sure, you can walk into almost any shop and pick up the latest X-Men or Batman, but that's the comic book equivalent of whatever's been plugged by Oprah Winfrey or the Harry Potter books. Everyone's going to have those, and it's nothing particularly special to make the store stand out. But, by having a larger selection that includes more independent titles, you're more likely to attract a more diverse audience and, more importantly, cross-sell those titles. "Say, if you like Ultimate Spider-Man, you might try Powers. It's by the same guy." "Cool cover, eh? It's by Eric Powell. He does The Goon as well."

Another thing the larger bookstores have done is made the atmosphere more comfortable. If you're just looking for a book, you can go to Amazon or wherever and order it online. In many cases, more cheaply than you can by going to the store and buying it yourself. But if you want to browse, you have to go to a bookstore. Knowing this, bookstores have set themselves up as being as browseable as possible. They tend to have relatively wide ailes, and a number of areas specifically designed for reading. Large, comfy chairs with side tables and such. Many bookstores even have coffee houses within the stores. You can pick up a book off the shelf and sit down to read for a while. Now, there's some percentage of people who are certainly going to take advantage of that and treat the bookstore as a library to be sure, but I can't imagine these large chains would continue the practice if they were actually losing money in the scheme. Now, books have the advantage over comics in that they're generall longer and can't be read very quickly. But how many people go to a comic shop to socialize anyway? And with the size of most comic shops, it wouldn't be difficult to monitor/police people use a lounge area to ensure that it wasn't be over-used as a library.

What about hunting down back issues? I know places like eBay have been a huge hit to comic shops' back issue selections, but I'm certain that there's still people who are looking to pick up the odd issue that they just can't seem to find. How about putting a sign up that says, "Can't find what you're looking for? Ask us. If we don't have it, we'll order it for you." The re-order process, to my understanding, isn't quite as simple as it is for chain bookstores, but comic shops also have a little more flexibility in that they have multiple avenues to pursue in searching for back issues. They can trade with other shops, or just keep an eye on some of the online locations. You won't find those capabilities at a major chain bookstore, I'm sure.

Now, granted, the chain bookstores have some serious cash flow advantages over your average comic shop owner. But I think they've also done some research that a comic shop owner can capitalize on and use to their advantage. How cool would it be to see shops that looked "professional" and didn't look like somebody just decided it would be cool to sell comics?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Two Morrows

As you may have noticed, I only have a handful of external links along the right side of my page here. The links in question are all to comic-related projects of which I'm an active participant.

FFPlaza, as you may know, is my original Fantastic Four web site, which has been running for almost a decade now. The MCP, which I mentioned earlier in this blog, is a site started by Russ Chappell to put every Marvel comic book story in chronological order as the characters would have experienced them. I'm a member of the Board of Directors there.

The last one is Two Morrows Publishing. They're the guys who put out some excellent publications like Jack Kirby Collector, Alter Ego, and Back Issue. My contributions aren't as blatantly obvious as the other two, but I thought I'd take a moment to plug Jack Kirby Collector, for which I've been writing a column called "Incidental Iconography" for a couple years now. The next issue is due out in a week or two, and it should contain my examination of how Jack developed Devil Dinosaur. There's a lot there, surprisingly, given that it's basically just a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Anyway, I always enjoy reading JKC because all of the contributors provide some great pieces. I'm always learning something in every issue, and I hope my meager column helps contribute that for others. Keep an eye out for it -- the next issue is slated for a March 15 release, I believe.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Local

One of the books on my pull list is Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's Local, published by Oni Press. The book is a series of self-contained stories about... well, people. Each issue features a vinette and shows the reader a small slice of life. The stories are unrelated and unconnected to one another. They are tied together by the appearance of the character Megan, but she's relatively incidental to the overall book. Each story is its own, and remains largely unconnected to the others. Issue three was about a small band that broke up and how they tried to move on with their lives after the breakup, but issue four is about two brothers who attempt to resolve some long-standing family issues.

I learned about Local through Neil Gorman's Comicology podcast. (Thanks, Neil!) He was really enthused by Brian Wood's writing, and I have to say that I understand why. I picked up Local #1 shortly after it came out, and was impressed enough to look for #2. By the time #3 hit the stands, I was actively looking for anything with Wood's name on it. Sure enough, I caught Supermarket #1 when it came out a couple weeks ago, and was summarily impressed.

Wood definitely has a talent for bringing a reader into a story. With each issue of Local, he has to introduce entirely new characters, put them into some compelling situation, get the audience to care/identify with the characters, and resolve whatever conflicts are at the heart of the story all within 24 pages. Let me say that I was never a big fan of the traditional short story because I had never seen anyone who could pull it off well. Everything I saw was cohesive enough and did tell a solid story, but I never could connect with the characters enough to care. Local is the first set of short stories that I've been able to do that with, and Wood's the only writer that's had that impact on me at all, not to mention that he's done that four months in a row now.

I'll say that I certainly enjoy Ryan Kelly's artwork as well. He does a solid job of storytelling (a key point that not nearly enough comic book artists get) and has an amazing consistency of character design. Each character retains the same look throughout the issue, regardless of the angle, lighting or expression. That's especially difficult with something like #4, where the antagonist is about as non-descript of a character as you could get -- a white guy in a suit. Yet, throughout the issue, it's clear that we're always looking at THE SAME white guy in a suit. Whether or not you appreciate Kelly's artistic style (which I do) you certainly can't overstate his talents as a comic artist.

So my item for the day is just too suggest looking for Local at your local comic shop. Doesn't matter what issue you get -- they're all good and you can jump into the story at any time. They're all prime examples of why I like comics as a medium more than anything else.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Time in a Bottle

When I was kid, I read voraciously. I didn't have many close friends, so I spent a lot of time in my room. On the bed. Reading. Alone. I spent a lot of time there, so a lot of my knowledge of comic stories came from re-reading the same comics over and over.

I also remember that my father was always reading three books simultaneously. He kept one by his chair in the family room, one in his briefcase, and one in the car. That way, he always had reading material on hand if he found a few spare moments. But what I found more interesting was that he always had a stack of books and comic books that he hadn't read yet. Despite the fact that he read whenever he could, he was always several books and usually a few dozen comic books behind. If he bought something new, it would take him several months, sometimes years before he got around to starting it. And I was always amazed that he continued to buy books even though he could afford the time to read them.

So here I am, a decade or two later, and I have a book in my work bag, two in my nightstand, and a couple of piles of other books that I haven't started yet. The comics I bought on Wednesday remain largely unread, the complete collection of Amazing Spider-Man on CD-ROM has been looked at maybe twice, and I've got nearly 100 Timely superhero books on microfiche that I haven't touched in the year and a half that I've had them.

The only question I have is whether I miss having the time to read them, or having the lack of responsibility to have the time to read them. I suspect the latter, but the counter-arguement quickly comes that if I didn't have that level of responsibility, I wouldn't be able to afford to buy the comics that I currently don't have time to read.

Is there a well-paying job that lets me just read comics all day?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Affording Comics

In our household, The Wife* controls the finances. She pays all the bills and makes sure the checkbook doesn't bounce and all that fun stuff. The down side to that, for me, is that my personal comic book budget isn't controlled by me.

I am allotted twenty dollars per week to spend at the comic book shop, including taxes. I'm entitled to buy whatever I want at that shop -- comics, trade paperbacks, action figures, whatever -- so long as it doesn't exceed twenty dollars in any given week. So, like most other collectors, I have to make constant determinations about what comics to buy and what comics to pass over.

I tend to collect around $90 in new comics every month. Which means that I don't have very much cash for back issues, action figures, trade paperbacks and the like. Today, I was in the shop and picked up the new books that I was looking for: Books of Doom #4, Local #4, Aquaman #40, and Gødland #8. At $2.99 each, that only came up to $11.96, so I figured I had some room to try something else.

Well, I noticed that the second issue of Next Wave had just come out. I had heard good things about the first issue, and I do like Stuart Immonen's work, so I grabbed #2. I figured that I'll give it a try if I could pick up a copy of #1 as well. So, I started flipping through the back issue bins...

"Hey, here's a copy of Marvel Nemesis: The Imperfects #6! I've been looking for that."

"Hey, here's a copy of Marvel Tales #26 for only two bucks! That's been on my want list for a while now."

"Hey, cool! Next Wave #1. I'm all set."

So then I started adding up what I had in my hand. Another $2.99 for Next Wave #2, $3.25 each for the Imperfects #6 and Next Wave #1 (my shop adds an extra quarter to recent back issues because of the bagging and boarding they do) and $2.00 for Marvel Tales... that comes to $23.45 before tax. Twenty cents more than I can afford even if I pass on one of the books, since the tax would bump me back over $20.00 again. So I have to eliminate two books from my hand.

Aquaman? No, that was the last copy. Same with Gødland. There were two copies of Local, but indie books are tough to get if you miss them the first time. Books of Doom? No, I'll need to post the issue information on my Fantastic Four web site. I can't pass up on Marvel Tales either. Two bucks, and I've been passively looking for it for a while? I'm not going to see a deal like that any time again soon.

That means that I have to decide among two issues of Next Wave and the final issue of Imperfects. Next Wave #2 was new this week, so they'll probably still have a few issues left next week. There were three copies of Imperfects #6, and it really wasn't that good of a book in the first place. Since I was only getting it to complete the series, I put it back and kept Next Wave #1. If I like the book, I can probably pick up #2 next week or maybe the week after and be completely caught up. If I don't like the book, I can grab Imperfects instead.

I figure that's about as close to a win-win situation as I'm going to get here. But it's frustrating having to go through that every week. I tried buying a trade paperback once because it was only twelve dollars. But that meant I had to spend the next month or so trying to play catch-up with my new issues.

It'd be easy to slide into a "comics are too expensive" diatribe, or a rant about the growing gulf between upper and lower classes (indeed, I was a whole paragraph into that rant before I saw where it was going and deleted it) but what first prompted me to write about this dilemma is the notion of an individual making their own purchasing choices and what criteria they use in making their decisions. I try to be logical in my purchases of even the most frivolous items, but what might've prompted the next person to put back Aquaman or Local or whatever? How many other people would've made the same type of decision path that I did? Food for thought.

* Side Note: I use "The Wife" as a title of respect, hence the capital letters. I don't see it any differently than people using "The President" or "The Queen." As far as I'm concerned, there's only one woman worthy of the title "wife" so it deserves a definite article and capital letters.