Friday, June 29, 2007

History Of Comics Retailing

A little while back, I began chatting with Cold Cut president and general manager Tim Stroup. Mostly about comic fandom. But we got to talking about retailing as well, and he shared with me some notes he had from an interview he conducted with Dick Swan. Swan, for those who don't know, was one of the first guys to open a dedicated comic book shop back in the day. The notes are incomplete and Tim still has plans on using them, so I can't share too much here but I noted that I still learned quite a bit from those incomplete notes; the history of comic retailing was probably my weakest area of knowledge about the industry. I had assumed that I simply hadn't spent much of my time reading about it, but Tim noted that it's everybody's weakest area because almost nothing has been written about it.

So it was with great excitement that I saw a few other blogs point to Lee Hester's recent posting of his own shop's history. If you haven't taken note of this already, do so now because it's one of the few accounts detailing a relatively early comic shop. Insightful though it is, however, it's only one shop and one that didn't open until the 1980s.

Doing a little more digging, I found, though, that Paul Howley of That's Entertainment provides an extensive history of his shop as well. (Although the first four installments are his own personal history with comics.) You can also read some histories of Mile High, Lone Star and Flying Colors online but they're short in length and on details.

Of ancillary interest might be The Argosy Price Guide - the first price guide for comic books, originally published by The Argosy Book Store in 1965. Bill Schelly has reproductions available for sale. Similarly, Chuck Rozanski has a copy of his 1977 Mile High Catalog available online.

Robert Beerbohm, who was one of the earliest retailers himself, has been researching a book on the history of comic retailing for several years but, as far as I know, has nothing planned for the foreseeable future. I certainly don't want to take any light away from his work, which I'm sure will be exhaustive, but I'd like to see anyone else who might have some insights about their early comic retailing experiences to share them with those of us who might be interested.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Destroy All Wednesdays

Every since I've been buying more than a couple of different comic titles, I've been heading to my Local Comic Shop every Wednesday, the day new issues would come out. There were several reasons for this weekly ritual. First, as many of the titles I got were inter-related, their publication order mattered somewhat. Events that were depicted in, for example, Avengers would be reflected over in Fantasic Four and it only made sense if you read them in that order. Second, it was dreadfully easy to stumble across story spoilers that would ruin my enjoyment of the comic; by reading the comics earlier, I would be less prone to having plot points divulged. Third, there was something of a fanboy mentality that kicked in and "demanded" that I be one of the first people to read a given comic.

There were a few other ancillary reasons, but that covers the most of it.

But it occurred to me this morning that most of those reasons aren't really valid for my comic-buying habits.

1. The titles I'm buying now are wholly independent. What happens in Gødland has zero bearing on what happens in Pirates of Coney Island even though they're from the same publisher. As long as I read the individual title's issues in order, it's completely irrelevant what order I read the titles in.

2. The stuff I'm buying is largely not in the mainstream any longer. Instead of potentially 110,000+ people knowing about and spoiling the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, there are only around 2,300 people who could possibly spoil the last issue of Pirates vs. Ninjas. My odds of accidentally stumbling across spoiler information are hugely reduced simply by the fact that there are fewer people who could even relay any information about the stories I read.

3. I like to think I've matured a bit, and it's no longer "critical" for me to be the first "in the know" about what's happened to Green Arrow. I'd still like to keep generally abreast of significant character developments -- like whether or not Captain America is still dead this month -- but if I'm running a late and don't hear an update on his condition for a few months, I'm not going to be that concerned.

So there's really no reason for me to be a regular Wednesday customer any longer. Indeed, the only reason for me to continue returning on a weekly basis is simply to spread my comic book spending out more evenly over the course of a month, instead of dropping huge piles of cash on sporadic trips.

You know, it's quite a liberating revelation, really. Wednesdays are always chaotic in a comic shop, but I realize now that I can make Thursdays (for example) my regular comic day and avoid the traffic and conjestion in my LCS. I can stay a while longer for more intelligent conversations. I can make things a tad easier on my LCS by reducing their typical Wednesday stress and break up the monotony of any other day, which is almost certainly much slower.

I'm really starting to dig this non-marvel/non-DC approach.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Return to Wonderland #1

Regular readers of this blog (both of them!) I'm sure are well aware that I'm quite unashamed to admit to being a fan of Lewis Carroll. Naturally, I was prone to pick up Grimm Fairy Tales: Return to Wonderland #1 today.

Let me start by saying this was my first real look at a Zenscope book. I'd seen some of their previous releases on the shelves, but largely ignored them because I'm generally not interested in horror and/or cheesecake, which seemed to be their focus. I can't argue that there's a market for their stuff, but I don't think I'm it for the most part.

That said, I was curious to see what Raven Gregory and Rich Bonk would do with Wonderland. (As you might guess from the image at the right, though, I opted for the not-likely-to-piss-off-The-Wife cover variant.)

The story opens with Alice as a wife and mother. Her eldest daughter, Calie, is in high school and prone to drug use and promiscuity. Alice's son Johnny isn't quite as old and seems to be more interested in death, blood and gore. Dad (Lewis) is having an affair at work. Alice herself can evidently slip into an almost catatonic state periodically, presumably from the trauma of her prior visit(s) to Wonderland. Her one tenuous grip on reality seems to be a pet albino rabbit that she seems desparate not to part with.

Not surprisingly, this first issue is mostly set-up. The guys here do a solid job of introducing everyone and what their relationships are to one another. It's actually handled rather well and flows pretty smoothly as part of the overall narrative.

I like most of the conteporization of the classic icons/elements of the original story. Calie uses recreational drugs, Alice plays solitaire, Johnny's fetish includes looking at pictures of decapitated bodies... There's no question that this is a darker tale than Carroll's original, but it's also not a direct adapatation. It's a story that takes its general direction from Carroll, but then contemporizes them and forges its own path. This is made easier for fans of the original by not using Alice as the protagonist. It's clearly a different story.

An interesting, and pleasantly refreshing, element I saw was that Calie is clear in her love for her family. I think it would've been very easy to make her a stereotypical angry, rebellious teen who hates everyone. But while Calie still shows rebellious tendencies, she A) is still following in her parents' footsteps and B) recognizes and accepts that she has responsibilities/obligations to her family. It's definitely not the type of family you'd see on Leave It To Beaver, but they're not a wholly disfunctional family that you might see on The Simpsons either.

However, with all the positive aspects of the book that worked, I wasn't entirely comfortable with it. Particularly, the scene in which Calie dreams that Johnny has hacked their parents to death and is serving their severed fingers at the dinner table. It was drawn well, certainly, but it was a bit more disturbing than I was prepared for. Although that admittedly was probably part of the point, it made me a more uncomfortable with the remainder of the issue than I would've otherwise been.

Now, I don't think of myself as a guy who's especially averse to blood and gore, and I'm not one to admonish a comic just for utilizing it. But for whatever reason, this one page (and that's all it really was) somehow tainted my view of the whole issue. Not so much that I won't be coming back for #2, but just enough that I wouldn't give it an unconditional thumbs up.

Like I said, though, this is my first Zenescope book, so that may be par for the course and it's simply something of an acquired taste. The storytelling is solid, the art is well done, and it's definitely a unique spin on the Wonderland mythos. I'll let you know if I get more accustomed to it as the series progresses.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Part of being a skeptic and a cynic is that I have a tendency to think the worst of things. In my case in particular, I tend to be particularly harsh on organizations. The larger the organization, the greater my distrust for them. Consequently, I don't hold my allegiances to organizations, only to individuals.

Mostly.

There are a handful of things in life that I really value. Probably number one on my list is freedom. Real freedom. Books like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 were very powerful to me and struck a frightening chord in my soul. I registered to vote for the first time in 2004 because I could see Americans' freedoms being rapidly stripped away and I felt I had to do something even though I was 100% certain my vote wouldn't count for anything.

I used to contribute to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (It's the only organization that I personally support.) A few years back, though, I had to avoid renewing my membership because of some very tight financial difficulties I was facing at the time, and I allowed myself to wallow in my inability to perceptably affect change.

But Katherine Keller kicked me in the butt with this today. I felt somewhat guilty in not having contributed for a few years, but her generous donation has inspired me to try to get back on the horse. I made my own donation almost immediately and am currently working to get my employer to recognize the CBLDF as an organization that falls under their matching gift program which, if successful, will effectively double any donations made to them from an employee.

I used to wonder why more comic creators didn't support the CBLDF. I realize that many are living hand-to-mouth and some simply don't care. But the biggest problem, I think, is one of simple awareness. From what I've seen, the CBLDF really does a phenomenal job helping protect Americans' rights and they don't spend excess amounts of cash just trying to sustain themselves -- as far too many organizations do. So I would like to urge anyone who isn't already a member to please make a donation, however small, to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. It's an organization that shouldn't need to exist, but governments all have a tendency to continually restrict their citizens' freedoms and the U.S. in particular has gotten much worse for everybody since 2001.

Less freedom means fewer choices. Fewer choices means more uniformity. More uniformity means less creativity. Less creativity means more crap. You can help avoid the crap altogether by supporting the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Lessons From Top-Notch

I've been inadvertently doing something of a Golden Age theme for a few days now, so I thought I'd carry that on for a bit with these life lessons courtesy of Top-Notch Comics...

1. Crashing planes make a sort of "crunch" sound upon impact.

2. Screaming intelligbly is entirely possible -- even recommended -- when being choked to death.

3. If headless bodies are good enough for the guys who publish Tales from the Crypt, they must be good enough for guys who publish Archie.


4. Girls, you can be pretty -- and therefore loved by the man of your dreams -- if you just remove your glasses and let your hair down.

5. When encountering a curious shield with an ominous note, you should take it upon yourself to show the shield who's boss.

6. If you're ever privvy to an underwater fight between a dog and a Kraken, always bet on the dog.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Golden Age For Whom?

I've been slowly working my way through The Batman Chronicles and came across several interesting things that I hadn't known before. First, Bruce Wayne was actually engaged at least up through Detective Comics #40.

Second, there were actually three versions of Batman which Kane would alternate among seemingly indeterminately. There was the cloaked dark knight figure whose imposing figure would strike terror into the hearts of wrong-doers. There was the superhero/athlete that would run around and bust bad guys' heads while making wise-cracks and bad puns. Finally, there was the corporate Batman who would smile for pin-up pages and talk about how great it was to be a good citizen. Fascinating to me is that no one really seemed to notice back then.

Third, we have this panel which I think speaks for itself...
And then there's this image, prompting the question: "Why is Bruce Wayne undressing next to Dick Grayson's bed?"
It's hardly ponderous why Fred Wertham thought there were some bad ideas in comics!

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Dreaded... Bob Phantom!

So I'm doing some research on Kardak the Mystic for my dad. He was a more-or-less typical magician-type character from the 1940s who appeared almost exclusively in Top-Notch Comics. The main question of my research was, simply, did Kardak appear in Top-Notch Comics #3?

Seems a simple enough question, but I was running into problems. Mainly because I had several sources noting that Kardak appeared from #1 until #27 continuously, and I had another source citing that he did NOT appear in #3. Now, if that one source were anyone else, I would've dismissed it as an error or an oversight, but that source was the Grand Comics Database which I've come to trust over the years as an excellent source of data and an invaluable research tool.

Well, I managed to find an electronic copy of Top-Notch #3 (a legal copy, thankyouverymuch) and would then be able to check it for myself. Sure enough, Kardak is entirely absent from that one issue for no explained reason. In his place, however, I found...
They had to be kidding. "Bob Phantom"? What the hell kind of superhero name is "Bob Phantom" even in the 1940s? So I look it up.

Sure enough, "Bob Phantom" was a legitimate superhero character throughout the 1940s and has seen modern appearances as recently as 1992. (I'm not kidding! Mark Waid put him in The Comet #7 in a story entitled, "The Name Is Phantom... Bob Phantom!") I counted over 40 appearances in different comics!

Okay, granted, publishers were requesting new superheroes on a daily basis back then. Every artist, even one as talented as Irv Novick, is going to crank out some duds. I can further grant that "The Phantom" was already taken by then. But how about some kind adjective modifier? The Green Phantom? The Dark Phantom? The Lone Phantom? The Caped Phantom?

Geez, even if you want to just pick a regular first name, how about something just a little more dramatic than "Bob"? Ulysses Phantom? Jacob Phantom? Ray Phantom? Heck, Bruce Phantom sounds cooler than Bob Phantom!

From what I can tell, it's actually a decent character for the 1940s. Certainly an interesting visual design, but that name is just abysmal for a superhero! Nothing against the Bobs of the world, mind you -- it's a decent name and remains fairly popular for a reason. But it doesn't exactly convey "Scourge of the Underworld", does it? I mean, how can any reader take the following panel seriously...


Let me end on a request. If anyone reading this happens to have a time machine handy, could you please go back to 1940 and ask Novick what in the name of anything that's holy was going through his head?

"Bob Phantom," indeed! Phaugh!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Seriously?

Stan Lee as an action figure? You're kidding, right?

I'm... I'm...

I'm really not sure how to feel about this.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Lunch In Wonderland & The 100-Acre Wood

Wonderland #4 came out today, and I have to say that this has really impressed me. The story takes place after the Disney movie interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, which strikes me as a questionable starting point, but Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew do an excellent job with it. It follows along utilizing some of Lewis Carroll's style of mis-representing words in a whimsical fashion. To wit...
Mary Ann: "I've never been a handmaid before, but I suppose it won't be very different from being a housemaid."

Sir Edward: "Hm, yes. Have you experience with hands? Or are you mostly an expert on houses?"

Mary Ann: "Well, I do have several hands of my own, sir, and I'm well acquainted with them."
It's also an interesting twist to make the protagonist suffer from OCD, making for some curious interactions. Additionally, her lower social status makes her think Alice, of whom she's only heard about and never met, "sounds terrible and rude!" She also calls her "a back-talking, stuck up little prat".

It really is turning out to be a wonderful spin off from the original tale, and one that I'm certain will please fans of the original.

Interestingly, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four #3 features a trip to Wundagore Mountain, where the High Evolutionary evolved many an animal to virtual humanity. Once the aliens are driven off, the heroes are left talking to a bear, a rabbit, a donkey, an owl and a young kangaroo. While most of the dialogue just moves the story along, the donkey stops to note that "Had anyone listened to me, which you did not, we would have expected this." It was hard not to read that and hear it as voiced by Peter Cullen, who has voiced Eeyore since the death of Ralph Wright (Eeyore's original vocal performer) in 1988. Extra kudos to Jeff Parker for showing restrain by NOT making any direct references to either the original Milne or later Disney stories. I don't know if that was something artist Mike Wieringo threw in, or something Parker wrote into his script, but it was definitely the brightest moment in a marvel comic for the past year at least.

(And, yes, this is a marvel comic that I'm still getting, but it is, unlike most others I've seen lately, good.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Spreading The Manga Virus

I'm not entirely sure what prompted the thought last night, but The Wife mentioned during dinner that she should probably try reading up on some manga because she'd noticed that more and more of her students were talking about it and she probably ought to at least have a vague notion of what they're talking about. (She's actually on break at the moment, so I'm not sure why she brought it up now, as opposed to, say, two weeks ago.) I told her that "manga" is just the Japanese word for "comics" and that there's a huge range of material out there. I've got a few titles that she'd be welcome to read.

"But you've got just superhero crap, right?"

(She generally tries to ignore my buying habits.)

I gave her a really high overview of a few of the titles I had handy, and she said a few of them actually sounded kind of interesting. Later that evening, I pulled out the first volumes of Alice 19th, Bizenghast, Blank, Chrono Crusade, iD_eNTITY, Lone Wolf and Cub and Steam Detectives. Of course, strictly speaking, about half of those aren't "real" manga. Two are OEL, one is manhwa, and one is gekiga. But they're all shelved in bookstores under the collective heading of "manga" and I suspect The Wife's students wouldn't know/recognize/understand the difference.

My guess is that iD_eNTITY will be the only one she likes of the lot. And I'd bet that, if she likes that, I could sell her on Ph.D. Phantasy Degree pretty easily since it's the same author. (Although I haven't actually read the latter one myself.) And I'll bet that we'll spend an evening in Barnes & Noble in the next week or two with her just reading the covers of everything in their manga selection so she can pick out a few titles that sound interesting. And then, she's going to get frustrated because she'll only find one or two series, read through them in a fairly short period of time, and then have to sit and wait a few months for the next volume to be published.

But we'll see how things go.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hocus & Pocus

Talking about magic yesterday got me thinking about one of the comics I had as a kid: Superman #272. It was one of DC's 100-page giants and was loosely themed around magic stories. Two stories I recall fondly were "The Other Side of the World!" (reprinted from Green Lantern #42) which was one third of the storyline from a couple years earlier where Zatanna tries to find her long-lost father. I remember it largely because of the unusualness of my actually having the other two parts to the story! At the time, it was probably the longest single story in my collection, and had some memorable imagry throughout.

The other notable story was "The Magician's Convention" reprinted from Action Comics #97. I hardly recall the plot, but it largely revolved around two buffoons, Hocus and Pocus, who thought they could perform real magic. When they would attempt something amazing, Superman would -- unbeknownst to everyone but the reader -- rush in at such an incredible speed as to be invisible and perform whatever tasks were needed to get the results Hocus and Pocus were looking for. I think what struck me was how much fun Superman was having. He was still foiling bank robbers and the like, but he was chuckling to himself the entire time. He wasn't doing anything out of spite or malice, but just provide a little confidence to these two otherwise wholly unremarkable dolts. In every other Superman story I had, the man of steel was serious about his job as a superhero. Not dark and broody, certainly, but he never really smiled. Saving the world was a job. A responsibility. A burden. But in this charming tale, he was having fun and getting his job done just the same.

I did some quick research today and found that Hocus and Pocus made, in total, four appearances, all between April 1945 and March 1947. Clearly not terribly popular characters. I'm left wondering if that whimsical side of Superman was too close to then-popular Captain Marvel. Was this fun-loving Superman a direct response to the Big Red Cheese? I know several of the same writers worked on both characters; was this just the result of that cross-pollination?

And what about Hocus and Pocus themselves? Were they based on anyone in particular? What kind of reaction did they actually receive to only warrant four appearances?

Just some idle questions about an obscure little corner of Superman trivia.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day

Today, here in the U.S., we are celebrating Father's Day. It's day to say, basically, "Thanks for being my dad." Generally, cards and gifts are given and there's often joking about barbecues and watching sports all day. Plenty of beer drinking and not-infrequently, there's obnoxious displays of testosterone.

My pop, though, doesn't really like sports all that much, doesn't really drink, and is just far enough away that I can't really barbecue some slabs of meat with him. He also has a tendency to buy things he wants as he sees/finds them, so gift selection is often difficult. His birthday, too, is only a week away, so I generally justify (to myself at least) spending more money on him than I otherwise might provided I just lump the two events into one.

Dad is a magician. Literally. Tuxedo, linking rinks, color-changing scarves, etc. (He used to even do white rabbits and doves, until he realized the travel between shows was inordinately harsh on them.) He has a special interest in children's magic. Both magic performed for children, and magic tricks marketed and sold to them. That interest led him to magic comics.

I know what you're thinking, "But comics aren't just for kids!" True, but the ones he first found were. Those old Blackstone comics from the 1940s are a prime example. And then he kept finding odd links between magic and comics. There are a host of magician characters in comics, including Mandrake, Zantana, and the unfortunately named Super-Magician. Jim Steranko was, of course, a famous illusionist before Stan Lee gave him a job. Which was later the inspiration for Jack Kirby's Mr. Miracle and Michael Chabon's Escapist. Rudy Coby made his act on-stage look like it was a comic book, and later created a Labman comic based on his act. Paul Dini is married to professional stage magician, Misty Lee. Harry Houdini has been the frequent subject of comic books.

So Dad has a decent sized collection of comics relating to magic. The trouble, not surprisingly, is that none of them were ever terribly popular so finding information on them, much less the comics themselves, can be difficult. So last year, for Father's Day, I spent some time doing some research. One of his presents was, as best as I could generate, a complete listing of every comic that the villainous Abra Kadabra appeared in. I included cover scans since many of the issues were from multiple volumes of The Flash and noted when some of those appearances were in the guise of another character. Some of the issues he already had in his collection, but I got a few of the more recent ones I was fairly certain he didn't have. And now he's got a complete listing of everything he knows to be looking for, and a fair amount of data to work from.

It's absolutely a gift that only works coming from me and going to my father. But I mention it here in the hopes that it might spark you, as a comic book reader (which I have to assume you are if you're visiting my blog), to come up with an interesting and unique gift idea for your friends and relatives.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Hodabeast

As I mentioned the other day, my bud Paul Horn has a new book out called Hodabeast. It's a collection of his comic strips from his Cool Jerk web site. In the interest of... well, helping a bud out, I figured I throw up a review here.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But, Sean, if you're his friend, then aren't you just going to provide an absolutely glowing review regardless of how good the material actually is? How can I, as an impartial reader, trust your judgment on this?" And that would be an excellent point. Here's the thing, though...

This is a collection of comic strips that you can already read for free online. Every one of these is on Paul's web site. So, rather than try to convince you that the material itself is funny, I'll just point you to Paul's site and you can judge for yourself.

"So why should I even bother buying the book?"

Another excellent question! And that's where this review comes in! :)

First off, it's a nice package. It's a little hard to see in my scan here, but the cover sports the title of the book that's done entirely as a varnish. Which means that you can only read the word "Hodabeast" if you tilt the book to catch the light in just the right way. Personally, I think that's kind of cool, but The Wife said, "That's stupid -- you can't read the title of the book." Two opinions there -- take your pick. Oh, and Paul's name you see on the scan of the cover -- that's not printed on, that was individually signed in Sharpie.

The next point is that Paul's willing to personalize these for you. And not just a "Hey, Sean, thanks for buying this book" either. Check out what I found on on the first page of my copy...


The next cool addition to the book is one that I would love to see in more comic strip collections. Namely, on the pages where he can't run two strips for whatever reason, he fills up the space with extra notes and sketches. Personally, I really dig seeing this type of stuff, especially when you can see how several of them are directly tied to the strip itself.

Cool Thing Number Four (or Five, or Wherever I'm At) -- Six pages of Director's Commentary. Paul went through and annotated every strip, listing the original publication dates and various notes about the strips. Sometimes it's problems he had with his pens, sometimes it's the true story that suggested the strip in question, sometimes it's just a way to put the strip in historical perspective. Now me, I like seeing what goes into the production of things I like. Gives me a greater appreciation for the end product. So I find this type of stuff fascinating and I had fun reading through all of that.

And finally we have what is, as far as I know, an innovation in comic strip collections: an index. As in, "Wait, didn't he do a strip about Pauly Shore? What page was that on?" Amusingly, it includes references for the strip's two main protagonists, essentially listing every page! Coming in with the third most entries is the location of the strip, Spittle Beach, and fifth is a friend of the protagonists. "Wait -- what's in fourth?" Well, "cleavage" naturally. :)

So, all in all, it's a nice package. If you don't like the strip, I can't argue with you on that point. Everybody has a different sense of humor, so if you don't like what you see on Paul's site, you won't like this and there's not much I can do about that. But, for those of you who do find Cool Jerk entertaining, Paul goes out of his way to make Hodabeast a worthwhile purchase.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Parverian Tales

When I was in my teens, I played Dungeons & Dragons with several of my friends. I had most of the books available and several years worth of Dragon Magazine. One interesting aspect about D&D, for those of you who never played, was being able to unleash your imagination through it. Certainly, the role-playing aspect of it required a lot of spontaneous creativity, but I -- and most everyone else I knew who played -- spent a lot of time in extended imaginings by developing their characters. Those of us who had any artistic ability whatsoever spent time drawing character designs and scenes from our imagined adventures, and everyone put a great deal of effort into devising elaborate histories and back-stories.

Ideas came from everywhere. We liberally stole from Tolkien, Howard, McAffrey, Eddings, Zimmer Bradley and any other fantasy writer. Imagry was copied from Frazetta, Vallejo, Hildebrandt, Elmore, Windsor-Smith, and anyone else who drew cool sword-n-sorcery images. Generally, our alter egos were, visually and characteristically, amalgams of our top five or six favorites from other creators. (My main character, Ladron, was a thief that bore quite a resemblance to Ralph Bakshi's version of Aragorn and carried a flaming katana.)

I mention all this because that's what came to mind when I began reading Michael S. Jordan's Parverian Tales. Jordan's stories have no relation at all to the characters and/or adventures we played in my circle of friends, but they have much of the same spirit and enthusiasm that I associate with those gaming days. It was only after having read some of the adventures that I went back and read up on Jordan's background, only to learn that these stories were indeed inspired by his D&D days as well!

The art seems strangely appropriate. It's stylistically very cartoony, despite the story itself not being overtly humorous. (It does have humorous moments, but it's definitely an adventure story first.) For some reason I haven't been able to figure out yet, the cartoons work. Maybe something to do with all the cartoon stories in the backs of those Dragon Magazines that I read once upon a time? Some of the older artwork seems a bit overly textured -- which Jordan acknowledges in his introduction to #2 -- but in scanning more recent stories, Jordan's gone to using shades of grey that seem to work much better.

The script is a bit verbose. It mostly works and helps establish the comic as being in the same storytelling vein as a D&D adventure, but there were a few instances where things seemed to get a little overly wordy. It does, as I said, lead to a very legend/folk tale type of feel -- which is great -- but I think Jordan seems to err on the side of verbosity just a little more than he might need to. My guess -- and this is purely armchair psychoanalysis here -- is that he's not wholly comfortable with himself as an artist and uses the text sometimes to clarify when he thinks his illustrations don't convey the story adequately enough.

I should note, though, that this is a relatively minor gripe on my part and probably is due in part to many of the books that I've read lately going entirely the other direction, letting the art tell the story with an absolute minimal amount of text. There's certainly room for failures on that end, and striking a happy balance between the two is quite nebulous. That said, Jordan's use of words generally works in his favor to set the ambiance of the story, and it's only in a few places where I feel it's a little over-emphasized.

The first two issues were published as regular comics, and the third was printed as an extremely limited ashcan. All of this has since been reprinted online, where the comic continues to this day. So, given that it's online for free, I don't see any reason not to recommend it. Especially worth a look if you spent any days in your youth playing Dungeons & Dragons, or just making up your own stories about Conan or Frodo or Belgarion.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Lunchtime Reading

I read through A Bit Haywire and The Professor's Daughter on my lunch hour today, both of which I picked up from my LCS this week.

The Professor's Daughter is the story of 3000-year-old Imhotep IV and his love for a woman who reminds him of his long-dead wife. The two problems they run into are her father, Professor Bowell, and his father, Imhotep III; neither of whom are particularly keen on the partnership. There's a series of misunderstandings, the two lovers wind up in London Tower, Queen Victoria winds up in the Thames, and Imhotep III buggers off back to Egypt.

The story is actually French and was published over there about ten years ago. Why a Frenchmen is writing about an ancient Egyptian Pharoah falling in love with a Victorian English lady is beyond me, but it seems to work. What strikes me about the book generally is that it's very different. Certainly, the sepia wash makes it visually distinct, but the storytelling, too, is unusual for American standards. There were several instances where what appeared to be moment-to-moment transitions on first glance were in fact scene-to-scene transitions upon reading the dialogue. It's an interesting method of showing that larger chunks of time are passing that what would be otherwise indicated, but it took a little getting accustomed to. Some of that, I suspect, may be from the translation of the original French which, as I understand it in general, tends to be less directly linear than English language storytelling. (Try watching a literal translation of March of the Penguins and you'll see what I mean!)

Overall, it was an interesting look at how to do comics in a manner in which I'm generally unaccustomed. The story itself was okay, but I enjoyed the visuals more than anything else. Certainly worth a look, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend buying it unless you're actively looking for something different.

A Bit Haywire is the story of a young boy, Owen, who learns quite by accident that he has super powers. The story is largely his discovery of those powers and trying to get a handle on what exactly they are. Can he fly? Does he have super strength? Does he have laser vision? Further, his powers come with caveats. He has to pinch his nose, for example, to breath underwater. And he has to close his eyes in order to fly.

What's most charming about the book are Owen's reactions. When he discovers that he can breath underwater, but only when he holds his nose, he thinks, "How am I supposed to test that without drowning? Stupid retarded powers." He's repeatedly torn between the innate coolness of having super powers and the idiocy of how and why they work. It's a great concept, and seeing that learning curve through the eyes of a superhero worshipping young boy is very clever.

Clever only carries you so far, though. What takes this story the rest of the way is the brilliant collaboration between Courtney Huddleston (the creator and artist) and Scott Zirkel (the writer). They both seem to play to each others' strengths very well. Zirkel's dialogue is sharp and natural, and he never seems to overdo it. Huddleston's art is equally crisp and smooth, and he (yes, Courtney's a guy) is able to communicate a wide range of emotion, so that Zirkel never really needs to overly explain things verbally. It seems like a great symbiosis of talent.

As I was walking back from lunch, I was trying to think of how I might write up this review. It occurred to me that the book feels very much like The Incredibles. Which is a bit odd because it's a very different story with very different characters. What both stories do, though, is provide an extemely charming look at superheroes in a cartoony format using a familial atmosphere. The overall feel is not dissimilar between the two books, and it's not at all hard to imagine Haywire here teaming up with Mr. Incredible or meeting Dash at the local track meet. But Haywire is distinctly it's own animal and does not in any way feel like it's just an Incredibles knock-off.

I suspect Haywire will be harder to track down than Professor's Daughter (although I just ordered both from my Local Comic Shop) but it's a much more enjoyable read. And, maybe it's just me, but I think reading about superheroes ought to be enjoyable!

It's Coming...

The Wife and I stopped by Barnes & Noble last night to pick up a few gifts for people. As we were heading out, I ran into two of the guys who work at my old Local Comic Shop. It's been a few years since I've seen them, but we still have much the same repore we had back when I was a regular at that shop.

Not surprisingly, we found ourselves talking about comics and the comic industry (boring the tears of incredibly patient The Wife). Some of our talk was very geeky nuances of continuity, but others were larger and more industry-wide. Bob talked about how much marvel is doing to push people away from comics, citing several long-time marvel zombies that have dropped all of their marvel books in recent months. One guy was so distraught that he's effectively given up comics altogether.

My habits, too, have veered largely away from marvel, but I did overhear talk about Elektra's current Clone Saga rip-off at my current LCS and the manager there was surprised they'd try something like this. Again. Bob followed up later in the evening with his theory that this will be the penultimate straw. One more "screw-up" -- like, for example, execution on the current rumor about giving Spider-Man an overhaul which would include eliminating his marriage and de-aging him back into his teens or early 20s -- and all the marvel zombies' will walk away. Bob noted, accurately I think, that marvel fans aren't keen on the Cosmic Reset Button.

How many comic related blogs have you been reading lately? How many of them have not only complained about marvel books but have actively noted, like me, that they're dropping them. Over at Dick Hates Your Blog, he's had more than a couple of posts talking about the insular self-appreciation society that's seemed to develop around comic news outlets. And, earlier this week, Alan David Doane posted a damning condemnation of the current status of the industry.

Bob's predicting another industry collapse, not unlike what we saw in the mid-1990s. I'm not sure if I'd go quite that far, but there definitely seems to be something brewing in the comic book landscape that's going to some significant upheavals in the near future. I think marvel and DC will survive, largely because most of their revenue these days comes from sources other than comics, but I'd wager more than a few comic shops close their doors because they couldn't adapt fast enough, and the industry on the whole is going to see an increase in the sales of non-superhero comics.

I'm not sure at this point WHAT exactly is going to happen or when, but there's something there. Just on the horizon. Something that's going to really shake the industry up and throw Joe Quesada and Dan Didio for a loop.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fandom By The Numbers, Part 1

I got to thinking about comic book fandom (again) and, while I was walking the dog, started rolling around some ideas in my head about trying to explain comic book capital in mathematical terms. Let me start with some basics.

Being a comic book professional carries some social clout in comic book circles. How does that translate? The key variables, with regard to comic creators, seem to be: number of years as a comic professional, which publisher(s) they've worked with, and what their role/s is/are in creating a comic. So you might have something like...

Y = Number of years working for any given publisher
P = 1 for DC, Image or Marvel work; 1.5 for Dark Horse work; 2 for other publishers; 3 for other publishers defunct for more than five years; 4 for self-publishing
C = 1 for writer and/or penciller; 2 for inker; 3 for colorist or letterer; 4 for editor. For multiple roles, divide the lowest number by the second lowest. A writer/artist would therefore be 1/2, but a writer/artist/inker would be (1/2)/3 or 1/6.

And then your equation might look something like...

(Y/P)/C

... for each publisher someone worked for.

As an example, let's look at me. (Since I know my own career pretty well.) My first official published piece was in 2003 for TwoMorrows; I've been writing for them since that time. I also did a couple of short pieces for Marvel in 2003 and again in 2006, but those were almost more editorial in nature. So my equation would be something like...

[(4/2)/1] + [(2/1)/4] = 2.5

Not very high. Let's compare that against, say, Stan Lee...

[66/1)/1] + [(9/2)/1] + [(2/1)/1] = 72.5

It's not a terribly precise set of equations since it puts equal weight on one story written in one year against 12 stories written in one year. And my calculations don't include a lot of the overlap work either, if you worked on multiple titles for the same publisher. Stan was writing and editting titles simultaneously, so that should theoretically count more, right?

Obviously, I haven't worked out all the details here -- and I haven't even started on fanac stuff! -- but it's an interesting notion to give one a sense of how much comic book capital any one person has against any other person.

More New Comics A-Comin'

Because a) I left out a couple of things in yesterday's post and b) I can't think of anything particularly original to blog about today, I'm going to make a few more notes on things that I'm seeing coming down the pipe...
The Amazing Transforming Superhero! Essays on the Revision of Characters in Comic Books, Film and Television
Jeff McClelland alerted me to this the other night. When he first began working on his essay for the book... some time back, I don't remember when exactly... he hit me up with some questions regarding the Thing's character and how he evolved, how much of Jack Kirby was in him, etc. It's finally getting published which, from personal experience, I can say is something in and of itself! I haven't seen Jeff's final piece, but I'm looking forward to picking this up. Not only does Jeff's piece interest me, but the solicitation looks interesting, too:
This collection of essays analyzes the many ways in which comic book and film superheroes have been revised or rewritten in response to changes in real-world politics, social mores, and popular culture. Among many topics covered are the jingoistic origin of Captain America in the wake of the McCarthy hearings, the post-World War II fantasy-feminist role of Wonder Woman, and the Nietzschean influences on the "sidekick revolt" in the 2004 film The Incredibles.
Top Shelf Seasonal Sampler 2007
This book actually came out today, and the owner at my LCS pulled aside a copy for me. (It was free, and I'm never really one to shy away from free comics!) It looked like he'd ordered maybe half a dozen copies, so I'm presuming he only gave them to folks like me who get a variety of books from a variety of publishers. Obviously, this is a promotional piece from Top Shelf that, as the name suggests, provides something a sampling of the various books they've got coming out in the near future. Honestly, I've never been overly partial to Top Shelf's stuff in general, but that's generally based on cursory glances over their material. A lot of the art is, to me, off-putting and I don't often look past the superficiality of the illustrations. This sampler, though, should give me a better sense of their creators' stories and storytelling abilities. Hopefully, I'll find at least a few things to keep an eye out for.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

New Comics A-Comin'

Here's some books I'll be looking forward to getting in the near future...
Hodabeast
My bud Paul Horn does this online comic strip called Cool Jerk. I think it was about a year ago that he finally ditched his day job at the newspaper to do the comic full-time, and this will be his first book. He's debuting it at San Diego in a few weeks, I believe, but I'm cool like he is, so I've got mine ordered already.

(Strangely, though, I can't find the picture of the actuall book that he sent earlier, so I'm using a photo of Paul himself here.)
Nothing Better
I just saw that creator Tyler Page won a Xeric Award to get his online comic published. I'd never heard of it before the announcement, but I'm usually up for a Xeric book. I scanned through the first chapter and, although, I was reluctant to revisit my college days at first, I found myself quickly engrossed by the characters. And that was just with a quick scan! I'll be looking forward to seeing this when it comes out. Proof once again that Xeric winners are worth paying attention to!
Parverian Tales
I recently won copies of Parverian Tales #1 and #2 from Big Red A Press. Evidently, after publishing two issues, they switched to an online format and have been doing more successfully with that endeavor. I honestly haven't read much of the story in any format, so I'm looking forward to getting these two collector's items in the mail so I can start to catch up.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Editorial Cartoon

Interesting thing about comedy in general is that any sort of non-physical humor requires some fore-knowledge going into it for it to be funny. Let's take a look at this recent cartoon from Mike Keefe...
To really understand the joke, the reader needs some kind of baseline knowledge of Paris Hilton and her recent... well, "plight" seems generous here, but I'll go with it... as well as Scooter Libby's recent sentencing. Keefe does a good job here trying to make the strip funny even with as minimal outside knowledge as possible, but there's still the inescapable baseline of knowing how to read English.

I've erased the date from the cartoon itself, but I'd be willing to bet that most Americans (for whom this is directed towards) would be able to explain what the cartoon's about and even pinpoint when it was produced within a day.

Let's compare that against something that should have little, if any, contemporary resonance. Here's a cartoon by John Tenniel circa 1871...
Because it's not the best image, I'll inform you that the two swords read "Radicalism" and "Toryism". Now, what's the cartoon about?

Well, it will only make sense if you know several things. First, you need to know what radicalism and toryism are. I suspect most Americans could guess at radicalism, and assume toryism would be the opposite of that, but I daresay that's a stretch. Next, you'd need to know what that the subject of the cartoon is performing a Scottish sword dance and, more significantly, you'd need to have seen such an act performed to really understand what's involved in it. Third, you'd need to know that the cartoon is one of William Gladstone and that, fourth, he was Prime Minister of England at the time the cartoon was drawn. And even then, it would still help to know what platforms he stood upon and what speechs he had given in the latter half of that year.

The image, by itself, for most people simply doesn't make much sense today. It's a just a Scottish guy stepping over a couple of swords. Even after several setences of explanation (see above), it's still not as funny as Keefe's cartoon, despite the incredible execution of the final product and the probably-just-as-poignent topicalness that it would've had in 1871. But the base of reference is too far removed at this point, and the cartoon isn't funny.

The point of this is that good comic creators -- indeed good creators of all sorts -- do a good job because their work is as self-contained as possible. The less outside knowledge you need going into a comic, the greater its longevity and the greater its breadth of audience. Peanuts survived for as long as it did in part because every strip contains all the information the reader needs to get it. The same can be said of Garfield. A co-worker of mine just read Watchmen for the first time and noted how he didn't have to be concerned about knowing decades of back-story or continuity that held the story up. All of these creations have plenty of back-story and continuity in them, but it's not required to understand all the points they're trying to make.

Food for thought, especially if you're trying to start your own comic book or strip.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Discovery Of Artifacts

When I was young and hadn't really established comic book collecting as a hobby yet, I actively spent some time exploring other hobbies that I might enjoy. I even went so far as to get a book about hobbies from the library, in which it noted several different types of hobbies, the benefits of each one, and how one might go about beginning on such an endeavor. For whatever reason, I remember that autograph collecting struck my fancy.

Most of the instructions on how to begin collecting autographs centered on people who were still living and in the public eye. The book, as I recall, provided addresses for a selection of actors, musicians, and authors. (With almost three decades of hindsight, I suspect they were all actually addresses for their respective agents.) I was still pretty young and the book was several years old already, so most of the addresses were for people I had never heard of. One that did stand out, though, was that of Dr. Seuss.

So I sat down, and penned a letter that probably was just glowing with how much I loved his books. And indeed, some time later, I received an envelope that contained a single sheet of paper, folded in half length-wise. On the left was a pre-printed drawing of the Cat in the Hat. On the right was a short, hand-written note in a fine line marker: "Here with one autograph for Sean" with a whimsical arrow pointing down. Beneath that, just the name "Dr. Seuss" printed quite legibly in red crayon. (The image here is NOT the one I uncovered -- my scanner is on the fritz -- but it's not dissimilar to mine. This image I just found online.)

That was, as I said, nearly 30 years ago and I just stumbled across that very same document. And it reminded me of another document which I'm certain must be buried in my files somewhere...

With the success I had with Dr. Seuss, I tried to contact other folks whose work my young mind was interested in. Namely, the authors of many of my favorite newspaper comic strips. I believe I sent about half a dozen letters off care of our local newspaper. I expect it included ones to Charles Shultz and Jim Davis, but aside from the one artist who responded, I don't know who else I would've written.

The artist that did respond was Reg Smythe, creator and then-still writer/artist on the strip "Andy Capp." I recall it as a note written with a blue felt pen on Daily Mirror letterhead. He noted that he was familiar with the newspaper I had sent my letter care of, and answered my question about Andy Capp's licensing, noting that he probably be much more conducive to it if Andy sported four legs, fur, and a tail! (I really do need to track that letter down sometime.)

The noteworthy item I did find alongside my Dr. Seuss autograph was a Crimson Plague print signed by colorist Tom Smith. Several years ago, he had missed the airing of the made-for-TV movie of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD and was wondering if anyone could send him a VHS tape (remember those?) of it. I obliged and he sent back a package with a couple issues of Avengers that he and writer Kurt Busiek had signed, the aforementioned print, and a short thank you note scratched on the back of some Bristol board.

No real point to this reminiscing, other to say I was pleased to find some loot I'd forgotten I had.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Letters Pages

Ah, yes, back in the days of letter pages. When your average comic book reader could script a short missive, send it off to Ye Olde Editor, and see his/her very own words in print several months later. That's largely gone the way of the dodo, but I got to thinking about it again recently.

Up until 2001 or 2002, I was trying -- with extremely limited success -- to become a comic book writer. I had all sorts of notions on what I was or wasn't capable of, and how to get my name noticed by the various editors whose job supposedly included the reading of submissions. One of my ideas was to send in new material on a monthly basis; it seemed to me that editors need someone who can not only write, but write consistently over an extended period. The problem that I soon realized, after taking the bold step of phoning one of the editors to specifically ask for feedback, was that they don't really need more untested writers. There are plenty of talented folks already working in the business, and the odds of them finding my gem among all the submissions was pretty limited.

So I devised a new plan. At the time, most books still carried letters pages and those clearly had to be read by the editors. If I would send in letters to the editors regularly with intelligent comments about the story structures, that would show that I can write pretty well and it would get my name in front of them repeatedly. Thus began my two year stint as a letterhack.

I started fairly modestly, talking largely to legitimate points about the comics I was reading. After a few months began to pass, I began to indeed start seeing my name show up in the letters pages. I was encouraged with this and began writing more. By sheer volume, I got more letters printed and got to figuring out some tricks to help get my letters published, including making bizarre (but relevant!) analogies to Muppets, Steven Wright and the Great Gazoo. It worked well enough that I was getting a letter published on average every other week for a while.

It got so that I found myself often scanning the letter column pages first, while I was still standing in the comic shop. And that's when I noticed something. The names that kept showing up on the letters pages were the same. Oh, sure, there was always one or two that I'd never seen before, but there looked to be maybe a couple dozen guys like me who were writing letters on a regular basis.

So I began to wonder, had I become a name to watch out for? I can imagine a scenario where an editor is trying to put a book together and s/he is running late for whatever reason, so s/he grabs three or four letters from folks that they know will write something reasonably coherent, rather than slug through however many other letters that are of unknown quality. "Let's see, I'll just grab these letters from Sean Kleefeld, Scot Myers, and Ronnie Dingman." Would that become too obvious over time? I know that for those couple of years I was actively reading the letters pages, I certainly noticed.

The other factor ensuring the demise of letters pages was the ubiquitiousness of e-mail and the Internet. The letters pages were originally simply a way to get around some postal regulations, but they soon became a vehicle by which comic creators could have some contact with their audience. With everybody (well, at least, the majority of the comic reading population) having access to the creators' e-mails, the need for a letters page to serve as a communications avenue was no longer relevant.

While I'm sure the demise in letters page was inevitable given the rise of electronic media, my ego is left to wonder if guys like me who wrote so many letters that were published (and to be perfectly fair, I was only a minor letterhack by comparison to some other contemporaries) helped hasten the fall of the letters page.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Paul Sampliner

Today, I'm going to tackle one of the biggest mysteries of comic book history: who was Paul Sampliner?

Well, perhaps, it's not the biggest mystery, but it's the biggest one that's bothered me personally. And I'm not likely going to solve that here in this blog entry, but I am hoping to use this to collect everything I have found out about him so far.

Paul H. Sampliner was born in 1898 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Sophie had two children, Joan and Philip.

Sampliner teamed up with Frank Armer in 1922 to launch a magazine entitled Screenland. It's relative success prompted them to continue with Artists and Models and other such magazines. In 1923, Harry Donenfeld bought out his brothers' interests in Martin Press with Sampliner and Armer as clients.

Possibly due to Armer's adding "snappy, spicy stories and art" to their growing line, Sampliner left to found Eastern Distribution with Charles Dreyfus in 1925, which was known for handling Hugo Gernsbeck's publications. That company filed for bankruptcy in October 1932 and almost immediately afterward, he and Donenfeld founded Independent News, a new comic book and magazine distributor, largely using money Sampliner borrowed from his mother, Giselle Frank. The relative success of Independent allowed them to pick up Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's distribution from McCall's by April 1937 and, while details about the next two years are sketchy, Sampliner and Donenfeld are later listed as owners of Detective Comics, Inc. beginning in September 1939.

One thing I've found particularly interesting are the connections made so early on in comic book history. Louis Silberkleit, for example, was the Circulation Department Supervisor for Eastern from 1927 until it closed. Silberkleit, along with Maurice Coyne and John Goldwater, worked briefly for Independent before founding Columbia Publications (which later became MLJ, which later became Archie) in 1934. Martin Goodman, who went on to found Marvel Comics, also worked with Silberkleit and Sampliner at Eastern from 1927 to 1932.

Sampliner remained a relaively silent in his role as President of Independent as well as owner of National Periodical (which owned Detective Comics). He and Donenfeld, now with former head accountant Jack Liebowitz, ran much of the periodical market, handling the distribution (and in some cases, the production) of many of the most popular titles, including Playboy, Superman, and Mad. Indeed, it was easy for the three of them to turn away James Warren's idea for Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1957.

As Sampliner grew older, he became more involved in interests outside of publications. Likely, because he could afford to. He was a member of the New York City Anti-Crime Commission and the New York State Commission Against Discrimination. He also served on the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith's commission for over two decades.

Sampliner's life seems relatively comfortable by this point. Certainly, he was well enough off to have owned at least one original Degas bronze, The Masseuse, which he auctioned off in 1961, a few years before his retirement. Although he left Independent in 1965, he remained one of the owners of DC until 1967 when the company was bought out by Kinney National Service (later known as Warner Communications, now known as Time Warner). He was later named chairman of the board of Independent in December 1969.

Sampliner died not far from his New York City home on January 7, 1975.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Dean Motter

One of the things that I've found interesting about blogging for the past year and a half or so has been watching my tastes change and being able to see those changes articulated. As I look back over previous posts, I can clearly see where I would start becoming interested in something/someone or where I would actively lose interest. And the most intriguing aspect of that is being able to evaluate those changes and draw some conclusions.

Today, I stumbled across this recent interview with Dean Motter. I'd vaguely heard of his Mister X back in the day, and have seen Batman: Nine Lives sitting on the shelf at my LCS, but I really knew nothing about him or his work. Which is a shame because, in reading through interview and looking through his web site, he looks like he's done some really quality work that I would appreciate.

So I'm left to wonder WHY he's an more-or-less unknown to me. I'm not exactly ignorant of comics and/or their creators, so why am I so umfamiliar with him?

I went scanning through my other posts here to see what other instances I could find, and I noticed a pattern of sorts. It boils down to creators doing decent stuff during the late 1980s and 1990s, but whose work was NOT published by Marvel and DC. One of my biggest knowledge gaps in comics is essentially non-mainstream comics at the end of the 20th century.

Fascinating that I've got that hole there. More importantly, though, I can now recognize that hole and work more actively to plug it up.

And you thought my blog here was just pure ego!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Black Summer #0

As I noted just yesterday, I've only recently come to really appreciate Warren Ellis as a writer. Just in time I'd say, too, as this week saw the release of his new Black Summer #0 from Avatar Press.

The issue is brief, only eight pages of story and a two page text summary by Ellis. (What do expect for 99 cents?) But in those eight pages, Ellis effectively, succinctly, and elegantly establishes a world not dissimilar to our own, several characters and a general outline of their backstories, and fires the opening salvo of what the whole series is premised on. I was amazed, in retrospect, at how much he accomplished in those eight pages; it seemed like several chapters' worth of material. But it never felt rushed or forced or overly expository, but it all seemed perfectly paced and flowed easily.

Now, as to the premise, I'm finding it hard to explain without substantially spoiling the story for those who haven't seen it yet. But let me say that I actually was reading it in a Subway restuarant as I was eating lunch today, and I had to restrain myself from jumping up from my chair and yelling, "Now that's what I'm talking about!" It's a ballsy story in every positive aspect of the word, and one that I daresay that many conservative readers might take offense to. It's a story about a superhero who decides to fight against the real injustices in America at the very highest levels. It's about the reality of "freedom" in America and what kind of drastic measures really need to happen before the opiate-infused public wakes up to just how bad the situation actually is. It's the story that should be inevitable if mainstream superheroes honestly did believe that with great power must also come great responsibility. It's about sacrificing one's own soul for the greater good. It's about trying to right everything that's wrong in America today.

It's about damned time.

This is a book that everyone who appreciates freedom -- real freedom -- should buy. Ellis is a man with an incredibly simple, but poignient, message. Yeah, he's just writing fiction, but it has a greater Truth (and a far, far greater eloquence) to it than most newspapers. And that should scare the crap out of everyone.

Read Black Summer.

Tozo

I do so love the Internet! Through a series of only mildly related links, I stumbled across the online comic strip, Tozo, the Public Servant. It was launched by David O'Connell back in February as a weekly strip about a police officer of Nova Venezia investigating a murder.

The story is still early enough on that it's hard to tell how much/well O'Connell will do with characterization and plot structure and such, but he's certainly got a solid start. What I've been more impressed with thus far has been the artwork. He cites Moebius, Herge and Windsor McCay as influences, and I think that shows through in the best possible way.

In the past hour or two since I came across Tozo, I've been quite impressed and find myself already looking forward to the next installment. Which, unfortunately, won't be until the 24th as O'Connell is on vacation. But that gives YOU plenty of time to catch up, so take advantage of what I hope will be a rare opportunity!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sean, Meet Spider

Yes, I'm really late to this particular game, but I finally got around to reading Transmetropolitan. Well, the first volume as it appears in trade paperback form, at any rate.

I don't know WHY it's taken me so long to catch up with that. Well, with Warren Ellis. I know I didn't have much interest in Transmetropolitan because it was essentially a complete unknown to me. But I don't know why it's taken me so long to really appreciate Ellis. I suppose I hadn't read much of his work at all until about a year ago, and it was only after seeing how talented he was and the themes/messages his work seemed to center around that I began to actively seek out his other work.

But, even after this first, small volume, it's easy to see why Spider Jerusalem struck such a chord with so many people. Yeah, this is definitely a character I can understand. Almost too well, actually...

The Oz-Wonderland War

As I noted the other day, I recently picked up The Oz-Wonderland War mini-series from 1986. It was evidently meant to be originally housed within Captain Carrot but the cancellation of that title shunted it over into it's own.

The basic thrust of the story is that the Nome King has captured and imprisoned several prominent citizens of Oz, including Ozma, Glenda, and Nick Chopper among others. He's further gained control of the flying monkeys and, through them, Oz itself. The inhabitants of Wonderland are concerned, naturally enough, that he'll soon see wage war against them as well. So the Cheshire Cat heads out in search of some new champions to help save those who've been captured and depose the Nome King. He's found Captain Carrot by page 2 of the story, who enlists the aid of the rest of the Zoo Crew. The Zoo Crew spend the next few double-sized issues rescuing the lost heroes with the aid of Dorothy Gale, the White Knight, the Mock Turtle, Tik-Tok and a host of other characters.

The first thing that struck me about the series is artwork. All of the characters are drawn in a style reminiscent of the original artists. So while Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew appear in Scott Shaw!'s cartoony style, the inhabitants of Wonderland look like Sir John Tenniel's designs, and the inhabitants of Oz look the work of W.W. Denslow. What I found particularly striking is that artist Carol Lay has blended the styles together just enough that the original stylistic differences aren't at all jarring, as one who's familiar with the originals might expect them to be.

Now I am certainly one who appreciates the original Oz and Wonderland tales, and I've gone so far as to read a number of spin-offs and re-imaginings of them as well. Straight retellings tend not to fare terribly well against the originals because something always seems to be left out in the process. Re-imagined versions of the tales fare somewhat better since their underlying premise is that there are some significant differences in the story, sometimes even at a thematic level. Actually, many of these are done quite well from a technical perspective; however, one can find fault with the basic premise and so that tends to color their view of the new version. (There was something of kerfuffle with Lewis Carroll purists, as I recall, when Frank Beddor released his first book of the Looking-Glass Wars.) Spin-offs, then, are often the most successful because their creators are generally fans of the originals and try to imbue their work with as much of the spirit of the originals as possible and provide extended adventures. Indeed, most of what is considered part of the Oz mythology was NOT written by L. Frank Baum.

That last reason, though, is why Oz-Wonderland War is so disappointing. There's a wonderful premise there, some excellent artwork, and even a reasonably solid story. But the spirit of the originals just doesn't seem to be there. Reading the accompanying text pieces, writer E. Nelson Bridwell was indeed a big fan of the Oz and Wonderland books and holds them in a great deal of reverence. But that seems to actually be part of the problem, as he's mostly just regurgitating bits and pieces of both stories. It's as if he just took the originals, cut them into small portions and re-assembled them into one story.

Now, looking at from that point of view, it is well done. The pieces all join together in an easy narrative. But it seems to be missing the spirit of the originals.

Case in point. The protagonists gather around a table to discuss their plans and, while they're there, have a cup of tea. Naturally, this is led by the Mad Hatter who exclaims "No room! No room!" when another person shows up late. The table is already full, and there is indeed no more room for another. But the point of the Hatter's exclamation in the original was that he was shouting "No room!" when there was, in fact, plenty of room, providing an obvious disconnect. Likewise, he's dismayed to find the Zoo Crew's resident mouse, Little Cheese, in the tea pot. Given that it was originally home to Dormouse, it should be perfectly acceptable and normal for rodents to find their way into tea pots.

The bright spot in the series was in issue #2, where Captain Carrot finds himself captive with a host of other unusual rabbit-y characters -- including the March Hare, the Easter Bunny, Wonder Wabbit, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny -- who then fight the Nome King's Fearsome Five, an obvious take on the Fantastic Four. We're pretty far removed from Oz and Wonderland mythos at this point, and we're able to see the spirit of them much more focused here. I think it shows that Bridwell did have good intentions, but he was simply too close to the material throughout much of the series; he'd fall back on what he'd already read instead of allowing the characters to really continue to move forward, based on their personalities. He effectively had to remove the characters from the lands of Oz and Wonderland to think about the characters as individuals.

All in all, it wasn't a bad story. While there was some clever inspiration behind it, the story itself wasn't very inspired and, because of that, it ultimately fell a little flat. Like watching old performers past their prime doing their old routines by rote -- you're really watching a shadow of the original. It can be fun to see that from a nostalgic perspective, but it really doesn't hold up against what drew you to the originals in the first place.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I don't think it'd spoil things too terribly to say that the captured Oz citizens are all saved, the winged monkeys freed, the Nome King imprisoned, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Self-Reflection On The Harveys

The Harvey Award nominees were announced recently and, as I read through the list, I noted some of my own preferences as I expect most fans do. It got me to thinking about lists like this.

I've been aware of various comic book related awards for years. And I typically look through them with only a vague sense of their significance. I'm not generally the type of guy who gives much credence to an award. The work will either stand or not on its own merits, and shouldn't really need to be honored above that. But it's news in the comic world, and I try to keep up. :)

It used to be, though, that I'd look through a list like this and only recognize a couple of names. If I was asked who I'd prefer to win that year, I'd rattle off the one or two names I actually knew, oblivious to how good I felt the work actually was when put up against its competition. I had no real frame of reference to pass judgement, even if I was fully versed in what the judging criteria was.

As I grew older, and more widely read, I began to recognize more and more names that showed up on these lists. I didn't necessarily read the works that showed up, but I was at least familiar with the names there. If asked, I'd still argue in favor of the handful of names whose work I actively knew, still without really having a good frame of reference.

As I look through this year's Harvey nominees, I'm pleased to recognize ALL of the names and, more significantly, have read most of them. I feel somewhat qualified to actually make some reasonable judgements on whether one should win over another. The problem, of course, now is that there's sure a wide range of talent even within one category that comparisons are almost impossible. How do you rate Absolute New Frontier against Weird Science? How can you compare the work of John Cassaday against that of Don Rosa? Excellent stuff, to be sure, but we're talking about totally different ballparks here. Apples and oranges. Mixed metaphors. It just doesn't really add up.

Well, I suspect that, like in past years, I'll just scan through the winners once they're announced and will take some small pleasure in those few that I personally think are much better than the others and were awarded something. While I still don't really think it's necessary to have such awards, I'll nonetheless take some satisfaction in having been shown that my choices in comic book reading are of a particularly high caliber.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Shameless Self-Promotion... Maybe

This Tuesday will see the release of Tim Story's first FF movie as an extended DVD release. The second disc includes an FF merchandise gallery and, if they're using the same photos I think they are, most of them will have been taken by me from my personal collection. Whether or not they're the same pictures and whether or not I'll even get a credit for it somewhere, I don't know but it'll be a nice feather in my cap if it is.

In any event, it looks like there's some nifty looking stuff in the collection even if I'm not on it myself, so it might be worth checking out.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Curious Math VS. Customer Satisfaction

Back in May, I placed an order with Mile High Comics. I don't order comics from online shops very frequently because I don't have huge stacks of books I'm looking for, so the shipping charges often double the price of my purchase. But once or twice a year, I'll rack up a list of back issues that I just can't find anywhere else and place an order for several things simultaneously.

Anyway, MHC was running a promotion at the time for 40% just about all of their back issue stock. So I tooled around their site, and found a number of obscure-ish books I had been looking for. When I checked my shopping cart, I found I had a total of around $28, plus another $4 for shipping for a grand total of $32. Their policy, though, is that orders over $40 have no shipping charges. Which meant that if I could find another $12 of goods, I would only pay $8 more than what I was already looking at.

So I found a couple more things that brought my total, without shipping, to just over $40. The shipping charges fell to the wayside and I placed my order.

Now, a curious function of Mile High is that they are large enough that to own several store locations as well as a warehouse. And their inventory system among all these locations is not wholly immediate and transparent, meaning that what their online database says they have in stock might not actually 100% up-to-date. (I can understand the difficulty in tracking individual copies of limited runs of a periodical throughout a network of locations, but it still seems anachronistic in an age after Amazon.com has proven to be so successful at doing just that.)

In any event, they did send me an e-mail alerting me to the fact that some of the items I had ordered were out of stock. I was somewhat disappointed because A) I wouldn't be able to get all the things I was looking for, and B) I figured that now I'd have to pay the additional shipping cost.

The other intersting thing that I ran into was that I had trouble placing my order online. Well, the initial order seemed to go through fine, but I kept getting error messages when I tried to send in my credit card information. It seemed to go through eventually, but I got an e-mail a week later saying that, while my order was received, they didn't have any payment information. A quick phone call got that rectified, but only after the 40% off promotion ended.

I received my package last night and looked over the invoice. Indeed it listed the things that were sent as well as what I had ordered but was not available. But my 40% discount was still there and I was not charged for shipping. They probably could have gotten away with charging me for shipping and not honoring the discount, but they didn't even attempt that.

I used to not be keen on Mile High because their listed prices tended to be a bit high. But their frequent sales can make the prices quite reasonable -- even downright cheap in some cases -- and ordering in larger quantities knocks off the issue of shipping charges altogether. Further, I tend to find that MHC tends to grade their books lower than what their actual condition is, and I've gotten what they called "Good" condition books that were far superior than what I would've given them credit for. All this, in addition to sticking by the sale and discount prices from your original order, instead of trying to make a few extra bucks by using loopholes, certainly puts MHC in a better position in my mind as a consumer. I'm now more likely to return to Mile High for future comic orders than trying to dig through eBay or something for a better deal.

Oh, and in case you're interested, here's what I ultimately got...