Friday, January 30, 2015

Unearthed: Trypto the Acid Dog! #1

Since about 1998 the comic book medium has been overwhelmed with Hollywood types (and wannabe Hollywood types) attempting to either augment their career by slumming in comics (because their Hollywood career is stagnant) or trick people into looking at their terrible screenplays (because they want to make it big in Hollywood). And yet, a full decade earlier in 1988, Hollywood big shots Bill Mumy & Miguel Ferrer enjoyed a tenure in comics which included Renegade Press' Trypto the Acid Dog!, a black & white one-shot drawn by Steve Leialoha.

The story opens with portentious dialogue about the existence of heroes as we find a couple named Benjamin & Alison examining the fish of Kentson River in Kirby, Indiana. The couple are collecting evidence against Toxicem, a chemical plant believed to be polluting the rivers. The couple also brought their young son Dewey and his tiny dog Trypto with them.

Next, we meet Mr. Bursky of Toxicem as he orders his thug Gino to deal with Benjamin & Alison, demanding Gino "shut them down," bring him everything they have on Toxicem and that "a fire might be nice." Later that night as Alison is reading Dewey a bedtime story, Gino arrives at the door and shoots Benjamin to death. Ducking under the steps, Gino proceeds to shoot Alison in the back when she comes down to check on Benjamin.

Seeing Dewey descend after his mother, Gino muses, "A kid! I like kids..." then shoots Dewey dead as well. Are we enjoying this yet? Trypto ventures out next, whimpering and licks the dead body of Dewey. Then, in a fit of rage, the tiny dog attacks Gino, biting into his leg and tearing through his flesh. Gino shoots Trypto twice, collects the data then sets the house on fire. By, er, using explosives, which is going to be pretty hard to pass off as an accident.

However, as the fire is being prepared the nearly-deade Trypto crawls from the home, leaving a trail of blood across the backyard until finally splashing into the waters of the polluted river. Exposed the toxic waste in the water, this naturally grants Trypto superhuman powers. Yes, we've just transitioned to the brutal slayings of a family to all-out comic book science! The narration returns declaring "Thy kingdomc come... Thy will be done... on Earth... as it is in Heaven..." so that we grasp the magnificence of this moment.

"Charged with the power of lightning, strange toxic chemicals mingling within his flesh and blood, fueled with a hunger for revenge -- Trypto is born again! Born of water -- born of fire -- born of blood -- born of acid! Trypto the Acid Dog!" Trypto is now clad in a cape with a "T" insignia (the cape comes from a Toxicem sandbag). Obviously with his power of flight and cape, Trypto is revealed as an homage to Superboy's beloved pet Krypto, the Super-Dog (who had been retconned out of existence at the time this story was published). "Trypto" is likewise a reference to Krypto, while also referring tryptic acid. One wonders if this comic came to be because one night Mumy mispronounced Krypto's name and Ferrer thought there could be a story in that.

With his super-senses, Trypto sets out in pursuit of Gino; flying over the river, Trypto's presence causes dead bodies in the river to rise up and follow in his wake. At Toxicem, Mr. Bursky is patching up Gino's wounded leg when Trypto bursts in dramatically through a skylight. He proves to be immune to Gino's gunfire and Trypto does something to Gino off-panel; we only hear Gino's screams and death rattle.

Trypto confronts Bursky now, the dog's body now increasing in size. Bursky tries to run, but runs into the reanimated people from the river, all of them victims of Bursky's machinations. The creatures carry Bursky to a vat of boiling chemicals and throw him in, then destroy themselves the same way (although if in this world chemicals can regenerate dead people and dogs, I'm not sure why these chemicals are more lethal than the toxic waste).

"A fitting end for his kind," Trypto thinks (quoting Batman in a similar situation from that character's first appearance). The next day, a neighbour boy named Robbie finds Trypto at the ruins of his family's home and Robbie convinces his mother to let him keep the dog. A news broadcast reveals that although the home was destroyed by fire, a fireproof safe contained enough evidence to bring down Toxicem. And our story ends as Robbie brings Trypto to visit Dewey's grave.

Thoughts: This is a delightfully odd comic.

As the Batman & Krypto references I noted bear witness, Mumy & Ferrer had some obvious affection for good old fashioned super hero comics. As a comic printed in the time of the black & white boom, one also wonders if the toxic chemical-based origin had anything to do with a certain quartet of turtles who were teenaged, mutant and also ninja.

Leialoha's art is a treat, with Trypto's cone-shaped head particularly appealing. It's a simple story with a few good gags but it takes its plot seriously - rather different than the all-out Rex the Wonder Dog as Captain America parody I complained about earlier, offering somewhat more subtle humour.

Friday, January 9, 2015

2014: From Speedball to Destiny

Many people seem to think their annual "best of" lists merit the attention of others. What, in particular, might my excuse be? First, that I consume quite a lot of media in a given year between the comic books & prose I read and films I watch. Second, that I am extremely picky and difficult to please. Therefore, if I come down in favour of something there's an implication that it must be cream of the crop! ...Though my tastes are likely quite different from yours.

And you, readers of this blog, which 2014 post did you most enjoy? The one where I stood in defense of Steve Ditko's Speedball. Good choice!

2014 MOVIES I MOST ENJOYED

I don't have much to say about new films except that despite all of my recent issues with Marvel, they do adapt themselves very neatly to the cinemas. I easily enjoyed Captain America: the Winter Soldier the most of the year's films because I felt it characterized the Captain very faithfully. Still, I have an enormous soft spot for X-Men: Days of Future Past because it struck a few nostalgic notes for 2000's X-Men (such as revisiting that film's score), reminding me of that bygone time when Marvel's venture into film was still unproved and where famous Hollywood stars appearing in their films would trash-talk them to reporters, as opposed to today's stars who plead for Marvel's table scraps. What a world.

2014 COMICS I MOST ENJOYED

Many of the titles I enjoyed in 2014 are still in-process, but I'm very pleased with Priest & Mark Bright's Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody (valiant; review here), which has reunited them with their best creative property. Walter Simonson is still engulfed in Ragnarok (IDW) which offers his take on Norse mythos without Marvel's filter. Kurt Busiek & Benjamin Dewey have just begun Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw (Image), a great-looking fantasy series about animal people whose legendary hero turns out to be a human. Eric Shanower & Gabriel Rodriguez have been doing pretty well with Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland (IDW), although any comparison to the original Winsor McCay strips would be unfavourable; the very format of a serialized comic book presents difficulties in adapting a narrative told via single pages. My friends Alex Grecian & Riley Rossmo just launched Rasputin (Image; review here) which thus far has been an intriguing look at a mythologized Rasputin's beginning and ending. I haven't yet finished Wild's End (Boom!) by Dan Abnett & I.N.J. Culbard, but the premise - Wind and the Willows meets War of the Worlds - has kept me interested. Dean Haspiel & Mark Waid's The Fox (Archie; review here) was a very pleasant surprise - the most enjoyable super hero comic I'd read since the last Mark Waid comic I'd bought; there will be more from the Fox this year and I'm in favour of it!

In returning titles, I've finally begun to catch up on the recently-revived Astro City (Vertigo) by Kurt Busiek & Brent Anderson, which has been virtually on-target to the series' usual level of quality. Stan Sakai has fortunately returned to Usagi Yojimbo (Dark Horse) with his own War of the Worlds-inspired series Senso (review here) and with a Color Special (review here); 2015 promises to see the series itself resume, which I'm quite eager to see. Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson returned to Beasts of Burden (Dark Horse) with the one-shot Hunters & Gatherers (review here); hopefully 2015 will see more from them. A friend's recommendation led me to read the collected edition of Chuck Dixon's Winterworld (IDW) early in 2014; much to my surprise, the series resumed with new adventures later in the year after about a 20-year absence! I'm still following Larry Hama & S.L. Gallant's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero! (IDW) as well; the quality varies at times and the sci-fi plots never seem like a good fit for the series, but Hama's snappy dialogue usually wins me over. Sadly, Sergio Aragones Funnies (Bongo; review here) ended this year, though Sergio intends to bring it back with another publisher somewhere down the line. Batton Lash printed a new trade paperback Supernatural Law: Zombie Wife (Exhibit A) and I happily supported it on Kickstarter; I'm sure he has something new in the works for 2015.

In international comics, Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido's Blacksad: Amarillo (Dark Horse; review here) debuted in English and I quite enjoyed it, although it veered away from the series' usual mystery-detective trappings for a more straightforward tale of action. The French comic Peter Pan (Soaring Penguin Press) by Regis Loisel finally received a full English translation and I gave it chance; I enjoyed it, but it was quite a bit darker than I expected with some particularly disturbing material toward the end when Peter and his Lost Boys gradually forget Tinkerbell had caused someone's death. Finally, Sergio Ponchione's Ditko Kirby Wood (Fantagraphics; review here) was a very tight tribute to those three great masters of comic art with dazzling attempts to duplicate their styles.

The only truly new graphic novels I tried out were Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew's The Shadow Hero (First Second; review here), a very pleasant super hero romp with history first truly-Asian-American costumed hero. I also found much to enjoy in Box Brown's Andre the Giant (First Second; review forthcoming), which relates incidents from the wrestler's life as a series of vignettes.

Pre-2014 MOVIES I DISCOVERED & ENJOYED

It took me a very long time but I finally obtained the movie The Crowd, which proved to be a fantastic silent film (some thoughts about it here). My interest in early cinema (especially Warner films) also paid out as I enjoyed Heroes For Sale, The Life of Emile Zola, Wild Boys of the Road and Million Dollar Legs. And while it's sad that Maximilian Schell died last year, at least through his obituary I learned of his pseudo-documentary Marlene, which proved to be very interesting - a real tension between the filmmaker and his subject.

Speaking of documentaries, I enjoyed The Unknown Known even though - as everyone seems to have pointed out - it was not like Errol Morris' earlier Fog of War in terms of capturing a public figure pouring out the conflicts from within their soul. Rumsfeld's lack of self-awareness is fascinating in its own right, but it's not as comfortable as the earlier film's apologetic McNamara had been.

Time spent on airplanes last year gave me many opportunities to view recent releases and 12 Years a Slave and Her were easily my two favourites. I also discovered Ordinary People and quite liked that too. Finally, I viewed Felidae because the very concept of an animated film about a mystery-solving housecat which indulges in both sex and violence is an oddity all its own.

Pre-2014 PROSE FICTION I DISCOVERED & ENJOYED

Ishmael Beah's The Radiance of Tomorrow was a fine novel about post-war Sierra Leone; I didn't find it as involving as Beah's non-fiction, but all the same it gave me more insight into the country, insight which I'll need if I keep visiting there (which at present time is a hard thing to consider). I also read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun and quite liked it, although it left me feeling disturbed more than a few times. I read another Charles Dickens novel: Dombey and Son (most of it while I was in Sierra Leone) and while its happy resolution came together a little too neat for me, I always enjoy reading Dickens' casts of characters.

I poured through quite a few books whose film adaptations I'd already enjoyed; setting aside the films, I found much to like in The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, Journey Into Fear by Eric Ambler, Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, Good-Bye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton, Psycho by Robert Bloch and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It's always interesting to discover where the versions diverged. I was particularly surprised to find that Psycho has quite a few scenes from Norman Bates' perspective when you wouldn't expect them, and to find just how tightly-constructed Jackson's Haunting of Hill House is, from the dialogue to the characters to the rising tension.

I delved a little into the pulps last year and dug out some short story collections, most notably Bloch's The Opener of the Way (review here) and two of Nelson S. Bond's: The Far Side of Nowhere (review here) & The 31st of February (review here. As a personal triumph, I also read the last two Sax Rohmer novels I hadn't previously experienced. My best pulp experience, however, has to be discovering The Black Ace by George Bruce in an issue of Argosy (review here; what a magnificent tale!

Finally, I enjoyed a few books of humour, which is not normally something I try. Bob & Ray's From Approximately Coast to Coast was almost as good as hearing them on the radio and Robert Benchley's The Benchley Roundup brought a few smiles to my tired old face.

Pre-2014 NON-FICTION I DISCOVERED & ENJOYED

My interest in Africa (and in particular Sierra Leone) led me to two great books in 2014: Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild, telling the story of the abolition movement in England (which turns out to be much less-inspirational than you'd suppose) and An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski, which relates the author's experiences offering humanitarian aid with MSF in the midst of some of the worst crises of the last few decades.

My love of films brought me to Frank Capra's excellent autobiography The Name Above the Title and Buster Keaton's My Wonderful World of Slapstick. There were also some great interviews with film directors to be had in Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Devil Made It? and interesting stories about why some films failed to materialize as they were first conceived in Tales From Development Hell by David Hughes. Charles Drazin's In Search of the Third Man held virtually everything I, as a tremendous fan of the film, could ever wish to know about how it was made and what its impact has been. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy was one of the better filmmaker biographies I've read as it took its time to explore the personality in question, delved into his films themselves and generally avoided the type of armchair psychology most books of that ilk indulge in.

In books about comics, Art Spiegelman's Metamaus gave me new reasons to re-read Maus and for that alone, I'm happy I read it. Super Boys by Brad Ricca did a terrific job with the lives of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, although I felt it skipped over a lot of material and indulged in the type of armchair psychology I've previous mentioned a distaste for; still, I read a number of Siegel & Shuster's comics I hadn't sampled before because of this book.

Pre-2014 COMICS I DISCOVERED & ENJOYED

I avoided James Stokoe's Orc Stain (Image) for some time because, despite all of the good word about it, I didn't think I could get on board with his art. After his Godzilla: The Half-Century War disbused me of that impression, I happily read all of Orc Stain this last year. I was also very pleased to find Stan Sakai's other anthropomorphic-fantasy-adventure book Nilson Groundthumper & Hermy (Dark Horse) in its new hardcover collection; it's much more comedic than Usagi Yojimbo but equally as clever. I also decided to finally give Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse (Fantagraphics) a try and bought the first two volumes of the newspaper strip reprints. Although I enjoyed it, I don't think I'll sample any more of the series - the series' actions are so overwhelming as to be underwhelming when read in sequence.

On some strange impulse, I decided to get all of Adam Warren's Dirty Pair (Eclipse/Dark Horse) comics; it's not just the beautiful women or funny dialogue he creates (and I certainly like both) but his love of odd science fiction concepts (especially the transhumanism) keeps bringing me back. I was also very impressed with the first issue of The Destructor (Atlas; review here) by Archie Goodwin, Steve Ditko & Wally Wood - but then, how could a creative team like that one misfire? I've also bought most of Joshua Quagmire's Cutey Bunny (review forthcoming) and the graphic novel biography Bogie (Eclipse; review here) by Claude-Jean Philippe & Patrick Lesueur was a brief, but interesting look at Humphrey Bogart's life.

Perhaps the biggest thing which happened to me comics-wise in 2014 was my involvement in promoting Nelvana of the Northern Lights (CGA/IDW) on behalf of the University of Calgary; it was fun to be interviewed for print & radio and do a little to help get people interested in the project. Preparing for the interviews certainly helped me hone my own knowledge regarding the Canadian whites!

Finally, the non-fiction comic The Photographer (First Second) followed Didier Lefevre in his journey through Afghanistan with MSF and held some interesting depictions of culture clash, such as one doctor's irritation with western people's reactions toward the chadri.

THAT VIDEO GAME I LIKED

I certainly don't purchase many video games, but when I do find one I want I tend to play it for several years. With the Xbox 360 being phased out and me unwilling to upgrade to the X-bone at this time, I decided well in advance that I'd give Bungie's Destiny a try. Heck, I enjoyed Halo and I'm going to need something to play on the 360.

I'm mostly satisfied with the game; for the number of hours of enjoyment it's given me, I can't complain. The story is pretty bare (probably because as a mass-multi-player online game the story has to be open-ended) and you find the limitations pretty quickly. I also can't say I enjoy their player vs. player mode (the Crucible) at all; while I might still put in a Halo game and play in versus mode for a few hours, I avoid the Crucible - it seems as though it consists of about 30 seconds of running to find a fight, about 10 seconds of combat, then death and starting the cycle anew; not fun.

Unfortunately, the game's raid mode seems to be intentionally designed to keep out people like me - the casual gamers. There's no matchmaking system for the raid mode and because I can't play with my X-bone friends (re: pretty much everyone I played Halo with) that leaves me unable to form a party to attempt the raid. Irritating. It's interesting to see the communications from Bungie as they address the ways gamers are trying to exploit loopholes in the game. Every message from the developers has a barely-restrained irritation, as though they want to say, "you're playing the game wrong, guys." So far they've said they have no interest in matchmaking, so... I'm shut out. Consequently, there's no point for me to chase down their DLC - I won't be able to use it. Regardless, I enjoy Destiny as it stands.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A File of a Few Faithful Frankenstein Fables

Having previously composed lists of Old-Time Radio shows featuring werewolves and vampires, it seems only right to complete the unholy trinity with the Frankenstein Monster!

However, the Frankenstein Monster is - by definition - a particular creature adapted from Mary Shelley's novel, unlike the generic werewolves & vampires who came from legend & folklore. To be sure, Frankenstein has inspired many tales of men making creatures/monsters/robots, but for the sake of this list I'm only collecting those which acknowledge their debt to Shelley's novel; hence - adaptations (and some fun stuff)!

THE ADAPTATIONS

Appropriately, we begin again with the grandmother of Old-Time Radio horror, the Witch's Tale and their 1935 adaptation of the novel. For a half-hour program, it actually does a decent job of compressing the story to fit its run time, although in this version Frankenstein refuses to build the creature a mate.

Right-click here to download the Witch's Tale's version of "Frankenstein" from archive.org

I don't normally involve international radio in these lists, but it would be an injustice to omit this 1938 Australian serial which adapts the novel into 13 chapters; it's very faithful and quite well-done!

Right-click here to download part 1 of the Frankenstein serial from archive.org part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6 part 7 part 8 part 9 part 10 part 11 part 12 part 13

In 1944, the Weird Circle got in on the act with a half-hour adaptation. Their real strength lay in adapting short stories; here, they make numerous changes from characters to locales and cut the story off short from the novel's finale.

Right-click here to download the Weird Circle's version of "Frankenstein" from archive.org

In 1947, Ronald Colman hosted an adaptation on his program Favorite Story wherein comedian Fred Allen chose the novel as his favourite story! The adaptation does its best to cover the novel, but again runs out of time and ends on a cliffhanger. For what it does cover, it's quite good.

Right-click here to download the Favorite Story version of "Frankenstein" from archive.org

In 1951, NBC Short Story presented an adaptation designed for students who would listen in as part of their courses. This version does include some good background information on Mary Shelley, but the story itself is an uncredited rebroadcast of the Weird Circle version! Considering how many liberties that program took with the novel, I hope those students didn't write up their book reports with this as their primary source!

Right-click here to download the NBC Short Story version of "Frankenstein" from archive.org

Finally, radio's outstanding theater of thrills Suspense adapted the novel in 1952; this version has the highest profile of any of the adaptations, given Suspense's prestige and the presence of Herbert Marshall as its star! However, it's the least faithful version on this list. It barely feels like Mary Shelley's story, instead departing so far from the novel that one wonders if someone authored a script about a man making a monster and was told, "Frankenstein is in the public domain and has a great reputation, why don't we simply call your script that?" Marshall's Frankenstein has wildly inconsistent characterization (such that co-star Joseph Kearns twice notes how quickly Frankenstein's motivations swing) and rather than a tale about a man who made a monster and how it destroyed his life, it's the story of a scientist who has a pretty bad afternoon one day. They performed this script again in 1955.

Right-click here to download Suspense's first version of "Frankenstein" from archive.org Right-click here to download the second version from archive.org

THE FUN STUFF!

I don't want to become too frivolous in how I connect programs to Frankenstein, but I think it's worth noting in 1941 Boris Karloff appeared on Eddie Cantor's show It's Time to Smile and much was made there of his history playing the monster; Karloff even performs the monster's growl a few times! Unfortunately, Cantor's humour hasn't aged gracefully.

Click here to listen to Boris Karloff on It's Time to Smile at Youtube

The link here is even more tenuous - but in 1943, Bela Lugosi appeared on Fred Allen's Texaco Star Theater and celebrated Easter with a horror skit (huh?) which name-checked Frankenstein and involved Lugosi attempting to build a monster. Lugosi seems much more at ease in this show than in either of those I posted in my vampire list; although Allen has a reputation as a comedian too topical to be funny for today's audiences, I think this show works very well.

Click here to listen to Bela Lugosi on the Texaco Star Theatre at Youtube

Also worth noting: in a 1943 appearance on Information Please, Karloff is one of the guests and uses his monster's growl to alert host Clifton Fadiman when he'd like to answer questions; it's always very interesting to hear Karloff on Information Please to discover more about his personal interests; the man's knowledge of nursery rhymes and fairy tales is quite impressive (but not surprising to those of us who grew up with cassette tapes of Karloff reading Hans Christian Andersen).

Right-click here to download Boris Karloff on Information Please from archive.org

Karloff appeared on a 1945 episode of Duffy's Tavern to help sell war bonds; he performs a Frankenstein sketch with Duffy (Ed Gardner) at the end of the show.

Right-click here to download Boris Karloff on Duffy's Tavern from archive.org

Finally, Quiet, Please - a series created by Wyllis Cooper, the screenwriter of Son of Frankenstein - offered a horror tale directly drawn from Frankenstein about a scientist designing a robot which - like the film version of the creature - needs a human brain!

Right-click here to download Quiet, Please's "Is This Murder?" from archive.org

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Unearthed: Secret Origins #48

In my previous Unearthed entry, I looked at an issue of DC Comics' Secret Origins which interested me because of the two characters who were featured; this time, I have an issue which features four characters in short stories - only one of which I had an actual interest in.

Secret Origins#48 assembles four stories which editor Mark Waid (yes, he was an editor circa 1990) helpfully places in context on the editorial page. There's nothing in particular which weaves Ambush Bug, Stanley & his Monster, Rex the Wonder Dog & the Trigger Twins together, but heck, why not cover them? While I'm a big fan of Ambush Bug - and sought this issue out to complete my collection - the other three I know only of primarily via their Who's Who entries. Let's learn their stories together!

There's not much point in describing the plot to an Ambush Bug story, but here we go...

We open with "The Secret Origin of Ambush Bug: We Thought Him Up," by the same team who delivered the Ambush Bug mini-serieses - Keith Giffen & Robert Loren Fleming. Here, the Bug is approached by an agent of the National Bureau of Origins (N.B.O.), who demand he comply with the laws of having a "credible origin story." The Bug sends the agent packing to Kansas to find a rocketship while Ambush Bug himself tries to dredge up memories of his origin. Instead, he finds himself before another agent who isn't fooled by his claims of being bitten by a radioactive spider. Ambush Bug tries again to remember his origin, this time by returning to the warehouse where he first fought crime with Cheeks, the Toy Wonder (his toy sidekick from Ambush Bug#1). Instead, the Bug finds the warehouse now full of leftovers from Giffen's recent Invasion! crossover and he has to scour every DC comic just to make sure Cheeks wasn't misplaced during a tie-in.

Ambush Bug finally concludes that the secret of his origin can only be found with Cheeks and that since Cheeks is dead (again, Ambush Bug#1), he'll have to find him in Heaven. To accomplish this, the Bug taunts one of the Lords of Order (from Giffen's Dr. Fate, I think) until the Lord of Order kills him. We then switch to "The Origin of Ambush Bug," drawn in Giffen's stick-man style, presenting Ambush Bug as a being sketched into life by Irwin Schwab who leaves the printed page in order to save Irwin's class from a rampaging dinosaur. From there, we move to "The True Origin of Ambush Bug" as Vril Dox (of L.E.G.I.O.N. - not sure why he's here) tries to interrogate Ambush Bug's charred remains. We switch again, this time to "The Honest-to-God, Swear-on-Our Mothers'-Graves, Real Origin of Ambush Bug," wherein a bat splatters itself on a window pane next to the Bug's ashen remains.

Meanwhile in Heaven, Ambush Bug finds out he's due to be sent into a new life and is routed back to Earth, landing in an alley (where a newspaper can be seen displaying: "Lord of Order Gets the Chair"). Ambush Bug realizes now that he's on a new life the N.B.O. won't be able to find him and he can have a new identity; unfortunately, that identity is as one of the "Big Fat Freakin' Frogs" (this was 1990, after all) and he's horried to discover "I've come back as the one thing even lower than a comic book character! I'm... merchandise!" Not unlike Giffen's own Rocket Raccoon, come to think of it. Anyway, the N.B.O. collect Ambush Bug and send him to Belle Reve, hoping he'll be sent on a mission with the Suicide Squad and quietly killed without having to deliver an origin story. Then we learn that Cheeks is still alive, and running the N.B.O.! It's a twist ending worthy of a 1990s comic book!

It's funny that Giffen often likes to take shots at comics fandom when he's perhaps the second greatest fan of DC's Silver Age in the business (the top spot belongs to this comic's editor). I don't always understand Giffen's references, though, as noted above, I have at least a hazy idea of who Vril Dox and the Lords of Chaos are (my main DC Universe interests are the Suicide Squad & Ambush Bug; I still don't know much about Invasion! and that's despite having read tie-ins). This story was best enjoyed by audiences in 1990 and even then it wouldn't have been to everyone's tastes. You've really got to love comics to enjoy seeing them mocked Giffen-style. Giffen evidently trusted that his readers - recognizing Ambush Bug was a character without a real status quo - wouldn't expect an origin and simply wanted another Ambush Bug tale; thus, so he did deliver.

The second feature is Stanley and His Monster, written & drawn by Phil Foglio. The story concerns a demon whom Lucifer has to expel from Hell because he "brings sno-cones to the souls in the inferno... knits mittens for those entombed in the plains of ice... sings hymns in the great wasteland of the TV evangelists" and spreads "Have a Nice Day" stickers everywhere. Lucifer's reasoning is that being amongst humans, the demon's true nature will be unleashed due to the cruelty humans heap upon each other. However, this doesn't work because the demon meets Stanley, a friendly and adventurous young boy who welcomes the monster into his home. It's a brief tale, but it's gentle and works well; Foglio revisited the characters in a 1993 limited series.

Next we have "The Birth of Rex the Wonder Dog" which, unfortunately, requires a few words. Written by Gerard Jones and drawn by Paris Cullins, the story opens in World War II (a strange place to start given that Rex dates back only as far as 1952) as Dr. Anabolus has designed a Super-Soldier formula; anyone with a smattering of comics knowledge will recognize this as a parody of Captain America, but we have no choice but to read through all 8 pages (or leave now! it's not too late! I warned you!!!), rather than Giffen's super hero origin parodies in the lead story which sometimes took up all of one panel (don't bring your weak sauce Captain America parody to an anthology with a Giffen lead feature; just don't). The one and only good gag in the story is the Airplane!-like bit above: "But where did you learn to draw so well?"

Anyway, all you need to know is that the Captain America origin is faithfully recounted, but with Rex the Wonder Dog in his place for some reason. If you find that inherently funny, please tell me before I have to sit next to you on an airplane. One Lt. Dennis (who looks vaguely like Bob Hope) brings Rex (and his son Danny) to Dr. Anabolus where the pooch is tranformed by Anabolus' serum into a Wonder Dog (complete with Kirby crackle, seen above). Dr. Anabolus is killed by a German agent and because he didn't write down his formula, Rex is a one-of-a-kind. Lt. Dennis suggests to Danny that after the war they could travel the globe: "We'll work for circuses and rope wild horses and solve strange crimes and find lost civilizations..." which Danny thinks is "a lotta hooey." The joke is that that's exactly what they wind up doing in Rex's 1952 adventure series. Get it? That's the joke! THAT'S THE JOKE! It's funny! You're supposed to laugh! It's hysterical because the ideas Lt. Dennis suggests are so unrealistic next to the entirely grounded and believable story we just suffered through. Ha. Ha. Much like Power Pachyderms, this story is comic book humour on life support. Even the writers of Spider-Ham knew there had to be a joke beyond "Spider-Man, but a pig!"

Gerard Jones would go on to inflict Wonder Man on readers, but I understand his Justice League was a cult hit and I know his various non-fiction books about comic books such as Men of Tomorrow are very good. Plus, I'm sure he'd hold the door open for you at the gas station.

The Trigger Twins close out the book with their origin, as presented in eight pages by William Messner-Loebs & Trevor von Eeden. There's very little I can say about it; twin brothers Wayne & Walter Trigger are followed through their birth to fighting in the US Civil War, to Walter becoming a gunfighter and sheriff of the town where Wayne works. Wayne helps out Walter in a gunfight by pretending to be him and from then on, they are the Trigger Twins. On the editorial page, Waid admits he was a great fan of the Trigger Twins stories, hence their inclusion here - they don't fit the humourous tone of the other entries. Von Eeden's art is totally solid - evocative of 1950-60s Gene Colan here in his silhouettes. DC could have printed this story in the 70s and no one would have batted an eye - I mean that as a compliment. After the previous 8-page tale, the Trigger Twins are more than welcome to close the issue out.

One great story, one lousy story and two okay tales; but really, if you're an Ambush Bug fan you won't care what's on the other pages.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Winterworld: breaking the political divide

Earlier this year, Chuck Dixon - who may have his name on more Batman comics than any other writer - added to his authorial credits an article for the Wall Street Journal where he bemoaned the forces of liberalism in the comic book industry. He also appeared on Fox News to repeat his dirge.

Obviously, a Conservative speaking to Conservatives about something Conservatives aren't terribly interested in to begin with isn't going to affect much change; indeed, the greatest impact I saw from Dixon's efforts were increased attacks on him by comics fandom. But leave us not be divisive - how can we bridge the gap between comic book-reading Conservatives, Liberals and the rest of us who truly do not care? Perhaps Dixon himself has the solution.

In 1987, Dixon authored a short-lived comic book series for Eclipse titled Winterworld. It's set in a catastrophic future where the Earth has been covered with snow and ice and humanity must forage for survival, barely able to grow any crops to sustain themselves. The chief protagonist, Scully, drives a vehicle which can run on almost any form of fuel and he wanders the frozen globe, looking out for himself (and his pet badger Rah-Rah; also, teenage waif Wynn).

Obviously there's nothing particularly political about the concept, but that's not my point - Dixon has a pretty good record of keeping politics out of his stories to begin with. Carrying on, the original Winterworld stories were collected by IDW in 2011 and earlier this year Dixon began a new series which seems to be existing as a series of mini-series (there's also a TV show being developed).

In issue #3 (from which these panels, drawn by Butch Guice, originate), Scully has found a veritable paradise in an unfrozen part of South America, so naturally genre-savvy readers are curious to learn what the "catch" will be. Obviously Scully's journey can't end here (not if the series is to continue), so what's wrong with these folk? They're very interested in Scully's vehicle and reveal they have enormous stockpiles of fuel. However, they don't want Scully to go driving on missions for them, but to simply pour the fuel in and let the engines run.

One of the locals explains their theory: the Earth became a frozen wasteland because there weren't enough cars emitting co2 to cause global warming; their plan to save the Earth is to return to the ways of their ancestors, as detailed in a sacred book; Scully can't read Spanish and doesn't recognize the tome but it's obvious to we readers that the book is a copy of Al Gore's Earth in the Balance.

Now that? That's pretty funny! When you're aware of Dixon's politics you might read the scene as being anti-climate change (because climate change is something Conservatives are lockstep against for... unclear reasons). But the scene is funny because we're privy to information the characters aren't. Their situation is tragic, but their attempted solution is so clearly misinformed that it can't help but be amusing.

This, then, is something which Conservatives, Liberals and the apathetic can all agree upon: Al Gore is funny!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Oh, Murder!

Being interested in Steve Ditko's work, I learned he contributed stories to an anthology series from 1986 entitled Murder, printed in black & white by the now-defunct Renegade Press and edited by Robin Snyder, Ditko's present-day editor. Like most comics from the black & white boom & bust period it sells dirt cheap today so all three issues can be obtained for a pittance.

Now that I have Murder in hand, what is it? Well, it's... it's an anthology title. Called "Murder," for unclear reasons. An illustration which opens the first issue (drawn by a young Erik Larsen) asserts the series' full title is "Murder, Tales of Psychological Tension." That's pretty much hooey - it describes some stories but not others - some are simply short comedic tales. Several look to be inventory tales prepared for other publishers. It's a hodge-podge with no clear theme.

Thus, the stories anthologized in Murder don't really compliment each other and must stand on their own merits. Considering the contributors include Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, the aforementioned young Erik Larsen, Dan Day and a previously-published Wally Wood story; the other talents are unfamiliar names. Of course, even the masters contributed very little; there's exactly one page of Toth content in each issue: two single page illustrations and one cover (above, looking strangely evocative of Dave Sim).

Larsen's contributes what's easily the funniest of all the humour pieces in Murder#3, Jim Stenstrum wrote and Larsen "drew" the one page "Jim Stenstrum's Tales of the Siberian Snowtroopers#2." Seemingly a response to John Byrne's infamous snowstorm scene from Alpha Flight#6; the panel above is the entire joke - word balloons against a white background. It goes on for one page, which is the exact length the gag demands.

Now for the main attraction: Steve Ditko himself! Ditko's stories are "The Big Man" (issue #1), "A Deal is a Deal" (#2) "My Brother..." and "Social Justice" (both #3). These come from the period in the 80s where Ditko was finding less work at Marvel & DC, no longer had Charlton to fall back on and after his falling-out with Eclipse. Like Ditko's current output under Snyder's watch, Ditko's Murder scripts are fairly bare-boned, told in short-hand. I count Ditko as one of the greatest storytellers in the medium. but he's not very good with dialogue; take the "etc, etc, etc." above - not quite William Faulkner, eh?

The stories are pretty familiar ones with twist endings where the guilty are punished through ironic means, but they're well-told; "The Big Man" concerns a killer who eliminates his rivals by seemingly growing in size to crush them; in "A Deal is a Deal," a man tries to cheat death by bargaining away his possessions; "My Brother..." features one brother who's a criminal, the other a lawyer and how their lifelong contest comes to an end; the best is easily "Social Justice," a funny two-pager wherein a television set compels a man to commit crimes - when caught, he fingers the TV and the TV goes to jail! I'm not certain whether Ditko is accusing those who blame their crimes on media or those who try to accuse media of causing crimes. Either way, it's a pretty approachable bit of social satire.

Murder's confused lack of a mission statement renders it little more than a curiosity, but if you - like me - are curious to see Steve Ditko cutting loose - it's an interesting oddball. If you can only obtain one issue, make it #3 with the Toth cover, the great Larsen one-pager, the double dose of Ditko and the Wood reprint.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Sometimes a fight you cannot win is still worth fighting." The Shadow Hero review

In recent years, comic book publishers came to the realization that many Golden Age super hero characters had lapsed into the public domain. Eagerly, they sought to rebuild those lapsed properties into new franchises, but the characters had become so forgotten over the decades that they might as well have been new characters - and the comics market, already overburdened with super hero material, has never been welcoming to new faces.

However, at least one fine book has come to us thanks to these developments: The Shadow Hero by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew (with letterer Janice Chiang making it an all-Asian extravaganza!) through publisher First Second. It concerns a long-forgotten super hero called the Green Turtle, whose untold origin Yang & Liew proceed to tell.

Lore surrounding the Green Turtle asserts his creator Chu Hing intended him to be an Asian hero but his publisher wouldn't permit him to. According to this lore, Hing deliberately withheld the Green Turtle's origin and frequently concealed his face so that the creator would - if nowhere else - remain Asian in his mind.

The story Yang & Liew cook up doesn't completely mesh with Hing's work (they note themselves how they altered his cape), but it still goes to a lot of effort to line up with the 1940s stories (including an explanation for why an Asian man would have pink skin - seriously!). More importantly, the story they've chosen to tell is fun and clever on its own, an absolutely charming tale of super heroes quite unlike most of the marketplace (which is why it hasn't been marketed to super hero fans, I would assume).

The hero is Asian-American Hank Chu; after a super hero saves the life of Hank's mother, she becomes obsessed with the idea of turning her son into a super hero, with mostly comedic results (she even chauffeurs him on his first patrol like a parent whose child has a paper route). Super hero comics frequently work on father-son relationships, but this one has a fun take on a hero whose mother is the driving influence behind his donning a cape and cowl.

Hank even winds up with super powers in the end (albeit, not due to his mother); the spirit of the Tortoise comes to dwell within Hank's shadow and grants him immunity to all guns. Thus, while Hank is mortal in most respects, bullets have a way of missing him, no matter how close the gun is held. This ability is, likewise, a frequent source of comedy. He can also consult the Tortoise in his shadow which grants him someone to both monologue with and to play games of tic-tac-toe against.

The entire story is set around San Incendio (San Francisco?) in the late 1930s and it does a convincing job of making the environment seem authentic and lived-in. As the Green Turtle, Hank becomes a champion of Chinatown - although most of his enemies live in Chinatown too. Despite Hank's powers, it's ultimately his wits which serve him best, particularly when he meets a similarly-enhanced crime lord whose magic power is to win every fight - Hank actually beats the no-win scenario!

In all, the Shadow Hero is an atypical super hero romp, somewhat irreverent and quite funny. If you are interested in the original 1940s stories, the first one is included in the back of the book as a bonus feature. The Shadow Hero came out earlier this year and should still be available at superior bookstores, comic shops & online stores everywhere.