Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Coming in September: Bloodstone & the Legion of Monsters!

Another trade paperback collection featuring one of the first Marvel comics I served on as head coordinator: Marvel Monsters: From the Files of Ulysses Bloodstone. Tying that book into Bloodstone has finally paid off!

BLOODSTONE & THE LEGION OF MONSTERS TPB

Written by DAN ABNETT, ANDY LANNING, DENNIS HOPELESS, JOHN DAVID WARNER & MORE Penciled by MICHAEL LOPEZ, JUAN DOE, SONNY TRINIDAD & MORE Cover by GIL KANE

The MU's most marvelous monster-hunter — unleashed! And she's brought along a few friends... When young Elsa Bloodstone learns her father was legendary creature-killer Ulysses Bloodstone, she soon discovers that blood runs thicker than water! With her father's powerful gem around her neck, Elsa takes up the family business — so look out, Dracula & Co.! Watch Elsa kick beastly behind with her NextWave pal Boom Boom and her own team of groovy ghoulies, the Legion of Monsters! Plus: Discover the full scope of the Bloodstone legacy with astonishing tales from the files of Ulysses himself! Collecting BLOODSTONE #1-4, ASTONISHING TALES: BOOM BOOM AND ELSA, LEGION OF MONSTERS (2011) #1-4, MARVEL PRESENTS #1-2, MARVEL MONSTERS: FROM THE FILES OF ULYSSES BLOODSTONE & THE MONSTER HUNTERS and material from MARVEL ASSISTANT-SIZED SPECTACULAR #2 and GIRL COMICS (2010) #2. 312 PGS./Rated T+ ...$34.99 ISBN: 978-1-302-90802-7

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

RIP Rich Buckler

On May 19, comic book artist Rich Buckler passed away. He had a long career in the medium but was never upheld as one of the industry's leading artists, perhaps because he carried his influences - Jack Kirby & Jim Steranko - a little too obviously upon his sleeve. He's best-known for creating Deathlok, the original cyborg soldier of the future. It was during his Deathlok stories that he also created a fellow named Devil-Slayer whom you may remember from a post I wrote; Buckler liked Devil-Slayer so much, he created him three times!

For myself, I'm most pleased to recall Buckler's time as the original artist of All-Star Squadron with writer Roy Thomas. Although Buckler left within a year, he set the tone for that title's six year run. Most of the fans & pros eulogizing Buckler call Deathlok his finest hour and I won't disagree, but in terms of comic books which had a foundational impact on how I approach super heroes, All-Star Squadron looms large within the canon. Rest well Mr. Buckler.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Looking back on my first thousand

This seems like a fine time for me to reminisce about the history of this blog. Initially I didn't have much to share on the blog outside of advertising my Marvel Comics publications; I never felt comfortable talking about what went on behind-the-scenes there - and I still don't. The blog has no particular focus - it's about comics, primarily - films, secondarily - old-time radio, tertiarily - and whatever else beyond that.

But thanks to my friend Colin Smith I became inspired to write about comics on a more meaningful level and more fully discuss what I found enjoyable about the medium; my essay "Why Do I Like Super Heroes?" is probably the best of those. I am also proud of my opinionated editorial "The Quality of Mercy." Probably the two most important works on this blog are my first "Unearthed" entry, a review of All-Star Comics #62, which began my occasional forays into comic book back issues; the other being my long list of creator credits for the 2012 Avengers movie, which began my regular feature on crediting the people who developed ideas seen in super hero films.

I've written many decent essays about comics history; the best of them ran through topics such as the shape of Dr. Strange's eyes, adaptations of John Dickson Carr in Suspense comics, a defense of Steve Ditko's Speedball, exposing the many art swipes in Ross Saakel's Captain Wonder, a multi-part feature "The Troubles of X-Factor", another multi-part feature looking back at Roy Thomas & Howard Chaykin's Star Wars, a multi-part feature on Captain America & Iron Man's hostility, and examining the sources which inspired Iron Fist.

Beyond that I was very pleased to write an article expressing my fascination with the character of Karamaneh, a look at episodes of the Jack Benny Program without Jack Benny, comparing Chaplin to Gandhi and my Star Wars Episode I anecdote.

This blog will continue to be what it is; views have increased steadily in the last year and while comments are scarce, I'd happily keep blogging into oblivion regardless of the impact it has; it's been a fine release of various tensions inside me over the years. Thank you for indulging me.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What is funny? (1,000th post!)

Do you like to laugh? Sure, we all do. When people discuss what makes them laugh the word "subjective" tends to appear, as though comedy were the most subjective of all forms of entertainment. We don't all agree on what is sad, frightening or thrilling either, but comedy is the whipping boy. Perhaps this is because if you don't believe that, say, a ghost story is scary you might still be entertained by it in some other way; but when comedy is not funny it is considered less than worthless.

I have come to realize I am a particularly prickly person where comedy is concerned. I like what I like; I don't put much effort into discovering new comedies, whereas I do place some effort into exploring new horror stories, adventure stories, etc. I have seen maybe 1.5 episodes of Saturday Night Live; I've never gone to a live comedy show; I haven't watched sitcoms for a decade; I very seldom watch comedy films in the cinema.

Recently I was browsing Netflix to find something to watch - I wanted something light and enjoyable, so I browsed through comedy. I couldn't find anything that I thought I would enjoy except for those shows I had seen before. That got me thinking: what about all the things I do like? What do they have in common? Come with me and we'll see.

Self-Deprecation

I've mentioned before that when I first became interested in old-time radio I listened for the science fiction/horror shows and skipped over the comedies, believing they would be old-fashioned and unfunny. And yet, I soon found one program which made me laugh: The Jack Benny Program. Jack Benny was a comic who knew his limitations - he couldn't master snappy patter. Thus, Jack's character was the schmuck instead of the wit; Jack's program constantly featured his supporting characters puncturing his ego, frequently to observe he was not as handsome, smart, funny or likeable as he believed himself to be - and I laughed because it seemed as though it were true and Jack deserved to be humiliated.

The wonderful, intangible part of Jack's routine was that his audience knew he was putting on an act, that "Jack Benny" was a false persona, yet he didn't break character (even Jack's ad-libs were very much on-point). I have found few other comedians so willing to put themselves down; to some extent, this is also what I enjoy about Robert Benchley's articles and short films; he would project an image of a dignified, urbane gentleman, but really he was another schmuck.

The Non Sequitur

How best to describe it... I like the snappy, witty remark, particularly when it is in stark contrast to the other party's statement ("the stooge"), and especially when it's surprising, totally unexpected; "non sequitur" seems to be the term which best describes it. I enjoy how authors such as P. G. Wodehouse & Damon Runyon would subvert genre expectations through clever dialogue and situations. I see this humour in my love for Groucho Marx's retorts:

This kind of humour tends to be heavily sarcastic or sardonic. The first party has come to play chess, but the second party arrives to play tennis - with a pogo stick - and demands the first party explain why he isn't similarly prepared. I was late in discovering Mystery Science Theater 3000, but its format of witty remarks and put-downs mixed with affectionate chiding truly spoke to me.

I've since come to learn, however, that one should not abuse their "witty" humour in public as it quickly becomes intolerable to friends. I've also learned how my idol Alfred Hitchcock used such remarks to disguise his own shyness; these remarks are basically a form of self-defense.

Satire

Over time I've learned I have low tolerance for the all-encompassing statement. I am the one who picks holes in every broad remark, noting the exceptions to each and every rule. I am similarly quick to note the cliches which infuse popular culture and when a masterpiece of satire appears - say, Stan Freberg, Cerebus, Monty Python, the Tick, Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, Batton Lash - I nod in approval. The object being satirized need not be obvious; some of Bob & Ray's satire is best enjoyed when you are aware of their target (listen to at least one episode of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy before listening to one of their "Jack Headstrong, the All-American American" skits) and yet, even in this instance, a parody of a children's science show which I'm not familiar with, I recognize they were satirizing a particular format and style of programming; the satire is specific in its target but broad in its humour:

I've never read a Nancy Drew book in my life, but Kate Beaton has had great fun writing her own comics based on the covers of Nancy Drew novels:

Edgar Wright is perhaps the best currently-working film satirist, mocking the sitcom (Spaced), zombie genre (Shaun of the Dead) and crime story (Hot Fuzz).

Returning to self-deprecation, some satirists would satirize themselves; witness Edgar Allan Poe and his connected stories "How to Write a Blackwood's Article" & "A Predicament," or Michael Kupperman sending up the entire genre of comics:

Self-deprecation works well with satire - however, I'm not confident that simply doing the opposite of the source material is sufficiently funny. "Dracula, but stupid" is not a solid basis for a film. Great satire digs deeper than the surface and exposes the tired tropes and cliches behind the entire genre; it's Poe making fun of morality tales in "Never Bet the Devil Your Head"; it's Stan Freberg making fun of lawn mower commercials while selling lawn mowers; it's Bob and Ray selling you a suit that will not only save you money, but make you money!

Laugh, won't you?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Now on Comixology: Marvel Westerns: Outlaw Files

As of today, Comixology is selling digital copies of one of the first comic books I served on as head writer: Marvel Westerns: Outlaw Files, a book released as part of the 2006 'Marvel Westerns' month-long event. Here's their promotional blurb:
Masked men, lawmen, dudes, owlhoots and vigilantes! From the battle of the Alamo to the dusty streets of Tombstone, the men and women of the West that was are finally unearthed in this scrapbook of memories from the personal collection of the modern-day Phantom Rider! Featuring entries on the Black Rider, Tex Dawson, Gunhawk, Kid Colt, the Masked Raider, the Outlaw Kid, the Phantom Rider, the Rawhide Kid, the Steam Rider, the Two-Gun Kid and more!

Buy the book here for $1.99!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Looking back at Superman: The Animated Series

I had begun the 1990s as a devoted fan of Marvel Comics, but by the mid-90s my interest in Marvel waned, and with it comics themselves. Around that time I began paying more attention to the animated television program Batman: The Animated Series. Although Batman was a character who I'd never particularly liked in comics and I was well out of reading DC titles I gradually came to admire the lush, stylish animation and the depth of storytelling on that series.

I was fortunate enough to flip over to the WB in time to see the premiere of Superman: The Animated Series, a program which I didn't realize had even been in the pipeline until I saw it on the screen. As opposed to Batman, Superman was indeed a character who I'd enjoyed in the comics and I was pleased to see the same creators who had led Batman (chiefly Bruce Timm) were bringing that same level of craft to the program.

During Superman's second season the program became The New Batman Superman Adventures as Batman moved from Fox to WB with brand-new episodes. The problem, however, was that I never knew when new episodes of either program would air and the merged title was now appearing 6 times a week on WB's schedule (Saturdays was often a 1.5 hour timeslot!). Various episode of both series slipped past me, until finally I went to college in '98 and didn't see the remaining episodes; Superman: The Animated Series aired its last new episode in 2000.

Recently I bought a DVD collection of the entire Superman: The Animated Series and it was somewhat revealing to see the episodes together in order. I feel that the show started off with a very strong first season, but the remaining years carried a lot of flab. Tim Daly voiced a fine, likeable Superman; Dana Delaney was a joy as a feisty, smart-mouthed Lois Lane; the other supporting characters were very recognizable, but tended to keep to the background (has anyone ever written a terrific Perry White story? if so, I haven't read it).

I think the problem with Superman: The Animated Series is its villains. Don't get me wrong, Clancy Brown is perfectly cast as Lex Luthor and Luthor's characterization (based on the Byrne-Wolfman interpretation) was spot-on; Corey Burton was great (perhaps underutilized?) as Brainiac and their concept of Brainiac being quasi-responsible for the destruction of Krypton was actually a pretty good revision of Superman's history; Malcolm McDowell had a fine voice for Metallo, though the villain only had a couple of good stories - as the creators noted, a villain who carries Kryptonite in his chest can end fights against Superman far too quickly.

But then there's the rest; I mean, they did their best with Parasite, I guess. The creators had done such a fine job making the villains on Batman: The Animated Series compelling that it's strange to see how many villains on Superman misfire. Of course, the creators didn't think too highly of Superman's comic book rogue's gallery; according to Bruce Timm:

"Once you get past them [Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo, Parasite] suddenly you're in the realm of 50 year old guys who are a little overweight, wearing business suits."

There are other Superman villains from the comics who turned up on the show - Mr. Mxyzptlk was terrifically funny in his first episode; Bizarro was a great mixture of humour and pathos; Titano was... well, a giant ape (too bad they skipped on the Kryptonite vision, it's the most interesting thing about the comics version). Maxima was, for some reason, renovated into a joke character and Kirby homage, to the extent that she didn't resemble her comics counterpart much at all beyond wanting to mate with Superman. They used Phantom Zone villains but avoided General Zod for some reason (did they think he was overexposed?).

But as to those overweight guys in business suits, Toyman was completely renovated into (as the creators noted) a veritable Batman villain (it's surprising he never teamed up with their Mad Hatter or Baby Doll). The other Superman foes of that type (Prankster, Puzzler) were nowhere to be seen; the type of villains Timm was referring to were primarily cerebral threats to Superman, and as they had remarked before how difficult it was to write Riddler stories on Batman, it's no surprise they wanted to avoid similar characters.

And thus, they brought in Intergang and Darkseid from Kirby's Fourth World stories. That wasn't a bad idea at all - Darkseid debuted in an issue of Jimmy Olsen, to be sure; Superman was part of Kirby's original Fourth World stories and they kept pretty closely-aligned to his universe over the decades.

There were also original villains: Livewire, Volcana and Luminus. None of them are much to write home about - Luminus was somewhat interesting as the idea of Superman battling holograms was a different type of threat... Volcana's story was a weird X-Men/Men in Black homage that didn't catch fire (applause, please). Livewire might've worked if she weren't exceptionally and deliberately irritating; she was an attempt at giving Superman a wise-aleck foe similar to the Harley Quinn character developed on Batman but she was seldom funny and never sympathetic, the two qualities which made Quinn succeed.

And then there are the guest stars. Batman seldom dipped its toes in guest stars during its Fox run - there's Zatanna in one episode... pretty much it. Yet in the first season, the Superman creators brought in Lobo for a two-parter (Lobo was a very popular character in comics at the time). Then season 2 brings in the Flash with his foe Weather Wizad; soon after there's Dr. Fate and his foe Karkull; season 3 has the Legion of Super Heroes; Green Lantern (with his foe Sinestro); Aquaman; plus five episodes given over to Batman and his foes.

The guest appearances start coming closer together in the final season, but more than that, I suddenly realized how little Lex Luthor was seen in that season; through season 1 and most of season 2 Luthor was seldom absent, appearing even in episodes where he wasn't the threat (such as the season 2 episode "Target").

So, is Superman's rogue's gallery really all that shallow? I suppose of those villains they didn't use on the show there is Terra Man, the Kryptonite Man, the Atomic Skull, Silver Banshee, the Ultra-Humanite, Master Jailer... but there were also episodes of Superman which didn't rely upon a great super-villain, namely two of my favourites: first, "The Prometheon," a story where the threat is a giant alien which is drawn towards heat - in that episode, the alien is simply a great problem which needs to be solved rather than beaten in a fight (the alien also has no dialogue); the second, "The Late Mr. Kent," a brilliant script in which Clark Kent is believed dead and Superman has to solve his 'murder.' Similarly, Batman featured plenty of great episodes which didn't depend on the hero's rogue's gallery: "P.O.V."; "The Forgotten"; "I Am the Night."

I find Superman loses steam quickly; that first season still holds up pretty well; a friend of mine considers the entire program simply "a test run for Justice League." If you've never delved into the DC animated universe programs I would certainly recommened you start with Batman - it's the best; Superman might be the least among those shows but there are enough strong episodes to redeem investing your time in the program. Uh... maybe skip most of season 3 except for "Knight Time," "Unity" and "Legacy," though.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Did that thought go through your head?" Rolling Blackouts review

"The only thing I'm looking for in this story is that dynamism of someone engaging with something and then changing as a result."

It was just over a decade ago that I discovered comics journalism existed; having been brought up primarily on a diet of super hero comics, I was still finding my feet with the wider comics arena. Reading Joe Sacco gave me an appetite for comics journalism and I've sampled what little there is when it appears. This brings me to Sarah Glidden's recent graphic novel Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, published by Drawn & Quarterly. I had previously bought and enjoyed Glidden's prior graphic novel How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, so this newer book was something I anticipated delving into. I actually discovered Rolling Blackouts on the shelves because I instantly recognized Glidden's style on the cover and was excited to see a new book by her!

Set in 2010, Rolling Blackouts is a recount of Glidden joining two journalists and a former U.S. Marine named Dan as they underwent a journey into Iraq's Kurdish territory, then to see Iraqi refugees in Syria. As her first true outing as a comics journalist, Glidden is superb at capturing people's personalities through her simple facial expressions and in the simple Herge-meets-watercolours art making up her backgrounds; How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less certainly prepared her for this challenge and she meets it well; the accounts of refugees telling their stories are quite captivating.

Yet there's another story going on here, a story which one of the journalists - Glidden's friend Sarah Stuteville - attempts to tell through the person of Dan, who is an old friend of hers from her teenage years. Dan was against the Iraq War, yet wound up serving in Iraq in 2007 because, as he puts it: "I thought the war should never have happened, but I want to support the cause, even if I thought it was wrong, by contributing a guy with a clear head, I guess." Dan is interviewed by Stuteville at various points throughout the book and these soon become the most tense moments of the book - because Stuteville is constantly seeking to tug on the reins of Dan's story.

Dan seems extremely level-headed, very relaxed even when discussing his time in Iraq: "But my memories of Iraq mostly are of laughing hysterically and being with friends," he states. He repeatedly insists that he has coped well with what happened to him in Iraq: "It's just a luck of the draw thing. Fifty-two cards in a deck, somebody's gonna get pulled out. I was lucky to stay in the deck and be safe." His personal philosophies, by contrast, come from what seems to be a grim assessment of human nature: "Life will go on whether it sucks or not. I guess I see things kind of harshly. I don't see this perfect utopian world where people will all get an equal share."

To this, add his old friend Stuteville. She is convinced there's more to Dan than what he presents in their interviews and continually attempts to draw him out - but he refuses to be led. When Dan isn't around Stuteville confides to the others her own thoughts on what Dan has shared: "I think there's a key incident here that might unlock some of this," she insists. "We have to crack his code!" Although quite aware of what she's doing, Stuteville presses on, despite acknowledging "Frankly, we've kind of heard Dan's story before."

Glidden, being less emotionally invested in Dan and Stuteville's relationship, seems to see the wider picture: "He might not feel guilty at all," she says of Dan 2/3rds of the way through, despite both journalists' belief otherwise. In fact, early on Dan states that what bothers him the most about returning to Iraq is "the narrative people are expecting me to tell." Yet Stuteville doesn't seem to catch that. She also makes Dan upset around that same time when he asks her not to tell people he was in the military, to which she rejoins: "I don't see why you think we should deceive people!" She doesn't seem to believe Dan deserves any agency in the telling of his story.

Instead, Stuteville grows increasingly frustrated by Dan. "To me, the story of Dan is in the things he asserts that aren't true." At times she begins to detect how her frank speeches about the Iraq War are driving Dan away from her, causing her to reflect how they "need to be more careful about what we talk about in front of Dan." And so, Stuteville becomes the most fascinating character in the book - the reporter who has already made up a story in their head and is trying to get the subject to put it into words - only for the subject to be unwilling.

After drawing Dan's attention to two earlier quotes of his which didn't agree with each other, Stuteville goes on to state, "I didn't even ask you if you felt responsible or guilty. I've never asked you that." Glidden inserts herself into the background here, possibly because Glidden is questioning the validity of Stuteville's remark; although Stuteville never asks Dan whether he feels guilty, she does ask him why his sense of guilt "doesn't necessarily extend to what happened to the Iraqis." In this and other conversations Glidden draws Stuteville with expressive furrows on her brow or pleading eyes as she spars with Dan; this particular conversation ends with Stuteville's recording device losing the interview, which causes Stuteville to storm off in anger. It's clear that she's emotionally too close to Dan to objectively tell his story (assuming the story is even there).

Stuteville sums up her "conspiracy" against Dan by explaining how she feels journalism is meant to challenge and change others; when Dan appears unchanged by what he sees in Iraq & Syria, she internalizes this as her failure as a journalist. "Nothing is different," she states of Dan. "If anything [he's] become less honest," concurs Stuteville's collaborator Alex. Yet the idea of life's journey containing these sort of easily-identifiable stop signs seems fallacious to me; some of the moments which changed my own life didn't impact me until a month or more after they'd passed. I often feel I'm only observing my life drift by, not directing it.

So, Dan never undergoes the change which would have satisfied Stuteville. Yet, the book Rolling Blackouts doesn't suffer for this; I'm very much of the philosophy that life is not a novel with its denouements & climaxes. I appreciate the fact that real people are full of contradictions, self-justifications and hypocrisy. But then, I'm not a journalist or a storyteller - simply an observer.