Saturday, May 23, 2015

"The Yellow Curse": there are not enough facepalms in the world

When I'm delving through comic books of the 1930s and 40s I see a lot of casual racism in the tales of the time. I've learned to accept that they exist, shake my head and move along. I'd much rather uncover a forgotten character like Torgon who defies the tropes of the times. Every so often, however, a story so racist comes along that I can't get past it.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, comic books happily indulged in characterizing the hated Japanese as yellow-skinned, buck-toothed, murderous fanatics. Who could blame the creators, considering their nation's leaders had consigned the Japanese populations of the States and Canada into internment camps - and at a time when both the USA and Canada had fairly liberal governments, mind you! Racist Japanese caricatures are surely the most common racial stereotypes in comics of the 40s - certainly much moreso than the "big-lipped Negro" character.

I've been cleaning up a few entries at the Grand Comics Database, using the Digital Comics Museum as my guide. After happily tidying up a number of issues of Captain Marvel Adventures (Captain Marvel being one of my favourite 40s heroes), I turned to the series Captain Marvel, Jr.

I should explain that in the 40s, Captain Marvel, Jr. was (ostensibly) the more grounded of the two heroes. Beyond their shared fantastic powers and frequently out-of-this-world adversaries, Captain Marvel was rendered by the cartoonish (and wonderful) C.C. Beck, while Captain Marvel, Jr. was drawn by the more photorealistic Mac Raboy (Raboy would often draw CM Jr. when he guest-starred in Beck's stories, maintaining that visual divide between the two). Captain Marvel, Jr.'s adventures often pit him against social problems of the day; after all, in his identity as Freddy Freeman, he was an impoverished crippled newsboy.

With that out of the way, I give you "The Yellow Curse" from Captain Marvel, Jr.#10 (August 1, 1943). The title alone suggested some racist tomfoolery to me, but I decided to examine the story because it might (might) have proved to be racist in a kitschy, head-shaking way. Oh, my head did indeed shake. We open with Freddy Freeman ("a patriotic American through and through") visiting a blood donor clinic. However, the doctor in charge of the clinic, one "Dr. Ching" is in reality "Dr. Kursyu of Nippon!" Evidently he used the name "Ching" to pass himself off as a Chinese doctor. If you grade on a curve, that is the least-racist moment of the tale.

Kursyu places a dose of "the Yellow Curse serum" into the blood. When one General Otis is rushed to the clinic in need of a life-saving transfusion, Kursyu administers one of the tainted supplies to him. Almost immediately, Otis' skin turns yellow, his eyes become slanted and he begins talking like a typical Japanese comic book character: "Banzai! Hurrah for the Mikado! Down with America!" Kursyu is pleased to note his serum "makes the victim think like honorable Jap too!" Freddy says his magic word and transforms into Captain Marvel, Jr. to stop the rampaging general, but being patriotic, CM Jr. first tries to reason with him rather than strike an American officer. However, the transformed Otis cannot be reasoned with and he punches Captain Marvel, Jr. into a cannister of ether, which slows the hero down long enough for Kursyu and Otis to escape (so, um, I guess all the tainted blood samples will be destroyed now; Kursyu's really not going to undermine the USA that badly if he can only manage one transformation before being discovered).

For some reason, Captain Marvel, Jr. decides to change back into Freddy Freeman in order to help one of the doctors whom Otis attacked. Stranger still, the doctor's face is mistakenly coloured yellow as the colourist apparently lost track of which character he was working on (however, the doctor's ears are still pink). With this done, Freddy goes to warn "the other generals" about the plot because... uh... I guess they're more likely to believe the story of a crippled newsboy than a popular super hero? Anyway, it's good that Freddy thinks of this because Kursyu has already ordered Otis to phone up his fellow generals for a conference so that he can infect all of them with the Yellow Curse. Freddy tries to stop the generals' car but they hit him (Freddy gets no respect). The generals decide to bring Freddy along to the supposed conference (sure, let's go with that). Of course, with Freddy ko'd they have no idea what awaits as they're met by Kursyu and Otis.

Kursyu agrees to tend to Freddy's injury before going any further and also takes the opportunity to infect Freddy. Sure enough, Freddy becomes yellow-skinned and slant-eyed. His first words are "Banzai! What can I do for the Mikado? Banzai! Banzai!" However, Freddy struggles against his transformation, thinking "I know it isn't right to hate America," and is finally able to speak his magic words, turning into Captain Marvel, Jr. However, CM Jr. is likewise infected by the Yellow Curse (rendering him into Japanese Elvis, I suppose) and Kursyu sends him to destroy a munitions plant. Captain Marvel, Jr. flies away as Kursyu prepares to infect the captured generals, taunting them with his antidote labeled "White Serum." At once, Captain Marvel, Jr. bursts back into the room, revealing he wasn't under Kursyu's control and only wanted to learn about the antidote. Gulping down the formula, he becomes Caucasian again and similarly restores General Otis ("I had a horrible dream that I was a Jap!"). With the plot ruined, Captain Marvel, Jr. takes Kursyu prisoner and delivers the White Serum so it can be used to treat any other victims of the Yellow Curse.

Let's tally up this wartime racist paranoia:

  1. Japanese men could be passing themselves off as Chinese! Remain vigilant around Asians!
  2. Which points again to the need of internment camps - if you give a Jap a chance, he'll try to destroy America single-handedly!
  3. When we are rendered vulnerable by illness and placed under the power of people from other races they will attempt to bring us to their level! Maintain segregated hospitals!
  4. Hatred of America is literally found in the blood of all Japanese!
  5. Further, good patriotic Americans - even military officers - will turn against all their principles if found to be Japanese!
  6. Also the usual business of banana-yellow skin, "Banzai!" and a strange fascination with the Mikado.

That's a big heaping bowl of racist crap right there.

The next time you're inclined to comment on how racist a contemporary comic book is, do bear in mind it wasn't that long that things were much, much worse.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Retaliate first." Mad Max: Fury Road review

WARNING: SPOILERS AND OPINIONS BELOW

When I first saw a trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road I wasn't certain I would want to see the film. The trailer emphasized the breathtaking stunts, but I felt certain they would be the usual poorly-shot CGI mayhem I expect to see in an action film (I was wrong). I also recognized that Mad Max had been recast and so expected this would be an interminable reboot of the concept with no new ideas (wrong, wrong, wrong). I didn't even notice Mad Max creator George Miller was still the director.

My anticipation for the film actually grew with each thing I learned. Not a reboot? Same director? Mostly practical effects? Shot in Namibia? I was taken aback at news that I would have to see a trailer for Batman v. Superman before the film, but thankfully that bit of bad news didn't bear out. In the final week there was a backlash against the picture by the so-called Men's Rights Activists which served only to turn the film into a topic of conversation at my workplace, with more us excited to see the picture. After all, hearing that the MRA think a film is sexist is like hearing Dick Cheney call something unethical - the odds are very good that the reverse is true.

But the subject of Mad Max: Fury Road as a piece of feminist propaganda is actually worth commenting on because I think many people have it all wrong. Some call it too feminist, others not feminist enough. I'm inclined to agree with this piece at the Mary Sue which describes the film as "co-ed." Although we have many action films with a male lead and many action films with a female lead (such as Theron's own Aeon Flux), we seldom have action films with equally-depicted male and female leads. This situation is so rare that the film appears be revolutionary when it's actually pretty casual.

Some have (disdainfully or otherwise) claimed that in Fury Road Max is Furiosa's "sidekick." I can't quite agree. Yes, Furiosa is the character whose actions drive the plot of the film, but the picture holds her at a distance from the audience. Max, despite his (literal) madness is familiar to the audience and serves as a perspective into Furiosa's story. To borrow from Joss Whedon's description of his film Serenity, Fury Road is the story of Furiosa as told by Mad Max.

While Furiosa's background and motivations are withheld for most of the picture, it's interesting to see how Max himself transforms over the course of the story. Hardy portrays him as twitchy, paranoid (properly so, given the environment) and mumbling. He and Furiosa seem to use each other primarily because in their world, you don't throw anything away if it might serve you well later on, be it the surprisingly-important bolt cutters or Nux the War Boy, the materials they salvage have functions. And as Max works along Furiosa and her wards ("the wives") he becomes a little more sane. As expected, he finally steps up to be heroic just in time for the third act. His "thumb's up" to Splendid after she helps him demonstrates that he sees them as being useful (like the bolt-cutters), rather than simply a burden which must be endured (and certainly, most of the "wives" come through as the film progresses). When Max finally divulges his name to the others it certainly feels like an earned moment - that they earned the right to know his name and he earned the right to be a little more human.

Can I talk about the stunts? Because my goodness! I certainly prefer practical effects to CGI at the best of times and now Fury Road will be exhibit #1 in my case. Miller pulls off tremendously heart-stopping moments and they're all the more effective because they tend to involve real world people, vehicles, landscapes and physics. And, as the film is mostly a two hour chase scene, Miller keeps finding great new stunts to unleash - it's not the same thing over and over, nor is it simply the Road Warrior with a fresh coat of paint. Also, he saves the best for last. For a 70 year old director, Miller makes the 20/30-something directors look about as anemic as the War Boys. The imagination and tense action on display is truly special when stacked up against most of today's action pictures. Even though the film's stunts are a complex Rube Goldberg machine, I was never at a loss to understanding what was happening or to whom - Miller pulled back just enough to make his complex machine intelligible. Intelligible chaos. It must harder than I think it is to pull that off.

However, what I most enjoyed about Fury Road was how the story unfolded in an organic fashion, not through exposition and narration. The characters are defined primarily through their actions. The characters have no time to explain what's going on to each other, nor is there any real attempt made by Furiosa to win Max over to her side through a passionate speech. There is action, action, action in the best tradition of film's maxim "show, don't tell." Fury Road expects you to be savvy enough to follow the action and pick up the story as you go (and to be fair, the story's not that complicated). This is pure cinema in the tradition of silent film where expressions, body language and actions reveal who characters are. Like the characters, the film can't afford wastage.

It's been at least six years since I had this much fun at a cinema. Thank you, George Miller, for Mad Max: Fury Road. Even if this turns out to be your last Mad Max picture, I will be quite satisfied. That said, I sure wouldn't mind seeing those sequels you've mentioned...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Windsor is a remarkable man in almost every way, but when it comes to that sort of thing he's about the dumbest man I have ever known!" Brok Windsor review

Through supporting the Kickstarter which produced Hope Nicholson & Rachel Richey's collected edition of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, I came to learn quite a lot about the era of 1940s Canadian comics which produced the so-called "Canadian Whites" (much of what I learned arose because I found myself promoting the book on behalf of my employers, the University of Calgary). With both women turning to new Kickstarter projects along the same lines, I happily endorsed Nicholson's new book Brok Windsor, collecting the adventures of the obscure Canadian hero featured in the obscure series Better Comics (sometimes a black & white series, sometimes color) by the obscure publisher Maple Leaf Publishing. Obscurely.

Created by Jon Stables, Brok Windsor is rather nice Canadian fellow who goes canoeing one day and finds himself in Chaqua, a lost land featuring enormous monsters, sorcery, advanced technology and heads without bodies. He soon befriends Torgon, a First Nations chap who is son of the local chief; eventually they join forces with Starra while saving her from a depraved sorceress and the trio endure many adventures together (with Starra developing feelings for Brok). Brok also obtains superhuman strength and grows taller due to the Chaqua environment. He also acquires clothing which might best be described as a halter top (possibly also the reason why Torgon refuses to wear a shirt).

The content of Brok Windsor includes a heaping tablespoon of Flash Gordon, a dash of John Carter and a liberal pound of Pellucidar. Like Gordon, Windsor is thrust into a land of both science and sorcery, of rebel armies and sinister witches, of flying machines and terrifying beasts. Like Carter, he obtains special powers from his environment and clashes with despicable creatures who plant their heads on other people's bodies. And as in the Pellucidar tales, the backdrop is a hidden land somewhere on Earth where anything is possible.

Indeed, anything -- even a First Nations sidekick hero who defies most of the "Indian sidekick" tropes! Torgon speaks English perfectly, is actually taller and stronger than Windsor and has his own love interest. Although he enters the tale in a loincloth and with feathers in his hair, he quickly puts on pants and boots. Although he's the son of a great chief, his father's kingdom is a super-scientific city with advanced aircraft ("Zipcars") which Torgon can fly. In general, Torgon is smarter than Windsor, not only in the ways of Chaqua, but in craftiness. At one point he even demonstrates real agency - when Brok has temporarily lost his memory, Torgon decides to abandon him in the prison they've landed in, deciding it's more important to escape and complete their mission than to drag Brok along. Yes, the book's nominal hero is left behind by the sidekick!

Part of why the series reminds me of Flash Gordon is that, as in Alex Raymond's strip, the goals of the protagonists are constantly interrupted as they wander into the clutches of menaces which are entirely unrelated to their present predicament and this tends to set off a domino effect; Brok and Torgon's attempt to rescue Starra from giant rats leads to Brok's amnesia, to their capture by an evil sorceress, to their journey through an underground world filled with monsters and so on - all of this interfering with the larger mission of saving Torgon's father from a rebellion. However, unlike Raymond's strip, the characters occasionally find time to rest, eat and (gasp!) converse with one another. As I noted in my review of Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo, it seems unbelievable that Gordon could fight on day after wearying day - I appreciate that not everything in Chaqua is life-or-death - sometimes Brok and Torgon can drop everything to hunt their next meal.

Also unlike Raymond is the pacing of the series. Fights in Brok Windsor can carry on for pages, whereas Raymond would short-cut his characters' actions, leaving his text boxes to exposit on what occurred. Brok Windsor fits more comfortably into the realm of comics than Flash Gordon because it escapes the confines of "illustrated text story" which far too many comics of the 30s & 40s fell into. The only real misstep is that the adventure in Chaqua comes to an abrupt finish when the heroes meet a figure who grants them each one wish, which they use to end the story. It enabled Stables to take Brok into new territory by returning him to Canada proper, but sadly the series didn't last long enough for him to finish the next tale (the Kickstarter raised enough money to publish Stables' last-known unpublished script, but the story is still left on a cliffhanger).

In parting, I have to say Jon Stables' artwork is a treat. I certainly ragged on one Canadian Whites creator - Ross Saakel - for his poor art and traced tales. Brok Windsor demonstrates that Stables had real talents as an illustrator, moreso than many comic book artists of that decade (be they US or Canadian). He understood anatomy, perspective and fight choreography, plus he had weird and wonderful ideas about what to draw. Brok Windsor is great fun, but I think the real take away is that in Stables, Canada had one fine artist.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Chaplin versus Gandhi (not a Fight Club scenario)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

"The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died."

-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "Once More Unto the Breach"

To print the legend or subvert the legend; that appears to be the question which concerns Hollywood's efforts to fashion biographical films. Usually, the legend wins out, even if the legend is not complimentary towards the subject. Certainly no one expects a biographical film about Adolf Hitler to render him fully sympathetic, but films such as Max and Downfall at least tried to unearth his human side. Films such as The Imitation Game, The Life of Emile Zola and Malcolm X are very laudatory towards their subject; I haven't seen Selma but I understand it attempts to render a nuanced portrait of Martin Luther King. Then, of course, there are times when Hollywood ignores the legend and invents their own thing (A Beautiful Mind, The Babe Ruth Story).

All of this is fine; I like to know that filmmakers are attempting to be truthful about their subjects, yet I understand it's impossible to fully render a real human being on the screen in all of their complexities. What I find interesting is how a single filmmaker can approach two different famous figures from quite different perspectives. Said filmmaker was one Richard Attenborough; the films, Chaplin (1992) and Gandhi (1982).

"Everyone has a wild side. Even a legend."

To an Englishman such as Attenborough, both Chaplin & Gandhi loom large in his culture - one, the expatriate who became the most famous man in the world by venturing into the US, only to be brought low by scandal; the other, a revolutionary whose actions steadily chipped away not only at Britain's dominion over India, but over all its empire - and thereby, all of Earth's imperialist nations.

"His goal was freedom for India. His strategy was peace. His weapon was his humanity."

The story of Chaplin is drawn mostly from Charlie Chaplin's My Autobiography and is sewn together by scenes of Chaplin discussing his life with a (fictional) biographer. It journeys from his first appearance on stage, to his troubled childhood, into his conquest of Hollywood, his scandals, exile and ends on his return to Hollywood in the 1970s. Gandhi, however, is told in a straight forward (mostly) chronological fashion, beginning with the protagonist already 24 years old as he began his struggle against racism in South Africa, then moves into his opposition of the British in India, then the formation of Pakistan, his famed hunger strike and his assassination.

The most telling difference between the two films is George, Chaplin's biographer, who frequently comments on the story, offering doubts to Chaplin's recollections of how his life unfolded. At one point he questions Chaplin about his father:

George: "Your father?"
Chaplin: "What about my father?"
George: "Well, he died during that period, didn't he? When you were 12. You don't write very much about him."
Chaplin: "I don't know very much about him. He left just after I was born, he sang on the stage, he died of drink. What else should I say?"

And we in the audience remark, "Aha! He's concealing something about his father! If only we had the pertinent Freudian details about Chaplin's life, that would be the Rosetta Stone to understanding his personality!" Yet, having read My Autobiography, I'm inclined to agree with Chaplin's response in the film - that there really isn't too much to be said (there's also more about his father in the book than this dialogue would have you believe). Chaplin's relationships with his mother and brother seem more meaningful to me simply because those bonds lasted for many decades of his life.

If you're looking for a similar amount of interrogative scrutiny into Gandhi's upbringing, then his eponymous film will leave you disappointed. There are no Freudian insights to had about Gandhi's father; as noted, the film begins with him already a grown man.

Much of Chaplin is concerned with Chaplin's scandals which - fair enough - cannot be overlooked. His many problematic marriages are brought in, along with the suspicions that he was a Communist sympathizer, all of this conspiring to his eventual exile from the USA.

By contrast, Gandhi is not terribly interested in any of Gandhi's scandals. Do such scandals even exist? I'm afraid Attenborough is my only source on his life. I know enough from 1930s radio comedies to comprehend how much disdain there was for Gandhi in the western world and a lot of that contempt is shown in the film - but always by the Bad Guys. While there's a moment where Gandhi quarrels with his wife over the Untouchables (not the Brian De Palma film) and he comes off as being very harsh in that instance, he's ultimately proved right. Gandhi is depicted as a candidate for sainthood, unlike the roguish scoundrel Chaplin.

Again, all of this is fine.

While I admire both films, there is something about Chaplin which unsettles me. If I could put it into a single thought it would be: what's so great about Charlie Chaplin? Why is he still considered a giant in cinema, not merely a figure of historical significance but one whose movies are still the subject of film studies, books and documentaries? What made him so great? Because that context is what, I think, Attenborough overlooked in his film. He didn't forget it in Gandhi - anyone who wondered why Mahatma Gandhi is spoken of with reverence would have this pondering answered by Attenborough's film. But if you wondered why we speak of Chaplin with reverence, I don't think Chaplin would settle your mind. The film leaves you thinking, "Ah, Charlie Chaplin was an irresponsible jackass who ruined his career by sleeping around." According to Attenborough, that was the legend of Charlie Chaplin. It feels rather like telling the story of Louis Pasteur but downplaying the invention of pasteurization in favour of his home life. The first film is a celebration of Great Men; the later film is about tearing down Great Men.

I still like the film Chaplin, but I feel it could have been so much more. And just as Gandhi has become the greatest influence on how we think of Gandhi, I fear the portrait of Chaplin found in Chaplin is what many people have based their understanding of Chaplin upon. His life was something more than a tabloid headline.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Stop Giving MST3K a Bad Name, You Hipsters!

A recent article at L.A. Weekly entitled "Stop Laughing at Old Movies You $@%&ing Hipsters" delved into the matter of how when film patrons make audible mockery of a film, they ruin the experience for others in the audience.

I have to admit, I felt somewhat convicted. I'm not an extraordinary offender, but when I'm seeing a film with the right group of people, I surrender my better judgment. It seems to happen most frequently with trailers; before seeing Signs, of the trailer for the film Death Ship I exclaimed: "The Shining II: Cruise Control!" I was rather proud of that one. I also found myself riffing various scenes in the Matrix Revolutions with my friends; independently of each other, we all began comparing a scene of human ship landing in a cavern to a similar scene in the Empire Strikes Back (and I've since learned many other people have made the same joke). In each of these instances I was probably seeking the approval of my companions because I never talk out when I'm at the cinema alone.

Have I ever been made to shut up? Yes. Last Christmas when I went to see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, my brother and I began quietly mocking the film's first five minutes until his wife told us to knock it off. I did store up many of my "witticisms" to share with the family afterward.

When theater patrons do talk loud enough to be heard by others I think it can positive, serving as a form of bonding with each other, especially when what's been said is what other people in the audience are thinking. I have one friend who tends to be very outspoken during trailers. I recall how we once saw a very dramatic trailer for a new Russell Crowe film; the closing audio of the trailer was the announcer intoning: "Russell Crowe - Cinderella Man." There followed brief lull while the next trailer began cuing up, wherein my friend exclaimed (his voice dripping with derision): "Yeah! Cinderella Man!" In the silence of the theater it was loud enough for everyone to hear and it won him some admiring laughter.

The funniest audience moment I observed was when the trailer for Devil played. At the moment M. Night Shyamalan's name appeared, the crowd audibly groaned, then laughed at each other for sharing the same reaction (this is another response seen in many other theaters to said trailer). I didn't groan aloud, but I felt the same way as the other patrons, being a former Shyamalan fan and now quite embarrassed about that fact. The derision Devil's trailer met with is undoubtedly closely related to how much we in the audience formerly admired Shyamalan.

Have I ever had my film-going experience ruined by the reactions of others? Yes, but I don't begrudge them. A couple of years ago I went to see a Halloween double feature of 1931's Dracula and Frankenstein, hosted by TCM. I noticed that many of the patrons (a small crowd to be sure) were younger than I, but hoped the introduction by TCM would help them understand the historical context of the films. However, while no one riffed the film, they did frequently burst into laughter - notably at the films' attempts to be frightening. Scenes in Dracula of Dwight Frye bulging his eyes and hyperventilating were met with giggles. The odd growl Boris Karloff used as the monster in Frankenstein was usually met with a snicker (he does sound a little like a snarling cat, to be honest).

I was most disappointed by the audience's reaction to the monster drowning the little girl, which was historically the most controversial/disturbing scene. And yet, upon reflection, I understood why the audience laughed - they were all experienced film watchers who have been educated to understand certain styles of film language and weren't accustomed to 1930s styles of either acting or editing. When the monster throws the girl into the lake, then sees her drown, he frets about the shore, moving back and forth, then finally runs away - end scene. To contemporary eyes, the scene is shot like a comedy blackout sketch, with the monster's stage left exit the crowning touch. I was disappointed, but heck, audiences back in 1931 were supposed to have been quite raucous as well and unwilling to seriously contemplate what was happening on the screen; why do we expect better from today's patrons? Because we pay so much more money to get in?

I've seen every episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have listened to many examples of Rifftrax. And yet, part of what I enjoy about MST3K is the grudging enjoyment the films granted the riffers. On some level, they appreciated the earnestness of a picture like Manos: the Hands of Fate and couldn't bring themselves to hate it. Unfortunately, all too often I find that attitude missing from Rifftrax - there, the riffers seem more willing to tear down a picture just because it's front of them. Hence, when I do purchase a Rifftrax, I avoid the films I genuinely enjoy (I won't even watch preview clips if I truly like the film).

MST3K and Rifftrax have, in some way, encouraged my bad behaviour in the cinemas. I've been conditioned to fit in a riff where there's a lull in dialogue, to voice my opinions of poor line reads/visual effects/editing/choreography. Alone at home, I almost never talk back to my movies; put me in a theater and I'll somehow dredge up the most obnoxious parts of my personality.

And that, I think, is the root of the problem in talking during a motion picture. It's one thing to feel the atmosphere of the room and say aloud what everyone's thinking - but when you're jealous of the film and would rather be the center of attention yourself, you're the problem - and in the moment, it's hard to tell the difference between the two. Tip: if you came to the theater alone then probably no one wants to hear your opinion of the film while it's playing.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Wonder of Wonders: Ross Saakel's Captain Wonder

In the last two years I've had a great opportunity to expand my knowledge of World War II Canadian comic books - the so-called "Canadian whites." Among those characters I've discovered is Captain Wonder, a super hero who appeared in Triumph Comics stories created by Ross Saakel.
I most certainly will not!

The Captain Wonder series began in Triumph Comics #7 (1942) and you can read the early stories for yourself at the Digital Comic Museum. Our hero's origin is fairly typical for a comic book of the day: a yogi in the Himalayas calls upon the gods of Valhalla to grant their powers to a young Canadian man whom the yogi raised after his parents were killed. Kind of a Mulligan stew of super hero origins. With his newfound powers and the identity of Captain Wonder, the young man returned to Canada to fight crime!

Even they're being sarcastic about these tropes!

Captain Wonder's first adventure pit him against a mad scientist called Frank N. Stein, which may give you some conception of how much care and originality went into crafting those tales. However, that's not exactly what I want to talk about. I'd like to talk to you today about swiping. Perhaps it's not too surprising to begin with Bob Kane - he is, after all, notorious for signing his name to the work of other artists and tracing much of his own work. And yet here, in Triumph Comics#8, Kane was himself swiped by Saakel!

Top: Bob Kane, Detective Comics #33 (1939); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #8 (1942)

Now this isn't such a terrible swipe - the Batman pose has proven to be a popular one for artists to swipe over the years and considering the conditions artists had to labour under in the 40s, you can't blame them for the occasional tracing.

The thing about Saakel, however, is that he didn't trace occasionally - he traced frequently!

Top: Jack Kirby, cover, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #13 (1943)

I think Ross Saakel really enjoyed Marvel's Daring Mystery Comics #6, an early Marvel offering with some of Jack Kirby's earliest art for the company. Saakel loved that issue so much that he - well - traced the ever-lovin' almighty out of it! He must have pressed his pencil over the pages so many times they turned back into pulp! Not only did he lift his layouts from Kirby & Joe Simon's cover and interior pages but he also made liberal use of the dialogue!

Top: Jack Kirby, Marvel Boy story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #8 (1942)

He did, at least swap some names, such as the Nazi spy Stohl being changed to Storhm, while the submarine commander Strohm was renamed Stohl by Saakel.

Top: Jack Kirby, Marvel Boy story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #8 (1942)

But then he lifted most of the dialogue too! "Still the old destroyer dodger, eh Strohm?" became "Still the old destroyer dodger, eh Stohl?" And likewise with the submarine commander's response.

Top: Jack Kirby, Marvel Boy story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #8 (1942)

These panels I'm posting constitute only a minority of the Captain Wonder art from Triumph Comics #8, but it's possible there are other swipes I haven't yet identified - another sequence where Captain Wonder attacks a submarine could have easily been traced from a Sub-Mariner comic - not an accusation I'd normally lob at an artist, but with Saakel, the more I see of his work, the more I wonder how much of it was his own work.

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

Saakel went on to pen a multi-part story where Captain Wonder battled the Devil himself. However, as you can see by comparing the introductory text above, he again lifted his layouts from Daring Mystery Comics #6 - this time from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby's Fiery Mask story.

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

Most of the swipes are found in part one of the story, leaving me again to wonder where Saakel might have swiped the rest of the battle with the Devil from (a Spectre story?). The sheer amount of swipes in this one story is staggering.

Top two: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

At some point you have to think Bell Features should have cut Joe Simon & Jack Kirby a cheque! Bell Features came into existence in 1941 to fill the gap caused by restrictions on importing comic books from the USA. That means Canadians would have already had a chance to see Daring Mystery Comics #6 for themselves in 1940. Then again, in those days reprints were frequent and not normally identified as such. Is a swipe really that much worse than a reprint?

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

Yes, a thousand times yes! To lift one's plot, layouts and dialogue from another comic book without crediting them was unfair of Saakel to his US counterparts, even if they were much better reimbursed for their work.

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

And yet, I'm more bemused than outraged. Saakel lifted so liberally from his copy of Daring Mystery Comics #6 that I half-expected to see a tracing of Stuporman somewhere in Triumph Comics!

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #10 (1942)

Hey, not every Canadian comic could be as good as Nelvana (Captain Wonder's stablemate at Triumph). Saakel churned out some cheap super hero fare for very little pay and expected his work to be almost instantly forgotten. Between you and I, we've now spent more time considering Saakel's work than probably anyone else in the last few decades. As the history of Canadian super heroes continues to be unearthed and archived, Saakel is perhaps destined to a form of immortality and while he was no Adrian Dingle, he was (probably) not malicious about tracing other people's work. And what better artist to be rediscovered in this age of reboots and relaunches than a tracer? He was into retellings before it was cool!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

RIP: Herb Trimpe, 1939-2015

Herb Trimpe

Herb Trimpe

Herb Trimpe

Herb Trimpe

Herb Trimpe

When we talk about the Marvel Comics of the 1960s we always bring up Kirby and Ditko. Steranko. Adams. Everett. Severin. Colan. Ayers. Buscema. Smith. Even divisive talents such as Colletta and Heck receive their share of attention (both positive and negative). We've never spoken about Herb Trimpe at length.

Sure, we made fun of his art in the 1990s when he changed his style to imitate Rob Liefeld. Then we wept for him when he went to the New York Times and revealed how Marvel had let him go after three decades, pretending that we cared.

You can't talk about Wolverine for very long without at least noting he drew Wolvie's first appearance. Likewise G.I. Joe. Captain Britain. And he must surely have drawn more Hulk stories than any other artist.

What can we say? He began his career imitating Kirby and wound up imitating Liefeld. He and Severin were a great team. He loved to draw airplanes, such as in the Phantom Eagle example I've posted above. He spent most of the last two decades teaching art classes.

Will he be forgotten? ...Yes. He'll survive as a footnote in the histories of Wolverine & G.I. Joe.

Want to evaluate him for yourself? Here's my recommended reading list of his Marvel Comics career:

  • Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (Phantom Eagle)
  • Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #8
  • Incredible Hulk #140
  • Machine Man #1-4
  • Rawhide Kid #1-4
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #1, 3-4, 6-8, 50
  • G.I. Joe: Special Missions #1-21, 23, 25-26, 28