Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Angola in the Comics#7: Tarzan in Luanda!

Hello and welcome back to an occasional feature on this blog entitled 'Angola in the Comics.' In this series I investigate appearances by the nation of Angola in comic books and determine how faithfully the country is represented. The assumption is that Angola will not be well-realized, so those instances where the comic book creators get particular details correct are always worth noting.

Every entry in my 'Angola in the Comics' series has been from the pages of old 'jungle adventure' comic books, which were once a very fertile genre in the comics (plus prose & film). The few appearances of Angola which I've discovered owe a lot to the simple wealth of 'jungle comics' out there; with creators constantly needing new plots, there were bound to be a few stories set in Angola just as a matter of statistics.

But up until now I haven't dealt with the king of the 'jungle adventure' genre, the fictional character who is basically responsible for the entire brand of storytelling. I'm speaking of course about Tarzan, but before I can get to his visit to Angola, first I have acknowledge the problem of Tarzan.

THE TARZAN TALK

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in a 1912 pulp magazine story 'Tarzan of the Apes,' Burroughs' character became so popular that the author put out a regular series of new prose adventures throughout his life, novels which continued to be republished after his death - along with works by new authors. Tarzan was adapted into radio, film, television and - significant to us - comic strips & comic books.

Although Tarzan was initially based in the jungles of the Congo, Burroughs sent the character to various locales around the globe (and beneath it, for that matter). Although Burroughs wrote vividly about Africa, he'd never been there; his Tarzan adventures were as much fantasy as anything else and were enjoyed by both children and adults. With success came a legion of imitators; everyone in the 'jungle adventure' genre - from Sheena to the Black Panther - owes a debt to Tarzan for popularizing the tropes they use.

The sheer amount of Tarzan product means you're probably familiar with some of the recycled tropes even if you haven't watched or read a Tarzan story. Frequently these stories concern the adventures of a Caucasian person who lives in the African jungle (if it is named, it is almost certainly the Congo) and is almost definitely an orphan. This hero has a strong connection to the African wildlife and can even 'speak' to them. They battle ferocious predators, cruel hunters (usually poachers), greedy treasure hunters and 'savage' natives (possibly cannibals). When they lack for adventure they need only trek a miles to the east to find a lost outpost of ancient Egypt or trek north to find a valley where dinosaurs still roam. Africans in these stories who are not the hero's enemies are considered friendly, simple folk, regarding the hero with a kind of fearful awe; they live in modest thatch huts with no sophisticated technology, yet their women are modest enough to cover their chests; they can be easily riled up by an evil chief, a scheming would-be chief or an evil witch doctor.

As the decades passed by, the Tarzan series remained moribund, frozen in amber; while Burroughs had permitted Tarzan to grow and change somewhat in his novels, the films kept a very rigid status quo. Of course, the real world's Africa wasn't standing still - even as independence began creeping across the continent in the 1950s, Tarzan hesitated to change with the times. By 1970, Tarzan had fallen from favour; with almost all of Africa independent there could no longer be any pretense of his adventures as anything other than fantasy. The films and comic strips dropped off and scholars began questioning many of the assumptions and implications dating back to Burroughs' first story. Tarzan became a tainted brand, even racist.

Small wonder then, that Tarzan material since 1970 has almost all been deliberately positioned as a 'period piece,' set in the 1910s when Africa was firmly in the grip of colonialism. Eventually, the Tarzan brand became comfortable enough to address the truth of what colonialism had been and to downplay Burroughs' racist views of white superiority. The 2016 motion picture The Legend of Tarzan even went to the trouble of pitting Tarzan against one of history's great real-life villains from the Congo (Leon Rom) and team-up Tarzan with a historical African-American hero who was also in the Congo (George Washington Williams).

Perhaps a contemporary-times take on Tarzan could also be made to work if one simply did the homework on what Africa is like today. A white man brought up by apes in the contemporary Congo would be quite a different character than who Burroughs imagined; it would be an interesting challenge to deconstruct Tarzan by contemporary standards - possibly not one which the Burroughs estate would be interested in getting into.

Anyway, let's get back to Angola.

TARZAN IN ANGOLA

In January 1951, writer Dick Van Buren and artist Bob Lubbers had only been working on the Tarzan daily newspaper strip for half a year when they told a storyline set in Angola. It begins with a single line from a story fans have called "The Plaque" when a steamship bound for England explodes while said to be approaching 'the port of Luanda,' which is, of course, Angola's capital.

This leads to a lengthy arc where Tarzan searches for survivors of the ship and traces one of them into an underground kingdom of the 'swamp men,' reptilian men led by a beautiful woman (lost kingdoms of ugly men ruled by beautiful women were also a common trope in adventure fiction of the time). Tarzan finally escapes the underground kingdom and brings his English friend to Luanda, which is where Tarzan is at the start of the story fans call 'Senor Lazar.' Notably, Luanda is called a port of 'Portuguese West Africa,' not Angola. Portugal wasn't even a member of the United Nations at the time of this comic; in fact, this same year, Angola was officially declared a 'province' of Portugal, one of the means the country employed to try and hold on to Angola, even as other colonial powers were girding themselves to let their colonies go free.

Wandering Luanda, Tarzan saves a woman from being mugged, which draws the attention of Señor Lazar, a powerful plantation owner. Observing Tarzan had murdered the woman's mugger he has Tarzan arrested. To avoid standing trial for murder, Lazar cuts a deal: he wants Tarzan to captured an American whom the authorities haven't been able to arrest.

As Tarzan heads to the American's location, he passes 'Fazenda Lazar,' so props must be given to Van Buren & Lubbers for getting some correct Portuguese (but a subtraction for when they use 'gracias,' which is Spanish). Further, it's a coffee plantation, which was indeed a major crop in Angola of the time. The American turns out to be named Holt and is running a coffee plantation in competition against Lazar, which is the real reason Lazar has pit Tarzan against him. Using his sway with the authorities, Lazar is trying to tax Holt out of business. Failure to pay the taxes is the crime Holt is guilty of.

At Holt's plantation, Tarzan meets José, the butler. José has a plan to raise 1,000 escudos (props for the correct currency): by winning a bullfight in the 'Plaza de Toros.' So, props for the use of bullfighting (which was a sport in Luanda in those days) but minus for again using Spanish. Confusing Portuguese and Spanish is a frequent problem I've noticed in popular culture of the 1930s-50s, such as in the motion picture Macao.

Tarzan returns to Luanda and tells Lazar he's going to be a matador so that he can win the bullfight and its bounty of 1,000 escudos so that Holt's taxes will be paid. Naturally, even though Tarzan is not a trained bullfighter he wins the match and claims the money. The woman Tarzan rescued at the start of the story - Lucia - comes to work for Holt as a secretary on the plantation.

Having apparently nothing better to do, Tarzan hangs out on the plantation as the new foreman and we finally see a few African faces among the plantation workers. Of course, Tarzan gets them to work for Holt without pay initially, so there's still something problematical about all of this. One night a panther attacks the laborers but Tarzan kills it and surmises Lazar unleashed the animal. Mere moments later, Lazar sends a mob of men with torches to assault Holt's plantation. Holt saves Lucia from a fire the mob start while Tarzan fends off the attackers and puts out the blaze.

Lazar now challenges Tarzan to a duel to the death (a fat cigar-smoking man versus the lord of the jungle? gee, whoever will win?). Tarzan accepts, even though the duel will be fought with Lazar's gun against Tarzan's bow. Although Lazar fires two shots, one of them wrecking Tarzan's bow, Tarzan throws his knife into Lazar's neck, killing him. Thus ends the problem of Lazar. Holt and Lucia decide to get married. Tarzan heads back into the jungle.

  • +1 estrela for the correct use of Luanda as a port and reasonably developed city
  • +1 estrela for using a leopard (though panther might not be quite correct)
  • +1 estrela for the correct currency, escudos
  • +2 estrelas for correctly placing bullfighting and coffee in Angola
  • +1 estrela for a few correct uses of Portuguese
  • -1 estrela for inserting Spanish the rest of the time

TOTAL SCORE: Cinco estrelas!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Looking at Agostinho Neto #1 - De Cabeça Levantada

I've been contributing to the Grand Comics Database for a few years. As I've gained confidence about my indexing abilities I've tackled a few foreign-language publications. As I'm learning Portuguese, I thought it would be especially apt to index a few Portuguese-language comic books. It isn't too easy finding Portuguese-language comics in Canada, but I tracked down a few from Brazil and a few from Portugal.

However, I had another goal in mind: to index a comic book from Angola. As I attempted to explore what was out there, it was a tricky proposition; on my visits to Angola the only place I saw was Lubango and the few comics I did manage to find were from Portugal. Much of my research indicated that what few comic books were published in Angola during their years as a colony ceased when Portugal left and the civil war erupted (people obviously had higher priorities than publishing comic books).

But with the war long over it's a bright new world. At last, I learned of the recent publication of a series of graphic novels recounting the life of Angola's first president, Agostinho Neto. As I was passing through Luanda on my most recent visit, I thought I could enlist some local help in obtaining a copy - but, to no avail. Three of the series' four volumes were available at the time, but they couldn't find any of the books for me. Finally, I located the first volume 'De Cabeça Levantada' being sold at Amazon by a vendor from Portugal and bought it. It took a few years of research, but I still wound up being the first person to index a comic book from Angola for the Grand Comics Database. here's the entry.

This comic was created by artist Osvaldo Medina and covers Neto's life up to 1961... kind of. The narrative jumps around quite often, sometimes venturing back centuries to the Portuguese's first arrival in Angola, then leaping ahead to the 1970s. You would think that as a biography it would be a very straight forward affair, but the story is constantly interrupted to explain certain historical details surrounding the various political institutions concerned, about why particular conflicts erupted over long-standing issues, how Portuguese political policies had been shaped across several decades, etc. It's a little unfortunate because it takes the focus off of Neto. The details are fine, but I feel the book would have been better served by being broken up into chapters so that those portions not directly about Neto were identified in the text as being somewhat parenthetical.

As a publication of Fundação Dr. António Agostinho Neto the book also feels a little bit like propaganda, especially when it jumps ahead to celebrate Neto's presidency rather than hold back on that development until a more appropriate time in the later volumes. The formatting of the comic is also crude, with all lettering done in the same computer-generated font and very little presented as dialogue balloons in text. In all, this is primarily a textbook, not a novel. Still, it was good practice for my developing Portuguese and I learned a lot from it. Altogether, it was good for me as a student of Portuguese, an avid learner about Angola and researcher on international comic books.

Friday, July 13, 2018

"Does this make me a good son, or a bad one?" All the Answers review

As a fan of Michael Kupperman's comic book work on Snake 'n' Bacon and Tales Designed to Thrizzle, stumbling across a new work by him immediately piqued my interest. However, unlike Kupperman's usual comics work, his latest title, All the Answers is not an off-the-wall surrealist humour book; it's the biography of his father. Normally that would kill my interest in the work, but, as I surprised to learn, Michael Kupperman's father was someone else I had an interest in: Joel Kupperman.

It's strange to discover this link between my hobbies of old-time radio and comics; Joel Kupperman appeared on the radio for many years as one of the panelists on the series Quiz Kids. Although Quiz Kids isn't really a show for me (give me Information Please), I have heard various episodes and I knew Joel Kupperman in particular from an appearances he made on the Jack Benny Program in 1946. You can hear that one right here.

Joel Kupperman had a reputation even in his childhood for being difficult and it seems as though he remained somewhat-difficult for all of his life. His past as a Quiz Kid was something he spent a long time trying to bury and Michael Kupperman considered the subject unapproachable - until near the end of his father's life when Joel suddenly began giving up information on his Quiz Kids years. From this, All the Answers was born and depicts Michael grappling with his father's history and the fact that so much time has passed that his father can't even be considered fully reliable on the details.

A large part of the book is much of what you'd expect from a graphic novel biography of a child looking back on their parent; if you've read Maus or Fun Home you'll have an idea of what to expect from Kupperman as he opens up on his personal frustrations with his father. Michael Kupperman is in a different position than those well-known books, however, because his father was a celebrity and is already known to people like me at least some people in the audience have some knowledge about the subject.

If you're principally a fan of Kupperman's humourous works you might still find it interesting to learn about his famous father's life; the story briefly links up into the 1950s quiz show scandals as well, which is a fascinating piece of history. Kupperman himself is represented by a comic book avatar who looks like he just stepped out of a Chris Ware comic; it might be an homage, but, unlike the homages seen in his other books, it isn't a joke. All the Answers is a strong piece of work, worth seeking out.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp creator credits

The latest Marvel Cinematic Universe film is out and is a lot of fun. As usual, I have compiled a list of creators whose work is represented in the film. Your corrections are certainly welcome; you can see my master list of creators for Marvel Cinematic Universe projects at this link.

Stan Lee: co-creator of the Avengers, the world's premiere super hero team (Avengers #1, 1963); of Goliath, one of the size-changing identities used by Hank Pym (Avengers #28, 1966); of Bill Foster, an African-American scientist and colleague of Hank Pym who researches the science of size changes with him (Avengers #32, 1966); of a sub-atomic universe which Ant-Man's shrinking power can access (Fantastic Four #16, 1963); of S.H.I.E.L.D., an international espionage agency (Strange Tales #135, 1965); of Henry Pym, a scientist who develops a chemical formula which can shrink people in size and uses this ability to interact with ants (Tales to Astonish #27, 1962); Ant-Man, the costumed identity of Henry Pym wherein he wears a protective red and black costume with size-changing capsules on his belt and wears a helmet which helps him communicate with ants; Pym receiving heightened strength by shrinking in size (Tales to Astonish #35, 1962); of Egghead, a criminal scientist and enemy of Ant-Man (Tales to Astonish #38, 1962); of the Wasp, Janet Van Dyne, Ant-Man's female sidekick and love interest adorned in a red and black costume with insect-like wings permitting flight (Tales to Astonish #44, 1963); Pym's nickname "Hank"; Ant-Man riding flying ants into battle (Tales to Astonish #47, 1963); of Ant-Man reversing his superhuman powers so that he grows in size, becoming the somewhat-clumsy hero Giant-Man (Tales to Astonish #49, 1963); of the Wasp's stinger, a wrist-based weapon in her costume (Tales to Astonish #57, 1964)

Jack Kirby: co-creator of the Avengers, the world's premiere super hero team (Avengers #1, 1963); of Captain America, patriotic super hero (Captain America Comics #1, 1941); of a sub-atomic universe which Ant-Man's shrinking power can access (Fantastic Four #16, 1963); of S.H.I.E.L.D., an international espionage agency (Strange Tales #135, 1965); of Henry Pym, a scientist who develops a chemical formula which can shrink people in size and uses this ability to interact with ants (Tales to Astonish #27, 1962); Ant-Man, the costumed identity of Henry Pym wherein he wears a protective red and black costume with size-changing capsules on his belt and wears a helmet which helps him communicate with ants; Pym receiving heightened strength by shrinking in size (Tales to Astonish #35, 1962); of Egghead, a criminal scientist and enemy of Ant-Man (Tales to Astonish #38, 1962); of the Wasp, Janet Van Dyne, Ant-Man's female sidekick and love interest adorned in a red and black costume with insect-like wings permitting flight (Tales to Astonish #44, 1963); of Ant-Man reversing his superhuman powers so that he grows in size, becoming the somewhat-clumsy hero Giant-Man (Tales to Astonish #49, 1963)

Larry Lieber: co-creator of Henry Pym, a scientist who develops a chemical formula which can shrink people in size and uses this ability to interact with ants (Tales to Astonish #27, 1962); Ant-Man, the costumed identity of Henry Pym wherein he wears a protective red and black costume with size-changing capsules on his belt and wears a helmet which helps him communicate with ants; Pym receiving heightened strength by shrinking in size (Tales to Astonish #35, 1962); of Egghead, a criminal scientist and enemy of Ant-Man (Tales to Astonish #38, 1962)

David Michelinie: co-creator of the Ghost, an anti-corporate industrial saboteur garbed in white and a hood with the power to phase through solid matter and appear invisible (Iron Man #219, 1987); of Scott Lang, a divorced ex-convict trying to support his lovable daughter Cassie Lang; Scott stealing the Ant-Man costume and equipment from Henry Pym (Marvel Premiere #47, 1979); Pym helping to mentor Scott Lang as Ant-Man, permitting him to keep the costume (Marvel Premiere #48, 1979)

Don Heck: co-creator of Goliath, one of the size-changing identities used by Hank Pym (Avengers #28, 1966); of Bill Foster, an African-American scientist and colleague of Hank Pym who researches the science of size changes with him (Avengers #32, 1966); of Egghead's surname, Starr (Giant-Size Defenders #4, 1975); of Pym's nickname "Hank"; Ant-Man riding flying ants into battle (Tales to Astonish #47, 1963)

John Byrne: co-creator of Scott Lang, a divorced ex-convict trying to support his lovable daughter Cassie Lang; Scott stealing the Ant-Man costume and equipment from Henry Pym (Marvel Premiere #47, 1979); Pym helping to mentor Scott Lang as Ant-Man, permitting him to keep the costume (Marvel Premiere #48, 1979)

H.E. Huntley: co-creator of the Wasp, Janet Van Dyne, Ant-Man's female sidekick and love interest adorned in a red and black costume with insect-like wings permitting flight (Tales to Astonish #44, 1963); Pym's nickname "Hank"; Ant-Man riding flying ants into battle (Tales to Astonish #47, 1963)

Tom DeFalco: co-creator of Hope Pym, the embittered daughter of Henry Pym and the Wasp (A-Next #10, 1998); Ant-Man helmet with red lenses (Fantastic Four #405, 1995); Hope Pym's name; Hope using the Wasp's equipment (A-Next #12, 1998)

Bob Layton: co-creator of the Ghost, an anti-corporate industrial saboteur garbed in white and a hood with the power to phase through solid matter and appear invisible (Iron Man #219, 1987)

Al Milgrom: co-creator of Egghead's first name, Elihas (Avengers #230, 1983); of Hank Pym shrinking and enlarging objects, carrying some inside his pockets (West Coast Avengers #21, 1987)

Geoff Johns: co-creator of Scott Lang's ex-wife becoming involved with a police officer (Avengers #62, 2003); Ant-Man wearing a costume with increased black tones (Avengers #65, 2003)

Ron Frenz: co-creator of Hope Pym, the embittered daughter of Henry Pym and the Wasp (A-Next #10, 1998); Hope Pym's name; Hope using the Wasp's equipment (A-Next #12, 1998)

Brian Michael Bendis: co-creator of the Wasp surviving certain death by entering the microverse (Avengers #32, 2012); of the Wasp dying in battle (Secret Invasion #8, 2008)

Roger Stern: co-creator of Henry Pym developing health issues from repeatedly changing size (Avengers #227, 1983); of Egghead's first name, Elihas (Avengers #230, 1983)

Roy Thomas: co-creator of Henry Pym marrying the Wasp (Avengers #60, 1968); Ant-Man's helmet providing environmental seals (Avengers #93, 1971)

Tony Isabella: co-creator of Bill Foster using Hank Pym's research to increase his size, using the Goliath identity (Black Goliath #1, 1976)

George Tuska: co-creator of Bill Foster using Hank Pym's research to increase his size, using the Goliath identity (Black Goliath #1, 1976)

Steve Englehart: co-creator of Pym shrinking and enlarging objects, carrying some inside his pockets (West Coast Avengers #21, 1987)

John Jackson Miller: co-creator of Sonny Burch, a white collar criminal who deals in black market technology (Iron Man #73, 2003)

Nick Spencer: co-creator of Scott Lang joining a security consultant firm comprised of reformed criminals (Ant-Man #2, 2015)

Rick Rosanas: co-creator of Scott Lang joining a security consultant firm comprised of reformed criminals (Ant-Man #2, 2015)

Al Feldstein: co-creator of Jimmy Woo, a Chinese-American FBI agent stationed in San Francisco (Yellow Claw #1, 1956)

Joe Maneely: co-creator of Jimmy Woo, a Chinese-American FBI agent stationed in San Francisco (Yellow Claw #1, 1956)

Jorge Lucas: co-creator of Sonny Burch, a white collar criminal who deals in black market technology (Iron Man #73, 2003)

Sal Buscema: co-creator of Henry Pym developing health issues from repeatedly changing size (Avengers #227, 1983)

Brandon Peterson: co-creator of the Wasp surviving certain death by entering the microverse (Avengers #32, 2012)

Carlos Pacheco: co-creator of the Wasp wearing a black costume with a yellow chest (Avengers Forever #1, 1998)

Dick Ayers: co-creator of the Wasp's stinger, a wrist-based weapon in her costume (Tales to Astonish #57, 1964)

Allan Heinberg: co-creator of Cassie Lang wishing to be a super hero like her father (Young Avengers #1, 2005)

Jim Cheung: co-creator of Cassie Lang wishing to be a super hero like her father (Young Avengers #1, 2005)

Kurt Busiek: co-creator of the Wasp wearing a black costume with a yellow chest (Avengers Forever #1, 1998)

Gary Frank: co-creator of Scott Lang's ex-wife becoming involved with a police officer (Avengers #62, 2003)

Olivier Coipel: co-creator of Ant-Man wearing a costume with increased black tones (Avengers #65, 2003)

John Ostrander: co-creator of Ant-Man wearing a helmet with full face mask (Heroes for Hire #6, 1997)

Pasqual Ferry: co-creator of Ant-Man wearing a helmet with full face mask (Heroes for Hire #6, 1997)

Joe Simon: co-creator of Captain America, patriotic super hero (Captain America Comics #1, 1941)

Roberto de la Torre: co-creator of the Ghost wearing mask with red lenses (Thunderbolts #128, 2009)

Andy Diggle: co-creator of the Ghost wearing mask with red lenses (Thunderbolts #128, 2009)

Steve Gerber: co-creator of Egghead's surname, Starr (Giant-Size Defenders #4, 1975)

Neal Adams: co-creator of Ant-Man's helmet providing environmental seals (Avengers #93, 1971)

Leinil Francis Yu: co-creator of the Wasp dying in battle (Secret Invasion #8, 2008)

Paul Ryan: co-creator of Ant-Man helmet with red lenses (Fantastic Four #405, 1995)

John Buscema: co-creator of Henry Pym marrying the Wasp (Avengers #60, 1968)

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Unearthed: "The Man Who Captured Death"

"The Man Who Captured Death!" is one of my all-time favourite comic book stories. It was originally presented in Amazing Adult Fantasy #9 (1962), but I first discovered it as a reprinted back-up feature in Astonishing Tales #21 (1973). It's by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko.
It's a very simple tale: an old inventor in his laboratory wants to continue his research but he realizes his time is running short. "If only I could triumph over death!" he remarks. His final project is to complete a large sphere which emits a beam of energy. Exhausted, he falls asleep.
Awakening, the old man sees Death himself before him, having taken a corporeal body with green skin and wearing a long black cloak. Death explains: "Only once in every mortal's lifetime does he glimpse me... and this is your moment! Now come, professor -- come to me!" But the inventor activates his last invention and it immobilizes Death within a barrier. Death protests, warning the inventor he doesn't realize "what forces" he's tampering with, but the inventor can only see the advantage: "So long as you are my captive, the world need never fear death again!"
And this is true! Death no longer has any effect on the Earth... and so, beetles become immune to pesticides and devour crops unfazed. Predatory animals increase in strength. Rats multiply at a frightening rate. Viruses in sick people's bodies can't be eliminated. Hospitals are overcrowded with the infirm, unable to die.
From his television set, the inventor sees the chaos he's unwittingly unleashed on the Earth. Horrified, he realizes Death was correct; he deactivates his device, releasing Death from its prison. Rather than approaching the old man in a spirit of menace, Death places an arm around the old man and speaks words of comfort: "I shall bring you -- peace! As I have brought so many others before you --" and guides the old man into death.
Thoughts: Many of the Lee/Ditko stories in Amazing Adult Fantasy are of this quality, telling a very simple fable in an economical, elegant manner. This one, however, has really remained with me. The inventor's triumph over Death is ultimately a greedy act, the old trying to place their desires ahead of the young. I love that the old man comes to the realization of his wrong and corrects all of this himself, rather than being forced or coerced into the proper action. In this 5-page story the unnamed inventor undergoes character development which many Marvel characters with decades of stories under their belts have never achieved.
I had wanted to cover this story on the blog at some point - perhaps in a series of posts on my favourite Steve Ditko stories - but considering the subject matter and the recent death of Steve Ditko, I can think of no better time than now to bring it up. I hope that for Ditko, death came upon him gently and granted him peace. Seek this one out, it is Ditko at his finest.




Tuesday, July 10, 2018

90 Years of Ditko

Steve Ditko died recently, at the age of 90. He chose to be reclusive and it's believed he'd been dead for two days at the time the police found his body.

I was exposed to Ditko's work pretty early in my life as a comic book fan thanks to reprints of his Amazing Spider-Man stories which were then appearing in Marvel Tales. Over time I saw his work in various places - and being principally a fan of Marvel Comics, that meant a lot of strange Marvel Comics Presents and Marvel Super-Heroes inventory stories.

Gradually it began to dawn upon me: "Hey, this guy is Steve Ditko, he created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange." I began to carry a sense of reverence for him, the way every Marvel fan is encouraged to revere Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko as the three most important figures in Marvel history (we're almost never told to think about Larry Lieber; Don Heck is usually brought up as a scapegoat; John Buscema is considered great, but late to the party). I would say that by the early 1990s I had a healthy understanding of Ditko's existance and major contributions to Marvel. And yet, I wouldn't have called myself a fan.

Steve Ditko's artwork has always stood out. Although there are many artists who can convincingly imitate Jack Kirby and seem to have great fun at it, there are so few 'Ditkoesque' artists and usually they are only attempting to reference specific covers/panels which Ditko drew, not his general sense of aesthetics. Again, Ditko is one of the most important artists in comics history. Everyone from Wally Wood to Will Eisner is lovingly homaged in the works of contemporary artists, but most artists leave Ditko alone; only Ditko could ever be Ditko.

I began to truly transform into a Ditko fan after reading the reprint series Doctor Strange Classics, which republished a 12-chapter Doctor Strange story from Strange Tales by Lee & Ditko. I was amazed to discover how long the serial had gone on and how every chapter stood on its own as a fast-paced fantasy adventure tale brimming with big ideas. As a fan of continuity in all things, I was particularly fascinated at the the amount of world-building, of the little moments which explained the limitations of Doctor Strange's powers and introduced various other mystics who lived on the periphery of Strange's adventures. There was a sense that the people inhabiting Lee & Ditko's Doctor Strange had lives transcending the boundaries of the panels, that their universe was much more vast than the typical Silver Age comic book series.

More than anything, I began to appreciate the ways in which other comic books Ditko drew were clearly in-continuity with his more famous Silver Age works. That is, the mystical world of dragons found in his 'Dragon Lord' story for Fantastic Four is entirely in-keeping with the mystical realms found in Doctor Strange; his Speedball villains were not all that different from his Spider-Man, Creeper or Blue Beetle villains. If the Dimensional Man were to round a corner and discover the Question waiting for him it wouldn't be all that surprising.

When Marvel began the first publication of Essential Spider-Man I was there and finally able to appreciate the Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man from the beginning and in sequence, which raised my estimation of that comic book run to a considerable degree; Spider-Man is a character I've enjoyed at various times but don't have a particularly strong affection for -- that is, unless we're talking about Lee & Ditko's Spider-Man, the young, frustrated, wise-cracking, depressed bundle of contradictions found in those issues, which are certainly the pillars upon which the sub-genre of 'novice super hero' were built.

Then I began to delve deep into Marvel's history of science fiction/fantasy/horror tales of the 1950s & 60s, an avenue which is still quite fascinating to me. Although many of the stories I read were primarily of interest academically, Steve Ditko's stories tended to be the most thought-provoking in terms of ideas and page layouts. In many of his fantasy stories, Ditko played around with the conventions of comic book storytelling and it definitely stood out against the more conventional artists.

By then I was on the internet and began to hear about Ditko's personality. Since he was such a private person, much of his story was being told by others, with frequent errors, omissions and miss-attributions. It was difficult to gain an understanding of who Ditko truly was, but I definitely learned to admire his principles. I could not and cannot subscribe to his objectivist beliefs, but I admired that he had a moral code he attempted to live by and that he would take a principled stand when he felt he had to.

It was a bit deflating when I began reading Ditko's creator-owned works. After reading all of his Mr. A stories I was definitely a little less infatuated with Ditko's work as a whole. Of course, what I see as the flaw of Mr. A, Ditko no doubt saw as the entire point. That is, in Mr. A stories and other objectivist tracts, Ditko is unable to convey a persuasive argument to his audience because objectivism is, by its nature, unwilling to stoop low enough to curry a person's favour. There are great ideas in his various philosophical works, but they'd be even better if Ditko weren't the scripter; but then, the entire reason they exist is because Ditko himself needed to tell them.

I bought several of Ditko's latter-day works published with Robin Snyder, including several of the Kickstarter-backed projects. At some point I decided I had enough of them for my collection as they really don't vary that much from one book to the next: here's a straw man objectivist argument; next up, Ditko trolls his audience with a 'u mad?' cartoon. Over and over. There were still traces of his vibrancy and it was unmistakably pure Ditko, but it wasn't polished Ditko. Ditko's latter-day work is amazing primarily because he kept producing it into his 90th year while most of his contemporaries were dead or retired.

Ditko's weird alien dimensions, dark trenchcoat-wearing figures, nervously sweating businessmen, gesticulating fingers, bedeviling mystical bolts - the elements in Ditko's unique style are what first drew me in. Those clean lines, efficient layouts and inventive ideas kept me engaged. As Ditko has died, we have lost the last truly awesome talent of the Silver Age. There are a handful other talents from that time still with us, but none with Ditko's impact on the medium. Fortunately, his work is very easy to come by.

Cheers, Mr. Ditko.

A few of my earlier posts about Ditko's works:
Captain Glory #1
The Destructor #1
The Destructor #2
The Destructor #3
The Destructor #4
...Ditko Continued...
Ditko Public Service Package
Doctor Strange Classics #2
Mr. A #18
Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men #3
Murder #1-3
Out of This World #20 & 25
Static
Strange Avenging Tales #1
Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #19
Tigerman #2
Tigerman #3
Tomb of Dracula #2
What Is... the Face #1

Friday, June 29, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison

"Through all the legends of ancient peoples — Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Semitic — runs the saga of the Eternal Man, the one who never dies, called by various names in various times, but historically known as Gilgamesh, the man who has never tasted death... the hero who strides through the centuries..." - Demon with a Glass Hand, written for the Outer Limits by Harlan Ellison

The phrase goes, "the golden age of science fiction is 12." When I was 12, I wasn't reading science fiction. The one science fiction author who I came to enjoy - Ray Bradbury - I wouldn't discover for another couple of years. It took even longer for me to try fiction by giants of the field such as Isaac Asimov & Robert A. Heinlein. But although I didn't sample his prose until later on in my life, I was familiar with the work of Harlan Ellison - who, of course, famously derided the term 'science fiction author' because of the unspoken assumptions behind those words.

I learned of Harlan Ellison primarily through the Incredible Hulk story "The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom," (by Roy Thomas & Sal Buscema) which was first published in 1971 but which I came to know through a paperback reprint I discovered in a used bookstore. The story concerns the Hulk being sent to a microscopic alien world where he falls in love with an alien princess named Jarella, but by story's end is sent back to Earth with no means of returning. Essentially, Ellison wrote the Hulk into a John Carter novel. Still, it's well-told and the pathos of the Hulk's plight was well-realized. The story stood out by the standards of 1971, though I suppose a contemporary reader would probably find it primitive.

I came to appreciate Ellison's work through his Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever," which I enjoyed immensely and when IDW eventually published an adaptation of his original script, I found much in his version which I liked even more. Basically, there are two great versions of that story - the one which was filmed, and the one which became a comic book. I like 'em both.

Although I had seen some of Ellison in places like his appearances on the Sci Fi Channel's Anti-Gravity Room or the documentary The Masters of Comic Book Art, time on the internet made me aware of his very thorny reputation as people online either recounted scathing accounts of how Ellison had treated them terribly, or glowing accounts of how fiercely Ellison had stood up for them. From what I've seen of him, he had a unique kind of personal integrity and a definite limit to what he would endure from others. He was probably not someone I would have enjoyed being around, but many of the online stories involve him standing up to a bigger bully, which I certainly don't object to. And despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, his recollections of Ray Bradbury in Shadow Show are immensely warm and tender-hearted.

I didn't become someone who'd consider himself a Harlan Ellison fan until I finally saw the original Outer Limits and his two episodes "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand," two absolutely phenomenal stories which tower above the typical standards of Outer Limits (which was a quality program for its time). Despite the rough special effects - and, in the latter episode, makeup choices - there is so much humanity in these tales and that I responded to. I finally read his short story collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, but aside from a handful of other short stories, that's about all I've read of his prose. I intend to read more eventually, but I'm for all that I enjoyed of his work, he wasn't a high priority to me.

As someone who first discovered him through comic books, I was fascinated to learn just how much work he had done in the comics medium, from the Marshall Rogers adaptation of Demon with a Glass Hand, to an odd Twilight Zone comic, to the Epic Illustrated adaptations by Ken Steacy which became Night and the Enemy to a couple issues of Daredevil with David Mazzucchelli, his footprint in comics may be shallow but it's also mighty wide. The comics of his which I have yet to read are probably where I'll continue discovering his work; after all, that's where it all began.

Rest in peace Mr. Ellison.