Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Handbook and Index go on sale tomorrow!

One book ends, another book begins.

Tomorrow, check out the finale of the 1st Official Index to the Marvel Universe series as issue #14 ships (solicit here). And while you're at it, tomorrow the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe returns in a big way with issue #1 of the 2010 Update series (solicit here)!

Salute to Doug Moench

Last week I observed the birthday of Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu. Today marks the birthday of another of my favorite authors and he's also been linked to Fu Manchu; unlike Rohmer, he's still alive and I've even met him. He's Doug Moench.

Moench's career really took off when he was writing for Warren's black & white comic magazines, which led to assignments for Marvel's similar line of magazines. His black & white work is mostly forgotten now (like virtually all 1970s b&w comic magazines), but at Marvel he brought about a remarkable 100+ issue run on the series Master of Kung Fu.

Moench didn't initiate the series - it had been begun by Steve Englehart - but he made his mark, aided initially by the beautiful pencils of Paul Gulacy. I've heard some MoKF fans declare that after Gulacy left (MoKF#50), the series faltered. This might be true of the issues immediately after #50, but there was so much more greatness yet to come! The era penciled by Mike Zeck with inks by Gene Day was another creative highlight:

...And then came the issues where Gene Day handled all of the art chores:

Anyone who bailed on Master of Kung Fu after #50 missed out on both spectacular artwork and stories that were as good (or better) than those of the Gulacy years.

Part of why I find Master of Kung Fu so remarkable is that although it wasn't Moench's creation or property he had control of the characters for such a long period of time that he could set-up long-term payoffs that you seldom see in comic books of any era (even creator-owned). Shang-Chi's initial antagonism towards Nayland Smith melts into an uneasy alliance, followed by an occasionally frayed but professional working relationship until when Shang realizes in MoKF#118 that Smith is like a surrogate father to him and declares "I love you" it's a moment the series has earned from more than 100 issues of development. Likewise how Black Jack Tarr dubs Shang "Chinaman" in the early issues as a racial slur, but by the time the series reaches its 90s it's recognized by both men as a term of affection. Clive Reston is introduced as a friendly, somewhat aloof ally but over time becomes distanced from Shang. Shang and Leiko's romantic life goes through peaks and valleys. All of these character developments occur so gradually and seemingly organically that I never felt Moench was cheating the audience.

Moench's other great work for Marvel was Moon Knight, which he spun out of Werewolf by Night during his term as writer. Moon Knight is one of those characters very few writers seem capable of handling but as his creator, Moench clearly knew what he was doing:

Moench's great unsung work from Marvel is Weirdworld, which appeared in a variety of unlikely titles across a ten year span. Weirdworld was a straightforward fantasy epic, made wonderful by the artists who brought Moench's stories to life.

I keep bothering my editor about reprinting these stories; if anyone reading this wants to see a Weirdworld collection happen, how about getting after the trades department yourself?

Sadly, Moench's time at Marvel came to an acrimonious end in the early 1980s and he's rarely produced work for them since. I think in the last 30 years he's written more Batman comics than anything, but I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read many of them.

On those occasions when I've been in touch with Moench on behalf of my Marvel work he's been very gracious and long-suffering. Seeing him in person at San Diego last year, I appreciated that he spoke "from the hip" to audiences with regards to his career and his conflicts. For all that's been and for all that is to come, happy birthday Mr. Moench!

Friday, February 19, 2010

This May the Fall of Hulks collections begin

Fall of Hulks: Alpha & Fall of Hulks: Gamma will both be collected in May...but in separate books:



This is it! The Fall of The Hulks begins here. The opening round: THE RED HULK VS. THE THING with Reed Richards' life at stake. When the Baxter Building is attacked by the all-new, all-deadly Frightful Four, who will save the Fantastic Four? How about THE RED HULK? Not a chance. Next up, it’s THE RED HULK vs. THE UNCANNY X-MEN. Also, what do RED GHOST AND THE SUPER-APES want with Beast and The Black Panther? And in GAMMA, JEPH LOEB and original WORLD WAR HULK artist JOHN ROMITA JR. bring you the set-up to the event of 2010. With the Hulk family growing exponentially over the past year, it was only a matter of time before things came to a smashing head. Collecting HULK #19-21 and FALL OF HULKS: GAMMA. 112 PGS./Rated A ...$19.99



He's fought Thor, Black Bolt, the Juggernaut, and virtually every Avenger on the planet. But nothing's ever hit Bruce Banner as hard as "The Fall of the Hulks"! As the epic storyline unfolds, Bruce Banner makes the best and worst discovery of his life, Skaar, the savage Son of Hulk, finally shows his true colors, and a Green Goliath in purple pants takes on Doctor Doom himself! "Planet Hulk" writer Greg Pak teams up with fan favorite penciler Paul Pelletier to deliver massive revelations, shocking emotional twists, and epic smashing that will transform Bruce Banner's life forever. And in ALPHA, watch as M.O.D.O.K., The Leader, Mad Thinker, Egghead, Red Ghost and the Super-Apes, and Doctor Doom devise the perfect plan to take down the Hulk family. Collecting INCREDIBLE HULK #606-608 and FALL OF THE HULKS: ALPHA. 112 PGS./Rated A ...$19.99

Thursday, February 18, 2010

This May the hardcover handbooks end!



The final volume in the Official Handbook hardcovers completes this series’ alphabetical profiling of the Marvel Universe, but also offers updates and expansions on 2008-2009 profiles not in the previous 13 volumes, and another run through the alphabet – including dozens of BRAND-NEW profiles! Featuring expanded and up-to-date profiles of critters like Ant-Man’s ants, Brightwind, Neils the bouncing cat, the Collector’s Zoo and Cosmo the telepathic astrodog! Deities like the Asgardians, Hela, Neptune and Zeus! Ne’er-do-wells like Steven Lang, Growing Man, Mastermind (Jasaon Wyngarde), Master Pandemonium and Zarathos! And, of course, heroes like Australia’s Talisman, the Microverse’s Marionette, Devil Dinosaur and Punisher (2099)! Don't miss this ultimate installment in this amazing hardcover collection 240 PGS./Rated T+ ...$24.99

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

This May the index returns!



The chronicle of the Marvel Universe returns as the All-New Official Index to the Marvel Universe delves into the history of three more of Marvel’s most enduring titles! Return with us to the Silver and Golden Ages to we launch our coverage of the Avengers (from AVENGERS #1), Thor (from JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #83), and Captain America (from both CAPTAIN AMERICA #100 and 1941’s CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1). Watch the Marvel universe’s history unfold month by month as each issue provides synopses for dozens of individual comics, including back-up strips, introducing the characters, teams, places and equipment that appeared within, providing vital information about first appearances, where they last showed up and where they appeared next! 64 PGS./Rated A ...$3.99

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

This May the Avengers Assemble!



The Official Handbook continues to soar during 2010's Heroic Age with an update for all things Avengers, featuring Captain America (Rogers) and Thor! In-depth profiles on the good: Bengal, Black Knight (Percy), Komodo, Whiz Kid and Prodigy! The bad: Proctor, Super-Adaptoid, the Dark Avengers & the Ragnarok clone! And everyone in between: Arkon, Trauma, Bova, Young Masters, and the Phone Ranger?! Featuring ORIGINAL ART for dozens of characters! Avengers Assemble! 64 PGS./Handbook/One-Shot/Rated T+ ...$3.99

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy birthday Sax Rohmer!

That is, today would have been Sax Rohmer's birthday if he hadn't died in 1959.

Rohmer wrote around fifty novels in the detective/adventure genre, but he's best remembered for being the creator of Fu Manchu, the archetypal "yellow peril" villain.

I've often seen Rohmer's work called racist and it does give me pause. Prior to reading his books I assumed they were heavily racist, but the actual content threw me. Considering how in the Fu Manchu stories protagonist Nayland Smith is quick to announce his prejudices against anyone from the east it would be easy to see this as Rohmer's mindset, and yet the actual narrator Dr. Petrie disagrees with Smith and ultimately proves him wrong where Karamaneh is concerned. And Karamaneh was a real surprise - a 1910s heroine who wound up saving Smith & Petrie more than they ever saved her, and she's the one who put a bullet in Fu Manchu's brain in the 2nd novel!

If you've never tried Rohmer's work but you enjoy authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan or Ian Fleming, I think you'd enjoy Rohmer's best; try the Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu or the Dream Detective some time!

Testing the waters: Bone

Closing out my four part "testing the waters" I've reached one of the most widely-praised comics of the 90s: Jeff Smith's Bone (Cartoon Books, 2004).

Bone concerns three cousins - Fone, Phoney & Smiley Bone - recent exiles from Boneville who wander into a valley which propels them into an epic fantasy adventure. Although the Bones are drawn in a cartoonish style similar to Carl Barks or Walt Kelly, the human characters are depicted in a more realistic style, which makes for interesting visuals.

When I was curious about Bone, I flipped through a copy of the complete edition and came across a two-panel sequence that convinced me it was my kind of comic:

But although Bone has plenty of laughs - notably a scene where Phoney was captured which led to a visual that made me laugh so hard I had to stop reading - it takes the epic storyline fairly seriously. The lead antagonist is an impressive visual, with the speech balloons trailing out from her hood like a trail of vapor:

Overall, Bone was engaging fantasy adventure, so much so that its 1300 pages breeze by all too quickly.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Great unrequited loves of the comics: Psylocke & Cypher

In honor of Valentine's Day, allow me to spotlight an unlikely pair from the past of Marvel Comics.

Cypher (Doug Ramsey) was a teenage member of the New Mutants, the heroes-in-training who lived under the X-Men's roof. Doug's power was the decidedly non-flashy ability to read and speak any language. He often felt like an outsider amongst his classmates because he was fairly useless in battle. This, of course, made him a great point of view character.

Psylocke (Elizabeth Braddock) was originally a supporting character from Captain Britain, being the titular hero's sister. She had telepathic powers and around 1986 X-Men author Chris Claremont decided to transfer her into the X-Men cast.

It went down in the pages of New Mutants Annual#2 when Betsy was transformed into a slave of the villain Mojo, which led to her kidnapping mutant children and attracting the New Mutants' attention. Doug risked his life to set Betsy free and save everyone from Mojo. Although well aware of their difference in ages, Doug was clearly attracted to Betsy.

Of course, Doug's home title was the New Mutants and Betsy's was X-Men and developing plotlines meant they didn't see much of each other beyond Betsy's introduction to the X-Men. In fact, soon after Doug was killed.

Betsy went through a lot of changes in the years which followed, what with being killed and most notably being transformed into an Asian ninja woman who forgot how to wear pants:

Interestingly, Doug was recently brought back from the dead and has likewise picked up ninja skills:

The secret to becoming a martial artist? Apparently it's just something that happens when you come back from the dead. You know, like Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter.

Well, now that Doug and Betsy are both alive at the same time, I propose that someone revisit Doug's one-time puppy love. The age difference doesn't seem to be an issue now and considering that Doug seems to be rather well-adjusted in spite of his recent resurrection, he might provide valuable insights to the consistently identity-conflicted Psylocke. Also, he might reintroduce her to the concept of pants.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Testing the waters: Palestine

Next in my series of "testing the waters," something about as far from my usual haunts as yesterday's manga - Palestine by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics, 2001).

Palestine recounts Joe Sacco's time spent in Palestine during 1991-92 and illustrates his travels through the area and dramatizes stories told to him by residents. I first heard of Palestine just last month on an episode of the program Ink: Alter Egos Exposed which described how it was a work of "comics journalism." The very concept of a journalist writing & drawing a comic book instead of a text interested me.

There's a lot of sorrow to be found in Palestine, describing as it does tales from the first Intifada; how terrible that in the span of time since then there's been near-peace followed by a second Intifada. Because of the Intifada, Palestine still feels like current events. Of course, to quote Truman, "the only thing new under the sun is the old news people haven't heard." It's news to me to learn about the methods Israelis used (use?) to detain Palestinians and force false confessions out of them.

But in Palestine Sacco has no particular axe to grind, just an interest in the stories around him (particularly those that make for good copy). In the course of the book, Sacco is often asked questions about his own viewpoints by the people he encounters, but his responses are seldom included. The perspective is kept objective and while demonstrating sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, depicts them warts and all.

If I have any complaints about Palestine, they have to do with the presentation of the material. Many panels feature tilted caption boxes for no apparent reason. It forces your eye to look all over Sacco's pages, but I can't tell if it's to any desired effect or simply to appear artsy craftsy. Also, the images and text run very close to the spine - this book should have been printed on wider paper for greater ease of reading.

There are also some segments of the book which are not actually comics but instead are text with illustrations. But the format changes throughout, including an interesting portion recounted in a 4x5 panel grid.

Overall, I learned a lot from Palestine and I'm interested in seeing more of Sacco's work, as well as investigating more into the comics journalism genre (assuming there is anyone other than Sacco?).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Testing the waters: Black Jack

For the second of my "testing the waters" articles, I give you something definitely far from my usual pace: Black Jack Vol.1, by Osamu Tezuka (Vertical, 2008).

If you've followed my blog then you're aware that manga isn't one of my specialties; prior to Black Jack my only real purchase was Golgo 13. Manga can be a polarizing issue among comic book fans - or, at least, there are bloggers and columnists who try to frame it as a polarizing issue. Ultimately, manga is very successful and evidently more widely-read than North American comic books but there isn't a particularly large overlap between the two markets. Fans of North American comics tend to have little interest in manga, fans of manga tend to have little interest in North American comics.

Well and good, but I've still felt an occasional urge to try some manga just because of the hubub. I've certainly enjoyed a number of anime programs so the material should have some appeal to me. Black Jack is certainly a safe bet for a non-initiate. It's by Osamu Tezuka, one of the giants of manga's past (a prolific giant, at that). An essay at Savage Critic made me think Black Jack was to my tastes.

The titular protagonist Black Jack is a rogue surgeon who operates under the grid, sans license and demanding top dollar for his services. He gets his money because he's simply the greatest surgeon alive. His expertise is such that he's often brought in on unusual cases. How unusual? Well, the first volume includes a man with an infection on his face which possess a sentient life force.

Or how about the computer doctor which believes itself to be sick and demands that Black Jack treat it?

Black Jack seems to be a mercenary out for money, but since he's the protagonist of an ongoing fiction, naturally he's concealing a gentle, merciful heart. He's Dr. House without the drugs. Ideally, Black Jack tries to get paid and serve comeuppance to those who deserve it. In one tale he offers reserved support to a young polio victim who reminds him of his own childhood spent combating a fragile body. In another, he lends a hand to a female doctor derisively nicknamed "Black Queen" because her business-like approach to medicine reminds colleagues of Black Jack himself.

Overall, I had a good time with Black Jack; Tezuka's style was very cartoonish here, which I assume is because he intended Black Jack to be read by people of all ages. Some of the gonzo cartoon gags seem out of place next to the bloody surgical scenes, but the humour is sometimes welcome, especially that of Black Jack's self-proclaimed "wife" Pinoko.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Testing the waters: WE3

In recent years I've made an effort to be not just a fan of certain comic books but to try and appreciate the medium as a whole. Of course, there are a lot of bad comics out there and some books which simply aren't to my tastes. I've taken a few risks that didn't pan out. I've tried a few well-regarded books that fell flat. And I've found some wonderful treasures that slipped through the cracks along with giants of the medium which were as good their reputations implied.

Recently I picked up four graphic novels. Two are by creators I had never sampled before and I was largely unaware of the contents of each book. However, they were each reputed to be fine books, so I made four leaps of faith. This is the first of four "testing the waters" reviews I'll write this week on those four books.

First up: WE3 by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (Vertigo, 2004).

The only common ground of communication upon which dogs and men can get together is in fiction. - O. Henry

WE3 follows three animals (the cat, dog and rabbit depicted above) who have been transformed into lethal killing machines by the US Air Force. The experiments to render them into assassins have also granted them the ability to speak, although their faculties are well beneath those of humans. When the Air Force decides to terminate the project one of the scientists sets the animals free rather than see them die. And so, three immensely powerful creatures are unleashed upon a world they don't understand.

First up, I have to talk about Frank Quitely. Until WE3, I didn't think much of his work. Although some sequences in his New X-Men tenure some 8 years ago impressed me, overall I didn't think he was suited for super hero work. However, in WE3 he writes all the rules of his reality and the outcome is stunning. Check out this (gory) two-page sequence:

65 panels! This is a far cry from the all-too-common tack of artists inserting multiple splash pages to save the writer time on scripting and fashion a few pin-ups to sell at cons. Quitely was clearly drawing with passion here, pushing himself to find creative ways to tell the story. Check out the panel placement in this spread:

Another kinetic masterpiece; the sense that the cat is traveling through the panels is incredible. The series is full of moments like these.

I was also very impressed with Grant Morrison's story, which isn't a straight forward animal rights parable. The animals are victims who get to turn the tables on their aggressors, but we see throughout that they aren't entirely capable of understanding what goes around them, that their concept of morality is fuzzy (no pun intended). Notably, there is a scene where the dog rescues what he thinks is an unconscious human wounded during one of their fights; it's actually just the upper torso of a human, rendering the dog's actions rather pathetic. The animals are as flawed as the humans and while we still hope they make it out of the story alive, we feel badly for the lives lost along the way.