Tuesday, August 31, 2010

MC2: The End...For Now! Part 2

As I outlined yesterday, Spider-Girl's 12 year publishing career took on many incarnations, with several near-cancellations along the way. The (almost) constant amidst this was creator/writer Tom DeFalco, architect of the MC2 line. DeFalco, formerly Marvel's editor-in-chief, wrote What If#105, which was reprinted as Spider-Girl#0 to launch her series.

Spider-Girl first penciler was Patrick Olliffe, who drew most of the first 56 issues. Olliffe was already known to Spider-Man fans as the artist of Kurt Busiek's Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which related "unrevealed" stories from the 1960s era of Stan Lee's Spider-Man. Olliffe was therefore perfectly suited for the adventures of Spider-Man's daughter May, whose stories were told in the spirit of Stan Lee.

As well as drawing May's first appearance in What If#105, Ron Frenz has been one of DeFalco's most frequent artistic collaborators, working together on Amazing Spider-Man in the 80s, plus Thor and Thunderstrike. Frenz provided fill-ins for Olliffe during his tenure, then succeeded him as primary artist, seeing the series through all of its incarnations until the very end. Frenz is a skilled imitator of both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, even drawing many of his earlier Spider-Man stories in a Ditko-esque fashion; however, for Spider-Girl he used a less traditional style, looser and more energetic.

Both of Spider-Girl's main inkers were legends in their time; Olliffe was usually inked by Al Williamson, one of the all-time greatest inkers in comics, best known for his EC Comics work of the 50s and his intense love for Flash Gordon. Williamson, who passed away earlier this year, lived long enough to see his early work favourably reevaluated; Spider-Girl was something of a finale to his lengthy career. Frenz's inker was primarily Sal Buscema, an able penciler in his own right (just like Williamson) best known for his 1980s Incredible Hulk work; Buscema had also been a frequent Spectacular Spider-Man artist in the 90s. Buscema helped keep a more traditional emphasis to Frenz's lines. Other occasional artists on Spider-Girl included John Livesay, Chris Batista, Casey Jones, Rodney Ramos and Scott Koblish; also worth mentioning is the legendary Bill Sienkiewicz, who inked What If#105.

At the time Spider-Girl launched in 1998, the main line Spider-Man titles were experiencing a rough change in direction. During the 90s, the infamous "Clone Saga" story led to Peter Parker's clone Ben Reilly assuming the Spider-Man identity while Peter retired with his wife Mary Jane, who was pregnant. Only 2 years before Spider-Girl began, Reilly had been suddenly killed off and Peter returned to the costume, while Peter and Mary Jane's baby was lost and presumed dead; there was pressure to kill Mary Jane too in order to restore a single Peter Parker to fandom, but it was felt that this would be going too far.

But in 1998, the relaunched Spider-Man titles began traveling to that very direction. While the main Spider-Man titles were dividing Peter and Mary Jane's relationship and doing their best to pretend the Clone Saga, Ben Reilly and baby May never existed, Spider-Girl reveled in this material.

What If#105 establishes that Peter lost one of his legs in a final battle with the Green Goblin, but discovered baby May was still alive and rescued her. By the time the book opens, "Mayday" is now a teenager while Peter has become a forensic scientist for the police, using his scientific skills to keep fighting crime. May is something of a Peter/Mary Jane gestalt; she's intellectual enough that she consorts with unpopular "nerds" like Courtney Duran and Jimmy Yama, but as a member of the Midtown basketball team she's also accepted by the "jocks," traveling in circles with Moose Mansfield and David Kirby. May also has an immense crush on Brad Miller; like most of her crushes, it's not heading anywhere pretty.

Suddenly, a new Green Goblin appears. This is Normie Osborn, grandson of Norman Osborn (Spider-Man comics of the 90s established Normie as a potential psychopath while he was still a child). In Normie's twisted psyche, his father and grandfather were ruined by Spider-Man so he wants revenge; at the same time Peter tries to decide how to answer Normie's threats, May has begun exhibiting powers exactly like her father's; Mary Jane admits to her that Peter used to be Spider-Man and shows her the costume worn by Ben Reilly; in a nice touch, May refers to him as her "Uncle Ben."

Peter refuses to face Normie as Spider-Man, instead bringing a gun to the fight, hoping to somehow spare his family from the Goblin. However, May arrives dressed in her Uncle Ben's costume; as Spider-Girl she defeats Normie.

Peter can't bear the idea of May becoming a super hero. He has seemingly all of the costumes and web-shooters destroyed, unaware that May hid a pair of web-shooters.

Beginning in Spider-Girl#1, May begins her career as a super hero in earnest, first fighting crime in a lycra bodysuit before sewing a replacement costume. While Peter was motivated to become a hero by personal tragedy - the death of his Uncle Ben - his daughter is seemingly a purer hero, one whose conscience is fully developed and knows she must help others; you could see this as the result of being brought up by Peter and absorbing his values over time. However, Peter becomes increasingly livid at May for continuing to play Spider-Girl against his wishes; he finally decides to "ground" her - taking away her web-shooters to at least make being a hero more difficult.

This is the lead-in to Spider-Girl#17, a pivotal moment in the series. Kaine, a recurring villain from the Clone Saga era, is preparing to assassinate the Kingpin on the day the one-time crime lord is to be brought to court. Realizing that in spite of who he is he can't let the Kingpin die, Peter makes a fateful choice:

However, his artificial leg proves a major hindrance in battle. Ultimately, May arrives and retrieves the web-shooters then completes the mission, defeating Kaine. Seeing May in battle, Peter realizes he was wrong to hold her back.

By the time of this story in the regular Marvel Universe, Mary Jane had been seemingly killed off in order to make Spider-Man single again. This only proved to make fandom spectactularly upset. To the advantage of Spider-Girl, fans began encouraging upset Spider-Man readers to start following her series instead, observing that in at least one title, Peter and Mary Jane were still together. Elements from the Clone Saga were also popular with fans who had been unwilling to dismiss the entire enterprise as a flop. Spill-over from the main Spider-Man titles may not have had a large impact on Spider-Girl's sales, but it brought the book notice at a time when it's future seemed less than certain.

Although Peter's acceptance of May's Spider-Girl career would wax and wane as the series progressed, he and Mary Jane remained supportive of her throughout. In her personal life, May became attracted to Jack Jameson, grandson of the infamous J. Jonah; however, Jack turned out to be a super hero himself, the cocky braggart Buzz; this actually proves to be a turn-off and May breaks up with him without Jack even realizing she was Spider-Girl.

Normie eventually returned and made an attempt on May's life. Unfortunately for May, she had temporarily lost her super powers, placing her entirely at his mercy. To her surprise, Normie, in spite of having her dead to rights and determined to end the Spider/Goblin conflict, refused to kill her. Realizing Normie actually hoped she'd fight back and kill him, she reached out to Normie as a friend and convinced him to make peace with the Parkers, putting an end to the Spider/Goblin conflict.

Normie soon became May's closest ally, supplying her with his weaponry to compensate for her power loss and continuing to donate a secret base and other monetary resources as time went on. May even found herself falling for Normie, but he wound up in a relationship with Raptor, a super villain whom May had helped reform. To her chagrin, Raptor considered May her best friend, making it all but impossible to compete for Normie's affections against her. May finally won her dream date with Brad, but he turned out to be a mutant-hating bigot, quickly killing her interest in him.

In the big issue #50, Peter and Mary Jane gave birth to a son, Ben (or "Benjy"). Immediately following this, issue #51 presented a story written by Sean McKeever...the only issue in the 100 issue run of Spider-Girl not involving Tom DeFalco. At the time, this upset Spider-Girl's fanbase, who considered themselves as much fans of DeFalco as the character. But in the long run, the issue certainly did no harm; Spider-Girl barely appears in #51, which is instead a story about a classmate who has a crush on her writing a letter of confession just before his family leaves town. At the time Sean McKeever was a fresh talent, (barely) known for his independent work the Waiting Place. By breaking in through books like Spider-Girl#51, he was eventually able to make a decent career in comics, including work such as Sentinel, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane and Teen Titans. McKeever did introduce a daughter of Electro character in issue #51 whom DeFalco would later bring back as Aftershock in #81; more recently, McKeever reintroduced Aftershock as a character in the regular Marvel Universe.

Spider-Girl soldiered on through 100 issues (and an annual), then into the Amazing Spider-Girl run. The series opens with May temporarily retired as a hero, running for student council and dating football star Gene Thompson (son of Flash Thompson), but the call of heroism quickly forces her back into the webs, giving up her personal goals and relationships once more. During this series, a storyline dubbed "Brand New May" (after the main line's "Brand New Day" branding) introduced a clone of May. This clone - usually called April - claimed to be the "real" May in something of a revisit to the original Clone Saga. By the time Amazing Spider-Girl ended with issue #30, May had accepted April into her family.

The saga continued through Amazing Spider-Man Family#1-8, Web of Spider-Man#1-7 and Spectacular Spider-Girl#1-4, finally ending with Spider-Girl: The End#1 (of course). These stories continued May and April's uneasy relationship as May becomes increasingly unhinged and willing to use lethal force, until the two "sisters" are forced to a final confrontation in The End. I won't spoil The End for you, except to say that it's a happy ending.

One of the landmarks Spider-Girl achieved was to become the longest-running super hero series with a female protagonist ever published by Marvel Comics. Spider-Girl made it by running past #61 (previously, She-Hulk was the record holder with 60 issues of Sensational She-Hulk) and with 100 issues total may yet hold that achievement for some time to come.

The landscape of Marvel Comics has changed considerably in the 12 years since Spider-Girl began her adventures. Part of why I've been pleased to see Spider-Girl endure is that in the midst of so many super hero comics where language, violence and sexuality have become explicit, heroes have questionable ethics and art strives for realism rather than imagination, I enjoyed reading one - just one - super hero comic book where the hero endures triumph and tragedy but ultimately beats the odds.

Tomorrow: A closer look at the other MC2 titles.

Official Index#5 - tomorrow!

Kick off the month of September with Avengers, Thor & Captain America: Official Index to the Marvel Universe#5, which ships this wednesday! It features more of the Index team's great work chronicling years worth of Avengers, Thor & Captain America stories, including Cap's original Golden Age series! More information is available at marvel.com!

Monday, August 30, 2010

MC2: The End...For Now! Part 1

Last week Marvel Comics shipped Spider-Girl: The End, a special one-shot designed to give closure to the character of Spider-Girl, who's had her ongoing adventures chronicled somewhere or other for 12 years. This is comics, so it may not truly be the end of Spider-Girl, but it is - as writer Tom DeFalco said in the closing of each issue - the end...for now. From Monday-Friday this week, I'm going to reflect on Spider-Girl and MC2.

Spider-Girl originated as a single issue of the What If? series. In issue #105 (1998), near the end of the book's run, Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz told the story of May "Mayday" Parker, daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. Both smart and athletic, May discovers her father was once Spider-Man and she's inherited his powers. This comes in handy when Normie Osborn (grandson of the first Green Goblin) makes an attempt on Peter's life, inspiring May to don a Spider-Man costume to save him.

DeFalco, at the time a former editor-in-chief of Marvel, was eventually able to launch a series of three comic books set in the universe of What If#105. It was originally promoted as "Excelsior Comics," but presumably Stan Lee himself cracked down on that; instead, the line of three titles were collectively "MC2." The three founding books were Spider-Girl by DeFalco & Pat Olliffe, A-Next by DeFalco & Frenz and J2 by DeFalco and Ron Lim. Each title was intended to feature stories designed for new readers and were supposed to have an aggressive marketing campaign outside of comic book stores so that those new readers could find them.

After the first year, A-Next and J2 ended, DeFalco intending to rotate the line of three titles every 12 issues. Spider-Girl was supposed to end with it, but it was ultimately decided to keep her series as the one firm book in the line. The replacement titles Wild Thing (Larry Hama & Ron Lim) and Fantastic Five (DeFalco & Paul Ryan) were swiftly cancelled for reasons I'm not aware of; it was almost curtains for Spider-Girl too, but it managed a reprieve.

Spider-Girl soldiered on as the last remnant of the MC2 line, a line which never achieved the end it sought. Instead, the series became best-known for being perpetually in danger of cancellation, spared in part because of online fan campaigns to save the series. Marvel had enough faith to launch two "Spider-Girl Presents" mini-series for the Buzz and Darkdevil (both DeFalco & Frenz), but then cut back. Still, Spider-Girl carried on. It got to a point where it seemed as though Spider-Girl was an indestructible title and MC2 made a near revival as mini-series Last Hero Standing, Last Planet Standing (both DeFalco & Olliffe), Avengers Next, Fantastic Five (both DeFalco & Lim) and American Dream (DeFalco & Todd Nauck) hit the shelves.

But after 100 issues, Spider-Girl was cancelled. Again, the book refused to die, instead relaunching as Amazing Spider-Girl (still by DeFalco, but Frenz had long since taken over the art) and lasting 30 issues before another cancellation. Spider-Girl moved her stories into Amazing Spider-Man Family without missing a beat; then it moved into Web of Spider-Man; finally, Spectacular Spider-Girl, a second relaunch! Unfortunately, this relaunch was cut off at the knees; Spectacular Spider-Girl was retroactively cut down to a 4 issues mini-series and the series was wrapped for (seeming) good with the aforementioned Spider-Girl: the End one-shot.

Tomorrow I'll take a closer look at Spider-Girl's publishing history, including my take on what was once a controversial subject...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What a difference 300,000 readers make!

Back in 2006, Marvel announced delays for their top-ranked series Civil War:
Over the next few weeks, the Civil War proper title and a few of the tie in books that are closely related to the story in the main book will be shipping later than originally planned. In an attempt to accommodate the creative team of Millar and McNiven and keep the artistic integrity and high standards of the event, we will be shifting the following titles...

Artist Bryan Hitch - whose series Ultimates followed an erratic schedule - defended the decision:

Two of my favourite re-reads in collections are Dark Knight and Watchmen. Nobody now remembers that each was late at the time of the original periodicals but that was a blip, a couple of years in each's 25 year publication history and these will STILL be published 25 years from now. I love these books but how awful would it have been if the otherwise brilliant Jim Aparo had drawn issue 3 of DK, or that DC had Alan Davis do an issue of Watchmen. Both brilliant guys but you would have hated the blip in the collections for the short term gain.

And there was generally much hand-holding and back-patting going on as Civil War was done by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven from start to finish, placing artistic integrity ahead of the bottom line. Sales on Civil War ranged from 250,000 to 350,000 copies per issue.

In 2008, DC published a Bat Lash mini-series by Peter Brandvold and Sergio Aargones. Bat Lash was an unusual western hero, created by Aargones in the 1960s as a trouble-making, incorrigible scoundrel who pretends to be afraid of violence when he's actually an immensely dangerous individual. The 2008 mini-series kind of misses the mark on Bat Lash's character (strange, considering Aargones' involvement), instead casting him as a typical western hero with a tragic past. It's missing a lot of the humour I expect to find in Bat Lash, but it does have one huge mark in its favour: the artwork of John Severin!

Severin has been in comics for what, 60 years? He is still an amazing talent, able to render gorgeous scenes with incredible realism. It's bold, it's dynamic, and it puts a lot of younger artists to shame.

However, for whatever reason, Severin did not complete all of the six issue mini-series. Six pages of issue #6 were drawn instead by Javi Pina and Steve Lieber. They're certainly good artists, but it's more than a little jarring to go from this:

To this:

One page you're being entertained by this:

...And suddenly it's this:

Sales of Bat Lash fell to about 8,000 copies by the final issue.

DC and Marvel are different companies and I don't have any larger point to make about their practices (especially being a Marvel freelancer), I just find it interesting that this still happens - that when a book must come out, the power that be will find a replacement artist, even if only for a few pages. The only observation I want to make is that it's a lot easier to stall for time when you've got 300,000 hungry fans, as opposed to a lowly 8,000.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Website updated!

The Atlas comics section of my website has been updated, thanks to a lot of recent additions in Atlas titles for my collection. As I accumulate more titles, the resource becomes a lot more precise, as I've been able to correct old blunders on where reprinted stories first appeared by actually obtaining the original comics themselves.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Street Angel#1

Up to 2004, I don't think I could have articulated my feelings on comic books from small publishers, but I believe now that I held a few prejudices against them. Obviously smaller publishers get a lot less press than Marvel, DC, Image or whoever else; they lie in the back of the Previews catalogues, they're less likely to have advertising at stores and less likely to have reviews or interviews at websites. They also don't carry many big name creators, with many of the most talented writers or artists at small publishers eventually using their modest success there to springboard into Marvel, DC or Image, leaving them behind.

The most obvious sign of a small publisher tends to be black & white interiors. To an outsider, it insinuates that the material must be cheap or inferior to what the major companies produce, otherwise they could afford to colorize it (ie, black & white is not a creative decision when used by small publishers).

I never actually formed these thoughts, but they must have lurked within me. In retrospect, it's the only reason I can think of for avoiding the small publishers for as long as I did. Eventually, a comic came along which shattered my resistance: Street Angel#1.

Writers: Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca. Art: Jim Rugg.

Street Angel is a homeless teenage girl who is an exceptional skateboarder and martial artist. When a band of ninjas hired by Dr. Pangaea (the world's most deadly geologist) kidnap the mayor's daughter, only Street Angel can save the day!

It was because of the glowing reviews online that I took a gamble on Street Angel. This was my first encounter with publisher Slave Labor Graphics and I kept up with Street Angel all the way to the end (it lasted 6 issues). I've seen Street Angel touted by some as an example of how a book which receives major critical acclaim is unable to translate that into a successful continuing property.

However, in my eyes Street Angel was a major success; Slave Labor went on to publish Rex Libris which became one of my all-time favourite comics, ensuring that I would continue to judge comics by their own merit, regardless of publisher or colorization .Most importantly, Street Angel helped me accept that I could take up comics from off the beaten path and enjoy them; that black & white comics aren't just for aging hippie comix fans. I've also remained very interested in Jim Rugg's work, whether on his Street Angel follow-up Afrodisiac or his Captain Kidd story in Next Issue Project.

I suspect that most comic book fans are already very satisfied with what they read and know where to get more of the things they like; if they're happy just reading Marvel, DC, Image, etc., more power to them. But to those who want material which might be a little more challenging and a lot more personal than what the major companies put out, it's so worthwhile digging through the small publishers. There's certainly a lot of hit-or-miss in those Previews back pages, but when you find a hit like Street Angel it's wonderful.

Next time: becoming a professional; was Gruenwald right when he said "If your hobby becomes your profession, find a new hobby?"

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: Marvel Adventures Super-Heroes#5

The Marvel Adventures line of comic books are super hero stories intended to hold all-ages appeal and they're primarily marketed to younger readers. However, ever since writers such as Jeff Parker and Fred Van Lente began writing for them, Marvel Adventures has held a reputation for delivering fun super hero comics that no adult should feel ashamed for enjoying them.

Of late, Paul Tobin has been the writer for the Marvel Adventures titles, as is the case with Marvel Adventures Super Heroes#5, the most recent issue in the series. Although the series is something of an Avengers book, this particular issue spotlights Captain America.

Paul Tobin has a terrific ear for fun dialogue and his done-in-one-plots usually come up with an entertaining premise.

Joining Tobin on art is...Chris Cross?! Yes, Chris Cross, he of Blood Syndicate, Slingers, Captain Marvel and last seen (by me) on Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance! I'm genuinely surprised to see him on a Marvel Adventures title - not because I think he's slumming it, but rather I'm impressed that the editor could corral a talent as fine as he. The art on Marvel Adventures is occasionally lacking, suggesting at times that the artists are novices, new to publishing. Chris Cross is not new to the game and he brings his best to this story! Rick Ketcham inks seem particularly effective for him. It has all the energy I expect from Cross, but his facial expressions have only improved since I last took stock of them.

At any rate, in this issue Captain America is summoned to the town of Hydrale, whose population is 100% comprised of Hydra agents. This alone could be a promising idea for a story, but it's only a set-piece. Cap has answered a distress call from the super villain Rhino, who needs help rescuing a baby rhinoceros from Hydra.

Dubbed "Bartleby" (a shout-out to all the Bone fans) by the Rhino, he's come to feel a fatherly affection for the poor animal. Hydra hopes to use Bartleby in experiments to recreate the Rhino's superhuman powers, but Rhino can't bear to see the animal suffer. Naturally, his only hope is for a hero to save them.

This is a simple story with plenty of great lines and even a touch of pathos where Rhino's love for Bartleby is concerned. Rhino himself has long been an easy mark for comedy; as Cap observes in the story, "You're a grown man committing crimes while dressed like a rhinoceros. If you think it looks impressive or intimidating, you're way off." The Marvel Adventures titles still get high marks for me; I've repeatedly recommended them for younger readers who are interested in comic books, but I also recommend them to older readers who don't take their super heroes so seriously that they can't take a few good laughs.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Funny Animals: Blacksad & Usagi Yojimbo

They both live in worlds populated by humanoid animals; they both have a strong moral code, but usually work for money; both have adventures in a past era; one is in colour, the other is usually in black & white; one has been published in one form or another for over 20 years, the other is only 10 years old; the creator of one book hails from the USA, the other from France; both are published in North America by Dark Horse.

John Blacksad...

...and Miyamoto Usagi.

* * *

Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido's Blacksad is set in the USA of the 1950s and tells era-appropriate tales of John Blacksad, a private investigator. Blacksad is a black-furred humanoid cat. Of course, all the roles in Blacksad are portrayed by humanoid animals. Blacksad's adventures pit him against corrupt businessmen, racist ideologues and the atomic scare. As I said, it's era-appropriate.

Blacksad's creators make excellent use of the various animal types who comprise their cast - it's about more than just interesting visuals. In one story, Blacksad is apprehensive at following a rat down an alleyway. The reader understands his apprehension because the man is a rat. It's a great storytelling shorthand.

The creators also have an excellent sense of economy. In one sequence, Blacksad has just been roughed up and shambles back to his apartment. As he reaches the gate, this happens:

On the left you see the police car; on the right you see the policeman. Nothing more needs to said here, the following panel depicts Blacksad in the local jail. After reading so many North American comics which seem to adhere to the "shoot everything!" edict, it's always refreshing to find creators who know which details matter to the story. The wheres and hows of Blacksad's arrest don't actually matter and they know it. This is a briskly-paced action-packed mystery story, there's no space to slow down the narrative.

Another great element to Blacksad is the story dealing with racism; various white-furred animals begin cracking down on black-furred animals, which means Blacksad himself isn't safe, regardless of the colour of his muzzle.

(Although if there was World War II in Blacksad's world - and it seems that there was, based on various comments - would Nazi-like stormtroopers really fly in 1950s USA? Shouldn't they be Klansmen?)

* * *

Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo is set in Feudal Japan and relays tales of the wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi. Usagi is a humanoid white-furred rabbit. Sometimes Usagi's tales touch upon real historical events, aspects of then-relevant Japanese culture or Japanese folklore. Unlike Blacksad, there are occasional efforts at breaking the fourth wall and observing how Usagi's version of Japan doesn't quite hold up.

(You probably recognize the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles above; Usagi is a separate intellectual property, but has been so closely associated with the Turtles during his publishing career that he's probably still most widely-known as a character from their lines of action figures and cartoon programs, rather than the star of his own unrelated comics books.)

It's amazing that there are still so many stories which can be told with Usagi after all of these years and it's a credit to Sakai that the current adventures remain vibrant. Usagi's excellent supporting cast, comprising characters like the rascally rhino bounty hunter Gen, tragic blind swordspig Ino and ever-replenishing ranks of the Neko Ninja, together make great foils for Usagi (and by the way, Usagi Yojimbo Book 4? Where all the aforementioned characters join forces? So good.).

Going back to the beginning, you can see some minor alterations in Sakai's artwork. This is Usagi then:

This is Usagi now:

Usagi does seem to have become slimmer over the decades - a thinner face, a less stocky build. The fur on the sides of his head has also become looser, more scruffy.

* * *

Blacksad was recently collected as a hardcover by Dark Horse, but apparently there are still new stories being published in France; hopefully Dark Horse will supply translated copies in the future.

Usagi Yojimbo is published almost every month by Dark Horse; there are now more than 20 volumes collected into trade paperbacks, but you can start reading the series almost anywhere; many issues are stand-alone tales and the trades always seem to complete story arcs.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Y: the Last Man#1

For the remainder of this series the emphasis is going to shift from content to, of all things, branding. By 2002, I was fairly certain of what I wanted from my comic books. I was scraping by on my own, making my presence on the internet, making internet friends who shared my comic book interests and keeping well-informed on the state of the comic book market.

For most of 2002, I was still rationing myself to a select few titles and all of them were Marvel Comics. I was (and am) heavily invested in the Marvel Universe and its trappings, so it made sense to spend my meager funds there rather than commit to any other fictional universes.

But around the same time my fortunes began to improve, I became better acquainted with some long-time local friends, a few of whom were comic book fans. Although we could speak to each about comic books in that way that people who aren't into the medium can't understand, we didn't share too many interests in common.

I vividly recall the the day one of my friends was reading Y: the Last Man, a newly-launched title from Vertigo. He remarked to me by way of half-hearted recommendation, "It's a good book, but I know you don't like things that are good."

So, that stung.

I was aware of Y: the Last Man prior to this episode thanks to my internet browsing. when I read Randy Lander & Don MacPherson's review of the first issue I thought it sounded like a great concept for a series. Then I put it out of my mind. After all, it wasn't Marvel.

Some of my hesitation to Y was also based on the Vertigo label. I simply didn't buy comics which held a "mature readers" warning. I knew it would mean gore, nudity and/or profanity and I simply wasn't interested in seeing those elements in my comics.

But, oh, how my pride had been wounded; so I took action:

Writer: Brian K. Vaughn Artists: Pia Guerra, Jose Marzan Jr.

After a mysterious event which kills every other man on Earth, the last surviving male - Yorick - sets out to find answers, restore order and hopefully save humanity's future. But mostly he travels around in a post-apocalyptic wasteland making quips with his pet monkey.

It wasn't easy getting started on Y: the Last Man because issue #4 was already out by the time I decided to take the plunge. Those early issues were scarce at the start as rave reviews took comic book sites by storm and it took some work to find copies still on sale.

As I said, the content isn't what's important in this case; I read Y: the Last Man for a few years, then got tired of it and gave up. But this was where I broke out of my Marvel-only ghetto mindset, as well as overcoming my hesitation to pick up mature readers books. Since I returned to comics in 1997, I had vowed to myself that I would spend my money on comics that I enjoyed, not purchasing anything out of a sense of obligation or speculation. Looking for quality material had led me as far as Vertigo; in the following installment, the other shoe drops.

Next time: small publishers - threat or menace?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Great Moments in World War I History

I don't know why the Germans had such a bad reputation in World War I.

As you can see in this scan from Combat Kelly#34 (1955), they were actually rather considerate. Look at the nice way that German supplies exposition and historical trivia mere seconds before being killed!

I can only assume that the first German to be killed by a tank had a similar "this has never been done!" moment as he fell.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Happy birthday Ray Bradbury!

This Sunday is Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday, which is quite a landmark! Bradbury is one of my all-time favorite authors and I was very pleased to have caught his panel at San Diego in 2009. I was so impressed by his optimism, his belief in mankind's future in space travel and his bold declaration that when he dies, he will be buried on Mars!

Although Bradbury is primarily known as a science fiction author, his work has included various kinds of horror stories, slice-of-life tales and humourous episodes. It's also interesting how his tone can vary from story to story - often his optimism shines through, as in tales like "the Toynbee Convector," but he's also written stories as bleak as "the October Game." He praised nostalgia in Dandelion Wine, but rejected it in "Season of Disbelief!"

All the best to you, Mr. Bradbury!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Cheers to Ditkomania!

I recently began a subscription to the fanzine Ditkomania, dedicated to all things Steve Ditko. I've been a follower of fanzines, but being an immense fan of Ditko and interested in the most recent issue's subject matter, I finally took the plunge.

The latest issue, #80, features articles on Ditko's 1980s work at Marvel, an era I'm pretty interested in because Ditko turned out a lot of unusual material in odd places. His Machine Man & Speedball stories are well-remembered, but I wondered how tales like his Dragon Lord, Fantastic Four & Hulk stories came to be. Ditkomania held a few of the answers and even had a piece of Dragon Lord art I hadn't seen before! There was also a great article on Ditko's black & white Shroud story from Marvel Preview#21.

Ditkomania is for serious Ditko fans, not beginners (I recommend Blake Bell's Strange & Stranger for beginners). It looks to be a great resource for Ditko fans who want to know more about the less-acknowledged aspects of his career; it boasts some great fan art that attempts to mimic Ditko's distinctive looks, a terrific letters page and a good review of Ditko's most recent work. My subscription looks to be money well-spent!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Official Index's X-Men collection - due November!

Now that the Iron Man & Amazing Spider-Man portions of the Official Index to the Marvel Universe's 1st volume have been collected, it's time to wrap it up with the Uncanny X-Men collection!


Get the complete history of the X-Men from their earliest appearances all the way up to the present day. This book comes packed with synopses of every issue of Uncanny X-Men—introducing you to the characters, teams, places and equipment that appeared within and providing vital information about all things X! Also includes synopses of Classic X-Men issues only available in this collection. Collecting material from OFFICIAL INDEX TO THE MARVEL UNIVERSE #1-13. 328 PGS./Rated A …$19.99 ISBN: 978-0-7851-4958-3

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Announcing Heroic Age: Villains!

Continuing from September's Heroic Age: Heroes, the next entry in the series is due in November!


Cover by JAE LEE

Under the guidance of Steve Rogers, Earth's heroes are at an all-time high but that doesn't mean the villains are taking it lying down! Get inside Steve Rogers' secret files as he analyzes evil from the cosmic menaces of Thanos and the Cancerverse, to the arcane might of Hela and Black Talon, to the armies of Leviathan and Hydra, to the costumed escapades of Deadpool and the White Rabbit! It's 64 fact-filled pages of the worst men and women the Marvel Universe can offer! 64 PGS./Handbook/One-Shot/Rated T+ …$3.99

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Index #7 in November!


The chronicle of the Marvel Universe continues as the All-New Official Index to the Marvel Universe delves into the history of three of Marvel’s most enduring titles! Return with us to the Silver and Golden Ages as we continue our coverage of the Avengers (from AVENGERS #215), Thor (from THOR #318), and Captain America (from both CAPTAIN AMERICA #274 and 1941’s CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #27). 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, August 17, 2010

There's a brand-new Official Handbook in stores tomorrow!

The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe A to Z Update#3 hits stores tomorrow, featuring more Marvel characters whose handbook needs were sorely neglected. The Red Hulk himself is the big headliner, but there are plenty of neat characters like Blindfold, Vanisher, Nomad and Gorgilla. Read all about it here!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Vote in this year's Inkwell Awards!

Yes, it's time to exercise your democratic rights! Go to the Inkwell Awards and complete the ballot with your selections on the best inking from comic books of the previous year! The awards will be handed out in October, but don't wait for the results - get in now and make a little history with your vote!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sherlock...but not.

I recently had the opportunity to see the first episode of the new BBC TV series Sherlock, created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, two creators from the recent Doctor Who revival. Sherlock is a Sherlock Holmes story with a twist: it features familiar characters including Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, Moriarty and another I will not mention; the twist is that it's set in 21st century London.

To my surprise, it's a gimmick that works. It dispenses with all the baggage of recreating Victorian-era London and faithfully recreating the plots of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's canon, instead hewing closely to the spirit of Doyle's stories. I normally prefer fidelity to the original material in adaptations, but since we've already had a very faithful Sherlock Holmes series via Jeremy Brett, I'm fine with exploring alternatives.

The pilot episode, "A Study in Pink," contains various references to the canon, some as easter eggs planted for fans, others which are similar yet different to the canon (such as the pilot's title, cribbed from A Study in Scarlet, 'natch). As in the canon, Dr. Watson is a wounded war veteran, he and Holmes become roommates at 221B Baker Street, and Lestrade brings Holmes in on cases as an unofficial expert. Much is made of Holmes' staggeringly anti-social personality, as he can't abide dealing with people less intelligent than him, preferring to solve crimes in order to achieve satisfaction. Instead of a tobacco habit, this Holmes uses the more socially-acceptable vice of nicotine patches; mind you, he uses a few too many of those.

Based on the pilot, it's very faithful to the original concept of Sherlock Holmes, although actor Benedict Cumberbatch is about the most arrogant Holmes I've ever seen. Taking it's cue from modern mystery programs like CSI, Sherlock makes strong use of know-it-all experts making huge leaps in logic based on flimsy evidence, but I accepted it here; it's Sherlock Holmes.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Happy birthday James Horner!

Today, August 14th, is the birthday of film composer James Horner. I'm happy to wish him the best because he's written some of my favorite scores to a few of my all-time favorite films! His resume includes:

Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan...



...And Avatar!

Interestingly, Horner has only won an Academy Award once, and that was for Titanic...bit of a gimmie there. Even though his score for Glory was used repeatedly in the Academy Award specials, it didn't even receive a nomination! So, yeah, the Academy is out to lunch. The Grammys know what time it is; they've given Horner three awards, including one for Glory.

Oh yeah...

I also like James Horner because he shares a birthday with me. So, happy birthday to us both!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Walking Man

I don't have a car and I don't like taking transit. Consequently, I get to most places on my own two feet. Recently, I obtained a pedometer and decided to check out just how many steps I take each day. I wrote down the numbers each day when I arrived at work, left work, and arrived home. Here's how they panned out:


  • Arrival at work - 2667
  • Departing work - 2926
  • Arrival at home - 6099


  • Arrival at work - 2258
  • Departing work - 4882
  • Arrival at home - 7755


  • Arrival at work - 2620
  • Departing work - 3406
  • Arrival at home - 6484


  • Arrival at work - 3176
  • Departing work - 4760
  • Arrival at home - 9882

Now, I'm not surprised to see the numbers fluctuate at the time I depart work because some days I don't venture too far from my desk, other days I do a bit of walking around campus. Likewise, some days I walk straight home, other days I stop for a few errands.

What I don't understand is the variance in the number of steps when I arrive at work, especially Thursday's stat. I travel the exact same path to work every morning; how can there possibly be a 1,000 step margin for error?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mark Gruenwald: 14 years memorium

I know I post about Mark Gruenwald on this blog fairly often, but today being the 14th anniversary of his death, I couldn't let the day go by without meditating on him.

Outside of how much I enjoyed his writing on Captain America, a large factor in why I became an enormous fan of Gruenwald's work was his column in Marvel Age magazine: Mark's Remarks. In the column, Gruenwald wrote frankly about the comic book business and his experiences in the medium. He frequently addressed the new talent department and his no-nonsense truths about how difficult it is to break into comics won him the moniker "crusher of dreams" from fandom.

Like so many fans, I had dreams about breaking into comics, but Mark's Remarks simultaneously fascinated me with the business and intimidated me. I enjoyed the column the most when he wrote about the rules he used to keep the Marvel Universe consistent. However, the column was used to address all manner of topics, and the new talent reviews, his entries about how he plotted stories and sessions where he expounded upon the duties of editors really educated me on how the industry operated and impressed me with the amount of craft it seemed to take to get published.

I never intended to break into comics after that; it just happened. It seems appropriate to me that I'm in the modern-day version of Gruenwald's Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Just as Gruenwald's work has outlived him, it gladdens me to think that if I gave up freelancing tomorrow, I'll still have contributed enough work to be remembered for.

I still host the Mark's Remarks Archives on my website; go check them out if you haven't read them before.

Carl Potts recently posted a video of Gruenwald talking about the Marvel Universe to film people; go check it out, especially if you've wondered what he was like!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Love Atlas Comics #9: Battleship Burke

The Korean War led to a spate of war comics being published and Atlas was certainly one of the leading printers. They introduced a number of new recurring war heroes who held down their own features, either in a title of their own (Combat Kelly) or within the pages of another title...such as our subject today, Battleship Burke. I have here what I think is Burke's first appearance: Navy Action #1 (1954) by Mac L. Pakula. 'Bulgin' Barnacles?!' Uh, no comment.

Our heroes are Battleship Burke and his rotund ride-along Salty Smith. The duo do battle with the "Reds" in Korea, mostly using their bare hands. Well, or they throw icicles at their enemies. Sure, that works. Ice to see you!

That must be hard.

Part of why I'm bringing Battleship Burke up is because in this story he has a female adversary! She's a Chinese officer dubbed Hungnam Hannah, clearly to remind us of Tokyo Rose. Hannah is, after all, such a typically Asian name... Usually only men name their guns.

And she's packing an Anzio Annie! Which changes locations thanks to a pair of rocket-powered skis! Baby want his heavy munitions?

Aside from what a neat surprise Hungnam Hannah was, this is a very typical Korean War hero comic - lots of scenes of American-types killing Asian-types as they toss out some uninspired quips and slurs. Hungnam Hannah only survives the strip because she's a lady. ...But not so much of a lady that Burke won't shove a snowball in her face. Stay cool, Chinese Chick!

Stay classy, Battleship Burke.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Warlord of Io has...wrapped?

I've written about Warlord of Io on this blog before; as a quick reminder, it was James Turner's next project after the conclusion of Rex Libris, but it didn't obtain enough orders in the direct market to continue printing after the first issue. To solve the problem, publisher Slave Labor Graphics began offering the issues as electronic downloads at their website.

Warlord of Io tells the story of Zing, youthful and newly-appointed emperor of the moon Io who is spectacularly unable to maintain his throne, facing a military junta. Zing is constantly out-of-touch with reality, trying to solve problems using video game logic.

So, last week the Warlord of Io trade paperback shipped. To my surprise, it contains material which had not been released before. At first I thought I had missed one of the issues on SLG, but I hadn't. In fact, half of the book is material which hasn't been seen before and it wraps up the entire storyline.

I had thought that Warlord of Io had a great set-up for stories which Turner could have taken years to tell, particularly since Zing is clearly in need of some personal growth before he's worthy of regaining his throne. The series also hosted numerous supporting characters, notably amongst the ranks of the antagonists. Dominaxa, for intsance, was clearly a character with more stories to tell.

So, it feels like Warlord of Io was short-changed by the market's indifferent reaction. Or perhaps Turner just feels that it's time to move on to the next project.

Regardless, now you can have the entirety of Warlord of Io in just one volume! Turner's art has come a long way, with increasing amounts of detail in his characters and backgrounds and his sense of humour is deft, not relying on insults or excessive pop culture references. Go pick it up!