Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Series Well-Calculated to Keep You In...

In an earlier post (found here), I briefly discussed how CBS' great radio program Suspense was transformed into a 1949 comic book series published by the entity we would now call Marvel Comics (back then, a shell company known by many names). As I indicated in the earlier post, early issues of the series adapted episodes of Suspense from early in the series' run, back when the program was primarily written by John Dickson Carr. As a fan of comic books and a fan of old-time radio, I thought I'd try to bridge the gap between these two genres and discuss how the two came together. There's just one problem: I'm not a fan of John Dickson Carr.

After a pilot broadcast in 1940, Suspense finally became a series in 1942. Through the end of 1943, many of the series' scripts were either written or adapted by British author John Dickson Carr; some of the material was adapted from Carr's fiction, including radio scripts he'd written for BBC dramas. Although Carr's last episode of Suspense came in January, 1944, some of his scripts would be recycled over the years - as late as 1959 (Suspense ceased broadcasting in 1962).

By the time the Suspense comic book arrived in 1949, a Suspense mystery magazine had already come and gone (lasting four issues). Strangely, while that earlier publication drew from certain popular Suspense scripts of recent years, Suspense's comic book drew almost no content from the radio show - and what content they did, came from John Dickson Carr's scripts. Only the first two issues of Suspense featured photo covers - and likewise, only these issues contained actual Suspense scripts.

Let's list the adapted stories in order:

Suspense#1: "The Graveyard Ghouls" by Matt Baker.

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "the Body Snatchers" (November 24, 1942).

Suspense#1: "The Bride Vanishes"

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "the Bride Vanishes" (December 1, 1942).

Suspense#1: "Here Comes the Hangman!"

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "The Hangman Won't Wait" (February 9, 1943), but the episode itself is lost to time. Carr later adapted it again for the BBC series Appointment With Fear as "the Clock Strikes Eight."

Suspense#2: "I Bet With Death!" by Gene Colan.

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "Will You Make a Bet With Death?" (November 10, 1942).

Suspense#2: "The Man Who Lived Again!"

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "Mr. Markham, Antique Dealer" (May 11, 1943).

As I outlined in my earlier blog post, it's odd that the comic book only drew material from the early years of the program - and only from Carr's scripts at that! Perhaps it was part of a package deal when the contract was made between CBS & Marvel - they got the Suspense name and Carr's scripts, but nothing else. Did Carr even receive payment for his stories being adapted in the comic (unlikely as they appeared without credit and publisher Martin Goodman was a notorious skinflint). Perhaps the original intent was to adapt episodes from the early years of the show and gradually work up to more recent stories, but the plan was abandoned to save money on soliciting material from CBS.

Again, as I stated before, I think John Dickson Carr has to be one of the worst authors you could hope to adapt to the comic book medium, especially in the 8-page format (although "I Bet With Death" ran 11 pages). Carr's stories are extremely convoluted - he seemed to place a lot of emphasis on subverting the expectations of mystery fans, matching wits with them. He really belonged in prose (his true career) rather than radio or comics, because his stories are full of red herrings and characters jumping to far-fetched conclusions just to distract his audience from the real solution. Inevitably, his stories would end with a drawn-out explanation of what we'd just witnessed - for instance in "the Body Snatchers," it's that the supposed dead woman isn't dead (which is even more abrupt and head-scratching in the comic book version than on radio); in the radio version of "the Bride Vanishes," the solution to the women vanishing from a balcony is a cowboy who's been roping victims with his lariat - for some reason, the comic changes this to an insane countess who can wield a whip, causing the finale to play out with even more belaboured explanations (as the cowboy is still present and thus is a red herring requiring more explanation). "Will You Make a Bet With Death?" is the one Carr story amongst this batch which I think actually works well on radio and in comics - it definitely helps that it runs to 11 pages, granting it the space to let the story unfold.

Given the years I've spent on my hobby of Marvel Comics and Suspense combining the two should have been just about the greatest thing ever printed; instead, the comic book version of Suspense didn't come into its own until it dropped its connection to CBS, instead becoming a horror comic no different than any of its companion mags on the rack. Ah, for what might have been...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sixteen thoughts about Cerebus

This last weekend I finished reading the 16th and final collected edition of Dave Sim's Cerebus. It's taken me some time to get through the series so I thought it fitting to gather up some of my impressions into Sixteen Thoughts About Cerebus. As befits Cerebus, the following is a bit of rambling:

#1: Coming at Cerebus so many years after its inclusion has given me a strange perspective on the series - I say "strange" because my years as a comic book fan and collector ran parallel to the development of Cerebus, yet not once did I seek the series out nor even glimpse it on the shelves. From all I knew of Cerebus - first gleaning it was very well-considered in the 80s, later ill-favoured in the 90s & 00s - I determined I wasn't in the target audience. Who was this assumed target audience? I have no clue, although I may have imagined them as caricatures of beatniks, replete with turtlenecks, goatees and bongo drums.

When I read of Cerebus on the internet today, it's difficult to untangle how people feel about the series because they all seem to have lived through the 300-issue run. They hitched their waggons to the Dave Sim pony, only to later grow furious at said pony for choosing to ride through a muddy, swampy bog. I lack the original context Cerebus was published against and while I likely missed many, many situational references, I think I'm better off reading Cerebus now. I doubt I would have had the patience to last until #300 if I had begun any sooner.

#2: The availability of Cerebus is a tricky thing. Even though my local shop keeps two shelves worth of Dave Sim material in-stock, some volumes of the trades are not easily acquired. This delayed me from reading the series as quickly as I'd hoped - I actually thought I could read 1 volume per week when I began this more than 2 years ago! It was also during this two year period that 1) I supported the High Society Digital Kickstarter and 2) my employers (University of Calgary Library) set out to acquire a full set of Cerebus. It seems as though there was something in the air.

#3: Part of what eventually drew me to Cerebus was the knowledge Dave Sim is a fellow Canadian. Which, I think I had known for decades, yet because Canadian media tends to lower your expectations when compared to British or US standards, I think I assumed Cerebus and by extension Sim were inferior. Mea culpa. I had already come to enjoy Sim's storytelling via Judenhass and glamourpuss - finally, I know him for his most widely-read work and recognize he is easily numbered among the greatest comic book creators.

#4: I'm even fond of the very early Sim when he was still learning his craft. It's not great, but it's an earnest effort. One of the joys of the first volume of Cerebus was seeing Sim discover his talent story-by-story, until he was essentially fully-formed by the end. Gerhard's later backgrounds were certainly very fine, but the panel shapes & sizes, the facial expressions, the carefully-considered placement of captions - that's what I marvelled at.

#5: However, for me, Sim's lettering was easily the most astonishing aspect of the series. Lettering is one of those disciplines (like colouring) which fans only ever seem to bring up when it's done poorly. Sim's lettering is phenomenal. So much of his characters' personalities came through in the way their speech was designed - the shape of their words were as important as the words themselves. It became particularly noticeable in later volumes where often verbal repartee was the only "action" on the page.

#6: I'm not normally one who enjoys fiction about horrible people (hence my spurning Mad Men), and yet Cerebus' cast of terribly disappointing people are fairly tolerable. Certainly the humourous bend of the series helps. Cerebus himself was clearly unlovable by the end of the first volume and that's firmly cemented through Church & State. Yet I was willing to carry on with his story in a large part because of the humour. Even then, as awful a person as Cerebus was and as certain as I was that the prophecy of Cerebus' death would come true, I did want to see good things happen to him. Even though I'm very forgiving to fictional characters, it's strange I should be so forgiving to someone whose author was clearly not going to let off the hook. Colour me naive.

#7: Speaking of humour - Sim's range runs the gamut from pratfalls to jokes so tasteless they cross the line twice. This was a series which makes gags about hurling infants to their doom. That's jokes, plural. Fortunately, comedy was never too far from the centre of this series. I thought the Roach was an odd distraction the first time he appeared, but oh, how I came to appreciate his appearances as the series progressed.

#8: I can't say I share in those interests of Sim's which become part of the narrative, being indifferent to Woody Allen and the Three Stooges, more interested in the fiction of Oscar Wilde & F. Scott Fitzgerald than I am in their personal lives and as of yet uninterested in Ernest Hemingway. Heck, I'm not even a huge Barry Windsor-Smith fan and the series originated as one great BWS/Conan parody. Regardless, at no point was I unable to follow the narrative because of Sim's references; no one ever seems to interpret art in the way its creator would prefer, but even though I may have been on the outside of many of Sim's references, I didn't feel excluded.

#9: The plots, though - whew! By Church & State I was having considerable difficulty keeping up with the references to the Cirinists and Kevillists, etc. Because the series was usually told from Cerebus' perspective, frequently significant events occurred outside his ken and I found it difficult to catch-up on what was occurring off-panel.

#10: For that matter, the series had a tendency to become text-heavy (oh, you think so? sneers everyone who read to the finish). Giant, staggering blocks of text broken up by illustrations, rendering the series as much of an illustrated novel as it was a comic book. This is the one place where I think serialization held an edge over the collected format - I think I would have been a more attentive reader had I been handed an issue of text-heavy Cerebus, as opposed to, say, 100 text-heavy pages in the Latter Days trade. Similarly, while I digested glamourpuss just fine as a serial, I doubt I could endure it as a collected work.

#11: Is the later Cerebus any good? I think so. The religious commentary seemed to be a diabolical test of the audience's willpower, but Latter Days contained many gems: notably, the tournament between Cerebus and Paul "Coffee" Annan was Sim at his best; the Spawn parody brought back fond memories of earlier Roach gags; I even found a lot of humour in the Three Wise Fellows, despite my lack of interest in the Stooges. It's only when Woody Allen entered Latter Days that I began to tune out; fortunately, I found the Last Day to be a very strong finish. I don't regret reading the entire series, despite the many internet screeds exhorting readers to quit after Melmoth.

#12: Misogyny. As a human on the internet writing about Cerebus, I am contractually obliged to mention it somewhere, yes? I signed the I Don't Believe Dave Sim is a Misogynist petition before ever reading Cerebus and I still hold to that opinion. I do believe Cerebus' content was, at times, misogynist - but I don't hold to the popular opinion that this content is the true face of Dave Sim. I appreciate that Cerebus tackles issues about male/female relationships from a perspective many would balk at assuming. Again, you are free to call me naive - but I enjoyed approaching these ideas from an unorthodox viewpoint. I like to question authority and people's innate assumptions - perhaps that's why I found the ideas Sim expressed fascinating. Opposing the mainstream was surely part of why I decided to tackle Cerebus to begin with.

#13: After Church & State, there's a terrible sense of melancholy which permeates Cerebus. Cerebus was informed he'd die alone and unloved and we readers had no reason to doubt he both deserved it and would get it in the end. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Cerebus - moreso than anything to do with hurled infants or its relationship to feminism - was that promise of Cerebus getting what he was due. It lurked behind every fleeting moment of happiness the character achieved in the remaining twelve (!) volumes. But then, even Cerebus' latter debauchery (opening a titty bar or founding a terrible religion) seemed fleeting - things were terrible but never so bad they couldn't get worse. At least there was nothing good to look forward to!

#14: Melancholy crept over me as well. Cerebus was doomed to struggle through 12 more volumes of his book and I, having determined I would finish reading the series, was doomed to struggle with him. Humourous asides such as Cerebus' suspenseful climbing of his chair (in the Last Day) or bizarre diversions such as Roarin' Rick lecturing Cerebus (in Guys) could only briefly distract me from the overall pointlessness of it all. The gradual thinning of the cast down to merely Cerebus himself just reinforced the sense of futility. If you dared invest yourself in the Regency Elf, Lord Julius, Elrod, Astoria, or, Tarim help us, Cirin (oh, how I perked up when her name appeared in the Last Day!), you were damned to disappointment.

#15: And there, I have to applaud Sim for daring to refuse fan service. He could have coasted from on the format popularized by High Society and Church & State for the rest of the series. He could have made Cerebus (gasp!) a decent person. Cerebus wouldn't be the only misanthropic cynic who audiences found favourable. Thinking (for instance) of Howard the Duck, there you have an outsider who sits in judgment over the rest of culture and we (presumably) want to see Howard stick it to The Man (even if The Man is us) because we identify with the underdog. Early in the series you could mistake Cerebus for an underdog protagonist who outwitted people which were his seeming betters (it even felt as though High Society were leading him to such an end). And yet, it was gradually clear that Cerebus' myopic avarice was not a design flaw for him to repair - it was his built-in feature. He was terrible and if we did see ourselves in him... well, congratulations, we're terrible too. Just because you're a cynic and an outcast, it doesn't imbue you with righteousness. All those muttonheads you look down upon? There always someone else looking down on you.

#16: The conclusion of Cerebus, in which our titular protagonist was drawn into The Light, held some interesting commentary from Sim about readers mistaking this as some form of Heavenly reaward - understandably, seeing as Cerebus' fallen castmates were waiting for him on the other side. All the same, I'm surprised so many people fell for it. Why would an eternity with all of his semi-friends be rewarding when he was so supremely unsatisfied to be with them in life? Come on, Elrod is on the other side. Ah say, it's The Other Place. Hades, that is, and ah don't mean Missouri. That's a joke, son.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"He's going to burn, alright." Grandville review

Imagine a world which - although it appears to be set in the Victorian Era - possesses encroaching advances in technology such as robot menials and commonplace automatic weaponry. Now, imagine in this world Britain was conquered ages ago by the French. Finally, imagine human beings are not the dominant lifeforms, but rather humanoid versions of every other imaginable member of the animal kingdom, with humans square on the bottom. Put this together and you have Bryan Talbot's Grandville.

I'm certainly behind the times with Grandville, being as it was first released by Dark Horse in 2009. I've repeatedly considered giving at least this first volume an opportunity, but it's taken these many years for me to make the plunge. What exactly did I find?

The protagonist of Grandville is Archie LeBrock, allegedly a detective inspector in Scotland Yard who investigates murders with his rattish companion Ratzi. In the midst of social upheaval owing to Britain & France's tumultuous past (Britain only recently regaining its independence) and mechanical workers forcing flesh-and-blood menials out of work, LeBrock investigates the murder of Raymond Leigh-Otter, a mysterious figure whose death is linked to similarly-mysterious figures at work in France.

Above: a loving reference to the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or an unwitting reuse of a joke from Weird Al's UHF?

Laying aside the alternate history, the science fiction trappings and the anthropomorphic cast of characters, what we have here is a very standard pulp adventure story. Although it's presented as a detective story, it's really more about thrills than intellect; somehow, what begins as a story about LeBrock investigating the murder of a man in England climaxes with LeBrock killing a head of state with a zepplin. Although LeBrock spouts exposition at various intervals, there's no sense that we readers might be solving the case alongside him - we're never granted all the information we need about this world to understand what's going on.

Strangely, some significance is granted to a character called Snowy Milou, an obvious reference to Tintin. Although some time is spent around LeBrock searching for him, it only seems to be for Talbot to make several references to Tintin - it's not actually important to the plot.

I keep feeling as though I'm missing something important within the text of Grandville - some sly way in which it subverts the detective-mystery-thriller-adventure genre. On the surface, it appears to be nothing more than a very authentic pulp story, the sort of which could have been published 100 years ago. In which case, would the anthropomorphic cast be nothing more than a distraction from a fairly average tale? Perhaps.

I think I can best explore my feelings about Grandville by bringing up a similar series: Blacksad. Certainly Blacksad is likewise a very standard period detective series elevated by its gorgeous artwork and anthropomorphic characterizations. Where Grandville and Blacksad split, to my mind, is where their protagonists are concerned. LeBrock is not only ahead of his audience, he's fairly well ahead of his foes as well. There is no moment in the novel where LeBrock appears to have lost control of the situation - even when he was shot point blank in the chest, I never doubted he was prepared for it. As the story progresses, he continues to overcome every physical and mental obstacle thrown before him with seemingly little effort. Along the way his friend Ratzi is roughed up a little and a woman who sleeps with him is murdered (re: sex=death), but LeBrock being a very British badger his upper lip is supremely stiff. Compare him to the frequently-flawed John Blacksad, whose triumphs are at best bittersweet and is nearly always struggling to survive and outwit his foes. I am not forced to choose between Grandville and Blacksad because all things are permitted to those who want them; nevertheless, I know which one I find meaningful. I don't empathize with the stolid, unflappable LeBrock, but I've certainly felt beaten up and dragged down like John Blacksad.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thor: the Dark World creator notes

The Dark Elves, including their leader Malekith, who bears a black star on his chest and a half-scarred face; Loki's ability to survive otherwise fatal physical injuries: Derived from Thor#344 (1984) by Walter Simonson.

Svartalfheim, home of the Dark Elves: Derived from Thor#346 (1984) by Walter Simonson.

Algrim, a Dark Elf who serves Malekith: Derived from Thor#347 (1984) by Walter Simonson.

Kurse, Algrim's other identity which is as powerful as Thor and garbed in red/yellow armour: Derived from Secret Wars II#4 (1985) by Walter Simonson & Sal Buscema.

Loki, Thor's evil brother who possesses the power to cast illusions and wears green/yellow; Asgard, home of the Norse Gods which connects to Earth via the rainbow bridge Bifrost; Heimdall, guardian of Bifrost; Odin, father of Loki & Thor: Derived from Journey into Mystery#85 (1962) by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby.

Bor, father of Odin, grandfather of Thor; Muspelheim, one of the Nine Worlds; Yggdrasil, the world-tree which envelopes the Nine Worlds: Derived from Journey into Mystery#97 (1963) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Bor's horned helmet: Derived from Thor#7 (2008) by J. Michael Stracynzki & Marko Djurdjevic.

Thor, Norse god of thunder, defender of Earth, wields hammer Mjolnir which can control storms, always returns to his hand; Thor's blue costume with plated chest, bare arms and red cape; Thor battling extraterrestrials made of stone: Derived from Journey into Mystery#83 (1962) by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby.

Loki being placed on trial in Asgard: Derived from Journey into Mystery#88 (1963) by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby.

Loki seeking to rule Asgard; Asgard possessing advanced technology: Derived from Journey into Mystery#120 (1965) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Odin's cape fastened to his armour with two fasteners on his shoulders: Derived from Journey into Mystery#89 (1963) by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby.

Odin with only one eye; Odin's ravens Hunin & Munin: Derived from Thor#274 (1978) by Roy Thomas & John Buscema.

Frigga, queen of Asgard, mother to Thor & Loki: Derived from Journey into Mystery#92 (1963) by Stan Lee, Robert Bernstein & Joe Sinnott.

Loki as Thor's foster brother; Jotunheim, one of the Nine Worlds, land of giants, birthplace of Loki: Derived from Journey into Mystery#112 (1965) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Vanaheim and Nidavellir, each of the Nine Worlds: Derived from Thor Annual#10 (1982) by Peter B. Gillis.

Sif, female Asgardian, love interest to Thor; Niffleheim, one of the Nine Worlds: Derived from Journey into Mystery#102 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Thor's close friends Volstagg, a red-bearded Asgardian warrior with a wife and several children; Hogun, a mostly-silent Asgardian warrior; and Fandral, a green-clad swashbuckling Asgardian warrior: Derived from Journey into Mystery#119 (1965) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Thor's beard: Derived from Thor#367 (1986) by Walter Simonson.

Thor's modified costume with chainmail sleeves and black boots: Derived from Thor#1 (2007) by J. Michael Stracynski & Olivier Coipel.

Korg, an extraterrestrial man made of stone dressed in gladiator costume who battles Thor: Derived from Journey into Mystery#83 (1962) by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby and Incredible Hulk#93 (2006) by Greg Pak & Carlo Pagulayan.

Odin preferring Sif for Thor; Sif being a raven tressed and red/white clad Asgardian warrior; Jane Foster visiting Asgard: Derived from Thor#136 (1967) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Odin disapproving of Thor's feelings for Jane Foster: Derived from Journey into Mystery#90 (1963) by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Al Hartley.

Odin called "the All-Father": Derived from Journey into Mystery#97 (1963) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Jane Foster, Thor's mortal love interest: Derived from Journey into Mystery#84 (1962) by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby.

S.H.I.E.L.D., an international espionage agency: Derived from Strange Tales#135 (1965) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Asgardians piloting sky ships: Derived from Journey into Mystery#103 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Gungnir, Odin's great spear: Derived from Thor#275 (1978) by Roy Thomas & John Buscema.

Deceased Asgardians being set to sea aboard ships, then cremated: Derived from Thor Annual#10 (1982) by Mark Gruenwald, Alan Zelenetz & Bob Hall.

The Tesseract, a glowing cube possessing massive cosmic power: Derived from the Cosmic Cube of Tales of Suspense#79 (1966) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Captain America, a super hero wearing a red/white/blue costume with star on chest: Derived from Captain America Comics#1 (1941) by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

Captain America's round shield: Derived from Captain America Comics#2 (1941) by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

Captain America as Thor's ally: Derived from Avengers#4 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Earth referred to by the number "616": Derived from the Daredevils#7 (1983) by Alan Moore & Alan Davis.

Earth referred to as Midgard: Derived from Thor#126 (1966) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Hel, one of the Nine Worlds: Derived from Thor#176 (1970) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Alfheim, one of the Nine Worlds: Derived from Thor#277 (1978) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Thor refusing Asgard's throne: Derived from Thor#366 (1986) by Walter Simonson.

Loki impersonating Odin to claim the throne of Asgard: Derived from Thor#16 (1999) by Dan Jurgens & John Romita Jr.

The Collector, a white-haired extraterrestrial who collects rare items: Derived from Avengers#28 (1966) by Stan Lee & Don Heck.

The Collector's real name being Taneeler Tivan: Derived from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe#3 (1983) by Mark Gruenwald.

The Infinity Stones, items of great power: Derived from the Soul Gem of Marvel Premiere#1 (1972) by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane, later the Infinity Gems of Thanos Quest#1 (1990) by Jim Starlin & Ron Lim.

The Collector possessing an Infinity Gem: Derived from Silver Surfer#7 (1988) by Steve Englehart & Marshall Rogers.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: the Great War

"Field Marshal Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field."

"Ah. Would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy?"

"How could you possibly know that, Blackadder? It's classified information!"

-Blackadder Goes Forth

I didn't pay attention to the product description of the Great War: July 1, 1916 - the First Day of the Battle of the Somme by Joe Sacco. A new non-fiction book by Joe Sacco, you say? Bought. Had it arrived in my house just one day sooner, it would have been in time for Remembrance Day.

What is the actual product? Allow me to illustrate:

I joked online about my copy of Destroy!! being inadequate by comparison.

The Great War is a 24-foot long panorama of the Battle of Somme. Beginning from the left, you see images of cavalrymen, the beginnings of trenches, then the mines and shelling, the disastrous casualties, the hospitals and finally the graveyards. The panorama contains no text.

An accompanying booklet explains the genesis of the project and annotates the panorama. There's also a fantastic description of the Battle of Somme written by Adam Hochschild (author of King Leopold's Ghost).

Like a great museum diorama, it's amazing to see how Sacco is able to tell a story with the Great War sans text. Suppose you know nothing about the Battle of Somme and don't have access to the accompanying booklet - you can still see the story of the battle unfold across the panorama. It's a brilliant piece of art; not exactly a comic book or graphic novel, but a bloody brilliant idea, executed by an expert.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Three days of reviews Part 3: "The old napkin trick never stopped working..."

Is it redundant to keep talking about Sergio Aragones Funnies? Here's a comic book which is of the same uniform greatness every month; each month features silent 1-page gags, activity pages, a comedic feature and a biographical feature from Sergio's life. So, we should all stop talking about this wonderful comic book, right? We can all take its assured quality for granted and instead discuss Trademark Protected Man#23 and what the new potato salad recipe means for the citizens of Knight City.

Then again, perhaps a comic book like Sergio Aragones Funnies should be talked about whenever it comes out. Perhaps if we started ignoring the old "sound and fury" brigade and never stopped talking about the fun, intelligent and well-made books it could make a difference to someone out there. Such is the premise of my reviewing Sergio Aragones Funnies#10.

This issue's comedic feature is "Titanic Tales," about a robber who boards the Titanic just in time for its catastrophic voyage. Ordinarily a story about someone evading the law only to wind up on the scene of a great disaster like the Titanic sinking (or the Hiroshima bombing) is where the story ends; here, Sergio prefaces the story by discussing the Titanic before introducing the robber. This was a pretty neat swerve - clearly, the surprise ending was not "but the ship was the Titanic! ha-ha-ha" so I was left uncertain of where Sergio was going with his joke. As it should be.

Of greater interest was "My Second Peso," the autobiographical story. Really, I follow Sergio Aragones Funnies primarily for these tales. This tale is a sequel to one from issue #2 where Sergio described the first time he was paid for his art. In this tale, we learn how a young Sergio would barter his artistic talents to businesses across town by decorating their windows in exchange for goods/services. Eventually, Sergio's abilities are noticed by some older boys who invite him to accompany them as they prowl for girls, figuring Sergio's artwork could be the answer to a maiden's prayer.

"My Second Peso" was well worth the cost on its own - it's a very genuine, human story as Sergio tries to fit in with an older crowd and be appreciated as an artist. Ultimately, it's a story of disappointments, but Sergio insists one trick he learned from those older boys - passing along sketches on napkins to beautiful girls - is one he kept using for years to come.

If you aren't reading Sergio Aragones Funnies... my gosh, why are you reading this blog post? There's so much you're missing, friend! To the comic shop, quickly! I'll always be here, but those back issues are already commanding a small fortune!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Three days of reviews part 2: "I'm gonna eat this one and see what it does to my head."

Disclosure: Riley Rossmo is an old friend of mine.

Drumhellar#1 begins a new project by Riley Rossmo at Image, this time joined by scripter Alex Link. Considering how Riley's previous projects have delved into weirdness (Proof, Cowboy Ninja Viking, Green Wake), I will not astonish you by declaring Drumhellar is a weird comic book. However, you might be astonished by just how weird this one is.

How best to explain Drumhellar? Perhaps I could recap the first four pages: Drum Hellar is on a golf course in a lady's bedrobe when he's struck by lightning. This causes him to witness a bloody peacock rising out of a pool of water. The peacock leaves behind an egg, which Hellar picks up; this causes him to peer into some kind of vision. Reeling from this, he converses with a creature living inside his golf bag and declares they need to consult with someone named Padma.

A terribly weird opening, yes? Naturally, some of this is explained as the story progresses - we learn what's inside the golf bag (Drum's "imaginary friend" Harold) and we learn who Padma is (Drum's ex-girlfriend and naturopath doctor). But is there a plot? Not exactly... some weird things happen, which leads to some banter. Then more weird things happen, followed by banter. There may be a plot behind this (Hellar behaves as though he's carrying some important information), but it's not in these pages.

Typical of the book is this conversation:

Padma: "How would you recognize that flower anyway?"

Drum Hellar: "I was a paleobotanist for a while."

Padma: "Of course you were."

It's not that the reader has formed any expectations of Hellar's fields of expertise (or if, indeed, he has any expertise), but Padma surely has. The reader is very much thrown into the middle of a quite strange world and no everyman to guide him (unlike Proof). Hellar himself is some sort of recreational drug user exploring the world of the paranormal, rendering him quite outside the everyday. The characters banter about how strange the world they inhabit is, but what we might call weird, they call typical. It's rather like a Terry Gilliam picture - the characters inhabit a strange world and we in the audience have to pay attention and make no assumptions about what the rules this world operates under might be.

As I see it, Drum Hellar has two great strengths - Rossmo's continually-expanding art (gorgeous colouring included) and the very "lived in" feel of the universe he's created here, one where a man mentions repeatedly he was bitten by a werewolf and receives virtually no reaction from his audience.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Three days of reviews part 1: "...At first, the suit was just to draw out the weirdos."

Approximately eight months ago, I decided I would scale back on trips to my local comic book shop. Not, I told myself, because my interest in the medium was waning, but because with my newly-received ipad I could switch to the electronic format and save a fair bit of money (considering how expensive my hobby is).

You know what saves even more money than switching to digital comics? Not buying digital comics.

Without the impetus to visit the shop on the days my favourite titles released, I suddenly discovered I had no compulsion to buy the digital comics. Yes, I could buy and read them any time of the day no matter where I was. Thus, I moved on to other pursuits and forgot about the comics.

This past week I visited the local shop again and bought three recently-released books. By way of making up for my lackadaisical interest in comics, I'll be reviewing all three books across the next three days.

We begin with The Fox#1 by Dean Haspiel (plotter/artist) & Mark Waid (scripter). The most difficult part of buying this comic was choosing which variant cover I wanted; each one had something I liked, but the Will Eisner-esque copy above ultimately won my $2.99. I also dig the way one of the Fox's ears bends; why don't Batman's ears bend? Do we really take him that seriously?

Mark Waid's name drew me to the project, which is a little odd when I consider how I (shameful to admit now) loathed his work in the 1990s, especially his scripting. Even now, I would say if I had to choose between Mark Waid the plotter and Mark Waid the scripter, I would pick the former. Regardless, considering the work he's done in recent years to revive calcified characters like Daredevil and the Green Hornet, I was willing to see him tackle another long-ignored super hero property. Haspiel's art was the tipping point - as soon as I saw Fox's bent ear in the promotional images I suspected this was a super hero book for me - something light and adventurous which didn't take itself too seriously (ala Lee & Ditko's Spider-Man).

As it transpires, my instincts were correct. "Public Face," the lead story in the Fox#1, doesn't bother with any made-for-TV origin retellings - we join our hero fully-formed and in action. The most devoted to the hero's origin is this handy recap (appearing on the inside cover, first page and back cover): "Paul Patton was a photo-journalist who couldn't seem to find the story. So Paul donned the costume of the Fox to make the story come to him. Now the story won't stop." A back-up feature explains the publishing history of the Fox character and is the only place where it's mentioned our hero is the son of the 1940s Fox. It's just not relevant to the story contained within.

We learn only so much about Paul through the course of the story - he's a photo-journalist who prefers film-loaded cameras; he's married, but has a (seeemingly grown) daughter from a previous marriage; although he's devoted to his wife, he can be tempted by a pretty face; oh, and he dresses up in tights when it's time for a fight.

Happily, the Fox#1 breaks from the staid tradition of many contemporary super hero comics where stories simply tease action. Haspiel & Waid are not ashamed of setting up problems for the Fox to solve with his fists and further, aren't too proud to make these fights seem clever and fun. Through the main feature of this book, the Fox faces the diabolical Madame Satan, leading to an altercation with two henchmen of another villain, Mr. Smile, then sets up a cliffhanger involving a character called Queen of Diamonds. Along the way there's also a terrific burn at the expense of the film Man of Steel.

This isn't even the whole comic - your $2.99 wins you an 18-page main adventure plus a 6-page back-up "A Picture Lasts Longer" where the Fox faces a living house. Also included is a 2-page editorial by Haspiel and the aforementioned 1-page history of the Fox. Further, the only advertisements in the comic are house ads, found in the back of the book.

Although the first story is rousing good fun, the second story is awfully cramped. The Fox faces a living house and tricks it into destroying itself. So much is compressed into so few pages that even one more page might have helped to better establish what the threat is (the explanation of the house being alive is derived from a single narrative caption by the Fox, who's just guessing at what he's facing).

Haspiel & Waid's Fox is projected to run only five issues. Between the unrestrained energy of Haspiel's storytelling and the smooth dialogue contributed by Waid, I was quite happy with this first issue. It should be good fun experiencing the rest!