Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Lead on, McBunny!" In which I unbundle Joshua Quagmire's Cutey Bunny

Cutey Bunny (not to be confused with Cutie Bunny, Cutey Honey, Honey Bunny or the Quik Bunny) is a product of the fevered imagination of one writer-artist Joshua Quagmire and has appeared for many years, sometimes in her own series, occasionally as a back-up feature in titles such as Launch! and Critters. Of late, she appears only at Quagmire's site. I had heard good things about the series and was able to obtain all five issues of her 1982 series (Army Surplus Komikz Featuring Cutey Bunny) and her Launch! & Critters tales.

How best to describe Cutey Bunny?


Seriously, what've you got? Me, I'm coming up empty.

Cutey Bunny is primarily a vehicle for Quagmire to indulge himself in whatever suits his mood. Is it a super hero parody? Yes. A fourth-wall breaking comic book about comic books? Yes. A cheesecake furry comic? Yes. A loving homage to the Crosby-Hope Road pictures? Yes. Uncle Joe Stalin's favourite bedtime storybook? Eerily enough, yes.

If I tried to explain the plots of the eight Cutey Bunny comics I have we'd be here all week (and the rent's due Monday) so instead I give you five of my favourite things about Cutey Bunny:

  1. Fatty Tubbins is the supposed inker of Cutey Bunny's stories, he being a rather short cat employed by Quagmire (Tubbins' signature can be found everywhere, including next to Quagmire's own in an autographed copy I own). As the character in the story who is closest to Quagmire, Tubbins is also nearest to despair as Quagmire inflicts many indignities (such as his "Astro Cat" identity) upon him. Tubbins is long-suffering born loser and I dig such characters in fiction. His seething resentment at being fawned over for being "cute" or made up to look like a super hero adds some nice balance to the generally-accepted insanity of Cutey Bunny's world.
  2. Quagmire made repeated use of Bob Hope & Bing Crosby in his stories, notably in issue #2 of Cutey Bunny's series, which, for all purposes, turns into a "Road to..." story. I'm no great fan of the Road movies, nor much of a Bob Hope fan, but - gosharootie! - their repartee is so spot-on that I simply have to give Quagmire props; some of his funniest fast-pace dialogue appears when those two enter the scene.
  3. Throughout the series, Cutey Bunny is bedeviled by a fox woman, Vicky, who might best be described as a depraved lesbian (she does like men, but mainly for S&M, it would appear). One character always trying to force their way into another's pants shouldn't be funny - but I think Quagmire gets away with it because he frequently reverses expectations, such as above where an assumed sex scene turns out to be Vicky eating Cutey's lollipops. It also helps that Cutey's kid sister Taffy eventually joins the series and the ever-innocent child frequently disrupts Vicky's attempts to tell "adult" stories. The play-by-play as Vicky and Taffy try to steal the story's narrative from each other is always fun.
  4. I love that the fourth wall is so thoroughly demolished in every story. The plots are barely discernible at times, but that's okay. Characters argue with Quagmire, kick their way through panels, intrude upon other people's stories and are mostly unwilling to participate in issue-to-issue continuity. Lovely!
  5. In Cutey Bunny's fifth issue, Quagmire indulges in an X-Men parody which invokes the Dark Phoenix Saga, much as many other satirical comics of the time did. What I truly enjoy about the issue, however, is that when the X-Menified cast of Cutey's book (X-Critters) combat a number of Golden Age super heroes, the fight scene is depicted with excellent choreography, clever uses of super powers and quippy dialogue. It's not only evocative of fight scenes from the Chris Claremont X-Men comics being parodied, but taken straight is also a pretty great extended fight scene - and given my frequently-stated irritation at today's incompetently staged fight scenes in super hero comics, I really appreciate seeing a parody comic demonstrate how it should be done.

Cutey Bunny hasn't aged perfectly - the Ronald Reagan jokes found throughout are certainly of their time - but most of it stands up. Some days I really need a good laugh and on that score, Cutey Bunny delivers.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Not falling for that. I invented that." More thoughts on Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody

The 5-issue series Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody by Priest & Mark Bright has come and gone with very little comment. Perhaps that's to be expected - Valiant Comics have always been in direct competition with the big two super hero publishers, but never with the same "heat" behind their titles. The day may come when characters such as X-O Manowar and Ninjak have name recognition with the man-on-the-street, but that time has not yet arrived.

As you may or may not know, this series came about after the newly-revived Valiant began creating new Quantum & Woody comic books, but without the input of Priest & Bright, the men who had (up until then) been the minds, bodies and blood creating the series. As I noted in my review of issue #1, it's tempting to see Q2's use of a new Quantum & Woody team as an effort by Priest & Bright to tweak Valiant's nose for hiring new creators to reboot their creation. As the series progressed, that "tweaking" became much more pronounced, with Woody at one point lamenting, "A new 'Quantum and Woody,' only with other people? Whose stupid idea was that?!" In that moment, Priest & Bright are essentially speaking for fans such as myself, people who were not interested in Quantum & Woody so much as a piece of corporate intellectual property, but as something personal which sprang from Priest & Bright's souls. It is perhaps also noteworthy that Q2's "new" Quantum & Woody are a pair of Caucasians - just like the creators of the new Valiant series.

At the same time, Q2 refuses to entirely give way to fandom's wish fulfillment. Rather than pick up the series where they left it 14 years earlier, Priest & Bright allowed Quantum & Woody to age in real time, leaving them as middle-aged men. Woody wants to move on with his life, while Quantum remains the dedicated hero, despite having suffered injuries which have left him crippled. There's a scene in the second issue which I'm tempted to psychoanalyze as being telling of Priest's attitude to revisiting the series: Woody is trying to perform his music to a disinterested audience who only want to hear him play his one hit song. Is that how Priest feels? He's been summoned out of a self-inflicted comic book retirement just to play his "hit song" one more time. Even though that "song" was technically left unfinished (the Xanadu of super hero comics!), Priest's plot in Q2 suggests he's not very interested in playing back the same familiar jokes. He remains a writer bursting with ideas he wants to share, but almost perpetually unable to find patrons willing to let him compose his thoughts and find his audience. While Priest & Bright's Quantum & Woody has always featured much to be said about race, here Priest introduces transgender issues, finding potential for both comedy & pathos, just as he did before with race.

As I neared the end of the story - where Eric & Woody are in a race against time yet still unable to cooperate for even a few minutes - I began to get a little misty-eyed. And I truly admire Priest's choice to omit showing the duo "klang" their armbands, a moment which had been built-up to as epic, yet dismissed by Priest with the words, "Doesn't it suck that we didn't show it?" I am not certain what I wanted from Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody. The greatest hits? A few Vincent Van Goat jokes? No, I think what I wanted most of all was for this comic book to exist. And it does. Priest? Comics still need you.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Unearthed: Strange Avenging Tales #1

Steve Ditko. Although he continues to be best-known for his 1960s Marvel Comics work and second-best-known for his subsequent DC Comics work, at the time he went into partnership with Robin Snyder to self-publish his own material, he'd already worked for virtually every publisher in North America.

Fantagraphics' Strange Avenging Tales #1 came out in 1997, just before his turn to self-publishing. It was intended to be the first of a series, based on the advertisement within for an issue #2, but it seems that something fell apart, perhaps similar to his falling-out with Eclipse Comics in the 1980s. At any rate, we have this one comic. What is it? What do you think? Much like his self-published work, it's an anthology of "weird" stories with the same type of twist endings he'd been writing since the 50s and the same diatribes he'd been making since the 70s. Shall we begin?

We open with "All Mine," featuring a character called the Baffler. In this story, a thief named Oscar steals a priceless antique but is pursued by the Baffler, a being whom only Oscar can see. The Baffler might best be described as Ditko's Question wearing Elton John glasses. The Baffler emits some weird energies as he pursues Oscar, demanding he give himself up. Eventually Oscar's will is broken and he collapses, repeating "Not mine" ceaselessly while offering the stolen item back to the police. This is a simple tale, but Ditko's art is top-notch, presented here with ink washes (unlike the other stories in the book). I should also note that this and the other stories are presented with full scripts, not the stream-of-consciousness scripts found in most of the works Ditko's produced with Snyder.

There are two features in the book from "The Spoilers File." Each is two pages and involves a careless person causing a mess while thinking they don't have an obligation to clean it up, but then an unseen force manipulates them into fixing their mess. In the first story, it's a litterbug who gets his, while in the second it's a man who doesn't re-shelve books. They're quick stories and don't get too far into Ditko's frequent condemnation of society. The means by which the perpetrators are forced to clean up their mess is presented in a semi-humourous way, which helps a lot, to say nothing of the sheer kinetic energy displayed in their actions.

Next there's "In Due," a simple story told with supreme talent. Once again we have the story of a thief, this being a man who steals a valuable watch, killing the watch's dealer. He brings the watch to a repairman, but, in a wonderfully weird hallucinatory scene sees himself as one of the hands on the watch's face; when the hand reaches 12, we discover he never actually entered the repairman's shop - he was crushed to death outside the shop by a falling clock. The last page is a bit clumsy because the story contains a flashback within a hallucinatory scene, but the imagery of the man on the watch's face is so powerful that it overwhelms that minor pothole. In all, the dialogue is sparse and to great effect as the images are largely permitted to speak for themselves.

"Clyde and Claude" is the tale of a man named Claude who hears a voice in his head named "Clyde." Clyde is convinced Claude's wife is cheating on him and keeps pestering Claude, eventually driving him to spy on his wife. Catching his wife with another man, Claude kills them both, then finds he can't hear Clyde any longer. When the police arrive Claude laments, "We're no longer on speaking terms." I rather like this tale because it avoids some of Ditko's usual tropes involving criminals. Often his criminals manipulate others to obtain their sympathy but are, in fact, rotten to the core. This time, he has a criminal who listens to voices in his head and it's not an act - he really is insane. He's still not meant to be sympathetic, but because Ditko doesn't stoop to delivering a lecture, the tale flows in a more engaging manner than it otherwise would have. Also, Claude's wife is drawn as being very voluptuous by Ditko standards; he doesn't usually feature large breasts or exposed cleavage, yet this story has both.

Finally, in an untitled one-page feature, some hazily-defined creatures composed only of lines (seen above) argue that there are no absolutes, only shades of grey. They're apparently saying this in reaction to a mugger being arrested and they're upset when witnesses stand against the mugger. At the end the witnesses scream at the hazy-line-things "Speak for yourself and not for reality!" So this one is very much a Ditko diatribe story, but it's just a page. I'm not sure why he's done so many versions of this kind of story over the decades, but at least this time it was brief.

And there you have it. The art features Ditko at the zenith of his power; the stories run the gamut from predictable to engaging. It's worth owning for the art alone.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Unearthed: 100 Page Super Spectacular's Doctor Mid-Nite

In an earlier installment of Unearthed, I described my first encounter with the DC super hero Doctor Mid-Nite, which sparked off a lifelong interest in the character. However, although I've read many of the good doctor's appearances from the 1970s onward, I've seldom read anything of his original 1940s adventures - and even then, most of the 40s stories I've read were part of his Justice Society of America adventures.

Fortunately, there are fairly inexpensive ways to examine Dr. Mid-Nite's early years. Learning that in the 1970s he appeared in the DC 100-Page Super Spectacular #DC-20 (1973), I obtained a copy for a mere pittance. Along with a Dr. Mid-Nite adventure reprinted from All-American Comics#88 (1947), it also features reprints of Batman, Black Canary, Starman, Wildcat, Blackhawk & Spectre stories. It's a pretty great package, especially considering that the (untitled) Dr. Mid-Nite story was created by Alex Toth, who was as much a man's man as he was an artist's artist. Hit the lights and I'll guide you through the story!

we open on a criminal named Logger trying to convince a bald-headed crime boss called the Tarantula that Dr. Mid-Nite is really Charles McNider, who "writes the Dr. Mid-Nite adventures!" Wait, what exactly does that mean? McNider has been his own Dr. Watson to the media? Logger has a chart displaying images of McNider and Mid-Nite side-by-side and notes they have the same height, weight, chest and waist sizes. I don't know where Logger obtained such exact details on these two men - especially a masked super hero! - but perhaps McNider really wasn't trying too hard to conceal his identity? Anyway, the Tarantula isn't convinced by Logger because McNider, after all, is blind. Logger responds by dragging in a sack from which McNider spills out.

Logger explains he was passing by McNider's house when he saw a silhouette against the light which he thought was Dr. Mid-Nite. It turned out to be McNider in his boxers with a towel draped over his shoulders (because McNider is either an exhibitionist or likes to play super hero even when not on duty). Logger kept ogling McNider until McNider noticed him; realizing that meant McNider wasn't really blind, Logger threw his gun at McNider's head and knocked him unconscious, then dragged him away in his sack.

McNider disputes Logger's story, noting that any doctor could verify he's blind. However, the Tarantula has another idea - he'll commit a crime which would normally attract Mid-Nite's attention; if Dr. Mid-Nite doesn't appear, that will prove McNider is really Mid-Nite (or maybe Mid-Nite's out of town with the JSA?). Tarantula begins by gassing a police station so he can rescue the Ramey Gang from their holding cells, but Dr. Mid-Nite does indeed appear and easily defeats Tarantula's gang, but Tarantula himself slips away.

The Tarantula returns to his base to find Logger is still watching McNider, seeming to prove the two are different men. Tarantula orders Logger to murder McNider then exits to another hideout (a roadhouse). However, once Tarantula leaves, McNider simply stands up, his ropes being unfastened. Further, Logger is unconscious and McNider was using ventriloquism and a string attached to Logger's foot to make him seem awake (this seems like way too much effort, McNider!). When Tarantula reaches the roadhouse, Dr. Mid-Nite is already there waiting for him. They scuffle and at one point Tarantula shoots Mid-Nite (in the chest?) but apparently it was barely a scratch because he soon revives and blinds Tarantula by throwing poker chips at him. Returning to Logger, McNider ties himself up again so that when the police arrive, Logger doesn't realize he truly was Dr. Mid-Nite. It's only at this point that McNider reveals (in his thoughts) that he'd hypnotized Logger into falling asleep so that he could get away and stop the Tarantula. Wait, what? He hypnotized Logger while wearing sunglasses? I don't care if he's got excellent night vision, surely his eyes wouldn't otherwise be that powerful? Ah, regardless, we've reached the end of the tale.

THOUGHTS: At its heart, this story has much in common with many of the Silver Age Superman stories - someone thinks they've figured out the hero's identity and said hero goes to ridiculous lengths to restore the status quo. The entire story is predicated on 1) a criminal happens to see McNider wearing his towel and thinks he's Dr. Mid-Nite and 2) McNider reacts to the criminal's presence which makes the criminal think he can see. There are all sorts of good reasons why this evidence shouldn't seem conclusive, but our hero ends up having to tie himself up, repeatedly beat the villains to other locations, hypnotize a guard and employ both ventriloquism and puppeteering to maintain his secret. That's a lot of trouble for such a simple problem.

The story doesn't make much of Dr. Mid-Nite's unique selling points. While a Superman story with a similar plot would have brought in Superman's powers of speed, flight and strength into the tale, Mid-Nite's blackout bombs and infra-red vision are never a factor. At least McNider's blindness is acknowledged as a major plot point.

This was a bit early in Toth's career and comes nowhere near his best work, but he at least managed some nice character designs, notably the long nose and jutting chin on Logger. He also succeeded at telling the story with great economy, considering how much plot had to be covered within only 7 pages.

I thought that when his series began Charles McNider was a physician, but apparently post-war he became a detective mystery author who wrote about Dr. Mid-Nite's adventures. It seems to me there must be a story in why his occupations changed, but I have no idea whether its actually been told.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Feh! Let's go to the movies instead." Andre the Giant: Life and Legend review

"You're gonna be big, son. Bigger than... say, Dave. What's the name of that guy who's really big?"
"...Andre the Giant?"

- Newsradio

The nearest I ever came to being a fan of wrestling was during my childhood in the 1980s when the WWF would broadcast on Saturday afternoons. This was back in the days before 24-hour cartoon broadcasting was possible so, with the day's cartoons finished, my siblings and I occasionally kept the TV on for wrestling. There were all manner of sporting events on Saturdays, yet for some reason I found the WWF a little easier to watch. At that time, I was blind to its status as a "non-sport."

At any rate, it was there that I first saw Andre the Giant.

Although I haven't bothered to watch wrestling in the decades since, nostalgia eventually overpowers all of our memories and so, yes, I do occasionally entertain wistful memories of Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and the rest of their kind. But it wasn't mere nostalgia which compelled me to sample Box Brown's graphic novel Andre the Giant: Life and Legend (published last year by First Second). Simply flipping through the pages and seeing how he had dramatized Andre the Giant's life, I instantly wanted to read it for myself.

It doesn't tell Andre's story in a completely thorough manner, instead dramatizing events from Andre's life in mostly-sequential order, sourcing these moments from interviews and video recordings of the man himself. Consequently, when one person's anecdotes end on one page, a new anecdote begins on the next. It's the comic book equivalent of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Telling the subject's story in this fashion allows writer-artist Brown a way to distance we readers from the material, rather than filling those empty spaces with linking material. It must have been a conscious creative decision and I think it works quite well, as some anecdotes about Andre are funny, some are dramatic and in others he comes across as a rather unlikeable person. It serves to better illustrate the complexity of him as a human being, rather than reducing him to a feel-good Hollywood story.

Speaking of Hollywood, yes, the Princess Bride is covered in several pages worth of anecdotes. My favourite is Rob Reiner's reaction to the size of Andre's bar tab. As this film appearance has become what he's now best-known for - and likely will remain so for generations to come - it's nice to see a few anecdotes included, although the book itself is about 80% concerned with his career as a wrestler.

I'm not entirely certain why there seems to be such a large overlap between comic book fans and wrestling fans; I didn't realize it existed until I came online and discovered critics such as Paul O'Brien were as passionate about the wrestling hobby as they were comics. In my early days online I made many friends who would fill up chat logs with wrestling references I never understood. And yet, to my surprise, there is one story in this book which I had (partially) seen for myself - it comes near the end as Andre turned on his friend Hulk Hogan to set up a grudge match between the two. I was actually stunned to find in Brown's adaptation of Hogan wounded expression something I dimly recalled seeing on television back in the 1980s on one of those lazy Saturday afternoons.

Considering the overlap between fans interested in comics and those interested in wrestling, it shouldn't be too surprising to note any of the many attempts to adapt wrestling into comics. And yet, each time these efforts have flopped. Perhaps Box Brown has shown the way to a better union between the two sub-cultures; who knows, perhaps one day I'll snap up the comic book biography of Rowdy Roddy Piper?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A new round of coast-to-coast media promotion!

Once again I'm in the news - this time appearing in an article for the Calgary Herald. Canadians continue to be fascinated by the character Nelvana of the Northern Lights and, as a decently-educated and willing comics scholar, I've again submitted to their wishes. You may read the Calgary Herald article (with video) here! The story has also run in various other city papers, including Vancouver, Regina & Ottawa.

I'm sure I made some errors - like, it occurred to me later that if you consider Fantomah a super hero then she predates Nelvana. I suppose it comes down to semantics, like whether you think the Phantom is a super hero or not.

Anyway, I much prefer these interviews to the sort I did back in my Marvel days - I found it difficult to talk passionately about the Marvel projects while knowing the interviews were primarily intended to serve as marketing. Now I'm not selling anything and I think I'm a lot more authentic.