Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Either kill me, or gear up." Deathstroke #1 review

When did I last purchase a DC super hero comic? That is, a brand-new book? It was before the New 52. It was before Flashpoint. Was it around Brightest Day? It's been so long; but that magic name "Christopher Priest" brought me back.

Priest has essentially been in self-imosed exile from comics (barring Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody) until editors offered him an assignment outside of the "black book" ghetto. It only took 12 years for someone to consider him as writer for a white super hero! Progress! Paired with artist Carlo Pagulayan (who is apparently not yet a big name despite drawing Planet Hulk, one of the best super hero comics of the 21st century), Priest is back with... Deathstroke #1!

So DC Comics is offering their comics for less than any of their competitors - $2.99 when almost everyone else has upped the price to $3.99. I like saving money, so that gives Deathstroke a lot of rope - which is good because I can't muster up much affection for the character. He was the breakout villain of Marv Wolfman & George Perez's New Teen Titans, but beginning in the 2000s he became ridiculously overblown, seeming to have a major fight with the Titans every calendar year and suddenly becoming a man who could go toe-to-toe with Flashes and Green Lanterns.

So what we have here is continuing from whatever DC's been doing with the character since the New 52. Based on this, Deathstroke is a superhuman mercenary who accepts a job in Africa to kill the super-villain Clock King. En route, Deathstroke remembers how he treated his sons while they were growing up (fun fact: Deathstroke is historically better at ruining his own children's lives than he is fighting the Titans; he's basically Doctor Light with a sword). When Deathstroke learns his old friend Wintergreen is being held nearby he switches plans to rescue him.

Priest is back to the non-linear style with sections introduced by "chapter" breaks, first seen in Quantum & Woody. He used this during his first year of Black Panther, but only because editorial asked him to; one wonders if DC is likewise responsible for him reverting to this style. I won't complain - it's distinctive. At the same time, it makes his comics a little more challenging to comprehend than your typical fare. I fully expect this first issue will read differently once the first storyarc is completed and more details about what's going on surface.

Pagulayan's art looks great, with the colouring by Jeremy Cox helping to set scenes apart through blues (flashbacks), oranges (exposition) and greens (story). There's not much of Priest's trademark humour to be found, but I'm pleased enough with this book and elated to finally have Priest back in comics on a regular basis.

Friday, August 26, 2016

"Your viciousness blackened me!" Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #19 review

Steve Ditko's publisher Robin Snyder recently released another new Ditko comic, Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #19. They are currently preparing another one via Kickstarter, so check it out if you're any kind of Ditko fan.

The new book is (like all Ditko-Snyder titles) a black & white book. As the Mysterious Traveler property seems to be in the public domain now and because of Ditko's history drawing for that title at Charlton in the 1950s, he and Snyder have revived it as a series of part-new part-old stories. This issue contains seven Ditko stories, with the leading one the only new tale.

Said new tale, "Both Ways," concerns a scientist who takes out his rivals by planting a bomb in their room then confronting them while wearing bomb-proof armor so he can gloat before they die. However, one of the victims' sister vows revenge. Another recent tale is "Your Shadow Knows," in which a killer is tormented by his own shadow, which refuses to serve as a collaborator to an evil man; Ditko has a great history with living shadows, such as this fellow from his Marvel days.

Only two of the tales actually include the Mysterious Traveler, but at least there's enough to validate the book's title. One tale, "Test of a Man" features have shadows and thick lines quite unlike what Ditko is known for - different, but I like it. I wouldn't be surprised to learn he had an inker on that story

I should also note after my disappointment with Jim Salicrup's introduction in yesterday's post that Snyder's introduction opens with a proper reference to the Mysterious Traveler intro and closes by referencing the outro. See how easy it is when you put in more than a token effort?

My Kickstarter rewards included a copy of 2009's Ditko Once More. It's a collection of some of Ditko's more didatic writings about objectivism, the sort of arch straw man tales he's frequently told on his own. However, one of these is actually quite good! In it, one man (his usual straw man type) argues there are no truths; the other makes the above argument, to which the first must concede. This gentler, funnier side of Ditko should come out more often - it makes his editorials much more entertaining.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

"I have no stake in this. It's just my responsibility." Review of Trevor Von Eeden's Mysterious Traveler

The Mysterious Traveler enjoyed a long life on radio from 1943-1952. It was a decent radio program, offering tales of crime with the occasional supernatural or science fiction bend. Some scripts were resued on the shows The Strange Dr. Weird and The Sealed Book, although they had to trim scenes for time. I don't believe the series is one of the greats in its genre - Suspense, Escape, Lights Out, Quiet, Please and even Inner Sanctum Mysteries outstrip it in terms of quality scripts, performances and chills. Probably the best episode is "Behind the Locked Door," which I believe was the very first episode I heard.

The most memorable part of the show were the introduction and conclusion; set aboard a train, the Mysterious Traveler would introduce himself to the listener and promise to tell them a story to "thrill you a little and chill you a little." At the end he would always be in the midst of describing some further detail about the tale just told, only to interrupt himself and say, "But you have to get off here, I'm sorry, but I'm sure we'll meet again; I take this same train every week at the same time."

However, I am not blogging about the radio show today; instead, let's talk comics: Charlton published a Mysterious Traveler comic book from 1956-1959, with many stories illustrated by the great Steve Ditko. In these, the Mysterious Traveler was no longer aboard a train but still narrated the tales within, garbed in a hat and trenchcoat. It's remained an iconic work in Ditko's bibliography and he has self-published two new issues recently with Robin Snyder (more about them tomorrow).

In-between the 1950s Mysterious Traveler and 2010s Mysterious Traveler, we have the 2000s Mysterious Traveler, published by Moonstone Books. In the early-to-mid-2000s, Moonstone published a series of "Moonstone Noir" comics, offering reinterpretations of old-time radio characters which had lapsed into the public domain. Purist and snob that I am, I ignored them at the time, but recently I came across The Mysterious Traveler: Nobody Rides for Free, a trade collection of both of their Mysterious Traveler comics. Noting the art was by Trevor Von Eeden, I decided to give it a shot.

Von Eeden reinterprets the Mysterious Traveler (here, "John Smith") as an African-American man with a mustache wearing glasses, a hat and an overcoat, appearing to be middle-aged. The coat and hat recalls Ditko's Traveler, but the cover artists seem confused about how to draw Von Eeden's figure - in one cover (by Dennis Calero), he has no glasses or mustache and looks to be in his 30s; in another (the cover above by Michael Stribling) he has the mustache but wears sunglasses which again seem to youthen him.

Within the trade are three stories, the first two drawn by Von Eeden with scripts by Joe Gentile. In both tales, John Smith confronts a person aboard a train; the person is confused about why they're there and can't recall recent events in their lives. Smith begins telling them their past and by the end, he enacts vengeance upon someone(s) who has done wrong (not necessarily the person he's speaking to). The setting is the same as the radio show, but the character is basically enacting justice in the style of the 1972 Tales from the Crypt movie.

Von Eeden was in fine form (as usual) when drawing this series. Published in black and white, there are no colouring effects to enhance his art - but he didn't need them! It seems appropriate for him to have followed in Ditko's footsteps here, what with my discovery from a recent interview how Von Eeden is, like Ditko, an admirer of Ayn Rand (back down, boys! she's taken! also, dead). Von Eeden's art is helpfully enhanced through the tones provided by Ken Wolak (1st story) and Wally Lowe (2nd story). The art of tones is not one frequently commented upon and I'm not educated to the point where I could describe it helpfully, but I will say the shadows added by tones enhance the stories' feelings of uncertainty and mystery.

The final story is also written by Joe Gentile, but the art is provided by Walter Figueroa. In this short tale, new for the trade, Smith helps another person resolve their afterlife then has a discussion with the train's engineer in which the engineer informs Smith of the reason he's aboard the train. This tale doesn't quite match the others - not only because it's not by Von Eeden, but also is printed on pages with white borders rather than the black borders found throughout the earlier tales.

There is one very unfortunate part in this collection, and that is the introduction by Jim Salicrup. Salicrup had nothing to do with the production of these stories and seems to have been given the task because he was friends with the Moonstone staff. He knows nothing about the Mysterious Traveler, openly admitting he learned about the radio show on Wikipedia and the comic from Overstreet (I think even in 2009 a bit of internet searching would lead you to online copies of the radio show and scans of the Charlton comic). He has nothing to say about Gentile or Von Eeden and instead plugs his own work. Simply disgraceful. Moonstone should have sought someone who was either well-informed on the Mysterious Traveler, or who could speak about Gentile & Von Eeden from a personal or professional perspective.

Moonstone, I know you're still out there. You know who I am. Next time you need an introduction, ask me - you can absolutely afford my rates.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Who Knew? Two Shadow comic book reviews (900th post)

I kinda like the Shadow. I came to the character through the old radio show; it could be campy and juvenile at times, but had a number of very good episodes. Further, I really liked the 1994 motion picture - and not only because I was compared to Alec Baldwin in that film (I wish!). I've read the first Shadow novel the Living Shadow and many of the comic book interpretations of him; the 1970s DC comic was pretty good; the Archie comic was a travesty, but I found it morbidly fascinating enough to explore in-depth in my series of "Bitter Fruit" posts; and of late he's been published by Dynamite Entertainment.

Dynamite Entertainment is one of those publisher names chosen by publishers who don't really want to be known for making comics (see: Boom! Studios, DC Entertainment). Many of the titles in their output are licensed from various sources. To me, it seems as though Dynamite is always trying to get in on some of the sweet Hollywood-friendly projects in comics; I have to imagine part of the reason they're making comics about Doc Savage, the Phantom and Miss Fury is they know someone in Hollywood is shopping scripts around. And yet, if they are seeking some Hollywood synergy, it has not happened: the Green Hornet; the Lone Ranger; John Carter. All had Dynamite titles, all had disappointing films. Who would watch the farcical film version of the Lone Ranger and decide they'd like to read Dynamite's comic version - which is played straight?

Earlier I posted a negative review of Dynamite's Shadow #1 and have read a few of their Shadow books since. With a recent sale going on at Comixology, I elected to try the first issues of two recent Shadow comics: Justice, Inc. #1 and Twilight Zone: The Shadow #1.

Justice, Inc. teams up the Shadow with Doc Savage and the Avenger, two other pulp heroes published by Street & Smith (I've blogged before about the Avenger's comic by Jack Kirby). Team-ups are another thing Dynamite rather likes - they keep trying high-concepts like "Gold Key shared universe," "Jack Kirby shared universe," "King Features shared universe," "public domain shared universe," and so forth. This season: "Street & Smith shared universe."

The cover of Justice, Inc. #1 by Alex Ross prompts another digression (I promise, we'll get to the comic eventually): Dynamite made their name through the use of variant covers. You could say they're the company Alex Ross built, given the ubiquity of his covers. But then, Ross seldom does interior work art for them. Indeed, while they often snap up great cover artists (John Cassaday, Darwyn Cooke, Francesco Francavilla) and have hired a pretty good crop of big name writers (Garth Ennis, Matt Wagner, Roger Langridge) the interior art is usually made by someone you've never heard of before; pointing again to my review of the Shadow #1, that's a problem when the storytelling goes wrong. Dynamite seldom seems to hire proven talent, talent who many previous successes. Indeed, few even seem to go on to wider acclaim. There's always a chance that Dynamite may discover a major new talent, but they tend to lack the combination of established names and up-and-coming names found at the likes of Boom!, Valiant or IDW.

Justice, Inc. #1 is written by Michael Uslan and drawn by Giovanni Timpano (many Dynamite artists seem to be from Italy). Michael Uslan is famous for being the man who snapped up the film rights to Batman and Swamp Thing back when they were going for a song and has been linked the Batman films ever since. He's also written the Shadow before and seems to have a lot of affection for heroes of the 30s & 40s. He was also, unfortunately, responsible for the 1990s revival of Terry and the Pirates which transformed Terry Lee into a totally radical 90s teen. It was drawn by the Brothers Hildebrandt which absolutely guaranteed beautitful art, but - seriously - don't look it up. You will cringe.

Although the series is titled after the Avenger's organization, he's not quite in the comic - in fact, the story, set primarily iin 1939, is before he's become the Avenger and it appears his origin is being set up through this series. Thus, there are none of his operatives appearing. For that matter, Doc Savage's operatives (the Fabulous Five) are absent, with him instead dallying with H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein & Howard Hughes (the League of Fair Use Gentlemen?). Also strange is that although all three men operated in the same time frame in the pulps, the story concerns the Doc Savage of contemporary times time-travelling to 1939. Perhaps the plan is for there to be two Doc Savages in this story? In fact, '39 Savage doesn't even have the Man of Bronze's distinctive appearance; of them all, only the Shadow is fully developed in 1939 and his pulp foe the Voodoo Master is the antagonist.

Like so many comic books of the 21st century, the cover(s) promises something which does not happen (the Avenger, Shadow & Doc Savage do not meet. It seems frequently that what you see on the cover of #1 won't appear in the interiors 'til #6. In fact, the story seems instead to be getting the drop on Twilight Zone: The Shadow with what have to be intentional references to Twilight Zone episodes "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (something on the wing of an airplane) and "The Odyssey of Flight 33" (time-travelling airplane passengers see dinosaurs).

Even if you've never read the Avenger, you'd never guess his wife and daughter were about to die, would you?

I understood the events of Justice, Inc. #1, but there simply isn't much of a plot; it's primarily set up, teasing the Avenger's origin, establishing the Shadow, establishing the Shadow's "other self" Lamont Cranston; establishing the Voodoo Master, introducing two Doc Savages, sending one Doc Savage back in time... it simply runs out of pages. People who love these characters and have faith in Uslan will not doubt follow it to the end. As a casual Shadow fan and a non-fan of the Avenger and Doc Savage, I won't finish this series.

Twilight Zone: The Shadow #1 comes with a beautiful cover by Francesco Francavilla, one of my favourite artists. How can you possibly tell a Twilight Zone crossover with the Shadow when said program was an anthology series with no recurring elements? The cover begins to hint this can be done as Francavilla has essentially dropped the Shadow into the TV show's opening credits. The story itself is by David Avallone (writer) and Dave Acosta (artist). I am not familiar with either man, but Avallone's IMDB page credits him with all kinds of film & television work from VR Troopers to what appears to be a series of softcore porn video work. And nothing say "good writing" like porn! Dynamite brought him into comics which seems like validation to my Dynamite-wants-to-be-in-pictures theory. Dave Acosta seems to have made his entire professional career drawing for Dynamite. Can anything good come from this concept by these creators? Let us see!

Even people who may not have ever seen the Twilight Zone may use it in conversation, say when a strange coincidence occurs ("you've just entered the Twilight Zone!"). The Twilight Zone's stories are best-recalled as nightmarish scenes of people having inexplicable encounters with the paranormal, losing their identity and their very control over reality. This is much of what occurs in Twilight Zone: the Shadow. The story opens with the Shadow attacking a Nazi rally in the US, then having a car accident. When he wakes up, he's Lamont Cranston, the man who the Shadow often poses as (on the radio Lamont & the Shadow were the same person, but in the pulps they were separate). A fight with a very pulpy-looking Shiwan Khan occurs, Lamont seems to die - then finds himself transformed into Orson Welles, about to perform the radio episode "The Temple Bells of Neban"! What a great cliffhanger!

Amazingly, this odd concept delivers where the seemingly-straightforward concept of Justice, Inc. faltered. By the end of the issue, the reader has seen the Shadow's reality collapse around him and seen the character confronted with his own fictional nature. It works! We have a weird mystery with the hero's sanity on the line and we have the Shadow leaping into action and fighting familiar foes. It is a legitimate Twlight Zone comic and a legitimate Shadow comic. Author Avallone's past history didn't give me confidence, but this was ultimately a fun read and one I intend to follow up and complete.

Winners: David Avallone; the Twilight Zone; the Shadow
Losers: Alex Ross; the Avenger; the Fabulous Five

Friday, August 19, 2016

Latent Hostility

The cover of Pep Comics #44 (art by Bob Montana, 1943):
I have no mouth and I must scream

The most striking thing about this cover is the terrifying visage of Archie Andrews, transmorgified into a living football. The second most striking thing is to consider who's kicking him: The Shield. The Shield was once the leading character published by the company which became Archie Comics; that the publisher is now called Archie Comics tells you what the future portended for the Shield. In that respect, at least he got a good kick in while he could.

Archie took another attempt at super heroes in the 1960s, reviving most of their 40s heroes but their 60s super hero books are considered some of the worst super hero stories ever printed by a major publisher. Covers such as the above Josie #22 (1966, Dan DeCarlo art) demonstrated their thinly-veiled contempt for the rising popularity of Marvel Comics and the Batmania craze.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Weak Tea

I recently saw at the A.V. Club how Larry Wilmore's program the Nightly Show is being cancelled. Comments from readers at the site can be largely summed up as, "I'm disappointed, but then again I stopped watching the show."

At the time of its launch, I was quite interested in the Nightly Show. I hadn't watched much of its predecessor the Colbert Report in the years prior to its end, but having enjoyed Wilmore on the Daily Show I wanted to see his program succeed. Further, the format of the show - a panel discussion - initially impressed me. In the past I had tried to watch Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect because his panelists would frequently have compelling points-of-view - but I gave up on Maher's show because all too often there would be panelists who only wanted to mug for the camera and had nothing to contribute, thus dragging down the whole enterprise.

But at first I thought the Nightly Show would sidestep that problem; early panelists seemed to be composed by experts on the subjects at hand, rather than being filled out with celebrities. Sure, some of Wilmore's own staff of comedians seldom had worthwhile ideas to share on the panel, but on the balance it was working for me.

It all came down in what - for me - was "the notorious Alex Wagner episode." The subject for the panel was centered on the Boston Marathon bomber. Wilmore started off on a troubling note by stating they wouldn't be arguing about the death penalty because he was in favour of it in this case. Wagner was noticeably put out by that declaration. As a follow-up, a comedian on the panel then joked the bomber should be given a sex change then raped. He thought it was so funny he repeated it several times. Wagner was not amused and when the show went to commercial, she vanished. Wilmore made it sound like this had been planned in advance.

Enraged by this episode - feeling it a betrayal of the supposed-liberal viewpoint the Stewart/Colbert/Wilmore programs had shared and that it had indulged to the same "most outrageous commenter wins the debate" tactics of Politically Incorrect, I went online to find others who shared my outrage. But I found practically nothing. When Colbert or Stewart upset their fans, you could count on left-wingers wringing their hands or right-wingers shaking their fingers. I saw no such response to the Nightly Show. And why was that? Because that show did not matter.

For me the show ended more than a year ago. I'm certain Wilmore will come out of this okay. And yet, I have to admit to feeling a sense of vindictiveness. I loathed what he allowed to happen in that episode and if this cancellation had happened then, I'd be cheering. Thus, here I've unleashed these feelings I've bottled up; as the show moves on, so shall I.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

RIP Jack Davis

On July 27, Jack Davis passed away. He was yet another artist featured by Atlas in the 1950s. My favourite Davis work at Atlas were his westerns - he did a few Rawhide Kid stories and drew the adventures of a lesser-known character the Gunsmoke Kid, who had an interesting backstory (I wrote up the Gunsmoke Kid's biography for Marvel Westerns: Outlaw Files). His loose, jangly style gave his western comics a little more jive than most. When his characters leapt into action, you felt the thrill.

But Davis isn't remembered mainly for his Atlas work, but rather his EC stories. Personally, I don't feel he entirely fits in with the other horror artists of the day - there's something a little too upbeat about his lines versus those of Graham Ingels or Bernie Krigstein. Still, he did produce one of the most notorious horror stories of the 50s - "Foul Play" - which, come to think of it, is probably more acceptable under his pen than most of the other EC artists ("Foul Play" is the story where a baseball player is torn up and his body parts used to decorate the ball field).

EC's Mad Magazine turned out to be the perfect place for him; in fact, even before I knew his name I associated his art with Mad (ditto Sergio Aragones). Whether it was a Davis-drawn commercial advertisement or motion picture poster, to me Davis was Mad. He was one of the first to join the Usual Gang of Idiots and he shall be missed.