Wednesday, December 28, 2016

RIP: Carrie Fisher

I did not know Carrie Fisher, but for most of my life I have known Leia Organa; she was one of my heroes.

Over the past few days as word of Carrie Fisher's heart attack circulated on social media, culminating in her death yesterday, I saw many people articulating what she meant to them. Mention was made of her personal struggles, her family, her wider career and accomplishments. But, to quote Max von Sydow in The Force Awakens: "She'll always be royalty to me."

Once again, I find myself feeling well-disposed towards Star Wars; I liked The Force Awakens and Rogue One. That being the case, I'm better able to connect emotionally with my long-held affection towards the cast of characters. The protagonists of the original three Star Wars films loomed large in my childhood and Princess Leia Organa was both pivotal and unique - not only the most significant female character in the films but the only one with an arc or more than one scene of dialogue.

I was surprised to find out in the 1990s that many Star Wars fans of my age considered Leia a sex symbol and salivated over the slave outfit she wore in Return of the Jedi. To me, she was one of the guys. Similarly, my favourite character wasn't Han Solo (unlike many), who was, to me, the hero's best friend. I liked Luke Skywalker more than any of the characters and Leia being Luke's sister was a development I wholeheartedly approved of - everyone got to be happy! Rather than a body to be glared at, I took Leia as one of the heroes - feisty, sharp-tongued, heroic. She could fight, plot, snark and in every other means match wits with any of the other characters. She even seemed to spark the 1980s fascination with male-centered action heroes taking on one member who would be "the female one." With few exceptions (G.I. Joe's Scarlett) such heroines were not the equals of their male comrades, unlike Leia.

Part of my affection for Leia stems from the relationship I have with my own sister; to some extent I thought of the Princess Leia action figures as "girl's toys" and was happy to let my sister collect them. Still, eventually I obtained a figure of Leia in her Hoth outfit and it received a lot of play from me. Frankly, the adventures I had with my Star Wars toys were incomplete 'til I began adding Leia to them.

I felt a little uncertain of Carrie Fisher's return to the role in The Force Awakens - not because of her appearance (she sure looked like Leia to me) but because her voice seemed to have aged so much, sounding older than her actual age. Regardless, it was emotional to see her again; it will no doubt be all the more emotional when I see her again next winter - for the final time.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

Your humble blogger wishes you and yours a very merry, very happy Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Really dumb, maybe, but here goes..." Angel Catbird Volume 1 review

Although Margaret Atwood is one of the best-known authors of my homeland I haven't made an effort to read her books; I've always had a perception that she wrote for a female audience - hence, not me. However, recently Atwood has entered that male-dominated field of fiction we call super hero comic books. No, seriously, she has. I cannot make this up. First Michael Chabon came slumming into comics after winning the Pulitzer, now here's Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood making an old-fashioned super hero comic!

Based on the introduction, Atwood has a fondness for comics and an understanding of how they've changed over the years. And yet, she didn't set out to craft a super hero book in the mold of what all the writers in the field are currently doing (which is a mixture of sarcasm, stories about "destiny" and stories about "daddy issues") but instead looks back to that most fertile period we call the Silver Age. Drawn by Johnnie Christmas, Atwood's super hero Angel Catbird is cut of the same cloth as 60s heroes such as the Flash or Spider-Man. An accident with a super-splicer serum merges scientist Strig Feeledus with the DNA of his pet cat and a passing owl, transforming him into a human/cat/owl hybrid super hero! Angel Catbird quickly learns there are many other creatures like him called "half-cats," some people cats who turn into cat-people and the others people who become person-cats.

I found the most remarkable thing about this comic to be its earnestness. There have been many other comics which have tried to tap into the spirit of the Silver Age, but they tend to see it through the eyes of contemporary comics, such as Dean Haspiel's The Fox which added gore to a straightforward Silver Age comics premise, or the many times the Silver Age has been equated with "silly origins and talking gorillas." Although Angel Catbird is frequently very funny (there are many cat puns to be found) and the conflict (cat people vs. rat people) is, on the face of it, ridiculous, the cast of characters treat these situations with the utmost gravity.

While Angel Catbird owes a great debt to Spider-Man, he's far from being a parody of that character. Like Spider-Man, Angel Catbird is given space to angst, to ponder, to gush over a pretty female. The difference is that Angel Catbird's angst comes from his hybrid nature. Is he a man, a cat or an owl? When faced with a baby bird in danger will he save it, or eat it? Will the cool cats ever accept him into their ranks? How does Cate Leone really feel about him?

They don't make 'em like Angel Catbird anymore. It's a fun book with a lot of heart, as Atwood uses the material to make various pleas for cat owners to treat their pets safely and humanely. It's a (dare I say it) purr-fect book for teens. Unfortunately, Dark Horse is retailing this 72 page story as a $20 hardcover which is a very inconvenient price point. This material longs to be a $10 paperback and, if Dark Horse has any sense, should be sent to book fairs and into school catalogs across North America. Atwood has additional Angel Catbird volumes planned, with the 2nd arriving in February. I dig that cat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Unearthed: Tigerman #2!

Welcome back! In case you missed it, I unearthed Atlas Comics' Tigerman #1 here. Much has changed between issues and the big changes start with the cover:

The Grand Comics Database credits this cover to artist Frank Thorne. As covers are typically produced before the issue's interior art, the absence of issue #1's artist Ernie Colon is quite notable - he didn't so much as contribute the subsequent cover, much less the interior. This cover feels like an attempted do-over of the character to reintroduce him after the debut issue's underwhelming image. Here, we have a series of dynamic action shots and the words "He stalks the night!" Tiger-Man's face is also much more fearsome - no longer a long-faced sad sack. Also visible is a costumed criminal for Tiger-Man to fight, a caucasian man wearing a blue outfit with leopard spots (not quite, as the interior will demonstrate).

Perhaps the first big change in the series is the hero's name - no longer is he "Tigerman" but rather "Tiger-Man" - thus, his cover logo is no longer an aberration. Likewise, this issue has a title and credits! We have here "Stalker in a Concrete Jungle!" by Gerry Conway and Steve Ditko (the GCD says Frank Giacoia inked Ditko here). The lettering is likewise improved, no longer the stiff machine font from before. These are minor victories, but we shall savour them.

We open on a robbery as three men in yellow & red uniforms have blasted their way out of a bank with sacks of money in their hands. Tiger-Man follows the crooks but a pair of security guards catch up to the robbers first. The crooks eagerly show the powers their special suits grant them, which include bulletproof armor and an electrifying punch. Now that he knows their powers, Tiger-Man pounces! "The name is Tiger-Man! Remember it well, friend! Take it with you to Hell!" Tiger-Man seems to kill two of the thieves with his claws and tears at the third one, demanding to know who gave them their technology; the terrified criminal finally blurts out the name Professor Anderson Kobart; Tiger-Man lets the last criminal live.

As Tiger-Man departs via the rooftops he is suddenly himself tracked by another figure - man garbed in an orange costume with leopard spots. This is the correctly-coloured Blue Leopard who is not white, but black - and Zambian! Tiger-Man is shocked to hear Blue Leopard call him "Dr. Hill," and Blue Leopard refers to Na'Bantu, the evil witch doctor from Tiger-Man's origin. But what exactly is the connection between the two of them? This is not the time for Tiger-Man to find out as Blue Leopard knocks him out with his poison-tipped claws.

Tiger-Man recalls his origin as he slumbers (handy, for those who came in late) and awakens in the early dawn to find Blue Leopard left him alone after drugging him. Racing to his job at Harlem Hospital, Dr. Hill quickly goes to work assisting his patients. It should be noted that Hill's long floppy hair is a visual which Ditko's style is not accustomed to - Ditko's heroes tend to have short haircuts. Finally, when his duties are complete, Hill sets out to investigate the Professor Kobart mentioned before. En route to Kobart's office, Tiger-Man ponders how easily he's taken to killing enemies and wonders about the need for vengeance he's felt since his sister's death. He feels that when he finds Kobart, he will probably kill again. It's a textbook monologue, straight out of Stan Lee's playbook.

Tiger-Man bursts into Kobart's office, only to find the scientist dead. Waiting for Tiger-Man is the Blue Leopard, who had overheard Kobart's name when Tiger-Man interrogated the criminal. Blue Leopard finally explains his origins, revealing how after Dr. Hill left Zambia their village suffered a terrible famine and 200 people died. Na'Bantu placed the blame on Dr. Hill and gave "the skin of the sacred leopard" to one of his followers, the man who is now the Blue Leopard. This skin is enchanted and grants him powers similar to Tiger-Man (even though Tiger-Man's powers come from science). Blue Leopard explains his plan is to repeatedly humiliate Tiger-Man before killing him.

Another fight breaks out between the two of them, with Tiger-Man deftly avoiding Blue Leopard's claws until they hear police sirens approaching. Blue Leopard chooses to depart and let Tiger-Man explain Kobart's body. As a final taunt he tells the hero "Tonight was just a dry run, Dr. Hill. There are still things you have to learn about me... and learn them, you will... before you die!" Recalling his own intent to kill Kobart, Tiger-Man is left wondering if he and Blue Leopard truly are alike - if Tiger-Man could be turning into a madman.

The series still has no editorials but there is a house ad for other Atlas Comics, which gives this book some sense of identity.

Comments: How strange is it to find a comic book character from Zambia - a costumed character no less! Reading the comic I kept hoping Blue Leopard would prove to be a misguided character with a noble heart, but that doesn't appear to be where Conway intended to take the character. We'll see where this plot goes in issue #3, I'm interested in finding out how it ends!

And what a change, eh, to have a sense of continuity already? The previous issue's events are recalled and from Tiger-Man's origin a new character is forged. The lackluster Tigerman #1 is somewhat shored up by the work Conway performed here. Conway and Ditko are two men who can deliver an acceptable super hero comic book in their sleep and they were certainly awake while crafting this one. Ditko brings the dynamic action which a character like Tiger-Man desperately requires. Ditko's visuals of the hero leaping and climbing are impressive and the fight choreography is top-notch (unlike Colon). This is not a remarkable find, but comparing to Colon's work, it shows how effortlessly Ditko could make drawing super hero comics seem. Ditko is often quite minimalist in his designs and that's true of Tiger-Man - he strips everything down to only what's needed to get the story told. Conway, for his part, wrote a straight forward plot with a hint of mystery. Good on them.

The next installment of Unearthed will bring you Tigerman #3! Look for it in January!

Monday, December 19, 2016

"I am one with the force." Rogue One remarks

Here we are, doomed to spend the rest of our lives seeing the Star Wars brand diminished year after year as film after film is rushed to the multiplex in order to shore up this bloated, putrescent franchise.

Yet I liked Rogue One. Spoilers to follow.

I didn't read any articles about Rogue One going into the film, relying mostly on the trailer to give me a sense of what the picture would be like. It appeared to be a bit grimmer than what Star Wars normally is and was dealing with a bit of continuity minutiae which really didn't need to be followed up on at all. I've already seen people online claiming this film solved "plot holes" from the original Star Wars as people today have not really bothered to educate themselves on what a "plot hole" is.

It's needless, but then, what film is needed? It tells the story of how the Death Star plans were originally captured, largely because that's a piece of Star Wars mythology which people already know about and is thus fertile fodder for a stand-alone motion picture with a cast of unfamiliar protagonists. In a way, much like the similarities The Force Awakens had to the first Star Wars, Rogue One plays it safe.

But now that I am clicking on articles and reading reactions from my friends I'm seeing many criticisms of the picture such as the "Uncanny Valley" effects used to recreate 1977 vintage Tarkin & Leia (I wasn't bothered by the effects at all - then again, I saw it at a 3D showing, perhaps it looks less-convincing on flat film?).

I've also seen complaints about the tone of the movie. My friend (and former colleague) Peter Sanderson complained on Facebook:

"It was unremittingly grim and dark, literally so. with little light or color, with no sense of joy or hope, no human warmth, no characters who inspired empathy, no sense of wonder. The movie just dragged on and onwithout ever feeling inspired to me."

On the flip side, Todd Alcott has a reaction which I feel elucidates why I'm more pleased with the film than Peter: "If one goes into a movie with a set of expectations and those expectations are unfulfilled, sometimes one’s response is to spend the running time looking for the movie expected instead of watching the one being screened."

But to Peter's point: yes, Rogue One is a grim story. It's set in the days before "A New Hope," after all. By the end of the film, all six of the protagonists are dead, giving their lives to retrieve the Death Star plans, which are then transferred to Leia.

This bleak-yet-hopeful climax didn't bother me in the way it bothered Peter; after all, I'm a Halo fan.

Halo: Reach was the first Halo game I played on the day of its original release; I had been watching videos to prepare myself for all the combat changes and new strategies. And while I had not read the novel The Fall of Reach which originally established the battle of Reach, I had gleaned details online - primarily, that the reason why the Master Chief seemed to be the last Spartan left for the war with the Covenant in the original Halo trilogy is that all the other Spartans died on Reach.

From the start, I knew the character I was playing (Noble 6) and his teammates (Noble Team) were destined to die, and they did. And yet, it ends on an emotional, hopeful note. As in Rogue One, the team are trying to relay important data - that is, the character of Cortana - to an escaping ship. Noble Team die so that Cortana can live and thus enable the Halo trilogy to occur. Notably, the game was promoted with a trailer entitled: "Deliver Hope."

A grim sci-fi tale where everyone dies for a just cause is A-O-K by me. I suppose where the comparison between Rogue One and Halo: Reach breaks down (and Peter would agree) is in terms of character - that Noble Team's personalities and relationships were demonstrated very cleanly and efficiently so that as the team died the player would (hopefully) have an emotional reaction. However, I had difficulty connecting to the crew of Rogue One; perhaps it's because of reshoots but I feel the film needed more time for the characters to sit down and interact with other rather than advancing the plot (or do both at once). The characters spend a considerable amount of time simply getting into the same room as each other and then keep going on journeys to other places; perhaps if they'd all met in the first 15 minutes then spent the rest of the film working on the main problem (getting the Death Star plans) they'd gel better. There's a moment near the end of the film where Jiang Wen's character Baze calls Felicity Jones' Jyn "little sister." It was cute, but I didn't have a sense of the two sharing any form of rapport prior to that bit.

However, to some extent what I'm asking for is more; I'm not unhappy with what the film offered, I simply want more of it. I truly enjoyed Donnie Yen's character Chirrut and wished he'd had more dialogue and exploration of his philosophy. There was something instinctively likeable about Riz Ahmed's Bodhi and I wanted some more character beats from him. I would have appreciated getting into the head of Diego Luna's character Cassian for more than one conversation.

If I had any trepidation about this film it was because the director of the underwhelming Godzilla was back. Given his previous love of refusing to give fans what they wanted to see I was pleased to see he's now adapted himself to his current audience, loading in the expected fan service (to the point where I laughed when Gold Leader & Red Leader appeared) and framing action scenes so that you can - get this - understand what's happening! Good on you, Gareth Edwards.

You've probably already seen or are going to see Rogue One. But, on the off-chance that you aren't sure and you do love Halo: Reach then you and I meet on the same Venn diagram. In that spirit, enjoy the picture.

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Can you really talk to animals?" The Legend of Tarzan review

I certainly don't pretend to be a Tarzan expert; although I have enjoyed some Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, the Tarzan books haven't interested me; I've watched a few Tarzan movies and found them basically unremarkable (or disastrously awful); and while comic books are one of my favourite mediums and the Tarzan comic strip is considered legendary, I find it overwritten and uninteresting.

And yet, I became fascinated by this year's film The Legend of Tarzan. Certainly fans of the novels were excited as this film drew in references to the tribes, apes and locales which had heretofore been ignored in film adaptations and I was happy to see these fans pleased. However, my interest in this film didn't come from the Burroughs novels but a different book entirely: Adam Hochchild's King Leopold's Ghost.

During my first visit to Africa in 2011 I found the book King Leopold's Ghost in my uncle's study (where my bed was) and began reading it in the evenings. This book made an indelible impression on me and how I came to interpret the history of Africa. Perhaps it sounds strange to you that while I was living day-to-day in contemporary Africa I spent my nights delving into historical Africa, but King Leopold's Ghost gave me an education which I sorely needed, as nothing in my formal education had delved into the African continent. I had wondered why colonialism was considered an evil practice and this book explained why: because, at it's heart, it makes entire nations into slave states.

Thus, when I learned two of the real people I learned of in that book - George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) - were characters in this new Tarzan picture. Fictionalized versions of both men, to be sure, but I was fascinated to see elements from King Leopold's Ghost working their way into mainstream popular culture.

The Legend of Tarzan was a fairly decent picture, as it happens. Alexander Skarsgard played him as yet another hero-who-resists-the-call-thank-you-for-ruining-pop-culture-Joseph-Campbell character but his initial reasons for denying his identity as a jungle lord were interesting and it meant the film gradually worked its way up to the familiar image of shirtless, vine-swining Tarzan.

It's kind of disappointing to see the once-great Djimon Hounsou reduced to playing bad guys (as in here and Guardians of the Galaxy) but his character was at least given some dignity. It also helped that while Hounsou character is basically the stock evil African chief character, he's not the primary antagonist - Leon Rom and his fellow white colonialists are the true villains. Tarzan is likewise less of a great white saviour in this film as he shares the heroic spotlight with Williams and many of the fantastic feats Tarzan performs are shown to be things other Africans. It staves off the many assumptions and implications of earlier Tarzan tales.

The film is mostly a reasonably believable historical picture but for the film's Jane, played by Margot Robbie. Robbie's Jane has a cynical edge which feels a little too 21st century in perspective. In one notable instance, Rom talks to Jane about the rosary his Catholic priest gave him. "Sounds like you were very close," Jane remarks acidly. We of the 21st century understand that Robbie's Jane is alluding to Rom's priest having a pedophiliac interest in him when he was a child, but does that make sense in a story set well over 100+ years ago? To whatever extent that practice was going on in Rom's day and time it was definitely much less-publicized than today. Indeed, Rom makes no visible reaction to Jane's remark as Waltz plays him as a man of his own time, not an anachronism like Robbie's performance.

It's a perfectly decent film, a lot more sober than the typical Tarzan tale.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

100 Years of Kirk Douglas

Isn't it amazing that Kirk Douglas is still alive? He celebrated his 100th birthday two days ago. Douglas starred in one of my all-time favourite films, Paths of Glory.

I often comment when a star of old-time radio has passed away; how about we celebrate Douglas while he's still with us? When his career broke out post-World War II, old-time radio was beginning a decline as television ascended, but Douglas received a lot of attention for his early film roles (one of his best was The Bad and the Beautiful) and - with Burt Lancaster - was seen as quite the promising young turk. That being the case, Douglas made a few OTR appearances, including three visits to the greatest show of them all, Suspense!

Douglas made his first Suspense appearance in 1947 in the drama "Community Property." Douglas portrayed a husband who planned to inherit his wealthy uncle's fortune and wanted to cut his wife out of the deal, lest she claim part of the fortune via community property laws. After the uncle's sudden death, the nephew schemed to cut his wife out immediately!

That same year, Douglas appeared again on Suspense in "The Story of Markham's Death," a drama in which he played a hack mystery author who discovered a lost Edgar Allan Poe story which featured a new type of mystery tale (I love Edgar Allan Poe, but is it credible that after 100+ years of writers exploiting every possible angle there would be something Poe thought of first?). This being Suspense, Douglas must resort to murder to claim the lost Poe story for himself.

Three years later, Douglas struck again with "The Butcher's Wife," possibly the greatest of his appearances. In this episode, Douglas was a supermarket clerk who became involved in a triangle involving a butcher. A butcher who was immensely jealous and willing to bring his cleaver down on any piece of meat that got in his way. I featured this one on my blog two years ago as part of my '31 Days of Suspense' October feature.

Please do enjoy the programs!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance creator credits

I kept away from 2011's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance film for a few reasons: I was on my out at Marvel Comics and so didn't feel compelled to keep up with what was going on in their films; the film wasn't from Marvel Studios which was increasingly feeling like the only "true" creator of Marvel films; finally, I had not entirely enjoyed the directors' previous works, finding Crank a bit too crude for me and I wanted to walk out on Gamer (a film I saw on a free pass) but was sitting in the middle of the row and felt too polite to disturb the other patrons.

I selected the film on Netflix simply because it wasn't very long and I felt a sense of obligation as one who studies comics. To my surprise, it wasn't bad. I mean, not great, but not as bad as the reviews suggested. It is extremely over the top (it concludes with Ghost Rider striking a man with so much force that it drives him into the Earth's core) but was just the kind of mindless action I'd been yearning for.

Thusly, let's get on with examining which creators developed ideas in the comics which appeared in the film. As always, my master list of creator credits is maintained here.

Gary Friedrich: co-creator of Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcycle stunt cyclist who tries to save his father's life by making a deal with the Devil; as a result of his bargain, Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, a leather-clad supernatural being who appears as a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle (Marvel Spotlight #5, 1972); Ghost Rider creating a motorcycle out of hellfire (Ghost Rider #3, 1973)

Javier Saltares: co-creator of Danny, a young man connected to the Ghost Rider; Ghost Rider clad in black leather and wielding a mystical chain (Ghost Rider #1, 1990); of Blackout, an albino-skinned supernatural foe of Ghost Rider (Ghost Rider #2, 1990); of Ghost Rider's penance stare (Ghost Rider #3, 1990); of Ghost Rider being posssessed by a fallen angel (Ghost Rider #18, 2008)

Jim Shooter: co-creator of Ghost Rider generating hellfire to assault his enemies (Ghost Rider #23, 1977); of Ghost Rider's body being a full skeletong beneath his outfit (Ghost Rider #24, 1977); of Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze being two separate entities (Ghost Rider #25, 1977); of Ghost Rider being called the Spirit of Vengeance (Ghost Rider #26, 1977)

Roy Thomas: co-creator of Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcycle stunt cyclist who tries to save his father's life by making a deal with the Devil; as a result of his bargain, Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, a leather-clad supernatural being who appears as a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle (Marvel Spotlight #5, 1972)

Mike Ploog: co-creator of Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcycle stunt cyclist who tries to save his father's life by making a deal with the Devil; as a result of his bargain, Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, a leather-clad supernatural being who appears as a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle (Marvel Spotlight #5, 1972)

Howard Mackie: co-creator of Danny, a young man connected to the Ghost Rider; Ghost Rider clad in black leather and wielding a mystical chain (Ghost Rider #1, 1990); of Blackout, an albino-skinned supernatural foe of Ghost Rider (Ghost Rider #2, 1990); of Ghost Rider's penance stare (Ghost Rider #3, 1990)

Don Heck: co-creator of Ghost Rider generating hellfire to assault his enemies (Ghost Rider #23, 1977); of Ghost Rider's body being a full skeletong beneath his outfit (Ghost Rider #24, 1977); of Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze being two separate entities (Ghost Rider #25, 1977)

J. M. DeMatteis: co-creator of Zarathos, the demon who possesses Johnny Blaze to transform him into the Ghost Rider (Ghost Rider #76, 1983)

Bob Budiansky: co-creator of Zarathos, the demon who possesses Johnny Blaze to transform him into the Ghost Rider (Ghost Rider #76, 1983)

Tony Isabella: co-creator of Johnny Blaze becoming the Ghost Rider when in the presence of evil (Ghost Rider #13, 1975)

George Tuska: co-creator of Johnny Blaze becoming the Ghost Rider when in the presence of evil (Ghost Rider #13, 1975)

Gerry Conway: co-creator of Ghost Rider generating hellfire to assault his enemies (Ghost Rider #23, 1977)

Tan Eng Huat: co-creator of Ghost Rider with blue flame around his skeleton (Ghost Rider #26, 2008)

Jim Mooney: co-creator of Ghost Rider creating a motorcycle out of hellfire (Ghost Rider #3, 1973)

Don Perlin: co-creator of Ghost Rider being called the Spirit of Vengeance (Ghost Rider #26, 1977)

Jason Aaron: co-creator of Ghost Rider with blue flame around his skeleton (Ghost Rider #26, 2008)

Daniel Way: co-creator of Ghost Rider being posssessed by a fallen angel (Ghost Rider #18, 2008)

Unearthed: Tigerman #1!

Welcome again to my occasional series of columns entitled "Unearthed," wherein I examine comic books which have not been considered eminent within the canon of comic books. Recently, I finished looking at the four-issue run of The Destructor, a 1970s Atlas Comics title created primarily by Archie Goodwin & Steve Ditko, and the one-issue run of The Hands of the Dragon. You can visit the reviews here:

The Hands of the Dragon #1

The Destructor #1

The Destructor #2

The Destructor #3

The Destructor #4

The Destructor proved to be a perfectly fine super hero comic. If it were representative of the quality found in the Atlas Comics line, I don't think the publisher would have gone down in history quite so maligned. Thus, I decided to give another Atlas series a try - another series which Steve Ditko contributed to: Tigerman! Ditko did not originate the character but Tigerman lasted for three issues in 1975.

As before, I am not reading these comics together and then blogging about them, rather blogging after I read a single issue - thus, sitting down to this, I have no idea what issue #2 holds beyond what appears on its cover. Speaking of covers, let's begin!

The cover of Tigerman#1 (called "Tiger-Man" here but not inside) depicts our hero poised over the corpse of what is identified as his sister, while two men boast of having done the deed. That they feel no fear in the presence of Tigerman can be evinced by their lackadasical stances. Tigerman himself is dressed in a blue leotard with an orange tigerskin top. Now, there's nothing wrong with this colour combination; on the right person it works just fine.

However, the mask Tigerman wears is rather unfortunate. It is meant to grant him a visage similar to that of a tiger but the elongated facial fears are off-putting, making him look less like a vicious jungle animal and more like a dope. The cover is signed by Ernie Colon; although the interior has no credits (or story title), the Grand Comics Database likewise attributes the interior art to him, and writing to Gabriel Levy (who?). I think it's very unfortunate that as Atlas was seeking to become a major player on the marketplace to compete with Marvel Comics, yet they did not standardize credits within their titles as Marvel had done. The best element of the cover is the logo, which is a very nice standard super hero logo.

Above: A super hero

We begin with a nurse entering an elevator, where two men accost her with a knife, demanding she give them her car. It is instantly noticeable that this comic is lettered using a machine; the GCD believes it to be Leroy lettering, though it looks nowhere near as good as the Leroy lettering Jim Wroten utilized at EC Comics (learn more about Leroy lettering here). The lettering in this comic is flat and bland; even with Leroy lettering, there are still opportunities to bold or italicize text but this comic did not bother. It's as unappealing as the similar machine-lettering seen in most Charlton comics of the time. At any rate, the woman is rescued by Tigerman on page 2 when he pounces upon the two attackers and tells the nurse to "Better take care working nights in this city." In this sequence it becomes clear there are some problems with this comic - most notably, there is no sense of space or environment. The nurse seems to enter an elevator on page 1, panel 1 but from there the action seem to occur within a void. Tigerman seems to leap into the elevator to fight, but man, it must be one of those heavy industrial elevators to accomodate the amount of space used in the action scene. There are ways this sequence could have been cleared up and been more interesting to look at, but one has the sense Colon was speeding towards the quickest means to complete the art. We also note here that Tigerman isn't wearing the blue bodystocking seen on the cover, leaving his arms and legs bare and making him appear like a transplanted jungle hero rather than a super hero.

Above: A tiger, in Africa.

On page 3 we begin a flashback narrated by an omniscient narrator. In Zambia, we see Dr. Hill employed as a physician in a "ramshackle clinic." Dr. Hill takes note of the many animals in Zambia to learn from them, noticing how gazelles seem to sense danger. Hill's superior suggests he study a captured tiger which the dialogue carefully notes was caught in India. Thus, we have a tiger in Africa but it seems to be justified (unlike the recent Phantom story I reviewed). Still, why not simply set this flashback in India? At any rate, Dr. Hill studies the tiger's blood and isolates "the chromosome that makes the creature so powerful!!"

Above: Tiger uppercut

But - uh, oh! - it's time for a stock African comic book plot! It seems the local witch doctor resents Dr. Hill because his patients prefer Hill. The witch doctor breaks the tiger out of its cage just as Hill is exposing himself to the chromosome. When the tiger pounces on Dr. Hill, Hill beats it to death with his bare hands. After two years of this internship, Hill returns to the USA, bringing with him the tiger skin, which the Zambians made into an outfit. Back in New York, Dr. Hill is reunited with his sister Anna (at which point we learn his full name is Lan Hill). Anna is an actress on Broadway and gives her brother a letter informing him he's been accepted at Harlem Hospital. Anna leaves Lan at a hotel then returns to her apartment, but two men break into her apartment to rob her, noting they had "seen your matinee performance."

Above: Death of the supporting cast

At the hotel, Lan is phoned by a police detective who summons him back to the apartment. Detective Raye reveals Anna has been murdered; her dying words were "bald... bald..." I think she wished this comic were drawn by Ken Bald, but never mind. A piece of clothing from one of the attackers was left behind and Lan can smell horses on the fabric. Lan takes a moment to shed a tear for Anna, then sets out to find Anna's killers on his own. Donning the tiger skin he becomes Tigerman, garbed in the blue nylons but... hold on... he was bare armed and bare legged in the opening, which is set after he'd become Tigerman. Were the tights simply in the wash that night?

Above: Detective work

No matter, Tigerman is on the prowl! His only clue is a horse scent and it leads him to places such as Central Park, a riding academy and the police stables, but finally a poster for an indoor rodeo leads him to spy upon a rodeo rider named Jake Milner who has a bald head. That's some pretty compelling circumstancial evidence! Tigerman waits outside the rodeo but notices Jake's scent doesn't match the scrap of cloth so he decides to follow Jake until he catches the scent of Jake's presumed accomplice. Sure enough, Jake heads to a bar with a friend whose scent is the right one; Tigerman is ready to strike now!

Above: Tension

Jake and his pal remark, "Let's git us ossified 'n then go find us a couple a heifers!" But before the beastiality can proceed, Tigerman enters the bar. "Is the circus in town, too?" Jake's friend wonders. At the sight of him, Jake smashes a bottle and gets ready to fight because... a fight has to break out. It's at this point that the comic develops some serious trouble. The fight between Tigerman and the bar patrons is very poorly told and largely because of how Colon laid out the page, placing a diagonal panel down the center of the page, with the top and lower portions held roughly in a triangular shape. See below for the gory details:

Above: Diagram

The upper triangle has two panels which read left-right (1, 2). The lower triangle has three panels which read left (4), up (5) and right (6). It does not work at all; the letterer tried vainly to guide the reader by placing the speech balloons of these three panels in the order which they should be read so that the panel 4's balloon is above that of panel 5, but I still read these panels 5, 3, 6 the first time because it wasn't intuitive. It was also poorly done because of the lack of continuity between panels. In panel 5, a man called Big Louie grabs Tigerman from behind. If panel 4 had suggested someone was creeping up behind Tigerman then the correct order would have been visually clear. Further, panel 6 shows Big Louie falling backwards onto what I assumed was a table. If Tigerman had been framed in the panel in some manner the image would have been less non sequitur. But non sequitur is what we have.

Above: Action scene

Turning the next page, the previous page's fight unfortunately continues as Big Louie falls to the ground. Wait, again? It seems the previous page's panel 6 was actually depicting Big Louie being thrown against the wall. What I took to be debris from a broken table was evidently intended to be cracked plaster. Motion lines could have cleared up the activity; again, depicting Tigerman in relation to Big Louie could also have cleared that up. Tigerman rants as he confronts the two killers: "Everything's gone too far! Someone must say enough! Someone must stop the mugging, the murdering, stealing! The pig behavior of swine like you! Someone must stop it all -- and I am that someone!"

Above: Death scene

So saying, Tigerman strikes both men in some manner. The two men's bodies are depicted being hurled through an empty void. Tigerman then leaves the bar. "Minutes later," the police arrive. Upon a rooftop, Tigerman wonders if he had done right. "The police would never have caught them - never!! But I feel so empty... so damned miserable!" He goes on to muse about killing Jake and his friend. Yes, that's right - he killed both men. None of this was clear from the art. Tigerman also muses about the two men in the hospital elevator from the opening sequence - no idea where that fit within the story of him killing his sister's killers. Anyway, Tigerman states "Let the criminal beware - Tigerman is here!!"

Thoughts: There is nothing in this comic to suggest why it exists, no mission statement. No credited writer, artist, colourist, letterer, editor. No editorial from the creators explaining how this comic came to be and how they envision its future will unfold. The entire comic gives off an air of a book which was not so much "created" as "manufactured."

I do not sense that scripter Gabriel Levy is to blame for the failure of Tigerman. He came up with a very generic super hero origin story but it was inoffensive. Much like the Destructor, it seems Atlas super heroes owed a bit of their inspiration to Charles Bronson in Death Wish as Tigerman's rants would fit Bronson's character perfectly well. The failings of this comic lie primarily in the hands of Ernie Colon, which is surprising to me.

Ernie Colon was hardly a novice at the time this comic was made, having spent more than a decade in comics. However, he had never been a super hero artist until he came to Atlas Comics. His other work was on the very family-friendly Harvey Comics and not-at-all-family-friendly Warren horror magazines. He knew his way around a comics page, which makes his layouts in this issue all the more baffling. Colon's best work in the super hero genre would come much later: Marvel's Damage Control, which took full advantage of his skills as a humourous cartoonist. If you'd like to see me write more complimentary words about Colon, check out my review of his Inner Sanctum graphic novel.

Casting an artist who couldn't compose action scenes into an action comic was a very poor idea; fortunately, I know things improved the following issue; they would have to: Steve Ditko became the artist in issue #2!

Next time: My next entry of Unearthed will be Tigerman #2, Steve Ditko Boogaloo!