Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When War Was Wonderful!

From Davy Berg's Boot-Camp Brady story "DMZ Marines!" in Marines in Action#13 (1957):

Can North Korea really be all bad if their patrol units are manned by chorus girls?

I've taken this panel out of context, but just barely...the chorus girls have nothing to do with any of the preceding or succeeding panels in this story.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nick Spencer, comicdom's answer to Ingmar Bergman, part 2

Back by popular demand...

From Iron Man 2.0#3 (2011), page 2, art by Carmine Di Giandomenico:

Iron Man 2.0! The cutting edge in comics about old men sitting in desks -- and getting up from them!

Here we see some cinematic technique, but not comics storytelling. Please read Miguel's post on comics storytelling for some cogent thoughts on these trends.

Obviously, this page is taken out of context; in context, this is the 2nd of 5 pages rendered without captions, dialogue or sound effects. War Machine has just been caught in a nuclear explosion and the general (above) is reacting to the news (the following two pages show different characters reacting). Since the pills he takes have no apparent purpose here (or in future issues), this could have been easily summarized in just one panel, rather than a full page. Also, note how three panels depict the General's computer screen, but nothing is really visible on the monitor. In this age of hot-to-trot Photoshop effects, surely this was a missed opportunity to convey something to the reader, such as exposition? (ie, a newsfeed crawl along the bottom of the screen declaring "War Machine hit by nuclear blast -- Emergency crews respond")

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kâramanèh: an uncommon creature

From time to time here on the blog and in real life, I bring up author Sax Rohmer; when I do start to speak of him, I often open with an apologetic statement. There was a time when I was very defensive about Rohmer, feeling he was judged a racist by modern critics strictly for his Fu Manchu novels, which I had found weren't as bad as their reputation suggested. However, the more I've read of Rohmer's non-Fu Manchu career, the more...objectionable material I've encountered.

Apologetics aside, I'd like to speak a bit about why exactly I became a staunch Rohmer supporter; I can chalk it up to one of his Fu Manchu creations, the slave girl Kâramanèh.

Kâramanèh was introduced in the first novel (the Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu or the Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, depending on your edition), as narrated by the character of Dr. Petrie:

I thought that I never had seen a face so seductively lovely nor of so unusual a type. With the skin of perfect blonde, she had eyes and lashes as black as a Creole's, which, together with her full red lips, told me that this beautiful stranger, whose touch had so startled me, was not a child of our northern shores.

By the time Kâramanèh has been introduced, we've yet to meet her master, Fu Manchu, nor even heard the famous "brow like Shakespeare..." description Petrie's friend Nayland Smith relates. Petrie is quite taken with Kâramanèh and it's mutual as she winds up saving he and Smith's lives a few times. In one encounter, Petrie begins to realize just how strange her loyalty to Fu Manchu is:

"But if you will carry me off" - she clutched me nervously - "so that I am helpless, lock me up so that I cannot escape, beat me, if you like, I will tell you all I do know. While he is my master I will never betray him. Tear me from him - by force, do you understand, by force, and my lips will be sealed no longer. Ah! but you do not understand, with your 'proper authorities' - your police. Police! Ah, I have said enough."

Kâramanèh's terms are so startling to Petrie that he repeatedly lets her out of his grasp. It's a good thing he did, because being on the inside of Fu Manchu's operation, she's in a perfect position to save him! At one point, Petrie and Smith are chased through darkened streets by four of Fu Manchu's Dacoit assassins, but Kâramanèh comes to their rescue - executing the Dacoits herself with a revolver! For a piece of 1913 fiction, Kâramanèh is a pretty formidable woman and, against the expectations of the times, it's the men who are in distress and need to be rescued!

But who is Kâramanèh? And why does she remain with Fu Manchu? It seems she's from Egypt and a Bedouin...

"You may call me Kâramanèh," she said. "As Kâramanèh I was sold to Dr. Fu-Manchu, and my brother also he purchased. We were cheap at the price he paid." She laughed shortly, wildly.

"But he has spent a lot of money to educate me. My brother is all that is left to me in the world to love, and he is in the power of Dr. Fu-Manchu. You understand? It is upon him the blow will fall."

Kâramanèh's brother Aziz is being kept alive through a serum which only Fu Manchu can supply. Thankfully, Petrie is a doctor and, guided by Kâramanèh, eventually steals both Aziz and the serum and finds a way to set Aziz free. The first book ends with Fu Manchu seemingly dead and Kâramanèh reunited with Aziz, setting home to Egypt, leaving a heartbroken Petrie behind.

Much changes in the second book from 1916 (either the Devil Doctor or the Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, take your pick). Petrie and Smith quickly learn Fu Manchu is still alive and still bent on destruction. To their considerable surprise, Kâramanèh is back - and in Fu Manchu's thrall! And she has no idea who Petrie is! We eventually learn Kâramanèh has been brainwashed back into Fu Manchu's service. This brainwashed version of Kâramanèh shows no consideration for Smith & Petrie, depriving them of a valued resource and generally throwing Petrie off his game. However, the brainwashing isn't permanent and it's a good thing since by the end of the novel, Smith & Petrie are in Fu Manchu's clutches, with Smith in a death trap so terrible the Devil Doctor has given Petrie the opportunity to kill his friend to spare his suffering. As Fu Manchu begins to unleash rats to gnaw Smith to death, Kâramanèh enters the scene!

She looked, not at the tortured man, not at me, but fully at Dr. Fu-Manchu. One hand clutched the trembling draperies; now she suddenly raised the other, so that the jewels on her white arm glittered in the light of the lamp above the door. She held my Browning pistol! Fu-Manchu sprang upright, inhaling sibilantly, as Kâramanèh pointed the pistol point blank at his high skull and fired...

Isn't that amazing? Fu Manchu's first "definitive" death comes at the hands of a woman who puts a bullet in his skull! It's certainly a well-earned triumph for Kâramanèh after being a brainwashed thrall for the rest of the novel. The book ends happily with Petrie, Kâramanèh (and Aziz) together again.

Unfortunately, in some ways this was the last we saw of Kâramanèh. She reappeared in 1917's the Hand of Fu Manchu/Si-Fan Mysteries, but had barely any dialogue, spending almost the entire novel as Fu Manchu's prisoner. The fourth novel didn't arrive until 1931 and by then Rohmer had begun changing the formula (Fu Manchu is barely in the 4th novel!). Petrie was retired from the series and the narrator duties fell to other characters (until Rohmer finally adopted the third person narrator). Petrie and Kâramanèh were married during the publishing gap and their daughter, Fleurette, became the subject of two novels: the Bride of Fu Manchu (1933) and the Trail of Fu Manchu (1934). In those books, Fu Manchu tries to make Fleurette his bride (which was pretty skeevy of him), even threatening to kill Fleurette if he can't have her; it's finally Petrie who bargains for her life by saving Fu's and with that Petrie is forever removed from the narrative as Fu gives his word to never trouble him or his family again.

Personally, I wish the Kâramanèh from the first two novels had played a larger role in those two latter books. Instead of making Fleurette's peril a matter for either her lover (Alan Sterling) or her father. Man alive, I would have really enjoyed reading about a Kâramanèh who plays the part of a tigress, hunting Fu Manchu down and thrashing him until he vows to leave her cub alone.

Because she played such a prominent role in the early novels, Kâramanèh has been well-represented in every media. There were Fu Manchu serials in 1923 & 1924; Kâramanèh was played by Joan Clarkson in the former, Dorina Shirley in the latter.

In 1931 a Fu Manchu comic strip began by adapting the first novel, thus dramatizing a great deal of Kâramanèh's story.

A 1932 Fu Manchu radio program featured Sunda Loe and Charlotte Manson as Kâramanèh; in 1939, the terrific serial show the Shadow of Fu Manchu featured Paula Winslowe as Kâramanèh, again adapting the first two novels. This latter radio program was my introduction to the Fu Manchu universe, sparking off an obsession which has lasted me some 15 years.

The 1956 television program the Adventures of Fu Manchu cast Laurette Luez as Kâramanèh; perhaps one of these days I'll watch the show.

Marvel's Master of Kung Fu series made extensive use of Fu Manchu, Nayland Smith and Fah Lo Suee, with occasional use of Dr. Petrie; issues #83-87 included appearances by Kâramanèh, revealed to have been kept eternally young by Fu's Elixir Vitae, while Petrie had continued to age; Kâramanèh couldn't bear to be reunited with Petrie, despite her love for him. These stories by Doug Moench & Mike Zeck showed Kâramanèh in fine form, once again coming to Nayland's rescue.

If there had been no Kâramanèh in Rohmer's stories, I wonder if I'd bother thinking about them today? There are certainly some fine adventure tales in Rohmer's fiction - particularly his earlier fiction - but nothing especially remarkable. As with so much of the genre fiction I enjoy, it's the emotions of the characters which draw me in and the genuine relationship which develops between Petrie and Kâramanèh was the heart of the program; Nayland Smith, whom most consider the proper protagonist of the series (he's the only character to appear alongside Fu throughout), is rather dull; he often berates Petrie's feelings for Kâramanèh, even after all she had done to save both their skins. I feel Petrie's faith in her - and how she repeatedly came through for them - is to Rohmer's credit. I'm not going to claim he was a champion of civil rights, but for a man of his time and means, Rohmer wrote a terrific heroine.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Numbers to Marvel at

During 2011, Marvel published a lot of comic books. The comics blogsophere has been reacting to a lot of recent cancellations and firings; these are obvious changes to the publishing regime, the "hard" side of the business which is presumably a reaction to the burden of too much merchandise at the market. The "soft" side - and something I'll be interested to follow in 2012 - is the number of titles which have been double-shipping lately.

There are only two comics which have been promoted as twice-a-month: Amazing Spider-Man and Incredible Hulks. 2011 was also the introduction of the "Point One" initiative, which meant virtually every title shipped one extra issue in 2011. And yet, the number of books running extra issues in 2011 was really quite high and I wonder A) how it effects buying habits, perhaps causing readers to spend less on other titles to afford the extra issues and B) if monthly titles which have been double-shipping will quietly revert to single-shipping in 2012.

I put together some numbers based on the average number of issues the premiere monthly super hero titles shipped in 2011. Bear in mind the caveats I mentioned about Amazing Spider-Man & Incredible Hulks (anything up to 2 per month is expected) and the Point One initiative (1.083 is acceptable). 0.666 Average Per Month: Astonishing X-Men
0.833 Average Per Month: Daredevil
1 Average per Month: Captain America, Heroes for Hire
1.083 Average Per Month: Avengers, Invincible Iron Man, New Avengers, Secret Avengers, Thor, X-23
1.111 Average Per Month: Iron Man 2.0
1.166 Average Per Month: New Mutants, Ultimate Spider-Man
1.181 Average Per Month: Black Panther
1.25 Average Per Month: Daken
1.333 Average Per Month: Avengers Academy, Fantastic Four, Thunderbolts, Uncanny X-Force, Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, X-Men, X-Men: Legacy
1.416 Average Per Month: X-Factor
1.428 Average Per Month: Herc, Journey into Mystery
1.5 Average Per Month: Deadpool, Hulk
1.75 Average Per Month: Incredible Hulks
2.166 Average Per Month: Amazing Spider-Man

As I said, the "soft" side; I never heard announcements about Deadpool and Hulk going 18 issues per year, but if they go back to 12 per year in 2012, I don't expect there to be announcements then either.

Just for fun, here's the 2011 numbers on how many comics are published each month per character/franchise (not counting handbooks, saga, indexes, spotlights, reprints, promotional material or digital comics): Ghost Rider: 0.416 per month
Alpha Flight: 0.5 per month
Anita Blake: 0.5 per month
Moon Knight: 0.5 per month
SHIELD: 0.5 per month
Venom: 0.666 per month
Daredevil: 0.75 per month
The Stand: 0.75 per month
Sub-Mariner: 0.75 per month
Dark Tower: 0.833 per month
Oz: 0.833 per month
Spider-Girl: 0.916 per month
Heroes for Hire: 1.083 per month
Loki: 1.083 per month
Ultimates: 1.083 per month
X-23: 1.083 per month
Hercules: 1.166 per month
Black Panther: 1.25 per month
Daken: 1.25 per month
Fantastic Four: 1.333 per month
New Mutants: 1.333 per month
Thunderbolts: 1.416 per month
X-Factor: 1.416 per month
Punisher: 1.5 per month
X-Force: 1.583 per month
Iron Man: 3.083 per month
Thor: 3.666 per month
Hulk: 3.75 per month
Deadpool: 4.083 per month
Wolverine: 4.25 per month
Captain America: 4.5 per month or 1.038 per week
Spider-Man: 6.416 per month or 1.48 per week
Avengers: 7.666 per month or 1.769 per week
X-Men: 8.833 per month or 2.038 per week

At this point, why not simply launch Captain America Weekly, Amazing Spider-Man Weekly, Avengers Weekly, New Avengers Weekly, Wolverine Weekly, X-Men Weekly and Uncanny X-Men Weekly? The content's already there.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Unearthed: Uncanny X-Men#161

Halloween caught me thinking about comic books which gave me a fright in the past. There are certainly some obvious books I could drag out for an entry in first Tomb of Dracula or I, Vampire for instance. But no, I've decided to unearth the first comic book which scared me, the comic book I was often afraid to look at: my first issue of Uncanny X-Men.

I was not a Marvelite growing up. My favourite comic books were Superman, Action Comics starring Superman, Justice League of America featuring Superman and perhaps something with Superman. However, a family friend who read nothing but Marvel comic books would occasionally divest himself of recent titles and they would wind up in our house; until my younger brothers came of age, they were usually my comics de facto. I kept them in a little brown suitcase.

So it was in 1982 at the tender age of four (I'm dating myself; no one else will) that Marvel's Uncanny X-Men#161 introduced me to the Holocaust. Hey kids! Comics!

It only seems fair to open with the cover, although I don't recall ever seeing it on my copy; young as I was, I would trash comics very quickly; I was lucky to retain all of the story pages, the cover was a small loss. Perhaps for that reason, the cover doesn't impress me now; it establishes the two principals of this story (Xavier & Magneto), supporting character Gabrielle Haller and the villains, Hydra.

We open on a nightmarish splash page which etched itself into my brain:

Xavier is in this state because of a recent story where the alien Brood kidnapped and did Stan-knows-what to him (spoiler: he's carrying a growing Brood inside his body). The X-Men (Cyclops, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler & Wolverine) have gathered at Xavier's bedside; with them his one-time lover Moira MacTaggert, current lover and alien princess Lilandra, Corsair of the space pirate team the Starjammers and the Starjammers' medic, Sikorsky.

At this time, the X-Men were living around the Bermuda Triangle in a base which Magneto had been utilizing in a storyline which wrapped up in issue #150 (I'll refer to that issue a few more times to come); the team's Westchester manor was recently destroyed and reconstruction would take a few more months of issues. Among the team is Cyclops, who had left the X-Men after Jean Grey's death (#137), handing the reigns of leadership over to Storm. It's interesting to note that while Cyclops is frequently considered the X-Men leader, he'd reunited with the team in #150 and was now almost a year back in the saddle without reclaiming the leader's position; he wouldn't lead the X-Men again 'til X-Men#1 (1991).

Cyclops is upset by Xavier's condition, particularly hearing how when the X-Men tried to use the alien psychic Oracle to wake him up, Xavier tried to commit suicide in response. This, of course, brings back Jean's suicide and Cyclops leaves to torment himself in private. Of the X-Men, Wolverine correctly guesses what's ailing Cyclops, noting their need for privacy is one of the few things they hold in common. Corsair, having recently revealed himself to be Cyclops' father, attempts to step in, but as team leader, it behooves Storm to deal with Cyclops.

Against a beautiful sunset, Cyclops questions Storm about her recent decisions, noting how she had recently led the X-Men to raid the Pentagon and destroy government files. Storm stands up for herself, but stung by his criticism tells him he be the leader again if he'd prefer; Cyclops apologizes and lowers his guard, telling Storm how much Xavier means to him as a surrogate father and how Jean's suicide still eats at him. Storm supports Cyclops for showing his vulnerable side and they reconcile rather nicely. Back at Xavier's bedside, Lilandra tries to reach Xavier, to no avail.

We now journey inside Xavier's mind, where the real story begins!

Some 20 years earlier - back when Xavier could use his legs - he was traveling through Haifa, Israel to see a friend, psychiatrist Daniel Shomron. A footnote helpfully explains this entire story occurs after the flashback story from issue #117 (which depicted Xavier's first meeting with Storm and first battle with an evil mutant). Daniel is working on Holocaust survivors and one the volunteers at the hospital - Magnus - is himself a Holocaust survivor.

And so we have the first meeting of Charles Xavier and the man who would be Magneto. This was only the second time Magneto had been referenced as a Holocaust survivor (it first came up in #150, the first comic to treat him as a sympathetic character). Here, Magnus displays a tattoo on his forearm from Auschwitz and mentions having lost his family there. Xavier is fascinated to sense how powerful Magnus' will is - his mind can't be read.

Xavier helps treat one of Shomron's patients, Gabrielle Haller, a Dachau survivor. Shomron describes her condition as "catatonic schizophrenia" and he's just about out of ideas.

Of course, Xavier has resources Shomron couldn't imagine; namely his psychic powers! He projects his mind into Gabrielle to try to unearth the source of the trauma which placed her in this state.

This page was the second moment to terrify me as a youngster. It depicts Gabrielle's memories as seen on the astral plane in which the Nazis at Dachau are depicted as frightening monsters, menacing Gabrielle and finally encasing her in gold. At four years old, I certainly didn't understand World War II, Nazis or the Holocaust, but in retrospect this page does a fine job of impressing something about the Holocaust on a young mind - you couldn't show what really went on in the death camps in reading material suitable for a child, but I understood what Xavier was seeing was a figurative representation of what happened to Gabrielle - so what really happened had to be even scarier.

Xavier's psychic treatment works and Gabrielle wakes up from her catatonic state. Xavier discusses what he saw in her mind with Daniel and Magnus but they don't understand what the gold meant; however, a spy eavesdropping on them is very interested in this information.

In the time which follows, Xavier, Magnus and Gabrielle form a tight bond. Xavier and Magnus find themselves discussing mutants and Magnus expresses his belief that "Homo Superior" will have to "hold the rings of power." (Power Rings?) Gabrielle starts to fall in love with Charles, but the peaceful times are shattered by the arrival of a band of heavily-armed men wearing green.

These fellows are agents of Hydra; although Hydra were supposed to be a band of terrorists introduced in 1960s continuity, a story from - of all things - Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders established Hydra as having been founded during the latter days of World War II; I believe this was the first comic book to make use of that little retcon*.

The Hydra agents kidnap Gabrielle and make their escape, but during the tumult Xavier sees Magnus from afar, wielding his powers of magnetism to destroy a Hydra vessel. Xavier realizes he's met another fellow mutant. One Hydra agent is captured and Xavier reads his mind to learn where the rest are located.

Hydra is currently in Kenya, trying to dig up long-lost Nazi gold; Hydra's founder Baron Strucker is overseeing the operation; although Hydra have plenty of guns, airships and spiffy uniforms, one assumes Strucker's blown through his budget and needs the surplus funds. It seems Gabrielle learned about the gold's location in Dachau, which is what Hydra needed her for. Thanks to the reliable nature of torture to provide intelligence, they find the underground chamber which conceals the gold.

However, it's Xavier & Magnus to the rescue, even putting on Hydra uniforms to steal into the dig site! While Xavier tends to Gabrielle, Magnus does most of the fighting. By this time Magnus is no longer worried about hiding his true nature and has even figured out Xavier is a mutant like him.

Strucker attacks Magneto with his chief weapon, the Satan Claw**, but being a metal weapon Magnus easily crushes it with his powers. He winds up tunneling passage back to the surface for himself, Xavier, Gabrielle and all of the gold, but leaves Strucker buried alive. Having obtained a massive wealth of gold, Magnus sets off to ensure mutantkind's survival, determined they "won't go to the gas chambers." As Gabrielle wakes up from her ordeal, Xavier himself wakes up back in the Bermuda Triangle.

There's a happy moment as Xavier is met by all the well-wishers who kept him company while he was comatose.

Later, the X-Men visit Lilandra's yacht for a celebration, everyone decked out in bizarre, alien party clothes (this said, Nightcrawler looks great in a cape). Kitty Pryde and Colossus engage in flirting banter, while Corsair has to depart, feeling at odds with attending a Shi'ar party when officially the Starjammers are enemies of the Shi'ar Empire. In fact, his hasty departure seemed suspicious to me as a child, given what transpired next...

Lilandra delivers a toast to the X-Men as she prepares to return home, when suddenly she pauses out in mid-sentence. At this, Lilandra's evil sister Deathbird appears, having evidently drugged Lilandra. The X-Men attack Deathbird, but a force field protect her from harm; a bomb explodes, knocking the X-Men unconscious.

And now, the third image which terrified me! The vicious-looking Brood arrive as Deathbird's allies, hovering over the unconscious X-Men. Deathbird tells them they're welcome to use the X-Men as hosts for their young. To be continued...

When this story was reprinted in X-Men Classic#65 I bought it again, replacing my well-worn copy and getting a pretty nifty Mike Mignola cover in the bargain!

In fact, since I hadn't obtained any of the issues following Uncanny X-Men#161, I followed X-Men Classic regularly for a few months so I could finally see how the story of the X-Men against the Brood resolved itself (it has my vote for the all-time best "X-Men in space" story).

It's amazing how influential this comic book was; it was the introduction of the idea Xavier & Magneto were close friends before becoming enemies; this has informed every Xavier/Magneto story since, including those in animated programs and live action films. It also introduced Magneto's tattoo, which would be prominently displayed in the first X-Men movie. This would also be the first example of Magneto fighting leftover Nazis, which Claremont and others would revisit a few times across Magneto's appearances, until it became a major focus of this year's X-Men: First Class film.

Magneto's "Magnus" alias here would eventually prove to be just that - an alias. In the 1990s, Erik Lehnsherr was promoted by some as his actual name, while others tried to dismiss it as another forged identity; once it became his name in 2000's X-Men film you'd have thought that was final...only for it to be given as Max Eisenhardt in 2008. It's gone over about as well as revealing Wolverine's real name is James Howlett.

This story also continued the gradual softening of Magneto which had begun in issue #150; after this, Magneto would soon ally himself with the team in the Secret Wars mini-series, then start helping Xavier run the school after Charles was nearly beaten to death and finally become headmaster in #200. #200 would also feature Baron Strucker's children Fenris attack Xavier & Magneto as revenge for their humiliating the Baron back in #161. Fenris would periodically turn up in Claremont's X-Men material, but after #200 seldom did anything of importance.

Also of note is the introduction of Gabrielle Haller, who would eventually prove to be the mother of Xavier's son, Legion.

*=Of course, Hydra being founded by Baron Strucker was yet another retcon - Stan Lee introduced Hydra as being founded by evil industrialist Arnold Brown, but Jim Steranko apparently felt tying them to the Nazi regime was a better fit - and apparently he was right, to the extent that last summer's film Captain America: the First Avenger dispensed with Nazis almost entirely in favour of Hydra!

**=Used by writers to prove their "street cred," as if to say, "look, I read Steranko's Nick Fury!" As I discovered while writing a profile for the Satan Claw, Magneto crushing Strucker's hand would later be spiritually succeeded by scenes of people cutting off Strucker's hand.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nick Spencer: comicdom's answer to Ingmar Bergman

Iron Man 2.0#7.1 (2011), page 3; by Nick Spencer & Kano: See, the word IS in my vocabulary!

Ha-ha-ha I don't get it.