Monday, March 17, 2014

"...As though I've been waiting all my life for this moment!" What is... the Face#1 review

Yesterday I brought up Ron Frantz's short-lived A.C.E. comics; many of his books utilized Charlton talents who had been run out of work by the publisher's collapse; the series What is... the Face arrived in 1986 at a point in Steve Ditko's career where he had just burned his bridges with Eclipse and (temporarily) run out of assignments at Marvel, so it must have been welcome work; it also re-teamed Ditko with Joe Gill, another Charlton talent.

I don't know much more about the Face than what's available online about him - he's a 1940s costumed hero who wore a scary mask - that's it. Ron Frantz went to the bother of acquiring the copyright of the character for this series, yet, curiously, he turned up in Dynamite's Project Superpowers books on the apparent assumption he lay in the public domain; Frantz also picked up the copyright to Skyman, which hasn't prevented Dark Horse from likewise usurping the character. Perhaps Frantz accidentally let the rights expire, but something doesn't smell right...

The painted cover by Rick Courtney isn't quite appropriate for the series - the bloody violence of a man being shot in an alley will not be replicated by Ditko within. I also feel like putting Ditko on the cover would have turned a few more heads.

We begin "the Ransomed City" (plotted & edited by Frantz, scripted by Gill, penciled by Ditko, inked by Frank McLaughlin) with a half-splash of the Face firing his gun at criminals, but this is a flash-forward - the Face won't really enter the tale until page 11.

Instead, we open on Tony Trent, a crusading television journalist determined to use his exposes to break up the criminal underworld headed by Louis "the Duke" Arno. Arno is infuriated, but rather than see Trent killed, he decides to find out who Trent's sources are and kill them instead to keep others from coming forward; he's the proactive gangster! We meet Trent's supporting cast, consisting of Janet Baxter (a district attorney? or police official? who wants Trent's help and seems smitten with him), Lt. Grogan (who wants Trent to give up his sources to the police) and station owner Mr. Cooper (who wants Trent to stop his stories before an inevitable libel suit).

While Trent is working in his office with the safe containing his secret papers exposed, someone turns off the lights, knocks Trent unconscious and steals the evidence Trent had been planning to use against Arno. Trent suspects maintenance worker Larson or Cooper's flunky Karsen could be behind the theft (in fact, it's Larson). Trent goes on the air to accuse Arno without proof, but cameraman Dempsey uses a trick camera to shoot Trent in the chest; Larson "helps" Dempsey escape in the aftermath by shoving him out a window.

Trent survives the gunshot because he thought to wear a bulletproof vest; realizing there's no evidence linking Arno to the attempt on his life, Trent decides to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and move outside the law. Returning to his home, Trent opens a chest containing his grandfather's colt .45 and mask; he becomes the new Face! He kept the .45 in working condition, thinking one day he might have to resort to vigilantism to fight crime.

Arno's home is protected with electronic alarms and guard dogs, so the Face lowers a rope to Arno's roof from an adjacent building; he breaks in just as Arno has killed Larson to prevent Larson from revealing what he knows. The Face battles Arno's henchmen and you might now be wondering why an investigative journalist could possibly manage to descend upon rooftops, leap through windows and battle an entire gang single-handed; a throw-away line establishes Trent studied martial arts (for someone who didn't reveal his connection to the Face until the 11th page, he'd certainly been prepared for this!).

Sounds of gunfire in Arno's home draw in the police, but Arno tries to claim the Face is an intruder and the one who murdered Larson. The Face realizes he's in a bad spot and drops a smoke bomb (apparently he also packed smoke bombs) then leaps out a window, dodging police gunfire. Later, Trent visits the police station and learns Grogan has an APB to capture the Face; moving on from this, Trent asks out Janet on a date.

The second feature includes an illustration of the Face as host with the header "the Face presents a tale of the macabre!" This second feature was originally created for Pyramid's Treasury of Terror paperback: it's Lord Dunsany's "Two Bottles of Relish," adapted by Mart Bailey. The adaptation tries to follow the events of the story as original published but gets terribly fumbled up; the Dunsany story is a fantastically gruesome piece, but the adapter doesn't seem to know how to get across Dunsany's subtlety; I was only able to understand the story as presented because I had read the original, it doesn't work as is.

There's also a reprint of a 1940 Face adventure by Gardner F. Fox & Mart Bailey - it has very poor reproduction values, it was probably copied from the original comic, unlike the carefully-restored Daredevil story from yesterday's post. Weirdly, this adventure of the Face was ripped-off in 1941's Mystic Comics#5 to introduce the super hero Moon Man; same plot, many of the same layouts and dialogue - how embarrassing... for the Face, I mean, being mentioned in the same paragraph as Moon Man. Just to fill space, there's a one-page gag strip starring 'Skool' Yardley.

The back-up features are definitely a mixed bag, but the Face is an all right feature - kind of typical Ditko. McLaughlin's inks are at times quite heavy, adding textures Ditko would have definitely omitted had he been inking himself. Gill's script keeps the tale from becoming too typically Ditkoesque (speaking as one who found Ditko's contemporaneous Static tiresome), but the plot takes just a little too long to turn Trent into the Face and does so without "playing fair" - his sudden shopping bag full of needed skills and weapons are a little too convenient. Still, the Face is an appealingly simple hero, bearing only a gun and a Halloween mask in his war against crime.

I've got a high tolerance for black & white Steve Ditko art; taken as a whole, I dug it.


Britt Reid said...

You can't "copyright" a character.
(You can copyright stories, but the copyrights on The Face's original tales had long since lapsed.)

You can trademark a character, but the trademark has to be used in commerce on a product within a certain period or it's considered "abandoned".
(One of the reasons for books like Marvel Team-Up and DC Comics Presents was to maintain trademark protection for characters who didn't have their own book or strip.)

Since Columbia Comics had gone out of business and left no successor company, all their trademarks and copyrights had lapsed by the 1980s.

I'm not sure what Todd claimed to have purchased, but it wasn't copyrights or trademarks...

Michael Hoskin said...

Sorry, he acquired the trademark; the previous owner certainly believed he still owned the trademarks of his company and offered them to sell. I only have the account from Frantz's perspective as told in Ditkomania - it isn't a story comics journalism seems interested in.

Britt Reid said...

Whether the previous owner "believed" he owned the trademark or not, if it hadn't been used since the late 1940s, it would be considered "abandoned" by the government.
Note: the same owner, Vin Sullivan, lost the Ghost Rider trademark thru lack of use (Marvel used it for both a Western and a motorcycle character), and that was after The Face and SkyMan ended their runs!

Michael Hoskin said...

Dang, it doesn't sound like he has much of a case, then. It sounds as though Sullivan was in the wrong.

It takes only 12 years to lose your trademark? Geez, the 90s must be littered with unrenewed properties who would fit the same parameters as Ghost Rider.

Britt Reid said...

Actually, you abandon a trademark if it isn't used "in commerce" for three years.

Copyrights are a different matter.
Before 1978, they lasted for 28 years with an option to renew for another 28.
Now, for corporate copyrights (like DC and Marvel properties), they're 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.

Michael Hoskin said...

Thanks for the info, Britt. You're a credit to newspaper publishers everywhere.