Category Archives: Comics

From New York to the South to Scotland to the spinner rack: books read

THE HIDDEN PALACE is Helen Wecker’s sequel to The Golem and the Jinni and like many sequels has the romantic ending of the first book falls apart, leaving both Chava (the Golem) and Ahmad decide they are never getting back together. Meanwhile the appearance of a visiting female djinn and newly created male golem further complicate things …

I’m never enthused by sequels where the HEA turns out to have been unhappy and even setting that aside, this isn’t as strong as the first book. There’s just too many characters, plot threads and stuff going on in the real world (Triangle Shirtwaist Fire! WW I!) but even so I did enjoy this one. However the ending implication that V3 will have Chava founding the equivalent of Xavier’s Academy for magical creatures doesn’t excite me.

SOUTHERN BEAUTY: Race, Ritual and Memory in the Modern South by Elizabeth Bronwyn Boyd argues that the stereotypical images of Southern beauty and grace are a subtle version of Confederate nostalgia, from Southern sororities that favor an old-school, white ideal of beauty to historical pageants, clubs and tours of Stately Antebellum Homes which present a continuity between Modern Southern Women and the Mistresses Of The Old Plantations. While it’s no surprise the beauty ideal is an artificial and deliberate one, Boyd shows just how much effort goes into it in beauty pageants (“Southern contestants are cosmetically advanced.”) and how the standard imposes a conformity that by Total Coincidence excludes women of color. I’d have liked some analysis of movies beyond Gone With the Wind but that’s not the book she was writing, and the one Boyd did write is an interesting read.

I picked up Val Diarmid’s 1979 to see how a successful author (she’s a big-name thriller writer in the UK) handles the historical details. No question she does well, from cigarettes (I will assume the way the protagonist smokes Silk Cut cigs is accurate) to pop culture and politics to (again, assuming) the way British journalism worked; however the book is less the historical thriller I expected than a straight-up historical novel about two journalists exposing a corrupt tax-evasion scheme. As such I couldn’t get into the story.LOVE ON THE RACKS: A History of American Romance Comics by Michelle Nolan suffers a little in targeting both the general interest and the collector’s market (I skimmed over a lot of detail about how many issues of various titles came out) but nevertheless does a good job looking at this slice of the market. Nolan looks at the various companies and their approaches — DC carefully wholesome, Quality and the obscure St. John turning out above-average work, Fawcett showing how girls Bring Disaster on themselves — and describes some of the stories in the different categories. N0lan also shows the impact of the Comics cCde — no cleavage, no lurid-but-inaccurate titles, not too much parent/child conflict — and the slow decline of the genre, which at its peak made up 20 percent of all the comics issues sold annually. Part of the problem was, of course, the change in women’s roles; another was the development of the direct market, as specialty comics stores initially catered to men (so no point in stocking a woman-centric product). I’m not as sure as Nolan that romance comics couldn’t stage a comeback — as she points out, romance manga sell very well — but I doubt they have the will to try. Overall very good though I’d have liked more interviews with artists and writers (there’s a quote from a John Romita interview but that’s about it).

#SFWApro. Covers by Romita, rights to images remain with current holders.

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Thor, Avengers, Hellboy and love: comic book collections read.

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: THOR Volumes 3 (which I don’t think I’ve reviewed and four) show Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at their storytelling best (way better than the previous volume). We have the first one-on-one battle between Thor and the Hulk, then things slide into what’s almost one continuous story for several years. The Trial of the Gods leads into Thor’s first encounter with the Absorbing Man, then the Destroyer, which leads into a battle with Hercules, all spectacularly rendered by Kirby. It’s not all perfect — there’s a totally ridiculous plotline involving a reporter kidnapping Jane Foster. Overall, though, this is great stuff, assuming Silver Age Marvel falls into your wheelhouse.

AVENGERS: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (The Ultimate Collection) by Joe Casey and Scott Kolins takes a very different look behind the scenes of the Avengers’ Silver Age adventures. In the first of the two series we see Tony Stark struggling to get government support for the team while Captain America deals with the 21st century and then to his PTSD reaction to Zemo, the man who killed Cap’s partner Bucky (or so it seemed at the time). This runs from the team’s beginning to the replacement by Cap’s “Kookie Quartet” of Cap, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. The second series covers only a few issues, from the debut of the Vision to right after the wedding of Hank and Jan, but it’s a surprisingly fertile field (I’ve written about the wedding myself). However the subplot exploring Black Panther’s decision to work as an inner-city teacher is much weaker and why would a Wakandan assassin call himself Death Tiger (there are no African tigers)? Overall, well worth the reading and better than Casey’s retelling of the team’s origin.

HELLBOY: Return of Effie Kolb by Mike Mignola and various collaborators is a collection of standalone Hellboy stories. The title one is a sequel to the classic The Crooked Man but my favorite is the weird, eerie Long Night at Goloska Station which includes the phrase “The devil came to my village disguised as a goat.”

E.C. COMICS ARCHIVES: Modern Love by various creators is a poor shadow of their classic horror stuff (though most of that doesn’t work for me either). There’s some interesting stuff like a woman working as a dime-a-dance hostess to support her mother (it segues into a crime story, something else E.C. was big on) but others are stock and a few are cringeworthy. In one, a guy tricks a girl into staying overnight with him at a hotel (separate rooms, no attempt at anything), knowing it will destroy her reputation and her engagement, leaving him free to swoop in. Yes, he gets the girl. I didn’t finish this one.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jack Kirby (top) and John Buscema (bottom).


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She wants candy, baby: The many lives of Etta Candy

Next to Steve Trevor and Hippolyta, nobody has been a part of Wonder Woman’s adventures as much as Etta Candy. Unlike them, there have been huge stretches of the series where Etta disappeared from the cast and her portrayal has varied much more wildly through the years.

Etta shows up in Sensation Comics #2 as a student at Holliday College where she’s a leader in one of the sororities.  Wonder Woman’s engaged in a battle of wits with Doctor Poison (yes, the villain from the Gal Gadot movie) and needs to distract some Axis spies. She contacts the Holliday Girls and Etta leads them in distracting the villains. It’s no great sacrifice: the girls were always shown as happy to flirt with men.

My memories of Etta from the few Golden Age stories I’d read were mostly negative: William Marston and artist Harry G. Peter present her as a fat young woman constantly obsessing over Candy. Reading the Golden Age Wonder Woman Omnibus I discovered I was wrong. Yes, Etta’s a glutton constantly complaining about not having enough candy or losing it in a fight but she’s also daring, unflinching in the face of danger and extremely capable in a fight. She’s also a Texan heiress.Etta continues attending college and fighting alongside WW until 1950, then she vanishes. In 1960 she returns in Wonder Woman #117. She’s once again a college student (DC’s reference guide from the 1980s, Who’s Who quips that having stayed in college so long she’s clearly a genius who’s racked up multiple degrees) accompanied by three sorority friends: toy-loving Tina Toy, tiny Lita Little and tall Thelma Tall. They crop up in several more adventures but they’re just a cheerleading section for Diana rather than mixing it up with villains Golden Age-style. After four stories Robert Kanigher dropped them; even when he rebooted the series to tell Golden Age stories he didn’t include Etta.

That left her MIA until the Wonder Woman TV show included Etta Candy (Beatrice Colen) as a character but this time a corporal rather than a college girl. When DC followed the show’s first season and shifted the comic book to World War II (the Wonder Woman of Earth 2 if that means anything to you) they brought back Etta Candy too. Once again she was military, which became part of her character from that point on. She also got a subplot of her own involving a Frenchman romancing her for ulterior motives, but the WW II era wrapped up before we learned his agenda.

When the Earth-One Wonder Woman adopts a military secret identity again, Etta returned as a military member and new buddy for Diana Prince. Regrettably she wasn’t a fighter here either and her struggles with weight were probably her main characteristic (with Diana grumbling about how men in Man’s World are so shallow not to see past the surface).

Etta got better storylines in the George Perez reboot. Perez wrote her tougher and more capable, plus Steve was now a friend to Diana rather than a  boyfriend. That freed him up to start dating Etta. Perez planned to marry them off in his final issue but wires got crossed and he was told to hold it over for the next writer. Ironically William Messner-Loebs, who took over the book, didn’t get around to marrying them either.

Since DC’s New 52 reboot Etta has been rebooted to be both black and lesbian; with Steve back as Diana’s lover, Etta’s now dating Barbara Minerva, the Cheetah. I’m a few years behind on Wonder Woman so I’m not sure if any of that’s changed.

#SFWApro. Art by Peter, Peter again, Ross Andru and Perez. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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The Bat, the Chinese Super-Man, a big planet and Hamlet!

My Silver Age reread at Atomic Junkshop includes Batman, of course. I’ve blogged about the New Look of 1964 and the changes it brought to Batman and Detective Comics (including Carmine Infantino’s art, as on the cover here). That prompted me to pick up TwoMorrow’s THE BATCAVE COMPANION: An Examination of the New Look (1964-1969) and Bronze Age (1970-1979 Batman and Detective Comics by Michael Eury and even though I’m familiar with a lot of the material I found it worth purchasing. The book mixes straight interviews with barticles covering Batman’s rise to number one after the TV show and Robin’s brief string of “relevant” ripped-from-the-headlines solo stories.

Among the interesting details are that Neal Adams really admired Bob Haney (Adams’ first Bat-work was illustrating Haney’s Brave and the Bold stories) and was completely baffled why “Secret of the Waiting Graves’ — Adams’ first story with Denny O’Neil — became such a hit.There’s lots about what a scam artist Bob Kane was when it came to taking credit for someone else’s work, Mike Barr (of Batman and the Outsiders) on mystery-solving clubs (as background to the Silver Age Mystery Analysts of Gotham City) and one article on Poison Ivy answering a question I had of why they created her rather than using Catwoman (she comes off very much a Selina knockoff in her first appearance). As usual with this sort of reference book, well worth it if this topic is in your wheelhouse.

THE NEW SUPER-MAN: Equilibrium and THE NEW SUPER-MAN AND THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF CHINA by (primarily Gene Luen Yang and Brent Peeples continue the series from the Coming to America TPB.  Kong Kenan has to deal with the previous volume’s reveal about his parentage; battle the usual assortment of menaces; resist a crackdown by the government-backed Green Lantern Corps of China; battle I Ching’s evil twin (I do like the origin for that villain); and help a North Korean defector with super-powers of his own. Great fun.

Jack Vance’s THE BIG PLANET is a 1950s adventure that feels like Vance is warming up to the superior stories he did later in the same vein. Big Planet is a distant planet so ginormous that all manner of Earth fringe groups, minorities, races and cults have found a home there (reminding me of Mack Reynolds’ Section G); Earth allows this but doesn’t intervene or help. Now, however, a Big Planet wannabe emperor is purchasing off-world weapons and tech in return for the one thing Big Planet has a surplus of, people. An Earth commission arrives to stop the trafficking but the emperor’s agent sabotages their ship, sending it crashing 40,000 miles from the lone Earth enclave.

Getting from Point A to B through a variety of strange and hostile cultures while ferreting out the traitor provides the plot. Most of the settings, however, aren’t as colorful as later Vance books and some have not aged well — evil Roma, black colonists turned cannibal. The characters are flat and the women flatter, though the sexism isn’t as bad as some later books. I did enjoy it even so.

HAMLET was a local production of the play “that’s full of cliches” (I’d forgotten how many of the lines have worked its way into our regular language) that marks the first time I’ve seen it onstage; this stood out for a mostly black cast and a black woman as Hamlet himself (which an actor friend says is quite trendy now). I liked this more than TYG did, particularly the spare set (see below) and staging (having the old king’s grave become a platform that elevates Claudius and Gertrude when they first appear) Overall not first-ranked Hamlet but a good one. “I know a hawk from a handsaw.”#SFWApro. Covers by Infantino and Adams, all rights remain with current holders.



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“I’m just the Middleman”

I bought and watched the Middleman series on DVD a decade ago. Since then I’ve acquired the original graphic novel run, plus the two post-series graphic novels so I figured last year, why not go through the whole thing?

THE COLLECTED SERIES INDISPENSABILITY by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine collects three graphic novels. The first couple are quite close to a couple of episodes of the TV series, except Wendy — the new recruit to the Middleman organization — is white, not Latino. The third goes its own way, eliminating the Middleman and bringing back Wendy’s long-lost father, who turns out to be a Middleman too.

Then came the 2008 TV series, which is where I first encountered the mythos. In the opening, Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales) is an artist who loses her day job as receptionist at a genetics lab when something breaks out, the Middleman (Matt Keeslar) shows up to save her and then makes it look like she was responsible. However the incident shows Wendy can deal with the weird and impossible so the Middleman hires her through the Jolly Fats Weehauken Temp Agency to work on similar cases. The title of the post comes from Keeslar’s statement that he doesn’t know who runs the show — he’s merely the middleman.

The show had a solid cast, enjoyably goofy scripts, and a lot of pop-culture and untold-story references (“Has everyone forgotten the Day Without Wheat?”). Many other shows have done the same but on this one it just clicked … though obviously not with enough people to make it last longer (big sigh). But there were many memorable adversaries, such as an immortal linked to the accursed tuba from the Titanic’s band — any time he plays it, everyone in earshot drowns in the waters of the North Atlantic, even on dry land. Plus, the ending episode, a “Mirror, Mirror” pastiche in which every guy in the regular cast has a counterpart in the other world with a goatee.The series ended with a couple of plotlines hanging: what exactly was techbro Manservant Neville (Mark Sheppard) up to? Will Wendy’s roommate Lacey (Brit Morgan) and the Middleman ever get together and why is he so reluctant. Grillo-Marxuach (with Hans Beimler and Armando M. Zinker) resolved those in The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse in which Neville’s master plan unleashes chaos, we learn about the Middleman’s lost love and he tragically does not get the girl.

Then everything wraps up with The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation by the same creative team. In this one the world’s most efficient vacuum cleaner is somehow opening up gates between worlds, which leads to the comic-book team and the TV team meeting for the first time. It’s a lot of fun and provides a mostly satisfactory finish to both, but I hate the idea that Wendy’s father (in both universes) was a Middleman and had always marked her as his successor — it’s a variation on the Chosen One trope that as I’ve mentioned before doesn’t work for me.

Rereading/rewatching the whole thing was fun, and rewarding too: a lot of the references in the last two graphic novels were much clearer this time around (though there are footnotes for anyone who doesn’t get them). Who knows, perhaps ten years from now I’ll do it again.

#SFWapro. Cover by McClaine, all rights to images remains with current holder.

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Love, Exciting and Visual!

Don’t worry, no porn, just some romance-themed covers from past posts It’s Valentine’s Day after all.

TYG and I did most of our Valentine’s stuff this weekend (dinner out, for instance); today my gift to her is keeping the dogs all day, and into the evening if she chooses. I still feel like the luckiest man in the world to be married to her.

And now, the visual. First a cover by Clark Hullings showing lesbian love.Then one showing young love, or at least lust. Art is uncredited.Unconventional love, captured by Tom MillerNow, here’s a Tony Abruzzo cover I don’t think works — the guy’s smirk is creepy.But you can always count on John Romita to make love look good.Here too.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Peak Fantastic Four, plus King Arthur

FANTASTIC FOUR: The Coming Of Galactus by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is mid-sixties Marvel, when the company was at its creative peak. It’s not just that they have good stories like the battle with Gregory Gideon; as they go on the stories just flow seamlessly from one issue to another. Their battle with the Frightful Four leads into a big clash with Doctor Doom which leads back to the Frightful Four which leads almost immediately to the debut of the Inhumans, followed by the coming of Galactus. And in the middle we get the wedding of Reed and Sue, the first big crossover event (even though it only takes one annual to tell it).

They aren’t all gems — the Atlantean Lady Dorma is a dreadful character — but if the Lee/Kirby style of melodrama works for you, this is great stuff.

For a very different type of comic, there are the first three volumes of Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora’s ONCE AND FUTURE: The King Is Undead, Old English and Parliament of Magpies. In the first issue, British white supremacists raise Arthur to purify England of its immigrants. Oops — turns out telling a Celtic warlord turned Celtic myth that you want him to save Britain for the Anglo-Saxon race does not go over well. That doesn’t change the fact that Arthur’s back and everyone who’s not a Celt is an invader in his eyes and therefore on his shit list.

The opposition? Bridgette McGuire, an elderly, tart-tongued, chain-smoking monster hunter and her unwitting grandson Duncan. Bridgette’s job is to kill the figures of myth before more people can believe in them; she’s hidden this from Duncan because it’s so easy to get caught up and become part of the stories (I can’t but wonder if Gillen wasn’t influenced by Unwritten). Too late now, and more stories are on the way … Easily the most offbeat Arthurian story I’ve read in years, and way better than the equally off-beat Tears to Tiara.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jack Kirby and Dan Mora, all rights remain with current holders.

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I hope nothing like this ever happens to you!

Because it doesn’t look like the protagonists on this Jack Sparling cover are having much fun, does it?Like most anthology books edited by Jack Schiff, the story is “meh” but the cover is hard to resist (as witness I have a copy).

I’d hoped to post something more substantial but when my writing goes well, sometimes it leaves me with no brains left for blogging.



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The Hellboy-verse and other comic-book settings

HELLBOY: The Silver Lantern  Club by Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson, Christopher Mitten and Ben Stenbeck has a kind of Justice League quality in bringing together multiple Mignola Victorian-characters such as Sarah Jewell, Sir Edward Grey and Professor Bruttenholm’s Uncle Simon, who narrates various exploits of the club members to Hellboy and Bruttenholm in the 1950s (while the framing sequence is easy to place, I’ve had to guesstimate when in the 1800s the stories take place for my Hellboy Chronology). Dealing with everything from vanished men to vanished horses — not to mention Sir Edward’s obsession with the Heliotropic Brotherhood of Ra — these aren’t first rank Hellboy stuff but I did enjoy them. I suspect the framing sequence is inspired by Lord Dunsany’s Jorkens stories, which use a similar set-up, but that’s only a guess.

SWORD OF HYPERBOREA by Mike Mignola, Rob Williams abd Laurence Campbell tracks the monster-slaying sword BPRD Agent Howards found across history: the caveman days, a mysterious lycanthrope in 1910, a scheme by the Heliotropic Brotherhood in 1940 and a blues man getting entangled in all this in 1952. More uneven with the 1910 and 1952 stories the best.

BLACK STAR by Eric Anthony Glover and Arielle Jovellanos is an unsatisfying SF story in which the shipwrecked protagonist has to race across a hostile planet to reach an escape pod with not only the environment but another shipwrecked survivor working against her. This is grim and tense but the A plot is broken up by constant flashbacks and I got lost figuring out the backstory.

NOT ALL ROBOTS by Mark Russell and Mike Deodato Jr. didn’t work for me either (I find Russell’s satire very hit and miss). In the near future robots have replaced human workers but they’re required to support a human family to keep society as stable as possible. Trouble is, both humans and robots resent the arrangement and the resentment is simmering to the boiling point … This metaphor for toxic masculinity and the crisis of men just didn’t work for me the way his Flintstones did.

#SFWApro. Covers by Mignola and Steve Pugh.



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Hellboy and other heroes: graphic novels

HELLBOY: The Bones of Giants by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Matt Smith is a sequel to the short tale King Vold (collected in The Right Hand of Doom). The professor who tried and failed to exploit Hellboy in that story is now using an ancient talisman to raise up the frost giants and other dark forces for revenge; can Hellboy stop him, even with Mjolnir fused to his stone right hand? Not A-list Hellboy but a solid but of monster-smashing fun.

Alex Ross’s FANTASTIC FOUR: Full Circle takes us back to the Lee-and-Kirby days of the strip. A man who once impersonated Ben only to die in the Negative Zone returns, but is it as a friend or an enemy? What will the FF find when they go into the Zone? This boasts glorious Alex Ross art and promising ideas but the ideas never develop into anything substantial. However it does have some funny lines (“Reed, just how many of your old classmates became deranged mad scientists?”) and I do like the use of the Negative Zone as it originally was, a nightmarish alien dimension (a few years ago, by contrast, they were building prisons there).

BANG! by Matt Kindt, Willfredo Torres and Nayoung Wilson also feels undeveloped, though more interesting. Kindt’s script is a tribute to what he considers the neo-pulp heroes of the 1980s — Michael Knight and KITT, James Bond (who’s hardly a 1980s hero, I’ll note), Jessica Fletcher and Die Hard‘s John McClane — all of whom turn out to be puppets in a Macchiavellan scheme by a writer clearly based on Philip K. Dkck. The metafictional aspects have potential but not so much I’m eager for V2.

Despite being based on a videogame, FABLES: The Wolf Among Us by Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus and multiple artists works very well as a prequel to the series, back in the days when the Fables still dwelled in New York, in exile from their various homelands. In the opening, Bigby Wolf stops his old foe the Woodsman from beating a woman up, only to discover the woman’s head on his doorstep soon after. Who’s responsible? How do Grendel, Bluebeard, Beauty and Ichabod Crane fit into whatever’s going on? I could have done without any reference to real witches in Salem (stories that claim the witch trials found real witches leave a sour taste in my mouth) but overall extremely fun.

While I vaguely new of a Chinese Superman debuting a few years ago, I don’t think I ever saw him until picking up NEW SUPER-MAN: Coming to America by Gene Luen Yang and Viktor Bogdanovic. Kong Kenan is China’s newest superhero, a Superman knockoff leading a team that also includes a Chinese Wonder Woman, Flash and Bat-Man (I wonder if this was inspired by a similar Chinese villain team from the late 1970s?). As Kong has little control of his powers, this seems a long shot — can martial arts teacher I Ching (yes, a reboot version of Wonder Woman’s old teacher) enable him to master his powers? And what about the mysterious disappearance of his mother? This worked much better than I expected — two thumbs up.

#SFWApro. Covers by Matt Smith (top) and Chrissie Zullo, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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