Category Archives: Comics

A disappointing set of books this week

I love Jack Kirby’s post-apocalyptic Kamandi series and I really dug the DC Challenge round-robin limited series (each issue ends on a cliffhanger; the creators of the next issue have to solve it). Combine them for THE KAMANDI CHALLENGE and you get a mess. The story of Kamandi hunting his parents through a post-apocalyptic world of intelligent, evolved animals has many bright moments, like Tom King’s issue (a powerful story with Kamandi stuck in a single room the whole time), but when they get to the end of #12 they apparently couldn’t figure out a solution so they pull a deus ex: Jack Kirby shows up, reveals Kamandi is one of his creations, and that saying his name outloud (“Command D!”) will delete the entire Earth and restore things to normal. What a lousy, stupid resolution that was, the kind that retroactively makes me hate all of it.

METAMORPHO: Two Worlds, One Destiny by writer/artist Aaron Lopresti was this week’s other big disappointment. This New 52 reboot of the shapeshifting chemical freak has him on the run with scientist Sapphire Stagg (this is the first version to give her anything to do besides be beautiful and rich), seeking a cure for his condition but instead winding up on another world. The inhabitants need him to save them, but Sapphire’s corrupt father and the alien tyrant Kanjar Ro both have other plans. This just petered out at the end though, with some disappointing twists and some set-ups not paying off (the implication Kanjar Ro has ties with Simon Stagg just got forgotten). A shame.

DOCTOR STAR and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows by Jeff Lemire and Max Fiumara is a spinoff of Black Hammer written as a love letter to James Robinson’s 1990s Starman series. While I admire the series too, that didn’t make me any fonder of this routine variation in which “Doctor James Robinson” gets so distracted by adventuring he neglects his family and loses their love; a lot of the themes Cat Stevens did better in Cats in the Cradle.

LAZARUS: Cull (following V4, Poison) by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark reveals a great deal about Forever Carlyle’s backstory and secrets (she’s a clone and the family has another one being trained in the wings) while the Carlyles’ battle with some of the other ruling families continues. Like the previous volumes it’s competent, but nothing I want to spend money on.

Switching away from graphics to novels, FAIR FIGHT by Anna Freeman is a historical novel in which the lives of compulsive gamblers, a gambler’s wife and a female prizefighter intersect and interact over the years. I became interested in reading this after finishing A History of Women’s Boxing and the boxing scenes are certainly good. However they’re only a part of the story and historical novels aren’t my thing (which is not a flaw in the book, of course).

#SFWApro. Top image by Jack Kirby, bottom by Sal Trapani, all rights remain with current holders.

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Going retro: “It’s okay to look back. Just don’t stare.”

Writing a text page in the Airboy and Mr. Monster Special back in 1987, comics writer Gerard Jones used that quote from baseball player Satchell Paige to describe the challenge of retro: if you’re going to revive something from the past (both Airboy and Mr. Monster were Golden Age characters) you need to do so without lugging their cultural baggage (racism, sexism, whatever) along with them. Eclipse’s Airboy series, for example, gives hero Davey Nelson a Japanese mentor and a tough, competent girlfriend. As Jones notes, it also rejects the assumption that America is the right side in every conflict: one early arc involves an American-backed dictator in Central America (I’ll be writing more about the series soon).

Staring back — just embracing the stereotypes and racist/sexist/homophobic tropes of fictions past — is never a good thing. And I don’t think it’s any more acceptable because that’s just the way movies/comics/SF was back then. For example, if SFWA can’t put a scantily-clad woman on the cover of its magazine, that’s spitting on genre history because so many covers had scantily clad women back then. Likewise, sticking Jonni Future, a character from America’s Best Comics, in a space suit that bares her ginormous boobs down to the navel, is certainly faithful to a lot of pulp imagery, but that doesn’t make it any less sexist.

And it’s more likely to be sexism than anything else. As I’ve complained before, writers are much more likely to use sexist heroes or sexist stereotypes way easier than to bring on a shuffling black servant in the old Stepin Fetchit style, and it’s more acceptable to a lot of people when they do. Though we still get retro racism too, like Alan Moore’s use of old Victorian tropes about Arabs and Chinese in League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Or consider Robert Bloch’s HP Lovecraft tribute novel, Strange Eons. The premise of the book (which I read a month or so back) is that Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t fiction, it was a warning: his antiquarian interest in history had uncovered evidence of the terrible reality underlying the mundane world. His stories were a coded guide to the future to prepare for what was coming, boosted by psychic flashes of events to come (which explains why several scenes and details in the book mirror exact details in HPL’s fiction). The story has various characters discover the truth and try to resist the return of the Old Ones. It doesn’t go well for them.

Overall it’s an excellent novel, though the FBI vs. the Mythos section bogs down a bit (I think it worked better the first time around, when the idea of the feds dealing with this sort of horror was novel). Unfortunately, Bloch faithfully incorporates Lovecraft’s racist tropes about sinister non-white races worshiping the Great Old Ones and those haven’t aged well at all. Worse, he attempts to work Lovecraft’s loathing of immigrants and miscegenation into the plot: what if Lovecraft wasn’t racist? What if his horror of racial mingling was just a metaphor for the mingling of human and nonhuman races? I actually find the idea interesting, but unfortunately it’s bullshit. I love Lovecraft’s work but the dude was a racist and his fiction reflects that. This does not justify doing it in modern-day mythos stories; it’s not an essential component of the whole (Molly Tanzer, for example, does a great job going in the opposite direction in Creatures of Want and Ruin).

Retro can be fun. But some things should be left in the past, dead and buried. Look back, but don’t stare.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder.

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A psi spy, Helen of Troy and a return to the Witch World: Books

THE BRAIN BOY ARCHIVES by Herb Castle and Frank Springer (with Gil Kane providing art on the first issue) collects the adventures of psychic teen spy Matt Price. Recruited by the US government, he uses his telepathic and telekinetic powers to tackle various threats to America, most notably the Latin American dictator Ricorta, a psi himself.

I’d heard that this Dell Comics series was above average and it is. In Brain Boy #3, for instance, Matt investigates the disappearance of a number of Americans in the Arctic. Is the threat foreign espionage? No, it’s a Tyrannosaurus mentalis, an intelligent, psionic tyrannosaur! The plots in most of the issues (six total) are similarly well done. The only problem I had with it is that Matt’s girlfriend Maria, despite being another psi, is largely written as a typical 1960s nagging women-are-never-satisfied character.

I’d assumed HELEN OF TROY: Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell would be a look at interpretations of Helen through the ages down to our own time, but Blondell instead focuses entirely on the ancient Greeks: how they prized beauty in women while fearing its ability to override reason, and how various poets, philosophers and writers rationalized waging a ten year war for a woman who abandoned her husband. Specialized, but interesting within that specialized range.

While jumping to the next generation is a common way to stretch out series, I’m surprised Andre Norton made the jump just three books into the Witch World saga. THREE AGAINST THE WITCH WORLD covers twenty years (following Web of the Witch World) in the first chapter or two, shuffling Simon and Jaelithe offstage in favor of their telepathically linked triplets. The Wise Woman of Estcarp seize the sister, Kaththea, as a new recruit, forcing her brothers Kyllan and Kemoc to free her, then head east into Escore, a land mysteriously blocked from the awareness of Estcarp blood (being half Terran, they can make it). Here they discover a region where magic was once much more powerful until a devastating war drove Estcarp’s founders out. Things are quiet but the Tregarth siblings’ coming is stirring up powers that were better left sleeping.

The levels of magic in Escore are much wilder, more alien and nastier than what we saw in the first two volumes, which makes this book work better for me. However it always seemed a little unfair that where his siblings have some degree of magic, Kyllan’s limited to controlling animals.

#SFWApro. Cover by Frank Springer, bottom cover uncredited, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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An extra post of comic-book TPB reviews

BLACK LIGHTNING: Cold Dead Hands by Tony Isabella and Clayton Henry has Jefferson Pierce return home to Cleveland after his father’s death (unlike the pre-New 52 continuity or the TV show, peacefully in his sleep). The Tobias Whale that Black Lightning once battled has been replaced by the real Whale whose identity he misappropriated (a fatal mistake), a Keyzer Soyze-style shadowy schemer whose current plot is to put alien weapons in the underworld’s hands, thereby creating an outcry for police to use them too, and for private citizens to get them. And guess whose going to reap a fat profit from supply the demand?

This is good, but frustrating. Whale’s scheme is good, and Jeff’s new supporting cast is fine, but I hate it when a reboot leaves me baffled what’s still canon. I understand and applaud Isabella wanting to get away from the Evil Albino stereotype of the original Tobias, but are Jeff’s battles with him still in continuity or not? It appears so, but then again why doesn’t Jeff react to facing another Whale, or Tobias point out he’s way more dangerous than the imposter? Why did Jeff even go to Suicide Slum where he began his career? That he’s never met Lynn until recently is further jarring. So like I said, frustrating — though I’ll be happy to keep reading if we get more.

BPRD: The Devil You Know: Pandemonium by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie and multiple artists is the penultimate volume before the inevitable (so we’re told) apocalypse. Hellboy’s back with the BPRD, but will it do any good as the demon-cbild Varvara turns New York into ground zero for her new kingdom of the damned? Once again (as Hellboy notes), the BPRD has to invade a nightmarish Big Apple, but this time they have all the big guns, from old-timers like Abe and Liz to relative newbies such as Ashley Strode. Will it be enough?

Action-packed certainly, but it feels like Mignola’s rushing too fast to wrap up everything in the final volume, which makes it choppy and confusing at times. And given Varvara and Hellboy were both fond of Professor Bruttenholm, I’d really have loved to see them talk about him a little. Still I look forward to the finish later this year when we (hopefully) learn how the ending twists and reveals here make sense.

BLACK HAMMER: Age of Doom Part One by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston follows up the first two volumes by having Lucy, newly empowered as the second Black Hammer, bounce through a series of nightmare worlds before returning to Rockford and learning the truth about what’s been happening to her fellow heroes. It’s a good story, but the reveal is actually one I suspected earlier, and not that interesting. Given how much of the book has been riffing and meta-commenting on various superhero types (Abe Slam, the nonsuper Golden Age tough guy, Golden Gail as Mary Marvel, Madame Dragonfly as one of DC’s horror anthology hosts), I’m worried that returning to the real world will lack the appeal of the series’ stranger moments. Fingers crossed I’m wrong.

#SFWApro. Cover by Clayton Henry all rights reserved to current holder.

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Doc Savage and Branding

“Branding” gets tossed around as a magic word a lot (I rarely see any branding-related writing advice that wouldn’t work just as well if you didn’t take the word “branding” out) but I think it’s reasonable to argue that any long-running character — James Bond, Superman, Archie — is a brand of sorts. It’s inevitable that the character changes, but it’s essential they don’t change so far they no longer fit the brand.

Superman, for example is light years from the original Siegel/Shuster brawling roughneck — more powerful and a lot better behaved. Nevertheless, he’s still the same character. While I hate the way writers handle Batman in the 21st century, I’d hardly argue he’s no longer Batman. For many fans, however, the 1950s Batman battling monsters and alien invaders was very, very off-brand (I like the 1950s a lot better, but its critics do have a point).

Archie has proven to be an exceptionally flexible brand. At various points he’s been a superhero (Pureheart the Powerful), a spy (The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.), a zombie slayer, grown up and gotten married and played in a rock band. He’s remained Archie throughout, though as writer Mark Waid has said, there are limits (“Betty fails a pregnancy test” or “Opening shot: Jughead’s meth lab.” would not make the cut).

But rebranding doesn’t always work for every character. Wonder Woman’s been through a lot of changes as my WW-reread shows, but the non-powered, karate chopping Diana Prince phase didn’t work at all for me (or most people). As I’ve said before it would have worked as a new character, but not for the Amazing Amazon. The Snagglepuss Chronicles was too far from Hanna-Barbera’s original to work for me, though others liked it.

And then there’s Doc Savage. As both Bobb Cotter and Will Murray have written, Doc’s 1940s adventures became much more realistic, with Doc himself much more human. The Derelict of Skull Shoal and Satan Black have very little in common with stories such as The Squeaking Goblin or Sargasso Ogre. Doc’s adventures are more down to Earth; Doc himself is just tough and competent and much more fallible.

Cotter and Murray like the transition to a more human Doc Savage; for me they damage the brand. I’ve enjoyed some realistic pulp and paperback adventures over the years, but that’s not what I read Doc Savage for. I read Doc to watch the amazing Man of Bronze take on and triumph over wild threats like the cult of the Thousand-Headed Man or Ool from the Land of Always Night, not to smash a relatively ordinary adversary. I want gadgets, deathtraps, bizarre lost races and doomsday weapons.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the WW II adventures, but for me they are not adding luster to the brand.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Joe Shuster, Sheldon Moldoff, Fiona Staples, Modest Stein and the rest by James Bama.

 

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A random assortment of covers

Returning to writing Leaf has used up some of the time I’d have used to get today’s blog post done, so art it is. First a groovily hip cover by Ric Estrada.

Next, one by Virgil Finlay.

This Peter Stevens cover looks like the harem girl is trying to fight off danger with jazz hands. And how exactly does the guy in the foreground get his knife out of that curved sheath?

For a non-cover illustration, here’s a splash page by Will Eisner capturing one of the Spirit’s Bad-Girl characters.

And here’s the wonderfully cinematic opening to another Spirit story.

One by Walter Popp —

And a war comics cover by Jerry Grandenetti

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Campy comics, Greek gods and superhumans: comic-book stuff

In HERO-A-GO-GO: Campy Comic Books, Crimefighters & Culture of the Swinging Sixties, author Michael Eury claims the 1960s were the “Camp Age” more than comics’ Silver Age … but his definition of “Camp” seems to be “whatever I want to write about”; B’Wana Beast certainly ain’t the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, but I don’t think he’s particularly campy, for instance. And Eury admits that some of what he’s covering, such as TV series The Prisoner and I Spy, isn’t campy at all. This is particularly notable in the first chapter on campy comics which runs randomly from Eclipso to the 1960s Captain Marvel.

That said, Eury does do a good job bouncing between topics including super-hero parodies (Super LBJ and the G.R.E.A.T. Society!), Saturday morning cartoon superheroes, Bond knockoffs (including Archie’s turn as The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.), Beatles knockoffs (including DC’s swinging super-cool guitarist Super-Hip, below) and the Batman TV show. So worth a look if you’re into 1960s pop culture.

THE OLYMPIANS: Zeus, Father of the Gods by George O’Connor does a good job taking the assorted myths of the Titans, the creation of the world and the birth and childhood of Zeus and shaping them into a coherent narrative without losing the raw mythic quality. I’d heard O’Connor was good, and this confirms it.

MONSTRESS: Haven by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takada has Maika Halfwolf arrive in a port city where she must cope with treachery, schemes by the world’s various warring factions (as in the first two graphic novels, I can’t keep the sides straight) and the growing power of the demon inside her. Beautifully drawn (though a bit confusing in some of the action scenes) but this series still doesn’t engage me enough to keep buying (but I’m happy to read the library copies).

BLOOD ECHO: A Burning Girl Novel by Christopher Rice (son of Anne) is a novel, but with a superhero hook: Charlotte, the protagonist, having been raised by the serial killers who murdered her mother, now hunts the predators using a drug that gives her temporary super-powers. Given my fondness for off-beat superhumans like The Talented Ribkins, I thought this might be fun, but this is more of a literary character study, with lots of dialog and discussion and entire chapter devoted to the humdrum life of Charlotte’s cop boyfriend. Plus it’s written in present tense, which is usually a turn off. And one of the early chapters gave us the serial killer’s POV and I never like those — serial killers make good enough villains but their innermost thoughts are never anything but cliches.

#SFWApro. Cover by Carl Burgos and Bob Oksner (bottom), all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Four Kids, Four Paper Girls and more: Books read

FOUR KIDS WALK INTO A BANK by Matthew Rosenberg and Tyler Boss has a quartet of nerdy twelve year olds encounter a bunch of vicious adult punks, then discover Paige’s (the one girl of the foursome) father hanging out with them. It turns out Dad owes them a big favor, so he’s going to help them rob a bank. Horrified, Paige convinces her friends the only way to save him is rob the bank themselves first … This is an odd mix of whimsy and realism, but it works, right up until the end — I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers, but a couple of twists just didn’t make sense to me. Still worth reading, though.

PAPER GIRLS has been a consistently fun series and Volume 5 of the TPBs is no exception. At the end of Vol. 4 (I can’t find my review to link to), Tiffany, Mac, KJ and Kristie found themselves in the distant future from which all the time travelers have been visiting 1988. Now they have to navigate around the alien setting, looking fora  way home, looking for answers and looking for a cure for Mac’s leukemia. Great fun as always, tying up a couple of questions from earlier books an ending on a heck of a cliffhanger.

SAGA Vol. 9 by Vaughn and Fiona Staples didn’t work as well for me as the earliest volumes. All the individuals scenes of Hazel, Marco, Alanna and the rest of their oddball cast are good and engagingly quirky, but taken as a whole, it feels like the creators are just randomly shuffling pieces across a game board. I find it hard to remember much that happened, and even the ending cliffhanger didn’t shock me as much as it should have. Staples and Vaughn have announced a year’s break to recharge, so I hope things pick up when they return.

THE FORBIDDEN GAME trilogy by LJ Smith started with The Hunter and continued with The Chase and The Kill. In The Chase, which I thought I’d reviewed already, Jenny and her friends discover her supernatural stalker, Julian, has escaped the prison they left him in. Now his monstrous creations are stalking and capturing them, and if Jenny can’t figure out where Julian’s stashing them, she’ll end up as his bride for eternity. Complicating things are the kids desperate attempts to explain everything that happened in the first book to unbelieving authority figures.

The Kill wraps up the series (though a couple of elements make me wonder if Smith was hoping for a sequel) as Jenny and the survivors of the previous book take the fight to Julian in the Shadow World. This turns out to be the creepy setting of an abandoned amusement park where souls get trapped forever and the hokey games have a deadly component. This is creepy but the character arcs for Julian and Jenny are particularly good; I also like that just as Smith pulled off a good Face Your Fears storyline in The Hunter, here she succeeds with an excellent Face Your Darkest Secrets scene. Someone should really make a miniseries of this some time.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Boss, don’t know the second artist; all rights to both images remain with current holders.

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Women, both heroes and villains: books read

It’s been a while since I checked in on Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus series, but I finally checked Vol. 4 out of the library (feel free to check out my reviews of 1, 2, and 3). LAZARUS: Poison has the Carlyle family reeling from the attack on the family head in the previous volume. War erupts, the new leader is petrified, but Forever Carlyle (the family “lazarus” because her healing factor resurrects her) does her deadly best leading the family forces in the field. Readable, but not buyable (I think I’m sticking with library copies) — the art is murky during the battle scenes and the ending twist doesn’t work for me.

BOMBSHELLS: Uprising has WW II’s super-women battling the sorcery of the Joker’s Daughter, fighting for control of Atlantis and handling a boatload of European refugees, not to mention meeting radical Renee Montoya and scrappy Latina news vendor Lois Lane. Fun, as always, ending on a surprisingly upbeat note — the equivalent of a TV series season ender that could wrap up the series (though there are more adventures to come).

HITLER’S FURIES: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower looks at the women who in varying degrees enabled or actively participated in the Holocaust. These included nurses giving lethal injections to the disabled, secretaries in SS office, leaders of women’s concentration camps and wives of camp commanders who took sadistic delight in killing or hurting prisoners or children. Lower shows how the motives that drove the various women she profiled included enthusiasm for Nazism, careerism, a desire to get off the farm or simply hopes of finding a husband by entering the Nazi bureaucracy. Only a snapshot, but a good snapshot.

#SFWapro. Cover by Owen Freeman, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Destiny turns on a dime — or a batarang

Recently finishing BATMAN: The Golden Age Omnibus Vol. 4 reminded me one of the things I love about the Golden Age Batman is the stories the series tells focusing on ordinary people.

Of course lots of comics, then and now, include ordinary people in the cast, as friends of the hero or as victims of the bad guy. What makes this era distinctive is that the innocents caught up in the story almost seem to have their own character arcs going on, into which Batman and Robin stumble.

The previous omnibus, for example, gave us Destiny’s Auction. A crook, an aspiring actress and an over the hill thespian all lose possession of their steamer trunks. A year later they buy them back at a seized property auction, but ooops, they get the wrong ones. Now they’re all entangled, and the crook is very willing to use force to recover his trunk. At the end of the story though, the two actors have both jump-started their careers. Even though Batman intervened to save them, it feels like their personal stories are their own, not just supporting Bat-characters.

Similarly, in Detective Comics #93, we have One Night of Crime. Crooks fleeing the Batman take a tour bus hostage. Various passengers get to work out their own crises in addition to the main plot.

Batman #33 has The Search for Santa Claus, in which three despairing men, take up roles as Santa for the Christmas season. By the end of the story, which involves crooked heirs trying to kill one of the Santa, they’ve all got a new lease on life.

Detective #94 gave us No One Must Know, in which the Dynamic Duo help out an escaped con whose happiness and whose son’s marriage could be ruined by a blackmail scheme.

Detective #112’s A Case Without a Crime has the employees of a small, tightly knit shop thrown into doubt when they discover one of them has sto-len $99 from the register. Can Batman restore their faith in each other, particularly when it becomes obvious none of them committed the crime? And why steal such an odd figure, anyway?

I still saw stories along these lines in the Silver Age but not as well done. And now they’ve faded away, for the most part.

The omnibus has lots of other good stuff. We have more stories of the Joker and the Penguin (Catwoman only gets one minor story), more war stories before moving into the post-war period, a few new villains such as the Blaze and plenty of ordinary criminals. Alfred gets his own series, four pagers in which he tries to be a detective and succeeds in spite of himself. And just as the previous volume focused on different specialty cops, this one gives us a look at the mail service and Gotham City’s graveyard shift.

And there’s a particular favorite of mine, from World’s Finest Comics #105, The Batman Goes Broke. After one of Bruce’s companies goes belly up from embezzlement, Bruce wipes out his fortune to reimburse the investors. Trouble is, without money the Dynamic Duo can’t pay for all the equipment they need. And working a day job to put a roof over their head will leave Bruce without the time to fight crime and train. It’s all over (spoiler: it all works out). It’s a good story and it amuses me that a couple of decades later, people considered Stan Lee a revolutionary for dealing with superhero money issues (Stan definitely did break a lot of fresh ground, no argument, but it still amuses me).

#SFWApro. Covers by Jerry Robinson, J. Winslow Mortimer and Jack Burnley (t-b). All rights to images remain with current holder.

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