Category Archives: Comics

April Fool!

I don’t really have anything funny to post, so I’ll repost three images of comics’ greatest clown, the Joker! Hoodlum Harlequin, Menacing Mountebank, Clown Prince of Crime! First a shot from his debut, drawn by Jerry Robinson (story by Bill Finger) —And then one of the most classic Joker covers, by Neal Adams.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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The Victorian Past, the Unimaginable Future and parallel worlds

After reading Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead, I thought THE INVENTION OF MURDER: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders would provide more insight in the same vein. Unfortunately it’s more like a listicle of once-sensational crimes — a lot of them don’t stand out by today’s standards — and the press coverage and stage dramatizations that fed on the public’s interest in them. Black Swine had more insight into the Victorian psyche and Jess Nevins’ Fantastic Victoriana is more interesting on the development of crime and detective fiction. So I put this one down unfinished.

In his historical notes on Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser referenced A JOURNAL OF THE FIRST AFGHAN WAR by Lady Florentia Sale as a good source on the disastrous events in his novel; discovering TYG had a copy I finally got around to reading it. Writing in 1842, Sale chronicles a long string of missteps and bad judgments made by British military and diplomatic leaders in Afghanistan, ranging from soldiers retreating when they should have won to wildly misreading who among the Afghans was trustworthy. This ultimately led to a disorganized withdrawal bogged down by servants, camp-followers and families, that ended for most of the retreating Brits as corpses strewn across the landscape, though Sale herself made it to safety. A grim study of military ineptitude and some tart-tongued writing.

THE TIME AXIS is a very Olaf Stapledon-ish epic by Henry Kuttner in which a boozing journalist doing an article on a high-powered scientist discovers the real purpose of his assignment is to join a team traveling to the end of time and finding a cure for the mysterious indestructible substance slowly taking over the world’s matter. The story that follows (Arnold Schoenberg’s cover captures a lot of it) seems like Kuttner just kept pumping out ideas and throwing them in — mandroids, transporters, time travel, psi-possession — but it worked for me.

Leigh Brackett’s THE BIG JUMP has a protagonist investigating the aftermath of Earth’s first interstellar expedition: what happened to his friend who apparently didn’t come home with the ship? Why is the Solar System’s most powerful corporation covering up what happened on the journey? Learning that something bad happened to the crew, the protagonist deals himself in on the follow-up flight, only to discover their destination holds a threat he hadn’t anticipated. I love the monstrous alien Transuranea but the sexism of this hardboiled SF yarn gets heavy.

CAVE CARSON HAS A CYBERNETIC EYE: Every Me, Every You by Gerard Way, Jon Rivera and Michael Avon Oeming starts poorly: a flashback to a Superman crossover, then some really confusing jumping to parallel worlds for more battles with the Whisperer. Things pick up after they finally land on another world where they join forces with an older counterpart of Cave and Cave Carson Jr. against the bad guys. The end result is not as fun as the first volume, but it’s good enough I’ll try the third and final volume eventually.

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



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Bronze Age C-listers and Nexus: Graphic novels

MS. MARVEL: This Woman, This Warrior by Gerry Conway, Chris Claremont and multiple artists, begins the superhero career of the woman who’s now Captain Marvel. According to Gerry Conway in the text page, the creative staff came up with the name, then developed the character, reintroducing Carol Danvers, a Cape Kennedy security head who’d worked with the original Kree Captain Marvel. Now she’s a writer for J. Jonah Jameson’s new magazine (Conway, a former Spiderman writer, drew heavily on that cast, but Claremont moved away from that) — who also transforms into a split personality, Kree warrior Ms. Marvel. Can she keep her job when she can’t explain why she’s blacking out all the time? Can she survive against AIM, Grotesk, Deathbird and the Elementals? The results are enjoyable to read, but not at all memorable — I can see why I didn’t feel the urge to buy this one back when it was on the stands.

THE ESSENTIAL IRON FIST, written by Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella and Chris Claremont, with multiple artists (most notably John Byrne) is a better book, despite the (as they say) problematic overtones of having a white guy become the greatest martial artist of the lost city of K’Un Lun, far superior to all the Asians (and ending up in the same category as B’Wana Beast and the Western Ghost Rider, the white guy who becomes the sacred champion of a nonwhite culture). After his parents’ murder, Danny Rand winds up in K’Un Lun, eventually rising to become its ultimate champion, the Iron Fist, then heading to NYC to get revenge on Meachum, the man who murdered the Rands. But Meachum is powerful, Danny knows nothing about the Western world and there are a whole bunch of supervillains who wind up drawn into his orbit …

Claremont’s writing is a lot stronger here and Byrne’s art is dynamic in some of the martial arts sequences. I still don’t regret skipping this on the stands (except for one issue, guest-starring the X-Men), but I enjoyed reading it.

BLOODSTONE AND THE LEGION OF MONSTERS is actually two generations of heroes. Created by John Warner, Ulysses Bloodstone was an immortal monster-hunter who had a backup slot in Marvel’s Bronze Age Rampaging Hulk black-and-white magazine; when they totally rebooted the lead feature (originally it had been a retcon set during Hulk’s early years), His daughter Elsa debuted about two decades ago, in a four issue series written by Dan Abnett, who had more success rebooting Guardians of the Galaxy a few years later. Ulysses’ back-up run (this also includes his first appearance in Marvel Presents) is an odd mix of supervillains, monsters and Jim Starlin-style 1970s mysticism (Bloodstone’s psychic senses can read auras, for instance) before Steve Gerber kills the protagonist and wraps up the series in the final story (a really heavy handed Everything You Know Is Wrong twist ending). The Elsa material includes a visit to a secret city of monsters under NYC and several one-shots, including pairing her as buddies with the mutant Boomer. Overall a fun collection.

The seventh NEXUS OMNIBUS brings Nexus’ saga to a satisfactory stopping place (as I wrote about recently) but overall it’s a weak collection. The Nexus the Liberator miniseries (done without either of Nexus’ creators, Mike Baron and Steve Rude) is awful and much of the collection is spinoffs involving various supporting characters, though mostly enjoyable spinoffs.

Oh, and speaking of comics, I have a new post at Atomic Junkshop on change in the Silver Age.

#SFWApro. Bottom cover by Gil Kane, upper two by Dave Cockrum.


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Comics covers about social distancing

Like this 1958 image by Ruben Moreira, clearly anticipating the importance of avoiding COVID-19 in 2020!Even the Justice League, as drawn by Murphy Anderson, get the importance of isolation.Flash later decided to break quarantine and not even wash his hands. Good thing the Weather Wizard was there! Art by Infantino.Superman is a lot more responsible, as shown by Al Plastino —Other people, as Bob Brown shows, have to be encouraged more forcefully.Hopefully you’ll be more sensible, like this woman in Ruben Moreira’s cover. Nobody’s making her into a carrier!#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Due to Mysticon, I didn’t see any movies last weekend —

So I have nothing to review. So instead, enjoy this gloriously oddball Joe Kubert cover, part of DC’s long tradition of using apes on comics covers to boost sales (apparently it worked)#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Avengers and Cops: Graphic novels read

AVENGERS: Once An Avenger collects Avengers 21-40, which show the problems with the “Marvel method” (the artist does a lot of the plotting) that Stuf’ Said talked about. Don Heck wasn’t comfortable flying without a detailed plot from the writer and Stan Lee’s outlines were probably pretty thin (he was working on a lot of Marvel books at this point) which put even more weight on Heck’s shoulders (Roy Thomas takes over the book near the end of this volume and seems to be a stronger plotter). As a result, we have a lot of padding in some stories, and frequent whipsaw plot changes. At one point Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch head back to their home nation of Transia because their powers are fading and they hope the motherland will recharge them. Several issues later, with no set up, we see a kindly Einstein-lookalike (who apparently lives with a fully equipped lab in a Transian mountain village) miraculously figuring a way to recharge their abilities. Apparently Lee or Heck decided it was time to bring them back so presto, miracle cure!

That said, I do enjoy Lee’s style of mixing melodrama and heartache (the latter probably came naturally to Heck, who did a lot of romance comics work) in with the superheroics. Hawkeye has a genuine character arc, going from hot-head to a fairly sensible guy (though the team continues to take up space with constant bickering). And there are some great stories: the Avengers second battle with Kang, their encounter with the white-supremacist Sons of the Serpent, and the debut of the Collector. While he would appear many more times, later stories made him more SF and lacked the quirkiness of his collection here: a flying carpet for transportation, beans that grow giants, a medieval catapult (I can swallow this, as a lot of real collectors are equally arbitrary in their selections). So a thumbs up, but YMMV.

I picked up GOTHAM CENTRAL: The Quick and the Dead by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano for cheap at the library’s display table, and while I like the premise of the series — life as a cop in Gotham City — this is not one of the stronger volumes. One story ties in to some then-current Bat-event and with no context or explanation why Batman is suddenly persona non grata, it lacks punch. Another takes a couple of cops to Keystone City to confront Flash’s foe Dr. Alchemy. While they play off the contrasting attitudes of Flash-series cops to Gotham cops, this turns Alchemy into a blatant Hannibal Lector ripoff, a guy who can figure out everything you’re thinking and use it against you. There’s no basis for this in the character, and more importantly it just doesn’t work. So this one went back to the library.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

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Forging ahead, regardless of the facts

“When you write a story, you have a predetermined end in mind, and the challenge is to make the facts match the ending. This is what I call “the fictific method.” The challenge of the fictific method is to make all the facts along the way to lead to a believable result based on those facts. Unfortunately, more and more we are seeing storytellers whose goal is to reach a certain result regardless of the facts.” — Brian K. Lowe.

Lowe cites two ways this happens: 1)The writer ignores the facts they’ve’ established so that they can make the ending come out the way they want it to. 2)The storyteller establishes false facts: changes history, ignores the way things normally work, or has people behave in ways nobody normally would.

Raymond Chandler’s classic essay The Simple Art of Murder really hammers the classic British mysteries of his day over #2. Cops who don’t follow any of the established rules or use the tools at their disposal to crack the case. Or consider the murder scheme in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase: it’s an absurdly elaborate plot it’s unlikely any killer would use. But it has to be used to set up a seemingly impossible crime, a man murdered on a beach at low tide with nobody leaving footprints in the sand.

Or consider Avengers #38 (cover by Gil Kane). The Asgardian Enchantress places a love spell on Hercules to get him to attack the Avengers for her. At the end, the good guys snap Herc out of the spell, but the Enchantress still has the magical power to annihilate them. Instead, when Hercules tells her to get lost, she just walks out because … she’s in love with him and can’t bear to kill him along with the others. This comes out of nowhere; she’s shown absolutely no interest in Hercules up to that point, unlike Thor, whom she was constantly hot for. But it was the simplest way to end the story, given her Asgardian magic way outclasses the team.

Or take a scene I wrote into Southern Discomfort. After some nasty magic starts paralyzing people, I had the Pharisee County Hospital treating it as if there were a strange outbreak of stroke cases. My friend doctor and author Heather J. Frederick pointed out that strokes don’t work the way the magic did, so that wouldn’t be the diagnosis. I went back and reworked it and settled on the doctors deciding it was some kind of fast-spreading disease — which was scarier because 1973 wasn’t as prepared for epidemics as we are now.

Which is the key to making the fictific method work. If you can’t get the ending you want, given the facts of your story, either change the facts or change the ending so everything flows logically. Hopefully once it’s finally published, everyone will agree that I did.

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

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It’s hump day, keep fighting!

See the work week fall before your sword!And never give up, never surrender!#SFWApro. Covers by Ken Kelly top and Jerry Grandenetti, all rights remain with current holders.

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Simon Templar, Jesus and Batman! Books read

THE SAINT: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television 1928-1992 by Burl Barer looks at the career of Simon “The Saint” Templar, gentleman adventurer, troubleshooter and “Robin Hood of modern crime,” a man who took down criminals the law couldn’t catch while also using their loot to cushion his bank account. Barer tracks the Saint’s growth from the early 1930s novels to international popularity and an expansion into movies, radio, comic strips, hardback reprints, TV and mystery magazines. He parallels this with a look at creator Leslie Charteris’ career, which came to focus entirely around the Saint after The Saint In New York became a best-seller. Unlike many authors, Charteris was quite protective of Simon Templar in other media, aggressively complaining if he thought their treatment hurt the brand. He also worried surprisingly about whether Simon’s age as the series progressed made his adventures ridiculous; I just accept that kind of agelessness as a gift of the fictional gods.

The book ends right as work on the 1997 Val Kilmer Saint film was beginning which left Barer optimistic it would launch a whole new franchise. Instead it tanked, and I suspect Simon Templar is very much now a “dad hero” in the sense that while he was huge for my generation (particularly when Roger Moore played him on TV), I doubt he means anything for Gen X, Y, etc., any more than the characters referenced in Clubland Heroes mean to me. Damn, I’m old.

ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan acknowledges in the introduction that trying to capture a historical image of Jesus isn’t really possible, then blithely asserts that he’s done it anyway. Aslan’s version is that Jesus was one of the countless Jewish Messiahs out to free Palestine from the yoke of Rome with the help of Jehovah: he came to bring not peace but a sword (Aslan concludes Jesus gentler admonitions were all meant for Jews on how to deal with each other, not outsiders). This is no worse than most other biographies of this sort I’ve read, but no better; Aslan suffers the usual dilemma of having to separate the parts of the Gospels imposed on Jesus’ life by later Christians with the ones that capture authentic history, and his unsurprising conclusion is that whatever fits his thesis is historical.

THE GOLDEN-AGE BATMAN Vol. 6 pretty much continues the style and spirit of the previous volume which despite the increasing number of time-travel stories is, I think a good thing. We have more Joker and Penguin, the introduction of the Riddler and less well remembered villains such as the Gong and the Pied Piper (not the Flash foe, a criminal who uses pipes as an MO). There’s also the debut of Vicki Vale: having only known her as a rather annoying Lois Lane-clone who was either trying to marry Batman or unmask him (Lois at her best was much better than that) it was quite a surprise to see her in her first story as a determined photojournalist with no qualms about taking a risk to get the right photo. Among the standout stories are “The Case of the 48 Jokers” for how Batman and Robin wrap it up by playing practical jokes on the Joker, and “The Man With the Fatal Hands,” a clever riff on the old Hands of Orlac horror plot. I’ve already started volume #7.

#SFWApro. Batman cover by Dick Sprang; all rights to both cover images remain with current holders.

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Nexus: more than “angsty Punisher in space”

While I haven’t finished the Nexus Omnibus collections completely, Nexus: Alien Justice makes such a good stopping place for the Mike Baron/Steve Rude series (the equivalent of a season ender on TV that could serve as a season ender), I figure I might as well give it an overview.

When the series (initially from Capital Comics, later from First) begins, Nexus is already infamous as a vigilante in the vast spacefaring universe of 500 years from now. There’s the Solar System, which is loosely united; assorted alien races and human colonies; and the repressive Sov empire, the result of Russia taking its communist dictatorship to the stars (when this series started in the early 1980s, it still seemed possible the Soviets would last that long). When Nexus enters one dictatorship’s airspace, the tyrant’s reaction is to have every possible ship and weapon deployed to stop him (they don’t) so it’s clear he’s serious business. Nexus channels fusion power from the heart of a star so he’s near unstoppable (emphasis on the near).

As we learn over the next few issues, Nexus is Horatio Hellpop, whose father was a Sov general ruling one outpost. When his overthrow became inevitable, he followed his duty and wiped out the entire planet, then fled with his wife to an isolated world to hide. After her death, Horatio goes up with his dad and two imaginary friends for company … but they’re not imaginary. They’re agents of the Merk, a cosmically powerful entity that eventually drives Horatio to kill his father by showing him visions of Dad’s ruthless past, then charging him with fusion power. It’s only the beginning: the Merk wants to fight evil, so it sends more dreams of evildoers to haunt Horatio until he kills them. Nexus is born.

On one of his first cases, Nexus kills the boss of a slave labor camp on Thune. The laborers point out that they’ll be blamed and executed so Horatio reluctantly takes them with him back to Ylum, the isolated world where he dwells (it’s linked to the Nexus). This becomes the beginning: Ylum draws more refugees and its development into a functioning democracy is a running plot through the series. Dave, one of the laborers, becomes Horatio’s closest friend. Then there’s Sundra Peale, a spy who eventually falls for Horatio and opens a business on Ylum; and Judah Maccabbee, Dave’s long-lost son, raised Jewish and modeling his role as an interplanetary trouble-shooter on Nexus.

What makes Nexus more than just a standard hardcore vigilante who kills bad guys is — well, several things, starting with Horatio. He’s not a violent man by nature, but the Merk’s torments make it hell for him to refuse a mission. He tries several times, but it doesn’t go well. Later, when the Merk dumps Horatio and appoints a new Nexus, the new man likes killing way too much (Horatio eventually regains his powers in Alien Justice but I didn’t buy it — it seemed he’d be happier to hang up his suit and stay retired). In one story Nexus kills a tyrant, which guarantees vicious reprisals against the oppressed — but Nexus isn’t willing to wipe out the entire government to save them, so what does he do?

There’s also a great supporting cast. Sundra. Dave. Judah. Tyrone, the put-upon leader of Ylum. Ursula who seduces Horatio to begat two girls with psionic power. The Loomis sisters, three young women PO’d Nexus executed their father.

And then there’s the backdrop. Much like Saga, this universe isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously, as witness we have a cult of assassins known as the Gucci. But it works. There are weird races such as the Heads, disembodied psionics enslaved and used to channel fusion power and political conflict between Ylum (which is largely identified with Nexus) and some of the worlds where he deals death. Even when it’s not serious, it’s usually interesting.

There are some parts of the series that don’t work. Clonezone, a humanoid frog who’s also a chiseling opportunist, is never anything but annoying, but Baron and Rude gave him a backup strip for a while. I just skipped over those stories.

In the Alien Justice miniseries (after First Comics shut up shop and the original series ended), the Merk recruits multiple alternative Nexi without success. Fortunately a rival Merk, “GQ” (see what I mean about not serious?) recruits Horatio to stop them, with Sundra and Judah’s help. GQ then hauls the Merk back to their own plane and offers to power Horatio in his stead. Which like I said, I didn’t buy: with the Merk gone, I think Horatio would happily end his Nexus career and go on with his own life. But either way it represents a stopping point, even if it turned out the series didn’t stop.Despite that, the run of the series is well worth collecting and available in both hard and paperback omnibuses. I’ll be reviewing the remaining collections as I work through them.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Paul Gulacy, others by Steve Rude. All rights remain with current holder.


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