Comics Ate My Brain

November 30, 2007

Thursday Night Thinking

Filed under: green lantern, thursday night thinking — Tom Bondurant @ 2:21 am
Hal Jordan gets a lot of grief for all the head injuries he’s sustained, but as this sequence shows, he still gets some productive use out of the ol’ noggin.

I call that THINKING, Diamondrock!

[From “He Who Slaughters!” in 5-Star Super-Hero Spectacular, a/k/a DC Special Series vol. 1 #1, 1977. Written by Denny O’Neil, drawn by Joe Staton, colored by Liz Berube, lettered by Ben Oda.]

November 26, 2007

Sunday Soliloquy

Filed under: justice league, justice society, sunday soliloquy — Tom Bondurant @ 2:09 am
Had a great Thanksgiving with my wife and parents; thanks for asking. Sorry that meant no blogging for the past week. Still, back in the swing of things now, so let’s get movin’.

* * *

Back at Thanksgiving 2002, the Justice League and Justice Society had to fight not only tryptophan, but a couple of uninvited guests….

… with bad table manners to boot! Hey, Despero, we put out the good napkins so people will use ’em!

[From JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice (2002), written by Geoff Johns and David Goyer, pencilled by Carlos Pacheco, inked by Jesus Merino, colored by Guy Major, lettered by Ken Lopez.]

November 18, 2007

Sunday Soliloquy

Filed under: batman, sunday soliloquy — Tom Bondurant @ 10:28 pm
This was going to be my Friday Night Fights entry, and I guess it would fit the current theme. After all, Batman’s been sucka-punched by love…!

The best part of this page isn’t the ghostly images of Bruce and Silver, or the cool efficiency with which Batman takes out his frustrations. No, for me it’s that closeup of one almost-wild eye in panel 3. You see that look in Batman’s eyes and you know someone’s getting a beating.

[From “The Coming Of … Clayface III!” in Detective Comics #478, July-August 1978. Written by Len Wein, pencilled by Marshall Rogers, inked by Dick Giordano, lettered by Ben Oda. Recolored by Rogers for this reprint.]

November 17, 2007

Crisis On Definitive Earth

Filed under: dissertations — Tom Bondurant @ 4:15 am
Dick Hyacinth‘s list of complaints made by superhero fans includes this observation:

It seems to me that the most vocal online fans are the ones who feel the greatest attachment to specific characters. So you get a lot of complaints that Intellectual Property X is written out of character, or that Storyline Z violates some musty story from the complainant’s youth. In its more extreme forms, criticism informed by such notions of ownership seems like nothing more than cross checks against the fan’s preconceptions of how the character(s) “work.” If the comic meets these expectations, it’s good. If not, it’s bad.

In general, I don’t disagree. I also agree that we commentators should want to reward “good comics” as a rule, without regard to their place in a larger corporate-owned “canon.” However, I don’t know that it’s possible to discuss corporate superhero characters without taking into account “how they ‘work.'”

Dick mentions the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four and the Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man as the pinnacles of creative achievement from Marvel, and also better than anything DC has ever published. For me to debate that would be beside the point. However, each book continued past the departure of its original artist, and each enjoyed some measure of success without that person. Considering the “Marvel Style” which Stan Lee and his collaborators pioneered, and the persistent debates over “who did what,” I think it’s safe to say that neither book was the same. Still, Lee, the other “parent” involved, kept writing both books, keeping them from being farmed out entirely to new people.

What does that mean for our evaluations of the Lee/Romita Spider-Man and/or the Lee/Buscema FF? Are they exploitative, even in part, because Romita isn’t Ditko and Buscema isn’t Kirby? Is Lee’s position in Marvel’s management structure a factor in our analysis? Where did Stan’s loyalties lie — to the work, created in collaboration with Kirby and Ditko; or to his corporate responsibilities? I don’t know the answers to all of those questions. We might come down on the side of the work, in order to keep it in its purest form. However, since Lee was still involved, isn’t there at least some sense that he wants to do right by the characters?

Before we go on, I’ll acknowledge that these various problems can all be avoided simply by leaving the work solely in the hands of its creator(s), and no one else. Thus, Fantastic Four would have ended when Kirby left, and Spider-Man when Ditko left, etc. However, that’s not the situation which faces us today. It seems to me that if we enjoy Intellectual Property X, we should want to honor the creator(s) who brought IPX to us in the first place. That may well entail judging the current work against the original work.

I’ve written previously (based in part on plok’s exhaustive series) about the transformation of a creative endeavor into a corporate property. As I see it, the original creators by definition lay the ground rules for “how the characters work.” Taking that point to its extreme, Lee and Kirby, working together, could never have written the FF “out of character,” and the same goes for the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man. (Note, though, that this wouldn’t have stopped them from producing low-quality comics, or from producing comics of a significantly different tone, tenor, whatever. Let’s keep this simple, though.) By the same token, after one collaborator left, an “out of character moment” would be possible. Indeed, the main function of the new collaborator(s) would arguably be to ensure that the characters never have any such anomalous moments.

That tends to devalue the contribution of a John Romita or a John Buscema, and if we are interested in maximizing creative expression we don’t want to do that. Thus, at some point, Spider-Man must stop being a “Ditko” character in order to become, at least in part, a “Romita” character. Repeating this process long enough, and with sufficient numbers of people, and Spider-Man does take on a life of his own. Nevertheless, every Spider-Man story may in theory still be measured against the original Lee/Ditko run, because those issues comprise the “definitive” work. Later works may be just as influential — Simonson’s Thor, Miller’s Daredevil — but the later people are still doing riffs on someone else’s creation.

It’s a little more complicated at DC, because DC started exploiting its characters earlier and across multiple media platforms. The Superman radio show added a number of elements to the character, and the Batman serials likewise affected the comics. The current Superman and Wonder Woman books seem especially far removed from their Golden Age adventures. The scope of Superman’s adventures has been expanded geometrically from where they were in the late ’30s, and I’m pretty sure no mainstream Wonder Woman comic wants to get close to the sexual politics in those ’40s stories.

More to the point, though, DC’s characters have been so franchised-out that the original works no longer seem as relevant. Batman is the exception which comes most quickly to mind, but although the dominant Batman paradigm has been in place since 1969, it followed at least two decades’ worth of stories which are today considered far “out of character.”

Accordingly, you can’t look to Siegel & Shuster for Superman guidance the way you can look to Lee & Kirby. Instead, depending on who you ask, the “definitive” Superman is Christopher Reeve, or Alan Moore’s Supreme, or Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely’s All-Star. In other words, it’s the Superman which most closely approximates an ideal aggregation of qualities. Because, by and large, DC can’t point to a series of canonical works like Marvel can, it has to traffic more in these Platonic ideals, and there’s where it gets into trouble.

If we look to the work of the original creator(s) for inspiration, guidance, and/or a qualitative baseline with regard to a particular character, with DC we arguably have to look to multiple sources. Siegel and Shuster laid the foundation for Superman, but at some point the character stopped being theirs, just like Spider-Man stopped being a Ditko character. This is not to say I don’t get a particular primal charge out of the original Siegel and Shuster stories, and it’s not hard to connect one of those stories with, say, an Elliott Maggin/Curt Swan issue, but that connection covers a lot of distance. Christopher Reeve was performing Elliott Maggin’s version of Clark Kent. Grant Morrison is riffing on the Weisinger era. All of Superman starts with Siegel and Shuster, but not everything goes back to them immediately.

So whose creative vision is being honored by the Superman stories of 2007? Hard to say; and that leaves room for argument. The problem with DC’s characters — and it may well be a problem with Marvel’s too, but I’m not as much of a Marvel scholar — is that today’s fans think they know just as much about Superman, or some other Intellectual Property X, as today’s pros. I certainly can’t speak for all superhero-comic fans, but I’d be willing to be that many see themselves on equal footing with the pros in at least two ways: both groups start with the same access to the texts, and thus to the “rules” of a particular longstanding character; and neither group can claim to have created that character. Those contentions may not be defensible, but I do think they exist. Thus, the character exists independently from its creator(s), the current creative team doesn’t have an absolute claim on it, and its corporate owner is only out to make a buck — so who else is going to stick up for the character’s best interests but a fan?

Again, I’m not saying I feel that way. I’m not saying the majority of superhero-comic fans feel that way. I honestly don’t know. However, I’m guessing that such a line of thinking could reinforce fan “attachment,” “entitlement,” whatever you want to call it. Obviously everyone’s happy when the latest issue of Intellectual Property X matches up with the generally-accepted consensus about what makes a good IPX story. When it doesn’t, though, we see appeals to “continuity” and/or charges of being “out of character.” To me, fans of corporate superheroes have just substituted this comparatively nebulous notion of a “definitive” Intellectual Property X for the work of the original creator(s). Today those characters “work” because they’ve become aggregations of details which have accumulated over the years. They’re almost more products of evolution than intelligent design … but that’s just a facile comparison. It’s late and I don’t want to get into another long discussion.

Friday Night Fights

Filed under: batman, friday night fights — Tom Bondurant @ 2:18 am
Look at Deadshot’s shiny, shiny helmet….

See that little shadow on the back?

That means he just got sucka-punched!

Go see Bahlactus for more of the same!

[From “The Deadshot Ricochet,” Detective Comics #474, December 1977. Written by Steve Englehart, pencilled by Marshall Rogers, inked by Terry Austin, lettered by Ben Oda. Recolored by Rogers for this reprint.]

November 13, 2007

New comics 11/7/07

Filed under: atom, batman, countdown, fantastic four, groo, howard the duck, robin, supergirl, superman, tranquility — Tom Bondurant @ 3:43 am
We begin this week with Supergirl #23 (written by Kelley Puckett, pencilled by Drew Johnson, inked by Ray Snyder), which I bought mostly out of past loyalty to these creators. By now these Supergirl relaunches have an air of “This time for sure!” about them, so I’ll also admit to some morbid curiosity. In that respect I wonder if it’s a bit of black humor that the cover has our heroine going up in flames….

Anyway, the issue itself is an enigmatic bit of decompression which starts and ends with a mysterious box delivered to Supergirl’s apartment. After a brief, but funny, chat with Batman about the box, she’s called away by Superman to help him and a squad of Green Lanterns stop an interstellar war. Things don’t quite go as planned, but her reaction — and the role of the box — aren’t quite explained, thereby theoretically encouraging us readers to come back next month.

Should we, though? I’m more intrigued by the storyline than I am by the title character, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. From what I can tell from this issue, Supergirl’s kind of a spaz. She zones out when the GLs brief her. She’s apparently responsible enough to have her own (spacious, nicely furnished) apartment, and that magazine subscription in her hand indicates she’s put down some roots, but how old is she supposed to be — late teens? Early twenties? What’s her “secret identity” like? (Judging by this week’s Superman, she doesn’t have much of one … but that’s this week’s Superman.) She’s got all the powers of Superman, so how does she use them differently? In short, why should I care about her enough to pay $2.99 (plus tax, minus folder discount) every month?

Well, the art is quite good. Johnson and Snyder do meticulous work. I’m not entirely sure about their Supergirl anatomy, but that could just be an optical illusion from the costume. There’s a long, wordless stretch in the second half of the book, and they handle that pretty well too. Like I said, I’m intrigued by the story, and this issue was good enough to make me want to see more. However, if I’m going to make a long-term commitment, I’d like to know more about Supergirl herself.

As for her cousin, Superman #670 (written by Kurt Busiek, pencilled by Rick Leonardi, inked by Dan Green) finishes up “The Third Kryptonian.” It’s a good conclusion to what was a somewhat predictable but still enjoyable arc. Busiek hit most of the “moody loner” character beats with Kristin Wells, including the “only out for herself” one. However, the issue is mostly action, which Leonardi and Green do nicely. I also like their Supergirl, who looks about five pounds heavier than Johnson and Snyder’s; and their Power Girl, who looks about ten pounds lighter than, say, Michael Turner’s. Anyway, the basic plot is that the Head Bad Guy has all kinds of weapons specifically designed to kill Kryptonians, so Superman and his allies (including Batman) have to figure out inventive ways to counter them. It’s all fairly straightforward, although it apparently sets up a sequel and at least one other future story. That’s not really a criticism, because I haven’t been this consistently pleased with a Superman writer in a long time.

Countdown #25 (written by Paul Dini and Adam Beechen, pencilled by Ron Lim, inked by Jimmy Palmiotti & John Stanisci) finally checks in with the cliffhanger that closed out Firestorm, lo those many months ago. That’s the bulk of the issue, and it’s entertaining and somewhat satisfying. However, the other “check-in” scenes — Jimmy and Mary Marvel on Apokolips, and Piper and Trickster escaping from Deadshot (?!?) — are kind of lame. Art is good throughout, and I would expect no less from an old hand like Lim.

I was curious about The Search For Ray Palmer: Red Rain (written by Peter Johnson, pencilled mostly by Eric Battle and Angel Unzueta, inked by Derek Fridolfs, Vicente Cifuentes, and Jonathan Glapson, with a few pages drawn by Kelley Jones) because I enjoyed the “Bat-Vampire” trilogy by Jones and writer Doug Moench. However, this has all of the grue and none of the grim nihilism. It’s not a very attractive book, mostly because it tries to ape Kelley Jones’ style without much success. The colors (by Art Lyons) are muted and muddy, like a red filter has overlaid everything. The plot is moderately diverting, since it involves this Earth’s Dick Grayson (and, in a small role, Barbara Gordon), but even that feels like something of a departure from the original material. The Batman/Dracula: Red Rain book was creepy precisely because it was set in a Bat-milieu that could easily have been the character’s regular title. However, this special’s Dick and Babs are just characters with the same names. What’s more, our Challenger heroes really can’t do anything to affect this Earth’s status quo — they can only introduce us to it and move on. Therefore, nothing of consequence happens. Unless you just like seeing alternate versions of familiar characters put through penny-dreadful situations, you don’t need this issue.

In the regular Bat-books, “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul” begins officially in Robin #168 (written by Peter Milligan, drawn by Freddie E. Williams II). If you’ve seen one of those “Bad Seed” kinds of movies, where no one will believe the good kid who knows the evil kid’s evil, that’s about how Tim must deal with Damien. Also, Batman rescues Talia from what is apparently her bandage-enwrapped father. It’s kinda unremarkable, except for the hints at the mysticism (Nanda Parbat, the Sensei, etc.) behind Ra’s’ return. Williams’ work is fine; Robin is lean and muscular, and Batman is appropriately chunky.

The romance, or whatever it is, of Ryan and Doris “Giganta” Zuel is the best thing about (The All-New) Atom #17 (written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Mike Norton, inked by Trevor Scott). I found myself rooting for the two crazy kids despite the fact that she’s a little unhinged. The weird androgynous villain (at least I think “he” and “she” are the same person) was hard to figure, but that’s a good enough mystery for two issues. Norton and Scott turn in another fine issue. They work about as well with Simone as Nicola Scott did on Birds Of Prey, and considering how much I like Nicola Scott, that’s high praise indeed.

I bought Welcome To Tranquility: Armageddon #1 (written by Christos Gage, drawn by Neil Googe and Horacio Domingues) out of loyalty to the regular title — only one issue left, apparently — and it was just okay. Basically, it focused on Tranquility’s Captain Marvel-analogue, but let him stay “in costume” the whole issue, as opposed to his regular role of deus ex machina. Also, the time-travel involved in showing us the alternate future also made our hero’s role that much more confusing. In short, he flies around while others tell him how bad things have gotten, and then he forgets about everything and the issue is over. It was kind of like the Ray Palmer: Red Rain issue, above, except without the muddy art.

Fantastic Four #551 (written by Dwayne McDuffie, pencilled by Paul Pelletier, inked by Rick Magyar) looks like it kicks off this creative team’s last arc, involving a set of time-travelers bent on stopping Reed from saving the world. It ends on a heck of a cliffhanger, and it ties into Reed’s “room of notes” from Civil War. That’s not a lot in terms of plot, but it’s executed well.

Howard the Duck #2 (written by Ty Templeton, pencilled by Juan Bobillo, inked by Marcelo Sosa) gets closer to its roots, as Howard and Bev must deal with Howard’s sudden celebrity following his smackdown of the hunters last issue. Most of the issue finds Howard on a yelling-match talk show, and that goes about like you’d expect, or maybe a little worse. I might be easily amused, but I did like MODOT (Designed Only for Talking) a lot. This is not a bad miniseries by any means, even if it has a lot to live up to.

Finally, the satire is presented much more deftly in Groo: Hell On Earth #1 (by Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones), in which Groo’s bumbling leads to eco-unfriendly consequences. I’m not sure how this can be stretched out into four issues, but if the rest are as clever as this one, I definitely won’t care. The latest Groo tale finds everyone at the top of their particular game, especially Aragones and colorist Tom Luth. Those two complement each other perfectly through Aragones’ exquisite backgrounds and two-page spreads. This story aims for a broad scope and even an epic feel, and succeeds admirably.

November 11, 2007

Sunday Soliloquy

Filed under: justice society, sunday soliloquy — Tom Bondurant @ 8:03 pm
And now, a villain who desperately needs the sartorial touch of Blockade Boy:

Yes, it was the ’70s, but bell-bottoms and platform shoes? For an ancient mystical creature who allegedly brought down civilizations? Really?!? Maybe the clothes are meant to keep his victims awake during his speeches….

(sigh) “A place where nobody dared to go,” indeed.

[From “When Fall The Mighty,” All-Star Comics #62, September-October 1976. Plotted by Gerry Conway, scripted by Paul Levitz, pencilled by Keith Giffen, inked by Wally Wood, colored by Carl Gafford, lettered by Ben Oda.]

P.S. Zanadu is also the name of a fine chain of Seattle comics shops which I am sure have nothing to do with this ill-dressed bad guy.

November 10, 2007

Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and The Armies of the Night

Filed under: green arrow, green lantern — Tom Bondurant @ 6:11 pm
When I heard this morning that Norman Mailer had died, I thought immediately of Green Lantern #79. It’s the fourth issue of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “relevance” run, where Green Arrow was brought in to shake up GL’s establishment worldview. This particular issue found the two on opposite sides, with Green Arrow posing as a legendary Native American spiritual leader. The dramatic climax comes in the form of a fistfight, but O’Neil ups the emotional ante by setting the fight to Mailer’s prose.

Along with writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thomposn, Mailer was considered one of the first of the “New Journalists,” who sought to bring the techniques associated with novels into mainstream journalism. His book The Armies of the Night (1968) was about his experiences surrounding the 1967 march on the Pentagon.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’ve never read Armies of the Night, or anything else by Mailer. Sorry I can’t provide more context.

However, the point is not that Green Lantern #79 is improved by the addition of Mailer. (One wonders in what context the square, conservative Hal Jordan would have read anything by Mailer without first being exposed to Ollie’s preaching.) Rather, the incorporation of Mailer quotes is perhaps the best example of the earnest pleas at the heart of these GL/GA stories.

In 1970 the ’60s were over not just chronologically but spiritually too. Still, these stories are bubbling over with the energy, idealism, and (yes) naivete of a youthful true believer. Just as the New Journalists wanted to make their reporting seem like novels, so O’Neil and Adams wanted to blend superheroes and social concerns.

More significantly, though, the Mailer quotes read to me like Denny O’Neil inserting himself into the story in a more active role than simply the narrator. Sure, he’s preaching, but he’s also pleading with the reader, in a display that today we might call “too emo.” However, it doesn’t come across to me as pretentious, precious, or arch — instead, it’s more like Denny’s attempt to engage his audience. It’s not hard today to see the original GL/GA stories as overwrought and broad, but rarely do we see such nakedly personal appeals come through so clearly on the page.

It was also, I feel sure, Denny’s attempt to get his readers (including his college-age readers) active and involved. In this respect The Armies of the Night represents something more than Mailer’s meld of autobiography and reporting — it signifies any number of movements in which a young person could be productive once he put down the comic. I enjoy a lot of modern superhero comics, but I’m hard-pressed to think of one which consistently tries to make its readers think about their world, and thereby make them (and it) better.

So rest in peace, Mr. Mailer, and thanks for your contribution, however small or indirect, to a run of superhero comics whose heart was definitely in the right place.

[Scans from “Ulysses Star Is Still Alive!” in Green Lantern #79, September 1970. Written by Denny O’Neil, pencilled by Neal Adams, inked by Dan Adkins, lettered by John Costanza. Color reconstruction for The Green Lantern/Green Arrow Collection by Cory Adams.]

Friday Night Fights

Filed under: avengers, friday night fights, meme — Tom Bondurant @ 12:12 am
Why is the Kree-Skrull War considered a classic?

Sucka-punches all around, of course!

No wonder Bahlactus ate the Skrull homeworld….

[From “This Beachhead Earth,” The Avengers vol. 1 #93, November 1971. Written by Roy Thomas, pencilled by Neal Adams, inked by Tom Palmer, lettered by Sam Rosen.]

November 9, 2007

Thursday Night Thinking

Filed under: batman, batwoman, meme, thursday night thinking — Tom Bondurant @ 1:00 am
You’re a rookie crimefighter looking for a big credibility boost. Suddenly the opportunity literally falls into your lap.

Time for some serious THINKING–!

If the same scene were to play out today, I’d put even money on a) Batwoman taking a peek under the mask and b) getting a good dose of one of the costume’s countermeasures.

That’s in a mainstream Batman comic, mind you. The Frank Miller version would definitely be NSFW.

Diamondrock is deep in thought!

[From “The Batwoman,” Detective Comics #233, July 1956. Written by Edmond Hamilton, pencilled by Sheldon Moldoff, inked by Charles Paris. Color reconstruction for Batman in the Fifties by Lee Loughridge.]

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