Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why I love Dick Dillin's art (and you should too), by Kevin Wilson

Bob Temuka is one of my “imaginary friends” as my wife calls them; people I know exclusively from the Internet. I know him by a different name, but like any good confidante I understand the importance of the secret identity and would never dare reveal this information to the world. He recently shared his vacation plans with our covert message board enclave, and solicited guest bloggers. Not being the timid sort when it comes to sharing my opinions, and having some free time between contracts, I boldly jumped up and said, “Well, if nobody else wants to, ummm…I guess I could, you know, if you wouldn’t mind…”

I’ve been reading comics since about 1968. I am the personification of “old school,” and have a great appreciation for the Silver Age artists that I grew up with. Volumes have been written, literally, about Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, and Joe Kubert. Others like Kurt Schaffenberger, Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson and Carmine Infantino are widely recognized as master draftsmen or designers. Even Jim Aparo is finally getting his due in a new “Legends of the Dark Knight” volume.

And I love the work of all of those artists. But there are others who’ve been ignored for the most part or whose work has been denigrated by some. One such artist is Dick Dillin, an iron man whose run on the Blackhawks spans 44 issues for Quality from the early 50’s, plus 134 issues through 1968 for DC when they acquired rights to the Quality titles. He followed that with 115 issues of Justice League of America, a run that ended only because of his passing in 1980.

But it’s not just his longevity on those titles which is noteworthy. At the time, as a child, I didn’t have a full appreciation of his design sense, his figure work, his composition. Over time, I began to pick up a pencil with the idea of becoming an artist myself: went to school, got a degree and everything. Then I decided I enjoyed eating and having a roof over my head. I didn’t want to be a starving artist pounding the pavement with a portfolio under my arms that no one wanted to look at. I realize now if I’d used deodorant perhaps more editors and art directors would have at least flipped through it.

During that period, I was dazzled by the photo-realism of Adams, the naturalism of Cardy and Kubert, and the slick Murphy Anderson-inspired work of George Perez, Romeo Tanghal and early Mike Grell. Artists like Dillin and Sekowsky were, in my mind, hacks who weren’t fit to clean brushes for these other artistes.

But later, with a better understanding of the form, and of art in general, I gravitated back to those elder statesmen of comics. I also rediscovered JLA, and Diana Prince: The New Wonder Woman, and the Super-Sons in World’s Finest, and the undercover Metal Men with their secret identities. And I fell in love with the energy and power of Dick Dillin.

His earliest work at Fawcett and Fiction House led him to Quality Comics in 1952. He worked on some of their war and romance books, but is known mostly for penciling the popular Blackhawk feature during the 50’s. The luminaries of the 40’s were artists like Mac Raboy, Lou Fine, and of course Will Eisner. Dillin, especially when paired with inker Chuck Cuidera, was clearly influenced by their work and carried on that tradition. The cover to Blackhawk #73 shows attention to detail in the folds of fabric, and depicts a nearly static scene that nevertheless conveys urgency and action with its mostly still figures.

The cover from a few issues later shows a strong understanding of composition, with all of the elements leading the viewer’s eye from every corner of the page to the menacing “Flying Flat-Top.” The curve of the rope ladder follows the line of the “Blackhawk” logo down toward the garishly colored aircraft. The angle of the F-90 fighter jets and the lines of their tracerfire also lead to that lower right corner. Even Blackhawk’s hat is a large black arrow pointing toward the villain’s craft. Meanwhile, its angle of ascent leads back toward Blackhawk’s very expressive face, creating a dynamic drawing the eye rapidly back and forth, adding to the energy of the page.

When Quality closed up shop, Dillin’s search for work led him eventually to DC Comics. DC had acquired the rights to Blackhawks and Dillin saw some copies of his work lying on the desk as he was being interviewed. It turns out DC had been trying to get in touch with the title’s longtime artist, and he resumed work on the Blackhawks for its new publisher with the very first issue, which continued Quality’s numbering. Apparently no one had yet figured out the HUGE marketing impact of restarting a series with a bold “#1” screaming from the cover!

When the book's run ended, Dillin did some work on World's Finest and a few Batman specials before being assigned to The Justice League of America. Dillin penciled the series from #64-183 (Aug. 1968 - Oct. 1980), except for four “Giant” reprint issues and a fill-in which was penciled by George Tuska. The cover of his first issue, featuring inks by Jack Abel, shows another example of Dillin’s understanding of how to compose a scene for the page. Here the whirlwind trail of Red Tornado’s punch draws the eye in toward the bottom center of the page, and then the angle of the pieces of the table and the falling and scattering figures draws it back up and out to follow a form similar to the splash of water from a rock or cannonball dive. The eye comes back up to see the cocked fist of the Red Tornado, indicating more potential damage. He’s still in an offensive posture: still threatening. It’s a very powerful and iconic cover.

While Dick Dillin’s work may lack the elegance of Neal Adams or Gil Kane, what it does is convey the frenetic chaotic action of a real world fight similar to the way that Michael Bay does in the Transformer movies. It’s not always neat and clean and slick. It’s not choreographed. But it’s never hard to follow or read, and the composition of the page is never sacrificed.

Dick Dillin’s work was best showcased with “softer” inkers, like Chuck Cuidera on his Blackhawks run, or Sid Greene and Murphy Anderson while at DC. His work was frequently finished by Frank McLaughlin, and the results were mixed. Even Dick Giordano, widely regarded as one of the preeminent inkers of any era, made Dillin’s figures look stiff and awkward. While Dillin’s line work was not his strong suit, with the right inker his figure work was able to stand out and was stunning.

Consider a few panels from early in his JLA run. These two shots of Hawkman taking off and landing show a grace and power that rivals that of Murphy Anderson’s work on the character. This is a figure with weight, with heft, with mass and volume. At their best, Dick Dillin’s figures have the look of those of Michelangelo, the power, grace and solidity of David or The Last Judgment. 

He was also capable of offering up some “Good Girl” art that was as sexy as anything from the 30’s or 40’s. His Black Canary from page five of JLA #73 is fully dressed as she pulls on her boot, but is still as perfectly formed and hot as any adolescent could handle. 

And while he never appeared to deliberately, directly copy another artist’s style, part of what contributed to his longevity in the industry was his ability to incorporate influences to his style, and to evoke the work of others when working on various features. His art on World’s Finest #216 appears to draw from Curt Swan, although admittedly this could be attributed to inker Murphy Anderson. But there’s no denying that the double page splash from JLA #183 - featuring the New Gods - conveys every bit of Jack Kirby’s cosmic otherworldliness in the design of the interplanetary geography and architecture. Even if he may have used some of the King’s work as reference, the result is fully integrated with his own style while retaining the crackling energy of the source material.

That issue would be Dick Dillin’s last published work. It shows no signs that his skills were diminished by age as was the work of some other artists that are no longer with us. I’m sorry I didn’t fully value the work of Dick Dillin while he was alive, but I’m glad I’ve come to understand and appreciate it since. Sadly, that seems to be the way it goes. Great artists are not always appreciated in their own lifetime.


Kevin Wilson was part of the original CBR community, back when it was a site devoted to Kingdom Come. He might be getting on in years, but he is not as old as he says he is.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I love The Spirit (2008) (and you should too), by Mike Sterling

Whenever I talk about stuff like this, people think I'm simply being contrary. And I swear, I'm not. For example, let's take All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder by Frank Miller and Jim Lee. Hoo boy, did people not like this comic.

And by "people," I mean "mostly just dudes online complaining about it on blogs and message boards," because let me tell you, actual in-store sales on this comic were just dandy. I wish any one of the dozen or so X-Men comics Marvel cranks out per month sold anywhere close to the numbers we were getting on All Star Batman.

And the comic itself really was a hoot. It was funny and outrageous, a full-steam-ahead action movie of a superhero comic, with over-the-top reinterpretations not just of Batman and Robin, but of most of DC's superhero mainstays. Unfortunately, it was perhaps a little too outrageous for some online commentators, who bristled at the very idea that perhaps there existed a handful of Batman comics out of the thousands that have ever been published that did not conform precisely to their idea of the real Batman.

And they tried hard to be offended: that most infamous panel ("I'm the g--d--- Batman!") was spread far and wide; not so much the in-story explanation for that seemingly out-of-character behavior, which, granted, was a whole two panels later so I can see how folks may have missed it. There was a point to all the shenanigans in the comics, too…a through line to all the seemingly crazy goings-on in All Star Batman, that of morality and responsibility.

The other superheroes were only barely under control, held citizens and each other in barely-concealed contempt, Batman himself was dark and moody and violent, and sought in young Dick Grayson a protege who could follow him down his path. At least, until, during a confrontation with Green Lantern, Robin very nearly kills GL, which triggers Batman's realization that the path he's pushing Robin down is one that can only lead to disaster.

That issue ends with a comforting embrace between Batman and his young ward, the first in the series as I recall, pointing toward a new path for the duo that leads to healing, not hurting, which even as I write that I know it's a trite phrase, but the point being that there's more to this comic than just ""I'm the g--d--- Batman!"

Sadly, the series ends an issue later, the story unfinished, despite a now pretty much forgotten announcement that a later mini-series would wrap the whole thing up. My guess is that later events in the storyline would involve Batman, having learned his lesson about power and responsibility, attempting to get the other heroes to get their own acts together. And of course, while other crazy stuff is going down the whole time, so that things don't get too serious.

But we'll likely never know, though what does exist of the series still stands as an interesting experiment in superhero storytelling for which, perhaps, the world was not yet ready.

Oh, and then Frank Miller went on to write and direct a film adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit, which was also entertaining and funny and visually interesting, and, I think, undeservedly got a bad rap. You should see it sometime.


I always think of Mike Sterling as King Of The Comic Bloggers, and his pal Dorian as the Dark Prince (Fun Fact: their twitter feeds are the only two I ever follow). Of course, being king of the comic bloggers also always makes me think it sounds like Evan Dorkin's King of The Chimps and Dwarves, which isn't entirely accurate...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why I love Morrison and Vallely's Bible John (and you should too), by Kelly Sheehan

I have just looked at a panel from Bible John. The picture is odd, as if the original image has been held up to a fun house mirror, and the new distorted version reproduced on the page instead. A woman, covered in menstrual blood, sits in a truck. She is facing the reader. Behind her a man in shadows is also looking our way. I have read this comic many times before. Here, in the light of day, in my home, I read the speech bubble emitting from the woman's mouth -”My name is Pat McAdam”- and I feel a cold shiver. This comic scares the shit out of me every time I read it.

Bible John ran in Crisis magazine from March through to August 1991 and has not been reprinted since. Subtitled A Forensic Meditation, the series is an examination of a series of murders that occurred in Glasgow during the 1960s. It was written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Daniel Vallely and lettered by Elitta Fell.

Read in one sitting, Bible John induces a shallow pooling of dread in the pit of your stomach. A distinct feel of unease enters the room. Grant would probably tell you to burn some sage, chase off that bad ju-ju. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

The early episodes explore the basic facts of the case: dates, names, times, places. Accompanying these details is a faint prickling on the back of the neck-hackles raised by tragic circumstance and vague synchronicity.

The weirdness, the serious voltage of occult electricity, really starts to generate in Episode Four. The exploration of the facts, (just the facts), has run its course and Morrison and Valley conduct a séance. Two hours into their experiment, the glass on the ouija board starts moving and the parameters of what you thought you were reading begins to waver.

As it turns out S.T.U.A.R.T can’t help and somehow that’s really disconcerting. There is a sense of something inexplicable pushing in on the séance, something with it's own agenda. When I get to this part I can't help but wonder if S.T.U.A.R.T.s now in the room with me, reading over my shoulder.

After the séance, the series seems haunted. Danny Vallely experiences a disturbing dream, the dream where he sees and hears Pat McAdam.

Links seem to build up between the Bible John killings and another murder case from around the same time. Here are real names and events seemingly plucked from the psychic ether: Thomas Young, a convicted murderer and rapist; Pat McAdam, the seventeen-year-old victim of an unsolved murder.

In the end, the disparate elements don’t quite add up and the search for Bible John peters out on the side of the road next to a clapped out car. The ghostly, tentative connections forever obscured by time.

(There is nothing else in comics quite like Bible John. Comparisons are often drawn with From Hell, but apart from murder as an underpinning and Iain Sinclair’s strong influence on both comics, the comparisons do not really add up. Bible John is its own spectral beast, marking its unique territory with chills and prowling, haunting, your head well after you turn the final page).


A fellow Kiwi, Kelly Sheehan creates some excellent little comics with his brother Darren. One day we will might be able to have lunch without descending into a mutual gush-fest over Game of Thrones or Cam Kennedy...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why I love Donald Westlake's Trust Me On This (and you should too), by Alan David Doane

Writing as Richard Stark, Donald Westlake created some of the most ice-cold, supercool crime novels ever, the Parker series of heist procedurals about a sociopathic criminal who cares for virtually no one, but has a commitment to his work that is breathtaking to behold.

You can get something of a feel for the world of Parker in the graphic novel adaptations by Darwyn Cooke, or the movies that have been made from the books like Point Blank with Lee Marvin, but really,
Westlake’s Parker novels are best experienced in their purest state – by reading them all, in order. By the last handful, Westlake’s prose has become staggeringly economical, even as Parker has developed in some unexpected but fairly logical ways.

But Parker’s world isn’t the only one
Westlake explored. He wrote many novels, under his own name, as Richard Stark and under other pseudonyms. Probably my most favourite Westlake novel, published as part of the Hard Case Crime series of novels (perhaps the most consistently excellent genre fiction imprint ever), is Memory. A heartbreaking narrative about a brain damaged man who has a life to return to, but over the course of the novel he forgets more and more of that life until all that lies ahead of him is an unrewarding life of almost incomprehensible bleakness. The joy of reading Memory is the confidence with which it’s written and the level of detail Westlake injects into the story about the day to day life of the protagonist.

Not all Westlake’s work has blown me away, however – the Parker novels inspired a sort of comedic parallel series about a thief  named Dortmunder, and as with some of the other Westlake writing I have encountered, these novels are too tongue-in-cheek for me to be able to immerse myself in them.

Sometimes Westlake’s sense of humour works for me, though, and that’s the case with the most recent Westlake novel I have read, Trust Me On This. Written in the 1980s, and discovered by me hidden away deep in the stacks of crime novels in a used bookstore in upstate New York (and priced at a reasonable four dollars for a used but not abused hardcover copy), Trust Me On This focuses on a young woman who aspires to be a journalist, but somehow finds herself working for The Weekly Galaxy, a very thinly-disguised stand-in for The National Enquirer.

The Galaxy is located at the end of a long, empty, sun-battered stretch of road in
Florida, and on Sara’s first day, she drives by the scene of a murder. A dead man lies half-in, half-out of his car, a bullet in his brain. She continues on to The Galaxy, reports what she’s seen to the guard at the front gate, and then nearly forgets what happened as she is immediately tasked with one crazy tabloid newspaper story after another, until somehow she begins to suspect that there’s more to that roadside murder scene than she suspected, especially given that neither the police nor anyone else at all has any idea what she is talking about. It’s as if the murder never happened, so far as she can determine.

Of course eventually she finds out the truth, but the murder is almost a subplot to Westlake’s primary concerns in Trust Me, which are to lay out in loving and very funny detail the personalities and activities of an incredibly diverse, jaded and bizarre group of writers, reporters, editors and one seriously intimidating and iconoclastic publisher.

Westlake walks a fine line between satire and slapstick in Trust Me On This. A long sequence late in the novel involving the family of a recently deceased country music superstar strains the boundaries of credulousness, but does not violate them. On the other hand, a sequence in which Sara has to go to great pains to fraudulently report on the birthday party of 100-year-old twins after one of them inconveniently expires a few hours before the party, is hilarious in both its circumstances and the detail to which Westlake lays out Sara’s desperate conniving.

There’s even a bit of romance that flowers between Sara and her editor, who strongly suspects the wool may have been pulled over his eyes vis a vis that birthday party, and the love story between Sara and Jack provides both a solid ramp-up to the unexpectedly violent conclusion, and the hilarity of the novel’s final pages, in which we see just how much Sara has learned about the batshit crazy industry into which she has been welcomed.

Trust Me On This isn’t the greatest crime novel ever; despite murder, attempted murder, and other crimes and misdemeanors, the narrative is far more concerned with establishing characters and seeing what happens when they set out to fulfill the weird and often unethical or outright illegal assignments they get from The Galaxy. Westlake keeps the reader grounded and engaged by mainly concerning himself with Sara and her character arc, but pretty much everybody in the novel gets at least one good, funny line that plays off of the increasingly strange goings on, The funniest sequence in the entire book comes very late indeed, when a police officer betrays editor Jack’s trust. Jack’s response made me laugh out loud, which novels almost never make me do, and also revealed even more about Jack’s character than we had previously suspected.

Westlake’s strengths as a writer, and they are legion, the biggest weapon in his arsenal across every genre he worked in was his ability to create believable characters and then show us their lives. In Trust Me On This, the writer allows us to invest in people (tabloid newspaper writers and editors) generally regarded as beneath contempt. I won’t say he makes us glad such people exist, but he does humanize Sara, and Jack and the rest, and he does allow us to see into an off-kilter world of parallel-universe small-j journalism where you can believe jogging causes nymphomania, or beer and potato chips can help you lose weight. The novel was written and published at the height of popularity for newspapers like The National Enquirer, and Westlake was no doubt all fired up about revealing the dirty secrets of how such trash publications plied their seedy trade. He wrote Trust Me On This with passion and great humour, and a couple of decades on it’s still a fun and compelling read, and an interesting side-road off of the main highway of what we think of as Westlake’s stock-in-trade, the hard-boiled crime novel.     


Alan David Doane was the first person to say nice things about this blog, and even though the baffling popularity of Geoff Johns' comics and the whole Before Watchmen thing has almost driven him to justified despair,  he just started doing his link blog again. Hooray!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why I love the current Marvel Universe (and you should too), by Joe Rice

So Bob's on vacation with the missus, and he asked if I'd like to write some sort of fill-in for his blog. Bob and I have known each other for years now, writing together, talking comics together, pushing each other forward, and even getting sloshed in real life when he visited the States. I haven't really written about comics at length for a while. I used to be at Comics Should Be Good, and I semi-recently did a few pieces where I brought non-comic-diehards to a comic shop, got drunk, and read comics and reviewed them. I remember writing with Bob back at Listen To Us,We're Right (I still love that title), back when I was pretty sure I was running out of things to say about comics. He was great there, but has really come into his own on this labor of love.

But you know that much, at least, don't you? If you're still here past that introduction it means you're actually here to read about comics and want to get on with it (or you are bored at work and there are no new videos of cats doing things very catlike or very uncatlike). Bob said to write about something I love that not necessarily anyone else is talking much about. Well what I love is talking about and examining the elbow-pits of third string superheroines. You can always tell the ones with the really filthy elbow-pits. Oooooh, baby.

Well now I'm just obviously avoiding my real topic. I doubt anyone remembers anything I used to write, but I was very indie-centered, "Let's push comics," 99.999999% of supercomics suck and loudly so. And I still think these things. Sergio's Funnies might the my favorite comic on the shelves these days, and every Love and Rockets makes my loverocket rocket lovingly. So there's a part of me almost ashamed to so publically state something I know so dearly in my heart to be true.

I fucking love Marvel Comics. Not just the Stan/Jack/Steve stuff. I love TODAY'S Marvel Comics. It took me a while and it took some twists and turns, but my monthly reading list has been almost completely conquered. No, I'm not actually embarrassed to say this, because I know it's not crazy and I know they're not bad comics. Just write at any length about this is to risk diving into super fanboyism, and not in the nerdy stereotype way, more in the "true believer" way someone with a vested interest in one faceless corporation over another.

But here's the thing ...I only feel like that when talking to other comics fans. My previously-mentioned "normals in comicworld" articles were borne from a real absolute interest I've growingly noticed among "the outside world" about this hobby I love so much. I got asked about comics by non-fans on dates, for Chrissake.

Point being, when I'm asked to talk about comics and what excites me, after I get past the general and what is obvious to anyone reading this, most likely (the juxtaposition of words and images, playing with time and space, auteurism AND collaboration, etc) I always end up talking about the current state of Marvel Comics. And this is not due only to Avengers being A Huge Big Deal.

I believe that a huge part of this comes from two intertwined factors: a) a relatively hands-off editorial staff; and b) the idea of the "architects" or whatever ...a group of skilled, smart writers more or less "in charge" of the universe as a whole. Now, of course, there are still editorial mandates, but everything we've read from both DC folks and Marvel folks make Marvel seem almost like a paradise relatively, these days. Have you read George Perez talk about the editorial interference that drove him off Superman? Gah, but, again, I don't want to make this a Marvel vs. DC thing. I've got no horse in this race, I just want to read smart/fun/thrilling/scary/whatever comics.

So, anyway, at Marvel, you've got Bendis, Brubaker, Hickman, Fraction, and Aaron working with editorial above, and other talent semi-below(?) to create direction and coordinate ideas. These guys have some serious indie cred from before and during their time at Marvel. And whether you like them or not, together, they certainly know how to tell a story. (Side note: I once read a complaint that none of the "architects" are on the artist side of the creative team. I don't think that's fair ...Bendis, Brubaker and Hickman all have worked as artists, but drawing monthly action comics isn't quite their forte.)

So these guys getting together every now and then to bounce ideas and plan for the future? This is a good idea. This is how it should be done, not a simple editorial "WE NEED MORE LONGSHOT" followed by "LESS LONGSHOT NO MORE WELL MAYBE A LOT MORE NOW LESS" or something like that. Get smart people, each of whom brings their own skillset and background into a room and have them work together and then have them "share out."

I have long loved me some Morrison comics, but when it comes to his current Action run, I have no idea what the hell he's doing, and, clearly, neither do any of his coworkers. Sure, I get giving Morrison a free reign. Have him supported by other high-quality writers who know what he's up to at least, not 90s Marvel Murderer's Row flying blind.

OK, someone's already thinking "THE EVENTS OH GOD THE HORROR THE EVENTS!" Is Marvel too event-centered? Sure, probably. I mean, they have to do what sells I guess, and as long as it produces interesting stories, I don't care if it's an event. And even back to Civil War--the idea of which was monumentally stupid and required a lot of weird logic bends--allowed for some good stuff to be produced. Right now I'm thinking of the rise of Luke Cage in Brian Bendis' New Avengers work of the time. Guy went from being a joke to a major player all the while being sharply written. Since then, the events have had ups and downs, but all of them had some pretty amazing bright spots AND set the stage for a year or so's worth of other stories. In a way, these events keep us from the dodgy repetitiveness of silver age superhero work. I mean, yes, it's mostly the illusion of change, but at the very least arcs are set up and possible.

I mentioned Bendis. He's probably the most divisive of all these big writers. I'm not sure if it took me time to like him on Avengers (really the first thing of his I read) or if it just took him some time to get the feel for it, but for the last couple of years or more I have always looked forward to his superhero work, from Ultimate Spidey to all those millions of Avenger comics he writes. I like that he writes the Avengers as people who are superheroes, and who eat and joke around with friends. It feels more authentic to me.

You've got Hickman working on this years-long Fantastic Four epic ...the semi-recent climax thereof had me actually making audible sounds of appreciation as I read it. Fraction going in opposite directions in Thor and Iron Man, and Jason Aaron just absolutely KILLING it in Wolverine and the X-men.

Another thing they've been doing that I've loved is the "partner writing" as a way of bringing up newer writers. Gillen works with Fraction for a while then takes over his own books. I remember when Hickman was "Bendis' partner" on Secret Warriors. Brubaker brought Fraction in, I think I recall. This is a ridiculously simple but effective idea. If you're going to have a shared universe, have the writers work together. Dan Slott may write Spider-man, but he can use help from other writers on their topics, too. (Speaking of Spidey comics, they've been really good. REALLY good. Thoughtful, fun, and still clearly building to something while spinning off great concepts.)

Now you've got Remender on the rise. Honestly, anyone that can make both Flash-Thompson-as-Venom AND X-Force work has got my vote of confidence.

Now this doesn't even start to delve into the talent on Marvel's writing bench. Gage, Parker, DNA, Wood (way to lose talent, DC), Van Lente, Casey ...the Marvel bench is mad deep, yo. And art? Holy God, where do they keep finding these great new talents? Pichelli, Rivera, JRjr, Immonen, Bradshaw ...I'm not going to sit here and type every name out but come ON these are some gorgeous looking books.

When you have all these people (and more, of course) working together, there can be a cohesion unavailable to other methods of doing ...this, I guess. Marvel superheroes, from their roots, were grounded not only in a more naturalistic mindscape, emotionally, but were grounded together, socially. They knew each other previously or met each other later on or worked together or served on teams together or fought or what have you. And that's still all there, giving a depth unnecessary for the enjoyment of the stories, but it's still there if you're looking for it. When Johnny Storm dies, it affects Peter Parker. When Johnny comes back ...somewhat different, it is meaningful because it is different.

I was talking to a friend lately ...talking about all the relationships across the MU. Why, for instance, Captain Britain has a place in X-Men lore, or Scarlet Witch's place in the grand scheme, or, hell, Quicksilver (just try to relationship-map that guy). The fact that these disparate things can not only co-exist but actually build upon each other ...the slow burn friendship between Peter Parker and Log--James--Wolverine, for instance, is kind of amazing. From the old 80s "WE CAN'T TRUST EACH OTHER!" to the complicated thing it is today. And let's not forget Ben Grimm ...

Anyway, I was talking to a friend about this and we started talking Defenders, a comic I'm REALLY enjoying these days. And there's good old Namor ...still a great character after all these years. Who else has been an Invader, an invader (small case), a Defender, an Avenger, an X-Man, a member of the "Cabal" and the "Illuminati" ...I've heard comics fans say this sort of complicated continuity is what keeps other people away. Not true, from what I've seen. This sort of thing, this layering of relationships, this intertwining of stories and genres and ideas ...this is what people come away excited about when we talk comics. What better way to exploit this than such collaboration and creative co-planning?

So Marvel's going to shake things up now. I am sad to see the Bendis-era Avengers pass. I am sad Hickman is leaving Fantastic Four. I am sad Brubaker is leaving Cap A. But I'm excited. Hickman's meticulous planning and methodical approach to detail for a year or two of Avengers stories? YUP. Bendis doing "cosmic" and the original X-men as time travelers? Uh, totally didn't see either coming, but I'm in with a grin.

The best part is, you don't have to get sucked into every little nook and cranny if you don't want to. The current Marvel Universe is as immersive as you want it to be. Want to stick to off-beat tales of regret and discovery? Just stick to Defenders. Want some one-off action explodeys? Hulk has your back. Scheming, planning, and excellent character work? Try Thundarkavengerbolts (SEE WHAT I DID THERE???). And if you want to get balls deep in the most deeply-coordinated yet widespread fictional setting around, then go nuts. Read Daredevil for beautiful but haunting heroics, then switch to Spidey always trying his hardest while poor li'l Loki is also always trying his hardest ...

It's a pretty damn good time for Marvel superhero comics. It's really--

Hm. Remember when Morrison was going on about the complexity of the DCU and how it would reach sentience and he was seeing it already start to influence our existence? He was so close, wasn't he? But DC gave their infant universe mindwipe. Who is it invading the mainstream now? Guys, I had a mother from the class I teach freak out about frickin Thanos. Thanos, not Hulk, Spidey, or even Iron Man. Thanos.

Don't get caught up in corporate politics or your own hangups. Look around at what Marvel has. Find what sounds fun to you. I mean, really, do I give a shit what you're reading? No. All I'm saying is I have been having a goddam great time reading Marvel for quite a while now, and that's about as close as I get to human emotion without drugs.


Bob note: Joe Rice is a genuine Kentucky Colonel, (which I find massively impressive), and the biggest single influence on my blog writing (which is slightly less impressive). He was called the Dadamerican when I first met him, but I always think of him as Rocket Fish.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Tidying up for guests at the Tearoom

I still get an incredible amount of enjoyment out of sorting out what books I’m going to take with me when I go travelling. It’s important.

I once got stuck without reading material two weeks into a 48-day trip around Europe, full of endless boring motorways where you couldn’t see anything, so you might as well read or sleep. I had Robert Fisk’s gargantuan War For Civilization, and I thought that would last me and I got through it in about a week. Even though I managed some emergency Hiaasen on the trip, and got temporarily hooked on the mad super-warriors of Steve Erikson’s fantasy books, I also resorted to a Harry Potter book and the only James Patterson book I’ll ever read. It got quite dire there.

So I do put some thought into this. I need something thick and dense, that will last hours in airport waiting rooms and endless train stations. A deeply thick paperback with close type and masses of interesting information is always best, but I also need some sleazy and easy fiction, and some sort of comic.

This time, when we go to the UK for three weeks, I’ve got it down to a Doctor Who reference book that I only got halfway through during two weeks around the States and a history book about the 14th century, because I suddenly have a pressing need to know what life was like in 1399.

I don’t know what cheesy novel I’m going to take, or whether I should just pick one up on the go, but I’ve already packed away the second issue of From Hell, because the hotel we’re staying at in London is right beside one of the Ripper murder spots and the comic makes a terrific guidebook.

I know I could just get an electronic device and have dozens and dozens of books to choose from, but where is the fun in that?

We’re off to the UK for a few weeks now. We’ll be going to Skara Brae and the Reading music thing and some Edinburgh festival shows and the Lake District and soaking up the kind of history that we just can’t get at home, and I’m just as excited about trying to find a comic shop in Inverness, or what the second hand bookstores in the college towns are like, or getting the final four episodes of Nikolai Dante in one concentrated dose.

Apart from one regrettable attempt at comedy, I usually shut down the blog when we go on an overseas trip and everything goes dark for a month, but things won’t be so drastic this time.

This time, I’ve got some guest bloggers who will be offering up some desperate defences of things they love that are unappreciated, forgotten or misunderstood. We all know that feeling.

Posting might be a little sporadic, but there should be a new one every five days or so, and the first one will start early next week, with a guest post by a genuine Kentucky Colonel, who has probably been the biggest single influence on the writing on this blog.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go pack. And decide if I’m going to take that Miracleman book or not.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Batman wins!

There is a guy at my work who does these great little cartoons to let off steam, but we’ll never be friends, because he doesn’t like Batman.

Well, of course he likes Batman – everybody likes Batman. But he doesn’t think Batman’s a good superhero, or even a superhero at all, because he doesn’t actually have any powers.

He said this to my face nearly a year ago, and I’m still silently fuming about the wrongness of this point. And I’m not just saying that because, when it comes down to it, Batman is my favourite superhero of all time, I’m saying it because it’s just plain wrong.

It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this attitude, but it always baffles me a bit. You can have a different favourite superhero – even Drax The Destroyer is somebody’s favourite hero – but to not even acknowledge Batman as a superhero is a sin.

I mean, if you’re looking for superpowers as a criteria, Batman is the fittest man on the planet and possesses a fierce intelligence, along with the strongest willpower in the universe. That’s pretty fuckin’ super.

But really, the only way to work out who is the greater superhero is in the usual superhero way - imagining who they could beat in a fight. So we’re going straight to the top, because if Batman could beat the greatest superhero of them all, he could beat anybody.

And everybody in comics – from indie kids to jaded farts – knows Superman is the greatest. He’s the first, and the most iconic. There were heroes with strange powers before him, but he was the first superhero, and set the standard for the rest. Superman is everything that is right with America, and a symbol for fairness, compassion and a firm hand against bullying. He’s the greatest superhero, and Batman will totally take him in a fight any time.

(I’m also doing this because I’ve had to make this argument a dozen times, and now I can just silently point to this post and point out that I Am Right About Everything.)

By Bob Temuka
Aged 37 and a half

Make no mistake, Superman could just zap Batman with his supervision from space, leaving a bat-shaped smear on a Gotham alleyway. In sheer power, Superman always wins. He could crash the moon into Earth if he wanted, he could break Batman’s bones with the sonic wave from an armpit fart.

But Superman doesn’t play that game. The fairness that makes him a genuinely aspirational character means he wouldn’t resort to such scorched earth tactics. Even if he was being mind-controlled by that dick Brainiac, there would be some kind of subconscious protection from this sort of thing.

So even though Superman could just pick Batman up and throw him into deep space before Bats has a chance to think, he wouldn’t do that. He’d try to make it a fair fight, even if he is awesomely more powerful.

Besides, Batman would know if he’d pissed Superman off. Another of his not-quite-superpowers is an unparalleled sense of deduction, and he’d see signs that Superman was gunning for him. Maybe he didn’t reply to his Valentines Card this year (“Dear C. World’s Finest Forever. Love, B.”) or maybe Superman said something at the last Super Friends reunion, but nobody noticed because Jayna got drunk again and kept taking her top off.

Batman would know. And he would be taking precautions against a surprise super-attack, and he certainly wouldn’t be wandering around in th open, waiting for a laser from heaven to reduce him to ashes.

So no matter what, Batman would know it was on, and this is why he always wins – he can plan for anything.

This obsession with outthinking an opponent before the target even knows they’re an enemy has been used against Batman (most recently in the JLA: Doom cartoon film adaption of a Mark Waid story), but it also works. Batman always wins, because he’s always thinking ten steps ahead of anybody else.

So when Superman comes for Batman, you just know that Batman has a Kryptonite shank that he’s going to embed in Superman’s kidneys, or some kind of red sun generator that makes Superman as powerful as a slightly perturbed girl guide.

A combination of willpower, planning, physical strength, lateral thinking, obsession, loads of hard cash and sheer genius means Batman can beat anybody, from Squirrel Girl to Superman.

Superman doesn’t stand a chance.

I’m certainly not the first to point out this fact, and there have been plenty of examples of the two heroes having a throw-down, dating all the way back to their earliest adventures.

But there’s actually never any clear winner when the two clash, because DC can never afford to piss off their Bat-fans, or their Super-fans, or anybody. You do get some sort of result in things like Elseworlds books, although the defeat of Batman in something like Mark Millar’s Red Son is weirdly ambiguous, suggesting that the Bat In A Hat got what he wanted all along.

There is also a fairly definitive battle in The Dark Knight Returns, but again, it’s unclear who really wins. Superman is the last guy standing, or is he just playing his part in some larger plan?

In fact, the Dark Knight Returns is a perfect example of Batman’s winning-by-planning. At the end, old Bruce realises he can’t beat still-powerful Clark, so fakes his own death to try something new. He tears it up and starts again, and even though Superman knows he’s been played in the final pages, he lets Batman have his victory.

It feels good to get that out of my system, and I only feel a little foolish about the geekiness of it all, and will undoubtedly feel a bit more justified the next time I get into one of these stupid arguments.

Life is full of these stupid little arguments, and while it’s always fun to get into a good debate, some things - like the fact that Batman will always beat Superman - are irrefutable.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The perfect comic: Love and Rockets # 28

I always have real difficulty settling on one answer when people ask me what my favourite comic is, and I even have an extraordinary amount of trouble when I get asked who my favourite superhero is. But if somebody asks me what my favourite single issue of all time is, there is really only one answer.

It’s Love And Rockets #28, by Los Bros Hernandez, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect comic.

It was published in late 1988, which makes it nearly 25 years old, (although I didn’t actually get around to reading it until three or four years later). It’s a Jaime-heavy affair, with four complete short stories from him in the issue, although Beto compensates for the lack of pages by producing one of his best comics ever.

Both of the brothers were between bigger storylines – Jaime was in a long and fruitful interlude period between the more structured Death of Speedy and Wigwam Bam, while Beto had just floored everybody with the stunning Human Diastrophism, and was about to hit with the one-two punch of Poison River and Love & Rockets X.

In this period between these Important Works, the brothers Hernandez crafted touching little stories of life, love and art – stories that, all these years later are still funny, moving and alive.

Beto’s sole contribution to #28 is his Frida Khalo comic – a 12-page biography that is both informative and haunting.

I know there are at least three people who will scowl heavily at me if they catch me using the j-word, but it’s the juxtaposition of the art and words that takes a straightforward story (of a fairly extraordinary life) and makes it a transceendelty beautiful.

There are no speech balloons in this comic, just caption boxes telling the factual account of the life of Frida Khalo, using the tone of the dispassionate scholar to recall her tragedies and triumphs.

But the art – which Beto apparently just made up as he went along, with little planning or forethought – is staggering, a dark-humoured and surreal remix of Frida’s art through his own head. Beto has Tonantzin wander through, portrays real-life events as if they are half-forgotten dreams and represents the lady herself represented as a graceful deer, brought down by savage hunters.

In any other comic, Frida would be the undisputed masterpiece. Although it still arguably is, Jaime’s work in this one issue is just as stunning and worthy of recognition.

It’s just four little stories, none longer than six pages, but everything that makes Jaime’s work so appealing is on display in this one comic. There is the humour of good mates, and the tragedy of lost chances, and the beauty of just hanging out.

The comic is bookended by two funny and beautiful stories by Bizarro Xaime No 1, and both still make me laugh. Boxer, Bikini or Brief has Ray slowly and inevitably losing his shit at the art board, Danita’s poise when posing and Maggie’s tremendous ideas about her own posing. Lar Dog: Boy’s Night Out #1398 has more than a hint of melancholy – the idea that for some people, getting really fucked up every night and getting into fights is as good as it’s ever going to get – but still cracks me up: the way the model assumes Lar Dog is coming on to her when he honestly couldn’t give a shit, or “He must have had at least eighty-nine beers tonight”.

And, just for more laffs, there is also some Li’l Ray, and Jaime’s kid stories are always odd and adorable.

And, of course, issue number twenty-eight has also got Tear it Up, Terry Downe, which is still my favourite four pages in the extremely rich history of L&R.

Thirty-six panels, and not a single bit of space wasted. A staccato story that streches over a decade or so, and never feels rushed or cramped, with Jaime capturing perfect moments of love and despair and confusion and more love.

It's short, but remarkably efficient. It sums up all the beautiful complexities of Jaime's work, as it shows the life story of one of his characters - a staggeringly gorgeous and totally stuck-up woman - in all its infinite complexity, unearthing silent motivations that explain severe actions.

It also showcases Jaime's wonderful way with words - one of my my very first internet aliases was 'Stevie Teevee' - and features his art just as Jaime perfected his art style, all heavy blacks and gorgeous lips floating in space.

It was also a magnificent reference work - #28 was the first proper issue of L&R I ever bought, and figuring out the relationships between Maggie and Hopey and Terry and Del fuckin' Chimney was made a whole lot easier with this short story, even if there are still hidden depths to these characters that are still being hinted at in Jaime's current comics.

So yeah - it’s a personal thing. I love this comic because it's a brilliant comic, but also because I fell in love with it at one of the most brilliant times in my life. There is a very faint tomato sauce stain on the panel of Terry and Hopey in the bath, which has been there ever since me and a girl named Lisa were sitting on the grass at Timaru's Maori Park Pool, eating hotdogs and reading comics in the wonderful summer of 92/93.

The Hernandez Brothers have been at the top of their game for 30 years, producing scores of brilliant stories. Their latest work is every bit as good as their older stuff and, as ever, I'm desperately keen to read the next issue of Love and Rockets.

But no matter how good the new stuff is, there is always a place in my comic-lovin' heart for L&R #28. It’s the perfect comic. Who could ask for more?