Wednesday, September 28, 2011

All Star Western #1 Review:


 Today I picked up the other two titles from the new DC reboot that I’m interested in; Justice League Dark and All Star Western. I was considerably looking forward more to League than Western. Well surprise of surprises, the title I expected to enjoy more; Justice League Dark, is one of those “let’s spend 12 issues gathering the team so we can crap out a TPB in a year or so” titles. It’s also heavily bogged down in continuity and little references that make no sense to people who aren’t familiar with these characters. (Forgive me if this title is interconnected with some other ones that I missed). So much for attracting new readers. The good news is that it at least has some fairly witty dialogue and nice art. I also like the characterization of June Moon (the Enchantress) here. One of the first comics I ever read was an issue of her Strange Adventures run (I think it was her first appearance), so I’ve always had a fondness for the character even though she’s pretty much been used solely as a villainess since then. I’ll continue buying until the first arc ends to see how things improve, but if there are no signs of improvement I think I’ll skip. I do hope The Spectre or Dr. Fate will show up. Hey, come to think of it, why didn’t Spectre & Dr. Fate get their own rebooted titles?  2.5/5.
Wotan & Zor: Pro Trolls.

 All Star Western was one I was wary about because, well, I’ll admit I just don’t like the premise: Jonah Hex in Gotham. I know, I know, Jonah has always been part of the DC Universe, but what made his series so unique was how that it was also a separate entity from the endless crossovers and mystical events that make up superhero comics. Yeah it’s fun to occasionally show him in a cameo when super heroes are travelling through time or things like his appearance in Batman: The Animated Series where he fought Ras Al Ghul, but connecting Jonah to all of that robs him of his own uniqueness, doing it more implicitly by having him pop up in Ye Olde Gotham is even worse. It makes him more of a superhero than he needs to be (which shouldn’t be at all in my opinion, other than things like derring do and having a rogues gallery, which are things even Scrooge McDuck has), and as time and box office has shown, taking Hex out of his usual setting or trying to make him a superhero to appeal to a broader audience has failed miserably.
 But you know what? This comic is my favorite of the reboot so far.
 Yes, it’s filled with little Batman-in jokes like there being a “Mayor Cobblepot” and random citizens who resembles members of Batman’s rogues gallery (Like a hooker whose clothing and hair match Poison Ivy’s color scheme), but it doesn’t distract at all. At first I was worried when Hex strode into Gotham, while an unseen narrator delivered a monologue about change and societal decay, and I thought they were trying to make Hex into some rambling, Rorschach-style pseudo-philosopher. Instead this narration turns out to be Amadeus Arkham, one of the founders of Arkham Asylum, who has hired Hex for help solving a case. Rest assured, in no time at all Hex opened his mouth and reassured me he was still the ornery, dark-humored cuss with a limited vocabulary that we all know and love. The setting has changed, but at least Hex’s character has remained the same.
Ahh, Penis jokes. Great for first issues.

 The main plot has Hex and Arkham searching for a Jack the Ripper-type serial killer and getting caught up in a sort of Hellfire club, any of whose members could be behind the murders, or perhaps all of them. Still, what makes the comic so interesting is the interplay between Arkham and Hex, well not so much from Hex as from Arkham. Arkham doesn’t know what to make of him; he’s smart enough to understand Hex’s twisted sense of humor, but otherwise he’s lost. He first pegs Jonah as a sociopath, then not, but all in all he’s both fascinated and repulsed by his protégé. It would be easy to call Arkham a Doctor Watson analogue, but instead, it’s more like if Sherlock Holmes was forced to play second fiddle to say, Mike Hammer or some Robert Leslie Bellam character.
 Arkham himself is a fascinating character in his own right, trying to pick people apart because he’s afraid of them picking him apart. He also has a Psycho-like infatuation with his mother, whom we never see. Since in regular continuity, Amadeus Arkham eventually went insane and “cursed” the asylum in some way or another, I wonder how this will play out. It will be a sad day when that happens, because he’s such a great foil for Hex.
 The art, by someone named Moritat, takes a while getting used to, but it captures the filthy, industrial-era feel of the story perfectly. I also have to give it props for certainly being the most distinctive looking artwork the reboot has offered so far.
 Sadly, thanks to the awful movie, I have a feeling that a lot of potentially interested new readers will be put off of this book, which is a shame. Another shame is that, because of this scene where a prostitute whom Hex is on familiar terms with gets murdered in order to make things personal, will probably lead to a bunch of dumb feminists online blowing it out of proportion and screaming “DURR! FRIDGING!!1!1!”. It’s amazing how close-minded supposedly liberal people can be.
 Anyway, this is a book I will definitely be following. Also hope Solomon Grundy, or at least Cyrus Gold, shows up.
 5/5.
Everything's better with Grundy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told:

 It’s rare that you find anthologies of “greatest stories” that actually live up to their title, so I’ve always been wary of such collections (conversely, I’ve also bought every single one that DC craps out, so make of that what you will). I can safely say that, although few live up to the title of “greatest”, or even “great”, The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told is a volume I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone looking for a “sampler” of Golden Age material. Published in 1994, ostensibly as a way of enticing fans into buying their then-recent (and very expensive) ‘Archives” editions, I must say I’m honestly surprised at the material that was chosen, considering that a lot of it would take many years to be published in Archive format, as well as that some of the stories are from series that DC has otherwise never reprinted at all. Also, and I know this can be both a put-off and an enticement depending on who you ask, not all of the volume is composed of superhero stuff.
The stories are:
 Boy Commandos in “The Siege of Krovka” from Detective Comics #69: Boy Commandos was one of Joe Simon & Jack Kirby’s many “kid gang” series, all featuring pretty much the same premise; a smart kid, a fat kid, a belligerent kid, a comedy relief kid, an ethnic stereotype kid and an adult mentor in such stock adventure story backdrops like the old west or the battlefield. This series featured kids from allied nations all banding together to fight the Axis while overseas. One might question this premise from today’s standards, and while pretty much all of the Boys survived the war, the stories at least acknowledged the realities of war by putting the kids through real military situations (court martials, nasty commanding officers, etc) and killing off minor characters they would befriend. With the exception of recurring villains like Agent Axis and Crazy Quilt, the stories mostly tried to stay realistic. In its day, Boy Commandos was DC’s third bestselling title, although they began as a co-feature in Detective Comics. Why, I’ll never know.
 The leads of the Boy Commandos were hardly three-dimensional characters whose relationships and personalities were hard to figure out, but this story seems an odd choice to represent them with, as most of the story focuses on the plight of the people of Krovka, a fictitious European village being invaded. While the citizens are all portrayed as being 100% good and noble and inviting to the allied forces, it’s interesting to get a glimpse into civilian lives during the war. Also interesting is that the women of Krovka are portrayed as hard working and intelligent, not afraid to fight. A little girl named Tanya actually serves as the hero of this story more than any of the male characters, and she kicks ass! 
Hit Girl would be proud.

The Boy Commando who gets the most spotlight is Brooklyn; a tough kid who served as both the series ‘comedy relief and requisite tough kid. Brooklyn’s “battle of the sexes” banter with Tanya is pretty amusing, especially if you read it in Eric Cartman’s voice. All in all, it’s a fairly satisfying, and in some ways progressive, story. Much better than some of the more blatantly jingoistic, and often downright offensive stories from the same period. What’s also striking is how it has more in common with most modern depictions of Captain America’s WWII stories than the actual Cap stories of the time did, where Cap and Bucky tended to act as detectives and worked exclusively on American soil. Kirby had a habit of misremembering things, so it’s possible that many of his recollections of Cap during the 60’s were actually from Boy Commandos. Hell, considering that he had Agent Axis show up in an issue of Tales of Suspense as a supposed former foe of Cap, maybe I’m right. 4/5.
Batman in “While the City Sleeps” from Batman #30: Batman decides to take Robin out for a night on the town so he can experience the night life…
 No, that’s not what it’s about! Get your mind out of the gutter! Actually, this story is an extended PSA about appreciating the men and women who work at night, and it actually manages to be entertaining and informative without becoming preachy. It’s not just a PSA though; our heroes also help a reformed crook evade his former gang.
Not much else to say about it except that Dick Sprang’s artwork is fantastic. While Batman may have long lost his ominous “creature of the night” aspects at the time of this story, Sprang could still draw one heck of an impressive nighttime Gotham city. It’s easy to see the influence it would have on Batman: The Animated Series. What’s also funny is that, both as a story featuring a sympathetic criminal and as a “slice of  life” story, it’s a million times more impressive than the similar “Case of the Honest Crook” from Batman #5 that got reprinted in the Batman: The Greatest Stories ever Told volume, which I reviewed earlier. For what it is, I give it 4/5.
Hawkman in “The Thought Terror” from Flash Comics #4: Man, after reading the Spectre stories a while ago, I’m convinced 1930s-1940s America was facing an absolute epidemic involving phony psychics and swamis, because the comics of the time are absolutely loaded with these guys as villains! I’m a pretty well-read guy when it comes to the occult and various psychic movements of the time, but I’ve read of nothing like this except for the Hollow Earth cultists, which really didn’t take off until later.
 Anyway, this story involves a hooded criminal named the Thought Terror; a psychic who “predicts” things by secretly hypnotizing people into doing them, which leads to some rather unintentionally hilarious moments.
Greatest. Dialogue. Ever.

 After Carter Hall, alias the Hawkman, rescues a man, he decides to investigate the Terror, with assistance from his girlfriend Shiera (who, like Tanya, also knows how to pack heat, hmmm, for a “sexist” medium in a “sexist” era, women haven’t come off too badly in the three stories in here so far, although Shiera’s characterization was pretty inconsistent in the actual Hawkman stories themselves). Eventually our hero defeats the Terror with, well, it needs to be seen to be believed.
What makes the story is Sheldon Moldoff’s art. Moldoff is somewhat infamous for swiping other artist’s work and for his ridiculously crappy attempt to ape Dick Sprang’s style on Silver Age Batman. This early work, however, with him imitating newspaper strip artists like Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, is outstanding. You just didn’t see art this detailed except from the really, really, really advanced artists of the time. Moldoff also drew (and lettered) most of the pre-Robin Batman stories, from the period where Batman was a ruthless vigilante who took no prisoners and looked grim and foreboding. These Hawkman stories are a great way of seeing what Batman might have become without Robin. Hell, the Thought Terror even resembles an early Batman villain called The Monk. I wonder if Julie Madison would have eventually become a “Batwoman” just like Shiera became Hawkgirl. 4/5.
Plastic Man in “Where is Amorpho?” from Plastic Man #20: If there was ever a character that could only be done well by his creator and only his creator, it was Plastic Man. I’ve made my adoration for this series clear, but damn, I really, really mean it. Ask any other comics’ artist to draw a story where the hero battles a shape-shifting alien, and while you’ll get some pretty clever handlings of the idea; they wouldn’t be half as witty and amusing as this story. Plastic Man & Woozy battle Amorpho, a blob-like creature that needs salt to live and goes on a rampage throughout the city while disguising himself as different people. There are so many great moments it’s hard to begin describing them all. Just following the various shapes Plastic Man takes while battling Amorpho is endlessly amusing, and makes this story longer to read than it actually is. On another note, I can’t help but wonder if this influenced the 1957 sci-fi film Twenty Million Miles to Earth, with its alien who constantly needs to eat sulfur/salt. Comic book slapstick at its finest. 5/5.
Wildcat in “The Story of Wildcat” from Sensation Comics #1: Wildcat was one of those characters who never made much of an impression on me, even though he popped up as a guest star in a lot of comics I read. I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this story when I first read it, but surprise of surprises, this is one of the most compelling superhero origins of the golden age, and has me really interested in the character. It reads like an alternate universe version of Daredevil’s origin with the roles of father and son reversed, but decades before there was a Daredevil (well, Marvel’s anyway).
 Like Matt Murdock, Ted Grant is raised by a single parent to be the opposite of what his father is and not to make his mistakes, but instead of being raised to be a pacifist and a “suit” by a thuggish boxer, Ted is a pacifist (he wants to become a doctor) who is raised by a weakling father to be an athlete, and much like how Matt was forced into being a lawyer by his blindness and desire to make his father proud, Ted is forced to be a boxer after his father dies and he no longer has means of supporting himself and thus fulfilling his dream. That’s fairly heavy stuff for a 1940’s superhero comic.
Our hero finds success as a boxer, but his sleazy managers continue to rig fights for him, and then try and cause a rift between Ted and his best friend when Ted objects to what's happening. Ultimately his managers end up framing Ted for murder. It’s a fairly standard “hero tries to prove his innocence” story after that, but it’s made memorable by how much detail is put into the story that similar ones would overlook. For example, most stories where the hero tries to prove his innocence have the police overlook the crimes that he does commit; here the protagonist has a convenient excuse by setting up the identity of Wildcat to take the fall. Sure, someone would be bound to get suspicious of Wildcat just conveniently helping Ted, but hey; these stories can’t be perfect. What also sets this story apart is the humor; Ted gets the idea to establish a superhero alter ego because a kid describes a Green Lantern story to him! He’s so thrilled that he slips the kid a buck.
Ah, the days when product placement served the story.

 All in all, this is a surprisingly compelling little story for what it is. The art by Irwin Hasen is the kind that C.C. Beck seemed to be trying for, but that he never really pulled off. Nice, clean stuff with an economy of lines, although the perspectives and character poses are kind of distorted. Considering some of the talent that would grace the Wildcat stories, like Bernie Krigstein, as well as that the writers gave Wildcat actual costumed villains (like the Huntress) instead of the usual gangsters and Nazis, I’m curious to read more. Perhaps there should be a Wildcat archive. 5/5.
Black Canary in “Riddle of the Topaz Brooch” from Flash Comics #96: Black Canary might have one of the most mind-screwing histories of any comics character, but for a time the character was as simple as your average Tyler Perry fan’s brain; she was a reformed villainess who fought crime with her detective boyfriend, while keeping up a secret identity as a florist. I’ve only read a handful of 40’s Canary stories, and man, are they silly. That flower shop may rank second only to Mushnik’s as the world’s most action-packed. Oh well. These stories seemed to be going for a Thin Man–type of screwball mystery feel. In just seven pages, our heroes shoplift by serving themselves at the ice cream parlor section of a closed drug store, find a dead body, fight crooks, search for a missing brooch, get framed for murder, ride through a horse race on a motorcycle through a flaming hoop, grab hold of a plane as it’s taking off by holding onto the tail fins, parachute out, and then it all gets resolved off panel. You know, not a single supernatural or science-fictional thing happened in this story and it’s one of the hardest I’ve ever had to summarize. Still, some hilariously bad “romantic” dialogue (“Dinah, my little sugar-pie” “Larry—my sweet potato”) and beautiful Carmine Infantino art have me wanting more. To Amazon! 3/5.
Kid Eternity in “Whatever, you’ll pay to read it anyway” from Kid Eternity #3: Kid Eternity is a little kid with an Arabic belt who lives on a cloud with a fat bald man in a mumu who complains all the time. By saying “eternity” he can summon the ghosts of dead famous people or fictional characters who the writers thought were real. Uhhh…I’ve got nothing. The Mac Raboy art is okay, although the coloring is a little too dark. The lettering appears to have been done by the same guy who did the lettering for most of The Spirit’s run.
 What, you expected me to summarize this? Believe me; your brain would break part if I did. This was probably David Lynch’s favorite comic as a kid. 2.5/5, I guess?
 I kid, I kid. But honestly, this was the worst possible series to present without any context and the story itself is bleh.
Scribbly in “Scribbly: Midget Cartoonist” from All American Comics #6: Scribbly is one of the true cult favorites of Golden Age comics. How many other non-superhero series of the time that ran in anthologies are remembered today? Scribbly was a comedy series about a pre-teen kid and his bumbling attempts to support his family with his cartooning skills (hence his nickname). Anyway, all of the Scribbly stories I’ve read are gems, and considering how young many comics artists were back them, a lot of this stuff must have hit close to home. Any former or current aspiring cartoonist will find plenty to relate to in this strip. DC is releasing a Sugar & Spike archive, they should follow it up with a Scribbly one. Hell, since Scribbly had a super heroine supporting character called Red Tornado, DC could use that to aspect to push it. 4/5.
Green Lantern in “The Icicle goes south” from All American Comics #92: While it’s great that DC’s archives reprint everything chronologically, it’s too bad that poor sales have made it so that they will probably never follow up their Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern archives. Why? Well, because it was only at the height of and after the war that those series hit their stride. Much of this was because of two things: 1) Better art. 2) Worthy foes for the heroes. This story is a great reminder of what made those later stories so much fun, as it has both; great art and a cool (pun intended) villain. Green Lantern’s foe the Icicle returns from his apparent death and kidnaps the hero’s alter ego; Alan Scott (after the most hardcore villain entrance I’ve ever seen, you see, he poses as an actor playing the Icicle), and then he gets them both embroiled in a scheme to jam a radio signal for some terrorists in South America.
Talk about hiding in plain sight.

There are some great humorous moments, a decent level of suspense and it’s just all around fun. Even if the story itself was a stinker, it has the benefit of gorgeous Alex Toth artwork to save it. When it came to elegant, cartoonish simplicity in artwork, few could top this guy when he was working full throttle. 4/5.
Sandman in “The Pawn Broker” from Adventure Comics #51: The Sandman battles some criminals targeting a pawn broker, but it soon spills over into his civilian life.
 The original Sandman was an interesting character; a guy whose only weapon was a gas gun and whose only costume element was a gas mask. This made him one the eeriest-looking heroes of the era. What also set him apart was that, whereas most comics heroes were wanted by the law, this was never really expounded upon and the heroes seemed generally approved of by civilians and law enforcement. The Sandman actively encouraged his rep as a villain, but only to keep his alter ego, Wesley Dodds, out of suspicion.
 Dodds also had a love interest named Dian Belmont, who not only had a healthy relationship with Dodds out of costume, but also assisted him in crime fighting, rarely sinking to “damsel in distress” levels. While common with pulp heroes, only a handful of comic book heroes had female sidekicks. Fewer were shown as competent like Dian is. Clearly, the creators were trying something different, more low-key and more…adult, I guess. The series was later changed into a more standard superhero strip, where Dodds adopted a more conventional super hero costume and Dian was written out in favor of a boy sidekick. Despite some good art by Simon & Kirby, I still prefer this gas-mask era of the character.
 I really like the woodcut-esque artwork, the empty backgrounds, and that the Sandman takes a lot of damage instead of coming off as invincible. The only big problem I have here is the rushed-looking lettering. All in all, it’s low-key pulp-ish fun that in some ways was a little more sophisticated (in concept) than many other comics of the time. Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Fans of Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre comic from the 90s will find this surprisingly consistent with Wagner’s take, minus of course, the gruesome violence Wagner loved. 4/5.
Flash in “The Rise and Fall of Norman Empire” from All Flash Comics #14: Good-natured gangster and card shark Deuces Wilde (get it?) is blackmailed by the DA’s wife to play a card game with the most powerful mobster in town; the stakes being that if Deuces loses, the DA will die. Problem is, the other player is gangland emperor Norman Empire. You see, Empire (get it?)  is a mathematical genius who can win at any game; he was once an honest man who turned to crime after years of being denied a job because people were afraid he’d use his intellect to take over. Only the intervention of a certain scarlet speedster can save the day... if he can escape his girlfriend Joan, that is.
 Now this is a great example of how good Golden Age comics could be. We have an interesting framing device (the story is told mainly through Deuces’ Damon Runyon-style narration), a look at how ruthless even the “good” characters can be, a smoothly calculating villain who actually has motives and a background, a death trap that isn’t pathetically escapable, as well as an element of humor running through the story; humor that actually works! It’s rare that you find a story from this era where all the characters have individualized voices and dialects without sinking into stereotypes, but this one is. Very refreshing. The villain, Norman Empire may be a little too reminiscent of another Golden Age Flash villain; the Thinker, but he’s an interesting foe in his own right, he appears to be modeled after Boris Karloff in some panels. The ending is genuinely amusing and funny. It’s a fun, intelligent little yarn that could easily pass as a story for The Spirit with a few tweaks. 5/5.
Starman in “Menace of the Invisible Raiders” from Adventure Comics #67: Government bases are being looted by invisible thieves, and soon the thieves begin committing random acts of terror. Starman investigates when they appear in a cave he’s touring with his girlfriend. Soon he comes face to face with the mastermind behind it all, a floating, wizened head engulfed in vapor called The Mist.
 Starman was a fairly generic superhero who has gained a cult following for two reasons. One was because of James Robinson’s excellent 1990s series focusing on the adventures of his descendant. The other was that the original 1940s series was drawn by Jack Burnley. In terms of depicting anatomy and shadows, Burnley was easily the very best artist working in comics at the time. His heavily inked drawings have a stiff, muddy, nightmarish quality that look more like a horror comic than anything else. With a creepy cave setting, invisible villains (rendered as waves in human silhouettes) giant bats, and the genuinely unnerving Mist as the main antagonist, horror seemed to be exactly what this story was aiming for (appropriately, it was the October issue). The Mist only appeared two times (both heavily spread apart) during the Golden Age; in fact, he wasn’t even Starman’s most recurrent foe (that would be a fellow called The Light), but it’s easy to see why most modern Starman stories have used him (or one of his descendants) as the main villain for the Starman family.
Oh, you don't find him creepy? Imagine encountering the Mist in real life...

 The story begins interestingly, with everything already happening, and the rest is filled in through flashbacks. Otherwise, it’s fairly unremarkable and has some pretty wretched dialogue. Still, the art and creepy-ass villain elevate this one. 3/5.
 Spectre in “The Return of Zor” from More Fun Comics #57: Why, of all the mind-bendingly weird 1940s Spectre stories they chose this one is beyond me, but hey at least they didn’t go with any of those lame stories with Spec fighting fur hijackers. This is the second appearance of Zor, the closest thing that Spectre ever had to an archenemy, and also has appearances by most of the members of the series’ limited supporting cast. It’s probably for that reason that it was included, because it gives the impression that the Spectre series had a strong sense of continuity and consistency (it didn’t).
 Or maybe they just chose it because it has the legendary scene of Spectre and Zor having a snowball fight with comets.
Like a bizarre Haiku, it reads.

 There are some other weird little scenes this story contains, such as this part where an innocent scientist Zor manipulates into freeing him from an immobility ray ends up frozen by the ray himself, and the poor guy never gets released, even at the end of the story. There’s good potential for a future story in that. Ah, and of course, the scene where Spectre finds a plant called Ectobane that “All evil has an instinctive aversion to”, which he uses to construct a coffin to imprison Zor in. There’s future story potential in that too, like why hasn’t anyone else used Ectobane in the ensuing years? Rebuild Arkham asylum with that stuff or something, or turn Solomon Grundy good by having him regenerate out of that stuff the next time he “dies”.
 Curiously enough, the coloring and line reproduction in this story is much, much better than in the actual Spectre Archives edition. Some of it bleeds and the coloring choices are weird (Spectre has pink eyes) but overall it’s much superior. Dammit DC, if you’re going to be cheap when you reprint stuff, why not reprint stuff that you already did a good job on when reprinting before? 3.5/5.
 Vigilante in “The Lonesome Kangaroo” from Action Comics #128: Vigilante predates Jem & Dazzler as the first crime fighting musician, he was a country singer whose costume consisted of a stereotypical cowboy suit (with a red handkerchief over his mouth as a kind of mask) who rode a motorcycle. In this story, he and his sidekick Stuff (a refreshingly non-stereotyped Chinese kid) are in Australia, and battle poachers and look for a diamond. Not much to say about it, story-wise, but Jerry Robinson and Mort Meskin both do great jobs on the art. They very clearly are basing some of the backgrounds on actual photos, but not in a Greg Land tracing sort of way. All in all, a harmless little story with nice art. 2/5.
 Slam Bradley in “The Chinatown Gang” from Detective Comics #1: Yeah, Joker cutting his face off at the end of the new, rebooted Detective Comics #1 was a pretty gripping cliffhanger, but it has nothing on this. A while back I declared that the original Barry Allen Flash series was the definitive Silver Age superhero comic; it wasn’t groundbreaking, it wasn’t abysmally bad, it was just right. It had all the tropes. Well, Slam Bradley was sort of like that for the Golden Age, only thing is, yeah it was pretty bad. But it’s enjoyably bad, wonderfully so. I regret to use the word “bad”; “Raw” would be a better word. To be fair, this isn’t really a Golden Age comic since it predated Action Comics #1 (in fact, this was some of the first work by Siegel & Shuster), but it has all the tropes you’d expect. It’s crudely drawn, horrifyingly racially insensitive, brimming with unintended homoeroticism, and filled with an overstuffed machismo and misogyny which is just screaming “Angry teenager at work!” in every panel. Talented children who had grown up on pulps and Dick Tracy could have written and drawn this, and that’s exactly what Siegel & Shuster were.
 If you thought Golden Age Superman was hardcore, if you thought Jim Corrigan was a piggish thug, well, you’ve never read Siegel’s first “major” hero. “Slam” Bradley is the ultimate teenage macho fantasy figure. He spends Every. Damn. Panel. boasting about how strong he is, how he doesn’t need anyone, and is forever aching for a fight. He reads like a trash-talking wrestler. Meanwhile, he’s stalked followed around by a runty little Ziggy-look alike named “Shorty” Morgan, who wears a deerstalker hat and wants to become Slam’s sidekick (a goal he accomplishes by the end of the story), always fawning over Slam and admiring his muscles. The people who read homoerotic messages into the relationship between Batman & Robin have clearly never read these stories, because only the young age of the creators is what keeps me from thinking the homoeroticism wasn’t intentional.
 Aesthetically, the art by Shuster is crude, but wouldn’t look out of place on a modern indie comic. He also draws fairly impressive fight scenes for the time, and uses fairly large panels that he actually does a good job filling up. Anyway, it perfectly complements Siegel’s writing.
I love this story, for all the wrong reasons. 5/5.
Black Condor in “The President’s been kidnapped” from Crack Comics #19: FDR apparently halts production on weaponry and foreign aid, so something must be amiss, and Senator Tom Wright, alias The Black Condor, investigates, only to find that…well, see the title.
 The Black Condor was just a weird character. As far as superheroes go, the basic gist wasn’t too hard to understand; he was a guy who could fly and had a secret identity as a senator. The things that were weird about the character are the little details; he gained the power to fly by watching condors as a child. Yeah, because flying is something anyone can learn if they just took the time to watch birds. Another was that his alter ego was a politician, an occupation few superheroes have ever had, thank god. What’s also weird is that Tom Wright wasn’t the Condor’s real name; Tom Wright was a separate person whom the Condor impersonated after the real Tom Wright died, and never told Tom’s fiancée. He also wore what has to be the most revealing super hero outfit ever. Modern female readers who complain about super heroines with revealing costumes need to see this guy.
 Those things aside, this was a very dull story without any of those special weird qualities on display, and it’s been the only story so far that was hard for me to get through. The coloring on this one is very bad too, bad enough that it ruins the artwork. 2/5.
 Really, there’s not too much to say about the story itself, but I have two very disturbing tidbits I thought I’d share, one historical, and one personal:
 One is that the villains’ evil scheme in this story is to kidnap FDR and force him to take a neutral stance towards the war, to stop aid to foreign countries and (it is implied) to eventually sell weapons to the Nazis. The depressing thing about this is that in real life, the Nazis had no need to do this because that was actually what happened prior to the US’s involvement. It’s often ignored nowadays just how neutral the US was towards the Nazis at first, in some cases downright supportive. Comic book writers and artists, a predominantly Jewish industry, were among the first in America to take notice of the Nazis and to portray them as villains. Of course, the US wouldn’t stay neutral for long, since this comic was published in December 1941, but that still means that it was written months prior to official US involvement, and was probably on the stands much earlier. In a way, this writer’s wish, that the US enter the war, became a reality; but still, the evil unthinkable plot the villains come up with…actually happened with no intervention from the Nazis.
 Sometimes the world is a scary, scary place.
 The other is that the story is drawn by Lou Fine. Lou Fine is an artist with a cult following, mostly for his covers, whom I never particularly cared for when I saw his work in catalogs of old comics covers (I was young). His art seemed too generic, too bland. Action packed, but never really engaging. The one thing that stood out to me though, was how weird his figures looked, crouching, creeping, with long gangly legs like his characters were suffering from acromegaly or something. It was trying to seem lithe and ethereal, but it looked weird, it looked…vaguely creepy, to a young me at least. However, I dismissed it as an apples and oranges thing. Years later, I got to see more of his art, and he became one of my favorites. Then one day at a convention, I made a crack about how Fine drew legs, only to get a venomous glance. I had no idea why. I found out years later that Fine had been badly crippled by polio; his work was escapism for him, and I felt a huge pang of guilt, both for how tasteless my crack must have seemed to people who knew, and because I myself suffered a pretty bad leg injury when I was in the military. Anyway, it was this story that had inspired the conversation.
Johnny Quick in “The Day that was Five Years Long” from Adventure Comics #144: Another story that reads like Spirit-lite, in fact, it reads an awful lot like Eisner’s “The Element of Time”. The first time I read this one I really didn’t like it because of how, well, childishly good natured it seemed, but damn my black heart, it’s a charming little story. It also has the distinction of being drawn by the great Dan Barry, and aesthetically, is the best drawn story in the volume.
 Johnny Quick was a Flash-imitator, mainly remembered because his stories were drawn by such talents as Mort Meskin and Dan Barry, who memorably depicted Johnny's super-speed by drawing dozens of different Johnny Quicks in a single panel. Johnny also gained his powers by, are you ready for this? Reciting a mathematical formula aloud. What--? Uhh, anyway, let’s begin.
 A man who was falsely imprisoned is released, but is depressed that five years of his life have been wasted. Johnny overhears him and, making no attempts at protecting his secret identity whatsoever, allows the guy the chance to get those years of his life back by allowing him to live those years in a day. How? Johnny gives him the magic equation to recite and he gains the same powers of super speed, which allow him to do in an hour what would take a year. Trying his hands at writing, art, sculpting and music, the guy finally finds his true calling at the very end.
 I’ll admit it’s a fairly lofty story, one that clearly was written out of a desire we’ve all had once in our lives. Still, it’s hard to take seriously that Johnny would allow this guy, a reasonably embittered ex-con, access to potentially dangerous and easily accessible super-powers, as well as the fact that he apparently lets him keep them at the end. Oh well. It was a simpler time. 3/5.
Superman in “Superman returns to Krypton” from Superman #61: Now this here is a legitimate comic book classic; at heart it’s a typical Superhero VS Villain story, and it would be a fun one as it is, giving Superman a powerful foe, and it also has some nice Wayne Boring art. But it also introduces two key elements for the series; Kryptonite, and more importantly, Superman’s discovery that he is not an earth man.
 It begins with Supes investigating a phony psychic (not one of those again!), only to be mysteriously weakened in battle. Obviously the reason for this is the jewel in the Swami’s turban; which turns out to be Kryptonite. What makes it stand out from the dozens of repetitive Kryptonite stories that would dominate the Silver Age is that here, Superman doesn’t know what he’s dealing with, and actually wonders for a bit if the Swami has legitimate supernatural powers. There’s an element of danger (no pun intended) here that other Kryptonite stories would lack, it’s also fun seeing Superman investigate, trying to figure out what it all means.
 Also, the scenes of Superman travelling back in time, and reliving the events that led to his  coming to earth as a baby, memories he no longer has, well, it hardly seems to emotionally affect him, but there’s something so surreal, so…human about it. Many great moments would be inspired by these sequences. 4/5.
Robotman in “Robotman VS Rubberman” from Star-Spangled Comics #77: Robotman and Robby the Robot Dog battle an evil circus rubberman and a fire-eater.
 Not much to say here, except that this is a fast-paced, entertaining story. It seems to be trying to ape Plastic Man in its cartoonishness, which is ironic considering its villain. DC should bring this Rubberman villain back, since his powers would perfectly fall in line with Elongated Man’s.
 One disturbing thing about this story to consider; the character of Robotman was not just a robot, he was a murdered scientist whose brain was transplanted into a robot body, and he was so lonely he created a robot dog for company, and wore fake skin to disguise himself as a human. That’s pretty creepy, isn’t it? The fact that this is a humor strip, when apparently the earlier Robotman strips were not, as well as how darkly this character has been handled since, sorta taints this whole story. 3/5.
Blackhawks in “The Plateau of Oblivion” from Modern Comics #67: Ah good, a non-super hero story. It was getting a bit monotonous. The Blackhawks, a group of aviators from all fallen nations, are mostly remembered now days for the Howard Chaykin series, as well as cameos the Hawks make every time there’s a flashback to WW2. I’d long wanted to read a Blackhawk story after reading Dick Lupoff’s praises of the series in The Comic Book-Book, as well as Wally Wood’s absolutely savage parody in Mad magazine. By most accounts it’s one of the great series of the Golden Age.
 Well, I wouldn’t put it up that high, based off of this story, but it sure is fun stuff. It has a great, eerie opening when the Blackhawks find a ship that’s washed ashore; they investigate, only to find all the crew members dead. And just then, they find the culprit, a caveman! Now that’s a hook! It’s sort of downhill after that, as the Hawks investigate the island where the ship last passed through, and it turns into a mishmash of King Kong, The Lost World and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Also, the Blackhawks don’t really engage in much aerial combat. Still, it’s fun for what it is, and the artwork by Reed Crandall is gorgeous. 3.5/5.
 Also, yes, that Mad parody was spot on.
 Wonder Woman in “The Icebound Maidens” from Wonder Woman #13:
 
You know, sometimes crazy old Dr. Wertham was right. That’s all I’m gonna say. 4/5.
Justice Society of America in “The Injustice Society of the World” from All Star Comics #37: Like “Superman returns to Krypton”, this is an unimpeachable comic book classic. The first time a major super hero group all teamed up against a supervillain group made up of previous villains. No one can deny the importance of this story.
Whether it’s a great read is another matter entirely.
After being attacked at a radio station where they thought they were going to be honored (much like the opening of the Green Lantern story in this volume) the JSA learns of the Injustice Society, and soon splits off to hunt for the members individually. The Injustice Society is made up of Brainwave, Per Degaton (who displays none of the time-travelling powers that made him such an effective villain, thus rendering him useless) and The Wizard, each of whom are foes of the JSA as a whole, as well as Vandal Savage, The Gambler(Green Lantern’s arch-enemy, next to Grundy) and the Thinker(Flash’s archenemy). The fact that all of the heroes branch off and fight foes that are not native to their own series, as well as that  a good chunk of both sides don’t really do anything, just makes this story feel disjointed and not the epic it should. Granted, this is true of most of the JSA stories, which were really just anthologies for each hero but with interconnected stories, but this “classic” period for the JSA supposedly avoided that.
The real fun of the story lies in the artwork, alternately by Irwin Hasen, Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino. All do a good job trying to draw in the same style, and I was actually fooled a few times into thinking that it was all the work of the same artist. Picking out the little quirks of each artist in order to identify them is a lot of fun.
 All in all though, it would have been wiser to feature the second (and much more entertaining) Injustice Society story “Case of the Patriotic Crimes”, or “The Revenge of Solomon Grundy”, which is surprisingly tense. The fun of identifying artists only goes so far. 2.5/5.
So there you have it, this volume doesn’t exactly go out with a whimper, or a bang, but all in all it has a very good ratio of entertaining stories and very few outright clunkers. It’s the perfect sampler. Once again though, I must say, I rate these stories on entertainment value and that very few are what I’d call “the greatest”.
Curiously, the editors don’t seem to disagree; there are back-up notes by Robert Greenberger (on stories that didn’t make the cut) which pretty much come out and admit that they just randomly chose stories they had lying around which would be cheapest to reproduce, as well as that they couldn’t make up their mind whether they should concentrate on reprinting exemplary stories, origin stories or notable stories that introduced a popular villain or something. There are also several errors which make you wonder how much knowledge they had of these comics; like mentioning that they should have reprinted the first story where Dr. Fate meets Inza and Wotan; his love interest and archenemy, respectively. Hmm, yeah good point, and another good reason to have reprinted that story would be because that story was the first Dr. Fate story period! Pretty infuriating, considering that they didn’t reprint any Dr. Fate stories at all! They also left out a beautiful Everett Raymond Kinstler-drawn Hawkman story called “Peril at High Tide” because “the writing wasn’t good enough” (!!!??) It’s no better or worse written than the Hawkman story they chose!
 Also, it’s pretty clear that all of Les Daniels’ info on Golden Age DC that he used in his coffee-table book DC Comics: 60 Years of the World's Most Famous Super Heroes came from here. So much for doing his homework.
 Still, simply for the sheer variety on display, as well as that the coloring and art reproduction is actually a lot better than many of their Archive editions, this book is a must-have for anyone interested in the history of DC, or comics in general. 4/5.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Demon Knights #1 review (plus rambling by me)

 Before I review this issue properly, I just want to take a moment to kindly blow off some steam about the DC reboot:
I really, really didn’t care about it.
At first.
I mean, continuity in comics these days has gotten so whacked out that even when something gets fixed you still have to spend hours reading older issues just to know what was broken in the first place. Throw in all the retcons and awkward attempts by writers to try and reintroduce pre-Crisis concepts and it all just becomes a big clusterfuck. Don’t even get me started on Marvel. I’d stopped caring long ago.
But the new comics that DC was bringing out just looked like more of the same, rather than attempts to attract new readers and/or to start over fresh.
So that’s why I didn’t care.
So far it looks like I was right. I mean, is the already famous ending to Detective #1 really something that couldn’t have been done in the old continuity? And Action #1 sounds and looks like a valiant attempt to return Superman to his Golden Age roots, but at the same time, it’s written by Grant Morrison. Remember what I said about writers who awkwardly attempt to reintroduce pre-crisis ideas? That’s who I was primarily referring to.
But, DC was also bringing out titles devoted to their more obscure properties, and since this is all really just a big sales gimmick, if those titles take off, that means that books devoted to obscure properties won’t automatically be cancelled to make room for more titles related to their more famous properties, like the gazillion Batman titles. Basically, everything has a fair chance to succeed now.
/End rant.
  Anyway, boy was I excited for this title, and for the most part, it delivers. The concept here is a sort of cross between A Game of Thrones (a series that’s very much in the public-eye as of late thanks to the HBO series) and The Magnificent Seven. That’s intriguing enough, but the big draw for me was that would it be a series featuring the medieval adventures of Etrigan the Demon and his human alter-ego Jason Blood.
 The Demon, for those not in the know, was a series that began with the fall of Camelot, after Merlin had failed to save it. He had used the help of the Demon Etrigan, who he then set loose to wait for the return of Morgan Le Fay in a few centuries. Merlin also gave Etrigan a human alter ego named Jason Blood. They both could switch back and forth with a rhymed spell. That’s the gist of it, ignoring retcons.
 I was a huge fan of the original Jack Kirby series, and am just three issues away from having completed the entire original 16 issue run. What intrigued me about those old issues was (like a great many things done by Kirby) how many great concepts and hints of untold stories there were that were never expanded upon, some so dismissed that subsequent writers and readers forgot about them.
For example, a great myth that fans of the post-Crisis Demon have spread was that the original Kirby series was just a generic superhero series with supernatural elements, that Etrigan was a straight-up hero and that there was no conflict between him and his alter-ego Jason Blood besides the usual secret identity angst.
 Uh…I can politely say no.
While it’s true that in these original comics Etrigan had none of the schemes to conquer hell or to rule the world that the modern incarnation did, and occasionally showed compassion to fellow supernatural creatures and disgust towards the more obviously evil ones, he was still a ravenous monster who delighted in tormenting Jason Blood and had no special love for humans.
 To make matters worse, while post-Crisis comics have made it that Jason was a man bound to/possessed by Etrigan, in the original, Jason was just an illusion, an alter ego designed to shame Etrigan, much like Don Blake was for Thor. The existential horror of not being real at all, just an illusion with a separate mind, was never developed by Kirby, but could have been; much like how Alan Moore handled Swamp Thing discovering he was not Alec Holland in The Anatomy Lesson (a comic that still gives me chills). But nooo, this great potential conflict was discarded by post-Crisis writers for a typical (okay, slightly atypical) demonic possession scenario.
But Jason Blood was no angel either; it was hinted in the original series that his past deeds (he apparently forgets who he is and starts a new life every few decades, writing off his past lives as ancestors) were rather less than heroic.
If "Knights" fails, they could always write "Demon Pirates"

  Yet, at the same time, we also occasionally saw flashbacks of Etrigan in the more recent past, implying that Jason had discovered the truth about himself at various points. What happened in those past lives? How many times had Jason unleashed Etrigan? We never got to know in the pre-crisis comics. And in post-Crisis comics? Outside of humorous scenes in the 90’s revival which showed Jason present at crucial points in history (he was a sailor on Columbus’s voyage etc.) we also never got to know. I always wished DC would do a limited series, or at least a story arc, showing the past adventures of The Demon.
So finally, this series comes along to show the adventures of Etrigan and Jason at one point in the past. That alone got me excited. Was I expecting it to fill in the blanks of past series? Of course not. After all this was set in a new continuity, but at least it would finally give the character a concrete background. Besides, if you wanted to do a series set in medieval times with familiar DC characters, why not use the Demon?
To be fair, I was a bit disappointed at first to see that, rather than expanding on the fall of Camelot shown in the origin story, or at least, focusing on the events leading up to the fall (which is what I thought this series was going to be about), we still begin after Arthur’s death and with Merlin setting Etrigan loose, and sadly, going with the “Etrigan is bonded to Jason” origin rather than the original. Even worse is that this time around, we don’t get to know anything about Etrigan or Jason when this happens. It just feels rushed, and abrupt, without even any great mysteries apparent like in the original, or in the retellings where both are horrified about the bonding.
Even worse? Unless you had some general knowledge of the concept of the Demon, this all doesn’t make any sense. It just happens, boom, bam, thank you ma’am. Not a great way of being new-reader friendly.
Those quibbles aside, this then becomes a very promising first issue.
And to be fair, this is pretty funny dialogue.

 We pick up a few hundred year later, but still in medieval times. Britain is besieged by the evil Mordru (who may or may not be Mordred of Arthurian legend, he may also be connected somehow to the Legion of Super Heroes villain of the same name)  and his unnamed Queen (Morgan Le Fay?). Their hordes rampage throughout the land. Meanwhile, we see that Jason Blood and Madame Xanadu (an immortal DC heroine) are now an item (seemingly). They meet up with old friend and fellow immortal Vandal Savage at a tavern, as well as a rather er….genderly ambiguous version of The Shining Knight. However, the Queen’s hordes attack the tavern, Jason turns (quite willingly) into Etrigan and our heroes do battle with the hordes, that is, until the queen sends an army of dinosaur warriors to attack. We also see what Madame Xanadu’s real reason for following Jason is: She’s really in love with Etrigan. End issue.
I like this a lot. Cornell may have fumbled a chance at a new origin for Etrigan/Jason, or at least a chance to explore the possibilities of the old Kirby one, but he brings a very new and interesting spin to the Etrigan/Jason dynamic. For example, Etrigan seems very level-headed and world weary, almost heroic. Jason is portrayed as a weakling and coward who constantly relies on Etrigan to get him out of tough spots, rather than the stalwart hero of older comics who was tormented over being bonded to Etrigan. Yet, he’s still rather likeable. Also interesting is the concept of him hanging around with other immortals like Xanadu and Vandal Savage. After all, wouldn’t he prefer the company of his own kind?
  I also love the idea of Xanadu pretending to love Jason but really loving Etrigan. Quite a new spin on the old “loves my alter ego” trope. The character conflict practically writes itself. It’s definitely better than the tiresome “I must stop my alter ego from destroying me first” nonsense from the post-Crisis comics. With this more ambiguous characterization of Etrigan that is neither that of a ravenous monster or an evil villain, and with an easily manipulated, weakling Jason that revels in using his powers, there’s no telling where this will lead.
THIS is Vandal Savage?

Also, I’m intrigued with Vandal Savage’s portrayal. Generally, he’s been portrayed as an evil villain instrumental in many famous crimes, like the Jack the Ripper murders and several famous wars. He was also a charter member of the original Injustice Society. Artistic depictions of him range from being caveman-like to looking like a sophisticated Bond villain. Here, he’s portrayed as a big loveable oaf, with little hint of the villainy he’s noted for. Will this series show his start of darkness? Or will he remain heroic throughout? Can’t wait to see.
As for the writing, well, Cornell has a tendency to rely too much on shifting dialogue and half-finished sentences, and like I said before, this comic isn’t as new reader friendly as it should be, but maybe that’s the direction he’s going for. I do like the sense of humor running throughout the book, though. As for Diogenes Neves artwork, all I can say is that it’s first rate stuff.
Color me impressed. 4/5.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Spectre TV series coming to Fox?

I was all set to write a review for the first issue of Paul Cornell's Demon Knights (which I enjoyed very much BTW) when I learned of something which was one of the first comics-related news items in a long time to actually make me spit my beer out: A Spectre TV series is in development at Fox!!!

The Spectre eyes the men who run Fox

If this actually gets made, it may just be the most perfect marriage between comics and television ever. I've often wondered how a Spectre movie would work, and I honestly can't think of anything that could be padded out successfully. Would it be a straight-up superhero scenario, with the origin story, love story subplot and a final showdown with the villain? Clearly they couldn't adapt just the origin story for a full length film because it would just be dull having to watch a 2 hour movie of an omnipotent ghost killing normal thugs. Both because it would kill the suspense factor, and would probably remind people too much of another comics-based film with a similar plot. Maybe Gat Benson's mob could be changed into cult members worshipping Zor, Butcher the Rage Entity or Oom? That would at least provide a supervillain, but it would seem a little too forced. Too superhero-y. Or maybe it could be an anthology film showing the origin of the Spectre, and then the seperate fates that the Spectre dishes out to the mobsters; a cross between Pulp Fiction and the old Amicus movies.

See, all those possibilities, but no coherent whole, just "maybe"s and "or"s.

But in television you don't have to worry about that because of the shorter run time and the continuing nature of television series. You could have the show be a straight up adaption of the Fleisher/Aparo run, with Jim Corrigan investigating a crime, then changing into the Spectre at the end to punish the villains. Sort of a supernatural version of CSI crossed with Dexter. Earl Crawford, the reporter who was always on the Spectre's trail in the Fleisher run, would make for a good supporting character in the vein of Jack McGee in the old Hulk Tv series. Hell, considering the time period, Earl Crawford could have inspired Jack McGee! Using him in a Tv series would be so cool in a meta way.

A Spectre Tv series would have great possibilities, more so than a Spectre movie. Anyway, I'm genuinely excited and will keep my mind open for whatever the producers have in store. Unless of course if it turns out to be a sitcom based off of those "Percival Popp the Super Cop" stories from the end of the 40's run, where the series became a comedy with the Spectre playing guardian angel to a dumb wannabe detective who looked like a gross jewish caricature. Brrr. The thought of Michael Richards and a ghostly half-naked Patrick Warburton trading hip banter while investigating crimes scares me more than even the freakiest stuff in the Ostrander/Mandrake run, and that run had some scary shit in it.