Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Newsstand: November 1981

In addition to the second and third issues of Dragonslayer and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I see that November, 1981 saw the arrival of Jack Kirby's Captain Victory #1, the first comic from brand-new publisher Pacific Comics. I probably didn't buy this the moment it came out, but I'm pretty sure I bought it before issue two was published. So I'm counting it as a comic I bought when it was new.

This would probably have been my first real exposure to Jack Kirby's work, at least with me being aware of his name being connected to it. My recollection is that I found it exciting, but also kind of weird. I felt he drew his heads too square. I also remember thinking that he put quotation marks around words for no apparent reason, and his dialogue overall was kind of silly compared to what I was used to at that point.

Today, when I read some of his other almost-contemporary writing (in the pages of Losers or Kamandi) I can see that, while idiosyncratic, it has a great deal of urgency and energy to it. His art also has a certain bold, in-your-face quality that, while not as nuanced as his work from the 60s, moves across the page like nothing else.

Ultimately, the Jack Kirby from this period onwards is my Jack Kirby. When I think of his work, I appreciate what he did in the pages of Marvel comics in the 60s, and I still adore his work from the 70s. But the first stuff that pops to mind is the stuff that was brand new when I was just becoming a fan. My Jack Kirby is the man who created Captain Victory and Silver Star. My Jack Kirby is the artist of the soon-to-be-reprinted Super Powers comics based on the toys.

While these characters and others have been revived recently, I wish someone would reprint Captain Victory. I don't have those issues any more, and would love to reread them.

In a number of ways, I think finding Captain Victory #1 on the counter of Comics and Comix on Telegraph Avenue may have been the real starting point for my comics collecting days. Not only was it the first issue of a new series, but it was the first issue published by a new publisher. Knowing that gave this issue a certain sense of moment and weight when I bought it. It would have been the first time I bought a comic for reasons other than it featured a familiar character.

So, yeah, this was probably it. This was probably where it all began.

 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Newsstand: October 1981

If I bought Krypton Chronicles #1 last month, then I probably bought the second issue this month. Even if I didn't, there were at least a couple of other comics I remember buying in October, 1981.

Dragonslayer #1 would be another movie adaptation that I purchased. I remember reading it before the movie, and that I was pretty excited. I had already been excited about the movie, probably based on articles in Starlog Magazine. The idea of a movie featuring a big dragon seemed pretty cool. I haven't seen the movie in years, so I don't know if it holds up at all, but as a kid, I thought it was great.

The New Adventures of Superboy #22 would be the first issue of Superboy I ever read. I know I picked it up because of the promise of a Krypto the Superdog story on the cover. I don't remember much about this issue specifically, but when I think about this series, I fondly remember the innocent charm it had. When Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul created a modern-day Superboy series in Adventure Comics a few years ago, I felt like they captured an updated version of that tone. But their run on the series ran less than a year, and while Jeff Lemire did an okay job of continuing that tone, it wasn't quite the same.

I probably read Raiders of the Lost Ark #2, but I have nothing to add beyond what I wrote last week about issue #1.

And that's about it for this month. Next week: November!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Newstand: September 1981

After a slow month last month, it looks like I picked up a few more books in September of 1981.

Did I buy and read Krypton Chronicles #1? I suppose I must have, but unlike the World of Krypton miniseries that came out at the time of the first Superman movie, I have no real memory of this. (On the other hand, I do distinctly recall that I did not buy the Steve Gerber/Gene Colan Phantom Zone miniseries that came out around the same time. So maybe I didn't get this after all. Who knows?)

I'm more positive that I purchased Marvel Super Special #19, adapting then-new James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, with art by Howard Chaykin and Vince Colletta. It's still one of my favorite James Bond movies, and I recall this as being an okay adaptation. But how cool would it be to see a James Bond comic with art by Chaykin on his own?

I also bought the first issue of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as a miniseries rather than the complete adaptation in Marvel Super Special #18. At the time, I thought there was something particularly cool about buying the serialized version of a story inspired by the old serials, complete with a cliffhanger ending. Today, I'm impressed that it was written by Walter Simonson, and drawn by John Buscema and Klaus Janson. Regardless, it's a good adaptation of another favorite movie. (In hindsight, I prefer the Chaykin cover on the Marvel Super Special.)

And I believe that would be about it for this month.

 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Newsstand: August 1981

Looking at the comics that came out dated August 1981, I was clearly still just beginning to check out the comic book stores for stuff that caught my eye. While there are a number of comics here that I would end up buying as back issues, I believe there was only one that I bought as new off the stands.

Star Wars #50 caught my eye for a couple of reason, if memory serves. It had a nice painted cover by Tom Palmer, and it was an extra-sized anniversary issue. Today, I don't remember much about the story, although I see that it was by Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson, and Tom Palmer, so it was probably good. I don't recall picking up issue 51, so I suspect it was fairly self-contained.

It's funny; I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, but I never bought the Marvel comics on a regular basis until years later, when I became a comics fan. I remember reading the comics adaptations of the movies, but I rarely bought any of the issues set in between. You'd think I'd have a serious hunger for that stuff. I can't really explain why, except that I wasn't buying any comic on a regular basis at that point. I just hadn't gotten into that habit yet.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Newsstand: July 1981

After a short delay, we return to the comics I remember purchasing in my youth, this time cover-dated July, 1981:

DC Special Series 25, while not technically a comic book, was still a must-purchase for me when I saw it. A treasury-sized magazine about the making of Superman II, it was an essential companion to my beloved, read-to-pieces Superman the Movie magazine.

While the series went downhill in a hurry (to this day, I don't believe I've seen Superman III or IV in their entirety) the first movie remains one of my all-time favorites. I remember going to see it again and again in the theater with my then-best friend, Barbara Johnston. At the time, going to see Superman the Movie was like a weekly ritual for us. By the time Superman II came out, we had begun drifting apart, and I'm sorry to say I've completely lost touch with her.

Looking back, Superman II is a perfect example of how perceptions change. When it was released, critics proclaimed it as the rare example of a sequel that surpasses the original. Now, fans lament that it doesn't represent the vision of the original director, Richard Donner, who was replaced by Richard Lester partway through shooting.

For myself, I haven't seen the movie in at least 10 years, so I can't say how well it holds up. I remember really enjoying it when it came out, and I still remember how Christopher Reeve really seemed to transform from Clark Kent to Superman in the scene where he reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane. As I type this, I can't decide whether it's time to watch the movie again and re-experience that enjoyment, or stay away, in case the memory cheats.

Also tying in with Superman II came another treasury comic, DC Special Series 26, featuring a tour through Superman's Fortress of Solitude. A part of me has always been fascinated by the locations and props surrounding the heroic characters I've loved, whether it's the Batcave and Batmobile, Sherlock Holmes' deerstalker cap (back when I thought he wore it all the time), or Doctor Who's TARDIS. So a tabloid-sized comic featuring a tour and catalog of Superman's home away from home, in the guise of an adventure, was right up my alley. Now, so many years on, I don't remember too much of the story, but I do remember reading it again and again, and loving it.

The only other comic I can remember actually buying this month is Tales of the Green Lantern Corps 3. I've spoken at length about this miniseries elsewhere, and I can't think of anything to add here. (The whole series is available to order in one book here, among other places.)

Why didn't my enjoyment of this series lead me to start buying Green Lantern on a regular basis? For one thing, I hadn't gotten in the habit of buying comics regularly at this point. (Oh, how times would change.) For another, the story is a perfectly well-told, self-contained story that doesn't immediately force the reader to follow unresolved plot threads into another book. Try imagining that in today's market.

Ironically, had I started reading Green Lantern at this time, I would have picked up the first appearances of the Omega Men. In fact, had I been more seriously into comics at this point, this month, I could have also picked up John Byrne's first issue of Fantastic Four, and the Madame Xanadu one-shot by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. But, you know, everyone discovers comics at their own pace. I was still just on the fringes of my flirtation with the hobby that would be come a full-blown, life-long (so far) love affair.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Ragman #1


The sad news of Joe Kubert's passing hit me pretty hard the other month. Not only was he a key figure in comic book history, he was still a vital part of it today. It's impressive enough that he became a key artist in the Golden Age of Superheroes back when he was a teenager. And then again in the Silver Age, when superheroes were revived back in the Sixties, he inked the revival of the Flash, and drew the revamped Hawkman. (One of my favorite comics annedotes is when I read that he only did six issues of Hawkman, because he couldn't afford to leave Sgt Rock, the war comic, for the lower-selling/lower-paying superhero book.) And speaking of Sgt. Rock, his work on DC's war comics like Rock and Enemy Ace essentially defined war comics for the post-EC comics industry. His work as a teacher, founding and running the Kubert School for the Cartoon Arts is just as noteworthy as his work as an artist. But as if that all wasn't enough, he was still working in comics today--there's a new issue of Joe Kubert Presents in this month's Previews catalog--and he was every bit as great as he had ever been.

To honor his memory, I decided to read some comics on which he'd worked. Instead of going for an obvious choice, like Sgt Rock, Enemy Ace, or Hawkman, this felt like the perfect occasion to finally read Ragman, the short-lived series he created with frequent collaborator Robert Kanigher. While Kubert didn't do the full art (finishes are by the Philipino Redondo Studio) his influence can clearly be felt through the layouts.

The story begins in media res, coming in during an adventure in which the mysterious costumed Ragman is wounded. We see that the costume actually belongs to junk dealer Rory Regan. In flashback, we learn that Regan, recently returned from the Vietnam war, inherited the junk shop from his father.

The senior Regan and his friends, we learn, had discovered a large sum of money hidden away in a mattress in the junkyard, which they planned on giving to Rory to secure his future. Unfortunately, criminals show up to claim the money. When Jerry Regan and his friends refuse to tell where it is, the criminals shoot down some electric wires, so that they fall on top of them. Rory shows up, and in the process of trying to rescue his father and his friends, he grounds the power. When he revives, Rory discovers the old men have been electrocuted, and the crooks are gone. He also finds a costume the men had made for him, with a note explaining it was intended for a costume party. The costume? Ragman's.


To be continued.

I've always thought of Robert Kanigher as a blue-collar comics writer. He wrote down-to-earth stories about regular people. I have trouble imagining him writing something as purely fantastic as Superman or the Justice League. Even something like Metal Men remains memorable, not for the science fiction superheroics, but for the very human personalites of the main characters.

Ragman #1 features those same likeable, human qualities. The characters and the neighborhood they inhabit feel very natural and real, compared to the Gotham Cities and Metropolises that other, bigger heroes occupy. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of movies from the same period; films from the early 70s feel, to me, like they are trying to feel gritty and realistic, rather than overly slick and glossy. If Ragman were a movie, it would be shot with handheld cameras on a high-grain film stock.

It's not a flawless story. The whole notion of the crooks torturing Jerry Regan and the others by shooting some power lines, causing them to fall on the men, seems particularly convoluted and contrived. The fact that the crooks just seem to disappear afterwards seems equally unsatisfying. It also doesn't feel like the story comes to a natural end of a chapter so much as just stops.

Having said that, so far, the story's strengths--primarily tone, mood, and its visuals--outweigh the clunkier storytelling weaknesses. It's not a flawless comic, but as a first issue introducing a new character, it's got me wanting to come back for more.

More impressive and consistent are those aforementioned visuals. While the art is credited to the Redondo Studio, it's very clear that the layouts are by Joe Kubert. Those layouts tell the story with style and flair, without sacrificing clarity. And the design of Ragman is simply fantastic. Dark and creepy, it's almost a costume more appropriate for a villain than a hero.

The Filipino Redondo Studio take those brilliant layouts and flesh them out skillfully. While Kubert deserves credit for the design and storytelling, the Redondos deserve credit for the mood, and for creating a fully-fleshed-out sense of place and location. Their work adds detail and texture, and is responsible for the feel of the series as the Kubert layouts and design.

I had known the character of Ragman for a while. I had seen house ads in other DC comics I had read from the period (probably just Superfriends, as I think back on it). I had read the revival series in the 80s, when Robert Loren Fleming (whose work I loved from Thriller) and Pat Broderick relaunched the character with a new background and origin. But this is the first time I've read these original stories. I look forward to reading the rest.

Monday, July 02, 2012

DC Comics Spring 2013 Collections

Okay, due to vacations, work stresses, and the wife's summer class schedule giving us more time to spend together, I haven't been blogging as frequently as I would like. Gonna try to get back on the horse, and DC's announcement of their collected editions scheduled for spring 2013 seems like as good a place to start as any.

As one might expect, there's a whole bunch of books collecting DC's more recent comics. For the most part, those hold little to no interest to me. I'm enjoying a few of DC's current series, but not so much that I really want to have them on my bookshelf to reread. One exception would be the collection of the current Shade miniseries by James Robinson and multiple artists.

I became a James Robinson fan back in the 90s and 00s. He may have come to my attention through his small-press work with Phil Elliot(?) or it might have been his work on DC's Golden Age miniseries with Paul Smith that got my attention. Regardless, it was Starman, with Tony Harris and others, that really cemented his position on my favorite writers list. While the comic was very squarely a superhero comic, he invested the characters and situations with such a down-to-earth humanity that it really stood out against the pack. While Jack Knight was having the same sort of adventures as any other DC superhero (okay, maybe a little less silly and a little more weird) it was his personality and perspective on those adventures that made them special.

With the Shade, Robinson took a standard one-note Golden Age villain and gave him a great deal of depth and complexity. I'm happy that DC has reprinted the whole of Starman (and the previous Shade miniseries) in a set of nice hardcovers. And while I wish this new series was being reprinted in a hardcover to match those, I'm just happy that it exists at all. It's strange and witty and literate and beautifully drawn. It also sheds even more light (pun intended) on the character, and I look forward to rereading Starman after this is done, and seeing the character anew thanks to all the new information this story is providing.

Also, kudos to DC for having James Robinson do this instead of trying to revive Starman after it's very natural and final ending. That would have been the easy, obvious, predictable choice, and probably a better seller. It's nice to see that the publisher of Before Watchmen is capable of some restraint. (Just not enough.)

And that would be it as far as books set in current DC continuity about which I currently care much about. Fortunately, with DC being run by guys my age, they are also reprinting a ton of comics that I loved from my youth (and presumably from theirs).

First on that list is Superman: The Man of Steel volume 7. I had figured that this series, reprinting in chronological order the Superman comics by John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, and others, had come to an end. I'm glad to see I was wrong. Along with the Marv Wolfman/Gil Kane stories being collected in the winter, these are the stories I think of as "my" Superman stories.

They're not all winners, but compared to the pre-Byrne stories that preceeded them, they turned Superman into a superhero that I could respect and enjoy. They felt fresh and contemporary without taking away from the sense that Superman was, indeed, the greatest superhero on the planet. That's not a sense I've had from Superman comics for a long, long time, and certainly not for as long a run as these creators managed it. I'd say I'm a fan of the whole period from Man of Steel #1 up through the whole death and return of Superman period. So I'm gonna stick with these books as long as they come out.

Then there's Showcase Presents Sgt Rock vol 4. If I need to explain why I'm going to buy a book full of Joe Kubert war comics, then you just don't know me. (I've always loved the fact that Joe Kubert had to leave the Silver Age Hawkman comic because he couldn't afford to leave Sgt Rock to do a superhero comic. How times have changed. And not necessarily for the better.)

Of course, Superman vs Shazam is a must-buy. Again, if you don't know my love for Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, then you don't really know me. I particularly like the stories from this period, where Cap was portrayed in the same tone as the other DC characters of the time. While a million miles away from the fun, whimsical classic stories by CC Beck and others, it doesn't feel like a deliberate attempt to either recapture the spirit of the originals, or a reaction against those stories. Plus, the DC Comics Presents stories were what helped draw me into reading DC comics regularly, so there's the nostalgia factor. Not to mention: Gil Kane!

I'm tempted to get the Marshall Law collection, but it's pricey. I read most of those stories on their original release, and while they're extreme anti-superhero stuff, they're really good. Plus, gorgeous artwork from Kevin O'Neill. We'll see what else comes out that month, I guess.

Adventures of Superman: Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, I'm getting for the art. I mean, I've got a great deal of fondness for those Bronze Age Superman stories, but I'm really getting it for the art.

It's probably kind of sad that I'm planning on getting the Jack Kirby Omnibus Vol 2, with no real interest in volume 1. The thing is, I became a Jack Kirby fan through his late work, starting with Captain Victory. This contains his Super Powers miniseries, plus the issue of DC Comics Presents he did featuring Challengers of the Unknown (also containing Alex Toth pages). This may not represent prime Jack Kirby, but it represents my Jack Kirby.

New Teen Titans Omnibus vol 3 depends on finances, but I want it. The New Teen Titans is possibly the first superhero comic I started collecting on a monthly basis, and I want as much of it back as I can get.

I was a huge fan of the Smallville TV series, and I'm really enjoying its continuation as a digital comic. I want a more permanent collection (so I can read them after watching my DVDs of the TV show) so the Smallville Season 11 vol 1 book is a must-buy.

And are there so few Archie Goodwin Batman stories that Tales of the Batman: Archie Goodwin collects them all? Hopefully, this will include all the Manhunter stories as well, but if not, I've got them collected already. Either way, still a must-have.

And that's about it. Finances permitting, I'd like to get the All-Star Western collection, and maybe the Earth 2 collection. We'll see.

 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Newsstand: June 1981

Here are the comics I know I definitely bought in June of 1981:

DC Comics Presents 34 featuring Superman and Captain Marvel. While my first exposure to the character was probably the live-action Saturday morning TV series, I can't remember when I first encountered the comic book version of Captain Marvel. My first memory was of a giant, treasury-sized edition with a photo cover that my dad would have bought for me on a rare (and therefore special) trip to Toys 'R' Us. I believe it featured a big story pitting the Marvel Family against the evil mad scientist Dr Sivana and his family, and a photo cover of Jackson Bostwick from the (possibly then-current) live-action TV series.

Again, reaching back into my memory, I'm pretty sure that Toys 'R' Us was a good distance away from our house, and we stopped there on our way to some rail fan thing my dad was taking me to. I read the whole comic on that trip. It was such a great story, drawn so well (probably by C.C. Beck) that I had to have more. At the time, "having more" meant acquiring stories when the opportunity arose, rather than actively seeking them out, so while I did eventually acquire a copy of Shazam: From the 40s to the 70s from the bargain table of the book department of Capwell's Department Store, I completely missed the regular Shazam series from DC.

So this issue of DC Comics Presents was special. It was my first opportunity to pick up a new Captain Marvel story off the stands, as it came out. Plus, it was my first exposure to Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny, which really amused me. Since so many of my early comics were funny animal books, this comic was like a bridge for me. (And it got me ready for the first appearance of Captain Carrot, less than a year away.)

Marvel Premiere 60, the final Doctor Who issue, featured a painted cover by Earl Norem that captures the spirit of the show, but still doesn't look quite right to me. It's still eye-catching, though; more so back in those days when painted covers were few and far between. I remember my disappointment when I got to the end and saw that the next issue would be featuring Captain Universe (I believe), not Doctor Who. However, at this point, I was already getting in the habit of poking my head in my local comic book store on at least a semi-regular basis.

Tales of the Green Lantern Corps 2 continues what I enjoyed about the first issue. Despite the recent reprinting of this series, I haven't read it in years, so I can't remember any specifics about this issue on its own. However, looking at the other comics that came out this month, I see that if my enjoyment of this series had gotten me to buy the regular Green Lantern series at the time, I would have started reading just at the time the Omega Men made their first appearance. Given that I became a bit of an Omega Men fan from their appearances in Teen Titans and their own book, I'm kicking myself a little bit for not at least checking out Green Lantern at this point.

However, at the time, comics still weren't something I bought on a regular basis, or so I told myself. Oh, how things would change!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blackhawk 251


Blackhawk 251 was the first war comic I ever read, I believe. I probably picked it up after reading in Comics Scene magazine that Steven Spielberg was interested in doing a movie version. (And, as it happens, the distant possibility of that is probably the reason the series was brought back at this point, anyway.) I'd certainly never heard of the series, and by starting with issue 251, it wouldn't have caught my eye as a new DC comic. Whatever the reason, I did pick it up, and thus became a lifelong love affair with the creative team of Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle.

Okay, that may not be entirely accurate. I had probably read their work before, in the pages of Scooby-Doo at least. And I must have seen Spiegle's art in any number of Disney movie adaptations from Gold Key/Whitman. But this would have been the first time I had read a story from them as a collector, with a newfound awareness of creators' credits.

And, again, if I'm honest, it wasn't love at first sight. Still early in my comics collecting career, my ideal artists would have been George Perez on New Teen Titans, Keith Giffen on Legion of Superheroes, and Dave Stevens on the Rocketeer. This issue came out the same month as Batman Annual 8, still my favorite Batman story of all time, with Trevor Von Eeden's exciting new art style, so previous to this, I would have been mostly interested in slick, detailed artists. At the time, I told myself that Spiegle's work here was meant to deliberately evoke feelings of the crude Golden Age art I had seen. My early adolescent tastes hadn't actually grown at that point to embrace the idea that art could come in different styles, and each one could be equally good.

I also wasn't used to Evanier's writing style, or the style of DC war comics, as established by the great Robert Kanigher. On the other hand, I didn't know that much about World War II history, either. I knew that the Allies (mostly America) had fought the Nazis, but that's about it. So the first page, with its capsule history of Hitler's rise to power, felt like a real education.
My grandfather had grown up in Germany as a Jew, and left before WWII, sensing which way the wind was blowing. As a twelve or thirteen year old kid, I knew just a little about his history, but didn't really understand what things must have been like. Reading this story, about the Nazis trying to force a small Dutch village to vote in favor of occupation, felt like I was finally getting a picture of the sort of world my grandfather had fled.



Viewed in context of the entire series, Blackhawk 251 is a good issue, but perhaps not the finest of the series. As an introduction, however, it's great. The cover, by Blackhawk fan Dave Cockrum, is an iconic image that effectively communicates the tone of the story. The first page, with its storybook retelling of Hitler's background, sets the scene, but it's only with the double-page splash on pages 2 and 3 that the reader is thrown into the action, literally.
The story itself is fairly simple, with the abduction and rescue of Blackhawk more a vehicle for retelling the group's origin than an important part of the plot in its own right. Having said that, it's told well, with both the writing and art working together extremely well.


Evanier manages to introduce the members of the Blackhawks as individuals through the course of the story, without having to rely on any contrived "roll-call" type scenes. He makes sure that each character's name is mentioned (although, again, not in a contrived manner) and gives each character his own distinct voice patterns. In the case of the Dutch Hendrickson and the Swedish Olaf, this means laying on some thick accents, but it doesn't feel overdone. He also gives each character a distinct personality, which comes through in the dialogue.

The voice Evanier gives this comic is distinct and personable, almost as if we are listening to someone telling the story out loud. It's reminiscent of--and clearly inspired by--the great war comics of Robert Kanigher, but not as bombastic.

Perhaps my favorite bit, though, comes at the end, when Evanier and Spiegle work hand-in-hand to show why the village elder Leuuen has chosen to convince his village to stand up to the Nazis, whereas previously he had been prepared to take the path of least resistance. All the explanation is there in the art, and Evanier knows enough to not overexplain things.

It's an effective first issue, which made me feel as if I understood the characters and the premise. While later issues, free of the burdens of introductions and exposition, gave us stronger stories, this one is just fine. It made me want to come back for more, which is the most important job of a first issue.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Newsstand: May, 1981

In May of 1981, I turned twelve years old, and I bought Tales of the Green Lantern Corps 1, by Mike Barr, Len Wein, and Joe Staton. I had no idea I would become a huge fan of all three creators.

I'm not sure what the impetus was to purchase this book, other than the fact that it was a first issue, and it had a great cover by Brian Bolland. I had only ever read one issue of Green Lantern, which the son of a family friend had brought with him when they came to visit us. It was probably illustrated by Mike Grell, and therefore probably written by Denny O'Neill. And that's all I remember, except that Green Lantern was still traveling with Itty, an alien flower riding around on his shoulder. (Whenever I hear folks griping about DC Comics suddenly ignoring the past, I just want to ask how many of them remember Itty.)

I also knew the character from his appearances in Superfriends, including an episode which told his origin. I think I was intrigued by the notion of Hal Jordan being one of thousands of Green Lanterns, which made him different from other superheroes. This story, possibly the first that really brought the Green Lantern Corps together in one huge adventure felt special. it felt epic, because no threat had ever been so huge it took the whole corps to fight it.

Obviously, it made an impression on Geoff Johns as well. Not only did he bring the villain back for his Blackest Night series, but much of his work on Green Lantern has been about giant menaces which take the entire corps to defeat. What made this story special--its uniqueness--has been made commonplace in the pages of contemporary Green Lantern comics. Ironically, in trying to make the Green Lantern series bigger, I feel like Johns has made it smaller and less interesting.

The Green Lantern stories of today--at least until I stopped reading them--seem to favor spectacle over character, which drove me away. This miniseries, on the other hand, takes the epic and makes it personal. By introducing rookie Green Lantern Arisia, Barr and Wein give the story a character the reader can identify with and root for. We aren't asked to follow a bunch of disparate alien characters with no real discernible personalities. Instead, we see Arisia first reacting to things the way we probably would react: with fear and anxiety. Eventually, we see her reacting as we hope we'd react: with strength and courage.

This same month saw the release of DC Comics Presents 33, guest-starring Captain Marvel, and Eclipse Magazine 1, with the first installments of Coyote by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, and Ms Tree by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty. At the time I hadn't heard of Englehart and Rogers, or Collins and Beatty, so I think I can be excused for not picking the magazine up. Besides, I was 12 years old. Eclipse was a magazine for grown-ups. (It even had boobies.) It wouldn't be too long before I did get some issues of Eclipse, but that's a story for another week.

DC Comics Presents 33, on the other hand, I should have picked up. I was a huge Marvel Family fan at that point, thanks to reprints, and the fact that I overlooked this at the time just shows that a bit of me was still made of stupid.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Detective Comics 396

After the heights of the last couple of Batman stories, Detective Comics 396 is a bit of a letdown. Written by Frank Robbins and drawn by Bob Brown and Joe Giella, "The Brain-Pickers!" features the oddball tale of a stock-market whiz who calls in his stock picks to his office via short-wave radio while he motorcycles across the country. A gang of crooks decide to take advantage of his skill by forcing him to work for them. But he convinces them that he can only work his magic by using his tried and true methods. So they follow him as he rides his bike, and it's up to Batman to figure out his location and save him.
There's nothing wrong with the way Batman solves the story (stockbroker Rory Bell sends clues to his location disguised as stock buys). But it feels as if the story was written with the idea of Batman having to track someone by hearing clues broadcast over the radio, and then Robbins worked backwards to figure out a situation where that would be necessary. It feels unnecessarily contrived, and that makes it less enjoyable for me.
The art, by Brown and Giella, continues to tell the story perfectly well. Compared to the work of Neal Adams and Irv Novick, however, it's not particularly outstanding.
The Batgirl backup story, written by Robbins and drawn by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson, is a different story. Telling the first part of Barbara Gordon's investigation of a series of dating-agency-related murders, it's a mystery that actually creates some suspense. It's also a case that could only be investigated from the inside by Batgirl.
The idea of a serial killer preying upon women, and our heroine placing herself in a position of jeopardy through her investigation isn't a new one. However, within those parameters, Robbins creates a believable investigation. He also gives it some depth by allowing Barbara's undercover investigation to cause some tension between her and her boyfriend, private eye Jason Bard. Overall, it's an effective first installment that packs a lot into its short page count, and leaves me eagerly awaiting the next chapter.
It helps that the art is a great deal more dynamic and exiting that that of the lead story. Kane's layouts are a lot more interesting, and his characters a lot more fluid, than Bob Brown's. Brown gets the job done, but Kane gets it done with style.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Newsstand: April, 1981

Of all the comics that came out in April of 1981, I believe the only one I actually bought was Marvel Premiere 59, the third issue featuring Doctor Who. This one would have featured the first half of the City of the Damned storyline, which was one of the creepiest things I had read to that point. Written by John Wagner and drawn by Dave Gibbons, it's almost a Judge Dredd story starring Doctor Who.

I can't remember which issue of these reprints featured a pin-up of the Daleks and Davros by Dave Cockrum, but I do remember being very confused by it. At this point, I had neither seen nor read Genesis of the Daleks, so as far as I knew, the origin of the Daleks was exactly as I had read it in Doctor Who and the Daleks. The reference to Davros as the creator of the Daleks made no sense to me, since, as far as I knew, the Daleks had evolved, not been created. So, my pre-teen mind reconciled it by deciding that the picture of Davros was actually an illustration of what was inside a Dalek. Given how obsessed I later became with facts and continuity, I'm amazed that I accepted my own interpretation so easily. On the other hand, in those innocent, pre-Internet days, it's not as if I had a lot of avenues for research.

While I didn't buy it, I had to smile when I saw that Mike Mist's Minute Mist-eries came out this month. I know I had seen it on the racks, but may not have even picked it up. Given that its creators, Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty, went on to create one of my favorite comics of all time, Ms Tree, it figures that this barely blipped on my radar when it came out.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Batman 219

So on my lunch break the other week, I read--back to back--Batman 219 from 1970, and Batman 6 from last month.

In Batman 219 by Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, and Dick Giordano, Bruce Wayne is still searching for support for his VIP crime victim's assistance program. He meets a senator working on an apparently groundbreaking anti-crime bill, and the two fly off to Washington.

En route, the plane is hijacked by crooks trying to stop the anti-crime bill from passing. Bruce fights back, and is tied up in the plane's galley for his trouble. So now he needs to find a way to escape his bonds, disguise himself as Batman, and stop the hijackers, all without them discovering that Wayne is no longer a prisoner, in order to protect his secret identity. It should come as no surprise that he manages to do all that, stopping the hijackers and saving the senator.

Then, in the second story (because all that's not enough to fill an entire issue) by Mike Friedrich, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano, Christmas has come to Gotham. Batman is ready to keep the streets safe, but Commissioner Gordon and the police manage to convince him that Christmas is one day the city can take care of itself.

While Batman joins the police in singing Christmas carols, we see how Christmas is, indeed, a day crime and tragedy can't ruin in Gotham City. While he isn't out on the streets himself, Batman's image is everywhere, from action figures to charity workers dressed as Batman instead of Santa Claus. That image reminds Gotham citizens contemplating crime to stick to the straight and narrow, at least on this one day. It's sentimental, and a bit sappy, but it's a Christmas story.

In addition to those two stories, there's also a short sci-fi twist-ending story reprinted from an issue of Phantom Stranger.

And, in last month's Batman 6, written by Scott Snyder and illustrated by Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion, Batman spends 20 pages hitting a guy. And if I hadn't read the previous five issues, I would have no idea why. (Actually, I'm still not quite sure why.)

I don't want to say that the storytelling approach from 1970 is better than what we're seeing in 2012. But if the comics industry is confused as to why their audience is shrinking, and why casual readers aren't picking up their books, I present Exhibit A.

After the first O'Neil/Adams issue in Detective 395, the return to the Robbins/Novick team feels a bit like a throwback. It's unfortunate, as it's a perfectly serviceable story with some really nice artwork. Novick particularly excels at keeping the action interesting while contained within a confined space. And Robbins comes up with some clever, plausible methods for Batman and Bruce Wayne to appear to be two separate people.

However, when compared to the O'Neil/Adams work (even one as atypical as their first story together) the lead story in this issue just doesn't have the same energy. As good as Novick is, his layouts and camera angles aren't as unique and diverse as Adams. His characters are fine, but they just don't seem to move across the page in the same way.

It doesn't help that the reader doesn't have to compare Novick's work with their memories of Detective 395, because Neal Adams illustrates "The Silent Night of the Batman," this issue's Christmas story. And he does a great job, especially since this story (as the title implies) relies heavily on the visuals. Adams' characters truly come to life, telling their stories almost entirely through their body language and expressions. Juxtaposed with shots of Batman and the police singing Christmas carols, Adams packs a great deal of information into each page. (Not to ignore writer Mike Friedrich, who crafted a scenario that really lets Adams shine, as well as putting a very human face on Gotham City.)

To contemporary readers, more familiar with the Batman-as-Urban-Legend or Batman-as-Complete-Dick versions of the character, the sight of a Batman socializing with the police force (even singing along with them) while Gotham citizens purchase Batman action figures and dress up as the Caped Crusader will probably seem ridiculous. To those of us with souls, however, this version of Batman feels like a hero we can truly admire. He does the job he has set out to do, but he does it because he wants to protect the innocent, not punish the guilty.

This version of Batman is not worlds away from the original Bill Finger/Bob Kane version, either. In those stories from the 1940s, he joked with Robin, made wisecracks when fighting, and even sang in costume. While the Batman in this story is considerably more social, he's probably closer to the original than the current version of the character.

"Time to Kill," the sci-fi reprint written by pulp wordsmith Henry Kuttner, is a fun diversion, but to this 2012 reader, feels very much like one of a million twist-ending time travel paradox stories.

Interestingly, on the letters page, there's a letter singing the praises of Dick Giordano's inking. The author? One Klaus Janson, who, if memory serves, would become one of Giordano's assistants before making a name for himself as an inker, penciler and colorist, doing quite a bit of work on Batman himself.

While still in the early days of his Bronze Age revival, it's clear that Robbins and the other Batman writers are eager to get away from the camp image of the TV series. While not as stylish and weird as O'Neill and Adams' work, Robbins and Novick tell a story grounded in the real world of politics, crime and hijacking. Four stories in, and there's no colorful, costumed villains in sight. Batman is well on his way to reclaiming his roots.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Newsstand: March 1981

Looking at the comics published (or at least cover-dated) March, 1981, I see plenty of familiar covers. I'm not completely sure I bought all these when they came out, but it feels like I bought them around this time. So I'll talk about them here.

Detective Comics 500 contains a number of stories that made a serious impression. Alan Brennert writes the lead story, a tale set in a parallel world, where "our" Batrman has a chance to prevent that world's Bruce Wayne from going through the tragedy that turned him into Batman. Unlike most "what-if" tales, I remember this one being warm and gentle, not focused on fan-wank references and spectacle. Between his comics work, his novels, and television scripts (particularly on the then-new Twilight Zone revival), Brennert has become one of my favorite writers, and this story is just one example why. Also, the art by Dick Giordano doesn't hurt at all.

But that lead story is just part of an amazing package, which includes a Slam Bradley story drawn by Jim Aparo, a Joe Kubert Hawkman story that ties into another classic DC character's origin, an Elongated Man story written by Mike W. Barr, and a Batman prose story written by Shadow creator Walter Gibson. Plus Deadman, and a story by Len Wein and Walt Simonson.

Perhaps best of all, this story is completely self-contained. I wasn't familiar with all the characters, but I didn't feel lost, or like I was trying to start reading a book with the last chapter. Great stuff. This should be reprinted in hardcover on its own.

This same month, Gold Key published Flash Gordon 31, with the first installment of the adaptation of the Sam Jones movie. While I can't say it's a great movie, I have a soft spot for it in my heart. I saw it with my brother, and the distinct look and feel of the film's design really made an impact on me. Last year, when I read the original Alex Raymond Flash Gordon Sunday strips for the first time (a Christmas present from my brother, ironically) I was surprised at how many of the film's set pieces were right out of the strip.

More importantly, in terms of my comics fanity, this was possibly the first Al Williamson story I remember reading. (Although, most likely, I had read his adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back by this point.) I didn't know anything about his long association with the character, and I certainly didn't know that he really had issues with illustrating this version, as described in the pages of Al Williamson's Flash Gordon. I just knew that the art was beautiful.

(To be honest, I don't think I read the story in this issue. I'm pretty sure I had a paperback collection that collected the whole movie. Whatever.)

And while I'm pretty sure that's all I would have bought in March of 1981, I have to smile when I see that Captain America 255 apparently came out that month. This issue, retelling Cap's origin, marks the end of a run by Roger Stern and John Byrne. I eventually became a huge fan of both creators, but a reprint of this story is the only issue of their Captain America run I've read. Just goes to show that no matter how long you collect comics, unless you started back in the 30s, you're always going to be too late to avoid missing some classics.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Detective Comics 395

So far, the most interesting thing about reading the Bronze Age Batman comics chronologically is seeing things develop in context. For example, it's one thing to hear about how Detective Comics 395, "Night of the Waiting Graves," the first Batman story by Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams marks a turning point for Batman as a comics series. It's another thing entirely to see how radically it transforms the series from the entertaining Frank Robbins-scripted whodunnits of the past couple of issues into something altogether different.

Considering that the O'Neil/Adams team is regarded as one of the definitive Batman creative teams, it's interesting that their first issue together feels very atypical. In a lot of ways, this story, with its overt supernatural elements, wouldn't feel too out of place in one of DC's horror books of the period. It's closer to a House of Mystery story than it is to the Batman stories that precede it. Batman is in an unfamiliar location (Mexico), taking on a mysterious, apparently immortal, couple who depend on a mystical flower for their immortality. However, the flower can also bring madness, and Batman is forced to battle the demons of his own psyche rather than a traditional villain like the Penguin or the Joker.

If I'm honest, I think the story succeeds more in terms of mood and tone than plot. The story rushes along, with very few explanations. The whole immortality-giving flower thing feels so isolated: it shows up in this story, and is gotten rid of by the end.

Neal Adams' art, on the other hand, is the real breakthrough. I had earlier proclaimed my enjoyment of Irv Novick's work on Batman, but Adams introduces a whole new energy in these pages. I don't have the art-school vocabulary to really explain what makes it work, and I don't want to fall back on the traditional phrases like "dynamic" or "realistic." (Although I think "realistic" really only applies when compared to the work of folks like Dick Sprang.) But compared to what came directly before, it does feel fresh, new and exciting.

The back of the book is taken up by the second half of the Robbins/Kane Robin solo story. I don't really have anything to add to what I said about the first part: it still has the feel of a writer struggling to appear contemporary and relevant without actually being part of the culture he's writing about. The story uses campus protests as the main part of the plot without appearing to understand the politics of those protests.

Robin story notwithstanding, this issue will always have its place in history as the first O'Neil/Adams Batman story. And while it may not represent the duo at the height of their powers, it's pretty good in its own right, regardless of its historical significance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Comics Newsstand: February 1981

Continuing on through the journey through the early years of my comics collecting habit, here are the comics I remember purchasing in February, 1981, as seen on Mike's Amazing World of Comics:

(I know last week I talked about December, 1980; I don't think I actually bought anything that was on sale in January, 1981, at least not when it came out.)

Marvel Premiere 58 featuring Doctor Who. If memory serves, I still wasn't able to watch Doctor Who on TV at home, so these comics felt even closer to watching the show than reading the novelizations of the TV series. The stories, by Pat Mills and John Wagner (whose work I'd later come to love in the pages of 2000AD did a great job of combining the weirdness and humor of the series with larger-scale adventures (in four page weekly installments), and the art, by Dave Gibbons, was gorgeous. And the cover was by Frank Miller and Terry Austin!

And again, if memory serves, my purchasing this comic was the result of my calling the store every week to find out if it was out yet. And when it did come out, I either convinced my mom to drive me down to Telegraph Avenue, or convinced my dad to pick it up at the store after work. So thanks again, mom and dad, for helping me find this thing that I love.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Infinity Inc.: The Generations Saga Volume 1

Presumably, DC's decision to revive the World's Finest comic book title, starring Earth 2 heroines Huntress and Power Girl--not to mention the creation of a series called Earth 2--is the motivation behind this first volume reprinting Roy & Dann Thomas, Jerry Ordway, and Mike Machlan's super-team series from the 1980s. Whatever the motivation, I'm fine; Infinity Inc, at least at the beginning, was a series I really enjoyed reading.

It was also a series I was really anticipating before it came out, thanks to Roy Thomas' decision to introduce the characters in the pages of All-Star Squadron, his series about DC's earliest superheroes in World War Two. After getting a taste of who the characters were, what they could do, and some hints at who they really were, I couldn't wait to read their full story in the pages of their own comic. It didn't hurt that All-Star Squadron had already made me a fan of Thomas and Ordway, and while I knew I'd miss Ordway on that book, I'd still be seeing his work.

(Sadly, that's not necessarily the case today. He still works in comics, but not nearly enough. And half the time, he's working on a book I have no interest in reading, and I'm past the days of buying a comic for the art alone. Fortunately, his latest work, a revival of DC's Challengers of the Unknown, written with DC publisher and OMAC writer Dan DiDio, is something I'm looking forward to.)

DC's selection of stories for this first volume clearly show how they perceive the intended audience for this book. This book starts with all the All-Star Squadron issues that feature Infinity Inc. However, those are the last three parts of a six (or more) part story, and there's no real introduction putting those stories in context for readers who may have never read the rest of the tale. This says to me that DC expects to sell this book to people who already read All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc, and remember the original stories. The book seems intended for folks like me who want a nice bound copy of a childhood favorite, rather than a way to introduce new readers to a (perhaps forgotten) classic.

I only vaguely remember the first parts of the story from their original publication. Fortunately, these comics are from a period where stories weren't regularly collected into books. Thomas does a good job of bringing the reader up to speed within the context of the story, without being too obvious about it. I certainly didn't feel as if I were getting a complete story, but I didn't feel completely alienated by coming into the middle of one, either. (To be fair, I did read these stories on their original publication, but I haven't read them since. So it's not like I was being dropped into it cold.)

Jerry Ordway's art, ably inked by Mike Machlan, completely holds up. He has a clear, classic style that, while not as flashy as a George Perez or Jim Lee, works perfectly for these stories. In these All-Star Squadron chapters, he captures the feel of an earlier era, both in the designs of the characters and their technology. It doesn't feel like a pastiche of comics from that era, but it does feel more obviously influenced by classic illustration and storytelling than the aforementioned Perez or Lee.

Once the book gets into Infinity Inc. proper, the new kids take center stage, as expected. If memory serves, this series was the first extended, in-continuity examination of a second generation of superheroes, and that's the focus of the first four issues (all that's reprinted in this volume). However, Roy Thomas (assisted by co-plotter and wife Dann) maintains a balance of characterization and action.

Over the course of the first two issues, we meet the seven new characters that form the core of the new team, and are reintroduced to the present-day Justice Society of America. Interestingly, I don't believe the phrase "Earth-2" is mentioned anywhere in the first issue; presumably, All-Star Squadron and the annual JLA/JSA team-ups had raised the profile of the JSA and Earth-2 in the minds of readers enough that DC/Roy Thomas didn't feel it was necessary. Of course, this taking-for-granted that the readers understood the DC Multiverse may be what led to the perceived need for simplification which resulted in the Crisis on Infinite Earths series. (Also of course, I may have missed a reference to Earth-2 in that first issue, and be full of beans.)

We learn the backstories of all the Infinitors-to-be, to a greater or lesser degree. While some, like Lyta Trevor, had appeared previously, the readers is given all the information they need right away. Which isn't to say that there isn't stuff left open for future exploration, particularly the mystery of Jade and Obsidian's mother. They're also joined by existing characters Huntress and Power Girl (themselves second-generation heroes) and the Star-Spangled Kid (a first-generation hero, but due to time-traveling shenanigans, still a young man among a group of heroes in their 50s and 60s).

The first meeting of the JSA and their kids in costume features the unfortunate cliche of heroes fighting each other due to a misunderstanding. This, coupled with Hawkman's very negative reaction to his son's plans, makes the initial characterization feel a bit broad. However, as I said, this is the first time (I believe) that the generational dynamic was really played out on the comic book page. Huntress and Robin didn't have to deal with Batman's feelings on the subject, because on Earth-2, he was already dead. Power Girl wasn't Superman's daughter, so the relationship was different. And otherwise, the generational thing had only been dealt with in imaginary stories.

In 2012, older heroes being replaced by younger characters is almost a staple of comics, for better or for worse. In 1984, Roy Thomas was exploring new territory, and I think he handled it well. It makes sense that a parent in a dangerous profession wouldn't want their children to follow in their footsteps. It makes as much sense that the children would be drawn in by the glamour of superheroics, as well as seeing it as just a normal part of life.

In addition to the family drama, Thomas gives us plenty of superheroic action. They fight the JSA (sigh), they fight a bunch of bigots in a fast food restaurant, and they fight Golden Age staple Solomon Grundy in an abandoned movie studio. The mix of larger-than-life superheroic action and more down-to-earth stuff feels reminiscent of The New Teen Titans and other young supergroup comics of the time.

The art, by Ordway and Machlan, continues to build on the quality they demonstrated in All-Star Squadron. In particular, they actually draw the JSA members as if they were in their 50s and 60s. Previously, their age was almost always indicated by some graying at the temples. Ordway and Machlan give their faces the lines and slightly sunken look that comes with age.

They also do a great job designing Infinity Inc, although some designs (Jade, Obsidian, Fury) have aged better than others (Nuklon's mohawk). I've read that Ordway did the pages at a larger size than he was used to, and worked harder at the characters' "acting," working with their facial expressions and body language. He does give each character a distinct look and feel, aided by Machlan's faithful inking. The two make a great team.

Interestingly, the original plan was for Machlan to pencil and Ordway to ink this book. Since Ordway has such a distinctive inking style, he still would have exerted a heavy influence on the look of the book, but it would be interesting to see how things would have turned out in a parallel world, where they didn't decide to switch roles. (It's been a long time since I've looked at anything penciled by Machlan, so it's hard for me to picture it.)

It's tough for me to identify Ordway and Machlan's influences, but they seem to be more classical illustrators along the lines of Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, along with guys like Al Williamson and Wally Wood. It's a style that I particularly like, and not one that seems all that evident in today's comics. So whenever Ordway does something new, it always gets my attention. (Even if I don't always buy it.)

For longtime fans of Infinity Inc, this book is a great opportunity to revisit the characters and stories. They completely lived up to my fond memories. For readers who aren't as familiar with the tropes and styles of early 80s comics, the writing isn't going to feel like a contemporary style. (Neither do Shakespeare, Dickens, or Jane Austen; doesn't make them any less classic). If I'm honest, the book is a bit pricy, and collectors can probably find the original issues much cheaper. It's a niche publication, and I'm just happy to have it on my bookshelf, so it was worth the money to me. Looking forward to volume 2!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Comics Newsstand: December 1980

So I recently discovered a cool web site, Mike's Amazing World of Comics. It started as a database of all the DC Comics ever published, but once the creator completed that (he claims, and I'm certainly not going to check his work) he began adding other publishers.

One particularly cool feature is the "newsstand" feature, which allows users to sort the database by date of publication. Essentially, this shows all the comics which were on sale in any particular month. In my spare time, I started fiddling around with this, tracking back to when I remember first seriously collecting comics, and then going through month by month. The memories this has sparked have been interesting, reminding me of where I was at particular points in my life, watching my buying list grow and shrink and grow again as my tastes changed.

I thought it would be fun to write down those thoughts, so I'm going to try to cover a month's worth of comics each Wednesday (since Wednesday is new comics release day).

The first month I was able to find that I know I went into a comics store to buy a comic was December 1980. Before that, I had loved reading comics, but they weren't a regular habit. Whenever I went shopping with my parents, I would look at the comics in the grocery store or drug store or liquor store. I remember begging my parents to let me come along to Jay Vee Liquor in El Cerrito, not because they bought much liquor, but because that store had a bigger comics rack than any I had ever seen.

As a kid, my tastes ran to humor comics: Richie Rich and Casper and friends from Harvey Comics, Archie and his friends from Archie Comics, and a ton of Disney and other licensed cartoon comics from Gold Key. Also probably Super-Friends, which, along with the Adam West Batman TV series, was my introduction to the world of superheroes. At that age, though, actual superhero comics were too grown-up for me. I remember the first real Batman comic I ever read was Detective Comics 468, which I learned decades later, was Marshall Rogers' first time drawing a full-length Batman story. At the time, it was too adult and scary for me, though.

I also remember standing in line with my mother at the check-cashing window at Safeway one day, probably holding whatever comics I had chosen. An older kid offered me some comics he had already read and wanted to give away. I think one was a Conan comic, and another featured the Thing, from the Fantastic Four. One featured scantily-clad men and women with swords on the cover, the other featured monsters. Either way, they were too scary for me. I probably also checked out Marvel's Star Wars comics when I could find them, but, again, never made a concerted effort to try to get them with any regularity.

That changed, however, when one day in late 1980, I saw Marvel Premiere 57 displayed in the window of Comics & Comix on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. We had recently returned from a year-long stay in New Zealand, where I had become a rabid Doctor Who fan. So this sighting of an American comic featuring Doctor Who was a must-have.

It was my first exposure to the Doctor Who comic strip, even though it was just a reprint of stuff from the British Doctor Who Weekly magazine. It was also my first exposure to Dave Gibbons' art. More importantly, it was the first comic to motivate me to return to the comic book store looking for the next issue.

I had no idea how frequently it came out, so I regularly phoned the store asking if it had come out yet. When it finally did, I can't remember if I had my mom drive me to the store, or asked my dad to pick it up after work (he worked nearby, at the university). Either way, I remember them being very supportive, helping me to get all four issues of Marvel Premiere featuring the Doctor. If only they knew what they were encouraging.

Looking through the rest of that month's releases, it doesn't look like I bought anything else at the time. I did end up buying some of that month's releases as back issues, like New Teen Titans 2. But that's a story I'll save for the month I discovered New Teen Titans, a little over a year later. Because even though I only bought the one comic back in December 1980, it was the start of a way of life for me.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Detective Comics 394

Picking up from the cliffhanger ending of Batman 217, Detective Comics 394 continues the story (loosely) of the Wayne Foundation's VIP program.

In a story written by Frank Robbins and drawn by Bob Brown and Joe Giella, Bruce Wayne finds himself confronted by a one-eyed Native American named "Dakota" Jones. Jones, a race car driver, accuses Wayne of having his car shot at during a recent race, so that Wayne's own driver could make his way to victory. This is, of course, absurd, so Batman and Jones investigate.

Unlike Batman 217, the mystery here is a bit overly complicated and Byzantine, and doesn't feel quite as natural. The idea that the shot was fired from a weapon concealed in the Wayne driver's car, triggered from the spectator stand with a remote control disguised as a transistor radio, is just a couple of layers too deep and complicated for what is essentially a gambling scam.

There's a lot more clunky dialogue in this issue, and a lot more of Bruce calling Alfred "Alf" or "Alfie." It's hard to tell how much of that stuff was a result of the Batman writers and editors trying to make a transition away from the camp tone of the Batman TV series, trying to sound "hip" and contemporary, and how much is just clumsy writing.

As one might imagine in a mainstream comic from 1969, the question of "Dakota" Jones' ethnicity isn't dealt with particularly sensitively. He's colored red, and there are a lot of references to pow-wows, peace pipes, and scalping. Having said that, at least Jones' heritage doesn't color every piece of dialogue or action he's involved with. The fact that he's Native American is actually fairly incidental. Since it's not important to the story, I'm not sure why Robbins made this choice. Maybe he was looking for a more exotic option than the usual bunch of white guys? Hard to say.

The art, by Brown and Giella, is fine as far as it goes, although it pales in comparison to the Novick/Giordano team on Batman 217. Brown's figures are just a little more stiff, and his action is just a little less dynamic. It's straightforward and serviceable, but not spectacular. And the fact that I know that the next issue is drawn by Neal Adams makes this issue seem that much less visually exciting.

The book also features a Robin backup story, written by Robbins and drawn by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson. Telling the story of Dick Grayson's first day at college, we get a view of campus protests that very much feels written by an old man trying to be relevant. The notion of campus protestors faking their arrests and brutality at the hands of the (fake) police isn't bad, but it's not great, either. And the execution feels very simplified, when a story based in any sort of political situation should have all the complexities that political stories bring.

Still, it's only the first part of a multi-part story. And the art, by Kane and Anderson, is gorgeous as always. So no complaints there.

Overall, in its first month, the Bronze Age Batman is still finding its way. The emphasis on Batman as a detective is very welcome. And, with the first Denny O'Neill/Neal Adams story right around the corner, it's only going to get better.

 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Batman #217

I started my Bronze Age Batman reread with Batman 217, written by Johnny Hazard creator Frank Robbins and drawn by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano. The Batcave Companion listed this issue first in their Bronze Age checklist, so that's my guide.

It's also an issue that heralds major changes in the Bat-status quo. I don't want to get off on a rant about the cosmetic changes that contemporary comics foist on readers under the guise of "Nothing will ever be the same again!" (Until, of course, it eventually is the same again.) But the changes in this issue (Robin heading to college, Bruce Wayne moving out of Wayne Manor and into a penthouse atop the Wayne Foundation building) did, in fact, last for quite a long time. (Permanently, in the case of Dick Grayson moving away.) And alongside the changes, we also get a complete story about Batman investigating a mystery.

With this story, we still find ourselves firmly entrenched in the era when Batman was still the World's Greatest Detective, not just the World's Greatest Guy at Hitting Crazy People (not to mention the World's Biggest Dick). In this issue, he begins a (short-lived) initiative to specifically seek out and help victims of crimes who otherwise are not seeing justice done.

The first benificiary is to be a female doctor, whose husband was murdered, and who now needs help with funding their clinic. In the course of meeting and interviewing her, Bruce Wayne learns the circumstances of the doctor's murder. As one might expect, the keen analytical mind of Batman can't help putting the clues together from her story, and ends up investigating the crime himself. And, as one might expect, he solves it.

Although the mystery is solved by the end of the issue, it doesn't feel particularly rushed or simplified. Robbins is a professional writer, and tells a compelling, interesting story within his allotted page count. He also allows the reader to follow along with the investigative process, providing clues but giving the reader the chance to put them together themselves, before revealing the answers.

In terms of characterization, there are a couple of odd moments. Bruce's reaction to Dick leaving seems a bit overwrought. This might be because seeing Bruce Wayne or Batman express any kind of emotion besides anger and dickery has been alien to the character for the past 20 years or so, and also possibly because it's really only dealt with for a couple of panels before getting on with the story. (This may also be related to Robbins' background as a newspaper strip writer, where information needs to be communicated quickly in just a few panels.) Bruce also refers to Alfred as "Alf," which, as a longtime reader, just feels weird.

Art-wise, there are no similar odd moments. Novick retired as an artist when I was just getting into comics, so I am only familiar with his work through reprints and back issues. The few new stories I read when I was a kid were published at a time I was enamored with guys like George Perez, Keith Giffen, and John Byrne. I know Novick drew a Superman/Blackhawk story I read in DC Comics Presents, but since he wasn't as flashy as the guys I liked, it didn't leave a particularly strong impression.

Now, I can see his command of storytelling and anatomy. Neal Adams will always be hailed as the definitive '70s Batman artist, but I'd love to see Novick get some recognition as well, because he's great. He includes some particularly thoughtful touches, such as including a spectral Batman representing Bruce's thoughts as he puts the clues together. And, of course, he's ably inked by Dick Giordano.

Despite the quirks of the writing mentioned above, Batman 217 is a great jumping-on point to the series. (Well, it would have been 40 years ago.) It definitely lives up to the promise of the cover image, making major changes to the series while still presenting an accessible story to show readers what the series is like.

 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Living in the Past

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm starting to reread a bunch of comics from my youth (or even from before, which I collected years ago). And I'm going to try to blog about them as I go. I got a blogging app, Blogsy, for my iPad, which should make blogging on the go much easier.

 

Before I start posting those blogs, I wanted to set out sort of a mission statement. I'm not doing this because I think comics today suck, and the comics of my youth are great. There are good comics being published now, and there were crappy comics being published then.

However, the comics being published now aren't necessarily the same, in terms of style, as they were then, twenty to thirty years ago. This is even more evident in the superhero comics published by Marvel and DC, because they're the same characters, only now told with different voices.

I came to love superhero comics in the mid 80s because I loved the stories I was reading. To me, those stories are the definitive superhero stories. Batman by folks like Mike W. Barr, Trevor Von Eeden, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Doug Moench, Don Newton, and Alfredo Alcala is my Batman. There have been great Batman stories told since then, but the further away in style they get from what I first read, the less comfortable they feel to me. And what's the point of reading the same character for 20 or 30 years if it's not comfortable?

So this is my way of trying to explain why I may occasionally sound like the Grumpy Old Man. Please bear with me as we go along.

The thing is, sometimes, when I think about these old comics, I look online for blogs about them. And I almost never find any, probably because the Internet is a young person's game. But I love these old comics, and I want to share what I think about them. Maybe there's somebody else who feels the same, and is equally disappointed that nobody is talking about Bo Hampton's Lost Planet online. So I'm going to go ahead and talk about this stuff as I read it. I hope you join me for the journey.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

DC Comics Gets Me Excited (and not about Before Watchmen)

First, apologies for the lack of images. Scanner is on the fritz again.

The other week, DC Comics released some exciting news that I had been waiting literally decades for.

No, it’s not the Watchmen prequels; I think that’s a creative dead end. All the important parts of the Watchmen characters’ lives are pretty much detailed in the book; that’s why it’s such a complete work.

Also, I’m pretty much disappointed at the comics world using this as yet another excuse to jump on the “Alan Moore is a crybaby/crackpot” bandwagon. I made my views clear here, and more articulate folks like Tom Spurgeon and others have done so more eloquently here and here.

No the DC Comics news came out of their announcement of their fall book schedule. Mixed in with a ton of newer material that I’ve little to no interest in were a couple of books reprinting some of my favorites from the 1980s. Some, like Green Lantern: Sector 2014, aren’t too big a surprise (Green Lantern is one of DC’s bestselling comics, and this collects stories illustrated by Watchmen cocreator Dave Gibbons). The long-awaited collection of Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld makes sense, too; it’s one of the few properties that DC has that stands a chance of appealing to girls who enjoy reading fantasy.

Those Green Lantern stories were the stories that made me a Green Lantern fan in the first place. I had been a Dave Gibbons fan from his art in Doctor Who Magazine. While he had probably done other work for DC Comics before this, Green Lantern was his first regular American gig. I knew Green Lantern from the Superfriends TV show (and had read at least one previous issue, featuring his sidekick, Itty, the sentient alien flower) so I knew I was interested in the character. So I jumped on board.

The series, of course, featured the hallmark of the Green Lantern series to that point: Hal Jordan trying and failing to balance his personal life on Earth with his role as protector of an entire sector of space. Modern commentators tar writers like Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Paul Levitz, Marv Wolfman, and Mike Barr with a blanked “old-fashioned” brush, but I think that’s a lot of hooey. Just because a comic doesn’t read like Brian Bendis’ neo-David Mamet dialogue and uses things like caption boxes and thought bubbles that are no longer in vogue doesn’t mean it’s poorly written. Jane Austen and Shakespeare don’t read like contemporary literature, but that doesn’t make them any less classic.

In his Green Lantern run, Wein told stories of compelling characters getting involved in exciting adventures. And, when he had Hal Jordan stripped of the Green Lantern role and gave it to John Stewart, it felt new and different and possibly a permanent change, because it wasn’t something done every ten minutes. (And while in comics, everything always returns to the status quo, at least it lasted beyond Wein’s run on the book, and well into successor Steve Englehart’s.)

And the art was gorgeous as well. Along with some of the other comics I’ll be talking about, it helped me form my definition of what a good superhero comic is. I’m very excited to see these stories back in print. Hopefully DC will follow up with the Englehart/Joe Staton stories that came next, up to their recent Green Lantern Corps collection. And then, of course, hopefully they’ll pick up with Green Lantern Corps where that book left off. As I’ve said before the Englehart/Staton run on this book is one of my favorite runs of superhero comics of all time.

The Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld collection feels long-awaited in fandom. I suspect the love for the series is based more on the fantastic 12-issue miniseries that came first, rather than the (barely longer-lived) ongoing series that came after.

I loved reading that first miniseries as it came out. At the time, the only other fantasy comics I was aware of were sword and sorcery comics like Mike Grell’s Warlord or Marvel’s Conan books. (There may have been others from smaller publishers, but nothing I can recall.) As a kid whose early reading included all sorts of magical-land fantasies like the Oz series, Amethyst was right up my alley. The fact that it starred a teenage girl didn’t bother me, although that, too, made it an anomaly in the DC lineup at the time.

The story, by Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, made me eager to read each issue. They created an interesting world populated by compelling characters, featuring an extremely likeable and identifiable heroine. And the art, by Ernie Colon, was a revelation to me. As it turns out, he had probably illustrated a ton of Harvey humor comics I had read years before, but his more realistic style in Amethyst was perfect. His fantasy vistas were gorgeous but believable. And his real-world stuff was just as believable.

Unfortunately, the ongoing series couldn’t continue the quality, and the upcoming book reprints a chunk of that as well. Hopefully, they stop before the point where Mishkin & Cohn were fired from the book. All things being equal, I would have been just as happy with a color reprint of the 12-issue miniseries as this black and white collection of the miniseries plus the follow-ups. But I’ll take what I can get. And at least this includes the DC Comics Presents issue that features Amethyst meeting Superman.

While the Englehart/Staton Green Lantern comics may be among my favorite superhero comics, they’re a few rungs down from the Mike W. Barr/Alan Davis run on Detective Comics. In fact, those may be my favorite Batman stories of all time. (I also love Barr’s Batman and the Outsiders, with Jim Aparo and Davis. But I’m not counting that as a Batman book in quite the same way.) And now DC is reprinting them, in Legends of the Dark Knight: Alan Davis.

I’m really enjoying the Legends of the Dark Knight reprint series, since those legends are all my favorite Bat-artists. I’ve loved the Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan books, and who would have thought the day would come when Jim Aparo and Don Newton(!) would get books devoted to them? Still, I had scarcely hoped for the day the Davis stories would be collected.

To my mind, the Barr/Davis stories update the tone of the classic Dick Sprang Batman comics of the 1940s to the modern day seamlessly. They contain all the silly, wonderful crap I loved from reading those Golden-Age reprints, like the classic, over-the-top villains, Batman doing actual detective work, and larger-than-life fights on giant prop typewriters and the like. But they feel very much like contemporary comics, not just an homage to earlier times.

Of course, Davis’ art is fantastic. He’s even able to convincingly draw Batman and Robin smiling. I was heartbroken when he left the book after only the first part of Batman: Year Two. Years later, when I learned it was because DC redrew a ton of his art so that the gun Batman used matched the one that appears in one panel of Batman: Year One, I was furious. That such editorial short-sightedness ended a classic run prematurely pretty much sums up my loss of faith in company-owned comics.

But, even if we only got these few stories, they’re worth reading. Not that there aren’t current Batman stories worth reading, but these are a fantastic reminder of a time when Bruce Wayne had a personality, when Batman and Robin weren’t complete dicks all the time, and it didn’t take Batman six months to a year to catch somebody.

(Do I plan on buying this book and rereading these stories instead of buying the current Batman books? Why, yes. Yes, I do.)

Finally, perhaps the biggest surprise comes in the form of Adventures of Superman: Gil Kane. Once again, this collects the Superman stories I remember more fondly than any other, at least before the Crisis on Infinite Earths: the run by Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane. I haven’t read them since they originally appeared, so my strongest impressions are: Fantastic art (Kane inking himself) and stories featuring the redesign of Brainiac from a tubby guy with green skin to a creepy skeletal robot; stories introducing the Forgotten Heroes; and a special guest appearance by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.

The stories, written by one of DC’s then-hottest writers and drawn by a genuine legend, gave us a truly super Superman. The story was a genuine big epic, which made it all the more disappointing when after Wolfman and Kane left, the book reverted to self-contained short stories in the style of the Silver Age. Fortunately, this book just gives us the good stuff, and includes the Superman Specials that Kane plotted himself (or perhaps even wrote; time withers the memories) and the gorgeous DC Comics Presents annual by Roy Thomas and Joey Cavalieri, teaming Superman with the real Captain Marvel.

(I say this book just gives us the good stuff; it’s possible some of the non-Wolfman stories may be a little weak. Still they’ll look good.)

The anticipation for these books has me wanting to reread some of my other favorites from that period. Some, like Blackhawk, All-Star Squadron, Blue Devil, and Batman and the Outsiders, I still have in storage. I’ve started digging them out with the intent of rereading them, and will probably blog about them as I go.