Monday, December 30, 2013

Books read the week of Christmas

Thanks to having Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, I managed to get a couple of graphic novels read. (No covers this time; I haven't had the time to figure out how to really work with pictures in Blogsy.)

My Little Pony: Pony Tales volume 1

Collecting the first six micro-series issues, each one focusing on one of the "Mane Six" lead characters from the popular TV series and toy line, this was a lot of fun. While all very much in keeping with the tone and style of the show, each story--written and drawn by different creative teams--had its own distinctive voice and feel. Similarly, each character had a story appropriate to their personalities, giving us a range of tales from action-adventure (Rainbow Dash), character drama (Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, and Applejack), and humor (Pinkie Pie and, arguably, Fluttershy). IDW and Hasbro get points from me for allowing so much individual expression to show through a licensed comic, and not forcing creators into a cookie-cutter house style. Lots of fun for folks already familiar with the series.


John Byrne was one of my favorite creators back in the 80s, and it's great to see him still active in comics. Doomsday.1 is a revival/reimagining of one of his earliest series, Doomsday+1. Not having read that series, I can't say how this compares. As a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, featuring a group of survivors from a space station returning to an Earth devastated by solar flares, it's pretty stark and grim. While some of the situations feel like familiar tropes of the genre--prisoners taking over a prison, for example--he still creates a palpable sense of danger for his characters, and follows through by not always having everyone come out okay. Byrne's art also effectively communicates the horrors of the ravaged world. Unfortunately for the reader, this appears to just be the first part of a longer story; here's hoping that the Doomsday.2 he promises on the final page comes out sooner rather than later.

Mister X: Eviction

I've written about Dean Motter's Mister X before, and I think there's a much longer piece about it and its impact on me as a comics reader percolating in my brain. This book is the second volume in his rebooted series, and it continues to be great, seeing Motter in complete control of the series. (In previous iterations, he would write and design the series, but this new version is the first extended time we've seen him both writing and drawing.) This collection of stories completely embraces the character and the setting, giving us stories that really wouldn't fit anywhere else. We see the enigmatic Mister X working with the specific problems caused by the warped psychetecture of Radiant City, where the structure of the city is literally driving its citizens crazy. While completely steeped in a retro stew of noir and classic science fiction, this is very much more than the sum of its parts and influences, and is instead very much its own thing. It's a weird noir mystery, but one that could not be told in any other setting or with any other characters. And the art is fantastic.


Telling the story of a young, female Parisian thief, Bandette oozes charm from every page, every panel, every line. It's like if Catwoman had been created by the creators of Amelie. She rides around on a Vespa, has exciting fights and capers, and proclaims that she possesses the power of Presto! The art, by Colleen Coover, feels very strongly European without slavishly imitating any single creator. It's bright and entertaining and funny without feeling like a parody of something. It's the kind of story where a costumed supervillain can ride a bus or subway to a fight, and it feels perfectly natural. I love Bandette, and I love this collection of stories, including a number of short strips by guest artists fleshing out the supporting cast. In terms of book design, in terms of writing, in terms of art, in terms of tone, Bandette is a thing of charm and beauty, and reading it will make your day seem that little bit brighter.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream by Sam Gennawey

Disneyland is one of my favorite places, and I've been visiting it for years. I know a lot about the park, but I haven't been obsessive about how things have changed and developed over the years. I also don't know that much about its history, beyond what I've seen in various TV specials, at the park, and at the Walt Disney Family Museum. I recently decided I wanted to learn more about Disneyland, but found there weren't a whole lot of comprehensive histories of the park. Fortunately, one was due to come out, and I purchased it as soon as it was released: The Disneyland Story, by Sam Gennawey.


Gennawey tells the entire history of Disneyland, from its earliest conception in the mind of Walt Disney, all the way up to 2012. The book shows the obsession to detail of a true fan, but Gennawey presents his history objectively, without judgment. This doesn't read like an Internet obsessive's guide to the good old days followed by where things went wrong. Instead, we get a true sense of how the park has always been a growing, evolving thing. There were attractions that Walt Disney championed at opening day that failed to catch the public's imagination. There are more recent additions, created long after Walt's passing, that because hugely popular. Gennawey treats all those stories equally.


While he doesn't seem to have an ax to grind as far as favoring nostalgia over innovation and change, he doesn't shy away from problems, either. This is particularly evident in the details of the park's ongoing negotiations with the City of Anaheim and its residents, trying to work out the best deal for a business that has tremendous impact on the community around it. As a Disney fan, I was more interested in the history of the park, but Gennawey keeps the politics to a minimum, getting the important information across without getting caught up in dry minutae.


Overall, this sums up the approach to the book: we get a timeline for new attractions opening, and details about them as they open, but things are kept brief enough that the story keeps moving along. If the book is lacking in anything, it is in illustrations, presumably due to this being an unofficial publication. However, Gennawey creates enough images through his prose that we can almost see the park in the eyes of our minds.


Fans looking for a guidebook to Disneyland will be better off with other publications, as will fans looking for an opinionated document written to advance a specific point of view. What readers will find here is an interesting recounting of the development of what has become, for many visitors, a magical place. He doesn't skimp on the park's successes, and it's fascinating to see how a place that means so much to so many people developed the way most businesses do, driven by ordinary men. A definite must-read for people who want to see the evolution of Disneyland over the decades.


The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya by Jane Kelley


Thanks to the little Senegal parrot living in our house, I've become a big parrot fan. So this story, about Zeno, an African Grey parrot who loses his owner--not that he'd ever admit to being owned--and Alya, a young girl suffering from leukemia, caught my attention. I didn't expect it to be a happy story, and indeed, I found myself in tears over and over again. But I still loved it.

More than anything else, this is a story of frustration, and Jane Kelley communicates that very well. Zeno, like all African Grey parrots, is highly intelligent, but he isn't a human. His concerns are those of a bird, and while he has a highly developed English vocabulary, he finds himself alternately unable to communicate what he really wants to the humans, or finds humans unable to understand that he is really trying to speak to them, raither than just imitate sounds.

Alya, on the other hand, is frustrated with her declining condition. She can no longer do the things she took for granted, and she feels like she is losing her friends and family as a result. They're still there, but they treat her differently. Kelley effectively shows how both Zeno and Alya perceive this loss of control, and how it upsets their lives.

This isn't a typical kid-animal bonding story, and it lacks a lot of the heartwarming moments you'd expect from that sentimental genre. It's tough and hard-edged, and there are a lot of harrowing sequences. I found myself particularly upset at one character, a woman who takes Zeno home, but is more interested in how he fits into the decor of her house than his well-being as a living, thinking creature. I know that there are far too many people like that out there, who don't understand the responsibilities of bringing an animal into their home. There's too great a perception that because animals don't speak a language that we recognize, they are somehow inferior to humans. As if the ability to smoke and kill each other over religion is an indication of superiority.

Ultimately, this is a tough book for me to pigeonhole (pun intended). It's so well written, and so tugs at the heartstrings, that I recommend it for its sheer quality. But it's also very upsetting through most of it, so definitely not a light distraction. I loved it, but I don't think I need to revisit it again for a while.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Legends of the Dark Knight: Alan Davis Volume 1

Batman, as a fictional character, has been around since 1939. As with any long-lived character in popular culture, he has changed and evolved to reflect changes in the culture. Over 75 years, that’s a lot of change, and while it’s easy to be a fan of Batman, the question becomes of which version of the character is one a fan? Is it the dark, gritty loner of the first year of the series? The campy version from the 60s TV series? The version from the 70s, returning to the dark, serious tone but still feeling human? The obsessed, emotionless douchebag of the current series? One of the things I loved about the short run by Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis in Detective 569-575 was that it showed that a Batman story doesn’t have to be exclusively either dark and humorless or light and silly. It’s one of the most successful merging of the darker, more realistic tone of the 70s and 80s with the lighter, more fun stories of the late 40s and 50s, and that’s why it’s perhaps my favorite period of Batman comics of all time.

By the time these stories started coming out during my senior year of high school, I was already a fan of both Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis. In fact, the first then-modern Batman story that I had bought was the fabulous Batman Annual 8, written by Barr with fantastic art by Trevor Von Eeden. I’d followed Barr through various Batman annuals and specials (including his work with Michael Golden on the oft-reprinted classic, The Player on the Other Side) and on Batman and the Outsiders (another favorite). So when he finally got a shot at writing a regular solo Batman comic, I was pretty excited.

I probably became an Alan Davis fan through his work on Batman and the Outsiders as well, when he took over from cocreator Jim Aparo, who had moved over to the new Outsiders “deluxe” comic. As a kid, I was very much a fan of the slick, detailed work of folks like George Perez, Paul Smith, and John Byrne, and Alan Davis fit right in with that. His characters were distinct individuals who somehow looked like believable, iconic characters, even though they were built to superhero proportions. And he drew the best facial expressions. His characters were great actors on the page, and I was ecstatic that he’d be working with Barr.

It’s been years--decades, even--since I’ve read these stories from Detective, now collected together in Legends of the Dark Knight: Alan Davis Volume 1. And they absolutely hold up. The first couple of issues, featuring a plot by the Joker to turn Catwoman evil again, just to mess with Batman, is great. While written to fill an editorial directive to make Catwoman no longer aware of Batman’s true identity, Barr takes the opportunity to illustrate the Joker’s craziness (messing with Batman is more important than anything) and give Catwoman some new edginess.

Also, in rereading this story, a couple scenes really illustrated to me why I don’t enjoy reading the current Batman stories. About a year ago, I read the first collection of the current Detective series, and was really upset by a sequence where Batman interrogated a thug by beating the crap out of him, only to discover that he was never going to get any answers, because the man had had his tongue cut out. So, knowing that, Batman punches him once more for good measure before turning him over to the cops. That's not the Batman I know; that's a cruel bully.

In this story, Barr and Davis show Batman intimidating information out of a crook though dialogue alone. That’s the Batman I know, who uses his wits instead of his fists whenever he can. Of course, it’s an action comic; more often than not things are going to be resolved through fights, but they don’t have to be acts of bullying on Batman’s part.

These stories also have a great deal of humor. One scene, with Batman tricking a villain’s thug, has me laughing every time I see it. And Robin is constantly making jokes and puns. It’s not the unrelentingly grim comic I’ve come to associate with the Batman of today. And, while I get that today’s Batman is the version that today’s audience wants, and that it’s not out of line with what’s come before, it’s not a version that makes me happy to read.

Barr and Davis’s Batman is very human. He doesn’t treat Robin as just a replaceable soldier in his war against crime. He talks about how Robin helps keep him human, and how he takes Robin out crimefighting now, so that he doesn’t have vengeance bottled up inside of him his whole life, and ends up like Bruce Wayne. He even gives Robin the chance to stay out of what promises to be a pretty nasty fight.

In many ways, these stories work for me because they fuse the darker, more complex and realistic Batman of the 70s and 80s, by creators like Denny O’Neill, Neal Adams, Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, and Don Newton, with the more wacky, stylized, larger-than-life crimes seen in the late 40s and 50s by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang. This may be best illustrated in the story featuring the Mad Hatter, which even features a fight involving giant props.
In fact, in the previous issue, Barr even reintroduces the representational title page to the comic, setting up the tone of the story without depicting a scene in sequence. It’s a very retro thing to do, but feels perfectly at home here.

While this collection starts off with several stories about Batman’s colorful rogue’s gallery, it takes a turn toward the dark and somber towards the end, with a reflective tale of the Batman looking back on his origins. This leads into the first chapter of Batman Year Two, which is the only chapter reprinted here. Unfortunately, through editorial interference, Alan Davis quit the book after completing that first chapter, and went to work for Marvel.

The circumstances surrounding his leaving, as he relates in Modern Masters: Alan Davis, are particularly frustrating. He had drawn a story with Batman carrying the gun used to kill his parents. Because Batman is a big guy, he needed to carry a big gun, and the script specified a Mauser. That script was approved by their editor, and so was the art that Davis turned in. However, when David Mazzuchelli turned in his art for Batman Year One, he had illustrated the single panel showing Joe Chill’s gun with him holding a .45 automatic. So, instead of having Mazzuchelli change his one panel, Davis was told to redraw his gun throughout the entire issue. This was just the latest in a string of what Davis saw as editorial incompetence, so he quit.

And that’s disappointing, because it draws to a premature close one of the most fantastic periods of Batman’s history. Barr’s brilliant combination of two disparate periods and styles of Batman stories would not have been nearly as effective without Davis’s art. His pencils managed to bridge the serious drama with the more outlandish sequences, with the same delicate balance as Barr’s scripts. His Joker could look like a crazy clown, but could also look incredibly menacing. The Batman creators of today seem to feel that the way to add menace to the Joker is to have him cut off his own face and then staple it back on. Davis managed to make him look scary by drawing him in a way that made him look scary.

Also, to this day, Davis is one of the few artists I can think of who can convincingly draw Batman as if he’s smiling.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the other artists who worked on the 50th anniversary story along with Davis. Terry Beatty did a great job with hard-boiled detective Slam Bradley, who predated Batman in Detective Comics. When this issue came out, I was already a Beatty fan from his work with Max Allan Collins on Ms Tree. After this, though, I would have been almost as excited if he and Mike Barr had started up a Slam Bradley comic.

Veteran creator Carmine Infantino returned to his stretchable detective, the Elongated Man. While at this point in his career, Infantino’s art was much more stylized than in his earlier years, he remains an innovative storyteller. And ER Cruz’s return to the Victorian setting of Sherlock Holmes is gorgeous. All in all, this story, teaming up Detective Comics’ greatest detectives in a story featuring Sherlock Holmes, was a fantastic celebration of the series. And the fact that it’s all one self-contained story is even better.

I’ll be the first to admit that not everything from my childhood lives up to my memories. But these stories do. They remind me why I love Batman, as a character. And, as long as I have books like this on my shelf, I don’t need to settle for the new stories that I’m not enjoying. I can go back and reread the ones that I do love, and remember those happy days.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Newsstand: December 1981

Looking at the comics cover-dated December 1981, the month seems notable more for stuff I didn't buy at the time. I don't think I bought any of these comics when they were initially released, but I either got them as back issues or reprints. So, the list of comics I wish I had bought as new in December, 1981 includes:

All-Star Squadron #4 Once I started reading All-Star Squadron, I was hooked, and collected everything back to the first issue. At this point, however, I probably thought it was just another superhero comic. Or hadn't even noticed it yet.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 Actually, I've never actually read this. And possibly Frank Miller's name wouldn't have meant anything to me when this was published (although it might have, since he was writing and drawing Daredevil by this point). But it just seems to me that if I knew more about comics at that point, I wouldn't have let a Frank Miller-illustrated Spider-Man comic pass me by.

Nexus #1 Nexus would become one of my favorite comics, but it wasn't really on my radar until issue #3 came out with its flexi-disk read-along soundtrack. And it would be quite some time before this first issue was reprinted in an affordable format. So I didn't become a fan of Nexus, Mike Baron, or Steve Rude as early as I might have.

In fact, if I did buy any of these comics when they were released, it probably would have been Condorman #2. Because I was fascinated by the idea of a Disney movie about a superhero, and was super-excited about that movie. (I have it on DVD, but haven't watched it. Will it hold up to my memories? I'm almost afraid to find out.)

Sunday, March 03, 2013

New Mutants Classic

The last few days, I've been reading The New Mutants Classic volume 1, collecting the graphic novel and first seven issues of the X-Men spin-off comic from the early '80s. I've been on a bit of a Chris Claremont kick lately, probably because the current All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men comics, as well as the couple-years-old-now Wolverine and the X-Men feel much more influenced by his work than any X-Men series has in quite some time. I was a fan of Claremont's work back in the day, and I had a particular fondness for New Mutants, although I haven't read any of those issues since they originally came out. I'm pleased to say that they completely live up to my memories of them.

In today's comics market, where it appears to be a federal law that fully 1/3 of all Marvel Comics' output must be X-Men-related at any given moment, it's tough to recall that back in the early 1980s, there was only one X-Men comic: Uncanny X-Men. So, in 1982, when the fourth Marvel graphic novel introduced a new team at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, it was a big deal. As a newly-minted X-Men fan, having been brought into the fold through the X-Men/New Teen Titans crossover, I was excited at the possibility of getting in on this story on the ground floor, so I eagerly snapped it up.

Claremont's story effectively introduces the new characters, giving them clear, distinct voices and personalities. As I read it today, I see that he drew quite a bit on X-Men history in using the members of the Hellfire Club as villains. At the time, I had no real idea who any of them were, but I don't recall that feeling like a problem. I understood that the X-Men had been around for a while, and that this stuff referred back to things I hadn't read. But I also must have felt like Claremont gave me enough information to cope.

The art on the graphic novel, by Bob McLeod, also holds up, I think. I now know that this was an early project for him, and that it was a bit of a rush job. I don't see that in the art at all. He does a great job with a story that features a lot of scenes of normal-looking people in normal environments, and that grounds the book in a reality that sets it a bit apart from Uncanny X-Men. Like Claremont, he creates characters who are distinct individuals, with specific looks and body types. The reader can tell who is who without having to rely on costumes or hair colors. It's a good introduction, and sets the tone for what is to follow.

And what follows is particularly interesting for the direction it takes. Instead of simply looking at the success of X-Men and deciding to just do more of that, Marvel, Claremont, and the artists have created something related but distinct. It's a series about students in a school, learning how to use their powers. There's plenty of action, of course, but it's not because the characters seek it out. Instead, trouble finds them, through various avenues, and they end up having to defend themselves.

As a teen, I loved the X-Men and other superhero books because they allowed me to escape the humdrum day-to-day life I was living and imagine that I was sharing their fantastic adventures. But The New Mutants, like the best teen fiction, gave me characters and situations I could identify more closely with. I was the same age as these kids, and I was going to school just like them. It would be cool to be a member of the X-Men or the Avengers or the Justice League or even the New Teen Titans (who, despite the name, were mostly adults). But I could more easily imagine being one of the New Mutants, because they weren't so far from my own experience.

It's probably worth pointing out that the ratio of female to male characters on the team was three to two. This may have had some additional appeal for me.

The art in this volume is good, thanks to the many hands involved. The first story, as I mentioned, is completely drawn by Bob McLeod, who had never drawn a monthly comic before. He pencils the first three regular issues, inked effectively by Mike Gustovich. Then we get an issue of Uncanny X-Men--containing plot developments important to the New Mutants story--drawn by one of my favorite artists, Paul Smith. After that, veteran Marvel artist Sal Buscema takes over layouts and pencils, inked (mostly) by Bob McLeod. So, the styles vary a bit over the course of the book, but the storytelling is solid throughout.

Weirdly, Marvel chose to launch a licensed series based on the motorcycle stunt toys Team America in the pages of the New Mutants, so they show up in the second half of the book. In the context of the story, they are integrated pretty well, but my own knowledge of their origins as a toy line causes me to raise an eyebrow. Still, overall, this book represents an effective introduction to a genuinely interesting spin-off from a hit series, and I'm looking forward to rereading the next several volumes.