A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Month: August 2011 Page 1 of 2

Wilma Flintstone in Batman? Joker in X-Men? It’s all in the coloring …

It’s strange the things you notice when you’re reading a comic. Take this panel from DC Retroactive 1970s Batman:

“Oh, Willlllmmmaaaa!” 

I don’t know if this was intended by writer Len Wein and artist Tom Mandrake or if colorist Wes Hartman is just having a bit of fun. Of course, The Flintstones is part of the Warner Bros. animation empire, just as the DC Universe is.

It reminds me of this panel from X-Men #130, about which artist John Byrne later said he had hoped colorist Glynis Wein would pick up on his idea and color it in green, white and red. Here’s the printed panel:

The joke’s on Scott and Jean.

Oddly, Byrne also has said in interviews that he realized as a child that he could write stories with the best of them when he came up with an idea for a TV series about cavemen who had prehistoric equivalents of modern conveniences long before The Flintstones came on the air with much the same idea. 
I admit I liked the three Retroactive issues DC publicity was kind enough to send me, though I admit to not being interested enough to buy any more of them. This is a good idea for a project, and the reprints were nicely chosen, but it should have been spread out over more than a month. Six specials each for the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s at $4.99 a piece ads up to a whopping $89.82, which is way too much.

X-Men: Schism Takes the Low Road to Mediocrity

In Marvel and DC’s near-constant onslaught of mega-events to drive sales, the X-Men titles that popularized the gimmick have fallen victim to one of the most underwhelming and skeevy events in its history with the arrival of X-Men: Schism.

I have a lot to say about this one after reading the first three of five issues in the series, so consider yourself forewarned. I also think I need to explain why something like this is worth writing about in detail when it really would be easier to just roll my eyes, say “it stinks!” and move on to something worthwhile.

Comics are the only reason where I’ll bother being critical like this because the comics is so dominated by superheroes and franchises from Marvel and DC that the failure or success of any one such franchise has a much greater ripple effect than it would in any other medium. When something like X-Men (or Batman or Spider-Man, etc. — take your pick), which has so long been a dominant creative and commercial force does just about anything, you just can’t ignore it the same way critics can pass over, say, Sucker Punch, Glee or a new album from David Archuleta.

So here we have X-Men: Schism, a five-issue miniseries that sets the stage for the next relaunch of the entire line this fall. It’s written by Jason Aaron, with each issue drawn by a different artist. Carlos Pacheco and Cam Smith draw issue one, Frank Cho is on issue two and Daniel Acuña does it all on issue three. Alan Davis is slated for issue four, with Adam Kubert apparently on issue five. There also are no fewer than four editors credited on the book, which makes the errors in execution even more questionable. Plus, these books aren’t cheap, with the first costing $4.99 for 32 pages of story, and issues two and three cost $3.99 for 22 pages of story each.

If you’ve missed the premise for this series, it’s about a dispute between Cyclops and Wolverine that forces them to go their separate ways with each taking a number of fellow X-Men to form two distinct factions. This will lead to several relaunched titles, including a new Uncanny X-Men #1.

So this series should be attempting to get fans excited for what’s promised to be a “new” era for X-Men comics. Unfortunately, “new” is the last thing that Marvel appears interested in delivering when it comes to the X-Men, and Schism is guilty of rehashing some very old and worn concepts at the very core of the story. None of this is new for Marvel, but the company has had some success in recent years by executing its rehashed material in an engaging way, and it’s the failure to execute well on pretty much any level in the first three issues of X-Men: Schism that truly sinks them.

So Marvel’s big idea for setting up the future of the X-Men starts by reviving two ancient concepts: The Sentinels, which first appeared in X-Men #14 (Nov. 1965), and the relatively youthful Hellfire Club, who first showed their faces in X-Men #129 (Jan. 1980). Both have been used in literally dozens of X-Men comic-book stories in the intervening years — some of them good, some not so good. To make an impact with either of those ideas requires a fresh new take on them and some exciting execution, neither of which is present in X-Men: Schism.

First, these are not some new, scary, super-advanced Sentinels that pose a serious threat to the mutants of the world. They are, instead, old Sentinels that have been in storage for decades and, in most cases, don’t even work. The only twist is the idea that every nation in the world has a secret stash of Sentinels on hand in case they have a “mutant problem.” The few working Sentinels are handily dispatched by the X-Men, with little dramatic payoff.

The real crux of the story so far is the new Hellfire Club, which is composed of a quartet of super-smart, rich, evil children. Yup, children. They’re lead by 12-year-old Kade Kilgore, who murders his father and claims his place running a legitimate arms-manufacturing company.

Any time the villain turns out to be a super-smart child, whether it’s in an episode of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone, or a comics character like Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass or Anarky from late-1980s issues of Detective Comics or even the X-Terminators that spun out of X-Factor in the late 1980s, it’s a device that’s rarely good for anything more than adding shock value. But the more realism you want in your comics — and with Marvel and DC both wanting every comic to be movie worthy, trying to appear realistic is paramount on every title they publish — the less you can take the idea of “evil” children seriously.

So Kilgore, the new Black King of the Hellfire Club, starts out as a cliche of fiction that is completely devoid of believability even on the level most superhero comics require. He murders, he plots, he doesn’t care about anything other than himself — and the reader has almost no reason to care or believe that he is anything other than a stereotypical character.

Still, it’s possible that even with two weak concepts that Marvel could still turn this into something interesting with some clever execution. And how far short this series falls on any such standard is the most disappointing element. It’s one thing to not come up with a brilliant premise for every single comics crossover, but a company like Marvel has the resources and the talent to avoid the kind of sloppiness found here.

This is “Switzerland,” and most definitely not the U.N. General Assembly in New York. No.

Swiss security guards prove
global stereotype! Film at 11!

X-Men: Schism #1 begins with four pages that poke fun at the idea Wolverine appears in so many comics that he’s exhausted. Cyclops, however, needs Wolverine to accompany him to an “international ams control conference in Switzerland.”

“Switzerland,” however, must be code in the Marvel Universe for the United Nations in New York City. Unless, of course, the economy in the Marvel Universe is so bad that the U.S. is exporting overweight tough-talking security guards to the land of chocolates, accurate clocks and secret banking. Speaking of security, this “arms control conference” appears less secure than a concert at Staples Center.

You can’t really see it, even in print, that there are supposed to be people at those desks. 

Cyclops and Wolverine have a long conversation that runs two whole pages and supposedly occurs as Cyclops walks toward the podium, meaning it happens in full view (and, I presume, earshot) of every delegate in the place. None of which you can see because they’re washed out in a mudslide of bad coloring.

The copy is full of little mistakes. I know there’s not 100 percent English-major agreement on this point, but the words “insure” and “ensure” are not interchangeable. Most dictionaries and style guides will tell you the former involves buying a policy and the latter means to make certain.

Then, Cyclops’ speech is interrupted by a world leader who looks a lot like Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So much so, that the panel looks lifted from this particular image:

I want you … to take art lessons! 

This is a pretty blatant swipe, but what’s a shame it’s not even that effective. With no identification, this guy looks like some average joe who just walked into the international arms conference in Switzerland from the street. I know it’s got photo reference, but some kind of visual cue that this is a world leader (maybe a tie, or something?) would have helped. Even more embarrassing — the artists drew the world leader with six fingers. Count ’em.

This guy, who is not Iranian President Ahmadinejad, goes to 11.

Then, we get Quentin Quire. I must have missed his coming back from his death in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men as well as his physical transformation from a skinny teen to a big hulking adult. (No one tell Kitty that you don’t have to be stuck at age 14 for a couple of decades.)

“You’re double dead, dad!”

The rest of the issue concerns the return of various sentinels and the emergence of Kade Kilgore as the Black King of a new Hellfire Club. Kade is 12 years old and kills his father by kicking him out of a flying car — and then shooting him in mid-air. I still can’t figure out how that works.

I was very disappointed in the artwork of Carlos Pacheco. This generic kind of work is not what I think anyone who had read Avengers Forever or Pacheco’s previous late-1990s run on X-Men would expect from the artist. This is blocky, pedestrian and just plain dull, with none of Pacheco’s previous style to be seen. I would not have known Pacheco drew this book without looking at the credits. And the coloring, credited to Frank D’Armata, was a real detriment to the overall look of the comic.

Kitty kicks off the “ew” factor in this series. Nobody over age 14 should want to think about that.
Rogue busts out in X-Men: Schism #2

The Kade Kilgore story, which was already strange in the first issue, gets weirder in the second with the debut of his playmates. There’s three of them, and none of them are properly introduced. But apparently, they’re paying some space aliens what at first seemed like $4 billion in cash (what they would do with American currency is beyond me) and is later clarified to be $4 billion in “untraceable intergalactic credits.” It’s never explained where the Hellfire Club or Kilgore got any amount of space money, let along 4 billion quatloos’ worth of it. And that’s probably for the best, given that answering that question in any fashion would only compound the idiocy of the whole idea.

And you thought Anakin was annoying.

Oh, and the little girl villain has a lightsaber, which she uses to chop off alien limbs left and right. Again, explaining this would do more to expose how ludicrous it is, so maybe it’s best that it’s just kind of there.

So then, Quentin Quire just shows up on Utopia and Scott protects him. This was a scene that made me long for the days when superheroes used their powers instead of just talked at each other endlessly like they were stuck in an episode of The West Wing. Would it have killed this story, which is severely lacking in action, to have had an old-fashioned blow out when characters meet?

My satellite service doesn’t carry the Museum Opening Channel.  

The logic gets even stranger when Cyclops‘ reaction to all this is to pull a PR stunt and send some X-Men to the opening of a mutant museum in San Francisco. And of course, this event is being televised because in 21st century America there’s nothing TV audiences like more than to watch a museum reception live and as it happens. The only museum opening I recall making anything close to national news was the debut of the Getty Center in 1997, an event we spent weeks writing stories about at the L.A.-area newspaper I worked for at that time.

(I think the convention of using live news coverage on TV to narrate events without using captions or dialog between the characters involved is yet another instance of people simply copying Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns rather than write something original.)

But apparently, such coverage in the Marvel universe is so dependable and popular that Kilgore plans to use the high-profile event to debut the Hellfire Kids.

Perhaps Frank Cho’s greatest contribution to
this issue: Rogue unzipped!

The art on the second issue is by Frank Cho, best known for his comic book and strip Liberty Meadows and extensive good girl art in other places. As with Pacheco, you’d be hard pressed to guess from the printed comic that Cho had anything to do with the art, aside from the cover and a few interior panels featuring particularly busty portrayals of Rogue and Emma Frost. The stiff facial expressions and overly talky script, combined with more dank coloring, results in an unfortunate look that barely improves on the murkiness of the first issue.

Moving on to issue three, the art gets a huge boost from the arrival of Daniel Acuña, who delivers some stylish art. Since he does all the art, including colors, this issue is the first to not look like it was dragged through a mud pit. But there still are some issues with the art. A few panels have questionable perspective and anatomy — enough to pull me out of the comic and try to understand what I’m looking at. There’s also some questionable portrayals — Magneto in particular lacks the powerful build and sleek costume that have helped define the character’s look in recent comics.

Better art for X-Men: Schism #3

It’s too bad the story doesn’t improve. It starts with the Hellfire Kids disrupting the museum opening and Cyclops and Wolverine both heading off to help out. We finally get an introduction to the Hellfire Kids, who are given names and revealed to be the heirs to a family that has profited from slave trading relationships stretching from Earth’s own slave trade to the modern version of selling human slaves to aliens; a descendant of Frankenstein who’s so touchy about the family connection I can’t help but hear Gene Wilder saying, “It’s pronounced Fronk-en-steen!”; and a girl who shares with 37 cats inheritance of her deceased hotel entrepreneur mother’s estate.

Where are the X-Babies when you need them?

Cyclops uses a jetpack to get to San Francisco from Utopia. He apparently missed the memo from Batman that cool comics characters don’t wear jetpacks unless they’re drawn by Dave Stevens and called The Rocketeer. 

While Cyclops straps on a jetpack and imitates The Rocketeer on his way from Utopia and Wolverine fits San Francisco traffic, the Hellfire Kids start shooting weird alien weapons at the X-Men. It’s a confusing sequence. For example, we see Colossus with some kind of Alien-style face-hugger on his head, but we don’t see that it got there because the Hellfire Kids are firing these things from a gun of some kind until the next page. The Hellfire Kids take out all the X-Men at the event, which means they beat Emma, Colossus, Namor and Magneto.

This is the worst line in the series — so far. 

Only naive, innocent little Idie is left, and she causes some serious havoc, and how she responds unexpectedly becomes the crux of the whole issue. Wolverine wants her to wait for him to get there and handle the dirty work of taking out the Club and their guards; Cyclops gives her permission to do what she finds necessary. So when she torches the place and people die, it’s all on Cyclops. The issue is, however, tabled to next issue by the arrival of a big spidery Sentinel.

The next issue, which is due out Sept. 21, looks from the preview art to be (finally!) an issue with some action in it. It’s also drawn by Alan Davis, who I don’t think has ever drawn an ugly comic in his life (though I’m not sure Marvel’s colorists won’t find some way to muddy it up).

There’s lots of other very small things that cumulatively yank you out of the story and undermine the ability to take any of this seriously.

Among them:

In most states, saying this to a 12-year-old
boy would earn you prison time.
  • Kilgore’s father is beyond a caricature. Has any CEO of a weapons manufacturing firm ever bragged about their wares being half off? And even in the United States, I don’t think anyone can buy a weapon online the same way you would a book from Amazon.com.
  • There’s so many throwaway lines that are of questionable taste and offer no benefit to the story. Examples:
  • Kitty saying to Logan “Yeah, but you also showed me how to use a sword before I was old enough to wear a bra.”
  • A Hellfire Club member saying “Our previous plan was to simply exterminate the mutant race and perhaps throw an orgy every year on the anniversary.”
  • Blocked out swearing, such as this line from Kilgore: “Any of you morons #%$@ this up and I will hack your entire family tree into kindling and burn you atop the pile.”
  • A Hellfire Kid saying, “I farted.”
  • And Kilgore saying, “I haven’t had sex yet, so maybe I’m wrong … but I can’t imagine it feeling better than this.”

This is rated T+, but still. Ugh. This is really not a good series of comics, and I don’t think there’s much chance for rescuing it in the final two issues. Having read this, it’s no surprise that the reaction has been somewhat muted and the book failed to break the top 10 selling comics in the direct market for the month of June.

This kind of sloppy work is disheartening and indicates a rather steep drop in quality. Given the relaunch is coming up with the same creators, I can only hope that Marvel keep the reboot button handy and be ready to bring in some fresh talent and let them loose to try some new ideas.

I think you can blame the stink for this one on Marvel.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 5 – Comic-Book Movies and Mutant Cinema

I don’t have a lot of books about comic book movies, in part because I don’t think there are many out there that are not direct tie-in books. I have a few of those, including Frank Miller’s Sin City: The Making of the Movie, The Art of X2, The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion, and one or two more. Reference works are common, including Comic Book Movies by David Hughes and John Kenneth Muir’s comprehensive and readable (though pricey) Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

Of actual books on comics movies, I only have a few, including my own. So I’ll start there with a quick recap of how Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen came to be.

I was attending the first New York Comic-Con in February of 2006, enjoying the show despite having to endure a type of winter weather that had long been absent from my life. On the final day, I walked the floor of the Javits Center and came across the booth of Sequart, manned by Julian Darius and Mike Phillips. Julian had just released his book Batman Begins and the Comics, now re-released under the title Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen. He told me about the book and how it analyzed the movie scene by scene citing and analyzing how the comic book source material was used through the movie.

I immediately liked the idea and asked him if they were planning any more books like this. Julian said he was planning one on the then-upcoming Superman Returns. I asked if they had any plans for X-Men, which at that point was also coming soon with X-Men: The Last Stand. Mike said that was a good idea but they were mostly DC guys and didn’t know anyone who could write it. My brain went off and I said I could do it, and after a quick listing of my credentials we agreed to talk about it after the show.

A few weeks later we’d worked out a deal and I started writing. I found writing it to be alternately enjoyable and aggravating. A structure came easily, but finding time to devote to writing it in between other gigs that paid the kind of money I needed to keep the lights on was harder than I thought. Revising it also was tough — I felt like I could have revised it endlessly and made it a bit better with each draft, but then it was never going to get done.

Getting the book finished and revised took longer than expected and the book’s original target release date of autumn 2006 quickly revealed itself to be optimistic. Sequart did a great job in getting a small batch of an early version  printed up under the title X-Men: The Movie Trilogy and the Comics for the 2007 New York Comic-Con, complete with a cool cover illustration from Kevin Colden. Concerns about trademark lead to the revised title of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, as suggested by Julian, and another round of revisions was made before the book became final.

Reaction to the book at that NYCC was a surprise to me. Interest was limited among fans, most of whom already had strong opinions about the movie and familiarity with the source material.

The final version of the book was completed later that year and thus began a frustrating process in gaining distribution for the book. There was some technical issue with getting the book listed on Amazon — which took much longer to resolve than anyone expected. By the time all was repaired and the book was up on the site, a lot of key momentum had been lost as interest in the movies had dwindled after X-Men: The Last Stand.

Having watched each of the movies in the trilogy now dozens of times in writing the book, I think the X-Men trilogy will go down as a trendsetter that got the comic book movie off the ground. But they’ve been outpaced in terms of quality by subsequent, more interesting comic book movies.

The biggest puzzle for me is the strength of antipathy fans have toward The Last Stand. I agree with most that it falls short of X2 in most regards. But having watched it many times I also think it’s really not that much worse than X2 or X-Men. Most of the antipathy centers on Brett Ratner, whose public persona is about as far removed from that of Bryan Singer as you can get. But Ratner really was a hired gun on that movie, brought on just a couple weeks before shooting was to begin.  Ratner’s focus was on finishing the movie on time more than making a personal impression on the material.

The real fault for the movie’s problems lies with Fox, which set an impossible shooting schedule for the film and got cold feet when it came to following through with the Dark Phoenix storyline.

The movie works, I think, pretty well up to the point where Professor Xavier confronts Phoenix at her parents home and she disintegrates him. After that, the Phoenix storyline is dropped until the end of the film. And that ending changes the original story significantly from Jean as the hero, sacrificing herself because she knows she can’t control this level of power, to Wolverine becoming the hero and killing Jean even though he loves her. On the surface, it’s similar, but deep down, it’s quite different.

The other thing The Last Stand did well was to just unleash the characters into the action. On the first two films, Singer offered up inventive but short action sequences that always felt restrained. And it worked to keep the audience hungry for more because it gives the creators a place to go. But I don’t know that his instincts would have allowed him to deliver the kind of satisfying mayhem that Last Stand delivered.

In the end, I’m proud of the book, enjoyed the experience of writing it and learned a lot about my own personal strengths and shortcomings in the process.

If you’re interested in more, check out the book’s page on Sequart.com here, where you can read a sample chapter on previous movie and TV adaptations of X-Men and order the book. You also can get it from Amazon.com here.

Comic-book movies are definitely evolving. It’ll be interesting to see where Marvel goes once they’ve done two or three movies each with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Avengers. It’ll be just as interesting to see if DC can recover from the dismal reception of Green Lantern and figure out how to make the likes of Flash and Wonder Woman into good movies. And with Sony already re-inventing Spider-Man, the pressure will be on Fox to find some way to make good with new versions of Daredevil and Fantastic Four. Comic book movies are sure to stick around for a good ten years — it’s just what they will look like and whether audiences will tire of them that is up for debate.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #10 (Jan. 1963)

“The Return of Doctor Doom!”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

They might have titled this story, “Lo, There Shall Come — A Stinker!” The previous nine issues all saw improvements of one kind or another, but this issue is truly weak in every respect. This issue is, in fact, so bad that all I can really do with it is do a quick run through and make some snarky comments about it, so here goes.
This issue begins with Reed trying to figure out how Sue’s invisibility power works, using a big machine that looks like a cross between a howitzer and a vintage camera. Far from Kirby’s best splash page, it’s made even weirder by the fact that the Human Torch is assisting Reed by taking notes while in full flame mode. It’s so odd, that it gets a mention in Sue’s dialog, just before the “4” signal appears in the sky and the trio assume Ben’s in trouble and rush off to help.
And it just gets weirder from there.

Someone needs to tell Reed nukes are
unsafe to keep around the house.

There’s a two-page sequence in which Reed, Sue and Johnny all rush to the scene of the signal that is perfunctory and embarrassing in just about every way. It starts with Reed  stopping Johnny from using his flame on a jammed “nuclear lock mechanism” because it’s so sensitive to heat. I’d love to know what was going through Stan’s head when he came up with “nuclear lock mechanism” and exactly how making a lock nuclear would be a benefit in any fashion. Especially since it doesn’t seem to work. Then Reed tries to stretch his arm under the door all the way to the Fansti-car hangar, only to instead get his hand all the way to the Pogo-Plane hangar instead. Exhausted, his arm snaps back to him like a rubber band.  

The trio finds Ben at the apartment of Alicia Masters, now officially dubbed Ben’s girlfriend in a caption, and find he just wants to show them the statues she’s made of their villains. 
Then we get to what I’m sure was the scene that most motivated this issue, as Lee and Kirby themselves appear for the first time in a Marvel story. Doctor Doom shows up at their studio and uses them Reed to a trap. Lee obviously loves this scene, giving himself some crackerjack dialog. Kirby, meanwhile, shows enough restraint to not even show his (or Lee’s) face in the scene. 
That’s the corner of Stan Lee’s head on the left. I wonder if Doom’s destroying one of the famous
FF ashtrays that was produced in the 1960s. And I still think Stan Lee needs to appear on Mad Men.

Having captured Reed, Doom recounts an unconvincing and rather silly rationale for his return from space. Having been last seen in issue six plunging into deep space, he found a race of aliens that are stereotypically very advanced yet totally naive. They hook up Doom with their body transfer technology and return him to Earth. Using the alien technology, he switches bodies with Reed. They fight and the rest of the FF show up and, naturally, help restrain the body of Doom and put him in a prison made of impenetrable plexiglass. 

Returning to Reed’s lab, Doom starts making — of all things — a shrink ray that he tests on some animals he stole from the zoo. He somehow talks the trio into thinking that the shrink ray is the answer to all their problems, though his explanation for why makes absolutely no sense. Of course, the ray won’t do what he says — instead, it’ll shrink the FF into nothingness. Nice.
Back in the cell, Reed of course finds a way to escape and goes to Alicia’s apartment. Sue just happens to be visiting and whacks him over the head. Ben and Johnny come over and they take the body of Doom with Reed’s mind back to the Baxter Building. 

Just thinking about how this might
work makes my head hurt.

Logic completely leaves the story as Johnny uses his power to project a heat mirage of a stick of dynamite being used at a nearby construction site into the lab. The Doom mind in Reed runs, while the Reed mind in Doom tries to save everyone. Convinced the mind switch is real, Doom is shocked enough that the switch somehow reverses itself. The FF then turn the shrink ray on Doom and he dwindles into nothingness.

The transfer is undone.
This is not Kirby’s most dramatic work

As you can see, nothing makes sense in this story and nothing of importance seems to happen. We learn little about Doctor Doom, and almost nothing happens among the FF either. Kirby’s art lacks the scope and innovation of recent issues, and Lee’s script only hampers any potential for salvaging anything decent. 

This reminds me of those lame clip-show episodes TV series used to do when they had no decent script and the season was ending and it was a lame way pad out the episode. Lee and Kirby are lucky that their lackluster handling of Doom in this particular issue didn’t undermine future stories that would secure his position as the series’ premier villain.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 4

I don’t have nearly enough books in the category that this post covers: Books about the art and lives of specific artists. I think there are a lot more out there, but for some reason I don’t have as many of them as I thought I might.

I’ll start with The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino, which I bought at a convention directly from the publisher and it was an autographed copy. I only met Carmine once, and it was at a convention and I simply said how much I had enjoyed his art on the old Marvel Star Wars series. That series was the one that got me reading comics and I had, as a kid, mixed feelings about the art. First, the comic was a lot better as soon as Infantino came aboard with writer Archie Goodwin. The stories were cool, fun to read, easy on the eyes and had some very clear storytelling. On the downside, none of the characters in the comic looked like the actors from the movie. That part bugged me enough — especially after seeing the bang-up job Mike Vosberg did on Star Wars Annual #1 — to write a letter to Marvel about it. All of which digresses from this book, which is an amiable recounting of Carmine’s career as he remembers it. That’s both a good and bad approach — there’s lots of good little anecdotes and plenty of cool artwork throughout the book, but there’s not much criticism. That leaves a few areas of comics history — especially during Infantino’s tenure as top editor at DC Comics during the late 1960s and early 1970s — no closer to any kind of definitive history than we were before. Still, fans of Infantino’s artwork should get a real kick out of this volume.

Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier is a very solid and enjoyable read that attempts to cover the life and work of Jack Kirby in a single volume. Given the sheer amount of writing that Kirby’s generated over the years, it’s obviously not going to be possible for any such book to cover every single thing Kirby did in the detail his fans would like. (For that, I always understood Evanier also was working on a much more detailed biography of Kirby that, I assume, will be published at some point in the future.) But this is a very solid account of Kirby, packed full of his amazing artwork and photos and well worth the time of die-hard and casual fans alike.

If you can’t get enough Kirby, then there is always The Collected Jack Kirby Collector. I have four volumes of this series, and expect a few more have come out I don’t own. These are terrific for getting into not just the specifics of Kirby’s career, but also his impact on the field and fans. The articles range from scholarly examinations of Kirby’s work to vintage interviews the artist gave over the years to recollections from people who either worked with Kirby or were just huge fans of his. Each volume also is generously illustrated with Kirby art, often photocopies of his original pencils. Reading this much about a single artist can be a bit overwhelming, so I read through these somewhat slowly, taking my time between stints to avoid Kirby burnout.

Mythology: The DC Comics art of Alex Ross is a beautiful art book packed full of Ross’ amazing paintings. No one really captures a sense of how classic superheroes would look in the real world quite the same way Ross does, with his extensive use of models, photo reference and an amazing talent for producing finished art that looks photographic. I think in a lot of ways, Ross’ art is better suited to being displayed in this kind of glossy format than in actual comic book stories, where painted art can slow down the reading process because it demands to be looked at. I bought my edition at a signing Ross did to promote its release a number of years ago at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. Putting on my Variety hat, I asked him what his favorite comic-book movie was. His answer: RoboCop.

Tim Sale: Black and White is a lovely art book produced by Richard Starkings’ Active Images. Printed in stark black and white on glossy paper, this book really shows off Sale’s atmospheric art to great advantage. The dark, inky pages are easy to get lost in, and there’s a career retrospective interview in there to boot. I think this particular book was released around the time Sale’s art was making a big impact on the TV series Heroes, back in its first season when it was quite the hot property.

Last on this list (for now) is Brush with Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens. This was a gift I received from a fellow comics fan on my 40th birthday and really loved digging in to. I had long known Stevens’ work from various pin-ups and, of course, The Rocketeer. But this books goes a lot deeper and shows some of his contributions to many other projects, including such great films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the long-form music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It is a satisfying portrait of the artist, written mostly as autobiography but, unfortunately, finished by other hands after Stevens died from cancer a few years back.

One other volume that springs to mind is another TwoMorrows project, the Modern Masters series. I picked up the John Byrne volume at least in part because of some of the sketches from Byrne’s days at Charlton and later on X-Men. I also was pleasantly surprised to read Byrne talking about his days as a kid in Edmonton, Alberta, which is my hometown, and recognizing a couple of the places he described. In particular, I remember the newsstand at the downtown Eaton’s department story, which was right inside the front door and well-stocked with magazines, newspapers and paperbacks, though not too many comics by the time my teen-age collecting years kicked in. I also enjoyed Byrne’s brief recollection of Mike’s, a famous newsstand on Jasper Avenue that always had several spinner racks stuffed full of comics. I once made my father trudge over there on his way home from work to pick me up a copy of Star Wars #1 that I had seen there the day before but not had the 35 cents to pay for at the time. Here’s a story on Mike’s, which went out of business just a few months before my family moved to the States, complete with a photo of its distinctive neon sign.

I think I have one more post for this series, this one on comic book movies, including my own tome, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #9 (Dec. 1962)

“The End of the Fantastic Four!”

Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Another big leap forward for the series in a story that’s as off-beat as anything done in Fantastic Four previously.

There’s a lot to like in this story. I love the idea that the group loses its fortune on the stock market and has to sell everything off. Namor’s oddball idea of buying a movie studio and tricking the team into making a movie is just plain weird, but it gives Kirby in particular a chance to draw in some real-life movie stars. The fight between the Thing and Namor is particularly good, and the overall results are good enough to overcome some huge holes in the plot.

The cover to this issue is one of the best to date, giving a terrific tease for the story inside. Namor’s confident pose and the rundown Baxter Building, complete with broken and boarded up windows, are perfectly executed details. I also love the coloring — I don’t know if anything could properly recreate that lovely shade of reddish orange used for the background.

Page one of this issue — an excellent example of good comics.

Almost any class or advice on writing includes the point of beginning your story as late as possible, and the first panel of this issue is a great example of why. In a single page comprised of three panels, Lee and Kirby establish that the FF have lost their fortune, plan to sell all their possessions to pay their debt, and that Namor sees this as the perfect opportunity for revenge.

The second page is equally cool, as Reed tries to fend off a crowd of debt collectors and the heroes’ powers and personalities are set up for new readers.

Ben doesn’t play with dolls.

Alicia Masters returns in this issue as Ben’s “friend” when he takes a break from the FF and heads to her apartment. It’s not explained how she’s handling life after the death of her father in the previous issue. Their relationship is not stated as romantic, but it’s implied as she presents Ben with a gift of a white knight puppet doll. I find it hard to imagine that Ben ever played with dolls, so his acceptance of the gift is a sweet bit of characterization.

The movie idea is an interesting one, but it’s full of weird moments and plot holes, starting with the FF hitchhiking from New York to Hollywood in just a few days.

Jack Kirby does Bob Hope (and Bing Crosby) well enough to rival Dave Thomas.

S.M. Studios’ lot is packed with real life stars, including James Arness, “Miss Kitty.” Charles Bronson, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Jack Benny. This sounds like an idea Lee would have come up with, but Kirby does a very nice job of making the stars identifiable. Lee has said many times he always wanted to be in the movie business and moments like Ben’s run-in with Jack Benny foreshadows the success Marvel found on the big screen thirty-odd years after this issue was published.

The reveal of Namor as the studio head is another interesting moment, as he’s shown wearing a green suit with a yellow ascot that would be very much in style today. He’s also smoking with a cigarette holder, which is an odd habit for an underwater king to have picked up.

Yikes. This is bad.

Lee and Kirby show they’re getting the balance right on this book between action and character, with a series of fun moments including Johnny blowing his advance on a cool car and riding around town with some hot chicks; Ben showing off at Muscle Beach; and Namor wooing Susan at a fancy nightclub.

The shooting of the movie is the strangest part of this story. For one, the locations make no sense. We’re told Reed’s shooting in the Mediterranean, Johnny in Africa and Ben on the beach near Hollywood. I like the way Reed uses his powers on an otherwise unremarkable foe. And there’s all kinds of wrong in Johnny’s sequence as he fights a tribe of primitive Africans who use a magic potion that makes them flame-proof. The fight itself is OK, but the portrayal of the Africans is just embarrassing. For some reason, the natives are colored with a kind of grayish-brown color in the Masterworks edition I’m reading. I don’t know if that was the color used in the original comic, but three’s all kinds of weird and uncomfortable in this segment.

Some thoughtful superhero action from Jack Kirby.

Namor’s fight with Ben, however, is easily the coolest part of this issue. The sight of Namor jumping up and down on Ben’s shoulders to drive him into the ground is cool enough. But then Ben gets hit by lightning and reverts for a moment (yet again) to his human form. Namor easily clobbers the human Ben and returns to claim Susan’s hand in marriage as his prize. Namor, obviously, knows nothing about women, as he’s surprised when she tells him there’s no way that’s ever going to happen.

So Namor and Sue then fight, with Namor pulling out all kinds of new powers from electric shocks to radar vision. The last panel of page 21 gives us what I think is the first real panel of Kirby crackle in this series, and it rocks.

When the three male members of the FF show up, Sue wins the day by defending Namor from her comrades and also demanding that he live up to his end of the bargain and pay them for the movie. He agrees, and once again walks off slowly into the ocean.

The final panel shows the triumphant FF attending the premiere of the movie, which can’t have been any good considering there was no script and the movie is in theaters only “weeks” later.

But the flaws in this story matter less than the overall tone and feeling of the tale, as the series is starting to really find its groove and get comfortable enough with itself to take some risks and experiment with some funky new ideas that no DC hero comic of the era would have attempted.

It only took about forty years for this scene to come true. 

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 3

This time, I look at the how-to-make-comics books on my shelves.

Alan McKenzie’s How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips was the first book I ever saw that specifically devoted itself to this particular topic. I saw it in the bookstore at the University of Arizona when I was a freshman in 1987 and was particularly interested in seeing what comics scripts looked like and how pencils differed from inks — both topics that seem to always confuse fans when they first ask about them. McKenzie’s book featured some nice historical material on comics and some great tips on how to learn to draw everything you need to be able to draw to do comics. He creates a sample comic in the book, complete with a full script, pencils, inks and colors. The book also covers production issues as they were in the day, i.e., lettering pages before they were inked and how to hand separate color plates. It’s a great book, even though it did nothing to help me learn to draw. My efforts in basic drawing class earned me only one of only two C’s in my college career, convincing me that drawing was not where my talents lay. It looks like this has been revised and updated for a couple of new editions, and should be pretty easy to find if you are so inclined.

Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art is a classic in the field and the first book to explore the specific qualities of comics as an artform. I enjoy this book more now that I’ve read a significant amount of Eisner’s work. The book appears to me to be more useful for artists who already know how to draw in applying their skills to comics. As I’ve discovered, it’s not easy to learn to make art (and, I imagine, to teach it) when so much of the experience is subjective and difficult to communicate through words.

I almost put Writers on Comics Scriptwriting in the interviews section, but decided that this book by Mark Salisbury (and its sequel volume) fits better in the how-to category. This is a very nice collection of lengthy Q-and-A interviews with top comics writers on the craft of creating comics. Among the folks in volume one are Peter David, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Kurt Busiek, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and Warren Ellis. Volume two (by Tom Root and Andrew Kardon) covers Brian Azzarello, Dave Sim, Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Mike Carey, Kevin Smith, Greg Rucka and Brian Michael Bendis. I believe both books are currently out of print, but they are worth tracking down if you’re interested in writing comics.

Along the same lines is Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers and Panel Two: More Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, both edited by Nat Gertler. Each volume includes a number of complete scripts by such talents as Busiek, Dwayne McDuffie, Jeff Smith, Neil Gaiman, etc. They’re fascinating for how different they all are, from formatting variations to overall tone. Most of the books whose scripts are published in these volumes are indie books that are easy to track down for comparison to the final product.

Another good overall primer on the thought that goes into comics is The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, by Denny O’Neil. This was part of an entire series DC did a few years back on how to make comics. While it does less in terms of showing complete scripts, it does discuss what goes in to making a comic work in the DC Universe, up to and including examples of how to map out and execute mega-crossovers.

There is no equivalent book from Marvel, but I do want to point out that anyone interested in seeing how books are put together on that side of town to track down the Rough Cut editions of Avengers (Vol. 3) #1, Thor (Vol. 2) #1, Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #1 and X-Force #102. These editions feature the complete plot and the pencils to those issues, giving a nice look at Marvel-style writing.

Few names are as well-regarded in the field as Alan Moore, so it’s a no-brainer that Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics from Avatar Press is well worth the read. This is a slim volume that collects a couple of essays Moore wrote on the topic, and they talk mainly about approach and execution with few examples. Moore’s scripts are legendary for being long and extremely detailed — try to read the full scripts in the supplementary volumes in the Absolute Editions of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  and see how far you get before mental exhaustion sets in.

Lastly, there’s Comic Book Lettering: The Comic-Craft Way, by Richard Starkings and John “JG” Roshell. I include this because I used to do print design and production work and enjoyed this peek at how to put all the pieces together exactly into the final package. If you don’t want to know what point size and kerning settings to use on comics type, this may not be for you. But reading this would be essential for anyone looking to letter a comic.

Off the Shelf: Saga of the Swamp Thing, Vol. 2

It was more than two years ago that I read the first volume in this new hardcover series collecting the influential mid-1980s series by Alan Moore et al. and wrote about it here. I finally bought the second volume a few months back while visiting Santa Barbara and just got around to reading it now.

Pretty much everything I said about the first volume stands for the second. This collection deals largely with the relationship between Swamp Thing, his former life as Alec Holland and with Abby. It is Abby at the heart of these stories, as the meat of this book is the confrontation between Swamp Thing and Abby’s husband Matt Cable.

Moore’s handle on the craft is still improving here, leaping by bounds per issue, and he avoids the kind of obvious superhero confrontation that would have been very easy and pleasing for fans in favor of a story and a resolution that is much more thoughtful, mature and will resonate for years to come still.

There’s also some fun in here — with “Pog,” an issue in which Swamp Thing meets some aliens that are surrogates for the cast of Walt Kelly’s Pogo.  This sounds like a disaster, but Moore manages to pull this off and make it work within the series and without being so incongruous, goofy or in love with itself that it breaks the spell.

The series concludes with a stunning issue in which Swamp Thing and Abby admit their love for each other and he allows her to see the world as he does. The techniques used here foreshadow the bulk of what Moore did with Promethea, and works completely and beautifully. The excellent art by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben make it completely natural to slowly turn the book in your hands until it’s sideways and then back again.

It’s amazing to look at these stories and realize how much DC and Vertigo built on the ideas and techniques Moore pioneered even in the first year and a half of his work on Saga of the Swamp Thing. It also is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that any comic produced in 2011 could have even half the impact that this series had in 1984 and 1985.

I hope I get around to reading Vol. 3 sometime before 2013.

First Look at Henry Cavill as Superman in ‘Man of Steel’

Warner Bros. released today the first image from Zack Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel movie, featuring the first image of actor Henry Cavill as Superman.

Here’s the pic:

I admit to quite liking this. As great as Christopher Reeve was, I think it’s a good idea to steer clear of trying to imitate what he did and find a new version of Superman for the big screen.

This image shows a powerful, muscular Superman that’s a bit more in line with the original concept of the character, as created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I like the long, heavy cape, but think we could try and do away with every superhero having some kind of 3D plastic emblem glued to their chest.

Snyder stumbled with fans on Sucker Punch. While not a great movie by any means, I didn’t think it was as horrible as everyone else did, at least in part because it delivered exactly what the trailers promised.

I do think Snyder is a good director. He may not have the kind of grand cinematic vision that changes the artform, but he does have a surprisingly good grip on the details and can pull off complicated movies pretty much on time and on budget.

The casting also is really good on this. Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Coster, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon, Julia Ormond and Russell Crowe all should be much more interesting than the cast of Superman Returns.

I’m also glad they’re not making Lex Luthor the villain this time out, but we have already seen Zod so I don’t know why we need to revisit him when there are so many other Superman villains out there to choose from.

After the jump, you can read the press release that came along with the photo. What do you think, Superman fans? Does this look good to you, or is it cinematic Kryptonite?

Much-anticipated First Look at Star Henry Cavill as Superman
BURBANK, CA, August 4, 2011 — Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures have provided the first look at the new “Man of Steel,” revealing star Henry Cavill as Superman in the film from director Zack Snyder.

The film also stars three-time Oscar® nominee Amy Adams (“The Fighter”) as Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane, and Oscar® nominee Laurence Fishburne (“What’s Love Got to Do with It”) as her editor-in-chief, Perry White. Starring as Clark Kent’s adoptive parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent, are Oscar® nominee Diane Lane (“Unfaithful”) and Academy Award® winner Kevin Costner (“Dances with Wolves”).

Squaring off against the superhero are two other surviving Kryptonians, the villainous General Zod, played by Oscar® nominee Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”), and Faora, Zod’s evil partner, played by Antje Traue. Also from Superman’s native Krypton are Lara Lor-Van, Superman’s mother, played by Julia Ormond, and Superman’s father, Jor-El, portrayed by Academy Award® winner Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”).

Rounding out the cast are Harry Lennix as U.S. military man General Swanwick, as well as Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy.

“Man of Steel” is being produced by Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan and Deborah Snyder. The screenplay was written by David S. Goyer, from a story by Goyer and Nolan, based upon Superman characters created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster and published by DC Comics. Thomas Tull and Lloyd Phillips are serving as executive producers.

Currently in production, “Man of Steel” is slated for release on June 14, 2013 and will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 2

Lengthy interviews with comics creators have produced some fantastic reading over the years, particularly in the pages of The Comics Journal, which borrowed from the traditions of Playboy and Rolling Stone to set the standard for comics. As I said in my recent post about covering the junket for Captain America: The First Avenger, this kind of writing is surprisingly tricky to do well. It’s also produced some of my favorite reads about comics, as well as a few clunkers. I’ll start off by crediting The Comics Journal, of which I have dozens and dozens of individual issues packed up in a box somewhere. But this is about the bookshelf, so here are some more of my favorite good books about comics:

The X-Men Companion I and II were published by Fantagraphics in 1981 and 1982, culled largely from material that had already appeared in the magazine. But when I came across it in 1990 or 1991, again at Bookman’s in Tucson, it was a revelation. The interviews by Peter Sanderson are excellent, and span the entire run of the comic up to that point. Interviewees include Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, Chris Claremont, Terry Austin, John Byrne and a joint interview with Claremont and then-editor Louise Jones about the future of the book. That these interviews were done at a time we now consider early in the book’s history, it’s fascinating to read about how these stories came together and where everyone expected to take the book in the future. I also very much loved the excellent reproduction of so much art in the book — most of it blown-up black and white reproductions from Marvel stats that look absolutely fantastic. Because of this book, I promised myself that if this material was ever reprinted in black and white I would have to buy it, and I did so when Marvel started its Essentials line around 1997.

The Comics Journal Library has offered some similar volumes of more recent vintage. I particularly enjoyed the oversize volumes on Jack Kirby and Frank Miller. I also greatly enjoyed the excellent volume on comics writers that collected vintage interviews from the magazine’s early days with Claremont, Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Archie Goodwin, Alan Moore, Denny O’Neil, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman and Harlan Ellison. 
I also enjoyed other publications’ efforts at doing interviews, including the late, lamented Comics Interview. This magazine created several collections that found their way into my collection, including a Batman volume released in 1988 or 1989, around the time of the first Tim Burton Batman movie; and a mid-1980s special on X-Men that included interviews with then-artist John Romita Jr., Louise and Walter Simonson, editor Bob Harras and, of course, Claremont. I have many random issues of this title stored away elsewhere, and am interested in the recent collected edition that has been made available as an online print-on-demand premium edition.
A book I rarely see discussed anywhere is Comic Book Rebels, a 1993 volume by Stanley Wiater and Stephen R. Bissette. This book, subtitled Conversations with the Creators of the New Comics, features interviews with an outstanding group of creators from Scott McCloud and Moebis to Dave Sim, Richard Corben, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Todd McFarlane, Frank Miller, Harvey Pekar and Will Eisner. Again, I don’t know why this book isn’t talked about more, but it’s especially fascinating to see these folks talk about the challenges the industry faced in the days before the internet and before even the heights and crashes of the direct market. 
Titan Books has in recent years done some nice interview books focused on specific comics characters and franchises. Comics Creators on the X-Men and Comics Creators on the Fantastic Four, both written by former Marvel editor in chief Tom DeFalco, are solid works that cover those characters up through about 2005 or so. It’s especially interesting to read the X-Men book after going through the X-Men Chronicles, as many of the same folks are interviewed, though 25 years later. I understand there’s a Spider-Man volume as well.
Last on this list is Eisner-Miller, which collects a weekend-long conversation between Frank Miller and Will Eisner on everything from comics history to the sexiness of inking. I wrote about this book here when it first came out and was pleased to see that some quick skimming showed it still holds up. It’s especially nice to have this book capture the views of Eisner late in his life, as he died not long after the book came out.
I had meant to include in the previous post an invitation for folks to comment on their favorite books about comics — either what they think of the books I’ve mentioned here or any that I’ve missed that deserve a look. From the looks of my list, I likely have two more posts in this series: one on how-to books and one on books that focus on the careers or life of a specific creator.

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