Thursday, January 29, 2009

'Mutant Cinema' in Previews! Arrives in stores April 29!

"Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen" is coming at last to comics shops!

The book is in the new edition of Previews, which arrived in comics shop this week, as a Featured Item! You can check out the solicitation online here. If you want to make sure to get a copy, ask your local comics shop to order you a copy using code FEB094600 by Feb. 14. The book is currently scheduled to ship April 29, which is perfectly situated right before the May 1 release of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" on May 1 and Free Comic Book Day on May 2.

So the publicity push for the book is in high gear and I'll post all the relevant details here. First thing to watch for is an interview I did with Timothy Callahan for CBR. (And if you haven't read it yet, go grab a copy of his book, "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" for a great read.) An excerpt from the book should be coming soon, as well as a few chances to win a signed copy.

In the meantime, if you're on Facebook, check out the product page for the book, become a fan and learn even more about the book.

There will be more to come in the next few week — and if you've got a website, podcast or column, and want to talk to me about the book, please feel free to contact me via the email or AIM link on this page and I'll be happy to answer your questions.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why so serious, Oscar?

The nominees for the 81st annual Academy Awards were announced this morning. Yes, I was up at 5:30 a.m. PST to watch on TV and file a brief report for Animation But reading the list itself was disappointing in the extreme.

Most of it came in the Best Picture/Best Director categories, which this year are for the exact same five movies, for which the choices are dull, boring and uninteresting.

Yes, a lot of his has to do with the exclusion of "The Dark Knight," "Wall-E" and even "Waltz with Bashir," all of which are superior movies that earned overwhelming critical, popular and commercial acclaim. (Yes, "Bashir’s" a little short on the commercial acclaim, but by the standards of films in its genres it already is a huge success.) And you’d think that kind of trifecta would have made an impact on the Academy.

Instead, what we’re left with is nominations for films that are decent but come up lacking in relevancy, entertainment value and even basic quality. But since they fit the Oscar mold and cater to the increasingly antiquated and odd predilections, they get the nod over material that genuinely entertained their audiences with stories that thrilled the heart and the mind.

So I just don’t get it. Especially the nomination of "The Reader," which hasn’t even been terribly well reviewed but has the double whammy makeup factor of a good performance from Kate Winslet (and, honestly, is she ever anything less than great in anything?) and a Holocaust connection (didn't the offensive inanity of "Life is Beautiful" cure of this weakness?).

But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at what the critics say as a whole on and Rotten Tomatoes. (Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s a relatively level field from which to judge the overall critical reception of a movie.)

Metacritic posts the following marks for the best pic/director noms (in bold) and a few other popular contenders that missed the mark:

1. Wall-E — 93
2. Waltz With Bashir — 90
3. Slumdog Millionaire — 86 4. Milk — 84 5. The Dark Knight — 82
6. Rachel Getting Married — 82
7. Wrestler — 81
8. Frost/Nixon — 80 9. Iron Man — 79
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — 69 11. The Reader — 58
And here’s what I found at Rotten Tomatoes for the same 11 pics:

1. The Wrestler — 98
2. Wall-E — 96
3. Slumdog Millionaire — 95 4. The Dark Knight — 94
5. Waltz With Bashir — 94
6. Iron Man — 93
7. Milk — 92 8. Frost/Nixon — 91 9. Rachel Getting Married — 88
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — 72 11. The Reader— 60
What’s interesting about both is that "Benjamin Button," which lead all films with 13 nominations and is generally considered the film to beat, and "The Reader," are both at the bottom of these lists. For all the usual reasons, "Iron Man" was never in the mix, but "The Wrestler" and "Rachel Getting Married" would have made more sense than "The Reader."

"Wall-E" did pretty well by most standards, earning six nominations. But being an animated film means it’s chances of a best picture nom are completely undercut by the animated feature category — which it’s not even a sure bet to win. I have this sneaking suspicion that the actors branch, the largest in the academy, will be put off by the lack of dialog in the first half of "Wall-E" and go for one of the others.

"Waltz With Bashir" has much the same problem. Despite being a tremendously effective documentary and finding a completely unique and appropriate animation medium to tell its story in, it’s consigned not even to the ghetto of animated feature but to foreign film. Again, its not even guaranteed a decent shot at winning that category, which has become notorious for overlooking outstanding films in recent years. ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," anyone?)

Which brings us to "The Dark Knight." It’s hard not to think it was overlooked because it was a Batman/superhero/comic book movie. It’s really the only explanation. And choosing a mediocre bit of Oscar bait like "The Reader," a warmed over retelling of a marginal media event like "Frost/Nixon," or a beautifully crafted but emotionally hollow SF story — that no one involved with would admit is SF — like "Benjamin Button," and you’ve got a pretty good case that the Academy’s nominations flat out failed to represent the best filmmaking of the year.

Something I’ve long known but almost never been able to get anyone to talk about is the internal politics of the Oscars, which have become insular and restrictive enough to make die-hard Legion of Super-Heroes fans or 1990s X-Men continuity freaks look normal by comparison. A lot of academy members vote for films to support people they’d like to work with, to secure their next job or simply out of some distorted idea that they should vote for a film like "The Reader" just because its serious nature is inherently more valuable than anything a cartoon or a superhero movie could do.

And it’s that last prejudice that really sinks the noms choices, because it’s obvious that a lot of the most innovative filmmaking, a lot of the best work, the films that are connecting with their audiences in significant way, are films like "Dark Knight," "Waltz with Bashir" and "Wall-E." Like "Star Wars," which was passed over as best picture for "Annie Hall," or "Forrest Gump" trumping "Pulp Fiction," this will go down as one of those years of regret for the Academy. And their ratings will hurt because of it, no matter how good (or not) Hugh Jackman is as host. And if the Academy continues to nominate films that only fit its seemingly narrowing niche of acceptability, they risk tarnishing their image as the pre-eminent awards in the industry. It doesn’t take much to become a laughing stock — just ask the HFPA how much hurt that one Pia Zadora mistake inflicted and how long it took to heal.

There is hope, however, and it’s "Slumdog Millionaire." Thankfully, at least one of the films nominated for best pic/director has some energy, gets the blood pumping and actually has people excited to see it do well. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I don’t think it is, that director Danny Boyle has eclectic tastes and has made great movies in all kinds of genres, including "28 Days Later" (horror) and "Sunshine" (sci-fi — I may be the only one, but I liked it).

So if I could give one message to the academy, it’d be: Why so serious? Relax. Enjoy going to the movies. And for God’s sake, get over your English teacher. Movies don’t have to adapt Proust, Hemingway, Dickens, the Bible or Faulkner to be serious entertainment. Let movies be movies, and remember — this is supposed to be fun, but it's also supposed to be a process that honorably searches out and rewards the best filmmaking of the year, regardless of genre or medium of origin.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Comic du jour: Detective Comics #437 (Nov. 1973)

I was visiting flea markets again this past weekend and came across a good deal on this classic issue of Detective Comics.

Was there ever a better time to be a Batman fan that the early 1970s? You had Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams doing their classic thing. And then there was this issue, the first edited and written by Archie Goodwin and featuring art by Jim Aparo and the first installment of "Manhunter" with art from then-newcomer Walt Simonson.

The lead story is a solid Batman detective story in which the Caped Crusader stumbles across and foils an elaborate criminal blackmail plan revolving around a mysterious artifact in a Gotham museum. (I'd like to know how often the Gotham museum cliche has been used in Batman stories over the years – I'd guess it's in the top five.) But this is a solid, complete story told in a mere 12 pages. Aparo is one of those workman-like artists who never got the acclaim that guys like Adams or Simonson did, but he should have. Looking at the quality of both his storytelling and his illustrations, this is top-notch stuff. There's even a stellar "silent" action sequence on page 2, in which Batman dispatches a group of rooftop thieves in an economical and compelling eight-panel layout. And Aparo still was a top-notch Batman artist more than 16 years later, when I first started reading his work on such seminal 1980s Batman stories as "10 Nights of the Beast," "A Death in the Family" and "A Lonely Place of Dying."

The backup story is known as a tried and true classic. I have a trade collecting the Goodwin-Simonson "Manhunter" stories, and they are definitive of the best comics of this era. Simonson remains one of my all-time favorite comics artists, mostly for his work on Thor, X-Factor, Star Wars and even Marvel's old Battlestar Galactica series, (which I believe gave him his first credits as a writer). Seeing these stories from early in his career, it's remarkable to see how consistent his distinctive art style has been, even as he improved his storytelling and drawing abilities in quite significant ways over the years.

Even more interesting is the letters page in this issue, in which Goodwin introduces himself as the successor to Julie Schwartz and outlines his plans for reviving Detective. (At the time, the book's sales were slumping and the series was being published bimonthly! I don't know how long this lasted, but I'm sure the quality of issues like this one helped turn that around.)

The weakest point of the whole package is, surprisingly, the cover. It looks like Aparo to me, but the illustration is poorly composed and completely overwhelmed by a design that overemphasizes the logo and trade dress. Even so, with regular comics today about to reach en masse the $3.99 price mark, this comic was a tremendously entertaining bargain, even at the princely sum (in 1973) of 20 cents.

Comics slowdown emerges in stores, new Diamond policies

So the general economic troubles have started to have a concrete impact on the comic book business. Take, for example, this article from today's Los Angeles Times, which says more fans are reading trade paperbacks through their local libraries rather than buying them, and notes the overall downturn in the direct market:
But even after a year stuffed with blockbuster films based on comic books, growth in all sectors is stalling.

There are no statistics available for comic books sold to customers. But the number sold to merchants is dropping. For February through November of 2008, the amount of top comic books sold to shops was lower than the same period in 2007, according to online research group Comics Chronicles.

Sales figures in broader comics categories, including magazines and trade paperbacks, nonetheless increased in the January-through-November period, though just 0.5% more than a year earlier, said John Jackson Miller, a Comics Chronicles researcher.
The article also discusses the impact of piracy and mentions the recent postponement of Wizard World Los Angeles. On a good note, it seems as though the Third Planet store in Torrance has been given a bit of reprieve:
Dreary sales forced Third Planet Games & Comics in Torrance to shut its doors in early January.

But in true superhero fashion, a longtime customer saved the day by buying the business.

The store will reopen with a smaller staff and stricter standards for ordering, manager Scott Grunewald said.

"Hopefully we have a happy ending," he said. "Because now, we're starting from scratch."
On top of this comes the news of policy changes at Diamond Comics Distributors that raise the performance bar for new products — and will certainly put the squeeze on, especially, small publishers. The Beat has all the particulars, including on-the-record comments from Joe Nozemack at Oni Press. Here's the gist, from The Beat:

In a change that will have a far greater impact, according to numerous reports, Diamond is raising its benchmark for products it will carry from $1500 to $2500. Jones has the clearest explanation of this change, (although he later amends perhaps the most key point of all) but the short version is that unless orders to Diamond on a product are consistently greater than $2500 at wholesale, Diamond will no longer carry the product.

The obvious result is that a lot of publishers in the back part of the Previews catalog will likely be dropped, limiting their ability to publish at all. This may not seem like a huge loss at first, but as pointed out on a number of sites, things that have become classics like Bone or even 30 Days of Night might never have been published with the new standards in place.

Being the optimistic guy I am, I wonder if this doesn't perhaps open up an opportunity for secondary distributors like Haven (formerly Cold Cut) to add more titles and specialize in the sort of indie titles that are being dropped. Sure, lots of stores won't add a second distributor to their workload and expenses in tough times, but low-fi indie work has a long tradition in the direct market that may now have a bit of a fire lit under it by the Diamond actions.

Friday, January 16, 2009

'Watchmen' dispute settled

Fans can relax: Watchmen will hit theaters March 6 as planned now that Fox and Warner Bros. have settled their rights dispute. Here's Variety's story, THR's and Nikki Finke with some of the details of the deal.

Details include a cash payment from WB to Fox and the latter having gross participation in the film. But Fox won't distribute the film, nor will its logo appear on it.

Frankly, this really was the only possible outcome, and all the drama can be forgotten.

The only thing that's even a little worrisome is that Fox got as part of the deal a stake in any spinoffs or sequels — neither of which I think any fan of the book really wants to see.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comic du jour: Space: 1999 #6 (Sept. 1976)

I realize this is the second John Byrne comics I've picked for this feature in a week, but I just came across this one and couldn't resist for a number of reasons.

First, I loved the "Space: 1999" TV show when it was first on the air back in 1976 or 1977. It aired on ITV in Edmonton in the afternoons on Tuesday and Thursday, while "Star Trek" filled the same slot the rest of the week — making it perfect after-school viewing for a space fan in those pre-"Star Wars" days. The show seemed much cooler than it really was — especially now that I've revisited it on DVD — but the visual effects were terrific for the times, the Eagle was one of the coolest space ship designs ever, and this show had a great opening title sequence and theme.

Second, I bought this Charlton Comic off the stands when it came out and loved it for having all the action that the show promised but never really delived. The story is simple — an alien warrior whose ship is the size of an apple and more powerful than a small star slams into an Eagle on patrol and splits it in half. Commander Koenig, in the middle of the ship when this happens, is sucked out into space. There's this great sequence where Koenig's holding his breath as he twists and turns in zero gravity to try to reach his helmet. Byrne, who wrote and drew this tale, presents a great double page spread of 10 vertical panels of Koenig reaching for the helmet, counting down to the moment when Koenig's lungs will burst. He grabs the helmet, of course, and manages to turn the back half of the Eagle into a flaring pinwheel that alerts his fellow Alphans to their location and they're soon rescued. Simple, but cool.

Byrne's art is the reason this whole thing works. All the elements that would in short order make him the most popular artist in the industry are here — in the inventive design of the alien, the detailed technology of the alien ship and the clean, sharp look of the Alphans' ship and base.

It was about eight or nine years after this that I had returned to comics as a teenager and learned that Byrne was living just down the road in Calgary when he did this issue — a fact that surely would have impressed me to no end at the time I first read it.

The TV series remains a guilty pleasure for me — I own every episode from both seasons on DVD — but this comic remains my favorite Space: 1999 story and one of my favorite Byrne comics.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Comic(s) du jour: City of Dust #1-3 (Oct.-Dec. 2008)

Writer Steve Niles throws a pretty good twist into this five-issue series from Radical Comics. This starts off following the footsteps of Ray Bradbury's classic "Fahrenheit 451," introducing future copper Philip Khrome patrolling a future in which stories, religion and books are all banned. Khrome's a dutiful cop, doing his duty by the book. But the twist — the twist! — comes out of left field (at the end of the second issue, no less) and really makes you sit up and notice. Perhaps given Niles' track record as the creator of "30 Days of Night" (the comic rocks, even though the movie definitely does not), it shouldn't have surprised me, but it did.

The art on the first two issues of this are by the mono-named Zid, with Brandon Chng and a few others chipping in. It follows the Radical style, which is rapidly becoming a house style. It's a generally attractive, fully painted look that is dark and moody and looks in some way heavily processed. It reminds me of the look of the film "Beowulf," which was dank and murky. That film also had detail, which is something that some more traditional comic line art could add.

I don't know how much life this has beyond this initial five issues, but for now it's a nice injection of coolness into the comic scene.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Comic du jour: Fantastic Four #562 (Feb. 2009)

I don't know why the run by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch on this title is not getting more attention, because it's one of the most polished, pretty and interesting superhero comics out there right now.

This particular issue is a good example, even though it's an issue that bridges the previous "Death of the Invisible Woman" arc and whatever comes up next. The bridging issue is the sort of thing we used to see a lot of in the 1980s (which for many of us was the last time we could keep track of Marvel continuity without a scorecard), especially in books like The Uncanny X-Men. Perhaps I'm just nostalgic, but it speaks to a certain degree of continuity that has been lacking in superhero comics, which these days tend to lurch from arc to arc, with dramatic shifts in tone and style coming every time the creative team changes.

Bryan Hitch shows why he's so great on this book, delivering an art job that delivers in storytelling, design, emotion and realism. His portrayals of the FF team have been incredibly consistent, and no one since Kirby (OK, maybe Byrne at his best) has been able to create settings as perfectly suited to the cosmic tone of the title. These settings look like set designs — you can see the movie practically unfold before you. Lots of artists attempt this, but Hitch here is as close to cinematic as I've seen in a long time.

And Millar is no slouch either. The guts of this tale involve the funeral for the Invisible Woman (I won't spoil it with an explanation — go get the back issues or the hardcover if you want to find out what's going on) and a conversation between Dr. Doom and Reed Richards that is cool, in character and a lot of fun to read.

So, yeah, the first big complaint is going to be that this comic doesn't come out on time, every time. But it's worth the extra time and is, at least so far, nowhere near as late as Ultimates and Ultimates 2 became. It's also completely self-contained and is exactly the sort of thing that I would love to see more of from Marvel and DC.

Globe win makes Ledger the man to beat for Oscar

I didn't watch the Golden Globes telecast last night, just like I also don't drink Drano, walk barefoot across broken glass or pour salt in my wounds. But Heath Ledger won the supporting actor award for his performance as The Joker in "The Dark Knight." I think at this point, it's a near certainty that he will be nominated and be the favorite to win the same honor at the Oscars. It also raises the overall Oscar profile of "The Dark Knight," which is gaining ground in the Oscar race and I think stands a very good chance of becoming the first-ever comic book movie to get a Best Picture nom. It won't win, but as they say, it's nice to be nominated ....

Friday, January 9, 2009

Wizard World kills Texas show, postpones L.A.

Wizard announced today it is postponing its Wizard World L.A. show, originally set for March 13-15, and is canceling Wizard World Texas in November. That leaves the magazine publisher/con organizer with two shows: Chicago and Philadelphia.

I can't say this is surprising news, considering the struggles indicated by the paring down of the Wizard staff. The magazine, which truly was the bible of comics reading and collecting in the early to mid-1990s, has seen its stature as the source for news, info, comedy and data about the comics industry migrate to the internet. The last Wizard World L.A. show was a decent but unexciting event. My one year at the Texas show was enjoyable, but the show was quite small compared to other Wizard shows and to events like San Diego and New York.

The problem with Wizard's shows has always been their limited scope. While shows like WonderCon, NY Comic-Con and Heroes Con are inclusive of all kinds of fans, Wizard shows have always focused far too much on just superhero comics fans. While other shows put a lot of effort into thoughtful and compelling programming that covered a lot of territory, the Wizard programming was pretty much limited to cheerleader marketing sessions for Marvel, DC and whatever Hollywood properties the show could reel in. (Essentially, what you get in the magazine.) There wasn't enough there to warrant more than a single day's visit. In short, it failed to tap into the wider interest in things like anime, manga, indie comics and the wider worlds of cool TV, movies and animation that give shows like Comic-Con their wide appeal.

They also could have helped themselves with better marketing. I know comic shop regulars who are always surprised to hear a Wizard show is coming up or has just passed. And this show needs a better locale — the L.A. Convention Center is scaled for huge mega-events and Wizard World, taking up last year just a small corner of one of the massive halls, was lost in there. A decent hotel, or even the original Long Beach site, would be far better suited and more comfortable for a mid-size comics con. And maybe that's what we'll get — assuming the show is rescheduled.

Meanwhile, Texas is out of luck. That was a really pleasant show the one year I went. I don't think fans there had another option when it came to a show that brought in creators and celebrities. But it was the smallest of the Wizard shows and obviously first on the chopping block should times get tight — and they have.

The current absence of an L.A. show opens up the schedule a bit and should let the organizers of WonderCon and New York Comic-Con breathe at least a little easier. Hopefully, it will give both shows more flexibility when planning their shows for 2010 and beyond.

And the big questions, still to be answered, is whether the economy will put the breaks on the runaway growth of other comics shows — most notably the summer behemoth in San Diego.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Insiders spill 'Watchmen' history and how the 'Shazam!' movie died

Two interesting comic book movie tidbits. First, an open letter purportedly from Lloyd Levin, partner of the producer at the heart of the "Watchmen" legal dispute, Larry Gordon. Llevin writes about trying to get a "Watchmen" movie made for many years and criticizes Fox's claims as opportunistic. To wit:
From my point of view, the flashpoint of this dispute, came in late spring of 2005. Both Fox and Warner Brothers were offered the chance to make Watchmen. They were submitted the same package, at the same time. It included a cover letter describing the project and its history, budget information, a screenplay, the graphic novel, and it made mention that a top director was involved.

And it's at this point, where the response from both parties could not have been more radically different.

The response we got from Fox was a flat "pass." That's it. An internal Fox email documents that executives there felt the script was one of the most unintelligible pieces of shit they had read in years. Conversely, Warner Brothers called us after having read the script and said they were interested in the movie - yes, they were unsure of the screenplay, and had many questions, but wanted to set a meeting to discuss the project, which they promptly did. Did anyone at Fox ask to meet on the movie? No. Did anyone at Fox express any interest in the movie? No. Express even the slightest interest in the movie? Or the graphic novel? No.

Then, screenwriter John August explains on his blog that the "Shazam!" movie he had been writing is dead in the water and explains from his P.O.V. how it all went down.

In retrospect, I can point to two summer Warner Bros. movies that I believe defined the real issue at hand: Speed Racer and The Dark Knight. The first flopped; the second triumphed. Given only those two examples, one can understand why a studio might wish for their movies to be more like the latter. But to do so ignores the success of Iron Man, which spent most of its running time as a comedic origin story, and the even more pertinent example of WB’s own Harry Potter series. I tried to make this case, to no avail.

Amazing Spider-Man #583 to have Obama variant cover

I swear, when was the last time anyone wanted to put a real-life president on the cover of a comic book? I don't think it's ever happened, but I could be wrong.

I definitely will try to snag one of these when they come out Jan. 14.

Goyer says WB has a lot of DC movies "on hold"

In an interview with IESB, writer-director David Goyer says all the DC Comics adaptations he's working on — including "Supermax/Green Arrow" and "The Flash" — are treading water while the studio decides the best way to handle such movies:
"A lot of the DC movies at Warner Brothers are all on hold while the figure out, they're going to come up with some new plan, methodology, things like that so everything has just been pressed pause on at the moment. It was the double header of both Iron Man and The Dark Knight coming out, so more than ever I think they've realized, I think DC was responsible for 15% of Warner Brother's revenue this year, something crazy like that, so they realized that comic books, it's become a new genre, one of the most successful genres."
It's gratifying to see the success of "Dark Knight" linked back to DC, but I still think this is the wrong approach for Warners to take. Developing big strategic plans like that is difficult, time consuming and tends to create more problems than it solves — if a plan agreeable to all parties is even worked out. They have to not be afraid to pull the trigger and risk making mistakes. Marvel's already gone through that phase — "Daredevil," "Elektra," "Fantastic Four," "Hulk" — and have come out on the other side better for it. I really wish that, especially with the likes of "Green Arrow" and "Flash," that the studio would hire an up-and-coming director with a good take on the material, give him anywhere between $80 million and $100 million to make the pic, and then get out of the way.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Comic du jour: FX #1 (March 2008)

This is a bit of a throwback to the days of simpler comic book superheroes that I picked up recently in a bargain bin, mostly out of curiosity to see what John Byrne's drawing. The story by Wayne Osbourne tells the tale of Tom Talbot, a kid about 10 to 12 years old who mysteriously acquires a superpower that lets him pretend up any effect he wants. Taking the superhero name FX, he and his pal Jack test out the powers against a renegade gorilla.

This story began as a commission Osborne wrote and paid Byrne to draw, with the result getting picked up by IDW. This very much falls into the fairly rigid interpretation held by Byrne and the fans at his forum of "what superhero comics should be" and undeniably does evoke the kinds of stories comics told back in the days when the only place to get them was the spinner rack and every issue was somebody's first. Byrne's art remains clear and strong, even as it reflects the somewhat more cartoony nature of his recent work.

At the same time, FX is too much of a throwback — too simple and simplistic – to make much of a mark in today's market. Just because this kind of tale worked once, doesn't mean it still resonates with the same force, especially as kids are increasingly exposed to more choices and more sophisticated fare than ever before. The result is little more than a nice bit of well-constructed nostalgia that has all the relevance of a "Leave it to Beaver" revival.

Japanese 'Watchmen' trailer, more lawsuit news

First, the very cool Japanese trailer:

Second, it looks like all will be decided by the judge in the "Watchmen" legal dispute between Fox and WB. Again, as a non-lawyer, I'll defer to other sites to tell you what it all means.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Off the shelf: Path

"Path" ($12.95, Com.X) is essentially a chase story of the Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner variety. Story opens with a bang as a talking rabbit on the run from some crocidogs meets an elephant — and the two team up on the run to an unexpected point of destiny for them both. This comes from Com.X in England, and is written and "artworked" by Gregory S. Baldwin in a nice, cartoony style that evokes Sam Kieth's work on the excellent old "Maxx" series.

Most of the story involves various chases and close escapes that are done well and come into focus with an unexpectedly touching point right at the end. It takes a while to get there, but it's quite worth the relatively short trip.

The artwork is essential to the telling of this tale, and it's all done in what looks like pencil drawings with gray tones added via the computer. The tones give the book a nice overall look, but often doesn't have enough variation in shades, leaving too many panels and pages looking like a gray wash. I wish this book had been done in color, as it looks like the interiors are published in a "rich black" — or sepia, I guess — in which faint bits of color seem to be trying to edge their way in to the images.

Third Planet RIP

I'm a bit late to this, but my former comic shop, Third Planet in Torrance, has closed down. This article (which is on the Contra Costa Times site, but was originally done for the Daily Breeze), has all the details. Apparently, even the fixtures are for sale if you're interested in that sort of thing.

I shopped at Third Planet when I first came to California in 1996. I was living in Redondo Beach and working at the Breeze and Third Planet was not only the closest comic shop, but the best at the time in that part of Los Angeles. I last visited the store around 2000, after it had moved from its first location near the Del Amo mall to PCH and as I was moving north and east into the belly of the beast that is Los Angeles. It will be missed ...

Watching the 'Watchmen' legal battle is confusing

I’ve taken a look at the documents filed in the "Watchmen" film rights legal dispute and the judge’s recent summary judgment in favor of Fox and find myself fascinated by it all. ( is a great resource for all this.) I have no great insights on this, but I still think the film will come out March 6 as planned. I imagine delaying the film would damage the property and reduce the anticipated profits each side is trying to lay claim to. And as new info comes out, it gets harder to blame one studio or the other (I think doing so is counterproductive), so let's just hope the judge or the parties can work out some kind of quick resolution to this.

The most astounding thing is that the studios and all their attorneys somehow missed something as important as the rights the judge has ruled Fox still retains in the project. It seems too much was taken at face value and not double checked — a huge embarrassment for both sides. I can't wait to see the more detailed ruling. And I drove past the Roybal Building in downtown Los Angeles where the hearing will be held and found myself tempted to try to check out that upcoming hearing ...

Monday, January 5, 2009

Comic du jour: The Flash #309 (May 1982)

First in what I intend to be a regular series looking at various individual comics of yesterday and today.

This is a pretty typical comic from a period not remembered as especially good for B- and C-list titles. Still, there's almost always an element of charm to be found in such comics — and this is no exception.

Written by DC workhorse Cary Bates, the story involves an alien who comes back in time from a future in which the superheroes have become legends. Pleased to find the heroes really did exist, he kidnaps Flash and attempts to extract his speed energy by force. Flash escapes and, during a mind-link, learns the alien has the best of intentions — he needs the power to save his world from an alien threat. So Flash takes him back in time a bit further to the day he got his powers so the chemical soup Barry Allen was doused with could be analyzed and duplicated on the alien. The alien gets the Flash’s powers and goes back to his time to fight the alien. Flash tags along to make sure everything goes OK, but the monster is too tough, forcing the alien Flash to sacrifice his life to stop it. In the process, he resparks interest in the ancient superheroes and Flash goes back to his own time.

Carmine Infantino does the pencils on this issue and give it that special flair only he can deliver. As a kid, I didn’t like Infantino’s art on the “Star Wars” series because it didn’t capture the likenesses of the actors very well. But I came around on that, thanks to Infantino’s graceful and unique artistic talents. A lot of Infantinoisms are on display in this issue, too, from the design of the alien space ship, to his inimitable faces peeking out from the hyper-sketchy speed lines, the soft features of the alien’s face, and of course the Infantino hands! There are some drawbacks too: The unfortunately phallic imagery of the cover (duck, Barry!); a story told almost completely in thought balloons and the occasionally excessive looseness of the art.

Then there’s the backup feature, an 8-page Dr. Fate story written by Martin Pasko and drawn by Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt. This feels like the last of several parts, and I was pretty much lost as to what was going on. But Giffen showed his chops on the art, which was polished, compelling and fresh in the way that a lot of stuff from this era seemed at the time. I also love the use of color holds — line art printed using only the red, blue or yellow plate — to create a unique look that’s both archaic and still pretty cool even by today’s standards.

As always, there’s plenty of interesting ephemera in an old comic: The inside front cover ad for the first “Swamp Thing” movie; house ads for the debut of new series Saga of the Swamp Thing and Firestorm; and a letters page with a rare DC statement of ownership that puts The Flash’s 1981 average paid circulation at 92,151 copies — good enough for a top ten ranging in the direct market these days.

Finding a home in my brain for "The Spirit"

“The Spirit,” which adapts Will Eisner’s beloved strip and features the solo directorial debut of Frank Miller, is by pretty much any common standard a complete flop. After two weekends in release — one of them an extended holiday weekend — the film has grossed about $18 million domestic and $3 million international. The reviews have been savage.

But what’s been sinking in with me since I saw it sometime last week was how similar watching this movie is to reading a Frank Miller comic book. Yes, it’s jarring and over-the-top and falls short in telling a story the way moviegoers expect, but it’s also fascinating to watch Miller put his style up on the screen so completely untouched. Doing so also puts Miller’s flaws on display. The same was true in “Sin City,” where the telling of three stories in one film emphasized their similarities in a way reading the comics one at a time did not, though the overall result was a more conventional film.

But “The Spirit” fits right into Miller’s recent work. Since “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” Miller’s work has polarized fans as he stripped away the elements that grounded his work in the real-world milieu most fans prefer in favor of an unapologetically primal pulp style. Miller has largely abandoned superheroes as a vehicle for expression, going for the gut reactions evoked by pure sex and violence. In some cases, such as All-Star Batman, this goes so far against the audience’s expectation for comics (and the movies based on them) to plumb the hero’s soul and to establish their actions as occurring in the real world. “The Spirit” is much the same — Miller’s happy to have his hero beat up bad guys and make femmes fatales swoon because that’s his job. The villains, similarly, have little to no motivation beyond their fueling their own basic urges for power, money and sex. (Though it is interesting that Miller used the same formula Marvel does for its movies by connecting the origins of the hero and the villain.) The result is a story that lacks the depth commonly expected of comic books and movies in favor of the gut-level reactions to Miller’s intentionally provocative depictions of sex and violence. Miller’s love of breaking taboos is, in its way, admirable, even as I sometimes wish he’d get past pushing those buttons for their own sake.

The visuals are the one part of the movie that even the reviewers will admit are impressive to look at. Some of the things that are the most jarring in a movie — such as the scene with the Octopus and Silken Floss wearing kimonos — would work just fine in a Miller comic book. The background that changes from glowing red to a rising sun image, and the cartoonish figure of Samuel L. Jackson chopping a henchman in half with his samurai sword are so Miller-esque you can imagine the panels and the layout of the page with ease.

The way Miller sticks to a comic-book style of storytelling — especially at the start of the film, with its dense first fight between villain and hero and minimal exposition — reminds me of the dense, quick-action start to many a comic book. While readers can follow a story at their own pace and re-read panels or pages as needed to catch up, film and its audiences are much less forgiving. Given the way Miller slaps the audience around in the opening 20 minutes or so, it’s no surprise that viewers and critics gave up on finding a way into this bizarre, hyper-kinetic world.

By now you’ve probably guessed that I’m working up to saying I admire the film in a strange way — and I do. This is a film that is so comic-booky through and through, that it’s a taste that’s as refined and difficult to acquire as the most continuity-intensive superhero comic book series. This is a film made from and for the purer fringes of the comic-book culture and esthetic — and it is about as far from the standards of mainstream moviemaking and its audiences as you’re likely to get. I do lament that Miller's vision of The Spirit completely overwhelmed the charm and wit of Will Eisner, but it's been obvious from the first that that would have to wait for another time.

So is the movie bad? From almost every conventional standpoint, the answer is yes. But the parts of my head that really enjoys the occasional Heavy Metal story because it has nudity and violence, or Howard Chaykin’s “Black Kiss,” or the extreme violence of Simon Bisley’s artwork, and secretly cheers even the most childish of Miller’s anti-censorship rants, finds a lot to like in “The Spirit” — and is glad it got made.