Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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.

Monday, August 29, 2011

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.

Monday, August 22, 2011

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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

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.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

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.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

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.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

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.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

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?

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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Covering 'Captain America: The First Avenger'

Chris Evans stars in Captain America: The First Avenger.
I should mention that I occasionally write for Newsarama.com, and wrote for them some articles on Captain America: The First Avenger.

These usually involve attending a junket, which consists of some combination of a press conference, roundtable interviews and one-on-one interviews. Nine times out of ten, these junkets are held at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny in Beverly Hills, so anyone who's looking for a star sighting in L.A. could do a lot worse than to hang out at the valet station of this hotel. For example, while waiting for my car after the Cap junket, actor Jason Bateman pulled up and hopped out to meet with some publicists working on, I assume, something related to Horrible Bosses or The Change-Up.

Anyway, in addition to getting to see the movie in 3D a week early on the Paramount lot, I showed up at the Four Seasons for a press conference with the filmmakers. On the panel were director Joe Johnston; screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; and Marvel Studios execs Kevin Feige and Louis D'Esposito. You can read what came of that session here.

That was followed by roundtables, where a hotel room is set up for groups of journalists — usually around a dozen or so at a time — to interview the talent. These are strictly timed and usually very short, forcing the interviewers to jockey for position to ask their questions before your 10 minutes with Chris Evans is up. For Cap, the actors did the roundtables, and we got a few minutes with Evans, the charming Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan. Read what came my group's short session with Evans here.

Sometimes there even is a takeaway or, more accurately, a gift bag offered to the press. The bag at Cap included an action figure, a collectible cup from Dunkin Donuts, a copy of the soundtrack on CD and a Cap-branded copy of Norton Internet Security 2011 that is useless to me because I only work on Macs. There also are production notes with bios, credits and information on the making of the film for journalists to use as reference.

The third and final piece I wrote from the Cap junket was this review, which most people reading this blog will be able to compare with their own views on the film now that it's been out in theaters for three weekends.

A lot of sites will take some of these interviews and transcribe them into Q and A style interviews. I've tried to do that in the past, but have come to the conclusion that it's a huge pain in the ass and not nearly as effective as writing a more traditional news story. Writing an article, you can put the appropriate emphasis on what people say in interviews, provide context and get the point across much more clearly. Transcribing an interview is a tedious process that exposes the vast divide between the way people use language when they talk and clear writing. The latter is almost always better, devoid of the filler language most people are never aware is used unless you have to try to write it out. Email interviews are almost always better for quick Q and A's. Long audio interviews like you'd find in the Comics Journal would require a lot of back and forth, editing and copy editing to get to the published state.

I managed to see Captain America: The First Avenger a second time when my wife and I had the opportunity to leave the house without the baby while some friends babysat for us. I liked the movie more the second time, and even though I enjoyed the 3D on the first viewing, I saw the 2D version the second time and it didn't affect my opinion of the experience in the slightest.

I think Avengers looks like it's going to be the blockbuster of 2012, and I'm impressed with how well Marvel Studios has pulled off this big plan to build to it, starting way back with the first Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. I liked Thor okay and thought X-Men: First Class was terrific, so the summer's been good for Marvel movies.

I was less impressed with Green Lantern, which was never obviously terrible but was so formulaic in the way it told the origin story and so rigidly followed the conventions of superhero movies that it just never added up to anything memorable. Green Lantern 2 needs to go in a different direction, so I suggest they reduce Hal Jordan to a cameo and make the movie about Guy Gardner, John Stewart and G'Nort. It most likely would tank at the box office, but at least people would have a reaction of some kind to what's on the screen, even it's just that two of those three characters are annoying as hell.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Kirby Copyright Verdict Should Surprise No One

I wrote a lot about the copyright case between the family of Jerry Siegel and DC Comics over Superman, but I have a lot less to say about the recent ruling against Jack Kirby’s children. Read the ruling here.

From a legal perspective, nothing should have surprised anyone about either of these cases. The facts in the Siegel case make it an ideal candidate for copyright termination while the Kirby case always depended on making a convincing argument that Jack didn’t work under work for hire rules. The depositions posted at 20th Century Danny Boy a few months back were fascinating for the details they mined about how Marvel operated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But nothing in that testimony did anything to refute the idea that Kirby was a freelancer doing work for hire.

I wish this had at least gone to trial, so that we could hear the arguments the Kirbys’ lawyer, Marc Toberoff, planned to make in this regard. But Kirby’s life and work have been pretty thoroughly documented by this point and there appears to be not even an inkling of a smoking gun document somewhere that would turn the tables.

The Kirby and Superman cases are similar in at least one way: Neither would have been necessary had the corporate owners of DC and Marvel simply stepped up to the plate and done the right thing by giving credit to and sharing even a sliver of the wealth these artists generated for them.

Comics artist Stephen Bissette has written a lengthy post at his blog urging comics fans to engage in a boycott and stop buying any Marvel products derived from Kirby’s work. He’s picked up this idea from the success of one DC fan’s efforts to ask DC creators and execs at Comic-Con why they haven’t hired more female creators or publish more female characters. It didn’t take much — she asked the questions at several panels and it got some buzz in the comics press — but it did result in a statement from Jim Lee and Dan DiDio saying they would hire more women creators. I don’t think most fans will stop buying FF, Thor, Hulk or X-Men comics on those grounds. But bad publicity helped put some pressure on Marvel during Kirby’s art return dispute with the company in the 1980s. It also helped Siegel and Shuster get a deal in the mid-1970s for an annual stipend and health benefits. Maybe it could work again.

It would be the right thing, the moral thing for Marvel to honor Kirby’s contributions with credit and a share of the immense profits it generated.

I’m also interested in this argument Bissette has linked to that questions the legal basis of corporate ownership of copyrights and the entire work for hire concept. The United States is a very friendly place for corporations, so I expect we’ll never see corporations lose their rights to own a copyright. In fact, the opposite is likely — that corporations will get more rights and extend copyrights even further beyond the limited terms called for by the Constitution.

The best lesson for comics creators to take away from all this is to create your own characters, your own comics and don’t sell them to the first publisher that offers to put out your book. Comics as an art form and as an industry needs new ideas and new books. Much of the malaise many fans feel comes from the fact that the market is so dominated by Marvel and DC characters that are, in most casts, between 50 and 75 years old. They’re great characters, but it might be time to make some new ones, or the industry and the art form risk dying off along with the audiences that are still hanging on to ideas that increasingly struggle to be relevant to the lives of readers living in the 21st century.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #8 (Nov. 1962)

“Prisoners of the Puppet Master!”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Some of the formula that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had figured out for the title was starting to settle in at this point, with the opening argument between the Thing and the Torch being both familiar and executed very well. The argument this time begins when Reed asks Johnny to keep Ben out of his lab. Ben throws a temper tantrum worthy of a 2-year-old and storms off, followed by Sue.

While they argue, they spot the first act of the mystifying Puppet Master, who uses his ability to make people do anything he wants by making little puppets of them from radioactive clay and then making them act out his wishes in miniature play sets. His first act is to make an apparently random man jump from a bridge to his death.

So, yes, the Puppet Master is one of the silliest villains in all of Marvel. Nothing about his power makes sense. Neither does his oddball physical appearance, or the fact that he was married at one point to the mother of beautiful blind sculptor Alicia Masters.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 1

Finishing the Blake Bell book on Steve Ditko reminded me that I really enjoy nonfiction books about comics, comics creators and the comics industry. I also realized I have quite a few such books and they might make for an interesting post. Then I started listing them and realized it might take several posts.

So here’s the first one, focusing on books that offer historical overviews or essays about comics as a medium or specific comics characters

All in Color for a Dime and The Comic-Book Book, both edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson. These are very influential books in comics history, being collections of essays about all kinds of topics from Jingle-Jangle Tales to Captain Marvel. All in Color was first published in 1970 and became a rare and expensive find by the time I learned of it, so I had to wait for the 1990s re-issue. The Comic-Book Book was one of the first books on comics I got, as it was commonly available in used bookstores. I picked it up the first time because of Don Thompson, whose reviews in Comics Buyers Guide I enjoyed reading quite a bit in the last few years before he died.