Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Feminist Controversy or A Subtle Dig at Marvel:The Steel Cage Match

Lisa over at Sequentially Speaking has a blog post about this page on Thunder-
bolts, and takes it as either a) a slap in the face to feminist bloggers, or b) a sign that all the uproar over the MJ statue was exactly the sort of publicity that they want. I have to say, without even reading the rest of the book, that I respectfully disagree.

As much as I believe that Joe and the gang over at Marvel probably do get a good laugh over the majority of the internet posts on their work, this page looks a hell of a lot more like the writer getting the opportunity to make fun of Marvel itself, within one of their own books.

Think about it, Moonstone here, not the nicest character, is being exploited by the big bad government with a tasteless statue, and Songbird, the book's sole moral core, is getting the chance to laugh at the whole thing. In fact, Songbird is even being told in the first panel that she has the more selective fanbase, and won't be exploited as crassly.

Get it? Harry Osborne is taking the place of Marvel, Marvel that OK'd the MJ statue. Rather than a slap at feminists, I think that this is an acknowledgment that occasionally Marvel does do rather crass stuff, knowing that they have the fans to sell it. Or, at least, the subset of fans.

I'd be the first to call them on this, if it really was a stick in the eye to all the very reasonably worded objections to the original MJ statue, but I think it is anything but.

In Review Of: Genshiken 9 by Kio Shimoku

Knowing that this is the final volume is a good thing. No really, especially when you've started to have a real emotional attachment to the characters, it gives them a chance to say goodbye to you, and you to them. Sasahara and Ogiue continue their relationship, but it becomes dicier when she solicits his advice on her possible entry into the ranks of Manga professional. Ohno is still President of the club, and Madrame still hangs around, but things are changing in the senior year of Sasahara, Kousaka and Saki.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Kio's work is that of a great storyteller, one who is certainly so confident in his craft that he takes chances, and almost always those chances pay off in big ways. A final chapter here is presented solely in pictures, allowing us, the dedicated readers, to fill in the dialogue in our heads. Its beautifully presented, and needs no word balloons. We know the characters; we've lived with them now for a number of years. We can hear their voices, we have no need for Kio to put the words into Saki's mouth as she discovers Ohno doing to worst possible thing: distributing pictures of her doing cosplay to Madrame in the hallway. It sandwiches in between the quiet touching moments one last scene of the way things were when we started: Saki at most furious, Ohno at her most mischevious, Madrame and Sasahara and rest along for the ride. It is hysterical, and like all moments from the end of college, taken in with the knowledge that this is a time that will end, and that things will never be the same again. On pages 138 and 139 we see Madrame looking up at the ceiling, trying desperately to ignore the fight between Saki and Ohno at his feet, Sasahara and Oguie holding back Kucchi, and he's smiling. We know that he seeing, in his mind, the moment of the Genshiken as it is now and never will be again.

If there is a tightrope to walk here, it is one covered with grease and done in high, dangerous swirling winds. Doing the bittersweet finale to any popular series is so fraught with the potential to slide into saccharine that its a wonder that some authors never want to undertake it, (Jerry Seinfeld should never have done it certainly.) and others can't wait to wallow in it. The middle part of the book, the real emotional meat to the volume, is the chapter with Oguie and Sasahara negotiating the minefield that is trying to work professionally with one's significant other. Oguie has a thin layer of civility on her emotions on her best day, and she's barely going to be able to handle the tough personal criticism that the professional artist has to endure, much less from her boyfriend. Kio has the camera as an unflinching eye on them as they work to reach a personal and professional understanding. It is not given "happily ever after" treatment. The narrator is given the last line in the chapter: "Sasahara couldn't stop worrying about the future of their relationship". Its a realistic, adult assessment and ending.

There are plenty of other moments that show the maturity of the characters. Madrame is given plenty of opportunity and time to finally reveal his secret love of Saki to her... and in the end doesn't. What is beautiful is the he realizes how much better it was that he didn't say anything. The younger Madrame would never have come to that understanding.

I'll admit that the final two chapters left me confused, so perhaps someone can explain them to me and I'll suddenly end up feeling fairly stupid. Sasahara's sister shows up at the graduation and says that "she's in the Genshiken", when we know that she's not in school there. Perhaps she thinks that she's "in" because they all went to beach two years ago. And at the end of chapter 55, we see three people walking in to the Genshiken room, saying, "President, we've got a new member." I'm taking it that we're getting a glimpse of the new Genshiken members that start to come during Oguie's term as president. The picture on the outside of the door might be one of the cosplay shot's of Saki as the President, but if it is, then I'm not sure what it is supposed to signify. Last, Del Rey handily translates the word Tsendere for us, but not the term Moe, which is, of course, an integral part of the conversation that takes place at the final graduation party. Any help here?

All in all, the nine volumes of Genshiken sit on the bookshelves of my studio waiting to cracked open again and again. Its a great piece of work, and despite what some people might think, the Otaku culture translates far too well for american comic fans. I'll miss these characters. They've become buddies and I'll wish that I knew what they were up to 5 years from now, 10 years from now.

Perhaps I'll just have to Google "Madrame-san" and see what shows up in 10 years.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Who is your buddy? Its ROM, the Greatest of the Spaceknights

Floating World Comics in Portland is hosting SPACEKNIGHT - A tribute to Bill Mantlo on December 6th, and all the artwork will be auctioned to raise money for Bill's care, a really worthy cause.

If you're in the Portland area, Floating World is at 20 NW 5th Ave, and you should really go by. I won't be there, but one of my pieces will be. I'll be posting the work here when its done, so should the spirit move you, go and bid it up as its a good cause. Jason Leivian is putting the whole thing on, so thank him by going by and eating whatever goodies they decide to put out. Bring your checkbook. Make it happen. Special Props to Jason.

Also, if you're in the mood, find David Yurkovich's tribute book with lots of great quotes about Bill and a great history lesson on Marvel in the 1970's.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

In Praise Of: 52 The Covers by JG Jones

Disclaimer: It was my pleasure to work with JG on more than a couple projects, and to get the chance to watch his artwork develop by leaps and bounds from its first days on Dark Dominion at Defiant to Shi: The Series to his current amazing work. I stumbled across this hardback two days ago, while starting in on the hell that is holiday shopping. Imagine my happiness then, to see his work collected and put out in such a wonderful package. Yowza!

In the current landscape of simply horrendous comic artists who couldn't draw their way out an old issue of Ambush Bug, it should be a joy to go through and see the weight and heft that JG's people have: when Black Adam stands up, gravity pulls at his heels. When Batwoman spins around, there are real hips moving under those tights.

It also should be an interesting lesson for many young artists to read the sidebars and realize how diverse the influences are that inform the art for these covers: 14th century painters, old movie posters, dog-eared paperback book covers, old soviet propaganda posters. The lessons here: go the Met once a month, keep your eyes open and always bring your sketchbook with you. Perhaps I'll add: spend a little time studying Tiepolo's use of cloth.

It is also interesting to me to note that this series of covers simply couldn't have been done as fast to make the deadlines had Photoshop not been invented. Certainly JG could have painted in color, but it would have taken longer and been harder. The computer has certainly taken over, hasn't it?

For a hardback, 52 The covers is a great deal at $20 whole dollars. Do yourself a favor and get it. And spend some quality time poring over it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Staking Our Claim: Comics and their Legacy

If we harken back to the 1980's, we can start to see the moment what comics would begin to tread the path to cool, the moment when Dark Knight and Watchmen gained a foot hold in the national consciousness as in, "not afraid to hand to adults". The only problem, well documented of course, is that once you'd handed those to someone, there was no follow up. "What is next?" we collectively asked, and only the void answered back.

And we all know what you don't do to the void.

Frank Miller was memorably quoted in the Comics Journal at the time, as saying, "people talk as if we have this great history behind us, when what we have are 50 years of shit." And, collectively, many of us agreed with him and hoped to see a whole bunch of new work, better work, adult work.

I think that its time to reassess that quote and see if its true. And how we answer it may depend on your definition of success.

Very clearly, no one in their right mind in the mid-80s would ahve ever predicted the phenominal success of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. Conditioned to the lackluster or just plain horrible 1970's films or TV movies, Dr. Strange and Daredevil included, and the Bill Bixby Hulk series, there simply is no way to have foreseen that you could bring Wolverine to life on the big screen and not make him a laughing stock, much less Colossus or Doctor Octopus or The Sandman. We had no way of knowing that effects would simply become this good. Nor that the comic geeks would take over Hollywood 20 years later.

So, on one hand, we have a checkered literary past with a lot of work that, lets face it, simply doesn't stand up to the level of complexity that we've seen in the last 16 years. I don't have to go through the litany of names, I'm sure, to make this argument. Nor do I doubt that the stellar lights from comics past, Bernie Kreigston I'm looking at you, could have done work this adult, this real had they been given the opportunity. Clearly they were never going to be given that opportunity, nor would the readers have been there anyway.

But the films have exposed comics as being something taht we fans always said they were: great breeding grounds for the fantastic, fertile earth for creating interesting characters. Our little 4 color fantasies ahve given life to some amazing characters, characters that have now tickled the funny bone of the great unwashed pop culture masses in ways that only your die hard comic fan used to know. We weren't wrong, it seems. We knew how good the Clarement/Byrne X-Men were, and now so does the rest of the world. We knew how good the O'Neil/Adams and Englehart/Rogers Batman was, and now t he rest of the world knows as well. We were willing to look past shoddy printing and dodgy art occasionally to get our fix of these characters.

Do I really need the thick phone books reprinting every single issue of Iron Man? No, not really. And I love Iron Man. Your average sane individual doesn't need that much George Tuska art in his life. We do have a rather dodgy legacy, and right now much of that legacy is being put back into print, and I'm not sure that much of it holds up under anything other than through the lens of nostalgia. But it proves that the individuals who worked in this formerly reviled industry were, under tight deadline and often bizarre editorial direction, relentless in using the dark corners of their imaginations to provide us with some brilliant and memorable ideas.

Diamonds among the dross. We comic fans have always found them. And slowly the rest of America is as well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Oh Yes, Proof that I Was There Then... Love and Rockets #17

Our friends over at Sequart, well, specifically Marc Sobel, have been going issue by issue with the original Love and Rockets series, recapping and commenting on the ground breaking work by the bros hernandez.

No fight from me here on the work that Marc is doing. Its great stuff. And I appreciate that here he breaks out this 3 favorite quotes from that issue's letters page.

Re: Love & Rockets #17

"One of Jaime's strengths is his ability to sketch his characters just enough so that we delight in their interplay because we know them as our friends, but not so fully that we know them too well. If possible they are not just barrio archetypes, but more human personalities that we see around us, that we date, that we sleep with, that we shun."

- Charles Yoakum, on Jaime's Locas.

Yes, that is your faithful writer, still in college when he wrote that letter, and still exhibiting the need for a good copy editor. I appreciate that Marc pulled it out and put it up on the site. I am proud to have been reading way back when. My first L&R issue was #5.

For my money, Palomar and Locas are, collected separately, the greatest Graphic Novels that this medium has ever seen.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

In Review Of: Annihilation Book Two

There are, for the sake of argument, and the belief that you actually enjoy the Cosmic Space Opera that is Annihilation, a few things that are worth remembering: one, that it is the concepts that are the most powerful things here, the ideas that no matter how much we know, there will always be more behind the veil for us to learn. Galactus was founded on Kirby's desire for the FF to meet God, but even now that we know that Galactus is the cosmic conscience, that he is the sole survivor of the prior universe, it merely allows him to tell us, “There are things that we don’t know.”

The Silver Surfer here is treated with importance and deference due to a being of his stature. But the Surfer has always been problematic. Trying to reconcile the different versions of the character has put writers in a bind, especially if they adhere to the whiny Stan Lee version of the character. Kirby’s take on the Surfer in the FF was of a being that had lost his humanity out there among the stars, and would start to find its way back while trapped on earth. Stan’s emo Surfer was already human, so achingly so, that he needed, no matter what, to get away from it all. All later writers, Englehart and Starlin included, have tried to reconcile the different versions.

But somewhere in there, we lost the majesty of the silver god that flew down in the pages of Fantastic Four #48. He was from far beyond the stars, and carried himself as such.

But here is something different. In the surfer’s four issue series, the Surfer doesn’t wish to fight Annihilus until provoked by Gabriel the Air Walker’s destruction at the hands of his negative zone counterparts, Ravenous and his seekers. But once provoked, we see how far from the former Norrin Radd this Surfer is. An experienced citizen of the cosmos, he marshals his forces, makes plans with the other heralds that haven’t been rounded up yet and starts to take his place in the cosmic scheme of things.

Because, of course, it is not just Annihilus that we have to worry about. (Since, really, Annihilus and his kind would not really be able to stand up to the combined power of three heralds of Galactus.) The Kiln, a prison built in a collapsing star by an architect unknown even to Galactus, has let loose the elders Tenebrous and Aegis, and they have a fight to pick with Galactus.

The Surfer makes the decision to talk to Galactus, and to take his part in the fight. And here is the interesting part. As they talk, we realize that the Surfer is the favored herald of Galactus, that here was an ordinary man given power by a God from beyond this universe. And for all that power, he had still suffered his God’s displeasure.

The Surfer that we’ve been used to seeing, with the Power Cosmic, was not the being of Fantastic Four #48. That was a different Surfer, one in full favor of his God and Master. And with a few pages of dialogue, the Surfer returns to work with Galactus.

And is forgiven.

Say it with me. The Surfer has been forgiven. Because if the Surfer’s story is one of finding his humanity after his fall, this is his story reconciliation with God, with his sacrifice, this time without the moral manipulation that was masterminded by Starlin as a retcon, and power of that submission and reconciliation. It is a moment when Ravenous realizes that he’s screwed. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he knows it.

And really, in the other two mini series collected here, we begin to understand that reconciliation is the true theme here. Super Skrull and Ronin both take part in their own stories, pawns to set up like pieces on the Grandmaster’s cosmic chess board, and they both seek their own reconciliation among their people. It is a powerful theme to exert as the key character component since it leads us to see that there should be real and fundamental changes to the characters in the finale.

The Surfer stories, which are the rirst four of the book, and clearly the strongest part, are by Keith Giffen and Renato Arlem. Giffen, for all the Ambush bug goofiness, has the strongest grasp on what makes space opera work since Jim Starlin. This was clear years and years ago by the Legion of Superheroes #50, where 6 or 7 of the Legionaires were kidnapped by the Time Trapper and taken to the end of time. For a comic of it's era, it was as bleak and brutal in its treatment of its heroes as it could be. And considering how the Legion writers had pretty much put themselves in a bind over the years with the Trapper, Giffen came up with a more than novel way to finally end the Trapper and his danger. It was a brilliant ending, and showed Keith's gift for the inventive plotting and use of continuity. Here, we have the same thing. Including Thanos again introducing himself into the proceedings.

True science fiction has operated as an outside view in the character of man, and instead of the obvious, the path tread here is far more interesting. I'm fascinated, intrigued and ready for the final volume in the series.

Friday, November 09, 2007

In Review Of: Howard the Duck by Templeton, Bobillo and Sosa

Harken, y'all, to the strange tale of Howard the Duck. Not only was he thrust into a world that he never made, he was given life at a comic book company that had no time for funny animals (or funny fowls for that matter). Even actually funny funny animals.

Me? I know funny. Trust me, I know funny.

Born on Duckworld, but really born in the far stranger land called the early '70's brain of Steve Gerber, Howard had a quick walk-on in Fear #19, in a book already held hostage by the character the Man-Thing, and he was really there to simply be goofy and make the un-real limbo of... uh... unreality seem all that more strange. He also got a few plum lines along the way, and was unceremoniously thrown aside.

Except that people liked the Duck. Certainly not Stan Lee and editorial powers that were at the time, but it is hard to argue with success. Marvel was building their early-70's line up of 2nd generation heroes by their 2nd generation of writers and artists and the books were, to put it mildly, spinning blindly out of control. The House that Stan and Jack had built was being turned in to something rather different in the odd corners: Gerber, Starlin, Englehart, Weiss, Moench and McGregor were running rampant.

That Howard survived to return in 2007 is a minor miracle. Templeton is spinning a fun yarn, and perhaps will take a huge amount of flack for not being Steve Gerber, but then, so did Bill Mantlo on Howard's abortive B&W book. The reality is that Gerber's Howard was a bizarre run through of Gerber's neuroses and pet peeves mixed with an often hysterical dose of the back side of the Marvel Universe as it stood then. When he was fired off of the book by Jim Shooter in a personality clash, Bill Mantlo was given the opportunity to run with the book, in a less censored arena: the Black and White magazine.

Bill did his creative best, and the magazine took a few issues to settle into a rhythm, but a couple of the final issues had Michael Golden and Marshall Rogers turning in inspired turns on the art. Bill’s approach to the book was less didactic than Gerber’s, but by the end of Gerber’s run, things had become less funny, and Howard’s depression over being stuck in the city of Cleveland was starting to rub off on the reader: despite the inspired parody “Star Waugh” in the mid 20’s issues, we were tired of being trapped in this series. Mantlo’s run, while reviled at the time, is actually funnier and edgier than it appeared at the time.

Templeton opens his series with all the usual motifs of Howard’s banal existence: stuck being a cab driver, the lovely yet slightly ditzy Beverly his companion, the oddball play promoter, bizarre scientists from A.I.M. and scientists that happen to be the worst shots in the world hunting him. It really is an opening right out of either Gerber’s or Mantlo’s run. And that’s ok. Really it is. This hasn’t gotten to go-around for over 20 years, and its new to most of its audience.

Lets face it: there really isn’t a different way to write Howard. Howard’s story is the story of the “other”, but he doesn’t really want to be the other, he just wants to blend in so that things can be easy for once. And it allows him to be the crusty commentator, the sole voice of reason and the occasional straight-man all in one. Bobillo’s art is inspired when Howard is on stage, occasionally a bit simple on some of the other areas of the story. Templeton, whose comedic work I still remember from the great “Even Teddy Bears Get the Blues” story in the Critters collection, is a natural to write this. He has the timing and the lines. The only thinkg that I wish on the story: that people remember Beverly wasn’t a ditz when she first showed up. Mantlo and Gerber wrote her far more intelligently that we’re seeing her here. I love the character, for her grit, her humor and her steadfast love of Howard, and I hate to see her merely comic relief.

Is this fun? Absolutely. And if you don’t pick up this series you’re missing out. So get out there and support some comic fun in your comics!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

To Critique or Not To Critique: Who The Hell Cares Commentary

Occassionally I find myself trying to define exactly why I started this blog, and realized very quickly that the mission statement was a fuzzy one. I realized that I had been writing this blog in my head for twenty years, and was happy that there was now a forum to get the words out of my head and into the world. But had I crossed the line into being a critic? Was I still an artist while I was commenting on other people's art? What were the criteria for being able to be a critic, or a commentator anyway?

Do we have a novel length answer here? How about a short version. The blogs and the internet have given many of us, who had never thought to write critically professionally for the comics industry a voice. Sometimes a measured voice, some times (many times unfortunately) a shrill one, some times an authoratative one. In An Interview with Tom Spurgeon I ran across this comment and it made me stop and think:
Q: I think with the Internet, and God knows I’m guilty of it, there’s a tendency to write quickly and get it out fast and you don’t read back what you’ve written.

A: Yeah, I think there’s a tendency, but that’d be like me calling someone hefty. I can’t throw that knife because I write really quickly and all of my Internet writing has probably been a lot quicker. It kind of demands a certain productivity that doesn’t flatter it in terms of going back considering things.

I think that’s true. I think there aren’t always considered arguments. But we talked about having an honest reaction to something and building on that, more than trying to craft a impenetrable little diamond of a review. If a quick review that’s sloppily written has an insight into a work then it’s infinitely more valuable to me than something that’s well written and constructed and entertaining on those levels.

and I had to agree on the second paragraph, as my own poor typing skills have accounted for many a typo that has snuck out of the blog, but the thinking and the opinion I'm expressing remains valid, even if the grammar (or spelling) is somewhat suspect.

But on the first point, I do think that the work has to stand up as long as the print work does. In fact, even longer, as there are more than a few issues of the comics Journal that I can't get to read these days: the newsprint has long since gone south, but there are servers all over the world cacheing odd pages just waiting to be pulled out on a google search. Your opinions will be out there for years to come, so you had better be willing to stand up to them. My rule of thumb: I don't write anything that I wouldn't say to someone's face at a convention. Because they might show up the next Wonder Con or San Diego Con and do just that.

The audience these days will decide who they like and who they don't. And if I get 3 readers a day I'll still write and hope that I can entertain and inform the 3 people who show up. Fortunately I get more than that, so I can feel good about hitting "post" on an entry and have it matter just a little more, but I sure as hell don't get the hits that Valerie D'Orazio gets on her blog, but then she's a ten times better writer than me so she deserves those hits. I guess that I don't feel the need to generate a particular CV to justify my critiques: You'll either get my point from the review and respect it (or enjoy my snark) or not.

In Response: Wishing the Competition Away

Johanna over at Comics Worth Reading comments on two different other blogs, (making this a third generation post, but what the hell) regarding retailing of the pamphlets vs the trades, and there are a few issues that we need to go over here.

Were this the top of the Hyatt at San Diego, we could do this with a couple of drinks in us and it would take a lot less time, but the lack of alcohol probably makes for a more solid (and less digressive) discussion. Lets discuss "wishing the competition away". Because I'm not so sure that that is the right way to look at.

Brian Hibbs and Lisa at Neptune are both making comments lamenting the change in the business that they're in, in Hibb's place, however, it is a fundamental change in the presentation of comics themselves, pamphlets vs the trades, and in Lisa's place it is the competition via the internet.

What is the role of the retailer with regards to the two items? Do people want to flip through their games and see what hot developer is working on their new game? I see the role of the retailer with regards to comics is not only a place to buy, but a place to expand upon the tastes of your consumers, to expand their buying habits. Any comic retailer that isn't putting new things into their customer's hands is missing out on expanding the market and using their ability to be hub of all things comics in their area. You can't depend on the current X-men reader just finding other works by themselves. You'll never get them into Powers without some work, and from there you might get them into Liberty Meadows and Samurai Jack and.... And that is how you try to keep those sales from declining. We've probably all gotten into some interesting conversations in the comic shop, some that we'd probably rather get out of quickly, but I'm sure that we've all heard a new artist's or book's name and decided to pick it up once or twice.

I completely disagree with Hibb's desire to see the trades made so unavailable that I, as a consumer, will be forced to go back to buying the floppies and searching in vain for that one back issue that he under-ordered. No thank you. Johanna very succinctly skewers that with: "That’s one way to deal with competition, to wish the competing, preferable product out of the market. Not a very forward-looking way, though." I want to see work in print for good. Can you imagine trying to get someone into Sandman or Fables and handing them a stack of pamphlets? They'd laugh at you. The comics retailers haven't had the energy or the push to change the business model, and now consumer tastes are forcing them to. And change sucks and its hard, but the people have spoken, and we can keep this medium alive and growing with better formats to present good work.

Lisa, on the other hand, is talking about the same competition that we've been hearing retailers yell about for 4 or 5 years now. And the question, again, is what role the retailer plays in gaming. Personally, I don't game, gave away my Playstation 1 years ago and thats pretty much been that. If the retailer is to survive, then there has to be a reason for the brick and mortar. If I can just get the stupid game online, then why am I driving down to a store? Johanna's line of "If the customer isn’t shopping from them anyway, what does it matter if they continue to exist?" is fair, but when she says that "I just find this attitude disheartening, because it makes clear that their interests are not mine.", it only appears as if her interests are scoring games as cheaply as possible. Is there any interest in being part of a local gaming community? If so, then you have to suck it up and support a local retailer, presumably one that pays taxes in your community and helps to provide actual jobs in your area. People everyday make a conscious decision to shop locally and support local businesses because they know that it trickles down to jobs, to property values, to local services. You, the retailer, simply need to give the consumer a reason to shop there.

There will always be the consumer who doesn't give a damn about anything but saving every last little penny, and then will complain that the quality product, game or comic, isn't being made anymore and they wonder why. The internet has certainly enabled certain things to be made available as such rock bottom prices that it has fundamentally changed the nature of retailing. Instead of killing off all the local stores, it has, in some places, revived the art of customer service long since thought killed off. Of course customers don't want things to be restricted, as Johanna phrases it, but that isn't what Mayfair is doing. Mayfair is looking to work with, and add some value to the brick and mortar representative of their games. After all, as long as Mayfair gets their wholesale on the games, why do you think that they care who sells them?