Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I Need Some Back-Up Here !!

In many ways, Marvel has always done a good job of keeping its Silver Age alive through constant reprints. Whether through reprint titles such as Marvel Tales or Marvel Triple Action in the 70s, or through the Essentials and Masterworks line more recently, Marvel has shown that it is proud of of its past.

Sadly, one aspect of Marvel's past is in danger of falling off the radar screen. No, I am not talking about the Human Fly or Team America - I am talking about the science fiction back-up stories that continued to run during the early days of the Marvel Age. As you know, many superheroes such as Iron Man, Spider-Man and Thor debuted in titles that were previously dedicated to monster and science fiction stories.

Even after the debut of these superheroes, there was still some room left at the back of the comics, so the back-ups continued for a couple of years until replaced by additional suphero strips. Anyone who has ever read one of the 5-page mini-opuses is aware of how fun and charming these stories can be. Some of these were reprinted in scattershot fashion across many titles during the 70s, but many have not seen light of day in 40 years.

Granted, Marvel has indicated that it is willing to dig deep into their non-hero vaults, as evidenced by the Tales to Astonish Masterworks, but my guess is that they will simply focus on the pre-hero monster tales as a way of capturing the Jack Kirby fans. I am afraid that they will overlook these tales that ran concurrently with the superhero stories and are only available by purchasing the original comic - and who really wants to fork out the money for a Jounrney Into Mystery #83 to read a story about an intelligent lion?

I was recently re-reading Strange Tales #112, and was struck by the quality of the two back-up stories, featuring artwork by Steve Ditko and Larry Lieber, respectively. It occurred to me that Marvel should float a trial balloon, and package together an Essentials 'Tales' - featuring Tales of the Watcher, The Wasp Tells a Tales (luckily already cover in the Ant-Man volume), and back-up stories from Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery. In one package, we would get tons of great reading - with dymanic art by Kirby, Ditko, Lieber and Heck among others.

Is this a pipe dream? Sure - but a guy can still dream, can't he?

Friday, April 21, 2006

You Don't Know Jack... Keller, that is.

Sadly, I’ll bet that Jack Keller will be all but forgotten as a comic book artist in 25 years time. Why? Well, for one thing, he was never a ‘big name’ in the first place, and he has been filed under ‘workmanlike Silver Age artist’. Secondly, he spent most of his time toiling in two genres that have all but fallen off the pop culture radar screen: westerns and hot rods.

Hot Rods? Yup – Hot Rods. Once upon a time, Hot Rod comics were an actual genre unto themselves. They featured young daredevils having all sorts of 8 cylinder adventures. The high water mark of the genre was likely DC’s Hot Wheels series featuring artwork by Alex Toth. Almost completely forgotten today, though, is that Charlton (the little company that could) had some high quality Hot Rod titles the seemed to be almost single handedly by Jack Keller. Keller really seemed to know his way around the racetrack and was able to portray the excitement of a race or a chase – something that is quite tough in the comic book medium.

I haven’t had too much exposure to these books – but from what I’ve seen they are simply a lot of high-octane fun. They might seem beyond silly today, but there must have been a decent market for this stuff once upon a time. These are not all that tough to find, and can be had for mere peanuts.

Keller, of course, is best known for his long running stint on Marvel’s Kid Colt, Outlaw. Kid Colt is not my favourite of the Marvel/Atlas gunfighters (that honour goes to Rawhide Kid), but under the guidance of Stan and Jack (Keller, ‘natch) is always a consistently good read. Many of Marvel ‘western’ characters had villainous counterparts that had similarities to its 20th century heroes with the ‘Circus of Crime’ being the most blatant. It’s probably not just coincidence that the coolest 60s villains, Doctor Doom, had a near twin in the coolest western villain, Iron Mask. I assume that Iron Mask was designed by Jack Kirby, but deep down I like to the Jack Keller played a role.

Keller gave this book a very distinctive look – there is a certain beauty in its simplicity. One of the things that may have kept Keller out of the limelight is that he was rarely give the opportunity to provide artwork for the cover. Through the 50s, covers were done by the likes of Joe Maneely and John Severin. Later, Jack Kirby contributed numerous memorable covers – followed by the likes of Dick Ayers and Larry Lieber. Why was Keller so rarely chosen to do the cover to what was essential his book? Who knows? I have added one of the few Kid Colt covers by Keller – it’s pretty cool, in my humble opinion.

I realize that the above is basically just babbling, and that 99% of people really don’t care about Keller once way or the other. For those who are interested, let me point you towards a wonderful article written by Doc V - , who writes much better than yours truly and provides some nice example of art from his wonderful collection.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Memoirs of a Bronze Age Baby: Avengers #161

This is the first in a (hopefully) series of reflections on my early comic reading days. I will try to relive how I felt at the time, and what impressions various books, characters, creators had upon me - as opposed to the majority of my other posts which real more with my impressions as an old guy.

I really started buying my own comics around 1979 or 1980. Until then I really just read whatever my parents picked up for me or whatever was available in our school’s rainy day recess room (where copies of Devil Dinosaur went to die). I was very fortunate to grown up with a comic shop within a 10 minute walk of my house. I call still recall staring at their copies of Amazing Spider-Man #1, Avengers #1 and Fantastic Four #1 on display in their window (I wonder how sun faded those copies look today).

It was at this juncture in my comic book fandom that I discovered back issues. Working alphabetically through the bins, it wasn’t long before I came upon the Avengers. I had read a few issues of this title and was also a big fan of Captain America and Iron Man, so I was in heaven gazing upon these incredible covers. One of those that really caught my eye was #161. What 8-year wouldn’t love the notion of superheroes being attacked by ants?

Upon reading the book, it wasn’t the ants that stuck with me, nor was it the infighting amongst the Avengers, nor was it the shiny android named Ultron (my first exposure – I’’ admit that he scared the heck out of me). Nope, what really resonated with me the most was the emotional instability of Hank Pym/Ant-Man. Most of the superheroes I’d come across to that point were pretty much flawless humans (like Captain America or Superman). Even if a superhero had a problem, it was usually something pretty mundane, such as Spidey running late for a date.

There was something different about Hank Pym, and I noticed it even at a young age. Of course, his problems issues have been visited and revisited ad nauseum over the next 25 years, but it seemed very novel at the time. Between the ants, Ultron, Hank Pym and the rest of the Avengers – it was clear that a good chunk of my allowance money would be spent buying back issues of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

My Favourite Places in the World - Part 1

Grand Popo, Benin

Grand Popo is about as far away from home as I can imagine. It’s also as close to paradise as I’ve ever seen. What makes it so unique is that it is a sliver of tropical lushness surrounded by incredible poverty of West Africa. The beach is so serene that you (almost) forget where you are. I had stopped there in the summer of 2000 to catch my breath after a long trek down from Burkina Faso. I had entered Benin from northern Togo and had made my way south from Parakou and Abomey and then along the coast via Cotonou and Ouidah, to voodoo centre of Benin.

I had only heard rumours of an oasis on the road between Cotonou and Lomé and was absolutely shocked by Grand Popo’s its beauty upon arrival on the back of a zemijohn (a Beninois moped-taxi). The Auberge features a beautifully restored colonial building. On my budget, however, I opted for the smaller building across the road. I spent 3 days flaked out on the most beautiful beach I had ever seen – spending hours splashing in the powerful surf with local children. My only neighbours were a couple of Italian doctors who were spending a weekend away from their missionary hospital in Cotonou. They were friendly, but kept to themselves but were nice enough to hook me up with some desperately needed antibiotics.

What struck me most was the sense of space – a rare commodity in West Africa. I had most of a quiet beach to myself, and I was able to spend my evening sitting in open air restaurants eating local that day’s catch, nursing cold beer and reading Dumas in French (I had blown through all of my English language books, and bought a few books at a bookshop in Cotonou).

It only seems like places like this exist in fiction – but they are out there. At first, you might question whether it is worth all of the hassle in getting there, but once you’ve arrived, you will surely forget all of your initial doubts.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Love and Polytheism

I read All-Star Superman #3 while eating my breakfast today, and what a great way to start the morning. While I may not feel that this miniseries by the Morrison/Quitely team deserves the screaming praises from the mountaintops status that others have conferred upon it, I do think that it’s wonderful stuff and has me totally hooked.

In essence the best thing about this issue is that it’s a story about all the things that go wrong when you think you’ve organized the perfect date for the woman of your dreams. All of the action and smashing aside, this is a date comic. This is a love story, with a bit of comedy and suspense thrown into the mix.

The think that makes me want to kiss Grant Morrison right on the lips is that he is able to reference the Silver Age while still giving it some respect. The whole ‘Samson/Atlas’ chiseling in on Superman’s plans is so very Silver Age that I half expected Zha-Vam to show up. Anyone who has read any early 60s Action Comics knows full well that Superman had a heck of a time dealing with the Gods in togas crowd. Even something as simple as the phrase ‘super-feat’ is so effin’ Silver Age that I just love it.

The only real negative that I can see with this issue is the characterization of Steve Lombard. For the most part, ASS has moved along very elegantly, at its own pace with thoughtful characterizations. Lombard’s dialogue is so over the top that it really seems to be out of place with the rest of the book. That’s just nitpicking, though – but it stood out for some reason.

As a final note – let me say how cool I though Jimmy’s Superman Signal watch looked, though. I am so happy that Morrison decided against updating it to a cell phone or, God forbid, a Blackberry.

Kudos to Team ASS!

Monday, April 10, 2006

One Heck of an Artist!

I was flipping through Essential Avengers Vol. 2 yesterday reading some stories that I hadn’t read in nearly a decade. I once thought that the first twenty issues of Avengers was the Silver Age peak of this title and that things went downhill a bit until the introduction of the Vision, but now I am not so sure.

After the great Swordsman saga in issues #19 and #20, it seems like the new team really started to find its legs. The Cap/Hawkeye tension continued, but each character started to show the other some respect. Wanda and Pietro also began to behave as more than simple window dressing as subtle hints about their mysterious past are dropped.

OK, that’s all fine and dandy but it’s all pretty typical of Stan Lee melodrama machinery. What really blew me away was the artwork by Dandy Don Heck. Don Heck is awesome. He is double awesome. This is a man who should have mountains and rivers named after him. I am going to petition my city council to have my street renamed Heck Ave.

It’s tough to think of a comic book artist who has been more unfairly criticized than Don Heck. From his wonderful Comics Media work in the early 50s to his late period work for DC, Don Heck brought energy and professionalism to the comic book page.

The one issue that really stands out for me in the #21-30 run is issue #28 featuring the return of Giant-Man. This issue is electric – Heck’s layouts and pencils lead the eyes across the page in an energetic fashion, the reader anticipates each page turn. The action is given a sense of urgency, as Hank’s desperation is palpable.

I have always had a pretty neutral opinion on Frank Giacoia’s inks, but in these pages he truly excels, giving an important depth to Heck’s fine pencils. This can be best seen in the face of the Collector – a wonderfully designed villain whose essence can be found in his deep, dark eye sockets.

Like many others, I have always felt that Heck drew the most attractive females in the funnybook business. I never really thought about his depiction of men. I was showing my wife the story as I wanted to read her Cap’s line to the Wasp that Hank would give his life a hundred times for her. She saw a picture of Hank Pym in civilian clothes and said ‘that’s guy’s good looking’. He draws the most attractive people in the funnybook business.

Don – we miss you. Thanks for Avengers #28.