Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Steve Ditko Cover of the Week: Haunted #1

Steve Ditko definitely broke new ground with the cover to Haunted #1. If I had a background in fine arts, I'd be able to say something very profound and academic about his technique of using the smaller vignettes to for the features of the larger face. As I don't, I'll just say one thing: it's freakin' awesome. This comic must have leapt out readers perusing spinner racks back in the day. There was nothing else like it. This cover simply oozes Ditko cool. I don't think I saw Steve experiment with this technique again, which is too bad because it's really cool. Perhaps that's what happens when you hit a home run in your first trip to the plate - you move on to new challenges.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The End of the JLA - A Good Death

Even though I was a Justice League maniac as a child, I was in the midst of an early high school ‘too cool for comics hiatus’ when this series ground to a halt. I’d always heard about how bad these last few years of the JLA were, but I’d never read any of them. As I understand, this storyline all takes place as part of the ‘Legends’ maxi-series. A few years back, I bought a copy of the Legends TPB for $4, and wish I’d spent it at Starbucks.

I saw these 4 issues at a deeply discounted price, and thought I’d pick them up just so that I actually had a clear idea how things ended. You know what? This storyline was much better than I had expected. Sure, it’s obvious that this is a pretty lame JLA (and a lame-duck one considering the re-launch had already been announced), but with the right words and pictures almost anyone can be the subject of a compelling story. If the fans are calling out for Vibe’s head, you can give it to them – but do it in such a way to make them realize a little too late that he may have had a place in the DCU. Steel’s death is handle even more deftly, as it is hard not to feel a mixture of sorrow, pity and relief for him.

This stuff is far from perfect, but it’s a pretty damned good read and seems to be an appropriate way to brings and end to this tile that had enjoyed a 25-year run. My admiration for J.M. DeMatteis continues to grow. He was obviously giving the marching orders to shut down the JLA, and he fought off the temptation to avoid write something too nihilistic or, even worse, too sentimental. In the end, it’s a decent, quiet story and the loss of life serves as an act of cleansing.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Memoirs of a Bronze Age Baby: Wonder Woman #267

If you go back and check out Wonder Woman issues circa 1980, you’ll notice that there are a ton of captivating covers. This one really got my attention, and I plucked in off the newsstand wondering ‘Who is that guy in the orange outfit?’ This was my first exposure to Animal Man, as I most admit to really liking his style right off the bat. DC’s triumvirate was a pretty serious lot back then (still are, I guess. Animal Man appeared to have fun with crime fighting without seeming too clownish (I’m talking to you, Dibney!) – he seemed to be the perfect Yin to Wonder Woman’s Yang.

The story intimated that Animal Man he had a history in the DCU (although no issues were noted) so I set out to find back issues features this rather unique character. It wasn’t long before I tracked down copies of Strange Adventure #195 and #201. If I recall correctly, they would have set me back 30 or 40 cents back then. I was pretty excited, half expecting him to become a major player in the DCU and so I waited. I waited, waited and waited. Where did he go? Aside from appearing in the next Wonder Woman issue, the DCU remained Animal Man-free for the next few years. I guess I was wrong about the A-Man renaissance; that would have to wait. Oh well, it’s still fun to go back and read this one as Gerry Conway must have had a soft spot in his heart for Buddy Baker.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Steve Ditko Cover of the Week: Amazing Spider-Man #29

All right folks, time to steer away from the mildly esoteric and dig out a very mainstream Ditko cover. This one may not be seen as one of the true iconic Spidey covers, but I really do think it's my favourite Ditko cover from the title. The Scorpion was introduced in issue #20 and that one featured a solid cover, but it is a fairly static image when compared to this one. There is such a great fluidity of motion here, as the bodies bend in a very Ditkoesque manner. It's a very simple snapshot, but it tells the reader that a life or death struggle is within the pages. I really did the Scorpion's regulator - a bit of Ditko sci-fi thrown in for fun. Of course, a good dose of Ditko water is always a bonus. Too often I find that the captions on Marvel covers really detract from the art, but the tagline 'Never Step on a Scorpion' is a good one.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

You've Been Warned: Fantastic Four #241

Now, I don’t think much of what emanates from John Byrne these days but I can’t deny the fact the he was producing some awesome stuff in the early 80s. I’ve been re-reading his Fantastic Four run recently and it is pure comic book goodness. Somehow, Byrne manage to lay a big egg in the middle of that run. Normally a meeting between the Fantastic Four and the Black Panther is a reason to celebrate, but this time out I am just left to scratch my head an ask what went wrong.

It’s an unbelievably high concept, grand scale story involving a 2,000-year old Roman civilization living deep within a Wakandan mountain. This is mini-series, possibly max-series stuff but Byrne rushes us through the proceedings (possible because he knew how ludicrous it all is) and wraps this up more than a little too nicely in the last 2 pages. Something to do with an alien helmet keeping the deceased alive, and simultaneously eating away at the self-proclaimed Emperior to the point that when Sue tries to unmask the Phantom of the Opera, she gets the Invisible Man. As an added bonus, we get plenty of Frankie Raye being annoying throughout. A serious bump in an otherwise smooth road.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Norman Saunders: Monster for Sale

Norman Saunders is probably a pretty familiar name to most visitors to this blog. Amongst citizens of Geektown, he is best known for painting the Mars Attacks card set for Topps in the early 60s. My first encounter with his work was the set of Batman cards that my uncle handed down to me. I haven’t a clue what happened to those cards, and I’d give almost anything to see them again.

What people might not know is that Saunders did a lot of painted covers for pulps and comics. Perhaps his comic book work is not discussed much these days because, he never worked for either Marvel or DC. He provided a series of spectacular covers for Ziff-Davis’ short-lived comic book line (I’m still not certain if any covers were used both for pulps and comics – anyone know?) and a few for Gilberton’s Classics Illustrated, as the reprinted titles evolved from line drawn to painted covers.

One of Saunders’ painted covers recently sold at auction. The cover to Classics Illustrated #26 is astonishing. First of all, it grabs your attention because it deals with an oft-forgotten passage from Mary Shelley’s book, as the Monster flees across the Artic ice. Those only familiar with the Universal movies might be wondering what in the name of Boris Karloff is going on. Secondly, the image of the Monster is perfect – looking much more like a 19th century brute rather than the patchwork creation of the movies. This is a beautiful, beautiful example of Norman Saunders’ work and it’s easy to understand why it sold for more than $13,000. Although, when compared to the prices paid for by other covers drawn by the ‘greats’, this was a bargain.

Why or why did I have to buy a new house and procreate???

Friday, November 23, 2007

Steve Ditko Cover of the Week: Out of This World #4

Every Ditko fan knows that if you want to see some really great work by Ditko, you’ve got to check out Charlton. Some of Charlton’s 50s titles are not really on the fanboy radar screen, which is too bad because there’s some great stuff in there. Out of this World is definitely one of the coolest of Charlton’s late 50s offerings. I’ve found these books to be very tough to track down and often command high prices.

The whole series features awesome Ditko covers, and among the best is issue #4. It is the mixture of concept and execution that makes it a real attention grabber. The black and white right side of the cover may have come across as dull, if not for feeling of ‘motion’ that Ditko infuses. Our victim’s body language is superb as he is at that moment of confusion (just before fear) when he does not understand what it happening. Ditko adds a really nice touch with the hat falling off, as we don’t know in which dimension it will land. I also love the street sign – the kind of thing that Bob Powell did all of the time. The Out of This World cover gallery is a perfect example of how to draw effective covers, but this one really connects with me and I’d love to track down a copy.

Review: Green Arrow - Black Canary Wedding Special

Considering the creators know that we’ve been waiting 40 years for this moment, I’m more than a little disappointed with the book. I’m left feeling that the best they could come up with is a riff on the first Fantastic Four Annual. The dialogue may be more irony-tinged than what we saw back in ’66, but the overall template is the same. Perhaps it is an homage and if so, that’s cool but it lacked the charm that someone like Darwyn Cooke might have brought to the table. I’ve actually really enjoyed most of the new Green Arrow series (I own the first 5 or 6 trades), but this just has a different tone.

Winnick is misfiring on all cylinders here, going through the motions of clichéd pre-wedding jokes and innuendo with topics such as forced abstinence, male strippers. Amanda Conner’s super cutsey faces just do not work for me (where are you Phil Hester?) as every woman looks like Katchoo. Two double page spreads are meant to impress, but result in bringing the proceedings to a stiff and awkward halt. Interesting ending though – I just hope they are not pulling a Travis Morgan stunt again. All in all, it was not worth the h40-year wait - let's hope they renew their vows in a quiet, rainy ceremony in Seattle soon. I'm sure the flowers will be nice. Grade: C-

Friday, November 16, 2007

Steve Ditko Cover of the Week: House of Mystery #277

DC pulled the old Charlton bait and switch with this one. One of the strongest Ditko covers in a decade, but not a single pencil mark from the Sturdy One inside. Oh well, this one is worth tracking down for the cover alone, although it does have a nice little Pasko/Chaykin tale from which I learned my first Shakespeare lines. That's all obiter dicta, as the cover's the thing here. Wow, just wow. It was very powerful stuff, showing that Ditko was a master of design and atmosphere (a mixture of oppression and claustrophobia).

For some reason, DC never had Ditko do many covers for non-Ditko driven titles. That was a grave mistake, as this covers is stronger than 50 Ernie Chan covers. Those cackling faces are enough to give anyone anxiety. This cover has nothing to do with any of the interior stories (personally, I think it's a real stretch to link it to the 'Limited Engagement' story) , and I've often wondered if it was simply part of the DC inventory. This Ditko beauty grabbed my attention as a kid, and it still does a quarter century later.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Boob Tube Round Up

The Office
What a tease. 1 hour episodes to start the season – almost too much of a good thing. Almost. Now we’re back to 30 minutes. It’s been a good year, but a few of the episodes just didn’t quite do it for me (my expectations are waaay high). There has been a lot of classic stuff, including the Shrute B&B, Michael running down Meredith and Dwight’s Second Life flying paper salesman. I once though this was the best half hour on TV, but now I may have to lean towards:

30 Rock
They’ve sorted out what makes things work on this stuff – and it ain’t prolonged scenes in the writer’s room. Seinfeld’s appearance was ‘Meh’, but the rest of the year has been great. Jenna’s weight gain from all that pizza was perfectly played out – you don’t see shows running with a gag for more than one episode. This will be a show I’ll be happy to watch on DVD 10 years from now.

I liked the concept of a show set in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Great on-location shooting and references like ‘he’s got a girlfriend over in Algiers’ – make it all feel pretty authentic. Some decent storylines so far – nice variety. I’ve heard it’s struggling in the ratings, and that too bad as this show has promise, but they do need to help Anthony Anderson’s character down from the soapbox from time to time.

Bionic Woman
I tried it. I wanted to like it. It just didn’t happen. I just don’t find myself caring for any of the characters. I’m not sure they pick the right lead – more like the Robotic Woman. I gave up after 3 episodes.

Amazing Race
Phil still needs to work hard to regain my trust after that Family Edition fiasco. I’m not in love with any of the teams at this stage (although the Goths are fun, but saying ‘Oh my Goth’ is beyond lame. I really like this show when they test people’s ability to travel in new places (getting push onto a train in India etc…), I feel like they’ve had it pretty easy so far (Ireland ain't exactly Senegal). Here’s hoping they hit some tougher destinations soon.

Men In Trees
I’m not entirely sure why, but my wife and I have stuck with this show. This kind of thing isn’t normally our cup of tea, but we were both happy that it was returning. I’m fairly certain Anne Heche has some kind of work done on her eyes and they are kind of freaking me out. Beyond that, this show is the television equivalent of nice mug of hot chocolate. Not enough John Amos this year, though!

My Name is Earl
They’re losing me. I’d like so see more Crab Man and less Michael Rappaport. There such a thing as too many guest stars. A well placed Sparky Anderson will do the trick every so often.

Kid Nation
I have seen the future and it is lazy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

87,356th Person to Declare his Love for Sarah Silverman

Yup – I’m the 87,356th person to declare his love for Sarah Silverman. I could have seemed more hip if I’d posted this in 1999 or so. The good news is, my wife loves her too so I’ve got a co-stalker, should it ever got that far. Why all the love in the household these days? Well, it’s the Sarah Silverman Program - definitely one of the best 30 minutes of the week. After years of ill-fitting projects (School of Rock comes to mind), she’s finally found the perfect outlet for her energy. Jesus is Magic was a the appetizer, and this show is the main course.

Is she perfect? No. Yes, I know that her jokes wouldn’t be as funny if they came out of a less attractive mouth. Yes, I’m fully aware that a good number of her jokes fall flat. Yes, her relationship with Jimmy Kimmel does creep me out a bit. The thing is, when it works, it is a beautiful thing. People use the whole “Coke out my nose” line a lot, but I’m not much of a LOL kind of guy. I did almost choke to death a couple of weeks ago watching this show. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Review: Lone Ranger #9

I hadn’t bought any comics in several months, as part of a self-imposed moratorium while I get my finances in orders. During that period, I’ve somehow become an eBay Power Seller; a pretty sad state of affairs. I stopped by an LCS to see what caught my eye. I walked out with a half dozen new books, and will share my thoughts on the over the next couple of weeks.

One of the books I picked up was Lone Ranger #9, from Dynamite. As a big, big fan of the original Dell series, I was sufficiently interested in this series to buy the first two issues. While they were good, I wasn’t really knocked out and was disappointed by the snail-like pacing. It wasn’t bad, but it takes a lot for me to buy floppies month to month. I thought I’d give the book a second chance, and although I am happy to report that it hasn’t gotten any worse, it also hasn’t gotten any better.

I find myself a bit confused immediately as we’ve got a slightly cryptic story here, with two separate plots that I imagine will come together at some point. I’ve either entered into the middle of a story arc, or the writer is just throwing me into the middle of the action and we’ll sort things out as we roll along. We are simultaneous watching LR and Tonto help someone seek revenge and observing a bad guy stirring up trouble elsewhere. I like that technique when it works well, I’m just not so sure Brett Matthews was able to pull it off here. I feel like the first 20 pages were just window dressing. The pacing is better than the first couple of issues and things move along briskly. The climax loses some of its punch because Sergio Cariello’s choice of facial expression on the Lone Ranger just before the shocking ending. His artwork was otherwise quite solid – good storytelling a he nails the Wild West quite well. I’m also not in love with the characterization of Tonto – he just comes across as a single-note Native version of Wolverine.

All in all, it was an ok read that left me feeling dissatisfied. It’s certainly not terrible, though and it was good enough to get me to check out another issue at some point in the no too distant future. Grade: B-

Friday, November 02, 2007

Abraham Lincoln Covers

Honest Abe met and early and violent death, but his spirit lives on (often quite literally) in funnybooks. I don’t think any President has come close to Abraham Lincoln in terms of comic book covers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he more cover appearances than all other US President combined.

Let’s start with a pretty sweet and innocent cover (although some would see just a wee hint of homo eroticism here) from Classics Illustrated. As not quite a century had passed since Lincoln’s death, it’s obvious that the good folks at Gilberton do not want to disrespect the dead. Abe’s early years are the focus of this comic, and those early years apparently included some bare chested wrestling. I’ve never been to Springfield, so I don’t know if it’s still all the rage. At least, I'm pretty sure that this is a scene from his young life, perhaps it's some sort of underground cage match with Jefferson Davis. I can't recall, haven't read this one in a while.

What a difference a few years make. We are now in the 60s and ACG’s editors obviously feel that enough time has passed for the nation to heal. Here we have a mad scientist trying to bring Abe back to life, perhaps with a view to ending the conflict in Vietnam. May I just say that I love Kurt Schaffenberger and his ACG covers as Lou Wahl as so much fun that that they should be against the law. Luckily, the mad scientist work out all of the kinks in the system on people like Martin Van Buren and Taft.

From what I can tell, President Lincoln played a supporting role for a while in the Scalphunter series from Weird Western Tales. The President would send our friend Scalpy out on missions that only a white guy dressed as an Indian could pull off. I guess they had a few too many pints of Federal Ale one night and decided to do a Civil War era version of Over the Top. I haven’t read this one, but if I ever see in for sale you can be sure that it will be added to the Lincoln collection. Nice to see George Washington making a sneaky little cameo here.

Captain America’s role as the symbol of a nation obviously doesn’t sit well with the Lincoln Memorial statue, who tries to remind the U.S. that he’s the guy that kept the country together and freed the slaves by taking down Mr. Rogers. By the time the statue from the Jefferson Memorial arrived on the scene to join in the melee, Cap and Abe had settled their differences together and decided to work together to bring down HYDRA. Anyone who has ever visited the Lincoln Memorial knows very well that you'd see a lot more than just a couple of bystanders.

I have no idea what’s going here, but it's such an awesome Joe Kubert cover that I couldn't pass it up. At first, it simply looks like the Lincoln Memorial, but wait - he's flesh coloured. Maybe the whole time, the statue has simply been an enlarged Lincoln in a stated of suspended animation. In the future, pollution got so bad that Congress voted to have a space suit place on the statue to protect Lincoln until he saw fit to return to the land of the living. Many of these late 70s/early 80s Kubert covers had little to do with the interiors, so it's possible that Lincoln doesn't even make an appearance. I've got to track this one down.

Friday, October 19, 2007

You've Been Warned: DC Comics Presents #32

Some childhood memories belong in the past. I spotted this book in the bargain bin, and I recognized it immediately. This cover really grabbed my attention back in the day. I couldn’t remember the story at all, and I can’t even tell you what happen to my copy. In fact, it might have been my sister’s copy because she did buy some Wonder Woman related stuff back then. Most of the kids on my street read comics circa 1980 and we passed them around from house to house, so it’s hard to know where any of them ended up. It should have ended up in the trash, and I don’t say that about many funnybooks.

To summarize, Eros is in love with Wonder Woman and when he is spurned he magically makes WW and Superman fall in love (yeah, like you needed to twist their arms) and hilarity ensues. Steve Trevor and Lois Lane both get treated like yesterday’s news for a while until Aphrodite sends our involuntary lovebirds to find a rare flower guarded by a Minotaur. If you’re confused, don’t worry – it’s better that way. All of this and we’ve got Colletta watering down Kurt Schaffenberger’s pencils to the point that they are not recognizable. Oh yeah, there’s a “Whatever Happened To?” back-up that makes the first story seems completely coherent. If you see this one for sale – walk, don’t run.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Skeleton Driver Covers

I’ve cast my eyes over countless comic book covers throughout that last 35 years and certain patterns have revealed themselves to me. This is how I came to have establish a series of comic book cover subgenres. One of my latest discoveries, and one of my favourites, are covers featuring a skeleton driving a vehicle. It’s such great gimmick, but also sufficiently strange, and I am a bit surprised to see how often it has been used.

Let’s start off with this classic Lee Elias cover from Witches Tales #20. Those of you who have read my on-line ramblings know that I never met an Elias cover that I didn’t like. This one may be the granddaddy of all Skeleton Driver covers. There are two things I really love about this cover: 1) the perspective is pretty original, as we only see the driver as a reflection in the windshield (does that make us the skeleton?) and 2) he’s wearing a fedora. Just because you’re a skeleton, doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of style.

Mysterious Adventures was a short-lived title from a short-lived publisher (Story Comics) that featured skeletons on the majority of its covers. It was almost inevitable that they’d publish a Skeleton Driver cover, but they also made sure that the car on the cover to Mysterious Adventures #19 was packed with more skeletons than a politician’s closet. I am sure that this one freaked out a few parents back in the early 50s – but perhaps they should have noticed that it has a very strong anti-drunk driving message. Fairly novel for that era, I’d imagine.

With this cover from Beyond #3, we move the highways to the skyways. I’m not sure what discount airline these two guys work for, but I’m sure the passengers wish they’d gone with something more reputable. Although I know it’s not very realistic, I really like the green glow giving to these skeletons – this colour tone was used for many horror covers. Another wonderful thing about this cover is that this stewardess (sorry, flight attendant) is so unbelievably cheery that she isn’t at all fazed by the fact that skeletons are flying the plane.

Here's another one of my favourites, the cover to Beware #9. I've never found the stories from this series to be particularly compelling (or well drawn for that matter) but this cover is a true classic. Check out the ship's captain - from the off-kilter cap to the stylish scarf, this guy is one sartorially sophisticated skeleton. As far as horror covers go, this one is pretty dialogue heavy, but what is most impressive is that the male water skier can talk while holding the ski rope in his mouth. Unlike the skeletons driving cars or flying planes, it is not clear to me how this skeleton plans on killing his victims from a ski boat. Perhaps he's driving around and around in an attempt to form the ultimate circle of death.

Along with horror comics in general, Skeleton Driver covers made a comeback in the 70s. Marvel published many reprint books in the early part of the decade, many with titles 'borrowed' from other publishers, including Beware, which featured a Skelton Driver cover for its second issue. Here we see how women's lib has influenced the subgenre as our chaffeur is woman, potentially scorned (a later killed?) by a lover. She has decided to exact revenge by taking out (in both sense of the term) Mr. Farrand. I'm certain that this guy regrets two things - 1) Not going with eHarmony and 2) Not fastening his seat belt.

That's it for now. I know that there are plenty of other Skeleton Driver covers out there (Unexpected #155 and Haunted Thrills #13 come to mind). I'm sure that the majority of them come from the horror genre, but if you find any others from any genre, be sure to let me know.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Single Issue Hall of Fame: Jonah Hex Spectactular

OK - the full title is DC Special Series #16: Jonah Hex Spectacular but I know enough about marketing to understand that too many words spoil the title. Western comics were well on their way out in the late 70s, but this great book made sure that they went out in with a bang. This one is pretty much designed to be great. I don’t know how commercially successful the DC Dollar Comics experiment was in the long run, but they certainly produced some great books.

Before Elseworlds, before Armageddon 2001, before Dark Knight we start off with a wonderfully twisted tale ("The Last Bounty Hunter"), which explores Jonah Hex’s last days on Earth. We are at the turn of the century and Jonah is an old man struggling to adjust to the modern world. It’s a very strong story by Michael Fleisher with a rather ghoulish ending. What really made me fall in love with the story, however, was the Russ Heath artwork. It is simply gorgeous. I am sure that this story was fairly controversial back in the day as readers saw the future demise of a current, successful character. To me, it makes perfect sense. Jonah’s future is actually 1904 so readers in the late 70s should bloody well know that he wasn’t gonna live to celebrate the Bicentennial.

There are two other stories that round out this book. A strong Bat Lash tale, with our good friend Mr. Lash exploring the underbelly of late 19th Century San Francisco. It’s a strong and entertaining tale by O’Neill and Moliterni. The Scalphunter story is the only relatively weak spot in this book. It’s a fairly simple paint by numbers recounting of his early days with his tribe. I’ve always been intrigued by the Scalphunter character and have been looking for the definitive Scalphunter tale – this isn’t it. This last story prevents this from being a perfect comic – but it’s still a Single Issue Hall of Famer.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Memoirs of a Bronze Age Baby: Ghost Manor #56

Some of you may wonder what's up with my love of Charlton books. I've never really been able to put my finger on it. As a child, I was a typical Marvel & DC superhero fan, but there always seemed to be a few odd Charlton books kicking around. One of the reasons has to do with distribution. Back when I was 8 years old, in the Summer of 1981, I could rely on any corner store having a few comic for sale. I hit my LCS almost every Saturday, but it was the slightly smaller cornerstore selection that kept me going during the week. I remember one in particular that I used to stop by while delaying my trip to my piano teacher's house.

There is a lake about 75 minutes northeast of Toronto. My paternal Grandparents had a small cottage on that lake (my Grandmother being born in that cottage in 1916). The nearby town had a small general store that had a tiny, tiny comic book selection. For some reason, they had mostly Charltons and Gold Keys instead of books from the Big Two. Over time I had amassed quite a stack of comics that I eventually left at the cottage. I was always thrilled to return each summer to re-read them.

That was a really roundabout way of saying that Ghost Manor #56 was one of those books, and always brings to mind lazy summer afternoons. It's a reprint book, but I didn't know that as a kid and I certainly wouldn't have cared. It's still one of the spookier images to ever grace a Charlton comic. I'm not sure if it was drawn for this issue (as it doesn't really fit the story) or if it was just in inventory), but it's cool and I always like the 'Solomon Grundy' look of the ghost. I'm sure that I've seen this cover used for another Charlton book, but I was not able to track it down this morning while scanning through some of their titles so I might be going crazy.

I won't really get into the second story, as it's a silly little tale involving a witch doctor. It's the first story that always got under my skin. It's about a prisoner who fakes his death in order to escape. The plan is for him to be buried alive and be rescued by a cohort. Needless to say, things don't quite work out as planned and if you're 'Buriedaliveaphobic', this one will make you squirm. Great, great stuff. What I really dig about it is the very deliberate pacing, as the story runs 17 pages - super long for a horror tale.

My Grandparents have both passed away, my Uncle has taken over the cottage, but I've still got my Ghost Manor #56 to take me back to those days by the lake.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Quick Book Reviews

Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammet
OK, OK – I’ve heard a million times how wonderful Hammet’s books are, and I’ve certainly been a big fan of his work translated to screen, but for one reason or another I just never got around to reading any of them. I finally rectified that situation and picked up a copy of Maltese Falcon at a used bookstore. I’ve seen the movie a half dozen times and was worried that it would interfere with my enjoyment of the book. Actually, the reverse was true – somehow, my knowledge of the movie and the various actors helped the prose bounce along beautifully. What a great read – wonderful dialogue and a great cast of characters. Of course, I kept hearing the voices of Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre in my head but that was more than fine by me. I think whomever cast the film should be given an Oscar. Next stop – the Thin Man.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick
What kind of a nerd am I? I've never read a book by this legend. I bought a stack of 'em from a used bookstore and figured I'd start in familiar territory. Much like the Maltese Falcon, I was worried that my repeated viewings of Blade Runner would much up my enjoyment. It didn't at all. The book is soooo different in scope, setting and overall vibe. I really enjoyed the sense of despair mixed with practicality in Dick's future - somehow people are both nihilistic and optimistic. Mercerism is really quite an ingenious shallow creation, and I was constantly reminded of the great reveal in the Wizard of Oz. His terse, economic prose took some getting used to but ultimately I got into the flow of things.

The Sportswriter - Richard Ford
I did this one if the wrong order, too. I read Independence Day several years ago and was just blown away by Ford's writing. Hauting, raw and beautiful are the words that come to mind. In the interim, I read a couple of other of Ford's non-Bascombe books and they just didn't measure up (I wonder if anything could). I finally tracked down a used copy of the Sportwriter and got to explore Frank Bascombe's first mid-life crisis. Of course, these books invite immediate comparison to Updike's Rabbit series, but that's really only at a superficial level. Ford's writing is slow, dense and deliberate - flowing like a lazy river. I cannot think of a book that I've enjoyed more in the last few years.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Voodoo Doll Covers

It’s a great comic book cover gimmick that has been used quite sparingly for some reason. I’ve always been a little freaked out by the whole notion of a voodoo doll. I don’t think that these dolls actually play a role in the Voudun religion (at least not from what I could tell while traveling in Benin) but they make for a great visual.

Moon Knight #6

I bought this comic off the racks when I was 8. I didn’t know Moon Knight from Adam, but this cover did quite a sales job. Forget dinosaurs, forget gorillas – apparently I was a sucker for voodoo doll covers at an early age. Marvel rarely used painted covers (except for their magazine line), but this was a great call on their part. Earl Norem painted some awesome covers back in the day, but I think that this was his best. The only real flaw to the Essential Moon Knight book is that readers can’t get a good look at this cover. A true classic!

Tales of the Zombie #3

This title is obviously a great fit for a Voodoo Doll Cover. Boris Vallejo gives it a nice little twist by moving away from the ‘stabbing with a pin’ motif and introducing the ‘strangled doll’ look. I always loved this series as a kid (they were pretty inexpensive in my LCS’ back issue magazine bins) and the stories were creepier than anything else I had been reading. Considering the Zombie originally popped up in a 50s Atlas story, I was surprised that I was unable to find an Atlas Voodoo Doll cover – but maybe I was not looking hard enough. Like just about every cover from this series, this one is a winner.

Unusual Tales #40

Unusual Tales featured come of Charlton most (ahem)… unusual covers (think Dog Cop). This one isn’t as unusual as it is lame. We’re not exactly in Norem or Vallejo territory here folks, but it’s still pretty fun. I love the fact that the doll looks nothing like Joan. I’d imagine every woman with that haircut felt the pain. Secondly, if this voodoo stuff is so menacing, why does it look like Joan is only suffering from indigestion? Shouldn’t they be trying to get away from that raging brushfire? Only at Charlton folks – bless them and their bowling alley.

Six Million Dollar Man #2

A very odd place to spot a Voodoo Doll Cover (perhaps only Space: 1999 would be less appropriate), Charlton makes amends for the previous cover with this awesome Neal Adams masterpiece. Steve Austin feels the pain, even though he’s wearing different clothes. This story is quite fun actually as the team of Cuti & Staton have Steve and Oscar trying to track down the murderer of a doll maker. There’s a great little ECish revenge twist at the end, and it concludes with Steve shilling his 12-inch doll in the final panel. You just can’t lose with this one.

Monday, July 30, 2007

You’ve Been Warned: 1st Issue Special #11 – Code Name: Assassin

1st Issue Special had its share of ‘So Bad It’s Good’ issues (see Dingbats of Danger Street), but this one is purely ‘So Bad I Can’t Even Begin to Look for the Ironic Humour’. It’s so bad that I’ve lost a degree of respect for everyone involved, especially Steve Skeates. Skeates wrote some of my favourite stories, but this one would make Charlie Droople reconsider his comic book obsession. This comic has the look and feel of something that was rejected at Marvel, and then later rejected at Atlas-Seaboard only to wind up at DC where someone must have had some very dirty pictures of their boss.

The real problem here is that the Assassin (or is his full name actually Code Name: Assassin?) is generic with a capital ‘G’. From his costume, to his powers, to his origin, it seems like no comic book cliché was left unturned. I can forgive much of this series as well intentioned kitsch, but this one is guilty of showing zero imagination. Let’s look at a few obvious prerequisites for a stale 70s superhero concept.

Revenge Motif
Yup, he wants to bring down the mob because it killed his sister. After the death of his parents, Assassin was raised by his caring and intelligent sister. I guess her intelligence had its limits, as she took a job working for the mob to help him through college. Bald men need to be screamed at because they simply do not understand the special bond between a sister and a brother.

Unspecified Powers
This is the lazy writer's way of coping with a half-baked idea. If you leave the whole ‘powers’ issue a bit open-ended, you can always throw in something new when necessity dictates. His very original origin reveals that as a college student, Assassin was strong-armed into volunteering for an experiment. An explosion at the lab gave him his power, man. As far as I can tell, his powers include reading minds, rapid healing, air walking (that’s what those ribbons of colour on the cover indicated) and some sort of death dealing mental blast.

Déjà vu Rogues Gallery
After Assassin takes out of some his underlings, the mob boss hires Cobra and Mr. Hyde… I’m sorry I meant to say Snake and Powerhouse. These two demonstrate their powers by making mince meat of some mod henchmen. Unfortunately (or perhaps mercifully) the issue ends just as Assassin is about to lock horns with these two baddies. It must have been quite the fight as none of them was heard from again.

Verdict: Luckily, it was a single issue special

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 70s

Here’s the thing; my thesis on 70s robots is a bit wonky as I believe that the first batch of 1970s robots appeared in 1965. I am talking about those mutant hunters known as the Sentinels. What sets them apart from earlier robots is a look that can be best described as ‘Sophisticated Evil’. 70s robots are well-made, sleek killing machines with a single purpose in life. They often have a very militaristic look to them and just reek of pure evil. These are not your father’s robots. These guys are all business.

Just one look at the Sentinels is enough to strike fear into the heart of a reader, never mind a mutant. The were fairly threatening when first introduced, but got really scary during the Thomas/Adams run at the tail end of the 60s. When the series was re-launched in the mid-70s, Dave Cockrum’s Sentinels kicked all kinds of ass. The Sentinels ushered in the most frightening period of comic book robotics, culminating in the Days of Future Past storyline. How cool was it to see those Danger Room Sentinels in X-Men: Last Stand?

Like the Sentinels, Ultron also first appeared in the 60s, but to me he is the perfect example of a 70s robot. Ultron is beautifully designed, very sleek and powerful. He’s got that frightening facial expression and he really just has one thing on his mind: destruction. Ultron is constantly undergoing upgrades, but keep the same basic design. He is a chrome killing machine. One of my most powerful memories of reading comics as a child was the battle sequence from Avengers #161, when Ultron dismantled the team with ease and Jarvis returns to see the mansion in shambles. I was so freaked out by Ultron back then. I still am a little.

The Construct’s Cannons are perhaps DC’s answers to the Sentinels, but the Construct is dedicated to wiping out all of humanity, not just muties. Their design borrows a bit from Ultron, but have some pretty cool features unique to them, especially their cannon blasting arms. These are designed for only one purpose: killing. In the 40s and 50s, many robots seemed to want to play checkers with Superboy. These guys would just want to destroy him. Of course, they might be more bark than bite as Willow makes pretty quick work of them were a pair of hooker boots. Justice League of America #142 remains one of my favourite comics of all time and the look of these Cannons, along with the Construct itself, is a big reason why.

Warren magazines featured some great robot designs, perhaps none better than this one from Creepy #104, which brings to mind Stormtroopers or Cylons. It has that military look, right down to the fact that it is wielding a weapon and the awesome gas mask. I would not want this guy chasing after me. We’ve obviously come a long way from Bozo the Robot. I love this cover sooooo much. I love this robot. I love Warren publications. Robots, Robots, Robots, indeed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 60s

The 60s was a tumultuous time, and the realm of robot design was no exception. The only real rule about robot design was that there were no rules. We had everything from the (pretty clunky for the 30th century) Computo to the “I can’t believe that’s not Nick Fury” LMDs from SHIELD. Although the decade began with remnants of 50s robots spilling over into the 60s, robot design started going off in a variety of directions. From Iron Man’s armor to Doc Ock’s arms, many human characters also took on somewhat robotic aspects. We also saw robots (sorry – I am not going to get fussy about android or synthezoid categories here) such as the Vision and Red Tornado searching for their humanity. We were also bombarded with robots designed to replace their human counterparts (the aforementioned LMDs, the Doombots etc…).

Although it seemed as though a robot revolution was underway, many artists maintain the status quo, as there are plenty of straight-laced 50s robots in the 60s (see Strange Adventures #136). This lack of design consistency makes it hard to pinpoint a specific theme, but I thought it would be fun to put a few designs in the spotlight to see what sets them apart. If I could only use one word to describe some of the new robot designs introduced in that decade, I would have to use a terribly dated word from that era: ‘Trippy’.

The Metal Men are an interesting example of a 60s robot, as they are essentially an LSD laced version of a 50s robot. They've got the humanoid features, but the fluidity of movement (especially in Mercury and Tin) and their individual temperaments sets them apart from their brethren from the 50s. Many of their foes also have a looks that is a slightly warped version of what we have seen with 50s robots. Although this is mostly known as a fun and silly series, there are some fairly sophisticated sci-fi themes (Tina’s unrequited love for Doc Magus, Tin’s desire for a mate). This cover to Metal Men #7 demonstrates what a vivid imagination, such as that possessed by Ross Andru, can do to a 50s robot.

One of my all-time favourite robots is J. Jonah Jameson’s personal troublemaker, the Spider Slayer. While this particular robot has gone through more than a few changes (I don’t see them as upgrades) over the years, Steve Ditko's original version, as showcased on the classic cover to Amazing Spider-Man #25, represents a giant step beyond the typical robot design of the past. Spidey would likely make mincemeat out of a slower, less agile 40s or 50s robot, but the almost elastic Spider Slayer gives him all sorts of trouble. I’ve always preferred the Ditko designed Slayer, as Romita’s version later in the decade has always brought to mind a metal teddy bear. Ditko’s robot pushed the boundaries of what a comic book robot can be, as we'd see more of this 'loose' robot style when he took over the pencilling chores on Rom.

In the not-too-distant future, mankind will rely heavily on Magnus’ judo chop to fend off unruly, but very stylish robots. There is no real pattern to the robot designs in Magnus’ world, as it seems that Russ Manning & company were given carte blanche to come up with as many looks as possible. It would be hard to name a more consistently awesome cover gallery than the one from this Gold Key series. Magnus’ foes sometimes can fly, sometimes swim (like these guys from Magnus #27) and sometimes use their giant buzz saw hands. Like the Metal Men, many of the robots featured in this title are similar to those of the 50s, but the ‘loosed limbed’ effect Manning creates makes them even more threatening, even the robots that look like flying vacuum cleaners.

My final selection is the Mad Thinker’s Awesome Android (is that the longest robot name ever?), first introduced in Fantastic Four #15 who appears to be nothing more than a sculptor’s half finished masterpiece. He has a much more ‘organic’ look that his predecessors from the 40s and 50s as there is nary a right angle anywhere in the design. He has always seemed a little out of place in the realm of Marvel Silver Age villains. When compared to the likes of Doctor Doom and Galactus, he looks downright silly. That’s not to say that I don’t like the old hammerhead, it’s just that he’s proof that Stan and Jack weren’t taking robots too serious in the 60s.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 50s

By the time the 50s rolled around, robots had been streamlined considerably. Gone were the boxy behemoths that battled Golden Age heroes. Replacing them were slimmer, more agile successors. These robots seemed to take on a bit more of a human look. Here are some of my favourite examples in this next stage in the evolution of robot design:

When I think ‘50s robot’, I immediately think of Bob Powell’s cover to Avenger #3. This series may have been short-lived, but Powell’s Robot Robber had lasting impact. He has so many cool features, beginning with his size. He is no giant, but sufficiently larger than a human to be intimidating. His is somewhat humanoid in shape, but I like the fact that his torso is so large that his legs come out the sides. He looks like a prototype for the Go-Bots. Another cool design feature is how his arms and legs become much larger at the elbow and knee, respectively. This gives the robot a real Popeye effect. Finally, his head is beyond cool, as it looks almost as though he is wearing a helmet and visor to hide his features. Powell hit the ball out of the park with this one. Alter Ego recently featured an homage cover, with Daredevil taking on the robot.

The 'more than a little disturbing' cover to Amazing Adventures #4 looks more like a pulp cover than a comic book cover. That makes perfect sense, as the publisher, Ziff-Davis, was a much larger player in the pulp world than it ever was in comics. This rather amorous “Love Robot” has some great features, including metallic blue hair. Unlike many robots from the 40s, the facial features on this Romeo are quite human. It’s not the robot’s advances that I find to be disturbing, but that the woman seems to be pretty into it. If there’s a word for robot-human sex, I’ve never heard of it. It’s too bad that this robot can’t be controlled by remote because three’s a crowd.

Another one of my all-time 50s comic book robots is the Iron Emperor from Blackhawk #42. He’s quite human in detail, especially his facial features. He comes across like some sort of fully articulated action figure – with enhanced dexterity from his hands and fingers. Even with all of these advances, he still has the single radio antenna atop his chrome dome, giving him a bit of a retro look. The thing I like most about this particular robot is that instead of shooting guns out of his chest, or laser beams out his eyes, he carries a simple Morning Star Mace for protection. This damsel doesn’t seem to have Robo-Fever like the blonde from Amazing Adventures. Overall, this is just great work by Reed Crandall.

DC’s sci-fi and adventure books featured a ton of great robots, but these guys from My Greatest Adventure #26 really stand out as a strong example of 50s robots. I can see the influence of two outside sources on robots such as these. First, this type of skinny-legged destructive giant brings to mind the tripods from War of the Worlds. Secondly, the notion of a creator losing control of a ‘good’ robot shows the impact that the likes of Asimov had on comic book creators. So many of DC’s writers (Edmond Hamilton, Gardner Fox, Otto Binder) had pulp fiction backgrounds, that it was inevitable that many of the Creator vs. Creation themes were to find their way into the funny pages. These robots are certainly menacing but something about their bulging eyeballs and lantern jaws makes them look a little dense.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 40s

Robots have been a part of comic books from the beginning, but they certainly weren’t the sleek, adamantium-shelled menaces we have today. The best word to describe comic book robots in the 40s would be Clunky. That’s not to say that they didn’t kick ass, but they just look a little soft in the middle when compared to latter day bots. Here are a few prime examples.

Perhaps the Godfather of all comic book robots is Bozo the Robot (yup, that’s right) who was a major feature for Quality’s Smash Comics. The look is completely comical by today’s standards, but he was probably cutting edge at the time. He actually brings to mind the earliest Iron Man armor from Tales of Suspense #39. Perhaps Tony Stark had a stack of Smash Comics in his POW camp. Even without a streamlined look, Bozo was plenty agile as can be seen on this cover to Smash Comics #5. Those alligators don’t seem at all fazed by the fact that they are chewing on tin.

Another early example of 40s robot design can be found on the cover to Pep Comics #1, featuring a trio of Irv Novick designed robots. The thing I love about these guys is how much they look like movie gangsters. I guess it’s appropriate seeing how the Shield is a federal agent. My guess is that Novick was trying to design metallic Jimmy Cagneys, and he did a great job. The weakest part of the design is most definitely the ‘skirt’ look that would later haunt both 1950s Robotman and 1960s Iron Man. The thing I like most about these particular gangster bots is the chest gun design. It’s just so cool that back in the day robots weren’t equipped with lasers, but still have to pack heat like everyone else.

The Justice Society had to take on robot threats more than once during the 40s, but none quite as distinctive as this particular ‘Metal Menace’. As far as I understand, this is actually a living metal being from Jupiter, but in my world, if it looks and walks like a robot, it’s a robot. He looks as though he was cobbled together by a 12-year old using scrap metal. I am not sure what the heck those antennae do, but they do give the robot a bit of an insectoid look. It must be a very well oiled machine if nobody in the JSA can hear him coming. Maybe Hawkman heard the robot but can’t warn the others because he doesn’t have a mouth.

Our final example of 40s robot design is from later in the decade and represents a slightly sleeker and shinier look – something that would carry over into sci-fi comics, pulps and movies in the 50s. This ultra cool robot was drawn by Alex Schomburg during his airbrush Xela period. Matt Groening was obviously a fan of this design as he used it for Bender on Futurama. The thing I like about this robot is the fact that he’s not afraid of rust, as he’s wading his way through a pond. He must be made of new alloy. The weakest part of the design is the car radio antenna atop his head, but I’ll cut my man Alex some slack, as he’s created the ultimate 40s robot.

Let me know if you’ve got any favourite comic book robot designs from the 40s. In the not-too-distant future, I’ll be looking at robot design in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Single Issue Hall of Fame: Fantastic Four #233

Sometimes Fantastic Four comics give me a headache. They can be too large in scope, too ambitious and generally too loud. At the very beginning of John Byrne’s tenure with the Baxter Bunch, we are treated to a very subdued, very human story. In a nutshell, this is a Human Torch solo story that kicks off with a priest delivery a dead man’s last wish to Johnny. Johnny plays detective and ultimately winds up taking on Hammerhead.

While the plot and the pacing are quite strong, it’s the characterization of Johnny Storm that really impressed. Far too often, Johnny has been pigeonholed as the ‘hothead’ of the Marvel Universe, but Byrne pulls off a neat little trick here, allowing us to getting inside Johnny’s head as he gets in over it. At times, it has the look and feel of an early Spider-Man issue, especially when Johnny becomes aware of his overconfidence. It’s also a good primer for new readers as some of the aspects of the Torch’s powers are highlighted. In a single issue, John Byrne turned Johnny Storm him into a character I care about by focusing more on the ‘Human’ and less on the ‘Torch’.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bear Punch Covers

There are many covers out there featuring bear attacks or people being threatened by bears, but very rare is the cover where our hero actually has enough courage to take on a bear. Here are some examples:

Supersnipe Volume 4 #11
It seems that no matter what category I select, there’s a Supersnipe cover that fits the bill. This is actually one of two Supersnipe covers featuring some Man vs. Bear action. As I’ve stated before, I’ve never read one of these books buy you know they’ve got to be good (if a little repetitive). In the 1940s, the Arctic might as well have been Mars and publishers were obviously keen on tapping into their readers’ desire to adventure into the unknown. Nowadays, tourists pile into ATV to visit the huge beasts. Modernity is kind of sad.

Joe Palooka #48
If you’ve ever browsed a Joe Palooka Cover Gallery (and who here hasn’t?), you know that he’s punched just about everything in creation. It’s really nice of Joe to help out the young campers, but doesn’t he know that you are supposed to play dead when confronting by a grizzly bear? Or is that a black bear? I always get them mixed up. This is probably the friendliest looking killer bear that you are likely to see – looks more like a kangaroo on steroids.

Marvel Family #82
Is that the same bear that took on Supersnipe? Won’t he ever learn? I like how Cap and Cap Jr. have decided to sit back and let Mary do all of the heavy lifting. Judging from the look on the polar bear’s face, Mary got him right in the solar plexus. Either that or the reproductive organs are located fairly high. This was near the end of the line for the Fawcett line of Marvel titles, so they obviously had faith that a good old-fashioned Bear Punch cover would help spike sales.

Adventures Into the Unknown #148
I can tell what’s going through Nemesis’ mind on this cover. He’s thinking ‘What the hell am I doing on a Golden Age cover in the middle of the 60s?’ Well, my masked friend, the fact that this cover was drawn by Kurt Schaffenberger (as Jay Kafka), who also contributed to (you guessed it) Marvel Family #82, might have something to do with it. You’d think that after taking on various super-villains and a T-Rex, Nemesis wouldn’t be so worried about a grizzly bear but I guess everyone has their phobias.