Friday, March 30, 2007

A Second Look - Batman: A Death in the Family

Remember when the death of a superhero was a big deal? Seems like 100 years ago. I recently dusted off my old Death in the Family TPB and tried to give it a look with fresh eyes. My expectations were low, as I had never had much invested in Jason Todd and the whole democratization of storytelling had always rubbed me the wrong way a bit. I also recall thinking that the whole Middle East angle to the story was about as clich├ęd 80s as you could get.

You know what? I was wrong. The story really isn’t half bad, Jason Todd comes across as far more sympathetic a character than portrayed earlier, there was a good degree of pathos in his search for his mother, and the whole Middle East connection seems pretty topical today. His death – the sheer brutality of the Joker’s beating (much of it kept off-panel), his last minute heroism and the Batman’s reaction are all well present and retain a real impact.

I’ve always found Jim Starlin to be pretty hit and miss as a writer and he’s responsible for one of my least favourite Batman stories ever (The Cult), but he does an ok job here. I get the feeling like he wanted to introduce a bunch of ‘Big Ideas’ and make grand statements, but someone wisely suggested that he focus on the more human element of the story. All things, of course, are made better by Jim Aparo art and this story is no exception. Whenever I see an Aparo cape & cowl, it feels like a homecoming. He is able to convey emotion here, and I couldn’t think of an artist better suite to telling this story. We miss you Jim.

All in all, I think it holds up pretty well. It’s a shame that DC felt it needed a big stunt, and I sometimes feel as though this storyline (along with Crisis) helped to open some floodgates that should have remained shut. That being said, it’s really a pretty good piece of comic book storytelling and made me feel sad for the loss of Jason Todd. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I Heart Heath's Haunted Tank

I know that I’ve written about Russ Heath before, and I’ll certainly write about him again but he’s on my brain right now, so you’re stuck with me chatting about him today. Heath is one of those artists whose work I really love, but whenever the time comes to jot down a list of top 10 or top 20 favourite artists, he just never seems to come to mind for inclusion. OK – that’s a bit of a lie, having reviewed my top 50 artists list on last year’s CBR compilation, I had him slotted at #19.

The reason I don’t often think of Heath is probably because he didn’t work on any of my favourite books when I was a kid, like Aparo, Newton or Dillin and wasn’t a huge factor in the initial wave of back issue collecting I undertook – which focused on the likes of Kirby, Ditko and Toth. Russ Heath just kind of snuck by me – who knows why? I was aware of the name, and must have seen some bits and pieces in reprint form but really didn’t get to know his work until about 10 years ago.

The first time his I really made the connection between his name and his artwork was with his arc on Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. The arc was called Heat, and it was the way Heath was able to draw a heat wave onto the printed page. I knew the name was legendary, but I’d never actually seen the man at work. I was pretty impressed, as it looked very good when compared to most of the artwork in DC books at the time.

I don’t want to talk about Heath and his whole illustrious career and all that jazz right now. All I want to talk about is how kick ass his artwork looks in the DC Showcase Presents Haunted Tank volume. Most of my previous exposure to the Haunted Tank was through late 70s and early 80s of GI Combat. At this stage, DC’s war books were looking a little long in the tooth, and aside from the nice Kubert covers, they weren’t much to write home about. I had always found the concept of the Haunted Tank to be one of the Top 10 strangest in all of comicdom (that’s saying quite a lot).

I wanted to get my hands on the DC Showcase Presents volume as I pretty much plan on getting all of them. I had low expectations, as I knew this wasn’t a series I loved in the same way that I love Jonah Hex or Unknown Soldier. I am thrilled to report that I was happily surprised by what I’ve read so far. The stories are original and the action moves along at a good clip. The real treat, of course, is the artwork. These war books are renowned for the covers (especially those with the Jack Adler grey tones), but the interiors are pretty great too.

I have been absolutely blown away by the Russ Heath drawn issues. His artwork is so superb that I find myself having crazy thoughts like ‘Awwww, these next few stories only have Kubert art’. Who would have ever thought such thought were possible? Not me, until just last week. His artwork is just that good here.

What makes it so great? It’s the faces. He can paint any emotion with just a few strokes of the pencil. The look of panic in a soldier’s eye, the look of exhaustion in a drooping mouth, the sense of claustrophobia created by a few beads of sweat on a brow. It’s all there, in beautiful black and white. I’ve always felt that Toth’s Zorro comics should be used as a textbook for those studying comic book art. If I was Dean of such a school, I’d like to add Heath’s Haunted Tank to the reading list.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Manhunter by Goodwin & Simonson: A Look Back

Here I am wasting perfectly good bandwidth discussing a comic strip that has received more than its fair share of kudos over the years. You may be asking yourself – what more can this moron say about Manhunter that hasn’t already been said? Well, at the very least, I can present my opinions on this series punctuated with quirky Canadian spelling.

I had read most if not all of the Manhunter back-ups at one time or another via various back issues, but when I saw this Special Edition TPB on sale at an LCS not too long ago, I thought that it would be great to have the whole thing in a single package. Due to a heavy work and parenting loan, my quality comic book reading time has been somewhat limited as of late, but I finally did get the chance to dive into this book.

As it turns out, it certainly does lend itself to being read in one sitting. You really get a sense of where Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson were headed with this character. Although it has been said before, this really is groundbreaking stuff; at least as far as mainstream superhero books were concerned. Goodwin’s obvious love of pulps is apparent here, as our hero operates in the shadows and reveals himself on a ‘need to know’ basis. The storytelling has a great more cinematic approach, as the plot unfolds in a slightly kinetic way, forcing the reader to pay very close attention.

The storyline contains so many great elements (shadowy secret society, clones, serious globetrotting) that we have come to know and love as members of the ‘24/Alias’ generation. In some ways, this storyline was so far ahead of the pack in the early 70s that it doesn’t feel at all dated today. It’s really incredible how much the creative team was able to squeeze into each short back-up tale.

Upon re-reading these tales, there are two things that really strike me today. The first is Simonson’s work here. I know he was pretty new to the industry at the time of the original stories, but he demonstrated that he had his own voice and would be telling stories in his own way. Working with Goodwin, Simonson was able to use some creative layouts that are riveting – they are absolutely Krigsteinesque in spots. The look Simonson have his figures changed over the years – morphing into a Kirby-style chunkiness. I much prefer these earlier, lean figures, as they are able to move more fluidly in the action sequences.

The second aspect of this series that really impresses me is Goodwin’s writing. Of course, he was a wonderful writer but he certainly falls into the ‘don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’ camp. At a time when the likes of Roy Thomas and Don McGregor were demanding larger and larger word balloons, Goodwin was able to convey a wonderful story in surprisingly few words. It’s an impressive feat.

The really great surprise in this reprint collection, which I understand won some awards upon in initial publication, is a short, silent ‘final’ Manhunter story that provides some closure regarding the clone issue. It a fun little spectacle, based on notes left by Goodwin. Although it has been applauded time and time again over the past 30 years, I just thought one more voice of praise couldn’t hurt. Thanks Archie and Walt – it was a great ride.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Lee Elias at Harvey: Babes, Bullets and Blechh!

Time and time again, we read that the comic book industry had a tough time in the 50s. The advent of the Comics Code Authority coupled with new distraction for youngster such as television made it tough for many companies to find an audience (RIP EC, Quality and Fawcett).

The downside to all of this doom and gloom talk is that many companies were producing comics of a quality that hadn’t been seen to that point and haven’t been seen since. Much of this is due to the amazing roster of talented artists who worked in the industry during the decade. The EC bullpen is certainly the most (in)famous, which superstars such as Craig, Ingels, Cradall and Davis. It could be argued that the Atlas bullpen was just as strong featuring Joe Maneely, Russ Heath, John Romita and Don Heck. Some people may think that DC produced mainly bland comics in the 50s but anyone who has ever read ‘Greatest Comics of the 50s’ has be amazed by the artwork by Frank Frazetta, Ruben Moreira and Alex Toth.

One company that is almost always forgotten in all of these discussions is today best known for friendly ghosts and rich kids with huge heads. I’m talking about Harvey, folks. For my money, Harvey produced some of the finest comics from the late 40s to the late 50s. They may not be known for superheroes, but they published many excellent titles in the Horror, Romance and War genres. Harvey had its own bullpen of fine artists and although they may not be as well known as those who worked for EC or Atlas, they are worth spotlighting. It almost impossible to pick up a Harvey book from this period and not be impressed by the artwork. You’re likely to come across work by such greats as Bob Powell, Rudy Palais and the artist featured in this blog entry: Lee Elias.

Lee Elias may be best know to many fans as the guy who worked on some wacky DC characters (like Ultra the Multi-Alien), or whose name pops up in the occasional oddball Marvel title of the 70s (see Human Fly). Elias actually has one of the longer curriculum vitaes in comicdom. A quick search on the GCD shows that Elias’ first work pops up in the early 40s on Fiction House titles such as Wings, Rangers and Planet Comics. Elias really began making his mark as the lead artist on Black Cat.

Black Cat had been around for years, making appearances in Pocket Comics and Speed Comics. Her adventures were great (drawn by Powell and Joe Kubert, among others) but the stories were brief and hamstrung by WW2 patriotism. In her solo title (still a fairly novel idea that a female superhero could headline a book), she was infused with a mixture of style and energy by Elias’ wonderful artwork. Like so many of his generation, the influence of Milt Caniff is undeniable, but Elias seems to add an extra level of excitement, as his figures seem to be in constant motion. The Black Cat artwork featured here is a good example of what Elias brought to the time; it was exciting and yet elegant.

Of course, with superheroes going out of vogue towards the end of the Golden Age, artists needed to find work in other genres. Luckily for Elias, his skill set was adaptable to almost any genre. Check out the romance page I’ve included here. We’ve got a typical yarn about a girl who falls in love with a rich guy only to find out he’s so rich. Elias is able to work wonders considering his artwork is threatened by the text throughout the story. It’s incredible to see how he manages to squeeze some dancing, a drive in the country and a moonlit paddle into a single panel.

To help serve as a counterbalance to its countless romance titles, Harvey also published a myriad of war books. These are often ultra-violent and not terribly sympathetic to the Communist cause. From time to time, though, a story would be told on a smaller scale - a ‘one man’s war’ type of tale. Lee Elias excelled at these, as he was able to bring both quiet and chaos into a story. Check out the original art war page I’ve included here (I tracked down some online images, thinking that his lovely work would really shine in black & white). It is a tale told simply, yet effectively. There is a real sense of danger and dread here.

To cap off this short discussion of Lee Elias’ work for Harvey, how can I possible leave out the horror stuff. Sure, EC horror books are the most famous – they have been reprinted endlessly and have spawned a TV series, but many of the most famous, and graphic, images from the horror genre actually come from Harvey titles, many of them drawn by Lee Elias. Face Melting Cover? Elias. Exploding Face Cover? Elias. Branding Cover? Elias. The list goes on and on. For some reason, this gentleman who drew such lovely romance stories could also draw the most disturbing covers imaginable. I’ve including my favourite here. For my money, no other horror cover from the 50s comes close to this one in terms of making your skin crawl. Ugh, Rats! Blechh!!

So that a quick look at one of comicdom’s often overlooked creators. Golden Age Harvey books are a relative bargain when compared to those by Timely/Atlas, DC or EC so I urge you to check them out.