Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Steve Ditko Cover of the Week: Amazing Spider-Man #18

How perfectly designed is this cover? If ever a picture told a thousand words, it is this one. The juxtaposition of the Sandman's rampage in the background and Spidey cowering in the foreground tells us all that we need to know about the story. Spidey is supposed to be a hero to whom we can relate, and I'd imagine that all young Silver Age readers could related to being a little bit afraid of a bad guy like the Sandman. There's so much more drama and emotion on this cover than you typically see on a cover from the 60s. Could you imagine how gorgeous this would be if it was published without all of those atrocious captions? Definitely one of the finest Spider-Man covers of all-time. I'm trying to showcase Ditko covers from all over the map, but I need to come back to Classicsville every now and then.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reprint This! Comico's Jonny Quest

Like so many things that I'd like to see reprinted, this one would get caught up in licensed property hell. Still, I always believe that if there is a will, there's a way. I certainly never thought we'd see beautiful hardcover editions of Kubert-era Tarzan, so there is always hope. In the 80s, fledgling comic book publisher Comico got the rights from H-B to produce a comic book series featuring Jonny, Race et al. It's a virtual Who's Who of comic book talent, with the likes of Steve Rude, Dave Stevens and Dan Spiegle getting in on the action. I believe that William Messner-Loebs handled most, if not all, of the writing chores and some of his finest work can be found in these pages.

These books are an absolute joy to read. If you are anything like me, these flew under your radar back in the 80s. I've been fortunate enough to pick up most of them in various bargain bins, but it seems unjust that they haven't been compiled into a nice collection. I'm sad to say that the law of diminishing returns kicks in after a while, and the last 20 or so issues of the regular run are all of the map in terms of quality. Too often the story strays from the proven formula and we're given a book dedicated to a single character, even Bandit. While some of these concepts may seem good on paper (such as those featuring a younger Race), they rarely live up to their promise. Truth be told, they are still enjoyable but they 'great' issues here set the bar very high.

While we're on a roll, I'll also suggest throwing in the three issues of Johnny Quest Classics; wcich adapted episodes of the TV show. These are Doug Wildey's babies, as he was responsible for the scripts and the artwork. The real bonus is that these stories are painted. The sheer beauty of Wildey's painted work is reason enough for buying a collection. There are also a couple of Specials and a Jade miniseries. I've never seen any of those, so why not throw them into the mix? I honestly think that a Jonny Quest Omnibus would been a consistently strong seller year in and year out. Dark Horse seems to be the best company when it comes to reprinting forgotten gems, so here's hoping they stumble across my blog.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Charlton Notebook: Judomaster #98

Of all of the 'Action Heroes', the one who seems to get the least amount of respect is Judomaster. Moments after he was acquired by DC, he was shelved and only allowed to come out to play on the rarest of occasions. I guess he's a bit of an odd fit, since his exploits take place during WW2 so teaming him up with Blue Beetle, Captain Atom & Company doesn't work very well. That being said, WW2 adventures are pretty fun, and who can complain about a little 60s era martial arts? This is the final issue of the Judomaster series, and it's really quite solid. The lead story features an uncharted island filled with dinosaurs controlled by the (and I'm not making this up) 'Japanese Sandman'. In between chops and throws, Judomaster and Tiger are able to spew out just enough racial slurs to keep this very politically incorrect. The Frank McLaughlin art is spectacular, especially the first page splash. The back-up is a nice little Sarge Steel story with cool Dick Giordano art. All in all, this is one of the most attractive looking non-Ditko Charltons I've seen.
I would be nice to see these two characters get their collective dues in a future volume of the Action Heroes Archives.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

3 Songs to Download for July

There's a scene in Juno, where Jason Bateman's character tries to convince Juno of the awesomeness of Sonic Youth's version of The Carpenters' 'Superstar'. I've been having that conversation with people since the If I Were a Carpenter album was released (although in my case, I wasn't having these chats with teenage girls). To me, a good cover song should do 2 things: 1) Put a fresh coat of paint on the original song and, at the same time 2) enhance your appreciation of the original. Let's have a look at a few of my favourite that you like to take for a spin on your iPod.

Maybe I'm Amazed - The Faces
Has this one been slightly forgotten in the sands of time? Paul McCartney's power ballad is about as sappy as it gets, but somehow Stewart, Lane et al. are able to dip it in enough Scotch to make it seem vital, almost visceral.

Winterlong - The Pixies
The Pixies take on this fairly minor Neil Young song first appeared on the Tribute for the Bridge School album. I lost my cassette of it years ago, and I don't think it's every been re-released. Luckily, this song has popped up on a recent Pixies compilation so everyone can enjoy this tune, but is simultaneously sunny and melancholic.

Louie Louie - Toots and the Maytals
From the wonderful "Funky Kingston" album, the Maytals' slow romp through this song seems to really show the connection between reggae music and early rock 'n roll. It may seem like an awkward rhythm at first, but creeps nicely into your subconscious with repeated listening. Proof that everything Toots touches is instantly cool.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bottled Up Covers

You'd be surprised by just how many covers feature someone trapped in a bottle. Sometimes it's the bad guy, sometimes it's the good guy and sometimes it's just a leprechaun. Let's look at a few of my favourite 'Bottled Up' covers.

Gil Kane's iconic cover to Showcase #34 is the standard bearer of the Bottle Up genre. I believe it's been swiped at least once, but I'm coming up blank on the title. Kane was obviously a master of design, as so many Atom covers are real eye catchers, but this one is a real corker. It took a long, long time but I finally completed a full run of Silver Age Atom, including the three Showcase try out issues. I love 'em. This is truly the king of the Bottled Up cover.

You really don't see too many Fishing Covers, and a fishing cover mix in with a Bottle Up is really just about as good as it gets. The cover to Strange Tales #35 by Carl Burgos is nowhere near as dynamic or elegant as those by his Atlas contemporaries such has Everett, Heath or Maneely but it's the first post-Code issue of the title, so perhaps it was mandated blandness. You'd think that if you were out trout fishing and you pull up a tiny man in a bottle, your facial expression would looked a little bit more shocked than the one we see here, but perhaps this particular lake has produced a disproportionate number of oddities.

Holy Claustrophobia Batman! Yup - we're knee deep in the muck of early Silver Age Batman here, folks with Batman #115. It was a charming time, but I don't think this issue will be used as the plot for Batman 3. Shelly Moldoff was always very effective at selling all of the nutty concept he was assigned, and this cover is no exception. As far as I understand, this is a time travel story but I'm guessing that DC didn't have an anthropologist on staff to help explain that at no time did giants ever exist on Earth. What I love most about the dialogue on this cover is Batman's supreme confidence. The face that he's surrounded by twin giants and trapped in an old Chianti bottle doesn't phase him one bit.

I'm saving my favourite for last here - the cover to Unknown Worlds #35. When you go back and look at ACG's output during the Silver Age, it's amazing that they were able to stay in business for as long as they did. Herbie aside, their books were just so out of step with the times. For me, that's a large part of the charm and the Kurt Shaffenberger and Ogden Whitney covers are almost always clean and eye catching. It's tough not to love a leprechaun story, and I have a hard time believing that even the most steadfast Marvel zombie could pass up trying to find out how this little guy wound up in the water cooler.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Steve Ditko Cover of the Week: Curse of the Weird #1

OK, I know, I'm slow with these covers, but I'm trying to get these out every week or two. Until recently (that you Amazing Fantasy Omnibus!), I was completely unaware of 'Curse of the Weird'; an odd little series of Atlas era reprints published in the mi90s. Of course, now I'm obsessed with tracking down the other 3 issues. It's all reprint, except for this new Ditko cover. I'm not sure if it was actually done for the book, or just something from inventory. It's far less detailed than anything Ditko would have done back in the Atlas days, and has much more of a post-Charlton vibe to it. In fact, it is so spare and 'independent' looking that I'm a bit surprised that Marvel chose this cover - as I'll bet most readers didn't even notice it on the racks. While certainly not Ditko's strongest work, it's fun to have as an example of his later work for Marvel. I do think that a cover made up from the splash page to the lead story "Do Not Panic" would have looked great!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

You've Been Warned: Marvel Team-Up #116

Nostalgia can play tricks on you sometimes. I have so many fond memories of reading Marvel Team-Up as a child (issues #103 and #119 come to mind immediately) that I tend to pick them up when I see them cheap, assuming that I'll witness some comic book greatness. Not so this time out. Mr. DeMatteis rarely lets me down, but this story left me feeling litigious. I rarely expect more than enjoyably clean pencils from reliable old Herb Trimpe, but this book featured some of the wonkiest artwork I've seen in recent memory. I imagine Mike Esposito should share some of the blame.

This one is just a sloppy mess, carrying over some mystical crap from the previous issue. I never like all the magic hoodoo in Spidey stories and it really does not work here at all. Valkyrie sword is possessed making the blondest Defender a little less than friendly to the neighbourhood Spider-Man. The facial expressions had me tempted to throw it in the trash. She's supposed to look demonic, but all I see is Betty Cooper on the toilet. In the end, Thor and Valkyrie kiss for some cryptic Norse reason and we cross our fingers for the next one. Avoid.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Single Issue Hall of Fame: Losers Special (1985)

There were so many great one-shots published by DC in the 70s right through into the mid-90s, but these are often buried under huge piles of Crises, Maxi-Series and Relaunches that they are often forgotten. One of these, published in the midst of mid-80s chaos at DC is the Losers Special. I don't really want to spoil things, but the beautiful Joe Kubert cover gives you a sense of how things will turn out. The only things that lessens the impact of the cover is the vignette featuring Sgt. Rock and the Haunted Tank. They only play a tiny role in the drama, and there's no need for cross-marketing to ruin such a splendid image.

Although this is the Losers' final story, it actually comes across as a funeral dirge for all DC war books. Bob Kanigher is giving a tip of his hat to the Big Five war books that entertained so many through the Silver Age and somehow managed to last, to varying degrees, deep into the 80s. The irony here is, this would have been a great jumping in point for many readers as partial origins of each member of the Losers is covered and the relationships amongst the members of the group are nicely established. Having war book mainstay Sam Glanzman on pencilling duty (along with Judith Hunt) gives the book a nice 'retro' feel as many war book from 1975 to 1985 were dominated by a revolving door of 'scratchy' pencillers from around the globe.

At first blush, this may appear to be a very minor book when compared to everything else going on at DC at the time (Crisis, Dark Knight, Watchmen, Man of Steel etc...) but make no mistake - this is Bob Kanigher final symphony. He uses this simple one-shot nor only to bid farewell to the Silver Age, but to an entire genre. Within a couple of years, Charlton would cease publication and Sgts. Rock and Fury would be granted an honorary discharge. I have to think that Darwyn Cooke shares my views on this book, as the Losers sequence in The New Frontier seem to be informed by this story. So long Losers, I miss 'ya!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Iron Man: Best Super-Hero Movie Ever?

For the few of you who check this blog on a regular basis, the recent inactivity was due to a vacation up in cottage country north of Toronto. I've done a lot of reading, so should have a lot of talk about for the remainder of the month, but my thoughts right now are with Tony Stark & Co.

With two young kids, I very rarely get to see a movie while it is still in theatres (nothing since Sweeney Todd), but I decided that enough was enough and that I was well within my rights to play hooky from work and check it out before it was replaced by crappier movies at the local multiplex. After reading a million reviews and posts, my expectations were pretty high and I had braced myself for disappointment. What a relief to discover that it live up to its billing. From the moment I had that Robert Downey Jr. was cast, I knew it would be a perfect fit (there's probably a 2 year old post on CBR stating same) and every other aspect was just as good. It's hard not to delve into fanboy giddiness here, as it's 2 weeks later and I'm still in love with the movie.

Is it perfect? Nope - the final battle scene was over the top, as they always are in these films but at least the tried to keep it short. I was dreading the ending throughout the movie, knowing that they'd likely lose the atmosphere and pacing - but it wasn't too bad. I do wish they'd ended it with a frozen free fall, though.

So, the question is where does it fit in the grand scheme of superhero movies? Keep in mind that I am of the generation that endured the long, dry stretch between Superman II and Tim Burton's Batman, so anything half decent has always won some praise form me. The first two Spidey films and Batman Begins hit all of the right notes in my books. The thing is, those are my two favourite characters so they've got a good head start. Iron Man is not likely even one of my top 10 favourite characters, so the fact that I'm even considering this for the top spot says a great deal. Only time with tell, but it's definitely a contender.

Now, I trying to figure out a date to skip work to see Dark Knight.