Friday, December 21, 2012

Grant Morrison on the 2012 Apocalypse

Grant Morrison: wonderfully insightful, as always.

Thanks to the folks at the Grant Morrison: Talking With God facebook page and SequartTV for this. If you don't have Grant's book, run out and buy it. The Audiobook is quite good, also. If you're not already following, you should at it your RSS feed. Their critical analysis of all things sequential reminds me of The Comics Journal back in that bygone era when sensitive memos from the desk of Jim Shooter would wind up in print,  Gary Groth would let Harlan Ellison say *nearly libelous things about Michael Fleisher,  and superheroes weren't seen as a contemptible enterprise. You know–the good old days!

*Fleisher lost his libel suit against Ellison.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gentlemen, Reset Your Watchmen!

Half a year has passed since DC Comics launched the first issues of their controversial re-visitation line, BEFORE WATCHMEN. Following on the heels of the successful but somewhat ill-received film, and including the involvement of neither the writer nor penciler of the original series, the move was immediately dismissed as an attempt to crassly cash-in on Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' characters while DC still owned them. The largest share of criticism came from creator Alan Moore, himself, who was adamantly and vocally against the idea.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Moore has never been happy with anyone handling his works other than himself, having famously lambasted the film adaptations of From Hell, and the disappointing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Moore even dismissed the very well-adapted V For Vendetta, and had his name removed from the credits. So, while the fans have been at odds over the years with Moore's opinion concerning the handling of his characters by others, they were very much in the creator's corner when it came to this selling off of the family jewels. The fan backlash against DC Comics was loud and nasty for moving forward with the release of new comics starring Ozymandias, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Comedian, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and a series dedicated to their forefathers, The Minutemen.

I didn't want to let the internet chatter interfere with my ability to objectively review these new comics, and the talent roster announced for each series ranged from merely interesting to absolutely inspired, so I steered clear of any online news and awaited the weekly supplements to the overall story. This past few weeks has seen the close of the Silk Spectre four-issue, mini-series, but rather than winding down the other titles,  DC announced an expansion with the release of two new series: one dedicated to anecdotal villain, Moloch, and another for Minuteman hero, Dollar Bill. This makes one wonder, can a Captain Carnage one-shot be far behind? Just how far down the vein are they going to drill?

Well if you didn't get a sense of it from that last paragraph, I think the experiment has been a failure. This is where a lot of you get to scream, "I told you so!"
But there have been some successes within that failure, too.

Darwyn Cooke's MINUTEMEN series is still running, and has been excellent every single issue. He's done a great job of padding out the history of the team with adventures that add to the rich legacy of the original series. The same magic he weaved into THE NEW FRONTIER is fully intact in this series, which had advertisements and other interruptions that the original source material did not. Cooke's retro-style perfectly fit the setting of post-war America, and his writing has been crisp and enjoyable.

His work on SILK SPECTRE with artist Amanda Connor was fresh, but got a little goofy in the middle. 1960s psychedelia has never played well in comics (outside of Jim Steranko), and it derailed here as well. It was nice to see such a different take than anything Moore would have been able to script, but it didn't maintain across all four issues. Still, it was above average.

RORSCHACH in the hands of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo is exactly what fans wanted: gritty, dirty and violent. This was the right team for the task and they're having fun within the historical context of Moore and Gibbons' set-up. It's been a treat thus far, and there's no indication that will change within the remaining issues of the series. The same team that delivered the incredible JOKER graphic novel have proven themselves as dependable a team as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.

DR. MANHATTAN is a deep sci-fi character, and there are few people you could trust within that genre to not completely ruin the great work the original WATCHMEN series showcased. In J. Michael Straczynski, DC found the perfect man for the task, and paired him with one of the all-time greatest illustrators of naked flesh, Adam Hughes. So far, this has been a wondrous collaboration that ranks among the best for both of them. JMS brings an even deeper understanding of real science with with the big blue guy than he did with his cult hit Babylon 5. This series enriches the concepts developed in the source material and expanded in the film adaptation, making this a great bridge between the two mediums.

That is pretty much where my praise ends.

If Azzarello seemed like a logical choice for Rorschach, why not handle The Comedian, too?
Well, apparently there was only enough moxy for the one series, because THE COMEDIAN is a big disappointment. There are many places one could aim to pinpoint the failure, but I think it's this: choosing to center on what turned Edward Blake from an affable man's man into a sadistic monster is to miss the point entirely. Blake's always been bad. He's an anti-hero, through-and-through. Azzarello is a talented writer and it's because he's so talented that the expectations were high for this. Clearly, The Comedian and Rorschach are the two most popular characters, and the chance to tackle both of them must have been more than Brian could turn down. He chose to tell a single story with Rorschach, and must have felt the need to do more with The Comedian, but that wasn't necessary nor advisable. The guy who rapes a fellow costumed adventurer in the 1940s shouldn't be seen as a good-old boy in the early 1960s paling around with the Kennedys. The writer's take on America's first family is speculative to the point of insult and he changes a piece of Watchmen lore by giving Blake an alibi in the JFK Assassination. He took unnecessary liberties in an attempt to flesh out the bad guy.
I think it would have been wiser to tell Blake's story in an Apocalypse Now series of dossiers outlining his black ops activities. A nice set-up might have been to show someone hired by a Veidt corporation shredding these boxed documents, possibly reading them as they do. If there was a need to take a liberty, the shredder could turn out to be Moloch, who has already been established as an unwilling pawn in Adrian Veidt's game. If there was need for a bigger liberty, it could have been Walter Kovacs.

If Straczynski's specialty is deep sci-fi, how did he wind up on the short list for NITE OWL?
MJS has never done a run on Batman that I ever read, and since Nite Owl is based on Blue Beetle (Charleton's Batman), why didn't DC execs go with a Batman writer? Scott Snyder and Neal Adams would have been a great team for this. Instead, we got a story that seemed too bored with itself to not include the more interesting Rorschach (written terribly, I might add), and really scratchy pencils from the Kubert family. I am a huge fan of Joe Kubert, but I would never have suggested him for this project. He's got the wrong look for inner-city super heroes. Adam and Andy Kubert do superheroes just fine, but I'd be lying if I said they were my dream team for a Watchmen revival. Of course, Snyder already has his hands full writing the terrific BATMAN, SWAMP THING and AMERICAN VAMPIRE series, so he might not have been available. And Neal isn't known for being deadline friendly. But perhaps most importantly, is there enough about Nite Owl that we don't know? Alan Moore (way back in the day) had suggested the possibility of a Nite Owl and Rorschach team-up book in the vein of Randall and Hopkirk: Deceased, but that would have been a comical take on the characters, and it would have been disrespectful for anyone else but Moore to treat these characters anything less than seriously. In this case, Nite Owl was fairly pedestrian. The first issue of MOLOCH THE MAGICIAN was actually quite enjoyable, though, so MJS has a 2-1 record overall.

Jae Lee is an artist's artist. The guy is incredible. In OZYMANDIAS he has produced what many must consider to be the best work of his career. The book is beautiful to see. Unfortunately Len Wein added words to Lee's pictures. Wein helped shape the comics industry in the late 1960s and 70s, and I'm forever grateful for that. I'm a huge fan of his seminal work with Bernie Wrightson on Swamp Thing, and as an editor, Len is a legend. But as a writer? Not so much. His Ozymandias reads so... comic booky that it actually makes me mad. Anyone who read the original Watchmen series would immediately get that Adrian Veidt is a secretive man. He is calculated and charming. He was designed as a forty-something Robert Redford, so he's got the common touch in addition to his immense wealth. He's not a smarmy, two-dimensional confessor. Choosing to fill each page with a description of what is actually on each page as a sort of inner dialogue is not only poor scripting, it's against character. Wein seemingly took the not-too-subtle performance from the film adaptation as the springboard for this series, and wrote it like it might have been written forty-five years ago at Marvel. The way to tell Veidt's story should have been through his auto-biography, which was established as a best seller in the Moore-Gibbons universe. A great writer might use that plot device to show one thing and describe another, so that Veidt's autobiographical descriptions narrate less than heroic visuals creating a sense of the false advertising that we know Ozymandias to be post-Watchmen. Matt Wagner or James Robinson would  have been better choices to pair with Jae Lee, and Brian K. Vaughn could have been stellar, but honestly almost anyone would have been a better choice to write this after reading what's been published thus far. And now Mr. Wein is writing DOLLAR BILL.

I have opted-out at this point. I find myself falling back to collections of serialized newspaper strips like Steve Canyon and Johnny Hazard. I'm drifting away in the lush illustrated tomes of European fumetti and bande dessinee being released by Humanoids and Dark Horse, and even wandering off to discover all the great Japanese manga I missed. The glory of the superhero is cyclical, and with the exception of the current Scott Snyder  and Greg Capullo BATMAN run and the DAREDEVIL END OF DAYS mini series from Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack, Klaus Janson and Bill Sienkiewicz, there hasn't been much on par with the series I first highlighted in Pop Sequentialism.

As such, I'll be posting monthly rather than weekly unless something inspires me to interim reporting.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

First Birth of the Zombie Apocalypse

by Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard
Issue #39, Page 22 (Splash page): Birth of Baby Judith
Graphite and ink on board
9" x 12"
This past Sunday on AMC's The Walking Dead was hectic.

(**Spoilers ahead**)

Some of you may have the show waiting on Tivo, so I invite you to check back and read this column later–though, by reading the column title you may have an inkling about at least one of the major events that transpired.

Lori Grimes (somewhat estranged wife of police officer Rick Grimes) was revealed to be pregnant in the middle of season two. Believing her husband to be dead, Lori had shacked up with Rick's best friend and fellow deputy, Shane Walsh. Viewers will have to wait and see who the baby daddy is, but this past Sunday that baby was born into the Zombie Apocalypse.

Pictured above is that event as depicted in the original comic book series (issue 39, page 22; pencils and inks by Charlie Adlard from a script by Robert Kirkman).

The birth of Baby Judith in the comic book did not cause the death of her mother. In fact, the opposite is true: it is the death of Lori that immediately results in the death of Judith in the comic. But events in the television show have often diverted from the comic book.

This pivotal event from the award winning series was included in the first Pop Sequentialism exhibition, and the original art is still available. You can order it by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Clean Break (of sorts)

Since I was thirteen years old I have been what you might term a "serious" comic collector. I had previously purchased the occasional comic from the newsstand, but after discovering specialty shops (after an episode of Simon & Simon–documented here) I took up the hobby in earnest.

In the twenty-eight years or so since, I have accumulated and sold many collections. My first collection of ten or so long boxes I sold to the shop that became my first employer after moving to California. The owner figured that no one would be able to price and highlight my collection better than me, so he hired me to do that and run his sport card department. It featured at least 20 books valued at over $300 each, and this was in 1991. I had a near complete run X-Men/Uncanny X-Men, and all the important Bronze Age first appearance and origin issues like Hulk #180-182, Amazing Spider-Man #127 and more. He gave me $3,000 and a job.

While employed there, I bought a crucial set of key and classic Marvel and DC Silver age books including the Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow series,  complete runs of Tales of Suspense, Journey Into Mystery, Avengers and Fantastic Four. I donated that collection along with a newly acquired run of Uncanny X-Men (Giant Size #1 and #94 to somewhere in the high 260s) to The Boys and Girls Club of America in 1998. It was four long boxes and two short boxes with an Overstreet value of $220,000.00. I needed the $22,000.00 tax write-off badly, and made a lot of kids happy on Christmas Eve that year.

In the 90's I had gotten way into the Vertigo stuff, and when I moved to Chicago in 2005 I dropped off three short boxes of Sandman, Preacher and pretty much everything that Alan Moore and Frank Miller had written, at Meltdown Comics. Through some sort of lack of communication I never got paid for those, and I still bust Gaston's balls about it to this day.

A few years ago an old friend of mine got me back into the hobby. At about the same time, my mother moved from her house in Massachusetts to Arizona, and my sisters found my secret stash of two short boxes of what I considered the really great stuff. Weird one-offs by Alan Moore and Dave Stevens and Bernie Wrightson, and rare undergrounds by Richard Corben and Rick Veitch and Steve Bissette. UK imports of Warrior Magazine and Crisis. Basically, these were the comics that didn't have much price guide value but which I knew would be difficult to track down in the pre-internet 1980s. I had started to read Bill Willingham's Fables, and it launched me back into hardcore collecting. From Halloween 2009 until my birthday (October 17th) this year, I went from guy with no comic books to a guy with nine short boxes. That does not include the two to three dozen Ombnibus, Absolute or other special edition hardcovers that still occupy about fifteen linear feet of shelf space.

On Sunday, October 21st, I sold the entire Pop-Sequentialism collection, with the exception of some recent issues from a handful of series that are currently ongoing and therefore not collected in hardcover yet. Well, those and a literal handful of comics that I treasure too much to sell or give away. I kept a CBG 9.5 grade Howard the Duck #1, and a similar Werewolf By Night #32. The first was the book I always wanted as a little kid, and the second was the first one I actually bought. I also kept a fine condition Haunt of Fear #19, which was a sixteenth birthday present from the guys I worked with at my first after-school job. Those guys were my mentors and if I ever escape a house fire, you can bet that this comic book will be make it out with me ahead of my wallet. The only other two comics I kept were the original Trident Comics edition of Grant Morrison's St. Swithins Day, which almost became a movie in the mid 90s and was a dream project for me as a young actor, and very good House of Mystery #261, which features a brilliant Mike Kaluta cover of the grim reaper, which is an image I redrew with some proficiency in my teens and of which I am still proud today.

Why am I liquidating this important collection? Because I'm moving. I'm also getting married next year and I realized that I have a ton of stuff. Like any mad collector, I've had trouble limiting myself to just one area of collectibles, so I've got a couple thousand DVDs, way more books than space to display them, fifteen CaseLogic binders full of audio and data cds, crates of movie posters and lobby cards, more clothing than I will ever wear, and more shoes than any other straight man on the planet.

And I'm practically hemorrhaging art. I've got more paintings than square feet of walls. I've got way more sculptures than counter top space. I've got guitars that I almost never play but find it impossible to get rid of them. Do you know what I use for a coffee table? Architectural drawers filled with artwork.

Somehow I've managed to limit my toy collection to a single suitcase-sized box.

So what have I given up? The list is below. The collection now resides at Comics Vs. Toys in Eagle Rock, CA. The owner, Ace Aguilera, has been a friend of mine for almost twenty years. He's a fair dude, and his clientele for back issues is well matched for this collection, which represents some of the best work done in sequential storytelling over the past thirty years and more. There are full sets, and obscure runs within titles by great creative teams. There are random issues of forgotten series that feature absolutely iconic cover art from some of the industry's best.

This is Pop Sequentialism:

After Watchmen: What’s Next? 
Airboy #5 (Dave Stevens) 
Alias #1-12
Alien Worlds #2,4 (Dave Stevens)
All-Star Superman collection Vol 1 & #7-12 (Morrison) Anarchy Comics #2 (1st Tales of the Black Freighter)
Animal Man tp (Morrison), and complete Animal Man series
Astro City: Confessions
Back to Brooklyn #1-5
Batman Year One (#404-407 Frank Miller)
Batman #666, 686, 687
Batman & Robin #1-16 (Morrison)
Bedlam #1, 2 (Bissette & Veitch)
Blood: a Tale #1-4 (Kent Williams)
Blood of the Innocent #1-4
Brat Pack tp
Capt. America Reborn #1-6 (Brubaker)
Chaingang #1,2 (Rex Miller)
Cinderella From Fable Town with Love#1
City of Silence #1-3 (Warren Ellis)
Comico Attractions: Rocketeer (Dave Stevens)
King Sized Conan #1 (BWS)
Corinthian #1-3
Criminal: Sinners #1-5 (Brubaker)
Grant Morrison's Dare #1-4
Daredevil #41 (Bendis)
Dave Stevens greeting card (Thanks for a Wonderful Night)
DC Sampler #3 (Bissette & Moore Swamp Thing)
DC Spotlight #1 (1st Frank Miller Dark Knight, 1st Watchmen)
Death Rattle #16
Detective Comics #853-863
DNAgents #24 (Dave Stevens)
Doom Force #1 (Morrison)
Doom Patrol (entire Morrison run)
Dreaming #55
Eclipse Extra #53
Eddy Current v.2, 3
Egypt #1-7
Elektra Assassin #1-8 (Miller & Sienkiewicz)
Elvira's House of Mystery #11 (Dave Stevens)
Enigma #1-8 (Morrison)
Ex Machina (whole series)
Extremist #1-4 (Milligan)
Fables #81,90-98
Marvel Knights Fantastic Four 1,2,3,4 #1-4 (Morrison)
Fantasy Masterpieces #1
Filth (whole series - Morrison)
Giant Sized Man Thing #1
Glueboy #1-4
Golden Age #1-4
Gumby Summer Fun Special (Art Adams)
Hellblazer #1-8, 12&13, 18-22, 25-27, Dangerous habits tp, 53, 61-end of Ennis Run, #134-139 (Ellis Run), #250-268 (Milligan Run)
Heroes for Hope – signed
History of DC Universe #1&2 (Wolfman & Perez)
Horrorist #1&2 (Milligan & David Lloyd)
Human Target – mini series complete, ongoing #1-3, 7-18, 20 (Milligan)
Incognito #1-5 (Brubaker)
Invincible Iron Man #20-27
Invisibles – complete run of all three series (Morrison)
Jack Cross #1-4 (Ennis)
JLA - #1-18 (Morrison)
JLA Classified #37-41 (Milligan)
Joe the Barbarian #1-5 (Morrison)
Johnny Nemo Mag #1-4 (Milligan & Morrison)
Johnny Nemo coll v.1
Johnny Quest #5 (Dave Stevens)
JSA Liberty Files tp
Junk Culture #1&2
Kick Ass #1-7
Kid Eternitiy #1-3 (Morrison)
Kill Your Boyfriend (Morrison)
Kurztman Komix
League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen v.1 tp
Losers Special #1
Losers – complete Vertigo series
Love & Rockets Short Stories & Heartbeak Soup collections
Madman Jam
Mage, The Hero Discovered – complete first series
Merv Pumpkinhead
Mesmo Delivery
Mindless Self Indulgence – signed
Ministry of Space #1-3
Moon Knight #29&30 (Sienkiewicz)
New Frontier – complete series
New Funnies v.1 #126 (1938!)
New Titans #50-55 (Wolfman & Perez)
Northlanders #21,23
Ocean #1-6
100 Bullets v.5 tp
100 bullets #67,82,86-97
One Million #1-4 (Morrison)
Planetary All Over the World tp (Ellis)
Preacher: The Story of You Know Who #1 (Ennis)
The Programme #1-12 (Milligan)
Proposition Player #1-6 (Willingham)
Reid Fleming World's Toughest Milkman #1
Robot Comics #0
Ruins one shot #1
Sam & Max #1
Sandman: Endless Night Special
Scalped #1,7,9,10,11,14,15-28
Sea Guy tp
Sea Guy v.2 #1-3
Sebastion O #1-3 (Morrison)
Secret Origins #1 special (Gaiman)
Seduction of the Innocent 3D #2 (Wrightson)
Shade the Changing Man #1-70 (whole series)
Skreemer tp (Milligan)
Slow Death #8
Sheena 3D #1 (Dave Stevens)
Spider Woman #1-7 (Bendis)
Star Spangled War Stories #151 (1st Unknown Soldier /dbl cvr)
Dr Strange mini series #1-3 (Waid)
Stumptown v.1 #1-3
Sub Mariner #1,2 (coverless)
Superman Annual #11 (Moore & Gibbons)
Superman Batman #60-62
Superman for All Seasons (complete series)
Superman Secret Origins #1-3
Saga of Swamp Thing – #21-64, annual #2 (x2) Alan Moore run, Annual #3 (Veitch), #140-147 (Morrison/Millar)
Sweeney Todd (Gaiman/Zulli)
Tainted (Delano)
Tales of the Teen Titans #41-43 & Annual 2 (Judas Contract issues - Wolfman & Perez)
Tank Girl tp
Teen Titans Lost Annual
Territory #1-4, (Milligan)
Thessaliad #1-4
Journey into Mystery #91, #104, #116, 119, Thor #127, 128, 129, 132, 138, 139, 144, 145 (Kirby), Thor #601-603, giant sized finale (JMS), annual #1
Tongue Lash #1&2
Torso #1-4 Jinx #6
Transmetropolitan #1-60 (whole series)
True Love #1 (Dave Stevens)
Twisted Tales #2 (Wrightson)
Ultimate Avengers #1-3,5
Umbrella Academy #1-6 & free comic book day
Unknown Soldier #1-4 (Ennis)
V for Vendetta #1-10 (whole series - Moore & Lloyd)
Vanguard Illustrated #2 (Dave Stevens)
Vertigo Pop London – full series
Vertigo Preview
Vigilante #17&18 (Alan Moore)
Vimanarama #1-3 (Morrison)
Walking Dead tp v.1
War Story #1-3 (Ennis)
Wasteland #1-18
Watchmen #1-12, Watchmen button set (Moore & Gibbon)
Wednesday Comics (complete set)
We3 tp (Morrison)
Witchcraft #1-3
the Witching #1-10
Wonder Woman #27 (Quitely variant)
World of Wood #1-4 (Dave Stevens)
X-force & X Statix (all Milligan issues)
New X Men (complete Morrison run)
Crime Does Not Pay #46 (classic SOTI)
IT #1 (Gaiman magazine)
Mad Magazine #159 (A Clockwork Lemon)
Neat Stuff #9
Neat Stuff best of
Weirdo #10 (first Peter Bagge art)
Comics Journal #273 (Gaiman), 278 (Gaiman), 176 (Morrison)

Friday, October 5, 2012

Daredevil's Long Goodbye

Daredevil has been a sort of generational touchstone at Marvel Comics since Frank Miller took over the title in the late 1970s. His initial work on the title–especially when collaborating with inker Klaus Jansen, was (for a time) considered the best comic book run in the long history of the superhero. His revisitation of the character in 1986 was arguably better, and that Born Again story arc became the high water mark against which all other monthly comic plots had to compare.

Many high profile teams of writers and artists followed, including David Mack who brought in pal Brian Michael Bendis to succeed him, and it was the latter's four years at the helm of the title with artist Alex Maleev that matched and outdid the great work Miller had done on the title. Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark had the unenviable task of following the best ever run on the storied franchise of Daredevil and managed to match it for the next three and half years.

Once again, many talented folks followed, but none have lived up to the back to back Bendis and Brubaker years–including the current award-winning series by Mark Waid. That all changed two days ago with the release of Daredevil: End of Days #1. Mack and Bendis began plotting this series back in 2006, and have an artistic dream team in former Miller collaborators Klaus Jansen and Bill Sienkiewicz. Why the long wait? There's just no rushing perfection.

So what happens when one of the least conventional comic creators teams with one of the most popular?

They kill Daredevil.

This isn't really a spoiler, as the hero's corpse is pictured on the cover of the first of eight issues, and his death is revealed a mere five pages into the actual comic (after a gruesome battle with long time nemesis Bullseye). This story takes place in the not-too-distant future and so is outside regular Marvel Universe continuity. In many ways it's the perfectly spaced conclusion to the "Wake Up" story that Mack penciled for Bendis back in 2001. We've all known that the red, horned guardian of Hell's Kitchen wasn't going to die of old age, and he wasn't ever going to retire. It's always been in the cards that Matt Murdoch would die in his Daredevil costume, and via Daily Bugle journalist Ben Urich we get the story. Like Citizen Kane, End of Days opens with a great man's dying words and hopefully in the next 7 issues we'll learn what they meant. Regardless, this is some of the best writing out there, and it's great to see Jansen and Sienkiewicz back in top form. There is a double page spread of the Bugle office immediately following a double page spread of the killing blow, and so textured and detailed is the newsroom that I spent a full five minutes scanning it. This is one of those books that is so sumptuous, that you almost don't want to turn the pages but so compelling is the script that you're helpless against the urge to continue. This is why we buy comics.

I've known David Mack for a little while now. He's a friend and if I asked him he might just tell me what's going to happen in this eight-issue mini-series. Of course that would rob me of the great joy of discovery I am guaranteed from now until next spring. I think I'll wait.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Valiant Effort Rewarded

The new Harbinger (#6)
The story of the Valiant Universe is a brief and convoluted tale of greed, double-crosses, and espionage–and that doesn't even address the comics they published!

In 1989 former Marvel CEO Jim Shooter found himself a persona non grata in the industry he helped shape and flourish. After a failed attempt to buy Marvel and another failed attempt to buy Harvey he found a venture capital group willing to bankroll a new comic publishing empire. In 1991 after a brief stint publishing books based on Nintendo and World Wrestling characters, they licensed characters from the old Gold Key line (Magnus Robot Fighter, Turok Son of Stone, Dr. Solar), and focused on the original superhero business plan.  Within two years a creative team that included Bob Layton and Barry Windsor Smith helped expand the Valiant Universe with original characters Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Rai, and Shadowman, followed by Eternal Warrior and Archer & Armstrong. HARBINGER #1 was named "Collectible of the Decade" and in 1992 Shooter was given Wizard's Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1993, Valiant was named Publisher of the Year, and the company's monthly circulation was almost identical to DC Comics (a 50 year publishing veteran). Valiant titles like those already named and the new Bloodshot and Ninjak regularly occupied the top 10 alongside Batman, Spawn, Spider-Man and X-Men.

By 1994, Shooter was gone and his investors, Triumph Capital, sold their shares to video game giants Acclaim Entertainment. They had great (though short-lived) success with games based on the Gold Key characters Magnus and Turok as well as original Valiant character Shadowman and an Iron Man / X-O Manowar crossover game, but they ceased publishing monthly comics and the line that had overtaken Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse was no more.

Of course there were other problems in the industry at that time–problems that many industry historians blame on Valiant. Shooter had fallen out of favor with the fans after a series of private memos on company letterhead at Marvel revealing his contempt for comic fans was leaked at The Comics Journal. He had been the man responsible for "dumbing down" the story arcs to concentrate on crossover events like Secret Wars, and was a big fan of gimmicks.

At Valiant, Shooter engineered the #0 origin issues, launched the variant cover concept with limited gold foil editions took the company-wide crossover concept into overdrive to the extent that events in any given comic could repercussions upon any other title without warning, forcing avid readers to purchase all titles in the company's imprint. For a little while these tricks worked and even inspired the competition to copy the format, so that "Platinum" editions appeared in DC's Vertigo line and multiple covers became normal at Marvel and Image. These gimmicks had drawn speculators into the hobby and led to inflated orders on any new first issue so that more premium, variant covers would be shipped with those orders. For a while, the ballooning prices of gold foil editions of Valiant books were so much higher than the standard Valiant books that it would have been worthwhile to order 100 copies of any issue and burn the 95 standard copies to sell the 5 premiums for $60 or more apiece.

History has taught us that going back to the same well so often leads to a drought, and the entire industry almost died in the years that followed. It was the independents that saved comics back then, and the stigma against superheroes has only recently (with successful film franchises) begun to wear off. Have they learned their lesson?

Of course not.

Marvel and DC have continued to alienate new readers by choosing to sell company-wide crossovers and variant covers to the people already invested in their product. There is absolutely no growth potential in this marketing plan. Marvel has gone to a bi-weekly publishing schedule and expanded successful title X-Men from one to twelve separate titles, only two of which are any damn good. This is a cannibalization of the buying demographic, and if any of the people buying these titles misses two months, they'll be out for good. And no matter how many times they reset to the beginning, continuing to dilute the market insures that spiked sales among the same buyers isn't the same as attracting new readers. It's an all eggs in one basket approach, and it's foolish.
Enter the New Valiant.
From left to right: Chief Creative Officer Dinesh Shamdasani, Sales Manager Atom! Freeman, Marketing and Communications Manager Hunter Gorinson and Publisher Fred Pierce. © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons.
In 2007, a lifelong fan of the Valiant Universe scraped together enough equity to rescue the Valiant characters not originally published by Gold Key from Acclaim's bankruptcy. Jason Kothari and Dinesh Shamdasani formed Valiant Entertainment and endeavored to revive their favorite line of comics. They hired Jim Shooter, but wound up suing him for a breach of contract when he agreed to write Magnus Robot Fighter for Dark Horse. There was also a long litigation with Valiant Intellectual Properties LLC, who seemed to be under the impression that Acclaim had failed to renew the trademarks during their bankruptcy, and thought they had a free ride. In August 2011, Kothari and Shamdasani hired another former Marvel CEO, Peter Cuneo, and the summer of 2012 was announced as the "Summer of Valiant." 

I was never a big fan of the original Valiant books, and the fact that none of those back issues held their value was a sign to me that most of the people who bought those 50 million issues turned out not to be, either. I hated the coloring in the books which made the artwork look muddy, and having been obsessed with Barry Windsor Smith's Conan and Machine Man, and expecting something on par with his Weapon X, I was quite non-plussed by his work at Valiant. I love Bob Layton, and his work on Marvel's Iron Man (whether inking himself or John Romita Jr.) stands as one of the best runs on the title, but he wouldn't have been my first choice to ink Smith or Art Nichols. It was fine journeyman work (as was most of the Valiant art), but under that flat color it all seemed to have a "house" look. It must be noted that as an editor, Layton excelled, and the story was always front and center at Valiant. 

While I wasn't a fan of the comics, it's really hard not to root for fanboys who take over the company, so with the hype at comic shops at a fever pitch for this new launch of the other major publisher of the 90s, I went out and bought the first five issues of the new X-O Manowar, the first four issues of the new Harbinger, Bloodshot 1-3 and Archer & Armstrong 1 & 2. What do I think?

The artwork on these titles is really good. I also like the new Valiant logo which reminds me of a classic car hood ornament. The writing is on par with most of what's out there, and in the case of Harbinger, its well above par. Joshua Dysart is in the top ten percentile of comic book scribes at the moment, and hasn't over extended himself on too many titles yet. I don't like that all of the new Valiant comics offer alternative covers, but I do like that they aren't offered as premiums. You can choose which cover you prefer or you can buy both if you are so inclined.

If I'm to break it down by title, I found X-O Manowar to be implausible and overly complicated, but readable. Too much is taken for granted as far as reality is concerned, but it's a comic book and complaining about suspension of disbelief in a superhero comic is pure folly.

Bloodshot has a good story but the actual writing was situational in that the situation of the plot seemed to determine the writing style, so there was no "voice" to the comic. It's too early to judge if that can be maintained for a long run, but it's not bad. The art is really good and I enjoyed it.

Archer & Armstrong is extremely well drawn by Clayton Henry and the covers have been the best of the entire line so far. It's a humor title, though, and I'm not a big fan of that. Maybe J.M DeMatteis burned me out on Justice League, or maybe Garth Ennis took it too far in... pretty much everything, but I like my heroes serious with a bit of comedy thrown in, not the other way around. I love to watch Monty Python, but I'm not sure I'd read a comic book of the Life of Brian. I realize I may be in the minority here, though, so If you like silly, you'll love this.

Harbinger is excellent. The covers haven't been doing the interiors much justice, but if you want to read any of the new Valiant books, this is the one I'd recommend. It's layered, and all the characters seem to be walking the same nebulous line between cause and conviction adding a strong sense of mystery and even paranoia to the proceedings. Writing is great, art is great and I'll be continuing to follow this book.

I've heard that the upcoming Shadowman is incredible, so I'll just have to wait and see.

They're off to a strong start and I wish these guys luck. I hope they can steer clear of the nonsense that brought the original company down, and if they're looking to expand with some NEW characters I've got a great female protagonist I'd be happy to pitch... 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Radical Strategy for Critical Times

The filmmakers behind THE MATRIX and V FOR VENDETTA have teamed with the German art house director of RUN LOLA RUN and PERFUME to independently finance a project that is so hard to classify they've released a five and a half minute trailer AND a two and a half minute directors' introduction to help market it. The film is called CLOUD ATLAS, and it's based on David Mitchell's Bookman Prize winning novel of the same name.

This is the first film from the Wachowskis since 2008's SPEED RACER, a campy and possibly unfairly maligned adaptation of Tatsuo Yoshida's popular anime series. Because of the diminishing returns on their films since MATRIX RELOADED and the indisputably noncommercial plot flow of Mitchell's book, the creators of one of the most popular and profitable sci-fi franchises of all time were refused backing by every studio who would take a meeting with them. As the filmmakers explain in their video introduction to the trailer, practically everything about the project was met with suspicion: studio bosses shook their heads at the idea of three directors at the helm; marketing directors shrugged at the concept of multiple actors of varying racial heritage cast in the same roles; sales execs fretted a script that combined not just one or two genres, but seemingly all genres.

Risky? Sure. But it's not like they entered these meetings with nothing.

For one, they had a script endorsed by the novelist of an award winning best seller. They also had a dream cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and established box office champs including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving.
Still, no backing.

Emboldened to persevere, the filmmakers scraped together one hundred million dollars in independent funding and convinced Warner Brothers to agree to a partial distribution deal for the finished film. At the time of this writing, CLOUD ATLAS is set to open in 20 countries in the space between October 26th and March 22nd, and the success or failure of this film will cause shock waves in the front offices of Hollywood for years to come. I, for one, hope it succeeds.

Aside from the track record established by Terrence Malick's successful TREE OF LIFE, there are other dream projects that became wildly profitable when the filmmaker's vision met at the intersection of popular opinion and critical acclaim. Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW springs to mind. But there are many high quality films that challenged the accepted norms of cinema only to be met with crickets, so to speak. Darren Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN is only among the most recent examples of a highly concepted, richly acted and lavishly produced metaphysical epic to fail at the box office, despite all it had going for it. Even Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER was considered a flop in its day.

But it would be nice if the audience for this film actually showed up opening night to see it, because a sold box office performance would send a message to the powers that be that sci-fi fandom wants thought-provoking material. How are we going to escape bad sequels and hastily written scripts if we keep rewarding the studios that produce them with box office dollars? They'll certainly not get the message if we don't show up for the good films. The only thing that studio bosses understand is formula. The purchase, production and marketing budgets are dictated by projections, and projections are based on recent track records of comparable titles. I say we make their jobs more difficult by staying away from formulaic fodder and supporting originality. Maybe that will compel them to consider quality an asset. How's that for radical?

Monday, September 10, 2012

For Mature Readers

The last two weeks saw the release of the third installments of the first two titles to kick-off the Before Watchmen line. Both comics were devised at the keyboard of writer Darwyn Cooke, who handled illustration as well on MINUTEMEN, while tasking Amanda Connor with art duties on SILK SPECTRE.

Three issues into it, these titles still represent the high watermark for the entire relaunch campaign, making it a shame that we are limited to six and four issues, respectively.

In MINUTEMEN #3, the story turns a bit nasty as The Comedian gets another chance to show his true colors–and is seemingly rewarded for it. The Silhouette's romantic life is revealed and the division between the real heroes and the publicity mongers widens. Cooke is once again dead-on in capturing a vintage feel that seems more inspired by the pulps than by the comics. His narrative is multidimensional and sophisticated without being verbose or pretentious. This is honest-to-goodness storytelling at its best.

With SILK SPECTRE #3, the summer of love comes to a violent conclusion with a clever cameo from The Comedian, but not before supplying copious amounts of hippy sex and nudity. If you'd have bet me that a teenaged Silk Spectre in the hands of Cooke & Conner would be the most salacious title in a Before Watchmen line that includes Brian Azzarello penned adventures of Rorschach and The Comedian, an Adam Hughes rendering of Dr. Manhattan, and Jae Lee's vision of Ozymandias, I'd have lost money. Of course if you'd told me that SILK SPECTRE was going to be one of the best books in that line, I'd have never believed that, either.

For some reason, I've not been paying attention to the number of issues granted each series, and it bums me out that we'll be getting only four issues of SILK SPECTRE and RORSCHACH, while being force-fed six issues of OZYMANDIAS. Maybe we'll get lucky and Len Wein will quit the reboots like he quit the original series, and Jae Lee will get a real writer worthy of his extraordinary talents. I'm glad that NITE OWL has been limited to four issues, as there has barely been enough of him in his own title to warrant much more, but judging from the superb DR. MANHATTAN I'll be missing a longer JMS script on that. I'd rather read six issues of RORSCACH than the COMEDIAN, but maybe those extra forty+ pages will give Azzarello and J.G. Jones the space they need to bring Eddie Blake's story back home. What started as cameo-laden mess has gotten more textured and I'm willing to stick it out.

Speaking of which, it seemed like fans of Grant Morrisson's FLEX MENTALLO would be tasked with tracking down the very expensive back issues of that seminal series forever, but sixteen years later and in a svelte $23 hardcover, DC finally reprinted it. My Amazon pre-order took an inexplicable month to arrive (as did my INVISIBLES omnibus), so I missed the rather unfriendly review that The Comics Journal posted back at the start of August. That didn't stop me from replying, however, so if you want to read my opinion of their review, you can click here.

FLEX was Morrison's first collaboration with artist Frank Quitely, and was the first book in the author's hypersigil trilogy that also includes THE INVISIBLES and THE FILTH. The impact of breaking the fourth wall begun with ANIMAL MAN was further twisted with this highly original take on what was in essence a proto-meme: the Charles Atlas ad. False history taken as fact mixed with other chaos magick elements like sigils and recontextualization make the Man of Muscle Mystery an important chapter in the annals of the greater comcidom.
The fact that it's so enjoyable to read, too, is a great bonus.

And if some of the salaciousness of SILK SPECTRE comes under fire, DC can always redirect that attention from their Before Watchmen line to their new National Comics line and this amazing LOOKER cover, penciled by Guillem March. Looker was created by Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo as a frequent ally of The Outsiders who went vampiric, became a talk show host, and apparently survived a satellite bombing by Talia al Ghul before re-entering DC continuity as a sanctioned agent of Batman Incorporated. This new version of Looker is a psionic vampire supermodel. The interior art by Mike S. Miller reminds me of the Luna Brothers and their work on ULTRA. The story is pure escapism, so as a one-shot, I think it succeeds. At the very least, it should get fanboys acquainted with Guillem's previous work on CATWOMAN or GREEN LANTERN: NEW GUARDIANS. I, for one, am excited for more March.

If you want to pick up an original published drawing by this talented Spanish artist, he's just launched a crowd-funded sketchbook project that allows you to dictate the pose of your favorite scantily clad heroine.

For mature readers, indeed!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

It's Jack Kirby Day!

I met Jack Kirby for the first time in 1991. I was buying and selling original comic art in partnership with Gaston Dominguez (now of Meltdown Comics & Collectibles fame). We had brokered several deals between rock star Glenn Danzig, who was a huge Kirby fan and collector, and The Holland Brothers, who had written almost every major Motown hit.

Eddie & Ernie Holland had been sport card customers of mine who followed many other speculators into the comics trade following the Death of Superman.

The centerfold of the BICENTENNIAL MARVEL TREASURY EDITION, which was a gorgeous, over-sized Captain America double page spread was the piece that gave me cause to contact Jack, who was listed in the phone book and lived with his wife Roz in Thousand Oaks. I took the bus out there on several occasions, first to get him to sign and date the Cap piece, then just to hang out and talk comics with him. He was always busy but quite accommodating.

Today would have been Jack Kirby's 95th birthday.

Here in Hollywood at Grauman's Chinese Theater, dozens of filmmakers, TV producers and actors are assembling to honor comic book trailblazer Jack "King" Kirby, with some dressing as characters Kirby created, like Captain America, Thor, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and Avengers, while organizing a Tribute Award to honor Mr. Kirby’s influence to the comic book culture. The tribute will also demand that the US Congress name August 28th, Jack Kirby’s birthday, as National Jack Kirby Day.

Web TV creators Steven Wasserman and Victor Solis have created this tribute video to honor Jack Kirby’s life achievements:

Many fans of the multi-billion-dollar-grossing films based on characters created by Jack Kirby would be shocked to learn that the Kirby estate has not received a single cent from the successes of the epic films.

The good people at The Hero Initiative, the charitable organization dedicated to helping veteran comic creators in medical or financial need, is celebrating with a little help from The King’s family.
They've recruited 100 artists to simply “Wake Up and Draw.” This new event is a way for artists to limber up, get the creative juices flowing, and celebrate the day by drawing and sending a “birthday card to Jack.” All 100 drawings will be featured in a special gallery at, and fans can follow the action through the day on Twitter searching hashtag: #WakeUpAndDraw. All drawings will be auctioned to benefit Hero Initiative at a later date!

Neal Kirby, son of Jack, and artist Tim Seeley are featured in a special YouTube video on the event (below). “By supporting the Hero Initiative through the ‘Kirby4Heroes’ campaign and ‘Wake Up and Draw,’ comic book fans can honor my father on his 95th birthday in the same manner that he would have.”

Jillian Kirby, Jack’s granddaughter, has spearheaded the “Kirby4Heroes” campaign. Jillian has recruited a number of comic stores to donate a percentage of their sales to The Hero Initiative on August 28, and encourage their customers to make donations as well. Fans can donate via the PayPal link at, and type in “Kirby4Heroes” in the special instructions box.

“Though my grandfather Jack unfortunately died the year before I was born, I am surrounded by books, artwork, and of course family stories and anecdotes so much that I feel like I’ve known him my whole life,” said Jillian Kirby. “Even though I never had the opportunity to know him personally, I have learned my grandfather was a very giving and charitable man. I know my grandfather would have been the first to lend the Hero Initiative his support.” Jillian has teamed up with Seth Laderman, head of production from the Nerdist Channel, to produce a video spotlighting the campaign:

Back in the 1980s it took a major grass-roots campaign to shame Marvel into returning the fraction of Jack Kirby's original art work that hadn't been lost or stolen from their archives over the years. You can damn well bet it will take a whole lot more to get them to cut the Kirby estate in on the money they've been making on Jack's characters lately. If you support creator's rights get involved by contact your congressman, or contributing financially to the cause at Hero

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pop Sequentialism: The Origin, Part 1

I guess I have always read comic books in one way or another, but on Thursday, November 22, 1984, after watching an episode of the CBS television show Simon & Simon, I transformed from being a casual comic book reader into a serious comic book collector.

Just like a classic comic book origin, it was no ordinary day. Local news coverage had been running promos for weeks about the solar eclipse that was to occur. They even let school out early to allow us to see it in person. While I can summon to mind that there was a solar eclipse, I don't have any recollection of witnessing the actual event. In fact, I recall nothing else about that day until 9 PM Eastern Standard Time. I don't remember which episode of Magnum P.I. ran before it, but I have almost completely memorized the plot of the Simon and Simon episode "Almost Completely Out of Circulation":

When the creator of a popular comic book is killed, his grandson goes to A.J. and Rick claiming that he knows who killed his grandfather -it was the arch enemy of the hero of the comic. They eventually learn that every character in the comic is inspired by a real person. So they have to figure out who was the inspiration for the villain.

What stood out most to me about the episode is that they had to go and find old back issues of the grandfather's comics to piece the mystery together, and I learned that the first issue of a series wasn't always the most valuable. In the case of the show, the first appearance of a new character 60 odd issues into the run (and they used a fictional comic book title) was the most valuable issue in the entire series and proved difficult to obtain, requiring the detectives to search the colorful underworld of comics shops. This information struck me like a lightning bolt! It jarred my memory that one of the comics I'd purchased at the newsstand years earlier was a high-numbered WEREWOLF BY NIGHT comic featuring a new character called Moon Knight. Until I'd seen this show I had no idea that comic book specialty shops even existed.

At the end of the episode, I raced to my bedroom and dug deep into my closet, locating an old shoebox that contained the comic books of my early youth. I sifted past issues of DAREDEVIL, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, TOMB OF DRACULA, and there it was: WEREWOLF BY NIGHT #32, still in very good condition. Curious about what it was worth, my dad encouraged me to look in the yellow pages under "Comic Books" and I found two shops in my hometown, which I visited the next day. I bought some old HOUSE OF MYSTERY comics with Bernie Wrightson cover art from the three-for-a-dollar bin, and an issue of COMICS COLLECTOR Magazine with Wolverine and Colossus from THE UNCANNY X-MEN attacking a Sentinel on the cover. The magazine had a price guide and I learned that my first appearance of Moon Knight was worth $36 –more than one hundred times what I'd paid for it.

From that day forward I rode my bike downtown everyday after my paper route, and I listened to the conversations that were so electric they very well could have powered the trains that ran overhead. They revolved endlessly around names that seemed familiar from other comics I'd read on the newsstand, like Frank Miller and his run on DAREDEVIL, or who drew a better Batman, Neal Adams or Marshall Rogers. I quietly purchased the back issues that made the employees most passionately vocal, until I was pulled into one of the heated debates by a large, gregarious guy named Paul Marcure, who seemed to be the manager of the shop. When I agreed that ELFQUEST was for girls and that no male on the planet had any rational reason to be reading it, I was in. When I asked to return a G.I. JOE #1 to buy the Joker Fish stories from DETECTIVE COMICS, I became part of the crew –a crew which included future best-selling author, Tom Sniegoski, phenomenal local artist, Paul Glavin, and the mentor of these slightly, older guys–original Corner Book Store owner, Tim Cole. These men changes my life. The air of encouragement and creativity fostered in the confines of that rundown shop empowered me to seek the unrestrained possibilities of Hollywood. Most of the really pivotal events of my teens revolved around that shop: my first real girlfriend, my first attempts at writing, chemical mind-expansion, even my driver's license!

So while the episode of Simon & Simon was light and even what some might term "forgettable" entertainment, the impact it had on my life was fundamentally enormous. I'd like to take this moment to offer, for the very first time in my life, great appreciation to Paul Robert Coyle who wrote that life-changing episode, and who returned to comic book themes in series like The Adventures of Superboy, Star Trek Voyager and Deep Space Nine. I've never met you, Mr. Coyle, but I owe you a deep debt of gratitude. Thank you.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I'll Take (Dr.) Manhattan

The first page of Adam Hughes' DR. MANHATTAN #1 is a dead-on tribute to Dave Gibbons' opening from the second issue of the original series. He takes a three-quarter step away and captures the event of Edward Blake's funeral from a slightly different angle in a very similar illustrative style to the chapter that first bore the title "Absent Friends," and J. Michael Straczynski's script plays up aspects of both absence and acquaintance. The dichotomy of familiarity and divergence are handled expertly by two technicians at the top of their game.

In short, these last two weeks of Before Watchmen titles (RORSCHACH and DR. MANHATTAN) have given me back the excitement of the first two weeks. Darwyn Cooke's introduction to the prequel line via MINUTEMEN and SILK SPECTRE gave me high hopes that were quickly grounded by lackluster outings by NITE OWL, COMEDIAN and OZYMANDIAS. It's somewhat poignant that two of the authors responsible for disappointing me in the middle weeks have returned with exceptional entries in WATCHMEN lore. In both cases I believe it's because they each had one great vision for a single Alan Moore character but were assigned two.

JMS first came to fanboy prominence with the creation of the science fiction television series Babylon 5. If there is one thing at which Straczynski excels, it's deep sci-fi and soap opera, making him a natural for enriching the back story of Dr. Manhattan. Reading this first issue made me nostalgic for the Alan Moore WATCHMEN –in a good way. It was so rich with the type of mesmerizing ideology that made me love Moore's work twenty-five years ago that I totally forgot Moore hadn't written this. In Adam Hughes, JMS has found a marvelous collaborator who understands how to illustrate big concepts in an easy to digest layout. I look forward to seeing the modern king of cheesecake tackle Silk Spectre on the interiors the way he has on this cover, and I've got a blank check for his art rep when it happens.

And if contentment from a single source offers only fleeting joy, there are two reissued collections (of wildly varying page count and retail price) that will keep you engaged well past new comic book day next week.

Scott Snyder put a macabre new spin on Dick Grayson's reign as Batman in DETECTIVE COMICS with his Black Mirror story arc featuring knockout artwork from Jock. This was after establishing himself as the new go-to guy for horror with AMERICAN VAMPIRE, which enticed Stephen King to his first ever original comic book script collaboration. So it should come as no surprise that his relaunch of SWAMP THING is very much a horror comic. Mindful of the creators that came before him, Snyder and artist Yanick Paquette fill the landscape with figurative and narrative tributes to Steven Bissette, Bernie Wrightson, John Totleben, Rick Veitch and others. Paquette's artwork is reminiscent of several of those within Len Wein's stable, particularly Tom Yeates and Alfredo Alcala, but Snyder's spiritual guide is definitely Alan Moore.

SWAMP THING Volume 1: Raise Them Bones (New 52) collects the first seven issues of the DC series that was part of a company-wide relaunch of their entire line. Along with Jeff Lemire's ANIMAL MAN, Snyder's SWAMP THING casts a respectful glance back to an old Vertigo title that began life within the standard DC Universe continuity while generating a new and interesting origin that doesn't completely disavow an era that many consider to be among the finest in all of comicdom. The two titles don't bear the Vertigo brand anymore, but are part of a new sub-line of the regular continuity called DC Dark. And they're very good!

The other amazing collection to street this week is the long-awaited omnibus of Grant Morrison's INVISIBLES. I'm still waiting for mine to arrive in the mail, so I won't review the collection yet, but having read the comics that are reprinted within, I can only call them required reading, praise Morrison's writing as groundbreaking, and urge you to run right out and buy it. And before you get sticker shock (it's $150), let me say that if this had cost $300, it would be worth it. Prepare to have your mind blown.

That's all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Avengers Outtake from Upcoming Bluray Release released two new clips from the upcoming Bluray release of Joss Whedon's record smashing AVENGERS movie. The first is an outtake featuring Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner shortly after his transformation back from the Hulk in a wonderful scene with veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton. This short scene presents just over a minute's extra footage of one of my favorite cameos in recent years:

The second clip (below) is from one of the many featurettes on the multi-disc Bluray release. Director Joss Whedon and actor Tom Hiddleston (Loki) examine Samuel L. Jackson's role as Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

My apologies for any player-embedded adverts that may precede the clips, and my thanks to for allowing me to share.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tony Scott 1944 – 2012

One of my very first entertainment jobs was for Tony Scott. Sort of...

I worked at a comic book shop called Fantastic Store with my then roommate Gaston Dominguez (the man behind the empire that is now Meltdown Comics and Collectibles), which used to be kitty-corner from Hollywood and Highland before the Kodak theater, subway and mall complex led to the gentrification and demolition of the entire block across the street from what was then the Holiday Inn. Quentin Tarrantino shopped there occasionally, and Don Murphy (producer of Natural Born Killers and the Transformers franchise) was actually living in the shop between residences. I don't now if we were the first choice for filming, but the huge walls, concave entry and low location fee made us the final choice for the shoot that was True Romance.

I remember being impressed by the speed at which Tony Scott's crew set up and transformed the shop. It couldn't have been more than three days in and out. When we heard it was a Warner Brothers film, I made a display wall of rare and cool Batman comics which stretched six feet high and twenty-four feet wide. It took almost an entire day to choose the specific issues: everything from the classic Neal Adams "I Killed Bruce Wayne" cover of BATMAN #245 to the Marshall Rogers "Joker Fish" cover in DETECTIVE COMICS #475, with amazing covers by Mike Kaluta, Todd McFarlane, Frank Miller and Bernie Wrightson, too.

Then on the day before filming, I overheard a startling conversation. It went something like this:

Christian Slater: Did they already have all those issues or did you have to bring them in?

Second AD, Carey Dietrich: They had 'em. It's just a shame they're the all the wrong ones. Didn't think we'd get the rights, but I guess they're going with Spiderman now.

I was not in any union, and I was not on the production. I was merely an employee of the shop who wanted to be helpful. I approached the director, who was between set-ups.

Me: I just heard that you need to swap out all the BATMAN comics for SPIDERMAN comics.

Tony Scott: Oh yeah?

Me: If you want, I can change them all out for you. We just bought a couple boxes of classic Spidey books that aren't priced yet, but I can put 'em on the wall for you. It won't be as versatile as the Batman display, but it'll have all the key books. I'll try to stay out of your way. It shouldn't take more than an hour or two.

Tony Scott: You won't be in the way –and thanks!

The Art Director James Murakami wasn't on set that day, but the set decorator Tommy Lee Roysden was. I didn't know if usage of Spiderman meant that they could use other Marvel characters like the X-Men or Avengers, so I showed him a short box of the early Dave Cockrum and John Byrne UNCANNY X-MEN comics in case they wanted to use them, directed him to the key silver age Marvel books we had in the glass case at the counter, and we got to work swapping out all the Batman books. I remember we left gaps on the wall where books might have sold. Of course none of it is properly visible except for the rack of EC reprints at the top of the stairs near the office.

A couple of months later, my roommate let me know that Tony Scott had invited us to a screening at the Nuart. True Romance was still in post production; this was a screening for the Belgian film Man Bites Dog. If I remember correctly, we took the bus along Santa Monica Blvd. and Tony was waiting for us just outside the front entrance. I had to pee like crazy and headed hurriedly into the bathroom. The men's room at the Nuart is tiny. There are two stalls and two urinals (or at least that's what it was like back then). I headed into position at one of the urinals, unzipped and waited. It was disconcerting because I'd had to pee so badly I didn't think I was going to make it to the bathroom on time, but the second I stepped inside I didn't seem to have to go anymore. If you're male and this has ever happened to you, you know how incredibly awkward this is. The seconds seemed like minutes of me just standing there with my dick out in the open. Right about then, I became aware of someone standing next to me. And in an instant it struck me that there was no sound of urine hitting the ceramic. Whoever it was couldn't pee either.

Men's room protocol is simple: you walk up to a urinal, you do your business, you flush, walk over to the sink, wash and leave. You don't hang out and you don't talk, and you certainly don't look from side to side. But for reasons unknown I was positive that the person standing next to me was looking in my direction. I am only five and a half feet tall, so when the compulsion to turn and see who it was that was looking at me became too much to stave off, I basically turned my neck directly into the sight line of his crotch before realizing what a tremendous breach of toilet etiquette that was and immediately straightened my gaze up to his head and shoulders. In so doing, I discovered that he hadn't already been looking in my direction, but my head motion caused him to do just that.

It was Keanu Reeves.

And as we stood there, motionless, side-by-side in front of two adjoined urinals we both broke into hysterical laughter followed by quick and steady bursts of piss. By this time, other people had come into the restroom to see a tall guy and a short guy laughing their asses off while in the act of draining their bladders. When we each finished and zipped up and walked over to the sinks, we were laughing so hard we were almost crying. And when we exited to the theater lobby, we saw that our individual friends were talking to each other. Keanu had attended the film with Tony, who was talking to my roommate Gaston. We were then introduced to each other, laughing still and unable to really explain what was so funny about it because it had been one of those "you had to be there" moments.

It was quite some time later that True Romance opened at Mann's Chinese Theater, and I got to congratulate Tony on the great job he had done in person. I had only seen one aspect of the filming and didn't realize how many locations there were or even which other actors were connected to the movie. So, seeing Brad Pitt and Michael Rapaport in scenes filmed at Scott Spiegel's bungalow off Gower added a second level of first-hand familiarity that helped endear me to a film that seemed to be a Charles Bronson comic book fantasy. The adventures we followed in thinly stapled collections of pictures and word balloons were possible, but more importantly, geeks (like us) could be the heroes.

True Romance
is still one of my favorite movies of all time. I've accepted every comparison to Clarence Worley (as few and far between as they've been) as utmost compliments. The timing of the film's release was square in the middle of my own Hollywood dream and being a miniscule part of that has always been a point of pride. Tony Scott made more very good films than most people (The Hunger, Revenge, Crimson Tide, Man on Fire). He had his failures (The Last Boyscout, The Fan, Domino) and he had his triumphs (Top Gun, Enemy of the State, Spy Game) but you could always tell one of Tony's films from those of any other director. How many directors get to leave behind a signature style?

He went out like one of his own protagonists: with intent (and I don't judge him for it). I'm sad that there will never be another Tony Scott directed film, but I thank the man for the legacy he left us –some of the best darn shoot-em-ups of the modern era. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Passing the Rorschach Test

Without a doubt, the most highly anticipated title in the Before Watchmen line has been RORSCHACH. The narrator of the original series has long been the most beloved character and this new prequel is undoubtedly the one that fans critical of the relaunch feared most would be mishandled.

Fortunately for Brian Azzarello, Alan Moore invested more time in the backstory for Rorschach than he did in the Comedian. Fans of the original WATCHMEN have a clear picture of what he is all about because his origin from childhood to crime fighter is well documented in the original series. It's effortless to pick up the beat of his prosthelytizing monologues, and his disdain for corruption is unforced and amenable; in other words he's easy to identify with. Rorschach may be crazy, but like his cinematic predecessor Travis Bickle, his intentions are good and he, himself, is a victim of society. With such a well established personality (or lack thereof), and with such a high percentage of the original source material dedicated to him, success should come relatively simply to a writer worth his salt.

If I had my choice of any living comic book team to write and illustrate this comic I would have picked the same duo that DC did: Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo. And you'll all be happy to hear that they didn't disappoint.

The JOKER graphic novel is one of the few examples of post-WATCHMEN sequential literature that can be either recommended or discovered independently and be completely enjoyed regardless. There are books by Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and a few others working within the superhero cannon that also succeed at this but none of them star the bad guy, and most of the issues that are dedicated to villains try to humanize them with sympathetic explanations about what made them monsters. Azzarello chose to forego that route completely and served up a day in the life of an utterly unpredictable lunatic. One minute he's funny and the next minute he's deadly and twice as frightening because of it. Bermejo painted a portrait of a true psychopath, and within panels captures a subtle shift in body language and even pupil dilation to support the explosion of violence that commonly bridges the Joker's wavering moods. This is the team you want when telling the tale of the most violent costumed vigilante this side of BADGER (a schizophrenic, indie comics hero whose popularity once outshined Wolverine's).
Bermejo's original art from Rorschach #1

Since Moore already told us how the red-headed Walter Kovacs became Rorschach, the masked scourge of the underworld, Azzarello is spared having to repeat it. He has chosen (thus far) to detail a single case file well into the vigilante's career –from the late 70s if the look of Bermejo's New York City is any indication. Like Moore before him, Azzarello has chosen to pull from Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver to present the nasty and scary 42nd Street of the post-Vietnam era that became synonymous with crime, vice and pornography for a generation of New Yorkers and tourists along the great, white way. In the quarter-century that has passed since the original series first saw print, the level of violence and obscenity allowed in mainstream comic books has increased exponentially, and thus are we presented with a more extreme version of the character.

Even though it carried a recommendation "For Mature Readers," original series artist Dave Gibbons was forced to work within the framework of the accepted norm, obligating a subtlety that helped his work connect with academics and even conservatives who were critical of "comic book violence." Lee Bermejo is not so restrained, and there is nothing comic about his violence. When the aforementioned Kovacs shows up in public after his masked alter-ego receives a savage beating from some street thugs, he's not just worse for wear: he's f**ked up –a credit to Bermejo's detailed pencils.

The heightened violence and stronger language aside, Azzarello has remained faithful to the character comic fans know. Maybe this was motivated by fear, or maybe he's just having fun with a character he never dreamed he'd be allowed to write. Then again, they just might have found the perfect pairing of writer and artist for this particular project. It is possible that WATCHMEN was one of the titles that made Azzarello want to write comic books in the first place. One can draw a series of comparisons between the best and worst of Moore's heroic fiction and the best and worst of Azzarello's, and while they are each their own man, if you are a fan of one you will likely be a fan of the other. Azzarello (like Moore) is at his best telling dark stories about those who rage against the dying of the light; a sort of dystopian poet. And Moore (like Azzarello) experienced his biggest failures when working with other people's material that hadn't been completely mapped via years of pop-culture establishment (SPAWN, WildC.A.T.S., SUPREME).

In the 25 years that have passed since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons buried Edward Blake, many subsequent writers have injected elements of The Comedian into mainstream heroes like The Punisher, Daredevil, Nick Fury and even Captain America (not to mention pretty much every Image-published title of the 1990s). In an attempt to make the character something special again, Brian may have chosen to write a larger than life character worthy of The Comedian's legend but unmindful of his published history. It's got to be a challenge tackling something that nobody wants to see succeed, and I don't envy the task –especially when he can write (and has written) any number of books that the fans will not only love, but fawn over. All of those involved in the Before Watchmen line have exhibited great courage, but the failures have outnumbered the successes. Azzarello's COMEDIAN had a shaky start, and seems to be recovering, but thus far I'd list it among the failures. With RORSCHACH #1, DC and Azzarello can add one more check to the success column.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Joe Kubert 1926 - 2012

Mere days after my last post I got the news of Joe Kubert's passing. I'll be honest: it stung a bit. Joe was an incredible artist capable of conveying more truth in a single, crooked line than most artists can with hundreds of clean ones. His impact on the comics medium is practically immeasurable, and in many ways he was more influential than even Jack Kirby. He taught a generation of artists in the 1970s (Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Tim Truman, Rick Veitch, Thomas Yeates) who would help shape the industry in the 80s by seeding the Vertigo line and pollinating the golden age of independent and self-publishing, not only for themselves but for many others –just the way their mentor Joe Kubert had done for them.

Joe will be forever associated with his war comics, which he would be quick to term, "Anti-War Comics," and one of the first comic books I ever bought at a newsstand was a STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES starring the Unknown Soldier. In an age of Hogan's Heroes reruns, the gritty and seemingly endless World War II of SGT. ROCK and THE LOSERS was a disturbing dose of reality (especially to a seven year old INCREDIBLE HULK fan). I had a chance to buy the cover to the UNKNOWN SOLDIER's origin issue last year at Comicon, and it's now one of those missed opportunities that will haunt me to my grave. It was (and is) as beautiful to me as one of Leonardo DaVinci's frescos. It encapsulated for me in a single page, all the horrors and sleepless nights of those brave men and women who have volunteered more than will ever be asked of me in defense of my freedom. Kubert did a greater service to veterans via his reverent depictions of armed conflict than many past administrations have done compensatorily. Superhero fans will miss his scratchy HAWKMAN, an oft misused hero who just doesn't look right to me as a polished, cleanly rendered Justice Leaguer.

I was not a fan of his NITE OWL collaboration with sons Adam and Andy (though I adored their WEDNESDAY'S COMICS' Sgt. Rock strip), but my deepest, most heart-felt sympathies are with those boys and their brothers and sister. I miss Joe as a fan, but they have lost not only their mentor and teacher, they've lost their father. They are fabulous artists in their own right and I hope each shares their pop's longevity not only in comics but in life.

No comic creator before or since has left a finer legacy than the Kubert School, and few have saved their swansong for last, but Kubert's DONG XAOI, VIETNAM 1965 is quite possibly his finest work. If you haven't done so already, run out and buy a copy. It's a great companion to 1996's FAX FROM SARAJEVO, his other Harvey and Eisner Award winning graphic novel, and a great reminder that "War: No More!" should be society's one and only goal.