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 ComicArtFans.com, 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 www.HeroInitiative.org, 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 Initiative.org.

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

Marvel.com 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 Marvel.com 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.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Brother to Dragons, A Companion to Owls

Rodolfo Loaiza's meme-tastic "Drunk on Love 2"
  My day job is gallery director of La Luz de Jesus Gallery, and I write a blog called ArtOfficial that details the events there. This past week and a half was quite busy as we opened José Rodolfo Loaiza Ontiveros' first solo show. We have featured him before, but his latest Disasterland exhibition exploded when Liberty Ross tweeted his painting of a drunk snow white to Kristen Stewart, after learning of her affair with director/husband Rupert Sander. This explanation is my long winded apology for going void for a week here at Pop Sequentialism, but having two titles to review at the same time offers an interesting opportunity for comparison.

 Last week saw the release of NITE OWL #2, part of the intertwined Before Watchmen line of comics from DC that gives more page count to the back stories of the WATCHMEN heroes created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons 25 years ago.

This second installment of famed television scribe J. Michael Straczynski and second generation illustrators Andy & Adam Kubert's take on the Blue Beetle inspired Nite Owl does a great job in filling out the specifics of how a young Dan Dreiberg came to idolize original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, and become a masked avenger himself. The JMS script is well handled in that respect, as he seems to really love the character. This strength exposes a great weakness, however, in his heavy reliance on Rorschach to tell Nite Owl's story.

I don't know if there is a fear that Nite Owl isn't interesting enough on his own, but the first two issues of this series could very well have been called NITE OWL & RORSCHACH, as equal space seems to have been given to both. Rorschach is a fan favorite and his appearance in these issues is sure to keep the value higher as collectibles than they otherwise might have been, but this version of the character is weaker and more flawed than the narrator of Alan Moore's original series, and I don't like how JMS has handled him. By resorting to the uninspired use of a beloved supporting character rather than enriching the tale of the titular hero, these Rorschach appearances serve the same purpose that Death (of Neil Gaiman's Endless) did in an infamously maligned Captain Atom comic: cheap exploitation.

I'm also very disappointed in the artwork this issue, which was scratchy, sketchy and unfinished looking. It was almost as if the Kubert boys were attempting a poor copy of their dad's late 70s war comics, but instead succeeded only in making the pages looked rushed. I have a Steve Niven preliminary drawing for one of his Old Man Wolverine covers that is exponentially more detailed than the published pages of Andy & Adam's NITE OWL #2. Maybe they spent the majority of their deadline on the excellent cover, leaving not enough time to properly illustrate the interiors.  Although. in that respect, they really did capture the look of the original Charlton comics that served as source material for the WATCHMEN...

This week OZYMANDIAS #2 hit comic shop shelves, and let me start by saying that Jae Lee delivered a Brian Bolland-esque cover that is sure to sell more issues than it probably deserves to sell. Lee has been delivering some of the best artwork of his career, and June Chung is supplying the best color of any of the Before Watchmen books on this title, which is all more the shame that Len Wein's dialogue is so cringe-worthy. This is exactly the type of comic book villain narration that Alan Moore called-out in his Antarctic climax to the original series. Wein borrows action description from the recent Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, and continues with an arrogant, preachy, omniscient-subjective narration that succeeds at being neither realistic nor likeable. Wein has completely lost the connection between Alan Moore's creation and the Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt character on which it was based. Moore's Ozymandias was a cross between Robert Redford, Joe Namath and Warren Buffet. Wein has lost the necessary likeability aspects of his superstar personality and replaced them with Donald Trump by way of Brett Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman and Howard Chaykin's Lamont Cranston. Wein's Adrian Veidt is little more than a filthy rich douchebag in tights. I don't believe that a person so narcissistic would have set the master plan of Alan Moore's WATCHMEN into motion. Moore's Ozymandias traded the lives of millions to save the lives of billions; he really believed this was a necessary and humane solution to the cold war politics that had placed the entire planet on the brink of annihilation. Wein's Ozymandias is so self-absorbed that there is no way he would be able to hatch a plan of that magnitude without taking credit for it (and thus failing). At the end of thus issue we are treated to a final page cameo by The Comedian that will likely provide some petty reason as to why he got bumped off, and I'm sure it will involve getting the better of the world's smartest man.

The Curse of the Crimson Corsair back up tale in both issues is unremarkable.

Great splash page from Canales & Guarnido's BLACKSAD
A title I just got hip to a few weeks ago and which has been unread until recently is BLACKSAD, a comic album series from Spanish creators Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido published by France's Dargaud, and recently released in English by Dark Horse in slick hardcover volumes. The success of this series is credited as single-handedly reinvigorating the anthropomorphic animal genre that helped establish the black & white independent comic scene in the early 80s (though David Petersen's MOUSEGUARD laid a heavy foundation).

BLACKSAD is full color, rendered in watercolor via a clean, realistic style that screams "European" in all the right ways. In other words, the art is beautiful. There are stylistic homages to Art Spiegelman's MAUS, but this is a hard-boiled detective story in the tradition of Hammett or Chandler. The writing is crisp and compelling, the characters believable and the story rewarding. The erratic publishing frequency of the original translated comic books make the two all-encompassing volumes published by Dark Horse a welcome and appreciated compendium.

Once again, it is a creation from Europe that rescues my fading optimism for the medium. I've got a huge stack of bound re-issues to sort through and read, and I'll be sure to post my reviews as I complete them, but it'll probably be after the Before Watchmen line is done. Next week brings DR. MANHATTAN #1, and I'm hoping that it gives comic fans an Adam Hughes collaboration worthy of his talents.