Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hey, You in the Hat

Those of you looking for some slightly fresh comic-book reviews, look no further! The 'Scope put up my brand-new reviews for Boom! Studios' What Were They Thinking? and G.I. Spy #1, as well as AiT/Planet Lar's Smoke and Guns! As Gambit would say: "Enjoy, mon amis, now I go to steal something, oui oui..."
If I Ran The Comics Industry, Part Twenty-Two

Is anyone surprised that Batman hates the hippies?

Part Twenty-One
Part Twenty Part Nineteen
Part Eighteen Part Seventeen
Part Sixteen Part Fifteen
Part Fourteen Part Thirteen
Part Twelve Part Eleven
Part Ten Part Nine
Part Eight Part Seven
Part Six Part Five
Part Four Part Three
Part Two Part One

Monday, August 29, 2005

You're Fired

This is the story of a corporation.

There are many corporations in the world, and some of these corporations own smaller corporations. All of these smaller corporations have their own corporate structures that fit within the framework of larger structures. Sometimes the infinitely digressive nature of corporate insularity protects the smaller companies from the larger companies. Sometimes a larger company wakes up after a long slumber and realizes that the smaller companies in its belly have not, in fact, dissolved in a stew of gastric juices, but have in fact evolved into strange quasi-independent entities that exist in little or no relation to the prerogatives of the larger companies.

One fine day, in the boardrooms of XXXX-XXXXXX, a minor executive was called before a major executive to deliver a status report.

"Um. I see we still publish these things. I didn't know that. That was a surprise to me."

"Yes sir. We still publish these things."

"I thought it was just cartoons . . . oh well. From the looks of these reports, you've had a good year - consistent growth from quarter-to-quarter."

"We've streamlined a number of line-wide initiatives -"

"Yes, yes, I don't really care about all that. You know we've always allowed you to operate with a modicum of autonomy as long as you provide us with the raw materials for cartoons and movies. That's what I'm here to talk to you about today."

"It's been a big year for our movies. After the regrettable XXXXXXXX fiasco, we seem to have recovered well."

"That was the last dog we'll see for a long time, with any luck. We've got half-a-dozen solid blockbusters in the pipeline, all of which originated in your department. Now, I heard you organized your own publishing launch to coincide with the XXXXXX movie . . . how did that go?"

"Brilliantly. XXX-XXXX XXXXXX X XXXXX XXX XXX XXXXXXX broke sales records for the decade-to-date and dominated the competition. It will be our biggest seller for the year and will undoubtedly do well in collection for years to come."

"Yes, I saw that in this prospectus . . . on paper, it looks wonderful. Now, you know we're already working on the next XXXXXX movie. This last one didn't make quite as much money as we would have hoped but considering how bad the last one was we figure in another two or three years the pump will be primed for an explosive success, as long as the quality is there. Now that the bad taste of XXXXXX X XXXXX is out of people's mouths, we can focus the next few years on selling XXXXXX DVDs, underwear and comics to our hearts content. You should probably know that the people in the big office are starting to pay more attention to your division - they expect big things."

"We aim to please."

"Now, about XXX-XXXX XXXXXX X XXXXX XXX XXX XXXXXXX - what we hoped was that, to put it bluntly, we could get a XXXXXX comic that anyone could read without any knowledge of any past stories. Basically, anyone who walked off the street after seeing the movie could find the same character they just saw on the screen doing similar things. No fancy tricks. Quite honestly, we know that you folks know how best to publish your comics, but most of them are essentially gobbledygook."

"Ah . . . well, we've taken steps to ensure that the XXX-XXXX line will be as accessible as possible. We've got the best creators in the field.

"I hope, for your sake, that this is so. Now, a couple years ago, XXXX had that XXXXXX-XXX movie that was so big . . . my kids loved it. Took them to see it three times. Then, for Christmas, we got them a book - I can't get them to look at most of our stuff, they just like the Yu-Gi-Oh! crap - but it was a book that had simple, accessible XXXXXX-XXX stories in it . . . what was it? Ultimate something or other . . ."

"We don't use that word here! Say 'iconic!' Not 'ultimate!' Never 'ultimate!'

"Why, you seem to be rather upset - hear, take my handkerchief, you've got a bit of spittle on your chin. You shouldn't be so upset. A good initiative is a good initiative - nothing succeeds like success. That's why we copy success."

"We're not copying them. We're producing iconic-

"I hope for your sake you are copying them, because it's working. I can walk into Barnes & Noble, and that might be the only American comic book I can give my kid that he would have a damn bit of interest in. What I want from you is simple - a XXXXXX comic I can give my kid that he would want to read and doesn't need a PHd in Nerd to understand."

"Well, have you read it yet?"

"No, I was hoping you had a copy."

I do. We all carry copies for just such an occasion."

The book is exchanged. Five minutes pass.



"This isn't quite what I was expecting."

"Ah . . . how so?"

"This writer . . . what's his name . . . ah, XXXXXX. I recognize that name. Has he ever written a XXXXXX comic before?"

Yes, he wrote some of the best XXXXXX stories ever published. That's why it was such a coup to land him for XXX-XXXX XXXXXX X XXXXX XXX XXX XXXXXXX."

"Well, this is a piece of crap. This dialogue is horrible. The plot is infantile. You've turned XXXXXX into a pedophile."

"Ah, sir, this is the biggest book of the year . . ."

"I understand that. How many people bought this?"

"We sold almost 300,000 copies."

"How many copies of the second issue do you think you'll sell?"

Probably not as many . . . attrition is expected with these type of events."

"I see. I suppose you think that's natural. Let me ask you why you chose to hire someone to write a XXXXXX comic book who betrays, on almost every page, a visible disinterest in writing a XXXXXX comic book?"

"But sir, he's XXXXX XXXXXX . . ."

"I know who he is. This reads like he wrote it in an hour on the back of a cocktail napkin."

"No, no, you don't understand. It's satire. He's known for hard-boiled stories, and if you've read his previous XXXXXX books you'll see this is a logical progression-"

"Satire. This is your big publishing initiative, the publishing accompaniment to one of the biggest movies of the summer, the gateway book for a whole new generation of XXXXXX fans . . . a satire that depends on years of prior knowledge of both the character's history and the writer's career, and which, even then can easily be misinterpreted as simply a poorly written comic book?"

"Er, yes."

"Do you understand why that might be something of a disappointment to us?"


"If you try to defend this as satire to the man on the street, who is the presumed target of any 'iconic' treatment such as this, you will get a look of baffled indifference. Satire only works if your audience is familiar with the subject matter. I can't put this in a hardcover and sell it in the window at Barnes & Noble, not if I ever want to sell another comic to a general audience again. it would poison the well for generations to come."

"But it was the best-selling book-"

"Which is all well and good, but we were hoping for something more long-time, the kind of evergreen success that might conceivably have justified the rather high corporate bonuses your division received last year. Perhaps your division will need to be held to closer scrutiny in the future."

"Well, sir, if you're not happy, I can assure you-"

"You need assure me of nothing. You are fired."

"Um. Um. Yes sir.

Then the major executive tore off his man suit, revealing a body composed of undulating tentacles and teeth. The minor executive only had a moment to lament his error before being ground up into tiny pieces and digested by the massive abomination from beyond the stars.

The End

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Chronicles of the Human Fly
Chapter One

There is little doubt that The Human Fly is one of the most bizarre books Marvel has ever published. Even in an era - the late 70s / early 80s - when the stands were literally clogged with weird crap, The Human Fly stood out from the pack.

I am absolutely convinced, even if I can't prove it at this time, that the only reason that this book was ever published is that at some point in time Evel Knievel refused to grant Marvel the license. Because that's basically what the Human Fly is: a poor man's Evel Knievel. And Evel Knievel wasn't exactly a high-rent concept to begin with. Certainly, there has never been and there will never be a shortage of people willing to pay for the privelage of seeing some poor schmuck risk life and limb doing stupid things. The success of shows like Survivor and Fear Factor attest to the fact that danger never goes out of style.

But the difference here is simple: the dangerous stunts on all modern "reality" programs are essentially simulated. Never once, to my knowledge, has anyone on Fear Factor been asked to do something that might actually result in death or dismemberment. Every bungee-jump is triple-checked for safety, safety nets are always on hand, and there are no shards of glass in the worm-burgers (or whatever) they have to scarf for points. Back in the 70s, however, real-life "daredevils" like Evel Knevel made a "living" by putting their lives in honest-to-God jeopardy. At the very least I suppose you could say that modern reality programming is an improvement over seeing real people attempt non-simulated suicide . . . but this is only a relative improvement.

Marvel has never met a bandwagon it couldn't co-opt. Roller-disco was big in the 70s, so they created a roller-disco superhero named Dazzler. (They also created a plain-vanilla disco super-villain named the Hypno Hustler. One of them got to join the X-Men and still appears semi-regularly to this day, the other was never heard from again - let's see if you can guess which one.) Blaxploitation gave us Luke Cage. The kung-fu craze gave us Shang-Chi. Trucking was big (sort of . . . the 70s was a strange time), so we got U.S. 1 and Razorback. Drugs were big in the 80s so we got Cloak & Dagger. Marvel even tried again with a concept that bore significant similarities to The Human Fly - Team America, which wasn't merely one daredevil but a whole team of daredevils (and, significantly, it wasn't a licensed project).

It's worth pointing out that at some point - perhaps not-so- coincidentally, around the time Jim Shooter left Marvel - the powers-that-be at the company stopped trying to chase every fad. Also, in most cases, anything that Marvel created to exploit a passing fad usually came out a few years after said fad was already in the dust. All of which means, thankfully, we were spared a forty-something white guy's attempt at creating a hip-hop superhero. A "Who Let The Dogs Out?" supervillain would probably be premiering right about now if Shooter still edited the Marvel line.

The Human Fly's existence has left a surprisingly sparse record. Others have already tried to track this elusive prey, with variable levels of success. The Human Fly was apparently a man known as Rick Rojatt. There was another "Human Fly" in 1977 - a man named George Willig who scaled the World Trade center on May 26 - but this one-time stunt had no connection to Rojatt's career.

Evel Knievel has never been a shrinking violet, continuing to promote himself and his various charitable endeavors. albeit on something of a reduced scale, long after his heydey in the 1970s (his website can be found here). Never one to shrink from self-promotion, he even goes so far as to make the somewhat dubious claim that "Knievel was credited with re-vitalizing the poorly performing toy industry in the 70's". It wouldn't surprise me if Knievel toys were popular, since they made quite a few of them, but I have a hard time believing that motorcycle daredevil toys could possibly have outgrossed Star Wars as the premiere children's toys of the late 1970's and early 1980's. Not inconceivable, but a surprising claim nonetheless.

In any event, the popularity of daredevil stuntmen eventually disappeared entirely in the early 80s, and with it, Rojatt's career. The most significant Rojatt-related anecdote online is a story by Ky Michaelson - "The Rocketman" - a rocket aficianado and the man who custom-crafted the rocket cycle Rojatt used in his 1977 jump over 27 buses at the Montreal Olympic Stadium. The whole story, complete with a few wonderful pictures, is here. I don't want to steal Michaelson's thunder - it's a great story - but a couple passages relating to the Rojatt's character stand out as particularly revealing:
"The other very unique thing about this off-the-wall daredevil was that he was never seen out of costume, and kept his true identity a secret by wearing a red mask and a white cape, identical to the comic book action hero. . . . From the moment I met this guy, I was convinced he was an accident looking for a place to happen, especially when he told me he wanted to attempt 36 buses."

"We went over the stunt as thoroughly as possible, and much to my amazement, Rick didn't want to do any practice runs at all. He just sat on the bike, admiring it, determined to just wait until the time came. I gave him step-by-step detailed instructions on how to operate the rockets, and he just took it all in, nodding as I went along. I knew he understood what I was saying, but I hardly slept that night because I was always so safety conscious, and typically rehearsed stunts many a time before actually performing them. . . . I was uneasy with this particular situation."
So - what we have is someone with a secret identity, a death wish, and a disinterest in safety precautions. Sounds like a borderline psychotic to me - but hey, it was the 70s.

The only other artifact from the Fly's career that have surfaced online is a photograph and brief description of another, even more psychotic stunt:

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us

Click to enlarge image

According to the Mojave Transportation Museum's virtual archive:
"The Human Fly, a dare devil/stunt performer named Rick Rojatt, lives out the Marvel Comics character on the back of a DC-8 cruising low at 250 knots, flown by Clay Lacy at the Mojave California 1000 air races."

Here's a picture of the Fly on top of another airplane, proving that he did it at least twice:

The DC-8 stunt would be referenced in the very first issue of the Fly's comic.

Other than these two strange stories, no other evidence of Rojatt's career has surfaced online (and because this is the digital age, I'm way to lazy to actually go to a library and look him up). The one other detail about Rojatt that may have had any bearing on his life and career is that he was Canadian . . . but a search of the online Canadian white pages find no one with the name "Rojatt" anywhere in the confines of the country. Perhaps, at some point in the late 70s, the Human Fly did something so terrible, so inconceivable, that all record of his name and legend was wiped from the books?

Well, probably not. He probably just faded into obscurity like most of the other late 70s Knievel wannabes.

Join us next time as we actually begin our in-depth look at Marvel's Human Fly series - don't miss it!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Blinded By Snow(Bird)

Alpha Flight was never the world's greatest comic - let's be up-front about that. In fact, it was never better than mediocre on its best day. But at least in the beginning, it had a certain charm... back in the days when super-hero books could be safely lightweight (and not horribly portentous as a matter of rote), it was a satisfying entertainment.

But what happened to the book is almost a textbook example of everything that can go wrong with a book. I hardly wish to speak ill of those who can no longer defend themselves, but Bill Mantlo's run on the book is proof positive that you can't write a book ... at least write it well ... if you don't at least have some degree of fondness for the basic premise. Mantlo's run succeeded in taking everything that was even vaguely charming of the original Alpha Flight premise - hardly the most weighty material to begin with - and chopped it into little itty bitty pieces. What was left was something of a mess, to say the least. The late 80s and early 90s saw a succession of increasingly desperate creative maneuvers - and considering the fact that this was a book that actually had a reason to have the occasional obligatory Wolverine cameo, that's saying quite a lot. There were some really bad Alpha Flight comics, and the fact that the concept still contains enough juice to inspire the occasional ill-fated revivial is a testament to misguided nostalgia.

Why am I thinking of freakin' Alpha Flight? Well, my buddy Matt does a good job of encapsulating just how the series took such a bad turn for the worse here. Perhaps the best quote possible when you're discussing bad comics:
"... [A] comic book that started with the premise above ... still found somewhere downhill to go.
My friends, there's always room to be found under the bottom of the barrel.

And if you're still in the mood for some Alpha Action (and who isn't?) my homie Dave checks out Alpha Flight #121 here. A splendid time is guaranteed for all!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Your Thought For The Day

I think this comic has quite possibly the greatest cover captions of all time.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Fly , My Pretties!

A situation has come to my attention. It now falls on me to use the incredible power of this blog to, hopefully, redress a singular historical injustice.

Please, Dear Reader, take a moment to go to the Marvel homepage. Note that in the poll deciding what Marvel character will be revamped in a forthcoming issue of Amazing Fantasy, our homie Woodgod is trailing a distant fourth, behind even Wundarr, the Aquarian.

This is an outrage! Go forth, vote for Woodgod. Do my bidding and the world shall be made safe for Democracy...

Again, image intended for satyrical purposes only.
The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 08/17/05


(Ladies and Gentlemen, the single most pulse-pounding panel in the history of Mark Trail.)

For the Week of 08/1005 For the Week of 08/03/05
For the Week of 07/27/05 For the Week of 07/20/05
For the Week of 07/13/05 For the Week of 07/06/05
For the Week of 06/29/05 For the Week of 06/22/05
For the Week of 06/15/05 For the Week of 06/08/05
For the Week of 06/01/05 For the Week of 05/25/05
For the Week of 05/18/05 For the Week of 05/11/05
For the Week of 05/04/05 For the Week of 04/27/05
For the Week of 04/20/05 For the Week of 04/13/05
For the Week of 04/06/05 For the Week of 03/30/05
For the Week of 03/23/05 For the Week of 03/16/05
For the Week of 03/09/05 For the Week of 03/02/05
For the Week of 02/23/05 For the Week of 02/16/05
For the Week of 02/09/05 For the week of 02/02/05
For the Week of 01/26/05 For the Week of 01/19/05
For the Week of 01/12/05

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Hey Hey Hey

I simply must find a copy of this movie. According to Amazon it's not available on DVD. Drat and double drat! As if the monkey on the poster wasn't enough - "More fun than a barrel of people", indeed! -- it apparently also features a ten-foot tall computing robot named THINKO, Vampira, a Carradine (John, the Kung-Fu patriarch!) and even a Conway Twitty cameo. Cowboys, robots, vampires, monkeys and strippers - it's like the world's greatest AiT / Planet Lar project.

I couldn't find a picture of THINKO that wasn't thief-proof but I did find this piublicity still, which only cements my belief that I cannot die without seeing this film:

Friday, August 12, 2005

A Letter From Your Monarch

Doom regrets that he has not been able to answer his fan mail as promptly as he would wish. He has had other concerns far above the petty circumlocutions of his abject inferiors.

But now the time has come for Doom to emerge from his self-imposed exile and shine his majestic grace over the whole of creation. Those who oppose Doom shall be vanquished with swift and merciless brutality, while those who steadfastly acknowledge his superiority will be granted a place of honor within the new world order. Those who were responsible for a certain cinematic abomination which shall not be named will be dealt with in due time.

The question for today is, why does Magneto get the crossover? How many times will we see this unprincipled tyro clamber to a place of unearned prominence, only to have everything slip from his grasp? It is simply a waste of everyone’s time to see him go through the motions of pretend-conquering when everyone knows that he will simply end up a babbling mess when everything is over. He just wants the attention.

Besides, isn’t he dead? Doom realizes that he is hardly one to talk, but at least when Doom “dies” everyone knows that it is only an inferior Doombot that has been destroyed, and that the real Doom was elsewhere when the setback occurred. Magneto, however, has faced certain destruction at the hands of his simple-minded mutant foes often enough that it is simply tiresome. We know you don’t have Magneto robots, so how do you walk away from a total decapitation?

Oh yes, it was another Magneto. Simply brilliant!

At least when Doom has been killed he has bothered to think up an appropriate excuse upon his return to the land of the living.

In any event, the latest magnificent step in Doom’s inevitable takeover of the universe has sent doom far afield in search of fabled objects of mysterious power. Doom has consulted with those strange and haughty beings whom mortals know as Comic Book Retailers, but to no avail. Doom desires complete runs of US 1, Team America and Nth Man, but he is not about to pay dealer markup for such pitiful trifles! That these issues are absolutely necessary for the next step in his plan for world domination is regrettable, but sadly it is so. Doom knows these book are waiting for him in quarter boxes across the nation, but he doesn't get out as often as he would like.

Those who would heed wisdom of the words of Doom have but one simple task before them: go forth and find these issues! Render them unto Doom and you shall yet be spared his wrath.

Incidentally, is this not insanity? Doom admires the sheer temerity of such a fool.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Hey Rube

Check out my guest post over at Comics Should Be Good. I had some fun writing this - got a bit more wonky than I usually do. Had some fun. Hope it shows. This is the first time I've ever been offered the chance of writing a guest post anywhere and I had some fun - it let me break out of the format we're all used to here.

I'll be honest, I don't often go exploring the blogosphere outside of the comics corner - ain't enough hours in the day and all that. But every now and again I come across something that typefies, to me, why the internet can be so gosh-darned cool when it wants, something so unique and addictive that it couldn't have been created anywhere else.

My new find is True Porn Clerk Stories. This is pretty much what it says it is: stories told by a clerk in a porn video store. I like this lady, Ali Davis, because she seems smart and has a genuine degree of insight into the human condition. She is also fully aware of the absurdity of her everyday environment, surrounded by porn addicts and strange fetishes. I think (but I'm not sure) that she has some sort of degree in anthropology in addition to her interest in theater and the movies, so that undoubtedly helps. Based on reading her blog, I think that porn shops are the next uncharted territory for anthropologists.

But before all you comics fans get ready to roll your eyes and cringe at some of the truly pitiful cross-sections of humanity on display here, you should fast forward and read this post, dated 09/18/22.

I used to be one of those dudes who went to the comic shop every wednesday. I used to have a pull list. I used to spend a lot more money on comcis than I do now. I haven't been to a comic shop on Wednesday in quite a while. But now, whenever I see anyone else discuss New Comics Day, there will be a little circuit in my mind that clicks onto the idea of New Porn Day. Because, really, I think the similarities between the two phenomenon are simply too massive to ignore.

Or maybe that's just the cynic in me?

Monday, August 08, 2005

If I Ran The Comics Industry, Part Nineteen

It helps if you have the theme for The Omen playing in the background.

Part Eighteen
Part Seventeen
Part Sixteen
Part Fifteen
Part Fourteen
Part Thirteen
Part Twelve
Part Eleven
Part Ten
Part Nine
Part Eight
Part Seven
Part Six
Part Five
Part Four
Part Three
Part Two
Part One

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart


I freely admit that I'm about seven years behind the power curve on this one. I have a tendency to get stuck behind the times. At this rate I reckon I'll get around to finally buying a copy of Scott Pilgrim around the time we land on Mars.

("We" being "America" or even just "humanity" in general, not Anne and myself, because I do not think the O'Neil household will be landing on Mars anytime soon - unless we're aided by some massively powerful horse tranquilizers, that is.)

Anyway, this is a good book. Hell, this is a great book, far and away the best thing I've yet read from Oni. I can't say I was looking forward to it, because I haven't really dug any of the Queen & Country I've seen. The prospect of another book's worth of Rucka's generally well-done but thoroughly boring adventures in law enforcement / espionage / meter-maiding didn't fill me with glee. So, this has been sitting on the shelf a while.

But, I am pleased to announce that not only did this book defy my expectations, it smashed them into little bits. I'm not usually a fan of murder mysteries, but I loved this. There are a lot of reasons to love this book, but I'll just talk about a few.

Environment is crucial to the story and Lieber makes all the shades of gray come to life.

First, the murder plot itself is nowhere near as convoluted and nonsensical as these things usually go. I realize that might be a rather backhanded compliment, but considering the crap that passes for mystery in most media... I love Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales, and I like watching the occasional Poirot mystery on A&E but those aren't really great mysteries either. For the most part, they're character pieces that just happen to have flimsy mysteries as an excuse for showcasing their protagonists' eccentric personalities. Whiteout is in this vein as well. I'm not going to say that the mystery is a cheat or a fake-out -- Rucka definitely plays fair with all the "clues", excluding the revelation of the actual MacGuffin about 2/3 of the way through the book -- but it is nowhere near as satisfying as the character work that Rucka builds the book around.

I am honestly beginning to wonder why so much of Rucka's other comic work has left me cold, because there's just so much to like about the way he put this story together. In the first place, it's fairly dense, with a lot of attention paid to both the pacing and the tone. It's got a lot of information in it but it somehow manages to avoid being wordy or a slog. It jumps along at a brisk pace. A lot of the credit for this has to go to Steve Lieber. Most artists, when faced with the prospect of drawing an entire story in an environment soaked in whites and grays, would probably balk.

But the real reason this book is so compulsively readable is our hero, Ms. Carrie Stetko. Having been through some very traumatic episodes, we find her living the expatriate's life in the most remote wilderness on the planet - Antarctica. She's living in the coldest place on the planet because she just wants to be left alone. What's so great is the fact that Rucka knows to draw her personality out slowly, without laying all of his cards on the table at the same time. Even though, at the end of the story, we know a lot about what happened in her life before now, we still don't really understand what's actually going on in her head. She is something of a mystery, and creating that kind of plausible enigma is one of the most difficult things for any writer to do.

Regardless of the somewhat trite "I'll have your badge" bit, Carrie Stetko is one of the most convincingly likeable characters you're likely to come across in comics.

And of course, the relationship between Stetko and Lily Sharpe is the centerpiece of the book. It's such an odd, subtle relationship that it becomes absolutely riveting. It's not as if either one of them ever come out and say "I'm a lesbian", but there's definitely some serious subtext here for anyone who cares to find it. And the best part is that it's handled with such a light, spare touch that even though they never actually say anything to each other about it, it manages to fill up every scene they share. But there's a lot here that makes sense - they're both women in overwhelmingly male environments. They aren't entirely comfortable in their limited social worlds but they are at least acclimated to them. The scene of their meeting illustrates this to brilliant effect: Carrie walks into a smoke-filled rec room filled with horny scientists drinking beer watching hardcore porn. Lily's off to the side reading a book - a part of the community even though she's perpetually apart, much like Carrie herself. It would be hard not to see two people in such a similar situation drifting together, despite their initial indifference, and Rucka handles this gradual, almost subliminal attraction with a gorgeous equanimity. The last page of the book is one of the best uses of negative space I can remember seeing in quite some time, and it wonderfully encapsulates everything strangely romantic an hopelessly laconic about this excellent story.

There's apparently only one more Whiteout book after this, and while I'm disappointed that there isn't more, at least I have it to look forward to. At this rate, regardless of how much I loved the first volume, it might be a while before I get around to tracking it down.

"Buy me, I'm really cool."

Friday, August 05, 2005

I Don't Understand

Hey gang, looks like I need you help. Everyone needs to go to their bookshelf and retrieve their copy of The Complete Peanuts: 1953-1954. Open the volume to page 152. Tell me... what the hell does this strip mean? It doesn't seem to really make sense. The only thing I can figure is that it mighe be sort of veiled Kierkegaard reference, but somehow I don't think that's really what it means at all.

The best answer gets a Kewpie doll.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

I'm An Alligator

I've got new reviews of The R. Crumb Handbook and Shuck the Sulferstar up at the Buzzscope. I'd also like to take this opportunity to spread the word that any of you indie publishers/ self-publishers out there who might like to see their books reviews on the 'Scope should drop me a note. I know that site hasn't always advertised itself as being very "indie" friendly, but when the editors asked me to start contributing reviews that's basically what they wanted me to do. I'm trying my best but I'd like to do a better job, and unfortunately my comics buying budget is not very big these days. So, spread the word.

Painful Disassociative Trauma

Gaze in wonder, my children...

It’s been in my bookmarks for quite some time, but I only recently got around to reading the entirety of Andrew Goletz and Glenn Greenberg’s massive Life of Reilly project. I have to say that this is one of the single most interesting achievements I’ve seen in terms of comic-related pseudo-journalism on the internet - it’s not going to win a Pulitzer, but it does a fascinating job of exhuming some of the worst moments of 90s comics in every gory detail.

Although in many ways the era can be seen as a definite nadir in the artistic history of mainstream comics, only the Golden Age tops it in terms of juicy backstage melodrama. Of course, we’ve all got a copy of Dan Raviv’s Comic Wars sitting on our shelves, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The decade started with a gold rush and ended with a bust, and in between there are countless stories, both big and little, that add up to a collective industry clusterfuck the likes of which has rarely been seen in any field. If I were independently wealthy I’d devote a year or two to writing a book on the period, a book encompassing more than just Marvel’s bankruptcy - we’d have the story of Image, the rise and fall of Valiant, Jim Shooter’s gradual dissipation, the odd, sad, sleazy saga of Malibu, the death of Superman, the strange public disintegration of Dave Sim (and the political fallout from said disintegration), the folly of Tundra, the unraveling of the direct market system, the distributor wars, the slow, tentative rise of quality publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly in the background like a steady buzz of background radiation, the odd successes of Bone and Strangers in Paradise . . . it all adds up to a massively compelling piece of history. It is fascinating that we started the decade with million-selling comics on the nightly news and ended with the worst period of market attrition in decades. Of course we all know the general story, but I’d love to have the chance to connect the dots. Maybe if I get that MacArthur Genius Grant.

In any event, Life of Reilly is a crucial piece of the jigsaw. The actual bulk of the columns - Goletz’ story recaps - are probably not that interesting except in an anthropological fashion - as in, God these stories are awful. The vast majority of the books involved in the Clone Saga were very, very bad, and the few highlights that shine through are examples of creative heroism under the worst possible conditions. I read many of these books when they came out, back when I still absorbed a lot of superhero books on a regular basis, and I was amazed by how little I actually remembered of the stories. Bad comic books can traumatize a person - and most of my Ben Reilly memories are quarantined off in little bits of shrunken, mangled grey matter.

The really fascinating bits of the articles are Glenn Greenberg’s running commentary. He was one of the assistant editors in the Spider-Man office throughout the entire story. That might not seem very impressive, but as you read the saga you realize that creative and editorial turnover at Marvel at the time was simply phenomenal. By the very end, after the layoffs and shuffles and frustrated departures, Greenberg is one of very few people in any capacity who saw the saga from its humble beginnings on through its grim ending. If it sounds like Moby Dick, well, that’s more than a little accurate - by the end of the story, pretty much everything related to Spider-Man in either the real world or the stories themselves has been leveled to the ground. This is a cautionary tale that every person involved in corporate comics on any level should have to read.

Now, certainly, Greenberg is more than a little self-serving, but if you can filter out the bits of ego and obfuscation what emerges is a rather harrowing vision of a story gone mad. The problem is that Marvel needed something to compete with the death of Superman and the Batman’s Knightfall shenanigans. However, Marvel characters have historically proven resistant to this type of artificial boosting, probably because the soap-opera template Stan and Co. set so long ago was already frothy to begin with - deaths and resurrections are par for the course in the Marvel Universe. DC heroes are far more susceptible to the appearance of a stifling status quo, to the point where even a temporary disruption seems cataclysmic. Cataclysmic shit happens every day at Marvel. In other words, they needed something more than just the kind of temporary shuffle that DC was using to boost their sales. They needed something that could potentially have extremely deep repercussions - or at least seem so to the fans. “Break the Internet in half”, as we say nowadays.

I remember when the clone stuff began it was actually quite exciting. This is the dirty secret that no-one likes to remember: the first few months, when the stories were well-conceived and tightly coordinated, were extremely effective pieces of serial brinksmanship. First, a mystery figure was introduced, and then he was slowly introduced as dramatic hints were dropped. It was quite well done, and by the time the clone was actually revealed the plot had succeeded in injecting a modicum of excitement into what had been a moribund group of titles.

Spider-Man with automatic weaponry: always a good idea.

I actually have an extremely tiny part in this drama myself. Back in the early 90s Marvel advertised this thing called the Marvel Fan Phone, which was basically an answering machine hooked up with a tape of Marvel hype. Kinda similar to TMBG’s Dial-A-Song (free if you call from work), the idea was that you call the number and get some hype. Well, it was a big flop - no-one, to my knowledge, ever called the thing. Except, that is, for me on occasion, because it was kinda fun. Especially towards the end, when they realized no-one was calling, and knew they could get away with pretty much anything, they did some fun things. One of these fun things was giving away the Spider Clone plot months in advance. Remember - the Internet was but a wee little baby back then, so even if a few nuts called the Fan Phone it wouldn’t really have been a big leak. So, at that year’s Wonder Con, at the Marvel panel, they were making a lot of noise about the Mystery Man in the Spider books. Some fans were asking if it was Uncle Ben or whatever, but I just raised my hand and asked, in my most humble voice, if it wasn’t the Spider Clone from the 70s, like they had said on the Fan Phone. The Marvel guys looked kind of green for a moment before they conceded that, yes, it was indeed the clone, to which revelation the assembled fanboys began a-buzzing. I later read in Wizard that the Clone plotline had been “leaked” at Wonder Con, and I was oddly pleased by that.

By the mid-90s the Spider-Man books were suffering from a terrible torpor, and any sales goose, especially in the light of industry-wide attrition, would have been seen as a blessing. But, as the story goes, one should be careful what they wish for. The story was too successful. What was supposedly planned as a finite series eventually got horribly elongated. The bean counters demanded the series continue, and that the Scarlet Spider - who was never conceived as anything but a temporary character - be given more prominence. As Greenberg points out, The Age of Apocalypse was really big for Marvel around that time, so the edict was given that the Spider books should try to emulate that event. The only difference was that the Apocalypse books were extremely well-planned and meticulously executed - a textbook example of the best way to do those type of monstrous mega-crossovers. So, long after the Spider creators were growing tired of having to essentially hang fire for marketing concerns, they were forced to create storylines designed to fit into bookend Alpha & Omega issues, they were forced to design Scarlet Spider events after the character had ceased to have a reason to exist, and they were forced to have gimmick covers at every turn. According to Greenberg, no one thought that Maximum Clonage would be good as anything other than a sick joke - and yet, somehow that ended up as one of the major storylines. It’s like a car wreck in slow motion, where everyone knows that they’re driving over a cliff but no one person has the power to stop the terrible inertia. About halfway through it became obvious to all concerned that no one had a clue how to stop the thing, which is why they actually went so far as to replace Peter Parker with Ben Reilly - something that, apparently, no one thought was a good idea, but all were powerless to stop.

During the course of the story, three different editors-in-chief presided over Marvel. The story was greenlit by Tom DeFalco and finally put to bed by Bob Harris. In between was the disastrous “Marvelution” initiative. The story grew larger than any one editor, even larger than any one office, as the massive logistical problems grew and grew, radiating outward from the Spider offices until they threatened to subsume the character entirely. Many would argue that the character has never recovered from the abuse. Certainly, the return of Norman Osborne as a dues ex machina seemed to be a classic example of clutching defeat from the jaws of victory, especially when using Doctor Octopus would have been much better, made more sense and been more satisfying. As it is, every time I pick up a Spider-Man book and see Norman Osborne still alive I am reminded of the Clone saga, and how the story was so bad it required the unraveling of one of the most significant stories in the entire canon. How can anyone possibly take the character seriously anymore if not even the Death of Gwen Stacy is considered sacrosanct?

A few years ago I picked up Maximum Clonage Omega in a quarter box. Now that was a comic literally not worth the paper it was printed on. It’s obvious, reading that comic and any of the issues immediately surrounding it, that no one really had any idea what was going on. That it was obvious to anyone picking up a random issue off the street is frightening. If that much anxiety managed to trickle down to the pages of the actual comics themselves, what must the Marvel offices themselves have been like? Downtown Beirut?

But, you know, if the Spider-folks had actually been able to go through with their original idea of a conclusively finite Clone saga, it would probably be remembered quite differently today. It’s an interesting thought.

Ironically, Sal Buscema did some of his career-best work during this awful period. He and Bill Sienkiewicz made a surprisingly good team. Just try and tell me that's not a memorable cover...