Category Archives: Comics

A monster girl, a monster show: Books read

Noelle Stevenson’s NIMONA is a graphic novel I started reading online, then stumbled across the whole thing in paperback. Ballister Blackheart once aspired to be a hero working for the enigmatic Institute defending his er, medieval-punk country (it’s an odd mix of advanced tech and knightly armor). Then everything changed and he’s now an archvillain working against Goldenloin, who got the hero gig Ballister aspired too. Enter Nimona, a pixie-ish shapeshifter eager to work as Ballister’s sidekick with her shapeshifting powers. But is she who or what she says she is? What is the Institute up to? I don’t think the Institute’s plan really made a lot of sense, but that’s not the center of the book, so this worked for me anyway. I look forward to more from Stevenson.

THE MONSTER SHOW: A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal (who provided the commentary on the Dracula DVD I watched a while back) starts off well in the Victorian age but slides into pretension as it approaches the present. Skal’s strength is writing about the genesis of Dracula and Frankenstein, their Victorian reception and their lurching transition first to stage, then screen. After that comes the pretension, such as finding some sort of parallel between mad scientists transforming humans into monsters and plastic surgery recreating people’s faces (he spends several pages discussing Michael Jackson to no good effect) or lots of discussion on AIDS as the root of 1980s horror (he’s writing in 1993). Okay, so what about cancer? Polio, which was a terrifying thing before Salk and Sabine developed their vaccines? Why not more on slasher films which were, after all, a primary form of horror in the 1980s (when Skal does deal with them, it’s to see them as anti-child and ignore the misogynist overtones)? A real disappointment

#SFWApro. Cover by Stevenson, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Batgirl, Inhumans and a Sailor: books read

I largely gave up on the Bat-books by the end of the 1990s, so I never read much of the Cassandra Cain Batgirl until picking up BATGIRL: Silent Knight and To the Death by (mostly) Kelly Puckett and Damion Scott. The adoptive child of assassin Cain, Cass has been trained to read body language instead of words, so that she knows how you’re going to move even before you do (she loses some of this ability over the course of the two volumes). Can Babs Gordon and Batman steer her to a heroic path? Is it possible she killed a man under Cain’s direction? How will she cope in a fight with Lady Shiva, the world’s deadliest martial artist? Cass is a striking character and I can see why she has a solid fanbase (ignored by DC in favor of restoring Barbara to Batgirl, though a version of Cass has shown up in DC’s current Rebirth). That said, the second volume isn’t as good as the first, being mostly standalone adventures that come off as endless, indistinguishable fight scenes.

ROYALS: Beyond Inhuman by Al Ewing and Ryan Sook starts out wrapping up some Inhuman/mutant big event (including the destruction of the terrigent mist) then takes the Inhumans old school, back in the days when they were a race apart rather than Mutants Mark II. After defeating Maximus’ latest plan, the Inhumans head into space to the Kree homeworld where they hope to find the secret to reclaiming terrigen. Can’t say this is A-list for me, but it’s certainly enjoyable.

THE RED WOLF CONSPIRACY: Book One of the Chathrand Voyage by Robert VS Redick is a good nautical fantasy in which a teen deckhand aboard a massive, ancient sailing vessel discovers the great voyage of peace they’re on is actually a scheme to plunge a rival empire into internecine war. Worse, there’s a third party plotting to use the scheme to obtain an all-powerful evil McGuffin and plunge the world into darkness. This is good enough I didn’t mind its flaws, though it has several. One is that Redick has a few too many things happening offstage, then recapped later (“While you were unconscious your renegade father came by to check you were okay, then vanished again.”). Another is that while the noblewoman Thasa starts out interesting (finally busting free of a rather repressive convent only to learn she’s stuck in an arranged marriage), she’s a lot more generic after that. Still I look forward to reading the sequel eventually.

#SFWApro. Cover by Scott, all rights remain with current holder.

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Wonder Woman, a Wonder Dog, Lucifer, Deadpool and More: Graphic novel reviews

As last weekend’s activity didn’t give me much in the way of movie-viewing time, let’s review some comic-book TPBs instead:

Tired though I am of retelling Wonder Woman’s origin, Renae de Liz’s THE LEGEND OF WONDER WOMAN: Origins makes it work. This has a mix of classic elements (Steve, Etta, WW II setting) with some of the more recent ones (Diana’s awkwardness adapting to man’s world, sinister evil lurking under Themyscira’s surface) and pulls it all together quite well. I really liked little details such as Diana catching a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and being horrified at the portrayal of Hippolyta (“This is how the world remembers my mother?”). Alas, the writer/artist had a falling-out with DC so we won’t be getting any more.

DUNCAN THE WONDER DOG by Adam Hines has lots of glowing reviews, but I must confess I couldn’t finish it. Part of the problem is that while the third I managed to get through has many great scenes, they’re outnumbered by the boring ones. There’s also the mechanical problem that Hines uses really, really small lettering in the word balloons and it was an effort to read. I’d say what it’s about, but frankly I don’t have the slightest idea how the different scenes fit together.

Mike Carey’s LUCIFER: Book One was another disappointment. It’s not that it’s bad, and if I’d never read anything from Vertigo before, I’d probably be blown away by this story of Lucifer’s adventures in Hell, Earth and other realms. But I have read it, and it reads like what Sandman, Hellblazer and Swamp Thing were already doing but with less spark. It doesn’t help that Lucifer seems to have the same personality as John Constantine. On the plus side, that’s a lot of subsequent volumes I won’t have to read!

DEADPOOL VS. THANOS by Tim Seeley and Elmo Bondoc was one I read as prep for my Thanos team-up Screen Rant list. Thanos and Deadpool are both in love with Death (Thanos is closer to an obsessive stalker), so when she disappears and people everywhere stop dying they reluctantly join forces to find out whodunnit? I lost interest in Thanos a long time ago, and Deadpool I can only talk in small doses. That said, this series wasn’t too bad, though I doubt I’d have bothered without the Screen Rant incentive.

NIGHTWING: Blockbuster by Seeley (again) and multiple illustrators reintroduces crime boss Roland Desmond, AKA Blockbuster, to the New 52, Nightwing reuniting with Huntress to stop some Spyral agents gone bad and Dick’s love life once again going south. Seeley’s work on the series has gone wildly up and down (see this review, and this one) but this one’s on the up side. However while I liked Dick’s conversation with girlfriend Shane about how he’s rejected Batman’s path of revenge, his argument she’s still mired in angry doesn’t convince (it’s certainlly not how she comes across). Overall, good.

GREEN ARROW has had similar highs and lows under Benjamin Percy’s writing, but not as high. The Rise of Star City should have been way more of a win, pitting Ollie Queen against an arrogant capitalist/objectivist who’s taken over Seattle and renamed it Star City, in line with a mystic secret discovered by Oliver’s ancestor (I’m curious what Seattle-ites make of this — it’s the kind of history usually attached to Gotham or Opal City, not a real place). Unfortunately it never catches fire and there’s way too much effort to make this look closer to the TV show (like the big reveal of the Ninth Circle’s leader). Ultimately, thumbs down.

#SFWApro. Cover by de Liz, all rights remain with current holder.

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New Screen Rant out: if I told Superman he had a beautiful body, would he hold it against me?

More specifically, it’s on 16 Wild Things About Superman’s Body.  For example, that he’s the perfect organ donor as his invulnerable parts resist transplant rejection (art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito)

Some stories say when he’s powerless from kryptonite an ordinary bullet can kill him, such as The Reversed Heroes here (art by Dick Sprang). They’re in a minority.

Superman can smell pancakes from halfway around the world, even though that’s physically impossible (the molecules carrying the scent can’t spread that fast, no matter how sensitive his nose). Art by Bob Brown.

If something could kill him on Krypton, it will become super on Earth and affect him the same way. Presumably if someone had a Kryptonian chair, they could club him unconscious with it. Art by Al Plastino.

And due to a bizarre physiological feature, his body freaks out on his Kryptonian birthday (art by Curt Swan). This was revealed to serve the plot of one story, then promptly forgotten.

Being the big comics nerd I am, this was a lot of fun to write. Hope y’all enjoy reading it.

All rights to images remain with current holder. #SFWApro.

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Flintstones: Meet the even-more-modern Stone Age family

Reading the first volume of DC’s short-lived FLINTSTONES by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh got me thinking about how you keep an adaptation faithful (or don’t) when it comes out 50 years after the original series first aired.

The Flintstones was a hit prime-cartoon that ran from 1960 to 1966. It was openly a spin on Jackie Gleason’s hit The Honeymooners, with Fred as Jackie Gleason’s Ralph and Barney as his sidekick Norton. Only, of course, in a fictionalized “modern Stone Age.” Socially, everything is like a simplified version of 1950s America (stay at home wife, husband who works 40 hours a week, then goes down to his lodge); technologically it’s an insane steampunk version where animals serve as appliances and cars are powered by just pushing your feet through the floor to move them.

Reruns, spinoffs (Flintstone Kids) and expanded-universe stuff (comic books and DVD films such as The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones) stuck to the standard presentation both visually and (as far as I remember) in keeping the 1950sish social setting the same. Russell/Pugh give the characters a more realistic look and shoot for a more contemporary stone age setting. Wilma’s now an artist, the politicians are incompetent, Fred’s boss Mr. Slate dreams of someday being one of the 1 percent. The original satirized Beatniks; here we get an issue were supporters of traditional relationships protest this newfangled idea called marriage (the sex cave was good enough for your parents, wasn’t it?).

I like it, though apparently not enough people did (it ended with the second volume, Bedrock Bedlam). But it strikes me a fan of the show could argue that by updating it, the comic book gets it wrong. And they have a point … but then again, so do Pugh and Russell. It depends whether you define the Flintstones as a satire on contemporary life or a satire on 1950s contemporary life. Both are reasonable interpretations but which is right? Is The Flintstones contemporary or a period piece?

This is something that’s easy to deal with in theater. After a play reaches the point where it’s social attitudes are too outdated, just do it as a period piece. No Sex Please, We’re British was a fast-moving farce about porn when it hit the boards in the 1970s. The sex elements are so outdated now that the last community theater production I saw treated it as a straight 1970s period piece. That was the right call.

It’s tougher with a series though because it has to engage readers over the long haul. I think Russell and Pugh made the right call; even though we still have stay-at-home wives (and I imagine always will) the show’s patriarchal assumptions would have looked absurdly dated today.

Thinking about the TPB after I read it, I realized it departs from the original in other ways too. The social satire in the original target rock-and-roll, Kids Today, gender relations, and well, men; Fred was an arrogant, rather dim buffoon and something of a jerk. He’s the man who thinks he’s lord of his domain when he’s anything but (much like Honeymooner’s Ralph).

Fred here is much less of a jerk, which is a plus. But the social satire’s a lot more pointed. Fred and Barney are vets from a pointless war against the tree people; capitalist consumption is a new idea and not making anyone happier (of course satire on people buying stuff they don’t need goes back 90 years at least); the elected leader is a blithering idiot; the cover image above has Pebbles reading Cannibalism: the Unknown Ideal (a takeoff on an Ayn Rand title). It worked well enough for me, but again, apparently not for everyone. I wonder if it didn’t just fall between the stools: didn’t draw new fans (I’m not sure there’s much Flintstone fandom beyond my generation) and wasn’t traditional enough for the old ones. Or maybe something else.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Women heroes, pulp vigilantes, the president and Peanuts! TPBs read

BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY: Source Code by Shawna and Julie Benson, Roge Antonio and Claire Rowe is a big improvement over the previous volume as Batgirl, Huntress and Black Canary go up against a thief who steals metahuman powers, a shady eco-friendly company and Oracle’s old foe the Calculator. The banter and the art were much less annoying than V1, and overall I think they did a great job.

BOMBSHELLS: Allies by Marguerite Bennett and multiple artists is the second volume in the series (somehow I neglected to review the first volume, Enlisted), set in WW II. With the male superheroes all fighting on the front, 1940s versions of various characters (Supergirl, Batwoman, Stargirl, Mera, Wonder Woman) have been recruited by Amanda Waller to fight against the Axis. The first volume was a lot of fun, this one a little less. Partly, some key events seemed to have happened off-page, partly that the living dead Tenebrae are way too stock a foe. Still, I liked this one.

LOBSTER JOHNSON: The Pirate’s Ghost and Metal Monsters of Midtown by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Tonci Zonjic is a mixed bag. The first story arc, concerning giant robots running amok in New York, was a lot of fun. The second, in which a ghost pirate ship shows up in New York (surprisingly for the Hellboy-verse, it turns out to be a fake, like something from a Doc Savage novel) is fun, but I honestly don’t think the plot makes sense. Both stories have been added to the Hellboy Chronology, of course.

I recently reread the Bronze Age Prez series because I’d picked up the 2015-16 PREZ: Corn-Dog in Chief by Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell, which is as goofy as its predecessor but in a different way. The premise here is that Beth Ross, whose gaming skills have given her a cult status, is picked as a write-in candidate and wins her state. When the election is thrown into the House of Representatives, she obviously has no chance to win… right? Suddenly an 18-year-old girl is thrust into the White House in a corporate-controlled dystopian future (“I’m the end-of-life bear, would you like some medical marijuana?”), helped by her vice president, Rep. Rickards (an alt.version of the original Prez). I liked it, but apparently not enough people did, as DC ended it here instead of the planned twelve-issue run.

THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1967-8 by Charles Schulz doesn’t add as much new stuff as the previous volume, mostly building on ’65-6. We have more of Peppermint Patty, a lot more of Snoopy as the WW I flying ace (“I’ve always wanted to meet a blighter.”), and more of the perennial gags (the little redheaded girl, losing at baseball, trying to kick the football, Lucy’s hopeless crush on Schroeder). That’s not meant as a negative: Schulz has found his groove and the strips are still fun years later. We do get one new element, a black kid named Franklin (Brian Cronin writes about the story behind adding him), and Snoopy has a regular bird friend now, though not yet named Woodstock. Good, though I can see why some of my friends hated the increased emphasis on Snoopy.

#SFWApro. Cover by Ben Caldwell, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Unsuccessful time hacks

Morning is my most productive time. A while back I thought I’d squeeze a few minutes more by postponing all my online-comic strip reading to the end of the day.

I began reading comic strips online about a decade ago. The local paper had squeezed them down so much (to fit in the crossword and jumble and thereby save space) it was quite uncomfortable to read them, even though I’d prefer hard copy. So, online it became. And once that happened, I could also see all the good strips the paper wasn’t carrying. I forget exactly which ones they were, but I know they weren’t carrying Rip Haywire when I left and that one’s a hoot.

Since then, of course, there’s been an explosion in online strips, so I read lots of them that were never in the paper (mostly, but not exclusively, specfic). So I started taking fifteen minutes in the morning before work to read as many as possible. I work through my entire roster in about ten days (I’m months or years behind on most of the online stuff so it’s not like I have to wait for them to post new strips).

But like I said, morning’s my peak time. So I decided a few months back to claim that extra quarter-hour and leave comics reading to the end of the work day.

That time hack sucked. Either the dogs demanded early walkies, or I had a last bit of work I could do, or the computer ran out of juice. One way or another, I just didn’t get around to it. And in the evening I’m either dealing with the dogs, or talking to TYG, or cooking, so I never get around to it.

So this week I pushed it back to the morning. It’s working much better for me.

Another morning problem is that if I go out bicycling I have to wait until later than when I’m exercising indoors (darkness is not the cyclist’s friend). So logically my morning stretching/breakfast/tea should be a half-hour shorter, to make up for the time I’ll take later.

I’m very bad about that. I’m more likely to look at the clock, think I have lots of time, in fact it’s amazing how much extra time I have to watch TV or read or … oh, wait, I was supposed to start work early, right? That needs to stop.

Art by North Carolina’s Dan Thompson. All rights remain with current holder. #SFWApro

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My first monster: the original Swamp Thing

For the life of me I can’t figure out, looking back, why I picked up the first issue of Swamp Thing late in 1972.

I hadn’t read the short story that introduced him, in House of Secrets (which wasn’t exactly the same character. Creators Len Wein and Berni Wrightson decided a new character with the same premise appealed to them more than a sequel). I didn’t read horror books. I liked Wein’s work on Justice League of America, but even so, I don’t know that would have done it. But for some reason I did pick it up (the novelty of a cover with no dialog didn’t hurt) and it blew me away.

The story as a lot of you may know, focuses on Alec Holland, working with his wife Linda on a miracle fertilizer, the “bio-restorative formula,” that could make deserts bloom. An organization called the Conclave wants it; when the Hollands refuse, the Conclave blows up their lab. Linda dies; Alec staggers into the swamp where the formula suffusing his flesh transforms him into … the Swamp Thing (astonishingly nobody ever resurrected her, ever). He eventually gets revenge on Linda’s killers, but the security guy on their project, Matt Cable, becomes convinced Swamp Thing was in on it with them. He vows to hunt the monster down.

Wein and Wrightson, who helmed the first 10 issues, reworked most of the classic horror figures: mad scientist, immortalist, Frankenstein monster, robots, a werewolf, witches, witch hunters, Batman … They introduced Abigail Arcane (who would  become Swampy’s lover in the Alan Moore era), had Matt grow and change until he realizes Swamp Thing’s not the monster, and generally told good stories, amazingly drawn in Wrightson’s grotesque style. I was hooked.

What made it work? Partly, it was my own reaction. This was well before I’d seen or read much horror. While I know the outcast, lonely monster is a common figure, I didn’t quite see that at the time. When Alec, walking into the swamp at the end thinks “Alec Holland is dead. And in his place stands only … a swamp thing,” it was gut-wrenching (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve always had a soft spot for characters who feel isolated and alone).  Sure, the Hulk in this era was a lonely, misunderstood monster (Wein scripted a lot of that), but Hulk was also an angry brute who leveled whole cities. Swamp Thing wasn’t scary, people just thought he was.

But it wasn’t just me. According to Wein, Swamp Thing was DC’s top seller in this early phase, even beating Superman. Perhaps it’s partly the time was right. After the Comics Code eased the rules on horror books, the genre exploded in the early Bronze Age. DC, Marvel and Charlton had anthology series. Around the same time Swamp Thing’s book debuted, we also got Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing took over the Fear anthology book. So it was the right time.

But Tomb of Dracula focused on a genuine villain. Jack Russell in Werewolf by Night was more action-oriented and Jack Russell still had friends and a lover despite being a lycanthrope. None of these books were as quiet and sad and haunted as Swamp Thing.

I reread them a while back and they didn’t quite live up to my memories. But they’re still more than good enough to justify my memories.

#SFWApro. Cover by Berni Wrightson, all rights to current holder.

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Early urban fantasy, Superman riffs and a fallen angel: books

The cover of THE SHADOW PEOPLE by Margaret St. Clair (cover by Jeff Jones) may look like a Conan variation but it’s actually a 1969 urban fantasy novel. Protagonist lives in Berkeley with his girlfriend, who’s kidnapped and dragged into Underearth by cannibalistic dark elves (apparently like Morlocks or Robert E. Howard’s Worms of the Earth they’re humans who’ve devolved into something subhuman). Our hero rescues her but gets tricked into downing some fairy food which is something like ergot-infested wheat; he spends several chapters and three years alternating stoned and in withdrawal before returning to the surface to find Berkeley turning into a police state (it’s a dsytopian law-and-order setting familiar from a lot of stories in that era). And the elves are following …

Unfortunately while Underearth is a spooky place to visit, it gets boring in larger doses; the elves are little more than animals so the endless wandering through the tunnels fighting them off wears out its welcome fast. Plus the sudden appearance of real magic at the climax is jarring, as it doesn’t fit with what we’ve seen to that point. While a lot of reviews paint this as a lost classic, I’ll have to thumb it down.

NEW SUPER-MAN: Made in China by Gene Luen Yang and Viktor Bogdanovic worked much better than I expected. Kong, the protagonist, is a dimwit teenage bully who winds up getting recruited by a covert government program creating a Justice League of China. As the new Super-Man Kong has powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary mortals, but he’s still an idiot, and now he’s an idiot in the middle of a sinister conspiracy. Most of the elements of this are stock (any 21st organization that gives people superpowers is bound to have a hidden agenda) but Yang tells a good story and the Chinese setting makes it fresh.

LOVE AND CAPES: Do You Want to Know a Secret? by Thomas F. Zahler is the first collection of his Love and Capes webcomic. Bookstore owner Abby is shocked to discover the nerdy accountant she’s dating is secretly the Crusader, Earth’s mightiest hero; can she cope when her biggest rival is the Needs of the Many? Or learning that Mark’s ex was Amazonia (Wonder Woman, natch)? This is a delightful, funny romcom; I’ve already read the whole series online, but I was glad to pick up a hard-copy version.

KISS ME SATAN: New Orleans Is a Werewolf Town by Victor Gischler and John Ferreyra is readable, but not great; in a New Orleans dominated by werewolves, an unfortunate vision puts the city’s chief witch and seer at odds with the alpha wolf. Can Barnabus, a fallen angel working to earn redemption, keep her alive? This feels way too much like The Originals on the CW for me to get excited about it.

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Dogs driving me slightly crazy

So no time to write the post I’d planned. Instead, comic book and pulp covers.

Carl Burgos did this old Marvel cover.

I’ve no idea what’s going on in the story behind Gloria Stoll Karn’s cover, but it’s certainly striking. So is Dime Mystery costing 15 cents.

Another pulp cover, courtesy of Walter Popp.

And Murphy Anderson provides this last puzzler.

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