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It seems like the stuff of legend: Wally Wood – the Wally Wood, of EC and MAD fame, fed up with being creatively and financially stifled by the oppressive corporate comics business model, discovers the then-nascent world of fanzines, and inspiration strikes. “Maybe I could create one of these fanzines for me and my friends,” Wood thinks. “We could publish any sort of work we wanted, with no editorial restrictions or code to worry about! Best of all, we’d own it!”
Bear in mind, this was 1966, a good two years or so before the first issue of Zap Comix set the still-budding world of underground comics on fire. The mere notion of comics as any sort of medium for self-expression at the time must have been something that drew wide-eyed stares. But while Wood was certainly no hippie, there’s little doubt he saw this as an opportunity to produce work that he and his friends really cared about.
And what a list of friends. Throughout its run, Witzend collected an impressive roster that included creators like Jim Steranko, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Reed Crandall, Art Spiegelman (some of his first published work), Don Martin (yes, that Don Martin), Alex Toth, P. Craig Russell, Mike Zeck and Joe Staton.
In The Shadow Hero, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang collaborates with artist Sonny Liew to tell the story of Hank Chu, the teenage son of Chinese immigrants who run a small store in Depression-era Chinatown. As with much of Yang’s best-known work, this new original graphic novel deals with themes of cultural, national and racial identity, and the tensions and conflicts that arise when identities and outlooks collide.
Here, Hank finds himself pressured by his mother to become a wholly American invention, a sort of ultimate assimilation success story. She doesn’t want him to grow up to be a doctor or lawyer or politician, but a superhero, a thought put in her head when she’s rescued from a robber by the Superman stand-in The Anchor of Justice.
Their book is an excellent one, a perfect example of a modern superhero comic, masterfully and perfectly balancing comedy, crime, action, drama, melodrama, romance and fantasy into an epic story of a young man coming of age and finding himself.
As good as Yang and Liew’s story is, however, the story of their story may be just as fascinating, in large part because it’s true, and gives the comic they crafted a remarkable level of relevance. That story is told after the conclusion of The Shadow Hero, in the generous back-matter of the First Second book, presented in standard superhero-comic size, rather than the smaller, more square shape of most of the publisher’s offerings.
Batman is celebrating his 75th birthday this year, which may come as a surprise. I mean, look at that smooth, handsome face, or what little of it is visible beneath his cowl. Look at those ripped muscles, or the way he runs across rooftops and beats up criminals — why, Batman doesn’t look a day over 35!
Now just as it did recently for Superman, DC Comics is releasing a pair of hefty, 400-page hardcover collections that serve as a sort of survey for how the character has been portrayed and functioned in the publisher’s comics line during since his first appearance. Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years and The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years aren’t exactly the comics equivalents of greatest-hits albums, but they are nice starting points for newcomers and/or casual fans, offering quick, compelling overviews of the title characters through the decades.
The Batman volume, featuring Jim Lee’s rendition of the character from the 2003 storyline “Hush” on the dust jacket, must have been particularly challenging to assemble, given the thousands and thousands of pages of Batman comics, featuring dozens of different takes by scores of creators.
I’ve found the new Justice League United to be a rather surreal reading experience, until this point, for all sorts of reasons: It’s hard to believe DC launched this series to replace the much-ballyhooed — 52 variant covers! — Geoff Johns/David Finch Justice League of America after a mere 14 issues; it’s weird to see DC quietly reversing its “holding the line at $2.99″ policy with a Marvel-ous price point of 22 pages for $3.99; it launched with a zero issue that was actually a must-read first issue so that the story chapters and the issue numbers are now forever out of sequence; it featured Hawkman having an arm lopped up only to grow it back the next issue because Nth Metal; it featured an attempt to give the old grim-and-gritty treatment to Ultra the Multi-Alien; and so on.
However, the single most surreal aspect of the book may be one that’s suffused so much of the New 52, but is particularly present in the team books that rely on shared history (despite the fact that there isn’t really any shared history). In Justice League United, writer Jeff Lemire and penciler Mike McKone have assembled a rag-tag group of superheroes — Animal Man, Green Arrow, Star Girl, Hawkman and Supergirl — led by Martian Manhunter, whose place in the new DCU and relationships with the other Justice Leaguers is still ambiguous.
Amazing X-Men, Vol. 1: The Quest For Nightcrawler (Marvel): Writer Jason Aaron transitions quite seamlessly from his 42-issue (or eight-trade paperback) run on Wolverine & The X-Men to this new series, which maintained the same setting and much of the same cast, only a switch of focus. Rather than the student body of the Jean Grey School For Higher Learning, the stars of this series are the superhero teaching staff, with a few additions not seen in Wolverine & The X-Men (Firestar coming in to replace Kitty Pryde, who was spirited away from the cast by Brian Michael Bendis to appear in his X-Men books, plus Northstar and the guy whose name is in the subtitle and is front and center on the cover).
Aaron’s main partner for this first volume is penciler Ed McGuinness (inked by Dexter Vines and colored by Marte Gracia), an artist whose big, muscular, cartoony style fits perfectly with the slightly zany tone of the story, and Aaron’s X-Men comics in general. Cameron Stewart draws the sixth issue in this collection, a sort of epilogue in which most of the other characters you would want to see reunite with Nightcrawler do so.
This week Marvel released a couple of tie-ins to its big Original Sin event, and DC Comics issued new printings of chapters from its Superman crossover “Doomed.” But the weirdest, most unexpected and, oddly enough, most traditionally formatted crossover going right now comes not from the Big Two publishers that invented and perfected the approach, but from IDW, whose Super Secret Crisis War #1 features the heroes and villains from a half-dozen old Cartoon Network series sharing story space.
IDW has done crossover stories before (Infestation, Infestation 2, Mars Attacks IDW), but in the past these have been rather indirect, with the same menaces (zombies, Lovecraftian monsters, the Mars Attacks martians) invading the different realities of its various licensed properties (G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Transformers, etc.). Here the participants all appear in the same book, and even rub elbows in the same panels.
What ties them together is that they all once had shows on Cartoon Network and, um, well, that’s about it really, but it’s enough to get them all in the same six-issue miniseries issues (plus five one-shot tie-ins that will bring yet more Cartoon Network stars into the fold).
This allows the series to capitalize on the pleasures of two different sorts of crossovers: There’s the shared-universe crossover, as when all the DC or Marvel heroes team up (even if these characters don’t technically share the same universe), and the inter-company crossover, when characters from various properties that were never meant to meet up do so (Think Batman/Judge Dredd, Archie Meets The Punisher).
As the average price of serially published, traditional-format comics has risen sharply over the past few years, I’ve gradually turned into a trade-waiter, my pull list shrinking to such a meager size that many Wednesdays I’ll skip what was once a religiously observed weekly pilgrimage. It’s not worth a trip to the shop for one or two books, after all, so I’ll sometimes wait three weeks or so, allowing for a sizable stack to build up.
This was one such week, and I left the shop with a pretty good haul, about $45 worth of 14 comics, including a mess of DC weeklies, a pair of Marvel comics, a trio of high-quality kids titles, the latest issue of a locally produced horror series, a Batman/Green Hornet crossover and an issue of one of IDW’s many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics.
My pull list is now so small and carefully cut that I rarely encounter a book I don’t like any aspect of (generally, when I do buy a comic I have negative feelings about, they’re generated as much by disappointment as anything else). The flip-side is that because I take relatively few chances as a consumer (as opposed to a critic; as a critic, I read pretty much anything with panels on paper that I find in front of me), I’m rarely pleasantly surprised by what I bring home.
This week, I read one comic that was so good that I was genuinely taken aback by its awesomeness; I was surprised and super-excited. I wanted to stand up and shout “Yeah!” but I was in a coffee shop at the time. I wanted to high-five the artist, but he wasn’t within arm’s reach. I wanted to scrap what I was planning to write about in this space today and champion the book instead. I wanted to take the opportunity to say, “Hey everyone! Stop what you’re doing and read this comic right now!”
You would be forgiven if you thought of French author, artist and animator Anouk Ricard primarily as someone who makes comics for kids. Before the North American release this month of Benson’s Cuckoos, from Drawn and Quarterly, her only other books to make it into English on this side of the Atlantic were a pair of collections of her charming children’s strip, Anna & Froga (2013’s I Don’t Know, What Do You Want to Do? and this year’s Thrills, Spills and Gooseberries).
And while Benson’s Cuckoos does look at first glance (and even after a fairly thorough flip-through) like a kids comic, given the adorable, big-headed, Richard Scarry-esque characters, it’s decidedly adult in nature. That the characters are all cute little anthropomorphic animals accentuates the humor of the many awkward moments of their social interactions, and diffuses the darker aspects of the story, keeping them from being read as anything other than comedy.
Originally released in 2011 as Coucous Bouzon (and earning a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Angouleme International Comics Festival), the book seems to owe a significant debt to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, and/or its U.S. adaptation. If, in fact, Ricard has never seen the show, which is certainly quite possible, then the boss at the office in which her book is set is quite coincidentally remarkably like Gervais’ David Brent and Steve Carell’s Michael Scott.
Benson, a particularly fluffy white poodle who owns and operates the cuckoo clock company from which the book takes its title, shares with The Office bosses an inherent belief in his own hipness, completely convinced that, unlike other bosses, he’s cool and sympathetic. He tells a lot of jokes, feels closer to his employees than they feel to him, wears funny hats, tries new and creative and dumb ideas, and generally makes everyone uncomfortable.
Everywhere Antennas (Drawn and Quarterly): Julie Delporte’s challenging, emotionally wrenching book comes in the form of a sketch-filled diary, the words all written in cursive with various colored pencils. It reads a bit like a therapy journal made by someone attempting to crawl out of a breakdown, sometimes sliding back as far as she gets out, an impression furthered by the art, which, like the handwritten text, looks so intimate, “corrections” made by redrawing portions on new pieces of paper, which are then taped atop the pages before printing.
There’s such a lack of artifice to the book — unless there’s a high degree of artifice applied to make it seem as if there’s a great lack of artifice — that it really seems like something you’re not supposed to be reading, something you might have found in someone’s apartment, rather than bought in a bookstore. Delporte does tell a story, but it’s fragmentary, with characters who appear and disappear and scenes that don’t necessarily lead to the next.
It would be tempting to think it was a straight diary comic created during a time of mental crisis — the line “coloured pencils … are her favourite antidepressants” in Delporte’s back-page biography indicates that many aspects of the deeply felt contents aren’t completely alien to her — were it not for the specific ailment of our unnamed, perhaps Delporte-like heroine. She suffers from a rare sensitivity to radio waves and electrical auras, so cell phones, televisions, computers, cell phone towers and power lines give her migraines, and she must find a way to divorce herself from the modern world while still trying to live some semblance of a life in it.
Born a poor, put-upon peasant ridiculed by those around him, he would grow up to become one of the most recognizable figures in his profession, his worldwide fame leaving an indelible mark upon the chilhoods of more than one generation. But his greatest strength, that which made him such a powerful presence on the world stage, was also his greatest weakness; that which so defined his life would ultimately kill him.
You can’t make this sort of thing up, and in telling the life story of Andre Roussimoff, better known as Andre the Giant, cartoonist Box Brown doesn’t have to make anything up — although he may have to massage some anecdotes to better fit the format of a story, or imagine visual details where none were provided. In other words, Brown has to “put over” his narrative, to borrow some of the wrestling jargon that appears throughout his story (and is helpfully contained in a glossary).
Brown’s bio-comic Andre the Giant: Life and Legend opens with an illustrated version of a 2010 interview with Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea, a man who worked with Andre for years in professional wrestling, and became one of its most popular faces during a storyline in which Andre graciously decided to play the heel, the villain to Bollea’s hero.
“There was never a fork or a knife …. even a bed!” the cartoon Bollea says. “There was never a situation where he could be comfortable.”
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When I first heard about DC Comics’ digital-first Batman ’66, I thought it was going to be a novelty with little staying power. Nostalgia for the campy Adam West TV series has been pretty high lately, especially in the wake of the popular The Brave and the Bold cartoon, and the artists behind Batman ’66 are faithful to the ’60s pop-art look, most spectacularly rendered by Jonathan Case in the debut issues. But what happens once the initial thrill has passed, and you clear away the cobwebs of nostalgia?
Second, there’s the unique format: When you swiped the page on a tablet, you’d sometimes get limited animation, you’d sometimes get a view of the artwork with the balloons out of the way, and sometimes you would experience a slight shift in the color palette with some retro screentone effects here and there. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky … but it was employed a truly artistic sensibility that’s impossible to replicate on paper. Sadly, as early as Issue 4, the novelty is seemingly abandoned.
I think DC Comics missed a trick with the long-awaited, Paul Dini-written Black Canary/Zatanna original graphic novel, which finally arrived in this week. Why was there no special edition, fishnet stocking-covered incentive variant? Publishers did a lot of crazy things with covers in the 1990s, and they’ve been doing increasingly crazy things with them in this decade, but I’m pretty sure no one’s ever published one draped in fishnet …
Fishnets are, of course, the most immediate visual commonality between the two superheroines, and this long-in-the-works project, first announced in 2006, was once jokingly referred to as The Fishnet Brigade (a riff on Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic series, in which John Constantine referred to himself, The Phantom Stranger, Dr. Occult and Mister E as “The Trench Coat Brigade”). Dini and DC do acknowledge the importance of the heroines’ legwear, as the cover under the dust jacket and end pages bears a fishnet design, and there’s a scene in which the pair goes shopping for stockings together (“At the rate we go through these things, that place should give us a fifty percent discount,” Zee tells Canary).
The two have a lot more in common than that, of course. They’re also fan-favorite characters who have never been able to break out as stars in their own right (at least, not for long), generally appearing in team books and as supporting characters. And, of course, they’re both among the longest-serving members of the Justice League who weren’t founders, the characters being among the earlier additions to DC’s premier super-team (Black Canary joined in 1969; Zatanna began appearing in the book in the ’60s, and was finally offered full membership in 1978).
Oh, and they both appeared often on the Justice League cartoon, often times written by Dini, who is a fan of both characters.
Editor, comics collector and designer Craig Yoe has an ideal subject for his latest coffee table-ready anthology: Lewis Carroll’s Alice and the myriad ways in which she has appeared in comics, almost since the medium existed. What makes the subject so perfect for such a book is that it’s so broad that it’s impossible to even attempt to be comprehensive, or even all that representative.
As Mark Burstein, the president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, notes in his introduction to Alice in Comicland, appearances by characters from Carroll’s Alice books, references and allusions to the works, and the instances of direct and palpable influence by them in comics are simply innumerable. In 2003, he and some colleagues put together a book titled Pictures and Conversations: Lewis Carroll in the Comics: An Annotated International Bibliography, and they tracked some 500 comic books in which Alice characters appear. That was a decade ago.
Now, Alice in Comicland is only about 170 pages long. You could fill a collection five times as big with Batman comics in which he fights villains derived from the Alice books. You could fill books bigger still collecting all of the horror or action or sexually exploitative material derived from Carroll’s Alice stories. The almost-astronomical breadth of the subject matter thus gives Yoe and company a pretty valuable pass from any critics. Why isn’t this here, or why is that there instead of that other thing? Such second-guessing is natural to a reader, and I found myself wondering why there’s a Superman comic rather than a Batman comic, for example, or why there’s no mention of, say, Tommy Kovacs and Sonny Liew’s Wonderland or Roger Langridge’s Snarked or any weird Zenescope books or manga or that Hatter M comic or whatever. But the answer’s obvious, isn’t it? It can even come in the form of a (bander)snatch of dialogue from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: No room! No room!
Batman/Superman, Vol. 1: Cross World (DC Comics): The greatest virtue of the Greg Pak-written World’s Finest team-up title is also its main drawback: There’s really great, flat-out gorgeous artwork by Jae Lee … except when their isn’t. Lee draws the lion’s share of the book — about 70 of its 100-plus story pages — and it’s some of the artist’s best comics work; his heroic figures pose through a series of complex layouts, their anatomy and features those of real, if exceptionally beautiful, people, rather than musclebound action figures. The too-busy New 52 costume designs are stripped down to their essentials, the various bits of technology all look like mobile art installations, and Lee’s vision of a Gotham City park is appropriately, if amusingly, dark, twisted and exaggerated.
He might not have been the best possible choice for this particular storyline, which involves two different Batmen, Supermen and Catwomen, given his use of silhouettes and sparse panels, and the cacophony of color-coded narration boxes have to do a little more work than they might otherwise. But it’s jarring to the point of shocking when fill-in artists appear to help Lee, with Ben Oliver-drawn climaxes for the first and last issues/chapters, and an extensive Yildiray Cinar flashback in another issue. There’s also a rather tacked-on origin story of Darkseid and the main villain for the story arc, which appeared in September’s Justice League #23.1, drawn by two more artists.
Transformers lore can be hopelessly convoluted. You think the DC Comics and Marvel universes are hard to keep track of? Try being a Transformers fan: There are various comic book universes, Michael Bay’s movie universe, the one from Japanese anime, the all-ages cartoon universe from Cartoon Network, the all-ages cartoon universe from the Hub, the original 1980s cartoon universe, and one where everyone’s an animal, which may or may not be the same universe as the 1980s cartoon.
Making it even more complicated, this canon multiverse is often acknowledged by the characters themselves, and its existence frequently becomes the basis of storylines. In March, the Transformers: Regeneration One series, which boasts a lineage to the very first Transformers comic, came to the end at Issue 100 with the Autobots untethering their universe from the rest of the multiverse. That made the Transformers mortal, ending the original comic book universe continuity permanently.
However, even if you’re not a Transformers fan, chances are you know the basics: Autobots, good; Decepticons, bad. Expanding on that: Optimus Prime is the hero, Megatron is the villain. It’s white hats versus black hats, except the cowboys in this situation can transform into vehicles, cassette tapes and guns.