Tuesday, 30 October 2012

On "Marvel Comics The Untold Story" by Sean Howe

In which the blogger attempts to review Sean Howe's "Marvel Comics The Untold Story" while giving away as little of the book's contents as possible. Regardless of that effort, spoilers are still inevitable, so, dear visitor, please beware;

Sean Howe begins his history of Marvel Comics in 1961 with publisher Martin Goodman ordering Stan Lee to produce a knock-off of rival DC's new and successful Justice League Of America. As Howe puts it, Lee's "mandate" was to "steal this idea and create a team of superheroes", and that's exactly what happened. Right from the beginning of the comics industry, Goodman's MO had always been to jump from one trend to another, opportunistically exploiting the innovation of others with a flood of the cheapest possible product before moving on, and on, and on.  Yet the profoundly disillusioned and fundamentally bored Lee took Goodman's diktat and broke with the bottom-feeding cycle of creatively moribund, exploitation kid's comics. Instead, he and his artistic collaborator Jack Kirby effectively highjacked what was to become the Fantastic Four as a means to express their own artistic ambitions. As such, the comic was from the off anything but more of the same, and beyond the fact that it starred a group of super-people, it bore little resemblance to the Justice League at all. A fundamentally different kind of superhero comic, it was far darker in tone and often considerably more intense than just about anything the cape'n'chest insignia brigade had ever seen. With its plots driven by soap operatic degrees of conflict and tragedy matched to phenomenally inventive and powerful visual storytelling, the Fantastic Four was soon a hit, and Goodman could start to exploit his own company’s achievements. More than that, Lee and Kirby’s work began to suggest that the superhero comic could be considerably more than just a socially scorned method for separating easily-distracted children from their dimes.

It's an often told story which Howe summaries well, and it's worth repeating here because the writer smartly uses it to emphasise how Marvel was quite literally born from the conflict between profit and self-expression. Flick forward 440 pages or so and Howe's account of the Marvel of the 21st century shows that that conflict's been definitively resolved in favour of  the company's corporate owners. Many of the original creators of the intellectual property that's the Marvel Universe - such as artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko - had swiftly found themselves enmeshed in disputes over artistic freedom and due credit, royalties and ownership. In the post-Millennium period, as Howe tells us, "those (creators) who fared best were those who held no illusions about the relative priorities of commercial viability and personal expression". When Howe quotes film producer Avi Arad explaining that it’s the comics responsibility to serve Marvel’s merchandising interests, the reader’s left in no doubt that today’s superhero universe is first and foremost an expression of corporate interest.

The myth that Marvel could be anything but has been a long time dying. Even now, the company often attempts to spin a modern-era take on Lee's unique brand of all-for-one, more-bang-for-your-buck hucksterism. Marketing Marvel as a family and recasting the company's consumers as a community was one of Lee's most brilliant innovations. It combined with the illusion that Marvel's books would become ever more ambitious and entertaining, and created the sense of a world which didn't just distract the reader, but represented them too. In that, the company offered not just entertainment to its diehard followers, but the vague and compelling sense of an alternative society. One day, the most gifted and fortunate of fans might even be able to move into the temple itself and contribute their own talents to the cause. The ethical standards espoused by Marvel's costumed adventurers combined with Lee's depiction of the company as an Utopian employer to create a  deeply attractive and almost counter-cultural sense of a better world. To come across that brew at a susceptible age was to run the risk of developing not just a deep attachment to Marvel's products, but to the very idea of the publisher itself.

But as Howe emphasises, there never was a Bullpen composed of a joyous, united host of inspirational artists and writers. Though there were brief moments when the perceived interests of fnance, management and creators appeared to coincide, the clash between ownership and individual creativity soon re-emerged. Caught for a moment in the Sixties between the two sides, Lee is shown repeatedly opting for the self-interest of service to the company rather than any more Utopian values. Though quite rightly deeply respectful of Lee's achievements in the early years of the Marvel era, Howe appears to have no doubt that the man himself was only too happy to leave both comics and the interests of his fellow creators behind as he manoeuvred himself out to the media promised land of the West Coast. Time and time again, Howe portrays the essential discontinuity between what Marvel appeared to stand for and how it actually operated. Creative talent is constantly shown to have been treated carelessly, callously and even maliciously. The way in which Lee's earliest and most brilliant collaborators such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were exploited is perhaps a despairingly familiar business to many. Yet the capacity of the various and often-changing powers-that-be at the company to screw over its employees emerges as shocking even to those who've spent years - perhaps even decades - following such matters. To know of the many and various acts of  irresponsibility, parsimoniousness, abuse, deception, power-mongering and stupidity is one thing. To read of one such an act after another is to feel an ever-darkening sense of futility and despair. Certainly anybody convinced that businessmen and the managers they appoint are by their very nature ethical and efficient servants of the greater good ought to be presented with Howe's work. Perhaps nowhere is the sense that all but the lucky and powerful few were always doomed to an unhappy end at Marvel is summed up in the following quote from Chris Claremont. Once the darling of the company for the way he raised the X-Men from a low-selling also-ran to a property capable of generating tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, Claremont eventually found  himself exiled from the very books he helped to make so much of;

"I recall seeing (Superman creator) Jerry Seigel, then working as a proofreader, hustling around the office and trying to get writing jobs. I said to myself, I'm never going to be one of those guys. Now I look on the stands and see comics of all these characters I created, and Marvel won't let me write them."

It is more than possible to read Howe’s book as a record of how a set of uniquely valuable properties were finally delivered into profitability. To those not of a bent to celebrate corporate accumulation as an end in itself, Marvel Comics The Untold Story offers an account of how the Lee-proclaimed House Of Ideas has been run not just heartlessly, but all-too-often incompetently run as well. Yet none of this is to say that Howe has produced a Manichean account of Marvel's history which unconditionally celebrates the talent while denigrating the management and the owners. Those at the top of the tree aren't always portrayed as capitalism's running dogs, while those toiling over typewriters, drawing boards and computers are often portrayed as dopey-headed and cruel-hearted themselves. Editors from Roy Thomas through Archie Godwin to Mark Gruenwaldand Joe Quesada are portrayed with a considerable degree of respect. And though Jack Kirby is always treated with both admiration and sympathy, the author is always careful to show that the King himself was at moments capable of compromising behaviour. Similarly, if Howard The Duck creator Steve Gerber is often used to represent the artist whose rights have been trampled upon, then his serious problems with deadlines and an unfortunate deception of editor Tom Breevort in the 1990s aren't skirted over either. 

Admirably, Howe's tendency is always towards a measured and verifiable account of what the fights were about and where the bodies were buried. His triumph is to synthesise a huge amount of printed material, supplement it with a mass of original research and then lay out each innovation, fight, achievement, back-stab, breakthrough and screw-up one after another in an ultimately heart-crushing sequence. He may not rant, spit and stab like a great many dedicated and disillusioned fanboys would have, but that just makes his evenly-expressed work all the more powerful and damning.  For those of us who grew up swallowing the myths of the all-for-one Bullpen and associating our own youthful lives with the values of Marvel’s various superheroes, Howe's work, in all its sympathy and balance, can be a distinctly uneasy read.

Given how much ground the writer sets out to cover in this single volume, it seems churlish to quibble about what does and doesn’t appear in the book. Some may feel that he ought to have taken a more openly polemical approach, while others might bemoan the fact that this is a record of how a business developed far more than a detailed record of its products. Caught between the needs of the outraged loather of the company and the Rumpishly partisan reader, Howe’s book can often seem to be skating across events which demand a greater degree of attention. To my mind, I wish there’d been even more time invested in issues such as the representation of minority groups both in the comics and the workplace. (There’s nothing here that matches Christopher Priest’s account of what working for Marvel as a Black creator could regrettably involve, for example.) But the greatest weakness in what’s often a fine history is Howe’s coverage of post-Millennium period. The years following the departure of Bill Jemas in 2004 is covered in just 8 pages, and the impression that’s given there is of a company which has, for all of the challenges before it, resolved the tension between the artist and the company. Yet there’s been a series of stories in the period since in which creators have expressed disappointment at the degree to which management is determining the content of their work, the most recent of which has come from the departing Greg Rucka. And when Howe argues that today's "writing and art work ... is ... more sophisticated than ever before", the problems associated with the likes of deconstructed storytelling, Event marketing, editorially mutton-headed decisions, the lack of political engagement in the comics, and the failure to reflect much beyond a narrow niche of white readers all disappear in a generally optimistic glow. There’s certainly no trace of the content of the stories which have appeared in2011 on Bleeding Cool and The Beat concerning the apparently savage and capricious financial restraints which afflict the company and many of its employees in a year in which its products have generated hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue.

* "Despite what the publishers say, their  interest in the talent is minimal now, the interest is only in promoting the financial worth of their properties.", from CliNT October 2012

Despite that, Marvel Comics The Untold Story is a substantial, equitable and thoroughly enjoyable if rather depressing read. It certainly lays out the human cost of Marvel’s current commercial wellbeing as a generator of massively lucrative copyrights. But it also celebrates both the best of the company's comic book achievements and the most gifted of the women and men who created, edited and marketed them. But in the end, what it leaves the reader with is a clear sense that capital if not commercial wisdom has tended to win out at the cost of the very thing which once made the company so vital and influential. The priority given to the preserving of intellectual property for exploitation in other media means that the superhero tale has remained at heart a deeply conservative sub-genre. The brief moment of radical innovation which resulted in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four sparked off the Marvel Revolution of the early Sixties, but it soon became an example of what not to do. “Publishing was where it all started, and it was a great source” declared Avi Arad, “But the big deal for the company was merchandising …”. Lee, Kirby and Ditko's revolt swiftly collapsed into style, into Lee's infamous "illusion of change". Few creators are brilliant enough to make something truly worthwhile of a story whose events will almost inevitably be cancelled out in the eventual back-to-basics reboot. Marvel was born out of radical change, but now most of the creative energy invested into it goes towards ensuring that its products seems to be daring and innovative while rarely being anything of the sort. Those few writers, artists and editors who do succeed in producing remarkable work under such constriants deserve a substantial degree of respect for their achievements.

To arrive at the black and white photograph of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby laughing together in 1965 which so pertinently closes the book is to feel a terrible sense of loss and betrayal. Both men are formally dressed and yet they appear quite relaxed if not somewhat refreshed. Kirby’s hand rests on Lee’s left arm as if he had just one more thing to say, but for all his good cheer, Lee appears to have eyes only for the camera.  It’s enough to make the reader wish that they didn’t know what was to come for the relationship between the two men, or of how little substance the myth of the House Of Ideas ever truly held after its first few years of existence.

The TooBusyThinking verdict; A fine book that's well worth the investing in, or, in fewer words; buy! 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

On Hopeful Signs At The House Of Ideas

It seems to me that it's simply a question of good manners. I've been more than mildly critical about certain aspects of Marvel's output over the past few years, and yet I haven't always taken the time to tip my hat when things have changed for the better. I know that I ought to have done so, though that's not because anyone cares about the things which I have and haven't written here. (Why ever should they?) It's just that I do feel just a touch uncomfortable when I realise there's nothing here on TooBusyThinking which recognises how once-slated books and situations can now be seen in a more positive light.

From AVX: Consequences #1, by Gillen, Raney et al
But offering three cheers for those new directions which have been taken is an oddly difficult business to pull off. I certainly don't want to give the impression that I believe the following changes were inspired by concerns similar to those that I've previously expressed. I might express an appreciation of how a book's shifted course, but I'm not trying to suggest that the reason for that has anything in common with my own beliefs of the problems which might have one existed. (In one example it's hard to believe that a certain degree of similarity didn't exist, but it's generally quite impossible to say.) Yet it is to state that, speaking as a punter from the back row of the cheap seats, certain key aspects of Marvel's comics appear far more worth applauding than they did even a year or two back.

Some of what follows touches on major developments which have occurred in the relatively recent past, while other points reflect relatively minor if hopeful signs of what might yet be to come. But on a wet, cold winter's afternoon in which the blogger's preoccupied with several pressing deadlines, a brief moment taken to salute changes great and small seems like a good and sensible thing to do to recharge a somewhat weary mind. 
From Journey Into Mystery #642, by Gillen, Fraction, Giandomenico et al
1. The J Michael Straczynski reboot of Thor was a despicably sexist business which somehow went generally uncommented upon. (See Here from 2010) Thankfully, the years since his departure from the title have seen a quiet, thorough revolution in the approach to sex, sexuality and gender in both Thor and its spin-off book Journey Into Mystery. Gone are the effectively naked porn-models competing for the attentions of Asgard's manly, powerful males. Gone are the corridors empty of women and jammed full with what appeared to be a predominantly male population of Gods. Gone is the almost-total absence of female deities in positions of power and influence. Instead, the worlds of Asgard now feature a not-inconsiderable cast of substantial, individual, and interesting women who are central to events without ever functioning as bloke-thrilling cheesecake. The change has been so complete that it's impossible not to believe that the editors and creators associated with the Thor books deliberately set out to excise the misogyny of the JMS-era from the book. No doubt I've missed the hats that have been hurled in the air in praise of this transformation in the blogosphere. Mea culpa. The JMS years were stomach-turning in their chauvinism. Thankfully, there's nothing of that uber-blokeishness left to be seen in the pages of either the Matt Fraction-scripted Thor or Kieron Gillen's Journey Into Mystery today.

2. After quite literally decades of ever bleaker bloke-noir, Mark Waid seized the opportunity to recast Daredevil as an existentially born-again superhero. Put simply, Waid's Daredevil simply decided that he was going to define his own personality rather than being driven into despair by every substantial challenge which came his way. It's proven no easy task for the Man Without Fear, of course, but it has established Matt Murdock once again as a character who's inspiring as well as fascinating. For all that the post-Miller Daredevil has been used to tell some particularly fine stories, the constant grind of ever-intensifying schlock-misery had resulted in a book that was practically unreadable. (Here from 2010) In rejecting the taken-for-granted assumptions which limited Daredevil's adventures to a narrow range of profoundly miserable cliches, Waid's struck a serious blow for variety and innovation, two qualities which the sub-genre's seen all too little of in recent years.

From Spider-Men #5, by Bendis & Pichelli
3.  It's a preference rather than a criticism, but I've always been convinced that Spider-Man works best when the costumed identity functions as a metaphor for adolescence. With even the Ultimate Universe's Peter Parker moving further and further away from the hormone-saturated confusions and contradictions of his mid-teens, the various Spider-Men in print in 2010 seemed to be ill-suited to the properties' fundamental strengths. (Here) For those of us who believe that the very idea of an adult Spider-Man is better suited to an issue of What-If rather than a continuing series, the arrival of Black American teen Miles Morales as the new Ultimate Spider-Man has been both a relief and a fascination.

It's hardly news, of course. But I ought to have mentioned it.

4. One of the least convincing aspects of the X-Men's sojourn on Utopia was the fact that the other superheroes of the Marvel Universe were largely content to let the persecution of mutants continue without their doing anything about it. The idea that the likes of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four wouldn't be actively and continually campaigning for mutant rights while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Cyclops and the people he claimed to represent was at heart a repellent one. How was it that the paragons of the MU were so disinterested in the freedoms and security of super-people who'd fought beside them time and time again? The very idea carries the spectre of an unacceptable apathy if not bigotry itself, given that the needs of mutants were so very clear and obvious. (Here, again from 2010) What a relief to find Rick Remender has had Captain America admit to Havoc in Ultimate Avengers #1 that he paid far too little attention to his mutant brethren. Similarly, Kieron Gillen's script for AvX: Consequences #1 has Steve Rogers expressing the belief that he intends to ensure that "mutants and humans" should "stand shoulder to shoulder". These are surely words which indicate that Marvel will be paying more and more attention to the way in which their characters are shown engaging - or not - in everyday political affairs. It really is regrettable that pretty much everyone in a costume not carrying an X-Gene came out so badly from the Utopia era simply through the fact of their repeated silence and inactivity. Hopefully the basic metaphor for social and political rights that's Marvel's mutants will be used in a consistently more sensitive and inspiring fashion from now on. Some creators have never lost sight of how the symbol of mutantkind functions politically. Why not a few more?

5. Finally, after years in which it seemed that pretty much every book which Marvel produced was designed to function as part as part of the great bureaucratic mosaic of Event Marketing, the past year and a half has seen the release of a series of books which function more-or-less independently of the wider scheme of things. Ms Marvel, Hawkeye, Gambit and - despite a couple of small-scale crossovers - Daredevil are all capable of being followed and enjoyed without the reader having to immerse themselves in any broader continuity. That each book has its own distinctly individual character is a further sign that we may be easing into a far more interesting and reader-friendly future where Marvel's books are concerned.

I'd like to think so.

Hopefully, to be continued at a later date .....

Friday, 26 October 2012

From Superman To Doctor Strange And ... Atari Force? The Great Eighties Cancelled Superhero-ish Comicbook Cavelcade

The final panel of 1985/6's Crisis On Infinite Earths, by Wolfman and Perez et al, whose advice in the above the blogger's going to ignore in what follows. Let's be, dear visitor, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, etc etc ....
In which the blogger offers up a baker's dozen of much-missed, cruelly cancelled superhero - or superheroesque - comic-books from the Big Two in the Eighties. Other publishers and genres will appear in a later list. For the sake of brevity, what follows doesn't include the likes of mini-series, tenures which came to their intended close, media tie-ins, or interrupted runs by creative teams who were bumped from continuing titles. Those constraints made list-making easier in the pre and post-Millenium posts, but they make it much tougher for the ten years from 1980. It's something of a surprise to note how relatively few outstanding comics there were from the Big Two in the period. (Memory always tends to make something better out of a era where comicbooks are concerned, I fear.) With considerably fewer books being published by Marvel and DC compared to following decades, and with a tendency for long-running titles to stay in print, it's surprisingly tough to find cancelled superhero comics which really deserve to be mourned for anything other than nostalgic reasons. As such, the list contains titles which, though competent and fondly regarded, could hardly be thought of as outstanding, as well as a few - and only a few - absolute gems.

The list begins with the most recently-cancelled title, and ends with the most distant termination. There's no order of preference beyond that;

1. The Shadow, by Andy Helfer, Kyle Baker, Bill Sienkiewicz, Marshall Rogers et al, cancelled 1989)  

A ferociously irreverent and ambitious take on The Shadow which ended up being pulled - so legend has it - when Helfer and Baker had the pulp star decapitated and his head mounted on a robot's body. This was not the kind of licensed tie-in which comic-books tended to produce and it seems to have seriously scared the horses. Brave to the point of recklessness, persistently witty, and challenging in its storytelling on a page-to-page basis, it's sadly a comic that's unlikely to ever be collected, let alone completed. As with Rick Veitch's superlative time-travel epic in Swamp Thing, the DC of the period allowed a classic run to go unfinished. In comic-book terms, the loss of both books before they came to any kind of satisfying end is to be deeply regretted.

2. The Outsiders, by Mike W Barr, Jim Aparo et al, 1988  

Unlike previous lists in this series, the scarcity of candidates means that some comics cancelled after a conspicuous decline have been included. While the preceding Batman & The Outsiders title had in particular been an enjoyable ride,  the rot had set in by 1988. It was a precipitous decline. In its first years, and with splendid art from the likes of Jim Aparo and Alan Davis to compliment Mike W Barr's sharp scripting, the Outsiders had seemed destined for lasting success.
3. Doctor Strange, by Roger Stern, Marshall Rogers, Terry Austin, Michael Golden, Paul Smith et al c.1987  

When the best of the post-Ditko/Lee versions of Doctor Strange are mentioned, Roger Stern's few years as the character's writer are rarely lauded highly enough in dispatches. Yet there's a serious argument to be made for his run falling immediately behind those of Thomas/Colan/Palmer in the late Sixties and the mid-Seventies achievements of Englehart/Brunner/Colan. From an ingenious, captivating time-travel epic with Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin to the "final" eradication of Dracula, Stern captured a sense of dignity and purpose for Strange which no-one since, and few before, ever matched.

4. All-Star Squadron, by Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler, Jerry Ordway et al (c.1987)  

All-Star Squadron had been stumbling for years before its end. Artist Jerry Ordway had never been satisfyingly replaced, while the title was hamstrung and then killed off by the one-world revisionism of Crisis On Infinite Earths. Its first three years had been no more or no less than an enthusiastically fannish, frequently purple blur of continuity fetishism. Being a fan of the whole idea of Earth-2, I bought into the project despite often feeling that I was paying out for professionally distributed fan-fic. Eventually, it seemed to become more and more amateurish, with frequently disappointing artwork compounding the sense that Thomas was becoming more and more obsessed with decades-old comics trivia. When DC's Powers That Be cut the book off from the pre-Crisis continuity, that fannish drive seemed not just endearingly Quixotic, but entirely futile.

5. The Earth-One Superman books, inc; Superman, Action, Supergirl, Superboy & DC Presents c.1986

There's no denying that the Superman line had seemed all-too-often rudderless and old-fashioned by the mid-Eighties. Yet work by writers such as Alan Moore, Steve Gerber, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen in the period after Marty Pasko's departure from the book had all showed the potential which the old continuity still held. For all that John Byrne's revamp was energetic and enjoyable, it gutted the property of a great deal of charm and pathos. As it was, Byrne's persoanl involvement in the post-Crisis experiment was dead within two years, and the old continuity, which might have been adapted rather than extinguished, had been thrown away for very little lasting gain and at a considerable cost. It was not a lesson which the various regimes at DC over the following quarter-century were to learn from.

6. Amethyst, by Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn, Ernie Colon et al, c. 1986 

As with other titles on this list, Amethyst seems in retrospect to have been doomed from the moment it was pitched. A female lead that's recognisably a girl rather than an unthreateningly blokeish version of the same? A fairy tale rather than a superheroic punch-up? Emotions which stretched beyond angst, longing, self-pity and anger? A character's name which a great many folks - including myself - might struggle to spell? Yet, as with several other examples still to come here, the market's inability to keep Amethyst alive reveals how narrow and fatally flawed it even then was. Recently collected in a great doorstep-thick, crisply black-and-white DC Showcase Presents edition, Amethyst was an absolute triumph of an all-ages comicbook. With a heroine who was strong, likable, beautiful and yet thankfully not in any way objectivised, it was inventive, intriguing and, at moments, surprisingly and satisfyingly dark. What might the superhero industry have created for itself if it'd invested the undoubtedly considerable resources in the Eighties necessary to sell product such as this to audiences beyond the Rump?

7. Rom, by Bill Mantlo, Sal Buscema, Steve Ditko et al, c. 1986

 For all that Rom was a pleasant enough read, few would care to elevate it to "classic" status. But its presence here does say something about how few truly good - let alone great - comics there were in the period from the "mainstream". Yet by comparison with many of its peers from the day, Rom was always readable and Mantlo ensured a fan-pleasing series of guest appearances by both the great and the deeply marginal of Marvel's characters. If I make not the slightest attempt to hide how I'm currently buying up cheap reading copies of the run, I'd also never make an argument for it being anything more than a minor, disposable pleasure. That alone made it better than a great many of its fellows, although that is, I'll admit, a case of damning with faint praise. )

nb: There was a coin-toss held to decide whether Blue Devil or Rom appeared in this list.

8. Atari Force, by Gerry Conway, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Mike Baron et al,c. 1985

Even now it seems a ludicrous proposition, but the superhero/sci-fi hybrid that was Atari Force proved to be a cracking read from beginning to end, a smart costumed space-opera with an inspiringly strong female lead - Dart - and a host of beguiling alien creatures in the supporting cast. To say that it's some of artist Jose Luis Garcia Lopez's finest work should emphasise the quality of what logic insists should have been an appalling title.

9. Thriller, by Robert Loren Fleming, Trever Von Eeden et al, c. 1984  

A comic so imaginatively out-there that Alan Moore once suggested to editor Alan Gold he'd love a crack at it, Thriller was far too left-field to ever gather a substantial audience. (The Bard Of Northampton was passed over and the book was dead in the hands of a new creative team within 6 months.) A sci-fi/spy/pulp/superhero mash-up, it featured a team of "Seven Seconds" serving "Angie Thriller" in the NYC of 50 years hence. It's been said that Fleming's scripts were relatively straight-forward, and that Von Eeden's experimental storytelling made an art-book out of an entertainment. Whatever the truth, its first 7 issues were remarkable if often hard-going, although it was dead in the water when both of its original creators jumped ship after Thriller had enjoyed just over half a year on the stands. Those curious about this brief and mostly-forgotten moment of excellence might care to visit Michel Fiffe's fine site for more information.

10. Blackhawk, by Mark Evanier, Dan Spiegle et al, c.1984, DC Comics

Rumour has it that Stephen Spielberg was thinking of making a Blackhawk movie during this period, and if he had, the Evanier and Spiegle books would've proved a perfect story-bible for the project. No other writer of the modern period has ever managed to define - and often redefine - the various members of the Blackhawks cast with such heart, clarity and purpose, while Spiegle's art was always sharp, transparent and in places innovative too. Yet the comic always felt as if it were out of time, which is far more a comment on most of its fellows. There was nothing of superhero-machismo about the art, and Evanier's scripts were focused on character, heart and story rather than genre-playing and serving up the narrow tastes of the fanboy niche. This was traditional, inclusive, character-driven storytelling which was also smart, mature and unpretentious. Sadly, what it couldn't do was appeal to the fannish buyers of the day, and as such, it stands as one more regrettable example of the roads not taken.
11. Master Of Kung Fu, by Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck, Dan Day, Jim Starlin et al, c.1983  

The last of the idiosyncratic, writer-driven exploitation comics from Marvel's chaotic mid-70s heyday, Master Of Kung Fu had long overcome its original one-note limitations to become a thoroughly ambitious and markedly individual comicbook. Originally a mash-up of cliches associated with Bruce Lee films and Fu Manchu novels, it survived through the dedicated efforts of writer Moench and a sequence of inspired artists, most of whom proved willing to go above and beyond the call of duty on the title. With a string of influences from Bond to Groucho spicing up the book's original premise, it serves as perhaps the best example from the period of how no starting point is too stereotypical or apparently limited to prove worthwhile in the right hands. Doomed never to be reprinted because of the lapsing of the rights to Sax Rohmer's characters, Master Of Kung-Fu sadly seems likely to fade even more quickly from the popular memory than its fellow titles of the period.

12. The Brave And The Bold, by Jim Aparo, Alan Brennert, et al, c. 1983 (DC Comics)  

The over-familiar if always uniquely camp charms of Bob Haney's years as scripter of DC's Batman team-up book at last gave way in 1979 to a rotating cast of writers, some of whom took the freedom offered by the peripheral nature of the book to excel themselves . In what was a moribund turn-of-the-decade for the super-book, the Brave And The Bold thereafter featured a sprinkling of  excellent tales lighting up a monthly parade of base-level competency. That was never so true as for the four issues which Alan Brennert wrote, which serve as the missing and often sadly forgotten link in the chain of truly great Batman writers between Steve Englehart in 1977/8 and Frank Miller in 1986/7. With consistently fine contributions from regular artist Jim Aparo and creators such as Mike W. Barr and Dave Gibbons, The Brave And The Bold occasionally served as a genuine pleasure in a grey, grey time.

13, Super-Friends, by E Nelson Brigwell, Ramona Fradon et al, 1981 

There was a serious measure of contempt aimed at Super Friends during its brief existence by certain quarters of the fandom of the day. E. Nelson Bridwell made no attempt at all in his scripts to target the reader obsessed with the post-Marvel Revolution traditions of storytelling. Similarly, Fradon's art was untouched by either Neal Adam's comics-realism or Jack Kirby's dynamic-muscularity. The fact that Super-Friends was a tie-in to a Saturday Morning cartoon show only compounded those sins. Yet it was a charming, thoroughly entertaining title which typically put the fine detail of DC's continuity to far better use than most of the company's more critically heralded titles.

TooBusyThinking will be returning on Sunday 26th October with a look at some must-buy books for either the end of Fall or the beginning of Christmas .....

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

On "The James Bond Omnibus Volume 004", by Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak

Did we really used to take this pretty much for granted? In what was considered a respectable, family newspaper? It seems absurd now. The nine newspaper strip serials from 1971-75 collected in Titan's fourth James Bond Omnibus are saturated in a monotonous excess of voyeur-thrilling cheesecake. Every one of writer Jim Lawrence and artist Yaroslav Horak's stories parades young and fashionably enticing women stripped and bound to chair, bed or casket. At breakfast or while commuting, in the canteen or pub, the cartoon procession of disturbingly sweatless nudity matched with bloke-stiffening bondage in the pages of The Daily Express was obviously considered all-ages entertainment.

The variety's all in the details. As with any other fetish, it's the tiny little variations on the theme that count. Have the women been stripped and tied up by Bond or one of his fiendish opponents? Was their modesty tenuously secured by the presence of skimpy knickers, a pair of thick-framed glasses, or nothing at all? Were they using their considerable charms to appeal to 007 as submissively adoring would-be lovers should, or were they following a far more devious agenda? These were stories quite evidently designed to snare their more easily titillated readers with a brew of objectivised nakedness fused with sado-masochism. It's never so obvious as in "Trouble Spot", in which the fiendish Commissar Sharkface's man rips the duplicitous Gretta's shirt off, before having her tied up in preparation for a serious whipping. Called to administer the torture is the equally alluring and yet entirely flagitious Olga, who strips to her bra and fishnet stockings in order to apply the lash, declaring as she does that;

"But I think my part in the proceedings, also, may be more effective if unhampered by clothing."

It's a rare complicitous wink to the reader, of course, and yet it's all played out with such bleak seriousness and unquestioning chauvinism. Good or evil, dominant or simpering, all of Bond's female cast beyond the hardly-decrepit and yet evidently all-too-mature Moneypenny end up in their smalls, if not less. Usually, a far worse fate awaits. Even Suzi Kew, Bond's fellow assassin from the Secret Service, is put to use as a porn model in "Beware Of Butterflies". At least Kew's always got the option of pulling her top back on, and she does succeed in shooting dead her target while stripped down to her black lacy underwear. Elsewhere, Bond's despicable foreign opponents can only be trusted to humiliate and physically torment their young and beautiful female victims. No-one suffers more than Zoebide in "The Girl Machine", tied and dangled naked as she is by the depraved Sheik Harun for the entertainment of the outraged Arab men in Hajar's marketplace. Luckily, poor Zoebide has managed to retain all her perky beauty and perfect bodily statistics despite her ordeals, and so can be relied upon to later distract the disgusting jailer Walid with her allure and the question "Are you enough of a man to return my love?"

Bond only has to drive down a rural Italian lane in order to run into an entirely threadless blond on horseback screaming for him to save her. And when these most lovely of women aren't having their clothes savagely removed from them by criminals not eligible for a British passport, then Bond himself is forcing them to undress. Why, they might have weapons or stolen goods tucked into their frillies, and if not, their nakedness can still be photographed and used to blackmail them in the cause of the supposedly greater good. (*1) Encountering the quite deliberate sexual cruelty that underpins Ian Fleming's Bond novels in cartoon form makes the obsession with constraint and pain all the more stultifying obvious and nasty-minded. With nothing of the distracting pace of the best of the books, and in the conspicuous absence of the charisma of the actors who've played Bond with a knowing wink, Lawrence and Horak end up recycling the same relatively tame and yet in-the-day risque images over and charmlessly over again. When presented in daily three-panel doses back in the day, James Bond must have carried a mildly trangressive charge of misogynist wish-fulfilment. But four decades later, and with four years' worth of stories collected in the same place, the repetitive  unpleasantness becomes more and more wearisome. How obsessed can anyone be with the sight of women being compelled through force or duty to take off their clothes?

*1:- Bond's apparent contempt for Signor Ucceli's habit of making sure his youthful students are lying naked before brain-washing them in "Isle Of Condor" is  unconvincing in the light of his own behaviour. 

There are a few moments when Bond himself is presented in a state of undress, although there's never any suggestion that he's going to be emasculated in the long run. In 1973's "Beware Of Butterflies", he's entrapped by a naked-bar-her-fishtail beauty improbably pretending to be a mermaid, who then clubs him into unconsciousness and delivers him up to be brainwashed. And yet, of course, it's Bond who ultimately saves the day, which means that humiliation for him only ultimately serves to underscore his masculinity.

The misogyny of these strips is rarely sprinkled with any convincing measure of wit or even playful self-awareness. In short, there's not the slightest suggestion that there's any other possible way of regarding women at all. With Horak's art - for all its other considerable virtues - failing to convey any charm on Bond's part, the scene of 007 in a nudist camp in "Trouble Spot" fails to raise anything more than the slightest of smiles. This Bond is a shallow-headed killer, and whatever charisma the character carried in the day would have had to come from the reader's own taken-for-granted association of sexism with power and satisfaction. What few wisecracks Bond does utter tend to be nothing other than flat and cruel, and with Lawrence peppering his speech balloons with "luv" and "blimey", it's hard to even imagine 007's upper-class condescension bringing his words to life with a bully's well-bred sneer.

Yet it's the lack of any apparent obligation felt on Lawrence and Horak's part to make their Bond anything other than an uber-bloke which helps make these tales so fascinating. Their focus on the least appealing aspects of 007 offers us a direct line to a time of prime-time Miss World beauty pageants and supposedly chic Playboy Clubs. What's long since been far more of an embarrassment than a rube-drawing advantage to the movie franchise is here one of the central purposes of the narrative. Fleming's novels appealed to a grey, conformist and often grindingly poor Britain with a range of barely imaginable luxuries and freedoms. Lawrence and Horak strip out Fleming's focus on rich food and fine booze, largely sidestep the glamour of socialising with the demi-monde, and concentrate instead on the joys of sexual license and abuse, foreign travel and the murder of the folks who are not like us. This is a Bond lacking pretty much everything but his basic components of cruelty, arrogance and complacency. He's a thug and an assassin and a serial, squalid sexual predator, and there's nothing self-conscious or post-modern about the way in which he goes about his business. Self-awareness is very much not part of his armoury, and the reader who wants to regard him as suave and ethical is going to have to add that to the mix for themselves. Just prior to his execution of an agent-killing New York mobster in "Die With My Boots On", Lawrence has Bond declare;

"You may be able to get away with your high-handed thuggery and cold-blooded murder here in the State, Pignelli - - But we don't want filth like you trying to pull the same stuff in England!"

Yet "high-handed thuggery and cold-blooded murder" is pretty much all Bond gets up to here beyond his incessant philandering, and each is presented as a virtuous, exciting necessity. Only brief moments of compassion break occasionally through the flat effect of Bond's character. In "The Nevsky Nude", he irritates M by expressing a "sentimental" objection to blackmail, but in the following "The Phoenix Project", he's involved in the ugly, brutal persecution of the highly vulnerable Ogle, whose upcoming marriage is threatened by Bond's knowledge of a "nasty little police in Birmingham five years ago". These brief flashes of conscience soon disappear, brief moments of decency in a morass of unpleasantness. Stripped of the legitimising ideology of the age, the James Bond Omnibus 004 shows us exactly how escapism operates in a profoundly sexist, anti-intellectual culture. Lawrence and Horak's Bond represents what freedom looks like to someone who can only imagine rising high enough to behave as his betters always have while bloody-handedly serving their interest. The reader can approach these stories playfully, but they're typically an expression of anything other than a playful state of mind. All the women you can captivate, bully and seduce, all the men you can beat up and murder. The glamour of air-travel to Paris, New York, Corsica, the Canary Islands, imaginary Arab Republics, and Ghana. The pleasures of terrorising uppity foreigners while doing so. All for Queen and country, all for the greater good, all for the pleasure of behaving badly for a supposedly unimpeachable cause.

There's certainly no little fascination to be found in experiencing what glamour looks like to a deeply reactionary, repressed culture. And if Lawrence's stories have a habit of straying into incongruous implausibilities such as the Cult of Vampires, they're also stashed full of the expected Flemingesque traditions. The constraints of three-panels-a-day continuity may result in Her Majesty's Secret Service seeming to consist of two managers and a secretary working out of a couple of offices, but that doesn't mean that the pleasures of noting how and where the Bond tropes play out is absent. (The sight of 007 firing a gun from within the heel of a pair of "Harlem" platform boots is the highlight of "Devil With My Boots On".) Similarly, Hovak's storytelling is always clear and dynamic, suitably claustrophobic and entirely committed to the requisite degree of cheesecake and callousness. He's quite brilliant at catching the eye and carrying it through a daily sequence without the slightest effort having to be made on the reader's part. Even when his work seems to have been somewhat rushed - as in parts of "Beware of Butterflies" - his caricatured faces carry an almost psychedelic charge. If these serials fail to often hang together as discrete, satisfying tales when read straight through, they still work perfectly well as a series of individual sequences. Taken a strip or two at a time, it's impossible not to recognise the cruel power of the wish-fulfilment that's embodied here, even as the wishes themselves are often thoroughly unpleasant.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Young Avengers, Ant-Man & Forge: One Last Look At "Marvel Now! Point One" (2 of 2)

In which the blogger continues a look - begun here - at the storytelling used on the opening page of each of Point One's six features. Spoilers of a typically minor kind lurk here-in, so do be careful; 

4. Miss America, by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton et al et al

Miss America: The New World also kicks off with a shot of a young superhero flying over New York City. But unlike the preceding Nova feature, artist Jamie McKelvie succeeds in producing a representation of the city that's immediately recognisable. What's more, he also subtly emphasise that this is the Manhattan of an alt-Earth as well. That's in many ways the least of the panel's virtues, but it is worth mentioning that McKelvie's produced a take on New York that evokes the city itself rather than the comics-shorthand version that tends to be used as a shortcut by less meticulous artists. Yet what's most impressive is the way in which McKelvie's used his cityscape to manipulate his reader's responses. The sight of a superhero soaring above a tableau of skyscrapers has become such a commonplace over the past seventy and more years that it's effectively lost its power to surprise and impress. Yet by ramping up the sense of vertigo in his composition, the artist accentuates how absurdly remarkable the very fact of Miss America's flight is.

A disturbing sense of a terrible, unsurvivable fall is initially created by constraining the reader's gaze to the top quarter of the untypically deep frame. The composition guides us in sequence between the three points of the triangle that's made up of the caption frame, Miss America and the Statue Of Liberty. That short, closed journey tells us where we are and who we're to be concerned with, and yet it also sets us up for the reader's equivalent of a precipitous fall. Our arrival at the many Ladies of Liberty introduces us to a series of vertical integrators which immediately work to speedily haul our eyes downwards, and that's a journey which doesn't stop until the bottom of the panel and the page. It's not just an aesthetically satisfying image, but a highly effective example of storytelling too, with a suggestion of vertiginous anxiety there to add a touch of jeopardy to what might in other hands have been a solely decorative, emotionally flat panel. It's eye-catchingly spectacular, which always helps for an opening image. But it also immediately establishes its star as an impressive, graceful character who can experience and control a situation which would leave most of us feeling paralysed with terror.

The second panel underscores that point by smartly establishing how insignificant that anxiety-inspiring fall is to Miss America. That she's powerful and confident enough not to need to nervously slow her fall is shown by the fact that her first two poses are practically identical to each other; this isn't a character who needs to be especially cautious about returning at speed to ground-level. The sequence of fire-escapes she's passing help to both establish the velocity and scale of her journey downwards, as well as grounding her in yet another recognisable version of reality. (When was the last time Koreatown was not just referenced in a superbook, but convincingly and respectfully depicted too?) Everything about McKelvie's design suggests an artist who's committed to thinking about their craft rather than simply drawing on habit and stereotype. Even the detail of the carefully depicted moment of her deliberately balanced landing, and the turn of a surprised pedestrian in response to it, helps ensure that the page ends on a note of anticipation. What might have been a taken-for-granted, lethargic shot of a superhero's return to earth instead helps create a sense of who and what Miss America is while also generating the novelty and fascination to keep the reader watching.

Kieron Gillen's sparse script takes second place to the momentum of the visuals here, but that doesn't mean that his contributions serve no purpose beyond providing the rich inspiration for McKelvie's artwork. The opening declaration that we're on "Earth-212" (*1) is the first in a series of reader-snaring enigmas, each of which raises the reader's curiosity. What is Miss America doing on an another Earth? How did she travel there? Who is that's contacted her and what information were they searching for? To the reader who knows something of the up-coming Young Avengers title, there'll already be a context to start to make sense of these questions. Yet there's nothing on the page to exclude those who lack a fannish sense of what's to come.

To the question "what's slumming?" might be offered the evidence of this page, which is unpretentiously everything that slumming's not.

*1:- That may just be a subtle nod to Morrison and Yeowell's Zenith, while the second panel just might contain a homage from McKelvie to Frank Miller's Daredevil. Perhaps.

5. Ant-Man, by Matt Fraction, Michael Allred, Laura Allred et al

Unashamed to be warm-heartedly sentimental rather than just fanboy-fashionably grim, Matt Fraction and Michael Allred open their contribution to Point One with a sweetly intimate scene showing Scott Lang and his daughter Cassie two somewhat different approaches to art. It's a charming piece which draws much of its warmth from the way in which it shows how a parent can express their love even when they can't make themselves clearly understood. Starting off with a playful shot of Ant-Man breaking the fourth wall to introduce his own strip, Fraction seems keen to be breaking with some of the more constrained, angsty traditions of modern-era comics storytelling here. Yes, there's an excess of grief to come, but there's also a discussion of the ways in which grief need not lead to the cliches of vigilante justice. It's a sense of a writer gently pushing the typical givens of the sub-genre which the discussion between father and daughter about Duchamp and the freedom to interpret the meaning of art only seems to underscore. At the same time, this is no cold-hearted, self-conscious indulgence, for its the emotion on the page and not the gameplaying of any possible sub-text which movingly carries the storytelling. The relationship between father and daughter is gently and convincingly played out. In that, Mike Allred's stylistic fusion of the directness and dynamism of late-Sixties Kirby with the tender romanticism of the likes of John Romita has rarely seemed so appropriate and effective.

If there's a problem to the page in all its smartness and compassion, it's that it only ends on a page-turner if the reader knows their Marvel continuity. For those of us who weren't aware that Scott Lang was alive, or that his daughter was dead, there's a fair degree of confusion at work here. But if it's known who these folks are and what their current situation is, then the last panel - showing a photograph freezing the moment of a father and daughter's cuddle-  is a powerful, heart-rendering lure to read on. If not, the momentum of the side grinds to a halt in a sense of closure.What the informed reader will perceive as a tragedy-informing, tale-starting flashback will read as a done-in-one-page personal moment to those outside the loop. For the latter, there's very little reason to push on with any driving curiosity, because what's on the page seems to satisfyingly resolve itself without leaving any questions to be answered. That this first page's final panel sets up an unexpected and splendidly witty resolution to Ant-Man: It's Art shouldn't go unmentioned. But the fact that fan and neophyte may experience the side-closer in different ways is still perhaps worth the mentioning. 

6. Forge, by Dennis Hopeless, Gabriel Hernandez Walta et al

We're back to darkened, uninteresting underground passages, tediously colour-drained pallets, glacial plots and a few unbeguiling dobs of exposition in Forge: Crazy Enough, the last of Point One's features. Having already experienced a similar set of disappointing conventions at work on Nick Fury's opening side, it's hard not to wonder who was responsible for ensuring that such obvious repetition was avoided. Regrettably, there's nothing visually or emotionally interesting here either. There's neither spectacle, novelty or action. The backstory lacks anything of interest while there's no compelling foreshadowing at work. There's not even a mildly interesting page-turner. Why is it then, that this page exists? The only possible audience who might find this dirgeful, eventless page compelling would be the tiny niche of die-hard Forge fans, and it's to be presumed that they'd also probably prefer to be entertained rather than just briefly occupied. For the rest of us, the sight of an apparently deranged character babbling to themselves as cliche demands while crawling through a generic, abandoned sci-fi base can offer little likely to appeal. Why would it? On a page in which we learn just three backstory headlines - Forge has been in solitary confinement, Forge hears voices, Forge had forgotten he'd built the base he's exploring - the only fascinating aspect of it all is why a team of creators and editors could possibly think this would be intriguing rather than tiresome. As an advert for the coming Cable & X-Force title, I'd suggest that it'll prove less effective than nine empty pages would. Or rather, dedicated fans will lap this up, but everyone else will probably find themselves less than enthusiastic about the prospect of more of the same.


The TooBusyThinking verdict: The Miss America and Ant-Man tales are well worth investing in, and the first page of Star-Lord is a lovely prospect which the rest of the tale sadly fails to come near to matching. The rest really isn't worth the price of entry. $5.99's a great deal of money in these troubled times, after all. Reader, beware, there's good stuff here, but there's a great deal that's not too.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

From Untold Tales Of Spider-Man to The Power Of Shazam; The Great Nineties Cancelled Comicbook Cavelcade

In which the blogger offers up a baker's dozen of much-missed, cruelly cancelled superhero comic-books from the Big Two and their associated imprints in the ten years leading up to the Millennium. Other publishers and genres will appear in a later list, from both before and since the year 2000. For the sake of brevity, what follows doesn't include the likes of mini-series, tenures which came to their intended close, media tie-ins, or interrupted runs by creative teams who were bumped from continuing titles.  The list begins with the most recently-cancelled title, and ends with the most distant termination. There's no order of preference beyond that;

1. Chronos , by John Moore, Paul Guinan et al (cancelled 1999)

2. The Power Of Shazam, by Jerry Ordway et al, (1999)

3. Sandman Mystery Theatre, by Matt Wagner, Guy Davies, Steven T Seagle et al (1999)

4. The Spectre, by John Ostrander, Tom Mandrake et al (1998)

5. Chase, by D Curtis Johnson, J.H. Williams et al (1998)

6. Untold Tales Of Spider-Man, by Kurt Busiek, Pat Olliffe et al (1997)

7. Static, by Dwayne McDuffie, Robert L. Washington III, John Paul Leon et al, (1997)

8. Green Lantern Mosaic, by Gerard Jones, Cully Hamner et al (1992)

9. Blood Syndicate, by Dwayne McDuffie, Ivan Velez Jr, Trever Von Eeden et al, 1996 (To be honest, I could have chosen any of the Milestone titles.)

10. Skrull Kill Krew, by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Steve Yeowell et al, 1996

11. Shade The Changing Man, by Peter Milligan, Chris Bachalo et al (1996)

12. Justice Society Of America, by Len Strazewski, Mike Parobeck et al, (1993)

13. Suicide Squad, by John Ostrader, Luke McDonnell et al, (1992)

As always, your own take on what should, and what shouldn't, have been included in the above would be welcome ...

And, should you have a moment to kill, why not visit the TooBusyThinking Tumblr too, the selective appeal of which I prefer to define as a marker of elite status ....