Friday, October 23, 2009

The Other Wolverine

Comics Collections:

Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine Macalastaire Volume 1 by William Messner-Loebs and Nadine Messner-Loebs (c. 1982-84; collected 2008): Journey was one the great and now unjustly neglected independent comic books of the 1980's. It's a picaresque romp through early 19th-century frontier America (mostly in the Michigan-Ohio area), focusing on the adventures of trapper/hunter/guide/deliveryman/frontiersman Joshua "Wolverine" Macalastaire against the backdrop of the Indian uprising centered on Tecumseh. IDW has collected the entire run of Journey in two B&W trade paperbacks. My only complaint is that the covers aren't collected along with the interior work, but god bless IDW for its ongoing work reprinting some of the best independent comics of the 1980's and 1990's in new editions.

Messner-Loebs is one of the drollest writer-artists the comics medium has ever seen, with a flair for finding genuine humour amidst the darker elements of his story. Journey is also splendidly flexible in its tone, with suspense, horror, humour, adventure and social commentary all working within the tale. Messner-Loebs's art is equally flexible, combining the cartoony with more commonly representational art in a manner that somehow suggests both Will Eisner and, I swear, a strange echo of Bugs Bunny cartoons in some of the character design and staging.

Messner-Loebs is also a deft hand at characterization. Wolverine emerges fairly quickly as a fully rounded, fallible but competent character, but so, too, do the other characters both major and minor, with a particular favourite being Edwin Allyn Craft, Messner-Loebs's fish-out-of-water homage to both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. On the frontier. Craft initially seems like some sort of one-off bit of comic relief, but he really grows on you, as do all the other native Americans, soldiers, couriers de bois, wolves, frogs, bears, ghosts, Sasquatches and assorted other human, animal and supernatural beings that populate this world.

As artful as Journey is, it remains a piece of fast-paced and thoughtful entertainment as well, as gripping and humourous as any comic book I can think of. And it's also the relatively rare comic book that people who don't read (superhero) comic books might actually enjoy. Highly recommended.

Showcase Presents Martian Manhunter Volume 1 (1953-1962) by Jack Miller, Joe Certa, Joe Samachson, Edmond Hamilton and others: One of DC Comics's most venerable second-string super-heroes, the Martian Manhunter was also one of the first new super-heroes of what would come to be known as The Silver Age. Until he joined the Justice League in the early 1960's, all of the Manhunter's appearances were in short (6 to 12 page) back-up stories in the Batman-fronted Detective Comics. Most of these adventures were written by Jack Miller and drawn by Joe Certa, both competent but unspectacular comic-book professionals.

Reading these stories for the first time, I was struck by how ill-served the Martian Manhunter has been by later rewrites and re-rewrites and reimaginings of his origin and powers. When MM -- real name J'onn J'onnz, secret identity name Detective John Jones -- is first accidentally pulled to Earth by an experimenting professor who immediately drops dead, stranding J'onn on Earth, the Martian Manhunter's powers resemble Superman's with some key differences. J'onn is telepathic, can change shape and can turn invisible. Strength-wise, he's obviously not as strong as Superman, while writer Miller never seems to be sure whether or not J'onn can fly -- on a number of occasions J'onn jumps, propels himself with super-breath, flaps his arms (!) or moves his arms like propellers (!!).

For the first four years or so, MM fought crime without revealing himself to the world, a situation pretty much unique in superhero circles. Only well into his career would the Martian Manhunter act more like a regular superhero, visible to all. Subsequent writers would rework J'onn's powers and origins until, by the 21st century, he was a physical match for Superman with extra powers whose real form looked like a cross between Gumby and the adult alien from the movie Alien. His original weakness -- fire depowered him -- would be explained as a psychological ailment common to all Martians.

There's a real and mostly lost comic-book craft to writing and drawing a long series of short stories that don't continue from issue to issue and in which the hero remains (mostly) unchanged. Miller and Certa make the Manhunter a pretty interesting fellow, though it's interesting to see how his appearance gradually alters. In his first appearance, J'onn looks like a green, bald human being with a jutting, almost Neanderthal brow. That brow gradually disappears, though later artists would add it in to foreground J'onn's alienness prior to the whole Gumby thing really foregrounding his alienness. All in all, an interesting read.

Worlds of Tomorrow edited by August Derleth (c. 1954): This relatively short paperback science-fiction anthology from the 1950's has some decent stories (the satiric "Null-P" by William Tenn perhaps being chief and snarkiest among them) and some interesting curiosities. Frank Belknap Long's 1933 far-future dystopia "The Great Cold" is the weirdest of the latter category, detailing as it does a future humanity that's been enslaved by giant, intelligent barnacles. Yes, barnacles. Humanity was getting enslaved a lot by intelligent versions of bees, ants and other creatures throughout the 1930's, so I guess someone had to go the barnacle route. If you read one story about intelligent barnacles this year, it should be this one because I can't recall ever reading another one.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Clark Ashton Smith

100 Bullets Volume 2: Split-Second Chance by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (2001): There's an undeniable gut-level appeal to the basic idea of 100 Bullets. A mysterious group hands people who've been wronged the "undeniable evidence" of who wronged them and how, along with a handgun, 100 untraceable bullets, and complete immunity from police investigation and arrest. The "mythology" of the series starts to kick into high gear in this second volume, as the origins and purpose of The Minutemen -- two of whom are handing out these guns -- and the super-secret Secret Rulers of the World, The Trust, begin to be fleshed out.

It's all fairly gripping. Azzarello has always had a flair for hardboiled dialogue, while Risso's women almost all seem to embody a sort of grimy sluttishness that occasionally gets in the way of any deeper characterization -- he'd probably be the perfect artist for a Mike Hammer comic-book series. I'm not sure I've ever seen a comic book with more panels centered on the female ass in various stages of undress that wasn't simply pornography. As one of those women whose ass gets centre-panel prominence is pretty much the only continuing sympathetic character -- Dizzy -- one's ability to see her as a character and not as an exercise in drawing boobs and butts is severely compromised. Maybe that's the point, but there's something a bit exhausting (and exhausted) about a book where all the women are at least 34D's sporting thongs and hyper-exaggerated fuck-me collagen lips.

The Collected Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith Volume 1: The End of the Story, Introduction by Ramsey Campbell (Collection 2007): Of the writers dubbed 'The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales' in the late 1930's, Smith remains the least well-known and, stylistically speaking, by far the best writer. Smith maintained voluminous correspondence with the other two Musketeers -- H.P. 'Cthulhu Mythos' Lovecraft and Robert E. 'Conan the Barbarian' Howard -- which allowed for the many textual crossovers among the three, most of them centered around Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos as Howard and Smith were encouraged to add gods, arcane books of supernatural lore, and weird creatures to Lovecraft's secondary world.

Unlike Lovecraft and Howard, Smith didn't die relatively young in the late 1930's but lived into the 1960's, though the bulk of his major writing did occur in the late 1920's and 1930's. Smith was a poet, sculptor and painter prior to turning his hand to prose at Lovecraft's encouragement, and may critics find Smith's prose to be both painterly and poetic in its attempts to conjure up alien worlds and alien creatures. And yes, even early in his career, Smith seems to have swallowed a thesaurus. But also early on, Smith modulates his dense and high-minded diction in the interests of portraying true alienation, scenes of wonder, scenes of horror, and even material that can be surprisingly (and intentionally) funny.

It's amazing how many major stories came out of Smith's first few years as a writer. Included here are standouts like "The Immeasurable Horror", "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros", "The Monster of the Prophecy" and "The Devotee of Evil", among others. "Horror" gives us the most monstrous blob of carnivorous goo ever seen in science fiction, while "Zeiros" manages to be both funny and horrible in its depiction of a charming rogue-thief (that would be Zeiros) and a treasure-hunting expedition gone horribly wrong. Smith isn't to everyone's tastes, but those who like him, as the beer commercial went, like him a lot.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

God Was My Financial Advisor

I think there's a certain irony to the fact that the people of the most overtly Christian nation on Earth (the United States, natch) derive so much revenue from two things that are pretty explicitly described as sinful by either The Bible or a long history of Christian teachings: gambling and lending money with interest.

Everything from state lotteries to various ways to make money off the stock market cover the gambling side of things. Even more excitingly, a fairly large chunk of the ongoing financial crisis was caused by gambling ON lending money for interest. I don't think Dante covered that one in Inferno, though he did cover the penalty for giving God the finger.*

If, as people like Jerry Falwell have charged, God used 9/11 to punish the U.S. for allowing homosexuality and promiscuity, then one would think that such widespread gambling and profit-minded money-lending would bring down the wrath of God as well.

Not that I think it did, mind you. If God's wrathfulness exists, evidence would seem to suggest that it must occur entirely post-mortem. Folding Christ's point about rich men, camels and the eye of the needle into things, I'm pretty sure there are a lot of very surprised people arriving in Hell daily.

Well, if I believed in Hell, which I don't.

* Yes, I know Vanni Fucci actually gives God the "fig." Same difference.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Zombie and Son

Stranger by Simon Clark (2003): A fairly enjoyable addition to the quasi-zombie apocalypse subgenre. In what can work as a fairly overt subtext about illegal immigration, Stranger posits a world where a strange illness initially causes virtually everyone in South and Central America and eventually Mexico to migrate north into the United States. At first, those afflicted with the disease (later nicknamed 'Jumpy') are peaceful, but then, as if on cue, they go bonkers and pretty much destroy civilization in the U.S., parts of Canada and, so far as we know, everywhere else on the planet.

Not only do the armies of the Jumpy (soon swelled by those infected in the target countries) kill most normal humans they come across, but they also systematically destroy shelter, food supplies and clean water supplies. And then they congregate in various places to protect something, or a number of somethings, that represent the end-stage of the disease (or whatever it is). We meet the Greg, protagonist, in an isolated community in the northern U.S. that's managed to keep Jumpy out, in part because our protagonist can somehow sense the afflicted, even when they're not showing any symptoms. Various post-apocalyptic shenanigans ensue as Greg and a ragtag group of survivors try to both survive the situation and discover who or what is behind the disease, and what Greg's mysterious connection to the outbreak is, if anything.

The Year's Best Horror Stories Series 1 edited by Richard Davis (1971): This is either the first volume in DAW's long-running Year's Best Horror Stories antholgies of the 70's, 80's and early 90's or a reprint of British Sphere Books' similar anthology series. In any case, it offers an interesting and enjoyable cross-section of horror fiction nearly 40 years ago.

The Living Dead edited by John Joseph Adams (2008): Or, 34 post-1970 English-language stories about zombies. If I were going to come up with guesses as to what prominent horror writers might come up with a story about zombies who eat their living victims' genitals first, Poppy Z. Brite and Clive Barker would probably top that list. Here, Brite doesn't disappoint in "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves", leading me to believe that Brite is the world's oldest distaff giggly 11-year-old gross-out obsessed boy. The anthology weighs a little too heavily on the social satire and commentary side of things and not enough on the actually scary side of things, but there are some gems here. John Langan's "How the Day Drawn Down" combines zombies and Our Town into a surprisingly effective bit of quasi-playwriting, for instance, while Joe Lansdale, Scott Edelman and Joe Hill also contribute stand-outs.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Superman vs. Don Rickles

The Adventures of Jimmy Olsen Volume 1 by Jack Kirby and Vince Colletta (1970-71): One of the strangest occurences in 1970's comic books consisted of DC wresting writer/artist Jack Kirby (co-creator of Marvel's Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers and a slew of other characters) away from Marvel and then apparently having absolutely no idea what to do with him.

This led to a number of fascinating Kirby series that always seemed to get cancelled just as they were shifting into high gear (The Demon, The New Gods, The Forever People, OMAC...). It also led to DC putting Kirby not on the core Superman books but on the failing Jimmy Olsen book for close to two years. Kirby created stuff there (the Cadmus Project chief among them) that would go on to become crucial elements in Superman mythology...more than 20 years later, during and just after the Death of Superman storyline of the early 1990's. Maybe Mark Evanier is right -- Kirby was always ahead of the curve.

The oddest thing about Kirby's run on Jimmy Olsen was that DC, apparently traumatized by a Kirby Man of Steel, got other artists to redraw Superman's face so that it "fit" better with the company-wide portrayal of Superman. Why did this happen? Good question, because Kirby's unedited Superman is as much or more "on-model" as Mike Sekowsky's Superman in Justice League during the 1960's and early 1970's. For whatever reason, what one gets is a lot of characters with Kirby heads and Superman and the occasional Perry White with an Al Plastino or Curt Swan head. Bizarre.

The Jimmy Olsen stuff Kirby did is mostly fun, and it offers glimpses of what Superman would have been like had DC handed the reins to the character to Kirby (hint: dynamic and somewhat offbeat). Clashes with genetically engineered super-mutants abound, including one with a four-armed yellow-guy who wouldn't look out of place in Hellboy. This volume also contains the famous/infamous Don Rickles two-parter. Yes, Don Rickles guest-stars alongside Jimmy Olsen and Superman, though Superman and Rickles never actually meet. Again, bizarre. To quote the tremendous cover blurb on the second part of this team-up, "Don't ask! Just buy it!"

Hellboy Volume 8: Darkness Calls (2006-2007) by Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo: Fegredo nicely combines the moody and the action-packed in taking over for Mignola on Hellboy's art here. Various supernatural nasties -- chief among them the Russian Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless -- take their shots at Hellboy while armageddon continues to move closer. That Hellboy occasionally generates his own sound effects -- yelling 'Boom!' as he punches somebody -- continues to amuse me way more than it probably should.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Comics X 5

Essential Spider-man Volume 6 (1972-74) by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, John Romita, Gil Kane, Ross Andru and others: Not only does this volume supply a lot of the framework for Spider-man movies 1 and 3, but it also introduces the Punisher, Marvel's popular and bloodthirsty vigilante who so far has starred in three woeful movies of his own. Major moments in Spider-man history showcased here include the death of Gwen Stacy, the death of Norman Osborn (the first Green Goblin), and the assumption of the Green Goblin mantle by Norman's mentally disturbed son Harry.

The issues -- mostly written by Conway -- work heroically to expand Spidey's rogue's gallery while also managing to get decent stories out of fairly minor Lee/Ditko era villains (most notably the Vulture and the Molten Man). Contained herein are some of the first Spider-man comic books ever bought for me, which gives this volume a nostalgic tinge. For the record, "my" Spider#1 would be the second installment of the Molten Man two-parter.

Spider-man probably had one of the smoothest writer-and-artist transitions from its initial Lee/Ditko (or for other Marvel books, Lee/Kirby) days. John Romita took over prety dynamically after seminal Spidey artist Ditko left in the mid-1960's, while in this volume, Conway and Wein finally take the reins from Stan Lee without any noticeable drop in quality. On the art side, Gil Kane and Ross Andru start putting their imprints on the web-spinner. Andru, especially, is one of the more under-rated super-hero artists of the 60's, 70's and 80's, with terrific runs on Wonder Woman, Super-man and Spider-man during that time, along with the spiffy first Superman/Spider-man team-up.

Reading these issues now, I'm struck by how much plot and dialogue a normal Spider-man comic book of the far-flung past of 1973 had when compared to most super-hero comic books now, allowing for things like character-building to occur in between the fight sequences.

Showcase Presents the Flash Volume 2 (c. 1960-63) by John Broome, Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino: Fittingly, super-speedster Flash had pretty much the zippiest adventures of DC's Silver Age heroes. His rogue's gallery was the weirdest this side of Spider-man and included such characters as the Top, Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, Captain Cold, the Reverse-Flash, the Pied Piper, 64th-century magician Abra Kadabra and the Weather Wizard. When he wasn't dealing with those criminals separately or in various combinations, the Flash tended to fend off alien invasions.

The whole volume goes down smoothly, and Broome's often loopy extrapolations of the Flash's power (the Flash can control every molecule in his body, to cite one example) keep things fresh and lively. Team-ups with Kid Flash, Green Lantern and the risibly named stretchy superhero Elongated Man also appear.

Showcase Presents Teen Titans Volume 1 (1964-68) by Bob Haney, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick, Lee Elias, Bill Draut and others: Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad and Kid Flash -- the youthful sidekicks or proteges of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash, respectively -- team up here for adventures that are generally easy on the eyes (Nick Cardy, a really deft and appealing penciller and sometime inker, handles a lot of the art duties here) but sometimes really hard on the old reading part of the brain. Writer Bob Haney, who's generally quite readable on his Batman material of about the same era, seems to have been under orders to make the Titans hip and groovy and, once the Batman TV show hit the airwaves, campy.

The result is possibly the worst writing on any DC book of the 1960's. The only analogy I can think of is Homer Simpson's attempt to be hip with Poochy on the Itchy and Scratchy Show. OK, so who doesn't want to see the Titans disguise themselves as hippies, battle the Mad Mod or take part in various adventures that seem to be thinly disguised ads for Honda motor scooters? The art is terrific, though, and a glimpse of things to come appears in the last story of the volume with Titans uber-scribe Marv Wolfman sharing writing duties with Len Wein on what was, for the Titans of the time, a thoughtful and serious piece about politics and bigotry.

Angel: Blood and Trenches by John Byrne (2009): Byrne's story of Buffy's Angel fighting vampires during World War One is a fun piece done in glorious black, red and white. The art recalls Byrne's similar B&W art on his vastly under-rated OMAC miniseries of the early 1990's, a miniseries I'd suggest you go out and buy right now. Angel isn't quite as compelling, but it's still a fun read with an interesting twist at the end. A warning to the curious: don't read Byrne's afterword until after you've read the comic or you'll spoil the surprise. Certainly recommended for Buffy and Angel fans.

Hellboy Volume 7: The Troll Witch and Other Tales by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell and Richard Corben (2003-2005): After the catastrophic Hellboy mythology building of Volume 6 comes a somewhat lighter collection of standalone stories (though most add something to our understanding of how Hellboy is either going to destroy the world or save it).

Having two of comics' greatest fantasy artists along to illustrate a couple of the stories -- Russell on a light-hearted romp about the vampire of Prague and Corben on an apocalyptic slice of African mythology -- keeps things fizzing along quite nicely. Russell can be one of the funniest -- or maybe drollest -- comic book artists around, and the vampire story plays to that side of his art. Corben's story gives us that distinctive mix of the monumental, the realistic and the matter-of-fact grotesque that's characterized Corben's work since the early 1970's. By this point, Hellboy has become a rarity in horror/dark fantasy stories -- an investigator character who's as interesting as the menaces and mysteries he investigates, a company that would also include Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin and Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer and not many others.