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Trouble with Comics

Face it, John Byrne never got better than this. The only thing that could have improved it would be if Terry Austin had inked it.

Face it, John Byrne never got better than this. The only thing that could have improved it would be if Terry Austin had inked it.

ADD Reviews Andre The Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

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I’ve been a fan of Box Brown’s comics for years now. His style (somewhere near the intersection of Seth Boulevard and Kochalka Avenue Extension in the artcomix part of town) really resonates with me as a reader. From Everything Dies to The Survivalist, I’ve really liked everything of Brown’s that I’ve come across. So that’s why I set aside my loathing of professional wrestling (I lost interest in the sportsertainment of it all around the time my age hit the double digits) to check out the cartoonist’s new biography of Andre Roussimoff, a now-deceased pro wrestler who looms largest in my memory for playing Bigfoot on The Six-Million Dollar Man. (I looked up some YouTube clips, but they are pretty dire. If you have fond memories of those TV appearances, I’d recommend not revisiting them, just let them glow nostalgically in your mind.)

Brown humanizes Andre without painting him as a saint, sympathizing with Andre’s pains suffered as a result of the disease that terribly distorted the man’s biology; the same distortion that made him a superstar in the seedy world of pro wrestling, at a time when it was unusual for there to be 600 pound human beings. Brown balances whimsy with candor, here showing us how Andre’s phone looks like a tiny toy in his giant hands, there showing us Andre using race-baiting to pick a fight with an African-American colleague.

The world was a challenging place for Roussimoff to make his way in, and I suppose the mid-to-late 20th century was still backward enough that using his size to make a living was more out of necessity than cynical opportunism. His career began, after all, not long after the days of Vaudeville and when entertainers could make more money driving or flying from place to place rather than entertaining through mass entertainment media like TV or the internet. Much of Brown’s narrative involves depicting Andre in transit, and given that that was a large part of the man’s life (to the detriment of his family relationships, as we see), that seems appropriate.

Brown appears to have conducted copious research in the creation of this book, and it pays off. From recounting an appearance on David Letterman to a series of anecdotes from Andre’s fellow wrestlers and other people he worked with (like actors Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Guest), an expansive vision of who the man was begins to open up. He was bigger than life in more ways than one, and he clearly made an impact on the people he met and worked with. No doubt Box Brown and publisher First Second are aware of the lingering fascination with Andre the Giant, or this graphic novel would not have been produced. As I said up front, my interest in wrestling is non-existent, and my interest in Andre The Giant isn’t far behind. Despite that, Box Brown kept my attention throughout and fascinated me with the details he discovered in his research. If you don’t care about the subject matter, I suspect you’ll still enjoy Andre The Giant: Life and Legend; if you do care about wrestling in general or Andre in particular, I have to think you will love this book.  

The publisher provided a copy for the purpose of review. Buy Andre the Giant: Life and Legend on Amazon.com.

A Few Thoughts on the Justice League: War Movie

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* Thank God there’s finally an animated film that explains how the Justice League met.

* There’s something really wrong with the writing when my visceral, gut response to the bad guy breaking Green Lantern’s arm is “GOOD!”

* I’ll give you a pass for Superman snapping DeSaad’s neck because he was not quite himself, but I can’t help but wonder what Jack Kirby would have thought of having the heroes consciously plot to stab Darkseid in the eyes and then carry it out with no reservations whatsoever. 

* Thank God it’s finally okay for Green Lantern to call Batman a douchebag. That’s really what’s been holding comics back.

* Thank God Cyborg can finally say “Shit!” when something goes wrong. That has ALSO really been holding comics back.

* Why doesn’t “Shazam” turn back into Billy when he tells people his name is “Shazam?”

* Especially later when he says “Shazam!” to bring down the lightning to power Cyborg’s Boom Tube generator and DOES turn back into Billy?!?

* (I will never not think of him as Captain Marvel, because, HE’S CAPTAIN MARVEL.)

* Wonder Woman’s new costume would be so great if it had pants.

* Why did they make Cap’s lightning bolt look more like Superman’s S? Irony?

* Why did they make a New 52 cartoon and use the OLD Superman S? It’s maybe the one change I kind of like and they don’t use it!

I’m ambivalent about Miracleman being published by Marvel, but I have to say, at least it’s not DC, those fuckers.

ADD’s Comics DNA

I missed seeing Tom Spurgeon’s Five for Friday post a few days ago, but the subject was a really good one and it got my brain looking back over my own personal history, so I thought I’d post my answers here. You can see everyone else’s responses at FFF Results Post #358 — Comics Reading DNA at The Comics Repporter.

Comics Reporter readers were asked to name as specifically as possible:

1) The First Comic Of Any Kind You Remember Reading

I’ve tried to narrow that down, and I think it’s Amazing Spider-Man somewhere right after Gwen Stacy died. 

2) A Comic That Got You Back Into Reading A Certain Kind Of Comic After You’d Given Up On That Kind Of Comic

Avengers #1, the Heroes Return era by Busiek and Perez. Superhero comics had completely lost me in the 1990s, but Perez back on Avengers made me curious and the easy professionalism and obvious fun Busiek and Perez were having bought me back. It’s a good bet I might never have gotten so involved in comics again had this book not existed, so blame Busiek and Perez for Comic Book Galaxy and Trouble With Comics even ever existing, if you like.

3) A Comic That Got You Reading A Different Type Of Comic Altogether

Either The First Kingdom or Elfquest led me to what we then called ground-level comics, and FantaCo really opened the floodgates with Hembeck, Smilin’ Ed, Gates of Eden and more.

4) A Comic That Made You Want To Make Comics Even If You Never Made Them

Oh, hell, any good comic makes me feel that way. I did make scores of them in the early ’80s, probably inspired by the black and white alternatives I was reading.

5) A Comic That Represents A Kind Of Comic You Have Yet To Explore

I don’t know that there are any genres or kinds of comics I haven’t explored. But I do know my interest in comics about people who can fly or have bolts shooting out of their hands has never been lower than it is now, due to the shoddy quality of most superhero comics right now and the insipidity of the comics culture overall.

— Alan David Doane

A Scorched-Earth Moment in Comics History

For most of the first four decades of my life comics and graphic novels gave me a great deal of pleasure. From the ages of 6 to around 14 or 15, nothing occupied my time more happily than running off somewhere quiet (usually my bedroom) with a stack of new comics, in the pages of which I would lose myself in the imaginations of writers and artists far more creative than I was, or likely ever would be.

Since the ascension of celebrity fan-fiction writers like Geoff Johns, Mark Millar and others, superhero comics have become an imagination-free zone of ever-escalating violence with no thought, theme or theory in evidence anywhere. The apotheosis of this dire state of affairs was the publication of Before Watchmen. Wretched in intent and criminal in execution, its existence, and worse, acceptance in the marketplace, definitively ended my interest in superhero comics as an ongoing enterprise. The disgrace of it prompted some badly-timed comments about one of its creators at a time when all of fandom was in grief over his passing, and I regret the incident, but do not deny the truth behind my foolish utterance. The people who worked on Before Watchmen, from the writers and artists to the editors, publishers, even the “journalists” who “covered” it — all are complicit in a betrayal of whatever ideals superhero comics might once have laid claim to. The existence and acceptance of the books — now sickeningly available in hardcover, like bronzing a momentous bowel movement for posterity — is a scorched-earth moment in comics history from which there is no going back. And it killed my interest in superhero comics as if that had been its very intent. Perhaps, in broad strokes, it was. After all, the industry has little use for independent thinkers who question authority and call bullshit when appropriate. I was just one little comics blogger, but I’m sure I’m not the only one driven away by the horror implicit in the publication of Before Watchmen.

The thousands of dollars a year I once spent on comics will now be spent on other things. Rent. Groceries. Maybe the occasional movie. I still crave works that fire my imagination. I am as fascinated by the process of creating art as I am the art itself. Moreso, really. The mysteries of imagination seem like a puzzle too complex for human minds to ever fully decode. I can’t just watch a movie or TV show and lose myself in it, I am constantly pondering the process of its creation. There aren’t any superhero comics anymore that beg that question the way Kirby’s did, or Ditko’s, or whatever genius you think of when you think of the gods of comics creation. I do know that few walk the earth anymore. Fewer still seem to aspire to the heights those gods once reached.

Alan David Doane

Top Shelf’s Massive $3 Sale is On!

I may be crazy, but it seems to me that there are more absolute BARGAINS this year than in any of the previous Top Shelf $3 Sales. Click over to Top Shelf’s site and order as much as you want — this is the one time of year your budget won’t mind. 

Seriously, here are a few sale prices that strike me as absolutely bonkers; as in, you would have to be nuts not to buy these great comics and graphic novels at these prices:

* ALL of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, each volume is five bucks, so the whole awesome story for 15 dollars.

* Alan Moore’s Unearthing softcover — normally $29.95, just $3.00. That’s 90% off for Moore’s latest work!

* The Surrogates Owners Manual is $10.00. This was originally published at $75.00 if I recall correctly, and provides hours of intense science-fiction entertainment (and also inspired a movie).

* Eddie Campbell’s excellent The Playwright is just a buck!

There are many, many more prices, so low it’s nuts. Buy some for friends, get some great reading for yourself. Top Shelf is an advertiser on this site (and I’m grateful for that!), but I’m telling you about this sale because it’s your one chance to sample some of the greatest graphic novels of the past 15 years or so without having to worry about how you’ll make the rent or pay for groceries. Click on over, get yourself some awesome graphic novels, and sleep well knowing you’re helping one of the best publishers in the industry keep doing what they do so well. And sure, if you like, tell ‘em Trouble With Comics sent you.

Alan David Doane

Somebody Said Marvel’s “Secret Invasion” Was A Story

It isn’t a story, it’s the bare bones of an idea for a plot that a story could have been built on (but was not). What you describe (“shape-shifting aliens invaded years ago”) is what Gaines and Feldstein called “springboards,” and they kept them on 3x5 cards at EC Comics so they had a place to start. (Pro tip: a story doesn’t fit on a 3x5 card — not a multi-issue epic story, anyway.) That’s the problem with Bendis and many corporate superhero comic book “writers,” these days — they consider the job done when they have a nugget of an idea, rather than blowing it up and exploring it and revising it and making it into something well-written, professional and occasionally even memorable, like Moore, like Morrison used to do, like Gaiman and Ennis and Ellis are sometimes capable of, like Millar and Straczynski had the potential to do before they disappeared up their own asses, like Hickman and Snyder might be capable of in another five or ten years if they don’t get better-paying jobs writing even worse-reading material outside of comics. Story is what the original Image creators thought either didn’t matter or they could fake on their own. Erik Larsen faked it until he made it, the rest hired other writers, some of whom knew what they were doing, some of whom were Jeph Loeb. 


A story by definition has a beginning, middle and end, with structure and character arcs and theme and other stuff that someone who didn’t drop out of high school and then college (like me), would be better capable of mapping out. 

Story isn’t that fucking Robert McKee book, and it isn’t something you can do just because you READ that fucking book. Storytelling is a skill and an art; it’s something you can learn, but the passion to do it is something you’re born with or at least is evident very early on. It’s something, honestly, that I personally don’t have in me, but I fucking well recognize it when I see it, and Secret Invasion ain’t it. A missed opportunity? Yeah. A huge disappointment? You bet. A story? Hell, no.

— Alan David Doane

ADD on A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: Lovers’ Lane - The Hall/Mills Mystery

What else is there to say about Rick Geary’s Treasury of 19th/XXth Century Murder series, published by NBM? The series has been going on forever, every volume is a delightful and offbeat look at a genuine historical murder mystery, and Geary is probably one of the three or four most talented and accomplished North American cartoonists alive today. If sales were based on quality alone, each new volume in this series would be selling millions of copies. For surely millions of readers would enjoy this literate and visually stunning series, the overarching subject matter of which has informed untold successful movies, TV series and novels – murder.

From Cain and Abel in the Bible, to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal in comics, from Agatha Christie to Donald Westlake in prose, murder has long been probably the second-most consumed form of entertainment after pornography, and sometimes the lines are blurry between the two. Certainly both can deliver titillation and spectacular climaxes, although stories about murder can contain subtlety and nuance few works of pornography would ever aspire to. At its best, stories about murder, both fiction and non-fiction, can tell us something about ourselves and our world.

And of course, there are nearly as many ways of telling a story about a murder as there are murders themselves. But few artists have created such a powerful and engaging niche for themselves with this genre of storytelling as Rick Geary has. For as standard as many of his storytelling devices seem to come with every project he tackles, the strangeness of the stories and the sheer, unadulterated joy he takes in telling them make the Treasury of Murder series indispensible for lovers of true crime, and for aficionados of top-notch comic book storytelling. None of these volumes has ever disappointed me in any way. Whether as seemingly well-known a tale as that of Lizzie Borden or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the virtually unknown-to-me stories about The Bloody Benders, or this one, about the Lovers’ Lane murders of a man of the cloth and his mistress, Geary always delivers an astonishing amount of information. Because murder is messy and real life isn’t fiction, we don’t always find out who exactly dunnit, but I think it’s safe to say no reader has ever closed one of Geary’s murder books feeling that facts were left out, or that the whole story wasn’t told.

In this new volume, Geary introduces a bizarre murder scene and then establishes the various suspects and motivations. Given the nature of the killings, there’s little doubt that it was personal, and primarily spurred by the relationship between the two lovers. But many questions can be asked about the killer or killers, and precisely what it was about the illicit affair that made murder inevitable. As always I am most fascinated by how Geary ties in the moral standards of the day and the reaction to the world at large to both the murders and the secret events that led up to them. And, as always, I am blown away by the meticulous beauty of Geary’s artwork; though he employs many, many lines in creating the worlds in which he immerses us, never does a line feel unnecessary, extraneous or flamboyant. Somehow, every line Geary lays down, every silhouette he chooses to use, is perfectly placed to tell just precisely the story he wants to tell us, in just the manner he wants to tell it in. Few writer/artists in the history of comics have show such sustained control over their instrument, while at the same time offering up exquisitely produced comics again, and again, and again. 

Some of the books in this series leave little doubt who the perpetrator or perpetrators was or were. Some of the facts in some of the cases introduce so much doubt that Geary can only present them and ask the reader to render judgment, or not. But the delight in these books is not in the solving of a mystery, or the closing of a case. The delight in Geary’s ongoing investigations into some of the weirdest murders in history is seeing how he gathers his facts, and how he lays them out for us, and the little touches he injects along the way that add gravity, legitimacy and often whimsy to his reflections on the darkest of all human impulses.

Alan David Doane 

Seven Funnybooks That Changed How I Saw Comics

Sometime this year, and I am not exactly sure when, I passed a milestone of having read comics for forty years. The first time I remember being given a stack of comic books was at the age of six, recovering from having my tonsils out. Ice cream and comic books in the recovery room — yes, America, our health care system has really deteriorated since 1972.

Over these four decades, some comics have blurred into obscurity to me. I am pretty sure that that first stack included Spider-Man and Archie titles, but I can’t pinpoint which particular issues they might have been. I suspect the Spider-Man was an Amazing Spider-Man in the 120s, but that’s as close as I can get it.

Other comics stand out in my memory like they came out yesterday. Some because they were so good, others because they were somehow significant in some way to my development as a comics reader. Here are the most memorable of those comics.

 

* Daredevil #181 - In the 9th grade, my best friend Donny and I shared a love of comics, and there was no comic we looked forward to more every month than Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil. Miller had begun drawing the book with issue #158, really started to cook art-wise around #164, and when he took over as writer with #168 (first appearance of Elektra, true believer) Miller began a long ramp up to the explosive, apocalyptic #181. I remember the cover blurb word for word — “Bullseye vs. Elektra…One Winss. One Dies.” And for once, it wasn’t just hype.

Bullseye had bedeviled Matt Murdock since, I think, #159 (back when Roger McKenzie was still writing the book), and the climax of this issue sees the assassin murder Daredevil’s first love Elektra in as brutal and final a manner as had probably ever been depicted in a Marvel comic up to that point. Elektra’s death, brief as it was (she was resurrected in Miller and Janson’s last issue together, #191), felt much more realistic and portentous than the usual superhero comics death, and although she’s died and come back a number of times since, no one could ever hope match the visceral gut-punch Miller and Janson delivered with this issue.

Additionally, with a few decades reflection, I’ve come to believe that this issue marks Miller’s absolute peak as an artist (his peak as a writer was either Batman: Year One or Daredevil: Born Again). After this, every comic book Miller drew seemed to be an exercise in experimentalism, or just seeing how far he could get his head up his own ass (culminating in the graphically bankrupt Dark Knight Strikes Again). These days I can’t find any interest at all in anything Frank Miller is involved with, which is amazing to me when I look back to Daredevil #181 and remember how very much it seemed like a new high for comics, and certainly a signal moment for Frank Miller as a writer/artist. 

 

* New Teen Titans #1 - To say I was a huge fan of George Perez in the late 1970s and early 1980s would be a colossal understatement. The only two comic books I ever subscribed to through the mail were Avengers and Fantastic Four, both at the time being regularly drawn by Perez. So when he moved to Marvel and overhauled Teen Titans with writer Marv Wolfman, I was all over that book from the moment the preview story appeared (in DC Comics Presents, I think?), and my interest really sustained itself for a good long while — certainly through The Judas Contract, which had the somewhat shocking revelation (for a DC comic of that era) that the 50ish Deathstroke was sleeping with the 15ish Terra.

If you were the right age and reading comics, it was almost impossible not to fall in love with Claremont and Paul Smith’s Kitty Pryde, or Wolfman and Perez’s Tara Markov. The difference was, of course, that Terra was designed from the get-go to turn on the Titans, and Wolfman’s long-term planning of Terra’s story arc struck me at the time (I was in my mid-to-late teens) as extraordinarily sophisticated for a superhero comic book. When New Teen Titans split into two titles, one in the regular format and one in the Baxter Paper format, I think my interest began to wane, and by the time Perez left as artist, I was gone too.

But for quite a few years, New Teen Titans was THE monthly superhero book, stealing a lot of thunder from Marvel in the fan press and in the minds of readers. These days the books seem hopelessly overwritten and the melodrama is all a bit much, but the truth is, those comics were written for 12 year olds, and as such, they provided an exciting, seemingly more mature look at what was possible within the superhero sub-genre.

 

* Reid Fleming, The World’s Toughest Milkman #1 - “78 cents or I piss on your flowers.” If that means nothing to you, you weren’t there, and I can’t help you. Literally the funniest thing ever published in a comic book, and that line sticks with me, all these years later. David Boswell was an outsider artist creating a comic unlike any other before or since, and Reid Fleming’s world needs to be experienced by everybody, everywhere. 

 

* Uncanny X-Men #137 - My first issue of Uncanny X-Men had been the one where Mesmero brainwashed the team and turned them into carnival acts, with Magneto showing up at the end in probably the most impressive full-page panel I had yet encountered — I mean, dude looked scary. I had very little clue who most of the characters were, but I was instantly engaged by Claremont’s writing (slightly better than Wolfman’s, but certainly as wordy if not moreso) and more urgently by the artwork of John Byrne and Terry Austin.

Although the team was around a few months after #137, this double-sized issue really was the climax of the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne/Austin era, with stunning superhero battles, heartbreaking drama (I was hugely invested in Scott and Jean’s relationship, for some pathetic adolescent reason) and a sense at the end that a genuine drama had played out and a price had been paid. I was fascinated a few years later when Marvel released the original version of the story in a Baxter Paper edition (also included in Marvel Masterworks: Uncanny X-Men Vol. 5) including a roundtable discussion among the creators and then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who had demanded that Jean Grey be punished for her misdeeds as Dark Phoenix. I never get tired of re-reading such Claremont/Byrne/Austin classics as The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past, and apparently neither does Joss Whedon, who pretty much borrowed those storylines whole for his TV shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse, respectively.

 

* Thor #337 - In my early years reading comic books, it was a fascinating process to learn to discern different art styles. Gil Kane and Vince Coletta were two I learned to spot almost immediately, one because he was so dynamic and skilled, the other because he turned almost everything he touched to shit. I’ll let you guess which is which, although it should be said Coletta Thor appropriately rustic natural blah blah blah BULLSHIT oh my, God, Colletta was a horrible fucking inker.

But anyway. Walter Simonson and Howard Chaykin I noticed both about the same time, from their work on DC books, and in Simonson’s case, especially on Manhunter with writer Archie Goodwin, which, just, there’s almost no words for how good their Manhunter was. Almost the perfect comic book story, regard in its time as a classic and it has only improved with age, a claim few other series from the 1970s can claim. So by the time I heard Simonson was taking over Thor, I was ready for some gorgeous comics. What I wasn’t ready for, had no idea I’d be getting, actually, was the wit and invention Simonson brought to the writing end of his writer/artist tenure on the book.

There was buzz on #337 from the moment it hit the stands, and I can remember having to search high and low to find a copy, I think, in a drugstore somewhere in Saratoga Springs. The book sold out fast, and for the first year or so, Thor became something it had never been, the toast of superhero comics readers everywhere. Simonson is a talent that has continued to grow in his decades in comics, never soured like Frank Miller or gotten too baroque for the audience like Chaykin has sometimes managed to do. Thor #337 was a big, dividing moment in 1980s comics. There was everything before, and there was everything after. 

 

* Nexus #1 - This one came seemingly out of nowhere. I had never heard of the publisher, the writer, or the artist. Even the format — oversized, like a magazine, for the first few issues, and black and white to boot — sent a message that Nexus was not your average superhero funnybook. But for all its more mature concerns — betrayal, obligation, fascism — Nexus felt very purely like comics, in the same way Lee and Romita’s Spider-Man did, or Englehart and Rogers’s Batman. If I could go back and whisper in Baron and Rude’s ears, I would say things like “Never use a fill-in artist,” and “Never renumber the book.” If, retroactively, I could make those things happen, I probably would always have kept up with the adventures of Horatio Hellpop and his wild gang of friends and enemies and frenemies. But no, somewhere what made this book got lost, and I lost track of it, and we’re probably both the poorer for it, Nexus and I. 

 

* Cerebus #1 (Counterfeit) - This was probably the single most significant single issue of my formative comics-reading years. In one weird moment, my interest in artcomix, my fascination with the Direct Market and my love of comics in general all came together. Cerebus had been gaining in popularity for a while — I think around this time it was in the mid-20s to mid-30s numbering-wise, and everyone was reading it. There had never been anything like it. I can’t remember if the Swords of Cerebus collections had begun yet, but the early issues were going for serious cash on the back issue market. A plot was hatched by unknown conspirators who went from one northeastern U.S. comic shop to the next, telling the same story to each shop about how they had stumbled across a stash of Cerebus #1s. (I know Roger Green will correct me if I get any of the details wrong here.)

It wasn’t long before the shops realized they’d been had, that the books were fake, and they were stuck with God only knows how many copies of Cerebus #1, The Counterfeit Edition. In a move that could never, ever happen today, my local comic shop, I believe with the consent of Dave Sim, offered up the fake #1s (with signage making it clear they were fake) for, if I recall correctly, ten bucks each. Later there would be guidelines that became known so buyers could determine if a copy was real or a phony, and these days I don’t have either, but I kind of wish I had held on to my counterfeit Cerebus #1, because in all my four decades of reading comics, I think that was the strangest and most surreal incident I can recall. And also the one that really clued me in that comic shops were businesses, and businesses obviously vulnerable to fraud and wrongdoing, at that. Previously I had just thought of them as a little slice of Heaven, right here on Earth.

— Alan David Doane