INQUIRE ABOUT ADVERTISING ON TROUBLE WITH COMICS

Trouble with Comics

Ten Reasons to Read Don Heck: A Work of Art

image

1. The first controversy I remember in comics was when Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison talked in The Comics Journal about how Heck was generally recognized as the worst artist in comics. Heck was condemned as a hack. Even in my early teens, that idea baffled me. By the mid-to-late ’70s, Heck (inspired as he was by Milton Caniff, although I didn’t know it at the time or appreciate Caniff’s art like I do now) looked old-fashioned to my eyes, and certainly he wasn’t a favourite of mine, but there were many, many artists working in superhero comics who had far less appealing and individualistic styles, and whose storytelling chops were far, far worse. Don Heck: A Work of Art, by John Coates (published by TwoMorrows) puts Heck into context and his career into perspective in a way that is long overdue.

2. The book serves as kind of a complement to another well-done TwoMorrows book, The Thin Black Line: Reflections on Vince Colletta. Unlike Heck, Colletta earned his reputation as the worst inker in comics not only with his anemic, lifeless inking, but by erasing backgrounds and even entire characters from the pages and panels he inked, supposedly to save time, but (SPOILER WARNING) I think it was just because he was a lazy artist and didn’t give much of a shit most of the time. In both the Colletta book and this new one on Don Heck, we gain insight and understanding of their careers and talents. In Colletta’s case I didn’t gain any sympathy for his destructive inking technique, but in Heck’s case, I found a new appreciation for the style and consistency Heck delivered throughout his career in comics.

3. I had heard years ago that Heck had suffered some unknown tragedy that affected his artwork. I think most comics readers of a certain age had heard that rumour. This book tackles it. Read it and find out the story.

4. TwoMorrows books and magazines demonstrate great care in reproducing the artwork that is featured in them, and Don Heck: A Work of Art makes it clear that their commitment to quality reproduction has not wavered. Many of the pages reproduced are scans of the original art, and they look lush and lifelike on the page. I am mentally contrasting that with the new book featuring 75 years of Marvel Comics covers, many of which are jagged and do not appear to have been scanned at a high enough resolution for a book of such importance (and $50.00 price tag). My eyes aren’t what they used to be, but they’re still good enough (especially with my reading glasses) that I can see the care taken in the visual elements of the Heck book, a kind of care that is increasingly rare in the comics world, which is ironic given that we should be at the apex of quality reproduction given the tools at our disposal.

5. Related: There’s a pencil scan of an Iron Man sketch on page 7 that is so well-drawn and well-reproduced on the page that I want to cut it out and have it framed and hung on my wall. It’s entirely possible a fan of Heck, Marvel Comics in general or Iron Man in particular might feel they got their money’s worth with that sketch alone.

6. Page 83 has a quote from Barry Windsor-Smith about the phenomenon of artists trying to draw like Jack Kirby at Marvel in the ’60s. He shared the very same insight with me privately many years ago, and I am glad to see it in print. It puts a lot into perspective, and in the case of Heck, really sheds a light on how Heck’s talents were used (and to an extent, abused) by Marvel.

7. In the past, some TwoMorrows books have been printed on super-glossy paper that seemed not to be simpatico with the subject matter and didn’t take well to the binding process. This book is on an extraordinary matte-finish paper that is a delight to behold, and that really shows off the artwork superbly. They should stick with this paper stock, it’s a winner.

8. I am definitely a process junkie; whether it’s music, movies, novels or comics, I love to peek behind the curtain and see how it all came together. There’s a wonderful section toward the end of the book where we see page after page after page of Heck in combination with a huge variety of inkers. If you’re at all curious about how the art of comic book inking is done and how very much visual variety can stem from just one penciler, this section is a goldmine.

9. Many of the most important creators in comics who are still with us today weigh in on Heck, both as an artist and as a person. Not just BWS as I mentioned above, but Tony Isabella, John Romita Sr., Stan Lee, Joe Sinnott and many more contribute comments. There’s also a note from Steve Ditko, but that has to be seen to be believed.

10. TwoMorrows is a great resource for those interested in the history of superhero comics (I find that history more interesting than the actual superhero comics being produced today, for what it’s worth). Buy this one, and hopefully they’ll keep making more books like it. 

Alan David Doane

The publisher provided a copy for the purpose of review.

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

image

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.

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 

ADD on The Dark Knight Rises

So, The Dark Knight Rises. I had zero desire to see the movie based on the incomprehensible trailer. I had not much cared for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and felt pretty strongly that the director had failed to truly confront or address the issues he danced around in his second Batman movie, the Heath Ledger one. (Was it called The Dark Knight? I feel like it was but can’t remember for sure, and I feel like that in itself is significant in some way.) I’d spent some time evaluating reviews and deciding that Roger Ebert’s 3 and a half star review nonetheless indicated that the movie isn’t very good and doesn’t hold together well.

Oh, by the way, there will be spoilers herein.

So I had no intention at all of seeing TDKR. Then my best friend from high school, visiting from Japan, where he’s lived since the mid-1980s, says to my wife and me yesterday, “How about a movie?” The next thing I know, we are at Albany’s superb independent movie theater The Spectrum (they spell it theatre on the tickets — we were in theatre 3 in case you’re wondering) getting our tickets, me, my wife, and my best friend from high school (who was also the only person I knew in high school who read comics — we used to breathlessly discuss the wonders and merits of Miller’s Daredevil, Simonson’s Thor…but I digress).



I don’t know that it’s a smart movie — it feels quite run-of-the-mill in its intentions and execution. In their best stories, villains like Bane and Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia are motivated in the comics by fairly sophisticated ideas compared to most comic book supervillains. Bane’s drive here seems simpatico in a way with the Occupy movement, but far more violent and nihilistic, and perhaps capitalistic, since he and Selina Kyle talk about the equitable redistribution of wealth (not that they ever use that term) and the movie shows the excesses of the rich to the detriment of the poor, yet you never really get the feeling that Nolan cares much about the issue, which actually is one of the most important questions of the 21st century. He’s far more wrapped up in showing us the suffering Bruce Wayne has endured for eight years, since the death of ol’ what’s-her-name in the previous Batman movie. 

Nerdy Batman fans will inform you that Batman’s paralysis here, lovingly demonstrated through Bruce Wayne’s complete lack of knee cartilage and failure to continue funding orphanages (I wish I was kidding — and by the way, doctor, can you really walk with no cartilage in your effing knees?) demonstrate a profound failure to understand Batman as a character. But that’s understandable, since there are so few comic books about Batman. How was Nolan to know any better?

Once Catwoman starts doing her stealy thing and it quickly turns out (surprise!) she’s somehow connected to Bane (as is everyone in the universe, apparently), Bruce Wayne straps on a magic cartilage thingy on his thigh, shaves off his utterly unconvincing goatee and washes that gray right out of his hair. Then shit gets real, lots of stuff blows up, and why is Robin called John Blake? I bet someone thought that was an awesome reveal. And it might have been if he had, at some point, say, the end of the movie, come face to face with the Robin costume, say, in a big glass case. At some point costumes in the Batcave stored in big glass cases became all portentous and thrilling, so how could Nolan have dropped that particular ball?

All this is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching The Dark Knight Rises. Despite my never, ever buying into Christian Bale as Batman, despite the plot holes here and there (how did Bruce Wayne know exactly when the bomb was going to blow, upon returning from his 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness? How did he survive a nuclear explosion?), the sheer will of Nolan to end this thing, and a soundtrack that is astonishingly LOUD LOUD loud propels us to the end of the movie. And no, dear, there’s no after-credits teaser scene — that’s Marvel, honey. I know Avengers had one. No, that’s Marvel. Yes, and Amazing Spider-Man. Still Marvel. Batman’s DC. They’re different. Yes they are, believe it or not. (I was hoping for an after-credits scene with the aforementioned glass costume case revealing Robin’s duds or better yet Terry McGinnis’s, but no).

It’s more watchable than I expected. It’s longer than hell, and it’s noiser than an elephant fart to a gnat hanging on the ring of its anus, but it’s watchable and Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman always make these movies seem more important and meaningful than Nolan ever remembers to actually make them.

In the end, after three overblown and undercooked Batman movies, the only thing we’ll remember, the only thing that felt right and transcended genre, was Heath Ledger’s Joker. I hate all the goofy Batman villains like The Riddler and The Penguin and The Joker, preferring above all Ra’s Al Ghul in all his moral and ethical shades of gray. But Nolan’s Ra’s, interpreted by a poorly-chosen Liam Neeson, never did it for me. Ledger’s outsized Joker felt terrifying and awful and like chaos itself embodied in one sick, random psychopath. Ledger’s Joker made you feel something, which is the only time that happened for me at all in Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies. I like movies that make me feel things, and that honestly earn the right to make me feel those things. Maybe the next guy who directs a Batman movie will get that part of it right. Because that’s how truly classic movies, timeless storytelling, works. Nolan’s made some great and intriguing movies, and he’s also made three Batman movies, and that’s about all I can tell you.

Alan David Doane


 

David Mazzucchelli Daredevil: Born Again Artist’s Edition

There’s one page in this magnificent volume that has a caption that says something like “This single page is the only one in this book not reproduced from the original art.” It’s a cover image of reporter Ben Urich, made small in his terror, having been brutally attacked and his hand broken by an enormous, evil nurse sent by the kingpin.

Somehow the presentation of the book is made more pure by the upfront admission that one page out of so many here isn’t reproduced from the original art. “Who cares?” I thought to myself, admiring the art of that page nonetheless. “The rest of it is, and it’s incredible.”



It’s possible you weren’t there when Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli seized the reins of Daredevil after a long spell that had its ups and downs but never reached the heights Miller and artistic partner Klaus Janson reached in issues #168-181. When we (the readers) found out Miller was returning to write a few more issues starting with #227, we were disappointed Miller would not also be drawing and Janson would not be inking. That disappointment was gone by the end of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s first issue of the Born Again storyline, because it was clear that Mazzucchelli was more than up to the task of illustrating this story; it was clear that it was something he was born to do.

And Mazzucchelli had already been around a while, too, that’s the amazing thing, looking back. If you pick up the Daredevil TPB “Loves Labors Lost,” you’ll see how awkward Mazzucchelli’s art was when he first came on the title, and you’ll see how amazingly quickly he developed some serious chops. In his introduction to IDW’s Artist’s Edition of Born Again (a seven issue storyline plumbing the psychological depths of both Daredevil and his arch-enemy during Miller’s run, The Kingpin), Mazzucchelli, now long-removed from superhero drawing, reflects honestly and in detail about his skill-level in those days, who influenced him (primarily Gene Colan), how he met Miller, and what their working relationship on this masterpiece was like.

It may be heresy, but I don’t think there’s a better story ever created for Marvel Comics than Born Again. That’s why this Artist’s Edition has been so eagerly anticipated by me — as I said to my son last night, driving home from the comic shop, it’s like having every page of original art of the very best comic book ever, and I can look at it whenever I want, for the rest of my life. So IDW and David Mazzucchelli and Scott Dunbier and Chris Ryall and whoever else made this happen? I am seriously grateful for your work in making this book a reality. Thank you.

I’ll be honest and tell you, in unpacking this giant book from its cardboard box and laying it out, I didn’t re-read every word Miller wrote. Not this time, although I may in the future. But the truth is, I have read this story at least 50 times since it was originally published, and I almost know it by heart. No, seeing this Artist’s Edition for the first time, I just wanted to take in the art, and I did. A number of things stood out as I went slowly through the pages:

* The overlays. Oh, my God, the overlays. If any pre-publication publicity mentioned them, I didn’t notice it. Much of the original art had vellum overlays for the purposes of colour holds, so the images of the art for those pages was combined in layers to create a single final image. Most of the overlays, we learn in the text, have been lost. But a handful remain, apparently, and IDW faithfully reproduces the technique. So we get maybe half a dozen pages with vellum overlays, which is just an extraordinary added value, in my mind. It’s a way of deepening the sense of examining the original art, as well as allowing the reader enormous insight into both Mazzucchelli’s artistic process and the reproduction challenges of the era (the 1980s). Gorgeous.

* Individual panels always memorable in the comic book now stand revealed, uncoloured and with no veil of bad reproduction between the reader and the art. Matt Murdock sleeping in the trash, his life ruined. The flirtatious look in the eyes of Matt Murdock’s ex-girlfriend as she gets ever closer to his best friend Foggy. The rooftop meeting between Matt and Captain America. The astonishing way Mazzucchelli presented Cap, Thor and Iron Man, reminiscent of how Alan Moore and Steve Bissette and John Totleben presented the Justice League in Swamp Thing: as gods among men.

* The covers. Mazzucchelli’s design sense and ability to bring his vision to life on the page are just astonishing. His covers for Born Again were absolutely masterful. The image IDW chose for the cover of the volume, which was originally thrown away on an issue of Marvel Age (a cheesy self-promotion pamphlet Marvel was publishing in the ’80s), is my all-time favourite Daredevil illustration, and its repurposing as the cover of this volume is further proof that this book was actually, specifically designed to make me deliriously happy.

The greatest thing about the month-by-month release of Born Again in comic book form was that, like with just a few other comics in the 1980s (Moore’s Swamp Thing, Chaykin’s American Flagg, Simonson’s Thor, Los Bros Hernandez’s Love and Rockets), we knew, at the time, how very lucky we were to be getting regular fixes of such incredible comics. Comics that elevated and transcended the industry that they came out of. Comics that changed minds and altered lives and set destinies. People became writers and artists and retailers and critics because they were so mesmerized by the quality and the level of entertainment that they experienced — take it from me, I was just barely an adult when Born Again was originally published, and I had no idea at all that a superhero comic book story could be so good, could reward so many re-readings. After Born Again, I wondered why they all couldn’t achieve their goals so easily, so wonderfully. 

Decades on, I realize that it takes a hugely unlikely intersection of talent, ambition, opportunity and luck to make comics as memorable and unique as Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. It is given its best possible presentation in IDW’s new Artist’s Edition, made new again by letting us see and feel what Miller and Mazzucchelli accomplished in the most intimate and immediate manner imaginable. Yes, one single page is not reproduced from the original art. Who cares? The rest of it is, and it is incredible.

Alan David Doane 

ADD Reviews Greg Rucka’s Alpha

Greg Rucka’s gifted comics writing, which brought believability and drama to titles as diverse as Queen and Country and Gotham Central, led me to give his prose writing a try. I think I started with the Queen and Country novels, which were very well written and a nice addition to the mythology created in the comics; but it was with the Atticus Kodiak series of novels that my appreciation for Rucka’s writing found its firmest footing.

Kodiak begins his long character arc in the earliest novels as a the head of a bodyguard agency; over the course of the series his life takes one incredible turn after another, so much so that the only thing tying together his character between the first and the most recent novels is Rucka’s ability to gain and keep the reader’s confidence and investment through passionate but practical writing and what must be mountains of research.

The skill and storytelling style Rucka brought to the Kodiak novels is right upfront in his new novel Alpha, the beginning of what will be at least a trio of novels about Jad Bell, a former soldier who in this first volume finds himself placed at a prominent amusement park ahead of a possible terrorist attack on the park. Thinking about it, the events of September 11, 2001 would have been as effective, if not more so, if one of the targets had been Disney World — the emotional toll (and likely the death toll) would have probably been far higher even than the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s a horrific scenario that Rucka dives right into, humanizing it through the point of view of his protagonist Bell, and also Bell’s deafmute daughter and even the sleeper agent tasked with carrying out the attack.

We get right into the heads of these characters, and feel the tension, terror and call to action that arises out of the plot against the park, which may or may not be what it seems to be. Along the way we get a feel for what a soldier like Bell must go through, what motivates him and what he endures to save those he is charged with protecting. Rucka makes what could have been purely political highly personal, so that every setback, and every resulting action, feels logical and sensible, no matter how dangerous or incredible.

I recently mentioned on Twitter that after Donald Westlake’s Parker, Atticus Kodiak was probably my favourite continuing character in prose fiction. I’d say Joe Ledger from Jonathan Maberry’s novels is up there, too. And after devouring Greg Rucka’s Alpha, there’s a good chance Jad Bell will nose his way into that exclusive club pretty soon, too.

Alan David Doane

We Do Annual

When I was growing up, in the ’70s and ’80s, the superhero comic annual was generally a big, stand-alone story, often by the same creative team as the monthly comic, or maybe the same writer and an even better artist who didn’t draw monthly books much anymore (Michael Golden, Jim Starlin). Guys like John Byrne and Frank Miller did quite a few annuals when they were coming up, and some after they were big names. 

The late ’80s and ’90s brought themed annuals, where a story would wind its way across the annuals of several titles, something like Atlantis Attacks for Marvel, or DC’s Legends of the Dead Earth. You could get some really nice work, or you could get guys who really weren’t good enough for the major leagues and might disappear soon after. As popular characters received spinoff series, and done-in-one stories became one-shots or graphic novels, the annual fell out of fashion. 

For whatever reason, it looks like Marvel and DC are trying some annuals again, though how widespread an effort remains to be seen.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #39

Writer: Brian Reed

Artist: Lee Garbett

Marvel Comics $4.99 USD

This one falls into the “not the regular team” category. Neither Reed nor Garbett are newcomers, but neither has a regular monthly gig. Reed takes this opportunity to spin off a story from something Dan Slott wrote in the regular book months ago, where Peter Parker’s Horizon Labs coworker creates a time machine that almost leads to the destruction of New York. Here, in one moment of that story, this same invention leads to Peter being removed from time itself. This leads to flashbacks to his childhood and high school days, where he’s still somehow aware of his adult self, even as he goes through the current, altered timeline, seeing how in many ways, things have turned out better without him in the world. Mary Jane is a big star. Norman Osborn, not having Spider-Man to haunt his thoughts, has cured cancer. And Uncle Ben is still alive and living in the same house in Forest Hills, Queens. 

Meanwhile, the Avengers are tracking down the source of these chronal disturbances, mainly just to get some costumed heroes into the book, since Peter never has a reason to become Spider-Man. Garbett delivers pleasant but thoroughly average work, though in his defense, there isn’t anything exciting to draw here. The scenes between adult Peter and a proud Uncle Ben are sweet, and probably worth the price for some, but Reed’s story is sorely lacking in suspense and complications. Without any real effort, Peter just kind of walks through these episodes, which seems to gradually return things back to normal, even though it’s his presence that caused the problem in the first place. 

Batman (vol. 2) Annual #1

Writer: Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV

Art: Jason Fabok

DC Comics $4.99 USD

Scott Snyder, regular Batman scribe, co-writes this one with his former Sarah Lawrence student, James Tynion IV, who will also be co-writing some backups for the regular book. Unfortunately, while that’s a nice human interest story, the actual results in this annual are rather drab and, like most annuals, quite unnecessary. 

Bearing the “Night of the Owls” banner on the top, and yes, a couple owls on the generic cover for dubious reasons, this extra-long tale actually has little to do with the ongoing Owls story. That would be fine, as I’m already getting tired of it, but Snyder and Tynion sure don’t have a double-length story worth telling here. The connection to “Night of the Owls” is that Mr. Freeze created the serum that makes Owl assassins able to be revived after they seem to die. We meet Freeze as he makes his escape from Arkham. Fortunately, despite what one would think are stringent hiring protocols and training on safe patient handling, we get a couple cruel, stupid guards who make this escape easy. Freeze wants to get his beloved, frozen wife Nora back, so that he may yet cure her. 

Jason Fabok, whose work is new to me, does a fine if undistinguished job. As with Garbett’s work above, nothing really stands out in terms of style or storytelling choices. It’s very typical DC fodder.

Nightwing and Robin try to stop Freeze, while we get several page-burning flashbacks to Victor Fries’ childhood and then his time working in a Wayne Industries lab. Snyder/Tynion engineer things so that Bruce Wayne comes off rather heartless in his shutting down Fries’ attempts to cure Nora, therefore justifying Fries’ craving for vengeance. And it should surprise no one who has read two comics written by Snyder that the childhood flashback features a parent saying or doing something that has a monumental impact on the child’s future. Often, it’s just an anecdote, something a father said once that ties perfectly into the events of today, but in this case it’s young Victor, who always loved Winter, seeing his dear mother fall through the ice on the frozen lake. Look, canon may have saddled the writers with the corny coincidence that Mr. Freeze’s real last name is Fries, but that doesn’t mean you have to come up with a pivotal moment that involves ice. 

Like an icicle falling from the rain gutter to the driveway below, Snyder and Tynion demolish the only pathos-evoking element of Mr. Freeze: his deep love for, and relentless efforts to cure, his wife, Nora. Turns out, Nora was just an frozen research project—like a fetal pig in a jar—from the ’40s that Fries wrote his thesis on. He never met her, she’s old enough to be his grandmother, and so his love is false and insane. That’s colder than a gravedigger’s ass, as my father once said, which led to my becoming a sexton. Somehow this results in a story both forgettable and yet risible.

—Christopher Allen

Jack Kirby’s Spirit World

Written by Jack Kirby, Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman

Art by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer

DC Comics $39.99 USD

It’s true; the majority of Jack Kirby’s significant work is now in print, enough to treasure and learn from and make an educated evaluation of a career. But the man was about the most prolific cartoonist in the history of the industry, and there are still some things worth checking out. Just out of the reprint pipeline is Spirit World, a fairly lavish hardcover collecting the sole issue of a halfhearted attempt by DC comics in the early ’70s to explore the magazine market that was beginning to take market share away from them, with college-age consumers moving from comics to things like National Lampoon and Creepy

A visionary in more ways than one, if not a particularly good businessman, Kirby saw the future, or a possible future, and got DC to sign off on his idea of a whole new line of magazines targeting this young adult demographic, but DC not only limited the line to a couple magazines, they cut the format from glossy color to black-and-white newsprint, and only ended up printing one issue of Spirit World and In the Days of the Mob before calling it quits. It wouldn’t be fair to say, “cutting their losses”, because they canceled both titles before sales figures were even in, and made little attempt to push the unconventional product through their usual distribution channels.

In the Days of the Mob was Kirby’s return to crime comics, and one would expect that will be collected before long, but Spirit World tells stories of the occult, all introduced by one bearded paranormal researcher Dr. Alden Maas. It’s a framing device not unlike Rod Serling’s Night Gallery or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a reassuring presence tying the disparate, done-in-one supernatural stories together. 

The first and only issue looks quite a bit like a Warren publication, with a painted cover (Neal Adams was called in to redo Kirby’s effort, another sign of no confidence in the King) and hysterical Table of Contents. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the issue wasn’t originally published with indigo ink in place of black the way it is here. It sets it slightly apart from most comics; not a brilliant choice but not a bad one. The first story, “The President Must Die!” involves precognition (oddly and helpfully, the Table of Contents lists the story title on the left and the theme on the right), with an anguished woman making predictions she has trouble getting people to believe. It’s a decent setup, with nice washes on Kirby’s art, but it’s too short and resolves unsatisfactorily, and the brevity seems to prevent Kirby from taking chances on the storytelling, relying on simple grids, although it should be noted the first page of the story is an awkward fumetti starring assistant editor Steve Sherman’s mother as a woman who displays panic in a sedan by cradling her head in her hands.

"House of Horror!" has a much more effective, unsettling collage splash page, and it’s the one story that really gives Dr. Maas an active role, although in the typical, "spend a night in a supposedly haunted house to prove it’s bunk" scenario. Kirby provides some fairly spooky, shadowy figures and unusual textures (a ghost’s encrusted mallet, a seething blob of demonic goo), but even in this more restrained, nothing jumping out of the panel style, Kirby seems by and large to be too much of a dynamic, in-your-face artist to effectively sell supernatural stories. There’s just not enough shadow and suggestion here to create mood or make the reader fill in the blanks from the depths of their subconscious fears, though it’s certainly attractive work.

"Children of the Flaming Wheel" is a silly but charming fumetti with a pretty Native American woman in a vinyl singlet attempting to impart the wisdom of the ancients to a guy with a mustache. It’s probably no worse an attempt by a middle-aged publishing veteran to pander to the hippie market than a lot of what was on the stands at the time.

"The Screaming Woman" is a better effort, though also pandering, a story of reincarnation that finds Kirby in the rare position of accentuating cleavage and side-boob shots of a young woman who is possessed by or the reincarnation of a Spanish peasant who lived hundreds of years before her. It doesn’t feel like Kirby is exactly in his element, but it does represent some of his sexiest depictions of women.

"Spirit of Vengeance" is a text story written by Evanier and Sherman, an okay two page filler that would’t have passed muster for most fiction magazines but did the job for a glorified comic book. Then we have a nice-looking but ineffectual Kirby comics bio of Nostradamus to end his contribution to the issue, followed by a one page Sergio Aragones gag strip ported over from stuff he was doing at the time for DC books like House of Mystery and Plop!

That’s the entirety of Spirit World as published, but the collection then features two pages of explanatory material by Evanier, followed by the remaining four stories prepared for the aborted second issue, which were subsequently published in the DC books, Weird Mystery Tales and Dark Mansion. These are in normal black-and-white.

"Horoscope Phenomenon or Witch Queen of Ancient Sumeria" is rather inert nonsense based on Kirby drawing zodiac-derived characters, but features some of the strongest art in the book, starring a sea witch who’s all swirly metallic surface—think Karnilla the Norse Queen with fins and, for some reason, a telephone she lifts out of the brine. 

Another dull Dr. Maas intro needlessly delays the awesome “Toxl the World Killer”, an emphatic but confused ecology parable that thankfully features plenty of scenes of rough barbarians and their dancing girl entourage beating up on callow, sophisticated polluters and exploiters. Is it irony that the hero ends up destroying everything when he tries to stop the polluters, and his name is Toxl? I doubt Kirby thought about it for long, so why should we?

"The Burners" feels like Kirby read and article, or someone suggested, something about spontaneous combustion, and Kirby did a little research and then knocked out a story about it. If the book was called Gyro World, he could probably have done a similarly attractive, pointless story about a Greek family cooking lamb on a spit, and it would have been about as close to his own personal themes and interests. One could call it professional work based only on the visual presentation; there’s no real story here.

We finish up with “The Psychic Bloodhound”, which is at least a story, and not a bad one, about a psychic frequently called upon by the police. A loose cannon cop calls the psychic in to help find a kidnapper before he kills a girl, and aside from the kidnapper’s Central Casting Brooklyn dialect (“Dis goil will be pushin’ up da daisies!” type stuff), it actually has more suspense to it than most of the other stories.

It’s a Kirby Kuriosity, a long-awaited look at a book fabled for being one of many things DC screwed Kirby over on. To be fair, we will never know what might have resulted had DC been fully supportive of the title in terms of funding Kirby’s production ideas, or letting him have a few issues to settle in to something rather new to a veteran cartoonist who had spent decades producing comics, not magazines. But the truncated results here suggest that, while Kirby could still produce stunning images and an interesting idea or two, whatever the genre, he was not well suited to the project or at least not quite sure what to do right out of the gate.

As for the production, unlike the various Kirby Omnibuses of the past several years, this one is on thicker, nicer paper, not newsprint. There are some odd design choices (hot pink end papers but a rust colored title page don’t really go together, and the use of intentionally grainy b&w extracts from panels cheapens the presentation. It’s still a pretty nice book, but since it only adds up to about three comics, $40 is too much, and in all honesty DC should have lumped this in with In the Days of the Mob and the abortive Soul Love romance comic material, for the same price. Find it on sale or used.

—Christopher Allen

Guest Review: Aaron Doane on Prototype 2

I’m not a gamer, but I live with one. I recently received a review copy of Prototype 2 for the XBox 360, and passed it along to my son Aaron for his evaluation. Short version, he loved it. Longer version below. — Alan David Doane


Me personally, I am a huge fan of the prototype series. The second game is a lot like the first but with enhanced graphics and new abilities for you to, as they say, “rip, tear, smash and consume.”

With the “RADNET EDITION” you now have a chance to unlock avatar items such as the Alex Mercer hoodie or Sgt. James Heller’s coat. It has something for everybody, since 
if you don’t like the missions, you can just do the free roam where you can consume people for disguises, attack military bases, do the side missions of hunting down and consuming your target (usually a scientist doing tests on human targets that you have to stop). The new black hole attack is fantastic. You hit somebody with tendrils and grab items from around him and bring them in to crush him.

— Aaron Doane 


 

Prophet #21

Writer - Brandon Graham

Artist - Simon Roy

Publisher - Image Comics/Extreme. $3.99

I’m old enough to remember the two months that Rob Liefeld’s Prophet was relevant. Without doing any research (both laziness and in support of not supporting SOPA/PIPA), I think it was about issue #7 or 8, when the original creative team abandoned the book to a flash-in-the-pan artist, Stephen Platt, who had some major flaws but had an appealing style that was kind of a more compact Todd McFarlane. I went along with the crowd and got the book without having to pay much more than cover price, liked the art but not the story, and then waited for the next issue, which I think took over a month to arrive, and when it did, I don’t think Platt did all the work. And before too long, he was gone on to other things, and really has had very little comics work since. The series apparently made it to issue #20, but not many people really cared by that time (though in today’s numbers, it probably would be a big hit).

Say what you want about Liefeld, but he’s not an idiot, and he’s always been one to pay others to pump some life into his failing, failed or forgotten creations, be it Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Kurt Busiek, and so on. This time it’s Brandon (King City) Graham, writing, joined by Simon (Jan’s Atomic Heart) Roy on art. 

Is the book any good? Yes, and the good news is that one need not have any prior knowledge of time-lost super soldier John Prophet, and it probably helps if you don’t. Numbering aside, this is written like a first issue, and I give Liefeld and editor Eric Stephenson credit for letting Graham do what he wants here, which is to thrust Prophet into a weird world of multi-jawed monsters to kill and consume and other natives who want to kill, fuck, parley or perform surgery on him. It’s a dense issue, and Roy and colorist John Ballermann are up to the task of creating this strange, savage world. 

I’ve already seen folks calling the book brilliant, but I think we may want to pump the brakes a bit there. Graham does have a unique vision and bless him for wanting to cram a lot into the issue, but he does overload the reader a bit with all the alien names, and with an omniscient narration that actually feels kind of lazy to me. I’d prefer to find more of this out through dialogue between Prophet and the creatures he meets, as well as having Prophet make observations in his own voice, so we can get to know him better. 

Reading this issue, as well as seeing the news that Joe Casey and Nathan Fox are the new creative team on other Image series, Haunt, makes me a little bummed that talented creators like these are still being convinced to expend their energies trying to prop up or revived crappy comics somebody else owns, but hey, it’s their call to make. If someone’s going to do work-for-hire, as a consumer I still want them to put their best effort into it, and although this first issue has some flaws, it’s clear Graham and Roy are invested in the work and there’s some good potential here.

Christopher Allen