Happy Birthday to the King


Kirby

Jack Kirby, the man who tops my very short list of contenders for Greatest Funnybook Artist of All Time, would have been 98 years old today. And though I’m still technically on a blog vacation, I couldn’t let the occasion pass without celebrating. So here’s a bunch of my favorite Kirby art. Click it to embig– Actually, no. Scratch that.

Click to make ’em KING-SIZED!!

click to embig-- actually, no. Click to make KING-SIZED!!!

embiggen

Kirby Fantastic Four 51

Kirby - Satan's Six 2

Kirby Spirit World

Kirby Presence Black

...for what it's worth...

Kirby OMAC 1 Lila

click to embiggen

Kirby - Losers

Kirby - Your Brain on Kirby

Kirby - X-51

Kirby - Wham

Kirby - Tiger Force

Kirby - Screams

Kirby - Oof

Kirby - Dream Machine

Kirby - Granny

click to embiggen

Kirby - Self-Portrait

I’ve always read that Kirby turned in that last picture when asked for a self-portrait. Which, if so, is pretty great. “The Thing in a Beatle wig” pretty well sums up where Kirby’s head was at as he was creating the Fourth World, and the psychedelic, youth-positive characters within. But, still. Since we opened with an actual photograph of the youthful Kirby, we should probably finish with one of the elder Kirby, every bit as proud, but maybe just a tiny bit wiser…

...the Funnybook DaVinci, if you will...

Happy birthday, King! There’ll never be another like you!

 

Gone Fishin’


As happens from time to time, real life is getting in the way of me getting my writing done. I’ve been struggling to keep the schedule up of late, and something’s got to give. So I’m going to take a week or two off, recharge the batteries, and come back strong in September.

But in the meantime, I thought I’d leave you with the greatest moment in funnybook history. Way back in Fantastic Four #5, Dr. Doom (in his first appearance) sends the FF back in time to steal Blackbeard’s treasure for him. Through a series of events too complicated to explain tonight, the Thing winds up in a sort of pirate drag, and well…

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… THINGBEARD!

Thingbeard

Blood, Lust, and Realpolitik: In Gods and Monsters, the Justice League Grows Up


This week, a rarity: a review of one of them newfangled moving picture shows!

Justice League: Gods and Monsters

So, yeah. We don’t talk about movies much here on the nerd farm, and funnybook movies even less. I’ve covered my reasons for that before, so I won’t go into it again here. One thing I haven’t talked much about, though, is the recent spate of direct-to-video animated movies DC Comics has been putting out. I’ve sampled one or two of them, and to be honest haven’t really cared for them all that much. What I’ve seen hasn’t been awful, certainly, but they definitely lack spark. Even when they adapt comics I love, they tend to be bland. Safe. Aggressively average. I am, generally, not a fan.

That said, I watched Gods and Monsters without a second thought. Why? Well, mostly because it marks the return of Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, two of the men who guided the development of the excellent Batman and Superman cartoons of the 1990s. The only thing that could have made this more of a sure thing for me is if they’d also gotten Paul Dini back for it. His scripts were always better than Burnett’s. Tighter, punchier, and more inventive. But Burnett always turned in good work, too. The shows those three worked on had what DC’s more recent efforts have lacked: intelligence, vision, and style. The trailers for this promised something similar, coupled with what they were billing as a more adult tone.

And they didn’t lie. Gods and Monsters will look and feel very familiar to anyone who knows this team’s previous work. It’s got a similar sense of design…

(seen here in the hands of Darwyn Cooke)

(seen here in the hands of Darwyn Cooke)

…a similar approach to character development, even a similar way of constructing a plot. Which is all to the good. It’s an effective way to tell super hero stories, one that accentuates the fantastic and knows how to wring drama from a situation without resorting to histrionics and cheap melodrama. But beneath all that lies a more complex morality, and a tone that manages to go pretty dark without being pointlessly grim. It’s an alternate reality tale, featuring heroes who are sort of dark mirrors to the ones we’re familiar with. To whit…

Batman is a vampire.

Gods and Monsters Batman

Wonder Woman is a warrior princess who has a sword and does not hesitate to use it.

Gods and Monsters Wonder Woman

And Superman…

Gods and Monsters Superman

…is the son of General Zod. He’s also, by far, the most compelling figure in the movie. If you want to get a taste of what he’s like, check out the short prequel film they released as an on-line teaser:

Guh. That’s about as dark as this project gets, but even there it’s darkness in service to character and plot. This is a Superman willing to kill a weeping child to save Metropolis, but it’s something he does only with great regret, deep sadness, and (I think it’s incredibly important to point out) the consent of his victim. That kid knows exactly what’s about to happen, and he faces his fate with stunning bravery. That’s moving, even epic, stuff, and it defines this Superman about as well as anything could. He’s definitely heroic, a classic good guy who helps people and saves lives. But there’s a certain cold realism to his world-view, an edge of cruelty and arrogance you can see on his face. There’s a reason he makes the authorities nervous enough that they’re creating monsters to fight him, and it’s not entirely paranoia. That mix of heroism and arrogance, selflessness coupled with a belief that he knows what’s best for the world, makes this Superman absolutely fascinating.

Our other two heroes follow in his conflicted footsteps, but they can’t quite measure up. Batman is ultimately a little too emo, a wounded soul who comes off as emotionless except when dealing with an unrequited love. He’s given a lot to do, but I never find him very interesting, and his origin story is so similar to that of the Spider-Man villain Morbius that I never take him completely seriously. His prequel short kind of bears that out, too:

It’s not horrible. I like the black comedy of it, at least, even though I’m never a fan of “Sexploitation Harley.” But of the three, it seems the most pointless, and does the least to really define the hero. But maybe that’s fitting in this case. Batman’s cold, distant exterior conceals… nothing much that I find very interesting.

Wonder Woman, meanwhile, is a fun character with a great surprise in her origins, but she never quite gets the development the other two do. She is a lot of fun to watch, though, for reasons that are also pretty well-illustrated in the prequel short they made for her:

I like that. I could dig on a sexually-liberated Wonder Woman who also likes a good fight. I wouldn’t at all mind seeing a whole solo series done in that spirit. But she’s given too little to do in the film, and so she doesn’t seem quite as important as her male companions. Typical. Fuck the patriarchy, and all that. But speaking of the film itself…

There is a larger plot to Gods and Monsters, but I don’t want to spoil it here. All I’ll say is that it slowly turns into a super hero murder mystery, with the Justice League as the prime suspects. There are Easter Eggs galore, though, with names popping up all over that will be familiar to anyone who knows their funnybooks. My favorite of these is probably Lex Luthor, here a reclusive scientist confined to a floating chair like some kind of sci-fi Stephen Hawking.

Gods and Monsters Luthor

He sits (no pun intended) at the center of the film’s mystery, conspicuous by his absence much of the time, but with connections to seemingly everything. He’s by far not the only suspect, but he might be the most tantalizing.

But now I’m saying too much. The mystery isn’t really the primary draw to me, anyway. It’s that dark mirror I was talking about earlier, the film’s presentation and development of these more complicated heroes. This is a Justice League that plays at politics and PR, one to whom image is as important a tool as anything else. As Superman tries to manipulate Lois Lane into giving the team some good press, I’m left to wonder… Is that will to power genetic? Is he fated to be his father’s son? Or did he learn that here on Earth? Those are the questions that really drive Gods and Monsters, the ones that make it interesting, and raise it above the level of your average funnybook cartoon. It’s far from a perfect film, but it’s good, and well-worth a watch.

Grade: B+

Heroes, Mad Dogs, and Presidents: Ted Cruz Talks Spandex


So we don’t talk politics much here on the nerd farm. Seems kind of outside our mission statement. But this past week, a bit of political news hit that seemed more in our line: Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz gave reporters a list of his five favorite super heroes. For the most part, it’s a pretty standard list: Spider-Man, Wolverine, Batman and Iron Man are all on it, and that’s just fine. Fun facts, and all that. But at number five on the list is a surprising character:

Gibbons Rorschach

That is, of course, Rorschach, one of the heroes of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. And he is a fascinating choice. For one thing, I’m mildly stunned that a mainstream political figure actually knows who Rorschach is. Even after a quarter-century on the bestseller list and a major motion picture, Watchmen is not a book I expect to come up in answers to fluffy pop culture softball questions from a national political campaign. But Cruz is a self-avowed comics and sci-fi buff, so I guess he’s proving his bona-fides here. Still, though…

Rorschach Close-Up

This has caused a bit of a stir in some circles. Some have argued that Rorschach isn’t a hero at all, but a madman. A vigilante driven off the deep end by the horrors he’s seen. And it’s hard to argue against that perspective. This is, after all, a character we’re introduced to with this bit of dark poetry:

Dog carcass in alley this morning,
Tire tread on burst stomach.
This city is afraid of me.
I have seen its true face.

And this, as he marches dispassionately through a pool of human blood, carrying a picket sign that reads “The End is Nigh.”

Rorschach Sign

As we get to know him further, we learn that he often speaks in compact, broken sentences, devoid of extraneous details like definite articles, and that he routinely brutalizes (read: kills and maims) criminal informants.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

His responses to the ink blot test from which he takes his name are harrowing enough to drive his psychiatrist into a deep depression.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

And he views his mask as his real face.

Rorschach Face

The guy’s batshit. Completely bonkers. But if you’re arguing that he’s not at the same time a hero, you’re being disingenuous. Rorschach’s filled with heroic qualities. And in a different narrative, one not so hell-bent on examining the dark side of heroism, he would be the clear-cut protagonist. He’s got an epic tenacity about him, an unstoppable drive to serve the greater good, no matter what.

Rorschach Compromise

It’s this mono-maniacal drive for truth, justice, and (yes) the American Way that leads him to dig into the Comedian’s death when no one else will. He also goes to great lengths to warn his former allies, lest one of them become the next victim. And, again, in a more traditional heroic narrative, their refusal to listen to him would mark them as fools and villains. But at the heart of it all, even in this story, it’s Rorschach’s unyielding moral center, the quality that drives him to pursue the truth with reckless bravery, that truly makes him a hero.

Of course, it’s also what makes him crazy. Or part of what makes him crazy, at least. That whole “face” thing is a pretty clear indication, as well. But that moral certainty, that utter lack of doubt, marks him just as clearly. Of course, I’m sure that’s also a big part of his appeal to Cruz. “Compromise” has become a dirty word at Cruz’s end of the political right wing, and Rorschach is about as uncompromising a right-wing hero as you could ask for. I mean, he says as much:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

But I think his appeal to Cruz goes much deeper. Let’s go back to that first journal entry again, for instance, from the very first page of Watchmen:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Crazy, yes. But there’s a certainty to it, a steadfast belief, that’s got to appeal to a guy like Cruz. Plus, all that stuff about “a day’s work for a day’s pay,” and the blasting of the “liberals and intellectuals” sounds like a crazy person’s version of Cruz’s own platforms. Also, get this:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Snicker. Now, it’s certainly funny to think that Cruz is all about some “American Love.” But it’s also a little unfair. Even considering the man’s stance on gay marriage and a raft of other social/sexual issues, I wouldn’t want to seriously suggest he’s that square. Rorschach, again, is just in the crazy person section of the same ballpark.

I do like the coda to the American Love speech, though. It puts those extreme moral stances in perspective, grounds them. Reminds us that, crazy and oppressive as some of this stuff might sound, it grows out of positive roots. “Nothing is hopeless. Not while there’s life.” That’s a lovely sentiment. Makes me want to call Rorschach one of MY favorite super heroes, too.

Of course, then I remember how and why he dies, and at that point…

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

…not so much.

It’s not that I think he’s wrong, exactly. He’s not. Veidt’s plan is monstrous. He may have pulled the human race back from the brink of armageddon, but the way he’s done it is morally reprehensible. And there’s a part of me that agrees with Rorschach even as the rest of me understands that it’s too late to do anything but go along with it. Now, that moral quagmire is great stuff. It’s one of the things that makes Watchmen a work of literary merit, and Rorschach a great character. But if we’re talking favorite super heroes…

…we’re talking about pop culture icons that resonate with us personally. Characters we admire or identify with, characters we remember fondly from childhood, or think are really cool. And, not to take this thing too seriously, but… If that’s something Cruz can honestly say about Rorschach?

Well, I wasn’t planning to vote for the guy, anyway…

Better Doesn’t Mean Good: Revisiting David Finch’s Wonder Woman


So back last February, when it was announced that David Finch would be taking over the Wonder Woman comic after the innovative, feminist run of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, I wrote a short rant bemoaning the choice. You can read that rant HERE, but essentially I took Finch to task for his past hyper-sexualized Wonder Woman. I did say that the book could turn out different once it hit the stands, but mostly I just ranted. Well, Finch has been on the book for six months now, so I thought I should revisit it and see how it turned out.

Initially, he pretty much gave us the Battle Barbie I was expecting:

Finch Wonder Woman 36

Better than many of his past efforts, I’ll grant you, and probably reflective of the backlash some of that earlier work had earned him. I was far from the only, or the loudest, voice lambasting sex object Wonder Woman, of course. That debate has been heating up message boards for years now, and it seems to have had some small impact. Finch gave her a bit of muscle tone up there, at least. And he didn’t twist her around so we could see both her boobs and her butt at the same time. Also, there’s a refreshing absence of crotch-gap. But it’s still a far cry from the distinctive profile and bad-ass poses Cliff Chiang delivered in his run:

Chiang Wonder Woman 2

That ain’t no crotch-gap. That’s heroic wide stance! Straight outta Kirby, bitches!

There’s really no comparison, I don’t think. Chiang established a nice warrior woman look for the character, and Finch came out of the gate still drawing her like a swimsuit model. Now, though, he’s gone and changed her costume, and his overall artistic approach:

Finch Wonder Woman 41

So I guess that’s better. She’s showing no skin at all now, and she’s got a loin cloth thing that covers both her crotch AND her ass. So many of the worst offenses of sexist funnybook imagery are rendered null and void by this costume that I can’t believe DC Comics actually approved it. Even the pose and the anatomy are better on that cover. I am well and truly stunned, and feel I must retract my earlier cynical dismissal.

But not all of it. Because, as I said in the title, “better” doesn’t mean “good.” That face is still pretty terrible, for instance, a lifeless doll-like mask that betrays not one whit of personality. I mean, what’s that expression supposed to convey, anyway? Empty-headed confusion? Because that’s all I get out of it. And though the pose is certainly better than the swimsuit crap he was referencing before, it’s also pretty bland. It’s drawn from a dynamic angle, I suppose, but like the face, it does nothing to make Wonder Woman look like a character I want to read about.

It might help to look at a couple more Cliff Chiang Wonder Woman drawings to demonstrate why I’m so disappointed. First, a detail from the cover of issue 23:

Chiang Wonder Woman 23

(click to embiggen)

That’s worlds better. That’s a Wonder Woman who’s a total bad-ass, and also sexy without being exploitive. I mean, you’ve got the whipping hair, the cocked hips… She could be sashaying down the runway. But that face is fierce! And even if she wasn’t toting two battle axes as she walks out of the mouth of a giant bearded skeleton, her body language would still tell you she ain’t somebody to mess with. Boo-yah.

Now, check out this fight scene:

Chiang Wonder Woman Swagger

I can tell volumes about her character there, just by looking at her. That’s a woman who knows how to fight, and carries herself with an effortless warrior swagger. She’s as distinctive in her look and attitude as any male character, and a far better feminist hero than what Finch is giving us. Even if she’s not wearing any pants.

And that’s why the new Finch version still rubs me the wrong way: in its attempts to be less sexist, it actually diminishes the character from what she was in the run that immediately preceded it. And that extends right down to the writing, which is now being handled by Meredith Finch (David’s wife). She’s not awful at it, but she ain’t great, either. It reads like bog-standard modern super hero funnybooks: passable but uninteresting stuff without much to recommend it to anyone. But her rationale for why Wonder Woman’s changing her costume really strikes me as disingenuous:

Finch Wonder Woman Armor

(click to embiggen)

Oy. While that need to prove herself was certainly built into the Azzarello/Chiang run, it just doesn’t play in the grand scheme of things. I mean, who looks more like she’s ready to be a warrior queen? The chick standing blandly in her new thigh-highs and shoulder pads, or that bad-ass bitch holding the torch?

And that’s not even getting into the new costume itself. While I wouldn’t call it ugly, exactly, I would say that it’s too busy, combining too many elements that don’t work well together. Lose the shoulder pads and the kinky boots, and you’re onto something. You could probably lose the loin cloth, as well. Once again, I’d point to Chiang:

Chiang Wonder Woman 1

That’s the look she was supposed to have when the New 52 launched four years ago, before DC panicked in response to fanboy outrage over the pants. And, honestly… That’s a good, streamlined look. It honors the classic costume while getting rid of its more sexist elements. Of course, as Azzarello and Chiang proved for 35 issues, it’s really as much about how you choose to present the character as it is what she’s wearing.

So there you go. The Finches’ Wonder Woman isn’t nearly as bad as I feared it might be. But it ain’t good, either. They are to be applauded for trying to make the character less sexist. But now it would be nice if they could make her as entertainingly feminist as she was in the run that preceded them.

Funnybooks in Brief


So it’s one of those weeks.

Bit of a time crunch, and my brain’s been insisting I write fiction instead of non. So this is gonna be quick. Ultra-mega-seriously-to-the-point quick. Which is a shame, because I read some very nice funnybooks this week.

Like the haunting Russian Olive to Red King, the new OGN from Kathryn & Stuart Immonen. It came out a couple of weeks ago, but I just got around to reading it this past weekend, and man. MAN. This is the Immonens’ best work, a meditation on love and isolation. Understated, sad, and beautiful.

Also, there was the second issue of Alan Moore’s Providence. It’s not as good as the first, but it makes up for that with sheer weirdness.

Burrows Providence 2

Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey’s Injection came around for its third issue, which may be my favorite to date. Ellis has been playing it cagey with what this book’s actually about, but this issue seems to establish that we may be dealing with some sort of quantum consciousness that’s playing at being Old English faerie folk. Or… Maybe the faerie folk were there all along, and we’re only just now coming to understand what they really are. Or… Hmm. Maybe it’s not so clear, after all. It is absolutely gorgeous, though:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

(If you want to read more about it, this really quite excellent piece at Pop Matters is far better than anything I might have said: http://www.popmatters.com/feature/195323-whats-at-stake-with-warren-elliss-injection/)

We also got the fourth and final issue of Eric Powell and Tim Weisch’s Big Man Plans, which… Holy crap. HOLY crap. I’m not sure where I was expecting this book to go, but it wasn’t here. This is some bleak stuff. The over-the-top ultra-violence of the previous issues is put in context as we discover Big Man’s reasons for seeking revenge, and… Jesus. It ain’t funny no more. The violence in this issue goes so far that I don’t even feel like I should show it to you. Not that I think it’s “wrong” or anything judgmental like that. I read the book, and enjoyed it in that soul-searing way you enjoy horrifically ugly fiction of this type. But I ain’t gonna show it to you. You’re gonna have to seek this bastard of a book out for yourself. Still. Here’s the cover, just to help you along with that:

Powell Big Man Plans 4

Aaaaannnddd… I think that’s all we’ve got time for this week. Short, sweet, and to the freaking point. Hopefully, I’ll be feeling a bit more verbose next time.

Tales of Gods and Trannies: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!


Three books to discuss this week, bound by themes of heroism and the divine…

18 Days
by Grant Morrison and Jeevan Kang

18 Days

This is kind of a curious project. It was originally conceived as an animated series offering a sci-fi fantasy take on the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. As far as I know, that version of the project never materialized. But an illustrated script book was released about five years ago, featuring a brief series bible, scripts for the first three episodes, and lavish artwork from Mukesh Singh. Then it sank back beneath the waves for a while, until a series of motion comics hit YouTube last year. Those were… less than satisfying.

Limited animation and bad acting combine to make them rather unwatchable for me. But, hey. They must have a following, because they’re still running. Episode 92 (!) went up last week. I didn’t make it past five. But to each his own, I suppose.

Of course, the same could be said of me. Because now, we have 18 Days the comic, which is far more to my taste. The artist is the same guy whose work is the basis of the motion comic: Jeevan Kang. While his work’s not as lush as Singh’s stuff on the script book…

Singh 18 Days Arjuna

…Kang’s clean cartoon lines and ability to combine Indian iconography with Kirbyesque design fit the story like a glove.

Kang 18 Days Brahma

And the story itself? That’s pretty good, too. The Mahabharata is about… Well, it’s about everything, really. There’s an old saying that goes, “If it’s not in the Mahabharata, it’s nowhere.” But the heart of it, what it builds to, is the story of two families fighting a war whose roots go far back into the past, and whose implications echo far into the future. So Morrison, being Morrison, decides to start his version with a history of the universe, from its birth to its death, and what lies beyond that. The whole cycle of existence, echoing down from the largest possible cosmic scale to the humblest of human lifespans.

And that’s just the first half of the issue. The rest is devoted to introducing characters. But starting where he did, their lives have been given the proper weight. These are mythic figures whose actions change the course of history. They deserve that kind of build-up. I won’t go into detail on who’s who and what’s what. All you need to know for now (in fact, all Morrison gives us in this first issue) is that the conflict is between the troubled, heroic Pandavas (pictured on the cover above) and the indignant, villainous Kauravas (pictured right here):

Kang 18 Days Kaurava

(click to embiggen)

Why are the heroes troubled and the villains upset? Well, that goes into the complicated background to the battle, something that (assuming Morrison follows his stated intentions from the script book) we’ll discover in flashbacks later on.

Thus far, though, it’s fun stuff. A bit melodramatic, certainly. Some of the dialogue is ludicrously over-heated, like something out of a Republic serial, or a kung fu movie. Taken in its grand, epic context, though, that stuff’s a hoot. So I can’t help but cackle a bit when Kaurava leader Duryodhana tells the Unbeatable Drona (trainer of the Pandava super-warriors), “You taught them well. I hope you taught them to die.” HEH. That’s the whole point here, after all: to present this complex and deeply spiritual story in trappings pulpy enough to appeal to the mass audience.

So far, it’s working pretty well for me. And with this first issue priced at only a dollar, why not to give it a shot? Even if you hate it… You’re only out a buck.

Grade: B+

The Wicked + The Divine 12
by Kieron Gillen and Kate Brown

McKelvie WicDiv 12

So it’s been a full month since (SPOILER!) Kieron Gillen killed off his main character in truly spectacular fashion. How’s the book holding up? Eh… Okay, I guess. From a dramatic standpoint, I’m still interested in the story he’s telling. But I have no emotional investment in it anymore. He’s not left me with very many characters I find all that interesting. And that’s a problem.

It doesn’t help that we’re starting off a six-issue run drawn by guest artists. A lot of this book’s appeal is the unique alchemy of the Kieron Gillen / Jamie McKelvie team. They’re like Lennon & McCartney: their work together is far better than their work apart. So WicDiv without McKelvie is like… I dunno. It’s like Wings, I guess. It ain’t awful, but it ain’t the Beatles, either.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that I’m not fond of initial guest artist Kate Brown. Again, her work’s far from awful. She’s got solid basics, and she pulls off a few very nice page layouts in this issue. But her stuff’s just not to my taste. There’s a heavy manga influence on it, which isn’t intrinsically a bad thing. It’s just that the manga stuff she’s picked up is the stuff I don’t much care for. So even when she turns in an obviously great page, I don’t respond to it very well.

(It's the faces.)

(It’s the faces.)

So, anyway. There’s a big god-fight this issue, and that’s kinda cool. But, all things considered, I found it hard to care. Maybe we’ll do better next issue, when Tula Lotay guests on art. I like her stuff quite a lot, so that may make all the difference.

Grade: B-

And our last book deals in imagery that’s a little Not Safe For Work, as they say, so once I tell you what it is, the review will continue… after the jump.

Airboy 2
by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle

Hinkle Airboy 2

I was going to say that this second issue’s not as shocking as the first. But in retrospect, I think that’s only because the first issue had the shock of the new going for it, while I opened this one expecting more of the same. Because, honestly… In spite of all the drugs and penises and double-teaming of bar girls going on in that first issue, none of it really beats this issue’s shot of simultaneous bathroom stall transvestite blow jobs: Continue reading