Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hyper-Active 5 Year Olds

I originally wrote this piece nine years ago when I was writing for a webzine called Tangmonkey. You can find the original article here. I cleaned it up and edited it a little bit, but it is essentially the same story.

This one has a little more to do with me and why I love comic books more than comics themselves. It's also a little sappy. Be forewarned.


I still have the first comic I ever read.

It is the Justice League of America issue #102.

I was five years old when I read it for the first time. I was visiting my grandparents in Sherbrooke, Quebec (a smaller town, about two hours east of Montreal). I was tearing their relative peace to shreds, the way five year olds are apt to do. I was running around, banging pots and hollering, when my grandfather, a little desperate to calm his sugar-high grandson down, went into the storage closet and pulled out a box of comic books that my uncles had left behind when they moved out, decades earlier.

That is when I saw it.

The cover had Superman on the cover. Batman too. I instantly became the model grandchild, sitting quietly reading for the rest of the weekend. I was transfixed by this comic. I didn’t really understand it, yet this didn’t matter to me. There were words, and I read them, and there were pictures, and I loved them. There were heroes, and they wore brightly coloured costumes, and there was action enough to go around for everyone.

Over the years, my trips to the Sherbrooke continued. My Father would drop my sisters and I off with his family often enough, and every time I went, be it Christmas, summer vacation, or March break, I knew that I would have those comics waiting there for me. I’d sit out on the patio or in the guest bedroom and read them and reread them. There were about a hundred comics in total, and a great many of them had been scotch taped to hold the covers on. My uncle Bruce apparently had a penchant for drawing beards on the Archies and the Justice League, but my issue, the beloved Justice League 102, was spared this fate. It was worn, but it was whole and unsullied.

As I got older and grew into my teens, I metamorphosed into what most teens do, a wise-assed brat. I really didn’t see the need to have to go visit my grandparents for the weekend when there was a chance I could “hang out” with my friends. I would sulk in the car for the two hour drive over Mount Orford, antagonizing my sisters who were trapped in the back seat with me as much as possible to ensure that the entire car was as miserable as I was for this trip. I would get there and be as anti-social as I could possibly be, hiding in the back room with the comics, trying to avoid human contact and express my opposition to this oh-so-unfair punishment I was being put through using a social strike.

Me and my sister Katie. You can see the issue in my hands.
These trips, my grandfather would come in back to ask me to come to the Depanneur with him so he could get his lottery tickets. My Grandfather had led a hard life, one where many of his hardships were self inflicted. He had turned it all around with age, though, and became one of the most genial and gentle people I have ever known. He didn’t smoke or drink anymore, so his one vice was a few bucks a week on scratch tickets, hoping to win. He would promise me a new comic, if I came along with him, and for that thirty-minute ride, we would chat. He was a big baseball fan, avidly following the Montreal Expos beck when they still wore their baby blue road uniforms. Even in my most angsty teen-aged years, he was a man that was impossible to be catty with, and his ability to be social is something I covet to this day. When we would get to the store, I’d study which comic I wanted the most while he grated off a few tickets with a penny.I would choose the one (looking back at these comics, I’ll accept that as a child I had dubious taste), and we’d be back in the car. It was good.

Well, My grandpa died a few years later. He had a heart attack and didn’t make it. I life lived hard is rarely one lived long, so they say. My Grandmother gave me the box of comics to take home with me as she cleaned up and cleaned out their apartment. When I moved out, and took them with me.

I don’t really get to talk to that side of the family anymore, but I still have that box of beat up and battered comics, and reading them every now and again makes me feel like a hyper-active five year old calming down quietly in that guest bedroom, distracted and happy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Savage Dragon Archives, vol 1

I just finished reading my copy of the Savage Dragon Archives volume 1, by Erik Larsen. Larsen was one of Image Comics' founding fathers, leaving Marvel along with Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to start their own studio and basically get rich and famous. They were star artists determined to make it on their own, and generally, they did.

What they did not do, however, was bring any writers along with them.

Now, in their defense, at that time, they didn't really need to. The comics they made sold well. Very well, and the product they were producing was exactly what the market was demanding at the time. Splashy art, sex and violence, strong dynamic page layouts. Eye candy, all the way.

But I read this book last week, so I can only review it with my 2011 mindset. I mean, they're selling the book for people to read today, so it's not like they expect people to buy it and time-travel back to the 90's to understand where it's coming from.

The archives format is basically the same as Marvel's "Essential" or DC's "Showcase" collections. Lots of comics, printed in black and white on newsprint and sold at a lower price point. I like this format a lot, as it is a good, cheap way to get caught up on a series, getting lots of books for a good price. This book collected the mini-series (1-3) and the first 21 issues of the ongoing series. Good stuff there.

Oddly, the book is not broken up into issues. There are no reprints of the covers, and all the text is removed from the intro pages, so you can never really tell when one issue ends and another begins. This is a unique and confusing decision by the publisher, an in my opinion it detract from the reading experience.

The art in the book is very strong, even in black and white. Larsen had worked at Marvel on both "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man", and you can tell that he's got the chops when reading this book. Larsen also excels at creative character design, as you can see with this drawing of "Openface". Larsen has a great ability to make his characters look unique in comparison to each other, and they stand out as decidedly "Erik Larsen-esque". The issues do lose something in black and white (most notably characters like She-Dragon, who is supposed to differentiate herself solely by being green), but overall Larsen's art is strong enough to withstand the loss of hue.

The main failing of this book is the fact that it is so loosely plotted that it lacks depth. In his FAQ, Larsen states:

"My target audience is older Marvel readers who are about ready to throw in the towel on comics altogether. It's the missing link between Marvel and Vertigo. More mature than Marvel--less pretentious than Vertigo. The kind of comics I want to read. This book is REALLY self-indulgent."

I have no problem with a book being self indulgent. That's fine. However the book is not really "more mature than Marvel" so much as it has more mature content than Marvel. Sexual content and graphic violence is all fine and good, but it does not make the book a more mature work, so much as it makes it less appropriate for young readers.

I want to be clear, here. I like the Savage Dragon, and the few times I've traded emails with Mr. Larsen, he's been engaging and forthright.

But The Savage Dragon Archives can barely go two pages before Dragon get's into a huge brawl. Month to month, it didn't seem to bother me, as a good slobber-knocker was a fun read in an issue. When reading them all collected into a single book, however, really highlights the lack of story, and 24 issues in a row with such mimimal plot or character development is a little off-putting. It's a little bit like reading a blow-by-blow recap of Wrestlemania, and that's not as fun as it could be. It just left me feeling a little empty after plowing through hundreds of pages of comic and not really having any deeper understand of who any of the characters are, except that they are all pretty tough in a fight.

Dragon does team up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though, and that's gotta be worth something.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Design: Fonografiks

Fonografiks has been reworking the design of trade paperbacks and giving them a decidedly retro feel. Worn out, decades old, and really cool looking. Check out their DeviantArt gallery for all of them, but these are my favorites:

There's a whole slew of them at the gallery, so check it out.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Quick Links - March 9th (Spidey Edition)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Batman: The Widening Gyre

(This review will contain spoilers. Be warned.)

I like Kevin Smith. I think he's funny. (Not as funny as Scott Mosier, but that's neither here nor there.) I listen to his podcasts weekly, and watch his movies.

Kevin also writes comics. My favorite comic work of his was his run on "Green Arrow". It was a great read, and if you haven't checked it out yet, I would recommend it, as I find it has held up well over the last ten years.

I heard that Smith had done a Batman book. I had heard that it was critically panned, and Kevin mentioned it himself in a podcast, defending his work against the critics. And there were critics. John Barringer from A Comic Book Blog said:

"Kevin Smith, at least for me, has pushed Batman’s character past his envelope."

Chris Simms at Comics Alliance was less charitable:

"Kevin Smith's Batman stories are the worst Batman comics I've ever read, and while I haven't actually read them all, I've read enough that I'm pretty comfortable in declaring them the worst Batman comics ever."

Now, I like to think I march to the beat of my own drum, and I can get behind some projects that maybe are not the most popular. That, and since I generally enjoy the work that Smith has done, in and out of comics, meant that I would happily give "The Widening Gyre" a shot, and I ordered the hard cover and read the book.

I came to my conclusions about this book almost immediately, and I put off writing this review for almost a month now, hoping to temper them with time.

That didn't really happen.

"The Widening Gyre" is the worst Batman comic I've read.

I should have heeded the advice of the critics. It is achingly bad. As I read the book, I would audibly sigh or mutter in disapproval. It was a disappointment on every level save one, the fine cover art by Bill Sienkiewicz, and even that seems as wasted as lipstick on a pig. It also serves to remind you how poor the art inside the book is, as Walt Flanagan is often disappointing in his pencils.

The book disappointed me on nearly every level. The writing was juvenile and wildly inconsistent. The plot devices are seeped in frat-boy humour and show a lack of research, both in the outside world and within the DC Universe. (Poison Ivy tries to stop Batman by, essentially, getting him really high on marijuana. Worse yet, it nearly works.) It is overly rife with sexual innuendo that really seems to be played for laughs rather than to add to the story in any progressive way.

The entire book reads as if it were created by Jay and Silent Bob, legendary pot heads, and not professional writer Kevin Smith. There is nothing in this story of any substance, just an endless parade of sex jokes, drug jokes, and one instance where Batman admits to urinating involuntarily in his costume. (Kevin Smith took a hard stance defending that last point in his podcast, but it is really hard to take his defense seriously given the content of the rest of the book, i.e. Aquaman's dolphins eavesdropping on Batman getting laid in the ocean.)

On top of the poor art and ill-advised use of humour, there are several inconsistencies in the characterization of Batman himself. In one scene, Batman is paranoid that his new girlfriend may be a robot, so he assaults her and rips some of her hair out for testing. Yet he'll invite a stranger into the Batcave without so much as plugging the guy's name into google. The whole series is riddled with gaping plot holes like this. It's all over the place, and feels a little like Smith just doesn't care. He got it done, it made him laugh and he shipped it off. The editors, Janelle Siegel, Mike Marts and Dan DiDio should have their wrists slapped.

If I can make one recommendation to you about comic books, it would be to avoid "The Widening Gyre". If you like Kevin Smith and you want to read one of his comics, go pick up "Green Arrow: Quiver" instead.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull

Comics Alliance has a great first look at Hugo Weaving all dolled up for then upcoming "Captain America" movie, via Entertainment Weekly. I think it looks pretty darn good.

Read the full article here.