Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Some follow-ups to some recent posts

Yesterday I ran a panel from Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Comic Book Comics #5, a panel which I thought offered a nice, elegant response to the “The Families of Creators Comics Published Once Ripped-off Are Greedy Evil For Pursuing Their Legal Rights And Thus Maybe Endangering My Steady Stream of Superman and X-Men Stories!” line of argumentation that seems a staple of comment threads.

One of the many, many pleasures of the pair's Comic Book Comics series has been their portrayal of comics creators, often by using their characters as stand-ins. For example, in a panel discussing Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane’s legal battles over Marvelman/Miracleman, Dunlavey drew Morpheus and Spawn each tugging on a different arm of the contested Marvelman character.

Sometimes they hybridize character and creator. For example, their Walt Disney usually appears as Mickey Mouse with Disney’s human face in place of Mickey’s saucer eyes and mouse snout, and their Jerry Robinson has the hairstyle and wardrobe of The Joker in some panels.

One creator they always draw more-or-less straight is Alan Moore, whose Old Testament hair and beard and intense eyes make him one of the comics creators who is every bit as visually interesting as many of the characters he has written.

In the story “1986 AD” from Comic Book Comics #5, Moore appears repeatedly, as a child selling LSD to a police bobby, as a janitor, riding upon a rocket ship with Dave Gibbons, working as a janitor and so on.

Here are two of my favorite pictures. Moore and Gibbons pursuing Moby Dick, who is cosplaying as Rorschach……and this image of Moore as a child…


In the comments to Monday’s post about IDW’s recent collection of the old DC/TSR Forgotten Realms, commenter “A Hero” pointed out this post regarding the collection on writer Jeff Grubb’s blog.

In it, Grubb talks a bit about how he found out about the collection, how it apparently came together, and his dealings with all of the parties to see if he would be getting paid anything since they were reprinting the stories he wrote.

Here’s Grubb’s recommendation for how those interested should proceed, keeping in mind that it doesn’t look like he or Rags Morales or the other creators are making any more money off the collection:

So now what? Call my horde of fans to block this horrible trammeling of a contract? Protest in the streets? Fight for creative rights? Camp out in the state capital? Call for a boycott?
Nope. Instead I’m going to recommend you BUY a copy.

THEN, of course, I want you to write to IDW (and Hasbro) and tell them how WONDERFUL the story and art is. And how they should (sparing no expense on their part) HIRE the talented team of Grubb and Morales, who obviously understand how the D&D universe works and are fine examples of writer and artist and a shining addition to ANY comic book line.
Is it okay if I just do it here?

Okay, here goes.

Dear IDW,

I greatly enjoyed your recent collection of the old TSR/DC Forgotten Realms comics, which I think are the best Forgotten Realms comics ever (I didn’t much care for that business with the Drow elf who has all the z’s in his name that I think Devil’ Due published a few years back).

In fact, I liked them so much, that I bought some of ‘em twice, the second time from you.

The story was wonderful. The art was also wonderful. You should totally hire the talented team of Jeff Grubb and Rags Morales, who would be a shining addition to any comic book line. Especially a fantasy comic book series, and especially a fantasy comic book series based on Dungeons & Dragons business.

I probably wouldn’t buy the books that resulted in their serially published format—Sorry, I can’t afford $4 comics on a freelance writer-about-comics’ “salary”—but I swear I’ll buy the trade collection. Probably form And then I’ll write about it on the Internet, like I’ve written about this collection like eight times already.


J. Caleb Mozzocco

P.S. You know what else you should do with that D&D license? A Bizarro Comics/Strange Tales-style anthology series.

P.P.S. If you want to read a pitch for a G.I. Joe miniseries in which Polly, Timber, Junkyard and Freedom team-up to save the Joes from a nefarious Cobra plot, just let me know!

Dear Hasbro,

Thank you for inventing Hulk Hands. Those things are the best.

Your pal,

J. Caleb Mozzocco

P.S. The story and art in those old DC/TSR Forgotten Realms comics IDW just collected are WONDERFUL—all caps, in bold, that’s how wonderful they are—and you should (sparing now expense) HIRE the talented team of Grubb and Morales, who obviously understand how the D&D universe works and are fine examples of writer and artist and a shining addition to ANY comic book line.

Hope that helps, Mr. Grubb!


Grubb also talked about some behind-the-scenes business with those old DC/TSR comics and how they originally came about in this post on his blog. This is basically the exact sort of thing I would have liked to see in an introduction to the Forgotten Realms trade.

I didn’t pay much attention to credits back then, but it turns out Grubb wrote one of my favorite arcs on the AD&D book, the “Catspaw Quartet” four-parter in which Onyx and Timoth adventure in the sewers of Waterdeep, before launching the Forgotten Realms monthly.

Here’s how he describes the approach to the books:
Big thing about the AD&D and FR comics – these were fantasy books about characters that knew they lived in a fantastic universe. They were aware and capable of handling their situation. This wasn’t part of a “points of light” where sinister stuff lurked over the next hill. It wasn't a dark fantasy world. Those are cool, but the Realms ran off the assumption that its heroes were smart enough to know about their world.
I think that likely contributed to the generally light-hearted feel of the books. While there were some very serious issues in AD&D—slavery, betrayal and war came up a couple of times—the bulk of that series was really fun fantasy adventure.

Grubb also discusses the end of the TSR/DC alliance and the cancellation of the books. I always assumed it was because they sold poorly, which was the reason most comics get canceled. Turns out there were some poor business choices made. Now I wonder how much longer the books might have lasted on the merit of their sales alone. The books were all ended right about the time the comics market was entering into it’s crazy 1990’s speculation boom phase.


I seem to have been one of the few comics readers who didn’t mind the TV Wonder Woman costume as it was first revealed all that much. Part of the reason, I think, is that the standards for live-action television superhero costumes are soooooo much lower than they are for live action movie superhero costumes.

For example, remember Smallville’s JSA costumes? Or have you seen TV Guide’s reveal of the new Blue Beetle’s costume as it will appear on Power Range—Er, Smallville?

Look at the Wonder Woman costume. Then look at the Blue Beetle costume. Then look at the Wonder Woman costume again. See, that Wonder Woman costume doesn’t look so bad anymore, does it?

Speaking of which, you can see newer, better images of the costume here. It looks tweaked here and there, like giving her back her red boots (to my dismay), and pants that look more like pants than something cobbled together from blue raspberry Fruit Roll-Ups.

I suppose I should note that the Booster Gold costume looks pretty good in that single image released, as a real-world version of his costume. It even has the little Nascar-like patches, as seen on J.G. Jones’ covers for 52.


It looks like Kevin Maguire is referencing his own references of his own cover from 1987's Justice League #1 for the cover of Justice League: Generation Lost #24 (as revealed in this Source blog post on upcoming variant covers).

For some reason, DC has had Maguire, the artist best associated with the characters starring in the series, providing variant covers to JL:GL, while other artists provide the normal covers. Some of those artists and their covers have been pretty rotten, particularly right at the outset, although since first Cliff Chiang and then Dustin Nguyen took on the gig, they’ve all been pretty swell.

Still, if I had the choice, I’d almost always choose the Maguire covers. I haven’t had a choice though. I’ve been reading the series and enjoying it, largely due to the bi-weekly schedule. In retrospect though, I wonder if I maybe shouldn’t have trade-waited it, if only to be able to (presumably) get all the Maguire covers that way.

It is my strong belief that DC should hire Maguire to draw each new iteration of the Justice League line-up in that looking up at the reader as a group pose. I don’t think I’ve seen it since he did the Morrison JLA on the cover of an issue of Fanboy, though.I sure would have liked to see him do the Meltzer/Benes League, or the current Congorilla and friends League…


Speaking of covers, as I’ve mentioned before, I always enjoy reading Kelly Thompson’s “Cover Solicits in Three Sentences Or Less…” features, which she recently tweaked so that she writes them while drunk now (Here’s her latest DC column, and here’s her latest Marvel column.)

Part of the reason I like them is because they’re funny and offer a perspective I don’t normally think too much about (like whether the artist seemed to be looking at a model with fake breasts or real ones when drawing a particular cover, a topic which got much discussion in this month’s round; Hey, Kelly, if you’re reading, can we tell if the new TV Wonder Woman has fake breasts or not looking at the action shots of her running in her costume? Because if they hired an actress with fake breasts to play Wonder Woman that strikes me as kinda sad…).

Also, Thompson’s rules keep her observations very tightly focused on the cover images, whereas every time I write about the DC and Marvel solicitations I always end up getting distracted and going off on long tangents about continuity and publishing strategies.

Also also, I always notice things when I re-look at the covers in her columns that I missed the first few times I saw the cover.

For example, you know that book Fear Itself: The Fearsome Foursome, which features both Man-Thing and Howard the Duck on the cover? There are five characters on the cover!

(Also, Howard the Duck is still wearing pants? What’s the point of Marvel selling to Disney if they can’t take Howard’s Disney-mandated pants off yet? Can they at least compromise and give him shorts?)

June’s cover for Herc features the title hero battling a tentacle monster. He seems to fare differently than the ladies from Heroes For Hire did when they fought tentacle monsters:


Alan Kistler’s latest Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. column at Blog@Newsarama focused on DC’s Batwoman character. While discussing the costumes of the two Kate Kanes, Kistler mentioned the Batwoman costume from the 2003 direct-to-DVD Batman: The Animated Series movie, Mystery of The Batwoman. I rather liked that costume, in part because of how different it was from most other feminine versions of a Batman costume (It even had pink in it! Pink!)

The one it most closely resembled was, of course, the Cassandra Cain Batgirl costume. When thinking about fixes for that costume, which can look fantastic or dreadful, depending on who was drawing it, my mind would often return to this animated Batwoman’s look. I think if Cassandra’ Cain’s costume were to bend in the direction of this costume, it would retain some of it’s most appealing elements (As I’ve said before, I think that Batgirl costume, particularly as drawn by Damion Scott, featured the best aspects of both Batman and Spider-Man), while smoothing out some of the more difficult elements, like the stitching on the face and the black eye lenses in a black mask.

I don’t really understand how animated Batwoman’s mouth works—I watched it once a long time ago, and now I don’t recall where the costume came from…I think it was just fabric, with a whole cut perfectly in the shape of the mouth around the mouth, but I don’t know, maybe it was some kinda sci-fi smart cloth, nanite thingee.

Anyway, turn that Batwoman costume black, replace the pink with yellow and/or black, and give Cass back her big, goofy utility belt (Is it weird she has the biggest utility belt pouches of all the various Bat-people, but used the least amount of weapons and gadgets? Maybe they’re full of sandwiches?), and I think that would be a fine Cassandra Cain Batgirl costume that it would be very difficult for artists to not draw well.

Because I’m not computer-smart enough to just recolor existing images—and because I need something to do with my hands and the part of my brain the TV show fails to engage while I’m watching Dancing With the Stars—I drew Batgirl over and over in my sketchbook the other day.

This is a lame-o sketch of her original costume, although I think her bat-symbol is usually just an outline of yellow, not solid yellow:If you took out the stitches and gave her white eye lenses for something approaching animated Batwoman, I think you’d get something like this: Then I wondered what she’d look like if you kept Batwoman’s pink in her costume: (The pose, by the way, is swiped from Scott’s cover to Batgirl #25). Cassandra Cain isn’t exactly a pink-wearing kind of girl, but then, maybe that in itself would be a reason for her to try out some pink. Like, a self-conscious attempt to try and be more stereotypically girly…?

Before I colored those in, I got to wondering how the costume might look if instead of yellow or pink, she went with white. I suppose that would make it sort of Punisher-y, but white is such an anti-Batman color, as much as pink is, that I thought it might look interesting:(The last pose is another swipe from Scott, from the cover of Batgirl #20, featuring Batgirl and Spoiler on it. Scott is about the only artist who drew Spoiler in a way that her design actually seemed sort of cool to me).

Of course, in real-life the gloves would be caked brown around the hands, from dried blood bad guys would spit when getting punched and from the grime one gets from climbing around on Gotham City fire escapes and rooftops all night. Surely Alfred would forbid white in any Bat-costume he had to launder.

Cassandra Cain hasn’t shown up much in the comics at all lately. I heard there was an appearance in Red Robin in which she explained that she didn’t want to be Batgirl or was on sabbatical or something, but I didn’t read it—I gave up following characters a long time ago, and that’s not a book I was reading.

The last time I saw her was in Tiny Titans #33, the “all-Robin issue,” which introduced Tiny Cassandra:I suppose Tiny Titans is an unlikely place to look for DC superhero costume redesign ideas, but I kind of liked Baltazar’s version of that Batgirl costume. Not only did he simplify the stitching quite a bit to give the costume more of homemade feel (and I kinda dig the stitches-as-eyelashes bit around the eyes), but his Cassandra Cain has a skirt on.Now obviously Cassandra isn’t much of a skirt-wearer, so this Batgirl in a costume that includes a skirt no doubt seems out of character.

But then I started thinking about it, and how much harder it would be to fight in a skirt than it would be in a pair of tights.

I don’t know if many of you have read the later Dragonball comics or watched Dragonball Z, but there are a couple of parts where it’s revealed that grown-up Goku and Piccolo wear heavily-weighted costumes as part of their training, so you know they’re either getting really serious or are in over their heads in a fight when they remove their weights, so they are suddenly much faster and stronger.

So I could sort of see Cassandra Cain wearing a kick-restricting skirt as a form of self-imposed handicap, either to help her train or to artificially weaken her to make fighting more rewarding. After all, she has a body language-reading ability that borders on a superpower, and can fight as well or better than Batman and Lady Shiva (and she’s still a teenager), so day-to-day mugger and henchman-fighting is probably pretty boring for her.

If I had to assign a motivation for her current costume, I would think fighting-ability handicapping might be a good rationale. Why else wear a mask that reduces visibility, a big, long, dragging cape, and those big utility belt pockets? (Maybe they’re full of weights?).

So while it doesn’t really seem to be in character for Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl to ever rock a skirt, I think it could certainly be rationalized. Hell, high heels too!

Although under Baltazar’s pen, I assume he put her in a skirt just because it looks cute.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Green Fairy Book isn't a comic book,

but it has both words and pictures in it, so I'm going to go ahead and blog about it here anyway.

Above is an illustration by H.J. Ford from Andrew Lang's 1892 The Green Fairy Book. The story it illustrates is "The Crystal Coffin," which Lang collected from Grimm's collections of fairy tales.

I love Lang's collections and, especially, Ford's illustrations for them, which I'll return to again and again while reading just to stare at and study. This one really gave me pause for an entirely different reason though.

Most of Ford's illustrations, like most illustrations for prose stories, capture a single moment in a story (with a few exceptions, in which smaller pictures are worked into the borders of a larger illustration, as in the image from "Jack My Hedgehog," which you can see below). In this particular image, above though, Ford tries to capture three distinct actions from three distinct moments in a single image.

In a comic book, this would be an exceptionally poor panel, which doesn't really work the way a panel in a comic book should, but then, this isn't a comic book, so it doesn't have to to play by the rules—but this particular illustration is a good, um, illustration of the way imagery works differently in comics versus prose.

The scene depicted is an illustration of the following, told by the princess, who is sitting atop the horse in the image:
...ere long I saw the stranger coming towards me, and leading a fine stag. I asked him where he had left my brother, and how he had got the stag, whose great eyes were overflowing with tears. Instead of answering he began to laugh, and I flew into such a rage that I drew the pistol and fired at him; but the bullet rebounded from his breast and struck my horse in the forehead.
Click on the image and look closely and you'll see a little dotted line from the cloud of smoke at the barrel of the gun, showing the trajectory of the bullet as it bounces off the stranger and enters her horse's forehead.


Let's look at some more of Ford's illustrations now, shall we?

Above are the three little pigs, from the version of "The Three Little Pigs" collected in here. Also, their mom, whom the little black pig is using as some sort of book-holder.

This was one of my least favorite of the stories collected herein, familiarity breeding contempt, I guess (that, or I'm not that big a fan of the all-animal stories). I was awfully surprised by the contents of the story though, as its details are so different from the ones one usually associates with the story.

These little pigs all have names—Browny, Whitey and Blacky. Their elderly mother builds them each their own houses, out of whatever material they want. Instead of straw, wood and brick, these little pigs have houses out of mud, cabbage and brick. The predator that tries to eat them isn't a big, bad wolf, but a fox. And he doesn't blow their houses down, he simply digs into the mud house and eats his way into the cabbage house, but is stymied by the brick house—and ultimately opts for a chimney entrance and dies in the normal boiled alive in a pot manner.


The little fellow sitting atop the rooster, an oddly anthropomorphic-looking set of bagpipes behind him, is Jack my Hedgehog, a half-man, half-hedgehog born of his childless father exclaiming, "I must and will have a child of some sort or kind, even should it only be a hedgehog!" I'm sure this Grimm-collected fairy tale, and Ford's illustrations for it, aren't actually the inspiration for Sonic The Hedgehog, but I like to imagine it is.

But enough talk of these stories that aren't even comics. Let's just look at some nice pictures, shall we?

Men with the moon for their heads is another broad category of types of images I think are really cool for some reason. This man with a moon's head is actually supposed to be the moon. It's from the story "The Snuff-Box," in which the hero visits the land of the moon, where the moon's mother informs him that her son "eats all living things he sees." Our hero survives the encounter, however, and goes on to be similarly menaced by the sun and the wind, neither of which get illustrated.

When I first saw this illustration of "Fair Gifts," in which the Flower Fairy sends her charge Sylvia out in a chariot drawn by butterflies, I thought, There's no way even that many butterflies of that size would be able to pull that heavy chariot and that girl, because I am dumb, trying to assign my understanding of physics to a story involving a magical fairy and her magic butterfly chariot.

I really like this image from "Rosanella," in which giant bees carry off twelve princess from a garden party.

The Golden Mermaid, from the story "The Golden Mermaid," was the hottest woman in this book, I think, but she's no Snow-Daughter or Thumbelina, though.

Van Lente and Dunlavey on the heirs of Siegel, Shuster and Kirby pursuing legal rights

On Sunday, Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood reprinted the full text of a letter the late Joanne Siegel, who passed away at the age of 93 last month, sent to Warner Brothers CEO Jeffrey Bewkes. Siegel is, most of you probably know, the wife of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and was, in fact the inspiration and model for Lois Lane. Along with her family and the estate of Superman's other creator, Joe Shuster, Siegel was involved in a tough, complicated series of legal battles with Warner Bros. over elements of the Superman franchise, and after a rather emotional build-up ("So I ask you to please consider—do these mean spirited tactics meet with your approval? Do you really think the families of Superman’s creators should be treated this way?"), she sums up the point of her letter thusly:
To protest harassment of us that will gain you nothing but bad blood and a continued fight.

To protest harassment of our attorney by falsely accusing him of improper conduct in an attempt to deprive us of legal counsel.

To make you aware that in reality this is a business matter and that continuing with litigation for many more years will only benefit your attorneys.
Heidi MacDonald's The Beat and Comic Book Resource's Robot 6 reprinted the contents of the letter, and when linking to it in the course of my own linkblogging at Blog@Newsarama, I referred tot he letter as "the saddest thing you'll read all day."

Well, I was wrong. I read much, much sadder things yesterday, without even having to venture into the "real" media's discussion of tragic international events. No, I simply read the comments threads on those Beat and Robot 6 posts.

If you've ever read a comment thread on any blog post dealing with the heirs of a comics creator dealing with the current owners of the intellectual properties their husbands or fathers made, then you know how miserable the sorts of things anonymous comics fans tend to spew in such arenas.

Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey's latest issue of Comic Book Comics, a history of comics presented as a comic book series, dealt with the history of Siegel and Shuster's dealings with DC over the ownership of Superman—as well as the similar difficulties that Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and Jack Kirby had with DC/National and Marvel—and the Siegel and Shuster "story" hasn't really been completed in real life, so it doesn't really have a satisfying conclusion in their comic strip about it either (In 2008, judge Stephen G. larson ruled that the contents of Action Comics #1 revert to Siegel's heirs, and, Van Lente wrote, "The full implications of that decision are still being worked out, but it seems to be in the heirs' interest to work with the company," since, "many of the elements considered crucial to the mythos have appeared since Action #1 and are incontrovertibly owned by DC").

Van Lente and Dunlavey therefore ended their story with panel below, addressing the sorts of fan arguments against the creators and their families, reversing a creator-as-sheep, publisher-as-shepherd visual metaphor they employed throughout the story: Well said, guys.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Some rather rambling thoughts on Dungeons & Dragons: Forgotten Realms Classics Vol. 1

Comic books and role-playing games have long been hobbies that are closely linked to one another. I always assumed that the reasons for this were simply that a) they’re both kind of nerdy or geeky (whichever adjective you prefer) pursuits, and thus there was a natural overlap between the nerds or geeks who liked one or the other, creating a group that liked both, and b) since neither a shop devoted solely to the sale of comic books nor a shop devoted to the sale of role-playing games materials was ever the easiest small business to keep afloat, particularly in smaller towns, hybrid shops selling both became commonplace.

Thinking about role-playing games and comics lately, as reading IDW’s trade collection of the old DC/TSR 1989-1991 Forgotten Realms comic series has got me doing, I realized there’s another commonality between certain types of comics and certain types of RPGs: The concept of an elaborate, shared, fictional universe setting that is more-or-less always under construction.

Those certain types of comics are, of course, superhero comics, with their DC and Marvel Universes, and the newer, smaller, similar universes that other publishers have launched over the years. And those certain types of RPGs are basically any of a certain size or longevity.

In both cases, settings, characters, histories and rules of some sort are shared between the units of the stories set in those settings, and a place that can be visited by users is created.

One such “universe” is, of course, Forgotten Realms, which was originally created by Ed Greenwood when he was a childe, and which he gradually developed and fleshed out and introduced to Dungeons & Dragons players through Greenwood’s magazine articles.

Over the decades, the Realms setting has appeared in scores of official RPG supplements and what must be well over a hundred prose novels at this point.

The Forgotten Realms comic was set in that world, giving writer Jeff Grubb—who had himself wrote plenty of those prose novels—a pre-made world to send his cast of a half-dozen or so adventurers journeying through.

Of those, one of them was previously introduced in a Michael Fleisher written arc of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the first of DC/TSR’s line of comics, while the others were original to the Forgotten Realms comic. They all fell into easily identifiable types to anyone with even a passing familiarity with fantasy role-playing.

There were a couple of humans, an elf, a Halfling and a dwarf (sort of), and of these there was a magic user, a paladin, a cleric, a fighter, a thief and so on. The premise was that this group of characters, from all over the Realms, were the crew of a magical ship called The Realms Master. It would teleport from body of water to body of water, while its wizard captain sought out dangerous and powerful magical artifacts to dispose of (or make use of), before they fell into the wrong hands.

In other words, each story arc was a different quest, and Grubb had built in a few plot elements to keep a rapid-fire succession of quests plausible and easy to write about (None of the hundreds of pages of walking that one might find in The Lord of The Rings, then).

In addition to the monsters and magic and setting and culture of the Forgotten Realms “universe,” Grubb also made use of characters from the games and novels, who would basically have guest-appearances in the comic.

In the first two story arcs, “The Hand of Vaprak” and “The Dragonreach Saga,” which account for the contents of the IDW collection, Greenwood’s Merlin/Gandalf-like Elminster the Mage appears as a mostly behind-the-scenes, manipulator of events interested in the outcome of the events (in both of these arcs, our heroes are involved in quests that, if they fail, would mean the destruction of the Realms). Elminster’s ally Lord Mourngrym puts in a few appearances in those stories.

In the first arc, Alias and Dragonbait from the Grubb-co-written novel Azure Bonds team-up with our heroes. I only read a couple of the Forgotten Realms novels as a teenager, and Azure Bonds wasn’t one of them, but I remember the cover quite vividly for, um, some reason:In the late eighties, early nineties, I didn’t read the Forgotten Realms comics regularly; I read the annual, a crossover with the cast of the AD&D comic I did read regularly, and over the years tried finding all the back-issues. I own and have read about five or so of the eight issues collected in this volume, but I bought it anyway because I’d much rather have the whole series in trade then continue to assemble it in back-issues, which are inaccessibly buried in my miserable comics midden.

Some thoughts, in no particular order…

1.) I hope IDW’s committed to collecting the whole shebang. The whole series is only 25 issues long, plus an annual and a bit of material from a TSR Worlds annual, so I imagine they could probably finish the series off with two more collections, depending on where they want to include the annual material (IDW’s also collecting Advanced Dungeons & Dragons).

2.) I love the names of the characters Grubb comes up with: Priam Agrivar, Foxilon Cardluck, Dwalimar Omen, Ishi Barasume, Vartan Hai Sylvar. You could probably offer pretty good guesses about the character’s races and roles based merely on their names.

There are a few duds, though.

The aforementioned dwarf on the crew doesn’t look dwarven or female at all—her soul is trapped in the body of an iron golem, so she’s essentially a big iron dude with a lame name, Minder. (She presumably had a more dwarven name at some point; I never read the issue that explained what her whole deal is, although I believe that would appear in a second volume of a series of collections).

A woman with wings, whose race I don’t recall, is introduced later in the series. She’s simply named Jasmine.

3.) Dwalimar Omen has one of the coolest haircuts in the history of comics. Here are some scans of it from various angles:As you can hopefully see from those images, the top, back and sides are a sort of perfect orb afro, with the front cut away a bit to reveal his face. It is basically a completely insane haircut, one that I would imagine would take daily visits to a hairstylists to keep up using today’s modern haircutting technology, and yet the electric hair clippers had yet to be invented in this world.

So how does Omen get his hair did? Magic obviously, since he is a wizard. A wizard with a magical hairstyle, that he maintains magically.

4.) Beyond my affection and nostalgia for the setting and the RPGs that inspired it, the main reason I like this series so much is Rags Morales’ art. Morales has been a favorite of mine, and this book is an excellent showcase for his work, although as you can probably tell just form looking at a few of the images above that this is rather early work for him, and his style would evolve and sharpen quite a bit over the course of the 20 years to follow.

Rereading these stories though, it’s abundantly clear that Morales had already mastered “acting” through his characters in his art, and was quite adept at action and fleshing out fully-realized panels. The degree of background detail work in here puts that of most superhero comics of the 21st century to shame. Few things about the state of mainstream comics depress me more than seeing something from 20 or 30 years ago and realize that what used to be the norm in level of skill or quality has now become rare exceptions—one likes to think mainstream, direct market comics are getting better and better as the writing, the audience and the technology becomes more sophisticated, but that sadly isn’t always the case.

5.) Check out this crazy splash page Morales drew; I remember being confused by it when I first read it, and it took me a few seconds to figure it out again this time as well:That’s Priam Agrivar’s point-of-view as he looks up at some allies who have gathered around him to see if he was okay, having briefly lost consciousness. Apparently, he opened his right eye first, and Morales chose to draw the scene as if we were looking out from deep inside Agrivar’s skull.

I don’t know how successful the image is, but it’s certainly a strange one.

6.) It also occurred to me how rare art like this is these days. Morales is still drawing, and he’s gotten better and better ever since, but one never sees new art presented like this, with no special effects like lens flares and light-boxed or Photoshopped settings, no painted-by-computers gradations of colors, hell, even white gutters and borders between panels are something of a rarity these days.

It was…refreshing to read a comic assembled in the old-fashioned, pre-Computers-Doing-Everything fashion, even if it meant the colors were occasionally garish or unsubtle. Too many comics today, wrote Old Man Caleb, seem way too overproduced, which only draws attention to any deficiencies they might have in their story or the quality of the design and rendering at the heart of the artwork, underneath all the coloring effects.

I don’t necessarily want to say this looks cheap, but it doesn’t look overproduced at all, either.

7.)The collection includes the covers, which were naturally originally branded with publisher DC's logo, as well as that of then-Forgotten Realms and D&D owner TSR. IDW basically just whited 'em out. Here's what they look like:

8.) The only complaint I have about the collection was the lack of any sort of introduction or afterword. As I've said before, I really, really, really like those in a collection.

In this case, I would have liked to see something from Grubb or Morales about the experience and maybe how it fit into their careers, or maybe someone of some sort of authority sort of of explaining the reason why these older, minor comics are considered worthy of being collected and represented. Other than than their collection of the old Marvel G.I. Joe comics, I haven't yet read very many of IDW's "rescue" collections, but the publisher certainly seems quite devoted to finding older comic books from the '80s and '90s and re-presenting them for the modern graphic novel audience. I would have liked a little context for this collection's existence, I guess.

But then, I just like that little something extra in a collection format.

9.) If you're at all interested in fantasy or sword and sorcery comics, I'd recommend this as an especially fun, lighthearted example of the genre, with pretty great art. Plus, the more of you who buy it, the more likely it is IDW will collect the rest of the series, and maybe even Dragonlance and Spelljammer, the other two DC/TSR books, neither of which I've read any of before.

Monday Morning Man vs. Cephalopod Moment

(Beast Boy meets Aqualad's easily startled pet octopus Inky in DC's Tiny Titans #38, by Art Baltazar and Franco)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Geoff Johns to rescue Aquaman...?

So I guess DC's most popular writer, Mr. Geoff Johns, is going to be writing a new Aquaman series of undetermined length, with an unnamed artistic team.

I think that's pretty great news, as an Aquaman fan, and I'm honestly quite surprised to hear it.

Now, I've been thinking DC should probably have Geoff Johns write Aquaman for about five or six years now. After taking on first The Flash (a long stretch on the title with Wally West in the red suit, followed by the recent Barry Allen revival) and then Hawkman (in both JSA and then a short-lived Hawkman monthly) and then Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Johns demonstrated not only skill but, more importantly, success at being able to take a tired, sometimes even retired Silver Age great and making them work again.

I'm not going to argue that the comics cited above were always great ones or anything—I only read his Flash run sporadically, and dropped Hawkman pretty quickly, and Green Lantern is a book I love sometimes in spite of itself—but they all strove to communicate the writer's affection for a character and concept, and did so effectively enough that the characters usually seemed more relevant, cool and exciting, and the market (mostly) supported them.

Let's review...

THE FLASH: Geoff Johns took over the Flash book in 2000 with issue #164, with the art team of Angel Unzeta and Doug Hazelwood (and covers from Brian Bolland). His run was long and influential, reinventing old villains, inventing plenty of new ones, and generally fleshing out The Flash's world, with the help of Scott Kolins and Howard Porter, two artists who stuck around for quite a while. Johns himself wrote the book through 2005, making it about five years even.

The title didn't survive his departure. It was canceled in with issues #230, to make way for a new Flash title starring a new Flash (Former Impulse turned Kid Flash turned Flash IV, Bart Allen, hyper-aged into young adulthood) and written by some guys who worked on an old, semi-forgotten Flash television show—that lasted only 13 issues. So then DC brought back Mark Waid, a long-time Flash writer who preceded Johns on the book, who in turn brought back the Wally West Flash, now the father of two super-kids. His run resumed the numbering of the previous series, but only lasted 17 more issues.

Finally, in 2009's Final Crisis, Grant Morrison brought back the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, after the hero having been dead since 1986, a fairly controversial move at the time (Wall West, the third Flash, had been the Flash for literally an entire generation of time at the point at which the Silver Age Flash came back to resume the role). That was followed by the six-issue Flash: Rebirth series by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver and the current Flash ongoing series, starring Barry Allen and written by Johns once again.

The title is set to be canceled shortly, after the events of Flashpoint, a big company crossover/event series spinning out the events of the series, although it will presumably be relaunched with a different writer shortly after that.

Looking back at the last ten years of Flash comics, it looks like the franchise has yet to really recover since Johns left it the first time, as DC has been relaunching it with different lead characters, different creative teams, and different concepts on a regular basis ever since.

HAWKMAN: In 2002, after reintroducing the original Carter Hall in the pages of JSA and mostly making sense out of his complicated origins and giving the character a new premise, Johns launched a Hawkman ongoing title with the superlative creative team of Rags Morales and Michael Bair. Johns left after 25 issues, with the writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray keeping the book going until #49 in 2006. At that point, the title changed its name to Hawkgirl (but kept the numbering), Walter Simonson and Howard Chaykin took over as writer and artist, respectively, and it lasted 16 more issues. The title far outlasted any previous attempt at a Hawkman or -girl monthly.

The characters lost their way a bit in the years since, with Jim Starlin among those who have messed with their origins a bit, but despite the fact that the monthly didn't last, the two Hawks have been front and center in the DCU ever since, with the pair serving on the JSA for a while, Hawkgirl temporarily joining the Justice League, and both characters often appearing in various crossover and event stories. Johns returned to the characters in Blackest Night, where he killed them off once again, and then again in Brightest Day, where they were given one of the four or five major plot-threads running through the book.

GREEN LANTERN: I would say it's pretty much impossible to overestimate the value of what Johns did with this franchise for DC. Unlike Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Green Lanterns is a character who hasn't always been able to support his own title, and in the mid-nineties the Hal Jordan character had become so unpopular DC decided to turn him into a super-villain and, when fans rebelled to the move, to eventually give him a heroic death, while the ring passed to a new character.

After a few years of messing around with both the new Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and, especially, Hal Jordan—who even did a stint as The Spectre, carrying his own book by that name for a while—Johns and Ethan Van Sciver brought Hal Jordan back to life in 2004 in a six-part Green Lantern: Rebirth miniseries.

In the process, they made the other, retired Earth Green Lanterns official GLs again (making four GLs total, five if you counted the Golden Age GL), and brought back the Green Lantern Corps and many elements of the Silver and Bronze Age comics the character once starred in that had since fallen by the wayside.

After that, Johns and a series of different artists launched a new Green Lantern monthly in 2005, a series that is still ongoing, and is currently up to issue #64. Since then, two regular, ongoing Green Lantern spin-off titles have launched, Green Lantern Corps in 2006 and Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors in 2010.

The Johns-directed franchise also featured a very popular event series, Sinestro Corps War, followed by Blackest Night, which DC expanded to include their entire line, and the current Brightest Day limited series and branding exercise, which is somewhat derived from the concepts Johns introduced during his Green Lantern run.

Today, Green Lantern is one of DC's most successful titles, and the character and concept is the only one that seems to be dependably popular with direct market fans and able to sustain line expansion, with the perennial exception of Batman.

Aquaman, a character who has had trouble keeping a monthly series going since writer Peter David left the 1994 volume of the series in 1998. That series was canceled at issue #75 in 2001, surviving about 25 issues and two different creative teams after David.

The next attempt was made with a new volume of the series written by Rick Veitch and mostly drawn by Yvel Guichet and Mark Propst, an attempt that gave Aquman a magic water hand, a new costume and a haircut, and restricted him to fresh-water adventures. After only 12 issues of that, writer Will Pfeifer came in with artists Patrick Gleason and Christian Alamy in 2004 to give Aquaman another makeover and set his adventures in "Sub Diego," a portion of San Diego that sank into the sea. Pfeiffer lasted about 9 issues, and then a few more writers were called in to bring the book all the way up to issue #39.

At that point, its name changed to Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis, although the numbering remained the same, and writer Kurt Busiek and artist Butch Guice introduced a new, younger "Aquaman" character and played up the fantasy elements of the premise. Busiek stuck around ten issues (Guice even fewer), and writer Tad Williams and artists Shawn McManus arrived to keep the book going eight more issues, until it was finally canceled in 2007.

Like the Flash franchise, then, Aquaman has been doing little more than flailing, rarely settling into a single creative team or a single take on the character for an entire year, only Aquaman's been flailing for longer—well over a decade at this point.

And like the other three characters discussed above, Aquaman is a Silver Age stalwart in need of some tender loving creative care, of the sort Johns and co-writer Peter J. Tomasi have been lavishing on him and the other stars of Brightest Day. That's the only reason I'm really surprised to hear Johns is doing an Aquaman comic—it seemed like DC had decided that rather than do an Aquaman: Rebirth, they would have Johns and Tomasi do it along with a Martian Manhunter: Rebirth and Firestorm: Rebirth within the pages of Brightest Day.

I suppose it's also sort of surprising in that Aquaman is not only a relatively unpopular character, he's a historically difficult one to make work for very long, and it thus seems like an incredible challenge with poor odds for Johns to take at this point of his career. I'm glad he's doing so though. I think it shows quite a bit of creative chutzpah, and a willingness to challenge himself and lend his considerable popularity to a franchise that needs it.

Let's face it, DC would be foolish to not let Johns do whatever he wanted for the company at this point, and he could totally be writing a Batman book right now if he wanted to, which comes with guaranteed popularity, sales and, thus, royalties and prestige. (Hell, the Bat-office is just giving away Batman vanity titles these days). Instead, Johns is apparently going to take try to rehabilitate Aquaman.

If we look at Johns' past efforts at character rehabilitation as a guide, then if Johns fails, at worst, Aquaman could end up like Hawkman—getting a relatively short-lived monthly, but also a popular, consistent "take"—and, if it succeeds, then in five years time we could be reading three Aquaman books a month and looking forward to an Aquaman feature film.

Now if only Grant Morrison would take on Wonder Woman...

Oh, before I quit babbling about Johns and Aquaman, while reading and thinking about Johns efforts on Hal, Wally/Barry and Hawkman, I've noticed a few patterns. Essentially, Johns Batmans up the franchises by a) Making the city and/or setting a unique, highly individualized city that contrasts sharply to other DC locales, but has as much personality as a Gotham or Metropolis or Opal (Johns may have learned this trick from the Batman franchise, or he may have admired the way James Robinson built his Opal City in Starman), b) creating colorful villains and working to make the older villains seems more outrageous, more deadly, more evil and more motivated (Busiek already beat him to The Fisherman during the Sword of Atlantis run), and c) working to give the character a deeper supporting cast (this seems well underway in Brightest Day, where Johns created a new Aqualad and continues to give Mera increased prominence).

Friday, March 25, 2011

Green Arrow, possessive a-hole

Earth is under threat from a series of strange disasters, and so then-chairman of the Justice League Green Lantern Hal Jordan summons the rest of the League, and then splits them up into teams to investigate.

Black Canary and Green Arrow join Batman in the cockpit of the Bat-plane, where GA is a little annoyed that everyone's not paying attention to him: What are they thinking about, that's so much more interesting than how happy GA is to be flying a plane again?

Well, here's what's on Batman's mind: The two kissed briefly on the JLA satellite a few adventures ago, before "the slashing sword of guilt" caused them to break their embrace and apologize profusely to one another.

Once they land, Black Canary tries to have a semi-private word with Batman, which Green Arrow—who has no idea the two ever kissed, or that Batman once had something of a crush on Canary—freaks out:
Green Arrow gives them a whole three panels before he starts yelling at them:And, after all that, he still borrows Batman's plane.

Panels originally from 1971's Justice League of America #88, drawn by Dick Dillin and Joe Giella and written by Mike Friedrich, although the above were scanned from the 2011 collection Showcase Presents: Justice League of America Vol. 5, which is awesome and DC should totally keep publishing future volumes of it until they hit 1987's Justice League of America #261.

Mr. Tawny, is that you?

At DC's The Source blog today.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Suicide Squad, starring Ronald Reagan

I finally got a copy of Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Trial By Fire, the long-delayed collection of DC's fan-favorite 1980s action/espionage series by writer John Ostrander. I've read much of it in bits and pieces out of back-issue bins over the years, but generally out of order, and with months or years between issues—not the best way to read a serial comic book.

Reading the first eight issues (plus Secret Origins #14, which serves as a sort of bridge between the Squad's first appearance in Legends and the start of their monthly ongoing), I was repeatedly struck by how far ahead of its time it seemed—or, perhaps more accurately, how far behind Suicide Squad the current time is (in terms of Big Two super-comics, anyway).

If you look at the Marvel Universe comics over the last decade or so, for example, one can see that a great swathe of them have been mainly concerned with telling the same sorts of espionage and political intrigue in a continuity-lade, fantasy superhero setting that Ostrander and company were doing in 1987 (Brian Michael Bendis' Secret War for example, or Secret Warriors, or Secret Avengers; bits of Ed Brubaker's Captain America run and Matt Fraction's Invincible Iron Man; read one way, the entirety of the Civil War/Secret Invasion/Siege cycle of events was bascially little more than the story of who was in charge of SHIELD).

DC's tried recapturing this particular type of lightning in bottles over and over over the years, but nothing ever really caught on.

One of the many, many striking elements about the series I noticed while reading this book, in fact, the very first one, was that Ostrander and artists Luke McDonnel and Dave Hunt just straight up used President Ronald Reagan as one of the main characters in their first story, "The Secret Origin of the Suicide Squad" (From the aforementioned Secret Origins special).

The entire premise of the story is a meeting, which sounds deadly dull and like the sort of thing that Bendis might do in a random issue of one of his Avengers issues, but there are generous cutaways into flashbacks, with the meeting action in the premise merely the springboard for telling a 40-year story of the Suicide Squad.

The meetings participants are Amanda Waller, who is pitching a revamped version of the Squad, Sarge Steel and Reagan. There's no obfuscation about the president's identity, either. He's there, he's asking questions, he's making decisions, he's reacting to what he's heard, he's a character.That's a pretty sharp contrast to the way presidents are generally handled in Big Two comics today. DCU presidential history split off from that of the real world in the 2000 election, when Lex Luthor was elected president, Pete Ross finished his term, and then a fictional president or two held office. DC's US never had a George W. Bush or Barack Obama in its White House.

Bush and Obama and some members of their cabinets have shown up in Marvel Comics, but generally in safe, oblique ways, where they are so highly fictionalized that it barely matters who they are. President Obama acts just like President Bush I or Bush II or President Taft; whatever the story calls for. (Obama did get plenty of face-time in a particular issue of Amazing Spider-Man, but that was sort of a gimmick election collectible, not really a Marvel Universe story).

While it was strange to see so many drawings of Ronald Reagan, not with his head just out of panel, or a carefully positioned plant or deep shadows obscuring his face, but sitting there on-panel in a brightly lit office, it was even more strange that Ostrander made some effort to portray him as the real Ronald Reagan.

At two different point, Amanda Waller, who apparently works for a Democaratic congressman, makes remarks about Reagan's politics, which he responds to by gently chastising her to stay on-topic, with a, "Now, now..."The "shameful incident," revealed in the next two panels, is, of course the McCarthy hearings and "Red Scare" period that, in the DC Universe, also targeted costumed superheroes.

The result was that the members of the Justice Society of America publicly declared their intention to retire from crime-fighting in lieu of revealing their secret identities. Reagan was a friendly witness in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings seeking to root out the perceived/feared influence of Communism in Hollywood.

Later, when discussing her own background, Waller says this to the president:The meeting ends with Reagan giving his conditional approval of the project, and, when Waller leaves, Ostrander even assigns some less-than-noble motivations to his Reagan.I'm not exactly sure what's changed between 1987 and the 21st century that made it more permissible for DC Comics to use real, public figures in their stories back then—the increasing litigiousness of our culture? Easy access to mass communication making it easier to offended parties to make a lot of noise? The fact that more people seem to pay more attention to comics, and that it doesn't take much to generate negative publicity these days?—but the story was in sharp contrast to, say, 2008's DC Universe: Decisions, in which a slate of made-up candidates campaign for the presidency of the DC USA.

Meanwhile, at Blog@Newsarama...

This week's Blog@ review is of the fourth volume of Papercutz' excellent Smurfs series, the bizarrely he-man, woman-hating The Smurfette. You can read it here.

Also, there's this.