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Monday, December 28, 2015

Speculative Fiction Comic Books

A person I know has become very interested in the medium of comics, but she does not care, at all, about super heroes.  Since they are so prevalent in American comics, but not those of Europe or Japan, there is a temptation to look to those regions.  But she likes the writers and art styles of American comics.  So, I've been showing her Crime comics, Horror comics, Fantasy comics, and this current genre, SCIENCE FICTION.


There is one great aspect of SciFi Comics that trumps the movies.  You get similar stories and if you have a great artist, you get a movie on paper with a budget limited only to the imagination of the artist.  If he can think it, he can draw it.  So, that can be a very great thing.


Rather than super heroes, I believe that Scifi/fantasy comics are the best use of the medium.  Where else can we live in different worlds, different lives, and die thousands of times, without bodily harm to our selves?


Some of the best stories in the world of SciFi/Fantasy are first found in magazines, or self published works, or over seas magazines that have many different comics and ideas featured.  This isn't meant to sell anything, or tell veteran readers of comics to do something they haven't done.  I am just offering a look at works that are still exciting, and different, without the super hero costumes and self consumed continuities at the big ass companies, like DC and Marvel. 


Watch out, though.  Some of these works are only found by luck, in back issue bins, closets of no return, boxes of magazines that no one has touched for decades...  They might be worn and stink, but they still have gold between the covers.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Against the Code



 For a good half-century most of the comic books sold in the United States bore a special seal, an imprimatur like a tiny postage stamp certifying that they had been blessed by that mysterious custodian of comic book morality, the Comics Code Authority.
The Comics Code was established in 1954 by a group of comic book publishers for three purposes: to reassure worried parents that their books were wholesome and safe to buy for their wee tots, to forstall any federal legislation trying to regulate their industry, and to put Bill Gaines out of business.
William M. Gaines was the son of Max Gaines, the comics pioneer who was one of the founders of what became DC Comics, and who went on to start a company called Educational Comics, a company producing high-minded, edifying comic literature intended to improve the moral fiber of children. When Bill took over his father's company, he changed the name to Entertaining Comics, and changed its focus to crime fiction, suspense, science fiction and, most importantly, horror.
In the years following World War II, super-hero comics had declined in popularity, and publishers experimented with other genres, often going back to genres favored by the pulp magazines of a decade earlier. Bill Gaines was not the only publisher to do this, but by far his EC had the grittiest war comics, the most lurid crime comics and the goriest horror comics. They also sold well, and drew the most attention.
In the 1950s, one of the big social issues of the day, besides that of Communists under the bed and mushroom clouds in the sky, was Juvenile Delinquency. Television was still in its infancy and computer games hadn't been invented yet, so people had to blame something else for the decline in youth's morals. An enterprising psychologist named Frederick Wertham wrote a book titled SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT which placed the blame on violent comic books.
Wertham's big thing was literacy. He felt that comic books, being mostly pictures, hindered and degraded children's reading skills. The generation of kids a decade later who rushed to their dictionaries to decode Stan Lee's bombastic verbiage disproved this theory, but that came later; we'll be getting to Stan. Wertham actually approved of comic book fanzines, because the act of creating a 'zine and of writing about, reading about and arguing about even as trashy a subject as funnybooks exercised the reading skills he felt were important. He later even entered into amicable correspondence with fanzine editors.
In his book, though, Wertham's emphasis was on the more lurid aspects of comics and how they were creating a generation of depraved maniacs. A lot of the research he used to bolster his claims was highly slanted, when not outright fabricated. But he was a doctor, so people took his research seriously; especially when it told them what they wanted to hear.
In 1954, the US Senate convened a series of hearings to investigate Juvenile Delinquency, specifically the effect of extremely graphic horror and crime comics, and Bill Gaines was called upon to testify. Sadly, he put in a poor showing. Although eloquent in his defense of the First Amendment in his comic book editorials, before the Senate Subcommittee Gaines found himself cornered into trying to define the point at which a dismembered head becomes poor taste.
The rest of the comics publishers took alarm. After all, some of them weren't all that pure themselves regarding gory and sensationalistic comics. They faced the real possibility that the Government would impose regulations on the comic book industry. So they decided to regulate themselves.
The Comics Code was a set of self-imposed restrictions which would eliminate objectionable content from comic books. A panel chosen by the member companies would evaluate every book published by them. Those which did not violate the Code were granted the Seal of Approval: APPROVED BY THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY.
Comics which did not bear the APPROVED stamp would not be carried by the newsstands, nor by the big distributors who supplied them. Nor, presumably, would they be purchased by responsible, God-fearing parents.
Some of the Code's prohibitions seemed specifically aimed at EC's comics, such as:
  • No comic magazine shall use the words "horror" or "terror" in its title.
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.

Some of the rules seem reasonable enough as stated, but were highly restrictive as interpreted by the CCA. Gaines once wanted to reprint a pre-Code story by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando titled "Judgement Day" in his comic INCREDIBLE SCIENCE FICTION. The Code administrator objected because in the last panel the main character turns out to be black -- the story was an allegory about racial prejudice -- and Gaines had to fight to get it published.
Gaines tried to adapt to the new Comics Code era, but the restrictions sucked all the blood out of his comics like one of the vampires he could no longer depict, leaving them pallid and anemic. The only book he published which survived was a parodic humor comic titled TALES CALCULATED TO DRIVE YOU MAD. Gaines switched the comic to a magazine format to retain its editor, Harvey Kurtzman, but a beneficial side effect of the format change was that it was no longer subject to the Comics Code. MAD MAGAZINE wound up saving the company.
The Code's restrictions pretty much killed the crime and horror comic genres, at least for a decade or two following it; but the Comics Code Era saw a revival of super-hero comics. I suspect that this was because the four-color fantasy of the super books were invulnerable to the strictures of the Code.
But there were other changes in the funnybook world. For one thing, the audience was growing older. The stereotype of the 8-year-old boy sitting on the back porch with a Grape Nehi and a copy of MORE FUN was no longer the typical reader. Perhaps it never was all that typical. The comic book audience was becoming increasingly dominated by high school and college age readers.
In the early '60s, Marvel put out an anthology comic book titled AMAZING ADULT FANTASY -- not "Adult" in the risque sense but rather, as the comic's tagline put it, "The Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence." With characters such as Spider-Man (debuting in AMAZING FANTASY #15) and the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and his collaborating artists, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, tried to give their fantastic heroes realistic and believable character flaws and relatable emotional situations.
In 1971, Juvenile Delinquency was no longer as big a public concern, but Drug Addiction was. Stan Lee received a letter from the US Department of Health Education and Welfare, asking him to use the bully pulpit of his comic books to address this subject. This is how Stan tells it:
‘I got a letter from the Department of Health Education and Welfare.’ recalls Lee, ‘which said, in essence, that they recognized the great influence that Marvel Comics and Spider-Man have on young people. And they thought it would really be beneficial if we created a story warning kids about the dangerous effects of drug addiction. We were happy to help out. I wove the theme into the plot without preaching, because if kids think that you’re lecturing them, they won’t listen. You have to entertain them while you’re teaching.’ -- ("Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics" by Les Daniels)
He did a story with Gil Kane and John Romita Sr. that ran in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #96-98 featuring an important sub-plot in which Peter Parker discovers that his best friend, Harry Osborn has started popping pills. He tried to get his message across without being too preachy and while delivering a solid, exciting story, and was pleased with the result. But when the story was submitted to the CCA, as all his comics were, the board rejected it, saying that comics were not permitted to mention drugs, even to promote an anti-drug message.

Curiously, the Comics Code as originally formulated never specifically mentions drugs. The decision was based on a section of the code prohibiting "All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herin, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency."
A few years earlier, an issue of STRANGE ADVENTURES, introducing the DC character Deadman, had the hero fighting opium dealers and was passed apparently without much comment. (Deadman does not count as "walking dead", I suppose, because he more sorta floats). So why did that story pass and Spidey's didn't?
Leonard Darvin, the administrator of the CCA at the time, reportedly was sick at the time the Spidey story was submitted, and Archie Comics publisher John L. Goldwater was filling in for him. It was Goldwater who made the decision to withhold the board's approval. It's been speculated that had Darvin made the call, there wouldn't have been any problem.
Stan went to his boss, publisher Martin Goodman, and argued that they should publish the story anyway. He felt the message was important; and, Stan pointed out, they had been asked to do it by the U.S. Government. "We would do more harm to the country by not running the story than by running it," Stan later recalled. Goodman agreed, and the story ran without the Comics Code Seal on the cover.
For years, the big stick of the CCA had been that no one would buy a comic without their Seal of Approval. But the lack of a seal did not hurt Spider-Man in the least. Far from it; Marvel received a lot of positive mail from parents, teachers and religious organizations for shining a light on this problem. Contrary to expectations, the Heavens did not fall.
But perhaps the altars reeled a bit. After the anti-drug storyline in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ended, Marvel resumed putting the Comics Code Seal on its cover; and the Comics Code Authority amended the Code to allow the presence of drugs in comics so long as they were not represented as anything but a vicious habit.
And I think this really was the beginning of the end for the CCA. Oh yes, the organization remained in existence for another forty years, but during that time it became less and less relevant. By it's final years, only a handful of companies were participating in the CCA. The decline of newsstand sales and the rise of the Direct Market made newsstand distributors less important. Comics publishers became more willing to test the boundries. Shortly after the Spider-Man storyline, DC published it's own anti-drug story in GREEN LANTERN / GREEN ARROW, in which Green Arrow discovers that his former sidekick, Speedy, has become a heroin addict. (Which was a big surprise, because everybody figured that Speedy would become hooked on amphetimines.) The '70s saw a brief revival of horror comics. They were less gruesome than the EC books of the '50s, to be sure, but they still would have been unthinkable during the height of the Code's power. New publishers entered the market, some of whom did not ask for the CCA's blessing, and both Marvel and DC established separate comics lines marketed towards a more adult audience without the seal.
The death blow came in 2011, when Archie Comics, which had long been a champion of the Code, announced that they were dropping it. By that time, Archie wasn't even bothering to submit their comics to the board, because the CCA administrators were just rubber-stamping everything they received without reading it. The remaining members, DC Comics and Bongo (publisher of the SIMPSONS comics), simply let their dues lapse. With no participating members, the Comics Code Authority dissolved.
Their logo, the APPROVED BY THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY stamp, was acquired by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization that supports the First Amendment rights of the comics medium and opposes censorship of comics. Bill Gaines did not live to see this happen, but I'm sure he would have appreciated the irony.
Some might say that comics were better when they were constrained by a moral code, but I don't think the Code was ever about morality; it was about externals, wholly divorced from the needs of the story, even from the needs of a moral. Stan was the first to point this out in a big way, and he caused the first cracks in the imposing edifice of the Comics Code.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Interviewing JOSH HOWARD with a special Announcement


Josh Howard is a talented person, and writes and draws, along with creates his own universes for his stories.  I've been onboard with his work since the beginning and he was kind enough to invite me to participate in one of his non-Dead@17 works.  So I definitely am a fan.  And a friend.  And a fan.


From his website: 

"Earlier this year, a live-action adaptation of DEAD@17 went before cameras as an official short film production from POPBOOM, a new YouTube channel launching in 2016 that will be home to both narrative and docu-style productions destined to feed the fanboy and fangirl appetite.

So now, without further ado, I am proud to debut the teaser trailer for DEAD@17: REBIRTH!"


Q1) For the readers who have not been aboard for the whole ride, could you give us all a thumbnail view of the series, now that it has ended, without spoilers?

A1) This has always been a very difficult question for me to answer, unfortunately. What Dead@17 started as is not how it ended up. If you were asking about what it was initially, the idea was basically taking the horror trope of the female victim and turning her into the hero. In a nutshell - a teenage girl is murdered, then resurrected, and is caught between two opposing forces battling over her soul. What starts as a pretty straightforward horror tale evolves over the course of 7 series to encompass faith, religion, political intrigue, and ultimately, the end of the world.

Q2) What has the response been to your work, in general, as it has been a long epic tale, but it has also been a moral tale at the same time,  in a world of heroics, but rarely moral discussions?

A2) The response over the years has varied between two camps - those that simply enjoy it for characters and the adventure, and those that get something from it on a deeper level - and it's those I find most satisfying. I put A LOT of work and thought into this series. So much consideration was given to the themes, theology, and what it is I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. But I never designed the series to present big moral discussions. Instead, my M.O. from day one was to present things "the way they are" - with Christianity and its theology & tenets as a given. Nara never converts to Christianity. She just is. My whole life I've observed how much of secular entertainment just presents its worldview "as is" with little no consideration given to an opposing view - or at least, an honest one. When Hollywood or any media isn't dogging Christianity, it's pretending it doesn't exist. And that sends a powerful message. So that's where I'm coming from - wanting to present a counter balance to that, but in an as honest and truthful way as I can.


Q3) Do you hope for any sort of works to add to the reader and critic perception of you as a writer and artist of deeper tales, or if you will, moral tales?


A3) I have many more stories to tell. And they'll probably all be better than Dead in every way - technically, narratively, structurally, etc. I learned a lot during the 12 years I worked on it. But I don't think that will necessarily make them "deeper" or "moral." And honestly, I don't care either way. All I care about is telling a good, engaging story while hopefully illuminating the truth in some way. 


Q4) When ending a tale, as this work has finally found its rightful and logical place of end, do you feel sorrow at its termination, or is it a relief?


A4) I'm not sure either emotion is wholly accurate. I mean, finishing that last 7 issue arc was a relief for sure - I've never done that many issues in a row - and they all came out on time, except for the last one which was a month late because it ran twice as long. So yeah, I was relieved to have pulled that off without killing myself. But on a whole, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Dead@17 was never part of the long term plan when I got started in this business. I planned to do a couple and then move on to other stories. But as people fell in love with the characters, and as they and the world grew in my mind, I never quite got away from it. So I dug in and made it a goal to fully tell this story to its completion. And despite numerous obstacles and setbacks, I did just that. Sure, there are plenty of things I wish I could change or do differently, but I'm still very proud at how the whole thing turned out.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Outrage caused by war, due to art


The Spanish Civil War was fought between the Socialist Spanish government, International brigades and Soviet "volunteers" vs Spanish "Nationalists", Fascists who received support from Italy, Germany and Portugal.  The war was won by the Nationalists, and was followed by a near 30 year dictatorship by Francisco Franco's government.  Many atrocities occurred, with executions, purges, and betrayals on both sides.  During the war Germany's Condor Legion bombed and strafed a city called Guernica. The Bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) would have been ignored or lost amongst the horror of war, if not captured by Pablo Picasso in painting.  This blog tries to show how art translates life and life is translated by art.  This is a case of how the work in question perhaps did not stop the war, or change it directly, but the world opinion definitely changed, from modest interest or awareness, to outrage and horror.



"Before God and before History which must judge us all, I affirm that for three and one-half hours, German planes bombarded with unheard-of fury the defenceless civilian population of the historic city of Gernika, reducing it to ashes, chasing with machine-gun fire women and children who perished in great number, fleeing the stampede of others driven mad by panic." José Antonio Aguirre

"Aguirre is lying. We have respected Guernica, as we respect everything Spanish." Francisco Franco

Click to enlarge
 Guernica by Pablo Picasso copyright his estate


“It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols,” said Pablo Picasso when asked to explain his celebrated mural, Guernica. “….The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving on the Nautilus


Having renounced all contact with the surface world, Captain Nemo has found alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving Dinner.  So, do you want white meat or dark meat?

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

With one magic word, SHAZAM!!!!!!


Do not let the travesty of the shit storm happening with modern DC comics that has changed Captain Marvel into "Shazam" stop you from appreciating the wonder and beauty of the character.  He was a character made in a simpler time, that is true, but, his powers were drawn from sources of myth and legend, and the stories were written with a whimsy and joy not found in nearly anything similar.  The story of the character's move from Golden Age giant to Bronze Age outcast, who missed the Silver Age entirely, is well documented elsewhere.  The business entity that was to become DC Comics declared that Captain Marvel was too close in powers to Superman, and sued.  The resulting lawsuit and entanglements led to Fawcett comics closing up their heroes, and DC buying the characters and copyrights.  They then could offer up the character without it damaging their product, since, it was now their own product.

As a youth I was bored with Superman, despite appreciating what he stood for.  But I never grew bored of Captain Marvel.  The reason was found in the difference between adult intelligence and childlike innocence.  Superman had honor, and was moral, but in his stories he bordered on stupid because he almost had to become less intelligent to make the story work.  Whereas Captain Marvel was innocent with the heart of a boy, who trusted and hoped in the best of people. 

Fawcett Comics
I've heard that DC has changed the character to be edgy and dark, to be different and attract attention.  Well, then he is no longer Captain Marvel.  I understand the name change to Shazam, with the competition being MARVEL comics, having a Captain Marvel seems a bit dangerous, reminding people of the competition. 

In the present, to make the character they thought was too similar to Superman, but who I liked far better than Superman, DC has crushed him, and all of his fans.  What DC has done is deboned, eviscerated, and flensed the corpse of a character that was beautiful.  Now within its body is a ghost, and nothing more.

So I love you Captain Marvel, may you ever fly in my dreams.

And screw you DC.  You suck.

Alex Ross Copyright DC
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Sunday, November 1, 2015

I Started A Joke



In the late 1980s, Alan Moore was one of the rock stars of comics. He had started out writing for the venerable British comics weekly, 2000 A.D., home of JUDGE DREDD, and for the anthology magazine WARRIOR, where he wrote such series as V FOR VENDETTA and the revival of the British hero MARVELMAN, (renamed MIRACLEMAN when reprinted in the U.S.) Coming to DC Comics, he wrote a groundbreaking run on SWAMP THING which indirectly led to the creation of DC's VERTIGO line of comics. Moore's masterpiece during this period working for DC was his epic deconstruction of the super-hero, WATCHMEN. This led to DC commissioning him to write the Definitive Joker Story, which became the graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE.

The Joker has always been an enigma in the DC Universe. Up to the Joker's first appearance, Batman had always fought your standard garden variety thugs and gangsters. The Joker, with his garish calling card, psychotic leer and box-o-crayons face, was Batman's first costumed villain. In his first appearance he apparently fell to his death, but you can't keep a good villain down.

His real name has never been revealed. Oh yes, he was given an origin story about a decade after his debut, as the leader of a gang of criminals who hid his identity under an opaque red helmet shaped like a bell jar, who called himself The Red Hood. While attempting to rob a chemical plant, his heist was interrupted by the Batman; and the Red Hood wound up falling into a vat of chemicals which bleached his skin bone-white and turned his hair green. But the Red Hood remained as much a mystery as the Joker.

Alan Moore's take on the Red Hood/Joker origin story was one of the most anticipated stories of the year. Moore was arguably the best writer working for DC at the time, and the Joker DC's most popular villain. The artist, Brian Bollard, was another alumnus of 2000 AD, and known for his meticulously rendered artwork. (And for his tardiness; one earlier series he worked on, Mike W. Barr's CAMELOT 3000, went a whole 12 months between issues; and Bollard eventually went to drawing only covers).

There is a lot of good stuff in THE KILLING JOKE. Moore has a talent for taking elements and conventions of the comic book super-hero that are cliched and even goofy, and finding new ways of looking at them. But there is much about the story that I find unsatisfying. Moore seems to agree with me; in later interviews he has said that he doesn't regard it as a terribly good story and he didn't care much for the characters. He wrote it shortly after finishing WATCHMEN, and the story carries a lot of stylistic similarities to it.

The story begins with a wordless sequence of Batman going to Arkham Asylum to confront the Joker. These initial pages are arranged in the same nine-panel 3x3 grid that Moore used in WATCHMEN. The regularity of the format provides a kind of inexorable rhythm that builds suspense. He does not maintain the format throughout the entire book, as he did with WATCHMEN, but the 3x3 grid keeps recurring, and he uses it again on the final page to tie things together, even repeating the image of the very first panel in the very last.

Batman is coming to see the Joker for an unexpected reason. “I've been thinking lately about you and me,” he says. “About what's going to happen to us in the end. We're going to kill each other, aren't we?” He wants to talk things out with the Joker, try to break the vicious cycle of their twisted antagonistic relationship; perhaps even help the Joker. But Batman is late; he learns that the Joker has already escaped.

We meet the Joker looking over an abandoned and dilapidated carnival which he plans to use for his next big plan. As he does so, we get the start of a flashback to his life before he became the Joker. This dual plot; the present one involving the carnival and Commissioner Gordon, and the flashback to his backstory; weave back and forth. As in WATCHMEN, Moore signals the transition from past to present with panels which visually echo each other. The double doors of Joker's evil funhouse in one panel echo the double doors of a seedy bar in the flashback in the next. The panel of the hapless comic covering his face in anguish leads to the one of Commissioner Gordon doing the same.

Before the Joker was the Clown Prince of Crime, he was a sad sack loser trying desperately to support his wife and child-to-be as a stand-up comedian. He wasn't very successful, and when a couple crooks want his help in robbing a playing card company. He used to work in a chemical plant next door, and the crooks want his inside information to break into the card company through the plant. They just want him to wear this costume, evening clothes and a helmet-like red hood,. “We sort of just let the most valued member of the mob wear it for, uh, added anonymity.”

The comic is desperate enough that he accepts the offer. His family needs the money. Then he learns that his wife has died in a tragic and pointless household accident. There's no reason for him to go along with the Red Hood gang anymore, but the crooks won't let him back out. He's trapped.

With the Red Hood, Moore once again demonstrates his habit of looking at real-world ramifications of comic book gimmicks. The hood is stuffy, and smells; and the special red lenses built into the hood make it difficult for the wearer to see and severely curtails his peripheral vision. And the hood itself is a cruel joke; it's purpose is not to honor the “most valued member”; it's to fool the cops into thinking the guy in the fancy dress is the ringleader so that they go after him instead.

Which is what happens. There is a gunfight with the security guards; then the Batman shows up, looking like a very devil through the hood's red-tinted lenses, and confronts the man in the hood. The sad-sack panics and jumps into a retaining pond filled with toxic waste to escape. And the rest is history.



It is a powerful re-interpretation of the Joker's origin, keeping it's original structure but fundamentally shifting how we look at it. But is it the definitive origin? The Joker himself casts doubt on it. Later on in the story he says, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!”

While this backstory, whether real or delusional, unfolds; the Joker's plot progresses. He appears at the door of Commissioner Gordon, dressed as a tourist in a tacky Hawaiian shirt with a camera. And a gun. When Gordon's daughter, Barbara answers the door, he shoots her in the spine.

This is the significant moment, and the image of the Joker in the Hawaiian shirt with the camera and pistol has become an iconic one, like the image of young Bruce Wayne kneeling over his slain parents from BATMAN: YEAR ONE, or Superman chucking a sedan on the cover of ACTION COMICS #1. This is the moment that became an important event in DC Continutiy, a “Fixed Point in Time”, to use Doctor Who terminology. (Really. Many years later there was a story in which a time-traveling Booster Gold attempts to save her but repeatedly fails, and is forced to accept that the tragedy was somehow destined to be). The one lasting ramification of the story was that Barbara had been shot by the Joker and permanently crippled.

Barbara Gordon had formerly had a crime-fighting career as Batgirl. At the time, she hadn't really been used much in the BATMAN comics, though. Which I think is why, when Moore asked if he could have the Joker shoot Batgirl, the editor in charge of the book shrugged and said, why not?

I remember the summer before THE KILLING JOKE came out, DC published a BATGIRL SPECIAL, which was advertised with the promise that it was essential reading going into the upcoming KILLING JOKE. I remember little of that Special, apart from being disappointed. The writer, Barbara Kessel, had done a very good Batgirl origin story for the SECRET ORIGINS comic a year or so earlier, but the Special, in which Barbara fought a guy wearing a Mountie hat calling himself the Cormorant (wha...?), was not that great. At the end of the Special, Barbara feels so traumatized by her fight with the Cormorant (wha...?) that she decides to give up being Batgirl. My own suspicion was that DC was burning up an inventory story, a script they had in their files to use if they ever got any holes in their schedule, which they wouldn't be able to use after KILLING JOKE came out; and that the ending where Barbara hangs up her cape was tacked on to explain why she isn't Batgirl in TKJ.

In later interviews, Alan Moore says he regretted crippling Barbara. I suppose he wanted to do something shocking and dramatic and didn't think through what it would mean to future stories. But frankly, that was the editor's job; the editor should have either vetoed that bit, or discussed alternatives which might have worked better. Too late now.

There are a lot of Batgirl fans who hated what Moore did to her as well. The Joker did not just shoot her in the belly, smashing her spine and crippling her. When the police arrive they find that she has been stripped naked, and evidence that the Joker took photographs of her. Some fans have drawn the conclusion that he also raped her. This is never explicitly stated, but it's hard to argue that what he did wasn't a violation.

But I think what angered the Batgirl fans most was that Barbara was set up to be a disposable victim, and was set aside once she'd served her purpose. Like the Whale in “The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy”, she was introduced, given enough panels to make the audience like her, and then BANG. She gets a brief scene in the hospital with Batman afterward, but apart from that for the rest of the story she's a prop. And after the story, she was left there, crippled. She was not stuffed in a refrigerator as much as she was stuffed in a plastic bag and left on the curb for the garbage man.  Whether Moore intended it or not, seemed very much like the editors wanted to write Barbara Gordon out of the DC Universe.

Not all of them. One DC editor, Kim Yale, disliked what had happened to Barbara. She and her husband, writer John Ostrander, brought her back in his book SUICIDE SQUAD as Oracle, a data-broker who maintained a vast computer network to support other super-heroes. Oracle was a mysterious figure at first, only later revealed to be Barbara Gordon; but she grew to be an important support character both for Batman and the Justice League and the leader of her own team in BIRDS OF PREY. More recently, Barbara has been shown to have received treatment restoring the use of her legs and has resumed her role as Batgirl.

But back to the story. After shooting Barbara, the Joker kidnaps her father and brings him to his little Abandoned Carnival of Evil. He has recruited a gang of extras from Tod Browning's “Freaks” who strip Gordon naked and coerce him with cattle prods into a funhouse ride – think of the psychotic boat ride from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, only with Joker singing his cynical nihilistic philosophy and culminating with Gordon forced to view enormous images of his daughter, naked and bleeding. Yes, degradation is sort of a theme here. Why does he do this all? “To prove a point,” he earlier tells Barbara.

This point is a theme he elaborates on in a number of monologues throughout the story. He puts Gordon in a cage for his henchfreaks to laugh at and expounds his philosophy of life:

“Ladies and gentlemen! … I give your... the average man! Physically unremarkable, it has instead a deformed sense of values. … Most repulsive of all, are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them... they snap. … Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this... any other response would be crazy!”

He plays variations on this theme throughout the whole story, including the sprightly music hall number he sings during the dark ride. His plan is to drive Gordon to madness, and it isn't long before the Commissioner is curled up into a fetal position, seemingly catatonic.

Meanwhile, Batman has been scouring the city for the Joker, in another wordless sequence in which he goes around intimidating people and shoving the Joker's picture in their faces. As a visual sequence, it works, and conveys the urgency of the situation, but I really expect the Dark Knight Detective to do better than that. In the end he finds the hideout only because the Joker sends him tickets to the Carnival care of the Gotham City Police Station.

As Batman pursues the Joker through his demented fun house, The Joker returns to his point.

“I've demonstrated there's no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. … You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?”

He's right on the last point; that's pretty much what happened. Batman and Joker can be seen as twisted mirror images of each other. Oh, and this sequence takes place in a hall of mirrors. I should have caught that earlier. The Joker goes on to rant about the futility and irrationality of the universe.

“It's all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for … it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side?” The Joker becomes serious for once; his face almost pensive. “Why aren't you laughing?”

“Because I've heard it before...” Batman answers grimly, “...and it wasn't funny the first time.”

And for the record, Gordon did NOT break the way the Joker expected him to. He told Batman to bring in the Joker “by the book”. “We have to show him. We have to show him our way works.” So maybe ordinary people don't always crack.

Finally defeated, the Joker resigns himself to having the snot beaten out of him and being dragged back to Arkahm. But Batman holds back. Because he still wants to say his piece; the things he tried to tell Joker back at Arkham. That the two of them seem locked on a course of Mutually Assured Destruction and they need to break out of it somehow.

“It doesn't have to end like that. I don't know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but who knows? Maybe I've been there too. Maybe I can help.”

The Joker may be crazy, but on a certain level he's a realist. He knows it will never work. He tells Batman that it's too late for that. Does he mean that with atrocity committed against Barbara and Jim Gordon that he has gone beyond redemption? Or that he had crossed that line long ago?

It's kind of like a joke. “See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum...” Joker says, and he tells this joke: a simple funny story with no decapitations, no deadly acid, and no hideous disfigurments. Perhaps it was even one of the jokes the unnamed would-be comedian tried to tell at his botched audition alluded to in the flashback. But it's a joke which maybe strikes a chord with the two crazy men facing each other in the rain; the one who looks like a clown, and the one who dresses like a bat.

And Batman does something he very rarely does. He cracks a smile. And then a chuckle. And then a laugh, and the two men dissolve into hysterical laughter as the police cars arrive and the rain comes down.

And... that's it. Pan to artistic raindrops in puddles. Fade out. The End.

I can't help but feel disappointed in the ending. It's like a massive build-up to a weak punch line. After all the Joker has done in this story, we expect something bigger, more cathartic. And if nothing else, Barbara deserves some kind of closure. Instead, we get a laugh.

Which is perhaps why writer Grant Morrison has speculated that Batman actually kills the Joker on that last page, and that THE KILLING JOKE was intended to be the Last Joker Story. If you look at the page, one can kind of see that interpretation; as they are laughing together at the end, Batman reaches out and puts his hand on Joker's upper body. The view pans away from their faces. Does Batman strangle the Joker?



Looking at the panels, I suppose one could make that case; but to me it just looks like Batman is putting his hand on Joker's shoulder to steady each other as they laugh. And that is how Moore actually describes the panel in his script: the two are helpless with laughter and holding each other up. Moore is a meticulous, detail-oriented writer; if he had wanted the Joker killed, he would have explicitly said so. Or if he had wanted the scene to be ambiguous, he would have instructed the artist as to what exactly he wanted to be ambiguous about. Having Batman kill the Joker would have blatantly gone against Gordon's request to Batman: (“By the book, do you hear!”). And it would have wrecked the point of the joke.

I have to say, that looking at the book again, I have a little better liking about some of the bits I didn't care for. Bolland's artwork is superb, and Moore's writing carries subtleties which reward repeated reading. The Joker's soliloquies are eloquent, yet Moore manages to avoid the Lucifer trap that Milton found himself in where the Bad Guy is so charismatic that he makes the Good Guy look like a stiff. Moore's Batman is forceful and quite capable of answering the Joker's absurdist nihilism. Moore's craft in structuring his plot is amazing; (and ironic, considering he's here writing about an avatar of chaos).

The ending, though, is still weak; it just sort of drizzles off into atmosphere. And I'm still not happy with the way Barbara Gordon is used as a plot device to be discarded after the Joker had finished victimizing her. That later writers were able to build off this story to reinvent her does not negate that in this tale her role is simply to be helpless, and to stay out of the way.

I don't think THE KILLING JOKE is the best Joker story ever, (although I would be hard pressed to say which one is; probably one from the Animated Series), and I sometimes get annoyed by the adulation some fans heap upon it. Yet I can't deny, where it's good, it excels; and Moore provides an interesting look into the psyches of both the Clown and the Bat.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

JOSH BROWN UFF-DA'S Man of many hats


JOSH BROWN
Writer, Editor, Publisher

I am pleased to present this interview with my friend and publisher, (and editor and format specialist) Josh Brown.  I met him on Myspace, then at FallCon, and I can't say I immediately got to know him, it was a slow process, but I immediately liked him, respected him, and appreciated working with him.  And then he brought his son to the shows, and he is adorable.  So, I thought, since I do lots of writing, and Josh has helped bring much of that to you all, maybe you should get to know him.  Here is my interview then, with Josh.

For the record please state your name, job, and reason for writing...


Hi, I'm Josh Brown, I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons. 

Reason for writing is a great question – I grew up as an only child and I guess a vivid imagination came as a result of playing alone a lot of the time. Making up people, situations, entire worlds, was just something I did. I also started reading at an early age and have been writing stories for as long as I can remember. When I was about 7 or 8 I wrote a story called "The Bat Who Hated Other Bats" about a little bat who was mean to other bats until one day he looked in a mirror and realized he was also a bat. I remember my mom and grandma just loving the story and always encouraging me to be creative.

Fast forward about 15 years and I was a college grad with an English degree and a dream. I somehow stumbled into the publishing industry, first working in magazines, then with a non-fiction book publisher, then an audiobook publisher, and now I work for a book sales and distribution company. In my "spare time" I write comics, short stories, and poetry, and have also dabbled in publishing (not just talking about self-publishing either, mind you) under an imprint I call Uffda Press.


What was your first published work, did you get paid, what would you do differently on it today looking back?

In college I wrote articles for the Arts & Entertainment section of the school newspaper, the UMD Statesman.  It did pay, but not much. It got me into a lot of free concerts and museums and arts shows and such, though. That led to some more creative writing and I had a couple short stories published in UMD's literary journal, The Roaring Muse. One of the stories was pretty well-received; it was about a troubled college professor who basically threw his entire life away trying to prove the existence of Loch Ness monster-type of creature living in Lake Superior. Looking back I sometimes think I should have tried to do more with the creative writing at the time, but hey, like they say, hindsight is 20/20.


Did you get educated for a career as a writer?  If so, would you recommend the same sort of path for others?  Why or why not?


Sort of. I have a BA in English Literature and worked at the college newspaper. I loved working at the Statesman, and saw myself as going into journalism, but UMD did not offer journalism as a major or minor at that time. I think they added it was a minor the year after I graduated. So I would say I was educated for a career in publishing, but the writing sort of happened on its own.


After I graduated college I started doing more creative writing on my own. I hooked up with a couple artist friends and wrote some short comic stories that got picked up here and there, including one that was published in Negative Burn, a fairly prestigious and well-known anthology at the time. I had a poem published in Abandoned Towers Magazine, a genre zine that is now defunct. I began to experiment a little with self-publishing. I just starting writing more – comics, poems, short stories – and submitted. And got rejected. A lot. Heck, I still get a lot of rejections. It's part of the game.


In the end, I guess the best advice I can give is to not only put your work out there, but to also put yourself out there – network, make friends, be part of the community.


What dead authors are your favorites?  Do they inspire you, or do they just entertain you?

I would say there are two authors that are no longer with us that stand out for me: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings changed my life; it's what made me a fan of fantasy fiction. And Howard, man, I have always loved Conan the Barbarian and fantasy pulp and Howard's hardboiled take on the fantasy genre. The inspiring part I think is that both Tolkien and Howard were also amazing poets as well. Tolkien is pretty well known for his poems and translations of poems, but Howard doesn't seem to get as much recognition for his. Which is a shame, because it is fantastic stuff. Robert E. Howard's fantasy poems are just incredible.
 

Describe your office or I should say, your work station when you are working, is there music, pets, kids, wife, do you deal well with distractions?


I definitely wait until the kids are in bed. I usually just sit on the couch with my computer on my lap and my feet up on the ottoman. I occasionally have something playing on Netflix, or some melodic movie score playing on my iPod, but a lot of time I write with no tv or music at all. Just me and the words. I'm a morning person, so I also sometimes get up early to write. And sometimes writing just happens spontaneously – I get a couple ideas and I have to write them down in a notepad, or type them out on my phone or tablet. Writing can happen anywhere.


What kind of books haven't been successful in the market of books, that really have great potential, and what books reap enormous sales and you see them as being blech, unoriginal and booooring?


I really wish we could see speculative poetry books sell a lot more in the mainstream marketplace. Poetry books in general can be a hard sell, but I am a huge fan of fantastic poetry that draws from elements of science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror.

Also, maybe because I am both a father to young children and a lover of great art and illustration/comics, I would love to see more in the way of children's picture books. It seems like the children's book market is completely dominated by most of the "big" publishers, but if you look hard enough, there are some great kids books out there from other, smaller publishers. I think we're primed to see an uptick in more quality children's picture books from a wide range of different publishers. 

I really hate to call any book unoriginal and boring. It's all a matter of personal tastes, and no matter how boring I may think a book is, there is sure to be a group of superfans rallying behind it.


 What impact has social media played in the creative world, how has it directly influenced your writing and being published, and how could it be better?


If you're an author and you're not promoting your work though social media, you might as well be a ghost. In this day and age, even the large publishers such as Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster expect their authors to be "pounding the pavement" via social media. It's as important as book tours, if not more so, these days.

I'm not certain there's any direct influence on how or what I write, but for example, whenever I tweet about the latest installment of Shamrock in Fantasy Scroll Magazine, there's a noticeable upswing in activity, from page views to retweets to favorites.  So there's no denying it helps get you out there.

How could social media be better? I dunno, seems like it's working fine so far, but the great thing about technology is that it is always evolving; someone is always out there working to improve upon what we already have.


If you had a money is no object situation, what would you do in publishing, assuming of course, that you would, and, why would you go in that direction?


Speaking as a publisher, I would love to publish more speculative poetry because, as I mentioned previously, I love it and think there should be more of it out there on bookstore shelves. If money were no object I would put the bulk of it towards marketing and advertising, because in my experience and from what I have learned about publishing, that's a big part of how books become successful.  Aside from the fact that they have to be good, of course!


What is the point of it all?  Doesn't digital wipe out the joy of reading, of buying books, of reading books?


Hell no! Books are books and a good story is a good story, no matter the format. I love hardcovers, paperbacks, digital, audio – heck, if books could be injected intravenously I probably would do that too! I will buy a book at the store, order a book online, download a book on my e-reader, buy an audiobook CD, download an mp3, or read some short stories and poetry online from webzines such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Fantasy Scroll, Lightspeed, you name it. To me, having all these options adds to the joy of reading!


Where do you want to take your career?

Well, as far as writing, I've been trying for some time to crack the short speculative fiction market, but it's a tough nut. Going to keep trying my hand at that. Somewhat to my surprise, I've had decent luck with poetry, so I plan on continuing to churn out some verse. I definitely want to continue to write comics, and hope to someday have a collected edition of "Shamrock," which is currently serialized in fantasy Scroll Magazine. Would love it if someday a comic publisher came knocking on my door inviting me to write for an established property. That's been a dream of mine since I was a kid.

As far as publishing, I really feel like there are voices out there that need to be heard, and I'll continue to look for quality speculative fiction and poetry to publish under my Uffda Press imprint. At the moment I'm more focused in seeking out and publishing speculative poetry, but I would love to put another anthology together sometime soon as well.



What does it mean to write?  Are you different than an artist?


Writing is definitely an art. It means everything to write. You are putting a piece of yourself out there – your mind, your body, your soul. But it's also kind of a science, and a craft, and you have to be careful to hone your craft, practice, continually strive to get better. And, for better or for worse, there's also a business side to it, that is, if you are attempting to make a living at it.

 Tell us about what you have coming up.

Well, most recently I had a short horror story titled “The View From the Attic” included in a horror anthology called Toys in the Attic from JWK Fiction, I had a story in The Martian Wave 2015 from Nomadic Delirium Press, I had a flash fiction piece published on SpeckLit, and of course there was King of Ages: A King Arthur Anthology with a story from myself and 12 other absolutely amazing writers. I feel like we really took the Arthurian legend to the next level with that one.

Coming up, I have a poem titled “Flame of Cthulhu” set to appear in an erotic horror anthology called Lovecraft After Dark from JWK Fiction, I have a poem titled “The Tragedy of Dracula’s Daughter” set to appear in Popcorn Press's 2015 Halloween anthology  Zen of the Dead, I have another poems to run in Beechwood Review, I have another piece of flash fiction set to appear on SpeckLit, a short story in a dystopian-themed anthology coming from Hydra Publications, and my comic "Shamrock" with art by Alberto Hernandez continues to be serialized in Fantasy Scroll Magazine.

2015 has been a heck of a year, and I'm hopeful I can keep the momentum going into 2016!

Links to All Things Josh:

Josh's twitter

Josh's website

Josh's Amazon page

Uffda Press

Fantasy Scroll Magazine

King of Ages: A King Arthur Anthology

Toys in the Attic

The Martian Wave 2015

SpeckLit

JWK Fiction

Popcorn Press
http://www.popcornpress.com

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Comics I gave Away, And the Comics I bought to give away

Over the years as a comic book fan with a blog, with a website, and reviewer with companies sending product for review, I felt a responsibility to send comics to fans, and especially to people who weren't able to buy any for themselves.  I sent comics to poor men, sleeping overnight at friend's homes with only a PO Box.  I sent comics to military members overseas.  I sent comics to many people and I didn't do it for praise, I did it so that my conscience could be clear should I not review a comic it would immediately be placed in a box for other people to read. But those were not the only comics I gave away.  I gave away some kick ass comics from my personal list of great comics as well. I would look for cheap copies and try to buy as many if I found them cheap.   This is a column featuring the comics I gave to people, and the comics I chose due to greatness.  You could no doubt point and choose a lot of great comics, they exist.  But these are from my years in the trenches.  And I do get asked, "how many have you mailed out".  I've given away at conventions, schools and through the mail a total of over 4000 comics.  And at no point did I regret any of it.

The Spectre: Crime and Punishments by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake is a fabulous collection, however small it seems.  DC regrettably did not make it 6 issues thick, nor did they follow up with more, but it is stunning, and the series itself is beautifully bright, smart, and provocative.  Who knew a comic could raise questions about God and Good and Evil in Heaven and Earth.  Good stuff.  I gave a copy (of many I've shared) of this to friend Barry Keller who read it and said, you know this fella Tom Mandrake might have a future in comics.  I surely agreed, and that cat Ostrander ain't too bad either.

Hexbreaker: A Badger Graphic Novel is a hoot.  Mike Baron tells a fun, mostly light hearted story that has action, fun characters, and interesting philosophies.  People I've given it to say they like it but, are split often between wanting Kung Fu (ala the ABC series in the 1970s) or Mortal Kombat style action.  This work is too thoughtful for one, and too humorous for the other.  Instead it is just really good.

Gotham By Gaslight is a Batman Elseworlds short graphic novel.  It is set in the Victorian era, and Jack the Ripper is in his day, ripping and notoriously taunting those who hunt him.   The Batman comes into being in this alternative time line 100 years earlier, and has to catch the most vile serial killer of all time.  This is a brilliant work and I've given away well over 25 copies of this.

Silver Surfer Parable is a work that kicked my ass, and then ran a steamroller over me.  I had always seen the potential for greatness in Silver Surfer but I was rarely satisfied with any work I read.  It was either a mediocre story with great art or shitty art and interesting writing.  But here, even with the fact that Stan Lee hasn't ever really moved me as a writer, we see Galactus land upon earth, and people rush to him, convinced he is their God.  Silver Surfer must now stop him, and save earth, all the while knowing, one false move, and Galactus will act with no shame, as the consequence of holding him to his word will not work for long.  I think I bought five of the softcover of these, but kept my hardcover.  And then I traded the hardcover and started seeing hardcovers for sale.  It is a book I love, because Moebius was born to draw characters in space, and flying. 



Giving away comics I was very aware that people outside of comics often think super heroes are stupid or juvenile.  I am a 52 year old male with a Master's Degree in History with some work in Political Science and I've had two IQ tests that suggest I have an IQ in the range of 150.  I think super heroes are not stupid, nor are they juvenile.  What they are is wearing uniforms, just as a legendary hero attacking the dragon wears armor, or carries a shield with a marking of the king, so to do these heroes.  It is a symbol, not realism.  Still, not everyone thinks like me, or like that.  (Thank God for the first, and oh well to the second).  So, the comic Scout is perfect to give.  A world where the US has fallen and is struggling while we are fighting to stay alive against the vultures who wish harm to come to us?  Sounds recent.  Kings in Disguise is a historical comic, told from the point of view of young boy who runs away, becomes a hobo, and travels the Depression era US.  It is so deep it makes me feel like we are still in the Depression.  And Automatic Kafka?  It is a comic book you give to the artists and thinkers in your life.  Ashley Wood and Joe Casey created something so different the parent company DC canceled it before the audience could find it, but if it had been allowed to grow, I can only imagine the heights it would have reached.  It isn't for everybody, but it is genius work.

I know people who hate these books, but I would make sure not to give these books to those kind of jerks.  These are stories told where the heroes from the comics are morphed into characters from classic movies, and the archetypes they follow meld the two worlds and characters together.  And the beauty of these is that if you don't like them you can set them down, never pick them up again, and move on.  I personally think DC is brilliant to have done Elseworlds as they call them because Alternative worlds allows the reader to see the grace and power of the characters they love, without the trappings of costume or world they live in.  It can't really be done with less iconic characters, so Alternative stories at Marvel rarely ring true.  But, I'd be willing to be wrong.  These books I've given three sets (and kept a set for myself, shamelessly.)  I really like these and if I could I'd share more.

As many who follow my writings and interviews here know, I like the work Winter World and the reason I like it is for the great writing and the incredible art.   This is a series that went unnoticed for years, so, I was able to buy a number of sets for cheap, and share them.  Most people liked the story, some were iffy about the setting, thinking it was anti global warming, which it was so not.  (At the time it was written it was between the 70s fear of a new Ice Age and the early 90s Global Warming).  But everyone admitted, every aspect of the work was amazing.

Under rated is how I would describe the value of Airboy, by Chuck Dixon, and a cast of many different artists, but in the beginning it had Dixon, Timothy Truman & Tom Yeates.  Although it had some flak for being a book of combat in a world that, in the 80s, was becoming more alarmed by brushfire wars, the comic itself was magnificent.  I gave away perhaps 10 or 12 sets of these, and never heard a sour pus remark in return.  As is proper.  IDW is collecting the series now and it is magnificent.