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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Crimes, Investigations, and Bad men

I get asked a lot about the best comics or books for a variety of genres.  I am better with some genres than others, because it all depends on what you've read or become exposed to.  I read True Crime often, and so here in this column I suggest a variety of books and comics to choose.  These are not reviews, obviously but some people just need to be made aware of what there is.

Mickey Spillane's books sold thousands of copies and went deep into new printings.  His work is less artful than it is violent and wild.  If you like private detective stories this is one writer you need to become acquainted with.  He was also prolific.

The comic company DC had an imprint called Vertigo for its especially dark adult oriented work.  They created a subimprint called Vertigo Crime, and the books have a look, a feel and taste of quality.  The house style placed upon generally superior works by excellent writers allowed each of the books rise above the level of quality most publishers achieve on their best days.

Brian Michael Bendis is among my favorite writers of comics, in general, and with his crime comics quite specifically.  He seems to understand that true dialogue and human emotions play a part in the verisimilitude of any work.  His crime stories are powerful, and occupy a place between true crime depth, and action and violence worthy of the pulp hard boiled detective it shares a genre with.

Steve Niles is a horror writer who has a character, Cal McDonald who is a nexus for strange things, drugs, violence and darkness.  Niles is among my favorite writers, and his three novels about Cal McDonald have been read by me numerous times.  They are not for the faint of heart, but they are worthy of your time.

Max Allan Collins has written comics and books, and I like his work, but his particular niche of detective stories are born from the pulp crime he obviously has read.  They are easily read, and each work moves along quickly.  Dick Tracy, by Collins is a very entertaining figure, and he captures perfectly the era from which he birthed.

Frank Miller has repeatedly evolved in his life as a comic artist and writer.   His studies included the use of Crime Noir, impressionistic images, and what works best to achieve his desired goal in story telling.  Deciding to do Sin City, Miller desired to make a setting a vital part of the story, equal to the characters, and the look.  He also decided to change up the way people read comics.  He merged an influence from Goseki Kojima and various American artists, perhaps Alex Toth among them.  He looked at Japanese comics as being too wordy, but very entertaining.  He saw American comics as being the reverse, long winded and slow developing.  He merged both best qualities, and tried to work around the limitations.  Sin City is a great series, and it spawned a great movie from his artistic and writer eye.

Here are more books to pursue.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Doctor Strange vs. The Christian Rocker

One of my good friends when I lived in Darkest Iowa was a big Doctor Strange fan. He and his wife are costumers and one of his favorite creations was a Doctor Strange costume he made, complete with an Eye of Aggamato that he crafted around a hologram of a human eye that he bought through a science supply shop. His wife and he would sometimes attend comics conventions as Doctor Strange and Clea. He told me once that when they bought their house, they persuaded the bank to accept his collection of DOCTOR STRANGE comics as collateral.

It was back when I knew my friend that Doctor Strange faced a threat even more intimidating than the Dread Dormammu or the Hoary Hosts of Hoggath: the Aggressive Attorneys of Amy.

But first, some backstory.

The 1970s were a boom time for horror comics. Movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were big in the theaters, and DC Comics was putting out a slew of horror-themed anthologies. Marvel was also part of this trend, creating such characters as Morbius the Living Vampire, Werewolf by Night, and Brother Voodoo, and reviving Doctor Strange. Possibly the best comic Marvel produced during this era was TOMB OF DRACULA, written by Marv Wolfman (no relation) and drawn by Gene Colan. The title focused on a team of vampire hunters who fought Dracula and other supernatural menaces. TOMB OF DRACULA ran for a respectable seventy issues, making it the longest-running comic book ever to have a villain as its title character.

The series also integrated vampires into the Marvel Universe. Until about 1971, the Comics Code had banned vampires from appearing in Code-Approved Comics. Marvel had skirted the rules with Morbius, who was just sorta a vampire but not actually undead, (hence his tagline “the LIVING Vampire”), but a loosening of the Code rules in the early '70s allowed Marvel to run with the honest-to-Stoker real deal. Dracula fought with Spider-Man and Captain America fought a Nazi vampire named Baron Blood, created by Roy Thomas for THE INVADERS and brought back to fight Modern-Day Cap by Roger Stern and John Byrne.

But too much of anything, even the Fiendish Undead, is not necessarily a good thing. At one point, someone decided that the vampires had outstayed their welcome. Perhaps Someone from On High decided that Gothic creepiness did not fit the Mighty Marvel Manner. I'm guessing this was Jim Shooter, but then, fans of my era love blaming Shooter for everything bad Marvel did in the early '80s, so I could easily be mistaken. During Steve Engelhart's run on DOCTOR STRANGE, he did a storyline in which the Sorcerer Supreme sought a magic ritual called the Montressi Formula which would eliminate all vampires. He succeeded, and vampires were banished from the Marvel Universe.

But it takes more than a stake through the heart to keep a vampire down. In 1990, Marvel was running a new DOCTOR STRANGE comic, once again written by Roy Thomas. Roy has always loved incorporating literary characters and other bits history, lore and pop culture into his stories; and he did a five-issue story arc titled “The Vampiric Verses” which brought vampires back. A semi-immortal witch (and ex-girlfriend of Doctor Strange's) named Morgana Blessing needs the Blood of the Undead to maintain her unnaturally long life; and so she manages to bring the vampires back. Doctor Strange's brother becomes the first to fall victim to this new vampiric outbreak and becomes the new Baron Blood. Strange must team up with Morbius the Living Vampire (Not Really a Vampire, remember) and Brother Voodoo to fight this new menace.

And here's where things take a left turn. The second issue of the story line, DOCTOR STRANGE #15, featured a striking cover dominated by the face of a young woman starting intently out at the readers. The woman is meant to be Morgana Blessing, but the artist, Jackson Guice, used an existing photo for the image. From the looks of the image, I'd guess that he took a high-contrast photostat of the original photo, although he might have traced it by hand; but the face was definitely from a photograph, and people quickly identified it. Because the photo Guice used was from the cover of a record album.

I don't know what possessed Guice (if that is the appropriate verb to use in this situation) to use the face of a Christian Contemporary Pop singer to represent an occultist dabbling in vampiric rituals, but the earnest, haunted face staring out from the cover of DOCTOR STRANGE #15 was undoubtedly Amy Grant's, as it appeared on her 1986 platinum compilation album “The Collection”.

Grant's managers, Mike Blanton and Dan Harrell, filed a complaint against Marvel Comics for the cover. They weren't suing about copyright infringement, because the copyright on that particular photo was held by the commercial photographer who took it. Their argument was that having Amy's face appear on an occult-themed comic book would give her fans the impression that she endorsed it and would damage her reputation in the Christian music community.

In their complaint, the managers argued:

“...many fans of Christian music consider interest in witchcraft and the occult to be antithetical to their Christian beliefs and to the message of Christian music in general. Therefore, an association of Amy Grant or her likeness [with Doctor Strange] is likely to cause irreparable injury to Grant's reputation and good will.”

“They're calling Doctor Strange a Satanist” some comic fans sneered at the time; and I have to admit I was somewhat bemused by the story myself. I guess I've always drawn a distinction between real life occult practices and fantasy magic in fiction. A lot of Christians sincerely hold that any dabbling in mystic stuff is a short trip to Perdition, and so they condemn Dungeons & Dragons and Harry Potter and even look askance at J.R.R. Tolkien despite his friendship with C.S. Lewis. As the son of a Lutheran pastor who was also a SF fan, I kind of have a foot in both camps: while I can understand their reasoning, I don't think we have to regard all Fantasy as an Affront to Heaven.

But the bottom line in this instance was that Marvel used Amy Grant's likeness without her permission, to promote a comic book with which she did not ask to be associated, nor did she wish to. Putting her face on the cover was a dick move. The book's editor should have caught it and had the artist change it before going to print.

Marvel and Grant's people settled the matter out of court. The settlement was sealed, so we don't know what sort of agreement the two sides came to. Since Marvel was not required to admit any wrongdoing nor liability in the matter, I'm guessing that the settlement was a substantial one. Then again, perhaps Amy's people feared that a big public trial would only cement the public's association between her and Doctor Strange, and so might have been agreeable to a more modest settlement to bury the matter. By the time the settlement was reached, a year had passed and the issue was no longer on the shelves, so it is unlikely that there was any demand that it be recalled. DOCTOR STRANGE #15 had long ago either sold out or been filed away in the Back Issues bin where you can buy U.S.A. 1 and KICKERS, INC. for a dollar.

But the controversy lives on in comic book legend. In a weird sort of way, like poor Morgana, that cover achieved a kind of immortality.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Back Issues to Pursue

Some people are unaware that I wrote for and did interviews for a variety of different comic book websites.  CBR, Slushfactory, UGO, and more were cursed or blessed, depending on your worldview, by my presence.  I did this along with starting the original site where this blog grew out of, called Popthought . com .  Popthought was savaged by hackers in 2008 and truly wiped out.  But over the years since I began, I've done over 200 interviews, and reviewed a great number of comics.  I tried however not give much time to the "odd turd" of a comic, and hold up high the best.  As such some people considered me a whore, and someone who had no taste, I liked everything.  I understand why they think that, in an often hyper critical world, being positive either looks like you are lying, or stupid, or both.  I simply felt there was enough of the negative, I wanted to hold high the books I thought deserved attention.  Perhaps I was wrong.  But the present piece of writing is focused on COMIC BOOKS I HAVE ENJOYED.  Therefore, these are recommendations.  I'll try to explain why I liked them, but this isn't a review.  It is an offering.  Please consider reading these works yourself if the ideas sound good.

James Vance has a way of writing stories from human events that ring true, and he is very good at making stories of those events work as comics.  The American past, especially the 1930s Great Depression era are interesting, but having these works takes you on a tour of the past with crisp writing and excellent art.  As such, people who love history would probably find these comics well worth your interest.

By including four different books by one creative artist it might seem that I like Matt Wagner personally.  I've had a couple brief experiences with him, and I was not a fan of him.  But, that doesn't stop me from seriously enjoying much of his work.  His character Grendel is a demon, in many forms, genders, and incarnations, who is the protagonist of his works, but Grendel is not a good guy.  No, like I said, HE/SHE IS A DEMON.  There is a maturity in the writings that make Grendel interesting, at the same time evil and miserable.  I like, very much, Wagner's art, and writing nearly as much.  The collection The Demon reprinted his mini-series of the DC Comics character, one that took a modern more accessible look at the whole of the character and his human alter ego.  I liked this book because it treated the original character as done by Jack Kirby justice, while making the character more interesting and sympathetic by being a serious story.  The works about the character but not by Kirby or Wagner were nearly always disappointing to me, because the character was mostly seen as a boob.  And since I liked the concept, Wagner's take returned it to the tone it works best as.

I liked the concept of The Red Star.  It was a brilliant idea, taking the former Soviet Union and making it a still alive if also decayed empire, and adding futuristic concepts.  Afghanistan and the future conflicts of the USSR are made into sites for the battles, with epic heroes, and modern science fiction style equipment.   It has many forms of media to interpret it.  RPGs, Video games, and perhaps a movie in the offing.  I really enjoyed these, and while I might have loved the book, I regret the slow output of the chapters.

I like the character of Batman.  In my childhood my brother was always Batman, and I was Robin.  I believe there is actually photographic evidence of this.  Anyhow, I like the Batman, and think him perhaps the best concept that comics have created.  I think most people who don't like him don't get him, but I accept that I am probably wrong there. So, when I read the best works of Batman I generally enjoy them.  At one time I wanted to own all the tpbs of the Batman, but, since that time I've decided that reading the stories once, I don't altogether need to keep reading them.  These four comics, Batman Masque, Batman Castle of the Bat, Batman Holy Terror, and Batman Leatherwing are four comics that can be read as stand alone what if events in the 4 color history of the bat.

Each work is considerably different than the iconic midnight hero that appears every month from DC.  These are Elseworlds, considerations of the Batman's life if fixed in the fictional settings, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, Pirate adventures, and as the foil of a Theocratic Nightmare.

I was greatly entertained by each, and recommend them, unless you hate the bat.