Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Congratulations Erik Larsen

By Alex Ness

The comic book SAVAGE DRAGON has reached issue #225, and by such, it has arrived at its 25th anniversary of its beginnings.  As a work almost all by a single writer/artist, it is remarkable in numerous respects.  Few creative talents have such patience to devote themselves to telling the story that is there.  And, few remain as good as this when they do long runs.  I believe that it is the most readable comic on the market, due to how the stories are told.  I hope it goes onto the issue 300, but, I don't mean to enslave Erik, I just hope it does that to take the title of longest single run.  It would be an apt award and accomplishment.

I did read this issue, #225, and was quite impressed.  It is written in a fashion that you feel empathy for all those involved, and it isn't simply fighting and angst.  The art is big and evocative.  And to explain some of this, the Dragon has had a son, Malcolm, who has received the great strength and power that the father used to have.  In this issue Dragon senior is tempted to go back to the thing that would give him that power.

There are numerous other things to mention... there is partial nudity, so it should be noted it is for mature readers.  It is not porn, so mature readers means not children I guess.  This issue had a lot of stories, including a reprint of Erik's very first Dragon story, and other stories by Erik writing and other artists.  It is a worthy celebration of a title deserving credit for being constantly fun to read.

Monday, July 17, 2017

SDCC Celebrates Jack and Will

2017 would be the year Jack Kirby and Will Eisner turned 100.  Their legacies speak for themselves.

Happy Birthday great men!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

TPBs that need to be: Tony Isabella edition

By Alex Ness

I consider myself a friend of Tony Isabella.  And I can say, we don't agree on various things, but I surely recognize he is a bright talented fellow.  He wrote for Marvel, DC, Comico, and a number of other publishers.  And he has written about comics for nearly forever.

The three series here that I mention deserve to be reprinted.  I am of the opinion that each has a solid story, a combination of good art and writing, and each has covers worthy of being reprinted, in a format we can all afford.  Or, what the hell, do them right and make it of highest quality.

Grim Ghost by Tony and assembled talent is a reboot of a character created during the 1970s, for Atlas/Seaboard comics.  You might look at the character and realize, he is very nicely done, and he also will remind you of another character Tony did, Ghost Rider as well as a character Tony has not done, Spawn.  His origin is of a colonial America Smith and Highwayman brought back to earth for sins/crimes committed, as an agent of darkness.  Tony's version is better than the original, as it makes the character less evil (or not at all evil) and makes him a troubled soul fighting to make a better soul for himself.

The Shadow War of Hawkman was the series where Tony made me a believer.  The story is rich, interesting, true to the character, and worthy of reprint for the fact that most people don't know much about the silver or bronze age Hawkman.  This is a fun series, one that you won't be troubled finding the heroes, and is a refreshing take on the character.

The Justice Machine is a team of elite crimefighters from the future, who attempt to reform the chaotic, despotic planet earth.  I loved it, and the stories were always fun, always well done, and interesting throughout.  I truly would love to revisit this series in a giant tpb.

Tony is on Facebook, Twitter, and Here and Here

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

We've Got Relevance

Recently a Marvel executive at a big sales summit caused a stir in the fan press when he said that their declining sales was the result of the company's push to add diversity to their comics. Well, that's not exactly what he said. He noted that sales were down, and specifically that sales of some of their more “diverse” titles were down, and that according to the feedback the company has been receiving from their retailers, that diversity is to blame for it.

In the past few years, Marvel has been making some drastic changes to some of it's iconic heroes. We've seen Captain America replaced by his black former partner Falcon; Thor, Iron Man and Wolverine replaced by women; Spider-Man by a black-Hispanic teen from an alternate universe and the Hulk by a Korean-American brainiac. And some fans have complained that this is all just Politically-Correct Social Justice Affirmative Reverse-Discrimination and want to go back to the Good Ol' Days when the Avengers line-up was whiter than the Moon Knight's underwear.

Personally, I can't say any of this bothers me much. I suppose I don't have that much emotional investment in the classic Marvel heroes. I'm sure the iconic characters will come back eventually – indeed, some of them already have – because that's the nature of the Comic Book Industry. To me the important thing is if the new versions are good characters and if they will have good stories. I was somewhat annoyed when DC killed of Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle several years ago, and dubious about his replacement, a Hispanic kid in an alien battle suit. But the new Beetle proved to be a likable, engaging character and a worthy successor to Ted, so I don't begrudge him taking on the venerable Beetle legacy.

But thinking about Diversity and Super-Heroes reminded me about another time when the comics tackled Big Social Issues. I'm talking about the legendary Relevance Era in DC Comics.

The late '60s and early '70s were a turbulent time in American culture, and comic books no less. Audience tastes were changing, and DC's solid, reliable heroes like Superman and Batman were looking bland and unexciting next to the comparatively complex and more sophisticated characters coming out of Marvel. In addition, a new generation of creators was coming into the comics industry that was more willing to challenge the old formulas and gimmicks. Overall, there was a sense that instead of simply punching out super-villains, super-heroes ought to be addressing real-world social problems.

Editor Julie Schwartz was an important mover behind the push for “relevance”. He had served as the godfather of the Silver Age back in the late 1950s, re-tooling characters like the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman into science-based heroes. In the mid-'60s he had been charged with updating Batman and was instrumental in creating the “New Look” Batman and refocusing the comic on mysteries and crime.

By 1970, the Green Lantern he had re-envisioned as an interplanetary lawman over a decade earlier was showing his age, so Schwartz brought in a new team to shake things up. Denny O'Neil was one of the new blood writers. A couple years earlier, O'Neil and Mike Sekowsky had done a controversial re-vamp of Wonder Woman, changing her iconic star-spangled costume into a more contemporary pants suit and making her a martial arts hero. The intent was to make her like Emma Peel from the TV series THE AVENGERS, although she wound up looking more like Kung Fu Mary Tyler Moore. Neal Adams was soon to become the superstar artist of the '70s.

They added Green Arrow to the title. Previously, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, had always been kind of a Batman knock-off, only with arrows as his gimmick instead of bats. He was secretly a millionaire playboy, he had a sidekick who was also an archer; he drove around in an Arrow-car and had an Arrow-plane; and he operated out of an Arrow-cave. O'Neil saw the character as a modern day Robin Hood and made him passionate about helping the poor and needy. This set up a character dynamic of the iconoclastic hippie liberal Oliver vs. the law 'n' order space cop Hal Jordan.

In GREEN LANTERN #76 “No Evil Will Escape My Sight”, Green Lantern rescues a guy being attacked on a city street, but is shocked when the bystanders take the attacker's side. Hal's fellow Justice League member Green Arrow shows up and explains that the guy Hal saved is a slum landlord and the people attacking him were tenants whom he was evicting so he could raze their homes.

As Ollie and Hal debate Law vs. Justice, a poor, elderly black man comes up and confronts Hal. There follows a striking three-panel sequence which has been often reprinted and sometimes parodied. It can be regarded as the start of the Relevance Era.

“I been readin' about you... how you work for the BLUE SKINS... and how on a planet somewhere you helped out the ORANGE SKINS...” he says. “...and you done considerable for the PURPLE SKINS ! Only there's SKINS you never bothered with...!”

We get a close-up panel of the old man, his face creased by misfortune but his eyes brimming with rage, looking up fearlessly. “...the black skins! I want to know... HOW COME ?! Answer me THAT, Mr. GREEN LANTERN !”

In the third panel, Hal lowers his head in shame, avoiding the old man's eyes as he admits, “I... can't”.

Hal decides to try to get justice for the landlord's tenants, which isn't easy, partially because the landlord hasn't technically done anything illegal, but mostly because Hal's bosses, the Guardians of the Universe, (the 'Blue Skins”) call him on the carpet to warn him that his job is to patrol his sector of space and not concern himself with piddly little details like Urban Blight on his own backwater planet. Hal defies the Guardians and tells them that they have been locked up in their ivory planet of Oa for too long and that they've been pondering the Big Picture of the Universe so much that they've lost sight of the lives of all those people living on the myriad worlds they oversee. He challenges them to leave Oa and take a look at how things are at ground level.

One of the Guardians, a guy that Hal calls “The Old-Timer”, takes him up on his offer, and together the three of them, Hal, Oliver and the Old-Timer, set out on a road trip to Discover America and face the burning issues of the day: racism, poverty, pollution, drugs...

Ah, drugs.

Probably the most famous, (or infamous), stories from this run, and an issue which some critics have called the start of the “Relevance Era”, was the 1971 two-parter beginning in GREEN LANTERN #85, “Snowbirds Don't Fly”. While rounding up a bunch of street thugs, Green Arrow discovers that they are armed with some familiar-looking technology: weapons from his own personal arsenal. He does some digging and learns that his former sidekick, Speedy has been pilfering gadgets and weapons from the Arrow-cave and selling them on the street. At first Ollie thinks that Speedy is doing this as a ruse to infiltrate a drug gang, but ultimately he must face the truth: Speedy has become addicted to heroin and has been stealing Ollie's stuff to support his habit.

It had only been a year or two earlier when Marvel had challenged the Comics Code Authority by publishing a Spider-Man story with an anti-drug message without their blessing, which had led to changes in the Comics Code. Whereas the Spidey tale had one of Peter Parker's friends with a drug problem, Denny O'Neil reasoned that showing one of the heroes dealing with addiction would pack a greater punch.(Later still, Speedy would father a child out of wedlock – with a villain, no less – making him that era's go-to-guy for questionable life choices).

Green Arrow and Speedy have it out, and Speedy does manage to shake his addiction, but Ollie comes off rather poorly in this story. For all his crusading for social problems, he's been totally oblivious to one right under his nose.

Other comics DC published around this time also tried to tackle social issues, with varying success. Even the best stories tended to be a bit preachy, and at worst they could be ludicrous. Perhaps the most notable example was an issue of SUPERMAN'S GIRLFRIEND, LOIS LANE published in 1970 titled – and I would not make this up – “I Am Curious, Black”. It was pretty obviously inspired by a 1961 book, Black Like Me, about a white reporter who disguises himself as a black man to learn how things look from the other side of the racial divide. In the comic, Lois wants to do a story about racism, but feels stymied because she is an outsider. So Superman helps her out by using a piece of weird Kryptonian technology to make her black for a day or two. He keeps the dangdest stuff in the Fortress of Solitude.

DC's Relevance Era only lasted a few years. Comics historian Ron Goulart recalls dropping in on Julie Schwartz once around 1973 and asking him how relevance was doing. “Relevance is dead,” Julie replied unhappily. Viewed strictly as a gimmick to boost sales, Social Relevance” turned out to be a failure, and the Powers That Be at DC Comics decided to go back to the tried-and-true gimmicks like putting a gorilla on the cover.

But although the Age of Relevance officially died with the Nixon Administration, the impulse of comics creators to make something Important still recurs from time to time. We saw it again with the creation of Black Lightning, and with the EL DIABLO revival of the late '80s, and the special one-shots both Marvel and DC published in the 80s about African Famine Relief. These comics don't change the world, but at their best they give us some good stories and maybe change a little bit of the comic book universe.

Monday, July 3, 2017

TPBs that need to be: Dan Mishkin edition (plus Gary Cohn)

By Alex Ness
June 29, 2017

I acknowledge that artists are necessary for comics to happen.  However, while I have bought comics for the art, I rarely keep buying them for the art.  Ashley Wood is one the sole exceptions for me, I love his work, regardless of the context.  So, TPBs that need to be is a series of articles I will be writing that focus on series of comics that I enjoyed, and would like to be able to have them in book form.  I follow writers and mostly that.  Art is great, and I am by no means suggesting it is less important than the writer.  I just don't follow work for the art.

I like the writing of Dan Mishkin.  The reason I like his writing is for his ability to tell a straight forward story, without the overarching continuity, or need to read every previous issue.  He in concert with Gary Cohn wrote a comic that I think would appeal to many people who could like comics, but don't yet.  Blue Devil was/is among the most light hearted heroic comics around and it had such a feel of fun, I cannot believe that DC would not want to keep it in eternal tpb status.  Yes, it might not appeal to the uber serious, or the ultra elite.  But it would make a lot of people smile and feel satisfied for their read.

I met Dan Mishkin at SDCC through Tom Mandrake, a fantastical artist.  Their work CREEPS was out then and while I hadn't immediately picked it up, when I did it was really different than anything else on the shelves, and it was fun, and a bit "creepy".  In TPB form it would perhaps not sell a huge amount, but if aimed at the right audience, I think they'd enjoy the hell out of it. I enjoyed the art for its moodiness, and I loved the writing, it was simultaneously icky and fun.

This book, Dan Mishkin's Wonder Woman run, is a long shot.  I realize the audience for a non star tpb of a character who at the time barely mattered it seemed.  But a) the stories were fun and well done, b) Frank Miller did a cover that is considered early in his career, and c) Wonder Woman kicks ass, just go watch the film.  In the right hands, the comic Wonder Woman can be a wonderful thing.

I like other works Dan has done, and I like him as a person.  He is an evangelist for fun comics, and I think that is a wonderful thing.