Archive for June, 2009

A few thoughts on The Essential Thor vol. 4

June 29, 2009

The Essential Thor, Volume 4. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema et al. Marvel, 2008.  $19.99, 600 pages.

Of all their collaborations, it’s the Kirby-Lee Thor that is my favourite. Yes, that means I like it more than their Fantastic Four. Not that I don’t like their Fantastic Four, but when Kirby cuts loose in Thor, he really cuts loose. There’s a savage, primal energy to the best of Kirby’s work on Thor that seems only fitting for a series about a Norse god with a really big hammer and a penchant for talking smack — ye olde schoole style.

Kirby’s pencils on Thor are so strong that they can even, for the most part, overcome inks by Vincent Colletta, surely Kirby’s least popular inker. Colletta’s inks actually work fine over Kirby’s romance comics — he softens the sharper edges and smooths out faces into something more conventionally attractive — but they are catastrophically ill-suited for the gotterdammerung of Thor. Colletta’s line is too feathery, too scratchy for the bombast-turned-up-to-eleven that fills the pages of Thor. (And that’s without even getting into Colletta’s overzealousness with the eraser)

So it should come as some relief to find that many of the Kirby-pencilled tales in Volume 4 of The Essential Thor are inked by Bill Everett. It should, but it doesn’t. While there are some nice panels here and there, Everett’s inks are, overall, too crude to do Kirby justice. Everett may have had considerable cartoonist chops himself, but he doesn’t acquit himself too well here.

Or maybe some of the blame for crude rendering should go to the great man himself. Kirby certainly seems to have run out of enthusiasm for the character in his last year and a half (collected here). He recycles characters and plots from earlier issues and, when he does create new characters, the results are, uncharacteristically, visually dull. It’s dispiriting stuff, really, much in the way that his last year and a half on Fantastic Four (reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 5) is dispiriting. It all smacks of someone who was just going through the motions. Granted, Kirby going through the motions is still better than anything else Marvel was probably printing at the time, but it’s a long way from the feverish pitch of earlier issues. Unlike those earlier issues, these ones don’t shimmer with invention, or that mad headlong rush into new territory that we associate with Kirby’s best work.

But that’s only the first half of the stories in this volume. As for the rest of them, they’re fairly typical of the sort of thing that filled Marvel’s books once Kirby and Ditko left. Neal Adams turns in a very restrained two issues, with nothing much to recommend them; he’s followed by John Buscema who does yeoman but unremarkable work.

In all, it’s a disappointing end to an otherwise excellent body of work.

Recommended? Kirby completists will still want it, caveats and all. Others should stick to the earlier, better volumes — particularly volumes 2 and 3.


My hottest 10

June 27, 2009

Triple J is the government-run, youth radio network in Australia, specialising in various kinds of “alternative” music. It’s sort of like a national version of US college radio, I guess. Anyway, every year for the past 20 years they’ve been running the world’s largest music poll, the Hottest 100, in which listeners vote for their favourite ten tracks of the last year. This year being the twentieth anniversary of the competition, they’re doing something different: a Hottest 100 of all time.

These are the tracks I voted for, in no particular order, my favourite ten songs of all time:

  • Aesop Rock “Daylight”
  • Bjork “Storm” (I couldn’t find a video of the studio version, so here’s a live one instead)
  • Aphex Twin “Avril 14th”
  • Dalek “Paragraphs Relentless”
  • The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows”
  • Massive Attack “Rising Son” (Can’t embed the video, so have a link instead
  • Justice “D.A.N.C.E.”
  • Sly and the Family Stone “Everyday People”
  • Elvis Costello “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected no. 4” (I couldn’t find a video of Elvis singing this, so here’s some other guy playing it on his banjo)

And, finally, probably my favourite track of  all:

  • Madvillain “Shadows of Tomorrow”

I will become small

June 24, 2009

Showcase Presents the Atom. Gardner Fox and Gil Kane. DC, 2007. $16.99, 528 pages.

Everybody knows that superheroes are wish-fulfilment figures. First, there’s the secret identity. Everyone wants to be special, and the secret identity cleverly embodies both the fantasy and the reality: in reality, I may be just schlubbish Clark Kent but in fantasy I am Superman. Whoosh—that’s the sound of me flying away to fight crime.

In my mind.

Second, the adventures. Saving a world that hates and fears you, scaring the superstitious and cowardly lot, making a deal with the devil to ruin your marriage and save your aunt from her three-hundredth brush with the grim reaper, and so on—all more interesting than humdrum everyday life. In principle, anyway.

And third, the most distinctive feature of superheroes, the superpowers of course. Who hasn’t ever dreamed of flying like Superman? Running like the Flash? Eating matter like Matter-Eater Lad?

Er, okay, maybe you haven’t dreamed of eating matter. Still, at the core of every superpower is a fantasy of power and being special. I am not like everyone else. I can bend steel bars/control the elements/shoot laser beams out of my eyes. Whoosh.

Even lame powers—even proverbially lame powers—are still powers. Talking to fish or bouncing around or turning into different “forms of water” might not keep you from getting your arse kicked by Doctor Doom. Or Turner D. Century, for that matter. But they’re still powers.

Which is what makes a book like DC Showcase Presents The Atom such an odd read. For what is the Atom’s superpower? He can shrink.

Now, shrinking certainly opens up plenty of opportunities for adventure, as seen in comics like the fondly-remembered Micronauts. And shrinking has a long history in comics, stretching back to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (and, to a lesser extent, his Dream of the Rarebit Fiend).

It’s worth talking about McCay a bit more, since little Nemo seemed to dream about shrinking every other week. The early Slumberland strips are structured with the pacing of a nightmare, the perils growing ever worse until the sleeping Nemo can handle no more and wakes himself up in the inevitable final panel. Shrinking was the perfect tool for McCay’s purposes: as Nemo grows smaller and smaller, even everyday objects or animals loom more and more dangerously. (Plus, McCay just loved messing with perspective; Nemo grew to giant-size as often as he shrank).

And that’s exactly the problem with shrinking as a superpower: it isn’t one. Sure, the Atom can control his mass when he shrinks so that his punches carry more force. But he’s still a teensy tiny little guy; he can be trapped in a test-tube (and sometimes is). Shrinking is a super-weakness, not a super-power. It makes you vulnerable. It’s like being made out of glass. Certainly, life would be dangerous if you were made of glass. It might well be interesting to read about how a person made of glass would navigate the dangers of everyday life created by her condition. But such a person could never be a superhero. There’s a reason it was Bruce Willis’ character, not Samuel L. Jackson’s, who was the hero of the (dreadful) film Unbreakable. Being made of glass, literally or metaphorically, kind of puts a damper on the whole fighting crime thing.

(While being allergic to water—as Jackson unforgettably tells Willis, “water is your kryptonite!”—apparently doesn’t. But I digress.)

In the stories reprinted in the Showcase volume, the poor little Atom is constantly being menaced by everyday objects, newly dangerous to him in his reduced state. The Atom is threatened by tweezers, light bulbs, domestic animals and, for all we know, specks of dust, feathers and powder puffs. What a revoltin development.

Not only is The Atom not a symbol of power-fantasy for a child reader, it symbolises the grim reality instead: you are a small thing in a world of giants, and their ordinary artefacts are dangerous to you. Obviously kids can relate to that, but why would they want to?

No wonder, then, that the Atom never managed to sustain his own title for too long. Nor did his Marvel counterpart, Ant-Man. It wasn’t long before they changed him into Giant Man. Come to think of it, when DC revived the Atom in the 80s they transformed him into a fantasy adventure hero and called the series Sword of the Atom.

Hmmm, Ant-Man becomes Giant Man, the Atom gets a sword. Psychoanalysts would call that overcompensating.

Thanks very much, I’ll be here all night. Tune in next time, when I suggest there may be something going on between Batman and Robin and that the Marston/Peters Wonder Woman sure did like getting tied up.

But, really, my point isn’t that there’s a sexual subtext to shrinking. I don’t actually buy that (notwithstanding Craig Yoe’s old gallery of suggestive Doll Man covers). The point is rather just that shrinking and superheroes don’t mix.

On the other hand, The Amazing Glass-Man would probably sell like gangbusters.