Adam is in a place where he really has to reconnect with what it means to be a Master of the Universe
“Writer” James Robinson, discussing a forthcoming comic book about the adventures of a popular children’s toy from the 1980s.
Adam is in a place where he really has to reconnect with what it means to be a Master of the Universe
“Writer” James Robinson, discussing a forthcoming comic book about the adventures of a popular children’s toy from the 1980s.
Let’s You and Him Fight Exclusive:
Let’s You and Him Fight can today report exclusively that DC is digging up Neil Gaiman’s dead grandmother, and publishing a fumetti series about her posthumous sexual escapades. Jim Lee has told Let’s You and Him Fight that everyone at DC is totally psyched for the new project, which will showcase some of the industry’s hottest writers, including Micah Wright, Laurel K. Hamilton and Grant Morrison.
‘We’re taking the property in a bold new direction. You’ve never seen Neil Gaiman’s dead grandmother like this before — this ain’t your granddaddy’s Neil Gaiman’s dead grandmother.’
Dan DiDio added, laughing, ‘This comic brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “splash page”!’
You can find the full press release, as well as previews and concept art, here.
PS: Apologies to Mr Gaiman’s grandmother. Also to Mr Gaiman himself, subtlety, good taste, so-called humour
PPS: What’s striking about the Mazzuchelli thing is that it looks like such an unforced dick move. Watchmen Babies, you can at least understand the logic of — a curse be upon them and their children, sure, but it was probably going to happen eventually, just as it was going to happen eventually that Mr Burns would try to blot out the Sun so he could squeeze a few more pennies from the poor. This thing, though…maybe those spells Alan Moore has been casting at DC are finally starting to work, and they’ve all gone completely fucking insane?
About nine months ago, I caused some minor controversy among Vince Colletta fans with my review of The Essential Thor Vol. 4, where I repeated the old charge that Colletta was overly fond of erasing pencil detail that he didn’t feel like inking. To which controversy my response was, naturally: there are Vince Colletta fans? As I suggested in the original post, even if Colletta had never erased anything, his thin, feathery line was all wrong for Kirby’s work on Thor.
But I was recently reading DC Showcase Presents The Warlord, featuring Mike Grell’s titular pulp hero. Warlord was a lost world fantasy about an undiscovered land inside the hollow earth, where dinosaurs roam amongst semi-barbaric human tribes and the ruins of a long-lost and technologically-advanced civilization. So: hardly Proust, but competent enough as a genre entertainment. Thanks to Grell’s layouts, the action is usually easy enough to follow (with a few exceptions), and I’ll be damned if the stories don’t positively zip along.
Anyway, for the first chunk of stories in the volume, Grell is credited as sole artist (as well as writer), but eventually he is joined by Colletta on inks. And blow me down, the inks actually mesh with Grell’s pencils. Maybe Colletta wasn’t so bad after all, at least not when paired with a suitable artist. And judging from the work in DCSPtW, Grell’s cut-rate Neal Adams pencils were well suited to Colletta.
That said, Warlord is far from the best of its genre. For mine, that honour goes to Mark Schultz’ late, lamented Xenozoic Tales aka Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, which likewise mixed modern- and future-tech with pulpy adventure amongst the dinosaurs and barbarians. That series is long-since defunct and unlikely ever to be finished up; owing no doubt to the long time it takes Schulz to draw, he now makes his living primarily as a writer. Shame that, as Schulz’ lush artwork (heavily influenced by Wally Wood and Alex Raymond) and exotic locales are sorely missed.
Lest you think I’ve been solely rotting my mind on mediocre reprints from the 70s, I’ve also been re-reading Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix for the first time since they came out. (And is it really already seven years since Viz published the first English volume?). Tezuka evidently considered Phoenix his masterwork, and it’s hard to dispute the man’s own judgement. Among those of Tezuka’s works thus far translated into English, it’s matched in seriousness of intent perhaps only by Buddha and (my personal favourite) Ode to Kirihito. And in sheer scope it surpasses both of those, sweeping as it does across thousands of years, from Earth to far-flung galaxies.
How disappointing, then, that when Tezuka gets around, in Volume 2, to sharing the grand philosophy behind the series, that it turns out to be the lamest, most sophomoric philosophy imaginable. See, the microcosm is just like the macrocosm: elemental particles contain miniature suns and orbiting planets, eachteeming with their own life. And the macrocosm, well that’s just like the mesocosm: “the whole universe is only a single cell in a living creature”. Sheesh. I haven’t seen this much one-too-many-bong-hits “philosophy” since I Heart Huckabees (which, admittedly, I liked regardless).
Ah well. Even Homer nods. And this misstep aside, Phoenix is excellent. Reading the volumes in quick succession, one after another, only brings home the cleverness of Tezuka’s bold structure, as characters and various sci-fi conceits recur across volumes, as distant memory, or transformed, or reincarnated. Fittingly, the only constant is that symbol of immortal life herself, the Phoenix. Phoenix gets the highest possible recommendation from, its minor flaws notwithstanding.
Showcase Presents Wonder Woman. DC, 2007. Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. $16.99, 528 pages.
Along with Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, the Charles Moulton/Harry Peters Wonder Woman is one of a handful of “golden age” superhero comics actually worth reprinting. They’re weird, fun, kinky and nothing if not the product of a singular vision.
Not so the adventures reprinted here, from the start of superhero comics’ “silver age”. Other Showcase volumes from the same era (late fifties/early sixties) have ample charms. Flash, Hawkman, The Atom, Adam Strange, Green Lantern: these all feature art by the likes of Murphy Anderson, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino. The Superman volumes (Superman itself, Supergirl and Superman Family), meanwhile, have the deadpan surrealism that was the hallmark of Mort Weisinger’s tenure as editor.
There are no such charms to be found here. There’s no sign of any passion here, just a couple of cartoonists churning out material to pay the bills. Kanigher’s scripts are simply hackwork, Andru’s and Esposito’s art competent but dull.
Things are even worse if we compare this with the Moulton and Peters run on Wonder Woman. Gone is the giddy delight they brought to the material; gone, too, are their themes. So, no spanking, cosplay, horseplay, bondage, subtextual sapphism, or explorations of male-female relationships. Even Wonder Woman’s golden lasso is now just a lasso, not the lasso of truth of old, which could compel submission.
Still, at least one thing is constant between this and the earlier, better Moulton/Peters Wonder Woman: Steve Trevor is still a total douchebag.
Recommended? Not at all.
Silverfish. DC, 2008. David Lapham, Dom Ramos and Jared K. Fletcher. $17.99, 160 pages.
A low-key crime thriller, Silverfish achieves its presumably modest goals. It’s entertaining, gripping enough in the way that a thriller is supposed to be gripping. Lapham’s art is mostly unobtrusive, except in brief flashes of expressionism here and there, which culminate in a bravura sequence towards the end of the book where the antagonist’s delusions break forth into the waking world.
Recommended? If you’re in the mood for an unpretentious, solid crime comic.
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.
Final Crisis #6. Grant Morrison and the entire Bullpen Bulletin. $3.99, 34 pages.
Warning: There will be SPOILERS in this review
This is a comic with plenty of sturm, lots of drang but precious little und. I mean, there’s a lot happening but very little connective tissue to tie it together. By my count, there’s over a dozen different plotlines running through this thing;* the reader is expected to give a damn about any of them because — well, let’s face it, it’s not clear why the reader is expected to give a damn. Most of the subplots over the course of this series certainly haven’t earned any of the emotional heft that the similarly fractured threads in Seven Soldiers #1 had.
Given the way the series is constructed — all jump-cuts and tiny bursts of scenes — it seems almost inappropriate to give it a standard review. To match its pace and confusion, I should instead just write a series of declarative outbursts: Ungood! Rushed! Morrison better! and let the reader fill in the details. Morrison hasn’t really given us a story throughout the series; he’s given us a set of story notes in the form of bullet points: and then this happens! And then this! Oh, and did I mention this! And what about this! Oh, and I forgot to tell you this!
It must all be very Important and Meaningful to the DC Universe because characters keep telling us that it is. Indeed, without the occasional bit of expository dialogue this series would be even less coherent. For instance, the Big Bad for the series — Darkseid — apparently dies three-quarters of the way through, so you would think that the threat was over. Apparently not, though; it’s still “the end of the world” although God knows why, and we certainly wouldn’t have known that except for the helpful Hourman telling us. Thanks, Hourman!
Indeed, the fate of Darkseid is a low point in an issue filled with low points. IIRC, I’ve heard Morrison in the past say that he wanted to make the New Gods seem truly awesome, truly like gods, since they’d been cheapened by their usual appearances in the DC Universe. Accordingly, the coming of Darkseid was made out to be this great and terrible thing, the catastrophic peak to which the series was building; and so he only came onto the stage in issue 5. And then he’s apparently dispatched in two pages by a guy with no powers. Yeah, that was some awesome threat there. He came, he appeared in about three panels, and was conquered.
And what was the point of the Flash scene about how they’re going to race to Darkseid, if Batman could breach his singularity and take him down like a punk? And what’s up with that cover, promising a match-up between Darkseid and Superman? And, while I’m on it, what the hell does DC have against people of colour — viz. Renee Montoya and Shilo Norman?
As a superhero comic, this is bad stuff. As a superhero comic written by Grant Morrison, who can do so much better than this trash, it’s just fucking awful.
Recommended? Hell, no.
* Superman and Brainiac 5; the last stand of Black Canary and the Tattooed Man; Supergirl and the Marvel Family versus Mary Marvel; the JSA et al. holding the line; Tawky Tawny versus Kalibak; Mister Miracle and his Japanese pals; Renee Montoya, the Atoms and the Omega Offensive; Luthor versus Libra; the Flashes; Batman versus Darkseid; Nix Uotan and Metron; and the return of Superman. And that’s not even including the the Hawkpeople or Green Lantern bits.
You know what this site has too much of? Content, that’s what. So I did a guest-post over at Matthew Brady’s, where I ramble interminably about 70s Kirby and OMAC in particular.
Final Crisis is perversely oblique for a Big Event Where Nothing Will Evah Be The Same. Grant Morrison has proved that he can write Big! Dumb! Explodey! Comics (that nonetheless don’t entirely insult your intelligence) with the best of them. Think of his Ultra-Marines mini with Ed Guinness, Dexter Vines et al. from a few years back, or his New X-Men (where it wasn’t hampered by rushed art, at least), or even his current All-Star Superman with Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant. Those works manage to be straightforward entertainments, immediately accessible if you want to stay at the surface level, and they also contain thematic and symbolic depth, rewards for close reading and familiarity with the rest of Morrison’s writing.
But Final Crisis is most definitely not a crowd-pleasing blockbuster smash, at least not in its first two issues. Which is just fine by me — I’d sooner read the sequel to Morrison’s Seven Soldiers or Seaguy than the sequel to his JLA or Batman — but it did take me two issues of Final Crisis to readjust my expectations. Like a lot of Morrison’s work, this will no doubt read better once it’s all finished and we can go back and join the dots: “Ah, so that’s what Hamburger Hegemony was all about!” And as a tacit sequel to Seven Soldiers, it’s just swell. But as a big crossover event to please the masses, it kind of stinks.
A large part of that is due to the super-compression and some missed art cues. It was not at all clear who was supposed to be the last page reveal in #1, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, work out what happened on pp 18 and 20 until I read a comments thread at the Savage Critics. (Thanks, Douglas Wolk!). So, John Stewart gets attacked by a mysterious figure. Then, three pages later, Kraken clutches her head and says “Help Me!” while raising her hand to Batman; who realises she’s a traitor and says “John has one hell of a right hook, doesn’t he?” WTF?
Honestly, I read that sequence five times and still couldn’t figure it. In order to parse it, you need to know (1) that the Alpha Lantern (or whatever) doesn’t ordinarily have a ring-mark on her palm, so that (2) you can follow Batman’s induction that it was made by John Stewart’s ring, so that (3) you can understand his remark about John’s right hook, so that (4) you can then infer that it was her attacking Stewart, three pages earlier.
The problem is, first, we haven’t seen the Alpha Lantern’s palm without the ring-mark on it. At least, not in the two pages of Final Crisis that she’s in before the attack on Stewart. So that chain of reasoning I just gave falls through at the first step because, for all we know, her palm always looks like that. And, second, the panel where Stewart’s attacker is shown from behind is just plain confusing. I read that panel as showing, not someone in a hood, but half a Green Lantern coming out of nowhere (like that classic Gil Kane cover) the green part of the hood being the start of the Lantern’s back and the black part of the hood his shoulder. That’s what the uniforms look like, after all.
[Extra-dull digression: and, anyway, knowing how it’s supposed to play out (at least according to Wolk) just raises more questions. The next page suggests that the reason they go after Jordan is eyewitness testimony from Opto, who must have seen Kraken, disguised as Jordan, attacking Stewart. But if Kraken wanted to be mistaken for Jordan, why was she wearing a hood and not some kind of magic Green Lantern Hal Jordan mask? Why wear such an ambiguous disguise? Or maybe it wasn’t Opto’s eyewitness testimony that led them to Jordan. But then why have him show up at Jordan’s house with the Alpha Lanterns?]
Look, it’s absolutely fine to ask the reader to do some work and draw conclusions that aren’t explicitly shown. But the reader needs to have enough information on the page to draw those conclusions, and at several points in the book there just isn’t enough of that kind of information. I don’t want to be spoonfed What It All Means, but I do at least want to know What’s Happening in any given panel, in the plainest sense of “x is doing y”, “Jack is running”, “Jill is catching the ball”.
Put it another way: it’s one thing not to know what the dancing midget on Twin Peaks was all about. But it would have been another thing entirely to show us something that might be a midget dancing, might be a piece of cheese, or might be a smudge on the film stock.
If Terrible Turpin doesn’t have a crucial struggle against his possessing spirit, sometime in #4-7, I’ll eat his hat. If he doesn’t play an important role in defeating Darkseid, I’ll eat every single hat that Jack Kirby ever drew. There’s just no way that Morrison is going to leave Turpin, as a stand-in for Jack Kirby, tarnished. no way.
I’m such a GODDAMN INTERPRETIVE GENIUS that I realised Libra had some sort of connection to Metron (avatar maybe?) SEVERAL PAGES before Wally made the chair connection. Take that Harold Fucking Bloom!
IIRC, Kirby played Metron as a mercurial (in more than one sense) and amoral figure. As befits a personification of Intellect/Knowledge, Metron could do good or bad and seemed pretty neutral in the battle between Apokolips and New Genesis. Pairing him with Libra, who seems similarly amoral, makes symbolic sense.
Two possibilities, then, if Libra is a body for Metron. Either:
(i) evil has triumphed so completely that even Metron has turned fully to Darkseid.
Or, what I think is more likely:
(ii) Metron has been plotting against Darkseid all along, right from the beginning of humanity and his role as Libra is just part of the grand plan. That’s one of Morrison’s favourite tricks–the last minute revelation that the good guys have already won. We’ve already seen, in Seven Soldiers and Mister Miracle, that Metron gives people–Shilo Norman, early cavemen–enlightenment, even if that sets him against Darkseid. So he certainly seems to be working on the side of the angels now. So Metron goes back in time, gives the human flame to Anthro, and then returns to the present to harvest that potential against the evil gods, in the form of the Human Flame. Or something like that.
If he’s so amoral and neutral, why would Metron be helping our world? Maybe it’s because Darkseid would strangle human thought, killing knowledge in its crib, and Metron is all about the knowledge. Maybe Metron cares about balance as an end in itself — hence adopting the identity of Libra — and, when evil has won, you achieve balance by helping out good.
But most probably, I think, Morrison just doesn’t buy into Kirby’s idea that Metron is amoral. Rather, Morrison shares the Socratic ideal that knowledge is necessarily a good thing, and all bad deeds are done through ignorance. Knowledge defeats the dark side. Doesn’t that sound like the sort of quasi-gnostic sentiment Morrison would endorse?
Or maybe Libra is just a bad guy who stole Metron’s chair, and I’m full of shit. Time will tell.
Like my mum always told me, if you can’t say something nice, then say something extremely mean-spirited instead.
Checkmate: A King’s Game. Greg Rucka, Nunzio Defilippis, Christina Weir, Jesus Saiz, and a cast of thousands. DC, 2006. $14.99, 168 pages.
Grown adults enjoy this comic book?
I can understand people reading juvenile, poorly crafted nonsense about Batman or Superman or whatever just because they really dig the characters.
Well, “understand” may not be the right word.
But I’m aware that such people exist, just as people exist who will pay money for a sequel to Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet because they want to know what happens to Prince Fortinbras and Horatio after everyone else dies. And I’m aware that such people will shell out their hard-earned, regardless of whether the product embodies even the most basic level of craft, talent or intrinsic interest. Personally, I can’t see myself doing it, but whatever floats your boat. Different strokes for different folks. It’s all good.
And obviously I can understand people buying the occasional good superhero book produced when someone with some actual talent dips their toes in the shallow end of the genre pool. Stuff with genuine moral and thematic complexity, and intellectual depth, like that Moore and Gibbons adaptation of Citizen Kane that everyone’s always talking about.
And let’s not forget that someone might buy a superhero book for the art. Let’s face it, the only reason to buy, say, Showcase Presents Hawkman* is for the one-two punch of Kubert and Anderson. If you’re buying it for the stories, you need professional help.
But Checkmate? What the hell? It’s nowhere near goofy enough to work purely as genre nonsense; it’s resolutely determined to highlight D-grade characters whose last appearance was in some guy’s online continuity-porn slashfic; and, worse of all, the “adult” stuff that author Greg Rucka is clearly most interested in serves, at best, as a baffling distraction from folks in tight spandex fucking shit up.
For the unenlightened, Checkmate follows the adventures of an international superhuman task force, led by such heavyweights as Amanda Waller, some old guy who used to be Green Lantern eighty five years ago and looks like an Aryan Nick Fury, and the updated Mr Terrific. Who is now totally cool because his motto “Fair Play” is written on a leather jacket, rather than a badge on the front of his costume.
Plus, he’s, like, totally black.**
In their first mission, their black ops team infiltrates nefarious terrorist/evil-genius cult Kobra while the diplomats debate UN resolutions about zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Remember those issues of The Avengers or Justice League International that centred around whether the team would get their security clearance revoked? Now imagine how awesome they would have been if they’d spent issue after issue following the drafting of various resolutions by each member of the security council. Now imagine no more, because you can just read Checkmate instead.
Greg Rucka is not a completely retarded comic book writer. He did some nice work on the police procedural Gotham Central (co-writing with everyone’s current favourite superhero-writer-whose-surname-doesn’t-start-with”m”, Ed Brubaker), even if that book was hampered by the need to pay obeisance every now and then to the “shared universe”.
Even better was Rucka’s work on the downbeat espionage sort-of thriller Queen and Country, now apparently on indefinite hiatus while he writes scripts about Chester from Swamp Thing and Max Mercury teaming up to lobby the UN to censure Quraq for blowing up Rocket Red (the one that was in JLE). Queen and Country was a well crafted, refreshingly low-key genre piece that constantly defied genre expectations–the spies were low budget, their interventions ended in failure as often as not, and they spent more time fighting hostile bureaucrats and red tape than they did blowing up shit and having crazy Jason Bourne-style car chases.
This is material that Rucka writes exceedingly well: bureaucratic, political and diplomatic tensions that constrain and shape the lives and careers of his tough-but-flawed protagonists. It also appears to be what he’s most interested in, which should be rewarding for the reader.
Unfortunately, Rucka’s strengths just don’t work in the demands of the superunderwear genre. The end result in Checkmate, as it was in Gotham Central, is middling at best, dull and jarring at worst. Maybe there is a great comic to be written from mashing up, I don’t know, Greatest American Hero with The Wire.
But Checkmate ain’t it.
Recommended: Buy Queen and Country instead. It was a good series, plus the art was better.
* For mine, the best of the Showcase volumes in terms of art, although the Infantino/Anderson pairing in the Flash volume is pretty sweet, too, as is Jonah Hex.
** Not that Rucka was responsible for the new “Mr Terrific”.
The Top 10 DC characters of all time:
10. Jerry Lewis
9. “Goody” Rickles
8. Doiby Dickles
7. Alexander Luthor of Earth-3
4. Sugar (tie)
4. Spice (tie)
3. The Spirit
2. Jean Loring/Eclipso
Holy crap, it’s a review!
It’s Danny Glover time here at LY&HF. Why? Because I’m too old for this shit. Yes, I’m starting a “regular” segment reviewing comics meant for kids. First up, Shazam!
But, uh, not the universally beloved one that just came out, by cartoonist Jeff Smith. No, the other (relatively) recently published one.
Showcase Presents Shazam! Denny O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, E. Nelson Bridwell, C. C. Beck, Bob Oskner, Kurt Schaffenberger et al. DC, 2006. $16.99, 528 pages.
Ah, Captain Marvel. Has any character ever had a more tortuous path through the serpentine labyrinth of copyright? First appearing in 1940, he was for a time more popular than Superman. That must have irked Superman’s publisher DC comics (then called “National”), so they sued Captain Marvel’s publishers, Fawcett, claiming Captain Marvel was an infringement of copyright on Superman. They were both strong guys in underwear suits who flew around and fought crime and stuff, see. DC won the lawsuit, forcing the cancellation of Captain Marvel’s comics and his disappearance from the four-colour realm.
Meanwhile, over in the UK, a British publisher had been reprinting Captain Marvel’s adventures for British readers. Upon Captain Marvel’s cancellation, the publisher started printing instead the adventures of new character who was essentially just a knock-off, a Schmaptain Schmarvel named Marvelman. Decades later a young Alan Moore started writing Marvelman, and the rest is copyright clusterfuck history.
Back in the US, in the early seventies Fawcett licensed Captain Marvel to DC and DC started printing new adventures of “the big red cheese”, as he was known.* Only, in the interim, rival company Marvel comics had started printing their own series called Captain Marvel, featuring an entirely unrelated new character. So, to avoid further copyright issues, DC published the new adventures of the old Captain Marvel in a book called Shazam!, the word that transformed young orphan Billy Batson into the superheroic Captain Marvel.
Still with me? Right. This volume collects most of the new material created for the Shazam! series, which ran from 1973-1978. (Completists beware: the page count just falls short of space for the final two issues, 34 and 35).
The secret of Captain Marvel’s success, back in the day, was the stories’ innocent, childlike sense of fun. Marvel himself was pure wish fulfilment–what kid hasn’t wished they could turn into a powerful adult? He was surrounded by a colourful cast, including sister Mary Marvel, sidekick Captain Marvel Jr, comic relief Uncle Marvel and the three Lieutenant Marvels, and talking animal pals Hoppy the Marvel Bunny and Tawky Tawny the tiger. And, importantly, he was drawn mostly by the great C. C. Beck, whose rounded, clean art perfectly complements the stories’ childish fun.
When DC revived the character in the stories reprinted here, they decided not to tamper with these elements. Remember, this was two decades before the accepted method for reviving old properties was to make them darker and grittier. So they put C. C. Beck back on the art, and his uncluttered panels still have a cartoonish appeal. When Beck left the book, his replacements (mostly Kurt Schaffenberger) maintained some continuity in style. Although other characters were now drawn with greater “realism”, and there was more detail in the backgrounds, Captain Marvel himself and alter ego Billy Batson were still drawn cartoonishly, complete with two little black dots in place of their eyes. In some ways, Schaffenberger’s art is more effective than Beck’s, precisely due to this contrast between the obviously fantastic Marvel and his more mundane surroundings. The difference between fantasy and reality is marked through the art itself.
As for scripts, who better to place on a kids’ book than Denny O’Neil? O’Neil had by then started his socially relevant work on Green Lantern that would see Green Lantern’s young sidekick Speedy become an addict, and his run on Batman that reverted Batman to his early guise as the brooding dark detective. So O’Neil seems like an odd choice, but I was surprised at how well he acquits himself here, delivering simple, entertaining stories for a younger audience. And O’Neil’s replacements Elliot S! Maggin and E. Nelson Bridwell show even more continuity with his scripting style than Beck’s replacements do with the art.
Despite what you might expect–it is the seventies–there’s precious little attempt to update the characters visually or thematically. In later stories, “lovable fraud” Uncle Marvel (a biologically unrelated buffoon, a combination of Falstaff and Don Quixote who falsely claims to have superpowers himself) grows an ill-advised moustache, and Billy Batson sports some wicked flares. But that’s about it.
The stories themselves are, one and all, goofy. They feature all the implausible plot twists and bizarre set-ups that will be familiar to readers of other “silver age” Showcase volumes, especially the Superman ones–only written and drawn some 15-20 years later. While later issues expanded the stories to “full-length” (around 17 pages), in earlier issues the stories are rarely over 10 pages. So they often make odd jumps in logic, especially as the last panel approaches, requiring a bit of expository dialogue. But even that fits the general childlike tone of the series.
As in many “silver age” stories, there are places where the goofiness takes flight into full-blown surrealism. Of all the treats here, the best is the character Sunny Sparkle, “the nicest guy in the world”. Everyone loves Sunny, so much that random strangers passing him on the street give him their jewelry or groceries they just bought. When he phones a charity to pick up all the stuff he’s been given (ovens, tennis rackets, sewing machines, golf clubs…) he has to stay indoors; otherwise, the drivers of the delivery truck will see him, refuse to take his stuff and leave him their truck as another gift.
Characters like Sunny fulfill the potential of the silver age’s general air of illogic. Not every bit of Shazam! is an imaginative gem like Sunny, but there’s enough of these bits to keep you entertained. What more could you ask for?
Recommended? Good clean fun for kids. Not as good as Jeff Smith’s new series, no doubt, but what is? For adults, the stories provide mindless diversion in small doses.
* It’s always seemed unsavoury to me that DC would start printing new stories about a character which they had earlier tried to erase from history. It’s as though EMI had tried to produce their own Grey Album after hassling Danger Mouse. Legal, definitely, perhaps even morally permissible, but still somehow icky.