Archive for the ‘Showcase Presents’ Category

Warlord versus Phoenix

May 10, 2010

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.

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Not so wonderful, you ask me

August 19, 2009

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.

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.

Danny Glover likes Shazam!

September 24, 2007

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.