Aug 29, 2013

Reviews: Donald Duck: The Old Castle's Secret

Donald Duck: The Old Castle's Secret isn't as layered as the previous Carl Barks collections Fantagraphics has released, but I think it's actually been the funniest one thus far.

I remarked in my review of the last volume, A Christmas for Shacktown, that since these volumes aren't being released in chronological order, and because they've used up what they deem to be the "best," the perception of each succeeding volume would have little choice but to suffer. After all, if you started with the best, then what comes next can't be as good, right? That's in play here, for many reasons.

I've mentioned in reviews of previous volumes that the Barks books feature stories with multiple layers — yes, there's that basic entertainment layer, but there's some commentary under the surface as well about various issues (most of which, to my eyes, are about social class issues, hence Uncle Scrooge). That's not really here, unless they're even more subtle than the others and I just can't see it. This is pretty much pure entertainment.

And yet, it might actually be because of that that I think this is the funniest volume released thus far. Every story in The Old Castle's Secret is a lesson in how to tell a joke.  My favorite is the 10-pager "Wired," in which Donald and the boys take jobs as telegram messengers. There's a running joke in those 10 pages that seem like they're there just to be amusing at first, but it turns out to be the punchline! The joke was well spaced out and well paced, and it just works to maximum effect.

Another problem Old Castle's Secret has is, simply, it came earlier than the other volumes. So Uncle Scrooge is in here, but it's not yet the final model for Scrooge. His physical look hadn't been finalized yet (no top hat, and the sideburns go down instead of upwards) and neither was his personality (he spends the title story scared of a ghost, which is definitively something the "real" Scrooge would not be). This volume also has the first two appearances of Gladstone Gander, but instead of being Donald's naturally lucky cousin who's an insufferable arrogant twat, he's just an insufferable arrogant twat. The defining element for him would come later.

Still, from a historic standpoint, it's interesting to see the evolution. And if you're just looking at this book in a vacuum and not in relation to the other volumes, they're still very entertaining stories. Also, this has Daisy Duck in a couple of stories, which is also interesting because she's barely in the preceding volumes, if at all.

The stories in Donald Duck: The Old Castle's Secret first appeared in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #88-98, March of Comics #20, and Full Color #189 and 199, from January to November 1948, and are listed below.

Long Stories
  • The Old Castle's Secret. Uncle Scrooge needs to raise some money, and he knows there's hidden treasure in the old castle of Dismal Downs, which he owns, as the last of the Clan McDuck. But the place is said to be haunted by the ghost of his ancestor, Sir Quackly McDuck, and he's too scared to get it on his own. Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie go with him to Scotland to help find it. 
  • Darkest Africa. While helping his nephews catch butterflies for a class project, Donald finds himself scouted by a butterfly collector and is hired to go to Africa to look for a very rare breed of butterfly. He and the boys end up competing against Professor Argus McFiendy, the most unscrupulous butterfly collector there is, who pulls out every trick in the book!
  • Sheriff of Bullet Valley. Donald and the boys make it to Bullet Valley, where a gang has been stealing cattle from various ranchers. There's a $2,000 reward for capturing the rustlers, so Donald, inspired by the many Westerns he's watched, decides to go for it and gets appointed deputy. But something weird is happening — every time the boss of the Double X ranch gets near a horse, that horse all of a sudden has the Double X brand on it! Of course, Donald manages to put all the clues together... all in the wrong way, so the boys have to bail him out.

Short Stories
  • Wintertime Wager. This is the first appearance of Gladstone Gander, who comes to collect on a bet he and Donald made during the spring — either Donald swims in the Frozenbear Lake on Christmas Day or he gives up his house to Gladstone! Fortunately for Donald, Daisy comes to his rescue, calling in a bet Gladstone made with her.Will this teach Donald and Gladstone the error of their betting ways? Okay, probably not.
  • Watching the Watchman. Donald gets a new job as a night watchman, but he can't get the sleep he needs before his shift, so the boys have to help him stay awake through it! What happens when the place gets robbed?
  • Wired. Donald finds out that messenger boys get big tips when they deliver to rich people, so he decides to get that job and make a fortune off of it. The boys decide to do the same thing, but Donald thinks they're horning in on his racket, so he tries to make sure they're out of his way. Of course, it's Donald, so it backfires.
  • Going Ape. Donald wants to work his way upwards in society, so he decides to throw a big dinner party. To make sure it's memorable, he asks the boys to dress up in monkey suits and act like monkeys throughout the party. They won't cooperate, so he buys some hypnotic glasses... and let's just say the glasses get around quite a bit.
  • Spoil the Rod. Donald is told by a child psychologist not to punish the boys under any circumstances and to encourage their mischief, so he takes that advice. Of course, the boys take advantage of Donald's new stance. How long before Donald has enough?
  • Rocket Race to the Moon. Back in 1948, 21 years before man made it to the moon, many people pursued rocket science as a hobby. Donald gets chosen as a pilot for what would be the first trip to the moon, since his size is just right for making the roundtrip. But not only is he competing against Baron de Sleezy, a villain reminiscent of Peg-Leg Pete, the boys also stowed away on the ship, making Donald use up the gas before he could even think about going home!
  • Donald of the Coast Patrol. Donald gets a job as a guardsman in the U.S. Coast Patrol, watching over a beach and making sure no one is running smuggling operations. Needless to say, there's a whole operation running under his nose. Needless to say, he doesn't spot it. Needless to say, the boys do. And needless to say, because he's Donald Duck, he chases the boys away, and the entire operation just keeps happening right in front of him, with him none the wiser.
  • Gladstone Returns. Daisy needs five dollars, and both Gladstone and Donald tell her that they'll get it for her. But neither of them has five dollars! As it turns out, Huey, Dewey, and Louie do, so Donald tries to get it from them. So this is a ten-page story of how the same five dollars keeps changing hands.
  • Links Hijinks. Donald wants to play golf and gets the boys to caddy for him. Knowing that Donald will be there the whole day, they decide to speed up the process by cheating and putting his golf balls into the holes each time before he can see where it landed. Thinking for real that he's hitting consecutive holes-in-one, he sends them away. And just in time, Gladstone shows up, and Donald bets him that he can make a hole-in-one. Uh-oh.
  • Pearls of Wisdom. Donald has no money to buy Daisy a birthday present, so he and the boys go diving for pearls. If he can get fifty, he'll make a necklace. And of course, everything that could go wrong goes wrong.
  • Foxy Relations. Uncle Scrooge has a big deal cooking with a businessman named Lord Tweeksdale, who doesn't want to sell to Scrooge because he doesn't believe the Family McDuck are sportsmen. So Scrooge sends Donald to participate in the fox hunting tournament, which, as I think we've established by now, is a big mistake.

The 1-pagers. I'm not going to summarize them because, well, they're a page long, but just for the sake of cataloging them, here they are:
  • Bird Watching
  • Horseshoe Luck
  • Bean Taken
  • Sorry to Be Safe
  • Best Laid Plans
  • The Genuine Article
All in all this is a collection that may fall below the standards of the previous volumes, but is still fun on its own as well from a historical context.


Aug 28, 2013

The Usborne Detective Guides

I was at my mom's house a couple of weeks back and found myself rummaging through our old bookshelves when I ran across three of my favorite books when I was a little kid. They've got words and pictures in them, and some even go in sequence, so they're comic-y enough for me to talk about here. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a detective. And not because of Batman or Dick Tracy, no. I can safely say I owe it all to...

The Usborne Detective Guides
by Duy

The Usborne Detective Guides were three books (I found out later that they were originally one book called The Usborne Detective's Handbook) that ostensibly were about teaching you to (shock) be a detective. All illustrated by Colin King, they involved recurring characters and a wide variety of villains, and showcased tips and strategies on how to tell when crooks are lying, when something is fake, what clues to spot, and... everything you need to be a detective, really.

Also, I wouldn't be surprised if these books got some overeager kids in trouble. But that's beside the point.

The first book, Fakes and Forgeries, written by Judy Hindley, was all about how to spot counterfeits.

Here's exactly what goes on inside a forgers' den.

Here's another little anecdote to show how forgers of paintings work. Reading it now, it feels like one of those fake Facebook stories, but it was eye-opening to an eight-year-old Cube.

The book also used one of my favorite comic book techniques, the cutaway. See, look, they're comics. I'm completely justified in putting this on the Cube.

Anne Civardi wrote the next book, Clues and Suspects.

This one's about being able to sift through clues to find your man. Among other things in this book, we learn how a detective sets up an office. We also learn that every crook ever looks suspicious to begin with and that the guy on the "Wanted" poster on your wall is probably spying on you through the window behind you. And also, that no detective should ever go without a trenchcoat.

If anyone making superhero or crime comics right now wants to use this rogues' gallery, I say they should go ahead and do it. Bones always tricks guard dogs by giving them bones. Brusher always cleans up the scene of the crime before leaving it. Stuffer eats everything. This is gold.

Oh, the book also shows you how to make an identi-book, which makes it easier to figure out your suspects.

It's also got the most prominent case of the recurring Usborne detectives. Trapper, the mustached one, is the expert, while Dodd is a little frightened. There's also Petal the dog and her handler, who doesn't have a name, because... well, I don't know. Moving on...

Remember, always wear your brown coats.

Remember what I said about every crook looking like a crook? See, they should always be balding, smoking, and wearing striped shirts.

Here's the cover to the final book, Catching Crooks, written by Angela Wilkes.

Crooks are stupid.

This one's actually full of games, including games you can play with friends, but here's a thing to see: ways to tell if your house has been broken into.

I'll leave you folks with a mystery from this last volume. The "Theft at the Manor" deals with a missing painting. Here's the map of the place. (Click to enlarge.)

And now here are the suspects. (Click to enlarge.)

Think it through, read all the statements, check out the map, and then think it through some more. When you think you've solved it, you can check with the correct solution below...


(down some more)

(keep going)

...right here.Click to enlarge.

So I'm sure these books are quaint and kinda silly, and I'm sure they were written with that in mind. But when I was 8, they were informative, entertaining, and eye-opening. So I wanna take this time to thank Usborne and Angela Wilkes, Anne Civardi, Judy Hindley, and Colin King for giving me these books, Detectives Dodd and Trapper, and many, many hours of entertainment.

Aug 26, 2013

Back Issue Ben: The Avengers vs. Superman!

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here

The Avengers vs Superman
Back Issue Ben

Longtime Back Issue Ben readers (who am I kidding, nobody is reading this) know that my love of the ‘80s art of John Byrne, is almost as strong as my hatred of Superman. This week, we’re going to look at the time Byrne stepped in for George Perez on the Avengers series, and pit Superman against the Avengers in a battle royale for the ages.

In these pages contains the titanic tussle between Superman and Thor that you wished JLA/Avengers had given you (Thor would totally win, I don’t care what Busiek says).

How could Superman appear in an Avengers comics, you ask? Well, technically, it’s not Superman, but they find a suitable stand-in by using…well, you’ll just have to keep reading won’t you.

Let’s ball this melon!

Avengers #164. Resident Writer: Jim Shooter; Guest Penciler: John Byrne; Itinerant Inker: Pablo Marcos; Inevitable Editor: Archie Goodwin

Tony Stark, Hank Pym, and Black Panther finish up a battery of tests on Wonder Man. They conclude that he is now a being of living energy, practically a new form of life. (In my head they also conclude that he’s absolutely worthless.) The Beast, frustrated about his lack of inclusion with the big brains, goes for a walk, where his frustrations are quickly eased by a group of female admirers.

An ominous figure drives by the scene in a Rolls Royce, arriving at a factory where the former villain formerly known as Power Man is working (that’s right, two “formers” in one sentence, I don’t care).

The figure is revealed to be Count Nefaria, and he promises to increase the former Power Man’s power levels, if he will agree to work for him (that’s right, two “powers” in one sentence. I never claimed to be a writer).

In an East Side apartment, the elderly Whizzer sees a news report of a super-powered bank robbery, and suits up for action. He’s stopped by his “daughter” Wanda, better known as The Scarlet Witch (when did this assumed parentage happen?), and scolded for not allowing himself to recover from his recent heart attack. He agrees not to go, and she springs into action in his place.

The bank robbery is being carried out by a reformed Lethal Legion, consisting of Power Man, Living Laser, and Whirlwind (the least exciting collection of supervillains ever). Captain America, Yellowjacket, Black Panther, and the Wasp arrive on the scene, and the battle begins.

The Avengers appear to be losing, until the Scarlet Witch arrives to save the day.

The Lethal Legion decide to flee, with the Laser igniting the road behind them into a “river of molten, flaming tar.” Apparently, the Avengers aren’t in the mood to chase them.

Meanwhile, Count Nefaria arrives at his secret, sub-basement laboratory, where a team of scientists prepare ‘Project N’ for him. One of the scientists happens to be a former assistant to Baron Zemo, named Professor Sturdy (ah, Nazis, is there anything they won’t do?). Sturdy has agreed to complete Project N for Nefaria, for the large sum of money that the Lethal Legion was in the process of acquiring from the nearby bank, in exchange for an upgrade in their powers.

Cap and the present Avengers await the arrival of their other teammates, to discuss how much they’ve been sucking lately. (Reminds me of a military meeting.)

Beast arrives, having just finished what is suggested to be (and I’m going to assume was) a five-some with the adoring ladies from before. Before they can get to any business, a car crashing through the wall interrupts the proceedings, courtesy of the Lethal Legion (and knocking out the Wasp in the process).

This made me laugh. “But—no, they’d cheat!”
I don’t know why, easily amused I guess.

Wonder Man goes flying into battle, only to get clobbered by Power Man (which is his role in the universe). Beast tries to corral Whirlwind, but the Lethal Legion’s powers have been noticeably augmented. Power Man sends Beast soaring across the city (seems like he shouldn’t survive that).

Yellowjacket, enraged by Jan getting hurt, calls dibs on Power Man, and attacks him with his new sonic disruptor. It has little effect, but before Power Man can finish throwing the chunk of rubble he grabs off the ground, his power fades completely, flattening him under the rock. Whirlwind and Laser’s powers drop as well, leaving them wide open for defeat.

While the Avengers try to puzzle out what just happened, the ground beneath them rumbles and explodes upward. Before them stands the super-powered might of Count Nefaria.

My brain thoughts: I really can’t take a character wearing a monocle all that seriously; it just makes me think of Mr. Peanut. Which, now makes me want a battle between Mr. Peanut and the Avengers. If Mr. Peanut battled Wonder Man, how badly would he hurt him? I’d hesitate to say that he’d punch him right out of the comic book into the real world, where Wonder Man could use his powers to…fail us miserably probably, like Superman saving Metropolis from Zod. Or, more accurately, not saving Metropolis from Zod. Between Batman letting Bane completely devastate Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, to Metropolis in Man of Steel, things are not looking good for real estate in the DC movie universe. That’s almost Wonder Man levels of failure. Maybe Wonder Man, now that he’s in the real world, could have his own version of the “Superboy Prime punch” and he could make DC not suck again.

Avengers #165. Writer: James Shooter; Penciler: George Perez; Inker: Pablo Marcos; Editor: Archie Goodwin

An extremely powerful Count Nefaria is slapping around the Avengers with ease (courtesy of his new powers, including super strength, super speed, and invulnerability). Beast leaps into battle, in a rage since the last time he had seen Nefaria, he was supposedly killed in the same explosion that killed fellow X-Man Thunderbird. This prompted the standard expository explanation about the circumstances of his survival.

This all reads very Byrne-like to me. For those of you that don’t know, Byrne would become well-known throughout his career for providing explanations for the “why’s” and “how’s” of comic book minutiae, to diminishing returns as he went on. My Byrne-sense is tingling here.

Nefaria’s “mutant scum” comment sparks Scarlet Witch’s entry into the proceedings, but Nefaria easily deflects her attack with his laser vision. (I guess because I grew up a Marvel kid, it doesn’t automatically occur to me that a character with Nefaria’s new powers is probably a Superman analog, but as Duy told me once, in a drunken stupor no doubt, heat vision is what really makes that connection for him. Plus, I guess he is wearing a red cape.)

Wonder Man takes his turn, actually knocking Nefaria around a little bit (while also whining once again about how he gets scared and doesn’t want to die, and he left his purse at home, I don’t know, I stop paying attention after a while). But Nefaria collects himself, and gets a moment to plant his feed and stand his ground, causing Wonder Man’s next blows to have no effect whatsoever (driving home the “immovable object” homage to Superman).

That kind of scene always reminds me of the Hulk wailing away on an unmoving Superman in the classic treasury-sized Superman and Spider-Man, which was written by…Jim Shooter. See how the world connects, my friends. Also, that was bull, the Hulk could totally at least move Superman.

Wonder Man is sent crashing into the mansion. Jarvis gets him back on his feet, and Wonder Man advises Jarvis to check on the house’s systems, in case he damaged them by being thrown through the wall. (It’s sound advice, because Wonder Man can find a way to make anything worse off. He spends more time flopping around than Lebron James.)

This prompts Jarvis to check on the Vision, who is apparently still recovering from the fight with Ultron and his robot bride from previous issues. Cap and the Beast combine their strength into one coordinated shield throw, but Nefaria snatches it right out of the air.

Nefaria briefly tries to crush the shield, but finds that he cannot, giving him his first momentary thought of doubt about the limits of his new strength. He casually tosses it away, which happens to be with enough force to take out the Black Panther.

Nefaria then picks up a nearby building and drops it on the helpless Avengers.

Convinced that his enemies are dead, Nefaria walks to a nearby bank, thinking to himself the whole time about how his new costume was developed to conduct the super energy from Sturdy’s machine into his body, providing an unnecessary explanation for something that nobody was probably questioning at that point (Byrne-senses…tingling!). Nefaria rips off the door to the vault, and makes it rain (where’s Janet?) with the money inside, just to show how trivial he thinks it all is now.

After letting loose with the statement “Nothing can stop me! I can indulge any whim I’ve ever had!” he spots an attractive young woman nearby, and leaps away with her. (As he explains to his new captive, he can only leap miles, not fly. Byrne-senses!) Up on the roof, the young woman struggles against him, until the Whizzer arrives to interrupt the moment. (He was totally going to…..assault that girl, right? Man, ’80s comics were overflowing with innocent females getting mind-controlled, and adolescent power fantasies.)

The Whizzer’s punches are having zero impact on Nefaria (probably because he’s elderly, and the elderly are useless) but it does distract him enough for the young woman to escape (I guess not totally useless). As Nefaria prepares to drop the Whizzer over the side of the building, the Whizzer is able to get into his head a little bit, playing on his apparent fears of getting older and being past his prime. This panics Nefaria enough for him to leave the Whizzer and go leaping off, with a new purpose only he knows.

Meanwhile, in the wreckage of Nefaria’s secret laboratory, Professor Sturdy slowly crawls his way out of the debris.

Elsewhere, Iron Man arrives to try and dig out the bodies of his teammates from under the wreckage of the building that was dropped on them. He’s delighted to find them alive and well, inside a foxhole carved out for them by the Scarlet Witch. The team regroups back at the mansion, but spend all their time arguing about their next step, instead of accomplishing anything (I blame Wonder Man).

Nefaria comes crashing through the wall (the Avengers must spend a lot of money on patching up walls) looking for Thor. Iron Man takes his turn against Nefaria, managing to get him on his heels a little bit, and the rest of the team joins in. Nefaria recovers, and uses his strength and speed to take out the Witch, Yellowjacket, and Cap fairly simply.

Iron Man regroups for another attack, and holds his own for a moment. Nefaria lets slip that he’s looking for Thor so that he can learn the secret of his immortality.

Wonder Man watches on, shaking in his boots at how easily Iron Man was defeated. He finally grows a pair and makes a last ditch effort anyway, but is soundly beaten once again (I don’t really need to point it out anymore at this point, do I?).

Nefaria, triumphant over the Avengers, is suddenly surrounded by lightning.

Thor has arrived, and he is not happy.

My brain thoughts: I vehemently disagree with the ease in which Nefaria is dealing with the Avengers. Primarily because I will never admit the Avengers could lose to Superman. Never, I say! It is interesting that they went with a non-flying, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, version of Superman to use. (Byrne-senses tingling!) I wonder if that was for story reasons, or if they were afraid DC would get mad. Or maybe they just didn’t want to be too obvious about it.

Avengers #166. Story: Shooter; Art: Byrne and Marcos; Editing: Goodwin

Thor and Nefaria square off for a titanic bout of legendary proportions. Nefaria takes Mjolnir right in the belly, and Thor comes swooping in for a massive blow that sends Nefaria flying.

After a moment of doubt, Nefaria regains his confidence, feeling he’s already taken two of Thor’s mightiest blows and survived unharmed.

“Neither your stupid boasts nor your overrated powers can stop me, Thor!”

Nefaria unleashes his laser vision, which Thor blocks with his spinning hammer.

“Bah! I will show thee power, Nefaria! Behold!”

Thor’s hammer, continuing to spin, is opening a portal to another plane of existence. To avoid being sucked into it, Nefaria picks up another building and throws it at the portal, covering both it and Thor.

Thinking that is the end of it, Nefaria turns his attention back to killing the Avengers, but Thor breaks free from the rubble, more than a little ticked off. He lets loose the heavens, sending down rain and lightning, and swinging mighty Mjolnir at Nefaria. Nefaria stops the hammer mid-swing with his hand, shocking Thor with his strength.

Inside the mansion, Beast finds Yellowjacket working in the lab, momentarily accusing him of cowardice. Pym is not hiding, but instead working to up the team’s power levels by reviving the Vision. He is successful, and with a quick update on current events, the Vision is off to join the fight. (The Beast makes note of how much more robotic the Vision sounds and seems.)

Outside, while Thor is off-balance, Nefaria hits him with a super-powered punch, and then moves in to claim his hammer. The Vision rises out of the ground in front of him, cutting him off from Thor. Vision goes to his standard move, by trying to put his transparent hand into the chest of Nefaria, but is shocked when it will not penetrate his body.

Apparently, Nefaria’s body is too charged with super-energy for Vision to be able to pass through it (Byrne-senses!). Nefaria uses this momentary advantage to hit Vision, the first time anyone has ever stuck him in his ethereal form.

Upstairs, the Wasp finally recovers (she should be used to taking blows to the head), and looks outside to see Nefaria about to smash a bus over the head of Thor.

Professor Sturdy (remember him?) barrels through the police blockage surrounding the area in Nefaria’s own Rolls Royce, crashing it, crawling his battered body out of the wreckage, and approaches the scene of the battle. Nefaria is shocked to see Sturdy survived. Sturdy explains to Nefaria, that before he tried to kill him and his crew, they were not able to complete the process of giving him his powers, and that he is in fact, aging at a rapid rate, and will be dead in the span of a few days.

Only Sturdy could have controlled the process, he explains, before collapsing in pain, apparently dying. Nefaria confirms this by checking his reflection in a nearby window, seeing his noticeably aged face.

Thor offers Nefaria the help of the Avengers in saving his life. But with Nefaria’s worst fears realized, he lashes out in a rage, and prepares to take the whole city with him into death.

Wasp revives the rest of the Avengers, and they prepare to rejoin the titanic clash outside. Cap is still too weak to join them, and passes off his shield to an honored Wonder Man (of all the choices?).

Nefaria is destroying a part of the city with his laser vision, before Vision comes swooping in with a massive mid-air blow, taking advantage of Nefaria’s inability to fly and knocking him to the ground. Wasp, Wonder Man, Iron Man, and Thor press their advantage, raining mighty blow after blow upon Nefaria. Scarlet Witch uses her hex powers, flooding Nefaria’s body with a mind-numbing burst of pain.

Thor unleashes another mighty punch, knocking Nefaria into a nearby building. With Nefaria staggered, the Vision, high above the action, increases his mass and comes dropping down right on top of him, like a meteor out of the sky.

When the smoke clears, the Vision stumbles to his feet over an unconscious and defeated Nefaria.

The team celebrates their victory by immediately resuming their argument about Iron Man and Thor’s current lack of availability and seeming commitment, and the overall suckitude of the team lately.

Yellowjacket stops them, reminding them they have bigger concerns at the moment. Apparently Yellowjacket was able to talk to Sturdy before he made it to the scene of the battle and promptly died. He revealed to Pym how to return Nefaria to normal. Sturdy was also lying about the advanced aging process, with it only being a temporary side effect, hoping to con him into volunteering to be reverted back to normal. In fact, the super-energy in his cells would have extended his life indefinitely, essentially rendering him immortal.

With that ironic revelation, the issue comes to a close with a mysterious bearded stranger boarding a boat to America, for a long-delayed reunion with his children…Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch?!?

But that is a story for another time.

My brain thoughts: It seemed like they ran out of room a little bit at the end there, having to wrap up the story in a neat little bow over the span of a few expository panels. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Sturdy to stop for a little chat with Yellowjacket on his way to confront Nefaria, but whatever, I’ll take it. Thor versus Superman/Nefaria was a good one, having Thor doing well enough to not get embarrassed, but still probably overmatched by Superman (I’m looking at you, Busiek). It’s interesting that they are essentially saying that the Vision would basically be the difference-maker in this matchup.

My final brain thoughts: Wonder Man is useless, Beastly five-somes, Byrne-senses tingling, Mr. Peanut, useless elderly, and Thor versus Superman (the good version).

The first time I read this, it didn’t even dawn on me that Count Nefaria was being used as a Superman analog. Reading it again this time, with that knowledge in hand, made it just that much more enjoyable. As hard a time as I give DC and Superman, I have no problem admitting that their characters largely outclass Marvel’s in terms of power levels. All I ever want to see in any Marvel versus DC matchup, is neither side getting embarrassed (unless it’s Wonder Man or Green Arrow, embarrass them all you want). Marvel should at least be competitive. (Unless it’s Superman, beat him, finish him!)

Byrne’s art, once again, is better than just about anyone else from that time, but still not quite in the prime of his career yet. It’s a shame his time on Avengers would wind up being so short. Jim Shooter, once the wonder kid of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes (and teased for having a Marvel-like writing style), had a pretty remarkable run here on Avengers before taking over as Editor-in-Chief. I will never change my stance on being a full-fledged Shooter apologist. I will concede that he probably was out of control towards the end of his reign, but I refuse to believe he was the big bad wolf that some former freelancers make him out to be. If he wouldn’t let you do your story, that’s probably because it was a bad story, not because he wanted to eat your face. He took a company that was losing money, on the verge of collapse, and righted the ship, turning it into the powerhouse of the industry, dominating DC for most of the decade. (There are stories of freelancers getting high in the hallways of the office, that place needed a kick in the ass.)

There you have it, another round of unapologetic John Byrne praise, with a healthy dose of Jim Shooter love this time out for good measure.

Next time out, um…..I haven’t decided yet!

Aug 22, 2013

Roundtable 2!

Welcome to another round of the Comics Cube Roundtable, where we at the Cube give our takes on certain comics arguments. Click here for the full list. 


Duy: Any time someone makes a career out of building from someone else's work, comparisons between those two people will inevitably arise. In the case of Don Rosa and Carl Barks, I've certainly seen people on both sides. Don Rosa is simultaneously praised and criticized for taking what Barks did and drawing it with more detail, because to some people detail is cool, and to some people detail is bad, especially the Disney purists who think a minimal amount of lines is the way to go.

I myself am a big fan of detail, especially detailed architecture, and for that, Rosa gets an edge because the dude actually has a background in civil engineering and he worked with technical, fixed-width pens. He also did more in the way of shadow work than Barks did. Barks did both things, albeit more sparingly. A part of it is that that was just the difference between them, and a part of it is that Rosa's time had better production values. Rosa also had the advantage of taking Barks' model and moving from there. And that's part of the reason this is an unfair comparison, because Barks cannot compete on those grounds. He cannot. It's impossible.

On the other hand, when it comes to actual storytelling, movement between panels, and looking animated, that's Barks all the way. Rosa clearly built off of what he did, and incorporated other techniques, mostly from movies, that he freely admits to "stealing." But he built off Barks' method, and that's another thing about these cross-era comparisons that makes it unfair. Don Rosa cannot compete with how groundbreaking Carl Barks was. He cannot. It's impossible.

In terms of story content, Rosa again has the advantage in that he's able to take what Barks did and add to it. In that sense, Barks wins the points for originality, and Rosa wins the points for writing the stuff that tickles the fan itch.

Duy's Verdict: I refuse to choose, and thankfully, I'll never have to. Fantagraphics should issue a complete Don Rosa collection when they're done with Barks.

Travis: I know Barks is a huge influence on Rosa, he knows it, you know it, but I don’t think they’re really the same kind of artist, writer, or storyteller and that’s in part because Rosa, when he’s doing duck-work, is coming at it as a later-generation fan, his understanding of things, how they line up, how they are contextualized is obviously filtered through fandom. He’s the Philip J Farmer of duck comics. The Joe Lansdale. The Roy Thomas.

What’s the versus here? Which is better? Better at what?

Travis’ Verdict: Both are wonderful.

Ben: I'm going to do what I usually do in a case like this, which probably perplexes most of you, and name a basketball analogy.  (The basketball is the perplexing part, I assume, and not the concept of analogies, unless I just perplex you in general, in which case, you're right in line with my family and friends, and anyone that has ever known me.)  Kobe Bryant obviously took every move he uses from Michael Jordan.  It's possible Bryant was as competent in those moves as Jordan, while also providing an arguably better three point shot, and may end up passing Jordan on the all-time scoring list.  But at no point in history has a copy ever been as clear and as good as the original, or succeeded in not being a copy, no matter how great.

There's always a point where I purchase something published before 1980, that I remember I'm probably going to hate it (especially DC) and prepare to force myself to read it, because, a purchase is a purchase, and that societal contract must be fulfilled.  I experienced the same dread with Carl Barks, yet realized he may be the single greatest, most timeless, creator of all-time.  From dread to worship, in the span of one oversized reprint collection.

Ben's Verdict:  Barks, but Don Rosa did a free Scrooge sketch for me once, and was amazing and nice.

Matt: No Duck in this fight.

Matt's Verdict: Life is like a hurricane.

Travis: In corporate-owned superhero comics, I’m beyond caring if it is the writer’s idea, the editor’s, penciler’s, editor in chief’s sister’s kid’s idea. I’m not even sure if I care if it’s a “good idea.” Is the story the death happens in a good comic? Okeh, then. That’s all I’m judging it on anymore, because in the big corporate-owned superhero universes, resurrection is easy. Editorial mandate that a charcter no longer appear is much stronger than any dismemberment, cancer, asphyxiation, or rare Kryptonian disease.

And, of course, by “good comic” I mean simply, “a comic I like”.

Travis’ Verdict: Kill’em all, make it good, bring them back next Tuesday.

Duy: People like to get on story premises right away when they see it advertised in the news and whatnot as "cheap stunts" and "gimmicks." This is especially true of character deaths, but it could also be true of anything that involves a character leaving the book for a while or, to a lesser degree, a cliffhanger at the end of an issue.

Here's the thing: no one has ever said the words, "Let me create something that won't sell." When Jack Kirby was asked in Masters of Comic Book Art how he came up with things like Galactus and Darkseid, his response was something to the effect of "They expected me to make sales." I guarantee that if today's fans had seen Sue Storm marry Reed Richards back then, they would have complained. (Travis has actually told me that people wrote in even then, complaining that it aged the characters too much.)

And when it comes to the marketing side, looking at Superior Spider-Man as an example, would people have paid as much attention to it if it were still going on in Amazing Spider-Man? I don't think so. Some true marks would, but most people would just be waiting for Peter to come back instead of enjoying the story (I still am; I guess I'm just a bit too removed from the experience. I am enjoying it though). Would Age of Apocalypse have been the same if it hadn't been in all-new titles? I'd say no. Like it or not, there is a psychological factor to the whole thing, to pretending that these changes are permanent, even when they are not. When Marvel and DC combined for one week to produce Amalgam, they wrote the solicits to make it look like it was permanent. And I guarantee, someone out there bought it. Maybe not you, but someone. And to that person, it made a true difference.

And on the side of the media, maybe, just maybe, if they approach the companies about their "cheap stunt" and not about their other storylines, it's because they know the public will go apeshit.

Duy's Verdict: Is the story good? Did the media hype increase its readership? If both answers are yes, then it succeeded.

Ben: Cynicism is an adult trait.  As a kid (and to this day) my two favorite comics were the Death of Gwen Stacy and Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 (the death of the Barry Allen Flash).  What this tells me (other than that I was a morbid kid) is that death can be a powerful storytelling tool, and I didn't need to ever consider if it was forever to know that it was touching, and that my life was both better and sadder for having read them.  Never mind that death and resurrection has been a staple of heroic fiction forever.  (Hey there Jesus.)

Cynicism is far too prevalent a trait in the modern species of the comic fan.  It shouldn't matter if you think you know what happens next, or the permanence, or perceived lack thereof, of the story you're reading.  Does your adult knowledge that Johnny Storm will probably not remain dead indefinitely, make the story following his "death" any less moving?  The silent issue, beautifully depicting each FF member's sorrow over the loss, capped by a Franklin and Spider-Man conversation in which they've both lost an Uncle they loved dearly, is worth far more than any cynical fan's anxiety over what it is they think they know. 

Ben's Verdict:  Give me more heroic deaths, and exciting resurrections.

Matt: Death is a powerful force in life. Comics can build a character and his/her importance and give the death meaning or they can kill huge swaths of characters with disregard. Both can be effective and I think Ben (shockingly) makes a good point. Don't let adult cynicism and knowledge of past non-deaths cloud the meaning of heroic sacrifice. Deaths shouldn't just be used for shock value, since that value has a shorter half-life than a bad story. If the death works and people reading should care about this person dying, then by all means. Just killing a character because your itching to tick up sales probably isn't going to work and your story probably shows that. Rorschach's death works in Watchmen, Flash's death works in Crisis. Did Superman's death at the hands of Doomsday work? I don't know, I never read the story, but I know that Batman's death in Final Crisis didn't really work for me. It was just random.

Matt's Verdict: Don't change the story to fit the death, make the death work for the story.

Matt: Again not something I knew was a thing. I think of Stan and Jack serving different, but necessary roles in the development of Marvel and for Jack a number of DC worlds and characters. I don't think one was better at the other, except that Stan cannot draw. Who deserves more credit? Neither, anyone who knows a little comics history knows that they both played integral roles. Without Stan and Jack, we wouldn't have the Fantastic Four or the X-Men. Without Stan, no Spider-Man or the Hulk. Without Jack, no New Gods, no Darkseid, no Orion, no Captain America. The comics world would be a lot less interesting.

Matt's Verdict: In The Man vs The King, we all won

Duy: My take on this always seems to change depending on who I'm talking to, and in what year. Three years ago, I'd have taken the opposite stance as whatever you're taking, because I would have wanted to make sure we walked out of it with an overall balanced view. Now, I'd probably just take your side, because I'm sick of arguing about it.

Both men contributed to varying degrees on varying projects. Fantastic Four wouldn't have been the same without Kirby's scope, nor without Stan's voice. The unity of the entire Marvel universe rests on Stan's voice and (for the most part) Kirby's house style. It wouldn't have been what it was without either man.

And while we're at it, this debate always comes down to Stan and Jack, and sometimes it includes Steve Ditko, but it always seems to overlook the other guys who actually contributed to the creation of the Marvel Universe. So let's just get this out of the way: Don Heck (Iron Man), Bill Everett (Namor, Daredevil), Joe Simon (Captain America), Wally Wood (who gave Daredevil his iconic costume), Neal Adams (who really put the X-Men somewhere in the vicinity of the map, at the tail end of the 60s), Jim Steranko (Nick Fury), John Romita (we'll get to him later), Larry Lieber (Stan's brother that no one ever remembers, who both wrote and drew), Roy Thomas (I think we can safely say he was Stan's #2 guy), and... I'm going on too long. Let's move on.

Duy's Verdict: Can we all agree that the Marvel Universe would not be the same without either guy?

Travis: If this is “Who built Marvel?” then for better or worse, I have to say Stan Lee was still the glue, but everyone worked and I can’t judge who worked hardest or best because all I know are the end products. I do know that without Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, or Wally Wood, Stan Lee’s romance comics are about the only thing of his that really rocks me and those were drawn by superb artists too. But nobody could write hype like Stan Lee. Jack Kirby could write an essay or a letter to the readers and it was informative and emotional and I want to throw my fist in the air and shout Hell Yeah! reading them, but Stan Lee could fill up a column consistently with virtually nothing in the way of useful content and it’s just entertaining.

Who made better comics, separate from the other? Jack Kirby, for me, always.

Travis’ Verdict: Marvel should cough up some cash to Kirby’s heirs and a lot of heirs (and living talent).

Ben: I've never heard anyone argue that the vanilla was more integral than the chocolate in a swirl ice cream cone.  You can try and separate them by hand, but you'll get your hands all sticky, and the cone gets depressed.

You can also have vanilla or chocolate on its own, to varying levels of personal preference (unless one of them is served Ditko sprinkles, then it's just objectively better).

Ben's Verdict:  Now I want ice cream.

Duy: Some fans are territorial, quick to ostracize and "protect" their hobby from new fans. These people consider themselves "true fans," and cite whatever "facts" they know about the material to prove that these other fans aren't really fans. These people see fandom as a clubhouse.

What is there to be protective of? Your stuff will always be there. What you enjoy will always be there — and once you start cutting it off from other people, are you even still enjoying?

Comics are losing readers (superhero comics, anyway), and the last thing it needs it lose even more. Maybe if you think someone should know more, you should try talking to them instead of ostracizing them. Maybe if you think someone needs to read better, you can recommend instead of criticize. Or maybe you can just accept that different people like different things.

One more thing: trivia has always been fun, but ultimately pointless. The existence of the Internet has made it even more pointless. Knowledge of trivia is nothing to lord over other people. That's why it's called "trivia."

Duy's Verdict:
It'd be better if, instead of a clubhouse, we were a bar. One of those relaxed ones with awesome music in the background and we can just sit around and talk. Because comics should be fun.

Matt: A true fan is one who recognizes that comics are there for pleasure and not to beat someone over the head with knowledge you learned 10 minutes ago from Wikipedia. No one is more of a fan than someone who spends money on this stuff.

Matt's Verdict:
I learned all this 20 minutes ago on Wikipedia.

Ben: I tease my wife that she's not a true fan all the time, but only because I'm trying to goad her into reading some comic I like.  It never works, and she doesn't care what I think. 

As no one should, because fandom isn't a contest, or a badge of honor to be worn with arrogant pride, to the derision of all others.  You may feel you earned your place through multiple schoolyard beatings and dateless Saturday nights, but I hate to tell you, the only price to pay to be a fan is printed on the front of the comic.

Ben's Verdict: Get over it.

Travis: I play games to play games. Sometimes, I play to lose, because the penalties are fun. So, one night I agreed to play Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, despite not having read anything like a Star Wars technical manual or even, really, having seen the (then only three or four) movies all that often, or at least, I hadn’t watched them very closely. It’s just a fun thing to do, right? We were playing for our standard coin of the realm, Starbursts and weird dares, so not high stakes.

We’re all having fun and some people are just eating their cache instead of betting with it, when a question comes up for me, that to my brain reads: “Who is the guy in the one scene in that one movie who says that thing, one time, to no character you ever heard off, and then Han does something cool right after?” And, I just say, “I don’t know.” I’m not going to guess. It’s not worth it.

This guy, somebody’s boyfriend, smacks everything off his end of the table, cards, snacks, bottles, right off the table. And, he bellows at me some name, and how incredibly important this scene is in one of the greatest movies and he could’ve named it when he was five and…

This guy isn’t my partner in the game. He’s actually winning by my losing.

He’s what I picture every time someone pulls out that “true fan” card. The guy who slapped his beer off the table and screamed I was no longer allowed to watch Return of the Jedi until I learn to appreciate it right.

Travis’ Verdict: I like noobs and dilettantes a lot more than true fans.

Ben: At no point in my life have I ever wanted less females around, except unless I'm using the toilet at the time. I like talking to women, they have interesting things to say.  Comic knowledge and/or interest (fake or not) has only ever been a bonus.

Ben's Verdict: Pathetic.

Matt: I have heard of this! I don't know what it means! It seems basically to  fall in the same category as true fannism. If you spend time and/or money to get to know a universe, a title or even just a character, you aren't fake anything.

Matt's Verdict: Larger audiences are never bad

Duy: This is just like the "true fans" thing, but it's worse when girls are involved. Some people just believe that there's no such thing as a true geek girl.

I myself am not a fan of labels. This whole "nerd vs. geek" thing doesn't really apply to me. At most, I call myself and all you guys a fan. Labels, like "geek," "nerd," "fanboy," or "otaku," seem to just pigeonhole people right away into a specific description, and I try to avoid that, as we are all different. (I hate, for example, when people say to me that I hate The Dark Knight Rises simply because I'm a comic book fan. That has nothing to do with it — I just hate The Dark Knight Rises.) But if people want to identify themselves as that label, then why hold them back? What exactly is in it for you?

We were all newbies once. We all didn't know things, at one point in time. And we will all get into our various "things," in varying degrees.

And to take that kind of snooty behavior and amplify it when you're talking to a girl is, pardon my French, really fucking sexist. Anyone can be a fan of anything.

(And also, assuming you are a heterosexual single male, why wouldn't you want girls getting into your hobby? Not that you're going to score or anything, but I would assume you would want the company.)

Duy's Verdict: I do not know why this even resembles an "argument."

Travis: Have I ever known a woman who’d pretend to be interested in something for prospective benefits in the future? Sure. But, I also know there’s thousands of “how to feign interest during a chickflick” articles out there and dudes who’re reading them. Doesn’t mean the last time I watched 13 Going on 30 with a woman it was because I was trying to lay her. That time you saw a woman on the bus reading a manly-man-manly Green Lantern issue that she was cuing you in that she’d like to bed you and take your money.

One or even ten examples of something untoward occurring, something underhanded, does not justify a blanket condemnation of an entire gender. The moment you make it about condemning a gender and not a behavior, you’ve already stepped over into Bullshit Land.

(And on the side-subject of “they’re just in it for the cosplay,” I want to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a fan of costumes, of clothes and arrangements, by themselves. There’s nothing better or worse about being a fan of exciting clothes than there is being a fan of particular superpowers, and focusing on either of those instead of the personal history of a character doesn’t make anyone less of a fan or fakier.)

Travis’ Verdict: This is, without a doubt, fandom’s biggest “I am an Asshole” sign right now.


Matt: True confession time, I usually only notice art when it's bad. I can notice themes or exceptionally good art, but I was never one to buy something just because of the artist. That being said, I haven't read enough of the Silver Age stuff to really know which was better.

Matt's Verdict:
I need to go read some old Spider-Man. I'll be back.

Duy: John Romita drew prettier women, but Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange was just so wildly creative on an artistic level beyond anything I've ever seen Romita do. In terms of Spider-Man, I also prefer Ditko's version, who had a bit more of an edge. Ben's pointed out to me that I should like Romita's Spidey more because he's basically a superpowered version of Archie, but the flaw there is that everyone around Archie is more interesting than he is too. It's not that bad with Spidey, and Romita's Spidey is fun. It's just, at the core, less compelling.

I also think Ditko was just the better storyteller. What's the most famous Spider-Man image by Romita? It's either Mary Jane's first appearance, which is the only notable thing about that story, really, or the cover to ASM #50. In contrast, the most famous Ditko image (other than anything from the origin) is a sequence of images — Spidey lifting a bunch of machinery from himself.

Also, I have the first two ASM omnibi, and I noticed that when I was reading the first one, it just kept speeding up and speeding up. Halfway through, I couldn't put it down. The second one though, when Romita took over, started off quickly and then slowed down at the halfway point. By the end, it was a chore to finish, as if Stan and Johnny were only going through the motions. And maybe they were. I'd find out later on, and I wish I could remember who told me, that when Romita first took over the book, he was trying to be like Ditko. Then Stan told him to be himself. I think I'd have liked him better if he'd kept trying to be Ditko.

Duy's Verdict: Ditko.

Ben: Romita's aesthetically more pleasing artwork rocketed the character and book into higher sales, in much the same way a pretty person might get more attention, but have less to say.

Ditko's stories were better, but Romita's Gwen was prettier.

Ben's Verdict: Ditko, for today

Travis: John Romita draws pretty. But, Steve Ditko is a fucking monster.

Travis’ Verdict: Ditko.

Aug 21, 2013

Pop Medicine: Signs of a Bad Reader

Pop Medicine is a column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Signs of a Bad Reader
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Bad, not poor. Let’s just make that clear. If you are guilty of these, and many of us do evince these faults at some point, then you are not merely unfortunate, or experiencing a lapse, you’re guilty and chastisement may be the only way to pick you up out of it. When the well-trained cat urinates on the new sofa, you don’t “poor kitty” it. “Bad kitty.” “Poor kitty” is for when it gets a paw stuck up under the breakaway collar that isn’t breaking away, or when it’s rolling on the carpet looking for sympathy over a stomach bug.
Rather than poor readers, I think there are poor readings we can all be guilty of at times. A poor reading could be:

1. Privileging Other Interpretations

Maybe you read a professional summary, maybe your friend told you about it at lunch, but despite having your own understanding, your own ideas, you push yours down and treat theirs as truth. It’s nice that you value these people’s interpretations, but underselling your ability to comprehend isn’t doing you, or anyone, much good. Not only is there always room for more than one potential meaning or understanding to a scene or a story, a character, a line, or an image, but they need not agree to be equally or significantly of value.

2. Underestimating the Author

One of the worst things you can do is notice something great in a comic and then decide the talent couldn’t possibly have done what you thought you understood. I hate the “idea particle” theory, that somewhat facetiously suggests ideas/memes ping around in the air and of their own trajectory strike an author who produces work from them, because some people take as an entirely serious proposition. These people are unable or unwilling to entertain the notion that the talent producing the entertainment might actually be that competent or that creative.

3. Confusing Change in a Character With Change

Something ought to change in good entertainment — that’s a generally accepted principle and it works out fairly well. But that the change need occur in characters is oversold and underthought. Sherlock Holmes and Superman do not change appreciably in the average early Holmes or Supes story, the protagonist of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is not appreciably changed by the end of the novel, but those can be, for many, fantastically entertaining. And, importantly, they change other people in the stories and they change, most importantly, us. The reader should be affected by their entertainment. The reader is the most significant entity of all that can be affected by entertainment.

4. I Like Bad Comics

Not only should you not enjoy things ironically, you cannot enjoy them ironically. There is no wrong reason to enjoy something. You can enjoy a comic without agreeing with its author, or without being submerged into the story so you almost forget it’s real. Identifying with the protagonist is not a requirement of enjoyment. But, however you enjoy a thing, if you enjoy it, you are, in fact, enjoying it, and it’s good for that. It’s not a bad comic, it’s a comic other people may not like for the reasons you like it.

There are, however, things that make you a bad reader. Those, when done perpetually, through comfort or aggression, include:

1. Pretending to Understand Less Than You Do

Some things are awkwardly parsed, this is true, but if you take poor grammar or unexpected narrative twists and declare you simply don’t understand what’s actually happening in the scene even though you do, because you are trying to make a point of how awkward or poor the communication of the scene is? That’s not only terrible, and condescending, it’s stupid. It makes you look willfully stupid.

Rhetorical “I don’t know what that means” obfuscation can have uses in life. When you have to talk to someone about a term or practice that isn’t contextually appropriate to discuss, like talking about blowjobs to six year olds or ignoring someone’s drunken sexts when you see them two days later and they’re sober and worried about it. As a way to redirect conversation, it’s fine as any other, but just as with any other technique it’s not a catch-all. When you are using to condescend, you aren’t being charmingly sardonic, you aren’t enhancing or really highlighting the poor communication skills of the comic, you are revealing your own pretentiousness and stubbornness and that’s about all.

2. Demanding It Be Something Completely Different

My brother likes Family Circus and has as long as I can remember. When he was a kid, the shelf by his bed often had a couple Too Short tapes, a stack of car magazines, and a Family Circus collection. I don’t feel the appeal of it, the way he does (nor the appeal of Too Short), but I won’t ask, “Why doesn’t it have continuing stories? Why isn’t there more swearing?” or other questions, because that’s not what Family Circus is. It is an established thing, it has parameters that identify it.

When you are asking a comic to go outside its established range in a significant way, you are asking for a different comic. Just accept that. Don’t ask Action Comics to start telling you how to file your taxes in Brazil. It’s not what the comic is for. Don’t ask Ranma ½ to be Maus. And, unless you are finding a point in common, don’t criticize Ranma ½ for not being Maus.

3. Getting Mad When Bad Things Happen

If you have a story, something difficult or bad is going to happen to a character. At least once, this is going to happen. The moment you find yourself asking, “How can bad things keep happening to Andy Capp?” or insisting a writer or artist hates Peter Parker because he’s gotten bruised in a fight, you should put down Andy Capp or Amazing Spider-Man for awhile and get some perspective.

Sometimes, there are unfortunate implications in what sort of bad things happen to specific sorts of people. This is slightly a horse of another color, but not always, and again, you need perspective. Perspective is your friend. A character may be black and get shot, it doesn’t mean they were shot for being black. A character can be rich and win a fight, without the talent creating the comic intending to make a blanket statement that rich people fight better. These are individuals and most talent, as most human beings, are smart enough to know that when they make public statements, stereotyping loudly may not be the way to go. This does not, however, stop us all from putting our foot in our mouth, in a nonfiction or a creating-fiction way.

Benefit of the doubt isn’t always going to pan out well, but it’s better than finding yourself proclaiming Gail Simone or Caitlin Kiernan are transphobic because something bad happened to a trans character they wrote.

4. Sticking To Your First Understanding No Matter What

Sometimes we miss things. We misunderstand, we conflate, perhaps we just don’t see it while it hovers in slow-mo in front of our face. This is acceptable and entirely human. It is also no excuse to maintain our misunderstanding after we know better.

5. Pretending to Have Read What You Haven’t

Nobody likes to feel left out, and I’d wager at some point in our lives, we have all claimed to have read something we didn’t actually fully sit down and read. Maybe we glanced at some pages. Maybe we heard about it, or read a summary somewhere. Maybe there’s an infamous bit you remember from parodies. That is not the same as reading it.

I dated a woman, once, who could pretend to have read things to a masterful level, because she would rather die of torture than admit she wasn’t in the loop. It was almost a year of dating before she’d even admit to me that she had not read a particular book or watched a certain movie. Anything she knew about it, she’d latch onto, and she could be convincing. I watched her, once, make up scenes in a movie she had not seen but the other person had, and by the end, they were admitting they could be misremembering.

This is a terrible thing to do. It may make you feel safe, it may make you feel in control, but you then have experienced the story you made up instead of the story you’re talking about. And, in talking about it, by putting your story into words, this cover story, you are altering your ability to ever take in the actual work, and if you’re sharing these words, you are irrevocably altering this work, comic, movie, whatever, for others.

When you haven’t read a work recently, the same thing happens, without being as obvious. Our memory makes its own version of the work. Our preferences and emotions stitch together the bones and skin to make a new work, based on what excited us, how we felt about certain events, and everything anyone else has told us about the work.

The biggest reason we botch famous lines is because we remember a parody or summary version in place of the original, not because they are inherently confusing. I remember the bit in Shane from the Bill Hicks routine and it’s not there, Bill Hicks made that shit up. I had “Play it again, Sam” in my head for years. I was sure “Angels, meet Diana” was a great kickass moment in Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA, but it’s not; it’s not even a scene, really, it’s just something Aquaman says while an explosion happens in the background. If Phil Jimenez hadn’t called me out on that, I’d still be walking around today sure that scene happened in the comic.

Combine cover stories, parodies, and your memory’s stitching together of an agglomeration of versions, and you have something fairly untrustworthy.

Batman hugging Robin, Superman not actually losing the fight with Batman, those are right there in The Dark Knight Returns, but what we remember easiest are the parts that have been parodied and talked about more, or paraphrased by people who haven’t read the comic or read it recently. “Batman totally kicked Superman’s ass!” No, he didn’t. He got in some half dozen blows after Superman had been hit by a nuke and then he had a heart attack and appeared to die. “Superman is a government stooge and the villain!” Superman goes to Bruce’s funeral, knows he’s still alive, and his response is to just wink at Bruce’s allies. I know people who have insisted Ellen Yindel is a lesbian in DKR, and maybe she is, but there’s absolutely no evidence of it. The word “whores” will come up more times in a conversation about Frank Miller comics than it does in any Frank Miller comic (where it will inevitably be in the mouth of a bad person who probably eats people).

Aug 19, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Carrion

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Carrion, Wayward Son
Back Issue Ben

If someone were to analyze what comics I choose to share with you here in this dirty little corner of the internet we like to call Back Issue Ben (not the same as Back Door Ben, because…well just don’t go to that website) they might think I make a conscious effort to track down and read every John Byrne and every Bill Mantlo comic I can find. But I promise you this, I am nowhere near that organized. It just keeps happening. (One of these days I need to research and see if Byrne and Mantlo did a comic together.)

This week, Mantlo, with the help of veteran Jim Mooney and a plucky young upstart by the name of Frank Miller, unveils another forgotten magnum opus, most likely relegated to the bargain bins of your local comics establishment. If all you know of Carrion is the horrible ‘90s era and Maximum Carnage stuff, then I promise you this, nothing could be that bad. It can only get better from there, and better begins at the very beginning.

But enough talk, let’s beat this corpse into submission.

Spectacular Spider-Man #25. Writer: Bill Mantlo; Artist: Jim Mooney; Inker: Frank Springer; Editor: Bob Hall

Big M and a council of the Maggia crime family listen to a pitch from the mysterious Carrion, who volunteers to bring them the head of Spider-Man, claiming to have intimate knowledge of said target.

(Nice play on the Kansas song “Carry On, Wayward Son” with that issue title, kudos. It reminds me of Supernatural, because they always use that song to summarize the season before every big season finale episode. Seriously, watch Supernatural. Duy refuses, please flood him with emails.)

Aug 15, 2013

Comics' Biggest Boners: Avengers Unplugged!

Welcome to another edition of Comics' Biggest Boners, in which we showcase some of the biggest goofs and gaffes in comics! Click here for the archive!

And now, your host, 1950s Joker!

Today's Boner was submitted by Travis, and is from Avengers Unplugged #2 by Glenn Herdling and MC Wyman. In it, Graviton's powers have gone haywire, and Deathcry is asked by a little boy to save his kitty, Fluffy. Deathcry refuses, but the next panel has her handing over Fluffy to the kid. Except, well...

Yes, somehow the little boy asking for his kitty has turned into a little girl asking for her teddy bear.

On the same page.

I think it's great.

Got a suggestion for Comics' Biggest Boners? Sent it to!

Aug 14, 2013

Pop Medicine: Ten Techniques in John Byrne's Alpha Flight

Pop Medicine is a column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Ten Techniques in John Byrne's Alpha Flight
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

John Byrne’s an easy target for criticism these days. He’s also easily written off as “he was great!” without ever saying more. And, Alpha Flight is easy to just make a joke about and then stop. But, John Byrne on Alpha Flight was experimental, creative, intelligent and unique. Some people, later on, were just using the title for a paycheck, but John Byrne used to try things.

1 Panels and Words – During a white out, an entire scene in Alpha Flight is done with only panels and dialogue balloons whose tags indicate where the characters are. It’s in the middle of an issue, and maybe it started – as rumor has it – as a way to avoid penciling the fight, but it makes what would be a simple, passing scene into something worth reading, worth paying attention to. There’s nothing there but John Byrne’s words and pacing, and Byrne was pretty good at the whole pacing game.

2 Visual Indicators of Passing Time – As the first several issues of the comic progressed, there were flashbacks and back-up stories set in the past, as well as leaps forward in time. To help you sort it out, rather than put a clock in the corner of panels or a timestamp with the date, Byrne would illustrate someone’s hair growing out or a slow change in their dress or body. It’s subtler, it works well, and it shows off in the progressions in a nicely unflashy way.

3 Ethnicity Is More Than a Funny Hat – The comic had characters from various ethnicities and subcultures of Canada and Byrne never held back and tried to pretend that everyone’s just an Anglo in funny clothes. In the Twenty-First Century, where Len Wein is proud he wrote Storm (for what? two issues?) as not a black woman but a woman, John Byrne, for any other faults he may have, made the effort to have people’s ethnicity play a role in how the spoke, dressed, thought, without turning anyone into a complete stereotype.

4 People Got Hurt – One thing with the Comics Code that really distressed Dr. Wertham, was that it prohibited showing genuine effects of violence. This has led to contemporary superheroics where unless someone’s getting torn in half in a Geoff Johns comic, they’re probably not even getting a sore jaw from taking the punches. In Alpha Flight, people got hurt, sometimes it was a cramp or a buise, sometimes they got hurt bad. In an early issue, Puck is hospitalized from a fight Johnny Storm probably would have shrugged off, and in a later issue, team leader, Guardian dies. And he dies fast and sadly, while being distracted from defusing his armor by the sudden arrival of his wife. He just looks up and boom he’s flash-fried.

5 Things Change – The status quo in Byrne’s Alpha Flight run was that they were mostly in Canada. That was it. People were dying, leaving, hooking up, taking new jobs, visiting friends, all sorts of things from issue one forward. The leader and ostensibly the protagonist, the generator of the story, Guardian died twelve issues in. His wife, Heather, was actually the thing holding everything together, though, as the characters more or less all knew her first, and she was the one who called them together in that first issue, and suddenly she’s a widow. In flashbacks we saw how much she had changed over the years, too, from quiet and serious to superheroic and cheesecakey. If you missed an issue, you probably missed a major change; that’s just how the book rolled.

6 No Panels, No Backgrounds – When Byrne wants us to feel how alone and isolated characters are, one thing he would do is remove the backgrounds and if he was really hammering it home, he’d take away the panel borders, too, leaving them surrounded by the pure white blank of the page, and not just in a meaningful shot, but for entire scenes.

7 Without Words – We’ve established already that Byne was confident in his pacing skills, and he was just as cool with taking the words away as he was with removing the drawings. Some of the best bits in the comic were wordless scenes, one of which makes me want to hold my breath while reading it for reasons I can’t accurately explain.

8 Surroundings – John Byrne did amazing backgrounds in Alpha Flight, big, intense backgrounds that would hold characters within them. But, when a background would keep the focus off actions in progress, Byrne could take the same structures he’d just shown in detail and simplify or remove them in elegant ways to keep your attention where it should be.

9 Body Language – No two characters walk alike in Alpha Flight, or talk alike, eat alike, even fly alike. Body language changes with their emotions as well, or sanity, and not just to delineate split personalities like Aurora was suffering from, but the little things in life, like being hungry, tired, or grieving a dead husband could change the way someone held their shoulders or approached a table.

10 Body Types – And, no two people in the comic had the same body. That may not seem like much, but most superhero teams have guys differentiated only by their costumes and maybe their hair. Pick up a random Justice League comic and Flash, Batman, and Superman are essentially the same guy with different tights. Byrne really worked to vary it up, and he did well with it, the fat guy wasn’t grotesquely fat, the longhair had sense to braid it or pull it back from his face, The women don’t all have exactly the same body varying only in the length of their hair.

These aren’t game-changing or world-shattering techniques, but they are things still rarely applied, and even more rarely applied with such gusto and density. It’d be nice if, instead of trying to perfect rubberband mouth (no one but Byrne will), those learning from him learned to simply try new things and try them readily and frequently.

You can read John Byrne's Alpha Flight with these books: