Feb 29, 2016

Karnilla: The Lost Files

Karnilla The Norn Queen: An Irrational Love Story
Part 13 – The Lost Files
Back Issue Ben
Ben Smith

It took me three months, but I succeeded in chronicling every single appearance of Karnilla the Norn Queen. Unfortunately, such an important task shouldn’t have been left up to me, or my dozing editor, because I missed a few along the way. Either I just flat out didn’t have access to the book at the time it came up on the list, or the list I was working off of was incomplete. Regardless, I intend to try and make up for these egregious errors this week.

I present to you, Karnilla: The Lost Files. (I just love typing that for some reason.)

Writer: Steve Englehart; Artists: John Buscema and Tony Dezuniga; Editor: Archie Goodwin

In a tale set far in the past, a young Thor is despondent over the actions of his father Odin. For some reason, Karnilla decided to comfort him.

She shows him visions of his future. His days being worshipped by the Vikings of the North, and becoming a figure known all across Midgard, to his heroic exploits with a team of mortals known as The Avengers.

With his spirits sufficiently buoyed, Thor leaves with a renewed sense of purpose.

This story seems like a product of the time period in which it was published, instead of the time period predating the beginning of the Thor comic book. Karnilla had become a frequent ally of Asgard over in the Thor books, so it makes sense she would be helpful here, but really she should be eagerly trying to destroy Thor, as she is in her first appearances. Unless she’s just been wishy-washy about killing Thor over the milleniums, which is just not cool.

Writer: J.M. Dematteis; Breakdowns: Don Perlin; Finishers: Esposito, Stone, Trapani, Milgrom; Editor: Allen Milgrom

The Enchantress pays a visit to Karnilla, who is in the middle of some spell casting.

After some boasting on both sides, Amora gets to the purpose of her visit.

Amora seeks the Rose of Purity, currently in Karnilla’s possession. When asked why, Amora refuses to divulge her reasons, so Karnilla calls her a “wretched tart” and tells her to bounce on out of there.

(Wretched tart sounds like the most insulting thing you can call someone without it involving actual curse words. Also, they’re not fighting each other in this scene, so I’m already disappointed. Even a pillow fight would be acceptable, I’m not prideful. I have no shame when it comes to Karnilla. None!)

Amora lets down her guard, and sincerely asks her “please.”  Moved by the sincerity, Karnilla shows her where the rose is. She makes one final attempt to find out what Amora needs it for, free of mocking, but Amora leaves in a hurry.

It’s cool to see that Buscema’s model for the character was being used as the standard at the time. I don’t know why, that should be automatic. I guess I’m just used to Kirby drawing her differently every single time he used her. Whatever, carry on.

Writer: Danny Fingeroth; Penciler: Alan Kupperberg; Inker: Art Nichols and Co; Editor: Jim Salicrup

The Wrecker once again remembers back to when he initially gained his powers, at the hands of Karnilla.

For a big dumb thug, the Wrecker likes to take a moment to reflect on his past quite a bit. You’d think that type of self-reflection would lead to more lifestyle changes. On that note, my wife believes that if she ever got super powers, she would definitely use them for personal gain. I tend to agree with that thought process. I most definitely would become a villain. Who’s to stop me? I would be invincible.

Writer: Mark Gruenwald; Artists: (probably) Jack Kirby and Vince Colletta

This is nothing more than a short description of Karnilla, on a page detailing Thor’s greatest foes.

The cover of this comic makes me sad. And then angry. And then sad again. What the hell were they thinking in the ‘90s? This is the kind of thing that people should have been fired for, and caned. Stoned, and not the good kind of stoned. Struck about the body with several large and painful stones. Anyone and everyone that was responsible for that costume, that ever drew that costume, should have the pay they received for it taken back. Send the bills to a collection agency and get it done.)

Script: Matt Fraction; Pencils: Olivier Coipel; Inks: Mark Morales; Editor: Ralph Macchio

One list considered this to be a Karnilla appearance, and I suppose it is her disguised as the Old Crone, so I guess it counts.

(I love Coipel’s art so much, and his Thor is magnificent. It’s just a shame that most of his Thor work involved a lot of standing around doing nothing and talking, thanks to JMS. JMS is the comic book Antichrist.)

That’s it! Finally, I am done. I love you Karnilla. Turn the lights off when you leave.

Feb 25, 2016

Understated Techniques in Amazing Comics, Part 1

Understated Techniques in Amazing Comics Part 1
Travis Hedge Coke

The bulk of the audience will never consider any technique, unless the technique is loudly flagged as a technique and as challenging or deliberate. Most art, textual, visual, or otherwise, is taken as naturally-occurring, naturally as it is. And, many an artist will encourage this, talking of a story naturally progressing, or a painting discovering itself on the canvas. Even the technique-inclined or analysis addicts often let the most subtle applications and the good effects of those applied techniques go through them, effecting them, without recognizing the techniques as techniques or as effective.

1. A Sequence of Events at Once

Collage and montage exist outside comics, but nothing can present that sequential sense and immediately present so many slivers of time at once the way comics can. The basic nature of multi-panel comics means that on one page, we see multiple times at once. In a movie, on stage, in music, we have action and then reaction, but on a comics page, both may be visible simultaneously, with only our eye moving along the narrative path determining that our attention moves from one time to the next. This actually enhances the comedy, since we know what is coming, yet also delay its occurrence by seeing but not reading the consequence before we are through with the event. Pearls Before Swine, Urusei Yatsura and “A Gym Dandy” all use this to great effect.

In this example from Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura, “Spring Fever”, the largest panel is at the center of the page, all the way across, showing a cherry-blossom spirit smacking two characters with hammers. It is unlikely anyone coming to this page would not see this immediately, but our training in reading draws our eye up to the top panels, draws our attention there, so that we can see the two-panel build up of scenario, preparation, and then the largest panel, the payoff. Even if when you get there, you laugh the most, you probably chuckle or snort when you turn to the page because it’s just there, being all big and noticeable.

And, again, in the lower third of the page, the final two panels are people being hit again, and we see them, clearly, but we read the panels building up to them, the scenario-establishing panel and then the preparation panel first, only them coming to the action and, instead of another reaction/scenario-setting panel, another action panel.

In a TV show, this would probably fall flat. You can’t keep hammering on extra beats like that, especially with comedy, or they become montage or so rhythmic they’re staid. By showing us all the cards simultaneously, we know what to expect even if we only consciously read the cards one at a time. We see the spread and are prepped to accordingly react.

In Dan DeCarlo’s “A Gym Dandy”, the fact we can see Albert’s fall at first glance adds frisson as we read his attempt to extract kite from tree, slipping, falling, hitting the sidewalk as we read down the page.

2. Good Face

Making faces recognizable is printing money. That’s why whole industries are coopted into machines to produce stars. It’s why we respond positively to celebrity endorsements or branding on products that have no logical connection to what the person is famous for. Recognizable faces draw our attention and play with our emotions.

Why do so many strip characters wear the same clothes all the time? For the same reason Osamu Tezuka started using the same character designs in all of his works, simply recasting these imaginary actors into the available roles: recognition sells.

I don’t just mean “sells,” in the sense of product endorsements or spinoff products like t-shirts or inflatable rafts. A comic can sell emotion; it can sell familiarity, quality, and connection.

Neal Adams and Winn Mortimer launched Toyboy with an issue of clear and clearly placed faces. The followup artist, Trevor Von Eeden, quietly moved away from this during his first two or three issues, but Adams works hard to establish a face to face connection between his characters and us, the audience. I think it’s safe to say Adams is a more commercially minded artist than Von Eeden, and something like Toyboy is going to need not only to be presented but sold to the readers.

Every panel is carefully orchestrated to keep heads visible, faces forward or in clear profile, so that by the end of the issue, we know this kid through and through. We can visualize readily his father, his new nanny, et al. Every character’s look is sold to us. Promoted and clearly presented.

Compare this Sunday Calvin and Hobbes strip by Bill Watterson, and note that here, too, the faces are kept in clear emphasis regardless of situation or other objects in each panel. Leaves are not going to overtake Calvin. A tree is not going to stand in the way. The height difference is not going to crop one or the other awkwardly or in a way that could obscure boy or tiger.

3. Varied Lenses

How to keep the techniques strong, present familiar faces clearly and set up a page as a beautiful thing unto itself, without everything feeling limited and same-same? Movies have become more and more a patchwork of styles and genres, with Quentin Tarantino and others bastardizing together quilts of sensibilities into something that feels bigger and truer and more full of punches. Paintings were doing this bastardizing before comics, but comics have been doing it at least as far back as Jack Kirby and Stan Lee jamming giant monsters, space adventure, body horror, and superheroes together in the first issue of Fantastic Four.

Two of the most common and remarkably effective methods of this quilting are for the comic to mash up various pastiches or when a comic has multiple authors collaborating on small segments of a single story, known as the jam comic.

In “Who Watches the Weatherman?” (Stormwatch #44), Tom Raney, Gina Going, and Laura Martin bring to life Warren Ellis’ script by rendering each era of the 20th Century in the styles of comics from the time. These are pastiches, no mistake, each mimicking not only the techniques and tone, but a clear and exaggerated look for each, but the quieter techniques of the artists mirrored are included seamlessly, bringing it out of being merely parodic or a sequence of nostalgic snapshots.

My favorite page in the whole comic is one following the protagonist’s decision to lead a superhero team in the Sixties, illustrated as three progressing panels in three different yet contemporary Sixties styles. First, at top, the anxious, thick-lined underground comix look, then a small, romantic inset of Jenny’s emoting face, and taking up nearly the entire page, a group shot of superheroes in a style halfway between Jack Kirby and John Buscema (with some costume designs reminiscent of Wally Wood and Jim Steranko). Line densities, methods for delineation, body language, cartooning hallmarks all change between each panel, and to be entirely honest, the average pastiche of Sixties comics would never have bothered with more than the superhero. It’s packing so much information into a single page beyond the basic narrative happenings, while flavoring those entirely, and even if one style is not to your personal taste, it’s going to jump past and keep moving to new things.

I do think jam comics have an easier time, in general, of these kinds of change ups, and Troll Bridge, written by Dan Brereton, is an exemplary example of jam comics at its most cool.

Featuring pages by Stan Sakai, Jill Thompson, Bruce Timm, Art Adams, Steve Purcell, Adam Warren and more, Troll Bridge keeps changing and growing, scenes play against one another, forward with the narrative, but also reverberating back and forth between the different sections, and since each artist is working on their own (with the writer and artist on the closing pages, Brereton), they can push their strengths forward, no concern of matching a style or producing house work.

I love Dan Brereton. He’s both an excellent writer and an amazing visual artist and a genius at making comics. But, Troll Bridge is a great breath between lyrics, like when Prince would have a secondary singer come in for awhile on a song and not back him up, but take over for awhile. It is still, always, obviously under Prince’s control, it’s Prince’s show, and here, this is Brereton’s show, but these contributors are awesome and Brereton trusts them and lets them shine. Helps them shine by giving them a fresh, Brereton-lit-and-designed stage to perform on. And, in turn, they illuminate more of his strengths and glory, not only one by one, but as an enclave of styles and emphases.

4. Go-Fast Comics

There are go-fast boats, traditionally good for smuggling in booze and drugs, and making Miami Vice episodes more exciting. Go-fast comics rush in story and events before radar can latch on and we track what’s happening.

Ma Wing-shing was nineteen when he started Blood Sword, already a veteran comics author with Little Tough Guys, Five Brothers, Destroyer and others under his belt. Blood Sword, then, became a hypergolic mixture of mature confidence and hungry exuberance. Soap romance, war story, fight comic, and bildungsroman, the comic doesn’t run forward so much as ram its way through all barriers forward.

Almost every page has nine to twelve panels, never framed into balanced, equal spaces like Alan Moore or Jack Kirby comics often would be, but in streaks and points made of subtle angles and unpredictable panel overlaps. The page layout, itself, becomes a conflict, a fight, a dance of impacts and counter-relations that keep the eye and the read zipping over the page, absorbing everything at a far more breakneck pace than logic actually requires. You could read a page of Blood Sword slowly and carefully, but it is designed to discourage slow study. The comic makes you read fast.

5. Building It Up

Garth Ennis and Mark Dos Santos use the above four techniques together in A Train Called Love, utilizing the power of cause and effect being on the same page, presenting us with identifiable and highlighted faces, easily read emotions, stylized and varied ways to illustrate elements, and masterfully pace the audience with the articulation and arrangement of their panels and characters. Alongside all of that, they are astonishingly good with juxtaposing and correlating panels and elements into something bigger, denser, deeper than the sum of the parts alone.

I’ve had to cut out the scenes between, otherwise we would be reposting the whole issue, but hopefully the three pages excerpted together demonstrate this armada of elements and techniques becoming a fugue.

The two men talking in the two-page spread, frame a collage of manly action movie moments with them as the characters. The opening panel presents both faces, but as a reflection as we are behind them. Even allowing us to be behind them, they get to face forward.

We move to a bathroom, keeping on the younger man’s face, as the other guy is taken from our view, panels overlapping and intermixed with movie pastiches. His eyes move, as we go down the page, from looking up towards the ceiling to down towards…

The older guy, sitting on the can, blowing him. And, then a starship zooms away from an explosion.

Again, a movie can do some of this, and a short story could do some of it, but nothing can do it as comics can, as Ennis and Dos Santos have. The reader can easily take in so much more of the page than what they are reading, each page, and we can more quickly and easily flip back and reread here than we can rewind a few minutes of the movie, though we can do that. We can skim a comic faster and probably take much more in on the skim than skimming a page of prose.

To be continued next week…

Feb 24, 2016

Review: Donald Duck: Trick or Treat

It's hard for me to review Donald Duck: Trick or Treat with any objectivity, simply because "Trick or Treat," the lead story, is the first Donald Duck story I ever read, and therefore the first Carl Barks story I ever read.

"Trick or Treat" introduces Witch Hazel, who helps Huey, Dewey, and Louie get candy from Donald, who is determined to pull tricks instead of give treats.  It's tied into the animated short that came out in 1952 and incorporates everything that's in the short, including the musical numbers. But since the short is only 9 minutes long and Barks had 32 8-panel pages, some material was added.

I read this comic a lot as a kid, but, being primarily a superhero fan, I never really thought of it as "comics" in the same way. With superheroes I was already recognizing and distinguishing the different creators and even being critical of how certain artists would render certain characters. I didn't look at "Trick or Treat" as something anyone created; it was just a story. But I did read it a lot, over and over again, so it must have worked.

The material from the animated short was directly adapted by Barks, but the fill-in material is just pure Barks goodness, including the creation of Witch Hazel's ogre, Smorgasbord, otherwise known as Smorgie the Bad. Smorgie fails in his attempt to get candy from Donald, but he wears a derby hat, leading to my niece's (and my) favorite line in the entire book.

Here's the animated feature.

Unfortunately, this would be Barks' final full-length Donald Duck story, as he chose to focus his adventure stories after 1952 on Uncle Scrooge instead. It was the right call, since Scrooge's adventures lent themselves more to action, and since he was Barks' baby. But if I were going to drop the Barks' collections eventually (I don't plan to), now would be a good time to do so, since as fun as the ten-pagers are, it's really the feature-length ones that keep me coming back. (Of course, Fantagraphics isn't publishing the Carl Barks Library in chronological order, so there's still feature-length stuff that has to be collected; they just come before this volume in the chronology.)

The stories and covers in Donald Duck: Trick or Treat first appeared in Four-Color #394 and 450, Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #145-158, and Donald Duck #26-30, and were published from May 1952 to November 1953. They consist of "Trick or Treat," two one-pagers "A Prank Above" and "Frightful Face," and the following 10-pagers.

  • Hobblin' Goblins. Gyro Gearloose invents a machine that gives advice on how to ward off goblins, and he gives it to the boys to test. The boys, eager to get away from Daisy's dance party, are only too happy to use it, but every time it tells them to do something, worse things happen.
  • The Hypno-Gun. The boys have a toy hypno-gun, and Donald thinks it's real. Thinking it's too dangerous to use, he looks to get rid of it, but not before he uses it on Uncle Scrooge, who plays along. When Scrooge uses it on Donald, it works because Donald is insanely prone to the power of suggestion. Instead of stopping things then and there, Scrooge sends Donald to collect an unpaid bill.
  • Omelet.  A relatively different kind of story, this has Donald and the boys driving Daisy through a town called Omelet, where they have to wear disguises to get through. The entire story is told in flashbacks, showing how Donald and the boys earned their hated reputation in the town of Omelet, formerly called Pleasant Valley. (Hint: it involves eggs.)
  • A Charitable Chore. Donald signs up to feed a charity case for Daisy's Good Neighbor Club, but the person he's assigned to is his cousin Gladstone Gander, the Most Annoying Man in the World. Donald tries his best to get away from the deal and stick it to his cousin, which is always a challenge because of Gladstone's never-ending luck.
  • Turkey With All the Schemings. Donald doesn't have a turkey dinner for Christmas, so he disguises himself as Senor Petrolio de Vaselino, the big oil tycoon from South America, and tricks Scrooge into dinner at a fancy restaurant. Of course, when it's time to pay, Scrooge tries to get Donald to pay, because he's a cheapskate. The resolution to this one is particularly funny and kind of encapsulates Scrooge's whole perspective on spending money.
  • Flip Decision. Donald converts to "flippism," a way of life in which everything is decided with a coin flip. And, really, that should explain the entire story. Featuring a rare appearance by Daisy's nieces, April, May, and June.
  • My Lucky Valentine. Determined to be the best and most dedicated mailman he could be, Donald has to go through a blizzard to deliver Gladstone's valentine to Daisy.
  • The Easter Election. Donald and Gladstone each campaign for Grand Marshal of the Duckburg Easter Parade. It's actually amazing how much variation Barks can run with given Gladstone's one gimmick of always being lucky, but somehow just changing the situation to which it applies just makes it seem fresh each time.
  • The Talking Dog. Donald needs to do something no one has ever attempted in order to get on a game show where winning a million dollars is pretty much a given. The boys want money for a talking dog. Gyro Gearloose is involved. The dog looks like Droopy Dog, who's kind of the same as Happy Hound, who Barks drew some stories for. I just thought I'd mention that.
  • Worm Weary. Wanting to win a fishing contest, Donald gets some special worms from Gyro that link to each other and pull the fish out of the water with superwormly strength. Naturally, things get out of control.
  • Much Ado About Quackly Hall. Donald has a new job as a realtor and he has to sell the old abandoned Quackly place. The boys have made it their clubhouse, so they do their best to sabotage it, but the buyer just ends up getting excited with every wrong possible turn.
  • Some Heir Over the Rainbow. Scrooge places three pots of gold at the ends of a rainbow (how it has three ends, I don't know) and has the boys, Donald, and Gladstone each find a thousand dollars, telling them that whoever invests the money the best will be his sole heir. What will win, the boys' determination and belief that they can win out, Gladstone's luck, or Donald's-- okay, fine, no Donald doesn't win.
  • The Master Rainmaker. My favorite story in this entire volume has Donald flying a plane and shaping clouds so he can control the location, shape, and volume of rain, offering his services as a master rainmaker. It all comes to a head when he decides to use this skill to get back at Gladstone for making time with Daisy. I love this ten-pager, and is the only story in this volume I can say I love, due to the creativity of the premise and the entertainment value of the execution. It's just so fun.

  • The Money Stairs. Donald is determined to prove that his youth can accomplish things Scrooge's money can't, and vice versa, so they engage in contests, culminating in climbing a mountain.
  • Bee Bumbles. The boys have to take care of bees, and Donald has to encourage them to prove he's a good parent. Of course, the bees cause trouble around the neighborhood, like crosspollinating watermelons onto kumquat trees.
    Trick or Treat  is still fun and visually entertaining, but the solo feature hurts it for me, and as fun as the other stories were, I think we've reached the end of the best parts of Barks' run on Donald Duck. I hope I'm wrong, but I can't rightly say I'd recommend this over the previous volumes.

    Feb 22, 2016

    Karnilla: The Final Chapter

    Karnilla The Norn Queen: An Irrational Love Story
    Part 12 – The Final Chapter
    Ben Smith

    Three months is a long time, even when it comes to sharing your irrational love for a fictional character. I’ve chronicled nearly every single appearance (more on this later) of minor Thor supporting character, and sometimes villain, Karnilla the Norn Queen. The journey has been enlightening and enjoyable, filled with the highs of Walt Simonson, and the lows of random pointless cameos. Now, we’ve come to the end of that journey, almost.

    There’s nothing left but the crying.

    Writer: Peter Milligan; Artist: Cary Nord; Color Artist: Christina Strain; Editor: Warren Simons

    There have been some brutal murders around Asgard, and all signs point to Thor. Faced with the overwhelming evidence, Odin sends Balder to arrest Thor for trial.

    Thor does not go easily. Karnilla is there to determine if there any spells that might be controlling Thor, but there are none she can detect.

    This was a nice little one-off tale. My heart is still broken over U-Go Girl, Milligan.

    Writer: Matt Fraction; Artist: Pasqual Ferry; Color Art: Frank D’Armata; Editors: Ralph Macchio, Lauren Sankovitch

    (Following the events of the godawful event Fear Itself, Thor died defeating the Serpent. Odin took the body of the Serpent to Asgardian space and sealed it behind him, leaving all Asgardians stranded. Now, a new place named Asgardia is under construction, and ruled by the All-Mother Freyja, Gaea, and Idunn.)

    With Odin gone, and Thor dead and forgotten (through a sequence of events not worth covering) the under-realms gather against Agardia, led by King Geirrodur of the trolls, and Karnilla.

    Karnilla has also been undermining Asgardia in the guise of the Old Crone of the Weird Sisters, while Ulik the troll has taken the place of Thor in the memories of Asgardians as the hero Tanarus.

    (I remember liking Fraction’s Thor for the most part, but Fear Itself was terrible. Thor dying didn’t even have any impact because, spoiler alert, he comes back before the end of this story arc. I love Pasqual Ferry’s art, and I wish he would do more monthly work. Read his adaptation of Ender’s Game. Hell, read Ender’s Game. While you’re at it, read Ready Player One and Armada. Real books, people!)

    Writer: Matt Fraction; Artists: Pasqual Ferry and Pepe Larraz; Editor: Lauren Sankovitch

    Geirrodur and Karnilla send some Frost Giants to assassinate the All-Mother, but they are defeated easily by the Avengers.

    Their defeat was expected, but Karnilla wishes to seed even more dissent in Asgardia.

    Fellow Weird Sister, the zombie Kelda, nearly catches Karnilla plotting with her evil allies while disguised as the Old Crone, but she is able to talk her way out of it.

    I believe Kelda was killed, I think by Dr. Doom. So either she’s some kind of undead zombie, or she wasn’t fully dead. I know he was dissecting Asgardians, so maybe they sewed her back together and she got better. Regardless, I don’t care enough to look it up, but that Dr. Doom arc was fun.

    Writer: Matt Fraction; Artist: Pepe Larraz; Color Art: Frank D’Armata; Editor: Lauren Sankovitch

    Heimdall questions Tanarus why he can’t see him, and the two fight, with Heimdall getting severely injured in the process. Now that Heimdall’s out of the equation, Geirrodur and Karnilla celebrate the furthering of their plans. But, Kelda once again hears her talking to them in her disguise as the Old Crone, and bragging about how she manipulated the other Weird Sisters.

    Writer: Matt Fraction; Artists: Pasqual Ferry with Pepe Larraz; Editor: Lauren Sankovitch

    Kelda confronts Karnilla, still disguised as the Old Crone, about what she overheard. Karnilla proceeds to brutally slaughter Kelda and the other Weird Sister, and with her cover blown, she commands the Troll Legion to launch their attack. The Silver Surfer (who had been hanging around since fighting with Thor in the first storyarc of this series) and Loki catch Karnilla/the Old Crone in the act.

    (Karnilla is much more brutal than she’s even been depicted before in this scene. I like it.)

    With her deception fully discovered, Karnilla’s disguise is no longer necessary.

    (I like when Karnilla decides to help Asgard, but I think I like it when she goes full villain just a little bit more. Honestly, I like her any way, hot or cold, but there’s just something hot about her being scary and evil. In other news, I may not be normal.)

    Writer: Matt Fraction; Breakdowns: Giuseppe Camuncoli; Finishes: Klaus Janson; Editor: Lauren Sankovitch

    The Troll Legion have launched their attack, but Thor has since returned from his supposed death. Karnilla enters the battlefield.

    And faces off against Freyja.

    There is a spectacular, if short, battle royale between the two powerful ladies.

    But in the end, Freyja puts her axe through Karnilla’s stomach.

    And stands triumphant before her enemies.

    Asgardia has won, and Freyja imprisons Geirrodur and Karnilla in a “prison they could never escape.” (Except that she clearly did, somehow, in between now and the next time she shows up.)

    Incidentally, Kelda finally gets her happy ending with the mortal Bill, in the halls of Valhalla.

    It’s a shame Ferry or Larraz couldn’t finish this storyline. It’s always a disappointment when a storyarc has such a consistent artistic look for all of the initial chapters, but another artist steps in for the finale. The first time I read this, I knew the art style in this issue looked familiar, but I didn’t think much of it until I wrote down the credits just now and saw it was Camuncoli. I know Camuncoli as my least favorite of the rotating Spider-Man artists since the launch of Slott’s Big Time. Not that Camuncoli is bad, I think he’s gotten a lot better, or at least grown on me, but it’s hard to compete with guys like Humberto Ramos.

    THOR (Volume 4) #7
    Writer: Jason Aaron; Artist: Russell Dauterman; Color Artist: Matthew Wilson; Editor: Wil Moss

    A recently returned Odin was being a real punk about the mysterious woman that has taken on the mantle of Thor. Since she refuses to return Mjolnir to him, he sends the Destroyer after her. Things are not going well for Thor, when reinforcements arrive in the form of the Odinson and a legion of female heroes, and Karnilla.

    Jason Aaron’s run as Thor writer has already earned the distinction of third best all time, for me. Behind Walt Simonson, and Stan and Jack. He deserves it for the God Butcher story alone, but the book has been consistently good to great ever since he took over.

    THOR (Volume 4) #8
    Writer: Jason Aaron; Artist: Russell Dauterman; Color Artist: Matthew Wilson; Editor: Wil Moss

    This impressive collection of heroes launches their attack against the Destroyer.

    Karnilla nonchalantly lets fly some magic bolts, but she’s mostly there to see the new Thor.

    This might be my favorite rendition of Karnilla from her entire history. She looks absolutely fantastic here. I love it. It’s so good that I looked into buying the original, but Dauterman works digital. The whole world is against me.

    Odin is forced to call off the Destroyer before it kills his wife, Freyja. With the battle ended, Thor owes a great debt to all that fought on her behalf, a debt that Karnilla may soon come collect. (Oh please, let her come collect. I need more Dauterman Karnilla.)

    Hopefully Aaron has a Karnilla story in his plans. Like I said before, I’ve loved most of what he’s done as the Thor writer, including the introduction of (spoiler deleted) as the new Thor. I’ve enjoyed her a lot, and even though I know everything in superhero comics must eventually revert back to the original status quo, I hope she gets a chance to stick around. Just like Beta Ray Bill. She’s much more interesting than old horse-face anyway, no disrespect to the God, Walt Simonson.

    Writer: Al Ewing; Artist: Lee Garbett; Color Artist: Antonio Fabela; Editor: Wil Moss

    The destruction of the multiverse is looming, thanks to Secret Wars. King Loki, a much more evil version of the trickster god from a now defunct future, makes his final assault on the younger and kinder version of himself. All of Asgard and its allies, and even its enemies, come to fight at young Loki’s side (including Karnilla).

    The villainous King Loki flees at the sight of this impressive collection of heroes, and villains.

    I really enjoyed the beginning of this Loki series, but I felt like its momentum got seriously derailed by tying in to too many other storylines and events. I really liked Garbett’s work on the Stephanie Brown Batgirl, and this series made me an even bigger fan of his work. I got a chance to meet him at a convention and he was really nice too. I really hope Verity Willis sticks around in some capacity somewhere after this.

    And with that, we have arrived at the end of this journey. I did it, every single appearance of Karnilla the Norn Queen from her intro in Journey Into Mystery #107 all the way back in that year of our Lord, 1964, to the modern day. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but finally my quest has ended. For those of you that have stuck with me for all 12 parts over these last 3 months, I salute you. Thank you for your support. Hopefully, I helped infect you with the same irrational love for Karnilla that I have. How could you resist? For those of you that quit on me, may the Norn Queen turn you into lizards.

    However, I’m not quite done yet. See, there are some comics that I skipped along the way, either because I didn’t have them, or I just flat out missed them.

    So join me next week, one more time, for Karnilla: The Lost Files.

    Feb 18, 2016

    "I Can't Serve You!" Archie Tackles Racial Integration and Discrimination

    In 1969, Archie Comics introduced their first prominent black character in Valerie Smith, who would go on to join Josie and the Pussycats as its bassist and/or second guitarist, depending on how many strings they're drawing on her guitar.

    In 1971, they introduced their first prominent black male character, Chuck Clayton. Chuck is also the first prominent black character to hang out with the Archie gang, although he still doesn't do it on a regular basis.

    Uhhhh.... yeaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh.....

    A few months after Chuck was introduced, we get this story, "Color Them Red" in Archie #214. It's by my all-time favorite Archie creative team of Frank Doyle and Harry Lucey, and introduces a black character named Josh. He's also never used again. I don't know if he was intended as a one-off character and was used for this piece just because this story specifically tackles racial integration and discrimination, or if he was intended to reappear and then didn't, because, frankly, Archie does tend to have just one or two characters for each minority. (I've read a lot of digests from the 70s, and Chuck Clayton was a dominant figure in a bunch of them, much the same way Kevin Keller is now. I'll take it over no diversity at all, but hopefully we'll eventually reach a point where, say, Nancy is a bridesmaid for a wedding because she's actually a character who should be a bridesmaid for a wedding, and not simply because Archie Comics wants black representation in the bridal party, and then she does nothing for the rest of the story. Yes, these are notes in the hardcover of The Archie Wedding.)

    Anyway, I thought this was an interesting look at racial dynamics in 1971. Archie pretty much always had a way of taking a serious issue and then paring it down so it's not too heavy, but still covered what you needed to know. Click to enlarge. Enjoy.

    Feb 17, 2016

    Delicious Artifice

    Delicious Artifice
    Travis Hedge Coke

    Comics can and should affect you (as should songs, movies, poems) to the point of tears, rage, or cries of joy, but even when you read a comic about a real person, like Feynman (Ottaviani, Myrick), hear a song about a real person, watch a documentary, you are not experiencing something real.

    Well, you are, but the real thing of a comic is ink and paper or color and emotion. You are seeing something real, but responding to artifice and experiencing narrative and impressions. You are experiencing understandings.

    Most of what we get worked up over and talk about as if real are entirely imaginary. We ascribe agenda to characters as if they are responsible for their actions or decisions. We believe - against all logic and evidence - that the consequences of actions in a story are the natural and irrevocable outcome. That what excites us is more what happened than whether a character truly chose their path or a writer wrote it, an artist drew it fails to factor into our primary processing of the story, just as the lack of agency itself often fails to come up.

    This might not even matter, in an optimal world, because we do not only consider things once and never again, but rethink and revise our awareness, but there are two hangups that make this initial misreading a danger. The first issue is that we do not, in general, revise our understanding of entertainments as we do with, for example, workplace scenarios or sandwich toppings. The second, the existence of a vocal and corrupting subsection of comics fans, in particular, who just cannot or will not process fiction and metaphor as distinct from reality, or to prize reality above fiction or opinion-rooted entertainment.

    Do we really blur fiction and reality that much? I can use a rhetorical device like asking this question to prompt a conversation I want to have and make it appear a natural consequence, rather than an engineered excuse, so yes, yes we do. Not only comics fans, or geeks, or whatever other niche: everybody. We don’t say, “And, an actor ran across a set and pretended to jump through a window but it was sugar glass and fire guns that are really fake at two extras,” but “Jimmy ran straight through a plate glass window, guns firing, and offed two cocaine smugglers in the koala preserve at the Wild Palms Zoo.” When we talk comics, any one of us can be guilty of blaming a character for a particularly dumb action or defend the consequences they face as if X caused Y, when we do know better.

    Anthropomorphizing characters, in the sense of ascribing to them agenda and independence is a reflex action for most audiences. Meet-their-author stories may make this more apparent than usual, but it is always in play. We can process it to smaller degrees when we intuit a character is misunderstanding another, or when things are overtly cartooned beyond the general cartooning of any representative art. The dramatic increase in line density employed at key moments by Gary Erskine in City of Silence enhance their emotional energy and aesthetic intensity (and the deliberately unrealistic color schemes employed by Disraeli and Laura Martin turn the punch into a knockout). The superdeform moments in Kate Leth and Brittney Williams’ newly-launched Patsy Walker: AKA Hellcat cue us to interpret the lead character’s dialogue and emotions differently. Using faux lofi reproduction to signal that a scene is set in a specific period of history is a technique called for often by Warren Ellis (the writer of City of Silence), and though we don’t reflexively associate those faults in comics from the period as affecting their veracity, the mimicry of them evokes a sense of rightness that feels as if they were first printed or actualized in that period and being simply presented again to us now. All three of these techniques are not identifiable to anyone in the scenes nor are they naturalistic or do they have a causal effect in-world, but we take it in, we believe it, we feel it.

    To make a face more empathetic, we cartoon it to simple and open essentials. Extremely simplified cartoon faces or objects are identifiable instantly even when the simplification is done to cultural expectations foreign to the audience.

    As Hannah Miodrag more eloquently puts it in Comics and Language, “Facial expressions then are motivated just like other aspects of the cartoon lexicon. They may develop into familiar signs, as successive artists reuse the engaging shorthand discovered by others, but their effectiveness - the instantaneous efficacy Hochberg describes - is due to their amplification of characteristic details. The most schematized expressions are evocative precisely because we are already highly sensitized to human expressions, and recognize in these simplified forms an equivalent stimulus. Thus, contra McCloud’s and Cate’s suggestion that increasing abstraction is an automatic route towards arbitrariness and symbolism, requiring a great degree of knowledge and interpretation on the part of the viewer, empirical evidence shows that reduction to core defining features in fact renders these abbreviated signs instantly decodable.”

    Audiences, particularly comics readers, are more intuitive than we often give credit. Frank Miller’s Sin City yarns, for example, were adapted into two feature films and often had been, years before that, described as cinematic or movies on paper, the adaptations are called “shot for shot” or perfect, but when you read the comics, when you look at actual pages, you can see how extremely cartooned and abstracted the art and pacing actually are. Some of the most beautiful and evocative pages, indeed yes cinematic in atmosphere, are essentially squiggles and streaks.

    We are able to find in streaks all sorts of emotions and conflicts, dangers and figures that are barely hinted at by chiaroscuro or narrative. This, far from being a demand on the attention and interpretive faculties of the audience, is a beautiful trust and complicit respect exchanged between Miller and the reader/viewer.

    And, would Sin City be itself without the myth and legend of Miller, the man and artist?

    For all my annoyance and confusion with parts of Lost Girls, I love that Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore did it, that they did it together. They took years and years to make this sex comic together, and along the way, fell further in love and eventually married. That is cute, and definitely sexier than the dead soldier in the snow that closes out the comic. But, The Adventures of a Lesbian College Schoolgirl simply purports to be the product of Petra Waldron and Jennifer Finch who are, also, the main characters in the comic, wherein they fall in love and have lots of exciting sex, because like Lost Girls, it’s a porno comic. Purports. And, I still find that situation cuter and sexier than any scene in the comic. Whether or not Waldron and Finch exist as real people, who the true author or authors of the comic are, how likely any of the (as you can assume by the title ) highly unlikely comic is, none of that changes how adorable the idea is to me, of a loving couple getting together to bash out a happy-go-lucky dirty comic full of jokes and costume changes and playacting. That narrative that attracts me much more than the ostensible stories of Lost Girls and Adventures. And, it, too, is still a narrative, in one case nonfiction, in the other a subtle fiction.

    How a comic is authored, both the true stories and the secondary fictions are transtextual narratives that shape how we respond to a comic. Second-level or sympathetic stories running alongside and expanding, mutating the comic. When you read a comic and things go the way you expect, you don’t cuss out the author, but if Odie gets kicked off the edge of the table in a Garfield strip and it bugs you: “*@&%$ing Davis!” If there are several authors, we more than likely pick the ones we don’t like, this editor or that penciler who also co-plots, the writer who thinks she’s all that and has a tumblr, and we fault them without evidence.

    We pick our horses between authors, and we do so as well with genres, with books, with favored characters, almost the same way we would reactively defend an impugned friend before the facts were known to us. This is not about objective veracity or real authenticity. A Deadpool fan can loathe how wink-at-the-reader meta they perceive Grant Morrison or Simon Bisley to be. No version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is very realistic or careful in accuracy on a physical or sociological level, but a fan of one iteration may fairly be turned off by another version with more simplified stories or darker outcomes. Cartooning goes not merely in a light and silly direction or a grim and gritty one, but is the purification and amplification in any direction that distills out the countering tones and textures. Our cartooning-horse, our genre or metanarative of preference is not, itself, a point of risk.

    When we cannot distinguish our horse from the race, though, or the race from reality, then we are a danger and an embarrassment. And, let’s be honest, it can happen to any of us, and if it has not already happened to you at least once, you’re due.

    I understand, for example, when comics about homosexuals, particularly yuri, men’s love, bara stuff are accused of being an inaccurate reflection of real life circumstances or concerns of the same sexuality and gender as the main characters. As a generalization, that probably bears out. I think target audience is more important, in these cases, than the protagonist or antagonist’s gender, sexuality, age, nationality, etc. Our heroes and villains shouldn’t always have to be “us,” but they and their stories should work through our concerns. That said, Makoto Tateno’s Hero Heel does not reflect my life, being a rapey melodrama of power plays and naive hero worship during production of a TV show, but it does deal with my anxieties, whether it is aimed at men, or American men, and everyone is really pretty in it and drawn prettily, too. In the same fashion, I am not a Japanese schoolgirl developing a harem in a magic past that never was, but Yu Watase’s Fushigi Yugi can speak to my concerns.

    As a critic and audience, I cannot functionally expect Hero Heel or Fushigi Yugi, or Moore and Gebbie’s Lost Girls to accurately and totally map onto real life or my individual, personal concerns and experiences. I can pick one, I can favor it, but they are simply horses running laps in the sub-genre of racy romance comics. To mistake the story developments or character dynamics of any of them for real life would be a mistake of mine, not the comic itself. If the author believes it firmly, that there is a 1:1 exchange or mirroring of information there, they are at fault, but the author is always another audience member.

    People who ask if Bitch Planet is “true,” are missing the point both of the comic and of what makes it great. Or, “How can you take Lobo seriously?” “How can you take Batman seriously?” “You know if Charlie Brown really had all those days from the strip, he’d be like fifty-eight years old?”

    Arthur Schopenhauer said, “The source of all pleasure and delight is the feeling of kinship,” (just before saying some other racist stuff), and that is true, but implicit in that in a way that Schopenhauer did not mean, is another, uglier truth: Knowing stuff in a dominant and dominating way is an immense source of pleasure for some people. They aren’t students of a thing, or fans, they are armchair and reactionary experts. They are not familiar, so much as they think they know better than those who do feel the kinship or those who know they are relatively ignorant.

    When your favored genre’s expectations and tendencies begin to seem like genuine, inarguable causal effects, you need to step sideways and look at the thing from a refreshed perspective. Batman can temporarily trust the Joker because he knows him, and Venom can be a hero by moving to San Francisco and only murdering “bad” people over there, far from where the superheroes have to deal with him. Read all the goofy romance or porn comics you want, but don’t expect real people to follow, in reality, the narrative trajectories that eight out of ten of those comics do. Lobo is funny in comics, Deadpool is funny in comics, but in reality, you’d be dead. Not even a chance to tell them what a jerk they are, you’re already dead.

    Further, the genres and sub-genres you do not enjoy or prefer, their particular narrative and causal tendencies, are not by and of themselves any worse or detrimental than those of the genres you do like. Nor, are they perpetuated to annoy or attack you, outside of actual hate speech. A romantic comedy may annoy you, but it was not made to annoy you or ruin your life. A superhero comic or a crime comic are not written, planned, penciled, embellished and published to attack you.

    It is best for us all to remember that we are not the world, nor are our entertainments. We are not the only audience, or the primary audience for all comics, all entertainments. And, even those aimed at us are constructs. All stories, all art is constructed and developed, there is intent in every element and aspect, but interpretation can overtake any intent. And, what reaches and grabs the majority of people, in the comics we like and the ones we hate is not a close cleaving to real reality, but to our personal preferences, our secret, subtle wishes and our individual anxieties. It is the purifying of dynamics, the paring down to particular concerns, the enhancement of emotions and actions that excites us and works for us. What pleases us most and gets us coming back for more, leaves us feeling revived and immersed is not the reality, but the virtual, the delicious artifice.