Apr 24, 2017

The Pivotal Eighties

1980s: The Pivotal Decade
Ben Smith

The 1980s was a transformative decade for pop culture and entertainment, and nowhere was that more evident than in the field of comics.  It was a decade that witnessed the peak of everything that had come before it, before evolving into what would come after.  Most of the media that dominates our culture today has its roots in the ‘80s.  The continued expansion and availability of television meant that unlike any decade before it, instead of reading about the biggest events in the world, you could watch them as they happen.  The visuals for everything became as important as the art; from sports, to music, and even royal weddings.  While I may be biased (with the ‘80s being the decade that coincided with my formative years as a young human being) I’m going to attempt to prove just how transformative this decade really was, as always through the lens of television and comics.

CABLE TV AND THE LIMITED SERIES

Television had always been dominated by the big three networks.  You got all your entertainment, news, and sports within the limited framework of that established network format.  If you missed the big game, you had to hope for a few minutes of coverage on the local news that night, or read about it the next day in the newspaper.  Cable television brought with it a wider range of options, of specialization, that a general audience network could never hope to match.  CNN, MTV, and ESPN were all predicted to be colossal mistakes, but what nobody could predict is that people would prefer this level of customization.  The news had always been delivered after it had already happened, rigidly at 6:30 or 10 PM on your local station.  Now, you could experience the news live in real time, from around the world.  ESPN changed sports from a local event or an occasionally televised event, into full blown multi-media entertainment that could be consumed at any time.  Michael Jordan doesn’t become a brand without ESPN laying the foundation for sports as the greatest in reality entertainment.  MTV changed the entire landscape of marketing by accidentally discovering that the people with the most time and disposable income happen to be teenagers and young adults.  Our modern era of never-ending choice and on-demand entertainment capability absolutely has its roots in those early days of cable television.    



Comics had always been dominated by long-running franchises and established big-name characters.  In the earliest days of comics, first issues were considered less attractive from a business standpoint, as it (in the minds of publishers) represented the unknown.  A high issue number indicated quality, because surely if a book had been running for that long then it had to be good.  That’s why you see Captain America inheriting the issue numbering from Tales of Suspense, or the Hulk from Tales to Astonish.  In the ‘80s, with Marvel dominating the first part of the decade in sales, Jim Shooter and his editors began to test the market.  Comics like Dazzler and Micronauts were sold to the direct market only.  An untested character like Wolverine in the X-Men could get his own limited series, as a trial run to see if he could expand into his own title.  Mini-series that told a single epic storyline, such as Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths, were created and became instant smash hits.  New readers were created every day by licensing the top cartoons of the day (like Transformers and G.I. Joe) and turning them into brand new comic book series.  Independently owned non-superhero comics fare was continuing to grow.  Comics began to expand and specialize the way they would deliver stories and characters to the readers like never before.  The medium no longer had to rely on the unreliable newsstand for all of its sales.  Now first issues were considered the best way to get in on the ground floor of the newest superstar character.  Without this diversity of formats and delivery, we probably never get the diversity in title characters that we are seeing today.

MTV AND THE SUPERSTAR COMICS ARTIST

For better or worse, MTV made music as much about image as it was the music.  Madonna pushed the boundaries of what was considered to be acceptable behavior from a musician, and kids loved her for it.  MTV was infamous in its early years for its refusal to allow black artists on the network, receiving a lot of criticism for such, until the popularity and brilliance of Michael Jackson could no longer be denied.  (With a little help via an ultimatum from CBS records.)  Prince would follow closely behind, with his combination of different musical styles defying easy categorization of any established musical genre.  His look was as groundbreaking as his sound, and changed the mindset of what could be successful to the theoretical “middle-America” that politicians and executives were so worried about scaring off.  A musical act could now become superstars based as much on a marketable image as their actual talent, or the content of their art.  Regardless of skill, the range of artistic expression that MTV provided a platform for is undeniable.  The impact MTV had on our culture is immeasurable.    



Comic books have always had their breakout talent, even if readers never intellectualized who that specific talent might be.  Carl Barks stands out as one of the earliest unnamed superstars, with his Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories clearly far better than the other duck comics of the time.  Stan Lee, love him or hate him, was instrumental in the identification and celebration of the comics talent working on every Marvel book.  Still, comics art from the big two still worked within an established “house style” which left the majority of books looking similar.  The ‘80s began to really see the invention of the superstar artist, with guys like John Byrne or George Perez developing a devoted fanbase that was just as interested in following them as they were in any single character.  However, Byrne and Perez could still be considered to be working within the framework of the established superhero house style.  It wasn’t until the end of the decade that artists like Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee really began to break the mold and establish artistic styles that looked unlike anything that had ever come before.  (Sienkiewicz never gets mentioned as a part of this movement, but he should, since he’s far better than any of the other artists.)

Comics art had never been this varied, or looked this flashy before.  Eventually, those same artists became so popular that they created their own publishing company in the ‘90s, where Image Comics was literally much more about flashy images than it was the content of the stories.  Yet, Image was absolutely essential in the continued advancement of comic books as an artistic medium, at least in terms of the industry recognizing the importance of its own talent, if not the content of those actual comics.    



THE REINVENTION OF RECYCLED IDEAS

With any invention there must come the identification and stabilization of what makes that invention most successful.  Since humans are fickle beings, that established standard must eventually lead to reinvention if it will continue to survive.  In the ‘80s, television had been around long enough to establish a format for its lineup as well as the content of the programming, but all that had began to change.  Late night television had reached its peak in the form of Johnny Carson, the ultimate continuation of an old Hollywood comedy style in a format that had become comfortable.  That was until young comedians like David Letterman came along and subverted that established framework to highlight their own cynical comedic style.  Shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere depicted a level of realism that had never been seen before in any cop or medical drama.  Miami Vice smartly incorporated a MTV look and sensibility with the tried and true police procedural genre.  Roseanne and Married with Children showed us that life as a family wasn’t always as perfect or easy as it might have been on a show like Leave it to Beaver.  All of these television programs built upon an established framework, but stood out by providing a different take on it.  



Superhero comics had seen reinvention before, going all the way back to the creation of the original superhero, Superman.  Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman thrived as shining beacons of justice and the best of what humanity could aspire to be for many decades.  Then Stan, Jack, and Marvel came along and reinvented superheroes as flawed human beings compelled by trauma to make the world a better place.  By the ‘80s, comic book creators had decades of proven success to build upon and appropriate to create new and interesting twists on the same formulas.  Frank Miller vaulted a lower tier character like Daredevil into the limelight by using him as a vehicle to tell grittier (for the time) street-level crime stories.  Walt Simonson used Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary Thor work as a starting point, jettisoned the few things that didn’t work, and wound up creating the most beloved Thor run of all time.  Roger Stern wisely recognized that killing the original Green Goblin had been a mistake, and so he created a new take on that established Spider-Man villain in the Hobgoblin.  Over and over, all-time favorite comic book stories were being created across the industry.  This was the pinnacle of what superhero storytelling could achieve based on what had come before.  For comic books to continue, they would have to evolve.

THE EVOLUTION OF ENTERTAINMENT

With reinvention must also eventually come evolution.  The need to differentiate from what has come before usually comes by pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable by society.  This can come in the form of much needed diversity, where art reflects the world we see outside our window.  The Cosby Show was a landmark in network television because of its depiction of a suburban black family.  It made no specific statements about race or politics in its writing.  The Cosby Show made a statement by not making a statement at all.  Its genuine portrayal of a normal family resonated with all viewers, no matter the color.  That show, along with the popularity of musicians like Michael Jackson and Prince, and magnetic sports stars like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, helped break color barriers in this country.  (Regretfully, there’s still a long way to go on this front.)  An entire generation of children, of all colors, were growing up with Jordan as a personal hero.  (I did!)  Similarly, television shows like Cagney and Lacey, or Murphy Brown, depicted women that could stand on their own as characters and as marketable TV stars.  Golden Girls alone proved that writing and acting, not gender, is all it takes to be a successful TV show.  (Regretfully, there’s still a long way to go in the perceived marketability of female-led entertainment.)

The (some would say) darker side of pushing the boundaries comes in the form of offensive or shocking material.  Talk show hosts like Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo defied convention, earning notoriety by catering to the lowest common denominator of human nature.  There’s a clear progression from Geraldo being hit in the face with a chair, to Jerry Springer, to the “reality” TV that dominates American television now.  Heavy Metal and Hip-Hop/Rap music would come under fire from politicians for its explicit depictions and descriptions of sex and violence.  Both combine artistic expression with a rebellious nature that is instantly appealing to youth.  It’s not my place to say if our society is better off having crossed these boundaries, I’m nowhere near smart enough to determine that.  However, it is clear that many individuals have learned the wrong lessons from the ‘80s, providing an ever worsening level of shocks without any of the artistic talent needed to make them the least bit worthwhile.  (Shots fired, Kardashians.)



The most obvious case of evolution in comics came from an old idea by Stan and Jack that had never really caught on, and that was literally the evolution of the human species in the form of super-powered mutants.  The X-Men had always been a team of, like the rest of comics, primarily white males with no personality.  The late ‘70s saw the team reinvented as a racially diverse group of heroes from all across the globe, a true international team.  But it took until the ‘80s for the X-Men to really begin to take over the industry, by capitalizing on that varied representation along with its soap opera storytelling as spearheaded by Chris Claremont.  The darker side of comic book evolution would come in the form of the grim and gritty era, as influenced by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  Both books were considered watershed achievements in the genre, with their dark takes on established superhero norms.  Watchmen expanded upon Stan Lee’s idea of the flawed hero, by suggesting that only a truly psychologically damaged individual would feel compelled to fight crime.  The Dark Knight Returns shows a Bruce Wayne that needs to be Batman to truly feel alive.  Both comics were created with a level of skill that had arguably never been seen in the industry before.  Yet, other less talented comic professionals would take all the wrong lessons from these comics, focusing on the violence and psychosis, as heroes across the board began to become more and more unhinged.  There’s no question those books inspired a deeper level of sophistication and storytelling skill, but too often that comes with a “comics aren’t just for kids” mentality that usually only results in a higher level of sex and violence than necessary.  The comics of today are technically more proficient in writing and art than they’ve ever been, but does that make them better to read?  As always, I am not smart enough to say.      

I love the 1980s.  I will freely admit that most of that is fueled by childhood nostalgia, but I think it’s also clear it was a pivotal decade in the evolution of popular culture.  It wasn’t the first revolution, but it was the first revolution that was fully televised.


Replacement Superheroes Have Always Existed

Replacement Superheroes Have Always Existed
Ben Smith

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about diversity of representation in superheroes, and the best way to better reflect our modern world with characters that are in some cases, 75 years old. The majority of the most popular superheroes have existed since, at minimum, the 1960s. Because of that, and our country's long-standing tradition of racism, most superheroes are straight white males. In our modern, seemingly more enlightened times, that represents a huge discrepancy with the world you see right outside your window.

The approach of DC and Marvel over the last decade, has been to try and replace existing characters with either an existing supporting character, or a brand new one. Ryan Choi as the Atom, and Sam Wilson as Captain America, being an example of each. Many fans have cried foul, as they claim to prefer Ray Palmer and Steve Rogers, and that if you want more diverse characters they should be created from scratch. I can understand preferring your traditional favorites, but just creating a new character capable of successfully carrying their own title isn’t all that easy. Deadpool and Cable are probably the last two non-derivative characters created that are capable of sustaining their own monthly comic, or a movie franchise. (Even considering Deadpool non-derivative is a bit of a stretch, since he’s basically a blatant combination of Deathstroke, Wolverine, and Spider-Man.) X-23 and Spider-Gwen represent recent successes that are completely derivative versions of their white male counterparts, while the only nonwhite character that can be included in this list is Miles Morales, also a derivative.

So, I don’t really have a solution for this problem. I understand wanting to see your favorite characters remain as they were when you fell in love with them, but it’s no simple task to create brand new characters that readers will embrace. What is not debatable is that replacement characters have existed nearly as long as superheroes have. So the next time you’re complaining about replacement characters in a vacuum, please refer to this list and maybe at least acknowledge you’ve become old and cynical.

THE HUMAN TORCH



The Human Torch was Marvel’s very first superhero, appearing in the very first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939. Then, the Human Torch was an android named Jim Hammond. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Marvel Universe as we know it with Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, they created a brand new Human Torch. This time, he was a teenager named Johnny Storm. Jim Hammond would return here and there over the years, but will never eclipse the popularity of Johnny Storm in the role that he originated.

BETA RAY BILL

The very first thing Walt Simonson did in his deservedly lauded Thor run was replace Thor with an alien named Beta Ray Bill. Bill was shockingly found worthy of lifting Mjolnir, and gained the power of Thor. Admittedly, this replacement only happened over the course of two issues, if even that, but the character was still accepted enough to receive his own hammer granting him superhuman might.



One of the more frequent arguments I’ve heard against replacement characters is that in the past they happened more naturally, but this couldn’t be further from the case for Beta Ray Bill. He makes his first appearance, becomes a Thor derivative, and is immediately embraced by fans over the course of two issues. I’m not trying to diminish Bill in any way, merely trying to highlight the hypocrisy of some fans. The loudest, most disgruntled voices complaining about Jane Foster, are probably wearing a Beta Ray Bill t-shirt while they do it. And if you want to argue that Bill existed alongside Thor, then I’ll point you to the fact that Thor Odinson just had a miniseries and has been guesting in multiple books, as the main Jane Thor comic is being published.

THE FLASH



The Golden Age Flash was a character named Jay Garrick, given super speed powers by exposure to hard water vapors, or something stupid like that. In an effort to reinvigorate their superhero comics line, DC created a new Flash in 1956 named Barry Allen, with a more science-fiction bent. Barry Allen was extremely popular, and helped launch an entire wave of replacement DC heroes in the 1950s. (Eventually inspiring the creation of the Fantastic Four, after the new heroes formed a new superteam called the Justice League.) Barry Allen was then eventually replaced by his protégé Wally West, and Wally went on to have one of the most impressive long-term character arcs in comic book history.

Some of you may argue, that these changes occurred long before you were even born. You’re right, but that doesn’t make them any more noble or natural than changes occurring today. Those updated DC heroes were considered a necessity to speak to and reflect the new generation that was viable at the time. Yet somehow, that level of change and evolution has remained stagnant practically ever since.

GREEN LANTERN



See above with the Flash, the title of Green Lantern passed from Alan Scott to Hal Jordan to Kyle Rayner. With a little bit of Guy Gardner and John Stewart sprinkled in alongside. DC eventually realized that you don’t need to only have one Green Lantern as the focus, when the entire appeal of the franchise is an entire universe of space cops. Considering Nova is the Marvel equivalent of Green Lantern, that’s what makes the outcry over Sam Alexander as the primary Nova instead of Richard Ryder all the more confusing. (It’s also a little distasteful how much some fans complain about Sam, a character Jeph Loeb named and modeled after his son that had tragically passed away.) Richard was never all that interesting, guys. He just wasn’t.

IRON MAN


James Rhodes is the one I’ve heard fans describe the most as a slow-developing natural progression when he replaced Tony Stark as Iron Man. I’ll admit, I don’t even know the specifics of how long it took Rhodes to take over the mantle, but at least admit that your opinions might be clouded by the fact it happened when you were 7 years old, when every story seemed more magical and you had not yet learned to question the methods by which they were told to you. Regardless, there is no way it is more natural, or he more worthy a successor, than X-23 is for Wolverine. Laura as the All-New Wolverine has easily been my favorite Marvel comic over the past few years, and you cannot tell me that there is any character more worthy of replacing the original than her.

BEN REILLY



Despised by many at the time, Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly was highly controversial when he temporarily received the role of Spider-Man in the mid ‘90s. Nearly from the moment he was killed off in 1996, fans have been clamoring and asking for the return of Ben Reilly ever since. Along those same lines…

CAPTAIN AMERICA



Steve Rogers was famously killed and replaced by Bucky Barnes following the instant classic event series Civil War. After a short initial outcry, Bucky was quickly embraced by fans, and considered a more than worthy replacement because of his long association as Steve’s partner, to the point that some fans were disappointed when Steve eventually returned. In even more recent years, Steve’s longtime partner Sam Wilson (the Falcon) took over as Captain America after Steve was artificially aged due to some story shenanigans. Again, Sam also had a pedigree as a long-time ally and friend of Steve Rogers, and yet this time the replacement was much more controversial among fans. Stand Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson next to each other, and you might start to ask yourself exactly why that is.

As you can see, replacement characters have been around in comics nearly as long as comics have. But while fans readily accept characters that existed before them, or were created when they were kids, those same fans angrily reject any attempts to update characters to reflect our modern times. Either they’ve become overly cynical with age, unable to accept that change can be a welcome part of life. Or they really have to ask themselves, is it that the characters have been replaced, or who they’ve been replaced with? If it’s not the idea of replacements, then it might be the very idea of diversity, and that is unfortunately a much more depressing reality.

There’s no easy answer for any of this, but what’s clear is that something needs to change. With more and more movies and television shows being made using superhero characters, the need to reflect the audience paying to go see them will only increase. Comics have long been on the forefront of societal change, reflecting events in the world before they even occur (comic book superheroes were fighting Hitler before our government was fighting Hitler) and yet on this front, comics are beginning to lag behind. Comics had been so progressive in the ‘60s with Black Panther, the Falcon, and John Stewart, continuing on with Storm, Shang-Chi, and Luke Cage in the ‘70s. And yet, somehow, that is still basically the same roster of diverse characters being used 40 years later. That, my friends, seems wrong.

Apr 23, 2017

Still Relevant Today: The Tale of One Bad Rat

The Tale of One Bad Rat: Still Relevant in 2017
by Duy Tano

When Bryan Talbot created The Tale of One Bad Rat in 1994, his goal was simple: depict the effects of childhood sexual abuse in a medium in which the theme was by and large avoided. In truth, it's a theme largely avoided anywhere. I'm rewatching Jessica Jones right now, and I suddenly started remembering the praise for it (including by me) for depicting abuse and its effects accurately (see here, here, and here), with the overlying sentiment of you don't know how rare it is to see this accurately represented. It's true — I love Jessica Jones, because I've known abuse survivors and have seen how they deal with it, so much that I am willing to overlook its considerable storytelling flaws and focus on the message and the fact that it gives abuse victims something to identify with.



For much the same reason, I am glad The Tale of One Bad Rat exists (and, thankfully, there's not much to it that needs overlooking). The story of Helen Potter, a homeless girl in England, is masterfully told and juxtaposed with the story of Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit (and whose real name was Helen), as our protagonist tries to follow her journey, just as a sort of direction for herself. She has, with her, a pet rat, who is her only companion.


Homeless, it's pretty clearly established that she has a phobia about being touched, and she'd rather be invisible.


When her rat dies, she starts imagining it as a companion, alive and human-sized, basically as a metaphor for what she's holding onto and protection from a particular predator. And it's pretty clear that something haunts her, even from her dreams.



Talbot's adherence to a grid structure provides a regular sense of rhythm to the story, assigning equal importance to each panel. It's particularly effective when he breaks out of it, and we see the reason for Helen's isolation.





In the above sequences, placing the middle image in borderless panels emphasizes the focus on those elements: her abusive dad, and her cries for help.

The Tale of One Bad Rat follows Helen as she tries to run away from such a traumatic experience, until such time as she's aware she can no longer do so.



The climax of the book is this astounding sequence of Helen letting out all her anger at her parents. It's cathartic, and made powerful by the fact that much of her dialogue was taken from transcripts of interviews with abuse survivors.



Helen pulls no punches, and it all culminates in a beautiful use of the comics medium.



This followed by a strong affirmation that I'm sure all abuse survivors would be better off claiming, though not all of them can get to the point where they believe it to be valid.



Bryan Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat is more than what I've described here, which are just the bare bones of the story. There's so much texture and depth to it, especially as it relates to Helen's interactions with people and how this experience has affected her thoroughly. It highlights, very specifically, how abuse victims have a hard time seeking help because of the stigma surrounding it, and I believe that a way for this to change is to have fiction that reflects this reality, showing that yes, it is okay for this to be talked about. Our popular culture reflects how our society goes. We need more fiction that tackles these themes like Jessica Jones, and we need more fiction that handles them with the care and affirmation of The Tale of One Bad Rat.




In closing, I will leave you with Talbot's words:
The fact is that, because the media largely ignores it, this abuse can still go on unhindered. It can only work in a conspiracy of silence. Most of the victims, the younger the more likely, believe that this frightening, confusing thing is happening to them alone. They dare not talk about it to anyone and become lonely, and alienated... 
The more child abuse is discussed in society or fiction in whatever medium, the more likely it is that the victims will realise that this is something that happens all the time and that they will be able to speak out, be believed and get it stopped.



Apr 18, 2017

Claremont X-Men Is the Only X-Men

Claremont X-Men Is the Only X-Men
Ben Smith

Grumpy old man alert! Claremont’s X-Men is the only version of the X-Men that has ever seemed like the real X-Men to me. Everything since has seemed like a pale imitation of what he accomplished. Considering he did everything but create the basic concept and a few of the most popular creators (he took over almost immediately after Len Wein and Dave Cockrum co-created Storm, Nightcrawler, and Colossus, along with adding mainstays like Wolverine alongside team founder Cyclops in Giant Size X-Men #1) I don’t feel like it’s that much of a “grumpy old man” assertion to make.

Recently, I decided I wanted to read some classic X-Men comics, and having read the John Byrne and Paul Smith runs several times previously, I decided to start with the comics immediately following Smith’s beloved run, drawn by a young John Romita Jr. Normally, I find a lot of ‘80s comics to be a bit of a chore to get through, but Claremont’s X-Men is one of the best exceptions. (He still has to deal with a lot of the necessary descriptions and recaps of the time, and he famously has some annoying dialogue tics, but overall the writing holds up really well.)

Some of the things I began to notice as I read the comics, are things that not only made it so popular at the time, but almost definitely not replicable in modern comics. The X-Men are as popular and beloved as they’ve ever been, but the comics will never be as good as they were under Claremont, and here’s why.

THOUGHT BALLOONS

I’m not one of those jaded old fans that pines for the old days of thought balloons and editorial captions, but it’s undeniable how essential thought balloons were to Claremont’s X-Men formula. Modern comics have evolved into using caption boxes as a more “sophisticated” form of exploring a character’s inner thoughts. However, that has limitations the thought balloons didn’t have. Captions tend to be much shorter, and often are used for internal narration. Thought balloons, as used by Claremont, expressed a character’s inner anxieties about themselves, or condemnations of others.

Here is a perfect example of both, as Professor Xavier struggles with wanting to take command of the team in the field, now that he was no longer paralyzed (at the time). Wolverine subsequently chastises him in his mind for his actions.



Storm was going through a bit of an identity crisis at the time, and her feelings about it were reflected explicitly in her thought balloons. Repeatedly having the characters “silently” express anxiety or fear, is just one of the reasons readers could identify and relate so strongly to the X-Men characters. The most blatant and intentional example of that was Kitty Pryde, who was always in her head struggling with her romantic feelings for Colossus (gross) or Doug Ramsey (seen here as the mutant master of the “friend zone.”)


It’s hard not to love anyone in some capacity once you really get to know them, and readers really got to know each X-Men character inside and out.

THE NOT-INVINCIBLE WOLVERINE

Mystique trains by fighting simulated versions of the X-Men (with help from a random guest appearance by personal favorite Arcade) and fatally dispatches of Wolverine by slicing his throat.

“Even your mutant healing factor won’t prevent your bleeding to death.”

Sorry, that’s not really an important reason, this grumpy old fan just hates how invincible Wolverine has become over the years.

SEXUALITY

Fellow Cube writer Travis pointed out to me the role sexuality played in a lot of Claremont comics. It wasn’t really as overt as modern comics can tend to be, it was definitely more subtle, but it was always there, and in many ways was more effective because of it. (Again, paraphrasing Travis, whoever added the first pair of fishnets in a comic book deserves a statue in their honor.) Uncanny X-Men #189 was basically a non-stop fetish display, with Rachel and Amara behind enemy lines of the Hellfire Club, in disguise as sexy maids.


They soon came into conflict with Selene, who was dressed in dominatrix lingerie ala Emma Frost (basically black panties, corset, and a cape… for showmanship). Just when I thought those were all the fetishes you could fit in one comic, this page happened.



Outfits like these were more common than not in Claremont’s X-Men comics. (Storm was in her Mohawk punk-rocker leather phase at the time, which I’m sure is a fetish for someone… besides me.) Characters were also falling in and out of love at the drop of a hat (like Colossus, more on that later) and there was always an element of mind control in a Claremont comic (arguably way too much).

Firestar made her comics debut as the love slave of an evil mutant named Empath.

REAL CHANGE IN A SHARED UNIVERSE

Not long after Romita took over as artist, the maxi-series Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars launched. The X-Men ended one issue being whisked away to join the action, with them returning with a few changes in the very next issue. (At the time, the regular series weren’t suspended or forced to tie-in with the original event series, they dealt with the ramifications immediately while the Secret Wars series occurred separately at its own pace. While they were gone, Colossus had fallen in love with an alien woman, ruining his relationship with Kitty Pryde (thankfully). This had ramifications not only on those two, but most of their teammates as well, which is a level of impact you don’t always get in today’s comics (events change things so often the characters can’t even react).

Here Storm wonders if everyone would have been better off if Colossus had died,
which is something I think all of us have wondered

Claremont was apparently a fan of what Mantlo was doing over in ROM: Spaceknight, because he spent several issues of the X-Men fighting Dire Wraiths. Forge even developed a gun that would take away mutant powers, based on the concept of ROM’s neutralizer. That gun was eventually accidentally used to remove Storm’s weather-manipulation powers, a change that would have a massive impact on the book and last for quite a long time.


Modern comics may reference the big status quo changes in their monthly comics (for example, Norman Osborn as the director of SHIELD/HAMMER during Dark Reign) but they can’t possibly match the level of coordination and seamless integration that comics in the ‘80s pulled off regularly.



The lineup of the team was constantly changing, almost from issue to issue. Rogue was still a newcomer to the team, trying to decide if she was truly a X-Man, or still part of the Brotherhood at heart. Storm famously was redesigned with her Mohawk and black leather. Cyclops had, for a long time, been a tangential member of the series, trying to have a normal life with his new wife Madelynne Pryor. (All of that groundwork was completely undercut when Jean Grey was resurrected, and it seriously damaged Cyclops as a character forever.)

Or until your true love comes back to life

Rachel, the future daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey, journeyed through time from an alternate future to join the team during this run. Forge was introduced, as a weapons contractor for the government. Storm left the team after losing her powers, with Nightcrawler designated as the new team leader. New Mutants would pop in and out of the book, enough to highlight and legitimize that they shared a world (and more specifically the same mansion) but not so much their own title was devalued. When Marvel published a Kitty Pryde and Wolverine mini-series, both characters actually, gasp, disappeared from Uncanny X-Men for the duration of the mini.


The idea of Marvel being confident enough to exclude Wolverine from the only monthly X-Men book they published at the time is almost inconceivable compared to the overuse of the character today. (Recent years where he’s been “dead” are the exception.) The team was constantly changing, but in ways that felt natural and an extension of the narrative being told at the time. It was that sense that the characters were actually living real lives, and could leave the team and have their own adventures for a time, that really added a level of believability and (for lack of a better word) realism to a comic featuring brightly colored superheroes.

Yet, there was still a clear division between the X-Men comic and the New Mutants comic. The same for X-Factor when it launched in the upcoming years. The level of team (and series) integrity made each book feel like it had a unique premise and goal. That’s something that has mostly been lost in the years since, with everyone basically a member of one large X-Men team, occasionally split out into separate arbitrary groups (usually one of which involves being the team willing to murder).

PLANTING SEEDS

Claremont’s security and sense of ownership as writer of the X-franchise meant that he often planted seeds for future stories that wouldn’t bloom until much later. (Sometimes not until many years later, as Claremont would famously forget seeds that he had planted, or get distracted by newer shinier ideas.) Mystique, when fighting those simulated X-Men I mentioned earlier, hesitated when it came time to attack Nightcrawler, even a fake version. Later they cut to Nightcrawler out on a date with Amanda Sefton, and randomly mentioning how he never knew either of his birth parents. It was obvious the reader was supposed to assume that Mystique might be his mother (or father, as the legend goes) which is something that wasn’t confirmed until (I believe) long after Claremont had left the series. That level of long-term planning has pretty much gone extinct. Even if a writer intends to have a long tenure on a series, so many things change because of events that they might never get a chance to execute many of the ideas they had planned when starting on a new book. That’s if they don’t get replaced on the title outright.

COMPRESSION

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I do like modern comics, but there’s no denying they are decompressed in comparison to older comics. I personally happen to enjoy that level of detail and commitment to exploring every moment of a story in-depth, but it virtually guarantees that no modern comic could ever match the amount of activity that occurred in a Claremont X-Men comic. Claremont could balance the soap opera of his character, along with a large amount of action, while planting seeds for future stories, and referencing the long history of the series, and juggle a large ever-changing cast. That level of packed content simply cannot be matched in the more widescreen style of comic storytelling today. That’s not to say it was automatically better, but you cannot deny that it is certainly makes for a different feel in today’s comics.

Now, your mileage may vary on which era of X-Men comics is the best, but what cannot be denied is that stylistically and structurally, Claremont’s approach to the series is something we will probably never see again. Without question, his writing was instrumental in the franchise becoming the juggernaut (pun intended) it eventually became. It’s up to each reader to decide if that represents the absolute peak of the franchise, or just some old comics that my grandpa loved.

Either way, I think we can all enjoy this sequence of Wolverine absolutely punking Colossus.


Apr 16, 2017

Reviews: Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Universal Solvent

The Universal Solvent is the titular storyline in the latest in The Don Rosa Library from Fantagraphics, and it's again a crazy wild ride featuring Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and Huey, Dewey and Louie.  Scrooge hires Gyro Gearloose to create a liquid capable of dissolving anything, which Scrooge then pours into the earth to facilitate mining. When it's pointed out to him that this means it will drill down to the center of the Earth and cause an apocalypse, he and the boys have to go and save existence as we know it.

The sheer level of creativity evident in Rosa's works is astounding. He continually comes up (came up? Whatever.) with situations and ideas that should be ridiculous and somehow just work, giving a real feeling of danger to the whole story. There's also, amazingly, a level of edutainment in the entire execution that's not hamfisted at all. I've learned more about science and gravity (did you know that things get lighter the closer they get to Earth's core? I didn't.) reading this than I have with any other 20 pages of science reading ever, and as I read these things with my niece, it's always a pleasure.

The stories in Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Universal Solvent first appeared in issues of Denmark's Anders And & Co from June 1994 to June 1995, and Walt Disney Giant 1 on September 1995.

The chapters are:
  • The Duck Who Never Was. Rosa's Tribute to It's a Wonderful Life takes place on Donald Duck's 60th birthday. Of course, in the story, it's just a joke that he's 60, but basically Donald is brought into a world where he was never born. The way he affects things is so dramatic that it's jarring to see, because a part of me still expects these stories to be pure comedy. But when you see Gyro Gearloose's little helper "dead", it really strikes you how wide-ranging Rosa's skill set is in a universe that's known primarily for laughs.
  • The Treasury of Croesus.  A classic Scrooge McDuck treasure hunt has the gang looking for the treasury of Croesus, the man who invented money. Along the way, he has to fight entire armies and Magica De Spell, and contend with an increasingly frustrated Donald Duck.
  • The Universal Solvent. I've already described this one, so I'm going to just put this panel here, when Donald believes they're going to die.

  • An Eye for Detail. Scrooge realizes Donald can tell Huey, Dewey, and Louie apart effortlessly, and decides to use that superhuman eye for detail to benefit his business. However, Donald's eye is only good if he's not thinking about it, so it doesn't quite work out.
  • The Lost Charts of Columbus. A dated storyline now that we know what Columbus did or didn't do, but this functions as a sequel to Barks' "Golden Helmet," in which the owner of a particular artifact can claim possession and sovereignty over all of America. Columbus' charts provide the locations of older artifacts, so the entire story is about finding those treasures. Ends with a thought-provoker.
  • The Incredible Shrinking Tightwad. Donald and Scrooge get hit by a shrinking ray, and the Beagle Boys show up to steal money. I don't think I need to explain more than that.
  • Hearts of the Yukon. Scrooge McDuck and Glittering Goldie O'Gilt is one of the greatest "Will they, won't they" couples of fiction, and this story shows a time when two of them went out of their way to meet the other, only for life to get in the way. A tragicomedy told in flashback.
    Quite honestly, I think it's pointless to compare Rosa and Barks. Barks was a storyteller who did his work as best he could and never imagined these stories would have a lasting legacy, while Rosa as a storyteller is a fan and approaches it from that point of view. Barks never tried with the very dramatic or tragic moments the way Rosa does, which isn't a slight against either creator. I'm glad we have both, and this collection is still highly recommended. I'm going to go ahead and say that I'd probably recommend the entire Rosa Library over the entire Barks Library, partly in terms of volume (Rosa's not going to reach 10, I think, while Barks will go over 30), but also, partly, because Rosa's tones are a bit more diverse, and you get a feeling of celebration from him, specifically because he is a fan. And to top it all off, here's Rosa drawing Donald Duck for his 60th anniversary, both the classic modern version and the original Al Taliaferro version that first appeared in "The Wise Little Hen" in 1934.


    Apr 14, 2017

    Review: Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Richest Duck in the World

    Just like the last one, The Last of the Clan McDuck, the latest in The Don Rosa Library, The Richest Duck in the World, is a weird one for me to review, because I've already done it.

    The Richest Duck in the World conclude's Rosa's epic "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck," which really started as more of a fan project, taking every mention of Scrooge's history from the Carl Barks stories and weaved them into a working timeline, infusing it with plot, narrative, emotion, and all the good stuff essential to a classic story. It's the greatest Scrooge McDuck story ever, and it works, really, as a collaboration between Barks and Rosa more than fifty years apart.

    Again, I've already talked about this story at length, so feel free to read my old column about it (nothing's changed), and keep in mind that Don Rosa's books from Fantagraphics are published in oversized editions (8.8x11.3") and on beautiful paper.

    The stories in Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Richest Duck in the World first appeared in issues of Denmark's Anders And & Co from July 1993 to June 1994.

    The chapters are:
    • The King of the Klondike. 1896-1897. Scrooge makes it to the Yukon for the Klondike Gold Rush and is kidnapped by evil businessman, Soapy Slick. By the end of the story, Scrooge has struck gold. A real turning point in the entire story
    • Guardians of the Lost Library.  Not a part of Life and Times, this story has the boys helping Scrooge look for the legacy of the Lost Library of Alexandria. To be honest, I personally find the exposition portions of Rosa's work a bit dragging, and it happens in large chunks here as the boys just describe the current town they're in at any given moment, but my niece loved it and that's good enough for me. This is also kind of a secret origin of one of the most important artifacts in Duck lore, a story that could only come from a fan such as Rosa.
    • The Billionaire of Dismal Downs. 1898-1902.  Scrooge returns home to Scotland fully intent on reassimilating himself into that world. However, his time away has changed him, and he has to decide if he's going to stay in Scotland or pursue new ventures in America, and who to take with him if so. The ending brought a tear to my eye. I'm not going to lie.
    • From Duckburg to Lillehammer. Anxious to be represented in the Winter Olympics, Duckburg has to decide whether they're sending Donald Duck or his lucky cousin Gladstone Gander. And, well, that never goes well for Donald.
    • The Invader of Fort Duckburg. 1902. Scrooge and his sisters, Hortense and Matilda, get to Duckburg, Calisota, where they meet Elvira Coot, who would eventually become Grandma Duck, and family. The Beagle Boys show up to harass Scrooge some more, and so does Theodore Roosevelt, who mistakes Scrooge as someone who was usurping land. Chaos ensues, and in all the mess, you also find out which of Scrooge's two sisters eventually becomes Donald's mom.
    • The Duck Family Tree. I've spoken about this family tree at length before, namely focusing on Donald's sister Della. I think there's a lot of story possibilities that could come from just mining this tree. And it really is quite a piece of work.
    Click to enlarge.
    • The Empire-Builder from Calisota. 1909-1930. The single darkest time in Scrooge's life, when he roamed the world alone making business deals all in a quest to just get richer and richer. It spans the longest timeframe of all of the chapters, and is also the most depressing, as it explains how Scrooge pushed his family away and got to the state he was in in his first appearance on "Christmas on Bear Mountain."  This also has, as far as I know, the single appearance of Della Duck, Donald's twin sister.
    • The Richest Duck in the World. Christmas Day, 1947. This takes place the day after Scrooge's first appearance in Carl Barks' "Christmas on Bear Mountain," and introduces Scrooge to his nephew, while introducing Donald and Huey, Dewey, and Louie to Scrooge's oldest enemies, the Beagle Boys. One of the most dramatic moments in comics history.



      A part of me is kind of annoyed that the non-Life and Times stuff is in here breaking up the rest of the saga, but it's a minor inconvenience. The stories are good, they're well-drawn, they're exciting. Still, as always, highly recommended.

      Apr 12, 2017

      The Weirdest Genre Specific to Comics

      What's Up with Resurrected Vengeance Superheroes?
      by Duy

      No, seriously. What's up with this?

      Hard-boiled 1940s cop Jim Corrigan gets killed by thugs and is denied entry into the afterlife, and is sentenced to roam the Earth as the Spectre, the avatar of God's vengeance!



      Johnny Blaze was a stuntman who sells his soul to Mephisto to save his adoptive dad. Unable to claim Blaze's soul, Mephisto bonds Johnny to the demon Zarathos and turns him into Ghost Rider, the first of several such combinations.



      Circus trapeze artist Boston Brand gets killed while performing his high-wire act, and is brought back by the god Rama Kushna to avenge his death. After doing so, he continued his crusade against evil as Deadman.



      Eric Draven and his girlfriend Shelly were killed one night, and is resurrected by a crow to take vengeance on his murderers.He would go on to headline the best non-superhero comic book movie of all time.



      US Marine Al Simmons was sent to Hell after his death due to having killed innocents. He cuts a deal with the Malebolgia for his soul, to bring him back to life so he could see his wife. He's tricked though: Malebolgia brings him back five years later as Spawn, part of his army in the War on Heaven.




      Okay, seriously, what's up with this? This is a very specific genre, and it only ever shows up in large numbers in superhero comics. Why? What is it about comics — as an industry or medium — that invites this?

      You know what's weirder? It's got a subgenre.



      Baron Eric Von Emmelman was a World War I German flying ace who was shot to death in a Polish swamp. He's brought back by the goddess Ceres as a guy bonded with the swamp. He's known as the Heap.


      Ted Sallis was a biochemist who injects himself with an attempt to recreate the Super-Soldier Serum (the thing that made Steve Rogers Captain America), but he crashes into a swamp and dies in the process. This turns him into the Man-Thing, who can burn people with his touch and is the guardian of the Nexus of Realities.



      Most famous of all is Alec Holland, who was working on a biorestorative formula in the swamp. He catches on fire while fleeing criminals, and the biorestorative formula, which has affected the plants, are infected with his consciousness, coming together to form the Swamp Thing. It's eventually revealed that he's the latest in a long line of Plant Elementals.



      So what's up? What happened? What's with this genre? Seriously, I'm stuck. I'd be willing to listen to explanations.



      Apr 9, 2017

      Here's the 1980s Cartoon Character You Should Really Make a Movie With

      The 1980s Cartoon Character That Should Be in a Movie
      by Duy Tano

      You're gonna have to forgive me for the relative lack of posts this year, guys. Aside from generally being busy, I'm also feeling a little burned out about comics to talk about, preferring to read and get into conversations about them instead. But sometimes I just have a thought and then that thought takes over and I can't stop thinking about that thought until I write about it, so here I am now.

      With the fact that we're getting a Transformers movie again and that GI Joe is getting rebooted for millennials (I am very pro-millennial, and even I have no idea what that means), I got to thinking about the 80s cartoons I loved, and which ones I'd actually like to see in a movie these days. And then I started thinking about which ones I think would work in today's market. In general, which cartoon character from the 1980s fills a need in today's global movie market? And then I decided.



      My three favorite cartoons of the 1980s were these:

      • Robotech. Rick Hunter, Roy Focker, and the eternally screwed up love story between Max and Miriya was just great. Loved the designs, loved the Veritechs, loved the whole thing. But I do not want to see it in a movie. After I discovered the original anime, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, and the fact that that anime remade the story with Do You Remember Love?, which is as perfect a movie for the material as it comes. I've seen my two-hour Robotech movie, and that was Do You Remember Love? I don't need a live-action version.
      • Bravestarr. I love the aesthetics of Westerns and I'll always be convinced Thirty-Thirty is a tikbalang. You know how Bravestarr was a Native American cowboy (kinda)? But he was adopted, so I'm just going in my headcanon and saying he's whatever the equivalent of a Filipino in that universe is. In all seriousness, I'd love to see a Bravestarr movie, but I don't know what niche Bravestarr fills in today's day and age. Westerns aren't particularly in high demand, even space Westerns, plus the cartoon has at least two outdated racial stereotypes that would completely need to be rethought. If they can make it work, then great. But it doesn't fill a need in the market.
      • He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  You know what I love about the three cartoons I mentioned? The theme songs. These three and Thundercats are my favorite 1980s theme songs. But I love He-Man because it's basically the Shazam engine and I really like the designs. Still, we're talking about He-Man, and as much as I love him, he's been the subject of a whole load of memes, and his arch-enemy Skeletor has basically become a joke. If I were a producer about to finance a big-budget movie, I would be hesitant in the public's ability to take He-Man seriously, simply because his branding is basically that of what his parodies have made him right now. You'd need to gradually introduce him and his concepts back to the public. And also, with Thor around being a part of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, you can't really say He-Man fills a need in the market.
      But his sister does.



      And that, my friends, is my incredibly long preamble to the 1980s character that should, in fact, be made into a movie. She-Ra of Etheria holds a magic sword that turns into anything and has a variety of powers, including turning her into Princess Adora. She leads the Resistance of Etheria against the Evil Forces of Hordak, who has ruled Etheria since she could remember.

      Let's take a look at the reasons She-Ra, above any other 1980s character, should get a movie.

      She's a Woman

      Think about this for a second. How many times have people clamored for a Black Widow movie? (A lot.) How many people are looking forward to the Wonder Woman movie? (A lot.) There's still a lot of demand for female-led movies, and, well, to state the obvious, She-Ra is a woman. 

      Now you may be thinking, "But Ghostbusters flopped because people who were in love with Ghostbusters as a kid didn't like girls playing with their toys," and yeah, sure, but She-Ra's already a female character with her own identity. She's not genderbent, and she's not just a female He-Man. She stands on her own, and in a landscape that is sorely lacking in female protagonists, She-Ra easily fills that need.

      It's Political Allegory

      She-Ra is a woman leading a movement called The Resistance. Her main villain is Hordak, this evil man who wants to put everyone under his thumb and oppress dissent and really likes firing his gun.


      Currently women all over America (and the world) are actively part of a Resistance against woman-hating leaders who want to oppress dissent and really like guns.

      I don't really think I need to explain this further. Here's Hordak in his rocket form.



      She Looks Cool

      Cool visuals make for cool scenes in movies. Here's a pin-up of She-Ra and Swiftwind by Stjepan Sejic.


      You're welcome.

      She Has a Diverse Cast

      If you want to send little girls the message of "Yes, you can be a superhero too!", She-Ra offers something no superhero movie has done, and no franchise looks like it has any intention of doing: provide a cast full of strong, empowered women, both on the good side and the bad side.

      Left to right: Glimmer, Angella, Castaspella, She-Ra, Frosta, Cat-Ra
      The He-Man/She-Ra franchise didn't put much thought into names.
      And hell, if you're looking for diversity, there's even an LGBT character.

      Oh, let's not pretend he isn't.

      Seriously, though, despite having no explicit LGBT characters, She-Ra is an LGBT icon, and Erika Scheimer is on record as saying that any modern telling of the story would have a gay character, so we're looking at more represented demographics here.

      In today's day and age, having a superhero movie representing women and the LGBT community would be a bold step. It's even, I would argue, a necessary step. We see our world in our fiction. Maybe the less open-minded people can see a She-Ra movie and think, hey. Hey, it's okay, in much the same way that Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually apparently helped people through things, like coming to terms with women leaders.

      It's Wide Open for a Franchise

      Okay, in addition to all that stuff about representation and empowerment I said above, don't think I've forgotten about He-Man. Of course I'd love to still see He-Man in a movie, and this is the perfect way to do it. Doing She-Ra first reintroduces most of the concepts in that universe in a gradual manner and builds up anticipation for He-Man, hopefully getting the audience past the memes and the jokes (except Skeletor. I don't know how you overcome Skeletor now.) Earlier I said that He-Man wouldn't fill a need in the movie market. By creating a She-Ra movie, you create an audience need for He-Man.

      You may think it's weird for a franchise to not open with its biggest and most recognizable brand, but for that I'd point you back to 2008, when Iron Man was not the household name he is today. You know who the most popular character Marvel had that they had the movie rights to was?


      The Hulk was. And they did do him second. And when that one didn't really take off, they developed Captain America and Thor until they could use the Hulk right in Avengers.

      You don't have to start with your biggest gun, and sometimes it's better for the entire franchise if the biggest gun isn't fired all that often.

      We Can Kill Loo Kee


      I hate Loo Kee. Whatever the hell he is. "Did you see me today?" No, I didn't, you attention-mongering shit. You're annoying and I want to forget you exist. If ever a She-Ra movie gets made, can they kill Loo Kee in the first five minutes? I hate that guy.

      Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...