Feb 27, 2014

Escher in Comics: Captain America Corps, JLA/JSA, Avengers Forever, Age of Sentry

Welcome to another installment of Escher in Comics, in which we take a look at how some comics use MC Escher's artistic techniques! Click here for the archive!

We've got four examples today for you folks!

 For those of you not in the know, MC Escher (1898-1972) was a Dutch graphic artist that was known for tessellations, optical illusions, and mathematical pictures.One of his most famous pieces was the woodcut print, "Another World."

As you can see, it plays with the concept of a center of gravity, and can't possibly exist.

Perfect for a sci-fi setting where "gravity is localized"! In Roger Stern and Philippe Briones' Captain America Corps, the Contemplator gathers five Captains America of different times: Steve Rogers in the early days of World War II; John Walker in his early days as USAgent; Bucky, the Winter Soldier; Shannon Carter, the American Dream of the future; and Kiyoshi Morales, Commander A of the far future. This is their first meeting.

This image gets replayed in recaps in subsequent issues, each time rotated so that the narrator of that particular issue is right side up.

Escher's most famous work is probably the 1953 piece known as Relativity, which played with the concept of the center of gravity:

This actually showed up in DC Comics a lot around the time, whenever they went to Dr. Fate's tower, since it's all magic and stuff. Here's an example from the 2002 JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice by Geoff Johns, David Goyer, and Carlos Pacheco.

It also showed up in Avengers Forever, by Kurt Busiek and (again) Carlos Pacheco.

Except this time, the gravity centers were reversed, so everyone falls down!

Finally, Escher is also known for "Bond of Union"  (1956).

Jeff Parker and Nick Dragotta used that in the 2008–2009 miniseries Age of the Sentry, where we were treated to Silver Age–type adventures of Marvel's Superman analogue. One of Sentry's enemies is Emcee Escher!

Too bad that's the only time we see EE, but maybe someone can pick up on that idea and run with it.

You can read these here:

Feb 26, 2014

Got the Grit for It, Pilgrim? Thoughts on Adapting Preacher to Television

Got The Grit For It, Pilgrim? (Thoughts on Adapting Preacher to Television)
Travis Hedge Coke

[Note: Some spoilers will, inevitably, follow. I try not to announce any huge reveals or give away too much, but to talk of the thing as a whole, some general coverage is necessary. Read at your own comfort.]

These are questions I have come across repeatedly, about adapting Preacher, now that the deal with AMC for a television series seems more and more sure:

“What can be cut?”

“What’s necessary to the story?”

“What will work on TV?”

A comic about a priest with a traumatic background, who has been given the power to control people with his voice, is currently being seriously developed as a television property on a basic cable channel. It’s an astonishing, tense, brilliant comic. People are asking “What can be cut?”

Are these the questions to ask? Not, “What was hella fun?” Not, “What can they get away with?” or, “What did you love the most?” but “What is necessary…”?

If you boil down to high concept, you have to still pick a high concept. “Former priest who can use his voice to control others” or “Contemporary Western examining gender roles, war, religion, and pop culture through vampires and angels”? If you boil down to a single strong concept or approach, what have you got? What have you lost?

Preacher ran for sixty-six regular issues, some oneshots, and a miniseries about the Saint of Killers. Was it “tight”? No. Hell no. It rambled. It rambled on purpose. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are hellaciously good ramblers. Preacher, like a few other excellent Vertigo-published series in the Nineties, was a running format for its talent to cover whatever subject seemed to be on their mind that month. Transmetropolitan, Sandman, and Preacher were never intended to be “tight” in that way. They were designed to fit the prescribed page limit of the monthly issue, serialized, and apparently you couldn’t do pubes or say “cunt” in a Vertigo book back then, but that’s about it. The idea that nonsequitors or short thematically-related scenes or adventures shouldn’t be included, that there couldn’t be one-off stories on a topic, comedic or horror divergences from the main plot is not something that seems to have greatly weighed on the talent behind those series, and they are stronger for that.

In general, in narrative entertainment, you have two audiences, the character-first people and the plot-first people. Smaller categories include those who are more concerned with genre, with thematic relevance, and in terms of adaptations, there are people who want an adaptation to use everything in the original in exactly the same way, and those who want the adaptation to pull out or change everything they, personally, did not enjoy in the original work.

Preacher was all over the goddammed place, but it held to certain thematic anchors. A stripped down, plot-focused, get-us-through-fast take on Preacher would almost certainly be not worth the time to even make. Do the boy with a face like a butt and the Sex Detectives make themselves invaluable to the plot? They don’t. And, neither, really, do the serial killer, the secretary, or the crazy pissed-off dude with a letter to NASA. All of those characters, all the scenes and emotions they bring up do contribute, however, to Preacher. Preacher is not its through-line, it is not its in-thirty-words-or-less plot. Arseface only shows up here and there in the comics, but his rise to heroism and finding of love, as well as his inability to see his own absurdity or reckon with his own delusions, the messed up childhood, the frustrating adolescence, all play in tangent and parallel to our protagonist, Jesse Custer, and also, his closest compatriots in the comic, his sometime girlfriend, Tulip, and the junkie goodtiming vampire, Cassidy.

Any take that boils Preacher down to one plot through-line or one high concept is going to be a lesser beast than Preacher as we have it.

Arseface echoes Jesse. Amy Ginderbinder’s life has parallels with both Jesse’s and Tulip’s. Tulip and Jesse are just about two sides to one coin. Preacher is strengthened by witnessing variations on the lives of our main cast, by how these people run into similar situations are come out differently, the way events in one’s life braid together to make patterns, to make an easy trajectory, and the way that, as human beings, be can choose to follow that trajectory or stand up, bite down, and do something better. When we jump back to stories of Jesse’s parents’ youth, or Jesse’s own childhood, his friends, seeing even his friends’ relatives come back up later when one of them falls for Arseface, is this then showing itself to be a comic about people foremost?

Is Preacher a character-based comic?

More often than not, Preacher is character-strong. A wandering serial comic has to have strong characters, attractive, engrossing characters, or the audience gets tired of checking it out release after release. That should translate well to television and a weekly episode schedule, season by season. There’s a certain gravitas in Jesse, in Herr Starr or Featherstone, and emotional veracity, a kind of rawness that is neither solely abrasive or tender, that is money in the bank for serial entertainment. It is the same kind of rawness to be found in the characters of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Breaking Bad, or Cheers. But, Walter White is not what I would call a “character study,” Norm Peterson certainly isn’t an entire whole real man seen clearly in all possible perspectives. Despite the veracity and intrigue this rawness provides, it also lets them be false in an attractive way. This is the falsity of truisms, and this, too, is in play in Preacher and the comic is better for it.

Before we have the backstory of the Saint of Killers, and after, the Saint is mythic veracity. The Saint is big. Bigness himself. He is a special, unending, repeating death. He is murder as a man, and as a patron saint. To try dwelling in the minutia of the Saint’s daily existence, whether he sweats, whether he has flinching moments or how his post-death memory holds up, does he eat, what does he enjoy, where does he get his smokes from, what does he think of 80s music or 30s music when it plays nearby him, does he pee as soon as he needs to or is he the kind of guy who holds it until he has to go, then lets loose… this would detract from our ability to feel him, to enjoy his existence as a character.

Dillon draws a smaller range of faces and bodies than some artists, but he delineates each enough to see them as an individual, and with the openness that lets us put in a lot of our own expectations and understandings. His Saint is a stew of attitude and celebrity homage, but he is purely, too, himself, and something of a costume, an empty coat hanging on a nail on the door, which we can use to fuel a dozen larger than life speculations. The Saint of Killers is as true as a Disney Jim Bowie or Daniel Boone, but we need him that way.

There is no denying that part of Preacher’s appeal is Jesse Custer’s odyssey around the world and across America, Jesse maturing, Jesse dealing with family demons, childhood myths, the better and worst parts of all the things he learned from his daddy, his mama, from Jody and Tulip and the Duke Wayne lookalike that walks invisibly by his side. Jesse is wrong about a lot more than a protagonist in this sort of story is often allowed to be wrong about, but he always has conviction. It is a comic about growth, and that should not be cut out just to turn this adaptation into an evergreen sitcom. Which, is where a number of these “inconsequential to the core story” characters come in handy.

Jesus de Sade, is into drugs, sex, weird parties and total indulgence, and as Jesse wanders through one of his happenings, he’s pretty cool with the whole thing. What is important, is where Jesse does draw the line. The Jesus de Sade interlude is not plot-necessary, but the situation allows the comic to reveal a lot about its primary characters by putting them in awkward situations, situations where they must react, be it to yell, join a party, avert their eyes. What Jesse will enjoy, what he tolerates, what he isn’t into but doesn’t care if others are, and what he actually gets pissed off about are shown to us, in practice, as the situation goes on.

In a flashback scene, we saw Jesse, then a practicing priest, walk into a bar, smashed, harangue the folks present, listing their sins as he deems them, just lashing into people, hurting them. To the venting Jesse, this feels like justice, and to an immature reader, it may also seem such, but it’s not, it’s just letting off steam. Another time, Jesse calls into a talkshow and uses his control powers to make the opposing speakers both declare what they “really want” and has a laugh when everyone wants dick. Hurr hurr. It’s hilarious. The angry misandrist and the loudmouthed misogynist both want dick. At which point, Jesse realizes he actually went to the trouble of calling into the show, of getting so worked up by all this, so frustrated, he’s venting himself on these people, jacking up their lives to vent his own sexual frustration. See, also, most of the times Jesse uses The Voice, or when he sits in judgment of a Nazi war criminal, hangs a horse thief, or any time he gets high-handed over Tulip.

Like a Pearls Before Swine strip, the punchline we see coming isn’t the final word, it’s prep for the final word. Populism in Preacher is to bait you, to reel you in. Sometimes what feels like justice is really just being horny or pissed off. Sometimes a real person is just the bull you want to believe in a person. The characters feel real, feel solid, human, but they’ve got an air of props, too. They are tools for bringing certain ideas or flaws to mind. Plot enlivens characters, characters open up the stories, and ethos anchors events and people. The audience is lured with Preacher, but we must not mistake either the hook or the bait, the floater or the water for being the only necessary element.

Jesse Custer is a great hook. He’s charming, he’s rough, he comes off with such emotive conviction, but beneath it, he’s wounded and worried, and isn’t that all so appealing?

Jesse Custer is a young guy with a ton to prove to himself, a drive to prove himself to others, and a mean streak of vengeance just broiling beneath his surface. That he’s also a compassionate, goofy, sometimes generous human being does not automatically counter those negative or impassioned qualities in his character. Cassidy is a complete mess, an unrepentant vampire, killer, thug, and bastard who introduces them to “friends” who are total monsters, who has a trail of damaged buddies and lovers behind him, and is pretty weasely in general, but Jesse trusts him implicitly more than his sometime girlfriend, Tulip, despite Tulip proving herself regularly and having a higher class of friends, because Cassidy’s his bro, Cassidy is a dude. Tulip, no matter how mature she can be, no matter how fast on the draw, accurate on her sights, deadly and earnest and loyal, is a girl to Jesse. She’s his girl.

But, if it was that comic for sixty-six issues, I wouldn’t bother and it probably would not still be in print. It’s interesting to see how Jody reflects Jodie, how both reflect and open up the character of Jesse, or Tulip, Sheriff Hugo Root or Sheriff Cindy Dagget. It is not the half of Preacher, though. These are fun people to read about, to cheer or to jeer, but if they sat down and just had dinner conversation every week for forty-five commercial-interrupted minutes? Fuck that. If the characters are the hook, the plot the bait, the violence and irreverence the water in which these things float, none of it is going to catch you many fish without the other parts. Preacher is about people whom life has shit on, and how they deal, but it’s a Western, and Westerns are as much about the sunset into which a cowboy and his posse ride as it is about the men on those horses, disappearing over the horizon seeking wealth or justice.

Wherever Preacher is character-strong, it is also infused with ethics, and it is dominated and populated by place.

Some scenes are more integral than others, some characters deserve more prominence, some moments are easily sacrificed to time concerns or to be TV-friendly, but any adaptation must strive to achieve either a similar tone or a similarly strong atmosphere. It must allow fiction, reality, and myth to coexist in the promise of potential. Preacher has a world tour and a walk across America, the first thing the main group does is go from Texas to New York, because those are all, in that big, exploded, too proud sense, the same deal. From Amarillo to Manhattan is trek across the planet. Ireland to America, America to France, from Annville, Texas yesterday to Salvation, Texas today is a world of distance. Today and tomorrow are not the same country. And, the future? The future is out there, in all directions, in all possible ways. The future, like today, begs choice and checks integrity.

Preacher is a tonal comic. More than anything else, it has a sensibility to it, as should any adaptations. This TV show is dead if it can’t stand for itself. It has to walk with a swagger and back it up. If it smells anemic or backed up with bullshit and nothing else, the wolves will be on it, and it’ll be canceled in half a season or sooner if cheaper. Preacher is a great comic to adapt, and a good model to look to. Sustained by its own special existence, its own particular feel, the atmosphere of cigarettes and bourbon and the air gone blue in a haze of bathroom bets, drinks to lost loves, too many hours in the cab of a pickup, and the moon, the stars, and a night of not dying in some glorious mythic August before the real heat has gone out of an open patch of Texas.

Feb 24, 2014

Irrational Love for Damian Wayne

Irrational Love for a DC Character!
Ben Smith

There are many characters I irrationally love, as evidenced by my bonafide affection for Squirrel Girl. However, this particular character I’m going to discuss today is probably somewhat more rational than those other irrational loves. He may or may not have ended his run more beloved than not. If so, consider it irrational in the sense that I’m a Marvel fan that is actually going to write something in appreciation of a DC character (and a Grant Morrison one at that!). Today I’m going to talk about my affection for Damian Wayne, easily the most interesting Robin in Batman history.

Most of you that read my drivel on an ongoing and reoccurring basis, know that I have two young sons. So it’s not any mystery to say that my connection to the character of Damian, no matter how irrational it may or may not be, has very much to do with me seeing him as the damaged little boy that he is. I can understand him in ways that maybe other readers can’t, or don’t bother to. Young boys, no matter how much you love them, can be frustrating sometimes, or annoying, or rebellious. They’re boys. Add on to that, Damian was trained and manipulated by a crazy woman to be an assassin, a heartless killer. He was pretty much abused from the moment he was hatched, and he just doesn’t know any better.

But he learned, and he grew, and that’s what makes me love him so much.

My favorite Damian stories came in the New 52 Batman and Robin series by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason. Damian had taken over the role of Robin following the “death” of Bruce Wayne, while Dick Grayson became his Batman. After a rough start, Damian came to respect and trust Dick Grayson, but then his father eventually returned.

We see in this series the adjustment period that Damian and Bruce both have to go through. Damian has to deal with Bruce’s more authoritarian style of crime-fighting and mentorship, as opposed to Dick Grayson who is much less grim and a lot more patient.

Meanwhile, Bruce sees Damian as another kind of problem that needs fixing, with Alfred having to occasionally remind him that he’s just a boy, not a piece of equipment.

So, we have a father that doesn’t easily give his approval, and a son that desperately needs some, no matter what he says otherwise.

Which doesn’t always make for a healthy situation.

Damian, once again, disobeys orders to try and handle a conflict against the son of Henri Ducard, going by the name Nobody, all by himself. As Batman races to save his son from torture at the hands of Nobody, I could feel the anguish and immediacy in the moment. There’s absolutely no way I could handle having to listen to my son being hurt without being able to do something about it.

Batman saves Damian, but not before his son makes a regrettable mistake.

As Batman carries him away, Damian apologizes to Batman for letting him down.

Even more heart-rending was the conversation that takes place later. Damian finally expresses his true feelings for his father, and how much he looks up to him.

While Bruce finally relaxes the Batman façade long enough to be a father.

“Don’t give up on me” is the type of thing that will get to me every single time.

Damian would go on to learn how to be a better teammate, a better son, a better hero. While all the time still maintaining that rebellious edge that made him the best Robin.

The relationship he had with Dick Grayson, was one I especially loved seeing explored. Dick seemed to get him better than anyone else, and had the easiest time relating to him.

This moment, in particular, was especially touching, just moments before Damian fell in battle.

The subsequent issues dealing with the Bat-family’s loss and anguish over the death of Damian are almost too affecting for me to cover. They hit me in that one sweet spot of my heart that still feels emotions, and the emotions are strong.

A lot of people might look down on another person that has a particularly strong connection to fiction. Whether it be comic books, or Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Star Trek, fans are often made fun of for being so attached to something that isn’t even real. But while the stories themselves might not be real (or even realistic) the emotions they can inspire are very much are real, and that’s what makes a fan a fan. That’s what makes a story about a man wearing a bat costume, and his relationship with his genetically engineered and artificially aged son, something that I can write about how it affected me emotionally with the upmost seriousness.

I feel sorry for anyone that can’t find something that they’re passionate about like that. They can be grown-ups all they want, I’ll be over here reading comics and enjoying myself.

And you can read the saga of Damian Wayne here:

Feb 23, 2014

Artists in Weird Places: Carl Barks' Happy Hound/Droopy

In Artists in Weird Places, we'll look at times when artists have stepped out of their comfort zone to do something different. Click here for the archive!

Carl Barks, known for most of his life as "The Good Duck Artist," is, of course, known best for his work on Donald Duck. Most notably, he created Uncle Scrooge. He's one of the best and most important comic book artists of all time.

So I was genuinely surprised to see that Barks did some work on the perpetually melancholy dog, Droopy, for Our Gang Comics back in the day. What's more, this was when Droopy was called "Happy Hound," and he was brown.

So that was also surprising to me: that he was ever anything other than a white dog named Droopy who stood on his hind legs. (Happy Hound seems able to do so, but spends a lot of time on all fours.)

You can read a full Barks Happy Hound story here.
Got a suggestion for Artists in Weird Places? Email it to comicscube@gmail.com!

Feb 20, 2014

Infinite Crisis: Jim Lee vs. George Perez

Infinite Crisis: George Perez vs. Jim Lee
Cover Comparison
by Duy

Infinite Crisis in 2005 got me back into collecting mainstream comics. As I've mentioned countless times, I love the concept of a multiverse and I was intrigued by the lead-in miniseries like Villains United. While the main series itself was uneven, I still enjoyed it a lot and I felt like I got my money's worth. Now each issue shipped with two covers, one drawn by Jim Lee and one drawn by George Perez. There was a 50/50 split, so I don't think either one counted as a "main" cover or a "variant" cover.

Now I'm me, so I got the Perez covers for every issue, since he's my favorite artist of all time and I really have never liked Jim Lee's work. But that's not what Cover Comparison is all about! Cover Comparison is all about asking two questions!

1.) Provided that I saw them in the shop at the exact same time when I was a kid (let's say when I was six for the sake of argument), with no context other than what I know of the characters through the general consciousness at the time, and I had never bought a comic before, which one of the two would I buy?

2.) From my current standpoint, setting aside all biases to the best of my ability, which cover do I think is better drawn?

So let's get started!

Which would I have bought as a kid? There is nothing about the Perez cover that doesn't work for me. It's a striking image that would have immediately caught my attention at a shop and it's got tons of people. And to add to that, the entire design just looks cool.  Jim's is just a shot of the Trinity with guys I may or may not recognize in the background.

Which is better drawn? Superman looks like he needs to drop a deuce on Jim's cover, so Perez wins this one.


Which would I have bought as a kid? As a kid, Jim's cover would grab me on account of the two Superman figures. George's might win, if it caught my eye, but that's a close call so I'm giving it to Jim.

Which is better drawn? Aside from Power Girl, the rest of Jim's cover is pretty badly drawn. Superboy looks like a Superman who got shrunk (teenagers aren't little adults). Alex has the basic Jim Lee pose that I just don't get. Who stands like that? And Superman and Lois — I just think Jim has never been great at interacting figures, and that's an example of it. Meanwhile, there really isn't anything in Perez's cover that isn't well drawn. The only knock against it is it's not as eye-catching as Jim's, but even then, that particular gap isn't so wide as to not make up for the generally better draftsmanship.


Which would I have bought as a kid? Wonder Woman is fighting a bunch of random robot-looking things and getting overwhelmed. Jim's cover has Batman in cool shadows talking to an old Superman and an odd-looking Robin, and Catwoman's there too with some baby. Jim's wins.

Which is better drawn? Jim's cover concept is so strong that I actually almost bought that cover, but aside from Batman and maybe Superman (I hate that chest-out pose Jim goes to), I think it's a compositional mess. Are the background figures kneeling or something? Are there stairs there? It would have been just as strong an image if Batman were talking to Kal-L. Meanwhile, George's cover is an aesthetically pleasing, balanced, and well-composed image with a clear flow of action. So George wins this one.


Which would I have bought as a kid? The sheer chaos of George's cover would have gotten me to buy it, and there are actually supposed to be big hands surrounding the white area that would have added to it so that would have helped (I can't find a logo-free copy), if Jim's cover had anything other than Superboy fighting with a dude in a Superboy T-shirt, with Krypto on it, so Jim's.

Which is better drawn? Hey look, a Jim Lee cover where I can buy that the various elements are interacting and I can't really pick apart the composition and the anatomy. Good job! Jim's is a more eye-catching, more dynamic cover.


Which would I have bought as a kid? Is this a joke? George's.

Which is better drawn? George's would win this one even if all Jim's had were the foreground elements, which are actually drawn pretty well. But what kills Jim's cover is those two Wonder Women. I remember when this came out, and there was speculation as to who the other Wonder Woman was — and it was old Golden Age Wonder Woman. As in, old. She's supposed to look old. As it is, I have no clue which one of the two of them is supposed to be which Wonder Woman.


Which would I have bought as a kid? Perez's cover is certainly interesting, but it's that kind of cover where you probably need to kind of know what's going on before you settle on buying it. Jim's cover has a weird-looking Superman in some sort of armor and you know something's about to go down.

Which is better drawn? Here's a time a Jim Lee pose actually works for me, but what really does it is the shadow work and the lighting. Jim's.


Which would I have bought as a kid? This one would have been a tossup, because Jim's has a nice focal point with three Superman figures, but George's looks so chaotic, but the kind of chaos that made me fall in love with George in the first place, where you can follow everything that's going on easily. I guess George's cover wins, because that's the kind of thing that made me a fan in the first place.

Which is better drawn? This is also a tossup, since this is one of the best covers Jim's done, with the perspective and the focal point and everything, but I will have to give it to George because he's able to maintain that compositional balance anyway. One thing against Jim's, for me, is that when you put the big threat in the middle, well, the big threat becomes really tiny. George's here, by a hair, but this was the closest matchup on both ends.

And the Final Score Is...

Looks like Jim would have won young Cube over 4-3 back in the day, partly because his cover concepts are just stronger and appeal more to the casual fan demographic. Perez wins the technical superiority category 5-2, which isn't really a surprise because I think even Jim would admit he's the better artist. (George is one of Jim's main influences.)

One thing about these covers that came to mind is how different covers are now from when I was a kid. Because things are sold in comic shops and solicitations exist, you kind of know what's going on inside a comic before you ever see the comic, and a cover really just has to look cool. But back in the day, a cover had to catch your eye. Across the room, if you saw it, you had to notice it. It had to sell you on the comic, whereas today, a reader would see it ahead of time and make up his mind about whether or not to buy the comic. This change leads to a difference in how comics themselves are produced and how certain information is privileged on the covers.

It does seem though that they tried trading the more eye-catching cover concepts with each other, except maybe for the first and last issues. I like the last issue divide the more because there really are two main plotlines in there and they basically went "All right, you take this and I'll take this."

Got covers you'd like me to compare? Send 'em to comicscube@gmail.com!

You can read Infinite Crisis by purchasing the collections:

Feb 19, 2014

Techniques and Tricks: The Foreground Polyptych

Welcome to another edition of Comics Techniques and Tricks, in which we showcase techniques that only comics can do! Click here for the archive!

So a polyptych is when you have a figure moving across a continuous background. It's the comics equivalent of the film technique of panning across a scene. Here's an example from Frank King's Gasoline Alley.

What happens when the foreground element is the one that anchors the sequence? This is what I call the "foreground polyptych," and it's one that I first encountered in MAD About the 50s, the best-of collection of 50s MAD stuff, mostly with Harvey Kurtzman behind the wheel. Here's an example from "Mole," from Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD #2.

Here's one that works under the same principle, although it's clearly taking more liberties, from "Shermlock Shomes," from the 7th issue.

I haven't really seen much of this technique in wide use, but I saw it recently in Daredevil #28, drawn by Javier Rodriguez.

I think it's a cool effect. It doesn't even really take much in the way of visual cues to work with — that Shermlock Shomes example retains nothing in between the three panels but the main characters. Even their mode of transportation changes each time! There's a tacit understanding between reader and author that they're following a continuous narrative, to the point that the creator can take advantage of it and change things without much of a disruption in flow.

Plus, it's awesome! I love this technique. If it happened in animation, it'd be a little jarring. Over here, it's seamless. It just screams "comics"!

Got a comics trick or technique you want featured? Email me at comicscube@gmail.com!

Feb 17, 2014

Batgirl, Girl Detective: Charmingly Ridiculous!

Batgirl, Girl Detective: Charmingly Ridiculous!
Ben Smith

To the surprise of my family and close friends, I’ve been on a bit of a Batman reading kick in recent weeks. Having never read much of the seminal Neal Adams drawn issues from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I embarked upon a quest to acquire and consume those legendary issues. What I found was something much different than I expected.

The Neal Adams lead stories were good enough, probably high quality for the time, and I understand their place in the history of Batman, returning the character to his dark roots after a period of high camp running alongside the ‘60s TV show.

No, what I found myself enjoying much more were the backup stories in the issues of Detective Comics from that time. The Robin solo stories were entertaining enough, with their attempts to be relevant, but it was the Batgirl issues that provided the right level of zaniness and madcap mayhem.

My favorite Batgirl story begins in Detective Comics #396, written by Frank Robbins, with Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson on art.

The tale begins with Barbara Gordon, having a nightmare about being attacked by the brutal Orchid-Killer that she had been reading about in the newspaper. The mysterious killer had been targeting and killing red-haired females, leaving a crushed orchid behind at the scenes. The next day, Babs is at her job at the Gotham Library, when she notices a computer card sticking out of a returned copy of “The Femme Mystique” book.

Shockingly, it’s the computer dating card of the Orchid-Killer’s last known victim, Jennifer Linford. She looks up the last person to check out the book, Darren Tomkins. A passage about the vulnerability of “plain-jane” women was underlined, suggesting that it might have been the killer doing some research. Barbara thinks to herself, “plain-janes, just the type to try and land a man through a computer dating service!”

(There’s absolutely no way DC could publish a comic with this in it today without taking a lot of heat.)

Babs tracks Tomkins to his last known address, but she’s too late, he’s already moved out. For some reason, she decides to immediately rent the place herself.

Later, at the offices of Programmed-Dating Quiz Incorporated, Batgirl tries to get information about Tomkins. Unfortunately, they are not willing or able to provide her with any information on their client.
Barbara decides to fill out a computer card herself, in an attempt to lure the killer to her. As she drops the card into the mailbox, a gentleman by the name of Jason comes a callin’. He makes a pass at her, but she shuts him down, having to keep herself free for “a more deadly date.”

I love when people use the word “mating” in all seriousness. It never fails to make me giggle.

A few days later, she gets a notice that a date with a Mr. Max Tournov has been arranged for her. The date is arranged for later that night. Barbara puts together her “homely” disguise. Inspiring a slew of future teen comedy movies, her disguise consists of her pulling up her hair, and putting on glasses. (The ongoing joke from Not Another Teen Movie, which stars the young Captain America himself, Chris Evans comes immediately to mind.)

Max arrives, but with no orchid. She thinks to herself “no wonder he needs a computer to find dates!” The date is a bust, and Babs takes a second to drop her computer card back in the mail on the way home. Suddenly, Max pulls out an orchid after all, and moves in for a smooch. Barbara’s Batgirl instincts kick in, and she responds by flipping him over right on his ass.

Max screams “you’re like all the others,” and then crushes the orchid and throws it in the trash, saying that’s where she belongs.

Unable to determine if he had acted out in frustration at a denied goodnight kiss, or if it was the rage of a madman, Barbara changes into Batgirl to follow him home. She loses sight of him after he seemingly disappears. Frantically moving to find him, a man’s hand reaches out from an alley and grabs her from behind.

The first part of the story ends there, and is continued in the very next issue, Detective Comics #397, The Hollow Man, again by Robbins, Kane, and Anderson.

The mysterious attacker has ahold of Batgirl by her face, from behind. She manages to flip him overhead and onto his back.

Expecting to see Max when he returns to his feet, Batgirl is surprised to see a man she does not recognize.

He backhands her into unconsciousness, sending her falling to the ground of the alleyway. An indeterminate time later, she’s awakened by a gentle patting of her face. It’s Max.

He claims to have chased away her attacker, and Batgirl bounds away, having decided she was wrong about Max after all.

Two nights later, Barbara prepares her “homely” disguise as she awaits the arrival of her second computer date. John Milman arrives, orchid in hand. According to Babs, he’s “even uglier than Max!”

Again, no way this gets published now.

After an uneventful date, Milman walks her back to her brownstone (ah, so that’s why she rented that place). Barbara tries to pleasantly end the evening, but Milman flies into a rage, accusing her of thinking he’s too ugly.
He crushes the orchid in his hand, saying “you’re all fragile blossoms – too precious to touch!” Barbara is convinced he is the real killer, which means her attacker from the alley must have been just a regular mugger.

Milman moves toward her, crazy hands outstretched. Before she can respond with her Batgirl skills, Jason comes to her rescue.Thanks to Jason’s “darned trick-knee,” Milman is able to shake him off and escape.

Someone cursing their darned trick-knee is not anything I would expect would come from someone under the age of 70.

Jason followed Barbara and Milman from the movie, out of jealousy. Babs ditches the “adorable, jealous idiot” as soon as she can, so she can follow Milman as Batgirl.

Batgirl uses her amazing deductive skills to look up Milman’s computer address. Girl detective! She busts in through the window, kicking down the man inside.

She’s shocked to discover the handsome man that had attacked her in the alley, and his two masks. A mask of the “ugly” John Milman, and a mask of the “homely” Max Tournov. All three of them had been the same man, the Orchid-Killer.

After he wakes, Batgirl questions him for motive, why would he kill all those harmless redheads, especially when he’s so handsome. Turns out, he considered his looks to be a curse, masking the real person inside. Conversely, he targeted homely women, wanting to release their inner beauty. But to his chagrin, they were just as hollow and shallow inside as anyone else, so he killed them.

Batgirl proclaims him the Hollow Man, finding the ugliness in everything, before she hauls him off to jail. The end.

I’m really surprised this story isn’t more well known for singlehandedly launching an entire genre of films. The supposedly “homely” girl with glasses, that turns smoking hot once she takes them off and lets her hair down. John Hughes read a lot of Detective Comics, I’d be willing to bet.

I originally read the second part of this story first, which may have added to my appreciation of it a little more. I wasn’t sure what the heck was going on. Batgirl was going on computer dates, a guy with a trick-knee shows up out of nowhere, Barbara is wearing glasses in disguise, and then there’s this dude with masks killing redheads. Just the kind of insanity that was bound to excite me to the point I had to share it.

The other backup stories from the time offered the same kind of wackiness. One Robin story in particular sees him depressed after breaking up a fight in the school cafeteria, by mistakingly assuming the bigger guy was the instigator of the conflict. The whole situation leaves him questioning his detective abilities, and even if a grownup should be going by the name Robin. It was charmingly ridiculous.

Hopefully I’ve sparked a flame in some of you to track down some more stories featuring comic’s resident sexy librarian. If you’re into high grade silliness and brilliant Gil Kane art, I highly recommend that you do.

Next time, something else!