Sep 30, 2017

The Importance of Being Frank (Miller), by Alan Moore

So I recently bought the three volumes of Frank Miller's legendary Daredevil run. I read the Elektra portion nearly 15 years ago and was underwhelmed, but I've grown an appreciation for Miller since and am loving this go-round. I wanted to take some time to talk about Miller's pacing and technique, when I remembered that back in 1983, in the pages of Daredevils #1, published by Marvel UK, someone else already did it. And you'd probably listen to him more than you'd listen to me. So here's...

The Importance of Being Frank
by Alan Moore
First published in Daredevils #1, 1983
transcribed by Duy

Listen, don't you kids try and talk to me about comics! I've been reading the damn things for the past twenty two years and I'm bitter, jaded and cynical in terminal proportions. I was there back in 1961 when Marvel comics began their grand experiment in attempting to endow two-dimensional superheroes with believable personality quirks and genuine human anxieties. I was there a few years later when the noble enterprise had sunken back into the same weary, formularised rut and it seemed that in order to become a superhuman you had to have a bad leg, a dicky ticker or a maiden aunt with chronic varicose veins.

I was there when Jim Steranko started filling the pages of Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with dizzying exploded layouts where time could slow down to a crawl by means of breaking an action down into lots of tiny frames, or where the trajectory of a character's leap could be splintered into a sequence of flowing kinetic images. I was there when Neal Adams took over on the art chores on D.C.'s Deadman in Strange Adventures, turning the strip in the process into a harsh and brutal fantasy classic where every panel exuded a palpable grimness. I was cheering from the front stalls on the opening nights of Goodwin and Simonson's Manhunter of Jim Starlin's ingeniously paranoid Warclock, of Barry Smith's sumptuous Art Nouveau interpretation of Conan.

I was also there when all of these strips fell beneath the scythe of plummeting sales and their creators wandered off, with a few notable exceptions, to devote their energies to the production of lavish and self-indulgent portfolios that were affordable only to the Getty's Rothschilds and Lord Kagan's of this world. All of which served to prove that ancient, inexorable maxim which cruelly states that "Good stuff doesn't last because good stuff doesn't sell."

So listen. Don't talk to me about comics. It's too painful.

Now, given the fact that I'm old, cranky and unresonable it shouldn't be surprising that I greeted the arrival of Frank Miller with dour pessimism and little enthusiasm for his future within the comics medium. I remember an evening over at Steve Moore's place where we were both thumbing through a stack of recent Daredevils and growing uncharacteristically excited about the low-key drama of the storytelling, the understated plausibility of the characterisation. Suddenly, in the midst of this pathetic adolescent euphoria I stopped dead.

"I dunno what we're getting worked up about the stuff for. Within a couple of years this Miller guy's going to have an ego the size of Wembley and drift off to draw coffee-table extravaganzas full of moody barbarians with naked women surgically grafted to their legs."

A couple of years later I was introduced to Frank Miller while we were both guests at the '82 Comicano convention, and it grieves me to report that he is one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet, that his ego is constrained to entirely manageable proportions and that from all indications he seems to intend to remain in the comic field until his eyesight goes the same way as that of the character he is most frequently associated with. You live and learn, lads. You live and learn.

Now, it strikes me at this point in my narrative that there may well be those amongst you whose first exposure to the extraordinary abilities of Mr. Miller is the issue of The Daredevils that you are currently grasping in your clammy paws. There may be those amongst you who are wondering, quite justifiably, what all the fuss is about. Well, gather round and we'll make the picture go all misty around the edges while I take you back to the dim and distant days of 1979, and to my first encounter with Frank Miller and the sordid elegance that he has brought to Daredevil.

In 1979, nearly twenty years after I first picked up a copy of Flash comics at the age of seven, my once-fanatical comic buying had dwindled to the merest trickle. Every month both D.C. and Marvel seemed content to regurgitate the same stale plot devices and insipid characterization that had been their trademark for the previous ten years. Spiderman would break up with his girlfriend due to a misunderstanding. The Rhino would break out of Ryker's Island penitentiary and go on a rampage simply because it was a Thursday night and there wasn't anything else to do.

For my own part I tended to turn my back upon the situation and content myself with either 2000 AD or the occasional underground comic, where it at least seemed that people were attempting to break out of the mould and do something different, something that would contribute towards realizing the enormous potential of the comics.

Why the hell I bothered to pick up a copy of Daredevil 158 is something which continues to mystify me up until this present day.

The cover wasn't anything special. The story inside, by Roger McKenzie didn't seem to be a massive step forward for the comic book industry, although to be fair it did have its moments of tensiona nd drama. The artwork itself was pretty ordinary... except that it did have these little touches here and there. There was a scene where the Unholy three carried a helpless Matt Murdock over the rooftops of New York, in which somehow the eerie and unnatural lighting of Wally Wood was combined with the physical presence of budding Neal Adams. There was a spectral final sequence in a graveyard with Death Stalker leaping through a tombstone... there was definitely something there. The man could without a doubt tell a story, albeit by fairly conventional means. I made a vague subconscious point to pick up the next issue...

The next few issues came and went, and with each one there was a notable increasing sense of confidence about the art. The layouts seemed to be getting slightly more daring too... in the Doctor Octopus episode in issue 165 there were sometimes as many as eleven or twelve frames on a single page, arranged so as to give the maximum dramatic impact to each scene. In one frame mobsters would be shooting pool, their cues sending balls skittering across the green baize. In the next, a single red glove would reach out of the darkness, one finger extended to halt the ball in mid motion. Sadly, the writer seemed to have taken the opportunity of the extra frames to cram in as much dialogue as possible, even during those sequences where it wasn't really necessary. But what the hell... it was getting there.

In one frame mobsters would be shooting pool, their cues sending balls skittering across the green baize. In the next, a single red glove would reach out of the darkness, one finger extended to halt the ball in mid motion.

Also, to the discerning eye, there were a number of interesting artistic influences working their way out through the pages of this new, revitalised Daredevil. A sequence in D.D. 164, where, in a retelling of his original story, Daredevil pursues a terrified racketeer through a subway, bore a striking resemblance to a scene from a story entitled 'Master Race' drawn for the old E.C. comics line by comic strip pioneer Bernie Krigstein. In the background of certain panels which showed Daredevil racing over the rooftops of a gritty and seamy New York, billboards would be partly visible bearing the words "The Spirit"... a reference to Will Eisner's habit of incorporating the logo of his Spirit strips into some element of his splash-page design. The logo would appear on a torn poster crudely pasted to a brickwall.. or even on a billboard.

Daredevil 164, 1980. By Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller
"Master Race," from Impact #1, 1955. By Bernie Krigstein

It became obvious, both by means of these in-joke asides and also by Miller's own method of telling a story in pictures that here was someone who had learned at the feet of impeccable masters. There was a touch of Eisner, a tough of Krigstein, a smattering of Steranko... but more and more as the series progressed there was a generous helping of pure Frank Miller.

In issue 164, for example, we are treated to a brief but powerful piece of narrative when reporter Ben Urich reveals Daredevil's secret identity by means of a photograph which he holds up and asks the blind hero to describe. In six tiny, narrow frames we see Daredevil turn first one way and then the other as if in an attempt to escape having to admit that he can not see the picture, which remains unmoving and unwavering in the foreground throughout the entire six frame sequence. Eventually, Daredevil is forced to turn and face it, admitting his blindness. Through the way in which Miller arranges the shows we are made to feel the anguish of Daredevil's decision in a manner which makes the speech balloons almost redundant.

Through the way in which Miller arranges the shows we are made to feel the anguish of Daredevil's decision.

Again, in issue 164, we are allowed to see Miller's usage of symbolism for dramatic effect. There is a frame during the flashback sequence that takes up most of the book in which Matt Murdock's father is ensnared by a racketeer known as the Fixer in a shady deal which will ultimately lead to his death. As the Fixer holds out the fatal contract for Murdoc Senior's signature we see the weary and defeated face of the down and out boxer encircled by the smoke rings from the fat mobster's cigar, just as he himself has been encircled and outflanked by the Fixer's oily, persuasive argument. Of course, in the world of cinema this sort of stuff is old hat, (There's a scene in Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" where the hero and his treacherous commanding officer walk casually around a large office. The twising, maze-like pattern of the floor tiles which their steps seem to follow is analogous to the labrynth of justifications and rationalizations that the junior officer is becoming ensnared in) but in the world of comics there are precious few who pull these sort of stunts without looking either clumsy or mannered. This Frank Miller was obviously becoming someone to watch.

With issue 168 the reason why became readily apparent. It was with this issue that Miller took over the writing of Daredevil, making it the only Marvel title in some while to have a single individual at the creative helm rather than the usual artist/writer collaboration.

Now, as anyone will tell you, those happy instances where writer and artist are combined in one person have yielded some of the most exemplary pieces of work that the medium has yet produced... Harvey Kurtzman's E.C. war stories, Will Eisner's Spirit stories, Art Spiegelman's horrific and touching Maus serial, all of these benefit from not being the product of a writer who wants to cram in as much pretty writing as possible, teamed with an artist who is equally intent upon filling every available inch of page with exquisitely detailed rendering. At the hands of an artist/writer the medium achieves a kind of grace and balance seldom achieved by other means.

It is also a sort of an acid test.

After all, a writer and artist working in collaboration with each other have always got someone else to blame if the strip doesn't work. Starting with issue 168, Miller would have no-one but himself to blame if the series dive bombed.

It didn't. It flourished. Over the space of a very few issues Miller's writing became as self-assured as his artwork, and, as his confidence increased we began to see more and more daring graphic storytelling devices creeping into the pages of Daredevil.

Beyond that, the stories were damned good fun even if you didn't happen to be a pseudo-intellectual comic's critic like myself.

In 169 we were allowed to see the world through the eyes of a psychotic killer whose diseased brain is transforming everyone that he sees into an image of the red-garbed vigilante who is his greatest enemy. In 171 we watch the gargantuan Kingpin of Crime, dragging himself, bruised and bloodied, from a tangle of collapsed girders in the wake of an explosion that has apparently claimed the life of his wife, Vanessa. We close in implacably upon his barely-conscious face, blood dribbling from nose and lips, as inch by inch he hauls himself from the rubble. Suddenly his eyes open and we see the look of dumb disbelief dawning in them as the realization of his wife's death floods into his battered consciousness. His face fills the frame, those awful stricken eyes making it look suddenly lost and childlike as he whispers her name.

In the five brief panels that make up this sequence the Kingpin is transformed in Miller's capable hands from the podgy, pompous buffoon of the early Spiderman appearances into a man who has buried his humanity under a mountain of iron resolve as vast as his physical body...

This treatment of the Kingpin is a fine example of Miller's approach to characterization as a whole, whether it be with a creation of his own, like the female mercenary killer Elektra, or with some other writer's creation like J. Jonah Jameson, the Kingpin, or Daredevil himself.

Naturally, I could go on and on describing my favourite episodes at tedious length. After all, there are a hell of a lot of them. But all things considered I'd probably end up repeating myself and you'll be seeing these particular masterpieces for yourself in the months to come, anyway.

I think it's preferable that I should try and isolate some of the elements of Miller's technique and try to define exactly what it is that makes him such an original and influential figure, on today's comics landscape.

Firstly as a writer, I admire Miller's approach to characterization almost more than any other single factor. Prior to MIller the traditional Marvel comics approach to characterization had been fairly simple and largely uneffective. Stone-faced characters would perform fistfights and love scenes with the same air of general indifference while huge thought balloons floated above their heads informing us of the turbulent emotions that they were, in fact, experiencing.

This is a clumsy method for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it looks silly. The range of facial expression available to a distressing number of artists is very often limited to "mouth open" or "mouth closed". Simply telling us that these characters are going through major identity crises isn't really adequate. Not when the characters concerned show all the passion, response, and feeling of a catatonically withdrawn pomegranate.

Secondly, it's unnatural. In real life, meeting someone for the first time you're forced to reach an opinion of their personalities on the basis of the things they say and the things they do. You don't have handy thought balloons hovering above their heads informing you that in five minutes they intend to either invite you home for lunch or steal your wallet. You don't have conveniently suspended caption boxes explaining that they're only behaving like a complete jerk because of the emotional upset caused by the Green Goblin having fed their girlfriend into a liquidiser.

In Miller's work, thought balloons and captions have become less and less a part of his characterization technique. All we know of what's going on inside his character's minds is what we can deduce from a raised eyebrow, a quirk of the lip or a narrowing of the eyes. Just like in real life. (It's perhaps worth noting that Miller's creation Elektra, who most comic fans seem to love for her well-defined character as much as her 'less-is-more' approach to costumery, has never utilised thought balloons to expound upon her motivations. Thus, much of her characterization is in the reader's mind. Perhaps that's exactly why it's so effective.)

The second aspect of Miller's work that deserves comment, that aspect which makes his stories such a fluid joy to read, is his flawless and precise sense of timing.

He seems to compose his stories with a musician's sense of rhythm and metre, often interrupting the staccato drama with a sudden oddly-shaped or silent frame that strikes a brief pause, a single downbeat before the story spirals off again in some new direction.

In issue 172 Miller introduces a startlingly effective device which both serves to smoothly change the scene and also to strike the necessary downbeat. By using tall panels running from top to bottom of the page and featuring some aspect of New York's variable cityscape, Miller subtly sets the mood for the scene which is to follow and also gives the reader the curiously involving sensation that he is being allowed to eavesdrop upon key events within the story.

Then there is Miller's eclecticism to consider. This, in itself, is nothing new. indeed, the most successful artists within the medium have usually been those who allowed a wie range of outside influences to shape their styles. With Eisner it was the cinematic offerings of people like Orson Welles. With Steranko it was the pop-art and psychelia in vogue amongst the West Coast poster artists of the mid sixties. With Barry Smith it was the Symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites. All of the above influences have proven popular and durable, and most of the new artists entering the field have selected some combination of them with which to enhance their fledgling styles.

While Miller is in many respects in the same category, he at least has chosen a much more extensive and yet still largely untapped vein of influence... that of the Japanese comic art tradition.

The way in which the Japanese approach the problem of comic storytelling is subtly different from our own occidental methods. For one thing, you have to read all the books starting from the back and working forwards reading from right to left across the page. That aside, there are less obvious touches. Small monochrome frames will be used to suspend time entirely, freezing the instant as a rain of deadly arrows streak through the air. long silent sequences will be employed to build a tension that finally erupts in a paradoxically cold and controlled display of violence.

From the Japanese strip Baby Carriage and Wolf (Lone Wolf and Cub),
Frank Miller's favourite strip.

In the Japanese strip Baby Carriage and Wolf (Duy here. I think there was a translation miscue back in 1983. Moore was referring to the manga that would become famous in the Western world as Lone Wolf and Cub.), which Miller cheerfully admits is his favourite comic strip in the entire world, there is a sequence where the adult hero, an impeccable superswordsman usually referred to as The Lone Wolf who pushes his infant son around Japan in a baby carriage, is confronted by a small army of sinister figures armed with blowpipes. The scene detailing their approach is remarkable in the tension that it conveys.

First we see their long and eerie shadows stretching towards us across a pathway as they march along in single file, silently and ominously. Next we see their feet, and from the way that they are all advancing in step we get the idea of their unstoppable, perfectly regimented progress. The next shot shows their mid sections, the full figures decapitated by the frame border. We get to see the deadly blowpipes that they are carrying... or rather we see the weird, basketball like helmets that conceal their faces, making them even more the relentless and faceless harbingers of terrible death.

Comparing sequences like this with some of the ones in Miller's recent Wolverine series, produced in collaboration with Chris Claremont, we can see a similarity of pacing, mood and atmosphere with Miller somehow translating the more esoteric elements of Oriental storytelling for the eyes of a western audience.

Finally then related to this eclecticism in Miller's work, we've got the element which in my opinion is probably the single most important factor in his make-up, that being the continued eagerness to experiment and break new ground, which keeps his work fresh and exciting, rather than allowing it to stagnate on some plateau of imagined excellence.

This latter route is one which a number of people seem to have opted for in the past, and, whilst they may still be occasionally venerated within some fanzine retrospective of their illustrious careers, you'll notice they don't actually seem to be doing much these days.

if Frank Miller can keep moving forward, both through the agency of his new maxi-series for D.C. comics and through whichever other areas he chooses to apply his talents to, then I think we may be in for some rare treats in the years to come.

Of course, if in three years time no trace remains of Mr. miller beyond a couple of luxurious Good Girl Art portfolios featuring Elektra and The Black Widow, then may I keep my critical options open by being the first to say "I told you so"?

Here's the article as it originally appeared in Daredevils #1, 1983, which I leeched off of 4ColorHeroes: The Alan Moore store 15 years ago. The store's defunct now, though.

And here's some more goodies:

Sep 26, 2017

The 80s Cartoon Character Voice Championships, Round 1

You may be asking yourself several questions, and one of those questions might be, how did googling “naked Cheetara” bring me here?  I can’t answer that question for you friend, in much the same way I can’t help you with the deep psychological problems that you obviously have.  (Seriously, never google naked Cheetara.)

The 80s Cartoon Character Voice Championships, Round 1
Ben Smith

However, I can answer any questions you may have about what exactly the CCVC might be (that’s certainly the abbreviation it will go by once this catches on and sweeps the nation).  The cartoon character voice championship is a bracketed tournament in which I will determine the contestants and the overall winner.  Authoritarian control is the rule of the day.

Some of you non-sports fans out there might be asking what a bracket is, it’s basically the tournament structure you would see in something like the Karate Kid movie.  Two contestants face-off head-to-head, and the winner advances to the next round against the winner of a separate matchup.  This continues until one winner is determined.

I’m now three paragraphs in and haven’t even explained what the competition is about.  If you find that unusual, you’re obviously new to the Back Issue Ben experience.  Quite simply, I am going to determine the actor that produced the most iconic voice performance for any 80s cartoon character.  Now, that’s a lot of characters to consider, so I had to establish some basic filters.  First, this is a male character competition.  There will be no Smurfette here.  A female bracket could be on the way, should demand exist.  Second, the cartoon had to originate in the decade of the 80s, no Scooby Doo or Bugs Bunny.  Third, I did a limited amount of research for this, so if I missed someone, feel free to let us know.  Lastly, the character voice has to be iconic.  The kind of voice you can hear in your head as soon as I mention it.

That’s the story, so let’s get started. 



Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime is the very definition of iconic.  Cullen admitted to basing his performance on John Wayne, which is much more noticeable in the early episodes of that original Transformers cartoon series.  Cullen was able to invoke that strong unshakeable leader so much that he was hired to continue his performance in the live action Transformer movies.

Paul Winchell’s Gargamel conveyed the right amound of menace and seediness you need in a character that spends his life trying to hunt down and eat small blue woodland creatures.  Much like his portrayal of Dick Dastardly in Wacky Races, his voice work just fits with a character that’s scheming and up to no good.  Unfortunately, he’s up against a juggernaut here.



The older I get, the amused I am that Scatman Crothers played a talking robot on an 80s cartoon show.  He’s too cool for the show, and that completely comes through in his depiction of Jazz.  Jazz was the calmest, smoothest character to ever appear in an action-based cartoon.  I can imagine Crothers not knowing what the hell was going on in the script, but his delivery never suffered because of it.  Jazz is one of the most beloved Transformers for a reason, and it’s because of Scatman.

Casey Kasem obviously had the kind of voice that you could earn a living from.  Anybody my age will instantly remember him from his iconic Casey Kasem Top 40 Countdown radio show.  It was a staple of pre on-demand culture.  That kind of distinct voice was bound to find work in animation, and he found his way into most of them.  (The voice actor pool seems to be pretty confined, so most of these guys didn’t have much trouble finding more work.)  However, he’s probably remembered more for Shaggy or his Countdown than he is Cliffjumper.


Starscream’s voice is burned into my brain so deeply that there’s really no possible way he wasn’t going to make the list.  Chris Latta’s characters are so distinct and instantly recognizable, that even as a kid you could always make the connection back to the same guy.  For some, that may be a negative, but not in this case.  His voice is so amazing, and consistent between shows, that I really wonder if it was his regular speaking voice.  Latta was a stand-up comedian, and don’t think I haven’t searched youtube for some grainy video recording of him performing on stage.  I need that in my life.

Hammond as Mumm-Ra is my mandatory nod to the Thundercats franchise, a mostly unspectacular but effective collection of voices.  Everyone that was a kid in the 80s can at least hear “ancient spirits of evil…” in their head as old lady Mumm-Ra made his classic transformation into buff Mumm-Ra.  You could also substitute Lion’O’s “thunder…thunder… Thundercats…” if you wish, it doesn’t really matter because



It’s arguable that Shredder was an iconic voice on that original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, but there’s no way I was going to keep the eventual Uncle Phil off the list.  The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was an important show in the childhood of Back Issue Ben, and it provided me with no small amount of joy when I learned Uncle Phil had also voiced one of the key villains of my childhood.

Krang is the better voice between the two of these.  Krang has the better inspiration, as Fraley has admitted before that he based his performance on a Jewish mother (now you will never be able to unhear it).  Krang is the more entertaining character with arguably a far better visual.  But Uncle Phil wins.  Uncle Phil wins every time.



I’m sure there is probably a voice actor out there with two more iconic performances than Latta, but I can’t think of one of the top of my head.  Not for the 80s.  (Frank Welker by sheer volume of excellence probably can top it somewhere.)  (Cranky Editor Man chimes in to say that Lorenzo Music was both Peter Venkman and Garfield the cat. Speaking of, how fitting was it that when they cast the voice for the Garfield movie, they picked Bill Murray?) Every kid knew who Starscream and Cobra Commander were, and what they sounded like, and that it was the same guy voicing both.  Even if you weren’t that big of a fan, you knew the voice.  That’s iconic.

Ross as Shipwreck, was inexplicably a major character in the G.I. Joe animated series.  Plenty of ninjas to go around, classic leading man types like Duke, Flint, or Stalker.  No, let’s put the guy from the Village People into a leading role.  Ross played him with the perfect amount of smarm and punchability too.  Whatever, I’m just going to be honest.  I only picked Ross because he also voiced Springer, and I needed another opportunity to remind everyone that Ultra Magnus was a far superior Transformers character to the overrated Springer.  No slight to Ross.



I don’t know why, but I was amused to learn that a guy named Oppenheimer voiced Skeletor.  Skeletor is the voice and the character that launched 1000 memes, while He-Man is similarly burned into the brain of any kid that grew up in the 80s.  However, I mostly only remember Erwin for his “power of Greyskull!” tagline.

(Cranky Editor Man's favorite Skeletor line is "I don't like to feel good! I like to feel evil!")



Ducktales was a special cartoon for a lot of young kids in the late 80s, and Young’s performance of Uncle Scrooge provided the perfect amount of strength, smarts, and Scottish.  After all, he’s supposed to be tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties.

Hoffman as Zartan nailed the otherworldly vocal component of a character that changes color in the sun and wears people’s faces convincingly enough to frequently gain access into top secret areas.  Seriously, you think the military would add an extra level of verification at some point.



Frank Welker is arguably the most versatile and accomplished voice actor of all time. (Cranky Editor Man wishes to whack Back Issue Ben upside the head for disrespecting Mel Blanc.) His career spans decades and pretty much every significant animated series ever produced.  All of that is to say that there were a handful of iconic performances to choose from, but I went with Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget over Megatron or Soundwave.  I never got to see much Inspector Gadget for whatever reason.  I don’t think we had Nickelodeon back then, is probably why.  And yet, I still knew that legendary Dr. Claw voice, so full of evil and menace.  His mystique made all the more impressive by never seeing the character’s face.  Only that iconic shot of his metal clawed hand.

On the other end of the spectrum, Don Adams perfectly embodied the voice of a bumbling detective character that stumbled his way to victory on the back of his far more competent niece and her trusty dog Brain.  Don Adams was the perfect choice for the character, and he nailed it perfectly.  But I can’t pick him over Welker, I just can’t.


There you have it boys and girls, the winners of round one of the, I hesitate to say, most important online bracket competition ever created.  Come back next week to see who wins the whole enchilada.

Mmm, enchiladas. 

Sep 21, 2017

Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, the First and Last Years

For Better or For Worse could be so beautifully good, you’d take it for granted. It was a surety, like Peanuts being enjoyable or chocolate generally tasting good. Smarter than Calvin and Hobbes, better characterization than Mary Worth, cooler soap than Crankshaft or Funky Winkerbean. It was just always there. Lynn Johnston would balance the true to life with the truisms, the real people with the imaginary events, and it all seemed right.

That Your Wagon Over There, Ma’am?
Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, the First and Last Years
Travis Hedge Coke

What strikes me, looking a the 1979 strips, is how beautiful they look, how every panel counts, the balance of visuals, the line work. Johnston’s avatar in the comic, Elly, looks amazing, whether dressed to the nines, beleaguered after a day of children, housework, and worry, or panicking with a face full of mask when her husband brings home company with no warning. That’s a woman I could be. That we all can be, whether woman or man, regardless of race or class. She’s such a genuine person, you could find yourself there.

The husband is a broader sketch. He’s a broader sketch than the main character or any of the children. The children are individuals, and so too, is he, but he’s there as something to bounce off, to react to. They’re people.

By 2008, John is a person, too. But, our heroine has become everything. “I look at my flappy arms and my droopy buns, and I say, ‘Yes, this is me!’! This is Meee This is Meee” she sings in one strip, dancing barefoot before standing, tummy sticking out, jowly, and thinks, “It still sucks to be me.” The very next strip, she’s being told that “We’ve earned our lines.” That she was a great mom and is a grandparent now. Then, the series went back to reprinting from the first year again, giving further weight to those old strips, greater gravitas.

2008 For Better or For Worse glows for me, when the new strips’ sense of age and passing reverberate new light on some of the earliest ’79 strips’ anxieties and ideologies. But, the art, too, shifting from the looser, wavy line to the short jaunting strokes and weighted curves of the new stuff, creates a friction that surpasses both. It makes it clear how home ’79 strips are, how comforting and reassuring even with their anxiousness, because of the anxiousness, really. 2008, with paunch and optimism, condescension and  fatalism, is a different beast. It’s not being able to go home again, even if home is in the very next strip and the one the week before where you are.

The magic is lost, but the loss is its own important glamour.

The words, “His doctor thinks it’s depression that makes him so… slow. I do what I can. But I can’t bring back his ability to speak or to dance or to play guitar… His cup is half full. But he thinks it’s empty —”

When someone has to say, “Elvis is not old! Charlie Chaplin is old. Flappers are old —”

When one grandmother says, “The world was on our shoulders,” and the other looks down at her widened thighs and says, “Maybe that’s why we’re shaped like this —”

The comic goes back and forth between strips from both eras, about dishwashing and chores. John, the husband, doing chores in the present, and how Elly, our window and heroine, can’t quite process it, intermixed with strips of her saying men and women should share the household duties to friends, and in private, her husband thanking her for “not telling them the truth.” She even smiles when he says that, and he holds her. It was sharp back then, but given the weight of decades… maybe I should just drift off here.

Elly’s daughter, Elizabeth, has her mother’s old smirk. The smile of someone convincing themselves that they’re smiling. But, Elizabeth has a real smile, too. A genuine smirk. And, it’s climbing up through the artifice for it that strengthens the beauty and intensity of that reality.

The younger daughter, April, never needs that. She’s neither her father nor her mother. But, the love and respect she has for her mom is awesome. She’s smart, she’s responsible. Even more than the little kid characters, April is the endgame. April is the future. Liz is getting a wedding dress, Elly is getting fed up with her husband (and throwing a glove at him in what is a pretty passive-aggressive condemnation), and April is just April. School, friends, family, running errands and most important of all things, she knows when to stay out of the way.

It begins with Elly and John. It ends with Liz and Anthony’s marriage and Elly’s father, Jim’s second wife, Iris, explaining what marriage should mean. There’s a coda and then it’s over. The son barely shows, the final year, despite dominating the first. His story had gone beyond or gone away. And, Liz is Elly at a new angle, a new model of an old reliable. But, April, born only halfway through the whole run, is the bolt that holds the pageantry and sag of the final year aloft.

Sep 19, 2017

Is Spider-Man Still Marvel's Flagship Character?

As human beings, we are always fascinated by the alpha dog.  The person that owns the room through a combination of charisma, skill, or success.  In sports, this manifests itself in endless debates over who is the best player on a team, in the league, or of all time.  In music, this is very clearly represented by the fascination with the lead singer.  The bassist doesn’t often get the interview requests.  There’s a mystique involved with being the lead character on a television show, or a bonafide movie star.  There’s an entire industry built upon following the personal exploits of these people.  In comics, a medium where fictional characters are usually the most important aspects, this phenomenon is represented in the idea of the flagship character.  For a long time, the flagship character for DC comics, and comics as a whole, was Superman.  He was the genesis of the entire genre after all.  For Marvel comics, it has been Spider-Man since the very beginning of the Marvel explosion.  He is the character that best represents the company’s entire approach to storytelling, and he literally represents them on their corporate stationary.  But in recent years, it’s become fair to ask…

Is Spider-Man Still Marvel's Flagship Character?
Ben Smith

The short answer is yes.  So, if that’s all you wanted to know, you could stop reading now, but please don’t.  The long answer is yes, because of the larger multimedia landscape.  Spider-Man still has the most merchandise, is the first and second choice for a new animated series, and has the best video games in the Marvel family.

However, the explosion in popularity of the comic book movie has put this unimpeachable status into doubt.  For whatever reason, movies still retain top status in the entertainment world.  Even with the rise of an on-demand society, and the ever-steady evolution in quality of the television show, a blockbuster movie still carries more weight than anything.  Ironically, it’s because of bad movie business deals that the title of Marvel’s flagship character is in doubt in the first place.  So, let’s break down the pros and cons of each contender.    


The argument for: Wolverine has been steadily making the climb towards Marvel’s most popular character in the comics for several decades.  One of the interesting things about the four characters I’m going to discuss is how they represent opposite ends of the spectrum from each other.  Wolverine is the complete opposite of Spider-Man as a character.  Spider-Man in many depictions represents youth, one of Wolverine’s defining characteristics is that he’s very old.  Spider-Man is steadfastly and vocally against killing, while again, Wolverine’s initial hook was all about how he was willing to kill.   Spider-Man is defined by his mistakes and his real world struggles, Wolverine is the guys that’s been around the block twice and always thinks he knows best, and usually does.

I could go on, but the basic point here is that Wolverine is more appealing to a teenage to young adult audience.  The struggles of Peter Parker works well in a printed visual medium, where the voice of the character is literally your own voice in your own head as you’re reading.  You can relate to him more, because you have to actively internalize him as a fundamental aspect of reading.  So all the mistakes and all the, let’s face it, whining isn’t as aggravating when you’re reading it in your own head.  Wolverine flat out kills people, has knives in his hands, a secret mystery spy background, fights ninjas, is unkillable, I could go on.  He’s basically every masculine trope thrown into a big pot and drawn in a cool costume.

The X-Men and Spider-Man movies basically kick-started the dominance of the comic book movie.  While I think, as a whole, the Spider-Man movies have been better over the past 17 years, the X-Men movies have one advantage that moviegoers seem to value more, consistency.  As good as Spider-Man: Homecoming was, there was still a level of eyeroll included because it’s the third version of the character since 2001.  In contrast, Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine since the beginning, and while I was never completely on board with him as that character, the sheer amount of time and output with him in the role has worn me down.  Going back to the coolness factor, it’s hard for Spider-Man: Homecoming to win fans over in the same year that we finally get the R-rated, noir-flavored, Wolverine finally let loose, joy that was the Logan movie.

The argument against: If the best possible representation of your character in a movie has to be R-rated, that has to count against you in terms of representing your multimedia company across all platforms.


The argument for: Captain America has had the strongest film series out of the Avengers group.  Superheroes are one of the great American inventions, and there’s nobody that epitomizes that more than the character that wears the American flag as part of his costume.  He represents the best of us and is the moral compass of the universe.  Chris Evans might actually be Captain America in real life.  He’s arguably the purest representation of a hero that deserved to be powerful before he became powerful.  He’s very much a perfected amalgamation of the “greatest generation” that fought for and saved the world in WWII.  More on that later when I discuss our next contender.

The argument against: Captain America may have had the best film series, but only because he had help from the rest of the established Avengers team.  Black Widow played a significant role in The Winter Soldier, and Civil War was for all intents and purposes an Avengers film.  Captain America may be the ultimate American superhero, but for a medium that has for a long time expanded into a worldwide phenomenon, that’s not necessarily a good thing.  I can imagine it’s harder for your favorite Marvel character to be Captain America when you’re growing up in Japan, or Australia.  For the moral compass of the universe, Steve Rogers was essentially in the wrong for all of the Civil War movie.  He had good reasons for resisting registration, but everything he did in the story was based solely on his loyalty toward his childhood friend.  He just so happened to be right in the end, because there was a larger conspiracy in play, but that was purely by accident.  He very much operates on the same side of the spectrum of “too righteous to be interesting” that Spider-Man and Superman occupy.  

(Quick tangent, like I said before, Superman was unquestionably the flagship of DC comics for several decades.  I don’t think it’s even an argument that Batman now holds that title.  Batman combines the cool factor of Wolverine with the marketability and righteousness of Spider-Man, the competency of Captain America, and the technical savvy of Iron Man.  No matter what, Batman will always be the top dog when it comes to superheroes from this point on.) (Ugh. -Duy)


The argument for: I mentioned before that the diminishing status of Spider-Man was partly Marvel’s own fault.  Before they became their own movie studio, they licensed out the movie rights for Spider-Man to Sony, and the X-Men to Fox.  You could argue the only reason Marvel even made Avengers movies, is that when they decided to finance and produce their own films, the Avengers were the top characters they had left available to them.  It’s because they are definitively so much better at it than both Sony and Fox, that Wolverine and Spider-Man are now suffering because of it.  Marvel may have been forced to use the Avengers, but what nobody could have foreseen is that Iron Man happened to be the perfect hero for our modern age.  

Iron Man being discussed as a viable contender to be Marvel’s flagship character is absolutely inexplicable for longtime comic book fans.  Iron Man’s continued relevance over the years was based solely on his status as one of the original Marvel heroes, a Stan and Jack creation, and a founding Avenger.  He was replaced as Iron Man for several years, back before that was a regular thing, and his most notable storyline for the first 40 plus years of his publication history involved him being an alcoholic.  Which isn’t exactly a rip-roaring action-packed good time.

What changed was a perfect combination of factors working in his favor.  First, Marvel had no access to their “best” characters, so they had to use the Avengers to start their movie franchise, and they coincidentally started with Iron Man.  Next, our technology as a species is expanding at an exponential rate, and nobody taps into that better than Tony Stark.  (This places him as a direct opposite to Captain America, the physical embodiment of an analog generation.  The morally perfect manly-men that saved the world, vs the tech-savvy emotionally flawed generation of today.  Civil War seemed so natural for a reason.)  Lastly, they got the perfect actor to play Stark in the form of Robert Downey Jr.  He has become the perfect centerpiece for this ever-expanding film universe that is dominating the movie industry.  Even though Iron Man 2 and 3 are heavily flawed films, they remain entertaining solely thanks to the charisma of RDJ.

The argument against: Which is where the problem begins.  Will Iron Man be able to maintain this level of success after Robert Downey Jr. inevitable no longer inhabits the role of Tony Stark?  The larger public’s increasingly tepid response to each successive Spider-Man (even though I personally think each iteration has only gotten better) suggests this is going to be a major obstacle for the MCU going forward.

As I said in the beginning, I believe Spider-Man remains Marvel’s flagship character almost by default.  The success of the Avengers films has carried over into the comic book world, where that franchise has replaced the X-Men as the dominant franchise at the company.  Spider-Man has had more than his fair share of fan controversies this millennium, fair or not, so there’s an unknown percentage of his audience that still feels alienated as a result (I argue it’s small, but there’s no denying a percentage exists).  Fox still owns the license for the X-Men, so it’s only natural to believe that Marvel isn’t pushing their mutants as hard as they used to, both in comics and multimedia.  There’s no telling what kind of media legs Captain America and Iron Man will have once Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. move on, respectively.  The only character that has a proven track record of success across all platforms over the course of decades, is Spider-Man.

But his lead is shrinking.  It will be interesting to see if he has a figurative Batman ready to surpass him, like the actual Batman did to Superman.  Maybe it’s Deadpool.  I like Deadpool.  

All images in this column courtesy of the greatest multimedia artist in comics history, Bill Sienkiewicz.

Sep 18, 2017

EC Comics' Judgment Day - Simultaneously Outdated and Still Relevant

If ever you're feeling bad about the racial dynamics of the world today, and if ever at the same time, you want to read some classic quality comics, take a trip back to 1953 and EC Comics' "Judgment Day." Originally published in Weird Fantasy #18 and written by Al Feldstein and drawn by Joe Orlando, it is one of the most important comics stories that's ever been published

This seven-page futuristic story revolves around an Earthman named Tarlton landing on Cybrinia, the Planet of Mechanical Life, one of Earth's colonies. He's greeted by a bunch of orange robots, and is quickly shown how they are mass produced and made, from construction to sheathing to being placed in the "educator," where their mechanical brains are endowed with all knowledge available to society.

All is well and good until Tarlton realizes that the orange robots and the blue robots are treated differently.

He asks to be shown where the blue robots are made, and he makes a point.

At the end of the story, he takes his helmet off.

That's it. That's the twist ending. In an era in a company known for ironic twist endings, "Judgment Day" ends with the revelation that the main character is black. It's impossible to feel the full impact of it now, but in 1953, this was huge.  It's almost definite that anyone reading it defaulted to Tarlton being a white guy. In an era where Ebony White was seen by some as an advancement for portrayals of black people, Tarlton is important.

So we've got a long way to go, but I think the fact that this particular twist ending wouldn't have the same impact today shows we've come quite a way. The arguments are different now. The institutional racism that Tarlton talks about in this story still exists, but now we know that when a minority holds any positon of power, it shouldn't come as such a surprise.

To aspiring creators, I hope this also exemplifies how you can use science fiction to talk about contemporary issues.

Here's the story in full. Click to enlarge and read this story that would undoubtedly be called SJW propaganda if it came out today.

Sep 15, 2017

Archie and The Art of Character Design

September, 1947, Pep Comics #63, a gag short called The Mix-Up. This is old big-teeth Archie, but he's not quite as grotesque a caricature as early Archie Andrews can be. He's not an everyman, either. You could pick this dude out of a lineup easy. And, that's important, it's part of what helps Archie last decade after decade.

Archie and The Art of Character Design
Travis Hedge Coke

 "Sharp as a gumdrop," Archie may be, with his bowtie and idiosyncratic pants, but it's more important, to me, that whatever the expression meant back then, if anything, it fits now, too. He looks like a guy who thinks gumdrops are sharp.

His dad, too, is both individual and clearly his dad, without even needing to glance at the dialogue. He has a dad look, but also the expression of a man with a full and taxing life.

 And, Mama Andrews! That is a marvel of a design. Her face holds a new expression every panel, for her husband's one hangdog look, but the cut of her collar, her décolletage also communicates with an expressiveness. Seriously, The same collar is angry, is surprised.

Clothes, body language, body type, and faces all play strong roles in making these people, not types.

Note, when a salesman comes into play, while he has some of Archie's dopiness, the clothes set him immediately apart. The vertical lines of his suit do as much as his lack of chin to make this a particular man.

At the shop, the two workers are set apart by age but also by the style of cartooning. The older man, his head slightly oversized, is a caricature, while the younger is a cartoon so generic he could be the common man avatar of a thousand hopeful submissions bucking for a syndicated strip.

One last style change lies in wait to shake us up. The appearance of Veronica is like lightning. She's sexy, sure, she's our first young, and codedly available woman, but she also, simply, is not laid out like the others. The dysmorphic cartooning that gets you get lines lies not in parallel but in full stop.

Compare the elder Andrews ' silhouettes to Veronica's. While other characters are blown up for caricature or distended into broadness, she is tightened down, lifted up. And, here is where I remind you that this is a high school girl. Because, it is. She's a hypersexualized full stop, and she's a teenage kid. The design does not invite us to consider both simultaneously, downplaying any kid aspect. That's a little creepy, but it also is supremely necessary if these characters are to last as long as they have and will.