Friday, July 27, 2007

JK Rowling Eat Your Heart Out!

Four out of five readers agree: "Auralia's Colors" by Jeff Overstreet is the best fantasy novel of 2007... and the fifth is starting to change her mind!

Auralia's Colors

This is a huge day for Jeff Overstreet. This is a postively ginormous day for him ("ginormous" is an actual word, incidentally; you can find it in Webster's). Today he has in his hands the physical fact that is his first published novel, Auralia's Colors. It arrived in boxes yesterday and Jeff had a small gathering of friends to celebrate and undoubtedly felt the warmth of congratulation. Most important, though, is what he holds in his hands, because what is now in his shall soon (September 15th!) be in many others. This is a book that will go far!

I had the unique pleasure of reading the book in manuscript form. Though I know the book has been passed through the hands of editors and back into Jeff's for revision, the impression left on me even in nascent form is sufficient to know that this is a great book. I look forward to reading it and spending more time in the beautiful and harrowing vision Jeff has created.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Devil is a Dinosaur

Jack Kirby is widely recognised as the "King of Comics" and rightfully so. For pure imaginative power and bold design, he is unequalled, and his fingerprints can be seen on nearly every major character created by Marvel Comics in the sixties and seventies. He created the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk in 1963 (Stan Lee wrote the books and Kirby illustrated them),
characters that have become household words around the world. Looking at Kirby's long career spanning several decades, you can see the many phases that he went through as an artist. The seventies decade saw what is arguably his biggest and most creative phase, certainly his boldest. Even so, some of his creations have not aged quite as well as Mister Fantastic and the Human Torch.

In 1978 Jack Kirby introduced a slew of titles at Marvel Comics, notable among them... DEVIL DINOSAUR! At first flush a book that looks silly and seems to be the particularly harsh consequences of experimenting with horse tranquilisers, further study reveals a sublime pleasure. "In an age when GIANTS walked the world -HE was the mightiest of them all!" This tagline contains within it one the most immediate pleasures, to imagine that the age of dinosaurs was not only brutal and bloody but that it also had its own version of what amounts to a superheroic lizard. Things only get better from there.

Inside the third issue of the series, Devil Dinosaur is being scolded by his humanoid companion, the loquacious Moon Boy. "How can one find sleep when the valley resounds with fearful screams?!" Moon Boy sends Devil Dinosaur to find the source of the racket. Take a moment to think about that: Devil Dinosaur, the mightiest dinosaur of them all (and you know that is mighty indeed), takes orders from a little hairy creature called Moon Boy, when he can tear up pterodactyls like they were made of paper? Not only takes orders but lets the runt ride on his back like he was a horse? My friend, this is the stuff of legend! Let the song in our hearts be heard!

The series, woefully cancelled after only nine issues, is basically one battle after another, as Devil Dinosaur takes on progressively stronger and more fearsome monsters. In essence, he is revealed to be Godzilla's red-hided stepchild -but with the crucial distinction of having his very own Moon Boy telling him what to do.

Nevertheless, Jack Kirby shows us why he is the king, even with this title which admittedly pales by comparison with most of his other creations. Only a royally descended artist could have brought us Devil Dinosaur.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Free Hugs

You could do worse than read these

The best comics to hit the rack in recent years have their biscuits and eat them too, simultaneously sending up familiar spandex tropes while telling fine and hilarious yarns. An indirect pathos is also experienced, especially in the case of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman. But mostly they are hilarious.

Marvel Zombies cashes in on the recent zombie frenzy and renders some of our favorite heroes into flesheating monsters. While I was initially reluctant to read this mini-series, it hooked me almost as soon as I opened the first issue. Peter Parker's lament about eating Aunt May and Mary Jane alone is worth the cover price -and the series only gets funnier from there. It appeals mainly to comic geeks who know these characters and Marvel Comics history, but I think there are probably pleasures for the uninitiated too.
Pathos rating: 9 (out of 10)
There is great satirical value to be had from characters that have been around so long and are so burdened by decades of continuity that the most interesting thing they can do now is eat each other. It's tragic because it's true and stirs tears from those of us who adored these guys when we were tots -mostly tears of laughter, though.

All Star Superman is the closest thing to mythmaking you will see in comics today. Grant Morrison and his brilliantly gifted illustrator Frank Quitely (both live in Glasgow, Scotland) have condensed everything that is grand and epic about the Superman icon. The result is an inspired amalgamation of highlights from Big Blue's long and historic career (he is the first four-color superhero after all). For anybody interested in pure powerhouse storytelling in sequential art: seek no further than this book.
Pathos rating: 3
Since this series depends so much on reconstituting what has gone before, it is not too pathetic. It is so glorious and unfettered that one can truly appreciate the lasting vitality of the Superman mythos here by seeing it remixed and remastered. One notable encounter we've never seen before is when Supes has to vie for the hand of Lois Lane after gifting her with superpowers for a day. As soon as a woman of her stature (however temporary) is available, heroes from other epochs show up to woo her away. Seeing Samson and Atlas enter into contests of strength with Superman is uniquely entertaining and very clever to boot!

Finally we come to Nextwave, the greatest comic book of all time. The prolific and witty Warren Ellis writes and Stuart Immonen renders in a panacea of illustrative styles this comic book to end all comic books. Truly, this is the apocalypse of sequential art -and I could not more wholeheartedly embrace it. This ragtag bunch of "Agents of H.A.T.E." are taken from one insane battle to another, all the while parodying and transforming the entire concept of superheroes. Nothing will ever be the same after Nextwave, and rightly so. If all comics made me laugh this hard, I would have perished before puberty.
Pathos rating: 10
Everything that is absurd in comic books is thrust rudely into the spotlight here, making it the most pathetic display of spandex and hyperbole imaginable by man and dog. What makes the motor hum in this book is also what underscores its tragedy: superheroes only really work anymore if you make fun of them. And when fun is poked with such vim and whimsy as this, it makes you almost glad that the age of capes and cowls has come to an end.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Where have all the heroes gone?

The seventies era was the beginning of the end for popular sequential art, ushering in a revitalised sense of page layout and story design that had its roots in the sixties and would see its final decline in the mid-eighties with such classics as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Comic book illustrators and writers like Jim Starlin, Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber brought ingenuity and vitality to seventies comic books that would spark a later revolution in independent publishers and cultivate some of the finest examples of the form. Yet rather than creating a sustainable model, the work done by imaginative and greatly talented artists would give way from mythic storytelling to commercial interest and bankrupt editorial meddling.

Marvel Comics Group produced groundbreaking titles in the seventies, like Jim Starlin's Warlock featuring a man struggling to find a nonviolent path to save his soul, and Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck with its eponymous hero navigating the joys and pratfalls of modern living. Steve Englehart's run on Captain America is probably the heaviest hitting of the three, translating the Nixon years into comic book form; the "star-spangled" hero confronts dark truths about his nation's political heart and has to decide what the American Dream truly is. These pioneers laid the groundwork for later serious books created by other artists in the eighties: Baron and Rude's Nexus, for example, in which the question of justice is thoroughly explored, or Dave Sim's Cerebus, an evolving experiment of the boundaries of comic book storytelling. Then along came Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

This pair of deeply gifted artists transformed the comic book landscape in ways that have been duly noted by aficionados and scholars. Moore's Watchmen is an epitaph for superheroes, at the same time utilising literary techniques to explore human nature. Miller displays similar literary virtuosity in The Dark Knight Returns but wraps it in pulp mannerisms and vigilante justice. Taken on their own these seem natural and even necessary progressions of sequential art, developed out of the hard pioneering work of their predecessors. Yet one has only to look at where comic books have gone from there to see that the form has degenerated and now is a pale reflection of what was.

What you see in the seventies and early eighties is evolution; what follows is regression of the form and a softening of what defines it, to the extent that comic books now resemble tv shows and movies and video games. (The style of comic book storytelling is also true in the inverse, as we can see in the huge popularity of Spider Man at the box office and shows like Heroes on tv.)
What's changed? In short, comics are no longer about mythic storytelling.

The grounding Moore and Miller used for their opuses was an old innovation: give spandex wearers real hangups and conflicts. Stan Lee introduced this style in the early sixties with his coterie of illustrators at Marvel, the "House of Ideas" as was, yet never strayed from putting characters into situations way beyond the pale of human experience. Like protosuperheroes from antiquity Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Samson and Odysseus, the House of Ideas gave us Spider Man and the Fantastic Four, humans with special gifts faced with epic challenges. These challenges developed beyond simple struggles of good versus evil, setting the stage for the more significant questions of the seventies stripe of hero. Yet even as Warlock and Howard the Duck strain against boundaries that we mere mortals can relate to, still they are part of narratives culled from a dizzy, cosmic scope, a factor unique to comics and woefully absent as of late.

The kind of obstacles seen in comic books today run the gamut of dealing with pregnancy, teenagers on the run or, as in the case of Spidey, which close relation is going to be killed next. The potential for these obstacles to be part and parcel of more epic narrative is still there and intrinsic to the form, but it gives way for issue after issue of protracted discussion and emotional handwringing, highlighted by the occasional fisticuff with a villain who also happens to be burdened by mundane concerns: spandex wearers are so much like real people now that the grandeur is lost and they no longer possess the ur-capabilities of true mythical figures. The root of this development can be traced back to Miller and Moore.

I am not assigning blame to either of these men. I'm not part of the camp that takes Steven Spielberg to task for creating the first summer blockbuster (Jaws) and therefore enabled the profusion of superficial "tentpoles" that make up the bulk of Hollywood fare, and neither am I attempting to say Moore and Miller are responsible for the loss of mythmaking in comic books. What is closer to the truth is that reader expectations have changed and the dizzy pioneering of superheroes is more liable to simply give them nausea. Meanwhile the few books that do aspire to those old heights come off derivative and uninspired.

Meddling by increasingly influential stables of editors is also a big part of what has changed. Comic books now are more driven by top-down decision making, in which the home office tells creators what to do with licensed characters rather than creating an atmosphere in which bold ideas can take off and find expression. You can see a little of this in Grant Morrison's breathtaking and prolific output at DC Comics, but even then the fingerprints of editors are all over the pages stealing his thunder. Consequently the best comics to be found today are not about a staple diet of superheroes, rather you will find formal experimentation and reconstuction of old conceits leading the way. Morrison's graphic novel The Filth is a fine example of a new direction for comics, yet it is with a little sadness because a significant appeal to the book is its deconstruction of the spandex myth. Comic books, it seems, are no longer fertile ground for mythical narrative.


My friend Katy has become obsessed with all things 70's and recently started a blog to honor this new phase. As I am also a fan of the "brown era", I can only heartily recommend you check it out. There's a convenient link just to the right of your screen!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Is this you? Is it me?

Now you can make your own Simpsons avatar at: It's fun!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mother of All Rubber Duckies