Monthly Archives: May 2010

Capsule Reviews May 31, 2010

Some comics that have gone from my “Read” pile to my “Read” pile in the last couple of weeks (don’t you just love the English language!):

1. Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing (Marvel / Epic, 1990. Writer: Pat Mills, Art: Kevin O’Neill)

This is a collection of the very first Marshal Law miniseries from Marvel / Epic in 1987, depicting a dark, violent, extreme future where mass numbers of humans genetically modified for war return from the battlefield to become a disenfranchised, decadent, violent, criminal class which the hero Marshall Law — also a veteran — hunts down. I’m not sure that I’ve read anything written by Pat Mills before. Artist Kevin O’Neill I know for his collaborations with Alan Moore on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and that notorious Green Lantern story.

As far as superhero deconstructionism goes, this thing should be totally dated, but somehow it’s not. I mean, a lot of the same ground is covered by Watchmen, Miracleman, Astro City, Rick Veitch’s The One, The Boys, Scott McCloud’s Destroy!, Hitman, and dozens of others that I’m sure I’m forgetting. But the art is great, and frankly despite the fact this this is supposed to be an over-the-top parody / satire of superhero comics, it reads like most DC titles do today. It struck me as still kind of relevant in that respect, but at the same time I really don’t know that superheroes are an important enough subject to be worth deconstructing in the first place in every one of the above cases. (Sometimes I feel that Watchmen works despite all of the superhero trappings around it.) Also, the action is at times somewhat hard to follow, but I don’t know that it’s O’Neill’s fault. I had trouble following American Flagg at times too — was it a problem of some indy comics in the 80s trying to cram too much in at times…?

2. Groo the Adventurer (Marvel / Epic, 1990. Story & Art: Sergio Aragones)

This is a collection of the first four issues of the Marvel / Epic series of Groo by Serio Aragone and Mark Evanier. I don’t have much to say about this except that — like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo — Groo is just completely reliable. It’s always hilarious and fun and remarkably well-drawn (especially the hyper-detailed opening splash pages), and I have yet to read an issue or TPB that was anything less.

3. Marvel Fumetti Book (1984, by: various) / Generic Comic (Marvel Comics, 1984, by: unknown

These comics both came out the same year: 1984. In both cases, I don’t know what the fuck Marvel was thinking. I guess they figured they were such an awesome company that they could put out books parodying themselves, and that they would automatically be funny with minimal effort thanks to their aforementioned awesomeness. Fumetti Book is printed so shittily that you can barely tell what’s going on in most panels — it’s just a muddy pulp of gray most of the time. It’s sadly unfunny, though some of the images might have been neat if they were more legible. Anyway, basically the book takes you on a tour of the Marvel offices and depicts the hijinx that ensue as they try to put out books.

Generic Comic is just weird. There are no credits listed whatsoever — I don’t know if that’s supposed to be part of the gag. The art is amateurish — is that part of the gag too? There are occassional typos — is that part of the gag as well? I have to ask these things because this comic makes no attempt to make any jokes or parody Marvel’s superhero comics. It simply reads like every Marvel comic published in 1984. Except for the cover, it is completely straight-faced (except for one possible joke I think I came across) and boring as hell. Instead of parodying superhero comics, they just put out a superhero comic. Bizarre.

4. Unknown Soldier 1 (DC / Vertigo, 1997. Writer: Garth Ennis, Art: Killian Plunkett)

This comic was written by Garth Ennis. I loved Garth Ennis’s Punisher, most of Preacher, and some of his war stuff, but there is nothing really interesting going on in this comic. Some goody-two-shoes FBI agent starts creeping around on files on The Unknown Soldier — a mystery-man from WWII — and is then targetted for assassination. Neither the Soldier (seen in WWII flashbacks) nor the agent seemed particularly engaging and the cliff-hanger ending had me on the back of my seat thinking about getting a chocolate milk. I will not be looking for issues 2-4.

That said, I hear that the recently-cancelled Unknown Soldier series set in Uganga was excellent, and I will check it out.

5. Jughead 200 (Archie Comics, 2010. Writer: Tom Root, Art: Rex Lindsey)

This is one of the best comics I’ve read so far this year. It’s laugh-out-loud-hilarious at times, the story is compelling (Jughead trades his metabolism to a witch for a mega-burger, and the gang try to get it back for him), and the characters are very well delineated in a minimum amount of space. In fact, I was amazed at what a complete, solid little story the creators had managed to construct in twenty-odd pages, averaging about six panels per page, and with no narration or captions. The presence of a witch seems a bit weird for the Archie universe, but then the story smartly reminds us that there is already a witch of long-standing in Riverdale. Amazing.

The comic was written by Tom Root, who is a writer on Robot chicken, which is a show I have never seen, but after reading this, I will be sure to check it out.

6. Somerset Holmes 2 (Pacific Comics, 1983. Writer: Bruce Jones, Art: Brent Anderson)

I bought this comic because the cover was phenomenal and I loved some of Bruce Jones’s other writing (especially his collaborations with Richard Corben), and when I first read it, I felt like I should try to track down the other five issues. But when I flipped through it again, I couldn’t remember a single thing about it, couldn’t even remember ever having seen the scenes I’d read a week earlier even though I definitely had. Weird. Sorry, Bruce. (Nice art by Brent Anderson of Astro City-fame though.)

More reviews later in the week…

KS

More reviews tomorrow…

It’s a MAD, MAD world!

A little while back, Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter ran a birthday notice for one of my Top 5 All-Time-Favorite comic artists Mort Drucker, and the panel he included was this one:

I can’t remember who wrote this one, but the dialog itself, even out of context is hilarious as is the art, and it’s beautifully drawn to boot. Besides that fact that I dedicate of my blog writing to the hopes of one day winning Tom Spurgeon’s approval, all of this got me thinking that I have to do a write up on Mad Comics / Mad Magazine.

Recently, there was news that John Landis is trying to put together financing for a Bill Gaines biopic called Ghoulishly Yours, William M Gaines. According to the description at the link, Gaines:

was driven out of the comic book business by 1950s morality policers after his unapologetic testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency. Gaines retaliated by converting one of his titles Mad into a satirical magazine which specialized in skewering all aspects of uptight society.

Something about this doesn’t quite sit right with me, but maybe the problem is just the summary the website decided to come up with rather than the actual movie Landis is pitching to financers.

1) As I understand it (and I may be wrong), Gaines was driven out of comics by the moral furore around comics at the time and other publishers using that to their advantage to gang up on him. The subcommittee hearings may have simply been the final nail in the coffin.

2) Gaines’s testimony was not “unapologetic” — it was confused and flustered thanks to his medications. I’m seriously worried about a climactic scene where Gaines gives a stirring speech defending the First Amendment while violins swell in the background.

3) Did Gaines really convert Mad into a political magazine because of the Senate hearings? My understanding was that turning Mad from a comic into a magazine was a result of pressure from Harvey Kurtzman, MAD’s creative lifeblood, threatening to walk away if Gaines didn’t. Gaines complied. Then Kurtzman wanted a bigger stake in EC Comics, Gaines refused, and Kurtzman walked anyway. The unexpected advantage was that being a magazine and not a comic, Gaines no longer had to worry about Comics Code Authority approval to get MAD on the stands.

But this entire preamble is just an excuse for me to write a few words about MAD which is a huge inspiration and sometimes direct influence on Weird Crime Theater.

My MAD was the 80s MAD which was full of sex and politics jokes I had no hope of understanding but which I knew I was not really supposed to be looking at. Typically they were stored in a shoe box or the like along with various Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids cards. I learned what the PLO was from MAD magazine in a panel gag by Al Jaffee which comes into my head to this day every time I think of Palestine or Israel. Sometimes I’d come across an old 70s MAD and they seemed kind of lame to me at the time — maybe there just wasn’t enough of the artists that I was used to in them. 90s MAD was something which in my world existed only as covers on newsstand shelves. 60s MAD as far as I can tell never even existed, although as many writers better than me will tell you, this was the period when MAD Magazine re-shaped the entire nature of American humor. 00s MAD might have one gag that makes me laugh per issue and some occasionally nice cartooning — Hermann Mejia in particular is a true gem. If there is a Mort Drucker parody of a TV show or movie that I have seen, I will pick up that issue. I almost never buy the magazine these days, so you can do the math. Whenever I find the paperback at garage sales, I buy them.

And I generally avoid buying the Australian-editions if at all possible, no matter how cheap. I don’t know when they started publishing the Australian-edition, but in the 80s they would take out a few of the American pages and replace them with locally-produced content, which at the time looked like it had been written and drawn by your six-year-old sister and then stapled into the centrefold. Sometimes, they would replace Al Jaffee’s fold-in on the inside back cover with this junk! Blasphemers! Nowadays, the Australian-produced art is drawn more professionally, but all the gags are almost exclusively about Australian politicians. This is fucked. Australian politics is lifeless and utterly humourless. This country has some of the worst music and TV I’ve ever experienced in my life and yet the Australian version of the magazine seems incapable of recognizing this.

50s MAD was, of course, the Golden Age when it was still a comic and featured the EC Comics stable of artists. For a long time MAD was Alan Moore’s favorite comic of all time (though in recent years he’s been preferring Richard E Hughes and Ogden Whitney’s Herbie more often). Kurtzman wrote and laid out all the stories himself — just as he did with the war titles — leaving the artists to fill in the blanks with more of their individual styles than you would imagine given Kurztman’s perfectionism.

Around 1997 – 1998, DC reprinted those first 23 issues in an eight-issues series called “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD.” This was a magazine-size, full-color series reprinting two or three issues of the classic comic in each issue. It’s one of the most incredible, wonderful, beautiful, hilarious things I’ve ever read in my life, and is unfortunately very difficult to find these days. DC also released the first six issues of MAD in standard comic size in its hardcover archive format for a ridiculous cover price, so there is no longer any affordable way for people to read these amazing comics. (At least on the toilet — there is a DVD version as well.)

(By the way, while I’m here, if I may be allowed a digressive rant: they say this is the Golden Age of strip reprints, but why the hell do they all have to be $30 hard covers?! Here is a list of what I would call must-read-comics which are currently in-print, but only in hardcover format. Good luck being able to afford more than two volumes of any of them: Polly and Her Pals, Captain Easy, Peanuts, Popeye, Little Nemo, Prince Valiant, Gasoline Alley, Bringing Up Father, Dick Tracy, L’il Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, The Spirit, and more that I’m forgetting. Never mind reprints of classic comics too like Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, Ditko-era Spider-Man, etc., etc.)

I came to the EC Comics line quite late in general, even considering the generation gap. In the 90s they were only available in those big black & white slip-cased hardcover (grr…) EC Comics Library editions. Later on they started packaging them into affordable softcover “Annuals” reprinting five or six issues each. I started out with the horror comics (Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear), then learned the crime ones were better (Crime SuspensStories, Shock SuspenStories). The horror titles were great but they had a habit of “cheating” on the endings. Sometimes instead of a climax to the story, in the last panel the Crypt Keeper would simply pop up and describe everything that happened, like, “And then his eyes exploded and his tongue got ripped out of his head!” Much later, I learned that actually the war titles were the best of them all (Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat). These days I’m partial to Weird Science. Of course, the Annuals are now out of print and hard to obtain. Gemstone started up a line of “EC Archives” a while back of recolored stories in overpriced hardcover format with five or six issues per volume. The line has since stalled. Maybe someone like dark Horse could pick up the ball — but in softcover, please?

But actually, way back in 1987, what I started with were Gold Key horror comics — Boris Karloff, Twilight Zone, Ripley’s Believe it or Not — reprinted as the “Mystery Comics Digest” series. Compared to the EC horror books, the Gold Key books were laughably flaccid. Softball horror where some dude makes a deal with a leprechaun to become the greatest candlepin bowler in the world. Twist-ending kinda stuff, competently drawn, but basically Comics Code blandness. Quaint, if you will.

And yet somehow they stuck with me. I wrote one Weird Crime Theater story — which you won’t see for a while yet — which was deliberately written in the Gold Key vein. And ironically it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to my MAD comics ideal as well with at least two gags in every panel. It’s my favorite WCT story but you’ll have to wait about a year to see it.

But not only did I want WCT to be like MAD (and “Weird Crime Theater” is as close to an EC-sounding title as I could come up with as well), I wanted to work with actual MAD artists. When we started the book, one of my dreams was that we would one day make just enough money for me to be able to pay some MAD artists to draw a few pages for us. The heartbreaking thing about the length of time it is taking to complete the project is that these guys aren’t getting any younger, and, sure enough, some have passed away in the time since we started. The ones I love especially are: Al Jaffee (1921-), Sergio Aragones (1937-), Mort Drucker (1929-), Dave Berg (1920-2002), George Woodbridge (1930-2004), Duck Edwing (1934-), Jack Davis (1924-), Paul Coker (1929-), John Severin (1921-), Will Elder (1921-2008), and Richard Corben (1940-), who never drew for MAD but should have. Never mind those before my time like Wally Wood (1927-1981), Don Martin (1931-2000), and the maestro Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993).

I believe in the goodness of Weird Crime Theater, but, hey, I’m not naïve. I mean, will we ever do anything nearly as good as Kurtzman and Elder’s “Shermlock Shomes”…? Read the full thing here: http://ethunter1.blogspot.com/2009/06/sunday-funnies-mad-7-sherlock-holmes.html.

I mean look at it! So what’s the deal DC? Are you going to reprint these things in an affordable format or not?

KS

P.S. This panel is the story of my life. May Crosis bless you, Stan Hart and Mort Drucker.

Savage Sword of Conan

A few weeks ago, I started reading Savage Sword of Conan Volume One (Dark Horse) and began composing a blog post about it and all things Conan through the lens — as always — of my own personal experience.

And then halfway through, Frank Frazetta died, so I was kind of at a loss for words.

The very, very first comic I remember buying with my own money was King Conan #17 which I bought at the Fredericton Farmers Market in late 1986 or early 1987 — there’s that year again! It was the fall of 1986 that I became a comics collector / obsessor, and at the time there was no comic shop in Fredericton. But a guy by the name of Steve Wilkie had a stall set up at the farmers market where he sold several long boxes worth of back issues, so that’s where my parents took me to get my comics. Not much later Wilkie went on to found Fredericton’s first comic shop — A Collector’s Dream — in February of 1987. But, as I learned decades later though, during his farmers market days, apparently Wilkie’s expertise was cards not comics, so he had a guy working the comics for him — one Calum Johnson, who later went on in 1992 to found Strange Adventures, one of the greatest comics shops in the world — first in Fredericton, then in Halifax.

Anyway, the main reason I bought a King Conan comic was to impress my older brother, which is why I did most things in those days. Having a Conan comic would mean my brother — six-and-a-half years older than me — would want to see something that I owned. My older brother had been a huge fan of the first Schwarzenegger movie for years and had forced my mom to take him to see it when it came out in theaters. As a result, I myself saw it on video when I was waaayyy too young to have been allowed. But our parents let us watch lots of R-Rated movies in those days. As you can imagine, it definitely left a lasting impression, because the movie is one of my top ten all-time favorites to this day.

But for years I think I kind of misinterpreted the film. The reason I loved it for the longest time was the amorality of Conan. I mean, he wasn’t seeking to avenge his father’s death because it impassioned him or because it was the “moral” course to take. He did it because it was almost like a motor response. Father dies, so seek revenge. Cut your finger, so scream in pain. Raining outside, so ground gets wet. Conan is like an animal in this movie, not in the sense of viciousness, but in terms of unthinkingness. Not seeing things as moral or immoral, but simply being.

Watching the movie again when it came out on DVD in the early Naughts, I was struck that my earlier interpretation was false. Some people may facetiously joke that Arnold was ideal for the part because of his wooden acting, but this is bullshit. Conan is wildly emotional in this movie, sometimes reserved, sometimes tender, sometimes cunning and sly, sometimes an ogre. (And this is all before the notorious restored blueberry scene.) And we get every aspect of Conan’s personality through Schwarzenegger’s performance. He was a young guy in his first “real” lead in a major movie — he had to prove himself and director John Milius got the performance out of him.

Milius himself wrote Apocalypse Now, has directed not much else in his career, and has written a lot. In the 70s Hollywood expose Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the author Peter Biskind has Milius running in the same circles as Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas, Cimino, and Bogdanovich. Oliver Stone, who co-wrote Conan went on to bigger things himself. It feels like Milius never matched the success of his contemporaries, but then even those stars have faded from time to time.

Conan was the role Arnold was born to play. Anyone who says Terminator is talking out of their ass. Why would Skynet program all the T-800 units with Austrian accents?! Is that supposed to make them less detectable?! No — in Conan, Arnold works because of the exotic accent and the physique. Anyone who doubts Arnold’s range as an actor in this movie needs only look at the 1997 Conan TV series starring Ralf Moeller to see real cardboard acting. And at least Ralf had the size and an accent — I am gravely concerned about the newest movie version coming out, though it’s one which I will surely never see.

Arnold was helped of course by the phenomenal score by Basil Poledouris (1945-2006). Conan was followed by a flood of schmaltzy, low budget, strangely American imitators none of which had the Arnold or the music to elevate them beyond the VHS bins.

So, Savage Sword of Conan Volume One. It reprints several issues of Savage Tales and eleven issues of The Savage Sword of Conan. These were originally published by Marvel in the 70s in a large black & white magazine-sized format — a format which I sorely miss. Here they are reprinted at a more standard comic-book size and on cheaper paper (I think). The reproduction is fine though and the paper will stay in good shape if you take care of it. (In fact, all the following scans are from CBRs, not my copy, because I didn’t want to break the spine on my scanner — the actual book has clear, white pages.)

I’m only guessing at the editorial mandate behind the magazine, but I’m guessing they were aiming for a more adult, classier counterpart to the regular monthly color comic. They certainly succeeded at that and SSoC is way more violent than the regular series, though it sadly still lacks naked boobies. Every story in here is written by Roy Thomas (who was also writing the regular Conan series at the time), and most of the stores are penciled are by John Buscema, though there are two by Gil Kane, one or two by Barry Windsor Smith, one by Alex Nino, and a few random others. For the most part John Buscema is inked by Alfredo Alcala, thought sometimes he is inked by “The Tribe” which I must assume means the Marvel Bullpen.

I’m not very familiar with John Buscema’s work. Before this, I knew him from that issue of King Conan which he also drew, so I always identified him with Conan — even from that single issue — which is what everyone else associates him with anyway. But I better knew him for the second Superman / Spider-Man crossover (which I owned in digest form) and a run on the Punisher. In the case of the Punisher, the thing I remembered most about his work was that he cheated the hell out of the backgrounds. There were a lot of panels where you’d have a couple of people talking or fighting and nothing in the background but a random color like purple or yellow. In fact, in the Superman / Spider-Man book the backgrounds were done by a different artist entirely. (The only other artist I noticed to be quite this criminal was John Byrne, usually when he was writing, penciling, and inking all on his own — particularly during his Fantastic Four days.) His other major flaw is that his women are sometimes indistinguishable.

The interesting thing here is Buscema’s inkers. Alcala is the best of the lot — a real master who shades using “lines.” I don’t know if there is a name for this technique but it is a style that I most closely associate with Albrecht Durer, Punch magazine, Gary Gianni (who should be a superstar), and John Totleben’s inking work on the Alan Moore Swamp Thing run. Boy, those Image guys who were obsessed with lots-of-little-lines-for-shading could have learned a lesson from Alcala. (Years later, Alcala himself would go on to work on Swamp Thing, but by then his style would evolve into something completely different.) And Buscema as inked by “The Tribe” is a lot less interesting — it lacks the quality of immersive depth that Alcala brought to it. I don’t know if Alcala forced Buscema to lift his game, or Alcala was filling in the backgrounds himself, or if it was editorial mandate, but the Buscema background handicap is almost never an issue here. Environments are lush, textured, and tactile in almost every panel. Alan Grant wrote a while back about how the Filipino artists left him cold because of their stiffness and their “overrendered and overinked” pencils (some of them also had a habit of not pulling “the camera” back from the action far enough or often enough). But I think somehow Buscema’s dynamism and layouts and Alcala’s texture complimented each other perfectly here. I do prefer the facial expressions of Buscema’s characters when he inks himself (see Conan the Rogue), but the art here is often breathtaking.

(Below: Conan The Rogue art — Buscema inking himself)

But the stories… well, the stories are here and there. As mentioned above, they are all written by Roy Thomas, who you’d think would have been Conan-ed out after writing so many hundred Conan stories. He even served as a consultant on the movie. I will say that the stories here are much better than the ones in the regular Conan title, and I loved “The Citadel at the center of Time” which is a perfect Conan adventure. The advantage may be that Thomas was adapting Robert E Howard stories for many of the tales here, whereas he was often working from scratch on the regular series (although “Citadel” is a Thomas original, and admittedly REH‘s later Conan stories were less engaging than the very earliest ones). There is generally less magic and magical beings in these stories, which I personally prefer. And Thomas relies less on narrative captions here than in the regular series. Thomas’s prose, which I don’t want to call “purple” but is certainly overwritten at times, needs the guiding hand of editorial vigilance and I think he got more of it here than in the regular Conan series, but still not enough sometimes. Often you can ignore the captions and “read” the pictures — especially with the Buscema / Alcala team — and come away with a panel or sequence that is still as rich. In his adaptation of “Hour of the Dragon,” I couldn’t help but feel how much better it would have been if some scenes were done silently in, say, a Mike Mignola style rather than having to be told how creepy the hallways were. (In fact, check out the recent Mignola-written issues of Conan to see just what I mean.) Thomas may have had the best of intentions, but the uncomfortable impression one gets is that he did not trust his artists. I don’t know if Thomas was still working on the Conan books after he consulted on the movie, but if he did, I hope he learned a lesson from the lack of narration in the movie to incorporate into his own work. I did love the visual of the gray captions boxes, though, setting them off from the art, and adding another texture to the pages.

Another weird thing is that I feel like I’ve read the REH adaptations — like “Black Colossus” — multiple times before in different adaptations, and some of them really recently: the original REH stories, the current Dark Horse versions, maybe also even in Marvel’s regular Conan series as well. What’s interesting about the current Dark Horse series though is that they are really filling in all the gaps. For example, in one story here, Conan mentions being the last of the living “Free Companions” and surviving in the marshes for days. It’s about two or three sentences of dialog, but just a few months back, the DH series spent THREE ISSUES on this storyline! Everyone will have their preference, but I kind of preferred the DH approach.

I’m not sure what to think of DH’s recent announcement that Roy Thomas would be coming back to the character for a 12-issue arc. It strikes me as more like Chris Claremont returning to the X-Men than Larry Hama returning to G.I. Joe, but I have to assume he has “modernized” his writing and Philip Simon — my own current editor at DH — will be editing him so I am still looking forward to it. (And, yes, there is a conflict of interest in this review — but I only review DH books that I like and stay silent about the ones I don’t. I’m not one to bite the hand that feeds me.)

Now, I can’t sign off without finally mentioning the covers. Most of the covers are by Boris Vallejo, which is kind of a shock considering how good they are. Vallejo’s art in the 70s was — apparently — fairly vibrant, bristling with energy and violence and sweat. The cover to this volume is awesome. I even kind of like Vallejo’s stuff from the 80s like this:

… But I mostly know him for his glossy, posed, lifeless stage — the 90s, when he might as well have been painting unicorns in moonlight and his barbarian warriors seem to be fighting dragons projected on a green screen. Vallejo in the 70s was more like Joe Jusko now. Both men who probably deserve to be called better than Frazetta — R.I.P — wannabes but they probably never will be even though there’s nothing really wrong with them. If they came home with report cards, Vallejo would have an 83 and Jusko would have an 87. I mean, you’d be proud that your sons were doing so well in school, you know? Frazetta would have a 392.

KS

Warlock 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!

The comic I’ve been reading this week is Warlock 5 — the “complete” issues 1-13, by Gordon Derry and Denis Beauvais, and published by Aircel Comics.

Years ago I owned a copy of issue #7 which I bought new off the shelf in what must have been 1987. I have no idea what happened to that copy, but a brief “appreciation” of the series on Newsarama a few years back prompted fond memories of that single issue I owned and curiosity about the rest of the series. So I put it on my want list, and finally got around to ordering them a few weeks back.

I said “fond memories” before, but that does not accurately describe my feelings about Warlock 5 #7. Warlock 5 #7 was categorically badass. Back in 1987 when I was reading Superman, Transformers, Excalibur, and I’m sure something else which I can’t quite remember right now, I would still scan the shelves at the comic shop even for the indies, which I did not read, and the cover of Warlock 5 #7 refused to be denied. I mean look at this thing!

There were very few painted covers on comics at the time, and this one was beautifully executed with an awesome range of character designs the likes of which only I myself could have come up with at that age. I mean, who cares if the robot is a Terminator rip-off? It’s still such a wicked visual. The air-brushed black-and-white interiors were not exactly photo-realistic per se, but they had a three-dimensional solidity to them which I had never seen in any other comic before — certainly never in any of the 4-color Marvel and DC books I was enjoying at the time. To this day I remember the last panel here:

And I loved the violence of this sequence:

And then, at the end of the book, there was this:

Holy Shit!!! Boobies!!! Believe me, at 13 years old, I spent A LOT of time with that last panel above. I mean, MASSIVE amounts of time. I mean, INCREDIBLE, MASSIVE, WHOLE LOTS OF TIME. HOURS AND HOURS OF TIME. MEGA COLLOSAL, HUGE TRACTS OF TIME. REAMS OF TIME. GARTANTUAN, MONOLITHIC GALLONS OF TIME. I MEAN, STUPENDOUS, INCALCULABLE AMOUNTS OF TIME.

Anyway, there was no “Mature Readers” label on the cover. I wondered if the guy at the counter would sell it to me — I would have been 12 or 13-years old at the time. I had to own those boobies no matter what. I had to give it a shot. Hopefully he hadn’t read it and wouldn’t know that I should not actually be allowed to buy it. So I took it up to the counter and, as I recall, the guy sold it to me without a word.

This comic never made any sense to me. And, really, if you’re jumping on at issue #7 it’s unlikely it would. It begins with some kind of medieval battle between a witch and a sorceress on the top of a castle, when a knight in armor enters the fray; then it’s the present and some dude gets stabbed by two women in the street and the women are pursued by bikers in armor, and that’s kind of it. But that cover and the art is still riveting. And I still love the scanned scenes above. The incomprehensibility of the plot only made the comic more compelling as an object in my mind — like a page ripped out of someone’s diary that you find in a gutter. I got a dream-like sense of the greater tapestry beyond the reach of my conscious awareness. And, speaking practically, how many more of these would I be able to sneak past the guy at the cash register anyway?

Finally reading the complete series this past week, it is sadly disappointing. When you read a single issue, you can only imagine the greater framework. Seeing that actual framework, you realize how terribly flawed and dishearteningly uninteresting it is. You realize how many of the same traps it falls into that other black-and-white indies of the era did — this thing wants to hyper-accelerate the construction of a giant comic book universe without any meaningful development and the resulting impression is of a typical kind of Marvel knock-off conceived by a 14-year old. (In fact, every founding title from Image Comics suffered this same juvenile approach.) I mean — Great Krypton — weren’t any of these people reading Love and Rockets or Cerebus, or at least ElfQuest?

From issue #1 the plot still makes no sense. Supposedly the book is about: “five Guardians struggling for control of a Grid that is the intersecting point of five conflicting realities” (so says issue #12). The back pages are filled with supplementary matter to help explain the structure of the universe — almost all of it is confusing mumbo-jumbo that fails to illuminate anything. Characters regularly spout lines full of generalities like: “Maybe the only way to solve the imbalance of the universe is to change the present reality. I’ve discovered that the turbulence of cosmic energy is centered on this time” (actual dialog from issue #12). As if this helps to delineate anything. Sometimes they even try to clarify the plot in the letters pages! While the “grid” seems to operate according to certain rules, there is no discernible internal logic to the magical abilities people seem to randomly display.

At the end of issue #3, one of the Guardians is about to kill the other four with a nuclear bomb and the caption says: ‘To Be Continued.” At the beginning of the next issue, everything is back to status quo with no mention of what happened — and, no, I didn’t skip an issue. They apologized for this TWICE in the letters pages: once explaining that it was some kind of radical new storytelling technique where the readers were supposed to imagine for themselves what happened, and the second time explaining that they had to cut short story pages resulting in the gap (and yet the issue in question also contained a back up story and house ads).

Most issues fall into a basic pattern of one or more Guardians showing up to fight one or more of the others, while the remaining one(s) try to convince the others to stop fighting until the next issue. One of the fatal flaws of the series is that a Guardian seems to die in almost every issue only to be shown to have survived in the next. If you’re going to kill off and bring back, say, Colossus or Kitty Pride every 100 issues or so, that’s one thing, but in Warlock 5 the cycle is only two or three issues long — the formula almost instantly becomes predictable and tedious.

An exceptional issue is #13 which oscillates between wince-inducing cliché / Alan Moore pastiche, and some really interesting formalist sequences, the likes of which had never been even hinted at in the series before:

But worst of all: there are no boobies in any issue except #7.

Denis Beauvais’s art, though, improved with each issue. Issue #1 in fact is a bit clunky, alternating from somewhat not-ready-for-prime-time line work, to his signature airbrushing:

I’ve only seen one or two other Aircel books — Demon Hunter and Samurai (illustrated by the one-day-to-be-famous Dale Keown) — but they did seem to have a kind of “house style” — a kind of fetishistically shaded Eastman and Laird — and Beauvais definitely fits into that category at first. But by issue 4 or 5 he hits his stride and distinguishes himself. (Demon Hunter by Barry Blair and Samurai samples below.)

Aircel is a company I know almost nothing about except that they were based in Canada, and they seemed to survive the Black & White Boom and Bust, which is a fascinating event in comics history in itself. Another weird thing about Warlock 5 is that, while I called it “complete” above, in fact there were a lot more issues. The thing was taken over by a radically different creative team after issue #13 and went on for a further, something like, 15 issues (illustrated by Barry Blair of Demon Hunter above). What’s odd is that on Beauvais’s website he states that: “15 issues were created in total, issues #14-#15 unpublished.” This is odd because Derry and Beauvais owned the copyright on the series. So how did they end up losing control of the series — what the heck is the story there…?

Long story, short: to some extent I actually regret having read these comics. They’ve destroyed the illusion of greatness I got from issue #7. Fortunately, none of it is very memorable, so my plan is to sell off all of them except #7, forget all about them, reconstruct my awe around that one issue, and climb back once again into the moist, sultry womb of nostalgia.

“Let me taste fish” and the Magic of Amar Chitra Katha

So, I’m trying to figure out what the earliest comics I read were. As a 5, 6, 7, 8-year old I was crazy for Superman, but mostly in the form of cartoons and t-shirts. I don’t think I read or owned any Superman comics. I didn’t read Archies until I was in about the 11-13 range.

But I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have at least a few Amar Chitra Katha comics around.

Amar Chitra Katha for many years at least seemed to be the monopoly comics publisher in India. I don’t know when they started or anything about the history of the company (though given that this is the Internet, I should probably look that up), but for as long as I could remember, if you bought comics in India, they were Amar Chitra Kathas.

Actually, this is not entirely true. I began devotedly reading and collecting comics in 1986/1987, so when I went to visit India in 1988 I was on the hunt for anything I could find. What I discovered were not only Amar Chitra Kathas, but also Western strip reprints in the English newspapers, and these things:

In 1988, this thing cost 3.00 Rupees (equivalent to about US$0.07) and is so flimsy it almost fell apart on my scanner. I would tell you what it’s about but — as you can see — the art is too horrible to make the effort worthwhile. Although, to be fair, the art is no worse than that found in any number of Robotech comics published by Eternity. Bafflingly, it ends with a one-page Henry strip. I really have no idea what the editorial rationale could have been:

There were also repackaged DC books like this (this one published by India Book House), which seem to have been shoddily recolored for some reason. And check out that threatening “SHAAK!” on the cover — better jump out of the way, Superman! (Art: Curt Swan & Tex Blaisdell, Script: Elliot S! Maggin)

… And this Tarzan book, which also looks like reprints from somewhere else. (I remember copying art out of this comic as a kid.)

On the outside back cover you are commanded to “MAKE MORE WORDS.” Must’ve had trouble selling ad space for this issue…

Plus there were two different James Bond books on the racks from two different publishers. One was this hideously drawn thing from Star Comics / India Book House (art by Anand Wadekar):

And the other was this, which looks drawn professionally enough that I have to assume they licensed the art from overseas. And yet it’s been poorly translated (into English) and shoddily lettered. I also am not sure who exactly published it. In the back it says: “For regional language rights please contact Peacock Features,” “Published by SP Ramanathan,” and “Glidrose Publications.”

But what is REALLY amazing about this book is that it featured actual nudity!!! Look, boobies!!!

I mean, this was in a comic book in India?!?! This is a country that doesn’t allow the depiction of kissing in movies, and put out an arrest warrant for Richard Gere for kissing a woman in public and therefore corrupting the morals of the nation’s children. Never mind the Kama Sutra and the fact that this is the second highest populated country in the world. Just don’t ask where those babies came from. Perhaps, since it was illustrated they could get away with it in the same way they get away with all those topless dancers on the temple walls. Believe me, at 13 years old, I spent A LOT of time with that last panel above. I mean, MASSIVE amounts of time. I mean, INCREDIBLE, MASSIVE, WHOLE LOTS OF TIME. HOURS AND HOURS OF TIME. MEGA COLLOSAL, HUGE TRACTS OF TIME. REAMS OF TIME. GARTANTUAN, MONOLITHIC GALLONS OF TIME. I MEAN, STUPENDOUS, INCALCULABLE AMOUNTS OF TIME. (Of course, she could have had a bikini on in the original which they “colored out” in the Indian reprint.)

Weirdly, this comic ends with a bunch of trivia and activities for kids and a Hindu mythology text story, which brings me all the way back to…

Amar Chitra Katha, which still seemed to have a stranglehold on the religious and moral stories for the longest time. (Although by the time I visited in 2001 there did seem to be a least one competitor in this department as well in the form of Archie-digest-sized “Diamond Comics,” though it was really a very poor cousin). Amar Chitra Katha comics fell into a few basic categories: religious comics (stories of the Hindu gods), animal fables, and occasional historical comics. As far as I can tell they produced a few hundred in total and then just kept reprinting them a gajillion times. When you went to a newsstand, you were lucky if you found a title you hadn’t seen before. Sometimes issues would come with checklists in the back pages which were about as random as the figures pictured on the back of Kenner Star Wars figures. I think they re-numbered the series from time to time too. Anyway, I bought a stack when I visited India in 1988, and when I went to buy more during my 2001 visit they still had all the same titles on the racks, only now with glossy cardstock covers and slightly better paper. (In the only days, both the covers and interiors were printed on passable newsprint.)

As a kid and even now as an adult, the animal fables are okay and all, but it’s the religious titles that are really spectacular. By which I mean craptastic.

If you have only brushed against Hindu mythology in even the vaguest way, you can probably imagine without anyone having to tell you that Hindu religious stories — like all religious stories — are pretty bonkers, overflowing with illogic that is readily drowned out by multi-armed, multi-headed, multi-skin-toned, fanged gods, loaded down with Mr. T level jewelry and crowns, and constant warring between each other and each other’s camps.

The problem is that most of the artists on the Amar Chitra Katha books were journeymen at best, and the work was generally substandard. The interiors were never a lick on the painted covers. Ye olde bait and switch (Interior Art: Chandrakant D. Rane, Script: Anant Pai):

And you rarely ever saw one artist do more than a couple of issues at most. I don’t know much about how Amar Chitra Katha works, but judging from comic industries in general, and the fact that this is India we’re talking about here, I have to imagine the artists were treated like shit, paid poorly, and then never paid again for the tens of thousands of reprints of their work across multiple languages. Of course I could just be slinging mud here where none is deserved.

At any rate there was one artist who stood out: C. M. Vitankar. He had a warm, clean line; did fine figure work with a command of facial expressions; and had solid storytelling chops. This guy knew what he was doing and he was good enough to be the only Amar Chitra Katha cartoonist I know of that appears in Lambiek’s list of cartoonists. (Note the signature of the Jataka Tales cover above.) But sadly like other Amar Chitra Katha artists, he only did two or three issues that I know of. This does not, however, keep his “Ganesha” from being one of the great comics of all time in my book. (Script: Kamala Chandrakant)

Ganesha Cover

But all this intellectual talk about art and artists distracts from the heart of the matter, which is that the central appeal of these comics for me as a kid was that they were horrifically violent and featured regular mutilations, dismemberments, and decapitations. While my parents might have hesitated to allow us watching violent cartoons (actually they were quite liberal, and mostly just complained about such cartoons rather than banned them), they had no qualms or comments about us reading things like this:

The Decapitation of Ganesha. Art: C.M. Vitankar, Script: Kamala Chandrakant

… or this:

From “Dasha Avatar.” Art: Pratap Mulick, Script: Kamala Chandrakant

… among dozens of other such scenes. The reason for my parents’ “lax” attitude couldn’t have been religious since Dad is a staunch atheist. It must have simply been because the comics were Indian so they were happy for us to be consuming them. But as a kid, my response to these scenes was: “Blood! Guts! Awesome!” I remember taking these comics to school in, like, Grades 5 and 6 and showing them off to the other kids who were duly impressed or sometimes stupefied that I owned such things and that this was a religion wholly unlike anything they’d ever read in their bibles. (I guess all those kids must have skipped the Old Testament and the crucifixion.)

Those panels and stories have stayed with me my whole life. I wanted to avoid titling this post “Early Influences” because I have trouble identifying the direct influences in my own work (though believe me, I know full well that WCT is a pastiche). But I’m shaped and therefore inspired by everything — every book, every song, every sitcom episode — and every person I’ve ever met in my life. They have all had some hand in the formation of my personality, physiologically encoding themselves into my RNA as memories. I’m inspired constantly: I see something funny or frightening and I feel like picking up a pen.

But I have to admit that the ultraviolence in Weird Crime Theater must have a direct lineage going back to the Amar Chitra Katha religious comics which dissolved any inhibitions I might have otherwise had about such things. What a colossal debt I owe them, and what a profound effect they’ve had on the makeup of my personality, unconscious or otherwise.

Something I never imagined would happen, but has is that there seems to be an interest in Hindu mythology developing in the West. A few years ago Virgin Comics attempted and failed to launch a line of Hindu mythology comics in the US. I flipped through a few of these but the dreary, muddy coloring made them unreadable in my eyes…

“Ramayan 3392” I think it’s called.

Where were all the colorful costumes and jewelry? And the art seemed to be aping the current art styles at DC and Marvel. One of their titles seemed to be some kind of Ramayana set in the future! Despite Virgin’s sad-to-say-it predictable failure, Grant Morrison is supposedly working on some kind of Mahabharata CGI movie, we’ve just had Nina Paley’s fine animated Ramayana adaptation called SITA SINGS THE BLUES, and Cartoon Network in Asia is supposedly airing a series of Amar Chitra Katha adaptations. (Incidentally, many, many years ago, I once submitted a proposal to Dark Horse for a comic book series adapting the Ramayana and I never heard a peep back from them.)

Still, none of these “slick” modern interpretations have any of the visceral emotional impact that those old Amar Chitra Katha comics gave me in my youth and still do to this day — or, at least, the memory of them.

 

Epilogue:

Just a few months ago my parents were visiting India and I asked them to buy me a few Amar Chitra Katha’s for when they came to see us in Australia. But what they brought me was THIS:

P.S. PLUG: Yes, there is a whole other comics scene in India these days as well. This anthology features work by an Internet acquaintance of mine, Bharath Murthy.