Tag Archives: John Byrne

More capsule reviews

More of those reviews I promised last week…

1. DC Comics Presents #93: Superman and the Elastic Four (DC Comics, 1986. Writer: Paul Kupperberg, Art: Alex Saviuk / Kurt Schaffenburger)

I can’t remember what made me buy this comic. Maybe just the weirdness of the team-up.

Back at the age of eleven, one of the very first comics I owned in the stack of ten or eleven I had at the time was called “Superman and the Atom #51.” There was a kid in my class that year in Grade 7 that was super into comic books, so I brought in the little pile I had to show him. He looked at that one and said, “Oh, yeah. DC Comics Presents number 51.” I had no idea the comic was actually *called* DC Comics Presents — I though that was just a bit of advertising on the cover, ya know. And that was my very first bit of comics education. That kid ended up really getting me into comics, but that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, back to this thing. The Elastic Four are actually Plastic Man, Elastic Lad (Jimmy Olsen) and Elongated Man, and the mystery villain.

That’s a lot of stretchy characters that are all basically the same thing. It was obvious reading this that DC had (and still has) no idea what to do with the Plastic Man property they had acquired. In DC’s hands, he’s just a bog-standard superhero who occassionally turns into unusual objects. That alone should make for some comedy value, but this comic — while not trying to take itself seriously — doesn’t make any effort to make fun of itself either, or at least if it does then it doesn’t do a very good job of it. It was a lot less fun than I was hoping it would be.

Although, with Jack Cole’s Plastic Man the genius was in the cartooning, not particularly in the character (much like Will Eisner’s The Spirit). To make matters worse, Elastic Lad and Elongated Man only stretch — they don’t turn into things. Kyle Baker had the best run on Plastic Man since Jack Cole and the market refused to support him (as I feel it fails to support many humor books). But at least Baker’s run was funny and he knew to turn Plas into funny things to deal with different situations.

The one thing I did kind of like about this comic is that at the end it is revealed that the villain got his stretch powers by replicating the accident that gave Plas his powers. I’m amazed they don’t do this all the time in superhero comics — like, gimme some o’ those cosmic rays, please!

2. Punisher: Get Castle (Marvel Comics, 2010. Writer: Rob Williams, Art: Laurence Campbell, Color: Lee Loughridge)

From about 1988 to 2008, I suffered from acute Punisher-itis, a rare condition in which one is compelled to buy every appearance of the Punisher in a Marvel comic. I am sure there are variants such as Moon-Knight-itis and Spider-Woman-itis, and I plan on writing more about the subject in the future, but for now to make a long story short, when Garth Ennis left the book, so did I. I tthought I might continue buying the title of Tim Bradstreet continued painting the covers, but he left the book at the same time too, so that was that.

He does, however, occassionally come back for one shots so I picked up this miserable little book. PUNISHER: GET CASTLE is a pointless exercise in human scum-dredging with competent, ugly artwork. Ennis’s PUNISHER had to constantly face the never-ending-chain of consequences of his actions, and the effect that relentless killing had on his psyche and that of everyone else who came into his orbit. After Ennis, it was just violence for kicks — and not “fun” violence, but just human ugliness. The post-Ennis MAX Punisher has no personality — neither the muted passion nor the cold awareness of what he is. He is simply an object who moves through 20 odd pages each month so the reader can witness dimly lit torture scenes. There is no enlightenment, elucidation, or entertainment value at the end of it. Boy, I felt grimy after reading this thing. Same goes for PUNISHER: NAKED KILL. If Marvel didn’t put Bradstreet covers on these things, I would simply not buy them, but that’s Punisher-itis, you know?

3. Punisher: Butterfly (Marvel Comics, 2010. Writer: Valerio D’Orazio, Art: Laurence Campbell / Hubert Boulard)

This on the other hand was pretty interesting. The comic was written by Valerie D’Orazio who has been quite shittily treated by the comics industry and famously kept a blog about all the abuses she suffered at its hands. The comic is about a female assassin (who appears to mostly hit mafia targets) who writes a tell-all book and is then marked for death by the mob. There are some obvious parallels there, and there have been some suggestions around the net that this comic is kind of autobiographical in some ways. And it’s not a bad comic.

But, Marvel Comics, if you are going to put out a comic book with PUNISHER in the title, I fucking expect the Punisher to be in it for more than three panels. Had I known, I would not have bought it, you assholes. “Punisher Presents Butterfly” (like “The Punisher Presents Barracuda”) would have been acceptable.

Yes, the Punisher shows up at the end, tells Butterfly: ‘You’ve killed a lot of people” and then kills her. Actually, I’ve never seen a Punisher comic where he kills a mob assassin. My guess is that he would probably let them keep going because they are helping him do his job for him. So, even his three panels in this comic have obviously been shoe-horned in.

4. Fantastic Four #267 (Marvel Comics, 1984. Story & Art: John Byrne)

This is the issue where Sue loses the baby. Sorry if I spoiled that for you twenty years after the fact.

Anyway, Sue storm is pregnant with her second baby, but it has radiation sickess of some sort. The doctors don’t know what to do, so they recommend that Reed goes to the world’s foremost expert on radiation: Otto Octavius, aka Doctor Octopus.

Otto is in a mental institution where he seems to have made a recovery from his evil ways and only wants to help people. He agrees to help Reed. But while they are flying back to the hospital, they pass a Daily Bugle billboard with Spider-Man on it, and Otto flips out, resummoning his mechanical arms from storage, and he fights Reed. Reed manages to beat him, but by the time he manages to get back to the hospital it is revealed that they are too late — the baby has died.

I have a stack of about 12 or 13 John Byrne FF issues that I got from I-don’t-know-where, and I just loved this issue back in the day. I loved the unpredictable insanity of going to a villain for help, the unpredictable goodness and altruism of Doctor Octopus, and the unpredictable shock ending and its dramatic staging. But when I recently went through my comics this issue was missing (what the hell happened to it?!) so I bought a new copy. I found reading it again that it still held up except for Byrne’s art and his goddamn relentless background cheating.

(p.s. Apparently the baby is currently alive in current Marvel continuity. Don’t know how the hell that happened.)

5. Girl Comics #1 (Marvel Comics 2010, Story & Art: various)

The stories in this 3-issue series are all famously (according to press releases) written, pencilled, inked, lettered, colored, and lettered by women. And yet it’s not called Women Comics.

Anyway, very nice art on most of these from an excellent list of creators, but mostly lame stories. It would have been better if the creators had not been restricted to using Marvel superheroes. In fact, the more hero-focused the stories are in here, the worse. Since it is an anthology series though, I will be picking up the next two issues anyway — there could be some good stuff in there.

Gotta love that Amanda Connor cover too.

6. Xenon #1 (Eclipse, 1987. Story & Art: Masaomi Kanzaki)

I’ve been interested in the cover of this since it first came out decades ago, but I never bought it until recently. The interior art is lame compared to the cover, and features the typical muddy reproduction of Japanese comics of the time. The story is about some kind of government program to create a super-cyborg out of a musclebound teenager or something. After a twenty year wait to read this thing, you can tell I’m pretty disappointed, but you can’t judge a book by the cover they always say and I should have listened.

KS

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