Friday, January 30, 2015

Sandman volume 4: Season of Mists

One of my favorite comic podcasts has long been the Comic Geek Speak show.  One of their regular features, in the early days, was their Book of the Month Club series – great conversations about important and noteworthy comic series.  As the show has gone through personnel changes, through its near-ten years of podcasting, things have changed, and for some time the BOMC episodes became a thing of the past.  But in the past year, they have been brought back, and the geeks have been working their way through Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, interspersing those episodes with other, great books.  Their most recent, discussing Season of Mists, spotlights my favorite storyline of this series, which meant…I had some thoughts on it.  

To my mind, Season of Mists is where things open up for this particular Sandman mythos. Preludes & Nocturneswas a Campbellian "hero quest," as Morpheus went in search of his symbols of power. The Doll's House expanded readers' knowledge of the Dreaming, as the challenge of a new dream vortex almost spurs Morpheus to spill family blood. And Dream Country told what some might feel as tangential tales that provide a bit more knowledge about the Sandman. 

With this collection, Gaiman & co. expand the world of the Sandman far beyond its initial DCU bounds (which, with a few exceptions, had been shucked off a while back). There is a wider world to explore, one introduced through the many pantheons of gods showcased in this story. With Odin and Bast and Choronzon and all the other puissant beings coming to the Dreaming, we finally get a better understanding of what it means for Morpheus to be the "Dream King." This title becomes manifest through the traditions and formalities utilized by these awesome (in the traditional sense) beings, exhibiting a reverence and respect that is reinforced by the beings displaying it. 

In re-reading this, one of the things that stood out for me was the way in which Gaiman uses language in this story. Everything is very formal, with social rules to be followed, and within these feudal constructs a certain reverence for language and its beauty is retained, for the most part. The dialogue feels of an older time - from the announcement of Morpheus's intention to visit Hell to the discussions with the many gods about the disbursement of the Key to Hell - and yet, it also feels contemporaneous, so as not to be off-putting to readers (I would guess). It's a fine balancing act that Gaiman manages superbly. I think it all falls down to his use of a more current lexicon fitted into an older grammatical sentence structure, though not having my copy to hand may mean I am misremembering. Anyway, this is one of the things I loved about this book. 

Kelley Jones's art is another thing to love about the book. His almost caricaturish figures work well in such an over-the-top plot (Lucifer abdicates Hell and a host of different gods vie for its ownership). The way he draws Thor is wonderful, and a perfect visual metaphor for the thunder god, and the billowing cloak that embodies Morpheus is another wonderful visualization bordering on metaphor. I don't know how much thought went into it, on Jones's part, and how much may have been in the script, but it all works very well. It's also impressive how he manages to infuse his style with more traditional styles when drawing the various gods, most especially showcased in the visualization of Susano-o-no-Mikoto, particularly when he is isolated, and Morpheus as he shifts his guise for the various meetings with these deities. I was lucky enough to meet Jones, at a show here in Maine, shortly after the hardcover of this came out. Despite being an Oakland A's fan, he was a pretty good guy.

Something else I appreciated, in reading this again, was how much of the final act of Sandman is set up in these pages, roughly 50 issues prior to the finale, depending on where it falls in the storyline. I don't want to give much away, for those who haven't read it all yet, but there are some very significant choices made by Morpheus - with Loki, with Hippolyta Hall's baby - that prove to be crucial for him, down the line. 

Final thoughts -
I met Matt Wagner at a show, a number of years ago, and got him to sign my copy of Season of Mists. He shared with me that when he received the script, which he was excited about, he was disappointed to find that Morpheus was nowhere to be found in the story. Wagner asked for Gaiman to either include, or allow him to include, that image of Morpheus in the opening of his story, so he could have the chance to actually draw the dream king.

Mike Dringenberg: If it weren't for him, I might consider Kelley Jones to be the definitive Sandman artist. But Dringenberg's work is, for me, the seminal delineation of Morpheus. I just love how he draws the Sandman, as well as all the other characters, and having him draw the opening and closing chapters of this book is like icing on the cake. Beautiful, beautiful work.

If you have yet to read Sandman, what's wrong with you?!?  Get on it!  It is one of the best stories ever told in this medium.  


Sunday, January 25, 2015

What It Is – week ending 25 January [2015]

With apologies to Dave the Thune (as well as Mike Baron & Steve Rude).

Every day.  1000 words.  That’s the goal.

Finally felt comfortable back in the world of my current novel (which, I should note, will only be the second novel I’ve completed, when I do finish this draft, and the first one I will actively submit for publication, once revisions are complete).  Passed 60,000 words on the manuscript and worked on outlining the major landmarks for this second half.  Now that there’s a rough path to follow, I’m excited to dive right in and see where these characters take me.

Over at Comic Geek Speak, they’ve brought back their Book of the Month Club episodes, and the next one, which should drop on iTunes this coming week, is a discussion of the fourth Sandman volume, “Season of Mists.”  Sandman is probably my all-time favorite long-form comic series.  This was the first hardcover collection DC published, back in the day before collected editions became typical, and I managed to grab the final copy from my LCS owner, at the time, at the second Nostalgia-Con he put on, up here in the Bangor, Maine area, in the early 90s.  Kelley Jones was the special guest, and I got him to sign my edition, and that was the point where I dove headfirst into collecting Sandman – the single issues, the hardcovers, the slipcase for the initial trade paperbacks of volumes 1-3 (which they eventually collected in hardcover as the series was winding down), the statues, the platinum editions of special issues, all in. 
Anyway.  This is probably my favorite storyline of the series, for a number of reasons, including this memory and getting the chance to meet Jones.  I plan on posting some thoughts on this collection later in the week.  Look for it, if you’re so inclined.

I have also begun my re-read of Matt Wagner’s Grendel, which will eventually turn into a “first-read” when I close in on the Grendel-Prime stories.  It’s been a few years since I read these first Grendel stories – I read “Devil by the Deed” in its original, oversized, collected edition and have begun the “Devil’s Legacy” storyline – and I’d forgotten how compelling they are, while also being experiments in how to tell a comic story.  In hindsight, one can see how Wagner was approaching comics from a different point of view to the mainstream.  “Devil by the Deed” is almost an illustrated novella with its large blocks of text and art deco imagery that owes more to magazine design than comic book pages.  It’s a wonderful melding of illustrated prose and comics that works as a distinct work of art.  With the opening of “Devil’s Legacy,” Wagner, with the Pander Bros. on art, still utilizes broad blocks of text, but these are the personal journals of Christine Spar, the “author” of the previous “novel,” and it is interesting to see how Wagner will use these bits of text to infuse confusion into the readers, through the confusion of the narrator, juxtaposed with the imagery that helps to clarify the muddled prose.  It’s an interesting way to circumvent the problem some run into with text-heavy comics, where the prose explains what is obvious in the pictures.  Wagner was obviously aware of this pitfall, and, though there cannot help but be instances where he falls into this trap of explaining what the audience can see in the panels, he manages to fuse the words and pictures nicely into a narrative that does not resemble the same format as his previous Grendel tale.  It’s a young artist choosing not to sit on his laurels and, instead, making the decision to experiment and see if he can tell a story in a new way.  It’s great, and they hold up so well, even thirty years on. 

Watched Pulp Fiction this week.  I had forgotten just how damn good Quentin Tarantino is (and maybe I wrote that last week; if so, I apologize, which does not negate its truth).  The dialogue, the scenarios, the way he shoots a scene, and the way he puts all the pieces together – it’s pretty amazing, especially considering this was only his second feature film.  Tarantino shows you enough, but also isn’t afraid to pull the camera away from a character while they may be talking or to hide the scene behind an ominous door (you know what I’m talking about), in order to evoke an emotional response that is enhanced by the absence of the visualization but not the sound – he understands how crazy our minds can become when forced to craft a grotesque or dramatic image (though I also think this is a reaction to budgetary constraints – particularly in Reservoir Dogs – and an artistic response to such fiscal realities).  Looking forward to Jackie Brown next. 

As always, check out my friends – Brad& Matt and Don McMillan for their own weekly recaps on things comic-y and geeky, and we'll see what's what in seven.  


Sunday, January 18, 2015

What It Is – week ending 18 January [2015]

With apologies to Dave the Thune (as well as Mike Baron & Steve Rude).

Every day.  1000 words.  That’s the goal.

Shifted back over to the novel.  I ended the first part toward the end of November and knew that December would be busy.  But now that we’re past the holidays, it’s time to dive back in and get this first draft done.  Initially, I planned to start adding to the manuscript on Monday, but that didn’t happen.  Typically, when I’ve completed one story and it’s time to move onto something else, it takes a few days of procrastination (possibly writing something for this site or taking a day or two off from writing) to get past that fear of the blank page – this one only happened to be on manuscript page 197 of this document, but it was still the same.  Anyway.  By Thursday, I had exhausted all other writing avenues and re-entered the world of Ledge Island, Maine.  It was tough, a fact that wasn’t surprising.  I needed jus the right sentence to lead me back inside, which involved rewriting that opening sentence at least a dozen times.  It was frustrating, but I now have three days of writing within this narrative world again, and every day it comes a little more easily.  I hope to have this draft completed by the end of March so that I can think about doing a heavy revision beginning in October.  We’ll see how things go.

That said, I still have my streak intact – 18 days into 2015, with 18 days of writing.  Feeling good about this year.  We’ll see.

As for that ancillary writing that filled the gap, prior to getting back to the novel, I polished up three pieces for the website (each needing varying degrees of polish):  a look at where I’ve had stories published, a reminiscence ten years on from the publication of the first issue of Warrior27 by Dan and me, and a special 400th post looking at Superman’s 400th issue, from 1984, one of my all-time favorite single comics, if not my favorite.  Check ‘em out. I think you’ll like them.

Finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir this week.  Big thanks to Dan Fleming for recommending this to me.  It’s a phenomenal piece of work – a near-future look at an astronaut stranded on Mars, after the mission is bolloxed by a huge sandstorm, and how he survives a year and a half on that desolate planet, while awaiting a rescue operation that may not be successful.  The intelligence behind the scenarios and the distinctiveness of the myriad characters’ voices was impressive.  I look forward to Weir’s next offering to see if he can achieve a similar storytelling success. 

Over at the ITMODcast, the guys recently offered their cinematic resolutions for 2015 – films they want to watch for the first time, in order to broaden their horizons as movie fans.  For me, I want to watch all of  Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre (or re-watch, as the case may be) as well as Wes Anderson’s body of work (I’ve only seen Tenenbaums) and continue working through my Akira Kurosawa box set from Criterion.  To that end, I rewatched Reservoir Dogs this week and was just as impressed this time around as the first.  The way Tarantino used the camera to pull away from the grisliest of scenes to burn it more hotly into the viewers’ brains, as well as his ability to have a heist movie that never showed any of the heist but still allowed one to perfectly visualize it, is a master class not only in filmmaking but in economic filmmaking.  Great stuff.  Can’t wait to check out Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown again, and then move into new territory.  Thanks, Netflix. 

And, as always, check out my friends – Brad & Matt and Don McMillan for their own weekly recaps on things comic-y and geeky, and we'll see what's what in seven.  


Friday, January 16, 2015

SUPERMAN #400 – for our 400th post

This is the four-hundredth post at Warrior27, and that number immediately conjures up memories of one of my favorite single issues of a comic book ever – the 1984 anniversary edition of Superman 400.  It’s a super-sized issue (it’s 64 pages & cost $2.00!) filled with superstar talent, and it is one of the comics I would bring to that metaphorical desert isle, if I were ever relegated to such a fate. 

Let’s start with that cover – a beautiful painting that feels more like a movie poster than a comic cover.  In a collage of images readers are given the story of Superman, with the Man of Steel front and center.  It was years before I discovered this was drawn by Howard Chaykin, whose work I have come to admire greatly.  His style is almost subsumed by his painting, but if you look closely enough, and know what you’re looking for, it becomes obvious this is a Chaykin piece (the signature hidden in the top stripe of the American flag also gives it away).  Then, on the inside cover, we are treated to a quick introduction to the wonder of Superman and the importance of this character by legendary author Ray Bradbury, whose works of science fiction and fantasy transcended genre to become literary classics, in a manner parallel to how Superman, as a character, transcended the “gutters” of comic book publishing to become a worldwide icon.  Fitting.

The issue itself is divided between pin-ups and short stories.  With a lone exception, these are all written by longtime Superman scribe, Elliot S! Maggin, and all of them relate legends that have cropped up around Superman in the future.  The variety in tone and point of view for these tales is impressive and far-ranging, and readers would be forgiven for not realizing they all came from the same typewriter.  And every one – every single story – is great, in its way.

After an introductory three pages drawn beautifully by Joe Orlando, the first story proper is drawn by Al Williamson.  Set in 2199 on the lunar city of Armstrong City, we follow a futuristic snake oil salesman, regaling a group of locals with his tale of being rescued by Superman and the secret recipe the Kryptonian offered him, which became his “Superman Nectar.”  It’s a fun tale that mixes a wild west setting – Armstrong City is modeled off the frontier towns of the American old west – with hovercars and other science fictional elements.  Though the narrative is fun, the real star here is Williamson, who, not being anchored to actors’ likenesses as with his contemporaneous Star Wars work, really shines with his traditional, but beautiful, renderings. 

Next, we have Frank Miller drawing a story about scientists who have discovered the true identity of Superman.  They use the unearthed video footage of the 1950s Superman television show starring George Reeves.  In that show, it’s revealed that Superman is actually Clark Kent – coupled with the inclusion of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and others in the TV show, the scientists extrapolate the truth and offer it to this world of the future.  Again, it’s a fun story that plays on the broader Superman mythos and gives readers an interesting take on the character that wouldn’t normally be included in the regular comic. 

The next story is one of my favorites – a dystopian tale of repression.  The future Metropolis is held under thrall by the Metropolis Militia, working for the rich to keep the masses under its militaristic thumb.  This tale follows a homeless man as Christmas nears.  Cold, hungry, with nothing but the clothes on his back, he slips into the old library building to get warm and find a place to sleep.  Looking for a blanket, he finds a Superman suit and puts it on.  On his discovery by a guard, he is immediately fired upon … and the suit deflects the blasts. This leads the homeless man to rush outside and show the rest of the downtrodden how to resist.  He shouts into the night, “Resist!  Resist!” until the militia realize it’s the suit protecting him and fire at his head, disintegrating the man. 

But his cries of resistance shudder over the crowd gathered in front of the library.  They push back against the militia, using their numbers to roll over the armed guards, and the dreams of freedom and peace that Superman inspired centuries past are born again.  This story was drawn by Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin, and their work is stunning.  Whereas I remember feeling that Rogers’s art for the Silver Surfer relaunch, which would come a few years after, was tired and uninspired, the work on these handful of pages is fantastic. 

Following this, we get a story drawn by Wendy Pini, whose “mainstream” comic work is few and far between.  Set in space, on the off-world campus of Brandeis University, we follow a small group of students as they watch a video lecture, wherein two professors attempt to explain who Superman was.  The debate devolves into a silly argument about which one of them is correct – one claiming the super-suit they are examining was used by an empowered female, while the other believes it was a “masculine product of the popular imagination.”  The students eventually turn off the video, as the vitriol between the two professors reaches an extreme level, and Maggin nicely sums up the theme of this short narrative with his final captions. 

Michael Kaluta’s delicate linework brings the next story to life, which is a premonitive tale about a virtual reality “theater.”  Two boys in this far future world run into each other as they enter the theater, where they are going to role-play a Superman story through pairs of special goggles.  It’s an immersive experience, with one boy playing Superman, with his own imagined powers rather than those with which people are familiar, and the other playing the victim.  In the end, the day is saved.  And then it’s time for the boys to switch roles.  Another really fun story elevated by Kaluta’s beautiful art.

The penultimate story takes place in the year 5902, and is my favorite of the whole issue.  Illustrated by Klaus Janson, his exceptional skill at delineating body language and facial expressions is something wonderful to behold.  In this far flung tale, humankind has moved beyond war and famine and injustice, and every year celebrates Superman’s legacy with Miracle Monday, a day when all families come together for a special meal where each member adds food from their plates to the empty one reserved for Superman, against his eventual return.  On this particular night, with this particular family, Superman is actually thrown through time and lands outside their home.  Disoriented, he finds his way to their door, where the family assists him.  Only one of them realizes Superman’s true identity but keeps it secret from the rest of his family.  And, thankful for that and for the bright future he has now experienced, Superman returns every year – unseen by this family – to partake of their generosity and empties the plate, to the delight of all present.  Yes, it hews a bit close to the Christ tale for me – something I did not see when I first read it – but I still enjoy the magic and beauty evident in this short story. 

Finally, we reach the one piece not written by Maggin.  Jim Steranko writes, draws, letters, and colors the final story in this wonderful tome – “The Exile at the Edge of Eternity.”  Told through captions and beautiful double-page spreads, this is the story of the end of humanity.  The last ancestor of Superman, whose DNA has intermingled with humanity for millennia, makes the ultimate sacrifice, focusing all the energies of the rest of humankind into ten beings in order to halt the death of the universe.  The unleashing of this energy, through the expiration of these ten beings, leaves the architect of this plan a mere mortal, who is now the last man alive in the cosmos.  But it also spurs new growth and renewed life on Earth, and as this tale ends, a new Eve emerges from these energies, presaging a new beginning for humankind. 

Then, there are the pinups scattered throughout. These are phenomenal, adding to the already stacked deck of creators who contributed to this landmark issue.  You saw the listing of talent on the front cover.  But if you’ve forgotten, there are some fabulous images from some of the very best ever to delineate a figure in these four-color wonders – people like Berni Wrightson, whose moody inks bring to life power of the Man of Steel, or Walter Simonson, whose distinct and strong linework showcases an exultant Superman astride a huge S-shield, held aloft by all of his supporting cast, or John Byrne, who was THE superstar artist of the day and would go on to revamp Kal-El two years later for the character’s fiftieth anniversary, or Jerry Robinson, the golden age artist known for his signature work on Batman, who has the dynamic duo swinging in for a Superman statue dedication ceremony, where a mayor looking very much like Ed Koch presides over a crowd filled with real-life celebrities and comic book characters alike, or Jack Davis, legendary Mad Magazine artist with his distinct rendition of Clark Kent’s quick-change into his heroic alter-ego, complete with an impatient elderly woman waiting to use the phone booth.  Brian Bolland lends a hyper-detailed rendition of Clark revealing his costume beneath a business suit, while Leonard Starr wishes Superman the best in the next 400 issues with a classic rendition of the Man of Steel flying Annie and her dog through the air, and Mike Grell offers up a stylish image of Clark Kent and Superman side by side, smiling out at the readership, with a golden S-shield behind them.   

If the above murderer’s row of artists sounds great, consider the fact that they are part of the undercard as four true giants of the medium also contributed to this landmark issue – Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and the Creeper, among many other characters, and the only artist who could match in production and quality another contributor to this issue, Jack Kirby, co-creator of the Marvel Universe, as well as the New Gods, Kamandi, the Demon, and myriad other notable characters; there is also Will Eisner, creator of the Spirit and one of those credited with the creation and eventual popularization of the graphic novel format, and Moebius, Jean Giraud, the French comic artist whose Arzach, Lieutenant Blueberrry, and various other creations showcased his supple and beautiful linework. 

All of these talents came together to make this an artistic feast for any and all fans of the comic medium.  My favorite pinup, though, of all these heavyweight ink-slingers has to be the simplest image, which came from Bill Sienkiewicz.  In the back of the book, he offers up a final farewell for the Man of Steel’s 400th issue, as we are treated to Superman flying away from us, at super-speed, with Sienkiewicz’s signature style elevating this far beyond the simple premise from which it was begat.  Just beautiful. 

The smartest thing DC comics did, in preparing this special issue, was to allow the writers and artists to craft stories untethered by continuity.  Given free reign, while not beholden to anything but the primary essence of Superman, imbues each of these tales with a timeless quality.  And designing these narratives as legends set in a future where Superman has been woven into the mythic tapestry of humanity, adds weight to this heroic icon while also reaffirming truths about the ideals and mores for which Superman stands.  These two aspects – the timelessness and legendary quality of the stories – are what allow for frequent re-reads of this book that never disappoint. 

So, for this 400th post, one of my all-time favorite comics.  Superman 400.  Check it out.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. 


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Looking Back – A Decade Since Warrior27 #1

By 2005, four years had passed since a handful of friends and I had first discussed self-publishing our comic anthology, with nothing to show for it.  We all harbored ideas of one day being (magically) discovered as the brilliant creators we knew ourselves to be.  That road is more difficult to hoe when you don’t do the work.  We wrote some scripts and got some pages penciled, but we did not create enough content to fill a proper book, and, even more to the point of why we never published anything, we left all the production stuff to a single person rather than taking on that responsibility as well.  So, in January of 2005, Dan and I decided to finally do something about it and published the first issue of Warrior27.  [see here, here, and here for more on that].  2005 also saw my first published work outside of Warrior27.  That was the year I started to take my writing seriously – emphasis on “started.” 

That first issue, and our first time exhibiting at a convention, was a bust.  But Dan and I learned from the experience and moved forward.  With a bit more lead time, we were more successful in finding artists for the next issue (a few who agreed to work on the inaugural book fell off the face of the earth…or just didn’t return our emails).  Having not found our audience at Wizard World Chicago, we wrapped the new book with a thematic spine across all the stories and decided to exhibit at SPX in 2006, a crowd more in tune with what we were doing with Warrior27.  That second time exhibiting was a great experience.  (might’ve helped that our writing had improved, as well)

Two years later, taking Steven Grant’s advice to write within genres or mediums outside those one aspires to, both Dan and I began writing for the Pulse, a pop culture website where Heidi MacDonald had written.  I wrote the weekly column, “For Your Consideration,” at the Pulse, spotlighting online and small press comics and creators.  Dan wrote, “Am I Alone In This?” encompassing his personal reading journey through comics.  As Grant stated in his own column for CBR, if one wishes to be a writer, one needs to write and take the opportunity for publication wherever it may come, because any and all writing can only help you improve your craft and evaluating one’s writing upon publication affords one a different, and often better, perspective on its success, or lack thereof. 

Dan and I published two more issues of Warrior27, in 2008 and 2009, with ITMOD co-founder, Matt Constantine, joining us, along with some more great artists.  Dan and I also started finding some publishing success outside our own venture.  He got a short story published by Arcana, in their second Dark Horrors anthology, and I started writing some short fiction for a couple of burst culture sites – 50 Years From Now and Elephant Words.  In my mind, I was going to take the Harrison Ford route – just keep plugging away at this creative endeavor until, through atrophy, those others who started at the same time I did will have fallen away like leaves, deciding it was too much effort for too little reward. 

After we published a 254-page of Warrior27, which included all the best stories and articles from those four issues, along with extras like the interview I did with Joe Quesada in 2001, Dan embarked on a year-long blog adventure, My Year In Crime.  For the entirety of 2010 and half of 2011, Dan posted every day on his crime blog.  It was a great exercise and it garnered him a bit of attention, as he landed short interviews with authors Duane Swierczynski and Victor Gischler.  Achievement unlocked.

Not being a fool – and hewing closely to the paraphrased adage to steal the best ideas – I started my own year-long blog project in 2012, Reading Watchmen.  For years, I’d been thinking about writing my own page-by-page analysis of this seminal work by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons. With the template Dan provided, I finally went all in.  Each month was dedicated to a single chapter of the comic, opening with a quick thematic overview of the issue at hand, followed by examinations of the cover and then the page-by-page annotations – a page a day, every day, with the issue’s full annotations at the end of the month.  It was a big project, with daily deadlines, but incredibly fulfilling.  In the end, I wrote a bit over 87,000 words on Watchmen and did not miss a deadline. 

At this point, the writing continues, for both Dan and myself.  I’ve met with some success, having short stories published – comics and prose, alike – every year since 2010, with two more scheduled, hopefully, for publication this year.  Right now, Dan is hip-deep in his non-fiction novel, while I have begun the second half of a novel that’s been sitting in the back of my brain ever since I taught on Matinicus Island, twenty-four miles out in the Atlantic.  We’re not done yet – Dan and I are too damn pig-headed – and with the tenth anniversary of that first issue of Warrior27 coming up this August, we’re thinking of publishing something new.  I don’t know what it will be – and I can’t even say, for certain, that it will get done – but it’s exciting to think we’ve come this far. 

Here’s to the next ten years.