Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Memory: it was always about STAR WARS

I have much to be thankful for:  A healthy, loving family.  A good job that pays the bills.  The time to spend with my family, to read a good book, or to write.  All cliché and classic.  And all true. 

But, since this is a pop-cultural-type blog, and because a new movie is on the horizon, I found myself reminiscing about one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories from childhood.  And, of course, it revolves around Star Wars. 

This was post-Jedi.  Probably was Thanksgiving, 1983, the year Jedi hit theaters.  I don’t remember the details around the day (though I can say, for certain, it was a Thursday), but I do remember what I chose to do to pass the time before the big meal—always held at our house, with my mother doing the bulk of the cooking and preparation.  I grabbed my slipcased edition of the Scholastic Star Wars Treasury. 

These were the abridged storybooks, filled with images from the movies, including scenes that did not make it into the final films (though that may only be true of Star Wars, where they included stills of Biggs Darklighter, as well as one of Luke, with the hat we never see in the film, looking to the sky through binoculars to watch the Star Destroyer and Tantive IV battling above Tattooine).  This film trilogy was my all-time favorite for many, many years, and the idea of sitting down to read all these books sounded like a gift to myself. 

And it was.  I draped myself across the arms of the chair in our front room and began reading.  Didn’t stop ‘til I’d gotten through all three, which wasn’t a huge chore, these being abridged and all.  It was a great way for me to enjoy my favorite movies because I’m certain we didn’t yet own a VCR, and my uncle only had Star Wars and Empire for his laserdisc player. 

The memory of that day, sitting and reading those books, with all those images direct from the films, gives me a nice, warm feeling in my nostalgic gut.  I hope, after taking my youngest to “The Force Awakens,” that he will find similar memories to look back on someday, like I have with this. 


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

ADDENDUM for A Fistful of Comic Book Annuals – a new #2

Thirty-plus years of collecting comics, with 17 near-capacity longboxes and counting, means there are some holes in my memory as to what I own and what I’ve read (two different things).  As a result, a glaring omission was made in my recent post, A Fistful of Comic Book Annuals.  Not only did I leave off one of my top 5 comic book annuals, I actually left off the one I would put at number 2—Secret Origins Annual #2, from 1987 (no surprise there).

This second annual looks at the origins of the two most famous scarlet speedsters—Barry Allen and Wally West.  First, readers get to sit in on Wally West’s hour with his therapist, as he works to rediscover the speed he has lost since taking on the mantel of the Flash.  Over the course of the story, written by then-regular Flash scribe, William Messner-Loebs, with art from Mike Collins, Wally shares his origin along with many of the highlights of his superhero career.  His therapist laughs at much of it, at the ridiculousness of some of the scenarios, and then asks the most important question—does Wally feel as if he’s unable to live up to Barry’s ideal, made more overwhelming with his death?  In a telling scene, the therapist asks Wally to tally up the number of people he’s saved in the course of the past year, and Wally comes up with a total of hundreds.  And yet, he feels as if he’s not doing enough, that Barry would be disappointed.  Meanwhile, the therapist discusses the one time he saved someone from drowning, how the glow of that act stayed with him for weeks, and feels that, maybe, Wally should allow that the people he has saved might think differently about his ability as a superhero. 

This desire, on Wally’s part, to get back the speed he’s lost, to be better, to live up to Barry’s memory, something impossible for anyone to achieve, became the thematic spine of the main Flash series for years afterward, propelling the narratives, and Wally’s characterization, forward, and making him, in my (and many others’) opinion, the best Flash DC comics ever had.  And the idea that did the most to propagate that reality was born here. 

In the second half of this annual, we get the origin of Barry Allen, the second Flash and predecessor to Wally.  More vibrant in death—Barry’s sacrifice in issue 8 of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as he ran faster than he’d ever run, in order to destroy the Anti-Monitor’s cannon—this origin, from writer Robert Loren Fleming and classic Flash artist, Carmine Infantino, with inks by Murphy Anderson, offers little in the way of “secrets.”  Much of Flash’s life from his long-lived series was well-known, and there were relatively few nuggets for Fleming to unearth.  But the story hums along nicely, aided masterfully by Infantino’s elastic, flowing linework that epitomizes, for me, the Flash (no comic artist has ever done super-speed as well as Infantino).  Until the end, as readers watch Flash race against the Anti-Monitor’s cannon again, the combination of anti-matter and insane speeds reached by Barry sending him, or an astral image, back through time, touching, again, on many of the important scenes from his life.  And then, as he approaches that fateful day when lightning struck Barry and showered him in the chemicals that made him the Flash, he discovers that, all along, he was that lightning bolt, propelled back in time by his sacrifice.  And, once more, the Flash was off and running to battle the bad guys of Central City.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Fistful of Comic Book Annuals

NOTE: an addendum has been made to this post.  You can see above (if you're reading this soon after publication), or check here for the new #2 annual in my personal top 5.  

Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks.  Everyone has a Top 5, but A Fistful just sounds way damn cooler.

Note:  This post fueled by Nostalgia TM 

Inspired by a recent Comic Geek Speak episode, in which the gang waxed rhapsodic about their own five favorite comic book annuals, here are my top five. 

 6. Psi-Force annual #1 (1987), written by Danny Fingeroth, art by Mark Texeira

Marvel’s New Universe was about the strangeness, and the heroes, right outside your door.  Unencumbered by a quarter-century (then) of continuity, with stories taking place in disparate American cities, it really felt that way.  Despite the bad rap the New Universe has gotten, in retrospect, I love Psi-Force, without reservation or irony, and this annual, at the end of its first year of publication, shook up the status quo in a dramatic way, with one of the regular team members choosing to leave, in order to allow the team’s former enemy, Thomas Boyd—now on the run from the clandestine organization hunting these kids, with which he worked to try and capture Psi-Force.  The writing is a bit rough, though not Claremontian-rough, but the story is solid with beautiful art from Mark Texeira, early in his career.  This story, upending the status quo in the manner it does, feels big and important, worthy of an oversized annual.

 5. The Flash Annual #1 (1987), written by Mike Baron, art by Jackson Guice & Larry Mahlstedt

The Flash is my favorite superhero, and when the title returned, albeit with Wally West rather than Barry Allen, on the heels of Legends, I was excited.  This annual, published after only four issues of the regular series, takes Wally to Hong Kong, where he looks to learn how to harness his chi, in order to control Dim Mak, the death touch he exhibited in the opening of the issue.  It’s a fun story that showcases Flash’s impatience (he’s got superspeed, get it?) as well as expanding on a major theme that runs through the bulk of the Wally West run—that of Wally learning how to be a hero, as well as a man, and coming to terms with the grave responsibility thrust upon him when his Uncle Barry died in the Crisis.  Though they would never return to this aspect of Wally’s powers, it helps lay the groundwork for much that followed…and it was damn cool to infuse the Scarlet Speedster with some zen mysticism and martial arts. 

 4. Justice League of America annual #2 (1984), written by Gerry Conway, art by Chuck Patton & Dave Hunt

“The End of the Justice League!”  Frustrated at members unwilling to give their all to the league, Aquaman, as acting chairman and the only founding member still active full-time, disbands the Justice League.  Many of the current roster protest, like Firestorm and Green Arrow, but very few of them are able to give themselves to the league full-time.  So, it is settled.  Except for Zatanna’s and Elongated Man’s desire to continue with the league coupled with the surprising return of J’onn J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter.  With this core, including Aquaman, a new league could be formed from the ashes, and they set about with that in mind.  Through the rest of this story, this rejuvenated JLA gets a new headquarters in Detroit and a number of new members, including Vixen, Steel, Vibe, and Gypsy.  It’s JLDetroit, baby!  Like the Psi-Force annual above, JLA annual #2 shook up the status quo and delivered a story that felt important and dramatic, worthy of an annual.  From here, Conway & Patton, with Luke McDonnell coming on later as artist, would chart a brand new course for the Justice League, sans the “big guns” of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al., and take some chances.  There are many who look no this short era of the league with disdain, but after the Bwa-ha-ha version that would follow, this is “my Justice League.” 

 3. G.I. Joe Yearbook #3 (1987), written by Larry Hama, art by Ron Wagner, Mike Zeck, et al.

The first comic book I collected was G.I. Joe.  Loved it.  Still love it.  Larry Hama’s infusion of grand soap operatic plotting with complex political machinations and intertwined backstories, combined with over-the-top villains, similarly colorful heroes, super-secret bases and weapons, and all-out action made, and makes, for some great comics.  This story, “Hush Job,” is another important one worthy of an annual.  Snake-Eyes, having infiltrated Cobra disguised as Flint, was discovered and subdued, and is now being held in Cobra’s consulate building in New York City.  Scarlet and Storm Shadow decide to go in and rescue him.  There are ninjas, Dr. Mindbender, Baroness, bullets, bombs, and action, all told without dialogue, as in issue #21.  Ron Wagner’s art is wonderful, detailed and uncluttered, with some great choreography for the fight scenes.  There’s drama and emotion, as Storm Shadow battles to free his friend while Scarlett is discovered by the Baroness in the lower levels of the building, and the final twist, though questionable from a plot standpoint, still works—it’s G.I. Joe, come on.  Add a bunch of extras, including lengthy summaries of the past year’s cartoon and comic book adventures, pin-ups from Mike Zeck, and a short story in the back drawn by Zeck that recounts how a Roman praetor utilized the invention of pizza to defeat the Gauls, and you have a full comic that was well worth the cover price. 

NEW #2. 

see here for the full post on this issue.

1. Superman annual #11 (1984), written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons. 

“For the Man Who Has Everything.”  The best single-issue Superman story ever told, in my opinion.  Mongul has come to Earth to defeat Superman, on the day he celebrates his birthday, bringing an alien plant, the Black Mercy, as his weapon.  Attaching itself to its victim, the Black Mercy puts the victim into a catatonic state by offering up an alternate reality where the victim’s greatest wishes come true, offering a virtual reality the victim does not wish to leave.  Batman, Wonder Woman, and Robin, come to the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate Kal-El’s birthday, happen upon this and work to save their friend.  It does not go well, as Wonder Woman battles Mongul while Batman & Robin attempt to free Superman from the Black Mercy’s clutches. 

Superman is lost in a world where Krypton did not blow up, where he had the chance for a family, a wife and children, and where everything was perfect…almost.  It’s an idyllic setting, until rifts start to show, rifts in the political realities of this Krypton that are revealed due to Superman’s psyche fighting the alien plant.  He knows this isn’t right, knows he must return to Earth to be the hero he was born to be.  And, in the end, Kal-El gives up this life, gives up his home, his wife, his kids, and leaves them to return to his true reality.  But, when he comes to—as the plant jumps to Batman, plunging him into a reality where his parents were not killed in that dark alley—Superman is left with all the memories of the family he never had, and the pain he felt at leaving them behind.  He is mad.  And he takes it out on Mongul. 

Their battle is mean and destructive and all too human.  And that is what Moore, and Gibbons, brought to this tale, the truest sense of humanity, and the pain concomitant his parents’ sacrifice, that I’ve ever seen in a Superman story.  Dave Gibbons, a master comic artist, brings it all to life in a way that accentuates this humanity, grounding it all with his precise linework.  “For the Man Who Has Everything” is a master class in doing a poignant, engaging, and entertaining, done-in-one comic story that will make you think and illuminate the characters on the page.  This is a great comic that you must read, if you want to call yourself a real comic fan. 


Monday, November 2, 2015

More Millar: STARLIGHT with Goran Parlov

Mark Millar is a smart guy.  Namely, he knows that comics is a visual medium, and he works with some of the absolute best artists working in the field.  Starlight is no different.  Goran Parlov is an artist whose work I don’t remember seeing before, though I was aware of his name from Parlov’s run with Garth Ennis on Punisher.  So, I was anxious to see what he could do, while also checking out some of Mark Millar’s recent work (having also just read Kingsman, with art by the legendary Dave Gibbons). 

Starlight is an homage to the adventure serials Millar used to watch as a child, heavily influenced by one of the ultimate pulp/sci-fi heroes, Flash Gordon.  And it is a pretty fun romp.  Duke McQueen, the Flash Gordon analogue, is older, his sons with families of their own, his wife recently deceased, his life passing into twilight.  Ever since his adventures on the alien world of Tantalus, McQueen has lived with the fact that his stories of adventure were never believed by the general populace, leaving him as the butt of jokes from neighborhood children and, upon his immediate return from Tantalus decades ago, news reporters.  But, at this point in his life, McQueen has resigned himself to being the target of ridicule. 

Until a starship from Tantalus lands in his backyard, a pink-haired child emerging in the rain to greet him with both excitement and a bit of awe.  Tantalus needs Duke McQueen again, to save them from a new tyranny.  Hesitant at first, McQueen acquiesces and returns to the planet of his greatest triumphs, Earth having nothing left for him. 

From here, we get some fighting, some acrobatics (from an old guy, but come on, it’s fiction), some gunplay, a despotic villain, equally evil henchmen, flying cars, beautiful, alien women, a twist, a feint, some slapstick, and flashbacks of exotic adventure.  There’s nothing new in this book, and Millar isn’t trying to revolutionize comics, but the narrative hums along smoothly, offering some fun scenes that all lead to the climax we expect, with a nice emotional denouement that brings McQueen closer to his sons—or, more to the point, his sons closer to their dad—and it’s professional and competent and doesn’t trip over itself, plot-wise.  It’s a fun, popcorn adventure. 

That said:  Damn, can Goran Parlov freakin’ draw.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.  This is one of the most beautiful comics I’ve read in a long time, and Parlov elevates Starlight far above its weight class (to mix a horrible metaphor…shaken, not stirred, please).  His figures look like they were based on character sheets from Alex Toth, while the backgrounds and architecture feel like they were lifted directly from an unpublished tome of Moebius’s work, and it all just sings—aided wonderfully by coloring from Ive Svorcina.  If you enjoy comics, and if you love great comic art, you need to check this book out.  Take your time, linger on every page, drink in the wonder of Parlov’s art.  Not since Scott Morse, or maybe Frank Santoro, have I been so bowled over by an artist’s work in a comic book.  Parlov’s so good, I might have to check out his work on Punisher now.