April 11th, 2003

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Blog Clearing House #1: Recent Comics Magazines

Picked up a few comic book-type things this week. The latest issue (#11) of the excellent Hogan's Alley magazine, featuring articles on the Spirit daily strip, Dan Pirraro (Bizarro), the guy who does the Ambiguously Gay Duo and other parody cartoons people like but I haven't seen, oddball Peanuts books (I liked the one where Avon products based on Peanuts characters have an adventure to find Linus' blanket --?!?), and Ruben (Tom the Dancing Bug) Bolling's funny recent strips attacking the Wall Street Journal's use of the term, "lucky duckies" in regards to folks so poor they barely pay their share of income taxes. The interview with the late Disney animator Ward Kimball is very good as is the glimpse into Jaime Hernandez working process, which I wish was a bit longer. Hogan's Alley concentrates on strips but delves into animation and comic books and even advertising cartooning among other things, it's well worth a look as every issue is interesting and enlightening without being fanboyish.

Which brings me to Comic Book Marketplace #99, a magazine I occasionally pick up, less so these days, I have to say. I generally like CBM, it's an innocuous and unpretentious little magazine (unlike Roy Thomas bombastic blathering in Alter Ego, where he makes mountains out of molehills and self-promotes his past "accomplishments" shamelessly). But the articles generally fall into several categories that don't really float my boat anymore as a fan -- there's the "plot recap-a-thon", the " here's my thesis on some trivial numbering controversy", and the "gee, whiz, Tales of Supsense is an overlooked gem", etc. I tend to like the strip coverage editor Russ Cochran has strenghtened in the magazine, of course, to many reader's annoyance. The recent Caniff coverage was pretty nifty, for instance. CBM does tend to appeal to older collectors and dealers, there's a lot of talk of rarity, slabbed books, etc than in other magazines. And they do tend to fall into hyperbolic fanboy mode quite often. True, it's not the drooling idiot Wizard routine, but rather the usual Silver and Golden Age fanman crankiness where everything old has some kind of glow and all that new crazy junk is unfathomable and lousy. There's always some critical genius making remarks about the old stuff selling through the roof and the new books selling in the dirt, somehow proving that success equals quality and that the old material was vastly superior and us under-40 types have ruined the medium, blah blah blah. Defenisveness aside, that kind of talk just makes me see red, I hear it from oldsters at conventions, I read it in the fanzines and on websites. If the older crowd did such a great job of caretaking the medium, why didn't comics have stronger legs? Anyway, here's a typical comment from an article in the new CBM on 1965 Marvel Comics, regarding the Doctor Strange strips running at the time in Strange Tales: "Comfortably nestled behind the gung-ho adventures of S.H.I.E.L.D., Lee and Ditko attained a level of sophistication that the medium has rarely risen to." Um, hello? You mean, sophisticated in terms of subject matter? Artwork? Scripting? Dialogue? Mood, setting, printing, coloring, packaging? We haven't achieved this level of sophistication in the entire medium? The medium has rarely risen to the level of sophistication of a handful of admittedly nifty, well done and fun (but ultimately trivial) Doctor Strange stories? You think this fella has a copy of Safe Area Gorazde? The Death of Speedy? Epileptic? Barefoot Gen? Name fifty comics off the top of your head from the direct market days, hell, name a bunch of superhero comcis form the past few decades, whatever you like or even dislike, Watchmen, Dark Knight, Swamp Thing, Batman: Year One, Born Again, Promethea, they are all arguabley more sophisticated than these Doc Strange stories. Same goes for P Craig Russel;'s Doc story a few years back. I am sick and tired of odler fanzine writers who have to pump up their beloved nostalgia days at the expense of modern comics. I'm sorry you don't like, undertsand or fathom alternative comics, or the modern superhero comics of today -- sure, most comics stink these days, but most comics stunk back in the day -- I'm not asking these writers and fans to change their opinions on the comics they love and ignore, just be aware that the medium isn't just superhero comics, fer chrissakes. There are non-superhero comics, foreign comics, comic strips, graphic novels to account for when making such goofball statements and observations in print. Folks, try to watch the hyberbole, if nothing else. Doctor Strange is not the height of sophistication in the comics medium, it's a swell superhero comic that was better than a lot of other superhero comics of the time. Maybe it's better than superhero comics of all time, fine, that's your call. But I would never say that Drunken Master is the pinnacle of filmmaking just because it's a better than most Hong Knong action flick, and I doubt the article writer would make such a leap if he was discussing a genre of film or music. I just wish people could get their fan heads out of their fan asses when discussing comics, and seperate personal favorites and nostalgia from actual criticism and serious discussion. There's no harm doen to lee and Ditko by praising their work as terrifici fun, as well-done genre storytelling of it's time, etc. But saying that material is the height of sophistication, rarely equalled oin the MEDIUM...cripes, give me a break. And I realize this is a pretty innocuous example of what I'm talking about, and the writer isn't attacking modern or alternative comics at all, and I'm making a mountain a Man Mounatin marko out of a Moleman hill as usual, but, well, that's why I called this blog Big Mouth Types Again and not Mr Sensitive Has A Cogent Theory About the Big Issues of the Day.

Anyway, Hogan's Alley - always good. CBM - worth looking at for the art and sometimes the articles. If the main features appear to be CBG fodder about the same old stuff only on slick paper, I skip it. If they tackle a more obscure series or creator or really hunker down and cover someone like Caniff well, it's worth picking up. Oh, and columnist Michelle Nolan needs to be weaned off the exclamation point something fierce.
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Blog Clearing House: Stuff

Found in the pages of the Hollywood Reporter: Famous Monsters of Filmland is being sold off owing to an order from a bankruptcy court. If you want the Famous Monsters magazine and trademark, the starting bid for the public auction kicks off at $200,000. I was a FMOF reader in the '70's, it was a big influence on many folks in comics, film and fanzines these days, and it would be cool if someone with a soft spot for the name and history snapped it up and did something appropriate with it. I doubt anyone would want to publish it again, there's really no need in the magazine/fanzine field for the old dinosaur, unfortunately, but I'm sure somebody could make use of the trademark and pay it some fanboy respect.

Speaking of crazy old stuff, Something Weird has put Starman out on DVD. No, not that instantly forgettable Jeff Bridges feel-good E.T. wannabe Starman shinola. I mean Starman -- japan's prototype superhero Sentai craziness from the '50's. I saw a chunk of a Starman film on a local cable access show years ago and was mystified by it, and now I can enjoy the utter stupidity and awe-inspiring huh-ness of Starman in my very own living room. Here's the deal: Starman is a well-endowed (the director had the actor stuff his crotch to entice female audiences. Seriously), metallic man in a silly outfit who is sent off by a council of bizarre aliens to save Earth from various aliens and mutants. He does this by beating the f pout of them, Republic-serial style. The Starman stuff was prosuded in 50 minute chunks, two=parters and a series of stand-alone episodes, and they were shown prior to feature films in japan. Some American cheapsters bought the rights, crushed them down into 90 minute dubbed spectaculars of incoherence, and released them on an unsupsecting western world. People breathe in space, Starman shoots people to death while laughing gleefully (when he's not posing and laughing while people shoot at him), everyone runs around in nazi uniforms and Flash Gordon spaceships. It's wonderfully entertaining stuff, wholly crazy (when not kind of deadly dull in spots). At the end of the first Starman adventure in vol 1 (two volumes are available), Starman just fights, and fights, and kills, and kills, and flips, and punches, and flies, and kicks, and throws dummies of men in the air, and shoots, and laughs, and poses, and then does it all again and again for about ten minutes straight. I think he defeats over a hundred guys, and if you're like me, you like anything where the hero defeats about a hundred guys. If you like fun crap like Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Power Rangers, Space Giants, old serials -- even Lucha Libre and Jack Kirby crowded fight scenes -- this is possibly tailor-made for you. Golden Age costumed nutsiness par excellance, with a chubby guy who stuffs his underwear and kills everything in sight. Check out Something Weird Video dot something or other.
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Reasons Not to Be Cheerful

Sarah was recently offered a job to develop and write a one-page strip for a major magazine. She developed a strip idea, worked out a prototype script, got an artist approved who roughed out the strip, they were asked to do a second try-out, they did it, the strip was approved, they got hired, Sarah got a contract. Swell, huh? We thought so, but we kept things mum just in case anything stupid happened (a strict HOF policy). So of course something stupid happened. At the last-minute the owners of the magazine decided to sell the magazine, and they axed the strip over the editor's objections in order to save money and streamline the finances for a potential buyer. Holy bleagh. I can see their position, sure, but bleagh. It was a good break for us and a great opportunity for Sarah, and I feel really badly because she worked hard on the project and was having fun with it and her editors really loved what she was doing. Hopefully something will happen down the line with the strip, there's always an outside chance the magazine will be sold quickly and the new owners will keep the editors and they'll try to revive the project. But it's not something you can bet on. So, there was some major suck in our lives, and we're back to scrambling for work. Sure, life could be worse, but it was a major bummer.

On the plus side, both Sarah and I were given palm pilots in the past two weeks, oddly enough. My sister gave us one, and my friend Paul gave us the other, both having upgraded. I'll probably never figure out how to use mine, but Sarah is of course palm-piloting all over the place. So that was cool.

On the negative side, my hand is a wreck and I can barely write a few sentances without it cramping up. I'm trying to finish a drawing for a friend and it's ben killing me. Ditto my necka nd back. We have physical check-ups next week owing to out going on health-care, so at least I am seeing a doctor. I'm hoping my arm eases up as I want to do some drawing in-between my scripting commitments. I need to get some art done for the second Dork trade and I want to get a book going, I need to stop jumping back and forth on Dork #11 and Eltingville and M&C #8 and pick a project and finish it. I'll very likely just try to nail the Eltingville book down, that way I can end the series and be done with a project and collect it next year sometime. Now, if I can only get out of this current funk and stop blogging and get my work done...
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Tezuka's Metropolis

I picked up the latest Tezuka collection from Dark Horse this week, and read it last night. It was okay, nothing spectacular, it came off like a dry run for Astro Boy, with more American animation influences and less of Tezuka's jarring comic asides and self-reflective moments. I'm not sure where I stand on Tezuka, on the one hand I find myself somewhat underwhelmed by almost everything of his I've read, perhaps based on the decades of hype -- I mean, he's one of the three gods, right? Kirby, Herge and Tezuka? I find a lot of his material seems similar and repetitive in tone, theme and execution, and like Kirby, his work can be overly-simplistic, even silly at times, in terms of character, plot mechanics, plot logic and dialogue. The Astro Boy stories all tend to be a little more pretentious than they need to be (yeah, they're about the big issues of life, identity, ecology, intolerance --but they're also about goofy robot fights and a hero that fires bullets out of his ass) and they too often have the same ending (poor, confused guest star robot, you must die for man's sins), and the Pheonix stories so far published are just plain, well, nuts (they sorta kinda remind me of Kirby's 2001 and Eternals stories. Sorta). And I have to admit that I find Tezuka's famous comic asides and self-referential jokes jarring more often than not. In the midst of drmamatic sequences in Pheonix volume one, characters facing one another to the death in a serious moment in a serious story suddenly are replaced by his trademarked mold creatures for a laugh. Or the "Here to meet ya" guy pops up and says "here to meet ya". Normally I love that sort of playfulness, and I think it (mostly) works in Astro Boy, but in Phoenix its a needless distraction that undercuts the drama and the story. Same goes for the "we know we're in a comic" bits, they just break the storytelling "spell" for me, even the ones that are actually funny.

But having said all that, I eagerly await and buy every Tezuka book that comes out. I am a Tezuka fan, for one thing, I really dig his art (or the art of his studio, I have no idea who did what and how much, since he's credited with soemthing like 150,000 pages). I really enjoy the over-the- top creepy-cool Blackjack (and really wish Viz would print more volumes), I really like the Astro Boy books despite my reservations, and Phoenix is fascinating if all over the place and a little crack-addled in places. I haven't read Adolf yet, which we picked up a while back, so I'm curious as to how that stacks up and relates to the other available work. Like Kirby, tezuka has an interesting wordview that I feel he expresses in an, er, interesting manner, and both men have fantastic command of their own unique comic vocabularies. I enjoy the Tezuka world and his cartooning and design, and while I can't say he knocks me on my ass from a scripting point of view, I enjoy the hell out of his comics and appreciate his humanistic point of view.

Oh, before I forget, I haven't seen the movie version of Metropolis, so please, folks, don't blow any surprises (if there are any).

Also, I don't tend to bitch about comic book prices, but I have to ask Dark Horse -- Why is Metropolis cover priced at $14, while Astro Boy is only $10? Astro Boy is usually over 200 pages of material, while Metropolis is only 162 pages and the books are practically the same size, physically. So, what gives with a four dollar price increase for the same format and about fifty less pages? Maybe Tezuka Prod raised the license, maybe they felt they needed to raise the priece to raise dough as Metropolis doesn't feature a known character or have multiple volumes to support it, but four bucks is a hefty gap. I'm glad I bought it, though, but it's a bit of a head scratcher.
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Speaking of manga

Forgot to add this to the Tezuka bit, and I already touched on this before -- but would everyone just shut the hell up about manga being some sort of comic book enemy or intruder. Stop being jealous of manga's success, stop carping about "that stupid Yu-Gi-Oh" the kids all like, stop bitching and moaning about manga selling well and you just don't understand what the big deal is. It's comics, it's selling, just be happy anybody's reading comics in America.

Fans -- don't like manga? Guess what? Somebody else does. It's comics, and it's selling. Shut up. As much as I bitch about modern superhero comics I understand that it has a right to be sold, read and discussed because somebody likes it. I don't like the quality of the books, the stranglehold the genre has on the medium, or what that stranglehold means for the industry, but they're comics and if they sell, let them sell and let people buy them and read them. Just let the other stuff sell, let it have a shot, and stop treating manga like an invasion of creepy kids on your little hobby playground.

Retailers -- sell it, even if you don't like it. Your job is to make money selling comics and comic-related product. It's your right to exclude what you personally don't like from your shop (even if that's generally narrow minded and self-destructive)but you don't have the right to bitch about your cash flow when you refuse to carry comics kids and adults are apparently buying and spending money on. Get over your fanboy self, manga is comics. You sell comics, right? Manga is not pogs and it's not Pokemon (which, by the way, is still alive and healthy despite comics fans use of the show as an example of a dead trend. It's not huge, but it's still succesful and is on the air and in production). It's also not a genre, fer chrissakes!It's a wave of comics people are interested in and there are no signs these readers will dump the habit like they dumped the variant covers, glitter covers and bad girl books many of you goofs supported like small-time Wall Street crack addicts. It's not a trend, it's a cultural shift, based not on hype and speculation but decades of Japanese shows, movies, manga and anime making inroads on the American pop culture consciousness: Godzilla, Gamera, Astro Boy, Gigantor, Eighth Man, Kimba, Space Giants, Ultraman, Battle of the Planets, Star Blazers, Robotech, Akira, Mai the Psychic Girl, Barefoot Gen, Miyazaki, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Toonami on the Cartoon Network, Yu-Gi-Oh, blah blah blah. A slow growth that now has full television muscle, you cut your throats ignoring this stuff because you personally don't "get it" or like it. This isn't just about the characters anymore, kids are becoming aware of asian culture, and unless something crazy or stupid happens, I think they'll be reading manga in years to come, whether or not there's a direct market ignoring it or not. Shonen Jump may fail, sales may level out, but I think people reading manga will keep reading it. Exploit these people for your own good, for your store's good, for the industry's good. Put recognizable manga books in your windows and try to bring these Gundam-building, Cartoon Network-watching, Yu-Gi-Oh card-playing people into your store. Sell people comics. You don't have to love it, just understand the product enough to properly promote, rack and sell it. Ask an employee who likes the stuff, a customer who likes it. Adapt or die, people. There's no other great idea coming around the bend, until then, try to sell some manga.

Professionals - I don't want to hear about manga taking jobs away from American creators. Suck it up. Be an adult. Make better comics and market them better. Compete. Maybe this will force a few people to figure out how to get comics into people's hands. Why do some kids seemingly want manga and not "our" stuff? Maybe all the dumb shit we all complain about really is hamepring our efforts to sell comics, duh. And in the meantime, realize American creators are being used for translation, English rewrites, art touch-ups, production, lettering, etc. My wife has work because of manga, so there, nyah. Besides, comic shops are selling relatively little manga as compared to book stores, so what's the big deal? Bitch instead about Marvel moving towards a closed shop regarding letterers, why don't you?

Listen, kids, I'm sure most of you out there reading this don't care, like manga, or whatever. I'm not a manga-junkie, apologist or anything, most of it's crap just like everything else, and most opinions of manga are based on a sampling of what's being imported, not everything that's out there. But dismissing it all as spiky haired big-eyed kiddie crap is useless and ridiculous, esp. when that view is often from folks who can't stand seeing their own beloved comics tarnished with one brush. Even if it was all spiky-haired crap, so what? Sell it! Bottom line -- if the industry was about marketing and selling only what you personally liked at the expense of what the audience liked, well, we'd be in the shitter. Oh, wait, I forgot. We are.
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Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter

I heartily recommend this fun ultra-cheapie made by a group of Ottawa filmmakers. It was made in 2001 but looks like it could have been filmed in 1980. Jesus battles vampires who prey on lesbians and who are allied with a mad doctor-type who performs skin grafting operations on them so they can stand the sun. The plot is, as you might expect, not very important, but the movie has a real goofy charm and contains some clever writing and actual jokes. There's sloppy and funny kung-fu, inventive sloppy violence, cartoon gore, some actually clever religious jokes, Jesus allies himself with masked luchadore Santos for a few fights. The movie has a winning, deadpan tone, it's unassuming, hip, fun and unpretentious, the music is pretty cool, and I highly recommend it to those of you who have no problem with considerably less than slick filmmaking (editing, staging and dubbing is pretty slapdash throughout). I dunno if JCVH is commercially available, I'm, as you know, a lazy boy, but we found out about it when Sarah stumbled on it on-line and downloaded a copy. We spread it amongst the apes and they really loved it. It was far more entertaining than Junk -- which we also watched -- the much fan-hyped Japanese zombie flick which was competently made but dull and run of the mill, your average lumbering dead people eating live people stuff. Nothing new, over-the-top or memorable, nothing terrible, just people in building with lurching extras in ragged clothes and decent deadguy make-up, a few typical Dawn of the Dead mid-shot splatter shots, blah blah blah. Hunt around for Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, and watch it with a few poeple. If you expect little from it and give it a chance, you might have a lot of fun.