24 February 2012

Alan Moore's Twilight Proposal

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

Honestly I didn't intend the irony, but this week's FMF, looking at Alan Moore's never-published Twilight proposal, also represents the twilight of Flashmob Fridays. This is our final outing.

I love the idea of a bunch of great writers getting together each week to take many and varied looks at a particular comic or graphic novel (...or unpublished proposal), and I'd be more than happy if someone else picked up the ball and ran with it somewhere else. But my current schedule and energy level just aren't allowing me to enjoy bringing this thing to life every week as I enjoyed it when we first began. And to half-ass it week in and week out is not fair to the contributors here, or the people coming to read their work each week.

So thanks for hanging out with us here every week, and I hope you'll check out our efforts over at Trouble With Comics, where any future writings-about-comics by at least myself and Christopher Allen (as well as any FMF contributor who wants to join us -- the door's always open, gang) are likely to be found.

With that, here's our final Flashmob Fridays. Take it away, gang.

Roger Green:

Okay, that tricky Alan David Doane fellow threw us a curve this week. Instead of critiquing a comic book, we're to evaluate an "unpublished series proposal for DC Comics" written by Alan Moore that runs 27 pages and was written more than two decades ago. Oh, why not?

Moore made some cogent observations about previous attempts to tie together events of a comic book universe. He notes the merchandising angle that Marvel used to create the Secret Wars series and crossovers in 1984 and 1985. In fact, if the Wikipedia page about Secret Wars is correct, it was the Mattel merchandising that dictated at least some of the story structure of Secret Wars. As Moore noted, and I agree, the "assembled multitude of characters look merely banal, which I personally believe happened with Secret Wars." It was also a retailer's puzzlement. The ancillary books would likely receive a spike in sales, but for how long? Would readers decide that they did not REALLY have to read the crossover books at all, but merely follow the story in the titular book? Reorders, in those days, were pretty difficult to come by in those days, and reprints just didn't happen that often.

Comic readers are often a loyal lot. While I wasn't a big DC fan in the 1980s, I got the sense from our store's customers that the result of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths was unsettling. As Moore put it: "In the wake of the time-altering at the end of the Crisis we are left with a universe where the entire past continuity of DC, for the most part, simply never happened." That angered some fans that "the larger part of DC's continuity will simply have to be scrapped and consigned to one of Orwell's memory holes along with a large amount of characters who, more than simply being dead, are now unpeople."

Interestingly, Moore shows himself to be a bit of a fanboy himself, and opposed to messing too much with certain conventions when he noted his disappointment "at the end of the first Superman film, when he turns time back to save Lois. It ruined the small but genuine enjoyment that I'd got from that first movie and destroyed all credibility for any of the following sequels as far as I was concerned."

Continuity of a 40- or 50- or 70-year old icon is always complicated unless the character is allowed to age. "There are a number of people in the industry...who feel that it's time to break down the continuity and try to get rid of a lot of the rather anal and obsessive attitudes that have been allowed to dominate the marketplace and to some degree have hindered it in its periodic attempts to be taken seriously." Anyone who listen to comic book fans debate incessantly knows to be true. "I suppose a shining example of this would be Frank [Miller's] Dark Knight."

Moore believed his Twilight outline would serve both the "audience thirsty for the stability that an ordered continuity gives them" and those would throw "continuity to the winds altogether." Yet it shouldn't be the dystopian model used in Dark Knight or his own Watchmen.

Soon thereafter, Moore got into the details of the various "Houses" of superheroes, and I rather tuned out at this point. Whether it would or would not have worked is impossible to say, in retrospect. That Moore spent so much time analyzing the CONTEXT of the crossover was much more interesting to me than the storyline itself.

Christopher Allen:

It's difficult and not really fair to review an unfinished project. In this case we have a project that wasn't really even begun: Twilight, a proposal for a massive DC crossover series that would have been a big DC event around 1987. Seemingly on the strength of Watchmen, Alan Moore was asked to come up with it. I'm not sure if his bad feelings towards DC developed this early to kill the project, or DC just decided to go in another direction, but it never happened. DC instead followed Legends with a ho-hum event called Millennium and went on from there.

Like most Moore scripts, this is fun to read, and I thought I might just make notes as I'm reading it rather than waiting until the end. First off, it's charming but also sad how much of a DC team player Moore is trying to be at this point. He's coming off Watchmen and looking to give DC another big hit that meets their commercial goals while hopefully being a creatively rich and satisfying experience. Moore understands that his job isn't just to deliver a good book; he's got to give other creators good ideas to mine for new or revamped series of their own. He also knows that DC will want the book to provide merchandising options, like Twilight t-shirts and the like, and he's okay with it. He's engaged with the current mainstream comics world, effusive with praise for Miller's Dark Knight, respectfully critical of Secret Wars.

At the same time, there is a sense that Moore is going to try to resist going too far with working out the story until the project is approved.

The proposal is subtitled, “First Gleamings” and the self-deprecating tone of it makes explicit he can't guarantee he's going to get to the finish line. Although Moore asks for the reader's (editor's) indulgence that fuzzy or flat areas will be polished up and improved in the actual scripting, there is at the same time a feeling that some of these details will be figured out at the moment Moore is writing the proposal.

One interesting thing about the proposal is that Moore expresses concern that big reboot events like Crisis on Infinite Earths can make older readers feel that the stories they grew up with, that meant something to them and for which they're nostalgic, have been invalidated by the fiat of the current hot creator or editorial powers-that-be. It's a core concern of Moore's, and it reminds me of his famous quote that all comics stories are imaginary. At the time, he was attempting to show there was no difference between the stories a company like DC deemed “imaginary” and the ones that were considered part of continuity. Essentially, he's saying that it's really up to the reader to take what they want from the stories, to believe or not believe in whichever one they want.

Moore eventually starts laying out the basic idea of Twilight, which is an attempt to put superheroes into a mythical context by using actual mythological underpinnings, in this case the Norse end-of-days myth, Ragnarok, when the old gods are killed off. This in itself is not a particularly original idea. Offhand, I know only about fifteen years earlier, Jack Kirby's Fourth World Saga drew inspiration from Ragnarok as well, though his books were canceled before he really got around to the Darkseid/Orion battle that might have brought on Ragnarok. And of course, Thor writers have written about preventing Ragnarok for decades. But as they say, it's all in the execution.

Moore recognizes that superheroes, while arguably our modern mythological characters, usually lack mythological resonance in the actual stories because superhero stories rarely have an end. He cites DKR as one of the few that has this resonance because it does provide an end to Superman and Batman, while at the same time making it irrelevant whether any creators after Miller ever actually fill in the gaps to make DKR the “real”, in-continuity end to Superman and Batman after all. It doesn't matter. What's ironic is that this is one of the reasons Watchmen is still resonant over a quarter-century later. It probably would have been well-regarded if it had featured the Charlton characters originally planned for use—characters that went on into other DC Comics stories not long after, from other creators. But using new characters in a self-contained story that felt complete is unfortunately a rather rare thing in comics. Here, Moore is interested less in trying to create a similar luxurious situation than in creating something that feels like a meaningful modern legend that creates new possibilities for further exploration while being simultaneously just another possibility, a story that doesn't close off other stories or the feelings readers have about them. It even allows for the revisiting of old continuities and discarded storylines and timelines. It seems like about the best way to try to put together a work-for-hire story, a very generous challenge to oneself.

The mechanism for revisiting these sometimes wonky but charming old stories and characters like Brother Power, Prez, the Rainbow Batman and such, is a “fluke field” created by old Legion of Super-Heroes villain The Time Trapper, perhaps facilitated by the timestream already being weakened by the Crisis and other continuity-ordering/altering events.

Moore envisions the story structurally much like Watchmen; twelve issues, no ads, 28 pages each. There’s an end-of-days event going on 20 or 30 years in the future, and so the superheroes of that time send a message back in time, to then-current DC continuity, hoping those heroes can prevent this Twilight. He envisions Legion of Super-Heroes villain The Time Trapper creating, yes, a time trap, in order to prevent heroes from stopping his evil future plan. This creates a time bubble or “fluke field” that allows for the existence of characters previously booted out of continuity like Prez, Brother Power, presumably alternate Earth versions of other heroes, and also lends itself to use in current continuity LOSH stories by Paul Levitz as well as the rest of the DCU, if the other creators want to play along. Eventually, the heroes escape and return to their respective times, while Rip Hunter goes to the future and meets an older John Constantine, who tells him to go back to our time and enlist the aid of the younger Constantine to prevent the Twilight.

The story, in Moore’s mind, will ripple back and forth between different times, so in the dystopic future he sees, the superheroes essentially rule the world, having had leadership thrust upon them in the wake of governments and social institutions crumbling. They are divided into various houses, as with royalty. If this sounds a bit like Kingdom Come, Squadron Supreme or House of M, well, yeah. I’ll leave that for others to dig into the various similarities. We have the House of Steel, led by Superman and wife Wonder Woman (now Superwoman), and they’ve got two kids, the son being a bad apple. Next is the House of Thunder, with a married Captain and Mary Marvel, though it’s a marriage of convenience and strategy, and she’s having an affair with the now-grown Captain Marvel Jr., who struggles under the shadow of Captain Marvel. This is interesting, as you’ve got Moore exploring not just, as he describes, a Guinevere/Lancelot type of story, but it’s also Oedipal and quite similar to the conflict he explored in Marvelman between Marvelman and Kid Marvelman. And, let’s face it, it’s a de rigueur plot for any superhero family: the sidekick or junior member always rebels against the patriarchal original hero.

The House of Titans is made up of grown, grimmer Teen Titans members, including a Nightwing every bit as driven as Batman but lacking his compassion. It’s funny; when this proposal was assigned to us to review, one of my colleagues felt that the natural course of a review of an unpublished project would be a “I wouldn’t do it that way” approach, and I thought to myself that that was the last thing I would be concerned with. And yet, I have to say I don’t see Nightwing this way at all. He not only had parents who loved him, like Bruce Wayne, but unlike Bruce, he was around them all the time, essentially learning his acrobat’s trade from them. I kind of think he would have been a bit warmer and well-adjusted than Bruce, and indeed, that’s generally how he’s portrayed. But that’s not to say Moore couldn’t have done a very credible job with his interpretation, or that that interpretation might have changed a little or a lot as the real writing began.

After intriguing takes on the increasingly robotic Cyborg and mentally deteriorating Changeling (now Chimera), we meet The House of Mystery, the old DC spook story anthology title being a slam-dunk for use in Twilight’s vision of Houses. As one might expect, it’s peopled by DC’s supernatural or magical characters like Deadman, Zatanna, the Spectre, and a reformed Felix Faust. Moore does not at this point have much to say about them and they don’t look to figure very prominently in the plot, so he moves on to The House of Secrets. They’re analogous to the Legion of Doom, with Lex Luthor, Catwoman, Captain Cold, Dr. Sivana, Gorilla Grodd and other villains. They’re the bad guys who’ve managed to survive the superhero purges of villains and have become the de facto protectors of a remote region of Nevada. Moore hints here at moral relativism, which is clearly a major theme in a story about heroes who’ve become corrupt, warring factions.

The House of Justice is made up of some ex-Justice Leaguers and second-or-third generation heroes like a female Dr. Light, a female Flash (Slipstream), Wonder Girl (now Wonder Woman). The House of Tomorrow is comprised of time-lost characters like Rip Hunter, Jonah Hex, and Space Ranger. The presence of a younger version of Time Trapper indicates this House might be fairly important to stopping the Twilight. The House of Lanterns is shuttered, all aliens having been banished from Earth, other than the grandfathered-in Superman. They’ll be pulled into the story somehow.

One thing I like about Moore’s vision of the future is that he wants to avoid the clichéd, nuke-ravaged version and instead focus on a society that has unraveled and is evolving into something else, as happened with the Industrial Revoltion. What exactly that is and how it will be explored, he’s not so clear on in the proposal.

While even Moore himself has taken a share of the blame for, and turned against, the mid-'80s grim ‘n gritty, deconstructionist take on superheroes that became the status quo by 1990, that doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun to read what he would have done in that regard with Twilight. We’ve got the remaining heroes living in a rundown barrio, unaligned with any Houses and, aside from Constantine, seemingly rather useless. There’s a drunken, gibbering Uncle Sam, a Doll Man who’s mutated into some sort of six inch walking stick type of insect-man, the former Phanton Lady as a kind of caretaker/hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold type, and a legless Blackhawk, recruiting a new squadron from the barrio’s leather bars. Doubtful DC would have let that get through. Plastic Man is a male prostitute because, well, why not?

Moore also touches on the idea of the exchanging-body superhero, both with Captain Marvel and Congorilla. In the case of Congorilla, his human form is 90 years old and frail, but alive, while none of the Marvel Family’s human forms age. Congorilla spends all his time as the immortal gorilla, now a Gotham crime lord, while Captain Marvel is the only one of the Marvel Family who still occasionally changes to his human counterpart, Billy Batson, still a child. This causes problems in his marriage, which Moore doesn’t explain yet, but it would seem that this difference makes Marvel a character who could conceivably change and break out of the downward spiral he and the rest of the heroes are on. Also, it’s pretty clear Moore intended to use the detail about not changing back to human to symbolize and help explain the detachment from humanity these superheroes experienced, which led to their corruption and justifies their bloody ends in the Ragnarok event.

Curiously, Moore casts Green Arrow and Black Canary as editors of a radical newspaper, and two of the nicest characters in the book (thus the ones most identifiable to readers). It’s an unusual take on Green Arrow, who usually works well as a loudmouth (if righteous) jerk, but as so many heroes have taken dark turns it makes sense to take one who was already somewhat antisocial and make him a better person.

It should be no surprise to anyone that when in doubt about characterization, Moore gives a character some sordid or darkly comic details. Bondage figures into The Question, Platinum from the Metal Men is a sex worker (dating Robotman), Gold has to hide because gold is in such demand he’s in danger of being melted down. Billy Batson has gone quietly mad, apparently due to a mental puberty and maturation in his prepubescent body.

Again, as with Watchmen, there is a mystery to kick off the story, this one a sordid, bondage-filled locked-room murder. I thought the solution to where the murderer was would have to do with the murderer killing an ancestor and thus ceasing to exist, but no, it’s a little more prosaic: invisibility. The rest of Moore’s plot involves a lot of hero-on-hero violence, the arrival of the Lanterns and other aliens to essentially rescue humanity from the so-called heroes, a kind of unmasking and rolling up of sleeves, with a hard-earned utopia ahead.

Looking at all this again, despite the hundreds of words above I find it really is impossible to “review” an unpublished work. You recount details and ideas, because that’s all there is. You notice similarities of themes in other Moore work, and similarities to actual published work that came after this proposal was written. But to say whether it “works” or not is impossible, because it’s not finished. We have some story beats, lots of character details, and several sketches of character conflicts, but there’s no dialogue. There are no captions or page breakdowns. No artwork. Who would have brought this to life on the page? There are indications of storytelling conceits that would add resonance to the work, like the decrepit, jingoistic monologues of Uncle Sam possibly tying into the action on subsequent scenes, but we don’t see any real examples of this in action. It’s an ambitious work, no doubt. Whether it’s more or less ambitious than Watchmen is unfair, because it’s unfinished and could have changed a lot in the actual scripting. In the end, I feel like it was a lost opportunity for DC that certainly wasn’t replaced by Kingdom Come or anything else, but the fact it never got done is no real tragedy. It presents itself as a potentially very rich and entertaining story, surely one of the more interesting unpublished superhero stories ever, but Moore has gotten to explore similar themes and ideas in subsequent work like Supreme, Promethea and elsewhere, and indeed, the central theme of power being a corrupting influence was already done to a faretheewell in Watchmen.

Joseph Gualtieri:

There is something odd about reviewing a comic that never was for a comics review site. Except, well, you probably have read Twilight, and I don’t just mean that you found a copy of Moore’s proposal on the web before DC issued a cease and desist letter. Over the 25 years since Moore wrote the Twilight proposal, DC has strip-mined it dry for many of its ideas. The most infamous example of this Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s 1995 Kingdom Come, which even mined Moore’s Houses iconography in its ads. Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales’s Identity Crisis (2004), too, owes a debt to Twilight, in this case taking other key half of the plot, the locked room murder mystery (which is not handled half as well as Moore’s). It’s hard not to see shades of Twilight in numerous other works though — Steve Darnell and Ross’s Uncle Sam (1997), Geoff Johns’s Booster Gold (2007) and Flashpoint (2011), and even Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers (2005) and Final Crisis (2008) all take an element or two from it, and that’s not even counting how Moore correctly predicts further Crises down the line to muck with DC’s continuity — Zero Hour (1994), the Kingdom (1999), Infinite Crisis (2005), and Flashpoint again.

Re-reading the proposal for the first time in years two things struck me. The first is that there is no way DC would publish the plot as-is. Structurally, the time travel device involving the Time Trapper Moore uses to set up the scenario is on the complex side even for a time travel tale, and just seems superfluous to the actual story. I can’t see why it’s there unless it was a sop to editorial concerns of the time (pun intended). Then there’s some of the content. Blackhawk picking up teenage boys is a gag (he’s really recruiting them into a private army), sure, but Moore also has Sandra Knight sleeping around, Plastic Man as a gigolo, and an incestuous relationship between Billy and Mary Batson (more on this in a bit). Especially after what happened with Watchmen and the Quality characters, I’m curious as to what extent Moore included some of this material just so DC would cut it, leaving content he really wanted in there.

The other thing that occurred to me this time about Twilight is how in a lot of ways it’s the ultimate product of Moore’s decade of strip-mining Robert Mayer’s Superfolks that saw him produce Marvelman, Watchmen, and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” When Moore finally spoke publicly about Mayer’s book, he tried to minimize its role in his career and attack Grant Morrison for bringing it up (in a coded manner) in a magazine column:

I can’t even remember when I read it. It would probably have been before I wrote Marvelman, and it would have had the same kind of influence upon me as the much earlier – probably a bit early for Grant Morrison to have spotted it – Brian Patten’s poem, ‘Where Are You Now, Batman?’, [...] I’d still say that Harvey Kurtzman’s Superduperman probably had the preliminary influence, but I do remember Superfolks and finding some bits of it in that same sort of vein. I also remember reading Joseph Torchia’s The Kryptonite Kid around that time. I found that quite moving. I can’t remember whether… I did read it, certainly, but as I say, I think Grant Morrison, by his own admission, said in an interview that, back at that stage of his career, that was his way of making himself famous, by actually attacking a more famous writer, who incidentally had got him his job at Vertigo.

The Twilight proposal may be the best example of just how untrue what Moore said is — he clearly internalized Superfolks to such a degree that he never, ever makes note of the fact that Mary and Billy Batson’s relationship is an incestuous one. For those unfamiliar with Superfolks, the coupling of the book’s Batson analogues is a key plot point, producing one of the book’s major villains. Meyer’s take on the Marvel Family hangs all over Moore’s take on Billy’s sexuality in the proposal.

The Alan Moore writing Twilight is a very different person from the one we’ve all come to know over the last few years worth of interviews; some of that obviously has to do with his awful relationship with DC, but the Alan Moore who wrote Twilight was also quite clearly into superhero comics, particularly in their post-modern, third wave form in a way that’s incredible discordant with the Moore of today. Comparing the ending of Twilight to that of Kingdom Come may reveal that more than anything else. Kingdom Come, for all its sturm und drang, ends on a happy, hopeful note as the superheroes give up their identities and re-dedicate themselves to humanity. In Twilight, the epic clash of the different superhero houses ends with nearly everybody dead and an inter-dimensional war being fought on multiple fronts across the galaxy. And then the John Constantine of the past screws over his future self by denying himself true love. Twilight, despite just being a proposal, is dramatically more satisfying than its foremost actually published child, which is absolutely hilarious.

There is a lot more to talk about with regards to Twilight, but I think it may be best to wrap it up here, and leave some surprises for those of you who have not read it yet. It’s a shockingly satisfying as a read by itself, and there’s some excellent dramatic irony in there with how Moore starts off with a section on its marketing potential. Frankly, we should all be thankful that we live in an age when it’s possible for something like this to easily be passed around, as it is an utterly invaluable document in examining Moore’s career and the development of the superhero genre. Track it down if you haven’t already.

17 February 2012

Conan The Barbarian #1

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

I didn't find myself falling into the world of Conan in this latest relaunch of the series in comics form, but then again, I almost never have.

I was too young in the 1970s to experience the original Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith Conan. John Buscema was drawing it by the time I sampled it, and his journeyman approach to depicting the wondrous world Robert E. Howard created fascinated me not at all. It wasn't until the 1980s Baxter Paper era and the reissue in that format of the Windsor-Smith masterpiece Red Nails that I was able to see a glimpse of the brilliance that Howard-in-comics could contain. But still, I mostly ignored Conan and his by then hundreds of issues of appearances. Barbarians, swords and sorcery really didn't do it for me. By the mid-1980s I knew comics held greater thrills than mere superheroes, having fallen in love with books like Cerebus (irony!), Love and Rockets and Elfquest, but Howard and his world still eluded me.

Amazingly, when I met Barry Windsor-Smith in-person to interview him back on the next-to-last day of 1999, I still hadn't read much Conan. I was by then well aware of the general outline of the character's mythology (hotly debated among true fans), but my appreciation for Windsor-Smith's work at that point was more in the direction of his post-Marvel work like Storyteller and the then-current Opus art books.

It was only when Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord launched their longform exploration of Conan and his world, over 30 years after I started reading comic books, that somehow I became hooked. Something about Busiek's approach spoke to me. Nord's artwork bore no resemblance at all to the work of anyone who had drawn Conan in the past, and somehow that Busiek/Nord collaboration (occasionally with other artists contributing) became my entry point into Robert E. Howard. I went on to read all Howard's Conan stories, and at this late date I think those prose stories actually have become my favourites. I am often inclined to like the purest, most original form of almost any entertainment (give me Lee and Ditko if you must give me Spider-Man at all, thanks), and Howard's writing has a visceral appeal that doesn't really translate completely to comics. There have been great Conan stories in comics, don't get me wrong -- but none of them match the power and impact of Howard speaking directly to your brain.

I didn't have much interest in Brian Wood's Northlanders, but that now-canceled series is no doubt what got him the gig writing this new Conan the Barbarian. Becky Cloonan takes a new visual tack for the series, and I applaud her for it, but I still miss Nord's work, and Busiek's canny distillation of Howard's writing, and honestly the only Conan comic book I own at the moment is Thomas and Windsor-Smith's Conan the Barbarian #1. And I own it not because it's Conan, but because it's a reminder of a very different era in comics, when Conan The Barbarian #1 made a huge splash among the readership and changed what people thought was possible in comic books. This new series won't do that. It's professional Conan comics, but it's not as good as the original Thomas/BWS run, or Busiek and Nord -- and certainly nowhere near as thrilling as the actual Howard stories. It fills a space on the stands that dealers and readers have come to think of as the place where Conan comics go every month, but that's all. It's a shame it couldn't be more special or more fun than that. At their best, Conan stories can be both, and more. They can open up whole new worlds of wonder. Maybe some day they will again.

Mick Martin:

I wouldn’t say my first contribution to the reincarnated Flashmob Fridays is because of Conan the Barbarian, but I will admit that when I finally decided it was time to vacuum the cobwebs off the keyboard and get back to blogging, ADD’s choice of Conan sure didn’t hurt. I’m not a huge Conan fan, but I adored the series Dark Horse began in 2004 with Kurt Busiek at the helm (not to mention artist Cary Nord whose art seemed perfect for Conan and whose tenure on the book ended much too soon). With Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan steering this time around, I couldn’t imagine I would be disappointed. Apparently, I need a better imagination.

The first issue seems to serve mainly as build-up to the confrontation with some kind of mystical temptress/pirate named Bêlit. The comic opens with Conan escaping the city guards of the capital Messantia by hopping aboard the Argus, whose captain and crew are initially not happy about his presence. Conan silences their protests with threats, but soon woos them into brotherhood with the story of why he was being pursued in the first place. Captain Tito accepts the rowdy Cimmerian and even comes to count on his sword-arm. Tito has heard stories of this Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast, and hopes Conan will protect his ship.

The only thing I really liked about the book was Cloonan’s art. There’s a much stronger element of cartoon in her Conan than I’ve seen in previous series and it’s refreshing. It’s the first time I can remember seeing a Conan comic and not immediately thinking of Frank Frazetta.

Otherwise, I was underwhelmed. The first and biggest problem is there’s so little action. It’s all build-up and exposition. Even when given the chance for just a panel or two with some classic Cimmerian bloodletting, Wood and Cloonan shy away from it. For example, when Conan tells the crew of the Argus why he ran from the city guards, there are opportunities for some sword-fighting fun, but instead we get panels of Conan led into courtrooms or a naked Conan puking in his prison cell. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t only enjoy action comics. But if it’s a Conan comic we’re talking about then swords should be getting wet somewhere between the front and back covers, particularly in the first issue.

It also rubbed me the wrong way how quickly Conan and Captain Tito became stalwart allies. Wood never sold me on the idea that the sailors of the Argus would suddenly fall head-over-heels for the guy who just threatened them because he told a story they liked, particularly since the story isn’t even told all that well. The scene in which Conan tells the crew about his adventures in Messantia reminded me of my least favorite parts of Kenneth Brannagh’s Shakespeare films; when Brannagh realizes it’s probably boring having the camera on himself every second of a 5-minute long soliloquy and so occasionally switches to the other actors, who are always crowded around Brannagh, smiling, nodding furiously, and looking at each other as if to say “This guy craps gold!” I just didn’t buy it.

Overall I think Wood and Cloonan made some bad choices about where to enter the story and what to show us. There is perhaps a fine line between critiquing a work and telling a creative team how to do its job, but I can’t help but wonder whether or not this first issue would have read better if it had started with Conan in prison and letting us follow his escape rather than telling it all in flashback.

I would be willing to check out the second issue, mainly because I like Conan and because Wood and Cloonan are talents I trust. Who knows? Maybe this will read much better in a trade. But it has to be said that if this was an unknown property and/or if I had never heard of Wood and Cloonan, I probably wouldn’t bother with it again.

Scott Cederlund:

I think there are two ways to look at Brian Wood’s writing on Conan the Barbarian #1.

The first and maybe more natural way is that this is the same guy who’s writing Northlanders. Other than the settings, which are different, both books feature tales of barbaric men and women in olden days. Wood’s Conan fits in with that work on Northlanders. It’s logical that the writer of a very modern take on viking tales would adapt to what is starting off as a pirate’s tale as Conan takes on the deadly beauty known as Bêlit, the queen of the Black Coast. Wood captures the sense of high adventure, opening the book and giving Becky Cloonan a fun and roguish action sequence that’s just a small taste of the adventures this character can and will have.

The other side to Wood’s writing on Conan #1 is that this is from the writer of Demo and Local, books about growing up and that strange transition from being children to being adults. That’s exactly the same point that this version of Conan is at in his life. He’s out, on his own and high on his own self-worth. This is a young and brash character who merely thinks he knows the ways of the world and can hang with the big boys. Conan greats life one adventure and one moment at a time, barely thinking about repercussions before he’s leaping onto the next strange ship that’s on the sea before him.

With those two sides of Brian Wood in mind, it makes for a different and interesting Conan. To me and probably many other comic fans, Conan is defined by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. While there has been the occasional deviation from Buscema’s huge and muscular warrior, Conan himself has always seems to stay constant and defined. He’s Conan no matter whether he’s a Cimmerian or a barbarian or a king. The settings and circumstances may change but the character is a rock and constant character. Wood and Cloonan give him a softer and younger edge. He’s wild, reckless not because that’ a character flaw but because he’s barely a man and doesn’t know any better.

Because of the many angles of Wood’s writing, Conan the Barbarian #1 is a Conan book that doesn’t have to feel like a Conan book. The character is known and recognizable but you can also read this as the story of any barbarian boy on the journey to becoming a man. It works on both of those levels.

Joseph Gualtieri

The essay at the back of Conan The Barbarian #1 by Assistant Editor Brandon Wright claims the comic was intended as a jumping-on point for new readers, and I’m at an utter loss to figure out how. It opens with Conan racing on to a ship via horse while being chased. This is the only action scene in the whole comic. Conan proceeds to explain how he came to that situation, a scenario which involves a wrongfully imprisoned Conan splitting a judge’s head open, which is not even remotely shown. The captain of the ship discusses with Conan how the Queen of the Black Coast is negatively impacting shipping in the region. Conan swears to eliminate the problem and the story-telling in the issue goes off the rails and becomes incoherent. Let’s try and make sense of this sequence:

* Conan leaves the ship he he is on and swims to the Queen’s ship.

* After reaching the ship, there’s a page of Conan and the Queen meeting in the water and having sex.

* Conan jolts awake on the Queen’s ship, with no one around.

* He looks over at the other ship and sees the Queen, who hisses at him.

* Conan is on the original ship with the crew, raising his sword and yelling “alarm” and there’s a “continued" caption

If not for the last page, this sequence would still have some minor issues of clarity, but that page makes it nonsensical. Maybe it’s a fake Conan or something, but there’s no indication creating something like that is within the Queen’s power.

That a third of the issue is a poorly done sequence is far from the book’s only problem. I alluded above to the lack of action in the comic. All that’s there is the opening chase sequence, and it isn’t much. Now, I do not need non-stop action in a Conan comic, but it becomes odd when Conan narrates his adventures in the town that lead up to the chase, but Wood and Cloonan choose not to show the more visually orientated parts of the flashback like Conan attacking the judge.

Another confusing element of the comic is the narration structure — it has two different narrators, not counting Conan for the flashback sequence. One of them provides information, such as “Town X.” The other, well, that is the weird part. That narration is presented in a font that clearly looks like it was produced by a typewriter and is written in the third person omniscient. My suspicion is that this narration is taken from the Robert Howard novel being adapted, but there’s no indication on the credits page that this is the case, instead pushing my Grant Morrison-addled mind to wonder if it’s taken from a diegetic text produced by a supporting character who Ishamel-like writes about event after the fact and after time-traveling to the twentieth century so he or she can access a typewriter. It probably is Howard’s prose, or perhaps Wood rewriting Howard, but why on Earth is presented this way? It’s unnecessarily distracting.

Finally, I do not think this issue is a very good jumping-on point, and say this as someone who knows practically zip about Conan. My sole exposure to the character comes from occasionally watching the early '90s cartoon series, Conan the Adventurer back when it originally aired. The novels, the Oliver Stone film, and the comics are all pieces of pop culture that I just haven’t experienced. Wood does tells us a little about Conan — he’s honorable, isn’t just a berserker, and pays his debts, but there just isn’t enough here to hook me on the character and care about what happens next. Again, the flashback sequence hurts the book because it reveals more about Conan than any other part of the comics, except the reader only gets brief snippets of it coupled with narration by Conan himself. I really have no way to know if he’s telling truth about those events or not.

Add all of these problems together and you have one of the worst comics Flashmob Fridays has looked at so far, topped only by that train wreck of a Daredevil issue we started with, and at least that was supposed to be a jumping-on point for new readers.

Buy Conan: Born on the Battlefield from Amazon.com.

10 February 2012

Time Warp #1-5

Introduction by Alan David Doane

All apologies, as Kurt Cobain once said. I have to apologize for us missing our first scheduled Friday last week, but for one reason or another this one didn't come together as smoothly as our past outings. Maybe I should have realized it would take longer to read and review five 64-page comics than our usual one comic or graphic novel. (Note to contributors: next week's title is Cerebus. All of it. Ha ha ha!)

I also have to apologize for not writing a review myself (still acclimating to my new job) and for blowing this introduction. Thankfully Johnny Bacardi covers much of the historical context that I really, truly wanted to write about, and very well, at that. All I can add is that as a 10 or 11-year-old comics reader, I loved the idea of the Dollar Comics line that Time Warp was a part of, and I think the North American comic book industry has really failed itself and its potential and actual readers by not continuously having a format like this available on a regular basis. Sure, a lot of the stories stunk -- it was a DC comic in the 1970s, after all. But the idea behind the Dollar Comics format was a brilliant one, and I remember joyously grabbing up every one I could back in those long-ago days. Marvel tried something similar with the 100-Page Monster format (Tom Brevoort said outright he was inspired by the Dollar Comics of his youth), but in my opinion, they didn't give it enough of a shot and probably overpriced it by a buck or two.

But hey, comics industry? If you are serious about still existing in 2 or 3 years as anything other than a digital dream of what comics used to be, you need to figure out a way to collect large chunks of good-to-great comics in a cheap and lengthy format like the Dollar Comics. Like Time Warp. Not necessarily this exact format, but a big chunk of good, cheap comics kids can get excited about, collect, trade, and read under a tree on a nice summer day. Is that really too goddamned much to ask? Think carefully before you answer, comics industry -- your very survival may depend upon whether you can be as clever and experimental as DC Comics in the mid-1970s.

Johnny Bacardi

"I remember...doing the Time Warp..."

Towards the ass-end of the '70s, inspired by the desire to make a buck in the recent aftermath of the notorious DC Implosion of a year or so prior, the Company Formerly Known as National Periodical Publications decided to take a tentative stab at publishing oversize comics again, and therefore justifying the decision to charge a whole dollar for them, rather than the 40 cents they were charging on the average for the normal-sized titles. Most of the dollar titles were those that DC was already publishing, like World's Finest, Detective, and Adventure Comics, and thus provided opportunities to burn off unused Implosion inventory rather than utilize reprints, like they did in the early-mid '70s via the 100 Page Super Spectaculars. By the way, and I hope you'll let me digress even more than i already have, those 100-Pagers served as teenage me's introduction to many excellent Golden Age stories and creators, such as Jack Cole's Plastic Man, Bernard Baily's Spectre, Gardner Fox/Howard Sherman's Dr. Fate, the Reed Crandall-era Doll Man and Blackhawks, Lou Fine's Ray, and Siegel and Shuster's Superman. Now those were some damn fine comics, and only cost 50 cents to boot.

Anyway, most likely inspired by the recent success of Star Wars and the reception given Heavy Metal magazine as well as Warren's fairly popular 1984, DC also decided to try and launch a couple of straight science fiction anthologies, and Time Warp was the first; they also later exhumed the Mystery in Space title as well. Enticed by the as-always splendid Mike Kaluta covers, I bought every darn one of them back when I was 19, and as my recent rereading of the run for this review has revealed to me, I also promptly forgot about the contents of pretty much all of them, which probably tells you pretty much what you need to know, at least from my vantage point.

Most of the stories in these five issues, by a panoply of writers both veterans of (Bob Haney, George Kashdan, Jack C. Harris, Dennis O'Neil of course) and new to (Dan Mishkin and Andy Cohn, soon of Amethyst; J.M. DeMatteis, pre-Justice League; don't know what his first comics work was but I bet there wasn't much of it before this) comics, adhere pretty closely to the time honored Sci-Fi tradition, which can be traced from the pulps through EC Comics through DC's own early-'60s perpetuation, mostly at the behest of Julius Schwartz. People in spaceships, alien encounters, malevolent computers and/or robots, twist endings...nothing especially fresh or original, not even then...and certainly not now. So, the focus shifts to the art...and that's where Time Warp acquits itself in much better fashion. It was a mix of creators either past their prime, like Steve Ditko and Gil Kane, or just approaching that status, like Jim Aparo (who by 1979 had already begun the streamlining process which made his art much less of a joy to behold just five years previous) or the redoubtable and under-appreciated Tom Sutton. Personal favorite Jerry Grandenetti contributed a story in every issue or darn near it, and while none of them displayed the expressionistic excess of his '60s work that I love so much, each of his jobs were solid and did the slight stories justice. I don't think he did much comics work after this. Also of note was the presence of the late Don Newton, whose somewhat moody work was very popular in those days; I was always hot and cold on him myself -- his Batman was a standout, as I recall, but I wasn't a fan of much else with his byline. Lots of South American artists represent; some I had heard of and have gone on to achieve some standing, like Alex Nino, John Celardo, or the late Fred Carillo, and a handful whose name I don't recall seeing in any comics credit box since, like Joel Magpayo or Ernesto Patricio. Howard Chaykin contributes a rushed-looking art job, on a story by someone named Wyatt Gwyon (a pseudonym?). It was amusing to see Joe Orlando drawing a tale of a man, stranded on a planet, who creates a robot to keep him company...it brought back echoes to me of his stint drawing Otto Binder's Adam Link for Warren in the mid-'60s. Young Trevor Von Eeden turns up, post Black Lightning but pre-Green Arrow and Thriller, inked beyond recognition. And so it goes.

Each issue is a real mishmash; legends past their salad days rubbing shoulders with young turks and newbies just happy to see their name in print, all on the crappiest yellowed paper stock you can imagine. I suppose if you should happen to run across an issue or two in a quarter box it might make for a decent read on a slow afternoon, for nostalgia's sake if nothing else. I can't imagine why anyone younger than, say, 45 would even be interested, unless they were just hardcore fans of the likes of Ditko, Chaykin, Kaluta, or Kane.

For my part, though, I'm of the "Let's NOT do the Time Warp again" mentality.

Christopher Allen:

“Step this way for the safety spray!”

After the “DC Implosion” of 1978, DC actually continued to pump out 64-page Dollar Comics such as Superman Family and World's Finest, while exploring the war genre in G.I. Combat and new title All-Out War. But editor/writer Jack C. Harris and Executive Editor Joe Orlando also put together Time Warp, a bimonthly science fiction anthology that would serve as a kind of reboot of '60s DC sci-fi titles like Strange Adventures. Interestingly, Time Warp was chosen as a name precisely because Harris and Orlando didn't want to just reboot Strange Adventures or another old book, concerned that young fans might be confused. This is, of course, the opposite of current editing/marketing strategy for DC.

“I wanted to die on the surface, like a human, though I would die as a smellie...”

Time Warp only lasted five issues (10 months), but boy, that's like 250 pages of comics. If, like me, you decide to read them all in one day, chances are good you'll be numb and exhausted. Basically, a good 80% of the stories are either Man vs. Hideous Aliens/Monsters, Man Turning Into Hideous Monster (or Cyborg), or Man Destroying His World. Sometimes the destroying the world leads to the turning into a monster, sometimes it's the aliens destroying the world, sometimes Man destroys not only Earth but the aliens' planet, too...you get the idea. There are also several tales of greedy, heartless opportunists/poachers/thieves who put money, pleasure or fame ahead of others and pay dearly for it. These are the stories most reminiscent of the kind Orlando worked on or was exposed to at EC Comics in the '50s on books like Weird Science and which influenced countless other '50s stories from National/DC and Atlas/Timely/Marvel, stories with twist endings, spaceships and slimy aliens who were just asking for some laser pistol payback. The kinds of pulpy, occasionally grisly SF stories that thrilled young comics fans until the Kefauver/Wertham era took the teeth out of such tales, followed by the ascendancy of the superhero subgenre.

“Renamed in honor of his achievement...Chief Mushroom Cloud!”

I would like to say that Time Warp is a real underrated gem, a lost classic cut down too soon. I can't say that, but there is a baseline competence throughout, even though it features stories from folks who came and went through the comics industry without making much of a splash, names like Mimai Kin and Wyatt Gwyon. Yes, those are correctly spelled. There's also an artist called only, “Vicatan,” and I'd like to say the art was as addictive as the name suggested. The stories themselves are often wearingly formulaic and familiar, with at times absurd twists: the two bitter enemies who are reincarnated or who appear in slightly different form on another planet and can't help but be enemies; the future world free of disease that faces doom from the common cold; the hunter who unwittingly kills his friend who's metamorphosed into a monster, who then becomes a hunted monster himself. We've seen most of it before, with a few stories diverging from the formula. Perhaps it's unfair to knock the book for familiarity when so many superhero books are virtually identical, but when you have each issue being a chunk of 50 pages or so at a time and there's one story after another about humans ruining the planet or growing tentacles because the planet is already ruined, enjoying the book becomes more of an academic exercise.

“Surely you were meant for...Vipswarzznee!”

Which is okay, because there's a lot here to enjoy on a moderate level. I was reminded of the recent Steve Ditko reprints, where the stories themselves are routinely mediocre and the pleasure is to be found in just seeing how Ditko tells the story. Ditko is actually the most frequent contributor to Time Warp, charmingly corny and timelessly cool at the same time, though it's fair to say he doesn't add many of his trademark flourishes and patterns.You do get to see him draw a woman in a bikini, though, which is a real rarity for him.

There's also sturdy work from DC stalwarts like Don Newton and Jim Aparo and a robust and distinctive style to Jerry Grandenetti's work in this era that makes me much more interested in him than I ever was before, and a Sheldon Mayer-written tale that I found amusing for its take on time travel paradoxes. For instance, if you travel to the past and kill an architect, you can come back to your time to find that the building he designed still exists, but is about to collapse and kill hundreds of people. Among the highlights, however, along with the Ditko stories and several detail-stuffed Tom Sutton efforts, are one-offs from the reclusive Trevor Von Eeden (with Carl Potts), Gil Kane (a gorgeous but brief return to DC before signing on for a Tarzan newspaper strip), and a young Howard Chaykin working in a style clearly influenced by Alex Toth.

“Pardon the interruption, Captain Moonkid.”

It's also useful to examine the stories within the context of the era in which they were produced, 1979-1980, with the Cold War still going on and Russia thought of by most Americans as a dangerous enemy. The dread of nuclear war or chemical weapons permeates almost every story, (one evil character is given the Russian-sounding name of General Smerdyakov, though the story doesn't take place on Earth) with characters destroying the Earth, mutating into monsters, and in few instances is there any hope or signs of rebuilding, of getting a second chance to get things right. I think in one of those hopeful stories, the two humans had changed into crawling green slime monsters with eyestalks, but you take what you get. It's also interesting to consider this era for comics, and DC in particular. You have a mix of older and younger talents here, but perhaps due to DC's conservatism, or maybe just the pervasive influence of EC Comics and Twilight Zone type storytelling, even relatively young writers like J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Levitz and Dennis O'Neil for the most part turn in standard, if reasonably well-crafted, fare, although again, it's generally informed by the fears of the times they lived in. Although the samey quality of the work gets to be overpowering, a well-chosen collection of about 100 pages worth of this stuff would actually be pretty fun.

Johanna Draper Carlson

I didn't read all five of the Time Warp issues we were assigned this week, because even with my fondness for another era of comic storytelling, 300 pages was a bit much all at once, especially without continuing characters. But the one I did read, the first, reminded me of several things:

1. Short stories are harder to do well than longer stories, which might be why the comic anthology is all but dead while the collection-told-in-serialized-chapters rules the comic market.

2. I've always been surprised that science fiction isn't more successful in comic form, since it seems the perfect medium for it: idea-driven, cheap to show the most outrageous concept, capable of portraying anything that can be imagined, sharing much of the same fandom. But if one rules out superheroes (which are only SF in the loosest definition), then it's difficult to think of any well-known, successful SF comics. (Manga, as usual, is the exception, and many more people should be reading Finder.)

3. I miss the art style of the '80s, where competence was required at a minimum. Ah, the glory of Dick Giordano inks and relatively realistically drawn and posed figures. These were filler work, but they're all readable and easy to follow, artistically.

4. Science fiction is where O. Henry-style stories went to multiply. The twist ending -- aliens are just like us! judging by appearance is bad! love will show you how bad prejudice is! murderers get what's coming to them! aliens may be bigger or smaller than us! -- is a requirement, it seems, to make the tale meaningful. It's the EC influence, I'm sure, with everyone remembering those classic morality tales disguised as fiction.

5. Yet science fiction ages badly. All these technological marvels, and no one could envision equality between the sexes, or a world run by people who weren't white. Maybe because the future is shown as a scary place, full of things that can kill you. That's the biggest twist ending of all: technology can't protect you.

6. My gracious, the limited color palette made for some vibrant choices. Purple shirts, orange machinery, bright yellow walls, reds, blues, and of course, lots of green tentacles.

I think the piece I'll remember most is yet another "Martians want our women" story with Steve Ditko art, because, aside from the cliched premise, his showgirls are really strange-looking. His aliens, in another chapter, are much better.

Joseph Gualtieri

In its two-hundred and fiftieth issue, the Comics Journal published an article by Ng Suat Tong called “EC and the Chimera of Memory.” The actual article is, aside from the target, a fairly standard Journal rip job. Arguably a necessary one, as the critical regard for New Direction EC Comics does outstrip their merit in some ways, but I bring the article up for the tagline given to it on the title page, which does not have anything to do with the actual content, “[...] Tong explains why EC comprises a ‘legacy of mediocrity.’” Frankly, that description would pretty much fit this week’s Flashmob Fridays installment, as DC’s Time Warp anthology sadly amounts to being a little more than a pale imitation of EC at its best.

Last week, with Chainsaw Comics’ Fear, we did briefly discuss the problematic nature of anthologies — they are always going to be a mixed bag. Unfortunately, the best part of Time Warp, on all five of its issues, comes on the cover. Each one is a lovely illustration by Michael William Kaluta, usually divorced from any of the tales inside. Of perhaps more historical interest though, is that DC chose to place the names of the creators on the cover, above the title even. This is not a subject I’ve had time to research to see if it’s a first for a major American comics publisher, but even if it is not, it is genuinely shocking and pleasing to see such a thing in a comic from the late 1970s.

As with the EC comics, the art is generally the best element of the interiors. Steve Ditko has at least one story in 4/5 issues (though this is not his best work). Don Newton, an artist I know but whom I’m largely unfamiliar with, is I believe in all five issues and is usually delivers the best-looking story in each issue. Tom Sutton, Howard Chaykin, Dick Giordano contribute one or more nice-looking tales to the series, but by issue four, less and less of the big names are appearing.

The writing is rarely worth talking about. These are all EC-style twist ending sci-fi horror tinged stories and despite a Murderer’s Row line-up writers from the period, they largely fail to even be as entertainingly lurid as the EC comics from 25 years prior. There’s one stand-out exception to this; it is still not very good, but “Pen Pal” by Bob Haney and Fred Carrilo probably comes the closest to matching EC. In it, a woman takes up correspondence with an astronaut stationed far away. She begins having nightmares about being sexually assaulted by an alien; her Freudian psychotherapist suggests this means she needs to go and finally consummate her relationship with her pen pal. Shockingly (or not), the pen pal turns out to be the alien of her nightmares, which are produced by him having sex with a clone of her produced from a lock of hair she sent him. The woman destroys the clone, and the final panels are a look of horror on her face as the alien caresses her and tells her how now she’ll have to stay with him because killing a clone is a capital offense. Again, this story isn’t actually good, but it is as close as Time Warp gets to truly capturing the tone and spirit of EC.

The other exception to the blending together of all the cliché twist endings for me is “The Truth.” Lushly illustrated by Sutton, it is one of several early stories by J.M. DeMatteis found in Time Warp, and seems like the most like his mature work. In it, an astronaut encounters a humanoid race that seemingly practices human sacrifice. After crashing there and falling in love with a priestess, he learns that what looks like a barbaric practice, is actually the final stage of their culture’s method of mind-expansion. As with the other stories, there’s nothing ground-breaking here, but it’s quite well done and shows themes DeMatteis would go on to explore in more depth with his more mature work.

As it only lasted five issues and there was a clear talent drain on the final two issues, Time Warp was a failed experiment for DC in 1979, and time has not exactly been kind to it. In 2012 reprints of the EC Comics it weakly draws on are (mostly) readily available, rendering Time Warp essentially superfluous. Still, if you’re a fan of any of the big-name artists involved in the early issues, Time Warp is relatively inexpensive to pick up and it’s probably worth your while to track them down if you’re a Ditko, Sutton, Newton, Kaluta, or Chaykin fan.

Scott Cederlund

Reading DC's Time Warp #s 1-5 for this week's Flashmob Fridays, I'm trying to figure out how I'm so unfamiliar with this short-lived series (though that may have something to do with it) even though it features stunning Kaluta covers and art by names like Grandenetti, Chaykin, Ploog, Giordano and Ditko. At the height of Star Wars fever, a huge comic featuring science fiction stories was something that I think a 10 year old me would have been all over. Sadly, I don't remember this title at all and it would still be a few years into the Reagan decade before I'd discover anthology comics thanks to Dark Horse Presents. More and more as I grow older, I realize how much of my own comic book tastes that I still have to this day are formed thanks to the old newsstand distribution system and the local drugstore's magazine racks.

Time Warp is a perfect example of a blind spot in my history and how it was formed. Discovering comics back around the ancient days of 1976, the only places I would go to regularly that had them was the neighborhood drugstore and the Ben Franklin Five and Dime store. The drugstore was a weekly store for entertainment, one quarter at a time. I remember plenty of Spider-Man, Avengers, Batman and Justice League in the racks but not a lot else. Compared to the wall-to-wall new comic shelves that most shops today have, I think I was stuck with a selection of only 15 books to choose from, mostly the most popular superheroes that DC and Marvel offered. No war comics, no horror comics and no science fiction comics other than Marvel's continuing Star Wars series.

I can't imagine that they ever carried Time Warp. Even if they did, I was already conditioned to think that my comics should look like second-generation Kirby knockoffs and not like Kaluta's graceful and delicate cover images. The eighties and the discovery of comic shops and back issues would open up the world for me. I started to discover that there were more comics than just the few I regularly could see on the magazine racks. But even as my knowledge of comics grew, my tastes still stayed fairly focused on superheroes.

Now, thirty years later and reading Time Warp for the first time, it makes me wistful for other books that I wish I had discovered as a kid -- EC's old horror and science fiction comics. The stories in Time Warp also draw heavily from The Twilight Zone, delivering cautionary tales about the future and man's small role in a great big universe. Half of the stories look and feel like classic science fiction comics, more Flash Gordon than Star Wars. These are odd stories, relics and imitators of those old EC comics, stories that are about cliches of science fiction. Then in the same issues, there are cutting edge stories, using science fiction to comment more on the world around the creators.

It's thirty years since these issues came out and I've just read this series for the first time, thanks to a drug store that just didn't carry these books. Unlike when I read EC comics or old Creepy magazines, Time Warp doesn't leave me feeling like I missed anything. Some nice art, some fun stories but Time Warp's stories all kind of felt the same. Unlike DC's other anthologies House of Secrets and House of Mystery that my store didn't carry that I've learned to love through the Showcase reprints, Time Warp was a series that didn't offer enough new and exciting stories to make it a timeless series.

03 February 2012

Please Stand By

Flashmob Fridays will return Friday, February 10th. We apologize for any inconvenience.

27 January 2012

Chainsaw Comics Presents: Fear

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

I don't fear death. I know that oblivion and non-existence await my consciousness at the moment I breathe my last, and there's comfort in that thought. After all, I spent billions of years not existing before I was born, so I figure I'll be pretty good at it again after I die. In between my two long periods of non-existence, though, I did learn to fear a few things.

Dental work. There's not much more I dread. I have recurring nightmares of looking in the mirror as my teeth fall out, one by one. The clinking sound they make as they impact with the porcelain sink haunts me. I've gone months in ever-increasing agony because I fear going to the dentist. And since every trip to the dentist has ended with the problem resolved and the pain gone, it is about the most irrational fear I can imagine.

Pain. Closely related to the above, yes, but I also worry about falling on the ice (I live in upstate New York, when ice is a possibility about six months of the year) and breaking a bone. Last year my daughter turned to hug a friend on the sidewalk and twisted her foot the wrong way, and don't even ask me how this is possible, but she broke the hell out of her foot and was in a cast and in pain for nearly six months. To watch your child suffer while you are helpless to make it go away is one of the most frustrating and awful parts of being a parent, and one they don't mention in those cheery, hazy impending parenthood videos.

Poverty. I spent a lot of time in the past couple of years fearing what any worsening of the already devastated economy might mean for my family. It was a dark time, one that I am glad to be emerging from, and I hope the many millions living in similar circumstances are given a hand up sometime soon. But seeing how ineffective this nation's leaders are, I fear they won't be.

There are other things I fear, but I should stop introducing and let the reviewing begin. Chainsaw Comics Presents: Fear is filled with cartoonists I enjoy, like Jason Marcy, L. Nichols, Box Brown and others. I didn't find the time to write a review myself, but luckily the Flashmob Fridays gang did.

Joseph Gualtieri:

Chainsaw Comics Presents Fear, edited by Aaron Brassea, Nathan Stryker, and L. Nichols is like most comics anthologies a mixed bag. At a slim 100 pages of comics and just under 30 stories, there’s always another story just a few pages away that might make up for a dud. All the stories deal with the theme of fear, as befits the title, but the approaches vary greatly. Some illustrate what seem like deeply personal fears, others illustrate common phobias, and quite a few tales are humorous.

“Hug” by Simon Taylor is probably the single best story in the anthology. It’s quite creepy and beautifully illustrated in a Manga style. “Where Will You Spend Eternity” by Flashmob Friday favorite Box Brown is other contender for that title. It’s a terrific semi-abstract dream about the fear of what happens after death. “Be Careful Where You Hide Your Secrets” by Dino Caruso and Paul Little is another one of the strongest shorts; the art is probably the closest to that found in mainstream comics within the volume, and the story deftly combines fears about intimacy, the invasion of privacy, and what happens when you share your art.

“A Bigfoot Adventure” by Jefery J. Manley and “Big Bad Wolf” by Clifton Chandler are two of the better-looking tales in the anthology, but have weaker stories. The former is clearly trying to be wacky, as the characters include a Grim Reaper and some sort of floating blob, but it never quite comes together. “Big Bad Wolf” has gorgeous chiaroscuro art, and no dialogue. It feels like the beginning of a story rather than a complete take on the wolves from fairy tales.

There are too many short funny tales in the volume to mention them all but standouts include: “A Grave Error” by JT Yost, a hilarious take on the fear of being buried alive, “Atychiphobia” by Aaron Brassea and Nathan Stryker, where a man’s fear of failing at creating his own music leads to him quitting his job to be in a Beatles cover band, and “What Not to Think About in the Dark” by Evan Nichols, where an adult at a summer camp is persuaded to tell the kids what he finds scary in the dark. The latter in particular stands out as exactly hits on the difference between the fears of children and adults, which makes it rather poignant despite its short length.

Anthologies are always a rough sell, but Chainsaw has a good model here and I’m already looking forward to their next book, this time about Joy.

Roger Green:

I LOVE the idea of the Chainsaw Comics anthology on fear. Different perspectives about what people are afraid of. The trick with a multi-creator product, though, is that it will almost invariably be of differing quality.

So, story #1 -meh, story #2 - meh; are these guys brothers of different mothers? A similar vibe. Story #3 - meh. Then there was story #4, which has some of the worst lettering ever; it's in cursive, and I found it REALLY irritating.

It's about this point that I decided that the exercise wasn't worth it. But then story #5, Addie by Robyn Jordan. I didn't love it, but it was about something. What Have I Done? by Brad Britton was slight, and he can't spell "piece", but it showed better technique than the earlier works.

I actually thought A Boy and His Dog by Bren Collins was "real". And from then on, the level of storytelling improved quite a bit. Some stories I liked, others, not quite, but the percentage of positive tales was higher than the duds. Things That Go Bump in the Night by Aaron Brassea gave me a mild chuckle. A Bigfoot Adventure by Jeffrey J. Manley went on too long for the joke, and had some production problems on one page, but had potential. Big Bad Wolf by Clifton Chandler had an interesting wood carving effect.

Kurt & Adele: A Love Story by Emi Gennis, based on real people, was quite strong, though it too had a production issue. There's a nice twist in A Grave Error by J.T. Yost. Re: Thanatophobia by Non-Work in Progress - I've been there. My Silent Fear by Bob Lipski I liked. I KNOW the guy in Atychiphobia by Aaron Brassea and Nathan Stryker, and appreciated the Beatles reference.

Perhaps my favorite piece is Be Careful Where You Hide Your Secrets by Dino Caruso and Paul Little. Maybe it's because anyone who has ever been in more than one relationship might be able to relate to the situation. It's also arguably the best drawn item in the collection.

Anxious About How Guilty To Feel by Tom McHenry is interesting to me, because, while it doesn't particularly apply to me, I took it as information about others. Clever one-page is What Not to Think About In the Dark by Evan Nichols.

Someone should have edited Pumpkin by Simon Taylor. If, somehow, the message in the last paragraph had been slowly revealed throughout the last page, it would have been far more effective. Also the word 'you' is written 'yopu' at one point.

Finally, Perfect Man versus Confidence by Chris Fenoglio was a fun tale in the superhero motif.

Having read through it twice, I should say that it is far better than I had expected. But I think some of the weakest material is in the front. Still, I would give it a chance; enough of it is good to make it worthwhile. I'd be interested to see the subsequent collection, Joy, scheduled for later this year.

Buy Chainsaw Comics Presents: Fear from Amazon.com.

20 January 2012

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

The greatest minds ever to create comics -- I'm thinking of creators like Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Gil Kane, Robert Crumb, Bernard Krigstein, Carl Barks, Alan Moore, and of course, Harvey Pekar -- all rose to prominence, won the respect of readers and other writers and artists, and guaranteed their places in the history of comics because of one common element: Each of them showed the rest of us that there were possibilities in comics that no one had seen until they carved out the path. Toth showed how much you could do by showing only the bare essentials; Krigstein showed how breaking out of the expected box could lead to an infinite fractal complexity on the comics page. Barks demonstrated how powerful the wedding of children's characters and inventive storytelling could be; Moore taught those willing to learn how to use the power of imagination to create new heights of majesty in comics writing.

And then there's Harvey. Sure, there had been a few autobiographical or semi-autobiographical works created in comics before Pekar first began writing scripts about his life and times on the streets of Cleveland. But almost immediately, those with a vested interest in comics as an artform saw that there was an entirely unsuspected potential to be found in speaking plainly but thoughtfully about moments as common and diverse as waiting in line at the supermarket, crashing your car in the snow, or finding out you have cancer. By depicting and examining his own everyday existence in nearly obsessive detail, Harvey Pekar somehow tapped into a universality of the human spirit in a way that elevated the artform of comics higher than it otherwise would ever have risen. On a large scale, the potential of storytelling in comics form is greater now than it was before Harvey first set pen to paper. On the smallest scale, that of the individual reader, I know that my life has been improved, my spirit touched, my intellect challenged and rewarded, because this one file clerk in Cleveland made up some comic books about his life.

There is, in fact, no one in comics whose work I love more than I do the comics of Harvey Pekar. There may be a few I hold in equal esteem (pro tip: check out that list in paragraph 1), but no one has ever exceeded Harvey's reach. Few have even attempted to scale his heights, never mind done so for four decades. That Harvey did so for so little financial reward is kind of amazing and speaks to his tenacity as a human being. He knew comics was an artform, he knew his work was important (although it never, ever felt self-important), and I suspect he sacrificed a lot to bring his vision to life again and again, especially in the earliest years of self-publishing, long before comics and book publishers came calling.

Harvey liked to say comics are just words and pictures, and that you can do anything with words and pictures. We know that's true in large part because he proved it. I often think of him, and I hope that the respect and attention he garnered late in his career, especially after his American Splendor comic book became American Splendor the movie, was enough for him. I hope he knew how much we all loved his comics. I hope he knew how much we all loved him. Never before and never since has comics produced a Harvey Pekar. And never again will Harvey Pekar produce comics. Cleveland is his last work, and I'm very pleased that it's the subject of this week's Flashmob Fridays.

Christopher Allen:

What I believe is the final completed work by the late author Harvey Pekar is now available, an expansive memoir that also performs about half of the time as a history of Cleveland, Ohio. The so-called navel-gazing, emo, whiny autobiographical comics of the ‘80s and ‘90s were never as large in number as detractors claimed, but what there were always found an antidote in Pekar’s comics, which addressed disease, relationship and work problems with either a crusty humor or resolve, a get-it-out-and-over-with quality that Pekar brings to this finale project.

After some uneven work the past several years, such as the overrated graphic novel, The Quitter, a detached nonfiction look at Macedonia, and a Vertigo miniseries that more often than not found him unable to polish mundane anecdotes and observations into bright gems of humanity, it’s fitting that Pekar ends on familiar ground, just him and his beloved hometown. That said, much of the history of Cleveland, as told by Pekar, is not all that interesting, and while it seems fairly well-researched, some observations are arbitrary and inconsistent. For instance, African-Americans seem to have an above-average quality of life compared to other cities, for a while, and then by the ‘60s there are several riots, without much explanation how things deteriorated. What industries’ or athletic teams’ declines, or other factors contributing to Cleveland’s decline and lack of growth, are not examined. Which is fine; no one should expect this to be a definitive history, but one should understand that this is Cleveland through Pekar’s eyes as a lifelong resident, a working class, self-educated writer whose lens is focused more on the city’s cultural history as it happened to him, its great library and symphony, its jazz clubs, used bookstores and parks. If you’re interested in Cleveland’s rock and roll history, great restaurants, organized crime or political history, this is not the book for you.

Pekar has worked with some good artists before, but Joseph Remnant (and how ironic is that name for the artist of Pekar’s last book?) is really ideal for this material. Fairly realistic, not too stylistic, and with a warm crosshatching style that works well with Pekar’s prose to capture Cleveland’s past and present with both clarity and fondness. His figures are gently slope-shouldered, reminiscent to me of great children’s book illustrator Mercer Mayer (The Great Brain, Little Critters), which works very well in most of the book, aside from maybe the riots, which call for something a bit more dynamic. Remnant’s Pekar is cuddly without being a caricature. The only real issue is how often to include Harvey in the art and how often to just let him narrate, which results in odd choices like Harvey talking to the reader while sitting on a moving subway. It was probably Pekar’s choice to include himself periodically, but it seems unnecessary, as his voice is always distinct and present in the narration. It’s easy enough to just see the art as if one is looking through Pekar’s eyes, so there’s no much need to actually see him shuffling around the city.

Ultimately, although there is some merit in the historical portions of the book, the most compelling material is autobiographical, with young Harvey making friends, discovering a love of reading, scholarship and collecting, and some material on girlfriends/wives (much of which has been explored at greater length in prior American Splendor work), as well as a bittersweet conclusion that finds Pekar working hard in retirement to make ends meet, even as his intellectual curiosity has cooled. Maybe my favorite part was learning that as a middle-aged man, he immersed himself in literary scholarship out of spite for his ex-wife, which struck me as hilarious, practical, and totally Harvey. Not the best book he’s done, but well worth reading.

Roger Green:

Don't know just when I started reading Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, but it was definitely in the early period of his self-publishing mode in the late 1970s, with art probably by Robert Crumb. I totally identified with the main character, which of course was Harvey himself, a caustically sharp observer of the human condition, especially his own. But, in my comic book drought days, I had never read his later works published by Dark Horse or DC/Vertigo. (I did see, and love, the 2003 film of the same name.) I actively never watched him on Letterman, because I thought Dave would treat him as a buffoon.

So reading Cleveland was rather like going to a college reunion. Would I still like this guy? Would he still be as clever and pointed as that fellow I once knew? And when you read Harvey, you DO feel that you "know" him.

The book starts with a lengthy history of the title city. I got a bit impatient with it, not so much because of its length but because there wasn't enough of Harvey's voice there. I did, though, understand the point of some of this section, especially as it related to baseball and race relations, because when we FINALLY get to the Harvey part - on PAGE 43! - the context of the some of the earlier stuff begins to make more sense.

And it's in these next 80 or so pages that I said, "There's the Harvey I remember," analyzing his complicated relationship with women, how having losing sports teams gives a city an inferiority complex, his hoarding behavior with books and music, his work history, the value of the public library, and his staged blowup with Letterman.

The latter pages are bittersweet as he muses, in the words of Paul Simon, "how terribly strange to be 70." What will his future be like? Unfortunately, Harvey never made it to 71. Still, I was glad to spend one more round with an old friend.

Scott Cederlund:

A city where the sweet Twinkie filling flows freely out of pipes sounds like some magical place like Willie Wonka’s factory. The truth is that such a fantastic place exists in Cleveland, one of America’s historical cities that’s a sad shadow of the city it once promised to be. The building where Twinkie filling still runs trhough the pipes, a one-time Hostess factory now converted into a giant used book store, is a re-occuring set piece in Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, a book about a city the author lives in as much as it is about the author himself. Over the years, Pekar has become synonymous with Cleveland. One almost doesn’t exist without the other. When Anthony Bourdain took his Travel Channel show to Cleveland a few years ago, he had to have Pekar on the show. For Bourdain, like so many others, Pekar is Cleveland.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland begins as a hopeful dream. Pekar and artist Joseph Remnant begin the book in 1948 when the Cleveland Indians won the World Series. “Yeah, I’ve had plenty of good days,” Pekar muses, but the best was still the day when he was eight years old listening to the game over his school’s P.A. system. To this kid, sports were everything and his entire civic pride was wrapped up in his baseball team. Pekar regales his audience with stories of Cleveland Indian baseball from the late 1940s and early 1950s before delving into the history of Cleveland. Beginning from the earliest days in 1795, the desires for the city were always countered by a stark reality. Even as the city, more of an outpost then, began to grow along the Cuyahoga, the river itself became a source of disease and insects.

As Pekar chronicles the history of the city, for every success there is an equal or greater failing that the city experiences. His recounting of the 1948 World Series at the beginning of the book perfectly introduces this pattern. They won in 1948 but the Indians would go on to lose the 1954 World Series. It would take them another 40 years to reach the World Series but they lost twice during the 1990s and haven’t been back since. “For me,” Pekar writes, “the 1954 World Series was a turning point. I always looked at the Indians as an up-and-coming team. But now they seemed to be rotten to the core with success... A few years later, that’s how I viewed Cleveland: rotten.”

That’s the viewpoint of a kid but this book easily shows that Pekar’s feelings for the city are a bit more complex than that. By Pekar’s account, there always seems to be something eating away at the city and its people. For every step forward, there were two or three back. So maybe even if the city’s core is rotten, Pekar still finds the good in it. He finds the bookstores with Twinkies filling in the pipes. He finds the people and the joy in the city even as he recognizes all of the missed opportunities that exist for Cleveland and for himself.

For a book about a city, about halfway through the book Pekar takes a side path and begins talking about himself and his own life. It starts out as a diversion but it becomes the second half of the book. In it’s own way, that’s typical Pekar as so much of his work is autobiography but it also illustrates the relationship of the man and his city. As much as he can see both the good and the bad in his hometown, he expresses the same about his own life. There are loving but absent parents. There are wives but there are also divorces. There is cultish fame but it never translates into book sales. There is happiness but there is also cancer.

Remnant brings the whole book together, drawing Cleveland and Pekar showing their warmth and their warts. He doesn’t gloss over anything that Pekar writes, instead showing the life of the man and the city with the honesty and openness that Pekar expresses in his writing. Remnant also gives the book its steady foundation. Pekar is all over the place in his narration and feels unfocused. Is this a book about the city or the man? Pekar never makes clear his intent as he wanders from one moment in time to another as easily as wandering from one city block to another. Remnant keeps up with Pekar, shifting from the historical recounting of the 1800s to the 1970s when Pekar is talking about his own search for love and friendship. Pekar wanders in this book, starting in one place, going off in a tangent but bringing it all back together and never straying far from Cleveland.

In the end, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a bittersweet book. Two entities, man and city, are so intertwined and yet neither one is able to have the success or satisfaction they desire. This book could just as easily be titled Cleveland’s Harvey Pekar because their stories are split almost in half in this story and their stories are thematically so similar. One becomes a metaphor for the other. Pekar was great at making the mundane entertaining and enlightening but here he also makes the mundane sad but optimistic. He’s so discouraged by the city and life around him but he’s also so optimistic that tomorrow may be just a bit better than today. The city may be rotten to the core but as long as Twinkie filling flows through the pipes, there’s a bit of magic in this town and maybe the Indians will win next year.

Johanna Draper Carlson:

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, illustrated by Joseph Remnant, is the quintessential Pekar autobiographical graphic novel, a love letter to his hometown that unblinkingly looks at the bad as well as the good. Pekar's narration intertwines moments and memories of his life with incidents that demonstrate the downfall of what was once an industrial powerhouse.

I've never been able to really get the appeal of Pekar before. There was too much crotchety old man complaining about it, but here, the setting gives the work more of a hook for me. Looking at his life, even when he's grumbling, as a parallel to the downturn of a great American metropolis puts things in perspective. Plus, I now better appreciate the viewpoint of someone older and with experience; I think of his comments as having more perspective. Having seen how a community can decline, some grumpiness is understandable.

Remnant's work is a perfect choice for the material. It's straightforward, well-suited to the journalistic approach, but has its own character. Instead of simply drawing what we're being told, the illustrations add to the story by fleshing out the text and providing a real sense of place and time.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a fitting final work by the curmudgeon who made comic autobiography into the powerhouse it is today, as well as a wonderful starting point for anyone wanting to sample his work.

Buy Harvey Pekar's Cleveland from Amazon.com.

15 January 2012

The Wrap-Up Show: Action Comics #5

Hello hello! Friday's post on Morrison and Kubert's Action Comics #5 got our critics typing furiously -- so furiously, in the case of Scott Cederlund, that he was so spent after writing his contribution that he forgot to actually send it to your humble editor. So, with no further ado, because as Stan always noted, we've run all out of ado -- here's Scott's take on Action Comics #5.

Grant Morrison has already done the near-perfect version Superman’s origin story in All-Star Superman #1:

“Doomed planet.

“Desperate Scientists.

“Last Hope.

“Kindly Couple”

For the story we’ve no doubt seen countless times, Morrison and Frank Quitely reduced it down to eight words and four pictures. It reminded us of everything we needed to know about Superman. It’s not tied into any particular continuity or story but it’s so simple that it’s about all Superman stories. In that way, it made All-Star Superman a universal story. Anyone who knows anything about Superman could pick up that book and not have to worry about whether they were reading the Golden Age Superman, John Byrne’s reboot, Waid’s version of the story or Geoff Johns’s most recent retelling. Morrison created the platonic ideal of a “baby is sent away from an exploding planet to be found and raised by a farming couple.” Action Comics #5 does in 28 pages what Morrison slyly did in four panels.

The problem is that those four panels are expanded to the story beats in Action Comics #5 and they don’t even come together as a story. Slotted-in between the main story in issues #4 and #7, Action Comics #5 has the stink of an old-fashioned fill-in issue, complete with a story that has tangential ties to the rest of the series and a different artist. Morrison shows us these moments on Krypton and on earth that we’ve seen countless times without adding anything substantial to it. The costumes and the rocket look different. The Kent’s child-bearing problems are a bit more realistic and emotional but in a sense they were always implied. And in the end, mysterious, shadowy characters show up to tease us about future plot points.

In his book Supergods, Morrison describes Siegel and Shuster’s Superman as a socialistic hero a man trying to bring down the corrupt businesses of the late 1930s. He’s a hero of the people who isn’t actually of the people himself. He’s the perpetual outsider who’s strongest wish is to have the American dream life everyone wishes for. In Action Comics, Morrison has tried to recreate that version of Superman. This isn’t the Silver Age hero that he paid homage to in All-Star Superman and this isn’t any Superman we’ve seen in the last 40 years. This is a Superman who is going to be an American hero because he’s going to fight for the American people.

That’s where Morrison’s story started. Not with Brainiac and cities being stolen. Not with exploding planets and doomed races. Action Comics #1 started with Superman trying to force a confession out of a corrupt businessman. That doesn’t sound very super but I think Morrison knows that his Clark Kent isn’t Superman yet. Anyone can wear a t-shirt with the S-shield on it. I do it all the time. Morrison’s Superman is a primitive proto-hero and that’s the story that Morrison should be telling. Everything he’s done in the last three issues feel like Superman stories we’ve read countless times by Mort Weisinger, Curt Swan, John Byrne and Dan Jurgens.

In this last few years of political, economic and social upheaval in the United States, I think Morrison is on the right track in trying to redefine Superman. The 21st Century started out with a Superman that somehow tried to renounce any American citizenship and even was proclaimed as standing for “truth, justice and all of that other stuff.” But like the times when Superman was created, the “American way” is either corny, an anachronism or a lie depending on your views of the country. And how does the country’s #1 adopted son respond to that? That’s the story that it felt like Morrison was trying to tell in the first two issues of Action. How does the ultimate boy scout live in an era where the Boy Scouts are eventually sent overseas to fight wars that no one understands while those who stay home get rich and fat?

After only a couple issues of a 21st century Superman, Morrison falls back on retelling the stories we already know with Krypton and Kansas and Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Maybe that’s the new DC, the illusion of change and progress as the stories end up recycling everything we’ve seen before. We expect more out of Morrison though, don’t we? We expect to see some reinvention of these stories and these concepts but any changes in Action Comics #5 to the familiar origin are purely cosmetic and don’t add anything to the story that he has been telling. DC has become the masters of illusion with this revamp but it’s a thin illusion. Maybe if Morrison had shown us something we hadn’t seen before this issue would feel more significant but like the rest of Morrison’s Action run so far, it’s full of ideas and concepts that feel like they want to find a story to be a part of.

Buy Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel from Amazon.com.