Opus Ten:

1.  Putting the Fun Back in Funnybooks (10/6)

2.  Something Completely Different: Click Here To Find Out What (10/6)

1. Putting the Fun Back in Funnybooks. In these days when comic
book adventures are dominated by the grimaces of teeth-clenched
determination instead of the giggles and grins of rollicking action,
when the vagabond longjohn legions are all just teddibly (dontcha
know) and unswervingly serious, self-absorbed by the unrelenting
grimness of their save-the-world missions, it's a treat to come upon
a stack of comics from Mike Manley's Action Planet Comics.
     Manley had been inking at DC, but he wanted to do his own thing, and
so he did. And he attracted a coterie of like-minded cartoonists,
and they started pumping out Action Planet Comics, all of which, so
far, have proven beyond quibble that comics can still be fun. Great
     Manley and his minions (Phillip Hester and Ande Parks and Andy Kuhn
and John Heebink and Bret Blevins and Bill Wray and Jason Armstrong
and Scott Cohn) all draw pictures in ways I admire--clearly, crisply,
with bold undulating lines and dramatically deployed solid blacks.
     Take, for example, the latest title, Hot Twisted Love, Manley's
first "mature, adult-themed" book, he says. Here we have eleven
one-, two-, and three-page tales told without a vestige of
seriousness. The comedy, however, is of a particular short: these
short love stories are incredibly gross, veritable pillars of bad
taste and questionable motives. But they're all exquisitely executed
within the peculiar capabilities of the cartooning medium.
     So expertly are they crafted, in fact, that I simply can't tell
recount any of the stories without the aid of pictures.
Visual-verbal blending of a masterful dimension, to be sure. Suffice
it to say that the lovers include vampires, ghouls, bionic creatures,
comic book punks, and other assorted species of sentient beings. And
the stories all end with a mind-numbing, stomach-turning, jolt.
     In addition to these twisted tales, the book includes a couple nifty
pin-up pages by Mike Vosberg and Blevins. Not to mention toothsome
heroines by Manley and Heebink, and a two-page performance by Hilary
     "I love putting together this type of book," Manley told me, "where
you get diverse styles and stories."
     But this title is only one of the titles Action Planet produces.
Others include Action Planet Comics, Uncle Slam, and Monsterman.
Oh--and (just in time again this year for the orange-and-black
holiday), last year's Giant-Sized Action Planet Hallowe'en Special.
Nothing in this huge comic is dated, however, so you could enjoy it
just as much this year as last (in case you missed it on the first
     By way of squinting into the Action Planet universe, we can do no
better than pause a little at the Hallowe'en Special. Even if
Hallowe'en has somehow passed us by, the pause will refresh.
     Manley has always wanted to do one of the large-sized comic books
"like those cool treasury editions Marvel and DC used to print back
in the 70s." You know: those big, 9x12" books that don't fit in
anyone's storage boxes. "I loved those huge comics," Manley sez.
     He also loves Hallowe'en. And so with Giant-Size Action Planet
Hallowe'en Special, he has achieved a lifetime's fondest hopes. A
huge comic book about Hallowe'en.
     Manley's creation is Monsterman, who acquires great strength as he
gets madder and madder and looks like a somewhat cartoony version of
Wolverine or the Demon. Manley draws cute female characters, too
(reminiscent of Wally Wood and Dan DeCarlo or Bruce Timm or, better
yet, Walthery's Natacha, but still undeniably Manley femmes), and the
combination of a sense of humor and boldly rendered cartoony drawings
makes for entertaining storytelling.
     In the story at hand, "Menace before Midnight," Monsterman, who just
loves Hallowe'en, goes to a neighborhood Hallowe'en party where he
encounters Satanism and the Devil and vanquishes both.
     Blevins fills his allotted six pages with a delicious excuse for not
having a story. Depicting himself at the drawing board trying to
conjure up an idea for some kind of Hallowe'en narrative, Blevins is
visited by one of his own pert little sex kittens--his muse, we
suppose--who parades across the pages in an assortment of skimpy
costumes and girlish guises, seeking to inspire the cartoonist.
Alas, Blevins is not inspired. But we can scarcely complain because
his device has given us the parade with numerous pictures of a
cuddly, sexy little vixen.
     Heebink's characters are Wrathbone and Bitchula; the former, a furry
apartment building superintendent with reggae hair; the latter, an
exotic dancer (whose origin we get in Hot Twisted Love, by the way).
In this holiday outing, they encounter a right-wing conspiracy to
produce a "Reaganaut" by installing the brain of an avuncular
American "statesman" into the body of "one of our wrestlers for
Christ." Conservatism does not fare well at Heebink's hands. Unless
you think it's a joke to begin with.
     Wray does two pages filled with the kind of wacky grossness for
which he has acquired a modest reputation. There's a little of
Harvey Kurtzman in both Wray's writing and his drawing, but Kurtzman
with a strong flavor of the underground, outrageous comix albeit with
little or no redeeming social value. But laughter needs no other
     Armstrong's Doc Thunder tale is a hilarious send-up of Jack Kirby's
style of rendering applied to a Fawcett Captain Marvel character, but
the champion of the superhero spoof is Parks' Uncle Slam and Fire
Dog. Executed with graphic exuberance, including a stunning bold
accent line, Slam is an unemployed superhero betrayed by the
government that created him and forced to live in secrecy for thirty
years. He's powered by the robotic brain of his "little buddy," Fire
Dog, a pint-sized dalmatian who is his constant companion. One
Hallowe'en, Slam encounters a fiendish monster with a jack-o-lantern
pumpkin for a head. Threatened by this "great pumpkin," Slam fights
back. "Get ready to kiss your orange butt goodbye," he says, "'cause
. . . I got a ROCK!" And he smashes the pumpkin to the usual
assortment of seeds and pulp with a huge rock.
     "I got a rock!" That's the battle cry of this brand of superhero.
What a hoot.
     Cohn's contribution is an adventure of Hem and Haw, a co-ed brace of
superheroes who rescue Hallowe'en for a neighborhood kid.      
     Hester's Wretch is a wordless, captionless thriller. Crisp art,
twist ending. Well done.
     What these cheerful blighters have created is an assortment of
continuing adventure stories told with tongue in cheek and a bubbling
comedic sensibility. Suspenseful adventure can be fun, gang! As it
was in the days of Roy Crane and Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy when the
dangers were real but the heroes and the drawings laughed a lot.
     This Giant-Size compendium is all in brilliant color. All Action
Comic Planet titles are available directly from the publisher;
Giant-Sized Hallowe'en (which is a good place to begin if you have
been leading a deprived life up to now) is $5.95 plus $1.75 p&h from
Action Planet Comics, P.O. Box 2129, Upper Darby, PA 19082. Buy one
now for next Hallowe'en. And check out the website, too, for more
details: www.actionplanet.com.
     Elsewhere, Hester has been producing stunning Wretch stories in
black-and-white for several years now in the character's own title,
first at Caliber then at Slave Labor's Amaze Ink.
     Stylistically, Hester's work is akin to that of the others in
Manley's entourage. Crisply and boldly lined. But the stories of
the Wretch are sobering vignettes through which the Wretch, a mute
shadowy silhouette of a figure, moves as an angel of vengeance and
mercy. And Hester drenches his tales in dramatic solid blacks.
     One of the best (in No. 3) takes place on a snowy night, and Hester
deftly mixes the white of the snow and the solid blacks of the Wretch
and the night to tell a haunting tale of racial antagonism with a
happy resolution. The Wretch never speaks in any of the stories, and
his silence coupled to the stark deployment of solid blacks and the
over-all verbal reticence of Hester's storytelling style lends to all
the tales a powerful poignancy. These are worth watching.
     And so are the more light-hearted cavortings of Manley's other
minions. Don't miss 'em if you can.

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2. Something Completely Different: The Unworthy Press in America.
Yeah, I know: it ain't comics. It's off the subject. But--hey, it's
my column, right? So either read on or skip to the next piece.
     We all know the worthy purposes to which newspapermen prefer to
dedicate the space in their newspapers. We've had ample evidence of
it over the past couple of years. We've had pages and pages of
speculation about oral sex in the Oval Office and semen-stained
dresses not to mention the bathetic excess that consumed countless
column inches while the nation waited to learn whether or not John F.
Kennedy, Jr. had died in a plane crash at sea.
     Kennedy's death was tragic, but our preoccupation with
it--enthusiastically fostered by media coverage--was morbid and way
out of proportion. Kennedy had done little on his own to justify the
attention. He was the publisher of a magazine of political and
social ephemera. Otherwise, he was merely handsome and rich and the
inheritor of all our aspirations for Kennedy greatness and our
anguished frustration over Kennedy failures and untimely deaths.
     So eager was the press to capitalize upon our interest in the
Kennedy family that it devoted enormous resources to the coverage of
this young man's disappearance and, then, his funeral. And at the
same time, it virtually ignored the death of Frank M. Johnson, Jr.
Johnson died at the age of 80 just about the time the media was in
full froth over Kennedy. And Johnson, in sharp contrast, had
actually done something of significance.
     Johnson had served as a judge on the federal bench in Alabama since
1955. It was he who sided with Rosa Parks when she refused to sit in
the back of the bus. This decision and dozens of others on civil
rights helped change the legal climate in the South, banishing Jim
Crow forever. Johnson was more deserving of our attention than
Kennedy, but Kennedy coverage was worth more to the press. The
sensation of his death sold papers.
     That's the way it is with the press.
     Another example.
     In Newsweek for May 24, Bill Clinton is accused of neglecting his
presidential duties because of what the magazine headlined as "The
Lewinsky Distraction." The real question, however, is: Why was
Clinton preoccupied with the Lewinsky matter?
     I wonder what might have happened if the journalistic media had
pestered him as much about Iraq as about Monica. It was the media
that was distracted. And by wallowing in the story, the press
diverted the entire nation--not just the President--from much more
serious matters that should have been attended to. And yet nowhere
is the media's responsibility in this "neglect" hinted at--even
though it was Newsweek's reportage that first pried open the case.
     Meanwhile, on the cover of the same issue, the magazine launched yet
another diversion. Al Gore's presidential campaign is in trouble.
How? Eighteen months in advance of Election Day it's in trouble?
Who says? The pollsters who see him run behind George W. Bush--who
is ahead chiefly because no one knows anything about him?
     And we don't know anything about George W.'s positions on various
issues because the ever diligent phalanx of reporters around him are
wholly engrossed in devising ever-more ingenious questions designed
to trick the would-be candidate into admitting that he once
(or--horrors!--twice) used cocaine (or didn't) instead of asking him
what he believes might be done for the public weal from the Oval
     Once again, this so-called "news" magazine--and all the rest of the
pundits who allow themselves to be diverted from actual news to sheer
political gossip--is creating a distraction. However entertaining
all this speculation might be for the reporters who indulge in it,
its effect is to lengthen a campaign season that everyone already
agrees is too long.
     Congressmen began running for re-election as soon as the last
election was over. If it's a do-nothing Congress, surely the
perpetual electioneering is partly to blame. And who is it that is
starting up the next campaign already? The media.
     If the news media were actually interested in the public weal (as
they are forever telling us), they'd be pestering leading Congressmen
(like Tom DeLay, for instance) about their failure to perform any
useful public service during the last six months. Had the news media
devoted the same all-consuming attention to this question instead of
the question of semen on a dress, mayhap Congress would actually do
     The news machinery, however, pleads an inability to act on such
matters because it only reports the news. C'mon: this refrain is a
cop-out. Like all other attempts by the press at self-justification,
it is at once pitiful and laughable. The news media may "only report
the news," but it chooses which "news" to report. And in the luxury
of choice, it effectively "makes" the news.
     But you can't convince the practitioners of this craft.
     Members of the press have in recent years gone through the ritual
spasm of self-criticism at predictable intervals--with predictable
results. The press invariably absolves itself from blame. We only
report the news, they still maintain.
     But there was nothing "new" in the Gore "campaign" in May 1999 when
the media was reporting that his campaign was "in trouble." Nothing
had actually happened yet so how could anything be "new"? It doesn't
matter: for decades, the press has reported election campaigns as if
they were horse races. The "story" is who's ahead in the latest
poll--not what the issues are and how the candidates stand on them.
     Even the nomenclature (to which we've all subscribed) reveals the
sell-out of the press. "Story"? The press is in the fiction
business? Writing stories? Yes: it is, after all, stories that
entertain us best.
     Faced with criticism on this score, the self-serving media, bloated
with its own sense of its importance, assumes a patriotic posture and
claims that this relentlessly unending "coverage" of national
elections is educating the public in the ways and byways of politics
thereby assuring government of, by, and for the people. Well, it's
not working. As coverage of Presidential Campaigns has extended over
greater and greater spans of time through past decades, the turnout
at the polls has steadily diminished. And we don't need to speculate
long about why: the continuous coverage has turned politics into a
form of entertainment, and entertainment, as everyone knows, is a
spectator sport not a participatory one.     
     The intention of the First Amendment in guaranteeing freedom of the
press is to make unfettered criticism possible. This the press has
construed into "the public's right to know." But who, really, needed
to know about Clinton's affair with Lewinsky? Who benefitted from
the news about it? Same answer: Only the ravening press, selling
more copies of newspapers and more advertising time on TV as
viewership increased.
     The press abdicated its First Amendments privileges when it
abandoned public affairs reporting in favor of political gossip.
     To reclaim the status in the public's opinion that the Constitution
affords it on paper, the press needs to achieve a measure of
maturity. It needs to exercise restraint and self-discipline and
dedication to truths worth knowing. Reporters and their editors
should try shining the spotlight of public awareness on those who
should be acting in the interest of the country. If reporters asked
candidates for public office about their stands on the issues, they
would be forced to have stands. And the fate of the nation might be
better for having politicians who had actual opinions.
     Okay, off the soapbox and on to other matters.

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