Opus 142 (July 20, 2004). We try to do justice to Prince Valiant's John Cullen Murphy in this outing, and we review the graphic novel Wild Bill Is Dead and a current crop of psychological comedy in funnybooks, Heroes Anonymous and Dr. Blink. Along the way from here to there, we round up some of the latest news-Lynn Johnston's retiring, Annie's getting a new artist, and Australian cartooners' celebrating 80 years as a club, etc.-and we applaud a couple of tooner romances and the seeming success of "Spider-Man 2" and Marvel's savior, Avi Arad. We also dawdle in the newspapering venue: the future of comic strips is clearly dependent to some extent upon the future of newspapers, but here we consider the present disgraceful performances being turned in by the news media (newspapers included but not exclusively), which would seem to threaten the continued well-being of newspapering as a form of journalism (if not of journalism itself). We also consider Dick Cheney's F-word and the persecution of Michael Moore. Starting immediately down the page:
Lynn Johnston, who vowed seven years ago to go only ten more years on For Better or For Worse, still plans to stopper the ink bottle for good in 2007, after a run of about 28 years. Said she (answering questions from Daniel Finney of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch): "I hope to write a full story with an ending so that we know it's time to close and move on. I became good friends with Bill Watterson (of Calvin and Hobbes). When he retired, I wrote him, and he called me. He told me one of the reasons he quit is that it just wasn't in him to do it anymore. I don't want to get to that point. I don't want to fall flat so that people say, 'Oh, she should've quit years ago.'"
Annie, the classic
Annie is scripted by veteran newspaperman and comics historian (Dick Tracy: The Official Biography) Jay Maeder, who assumed the job in June 2000 and added a major cast member-a freebooting aviatrix named Amelia Santiago, who replaced Daddy Warbucks as Annie's mentor. Maeder was joined by comic book artist Andrew Pepoy, who was delighted to be illustrating "an American icon." Pepoy designed Amelia and streamlined the appearance of the strip, abandoning some of the more elaborate treatments that had been employed by his predecessor, Leonard Starr, who had taken up the Annie saga following the demise of his masterful On Stage (with Mary Perkins), one of the last of the genuinely illustrative comic strips. But the circulation of Annie, still, as Slampyak notes, not very robust, couldn't pay much, and the sort of detailed treatment the assignment required took Pepoy away from more lucrative freelancing jobs. The hope was the strip would increase in circulation, and the pay for Maeder and Pepoy would increase accordingly. After a year, Pepoy couldn't afford to continue the work, and another comic book veteran, Kupperberg, took over, continuing in Pepoy's manner with great verve until a few weeks ago, a heroic run of about three years. Created by Harold Gray and inaugurated on August 5, 1924 as Little Orphan Annie, the strip is a monument on the American cultural landscape. In the 1930s, Gray's self-reliant waif seemed to stand alone on the comics page in philosophical opposition to the welfare state Franklin Roosevelt was building on all sides; through this accident of plotting and Gray's own passionate convictions, the strip became overtly conservative in cast, one of the earliest deviations from the rigid neutrality customarily manifest in syndicated comic strips, which remain fearful of offending readers of any political strip whatsoever-with the notable exceptions recently of such efforts as The Boondocks and Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore. In LOA's heyday, the only other strips to assume a political posture were Li'l Abner and, later, Pogo. But for the full panoply of comic strip history, you should consult a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, which can be previewed by clicking here.
Newspapers, already running profit margins of 20-25% (higher by twice than the profit margins of most businesses), apparently just can't rake in enough boodle. In the last year, according to Newsweek (July 19), several papers have reduced the size of their comics sections in order to save money on newsprint and subscription fees. Last January, the Philadelphia Inquirer, strapped for cash, even asked some syndicates to waive charges for a year; no syndicate agreed. Now the Knight-Ridder papers, 31 of them, are demanding a 20% reduction in fees or they'll cancel comics altogether, a loss of $100,000 annually for syndicates. The bitter irony in this cost-reduction bulldozing is that syndicate rates have barely risen during the past twenty years. So not only is syndicate feature revenue stagnant, but clients are seeking to pressure reductions? Greed, kimo sabe-the greed of managers to make reputations by making money for stockholders. Public service and journalism, the traditional motivations of newspaper crusades, are long gone, it seems.
Australian Cartoonists' Association (which
knows where to deploy apostrophes) celebrated its 80th anniversary
on July 17. The group was originally one of many clubs of artists that
were formed well before the turn of the 19th century in
From Editor & Publisher comes the report that a new study by Mediamark Research reveals that for men and women, and young and old, "general news" is the most read aspect of the daily newspaper, followed, in order, by sports, editorial page, business/financial, classified, and then comics, with a 3-way tie next, food/cooking, movies, and tv. Gender and age determine the ranking of most of these categories: men turn to sports after the "general news"; women, to food/cooking. Younger readers (ages 18-34) displayed much less interest in all areas; the older the readers, the more they enjoyed comics, editorials, food, and tv listings (apparently in that order). This study, like most, is suspect: most newspaper readers, anxious to appear intelligent, are likely to say they read the news in the paper before anything else-particularly if glancing at the headlines on the front page qualifies as "reading the general news," which, I suppose, it does. I suspect that comics and tv listings actually rank higher in the average reader's priorities than such studies as these reveal. But my suspicious, as usual, are prompted by my biases. ... Dark Horse's Barney Google figurine (designed by Yoe Studio) arrived, and it's a beaut! It is, in fact, as close to perfect as it is possible to be, I wont, in translating a 2-dimensional character to a 3-dimensional figurine. The rosy nose is, perhaps, a trifle long, but-oh, those goo-goo-googly eyes! And the hands, akimbo arms, and striding posture-perfect DeBeck, if ever there wuz. ... A St. Louis jury decided on July 9 that Todd McFarlane had infringed on Tony Twist's publicity rights and ordered McFarlane Productions, Inc., to pay the former hockey player $15 million. McFarlane had christened a mob boss "Tony Twist" in a Spawn story. Twist brought suit and was awarded $24 million in a 2000 trial, the judge overruled that decision, and the Missouri Supreme Court ordered a new trial, the one just concluded presumably. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, but McFarlane's attorneys vow to appeal the latest ruling, claiming First Amendment protection of free speech.
just to finish this segment with a couple heart-warmers: John Kovaleski drew himself proposing to his girlfriend Jocelyn Swigger
in the July 6 release of his Bo
Nanas comic strip, and then on the morning it was published, he
woke her up, saying his syndicate had phoned, telling him there was
a grammatical error in the strip. "I said I needed her to look
at it," Kovaleski said, explaining that she often proofs strips
for him. "I had her get online and open it up while I strategically
knelt beside her." It took a few moments for her to realize there
was no grammatical glitch in the strip, and when she realized the two
characters depicted were cartoon versions of her and her cartooning
beau, she put her head in her hands, then turned to Kovaleski, hugged
him, and said, "Of course." According to the Editor & Publisher story, the couple
spent the rest of the day at Coney Island in
Forthcoming. A couple new books on comics: Tales to Astonish, another version of the creative relationship between
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, by Ronin Ro (Boomsbury, 296 pp., $24.95), which,
reportedly, reduces Kirby's role while elevating that of Lee, "a
marketing genius," the reviewer said, "who overshadowed Kirby
as his boss and most famous collaborator." And a compilation of
essays about the comics called Give
Our Regards to the Atomsmashers, edited by Sean Howe (Pantheon,
228 pp., $24.95), that reveals "a weirdly compelling, sweatsock-smelling
world of boyish passion" according to reviewer Claire Dederer in
Newsday, who finds that Archie
comics are ignored because they are the comics most liked by girls.
"The exclusion of Archie-the exclusion of girls from the tree fort-reflects
the larger myopia of Atomsmashers.
This is a group of writers who have become 13-year-old boys again.
This is an anthology of obsessive, self-regarding, almost narcissistic
ramblings. This is a collection marked by adolescent pedantry. And that's
what makes it terrific. The best critical writing comes from the indulgence
of one's obsessions. In asking them to write about comics, Howe has
given these writers the key to the box of memory. They've responded
with a kind of pimply enthusiasm, which they've had the good sense not
to dress up in the adult clothes of cool. It's a pleasure, in the end,
to be let into this boys' club." Well, gee; glad you're having
a good time. Off-hand, I don't recognize the names of any of the writers
she cites. That may mean that they do not, as a rule, write about comics
(and in this book perform that function as an exercise in nostalgia
rather than as formal criticism or serious appreciation); or it may
mean I'm just no longer up on these things. Now that comics have come
into their own as respectable (i.e., commercial and therefore available
in grown-up bookstores) cultural artifacts, the roster of those fulminating
about them under the guise of seriousness has grown by leaps and more
leaps, finally exceeding my ability to keep up (that is, to stay aloft).
... Dark Horse is going to reprint all of Little
Lulu in a series of 200-page paperbacks (6x9 inches; black-and-white,
$9.95 each) with Volume One arriving in November. ... Birth of a Nation, the tongue-in-cheek satire of the American regime
change effected in
THE WEB AND THE WEEKEND
In a world of dizzyingly high finance and exotic power
The third annual Free Comic Book Day took place during the same weekend, but its success, marginal at best, scarcely compared to the movie's. Hitched, like its predecessors, to the opening of a superhero movie, FCBD-3 on July 3, a Saturday, didn't do as well as its sponsors may have expected, assuming that they anticipated the event to be building steadily, as it appeared to be doing its second year, last year. Perhaps the sponsors are too steeped in the comic book universes to realize that the Fourth of July weekend is the sort of family holiday that keeps people at home exploding things, not shopping in comic book stores. Moreover, the Sunday holiday spilled over into Monday for many, creating a three-day weekend, just the kind of opportunity that inspires folks to visit distant relatives far away from neighborhood comic shops. The sponsors would have been cannier to pick another movie debut-maybe that of the forthcoming "Catwoman"?-or to gamble that, after two successful years, FCBD has a pulling power of its own, quite distinct from that of the motion pictures, and pick an auspicious Saturday in May before kids and families take off for summer vacations.
all of the wizardry at movie house box offices, the credit is accruing
trick in making superhero films,
box office success of "Spider-Man 2" is not an unalloyed victory,
according to Forbes' Ackman,
who points out that over the last decade, top-dollar movies have slowly
lost their ability to hold an audience. They may have big money openings,
but their earnings trail off in the subsequent weeks. In 1993, the top
50 movies earned 15% of their total revenues on their opening weekends;
by 2003, the opening weekends were accounting for 26% of the total revenues
for the top 50 flicks. "It's telling," Ackman goes on, "that
the most popular (measured by ticket sales) movies of recent years didn't
rely on big openings." "Titanic" earned less than 5%
of its total on its opening weekend; "
FOOTNIT. Daily Variety carried a story about plans already afoot to star Spider-Man in a musical stage production. After the success of "The Lion King," the rumor is not at all far-fetched. An early adventure into tights, 1966's "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman," closed after fewer than 150 performances, but "Annie" went through 2,377 "Tomorrows." Then again, Broadway touts remind us that it's "common" for movie hits to be considered for musical productions; a year later, the idea is nowhere to be found. Joal Ryan with E! Online reports a likely problem: "Spider-Man presents a musical-theater challenge that neither Superman nor Annie faced: When fighting crime, he wears a red stocking over his head. His entire head. Including the mouth." They might get Lynda Barry as a consultant: she once demonstrated how to sing a song with her lips closed. It came out as a sort of inarticulate hum, but you could recognize the tune.
Some Dates to Circle on Your Calendar
July 21-25, Comic-Con International in Sandy Eggo
July 26-29, Democrat Convention in
August 13-29, Summer Olympics in
August 13-15, Wizard World Comic Convention in
August 30-Sep 2, Republican Convention in
be attending the Comic-Con in
I'll also be at the Wizard Con-this time, in Artists Alley, Table 9071-A. Charter Rabiteers, you may recall, are entitled to a 10% discount off any of my books that I'm selling at such events. Hope to see you there. Or somewhere.
CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST
American journalism, the fabled Fourth Estate, is in
tatters. Everywhere we look, sensation and error and partisan finger-pointing.
The legendary New York Times recently
examined itself and was found wanting: bad reporting and even worse
editing probably brought on the invasion of Iraq, or, at least, aided
and abetted the Bush League in its march to war. The
New York Post, no less storied but for different reasons, recently
started the day (Tuesday, it was, July 6) by announcing that John Kerry
had picked Dick Gephardt as his president of vice. Wrong. By 9 a.m.,
everyone knew John Edwards was Kerry's choice, and the Post
had egg all over its face, a journalistic gaffe nearly equal to
In the same vein, it has finally come out that the celebrated and widely televised toppling of the Saddam statue in central Baghdad's Firdos Square-symbolizing the fall of the dictator's regime itself-was staged by the U.S. military, acting on the orders of a canny marine colonel, who was enthusiastically supported by a fast-thinking army psychological operation (PYSOP) unit to make it look like a spontaneous Iraqi action. That confirms a much earlier report in some progressive outlets that the photographing of the action was engineered to make a tiny cluster of Iraqis seem a throbbing mob. According to the Los Angeles Times report, the statue was ultimately knocked over by a marine recovery vehicle pulling the statue with a chain, "but the effort appeared to be Iraqi-inspired because the PSYOP team had managed to pack the vehicle with cheering Iraqi children."
children in this country are a major preoccupation of the newspapering
enterprise. The youth of
apparently takes a while for news organizations to get it right. Greg Packer's 15 minutes of fame lasted
10 years, but it's about over. It seems Packer has become Everyman,
the universal man-in-the-street. At dozens of events over the last decade,
Packer has been repeatedly interviewed and quoted as a sort of representative
citizen. He's been interviewed on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox; he's been quoted
in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times,
Cheney, the president of vice and vituperation, told Senator Patrick
Leahy to "fuck off," or to "fuck yourself" (reports
vary, as you can tell, wildly), and the news media were immediately
confronted with a quandry. How do you quote Cheney? Only the Washington
Post published the word itself. Most other newspapers used blanks
("Go ___ yourself") or dashes ("Go f- yourself")
men are hard to come by in the so-called news media. The
Finally, an example of journalistic vigilance in this terror-laden time. The Wall Street Journal managed, with commendable diligence, to track down an obscure children's reader entitled The Pet Goat, thereby correcting an error fraught with danger for civilization as we know it: the name of the book was erroneously cited in Michael Moore's movie as My Pet Goat, the tome from which George W. ("Wimp") Bush continued to read while in the catatonic state induced by learning that terrorists had torpedoed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with airliners that exploded on impact. Apparently the so-called book is actually a two-part story that is in a Reading Mastery series from SRA/McGraw-Hall. The series was developed in my home town, Champaign, Illinois, at the University of Illinois, and the purpose of the Pet Goat story is to illustrate that adding the vowel 'e' to the end of word changes the preceding vowel sound from short to long-thus, can becomes cane, man becomes mane. The passage Dubya was reading: "The goat did some things that made the girl's dad mad. The goat ate things. He ate cans and he ate canes. He at pans and he ate panes. He even ate capes and caps." The co-author of the series still lives hereabouts and reflected on the notoriety of the story: "Several of us spent our careers developing the series," said Elaine Bruner, erstwhile UI psychologist, but "there was little or no media attention to it before [its present fame]. ... So the newfound notoriety of The Pet Goat is kind of ironic." True. But it's nice to know-isn't it?-that thanks to the Wall Street Journal, the republic is once again safe from sea to shining sea.
Buckling the Last Swash
John Cullen Murphy, who died (July 2) just as we went to cyberpress last time, was about the last shining exemplar of the illustrative mode of doing newspaper comic strips that emerged and triumphed in the 1930s Sunday funnies with Hal Foster's Tarzan and Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. Murphy entered the field just as the Golden Age of adventure strips was fading, and he thereby links us to that storied time. Ironically, he never wanted to be a comic strip artist. Discounting his youthful ambition to be a baseball player, Murphy aspired to be a sports cartoonist, but he was led astray by a chance encounter with a legendary illustrator.
Born in New York May 3, 1919, Murphy grew up in Chicago but moved back east with his parents to New Rochelle when he was a teenager, and a neighbor, Norman Rockwell, saw young Murphy playing ball and asked him to pose for a magazine cover he did for the Saturday Evening Post (published September 22, 1934). Murphy was doing a lot of drawing at the time, and Rockwell encouraged him and was instrumental in securing a scholarship for him to the Phoenix Art Institute (now part of Pratt) where Murphy spent his mornings; in the afternoon, he went to the Art Students League. He studied under the celebrated George Bridgman and the fabulous Franklin Booth ("a wonderful man, a very kindly, elderly gentleman"), but Rockwell was also a tutor. Said Murphy, recalling those days: "I used to do illustrations-Rockwell would give me a story to do. He gave me a short story by Hemingway, and I had to do illustrations for it. I would bring in each stage-first, a rough sketch, then a composition sketch, a color sketch, and then the big finish. And at each stage I brought in to show him, he'd criticize it."
sold his first illustration at the age of 17; it was a drawing of a
boxer, and he did several more that were used to promote prize fights
In 1968 with a brood of children, the eldest poised to enter college, Murphy looked around for ways to increase his income; he approached Hal Foster, who was then doing Prince Valiant, which he'd inaugurated February 13, 1937. "I thought he might be wanting help," Murphy told Jim Keefe in an online interview in 2000 (from which I've been copiously quoting). Foster didn't want help then, but "two years later, he called me up and asked me to come up and see him." Foster was hoping to retire from active production of his classic masterwork, and he was entertaining auditions from other artists. Wally Wood tried out, and so did Gray Morrow. Ditto Murphy, and Murphy got the nod. In an interview years later, Foster said the decisive factor was the way Murphy drew hands-Murphy could make them "talk," confirming, in effect, the facial expressions they accompanied. Murphy's first Prince Valiant was No. 1760, published November 1, 1970. But Foster hadn't given up his brain child: he continued to write the strip and, for several years, supplied pencil roughs as guides to composition. Murphy continued drawing Big Ben Bolt for the first three or four of his Valiant years, but adventure strips were fading fast in those days, and Caplin was no longer writing the feature. "It was being written by a lot of different guys," Murphy told Foster biographer Brian Kane in the interview published in The Comics Journal (No. 253, June 2003), "so the stories weren't that good. I'd wanted to get black people into the strip because the heyday of Jewish and Irish prize fighters was past, but the executives wouldn't do it. They thought we'd lose more readers."
finally left Bolt, and Foster,
who would die in 1982 at the age of 89, gave up doing roughs for Prince Valiant and just wrote the scripts.
He ceased that, too, two years before he died, and Murphy's signature
appeared for the first time February 17, 1980. About that time, his
son, Cullen Murphy, with
a masters in medieval history from
Murphy's treatment of Foster's Arthurian legend was, at first and for a long time, a nearly perfect evocation of Foster's style. Over the latter years, however, the visuals seemed to me to disintegrate slowly. The spectacular waxing and waning line of his Bolt years never surfaced-understandably, it was not remotely like Foster's line-but the continually flowing line in the graceful Foster manner eventually seemed to break into cryptic fragments, giving the pictures a sketchy appearance. So skilled was Murphy that this fault, if it is a fault, was scarcely noticed at first, and his compositions and command of anatomy and the like remained masterful, even if sketchier. And by the time the looser mannerisms took hold, Murphy's style was the style of Prince Valiant. Other visual changes were unavoidable: Val grew older, and while his hair didn't turn gray, Sir Gawain's did, and both these heroes surrendered the heavy duty action to younger knights, Val's sons usually. And the size allotted to the feature shrank drastically with disastrous effect on the feature. The visual grandeur that distinguished so many of Foster's pages seldom appeared in the last 15 or so years. Murphy's successor Gary Gianni is beginning to revive the Baroque ambiance of the strip, a development warming the hearts of loyal Val fans. But Murphy's achievement-his initial superb performance and the standard of excellence he sustained for years, even if not Foster-like, made him, as his long-time friend and admirer, cartoonist Jerry Dumas said, "a far, far better artist than 99 percent of the comics you see on the pages ... one of the finest artists who ever graced a newspaper's pages."
When Kane interviewed Murphy in 2002, he noticed that Murphy had done almost as many Prince Valiant pages as the strip's creator had. Kane playfully asked Murphy if he'd thought he might try to break Foster's record. "I really hadn't thought about it," Murphy said. Kane persisted: "Let me put it this way. Once you have done as many pages as Hal did, would you do one more?" Said Murphy, "Sure-why not?" But he didn't quite. Murphy surrendered the drawing chores earlier this year: the first page by Gianni appeared March 21, 2004. It was No. 3501; Murphy had drawn 1739 pages, just 20 shy of Foster's achievement. (Three during Murphy's tenure, nos. 1765, 1767, and 1770, were not done by Murphy; perhaps, Murphy thought, Foster had done them. Kane thought maybe Tex Blaisdell had done them-"but we'll never know," he conceded.) During his stewardship of Val, Murphy won the National Cartoonists Society's Best Story Strip plaque a record six times-the first time, in 1971, for both Big Ben Bolt and Prince Valiant, another record. But Murphy remained an unassuming thoroughly professional illustrator all his life. Kane asked him if it had bothered him "that the general public didn't know you were drawing Prince Valiant for almost ten years." "Not really," Murphy said; "everyone knows I'm doing it." Other cartoonists, he meant-but even Prince Valiant fans. Murphy told Keefe that Foster hadn't been sure he wanted to let the strip continue after he retired. "He was going to have one big Armageddon where everyone would come in and get killed," Murphy said, "but he took pity on me and kept it going for my sake." Reflecting on his career-on Rockwell, Booth, Bridgman, and Foster-Murphy remarked to Keefe: "I was very fortunate in my mentors."
Funnybook Fan Fair
Among our friends the funnybooks are a couple titles
that have lately started taking jovial jabs at superhero pysches, a
welcome respite from the usual legends of longjohn legions in which
the psychopathology of the spandex crowd is treated as a profoundly
human tragedy rather than as an aberration. Heroes
Anonymous, the extrusion of Bill
Morrison and Scott M. Gimple from Bongo Comics, is
up to No. 5 in its 6-issue mini-series, and Dr.
Blink: Superhero Shrink, the invention of John Kovalic and Christopher
Jones from Kovalic's Dork Storm Press, just debuted with No. 0,
its "first" issue, with No. 1, its second, due in September.
I've mentioned both titles here before, but it may be time, now, to
distinguish one from the other. Heroes
Anonymous is group therapy; Blink
is psychoanalysis. In Heroes,
"a group of Gothopolis' greatest (and lamest) superheroes gather
on Wednesday nights for coffee, donuts, imported nougat and intensive
group therapy. Led by The Blitz, a retired Wold War II-era superhero,
they collectively defeat those they cannot best alone-namely, their
inner demons!" In No. 1, f'instance, we meet Attaboy, a teenage
sidekick to his foster father, Midnight, who discovers all his successes
in school were achieved because his foster father bribed his teachers.
Disillusioned, he drops out, but, through interaction with a girlfriend,
he accepts his role in life and rejoins the costumed crusade against
crime. In No. 2, we meet Butch, the Gay Avenger-"the happy harbinger
of heroism, the cheerful champion, the smiling sentinel dispensing joyful
justice" (as he puts it)-who, through no fault of his own, discovers
that "gay" doesn't always, in every circumstance, mean "happy
and carefree" as he supposes. Sometimes, it means "homosexual."
He hears this from a beautiful girl with whom he falls in love at first
sight only to learn that she's not only a rampant feminist but a lesbian.
"Where did you grow up?" she asks in disbelief when he displays
ignorance of the meaning of "gay": "On a turnip farm?"
Butch did, in fact, grow up on a farm, home schooled by his mother,
the grandson of the first Gay Avenger. The legitimate heir to the title,
Butch's father, lost his leg (perhaps in collusion with a husker while
No. 3 belongs to a superheroine (whose underwear is under wraps throughout),
the Maiden, who must decide whether to marry her ordinary mortal boyfriend
or throw herself into the clutches-er, arms-of another super-powered
being. She chooses the former, but not before Gimple treats us to a
few snatches of wonderfully maniac dialogue (a specialty of his throughout
this title). The Maiden, who doesn't yet know her superpowers, will
soon rescue a man who is poised to jump off a ledge high up on a building,
and as she contemplates the would-be suicide, she hears the crowd around
her exclaim things like: "Quick! We can pile vegetables to break
his fall! I've got some kale!" And: "Oh, my god! It's my estranged
friend Rudiger! Oh-wait. It's not." And: "Maybe he just lost
a pigeon!" And: "That reminds me-the kids wanted mashed potatoes
tonight!" Pile vegetables to break his fall? Wonderful.
The fourth issue is a little more manic, featuring a movie star with
a giant ego, Asher Hutchton, aka the Gadfly. Awash with
5 is a helluvan issue: it retails the life of Beelzebella, daughter
of the devil. She pops into the group therapy session-bamf!-straight
from the nether regions, complaining about the smell thereof. "I'll
never get used to it," she says. "My hair reeks of brimstone.
No wonder I have trouble getting dates." That's hard to believe:
she has the figure of an houri and a costume that barely covers her epidermis. ("Barely
covers"-is that an oxymoron?) She successfully fends of an amorous
assault by G.O. Pete, the cowboy, saying she's "not that kind of
girl." Pete, however, begs to differ, pointing to her skimpy raiment:
"Not that kind of -? What are you talkin' about? Have you seen
yourself? You're the poster girl for 'that kind of girl'! Everything about you screams
'She's gotta have it!'" By way of explaining
herself, Beelzebella tells her life story, how her father came to Earth
one day and fell in love with a stripper-turned-dominatrix who ran The
House of Whacks ("S&M," "Humiliation, Discipline,
Validated Parking"). They married and produced Beelzebella, the,
er, Spawn of Satan. (Or should that be "Spawnette"?) But the
Devil tired of married life and left for Hell, and the single mother
dominatrix was forced to raise the child herself. Not well, alas. She
doesn't discipline her daughter enough ("I can't do it," she
sobs one time on the verge of spanking her child, "-I refuse to
bring my work home with me!"), and Bella grows up "wild."
She subsequently joins her father in hell where she attends demon school;
there, suddenly enthusiastic about her education, she worked hard ("like
a demon") but was advised to do better on cheating. Her father
eventually returns her to Earth to "an executive position at one
of my companies that specializes in relieving people of their souls-a
The forthcoming (and final) issue, No. 6, will apparently be devoted to The Blitz, who, for the last several issues, has been behaving strangely. And then, sigh, this gem of a series will disappear over the horizon. (But perhaps not forever.) Penciled by various artists working in a crisp angular but not altogether realistic style (somewhere between the "Batman animated style" and, say, the Savage Dragon), the drawings are deftly inked with a nicely flexing line by Andrew Pepoy most of the time (and in No. 3, he does the pencils, too). The last two issues are penciled by Adam Van Wyk, who does nice clean work with a dollop of sight gags, too. The series' most distinctive visual feature, however, is that it is printed in only two colors-black and a second color, which varies from issue to issue. The first issue was yellow; then blue, then purple, then green, and finally-naturally, given the subject in No. 5-red, as in "red hot," or, perhaps, "devlish." In sum, the series has been a delightful foray into genuinely funny nonsense fraught with enough satirical asides to qualify as socially useful as well as wonderfully entertaining.
its place, so to speak, is Kovalic's Dr.
Blink. The initial issue (numbered, with the industry's captivating
sense of the absurd, as usual, "0") repeats the inaugural
story from No. 25 of
"You're over-compensating as an adult-driven to heroism by a deep-seated search for affirmation," says Blink. "Your mighty deeds stem from your subconscious searching for the validation you could never receive from your birth planet" matched by "an inner struggle with the guilt of being the only survivor of a doomed race."
Cured by this psychic revelation, Captain Omnipotent no longer feels compelled to do mighty deeds, and on the last page of the story, he strolls nonchalantly down the city street, ignoring crimes and dire plights of all sorts that are happening on every side. He will save no one no more. So much for how realism can affect superheroics.
In the second short story, Blink is treating a superheroine who finishes every sentence he starts. After she leaves, Blink tells his secretary, "From now on, we're doubling our rates for telepaths." Then we have an origin story, followed by "Office Files" on such patients as Speed Freak ("the fastest man alive-in for marriage counseling, problem: he's too quick in bed"), Jimmy Hogan aka Wonder Boy ("embittered, middle-aged and washed up, this ex-childhood superhero sidekick stays in the public eye thanks mainly to First City's numerous tabloids and his recent appearance on the reality tv show, 'Get Me Out of Here-I Used To Be Somebody!"), the telepath Ms. Perception ("her mind is a terrible thing to waste"), and others, equally appalling in this amusingly satirical vein. More to come, starting with No. 1, as I said, in September. Future sessions with Dr. Blink will treat other spandex-clad minions, such as, no doubt, "the Remainders, not the earth's greatest super-team ... in fact, they've been ranked eighth on the list in a recent 'best of' poll"; and Nocturne, a masked vigilante by night and a millionaire playboy by day, a classic "multiple personality disorder." Kovalic has chosen to inspect the other side of the coin that Lee and Ditko glimpsed in Spider-Man, who learns, early on, that "with great power comes great responsibility." This is a moral vision, not a psychological one. Clearly, too much psychological realism in superhero comics seems destined to destroy the heroics in a chorus of raucous laughter. But we'll be the happy beneficiaries.
Having toyed with psychology amongst the superfolk, let me remind you that we approached superheroes in a seriously psychological way here not long ago-in our Hindsight Department, where we recently posted a piece of literary criticism entitled "Superheroes on the Couch." This should not be confused with Danny Fingeroth's recent tome, Superman on the Couch. Fingeroth's opus is more in the character of literary criticism than psychological analysis. My foray into this subconscious jungle is also literary criticism, but it is actually laden with Freudian terms and structures, so it's closer to the psychologist's couch than Fingeroth's. His book is interesting; it's fun. It's enjoyable. But it doesn't delve as deeply into the uncharted abyss of the human mind as my essay does. For more in this melodramatic mode (in case you were too busy to loiter in Hindsights when we first posted the "Couch" piece), click here to be transported to Harv's Hindsights.
Meanwhile, speaking of manic artwork, DC's 3-issue Harley and Ivy mini-series has now ended. Written by Paul Dini and drawn by Bruce Timm, the series reunites a brilliant creative team, but it's now becoming clearer just how difficult it is to produce stories that combine three elements essential to these characters: comedy, psychotic criminality, and moral justification. Dini manages this feat, but the machinery is beginning to clank audibly. Timm's antic artwork, though, elevates the tale above its mechanics and makes the books a joy to behold. His layouts are not as imaginative as Ty Templeton's inauguration of the "Batman animated style" in comic books, but his energetic action sequences and perky-breasted femmes more than compensate. The high art of rendering comedic cuties in comics departed this vale long ago when Owen Fitzgerald stopped doing Bob Hope comics. Bob Oksner continued the tradition heroically, but then, he, too, set his pen aside (at last report). So when Timm came along, it was, for many of us fond fellows, like coming upon a fountain gushing in the desert. Here, for your delection, a sample of the Timm oeuvre from outside the four-color confines of our favorite funnybooks.
Lone from Dark Horse has reached the end of its six-issue series, and a satisfying run it was. The story, despite the infestation of zombies and aliens, is essentially an old-fashioned revenge-and-rid-the-range-of-rustlers Western romp. But Stuart Moore's script and Jerome Opena's art work in harmonious concert to tell the tale with such low-key restraint that it acquires the patina of a fresh fiction.
The American Wild West, whether revisited in this hemisphere
or viewed from abroad, is destined to be with us in song and story for
generations. From Strip Art Features (www.safcomics.com)
in far off
But it's Hermann's artwork that gives this volume its distinction-beautifully rendered landscapes and muddy frontier streets in front of rickety clapboard buildings, carefully wrought interiors of 19th century hotel rooms and saloons, all costumed and equipped in tellingly realistic detail. The pictures tell much of the story: verbiage is confined entirely to the speeches of the characters in the best cinematic manner, and there are long stretches during which the visuals carry the narrative forward, unassisted by speech or caption. The pictures create the ambiance, and they are also beautiful to look at. Hermann's passion for authenticity is matched by his skill with a pen and a watercolor brush and a moody palette. My only criticism is that his skies are too cloudy. That old song is right: the skies are not cloudy all day in the West. It might rain in the afternoon as the clouds gather after accumulating east across the mountain heights, but for most of the day, the vault above is a bright and breathtaking blue, and here, and only here, Hermann can be faulted. But it's a minor flaw amid many major facets, and it should not interfere with the enjoyment that his story otherwise affords with its sometimes bitter tale of lost love avenged at last. The gloomy skies in Hermann's portrait even add to the tale, their dishwater gray suffusing the events that transpire beneath them with a barren bleakness, an appropriate shroud for Melvin's life without his young paramour.
Metaphors be with you.
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