Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cultural Productions II: Awesome Comic Book Acquisitions of 2011

As many of my friends could tell you, I only like reading old comics these days (and by 'old', whatever is published before 1990): often, when I visit the local comic shop, I'll pick up the latest issue of such-and-such, flip through it (today's comics are to be flipped through, not read from cover to cover), and put it back on the shelf, dismissing it as another plotless book with slapdash artwork. Because I don't like the new, only the old, I stick to reprints.

The second thing is that I like cheap reprints - I can't justify spending $200 on a hardback reprinted mega-volume of all of Wally Wood or Steve Ditko or Judge Dredd stories from the 1980s. That means, then, I like black and white editions. So, for that purpose, there isn't anything better than the DC Showcase Presents and the Marvel Essential Marvel series, which reprint 500 pages of comic books, in black and white, for $US17 (which, after tariffs and mark-ups are taken into account, retail for $AUD24.95 or so). Some fans complain that the stories are in black and white: my response to that is, the stories were originally drawn in black and white, and the styles of some artists are uniquely suited to black and white anyway. One can buy colourised editions, on glossy paper, of these reprint volumes - Marvel has the Marvel Masterworks series, DC the DC Archives - but these are ridiculously overpriced, and only contain a handful of issues. (Indeed, I find it deeply ironic that fans are buying expensive, deluxe edition collections of comic books which originally only cost a few cents, or a dollar, per issue: comic books are among the cheapest, most disposable pop-cultural productions there are - or, rather, they used to be).

So, for a lightning tour of American superhero comic book history, you can't do better than the Essentials and Showcase series of books. You get to see all the issues in a particular series of Spiderman or Justice League of America - the good and the bad together - sequentially. So you end up having a pretty good idea of the comics year of 1976 or 1968 or 1982. Plus, there's the chance to catch up on all the issues you missed out on your childhood.

Here are some of the best volumes I bought in 2011:

Showcase Presents: Green Lantern, volume 5: This reprints the famous Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil Green Lantern and Green Arrow stories from the late 1960s. As comic fans know, this period of what was a (at the time) fairly moribund series saw a dramatic change. The writer, Denny O'Neil, in a fit of baby-boomer high-mindedness, decided he'd use the series to address every (then current) topic under the sun: the Manson murders; slum lords; overpopulation; environmentalism; the evils of "corporate America"; feminism (with the cover blurb reading 'The Harpies are Coming' (not exactly a positive view of feminism)); and, most controversially, heroin addiction, in the story 'When Snowbirds Fly'.

Beautifully illustrated by Neal Adams - who drew in a realist, flowing and expressive style which transformed comic book art - the two heroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, take a sixties road trip across America - to discover America, and themselves. Green Lantern is a conservative who is beginning to question his beliefs, Green Arrow is a self-righteous, moralising caricature of the New Left and the hippie movement. As much as I hate the New Left, and hippies, I admire O'Neil for taking a stand in this book and using popular culture as medium for commenting on what is actually happening in the real world. Comics today just don't do that.

Poor Green Lantern became relegated to a back-up series after this period, frequently appearing in the pages of The Flash. These stories are written by O'Neil, and illustrated either by Dick Dillin or Mike Grell. While not up to the standard of what went before, these stories are underrated, in my view, and are good, wholesome seventies superhero fare. The last story in the volume, 'Fury of the Floronic Man', is a favourite of mine.

Marvel Essential: Captain America, volumes 5 and 6. After a fairly mediocre run by Frank Robbins and Tony Isabella, Jack Kirby returned to Captain America in 1976, a series he'd last worked on in the 1960s. He was allowed to plot and script the book, too. Kirby wasn't the best writer in the world (which is why he had Stan Lee and Joe Simon handle dialogue for him), and the results could have been bad. But his run on Captain America is, in my view, explosive: it's a case of Kirby unleashed. With the inks of Mike Royer, Frank Giacoia, John Verpooten and others, Kirby's art looks more Kirby-esque than ever: thick, craggy, dynamic, block-y, with deep pools of black (which look great in black and white). Gone is inker Vince Coletta, who spoiled Kirby's earlier work in the decade (the New Gods and other books at DC).

Because Kirby is allowed off the hook to write his own stories, the series takes a rather strange turn. Kirby really indulges his riotous imagination, and introduces some strange characters: Arnim Zola, the Swine, Agron, the Night People, the Night Flier, the Man Fish, the Contemplator and a conspiracy of plotters who want, on the eve of America's Bicentennial, to return America to rule by British aristocracy. The most lunatical story in the collection is one that involves a plot, by the Red Skull and the genetic engineer Arnim Zola, to transplant Hitler's brain into Captain America's body. Of course! Doesn't Captain America look like the perfect aryan? (Arnim Zola is a freakish character, who has had his brain transplanted into his chest, and his head replaced by a camera. I first read the 'Hitler transplant' issue as a kid: I wish I could say it gave me nightmares, but I loved it, re-reading it until the issue nearly fell apart).

DC Showcase Presents: Doc Savage, volume one. This series has a strange provenance: originally, it appeared in the black and white Marvel magazine line in the seventies. Then DC bought the comic book rights for the character, some time in the mid-eighties, and has now released the stories (written, drawn and edited by Marvel staffers) under the DC imprint. Which must stick in the craw of Marvel, but...

Doug Moench writes this comic adaptation of the Depression-era pulp hero (using, as I understand it, Doc Savage creator Lester Dent's original plots), and Tony DeZuniga and John Buscema do the pencilling. The artwork, which is gently shaded, is beautiful in this volume, and is representative of the best American art style of that period (the seventies). The asexual, affectless Doc Savage, though, is something of a bland super-character - and so are his sidekicks, who are all super-scientific geniuses and have nothing better to do than hang out in their headquarters (in the Empire State building) and solve mysteries all day. It's a kind of Hardy Boys fantasy. But extremely well-done.

Marvel Essential Amazing Spiderman, volume 10, and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spiderman, volume 4. I love Spiderman in the eighties, and especially the Spiderman of this period: with Spiderman's new black costume, and a host of new characters (Cloak and Dagger, the Black Cat, cyborg-Silvermane, the Answer, the Hobgoblin, Madame Web), what's not to like? Artist John Romita Jr. does his usual competent job on Amazing Spiderman (Frank Miller drops in and does a few issues and covers).

Peter Parker was always a second-rate, spin-off title with shoddy artwork. Marvel decided to exploit the Spiderman phenomenon by introducing a second Spiderman title in the seventies, but, unfortunately, didn't treat it with the same care and consideration that they lavished on Amazing-. Volume four, though, of Peter Parker, breaks the pattern, and has some sturdy artwork (mostly by Al Milgrom) and good plotting by Bill Mantlo. By the next volume, however, the series sank back into its usual mediocrity.

Showcase Presents: The Trial of the Flash. Back in the eighties and seventies, superheroes didn't kill their enemies; they abided by a strict moral code at all times, which didn't include killing. Which was why this story arc - with the Flash (the bland, WASP Barry Allen) murdering his arch-enemy, Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash - was such a shock to assorted fandom. After this fateful event, the Flash is put on trial, and super-heroing becomes mixed with courtroom drama (it was, after all, the decade of LA Law, the popular American TV series about a bunch of lawyers). Cary Bates is the author of a brilliant, sustained piece of comic book writing, which goes for many issues (this particular volume is about as large as a phone book). Carmine Infantino is the artist. Because the same pair are responsible for the entire story arc, the Flash stories here are all of a piece. Ground-breaking at the time, this volume isn't that striking today. But it's an example of how good a comic book series, written for children, can be in terms of quality artwork, plotting and editing. If only today's creators used this book as a kind of manual or template.

(Incidentally, Barry Allen has been retrospectively classified by DC as a Jewish superhero character. But the handsome, blonde, blue-eyed, tall Allen isn't a Jew, as we see from here - he's just a goy like David Irving, who happens to have a Jewish-sounding name).

Marvel Essential Doctor Strange, volume 4. Interested in astral projection, Jung, the I Ching, psychedelic drugs, self-actualisation and Eastern spirituality? Then Doctor Strange is the superhero for you. He lives in a Greenwich Village in New York (in a spooky brownstone mansion which is bigger on the inside than on the outside), surrounded by strange occult artifacts, and living with his Oriental manservant Wong and his girlfriend and disciple Clea. I love this series, not the least because of its sumptuous artwork (Tom Sutton, Paul Neary, Marshall Rogers, Gene Colan and the great Michael Golden do the art here). It was one of the best illustrated books in the Marvel canon, and the artwork always matched the 'mind-blowing' subject matter. All the preceding volumes of Doctor Strange are good, but this one in particular has an all-star line-up of artists.

Showcase Presents World's Finest, volume 3. Most of this volume is drawn by Curt Swan, whose clean lines and firm composition evoke stability, reassurance, and conservatism. A hundred years before World's Finest, Nietzsche sums the Swan art style up best, speaking of 'The joy that arises at the sight of all that is regular and symmetrical in lines, points, and rhythms... For by a certain analogy is awakened the feeling for all that is orderly and regularly in life, which one has to thank alone for all well-being... So in the cult of symmetry we unconsciously do homage to rule and proportion as the source of our previous happiness, and the joy in this case is a kind of hymn of thanksgiving' [Assorted Opinions and Maxims, 119]. It's visual conservatism.

As one commentator observed, World's Finest - along with many Superman and Batman books from the sixties - reflects the world view of the prepubescent male (in other words, boys). Women are looked at with suspicion of distrust (unless they are maternal figures), and more or less behave like sisters or that pesky girl from next door. Child characters figure prominently here: either Superman and Batman as boys, or their male progeny (in the 'imaginary' stories, Superman and Batman have sons). If you want to understand the mentality of dim-witted boys like Bobby or Glen in the sixties-era TV series Mad Men, this is the book.

Unfortunately, comics writers today can't write this sort of material. For one, they don't seem to be able to write for a child readership any more (and so are out of practice) and construct a simple story within the confines of the strictures of the Comics Code Authority; but, more than that, they don't have the innocence any more.

Marvel Essential Rawhide Kid, volume 1. Written by Kirby and Lee, this volume is explosive (again, one has to use that adjective to describe Kirby's artwork); this is some of the best work he did for Marvel. Mostly inked by Dick Ayers, it reminds one, once again, how good Kirby's early Marvel work was (without inking by Vince Coletta) and how good Kirby was at even drawing non-superhero comics.

The Rawhide Kid only shoots to wound, never to kill (like the redeemed Arnold Schwarznegger at the end of the movie Terminator 2), improbably enough. But he (and the Westerns) of this period represent humanism, the masculine virtues (and the 'frontiersman virtues', so beloved by the likes of Dr William Pierce) and moralism. Like Curt Swan's artwork, Stan Lee's writing is deeply conservative, and Jack Kirby's artwork is (subconsciously) racialist and Anglophile.

This is the deeply masculine world of hombres, owlhoots, varmints and rannies, which inculcates boys (who love cowboys) with the goodness and rightness of hard work, honesty, doing the right thing, standing up to bullies who are bigger than you (the Rawhide Kid is only 5'2"), and being such a good shot that you can shoot off the buttons of a man's shirt. A world gone today, alas.

Showcase Presents Batman, volume 5. I have been waiting for about ten years for this book to come out, and nearly jumped for joy when I saw it. This volume collects the (start of) legendary Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil run - the same team that transformed the moribund Green Lantern series.

According to received notions (held by many fans, and historians of comic books), the Batman series was moribund by the late sixties, being too influenced by the campy Adam West TV show. Then Adams and O'Neil returned the Batman series to its 'grim and gritty roots'. This is not quite true, because (surprisingly enough), as this volume shows, Adams and O'Neil don't do the majority of stories in this period - traditional Bat-artists like Irv Novick and Bob Brown do the art chores, and Bat-scribe Frank Robbins does much of the writing. What has changed, I think, is the editorial direction. The Batman titles, for most of the sixties (collected in the volumes preceding this one), were mostly awful, and the Adam West TV show drew its inspiration from the comic books, not the other way around. But, by around 1969, this all changed. Bruce Wayne leaves Wayne Manor in the outskirts of Gotham, and moves into a penthouse on top of the Wayne Foundation skyscraper (he has a replica Batcave underground), and trades in the Batmobile for a non-descript Corvette. (Dick Grayson leaves home and goes to college, embarking on a career as a groovy seventies-era superhero college student who drives around in a van). I call this period the 'penthouse' era of Batman, and he'd stay in the penthouse for the next fifteen years. (Rest assured, he didn't indulge in playboy antics: as always, Bruce Wayne is friendless, a teetotaler and celibate). We see a change in the tone of the series as well. Hardly any costumed supervillains appear in this volume, and certainly none from his rogue's gallery; what's more, this Batman is streetwise philanthropist and humanist who cares very much about the people in Gotham's slums, and victims of crime.

Unlike today's Batman, seventies-era Batman is physically vulnerable, frequently getting knocked out from behind, or overwhelmed (on a bad day) by hordes of turtle-necked hoodlums. And he is, true to form, a detective and an escape artist foremost - this is a superhero version of Murder She Wrote and MacGyver. Today's Batman writers just don't understand this, and just don't get the character - they portray him as a kind of brooding, psychopathic ninja-emo, who just isn't very clever or resourceful. It's a far cry from the character's roots, which lie in Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe.

This period, we see a venture into occult themes (which is very suited to Batman's character), plus the first appearances of the League of Assassins and Man-Bat (with his distinctive 'Skree! Skree!' cry); also a story on the supposed death of Beatle Paul McCartney (during the height of the 'Is Paul Dead?' rumour) - definitely a product of its times.

A vast improvement upon preceding volumes, this is the beginning of the modern, Bronze-Age (1970s to 1980s) Batman that I love. I'm almost inclined to think that the Batman editors in this period were inspired by the likes of The French Connection and Dirty Harry - but these films came out in 1971, after the stories in this volume.

Thank goodness, DC now will be publishing all the seventies-era Batman. We are due for ten years of turtlenecks, brown slacks, jackets with leather elbow patches and intellectually-challenging mysteries. Can't wait.