Sunday, May 29, 2016

Man-Thing-Splaining? A quick review of Essential Man-Thing Vol.1 featuring Steve Gerber

Essential Man-Thing, Vol. 1Essential Man-Thing, Vol. 1 by Steve Gerber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Steve Gerber did not always have a very optimistic viewpoint on humanity, but he wrote honestly
and believed in our best values. If you want to read a thoughtful- not to mention occasionally horrific- graphic novel, this collection of serialized stories does the job.
IF there's one glaring weakness, it is the strength that makes the stories unique: the protagonist is essentially mindless. This means the other random characters are necessary to give dimension to the conflicts, and they change over time. Richard Rory, hippie Everyman, is as close to a constant as the title has, and he's an interesting ordinary guy, never transformed by the usual power fantasy plot twists, but often swept up by them.
This volume features his origin by Gerry Conway and Gray Morrow, and with a stop off by Jim Starlin along the way, by FEAR #10 we get to Steve Gerber, with stories about pollution, free spirits, shady developers, Native American protesters, and other-dimensional demons. In the middle, it's a pure fantasy saga, and from there it evolves into bizarre slice-of-life, offbeat tales from the fringes of society.
I enjoyed this volume, but Gerber really turns up the heat in the remainder of the series. The weirdness, of course, is not to everyone's taste, and these stories were not often of the straight-ahead adventure variety. They were more involved in soul-baring character sketches.
How dare I forget Val Mayerick and Mike Ploog? They turn in some terrific art. Ploog in particular has become an in-demand fantasy artist with a cartoony style here that was not simply a Kirby/Romita Marvel House Style. What can I say? If you enjoyed Neil Gaiman, particularly on Sandman, this is probably right up your alley! The black and white palette does little to mar the appeal and keeps the price nice.

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Burning Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 and my personal adventure into fear

Hmm, so fans are sending videos of their flaming copies of the new Cap #1 over Twitter to Nick Spenser, writer. Anything could come of a twist; I just happened to read a review stating why the issue wasn't particularly well made. The truly offensive idea here is that Captain America- co-created by a Jewish artist who joined the Army to fight the military oppression of the Nazis- would be a deep cover member of an organization founded, fictitiously,by Nazis (Hydra).
Could I ever burn a comic book? I did.
When I was a child, I burned a brittle old copy of FEAR #21 my Dad found tattered in the floorboard of a '56 Chevy. My imagination and Morbius the Living Vampire did not play well, lol- I eventually took my object of morbid fascination to the trash fire in the back yard. I'd never burn another comic book, though. Irony? It was written by Steve Gerber, a writer I now really love! In other synchronicities, the issue went on sale the week I was born- as did the issue of Amazing Spider-Man reprinted in the first comic book I ever got.
I have one insight into why a person would burn a comic book, or any other item of popular art they've purchased. The object at hand represents revulsion and fear, a dread on some level that makes their feelings so strong they don't even want to touch it! I am trying to imagine, that's how people down here in the South took The Beatles in the wake of John Lennon's cheeky comment about their popularity. That was a reaction built on one personal system of belief, taken to a mob level in some cases.
When you burn one of your possessions, that is a rather strong statement. To reach out to people online and share the burning is a type of political statement. What makes this statement a bit unique is that the comic's being burnt because it's apparently intended to undermine a fictional symbol of freedom standing against coercion, fear, and control. Not that Cap's putting on a disguise- there are some possibilities as to what's going on, which we'll find out in a few months- but that tyrant-busting Captain America was somehow a member of an anti-freedom subversive group, all along. Did you know Joe Simon received many negative letters when Cap debuted? Many Americans were NOT anti-Nazi in 1940, but rather, many isolationists believed we should stay out of what became World War II, and others were German sympathizers.
Interestingly, in 1965, the Red Skull- a villain also created by Simon/ Kirby, intended to represent a Nazi-created menace, was clearly depicted taking control of Cap with the Cosmic Cube and forcing a Nazi salute- to Adolf Hitler! This was two decades after the Holocaust ended. Tales of Suspense #67 was a straight-forward story where Cap is the victim of mind control and Bucky, his partner, figures out how to save him. Today's story will apparently be quite different, as writer Nick Spenser wants to engage in a rumination on people who join hate groups, in an attempt to discuss the present political climate. It's clearly brought Marvel a tremendous amount of publicity, more than money could buy. I think the longer the discussion goes on, the better it will go for them, but I don't think they foresaw the massive negativity, as opposed to surprise and wonder, in the initial feedback. This may have hurt their sales, but it has caused a conversation including people who haven't been buying Cap's comic, or possibly any new comic books. That makes this a genuine pop culture moment- right on the heels of a massively successful movie featuring the character, so LOTS of every day people know about him, outside comics fandom.
The destruction of your belief in your favorite characters is a sad concession to make. I would argue nothing can take away your memories. If you don't want your dollars to go towards a company's portrayal of Cap or Spider-Man or My Little Pony, that's a legitimate choice. In this case, I think the rebuttle statement is that portraying a character created by two Jewish artists/writers as a deep cover Nazi is trash. A comic you find made badly is potentially garbage, just like any old magazine you don't want to keep. Your mothers and their mothers did this all the time- leaving us with yard sales of under-valued old comics and of course, the rarity that comes with items going in the garbage. By the time I was a kid, the idea of comics as collectibles took hold.
I haven't found anyone's reaction yet towards this comic book to be particularly positive. And arguably, it's a waste of free speech to make comics about Captain America always being a Nazi, especially in light of how his portrayal has always been of a man trying to do the right thing against the odds, standing up against fascism. It's even worse if you believe, for a sales-driven story beat, the sacrifice of 11 million Jewish lives has been trivialized. Cap may be fictional, but what he stands for is real indeed. He was created in a controversial time, from artistically-inspired desperation, by men who actually served in the Army in hopes of saving their people and the freedom of everyone.
The disappointment of true blue Cap fans to get a new #1 and receive this sort of fictional slap in the face is telling. Apparently, when playing with the possible scrapes you can think up for your heroes, this one was a bridge too far.
My one caveat would be, burning literature is the province of fascist thinking. In fact, the writer of the issue of FEAR my Dad found and gave me wrote a story in MAN-THING about a year later where the paranoid citizens of Citrusville, Florida, gather disagreeable books and, as a mob, throw them into a bonfire, in the name of decency- in the face of their fear that they were losing control of their children to new ideas. Even in their in-story actuality, I can pretty much guarantee, their kids weren't particularly apt to read those books anyway. But it was a great period piece on fear of the changing times.
I didn't burn my copy of ADVENTURES INTO FEAR #21 because I disagreed with the portrayal of a beloved character. I burned it because its yellowed pages and flaking cover- and its story of a contradictory character who was not inherently heroic, because he continued to live at the blood-thirsting expense of his victims-were filled with terrors I could not shake. I didn't even like touching the comic and kept it hidden in the bottom of a drawer- I would wash my hands repeatedly after I'd given in to my terror-filled fascination to look at it. The art was by Gil Kane, one of Morbius' co-creators (in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #102 of course).
I was seven at most when Dad got that old Chevy from his Dad. We'd gone to Atlanta to pick it up, so it was a Sunday evening much like this one when he found the brittle comic crammed into the stale, leaf-covered floor board. The comic bore the same musty smell as the slightly-rusted vehicle. How it got shoveled beneath the floor board after being published seven years earlier, I couldn't know. Dad, being the good guy he was, thought "free comic book!" and gave it to me, because he loved me and knew I loved comic books more than any single material possession in the world of toys. I know he never read it- I can barely imagine what he would have thought of artificial people being grown by the Caretakers, but without anyone to explain otherwise to me, its contradiction to Biblical principles just added to its verboten nature. Morbius, a science-based vampire with a blood condition he's failed to treat, is sent to attack someone in a limo in the previous issue. Steve Gerber picked up Mike Friedrich's story to make the limo's occupant a little girl- genuinely chilling!
Then the girl is mystically replaced by an adult named Tara, drawn by Gil Kane to be every inch the fantasy warrior woman; in any other title, she'd probably be the hero! When Morbius battles then bites her, she begs him not to do so because the action will also harm the child; Tara is apparently the future-self of the little girl. Lots more science-fiction mystery piles up before Morbius, caught between two factions, fights some type of Cat Demon. To a kid going to church three times a week, the demons, the artificial humans, and blood drinking were terrifying and vivid. I slept with my neck covered up for two years, in dread many nights that the blood drinkers in my imagination were coming for me! Everything was unspeakably vivid in my turbulent imagination.
So after we moved out to the country, at some point I took the offending comic book out of its hiding place and tossed its fading visage into the trash fire. I can tell you this: I immediately felt some remorse, because for one, it was a gift, and for another, it was a comic book. My action meant my fear had overwhelmed my senses. The comic book was soon ashes, but I felt a sense of failure- I realized I had let my imagination turn this paper pamphlet into an artifact of evil and dread. I was probably too young for such a tale. I was glad to be rid of it, but disappointed at the same time that I had let fear have such abiding control of my nights and my eventual actions.

Monday, May 16, 2016

1970s pop culture with humor and brains: Marvel's Essential Defenders vol. 3 by Gerber, Kraft, Buscema, Giffen and the gang

Marvel Comics Group- in its phase as a slightly anarchic bastion of experimentation and creativity- published the comics reprinted here from 1976 to 1978,
Leading off this volume we have the second half of Steve Gerber's run. The Steve Gerber stories are SO creative and smartly-written, with Buscema's competent layouts and nice superhero art. The ideas are so weird and original! The inks vary a bit in their outcome, but overall I like the Buscema/ Janson combo. If anything, a bit more subtlety in the art would better compliment Steve's restless wit and canny observations. These are not standard sorts of stories on the whole- the villains are strange but thought-provoking. Plots are both bizarre and driven by commentary about the modern world and individual struggles for identity in sublime pop form. Steve Gerber continued writing in comics and cartoons; after he authored Howard the Duck, Omega the Unknown, Man-Thing, and the team-up adventures of the Fantastic Four's The Thing, he was chief editor for G.I.Joe and Dungeons & Dragons cartoons, as well as writer for cult classic Thundarr the Barbarian. He won an Emmy writing for Batman/Superman Adventures cartoons. He returned to comics at DC with the enjoyable Nevada for Vertigo and the harrowing Hard Time, which picked up his "secretly super child in the system" theme -in prison! He even authored a humorous BBS For Dummies computer guide with a coterie of other writers. The world lost Steve to pulmonary fibrosis- the same poorly-understood disease which took my father's life at 59- in February, 2008. The influence from these comics is understated compared to some of their more famous counterparts a few years later, but both Gerber and Kraft later write good ensembles. Slifer and Kraft team up to script Conway's plot (following Gerber's departure) for a cool Red Rajah arc that, for the first time at Marvel, gets the "female team" concept right! (Slifer himself went on to create DC's Lobo and become show-runner for 80s cartoon classic JEM.) The scene where the heroines converse about their resistance to The Star of Capistan's mind control is the arc highlight. I can't miss talking about Luke Cage's appearances here- still a street-level hero-for-hire, but a distinct voice with a set of experiences that reverberate nicely beside white privileged Nighthawk and the brainy Soviet heroine, Red Guardian. (Dr. Tania Belinsky, aka The Red Guardian, comes into the story through her civilian identity as a surgeon, to conclude the most bizarre hostage situation of the Marvel Age- involving Nighthawk's brain!) The awkwardness of down-to-Earth Luke (and to some extent, Jack Norriss) alongside the bizarre nature of their capers really accents the stories. A parody of 70's self-help fads turns out to be a terrific, if byzantine, villainous plot. Luke's language is less weighted down by "jive" Blaxploitation slang and reflective of a street-smart, self-taught intelligence, beside the wise, bookish and fatherly Stephen Strange.
Deep-dyed comic fans often recall "Who Remembers Scorpio?" as a highlight of 70's Marvel.
Scorpio himself, dark while still comic-book-colorful, has more of a real personality in his arc here than maybe any single antagonist before him in Marvel history. In his self-awareness and personal disgust with the inhumanity of society and its commercial systems, he's a clear precursor to acclaimed modern writing, with motivations and expressions that are both misguided yet realistic and understandable. Dave Kraft writes inventively, no less so here, where even the confrontation in the mighty Marvel manner comes about unconventionally. He nails the Defenders' classic non-team description so well there, as you'll see. Scorpio must've been puzzling and haunting to many young fans, but his existence inspires a sort of introspection that fits squarely with the "college campus crowd" that lent Marvel its early cache of pop coolness. It's unsettling how this young writer poses a comic book super villain- a goofy cliche in the minds of dismissive adults- with authentic depression struggles that seem drawn from some real fifty-two year old. You can be forgiven rooting for his bizarre plan to make his mark work- despite its villainous incarnation, he seeks a society of his own, as he feels profoundly disconnected from socializing. Their issue-long awakening in #50 is brief, but a hint of some offbeat characterization- especially in Gemini, divided in loyalty over the conflict- shimmers through in the most interesting take on the Zodiac I ever read. Perhaps it's just as well the mystique behind his origins remain unrevealed. DAK is still busy drawing realistic characters from real life in his co-writing and editing effort, Yi Soon Shin, a trilogy of comics with Chicago's Onrie Kompan. The draw to the real world in the midst of fantastic entertainment reflects in Kraft's decade-plus long career editing and publishing Comics Interview- now available in hard back volumes.
Kraft gets the advantage of Keith Giffen on art for a while
- the results are uneven, but dynamic! Kraft picks up the intelligent and unconventional, creative vibe from Gerber, having proof-read his books and become friends with Steve, himself. "The Dude" particularly writes great female characters. His Hellcat is actually a successful feminist role model without falling into didactic, manifesto-laden agendas- instead, she (and her teammates) has an actual personality! A sex drive (hinted with a confident wink)! A sense of humor- and empathy! Kraft even turns in a subtle Nighthawk story-and a parallel to the Scorpio-driven critique of modern commerciality- that sets him up with a unique perspective in a way that jibes with Gerber's efforts to distinguish Kyle Richmond from his Batman-clone origins. He sends Valkyrie to college- a storyline that reflects the way classic Marvel would mix the world outside your window with the fantastic. It's cool because both his female leads are not cookie cutter women- they've both moved on from early relationships in an attempt to define themselves. Val's campus forays spark an attempt at collecting some supporting characters besides Jack Norriss for Dynamic Defenders.
Both Kraft and Gerber use the Hulk to great effect
- the hook for little kids to enjoy the book. Hulk also provides comic relief under both authors in his unbridled-id way. His limitations work well within an ensemble. He still maintains the "self-awareness" tone, even in his brilliantly simple dialogue. Kraft seemed to have an affinity for the workings of Marvel's green people-his She Hulk run is different and rather daring for its time, setting another standard, not only for her personality, but as a bench mark for a new kind of heroine. The return to Russia- following an old school misunderstanding battle between Hulk and Namor, with Kirbyesque panache and callbacks to Jack's Fantastic Four work- is also a brilliant way of displaying the changing attitudes from the days of bland evil Commie enemies.
If The Presence isn't a Mao-inspired poet-super-villain, what is he?
There's also an environmental theme about radiation contamination and the oceans, tied by Atlantis to world politics- ambitious, yet still a straight-ahead superhero adventure. The collaborations with Carmine Infantino go from rather ultra-smooth and slick (this may have been Janson's finishes) to an awful, distorted look the next issue. That's too bad, because this is the introduction of Lunatik, a pop-culture-quoting scofflaw with insane and violent vendettas of his own against rule-breakers. This Alice Cooper- inspired menace deserved return engagements; other writers could've constantly updated Lunatik's lyrics-driven lingo to cool effect. No shit, he and Dr. Strange were David (Kung Fu) Carradine's two favorite Marvel characters. The return of Dr. Strange in the last stories is pretty awesome; the rock and roll vibe of the book reaches its climax here, and also brings us Devil-Slayer- another obscure Marvel character with quirky unmet potential. Ed Hannigan turns in pretty solid work, too. My 2010 posts dive into the wealth of Steve's work; I have a couple of new ones referencing DAK's run. This volume's very cool for giving you a glimpse at some under-appreciated efforts to transition from the Marvel of Stan Lee to the modern interpretation. It's better than nostalgia- it's written to entertain all ages, in a way that bears a standard for the sort of comics the late Darwyn Cooke championed famously. Keep in mind, these can also be had at a modest price, as the original singles in color- the black and white reprints here are a decent way to get the stories and see what you like best!

Sacred Fire of Twin Flames by Katrina Bowlin-MacKenzie

Twin flames: it's a beautiful ideal. The struggles of over a dozen couples to reach one another might offer you some insight as to the type of love you hope to find. Do the people in these stories go on to realize this ideal? The book makes the point, overall, how powerful and mystical the attraction can be. There's a lot of work that nonetheless goes into a marriage/ intimate love relationship; that, too, is addressed by many of these stories. The way to build that joy is so personal. I would never say expect only smooth sailing, even when there's sheer poetry in your beginnings together. Yet, you very much must hold on to the magic in those details, and continuously try to re-center yourselves in a joint attraction to those ideals. It's not a conviction to everyone's taste- some people do not find daily romance as strongly in their world of more practical concerns and quotidian interests.
Yet, if an inspiring love life is among your pragmatic goals, there's a scintillating value to keeping reminders of falling in love close at hand. That's this book's treasure.
The clues to how to go forward could be more plentiful- it's good where this book delves not only into the type of relationship you don't want, which it does at length- but also follows you past the initial attraction and honeymoon to show a mystical, revelation quality continuing afterwards. Yet if this book helps you tap into how it all began- or how it all might begin- the essence of appreciating those origins will remind you always of that for which you strive.
If the book can serve to remind any couple how precious their connection, then Sacred Fire of the Twin Flames has served a genuine contribution.
The writing voices are all authentic, born of true experiences. They vary- but this might open the door for more types of people to find in this a story that reflects their individual romance. This is probably behind the choice to spotlight a multitude of people from different walks of life and their history, rather than unifying the style behind the lead author and editor's prose. My copy came pristine and well-made.