Hey Kids, Comics!

I don’t know what’s worse, failing to update this site with no posts for months at a time, or ending that drought with an act of shameless self-promotion.  But hey, we can’t really judge until I’ve done both, right?  So here goes.

Rob Kelly of the legendary Aquaman Shrine website (among others) has finally realized his long-held dream of publishing a book based on his blog, “Hey Kids, Comics!”  and one of the essays featured in the book is by yours truly.

The title of the book (like the site) refers to the little tin sign that used to adorn those metal “spinner racks” that once held comics in pharmacies, grocery stores and newsstands across America.  For kids like me, it was a beacon as full of portent and promise as the bat-signal flashing over Gotham City.  Whenever I entered a new (or familiar) place of business where the sale of comics was an even slightly reasonable possibility (and sometimes even not), the spinner rack was the first thing I sought out, and it helped that was built tall, with that brightly lettered greeting, making it easier to spot.

In the book, authors of varying backgrounds and ages (though many of an age generally in the vicinity of my own) share stories of how comics shaped their personal and professional lives, and if you were ever a fan of the funny books yourself, you’re bound to see a bit of yourself in at least some of those stories.

For my part, I shared what it was like to be on a strict “no comics” punishment, and what happened when Dad found a loophole that opened my eyes to a whole world of comics beyond guys in capes and tights.  But if (somehow!) you’re not that interested in my own purple prose, you should get the book just for the contributions by celebrated comics professionals like Steve Englehart, Alan Brennert, Bob Greenberger, Steve Skeates and JM DeMatteis, along with a lot of other talented fans with great stories to tell.

If you’re interested in comics at all, seek out a copy of Rob’s book at Amazon and support not just him but, by extension, all the guys out there shopping around potentially fascinating books to publishers with hard heads and limited vision.  “Hey Kids” finally found a home with Crazy 8 Press, and the success of this book would encourage them to keep putting out stuff other publishers aren’t willing to take a chance on.

Meanwhile, as I write this the VCU library is having its annual Book Sale and so the Morefield house is piling up with comics bought at — get this — 10 cents apiece! Yep, just like the golden age.  Jason, Scott and Grace are tanking up on Superman, Thor, the Flash, the Legion of Superheroes, Richie Rich, Uncle Scrooge, the Fantastic Four and the Justice League the way they were meant to be enjoyed; in full color, on yellowing, smelly newsprint for a price that makes it okay to read until the whole thing falls apart in your hands.  And they’re all from an era when superheroes actually behaved like good guys, and a whole story might get told in one issue.  Too bad we have to turn back the clock 30+ years to enjoy all that again, but then a comics fan learns to take his thrills where he can find them; whether from a squeaky spinner rack in a drug store stinking of old cigarette smoke or from musty longboxes in the basement of a library.  The portal to worlds of adventure materializes in the unlikeliest places, and you have to be ready to jump in when it does.

I’ve made three trips to the sale already, and I’ll probably sneak off to it again, if only for the satisfaction of coming home with another armful and announcing, “Hey Kids, Comics!”

 

 

 

Carmine Infantino

It’s likely the first images I ever saw of Batman were created by Carmine Infantino.  Sometimes I try to remember my first exposure to the character and I’ve just about decided it wasn’t through the comics, the TV show or cartoons, but through the merchandising.  By the time I was old enough to toddle around, the live-action TV show was winding down, but the tidal wave of related toys, lunchboxes, trading cards and sundry other gee-gaws it had inspired was, if not still cresting, then leaving the shores thoroughly littered with bat-this-and-that’s as it receded.  And a lot of that material featured imagery created by Mr Infantino, who passed away this week at 87.

When he was roped into re-vamping Batman in 1964, Infantino had already played a key role in launching comics’ “Silver Age,” having re-introduced The Flash with a deceptively simple-looking costume that broke with “cape-and-shorts” tradition and actually looked like something a guy could comfortably run in.  His fluid designs, nimble figures, space-age skylines and dynamic layouts were about as far as you could get from the stiff, flat, lantern-jawed take on Batman that Bob Kane’s ghosts had been churning out for decades, and considering the Caped Crusader’s sales were in the toilet, just the shot in the arm he needed.

It’s probably hard for modern Bat-fans to appreciate how huge a deal the shift in art styles was back in 1964.  Batman has attracted so many stellar artists for so long that it’s easy to forget he was locked in one art style for an incredibly long period, and that that style could most charitably be described as “primitive.”  Infantino’s comparatively realistic and far more contemporary style — known then and now as  “New Look” Batman — was such a jolt it sent fans into two camps; those more than ready for a change and those who thought Batman, like Dick Tracy, could only be drawn properly by his creator (a debate that played out in the pages of fan magazine “Bat-Mania” which, if you’re off a mind, can be downloaded for free here).  It was in that same forum that fans would soon learn Batman’s “creator” had in fact not drawn the strip in years, and may not even have been the “creator” at all, but that’s another story.

The point is, Infantino helped give the character the boost he needed to reverse his sales slump and get him back on the map with readers, which in turn led to the TV show, followed by a cartoon series that used Infantino’s designs, and all that groovy bat-gear.

As I get older, it gets ever harder for images to stick in my mind, but certain ones from early childhood remain as vivid now as they were the first time I saw them: Oddjob throwing his bowler hat, the Beatles in their Yellow Submarine, Steve Austin running in slow-motion, and comic images like the one below, created as a pin-up by Carmine Infantino and recycled endlessly on posters, album covers, statues and the cover to one of the most-prized books in my collection, “Batman From the 30s to the 70s,” not to mentioned being, along with the covers to Action Comics #1 and Spider-Man #1, one of the most imitated, parodied and plain old ripped-off comic book images of all time:

Then there was the “arms akimbo” pose that was used on tons of merchandise, including a version that was embossed on the bottom of everyone’s favorite die-cast vehicle toy, the Corgi Batmobile:

Infantino’s pin-ups of Batman villains the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler were, likewise, the definitive images of those characters for a generation:

None of which is to imply that Infantino’s career began and ended with Batman.  He was one of the few talents to be around almost from the beginning and stick with it for decades, starting in the “Golden Age” of the 40s by introducing the Black Canary, evolving his style through the 50s with work on fantasy, sci-fi, adventure and Western strips and in 1956, as noted, ushering in a second era of superhero dominance with the re-imagined Flash.  As the 60s gave way to the 70s, he took the unusual post of “cover editor,” drawing roughs for the covers of almost all of DC’s titles and establishing a “house style” to be followed by such luminaries as Nick Cardy, Neal Adams and Murphy Anderson.  In the early 70s, with DC more or less on the ropes as Marvel Comics dominated the field, Infantino became the first artist ever to serve as Publisher of a major comics line, hiring on a new generation of artistic talents and creating an atmosphere of creative freedom that eventually wooed even Jack Kirby away from Marvel.  In short, he created “my” DC, the comics I started with and which inspired a lifelong interest.  More recently, reprints of his Silver Age work on The Flash and Adam Strange have made a comics fan of my son, Jason.

Of course the down side to being a constantly evolving artist is that sometimes you evolve too far for your audience, and as Infantino’s art became more and more stylized and quirky, he left a lot of readers behind, including yours truly.  By the late 70s and early 80s, I started actively avoiding his work on titles like Star Wars because it was just too angular and cartoony for my tastes.  Back on The Flash again in the 80s, he drew what seemed to me an utterly interminable storyline called “The Trial of The Flash,” which between lasting literally for years and featuring that ever-more oddball art style pretty much led to the character being killed off in 1986’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”

And so he became a sort of poster boy for the cycle that defines all truly innovative artists with an individual style and a desire to keep growing;  you start off with folks calling you an  “exciting young talent,” progress if you’re lucky to “genius” and “giant in the field” and end up with “meh, I liked your old stuff better.”  But oh, that old stuff!

I was lucky enough to meet Mr Infantino at a late 90s convention and got him to sign, among other things, a poster of that “rooftop” image, which was pretty awesome.  He seemed like a nice guy, if a bit tired, but then I’m guessing he had that image shoved in front of him about a zillion times over the years.  To him, it was old news, one of countless jobs he cranked out in a long career, if for some reason just more popular than a lot of the others.  But to me, it was one of the most powerful images of childhood, one that unlocked a whole universe of imagery and adventures and a lifetime love of comics.

I’ve often thought it must be awesome to connect, really connect with an audience on a meaningful level, whether through a portrayal, a song, an artwork or whatever.  I hope Mr Infantino knew that he made that kind of connection with a lot of readers.  Either way, he’ll live on through his work, and that’s not a bad legacy to have.

 

At the Movies with Captain America

capamericaI don’t get out to the movies very often these days.  Partly that’s thanks to the logistics involved in finding a sitter for the kids, but mostly it’s due to my own indifference.  Going to the theater is frankly a drag at this point, what with 20-minute commercial “pre-shows” advertising everything from TV shows (?) to body spray (???), “digital sound” that mostly amounts to just more volume, fellow audience members who never learned how to behave in public and of course ticket prices that are flat-out ridiculous.  I don’t even have a tricked-out “home theater” and it’s still more satisfying for me to keep up via NetFlix than to go to the theater.  Factor in all the people who DO have home theaters with big screens and surround sound and so on, and it’s a wonder they sell any tickets at all.

But that’s another rant (or three).  The point is, Laura and I did get out to see Captain America: The First Avenger last week and I loved it.  First of all, it was terrifically cast; I’ve heard arguments for and against Chris Evans’ performance, but I thought he was great.  I love what Robert Downey, Jr does in the Iron Man films, but if you think about it, it’s got be a lot harder to pull off “earnest virtue” than it is to do “cocky irreverence.”  Evans manages to portray old-school, nice guy heroism here without looking like a schmuck, or wooden, which is getting to be a lost art.  Hayley Atwell is wonderful as Peggy Carter and looks very much like a film star of the story’s 1940s setting.  Certainly she’s more endearing and fully realized than Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster character from Thor.  Tommy Lee Jones is predictably great, if shockingly old-looking, and Hugo Weaving makes a perfect Red Skull.

The film looks amazing; despite all the sci-fi elements, the technology looks like it belongs in the 40s, or at least in a 40s sci-fi film.  There’s a control room central to Cap’s origin that’s huge and impressive and full of gee-gaws, but when you get up close, it’s all old-school dials and toggles and levers, which is awesome.  I’m so over touch-panels and holographic “head-up” displays: bring back the low-tech hi-tech!  Also the lighting and cinematography all look appropriate to the era, which is probably a big reason they picked director Joe Johnston, who’s been here before with The Rocketeer (another favorite of mine).

cap-lab

There’s tons of Easter eggs for comic fans, but if you’re not one, they don’t get in the way at all.  All in all, it’s easily the best superhero film I’ve seen since the first Iron Man, but honestly I’m not sure I’ll enjoy any sequels as much if they’re set in the present day.

I’ve noticed I tend to like movies based on Marvel characters more than the ones based on DC heroes, and that’s not just because they’re technically better films (though they are).  It’s also because I don’t have much of an emotional investment in the characters.  I know who the Marvel guys are, and have an idea of their histories in broad strokes, but I’m not so mired in the minutea of their continuities that I get bent out of shape when the movies take liberties.  I knew, for instance, that the first X-Men film mixed and matched team members from various time periods, and that Mary Jane Watson was not Peter Parker’s first great love, but so what?  On the other hand, even at 14 I couldn’t get past the “crystal cathedral” Fortress of Solitude in the Superman films, or the fact that Jor-El was a white-haired, chubby AARP candidate.

Out of the Marvel roster of heroes, Captain America has always been near the top of my list, just by virtue of being closer to the traditional “hero” ideal than the average conflicted, neurotic Marvel protagonist, and that element is certainly played up in the new film.  In fact, I’ve seen it treated as a handicap by some reviewers, who say Cap is the “dullest” and “least psychologically complex” of Marvel’s characters.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison, I guess.  The thing is Cap’s the reverse of the standard Marvel hero.  Most of them are guys who gain powers first and learn to be heroes only afterwards; Spider-Man to atone for a colossal failure of character and the tragedy that results, Tony Stark (at least in the movies) to at last do something positive with a life up til now wasted on hedonism and debauchery.  Even Thor is an overgrown  kid who has to be taught a lesson in humility by his pop.  Steve Rogers is the opposite; on the inside, he’s a hero from the start; he just lacks the power to do anything about it.  The Super Soldier Serum enables his heroism, but it doesn’t create it.  The film understands all this and gets it dead right, in my book.   Stanley Tucchi’s Dr Erskine character explains the formula only magnifies a person’s true nature; it can make a good man great, but it would make a bad one only worse.

cap-run

The only real negative for me is that annoying subtitle, “The First Avenger.”  I gather there are at least three reasons for its use.  First is doubtless to differentiate this film from the “Captain America” film made in 1990, a film so infamously awful it went straight to video and is still held up as a sort of “Heaven’s Gate” of superhero flics.  The second reason is to allow the character’s name to be dropped from the title entirely in countries where “America” is a bad word (like we care; they’re all run by Red Skulls anyway).  But the biggest reason is to hype the movie everyone seems really focused on, 2012’s The Avengers.

In fact, for all intents and purposes, that one appears the ONLY big movie from Marvel’s standpoint, with the Hulk, Cap, Iron Man and Thor franchises merely lead-in’s to what’s being hyped as the greatest cinematic triumph since Edison invented the motion picture. This grates on me for lots of reasons; for one thing, it seems like the ultimate surrender of artistic integrity to treat an entire film as a two-hour commercial for another film.  It a tacit admission that the bean-counters have finally and completely won out over the artists. (Apparently it’s precisely this issue that led Jon Favreau to abandon the Iron Man franchise).  But it also seems like a stupid game plan, telling people, in essence, “Come see the movie that’s out now if you want, but let’s face it, the one that’s really worth watching won’t come out ’til 2012.”  I mean, would it make sense to say, “Come get our new double-cheeseburger.  It’s not nearly as awesome as the one we’re bringing out next summer, but hey, you’ve got to eat something in the meantime, right?”

Of course if The Avengers does turn out to be fantastic, everyone’s happy.  But if it stinks, Marvel’s going to have a lot of very disappointed fanboys out there, considering the marketing campaign’s been rolling along for like six years now.  And let’s face it, so far the model has been that the more super-powered characters you cram into a film, the more it stinks, as borne out by the Batman and Spider-Man franchises.  The Avengers will have, what, six super-beings just on the side of the good guys, let alone whatever villains they toss in.  If they can cram all that into two hours and make it work, I’ll be impressed, but I’m doubtful.

With Captain America, though, even Marvel’s “this is a shared universe, so get used to it” attitude isn’t too grating as most of the film happens 70 years in the past, so I only have to put up with the obligatory cameo by Sam Jackson as Nick Fury at the very end of the film, plus a few in-joke references to other characters and themes that don’t get too intrusive.

As always, your mileage may vary, but I got the same feeling from watching this film that I imagine Cap’s legions of young fans had reading Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s comics in the 1940s.  In fact, if they still offered “Sentinel of Liberty” pins, I’d order one right now.

kid-cap

Scott’s Heroes

Some time ago, I posted images of Scott’s self-created superheroes Fireflash and Tongueman. Well, lately he’s been at it again.

I gather Fireflash is his signature character, as he’s still a frequently drawn subject and the recent recipient of a nifty costume upgrade, as seen here:

fireflash20111

I’m digging the mask and the cocky smirk that marks Fireflash as a wiseguy hero in the Spider-Man mold.  Also I have to say he’s nicely color-coordinated with that orange and brown scheme, and I like the lightning bolt weapons that make him seem almost Zeus-like.

The only potential trouble area is the ear pieces.  To me, they look like decorative lightning bolts or possibly functional Tesla coils, but Laura interpreted them as tufts of hair, giving Fireflash a Larry Fine vibe I’m fairly certain Scott didn’t intend (though he is a Stooges fan, so who knows?).  Also it’s a bit troubling that our hero seems to be stomping some kid’s baseball bat into pieces.

Next up is this awesome action shot of “Laser Lad” punching out a bad guy:

laser-lad

As a fan of the Composite Superman, I’m a sucker for the bifurcated look in comic characters, and Scott pulls it off nicely here by keeping it down to just three colors, artfully applied if I do say so myself.  Actually, it’s interesting how much he reminds me of the Golden Age Daredevil, considering I know for a fact Scott’s never seen him.

daredevil

Hey, if you’re going to be a comic artist, you could do a lot worse than to be on the same wavelength as the great Jack Cole.  Also, why has no one else ever used “PUNCH!” as a sound effect?  It’s the ultimate onomatopoeia, yet totally neglected.  Too obvious, I guess.  Again, if I have a criticism at all, it’s that Laser Lad should pick on someone closer to his own size.

Then we have The Unknown:

unknown

Now, normally you’d associate a name like “the Unknown” with capes and hoods and lots of shadows; you know, stuff that suggests mysticism or at least intrigue.  In this case, I guess what’s unknown is why this guy has a Dr Octopus-like tentacle coming out of his skull, not to mention a second one in easily the most unfortunate location possible.  I can just hear him now, crowing in his best villain voice, “Beware the awesome power of my Third Leg!”  I notice the “coloring” job on this one almost looks more like an attempt to rub out the image, so maybe Scott took a step back and said, “What was I thinking?”

Finally we have Double Brain.  This is the only one I actually asked Scott about, because I couldn’t figure out the meaning of “Juble Brian.”

double-brain

Apparently, Double Brain is not the masked character in the foreground but the flying figure in the distance, breaking up a robbery attempt. Notice the bandit’s mask is tied off in the back; a nice touch.  Not sure what’s in his right hand, though: rubber bands or pickles?

I can’t remember what my drawings looked like at age 6, but I’m thinking Scott’s already ahead of where I was, then.  It’ll be cool if he keeps it up.  And even if he doesn’t, he’s already making more interesting comics than 95% of what’s on the stands today.

Fireflash and Tongueman

Jason and Scott are big superhero fans, which is perhaps not surprising when you consider how many comic books I have around the house.  Lately they’ve taken to inventing their own heroes and drawing their adventures, much as I did when I was their age.  It bears mentioning, however, that while I did it just as an exercise in imagination and to fill the void between visits to the drug store for real comics, Jason takes a more practical view; he’s polishing up his hero (“The Changer”) to be ready for merchandising deals and a movie franchise.  In fact, I think he’s already spent half the fortune he plans to make on royalties.

Scott’s another matter; to be honest I’m not 100 percent convinced he’s taking the whole thing seriously.  His latest hero is “Fireflash,” a guy whose super-powers include shooting lightning bolts from his fingertips and accessorizing a spandex battle suit with a stovepipe hat.

fireflash

 

Still, Fireflash is downright conventional compared to his partner in crimefighting.  Oddly shaped and colored pink from head to toe, I at first thought his name was “Tuneman,” and wondered if he was a musical hero.  Scott informed me that I read it all wrong: It’s “Tongueman,” a superhero completely covered in (or made of?)  tongues.

tongueman

I’m not sure he’s worked out the details yet, but I’m guessing Tongueman’s abilities include “licking” evil, or maybe unleashing super-raspberries.  Logical “weaknesses” would include excessively hot coffee, Polish surnames and British cooking.

Not to be outdone, there’s a third member of the adventure team, namely this guy:

ff-unclelarry

 

This name was completely illegible to me, so I had to ask.  Beaming, Scott informed me it’s “Fireflash’s Uncle Larry.”  Well, of course it is.

So beware, evil-doers everywhere!  Fireflash is back to kick some bad-guy behind, and this time he’s brought Tongueman and his Uncle Larry!