Author: John Ostrander

John Ostrander: Back to the Beginning

Warp Play PosterWhen I get asked by earnest neophytes how to break into comics, my pat answer is “With a pick and a crowbar through the roof in the middle of a moonless night.”

Somewhat less than helpful, I know.

The truth is that I don’t know how to break into comics. I don’t think most of you can go the path I took. I had an old friend – Mike Gold, who you may have seen hereabouts – and he knew I loved comics and he had liked something I had written for the stage and offered me a chance. When Mike had first gone to NYC to work for DC Comics, I pressed on him a sample script I had written for Green Lantern. He dutifully did but the script didn’t go anywhere and it shouldn’t have. I was very keen but very raw in those days (although I did use elements of it eventually; writers are forever cannibalizing themselves).

Fast forward a few years. Mike left DC to return to Chicago and eventually co-found First Comics with Rick Obadiah. The first comic that First Comics was going to print was an adaptation of the play Warp!, produced by the legendary Organic Theater of Chicago. The play trilogy described itself as “the world’s first science fiction epic-adventure play in serial form”. The director and co-writer, Stuart Gordon, freely acknowledged that he was very influenced by Marvel Comics. (We’re talking late 60s, early 70s Marvel. The primo stuff.)

I was – and am – a huge fan of Warp! Heck, I was a huge comic book geek at the time as well. Peter B. Gillis was hired to adapt the play but I got a call one day from Mike (who was now supreme editor and High Poohbah of First Comics) asking me if I would like to try my hand at writing an eight page back-up story.

Of course, I said yes.

And so began the process of picking one of the characters from Warp!, figuring out a story, working out the plot, breaking it down into page and panels, doing it and re-doing it, learning the tricks of the trade as I went. I had written plays which are similar to comic-book scripts but comic book writing has its own practices and demands. I’d write it up, Mike would give me notes, I’d re-write it, I’d get more notes and so on until one day Mike finally called me and congratulated me – they were going to use my story as the back-up feature in the first issue of Warp! which was going to be the first comic published by First Comics.

“Oh,” I replied, “great. Uh … do I get paid for this?”

“Of course, you sap,” Mike replied and gave me the page rate.

As a side note, I’ll mention that at that point I hadn’t written anything for a year or more. I felt I had a bad case of writer’s block. I discovered that there’s nothing like getting a paycheck to dissolve a writer’s block.

I went on from there to write more back-ups. Then I got Mike Grell’s Starslayer as a regular assignment and from there I originated GrimJack thus creating my career or sealing my fate, whichever you prefer.

The fact that I have a career is largely Mike Gold’s doing. As my first editor, he taught me not only the tricks of the trade but how to be a good writer. When Mike returned to DC, he brought me with him. Thanks to Mike, I got the job plotting Legends which was the first big DC crossover following Crisis On Infinite Earths. It may not sound like so much in these days of constant company wide crossover events but it was big back then. (Len Wein did the dialoguing and John Byrne did the pencils.) At Mike’s suggestion, we debuted Suicide Squad in the pages of Legends.

Mike also famously drafted me into doing Wasteland (we brought Del Close along). It was Mike’s idea and I wasn’t sure about it or at least my doing it at first. However, Mike is persuasive and I’ve learned when Mike has an idea to just say yes; at the very least, it will be interesting and potentially it will be some of my best work (as with Wasteland).

Mike has also been a very old, very loyal, and very good friend.

It boils down to this – if you like what I’ve done with my career, hey it’s all due to me.

If you don’t like what I’ve done, blame Mike.

John Ostrander Gets The Lead Out

Larry Wilmore

Let’s get it right, hmm?

I was watching The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore as I usually do. I’ll watch Colbert depending on who he has on but, in general, I’ve been watching The Nightly Show. I know, I could tape one and watch the other later but the reality is I just don‘t get around to watching the taped show.

I like Wilmore and did when he was “Senior Black Correspondent” on The Daily Show. He’s been sharp and timely… most of the time.

On Tuesday night, Wilmore did a segment on the water situation in Flint, Michigan. Flint has been a hard-luck case for quite a while, often trading with Detroit the title of the murder capital of America and usually high on the list of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. They’ve also been broke for a lot of the time, teetering on bankruptcy such as Detroit went through. Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, appointed an Emergency Financial Manager.

EFMs, as they are known, have broad powers that supersede those of the elected officials. They can void contracts, sell off assets, and ignore the mayor and the city council. Citizens who have elected their politicians bare stuck as long as the EFM is in charge. The elected officials can’t do anything. Michigan voters thought this undemocratic and, through referendum, repealed the law authorizing it in 2012. Less than two months later, the Republican dominated legislature re-enacted it with a referendum busting addition and the Republican governor, Mr. Snyder, signed it. All of which was a great big “fuck you” to the Michigan voters.

Please note: I live less than a half-hour away from Flint, and a couple years ago I lived even closer.

Flint had been drinking clean water supplied by Detroit but that got cut off. It cost too much and EFMs like to find ways to economize. The new plan was to take water from Lake Huron but that would take three years to implement so, short term, it was decided to get water from the Flint River. Flint spent a couple of million updating the local water processing plant but the Flint River was far more corrosive than the water from Detroit. A simple additive costing $1990 a day would have corrected that but that, evidently, was a cost that the Power(s)-That- Were didn’t want to pay or felt was unnecessary.

Flint has a lot more lead pipes in homes and lead solder in the city’s water mains. The Flint River leeched a lot of lead from the pipes and passed it on to the citizens of Flint. That can have, and already has caused, permanent and enormous damage to the brain, especially in children. It will create massive learning disabilities and behavioral problems that will last a lifetime and cannot be cured. And they’ve been drinking this toxic water for two years without any choice or alternative, despite warnings that were posted about a year ago.

Wilmore covered the crisis in a Tuesday night segment and he did a bullshit job of it. He made it look like it was the fault of the citizens of Flint (the segment was called “The Larry People vs Flint”; clever but misleading). No mention was made of the role of the EFM or Governor Rick Snyder’s played in all this. Wilmore seemed appalled by a quote from the mayor of Flint citing ‘the democracy as we have it”. Larry, that means that the EFM was making the decisions, not him. Oh, and by the way, that was the former mayor, not the current one, that you quoted.

How bad is the situation? The National Guard is now handing out bottled water and faucet filters; the state has declared the situation an emergency and the President has declared Flint a disaster area. This means your tax dollars will go into fixing it. Snyder says he wasn’t really aware of the situation until October 1, but there is some question about that. There were warnings that were downplayed or ignored. The people of Flint were told the water was okay by both the governor and the then mayor of Flint when it was not. Snyder’s administration has been slow in taking steps to correct the situation.

Look, I get it – The Nightly Show is a comedy-news show. You’re a comedian, Larry, and not a reporter, but you’re also a social commentator. The situation is no joke. You did a lame fake interview with contributor Mike Yard pretending to be a Flint citizen when you could have been getting more of the facts out. The roles of the governor and the EFM weren’t mentioned, and that’s the real story here.

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah also covered the story two days later and he did a slightly better job but he also missed Rick Snyder’s role Does it matter? There’s a lot of people who have cited The Daily Show and The Nightly Show as their principle source of news so, yes, you need to get the story right and not chop it to fit whatever joke you want to make.

Jon Stewart, as he left The Daily Show, admonished us all that “If you smell something, say something.” Well, I’m smelling something.

You didn’t keep it 100 percent, Larry. The segment was weak tea.

For a good and informative article on the Flint water crisis and the EFM, you might read Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law: What it is and Why You Should Care by Chad Phillips. And the Detroit Free Press is doing extensive coverage on this crisis. You can find them at http://www.freep.com/. Rachel Maddow has also been regularly covering the situation on her show. She can be found at http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show.

John Ostrander: Anybody Out There See The Force Awakens?

Poe Dameron

Not so long ago in a movie theater not too far away. . .

(WARNING! Danger, Will Robinson! Spoilers spoilers spoilers!

If you have not seen SW VII and you don’t want to know what happen , avoid this article. In order to discuss it, plot details will get revealed. You’ve been warned.)

Okay, so I’m late to the party. Again. I finally went to see Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens this last week after about a gazillion other folks had seen it (it has grossed over a billion dollars worldwide).

I’m not an average SW fan. I’d labored in Uncle George’s sandbox for about a decade, writing Star Wars comics for Dark Horse. So I know the territory pretty well. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I was a fan from before the first movie came out, as I’d read the novel of the movie. So my credentials are pretty good.

I really enjoyed myself. Episode VII now joins Episodes IV and V as my favorites. I am sorry to say that my prediction on these pages from a few weeks ago turned out to be true. This is one time Han definitely should have shot first.

There are those (especially fans) who have quibbles and some of them are fair. There are re-cycled elements to the plot, most especially a planet killing (in this case, planetary system killing) weapon like the Death Star. This time it’s called Starkiller Base. You kinda wish the bad guys would think up some other threat. It makes them Vader One Notes.

Speaking of – the main baddie is dressed in black with a black armored mask and uses the Dark Side, pretty much like Darth Vader and is, in fact, Vader’s grandson. (See? I warned you there would be spoilers.) He appears to be conflicted (as Vader supposedly was) and there “is still good in him” but does some pretty rotten things, as Vader did, and I’m not certain I think he’s worth redeeming. He orders an entire village killed. He’s an accomplice in killing off an entire planetary system. He kills his dad, for crying out loud! (And once again, Star Wars has characters with daddy issues.)

Luke Skywalker has gone missing and everyone seems to be looking for him. He was training a bunch of new Jedi but one went bad and killed the others and Luke went off into self-exile. Why do the Jedi keep on doing that? Something goes wrong and they go off to pout somewhere. Yoda did it. Obi-Wan did it (he was supposedly watching over Luke but he also was in self-imposed exile).

There is a father-son confrontation on a metal crosswalk that doesn’t end well. Spaceships still travel at the speed of plot. The climax includes an X-wing attack on a small target to destroy the Big Bad Weapon as time is running out for the good guys.

I understand the desire to use former plot elements; this is re-starting the franchise and calling back to the first film (now called Episode IV). That’s what ignited our love for Star Wars in the first place. Having a story that reminds us of all that is not necessarily a bad idea. And it executed real well. Great visuals and, for a change, a really good script with sharp dialogue.

Above all, there were plenty of new things as well, key among them were the younger cast members. Don’t get me wrong – I just about cheered every time the older ones showed up. “Chewie. . .we’re home.” just about killed me. Heck, just seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time was great. What was key is that the new Luke Skywalker figure is female – Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley. Yes, yes, yes – Leia was always a hero, but not like this. This is a Force using, lightsaber swinging hero and it’s a she. That is huge, IMO. And I think it’s going to have a powerful impact on young girls seeing the movie.

And the other new central hero, Finn (played by John Boyega) is black. Star Wars, in the past, has had trouble working in minorities, for whatever reason. This puts them front and center. Also, I don’t recall a character like Finn before in SW; he’s a turncoat stormtrooper who can’t be the bastard that he’s ordered to be. He rebels, he defects, and – yeah – he also swings a lightsaber.

Our third new hero, Poe Dameron, is the hottest pilot in the Resistance and is played by a Latino, Guatemalan born Oscar Isaac. Yes, Jimmy Smits is Latino and played Bail Organa (Leia’s adoptive father) in the prequel trilogy so Isaac is not the first Latino to play a major role in Star Wars but Poe Dameron is a hot shot X-Wing pilot and that’s just sexy.

The latest Star Wars reflects the changing face of the United States and that makes it feel far more contemporary. It speaks to now while retaining what we’ve loved about Star Wars. And it’s just great fun. I’ll be eagerly waiting Episode VIII and, in the meantime, will go back again to see Episode VII many times. It’s taken a couple decades but there is a Star Wars worth viewing again.

May the Force be with us all.

John Ostrander: Think Of The Children!

Peter-Capaldi

Doctor Who, the long-running BBC TV series about a humanoid alien transversing through time and space with his companions, has wound up its current season, its tenth since it’s return following a long hiatus. The current actor playing the part, Peter Capaldi, is the fourth actor (or the fifth depending how you number it) since the show returned or the twelfth or thirteenth since the show’s inception. The numbering differential is a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey thing.

The show has sparked a discussion among the fans lately because, well, that’s what fans do, especially of a cult science-fiction show such as this one. There’s great passion and great heat as usual with these things along with the absolute conviction of one side that they are right and that those on the other side are wrong. It doesn’t matter which side of a debate you’re on, the other guy is wrong. There’s a lot of passion and maybe some thought and that’s what happens with a fan disagreement.

The current issue under debate is that Doctor Who began as a children’s show back in 1963 and it should always be a children’s show. The position of some is that the current monsters are often too scary for children, the continuity has become too complex for children, the relationships are inappropriate for children.

There’s some truth to all this, and there’s a lot of bullshit as well. The current show-runner, Stephen Moffat, also writes a number of the episodes and his fingerprints are usually all over the ones he doesn’t write. I started out as a big fan of Moffat, especially in the seasons before he became the show’s producer. At his best, Moffat writes very clever episodes with great heart. At his worst, Moffat is just being clever. I’m less impressed with those episodes than he seems to be.

Are the Doctor Who monsters too scary for children? The show has always scared children. Part of its initial burst of popularity, indeed its initial survival, rested on the Daleks, a group of alien cyborgs. They’ve been described as deranged pepper shakers, bent on conquest and the death of any species inferior to themselves which they consider all other races to be. They’re catch phrase is “Exterminate!” They scared the bejabbers out of British tykes since their first appearance. I’ve read reminiscences of Brits saying they watched the show from behind the couch or through their fingers. The world can be a scary place and all children know this. Being afraid and then seeing the monsters defeated is, I think, very healthy. Many of the classic fairy tales do this. Scaring the little bastards is a good idea. It’s part of growing up.

Should Doctor Who have remained a children’s show? I’ve worked for a long time in a medium (comics) that was considered the bastard child of children’s lit. It was off in a ghetto of its own despite the fact that elsewhere in the world, the comics medium wasn’t considered to be only for children. I’ve never considered my work to be primarily for children and, in fact, have several times steered a parent away from my work. We’ve since broken out of that artistic straightjacket with works of art such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus showing what the medium is capable of being.

That said – there haven’t been enough comics for children any more. The medium has catered to the fan and the cult without paying attention to where the next generation of readers are going to come from. That’s short-sighted. Given the multiple versions of the characters that exist, the two major publishers – DC and Marvel – should publish versions of their main characters to attract the young reader. As the kids grow into adults, you could introduce them to the more grown-up editions of the characters. That’s investing in their own characters and the future of the medium.

The question for the comics – and Doctor Who – is not just what they are but what they can be.

John Ostrander: Origins

Nero Wolfe

As I mentioned in a previous column, I’ve been on a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe reading/re-reading jag as of late and have been enjoying it greatly. As other commentators have noted, the pleasure in the Nero Wolfe novels is not so much the plots, which have been noted as serviceable, but in the characters, especially the rotund and eccentric genius, Nero Wolfe, and his wise cracking legman and assistant, Archie Goodwin.

(Sidenote: when I first met the late and great comic book writer/editor, Also Archie Goodwin, I meant to ask him about Wolfe but decidedly, I think prudently, that he had probably gotten enough of that in his life. End digression.)

Stout had written 33 novels and 39 short stories on the pair between 1934 and his death in 1975. After his death, his estate authorized further Wolfe and Goodwin adventures by Robert Goldsborough who has written ten books, one of which was Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to the Nero Wolfe stories telling the tale of how the two first met.

That’s a story Rex Stout had never told and I’m enough of a fan to have wondered in the past about it so, of course, I ordered the book.

Pastiches can be hit and miss; the author is trying not only for the style of the original author but for the voice of the characters. There’s been a lot of different pastiches over the years for different literary creations; Sherlock Holmes has them, there are Conan the Barbarian pastiches, and more recently Robert B. Parker’s characters have come back to life with various writers of different abilities.

I read Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t Stout but it wasn’t bad. It hit all the clues about the characters’ backgrounds that Stout had sprinkled through the Wolfe canon. Goldsborough has caught Wolfe’s “voice” pretty well although I felt his Archie was a bit spotty. However, my biggest reaction after reading the book was “Why?”

Rex Stout never gave a full “origin” of the Wolfe/Goodwin partnership. Do we really need one? Yes, I bought the book because I was curious but I didn’t learn anything new about the characters. It got me to thinking: do we always need an origin?

When I started writing my GrimJack series, we joined John (GrimJack) Gaunt in the middle of his doing something. Sometime later, we did an “origin” which the late columnist and critic Don Thompson said was his second favorite origin story of all time, next to Superman’s. In it, Gordon, the bartender of Munden’s Bar which Gaunt owns and is his hang-out, offers to share Gaunt’s “secret origin” with a patron. It goes like this: Papa Gaunt. Mama Gaunt. A bottle of hootch. Wucka wucka wucka. Nine months later – Baby Gaunt.

The point of it was that Gaunt was born and everything that had happened to him since then is what makes him into GrimJack. I differentiate between “origins” and “backstory”.

An origin is the starting point from which everything else flows. Backstory fills in and explains different aspects of a given character. Sometimes there may not be any single starting point.

I wrote some stories with Del Close, the legend who directed and taught at Chicago’s Second City for many many years and then went to form the ImprovOlympics (now simply called “I/O”). I took some of his improv classes at Second City myself; they were extremely valuable to me as a writer and very liberating. One of Del’s rule was to start in the middle of the story and go on past the end. He used to say, “I get bored with all that exposition shit. Get on with it.” If it was a fairy tale, he wanted to know what happened beyond the “happily ever after”. For him, that was what was really interesting in the story.

One of the big questions Del made me ask myself was “Just how necessary – really necessary – was all that exposition?” What was the minimum that reader had to know in order to follow the story? The answer usually is: a lot less than you think. A writer may want to be clear about everything so s/he may overexplain.

I remember one of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read began with Spidey in the middle of a pitched battle on a New York street with the Rhino. I didn’t know anything about either character but the writer, Stan Lee, assured us in a narrative caption: “Don’t worry, effendi. We’ll catch you up as we go.” And damned if he didn’t. That also taught me a lot.

One of the rules that has been devised for comics is that Every Comic Is Someone’s First Issue. Therefore, it was obligatory to be absolutely clear about it all. Someone’s rule was that within the first five pages, the main character’s name had to be said, the powers demonstrated, and what’s at stake made clear. That’s important for the writer to know, certainly, but how much does the reader need to know? Usually, less than you think.

With GrimJack, Timothy Truman (the book’s first artist and designated co-creator) and I knew a lot about John Gaunt’s backstory but we decided to only tell it when it was pertinent to a given story. The reader sensed that there was more story than we were telling and that created some mystery about him but, at the same time, there was trust that we knew what we were doing.

The writer also has to trust the reader and to assume they are intelligent enough to fill in some blanks. It doesn’t all need to be spelled out. You can imply a lot and trust the reader to get it. That trust creates a bond between creator and reader and that’s when magic happens.

For me, that was the main problem with Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. It gave me the incidents of how the two met, the what, but not the why. How did that relationship start? Was there a chemistry from the start? The book was very prosaic but it needed a touch of poetry; there needed to be something between the lines. There needed to be a touch of mystery because in all the Rex Stout stories about the pair, that was there. The biggest mystery in every Nero Wolfe story, the one that is never solved but always there, is the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. That’s what keeps me coming back. Over and over.

John Ostrander: Christmas Anti-Heroes

grinch

T’is the season for Christmas related columns, fa-la-la-la-etc. I could write about Star Wars: The Force Awakens but that came out Friday so now it’s old hat and, besides, I haven’t seen it yet and, given the crowds, may not be able to see it until after the first of the year so let’s talk about something else, shaaaaall we?

Christmas is a time of peace, love, and goodwill to all unless you’re doing last minute shopping, running from store to store, and in a life and death struggle with some other harried shopper for the last iteration of a particular item that you both must have. So why is it that, aside from Baby Jesus of course, the most identifiable characters connected with the day are anti-heroes – the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Mr. Potter (from It’s a Wonderful Life)?

Anti-heroes are what we used to call outright villains until it was found that we may identify with them more than perhaps we should. They’re bad guys who have a hint of good guy in them and these days we may sympathize with them more than the erstwhile heroes of the stories that they are in. They’re usually the most interesting and usually have the best lines.

Take the Grinch, for example, especially the Grinch found in the Chuck Jones directed and Boris Karloff voiced cartoon. He even has a song about how bad he is. Some of my favorite lyrics in it go: “You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch! You’re a nasty, wasty skunk! Your heart is full of unwashed socks. Your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Grinch!” Admit it. You now have the whole song running through your head. Merry Christmas.

The Grinch lives up the mountain with his dog Max, but is assaulted by the noise coming from Who-ville every Christmas and it is driving him just bat-shit crazy. So he hatches his evil plan: he’ll dress up like Sanity Claus and steal every present from the Whos and every scrap of food including the last can of Who-Hash. (That particular delicacy always troubled me; it implies that the hash is made up of ground up Whos which suggests that the village is a town of cannibals which might make them more interesting than they otherwise appear.)

Instead of tears, the Grinch hears a song of joy from the Whos on Christmas Day. Xmas came all the same. So he has a change of heart (it grew three sizes that day) and returns everything and even joins them for dinner, slicing the roast beast.

The change suggests a desire to change, deep down. Let’s be honest though – the Grinch is funnier and more interesting before his change.

And then there’s Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the Grinch’s literary grandfather. Dickens describes him as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” His very name is a synonym for miser (look it up). When Carl Barks was looking for a name for Donald Duck’s rich and miserly uncle, what else would suit but the name Scrooge?

Ebenezer is a gold mine for bad Christmas attitude. Dickens says of him “To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Scrooge.” Scrooge is famous for his “Bah! Humbug!” attitude on the season. Early on, he declares: “Out upon merry Christmas. What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

When Scrooge is asked for money to help the poor, he says they should go to the poorhouse since that is what he pays his taxes for. Told that many would rather die than go there, Scrooge snaps, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Oh, that’s cold.

Scrooge, however, saw himself as simply a good man of business and I suspect many on the Right today would see him as the put-upon hero of the story, just another entrepreneur trying to make his way past all those grasping freeloaders with their hands out.

Scrooge gets visited by four ghosts (including his dead partner, Jacob Marley) and, of course, gets reformed. By the end he vows, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Still, there’s enough of the old devil in him to play a rather mean trick on his clerk, Bob Cratchit, on the following day. Thank goodness.

That leaves us, then, with Mr. Potter of It’s A Wonderful Life. Let’s be honest; there’s nothing redeeming about him. He is a miserable old miser like Scrooge; of him it can be sung that he’s a mean one. He has the best – or worst – of the Grinch and Scrooge in him.

Here’s a sample of some his best line and worst attitudes: “I am an old man, and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.

“Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me ‘a warped, frustrated, old man!’ What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help.

“He [Peter Bailey] was a man of high ideals, so called. Ideals without common sense can ruin this town.

“Ernie Bishop, you know the fella who sits around all day on his brains in his taxi?”

When Peter Bailey asks him why he is so miserly when he has so much money: “Oh, I suppose I should give it to miserable failures like you and that idiot brother of yours to spend for me!”

“You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas!”

I’m surprised that Mr. Potter isn’t running for the Republican presidential nomination. Or maybe he is and just has gotten lost in the pack. Maybe he’s changed his name to Trump.

Potter gets ahold by mistake of a deposit that belongs to George Bailey and the Savings and Loan he heads up. Knowing this will mean financial ruin and disgrace for Bailey (whom he describes as a boil on his neck), he conceals the fact that he has it.

And he gets away with it!

George is saved by the generosity of family and friends but, by the end of the movie, Potter is not exposed and he never gives the money back. He’s unrepentant and unreformed. You can sort of root for the Grinch and Scrooge but you really just want Potter to die with a stake of holly through his heart. He’s not an anti-hero, he’s an asshole. He’s an outright villain. Die, Potter, die!

Anyway, may your Christmas be merry and bright, one and all. Enjoy the day and enjoy some of these classics. They do embody the feelings of the season.

Even if that feeling is… “Humbug!”

John Ostrander: The Face We Show

Ostrander 2Every once in a while, I’ll come across a picture of me from back in my twenties and thirties or even earlier. I look at myself and what I was wearing and how I wore my hair (I had more hair back then to wear). I sometimes had a mustache, I sometimes had a beard, or even big sideburns and that was always a little bit odd. My beard especially came in sparse in some areas, tightly curled all over, and a touch red. Likewise, I sometimes let my hair grow long although it too was very curly so it never achieved any great length. It was longer on the sides than on the top of my head; I referred to as a bozfro.

I suspect a lot of people look at these older images of themselves and go, “What was I thinking?” And yet, it was a choice that I made. Part of it would have been influenced by the fads and fashions of the time but did I really think at the time that I was looking good?

Occasionally, the look was a little subversive. For two years in college I was both a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) and the Theater Department. This would have been in the late Sixties so the two were not especially compatible. Every Thursday we were supposed to wear our uniforms to school and to ROTC. This got me odd looks in the Theater Department; we were usually a rag-tag looking bunch of semi-hippies. However, I also told the ones in charge of ROTC that I was in a play and thus has to keep my beard and long hair. (Not true usually but they didn’t know that.) At least once a month our commanding officer would announce to the assembled ROTC that the following week would be an inspection and we all should “shine your buttons, spit shine your shoes, get a shave and a haircut.” His eyes would then rest in me, “unless you’re in a play,” he would mutter.

That was a choice I made back then. Whether we realize it or not, we make those kind of decisions all the time. Every character that we write or draw makes those choices. Even if someone says, “I just throw on any old thing”, that is still a choice. It says something. It may be saying, “I don’t care how I look; fashion is not important to me.” Or it might say, “This way I’ll be invisible; I won’t look any different than anyone else.” It does say something. We are making statements about ourselves whether we intend to do so or not.

As much as the costumes they wear, heroes and villains are defined by the everyday clothes that they put on, the look that they assume. It says something about them. When I taught at the Kubert School, one of my lecture/assignments was to have the students research the clothes that the characters wore when they were out of costume. Bruce Wayne will wear something different than Peter Parker. They will shop in different stores. I wanted the students to be aware and be able to draw different types of fabrics. This all conveys something to the reader.

What a person chooses to wear says something about them, about who they are, about who they see themselves to be. It’s how they present themselves. It’s the same for all of us. What image of ourselves are we presenting? How do we want the other person to see us?

Every line drawn in a comic is defining a person, a place, the action, and every other bit of information. The reader takes it all in. It creates not only a story but a reality into which the readers invests themselves. If the artist, if the writer doesn’t put the information in there, it doesn’t exist.

Certainly, an artist can over render. They can noodle a page to death. They can add extraneous information, as can the writer. The key is to know how much information must be given, what can be implied, and what can be omitted. We don’t want to confuse the reader because that pulls them out of the story, out of the reality we are creating with them.

People, all of us, are like diamonds and each facet reveals some different perspective or glimpse of who we are. The question becomes what are we choosing to reveal and to whom and why, and what are we revealing without realizing it. That changes from moment to moment and person to person. As with us, so it needs to be with our characters. We don’t want to shortchange them or the reader.

That’s the job.

John Ostrander: Not Your Father’s Superman

Batman-2nd-Amendment

My friend Paul Guinan put an interesting post up on his Facebook page yesterday. It sparked an equally interesting discussion, and, evidently, you can have discussions on Facebook that are not all salvos of rants.

Paul wrote: “I grew up with Superman being a character of pure good. Every once in a while something like Red Kryptonite would cause him to do some bad things – nothing too bad – and he would be forgiven and once again beloved. He wasn’t a morose, frowning, reluctant hero, he enjoyed his life and mission.

Batman With Gun“Batman was a victim of gun violence. Bob Kane flirted with the idea of Batman carrying twin pistols for a very brief moment (a holdover from Batman’s inspiration, The Shadow), but seminal writers like Bill Finger solidified the code of Batman not carrying firearms. It made great thematic sense. Batman would sock a villain on the jaw, or throw his Batarang at a them – not beat them to a pulp and wind up with bloodied gloves. Batman is a scientist, detective, and martial arts expert. Such training develops character that’s in contradiction to being a rageaholic.

“Wonder Woman is the Princess of Peace, an ambassador for justice. Yes, she’s descended from Amazon warriors – but who had come to live a life of peace and tranquility on a secluded island. The Wonder Woman I grew up with wouldn’t carry a sword or shield, as that would be a sign of using men’s instruments of war to resolve conflicts. Her weapon? A Lasso of Truth! The villain would be socked on the jaw, tied up with the magic lasso, and be calmed.

“If the evolution over generations of an iconic character reflects society, then such indicators reveal we are becoming way too cynical and mean. Shouldn’t that be an opportunity to provide role models who inspire us to be greater, rather than reinforce our negative natures?

“I write this after seeing the second trailer for Batman v Superman, in which the DC trio is constantly angry –  even Clark Kent! The trailer climaxes in a shot of the DC trio. Superman is wearing a suit more dark and sinister than the outfit worn by “evil” Christopher Reeve in Superman III. Wonder Woman is dressed in a dark monochrome knockoff of the outfit worn by Xena, brandishing a sword. Batman looks as he should be is carrying a rifle. WTF? Sigh.”

I’m a founding member of the dark “grim ‘n’ gritty” hero (or anti-hero) club. GrimJack, Amanda Waller, my remaking of some established heroes – if I can find some tarnish to put on a hero’s armor, I’m known to apply it. However, I’m also not without sympathy for Paul’s point of view. The notion appears to be that if it’s darker, the story is more “realistic,” it’s more relatable to the reader/audience. That notion pervades not only comics but the movie and television adaptations of them.

And yet, what is my favorite superhero adaptation right now on TV? It’s not Gotham, it’s not Arrow – it’s The Flash. The main reason is that Barry Allen is presented as a hero, that he wants to be a hero, and that people respond to him as a hero. The show doesn‘t pretend it’s easy but that it is worthwhile. The show also really honors its roots and is often very funny. It’s well written and acted. It’s also very much in the tradition of the character as published by DC for the past few decades.

One of the issues raised is that many of the movies (Man of Steel was cited and, potentially, Suicide Squad might be another) are not meant to be for all ages. The attitude of some appears to be that superhero movies should be, at best, all ages or even kid centric, that superheroes are essentially a child’s fantasy, but this flies in the face of what movies are about commercially: studios want to put as many butts in the seats and eyes on the screens that they can. The movies that have been made so far have reaped tons of money and that tells the studios this is what the audiences want. If a little of this is good, more is better. Don’t fool yourself; plenty of kids went to see them as well and bought lots of the paraphernalia connected with it (and that’s where the real money is made).

Kids are not all that sheltered, either. Take a look at some of the video games that are popular. Kids know more than when I was a kid; take a look at the world around us. ISIL, climate change, the very real possibility the seas are dying (and with it all of life) – when I was growing up, we only had the specter of World War III to cope with. If movies are darker it’s because the world that the kids must cope with is also getting darker.

However, it’s not simply the dark and the grim that makes money. Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man were very successful at the box office and they were for a more general audience. They were brighter and more fun and more hopeful. Meaning what? That, as usual, it’s not all one thing or the other.

I believe that all characters and concepts cannot stay stuck in one time or era. To remain viable, they must be re-interpreted for the time in which they are in. They have to be part of the world that the reader/audience inhabits. That world, our world, has grown darker in the past few decades. The comics and the movies did not cause that; they reflect it.

That said, there also has to be hope. There desperately needs to be hope today. That also should be reflected in our movies and our superheroes.

If that sounds like I’m conflicted, I am. I see both sides’ views and sympathize with all of them. I’m looking forward to the Suicide Squad movie; the trailer suggests to me that they got what I was doing and it will be part of the movie. That said, I’d also like Superman to be a bit brighter than they seem to be making him, to represent the best in us. That was my Superman.

Oh, and he should wear red trunks. Definitely they should bring back the red trunks.

John Ostrander: Idle Speculation in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

star_wars_wallpaper_4I can tell by the saturation of TV trailers that Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens is opening real, real soon in a theater near, near to you.

Of course I’m going to see it, probably around March when seats will become available. Pre-sales have been incredible. And I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers. Originally, I read the Star Wars novelization before the first movie (a.k.a. Episode IV) so I knew the plot twists and turns. I was determined to be spoiler-free for Empire Strikes Back but, at a Chicago Minicon I attended, a ten-year old boy came up while I was talking with Larry Charet, the event co-organizer, and asked him, “Do you know if the Star Wars comic adaptation is like the movie?” (The adaptation had come out ahead of the movie.) Larry didn’t know so the kid continued, “Because in the comic it says the Darth Vader is Luke’s father.”

Gaaaaah!

Well, I didn’t kill the kid. (And no, you didn’t get a Spoiler Alert from me. If you don’t know that little item from the movie after all this time, you didn’t care anyway.) And J.J. Abrams and the folks at Disney are being very parsimonious with information other than what they want us to know.

Not knowing anything hasn’t kept fans from idle speculation, When has it ever? So I’m going to do a little idle speculation of my own. I don’t know anything more than any of you do but, since I wrote Star Wars comics for ten years, some people may think that I have an inside track on all this. I don’t. Anyway, here’s my big theory:

Han Solo is going to die in The Force Awakens.

I’m not the first person to speculate this. It’s been back and forth over the web but I have some reasons.

  • Harrison Ford is getting up there in years. He’s 73 right now. A really good looking 73, I’ll grant you. I wish I looked even half as good as he does. Star Wars Episode VIII isn’t due to come out until 2017 and it has just barely started filming. Episode IX won’t be out until 2019. Ford is getting ooooold, folks.
  • Ol’ Harrison is a tad bit reckless, my fellow fans. He crashed a plane recently. He walked away but he could’ve just as easily been killed. So maybe the Powers-That-Be (aka Disney) don’t want to take that chance.
  • Maybe the way they lured Ford back to the role (outside of a big paycheck) is to promise to do what Ford wanted them to do back in Episode III – kill off his character.
  • Star Wars consistently kills off characters. Death is a prominent feature in the films. Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, Darth Sidious, Amidalalala, almost the whole freaking Jedi Order, Luke’s aunt and uncle, Obi-Wan Kenobi, everyone on the Death Star (both 1 and 2), Yoda, Emperor Palaptine, Anakin/Darth Vader – the list goes on and on. Han’s death would have a shock and a strong emotional impact for even the casual fan. If whoever kills him escapes, it provides a strong plot element for the next two films. The fans will want to see the killer brought to justice. Guaranteed continued high attendance.
  • It’s not like we’ll totally lose Han. A Young Han Solo film is scheduled for 2018. If it’s young Han Solo then it’s a guarantee that Harrison Ford won’t be playing him. He’s oooooold.

I’m standing by this one for now. Han Solo is going to take the dirt nap. If he doesn’t? Hey – that’s fine by me too. Just remember you heard it here first. Or second. Or forty-fifth. Let’s think of this as an experiment – will I become an anonymous source? Will anyone quote me? That would be a giggle.

Han Solo is going to die. For sure.

Unless he doesn’t.

Oh, and I forgot. Spoiler alert.

John Ostrander: Nero Wolfe Revisited

Nero Wolfe

My mother once told me that an odd pleasure she had in growing older was that she could go back to favorite books, particularly mysteries, and enjoy them all over again because she didn’t remember the ending. She knew she liked it but she could discover it anew.

That’s happening a bit to me these days. I’ve recently started re-reading Rex Stout’s mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (not to be confused with the late, great comics writer and editor with the same name, although that would have been an interesting pairing as well). I read quite a few of them a few decades back but not all of them; that would be a monumental task since Stout wrote 33 novels and about 40 novellas about Wolfe and Goodwin.

Rex Stout (December 1, 1886 – October 27, 1975) was born of Quaker parents in Indiana and was raised in Kansas. He served as a yeoman on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. In 1916, he created a school banking system that paid him royalties and made quite a bit of money. He described himself in 1942 as a “pro-Labor, pro-New Deal, pro-Roosevelt left liberal”. A man after my own heart. He was denounced as a Communist during the McCarthy Era but denied it. He told House Committee on Un-American Activities chairman Martin Dies, “I hate Communists as much as you do, Martin, but there’s one difference between us. I know what a Communist is, and you don’t.” J. Edgar Hoover was not a fan and Stout wasn’t a fan of his or of the FBI and that figures prominently in Stout’s very famous Nero Wolfe mystery. The Doorbell Rang.

The Nero Wolfe stories are an ingenious pairing of a cerebral detective (Wolfe) and hard-boiled detective (Archie). I love narrative alloys like this; my GrimJack stories are a combination of hard-boiled detective and sword-and-sorcery. Suicide Squad melds The Dirty Dozen,  Mission: Impossible, and The Secret Society of Super-Villains.

Wolfe is fat. He is more than stout, he is obese. He’s been described as weighing a seventh of a ton, fluctuating between 310 and 390 lbs. He lives in a beautiful brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City that he owns; Archie lives there as well, having his own room. Wolfe takes on detective work only as a source of income to indulge his passions, which includes orchids, fine food, and beer. He keeps to a very strict daily schedule and does not even allow the investigations to meddle with it. He is brilliant, fastidious, idiosyncratic, arrogant, demanding, and filled with wonderful character tics.

Archie is Wolfe’s “legman”. He does the physical stuff, tracking down things and witnesses, bringing suspects to the office for Wolfe to question, acting as secretary as needed. He’s also a wise-guy, quick with a quip and good with his fists. One of his jobs is to needle Wolfe, keep him on the job, make him relatively human, and just be a pain in Wolfe’s sizable ass. He’s also the narrator of the stories; we know what we know through Archie and Wolfe sometimes deliberately doesn’t tell him everything, often just to annoy him.

The stories also have a stable of supporting characters, each with their own well defined personality tics and traits. One of the real pleasures of the series is the interaction between Wolfe and Archie; Stout tells a good story and can plot with the best of them but it’s the interplay between the two leads that drives the series. Like any serial fiction, including comics, it’s how you play the expected tropes that keeps the series fresh. Stout does endless and inventive variations of the expected notes; it feels a little like jazz to me. That’s a lesson I need to keep learning; how to take what is expected and make it surprising, fresh, and entertaining.

I don’t know if I’ll go through all of the Nero Wolfe cannon this time; I doubt it. There’s just too many other things to read. However, what’s nice is that I know I will enjoy what I’m reading. I did the last time even if I don’t exactly remember why. Such are the blessings of aging.