Yesterday The New York Times devoted a full page to this perplexing moment in Geek Culture we find ourselves in: a time when there are “too many versions” of Batman on the big and little screen. This persnickety topic is worth a deeper dive at a later date, but the big headline for this gift-giving season is that are a cornucopia of options for Geek Culture lovers. I could devote a whole column to Batman stuff available, but instead let me just touch on the Caped Crusader and instead offer up a broad range of Geek Culture gift ideas.
I love just about all of the Titan publications, and their merchandise is quite impressive as well. Their list of new goodies includes everything from The Beatles to Preacher to Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill! Titan’s Yellow Submarine vinyl figures blind box series is especially fun for Beatles fans as it includes obscure and esoteric figures. And each one looks fab.
Eaglemoss creates so many cool products for Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, DC characters, Marvel characters (via their chess set series), Walking Dead and Alien that it’s hard to choose favorites. But let me spotlight a couple I really like – their new Batman Animated Series figures and their Star Trek starships. One spectacular item is the new 11” classic Enterprise. Each item comes with intensely detailed guides that are produced by professionals who know their fandom.
Dan Gearino educates and entertains in Comic Shop The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture, recently published by Ohio University’s Swallow Press. It’s an engaging read that explains the birth of comics’ direct market and also provides up-to-the-minute profiles of retailers and their comic stores.
In Lady Action: The Sand of Forever, author Ron Fortier delivered a thriller cocktail that’s one part Modesty Blaise, one part 007 and one part Indiana Jones. It gets even better, as Airship 27 just released the audio book version. I think Kalinda Little does a superb job reading it, but find out for yourself here.
Michael Eury’s Back Issue Magazine celebrates comics of the 70s, 80s and today with insightful articles and columns. Sometimes I’m afraid to pick up an issue because I can never put it down! An annual subscription http://tinyurl.com/BackIssueSub makes an enduring gift that fans will appreciate throughout the year.
FanSets is a company run by fans for fans – and it shows. They have created gorgeous enamel pins featuring characters from Star Trek, Valiant, DC, Harry Potter, Firefly and more. I am in awe of their choices for DC characters pins like the Golden Age Sandman, Saturn Girl, and the grown-up Robin of Earth Two. It’s hard not to agree with Star Trek fans that this series of pin, including Discovery, look incredible too. Available at your local comic shop (look for their new displays!) or FanSets.com.
John Siuntres’ Word Balloon Podcast offers one-on-one interviews with the industry’s most interesting creators. Siuntres, a longtime radio professional, knows how to get folks talking. I listen to this show to find out more from creators I like and to learn about new things from creators with whom I’m less familiar. The podcast is free, but you could make someone a part of the League of Word Balloon Listeners with a gift donation. Find out more at http://wordballoon.blogspot.com.
This fall, I bought a copy of Classic Comics Press’ Kelly Green: The Complete Collection by Stan Drake and Leonard Starr from Emil Novak at Queen City Comics. I promptly wrote about how much I enjoyed it. Classic Comics Press Publisher Charles Pelto does a great job with all his books and you can’t go wrong with any of them for gifting.
I haven’t completely finished Craig Yoe’s Super Weird Heroes even though I wrote about it earlier this year. That’s because it’s so much fun that I just don’t want it end. Another Yoe book, Behaving MADly is a refreshing read for hard core and casual fans. It’s a wonderful book all about the many MAD magazine knockoffs. I gifted a copy to my pal Walshy (who is completely nuts too) and he was thrilled.
The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide always seemed like a “must have,” but each year publisher J.C.Vaughn and his merry band make it even more and more “must have-ier”! I especially liked Jim Steranko’s Batman cover on this year’s edition. Oh wait, it’s another version of Batman!
All the best to you and yours this Yuletide Season!
For the past few weeks I’ve been discussing the stories contained in the upcoming volume of Suicide Squad reprints (Volume 7, The Dragon’s Horde, out December 22). I’ve been running down the stories in order but this week I’m jumping to the last story in the collection.
This last story was a tie-in issue to the War of the Gods crossover event that DC was running at that time. I’m jumping to it not because it’s my favorite story in Vol. 7 but because it isn’t.
I’ve had mixed reactions to Big Company Wide Crossovers. They do interrupt the flow of what you have planned but, OTOH, that’s like what we laughingly refer to as Real Life: big events happen and toss our best laid plans out any convenient window. It is said the gods like when mortals make plans; it gives them something to shoot at.
There are all kinds of ways of doing a crossover issue; it can be a vital chapter in the overall story, it can show how the Big Event is affecting part of the world, it can be a Red Sky story. That happened during Crisis on Infinite Earths, the granddaddy of Big Events at DC. One of the hallmarks of the events was the red skies. An issue of an ongoing series could qualify as a “crossover issue” if it featured red skies and some person said, “Ooh! The skies are red!” Something less than a vital piece of the narrative; I was a fan and not a pro at the time and I resented it.
However, the red skies stunt underscored one of the major purposes of a crossover – to lure the reader into trying other (or all) of the books in the line. Hopefully, they’ll see a bump in sales. Most of the time, the increase doesn’t last. So – you do another crossover and so on, ad nauseam, until you get fan burn-out. And then marketing tells you to do another.
I’ve participated in all kinds of crossovers, from doing the Main Event (Legends) to tie-in issues (hopefully none of which are “red sky” issues). Some were easier than others; some were nearly impossible. One we had to co-ordinate with all the other books out that week and I wound up with that assignment since I had two or three of them.
In the story in this volume, the Squad ties into the War of the Gods event. To be honest, I don’t remember what that crossover was about. My problem with the result is that it resulted in a not very good story, let alone a good Squad story.
Captain Marvel’s… excuse me, Shazam’s… Bad, Black Adam, comes calling on the Squad. He needs some warm bodies for an attack he is planning on a temple on an island in a lake in South America guarded by were-beasts and an offshoot of Amazons who live in the Middle East. Where? Somewhere.
Waller feels they’ll need a lot of warm bodies so she recruits a fair amount. The reader at this point probably expects most of them to die and they’re not wrong. We do, however, take the opportunity to get most of the Squad back into uniform. Black Adam claims that, when you go to fight gods, ceremonial garb should be worn. (The hold-out is Deadshot who recently killed the guy wearing his costume, shooting him right between the eyes. You can understand Lawton’s reluctance; the dry-cleaning bill on that would probably be steep.)
Oh, Kim and I (well, mostly me) threw in a new character called The Writer and then killed him off. He was supposed to be a well-known DC writer who had written himself into continuity. It was strictly a gag and, frankly, a puerile one. Apologies all around.
There’s a lot of yelling and fighting and characters die; not the sort of stuff Kim and I usually did with the Squad. It’s also incomplete; at one point in the midst of the battle, Black Adam vanishes into the temple followed by a few Squad members. Shortly afterwards, the island and the temple blow up. Why? Who knows. What’s in the Temple? Doesn’t tell you here. What was Black Adam’s agenda (he definitely had one)? To be told somewhere else.
There’s a block of white space on the bottom of the last page of the story in which the reader was informed where to go for the next thrilling chapter. The reader of this volume doesn’t have that and so they are left with an incomplete story with big gaps in it. And it’s the last story in this volume as well and I think leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth.
However, it may be someone’s favorite story. Years ago, I was on a panel at a comic book convention and was asked what was the story I’d written that I wished I could unwrite. I named it and ridiculed it and some poor guy in the front row looked stricken and said “But that’s my favorite story!” If this story was one of your favorite’s, I apologize.
Somewhere around the mid-point of one of the chaotic action sequences in Justice League, a thought echoed in my head. “Avengers was better. I know it was. But why?” Put a pin in that.
And while we’re at it, consider this the blanket SPOILER ALERT. I’m not going to be holding back on plot points and such.
Justice League was a solid effort to continue DC’s course correction. Full stop. The flick tries hard to shake itself of its sullen feeder-films – save for Wonder Woman, which wasn’t downtrodden at all – and ultimately sticks the landing by final credit roll. Over the course of two hours (and change), Zach Snyder, Joss Whedon, and Chris Terrio assemble their (kinda) Lanternless league efficiently. The threat is worthy of the big bangers of the DC(E)U. The quips and sardonic looks feel well-worn and dare I say earned.
So why did the entire movie leave me feeling an uneasy mélange of contentedness balanced equally with ennui? I mean, Rao-be-damned, the movie just made me use the word ennui!
When I noted the efficient assemblage of the titular superteam, it comes couched with a cacophony of caveats. Our introduction to Barry Allen / The Flash seems to speed through his origin in a manner sans-irony given his power set. While he’d been on the fringes of Batman v Superman, we’ve been granted no real anchor to his character by the time he’s donning his car-wreck of a costume. It’s all flashes of awkward Big Bang Theory Sheldonisms smashed on top of tearful angst over the incarceration of Henry Allen. Late in the film, he shares a moment (one of the better exchanges, I should add) with Victor Stone / Cyborg, declaring they are the accidents. But because it comes so late – during the predictable recuperation of the nearly-defeated team scene (that all superhero team movies need, I guess) – it just feels like a tacked-on bon mot, instead of a necessary moment of respite.
And what of the aforementioned Mr. Stone? He’s Deus Ex Machina – ironically, figuratively, and literally. He’s given what might best be described as the affirmative action gift of the longest origin of the group, but never are we invited in the mind of the part-man-part-machine. Stone is stone-faced essentially for the length of Justice League, removing every ounce of characterization Khary Payton has been investing into Cyborg since 2003. When Cyborg of Justice League mutters a soft-spoken Booyah, it comes with the tenacity of a wet fart – meant only as lip-service, not fan-service.
And then we have Aquaman by way of the Abercrombie shirtless collection. WWE’s Roman Reigns, err, Jason Momoa exists as multiverse variant of Arthur Curry so devoid of the traits I’d long associated with the character, I all but abandoned any known factoids of the comic book original minutes into his first scene opposite Bruce Wayne – who himself was enjoying his take on the Fall Hugo Boss collection. Their shared scene, the one you no doubt saw in the trailers and commercials, sets us up for the League’s water-based warrior. He’s a hard-drinking, hard-fighting, surfer-lone-wolf with a pitchfork and a chip on his shoulder. His origin isn’t really told so much as it is scribbled, child-like, on a bar wall, and then half-dialogue-vomited in an appropriately confusing underwater scene. Verily.
Reading through my last few paragraphs may make you believe I utterly loathed Justice League. But you’d be wrong. For every dour note I left the theater with, came an equal smirk of joy overseeing the goodness that Snyder actually captured. Superman, after two incredibly dark films finally is presented the way we want him to be. Full of hope, love, and swagger. Wonder Woman continues to be the best female protagonist in comic book films by several levels of magnitude. And Batman? He’s rich. He’s funny when he wants to be. Believably human. And hilariously voice-modulated. All that, and we didn’t get any meaningless self-sacrifices, or fighting a giant blue sky-beam. Heck, the stinger at the end of the film even got me to clap.
So, why then, did I inevitably wind up in an Avengers conundrum? It stands to note that there’s no way to ignore that Marvel assembled their uber-team successfully a full five-years ago. And by the time it made its way to the movieplex, had given the general teeming masses of newly minted fanboys (and girls) time to live with the main members of their cast (Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor primarily). Because the feeder films (Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor) had all been well-received, there was a feeling of earned glee when the Avengers coalesced to punch mindless CGI aliens for forty minutes. In contrast, Justice League carries with it the weight of mismanaged and darkly derided prequels (minus Wonder Woman), and oozes desperation from its pores. It’s cut-to-shreds-by-committee, and feels as such. Avengers was lived in. Justice League came across like a wrongly-coined #MeToo.
But perhaps, there exists a silver lining amidst my kvetching. Justice League did leave me excited for what was to come. And it’s that feeling above any others that leaves my eyes on the horizon for the pantheon of DC superheroes… rather than the floor in collective shame.
Albert Einstein once said, “Glix sptzl glaah,” then he turned one and developed his first working model of the Theory of Relativity; “that lady who feeds me is Mama.” Einstein also reportedly said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By this definition, I am insane, because I keep reading Batman comics and expecting the writers to know the difference between criminal activity and criminal insanity.
In Batman vol. 3, # 9, Batman agreed to do a mission for Amanda Waller and formed his own version of the Suicide Squad. So he went to Arkham Asylum, which, based on the ratio of escapes to days of the week, must have biggest Open Door Policy since John Hay. (Go ahead, look it up. I know, “Homework, bleech!) and recruited his recruits. Said recruits were a veritable who’s who of Gotham City’s finest worst.
Arnold Weskler, the Ventriloquist, found guilty of “Eight counts of murder” and sentenced to “life without parole.” Ben Turner, the Bronze Tiger, “Two counts manslaughter. Twenty years without parole.” Jewelee, “Four counts of murder. Life without parole.” Punch, Jewelee’s partner in crime and lover, who wasn’t actually in Arkham but broke into Arkham to try and free Jewelee while Batman was there; which is pretty crazy so maybe he was right where he should have been. Finally, Selina Kyle, Catwoman, “two hundred and thirty-seven counts of murder. Death by lethal injection.” These were the people Batman recruited out of Arkham Asylum. And I had to ask myself, “Why?”
Not “why did Batman recruit them?” Why were most of them in Arkham Asylum?
Arkham Asylum is an asylum. Even if we didn’t know that already from its name, Batman was right in the story. It is not a prison. There is a difference.
A prison is where criminals who are convicted of crimes are sent to serve out their sentences. An asylum is where criminals who were found not guilty by reason of insanity are involuntarily committed so that they can be treated.
None of the people Batman recruited from Arkham Asylum were found not guilty by reason of insanity. I know this for a fact and I can prove it. Arnold Weskler was sentenced to life without parole. Ben Turner was sentenced to twenty years without parole. Jewelee was sentenced to life without parole. Selina Kyle was sentenced to death by lethal injection. Do you see the common link? All four of them were sentenced to terms of imprisonment. That can only mean that they were found guilty because only people who were found guilty of crimes can be sentenced.
People who are found not guilty are released. Why? Because they were found not guilty. And they can’t be imprisoned for the crimes for which they were found not guilty; at least now without violating the hell out of the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.
In the same way, people who were found not guilty by reason of insanity can’t be sentenced to imprisonment, life imprisonment, or death by lethal injection, because – all together now – they were found not guilty.
If they were convicted – and they were it said so right in the story and I’m taking the story’s words at their word – what were these convicted criminals doing in Arkham?
There is a way that convicted criminals who were sentenced to prison can be sent to an asylum. When people develop a mental illness that impairs their cognitive ability to such an extent that they cannot make decisions for themselves or they present a danger to themselves or to others, a judge can civilly commit them and order they be sent to a mental health facility for treatment.
If a convict in prison develops a mental illness, a judge can the inmate be civilly committed to a mental health facility. Then, when the inmate no longer meets the criteria for civil commitment, the inmate is returned to prison to serve out the remainder of the sentences. The question remains, was there a viable reason for any of Batman’s team to have been transferred to Arkham?
Arnold Weskler had multiple personalty disorder. He thought he was two people; himself and his ventriloquist dummy, Scarface. Only the story said Weskler had “forsesworn his ‘little friend’ and had become an ideal inmate. Sounds like Weskler’s treatment had brought his MPD under control. If that were the case, then as long as he continued to take his medications, he would not meet the criteria for civil commitment. He would have been returned to Blackgate Penitentiary, where the prison hospital would have made sure he continued to take his medication. So Weskler shouldn’t have been in Arkham any longer, but maybe the doctors were keeping him there just to be sure. After all, we wouldn’t want a multiple murderer in prison, now would we?
Ben Turner was diagnosed with delusions of grandeur. He believed he was a former member of the League of Assassins and an agent of various intelligence agencies. A claim these agencies deny. The story didn’t really give us enough information about his mental condition for us to make a definitive assessment of whether he should be in Arkham. In his one conversation in the story he didn’t see irrational, but, as I said, I have insufficient information. So I’ll give Arkham the benefit of the doubt and say he was committed and deserved to be there.
Jewelee’s lover/partner Punch disappeared two years earlier, since then she had been in a catatonic state. She sat on her bed without moving. As such, she wasn’t really a danger to either herself or to others and could have been treated in the hospital in Blackgate prison just as easily as she could have been treated in Arkham. She would not have been committed to Arkham. However, if a court or the prison authorities determined that the hospital at Arkham was better equipped to treat her catatonia that the hospital at Blackgate, she might have transferred to Arkham for that reason.
Selina Kyle, not even going to go there. Why not? Because Selina clearly wasn’t mentally ill. She knew it, Batman knew it, even we knew it. Everything about her presence in Arkham Asylum – from her being in a cell to her wearing a straightjacket and a full-face version of a Hannibal Lecter mask – was nothing more than a plot device used to set up a surprise ending. Oh, and because I’ve reached the end of my column.
Black Friday is not my thing. It involves a bunch of stuff I don’t like: Getting out of bed when it’s dark out… crowds… pants.
But a lot of people enjoy it, despite my skepticisms, and there are even reasons that explain the brain chemistry of this pleasure. Far be it from me to deny anyone a dose of dopamine.
Or a present.
If you read the link, you’ll learn that a lot of the fun of Black Friday involves successfully scoring a good deal in a like-minded crowd. I suppose it’s part of our hunter/gatherer DNA. However, nowhere in the study does it say that Black Friday, or even a real bargain, guarantees that the shopper finds the right present for a loved one.
Now, some of my favorite presents have been glaringly bad. My husband once bought me an enormous yellow dress that hit me in the middle of my calf (and nowhere else) so that I looked like a yellow bag of take-out food, and he was so proud of himself for getting something that was (then) stylish that I wore it a bunch.
Still, very few of us set out to select an inappropriate gift. We want our friends and families to love our selections, to love us for knowing them so well,
No one is insulted to get a book. No one curses in the middle of the night when they step on a kids’ book on the way to the bathroom. A book says you, the giver, think of the recipient as someone who is smart and curious.
In this day and age, we need books more than ever. Our society is more polarized than any other time I can recall, and we all have a tendency to listen only to ourselves and not consider other points of view. A good book, fiction or non-fiction, puts the reader into someone else’s head.
It’s possible that by the time the gift-giving holidays are upon us, we will have stopped talking about sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace. But until then, there is this. A friend of mine posted this on Facebook, and I wanted to share it: “If you consistently maintain that women are a sort of shiny, bewildering object that is handed out to you when you amass sufficient money or power, one that may eventually be useful as a container for potential humans but otherwise does nothing but emit an irritating buzzing noise whenever its mouth falls open, you don’t have to worry that you will ever face consequences for mistreating one.”
That line is from Alexandra Petri, who was a new voice to me. And she’s hilarious.
If you have someone in your life who has a problem understanding that women are human, there are some very entertaining books that might change their minds while they laugh. I happen to like this one a lot. And if you or your friends have limited contact with people from other parts of the world (geographically or sociologically), there are books for that, too.
Have a great weekend, whether you go shopping or not. If you do, think about books as gifts. You can still buy chocolate, sweaters and television sets, but if you get Legos, remember to include slippers, too.
The most ridiculous question I’ve asked myself all week is, is this “the greatest comic book story ever?” Who the hell knows? The answer to that question is in the mind of the beholder, and in the case of my mind, well, I change my mind so fast I voided the warranty long ago.
But… this one is damn close.
When I was but a tiny brat, I fell in love with Mad Magazine. I copped a copy from my sister’s comic book pile, read it, was completely enthralled, and I coerced my mother (I was seven years old at the time) into buying me the then-current issue, #40. By the end of the day, I got her to get me a subscription.
Later on, my sister started dating this guy who was about eight years older than me, my sister being only seven years older. He became aware of my passion for Mad and asked me if I knew the original Mad was, in fact, a comic book. I looked at him as though he had just morphed into Fin Fang Foom. What? A comic book? Yeah, even then I was a serious fanboy. He brought over a copy of Mad #20, one of the last before it became a magazine, and I nearly fainted. Figuring the best way to my sister’s heart was through her brother’s passion, he gave me the issue. It was my first EC comic, and I instantly became a post-event EC Fan-Addict.
In an unrelated incident a couple weeks later, my sister dumped him. I remain grateful, but, well… c’est la vie.
The second story in Mad #20 was titled “Sound Effects!,” and it was drawn by Wally Wood. By this point I had consumed the first three Mad reprint paperbacks and Woody had become my favorite comics artist. At the time I didn’t know I had joined a very, very big club. I didn’t know the writer’s name – of course it was Harvey Kurtzman – but I admired his ability to tell a very clever, very funny story that satirized the very medium in which he was working, that brought out the best in one of the all-time best comics artists… and was written entirely without any dialog whatsoever. One can argue the last panel, but… why? I’d reprint it here, but that would be a spoiler.
Self-satire is tough. It was a strong element in what Kurtzman called “chicken fat humor” which was prevalent at the time on teevee in such shows as Sid Caesar (he did several) and Steve Allen (he did a lot more than just several). All three of these guys were masters at it – and both Caesar and Allen later wrote introductions for sundry Mad reprint books.
I’d take this opportunity to praise Marie Severin’s color art, but if you’ve ever seen an EC comic book or her later work at Marvel, there’s no need. She was one of the absolute best, in a very crowded field of wonderful colorists. Ben Oda’s lettering is outstanding, and, as you can see, it is the very point of this story.
Together, Kurtzman, Wood, Oda and Severin produced magic. The most amazing aspect of this particular saga is, “Sound Effects!” is one of the very, very few Mad comics stories that was not reprinted in the Mad paperbacks of the time. I think it would have worked; obviously, “the usual gang of idiots” did not share that opinion.
“Sound Effects!” was reprinted in the Mad Archives as well as in various reprint books, and I know I am not alone in having them all. Hey, I’m a fan. If you have the desire to procure but one, I recommend you start with Mad’s Original Idiots Wally Wood. It was published way back in 2015 so it should be fairly easily accessible. $15 (at Amazon, at least) for 176 pages of Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman is one of the best bargains in comics, and it will be one of the most entertaining experiences in your life.
Next week: Turning off the lights. Or shooting them out. It will be an interesting week. Happy Thanksgiving!
Outlander Season Three, the adaptation of the third book in author Diana Gabaldon’s story of the 20th century English combat nurse and the 18th century Scottish Highlander (Voyager) is up to its 10th episode, with three to go, and it hasn’t disappointed. I read somewhere that the program’s ratings have steadily gone up with each episode, and Season 4 is already in production. I know that there are many who are disappointed that the show isn’t following the book word-for-word and paragraph-for-paragraph, but as I often remind my fellow Outlander lovers over at Compuserve, television is a visual medium, entirely different from the literary, and there are also time restraints. Im-not-so-ho, Ronald D. Moore and company have actually done a remarkable job bringing a densely packed historical romance/science fiction/fantasy – Outlander is one of those books and series that crosses genres as easily a pedestrian crossing a street – series to life.
And speaking of Compuserve, that venerable site is shutting down all its forums as of December 15, with no explanation given and that “e-mail, news, weather, sports, and entertainment information will remain available to you after this change.” Huh? Who goes to Compuserve for e-mail, news, weather, and et.al.? It’s always been about its forums – and as for Outlander, Diana Gabaldon, way back when, when she was first writing the original book, often posted her “what I’ve got so far,” and asking for comments, edits, and information. I just don’t get it.
I’m in the midst of answering a series of questions for an interview that fellow ComicMixer Joe Corallo is conducting with me for Geek.com. It’s funny what interviews can do sometimes. If it’s live, it can be a matter of thinking quick on your feet, especially if you don’t have a list of the questions in advance. When it’s going to be published somewhere, the interviewee – me, in this case – has a chance to think about it before writing down the answers. For instance, I discovered something about my work on Catwoman in the course of answering Joe. Consider this a sneak peek:
Joe C.: You’re also the first woman to write Catwoman. What was that like to you? Did you get to do what you wanted with the character?
Me: Was I really? I didn’t know that! It was pretty cool. My first swing at her was in Action Comics Weekly #’s 611– 614, a four-part story, “The Tin Roof Club.” To tell you the truth, I think it’s better than that Catwoman mini-series with my name on it. By the way,I came up with the title of “The Tin Roof Club” because that’s how I’ve always thought of Selina: “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? – I wish I knew…just
staying on it, I guess, as long as she can” Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
With that in mind, my biggest disappointment with the Catwoman mini-series is that DC wouldn’t allow Selina to deliberately kill her pimp. I don’t know why. The guy was a fucking pimp, for Christ’s sake! The whole idea of her murdering the bastard was that it would cause Selina to forever remain that “cat on the hot tin roof.” Stuck, y’know? So I had to write it so that it was unclear. Which was total bullshit, of course.
I also made a mistake in involving nuns and Selina having a sister who was a sister. (“My sister, the sister,” as Father Mulcahy would say on M*A*S*H.) It was supposed to be an homage to Frank Miller, not only because of Batman: Year One, but also to his work on Daredevil, in which Matt’s Catholicism played such a strong role. But I think it would have been stronger, and more interesting, if I had stuck tomy own roots and made Selina Jewish – after all, “Kyle” could be just a “street name” to disguise her origins.
Basically, I guess what I’m saying is that I wish I could do it all over again – or have another crack at her.
It’s a nice, long, juicy interview – well, I think so, at any rate – so I’ll let you know when it’s slated to appear. Keep an eye out for it, ‘kay?
I’ll keep up the tradition of Thanksgiving “thanksgivings” now:
This year, as most of you know, I lost my dad and my mom. So first and foremost, I am grateful to God, the Goddess, and the Universe for blessing me with my grandson Meyer, my daughter and son (in-law) Alixandra and Jeff, my brother Glenn and his wife Ana, and my niece Isabel.
I am thankful to ComicMix and Mike Gold for allowing me entrée into the comics world via my columns these past – how many years is it, Mike? Wow! And I freely admit that my column about Secretariat was a stretch, but, hey, he was a Super-Horse!!!!
I am thankful to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, NJ for investing in me and investing me with a sense of home and belonging.
I am thankful for Robert Mueller.
I am thankful to The Washington Post, The New York Times, MSNBC, Frontline, Vice, CNN, Real Time with Bill Maher and other sane and responsible news organizations and programs for not faltering in the pursuit of truth, justice, and the American Way in 2017.
And thanks a lot, The Washington Post, The New York Times, MSNBC, Frontline, Vice, CNN, Real Time with Bill Maher and other news organizations and programs for going insane and being irresponsible and treating Il Tweetci the Mad’s campaign as a ratings grab and celebrity reality show in 2015 and 2016? Now you’re doing your job? Where were you in 2015 and 2016?
Many of you who are familiar with this column know I’ve been enjoying a new publisher this year quite a bit – Vault Comics. I’ve written about them and interviewed a couple of different creative teams on their books in the past few months or so. Although most of their output has been in science fiction they do have a new title, Songs For The Dead, in the fantasy genre hitting stores this winter. I got to interview the team of this new fantasy comic including Mike Heron, Andrea Fort and Sam Beck.
JC: Hey Mike, Andrea, and Sam! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. First things first; what’s each of your elevator pitches for Songs For The Dead?
Mike: Songs for the Dead is the story of a young bard named Bethany, who just so happens to be a necromancer. She’s on a one-woman quest across a foreign land to prove to the world that necromancers are capable of more than creepy and evil things by helping others along the way!
Andrea: Songs for the Dead is the story of an optimistic young woman named Bethany who happens to be a necromancer. But Bethany believes that her power can be used for good, and she sets out to prove that necromancers aren’t all as evil as the stereotypes by trying to become a hero.
Sam: A really happy-go-lucky necromancer just wants to be the hero.
JC: So how did you all meet and decide to do this comic together?
Mike: Andrea and I met online a few years ago, and one of the things we really connected over was both being creative people. Despite having different backgrounds in our expertise, and having never made a comic book before, we felt like it was the best way to tell the story of Songs for the Dead. Sam we found after an exhaustive search for the right artist to compliment our story – we lucked out and found someone who is the perfect fit!
Andrea: As Mike mentioned, we met online and one of our many similarities was our love of storytelling. We had been discussing a collaboration of some kind when the idea for Songs for the Dead came up. We did some brainstorming, some world-building and then we went looking for an artist who could help us bring our vision to life, we are amazingly lucky to have found Sam!
Sam: Andrea and Mike contacted me after finding me through deviantART of all places! We all live in the Greater Toronto Area so we’re able to meet up and talk through the comic in person which has been amazing. It really makes a difference in building a team.
JC: Bethany is not what most people think of when they think of a necromancer. How did Bethany come to be? Has she changed must from her initial concept? And what other fantasy characters helped influence her creation?
Mike: The genesis of the idea is really just that: I had the idea for an unassuming necromancer some years ago, before Andrea and I had met. I play a lot of RPGs, and anything with a character creation system really lets my imagination run wild. I landed on this juxtaposition of this scary and forbidden magic in the hands of a bright-eyed and optimistic young girl. The idea persisted and soon I was making notes about it here and there while working on other projects.
Bethany’s concept and appearance have been surprisingly consistent over the years, and a lot of that I credit to Sam, who really just got what we were going for from the beginning.
Andrea: Mike had come up with the idea for Bethany a while back and told me about her when we were discussing possible collaborations. I think he had the idea while he was playing an RPG. I was really into the idea right away! I love subverting expectations and defying stereotypes, so I was thrilled to work on building and developing a character like Bethany who is so much more than she appears.
Sam: Like Mike said Bethany’s character has been pretty consistent, I think we nailed down her look almost on the very first test page. Which is really a testament to how well Mike defined her in just a few words. Her outfit is a bit haphazard which reflects on her style of adventuring.
JC: Speaking of influences, what fantasy worlds and stories either helped inspire this story or inspire any of you to want to tell a fantasy story?
Mike: Well as I mentioned, Andrea and I are huge RPG fans. We’re also huge fantasy fans, so there’s really a mix of everything in there! Some Elder Scrolls, some D&D, some Dragon Age, some Witcher, some LOTR – we really tried to take inspiration from the best.
Andrea: I think all three of us really love genre, and especially fantasy stories. I am personally a massive fan of Tolkien’s writing and I think that informs a lot of my contribution to Songs. I also love the Dragon Age franchise and the way you discover lore throughout the narrative.
Sam: We’re all pretty big RPG fans, so my influences overlap with the rest of the team quite a bit. I also read a lot of historical fiction which has helped me stay in the right mindset for this kind of fantasy story. I strive to make characters and backgrounds feel like part of a larger world, beyond what’s shown in a framed panel.
JC: Elissar plays the role of the brash brawler. Being that there are quite a few fantasy archetype characters while having just a couple of protagonists to start, what made you all decide Elissar would be a fighter rather than a ranger, rogue, paladin, etc?
Mike: That’s an interesting question! I’d say Elissar’s class is really informed by her personality. Elissar was actually a somewhat late addition to the story, as the original drafts of Songs for the Dead were more about Bethany being this lone wanderer. Andrea and I decided eventually that Bethany needed a companion, who was also a bit of a foil for her, something to balance out her overwhelming optimism. So when we started fleshing out who Elissar was and what she needed to be, her role as a Fighter just kinda fell into place.
Andrea: I love this question! And I love talking about Elissar! As Mike said, we decided that Bethany needed a companion. We wanted readers not only to have a different perspective of the world, but also someone whose personality would push Bethany’s personal growth. I really wanted to see Bethany’s upstanding morality challenged by someone who was much colder and more calculating, I wanted someone who was morally ambiguous. As we were developing that character, she naturally took the form of a fighter. Besides, Elissar’s eagerness to draw her sword is very useful in adding corpses for Bethany to raise to the story!
Sam: I always felt that Elissar was a big mash-up of a lot of archetypes; fighter, rogue, mercenary. I remember when I was coming up with a character design her armour matched, and the first piece of feedback was to mix it up. She’s not put together at all, that’s what makes her really fun and surprising.
JC: Songs For The Dead started out as a web comic. Why did you all feel that was the best place to start?
Mike: We didn’t, actually! Songs made its original debut in print and through digital release via comiXology.
Andrea: Songs for the Dead was released on comiXology, and then in print shortly after. Because of how limited our resources were, those original print versions are very scarce, but they’re out there! We wanted to get our book onto comiXology early on because we had so few resources that we really didn’t know how else to get our book to people. We believed in it, and we wanted people to hopefully read it and love the characters and world the way we do, so a huge online distributor like comiXology just made the most sense.
JC: Ah, sorry! I was conflating an online indie comics presence with web comics. I would like to ask you though, the web comic scene in general seems way more receptive to fantasy comics in general compared to the traditional floppy market. Why do you all think that is?
Mike: I find that fantasy comics, especially those released in print, tend to fall into certain traps that can alienate readers fairly quickly. Lots of lore dumps and didactic panels. Andrea and I consciously tried to avoid this when we started writing Songs, we really wanted the comic to focus more on the characters and show you what they’re all about. We actually have quite the extensive lore written up behind-the-scenes, but our plan is to slowly release it through the story.
Andrea: That’s a good question, and one I ask myself frequently. I wish I really knew why. I know that I personally sometimes shy away from fantasy stories because I worry that they’ll be derivative. There are so many great stories, but they can feel too much like the great fantasies that have come before. I really like to see big new ideas and I like to feel challenged by what I read. All of the fantasy webcomics I’ve seen online have been hugely original and I’m sure other readers respond to that, the same way I have.
Sam: Webcomics are a lot more willing to take risks; and fantasy as a genre is so flexible that it’s the perfect platform to take those risks in. There are so many strange and interesting permutations of fantasy and I’m so glad there are creators who want to explore that.
JC: Your comic was picked up by Vault Comics. First off, congrats! Secondly, why is Vault the perfect home for Songs For The Dead?
Mike: Thank you! Honestly, we love everything about Vault Comics. Their catalog to date has been ambitious and engaging. They’ve really made it clear that they care about the artists and their projects, and they’re finding new and exciting ways to get people interested. Ambition was a huge consideration for us when we were considering publishers; Songs was a hugely ambitious endeavour for us that saw us taking some pretty crazy risks in the interest of getting more eyes on our book. We needed someone to match that, and we’re confident we’ve found that in Vault.
Andrea: Thank you! We couldn’t be more excited that Songs for the Dead has found a home at Vault! We love Vault because they love comics as much as we do. They also celebrate new and exciting stories, the way we do. It’s an honour to be included in their catalogue. We took a lot of risks trying to tell this story, we were looking for a publisher who would was as dedicated as we are and the team at Vault is the best.
JC: As someone who’s done a few creator owned comics in the past I understand how sometimes when you hit your stride it’s tempting to look back and think what you may have done differently. Is there anything any of you either may have done differently early on with Songs For The Dead or anything that you decided not to do and are glad you stuck with your instincts?
Mike: Oh yeah, there’s tons. In terms of production, there’s a lot of missteps Andrea and I took when we got started, being new to the business and all. At first, we were really eager to get started, and we were even close on a couple of occasions when our artists fell through. It’s funny to think how bummed we were at the time, but in retrospect it was absolutely for the best. Not only for finding Sam, but for the fine tuning we did on the script that made all the difference in the final product.
Andrea: Looking back to when we started, I see so many little things that could change, and so many times we could have simplified our process. When we started, Mike and I had never worked with comics or this kind or storytelling before, we learned as we went. It was intimidating and tough, but to come out with something like Songs was really rewarding. There were a lot of hiccups and I think we chose the hard way a few times, but every bump in the road helped us learn. I wouldn’t change things, simply because the more we struggle the better we’re getting. Plus, we are yet to make the same mistake twice (knock on wood).
Sam: Ask any artist if they can change something in their old work and they will say yes! I had really just entered the comic scene when I started working on Songs for the Dead, so I’ve grown a lot as an artist since then. It’s nice to reflect on where you’ve come from and apply what you’ve learned to future work.
JC: Before we wrap this up, is there anything else anyone would like to add?
Mike: Probably just to say thank you again to everyone who has supported Songs thus far. As lifelong creative people and newbies to the industry, I really can’t tell you what it’s meant seeing people excited about our book and these characters. Moving forward with Vault we’re really excited about the future, and whether you’re new to Songs or are anxiously awaiting the next part of the story, we hope you’ll come along for the ride.
Andrea: I take every opportunity I have to say thank you. Thank you to our amazing team including Nick Robles, Deron Bennett and AndWorld Design, Tess Fowler and Tamra Bonvillain, as well as Vault for believing in us. Of course, to our friends and families who don’t see us as often because we eat, sleep and live all things Songs for the Dead. Thank you to all these incredible people for putting up with Mike and I. Songs wouldn’t exist without them.
Sam: I’m really thankful that Andrea and Mike took a chance with me as their artist. I was really green when I started and they trusted me with their comic-children! I’m so excited to see where Songs for the Dead goes.
JC: Thank you all so much for your time! Where can people find more information on Songs For The Dead and when can they get copies from Vault Comics?
Mike: You can follow all of our social media, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @songscomic, or check out our website at songsforthedead.com! Songs for the Dead relaunches in January 2018, but you can pre-order at your local comic shop NOW – and you totally should!!
Andrea: We’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as @songscomic, and our website is songsforthedead.com. Book one launches on January 31st, 2018 under Vault Comics so make sure you pre-order it now!
Last Thursday in this space, Glenn Hauman wrote about comic shop owners who can’t seem to adapt to the ever-changing retailing reality. On the flip side of the coin are the many industrious and innovative retailers who have indeed figured it out. These are the folks who have learned how to survive through the industry’s ups and downs, as well as through the nation’s economic upturns and downtowns. In the year 2017 (and I’m pretty sure it will be the same way in the year 2018) storefront retailing is a difficult game for anyone to play. And so, in this week’s column, let’s take a look at one Geek Culture entrepreneur who leaned how to play the retailing game with skill, pertinacity and grace.
Ash Gray has been running Comics for Collectors in Ithaca NY since 1981, and next month he’s expanding his store.
In the 70s, Gray started by selling comics by mail with ads in Alan Light’s Comics Buyers Guide. He eventually met a fellow mail order retailer, Bill Turner, who also lived in Ithaca, NY. Together they launched the Ithaca Comic Book Club. That led to next starting Ithacon, now the nation’s second’s oldest comic book convention. They pooled their resources to then open Comics For Collectors in 1981. This comic shop, in the shadow of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, was nestled on second floor of a downtown building.
The store’s business grew over the years, and soon they switched locations, expanding to a ground level location. During the boom years, Comics For Collectors become a regional franchise, spreading to locations in nearby Corning and Elmira. As the industry contracted in the early and mid-nineties, they hunkered down, closing those stores and focusing on the main location.
“We were in the middle of an economic downturn,” recalled Gray. But they had been there before and knew how to operate during these conditions. “I look back when we opened in the early 80s. Economists said it was a downturn when we started.”
Eventually, Turner would lose interest in retail, but Gray pushed on. “The current location gives us 750 square feet of retail space. But we’ve maxxed out on space. We have a lot of graphic novels and book type products,” said Gray. “We’ve tried to be creative in displaying in the last 10 years.”
And that’s what the expansion will provide for Comics For Collectors. Gray is able to add another 700 square feet in the adjacent storefront that is part of the same building. “This location become available when the bookstore decided to retire,’ said Gray. “It’s worked well for a number of local merchants. The bagel store has expanded. There’s a new waffle restaurant that did the same thing, opening a portal to their new space.”
Comics for Collectors will do quite a few things with their new space. “We’re looking to expand the selection and “viewability” of the product lines. What makes people pick up a book is the cover art. They pick it up, take a look and then decide to buy it.” So it’s important for Gray to display comic and book covers.
“It’s never good,” Gray noted, “when a lot of things get smushed onto the racks.”
The expansion will also allow the store to showcase more Young Adult graphic novels. Locally, both kids and parents locally have responded well to the lines of new graphic novels and comics inspired by creators like Raina Telgemeir. Ithaca’s a town of readers, and often families want to own the books they’ve read in the libraries, or want to get the books before the local libraries acquire them.
Comics For Collector’s additional space will also showcase board games like Settlers of Catan by Mayfair and Munchkin by Steve Jackson Games.
When it comes to these board games, Gray says, “I’m interested in education. These games can be intimidating.” So the expanded store will have an expert onsite Saturdays to help consumers sample and learn about the various games.
A strong comic shop is more than just a retail space to help locals acquire products. It’s about community, providing services and employing locals. Over the years, Comics For Collectors has employed many people, several of whom have gone onto careers in Geek Culture companies and publishers.
And along the way, Ash Gray has had to bob and weave, to change and to adapt to an industry that can be confusing and is always evolving. But he’s managed to do it for years. With this expansion, it looks like he will again.
• • • • •
Comics for Collectors Grand Opening is scheduled for Saturday, December 2nd, and will feature specials, activities and professional guests, including Steve Ellis and Laura Van Winkle. For more information, check them out on Facebook or Instagram.
This week we’ll continue with my commentary on the latest collection of my run of Suicide Squad stories, # 7, The Dragon’s Horde. This one will be out just a few days before Christmas making it a perfect last-minute Christmas gift. Well, for some pretty strange people on your Christmas list, I’ll grant you. Once again, although I feel foolish in saying it, the Spoiler Flag is flying although the stories are about two decades old.
Last week we explored the first story in the volume which was the 50th issue celebration. That had everyone, living and dead, from the Squad in it. The next story, Fractured Image, focuses down to mainly just Deadshot. There are others in the story but the main plot centers on Floyd Lawton.
After a major storyline with lots of characters in it, Kim Yale (my wife and co-writer) and I liked to do stories complete in a single issue with a tighter focus to them. When you write an ongoing series, you need to think of the rhythm not only of a given story but of the series as a whole. You can fatigue the reader if you have too many Big Big Big stories with Action Action Action. It’s why we used to do Personal File stories in the Squad maybe once a year; focus on ongoing subplots and individual characterization. This issue isn’t quite a Personal File but it comes close.
Among other subplots, we advanced the connection between Eve Eden (Nightshade) and Tom Tresser (Nemesis). The two always had an attraction for each other but the time never seemed right; it gets right in this story. On a more significant note, Count Vertigo has a conversation with Deadshot that will linger for the rest of the series. Werner Vertigo is manic depressive and had recently been under the thrall of Poison Ivy in which his soul, as he puts it, no longer felt his own. He can’t live that way should it happen again. For reasons he doesn’t go into here, he can’t commit suicide so he wants to know if Lawton will put a bullet in Vertigo’s brain if Werner asks him. Lawton has no problem with that but warns Vertigo to be serious if he asks Deadshot to do it because he will.
The main story spins out of another subplot that we had been spinning for awhile. (Kim and I could nurse a subplot along for more than a year.) Lawton and Captain Boomerang had made a trip Down Under to Harkness’s old stomping grounds when they were summoned back to join the Squad on a mission. Because of Boomerbutt, the two missed their plane. As a result, their luggage got lost – including Lawton’s costume and wrist magnums.
Deadshot is not amused.
At the start of the issue, we discover the costume has been found and recovered – by a luggage handler in France named Marc Pilar who was described as a nothing working in the fringes of the mob. Lawton flies to Marseilles, France, to deal with the imposter and recover his property but there is a real question as to whether or not he can kill “himself.” Lawton had always been described as having a death wish but I never felt he was out to commit suicide. He just didn’t care if he lived or died. Now he is being hunted by “Deadshot”; will he let himself be killed by his alternate persona?
At this time in the run of Suicide Squad, I had decided it would be more realistic to take the Squad out of their costumes and code names. They were supposed to be a covert action group and, as such, should not be drawing undue attention to themselves. In theory.
I now look back at this decision as a mistake. These are comics and the costumes and codenames are a major part of the visuals. I think we started to hemorrhage readers at this point and it would help lead to the book’s cancellation about a year and a half later. Any book that’s more than five years old is going to start losing readership but this choice may have helped.
Nonetheless, I like this story a lot. It’s fair to say that Deadshot was one of the Squad “trinity” (along with Waller and Captain Boomerang) who were never going to get killed. Oh, they occasionally got shot just to make the readers think we might kill them but it was never going to happen. I just enjoyed playing with them too much.