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!
Last week I reviewed several of the brave souls – you might call them entrepreneurs or creators – from the recent New York Comic Con. There’s something inspiring about creators who work so hard on a project and then work just as hard, or even harder, getting the word out at comic cons. I love conventions and always have, but let’s face it, being an exhibitor can be tough.
It comes natural to some guys, like the incredibly charismatic and energetic Billy Tucci. He’s got talent, personal confidence, a great family behind him and a smile for everyone. But for most exhibitors, it’s a grind. And that’s why I showcased all those creators in last week’s column.
This week we take a deeper dive with author Mark Voger. His newest book, Groovy: When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture is on sale next month from TwoMorrows. The book looked fantastic at NYCC and Mark is a fascinating, passionate guy. I caught up with him after the show.
Ed Catto: Can you tell me a little about the book and the background behind what prompted you to write it and get it published?
Mark Voger:Groovy is all about the psychedelia of the 1960s – the crazy colors and wild music and dancing hippies. It’s not a purist work; I cover H.R. Pufnstuf as well as Woodstock. I was always fascinated with this period. I was eleven when Woodstock happened, so I was old enough to notice what was going on but too young to participate. I would hear Crimson and Clover by the Shondells on the radio and then see the Banana Splits on Saturday morning TV, and it all somehow fit together in my young brain.
EC: This book looks so different from the many books of TwoMorrows. What makes it different, and does this appeal to a different type of reader?
MV: This one’s a bit outside of TwoMorrows’ wheelhouse. Their bread and butter is comics history, though they do branch out on occasion. My book covers groovy culture overall — music, movies, TV, art, animation and, certainly, comics. It’s very visual. I’m hoping it will appeal to TwoMorrows’ core, as well as the wider audience that remembers this period, or young people who dig it and want to find out more about it.
EC: Did you run across any surprises in writing it, and what will surprise the readers?
MV: I absolutely did. When I started the project, I expected Groovy to be mostly a lighthearted romp. It is very lighthearted, but there’s more of the dark than I’d expected. You really can’t separate groovy culture from the grim events of the era – the assassinations, the struggle for Civil Rights, the Vietnam War. Groovy culture was very much a response to all of the bad stuff. It’s like the lone flower that grows in a neglected parking lot full of broken glass and cracked concrete. I’m hoping readers will be surprised by what the creators of the culture have to say. Over a 25-year period, I interviewed every groovy musician, actor, artist, director, etc., I could track down – Peter Max, Donovan, Melanie, Brian Wilson, Peter Fonda, lots of Woodstock and Altamont veterans. My aim was to preserve their memories.
EC: The design and layout of the book is fresh and engaging. What’s the story behind the design?
MV: Thank you; I designed the book as well. I’ve carved a career as a writer-designer for newspapers, and Groovy is the latest result. My aim was to make the book itself a psychedelic experience as you page through it. The great thing about psychedelia is that you can’t overdo it. But, of course, you still must follow certain rules of design — legibility, complementary color schemes, clear points of entry, just overall reader-friendliness. Still, I took a couple of calculated risks. There’s a brief interview with artist Jim Steranko in which the story itself, the type, swirls in a psychedelic way. It’s a challenge for the reader, almost like a little game, in the spirit of the era.
EC: What reactions to the book did you get at NYCC?
MV: It got an encouraging response, I think. I had an enlargement of the cover hanging at the TwoMorrows booth. It was interesting how young girls would often stop and page through the book. I think they’re attracted to the colors; it’s a very colorful piece. A young Japanese woman, who is an artist, stopped and looked at every page for about half the book, and she was almost squealing with delight. I treasure that moment. A woman turned to a spread of Monkees memorabilia and said, “I had all of this stuff!” Those are exactly the responses I’m hoping for.
EC: Anything else to add?
MV: Well, thanks for your interest in Groovy, Ed. I would only add that looking back at this period is a lesson about what’s going on now. I don’t talk about current events in “Groovy” – that would only date the book – but it’s as if we need a refresher course in so many things that people fought for in the ’60s, Civil Rights and the environment among them. We’re all in this together. Kindness rocks. “Smile on your brother,” a lyric from a 1967 Youngbloods song, is still a terrific idea.
• • • • •
Groovy: When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture book ships on November 15. The list price is $39.95 and the ISBN number is 978-1-60549-080-9. It’s a 192-page hardback in color. Grab it a bookstore, online or best of all, at your favorite comic shop.
There’s a peculiar mix of older graphic novels and new graphic novels in our home right now. The new stuff is all part of a top-secret project I’m working on with my daughter, Tess. We can’t let the cat out of the bag yet, but you can check out her showcase of street art for the sneak peek tease. (And now that I think about it, who even puts cats into bags ?!?)
I’m struck by the wide variety of engaging, superlative creative endeavors we cram under the umbrella term “graphic novel.” While there’s one line of thinking that argues Geek Culture has outgrown the phrase “graphic novel,” it’s still handy and flexible enough for hardcore fans, casual fans, librarians, and bookstore owners.
Here are a few of the so-called Old Graphic Novels floating around here:
Fiction Illustrated Vol. 3 featured Chandler and was originally presented as “Steranko’s first visual novel, a ground-breaking blend of pictures, words and graphic design…”. It’s a gripping noir mystery with a stylish sense of visual design. I enjoy it more every time I re-read it. There are so many instances when you could say that Jim Steranko is at his best and this is one of them.
Gil Kane’s Blackmark is a sci-fi/sword and sorcery thriller that was first published as a Bantam paperback in 1971. Veteran comic artist Kane told this story with illustrated panels, captions, and only the occasional word balloon. Interestingly, with eerily parallels to today’s willful ignorance of climate change, this adventure takes place in a time when “Science is abominated, its secrets buried, its last adherents scourged and cast out by the people…” And the results weren’t pretty. Even when rendered by Gil Kane.
The Stars My Destination was an award-winning novel by Golden Age Green Lantern writer Alfred Bester, but for many, it really came to life when Howard Chaykin and Bryon Preiss collaborated on the graphic novel version. It’s a detailed adventure that expects the reader to keep up from the get-go. Chaykin, as you probably know, has a rich history of providing topnotch comics and graphic novels. He shows no sign of slowing down as he continues with his provocative The Divided States of Hysteria, published by Image.
And just so you don’t think I’m too enamored with the past, here are a few of the Newer Graphic Novels scattered around here:
Emil Ferris rocked the comics world last year with her debut graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters. It’s a wild ride by an unconventional, yet monstrously (sorry, couldn’t resist) talented creator. It was instantly talked about and then difficult to get. Now it’s available everywhere. With her clever illustrations and natural storytelling ability, Ferris shows readers how to create something spectacular and incorporate some of your favorite things along the way,
Charles Burns isn’t really the David Lynch of comics, but I can see why you might think that. His work is often confusing, dense and just a little bit creepy. As a reader, however, you feel that he would never take the easy way out. Burns engages his audience in a complicated covenant based on a respect for intelligence and his making-it-look easy skills. His 2012 The Hive is part of the trilogy but it stands well enough on its own. Of particular note to lovers of old comics, Burns absolutely nails the zeitgeist of old DC romance comics and John Romita romance art in particular.
Francisco Francavilla is absurdly likable as both a person and an artist. He’s hard-working, optimistic and personable when you meet him. Artistically, he uses his creations to embrace everything he loves and then wraps it all up with innovative design and unexpected color. You may be enjoying his current work from Dynamite on Will Eisner’s The Spirit: The Corpse Makers. His latest Graphic Novel, Black Beetle: Kara Bocek is a collection of short installments, originally appearing in Dark Horse Presents, featuring Francavilla’s own pulp hero.
Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand, as realized by Ramon K. Perez, came out a few years ago and I got my copy as part of the swag bag at the Baltimore Comic-Con award ceremony. (As an aside, the Baltimore Comic-Con just held the first annual Ringo Awards, which will become the new awards ceremony at this well-respected comic-con. I heard it all went very well. Kudos to all!) Tale of Sand is a skillfully rendered tale full of compelling moxie.
And, for a graphic novel that’s A Little Bit Old and a Little Bit New, let me offer this one up:
Classic Comics Press just released Kelly Green: The Complete Collection by Stan Drake and Leonard Starr. The hardcover collects five Kelly Green graphic novels from the 80s. As a bonus, it also contains one story that was never printed in English, The Comic-Con Heist, that’s all about Geek Culture. These adventures are sexy thrillers with realistic, sexy art by Starr at top of his creative game.
So many great things to read. I’ve got to read fast in order to also get to my Fast Company and Inc. Magazine.
I’m a big fan of Batman. Always have been. Just this past weekend my wonderful Great Aunt Margaret reminded me that I proudly wore a bat-cape as a young boy. Don’t worry, I think I outgrew that by the time I was 22. These days, I let my Batman fan-ness show through with things like my Bat-article in this year’s Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, which focuses on the top Legend of the Dark Knight Batman stories. Jim Steranko provided a gorgeous Batman cover, so it’s a great honor.
But as my interest in comics has broadened, the focus on Batman, per se, has been pushed aside. There are plenty of fans to take my place. Batman attracts a lot of fans. It’s fine by me if it’s time for other fans to step up to the forefront. And it’s just as well. So many of today’s Batman stories, like the Christian Bale Batman movies or Playstation’s Arkham Asylum mythology, just aren’t my cup of tea.
And I know that at some point, there will be a special comic debuting or a reprint published that appeals to my vision of Batman. Recently I was surprised. I ended up having real Batman day.
This particular day started with catching a bit of HBO’s documentary, Starring Adam West. It showcases the actor, as you probably guessed. I only saw 20 minutes in the middle (I’d like to see more later) but there seems to be a healthy focus on Adam West’s role as Batman. The part I saw showed how he was invited to a Texas town and was honored as TV’s Batman.
There was a bit where someone announces him as the first Batman. Adam interrupts to correct him. The announcer adjusts and then refers to him as “the second Batman.” Many longtime fans, like those who read this column, know that two other actors starred as Batman in movie serials and three others voiced Batman in the long-running The Adventures of Superman radio show. It’s obvious that Adam knew that too. Instead of delivering a history lesson, Adam just offers the phrase “the Classic Batman” to the interviewer as a compromise. He’s clever and gracious, as he was throughout the documentary.
Later that very same day, the newest direct-to-DVD animated feature from Warner Bros. was scheduled for a special showing in movie theaters across America. It was one of those Fathom Events where they show something special in a movie theater on a slow movie night – usually a Monday or a Tuesday. My talented friends in the New York Metropolitan Opera, Gloria and Dana Watson, tell me that these Fathom showings have greatly expanded the Met’s audiences.
This animated adventure, Batman and Harley Quinn, heralds the return of creator Bruce Timm. It revisits the Bat-version of Batman: The Animated Series. This Emmy-award winning series has been celebrating its 25 anniversary this year. The recent San Diego Comic-Con found many opportunities to celebrate this ground-breathing series, with panels the famous souvenir book, and even debuting this animated feature.
While my Batman ’66 memories are firmly rooted in my childhood, Batman: The Animated Series reminds me of a totally different time in my life. For me, it’s more of a “young dad” thing. I clearly remember watching the debut episode one Saturday morning with my daughter Cassie. She was always a good sport, putting up with her crazy dad’s interests. I tried to tell her how the female characters from that first episode (Catwoman and Red Claw) were just like Disney heroines, but she was smart enough –even then – not to buy it. But she’d sit with me and we enjoyed so many episodes together.
I’m not sure if I am really a Harley Quinn fan. I’ve been pruning my comic collection and it was pretty easy to part with many Harley comics. But Batman and Harley Quinn offers a nuanced view of the character. Sure, she’s a nut, but this “episode” takes time to show many sides of the character. She can be sympathetic, clever, manipulative, annoying, frustrated and a showboat. And somehow, all these various aspects mix together to create a believable character.
The vocal talents shine in this feature. Kevin Conroy, for many the ‘real’ voice of Batman, is familiar but offers a few surprises along the way. Notable is Paget Brewster. You know her from her many TV appearances, and she brings something new to the villainous Poison Ivy.
It was kick to watch Batman in a theater with a bunch of fans. Batman & Harley Quinn offers plenty of insider jokes to long time Batman and DC fans, and we all laughed together.
Usually, I dive into select comics for my Batman fix. But It was a surprisingly enjoyable day to spend a little time with an old buddy: starting with the HBO documentary and then watching a cartoon… on a big screen. What a year for Geek Culture and Batman fans.
Detective Comics is the longest running American comic book series. It was so important to the publisher, an outfit called National Periodical Publications, that one day they officially changed their name to reflect comic’s initials. They became DC Comics. Oh, sure, Detective Comics Comics doesn’t make sense, but let’s not split hairs and just chalk it all up to simpler times.
I’ve been reading Detective Comics for as long as I’ve been reading. Batman was the lead character since #27, 1939, and in the early days I admit I’d often choose the latest issue of Batman – with that big Batman logo – instead of the latest Detective Comics.
But then, right about the time that I was actively buying and reading comics on my own with minimal parental supervision, Detective Comics shifted direction. Batman’s superhero adventures morphed into detective and mystery stories. Many stories embraced a whodunit feel. And as an adolescent who was trying to leave behind the camp of the Batman TV series, this version seemed in synch with I wanted at the time.
Actually, Detective Comics would have many incarnations over the years. For a while it became “The Batman Family” and offered a variety of adventures of Bat-characters and detectives. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, helped initially by Walter Simonson, created one of the most definitive versions of a mysterious yet well-rounded Batman in a 70s run of Detective Comics. And for a while in the 80s, the plotlines of Detective Comics were intertwining with the Batman title, like comic double helix/DNA strands, to create a twice-monthly ongoing soap opera style narrative.
Surprisingly, I’m really enjoying the current Detective Comics series that’s part of DC’s Rebirth. Like so many TV dramas, it’s about a team of people working together in the cause of justice. In his book The Caped Crusade and the Rise of Nerd Culture, author Glen Weldon made the point that Batman always starts by being a loner and eventually transforms to a person surrounded by a group or family. That’s definitely the case here.
Each issue is adorned with a classic Detective Comics logo and the stories are full of lush, detailed art that often showcases smooth and confident inking.
One would think a traditionalist like me wouldn’t enjoy a Batman Team book, but somehow it all works.
But the other day, I ended up enjoying an old treasure. I happened across my ragged copy of Detective Comics #414, 1972. It’s a wonderful comic for so many reasons. I won’t say, “they don’t make them like that anymore,” but… they don’t.
The powerful Neal Adams cover creates a stunning sense of urgency. It might seem odd that a lighthouse is causing Batman to burst into flames while a ghostly specter angrily lords over it all – but it sure does look great.
From the vantage point of today, I’m especially impressed that the paste-up person in the production department tried to minimize the logo with a window-like effect. I understand that it’s necessary, but the trade dress just seems out of place on this stunning illustration
The lead story stars Batman. It’s called “Legend of the Key Hook Lighthouse,” and starts off in a unique way – with a poem.
“One of the pleasures in working for editors like Julie Schwartz was that he’d allow his writers to stray from the beaten path, do wacky stuff like open on a poem,” writer Denny O’Neil reflected. “I remember very few details, but I do recall enjoying the writing of the story.”
The pencils for this page, by the often under-rated Irv Novick, are inked in a clever olde tyme/Gibson Girl style by Dick Giordano. The unorthodox inking visually reinforces the poem in this unique opening sequence.
The action starts in earnest on the second page. There we first see Batman, lurking in rafters of a Florida bar. He’s been tracking a planned arms sale and is just about ready to pounce.
The villain is the forgettable General Ruizo. He was a kind of a one-hit wonder, but without the “hit” part. The character who really steals the show is Loosy. She’s a faded beauty with a sordid past and a lifetime of regrets. She’s the type of character that you seldom see in the comics, and her tale of redemption, and Batman’s eventual respect for her, is heartfelt, natural and enduring.
To O’Neil’s credit, Loosy is the type of character that you remember for years. I’ve remembered her for about 45 years.
Batgirl and her detective boyfriend, Jason Bard, star in the second story, “Invitation to Murder.” The Frank Robbins, a fantastic artist, wrote this mystery. Longtime comics veteran Don Heck supplied the art. One might reflect on the inky similarities of Robbins’ and Heck’s art styles, but Heck’s art on this particular effort seems rushed and uninspired.
Still… extra points go to Babs (Batgirl) Gordon for one of the quickest costume changes – and the reverse change back into civilian clothes – in comic book history. In this adventure, she seems to transform in those little white gutters between the panels!
This was the first issue of Detective Comics that had jumped to the then-overwhelming price of 25 cents. In order to compensate drastic price hike, several additional stories were added. But even so, Carmine Infantino implored fans to listen to the publisher’s reasoning for the price increase. “Let’s rap,” he asked in the half-page editorial notice. He explained that they would be adding pages added to compensate for increased price. “Not just ordinary pages,” he promises, “but specially selected stories that we were planning for special time…and that time is now!’
These special pages, in this particular comic, included two reprint stories. One story is a Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino mystery thriller, where the actor who plays the lead in a TV show called Mark Gordon, Private Eye is whisked to Venus. They needed the help of real detective and thought the TV broadcasts were a documentary. This premise would be repeated many times over the years, most notably in the faux-Star Trek movie: Galaxy Quest.
It’s notable that the Venusians seem to look just like the Martians of the DC mythology. They are both tall green beings with blue capes topped off by oversized “opera style” collars. But who knows, maybe this was all a prank courtesy of J’Onn J’Onzz.
You may recall that J’Onn J’Onzz, The Martian Manhunter, was also a Detective Comics alumnus, so perhaps it was fitting. It all comes full circle, as J’Onn J’Onzz is now on TV each week in the Supergirl series.
(I still can’t believe that he’s on TV every week.)
The other reprint, a detective story called “The Australian Code Mystery,” is a real treat. Alex Toth’s art is masterful, creative and economical. David Vern wrote the story, and Mike Gold had some interesting insights about him:
Given my background in the youth social services field, at DC Comics I often was the go-to guy when somebody wanted to get a youth culture reference right. One day in, I believe, 1977, I was in my office pontificating on the subject of the availability of “pure” THC (tetrahydrocannabinol; the psychoactive part of marijuana). Lots of kids thought that various street drugs actually were THC, and I pointed out that THC per se wasn’t readily available outside of a laboratory that isn’t in the United States. I was asked about “angel dust,” which, in those days, often was sold as THC. In fact, angel dust usually was phencyclidine, a.k.a. PCP. As I said the word “phencyclidine” Dave Vern was visiting the office next to mine. He came running in to my area.
“Phencyclidine?” Dave asked. “PCP?” “Yeah,” I responded. “Angel dust.” Dave went into an excited and unending rant. “Great stuff! Powerful hallucinations! Makes a man out of you!”
“Well, sure, if you don’t mind the delusions and risk of seizure,” I replied, trying to be humorous.
“Of course it does! Why else use the stuff?”
“Because that’s the shit they inject into large simians in the last reel of ape movies!” I pointed out.
“Damn right it is,” Dave responded. He was about 53 at the time, and in those days serious, knowledgeable dopers did not look like Dave Vern, who appeared as though he might fill in for Principal Conklin on Our Miss Brooks. After Dave returned to his chores, one of the folks in my office said, “What would Batman say?” I think a better question would involve one of his best-known co-creations: What would Deadshot say?
Yes, David Vern, later called David V. Reed, was responsible for many important elements of Bat-Mythology. In addition to co-creating Deadshot, he also revamped the Batplane and reintroduced The Joker and Two-Face. Vern wrote “The Joker’s Utility Belt,” which would be adapted as memorable episodes of the 1960s Batman TV series. Two of his Batman stories, “Ride Bat-Hombre, Ride!” (drawn by Dick Sprang and Charles Paris) and “The Last Batman Story–?” (drawn by Walt Simonson and Dick Giordano) are among my personal favorites.
The back cover ad, announcing the short-lived Hot Birds toy, is just glorious! I imagine that the folks at Mattel were asking, “How can we extend the Hot Wheels brand?” Whoever raised their hand in that meeting and suggested, “What if we make them airplanes?” would have been regarded as a genius in my neighborhood. My brother Colin and I, aided by our neighborhood gang, instantly embarked on a mission to collect all the Hot Birds die-cast planes.
There were only six Hot Birds produced. Upon reflection, that’s probably a good thing.
But hey, that’s enough nostalgia! I’m looking forward to the next issue of Detective Comics. And kudos to all the talented creative types who take a magazine that’s been published since 1939 and making it seem so fresh and new!
* * *
For more of my Bat-writing, be sure to look for The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide no.46 for my Legends of the Dark Knight essay. It’s on sale this summer. You just won’t be able to miss Jim Steranko’s Bat-Cover.
Here’s why I conflate legendary bluesman Robert Johnson with legendary cartoonist/illustrator Jim Steranko.
Johnson took American roots music and molded it into The Blues. Brilliantly, I might add, having composed and recorded such classics as “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Terraplane Blues,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Love in Vain” and “Cross Road Blues,” a.k.a. “Crossroads.” In all, he produced only 29 tracks, every one between 1929 and 1938
Steranko took the comic art form and broke all the barriers, reinventing and reenergizing comics storytelling and design. He did so with equal brilliance, having produced such award-winning and virtually always-in-print features as Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain America, The X-Men,Superman, the graphic novel Chandler: Red Tide, and Heavy Metal’s adaptation of the movie Outland. The bulk of this work was published between 1965 and 1976, but by then Steranko had pretty much moved on to painting and doing posters and conceptual art for movies – one being something called Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also wrote, designed and published the two-volume History of Comics, which has remained the seminal history of the medium.
Both gentlemen had a lot more on their plate – Jim, having lived at least two and one-half times longer than Robert, has the heavier plate. But in terms of their most popular, best-known and quite frankly most astonishing work, both creators had a pretty damn small oeuvre.
Way too small … but with the impact of the Big Bang. Yeah, I’m a fanboy. Wanna make something of it?
From time to time Jim does a few comics covers and posters and, at 77 years old (no, he doesn’t look it), he’s still smashing barriers. For example, he just completed a series of variant covers for Marvel Comics in celebration of Captain America’s 75th birthday. That’s the stuff you see accompanying these words – well, four of them.
We throw around the phrase “genius” as though they were a dime a dozen. They aren’t. Robert Johnson and Jim Steranko are among the very few who have graced their media and our hearts. They gave us their souls and a quantity of work that seems miniscule – until you sit down to appreciate it. Then and only then does that “limited” amount of art seem larger than Denali.
This time around the honor of writing the last ComicMix column of 2014 falls to me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to taunt the gods and goddesses of irony once more before the Cherub of the New Year arrives, gets a good look around, and shits his diaper.
Many, if not all of my friends seem to be happy that this year is coming to an end. String theory tells us that such optimism is silly, but since I’m starting 2015 with a left arm different from the one I had last January – and the anesthesia almost killed me – well, sayonara old bastard and take your scythe with you. (more…)
I recently received my comp copies of the second trade paperback (TPB) collection of The Spectre, dubbed Wrath of God, and took advantage of it to re-read the stories Tom Mandrake and I created back in the Nineties.
The character was originally created back in the 30s by Jerry Siegel who also co-created Superman. Jim Steranko described the Spectre as having the toughest origin in comics. Plainclothes cop, Detective Jim Corrigan, is killed by gangsters but, unable to rest, is sent back as an Avenging Ghost by a mysterious Voice who can be taken as God. He’s also given lots of powers. He may in fact be the most powerful character in comics. Some think he’s too powerful; how can you create a significant threat to a character who’s only slightly less powerful than God? In the decades since his creation, those powers got damped down. Corrigan himself was supposedly brought back to life with the Spectre as a separate entity who took shelter within Corrigan.
When Tom and I got a hold of the character, we decided that having a powerful Spectre would result in better visuals and that Corrigan was dead and had been since the character began. The result has been what many readers declared a definitive version of the Spectre and some of the best work Tom and I have done separately or together.
I know writers who can’t/don’t/won’t read their own work once it’s been published. I understand and sympathize but I always read the comics once they came out. For me, it wasn’t really a comic until it was published. I wanted to experience it as the reader did. Granted, I couldn’t experience it for the first time as they did but I often forget exactly what I’ve written between the time that I finished the script and when the book is published. A turn of phrase, for example, can surprise me. I’ve gone on to other things and that’s where my focus is.
So I came to Wrath of God with, if not fresh eyes, at least with a touch of amnesia.
The first volume, Crimes and Judgments, introduced Tom’s and my version of the Spectre. The twelve issues were tied together with an overall plot that reached a tragic end. The second volume deals with repercussions emanating from that end. The Spectre goes somewhat mad with grief and when you have a character that powerful, it’s a very dangerous situation indeed. His mission is to punish murderers, to find evil, and in the first story of the second collection, the Spectre finds an entire nation guilty and destroys it.
That was extreme, even for the Spectre and I knew it at the time. I wondered if I had taken him too far. Would it alienate the readers? It might be hard enough for them to empathize with a character as powerful as the Spectre. Would such an extreme act drive them away from the book?
In my private life this was also a time of stress and sorrow. My wife, Kimberly Yale, contracted breast cancer and it would claim her life in 1996. I was in a somewhat bleaker state of mind while I created these stories. I was sometimes asked how I was able to continue writing while dealing with Kim’s illness but writing was a refuge for me. It was where things still made sense and with The Spectre I could channel all those emotions I was feeling.
The bulk of the rest of the stories in this volume stem from this first story as we explored the ramifications for the next ten issues. I like doing things like that; something significant happens in one issue and you can follow up on it. It’s one of the virtues of doing a monthly comic; there’s room to explore.
We dealt with issues such as forgiveness and justice, mercy and retribution, guilt and responsibility. While I had become an agnostic, I was a very specific agnostic. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and that still very much showed in my writing. Especially with the Spectre.
Not every story is an unalloyed delight. One story was set in Northern Ireland and dealt with “The Troubles” between Protestant and Catholic there. At least, it attempted to do so. However, this was before I visited Belfast and my understanding of the situation there can only be described as woefully inadequate. Well intentioned but I didn’t have the comprehension of the issues that the story needed and clichés abound in it. It is readable but not as strong as other stories in the TPB, in my own opinion. It’s one of the things that occur when you re-examine your own work; flaws pop out at you. Useful if you learn from it.
One of the great strong points of the volume and indeed of the entire series is the work of my friend and collaborator, Tom Mandrake. We worked together in what is known as “plot first” style; I would break down the story into page and panels and Tom would draw it. (Our gag was that sometimes he drew what I should have plotted.) It would come back to me for dialoguing and it was always a thrill to first see those pages. Tom, in my not so humble opinion, is one of the modern greats in the medium and The Spectre would not have been the same without him.
It was interesting re-reading the stories after all this time, to re-encounter the person I was back then. It’s me but a different me. I don’t know if I could write the same stories today but that’s how it should be, I think. Our writing reflects who we are and, as we change, so should the writing. The Spectre I would write today would be very different from the book I wrote back then. I have changed and, hopefully, grown.
The stories in this volume, I think, are still worth reading. If you do, be sure to say hello to the Old Me. He’s lurking in there.
My geek overdrive continues to overwhelm me. But I’m not the only one.
Less than a week away from this year’s San Diego ComicCon (which opens its doors this Thursday, July 24th, and closes them on Sunday, July 27th) Entertainment Weekly joins the national geek fest that is summertime with a bang-up double-size issue featuring a cover shot of Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America with Ultron looming behind them. The issue is a stuffed-to-the-gills San Diego Comic Con preview…
And I read every single page. Including the adverts.
Now I know how those fans at the 1976 SDCC felt when Charles Lippincott (then head of Lucasfilm’s marketing, advertising and publicity department) showed some of the first production slides of Star Wars, and (writer) Roy Thomas and (artist) Howard Chaykin previewed their Marvel Comics adaptation of the film, because the cover story,an “exclusive first look” at Avengers: Age Of Ulton, does an admirable job of leaking just enough info to make me want to go out and see the move right now – only, goddamn!, it’s not due to hit the theatres for a frakkingten months! (May 1, 2015, which makes it nine months and 12 days, to be exact, and if I counted right.)
That’s incredibly unfair, EW!
By the way, that Star Wars teaser was the beginning of SDCC becoming the first exit ramp on the expressway to marketing love and box office bonanzas, for better or for worse. Most comics fans believing it was for worse, as SDCC has increasingly become more and more about film and television and less and less about the four-color world.
Along with articles on upcoming films, small and large (The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies; Air; Mad Max; Fury Road; Horns) and television shows – which Mike Gold did a wonderful job of discussing here. Although you missed Outlander, Mike, an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s eight-volume (so far, according to EW) saga which successfully – based on its millions plus fan base and its mega-profitability for the author and her publisher – blends the genres of romance and science fiction, and which Battlestar: Galactica rebooter Ronald D. Moore is exec-producing for cable channel Starz. It premieres this summer on Saturday, August 9th, although you can stream the first episode on the channel’s website, starting on August 2nd…
Excuse me. I got diverted… to paraphrase Peter David.
A nice surprise in the issue is a piece about Jim Steranko. Now a lot of you may be to young to remember Mr. Steranko, but many, many professionals and fans say that it was his work on Nick Fury: Agent Of Shield in the ‘60s (that decade of the Beatles, Andy Warhol, “tuning in, dropping out, and turning on,” the pill, Vietnam, burning bras, the Chicago Democratic Convention… that decade of social revolution) which bumped up comics from pulp rags to line the birdcage with to a new American literary and artistic medium.
Me, I was too young to understand just how revolutionary Mr. Steranko’s work was, but it definitely sunk into the deeper reaches of my pre-adolescent psyche, influencing my (much) later work in the field, i.e., Mr. Steranko was – and is – an individual in the very best (and maybe sometimes the very worse) sense of the word, “travelling to the beat of a different drum,” as Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys sang in 1967. (Here’s a question for you music trivia buffs out there. Who wrote “Different Drum?”*)
There’s also an oral history of The Terminator, which is interesting, but a little sycophantic, IMHO, although in fairness these types of interviews usually are, and also because I’m not really a fan of Mr. Cameron’s, who has become a Hollywood financial powerhouse and player despite the constant charges of plagiarism leveled against him. Notably Avatar, but also Titanic and the above-mentioned Terminator.
Don’t get me wrong. I love his Titanic. It’s compelling and historically pretty damn accurate. But many film aficionados, including director and writer Peter Bogdanovich, noted the *ahem* similarity between Cameron’s 1997 film and History Is Made At Night, a 1937 film by Walter Wanger, directed by Frank Borzage, which tells the story of a love triangle between a financial magnate (Colin Clive), his beautiful (and unhappy) wife (Jean Arthur) and a French headwaiter (Charles Boyer). Just where do Jean and Charles meet? On an ocean liner. On her maiden voyage. And guess what? The ship hits an iceberg.
And I love Terminator. But have you ever sat through the credits and seen the acknowledgement to Harlan Ellison? Do you know why? Mr. Ellison filed a suit that complained that elements of the film were sourced from two episodes of The Outer Limits that Mr. Ellison wrote, “Soldier,” and “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Hemdale, Terminator’s production company, and Orion Pictures, its distributor, settled out of court with Mr. Ellison. Part of the settlement included that film credit.
You’d have to ask Bob Ingersoll, who writes The Law Is An Ass column here at ComicMix, about this, but it’s always indicated some degree of guilt to me. Meaning that it’s not worth the hassle and the mucho dinero and time to the defendant to fight a charge that contains enough truth in it that the defendant could conceivably lose.
I wouldn’t do it.
I’d give the money and run.
*Mike Nesmith of The Monkees wrote “Different Drum.”
• • • • •
As I filed this week’s column, I heard about the passing of James Garner, 86, on Saturday, July 19, 2014. Though perhaps best known as gambler Brett Maverick and cantankerous private detective Jim Rockford on the eponymous television shows, my favorite Garner roles were U.S. Army Major Jeff Pike in 36 Hours, Lt. Bob “The Scrounger” Hendley in The Great Escape, and King Marchand in Victor Victoria. He will be missed.
My subtitle is the title of a great Bill Withers song, but an even greater Creative Source song. If you are of the age where you think of Twilight as a classic film, chances are you have never heard of Bill Withers, Creative Source or that song.
I could understand not being aware of Creative Source. They were a bit off the beaten path. However any music fan not aware of Bill Withers should drop less Ecstasy and lighten up on the trance. People, Boom, Boom, Boom with an occasional auto corrected voice may be music, but a song it is not.
Whatever age you are, if you are a fan of comics you should have heard of Jim Steranko, or simply Steranko as he is better known.
A comic fan, a true fan of the medium, not aware of Steranko is akin to a history buff thinking Lincoln is only a carmaker.
I’m not about to, nor am I qualified to give a detailed overview of his work. Please, yes I’m saying please, do yourself a big favor and look him up.
As I said, I can’t even begin to cover his contributions to our industry but I will share with you what I hope is a small indication of his importance to an industry he changed forever.
In the mid to late 90s I ran Motown Animation & Filmworks, (MA) Motown is the most famous record company in the world and if you doubt that name three record companies and do so without Goggle.
Oh. I’m sorry. You’re quiet now.
MA was a film and television division of Motown that at the time Motown was owned by Polygram and both were Phillips Companies.
Phillips is a enormous corporation and anything what comes under their umbrella is protected with an army of lawyers that will crush any affront to their intellectual properties (IP), patents, products and the very saying of their name is like a lone Klan member yelling “jungle bunny” at the Black Murderer convention.
On the flip side, if you make any move while within a corporate structure that has even the smell of being problematic you could be bitch slapped.
Bitch slapped like I was when I appeared on a CNN financial news show and answered “Fine” when asked how I thought what I was doing would affect the stock price.
The show was live and after I unclipped my lapel mic – if that long – my cell rung. The booming voice of Clarence Avant, Chairman Of The Board of Motown Records told me to, “Never, ever, comment of the stock price, anywhere, anytime for any reason!”
He was not happy.
And that was just over one word.
That was a serious blunder on my part. I simply didn’t know but ignorance when you head up a key division of a major company is no excuse.
I learned fast that without first running some decisions past Business Affairs I’d run the very real risk of a very bad day.
IP was at he very heart of my core business at Motown and because of such I created a comic book division called Motown Machineworks. One of the titles was a book and character called Stealth.
As soon as the press broke on that book I got a call from a fairly well known artist. I won’t mention his name because what I’m about to say may cause him to pop some shit in my face when next we meet and I don’t need that kind of noise in my life. Hell, I’m already on probation because of the last two people who popped some shit in my face.
This creator said he had a friend who was producing a book called Stealth. I said that was a problem. He agreed. But he said the problem was mine.
I explained to him that MA owned the trademark to that character name and suggested whatever he was smoking he stop. He boldly told me that he would create a P.R. nightmare for me if we did not “Cut the kid a check.”
“So let me get this straight. I pay someone to stop you from causing Motown a public relations problem over a trademark we own.”
Yep, that’s what he meant.
“Fuck you.” I cheerfully said with a pretty good chuckle. “Tell that kid to lawyer up and I’ll make sure he knows you were the one to clue me in.”
C L I C K.
Never heard a word from him on that matter.
Even if I wanted to cave like a little bitch when I had no reason in the world to do so, the amount of time and effort dealing with this would be a needless waste of resources and resources mean money and losing money in corporate America is bad but wasting money on a non issue?
I may have been shot.
What, pry tell, does this have to do with Steranko and his importance to the comics industry? I’ll tell you.
A couple of days later I get a call from Jim Steranko.
What follows is the word for word exchange between Jim and I. This I know because I have journals going back to high school. The time of the entry is 2:20 pm. That means I did not wait to get home to write about it.
“I’ll get to the point, I created a character called Stealth some time ago and I read recently that you are launching a book about a character with the same name. I’m sure my character predates yours and I call on you as a gentleman to step back from that name.”
“Take it. It’s yours.”
How important is Steranko to comics?
His impact in the field commands and deserves that kind of respect.