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Monday, June 09, 2008

Birds of Prey - 1999

DC Comics recently elevated Birds of Prey from quarterly to monthly publication. The infrequent appearance merely whetted appetites.

The title is somewhat misleading since only one of the major characters, Black Canary, represents an avian species. The other heroine is Oracle, the former Batgirl, and bats are mammals. Of course, "bird" is also slang for a woman.

The plots incorporate a great deal of computer and communication technology. This gives the stories a whiff of Mission Impossible (the TV show and movie) or the earlier DC series Checkmate. How many other comics feature title characters who never meet?

For those who missed earlier issues, DC has issued a large paperback reprint. The price, $17.95, seems steep, but the originals are rather scarce.

Most of the stories in that volume are written by Chuck Dixon. The script and art are weak, but the concept of having Lois Lane ("Mrs. Superman") work with Canary and Oracle is intriguing.

Of the other artists represented, I have to give highest marks to Gary Frank, the first artist to tackle the characters. The fight scenes are realistic without being gratuitously bloody.

Stefano Raffaele does very well in the story entitled "Revolution." Matt Haley has the longest story to illustrate, "Manhunt". At times, his style veers towards the cartoonish, but he has a larger cast to contend with. Whether Huntress and Catwoman really add that much to the story is debatable. Cats and canaries are natural enemies; therefore, this might be worth exploring.

Now that the Birds are in a monthly format, Greg Land is the artist. I am convinced he is the best artist yet for these characters.

Chuck Dixon's probing of the psychology of the characters is impressive. The frustrations of the crippled Oracle and her hatred of the Joker are portrayed well. Obviously a confrontation between the two is coming. (Side note: a new Batgirl has appeared in Shadow of the Bat no. 83. This could get interesting.)

Reviewed Dr. Jon Suter

Marvel & DC's Reexaminations - From 1999

Two major comic book publishers, DC and Marvel, are reexamining their early publications for new inspiration. In both cases, the results are favorable.

Marvel has recently reemphasized Captain America's exploits during World War II as exemplified in the recent "Invaders" storyline in the Marvel Universe and in a new title, Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty. All this is in addition to the stories set in our time in the regular Captain America title.

The first two issues of Sentinel are well done and include other members of the Invaders superhero group in the cast. The dislike of the Human Torch and the Submariner characters echoes their memorable clashes from Marvel's earliest days.

Given the popularity of the movie Saving Private Ryan, we can expect a similar plotline very soon in Sentinel. Give Sentinel a low A.

An impressive piece of work is a two issue series, Iron Man: The Iron Age, a retelling of the origin and early career of the superhero, Iron Man. Kurt Busiak's script gets a high A as does the art by Patrick Zircher (volume 1) and Richard Howells (volume 2).

Busiek has studied issues of Tales of Suspense where Iron Man first appeared. His use of small details makes this reprise an extension of, rather than a replacement for, early stories. Older readers will appreciate the strong links to the past as well as new information about Iron Man and his alter ego, Anthony Stark.

Busiek divides his narrative between Pepper Potts, Stark's secretary, and Happy Hogan, his chauffeur and bodyguard. The reader has an advantage over those narrators: knowledge of what is really happening. I would give an edge to Pepper's version of the story.

Several of Iron Man's forgotten foes surface briefly. A villainess I do not recall, the Saboteur, appears in a costume not from the 1960's. We also learn how Roxxon Oil came into existence. That closes a gap in our knowledge.

Let's hope for similar treatment of other Marvel characters.

-- Dr Jon Suter

SubHuman - From 1999

The covers by Mark Schultz are worth the price of admission. It is disappointing that the interior art on SubHuman, a new comic book mini-series, suffers by comparison to those covers.

The plot: A research boat and its captain discover a ravishingly beautiful and mysterious woman deep under the frozen waters of the Arctic. When revived, she is connected to the wreckage of an eerie diving bell and troubled by memories that suggest Krill Stromer faces an intriguing, obscure future.

So do readers. Do not despair. It is delightfully and intentionally so. Here is a hint. Krill's beauty is not the only outré thing that ravishes.

Writers Schultz and Ryan wisely spend much of the first book titillating readers with plot and character elements that only begin to boil in the second issue. Boils and all, her past invades Krill's present with a vengeance in the second outing. Also 'outed' are Krill's mother, a nasty U.S. Senator, and a secret that will surely be stripped bare before the series ends.

You see, there is not more to Krill than delights the eye. There is less.

The interior art: Roger Peterson is not a poor craftsman. Although there is an occasional misplaced panel, his visual storytelling is clean, well paced and above industry standards. His style is distinctive, dynamic when the story calls for drama, and free of the useless fireworks of lesser artists in comics. His maggoty monsters are delightfully disgusting.

It just isn't art by Mark Schultz, whose work, in part, sets the industry standard. His SubHuman covers and the published character designs for this series are excellent.

If your curiosity is sufficiently peaked by these tantalizing tidbits, SubHuman is recommended for light entertainment.

SubHuman #s 1 & 2 (of 4)/22 pgs. & $2.95 ea. From Dark Horse Comics, written by Michael Ryan and Mark Schultz, sold in comics shops and by mail.

-- Michael Vance

DC Reexamines - From 1999

As noted in a previous column, both Marvel and DC comics are reexamining and recycling their early stories.

DC's major efforts in this line involve the Justice League of America superhero group. JLA is the highly successful current version of this venerable group. The complex plots and outstanding art richly deserve the acclaim.

A spin-off is the miniseries JLA: Year One. The current League's early history has gaps because of the Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour series. Filling in gaps poses many challenges; Mark Waid and his colleagues have risen to the occasion.

In the 1960's, many readers wondered why the Doom Patrol and other DC groups never crossed paths with the JLA. In Waid's version, one encounter did take place; the JLA and the Doom Patrol did confront the Brotherhood of Evil. Relationships hitherto unknown have been revealed; e.g., Negative Man and Green Lantern were friends before they acquired powers.

I am dubious about some characterizations, but the young Aquaman is well done as is the Martian Manhunter. You will want all twelve issues, but a higher priority for your collection is JLA: the Nail.

I am anxiously awaiting the final issue of this "Elseworld" series, but the first two are as good as anything DC has published in years.

In this alternate reality, the Kents never found the infant Superman. All other DC heroes have emerged on schedule, but their careers and characters are warped by some unseen manipulator.

The Joker brutally murders Robin and Batgirl, and is killed before reporters by an enraged Batman. This harrowing episode is only one of the twists in Alan Davis's script.

Davis gets very high A's for the script and art. The inking and coloring are also exceptional.

As with Kurt Busiek's "Iron Age" story, the use of small details is important. Obscure heroes including Ultra the Multialien appear briefly, villains prominent in the first volume reappear briefly in volume two. Readers get to fill in gaps.

This is DC at its best.

-- Dr Jon Suter

Jughead's Double Digest #57 - From 1999

Priced at $2.95 - 178 pages. From Archie Comics by various artists and writers, available wherever comics are sold.

"You know, you two are way too obsessed with women..." said Jughead. "...Guys, there's more to life...FIND IT!!"

Archie's and Reggie's jaws drop and their eyes dilate with disbelief, but it is a sure bet that Jughead will not change the minds of the most popular teenagers in the world. After all, they and every teenage boy since the beginning of time has chased girls. Archie Comics has built a publishing empire on that successful formula since the early 1940's. They are so successful that it seems silly to describe their characters for those unfamiliar with Archie, Reggie, Veronica, Betty, and Jughead. Everyone knows them.

Let's look, instead, at the secrets to their popularity. Archie is a generational phenomenon. Because his was the first successful teen-focused title, parents have bought these comics for their children for generation after generation simply from familiarity.

They also buy because, although not the best drawn or written comics in history, they are always consistently good, and consistently safe. Parents know moral controversy does not exist in the Archie universe.

Because of their longevity, quality and subject matter, Archie has always dominated the pre-teen market for teen-age comics. You see, Archie isn't read much by teenagers. He is read by kids who want to be teenagers.

Another editorial secret to Archie's fame is that Archie Comics only dabbles in current hip teen-talk, music, clothing and movies. Knowing that fads quickly become dated, they concentrate on aspects of the teen years that never change.

Like chasing girls. And chasing boys. And eating. And goofing off.

Ah, heck. The real secret to Archie Comics is that thy are just darn good, fun for everyone.

-- Michael Vance

WildC.A.T.S/Aliens #1 - From 1999

Priced at $4.95, 44 pgs. From Image & Dark Horse Comics. Story by Warren Ellis, Chris Spouse pencils. Sold in comics shops and by mail.

The alien bugs are back. Now the only question left is who will fight and exterminate them... again. It seems a reasonable assumption just from the title and cover of Wild C.A.T.S/Aliens, the latest and obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Aliens movies and the superhero genre.

It is a questionable assumption, and dead wrong.

Tightly plotted and precisely scripted, this comic book kicks as...aliens. Dialog and characterizations are believable. Even if you are unfamiliar with or uninterested in the superhero genre, you will still care about Grifter, Void, Warblade and cast.

They teleport to a quarantined space station circling Earth that has been infested by everyone's favorite acid-spitting monsters. Their less than surprising mission is to bring everyone but those bugs out and back to earth. They do most of that surprisingly well with some good twists.

Much credit belongs to the artist and his supporting team on WildC.A.T.S/Aliens. They successfully bring an intensity and visual clarity to this story sadly missing from too many comics. In particular, the penciller's clean, distinct style is dynamic without being overblown. Pyrotechnics are climactic only when they are not overused. Muscle boy poses get stale very quickly.

Despite its predictability, this is an intense, rip-roaring adventure. Easily one of the best comics in its genre for 1998, WildC.A.T.S/Aliens is highly recommended for everyone except preteens and younger.

Michael Vance

Comics Legend Reed Crandall - From 1999

One of the first artists to 'raise the bar' for the quality of art in comic books tragically ended his life by another bar.

Originally considered a short-lived fad, comic books were often churned out with no consideration for the quality of art or story. When the industry stabilized, however, Quality Comics began to raise industry standards with artists like Lou Fine (on Dollman), Will Eisner (on The Spirit) and Reed Crandall on Blackhawk).

Crandall's art was heavily influenced by earlier magazine illustrators who used "cross-hatching" and "feathering" to give the illusions of shading and depth to their work. Cross-hatching uses tight grids of lines, and feathering uses clusters of tight parallel lines to create these effects. Time consuming for an artist, it is particularly effective in black and white pen work.

Crandall often used this technique on characters or in titles including: Stormy Foster, Ray, Uncle Sam, Dollman, Firebrand, Hercules, Blackhawk, Midnight, Capt. Triumph, Espionage (1946-'49, Quality), Captain America and misc. genre work ('41-71, Marvel), Tops Comics ('49-'50 Gleason), Kayo Kirby, Sheena, Kaanga ('41-'45, Fiction House), Treasure Chest ('50's+, Pflaum/Denison), crime, horror, SF, war and New Direction titles ('53-'55, EC), Classics Illustrated ('60-'62, Gilberton), Gunga (early '50s, Buster Brown), Hercules Unchained, Twilight Zone, Supercar covers ('59-'62, Western), NoMan, Dynamo ('66-'68, Tower), Flash Gordon ('67, King), and work in the early 1950s for Pine, Avon, Eastman Color, Ziff-Davis and Harvey publishers. Some of his best work was published in Creepy and Eerie magazines ('-64+ Warren).

Although prolific and uniquely talented, Crandall suffered from alcoholism. It destroyed his career in comics, and he ended his amazing life as a janitor.

Reed Crandall's work is highly recommended.

Some older comics are expensive and difficult to locate. Price guides or comics dealers help. Comics shops, conventions, mail order companies and trade journals are best sources. Prices vary; shop around for the best values.

Michael Vance

Superman for All Seasons & Superman: the Doomsday Wars - From 1999

A pervasive theme in the career of Superman has been the impact of his upbringing in the rural community of Smallville, Kansas. Numerous writers at DC Comics have played with how different upbringing might have affected the Kryptonian's career.

I remember speculative stories in the 1950s on the infant being reared by gangsters or totalitarian dictators. In recent months, there were "Elseworld" stories about Amish (JLA: The Nail) and Apolalyptic (Superman: the Dark Side) upbringings.

Two recent DC mini-series have utilized the Smallville years as a major element. The two series differ radically in terms of art and script, yet are similar.

The four issues of Superman for All Seasons explain how the naive farm boy adapted to life in Metropolis and the pressures of public acclaim. Jeph Loeb's script is remarkably subtle and is the best part of the series.

Tim Sale's art is appropriately simple, although it may not be to everyone's taste. The thing about Sale's art that bothers me is the massiveness of young Clark Kent. The intent is to portray him as a gentle giant, but the proportions are too massive in relation to other characters. In some scenes, one wonders why Clark is not regarded as a freak.

Each issue is told from a different viewpoint: Pa Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luther and Lana Lang. The four narrators parallel the four seasons implied in the title.

The climax comes with a massive flood which threatens Smallville.

A similar disaster, a gigantic blizzard, is the backdrop of the three issues of Superman: the Doomsday Wars. The memory of the blizzard is a constant reminder that Superman has sometimes failed to protect those he loves the most.

Dan Jurgens gives us another desperate battle against Doomsday, Superman's most dangerous enemy. There are numerous parallels to the legendary battle when Superman died, but Doomsday is much more dangerous this time.

While different, both series offer insights into Superman's psychology. Rated A.

-- Dr. Jon Suter

Batman/Hellboy/Starman - From 1999

Dear Editor,

It is true that I am a sucker for Mike Mignola's art. And, although I've only read the first of two issues of Dark Horses' co-published venture with DC Comics, Batman/Hellboy/Starman, I consider its 32 pages well worth my $2.50.

Mignola's minimilistic art and visual storytelling are so streamlined and precise. His characters look like they were quickly molded out of slabs of clay, and I like that. I suspect even the coloring is a conscious design element as he pencils each page, since it works so well to complete the finished art.

I am a big fan of his demon, Hellboy, as well. So this new mini- series promised an exciting read even before I opened the book. It is a promised realized.

That Batman would need Hellboy's expertise in the supernatural is also a nice touch by writer James Robinson. Robinson seems to understand Mignola's art, and his writing is also precise and his dialogue is believable.

The inclusion of the original Starman, now semi-retired and about to reveal the power of his 'cosmic' rod for use as an alternate source of energy, is the icing on the cake. It is obvious that the segue to the current Starman will be clean and logical, as all team to battle a cult of supernatural, Neo-Nazi 'skinheads'.

This mini-series has everything to recommend it and nothing that detracts from it. I look forward to the second issue and hope this isn't the only teaming of these characters or this creative team.

In a word, Batman/Hellboy/Starman is excellent.

-- Michael Vance

Tales from the Crypt: the Official Archives - From 1999

Readers who grew up in the early 1950's can recapture their childhoods by acquiring Digby Diehl's Tales from the Crypt: the Official Archives (St. Martin's Press, 1996).

Those who grew up later will also want a copy, but they will never be able to share the earlier generation's memory of joy at seeing new E.C. horror titles on racks and wallowing in the gruesomeness perpetrated by E.C. writers and artists.

The rise, fall and eventual triumph of E.C. has been chronicled in many places. American popular culture has been indelibly marked by editors and writers William Gaines and Al Feldstein, artists Jack Davis and Graham Ingels, and numerous others.

Readers unfamiliar with the Gaines saga catch up quickly with this volume's valuable historical and biographical information. The price is ghastly ($45), however, paper quality and illustrations make it worthwhile.

Other E.C. reprint materials are available, but this book brings the story up to date with extensive coverage of the popular television series.

Hollywood's special effects can equal or surpass anything Gaines's team put on paper, but this reader still retains fondness for letting the imagination add a few hideous details to the final moments of a story.

If there was one dominant theme in these horror titles, it was that evil will bring retribution. Virtue may not be rewarded, but justice will be visited upon the predatory, the abusive, and the corrupt.

Dante's Inferno was mild in comparison to E.C.'s version of justice. One wonders what punishments Gaines and his team would mete out for transgressors who stalk our world today.

This book is not for small children, particularly because of the photographs from the television series.

Even those who own the Russ Cochran reprints of E.C. titles will want to consider adding this to their collections.

-- Dr. Jon Suter

Comics Legend Cliff Sterrett - From 1999

If family situations dominate American comic strips, cartoonist Cliff Sterrett certainly created a unique and dominate family.

Sterrett was born in 1883, and attended the Chase Arts School in New York. He became a newspaper staff artist in 1904, but yearned to become a cartoonist.

In 1912, Sterrett created four different comic strips, eventually choosing Polly as his life's work. It began as Positive Polly, focused on the daughter of his comics family, and became Polly and her Pals as its cast broadened.

Sterrett created a whimsically "big-foot" or abstract style of art unmatched in comics, especially on his Sunday pages. He is remembered with fondness for occasionally satirizing modern art with distorted perspectives and odd, surreal landscapes and settings.

Subtlety was not always its forte, but it is notable that Polly's parents were diminutive compared to their daughter and son, a subtle, visual comment on their relationships.

Sterrett was also adept at dialog and characterization, and had a keen insight into human nature and the dynamics of family life.

Sterrett discontinued Polly in 1958, and died December 28, 1964, a true master of his art.

Although very popular in newspapers, Sterrett's work was not heavily reprinted in comic books. Polly & Her Pals appeared in the first and last issue of Comic Monthly (Embee Dist. Co.), the first monthly newsstand magazine. Comic Monthly bore little resemblance to today's standard comic book format, and was released in January of 1922, predating the first comic book by many years.

The Complete Color Polly and Her Pals #s 1 & 2 was published by Fantagraphics Books. A collection was also released by Remco/Kitchen Sink.

A sampling of Polly was featured in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics.

The work of Cliff Sterrett is highly recommended.

Some older titles are expensive and difficult to locate. Price guides or comics dealers help. Comics shops, conventions, mail order companies and trade journals are best sources. Prices vary; shop around for the best values.

-- Michael Vance

Comic Fan #3

Comic Fan #3/56 pgs. & $5.75 from Main Enterprises/various writers and artists /sold at .

Disclaimer: I write for Main Enterprises and am not unbiased in this review.

Fanzines are amateur magazines that reflect the passions of their editors, writers and artists. Comic Fan reflects the love of comic books and strips. I have written for probably more than one hundred fanzines in the last three decades. When I was a younger man, I thought they were a stepping stone to a professional career as a writer. As a modestly successful writer, I later thought of them as a trap, an easy way to self-publish without the growing pains of rejection from professional magazines.

Throughout the evolution of my opinion, fanzines have always remained fun, like a lively chat with a friend about a shared interest. This issue of Comic Fan is a chat about Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange comic books; one of the founding fathers of comics fandom, Jerry Bails; and about whether or not lots of different comic book titles, fanzines, and even movies are worth the effort to read or watch.

It is peppered throughout with rough and polished art-- some barely doodles and some near professional standards. And boy is it fun.

I now think of fanzines with great fondness, and honor anyone who takes the time not just to stand on the sidelines and watch but to participate, whatever the passion and whatever the level of their talent and insight. So I challenge you to not only buy Comic Fan and some of the fanzines and comics it reviews, but to make a fanzine of your own someday.

Receiving this fanzine is like getting a long letter from a beloved friend. That is always a delight, and Comic Fan is recommended for, well, comic fans.

Michael Vance

Check out Dark Corridor #1 for two Michael Vance short stories at .