Wednesday, December 13, 2006

COMIC CAVALCAGA!

As promised, here are just a couple things that have graced my eyeballs o'er the past few weeks, the whole kit-and-kaboodle of it pertaining to comic strips/books which I know will only appeal only to us gringos out there, but don't fret music mavens because I'm sure to have a typical weekend music-plus post in only a few days. But for now here come de books!

BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley (DC books, 2002)

I was once chastised within an inch of my life by a comic book fan who also happened to be a voracious BLACK TO COMM reader and you wanna know why? It was because yours truly had actually admitted to this comic book maniac that I'd long dropped out with regards to being a voracious supporter of the comic book scene, and at such an early stage (fifteen) as well...this was sometime during their "Bronze Age" development and given all of the outright flowery prose and pretentious drama that was beginning to slip into the entire medium at that time (roughly 1974 or so) who could blame me for turning off to an entire industry that began substituting melodrama for action and human flaw for heroism anyway? Hell, as Bill Shute mighta said, there were enough heels and bad guys and corrupted good guys out there in the real world, so why would I need to dish out 20-cents per month to read about some once-revered kinda guy I'm sure millions of kids looked up to suddenly turning to clay or spouting off flavor-of-the-month psychology or just generally acting like a bigger doofus than the bad guys! And believe me, there were plenty of times that I really wished that the villains woulda beaten these so-called "good guys" just out of blind spite because although I don't like evil, I also tend to hate pretension and people whether they be heroes, rock stars or politicians talking down to me! And to gloss it all up in poetic Glade Air Freshener (probably someone's idea to prove to Fred Wertham that comic books could be as artistically pious and as literate as he wished!) only made comic books as a whole stink to high heaven even more!

Well, I gotta say that this reader's admonishment did shame me enough to at least peek into a few then-current titles making the rounds, but frankly I couldn't hack what was going on in those books one iota. And yeah, I know times change, but that doesn't mean I have to change along with 'em, and if the "heroes" of the seventies were bad enough, the ones twenty years later were even more rotten, and their basic evil mixed with the convoluted storylines and the chic liberal attitudes that seem to have permeated just about everything in popular culture just made me cringe! Reading a then-current DC saga certainly had me looking for some escapism from the escapism, and if there still are any Saturday Afternoon Barbershop Kids out there (y'know, the kind who originally bought the comic books and made all of those down-and-out depression-era publishers the multimedia conglomerate giants they are today), I can just see 'em retching their guts out over a culture that's totally forsaken 'em for some market out there (whatever it may be) who actually eats this artzy/smarmy drivel up thus leading to even MORE comic atrocities across the boards!

I did have hope over this Batman/Dark Knight series after reading about it on the Lew Rockwell website when in some long-lost article from the earlier part of this decade one of their writers mentioned a new DC series featuring none other than Batman as a vigilante fighting a sinister new totalitarian government which has none other than Superman himself as the strongarm-in-chief so to speak! And, to slop a little more icing on the cake, The Question, Steve Ditko's old Charlton creation now a part of the "DC Universe" (more or less Mr. A reshaped for mainstream comics) had enlisted his help in order to bring down this idea of government run amok leading me to believe that BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN would be a true-blue epic "comic novel" on par with the best of those Ditko sagas where some hero stands alone against evil while the entire populace seemingly goes along with the corruption and perhaps even cheers on the hero's demise. And after years of people trying to "understand" evil ultimately becoming part of it you can bet this was an EVENT in comic book history I had been looking forward to with relish!

Well, my hope vanished (after a good half-decade of on/off interest) upon reading this 248-page monstrosity which, unlike anything that I had thought this book to be, shows just about every hero in the DC Universe to be some seriously-flawed jerk whom I certainly would not want to entrust the safety and security of the world (heck, I'd even take the original Red Tornado over the losers in this saga, though thankfully he/she doesn't appear in the slightest!). THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN once again features the "even newer" Batman, who although clearly a good guy (or as least as much as one you can come across these days) is an even bigger mental mess than the early-nineties variety. Y'know, the one that Shute once called a character out of John Milius or something like that who might as well be a crook given the lack of feeling and dowright satanic vibrations his character exudes. And yeah, you may think that having "feelings" or what it stands for these days is totally contrary to any sort of "conservative" (for wont of a better term) attitude, especially given the entire nature of this book which you could say should be conservative in tone (that is, conservative as in the destruction of power and control), but that doesn't mean a character such as Batman has to be the boring cyborg he turns out to be here. As Mr. A said in his very first outing, "I don't abuse my emotions" meaning he ain't gonna be crying his eyes out over a broken flower or the bad guy he let fall off a cliff, but he sure as shooting does laugh and smile when the moment arises. But this "new" Batman...sheesh he even makes me long for those ridiculous late-fifties sci-fi sagas with Bat-Mite (who makes a bizarre almost MAD magazine-styled cameo here!) and all those weird alien creatures which were at least fun to eyeball on rainy adolescent evenings.

As for Superman, he's such a schmuck (or make that anti-hero) without ANY redeeming value that you wonder just why he would have lent his services to this phony government (loosely based on George W. Bush's first term I surmise) which in fact is a bizarre setup being run by none other than arch-villain Lex Luthor himself! Yeah, we do find out that Duperman is being blackmailed, but he still doesn't elicit any pity as the main enforcer for a new dictatorship. At least the Superman of yore coulda thought up something smart enough to foil Luthor's plans, and in a good twelve-page story to boot! The other DC characters involved, at least the ones who don't get knifed outright such as the Creeper, aren't that up to par in the hero department either...the ones who are eventually killed/murdered (such as an aged Captain Marvel who himself is being blackmailed, this time by Superman who threatens to kill Mary Marvel if the Captain doesn't do his bidding) aren't anything to brag about themselves while the rest are merely ridiculous images of their former heroic selves. Plasticman is a totally insane idiot and the Flash a stupid witless thug while Green Arrow has become a millionaire Marxist straight out of George Soros sporting long hair and a bionic arm spouting off some of the worst "people" cliches since Fidel Castro! And as for the Question (the character who actually got my juicy-juices flowing after I read his classic comic-book length display of true heroism in MYSTERIOUS SUSPENSE #1)...well, thankfully he has eschewed the hippie zen leanings of his eighties appearances and has settled back into a more healthy libertarianism, but he seems to be played mostly for laughs (like I could see Frank Miller having any true affinity for a character who would believe in the seemingly lost art of rugged individualism) and thus ceases to be anything he once was, perhaps due to the company he keeps!

I could go on about such atrocities as the Martian Manhunter having been turned into a foul-mouthed dying hasbeen barfly (the language here is rather rough, and a gosh-it-all kinda guy like me has gotta admit that it kinda bugs the tar outta a fella to hear such filth being popped off inna comic book especially by superheroes you looked up to as a young dunce!), as well as the fact that Superman and Wonder Woman of all people had a bastard daughter who not only shares their powers but eventually helps in the oncoming cataclysm (I mean, wouldn't you think that Superman and Wonder Woman would've had super self-restraint as well???), not to mention the little pokes and jabs at some of the more decent elements in this sickoid world of ours such as an appearance by Pope John Paul II talking about...rapture??? (you got your religions mixed up Miller, and besides, when are you gonna feature a fag Episcopalian bishop in your works???) but that would probably just set me off on comics for an even longer amount of time than this book on its lonesome has. (And I don't know how to react over the re-appearance of Ditko's Hawk and Dove re-done as gay lovers, though it should get points for at least irking the more "pious" amongst us!) True I am showing my age and general stuffiness by saying how much I prefer classic comics (Golden Age and early Marvel up through perhaps 1973 at the very latest) over this poorly-drawn attempt at a pseudo-libertarian commentary on government control and totalitarianism, but at least Jack Kirby knew how to draw. And Stan Lee, who should have been dealt with for introducing these kind of heroes with feet of clay to comic books, probably didn't realize that his innovation would have lead to a whole batch of comic worlds with the good guys as thugs or ineffectual wimps. I'm flabbergasted by it all, and the only thing that's gonna shake me from the overall creepiness of this book is an intense MONSTERS ON THE PROWL/CREATURES ON THE ROAM... reading session of early-seventies Marvel reprints. As soon as I get my bearings, that is.

And if you still doubt me about the book's real intentions, there's an approving quote from none other than Senator Patrick Leahy smack dab on the back which should say more than this review ever could!

DICK TRACY: PRE-CONTINUITY SUNDAY PAGES VOL. 1 (SPEC Productions)

At least there's one thing to be certain of, and that's Dick Tracy never ceased being a hero! Well, I dunno about the more recent strips, but at least during the reign of Chester Gould you didn't see things like Tracy spouting off flake philosophy or fathering kids sans the benefit of marriage (though in the current variation I understand that there was a character who was the illegit offspring of Flattop Jr. and a black mother...well, at least it was the bad guys who were fornicatin'!). Anyhoo, these early Sunday strips are a wowzer for us TRACY fans mainly because they've never been reprinted and in fact are so rare that the compilers hadda get color xeroxes from a collector who probably has the only remaining copies (these being printed in a maximum of ONE paper at the time). As the title suggests, these TRACYs have nada to do with the daily continuity and in most cases the sagas last the entirety of a single page (later ones could get stretched out over three whopping weeks), and as you'd expect these 'un show Chester Gould getting his grip on the Tracy character as well as the storylines which of course would become much more extreme and dare-I-say disturbing as the years rolled on and DICK TRACY became one of the biggest funny page features of the next few decades.

There are a lot of interesting elements to these early strips...for one thing there seems to be a set cast of good 'n bad guy characters, most of whom wouldn't make it out of the early-thirties alive such as gangsters Big Boy and Ribs Mocco along with moll Texie Garcia (who is pretty sexy so I'm glad that she does pop up even after being nabbed in previous episodes!). The supporting cast is still being played around with as well...Patrolman Milligan seems to be Tracy's thick-headed sidekick in these early Sundays while longtime Tracy pal Pat Patton himself not only changes in appearance within a few weeks, but is a relatively minor character as opposed to only a short spell later when he would pretty much become the co-star of the series! Not only that, but these Sundays had their own "topper" (or in this case it appeared on the bottom) strip, a neat cheap-gagger called CIGARETTE SADIE about a scantily-clad cigarette gal at a Chicago nightspot who wows a lotta horny old men into giving her moolah under false pretense! And after the horrid dinge of the aforementioned BATMAN book it's sure refreshing to get a healthy dose of right and wrong without all those shades o' grey in these early TRACY outings!

THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1959 to 1960 and 1961 to 1962 by Charles Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2006)

I wasn't planning on buying these later-on PEANUTS books since the strip seems to have peaked not only in art but overall humor somewhere in the mid-fifties, but given the era in which these were produced (perhaps the best time ever for mid-Amerigan culture on all fronts) I was hoping for a little bit of early-sixties freshness injected into a strip that at the time was becoming one of the biggest things to hit the funny pages since LI'L ABNER (at least as far as a strip that could transcend the printed page into various lucrative fields of media). Believe it or not, but even I gotta admit that there still was a bit of the old charm left in the strip at this time, though I gotta 'fess up to the fact that I could also say that about PEANUTS in the seventies and perhaps eighties even though at times I would cringe at the cuteness and sameness in which that strip would wallow at a time when it was for all intent purposes "bigger than big." PEANUTS, at least as it appeared for the next forty years had been pretty much established by this time, with such long-standing props as Lucy's psychiatric booth and Snoopy's human traits starting to come to the forefront along with Charlie Brown's abnormal depression seemingly getting deeper and deeper. Linus is beginning to quote scripture (I remember the Al Capp PEANUTS spoof where the controversial ABNER creator had his Linus character quoting Shakespeare!) and not only that but such characters as Sally, the irritating Frieda and her cat Faron (named after Faron Young!) are beginning to show up. Now I gotta admit that, despite Schulz's settling in to a comfortable and perhaps predictable mode, I enjoyed these Kennedy-era romps, they're humorous and subtle enough to appeal to even a jaded one such as I but I'd be lying to you if I didn't admit that PEANUTS doesn't quite stand up so well next to the other comics of the day who were pretty much eclipsed by PEANUTS' almost out-of-control popularity. Frankly I find strips such as NANCY, FERD'NAND, ARCHIE, HENRY, FRECKLES and of course the aforementioned ABNER and DICK TRACY a lot more interesting and fulfilling on a whole slew of levels than PEANUTS, but that's just my staunch Middle Amerigan talking. And with the fluffy philosophy and brainy hipsterisms of PEANUTS becoming stronger in these early-sixties strips I kinda wonder what kind of audience Schulz was aiming for...I personally imagine a mid-aged guy with glasses who likes to fiddle with his hi-fi and watches David Susskind on the side...Dennis the Menace's father???

Anyway, until the weekend rolls around...see you in the funny papers!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, I've been out of active classic-comic collecting for the last few years, so I'd never heard of this SPEC productions, but I checked their website and they have loads of amazing material.
The three BY GEORGE volumes of non-Krazy Kat material of George Herriman I will buy ASAP. How big are the Pre-Continuity Dick Tracy books--I notice that volumes 1 and 2 are FIFTY dollars each!
Glad you are still standing up for
the classic comics reprints. These newspaper strips are an amazing artform--there were so many restrictions and limitations put on their creators. They had only a handful of panels a day, yet they had to write something that would advance the story, summarize the prior day's action (for those who didn't read yesterday's paper), and provide excitement and a kind of cliffhanger to propel the reader into the next day's strip.
Also, their art would be reduced to such a tiny size that they had to be very subtle and use small variations in the lines to suggest things. I never cease to be amazed at the artistry of the strips when I study them or see them blown up in size. I have an incredible amount of respect for these artists/writers!
Sorry to hear about the passing of the great Peter Boyle. When I was into speech/acting back in my high-school and college days, I performed one of the rants done by Boyle in his breakthrough film JOE
(not to be confused with his amazing Italian crime film, CRAZY JOE, which is crying out for a DVD release). Boyle also had a solid role in the great early 1970's Robert Mitchum crime film THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, which captures so accurately the Boston of my youth!

BILL SHUTE

Christopher said...

Wow, I paid less for my DICK TRACY book! And yeah, I will have to check out that SPEC site (which is not mentioned anywhere in my reprint book which features the first twelve Sundays on one-sided high quality paper!) for other goodies. Believe me, there are thousands of old strips I would like to read before I check out, such as THE SQUIRREL CAGE by Gene Ahern (the ones I have seen are amazing screwball comedy wirthy of the mind of Joe Cook) and of course the entire Bob Montana run of ARCHIE which was vastly superior to the comic book variant in style and substance. With all of this technology and ability to reduce entire centuries of knowledge to the size of a pinhead, you think there'd be more collections of classic comic strips available on disque for all two of us manic comic strip fans out there!