Monday, April 27, 2015

Guest Reviews - Finding Gold (sort of) and High (yeah, I went there) Bronze in the Late Bronze Age: John Law, Shining Knight, and Darklon

Doug: Happy Monday, kids! Rainy Days and Mondays... you know what I'm saying! But today we have a gaggle of reviews from our resident Balkan. He quipped to us in an email that his intent was to write in the 100-Word Review format, but soon found the handcuffs to be a bit too tight. So today, with a little expansion, the musings of Edo Bosnar --

Edo Bosnar: The year 1983 was a good time for reprints, apparently, and here’s a review of three reprint books I have in my collection that all came out that year. The first two collect some classic material from the late ’40s and early ‘50s by industry legends Will Eisner and Frank Frazetta, while the last one contains some pretty obscure stories by the no less legendary Jim Starlin.


First up: John Law, Detective. Published by Eclipse, this book contains three stories done by Will Eisner in the late 1940s featuring a then new character he was trying to develop. No publishers were interested at the time, and he ended up redoing them for the Spirit newspaper sections, while these originals were put into an envelope and forgotten until Eclipse editor-in-chief cat yronwoode (that’s not a typo, she deliberately signed her name like that back then) found them in Eisner’s archives years later and had them published.

Visually, John Law is virtually indistinguishable from the Spirit – basically Eisner wanted a character who was a normal cop, not some guy pretending to be a ghost and wearing a domino mask (John Law wears an eye patch instead). The stories therefore match the style and tone of the popular Spirit shorts – there’s even a little boy sidekick, a shoeshine named Nubbin who is, thankfully, not a caricatured stereotype like the Spirit’s Ebony.

Of the three stories, the first, “Sand Saref” is the best – and probably familiar to those who’ve read Eisner’s Spirit stories, since Sand Saref was an occasionally recurring character in them. Basically, it’s the origin tale of Sand, a childhood friend of Law’s who went down a different path and eventually ended up leading a globe-trotting life, often engaged in none-too-legal activities, before coming back to their hometown. Like a lot of Eisner’s stories, it almost works as a storyboard treatment for what could be a good noir film.


The other two stories focus more on the Nubbin character, with John Law in a more supporting role, i.e., he sort of steps in and saves the day at the last moment. Again, these will be familiar to anyone who’s read Eisner’s Spirit strips that focus on any of his several boy sidekicks (not just the unfortunate Ebony). This book is definitely worth getting if you’re a fan of Eisner’s work (like I am), and I think it’s pretty easy to find for next to nothing (my copy carried the hefty price tag of 80 cents a few years back).

Next: Masterworks Series of Great Comic Book Artists, nos. 1-2, published by DC together with Sea Gate Distributors. These two books reprint the Shining Knight and other stories drawn by Frank Frazetta that originally appeared in Adventure Comics in 1050-51. I’m a fan of Frazetta’s art, so I really like these simply because they’re so nice to look at (by the way, someone posted a video on YouTube with a page-by-page overview of the first issue in case anyone’s interested).

The stories, however, are pretty average, and if the art wasn’t so nice they would be entirely forgettable. No writer credits are generally cited in the book, so I had to look it up on the GCD, and found that the Shining Knight stories were written by one Joseph Samachson, who was also the co-creator of the Martian Manhunter and otherwise a research chemist and university professor! None of that comes out in these stories, unfortunately, and they quite surprisingly contain much of the typical Golden/Silver Age wonky science among other things. A case in point, one story involves a con-man who sells what he claims is the Shining Knight’s winged horse – and he manages to fool his marks (mainly gullible rich guys) because he has very real-looking fake wings with small jet packs under them mounted on the horse, which allows it to glide for a short distance. Needless to say, the reader is left with the question that often arises with these criminal geniuses in comics: why doesn’t he just patent that impressive technology and make a fortune, instead of running scams or trying to take over  the world?

This brief review is going to run a little long, just because I have to highlight what is by far the best story in these two books. It’s an extra in the second issue, an SF tale written by Gardener Fox (who is credited). It starts with some mysterious spores from space falling to Earth and kick-starting a new ice age that devastates much of the planet.

Astronomers eventually learn that they came from the none other than the asteroid Ceres – I found this amusing as I was re-reading this just as the news broke that the Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres had photographed what looked like lights on it. The story also has a very darkly ironic ending, as Earth’s scientists figure out that the spores are a source of infinite energy, and use it to power machinery that not only reverses the ice age but also helps rebuild human civilization – and propel a rocket that is launched to blow up Ceres. Afterward, they find out that the inhabitants of the asteroid actually sent the spores to Earth to keep us from using atomic energy and destroying ourselves. Definitely a twist worthy of the Twilight Zone.

And finally: Darklon the Mystic, published by Pacific Comics. This one collects five stories by Jim Starlin about a cosmic character called Darklon that originally appeared in various issues of Warren’s Eerie magazine from 1976 to 1979. As far as I know, these stories were originally black-and-white, so they were colored for this Pacific edition. The tale begins with the titular space-faring character tracking down a group of assassins who tried to kill him; he kills each one of them in turn, sparing the last one long enough to find out who sent them (spoiler: his father). So this is the kind of fare we’ve come to expect from the writer of those cosmic Warlock and Captain Marvel epics: a powerful and determined yet grim and troubled protagonist involved in a dark tale of  retribution and inevitable destiny with lots of cosmic magic thrown in (and it gets pretty dark, and also quite weird at a few places). Of these three titles that I’ve reviewed here, I have to say I like this one the best. It’s Starlin doing what he does best, and the story is engrossing, while the art is spectacular. By the way, I know many people don’t like it when black-and-white stories are later colored, but the coloring here was very nicely done and it really serves the story well.

I’m also happy that these reviews highlight some of the independent publishers that became quite active in the 1980s and gave started releasing a lot of creator-owned material. Pacific in particular did a few other books similar to Darklon, i.e., they collected and reprinted some of the more obscure comics work from the 1970s by popular artists like Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Bernie Wrightson and Arthur Suydam.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

That's Just Dumb - The "New Look" Joker...

Doug: Well, if you've not seen Jared Leto in character for the upcoming big-screen Suicide Squad, take a peek below. I'd offer Neal Adams's rendition of the Joker as being just a bit more in my comfort zone. Sheesh... Marilyn Manson rip-off...

Friday, April 24, 2015

True or False: I Have Comics-Related Goodness on Display in My Home or Office

Doug's desk in his office at school, with Spidey and Cap guarding the family photos and other memorabilia.

Posters referenced by HB in his first comment today.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

True or False: No Character Retcon Was as Radical as Frank Miller's Daredevil.

Doug: Miller's Batman. Byrne's Superman. The Vision was the Original Human Torch. Retcon after retcon... But, did any of those totally redefine a character moving forward as did Frank Miller's "ninjafying" of the Daredevil mythos?

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Bevy of 100-Word Reviews


Doug: Welcome to another work week. As is our habit around here, we try to help you ease into your list of meetings and tasks with some comic book diversion. Today it's four Bronze Age beauties, brought to you in the 100-Word Review format by Mike S., known galaxy-wide as Martinex1. Be sure to pen a comment or two during the course of today's conversation. Thanks, Mike!

What If? #6 (December 1977)
"What If the Fantastic Four Had Different Super-Powers?"
Roy Thomas-Jim Craig/Rick Hoberg/Sam Grainger
In typical What If fashion, the Watcher explores possible outcomes of the fateful flight and cosmic ray impact in the origin of the FF. The artwork is serviceable at best but the story and characterization move briskly. In what may be the first overt linking of the foursome’s personality to their powers, we get Big Brain, Dragonfly, Mandroid, and Ultra Woman. Fairly standard adventures ensue. The highlight is the rather 1950’s horror inspired lunacy of Reed’s floating bodiless brain. Only Marvel could have vengeful dialogue like, “What’s wrong kiddies? You got something against Grand Funk Railroad!”  Who needs Dr. Doom?

What If? #7 (February 1978)
"What If Someone Else Had Become the Amazing Spider-Man?"
Don Glut/Roy Thomas-Rick Hoberg/Sam Grainger

The ol’ Watcher is at it again, sharing alternative tales of Spidey’s origin with the icon’s supporting cast being bitten by the radioactive spider. We get three abbreviated stand alone and tragic tales in which Flash Thompson, Betty Brant and John Jameson are the recipients of that fateful bite. The costumes are repetitive at best, and reflective of 70’s goofiness at worst. Spider Jameson (yes that is his moniker) dons a helmet reminiscent of the TV Captain America. No great insights here, and the ultimate outcome on all three worlds is predictable and melodramatic. Makes you long for Spider Ham!

 What If? #20 (April 1980)
"What If the Avengers Had Fought the Kree-Skrull War Without Rick Jones?"
Tom DeFalco-Sal Buscema/Alan Kupperberg/Bruce D. Patterson

In a nice companion piece to the Kree-Skrull War, the Watcher investigates a world in which Rick Jones dies at the hands of Ronan so he is never employed as the “deus ex machina” for that conflict’s conclusion.  The alternative action which includes an armada of heroes joining the fracas could have been explored more thoroughly.  But Alan Kupperberg’s art is better than expected, and the way the story deftly hits on original keynotes of the epic is admirable.  Hard to believe that this enjoyable “imaginary” diversion was somehow the impetus for the morass that was Avengers #200.

Avengers #169 (March 1978)
"If We Should Fail... the World Dies Tonight!"
Marv Wolfman-Sal Buscema/Dave Hunt

This fill in issue pits Iron Man, Cap, and the Panther against a megalomaniac with a weak heart and a diabolical plan. The story devolves into a Justice Society like adventure as each Avenger explores the globe searching for a portion of a world destroying bomb. The plot is weak as the heroes confront men and beasts in their time hindered quest. The story includes rather stereotypical antagonists and a penchant for melodrama. The real star is Sal Buscema with some incredibly clean lines and spot on Avenger action. And who can resist the crossword drama of the opening splash?

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