Category: Comics

Gamerverse

I have more things to say about Spider-Man for the PS4!

I saw an ad the other day for a comic book adaptation of the game. It had a logo that said "Marvel Gamerverse".

Now, I assume this is just an umbrella label that Marvel is going to stick all its game-related comics under, and doesn't actually imply that there are going to be other games that take place in the same universe as Spider-Man (aside from the inevitable sequel, of course).

But it got me thinking: what's Spider-Man 2 going to look like, and what would it look like if there were other, non-Spider-Man games in the same series?

My first question is, what's Spider-Man 2's map going to look like? The best thing about the first game is swinging around a fairly realistic version of Manhattan. It's not perfect, of course, and it gets less accurate the farther you get from midtown, but as somebody who's only been to New York once I was impressed by the verisimilitude. "Oh, that's Radio City Music Hall; that means Rockefeller Center is over this way."

How to expand on that? Should Spider-Man 2 include some of the outer boroughs? I'm not sure there's quite as much demand for swinging around Brooklyn and Queens, but I could dig it.

Otherwise, or in addition, they could also expand Manhattan, work on making it even more accurate than it already is. I suppose there'd be some cognitive dissonance there -- wait, this is supposed to be the same location as the first game; why is the map so different? -- but, ultimately, it's video games and you suspend your disbelief.

Alternately, the new game could take a cue from the upcoming Spider-Man: Far from Home and put Spidey down in some other city. But given the dangling plot threads left at the end of the previous game, I don't expect that to happen; I expect the sequel will still be based in New York.

Another thought I had: what other superheroes would function in a game like this?

The most obvious answer is Daredevil. He's another street-level Marvel superhero who gets around by leaping across rooftops. He'd be a natural fit, and the game could also find a way to work some compelling courtroom drama into the out-of-costume sequences. Plus, some creative design choices could do some really cool shit with DD's heightened senses. (One of the most memorable moments in Spider-Man was when I heard a voice over my shoulder and it startled me. You wouldn't be able to make a Daredevil game that required the player to have a surround sound system or play the game with headphones, but you could certainly design the sound so that it would benefit from those things, where available.)

But you know who I'd really like to see in a Spider-Man-esque game? Black Panther.

BP is another character with a relatively modest super-power set, who can run up buildings and leap across rooftops. He'd be perfect. And as cool as Manhattan is in Spider-Man, a game set in Wakanda would provide an opportunity for more creative city design. Where Spider-Man benefits from a realistic recreation of a real-life city (with some Marvel Comics embellishments like Avengers Tower and the Sanctum Sanctorum), game designers would have the freedom to design Birnin Zana however they want (much like Gotham City in the Arkham games). Picture a Golden City as big and detailed as Spider-Man's Manhattan -- yeah, that's a game I want to play.

Original Character Do Not Steal

I posted the other day about how much I loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But it wasn't the only Spider-Man adaptation that I've thoroughly enjoyed over the past couple of months. You know what else is great? Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4.

But you know, as much as I loved it, it's got its weaknesses, and there's one in particular I'm thinking of; a weakness it shares with the Batman: Arkham series whose formula it copies.

And that weakness is this: Batman and Spider-Man have two of the best rogues galleries in comics. So why do you spend so much of the game beating up on generic thugs?

The generic enemies in the Arkham series fall along the lines of "thug", "thug in clown mask", "thug in Two-Face mask", that kind of thing. What's the difference between a Joker thug and a Two-Face thug? Not a hell of a lot.

Spider-Man does a little bit better. It's got its share of generic thugs, but the Demons and the Sable mercs are more memorable, and they have their own weapons and attack patterns that the other mobs don't share.

But I'd still like to see a little more color among the low-level enemies in the game. I'm not saying get rid of the street thugs entirely; Batman and Spider-Man are street-level heroes, and fighting ordinary thugs is definitely in their wheelhouse. But maybe increase the ratio of colorful costumed supervillains to generic muggers.

And here's my thought: they should copy the Nemesis system from Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor/Shadow of War.

I'm not saying copy it entirely. Like I said, Spider-Man's already got a fantastic stable of villains; he doesn't need a game built around pursuing new ones created at random.

But what I'm thinking is, those sidequests where you fight through a warehouse full of Kingpin thugs or whatever? Put some kind of randomized supervillain sub-boss at the end of those.

I'm also picturing the late, lamented MMORPG City of Heroes as a template. CoH let you choose a basis for your powers -- technological gadgets, scientific experimentation, genetic mutation, the usual superhero origin stuff -- and a power set related to that. It also had an extremely versatile character creation tool.

So I'm thinking, populate a Spider-Man game with minor supervillains whose names, costumes, powers, and origin stories are randomly pieced together from a set of stock supervillain tropes.

Silas Skinner was a lab assistant at Oscorp, until a lab accident caused his skin to begin growing out of control. When Mr. Negative offered him a chance at revenge on Norman Osborn, he joined the Demons. With the help of stolen unstable-molecule tech, he is now able to control his skin-stretching power, and runs the Upper-West Side as Epidermis Rex!

Dawn Dwyer was a ticket-taker at the Central Park Zoo, until she was badly injured in a stampede caused by Kraven the Hunter. In exchange for her loyalty, Wilson Fisk outfitted her with a mechanical suit that compensates for her injuries and grants her enhanced strength and speed. Now, she leads an animal-themed gang of enforcers as Bear Dawn!

Pointagar Stickagon is an Inhuman who owns a pointy stick. He terrorizes Midtown as Pointy Stick!

Does Whatever a Spider-Pig Does

I finally got around to seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

...actually, I saw it like a month ago, and that's when I wrote this post. But then I got some kind of flu or something and I'm only now just getting around to posting it. But hey, now it's timely, because it is now Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Anyway:

I finally got around to seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. And it blew me away.

Mothra on Brontoforumus described it as the best comic-book movie he'd ever seen. When I read that comment, I assumed he meant the best movie based on a comic. Now that I've seen it, I'm thinking he must have meant the movie that best translated the medium of comics onto the screen.

I'm inclined to agree. It does some really cool shit with comic-style layouts (like the new DuckTales opening titles, if they were two hours long). Where movies like Persepolis and Sin City are straight off the page, Spider-Verse adapts the page itself. In a funny way, I think the movie makes a good defense of Ang Lee's Hulk -- because you can watch Spider-Verse and see that this is what Lee was trying to do with those splitscreen tricks. He couldn't quite stick the landing, but I've always thought it was a fascinating approach -- and Spider-Verse takes those ideas and makes them work.

Plus, after 35 years of "Biff! Pow! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" headlines, it's nice to see a movie that's finally unselfconscious enough to put sound effects up on the screen.

And the plot -- somehow, a movie that's packed with heroes, villains, and parallel dimensions manages to feel lean and tight. I think part of that is that the script (by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) knows who to focus on (Miles > Peter > Gwen > the rest; Kingpin > Prowler > Doc Ock > the rest). It also trusts the audience: not only do Lord and Rothman trust that they don't need to explain who Doc Ock is; they trust that the very idea of a bunch of different versions of Spider-Man from parallel universes is a fit premise for a kids' movie.

They're right.

I took my seven-year-old nephew to see it. He didn't have any problem understanding the many-worlds premise. Granted, it's not the first time he's seen a superhero multiverse; both the 2003 and 2012 versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles teamed up with the 1987 versions at one time or another. But the point is, this is a kids' movie that treats kids like they're smart.

Creator-Owned Ditko

I've been meaning to write a post about Steve Ditko's creator-owned comics for quite some time. Ditko's recent death has me thinking about that, and so, here's something. I'd still like to write something a little more detailed later on down the line, but this should serve for now.

Steve Ditko stopped working for mainstream comics publishers in the 1990s, but he never stopped making comics. For the past 20 years, Ditko's comics have been published by his friend, editor, and collaborator Robin Snyder. Ditko has also written essays, some of which appear alongside his comics, others of which appear in Snyder's zine The Comics, and others in 9 small pamphlets called The Four-Page Series. Since 2013, Snyder has funded twenty Ditko comics on Kickstarter, with more to come; Snyder noted in a Kickstarter update last month that he and Ditko were working on two new titles, and a prior Kickstarter update discussed out-of-print books that Snyder intends to send back to press.

Snyder does not have a website, but Bob Heer's ditko.blogspot.com is an invaluable resource, and its Ditko Books in Print page serves as a catalog of what Snyder has available and how to order it.

Of course, merely seeing a list of titles can be daunting. Where to start?

The most in-depth article I've seen on this subject is Steve Ditko Doesn’t Stop: A Guide To 18 Secret Comics By Spider-Man’s Co-Creator, written by Joe McCulloch for ComicsAlliance in 2013. You should read that.

But if you want my opinion? You should start with The Mocker.

Of the Ditko books Snyder has on offer as of this writing, it's the most accessible, the one that feels the most like Ditko's work for Marvel, DC, and Charlton. It's a straightforward, tightly-told story of a costumed crusader fighting organized crime and corrupt police.

I only have one complaint about The Mocker: it was clearly intended to be printed at a much larger size. Ditko fits a lot of panels on each page, starting with 16-panel grids and eventually settling on 20. The comic was originally printed at magazine size; reduced to standard comic size, it's often difficult to tell what's happening and to tell characters apart, especially in action scenes. (Ditko sure draws a lot of men in suits and fedoras punching each other.)

After The Mocker, there are a few different directions you can go. The most obvious is Mr. A, Ditko's best-known creator-owned series -- if you're interested enough in Ditko that you've read this far, you probably already know who Mr. A is, at least in passing. My favorite Mr. A stories are When is a Man Judged Evil? and Right to Kill; both appear in a 32-page comic that's just called Mr. A -- which, sadly, is currently out of print. I'm quite fond of the whole series, though; there's good stuff in every issue. I believe #4 contains the earliest Mr. A material that's in print, while #24 and #7 are the two latest issues (in that order, and no, I don't understand the numbering) and include the two-part story The Knifer.

Alternately, I'm partial to Miss Eerie, one of Ditko's later creations and another masked vigilante in a 1930s setting. She appears in Ditko Presents and The 32-Page Series #3, #6, #14, #20, #23, and #26. The 32-Page Series itself is an anthology comic and something of a grab bag; it's a great, eclectic collection of Ditko's late work.

From there? Well, I was all set to recommend Avenging World, a collection of comics and essays that I consider to be Ditko at his purest -- but, sadly, it's out of print. Here's hoping that changes.

For my part, I have varying degrees of affection for everything Ditko did. His comics are often eccentric and didactic; his essays are often impenetrable puzzle boxes. But he always had something interesting to say. He was one-of-a-kind. I'm going to miss him -- but for now, at least, I can expect a few more new Ditko comics still to come, and older Ditko comics like Static to become available again.

IDW's Transformers, Phase Two

Yesterday I talked about IDW's Transformers comics (which are on sale on Comixology through tomorrow, November 30). I mentioned a few favorites from their first few years (Phase One), but also noted that the series didn't really get good until Phase Two.

Phase Two kicks off with two series: More than Meets the Eye, by James Roberts and Alex Milne, and Robots in Disguise, by John Barber and Andrew Griffith (with various other artists involved in both series over the course of their runs).

There was also a trilogy of prequel miniseries, called Autocracy, Monstrosity, and Primacy, available as the Autocracy Trilogy (written by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille, with gorgeous painted art by Livio Ramondelli). I've only read Autocracy, which concerns the beginning of the war and Orion Pax's ascension as Optimus Prime. I really liked the art, but the story felt a little disjointed; it was released digital-first, with 8-page issues, and those short chapters really affect the pacing.

But back to the two main series: As our story begins, the five-million-year war between the Autobots and Decepticons has been finally, decisively won, by the Autobots. More than Meets the Eye tells the story of a group of Cybertronians led by Rodimus who set off in a ship called the Lost Light, nominally in search of the legendary Knights of Cybertron, but mostly they just get into trouble along the way. Robots in Disguise is a political drama, about Bumblebee's attempts to serve as leader on a resurgent but factionalized Cybertron, where an uneasy peace exists among Autobots, Decepticons, and so-called NAILs, Cybertronians who did not join either faction but are returning to their home planet now that the war is over.

Chris Sims wrote a great series of reviews at Comics Alliance, called The Transformed Man, where he followed both series for most of their run. It's worth a read, whether you want to read it as a companion piece as you read the series yourself, or want some reviews from a Transformers skeptic to see if these are the kind of books you'd be into. Sims is funny and insightful, and, for all his talk about being a Transformers neophyte, his tastes align pretty closely with mine as a longtime fan.

I plan on talking about these comics in more detail later on, but my take is this: read More than Meets the Eye all the way through, and then keep reading as it continues under the title Lost Light (with new artist Jack Lawrence). It's seriously one of my favorite comics of the last few years, and my favorite Transformers series ever, in any medium.

Robots in Disguise, meanwhile? My recommendation is to read up through the City on Fire arc (vol 4) and stop there. After that, volume 5 is mostly table-setting, and then both series cross over in an arc called Dark Cybertron. I haven't read Dark Cybertron, because it wasn't in the Humble Bundle I got most of these comics in, and because I hate crossovers (though I just bought it in the current Comixology sale, so I guess I'll be reading it shortly). Some important stuff happens that leads into "season 2" of More than Meets the Eye (beginning in MtMtE vol 6), but even if you don't read it, it doesn't take long to pick up what you missed. (I plan on getting into spoilers in a future post, but for now I'll leave it at that. Even though one of those spoilers is right there on the cover of MtMtE vol 6.)

After that, Robots in Disguise moves off Cybertron and on to Earth, and it loses my interest fast. There is some great stuff in there -- a highlight is Thundercracker enthusiastically writing screenplays and not realizing that they are terrible, and issue #48 is narrated by a dog and is amazing -- but in a lot of ways it's a continuation of the earlier, more boring Phase One comics that I didn't like that much. Your mileage may vary.

The Cybertron storyline, however, continues in two Windblade miniseries, and then the Till All Are One series, by Mairghread Scott, Sara Pitre-Durocher, and a few other artists. These series ably continue the story of political intrigue that Barber and Griffith started, and expand the scope by introducing other planets where Cybertronians have settled, including religious Caminus, militaristic Carcer, and Eukaris, the planet where all the Beast Wars characters live.

Lost Light is still ongoing. Till All Are One, sadly, has been cancelled, and its story will wrap up in Till All Are One Annual 2017, which is due out on December 20.

So there's my brief run-through of what IDW Transformers comics I like. In future posts, I hope to spend more time delving into why I like them, how Roberts and Milne have turned Megatron into my favorite character, and why it's a damn shame to see Till All Are One go and I hope that it's not the last we see of Cybertronian political intrigue.

IDW's Transformers, Phase One

I'm a longtime Transformers fan. And over the past year or so, IDW's Transformers comics -- most specifically, the More than Meets the Eye and Lost Light series -- have surpassed Beast Wars as my all-time favorite Transformers series.

But it wasn't always thus. The first few years of Transformers at IDW -- now referred to retroactively as "Phase One" -- mostly just aren't that good.

The main series, spread across miniseries called Infiltration, Escalation, and Devastation (written by Simon Furman and drawn by EJ Su), was too slow-paced and human-centric. Another miniseries, Stormbringer (by Furman and Don Figueroa), was an attempt to course-correct and focus the action on giant robots and the planet Cybertron, but made the baffling choice of turning Cybertron into an uninhabitable wasteland; the book was pretty to look at but ultimately forgettable. All Hail Megatron (by Shane McCarthy, Guido Guidi, and various other artists) started out strong, and had some great moments with Megatron and Starscream, but ultimately suffered Third Act Problems and fizzled out near the end.

So don't start with any of those.

No, if there's a Phase One book you should start with, it's Megatron Origin, by Eric Holmes and Alex Milne. Megatron Origin is probably the single most important book in IDW's entire Transformers line, which is perhaps ironic since it was actually conceived as part of the previous Transformers line at Dreamwave.

That may be why the effects of Megatron Origin aren't really apparent through most of Phase One; it plants seeds that pay off later (mixaphorically speaking). But it introduces an element that's key to what I love so much about the IDW comics, and why I think Megatron is the most interesting character in them: it gives him an arc. Megatron starts out as the good guy.

That thread picks up later, in issues #22 and #23 of the 2010-2011 Transformers series (which are also collected in the Chaos Theory trade, along with some other stuff). Milne revisits Megatron's origin story with writer James Roberts, going back even farther than the Megatron Origin miniseries to tell of his first meeting with Orion Pax (later Optimus Prime). Roberts and Milne come back to this story again and again in More than Meets the Eye and Lost Light; it's a crucial moment in Megatron's development, signaling his turn from philosopher to violent revolutionary.

Those are the most important books in Phase One.

I also quite like the first ten issues (collected in the first two volumes) of Transformers: Spotlight, a series of done-in-one stories, each focused on an individual character, written by Simon Furman and drawn by various artists. They're not as crucial to Phase Two continuity as the Megatron stories I've mentioned, but they're well worth reading.

Lastly (for Phase One), there's Last Stand of the Wreckers by Roberts and Nick Roche, which is mainly important for two things: it introduces Overlord, who becomes important later, and it begins to establish Prowl as a scheming, calculating bastard, which becomes his primary depiction from here on in. It's not essential, but it does make for a nice "oh shit" moment if you know who Overlord is when he shows up later.

And oh, hey, all these comics are on sale on Comixology through November 30. (And if you miss this sale, keep an eye out for another one later; IDW has pretty frequent Transformers sales. They show up in Humble Bundles once in awhile, too.)

I'll be back tomorrow to talk about Phase Two.

Race and April O'Neil

This post recycles some bits of previous posts I wrote on Brontoforumus (2013-11-15) and the Avocado (2017-11-06).


There's a new TMNT cartoon series coming, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Here's a video introducing the cast:

I don't recognize any of those people except the guy who plays Big Head on Silicon Valley, but they look like a good group, assembled by new voice director Rob Paulsen (who played Raphael on the 1987 cartoon series and Donatello on the 2012 one).

An E! article aptly titled Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Makes History With Kat Graham as First African-American April O'Neil had this to say:

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are back—with a historical twist. Nickelodeon is returning to 2D for the new animated series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a new voice cast including The Vampire Diaries' Kat Graham as April O'Neil, marking the first time April has been portrayed as an African-American.

And while this is a first for cross-media adaptations of TMNT, and a milestone to be celebrated, it's not quite the whole story. In the original Mirage comics series, April's race is ambiguous.

In her first appearance, in issue #2, she looks like this:

April O'Neil's first appearance: straight hair

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2
By Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird
© 1985 Nickelodeon
Scan courtesy of Ian Pérez Zayas

That look is clearly the basis for her design in the cartoon a few years later, which every subsequent version has been based on.

But in #4, she got a redesign:

April O'Neil redesign: curly black hair

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #4
By Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird
© 1985 Nickelodeon
Scan courtesy of Ian Pérez Zayas

And that's more or less what she looked like for the duration of the original Mirage run.

I cribbed both of those scans from Ian Pérez Zayas's website, Chasing Sheep, which has a seven-part series on this subject called A Visual History of April O'Neil. Those pieces are exhaustive and I recommend you read them; they go into far more detail than I'm going into here.

At any rate, many readers saw April's design in the Mirage comics and inferred that she was African-American.

So was that deliberate? Well, yes and no. Here's what co-creator Peter Laird had to say about it:

[I]t depends on which co-creator of the TMNT you ask. If you ask me, I always saw April O'Neil as white. If you ask Kevin, I suspect he would say -- as he has in a number of interviews -- that she was of mixed race, much like his former girlfriend (then wife, then ex-wife) April.

Unfortunately, I can't find any of those "number of interviews" online. (Warning: do not search for "April O'Neil" at work.) But here's the best reference I can find, from the Talk section on the April O'Neil Wikipedia entry:

I found a blog in which the writer talks to creators Eastman and Laird about April's look in the early Mirage comics. Eastman says that he thought of her as a fair-skinned Black woman like her namesake (and his first wife) April Fisher. The last name O'Neil and the later comic/other media look as a white redhead was Laird's vision. Eastman's drawing was what we saw due to his being better at drawing women. Source? http://the-5th-turtle.blogspot.com/2007/12/pieces-of-april.html?showComment=1199129280001

The 5th Turtle was Steve Murphy's blog. Unfortunately, it's been down for years, and the post linked above is not available at archive.org.

But there's a 1991 article from the Greensboro News & Record that says this:

[Eastman] settles into a sofa beside girlfriend April Fisher - the model for one of the characters in his comic books - and chats about how the turtles have changed his life.

So it seems pretty clear that Eastman based April's name and appearance on his then-girlfriend, April Fisher, and intended for her to be African-American, but that he apparently never mentioned this to Laird, who always thought of April O'Neil as caucasian.

Now, it does seem a bit odd that Laird wouldn't make the connection given April's name, but I've got a theory: he knew that April O'Neil was named after April Fisher, but didn't know that she was visually based on her. So, why wouldn't he have made that connection? Well, here's a picture of Kevin Eastman's second wife, Julie Strain:

Julie Strain has curly black hair

Courtesy of Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons
Do not search for "Julie Strain" at work either.

So I'm thinkin' dude has a type.

At any rate, Kat Graham will be the first African-American actress to play April O'Neil. Congratulations to her, and I look forward to the new show.

Podcasts

Expanded from a couple of posts at Brontoforumus, 2017-10-08.


I like listening to NPR on the drive to work.

I do not like listening to NPR on the drive home. I have had just about enough of Kai Ryssdahl acting surprised about the Internet.

So I decided to look into some podcasts. I'm not really looking for scripted stuff at the moment (I've got a buttload of Big Finish Doctor Who I haven't listened to yet as it is); I want something where if I lose the thread for a minute to concentrate on the road, I'm not going to miss out on important story details.

So here's what I've been looking at so far:

Brontoforumus regular Niku recommended Talkin Toons with Rob Paulsen; I listened to the Rick and Morty episode and thoroughly enjoyed it. The website hasn't been updated in a couple of years; it has episodes up through Christmas 2015. It went on hiatus after that (Paulsen had throat cancer; he's better now) and came back in January. Tech Jives has episodes up through May. More recently, the show has moved to Nerdist, which has a bunch of short videos but no episodes; there are some articles referring me to a subscription service called Alpha but it's not mentioned on the website and I really have no idea if the show's even available in audio format anymore? It's really not clear and I hope they fix that.

Retronauts is a podcast started by Jeremy Parish and currently hosted by Bob Mackey, about retro games.

Axe of the Blood God is USgamer's RPG podcast. I've only listened to it a couple of times, when my old friend Steve Tramer was a guest; he hasn't been on it recently, but it's still a good group.

Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast is pretty great. So far I've listened to some great interviews there, with Frank Conniff, Rob Paulsen, and Carl Reiner.

And speaking of Frank Conniff, he and Trace Beaulieu have a podcast called Movie Sign with The Mads where, as the name implies, they talk about movies.

I don't listen to a lot of political podcasts at the moment, but I like Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air. Larry's a good interviewer; I'll never understand why he went with a panel format on The Nightly Show, which was easily its weakest component. (It's not an original sentiment, but I do wish he'd gotten to take over The Daily Show and Noah had gotten a chance to do his own thing in Colbert's timeslot.)

I hear good things about Flop House (failed movies), Kevin Smith's Fatman on Batman (comics, movies, the sort of stuff characters in Kevin Smith movies talk about), and WTF. I've mentioned Kumail Nanjiani's X-Files Files before, back in 2015. I've listened to one episode of Talking Simpsons with Bob Mackey (another Niku recommendation) and it was pretty good; I expect I'll check out more.

As for actually-scripted podcasts (not what I'm currently looking for, but there are some good ones!), I enjoyed the one episode of Dead Pilots Society I listened to. It's a podcast where they do read-throughs of TV pilot scripts that never made it into production; the one I listened to and enjoyed was Only Child, a John Hodgman vehicle (the hook was he was playing himself as a teenager; all the other kids would have been played by age-appropriate actors).

And, lastly (for now!), I see that yesterday saw the launch of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast. I haven't had a chance to listen yet, but I bet it's pretty good!

Kurtzman's Books

I mentioned the other day that I just read Bill Schelly's Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America. Since then I've been on a bit of a Kurtzman kick. The nice thing is, most of Kurtzman's work is in print.

I'm going to include some Amazon links here. As always, support your local comic shop or independent bookseller if at all possible, but if for some reason you can't (you don't have a local comic shop, your local bookstore can't order these books, etc.), please feel free to use these Amazon links; as always, they're Amazon Associates links and if you buy through them I'll get a small kickback.

While most of Kurtzman's work is in print, some of his earliest work, sadly, isn't; Hey Look! goes for big bucks used. But his EC work is available in a couple of different forms. Dark Horse has its hardback EC Archives series including Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, and other titles that feature earlier Kurtzman work such as The Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories, and Weird Science. Fantagraphics has black-and-white collections sorted by artist. Corpse on the Imjin contains some stories that Kurtzman wrote and drew himself, and others that he wrote and laid out but other artists finished. (I think I'll have more to say about Kurtzman's layouts in a later post.) Other books with with Kurtzman's layouts and other artists' finishes include Bomb Run (finishes by John Severin), Aces High (George Evans), and Death Stand (Jack Davis). Some of these books are also available in digital versions. Dark Horse books have DRM, but Fantagraphics books don't.

Unfortunately, neither format is ideal. The Dark Horse books are massive hardcovers, fit for a coffee table but not to be thrown in a backpack and taken with you. And I don't care much for the new coloring job. The Fantagraphics books, on the other hand, shrink the art down, and while the black-and-white presentation brings out more detail in the art, I think the stories lose something without their color. Plus, I prefer seeing the stories presented in their original anthology format to seeing them split up by artist. Still, while neither choice is perfect, both choices are good.

Which brings us to Mad. It's available in DC Archives collections, which is the best format you're going to get it in. The original comic book run (and issue #24, the first magazine issue) is collected in a 4-volume DC Archives hardcover set. DC Archives books use original coloring on newsprint. I'm kind of a snob about reprint coloring, and this is my favorite way of doing it: keep the original colors and print on newsprint; that's the way those old comics are meant to be seen.

But a $240 hardcover set is expensive -- even if you could get it for that price, which you can't, because the last two volumes are out of print. They are available digitally, but the digital versions have DRM, and unless you're rocking a 12.9" iPad Pro, you won't be seeing the pages at full size on a tablet. I'm also not sure how the colors look if you put them on a screen instead of newsprint -- and anyway, even the digital versions will set you back a total of $160.

I think Mad's Original Idiots is an acceptable compromise. It's three paperbacks, one each for Jack Davis, Will Elder, and Wally Wood; each book collects its respective artist's work from those first 23 issues of Mad; they go for $15 a pop. It uses the original colors and, while the paper isn't newsprint, it's not glossy, either; the colors look okay.

Again, the format's not ideal. You lose the letters and other editorial content. You also don't get any of the work by anybody but Davis, Wood, and Elder -- and that's a cryin' shame; John Severin is a particularly notable omission, but there were a few features by Basil Wolverton, Bernie Krigstein, Russ Heath, and Kurtzman himself in Mad's comic book period too.

But, nonetheless, I think the Mad's Original Idiots paperbacks are a decent way to go. I've bought all three and have been quite enjoying the Davis one so far. Even with the dated references, even not recognizing what half the parodies are making fun of, they're still great damn comics -- but hell, even when I was reading Mad as a kid in the '90s, I hadn't seen half the movies they were parodying, and I loved them anyway.

After Kurtzman quit Mad, he wrote and drew The Jungle Book, which, contrary to its title, is not based on the Kipling book. It's one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as a graphic novel, and it's all Kurtzman's work. It was reprinted in hardcover in 2014 and was nominated for Eisners for Best Domestic Reprint and Excellence in Presentation.

After The Jungle Book came Trump, Kurtzman's followup to Mad, which featured work by his Mad collaborators (including Elder, Davis, Wood, Severin, and Al Jaffee) as well as humorists including Mel Brooks. It was recently collected and is easy to come by.

After Trump came Humbug, another magazine by the original Mad artists.

Kurtzman's last magazine was Help! There's no complete Help! collection, but there is a collection of the Kurtzman/Elder Goodman Beaver cartoons that were published in it. It's out of print, but doesn't cost too much used.

Kurtzman and Elder's longest-term collaboration was Little Annie Fanny, which was published in Playboy, so that link may be NSFW.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are other Kurtzman books, too, like his adaptation of The Grasshopper and the Ant, From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics, and The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle.

This list is thorough but not exhaustive; it should be a good starting point, but there are other Kurtzman books out there I haven't mentioned.

I'm not done with Kurtzman. Hell, if the size of this list is any indication, I'm just barely getting started.

Kurtzman's Career

I recently finished Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America by Bill Schelly. It's an interesting read; the first couple of chapters are a little choppy, but as you'd expect, it picks up once Kurtzman makes it to EC and Schelly has more sources to work with.

Kurtzman's story, alas, is familiar to anyone who's studied comics history: he created an American institution but never achieved financial success from it.

And what tremendous influence he had, and continues to have. Not only did his work inspire the later Underground Comix artists (he counted Crumb, Spiegelman, and Kitchen in particular as friends), but Schelly's not overstating things with that "revolutionized humor in America" line. Mad's influence can be seen everywhere in American comedy, from Airplane! to The Onion to The Simpsons to The Daily Show to "Weird Al" Yankovic, to name a few examples off the top of my head. Hell, did I say "American"? Because that's too limiting. There's Kurtzman influence in Monty Python, too; John Cleese once did a photo shoot for Help! magazine, and that's where he met Terry Gilliam, who was Kurtzman's assistant at the time.

And yet, after Mad, Kurtzman never really had financial stability; he hustled for work for the rest of his life, and died with $35,000 in savings. That's not bad -- it's more money than I've ever had in my bank account, even before adjusting for inflation -- but I'm 35 years old and didn't create Mad.

Of course, part of Harvey's misfortune was self-inflicted. There's little doubt that if he hadn't quit Mad, he would have died a much richer man. His successor, Al Feldstein, went on to retire in comfort, and spent his final years on a 270-acre ranch. If Kurtzman hadn't quit Mad, it certainly would have become a different magazine that it did under Feldstein, but it's reasonable to assume it would have been just as successful.

Schelly notes that, of course, hindsight is 20/20. Kurtzman quit Mad because Hugh Hefner had offered him an unlimited budget and total creative control on a new magazine, glossy and in full color. Let's put it this way: if this were 1956 and you didn't know what you know now, and you heard that the entire creative team of Mad had left to start a new magazine, backed by Hugh Hefner, and Mad was being handed over to the editor of Panic and a bunch of new artists, which of the two magazines would you bet on?

In 2009, Warren Ellis remarked that the late Alex Toth "never drew a story worthy of his talent". Similarly, Kurtzman, in a career that spanned half a century, only ever produced one magazine that was up to his own high standards. It was called Trump, and it got cancelled after two issues.

Schelly posits two major reasons for Trump's cancellation, and neither one was related to sales.

One of the reasons Trump was cancelled was due to external circumstances entirely beyond Kurtzman's control: Collier's unexpectedly ceased publication, and it sent shockwaves through the entire magazine industry. Hefner suddenly had trouble getting investors; something had to give, and it wasn't going to be Playboy.

The other reason was Kurtzman's fault: his perfectionism kept him from meeting deadlines. Gaines had been effective at riding herd on him at EC and making sure Mad (and Kurtzman's previous comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat) shipped on time, but Hefner didn't have similar success keeping Trump on schedule (Hefner was in Chicago and Kurtzman was in New York; this no doubt played a role). Schelly quotes Hef as saying, "I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it."

And that's what frustrates me the most about Kurtzman's work: I think he got in his own way. I think he was a micromanager who needlessly restricted his incredibly talented collaborators, and his own output suffered from it. Spectacular as Kurtzman's work is, I can't help but wonder how much more he could have done if he'd been able to take a step back and give greater autonomy to guys like Jack Davis and Wally Wood.

And I suspect I'll have more to say about that in a later post.