Category: Comics

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.

Essex County is Really Good

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago in my post about the Humble Forbidden Comics Bundle, I bought the bundle partially because I'd been meaning to read Essex County. And now that I've read it, I can say with confidence that it was worth the $15 all by itself.

Essex County was the breakhout hit for cartoonist Jeff Lemire; he went on to do Sweet Tooth (which is where I first discovered his work and became a fan), and then to become a pretty big name at DC and Valiant. Last I heard he was acting as more of a story architect across multiple titles and less of an artist on his own, smaller work; it's wonderful to see his success but I have to admit I miss his art and his originality.

So I gave Essex County a read. And I haven't read a comic like it in years. I think comparisons to Love and Rockets are inevitable -- it's a character-based work of magical realism focusing on families over generations, with a vibe of loneliness and melancholy, and its setting is an essential component in establishing its tone -- but it's not Love and Rockets. The most obvious difference is in the art: Jeff Lemire doesn't do the smooth, clean lines of Los Bros Hernandez; his work is rough, angular, and jagged. The people in Love and Rockets are beautiful; the people in Essex County are not.

Essex County page

But it's not just Lemire's art that strikes a different tone than the Hernandezes'; it's his setting. Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar may be a small town, but the streets always seem busy, and his later stories (as well as Jaime's) mostly take place in and around LA. Love and Rockets has a huge cast of characters, and it did even in the early days before 30 years of continuity piled up.

Essex County takes place, mostly, in rural Canada, on small family farms. There is one section in the second book, Ghost Stories, which takes place in Toronto; the cast is briefly packed with enough supporting characters to form a hockey team. But, before long, those characters drift away, and while Lou Lebeuf stays in the big city, he finds himself lonely despite the throngs of people around him.

And, to a large extent, Essex County is about loneliness. Lester is lonely because his mother died, he never knew his father, he's moved to a farm to live with an uncle he barely knows, and the other kids make fun of him. Anne is lonely because she works long hours, her husband is dead, and her son barely speaks to her. Lou is lonely first because of his self-imposed exile from his family, then because he goes deaf, then because he outlives everyone he knows, and finally because he gets Alzheimer's. The wide, open, snow-filled spaces of Essex County externalize their loneliness and isolation, but they're not the cause -- at least, not the only one.

These three stories aren't happy, I don't suppose, though they've got moments of happiness. And I think, really, that's what they're about: find those moments of happiness. Find a connection with someone when you can.

Or maybe I'm off-base. Maybe that's not what the book is about at all. For all that it shows that those connections are precious, it shows how fraught they can be. Lou's problems start when he connects with somebody who he shouldn't. Lester doesn't know his father because two people made a connection that they couldn't sustain. Life is like that; it tends to defy simplistic morals.

And that's what Essex County is about, really: slices of life; moments in time. And families, and history.

And hockey. There's a whole lot of hockey. This comic is Canadian as fuck, eh?

Mmm, Forbidden Comics

Modified from a post on Brontoforumus, 2015-09-23.


In honor of Banned Books Week, the latest Humble Books Bundle is made up of banned and challenged comic books.

It's not just a good theme, it is, in terms of quality content for your money, the single best collection of comics I have ever seen. I've got a couple caveats about the presentation, which I'll get to in a minute, but it's well worth the price of admission, whatever tier you choose to donate at.

Pay more than the average and you get Heartbreak Soup.

Heartbreak Soup is my all-time favorite comic. Your mileage may vary, but as far as I'm concerned, the list of Greatest Comics of All Time goes Heartbreak Soup, then Maus, then that Spider-Man arc where he has to lift the rubble off him as Doc Ock's underwater base collapses. (No, Watchmen is not in my top three.)

The bundle also has the first volume of Bone. Bone is phenomenal; it's an all-ages adventure story in the classic mold, with influences from Walt Kelly to Carl Barks to Don Martin; it's funny and it's gorgeously drawn. You should definitely get it if you haven't read it yet; it's at the first tier so it can be yours for a penny.

The bottom tier's also got Maggie the Mechanic, which is the other Love and Rockets vol 1. (Heartbreak Soup is the first volume of Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar stories; Maggie the Mechanic is the first volume of Jaime Hernandez's Locas stories.) Maggie the Mechanic is great too, but for my money it's not as great as Heartbreak Soup, or as the other Locas stories that followed. (The Death of Speedy is widely regarded as the best Love and Rockets story; it's in vol 2 of Locas, which is not included in this bundle.)

Bottom tier also has The Frank Book. Jim Woodring's work is beautiful, surreal, wordless, and incredibly detailed. I have six pieces of comic book art hanging on my walls. One is a Quantum and Woody poster signed by Christopher Priest; one is an Uncle Scrooge print signed by Don Rosa. The other four are Jim Woodring prints that my uncle gave me for my birthday after using them in a museum exhibit.

There's some other stuff in there that I don't know as much about. I like Chester Brown but I haven't read The Little Man; I like Jeff Lemire but I haven't read Essex County. I suppose they're probably both pretty great based on their respective cartoonists' other work, but I don't know them.

And The Boys is in there. The Boys is not for me; I'm not a Garth Ennis fan. But if you like the sound of a bunch of asshole superheroes being taken down by a group of regular guys led by somebody who looks exactly like Simon Pegg, you'll probably dig it.

To summarize: it's a great bundle. It's worth buying for Heartbreak Soup, Bone, and Frank alone; I bought it mostly because I'd been wanting to pick up Frank, Essex County, and Information Doesn't Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow (available as an audiobook in this bundle; the only item that isn't a comic book).

So. Great bundle. But. As I said, there are some caveats with the format.

The first of which is, you're probably going to be reading these on a tablet. And some of these comics just don't look as good on a 10" screen.

I was especially worried about The Frank Book given the detail of Woodring's work; this stuff's meant to be read at 8.5"x11" size. But I was surprised to find it actually looks great on my tablet. The full-size book would be better, but it also costs $35 and weighs 3 pounds. And that's the paperback version.

Bone looks fantastic on my screen too.

Surprisingly, of the books I've thumbed through, the one that suffered most was Heartbreak Soup.

Part of that's to do with the ratio. The pages of Love and Rockets are shorter and wider than standard comic book pages.

  • Bone page
    Bone
    Scaled to 325x500
  • Heartbreak Soup page
    Heartbreak Soup
    Scaled to 405x500

So on a 6:10 screen like my tablet's, you're left with some major letterboxing and a picture that is uncomfortably small and looks a little jaggy, and text that can be hard to read. (If, on the other hand, you have a tablet with a 4:3 screen, like an iPad, I imagine the Love and Rockets -- and the other more square-ish comics in the collection -- will look a lot better, and you'll have the opposite problem with the more traditionally-sized comics in the set.)

Perfect Viewer also seemed to choke on the file a bit; after the first few pages, it started pausing for long periods of time on each page turn. At first I thought it was due to the file size (the CBZ version is 675MB), but The Frank Book is even bigger and Perfect Viewer didn't give me any trouble with it. So I don't know why it doesn't like Heartbreak Soup, but it doesn't.

In short, Heartbreak Soup is my favorite comic, but my 10" tablet is most definitely not the best way to read it. Again, your mileage may vary; you may have better luck on an iPad, as noted, or if you're cool with just reading it on a desktop computer monitor, it looks great on my 27" 2560x1440 screen. But if you're looking for comics to read on a widescreen tablet, well, there are still a lot of great books in this set that totally justify the purchase, but don't buy it just for Heartbreak Soup. All that said, though? It's still a great damn comic, it doesn't look that bad on my tablet, and if you don't want to look for it at your local library or pay full price for the paperback version, well, it's still worth a read.

There's another one I looked through that I have a visual complaint about, and unfortunately, it's an important one and the granddaddy of all challenged comics: Crime Does Not Pay.

Crime Does Not Pay is a classic. It's the first and most successful of the 1940's-'50's-era crime comics that led to Senate hearings and, eventually, the Comics Code and most of the industry going out of business. But, aside from simply being popular, controversial, and lurid, it's just plain good, with superlative work from the likes of Charles Biro, Bob Montana, and George Tuska.

It's also public domain. You can find most of the series for free on Digital Comic Museum (though if you can spare a donation to keep the site up and running, that would be swell too).

Given that, it's damned disappointing that Dark Horse did such a shoddy job on the colors.

  • Crime Kings splash page
    Digital Comic Museum
  • Crime Kings splash page
    Dark Horse

The first image is a scan from one of the original 1950's printings of the comic. It's not pristine; the colors bleed, and if you look closely you can see right through the page to the panel grid from the opposite side. And there are marks on the left side of the page where the staples were.

But despite those flaws, it looks better than the second image, from Dark Horse's restoration. The colors in Dark Horse's version look garish.

And it's down to the paper stock. The scan looks the way it's supposed to, because those colors are supposed to be printed on newsprint. The background is supposed to look a little gray or tan, and the colors are supposed to soak in and blend together.

Dark Horse's version looks garish because they kept the original four-color printing process but put it on high-quality, glossy paper (or the digital equivalent of same). The colors look wrong.

But, in Dark Horse's defense, it could have been worse -- at least they didn't re-color it. Have you seen what they've done to their Conan reprints? Photoshop gradients everywhere. The horror. The horror.

"It could have been worse" isn't a great defense, though. When it comes right down to it, I'd rather read the Digital Comic Museum version, even if I can see the grid lines from the other side of the page.

The only problem is, the Dark Horse collection contains issues #22-#25 (don't let the numbering fool you; #22 is the first issue -- in those days it was common, when a publisher canceled a comic and started a new one, for the new series to continue the old series' numbering with a new title), and Digital Comic Museum doesn't have #23-#25. So while you can download DCM's superior version of issue #22 (and #26, and #27, and lots more, on up through #147), if you want to read #23-25 then you're stuck with the Dark Horse version, and you'd better be prepared for a hell of a lot of eye-searing bright yellow.

There are plenty of instances of publishers doing reprints of old comics right -- either by using newsprint or by scanning or photographing the original printed pages -- but this isn't one of 'em, and that's a shame.

But, all that grousing aside, this bundle? If you have never read a comic book in your life, this has three that I would rank as Absolute Must-Read, in Heartbreak Soup, Bone, and Frank. It's got one of the legitimate most important comics of all time in Crime Does Not Pay, even if I've got some gripes about the presentation and you might be better off grabbing a scanned version from Digital Comic Museum. And aside from those, it's got several more that may not be quite so high on the must-read list but still rank as Great.

If you like good comics, you should get it. And if you don't like good comics, you should get it anyway, because maybe you just haven't ready any comics this good yet.

The bundle runs for five more days.

Fanboy Rationalizations

There's one more thing I want to get to before I close out my run of Ken Penders posts, and that's fanboy rationalization.

There's a meme that I've seen infect the anti-Penders fanboys, since the suit was settled: "If only Ken had been nice when he asserted his copyrights, the fans wouldn't be so angry at him."

Here's somebody named Strike Carson making that argument to me in a 2013 comments thread at TSSZ News (via archive.org since TSSZ News appears to have nuked its comments section in a software upgrade):

Penders did something behind the backs of Sega and Archie that strained the relationship and almost got the comic cancelled. Maybe I’m mixing the two stories up… But still, Archie may have ignored him for the royalties, but it was Penders decision not to let Archie know what he was going to do if he wasn’t given the compensation he deserves as stated by law. You know, that whole threatening legal action thing if he’s not paid for what’s legally his? Had he done that in the first place, perhaps he would have had much more sympathy from us.

And here's the same argument, as put forward by Tylinos on the Ken Penders messageboard:

While it'd be silly to deny that The Spice Must Flow is a significant factor in it, it should be pointed out that the most commonly cited reason here was the attitude of the whole thing, and how absurd it all looked. (Even outsiders who don't read or even dislike the comic have been among those against how Ken went about it.)

Ken could've even underminded The Spice Must Flow mentality a bit by easing into the situation with some psychology, starting out slow with a "Well, I did make these characters" and nothing more and slowly building support up to saying "I should get payment for their use," instead of immediately starting out with that.

Heck, odd as it is, even among people against how he's acted, there's been near-unanimous agreement toward him getting reprint compensation for the stories he wrote. (Which, I know, isn't in the way of the spice anyway.)

The Spice Must Flow definitely factored in, but it's fairly clear that going about the whole thing a different way would've changed fan reaction immensely, and could've bitten past it.

And jameygamer in the same thread:

If he had been a lot less uptight when this whole mess started, he would be better off in terms of reputation.

These are people who, during the years Archie was suing Penders, said they were mad at Penders because his claims were frivolous and false. Since it turned out his claims weren't actually frivolous or false, they've changed their rationalization; now they say they would totally have been on Penders's side if only he hadn't been so rude about the whole thing. We have always been at war with Eurasia.

Of course, that's nonsense; it's rationalization. They're not arriving at their conclusion based on facts; they're starting with their conclusion (Rrrr, Penders bad!) and then cherry-picking facts to support it.

A rational person changes his opinion when confronted with new facts. When I first heard about Penders asserting his copyrights, I reacted with disbelief; I thought it was unfathomable that Archie would have neglected to make him sign a contract.

As it became clear that I was wrong and that was exactly what had happened, I changed my opinion. (Not for nothin', I also admitted I was wrong and apologized for being kind of a dick about it.)

These fanboys, of course, are not rational; they haven't changed their opinions, only their justifications for those opinions.

And, needless to say, I don't believe for a second that there is anything Ken Penders could have done differently that would have prevented fanboys from howling for his blood. If he'd done exactly what Strike Carson, Tylinos, and jameygamer said he should have done, then Strike Carson, Tylinos, and jameygamer would be up there saying that they would have taken his side if only he'd done something else instead.

Well, maybe not Tylinos. He seems like a pretty reasonable guy, at least.

And I'm not just saying that because he was (at least partially) agreeing with something I'd said earlier. When he said "The spice must flow," he was referring to a phrase I'd used in a post about Jim Starlin back in 2012:

Guys like that? It's not about the law and it's not about the ethics. It's The Spice Must Flow. It doesn't matter how Marvel treats creators, as long as it keeps putting out product to consume.

There's always a fresh rationalization on the horizon. "He signed a contract." No he didn't. "Well, he's dead now." Okay, but this guy's alive. "The character we know is the work of dozens of creators over a period of decades, so no one person can really claim credit to him." Even if that were true in some cases, Thanos is unmistakably Jim Starlin's character. "Well, it was only a tiny cameo, so he's not entitled to anything." And once Thanos has more than a cameo, it's going to be "Well okay, that's terrible, but the industry's not like that anymore; it's all better now." (A point Scott Kurtz raised recently, right about two weeks before Static co-creator Robert Washington III died of multiple heart attacks at the age of 47 and his family had to turn to charity to get him buried.)

There is and will continue to be a vocal minority of comic book fans who will side with the publishers no matter what. (Oh God how I hope it's a minority -- but I think it is. You can find a vocal population of people on the Internet who will angrily, zealously defend absolutely any dumbass position you can possibly think of.)

And here's what I said to Strike Carson:

Every single comic book copyright dispute in history says the fanboys would have been just as enraged no matter what he did.

Siegel and Shuster sell Superman for $130? Tough titty; they signed a contract.

Jack Kirby gets no royalties for any of the work he did at Marvel? Tough titty; he signed a contract.

Point out that Jack Kirby didn’t actually sign a contract? Well, that’s just how things were done back then, man!

DC continues to exploit Watchmen against Alan Moore’s wishes, even though in 1985 they made a big thing of how it was a creator-owned book? Tough titty, man, he signed a contract!

Marvel demands $17,000 from broke Gary Friedrich and demands he stop referring to himself as the creator of Ghost Rider? They’re just protecting their interests!

Archie screws creators out of royalties for decades, grinds anyone who legally challenges them into paste, actually removes Dan DeCarlo’s name from reprints, then a creator comes along asking for what Archie legally owes him, Archie doesn’t respond, he provides sufficient evidence to back them into a corner and get them to agree to a settlement — and you’re complaining that he didn’t issue enough legal threats beforehand? Seriously, dude?

Yeah. I’m sure if Penders had threatened to sue Archie in 2010, all the people in this thread who are crying for Penders’s head for the crime of, um, asking for the rights he is entitled to by law, would have totally been on his side.

To the anti-creator fanboys, the facts don't matter, the law doesn't matter, the ethics don't matter, and actual human beings do not matter. All that matters is that they get the comics they want.

They'll tell you differently, and they probably believe it -- after all, most people don't realize when they're rationalizing, and most of these are individual people opining on individual cases. By and large, the guy dumping on Penders is probably not the same guy dumping on the Kirbys is not the same guy dumping on the Siegels is not the same guy dumping on the Shusters is not the same guy dumping on Wolfman is not the same guy dumping on Friedrich is not the same guy dumping on Starlin (or Ditko or Gaiman or Moore or DeCarlo or whoever). If you're not the sort of person who follows these stories, who's seen this conversation play out dozens of times in different permutations, you don't see the pattern.

But there is a pattern. And the pattern is, there are always fanboys who care more about the product than about the human beings who created it. That's the long and short of it. The justifications may change from case to case, but the attitude is always the same: "Fuck that guy, I just want my comics."

That's it for my Penders coverage. But I'm sure we'll be right back here talking about exactly the same things the next time a comics creator has a dispute with a publisher.