Saturday, November 26, 2022

COMIC BOOK REVIEW: THE LAST WHIZ KIDS STORY, PART 2 (BIG BANG ADVENTURES #17)

 

THE LAST WHIZ KIDS STORY: PART 2 (BIG BANG ADVENTURES #17)

Writer: Pedro Angosto

Artists: Jorge Santamaría (penciller)/Juan Moreno (inker)/Ulises Kuroshima (colors)/Adam Pruett (letters)

Publisher: Big Bang Comics

 

Order print or digital directly from Indyplanet 

 
The final fate of Robo-Hood! A crushing betrayal and secret reveal—at the same time! A life-changing discovery and an unbearable loss!  Gender-switching! Wide-screen action! 

This comic has it all, my friends.
 
 
 
 
 
My thoughts on this comic have been brewing for 3 or 4 months and I finally have time to write them down.  But let’s get this out there before I say anything else, THE LAST WHIZ KIDS STORY Part 2 picks up after the events of Part 1 but surpasses the quality level, and Part 1 was already exceptional.  At this point in time, Big Bang Comics is matching and exceeding the quality of super-hero comics by the Big 2 when Pedro Angosto is writing and artists like Jorge Santamaria are drawing.  
 
THE LAST WHIZ KIDS STORY, with it’s thick 27 pages of story, is a loveletter to Wolfman and Pérez’s NEW TEEN TITANS circa “The Judas Contract” and “The Terror of Trigon” in terms of style but carves it’s own identity as something fresh and relevant to today.  Wolfman and Pérez worked within a paradigm of expectations for mainstream super-hero comics but managed to push the boundaries of maturity in story-telling and content as had never before been done so consistently and so well. And this is where Angosto and Santamaria are channeling the spirit of that era for this 3-parter.


From a purely visual standpoint, Santamaria is on fire.  So many double-pagers intensely dense with detail and movement.  His design sense is off the charts.  I would be recommending this comic simply for more people to see his art even if the story did not hold up. 


Thankfully, the story does hold up.  Angosto is brilliant at homaging without copying.  Which makes this story resonate, in my opinion, even if one has never read a Whiz Kids story before. There is such a deep sense of history within this story that I can’t even tell what is original to it and what is actually based on earlier extant Big Bang stories.  Angosto gives the readers everything we need to know within the comic itself.  

 
One thing I have enjoyed within all of Angosto’s stories for Big Bang is his inclusion of mythological and religious concepts and themes.  They tap into those archetypal connections within different cultures that resonate on a primal level with all of us.  It’s those recurring mystical and heroic archetypes that have evolved into the super-heroes of our popular culture today and especially resonate in comics—the art form in which they were birthed. 


The villains and heroes of this story hearken back to ancient Christendom (Robo-Hood/Galahad), Islam (The Old Man of the Mountain/Sword of Allah), Judaism (Lilith), and Norse Mythology (Valkyrie) which is a compelling choice that I loved.  Angosto’s choices for “the heroes formerly known as the Whizzards” is a diverse and interesting upgrade for that team.  Might I suggest they could be called “The Cavalry”?  But I digress…


As with Part 1, this story focuses on Galahad and his journey from sidekick to Knight Watchman to a fully realized adult hero and leader.  But along the way he is gut-punched emotionally over and over again.  If fire forges the strongest sword, then Galahad will be unbreakable when Part 3 concludes this arc.   And I do not say this lightly.  Readers should be warned that the assaults and pain that Galahad endures in this story may unsettle sensitive readers as they are bold creative story-telling choices but effective.  He is also blessed with the opportunity to step up in a very personal way to try and shepherd the darkness into the light with great potential for the future.


With so much action, Angosto and Santamaria do take the time to slow things down to focus on the personal and emotional journeys that anchor the super-heroics.  The Galahad story, of course, but also the Merlin and Robo-Hood arc.  Both are essential to the elements that make this story work so well.


Readers familiar with DC comics, and especially familiar with the characters of Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne will hear their echoes within this comic.  But I promise you it will not be anything like what you expect and that’s the best part of the whole thing.  The story flows perfectly and it surprises throughout.


I’m ready for Part 3!

*I should probably note that this comic is a bit too mature in content and language to be considered an all-ages book.  This comic is probably appropriate for, oh, 12 years-old and up.  YMMV though.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: THE PERFECT ASSASSIN by James Patterson & Brian Sitts


THE PERFECT ASSASSIN

(A DOC SAVAGE THRILLER)

By James Patterson and Brian Sitts

Available November 2022 from all major booksellers

    I opened the door. An automatic sensor turned on a bank of industrial lights overhead. As my eyes adjusted, I suddenly felt totally sober again. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.
    We were in a huge room with a high ceiling and no windows. It was filled with metal shelves in long, neat rows. It looked like a natural history archive. It had the smell of old paper, old chemicals, old leather.
    “Welcome home, Doctor.” said Kira. 

Anyone who has ever engaged me in a discussion about books and writing should already have a sense that I have a real problem with ghost-written books—that is, I do not like writers who take credit for someone else’s work even though I know it is a long-standing practice in the industry. I stil don’t like it. Under that umbrella, I also do not like it when certain authors—in this case James Patterson—turn their names into a book factory in which other writers actually write the books but Patterson gets his name in 4-inch letters plastered across the cover of the books while the actual author’s name appears as an after-thought. In this case, Brian Sitts, the author (as in, the one who actually wrote the words that are published and not the outline on which the story is based), has his name buried at the bottom of the cover and at such a low-level transparency that it effectively disappears. 

And considering that this is a “Doc Savage” novel, I am sure that someone reading this is wondering whether I have the same problem with other Doc Savage novels given that no matter who wrote them they all were credited to the house-name “Kenneth Robeson.” My answer would be no. I do not have the same problem with house-names because that particular industry tradition is one where the named author is something of a character himself (or herself in the case of “Carolyn Keene” and the Nancy Drew series). Lester Dent was our most prolific “Kenneth Robeson” in the heyday of Doc Savage pulp adventures and Will Murray our most recent. Only once, that I’m aware of, has Doc Savage been published before now with an author credit to someone other than Kenneth Robeson was the classic ESCAPE FROM LOKI by Philip José Farmer which detailed the story of how Doc and his five colleagues first got together. Which brings us now to Brian Sitts’s THE PERFECT ASSASSIN, credited to “James Patterson” as primary author, and with the series tag “A Doc Savage Thriller.”

 Even given my general misgivings about how the James Patterson machine works, I approached this book with an open mind. I was curious how it would tie into the original Doc Savage books and whether it would outright betray the core principles in terms of character and morality that those pot-boiler pulp action stories. Would Sitts try to duplicate the Robeson style or would it embrace the choppy simplistic Patterson style? Would I be engaged with the new characters or long for the originals? Would it be interesting? Would it be entertaining? Would it be infuriating? 

As I said, I had an open mind but I still had some hesitancy given that the previous Sitts effort to do this with Doc Savage’s sister property, THE SHADOW, had by all accounts gone off into crazy land and taken The Shadow character and pulled a “Jonah Hex” on him by abruptly transplanting him into the future which placed the original character in a setting that did not work at all for him. However, I felt a bit more positive about this one because rather than using Doc Savage (Clark Savage Jr.) himself, this story is set in the modern day and centers around Doc’s grandson, Doctor Brandt Savage. This is easier for me to walk into with a readiness to accept given that he is, for all intents and purposes, an all-new character. The idea opens itself up with much potential to do something new and moving the concept forward rather than trapped forever in the pre-World War II era. As I am fond of pointing out, if you aren’t moving then you’re stagnating. And it is the same with fictional characters. There’s a risk of stagnation if your characters stay stuck in the past, never-changing, never-growing, forever. If the concept and characters are strong enough, they should be adaptable to a diverse range of changes and growth and sometimes you don’t know until you try and either fail or succeed.

Oddly, there is little in terms of discernible style to the prose. I think the longest chapter is 4 pages. Some chapters are as small as half a page. It’s an odd style of writing. I know it’s common with these modern popular thrillers but it feels choppy and awkward to me. There’s so little opportunity for the reader to engage with the characters and be in the moment; to enjoy the prose. It feels like it could almost be written by an A.I. as there is an utter loss of an author’s perspective or voice in the writing. The original pulp adventures were churned out every month and yet they somehow had a style to them that makes them still enjoyable to read even today, if not for the stories, then for the enjoyment of the prose itself. The robotic construction in the writing for THE PERFECT ASSASSIN is such that it almost feels like an outline of a story rather than a complete novel. In fact, I suspect that if it had been formatted more traditionally, those 108 chapters and 316 pages, would have come in closer to around 200 pages and about half that number of chapters. 

All that being said, I stuck with the plot, such as it is, which is pretty standard Patterson fare. The authors introduce the reader to 2 main characters, Brandt Savage (of course) and his co-star, and catalyst for this story, is a bronze-haired female calling herself “Meed.” Her story covers similar ground as what Marvel has done with their Black Widow character in the films. But that’s not something to be too critical about as the idea of a female character raised to be an assassin in a training school for assassins is not unique to Marvel either. Unfortunately, Meed is consistently the more interesting character than Brandt, which is unfortunate for a book that is supposed to be jump-starting a new series of “thrillers” starring this new Doc Savage. He seemed weak, as a person (not his body) and I was trying to figure out why I had this impression.  I finally realized the reason—and in a way I think this may be the key to how this version of the character could potentially grow into something good if successful enough in sales to continue—Sitts does something with Brandt that I don’t think was ever done with his great-grandfather in the writing.

Whenever the narrative shifts to a chapter about Brandt, the perspective shifts to first-person. So we are inside Brandt’s head. We hear his fears, his anxieties, his nervousness, his insecurities. Why does this matter? I think it matters because for readers of the original Doc Savage stories, Doc’s inner thoughts are a mystery for the most part. He was a man of action. Sure, he was obviously a genius, because the reader was told this, and the number of inventions he created along with his multiple doctorates and surgeon skills establish his bona fides. But we never got inside his head much to see what inner demons he was battling. Farmer tackled some of that with his Doc Savage pastiche, Doc Caliban. While the Caliban stories could reflect the prose style at times, there was still a Farmerian filter that deconstructed the implications of such a character. In Brandt, we have a young professor who is somewhat embarrassed of his connection to the legendary Doc Savage to such an extent that he has contemplated changing his last name. But as that is the name on his diplomas, he’s content to just let it lie. This little tidbit is a key to the struggles Brandt is going to need to overcome to ever fully embrace his role as the inheritor of the Doc Savage mantle. He is a character with the genetics necessary to be a hero, but none of the desire or the motivation to do it. Meed functions as the catalyst for his journey to becoming a hero and she has her own lineage connection to the past that is a conduit for her and Brandt to forge an unbeatable team. This is not a story about a carbon copy of the original Doc and his amazing five assistants. They were a product of their day. This is a flawed and reluctant Doc and his single partner who has her own hidden motives for why she needs to push him into accepting his destiny. 

I was pleased to see that the Patterson machine did not undo the past or do an “everything you know is a lie” approach. No. Everything you knew is true, mostly, although there are some new wrinkles introduced and established connections with Doc Savage history is interwoven throughout. He smartly avoids filling in the gaps of what happened to the original Doc Savage and even maintains a noticeable vagueness of Brandt’s unnamed parents and who they are. He is aware of his famous great-grandfather, but has not ever known him, so his journey of self-discovery is also learning about his great-grandfather. There is no betrayal of the original character and concept but there is most definitely a major change introduced to it. The most intriguing to me was the importance of “twins” in the very concept of genetically engineering the perfect human. I feel like Sitts or Patterson (or maybe both) has read Farmer’s Doc Caliban, but I can’t prove it. However, the twins idea, name-checks, and the new twists we learn about Doc and his lineage are surprising enough to bring me back to see how that is developed in future installments. 

My overall impression of THE PERFECT ASSASSIN is that it could have been more creative with its prose style and achieved its goals better. As such, it is a perfectly middling exercise and unlikely to garner new fans of Doc Savage but also unlikely to please current Doc Savage fans. However, even with the exceedingly simplistic writing style and choppy construction, I enjoyed it and it ended strong with the new Doc Savage ready to start on a new adventure and I would like to read more about him. 

 


 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

COMICS REVIEWS: HEROES UNION #1, BLUE BARON #1, BIG BANG ADVENTURES #14—THE LAST WHIZ KIDS STORY PT 1

 


Writer & Bookrunner Darin Henry

This column's reviews, although I hesitate to call them "reviews" simply because it is bit more gonzo than that, are going to hearken back to classic Bronze Age comics from Marvel and DC—I would say....circa early '80s.  The first column focused on the latest comic from Big Bang Comics, featuring the Knights of Justice, and I will be covering the newest Big Bang comic in this as well.  But before I get to that, there is a new upstart in the battle of the independent retro-comic book publishers.  I'm speaking of a new little company calling itself Sitcomics™ with the tagline: "It's TV you read!" Sitcomics is the brainchild of veteran sitcom writer Darin Henry and these are not "comic" books, instead they call them Binge Books™.

Binge Book™ Back Cover Numbers
The Binge Book format seems to be conceived to appeal to modern binging sensibilities but also the aging generation who does not feel particularly good about the digitalization of comic books and wants something physical in their hands to read.  A Binge Book is printed, first of all.  The books are not made available, legally, in a digital format outside of the occasional free preview download (such as BLUE BARON #3 which you can preview digitally here).  This is an enormous 68 pages perfect-bound comic with glossy card stock covers and, notably, include a unique number on the back cover.  THE HEROES UNION give you your own "Member Number" and BLUE BARON gives you your "Battle Brigade Number" respectively.  The availability of these comics is strictly through comic book stores. They are not print-on-demand or available direct from the publisher.  These are legit limited print run comics that are specifically targeted to comic book readers through local comic book shops.  Whether this will, over time, enhance their collectibility I can't say.  But it does mean that you will have to let your local comic book shop know you're interested so they can stock it or you will need to order from a comic shop who lets you order online and be willing to pay shipping costs to get your hands on it.  Depending on your thirst for brand new old-school super-hero comics with some writing and art by old-school comics creators, you can choose your method.  Feeding into that old-school nostalgia, you will also note the cover designs that are busier action images, as opposed to the more modern pin-up style cover approach, along with top-left corner images and even an "Approved by the Comics Code Authority" stamp (which is pure nostalgia given that the CCA does not even exist to grant or decline the stamp anymore).

Overall, if that's your jam, I highly recommend seeking out some of Sitcomics' Binge Books.  For now, here's a few words about the two I made the effort to try out for you.

THE HEROES UNION #1

Writers: Roger Stern (script/co-plotter) & Darin Henry (co-plotter)
Artists: Ron Frenz (penciller)/Sal Buscema & Chris Nye (inkers)/Glenn Whitmore (colors)

Publisher: Sitcomics

What better way to evoke early 80s Marvel Comics than to bring on one of best Marvel writers of that time period, the esteemed Roger Stern, to co-plot and script this first outing of The Heroes Union?  Well, you could pair Stern with artists Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema, both Marvel stalwarts from that same time period, is that the best you can do?  Apparently not, because Sitcomics also brought on longtime digital colorist Glenn Whitmore to give the whole thing a classic color vibe and Marvel and DC veteran inker Brett Breeding to ink Frenz on the cover.

That's pretty damn good. 

There's a lot to set up in this single issue, but thankfully, there's 68 pages so there's plenty of breathing room to pace the story accordingly.  Stern helps set up the Binge Universe (which is as good a name as I could come up with in the moment) by giving us hints and glimpses of a history here that can unfold over time in other stories and other titles, but for now he establishes for the reader what we need to know: Who, or What, Is The Heroes Union?  Clearly the Union is the Binge U's version of The Avengers.  Uniquely, while the characters who make up this newest incarnation of the Union legacy team may track with certain common tropes, none of them smack of being pure pastiche or homage to a specific Marvel character.  I think that is a great benefit to the comic and to the line of comics itself that they are carving out their own world of characters within a certain "style" of art and writing without copying or homaging specific characters or stories.

The story and art are well-done and consistent with the 80's feel they are going for but within a 21st century milieu.  That means there is a certain level of acceptable naivete in this world in which super-heroes exist, but without a need to examine the absurdity of that concept or a need to overcompensate by approaching it in a hyper-realistic fashion.  This is old-school comics, including the nearly non-existent these days, "thought balloons" that give us insight into characters' thoughts without the need for endless exposition in dialogue or caption.  I'm not saying it needs to be in every panel of a comic, but it is a tool that needs to be returned to the modern comic book writer's toolbox and Stern knows how to wield it.

In classic first issue fashion, the story begins with a young/new hero, for this one it is the character calling herself Startup, receiving the invitation to join a team.  So, her journey of discovery is the reader's journey as well.  It is a solid way to introduce the concept and the characters (see the inset image which is a splash page type image included on the inside cover as a sort-of roll call of the team members).  Very quickly, the action kicks in and the reader gets aliens, space ships, other planets, lots of action and intrigue.  Basically, its everything you wanted to get back in the day when you were buying comics like this off a spinner rack for 50 cents.  But maybe a bit better given the better quality of printing and paper stock and the freedom of creating their own continuity rather than writing within a larger continuity.  The last couple of pages provide the reader with a Who's Who type glossary of the characters for handy dandy reference and it looks like the space is intended going forward as a Letters Page/Binge Bulletins space. All I know is that it was fun to read and I think it's worth checking out. 

Which brings us to the comic book teased at the end of THE HEROES UNION #1 . . .

THE UNBEATABLE BLUE BARON #1

Writer: Darin Henry
Artists: Ron Frenz (penciller)/Sal Buscema (inker)/Glenn Whitmore (colors)

Publisher: Sitcomics

My second outing with a Binge Book was Blue Baron.  In brief, Blue Baron is pretty much a mashup of every patriotic super-hero with The Phantom in that Blue Baron appears to be immortal but he's really a generational identity passed down for 300 years from father to son to grandson.  For this one, creator Darin Henry takes on the full writing duties and demonstrates that his experience writing for television translates well to the comic book medium.  He is joined ably by 80s Marvel vets, Ron Frenz as penciller and Sal Buscema on inks.  So, visually, this comic looks like a classic Bronze Age Marvel book in all ways except that the characters are all-new.

This issue revolves around a common comedy trope in movies, tv, and yes, in comics.  But I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how it avoided a cliched resolution but rather uses it as a way to kick-off the series with a completely different status quo than expected.  Other than that, the comic is just a good rollicking adventure with lots of clever moments.  Highly recommended.


Friday, November 5, 2021

Marvel's ETERNALS Movie Review *Spoiler Free*


Marvel Studios' Eternals Movie Poster

 ETERNALS

Director:  Chloé Zhao
Studio:  Marvel Studios
Release Date: November 5, 2021
Rating:  PG-13: fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality.

Official Website: https://www.marvel.com/movies/eternals

Following the events of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), an unexpected tragedy forces the Eternals, ancient aliens who have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years, out of the shadows to reunite against mankind's most ancient enemy, the Deviants.

Review: "Based on the Marvel Comics by Jack Kirby"

It's been a long time coming to get that singular attribution on an MCU film! That gave me the feels when the credits rolled.

As the first 45 minutes of exposition and wooden acting plodded along, I thought the critics might be right in their negative reviews.  But then....our first scene in the modern day with Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo happens.  And from here on out, the film picks up speed and moves forward.  It felt almost like that's where the movie itself actually starts and the first 45 minutes was just prologue or something.  Which maybe explains the 2 hours and 37 minute runtime.

One of the first things people mentioned coming out of the previews was that ETERNALS is unlike any other MCU movie and the marketing has claimed ETERNALS changes the MCU forever.
Both are correct.


In fact, it not only doesn't feel like any Marvel movie so far, it actually feels very much like Marvel Studios doing their own version of DC's Justice League.  For those who've complained about Henry Cavill's dour version of Superman, Richard Madden as Ikaris (the Superman analogue here) makes Cavill's Superman seem downright cheery and bubbly.  Angelina Jolie as Thena (the Wonder Woman analogue) is an extremely necessary jolt of star power that helps balance the others who don't quite have her level of screen charisma. 

The actual comics history and purpose of The Eternals is substantively changed to fit within the MCU paramaters and for the most part, I think it works quite well.  In the end, not only does The Eternals add to the history of Earth in the MCU, it makes a dramatic change to the landscape that is about on par with the "blip" and Loki's introduction of timeline variations and multiversal implications.  I'm sure these will be plot points referenced in other films and shows going forward.  Not the least of which is the future of Dane Whitman and his family's legacy.

On the cosmic level of the MCU, The Eternals has reset the power structure on the space/time chess board and I'm intrigued by the vast possibilities of where this story can go in the future.  
The mid-credits sequence is the most "Marvel" moment of the entire film, and it will also elicit fanboy squeals of delight by old school Marvel kids from the 70s and 80s who are now grumpy too-old-for-comics fans. 😃  The after-credits sequence is an excellent and intriguing after dinner dessert tease.

I enjoyed it immensely.  For a longtime Kirby Eternals fan, I was suprised by so many thematic and conceptual elements that were retained but also suprised by the new ideas and expansions logically brought into the mix.  A few head-scratchers in terms of wondering why some particular choices were made (such as no Zuras at all and Ikaris's hair color change) but taken as a whole, it all pretty much worked for me.



Monday, September 6, 2021

MODERN-RETRO COMICS REVIEW: BIG BANG ADVENTURES #8—KNIGHTS OF JUSTICE

 Welcome to my first MODERN-RETRO COMICS REVIEW!  What and why is a "MODERN-RETRO COMICS REVIEW"?

As an ongoing series of blogposts, this will quite simply be, new reviews of a contemporary comic book (or series) created in a style meant to evoke a simpler, and less corporate, time in the world of comics publishing.  In more fan-friendly language, these are modern comics created today that attempt to recapture the feeling of comics from what we know as the Bronze, Silver, and Golden age of comics.

In 2005, DC Comics was in the midst of another corporate flog at the teat of the CRISIS cow with INFINITE CRISIS and all the cross-over marketing.  That same year Marvel Comics was doing the same with their ever-reliable X-Men-related books with a corporate cross-over event called HOUSE OF M.  Marvel also rebranded post-bankruptcy as Marvel Entertainment with an intention to produce their own theatrical films based on the comics properties they retained film licenses to and entered into a partnership with Paramount Pictures to co-finance and distribute the films.  And in 2005, Image Comics still occasionally, but irregularly, published Big Bang Comics.  That year Big Bang published a comic titled ROUND TABLE OF AMERICA: PERSONALITY CRISIS #1 and I positively reviewed it as part of the Talkback League of A$$Holes Comics Reviews.  Rather than link to the legacy site, I've included that review after my current review.  I refer you to that earlier review because it relates to the current comic I'm reviewing in a couple of ways:  PERSONALITY CRISIS was a solid bronze-age style comic written by Pedro Angosto and the new comic I'm reviewing is also written by Pedro Angosto.  Let us see how the 16 years have treated Angosto and his writing!


Which brings up to 2021 and . . .

Wraparound Cover by Pablo Alcalde
BIG BANG ADVENTURES #8: KNIGHTS OF JUSTICE. 

Writer: Pedro Angosto
Artist: Pablo Alcalde

Publisher: Big Bang Comics

Big Bang Comics, a creator-owned imprint overseen and edited by Gary S. Carlson, first saw life through the small press company Caliber Press, then for a number of years Image published the imprint.  And most recently Big Bang Comics publish their own imprint through IndyPlanet.  The conceit and the charm of the Big Bang Universe is that even though it did not exist until 1994, it exploded into existence with an entire fictional publishing history dating back to the 1940s.  Within this history, the vast pantheon of characters and heroes exist within a framework of style that evokes the real comics artists of the past as well as style and design of DC comics and Marvel comics.  This melding of these various art and storytelling styles have resulted in 37 years now in which the Big Bang Universe has evolved into something much more than pastiches of Marvel and DC characters.  The Big Bang Universe has become its own thing.  If the entire history of super-hero comics as experienced through those of each era who were reading them at the time were Excalibur, Big Bang Comics is young Arthur, the last to pull the sword from that stone and lead the way for this modern insurgency of retro-comics independent publishing made possible by modern digital technology.

In BIG BANG ADVENTURES #8, writer Pedro Angosto and artist Pablo Alcalde do an amazing job capturing the feel of the 70s era of the Silver Age telling a story of Earth B's KNIGHTS OF JUSTICE, the team of heroes formed in the Golden Age of the 1940s.  The roll call of heroes includes Dr. Weird (a Spectre-like character who, weirdly enough, first appeared in real-life comics history in a fanzine where it was eventually drawn by a young Jim Starlin), (Green Lantern-esque) The Beacon, The Badge (sort of an amalgam of Capt. America and The Guardian), Venus (a tip of the hat to Wonder Woman), Thunder Girl (a nod to Mary Marvel), and other familiar seeming characters.

Variant Cover by Jorge Santamaria

Set in 1947, post-WWII, an assault on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. by the Alliance of Evil results in the successful abduction of Venus where she is made prisoner of Pluto, the God of the Dead.  With Venus trapped in the Underworld, all love begins to vanish from Earth in dramatic fashion.  The Knights of Justice set off to rescue Venus from the Underworld.  Whether they succeed or not is for you to find out by reading the comic!

The writing is fun.  Angosto captures each character's voice in ways that evoke the simplicity of earlier comics, but within the context of deeper emotional connection than was common in those days.  This gives the comic a resonance that makes it feel relevant for today even when the setting and style is from a past era.  Angosto incorporates many elements of Roman mythology, and especially those unique aspects of the Underworld mythology as the Knights face individual external challenges but also internal challenges as well in their quest to save Venus.  As someone who spent a good portion of their childhood devouring books on the Greco-Roman myths, I enjoyed the hell out of Angosto's skill at incorporating the Knights into the many different aspects of those myths and telling a clear narrative with educational value and a moral point of view.

Pablo Alcalde was born to draw this type of story.  Because I'm a fan, I love to see those grand full-page action shots and Alcalde weaved in 9 of them plus a gorgeous double-page spread.  This is the advantage of Big Bang publishing their own comics these days—they are not bound to some pre-determined page count or frequency. As a result, we get an opportunity to read stories like this one where the artist has an opportunity to breathe and really tell the story in the best visual way.  Alcalde knows how to tell a story sequentially with just the right level of detail to keep everything clear and clean.  I want to see more from this artist!

Simon Loko is the color artist for this comic and I want to compliment his work at adapting modern digital coloring and modern advancing printing production to capture the feel of the coloring style of older comics.  The color art is not flat nor is it overly rendered, which creates a perfect blend of modern and retro.  Solid lettering work by Adam Pruett as well.  This is what artistic collaboration looks like!

To round out this comic, which I've already read 3 times, Angosto includes a text piece about how and why he returned to writing superhero comics and a pin-up section is included in the back with 11 contributions featuring various Big Bang Universe characters.  

All-in-all, this is a pretty sweet 52-page comic book for $8.95 in print or $2.99 for a digital download.  Click HERE to order directly from IndyPlanet.

Monday, February 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW—TRUE BELIEVER: THE RISE AND FALL OF STAN LEE

 

BOOK REVIEW

TRUE BELIEVER: THE RISE AND FALL OF STAN LEE

By Abraham Riesman

Publisher : Crown (February 16, 2021)

Language : English

Hardcover : 416 pages

ISBN-10 : 0593135717

ISBN-13 : 978-0593135716

 

“Let your motto then always be 'Excelsior', for by living up to it there is no such word as fail.”

― P T Barnum, The Art of Money Getting

 

"What was [Stan] like?" . . . It depends on who you talk to at what moment."

— Larry Lieber

 

“. . . I know my father's creativity versus Mr. Lee's creativity, and Mr. Lee was an excellent marketer, he was an excellent manager, excellent self-promoter. I honestly don't believe he had any creative ability."

— Neal Kirby (son of Jack Kirby)

 

Abraham Riesman, the author of TRUE BELIEVER: THE RISE AND FALL OF STAN LEE, sidebars his writing to inform us readers of both the mission and the difficulties of being a biographer.  The mission being one that sifts through the faulty memories, missing evidence, and tries to slice through it all with an Occam’s razor to find the truth—and in lieu of truth, at least some semblance of a reasonable viewpoint.  I don’t know if Riesman has been to law school, but he makes sure to drive this point home to the reader:  There is no more unreliable source for a biographer than the subject of the biography himself.  This is reminiscent of one of the first things mentioned in both Trial Practice and Professional Ethics classes in law school:  Your client will lie to you.

This seems counterintuitive, but it is a truism.  The client has a vested interest in telling their lawyer whatever they think will help their case and avoiding those facts that might hurt their case.  Likewise, when people talk about themselves, the stories they tell tend to morph to fit the audience they are being told to and how the storyteller wants the listeners to think about him or her.  Psychologically, this can make the job of an objective biographer quite difficult.  Autobiographies can never be objective, because the authors are writing about themselves; likewise the usual celebrity biography that springs forth with the cooperation of the celebrity.  These can be well-written and entertaining, but they are basically just opening statements in a case that cannot be challenged or rebutted.  It is a narrative crafted by someone who has a vested interest in controlling what is said and how it is said.

I am someone who was born about 5 years into the Marvel Age of comics, which is recognized as starting in 1961 with the publication of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 by writer/editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby.  So, my childhood on into adulthood was one that tracked along with the ups and downs of Marvel Comics and was aware of Stan Lee many years before I ever took note of who Jack Kirby or (fellow artist and co-creator of Spider-Man) Steve Ditko were.  I would wager that I first came to know who Kirby and Ditko were because of repeatedly checking out from the local library a 1974 paperback collection from Fireside Books called ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS that reprinted the first appearances of Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, Hulk, and Doctor Strange.  Stan Lee was credited as the author and he wrote introductions to the stories in his well-established hyperbolic purple prose.  And as was Stan’s pattern over the years, he told the stories of what inspired the characters’ creations, took pretty much all the credit for their conception, then heaped much praise on Kirby and Ditko for bringing his concepts to life on the printed page.  And this is the narrative that most people who aware of Stan Lee and Marvel Comics know.  Then there are those who, like myself, have always enjoyed a higher level of curiosity about the inner workings of the business and, so, enjoy seeking out and reading a lot of these “inside baseball” type of books and articles about comics history.  We are the ones who will go into a book like this with a pretty good knowledge of the many conflicting stories and claims about the creator credits Gordian Knot at Marvel Comics.  Even with a pretty thorough collection of information in my own head from decades of exposure to this stuff, I encountered new facts and new information to add to the complicated image of Stan “The Man” Lee.

Riesman’s book does a professional job weaving together a comprehensive narrative that spans chronologically from Stan’s grandparents through to Stan’s own death and beyond.  He provides no less than 30 pages of extensive citations and notes at the end of the book, which is not anything I’ve yet seen in a Stan bio, and there’ve been plenty.  This is a key distinction for Reisman’s book that also helps absolve it of baseless assertions that the author has an “anti-Stan” agenda or is a “hit piece.”

There are certainly quite a bit of difficult and dark aspects to the book, but the author makes it very clear that he includes these with personal trepidation.  That is, he is not going to avoid including these things simply because he doesn’t like them or because a reader might see Stan painted in a negative light.  He lets the reader choose how to weigh the (cited) evidence he is presenting.  The writing is engaging precisely because Riesman infuses his narrative with personal feeling and acknowledgment of his own discomfort.  As such, he reflects the same feelings that many readers might have.  By doing so, he makes it okay by affirming those feelings but also not backing off simply because it gets uncomfortable.

To me, the most fascinating voice in the book is from Stan’s younger brother, Larry Lieber, who offers up a lot in both what he says but also in what he intentionally avoids saying.  The picture I came away with from this book was a humanized Stan Lee.  This is not at all the Stan that Stan himself would want us to know, but it is probably the closest we will get to the true Stan.

What becomes clear by tracking along with Stan chronologically through the years is that we begin to see a very clear picture, at least to me, of a competent writer who was a good editor but was Barnum level bullshit pedaler with a severe inferiority complex masked by an over-confident and gregarious character he presented to the world.  He was a man who wanted to be famous but was never talented enough to get out of the low-rent world of the comic book business, so he made himself the most famous comic book guy in the world to see where that could take him.  You see this throughout the book, that even while working in comics and presenting the face of Stan “The Man” to readers, he was incessantly trying side hustles to get himself the hell out of there.  Were it not for the expensive habits of his wife and daughter, he very well may have stepped out and tried something else.  Unfortunately, so many of his choices (and life is nothing but cumulative choices) were driven by the need to keep his wife and daughter in the expensive lifestyle that had grown accustomed to.

Part of the incongruity in Stan as a human being is that fame and fortune were such massive driving forces in his life choices but at the same time, he was someone who would give you the shirt off his back if he liked you and you needed it.  At the same time, he treated his own family (except his wife and daughter) like detached acquaintances at best.  Larry seems the most sad about this in that Stan would toss Larry work here and there, but in his own sunset years, Larry seems not very grateful and more resentful that his older brother kind of kept him on a meager fishing line professionally over the years and now Larry recognizes that he lost so many opportunities because of that.  And now, in his 80s, he lives alone and is writing his own stories for himself.

Stan and his wife, Joan, lived a public lifestyle of excess and she was especially known in their circles for drinking too much and then embarrassing herself and Stan by her drunken behavior.  Stan was devoted to her but that inferiority complex in him probably contributed to his submissive support for her outlandish activities and spending.  Had they lived in more of a moderate sense, they could have gone into a retirement quite rich and comfortable.  Instead, he had to keep working on into his nineties just to keep up with his wife’s needs until her death, and his daughter JC’s even more absurd demands afterwards.

The vast success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially after Disney purchased Marvel for 4 billion dollars, was a two-edged sword for Stan.  It was the realization of the hype he had been spinning about Marvel since the beginning coming true finally, but beyond his funny little cameos on-screen, he had signed away the profit margins he could have had for a yearly stipend instead.  Moreso, he had to bristle a little knowing that back in the ‘90s when Marvel was in bankruptcy, he passed up a chance to actually purchase the company which would have finally made Marvel truly his.  Sure, he put on his well-practiced smile for the red carpets, but by all accounts, he never even bothered to watch the actual movies.  He liked the attention, but he had little to no interest in the characters or the movies themselves.   But that sort of fact doesn’t fit the narrative that people want to read about.

Watching the “Rise” of Stan in this book is so fascinating because of reading those years and seeing it in my head alongside my own experience as a child reading the comics and what my perception was.  I’m not sure how someone who did not have my own life experience will feel reading those sections, but it’s a bit like reading the diary of someone you thought you knew and discovering that their self-perception and life was nothing like you realized.  So much of Stan’s “Rise” was reliant upon artists and writers with much more skill and creativity than Stan himself possessed.  But one thing he did possess was the power to spot talent and to hitch his creative wagon to their horse.  He also benefited from a natural but well-practiced charisma that served him well while putting his extraverted personality out into public speaking engagements around the country.  He was laying the foundation for a particular persona and self-serving narrative that exists to this day.  And the book does not present this as particularly malicious or intentionally harmful.  This is Stan being Stan and charging through life without introspection and with blinders on so that he doesn’t necessarily see how his words or behavior might be construed (or misconstrued) by others.  Stan was incapable of declining credit (there’s that pesky low self-esteem again) and found it difficult even when pressed about it, to acknowledge the other artists as even CO-creators.  The one time he gave Ditko co-creator credit for Spider-Man, he could not help himself from saying it in such a way that Ditko could tell he didn’t really believe it.  When pressed, Stan said “I have always considered Steve Ditko to be Spider-Man's co-creator.” Of course, Ditko was quick to point out that Stan still did not say Steve Ditko was factually Spider-Man’s creator but that he had always “considered” him to be.  The use of that weasel word was enough for Ditko to dismiss it.  And this is indicative of Stan throughout his life.  He may not be the world’s best writer, but he would give Clarence Darrow a run for his money in choosing his words very carefully when he is speaking on the record.

There are two elements of the book that are going to be particularly polarizing to many readers.  The first is the inclusion of the crazy stories about Stan’s daughter JC, and the second is the conflict with Jack Kirby over who created the characters in those early days of Marvel.

The thing about including the stories about JC is that they are absolutely necessary to any objective biography that deals with the final decade or so of Stan’s life.  That last 10 to 15 years of Stan’s life is a minefield of fraud, mismanagement, theft, and abuse.  Where Stan’s “Rise” is a fascinating view into how he somehow succeeded in the 80s and onward at making himself the patron god of a business that he had no real involvement in or use for other than as a propellant for his rocket to Hollywood fame and fortune.  Stan’s “Fall” is a heartbreaking tale of somebody desperate enough to involve himself with shady and criminal types in scheme after scheme defrauding investors and consumers for years and years.  It is a tale of a man who is tired and broken and taken advantage of by those same people, then others, and always his daughter who allegedly was both physically and verbally abusive to him as she would swing from one bipolar episode to another.  Stan is even on the record near the end of his life incapable of even confidently saying that his own daughter loves him.  If that makes you sick to your stomach to hear, it should.  Stan was a human being and by the end of his life, he had been drained of every last drop of life by a circle of vampires, including his own daughter who took him to court to get the controlled trust Stan set up for her broken up so that when he died she could get everything and not have to go through a third-party trustee.  Riesman makes very sure that anything he says about JC has sources cited, even if the source is not publicly available (such as the private audio recordings of the two of them that were shared with the author).  In any objective biography, the relationship with JC is a necessary component of understanding Stan, so she and their relationship is absolutely essential to this work.

The conflict with Jack Kirby, that in and of itself, is a subject worthy of a book.  And there have been those as well.  In comics fandom circles, there are those who take the position that Jack created everything, those who say Stan created everything, and then there are those who say it was something in the middle.  Riesman says that none of those are very helpful to a biographer.  A biographer is not comfortable speculating that it must be something in the middle simply because he can’t make the case one way or the other.  It is a question that can never truly be answered precisely because at the time those original comics were being cranked out by a hack writer and his stable of fast-drawing freelance artists, they were considered throw-away children’s entertainment.  Nobody was keeping records of meetings or notes about plots and very few, if any, scripts.  There’s not even a lot of the art around because it was not seen as valuable.  They stored the pages away in warehouses where, over the years, much of it was destroyed by water, fire, rodents, or stolen by the occasional employee.  It was not until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that Marvel finally got around to cataloging and returning what art they still had to the artists from the ‘60s.  It is notable that Ditko, according to first-hand reports from people who visited Ditko in his office after that, used those returned Spider-Man pages as cutting boards for himself.  As horrifying as that sounds, it does indicate the mindset of the ‘60s work-for-hire freelancer.  The art was done for that month’s paycheck and never thought about again.  There was no after-market for the art yet.

Riesman does a good job of giving the reader Jack’s side of the story and Stan’s side of the story.  (Sidebar: If anyone wants an exhaustive resource for Jack and Stan’s own words on the topic, I recommend the ‘STUF SAID oral history book from TwoMorrows publishing.) He does interject as the author to point out how unhelpful both men’s memories are on this topic.  Both Jack and Stan could contradict themselves in the same breath while telling us their “absolute truth” about who did what.  But there are indicators that help present a bit of the picture that lets us know that Jack maybe contributed a bit more than Stan wanted to admit, but also that Stan contributed a bit more than Jack wanted to admit.  The most obvious indicator is that once Jack left Marvel to write and draw his own comics at DC, back at Marvel, and other publishers, his own writing style is demonstrably distinct from Stan’s and even his own pacing and plotting is notably different.  Jack’s FOURTH WORLD books, or THE DEMON, or OMAC; for example, do not track with the types of plots and storytelling that we were used to seeing on, say, FANTASTIC FOUR for 100 issues in collaboration with Stan.  Likewise, Stan fairly quickly transitioned out of writing and onto the editing only side after Jack bolted for DC.  It’s not like Stan only collaborated with Jack up till then, but from the way Riesman tells it, it does appear like Stan had become quite reliant upon Jack even if it was just to bounce ideas off of him—or get some.  Jack bolted sometime in 1970.  Stan stopped writing by 1972 and his creative output after that was particularly telling—especially his unyielding commitment to try and make putting funny word balloons onto photos into something people want or his penchant, when riffing creatively, of going into rather racy and sexually immature directions.  In the end, we are left with a writer who was not particularly creative but had a knack for exuberant and outlandish self-promotion and an artist who was very creative but was very uncomfortable tooting his own horn.  Together they tapped into a magical synergy that formed the foundation for a new way of telling stories within the constraints of corporate owned properties and without which the multi-billion dollar Disney/Marvel monster would not exist.

If your only experience with Stan Lee is his public persona, then this book should be eye-opening.  This is not a book that presents Stan as a bad person.  It presents Stan as full person.  Someone who could be funny and charming and gregarious (sometimes to a fault) but also someone who could be moody, spiteful, mean, duplicitous, and selfish.  Much like you and I, he was complicated, and Riesman has written a fairly definitive biography of Stan Lee that will stand the test of time.

 

Also, before I wrap this review, I want to say that this book should be made into a movie promptly by the writer and director behind the Oscar nominated THE BIG SHORT, Adam McKay.  And they should hire Sam Rockwell to play Stan.

 

That’s my free Hollywood advice.

 

Excelsior!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

THE MYTHS OF RALTARNEE by Philip José Farmer

The late, great Philip José Farmer has prolific library of books and other writings available.  Farmer passed away in 2009 and his devoted fan base (of which I am one) continue to seek out his work.  These include posthumous publications, collaborations, and original works by other authors that are connected to the fantastic worlds he created over the many decades of writing.  One of the more interesting aspects, to me, of Farmer's writing is how often he was involved in projects where he was not the marquee name.  His ego was such that he was willing to be the partner, part of a round-robin style project, or as in the focus of this blog post—providing evocative phantasmagorical commentary accompaniment to the fantasy art of painter Boris Vallejo.

From 1995 through 1999, Farmer wrote the accompanying commentaries for Vallejo's Fantasy Calendar series from Workman Publishing.   The Philip José Farmer International Bibliography website does have listings for all the calendars, but does not really give you a fair taste of how cool they really are.  Any Farmer completist really needs to seek these out and add them to your collection.  It seems pretty clear that the process was that the paintings from Vallejo were selected for the calendar and then they were presented to Farmer who let the visual imagery guide his imagination into whatever creative tangent or imaginary world they birthed within his author's mind.  Fans of Farmer's World of Tiers books will find a lot within these calendar commentaries that could easily slide into the parallel worlds mythology of the World of Tiers if they want them to.

I'm going to use this blog to reproduce the text from the 1996 calendar along with their corresponding picture for the month just to give the reader a taste but also for a representative historical example of an obscure writing of Farmer's that has been unavailable anywhere else for 25 years as of 2020.

Enjoy...The Myths of Raltarnee and Other Character Profiles by Philip José Farmer inspired by artwork created by Boris Vallejo! 
 
All image descriptions copyright © 1996, 2020, by the P J Farmer Family Trust.