My look at Marvel Team-Up #23 the other day yielded another interesting item from that issue's letters page. Apparently, Dave Lofvers of Rochester, New York was pining for Spider-Man to team up with a rather controversial character...
Get that? Not only did Dave request a forbidden zombie and nudity in Marvel comic books, but he wanted the entire Comics Code abolished as well!
So, what was the response? Well, unlike Marvel's typically flip and humorous replies to letter writers, the response of the editor (most likely Roy Thomas) was surprisingly thoughtful and candid...
Pretty astonishing stuff. Granted, in his official capacity at Marvel Comics, the editor had to publicly support the Comics Code Authority and its standards, but at the same time it's refreshing to see someone openly challenge the knee-jerk assumption that sex and violence equals an "adult" reading experience. The response continued...
More stunning stuff here. See, in all my years of collecting comics, it's been the accepted orthodoxy that everything about the Comics Code was toxic and repressive, and that the comics of the early 50's were exempt from moral scrutiny and social responsibility. Yet the editor acknowledges the excess and irresponsibility that lead to the Code's creation...a view I've long shared. I'm no apologist for the extreme charges of Dr. Wertham, nor am I willing to defend every aspect of the Comics Code policies (some of which were pretty silly), but I have to say: I just don't buy the propaganda....so it's gratifying to see that people in high places were willing to break from the crowd. In the case of this editor, it was an attempt to separate sensational violence and nudity from a more elevated form of maturity...a truly adult way to tell a story.
You see, the inclusion of the Comics Code seal in my blog's header isn't an ironic statement, but actually a shorthand way to show visitors where my head and heart are at. To me, the code seal on the comic books I grew up with wasn't a symbol of persecution and First Amendment shredding, but a sign that adults were looking out for me who had an expectation that creators would find ways to entertain without resorting to easy, sleazy thrills. Same thing holds here at Comic Coverage.
So, since the Comics Code Seal isn't seen as the sign of the Anti-Christ here, fellow fans of code-era comics can visit my Secret Identity shop, pick up some Comics Code stuff (like the shirt to the left), and proudly show your support for a vanished era of comics.
Or hey, buy one and ironically wear one even if you oppose the code. I'm not picky. Just be sure to order one in time for Christmas!
Let's get this out of the way first: I've never been a fan of The Spirit comic strip or, for that matter, any of creator Will Eisner's work. Yeah, yeah...the guy was a pillar of the artform and invented much of the "language" used in comic book storytelling. I get that. But I still don't like his stuff. Sue me.
So, granted...my dislike of The Spirit is undoubtedly coloring my apathy toward the upcoming movie adaptation of the character, directed by Frank Miller (comic book legend and wearer of The Shadow's hat). That said, am I the only one who sees "epic flop" written all over this thing?
Opening on Christmas Day, The Spirit seems destined to be one of the biggest comic book flops since Howard the Duck. I may be wrong...but I seldom am when it comes to sniffing out cinematic bombs.
If you agree with my prediction that The Spirit is going to tank, vote just how poorly it's going to do in the poll below. Now, I realize "opening weekend" is often defined as three or sometimes even four days long, so let's assume the Spirit's opening weekend will cover Dec. 25th through Dec. 28th. Based on that time period, click on the choice closest to your prediction:
"Greetings, ignorant curs! I am Victor Von Doom, the greatest enemy of both the Fantastic Four and the insipid holiday known as Christmas! As I revealed last year, I have been undermining Christmas for years through 'Operation Santa Scare', a secret campaign to frighten children with my army of sinister Santa agents planted in department stores across the United States. The sheer terror generated by these Bearded Beazlebubs has made a normally joyful time into an unholy trauma for countless mewling brats...their tear-stained screams serving as sweet music to my ears!"
"This year, I shall reveal ten more of my most prized "Sinister Santas"...some of whom may be plying their anti-Christmas craft at a shopping mall near you!"
1. "Agent F-77's dingy yellow beard can't hide the malevolence behind those shifty, calculating eyes. Why, even the cartoon character on the boy's shirt is scared witless!"
2. "Not even the wails of a screaming infant can wake the creepy, narcoleptic Agent Z-ZZ...bundled snugly inside his beard and hat while dreaming evil dreams."
3. "Don't let the smile of Agent Q-32 fool you...those angry eyebrows and the claw-like death grip on the hysterical child reveal his inner moral rot!"
4. "Feel your willpower slip away under the blank, hypnotic gaze of Agent X-1000, a fully robotic operative capable of terrorizing three children at once!"
5. "One of my greatest agents, C-33 boldly displays his anger and contempt for all that is good and decent."
6. "Can you feel the waves of evil (and menthol) wafting from Agent D-53?"
7. "Though not a truly living agent, the cyclopean stare of my miniature Santa Drone accomplishes the same goal: Total and utter hysteria!"
8. "Look how youthful innocence is eclipsed by the slovenly, highly-intoxicated evil of Agent Y-45!"
9. "Agent T-63, a hatless madman, triggers instant fear with hair resembling SNL character Rosanne Rosannadanna and smelling like a filthy Texaco bathroom!"
10. "Ah, Agent B-00...my pride and joy! This eerie emissary of evil gives even me, DR. DOOM, a shiver of fright...as his cold, dead eyes and grave-pale skin consume all innocence, happiness, and light within a five mile radius. Exquisite."
"Now that I have crippled you with fear and despair, I take my leave. I shall spend every moment between now and thrice-cursed Christmas monitoring the misery spawned by my Sinister Santas! Slowly, but surely, I shall bring an end to this fetid holiday of rank hypocrisy...one screaming baby at a time!"
As a little tyke, my birthday was celebrated in the usual way: cake, party games, presents, little pals, etc. However, as I grew older, my parents would pop for a movie for me and a few friends. Kinda modest by today's ever-escalating entertainment standards for kid birthdays, but as a budding movie fan...I loved every minute of it.
As the last of those fondly-remembered "movie birthdays", I celebrated my 13th birthday by seeing a movie that had opened only six days earlier on December 15th, 1978. Superman: The Movie, as you might imagine, completely blew the minds of my friends and I. From the opening "comic book scene" to the closing scene's "smiling fly-by", we were transfixed by the movie's epic scale and surprisingly "serious" take on the character. Remember, my generation marinated on campy, low-wattage superhero movies and TV shows...so the big budget majesty of Superman was the first time we realized that the world of fantasy really could "come true" if there was enough money, talent, and willpower behind it. No, we didn't quite "Believe a Man Can Fly" (as the movie poster proclaimed), but we did walk away believing that more of this kind of wide-eyed spectacle was in our future.
Now, thirty years later, comic book movies are better than ever...with the promise of even better stuff to come. But for me, that singular moment when fantasy blurred into reality (or a sort of pseudo-reality) was that 13th birthday exactly three decades ago. Yeah, Star Wars had blown my mind in another way a year and a half earlier, but with its lightsabers and planet-obliterating Death Stars, it didn't have nearly the "feel of the real" (or, in fancy-speak, "verisimilitude") that Superman did.
So, to everyone associated with Superman: The Movie...especially director Richard Donner, the brilliant composer John Williams, and the late, great (and fondly remembered) Christopher Reeve, thank you for that special afternoon thirty years ago and all the inspiration the movie's provided ever since.
Of all the superhero Christmas covers I've come across (some of which can be seen here and here), the DC Super-Star Holiday Special (a.k.a. DC Special Series #21, 1980) stands apart as one of the most surreal. While the other covers focus on predictable secular imagery (stockings, presents, Santa Claus, etc), this one depicts a disparate band of DC characters following a blazing star to, presumably, the ancient city of Bethlehem...in other words, indisputably religious territory!
Illustrated by Garcia Lopez, the unusual traveling companions included (from top to bottom) four teen heroes from the 30th century, Superboy from the 20th, deformed western anti-hero Jonah Hex, an anonymous witch, horror mag hosts Cain and Abel (seated on the camel), WWII hero Sgt. Rock, and an uncharacteristically cheery Batman beckoning us to join them on their spiritual pilgrimage!
Though I don't actually own this issue (yet!), I'm reasonably sure the stories inside don't depict the Merry Band arriving in Bethlehem to visit the newly-born Christ Child. However...I couldn't resist visualizing what that incredibly bizarre Nativity scene might have looked like if they did!
(click on the Nativity scene for a more glorious view)
I should note that the three tiny Legionnaires in the foreground are part of DC's line of "Pocket Super Heroes", all of which feature the original uniforms of Lightning Lad, Phantom Girl, and Saturn Girl (unlike the groovier mid-70's versions depicted on the cover). Wildfire (behind Batman) was actually a custom figure someone made (man, that guy was hard to find), while Cain and Abel were actually taken from a set of DC Direct bookends. The others were all "official" action figures from DC Direct (except for the witch...I didn't bother looking for the witch).
So there you have it. A Nativity scene like no other....and a ticket straight to Hell for Yours Truly!
I'll be spending the next several days taking "a long winter's nap", but before I take my mini-breather, a Christmas greeting from my favorite web-slinger. After defeating the Manhattan rampage of Stegron and his pack of reanimated dinosaurs, the epilogue* of the tale finds a window-peeping Spider-Man delivering a gift to the beleaguered family of Curt Connors (who'd just transformed back from his villainous identity of The Lizard)...then pulling a "Tiny Tim" in a rare moment of non-angst!
Of all the missives appearing on the old comic book letter pages, some of the most common were from eagle-eyed fans who'd proudly spotted some kind of visual gaffe. In most cases, the error would be acknowledged by the editor, who would sometimes even send the fan something special (such as original artwork or Marvel's legendary "No Prize").
However, sometimes the error-spotting fan would be the one in error....but never quite as spectacularly as Michael Santagato, whose letter was printed in Marvel Two-In-One #27 (1977)...
Uhhh...yeah. Let's have the Marvel Two-In-One editor take it from here...
Got that, Michael? NEVER!!!
Oh, I did a little research and tracked down that Reed Richards picture the editor was referring to. You've heard of Cool Hand Luke, right? Well, from the splash page of Fantastic Four #152 (1974), I present Three-Hand Reed!
As a slam-dunk candidate for a fan "error letter", I jumped ahead four months to Fantastic Four #156 and, sure enough, Joe Tucciarone came through with a pun-encrusted note fishing for a No-Prize...
Not missing a beat, the Marvel editor fought pun with pun in his response...
Here in the closing days of 2008, I thought I'd take a rare jump onto the bandwagon and offer my own take on the best...and worst...the world of comics (and comics-related media) had to offer over the past year.
With the optimism the holiday season brings, let's
begin with the Good Stuff(in no particular order):
1. The Iron-Man movie: Although I was cautiously optimistic toward Marvel Studios' freshman effort, I had no idea just how wildly successful Iron-Man would turn out to be, both creatively and financially. Marvel proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that fidelity to the source material (as well as clever, carefully-seeded connections to future Marvel movies) is a winning strategy...and an approach the perpetually flat-footed Warner Bros. studios are quickly trying to adapt to their inert (non-Batman) superhero franchises. Check out my review of the movie for more specifics, but to sum it up: Iron-Man was a finely-tuned collaboration between a director who "gets it", top-notch actors (especially Robert Downey Jr.), eye-popping special effects, and a very smart marketing campaign. In other words, it's the new standard against which all Marvel movies will be measured (sorry, Spider-Man 2...you've been replaced)!
2. Writer Geoff Johns: As one of the most prolific, enthusiastic, and professional writers in the business (if not the most), Geoff Johns has become a sort of defacto "quarterback" of DC Comics as his ideas and ambitious storylines propel the publisher into exciting new directions. Like any popular creator, Johns has his vocal critics...many of whom claim he's systematically reinstating DC's "Silver Age" of the 1950's and 60's, but fans of his (like me) don't see rote revival but rather carefully considered re-imaginings combined with compelling new ideas.
Yeah, I can agree with some of the criticism leveled toward his occasional use of visceral, violent imagery...but the key word is "occasional". Experience seems to have given Johns a bit more wisdom regarding where and when to use such imagery, but it's still a characteristic that dogs his work...and, frankly, a bit of a "crutch" he could easily drop altogether in my opinion. His work is strong enough without having to resort to the cheap shocks.
However, that's the only qualification I have in endorsing Johns' writing. In fact, considering so many of my monthly comic books are either written by Johns (Green Lantern, JSA, Action Comics, Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds), are collaborations with Johns (Superman, Green Lantern Corps), or his upcoming titles (Flash: Rebirth, a Legion of Superheroes revival in Adventure Comics), it's obvious the positive, entertaining aspects of his writing far outweigh the occasional turn-off of excessive violence. As with the past couple of years, Johns remains the writer to watch.
3. Superman's 70th Anniversary: Back in June, I tried something I'd never done here at Comic Coverage before or since, and that was 30 consecutive days devoted to a single topic: 70 years of Superman. The character has always been a favorite of mine, but my enthusiasm for the month-long commemoration was certainly fueled by the ongoing quality of DC's line of Superman books. Following several years of colossally bad stewardship of the character, DC finally hired an editor and a stable of creators who reinvigorated the character and his world...once again making the Superman titles the first books I read on a weekly basis. Finally...it really IS a great time to be a Superman fan.
4. The Incredible Hulk movie: Hitting two for two, Marvel Studio's second film was also great fun...and certainly more entertaining than Ang Lee's dull-as-dishwater 2003 version. Equal parts a comic book adaptation and a nod to the 1970's TV series, this version had many more of the elements I'm looking for in a Hulk movie...namely huge amounts of noisy smashing sprinkled with a bit of angsty emoting (which the 2003 movie got exactly backwards). Where the franchise goes from here is anyone's guess, but it's great to see an old favorite brought to the screen in such style and wall-shaking volume.
5. The Reprint Tsunami: In addition to the usual trade paperback collections of recent stories, there seems to have been a virtual explosion of affordable volumes reprinting the great (and, yes, not-so-great) comic books of decades past. Whether it's the pricier hardcover color volumes or the dirt cheap black-and-white "phonebooks", comic book history has never been more accessible to old and new fans alike. Dark Horse has recently jumped into the ring with their reprints of Gold Key titles like Magnus Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar, and other defunct publishers like ACG (who published cult favorite Herbie the Fat Fury). As a steady stream of consumers and public libraries snap up these books, more people than ever have easy access to several decades worth of outstanding entertainment.
With those five highlights duly noted, let's make the inevitable
turn to 2008's comic-related lowlights...a.k.a. "The Bad".
1. The Dark Knight movie: I said it then, and I'll say it again: I don't get it. I simply don't get the hysterical enthusiasm for The Dark Knight which, outside of a single brilliant performance by Heath Ledger, was a dreary, incoherent mess. Most disappointing was the inert performance of Christian Bale as a blank-faced Bruce Wayne and laughably robo-armored, monster-voiced Batman. Depressing, non-sensical crap.
2. Writer Grant Morrison: Though just as prolific and high-profile as fellow DC writer Geoff Johns, Morrison's stock really took a tumble during 2008, at least from my point of view. To be sure, when Morrison is "on", his ambitious high-concept epics are a thing to behold (like his JLA, Seven Soldiers, and All-Star Superman stuff)....but man, when he's phoning it in, it's a lazy, non-linear stagger through fever-dream journals and meta-textual abstractions. Which leads me to...
3. Final Crisis:Yaawwwnnn. As the supposed be-all end-all of DC's Crisis-themed projects, the still-incomplete Final Crisis has become the poster child for poorly conceived and executed event comics. Plagued by art delays and a dull, meandering storyline, Final Crisis is little more than Morrison's arcane meditations on word power, cosmic symbology, and...oh yeah...his refurbished version of the New Gods, Jack Kirby's campy-cosmic space opera that's never been a good fit with the DC Universe. Sure...we got the return of Barry Allen out of it, but even that's been handled in such an obtuse way, I wish it had happened somewhere else (like in The Flash or evenLegion of Three Worlds). All in all, a crashing disappointment...with little hope the two remaining issues will somehow make sense of it all.
4. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Fantastic Four: The much-ballyhooed takeover of The Fantastic Four by golden boys Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch was probably the biggest creative belly flop of 2008. Unceremoniously kicking the critically-acclaimed team of Dwayne McDuffie and Paul Pelletier to the curb, the King of Self-Promotion and his pal "Hitchy" spectacularly missed the target with Marvel's First Family, growing more pathetic with the long delays that inevitably accompany the self-styled rock star creators. Now that his narcissism and relentless self-promotion seems more at home in Hollywood, is it fair to say that Mark Millar's time in comics has passed? Sure, he's been threatening to overhaul the Superman character for at least a decade...and is equally determined to write a trilogy of Superman movies...but as the hot air from so many of his over-hyped projects continues to dissipate...does anyone really care?
5. $3.99 cover prices: Comic book fans are good at threatening to cut back on comics (or drop them altogether) following a cover price increase, but now that Marvel (and shortly DC) has surpassed the $3.99 barrier, I suspect many of us will finally follow through on those threats. Just as we found out what the breaking point was for a gallon of gasoline earlier this year (also about $4.00), four bucks for a lousy 22 pages of story seems to be another "clarifying moment" for comic book consumers. I know I'll be cutting back in 2009, although it'll be more out of protest than actual financial strain. We need to see more diverse, innovative formatting in comics...not another bump in cover price.