Sage Stossel’s Starling

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

StarlingThere’s a suspicion common in genre circles when a writer or creator from ‘the mainstream’ uses genre conventions or plot points. It’s sometimes a justified suspicion, as the writer unfamiliar with genre falls into cliché or loses control of their material through inexperience with the form. But sometimes something else happens: fresh eyes can find new truths. And every so often somebody approaching a genre by starting at square one can show why the classic genre material works in the first place — and even twist that material a bit to find new life for it going forward.

I’m prompted to this reflection by reading Sage Stossel’s graphic novel Starling, an unconventional super-hero story. Stossel readily admits that she wasn’t a super-hero fan befoe starting the book. As she says:

I happened to walk past Newbury Comics in Harvard Square, and I noticed all these superhero-related materials in the window and found myself wondering why people are so into that stuff. After all, I figured, if you really think about it, being a superhero would be kind of a logistical nightmare. And it occurred to me that there might be some humor to be mined from that.

It’s an obvious idea, and it’s not wrong — just something super-hero comics have been investigating since at least the 1960s and the early Marvel Comics. Arguably it’s something underlying a lot of early DC books, as well: the tension between two identities and trying to succeed at both without compromising either. Stossel doesn’t seem terribly aware of this background, but as it turns out, she doesn’t need to be. She’s a skilled enough storyteller that she makes her story work, with charm and humour, and say something about super-heroes and super-hero stories into the bargain. However unintentionally, Starling becomes an odd mix of classical ideals (the super-hero who is a hero, striving through the compromises of everyday life to try to do something they feel is right) and new directions.

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Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Draws Pearls Before Swine

Saturday, June 7th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Bill Watterson draws Pearls Before SwineBill Watterson, the legendary creator of Calvin and Hobbes, is one of the most famous cartoonists in the world. He’s also one of the most private. After he retired from comics in 1995, he vanished from public life. He made Time Magazine‘s list of Top 10 Most Reclusive Celebrities (at #7) a few years ago (and Time accompanied the piece with one of the only known photographs of him.) For years, fans have been wondering what his next project would be.

It turns out that it’s already been published — and, typical for Watterson, in a surprisingly understated fashion. Stephan Pastis, creator of the bestselling Pearls Before Swine comic, revealed on his blog this morning that Watterson has been co-writing and co-drawing the strip with him for much of the past week:

I emailed him the strip and thanked him for all his great work and the influence he’d had on me. And never expected to get a reply. And what do you know, he wrote back. Let me tell you. Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he’s communicating with me?

But he was. And he had a great sense of humor about the strip I had done, and was very funny, and oh yeah… He had a comic strip idea he wanted to run by me…

What followed was a series of back-and-forth emails where we discussed what the strips would be about, and how we would do them. He was confident. I was frightened. Frightened because it’s one thing to write a strip read by millions of people. But it’s another thing to propose an idea to Bill Watterson.

You can see the entire sequence drawn by Watterson here, and this morning’s article by Michael Cavna’s  at The Washington Post that broke the story here.

Doctor Strange Gets a Director

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Strange Tales 110 Doctor Strange-smallI’ve been getting cranky waiting for progress on Marvel’s Doctor Strange movie, and as the wait has stretched out, I’ve been getting progressively more pessimistic (see my March post, Hurry Up With That Doctor Strange Movie, Marvel.)

The property has enormous potential to be something completely original in the superhero genre — namely a faithful rendition of Steve Ditko’s playful (and totally bonkers) inter-dimensional setting, which is what first blew away so many readers of Doctor Strange in the 1960s. A hero whose adventures routinely took him to gorgeous, bizarre, imaginative, and frequently monster-filled realms where normal concepts of space and distance were useless was something totally new, and readers thrilled to it — and it took Ditko’s unique genius to really make it work.

However, Marvel Studios took a huge step forward this week, announcing that they had selected a director for the film: Scott Derrickson, writer/director of the terrific little horror film Sinister, perhaps the best horror flick of 2012. Derrickson has an impressive resume as a writer/director, including The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and the upcoming Deliver Us from Evil (July 2014). He was also the director of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

If you’re getting a strong horror vibe off  Derrickson’s resume, you’re not alone. Matt D. Wilson at Comics Alliance did a fine job of articulating my own feelings on the announcement yesterday:

Seriously, though, that’s pretty interesting, considering that Doctor Strange has never been what I’d call a horror character, despite his many dealings with supernatural forces, demons, dark magic, and so forth. But his stories have always tended to be more fantastical, while other Marvel characters, such as Son of Satan, Werewolf By Night, and, you know, Dracula, have tended to be more horror-focused. The decision perhaps suggests a tone that won’t necessarily please Doctor Strange fans, but may be very palatable to general movie audiences, who made the low-budget Sinister a surprise hit back in 2012.

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Goth Chick News: Comic Aficionados, Prepare to Have Your Minds Blown

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 | Posted by Sue Granquist

Shifter graphic novel-smallWhen attending an event as gi-normous as Chicago’s C2E2, if you come upon a booth with a crowd so large you can’t get close enough to see what is going on, it can only mean one of two things.

Either the girls from Gorilla Tango Burlesque are promoting their Star Wars: A Nude Hope girlie show again or someone is demonstrating something truly amazing.  And though Black Gate photog Chris Z was hoping for the former, in this case it was the latter.

Comic fangirls and boys, allow me to introduce “augmented reality” comics.

To start with augmented reality, or “AR,” is defined by the Mashable tech site as:

A direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory inputs.  As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality.  Unlike virtual reality which replaces the real world with a simulated one, augmented reality is in real-time and in semantic context with environmental elements. With the help of advanced AR technology (e.g. adding computer vision and object recognition) information about the surrounding real (or in this case “comic”) world of the user becomes interactive and digitally manipulate-able. Artificial information about the environment and its objects is overlaid on the “real” world.

Translated, this means by downloading a free companion app and pointing your tablet or smartphone’s camera at pages in an AR comic, you can literally watch the art get up off the page and interact with you.

And this is what drew the insane crowd to the Anomaly Productions booth at C2E2.

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One of the Best Serials Ever Made: The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Chapter One: Curse of the Scorpion

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014 | Posted by Thomas Parker

Adventures of Captain Marvel poster-smallPop quiz. Who was the first superhero to make it into film?

Yes — you in the back…what? Spawn?! Sit down! Okay… you there, in the Marvel Zombie tee-shirt… no, it was not Wolverine, though there may never be another superhero movie made without him. Yes, I see you… Superman? Good guess, but nope. Batman? Warmer, but still no.

The first superhero to make it into the movies was Captain Marvel (or as his four-color arch-nemesis, Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, contemptuously dubbed him, “That Big Red Cheese”), in the 1941 serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel and his alter ego, young radio reporter Billy Batson, made their first appearance in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics #2, in February of 1940. The character, the creation of writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck, quickly became extremely popular, and for the remainder of the 1940′s, comics featuring him and the other members of the “Marvel Family” often outsold those featuring Superman.

National Periodical Publications (commonly known to comics fans as DC) tried to nip the rivalry in the bud by suing Captain Marvel out of existence in a legal wrangle that wouldn’t be decisively resolved until 1954. Well before that, though, Republic Pictures hopped on the bandwagon with The Adventures of Captain Marvel, a twelve-chapter serial that aficionados of the form regard as one of the best ever made.

The serial was directed by John English and William Whitney and written by the team of Ronald Davidson, Norman Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph Poland, and Sol Shor. They all keep the pot bubbling with action, peril, suspense, red herrings, and the crackling, popping energy that seems to be a unique feature of the best cliffhanger serials.

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Blogging Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon, Part Fifteen

Friday, May 9th, 2014 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Flash Alpha 1Flash Alpha 2“Return to Mongo” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from January 2 to March 24, 1956. The story gets underway with a party celebrating Dr. Zarkov’s newly discovered young adult daughter Zara and her arrival on Earth after growing up on an otherwise deserted swamp planet with her mother. Flash, Dale, and the Space Kids are at the party when Zarkov is alerted to the discovery that Mongo is once again entering Earth’s orbit and threatening our world’s stability. Willie, who still has the ability to psychically grant wishes, inadvertently teleports everyone from the party to Mongo.

Flash and the Space Kids are immediately set upon by Queen Azura’s cowled servants, who nearly massacre them. Working as a team to defeat Azura’s servants, Flash and the Space Kids are overcome by a paralyzing gas as they explore a nearby cave. They are subsequently captured and brought to Queen Azura’s palace, where they learn she is plotting to overthrow Prince Barin.

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Blogging Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon, Part Fourteen

Friday, May 2nd, 2014 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Barry Gordonkurtzman_flash_gordon_cvr11“The Swamp Girl” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from October 31 to December 31, 1955. Just as Dan Barry guided the strip closer to its origins, he took two sidesteps in introducing a back-story for Dr. Zarkov that Alex Raymond never intended. “The Swamp Girl” introduces us to a hot-tempered, beautiful young woman called Zara, whose mother was the sole survivor when her rocket crashed on the swamp world of Malagua twenty years before.

As the story begins, Lisa (Zara’s mother) is succumbing to malaria just as her daughter has finally succeeded in repairing their rocketship. Zara sets off to visit her father’s home world of Earth and fulfill her mother’s dying request that her daughter bring the father she has never met to see her mother before she dies, so that her mother may reconcile with him.

Zara arrives on Earth with her pet black panther, Octavio. Their ship’s coordinates take them to the desert town where Zara’s father, Dr. Zarkov, lives. After upsetting the neighborhood and evading the police, both the swamp girl and her panther reach their destination.

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Blogging Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon, Part Thirteen

Friday, April 25th, 2014 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Space Circus tradSpace Circus alt“Space Circus” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from September 5 to October 29, 1955. “Space Circus” is significant for being the first time in the Dan Barry strips where Flash’s past adventures on Mongo are now an integral part of the storyline. One wonders if reader response prompted King Features to request a change of direction from what would today be considered a reboot to a direct sequel to the original storyline of the early 1930s.

“Space Circus” gets underway with Flash abducted by a flying saucer while out driving on a desert road late one night. Abduction by UFO was a relatively new concept in the 1950s, but one that was spreading rapidly as a fear that many shared during the Cold War era. The aliens are from the planet Mesmo and appear as Asian caricatures. While a number of the inhabitants of Mongo were depicted as Asian in appearance, they were portrayed as being exotic and not as demeaning cartoonish representations. While there were certainly many more offensive Yellow Peril figures in comics of the era, the Mesmans are a far cry from the seductive and imposing inhabitants of Mongo as Alex Raymond portrayed them.

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The Series Series: The Barrow by Mark Smylie

Friday, April 18th, 2014 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Barrow-smallThe book mugged me. It was supposed to stay safely several weeks down in my queue while I kept commitments to other law-abiding books that had been waiting patiently for review. Then up walks The Barrow, brazen as you please, distracts me by flashing its jacket copy, and steals two weeks of all my attention right out of my calendar. But what else can you expect from a book full of gangsters, extortionists, rabble-rousers, mercenaries, slumming disgraced nobility, and assorted other low-life types?

I haven’t quite figured out how Mark Smylie pulled it off. The book has some obvious excellences, and some obvious failings, and some oddities that might be mistaken for one only to turn out to be the other. I’ll need to read more of Smylie’s work to figure out what tipped the balance in the book’s favor.

I found most of the characters somewhere between off-putting and odious, and nearly every time the body count went up by one, I was relieved at not having to put up with that character for one page longer. It’s as if Smylie had set himself the task of outdoing George R.R. Martin for grittiness of characterization, and overshot by twenty miles.

There are readers who love that sort of thing; I’m not usually one of them. As the endgame of the novel came in sight, there were only three characters I cared about at all — the enigmatic hero Stjepan Black-Heart, the cross-dressing street fighter Erim, and the disgraced noblewoman Annwyn. I kept coming back to my two snarky rhetorical questions: How are these two women going to survive ten more minutes surrounded by all those sociopaths? And when is Stjepan going to have a male friend who does not suck?

Only it turns out those are the questions that matter most, and several of the glitches I had mistaken for goofs on the author’s part ended up being the keys to the story’s other puzzles.

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Blogging Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon, Part Twelve

Friday, April 18th, 2014 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Barry Gordonkurtzman_flash_gordon_cvr11“Starling” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from July 11 to September 3, 1955. “Starling” starts off with Flash visiting Dr. Zarkov one evening to find his old friend depressed, as the U.S. Government has turned down his request for an additional million dollars funding to finish construction of the Super-S Rocket. It is a nice hint of direction for the strip to come, which will take the series closer to its roots. Flash and Zarkov are startled by the discovery of a prowler outside, but the man gets away.

Over the next few days, similar disturbing incidents occur. Flash and Dale are nearly run down by a speeding car while out walking one afternoon on the grounds of Zarkov’s estate. Later, a crate is dropped off the roof of a downtown building when Flash is walking beneath and just misses him. Shortly thereafter, Zarkov receives a telephone call from B. B. Remsen, the billionaire industrialist requesting an interview with Flash.

Upon visiting Remsen’s estate, Flash is outraged to discover Remsen hired his goon, Byron, to test Flash’s reflexes by nearly running him down with a speeding car and dropping a crate off a building. Byron was the prowler at Zarkov’s estate who learned of the need for financing for the Super-S Rocket. Remsen agrees to finance the rocket if Flash will take on a unique assignment. Remsen’s very wild granddaughter, Starling, wants to travel in space and Remsen wants Flash to pilot the rocket that will take her to the stars.

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