What Would it Look Like to Pull a Watchmen on Planetary Romance? Part II

Sunday, August 24th, 2014 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

carson aWhen we last left our intrepid blogger (me) two weeks ago, he was blogging (very roughly) about the superhero genre, pre- and post-Watchmen, and the kind of light that Alan Moore’s Watchmen shone onto superhero comics. I did this because I think Moore did something very special and I wondered if it could be done to other fields, especially planetary romance.

I ended on a cliffhanger. And now, Part II….

I said last time that most of the traditions of the superhero genre were born in a very brief period between 1938 and 1945. In fact, the elements of the superhero tradition come part and parcel from the larger pulp tradition, which contained westerns; gritty and occasionally lurid detective stories; and planetary romances like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, John Carter of Mars, and Carson Napier of Venus.

The planetary romance tradition was powerfully tailored to its key market: white male American teens and men. If you were an under-appreciated teen with hero or power fantasies, pulp was your thing.

The heroes were young, white, smart, good looking, physically able, self-deprecating, and commanding. They confronted immediate perils (like a monster) or vast dangers (like an invasion), often single-handedly, or from a position of inspiring leadership.

And the opponents the hero fought were most often one-dimensional, morally-destitute cardboard placeholders for savage (non-whites) in our world, a view consistent with racial views of the late 19th century.

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What Would it Look Like to Pull a Watchmen on Planetary Romance? Part I

Saturday, August 9th, 2014 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

watchmencoverI’ve been musing lately about the conventions of the comic book form we’ve inherited from the past and how they match to the sensibilities of the present. They don’t easily fit without suppressing either the core superhero conceits or the realities of the modern world.

Perhaps the most famous crashing of the two was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which slammed the conventions of the superhero genre into the hard, hard wall of modern, adult sensibilities. It made a pretty mess of the superhero genre.

Most of the traditions of the superhero genre were born in a very brief period between 1938 and 1945, a time which birthed Superman, Batman, the Justice Society, Captain America, the Submariner, and the Human Torch, as well as many other less memorable characters.

The idea of the secret identity, of defending truth, justice and the American way, of the repeated conflict with the nemesis villain, and of just relentlessly defeating crime, were all in those first seven years. The only idea I can think of that seems to me essential to the superhero genre that was not formed in those times is the idea that the characters never really die (except for Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy, and Bucky, as the famous rule inaccurately goes).

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New Treasures: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Volume One, Adapted by P. Craig Russell

Saturday, August 9th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The Graveyard Book Volume One-smallI’ve been a fan of P. Craig Russell’s comic work since his adaptation of Michael Morcock’s Elric: The Dreaming City first appeared in Epic magazine way back in 1979.

Russell did a lot of attention-getting work for Marvel, including Doctor Strange Annual #1 (1976) and a lengthy run on Killraven (1974–1976), before branching out as an independent artist. He returned to Elric several times, first with While the Gods Laugh (Epic, 1981), and Elric of Melniboné (1982–84), a limited series scripted by Roy Thomas from Pacific Comics.

He brought the character to First Comics with Elric: Weird of the White Wolf, and in 1993-95 he worked directly with scripter Michael Moorcock on Elric: Stormbringer (Dark Horse Comics). He also worked with my friend Mark Shainblum on The Chronicles of Corum, an ongoing series from First Comics, in the late 80s.

Russell’s first collaborations with Neil Gaiman were the famous “Ramadan” issue of Sandman (issue #50, 1992), which helped inspire Howard Andrew Jones to create Dabir & Asim, and a story in the Sandman graphic novel Endless Nights. That led to Russell’s first graphic adaptation for Gaiman, his novel Coraline (2008).

Now he’s produced his most ambitious collaboration with Gaiman yet: a two-volume graphic adaptation of The Graveyard Book, the tale of a boy who’s raised by ghosts in a graveyard. The first volume, just released, contains Chapter One through the Interlude, while the upcoming Volume Two contains Chapter Six through to the end.

Here’s the book description.

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Rocket Girl: Times Squared

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 | Posted by MichaelPenkas

Rocket Girl volume 1One of the chief appeals of this comic, for me at least, is nostalgia. The story moves between two bygone eras: the 1980s and the future. I grew up in the 1980s and, like a lot of people my age, had almost as solid of an idea of what the future looked like as the present. In 1986, we all knew about the future. We’d been seeing it for decades on television and in the movies, after all. The future was filled with steel and plastic, robots and flying cars, bright colors and hope. Sure, there were some stories out there where the future turned out horrible, but we understood these as cautionary tales, warnings about the problems we’d avoid to guarantee that amazing era of endless innovation. We knew that 2013 would be so different from 1986 that anyone stepping through a time machine would think he’d set foot on an alien world. Even the slang would be different. But, for better or worse, that future is now past.

So, Rocket Girl starts in 1986, where a team of young quantum engineers (just run with it) are testing their Q-engine (which, for the story, is essentially a McGuffin device), when Dayoung Johansson, teen police officer from the year 2013, appears and places them all under arrest for crimes against time. Then she passes out.

As the story progresses, we get further clues to the exact nature of the “crimes” that have been perpetrated (or which will be perpetrated, given your point of view), with the implication that Dayoung’s actions in 1986 will either completely erase the 2013 she knew or unintentionally ensure that it happens. Meanwhile, as long as she’s in 1986 New York, she decides to use her futuristic technology (including her standard-issue rocketpack) to fight the crime and corruption that infests the city. Curiously, helping innocent people is not misinterpreted, she is not labeled a freak, and people treat her like a hero. It’s been a while since we’ve seen something that upbeat in a comic book.

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Old Favorites: Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni

Saturday, July 12th, 2014 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

Deryni rising I don’t usually fan or geek out about stuff – my credentials in geekdom are rarely questioned, but I was thinking the other day about my influences and in what direction I might want them to go.

I’ve been reading a lot of space opera and really hard sci-fi lately, mostly Alastair Reynolds with a side of Stephen Baxter, as I get ready to start a new novel. But hard sci-fi and fantasy are just setting. Any plot structure can fit inside them. Baxter is a lot of adventure. Reynolds is very noir.

dragon 78That got me to thinking about what stories I enjoyed and why. One of the appeals of Game of Thrones is how it’s a giant soap opera. Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men was similarly soapy, as was the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.

And that reminded me of how much I loved Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series as a teen. The Kingdom of Gwynedd, a human world of the Middle Ages with a scattering of persecuted psionic families, has always seemed to me to be one of those surprisingly under-appreciated corners of fantasy.

The only reason I’d ever heard of it was because of issue #78 of Dragon magazine, which was an issue devoted to psionics in AD&Dand one of the articles featured the characters of Kurtz’s Gwynedd in role-playing terms. I looked for her books at my local second-hand store as soon as I could.

Right away, I found two of Kurtz’s core trilogies, the Deryni series (Deryni Rising, Deryni, and High Deryni) and the Camber series (Camber of Culdi, Saint Camber, and Camber the Heretic), and even after only the first one, I was hooked.

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Witch Doctor: Under the Knife

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 | Posted by MichaelPenkas

Witch Doctor - Under the KnifeWhat if Dr. Gregory House had become Sorceror Supreme instead of Dr. Stephen Strange? If you’re familiar with both those names, chances are you’ve just clicked off this page to order your own copy of Witch Doctor: Under the Knife. If you never watched House and never read Doctor Strange, don’t worry … this isn’t one of those parody books that requires preliminary reading.

Dr. Vincent Morrow is a practicing physician whose specialty is supernatural medicine. Demonic possession, vampiric infection, pregnant faerie folk … Vincent Morrow’s the guy you call. What the doctor lacks in bedside manner, he makes up with a knowledge of the occult so vast that it sounds like he’s making it up as he goes along (which hardly ever turns out to be the case). How exactly is interspecies breeding possible with the Deep Ones? What is the medical definition of a soul and how do you treat someone who’s born without one? What kind of scalpel does one use to remove a demonic parasite? (Hint: It’s the kind you have to pull out of a stone.) The answers combine traditional folklore with modern medical terminology.

The strength of this series is in the sheer overload of fresh ideas and new perspectives on old storylines. Of course, we all know the key features of a vampire (big teeth, aversion to holy symbols, allergy to sunlight), but there’s just something fascinating about watching a doctor run through each characteristic and reason out how it evolved in what is essentially a supernatural parasite. An old-school paranormal investigator would use some sort magic sphere to track down a faerie trading changelings for human babies, but Dr. Morrow opts instead for a CDC-style database that pinpoints each incident, then traces it back to an origin point as if it were an influenza outbreak rather than a supernatural phenomenon. And it’s fun, after all the other crazy stuff that happens in chapters one and two, to see him get genuinely bothered by the interordinal hybridization of Deep Ones mating with humans, not because it’s disgusting, but because it’s medically impossible.

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Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 | Posted by MichaelPenkas

rat-queens-vol-01-releasesI’ve seen this title compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tank Girl, and Lord of the Rings. But honestly, it seems to be nothing more or less than a homage to Dungeons & Dragons. Not the novels or the cartoon show or the (ugh!) movie. It’s a homage to the game we played, complete with fighter/magic-user/thief/cleric four-member parties, healing spells as plentiful as aspirin, random monster encounters, and characters who talk more like a group of suburban teenagers than mercenaries in a pseudo-mideval age.

The Rat Queens are a team of four adventurers. Violet is a dwarven fighter who worries a bit too much about her image. Hannah is an elven mage whose necromancer parents occasionally nag her on a scrying device that looks suspiciously similar to a cell phone. Dee is a human, an atheist, and a cleric (because nobody cares who you pray to, as long as your healing spells still work). Betty is a smidgen (because the Tolkien estate owns the term “hobbit” and the Dungeons & Dragons estate probably laid some claim to their alternative term “halfling”) thief who sounds just like someone whose diet consists of drugs and candy. Together, they kill monsters for money, then spend that money on alcohol and drugs (which gets them into more trouble than the monster killing).

The story opens with the Rat Queens (and four other four-member adventuring teams) being arrested for wrecking the city of Palisade on a drunken bender. To avoid a stint in the dungeon, they are each given a quest. On their way to murder a pack of goblins, the Rat Queens are waylaid by an assassin, then a troll. When they fail to find any goblins in the area, they realize that they’ve been set up. Returning to Palisade, the Queens discover that the other teams were similarly ambushed and many of them are dead. What follows are more fights with assassins, a troll army, and the mystery of who hired the assassins to kill the adventurers. Many people die and the survivors get totally wrecked at a party.

Rat Queens is a fairly new series (only six issues out so far), with the first five issues already collected in a trade paperback titled, Sass and Sorcery. The stories in these issues start with fairly conventional fantasy plots, then twist them into bizarre new shapes. There is a lot of profanity, a lot of drinking, and some drug use, so it’s not an all ages book by any stretch of the imagination, but well worth its low introductory price ($9.99) for anyone who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons. If you’re looking for a comparison, instead of Lord of the Rings meets Bridesmaids, how about Knights of the Dinner Table meets Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas?

Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery is written by Kurtis J Wiebe, illustrated by Roc Upchurch, and available in both print and digital formats. Find out more about this series (including preview pages and where to order a copy) at Image Comics.

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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