Friday, May 22, 2015

This Cover Made Me Buy This Book -No, Really

Karen: It was such a great idea, I decided to try it too. How about this beauty from John Byrne and Tom Palmer in 1978? Could you turn this down if you saw it on the spinner rack? I know I couldn't.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Name Your Poison

Doug: Recently C.K. Dexter Haven revived Karen's post on Zingers or Cupcakes, three years after it was published! Now that's some fine spelunking you've done, m'boy!

Doug: In one of his recent comments, C.K. stated that Mr. Pibb was his drink of choice -- of course that spurs today's post, where we'll shift from sugary confections of the cake variety to sugary confections of the fizzy liquid variety!

Doug: First off, I have to ask -- do you call it "soda", "pop", or something else? Where I live it's always been pop, but when most other places I've traveled soda seems to be the more common term. Regardless, what's your favorite drink? Is there a brand you favor over others? Are there drinks you don't care for at all? And what about branching this into iced tea -- sweet tea, or unsweetened?

Doug: Personally, I'm a Diet Dr. Pepper guy -- that's my go-to. After that, it's Diet Coke. I've never been one of those hardcore "gotta pick Pepsi over Coke (or vice versa)" guys. I'll drink Diet Pepsi, but given a choice I'll reach for the Coke. I do not at all care for "regular" pop -- after years of drinking diet sodas the sugar-sweetened stuff is just too thick and rich for me. I'll drink a root beer, but really, just a few of those a year will do me. Same with the lemon-limes, like 7-Up or Sprite. I like them, but don't as a rule buy them. A treat every now and then is Diet Coke Lime -- I miss the lemon version. Does anyone remember Pepsi Light (which wasn't light, but was infused with lemon flavor)?

Doug: And to set your mind for today's conversation, here are some pop cans from the Bronze Age. Ah, the memories!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Discuss: Fabulous or Fiasco? Flash Finale

Karen: Anybody want to chat about last night's season finale of The Flash? I thought that despite an uneven but mostly entertaining season, the finale really delivered. And what a cliffhanger! It looks like this will be feeding directly into the new CW series, Legends of Tomorrow. There was so much going on, it's hard to focus on any one thing. How about Barry's decision? And is his timeline a paradox? Start chatting kids.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Guest Reviews - Mike W. Barr's Batman Annuals

Doug: As summer approaches, what better format of comic books to discuss than Annuals! Edo Bosnar is here today with his thoughts on a few of his favorite books from those warm days of our youths -- two Batman Annuals and a Batman Special written by a personal favorite, Mike W. Barr.

Edo Bosnar: When I was a youngster back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mike Barr was just one of many comics writers with whose name I was familiar, but who never had that same status in my mind as say, Chris Claremont or Roy Thomas, to say nothing of the then increasingly popular writer-artists like Frank Miller, John Byrne or Walt Simonson. But when I got back into comics sometime in the first decade of this new century and started thinking about all of the comics I liked (and slowly began to re-acquire some of the stuff that I had in my original long-lost comics collection), I realized that many of the Batman stories I recalled quite fondly were in fact written by Mr. Barr. Specifically, three ‘big’ issues immediately came to mind, Batman Annual #8 and the 1984 Batman Special in particular, but also Batman Annual #9.

Batman Annual #8 (1982)
“The Messiah of the Crimson Sun”
Mike W. Barr-Trevor von Eeden

Initially my favorite of these was Batman Annual #8. This is definitely one of those “the cover made me buy it” books. DC annuals were pretty uncommon at the time anyway, so that intrigued me right away, while the absolutely gorgeous art by Trevor von Eeden really sealed the deal for the young me.

The story begins with the horrible deaths of pretty much everyone in a small farming community north of Gotham City – they all have the flesh fried from their bones at the crack of dawn by some oddly reddish sunlight. Not long afterward, television transmissions in Gotham are interrupted by an announcement from a mysterious cowled figure and calling himself the Messiah of the Crimson Sun, who apparently runs some kind of cult that has a big church in the city. He tells the Gotham’s residents that they’re next. This prompts Batman to go to the farming community, which has been cordoned off by the military – not an obstacle for him, obviously.

There, he finds out that two people did survive the massacre by dawn’s early light: a kidney patient at the local hospital, who is hooked up to a dialysis machine, and some flaky guy in a white robe called Seth, who keeps telling everyone to have faith in the Crimson Sun. The latter is also very thirsty and keeps asking for water. The army physician can’t figure out why everyone was killed, and why these two survived. So there’s all the ingredients to a great Batman story: a mystery, a threat to Gotham, and a megalomaniacal villain.
Batman sends Robin (who happens to be in town), disguised as Seth, to infiltrate the Crimson Sun’s organization, and then there’s a shocking reveal - since this came out over 30 years ago, I don’t think I’ll spoil this too much by noting that the Crimson Sun is actually Ra’s al-Ghul.

It’s all another one of his schemes to wipe out most of the planet’s human population – this time by using a gigantic orbiting lens that focuses the sun’s rays (and gives them that crimson hue) on a specific point on the planet. The people get fried because he adds a chemical to the water supply in advance which reacts quite unpleasantly in the human body when hit by direct sunlight.
Batman, meanwhile, figures much of this out himself, and also where the goons sent by Ra’s/Crimson Sun will attempt to contaminate Gotham’s water supply. However, before takes them all out, one of them manages to flip the valve to release the chemical into Gotham’s main water plant.

Eventually, Batman confronts R’as in his orbiting space station – he gets there by borrowing a space shuttle from NASA, with Robin and Talia (always conveniently there when Ra’s shows up) in tow. When I recently re-read this to prepare for this review, I found that this last part of the story didn’t hold up for me: it just seemed to take the otherwise generous leeway I give to superhero stories a little too far. I think it would have worked better if the action had been a little more, well, grounded. That’s why I said above that it used to be my favorite – now it’s slipped a bit in my estimation, even though I still think it’s well worth reading. And this is because of my favorite aspects of the story: the really nice build-up, the somewhat shocking reveal of the villain, and the little character moments, mainly Batman’s interactions with Robin and Alfred in particular. These are in fact Barr’s strong suits.

I also have to laud the art in this one. Von Eeden was really on fire here, and every panel and every page look spectacular. The colorist, Lynn Varley, also deserves special praise, because the color palette is so perfectly suited to the story: it consists mainly of darks like various shades of black, gray and blue, and then tones of red, orange, magenta, scarlet, and yellow.

Batman Special (1984)
"...the Player On the Other Side"
Mike W. Barr-Michael Golden/Mike DeCarlo  

Sandwiched between these two annuals is the Batman Special from 1984, again with lovely art, this time by two more Mikes: Michael Golden and Mike DeCarlo. The story, called “…The Player on the Other Side” contains something of a retcon (long before that term became part of the everyday vocabulary of superhero comics at the big two) of Batman’s origin and Commissioner Gordon’s past. It really doesn’t impact Batman’s origin as such, but it tells the story of another killing on that same night, in a different part of Gotham City, in which a man and woman, with their young son in tow, are caught sneaking out of a ground floor window – apparently after breaking and entering – by a beat cop. The hot-headed dad takes a shot at the police officer, wounding him, but the officer gets off a few shots that take down both of the apparent burglars. The boy witnesses all of this and it shapes his future, just as Bruce Wayne was shaped by seeing the slaying of his parents. However, this little boy, understandably I suppose, swears revenge against the cop who killed his parents, and develops an abiding hatred for law enforcement and all of its representatives. That young beat cop, by the way, was James Gordon.

Although he spends the rest of his troubled childhood in foster care and juvenile detention, the boy (we never learn his name), much like Wayne, is consumed with his purpose, and hones and his body and mind to what will become his life’s mission of retaliation. He grows to manhood, spending time in and out of foster care and juvenile detention, and eventually becomes a secretive, world-class professional hitman called the Wrath, who dons a costume quite similar to Batman’s and basically wages a crusade against the law that is the opposite of Batman’s crusade for justice.

The Wrath is already in Gotham to finally exact his revenge on Gordon, and has made several attempts on his life (Batman was usually there to save him). Frustrated by Batman’s interference, the Wrath goes about finding out anything he can about him by threatening some of his known underworld informants, and he learns from one of them that Batman comes to that same spot in “Crime Alley” on the same date every year. It’s a date that obviously has meaning for the Wrath as well, and he breaks into the public library and checks on newspaper reports for any other significant events there on that date, and puts 2 and 2 together when he sees the report about the killing of Martha and Thomas Wayne. Makes a lot of sense, actually: any number of criminals with their ear to the ground should have been able to figure out the same thing.

So while Gordon is in hiding, the Wrath uses his new-found knowledge to hit Batman where it hurts, first by vandalizing the tombstone of his parents, and then by brutally assaulting Alfred. He makes it clear to Batman that he wants the Commissioner.

But Batman also gets busy, and eventually learns that the Wrath has his own weak spot: his lover, who is the daughter of some local crime boss and who just wants to get away from it all. Batman tracks her down and confronts her.

And this is where another character is re-introduced: Leslie Thompkins, who was first seen in another retcon of Batman’s origin, “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” (by Denny O’Neill and Dick Giordano, first published in Detective Comics #457 in 1976). In that story, she extends some solace to the young Bruce Wayne just after his parents are killed. Here, she is taken hostage by the Wrath, and this leads to a stand-off, as he bargains with her life for the Commissioner’s.

How it plays out is largely predictable, but that’s really not important. What I liked about this story is the whole idea of Batman having a counterpart whose life was scarred and then dictated by a similar event, but who went in another direction. Additionally, I like how this one focuses on Batman’s friendship with Gordon, his deep affection for Alfred, and his relationship with Leslie Thompkins, who, by consoling the young Bruce Wayne and showing him some humanity immediately after the death of his parents perhaps made her own little contribution to keeping him grounded, so that he even though his personal tragedy indelibly marked him, it didn’t turn him into a stone-cold vengeful killer like the Wrath.

Batman Annual #9 (1985)
"The Four Faces of Batman"
Mike W. Barr-Jerry Ordway/Alex Nino/Dan Jurgens/Paul Smith

Batman Annual #9 has always been my least favorite of these, but I thought it completed the little trifecta of “big books” I have going here. The story, called “The Four Faces of Batman,” actually consists of four short pieces, each one almost kind of a vignette, that is supposed to explore different aspects of Batman’s persona. To wit: the child, the avenger, the detective and the man. However, I never got the impression any time I read this that a clear delineation is made between these various “faces” of Batman. As with the previous two books, Barr is served by some outstanding artists, in this case Jerry Ordway, Alex Nino, Dan Jurgens (inked by Dick Giordano) and Paul Smith.

I think the first and fourth “faces” (i.e., ‘The Child’ and ‘The Man’) work the best. The first involves Batman rushing to track down some armed robbers who inadvertently run down and kill the parents of a young boy right in front of him. Bruce Wayne knows the family and happened to be at the scene when the tragedy occurs, and he sees the boy swear revenge. Obviously, he sees the similarity with his own situation, but Barr puts in another aspect – he flashes back to Bruce’s childhood, and we learn that before his parents were killed, he was a budding artist – a sculptor to be specific.

 After his parents died, however, he ignored his artistic talent as he became driven to fight injustice and crime. In the present, he fears that the young boy, who is a prodigy with the violin, will go down a similar path.  I really liked how Barr added in this harmless little retcon to Batman’s origin which adds another intriguing facet to the character.

The second face, ‘The Avenger,’ was my least favorite, not just the story but also the art by Alex Nino. I’m normally a huge fan of Nino’s work, but his style was really ill-suited to this story and it’s simply unattractive. The story is also rather bleak. It starts with a bank heist apparently perpetrated by a terrorist group that has already robbed a few banks before. However, this one ends with a fatality (not a trademark of the aforementioned terrorist group), as one of the tellers dies of a heart attack. It turns out that the robbers just pretended to be the terrorist group, and said terrorists then go after them for besmirching their reputation. Batman also goes after them, but instead of stopping them, he basically incites an armed confrontation between the two groups – and then just sits it out and lets them kill each other. It’s really pretty cynical and kind of out of character for both Batman and Barr.

The third face, ‘The Detective,’ is not as bad, but also not really notable in any way. It’s just a whodunit, meant to highlight Batman’s sleuthing capabilities (although these were better demonstrated in the first story). It seems more like one of those largely forgettable back-up stories you’d find in an issue of Batman Family or Detective Comics.

The last ‘face’, as I said above, is pretty good and it’s very nicely drawn by Paul Smith. Batman rescues a bunch of children from a fire in a hospital, and the event is shown from the standpoints of various witnesses to the event, and concluding with Batman’s own recounting of the night’s incident to Alfred. This one is really nice, and it has a lot of those great character moments that Barr does so well, especially the final brief scene that highlights Alfred’s role as something of a surrogate parent to Batman.

All three of these books that highlight why Mike Barr is one of my favorite Bat scribes: he tells engaging, well-paced stories first and foremost, interspersed with these wonderfully done interactions between Batman and the various members of his supporting cast.
Barr did quite a bit of work with the character throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which included ushering in and writing Batman and the Outsiders, and a rather well-regarded run in Detective Comics, initially teamed up with artist fan-favorite Alan Davis. Unfortunately, Frank Miller’s take on Batman at almost the same time got – and still gets – much more attention from comic fans, while Barr’s work is generally (and unfairly I think) overlooked. I definitely think that, like Archie Goodwin and Len Wein, Barr deserves his own “Tales of the Batman” volume. Not that I’d be likely to afford such a book should DC decide to publish it… :-(

Friday, May 15, 2015

Most of all, I remember the Road Warrior

Karen: I hadn't even seen Mad Max, even heard of it, when I went to see some weird-looking film called The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2 everywhere but the US) at our local theater in the early summer of 1982. There was this post-apocalyptic, punk vibe to the theater poster that seemed pretty cool. So I went in, knowing next to nothing about it. Then my brain was put in a blender for an hour and a half as all Hell was unleashed. It was truly a revelatory experience, so much so, that  I went back to see it over and over again. I soon found a video store in town with a copy of Mad Max and me and my friends rented that repeatedly. We just couldn't get enough of Max and his decimated world.

Karen: The idea of the world coming to an end was not so far-fetched for those of us kids living in the early 80s. After all, it was still the Cold War era, and we'd grown up with the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain as facts of life. My friends and I had been born a year or two late for  the Cuban Missile Crisis, but  the fear of an atomic war was always with us. I think that's true for all of us born during that era, but the threat of nuclear war was particularly acute for us, as we lived  next to an Air Force missile base. We grew up hearing repeatedly about what would happen in an all-out nuclear blitz, with some people sounding almost gleeful about it.  Although by '82, we were thinking less perhaps of the 'scorched Earth' vision of Dr. Strangelove that our parents and older siblings knew and more of a gradual decay of civilization as we knew it. We were already seeing signs of it all over the place - we'd had energy crises, a recession, job losses, a nuclear meltdown at Three-Mile Island -heck, if you want to know what was going on, just listen to London Calling by the Clash. And still we worried about our leaders pushing those hot buttons, and speeding things up. That's the the picture The Road Warrior painted for us: society had not been wiped out in a cascade of bombs, but had ground to a halt. The film was so beautifully shot that it also made the end of the world look terrible and yet strangely glorious. And exciting -if you had a car with some juice in it.

Karen: There's also no denying the appeal of the young Mel Gibson. He had 'star' written all over him. This was way before any scandals, any drunken speeches or other sorry turns. In The Road Warrior (and Max before that), he was your prototypical lone warrior, whether you want to think of that as a cowboy or samurai or whatever, the "shell of a man" who is still standing, still going on and inevitably getting caught up between the helpless and those who would prey on them. Like Clint Eastwood  or Toshiro Mifune before him, he does a great deal with very little dialogue. This film was the foundation  for his stardom. Max is not quite a hero, but he's still got some decency left in him.

Karen: The movie itself is like a shot of adrenaline, and has some of most spectacular vehicle stunts ever filmed -I think I can safely say it still does, because it was all real, none of it was CGI. But underneath the sheer twisted pleasure of it, was the sort of horrified fascination of imagining a future just like the one on the screen. OK, maybe without so much S&M fetishism, but one where every day was a struggle to survive, where gasoline, food, water, everything we take for granted now is nearly impossible to obtain. Perhaps the worst thing would be the erosion of the human spirit, of kindness and caring and those qualities we can afford when we aren't fighting to survive.

Karen: There is a new Mad Max film out now, the first without Gibson. Mad Max:Fury Road, stars Tom Hardy as Max, and seems to fit somewhere in between Mad Max and The Road Warrior (at least, Max still seems to have his Interceptor). Based on trailers, it looks like it has even more spectacular car crashes and stunts than its predecessors, which would seem impossible, but of course anything is possible with CGI. But I wonder if a post-apocalyptic film like this -a film based in a world that has been devastated not by a zombie plague or super-virus but by the very old-sounding threat of global war - can have as much visceral impact as the original Max films once did. I don't think too many people, especially the 16-25 age group, which I am sure the studio wants to pull in for this film, worry too much about a true end of the world. Sure, they probably worry about things that could impact them: economic downturns, natural disasters, maybe the threat of terrorist attacks. But the actual collapse of society? That's got to seem about as realistic today as the plot of the new Jurassic Park movie. So what was once an edgy, almost too-close to reality idea is now just another fantasy for summer. Maybe that's a good thing. But I remember when The Road Warrior was kind of scary and a little thought-provoking. Just like the Clash. But they live now...only in my memories.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Inaugural Post: Missed It By That Much...

Doug: Today (and in future posts like this one) we're going to give you a specific comic book title and then ask you to make some positive choices. We're looking for elements of the book that you liked, but then asking you to pick a top dog. So this isn't like "Who's the Best..." -- here we're asking you to pick two things you like and then give a rationale as to why one's just a bit better to you than the other. Today's book is the Avengers, and it's all fair game -- storylines, creators, villains, heroes, covers, you name it! I'll start, as an example.

Doug: I really like Roger Stern's run on the book, particularly after John Buscema came back aboard for the penciling (you can have the Al Milgrom years). It's a pretty key run for me personally, as Stern was the writer when I got back into regular comics buying. I enjoyed Hercules and Namor on the team, and pretty quickly gravitated to the new Captain Marvel and her mentor-mentee relationship with Captain America. But... I don't like it as much as I like Steve Englehart's run a decade earlier. If Stern's run was formative in my re-entry, it was Englehart's work that was formative, period. I came aboard as the "Celestial Madonna" arc was beginning, and really loved the book from first glance. Reading that era, with the art of Dave Cockrum, the Vision and Scarlet Witch, and the scope of that Kang/Immortus/Rama-tut saga gave me such a sense of awe each month. And reading those issues alongside the reprints in Marvel Triple Action made me a fan for life. Follow it up some months later with the Serpent Crown/Wild West/Squadron Sinister epic, and I owe it to Englehart -- he hooked me.

Doug: Your turn!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Discuss: When Creators Unite... or Not.

Doug: I ran across a tweet from @comicsalliance late yesterday afternoon and wanted to bring the subject over here for discussion. The basic gist of the article (please make the jump, then return here for conversation) is that in 1978 a group of comic book creators sought to form a guild. That didn't happen. But what's interesting is the compensation they sought for contracted work (below), and how those page rates look when adjusted for inflation.

Doug: And, just for the sake of setting your mind, here's a link to Mike's Amazing World of Comics and the books that would have been on sale in May 1978.

Doug: So what do you think? Given all that we've heard of work for hire contracts, freelancing, and most recently Gerry Conway's posts on compensation for character creation, do you have an opinion here? Thanks in advance for sharing those thoughts today.

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