Saturday, February 6, 2016

Fireside Chats #1 - Origins Of Marvel Comics!

As our saga opens the force that has become Marvel was just one more rag-tag comic book publisher on the skids and beholding to its competition to maintain even a minor toehold in the market which regularly suffered booms and busts. Martin Goodman's company had been around since almost the very beginning with hits like the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and most especially Captain America. But since those halcyon war days it had been feast or famine as the company mined every genre which caught fire over several decades. Due to a disastrous deal the company was extremely limited and dependent upon National Periodicals to get any space on the shelves. Superheroes were just the next thing, alongside parody, fright, western, and war comics. Another niche that Marvel (called Timely and Atlas in earlier times) wanted to get a morsel of. And that's where this tome begins.

If you're a fan of "Stan's Soapbox" then you'll find his writing in this book at once familiar and frustrating. Familiar in that Stan's distinctive persona shines through as he uses the pronoun "I" insatiably, and frustrating in that he shifts topics paragraph by paragraph (sometimes sentence by sentence) and constantly calls attention to the writing itself. He establish a friendly rambling gait, but not one without plenty of diversions as whatever hits his mind hits the page. I don't know how many drafts of this book there were, but the text has the feel of none at all.

After some obligatory backstory about the Golden Age Timely material and identifying the competition (he mispells "Charleton" by the way), Stan tells the now familiar yarn of how the Fantastic Four resulted from publisher Martin Goodman (Stan's uncle) noticing that DC's Justice League of America was selling above average. In hopes of capturing a bit of that wave he ordered a super-team be made. But according to Stan, he himself was growing weary of comics and so used the new book to fulfill some aspirations he had to add true drama and character to comics as was readily available in most other mediums. Stan gives us the sense that he didn't really care if it failed, since he himself was out the door anyway. He enlists Jack Kirby, back at Marvel producing monster comics (Fin Fang Foom, Googam, etc.) and had Jack follow a synopsis to produce the first issue which debuted the Fab 4 (Mr.Fantastic, Invisible Girl, the monstrous Thing, and a revived -- kind of-- the Human Torch). The team eschewed costumes (though they'd have them by issue three) and confronted a villain -- the Mole Man-- intended to evoke some sympathy with readers.

Clearly it worked. The second offering is Fantastic Four #55 which shows us a mature team (drawn in a more mature Jack Kirby art style) confronting the "menace" of the Silver Surfer, trapped on Earth after helping to stave off the threat of Galactus. The Marvel Universe is a much richer place since the FF debuted, full of all sorts of menaces and associates for the team.

According to Stan The Incredible Hulk was launched in response to fan letters which came pouring in about the Fantastic Four. Again Jack Kirby is tapped to handle the art chores. Stan says here that he was at a loss for a second feature until he imagined crossing Frankenstein with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We read about the failed attempts to color the Hulk gray but weirdly no mention is made of the fact that The Incredible Hulk was deemed a financial loser and was cancelled after six issues.

A reader unfamiliar with the more detailed history of Marvel would imagine since we get the later Hulk issue by Herb Trimpe that the feature had continued unabated for the intervening seven years. This particular issue of Hulk is a real favorite of mine, as it features a clash with Sub-Mariner, the Hulk's co-star in the Tales to Astonish run which the numbering of the comic continues. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Prince of the Deep.

Then it's Spider-Man. Though the Ant-Man preceded Spidey in the order of creation and ran successfully in the pages of Tales to Astonish long after The Hulk had been cancelled, he is ignored in this volume, rating nary a mention. Instead we get the behind-the-scenes origin of Spider-Man and as we learn it goes all the way back to the pulps and the notorious Spider, the Master of Men. Stan says this nasty grim hero made a big impression on him and he was the inspiration for the teenage hero Lee had long wanted to fashion. Amazing Fantasy was chosen as the place since Lee indicates they had no prospect the hero would be successful. (This is a recurring theme - nothing left to lose so why not.) The selection of Steve Ditko as the artist gives a nod to his ability to draw the everyman, a skill that Jack Kirby lacked as his heroes all aspired to the ideal. Translation - Kirby's people were handsome and Ditko's people were ugly.

The second story this time features Stan's favorite Spidey artist John Romita and I have to say this issue is a fave of mine too. The Shocker is one of the sleekest villains every created, I love his quilted costume though his powers have always seemed weird.

Journey into Mystery #83 and Thor are up next and Jack Kirby gets some due as the artist able to realize the grandiose qualities of the story, but the meat of Stan's essay here is dedicated to his brother Larry Lieber (and why they have different names) and how Lieber was critical to a burgeoning cache of comics all written by the same guy. (The fact Jack Kirby was drawing most of them seems to have slipped his mind.) Again Stan suggests that Thor developed from the urging of fans in letters to the Bullpen, and I've no reason to doubt it. It seems clear though that without the desperation of no choices and without the constant urging of "thousands" of fan letters there would have been no Marvel.

The later effort in this instance gives us a good look at Thor's universe some six years later and we meet Balder and Sif as well as get a glom at some truly magnificent Kirby artwork. Stan remarks that at this point he was writing the book and had added the  psudeo-Shakespearean dialogue of the Asgardian gang. It's hard not to notice that this is definitely the reminiscence of a man who focuses on words.

The final hero showcased in this first edition is Dr.Strange, who doesn't rate any a cover mention in his debut in Strange Tales #110. Stan tells us that the old Chandu the Magician radio show had a big influence on him and so we get the occult world  of Doctor Strange.

Stan remarks that Doc Strange had his origin told some six months after his debut and both stories are presented in this volume. Since they are both short that's no great thing really, but it's made to seem so.

Absolutely no mention is made of artist Steve Ditko and his collaboration on Doc Strange, save when he is lumped in with many others as Stan sets up the last comic entry in the book by Marie Severin, a rather forgettable story alas. Space was a factor I suspect or we'd have had a stronger entry here.

It's a bit strange (pun intended) to end on this character, but that's what we get. Stan clearly wrote about the "origin of Marvel Comics" from his own perspective, and that perspective is that of a writer. He mentions artists and even offers them praise of a sort, but seems clearly to not apprehend that Doc Strange succeeded not so much because of the alliterative nature of his incantations but because of the eye-opening artwork of Steve Ditko. Likewise Jack Kirby is lauded, but Stan doesn't really seem to suggest that he's anything special other than a talented artist among many others, and certainly not a co-creator of anything we've just seen.

Stan's epilogue gives a shout out to many of the Bullpen of the day who were getting Marvel to the masses and Stan suggests there is more to come.

And there is as next week we encounter Son of Origins.

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Friday, February 5, 2016

The Expanse!

It's so very rare these days to come across an entertainment for which you have no ready expectation, a true-blue pleasant surprise. But I have had that experience in the SyFy Network's new series The Expanse.

I was unfamiliar with the novels this series is based on, so I have no frame of reference there. I missed out on most of the cross-promotion for the series and knew so little that I just took a gamble on the debut episode when I read a description which included the detail it had a detective story in its mix. I'm glad I punched into my DVR, because this rock solid bit of actual science fiction adventure has become the most anticipated show of my week since its debut.

The core story is about some rough and tumble astronauts, truck drivers in space really aboard an ice-hauler named the Canterbury who find themselves in the middle of a mysterious conflict between forces spread across the solar system. Two hundred years from now, Earth has sent its populace into space to successfully colonize Mars and to pioneer into the asteroid belt. The people of Mars have come identify with their new home and reject to no small degree the planet of their origin while the people who work in the belt are even more isolated from the distant Earth. Life in zero gravity has changed them, making them unable in practical terms to live on the planet from which their ancestor came so long before. Now we see them rankle at the exploitation they feel the soft population of Earth inflicts upon them. So it's nothing new, just the classic clashes of politics of this world expanded into a new and stark setting.

After some startling tragedies, our stalwart crew finds itself having to work together aboard another ship they dub the Rocinante, despite inherit reasons among them to distrust one another, to survive and to examine the mysteries which have disrupted their lives. I'm loathe to say too much, so as to not spoil the really dandy surprises in this story, but suffice it to say it's got some outstanding twists and turns and abrupt stops even along the way.

A parallel story develops on the dwarf planet Ceres where Miller, a policeman (played delightfully by Thomas Jane) investigates the disappearance of a beautiful rich girl who seems to be tied into all the intrigue which has touched the crew of the Canterbury as well as the rest of the solar system. Miller is a classic, a tough-minded disaffected cop who has little expectation from people aside from disappointment, and who grudgingly discovers that his life has not been all he'd imagined. As the mystery unfolds his colleagues and himself have to decide where they fit into the violent new worlds which are coming. At the same time on Earth a United Nations representative, a practitioner of realpolitik tries to find out the secrets which threaten to cast the whole solar system into a brutal and deadly war.

Three narratives, plus other odd bits of backstory, allow this yarn to unfold with a richness which the setting demands. We have space (literally) here for a large saga but always, as great stories must, it is rooted in characters recognizable who gain our empathy and sympathy while offering some clever surprises nonetheless.

There's little in fiction which is more exciting than getting started on a story which is lively and which promises some great things to come. This is a series which has yet to disappoint and which I'm eager to watch each and every week. The first season has just wrapped and it answered many questions and created more mysteries. Perfect.

Highly recommended.. 

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Tarzan Beckons!

A few years ago, I waxed on about the virtues of the 1992-93 Malibu Comics series by writer Henning Kure and artist Thomas Yeates titled Tarzan - The Beckoning. I declared it a series well worthy of a collected edition. Now thanks to Dark Horse we are getting it, due out this summer. Here are the details. If you haven't read this one and you're a Tarzan fan, you are in for a real treat, a comic book which properly captures the allure of the early original Burroughs material. This one is highly recommended.

Here are the beautiful covers for limited series.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

To Newhon And Back!

Several years ago I decried the lack of a collected volume featuring these uproarious tales of Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser from DC back in the 70's. Marvel had landed a hit with Conan and his Howardian ilk so DC dropped a the totally on-the-nose Sword of Sorcery onto the marketplace. The Leiber stories, begun in the 30's and still ongoing at the time this comic was produced appeared in collections all having the word "Swords" in the title, so it was apt I suppose. The duo got a try-out in Wonder Woman of all place before launching their own title. It ran a measly five issues,but featured stories by Denny O'Neill and artwork by up and comers like Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, and evern Jim Starlin. I'm very glad to have these stories in a handy volume at last. It should hit the shelves this summer.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Future Quest!

Just learned about this intriguing project here. Many Hanna-Barbera projects were mentioned (a Flintstones reboot, another Scooby-Doo variation, etc.) but the only one I'll be getting is Future Quest which re-imagines (I hope not too much) the great Hanna-Barbera superheroes from TV all those many decades ago.

The Phantom Cruiser, The Herculoids and The Quest Team by Eric Shaner
If this artwork is any indication, they are cleaving relatively close to the originals which being designed by Alex Toth were always exceedingly sleek and modern.

Space Ghost, Meteor Man and Coil-Man battle a Rogues Gallery by Shaner
I will happily add one new comic to my list if it promises stories as handsome as these glimpses from artist Evan Shaner suggest.

Jonny and Hadji See a Ghost by Shaner
The article linked above mentions Jeff Parker as the writer and that's a solid choice as he's someone who's done some smart things with classic and nigh-forgotten heroes in the past. (Agents of Atlas was one of the last Marvel Comics I thought got it right.)

Darwyn Cooke (Love the darker Frankenstein Jr.)
This will be a great reason to dig out those dvd collections and give those Hanna-Barbera greats another viewing (as if I needed a reason). 

Looking forward to this the future (as Criswell once said).

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Origin Stories!

This should be fun. I'm digging out and dusting off my volumes of the seminal series from Fireside books which presented in trade paperback for the first time vintage tales from the vaults of Marvel Comics. The series, beginning with Origins of Marvel Comics attempted to market vintage tales from across the publisher's then still relatively brief history and have those stories put into some sort of context by the kahuna of Marvel, Stan "The Man" Lee. Of course Stan's notorious memory and out-sized need to make a good yarn caused him to burnish a few actual facts.

I want to take a gambol through the four volumes of the run, beginning with the first and take a look at the comic stories of course, some I haven't read for decades, but mostly to focus on how Stan characterized the evolution of the company for which he's still the most famous face.

There were four volumes in the run, so look each Saturday for another installment. Origins of Marvel Comics, Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, Bring on The Bad Guys, and The Superhero Women, great titles all. 

Also this month in the Favorite Covers feature look for some of Mighty Marvel's most dangerous dames to be showing up in some truly memorable cover appearances.

And this month look also for a bunch of movie reviews. Winter is when I catch up on my film watching, staying out of the elements and resting in front of a nice warm crackling TV screen. I've been watching a lot of vintage crime movies of various kinds, as well as some choice sci-fi as always.

See you tomorrow!

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Amalgam Comics Gallery!

When Marvel and DC announced plans to do another crossover in the 90's, we had the experience of the late 70's and early 80's to give us a sense of how it would go. The series Marvel Versus DC (or DC Versus Marvel if you prefer) was produced by some of the best talent available at the time, a time admittedly wrought with stylistic limitations.

What we get is a massive competition with reader participation as some of the more famous heroes of both companies clashed with their most analagous counterpart.

The battle raged for three issues as faces we knew battled one another. Some of the costumes of the time were somewhat adrift from the iconic, but in the broad scheme the heroes were least for a while.

The conceit of the series was that two impossibly massive cosmic brothers existed side by side, apart from one another and then they come into conflict. Each brother embodies one of the comic book universes, one brother the DCU one for the MU.

And then suddenly the two cosmic brothers have a meeting of minds as well as fusion of bodies and the two mighty universes they embody are abruptly blended.

Out of that merging came the Amalgam Universe, a weirdo off-kilter mix of Marvel and DC as two heroes were suddenly blended into one, their look and histories merged and altered. The Amalgam Universe event came out of nowhere, at least as far as this reader was concerned. I was completely taken by surprise, a very pleasant surprise as I was informed that instead of one comic to finish off the crossover, I would be greeted by a dozen which gave a glimpse of this new Amalgamated universe. Amazing! Loved it!

Here are the first dozen comics from 1996.

And then in 1997, the two companies did it again giving us another twelve comics from the Amalgam Universe.

Out of the original crossover two four-issue limited series emerged. The second of those gave us another peek at some new Amalgamated heroes.

But back in 1996 we see the two brothers separate and that which had been one again becomes two. The DCU and MU move back to their original settings.

Aside from the two times already alluded to, this was the last we'd see of some very intriguing heroes, made possible for a time because the "Big Two" as they are known cast aside their differences and worked together for the benefit of the fans of both. It was very very cool. 

The Amalgam Universe titles have been collected, in volumes from both DC and Marvel, that period of detente is fondly remembered by this fan at least.

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