Sony and Microsoft Lay Down To Be Slaughtered By Nintendo

super-mario-slaughter

Listen up planet Earth. The next generation of consoles is almost here, and it’s going to be a very exciting time! We are about to see a ton of amazing games released for this next generation. However all of the greatest games are going to be on the Nintendo NX. Why? Because Sony and Microsoft have decided not to show up.

In order for a console to succeed the very most basic thing it has to do is just show up. Look at what is happening right now. The PS4 is destroying the Wii U and XBox One in sales. Did Sony do anything radically different with their console this generation? Nope. All they really did was show up! I mean, Nintendo and Microsoft actually did show up too, but they showed up with crap. Nintendo showed up with a stupid tablet shoved into the middle of their controller, while Microsoft showed up with a totalitarian vision for the future of gaming complete with Microsoft KinectTM. But Sony just showed up with a regular plain old console, and they won by default.

Well, for this next generation Microsoft and Sony are not even going to show up! How can Nintendo lose?

“Of course they are going to show up”, one reader interjects. “They are going to release PS4 Neo and Project Scorpio. Project Scorpio is going to have 6 teraflops! I don’t even know what that is, but it sounds very impressive.”

You are right, reader. It does sound very impressive! However, it actually won’t help them sell consoles or games, because the exact same games will be on the normal PS4 and XBox One. Project Scorpio and PS4 Neo are just console upgrades. Console upgrades have always done exactly two things: jack and squat. See, if we really want to understand the future of gaming, then we should look at what happened in the past.

During Generation 4, Sega released a couple of console upgrades: the 32X and the Sega CD. Even though both of these upgrades offered new games, they both flopped in the marketplace. If an upgrade with new games was a flop, just imagine how terrible it will be for an upgrade with no new games!

Still not convinced? Well I can tell you more, but in order to do so I first have to reveal a secret of gaming that no one else knows. It is the secret of console generations. Other than myself, only Satoru Iwata understood this secret, and he took the answer with him to the grave. But now I am going to reveal the secret about the console generations, so that you, reader, will know. Why do they exist and how long do they last? Let’s dig deeper.

According to our common understanding (say on Wikipedia or some other common source), the console generations in North America went like this:

Generation
1
2*
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
 
Start
1972
1976
1985*
1989
1995
1999
2005
2011
2017
 
Consoles
Odyssey, Home Pong (many versions)
Fairchild, Atari 2600 & 5200, Intellivision, Colecovision
NES, Sega Master System, Atari 7800
Genesis, SNES, TurboGrafx-16, NeoGeo, GameBoy
PS1, N64, Saturn, Virtual Boy
PS2, Gamecube, XBox, Dreamcast, GameBoy Advance
Wii, XBox 360, PS3, DS, PSP
PS4, XBox One, Wii U, 3DS, Vita
Nintendo NX
 

Notice how Nintendo NX will be the only console/platform in Generation 9. Microsoft and Sony are not even going to show up. On top of that Nintendo will not have separate home and handheld consoles. There will only be one console. “One console to rule them all”, in effect. But that is not the secret I am revealing. No, the secret I want to reveal has to do with Generation 2.

Atari-2600-and-paddles

Atari 2600: The dominant console of Generation 2.

I put an asterisk by Generation 2, because it breaks the pattern. Every other console generation goes 4-6 years before the next generation begins. However at first glance Generation 2 lasts 9 years.

“That’s because of the Video Game Crash of ’83”, interjects one reader. “It was caused by E.T., the worst video game that was ever made in the whole history of video games.”

You are right reader that there was a video game crash in 1983, but E.T. wasn’t the worst game ever made. It wasn’t even the worst game on the Atari 2600. (Try playing Raiders of the Lost Ark on the 2600. That game really sucks balls!) But what is even more important is that bad games do not cause the video game market to crash.

the_angry_video_game_nerd

There is a Youtube channel called Angry Video Game Nerd, where a guy makes fun of terrible games from old consoles but mostly from the NES. There were so many bad games on the NES, and yet the NES was perhaps the most incredible console that had ever existed. It had 90% of the video game market at its peak, and it also resurrected console gaming from the dead.  That is because it had a ton of really good games too.  Good games make a console succeed, but bad games are not so big of a deal. Usually people ignore the bad games and focus on the good ones instead.  No bad game, even E.T., has ever made a console fail.

Furthermore, the reason E.T. is blamed for the crash is a popular logical fallacy called post hoc, ergo proptor hoc. This means that when something happens (especially something dramatic) people naturally assume that whatever happend just before it must have been the cause. E.T. was a major game released in December 1982. The video game market crashed in 1983. So people just assume E.T. caused the crash, and that is the narrative that stuck since 1983. However, now we have over 30 years of video game history to inform us that E.T. was not the cause of the crash.

“Well if E.T. didn’t cause the crash of 1983, then what did?”

Great question reader!  The answer has to do with a console upgrade.   See, the crash in ’83 happened because the market was ready for a new console generation.  Analysts call this need for a new generation “market saturation”, but I prefer the term “gamer fatigue”. Eventually people get tired of all the old stuff and want new stuff. See, Generation 2 started in 1976. The market crashed in 1983. After 7 years the market was tired of Generation 2 and needed a new set of experiences. Gamers were tired of the old stuff. They were fatigued. They needed new experiences to keep them interested in gaming.

Furthermore Atari actually did try to start a new console generation in 1982 with the Atari 5200.  Most say that the Atari 2600 started Generation 2 and the NES started Generation 3.  However, the Atari 5200 was released several years before the NES ever got to North America.  The Atari 5200 console was actually meant to start Generation 3 long before the NES showed up.

See, what really happened is that there was a lost console generation, an extra console generation that the gaming historians never mention.  Do the math. The Atari 2600 was released in 1977, the 5200 in 1982. That is a five year difference, which is the perfect time for a new console.  On top of that the NES was actually released in 1986 in North America. (It was only released in 1985 in New York City as a test market.) So compare the years 1977 to 1982 to 1986.  That is five years from the Atari 2600 to 5200 and another four years after that to the NES.  There are actually 2 generations between the Atari 2600 and the NES. This “lost” generation has been hidden from our knowledge for decades, but I am revealing it to you now. I am going to call this Generation 2.5. Really the console generations should look like this:

Generation
2
2.5
3
 
Start
1976
1982
1986
 
Consoles
Fairchild, Atari 2600, Intellivision
Atari 5200, Colecovision
NES, Sega Master System, Atari 7800
 

 

What people call the “Crash of 1983” is actually a lost console generation.  However this generation was so terrible that it threatened to destroy console gaming forever!  (And in fact, that is what most people thought had happened until the NES showed up.)  In 1983, gamers were tired, fatigued of the Atari 2600, and the Atari 5200 didn’t offer a compelling enough reason for people to buy their console. This made the market crash.  But why didn’t gamers go for the new console?

Atari 5200: It sucks powerfully!

Atari 5200: It sucks powerfully!

The first and most obvious fact is that the controllers on the 5200 were not as good as the 2600. But the more important reason is that the console was just an upgrade. Almost every game on the Atari 5200 was released on the Atari 2600 as well. So people were thinking, “why buy an Atari 5200, when I can get the same game on my Atari 2600?”, and also “I am getting tired of this old Atari 2600.” Put those two statements together, and you get a market crash.

“This is absurd”, interjects one reader. “You are basing all of this off of a totally unique event!”

Well, reader, did you know there was also a console market crash in 1977?

“Uhm…no, actually I didn’t know that.”

It’s true. Right at the beginning of generation 2, the demand for the previous generation ended very abruptly. About 20 different companies were making Pong clones for the home. Then they basically all went out of business or left gaming, because the market fell apart so suddenly. At the same time Atari was actually growing, because they released the Atari 2600, a next gen console. However their growth that year didn’t offset the losses of the 20 or so other companies, so the event was seen as a crash. Furthermore, Pong wasn’t even a bad game. It was a game so good, that it created the entire video game industry! However, at a certain point people got tired of it and needed new experiences.

So now lets apply this knowledge to the PS4 and the PS4 Neo (and by extension XBox One and Project Scorpio). Eventually, in a couple of years or so, gamers will suddenly get tired of the PS4, because of gamer fatigue. They won’t go for the upgrade, the Neo, either, because it does not offer new experiences. Sales will suddenly dry up for Sony. Gamers will only see one new console on the market, Nintendo NX, and they will flock to it, because they will be craving new experiences. NX sales will go through the roof, because it will be the only next gen console.

“Gamers will never go for the NX!” insists one reader. “It will be underpowered compared to Neo and Scorpio!”

Dear reader, the most powerful console has never been the console that gamers have wanted. Otherwise the most successful consoles would be the Sega Master System, the NeoGeo, the N64, the Gamecube, and the PS3. Instead, all of these consoles are known for being disappointing, especially to the companies trying to sell them.

On top of that look at the amazing NES. It is common knowledge that it had an 8-bit processor. What about the Atari 2600?  How powerful was its processor? 8-bit. That’s right, the NES had the same processing power as a console that was released nearly a decade earlier! Processing power doesn’t really matter at all, even if it is 6 teraflops.

Iwata knew this about the NES, and that is how he knew the secret about console generations and gamer fatigue. This is also why his concept for the Wii console defeated the much more powerful PS3 and XBox 360. To quote Iwata, “However hard our software developers try to create new and unprecedented titles with great ideas eventually there will be a day when devs will say they have no more means with that hardware. That’s exactly the time we need to introduce people to new hardware.” In other words a console is about creating new experiences for gamers. When the developers run out of new ideas for games, it becomes time to make a new console for the next generation. Otherwise the gamers will get tired of those games on their own. The success of the Wii proves this. The Wii provided a different experience from the Gamecube, even though it had similar processing power. Console hardware is not about the processor. It’s about the games.

“But I don’t want another console like the Wii” whines one reader uncontrollably. “Waaaaaaah!”

Who says this console will be like the Wii? Please calm down reader. Everything is going to be ok. During the 2006 E3, Nintendo showed off Wii Sports to give people a taste of what the Wii would be about. At this year’s E3, Nintendo showed off Zelda: Breath of the Wild! That is our taste of what NX games will be like. Most gamers are going to be extremely happy with the games coming out on the NX.

We know it will be awesome!

We know it will be awesome!

In fact, while Sony and Microsoft will be no-shows for this next generation, gamers have some very good news. Nintendo we be coming out in full force like we’ve never seen before! They are going to do much more than merely show up.  The quantity and quality of games coming from Nintendo during this next generation is going to amaze everyone. There is so much to say on the Nintendo side, that I will have to save it for a future post. All I can say is that the NX is Iwata’s ultimate vision for gaming. Much like Heath Ledger left us with the Dark Knight right before his untimely demise, Iwata left us the NX. This console is his legacy, and it will make his name live on forever!

This next generation will be a very good time for both gamers and for all those other people out there who are about to become gamers. While people will forget about Sony and Microsoft for a while, Nintendo is about to have an awesome console that is going to keep everyone happy and occupied with lots of games. Stay tuned!

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E3 2016: The Truth Behind The New Consoles

It’s that time of year again. It’s time for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. Every year all of the big video game companies come out and show what they are going to offer in the near future. E3 is always exciting, and it is even extra exciting when new consoles are about to be released. Well this E3 is even more interesting than that because “the big three” are releasing new consoles in an unusual manner.

There are so many layers to this E3, I can barely contain myself. Let me start by giving a quick overview of what has happened at this E3, and then I will explain what it all really means. I am going to give you the truth behind these new consoles, because the big three are all presenting one thing, but something else entirely is going on.

First there was Sony’s press conference. They showed off a ton of great games, many of which are going to be coming out before Christmas this year. More importantly they revealed that later this year they are going to be releasing what they call the “PS4 Neo” (which will likely get a name change, but is “PS4 Neo” for now). This PS4 Neo is really just an upgrade to a normal PS4. It features 4K resolution and has virtual reality capabilities. However it still plays the exact same games as the PS4. Anyway, Sony’s press conference looked very impressive and many people will probably be declaring them the “winner” of this year’s E3. (Don’t be fooled by this. There is more going on here than meets the eye, so keep reading!)

Microsoft had a very similar press conference where they showed off a ton of games and their new console upgrade which they are calling “Project Scorpio”. It is also will have 4K resolution and virtual reality capabilities, but it will not be released until late 2017. Microsoft also talked a lot about platform compatibility between their consoles and the PC, and they kept saying they are “beyond generations”. Anyway, by all appearances they also had a very good showing at E3.

Then there is Nintendo. They only showed off two games and that is it: a Zelda game and a Pokémon game. They did almost nothing this E3.

Now here is the really ironic thing. This E3 is actually all about Nintendo.

“What? How can it be about Nintendo? They didn’t even do anything!” asks the reader. The truth is Nintendo is actually doing a lot right now. They just aren’t doing it at E3. See here is the elephant in the room for this E3:

Nintendo is working on a new console right now, and they keeping the details of it very secret. Right now it is code named “NX”. This console actually is a new console. It isn’t just an upgrade like what Sony and Microsoft are offering, and that difference is all of the difference in the world. This new console has Sony and Microsoft scared. That is why they are offering these console upgrades. They are trying to desperately come out with something to differentiate themselves from the new Nintendo console.

Why would they be so scared? While we don’t know all of the details of the NX, one thing that is very likely is that its system specs will be in the same ballpark as the current PS4 and Xbox 1. Furthermore, many gamers agree that Nintendo makes the best first-party software, but they are often lacking in third-party software. But what if the Nintendo console has the same system specs as the PS4 or Xbox 1? Third-party developers will want to release their games on all three consoles. That means Nintendo will have a console with great first-party software and great third-party software. Gamers will want the console with the best games, and that is what Nintendo will have. So basically Nintendo will come in and dominate the second half of this console generation.

Sony and Microsoft are responding to this predicament by releasing console upgrades. In my opinion this is a terrible idea, because hardware upgrades have never really had an impact in the past. Sega actually released two upgrades for the Genesis: the 32X and the Sega CD. Neither one really helped the Genesis. Likewise, a few years ago Sony and Microsoft released the Move and Kinect, respectively, to respond to Nintendo’s success with motion controls. Both the Move and Kinect were flops. Upgrades to hardware have never helped sales. I don’t expect them to do so this time either.

The only variable at this point is the gimmick that Nintendo will use in their NX console that they are going to release Spring 2017. It could make NX amazing like the Wii, or it be a drag on the system like the touchpad was for the Wii U. Only time will tell.

But right now Nintendo is in a very good position to put themselves back on the top of the console market and have a console that will have all of the best games on it.

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Calvin and Hobbes

This time Donny reviews a comic strip.

Calvin and Hobbes 1

Calvin and Hobbes
1985-1995
By Bill Watterson

So, you open up your newspaper to the Sunday comics section, and there you have your same old Garfield, and Wizard of Id, and the Family Circus (which was never funny once in its whole, sad run)… and there on one page is something very startling: an uncommonly large panel featuring a realistic rendering of a dead bird in stark black and white. Six-year-old Calvin and maybe-imaginary tiger Hobbes have found a dead bird, prompting Calvin to muse: “Once it’s too late, you appreciate what a miracle life is. You realize that nature is ruthless and our existence is very fragile, temporary and precious, but to go on with your daily affairs, you can’t really think about that… which is probably why everyone takes the world for granted and we act so thoughtlessly. It’s very confusing. I’m sure it will all make sense when we grow up.”

This is the touching (and smart) beauty of Calvin and Hobbes.

In another of my favorite strips, Calvin is looking to the sky and demanding it produce snow, and when none appears he shouts, “Do you want me to become an atheist!?” It’s classic Calvin and Hobbes: a funny joke with a larger philosophical question lurking not so far underneath it. After all, the characters are named after Protestant theologian John Calvin and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The comic is genius at bringing up very interesting philosophical questions in simple, humorous ways. Watterson was particularly scathing about the academic world’s tendency to use “pop psychobable” to “inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity.” Simplicity and humor is his philosophical method.

In another strip, Calvin is querying Hobbes: “I’ve been wondering, though. Is it truly being good if the only reason I behave well is so I can get more loot at Christmas? I mean, really, all I’m doing is saying I can be bribed.” It’s a philosophical quandary worthy of Plato. Is your only reason for doing good that you want to be rewarded in Heaven and not punished in Hell? This whole gag reminds me of an exchange between Penn Jillette (a vocal atheist) and a Christian who challenged him: “If there is no God, why haven’t you raped and murdered everyone you want to.” Jillette brilliantly replied, “I have raped and murdered everyone I want to. I don’t want to rape and murder anyone. Are you telling me you want to rape and murder people but you’re afraid of being punished?” In the comic strip, Calvin adds: “In other words, do I really have to be good or do I just have to act good?”

In another strip, Calvin wonders, “If Heaven is good and I like to be bad, how am I supposed to be happy there?” And in another classic, Calvin asks Hobbes if he could have anything he wanted what would he wish for? “A sandwich,” the sage tiger answers. Calvin rages at Hobbes lack of imagination and rants about how he would wish for trillion dollars or a space shuttle or his own, private continent. The last panel shows the back in the kitchen eating sandwiches, and Hobbes smugly says, “I got my wish.” Very Buddhist. Very wise. Very funny.

Watterson made fun of academia, he mocked the art world, and he satirized consumerism. In one of my favorite strips from the ‘90’s, he even goes after the violence and exploitation that had taken over superhero comics (especially in Image comics). Where most “political” and editorial cartoons tend to be shallow and on-the-nose, Watterson always had a deeper, wider, and more thoughtful perspective – and a funnier way of expressing it!

This series has head, but it also has heart. It is the most perfect rendering of the wonders of a child’s imagination and flights of fancy. I myself was a very imaginative boy – much like Calvin. I was always lost in daydream and make-believe. The “big question” posed by this series was: is Hobbes really alive and animated or is that just Calvin’s imagination? Usually we see Hobbes as a stuffed toy unless only Calvin is with him and then he’s a living, anthropomorphic tiger, but then some strips imply that he is real and autonomous of Calvin. Watterson said he always kept it an open question because the point was for the reader to choose. Here is the world how Calvin sees it; here is the world of the adults; which do you think is more “real?”

Most of the best stories to run through the strip revolved around Calvin’s wild flights of imagination: The first “box story” in which Calvin turned a cardboard box into a “transmogrifier” and hilarity ensues… When Calvin later built a “duplicator” out of a cardboard box… and then he upgraded it by adding an ethicator so it would create a “good twin” Calvin… When they go digging for dinosaur bones and discovered the remains of the Calvinasaurus… When he tried out for baseball and finds that he hates rules so much it lead him to invent Calvin-ball, a game where the rules change as you go (and he meditates on the relative costs of conformity vs. individuality)… The numerous strips in which Calvin pursued his “art” of creating crazy snowmen sculptures… The recurring art jokes about cubism, postmodernism, and the classic “Nude descending a staircase” gag…

Amongst all the zany misadventures, there are lots of really touching stories as well, like the aforementioned strip about finding the dead bird. In another famous story, similar to that one, Calvin finds a baby raccoon and tries to nurse it to health, but when the little creature dies we see Calvin move through sadness to anger to arguing with God and finally acceptance. It has a real tear-jerker ending when Hobbes promises Calvin not to go anywhere. The story in which Calvin breaks his dad’s binoculars and is overcome with guilt also has an emotional power to it that goes beyond what you expect to find in a newspaper daily. One of the happiest moments is the last baby sitter story, in which Calvin resolves his longstanding feud with babysitter Rosalind by joyously playing Calvin-ball with her (and, naturally, she wins). One of my favorite stories is about a break-in that happens at their hose while they are away. Hobbes is missing and Calvin fears he was stolen. Later Hobbes turns up lying under the bed, and the way finding this beloved toy helps heal Calvin’s anxiety in turn helps his parents move past their lingering fears about the break-in. It’s an amazing story!

Calvin and Hobbes 2

In 1985, Calvin and Hobbes immediately set itself apart from the morass of repetitive jokes, dumb political cartoons and bad puns that had dominated the dailies for decades. (The exception being Gary Larsen’s The Far Side which began in 1980.) However, all the humor, the philosophical quandaries, and the flights of creativity would still have made this only a really good comic. What puts it over the top into the realm of one of the three or four greatest comic strips of all time is the art. Returning to Watterson’s philosophical strips, he makes these strips work by using one of his classic techniques. Calvin and Hobbes aren’t just standing there like a pair of talking heads. They are racing down a hill on their sled… into a tree. Watterson usually marries his philosophical musings to some physical gag – often a sled or wagon ride. (In one of my favorite strips, he has them just walking along when Calvin asks, “What if someone calls us ‘a pair o’ pathetic peripatetics?’ … Shouldn’t we have a ready retort?”)

Watterson is simply one of the greatest cartoonists of all time. He can draw anything and never allowed himself to get lazy. Calvin and Hobbes was better drawn than anything else in newspapers or magazines had been since the early decades of the twentieth century. After the brilliant and beautiful work of Windsor McCay, George Herriman, and Chester Gould, newspaper strips had, for decades, settled into the simple, boring, reparative, and easy visual style of Peanuts and Garfield. Watterson raised the bar and threw down the gauntlet. His influence on cartoonists today has been tremendous; it can be said without much exaggeration that every new syndicated strip that has come along since the ‘90’s looks like Calvin and Hobbes.

Watterson fought battles to make the strip the fantastic artistic expression it was. Newspaper comics pages (once a major attraction, but no more) had been shrinking. Panels were getting smaller and smaller, necessitating ever simpler drawing styles. Watterson’s ten-year run on Calvin and Hobbes was a mighty struggle to push back these limitations, to try and roll back time to the days when artistic geniuses like McCay, Harrimon and Gould were given full color, full pages to work their wonders. In the early Sunday strips of Calvin and Hobbes, not every paper would carry the first two panels, chopping them for space, so Watterson had to write the strip so it would work without them often by turning the first two panels into a simple stand-alone gag that always irritated Watterson. In time, as Calvin and Hobbes became ever more incredibly popular, Watterson won that battle. All papers that wanted his strip had to carry the whole thing, allowing him to make use of every panel and grow more inventive with his panel arrangements. The bonus stories published in the collected books give us a wonderful look at what Watterson could do when he was properly unleashed: full-page, Krazy Kat inspired layouts with unusual panel arrangements.

Because he earned more and more page space and artistic control, and because he was sharpening his always impressive game, the last few years of Calvin and Hobbes, the strips from around ’92 to ’95, mark the best of the best. By those years he commanded and unbroken half page in the Sunday papers and was at the top of his creative game. The Sunday pages from that ’92-’95 period look so good, they each look like a page from a really well drawn graphic novel.

Bill Watterson himself is something of a cartoonist JD Salinger: a genius recluse who retired after completing his masterpiece (of course, Watterson’s masterpiece took 10 years to complete) and since then is never seen or photographed. Even during his working years he was the Bigfoot of comics: rumored to exist but never caught on film. Soon after launching Calvin and Hobbes in 1985 he started getting fan mail – and he didn’t care for it. To this intensely private man, even fan mail seemed like an intrusion.

That he retired when he did is one mark of Watterson’s almost-mad integrity. He was on top of the comic strip world. He’d won his battle: getting all the page space and creative freedom he’d wanted. However, he had, by his own admission said all he had to say, and, in his words, he didn’t want the strip to become like Peanuts and Garfield: repeating the same three or four jokes over and over and over and over again long after everyone had ceased to find them funny or interesting. Watterson said he preferred to clear the way for a new generation of cartoonists to see what exciting things they could make.

There’s another famous sign of his mad integrity: He never licensed Calvin and Hobbes for any merchandizing. All of those insipid window stickers of Calvin pissing on Ford logos or praying before a cross are all pirate merchandise. Watterson turned down millions of dollars he could have made by licensing Hobbes dolls and animated spin-offs. He just didn’t want the money. Calvin and Hobbes was his thing. It was what it was (the greatest American comic strip in 40 years) and he’d done what he wanted to do with it. Besides which, Watterson had frequently railed against commercialism and its corrupting influence on art, and when the money was on the table (huge piles of money) he stuck to his guns. When Calvin and Hobbes were having debates in the comic strip about artistic integrity vs. selling-out, behind the scenes Watterson was resisting enormous pressure from his syndicate to merchandise and license the characters. In 1991, Watterson took a nine-month sabbatical, exhausted after a long fight with the syndicate over merchandizing and the renegotiation of his contract. (The strips he produced when he retuned from ’92 to ’95 where the best in the series.)

Even without movies and toys, Calvin and Hobbes will always stay in print and always be remembered and loved. However, Watterson’s real legacy may be his artistic integrity and his love and respect for a maligned medium. In 1989 he delivered a speech called “The Cheapening of the Comics” at a professional conference. He threw down the gauntlet at the feet of his fellow cartoonists and attacked them for their sins: They had commercialized comics. They had taken the art out of the equation. They had stretched money-making strips into a shambling after-life beyond what the strip was intended to do or say. They had let the syndicates have too much power where art should always and absolutely come before commerce.

Few have had the moral strength or idealism to completely take Watterson’s torch in hand. But it still casts a powerful light… as do his ten amazing years of wonderful, funny, challenging, beautiful comic strips.

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Two Nintendo CEO’s die within two years.

I was greeted by very shocking news this morning.  Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata is dead at age 55!  I feel I have to comment on this because my blog’s first post is about the death of Nintendo’s former CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi.  Yamauchi actually died in September 2013, so two Nintendo CEO’s have died in less than two years time!  (Of course Yamauchi was 85 when he died, so it was not an untimely death like Iwata’s.)

Iwata’s career actually parallels Yamauchi’s in a lot of ways.  Iwata came on as CEO in 2002.  This was during the Gamecube’s console cycle which was Nintendo’s worst selling console at that point.  So Yamauchi passed the torch to Iwata at the worst time possible.  What were the next consoles to come out?  The DS in 2005 and the Wii in 2006.  The DS is the best selling console of all time!  The Wii was also hugely successful being sold out for 3 Christmases in a row in the US!  Iwata essentially returned Nintendo to its glory days!

However the glory days under Iwata were even more short lived than under Yamauchi.  Yamauchi had 3 consoles that were hugely successful: NES, SNES, and Gameboy.  After that Nintendo made huge flubs by releasing a 3D portable console (the Virtual Boy), and they lost the home console market to Sony’s PS1 by releasing the N64.  Iwata had 2 hugely successful consoles: the DS and the Wii.  After that Nintendo made huge flubs by releasing a portable 3D console (the 3DS), and they lost the home console market to Sony’s PS4 by releasing the Wii U.  Isn’t it funny how history repeats?

Well I don’t want to trumpet Iwata’s failures too much, because the video game industry is one of the hardest industries to succeed in.  The fact that he had two successful consoles means he is a grand champion of business.  Under Iwata’s leadership Nintendo was declared the World’s Top Company by BusinessWeek in 2009 beating out even Apple under Steve Jobs leadership.  Nintendo has just lost another legend.  He will be missed!  R.I.P. Satoru Iwata.

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Green Lantern/Green Arrow

Donny reviews the Emerald Duo.
Green Lantern1

Green Lantern/Green Arrow
1970-1973
Dennis O’Neil (story)
Neal Adams (art)

Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76, February, 1970, announced a new direction by opening with the surprising words: “For years he had been a proud man! … His name, of course, is Green Lantern, and often he has vowed that ‘No evil shall escape my sight.’ He has been fooling himself.” Flying over the city, Green Lantern sees a “punk” shoving an upper-class white man wearing a suit. When he jumps in to ‘teach the punk a lesson,’ Green Lantern finds the whole (poor and mostly black) neighborhood throwing trash at him. (Remember, black people had rarely ever been depicted in DC comics at all before this.) He calls them “animals” (racist much, GL?) and “anarchists,” and spits at them, “You want a riot!?” (Is he in Ferguson? Baltimore?) Green Arrow appears and explains that the white guy in the suit is a slum lord who is evicting all these people. Then comes one of the top-10 most famous scenes in the history of comics: An old black man comes up to Green Lantern and says: “I been readin’ about you… how you work for the blue skins… and how on a planet somewhere you helped out the orange skins… and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with… the black skins! I want to know… how come!? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!”

Green Lantern looks shamefully at his feet and mumbles, “I… can’t…”

Whoa! Nobody had ever seen this before in DC comics!

Batman (who was also getting a darker, grimmer Denny-O’Neal-Adams makeover at this same time) is the ultimate detective, solving crimes. Superman is the ultimate fireman, rescuing us from disasters. Green Lantern is the ultimate cop, enforcing the law… and yet he was guilty of unconscious racism and class-ism. Was DC’s emerald titan really just Darren Wilson with a cosmic power ring? The Green Lantern turned out, in the words of Grant Morison, to be the “bewildered representative of every dumb-ass cop who ever pounded the beat; the unthinking stooge of geriatric authorities from a galaxy far, far away” (Supergods, 2011).

Green Lantern2

Irish Catholic Denny O’Neil – young, intense and opinionated – came out of the newspapers and said that he still “considered myself as much of a journalist as a fiction writer,” (Jones and Jacobs, The Comic book Heroes, 1997). He came from the opinionated “new journalism” school of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson. “Could the comic book equivalent of the new journalism be possible?” O’Neil asked. “What would happen if we put a superhero in a real-life setting dealing with a real-life problem?”

Was this really a groundbreaking idea, though? To be fair, over at Marvel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had been using black characters since ’63 and Roy Thomas was writing about racial issues since ’68, so was this really only lily-white DC catching up? Shortly after Green Lantern’s humiliation at the hands of an old black man, Marvel had Captain America become a motorcycle cop in his secret identity and partner up with Falcon, a black, Harlem social worker turned crime fighter. O’Neil responded by introducing John Stewart, the first black Green Lantern. Stan Lee did a Spider-man story over at Marvel about the dangers of drug addiction, so, at DC, O’Neil made Speedy a heroin addict. Again and again, Marvel tended to lead the way and DC followed.

I guess what really made GL/GA such a milestone is just how explicitly political it was. Green Lantern was a member of the Green Lantern Corps, a cosmic police force. “My whole life,” he says, “is based on respect for authority.” Green Arrow was once a wealthy CEO who lost everything (like Robin of Loxley losing all his lands and titles to Prince John). O’Neil saw the Green Lantern as a right-leaning, peace-keeping enforcer of the establishment. Green Arrow, the modern Robin Hood, was the voice of populist, class-warfare radicalism. The idea was to partner the characters up to let them debate one-another like Point Counter Point while fighting bad guys. Together, they defended a mine-workers’ union, fought against a Manson-inspired racist cult, protected Native Americans’ land rights against loggers, took-on an over-eager judge handing out death sentences like Halloween candy, and dealt with pollution, overpopulation, radical feminism, race riots, and the creepy side of consumer-capitalist culture.

O’Neil was a Leftist and it’s obvious where his sympathies lie. He even described Green Lantern as having “noble intentions, but still a cop, a crypto-fascist” (1997). I guess he somewhat balances the scales by making Green Arrow an insufferably self-righteous prick, the caricature of the righteous bleeding heart, the preachy hippie that drives conservatives nuts. It makes a problem for the reader, though: by turns both Green Lantern and Green Arrow can be pretty annoying. Listen to this diatribe GA hurls at GL: “You call yourself a hero! Chum… you don’t even qualify as a man! … There are children dying… honest people cowering in fear… disillusioned kids ripping up campuses… On the streets of Memphis a good black man died… and in Los Angeles, a good white man fell… Something is wrong! … Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!”

Yeah, it can be laid on a bit thick…

And problematic. The Native American story tries to be sympathetic, but re-read today it has some pretty cringe-educing moments like when Green Arrow refers to them as his “Redskin brothers.”

On the other hand, most comic book dialogue up to this time was just as unrealistic. No, the biggest problem I have with these comics is that the endings of each story are almost invariably unsatisfying – unsatisfying because they are too easy. O’Neil takes on these complex, real-world problems… but then he contrives some way to conveniently wrap it up in the last couple of pages so the good guys win. In real life, the 1% usually aren’t overt crooks or maniacs who get hauled off to prison – and don’t have to be in order to wreak havoc on society and the environment – but here, they always turn out to be crooks or maniacs so that they can be conveniently hauled off to jail. This also makes it too easy for GL to resolve his personal dilemmas each time – until the climactic story.

Before we get to that: One of the better story moments has GA get stabbed by a mugger. As he crawls around seeking help, he is ignored by several pedestrians. This was a call-back to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens when a reported 37 people saw her being attacked (stabbed multiple times), and no one called the police. One witness was infamously quoted in the papers: “I didn’t want to get involved.” In 2010 this tragedy would play out again with the public killing of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax who bled to death on a sidewalk while at least 25 people walked past him. This story in GL/GA really shines a light on the difference between the liberal and conservative worldviews. In the conservative view, the solution to street crime is more cops (and more violent – Dirty Harry type – cops) and harsher sentences. I always think of a line in Death Wish: “What this city needs is more cops than people.” But O’Neil’s story depicts the mugging from the 1960’s liberal perspective, and what’s really needed, from here, is for us all to do a better job of caring for one-another, looking out for one-another, and being good Samaritans. The real problem is indifference, greed, lack of compassion, and not wanting to get involved.

Another favorite of mine was “Peril in Plastic.” Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Mathew Slaughter said, “Television is the opiate of the masses.” This story is about mass brainwashing which the villain gloats “makes the rubes happy, is what! Take away ambition… curiosity… and you got perfect employees!” It’s a pretty good metaphor for modern capitalist consumer culture. Work your job, buy your crap. Work your job, buy your crap. This story has one of the better endings, too.

The justifiably famous, two-part drug story is pretty good. The self-righteous hippy, Green Arrow discovers his ward and sidekick, Speedy, is a heroin addict… and throws the kid out of the house. However, again, the ending is too easy: Speedy appears to kick his drug habit in two issues.

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The introduction of John Stewart is good. No, not the host of The Daily Show; the first African American Green Lantern. To contrast him directly with Hal Jordon (calling back to issue #76), Stewart is introduced standing up to a bullying cop. He makes a great character: kind of the Samuel L. Jackson of the Green Lantern Corps. It’s a shame he was, here, underused.

The climactic story is also pretty good. It involves a tree-hugging, Jesus-look-a-like, eco-fighter named Isaac. GL’s girlfriend, Carol Ferris, owns a big, Boeing-like aircraft company. Her company is polluting the environment, but she responds, “All I can say is, we’ll solve the environmental difficulties when they arise!”

To this, GL, like an idiot, adds, “I believe it! American technologies can generally solve [anything].”

This story does suffer from putting its Jesus metaphor ridiculously in your face. O’Neil didn’t trust his readers to get it unless he has Isaac literally crucified between GL and GA and has the man in charge say, “I wash my hands of it,” while GA defends Isaac/Jesus by shouting, “He’s just trying to help us all! Don’t you see?” There’s even a freak’n dove that takes flight when Isaac dies on his cross. However, the ending is still pretty good. Green Lantern’s industrialist girlfriend rationalizes, “I suppose progress must always claim victims!” Green Lantern finally snaps and does what he’s stood against all this time: he takes the law into his own hands and just wantonly destroyers her experimental planes.

I must say, Neal Adams’ art is fantastic. He’s clearly one of the best artists of the 1970’s – making superheroes look more real than ever before, and there are some great page layouts that appear to be very influenced by Will Eisner. However, in the end, I largely agree with Jones and Jacobs (1997) that it’s “too bad GL/GA wasn’t as satisfying as it was important.” A little more from them: “The charmed suspension of disbelief that makes a purely fanciful battle of superhero and supervillain plausible can no longer be sustained when the hero starts grappling with unions and polluters. ‘Concretizing the symbol,’ the mythologist Joseph Campbell called it, and it’s the quickest way to deprive any symbol of genuine mythic power.” Today we just call it “a little too on the nose.”

All around, this book is subtle as a sledgehammer – and not just in its overt political messaging. After the heroes get attacked by a flock of birds, for instance, there is a cameo of Alfred Hitchcock walking by dressed as a mailman – which would be really cute, except that O’Neil has one of the characters say, “It reminds me of that Alfred Hitchcock movie.” That’s this book right there. It’s O’Neil constantly distrusting his readers to figure out or notice anything unless he makes it crazy obvious.

Still, it deservedly is an important work. This book is a watershed in the history of comics – a milestone for the beginning of the Bronze Age. “It was time,” writes Grant Morison (2011) “for comic-book superheroes to tap into the same self-critical, antiauthoritarian cultural energy source that would drive The Godfather, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and Midnight Cowboy.” So long, escapist fantasy. Welcome to the desert of the real.

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Poe

Donny reviews Poe. He also quotes Scott McCloud, who is awesome.

Poe1Poe
Vol. 1 (#s 1-6), Vol. 2 (#s 1-24) and the Poe Color Special
1996-2000
by Jason Asala

Sometimes I think Jason Asala stole my life. You see, I had a plan. I was going to get a job as a teacher (which I did) so that I could have my summers free to hit the Bristol board and self-publish independent comics (which I never quite got around to). Asala, however, has been effectively putting my plan into action since the mid-90’s, beginning with Poe, one of the most unique and original books to come out of that decade.

Poe is one of those “best comic you’ve never heard of” books. The first six issues were put out by Cheese Publishing in ’96 and ‘97, and then Sirius picked up the book for 24 issues from 1997 to 2000. Sirius also printed a trade in 1998 collecting the six issue Cheese run and a one-shot color special (the rest are in black-and-white).

The set-up goes like this: Edgar Allan Poe (based on the real author) is mourning his late Lenoir when an angel appears and tells him he can be reunited with her if he defeats 13 earth-bound demons. He sets out on this quest, a melancholy Orpheus on a journey to be reunited with his beloved (but dead) Lenoir. The best part is that the adventures he experiences along the way are inspired by the tales and poems of the real Edgar Allan Poe. Sort of a strange premise for a comic book, isn’t it?

The real Edgar Allan Poe, when he was in school, drew as well as wrote stories, and it was uncertain then whether he was going to become a writer or an artist. Too bad they didn’t have comic books at the time. Edgar Allan Poe might have been remembered as America’s greatest early comics artist.

The real Poe’s life was, famously, beset by the premature deaths of his loved ones, and Poe longed for some kind of contact with the afterlife. He famously married his 12-year-old first cousin. (Her name was not actually Lenoir, but Virginia.) She died after five difficult years of suffering. He was so poor that, despite working 16-hour days he couldn’t even feed his sick wife. Poe wrote his most famous poem, “The Raven,” while his wife was in the next room slowly wasting away. He was projecting ahead to his time of mourning: “When will I see my lost Lenoir again?” and the Raven croaks, “Nevermore!” After Virginia dies, as in the poem “Annabelle Lee,” Poe would go to the cemetery at all hours and lie on her grave. Later, he proposed to his third fiancé in a cemetery… They soon broke-up.

Asala’s concept for Poe is one of those brilliant, “Damn, I wish I thought of that” ideas – but nobody other than Asala could have drawn this book. He has a very idiosyncratic cartooning style that I really love. I remember a phase I went through in the late-90’s when I was drawing a daily strip for a newspaper, and I trying to mimic Asala’s style.

His execution is a bit wonky (especially in the early issues) but the concept is brilliantly odd and the stories are usually fun. You can really see the artwork improve over the first six (Cheese) issues, particularly at issue six when he switches from brush to pens, and the art continues to get better in the Sirius comics. There are some “armature” mistakes along the way. Caption boxes sometimes switch from Edgar’s thoughts to an omnipotent narrator without any visual distinction made, which can be pretty annoying. Sometimes the framing of his “shots” is weird: he occasionally zooms in too much and draws the figures too large for the panel or he crops their heads out of the frame… almost like he’s trying to do the comic book equivalent of a hand-held shaky cam. Asala is also sometimes bad with establishing shots (i.e. the wide shot that shows you the environment and all the characters, usually at the start of a new scene). Issue 18, for example, opens with a scene in which Pippin comes over to a table where Edgar is sitting with some men, but Asala doesn’t show us all the men at the table for two more pages. Sometimes the historical anachronisms are deliberate and funny, but a few times they seem accidental and annoying: for instance, an issue where they are decorating a Christmas tree and talking about Santa bringing presents – not something that would happen in 1831! And why is the Franciscan monk named Finster Habersham? Don’t all monks take new, Biblical names when they take their vows?

Nit-picks aside, this is a fun book. It has Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre notes, but it also has a healthy chunk of silly humor in it as well. Defeating foes via an atypical application of origami, for instance, or the running gag in which every time Edgar stops at a tavern something bad happens. The supporting cast is pretty good: Finster, Patrick, and Pippin… and later Meg and Dupin… and, of course, Pluto the Cat. They make an enjoyable band of unlikely heroes. A lot of the fun in this book is that it’s highly relatable protagonists aren’t action heroes (with the exception of the gun-slinging super-sleuth, Dupin); they just muddle through by their wits or (often) dumb luck. Edgar even pees himself when he lays eyes on his first demon. There’s something you’ll never see from a Marvel superhero.

I should explain that Asala’s tales are not adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, rather they are original adventure yarns inspired by Poe’s work, often taking only one or two ideas or images from the source material. One thing I like about this comic is that it’s such a fun way to explore the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Since all of Poe’s stories and poems are in the public domain you can find them all online, and most are audiobooks on Youtube. The first time I read Asala’s Poe, as the books were coming out in the 90’s, I read the corresponding E. A. Poe tales from my hardcover collection as I went, but this time I enjoyed listening to the stories on Youtube as I came to each new chapter in Asala’s comic (starting off with Vincent Price performing “The Raven” – it’s wonderful, go watch it). Poe was such a fantastic short story writer that even if this comic amounts to nothing more than an excuse for you to (re)discover his works then it will be worth it. The stories covered in Asala’s Poe are:

  • The Raven (Vol. 1, #1)
  • The Black Cat (#2)
  • The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather (#3)
  • The Bells (#4-5)
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (Vol. 2, #2-5)
  • Von Kempel and his Discovery (#11-12)
  • The Balloon Hoax (#18-24)

As you can see from the outline above, not all of Asala’s stories are inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. That’s too bad because, with little exception, I like the Poe-inspired stories better than the completely original ones. In particular, “Lead into Gold” (loosely inspired by “Von Kempel and his Discovery”) is one of my favorites because, when Edgar, Finster and Patrick are exploring the Alchemist’s mill house it has the feel of a classic Dungeons & Dragons adventure… and it has this hilarious false ending where it looks like the heroes are about to beat the villain, but then they roll a critical failure and screw it up. I’ll also mention issue #17 as a fun experiment: it’s 22 one-page short stories.

Poe was outlined to be a three act story. Act I wrapped up in issue #18 (the 25th issue published). Act II was to comprise issues 19 through 36, and the plan was to get back to doing “translations” of Edgar Allan Poe stories from which the comic had wandered. These were going to be set in Europe and include “The Balloon Hoax” (the last story he actually completed), “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Act III would return to America to complete the story and run to about issue 56 or 60. He was even going to have young Abe Lincoln appear as a demon hunter which would have not only been hilarious but would have anticipated the “Vampire Hunter” book by ten years. He put out 31 of the planed 60-something issues, so he was right about halfway through his planned epic when he had to call it quits. So if you demand your stories have an ending, you may not want to start this series… although you’ll really be missing out on something.

In 2000, around issue #18 when Act I wrapped, because “Poe wasn’t paying the bills” and Asala and his wife had their first baby, Asala took a job as an elementary school teacher. In the six issues of Act II he completed, Asala had clearly gotten much better at facial expressions, details and clothing while maintaining and refining his uniquely odd cartooning style. However, in an interview with CBR, Asala explained that after about 20 issues of the Sirius run, sales were steady but not increasing. Poe was having trouble finding new readers, despite Asala having “worked the con circuit like a dog from 1996 to 2000.” He sold a good number of books at comic cons, and he says he’d get calls from comic shop owners who were selling 10 or 15 copies of Poe (which is great for an indy comic) – but it was hard to get many stores to carry the book. This was the problem indy publishers had always faced: it was just too damn hard to compete for shelf space with Marvel and DC (and then Image and Dark Horse). Few retailers with limited shelf space are going to give up Thor or Green Lantern to make room for a book like Poe which might be a much better book but few people have heard of. (In this case, it probably didn’t help that the cover art on Poe was usually not very good.) However, this is a perfect illustration of how comic shops in America have so consistently slit their own throats. Allow me a moment to pontificate…

Actually, I’ll let Scott McCloud pontificate: “If you’re a retailer with 26 slots on your wall you can sell every type of comic from “A to Z” (as, in fact, the comics market once did). [i.e. A to Z Comics] But if you’re paying an arm and a leg for every inch of that store, and you find that “A” through “C” sells five times as many copies it’s only a matter of time before you’ll want to – or have to – make some changes. [i.e. ABC Comics] Your reader base may go down as a result, but your profit per inch will go up, and day to day that may be all you can afford to think about. Once the process is complete, and the “B-Z” reading masses are long gone (nearly all of the top 100 selling titles in October 1999 were superhero comics) diversifying again will be difficult. [i.e. A Comics] You can try putting a few “B” comics back on the shelf but only “A” buyers will see them.” (McCloud, Reinventing Comics, 2000) You’ve niche-marketed to one tiny slice of the pie where the vast majority of potential readers are now not going to even consider coming into your store and picking up a book. Contrast this to other countries like Japan or France where everybody reads comics because you can walk into a normal, mainstream bookstore (not a “Boys Only” bat cave) and buy a comic in any genre of your choice: horror, romance, sports, domestic comedy, history, detective fiction, etc. In those places, the comic book is a medium like a TV show or movie or novel. Here in the U.S. we allowed the comic book to become misconstrued as a genre – superheroes – and both the industry and the art suffered. McCloud one more time: “Superhero comics are like chocolate cake. I love eating chocolate cake, but I sure don’t want to eat nothing but chocolate cake all the time.”

The worst part was, by 2000 there wasn’t even much diversity even within the superhero genre. Pursuing “what’s hot,” publishers had marketed themselves into a niche within a niche: rather misogynistic, Image-like books with dark-n-gritty anti-heroes and lots of T & A. In the final issue of Poe that was published, Jason Asala wrote: “The numbers on POE are mediocre at best… The comic book industry nowadays is a very tough market. I don’t know what the industry at large wants. The books that are popular that aren’t T & A books vary in composition and category. There isn’t a magic equation as to what will stick and what won’t.”

And so Poe came to a premature end. However, Jason Asala is still working as a 4th and 5th grade school teacher and laboring over the summers to produce a few other oddball comics like Nantucket Brown Roasters (2002) and a couple of prose novels: The Bone Witch (2013) and The Ten Stones (2015). Yeah, he definitely stole my life…

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Wolverine

Bub, here is Donny’s review of the best comic there is at what it does.
Wolverine1

Wolverine
1982
Chris Claremont and Frank Miller (story)
Frank Miller (art)

The first line of this book has become iconic: “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.” And the lead character, Wolverine, has become just as iconic.

He first appeared as a throw-away Hulk villain in ’75, and shortly thereafter Len Wein, the writer of Hulk #’s 181-182, used him again in Giant Sized X-Men when he created the new, international X-Men line-up. Immediately thereafter Chris Claremont took over writing X-Men and stayed on the book for the next 16 years. Between ’75 and ’80, Wolverine remained a supporting character. He was an angry, anti-authoritarian, anti-social jerk who all the other X-Men were sort of scared of… but he was also kind of a dead-end character, and Claremont even, at one point, seriously considered killing him off. Then came issues 132 and 133, the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” and something cool happened.   Wolverine briefly goes solo when all the other X-Men get captured, and he brutally kills at least four guys, and he goes from being a bad attitude to being a badass. Scott and Jean, the last of the original line-up, leave the team, and almost overnight Wolverine became more or less the star of the book. (He also gets a much better looking costume!) However, he still wasn’t a top-tier Marvel property. The 1982 Wolverine changed that. This is the book that put Wolverine on par with Spider-man and the Hulk.

Chris Claremont and Frank Miller left San Diego ComiCon and were driving together up I-5 to LA, a six hour drive. Miller was the new writer-artist on Daredevil and was already doing some cool stuff (the Elektra/Bullseye arc was just coming out), but he wasn’t yet a star talent… but Claremont really wanted to work with him on a Wolverine solo story. Miller wasn’t interested. He saw Wolverine as a one-dimensional character: a psychotic berserker. (Originally Claremont saw Wolverine as a stone killer – a black-ops type – but editor Jim Shooter objected, so Claremont and Byrne came up with the “berserker rage” concept to get around Shooter’s prohibition against killing.) However, Claremont pitched his idea to Miller that Wolverine was really a kind of “failed samurai,” and Miller became intrigued. They had just recently introduced a Japanese back-story for the character. John Byrne, when he was co-plotting X-Men, had read James Clavell’s Shogun and was inspired to create Wolverine’s Japanese love interest, Mariko. She was “the absolutely, impossibly unattainable vision of purity” (Byrne in Backissue magazine #4). As they drove, Miller continued playing hard-to-get, but he and Claremont continued to further develop this take on the Wolverine character – and only then did they think of a plot to build around the (newly emerging) character.

One thing they both agreed on quickly was that they wanted to “utterly destroy” Wolverine in the story, completely break him and then see if he could rise up again. After all, if your character’s power is the ability to heal, then his iconic story would be one that wounds him physically, morally and spiritually like never before. In this story, Wolverine is beaten (in a fight) and broken (spiritually), and you don’t see that often. And when later writers do that then they run the risk of looking derivative. It’s the standard dilemma of ongoing serials that last for decades. How do you hit the iconic tropes without appearing derivative? That’s why (I would argue) most of the best superhero stories were from the Silver and Bronze Ages when the characters were first emerging.

The plot summery: Wolverine travels to Japan and discovers that his girlfriend, Mariko, has married someone else at the orders of her father, Lord Shingen, who also happens to be a yakuza crime boss. Shingen tricks Wolverine into dishonoring himself before Mariko’s eyes, not once but twice. Wolverine handles the blues like any redneck would: he gets drunk and picks a bar fight with a stranger. After Wolverine has been totally demoralized, Shingen orders Yukio, a lady ninja with a death wish, to kill Wolverine – whom, instead, she falls in love with. Shingen sends the Hand, a clan of ninja assassins, after them both, and much violence ensues.

This is Wolverine’s first solo comic, and for the first time, this story really brings pathos to Wolverine’s struggle to be human and his shame over his berserker side. Wolverine was a mysterious (if rather flat) character, and this is the first time we get a full glimpse into his past as well as his motivations and his (surprising) insecurities. Yukio and Mariko represent the two sides of Wolverine: the wild beast and the honorable man, chaos and order. Prior to now, Wolverine had basically been depicted as a rude, ill-tempered redneck. So when we find him speaking perfect Japanese and learn that he can not only identify a kabuki play as being the Chushingura (the 47 Ronin) but can tell a good performance from a great one, it comes as a bit of a shock. This really made the character – who had been around for seven years at this point – complete: a failed samurai who was rough and rude on the outside but cultured, honorable, and surprisingly sensitive on the inside. Wolverine would remain with this existentialist, “am I a man or a beast” conflict for the next twenty years, but this was the story that best capitalized it – which is probably what makes this the best Wolverine story of all. Shingen’s plan to humiliate Wolverine and tear him down was specific to his character; you couldn’t take this same plot outline and swap in Iron Man or Spider-man.

Not to slight Chris Claremont, but it’s obvious how much influence Frank Miller had on this plot. By his own admission, Miller has never been strongly interested in superheroes. He prefers noir crime thrillers and ‘70’s kung-fu movies, and when he took over Daredevil he essentially turned it into a mash-up of those two genera with a superhero costume. Now, he does the same for Wolverine. The plot of this book is essentially a yakuza crime thriller – adamantium claws and healing powers are optional. There are also notes of James Bond here: Asano is in the role of the likable local expert who helps 007 before he dies, there’s a good girl and a bad girl (although generally in 007 one of them has to die), etc. Wolverine’s first person narration is pure Mike Hammer. In addition to noir narration we have all the other requisite tropes: brooding introspection, moral compromises, a tough guy hero who gets the crap kicked out of him, and a femme fatale (here, a female assassin replicating Daredevil’s Elektra). Wolverine is no longer a superhero but a noir tough guy like Sam Spade and Philip Marlow (and, later, Harry Dresden) who gets used, manipulated, beat-up and beat-down, but stays morally superior, tough, and never gives up, and somehow muddles through by sheer chutzpah and stubbornness.

Woverine 2

Timing is everything, and this book was right there to help launch the ninja craze of the 1980’s that was pervasive throughout my childhood. This book came out right along with of Sam Firstenberg’s movie trilogy: Enter the Ninja (’81), Revenge of the Ninja (’83) (I remember watching that on home video endlessly when I was 10, then I’d go outside and practice throwing shuriken into trees), and Ninja III (’84). In the 1980’s you could make anything ten times cooler by slapping “ninja” on it. G.I.Joe’s Snake-eyes got the ninja re-boot not long after Wolverine did.

Miller had just introduced the Hand in Daredevil the same year the Wolverine limited series came out: an order of ninja assassins founded in the 1500’s who serve a Japanese demon and are masters of both martial and occult arts. Spooky! The weird thing is, however, that while we are repeatedly told that the Hand are the best assassins on the planet (“the finest killers on Earth, each the equal of a dozen ordinary men”), they really seem to function as the one-hit-dice goblins of the Marvel Universe. They just try to overwhelm by numbers but (at least if you are Wolverine) can be cut down by the bushel. The opening of part 2 is classic: Wolverine wakes up to find (if I count swords) ten ninjas in his bedroom. Pages 2 and 3 make an epic double-page splash panel (pictured above) of Wolverine shoving four ninjas out the window… where another fourteen ninjas are shown crowding the rooftops. On page 4 we finally get the title page as Wolverine jumps through a swarm of arrows – indicating there must be about fifty archers on those roofs! (With bad aim, because not a single arrow finds its mark… although later there is a nod to Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood when Wolverine gets shot with a dozen arrows.)

Miller helped shape a lot of the story, but the writing is classic Chris Claremont – for good and bad. Claremont’s descriptions are always great, he sets a wonderful mood, and he gets Wolverine’s tough-guy narration pitch perfect… but he also over-explains, recaps the last issue in some heavy-handed ways, and occasionally breaks the cardinal rule against having the caption narrate exactly what we can see in the picture.

As I said, Miller had just started writing Daredevil when this came out, so it was really this book that put him on the map. His art in Daredevil was fine but nothing outstanding. Here, his eloquent layouts are more influenced by the Japanese manga he loved so much (and were virtually unknown in America in 1982); in particular Goseki Kojima’s fantastic Lone Wolf and Cub was an acknowledged influence on Wolverine the series and Wolverine the character. Wolverine made Miller a star talent and both Marvel and DC were like, “What would you like to do? Pick any character you want.” However, Frank Miller (along with Neil Adams, Scott McCloud, Dave Sim, and Wendy and Richard Peni) was part of the strong push for creator rights going on at that time, so he surprised everyone by turning down Marvel and DC’s carte blanche to do a creator-owned, indy comic called Ronin about a Japanese samurai. Score one for “follow your bliss.”

I can’t judge this book objectively because I have too much nostalgia around it. When I was 12, I re-read this book a half-dozen times. It was my favorite comic for several years. However, this is classic Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, and that says a lot. This is also usually pointed to as the best Wolverine story in comics, and that also says a lot. I think it really is Wolverine’s best because (1) it’s him at his most vulnerable, (2) it gives us a new side to the character that we hadn’t seen before, (3) as mentioned above, you have two of the best talents of the 1980’s collaborating, and (4) this is the book that put both Frank Miller and Wolverine on the map. So this is probably the “if you only read one Wolverine” book, and, unsurprisingly, it was the major influence behind the movie The Wolverine.

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Y: The Last Man

Here’s the latest comic review from Donny.

Y The Last Man

Y: The Last Man
#’s 1-60
2002 – 2008
Brian K. Vaughan (story)
Pia Guerra (art)

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine if the world were going to end shortly after you die, and you knew this were absolutely true. How much of what you are doing now would lose its meaning – its significance? Your own life isn’t going to be cut any shorter, but you know that not long after you die, the world will end, and everyone else will die, too. Or, for another variation, take the scenario in P.D. James’ Children of Men. In that dystopian science-fiction, the entire human race has become infertile. No new babies can be born; this generation is the last one. In such a situation as those, how much of what you do would lose meaning? How much would you dismiss by asking, why bother? The sciences? Gone. The arts? Gone. Politics? Gone. Fighting for social justice, political reform, or to save the whale? Even the most ardent individualist, the most solitary artist, would have trouble finding life worth living in the face of such a situation. As Berkeley philosopher Samuel Scheffler has observed: we need future generations to give our lives meaning. That we, personally, should survive our death is actually less important to us than that others should live on after us. Human beings fear, more than loss of life, loss of meaning.

The most famous post-apocalyptic comic book of recent years has been Walking Dead, but I think the best and the smartest was Y – an Eisner Award winner as well as a New York Times Bestseller. In Y, in one sudden, nearly-simultaneous instant, every mammal on earth with a Y chromosome suddenly drops dead… all except a 21-year-old escape artist named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. The President (formerly the Secretary of Agriculture – she was the first woman in he order of succession) assigns an ass-kicking secret agent known only as 355 to shepherd Yorick, his monkey, and the world’s greatest surviving cloning expert, Dr. Alison Mann, across the country to Dr. Mann’s San Francisco laboratory. All the while, all Yorick wants to do is to get to Australia to find his girlfriend Beth whom he was about to propose to when the gendercide happened. He’s an unlikely Odysseus, crossing continents and oceans to reach his faithful (?) Penelope, facing Lotus Eaters, Syrians, a cyclops named Rose, and a therapeutic Dominatrix.

It’s a nifty adventure idea, but the book moves quickly into what the social and political ramifications of this event would be. When the “gendercide” instantly killed all the men (2.9 billion people) it took all but 5 of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 99% of all landowners, 95% of all commercial pilots, truck drivers and ship captains… 99% of all mechanics, electricians, and construction workers… 85% of government officials and 100% of Catholic priests, Muslim imams, and Orthodox rabbis. You want to talk about hitting the re-set button on civilization?

So what’s the point? That civilization can’t stand-up without men… or to call our attention to how badly we have underutilized the talents and skills of half our population. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Y is the way it strongly divides readers into thinking it is either a feminist story of female empowerment or a misogynist tract endlessly bashing and dehumanizing women. Many feminists were offended that society collapsed so instantly without the men and that almost all the surviving women seem really screwed-up in the head. On the other hand, Ms magazine called the book a “feminist masterpiece.” I’ve seen Brian K. Vaughn at a con tell a funny story about taking his wife into a comic shop and, to impress her, casually dropping to the girl behind the counter that he was the writer of Y: The Last Man. The girl looked at him funny and then asked, “Um… so… Why do you hate women?” Vaughn laughs about it after the fact, but also admits, “It’s been very frustrating for me that anyone should take Y as misogynistic.”

In large part, Vaughn wants to overturn the stereotype that a world run by women would be a nurturing, non-competitive, egalitarian utopia. It seems like most of the women they encounter on their odyssey are violent, paranoid, man-hating nut-jobs. I can get on board with this approach, because true feminism is realizing that women are just as complex, contradictory, and kooky as men often are, and they can be just as greedy, violent, and petty – because they’re human beings. A recurring theme in Y is that a lot of the differences between men and women are cultural and socio-economic rather than inherently biological. There’s a great panel of Yorick holding a skull (of course), wondering if it was a male or female, and asking, “How can anyone tell the difference?” And earlier Other-Beth (not his girlfriend Beth but the “Other-Beth” he falls in with along the way) muses on the sins of the Catholic Church and observes, “The Church wasn’t fucked-up because it was run by men. It was fucked-up because it was run by humans.” That Vaughan makes his point by often showing women as violent, crazy, and pig-headed set some feminist readers off, but surly the point should be that the sudden loss of half the population – men or women – would be devastating; knowing that you are the last generation to ever live would be unbearable.

However, what really makes Y a feminist story is that what Vaughn did was to subversively reverse the usual gender roles. Usually the violent, scary villains are men, the hero is a man, and the character in need of rescue is female. Yorick is the weaker character, and over and over he plays the traditional role of the damsel in distress so that 355, the action hero, can come to his rescue. I think one of the major points of the book is made explicit when, at one point, Yorick makes a Moonlighting analogy, and tells 355, “I’m Cybil. You’re Bruce.” Add to this the fact that many women want to seduce (or rape) him, but pure-hearted (or very repressed) Yorick is saving himself for Beth.

The most obviously feminist comic book has always been Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was created by Dr. William Moulton Marston. He was kinky and polyamourous: he lived with his wife and his slave (who always wore metal bracelets). He created Wonder Woman to be an overtly feminist story… but it also had tons of kink and bondage in it. She was always getting tied up or chained up or tying some guy up… So one of the great comic tropes Vaughan inverts is the set-up of the more obviously feminist Wonder Woman. Yorick, an escape artist, is always getting tied-up by girls who want to kill or rape him. Sometimes the fetishy stuff is subtle, sometimes less subtle (the cover to issue #6 which shows him naked in chains wearing the gasmask, an image that could come straight from BoundGods.com) and at least once it’s in-your-face (the “Safe-word” story arc which lets all the slightly buried fetish stuff come right out of the closet). This is a Vertigo book (“For Mature Readers”) and contains a lot of adult themes, language, violence, and nudity (full frontal male and female). Yorick’s modest penis size is a running joke: the last functional penis on earth… barely.

Yorick’s sexuality is a bit of a puzzle. Clearly he’s very repressed and has some big “issues” about sex, and his whole, overly-romantic I’m-saving-myself-for-my-almost-fiancé is clearly a very questionable dodge. One wonders if his escape artist thing isn’t a bit of a bondage fetish as is sometimes implied. One wonders if he is gay or bi or heteroflexible, as is sometimes implied. It makes this story more interesting than the expected “harem fantasy”: What if the last man on earth is gay, repressed, or sexually dysfunctional?

Yorick is a man-child and a bit of an insecure wimp who suffers numerous humiliations. Yorick’s mixtures of pop culture and literary references are often very amusing. I find Yorick to be quite likable precisely because he’s such a goof with this dorky sense of humor. This book can be disturbing and frightening and heartbreaking, but it’s also, frequently, really funny. Yorick is generally clueless, especially in the early issues, and kind of insufferable – but that is very much the point. The last man isn’t a chiseled, heroic, square-jawed Viggo Mortensen or Will Smith; he’s a 21-year old slacker. He’s Nietzsche’s “last man” – a couch potato who basically wants only to be left alone, distracted by books and TV, and sleep well at night with a full belly. Yorick can also be irritating in the early issues because he takes these really stupid risks. “Safe-word” is the pivotal story where we learn that, traumatized by seeing half the population suddenly die, Yorick has a death wish. So now we add another intriguing twist on the premise: What if the last man alive wants to die?

While I see this book as more of a feminist piece than a misogynist work, I do have to agree with one criticism that is frequently hurled at it: almost all the girls in it look like Maxim models. It’s a little disjointed for a work about female empowerment to be so full of eye candy for boys. When we first meet Beth, for instance, she is hiking in the Australian outback in very skimpy clothing (she’s a blond with alabaster skin that would cook), no hat, and she appears to be wearing lipstick! In the next issue we meet a super-model who is collecting rotting, male corpses and piling them into a garbage truck. Is she wearing cover-alls or a hazmat suit? No, she’s wearing skin-tight, leather pants and a tank top! So, okay, there is definitely reasonable cause for calling up artist Pia Guerra and saying, “WTF, lady?”

Be that as it may, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Guerra’s art is fantastic. It’s crisp, solid storytelling that is well composed but not “showy” the way a lot of Vertigo comics are. And let’s also note how cool and unusual it is to have one artist on a comic for most of its whole 60-issue run (Guerra drew all but twelve or so issues).

Y is a unique, cool, compelling, and often clever comic masterpiece… that perhaps suffers from a bit of muddled messaging which leads half its readers to see it as feminist and the other half to see it as misogynist. To be a socio-political book without a clear message might be a bit of a problem, but at the same time… that’s kind of the way the story works. The whole story – but especially “Safe-word” – walks a line between being exploitive and being a deeply revealing character study. “Safe-word” combines BDSM titillations and a dominatrix rapist force-feeding Yorick boner pills with psychoanalysis and an epiphany that transforms Yorick from an everyman, Gen-X loser to a rich, three-dimensional character. And the obligatory crazy-ladies in “Safe-word” – the Sons of Arizona – are better realized villains than the earlier “Amazons” (a cult of loony, man-hating women who seem too much like a bad parody of feminists). Many long-form narratives take a little time for the writer to get it together – that was true of Babylon 5 and The Sandman. Likewise, Y really takes off with the “Safeword” chapter (issues #18-23).

After completing this 60 issue magnum opus, Vaughn went on to become a writer and story editor for TV’s Lost, and was the show-runner for seasons 3-5. (Not season 6, so don’t blame him for that.) Lost had many similarities to Y. Somewhat reminiscent of the Lost flashbacks, Vaughan frequently employs, in Y, an effective technique of opening each book with the climax and then backing up to reveal how we got there. Alternatively, another technique he often employs is to begin each chapter with Yorick in a genera-spoofing dream sequence. Like Lost, the narrative is very driven by mystery: What killed all the male mammals and why did Yorick and Ampersand survive? Like Lost, some characters change sides from “good guys” to “bad guys” and back again. (I always enjoy that.) Vaughan really understands how to engineer a page-turner; each page ends with a little punch and each issue ends with a cliff-hanger. There’s also a lot of clever dialogue – occasionally given a double meaning, like when Yorick is first introduced and he’s musing about why fate chooses one man to live over another… or the opening line of “Safe-word”: “Yorick always gets to go last!”

The ending of this 60 issue epic is heartbreaking and beautiful – better by far than the ending of Lost. It faces the same problem Lost had: the story is so built around mystery that any explanation at the end is going to seem unsatisfying. Y handles this better than Lost did by having Yorik and Beth confront the issue head-on in the story.   Yorick actually says, “As far as answers go, it was… vaguely unsatisfying.”

Beth then asks him, “After everything we’ve been through? Is there any explanation that would have been satisfactory?”

Yorik answers, “Um, aliens? I also would have accepted witchcraft or anything involving nanobots.”

One thing worth mentioning that is extremely satisfying is Yorick’s final confrontation with the villainous Alter who has hunted him across the globe. If the “answer” to the mystery is “vaguely unsatisfying,” the final show-down with his arch-nemesis is very, very satisfying in all the right ways.

Still, just as happened with Lost, many readers of Y will, like Yorick, feel very let down by the “answer,” such as it is… or annoyed by he lack thereof, really. (It’s never 100% clear if they ever actually learn the real answer.) What Vaughn is doing by having Yorick say that is to make clear to us that the story was never really about, ‘What killed all the men?’ It was about the journey of Yorick and 355, Dr. Mann, Hero, Alter, Other-Beth, Natalya, and Rose. Like all great sci-fi, it isn’t about the “science” at all; it’s about (as the great J. Michael Straczynski put it), ‘Who are you really and what do you really want?’ So much effort to reach Australia and find his Beth. It is almost unbearably sweet when Yorick finally realizes that 355 has been his real Penelope all along. He’s an English major, so he really should have seen it coming given that she was always knitting and un-raveling and re-knitting this scarf… but then, Yorik is lovably clueless.

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Batman, Black and White

Donny reviews a na na na na na na na na na… Anthology!

Batman BW1

Batman, Black and White
Volume 1 (issues 1-4)
1996
Series editor: Mark Chiarello
 

If I had to choose just one Batman book to take to a desert island with me, this would be it. It’s a collection of twenty, eight-page short stories (plus covers and pin-up art) by a gathering of the best artists (and a few great writers, too) working in the business in the mid-90’s.

Black and White came out of a dinner conversation between editor Mark Chiarello and a handful of “famous comics artists.” The question came up as to which was the greatest comic series of all time, and a number of them settled on Creepy, the old, back and white, horror anthology from the 1960’s. First edited by Jim Orlando (you may remember him being mentioned in Watchmen as the supposed creator of the “Black Freighter” comic) and then flourishing under the writing and editing of Archie Goodwin, it featured many of the best cartoonists of the era: Orlando, Neil Adams, Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Frank Frazetta, Carmine Infantino, and Alex Toth among them. Prior to writing a story Goodwin would ask the artist what type of story or setting he would like to work in and then play to their strengths. (Neil Gaiman later adopted this technique when writing Sandman.) Goodwin also wrote a considerable number of adaptations of classic horror works now in the public domain.

Chiarello was then inspired to put together a black and white anthology that would feature a line-up of the best cartoonists he could get. He choose Batman as the vehicle because, of all the top tier superheroes, noir-inspired Batman best lends himself to a black and white world, plus he’s a character that has already had numerous different interpretations. DC green-lighted the project even though (being in black and white and an anthology) no one expected it to sell well. However, the series was such a hit, it led to DC doing a regular 8-page, back and white, back-up short story in the monthly Gothem Knights comic. The Gothem Knights features were later collected and reprinted (in 2003) as Batman, Black and White volumes 2 and 3, which are also quite good, but not quite as great as the first series.

Almost any writer will tell you that it is harder to write a good short story than a decent novel. The economy of short story telling demands that every choice count; there’s little room for slip-ups and no room for fluff. The confines of the 8-page story are part of the strength of this series. In place of complex plots, we get powerful parables and wonderful (sometimes disturbing) vignettes.

Another part of the greatness of this book is that it gives many different interpretations of the malleable Batman character. Being “Elseworlds” stories (outside the canonical DC continuity), the artists had almost complete liberty to do anything they wanted with Batman and re-cast him any number of ways.

However, the real glory of this book is the art! As with limiting the writing to 8 pages, limiting the art to black and white forced the cartoonists to boil their visions down to the essence. This comic is a textbook in great pen-and-ink drawing. Back in art school, I set myself a task of reproducing one panel from each of the 20 stories. I didn’t finish, but even still, I learned lot.

Batman BW2

Just start with the original four covers! Jim Lee at his best, Frank Miller at his most hyper-macho, Barry Windsor Smith being intriguingly minimalist, and (pictured above) Alex Toth (my personal favorite) being just graphically beautiful. (I’d certainly hang a poster of the Toth cover on my wall.)

Then you have the eight pin-ups, including: Moebius (France’s greatest cartoonist), Michael William Kaluta (doing his Art Deco thing), P. Craig Russell (a weird, German Expressionist-come-Film Noir camera angle), Marc Silvestri (drawing the “wet drapery” cape), an ink wash painting by Alex Ross, and the great Neil Adams (the man who re-invented Batman for the Bronze Age – for many, Adams’ Batman is still the definitive look).

Then you get all these stories. Not every story is 5-starts, but in a work with 20 stories, most of them are great, and none of them are bad. If I may be allowed to gush like a fan-boy, let me enumerate some of the highlights:

Ted McKeever kicks the series off with this prefect little piece about Batman performing an autopsy to identify a Jane Doe, drawn in a rough ink brush. Bruce Timm, the man behind the look of the outstanding 1990’s Batman: The Animated Series, gives us an almost Twilight Zone-like piece about Two Face. Old school Joe Kubert draws lots and lots of bats in “The Hunt.” Howard Chayken (American Flagg) does his boxy, classic American illustrator thing perfectly.

In the far-flung future, Walt Simonson, most famous for his work on Thor and other myth-inspired comics, gives us a re-working of the “sleeping king” motif, with the Batman as a “Once and Future King” type warrior who will always rise again when Gothem is in need. In sharp contrast, the unflinchingly real “Monster Maker” story by Corben and Strand pits Batman against a street gang of preteens with guns. It’s one of the most disturbing and depressing pieces. Kent Williams then does some of his beautiful, painted brush and ink work.

Neil Gaiman admitted that he didn’t know how to write Batman or have any interest in the character… so he gives us an interesting “cheat” (drawn by over-the-top Simon Bisley of Judge Dread): a meta-story in which Batman and the Joker are depicted as actors, conscious of the fact that they are making a comic book.

“Good Evening, Midnight” is awesome (either it or “Heroes” is the best in this collection), and it was Klaus Janson’s first time writing! Janson is known as the best inker in comics and had worked with Frank Miller on Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns. His “Good Evening, Midnight” intercuts Batman out doing his thing with Alfred reading an undelivered letter Thomas Wayne wrote to his son when Bruce was still three years old.

Matt Wagner (Grendel) goes zip-tone crazy in the Pulp Fiction-like “Heist,” and visual genius Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin, Stray Toasters, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, Moon Knight, the New Mutants) does this disturbing piece about child abuse: “Bent Twigs.”

Denny O’Neil (Batman’s primary writer and group editor for most of the Bronze Age) does two stories: a really fine Christmas story with the idiosyncratic Teddy Kristiansen (Sandman) and a pulpy Noir visual extravaganza with Brian Stelfreeze. There’s Brian Boland (The Killing Joke)… there’s fan favorite Kevin Nolan… and there’s a surreal tale by manga master Katsuhiro Otomo, whose landmark Akira is still hailed as probably still the greatest anime film of all time.

Archie Goodwin (who wrote Creepy back in 1965-69) contributed two stories here: a horror story about the “Devil’s Trumpet” illustrated by Jose Munoz, and “Heroes,” set in Golden Age 1939 (when Batman first appeared), with gorgeous, old school, pulp illustration by genius Gary Gianni. “Heroes” won the 1996 Eisner Award for best short story – and Black and White won for Best Anthology.

A common conversation for geeks is what Batman comic would you give someone who had never read a superhero comic before, and the standard answer is, “Well, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, of course.” I disagree. DKR is a great book, but you also kind of have to have read some run-of-the-mill, pre-1986 superhero stuff in order to understand what’s so subversive and deconstructive about it. No, my choice, if I’m handing someone their first ever Batman book is Batman, Black and White volume 1. I can guarantee there is going to be something in there (probably a lot in there) to excite your imagination.

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Comic Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Donny reviews a Daredevil parody that became ludicrously successful.

TMNT1

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #’s 1-11,
Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo one-shots
1984-87
Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird (story & art)
(TMNT #8 also included contributions by Dave Sim and Gerhard)

TMNT sprang from some silly drawings Kevin Eastman was doing in his sketchbook one evening while watching “bad TV” with his friend and collaborator Peter Laird. They thought it would be fun to turn the characters into a one-shot comic. They worked out of Eastman’s kitchen and used money from their tax returns and borrowed some more from Eastman’s uncle to self-publish a single, one-shot issue that was a loving parody of Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Wolverine and Ronin comics.

The first print run of TMNT was 3,275 copies. It was soon reprinted three times to meet demand. TMNT #2 sold 15,000 copies, clearing Eastman and Laird about $2000 each, allowing them to quit their day jobs and pursue making comics full time. If you happen still own one of those 3,275 first editions of TMNT #1, it’s now worth a sweet $4000 on eBay. Here, by the way, is an important lesson for all those fools who want to get rich investing in comics: Collectables go up in value when they are rare! The much-promoted “Death of Superman” comic sold millions of copies and is still today worth the same $1.75 on the cover – if that! And yet gullible morons in 1992 bought multiple copies of it in vacuum-sealed collector bags. End PSA. Back to the Turtles.

I love how the Turtles look in the first couple of issues. Very soon, they became more human in their proportions, but early on, in the first couple of issues, they have stubby, little limbs and look like killer muppets. The first issue is basically a Frank Miller send-up. The Foot is a goof on his ninja clan, the Hand. They actually riff on Daredevil’s origin story: A blind man almost steps in front of a truck carrying radioactive material. A tween-age Matt Murdock pulls the blind man away. The truck wrecks and a glowing canister breaks loose and hits Matt in the face (blinding him and giving him super powers). The canister bounces into a bowl of baby turtles carried by a little boy, shattering the bowl and dumping turtles and mutagenic canister into the sewer. The book also pokes at Frank Miller’s shtick of having oodles of ninjas covering the rooftops in a fight. When I was teen, I remember we used to joke about how it seemed like ninjas were mail ordered by the dozen. There are other little, comic geek inside jokes. The first two thugs Raphael and Casey Jones beat up are Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in cameo. On the floor of the Turtles’ lair rests a copy of Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and a billboard on the street advertises “Marble Super Heroes Stupid Wars!” which was a current bestseller at the time TMNT #1 came out (and crushing the struggling small press, indy comics). In the second issue, Baxter Stockman destroys the “Retxab Building” – which is an obvious copy of the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building with the name spelled backwards. (Less funny for us, today, is when he next threatens to topple the World Trade Center towers. Awkward!)

What really struck me re-reading TMNT for the first time in 20 years was how imaginative this book was. It’s full of so many far out ideas. There’s the Turtles themselves, of course. Then we get a mad scientist and killer robots, then space aliens and a wacky Star Wars type adventure, then time travel, wizards, and ninjas… The Turtles was such a versatile platform; its spirit is very much like the old Silver Age superhero books like FF, Superman, and Avengers – just one wild idea and new direction after another, issue after issue.

My favorite issues (with the exception of Raphael) are the solo adventures which were published as four one-shots. Michelangelo is a fun, goofy, heartwarming Christmas misadventure. Donetello is an endearing tribute to Jack Kirby (who had recently died, 1984). Leonardo is a mostly silent comic, powerfully juxtaposing Leo being ambushed and beaten nearly to death by the Foot with everyone else back at home decorating April’s apartment for Christmas. Another high point is the TMNT-Cerebus team-up. (This was before Dave Sim’s bizarre religious conversion when he went all misogynist and coo-coo.) That story also has a great goof on Jack Kirby’s Galactus in the form of Lord Simultaneous, whose appearance at the end of the issue still gets me to laugh out loud – it’s almost like a Mel Brooks gag.

In 1987, they licensed the characters to CBS for an animated series. Until then, Eastman and Laird had done pretty much all of the first 15 comics themselves (1-11 and the four one-shots), but this deal allowed them to bring other writers and artists onboard – which is why for this review I re-read just those first fifteen, pre-CBS comics. The CBS cartoon series was aimed at kids and toned-down the violence and introduced a lot more comedy, including catchphrases like “Turtle power!” and “Cawabunga, Dude!” and the Turtles’ love of pizza. I was fortunate enough to first encounter TMNT through the comic book rather than the Saturday morning kids’ cartoon. In fact, I was almost Marvel zombie, and TMNT was really the first non-Marvel book (as well as the first black and white) I seriously collected, and I’ll admit that in my high school years I was a pretty big Turtles fan. But I’m not among those comic fans who see the cartoon as a sell-out. Well… I think I did when I was 14, but now I cut Eastman and Laird a lot more slack.

The first TMNT issue, in keeping with Frank Miller’s work in Daredevil and Ronin was very violent and bloody. It opens with a lethal fight between the Turtles and a street gang, and the Turtles kill their opponents – stabbing them in the guts with swords and busting heads open… At the end of the fight, Leonardo’s sword is dripping with blood. There was, in that and subsequent issues, a fair dose of comedy mixed in, but the martial arts fights were always depicted with graphic realism. Now, realistically there is no way a Saturday morning cartoon in 1987 is going to show Raphael stab a guy in the neck or Leonardo lop off a guy’s arm…  So why not have the cartoon and toy line for the pre-teens and still have the comics for teens and adults? To me, now, this seems less like a sell-out and more like a win-win… but back in the late-80’s a lot of snooty comics fans were appalled by the TMNT cartoon and merchandising.

However, that was nothing compared to the brouhaha that was going on behind the scenes in the publishing world. In the 1980’s (and on into the early ‘90’s) tensions between comics creators and publishers (specifically DC and Marvel) were quite high. In 1988, Eastman and Laird hosted a gathering in Northampton, MA to draft the Creator’s Bill of Rights. The first draft was sketched out by Scott McCloud (Zot!) and the group included self-published masters Richard Pini (Elfquest), Larry Marder (Beanworld), Dave Sim (Cerebus), and Rick Vietch (Bratpack). Their declared rights included:

  • The right to full ownership of that which we fully create.
  • The right to full control over and creative execution of that which we create.
  • The right to prompt payment and a fair and equitable share of profits from what we create.

TMNT2
Pictured: Peter Laird, Donatello, Kevin Eastman

1990 saw the release of the first TMNT live-action movie, with the Turtles created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Like the cartoon, it’s less bloody and more jokey than the comics, but it actually stays reasonably true to the original story and characters – even improving on the story by rearranging events and details to improve the pacing and suspense. Naturally they toned-down the violence; 90% of their audience was under the age of 14. And while the movie is jokey, the comics were hardly ultra-serious. I mean, Casey Jones was parody of the Punisher using sports equipment as his weapons and the Shredder was a villain based on a kitchen utensil. I will go to bat for the 1990 TMNT movie, and, although it only received 41% on RottenTomatoes, this is still the highest rated TMNT film… and the only one worth watching; it spawned two sequels that were f-ing awful.

Now financially secure, Eastman’s desire to put the Creator’s Bill of Rights into effect led him to start Tundra, a creator-friendly publishing house, in 1990. Scott McCloud explained the appeal: “Self-publishing was attractive in many ways but also intimidating. Many, like me, just wanted to draw and be left alone. The prospect of devoting half our energy to packing boxes and filling out invoices was not appealing.” (Reinventing Comics, 2000) Tundra would help cartoonists by managing the printing quality, the marketing, and the distribution while allowing the creators to own and control their work. Tundra gave cartoonists at Marvel and DC a place to publish personal, non-superhero work that the “big two” weren’t interested in. Eastman ran Tundra almost like a non-profit. He provided advance money so these cartoonists could stop doing Spider-man for six or ten months and instead do that book they’d been dreaming of since art school – and then he allowed them to keep the bulk of the profits after Tundra made it’s money back.

As a result, Tundra put out a spat of the greatest comics from the early ‘90’s and gobbled up Eisner and Harvey awards. From Alan Moore came Big Numbers (with Bill Sienkiewicz), From Hell (with Eddie Campbell), and Lost Girls (with Melinda Gebbie). From Dave McKean came Cages. From James O’Barr came The Crow (which spawned a few movies and a TV show). Without Tundra it’s unlikely any of these masterpieces would have seen the light of day. Unfortunately, Tundra was never profitable. Eastman lost between $9 and $14 million on Tundra, and had to sell it off to Kitchen Sink Press in the mid-90’s. Remember, this was also the time of the crash of the speculators bubble in ’93, and even Marvel went bankrupt in ’96. Still, Eastman’s vision of a creator-owned comic publisher was successfully adopted by Image and Dark Horse, proving that a publisher can be successful while allowing it’s creators to own and direct their creations.

Connected to Tundra and the Creator’s Bill of Rights was also the strong desire at that time to get more mature and non-superhero books into mainstream bookstore so that comics could reach a wider audience. In an effort to help bring some European creativity into the American superhero ghetto, in 1992, Kevin Eastman bought Heavy Metal, the American re-printing (mostly) of the award winning French, adult, sci-fi and fantasy comic Metal Hurlant. (He sold Heavy Metal in 2014.) And in 1992, with some of that money the TMNT movie, cartoon, clothing, and toy franchise was bringing in, Eastman opened the Words and Pictures Museum in Northampton, MA, the core of which grew from his own collection of Jack Kirby original art. (The museum closed in’99.)

Peter Laird was too busy managing the TMNT empire to run a publishing house like Eastman, so he came up with his own way of helping outsider cartoonists by starting the Xeric Foundation. Each year, Xeric would give money as an endowment to new self-publishers. While we were in art school together, my friend Jay managed to get his comic book published with the help of a Xeric grant.

Eastman and Laird reported spending very little time together after the movie franchise started, and Eastman sold his remaining Turtle interests to Laird in 2003. By 2003 TMNT was a billion dollar industry, and they produced a new animated series with Peter Laird more closely involved. It was closer to the original comics, but still toned-down the violence.  In 2009, Laird sold all TMNT rights (except for the comic book rights which he still owns) to Nickelodeon, which promptly released a new CGI series, and then in 2014 Michael Bay released his monstrosity (RottenTometoes score: 21%, “The dullest movie ever made about talking, biped reptiles”). Michael Bay, why must you keep ruining my childhood?

The story of TMNT is interesting because it can look like two guys who “sold out” and played into the popular misconception that comics are for kids (“Cawabunga, Dude!”)… or like two underground, indy comics artists who invested their time and money into supporting the art form they love and sincerely trying to help it grow up and grow out of the comic shop ghetto.

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