Comic Review: Marvels

Donny reviews a bunch of paintings put into comic book form.


Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross (story and art)
Alex Ross (art)

Alex Ross had been doing painted covers, but he wanted to try and do an entirely painted comic like Dave McKean’s Black Orchid (1991). Originally, Ross wanted to do a series of unconnected books just re-telling classic stories about a handful of his favorite Marvel heroes in a direct, redux way, but editor Tom DeFalco suggested the idea of telling the stories through the eyes of a common, everyman character. This became photojournalist Phil Sheldon. DeFalco also paired Ross with Kurt Busiek. Busiek was a childhood friend of Scott McCloud, and those two had practiced making comics together in college. (Marvels #3, p. 17 has a cameo of Buisek and his wife; she’s the one saying to him, “Maybe it’s the Avengers.”) Busiek and Ross were united in their love of the heroes of Golden and Silver Ages of comics… and their mutual dislike of the bloody, gritty anti-heroes that were so popular in the early ‘90’s (e.g. Spawn, Wolverine, Deadpool, Venom, etc.). Marvels became their love letter to Golden and Silver Age Marvel.

It’s both more and less than a greatest hits compellation. “More” because you have this whole story about Phil Sheldon and how the public is trying to deal with being alternately dwarfed and inspired by these marvels. “Less” because you often don’t get to see how these big events begin or resolve. But that’s the point. You catch glimpses of these things happening, as an ordinary man on the street would in the Marvel Universe. What makes this book work is Phil. It weaves through the history of the Marvel Universe, but it’s really the story of Phil’s career and his personal and professional relationship with the superhumans.

Once the idea of Phil Sheldon was introduced, the comic became about the ordinary people caught in the cross-fire of these superhumans, about people looking up to gods walking among them. The cover of issue #1 depicts the Golden Age Human Torch – not as a high flying superhero but as a terrifying vision of a man engulfed in flames running down the street and panicking onlookers. (The covers to issues 3 and 4 don’t work nearly as well as the first two. 1 and 2 show you the heroes through the eyes of normal people – which is the point of the story – but 3 and 4 inexplicably break that convention.) The brilliance of Marvels is that it’s really about how the public reacts to the godlike beings among them: with fear, hero-worship, celebrity gossip, distrust, and yearning need. At times, Phil almost worships the “marvels” (as he calls them), but then his feelings seem to suddenly swing towards fear or envy. Issue #3 opens with the line, “It’s amazing how fickle the public is.”

(One more quick note about the cover art. Marvels was originally published with the logo printed in black on a clear, acetate cover, so you could lift that and see Ross’s beautiful cover paintings unblemished. It was an idea Art Spiegelman originally used for one of the covers of Raw.)

The first issue deals with Golden Age Marvel and is set in 1939 to 1942. Parts 2-4 cover the Silver Age. One of the cool things Busiek and Ross did was to set their stories in the real calendar month and year that the original comics were published, so their history of the Marvel Universe actually maps onto real timeline: Captain America first appears in 1939. The Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the X-Men first appear in the ‘60’s, and Peter Parker was a college student in the early ‘70’s. Busiek carefully researched this book to get the timeline correct. When the FF were fighting Galactus for the first time what were the Avengers doing? The month that Reed and Sue got married, what was happening in Uncanny X-Men? It’s also great fun in these books to see Ross paint all the period fashions, hairstyles, and cars. (There is one very bizarre, unintended anachronism of sorts: Ross’s Reed Richards looks uncannily like 40-something Joe Biden, which can’t be intentional since he painted these books in ’94, but once I saw it I couldn’t un-see it.)

The first Marvel superhero was the original Human Torch (1939) followed closely by Namor, so that’s where Marvels begins. The painting in issue #1 of Namor throwing the police car is really cool, and it demonstrates the difference between National (later DC) and Timely (later Marvel). The first Superman cover showed him lifting up a car of crooks. Here’s Namor doing the same but with a police car. Jim Steranko: “DC comics were certainly better drawn and better written, but Timely comics embraced more mavericks and wilder ideas,” (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked).

Cool as it is, that painting of Namor throwing the car is, a few pages later, dwarfed by the awesome double splash page (pun unavoidable) of the tsunami engulfing Manhattan. This was the lead in to something else that set Timely apart from National: the Human Torch vs. Namor fight. All of National heroes got along with one-another, and here were two Timely “heroes” trashing the city as they went at one-another. It was Marvel Mystery Comics #9 (1940), and it was comics’ first hero-vs.-hero fight. Bill Everett (the creator of Namor) and Carl Burgos (the creator of the Human Torch) wanted to have their characters meet in a “giant slugfest.” Publisher Martin Goodman heard their idea on a Thursday and told them to have it on his desk on Monday. Everett and Burgos called every writer and cartoonist they knew and threw a weekend-long jam session. Guys were drawing pages as they were being written, people were shouting out ideas, one guy turned the bathroom into his workplace and put a drawing board across the bathtub, arguments ensued, a neighbor called the cops… but by Monday they had completed a 64 page comic book.

Marvels actually doesn’t tell the story of Namor and the Torch fighting. It tells the story of Phil and his fellow reporters trying to cover their fight as it ping-pongs around New York.

There are many delightful cameos in this book: Nick Fury, Willie Lumpkin, Matt Murdock, Karen Page, Foggy Nelson… even Lois, Clark, and Jimmy Olsen. The chief of the Bugle before J. Johan Jamison is “Mr. Goodman”: a nod to Martin Goodman, the publisher of Timely and then Marvel Comics. The cameo by Popeye is funny but appropriate since he was, in many ways, the first Golden Age “superhero.” The one cameo I wasn’t crazy about was Danny Ketch, the Iron Age Ghost Rider appearing as a young boy in 1973. That one felt somehow forced to me – maybe because Ghost Rider was Marvel’s most popular character in ’94, so they felt like they had to stick him in…


A lot of why I love Marvels is for the way it makes evident how the heroes (and the public’s relationship to them) echo the changing times from 1939 to 1973. In ’39, the public was uncertain and untrusting of the marvels, but then, after Pear Harbor, they became patriotic idols to worship. Most of issue #2 takes place in 1965, and the X-Men are clearly about America’s uncertainty over the civil right movement… while the Fantastic Four have a lot to do with the growing cult of celebrity that was in American pop culture in the early ‘60’s. One can forget how big a deal the marriage of Reed Richards and Sue Storm was in the comics. Superman and Lois never got married (at least by 1965). This was yet another groundbreaking move at early-Marvel. In the crowed at reed and Sue’s wedding, Ross has included the Beatles – because, of course, if there were a real FF in ’65 and they had a big, celebrity wedding, that would really happen.

The celebrity worship of the FF I contrasted with the fear and hatred of mutants. Phil himself gets caught-up in a mob and throws a brick at the X-Men’s Iceman. There’s a nice symmetry here: Phil lost an eye when he got hit in the face with a brick hurled (indiscriminately) by Namor; now he throws a brick at Iceman’s head. It’s a great lesson in the madness of crowds. Phil is a good man and, as a journalist, he’s been around marvels a lot, but still he gets swept up in the crowd’s hysteria. This is very realistic and very human – and it’s incredibly rare to see this in fiction. Fiction writing usually demands a consistency of character that doesn’t really exist. In real life, human behavior is very situational.

One thing I love about this book is that, for me, as a long-time X-Men fan, this was the first book that really explained why humans hate and fear mutants. It never really made sense: why are the Fantastic Four and the Avengers loved but the X-Men hated? Well, this book takes that dichotomy head-on, and the answer is given by Phil (who, remember, mostly loves and admires the marvels). Phil convincingly expresses that mutants, as the next step in human evolution, are inherently antithetical to humans – because they are going to replace us. They aren’t here to save us and inspire us and protect us; they are here to take the Earth away from us and “kick dirt on our graves.”

Before I leave 1965 and issue #2, let me point out another one of Alex Ross’s best paintings: The painting of the Sentinels flying overhead is a singularly creepy image.

Issue #3 is only a year later, 1966, and focuses on the coming of Galactus. I see this issue as largely about the Cold War climate of the mid-60’s, with the apocalyptic Galactus as the stand in for the Cuban Missile Crisis. This chapter has most of the best visuals in the series: the worm’s-eye-view looking up at Galactus, the Silver Surfer, and the FF. Ross’s Silver Surfer is, I think, the best looking Surfer in comics, and his full page paintings of Galactus are some of the best work he’s ever done.

Ross makes Galactus, the Surfer, the Human Torch, and Giant Man look awe inspiring. The flip side is that I can’t stand his Spider-man. I know he’s trying to paint them how they would realistically look, so his Spidey has a spandex suit some kid sewed together in his aunt’s basement… but it looks dumb. I’ve seen cos players with better looking Spidey suits!

The final part deals with the death of Gwen Stacy – but really it’s about how the public, by the early ‘70’s has turned very cynical about the marvels – just as the America by the early ‘70’s had turned cynical about everything. It made me think of something Presidential historian Rick Shenkman once said. To paraphrase: Before Watergate there were less than 100 reporters whose full time job was to cover the President. Now there are over 1000, and the all want to be the next Woodward and Bernstein – and that’s why, today, even George Washington couldn’t be George Washington. Post-‘73, we live in a climate that doesn’t allow any public figure to be a hero, at least not for very long, before the werewolf media tear them to shreds.

The death of Gwen Stacy is, like all the action in Marvels, seen at a distance: across the river through Phil’s telephoto lens… but that makes it even more poignant. Gwen’s death was one of the most shocking moments in the history of comics because characters in comics don’t die. Superman always catches Lois Lane. This moment, when Gwen dies, was the moment comics shifted from being about fantasy to being about reality (through a fantastical colored glass). It was 1973. Gwen died. The Watergate scandal broke. Pink Floyd released The Dark Side of the Moon. This was the end of the Silver Age, the beginning of a new era of darker and grittier comics, and the melancholy stopping point for Busiek and Ross’s masterpiece, Marvels.

Marvels spawned a sequel called Ruins, written by Warren Ellis. It took Phil Sheldon’s story into the Bronze Age with darker antiheroes like the Punisher and Wolverine, but it had a different tone and style (and art not by Ross), so it doesn’t 100% work as a continuation. Years later, Kurt Busiek returned to do a final piece called Eye of the Camera, which features Phil on his death bed. It’s a nice denouement, but necessarily lacks the power and originality of the initial series (and, again, lacked Alex Ross’s artwork). Busiek and Ross separately went on to do other great things, but this was their break-out book, and in many ways it still holds up as their finest work.

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Comic Review: From Hell

Donny literally gives us the review From Hell.

From Hell 1

From Hell
1989-1996, collected volume published 1999
Alan Moore (story)
Eddie Campbell (art)

Once, years ago, my wife tried reading From Hell while I was away for the weekend and she was home alone. Then, in the dead of night, our doorbell rang… and rang again, and kept ringing! It was just a short in the wiring, but it scared the beejeebiz out of her. She was so creeped out she couldn’t finish the book.

I encountered From Hell years before that but comparatively late in my intellectual development – it being 1999 and me already in grad school – but the foundations were already well laid: C.J. Jung, Julian Jaynes, John and Caitlin Matthews, Rudy Rucker, Meister Eckhart, and lots of Joseph Campbell. I already had an abundance of depth psychology, metaphysics, mysticism, and mythology percolating in my head. This was really the stuff of my college education, and From Hell was a Master’s class. I felt like I had gained from it some deep and powerful secret knowledge – some gnosis. A sacred text is one that presents your spiritual and metaphysical beliefs in narrative form (i.e. myth). From Hell became one of my sacred texts.

Flash forward 15 years. This now was the third time I’ve read From Hell, and it remains one of the best (and most unique) comics I’ve ever encountered. It’s a massive tome: a 572 page monster with a 42 page appendix of page-by-page notes (which I highly recommend you read as you go chapter-by-chapter). It’s kind of about Jack the Ripper, but it’s really about much, much more.

The project started with Moore wanting to do something about murder that wasn’t a whodoneit. “It struck me,” says Moore in Bill Baker’s 2005 Alan Moore Spells it Out, “that murder was a complex human event, but that… murder fiction tended to simplify things into a whodoneit… And when you have any knowledge of real murders, you see it’s not about Professor Plum in the conservatory with the lead pipe. It’s about what happens in communities, in people’s lives, in families. What happens in the vortex around the murder.”

Not being a whodoneit, many of the editions of From Hell show you the killer, Sir Dr. William Gull, on the front cover, and in any of them his role as the Whitechapel Killer is made clear by chapter 3. In fact, he is the chief protagonist of the book. Moore builds our identification with Gull by introducing him in Chapter 2 and for most of that chapter we are seeing everything from his POV. The use of Gull’s POV sets up, not one, but two extremely effective reveals in this chapter: Gull’s vision of God (the first splash page in the book, which gives it tremendous power) and the long held-off reveal of Gull’s face on the last page of the chapter when we switch from his POV to that of his first victim. (There are only three or four splash pages in this almost 600 page book, and each time they deliver an awesome, totally unexpected, narrative punch.)

Moore treats us to all the wonderful, formal tricks he’s famous for. The Ripper’s first victim, Polly Nichols, has a drink in a pub called the Frying Pan before her untimely death. Naturally Campbell draws a panel in which Polly walks out of the Frying Pan… Alan Moore comics are always like that. You have to pay attention to everything. Moore’s typed scripts are famously long and detailed, averaging two single-spaced typed pages for one page of comic art. His books are all good stories – but also games and Easter egg hunts.

The level of research that went into the details on every page is fantastic. Moore and Campbell conducted exhaustive research to make their incredible story of conspiracy and mysticism seem perfectly historically plausible. In the Appendix I, Moore tells us that, “Eddie’s backgrounds are, more often than not, precisely referenced shots of the areas mentioned in the text.” Campbell’s work was highly planned, but then quickly and loosely executed, giving it a deliberately spontaneous and sketchy look – pen and ink impressionism. The drawings look dirty, splattery, soot-covered, and clouded by fog and rain… in other words, perfect for a Victorian penny dreadful. This is such a dark, murky story that it would be wrong to draw it any other way. I even love Campbell’s cramped handwriting, spelling errors, and occasional missing words; it give the book a quality that is diary-like, personal, and intimate. Beyond that, Campbell’s boldly graphic depictions of sex, pissing, masturbation, and mutilation (reading this book requires a strong stomach) are so objective and so documentary style that they add to the this-is-real effect.

“What is the fourth dimension?”
– Sir William Gull to James Hinton

Moore’s primary source is the Stephen Knight Final Solution book, but he adds to it his own wild ideas about magic, metaphysics, and ritual murder. From Hell explores a certain metaphysical idea about time and the forth dimension. Sometimes it’s called tenseless time, static theory, or the block universe. The man on the street’s understanding of time, our intuitive understanding, is that time is “tensed” – that what’s done is done and gone and the future is unreal, a projection of the imagination that doesn’t really exist anywhere. However, most philosophers and physicists prefer the block universe model because it actually makes more rational sense and fits better with existing cosmological models – the math works this way. Time, in this approach, is a kind of fourth dimension, and along that dimension everything is all already, always there. In the block universe “now” functions like the spatial “here.” As Introducing Time (2001) explains: “In New York [“here”] refers to New York, in London to London and on the moon to the moon… We are happy to admit that Boston, London and Moscow are all equally real… [Likewise] the events of your birth and death exist but at different times.”

In tenseless time, motion and change are an illusion. The only thing that moves in a block universes is your consciousness – your awareness. In other words, according to most physicists, philosophers and mystics our universe is really most like a comic book! All the pages and all the panels are all there, all exist, all are real. What “moves” is our consciousness as we read through the comic experiencing first this panel and then that. This is part of the genius of what Alan Moore did! Beginning in the mid-80’s, Moore chose to deliberately concentrate on narrative techniques that only comics can do. This is why he says his books are intended to be un-filmable. He started depicting tensless time in Watchmen (Chapter IV) where Dr. Manhattan gains a forth dimensional awareness and, like the aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, can see multiple points in time (what we might conventionally call past, present, and future) at once, but in From Hell Moore makes it integral to the over-all plot and point of the book, a book which is a metaphysical theory as much as a story about a serial killer and a conspiracy.

This concept of time as a fourth dimension was proposed by mathematician C. Howard Hinton (who also coined the term “tesseract”) whose father was a friend of Sir William Gull. In From Hell, he explains to Gull: “Forth dimensional patterns within eternity’s monolith would seem merely random events to third dimensional percipients… events rising towards inevitable convergence like an archway’s lines. Let’s say something peculiar happens in 1788… a century later related events take place. Then again 50 years later. Then 25 years. Then 12. An invisible curve rising through the centuries.”

1788: Renwick Williams, the Monster
1888: Jack the Ripper
1938: The Halifax Slasher
1963: Ian Bradly and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers
1975: Peter Sutcliff, The Yorkshire Ripper

In Moore and Campbell’s book, a powerful event like the ritual murders of Jack the Ripper doesn’t fit within a simple cause-effect chain of events in tensed time. It’s a hyper-event that moves back and forth in the fourth dimension and is made up of echoes and synchronicities.

“Can history be said to have an architecture, Hinton? The notion is most glorious and most horrible.”
– Gull to Hinton

From Hell 2

This book is about the psychic impact of the Ripper murders. Moore explains in the Appendix I: “Scotland Yard received dozens, perhaps hundreds, of letters purporting to come from the killer and rendered in a variety of handwriting styles. The fact that one man was actually killing and disemboweling prostitutes at this time almost pales into insignificance beside the fact that lots of ostensibly normal men throughout the country were fantasizing about doing the very same thing.” Moore is bold enough to suggest that perhaps all slasher books (including his) are masturbatory fantasies. And in the mouth of Inspector Aberline he is not above critiquing his own enterprise: “Four women get killed and it’s like the start of a new industry! Only the start mind you.” The Ripper himself becomes a kind of psychic entity, a hyper-man that is much more powerful than whoever literally held the physical knife. Jack the Ripper “never actually had a physical existence. He was a collage creature, made up from crank letters, hoaxes and sensational headlines,” (Alan Moore in a 2003 letter to David Sim).

So it doesn’t matter if it really happened like this, if it really was Gull who did it, or if Queen Victoria really set the ball rolling. Moore has stated that he doesn’t necessarily believe Stephen Knight’s theory about a Royal decree and a Masonic cover-up, but he found it a compelling starting point to explore the things he wanted to explore about murder. Not only is this book not a whodoneit, but the Ripper story, per say, isn’t even the main reason for its being. The book as a whole is about the reverberations of small but powerful actions (like cutting-up five women): psychologically, socially, historically, and metaphysically.

“Truth is, this has never been about the murders, not the killer, nor his victims. It’s about us. About our minds and how they dance.”
– Moore from the Appendix II

In the Appendix I, Moore explains that a central notion of From Hell is that the 1880’s contain the seeds of the 20th century in terms of politics, technology and philosophy… and that the Whitechapel murders embody the essence of the 1880’s. “Looking at most of the technological or political or artistic or literary advances of the 20th century,” Moore explained in a 2003 interview with Omar Martini, “most of them could be traced back to the 1880’s. Most of them, like France invading Indochina in the 1880’s, which lead to the Vietnam war… the Michelson-Morley experiments would lead, of course, to Einstein and the atom bomb… If the 1880’s were the 20th century in miniature, then maybe the Jack the Ripper murders were the absolute fulcrum of the 1880’s.”

“A great work must have many sides from which to consider it.”
– Sir William Gull to Netley

Moore’s work “holistically” looks at the murders from every conceivable angle (even in terms of architecture and art theory!), and he creates, for us, an obsessive connect-the-dots game. The connections, associations, and synchronicities (or, if you must, coincidences) are wild! They build into conspiracy theories, and you get sucked in. You buy in. You become, as Moore calls them in Appendix II, a “gull catcher.” You become a little crazy by reading this book. You go a touch mad. You dance. It casts a spell.

It’s chapter 4, where Gull explains his mad vision, where this book really jumps up (or descends down) to a whole, new level. This seriously unnerving chapter is where you realize that you are reading a masterpiece. Gull’s reasoning here is so compelling (yet twisted) that he, too, pulls you in and casts a spell. To read this book is to spend time, not only in the company of, but in the mind of a serial killer. You go a little mad with Moore on his Masonic conspiracy theories… even as you go a bit mad with Gull and his mystical, murder-induced visions. I remember my first time reading this book as being an unsettling, disturbing experience like I’ve rarely had with a work of art or literature.

Mathematician C. Howard Hinton, who proposed that time might be a forth dimension, believed that our universe had a hidden “4-D hyperthickness, so that the ultimate components of our nervous system are actually higher-dimensional…” (Rudy Rucker, Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension, 1977). Hinton further conjectured that mystical experiences and visions might be instances of “communing with space” – mentally accessing higher dimensions of space-time. In researching serial killers, Moore discovered that some killers experience hallucinations before, during, or after their murders – called the “aura phase.” At first the visions are a byproduct of the murders, but then they become the reason for them. Moore chose to interpret the Ripper’s aura phase as giving him access to the higher dimensions of space-time. (This might also explain the ancient practice of human sacrifice to commune with spirits or divine the future.) Thus From Hell is akin to Crime and Punishment except where Dostoevsky ends with emptiness and guilt, Dr. Gull ends in divine revelation.

“Scorn not the Gods; Despite their non-existence in material terms, they’re no less potent, no less terrible. The one place Gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity.”
– Sir William Gull to Netley

“I believe in Superman. For real. I really believe in Wonder Woman, so help me. I believe in Santa Clause… I believe that every Passover Elija the prophet comes over for a sip of wine. I believe in metaphors. Metaphors are real.”
– Elliot S. Maggin (in the Introduction to Kingdom Come)

This I believe: Metaphors (including the gods), while not factual, are true and real and potent.

This I believe: We live in a block universe. Time is tenseless. Movement and change take place only in our consciousness as our attention shifts from one comic book panel to the next.

This I believe: If that is the case, and only consciousness is really “moving,” then it is possible for a consciousness to enter a hyper-state that has access to higher dimensions of space-time… as a mystical experience, shamanic flight, ghostly encounter, or prophetic vision.

This I believe: Past events can have mental ripple-effects and echoes into the future… or the past.

This I believe: Beginnings and endings are false constructions. Reality is a web of hyper-linked events, effects, and echoes that go on reverberating without end.

This I believe: From Hell is Alan Moore’s finest work. It’s better than Watchmen or V for Vendetta. It might fuck you up. Read it at your own risk.

Footnote: But never, never, never watch the awful 2001 movie that dares to go by the name “From Hell.” No! It’s just a dull, stupid Ripper whodoneit (with Johnny Depp as an opium addicted psychic detective – WTF!?) that has literally nothing to do with anything that made Moore and Campbell’s work special. (If anything, watch the 1988 Michael Caine Jack the Ripper, which is pretty good.) However, FX is presently developing a From Hell TV drama series. Maybe with the expanded format they will be able to do something at least approximating Moore and Campbell’s masterpiece…

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The Future of Video Games
These guys are great. I met them at ConNooga this weekend (a fantasy/sci-fi convention).

What they mainly do is review Indie video games. They also gave a great talk about how the current Video Game Industry is essentially dead, at least as far as innovation is concerned. So their mission is essentially to point people toward great Indie games, since that is where any new type of game is going to come from. Here is their talk.

I would even like to take what they said a step further. While consoles are dead now, they will be revived in a few years by the Indie video games. Either the “big three” consoles will wake up and start seriously courting the Indie games, or a new console (like the Ouya) will take advantage of them in a big way. And when I say “revive”, I mean revive in a very big way. Essentially Minecraft is a taste of the things to come.

The reason I’m fairly confident of this is that the Video Game Industry follows a trajectory very similar to the Music Industry. (For details on this you can read here.) The only difference is that the Video Game Industry is about 2 – 3 decades behind the Music Industry because it started 2 – 3 decades later.

Right at the end of the 80’s the Music Industry was in a serious rut. (Not as bad as it is now, but it was still a low point.) However there was actually a very active Indie Music scene that the mainstream industry mostly ignored. Then Nirvana’s Nevermind was released and hit it big. The Music Industry decided to heavily invest in the Alternative (i.e. Indie) bands after that. The Music Industry had a huge revival that lasted about a decade.

Right now the Video Game Industry is in a serious rut. However it has a small but active Indie Game community. It is basically just like the Music Industry was just before Indies it hit big. I also remember being very frustrated during the late 80’s and early 90’s even though I knew a little bit about the Indie Music scene. It was just so frustrating to find the good stuff. There definitely was quite a bit of good stuff out there, but there was far more total crap out there too. It was hard to sort through it all.

This is why I like sites like the Altered Confusion guys. They are at least trying to point us to the good new games. They aren’t as polished as say IGN, but you have to go with what’s out there, and I can tell they are passionate about what they are doing. They will steadily improve over time. And really if you are interested in good new games, then the Indie Game scene is where it’s at.

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The Galactus Trilogy

Donny reviews that classic, comedic tale about the end of the world.

Galactus 1

Fantastic Four 48-50
Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (story)
Jack Kirby (art)

Prepare yourself for… The Coming of Galactus!!!  With lots of exclamation points!!!!

This arc is notable for being, really, the first cosmic villain in the Marvel universe – and I think just in superhero comics in general. (Yeah, like Mister Mxyzptlk is cosmically powerful, but he never tries to just outright destroy the whole Earth.) I’m defining “cosmic villain” by the fact that he can take out a whole planet pretty much with just a thought. It’s definitely notable for that… but this trilogy is also often praised because it’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at their Silver Age best.

There are different versions of how this trilogy came about, in part because Kirby and Lee later had a bad falling out and each tried to take all the credit for their co-creations. As best as I can tell: Kirby came up with the idea of having the heroes “fight God.” He was reading the Bible and wanted to do a story where a divinely powerful entity comes to Earth to bring about the end of the world – the seas boil, the stars fall from the sky, and all that stuff. Stan Lee has always focused on claiming credit for the idea that Galactus wasn’t like any other villain because he was “beyond good and evil.” He’s not out to conquer and kill, he’s just having a meal. To him, we’re like ants. He has no malice for us; we just don’t really matter. It’s like he’s eating an apple and we’re just trace amounts of harmless bacteria crawling around on the apple’s skin, is all. As for the Silver Surfer, Kirby wanted his space god to have an angelic herald (but a fallen angel) and came up with the look of the character. Lee focused on the idea of making him into this tragic “cosmic philosopher” who would think deep and noble thoughts.

Plot summery: Galactus is a space “god” who is older than the universe. He’s the only survivor of the last universe that preceded our Big Bang. He lives by feeding off the “life energy” of planets that can sustain life, leaving them dead, lifeless husks. His herald (really more of a scout), the Silver Surfer, leads him to Earth. The Fantastic Four knock the Surfer off a roof but can’t hurt Galactus. The Surfer lands in Alicia Master’s (the Thing’s girlfriend) apartment. She awakens the Surfer’s conscience and the Surfer attacks Galactus to defend Earth. Meanwhile the Watcher (this cosmic dues ex machina who has taken an oath to only watch and never interfere, but every time he appears he interferes) sends the Human Torch to find the only weapon in the universe that can drive off Galactus.

The first half of issue #48 has nothing to do with any of that. It’s the final part of the first story to introduce the Inhumans, Blackbolt, and Maximus the Mad. So I’m sure when a lot of people pick up collections of the famous Galactus Trilogy they are probably very confused for the first twelve pages.

The next thing that hit me: I had forgotten that the Marvel universe spans multiple galaxies. This starts with the Skrulls and the Silver Surfer in the Andromeda galaxy… and then the Surer travels to the Milky Way and Earth between panels. Star Wars and Star Trek and everything else are all confined to a particular galaxy, so I forgot that in Marvel, the Skrulls and Kree and Shi’ar and everybody is hopping around several galaxies. That just surprised me. I guess, in Marvel, inhabited planets are not as common and really, really far apart (that, and I don’t think Stan Lee really understood or cared how big galaxies are and how far apart they are). Anyway…

The next thing that strikes me is how much of an arrogant dick Silver Age Reed Richards is. The whole beginning scene where Ben is trying to tell Reed that a second sun just appeared in the sky and Reed is like, ‘You’re an idiot; shut up.’ And he’s even worse to his wife! He’s always yelling at Sue and telling her to shut up, leave him alone, and to “follow orders.” At a key point he orders her to just stay home. I was really surprised by Sue. I’m used to John Byrne’s Bronze Age Sue Richards who is this fierce “momma bear.” Stan Lee’s Sue is like a 1950’s housewife… or a poorly treated Dr. Who companion.

And then there’s Johnny Storm, grand prize winner of the most dickish superhero ever award. In the previous adventure, the one that introduces the Inhumans, Johnny’s girlfriend gets trapped in the Negative Zone, he says he’ll rescue her… and then he promptly gets over it. Seriously, he’s basically like, “Oh, no! My girl got trapped in the Negative Zone! … I wonder what’s on TV? Anybody want to call out for pizza?” She’s not mentioned or in his thoughts at all for the next 3 or 4 issues. He’s such a shallow jerk! Johnny Storm has the emotional depth of a spoon. But of course, that’s the whole idea. He’s 16 years old in these stories. A lot of good-looking, 16 year-old jocks are shallow, morally-immature dicks.

Galactus 2

Of course, this is what really set Marvel apart from DC – especially in the ‘60’s. Lee, Kirby, and Ditko created these wonderfully flawed characters, so different from DC’s two-dimensional boy scouts. They fight amongst themselves, they act like dick-heads a lot of the time, and they can, at time, be morally flawed. In the ‘60’s Marvel stood out by turning heroes into bickering jerks with all the same flaws as your schoolmates and coworkers.

Ben Grimm is easily the most likable character. He is a delight! He talks like a 1930’s era gangster. “Now take off before I bat ya all the way from here to Yancy Street!” All of the Thing’s dialogue is outstanding. “He didn’t even feel it! My extra-special Sunday-punch… and it was like nothin’ville!” And: “I had it… right up to my baby-blue peepers!” God, I hope Jack Kirby actually talked like that! Lee always said that Reed was based on himself (especially his tendency to talk too much and over-explain everything) and Ben Grimm was based on Kirby: a tough talking, cigar chomping, short tempered, streetwise, brawler with a heart of gold – and later it was even made explicit that the Thing was Jewish; he’s like Benjamin Grimminski. (Stan was really Stanly Leiber and Jack was Jacob Kirbiwitz.)

This arc introduces the Silver Surfer and Galactus… and also the World Ship (a space ship so large that planets fall into its orbit!) and the Ultimate Nullifier (a weapon that can erase an entire universe – WHY? Why would anyone build that!? WTF?).

[John’s note: For the same reason people would build enough nukes to wipe out the human race.  It’s just natchy!]

The last 8 pages of part three actually introduce a totally new story: sending Johnny off to college and introducing a new villain. This is a style of writing that isn’t really used anymore: where stories finish and begin 8 or 12 pages into a book. But this next story actually turns out to be “This Man, This Monster,” (issue # 51) which is yet another one of the most famous FF stories. So it’s not just the Galactus Trilogy that’s great, but a couple of issues to each side of it give you the first Inhumans story and then “This Man, This Monster,” so this really is Stan and Jack at the absolute top of their game.

Galactus 3

The dialogue in these books is just bonkers! Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas, “You can type this shit but you can’t say it.” Well, Lee’s dialogue is even battier than Lucas’s. Listen to this exchange between Alicia and the Surfer and try to imagine two people actually talking out loud like this: (Punctuation exactly as Stan Lee typed it)

Alicia: Perhaps we are not as powerful as your Galactus… but we have hearts… we have souls… we live… we breath… feel! Can’t you see that?? Are you as blind as I??

Surfer: Never have I heard such words… sensed such courage… or known this strange feeling… this strange new emotion! There is a word some races use… a word I have never understood… until now! At last I know… beauty!

Alicia: Then you are not just a soul-less monster! You too have emotions! I knew it! I felt it! I felt it from the first!

What is going on with all those exclamation points? I searched the whole comic. There aren’t any periods. None. Not one single sentence anywhere ends in a period. I actually cracked myself up because in my head I started imagining everyone shouting every line at one-another. Like, for no reason everyone is just always SHOUTING! Once I started “hearing” it that way, I couldn’t stop, and the comic became incredibly funny to me…

The insufferable abuse of exclamation points aside, Lee’s dialogue is fun in a whacky 1960’s way. It’s such over-the-top melodrama that it really cracks me up a lot. It’s been said that superhero comics are soap operas for boys, and Lee really wrote them that way. You can just imagine this really intrusive, melodramatic music playing to punctuate every scene. Dun-DUN-DUUNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!

The interaction between Alicia and the Surfer is a great strain on the reader’s credulity. The idea that she can talk to him for all of three or four panels and instantly bring out this buried, moral nobility is pretty goofy. But there is one thing at work here that is kind of interesting. Alicia is a blind sculptor, and she’s dating the Thing – who is basically an animated stone sculpture. But now she’s attracted to the Surfer who is this animated, beautiful, metallic statue. And the Thing of course is this rough-hewn, rocky, lumpy guy – both physically and in character. The Surfer is this smooth, angelic, heavenly, gleaming kind of personality. So it actually does set-up an interesting love triangle here.

And on the subject of appearances, Galactus looks great! He’s one of those classic designs – classic Kirby – that hasn’t changed in almost 50 years. He looks like a giant, Flash Gordon version of a Roman gladiator, as even his name suggests. I also love the FF’s flying motorcycle and all of Galactus’ crazy looking machines – all, again, classic Kirby designs. There’s also a cool page in here that uses a photo collage technique that Kirby sometimes experimented with, prefiguring artists like Jim Steranko and Dave McKean.

Yes, it’s dated. Sure, a lot of modern readers are going to prefer the Ultimate Galactus re-boot from 2004-06 by Warren Ellis. But if you measure it against what else was coming out in the mid-60’s, it really is very good, and it has all the tropes that made Silver Age Marvel so wild and exciting. I love this book and hope many modern readers give it a chance.

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Violent Cases and Mr Punch

Donny shows he’s in love with Dave McKean by reviewing two more of his comics.

Violent Cases 1

Violent Cases (1987)
The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1994)
Neil Gaiman (story)
Dave McKean (art)

Violent Cases (like Gaiman’s Sandman) is a story about stories… and its themes of childhood’s imperfect perceptions, the unreliability of memory, and how horrible adults can be to children are all revisited in Mr. Punch (as well as Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane). In Violent Cases, a narrator (who is physically modeled after Neil Gaiman) sits and smokes and tells us about the time when he was a kid and, after his dad accidentally pulled his arm from its socket, he was taken to see an old osteopath who used to work for Al Capone and began to tell the boy some inappropriate stories about ol’ Scarface.

Violent Cases was the first collaboration of Gaiman and McKean. Gaiman was working as a journalist and had published one book (about Duran Duran). McKean was finishing art school. They were offered a chance to collaborate on a five page story for Eclipse… and they came back with a 44 pages which McKean had adapted from an unpublished prose story Gaiman had written for a writers’ workshop. In this first book, they wear their influences very openly. For Gaiman it’s Alan Moore, and for McKean it’s Bill Sienkiewicz (especially the 1982 story “Hit It” from Moon Knight #25). However, the work shows the promise of two, young geniuses.

In the wake of 1986’s Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus, there was an abundance of “Comics have grown up!” euphoria going around, and, according to Gaiman, Violent Cases was a deliberate attempt to “show the world what comics could do.” Gaiman and McKean were both primarily interested in finding a way, in comics, to show intimate, subtle emotions rather than the big, physical action and “over acting” which comics were known for.

The unreliable narrator of the book didn’t understand what was happening at the time (a mob hit). As the narrator tries to make sense of a memory he forces it into a narrative… which probably isn’t even true (Was this really a mob hit?). The title gives away the theme: it’s about a child misunderstanding something. He is told about gangsters carrying guns in violin cases – which he misunderstands as “violent cases.” How much of the story that he tells us did he misunderstand or misremember? Was his dad more (or less) abusive than he tells us?

The story (which is far from Gaiman’s best – remember this is very early Neil) is simple, yet kind of disturbing. The art is just fantastic! McKean’s smudgy, sketchy art feels like an authentic depiction of memory. Perspective and scale are all out-of-whack. (I know that when I think of my childhood home, in my mind, it seems huge – in reality it was a small, two-bedroom ranch house.) But some memories (and drawings) are more clear and distinct than others. My favorite line: “He looked like Humphrey Bogart’s partner in The Maltese Falcon. Although for a moment just now I found it hard to remember if we ever saw Bogart’s partner…” Writing and art come together perfectly during the climax: the spectacular sequence which intercuts some kids playing musical chairs with a gangland murder.

Violent Cases 2

Violent Cases explored violence in American culture. Mr. Punch crosses the Atlantic to give us some childhood violence from the European tradition. Mr. Punch was part of DC’s launching their Vertigo line of grown-up comics for “mature readers.” It came out during my sophomore year of college, and it was actually the first book by Gaiman and/or McKean I discovered, and my first Vertigo book. I found it, not in a comic shop, but in a big box bookstore – Borders, I think. I remember seeing it in the bookstore and being fascinated by the art… but not buying it… but going back again and again, pulling it off the shelf, and looking again at the art… before finally laying down my $15.

Much like Violent Cases, it involves a narrator telling a story about his childhood. “I lived in a land of giants in those days. All children do.” The unseen adult narrator recalls his childhood visits with his grandparents, how his grandfather went mad, domestic abuse, a hunchback uncle (perhaps deformed from when, as a baby, he was thrown down stairs or out a window or something), the betrayal of a child by adults, an unwanted pregnancy… and apparently the murder of an unborn baby.

While the narrator of Violent Cases was just unreliable, the narrator in Mr. Punch seems emotionally disturbed and a bit creepy. Again, the unreliability of memory is one theme. The eerie narrator warns us: “The path of memory is neither straight nor safe and we wander down it at our own risk.” It was interesting that, while re-reading these two books for this review, I have also been listening to the This American Life produced podcast Serial. Season one of Serial, which is the true-life story of a journalist investigating a 15 year-old murder, is also very much about how slippery and unreliable memory (and thus reality) is. We all think we know what happened to us when we were 6 or 8 or 17 – or even a few months ago – but we’re all often very wrong – even about major things. And that’s kind of disturbing… Now I’m thinking of the philosopher Bishop Berkley who argued that there must be a God because an all-seeing, perfect consciousness was necessary if there’s going to be any kind of absolute, objective reality.

In this graphic novella, the narrator tells us about being eight and visiting his grandfather who owned an arcade that never made money because it was too far back from the beach. A Punch and Judy man arrives, one who knows his grandfather from their past and holds some power over him. The grown-up narrator remembering the boy he was remembers this prevailing feeling that the family was keeping some dark secret from him, and the book really builds tension as each new memory adds more creepiness and brings us closer to the secret being kept. By the end, he is brought into the world of adult secrets. He witnesses a violent act, and his grandfather, after realizing he was there, tells him, “You didn’t see anything.” We know that his innocent childhood is, effectively, at an end.

The action of the memories parallels the action of the Punch and Judy puppet play. The story of Mr. Punch is that he kills his baby, then his wife Judy and the police officer who comes to arrest him. He outwits a ghost, a crocodile and a doctor, convinces the hangman to be hanged in his place and, at the play’s end, even defeats the devil himself. In the end he cheers, “Hooray! Hooray! The Devil is dead. Now everybody is free to do whatever they wish!” The comic is also “an impressive collection of references to Punch traditions,” notes Diane Rains, “[Gaiman] had obviously done his homework” (Rains, “Mr. Punch, Neil Gaiman, and the Fantastical Gig,” 2003). According to Rains: “Neil related the tale [to me] of what inspired him to write his Punch book. It seems that as a child he had a hunchbacked uncle. The adult Neil discovered some mystery surrounding this uncle, which got him thinking about Punch and Judy.” (Gaiman also has affirmed that the opening few pages of Violent Cases are also inspired by autobiography.)

As with Violent Cases, without McKean’s strange, dream-like (or memory-like) artwork, the story wouldn’t work as well. The look is similar to Jan Svankajer’s surrealist film Faust, but I don’t know if that was a direct influence. McKean’s art is a virtuoso mix of photography, collage, sculpture, and cartooning that creates a world that can best be described as nightmarish. Hazy recollections are seen through cheesecloth gauze. Memories too painful to look at directly are seen as shadow plays on the wall. A crazy old man is depicted (remembered) as a guy with an oversized mask-head flailing about in a field. A powerless, little boy is a thin wire sculpture. I particularly like his fantastically expressive cartoon faces. He uses so much multi-media-manipulation and digital trickery that one might forget what a solid draftsman he is.

It’s been said that the mark of a great book (or film) is that it can be re-read (re-watched) again with equal or greater pleasure and you keep finding something new in it. That has always been true of Gaiman and McKean’s work. I’ve enjoyed their work from the start and enjoyed it more each time I look at it again.

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Kingdom Come

Donny reviews a comic book about superheroes and the end of the world.

Kingdom Come 1
Kingdom Come
Mark Waid & Alex Ross (story)
Alex Ross (art)

Even while Alex Ross was still working on Marvels (1994) for Marvel Comics he decided he wanted to do a similar “grand opus” for DC. Where Marvels was about the beginning of the Marvel superheroes, Ross (inspired by Watchmen and Alan Moore’s lost work, “Twilight of the Superheroes”) decided to make this about the end of the DC heroes. DC paired him up with Mark Waid, and the result was Kingdom Come.

It’s a fine but flawed work. My biggest critique with Kingdom Come is that the POV character, Pastor Norman McCay, is not a compelling character – certainly not compared to the photojournalist in Marvels. The photographer was an actual protagonist of a story – it was all about him. McCay is in the entire first half of the first issue and initially seems interesting, but then the actual story starts (the opening scenes about McCay and the death of the Sandman had absolutely nothing to do with what follows) and then McCay pretty much has nothing to do in the book but watch. It’s very Christmas Carroll-like, with McCay and the Specter just invisibly going around watching the story unfold. I think this comic would have been better if the whole Pastor McCay thread had been cut. My feeling is that the only reason it’s in there is because (a) the idea of having a normal human as a POV character worked well in Marvels, and (b) the model for McCay was Alex Ross’s father, who is a minister, and Ross conceived of McCay as a “tribute” to his dad’s profession… and it lends another religious element to the story.

Where Alan Moore’s lost “Twilight of the Superheroes” was inspired by the Norse Ragnarok, Ross and Waid, as the title implies, took their inspiration for Kingdom Come from the Book of Revelations. Magog, the anti-hero who drives Superman into retirement, is mentioned in Revelations 20:8 as an enemy of God. The moment we see Magog in the comic, it’s obvious that he’s based on Rob Liefield’s characters (who all, infamously, looked alike). Let’s walk through that baskstory before we get to the Kingdom Come plot summery because it will then make more sense.

In the early ‘90’s a group of artists, including Rob Liefield, arose at Marvel with a flashy, sexy, hyperactive style that was aimed at “giving 14 year-old boys what they want” (Todd McFarlane): huge guns, massive testosterone-fueled muscles, explosions, blood, lots of clinched teeth, and lots of T&A. They started Image Comics, and since they weren’t part of the comics code, they made their books very “rated R.” These hot artists believed writers just got in the way, and so they did away with them – stories don’t matter only flashy, sexy pictures. They realized that when later selling their original art at comic cons, the pin-up splash pages sold for more money (and they were quicker to draw), so they started drawing every page as a splashy pin-up whether the story warranted it or not. They also realized that a page with first appearance of a new character would sell for more, so Liefield started introducing new characters (who mostly all looked alike) twice an issue – and the “stories” (such as they were) never really did anything with these characters anyway. They didn’t care about characters or quality or morals or heroism… They cared about getting schmoozed.

Here’s McFarlane from Comic Book Rebels (1993): “Comics is an entertainment business, and in most entertainment businesses, the one who sells the most – not necessarily the best, but the one who’s the most commercial – they usually get schmoozed the most, you know? But [fellow artist] Jim Lee wasn’t getting schmoozed.” The reason they left Marvel is important. It wasn’t for creator rights. It wasn’t to tell more mature or sophisticated or personal stories that Marvel and DC weren’t publishing. It was because they weren’t getting schmoozed.

This inside baseball is important to know in order to properly interpret Kingdom Come. This story is set about 20 years into the future of the DC universe. The Old Guard heroes are of retirement age. Silver-haired Batman has a son and Dick Grayson has a daughter, both in their early 20’s. Meanwhile, the new, young “heroes” plaguing the Kingdom Come Earth are all ego. They don’t care about heroism, valor, or moral codes. They want to be schmoozed.

In Kingdom Come, Superman and the old fashioned heroes have been “shunned by a public that has instead grown enamored with the more savage, bloodthirsty, chrome-suited avengers of tomorrow,” – echoing the actual rise of the “R rated,” Image anti-heroes. The action of the story centers on the growing conflict between “traditional” superheroes, such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League, and a growing population of largely amoral and dangerously irresponsible new vigilantes.

Is Superman a boy scout relic of the 1950’s, hopelessly outdated for today’s world? Batman explains to Superman: “Ordinary folks decided you and I were too gentle and old-fashioned to face the challenges of the 21st century. They wanted their ‘heroes’ stronger and more ruthless. Be careful what you wish for.” Batman’s summation seems more chilling post-9-11. In a strange way, this book can almost be seen as foretelling the post-9-11 world. The Joker’s terrorist attack against the Daily Planet is basically the equivalent 9-11. It’s the turning point and the signal that everyone has entered a darker more terrifying world where we are willing to torture people and spy on ourselves to make us feel “safe.” Super-villains were no longer colorful (even charming) rogues; they were psychopathic mass-murders. (“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”) We don’t need moral exemplars like Superman; we need brutally violent avengers (shock and awe) and black-ops killers… like Magog.

I’ll add this: one of the best things about this book is the way it slaps down that idiotic Zack Snyder false-Superman film 17 years before it was made. Magog says to Superman, “They choose the man who would kill over the man who wouldn’t. Now they’re dead.” Superman’s absolute moral stance is a key plot component here. “I will not sanction lethal force,” he tells Wonder Woman. “There are lines we don’t cross. We have rules.” Soon after, he reminds Bruce, “The deliberate taking of human – even super-human – life goes against every belief I have – and that you have.” When I re-read lines like that, after Snyder’s false-Superman film, I wanted to applaud.

Kingdom Come 2This is all “witnessed” by pastor McCay who is plagued by visions of Armageddon and believes that the metahumans have us hurtling down a one-way track towards global destruction. When Superman first appears he has a wooden beam across his shoulders (cross-like) and you can see three 9-inch nails in his back pocket. After a ten year absence, when he reappears one of the reporters refers to “the second coming of Superman.” When he goes to visit Bruce in the Bat Cave he walks on water, and when he invites some of the young metahumans to join the Justice League, Nightstar (daughter of Nightwing and Starfire) says, “I feel like I just got asked to become the thirteenth disciple.”

It begins to feel like they are over-working the Jesus metaphors, but there’s a method to it. Without giving too much away, it’s all a bait and switch. At the climax, there’s a different character, not Superman, who is reveled as half-man-half-god who sacrifices his life to save the world. Psyche! Fooled ya!

When Superman first appears in the book it looks like he is working a farm, but the farm is only a hologram inside the Fortress of Solitude. He isn’t actually growing anything real. He’s become the sterile Fisher King. At the end, he is working a real, super-sized farm. He’s retired from bashing bad-guys to take-up his earthly father’s trade in order to feed the world. Batman turns Wayne Manor into a hospital and now wears white instead of black; he, too, has taken-up the legacy of his father, Dr. Thomas Wayne. This really is the end of the era of masked vigilantes. By the end of the story, they’ve all unmasked, and (like Clark) are pursuing good through means other than punching and zapping people. This was DC’s answer to Marvels, only instead of going back to the beginning, they went to the end. However, this book, ultimately, doesn’t hold-up as well as Marvels. Marvels had a strong through-line following the newspaper photographer, but this work has no central character and feels too scattered.

Another serious problem with this book is that you have an ensemble of star characters that are sadly mistreated. Green Lantern, Dick Grayson, Flash, and Hawkman never speak a single line and aren’t in any way differentiated; they basically amount to background decoration.

There’s also the problem that you don’t get a good sense of motion in this book. Ross’s paintings are gorgeous, and most of the panels in this book could be turned into great posters, but at the end of the day I think Ross’s work does better as wonderful cover paintings. Yes, his comics look super life-like… but life-like doesn’t make great sequential art. Quite the contrary. Cartoons look alive and animated. Ross’s paintings look like beautiful but frozen tableaux. It bothered me more in Kingdom Come than Marvels – I think because Marvels was all about how these metahumans would look to ordinary people in real life, and something about the central character being a photographer means seeing the book as a series of still photographs is less bothersome for me. Plus, Marvels doesn’t really have any super-powered battles in it that are depicted head-on; part of the point is how ordinary folk only catch these things obliquely – so with less action to depict, Ross’s frozen tableaux work better.

There are a few great scenes. I love the one where Bruce decks Billy Batson and (Spoiler) betrays Lex Luther (like you didn’t see that coming). And the fight between Superman and Captain Marvel is great. There’s a funny gag where Bruce is talking to Superman and looks up to find that Superman has already flown off, half-smiles, and says, “So that’s what that feels like.” (Christopher Nolan used a variation on this gag in Dark Knight Rises.) It also contains the first (and I think only) time in comics where you have a real, actual war between metahumans, with a thousand super-powered individuals fighting to the death. And the panels are each worth studying because the backgrounds are full of fun cameos: Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Spock, Spider-man, Thor, Captain America, Phil Sheldon (from Marvels), and Rorschach.

What Kingdom Come is most successful at, is being an antidote to the dearth of bloody, gritty, rated-R, Image-style anti-heroes of the early ‘90’s. Frank Miller, in Dark Knight Returns, broke-up the Batman & Superman bromance… but in this book their animosity is more believable, more motivated, and doesn’t feel forced. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns ends with Superman beating Batman to death (sort of) in an under-motivated fist fight. Kingdom Come ends with a Batman-Superman hug – and it’s not at all as cheesy as it sounds. The whole final scene in the restaurant is one of the best, most satisfying, in this, or any, comic, and by-itself it makes up for any of the book’s shortcomings.

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Corporate Greed Killed the Music Industry

The music industry is in terrible shape. Music sales are at the lowest they’ve ever been since the music industry began.  But how did it get that way?  Piracy? No, the truth is far more shocking than that. The music companies caused their own downfall!

blood money
Yes, it was nothing other than old fashioned corporate greed that killed off the music industry.  And I am going to describe to you exactly how it happened.

But right now someone reading this is saying, “What? Piracy is what destroyed the music industry. Everyone knows that.”

Well, that certainly does sound like a plausible explanation, but there is one problem with it: There is no data to support the idea that piracy caused the downfall of the music industry.

“But how can you say that?” responds one reader, “I’ve literally seen the sales data showing music sales drop.”

“Yeah, and The Pirate Bay’s activity has gone through the roof,” adds another reader.

There is no denying that music sales have dropped by a huge amount, but the sales data does not support piracy as the cause (as I will describe below). On the other hand, data that measures the Pirate Bay, or any internet piracy, does not take into account the piracy that happened in the 90’s on CD’s. So we do not have comprehensive data on piracy.

And while we are on the subject of data, let me lay it out here so we are all on the same page. Here is the history of US music sales (adjusted for inflation and population):

Music sales graph

As you can see music sales have fallen a ton throughout all of the 21st century. Interestingly there was also a dip in sales during the 80’s. Do you know what reason the music industry gave for this back in the 80’s? Piracy.

Then music sales skyrocket during the 90’s. Where did all of the pirates go? They didn’t go anywhere. Piracy was rampant in the 90’s. Piracy didn’t stop the music industry from hitting its highest peak though.

So let’s review: Piracy flourishes in the 80’s. Sales are down. Piracy flourishes in the 90’s. Sales reach their highest peak. Piracy flourishes in the 21st century. Sales plummet. The state of piracy has not really changed, but music sales have. Why should we assume that piracy has caused the change in sales when piracy itself was rampant when sales were high?

“Well if piracy didn’t cause the drop in music sales, then what did smart guy?”

I thought you’d never ask, reader! During the 90’s the recording companies found a way to charge their customers more, but they alienated a lot of customers in the process.  They lost a lot of revenue in alienating these customers.  Essentially, the music peak of the 90’s is what caused the sales to drop in the 21st century.

“What? Now you’re really not making sense!”

Well let me explain, reader. Let me explain.  In fact I should start with explaining where music sales come from in the first place.

There are basically three parts to the music industry; three tiers if you will. The bottom tier is the radio or anything else that generates income from ad revenue: YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, etc…. When someone listens to a song on one of these formats, then the recording company gets about a penny (or less) in royalties. (And the artists always get just a fraction of what the recording company gets.) The next tier up is the single. When someone buys a single, then they pay a dollar or two which means the music industry is generating at least a hundred times the revenue of the radio or some other ad based format. This is why I am putting singles on a higher tier. And what is the top tier? Albums. When a person buys an album they get about 10 songs and pay 5 – 10 times the amount that they would for a single. Clearly albums generate the most revenue per customer and therefore albums are the top tier.

Market Tiers

These three tiers are the core of the music industry, and they have been in place essentially since the beginning. (I didn’t mention music subscriptions here, but they are very roughly on the same tier as singles.) If you look at the behavior of music sales across the decades you will find it correlates very strongly with album sales. For example album sales were high during both the 70’s and the 90’s and you can see in the graph above that music sales are at their highest during these periods. On the other hand album sales have been steadily dropping throughout the 21st century, and that is precisely why music sales are down. The “problem” with music sales is that people are not buying albums.

“See! It’s all the fault of those pirates!” Exclaims one reader.

“No, it’s iTunes that is the problem.” Says another.

Please, readers, let me finish!

The problem is actually “disruption”. What is disruption, you might ask? The term actually comes from business guru, Clayton Christensen. He has written several books on disruption such as The Innovator’s Dilemma. In his books he talks about two types of business innovations: sustaining innovations and disruptive innovations. Sustaining innovations move people up market to higher tiers while disruptive innovations move people down market.

What do these innovations look like? A sustaining innovation is when an established company releases a new product that is better than the old one and costs more. For example a DVD player is good, but a Blue-Ray player is better. An iPod touch is good, but an iPad is better. A meal at a fine restaurant is good, but a meal with wine, appetizer, and dessert is better. (These innovations don’t necessarily have to be high tech.) In music, buying a single is good, but buying an album is better.  A sustaining innovation is a way for the same company to offer something better and more expensive to their most enthusiastic customers.

What do disruptive innovations look like? A disruptive innovation is when a new company comes along with a new offering toward less enthusiastic customers in the down market. This new offering is often viewed as “not as good” as the old one, but it has another feature that makes it more attractive: reliability or convenience or price (or it might have two or all three of these features).

For example the Wii was disruptive to the Playstation 3 and Xbox360. Sony was the market leader during the PS1 and PS2 eras. When the Wii came along its games were shorter and simpler than the PS3 games. However the Wii games were also cheaper, and the controller was more convenient to use. The result: the Wii was so popular that it was sold out for several Christmases in a row, while the PS3 didn’t sell so well. Another example is Netflix’s “movies by mail” and Blockbuster. Blockbuster had a huge selection of movies that you could go and rent whenever you wanted, while you had to wait a few days to get your Netflix “movie by mail”. But Netflix was more convenient where it counted: returning the movies (just drop it in the mail), and there were no late fees! Near the end of Blockbuster’s life Redbox came along and then it was getting disrupted by two companies at once (poor Blockbuster).

Now an important point that you really have to understand about this is that disruption only works when the people in the down market are marginalized or ignored. There have to be a decent amount of unserved customers that don’t want the up market offer. See, disruption basically represents a paradigm shift in the marketplace. The paradigm shift happens when there are disgruntled customers that want a better offer in the down market. These disgruntled customers make the paradigm shift possible. This allows the new company to get a foothold in the marketplace. Eventually the disruption grows.  Over time the company gets more and more customers often moving them down market in the process.  This makes the whole industry collect less revenue.  The new company doesn’t care about moving the customers down market though, because it is growing by taking customers away from other businesses.

So now let’s bring all of this disruption talk to the music industry. Back in the 90’s the record companies did something that seemed like a really shrewd move at the time. They stopped selling singles. CD’s were usually offered as albums or maybe EP’s but finding a single for a couple of bucks was nigh impossible. It was very common to hear this complaint in the 90’s, “why do I have to buy the whole album when I only want one song?” Well some people did buy the whole album when they only wanted one single. Others just listened to the radio and many turned to piracy. (Did I mention that piracy was rampant during the 90’s?) The music industry thought everything was great though.  Music sales stayed high throughout the 90’s, even though there were a lot of pissed off album buyers who really only wanted to buy singles.

Then Apple came along right at the beginning of the 21st century and offered both the iPod and iTunes. Customers could buy singles again! So they did. Consequently, many of them stopped buying albums. This resulted in music sales dropping.  Look at this chart that I borrowed from another website:

music singles sales

As you can see sales for singles were down at the end of the 90’s and the first couple years of the 21st century.  Then sales for singles shot up like a rocket!  What this shows is that Apple was disrupting both the music stores and the record companies, because they were getting customers that wanted to buy singles.  The customers moved down market because now they were buying singles instead of albums.

The music companies saw that their sales were dropping!  They started to panic.  They didn’t want to blame Apple though, because Apple was selling their music. Who were they going to blame? Pirates. As it turns out it is very easy to blame people who want to remain anonymous.

“So then Apple is to blame?” one reader asks sheepishly.

Partly. But it is more accurate to say that the music companies themselves caused their own downfall. They stopped selling singles. They disenfranchised the down market. They tried to force people who wanted to buy one single to buy a whole album instead.  This left a huge opportunity for anyone who was willing to serve customers in the down market.

In fact Apple was not the only disruptor.  The music industry has actually been disrupted several times during the 21st century.  The story of the 21st century played out more like this:

People saw that music sales were falling. Then a “savior” stepped forward: Pandora. “Hey guys, I can save the music industry. I’ve got an innovative new way to listen to the radio on the internet. It makes money through ads and subscriptions.” This was actually a disruptive innovation, since it targeted the bottom of the market (ads). Some customers moved down market. Sales dropped. The music industry panicked.

Then YouTube stepped forward. “Hey guys, people can watch music videos on me whenever they want. I’ll make money through ads.” This was actually pretty cool since MTV stopped doing it, but it still targeted the bottom of the market and was therefore disruptive. Music sales continued to drop. The music industry continued to panic desperately.

Then the ultimate “savior”, Spotify, stepped forward. “Hey guys! I have a service so innovative, that people will never have to buy singles or albums again. We’ll make money through ads and subscriptions. The music industry is saved!” So, people stopped buying albums and singles. Music sales plummeted. The music industry appeared doomed. And that is still how it appears today.

“It can’t be that bad.” Says one reader. “People aren’t just going to stop listening to music.”

Well that is true, but people might stop buying new music.  It is important that people buy music, because musicians should be able to make enough money to actually support themselves.  There is so much great music in the past, because musicians were able to devote all of their time toward music instead waiting tables or some other job. So if people aren’t buying music, then good new music will be scarce. Mostly we will always be listening to the same old music with a few new pop and hip-hop songs that come out every year.

“Wow, it sounds so bleak.” Says another reader. “Isn’t there any way that the situation can be turned around?”

Well I do have one crazy idea. We can look at what worked in the past. Sales really shot up in the 60’s after the Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper’s… album. After that people started buying albums in huge quantities. Sales also shot up in the 90’s when Nirvana released their Nevermind album. After that record companies starting signing different kinds of bands (the “Alternative” bands), and people bought more albums again. So if the music industry wants to sell a lot of music, then what it takes is for a really great band to release a really great album.

The “savior” of the music industry will not be a great new business. It will be a great new album.  (Or maybe several great albums!)  And I truly am talking about a great album.  Every song needs to be worthy of being a hit song.  The music industry can no longer skate by selling a whole album when there are only a couple of good songs on it.  It needs to be the type of album that people will remember for generations.

However, this all assumes that the music industry is actually trying to sell albums. Spotify is presenting a new paradigm where they never intend to sell albums again. On the other hand iTunes (and many other music distributors) are still using the “singles and albums” model that has served the music industry well for decades. Musicians can make a living under the “singles and albums” model, because they have done so since the 1960’s. Most musicians will find it difficult to make a living under the Spotify model.

Great music is really the only thing that can save the music industry. That’s because great music is the only thing that ever has. See in a healthy industry customers willingly go to the up market. They eagerly buy albums, because they are excited about the music. I do believe that somewhere in the world a great band is making some great music right now! Eventually a recording company will find this band, record an album and everyone will want to buy this album. But I also hope that when this does happen, the music industry is still trying to sell albums instead of simply settling for ad and subscription revenue.

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Donny reviews a graphic novel with some frikken’ amazing art.

Cages 1

By Dave McKean
#’s 1-10 published 1990-96
Collected book published in 1998

Coming in at 500 pages, this is certainly one of the longest graphic novels in my library. Dropped from a window, you could easily kill a man with this weighty tome. However, it’s a comparatively fast read. It relies more on pictures than words – but it makes you want to linger on those pictures… because it’s probably the best drawn comic book that has yet been made!

Dave McKean had illustrated a string of remarkable and beautiful graphic novels in the late-80’s including Violent Cases (with Neil Gaiman, 1987) and Arkham Asylam (with Grant Morrison, 1989). Those beautiful works of art relied on a lot of lush, Barron Storey-influenced, heavily mediated illustrations that employed collage, painting, sculpture, and Photoshop manipulations. However, McKean then rejected that as being the wrong choice for comics saying that the art “just calls attention to itself too much,” (McKean in Artists on Comic Art by Salisbury, 2000). “I’m not sure if it’s really appropriate for the comics work I’ve done. For the covers, maybe, because that’s an illustration, but not necessarily for the actual storytelling,” (McKean in Comic Book Rebels by Wiater & Bissette, 1993). He felt that his painted, heavily mediated books became labored, and that comics required a simpler, immediate style to tell the story directly and easily. Thus, for Cages, he paired it down to quick, direct, sketchy line drawings that are breathtaking.

Cages opens with four different, prose creation myths. Much of the book develops the analogy between divine and artistic creation, and imagines God as an artist trying to fill blank pages with something new. Actually, a good way to read Cages is as a clash between this artistic view of God (of creativity, metaphor, freedom, and flight) and an Old Testament, fire-and-brimstone God (of cages built of fear, guilt, and social controls).

If I have one critique about this book it comes at the very beginning. Rather than putting all the prose stuff up front, it would have been much better to space it out throughout the comic. As it is, it slows things down too much right at the beginning when you have to read through a dozen pages of prose before you get to the sequential art. My recommendation to you: read the first myth, then read the first three chapters, come back and read the second myth, read the next three chapters, and so on.

After the prose prolog, the comic finally opens with a wonderful sequence where a wandering cat introduces us to the residents of an apartment building. It remains one of my favorite opening sequences in all of comics. The windows of this building allow the cat to see into the past or future. The only explanation we get for how that works comes in the form of a parable about a pretentious king building a tower as a home for artists, musicians, poets, zoo-keepers… well, the tower is obviously an analogue for the apartment building. (But the tower is just as obviously the graphic novel itself – and it’s also Jonathon Rush’s fictional novel, Cages, within the story, which is illustrated with a tower on the cover.) I’m getting too far ahead, but I just wanted to make the point that the only explanations we get for anything in Cages come in the form of parables and allegories. Readers who demand tidy endings and Ms. Marple explanations will be left very confused and disappointed.

On the street, the cat meets Leo who is moving into the building. He’s an artist seeking to escape from “real life” for a while (and will end up discovering inspiration, religion, and love along the way). Leo runs into a nut named Jeffrey (the first of a host of crazies we will meet) who asks him the first philosophical question of the book: “Don’t you see how tiny we are? How we are all just prawns [sic] in God’s great chess game?” (McKean has a fondness for malapropos.) So, McKean is taking on no less than our place in the universe vis-à-vis God. What does life all mean? What does it all add up to? And he’s already given us some “answers” in the form of the various creation myths. We create meaning in the stories and myths that we tell and the art we create. But I got ahead of myself again, didn’t I?

Next, Leo bumps into a bum who comically takes Leo’s, “What do you want?” as an existential question. “A bit of companionship. Maybe something to be working at. A sense of identity, spiritual identity.” Of course this is exactly what Leo is really seeking (and will find by the end of the book). A love of malapropos and comic (and profound) equivocations runs through here, and there’s a strong touch of Shakespeare’s humor at play, I sense. There are also a few nice soliloquies spoken directly to the reader and fourth-wall breaks. One of my favorite of such asides comes on p.82 of the collected edition where for one panel Leo just looks directly at us with an expression of, “Can you believe this shit?”

To make a long story short (too late!): Cages is (sort of) about a painter who moves in to this (magic) building full of eccentrics where he meets two other creators: Angel, a jazz musician who might be an actual angel (or at least a sorcerer) and Jonathon Rush, a Salman Rushdie-inspired novelist who is under a kind of Kafkaesque house-arrest… from there, and through some other characters (like the shut-in Ms. Featherskill who spends a long chapter in monologue with her fowl-talking parrot) it explores questions about art, music, loneliness, creativity, myth, religious zealot-ism, God, and – of course – cages. The multitalented Dave McKean is, himself, a painter, a writer, and a jazz musician (as well as a filmmaker), so he’s basically split himself in three characters (Leo, Angel, and Rush) for this hypnotically meditative novel.

It is a work of magic realism of the kind made famous in comics by Neil Gaiman, McKean’s friend and frequent collaborator. The time-shifting windows in chapter one were subtle… but then chapter three opens by having the scaffolding around the building (scaffolding is a recurring image, along with towers) transform into a pair of giant skeletal birds and fly away. Why? Mostly just because it’s beautiful and mysterious… but later in the chapter Leo watches another pair of birds take flight (birds – especially pigeons – skeletal or otherwise, sometimes talking, are another recurring image). Leo tells Rush that he is artistically blocked due to fear of freedom. Rush gives a bitter laugh and explains: “Everybody’s a bird, locked up in a pretty cage. Sometimes you fly to a slightly bigger one, but you never quite have the courage to abandon captivity altogether.” (Of course, the climax of the story involves Rush leaving his cage.) It’s then that Leo sees the pair of birds take flight out the window – which may be the pair that used to be scaffolding around the building. The scaffolding formed a kind of cage around the structure, and their departure signals that Leo’s arrival is going to set some of the imprisoned tenants free.

Cages has a quality similar to Richard Linklater’s films: quirky, pretentious, philosophical artist-types in dialogue. This is a book that feels more like a piece of music than a novel as conventional storytelling frequently takes a backseat to the current riff. Some of the best sequences are silent: notably the scene where Leo and Karen fall in love while talking the night away in the jazz club… and the silent pages where they make love is possibly the best drawn sex scene in comics. It’s visual music. You must read this book while listening to jazz music, though. No, really. I insist. You must.

The opening words from chapter four give us another clue how to read Cages: “Slowly, the individual lines begin to describe something.” The individual stories are told in a back-up and loop around, non-linear manner, and it requires some close reading to keep track of when each episode is taking place (if it’s even possible to work out exactly). However, as the book nears its end, the individual plot threads to start to some together… but only just start to.

In the jazz club, Angel takes the stage he tells us another creation story, but this one is mostly a warning to artists about the dangers of either over- or under-refining a work – and he could be talking about Cages itself. McKean has explained that he prefers to leave an artwork “incomplete,” so that the artist provides only 50% of the creation. The audience must provide the other 50%, and the real work of art exists in each of the viewer’s heads. Although the final chapter gives us some hints about how this strange world works, there are ample loose ends… and I find one of the most intriguing questions to be: Who is the cat on the last page of the book (who may or may not be the same cat from the first page), and what does his final act mean?

Cages 2

McKean’s drawings are so, damn good! The line art can, by turns, be weightless or moody, eloquent or mad. McKean has taken the vanguard artistic creativity and visual range of Barron Storey, but here, more so than in his previous works, he’s integrated it with the storytelling skills and cartooning chops of Will Eisner… and thus he’s created what I think is the best drawn comic book ever. Like Alan Moore, he uses some great formal devices in each chapter. “Descent” is constructed on a downward movement. “Ascent” reverses the movement. “Schism” employs a kind of mirroring across the horizontal axis. “Blank pages” uses blank white surfaces as match-cuts. And he also uses what must be the coolest POV sequence in comics: in chapter eight when we get a sequence seen through the eyes of the cat.

His drawings are so good and his muted plot so strange that I think McKean’s excellent dialogue often gets overlooked. He is a very good dialogue writer. He understands the value of a surprising choice of words: saying, “and out comes this absurd set of paws with a dog attached called ‘Lemon,’” instead of just saying, “out came a dog named Lemon.” He also has a fantastic ear for naturalism because in writing the book he acted out all the parts into a tape recorder in order to best capture natural speech patterns and give each character a distinctive voice.

The book risks being pretentious, but it saves itself by being self-aware. Its characters often take the Mickey out of one-another’s deep thoughts. McKean even ironically writes his own book review. When Rush critiques a book he’s finished reading, he could just as well be talking about the book he is in: “He wears his influences a little too loudly, he has a tendency towards fashionable pessimism, but on the whole quite a remarkable book.” When Leo complements Rush on his first book (“It was an impressive debut,”) Rush replies, “It was pretentious drivel. If there was ever anything valid there, it was trivialized by superficial, stylistic veneer.” This seems to be McKean talking about himself. Some have interpreted this as another winky shot at Cages, but I think, rather, that McKean is, here, criticizing his early works. After all, Leo and Rush are, in the story, talking about Rush’s debut novel – not his most recent book, Cages – and I’ve heard McKean use almost those exact words dismissing Arkham Asylum as a pointless Batman potboiler dressed-up with a lot of pretentious words and pictures.

I called the story “muted,” but that isn’t a criticism. “Comics is an intimate, one-to-one experience. It’s even more intimate than a novel… It’s very much like a postcard or a letter… So it seems to me to lend itself to very introverted stories… It comes down to this idea of comics working best when they’re like something handwritten, like a postcard.” (Comic Book Rebels). This sounds very much like Art Spiegelman’s approach to Maus: wanting it to have a “diary feel,” he drew Maus all on small copier paper with pens he picked up from a stationary store.

Cages may be the most solid proof to-date that comics can be a literary art form. I would argue that Cages can comfortably go on the same shelf as Ulysses, The Metamorphosis, and 100 Years of Solitude. Beyond that, I can’t overstate my pleasure in re-reading this book. I first acquired it in the 1998 collected edition, and this is my third time reading to through since then, and my appreciation for this work has grown each time. I expect it will remain a book I will continue to enjoy re-reading every eight or ten years. If you’ve never read it, you’re missing out on something magic.

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Rock Chronology #228: Rock and Roll

“Rock and Roll”, Led Zeppelin, 1971.

“Rock and Roll” is another one of those iconic Led Zeppelin songs. Really, it’s amazing to me how many amazing Led Zeppelin songs came from one album. If they had never released the Led Zeppelin IV album, Led Zeppelin still would be remembered as one of the greatest bands that ever lived. But once you factor in Led Zeppelin IV they enter a whole new category of Rock Legend.

“Rock and Roll” was actually released as a single in the US and it peaked at #47 on the Billboard Hot 100. Although that doesn’t really matter because everyone was buying the album instead of the single. Led Zeppelin IV is one of the best selling albums of all time with over 23 million sold in the US alone.

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The Trophy is in the house!

My wife, the balloon artist, won a major award recently. It is basically like winning an Oscar for balloon artists. People are considered worldwide for this award. (A guy from Japan won it last year.) So I am reblogging this here. I am so very proud of her. Congratulations Patricia!

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