Monday, September 29, 2008

The 50 Things Every Comics Collection Truly Needs

Over at The Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon has listed the 50 Things Every Comics Collection Truly Needs, and he asks readers to respond. Since I'm a sucker for lists, I decided to play along. Below, in bold, are the ones on this list that I have, and the ones left plain are items that are not a part of my collection. I've also included some commentary along the way. If anything, this list has made me think about the way I collect comics, and it even reminded me of some items that I had and lost, or have and hadn't looked at in years.

Also, I don't agree that every item on this list is essential to any comics collection, and there are probably some important things missing, but I'll follow along with Tom's list without making too many suggestions of my own.

1. Something From The ACME Novelty Library

2. A Complete Run Of Arcade

3. Any Number Of Mini-Comics

4. At Least One Pogo Book From The 1950s

5. A Barnaby Collection
I have some Barnaby strips in some anthologies, but I don't have a whole collection devoted to this series.

6. Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary
I've got a reprint of this, but not the original. I find it an interesting historical artifact in the same way that I find movies like The Groove Tube and Dynamite Chicken not as funny or edgy as they probably were when they first came out. However, I will acknowledge, if I had read Binky Brown when I was 13, I would have thought it was the greatest thing ever and that it spoke directly to me.

7. As Many Issues of RAW as You Can Place Your Hands On
I used to have some of these that I bought when they came out, before Maus had been collected. I don't know what happened to them.

8. A Little Stack of Archie Comics
I would revise this to "a BIG stack."

9. A Suite of Modern Literary Graphic Novels
This item covers way too many things that should be essential in a comics collection. Tom Spurgeon's list includes both autobiographical comics and literary graphic fiction. I'd split those two categories up, at least.

10. Several Tintin Albums
Had these when I was a kid. Like so many memorable items from my childhood, they were probably sold at a garage sale.

11. A Smattering Of Treasury Editions Or Similarly Oversized Books
I've got a ton of these, mainly the DC ones. I love these things.

12. Several Significant Runs of Alternative Comic Book Series

13. A Few Early Comic Strip Collections To Your Taste
I have a lot of Little Nemo and Krazy Kat for this one.

14. Several "Indy Comics" From Their Heyday
Since I was buying comics like crazy during the indy heyday of the 1980s, I've got a lot of stuff that qualifies here: a complete run of Chaykin's American Flagg!, a complete run of Nexus, lots of Mister X. I did have a big run of Cerebus when I was buying that off the stands, but I sold them all with the plan to buy the big collections, which I never did.

15. At Least One Comic Book From When You First Started Reading Comic Books
I have the comic that I think was the first comic I ever bought. I plan on blogging about that some time. I have, in fact, a lot of the actual comics that I bought as a kid. Many of them are falling apart, with the covers taped on or restapled or missing completely.

16. At Least One Comic That Failed to Finish The Way It Planned To
I do own a complete run of Big Numbers, which I bought when it first came out. Hell, I bought Sonic Disruptors when it first came out, but I don't have those issues anymore. Does Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine or Daredevil: Target count here?

Spurgeon also lists the DC series Thriller here. I have an extraordinary fondness for this series, and I regret it never got to live up to its potential.

17. Some Osamu Tezuka

18. The Entire Run Of At Least One Manga Series
I barely qualify for this one. I'm not much of a manga reader, and I have no real answer why.

19. One Or Two 1970s Doonesbury Collections

20. At Least One Saul Steinberg Hardcover

21. One Run of A Comic Strip That You Yourself Have Clipped
I clipped both the Spider-Man daily comic and the World's Greatest Super-Heroes strip back in the day. I don't know what happened to the notebooks in which I taped these comics.

22. A Selection of Comics That Interest You That You Can't Explain To Anyone Else
I think a big chunk of my collection fits here. Lots of Charlton Romance comics, a batch of Atlas/Seaboard titles, and some strange movie tie-ins from the 50s and 60s. I can, however, totally explain the large number of comics with gorillas on the cover, so I won't count that here.

23. At Least One Woodcut Novel

24. As Much Peanuts As You Can Stand
I could actually stand a lot more Peanuts than I have right now.

25. Maus
I was reading Maus when it was first being published in RAW. Volume 1 first came out when I was in college, and one of my teachers wrote a letter of recommendation for me in which he stated that he was grateful to me for exposing him to such new works. I took a lot of pride in that.

26. A Significant Sample of R. Crumb's Sketchbooks
I am not a Crumb fan, especially of the sketchbooks, but I understand their importance.

27. The original edition of Sick, Sick, Sick.

28. The Smithsonian Collection Of Newspaper Comics
Oh, man. I bought this giant book at the Smithsonian when I participated in Project Close-Up in 10th grade. I hauled this thing around Washington, DC for the entire week, and it barely fit into my suitcase for the trip home. I pored over this book for most of that year. This is still one of my prized possessions, but it doesn't fit anywhere very easily.

29. Several copies of MAD
I had a subscription to MAD for years when I was a kid. Again, garage sales.

30. A stack of Jack Kirby 1970s Comic Books
Yeah, I'm all over this one.

31. More than a few Stan Lee/Jack Kirby 1960s Marvel Comic Books
I used to have more of these than I do now.

32. A You're-Too-High-To-Tell Amount of Underground Comix

33. Some Calvin and Hobbes

34. Some Love and Rockets
All of it.

35. The Marvel Benefit Issue Of Coober Skeber

36. A Few Comics Not In Your Native Tongue
I have a bunch of German comics I got from an aunt who lives in Germany. Also, a few years ago, my wife went to Germany and brought back a bunch of American comics in German, as well as some European comics. My favorite: Jason Lutes's Berlin: City of Stones in German.

37. A Nice Stack of Jack Chick Comics
Several family car trips resulted in me picking up a bunch of these at rest-stops around the country. However, they all got thrown out over the years.

38. A Stack of Comics You Can Hand To Anybody's Kid
Spurgeon shows a copy of Richie Rich as an example for this. If you hand a kid Richie Rich today, that kid will one day be responsible for the next Wall Street/banking sector collapse. I guarantee it.

39. At Least A Few Alan Moore Comics
Lots and lots of these.

40. A Comic You Made Yourself

41. A Few Comics About Comics

42. A Run Of Yummy Fur

43. Some Frank Miller Comics

44. Several Lee/Ditko/Romita Amazing Spider-Man Comic Books

45. A Few Great Comics Short Stories

46. A Tijuana Bible
I would love to get my hands on some Tijuana Bibles. I have never seen these available outside of eBay.

47. Some Weirdo

48. An Array Of Comics In Various Non-Superhero Genres
This item is really well covered in my collection: westerns, romance, horror, sports, funny animal, humor, etc.

49. An Editorial Cartoonist's Collection or Two

50. A Few Collections From New Yorker Cartoonists

Paul Newman, R.I.P.

This was a tough loss over the weekend. Paul Newman put together 50+ years of solid film performances, and it's difficult to imagine another actor who made such great choices over such a long career.

When Newman began his film career, he was lumped in with the other young method actors of the period, drawing comparisons to Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift. And if you ever see Newman and the boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, you can see why that comparison was apt (This is definitely one of my favorite boxing movies, and right up there among my favorite sports movies in general). However, he lacked the tragic qualities of Dean and Clift--and the eccentricities of Brando. Instead, the thing he managed to do well, moreso than any other actor I can think of, is play some thoroughly unlikeable characters and still make them compelling and utterly charming. His character, Private Detective Lew Harper (based on Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer), says, "Only cream and bastards rise," in the underrated late noir Harper, and the same could be said about a lot of the characters Newman played over the years. Billy the Kid in The Left-Handed Gun, Fast Eddie Felson, Hud Bannon, Cool Hand Luke, Reg Dunlop in Slap Shot, Frank Galvin in The Verdict, Sully Sullivan in Nobody's Fool--none of these would be people I would care to know in real life, but all are fascinating characters when rendered on-screen by Newman. We may or may not root for Fast Eddie Felson to beat Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, but Newman makes it hard for us to do so, and when he says, in the first meeting with Fats, "even if you beat me, I'm still the best," it's far from triumphant.
While Cool Hand Luke should be required viewing for entry into the human race, my favorite Paul Newman movie is Hud, which I re-watched over the weekend. Hud is where Newman's balancing act is at its most delicate. Hud Bannon is thoroughly unlikeable--he treats everyone around him like crap, and he publicly flaunts his rejection of morality and decent standards of behavior. I love the way the character is introduced in the film: Hud's nephew, Lonnie (played by Brandon De Wilde), searches through town for his uncle early in the morning and follows a path of destruction that Hud left the night before. Lonnie finally tracks Hud down to the house of a married woman, just has her husband pulls up. Hud quickly explains that he found his nephew coming out of the house, and we immediately understand what kind of man we're dealing with. Hud is a force of nature that threatens to consume everyone around him ("No one gets out of life alive," he tells Lonnie), and it always amazes me that Newman, at that point in his career where his star was on the rise, would choose such an unredemptive and nihilistic role (and on a side note, I love that Brandon De Wilde, who ten years earlier had cried for Shane to come back, is the one that leaves in the end here. This is more than a perfect ending--it's the perfect transitional moment in film history.).
Despite the fact that he played total bastards so well, Newman's public life served as a model for exactly how a celebrity should behave, especially through his charitable work with the "Newman's Own" brand. Looking back on his career, and the string of great performances he had in every decade of the last half-century, it would be difficult to find a better American actor.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Play Dirty with Michael Caine!

Some time in 2003, after the war in Iraq had been underway for a while, I got a call from a producer for a talk radio show asking me if I would be interested in doing an hour on the current state of war movies. It turns out, whatever set of search terms the producer used in Google turned up my home page and an essay that I wrote on the history of war movies. I hastily agreed.

During the interview, the host asked me why there weren't any war movies being made at that time about the Iraq War. I explained that it would be unlikely that any would be made so early in the war, and that, with the Vietnam War, filmmakers did not start to represent that war until years after it was over. What we would more than likely see, instead, was films about past wars that would serve as analogies for the current attitude toward war in general, as is what happened in the early years of Vietnam. (My prediction proved to be only partially true, as we have seen quite a few movies about the current Iraq War surface over the last few years.)

The interview closed with the question, "What is your favorite war movie?" My answer, pretty quickly, was Patton (1969). I then explained that I admire Patton for its complexity and moral ambiguity that provide a more realistic, and less jingoistic, picture of war. I also went on to mention movies like The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Apocalypse Now.

However, another movie that I could have discussed, which shares many of the same qualities I admire in Patton, is Play Dirty (1968), starring Michael Caine and directed by Andre de Toth.
Like Patton, Play Dirty also deals with the North African campaign during World War II--specifically, a plot to blow up Rommel's fuel supply 400 miles behind the German lines.

The film opens with a scene reminiscent of the opening of Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo, a movie starring Erich von Stroheim as Rommel that is criminally not available on DVD. Wilder's film opens with a tank filled with a dead crew careening through the desert (one of the best openings to a war movie ever), and Play Dirty begins with a jeep, containing a corpse in the passenger seat, speeding through German territory on its way to a British desert base (The radio on the jeep blares "You Are My Sunshine" in a nice bit of irony that sets the tone for the rest of the movie).

The jeep is driven by Captain Leech (Nigel Davenport), the only survivor of an excursion behind German lines to find information on Rommel's supply lines. Leech reports to Colonel Masters (Nigel Green), an eccentric commanding officer who is trying to use his knowledge of military history to form a plan to defeat Rommel. Masters's plan is to send a small demolition team through the desert in order to sneak up on Rommel's fuel supply and destroy it. Masters's superior agrees to the plan, though he decides to use Masters's team as a decoy while sending out a larger force, for whom he will take credit, of course.

Masters is unfortunately short of men, as all but Leech have been killed in various recon missions. He then sends out a request for a new officer, one who "knows something about petrol." He gets Captain Douglas (Michael Caine), a BP executive assigned to the British army to oversee fuel shipments. He's not equipped to lead such a mission, but the superiors have little care for such things, as they know in advance that the mission is doomed to failure.

Douglas is put in charge of a Dirty-Dozen-like group of North Africa ex-criminals and castoffs who have been enlisted in the British army. Also included is Leech, who bristles at the idea of serving under Douglas but agrees to return Douglas alive in exchange for 2,000 pounds from Masters.

Much of the film's tension comes in the power struggle between Leech and Douglas. The cynical, amoral Leech knows the desert and is mercenarily commited to the mission only, while Douglas balks at any challenge to his authority, despite the fact that he may not be well-suited for leading this mission. (Richard Harris was originally cast as Leech, but he was fired just as production began, and Davenport was "promoted" from a smaller supporting role to the larger role. While Davenport is great in the role, I can only imagine just how fantastic this movie would be with Harris and Caine going at each other.)

The middle part of the movie consists of extended vignettes that involve various challenges the group faces as they try to cross the desert. Many of these scenes are long and dialogue-free, with intense attention to detail. For example, early in the mission, Douglas decides to haul the group's three vehicles up the side of a steep hill using a makeshift pulley system, rather than turning back and heading into an oncoming enemy patrol. Andre de Toth takes us step-by-step through this process, which has the effect of racheting up the film's tension. Subsequent scenes involving desert sandstorms, flat tires, and land mines only further increase the tension.

Andre de Toth was known primarily for his Westerns and noir films in the 40s and 50s, and his movies featured a tough but oddly casual and amoral approach to violence, especially in films like Crime Wave, Springfield Rifle, Hidden Fear, and Ramrod. Violence, in de Toth's films, is a natural male activity, and is, therefore, treated in a rather banal fashion. That approach is also effectively on display here, with disturbing results. A small mistake by Douglas early in the film results in a massacre, and Leech later coldly chooses to do nothing when he sees a group of British soldiers about to get ambushed. Later in the film, the group steals a Red Cross van in order to move freely on a German supply road. While riding in the front, Douglas hears a crash in the back and, looking through the sliding window, declares, "It's only a nurse." Whatever violence that occurs in the back is beneath his notice, and it's beneath ours, too, as we don't get to see what is happening to the unfortunate nurse (however, what happens to the nurse later serves as one of the more disturbing and unsettling elements of the film).

The rest of the movie plays out like a series of repeated punches to the gut, making this one of the most nihilistic, morally ambiguous war movies, which is why it's at the top of my list for that genre. And for Michael Caine, it fits well with the types of roles he was choosing in the 60s and early 70s, like in the Harry Palmer films, Alfie, Zulu, The Italian Job, Get Carter, Pulp, etc.: complex characters who could very often be bastards, but Caine's charm and intensity always kept the audience on their sides. Forty years on, Play Dirty still has the power to shock, and it definitely deserves to be more well known than it is.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Creature Commandos Return!

Reader werehawk pointed out something that I missed in the solicitations for DC's December releases:

The Creature Commandos are coming back, along with J.A.K.E.-2--the G.I. Robot!

According to the solicitation copy for Action Comics 872, Superman finds the original Creature Commandos and their robot buddy held captive on board Brainiac's ship. This may mean that Brainiac found the WWII-era misfit heroes somewhere in outer space, which, in turn, may mean that this story, which I covered during last year's Halloween Countdown, is in continuity.

If so, then I hope writer Geoff Johns references the fact that Robert Kanigher was on board the rocket, too.

And speaking of the Halloween Countdown, I'm gearing up for another during October. So, posting is going to be light for the next two weeks as I prepare material for another 30 days of horror comics and films!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Great Moments in Pedagogy

I was teaching an introduction to poetry unit today in a freshman English class, and, for no apparent reason, a student suddenly asked a question about Green Lantern's Oath--was it poetry or not?

So, to make sure everyone was on the same page, I started to recite the oath.

And, once I started, something miraculous happened. I noticed a couple of students mouthing the first line with me. Then, on the second line, a student joined in aloud. By the third line, four students were reciting the oath in unison.

More than any other moment in my 17-year teaching career, this has given me the strongest sense of hope for the future.

The class has 11 students total, so that means about 36% of them knew the Green Lantern Oath. I wonder how this statistic holds up elsewhere.

It's not just the number that surprises me. I haven't talked about comics at all in the class, though I do make frequent pop culture references, so there was no real context in which to just start talking about Green Lantern. Yet, they assumed the reference was well-known enough.

Of course, one might also ask, "What the hell are you teaching these kids?"

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sometimes, I can't help myself...

I was skimming through some coverless comics from the 40s and 50s that I have in my collection, and I came across this story, from Ozark Ike 25, a baseball comic published by Standard Comics in 1952:
That never stops being funny. Of course, nowadays, you could get arrested for reading that caption box aloud to a minor.

Now, before you say, "But Dr. K, you're an educated person--you have to understand that these were more innocent times, and that word had a different meaning then," I would like to point out some other parts of the story that may point to a more modern connotation.

As the story begins, something awakens Ozark Ike McBatt from a deep, sound sleep--the thought of his girlfriend, Dinah Fatfield, in a new Bat-Girl outfit:

Hmmm. What sort of Bat-Girl outfit could cause such excitement and enthusiasm?

Probably not this one:

Definitely not this:


Actually, it's this one, revealed in a panel that lays out horizontally across the page:
So, just to be clear, in the story called "Boner of the Year!" Ike wakes himself up from a deep sleep thinking about his girlfriend in her new Bat-Girl outfit. In a scene not depicted in the story, Ike takes 30 minutes to pee that morning.

During the game with the Hawks, Ike's team--the Bugs--falls behind, but with two outs in the 9th, Ike represents the tying run on 3rd base. When a hit goes into left field, Ike takes off for home, but Dinah becomes so excited, that she has an accident:
Man, Jaime Hernandez could have drawn that panel. But the context would be completely different.

Anyway, Dinah hits herself in the head with a bat (a bat with "Ozark Ike" written down the shaft, by the way), and Ike runs out of the baseline to make sure she's okay, but in the process, he loses the game for the Bugs, or "muffs a tie score," if you will.

You know, with this being a baseball story and all, I thought about making double entendres about balls and long, hard, cylindrical pieces of wood, but, really, I try to run a classy joint here. Some restraint is necessary.

Back in 2003, Scott Shaw! covered this issue in his Oddball Comics column. Check here if you want more background on this issue and on Ozark Ike in general.