Saturday, May 30, 2009

Batman in "The Peril of the Penguin"

While digging through some old boxes in my closet recently, I found a ziplock baggie filled with some minicomics that I must have accumulated when I was a kid. Several of them are small DC Comics that came inside packages of Super Sugar Crisp back around 1979-80. Each comic is 16 pages, with two panels per page. I'll spend the next few posts going through some of these odd novelties.

The first one, "The Peril of the Penguin," is a perfect little Batman story in which the Dynamic Duo stop The Penguin from robbing a rodeo.

I can't find any credits for this comic online, but I'm going to take a guess that the art is by Adrian Gonzales and Dave Hunt (I'm pretty certain on the inker, but not the penciller). The cover is by Dick Giordano (at least the inks). I don't have a clue as to the writer, though at this time Bob Rozakis was writing a lot of stuff like this for DC, so I'm going to make that my guess.

The story opens in typical fashion for the time, with Batman scaring and beating up some thugs for information.

He's so effective at this that he doesn't even have to take them to the police--he just scares the crap out of them so they do it themselves.

The thugs give him a vague clue that the Penguin is at a "Bull Dog Contest." Robin jumps to the logical but dead wrong conclusion that this means he's going to rob the Gotham Dog Show (which, in the world of Gotham City in the 70s, makes perfect sense). Instead, Batman points out that a "Bull Dog Contest" is slang for a rodeo. From then on, Batman will not shut up about how right he is all the time.

I like how Bruce gets down to business and makes sure that Commissioner Gordon understands his question here. This isn't idle chit-chat as someone, using the vernacular of the times, might ask "What's happening?"

The Penguin, inconspicuously disguised as a cowboy, uses one of his trick umbrellas to rile up the bulls and start a stampede:

This calls for Bruce and Dick to get in on the action:

"But as the Batman I can move!": whoever wrote this deserves a medal for that line alone.

And we end up with one of my favorite things: Batman interacting with members of the animal kingdom. First, with the steers:

Second, on a horse:

Finally, Batman and Robin catch up to the Penguin and his henchman at the rodeo box office. Penguin tries to get away with a helicopter umbrella, but Batman manages to lasso the criminal's feet:

Leaving Robin to make a series of demoralizing puns at the Penguin's expense.

In the span of 29 panels, "The Peril of the Penguin" provides a formula for the basic Batman story: Batman interrogates punks, punks give up clue, Batman decodes clue and tracks down the villain, fighting ensues.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 5

Perhaps one of the greatest punches in comics history, from Amazing Spider-Man 121, written by Gerry Conway, pencils by Gil Kane, and inks by John Romita, Sr.

Thanks to Chris Sims for the tip and the scan.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Who's a Brave Boy?

Recently, the Other Dr. K and I took a trip to London. Among the touristy things we did was ride the London Eye. If I do say so myself, this was an accomplishment for me, as I don't like heights. I think you can see that from this picture in particular, where I'm scowling and gripping my seat:

As the flight went on, however, I started to fee better, so I stood up and tried to look cheerier:

Also, while standing in line for the Eye, we saw the host of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Ty Pennington:
Unfortunately, he did not get on the same flight as we did. If he had, I would have walked off the Eye with a new house--guaranteed!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dr. K Reviews: Blazing Combat!

Holy crap, this book is awesome!

In 1965, Warren Publshing sought to build on the success of their horror comic magazine Creepy. Since Creepy was modeled after the the EC horror comics of the previous decade, the decision was made to duplicate another famous EC genre: war comics. The result was Blazing Combat, written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by some of the greatest artists in comics history, including Wally Wood, Alex Toth, Joe Orlando, Gene Colon, Reed Crandall, John Severin, and Russ Heath.

The series, unfortunately, only ran for 4 issues, and the book spends some time explaining the series's downfall through interviews with publisher James Warren and writer Archie Goodwin. In brief, Goodwin took a critical, realistic approach to war stories, including stories about the Vietnam War, which was then in the early days of American involvement. These Vietnam stories, which anticipated the country's antiwar sentiment, raised the ire of the US military and the American Legion. The military stopped the sale of the comic on all military bases and the American Legion encouraged wholesalers to keep it from newstands. Thus, after only a few issues, Warren had to pull the plug.

What made it into these four issues, however, are some of the greatest war comics ever made. In reading this collection, I was struck not only the progressive attitude toward war that these stories present, but also the breadth of stories told here. Each issue includes stories ranging from the American Civil War to Vietnam, and, with the exception of World War II, rarely is a historical period repeated in an issue. Each issue contained 7-8 short stories. When these stories are presented collectively like this, Archie Goodwin's accomplishment here can be seen as on par with Harvey Kurtzman's work on the EC war books.

I was also amazed at how well these stories hold up after more than 40 years. Warren published its comics as magazines in order to circumvent the censorship of the Comics Code, so while the level of violence depicted here may be higher than that acceptible in mainstream comics of the time, it is by no means gratuitous. The Vietnam stories are probably the most remarkable. The opening story of the series, "Viet-Cong" (with art by Joe Orlando, who draws most of the Vietnam stories) features an American soldier advising the South Vietnamese army and witnessing the murder of civilians and the torture of enemy soldiers (including waterboarding).

If anything unifies these stories, other than the focus on war, it is a dominant sense of irony. Stories of military heroism are rare, and when they do occur, they are often balanced by this irony--in one Revolutionary War story, the heroism of an unnamed general is celebrated, and we only find out at the end that it's Benedict Arnold.

Among my favorite stories are those involving fighter pilots in various wars, especially those stories drawn by Alex Toth and Wally Wood. Toth drew what is probably my all-time favorite war comic story--"F-86 Sabre Jet!" in EC's Frontline Combat 12. Toth's "Lone Hawk" and "The Edge!" are easily on par with that earlier story, and "The Edge!" itself forms a perfect companion piece, where Toth uses a deceptively minimalist style to tell a gripping story of Korean War fighter combat. Wally Wood did two amazing fighter pilot stories: "The Battle of Britain!" (which he wrote--the only story in the collection not written by Goodwin) and "ME-262!" The latter story is especially remarkable because it tells of the frustration of a German pilot in WWII who knows that the new Messerschmitts should be used as fighters, while Hitler keeps insisting on making them bombers.

Probably my favorite story in the collection, however, is "Give and Take," with art by Russ Heath. Heath has always been one of the greatest war comics artists, but this story goes well beyond any of the work he did in DC and Atlas's war comics. The art is almost photo-realistic here, especially in the use of shadows and evocative facial expressions.

In all, this is an essential collection, featuring truly important stories from an unfortunately brief period of incredible creativity on the part of Archie Goodwin and a stable of some of comics' greatest artists. Fantagraphics has been knocking out a lot of great archival collections lately, including Paul Karasik's rediscovery of Fletcher Hanks's work, Craig Yoe's collection of bizarre Boody Rodgers stories, Greg Sadowski's Supermen anthology, and the complete, essential collection of Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug series (not to mention the work they are doing on comic strip archives).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 4

Midnight punches a goon over a desk and out of the panel! From "The Secret Origin of Midnight" in Secret Origins 28 (1988), written by Roy Thomas, art by Gil Kane. Thanks to reader Seth for the recommendation.

Monday, May 18, 2009

ISBook Club: Hunt at the Well of Eternity

So, as Chris Sims recounts here, he and I have decided to start a cross-blog book club with the first installment of the Hunt for Adventure series, Hunt at the Well of Eternity, written by James Reasoner.

Much like Chris, I was excited to hear about this series about a treasure-hunting hero named Gabriel Hunt when series creator Charles Ardai announced it. Ardai is the creator of the Hard Case Crime series, which I've been enjoying tremendously for the last few years. Unfortunately, the first book in the series doesn't live up to those expectations, but I'm going to stick with this series in hopes that it does live up to its potential.

I agree with Chris on most points. I also wish that the book used first-person narration, especially since "Gabriel Hunt" is listed as the author, and I also found the contemporary setting off-putting. And, in the end, Gabriel Hunt is too much of a generic adventure hero to care much about. But, as Chris also points out, the book moves along at a fast clip, with one action set-piece following quickly after another--in the first 40 pages, we get a fight at a museum benefit, a car chase across the Queensboro bridge, and an airboat chase through the Florida Everglades, all with considerable gunfire.

The book could also benefit from a more self-aware, ironic approach. Hints of that occur in the suggestion that Gabriel learned to use a bullwhip from a friend of his parents who may have been Indiana Jones. In fact, my hopes for ironic self-awareness came in the first page, when we're introduced to Gabriel's brother:
His brother Michael leaned closer to him. Without altering the beaming smile on his face, Michael said from the corner of his mouth, "Stop fidgeting."

I would think, if you named a character "Michael Hunt," you would absolutely have to know what you were doing. And if so, then the reader should expect much of the novel to be written with the tongue planted firmly in the cheek. However, that is really not the case here, and Reasoner writes the rest of the novel with such a bland earnestness that it seems as if he were willfully avoiding ironic self-awareness. Take, for example, the turgid prose used in the introduction of the novel's damsel-in-distress, Mariella Montez:
A mass of midnight-black curls framed a compelling, high-cheekboned face dominated by dark, intense eyes. Those curls tumbled over honey-skinned shoulders left bare by the strapless evening gown of dark green silk that clung to the generous curves of her body. She possessed a timeless, natural beauty that was more attractive to Gabriel than anything the multitude of stick-thin, face-lifted society women attending this reception could ever muster.

This may as well have said "generically attractive Latina," as there is very little here to give us much of a picture of the character, though that's par for the course with most characters in this novel. Reasoner may be intentionally resisting the kind of postmodern irony that accompanies many nostalgic genre revivals, but the bland style used here does not serve as a worthwhile replacement.

Reasoner, best known for his Westerns and Civil War novels, as well as the Mike Shayne mysteries that he wrote as "Brett Halliday," would seem perfectly suited to this kind of adventure tale. And the author does bring his historical expertise to a plot involving the quest for the fate of a Civil War general who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. But apart from strong pacing and action scenes that make the story mildly diverting and inoffensive, there isn't much to recommend here.

Later installments in the series do offer some promise, though. If the preview in the back of Well of Eternity is a sign, then the next novel, Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear by series creator Charles Ardai, should be a lot more fun. Ardai's contributions to the Hard Case Crime series, notably Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence (writing as "Richard Aleas"), are both fantastic crime novels, and he clearly has a love for these pulp genres. Also, Christa Faust and David J. Schow are both lined up for the series, and they wrote my two favorite Hard Case Crime novels: Money Shot and Gun Work (respectively). Both of these novels are fun and fast-paced, with strong characterization and some pretty wild twists. So, while I was disappointed in Hunt at the Well of Eternity, I hold out hope that this was merely a mild abberation, and that the series will live up to its potential.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Artists and Critics

I recently returned from a trip to the UK, where I got to see a marvelous, funny, and accessible production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godotstarring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow, and Ronald Pickup (more on this in a later post, perhaps).

At one point in the play, in their endless quest to occupy their time, Didi (Stewart) and Gogo (McKellen) decide to play at hurling insults at one another. The back-and-forth ends when Gogo shouts "Critic!" and Didi falls to the ground as if shot. The line got the biggest applause of the play, and yet, this particular run has been almost universally praised by critics. Clearly, though, that applause would help cushion the blow that any negative criticism might unleash.

On this trip to London, I also got to see a performance of Yukio Mishima's Madame de Sade, starring Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike. Unlike the Beckett play, this one has been almost universally panned, though I found it quite good and found most of the negative criticism to miss the point of the play. However, the critical backlash has been so strong that it inspired Dame Judi to respond to Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer with a letter stating, "I've always rather admired you but now realise you're an absolute shit."

Now, when feuds between artists and critics enter the public sphere, it can be fun to watch, and Dame Judi manages to toss a perfect verbal barb at her detractor, especially as one can imagine just how the great actress would deliver such a line. But I use these two examples as a means of taking the long way to get to this recent example of what not to do when faced with negative criticism. Kevin Church assesses Joseph Larkin's Arcade of Cruelty using the famous reviews of Spinal Tap's albums, and this results in Larkin providing a response that lacks any kind of cleverness or class while also being legally actionable. Now, no one likes negative criticism, but responding with physical threats can be damaging to the point of being career-ending. At the very least, it doesn't reflect well on Larkin's creativity, providing an even more damning review of his work than Kevin's post does. Feuds between artists and critics can be a fun spectator sport, especially in the age of the Internet, but Larkin seems to have crossed a line here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week Extra

Payback time! The perfect full-page panel in "The Demon with a Cape!" from Superman Special 2 (1984), story by Cary Bates, art by Gil Kane.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 3

Say it ain't so! Brainiac punches a depowered Superman in "The Demon with a Cape!" from Superman Special 2 (1984), story by Cary Bates, art by Gil Kane.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 2

Robin punches Sebastian Sepastopol in "Stepping Stones for a Giant Killer," written by Mike Friedrich, pencilled by Gil Kane, and inked by Wally Wood. Originally published in Teen Titans 19 (1969) and reprinted in Showcase Presents: Teen Titans Vol. 2.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Daily Death of Terry Tremayne

"The Daily Death of Terry Tremayne," written by David V. Reed and drawn by Ernie Chua, still holds up as one of my favorite Batman stories.

As you can see from this scan of my original copy, this comic is barely held together by tape and a 6-year-old's dreams.

The story opens with the murders of three men named "Terry Tremayne," all killed on successive days. Each was also killed with an exotic weapon, or, as the Gotham police refer to it, a "weirdo shiv": Batman goes on to explain that one of the weapons was a South African Assagai spear, another was a Malay Creese, and the third a Nepalese Gurkha Kukri. And it is here, on the first page, that we get one of the common features of David V. Reed's Batman stories: obscure knowledge that would educate you while you were being entertained.

After some quick investigation, Batman discovers that a 4th Terry Tremayne inhabits Gotham City, and he goes to find him before he becomes the next victim. Turns out, though, that he is a she:
As we can see, Batman has a way of talking to the ladies, and he quickly takes a shine to Miss Tremayne. And, in an unorthodox move, he pimps out his "friend" Bruce Wayne for a tennis date with the traumatized victim:
This seems a little ethically shaky.

Batman proceeds to investigate a mysterious "Florentine Box" that seems to be the objective of the murderer. In the process, he tracks down some thugs and beats the crap out of them.

This is a perfect Batman moment: he kicks the guy in the trachea, and then he makes fun of the guy's impaired speech. After that "KR-RACK!" that guy's never talking again.

Batman thinks he's solved the murders, and that frees Bruce Wayne to make some time with Miss Tremayne. Bruce falls hard for her, but unfortunately Batman ends up cockblocking his own alter-ego by solving the crimes and proving that Terry Tremayne was the real murderer:
That is some cold shit right there.

Also, this story reminds us of a very important fact:

Batman loves his job.