Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis, R.I.P.

Sad news today that actor Tony Curtis passed away at the age of 85. Most obits today are focusing on his classic comedic performance in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot and his Oscar-nominated turn in the barrier-breaking film The Defiant Ones. However, I want to focus on his performance as Sidney Falco in my favorite movie, Sweet Smell of Success.

Sweet Smell of Success has everything going for it: a whip-smart screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, sharp direction by Alexander Mackendrick, beautiful black-and-white cinematography by James Wong Howe, and top-to-bottom great performances by all the actors involved.

Sidney Falco is a bottom-feeding press agent who barely ekes out a living feeding items on his clients to powerful New York newspaper columnists. In this scene from early in the movie, we see Curtis's frenetic energy that defines the character: he's juggling several problems at once here and trying to look for a way out of all of them.

That energy can also be seen at the beginning of this scene--one of my favorites in movie history--where he's constantly in motion and the camera has to remain mobile to keep up with him. But later, we see press agent Sidney get taken apart by powerful columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), yet he manages to maintain his dignity in the face of Hunsecker's abuse.

That dignity wouldn't last, however, as the erosion of Sidney's already low moral standards becomes the crux of the movie. Falco is a sleazeball, but he's never unlikeable, and it's Curtis's performance that maintains such an unlikely balance of revulsion and sympathy. Curtis was at the height of his popularity when he made this movie, and it was a big risk for both him and Lancaster. Curtis was comfortably situated as a Hollywood screen idol at the time, so playing such a morally dubious role in such a dark film could have damaged that position. And the movie failed largely because of its bleak subject matter, but it remains a bold and brutal movie to this day, and a large part of its quality goes to Curtis's fearless, energetic performance.

Curtis would have a rather spotty career, but at his best, he was in some of the greatest movies of all time, all of which were made better for his performances, though he rarely seemed to get the credit he deserved. I also have fond memories, though, of the cool Tony Curtis who appeared on television when I was a kid, especially the underrated adventure series The Persuaders, where he played American oil millionaire Danny Wilde, who teamed up with British aristocrat Brett Sinclair (Roger Moore) on international adventures.

I'm going to spend part of this weekend revisiting Some Like It Hot and Sweet Smell of Success (two movies that I already watch on a fairly regular basis, anyway) to celebrate the career of one of the last classic Hollywood stars.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Worst Comic Book of All Time

The term "worst comic book of all time" or "worst comic ever" gets bandied about quite a bit, and while there have been some recent strong contenders to that title (make that "one contender"), such assessments lack some historical scope in order to make such a claim.

In my recent research, I have come across the worst comic of all time, and after reading it, I longed for the simple pleasures of a drug-addicted teen sidekick beating people with a dead cat. That would have been infinitely better than what I experienced.

In fact, I kind of find it quaint that some people can read comics their entire lives, only to have Justice League of America: The Rise of Arsenal 3 end up being the worst comic they ever read. I also envy them.

Because, unless there's some lost comic out there written by Hermann Goering and drawn by Adolph Hitler himself, then I cannot imagine a worse comic book than this:

Published by Specialty Book Company of Columbus, Ohio, in 1944, Clean Fun Starring Shoogafoots Jones is a one-shot comic that was apparently popular enough to go through multiple printings, yet it looks like a very cheaply produced, self-published comic. It fails in every conceivable way that a comic could fail: the art and writing (credited to "McDaniel") are amateurish at best, the so-called "jokes" are not funny, and, most important, the book is racist as hell. Plus, it purports to provide moral instruction from something called "Stray Thoughts" by Crump J. Strickland, which is the most Southern name ever this side of Saxby Chambliss. The overt hypocrisy (immediately clear on the cover) of a comic that presents itself as moral instruction while also containing some of the most awful racism imaginable really puts it over the top to be far and away the worst comic book ever made.

In fact, it makes me want to punch the Greatest Generation right in the face.

The book consists of a series of one-page, four-panel gags, loosely tied together by something of a plot that involves Shoogafoots escaping his abusive wife (as seen on the cover), trying but failing to hold down a job, and getting beset by young pranksters who take advantage of his limited intelligence. (Many of these pranksters, by the way, are Shoogafoots children by different mothers, another running gag in the book.) Then, running along the bottom of each page, we get Crump J. Strickland's words of Christian advice, many of which warn against the dangers of introducing immoral "dirt" and "filth" into your mind.

Here is the inside cover and first page of the book. The gag on the inside cover gets extra points for also drawing humor out of a physical disability. The first page sets up the characters for us while also putting the plot in motion:

I would also like to point out that every panel is numbered 1-4, obviously to help the book's target audience, who wasn't yet quite used to the habit of reading from left to right.

Shoogafoots gets a construction job, but he falls off the building and gets fired. He then goes to see a doctor, who beats him and then throws him out. We start to see here a common pattern in Shoogafoots life: failure, followed by abuse at the hands of every authority figure he meets. For example, Shoogafoots later takes a train, and when he asks the conductor if he "know de way," the conductor beats him with a coal shovel. All this physical abuse, especially from his wife, creates a vicious cycle for Shoogafoots: he's abused because he doesn't work, but then his injuries prevent him from working.

And he is also guilty of perpetuating this cycle of violence, as we see on this page, when one of his illegitimate children asks him an innocent, albeit ignorant question that ironically comments on Shoogafoots's own trauma:

And again, bonus points for drawing humor from post-traumatic stress disorder.

On the road, Shoogafoots meets up with Skin Johnson, who has just joined the Army. As it's time for yet another nap, Shoogafoots falls asleep beside a tree and dreams of life in the Army. As a pilot, he bombs the Japanese fleet, but he's shot down and wakes up. Then his wife beats him some more.

We see, however, that Shoogafoots is not incapable of exertion when pressed into it, usually by a prank that capitalizes on his ignorant superstitions, as with this encounter with a ghost:

To the writer's credit, he does not have Shoogafoots shout out, "Feets, don't fail me now!"

In the following incident, Shoogafoots has a run-in with a ill-advisedly placed Halloween skeleton on a junk pile.

We get to see a kind of hierarchy of fear at work by comparing the two above images. A ghost causes Shoogafoots to run 12 miles, while a skeleton causes him to run 14 miles. Also, the skeleton turns him temporarily white, for some hilarious and ironic racial inversion.

The evidence presented here strongly suggests that Clean Fun Starring Shoogafoots Jones is hands-down the worst comic book of all time, as well as proving that human beings pretty much suck in general. It is a demoralizing and angering book to read, not least when one comes across an epigram promoting universal brotherhood appearing underneath a horribly racist joke.

The images here are from photographs I took of the copy I read at the Michigan State University library. That school's excellent comics archive actually has two copies of the comic, both in pretty good shape. Subsequent research shows that this comic is hardly rare, and cheap copies can be found for a comic from 1944. This leads me to believe that the book was fairly successful for the Specialty Book Company, which is again saddening.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 41: I Bend Steel and I Break Braggarts!

DC Comics Presents Annual 3 (1984) is the gift that keeps on giving ... punches, that is! When is it going to stop?

As usual, plot by Roy Thomas, script by Joey Cavalieri.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Blackhawk Wingsdays Presents: Sketchbook Time!

It's going to be a light week for Blackhawk Wingsdays, but I did want to start sharing some of the Blackhawk sketches I've recently received. Starting at HeroesCon this year, I decided to begin a Blackhawk sketchbook. Now, I've never done a sketchbook before, so I was a bit trepidatious. Luckily, everyone I've asked so far has been gracious.

Here's the first one I wanted to share, by Jeff Parker:

Jeff Parker, who is a great writer and a swell guy, really nailed this sketch. When I asked him at HeroesCon if he'd do a Blackhawk sketch, he grabbed the book and said, "I'm doing Hendrickson!" This cracks me up every time I look at it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blackhawk Wingsdays Presents "The Black and Blue Hawks!"

The postwar popularity of the Blackhawks sort of confuses me. Comics audiences lost interest in most war-oriented series soon after World War II ended, but Blackhawk remained successful even beyond the demise of its first publisher, Quality Comics.

And it remained successful without evolving very much. The team still fought Orientalist villains and Nazis who survived the war and planned a return of the Reich. Not much later, they became cold warriors and stopped Communist insurgencies in real and fictional nations. And Chop-Chop remained a caricature that had to be offending someone by then.

In my Blackhawk research, I have not found much contemporaneous criticism of the series's politics or racial problems. The exception, though, is the parody of Blackhawk that appeared in Mad 5 (June-July 1953), "The Black and Blue Hawks!" drawn by Wally Wood, with writing credit not given (though I have seen Harvey Kurtzman credited at times). In the typical Mad fashion, this is a biting, hilarious parody which really nails the source's many problems.

To begin with, they parody the Blackhawks fight song: "Over land, over sea, we-ee fight for do-re-mi ... ha cha cha, we're Black and Blue Hawks!"

The team is introduced as Saddlesore (Chuck), Sauerbratten (Hendrickson), Yohnson (Olaf), and Chop Chop Chop. The latter might be the most insightful part of the parody. He's so small that he's in danger of being trampled on at all times, and instead of the usual broken English, he speaks like this:

He's also the only competent member of the group. But despite that, he's given a wind-up toy named "H.M.S. Pinafore" as a plane.

After this introduction, Robespierre (Andre) crashes on the island, bringing news of a revolution in "Panazonia" with his last breath. From here on, the story effectively parodies the comics' tendency to show the team propping up third-world dictatorships.

Chop Chop Chop is always saving Black and Blue Hawk after the latter screws up in some way, leading to Chop Chop Chop actually carrying the oaf on his back after their plane crashes into the ocean:

I love that Black and Blue Hawk slips into German here.

When they discover that only one life-preserver is available, the leader shows his true colors:

This is where the parody gets truly brutal. The line "You're not really one of us!" effectively encapsulates the entire treatment of Chop-Chop over the previous eleven years or so: despite his participation on the team, he is always treated as separate and different. It's hilarious, but like the best Mad parodies, it goes way beyond that, making an insightful and painful critique of the subject at hand.

This parody also gives the sense that there was also someone else out there who thought that Blackhawk was problematic, to say the least. Not only that, but the series was also popular enough to fall within the radar of the Mad creators and readers. Nonetheless, even this parody had little effect on the status quo at the Blackhawk series, and it would be a few years before Quality would even begin to change something like the appearance of Chop-Chop.

Special thanks to Mike Sterling of Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin for help with the scans.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 40: Out of the Panel and through a Building!

Once again, from DC Comics Presents Annual 3 (1984), written by Roy Thomas and Joey Cavalieri. This time, Superman gets backhanded by a Sivana-driven robot:

That's 3 so far from this one comic. Can I go for more? I think so.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Exciting Return of the Gil Kane Punch of the Week! Episode 39: Knuckle Under!

In an earlier Gil Kane Punch of the Week, supplied by Mike Sterling of Progressive Ruin fame, I featured a page from the 1984 DC Comics Presents Annual 3, written by Roy Thomas and Joey Cavalieri. At the time, I didn't have a copy of the comic, but I have since gotten my own, and I've discovered that the thing is wall-to-wall punches! So, I decided to get some more mileage out of this great issue.

Here's a particularly awesome set of panels, where a Shazammed-up Dr. Sivana fashions some kryptonite brass knuckles (as opposed to brass kryptonite knuckles) and delivers the Earth-1 Superman a devastating blow:

I would not mind seeing more of these kryptonite brass knuckles.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Return of Blackhawk Wingsdays: Live!

First off, my apologies for the summer long gap in this blog. Right around the time I was planning on devoting more time to the blog, a bunch of stuff happened to take the wind out of my sails, and then some other projects took over my time. I did manage to put out a fairly regular movie column over at the Bureau Chiefs site, and now I'm ready to get back to some regular blogging a few times a week, if there is still anyone out there who is interested. I'm also on sabbatical this semester to work on a comics research project, so some of my posts coming up will be related to that work.

One of my accomplishments over the summer was to read a huge chunk of Blackhawk comics. I would venture to say that I've read most of the Blackhawk stories ever printed, though my research is a bit spotty from about issue 130 to 180. So, with that under my belt,and my batteries recharged, I'm going to make an exciting return to one of my favorite features: Blackhawk Wingsdays!

But if I'm going to make a comeback to this feature, I want to do it in a big way. Therefore, I'm going to be presenting Blackhawk Wingsday live this weekend!

Actually, this weekend I'm presenting a paper at the Purdue University Comparative Literature Conference, Graphic Engagements: The Politics of Comics and Animation. My paper, titled "Retcon and Race: The Many Faces of Chop-Chop from 1941-Present" (though the program gives the subtitle as "The Changing History of Chop-Chop, 1940-Present," it has since changed, partially to get the starting date right), will be like a more academic version of a long Blackhawk Wingsdays post, complete with tons of images but a bit more literary theory than I tend to use on the blog. So, if you are attending the conference, or are in the West Lafayette, IN, area on Saturday morning, come check it out!

I just want to say that I love the fact that I have a job where I can go to a conference and present a paper on Chop-Chop and the Blackhawks. My teenage self would hi-5 me so hard right now.

But because I know that most readers of this blog won't get to see this presentation, I want to share some of the stuff I will be discussing, especially since some of it is really nuts.

One of the things I became aware of while doing my Blackhawk research is that I really, genuinely enjoy the post-war Blackhawk stories, especially those drawn by Reed Crandall. Most of these stories are straight-up anti-Communist propaganda, with the team fighting off Communist rebellions in both real and fictional nations. And with 3 stories per issue at the time, the Blackhawks would often quell three revolutions in three separate fictional countries.

But the series also became a pretty solid adventure strip in a Milton Caniff mode, aided largely by Reed Crandall's dynamic, realistic art. It's a shame that DC hasn't reprinted any of this material: the early stories in the single Archives volume only catch the very beginning of Crandall's work on the strip, and the Showcase volume reprints the early DC issues, where the team had become a group of bland and generic crime-fighters.

One Cold War story that stands out is "Red Ransom," from Blackhawk 55 (Aug. 1952):

First of all, that is one dynamic cover!

In this story, we get a rare glimpse into Chop-Chop's private life. The Blackhawks travel to the U.S. in order to eat at the restaurant owned by Chop-Chop's cousin, Wah Jung. While there, they learn that Wah Jung has a problem: the Red Chinese government has sent him an unpaid tax bill charged to his father, Wah Po, who remains in China, where he runs a kite factory. The Reds threaten to imprison Wah Po if the "tax bill" is not paid.

The Blackhawks agree to help Wah Jung, letting Chop-Chop know, "You're one of us, Chop-Chop! We Blackhawks have to lend each other a hand!" So, the team heads to China, and Chop-Chop goes undercover to help break his uncle out of prison.

Not only is this the rare plot that takes the Blackhawks to a real, rather than fictional, country, the story also has something interesting going on visually. Here's an early page from the story:

I find it curious how Crandall depicts Wah Jung in his normal, realistic style, while Chop-Chop remains a heavily caricatured figure. If anything, the contrast makes the caricature even more grotesque, as this cartoonish figure clearly doesn't belong with the rest of the strip, despite Blackhawk's assertion that Chop-Chop is "one of us."

And when Chop-Chop works undercover to infiltrate the prison, the Chinese soldiers seem to think he's some kind of imbecile:

This sort of contrast between realism and caricature in the depiction of Asian characters within the same story occurs frequently in Blackhawk stories of this era, especially as the team engages in East Asian conflicts. It would still be a few years, though, before Chop-Chop's appearance would change in order to reduce, but not eliminate, the caricatured elements.

"Red Ransom," however, is particularly sensitive despite it's overt anti-Communist propaganda. Once the Blackhawks free Wah Po, they learn about the existence of a nearby weapons factory. Wah Po can signal the team from the ground so the Blackhawks can launch an airstrike, but Chop-Chop's uncle must sacrifice himself in the process. The team flies away from the mission with tears in their eyes.

Unfortunately, that sensitivity is undermined by the awkward placement of the Chop-Chop solo story in this issue, where Chop-Chop inherits a worthless fortune from a dead relative, and hijinx ensue.

I've got plenty of material for future installments of Blackhawk Wingsdays, and my research has yielded some other stuff that I'll work into the blog as well. Before I go, though, I want to give a much belated thanks to Tom Katers for plugging this blog on his fabulous podcast, Tom vs. The Flash. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a blog to plug at the time, but I appreciate the shout-out, anyway.