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Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

They’re not just for superheroes anymore! (but they certainly are still for them!)

Comics are a highly undervalued art form. Even the simplest well-done comics is a complex blend of media. Yet they communicate simply and effectively. On the web, in trades, or in the monthlies, histories, slice-of-life, comedy, or, yes, superheroes. I garner a great deal of enjoyment from comics. So I generally have something to say about it.

In addition, I also have been known to try my hand at making them.

My Graphic Novel Recommendations, part 1 of ?

I have often thought of what I think are the best graphic novels — the books I would recommend to people who are starting to read comics. Sometimes this is because I have been asked, or the conversation is about it anyway. Sometimes this is just because I’m a gigantic nerd.

Either way, I thought it about time I set up a list with basic descriptions I can refer people to. So without further ado…

Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics is an explanation of how comics function mechanically and how to interpret the artistic conventions often used in comics. It is, of course, in comic format. It moves through the history of comics, definitions of the term “comic” and “graphic novels” (not as simple a task as you think), the expression of time’s passage, simultaneity, and many of the other ideosyncracies that make comics a unique artistic medium.

I know this hardly sounds like an exciting work in the world of “zap!” “pow!” and “bang!” but it turns out to be a fascinating read. Some of the bits will make you go “huh, I never thought of that!” Others will make you think “I knew that, but I didn’t know that.” All in all, it lends depth to the medium that will make you appreciate it that much more.

Kingdom Come

This is actually the first graphic novel I think of, every time. I moved it down because it seemed so apropos to have Understanding Comics come first. The sequence in which the recommendations appear has very little, if anything, to do with their quality.

Feeling that the world no longer strives for the ideals he stands for, Superman has been in self-imposed exile for ten years. In his absence, super “heroes” are out of control: their violence and disregard for life often surpasses that of the villains they fight. Desperate to make things right, Wonder Woman convinces Kal-El to return and lead his peers as he once did. Not everyone is happy about this, however, and the strife between various anti-metahuman forces, villains, and Superman’s peers seems prepared to hit apocalyptic proportions.

There really isn’t anything that can stop Superman. Good writers of Superman stories know this. You basically have two approaches, outright murder him with kryptonite, or you write a story about revealing character through choices. Waid takes the latter road (even going so far as the close the first road by having Lex Luthor point out that after so long on Earth, even a kryptonite bomb wouldn’t be enough to stop Superman anymore). What’s on trial in Kingdom Come isn’t whether Superman can beat the foe (though with a surprise twist, a test of his physical power comes as well), but whether staying true to his values can save himself or others, or whether his self-righteousness will destroy society.

All the characters of the DC Universe are here (even the Wonder Twins, it turns out). And there are loads of Easter eggs and detailed nuance, both in writing and art, on every page. Any given panel is a joy to look at, thanks to Ross’s artistic mastery. But despite all the geeky fan service, there’s a tight story here that can be enjoyed by even those with a passing familiarity with the big players of the DCU. In my opinion, this is the greatest Superman story ever told.

Grasscutter (Usagi Yojimbo, Vol. 12)

Usagi Yojimbo is a historical fantasy series set in the Edo period of Japan’s history and draws on Japanese myth and legend to complete it. The primary character is a ronin – masterless samurai.

And he’s a rabbit.

All the characters are represented as animals, and it’s not really a metaphor or anything like that. Though the fact that one particular manipulative character is presented as a snake is perhaps not entirely coincidental.

Grasscutter is Sakai’s triumph, a masterful story, and the way he tells it is entirely self-contained – there’s no need for familiarity with Usagi’s previous adventures. The story surrounds the discovery of an ancient sword that can make or break the shogunate, the struggles to take control of it, and what Usagi must do to prevent all out civil war.

A great many of the Usagi Yojimbo stories are very good. It’s more than worth it to read any of the collected stories, but Grasscutter is a cut above even Sakai’s other excellent work.

Maus, Volumes I & II

Maus is the biography of Spiegelman’s father, a Jewish World War II survivor, framed by the story of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father.

Spiegelman uses animals to represent the characters, but that doesn’t make this powerful story cartoonish or childish in anyway. It actually serves as a powerful way to illustrate race relations. Jews are represented as mice. Germans are cats. Americans are dogs, and so on.

While anthropomorphism in Sakai’s work is an aethetic style choice, Spiegelman’s animals remind us of our visciousness and how little above animals we actually are. And while McCloud can explain comics, Spiegelman puts those principles into raw practice.

Maus is worth reading as a telling of history, as an exploration of human relations, and as a showcase of effective storytelling using the comics medium. It transcends all of these, forming a solid work of art and literature.


I hesitate to put two books by the same creator on the same segment of the same list, but Ross is just that good. Plus I’m going to do it again with Will Eisner in a later edition. Maybe I should have split them, but I thought since I threw DC comics a place in the first part of this series, I’d better look even handed and put a Marvel Comics book here as well.

Not that I chose Marvels solely to balance publications by The Big Two. Marvels stands on it’s own.

The book tells the history of the Marvel universe, starting with the first appearance of superheroes with the original Human Torch, The Submariner, and Captain America, and hitting all the biggest stories that shaped what is iconic about Marvel superheroes.

Through the eyes of Daily Bugle photographer Phil Sheldon we see the world shaped by the rise of superheroes, the formation of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, and Spider-Man — as well as the biggest, most emotional stories that happened to these characters.

The real brilliance was chosing a normal person to be the viewpoint. In most comics there’s simply the feeling of triumph as heroes win the day. Making Sheldon the narrator let’s us see the fallout. And yes, there’s hero worship, but there’s also acknowledgement of the uncertainty of people who feel they might not be in charge of their own destiny. There’s more reason to mourn at death and more reason to celebrate victory.

Marvels is a primer on the big events of Marvel Comics history, true. But it’s also a great story that gives additional meaning to those events.


In The Android’s Dream There is a minor but important character, named Sam, who’s gender is never identified. There are several readers, myself included, who were under the impression that there is a single passage where the masculine pronoun is used to refer to Sam. Since Sam is in a relationship with a less minor character named Harry McClellan (who is clearly identified as male), Sam’s gender could mean something about Harry. Is Harry gay?

In the end it doesn’t matter. Dream‘s author, John Scalzi, realized this and after writing an entire scene without once identifying Sam’s gender, he stopped and thought, “‘Hmmm, that’s interesting, I wonder what sex Sam is,’ and then I thought ‘Hey, I wonder if I can pull off not saying what sex Sam is all the way through the book’.” (This is all according to Scalzi’s blog, I’m not making his reactions up).

I bring this up because of the last thing Scalzi writes in that blog entry: “And then, when you’ve settled the question of ‘What Sex is Sam Berlant?’ to your personal satisfaction, you can ask yourself another question about The Android’s Dream: What color is its hero, Harry Creek?”

Good question. He never describes it. Yet no one even talks about it until Scalzi points it out to you.

Because his skin color is irrelevant.

There’s not issues of racism within the human species. There’s no cultural information important to character or plot or setting. It’s a non-issue.

So we come to what’s brought this up. There’s a lot of complaints going around the Internet (and by “around the Internet” i mean “my friends on Twitter” — I’m too insular to look further than that) about the “white-washing” (ie, the portrayal of characters of varying ethnicities with white actors) of The Last Airbender.

I’ve never watched Avatar, cartoon or movie. So I don’t know how egregious a crime this is.

I will say this. I assume, most of the time, that a character in an anime is Japanese until I’m given reason otherwise. They aren’t big on accurate portrayal of racial characteristics. Ichigo Kurosaki from Bleach has orange hair. It’s not just a visual convention, they refer to the color in dialog in the anime. But he’s clearly Japanese. So when someone wants to make a character with big eyes and blue hair, and someone adapts it for the screen and chooses a white actor. Are they really doing much to change the work?

I argue no, with certain obvious exceptions. If the ethnicity of the character comes into play, as a character driving factor, or an element of the plot, or a flavor for the setting. You are making changes to the main work just by changing the skin color of the actor you use, whether you are doing it on purpose or not.

But such is not the case every time it happens. Shakespeare is performed constantly with different colored actors in various roles. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. If you get a white guy to play Othello, on the other hand, you’ve got a play that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

My favorite case in point is Ursula LeGuin. She complained noisily when Sci-Fi made a movie of Wizard of Earthsea using a white actor in the lead role. In the Earthsea books, it’s a stated fact that most of the characters have dark skin. LeGuin takes umbrage and claims they make thematic changes to the story by this decision.

But she’s wrong.

Yes, she describes her characters with dark skin. But that’s where it ends. It’s a standard fantasy setting, plus islands. It has no overtones of Polynesian culture or plot. It has no themes of any other race either. In fact, they build castles, which is not something islanders I’ve heard of have ever done. Sure, there were fortresses built in the Caribbean, but they were built by white Europeans.

So what, exactly, is the damage done if a producer chooses a white actor to play Ged?

None, really.

So let me break it down. Am I claiming that “white washing” is a non issue? No. Far from it. The term itself bothers me on many levels for the implications it has. White Washing is especially bad when it is used to eliminate cultural information to make it more marketable. If you’re saying that about a producer, you should be careful. Accusing someone of intentional racism is a serious charge.

But is every time they change a skin color a case of rewriting a work and participating in the suppression of minorities? I don’t think so.

Why it’s possible that some of what I like may be utter crap

So today I got pointed over to Philip Athans’s blog and his brand new willingness to try a romance novel because he recently had the (mis)fortune to accidentally listen to an Andy Gibb song.

On the surface, one would assume that Mr. Athans either suffered a head injury or else the hearing of the succulent voice of Andy Gibb either traumatized his mind or turned him gay. Or possibly both.

But I appreciate Philip’s position (did you see that unprofessional way I switched to his first name? It’s as if I decided, most suddenly, that I wanted to use it instead of something more formal… because that is The Way. I. Roll.)

Now, I should clarify. I don’t know any Andy Gibb songs and I have no desire to learn them. I also still hate Abba and the Bee Gees (“it’s those blasted Bee Gees!”). My wife doesn’t share my opinion. Neither does her family. I have to hide in solitary when we go to family gatherings for fear of being forced into a “Dancing Queen” sing along.

But let me back up. Since Philip used music to introduce it, I’ll use music too.

In seventh grade.. ish… I listened to Top 40 music. I really hadn’t been introduced to anything. Kiss 98 was what played at the swimming pool in the summers when I lived in Nebraska, so I knew Sting singing “Free, Free, set them free” and Tears for Fears singing “Everybody wants to rule the world.” So when we moved I naturally found the top 40 stations. By 9th grade my favorite albums (on tape) were Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla, Heart (the one with “These Dreams”, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts Up Your Alley, and Cutting Crew’s Broadcast. Though close follow ups were Huey Lewis and the News Sports and the soundtrack for Ghostbusters. Thing is I knew I liked guitar, but, I had no idea what real guitar sounded like. I had an inkling of good bands, but with the possible exception of Joan Jett, none of those are close to the artists’ finest moments (well, maybe Huey is an exception too, but that’s a completely different story). And really, there were better bands out there. Especially with Starship. I mean, technically it was almost the same band that had played at Woodstock. WOODSTOCK. Grace Slick had once told us to “go ask Alice,” a song that resonates through all kinds of different layers socially and musically, and in the one I liked, the lyrics went

Knee deep in the hoopla
Sinking in your face

I mean… what?

(Not that I hate that song, but let’s move on before we talk about why I wasn’t wrong here).

I happened to be a loser. Not quite a nerd, then I would have had science club or AV club friends or something. but more of a Dork. I had… one (ONE. 1. Uno. Einz. 01.) friend in seventh grade. Aaron had been heavily influenced by his almost pothead brothers. He liked metal. Led Zeppelin was the best any music could ever aspire too. Randy Rhodes was brilliant.

I never got fully into his music, though now I’d dig on it a lot more. But he opened my world. By the time I was in tenth grade, I was listening to classic rock and everything else SUCKED.

I have a debt to Aaron for opening the door to music. I never would have found the best of hte best of the best, 99% of the music I adore now, if it hadn’t been for him. Of course, he also stunted me. The classic rock or die thing was his fault too. So I really missed out on some awesome music while it was on the air waves. But still.

Gradually, I learned a bit of other stuff. I made fun of people who like Morrissey, and even though I went through a metal phase (I bought the soundtrack to Shocker… which was a disservice, featuring as it did a lame cover of an Alice Cooper song), I was peer pressured into destroying my tape of Run DMC’s Raisin’ Hell (though I have managed to recover that on LP, a treasured possession now), I disavowed several other things I loved, and I alienated people that could have helped.

In 1990, however, the world fell in love again. We were marching hand in hand (though we didn’t know why), and a brand new record came out. They Might Be Giants brand new album Flood. This album is a work of pure genius. I heard that The Band’s (The Band, not the band They Might Be Giants) Music from Big Pink changed lives. Well, Flood changed mine.

Suddenly, music didn’t have to be 20 years old to be any good. (In truth, I had adapted that rule. I couldn’t like Clapton’s Journeyman otherwise. But it was something like, 20 years old, or by someone who was recording 20 years ago — still lame. It took me years before I finally bought my own copy of Kill Uncle, an album I still adore.

Over the years, my taste has only expanded. I still don’t like country or most gangsta rap (but it most assuredly is all about the Benjamins). But Johnny Cash and the Fat Boys are in my regular rotation. There probably isn’t a genre of western music that isn’t on my iPod. There are some eastern music too, but I have less exposure to that, so I don’t have as much. I can consider a song on its own terms now, instead of assuming that I know what it’s about just because of what radio station it’s on.

A lot of people think they’re open minded because they listen to both country and Top 40. That’s not what I’m talking about. Let me emphasize to you. I will listen to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” followed by P.O.D. doing “Lights Out,” which will then transition to Dynamite Hack’s hilarious early-20th century-esque cover of “Boyz in the Hood.” Followed by MC 900 Foot Jesus doing “The City Sleeps,” Bela Fleck doing “How Can you Face Me Now,” a performance of Holst’s planets, and finish the short burst out with The Ramones. (Oh yes, Joey, I do remember rock’n’roll radio). And yes, I put kids songs in the playlist too.

Thing is… I’m still a snob about it. There is music I hear and then simply Will. Not. Touch. of my own accord ever. And people who like those songs are often as not morons in my head. But I have, at least stopped telling people that. To their faces. Very often.

A similar thing happened to me with movies.

I was into movies, but I was very careful about my reasons for watching a movie. Story was highest on my list. Solid story, then well-acted performances. If I couldn’t justify it, it was kind of a shameful viewing.

Then I realized… it’s OK to watch a movie because it was eye candy. Great special effects, beautiful cinematography, or even just great explosions. Then there came other reasons – Jackie Chan flipping around was suddenly appealing.

These days I enjoy what I call “bad cinema.” A Godzilla movie holds a lot of appeal for me. Not any movie will work, though. A movie has to be trying, at least. Or at least have one great idea. A lot of dumb comedies try to hard to be in your face and absurd. Juvenile. But I like 80s teen movies — John Hughes never talked down to me; he always seemed to know what he was talking about. His characters, even if they could only be properly described as losers, never seemed like a waste of space.

So that brings us back to music. I will listen to Lady Gaga and Cyndi Lauper. I can put them on a playlist with Bob Dylan and Joe Satriani. Because I listen to each of those for a different reason. Not every song hits me, but if it does, I’ll listen to it more than once.

It’s the same with books, really. Comics, for example. Sturgeon’s law applies. Most of it is horrible, but even a lot of that is still fun to read. And what’s wrong with reading for fun? I have a guilty pleasure I like to indulge — reading Shoujo Manga (Japanese made comics targeted toward a female audience). I love Azamanga Daioh and Gina Biggs is a wonderful writer.

So, yeah, I’m not ready to seriously investigate the romance genre at this time (which, going back to the begining, was Philip’s reason for mentioning Andy Gibb). I reckon, however, it has something it could teach me about writing. There’s a reason romance is so successful. And it’s not because it’s horrible. Horrible it may be, but there’s something there that appeals to people.

Whence Cometh the Mouser

Ok, so I didn’t really meet him. But today, while I walked into work, i saw this guy who was the spitting image of Baxter Stockman as he appeared in the first early issues of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book. (more…)

The Value of Supergirl

My collection of Supergirl comic books is worth around $400.

I fear what this will do to me.

I have a number of items that I’ve collected over the years that are worth some money. For starters, I have some CLASSIC (meaning old) 45s from the 40s and 50s (I defy you to make smooth sounding sentence with that many numbers used as nouns) featuring Les Paul, Louis Armstrong, and others that are still in great shape. Haven’t checked their value, but to me, that was the whole point. They’re sure to be worth something to collectors (more if I had some Elvis in there, which I had within my grasp and lost) and while I am a half-hearted collector, I looked at them as less of a physical artifact and more as a collection of great music. I.e., I (brace yourself if you’re a hard core collector of anything, because this is shocking) listened to them. More than once. Satchmo can blow. Les can shred. Those are great tunes.

See, that was how I approached old things. I open my action figures and set them up in battle scenes on my desk (I’m infamous at the office; every time I bring in a new one I’m asked repeatedly where I’ll find room – oh, there’s room all right…). If I can ever develop a plan to get my old Kenner Star Wars action figures back from my cousin (my mom gave them to him, supposedly with my permission) I’d play with those too.

I read my old comics. I listen to old records. I drink from the crystal and eat off the china whenever I have an excuse to do so (such as I wanted to and I can make it look romantic so my wife does not object).

Things are too be used. For example, why would anyone make a stained glass window if we were not to look at it? Maybe that’s a bad example, since you don’t generally handle a stained glass window to gaze upon it. But you do a book. What value is a book if it is not read?

To give a better example, I was recently in Ireland and looked at the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is an extremely old hand-written, illuminated copy of the four gospels. But it’s still used. True, it’s extremely limited. The closest I got was from the other side of a few inches of glass. But researches and historians still look at it. Because it’s not worth anything just sitting there in the dark.

If I wanted something I could just look at, I’d buy a poster. In fact, I have. Supergirl is one of them, as a matter of fact (she’s right over the X-Men figures and earns a lot of ridicule from my co-workers and boss). I probably wouldn’t buy a statue, because that would just tempt me to explore it. It’s also possible I’d do the same with a painting, feeling the textures and the brush strokes. Not sure I’d do that, but I’m sure I’d be tempted.

After all, they’re just things.

But now I’ve had how much those things are worth quantified for me. The closest I came to that before was either when a dorm-mate offered to buy my “War” era U2 import singles or when I managed to sell a copy of one of the Robin issues from the Cataclysm story line to a local comic shop for more than cover value because I’d gotten it from another state (and extra copies, my local store had failed to get it).

But when I saw the price! I was impressed. Suddenly I was loathe to let anyone else read my Supergirl comics. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great story. It’s worth reading. Fortunately, even if this revelation corrupts my perception of what “things” are worth and to be used for, the first nine issues (the best ones) are collected in a graphic novel format.

It may seem a silly problem. After all, most of you are screaming in horror at the fact that I’m abusing these items and casting my financial future into ruin.

But see, it’s a philosophical problem. So long as I didn’t know the value, even if I had a suspicion of what it was worth, I could keep my nonconformist stance that said things were to be used, not stored for their potential future value. I kept them in shape, because it’s easier to enjoy a record if it’s not scratched and easier to read a book that’s not torn up.

But now I have this sudden fear of ruining my items. I’m too careful. Am I going to continue to enjoy them? I don’t know. But I hope too. I look at this as a temptation to corrupt my quasi-virtuous stance of enjoying the world around me instead of placing monetary value on it. Really when it comes down to it, this is a religious issue. Do I enjoy the manufacturing/artistic/craftsmanship capabilities that we’ve been given by God? Or do I reduce it to a line of $ and ¢.

And ultimately, it’s a deeper question. Does reducing artifacts to monetary worth dehumanize me? What will archeologists in 2000 years say about us? Will the judge us too materialistic? It strikes me that modern archeologists are grateful for any preserved artifact they can find. But it also strikes me that they’d find perfectly preserved artifacts that were never used extremely curious. After all, what is the true value of an artifact that was never culturally significant?