Sunday, March 30, 2014

Over Easy

So, we'll end the audit of the Spring Break Bargain Box Bonanza on a high note: Sgt. Rock Special #1 from 1992.

That great Walt Simonson cover holds an old 80 pg. Giant's worth of all-new stories (although the Rock story itself was slated for publication years earlier but bumped and never seen until this issue.) All of them exemplify the best of the storytelling I had come to expect from DC war mags when I was reading them regularly.

There's a parallel story of a WW2 fighter pilot and young boy in an internment camp; a heartbreaking tale of WW1 trenches that is only lacking the "make War No More" circle at the end; one of Sam Glanzman's wonderful Tales of the USS Stevens; and even some extras, like pin-ups and unpublished covers. All solid material.

The Rock story is notable for two items. Unsurprisingly, it presents epic depictions of desperate combat:

But it also contains a relative rarity in Rock stories: a glamour girl, beautifully rendered by Joe Kubert:

You can tell the movie star's military escort is gonna be a weasel by his moustache.

Of course, the movie star's presence on the front lines screws things up, and Rock has to take action to save her life and that of his men, all of which leads to Rock infiltrating a German incursion in a scene that's about as gruesome as it gets:

Cold. Just... cold.

There's also a Gunner & Sarge story (with Pooch!) by Tim Truman that really isn't a Gunner & Sarge story. It begins in the "mid-1800's" with this scene of scalphunters and the U.S. Army:

And those appear to be historical avatars of our heroes watching from the sidelines.

The story then switches to WW2. Gunner and Sarge skirmish with a Japanese soldier held out on a small Pacific island six weeks after the allies have taken it. Their battle ends inconclusively and the marines find themselves lost. A couple of friendly natives lead them back to their base, as it seems they have business there as well...

Like I said, great story telling. If you see this comic in bargain bin, snap it up. It's worth it, even at cover price.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Time Tunnel

So, a buddy of mine mocks my silver-bronze sensibility: he is a comics fan from a later generation than mine, and he says that my sense of adventure and storytelling (to include my DMing) has been shaped by my earlier reading of sixties and seventies comics, with their frequent innocent goofiness and often clear visions of morality and ethics (which I think he considers somehow equivalent). He's right, of course. I like to think I can be a little more nuanced than that pigeonhole might suggest, but I will not deny that my affection for those comics in many ways did indeed shape my worldview.

The next two magazines in the Spring Break Bargain Box Bonanza are clearly aimed at an audience of folks like me. These are both One Shot comics again, but from 2011. Jimmy Olsen collects and adds to a series that originally appeared in the back of Action comics under the Big Week arc. The Superman magazine is part of the DC: Retroactive Series, a series of specials that each focus on a particular decade of the heroes adventures - in this case, the 1970s.

It should have been a slam-dunk for DC to make me happy with these, but unfortunately, that was not the case.

The Olsen series has all the elements that were supposed to make it appealing and nostalgic: genies, the signal watch, aliens, blue-dress Supergirl, the bow tie, the Flying Newsroom - and a couple of cameo appearances from the Big Guy. Still, it didn't add up, at least not for me. Maybe the creators were trying too hard, but the antics seemed a little forced. Maybe the conceit works better when Jimmy isn't so self-aware of the unlikeliness and absurdity of his life, when every adventure is wonderful and fantastic, even though that's hard for us jaded and sophisticated readers to swallow. Maybe modern references (like the one in the clip below) were just too incongruous and jarring. Maybe shoehorning in Chloe Sullivan from Smallville was the problem, or the art, which made everyone look the 21-years olds who play high-schoolers on TV. Whatever it was, it didn't give me that ol' zee-zee-zee.

The DC Retroactive series seems to have the evocation of pas eras as an even more intentional and deliberate goal. My understanding is that each issue tries to convey the mood and tone of its target decade; in this case, the seventies. Again, this story tries to touch all the bases: we have Kandor (and an appearance by Van-Zee); villains from the day, including the Atomic Skull and the Master Jailer; hot-pants Supergirl; Steve Lombard; and Superman flying Lois to the Fortress of Solitude.

What we don't have is a compelling story, just the usual magical shenanigans of Mxyzptlk, instigated by that hoariest of comic-book cliches: a bet between two trans-dimensional creatures. So, while the story did evoke some sense of the seventies - and much if that decade's output was good in many ways - it didn't capture the best of that era.

There was a bonus feature in the issue: a reprint of a story from 1978. The original publication of  "Superman Takes a Wife" marked the 40th anniversary of Action Comics, but the reproduction here so muddied Curt Swan's beautiful art than I couldn't even read it.

So does this mean that all attempts to capture the lightning, to recreate the joys of the past are doomed to failure? I don't think so. I think these two comics fit that bill (even though they are edging their way toward becoming antiques themselves), and I can think of a more recent example from DC Comics video.

The DC Showcase Original Shorts Collection released in 2010 contained episodes of Captain Marvel, Green Arrow, Jonah Hex -- and the Spectre. While all were of high quality, the Spectre episode was exceptional. It captured perfectly the creeptacular moodiness of Mike Fleishcer's mid-1970s run on the strip, during the period he and Jim Aparo turned the Spectre into a macabre and ruthless agent of retribution. At the same time, it evoked the aesthetic of that era's TV crime shows, for which Quinn Martin Productions set the standard. There were no missteps or false notes - it all worked perfectly, both on its own and as a trip down Nostalgia Alley.

So, it can be done. It just wasn't done in these comics.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Four war stories

So, the Spring Break Bargain Box Bonanza included a few more of those 2010 One Shot comics, and four of them were classic DC War titles: Our Army at War (featuring Sergeant Rock), Star-Spangled War Stories (featuring Mademoiselle Marie),  Our Fighting Forces (Featuring The Losers), and G.I. Combat (featuring The Haunted Tank).

I am going to declare a bias up-front here. Back when I was buying everything the Big Two shoveled out the door, that everything included all the war, horror, and western stuff as well as the superheroes, and these series were some of my favorites: they were consistently well crafted, had superior artwork, contained historical facts and technical information, and provided emotional insights as well as adventure and action. One of the reasons I liked these four One Shots so much is that they were close to pitch-perfect in capturing the sense and sensibility of those earlier stories. If that makes me a curmudgeon living the past, so be it, but these books are damn fine nonetheless.

Let's start with Mademoiselle Marie. (The old logo styled it "Mlle. Marie" and I spent some years calling her "Millie.") It was great to revisit an old friend and a character whose only rival as my first crush is Honey West. This story is pure Marie - it's a tiny bit James-Bond-ier than I remember, and certainly a little sexier, but the cat-and-mouse game of maquis vs Milice in occupied France is classic. Leafing back through it, I see that none of the scenes takes place in daylight - it's a moody, tight story of intrigue and betrayal.

Do not mess with the woman in the red beret.

The Haunted Tank and Losers stories both could easily have been lifted from my youth.

The Haunted Tank is such a wonderful concept: tank commander Jeb Stuart gets advice and supernatural help from the ghost of his namesake, the Civil War general. Or does he? The perfect HT tale leaves us wondering whether the ghost is just a figment of Jeb's imagination - does he actually get tactical assistance from the beyond, or is it just that, as his crew thinks, "he talks to himself for a bit and then he goes and does something totally loony"? This story of a stand-off in deserted town does not disappoint, and the meticulously rendered period scenes keep us firmly grounded in a sometimes brutal reality.

That little M3 tank has seen a lot.

The Losers series has the most recent pedigree: it took characters who had been appearing separately for some time - Navajo Ace Johnny Cloud, Capt. Storm, and Gunner and Sarge - and formed them into a special operations unit assigned to what would frequently wind up being suicide missions. But somehow the Losers persevere, through brotherhood and sheer willpower, and manage to survive - if not always completing the missions precisely as planned. This story captured that flavor precisely - the futility not only of battle, but of war itself, and the struggle to find honor in it somewhere, somehow.

 And of course Capt. Storm gets his wooden leg shot up.

The last of the four is the most incomplete success, but then it had the hardest act to follow and took the biggest risks. Sgt. Rock of Easy Company is DC's war comic icon - the paradigmatic reluctant warrior, stoic and heroic, protagonist of a thousand stories. This one uses the device of two overlapping stories - one set in WW2 and one in the contemporary Afghan War - that dovetail and diverge and converge again to tell the story of soldiers and the ones they left behind.

While ambitious, the story is less than completely successful for two reasons. First, the constant switching from Nazi-occupied Europe to the Middle East becomes a bit jarring. Perhaps it's just that the rhythm is off; to sustain such a conceit takes a deft touch, and the slightest bit off-balance can throw the whole thing awry. The parallel was compelling but needed a bit more to maintain it.

The major flaw in the story is just that there is no way to parallel Rock. He is such a bigger-than-life figure - even the characters in the story refer to him as a "god of war" - that his modern-day counterpart seems like a little kid playing soldiers. I couldn't find any information on "Capt. Duncan" - I thought he might have been from a newer series or something - but whoever he is, he is just a generic badass mercenary, a cardboard cut-out compared to Frank Rock. Without a touchstone like Rock to ground it, the moral weight of the present-day story has nothing to press against, and the story is the lesser for it. That said, it was still a lot better than 90% of the recent comics I have seen.

Make war no more.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Seven takes on seven tales

So, in 2010, just before the "Nu52" reboot, when DC still had its laundry-detergent logo, they apparently put out a bunch of what would have been called specials or annuals back in the day and branded them as "One Shot" comics. Most of what I grabbed during my Spring Break Bargain Bin Bonanza came from this group of comics.

The first is a Justice Society 80-page Giant offering "7 Tales of the JSA" - so here are seven responses to the comic.

1. Comics have lost the practice of providing recaps for new readers. I don't read mainstream superhero comics regularly, and although I have been familiar with the DC Universe for 45 years or more, I was still lost much of the time I was reading this. There were no thumbnail histories of the characters to introduce each story - heck, in some stories the character aren't even called by name. If you don't know who they are, you'll never learn from the comic.

I mean, I am pretty sure Jesse Quick is Johnny Quick's kid (with Liberty Belle?). But Wildcat has a son who can turn into a half-cat/half-human? And I might guess that Sand, who looks like an updated Sandman, is Sandy the Golden Boy all grown up - but I'd be guessing.

And as for this Cyclone person:

She's supposed to remind us of the Wizard of Oz, right? 

I have no idea who that is. Sheesh.

2. This One-Shot seems like a "very special episode" collection of JSA stories. Here's the run-down of stars and "villains":

Obsidian: No villain except in flashback; the talks about his struggles with abuse and alcoholism as he applies to adopt a child with his same-sex partner.

Jesse Quick: Helps a woman escape from her abusive husband.

Mr. Terrific: Intervenes in the life of the drunk driver who killed his wife and who abuses his own wife.

Stargirl and Cyclone: Help prevent a teen suicide.

Sand: Kills a cop who is beating a woman, possibly his own wife.

Wildcat: Fights a sorcerer and along the way resolves some relationship issues with his son (whose name I never got).

Dr. Fate: Goes to the afterlife to help a man who commits suicide after his wife dies of cancer.

That the stories are used to comment on social issues and concerns is not in itself striking to me; that this focus is never mentioned anywhere in the magazine is.

3. Art sure is a matter of taste. This magazine had some stuff that I really dug, and some that just did not work for me. Here's some cool stuff:

I love how the reader's eye is lead along the speed lines in this sequence.

But taste aside, the art changes could be a bit jarring. Many of the stories began with no splash page or title panel, and they all began on the right-hand side of the spine, so it often seemed for a moment as if the one story was continuing, but with some weird change in the visuals.

4. Speaking of art: I really must be out of touch: most of the artists (and writers, for that matter) were unfamiliar names to me, and everybody reminded me of someone else.

5. This 80-page Giant had 70 pages of JSA stuff, a five-page Superman*Earth One preview, and a text page, for 76 pages total counting all that. To get to 80, you have to count the four pages of ads. But I just checked the 80-page JLA #48 from 1966 and they counted ad pages and the letter column in that, too, so I guess that's not new.

6. To account just for inflation, that 25-cent issue of JLA from 1966 should have cost $1.68 in 2010. The cover price was $5.99. I got it for a buck, so I guess I made out.

7. Overall: I'll give this a solid six out of seven.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Break Bargain Box Bonanza

Hey, kids! Comics!

So, it's Spring Break in my little corner of higher ed, and that means time to play. While I was out and about enjoying the first of my free days, I stopped by one of the comic shops in my area and found some goodies in the bargain box (what used to be called the quarter bin and is now functionally the dollar bin). Here's the haul:

Graphic Novels!

I'll get to those comics in detail as the week progresses, but I wanted to start with something from the bargain "graphic novel" box. (I think the term was actually used to designate "comics with perfect binding.") I grabbed this collection for cheap:

I had remembered running across a comic strip set in a D&D game; the characters in the strip interacted at the gaming table and as their characters within the game adventure as well, bouncing from reality to roleplay and back. I thought it was amusing and at least somewhat clever, so I picked up this TPB of Knights of the Dinner Table.

I don't know what strip I was thinking of, but this is definitely not it.

I'm not including any scans of the content because, frankly, I like you too much and this hurt to read. It's not just that the interior art is amateurish or even bad (although it kinda is both); it's not even that there's really no graphic storytelling going on (although the images are rarely used to carry any of the narrative or emotion); it's not at all that the depiction of the tabletop roleplaying game experience is inaccurate (it's pretty good, as a matter of fact). It's that all the characters are so throughly unlikeable - by turns mean, petty, and foolish - that wading through this collection of strips made me feel like I was gaming with odious, unpleasant people that I did not like. Furthering the foulness, the conceit of the strip rests heavily on the game master vs. players trope, a dynamic that flies in the face of the collaborative spirit my gaming cronies and I bring to the table.

I must be in the minority here: apparently, Kenzer & Company, the producers of the strip and books, are going great guns, generating card, board, and tabletop games (including an RPG based on the imaginary game from the strip) as well. Business seems to be thriving. Good on 'em, but I can't understand why. If this sample collection is any indication, I wouldn't want to spend any more time in this world than I had to.

Bonus pick-me-up: this is still a thing!

Yes,  Transcontinental Interglobe of Beauceville, Quebec is still printing newsprint copies of Comic Shop News for Cliff and Ward out of Marietta, Georgia and delivering them to comics shops. The best buy in comics (free!) is still available. Check out their first issue from 1987.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wonder Wife Wednesday: Maximum Minis

So, here's a thing that happened: watch Wonder Wife go through eleven boxes of Pathfinder figures and one bottle of Trader Joe's beer.