Monday, April 25, 2016

Magazines: Comic Book Creator #11: The Invention of Gil Kane

Gil and the Sliver-Age Atom
Eli Kacz was born in 1926 to Jewish parents in a ghetto in Latvia. In 1930, some relatives vouched for the Kacz’s and they were lucky enough to immigrate to America. They wound up in New York, of course. Captivated by the pulp, movie serial and comic book heroes, Eli grew up to become one of the most famous and influential comic book artists in America, Gil Kane.

Growing up a massive comic book fan, as soon as I was old enough to distinguish artists, I could identify and love the work of Gil Kane. Known primarily as a cover artist when I first got into comics, no one could draw action like Kane. With his ballet-dancer characters, fluid movement and upside down haymaker shots, Kane made his indelible mark on every kind of American comic imaginable. He drew Westerns (Gil was constantly in demand for the way he could draw horses), sci-fi, humor and his greatest achievement (to me, perhaps not him) was his superhero work. His long stint on Green Lantern was mentioned in his obituary. He also spent rare long runs on both Conan and Spider-Man (Kane is my second favorite Spider-Man artist, right after John Romita but before Steve Ditko).

No one draws GL like Gil
Kane reinvented himself from Jewish boy from a poor background to a sophisticated, urbane illustrator and mentor. He even had his nose fixed at the urging of his first wife. He constantly tried to break away from being a “comic book artist” to a self-employed creator doing creator-owned work. Alas, he was a few decades before his time and the market wasn’t quite ready for him. But the market’s loss is the superhero fan’s gain. He worked right up until his death in December of 2000, when he had to go to the hospital in the middle of working on an assignment in his studio. He’ll always be remembered as a pioneer in comics and one of the best comic book artists of all time.

The very controversial death of Gwen Stacy
Comic Book Creator #11 has some other great articles, including a wonderful tribute to the recently passed Herb Trimpe. But I loved reading about the life and career of my hero Gil Kane. The magazine tells the above story, speaks to his family, friends and fellow artists, and is jam-packed with Kane art from every era, some of it rarely seen. His dynamic and inspirational work will never be forgotten.

Gil's creator-owned magazine for adults

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Movies: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (*SPOILERS*)

I liked this movie more than I thought I would—not that I was optimistic to begin with. But that’s about it. DC has ruled animation and television for years, but they can’t compare to Marvel with their feature films. When one takes all joy, fun, humor and inspiration out of a film script, what one has left is a DC movie.

One of the main problems at DC is co-screenwriter David Goyer. Goyer has proven to dislike comic book fans, Americans and fun in general. Why put a person like that in charge of your live-action universe? Goyer’s scripts drip with gloom, misery and contempt for life. That’s his talent, and he does it well.

BvS: DoJ features a decent enough story, but the way it is told could have been so much more hopeful and uplifting. In the movie, Bruce Wayne comes to Metropolis (which is right across the Bay from Gotham City—weird) to kill Superman, in retaliation for Zod’s destruction of that city (which Superman tried his best to prevent). Lex Luthor is also trying to kill Superman by any means necessary. Batman and Superman battle, then team up with Xena Warrior Princess to fight Luthor’s creation Doomsday.

There are so many problems and failed opportunities with this movie. Why is Batman 70 years old? That makes no sense. Why is he trying to kill Superman for something he was trying to help with? Usually Batman, ostensibly a detective, detects stuff before acting. Why is Batman trying to kill Superman at all? Batman doesn’t use guns or kill people, but he does both with gleeful abandon in BvS. Why do Batman and Superman team up with Xena Warrior Princess? Wouldn’t Wonder Woman have been a better choice?

Everything—and I mean everything—about this movie is dark and depressing. Batman looks one step away from suicide in every scene. Superman and his mother are brutalized endlessly. Throughout history, Superman is a bright, inspirational character in a bright, inspirational world. Not so here. There is not one scene in BvS that takes place in sunshine. None. The sun only appears once, in space, surrounded by dark. Everything about the color palette in this film is relentlessly murky, dusty and brown. Ugh. Did the creators not notice this was a superhero movie?

The casting is a mixed bag. Henry Cavill is a good choice for Superman, and does an acceptable job with what he is given. Ben Affleck, probably my least favorite actor—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—actually does a decent job as Batman. Affleck has very little natural acting talent (and thank god they used a stuntman for the fight scenes), but as long as he doesn’t have to emote a lot he gets by admirably on being tall and good looking. Since all he did was look suicidal and grunt, he wasn’t as an offensive choice as I thought he’d be. Plus, they’re getting closer to an acceptable Batman costume with each new film, and with longer ears, this one will almost do. Amy Adams is a monster talent way too good for this movie, but she should have had dark or black hair. Sorry, Lois Lane is not a redhead and never has been. That doesn’t work. Jesse Eisenberg is the odd man out here, with one of the worst performances in movie history. He’s really awful as the manic and twitching Lex Luthor.

The rest of the upcoming Justice League stars appear in brief cameos in the film, proving that DC continues to eschew their own source material and has a major problem with blonde hair.

While the first two acts of BvS are truly terrible, the final act is better. Seeing the heroes fighting together in the total blackness is somewhat fun, although Goyer isn’t happy writing a Superman movie until Superman kills someone. The ending leaves things open for a Justice League movie and a Ben Affleck Batman solo movie, neither of which I have any interest in supporting or seeing. An ounce of color or positivity would help, but that’s as about as likely as Superman going back to wearing his underpants on the outside. Not very.

Rating: **½ stars out of 5 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Writer Interview: Tony Isabella

Tony Isabella
Tony Isabella is one of the most interesting comic book writers of the 1970s. He made his indelible mark on Marvel and DC as writer of such books as Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Power Man and Black Lightning. Looking back, Isabella’s work tends to stand out from the thousands of stories written in the last 40 years. While the costumes and slang of comics written in the ‘70s may be a bit dated, the themes and issues of his classic tales are not.

I spoke to Tony recently about aspects of his work on the just-released Marvel Masterworks: The Champions. This handsome hardcover compilation collects the entire Champions 17-issue series, as well as other books of the time in which the group guest-starred. The book is topped off with one of my favorite Marvel Annuals of all time, Hulk Annual #7, guesting Angel and the Iceman with Hulk against the Sentinal Master Mold. Taking place in Los Angeles, The Champions featured an odd assortment of heroes who ended up working well together: Angel, Iceman, the Black Widow, Hercules and Ghost Rider.

Isabella wrote the first seven issues of The Champions, then left for greener pastures as he explains below. The rest of the series, and most of the other reprinted stories, were written by the great Bill Mantlo.

Regarding Marvel Masterworks: The Champions:

Jerry Smith: In hindsight, do you wish you would have written about your original concept; the Angel and Iceman touring America, helping those in need? Or are you happy with the resulting book, based on the suggestions of editor Len Wein?

Tony Isabella: I would have preferred to have done my original concept and that remains my position to this day. While I wasn’t thrilled with the editorially-mandated expanded team, I was excited by the sheer challenge of making something out of these directives. I think that I did some good work on the series, though I remain disappointed by my failure to utilize my “heroes for the common man” concept. But, whatever the flaws or successes of what I did in the series, I am enormously gratified by the regard readers have for the Champions. I must have done something right.

JS: In issue #2, the “rulers of the dead” who make a deal with Hades are portrayed, including Mephisto and a standard Christian depiction of Satan. Marvel would never do that now. Was there ever any pushback from anyone due to depicting Satan himself in a comic story, or having Ghost Rider gain his powers from a literal deal with the devil?

TI: I’m sure there was some small bit of pushback when Son of Satan was introduced because of “Satan” being part of the title and all, but Ghost Rider was just the latest in a fairly long history of stories about humans making deals with the devil and finding out the Devil doesn’t play fair.

I never experienced any pushback on my work. When I introduced “the Friend” into Ghost Rider, I got favorable responses from ministers and other people of faith. It wasn’t until Jim Shooter changed my ending for that story that I received any negatives. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to disappointed fans that Lurch Boy fucked with my story.

JS: Forgive the fanboy question, but in the early issues the Angel’s costume is god-awful. Did you mind it or ever try to get it changed? [In issue #8 the costume is shredded and replaced by a more attractive modern version.]

TI: Yeah, that was a bad-looking costume. My only defense—and it’s a lousy one—is I was so busy trying to launch the Champions and the Black Goliath and Tigra books that I never gave a thought to that costume. We probably just went with whatever costume he’d been wearing in his most recent appearance.

JS: In issue #5, a bystander in the story makes the statement, “Between L.A.’s smog and the Republicans, we’re all gonna flip out before long.” Today Marvel storylines are full of politics and political statements, but in the 1970s it was somewhat unusual. Did you get any pushback on that panel’s dialog from your editor or readers?

TI: I had political and social elements in my stories from the start. I had come to Marvel after three years working at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Before that, I was a minor volunteer for the first city council campaign of a young man named Dennis Kucinich. You might have heard of him.

Today, I would probably be attacked on Fox News, but, back then, I never received any blowback from the readers. However, when I wrote an issue of Power Man mocking planned communities, I did receive a phone call from the company whose commercials I had parodied in my story. They invited me to visit their community. I declined because I wasn’t sure I’d be coming back from that visit.

JS: Funny! If I may ask, why did you end up leaving the book after issue #7? In your introduction you mentioned “challenges at other publishers” were the reason for your departure.

TI: I hadn’t been happy at Marvel since Roy Thomas resigned as Editor-in-Chief. I found the company chaotic and frustrating, but didn’t have any options. Until I did.

Gerry Conway
Gerry Conway was Editor-in-Chief and offered me a contract to write 100 pages a month for Marvel, which was more than I wanted to do. At the same time, DC made me an offer to write and edit for them. Marvel wasn’t going to get any less chaotic and moving to DC struck me as an interesting challenge. I accepted the DC offer, but asked them to hold off announcing it until I could tell Gerry.

I let Gerry talk first. It turns out he didn’t have the 100 pages he promised me because he was bound to existing contracts with some other writers. He couldn’t even keep me on my current assignments. So he fired me before I could quit, thanking me for not making it any tougher for him.

I wasn’t concerned. I had accepted the DC offer. However, trying to do me a good turn, Gerry called DC to tell them I had been let go and recommending they hire me. In the fifteen minutes it took for me to walk from Marvel to DC, the original offer went away like the morning dew. It was a bad start to my time with DC, but that is a story that may yet have a happy ending.

JS: How close did you consult with Bill Mantlo on an intended direction for the book when you left? Did you care for the direction he took the storylines?

TI: I never consulted with Bill at all. In fact, some elements of my last issue were changed from what I had plotted and scripted. I didn’t learn about that until I saw the published issue.

JS: Are you surprised by the Marvel movie popularity of the Black Widow, a character whose backstory you expanded—not to mention making her leader of the Champions?

TI: I’m not surprised. The Black Widow’s solo series in Amazing Adventures showed me what a great character she was. When I wrote her out of Daredevil, it was because I felt the partnership wasn’t good for either of them. It made them weaker characters. So, when I was faced with adding a woman to my original Champions concept, she was my immediate choice. I knew from the start she’d become the team leader.

JS: I had never read these classic stories, but I really enjoyed them and would have liked to read more about the team. Why do you think the Champions broke up and the book only lasted 17 issues?

TI: I think the Champions never came together as I would have liked, despite some strong work by Bill Mantlo. It was a shaky time for the comics industry and lots of good books were cancelled.

People have asked if I’d like to write the Champions again. That’s not likely, but, if I did, I think I would come up with a team even stranger than the one I had. Just for the challenge.

Special thanks to Tony Isabella for taking his time to answer these questions. If you would like to follow Tony’s work online, check out his blog Tony Isabella's Bloggy Thing.

About Tony Isabella (from his blog): Tony Isabella is a four-decade veteran of the comic book industry. He is married to the lovely Barb and they have two great kids, Eddie and Kelly, both graduates of Ohio State University. 

To order a copy of Marvel Masterworks: The Champions from Amazon, just click here.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Comics Capsule Reviews

Lords of the Jungle #1 – This Jungle Lord mashup teams Will Eisner’s Jungle Queen Sheena with Tarzan of the Apes (one of my favorite pulpy literary characters). Writer Corinna Bechko twists continuity a little too hard—Sheena goes through some kind of time warp in the present to team with Tarzan in the past—who really cares how they team up? Why don’t they just exist at the same time? Tarzan doesn’t appear until the last page, the creators could have skipped a whole issue worth of setup and started the story a lot earlier. That said, it’s fun to see Sheena take on a whole crew of corrupt and angry construction workers, working illegally in the Amazon. Artist Roberto Castro makes her look great and his action sequences really come alive. As Sheena bursts into the past, Tarzan is literally ready and waiting to pounce. A promising start. At this point, any new Tarzan story is welcome. By the way, the trailer for the new Tarzan movie looks good, but do I have to point out Tarzan wears a loincloth, not culottes?

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

The Shadow Glass #1 – I picked up this comic because the art was absolutely picture perfect. Luckily, there is a solid story underneath. It’s 1562, and Elizabeth is Queen of England. The roguish Thomas Hughes succumbs to temptation and has an affair with Arabella, the wife of his good friend Adam. Weeks later, Thomas convinces Arabella to participate in an occult experiment with Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s famous alchemist and advisor. Twenty years later, Thomas and Arabella’s daughter comes home to visit Adam, who she thinks is her real father. She’s headstrong, good with a sword and dresses like a swashbuckler. Adam tells her of her true heritage before warning her against meeting Thomas Hughes. But something very strange happens later during her own meeting with Doctor Dee ...

The Shadow Glass is a breath of fresh air. A historical drama with supernatural overtones, the book contains some of the finest comic book art I have ever seen—and I’ve read a lot of comics. I love that the idea seems to be original to comics—I don’t think this is a licensed property or based on a video game. Writer/artist Aly Fell should be applauded for providing something original to a medium that desperately needs it. She’s quite a talent.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Badger #1 & 2 - Mike Baron’s Badger is back! After a long run in the ‘80s and popping up every few years since, Baron has started things from scratch in this new series. The Badger is Norbert Sykes, a Special Forces war veteran with multiple personalities. One of those personalities is the Badger, a costumed vigilante who dishes out punishment to drug dealers, demons, indifferent fast food clerks and those who park illegally in handicapped spaces. Most of the players are the same, just updated, in Baron’s Badger reboot. As before, Badger is hired by Hamilton Thorndyke, a druid from Roman times, as a bodyguard. Norbert is accompanied into Ham’s employ by his therapist Daisy. At any time one of his six other personalities could pop out and leave him defenseless—among them Max, a gay decorator, Emily, a helpless child and Pierre, a French serial killer. 

The Badger is already taking on Ham’s enemies and giving martial arts lessons to arrogant black belts. The Badger is back, Larry! (The Badger calls most men “Larry.” You can read the book to find out why, but it’s no wonder the character needs a full-time therapist.) Like all of Baron’s work, this is vastly entertaining.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Satan’s Hollow #1 – Satan’s Hollow in Blue Ash, Ohio, is a real place, surrounded by actual rumors of human sacrifice and devil worship (see a local article here). I used to work in Blue Ash, but I’d never heard of Satan’s Hollow until this comic was solicited. In the comic, John and Sandy Ward move to Blue Ash, into the ancestral home of Sandy’s family. Something bad happened in the house when Sandy was young and she hasn’t been back since. Meanwhile, some teenagers explore the drainage ditches in Satan’s Hollow (in real life, the property owners can’t keep adventure seekers out) and one of them goes missing. In this first issue, John and Sandy help with the search, while one character meets the famous Shadow Man (rumored to be the Hollow’s evil liaison with Satan). The book ends with a surprising character trying to make a literal deal with the devil.

I did buy the book for the local angle, but the art and story work well together, and there are enough surprises that I’ll stick around for at least issue two.

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5

King Conan: Wolves at the Border #4 – With Dark Horse’s regular Conan comic drifting on coast for a while (I’m sure it will get better, it always does), the company’s King Conan tales are always outstanding. This miniseries certainly is, mostly due to the excellent writing of Tim Truman and the art of Tomas Giorello. Giorello is hands-down one of the finest artists currently working in comics—his layouts, drawing ability, action sequences and general storytelling are better than almost anyone currently drawing comics.

Truman takes a story suggested by Robert E. Howard’s notes and fleshes it out into a full and satisfying tale. King Conan leaves his kingdom to have one last battle with the Picts. When his small retinue is murdered by sorcery, he finds himself working with a Pictish warrior tribe against the greater evil. Both sides have years of stored up hard feelings and aggression; but they finally win a grudging respect from each other.

In this final issue, Bril the Pict, his people, and Conan go in search of Bril’s nephew and heir to the tribe leadership, the child Brune. They are after Brune’s kidnapper, an evil sorceress named Kwarada, who sacrifices her own son to summon demons from the depths to fight the Picts. Of particular humor is the following exchange between Bril and Conan:

Bril: “The Aquilonian settlers make war on us for gain—to take our land! But I think you are not like them, Cimmerian. I believe you fought us for joy!”

Conan: “Wrong. I did it for both gain and joy!” That made me laugh.

Truman wraps up the tale with a lot of action and thrills—I love reading about Conan still being able to kick tail as an old(er) man. I hope Truman and Giorello continue to work together, on Conan or anything else. They make a fantastic team.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars