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It’s Jack’s World, We Just Live In It

28/08/2014

Today is Jack Kirby’s birthday.

Jack Kirby at work

Tom Spurgeon goes the extra lightyear will all sorts of kracklin’ Kirby goodness.

I’ve already posted my feelings regarding Jack, and since I don’t think I can do better at this time I’ll just link to it again.

Jack, we miss you and Roz.  You were one of the greatest artists ever to weild a pencil in the comics medium, but more importantly than that you and Roz were great people, a joy to be around, a blessing to others, an honor to know.

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Roz & Jack photo found at Mark Evanier’s NewsFromME.com

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The Grand Ol’ Space Opry

6/08/2014

Astounding 1931 xx

My previous post on Space Pirate Captain Harlock was sparked by the following comment on film historian Bill Warren’s Facebook page (anything to give me an excuse to watch cool sci-fi movies on Netflix):

Yes, I know this[1] is set in the present, STAR TREK in the future and STAR WARS in the past, but this and almost all space-set movies and TV shows are set in pretty much the same consensus future of spaceships that zip all over the galaxy without any relativity-created time problems; almost all aliens, even CGI aliens, look like humans with different colors and a few glued-on facial differences. Plenty of ray guns/blasters/phasers etc., gravity, air and temperature pretty much Earth-normal. This consensus future was developed from about 1935 to 1955 in published science fiction.

But has anyone traced its development, investigated who introduced what? I presume Doc Smith, Edmund Hamilton, John W. Campbell Jr. (as an editor), Heinlein, Murray Leinster and others were major contributors–but who else? And what did the various writers introduce?

I agree with Bill’s central point:
Most space opera is just naval stories set in space, sometimes with submarines, sometimes with aircraft carriers.[2]

Astounding 1939 11

I’d say Edgar Rice Burroughs and other writers of books like Gulliver Of Mars got the ball rolling in the late 19th / early 20th centuries by telling essentially great white hunter / cowboys vs Indians on another world stories.  Most sci-fi of the classic pulp era (which I’ll peg as between 1920-45) was in terms of plot simply a military or pirate or exotic land adventure story with sci-fi trappings.[3]

Malcolm Jameson’s Bullard of the Space Patrol series drew quite heavily on his naval experience (and to good effect; it’s much better than the typical space opera of its era).  Likewise Ed Hamilton’s Captain Future was (essentially) Doc Savage & friends in space.

Captain-Future-Spring-1944

A certain common language sprang up because most sci-fi devices were analogs of real world devices.[4]  As another post on Bill’s page points out, many of the pulp space opera writers were also grinding out pulp adventure / detective / sea / Western stories for the same publishers.  They quickly developed a set of tropes that casual readers could quickly grasp.

The language and syntax of the genre evolved out of what stuck after it was flung on the walls of the collective consciousness by these pioneering wordsmiths.

But I think attention must be paid to Buck Rogers (which admittedly took a while to get space borne but once it did never looked back)[5] and Flash Gordon, which featured cultures very similar to those on Earth, just ramped up to the nth degree. Those comic strips probably did more to influence what mainstream audiences thought of as “sci-fi” than anything else of the era.

Buck Rogers book cover

Flash Gordon was about a planet that enters our solar system and nearly collides with Earth; once Flash & co reached Mongo pretty much all if their adventures were confined to the surface.[6] The stories became interstellar only much, much later. Buck started on Earth, jumped to Mars and the other solar system planets, then went interstellar after WWII.[7]

The comic strip versions of Buck Rogers and his better drawn / far more badly written imitator Flash Gordon pretty much set the visual look of pulp space opera (albeit Buck often did stories set in space were zero-g was a plot factor).  In this instance I would say it was the failure of ability on Dick Calkins’ part[8] and the failure of imagination on Alex Raymond[9] plus the casual reader’s inability to grasp something they had never seen before that helped shape the consensus universe Bill refers to.

Flash sunday6oct40det

Remember, the pulp publishers were in it for the money only and if it didn’t sell they’d replace it in a heart beat; their writers deserve credit where they succeeded in breaking thru this monetary barrier and introducing genuine imaginative material among all the pulp trope dross.

Special credit needs to be given to editor John W. Campbell of Astounding Stories (later re-titled Analog).  Campbell was a savvy editor who could negotiate the shoals of publishing while protecting and guiding his writers and artists to produce higher and higher quality work.  The shadow Campbell cast on sci-fi of the era was tremendous, and he is one of the single most influential figures in the entire field.

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Astounding, through Campbell and his associated writers, wielded a heavy influence on sci-fi films in the early 1950s.  The Thing From Another World is based on Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”; Destination Moon, while officially based on Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, was certainly the by-product of Campbell’s editorial crucible; The Day The Earth Stood Still was based on Harry Bate’s “Farewell To The Master” originally published in Astounding; and Forbidden Planet is about the closest thing to a bona fide Astounding Stories movie one could hope for.[10]

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Forbidden Planet looks pretty much like a standard Astounding Stories tale of the era:  Smart writing, super-science, standard space opera gizmos, psionic menace.  Star Trek closes the loop for us.  It certainly picked up on those elements, but not in a way that can easily be traced back directly to Forbidden Planet.[11]

Star Trek is actually not all that far removed from Tom Corbett, Space Patrol, or Rocky Jones insofar as they are all about quasi-military organizations engaged in interstellar exploration and combatting alien menaces; better written and less hokey, to be sure, but I think most early TV space opera plots could be re-written as workable Star Trek episodes.

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And that actually is what ties the consensus space opera universe together, the fact that by the early 1950s the tropes were well established enough for casual TV viewers to easily grasp them, yet at the same time remain serviceable enough to sustain a far more sophisticated series later, finally kicking space opera into the mainstream once and for all.

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[1]  Current popular space opera that shall remain nameless here until the studio that produced it does the right thing to the family of Jack Kirby.

[2]  Though I’d say Doc Smith was lightyears beyond Star Trek and Star Wars in the aliens dept.

[3]  H.G. Wells being the major exception, but even then not always.

[4]  Blaster = gun, spaceship = aircraft / battleship / submarine depending on story, space patrol = navy and / or Texas rangers, etc.

[5]  The novels that the comic strip are based on were yellow peril stories with a Rip Van Winkle twist; Buck didn’t leave the planet in the books and not on the funny pages until the strip had been around for several years.  A nice thing about the comic strip was that Buck negotiated a peace with the Han Empire that had conquered North America, returning American sovereignty while at the same time addressing the empire’s concerns — rather progressive for pulp fiction of that era!

[6]  On the plus side, Mongo is pretty much the only sci-fi planet with different climates, environments, and cultures; everything else tends to have a single planet-wide cultural / environmental standard (case in point, the otherwise excellent Dune).

[7]  The now virtually forgotten Brick Bradford began as an adaptation of When Worlds Collide but quickly abandoned the source material.

[8]  I’ll give a nickel to anybody who can show Calkins ever understood what a vanishing point was.

[9]  Raymond was a superb draftsman, excellent at layout and anatomy, but all his alien cultures looked like whatever movie he saw that week with the occasional ray gun or Art Deco rocket tossed in for variety.  He left Flash Gordon around the start of WWII and came back after the war with the truly remarkable Rip Kirby, a savvy post-war private eye series that stands the test of time far better than Flash Gordon ever could even though it failed to garner the same cultural impact.

[10]  And that’s not counting minor films like Project Moonbase (written by Robert Heinlein) or Dune Roller (based on the short story of the same title by Julian May) from the 1960s, blatant ripoffs like The Brain From Planet Arous (taken from Hal Clement’s Needle) or The Brain Eaters (stealing from Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and getting caught), or obviously the various movie / TV versions of Dune, all of which were shaped to one degree or another by exposure to Campbell’s school of thought.  Hell, we can even throw in Battlefield Earth into the mix while we’re at it…

[11]  Lost In Space, conversely, clearly did lift a lot of visual inspiration from Forbidden Planet.

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I Luvz Me Some SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK

6/08/2014

Fast gliding along, a gloomy bark
Her sails are full, though the wind is still,
And there blows not a breath her sails to fill
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . – Thomas Moore

CH arcadia of my youth ship

There’s mainstream, and then there’s stuff for the connoisseurs.  No matter how good the mainstream[1] stuff is, there’s always something a little stronger, a little purer, a little rarer, a little more off the beaten path.

Some might argue one can acquire a connoisseur’s taste, but I’d say it’s more that one discovers the connoisseur lurking inside.  Sometimes, briefly, the connoisseur’s and the mainstream’s tastes can travel together, but in the end the connoisseur’s taste leads off in its own direction, and while the mainstream may be forever flavored by the connoisseur’s delight, it never really knows how to appreciate it and in the end satisfies itself with watered down versions of the real thing.

Allow me to introduce you to Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock.

CH captain_harlock_by_halflingsera_wallpaper-other

There’s a lot of arguing over who did what first and how that affected everything that came afterwards, but the facts are this:  In 1977 space opera was in the air, and in the US a young director named George Lucas was about to redefine the genre for moviegoers while in Japan a young mangaka was doing the same thing for manga readers.

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It’s hard at this point to separate who influenced whom.  Both creators drew from different but similar streams, both creators did innovative things that reflected the work of the other but seemingly without any direct link.

Lucas acknowledges the influence of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa[2] on his work, and while Kurosawa was also an influence for Matsumoto, the Japanese artist was also influenced by traditional European sources.[3]

No matter: 
As if to further muddy the waters, the publishing / broadcast / release history of Captain Harlock’s adventures deliberately defies any and all attempts to link them in a single, logical continuity.  Unlike Star Wars or Star Trek or the various American superhero universes that link each and every single issue / story / character into a rigid timeline, Harlock’s appearances are capricious, contradictory, and confusing.[4]

CH orig manga arcadia

original manga version of Harlock’s ship, The Arcadia

It’s almost as if we are not seeing the adventures of one single character, but rather all the multitudes of Harlock that exist in the quantum multiverses.[5]

So don’t think of Harlock & co. as a character; think of him as an icon.  He is the hero of a thousand faces in reverse; a single battle scarred, eye patch covered face with a thousand different heroes hiding behind it.

There’re a lot of variations of Captain Harlock out there,
including but not limited to his appearances in –

In addition to the above, about a half a dozen or so spin-off projects including TV episodes extended into featurettes, series set in the same universe but not featuring a direct appearance by Harlock or other characters, and just purely random cameos for the hell of it in other Matsumoto stories.

CH gun frontier manga sketch

Harlock is a hero of Wagnerian proportions, specifically Captain Hendrick Vanderdecken, the Flying Dutchman.  There is a deep, dark melancholy dwelling in his restless heart, one that pushes him and compels him to action even at great cost to himself and for often Quixotic purposes.  He manages to be both a Romantic and an existentialist hero at the same time, and that precarious contradiction is a big part of what makes him so compelling as a character.

How much of Harlock may be directly derived from European legend, and how much is various aspects of bushido culture interpreted in new form, and how much is second or third hand osmosis is anybody’s guess.  Matsumoto is certainly not unaware of Wagner (Harlock Saga is essentially his retelling of Das Rheingold set in space) but seems to have taken only the tragic / heroic soul of the legend and none of the details.

CH harlock saga

No matter: 
Whatever iteration of Harlock, it’s always thunderously good space opera.

And the “opera” portion of that description is quite apt.  As has been observed elsewhere, good opera doesn’t have to make logical sense, only emotional sense.  And there’s something about the captain and his damned / doomed ship that resonates very, very deeply.

The best of the most recent versions of the story is Space Pirate Captain Harlock, now available for streaming on Netflix.  CGI animation is good to excellent; character design could have been better[6], the subtitles are only adequate[7], but the whiz-bang is very whizzy and very bangy, and visually it is a pure delight.[8]  The big plot reveal can be seen marching down the boulevard from the first reel, but the film makers seem to recognize this and just go all out with the ending and the theme that while the captain may be eternal, the man behind the eye patch isn’t.

CH Space-Pirate-Captain-Harlock-2013-Movie-Poster

Highly recommended, especially to manga / anime fans and classic pulp space opera buffs.  Mainstream audiences will probably enjoy all the pretty eye candy but just not get what it is that Matsumoto et al are trying to achieve.

That’s okay.  As Joel Hodgson once observed: 
“It’s not important that everybody gets the joke,
just that the right people get the joke.”

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[1]  By definition, anything with an audience in the tens of millions is mainstream so just deal with it.

[2]  Kurosawa was far from culturally pure in his influences in film making, frequently drawing upon both Russian classics and American pop culture for his sources and inspirations.

[3]  Genius that I am, it only took me 40+ years to realize that quaint middle European backwater cultures is what looks exotic to a Japanese artist.

[4]  He is far from the first or only Japanese manga / anime character to be handled this way.  The producers of the dark, starkly tragic Neongenesis Evangelion series felt so bad about what they put the characters through that they brought them back for a more light hearted teen comedy.  The various Tenchi Muyo series typically reboot from the ground up with every new variant, shifting characters around in different roles in the stories.  The only American equivalent I can find to this are the various versions of Rio Bravo / El Dorado / Rio Lobo with the same basic story and stock characters in each one, but John Wayne playing a different role in every film.

[5]  And doubtlessly some fan somewhere is attempting to do exactly that…

[6]  Though I’ll give the benefit of a doubt to a character that is revealed to be a computer simulation; maybe she was supposed to look that way deliberately.

[7]  The synopsis makes a lot more logical sense.  I get the feeling that the subtitles were done almost on the fly since they often contradict themselves and what we’re seeing on screen.

[8]  If anybody is going to adapt Doc Smith to the screen again, it should be this team.  Yowza!

 

 

 

 

 

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“Taps” by Alex Toth

21/07/2014

Taps by Alex Toth 1

 

Taps by Alex Toth 2

 

Taps by Alex Toth 3

 

Taps by Alex Toth 4

 

Taps by Alex Toth 5

it’s always a delight
to see a master at work play

 

 

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Larry Ivie R.I.P.

8/05/2014

I’ve learned thru Jim Engel via Steve Thompson that Larry Ivie apparently passed away in January.

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Now most of you are doubtlessly going “Who the heck was Larry Ivie?” but to a lot of us “monster kids” he was a key influencer in our lives, albeit one who never fully graduated into the pro ranks.

Larry is best remembered for his remarkable albeit short lived 1960s monster mag, Monsters & Heroes, and before that his occasional articles for Castle Of Frankenstein.  Back in the 1960s there were no serious professional regularly published magazines dedicated to sci-fi/fantasy/horror films; Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters Of Filmland was pretty much it, but while it supplied a wealth of film making details & rarely seen photos, it was written is a tone that can best be described as juvenile and with an editorial out look that said said there was no such thing as a bad movie — at least so long as they were dependent on studio publicists for photos & interviews.

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CoF and later Monsters & Heroes changed all that (and, to be fair, so did a couple of other short lived mags).  Larry’s Monsters & Heroes had a unique editorial POV insofar as it actively encouraged DIY culture long before DIY culture was even a thing to encourage.  Larry was a fan who was always on the verge of breaking into either comics or film, and while he offered a great deal of inspiration & encouragement to others, he never seemed to be able to make the final leap himself.

larryivie

Larry Ivie as The Mask in Don Glut’s amateur
Batman And Robin film made a year before
the Adam West TV series premiered.

I corresponded with him briefly in the 1960s, and from that correspondence I’d say he was a sincere, earnest, enthusiastic, and decent person who genuinely wanted to nurture new talent.  Some of the earliest works by Bernie Wrightson, Jeff Jones, and Mike Kaluta were published in Monsters & Heroes, and he regularly gave aspiring film makers a chance to show their work.

I lost contact with him when I was drafted and never communicated directly with him again.  Occasionally his name would come up in conversation ala “whatever happened to…?” but the answer was always that he was struggling along on some new project or trying to complete an old one.

The brass ring of pro-dom, of being a professional with a recognized body of work always seemed to elude Larry, and from what I’ve read online this may be due to an obsessive perfectionism that kept him from releasing anything until he felt it was absolutely ready.

He lost contact with that generation of monster kids who then grew up to be pros and creators in their own right.  The news of his death is not surprising, but it is sad.

He never made the pro ranks, but he started a thousand others on their way, and to that we say thank you.

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Funny Book Faith

2/05/2014

I’ve got a lot on my plate, a large number of posts & mini-essays & short stories & longer works that I want to finish, but every now & then a big fat one just hangs in the strike zone so perfectly that I can’t help but smack that sucka right out of the ballpark.

In this case it was someone bringing to my attention last year’s “Men, Superheroes and Church” post by Don Murrow, which in turn was derived from “The Lure of Comic-Book Culture” by Stan Guthrie from a half year earlier.

Guthrie sneers looks down his nose pooh-poohs dismisses contemporary pop culture, in particular the popularity of the superhero genre, quoting David Gelernter’s “America-Lite”:

“In 1960, the whole country knew Robert Frost’s poetry; Leonard Bernstein was reaching large TV audiences for classical music with his Young People’s Concerts on CBS; theater and ballet were thriving, reaching larger audiences all the time; Hemingway was only the most famous of America’s serious novelists; and American avant-garde painting was a topic for Life magazine.”

He then posits these reasons for the rise in popularity of comic book culture, in particular superheroes[1]:

  1. Technology (computers, social media, enhanced graphics software) has made comics easier to produce and share.
  2. The phenomenon of extended adolescence has extended the attractiveness of comics as a pastime among many American adults.
  3. In an increasingly complex, morally confusing world, people are drawn to media that still promote the idea of good vs. evil—a common theme in comics.
  4. People want an escape from the grim and sometimes depressing news and events of the day.
  5. With the dumbing down of the population due to an increasingly ineffective public education system, people today have less ability and desire to read and to think deeply, making the relatively simple themes and plots of comic books that much more attractive.
  6. Despite (and perhaps because of) widespread cynicism in the culture, we still yearn for heroes.

Murrow agrees, claiming “Every one of Guthrie’s observations is true. But there’s a deeper reason men of this generation are so strongly drawn to superheroes:

Every man longs to be a hero himself – but today’s society offers men very few opportunities for heroic behavior.”

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[brace yourselves; it gets brutal after the jump]

Read the rest of this article »

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This May Be The Saddest Thing I’ve Seen All Week

24/04/2014

pooch cafe alcoholic rabbit

alcoholic bunny
by Paul Gilligan
(from Pooch Cafe)

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“Dirty Job” by Alex Toth & Bob Haney

17/04/2014

a classic

A Dirty Job by Alex Toth 1

A Dirty Job by Alex Toth 2

A Dirty Job by Alex Toth 3

A Dirty Job by Alex Toth 4(c) DC Comics

 

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PEARLS BEFORE SWINE: A Writer’s Journey

15/04/2014

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Pearls Before Swine by Stephen Pastis

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Fictoid: one day at the circus

13/04/2014

One Day At The Circus

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