Columnist Wayne Rée shares his discovery of comic books, from his start as a super-hero fan to his evolution into a believer of the power of the art form of comics.
I love going to the movies. Always have. I’m not a scholar of fine cinema or revolutionary filmmaking. I know a thing or two, sure, but at the end of the day, I just like catching a flick with friends and having a good time.
Iron Man 3’s opening in just a few weeks, so it seemed only right to talk a little about that love for moviegoing. After all, my journey, man, wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about comic films – specifically superhero films, for two reasons.
Comic films in general means a pretty broad list to cover. We’re talking everything from Ghost World to Dredd here. But superhero films? That’s a more specific subset. And, more importantly, there’s an emotional connection I have with superhero films that goes deeper than other comic films.
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
That connection started when I was a kid, naturally. Anyone from my generation will tell you that the ’80s were a golden age for genre films. If you were a fantasy fan, you had Princess Bride. If you loved sci-fi, you had Blade Runner. And if you loved superheroes, you had Tim Burton’s Batman.
Yeah, I’d seen Richard Donner’s Superman, but Batman? Hoo boy. That was a different ball game altogether. And for the next half of a decade, the Batman films were the standard by which superhero flicks were measured. Hell, I can still unapologetically dig Batman Forever. Of course, to be fair, there were all that many superhero films out there anyway. Which is why, when Batman & Robin came out, I was devastated.
It was disappointing, simply because it seemed like this marriage of two of my favourite things was coming to an end. You got to understand: This was a film so bad that George Clooney eventually apologised for it and Joel Schumacher (the man who helmed easily one of my favourite vampire flicks of all time) practically faded from the spotlight.
As far as I was concerned, that was it for superhero movies. And then Wesley Snipes came along.
“I was born ready, mother—”
I’ve pointed out before that I’ve always been a Marvel guy. So, when Blade hit the big screen, you’d think I was ecstatic. But I wasn’t. Well, not initially. At first, I just couldn’t believe that the character that Wesley Snipes so perfectly brought to the screen was the same dude with the goofy 70s shades from the comics.
But it was, and after I got over that disbelief, I was all in, baby. I mean, come on. It was a Marvel character, no matter how obscure, that was translated into a genuinely kick-ass film.
The best thing about Blade, however, wasn’t just that it was an awesome film; it was a precursor to even more superhero films. Which made me happy as can be… for a little while anyway. That marriage of my loves was back, sure, but it was a marriage that was riddled with problems.
Quantity and quality
A glut of superhero films was released in the decade or so after Blade. But for every X-Men 2, there was an Elektra. Sure, I was glad to have these larger-than-life characters back on screen, but was the excitement of seeing Spidey swing through New York worth the awkward scripts that came along with Raimi’s web-slinging trilogy?
Pretty soon, I’d kind of had it. It actually felt worse than the this-is-over sensation that came with Batman & Robin. If we’re going to use the matrimonial analogy again, it became a loveless marriage. It just wasn’t exciting anymore.
What it needed was a second honeymoon. (I’ve totally lost control of this analogy, haven’t I?)
The Dark Knight Returns
And lo and behold, just like in the ’80s, Batman heralded a new era of superhero films with the aptly named Batman Begins. But they were different this time. It seemed like the one good thing that came out of that glut was that studios were learning that they couldn’t get away with releasing substandard films for our favourite colourful characters.
Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, and eventually Joss Whedon were names that were starting to get attached to these movies. Directors that carried weight, not just with your average moviegoer, but with us nerds and geeks too. Sure, we had Green Lantern, but crappy superhero films were comparatively fewer and farther between.
The new golden age
Last year, when I sat and watched Avengers for the first time, I swear to you, I was nearly moved to tears. Hell, I still get a little misty-eyed every time I hear Alan Silverstri’s theme from the show. Can you blame me though? For the first time since Burton’s Batman, I’m looking forward to watching superhero films regularly again.
Y’know… just catching a flick with friends and having a good time
Wayne Rée’s been writing professionally for about ten years. He’s worked in everything from advertising to publishing, and was even part of the team that created Singapore’s very first tattoo magazine. He dabbles in screenwriting and photography, travels way too much, and is currently putting together his very first short story collection. He blogs about his upcoming book, storytelling and other things at http://waynereewrites.com.
Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.
The Case for Comics in Classrooms: Refuting the Naysayers
I read an article recently that dredged up some unpleasant feelings for me. Well alright, it actually made me mad, but I’m trying to be professional here. After ranting a bit to my family, my daughter pointed out that the article was written two years ago, and that things have surely changed in that amount of time. But I asked myself, “have they really?” I’m not so sure.
The article, “Wondering (Worrying) About Graphic Novels”, was written by Bill Ferriter, a 6th grade language arts teacher, and teacher of the year for his region. In his article (in which his tone is quite condescending), Ferriter “worries” about the growing use of comics in the classroom, and the ways in which such use surely must be preventing students from having the quality learning experiences they deserve.
I hesitated before writing this response, because I didn’t want to give his article any more attention than necessary. But its two weeks later, I’m still incensed, and this topic is too important to let such ignorant opinions run rampant ‘round the Internet. That and, I know there are a LOT of teachers and librarians out there still hanging on to these same misinformed (even if naive) points of view. So, let the debunking begin…
Comics do all of the “imagining” for students.
It’s true that comics do contain pictures. A LOT of them. But to say that pictures take the opportunity to imagine away from the reader is completely false. I would venture to guess that good comics require more imagination on the part of the reader. The reader must not only read and interpret the images presented in the panels, but they must further imagine the action taking place between the panels. Unlike prose, which contain necessarily frequent amounts of exposition, quality comics leave much up to the imagination of the reader where inference is a critical skill. The reader has to work relentlessly to interpret the images, and infer information from the ways in which the images and text work together to communicate a message.
Furthermore, there are a multitude of comics out there that have as much, or even more text than many prose-only books that our students are reading – not to mention more rare vocabulary. Consider the following…
“The Judas Contract” story arc from The Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman… nearly every page of that arc is literally covered with text, with a reading level at times superseding that of most high school texts. Another example: The new “Death of the Family” Batman story arc has over 690 pages with word counts ranging from between 50 to 250 per page. Even if we estimated the average words-per-page count for the series to be 150 words per page, that’s still over 100,000 words all totaled. That’s more words than: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Slaughter House Five, Lord of the Flies, and many, many other classics as well.
And that’s just addressing the sheer quantities of words present in Comics. Nevermind the fact that research has shown comics to have more rare vocabulary words in them than even most adult books – outmatched only by Scientific Abstracts, Newspapers, and popular trade magazines (Selected Statistics for Major Sources of Spoken and Written Language, Rare Words per 1000. University of Oregon).
With text that prolific and challenging, why are the images even an issue? The images provide the comprehension support needed to ensure that students can do the work of imagining everything that is going on in that world. Moving on…
Comics don’t require thinking.
In many ways, comics require more thinking than mere prose. A quality comic contains text and images seamlessly interwoven. More thinking is involved, because the reader must actually “study” the complement of words and images to make meaning. This is why so many students will return to a favorite comic again and again – because they are gaining new information each time, information they missed in the last go round. It is a multilayered experience that allows for continued enjoyment and “aha’s” throughout repeated readings.
Comics are often figurative and metaphorical. Not only must the reader employ keen observational skills to comprehend the literal representation of the images and words, but the reader must reflect on their figurative meanings as well. I recall in a recent reading of the No Fear Shakespeare’s Hamlet graphic novel with a student, encountering an opportunity to teach about metaphor. In a series of panels showing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inquiring of Hamlet, the artist Neil Babra chooses to show them as puppets, whose strings are being manipulated by King Claudius. The student and I had an extensive discussion about this artistic choice and what it communicates to the reader. We talked about metaphor, and how it can be used to help us achieve a deeper understanding of characters and their motives. The rigor of this discussion was a direct result of using the graphic novel, rather than just the text version of the play alone.
Another great novel for teaching literary elements is Blankets by Craig Thompson. I’ve used the opening sequences to teach tone and mood, and visual metaphors abound throughout. The panel where the angry father punishes Craig’s little brother by putting him in “the cubby” is particularly terrifying, especially with the gaping mouth full of menacing teeth standing in for the cot.
I’ve used Bone by Jeff Smith to teach almost all the elements of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I’ve used The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho to teach allegory – the graphic novel version adapted by Daniel Sampere is much more accessible than the novel itself. I’ve used Calvin and Hobbes to teach tone (i.e. write this series of panels in a… nostalgic… sarcastic… playful… bitter… tone). I’ve used The Incredible Change-Bots by Jeffrey Brown to teach parody and satire. I’ve used wordless panels of Owly by Andy Runton for a myriad of things, from dialogue writing, to oral language development, to descriptive language generation, to writing action, and so much more.
These are just a few examples…. I could fill an entire article with examples like this.
Comics are good for reading-challenged kids, but not for more sophisticated readers.
I have to admit, Ferriter’s implication that comics are only good for struggling readers probably made me the most angry. What is he really saying here? Oh those picture books are fine for those kinds of students, but certainly not for everyone. It’s completely insulting.
I’ve had every kind of student imaginable – including those for whom reading text was torture. Because of their multilayered nature, comics and graphic novels provided an entry point through which any student could explore literature, literary themes, and elements. It leveled the playing field in my classroom, by enabling ALL students– whether struggling or high gifted, to engage with the text at increasingly deeper levels. It allowed me to move beyond teaching mere comprehension, to the higher cognition levels of: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. As a result, the rigor of my classes was pushed in such a way as to meet the needs of even my most advanced students, while not leaving others behind.
Comics will prevent kids from reading “real” literature.
This is absolutely false. It is true that some readers of comics may always prefer to read comics to prose-only literature. But it is equally true that some readers of comics will gravitate to other forms of literature just as easily as any thing else.
The NCTE Council Chronicle article, “Using Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom”, included the following quote from John Lowe, the Sequential Arts Chair at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia:
“I started reading comics, and then I got into other types of fiction and literature. I stopped reading comics a little later, but I don’t think I would have made the leap [to literature] if it weren’t for comics.” In his case, Lowe says, he literally went from reading “Batman to Faulkner.”
I’ve been privileged to witness this phenomenon over and over again with my own students – students who may have gravitated toward simple comics and graphic novels at first, then as they gained more confidence in their reading abilities, branching out to more challenging texts. To be clear, those challenging texts included both prose-only as well as more sophisticated comics and graphic novels.
Which brings me to a very important point. Not all comics are created equal…
Comics are content shallow, the “literary equivalent of Jersey Shore”.
It is true that some comics are definitely the “literary equivalent of Jersey Shore.” But the same is true for a lot of prose-only books as well. Selecting strong literature for the classroom and for use as lesson content is the responsibility of the teacher and/or librarian. Let me say that again, it’s the responsibility of the teacher. If you have crappy, low quality literature in your classroom, that’s your choice. Do not blame an entire category of literature for your own inability to seek out, identify, and procure quality literature for your classroom, lessons, or library. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. I’ve met too many teachers who want to blame the “tool” when their lessons go awry. That’s like the builder blaming the hammer for poor construction. The teachers that Ferriter quotes in his article, and I would also include Ferriter himself in this, clearly are not experienced enough with comics or graphic novels to make an informed judgment.
Which is why I find the next two points particularly alarming…
One – this guy was selected as a teacher of the year for his region, and two – the article he wrote got picked up by ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) – a national organization dedicated to leadership in education. If people or organizations in positions of educational leadership are touting such misinformed and dare I say ignorant opinions as Ferriter, or even if people are just listening to such blather, we have a much longer way to go than we thought.
And in the end, that’s why I wrote this article. But my voice alone means nothing. Now it’s your turn.
For your homework: Comment with your opinions below, and LIGHT UP TWITTER with your support for comics in the classroom! #READCOMICS #COMICSWORK #COMICSINCLASSROOMS #TEACHCOMICS
Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.
Columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
If you know me, you know I don’t read a lot of superhero comics these days. Of course, I used to read ONLY superhero comics. Most of us who grew up on comics in the last few decades probably know what I mean. I was strictly a “Make Mine Marvel” guy for most of my childhood, only getting deep into DC post-Crisis. It was an important and magical experience, to know a full pantheon of heroes, gods, monsters, strange worlds, other realms, quests, visions…it was a unique opportunity for the 20th century. Sure, every culture ever had its religions, filled with all of its figures, places and events. But none which were created so recently, so freshly and relevantly. Modern printing allowed for tales to be disseminated as never before, not only textually but graphically, giving us perhaps as many far-out tales of battles and adventures in a few years as all the carved hieroglyphics of an entire dynasty. And there we all were, common people able to read, with easy access to experience vast mythology. I always feel pity when I think of those who passed by the so-called “universes” of the Superman or Fantastic Four variety. It’s a very special thing.
Often I consider that so many comics fans in America are really just fans of a particular mythology, or perhaps a few mythologies (think titles like Hellboy or Savage Dragon). For me, being a true comics devotee means not limiting yourself to one type of comic book experience – in fact, not limiting yourself at all, at least from overall genres and styles (naturally, within each, there will be varying degrees of quality). So why do I limit myself from superhero comics? I mean, if I take my own advice, then surely, I should be giving the current titles more of my time, right?
I can tell you why I don’t read MOST superhero comics that I used to read. The obvious: how many decent stories does any character really have? What can you possibly read that has not been written so many thousands of times over the past seven plus decades? Of course the answer is: not much. At least, not much if you stick to continuity. The absurdity of trying to pretend that figures like Batman and Spider-Man are not both well over the hill is evident in the industry practices of rehashed gimmickry and slight variations. One hero is dead (but always comes back to life). Another has some experience which “changes everything” even if it’s only a slight variation on a storyline from thirty years ago. And on top of that, somebody has to manage an ever more complex, more populated mythos which requires the preservation of all concurrent storylines, across dozens of monthly publications, for endless years, and all to meet the demands of shareholders. Gone are the days when these legacy characters were the product of visionaries, hungry not just for expression, but for money to put food on the table. The commercial product has been fully pried from the risk-taking art form that started it all. Yes, of course, there are the exceptions to the rule, but I don’t know how much I care to seek them. They are too few, too meager. I don’t put any blame on the creators working in the genre right now. First of all, it’s by far the most lucrative. And by and large, the folks behind the work are true fans. Getting the chance to write and draw that character you grew up with and getting the chance to add your stamp to the legacy must be very appealing indeed. But it’s not working for me, and I often wonder why it works for anybody. How many “reboots” before you finally get sick of reboots? How many perfectly predictable resurrections before you realize, continuity has lost all meaning?
Fortunately, I have found some remedies for myself to fill these needs. First of all, I use the time machine. I’ve been jumping into all of the old stuff I never read. DC has an excellent line of affordable trade collections of the original comics from their core pantheon called DC Chronicles. Way cheaper than the hardback DC Archives collections (and printed on pulp, which I find far cooler), I have been digging in to Superman, Batman and Green Lantern, all in the order they appeared in titles like Action and Detective and DC Showcase. Sure, I’ve read a lot of this stuff, one-offs in reprints and such, but this completist line allows me to see ALL of it from the start, a real history project where you can see the more unfettered creators lay down the genesis of the legacy titles. Marvel Masterworks is another great option, but their trade paperbacks are not as competitively priced, and never on pulp (damn!). But that’s all you’ve got for right now, and all that awesome history is there too, from Fantastic Four to Iron Fist and just about everything from Marvel’s Silver Age. And I’ll sometimes nibble at “alternate reality” stories, tales of the characters outside of the continuity like Warren Ellis’ Old Man Logan storyline or DC’s retired Elseworlds imprint. Unfortunately, entire reboots like the Ultimate universe in Marvel or The New 52 are subject to the same robust brand management interference which those other examples of limited series are put through. And as such, are plagued by the same afflictions.
And so I seek superheroes in other places besides DC and Marvel. Recently, I burned through Mark Waid’s Irredeemable series with great relish. Waid took the 20th century archetypes, offering instant recognizability (but with no TM infringement), and ran with a tale that brand managers at the big corporate publishers could never allow, including closure. (It helps that besides having an original story, Waid also has his own publishing house, BOOM! to be as free as he wants to be.) Marvel uber-author Ed Brubaker played his own games with his Incognito series (limited though it was, and on Marvel’s Icon imprint, to their credit). The aforementioned Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen is another excellent example of a guy giving us old-fashioned superhero fun without the expense of convoluted continuity (even though the title is getting long in the tooth itself!). I could mention more and more, but you get the idea – it’s not superheroes I have a problem with, it’s just the idea of a market dominated by this single genre (Marvel and DC run 70% of the North American market) and the idea that despite the inherent quality control issues when churning out so much pulp (or whatever slick paper is) carrying such intense corporate pressure (the far more profitable movie, video game, and toy branches of Time Warner and Disney depend on the publishing arms), the audience pushes most of its money on this heavily trod-upon ground. I wish more of you would venture out to discover humor, history, horror, high art, human dramas and so on, just like you do on TV and at the movies. But that’s just a dreamer’s lament. And I’ll be honest with you. I want to keep getting new stories from the same old characters. And I do. Just not entirely in comics.
Sadly, I nowadays get most of my Marvel/DC superhero action not through comics, but on TV. For the last twenty odd years or so, DC in particular has offered wonderful superhero mythology, starting with Batman: The Animated Series followed closely by Superman: The Animated Series which, following this continuity strictly or not, smoothly transitioned into Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Here you could feel the freedom of the creators. They were given far more leeway with the legacy characters. And even after a series ended, new series could create a new vision with its own angle. You can see this in such diverse shows as The Batman, Batman: Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series. I don’t love and watch ALL of these shows, but EVERY superhero fan is bound to love one or more of them. Marvel doesn’t have quite as long of a track record with high-quality shows, but of late, we’ve seen outstanding efforts with shows like Wolverine and the X-Men, Iron Man Armored Adventures, Spectacular Spider-Man, The Super Hero Squad Show, Ultimate Spider-Man, and particularly with Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. This show, like the Justice League run and the current Young Justice offers just the right blend of childish escapism, adult themes (but not TOO adult), long episodic tales, fights and violence (but not TOO violent) mixed with healthy, respectful nods to works new and old from the source material. It is ironic that in animation – a far more expensive process than comic book publishing, requiring teams of dozens rather than perhaps 10 people (sometimes just ONE) – there seems to be a lot more room to move for talented storytellers to play with the standard bearers of the legacy books. And it’s not just freedom for them, its freedom for me, the audience, who can enjoy new tales of old friends without getting bored, still surprised from time to time, able to see these tales in fresh places where you can feel a far more steady creative control, for good or ill (again, I do NOT love all of those animated shows, but I sure do love more than a few).
Which brings me to this final bummer: I don’t like writing about TV in this column. I want to write about comics. And that means writing about something other than superheroes. But at least now you know why. And maybe somebody in the right place will take it to heart. I interviewed Stephen Christy, editor-in-chief of Archaia Entertainment, at Comic-Con a few years back for the Dig Comics project. I asked him the same thing I asked all the publishers I talked to: if you were god and could run DC and Marvel, what would you do? His answer stuck with me, and I paraphrase: “I would kill all the titles, except about 12-15 of the core books, assign top creators to those and limit the output.” He may have a point. After all, there’s a hell of a lot to pretend you can manage in one continuity without a lot of not so awesome comics. I would combine that effort with killing all continuity periodically and maybe give some creators a chance to take the characters for their own ride, rather than tack their decisions to a committee. And if you try to make your new continuity too close to your old one, you’ll lose. If you are keen on continuing to publish 50 or more titles, how about letting multiple continuities run at once? Let the market decide which one it likes. And if one falls out of favor, save the space for a new subset of creators. But do something besides the same old tricks, at least if you want to see my money again.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read more of Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
Back in prehistoric times – you probably know ‘em as “The Silver Age Of Comics” – when there were no superhero movies, comic book letter columns often ran letters suggesting which then-current actors would be suitable for casting in the roles of various superheroes. Most of us had seen the Adventures of Superman television series (1952 – 1958) – and at one of San Diego’s many naval base theaters I saw a single chapter of one of those Commando Cody serials (the inspiration for Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer) – so the notion of a motion picture starring a superhero didn’t seem impossible…
Except that, for me, at least, the concept of a live action superhero movie wasn’t something I was particularly anxious to see. I’d seen a 1943 Superman theatrical short, “The Underground World” on Channel 6’s cartoon show hosted by “Uncle Russ” – and that immediately convinced me that when it came to funnybook superheroes, animation was the best way to approach this sort of material (even though I was unable to convince my chums at Rowan Elementary School that the cartoon I’d watched existed at all!)
You see, I always dug the fact that, in comic books, superheroes were intentionally exaggerated characters who could routinely accomplish outrageous, unbelievable super-deeds. I never wondered what it would look like if superheroes were “real”; they were un-real and that was the way I liked ‘em: imaginary characters doing impossible things. I already had my fill of “real” in everyday life. (Yeah, I explained this in greater detail in last month’s Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist column. If you haven’t read it, go read it now right here. Don’t fret, I’ll wait for you.)
That said, I find that most live-action superhero movies actually diminish the long-underwear-and-capes crowd. No human physiognomy can possibly duplicate the musculature, foreshortening and poses of characters drawn by such “extreme” cartoonists as Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and Steve Ditko, among many others. And when it comes to depicting an awe-inspiring character like Galactus, as in 2007’s Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the audience gets a vague computer-generated effect. (On the other hand, the only thing the makers of that unfortunate sequel did right was the CG depiction of Norrin Radd; the gimmick of the character’s skin becoming tarnished as he loses “the power cosmic” was not only clever, it was something that would have been nearly impossible to pull off in the pages of a four-color funnybook.) In other words, the human body and CG special effects can possibly duplicate – or even come close to – what I love about comic books.
Another thing I dislike about most superhero films is the apparent necessity of spending one-third to one-half of their lengths to establishing the starring character with a “secret origin”. Sure, the audience might not know the specifics of a character’s back story, but they certainly know who the lead super-character is if they’ve already bought their ticket, popcorn and soda. Such famous characters’ origins are anything but secret! Can’t the origins be told along the way or in a flashback well within the body of the film? Or better yet, do it like it was in 1996’s The Phantom. (More on that in a few paragraphs!) The linear method, with a hero’s (or villain’s) origin taking up the entire beginning of the film reminds me of many 1950s monster movies in which we know what monster is behind the mysterious destruction, disappearances and deaths long before any of the characters because we saw the ads and poster first! In other words, it’s padding, pure and simple. The fact that the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man movie will once again retell the origin of the web-spinner is so superfluous, it makes me want to skip seeing the film altogether.
And what is it about Hollywood’s fascination with the “dark” side of superheroes? Tim Burton started that trend with his Batman film (1989), but I assume that was Warner Bros.’ intention in hiring the wunderkind to separate the dramatic Dark Knight from the lingering public association with the campy treatment the Caped Crusader received in ABC’s Batman TV series (1966 – 1968). But ever since then, most superhero movies have displayed similar dark tones, if not even darker. Superhero films don’t have to be silly or dead serious, folks; there’s plenty of other approaches in between the two extremes. But it should surprise no one reading this column that I’d much rather watch Cartoon Networks’ late, lamented Batman: The Brave and the Bold teaming up with the likes of Kamandi and B’wana Beast than Christian Bale’s The Dark Knight Rises featuring Bane, a bulky supervillain who looks like one of those idiots who compete in the Guinness Book of World Records’ category of “most cigarettes smoked at one time”. Sheesh.
Oh, I almost forgot… There are waaaaay too many effin’ superhero movies. There, I said it, O’ True Believers. Deal with it.
But to demonstrate that I don’t hate all superhero flicks, here’s a list of my favorite superhero theatrical movies so far (a baker’s dozen plus a runner-up) and why I dig ‘em so much:
RUNNER-UP: The Green Hornet (2011)
I know that this film was very unpopular with fans, but I thought that it followed a unique logic: if a goofy, wealthy and pudgy young playboy decides to become a superhero, it stands to reason that he’ll become a goofy, wealthy and pudgy young superhero, which is exactly what Seth Rogan does in this movie. And although there are a few cringe-inducing sequences in The Green Hornet (the fast-action make-out in the garage and that fight between Britt Reid (Rogan) and Kato (the quite appropriate Jay Chou) that seems to go on longer than the fight in John Carpenter’s They Live) I think that director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Be Kind Rewind) did a great job handling an action movie, especially with a death-trap via heavy construction equipment that bury our heroes inside their extremely cool battle-car, the “Black Beauty”. But my real reason for including The Green Hornet here is a brilliantly directed scene that takes place toward the end of the movie. In it, as a befuddled Britt Reid struggles to connect a number of seemingly random crimes, director Gondry takes us inside the crime fighter’s mind, using animation to show how he manages to piece together the various elements into a now obvious crime wave. I’ve never seen this sort of visual shorthand used in any other movie, but as a cartoonist, I absolutely loved it.
NO. 13: Blankman (1994)
Although by most accounts an embarrassment, I like the fact that this comedy’s lead character, ultra-nerdy inventor-without-a-budget Darryl Walker (played by Damon Wayans in full-throttle geek mode) has what I consider to be by far the best-ever motivation to become a costumed superhero: Darryl’s read enough comic books to think it’s a cool and lofty goal. Additionally, I dig the casting of Jason Alexander as the publisher of a particularly lowbrow tabloid newspaper (remember them?) and Jon Polito as an obnoxious-but-deadly mobster. Also, don’t miss Blankman’s hilariously shoddy R2D2-esque robot assistant, J-5 (as in “Jackson Five”). And finally, the story builds to a fight scene that’s a clever parody of similar sequences in ABC’s Batman TV series. And speaking of which…
NO. 12: Batman: The Movie (1966)
Essentially a bigger-budget, all-star feature length version of ABC’s Batman TV series, Batman (as it was originally titled; “The Movie” was added for the DVD and Blu-Ray editions) was made to exploit the phenomenal national response to the first season of the TV show. Although the iconic presence of Julie Newmar’s Catwoman is missing (The Time Tunnel’s Lee Merriweather attempts to fill the role here), the art direction, the costumes, the set design and the animated sound effects are all here, making Batman: The Movie one of the two feature films to most successfully capture the look of a Silver Age comic book. (The other one’s the movie based on Topps’ infamous set of trading cards, Mars Attacks, directed by Tim Burton.) For decades after viewing Batman during its theatrical release, I was ambivalent about the campy approach of this Leslie H. Martinson-directed film, which is even more comedic than the TV series it’s based upon, but after my son Kirby wore out two VHS tapes of Batman while watching them back when he was a little, how can I help but love it? (My second-hand affection for this movie even accidentally led to my contributing an interview to the exclusive bonus material for Batman: The Movie’s Blu-Ray disc conducted in the wake of doing the same for a DVD set of the first season of Hanna-Barbera’s Richie Rich cartoon series, upon which I worked as a layout supervisor!) Yo ho!
NO. 11: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
According to the FF’s co-creator Smilin’ Stan Lee, this extremely low-budget movie was never intended to be released, a fact unknown to its crew and cast. Apparently, it was made (but as planned, never released) only because Germany’s Constantin Film Produktion – the studio that then owned the rights to make a Fantastic Four movie – would have lost that opportunity if it did not begin production by a certain date. Whatever the circumstances, this film’s cheesy production values actually work in its favor, tying it to the cheapie sci-fi and monster movies of the 1950s, an obvious source of inspiration to Smilin’ Stan and Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby in the stirrings of the Marvel universe. Check out some of the covers for the early issues of Fantastic Four funnybooks; it’s no accident that they greatly resemble the posters for such then-recent drive-in movie fare like Invasion of the Saucer Men, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, War of the Colossal Beast and their ilk!
NO. 9: The Phantom (1996)
This high-quality production amply demonstrates that it’s not at all necessary to “camp it up” in a superhero film; if you successfully (and faithfully) translate a comic book property – or, in this case a comic strip property, although cartoonist Lee Falk’s Phantom has starred in hundreds of comic books here and especially abroad – the tone of happy adventure should come across as being just campy enough. (Although in this case, Treat Williams does portray The Phantom’s gleeful villain by chewing its gorgeous scenery non-stop.) But the very best thing about The Phantom is how it begins, with a five-minutes-or-less intro that begins with “For those who came in late…”, immediately recapping the purple-clad jungle hero’s back-story, his generational history and his mission statement… and that’s all the secret origin that the film’s Australian director Simon Wincer felt the audience needed! How frickin’ refreshing is that?!? And since the Phantom (although American in origin) has been Australia’s Number One favorite comic character for decades, it becomes immediately obvious that Mr. Wincer digs the character – nicely played by Billy Zane – as much or more than his fellow Aussies. And The Phantom gets extra points for including the great Patrick McGoohan (Secret Agent; The Prisoner) in its cast as the Phantom’s ghostly father!
NO. 8: The Specials (2000)
Rob Lowe (as “The Weasel”), Thomas Hayden Church (as “The Strobe”) and Jamie Kennedy (as “Amok”) star in this story of “the sixth or seventh best superhero team in the world” but features precious little special effects-assisted (CG or otherwise) superheroics whatsoever! Instead, The Specials focuses on the team’s internal politics, sexual liaisons and competition to see who can get the juiciest licensing deal for their action figure. The polar opposite of the typical summer superhero blockbuster, The Specials is utterly unique and highly recommended by this cranky comic book cartoonist.
NO. 7: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Since this is a sequel, we thankfully don’t have to suffer through another superhero origin. Even better, the origin story that is included is that of Dr. Otto Octavius, AKA villainous Doctor Octopus (wonderfully portrayed by Alfred Molina) who is actually much more interesting and likable than his funnybook counterpart. For that matter, even his mechanical arms have personality to spare!
NO. 6: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Hey, it’s a full-length animated feature film by the same talented folks – writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves and directors Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm, Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur and Dan Riba, among others – behind Warner Bros. Animation’s industry-altering cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series. Do I need to state any more than that? Well, perhaps I should add that the voice of the legendary Dick Miller (Little Shop of Horrors; Bucket of Blood; Not of This Earth) is on the soundtrack! Woo hoo!
NO. 5: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Set during World War II – which instantly makes the premise infinitely easier to accept – this is the exception that proves the rule about superhero origins in films. When puny patriot Steve Rogers (how could this possibly be the same Chris Evans who played the Human Torch in those tediously mediocre Fantastic Four films?) voluntarily chooses to climb into Dr. Erskine’s transmogrifying device – not to kill Nazis but because Steve doesn’t like bullies – we realize he’s already a hero. As much fun as the rest of the movie is, Cap’s origin story is the heart of the film. And as bonuses, we get a look at the original Golden Age Human Torch on display at the World’s Fair and a cameo appearance by Dum-Dum Dugan and the rest of the Howling Commandos (albeit minus Nick Fury!).
NO. 4: Superman (1941)
Remember “You will believe a man can fly!”, the line used to promote 1978’s Superman, the seminal superhero film that every person this side of Krypton – except me – loved? Well, I didn’t believe it, just as I never believed that the Man of Steel could somehow turn back time. (I’m not just being picky; Superman’s inability to change the past was one of the primary “rules” of all those Mort Weisinger-edited super-comics I read as a kid.) The only part of the entire film that I actually dig is when Superman prevents The Flying Newsroom helicopter from crashing, so sue me. But the original seventeen Superman cartoon shorts produced by Fleischer Studios and their successor Famous Studios from 1941 to 1943? Those I love, and I know I’m not alone. Hey, there would never have been a Batman: The Animated Series – nor umpteen other superhero cartoons – if not for those incredibly influential Superman shorts. They may not have much in the way of character development, but when it comes to showing how cool superheroes can be, they’re still the ones to beat (with the possible exception of my No.1 pick, below. No peeking!)
NO. 3: The Avengers (2012)
Okay, who doesn’t dig The Avengers? It took a while for me to get around to seeing the movie, and although I was skeptical despite everyone’s rave reviews, I’ve gotta admit I enjoyed it. The best things about The Avengers were, in my opinion: 1.) The film showed how much fun superheroes can and should be. Thank you, Joss Whedon. 2.) Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk was finally the version of Ol’ Jade-Jaws that we’ve all been waiting for. 3.) Tony Stark asking Bruce Banner if his method of avoiding Hulking out was “a big bag of weed”. That may be the single greatest alibi of all time: “Yes, officer, I am in possession of this big bag of weed, but it’s to prevent me from Hulking out!” I can’t wait to test it. 4. Loki calling the Black Widow “a mewling quim” – an antiquated form of the despised-by-every-female “C-U-Next-Tuesday word”. 5. The lack of credits at the front end of the film. 6. The shawarma scene that followed the movie’s end credits!
NO. 2: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936)
For decades, a debate has raged around the famous sailor man: is he or is he not a superhero? (Of course, Popeye’s opinion is “I yam what I yam!) Even though he doesn’t wear a colorful costume nor maintain a secret identity, I’d say that any super-strong, do-gooding human being who can’t be killed (a fact repeatedly established by his creator, cartoonist Elzie C. Segar) certainly qualifies as a superhero. Of course, he has been one of my favorite comic strip, comic book and animated cartoon characters for over half a century, so I may be a wee bit prejudiced, but since this is my list and not yours, I’m treating him as a superhero and that’s that. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor is one of the Fleischer Studio’s masterpieces, a cartoon tour de force that not only stars Popeye, Olive Oyl and J. Wellington Wimpy, it also feature Bluto in the role of Sindbad, the top dog on an island populated by hundreds of monsters, wild animals and giant mythical creatures. Despite the odds, Popeye emerges triumphant, and even sings a few songs along the way. This animated “featurette” – longer than a short but much shorter than a feature film – also includes some jaw-dropping dimensional effects that pre-date CG wizardry by many decades. In general, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor compresses all of the over-the-top action and excitement of most modern superhero movies into a mere 16 minutes. Well, blow me down, what could possibly be better than that? Well, how about…
NO. 1: The Incredibles (2004)
For my money, superhero movies just don’t get any better than this. It’s got all the action and fun of my favorite comic books. (Fantastic Four, anyone?) It’s got dozens of original characters, yet there isn’t a single origin story in sight. It introduces a world where superheroes not only exist, they all know each other and interact to a degree that none of the Marvel or DC universes have on film to date. It’s a family comedy about a super-powered family, yet it’s built on a solid and somewhat grim premise about what it’s like to be middle-aged, in a marriage gone stale and on the downhill side of your career. How many other superhero movies can boast those universal themes? The Incredibles features elements of design, style and pop culture that were at their peak in 1964 (the early Marvel Comics universe; Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Secret Agent 007 in Goldfinger (complete with a John Barry-esque score); Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s “Supermarionation”, etc.), yet it’s not considered to be a “retro” movie. It’s wildly exaggerated, but has moments that display a subtlety that animation rarely exhibits. Thank you, Brad Bird. Thank you, Pixar. Once again, you’ve shown us that even in a blockbuster of a superhero movie, it’s the story that matters most, even if we’ve never seen its stars before or since. I can’t imagine a better superhero movie in existence.
Y’know, I’m more than a little surprised that I have such good things to say about so many superhero movies after all, even if many of ‘em aren’t the ones that show up on other folks’ lists of favorites. I’ll bet that there are at least a few entries on my list that you weren’t even aware of, right?
But here’s something that’s really got me stymied: the onetime young and perky Gidget and The Flying Nun cast as Aunt May Parker in this month’s upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man?
Aw, c’mon, say it ain’t so, Sally Field!
(And in the unlikely chance that I actually survive the almost-upon-us San Diego Comic-Con International, I’ll see you back here next month with more cranky comments!)
– Scott Shaw!
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comics, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange photo-animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become… The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for KaBOOM!
Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
Back in the late 1980s, when he was drawing such titles as DC’s Doom Patrol and Marvel’s Punisher, I ran into Savage Dragon creator-to-be Erik Larsen at a San Diego Comic-Con, where I complimented him on his “cartoony” drawing style. But instead of accepting my kudos, Erik – never the sort of person to mince words – made a sour expression on his face and said something to the effect of “Actually, I’m trying as hard as I can to dump that style. It’s costing me work!” Fortunately, Erik eventually changed his mind, and that’s why Savage Dragon is one of my favorite funnybooks – even when it’s deadly serious, it’s delightfully outrageous, exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous looking. It’s just what I dig in a superhero comic, which in my opinion should look outrageous, exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous – just like the concept of brightly costumed flying men, super-strong women and wall-walking whatchamacallits.
I recently had dinner with a fellow cartoonist whose work I’ve admired for a long time, Joe Staton. Joe’s one of those rare cartoonists who has drawn everything from Green Lantern to E-Man to Scooby-Doo and all with equal expertise. We discussed our styles, both of which share a humorous bent. He explained that his current gig, drawing the syndicated Dick Tracy comic strip written by Mike Curtis, was the perfect assignment. Not only was Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould his original inspiration to become a cartoonist, but Joe was also getting more than a bit tired of dialing back the cartoony-ness of his style when drawing superheroes and the like. The audience for those comics apparently prefers a darkly photorealistic approach over “light ‘n’ fun”. With Dick Tracy, Joe can get paid for drawing what he loves to draw – and he does it damn well, too.
Both of these stories about cartoonists whose careers both included stretches in which they were forced to draw much “straighter” than they’d have preferred — have happy endings. And those just don’t happen nearly often enough, at least not often enough for the funnybook industry. But then, I’m a cartoonist.
Back when I was growing up, nearly all comic books and comic strips were drawn in “cartoony” styles, no matter how dead serious their storylines could get. Here are just a few my favorite cartoonists who drew “straight” material in decidedly less-than-serious styles: Dick Sprang (his square-jawed, Dick Tracy-esqe Batman and giant typewriters); Ross Andru and Mike Esposito (of their work on Metal Men, Wonder Woman and “The War That Time Forgot” in Star Spangled War Stories, cartoonist Evan Dorkin once observed that Andru and Esposito’s characters all looked “insane”); Jack Cole (his Plastic Man was equal parts superhero and humor strip while his crime and horror stories were only slightly less outrageous); Steve Ditko (The Amazing Spider-Man, “Dr. Strange” in Strange Tales, Blue Beetle and The Creeper – all cool, all weird, all cartoony as hell); Ramona Fradon (her “Aquaman” in Adventure Comics was cartoony but warmly beautiful, her Metamorpho was the only version that worked visually); Jack Davis (his style was as much at home on straight horror in EC’s Tales From The Crypt as it was in Mad); Mike Sekowsky (his Justice League Of America featured the widest Superman ever); Marie and John Severin (this sister-and-brother act was known for comedy but produced Marvel’s wonderful Kull The Conqueror together); and Jack Kirby (whose resumé spanned every style and genre – from Captain America to “Earl The Rich Rabbit” – while always remaining uniquely himself).
In fact, I’ll never forget the smile that spread across Jack’s face, sometime during my first visit to his home, when I told him that he was my favorite cartoonist. And to most of us who turn blank pages into stories and artwork, “cartoonist” is the label we prefer. After all, we write and draw cartoons. I’ll even bet that Hal Foster – whose Prince Valiant syndicated Sunday strip was about as realistic as any famous funnies pages feature ever – referred to himself as a “cartoonist”. (Hey, Foster was a dues-paying member of the National Cartoonists Society for many years.)
But then, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Neal Adams came along. Although Neal’s first published comic book work appeared in an issue of Archie’s Joke Book, he had a background in the sophisticated comics-format ads of the fabled Johnstone and Cushing ad agency and the Ben Casey syndicated comic strip. After drawing a slew of Superman-related covers for DC editor Mort Weisinger, Neal went on to stellar gigs on “Deadman” in Strange Adventures, “Batman” in Detective Comics, X-Men and The Avengers. Suddenly, everyone was raving about how “realistic” Neal’s style was. By the time Jack Kirby’s first “Fourth World” comics debuted at DC, the “King Of Comics” found himself sharing his position of industry importance with Neal Adams.
So, what is “realistic”, anyway?
Well, it sure ain’t Neal Adams’ drawing style. Neal’s art is impeccably executed, but it’s an idealization of reality as seen through a perspective from Madison Avenue. The work of the great Russ Heath is certainly a bit more realistic, but Russ’ approach to drawing – even at age 85 (!) – is still too fastidious to be considered realistic. I suppose Alex Ross’ work is about as “realistic” as comic books get… but his dynamic poses, staging and compositions are anything but everyday. And isn’t “realistic” supposed to reflect the “real world”? But one thing’s for sure: ever since Neal Adams entered the world of comic books, the ability to draw in a “realistic” style has been the goal of many – in my opinion, too many – comic book artists. (Please note that I avoided using the word “cartoonist”.)
A few years ago, I displayed my work at the Long Beach Comic-Con and the pro set up at the table next to me was a talented young guy named Joshua Middleton (NYX, Superman/Shazam: First Thunder, many covers). I’ll admit I was unfamiliar with his artwork, but after witnessing the rabid demand for his originals, I studied up on Josh and his approach to drawing comic book art. My impression is that he shoots specific photographs that relate to the scripts he illustrates, uses PhotoShop to trace them, adds backgrounds and props, inks the tracings and, with his impeccable color sense, paints each image digitally. If that’s not accurate (and it may not be, considering my aversion to technology), I apologize to Mr. Middleton, but the final result is some very impressive “realistic” art, even if the pages of original artwork that Josh was selling hand-over-fist to an eager following did resemble extremely well-drawn coloring book art.
Here’s the big issue I don’t understand. How come the average person out there is resistant to reading a “straight” comic book like Watchmen, Marvels or The Rocketeer but loves humorous comic strips like Peanuts, Calvin And Hobbes or Mutts? And how come faithful comic book readers’ tastes seem to be the opposite, flocking to the straight stuff yet shunning the funny stuff like the plague? (I’ll never forget the year that Keith Giffen, J. M. Matteis and Kevin McGuire’s Justice League Of America received an Eisner Award nomination for “Best Humorous Series”. Sheesh!) If the world of comic books paralleled the real world, Bongo’s Sergio Aragonés Funnies would be America’s best-selling comic book – and deservedly so, since it’s written and drawn by the World’s Best Cartoonist – instead of being a mere niche title!
Are the vast majority of modern comic books going for a dark and/or photorealistic approach to storytelling because their publishers think they’re competing with the various live-action films? Or instead, are they trying to attract the attention of live-action filmmakers?
Fortunately, there are a few cartoonists left who “get” it. Kyle Baker (The Bakers, Special Forces and Deadpool Max), Roger Langridge (The Muppet Show, Thor The Mighty, Snarked! and Popeye) and Darwyn Cooke (DC: The New Frontier, Richard Stark’s Parker and now, Before Watchmen) – and the aforementioned Erik Larsen and Sergio Aragonés are all delivering comic book stories with a much welcome (for me, at least) cartoony touch.
Maybe some of them can answer this question better than I can: since when was a flying man any more “realistic” than a talking duck?
Next up: “Why I Don’t Dig Superhero Movies!”
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comics, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become… The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for KaBOOM!
Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist: How I Became a Comic Book Reader, a Comic Book Collector…
Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
“How I Became A Comic Book Reader, A Comic Book Collector, A Comic Book Fanboy, A Comic Book Convention Organizer, A Comic Book Character, An Underground Comix Book Creator, A Comic Book Cosplayer, A Comic Book Retailer, A Comic Book Professional… And A Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist!“
I was born in 1951. I assume it wasn’t with an overly moist funnybook clutched in one of my tiny pink fists, but with me, you never know.
Approximately three years later, I began to teach myself how to read using comic books. Their mysterious combinations of words and pictures proved irresistible to me, and I became determined to unlock their delicious secret. Somehow, I vaguely remember an issue of Dell Comics‘ Woody Woodpecker was responsible for my big breakthrough moment.
Now I was a comic book reader.
My childhood occurred roughly during child psychologist and author (Seduction of the Innocent, 1953) Dr. Fredric Wertham’s war on comic books. His theory was that comic books caused juvenile delinquency because every juvenile delinquent he’d ever interviewed had read comic books. (By that reasoning, milk also caused juvenile delinquency!) Decades later, I asked my elderly mother why they bought me so many “funnybooks” in such times, but her only response was, “They seemed to be really important to you.” Yep, that’s me, all right, then and now.
Not long after I turned five, I was hospitalized for a tonsillectomy, a childhood rite of passage in those days. It meant that, for at least three or four days (and scary nights), I was away from my parents and my home in a children’s ward with dozens of young strangers. The only good things about the rather traumatic experience were all the ice cream and the huge pile of funnybooks that my folks brought me. I still remember a few of the titles in that tower of pulp: Dennis the Menace, Mighty Mouse, Zippy the Chimp, Tom Terrific, Captain Kangaroo (strange, to my knowledge, my parents were never stockholders in CBS); and my first-ever “realistic” comic book, an issue of Superboy, cover-featuring “The One-Man Baseball Team!,” probably the first and last time I ever cared much about sports. One thing was certain; I’d never received so many new funnybooks at the same time in my young life. Soon, I owned a lot of funnybooks, so many, in fact, that I had to sort them into small stacks: funny ones featuring comic strip and animated cartoon characters; exciting ones featuring Superman and Batman and Congorilla and, of course, the scary yet cool ones featuring lots of monsters! That’s when I realized I was not just a comic book reader.
Now I was a comic book reader and a comic book collector.
Early on, I decided that I wanted to be a cartoonist, primarily due to the influences of Dr. Seuss (The King’s Stilts, McElligot’s Pool, If I Ran the Zoo), Jay Ward (Rocky and His Friends), William Hanna and Joseph Barbera (Ruff and Reddy, Quick Draw McGraw, The Flintstones), Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) — and from comic books, Sam Glanzman’s Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle and George Gladir and Orlando Busino’s Tales Calculated to Drive You Bats.
I saw my first Jack Kirby-drawn comic book story around then. It was either in DC Comics‘ Secret Origins No. 1 (featuring a reprint of approximately half of the origin of the Challengers of the Unknown) or Marvel Comics’ Tales of Suspense No. 11. (If it was the latter, my mother made me put it back on the rack because she thought the story “I Created Sporr, the Thing That Could Not Die!” looked like it would give me nightmares and instructed me to purchase a nice and safe Space Mouse funnybook instead. (Decades later, I got revenge on her by naming her only grandson after the cartoonist who drew “Sporr”!)
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I loved many four-color gems of the Silver Age of Comic Books, many of which featured dinosaurs and/or talking purple gorillas on their front covers. I’m sure that this was when my tastes in Oddball Comics began to develop.
In the middle of 1961, I saw most comics go from a dime to 12¢, except for Dell Comics, which jumped to 15¢. The moment when I was told that I was a nickel short of the cover price of the latest issue of Daffy Duck was one of the most traumatic events of my young life. And even though DC Comics published on the inside of the front cover of all of their comics a full-page apology/explanation for their price hike to 12¢, my ability to perform mental mathematics has never been the same.
In 1964, I had my first letter to a comic book editor published; it was in DC’s Challengers of the Unknown No. 40 and I was suggesting a sequel to issue No. 35’s “War Against the Moon-Beast”. I even sent editor Murray Boltinoff a color sketch of a revived version of that ol’ moon-beastie that was more than slightly influenced by the makeup in the 1958 monster movie, War of the Colossal Beast. (Geez, was I a nerd, or what?) That same year, I finally jumped on board with the early Marvel superheroes a little more than two years into their existence. My first purchase was Fantastic Four No. 29 and that entire run of issues by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee on FF has remained my favorite superhero comic book series ever since.
I was lucky to attend junior high and high school with a surprising number of fellow geeks, weirdos and nerds, many of whom followed their instincts to become writers, artists, scientists and booksellers. In 1968, two of those friends and I attended my first fan convention, the 26th annual World Science Fiction Convention, AKA WorldCon and BayCon, in Berkeley, California. Being surrounded by nearly 1,500 oddballs that shared my interests and outlook was a transforming experience, to say the least.
Now I was a comic book reader, a comic book collector and a comic book fanboy.
Later that year, I bought my first underground comix in 1968, Gilbert Shelton’s Feds ‘n’ Heads. I had already loved Gilbert’s “Wonder Wart-Hog” in Shelton’s Help! and Drag Cartoons, and the short-lived Wonder Wart-Hog Magazine, but I found his “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” to be even funnier, with some of the best timing on the printed page ever seen in funnybooks. Joining Jack Kirby, Gilbert Shelton became my second primary inspiration as an aspiring cartoonist.
Along with some of my high school buddies and some other fans, I was one of the kids who organized the first San Diego Mini-Con in March, 1970. This directly led to the San Diego Comic-Con in August, 1970. Over the next few years, my involvement with what would eventually grow to become San Diego’s Comic-Con International, I met dozens of fans, retailers and professional writers, artists and editors, many of whom are still my friends. In fact, more than 43 years after that first mini-con, I’ve attended every day of every year of the San Diego Comic-Con and proud of it. I’ve really got to get a life.
Now I was a comic book reader, a comic book collector, a comic book fanboy and a comic book convention organizer.
I met Jack Kirby in 1971. He seemed pleased when I told him that he was my favorite cartoonist. Not “artist”, “cartoonist”. Almost immediately, Jack offered to transform my friends and I into characters in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen No. 144 (December, 1971); we became “The San Diego Five String Mob,” assassins disguised as a rock band, summoned from Apokolips to Earth on a mission to bump off Superman.
Now I was a comic book reader, a comic book collector, a comic book fanboy, a comic book convention organizer and a comic book character.
My first professional sale to a comic book was “The Turd” in Ken Krueger’s Gory Stories Quarterly No. 2 ½, published by Shroud Press in 1972. Ken was a longtime fan, retailer and publisher, as well as being one of Comic-Con’s founders, but he was also willing to pay me – a kid whose cartoons had only appeared in school newspapers and fanzines – for my story about a sewer monster made of living feces.
Now I was a comic book reader, a comic book collector, a comic book fanboy, a comic book convention organizer, a comic book character and an underground comix book creator.
In the summer of 1972, I attended the 30th annual WorldCon in Los Angeles. There, I was awarded a special award for a masquerade costume I made out of eighteen pounds of peanut butter, based on my character, “The Turd”.
Now I was a comic book reader, a comic book collector, a comic book fanboy, a comic book convention organizer, a comic book character, an underground comix book creator and a comic book cosplayer.
In 1975, I moved from San Diego to Los Angeles, where I became the manager of the comic book store American Comic Book Company in Studio City. I even set up my art studio in one the shop’s back rooms, so I could create new comic book stories when I wasn’t selling old ones.
Now I was a comic book reader, a comic book collector, a comic book fanboy, a comic book convention organizer, a comic book character, an underground comix book creator, a comic book cosplayer and a comic book retailer.
The next year, I met Marvel Comics editor Roy Thomas at the ACBC, and he asked me to write and draw a back-up story for Marvel’s What If? No. 8, “What If the Spider Had Been Bitten By a Radioactive Human?” (My late, great friend Dave Stevens, creator of The Rocketeer, helped me out on a few panels; the difference between our styles is obvious.) This eventually led to Roy and I co-creating Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew! for DC Comics a few years later… and surprisingly, it didn’t hurt Dave’s career a bit.
Now I was a comic book reader, a comic book collector, a comic book fanboy, a comic book convention organizer, a comic book character, an underground comix book creator, a comic book cosplayer, a comic book retailer and a comic book professional… and I’ve worked as the latter for more than forty years now, on an assortment of characters for a variety of publishers.
So why have I gone to the trouble of informing you of my history in the wacky world of funnybooks? Well, when my friend Corey Blake asked me to contribute a regular column for The Comics Observer, it occurred to me, “Why not? I’ve already done everything else related to comic books!”
I suppose this is just my way of letting you know that, although my new column here “Confessions Of A Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist!” will be a forum for me to rant, rave, observe and criticize the art and business of comic books, it won’t come from an uninformed opinion.
After all, I’ve earned the right to be a crazy old coot, dammit.
I’ll see all of you back here next month for some of that ranting and raving I promised.
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comic, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show.
Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist is © 2012 Scott Shaw!
The release of the critically acclaimed graphic novels Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman forever shifted the American perception of comic books, revealing a potential for sophistication in visual storytelling and mass appeal previously unrealized or forgotten. It’s taken a couple of decades for the industry to build up from these milestones, but the late 1980s were an exciting time where a lot of the groundwork was laid for establishing a demand for independent (read: not Marvel or DC superhero) comics, future improvements in creator rights, and a healthy graphic novel and manga distribution market in book stores, among other things.
In the midst of this, sci-fi author Harlan Ellison created a straight-to-video documentary spotlighting ten American comic book artists who were on the front lines of innovation and creativity at the time, as well as looking at the history up to that point. Released in 1987, it has remained out-of-print since the demise of the VHS era. Now the entire hour is viewable again thanks to YouTube user StandUpComicBooks.
UPDATE: Unfortunately the video was removed at the request of the copyright owner. Hopefully this means that an official release digitally or otherwise is planned, as it’s a shame for this snapshot of comics history to be unavailable to the general public.
Two of the true innovators and original pioneers of the comic book industry died recently.
Jerry Robinson died Wednesday, December 7, at the age of 89. Robinson will forever be most linked with the 1940 creation of Batman’s nemesis and possibly the first super-villain, The Joker. During this time, he also co-created Robin the Boy Wonder to be Batman’s sidekick, which established what soon became an iconic narrative device for superhero comics, and of course the inevitable wave of sidekick imitators. As if forever changing the superhero genre wasn’t enough, he also created another iconic element of Batman, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred. Following his genre-defining work in superhero comics in the 1930s and ’40s, Robinson went on to fight for creator rights (notably in support of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, co-creators of Superman), write The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (one of the earliest publications to detail the history of the art form [Dark Horse Comics published a revised and expanded edition earlier this year]), as well as establish CartoonArts International, a syndicate that helped create distribution networks for political cartoonists around the world. He is the only person to have served as President of both the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), and also served as guest curator for several art galleries hosting shows featuring comics art.
Joe Simon died last Thursday, December 14, at the age of 98 of an undisclosed illness. In late 1940 with his partner Jack Kirby, Simon created Captain America, one of the first and certainly the most influential superhero meant to stir up patriotism as the United States considered involvement in World War II. The first issue of Captain America Comics, released in December 1940 (cover-dated March 1941), brazenly featured Captain America slugging Adolf Hitler in the jaw right on the cover. While Hitler now seems like a comic book villain, he was then a real-world political leader. With nearly one million copies sold, it was considered an instant hit and got the attention of Nazi sympathizers and anti-war activists who wrote angry and even threatening letters. Flag-draped superheroes soon came out of the woodwork but few could compete. Simon served as head editor of the Marvel Comics precursor, Timely Comics, during this time, but soon moved on with Kirby to create a brand new genre for the comics art form: romance. Now frequently satirized, romance comics were a massive hit and brought in a whole new demographic. The two were also pioneers in establishing the horror and true crime genres in comics, which were also huge sellers. Simon went on to consult for Harvey Comics in the 1960s, helping to develop then new characters Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich. Simon also wrote two autobiographies, The Comic Book Makers and this year’s Joe Simon: My Life in Comics.
Indicative of how small the industry is and was back then, the two shared studio space in New York City for a time.
You might not think it, but the comics community has a big heart. One great example is The Hero Initiative, a Los Angeles-based charity that raises money for creators who are in dire straits (not the band but the financial situation). Here’s a video I put together of a special event held at Meltdown Comics this past Saturday night.
For you savvy comics folks, that’s writer Mark Waid of Kingdom Come fame yelling out “you’ve made a powerless enemy”. He and producer Tom DeSanto were probably the most generous bidders. Mike Malve of Epic Digital Media was the winner of the Alex Ross cover in the video above. The entire night raised about $15,000 for The Hero Initiative.