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.
Depending on your point of view, comics can either be seen as a 20th century art form—or a storytelling medium that’s been around since possibly the dawn of man.
However you slice it, the point is that comics have—to put it lightly—a very rich history. But a sense of history, I find, is something you grow into. You can’t really force it onto someone (as my teachers in school can tell you).
By the mid-00s, I’d reached that point where I couldn’t wait for my favorite creative teams to put out another book or I was starting to suffer from blockbuster superhero event fatigue. So, instead of looking forward, I started looking to what had come before.
Sure, I’d read and reread Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns like they were the bible, but everything before the 80s? Not really.
Finding Steve Ditko
Then came Jonathan Ross, a television personality in the UK and a massive comics fan. He was particularly obsessed with the works of Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and a couple of other superhero names that probably aren’t familiar to a lot of people, even some regular comic readers.
In 2007, he put together a documentary for BBC Four called In Search of Steve Ditko. The show focused on not just the man’s works, but also on his personality and beliefs. It talked about how he was a famous recluse and how he was a loyal follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy Objectivism.
It was a thoroughly fascinating story; the kind you’d find being told in indie comics. I was hooked.
I started picking up more of the Essential Spider-Man and Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man collections, not just to familiarize myself with the early adventures of my buddy Peter Parker, but to enjoy Ditko’s distinctively claustrophobic and paranoid style. I picked up his Doctor Strange stuff and even ordered those Steve Ditko Archives from Fantagraphics. And, man, did I devour them.
I still recommend In Search of Steve Ditko enthusiastically, not just to comic fans, but anyone who appreciates a good story. But if we’re talking about the history of comics and good stories, well, then there’s another name that’s bound to come up—Jack Kirby.
Hail to The King
I mentioned earlier that Ditko co-created Spider-Man. Unless you’re living under some kind of pop culture-repellent rock, you’ll know that the other man responsible for Spidey is Stan Lee.
Up till their final issue together, Lee and Ditko produced some undeniably (pardon the pun) amazing comics together. Their partnership seemed like a perfect pairing in a medium that paired up words and pictures.
Then I read Lee’s Fantastic Four run with Jack “King” Kirby—widely regarded as the man who defined the visual dynamism of superhero comics for generations to come—and something just felt… different.
Yes, tonally, the FF was about cosmic adventures, while Spider-Man was about personal problems mixed up with superheroics, but there was more to it than that. When it came to the life of a down-on-his-luck teenage superhero, Lee’s dialogue really complimented Ditko’s quirky art. But when it came to larger-than-life adventures, would any words—even those of the deliciously hyperbolic Lee—really ever truly match up to the accordingly epic visuals?
The answer, for me at least, was no. Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four plots were incredible, of that there’s no doubt. But once the story started rolling, his dialogue just couldn’t keep up with Kirby’s seemingly unlimited imagination.
As writer Ivan Brandon put it in an op-ed piece from last year, “[Kirby] had a story to tell and that story was bigger than everything around him.”
… Of giants.
And this is all just the tip of the iceberg, really. I have so much more Kirby to digest and at least a bit more Ditko. I’m also not as well versed in Will Eisner’s body of work as I’d like to be.
Or how about Moebius.
Or Robert Crumb.
Or Dick Giordano.
Or Neil Adams.
Or… well, you get my point. Hell, I could probably create a whole separate column about trying to digest as much of comic’s history as possible, but I’m already late with one column as it is.
There’ll be more editions like this though. ‘Cause like I said earlier, comics have such a rich history—so why on earth would I not try my darndest to digest as much of it as possible?
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.
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.
Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist: Ten More-Or-Less Current, More-Or-Less Mainstream Funnybooks That I Actually More-Or-Less Enjoy – And Why!
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!
It may surprise some of you that I still read current comic books. Since writing and drawing allegedly humorous comic books is one aspect of my career as a cartoonist, it’s a matter of keeping up with the competition when it comes to reading funnybooks that are actually funny. But I also dig other genres, too. I’ll admit, I don’t purchase many new comics anymore, but between those I buy, borrow or browse at the local comic book emporiums, I’ve compiled this list of those I can recommend.
I’ll start with a few superhero series I dig, since that genre still seems to dominate the racks. Let’s face it, most superhero comics adhere to that old unwritten rule: “Create the illusion of change without ever changing anything for long.” Instead, the fun of the Marvel Universe – much more than DC’s dour, drab and depressing “New 52” – is in how the playing pieces are moved around in new and interesting ways.
Marvel’s Fantastic Four will always be my favorite superhero title and I’ll buy it as long as Marvel keeps publishing it. That dedication is due to my first reading it back when Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Chic Stone, Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers and others made sure that it really was “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Since those first hundred-or-so issues of Fantastic Four, the series’ quality has been wildly up, down and all over the place, but rarely approaching the compelling “sense of wonder” and fun that the Kirby/Lee team achieved. Most of those assigned to the title over the years seem to be attempting to re-create stories from those first hundred issues… and they never seem to quite “get” it. The current version plays with many of those classic elements – the Inhumans, Doctor Doom, Atlantis, the Kree, Annihilus and the Negative Zone, etc. – but writer Jonathan Hickman and rotating artists Steve Epting, Ron Garney, Barry Kitson and others seem more interested in telling new sense of wonder stories with them, even if I’m the one who sometimes winds up wondering exactly what is going on in Hickman and company’s sparely presented storytelling. At least I feel like I’m reading new exploits of the FF, not more rehashes. (Speaking of the FF, that Hickman-written spin-off – featuring the young members of the Future Foundation, overseen by a civilized version of Dragon Man – is a tougher read, especially due to some extremely off-putting artwork by Juan Bobillo.)
That moving-around-playing-pieces has been an enjoyable part of Marvel’s Thunderbolts since its inception back in 1997 by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley. Writer Jeff Parker and a variety of artists have been the latest folks on the series for the last few years and their approach to crafting the ongoing adventures of multiple teams of bad guys – both rehabilitated and otherwise – all overseen by Luke Cage, has been a lot of fun. Twists, turns and double-crosses abound, with the team’s headquarters unanchored in the time stream to complicate matters. (This lost-in-time wrinkle provided an amusingly uneasy team-up with Captain America and the Invaders during WWII.) In recent months, the book has been re-titled Dark Avengers after Norman Osborn’s team of badass stand-ins for some of the heroic Avengers’ stalwarts. By comparison, Luke’s team almost seems like the good guys they pretend to be. The unexpected arrival of Dr. Doom (direct from Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch‘s “realistic” stint on Fantastic Four from a few years back) is yet another player sure to challenge the small-time supervillains’ internal politics. To my knowledge, this is the only series focusing on bad guys that’s lasted so long and it deserves to hold the record over such lame and lesser attempts such as DC’s Secret Society Of Super Villains or Marvel’s Super Villain Team-Up. But whether his book is called Thunderbolts or Dark Avengers, Jeff Parker provides a lot of evil fun.
Over the years I’ve heard or read a variety of arguments before and against the categorization of Elzie Segar’s “Popeye The Sailor” as the first modern superhero. (You’ve gotta admit that the notion of a tough-with-his-fists human male who gains phenomenal super-strength after ingesting a special substance and who is utterly unkillable 24/7/365 certainly sounds like a superhero!) Depending on my mood, I could easily support either stance, but one thing is constant: I love Popeye and he’s one of my all-time favorite characters, especially his original incarnation in Segar’s Thimble Theater syndicated comic strip. My first exposures to the sailor man was in Fleischer Studios’ animated “Popeye” cartoon shorts and Bud Sagendorf’s stories for Dell’s Popeye comic book and I love those, too, but IDW’s version is modeled on Segar’s original. Writer Roger Langridge (Snarked!) really captures the delightfully peculiar personalities and voices of Segar’s Popeye, Olive Oyl, J. Wellington Wimpy, the Sea Hag and the rest of the cast. So far, the second issue, featuring terrific art by Ken Wheaton, has been my favorite, but I’ve liked ‘em all a lot.
Then there’s Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon for Image Comics. Erik insists that his character is anything but a superhero, but the strip reads like a 1970s Marvel comic as interpreted by a talented underground cartoonist under the influence of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and some killer acid. Although Savage Dragon started out as a typical Image book (after all, Erik’s one of the publisher’s original founders and its former publisher), after a few years, Erik found his muse and ever since, the one thing you can count on from Savage Dragon is that the characters, stories and tone can turn on a dime. You never know what to expect from Savage Dragon and Erik rarely disappoints. Standouts have been (for me, at least): a long story arc in tribute to Kirby’s Kamandi; a honeymoon sequence that was originally conceived as a pitch for a Savage Dragon syndicated comic strip; a galaxy-conquering despot who looks like a cute little toy; a male Captain Marvel-esque superhero whose secret identity has been both a woman and an infant; a decidedly non-jolly green giant Osama bin Laden; an unauthorized appearance by the fabulous, furry Freak Brothers; and of course, Erik’s legendarily offensive “Don’t FUCK with God!” page. Now you see why I always pick up every issue of Savage Dragon; who knows what I might miss!
And although it’s not an actual superhero title, DC’s All-Star Western starring the latest iteration of “Jonah Hex” by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Moritat certainly depends on Batman for its central concept. This series explores the Gotham City of the mid-19th Century by dropping the disfigured and morally raw Civil War vet into the middle of it. (I assume the inspiration was the 1970 TV series McCloud starring Dennis Weaver.) Anyway, Jonah has been summoned by Dr. Amadeus Arkham (founder of Arkham Asylum) to solve a chain of serial killings. Along the way he runs afoul of Gotham’s Mayor Cobblepot (an ancestor of the Penguin) and even plummets into the caverns beneath what will someday become the real estate that Wayne is built upon! It’s a fascinating look at a retrofitted version of Gotham City, and Gray and Palmiotti have long proven their skill in writing Jonah Hex over the last few years. Moritat, last seen on the DC’s “First Wave” version of The Spirit, does a good job, although he needs to learn how to draw more than one look for a woman’s face. There’s also been a number of solid backup stories with a general Western setting, including “El Diablo” drawn by Jordi Bernet, “The Barbary Ghost” drawn by Phil Winslade, “Bat Lash” drawn by José Luis Garcia-López (!), “Nighthawk/Cinnamon” and “Terrence Thirteen”. I know I’m not the only comic book pro who considers All-Star Western – edited by Joey Cavalieri – to be the best of DC’s “New 52” by a wide margin.
Stan Sakai has been writing and drawing his Usagi Yojimbo for over twenty years and yet there are still a few people out there who dismiss it because it features talking animals. Dark Horse has been publishing Usagi Yojimbo for a large part of that time, and as his many awards verify, Stan just keeps getting better and better. Over the years, I’ve drawn my fair share of “funny animal” comics and during that time, I’ve heard the term “anthropomorphic” comics bandied about. I’m still not certain I completely understand the difference, but I can acknowledge that Usagi Yojimbo is definitely more “anthropomorphic” than “funny animal” and that Stan has become a master of subtlety as well as action, of nuance as well as the written word. However, we won’t be seeing any new issues of Usagi Yojimbo for a while, because Stan is temporarily putting his Ronin rabbit aside to concentrate on the upcoming 47 Samurai, a limited series written by Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson and starring a cast of historical humans. I’ve only seen a few pages but I think that it’s some of the most impressive work I’ve ever seen Stan draw and he rises to the challenge beautifully. I think that 47 Samurai is going to change a lot of minds regarding Usagi Yojimbo.
IDW’s ongoing Ghostbusters series has one foot in action, one foot in horror and one foot in comedy. (Three feet? Hey, what did you expect?) There have been quite a few stabs at adapting the ghost busting gang from the 1984 and 1989 films, but frankly, their quality has been all over the ectometer. But I think that this version has finally nailed it. First of all, Erik Burnham’s scripts have been terrific, with interesting new situations and crackling and clever dialog that’s extremely faithful to the specific on-screen personas of Bill Murray as “Dr. Peter Venkman”, Harold Ramis as “Dr. Egon Spengler”, Dan Aykroyd as “Dr. Raymond Stantz” and Ernie Hudson as “Winston Zeddemore”. These stories have been so well-done that I could easily see them as the basis for new Ghostbusters films, animated series or video games. (As if!) And speaking of animation, I’ve got a sneaking hunch that the series’ artist, Dan Schoening, has a background in that field, because his representations of the cast, while not actually caricatures of the property’s key actors, evoke them well enough to be instantly recognizable. Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening really “get” Ghostbusters and it shows. I think that this funnybook iteration of Ghostbusters is about as good as it can get, possibly even equal to Evan Dorkin’s legendary run on Marvel’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book… and as the guy who suggested BATECB to the Eisner judging committee, that’s really saying a lot.
Archie’s Kevin Keller by Dan Parent has gotten a ton of press due to the fact that it’s the first funnybook from “America’s most wholesome comic book publisher” to star an openly gay teenager. But outside of the gay press I’ve seen few if any reviews that point out that it’s genuinely a lot of fun. Now that such longtime Archie Comics creators as George Gladir, Stan Goldberg and Bob Bolling are rarely (if ever) given any new assignments, Dan Parent is arguably the company’s top creator in terms of writing and drawing the classic Archie characters with authority and appeal. Kevin Keller is no exception to that, especially when Dan wrings funny situations born of Veronica’s frustration that a cute, hip kid like Kevin Keller isn’t straight. But to Dan’s credit, the issue of Kevin’s gayness isn’t the only basis for his stories. But what I’ve especially dug about Kevin has been Dan’s terrific alternative covers for every issue of the ongoing series. Just as he drew for the initial Kevin mini-series, each one pays homage to the great Archie styles and themes of the past. One in particular that I love features Kevin – dressed as the old school Archie Andrews of the ‘40s and ‘50s – shrugging to the reader as if saying, “Can you believe how crazy-acting these straight teenagers are?”
Image’s Reed Gunther by Shane and Chris Houghton just finished up its initial 10-issue run but it’s not too late to pick up the two trade paperbacks that reprint the whole wonderful thing. I’m not a particular fan of westerns, so it’s kinda odd that I’ve got two of ‘em on this list, but if you think that All-Star Western sounds unusual, check out Reed Gunther. Reed is a roving cowboy who’s a magnet for trouble, much the same as James Garner’s private eye character in the classic 1970s TV series, The Rockford Files… except that Jim Rockford never had a grown grizzly bear for a best friend and steed. That’s right, thanks to Sterling, Reed is the Old West’s first (and only) bear-riding cowboy. Accompanied by the beautiful tomboy Starla, Reed become snared in an eldritch mystery of increasingly Lovecraftian nature and proportions… but instead of being terrifying, these monster-filled tales are hilarious! I can’t quite put a finger on why, but Reed Gunther somehow reminds me of European comic albums starring characters like Asterix, Tin Tin and Lucky Luke – and that can’t possibly be a bad thing, right? The maddeningly young and gifted Houghton brothers are currently turning their attentions to a new project, but they promise to return to Reed Gunther someday. Meanwhile, don’t miss the chance to savor Reed’s memorable first story arc.
Sergio Aragonés is arguable the World’s Greatest Living Cartoonist, and Bongo Comics’ Sergio Aragonés Funnies is, in my opinion, the best thing he’s done lately in a career that’s chock-full of “best things”… and I don’t write that just because El Maestro included a cameo appearance by Yours Truly on the cover of Sergio Aragonés Funnies No 1. Every issue includes a few short genre stories, a handful of puzzles and games, a pantomime gag or two and best of all, at least one (often two) autobiographical stories from Sergio’s amazing life – all written and drawn by Sergio himself! Unlike most of his other material, Sergio’s autobiographical pieces aren’t necessarily intended to be funny; many time they’re more poignant than you’d expect. His work for Mad and Groo The Wanderer has always been wonderful stuff, but these stories are special, even for him. (Let’s face it, Sergio’s one of the only cartoonists who’s ever had a life interesting enough to chronicle in funnybook form.) Sergio Aragonés Funnies has been on a temporary hiatus due to a passing problem with El Maestro’s back, but Sergio’s been on the mend for a while now – if anything, he’s doing even better than ever – and has jumped back into producing this now-bimonthly, Bill Morrison-edited series with a vengeance. So keep your eyes peeled for Sergio Aragonés Funnies No. 8, coming soon!
And finally, Keith Knight is one of the most talented and prolific cartoonists I know – I gobble up his stuff like junk food that’s actually good for me – yet he’s the only creator on this list that hasn’t done any actual comic books, but I’m gonna add it to my recommendations anyway. (Hey, it’s my list, my column and I’ll make and break the rules if I feel like it; consider it a bonus from me to you.) Fortunately for us, Keith’s The Knight Life (an autobiographical daily syndicated comic strip), The K Chronicles (his longtime autobiographical weekly comic strip) and (Th)ink (his weekly panel feature) have all been collected in a variety of reprint books published by Keith himself. Keith’s writing is hip, funny and smart, his drawing style reminds of Harvey Kurtzman’s (although he swears the Mad creator isn’t a particular influence) and his outlook on racial relations and humanity in general encompasses everything from sweetly cheerful (“Life’s Little Victories”) to hopelessly pessimistic. Visit Keith at kchronicles.com, read a healthy sampling of his stuff and order any and all of his books – Chivalry Ain’t Dead (The Knight Life), The Incredible Cuteness Of Being (The K Chronicles) and Too Small To Fail (Th)ink) are his latest – I promise you won’t regret it.
Not that any of my recommendations mean much in the greater scheme of things, but most (if not all) of these titles absolutely deserve better sales figures, so by all means, if what I’ve written here intrigues you, please, check ‘em out!
All I ask is that you leave a copy of each comic for me.
– Scott Shaw!
Next up: How and why I grew to love and embrace the once-reviled term “funnybook”!
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. 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 Ka-Boom. He’s currently writing and drawing on the first Annoying Orange graphic novel – split with Mike Kazaleh – for Papercutz.
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!
After the last two days, I think we need something to lighten things up before we head off to the Thanksgiving weekend.
If someone thinks about comic books long enough to consider that people actually make them, that person is probably aware of Stan Lee. The head editor and face of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, Stan “The Man” Lee helped plot and script nearly the entirety of Marvel’s then growing line of groundbreaking superhero comic books. He also either helped write or oversaw the western, romance, suspense, humor, war and other comics back when Marvel wasn’t primarily limited to one genre. He was also an innovator in fan interaction for the comics world of the time, taking on a carnival barker persona that remains to this day. While he hasn’t been involved in Marvel’s day-to-day operations for a long time, he’s still thought of as the guy who created the Marvel Universe, even if that title almost completely ignores the contributions of the brilliant artists working at Marvel at the time (most significantly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko). Despite the controversies and legal issues of who really created Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and all the others, and to what extent, Stan Lee remains a beloved public figure of Marvel and a legendary force of goodwill and visibility for comics in general.
These days, he remains as active as ever with his POW! Entertainment, where he’s provided concepts for a mini-line of superhero comics published by BOOM! Studios, superhero characters for the NHL, manga, and countless other projects, along with a first look deal with Disney and other production partnerships. (But not Stripperella. Nobody had anything to do with Stripperella.) And on the side, he makes cameos in Marvel Studios’ films:
To expand his Twitter and Facebook presence, Stan Lee is getting ready to launch TheRealStanLee.com, which is going to be a community-focused site. Here’s the promotional video that was released yesterday:
And thus we get to the real point of me posting all of this. Included in the above video is a clip of Stan Lee meeting The Fake Stan Lee. Played by cartoonist/improviser Kevin McShane, the Fake Stan Lee hits the right balance of playful tribute and pointed satire. For a few years now, McShane has been posting funny videos of himself as Stan Lee attending comic book conventions and interacting with attendants unabashedly being Stan Lee. And if you don’t know what that means, you got a glimpse at the above video. Now check out the below two videos. The first includes the two Stans meeting at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con.
And they had another showdown in last year’s Comic-Con:
For more Fake Stan Lee videos, check out his YouTube channel.
Yesterday morning, the Hooded Utilitarian posted my list along with 21 others who contributed to a giant survey of comic book creators, retailers, publishers, educators, commentators (like me) and other industry folk from all over the world to determine the 10 Best Comics. In total, 211 people responded.
I sent my list on June 15, in response to the question, “What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?” I started my email response to the Hooded Utilitarian with the following: “I want you to know, this is IMPOSSIBLE.”
And it is. But despite that…
- Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
- Bone by Jeff Smith
- Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
- Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman
- Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
- The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard
Start clicking and see if something interests you.
There are plenty of comics that are just as good as the above that deserve to be listed, and even some that are better. But I had a few guidelines to help focus my list down to a manageable size.
First, I had to have actually read the material. Of the above, only Peanuts has material that I have never read. But I’ve read enough of it that what I haven’t read would have to be an absolute bomb for it to tarnish the goodwill. That means there was some material that I am fully expecting to love and that I love for its mere existence and concept that I had to leave out. I really wanted to include Carol Tyler’s You’ll Never Know on my list. It sits by my desk in my to-read pile from last year‘s Comic-Con.
Second, I leaned much heavier on the “most significant” portion of the question. As some have pointed out, the question asked by The Hooded Utilitarian is really three different questions which could result in three very different lists. Because what interests me is comics’ efforts to find new audiences, I interpreted “most significant” as the comics that have been most successful in winning over new readers. That was probably my biggest barometer. Each of the above have helped establish a genre or publishing strategy or level of skill that has expanded what comics can be and are today. In retrospect, I might’ve leaned a little too heavy on modern material but I think some of the most innovative and inclusive material is being made now (if you know where to find it).
OK, so let’s hear it. What did I miss?
(More random thoughts after the jump.)
Over 200 international comic book creators, retailers, journalists, educators, and pundits (including me!) submitted their lists answering the question “What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?” back in May, and now the results are getting posted at The Hooded Utilitarian.
So far, the classics Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay, Locas stories by Jaime Hernandez, Pogo by Walt Kelly, MAD by Harvey Kurtzman and company, and Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby take up spots six through ten respectively. Four and five went up this morning and the top three spots will go up tomorrow and Friday.
Then starting on Monday, they’ll start to post the top 115, as well as each contributor’s list. Once mine goes up, I’ll link to it here as well as expand on why I chose what I chose.
So far none of my choices have made the Top 10, but that doesn’t completely surprise me. The why behind my choices probably didn’t match with the majority of the other participants. But I can’t argue with what’s up there. Each entry so far is legendary for a reason. The Little Nemo write-up by Shaenon K. Garrity in particular really resonated with me, effectively capturing why Winsor McCay and his comic strip are so special.
Only occasionally has a publication or institution attempted to define a canon for sequential art (comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, manga, web comics, etc.). Literature, film and other art forms have often selected what is generally considered by most critics and fans as the height of quality and/or influence, whether it be the American Film Institute or the Great Books of the Western World.
Here are some previous entries into establishing a comic book canon:
- Sixteen Steps Toward a Superhero Canon by Timothy Callahan (October 22, 2008)
- Flying the Standard Part 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 by Scott O. Brown (November 27-December 4, 2006)
- Top 100 Trade Paperbacks of All Time from Wizard Magazine: Free Comic Book Day (2006)
- Top 100 Comics Works of the 20th Century by Tom Spurgeon (October 24, 2004)
- The Top 100 (English-Language) Comics of the Century from The Comics Journal issue #210 (February 1999)
Part of the fun of these kinds of lists is to make shopping lists and, probably more, to debate. So I’ll be taking a look at this list and how it compares with the others, looking at what I think was missed, what they got right, and the growing consensus of these lists.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, not everyone takes to the language of sequential art instantly. Some need to ease into it. One possible solution probably isn’t really a solution at all, but it makes for a unique way to read some early comic books.
In the 1970s, Power Records released a series of vinyl 45’s of a fully produced performance of comic book stories, complete with voice actors, sound effects and music. A couple of years ago, a crafty YouTube user, noielmucus, put these recordings to an edited presentation of each issue included with each record so that the dialogue and captions being spoken appear on screen. A great way for kids to read along. The pacing is kind of slow for today’s audiences and some voices are just plain weird (like the weird sped up effect on Mr. Fantastic’s voice when he uses his powers) but others are actually quite good. It definitely makes for a fun curiosity.
The Marvel Comics records gave a performance of three classic issues, so it’s a unique way to experience these stories of the origin of the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, and one of the earliest adventures of Spider-Man. But the DC Comics ones appear to be original stories made just for these records (although I can’t identify the creators). They feature Superman against the inter-dimensional imp Mxyptlk, the Joker making his own utility belt to fight Batman and Robin, and more complete silliness.
Apparently this collection of 10 are just the tip of the iceberg. Over 90 LP records and 45-rpm singles were created. A modern version of these for young readers might be worth looking into by some enterprising company. (If you need any voice-actors, let me know.)
Amazing Spider-Man #1 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (1963) parts 1-5
Everyone is talking about how [spoiler] [spoiler] from the Fantastic Four [spoiler]ed. Click through for the de-[spoiler]ing info and my thoughts. SPOILERS coming… Read the rest of this entry