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.
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!
After living here for just over ten years, I’m still learning about Los Angeles and its surprisingly rich history. From the 1950s and into the mid-’60s, local station KTLA, then owned by Paramount, ran The Pier Point 5 Club, later renamed The Popeye Show. Both shows aired live segments between episodes of the Popeye cartoon, which had been licensed to Paramount in 1941. To compete with other children’s programming, KTLA needed a host for the live segments, and so they hired Tom Hatten.
Dressed as a skipper to resemble Popeye, what made Tom Hatten unique from the other kids show hosts was his abilities as an artist, in addition to being a classically trained actor. Tom Hatten would draw Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto live on the show. For many LA area kids, this was probably the first time they’d ever seen someone draw seemingly random lines on a page and bring them together to create something familiar. The show was so popular that it was brought back in the ’70s and ’80s.
That magical experience was expanded when Tom Hatten started holding contests on the show where random “squiggle” as he would call them, would be made by a local kid, and then he would turn it into a whale or funny looking character. If he couldn’t turn the squiggle into something, the kid would win a free bike.
This kind of local programming is unheard of these days, so naturally this kind of improvised drawing is almost impossible to find. Fortunately I know of one live performance happening this week that is an absolute joy to watch. At Comic-Con International: San Diego, one my favorite panels is Quick Draw, where master cartoonists Sergio Aragonés (Groo the Wanderer, Mad Magazine) and Scott Shaw! (Captain Carrot & His Amazing Zoo Crew, Simpsons Comics) improvise their way through a flurry of cartoon drawings. This year they’ll be joined by cartoonist Mike Kazaleh (The Adventures of Captain Jack, Futurama). The show is hosted by comics historian/animation director Mark Evanier and there are usually some guest appearances by popular comics creators. It’s a hilarious hour and change, and really shows just how brilliant these people are to be able to create identifiable objects with personality and style using free association and random audience suggestions.
But back to Tom Hatten. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any videos on YouTube of Tom drawing from the original show itself, but I found this two-part interview from 2004 where he was a guest on the local talk show Marty’s Corner. He demonstrated the squiggles game and his drawing Olive Oyl to get the job, along with other great anecdotes.
Today in 1894, Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois. As E.C. Segar, he would grow up to create the comic strip “Thimble Theatre,” which would eventually star the character Popeye the Sailor. In 1971, the National Cartoonist Society created the Elzie Segar Award in his honor to recognize people who make a unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning. Last month, Fantagraphics Books released their first volume of a reprint series of “Thimble Theatre” starting with Popeye’s introduction in 1928. (Sources: E.C. Segar Sees Green, Popeye’s Poopdeck, Lambiek, Wikipedia