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.
Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
Back in prehistoric times – you probably know ‘em as “The Silver Age Of Comics” – when there were no superhero movies, comic book letter columns often ran letters suggesting which then-current actors would be suitable for casting in the roles of various superheroes. Most of us had seen the Adventures of Superman television series (1952 – 1958) – and at one of San Diego’s many naval base theaters I saw a single chapter of one of those Commando Cody serials (the inspiration for Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer) – so the notion of a motion picture starring a superhero didn’t seem impossible…
Except that, for me, at least, the concept of a live action superhero movie wasn’t something I was particularly anxious to see. I’d seen a 1943 Superman theatrical short, “The Underground World” on Channel 6’s cartoon show hosted by “Uncle Russ” – and that immediately convinced me that when it came to funnybook superheroes, animation was the best way to approach this sort of material (even though I was unable to convince my chums at Rowan Elementary School that the cartoon I’d watched existed at all!)
You see, I always dug the fact that, in comic books, superheroes were intentionally exaggerated characters who could routinely accomplish outrageous, unbelievable super-deeds. I never wondered what it would look like if superheroes were “real”; they were un-real and that was the way I liked ‘em: imaginary characters doing impossible things. I already had my fill of “real” in everyday life. (Yeah, I explained this in greater detail in last month’s Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist column. If you haven’t read it, go read it now right here. Don’t fret, I’ll wait for you.)
That said, I find that most live-action superhero movies actually diminish the long-underwear-and-capes crowd. No human physiognomy can possibly duplicate the musculature, foreshortening and poses of characters drawn by such “extreme” cartoonists as Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and Steve Ditko, among many others. And when it comes to depicting an awe-inspiring character like Galactus, as in 2007’s Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the audience gets a vague computer-generated effect. (On the other hand, the only thing the makers of that unfortunate sequel did right was the CG depiction of Norrin Radd; the gimmick of the character’s skin becoming tarnished as he loses “the power cosmic” was not only clever, it was something that would have been nearly impossible to pull off in the pages of a four-color funnybook.) In other words, the human body and CG special effects can possibly duplicate – or even come close to – what I love about comic books.
Another thing I dislike about most superhero films is the apparent necessity of spending one-third to one-half of their lengths to establishing the starring character with a “secret origin”. Sure, the audience might not know the specifics of a character’s back story, but they certainly know who the lead super-character is if they’ve already bought their ticket, popcorn and soda. Such famous characters’ origins are anything but secret! Can’t the origins be told along the way or in a flashback well within the body of the film? Or better yet, do it like it was in 1996’s The Phantom. (More on that in a few paragraphs!) The linear method, with a hero’s (or villain’s) origin taking up the entire beginning of the film reminds me of many 1950s monster movies in which we know what monster is behind the mysterious destruction, disappearances and deaths long before any of the characters because we saw the ads and poster first! In other words, it’s padding, pure and simple. The fact that the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man movie will once again retell the origin of the web-spinner is so superfluous, it makes me want to skip seeing the film altogether.
And what is it about Hollywood’s fascination with the “dark” side of superheroes? Tim Burton started that trend with his Batman film (1989), but I assume that was Warner Bros.’ intention in hiring the wunderkind to separate the dramatic Dark Knight from the lingering public association with the campy treatment the Caped Crusader received in ABC’s Batman TV series (1966 – 1968). But ever since then, most superhero movies have displayed similar dark tones, if not even darker. Superhero films don’t have to be silly or dead serious, folks; there’s plenty of other approaches in between the two extremes. But it should surprise no one reading this column that I’d much rather watch Cartoon Networks’ late, lamented Batman: The Brave and the Bold teaming up with the likes of Kamandi and B’wana Beast than Christian Bale’s The Dark Knight Rises featuring Bane, a bulky supervillain who looks like one of those idiots who compete in the Guinness Book of World Records’ category of “most cigarettes smoked at one time”. Sheesh.
Oh, I almost forgot… There are waaaaay too many effin’ superhero movies. There, I said it, O’ True Believers. Deal with it.
But to demonstrate that I don’t hate all superhero flicks, here’s a list of my favorite superhero theatrical movies so far (a baker’s dozen plus a runner-up) and why I dig ‘em so much:
RUNNER-UP: The Green Hornet (2011)
I know that this film was very unpopular with fans, but I thought that it followed a unique logic: if a goofy, wealthy and pudgy young playboy decides to become a superhero, it stands to reason that he’ll become a goofy, wealthy and pudgy young superhero, which is exactly what Seth Rogan does in this movie. And although there are a few cringe-inducing sequences in The Green Hornet (the fast-action make-out in the garage and that fight between Britt Reid (Rogan) and Kato (the quite appropriate Jay Chou) that seems to go on longer than the fight in John Carpenter’s They Live) I think that director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Be Kind Rewind) did a great job handling an action movie, especially with a death-trap via heavy construction equipment that bury our heroes inside their extremely cool battle-car, the “Black Beauty”. But my real reason for including The Green Hornet here is a brilliantly directed scene that takes place toward the end of the movie. In it, as a befuddled Britt Reid struggles to connect a number of seemingly random crimes, director Gondry takes us inside the crime fighter’s mind, using animation to show how he manages to piece together the various elements into a now obvious crime wave. I’ve never seen this sort of visual shorthand used in any other movie, but as a cartoonist, I absolutely loved it.
NO. 13: Blankman (1994)
Although by most accounts an embarrassment, I like the fact that this comedy’s lead character, ultra-nerdy inventor-without-a-budget Darryl Walker (played by Damon Wayans in full-throttle geek mode) has what I consider to be by far the best-ever motivation to become a costumed superhero: Darryl’s read enough comic books to think it’s a cool and lofty goal. Additionally, I dig the casting of Jason Alexander as the publisher of a particularly lowbrow tabloid newspaper (remember them?) and Jon Polito as an obnoxious-but-deadly mobster. Also, don’t miss Blankman’s hilariously shoddy R2D2-esque robot assistant, J-5 (as in “Jackson Five”). And finally, the story builds to a fight scene that’s a clever parody of similar sequences in ABC’s Batman TV series. And speaking of which…
NO. 12: Batman: The Movie (1966)
Essentially a bigger-budget, all-star feature length version of ABC’s Batman TV series, Batman (as it was originally titled; “The Movie” was added for the DVD and Blu-Ray editions) was made to exploit the phenomenal national response to the first season of the TV show. Although the iconic presence of Julie Newmar’s Catwoman is missing (The Time Tunnel’s Lee Merriweather attempts to fill the role here), the art direction, the costumes, the set design and the animated sound effects are all here, making Batman: The Movie one of the two feature films to most successfully capture the look of a Silver Age comic book. (The other one’s the movie based on Topps’ infamous set of trading cards, Mars Attacks, directed by Tim Burton.) For decades after viewing Batman during its theatrical release, I was ambivalent about the campy approach of this Leslie H. Martinson-directed film, which is even more comedic than the TV series it’s based upon, but after my son Kirby wore out two VHS tapes of Batman while watching them back when he was a little, how can I help but love it? (My second-hand affection for this movie even accidentally led to my contributing an interview to the exclusive bonus material for Batman: The Movie’s Blu-Ray disc conducted in the wake of doing the same for a DVD set of the first season of Hanna-Barbera’s Richie Rich cartoon series, upon which I worked as a layout supervisor!) Yo ho!
NO. 11: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
According to the FF’s co-creator Smilin’ Stan Lee, this extremely low-budget movie was never intended to be released, a fact unknown to its crew and cast. Apparently, it was made (but as planned, never released) only because Germany’s Constantin Film Produktion – the studio that then owned the rights to make a Fantastic Four movie – would have lost that opportunity if it did not begin production by a certain date. Whatever the circumstances, this film’s cheesy production values actually work in its favor, tying it to the cheapie sci-fi and monster movies of the 1950s, an obvious source of inspiration to Smilin’ Stan and Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby in the stirrings of the Marvel universe. Check out some of the covers for the early issues of Fantastic Four funnybooks; it’s no accident that they greatly resemble the posters for such then-recent drive-in movie fare like Invasion of the Saucer Men, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, War of the Colossal Beast and their ilk!
NO. 9: The Phantom (1996)
This high-quality production amply demonstrates that it’s not at all necessary to “camp it up” in a superhero film; if you successfully (and faithfully) translate a comic book property – or, in this case a comic strip property, although cartoonist Lee Falk’s Phantom has starred in hundreds of comic books here and especially abroad – the tone of happy adventure should come across as being just campy enough. (Although in this case, Treat Williams does portray The Phantom’s gleeful villain by chewing its gorgeous scenery non-stop.) But the very best thing about The Phantom is how it begins, with a five-minutes-or-less intro that begins with “For those who came in late…”, immediately recapping the purple-clad jungle hero’s back-story, his generational history and his mission statement… and that’s all the secret origin that the film’s Australian director Simon Wincer felt the audience needed! How frickin’ refreshing is that?!? And since the Phantom (although American in origin) has been Australia’s Number One favorite comic character for decades, it becomes immediately obvious that Mr. Wincer digs the character – nicely played by Billy Zane – as much or more than his fellow Aussies. And The Phantom gets extra points for including the great Patrick McGoohan (Secret Agent; The Prisoner) in its cast as the Phantom’s ghostly father!
NO. 8: The Specials (2000)
Rob Lowe (as “The Weasel”), Thomas Hayden Church (as “The Strobe”) and Jamie Kennedy (as “Amok”) star in this story of “the sixth or seventh best superhero team in the world” but features precious little special effects-assisted (CG or otherwise) superheroics whatsoever! Instead, The Specials focuses on the team’s internal politics, sexual liaisons and competition to see who can get the juiciest licensing deal for their action figure. The polar opposite of the typical summer superhero blockbuster, The Specials is utterly unique and highly recommended by this cranky comic book cartoonist.
NO. 7: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Since this is a sequel, we thankfully don’t have to suffer through another superhero origin. Even better, the origin story that is included is that of Dr. Otto Octavius, AKA villainous Doctor Octopus (wonderfully portrayed by Alfred Molina) who is actually much more interesting and likable than his funnybook counterpart. For that matter, even his mechanical arms have personality to spare!
NO. 6: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Hey, it’s a full-length animated feature film by the same talented folks – writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves and directors Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm, Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur and Dan Riba, among others – behind Warner Bros. Animation’s industry-altering cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series. Do I need to state any more than that? Well, perhaps I should add that the voice of the legendary Dick Miller (Little Shop of Horrors; Bucket of Blood; Not of This Earth) is on the soundtrack! Woo hoo!
NO. 5: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Set during World War II – which instantly makes the premise infinitely easier to accept – this is the exception that proves the rule about superhero origins in films. When puny patriot Steve Rogers (how could this possibly be the same Chris Evans who played the Human Torch in those tediously mediocre Fantastic Four films?) voluntarily chooses to climb into Dr. Erskine’s transmogrifying device – not to kill Nazis but because Steve doesn’t like bullies – we realize he’s already a hero. As much fun as the rest of the movie is, Cap’s origin story is the heart of the film. And as bonuses, we get a look at the original Golden Age Human Torch on display at the World’s Fair and a cameo appearance by Dum-Dum Dugan and the rest of the Howling Commandos (albeit minus Nick Fury!).
NO. 4: Superman (1941)
Remember “You will believe a man can fly!”, the line used to promote 1978’s Superman, the seminal superhero film that every person this side of Krypton – except me – loved? Well, I didn’t believe it, just as I never believed that the Man of Steel could somehow turn back time. (I’m not just being picky; Superman’s inability to change the past was one of the primary “rules” of all those Mort Weisinger-edited super-comics I read as a kid.) The only part of the entire film that I actually dig is when Superman prevents The Flying Newsroom helicopter from crashing, so sue me. But the original seventeen Superman cartoon shorts produced by Fleischer Studios and their successor Famous Studios from 1941 to 1943? Those I love, and I know I’m not alone. Hey, there would never have been a Batman: The Animated Series – nor umpteen other superhero cartoons – if not for those incredibly influential Superman shorts. They may not have much in the way of character development, but when it comes to showing how cool superheroes can be, they’re still the ones to beat (with the possible exception of my No.1 pick, below. No peeking!)
NO. 3: The Avengers (2012)
Okay, who doesn’t dig The Avengers? It took a while for me to get around to seeing the movie, and although I was skeptical despite everyone’s rave reviews, I’ve gotta admit I enjoyed it. The best things about The Avengers were, in my opinion: 1.) The film showed how much fun superheroes can and should be. Thank you, Joss Whedon. 2.) Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk was finally the version of Ol’ Jade-Jaws that we’ve all been waiting for. 3.) Tony Stark asking Bruce Banner if his method of avoiding Hulking out was “a big bag of weed”. That may be the single greatest alibi of all time: “Yes, officer, I am in possession of this big bag of weed, but it’s to prevent me from Hulking out!” I can’t wait to test it. 4. Loki calling the Black Widow “a mewling quim” – an antiquated form of the despised-by-every-female “C-U-Next-Tuesday word”. 5. The lack of credits at the front end of the film. 6. The shawarma scene that followed the movie’s end credits!
NO. 2: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936)
For decades, a debate has raged around the famous sailor man: is he or is he not a superhero? (Of course, Popeye’s opinion is “I yam what I yam!) Even though he doesn’t wear a colorful costume nor maintain a secret identity, I’d say that any super-strong, do-gooding human being who can’t be killed (a fact repeatedly established by his creator, cartoonist Elzie C. Segar) certainly qualifies as a superhero. Of course, he has been one of my favorite comic strip, comic book and animated cartoon characters for over half a century, so I may be a wee bit prejudiced, but since this is my list and not yours, I’m treating him as a superhero and that’s that. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor is one of the Fleischer Studio’s masterpieces, a cartoon tour de force that not only stars Popeye, Olive Oyl and J. Wellington Wimpy, it also feature Bluto in the role of Sindbad, the top dog on an island populated by hundreds of monsters, wild animals and giant mythical creatures. Despite the odds, Popeye emerges triumphant, and even sings a few songs along the way. This animated “featurette” – longer than a short but much shorter than a feature film – also includes some jaw-dropping dimensional effects that pre-date CG wizardry by many decades. In general, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor compresses all of the over-the-top action and excitement of most modern superhero movies into a mere 16 minutes. Well, blow me down, what could possibly be better than that? Well, how about…
NO. 1: The Incredibles (2004)
For my money, superhero movies just don’t get any better than this. It’s got all the action and fun of my favorite comic books. (Fantastic Four, anyone?) It’s got dozens of original characters, yet there isn’t a single origin story in sight. It introduces a world where superheroes not only exist, they all know each other and interact to a degree that none of the Marvel or DC universes have on film to date. It’s a family comedy about a super-powered family, yet it’s built on a solid and somewhat grim premise about what it’s like to be middle-aged, in a marriage gone stale and on the downhill side of your career. How many other superhero movies can boast those universal themes? The Incredibles features elements of design, style and pop culture that were at their peak in 1964 (the early Marvel Comics universe; Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Secret Agent 007 in Goldfinger (complete with a John Barry-esque score); Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s “Supermarionation”, etc.), yet it’s not considered to be a “retro” movie. It’s wildly exaggerated, but has moments that display a subtlety that animation rarely exhibits. Thank you, Brad Bird. Thank you, Pixar. Once again, you’ve shown us that even in a blockbuster of a superhero movie, it’s the story that matters most, even if we’ve never seen its stars before or since. I can’t imagine a better superhero movie in existence.
Y’know, I’m more than a little surprised that I have such good things to say about so many superhero movies after all, even if many of ‘em aren’t the ones that show up on other folks’ lists of favorites. I’ll bet that there are at least a few entries on my list that you weren’t even aware of, right?
But here’s something that’s really got me stymied: the onetime young and perky Gidget and The Flying Nun cast as Aunt May Parker in this month’s upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man?
Aw, c’mon, say it ain’t so, Sally Field!
(And in the unlikely chance that I actually survive the almost-upon-us San Diego Comic-Con International, I’ll see you back here next month with more cranky comments!)
– Scott Shaw!
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comics, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange photo-animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become… The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for KaBOOM!
Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
Back in the late 1980s, when he was drawing such titles as DC’s Doom Patrol and Marvel’s Punisher, I ran into Savage Dragon creator-to-be Erik Larsen at a San Diego Comic-Con, where I complimented him on his “cartoony” drawing style. But instead of accepting my kudos, Erik – never the sort of person to mince words – made a sour expression on his face and said something to the effect of “Actually, I’m trying as hard as I can to dump that style. It’s costing me work!” Fortunately, Erik eventually changed his mind, and that’s why Savage Dragon is one of my favorite funnybooks – even when it’s deadly serious, it’s delightfully outrageous, exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous looking. It’s just what I dig in a superhero comic, which in my opinion should look outrageous, exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous – just like the concept of brightly costumed flying men, super-strong women and wall-walking whatchamacallits.
I recently had dinner with a fellow cartoonist whose work I’ve admired for a long time, Joe Staton. Joe’s one of those rare cartoonists who has drawn everything from Green Lantern to E-Man to Scooby-Doo and all with equal expertise. We discussed our styles, both of which share a humorous bent. He explained that his current gig, drawing the syndicated Dick Tracy comic strip written by Mike Curtis, was the perfect assignment. Not only was Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould his original inspiration to become a cartoonist, but Joe was also getting more than a bit tired of dialing back the cartoony-ness of his style when drawing superheroes and the like. The audience for those comics apparently prefers a darkly photorealistic approach over “light ‘n’ fun”. With Dick Tracy, Joe can get paid for drawing what he loves to draw – and he does it damn well, too.
Both of these stories about cartoonists whose careers both included stretches in which they were forced to draw much “straighter” than they’d have preferred — have happy endings. And those just don’t happen nearly often enough, at least not often enough for the funnybook industry. But then, I’m a cartoonist.
Back when I was growing up, nearly all comic books and comic strips were drawn in “cartoony” styles, no matter how dead serious their storylines could get. Here are just a few my favorite cartoonists who drew “straight” material in decidedly less-than-serious styles: Dick Sprang (his square-jawed, Dick Tracy-esqe Batman and giant typewriters); Ross Andru and Mike Esposito (of their work on Metal Men, Wonder Woman and “The War That Time Forgot” in Star Spangled War Stories, cartoonist Evan Dorkin once observed that Andru and Esposito’s characters all looked “insane”); Jack Cole (his Plastic Man was equal parts superhero and humor strip while his crime and horror stories were only slightly less outrageous); Steve Ditko (The Amazing Spider-Man, “Dr. Strange” in Strange Tales, Blue Beetle and The Creeper – all cool, all weird, all cartoony as hell); Ramona Fradon (her “Aquaman” in Adventure Comics was cartoony but warmly beautiful, her Metamorpho was the only version that worked visually); Jack Davis (his style was as much at home on straight horror in EC’s Tales From The Crypt as it was in Mad); Mike Sekowsky (his Justice League Of America featured the widest Superman ever); Marie and John Severin (this sister-and-brother act was known for comedy but produced Marvel’s wonderful Kull The Conqueror together); and Jack Kirby (whose resumé spanned every style and genre – from Captain America to “Earl The Rich Rabbit” – while always remaining uniquely himself).
In fact, I’ll never forget the smile that spread across Jack’s face, sometime during my first visit to his home, when I told him that he was my favorite cartoonist. And to most of us who turn blank pages into stories and artwork, “cartoonist” is the label we prefer. After all, we write and draw cartoons. I’ll even bet that Hal Foster – whose Prince Valiant syndicated Sunday strip was about as realistic as any famous funnies pages feature ever – referred to himself as a “cartoonist”. (Hey, Foster was a dues-paying member of the National Cartoonists Society for many years.)
But then, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Neal Adams came along. Although Neal’s first published comic book work appeared in an issue of Archie’s Joke Book, he had a background in the sophisticated comics-format ads of the fabled Johnstone and Cushing ad agency and the Ben Casey syndicated comic strip. After drawing a slew of Superman-related covers for DC editor Mort Weisinger, Neal went on to stellar gigs on “Deadman” in Strange Adventures, “Batman” in Detective Comics, X-Men and The Avengers. Suddenly, everyone was raving about how “realistic” Neal’s style was. By the time Jack Kirby’s first “Fourth World” comics debuted at DC, the “King Of Comics” found himself sharing his position of industry importance with Neal Adams.
So, what is “realistic”, anyway?
Well, it sure ain’t Neal Adams’ drawing style. Neal’s art is impeccably executed, but it’s an idealization of reality as seen through a perspective from Madison Avenue. The work of the great Russ Heath is certainly a bit more realistic, but Russ’ approach to drawing – even at age 85 (!) – is still too fastidious to be considered realistic. I suppose Alex Ross’ work is about as “realistic” as comic books get… but his dynamic poses, staging and compositions are anything but everyday. And isn’t “realistic” supposed to reflect the “real world”? But one thing’s for sure: ever since Neal Adams entered the world of comic books, the ability to draw in a “realistic” style has been the goal of many – in my opinion, too many – comic book artists. (Please note that I avoided using the word “cartoonist”.)
A few years ago, I displayed my work at the Long Beach Comic-Con and the pro set up at the table next to me was a talented young guy named Joshua Middleton (NYX, Superman/Shazam: First Thunder, many covers). I’ll admit I was unfamiliar with his artwork, but after witnessing the rabid demand for his originals, I studied up on Josh and his approach to drawing comic book art. My impression is that he shoots specific photographs that relate to the scripts he illustrates, uses PhotoShop to trace them, adds backgrounds and props, inks the tracings and, with his impeccable color sense, paints each image digitally. If that’s not accurate (and it may not be, considering my aversion to technology), I apologize to Mr. Middleton, but the final result is some very impressive “realistic” art, even if the pages of original artwork that Josh was selling hand-over-fist to an eager following did resemble extremely well-drawn coloring book art.
Here’s the big issue I don’t understand. How come the average person out there is resistant to reading a “straight” comic book like Watchmen, Marvels or The Rocketeer but loves humorous comic strips like Peanuts, Calvin And Hobbes or Mutts? And how come faithful comic book readers’ tastes seem to be the opposite, flocking to the straight stuff yet shunning the funny stuff like the plague? (I’ll never forget the year that Keith Giffen, J. M. Matteis and Kevin McGuire’s Justice League Of America received an Eisner Award nomination for “Best Humorous Series”. Sheesh!) If the world of comic books paralleled the real world, Bongo’s Sergio Aragonés Funnies would be America’s best-selling comic book – and deservedly so, since it’s written and drawn by the World’s Best Cartoonist – instead of being a mere niche title!
Are the vast majority of modern comic books going for a dark and/or photorealistic approach to storytelling because their publishers think they’re competing with the various live-action films? Or instead, are they trying to attract the attention of live-action filmmakers?
Fortunately, there are a few cartoonists left who “get” it. Kyle Baker (The Bakers, Special Forces and Deadpool Max), Roger Langridge (The Muppet Show, Thor The Mighty, Snarked! and Popeye) and Darwyn Cooke (DC: The New Frontier, Richard Stark’s Parker and now, Before Watchmen) – and the aforementioned Erik Larsen and Sergio Aragonés are all delivering comic book stories with a much welcome (for me, at least) cartoony touch.
Maybe some of them can answer this question better than I can: since when was a flying man any more “realistic” than a talking duck?
Next up: “Why I Don’t Dig Superhero Movies!”
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comics, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become… The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for KaBOOM!
The release of the critically acclaimed graphic novels Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman forever shifted the American perception of comic books, revealing a potential for sophistication in visual storytelling and mass appeal previously unrealized or forgotten. It’s taken a couple of decades for the industry to build up from these milestones, but the late 1980s were an exciting time where a lot of the groundwork was laid for establishing a demand for independent (read: not Marvel or DC superhero) comics, future improvements in creator rights, and a healthy graphic novel and manga distribution market in book stores, among other things.
In the midst of this, sci-fi author Harlan Ellison created a straight-to-video documentary spotlighting ten American comic book artists who were on the front lines of innovation and creativity at the time, as well as looking at the history up to that point. Released in 1987, it has remained out-of-print since the demise of the VHS era. Now the entire hour is viewable again thanks to YouTube user StandUpComicBooks.
UPDATE: Unfortunately the video was removed at the request of the copyright owner. Hopefully this means that an official release digitally or otherwise is planned, as it’s a shame for this snapshot of comics history to be unavailable to the general public.
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.
I closely re-read Amazing Fantasy #15 recently, as reprinted in Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. This is the very first appearance of the amazing Spider-Man, as he appeared in the final issue of a weird little anthology previously titled Amazing Adult Fantasy.
Cover dated August 1962, the issue was plotted by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, scripted by Stan Lee, illustrated by Steve Ditko, probably colored by Stan Goldberg, and lettered by Art Simek. The cover was illustrated by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and colored by Stan Goldberg. In this reprint edition, art and color reconstruction was done by Michael Kelleher and Kellustration.
A lot has been written about this issue but I’d like to just post some of the random thoughts that popped into my head as I was reading this. A lot of it silly and trivial but not all of it and I don’t see many people specifically pointing this stuff out too often. If you’ve got a copy of the issue, follow along at home. It’s a fun issue and a great origin story told in a compact 11 pages. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore. You can buy the Marvel Masterworks reprint on Amazon or read the issue online at Marvel.com.
- How did I ever not notice those big thick white motion lines on the cover?
- I always thought it was funny that one of the cover blurbs was announcing a special message from the editor. As though this is an exciting sales pitch to people browsing the comic book section of the newsstands. Never mind the stories, this comic has a letter!
- Page 1: Spider Man, Spider-Man, Spiderman – which is it?! (YES, IT MATTERS!!!) It would actually take a couple of issues of Amazing Spider-Man before they settled on the middle one.
- Page 2: “Wheatcakes”? That sounds kinda gross. Or maybe just really bland.
- Page 3: Scientists are just as obnoxious as the high school cool kids crowd, it turns out.
- Page 3: The radioactive spider-bite caused Peter’s fingertips to turn yellow for a while?
- Page 3: His tingling spider-sense does not go off here or in this issue at all.
- Page 4-5: Crusher Hogan enjoys his work. That is the happiest wrestler I’ve ever seen.
- Page 5: What is Peter using for his first mask? Fishnets maybe?
- Page 5-6: Nameless TV producer has an awesome hat.
- Page 6: Did they really have majors in high school in the early ’60s?
- Page 6: I’m going to pretend that a prototype for his web fluid was being made in the earlier scene of Peter with a teacher in the school science lab. Because him just whipping it up on his own in an afternoon is too much for me. (And yet I’m totally fine accepting that a spider bite causes someone to stick to walls. I’m not saying these observations make any sense.)
- Page 6: Maybe Peter also minored in home ec so he could make his costume.
- Page 7: Quiet on the set, Mr. Camera Man! Geez. And get back behind the camera.
- Page 7: I’m not real clear what Spider-Man’s stunt is here. Webbing a candle that’s sitting on a pendulum?
- Page 7: Now the TV producer from the previous scene is yelling cut as though he’s the director?! I assume this isn’t the set of The Ed Sullivan Show, as mentioned on the previous page, because this production is a mess. Is there even an actual director on set?
- Page 8: Yes that’s right. A high-speed express elevator for a TV studio in the 1960s. Totally standard.
- Page 8: After being rejected by the kids at high school and his scientist “friends,” Peter declares his sole loyalty to his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the only people he feels has ever cared about him. “I’ll see to it that they’re always happy, but the rest of the world can go hang for all I care!” This after they give him a new microscope he’s wanted, so maybe a tad materialistic of him but they are very loving elsewhere. He’ll soon discover that this kind of petty isolationism comes with a price.
- Page 8-9: I wonder if the police officer in the TV studio is related to the police officer outside his house days later. Brother maybe?
- Page 9: Speaking of that cop, nice tact there. “Bad news, son – your uncle has been shot – murdered!” And then proceeds to tell Peter precisely where to go to exact revenge from the burglar. So fired. (No actually, it looks like he whisks himself off to the warehouse for the story’s climax, where he is revealed to be the captain and commanding officer on the scene. Or the brothers are triplets.)
- This is really an overall note for the whole issue, but Steve Ditko draws the most awesome and unique faces. Every character, no matter how minor, has their own personality. Even the older police officer and security guard, while similar looking, have different eye brows and profiles.
- Page 10: Spider-Man’s first night time web-slinging! Whee!
- Page 11: In times of great stress, Peter Parker’s pupils become so pronounced, they can be seen through his mask. Like the glowing fingers, another side effect of the irradiated spider bite that faded away. Naturally.
- Page 11: Captain Fired is about to order his men to rush the warehouse, where the burglar would have surely gone down in a blaze of glory, taking as many police officers as he could shoot with him. Interesting that Spider-Man probably saved the lives of several police officers, but with the emotional state he’s in he’s probably never realized that.
- Page 11: “… with great power there must also come — great responsibility!” This phrase eventually becomes the guiding principle of Peter’s life. It’s later credited to Uncle Ben, but he never actually says it in this story. It’s also worth noting the dash, and the “must also”, both usually left out when quoted today.
Announcement from the Editor:
- Page 12: The story has always been that Spider-Man appeared in this issue because they knew it was the final issue of Amazing Fantasy, so there wasn’t much risk to try out a new character. But this editorial letter to the readers makes it clear that when this issue went to press, they thought there would be more issues of the series. The new editorial policy, which includes a change of format and a slight title change from Amazing Adult Fantasy, is laid out. And “Spiderman” will appear every month. Stan Lee has told the story that he tells in his introduction to Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1 tons of times. He’s also admitted to having a terrible memory and re-telling stories that sound good but may not even be true. Turns out this is one of them.
- Page 12: It’s also neat that they would have a scorecard of which stories in each issue of Amazing (Adult) Fantasy were most liked. (The comic was an anthology, so multiple stories appeared in each issue.) It’s amazing that they had 300 votes for the favorite story from the previous issue. 300+ fans were involved enough to mail letters and this was a comic on the verge of cancellation. It’s not specified, but the stories are from Amazing Adult Fantasy #12 due to the lag time from mailing and printing.
- Page 12: If you want to read the scorecard winner, the 3-page story “Something Fantastic” from Amazing Adult Fantasy #12 was included in the 2005 collection Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko. [Amazon link]
Have any observations, random or otherwise? Questions about the issue? Post them below!
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
In the early 1980s, now-defunct Eclipse Comics was going to publish a limited edition hardcover book called The Art of Steve Ditko, as tribute to the co-creator and artist of Spider-Man, Dr. Strange and so many other seminal comic books. The project never came to fruition. Several accounts, some contradictory, have been given over the years as to why this is so. While the mystery remains, another piece has been revealed. Ditko historian Blake Bell has made available for the first time the contract between Eclipse Comics and Ditko for The Art of Steve Ditko, as well as a letter from Eclipse publisher Dean Mullaney to Ditko regarding the book and Ditko working for Eclipse in other capacities. While there’s no huge reveals, it’s an interesting look at the negotiations of a comic project. To access the documents, you must be a member of Bell’s Ditko/Kirby Mailing List.