Monday, July 23, 2007

Golden Age revivals

Newsarama and CBR have news of the latest Alex Ross/Jim Krueger project, Superpowers, published by Dynamite. The way it's described, the project began with Dynamite's Nick Barucci, who then chose this pair of high-profile creators to develop the final product.

You won't find much information about the series artist or the series format at this point, what we have now is some concept art by Alex Ross (featuring several public domain Golden Age characters), a rough idea of what the series will be about, and Alex Ross saying "in the case of Dynamite you have creative energies coming from people who want to tell a story and create a project and make it the biggest thing they possibly can for their company".

How big? A clue might be found at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where we can see that "Super Powers Heroes" (presumably Dynamite Entertainment under a different name) is trying to claim trademarks for several characters, such as The Owl, Mighty Samson, Black Terror, Green Lama, and others, for use in comic books and printed materials.

Also revealing is their claim for the "Super Powers" trademark, for use in areas such as "entertainment motion picture films and pre-recorded entertainment video cassettes, pre-recorded audio tapes, video tapes, audio cassettes, video cassettes, CD-ROMs, DVDs, compact discs, and video discs, featuring entertainment related to films and music", "resin figures/statues", and "toys, namely, action figures, soft sculpture plush toys, stuffed and wind-up toys; playthings, namely, toy weapons, toy protective armor, and play and action figures".

Interestingly enough, only a few days after Dynamite's announcement, Erik Larsen announced that Image will be doing their own Golden Age project: "The Next Issue Project", featuring contributions from creators such as Larsen, Mike Allred, Kyle Baker, Howard Chaykin, and many others (I for one am glad to see people like Steve Gerber and Tony Salmons included, it'll be good to see more work from them).

The use of public domain heroes in contemporary comics is nothing new, as readers of AC Comics or Alan Moore's Terra Obscura can attest, but the announcement of these two projects in the same week is an interesting coincidence.

While Ross and Krueger seem to be crafting a more Watchmen-like story, creating a cohesive backstory for the characters and promising that they will deal with some usual super hero themes in ways that haven't been done before, Larsen's project seems to be more spontaneous and a bit less pretentious (Larsen mentions making use of oddball concepts such as Fletcher Hanks characters with an emphasis on having fun with them, which contrasts with Krueger's and Ross's more "serious" approach, and Dynamite's apparent intentions to establish new trademarks for future commercial use in different areas).

Some of Larsen's art features characters that will be used in the Dynamite project (including characters such as Samson, for which Dynamite is trying to claim a trademark). What remains to be seen is if there's enough support in the marketplace for both series (which despite the surface similarities are quite different in their approach), and if both projects can co-exist peacefully without any legal problems.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Go, Read: Hugo Pratt

Here are some scans of 1960-episodes of "Ernie Pike", written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and drawn by Hugo Pratt, the series' initial artist. Some pages stand out, such as the striking bottom half of page six of "Pearl Harbor", with a very interesting use of black-and-white. Also interesting is page four of "Bismarck", mainly because it's incredibly text-heavy. This reminds me of a comment Alberto Breccia made in an interview, pointing out that Oesterheld could write some very good stories, but that he wasn't always a good comics writer: the artist sometimes had to do a lot of cutting and re-arranging in order to make the story work as a comic. (Breccia was Oesterheld's collaborator on such masterpieces as Mort Cinder and the 1969 version of El Eternauta.)

"Ernie Pike" was a series of war stories written by Oesterheld and drawn by several artists; however Pratt's episodes are the ones that have been most widely reprinted in the past few years (currently 4 volumes published by Casterman are available in French). The series' simple premise (reporter Ernie Pike tells war stories) allowed Oesterheld to show different characters in a variety of settings, with his characteristic emphasis on the human element.

Speaking of Pratt, the Archives Pratt site has an interesting (but incomplete) bibliography of the artist, including some very attractive cover galleries, such as the one for Sgt. Kirk Magazine, which shows some beautiful color work by Pratt (along with work by other artists). "Sargento Kirk" was originally a 1950's series created by Oesterheld and Pratt in Argentina. In 1967, Pratt created Sgt. Kirk Magazine in Italy, where the first "Corto Maltese" stories would appear. Here Pratt would also reprint several of the stories he did in Argentina during the 1950's, but omitting Oesterheld's name (Oesterheld's publishing outfit, Editorial Frontera, had gone under in the early 1960's, leaving Oesterheld owing money to several people, which caused some bad blood between him and some of the artists).

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Roberto Fontanarrosa

Argentinian cartoonist Roberto Fontanarrosa died of heart failure a few hours ago.

His career began in the 1970's, doing witty but crudely-drawn cartoons for local magazines such as "Hortensia". His drawing would improve dramatically in the next few years, and his creations "Inodoro Pereyra" and "Boogie el Aceitoso" would become famous throughout the Spanish-speaking comics world.

(Shown above: a sequence from one of his Sperman stories, a sexual superhero parody.)

Fontanarrosa was a voracious comics reader during his youth: he read Oesterheld, Hugo Pratt, Solano Lopez, Alberto Breccia, and many others, and he'd also praise series such as Roy Crane's "Buz Sawyer" (which he read in Argentinian reprints). Most of his work was humor-oriented, a large part of it done as gag panels, but he also did longer stories in which he showed his mastery of the comics form. (I remember being blown away by his collection "(Continuará)", a collection of comics shorts of different genres, not all of them humorous.)

"Boogie" in particular showed his dark humor, featuring a "Dirty Harry"-esque cold-blooded and very violent Vietnam vet and hitman. Fontanarrosa commented that the magazines that published this character would often receive congratulatory letters from male readers expressing their delight at finally seeing a character who knew how to treat women and black people correctly, without realizing that the series was supposed to be a parody.

Fontanarrosa was also a prolific novelist and short-story writer. His short stories (many of them about soccer, his passion) are highly praised, some of them having been adapted into popular theater plays in Argentina. I once read one of his novels, and found it exhausting in a way: the amount of (funny) jokes and wordplay per page was staggering, something I've never experienced with other books.

I had the chance to see him speak in public a few times: he could be tremendously funny and witty in public, capable of getting humor out of any situation, playing with logic and words intelligently and naturally, gently making fun of the people who asked him questions, but in a way in which everybody could get into the joke. I remember he was once asked if he ever felt that his characters wrote themselves. He said that that had never happened to him, and that he felt jealous of authors who could claim that: as soon as he stopped typing the characters would just stand there on the page, doing nothing and "standing like morons (boludos)" until he started typing again.

Fontanarrosa was suffering a strange degenerative disease in the past years, which had left him semi-paralyzed and uncapable of drawing. He was at his creative peak when the disease struck him, and it's sad to see him die so soon.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Mary Marvel Marching Society

In a recent thread over at the John Byrne forum, Byrne posts the following:

There had been fan clubs before. The Merry Marvel Marching Society shamelessly stole its name from the Mary Marvel Marching Society.

Don Markstein's Toonopedia says the same thing:

She even had her own fan club, the Mary Marvel Marching Society (the name of which Marvel Comics shamelessly appropriated in the '60s, as the Merry Marvel Marching Society).

Except it's not true. There never was a "Mary Marvel Marching Society", and the name of the "Merry Marvel Marching Society" wasn't taken from an old Mary Marvel fan club.

The whole thing is a hoax. Larry Ivie (a comics fan turned pro who had a small career in comics during the 1960's) made up this story, and even went as far as making up a fake ad for the "Mary Marvel Marching Society" in order to support his claim (Ivie published his "evidence" in his magazine Monsters and Heroes). For some time, his story was believed to be true, but further research by Fawcett comics experts has shown that there was a Mary Marvel club, but no "Marching Society".

Some years ago, the following messages from P. C. Hamerlinck and John Pierce were forwarded to the Timely-Atlas mailing list.

P. C. Hamerlinck:

There was a Mary Marvel club, not a Marching Society. I'm 99.9% sure the
'Marching' ad was bogus. I'll forward your email to John Pierce who might be
able to shed more light on the subject, as we may have discussed it at one time

John Pierce:

Although I once wrote an article and cited Larry's "evidence," apparently
it was false. Larry [Ivie] apparently had a grudge against Marvel, and wanted
to make them look bad. Or so I have been told.

Ivie's hoax has proven to be widely succesful unfortunately, and as can be seen above, is still widely believed by many people.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

World's Greatest Comix Magazine

The sixth Essential Fantastic Four volume is the first volume in this series without any work by Jack Kirby, and it shows. The initial Lee/Buscema/Sinnott stories at the beginning of the book seem to be done in autopilot: while the art is very good, the stories are lackluster and rather inconsequential (though I can't deny a small thrill upon seeing the Silver Surfer and Galactus drawn again by Buscema, only a short time after the cancellation of Silver Surfer solo book that Lee and Buscema did together). Things improve when Roy Thomas takes over the book (at the same time he became Marvel's editor-in-chief), with a story in which Thomas does his usual playing with Marvel continuity, this time tying the Mole Man and Tyrannus with a little-known subterranean character from an early Iron Man story.

Another small change when Thomas takes over (issue #126) involves the title's masthead:

As you can see, the title has now become "The World's Greatest Comix Magazine", seemingly in a nod to the underground comix movement (rather appropiate in a story involving the Mole Man). This change lasted for only a few issues (things are back to normal by issue #134, with the masthead once again saying "comic magazine").

I emailed Roy Thomas to ask him if he remembered who had made the change and why:

Don't recall. May have been my idea, but if so, was no better than Stan's short-lived "Pop Art Productions" of years before. we were comics, not comix.

Only a couple of years later Marvel would publish something closer to a "comix magazine": the fabled Comix Book, with work by several of the leading underground creators of the day.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Review: Walt Kelly's Our Gang Volume 2

This second volume of "Our Gang" stories by Walt Kelly offers no surprises to those who've already read the first one, but it's still a nice addition to the libraries of Kelly fans, while we are still waiting for Fantagraphics to restart its Complete Pogo series.

Seven stories from issues 9 to 15 of "Our Gang Comics" (1944 to 1945) are reprinted in color, with additional commentary by Steve Thompson. Even though this isn't his best work (apparently, Kelly hit his stride with the series a few years later), the stories contain the usual slapstick humor and clever wordplay you'd expect from Kelly, with the characters encountering cartoony circus animals, Japanese soldiers, and counterfeiters throughout their adventures. The art is reproduced from the original comics, with what seems to be the original coloring. (One detail: the first story in the book doesn't seem to be drawn by Kelly; the first volume of this series also features a non-Kelly story by a mystery artist which has yet to be identified.)

The first continued story (consisting of one episode drawn by the mystery artist and the next three episodes drawn by Kelly) is about the kids getting stranded on a desert island, where they find "a secret Jap radio station" manned by a few Japanese soldiers. There's a strange transition between pages 44 and 45 of this edition: in the last panel of page 44 one sees the soldiers preparing to escape from their hideout, without knowing that they are being watched by the kids's friend, Captain Dan, who's holding a rifle. He says: "They're in a spot the minute they start goin' down that Jacob's ladder." The kid (Froggy) next to him simply asks "Why?"

In the next page, we're in a completely different scene, with Froggy telling the other kids: "So I showed the cap'n how to aim it an' told him the exact pusychological [sic] time to fire an' -". The implication is clear (the Captain shot the Japanese while they were trying to escape), but the transition is a bit too sudden. The episode as reprinted in this volume is only 11 pages long, while the two previous episodes and the very next episode have 12 pages each. My first thought was that Fantagraphics may have accidentally skipped a page, but a likelier explanation could be that Kelly's editors decided to drop the page in which we see the Japanese soldiers being shot, figuring that such a thing might have been too strong for a children's comic, war or no war. (For those who want to see some bloodshed however, the next episode shows more Japanese soldiers dying, this time on-panel.)

Steve Thompson has researched Kelly's work for a long time, and offers some useful pieces of info in this book, such as pointing plot similarities between some of these stories and "Pogo" sequences he did a few years later, pointing out that some of the Japanese dialog used in a story comes from a Japanese language guide for which Kelly had done the illustrations a year earlier, or letting readers know that one of the villains in a story contained in this book will become a recurring antagonist in future episodes. The book mentions Thompson is writing a Walt Kelly biography, which should be a welcome addition to the libraries of Kelly fans.

It's a shame that very little of Kelly's comic-book work has been reprinted over the years. Eclipse did four volumes of "Pogo" comic-books and a couple of non-Pogo Kelly comics, and Gladstone has reprinted over the years some Disney comics and covers drawn by Kelly. But there's still plenty of work waiting to be reprinted (Fairy Tale Parade, Santa Claus Funnies, Peter Wheat, most of the "Pogo" comic-book sequences from the Dell comics and the material originally done for the "Pogo" compilations, etc). It's a good thing that Fantagraphics is doing this series, with the production values it deserves, and hopefully it will do well enough so that we can see the entire "Our Gang" series by Kelly reprinted.