Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Jim Aparo 1932-2005

Neal Adams is given credit for creating the modern Batman, the dark creature of the night who replaced the camp figure of the 1960s but when I think of Batman I usually think of Jim Aparo's version. Like Adams, Aparo started doing Batman in Brave and Bold which featured Batman and a guest star. It was a demanding comic since it had a different cast every issue. Moreover, Aparo had a strong, realistic style that worked wonderfully for Batman but was usually at odds with how the guests were drawn (think photo realistic Metal Men). But he made it work.

Aparo turned in a completed page. He not only drew the pages, he inked, lettered, and colored them. He used a lot of shading and dark colors, reminding you that Batman was a creature of the night.

The Brave and Bold plots were imaginative. During this period, many of the Batman stories started with a cover then a plot was created in an editorial meeting to explain the cover. Finally the story was written. This process produced many forgettable stories. Brave and Bold was under less editorial control and Bob Haney, the writer, had a lot of freedom. One issue featured Aparo himself.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Aparo was always drawing one Batman book or another. When DC decided to kill Robin (one of them) Aparo was the artist they trusted to do it.

Aparo was known for other characters, Aquaman, The Specter, and the Phantom Stranger. I seldom read Aquaman so I will not say much about his run on that strip. The Spectre had a short run in the late in 1960s best remembered for the artwork by Neal Adams. At that point the Spectre was a separate entity from his human host, Jim Corrigan. Together they solved crimes involving the supernatural.

When the strip was revived in the mid-1970s, Corrigan was a homicide detective. When he found the culprit he became the Spectre, the spirit of vengeance and enacted horrible revenge on the murderer. This was the version Aparo drew.

The Phantom Strange was a problem comic. The original formula called for three related stories. Something would happen and professional debunker Dr. Thirteen would show up and relate a previous case that appeared to involve the supernatural but did not. The Phantom Stranger would show up and tell his story which did involve the supernatural. Then the original event would be resolved.

Artists and writers hated it and it had a differed team every issue. It was given an overhaul after only three issues. Neil Adams was brought in to illustrate a story that introduced an opponent for the Stranger - a temptress named Tala and a supporting cast of hip teenagers. In addition, the Stranger traded in his long overcoat and tie for a turtleneck and cape. Adams departed after one issue but Aparo joined it a few issues later.

In Issue #9 the multiple story formula was abandoned totally. In this issue a dying man killed the Stranger through magic and had the Stranger's heart transplanted into his own body. The Stranger haunted him until his heart vanished and he died.

Later stories often revolved around a character facing a difficult choice with the Stranger offering warnings and a resolution. The extent of his powers was never shown. He appeared and vanished. Sometimes he transformed things. A lot was left implied.

Like Batman, the Stranger was the perfect showcase for Aparo's ultra-realistic art and his use of color and shadows. He was the definitive Phantom Stranger artist.

During the 1970s many comics were published bi-monthly. During the 1980s comics that could not justify monthly sales were cancelled.

Aparo was not a fast artist. He was most comfortable doing around nine comics a year. DC got Aparo to speed up by assigning inking and other jobs elsewhere but as time passed, faster artists got more work.

A collection of Aparo's work will be out this Fall.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on Jim Aparo.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Logan's Run

I'm watcing the opening shots of Logan's Run on TCM. This movie won a special effects Oscar? When it came out it looked like they filmed it in a shopping mall and spliced in footage of a model train set. It doesn't look any better now.

But in 1976 this was as good as science fiction got. Cheap effects, poor plot, poor acting, a quick flash of near-nudity. The book was better. A year later Star Wars showed us how it should be done.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No More Kid-Stuff

I have been writing about the influences of Stan Lee and Marvel. One big influence was to raise the age of the reader. I saw Stan in the mid-1970s and he was thrilled that 20% of the readership was college age or older.

As the traditional outlets for comics changed from drug stores to specialty shops, this trend accelerated. Comic books used to be aimed at pre-teens. Now they are aimed at older teens and adults. This is a mixed blessing. Wired has an article about this trend.

Personally, I think that they have gone too far. I remember a Deadman aimed at the adult audience in the 1990s. Deadman is a ghost who possesses people. This issue began with Deadman as an emaciated corpse, entering a woman's body. He made her strip and spread her legs, demanding sex. Deadman's original run was one of my favorites in the 1960s but this turned me off of his comics for years.

Similarly, the Hulk spent years in a pointless plotline involving spies, twists, and people being shot in the head. Most of it centered on Bruce Banner with the Hulk himself appearing in, at most two pages. They went for several months completely without the Hulk. I have no idea how it came out. I lost interest and stopped reading it. I started again when they brought back Peter David as writer.

Stan used to insist that comics have at least a few pages of fighting to keep them interesting. This became fixed in stone in the 1970s and 1980s and some editors had a mandatory page count for the fight.

Chris Claremont used to cheat on this. He would open with a fight that wasn't really happening then move on to the read story. The fight was often in the danger room (the X-Men's training facility). Sometimes it was between villains training to fight the X-Men. A few times it turned out to be a dream or vision or alternate future, etc.

Those days are long gone. Now, it is possible to have an interesting superhero story without having a fight. Even Stan did it a few times. A recent Spider-Man had Peter and family moving into the Avengers mansion.

Still, the purpose of a superhero is to help people. At some point he has to get his hands dirty and fight someone.

Also, superheroes are archetypes. They might have problems paying the light bill but they need to have some moral clarity. These are lines that are blurred too often in the X-Men. A few characters switched sides in the old days. The Avengers second line-up was mainly reformed villains but Stan had been writing them as un-happy with their status since their introduction. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch both complained a lot about working for Magneto and how they only did it out of a sense of obligation. Hawkeye planned to fight crime, was mistaken as a criminal, and then hooked up with the Black Widow for a while.

Compare this with Emma Frost who was bent on world domination when we first met here. I'm not sure that they ever explained what happened to the dominatrix in white or why you would trust your mutant kids to her.

Then there is Daredevil who took over the gangs in order to clean them up. The Punisher tried that earlier. Neither one makes and sense.

All of this happens because they are felt to be adult themes.

Personally, I want my comics a little simpler.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

DC Strikes Back

DC invented the superhero. Their flagship character, Superman, was the original hero with powers. The following year they introduced Batman, the first comic book costumed detective (comic strip characters like the Phantom are older). Wonder Woman was the original super powered woman.

These characters started the Golden Age of comic books and Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were the only characters to survive it. Everyone else was cancelled. During the 1950s they expanded the franchise. The Superman family added Superboy, Supergirl, and a pack of super pets. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen each got their own comics. Even Superboy's teammates in the Legion of Superheroes got their own book. Batman didn't expand as much but he acquired his own supporting cast with Batwoman, Batgirl, Rex the Batdog, and Bat Mite.

When the Silver Age of comics started, it was built around these characters.

As the 1960s progressed, Marvel started eating away at DC's market share. Comic sales peaked and DC started looking for ways of winning back the customers they had lost to Marvel.

At first they were sure that there was some gimmick that they could tack onto their comics.

According to one rumor, DC felt that Marvel's artists were sub-par but they thought that this style was the magic formula. They went to far as to tell their artists to draw poorly in order to attract sales.

Spider-Man was Marvel's biggest seller. He was known for having problems and for his shaky relationship with the law. DC fixed on that. When the Metal Men's sales declined, they remade them into the "New Hunted Metal Men". They were also given human identities and oversized heads. It was a total flop.

They tried heroes with problems and created Metamorpho. He talked like a beatnik and was ugly. He could also turn himself into anything made from basic elements - sort of Plastic Man meets the Metal Men. And it had a distinctive (crude) art style.

It didn't sell.

There was the Geek - a lifeless dummy somehow brought to life to face discrimination. Failure.

In desperation, DC hired Marvel's two superstar artists - Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (just about everything else). Both would write and draw new characters.

Ditko created two books the first was Hawk and Dove about two brothers who turned into superheroes but spent most of their time arguing. It was the 1960s during the peace movement so the pacifist Dove got the book's sympathies although Hawk did all of the fighting.

The second book, the Creeper, was about a reporter who turned into a bizarre-looking hero. Creeper was not supernatural but played that he was to scare criminals.

Like Spider-Man, Ditko new heroes were wanted by the police and had personal problems. In addition, Hawk and Dove were in high school. Neither lasted a year.

Kirby hit the ground with four different books - Kirby's 4th World. He started by taking over Jimmy Olsen. To this he added, the Forever People, The New Gods, and Orion, the Worlds Greatest Escape artist. Kirby had been reading the Lord of the Rings and this influenced his new creations. All of his characters were part of the fight against Darkseid and his planet Apokolips. It had a huge fan following but none of the titles lasted two years.

Back in the DC mainstream, the big three got make-overs. Batman had already been given one make-over in the early 1960s when he added the yellow circle to his chest, traded in the Batmobile for a compact, and started fighting criminals instead of aliens. The rest of the Batman family - Batwoman, etc. - vanished. We later found out that they were from Earth 2 and the current Batman was on Earth 1. For good measure, a new Batgirl was introduced and added to the TV show.

During the heyday of the TV show, the comic book took on a campy tone. By the time the tv show ended, fans were sick of camp.

Batman became The Batman. Robin was packed off to college and Batman started fighting regular criminals instead of guys in costume. He was given a new arch-enemy - a guy who saw through his fingertips. He was not memorable. A better effort was Ra's Al Ghul - an international crime lord and the basic for the villain in Batman Begins.

A scientist gave himself bat

Superman got his own re-vamping. Most of this was editorial policy. There would be no more imaginary stories. Clark was re-assigned to TV and eventually became a news anchor.

Too many stories revolved around Kryptonite so they got rid of it. They also introduced some new enemies. The main one, Terra Man, was a high tech cowboy. He turned out to be as uninteresting as the guy with eyes in his fingers.

Both Superman and Batman quickly settled into formula stories and tight editorial control. Often the cover was decided on and a story written to go with it.

Wonder Woman got the biggest make-over. The character lost her powers and her costume. She took up martial arts and started wearing outfits inspired by Mrs. Peel from the Avengers (the TV show, not the Marvel comic).

Despite all of this flailing around, DC never got it. Marvel had a different approach to comics, one that the old guard at DC just didn't understand. It was not until a new generation of writers appeared at DC that they finally got it. These were people who read Marvel, not to see what the competition was doing, but because they liked it. They also crossed company lines and socialized together.

There was one Halloween that Batman, Thor, and the Beast were all in Rutland, Vermont in overlapping storylines.

Even with an influx of new blood, DC's editorial control tended to stifle innovation. It was not until the 1980s Crisis on Multiple Earths that they really shook things up. The post-Crisis heroes finally became Marvel-style.

I have to admit that to me, Superman is the pre-Crisis hero with unlimited powers. The guy in the cape now isn't really Superman.

But his stories are more interesting.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Tying it All Together

Stan Lee did more than create new characters with problems and continuity. He created a new universe. In other comics in the 1960s everything happened in a vacuum. Nothing that happened in a comic ever seemed to affect what went on in other comics, even ones featuring the same character. You sometimes wondered if these guys lived in the same universe as each other.

No so at Marvel. They not only lived in the same universe, they ran into each other constantly. Early issues of the Fantastic Four guest starred the Hulk and Ant Man. In his first official issue, Spider-Man showed up at the FF's headquarters and asked for a job. When the FF fought the Hulk in New York, the Avengers showed up. Daredevil helped a powerless FF retake the Baxter Building from Dr. Doom. For a short time Iron Man was under criminal investigation and the Avengers called to ask what was going on. When the Avengers introduced a new lineup, half of it were reformed X-Men villains.

Thor fought Magneto (by special arrangement with the publishers of the X-Men magazine). Everyone fought the Circus of Crime. The Sandman went from a Spider-Man villain to fighting the Torch and eventually joining the Frightful Four.

Both Captain America and a young Reed Richards helped Sergeant Fury fight the Nazis and Fury helped the FF fight the Hate Monger.

Then there were the fights. Half the time two heroes introduced themselves by fighting. The Avengers fought the Sub Mariner and the Hulk. Spider-Man fought Daredevil, the Torch, and the Hulk.

And if anyone needed legal assistance, they went to Matt Murdock (Daredevil).

This was a slick marketing move. Once readers were exposed to a character through a guest appearance they might follow him back to his own book. It worked for me. I started reading Marvel with a copy of the X-Men that my mother's hairdresser's son had. I wanted more copies but he didn't have any (it was only up to issue 8 at that time) but he did find a copy of the FF guest starring the X-Men. Since the FF were monthly and the X-Men were bi-monthly, I found a copy of the FF the next time I went to the comics store and I was hooked.

Stan pushed this backstage, also.

Not long after he started the FF he started getting fan letter so he printed them. In between he would write replies. Interspersed with these, he plugged other books. Eventually he added a whole page for telling what was going on in the other Marvel comics.

Stan also invented the Marvel Bullpen. He said in a recent interview, "I'm the biggest liar in the world." There was no bullpen. The were actually freelancers who only showed up at Marvel's tiny office a couple of times a month.

That's not how Stan portrayed it. He gave the impression of a huge room full of artists and inkers, all having a great time. If you read Marvel comics you felt like you knew the creators, at least a little.

It all worked. Stan combined a new approach to comics with clever promotion. He also retuned characters as needed. Stan never threw out a perfectly good character. He just gave him an overhaul.

The Hulk seemed to get one every other issue of the sort-lived run of his comic. After it was cancelled, the Hulk became the back-up feature for Giant Man who was a revamped version of Ant Man. Daredevil changed from an ugly yellow and black costume to his red and black one. Iron Man went from grey to gold to red and gold and lost a lot of bulk along the way (as well as a skirt and the antenna coming out of his shoulder). The Fantastic Four started in street clothes and quickly adopted uniforms.

Even the Hulk's buddy, Rick Jones showed up for a while as Captain America's sidekick before going back to the Hulk.

Sometimes making over a character worked (the Hulk). Sometimes it didn't (Giant Man). Stan had confidence in the characters that often paid off. At other companies, if a character was cancelled that was it. He was gone. At Marvel it meant that the character would be back somehow. Sometimes they joined a team. Other times they came back in a different form. Two of Marvel's biggest successes, the X-Men and the Hulk, were cancelled and brought back.

The 1960s were good to superheroes. Batman was on primetime. Other superheroes were on Saturday morning. In fact, along with spies, they totally dominated Saturday morning for a couple of years.

Issues of Superman and Batman regularly sold a million copies. Supermarkets and drug stores had large displays of comics.

And surprisingly, Marvel, the little cut-rate upstart on the block, was the top seller.

DC finally noticed and decided to do something to win back readers. But what?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Fantastic Four

It should have been better than it was. It had lots of classic elements from the comic. These include (spoiler alert):

  • The Torch playing tricks on the Thing.
  • The Thing wandering around in a coat and hat, wrecking a car, having trouble picking things up or pressing buttons, and eating a huge stack of pancakes.
  • A fight between Reed and the Thing with Reed wrapping himself around Ben.
  • The Thing being cured but reverting in order to save his teammates.
  • The Baxter Building with Willie Lumpkin the mailman (Stan Lee in a cameo).
  • The Torch making the "4" symbol.

But these are small things. It's the big things they got wrong.

Reed was miscast. I never accepted Ioan Gruffudd. Reed may had been an absent-minded-professor but he was never indecisive.

The rest of the team was ok. I cannot accept Jessica Alba as a geneticist but this was mainly an excuse to have her on the space station.

Doctor Doom just didn't work as a corporate leader gone crazy. In the comics he was ruler of his own (small) country with robot armies at his command. He was an ambiguous character - protecting his people while oppressing them.

In the comics, the FF's origin was mainly background. Spider-Man and Batman were motivated by their origins. The FF didn't need a reason to fight crime. They got their powers and decided that they should use them to help people.

In the movie, they got their powers and did nothing. They hid in Reed's lab. They tested their powers. The only time they used them in public was, first to clean up after a traffic accident Ben caused, then to defend themselves against Dr. Doom.

How should the movie have been made? I would have started it with a quick origin, possibly an attempt to win the X-prize. The FF would have their powers within the first 10-15 minutes.

Cut to credits showing newspaper articles about the FF.

Pick up with the scene in the bar with the Thing meeting Alicia. End it with Reed summoning the FF. Latvertia is threatening its neighbors or something similar. The State Department is asking the FF to take care of it unofficially. In the briefing it is mentioned that Reed has a history with Latvertia's ruler.

We take it from there - frightened villagers, robot army, a fight with Doom and the weapons built into his armor.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Characters and Problems

Take any (male) member of the Justice League as of the early 1960s and switch his costume and powers (if any) with and other member. Could you tel the difference? Was there anything different in the way that any of the DC characters talked or acted?

Now do the same with any two Marvel heroes. Can you imagine Daredevil talking like the Thing? Mr. Fantastic talking like Spider-Man? Or anyone talking like Thor? Or the Hulk?

Stan managed to give each of his characters at least a couple of dimensions. They had different manerisms and speech patterns. They fought crime for different reasons - for the Torch it was an adventure, for Spider-Man it was a duty. Iron Man was mainly defending his munitions plant. The Hulk just wanted to be left alone.

They also had problems. No one at DC had problems (minor exceptions - the Flash was always late for dates and Lois Lane was always trying to prove that Clark Kent was really Superman).

That's something else - who was the hero really? At DC, Superman pretended that he was Clark Kent. Even in Batman Begins, it is clear that Batman plays Bruce Wayne. If you asked who they *really* were they would answer the hero.

At Marvel the heroes were regular people who put on costumes. Sometimes they even tried to give up being a hero.

This was not universal. The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Giant-Man had no real outside lives. Hulk and Thor took over their human counterparts. The Sub-Mariner just was.

All of this added variety to the comics.

But back to problems. Marvel heroes had them. The Thing was ugly. Iron Man had heart problems and a hostile congressman trying to shut him down. Spider-Man was constantly broke and had a newspaper trying to get him arrested.

It wasn't long before Stan started building problems into the character. These often revolved around their lovelife. Don't think that being a superhero gets you women. It always seemed to keep the women away. Consider:

I love my secretary but I can't tell her because she deserves someone who isn't blind.
I love my secretary but I can't tell her because she deserves someone who doesn't have a bad heart.
I love my boss's secretary but I can't tell her because she's afraid of my other identity,
I love my fellow student but I can't tell her because I have power beams coming out of my eyes.
I love my boss's daughter but I can't tell her because she deserves someone who doesn't turn into a giant green monster.

and my favorite:
I love my nurse but I can't tell her because she's not part of the faith (she doesn't worship my father).

Good villains, great fights, continuity and character development, problems. Put it all together and DC never had a chance.

Friday, July 01, 2005

We Now Return to the Continuing Story...

In examining how Stan Lee transformed comics I've gone over changes in the creative process and the introduction of good villains which led to good fights.

Next up - continuity.

Prior to Marvel, most comics were made from inventory stories. An editor assigned a writer and artist to do a story to fit a general space. It might sit for a while or it might run immediately. Since comics usually had more than one story per issue, you could have one story where Superman was fighting Luthor on the planet Lexor (named in honor of Luthor) and a second story where he was being chased by a fire-breathing dragon who had swallowed some kryptonite.

The inventory system was easy on editors. If two stories were too similar they could hold one back until later. They always had enough material on hand in case someone missed a deadline.

Marvel was too small an operation to maintain a large inventory. For the most part, Stan and the artist worked out the plot, the artist drew it, Stan added dialog, and it went to the printer.

Also, the books usually contained a single story. If there was a back-up story it featured a different character.

Since the books were published in order there was no reason not to refer to things that already happened, so Stan did.

In the third issue of the Fantastic Four, the Torch got mad and quit. The next issue opened with the rest of the team trying to find him (instead the Torch found the Sub-Mariner and had to summon the team himself).

Things were more subtle in Spider-Man. Betty Brant might refer to a fight that she and Peter had in the last issue. Stan even added a footnote telling what issue this happened in.

Just a minor change in editorial policy but it affected everything. It gave Marvel comics the feel of a continuous narrative. You didn't dare miss an issue because something important in Peter's civilian life might happen.

Also, once you have continuity you can have character growth. In the space of a few years Peter Parker fell in love with Betty Brant, broke up with her, started dating Mary Jane Watson, then fell for Gwen Stacy. Along the way he picked up a large supporting cast of friends, fellow students, and co-workers.

Other strips had their own progressions. Things changed over time.

Marvel began to attract attention. Comparisons were made to newspaper strips like Mary Worth and to soap operas.

Meanwhile, over at DC, you could pick up a comic for the first time in three years and find that nothing had changed.

All of this was the subtle side of continuity. There was also the blatant side - the continuing story.

Continued stories were nothing new. Superman had one or two per year. Of course, they never affected continuity.

Stan began with the smaller strips, ones like Iron Man, the Hulk, and Doctor Strange. These characters shared a comic with a different character. Iron Man and Captain America shared Tales of Suspense. Giant Man (later the Sub Mariner) and the Hulk shared Tales to Astonish.

With only a half comic to tell a story in, the stories were often cramped. Stan solved this by extending the stories over multiple issues.

At first the full-length comics had self-contained stories but the stories outgrew a single comic.

This also led to an interesting three-issue plot that appeared in both the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. In the first issue a villain would defeat the hero somehow. The next two issues had the hero(es) dealing with this against a different villain.

The Frightful Four beat the FF by luring them to an island and detonating a "Q bomb". This removed their powers. The FF spent the next two issues trying to duplicate their powers with mechanical aids while trying to take back their headquarters from Dr. Doom with the help of Daredevil.

In the middle of a fight with the Green Goblin, Spider-Man heard that Aunt May had some sort of attack. After re-evaluating his priorities, Spider-Man hurried to his aunt, giving the impression that he had run from a fight. In the next issue, while fetching some medicine in costume, Spider-Man ran into the Sandman. Peter was afraid that having his identity revealed to Aunt May would kill her so he hid from the fight. Later May gave him a talking to about courage and determination. In the third issue, Spider-Man and the Human Torch stopped Sandman from taking over the New York gangs.

Story lines like these were memorable and sold comics so Stan came up with a new policy - constant continued plots. For example, the same issue of the Fantastic Four wrapped up the Inhumans introduced Galactis. Thor became so busy that I think one story arc lasted over a year.

Eventually the extended plotlines got too long and too convoluted. Even with a scorecard, it was impossible to come into a storyline if you missed the beginning. This didn't happen until the 1970s, though with Marvel's second generation of writers.


Sidenote - there were a few DC comics that had continuity. The Legion of Superheroes is one. Even though it was officially part of the Superman family, it broke a lot of rules. Continuity was one - they constantly added new characters and occasionally killed or injured some. Another was that Superman (actually Superboy and Supergirl) were not the strongest. Several characters were outright stronger that Superboy, Mon-el , and Ultra Boy (both had similar powers to Superboy) combined.