Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rare comics

An issue of Action Comics #1 is coming up for sale. It could possibly top $1,000,000. So, what is your collection likely to be worth?

Probably not much.

This comic book is special because it was the first appearance of Superman, the first costumed superhero. It is also very, very rare for several reasons.

One is that it was aimed at kids. Kids are hard on their possessions. They wear them out and throw them away. 

It was meant to be a disposable medium. Comic books are printed on cheap paper which doesn't last long. The publishers didn't want you to save your comic books. They wanted you to read it, throw it away, then buy the next issue.

There was no collectible market when this was printed. Comic books were saved almost by accident. The collector's market didn't really take off until the 1960s. In between there were several paper drives during World War II. Most comic books and pulp magazines were donated to those to help the war effort.

Nowadays comic books are printed on better paper and they are sold to adults who know about the collectible market and hope to cash in on it some day.

In one of his books (I'm too lazy to look it up right now), Stan Lee admits that they pumped the collectibles market in order to sell more comic books. They would print issues with two different covers and the hard-core collectors would buy both because they didn't know which would be more valuable in the future. They would use any excuse to start a comic over with a new #1 issue because collectors guaranteed that these would be sellouts.

The result is that none of these have any collectible value because there is no shortage.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Oscar Ratings

Once again the organizers of Oscar night are expecting low ratings and wondering why. This is an easy question to answer. Currently popular movies are disqualified from even being nominated because they considered are too commercial. Look at this year's crop. Most of the major nominees were only in limited release during 2008 in order to qualify for a nomination. They went into wide release the same weekend that the nominations were announced in order to take advantage of the publicity. Of all the nominees in major categories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the only one that actually did well at the box office.

What happened to Dark Knight? During most of the Summer it was considered a lock on best picture. It was also the most popular movie in years. But it suddenly lost Oscar momentum and only got a nomination for supporting actor. This is an example of what is wrong with the whole nominating process.

Rumor is that the people doing the nominations considered Dark Knight too dark and too Bush-era. There is no place for a movie about a sociopath in the Age of Obama. So, in order to get a nomination a movie has to pass a political test as well as an artistic one. You can see the same effect in reverse in Milk. Both the subject matter and the star are on the right (left) side of politics.

In the end, people tune in to the Oscars to root for their favorite movie to win. The show itself is long and boring in a self-indulgent way. If you haven't seen any of the top movies then there are better things you can do with your time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I've been meaning to write this for a few weeks - ever since Deadman made an appearance in the new Brave and the Bold cartoon series.

Deadman was a unique character, even in the Silver Age of comics. He wasn't a superhero at all. He was a ghost who was looking for his killer. Normally invisible and intangible, his only power was that he could possess people.

Despite his name and costume, both of which were suitable for a super-powered ghost, he had both when he was alive. Deadman was really a trapeze artist named Boston Brand with a morbid streak. He figured that the crowd really came to watch him die so he took the name Deadman and wore a death mask as part of his act. One night during his act he was shot by someone with a hook. He materialized as a ghost looking like he did when he died. The spirit Rama Kushna apppeard to him and explained that he had been given a "gift" - the power to walk among men until his killer was brought to justice.

The character was created by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino but it was quickly turned over to Jack Miller and a newcomer, Neal Adams.

The comic was much closer to a TV show like the Fugitive with a bit of Quantum Leap thrown in rather than a traditional comic book. Except for another costumed trapeze artist called the eagle, Deadman dealt with regular people and regular problems. Neal Adams's art was a perfect match for this. He had been doing syndicated newspaper comics and had a hyper-realistic style that matched the tone of the comic.

At first Deadman simply thought of people who might want him dead (there was a long list) and checked them out. Some of them were involved in other crimes. Others had problems of their own. Inevitably Deadman would posses someone and use his acrobatic and street-fighting skills to clear things up. Then he would move on to another dead end (pardon the pun).

The comic had a strong supporting cast from the circus but Deadman never revealed himself to them. Presumably he intended to solve his murder and move on to the next world. The exception to this was in an issue of Brave and the Bold. Deadman decided to ask Batman for help with his murder. This turned into another false lead, this time to the brother of the man who had killed Bruce Wayne's parents.

Around half-way through its run, the pace of Deadman stories picked up. It started with Boston seeing what the police were doing about his murder. This led to several near encounters with Hook and a reunion of sorts with his twin brother Cleveland. At one point Cleveland tried to flush Hook out of hiding by pretending that Boston had survived. Hook shot Deadman again, although this time it turned out to be the circus strongman Tiny in Deadman's costume. Tiny survived.

Despairing of ever finding Hook, Deadman chose someone at random and decided to take over that man's life. In an amazing coincidence, he chose an assassin named Willie Smith. In a bigger coincidence, the assassins next job was to capture Hook.

It turned out that Hook was training to enter a society of assassins. He final test was to pick someone at random and kill him. Hook chose Deadman from a circus poster. Cleveland's impersonation of Boston and Tiny's survival convinced the society that Hook has failed his test. He was allowed to fight for his life against the Sensei, an aged, frail oriental who quickly bests Hook. Hook's body is dumped in the ocean leaving Deadman to wonder what next?

In the following issue, Deadman follows Smith and the Sensei on a mission to destroy the city of Nanda Parbat (sort of a Shangri La). Deadman stops them and discovers that, while in Nanda Parbat, he is alive again. Further, this is where Rama Rushna is. He and Rama come to an understanding - Boston will continue to fight evil as he is for an unspecified time.

This was supposed to be the jumping off point for a new direction. Deadman would move from trying to find Hook to fighting Sensei and his assassins. Unfortunately it was Deadman's last issue. What was supposed to be a two-part story was continued in Brave and the Bold with Batman helping Deadman save Nanda Parbat.

The Sensei and his assassins merged with an on-going Batman plotline involving Ras al-Ghul and elements of this were in Batman Begins.

There have been several attempts to revive the character since then. Deadman also had a short run as a backup strip in Aquaman. This was written and drawn by Neil Adams. The only other story worth mentioning was Deadman's third appearance in Brave and the Bold. Batman needed someone to infiltrate a criminal organization. Deadman was perfect for this until he fell for a woman at the top. The artwork was by Jim Aparo who matched Neil Adams' realistic style.

Other attempts were not as successful. Jack Kirby's Forever people had a Deadman guest shot. In this, he merged with an android that looked just like him (including his ghostly costume) and started a new search for the Hook. Kirby had noticed an inconsistency in which hand Boston's assassin had lost. This was mercifully forgotten.

Deadman was revived (so to speak) in 1986 but it never captured the spirit (so to speak) of the original strip. Rama Kushna was demoted from an asexual aspect of God (or something) to a goddess who damaged spirits in order to keep them earthbound. The supporting cast was killed off.

The biggest problem with subsequent attempts to revive Deadman is that they all involve the supernatural, often on a cosmic scale. Deadman doesn't work well in these stories. He is at his best when dealing in small, human stories.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ultimate Joker?

There is a movement to force Warner from ever using the Joker in any movie - ever. Called the Ultimate Joker, this movement says that Heath Ledger was so good in the role that it should be retired.

I disagree.

I do think that the current franchise should drop using the Joker again, even though he appeared to survive Dark Knight. His story has been told. Even if Ledger was still alive, they could not top what they already did. All they could do is up the body count and dilute the character.

But, was this the defining performance which was so good that no one should ever try again? Come on. A generation ago they said the same thing about Jack Nicholson's performance. Each appealed to the current audience by tapping into current culture.

Ledger's version was a dead serious anarchist. He loved destruction for its own sake. This tapped into our current fears of terrorists. We never learned where he came from. He gave a few different stories about his scars. Presumably both were lies.

Nicholson's version was crazier. He also tapped into current fears. His method was product tampering - something that had killed several people in the 1980s. He also used the trick of luring people to a big event so that he could kill them (and presumably loot their bodies). Plus he had more fun.

Then there was the 1960s version with Cesar Romero. The serious version of Batman wouldn't have worked back then. The only way that people accepted a man dressed like a bat who fought similarly bizarre criminals was to play it as over-the-top. Romero's Joker fit in with this premise but gave it enough of an edge to stand out. Of all of Batman's foes in the 1960s, Joker was the most deadly. At one point he poisoned a possibly disloyal assistant  (Batman revived her with universal bat-antidote).

The comic book versions have also reflected the various versions of the Joker. Starting out as simply a colorful criminal, he became deadly and vengeful after the Comics Code was loosened around 1970. In one memorable appearance in the mid-1970s, he used chemicals to make fish look like himself. He then demanded that he be able to patent the Joker Fish and collect royalties and killed the patent clerk who told him that this couldn't be done. So far no screen version has been quite that cunning or deranged.

In another decade or two, after the current version has run its course, Warner will probably want to reboot the franchise again. The fans will want to see the newest version of the Joker. Why should they be denied?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Heroes and Lost

Lost returned a couple of weeks ago. Heroes returns tonight. The big question for both is how well they will keep up their energy.

Lost started strong. They explained some of mysteries such as why the Others were present at Locke's birth and early childhood. The episodes are strong on plot instead of being a framing device for the flashback as it was during the worst of the 3rd season.

Heroes faces a difficult challenge. The second season lost some momentum. The producers thought that what was needed was to bring back all of the elements from the first season but mix them differently. Thus we got an apocalyptic vision of the future that had to be averted, Hiro's excitement as he learned to use his powers for the first time, an artist who paints the future and Hiro buying a comic book to see what he should do next. They also decided to play with the concept of hero and villain and make us reevaluate our standards - or so they said. The execution of this was spotty and prroly thought-out. We might like one ambiguous anti-hero but not a series of them.

NBC got the message and replaced the writers. Now we will see if it helps. They are promising a completely different story arc this time with the heroes being hunted. This worked pretty well for the X-Men so it might work here, also. As Lost has shown, it is possible for a show to return after a slump.