Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Comic Book Ghosts

It's Halloween, a date associated with ghosts. Here's a quick survey of ghosts in comic books.

The most prominent comic book ghost is Casper the Friendly Ghost. He started out in film shorts but I know him best from Harvey Comics, the same people who published Richie Rich.

Casper was portrayed as an oddity among ghosts. Most ghosts want to scare people but Casper wants to be friends. Of course, people are inevitably scared when they realize that he is a ghost. While the movie explained that he was, indeed, a dead boy, the comics skirted this issue. Ghosts seemed to be just another class of supernatural creature.

Casper had a large supporting cast who often stared in solo stories. These included the Ghostly Trio - three older, larger ghosts who loved to scare people, Spooky the Tough Little Ghost who wore a derby and had a Jersey accent, Nightmare the Ghost Horse and Wendy the Good Little Witch who had her own version of the Ghostly Trio.

There have been a few ghosts in super hero comics. The most important of these is DC's Specter. There have been numerous versions of the Specter. In the Golden age he was a powerful super hero. He returned in the Silver Age and seemed to be able to pull powers out of the proverbial hat. In these versions he was the ghost of detective Jim Corrigan but he had used his powers to revive Corrigan so the two were separate beings. The Specter needed to rest in Corrigan's body but otherwise they went their separate ways.

In the 1970s the Specter was recreated. In this version he and Corrigan were the same being. Corrigan would investigate murders. When the murderer was found, he would become the Specter and take horrific vengeance in the name of the murdered.

In the 1980s the Specter became the embodiment of good (or something like that), and nearly all-powerful. After Green Lantern Hall Jordan went crazy and tried to destroy the universe, he spent a while doing penance as the new Specter.

DC's other ghost couldn't be more different from the Specter. This was Dead Man, an assassinated trapeze artist who came back as a ghost to find his killer. Dead Man was invisible and immaterial. He could only interact with the physical world by possessing people. Dead Man stories were hard-edged and realistic. Ironically, Neal Adams drew both the Specter and Dead Man at the same time.

DC also had a villain called the Gentleman Ghost who was a real ghost.

As far as I can remember Marvel has had very few ghosts. Many characters have returned from the dead but most return to life instead of becoming ghosts. Marvel is full of supernatural characters like the Ghost Rider who is not a ghost.

I can think of a couple of exceptions, both one-shots. Mephisto, the embodiment of evil, wanted a surrogate against the Silver Surfer and used the Flying Dutchman.

The World War I aviator, the Phantom Eagle, was killed and came back as a ghost complete with a ghost biplane.

Other comic book companies have used ghosts as heroes. Independent publisher Black Horse had a character named "Ghost" who was a detective who returned from the dead. She wore tight, white pants and a top that was cut low to show lots of cleavage. She had a long headpiece like a veil that suggested a ghost's sheet. She carried a pair of black pistols in a white holster. Her stories tended to be very adult.

A more traditional ghost superhero was Nemesis who appeared in the Silver Age. He was a detective who was killed by a gangster. The person currently serving as the Grim Reaper (the guy who sends you onto Heaven) had been killed by the same gangster and sent the detective back as a superhero. Nemesis wore a red top with an hour glass on it, striped trunks, gloves and boots, a short hood and a domino mask. He only lasted a few issues.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween Movies

Here are a few great movies for Halloween:

Hocus Pocus - After 300 years, three notorious witches return to Salem, Mass. to suck the life out of children so that they can live forever. Over the top performances by the witches. Plus a zombie and a talking cat.

ParaNorman - This one just came out a few months ago. The plot has similarities to Hocus Pocus with a completely different resolution. Filmed in stop-motion.

Sleepy Hollow - Just about any movie by Tim Burton counts as a Halloween movie but this one revolves around a super natural murder mystery. The Horseman is Burton's scariest creation. He is an unstoppable killing machine. This movie is also notable for restarting Christopher Lee's career. His cameo in this movie reminded directors that he was still alive and working and led to his roles in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings (and in the upcoming Hobbit).

Any Christopher Lee vampire movie - The Horror of Dracula, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, The Scars of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula. They all feature Christopher Lee as the remorseless Count driven on revenge. Plus an extra helping of blood and cleavage.

Son of Dracula - This underrated movie is the best of Universal's Dracula movies. Lon Cheney jr. plays the count's son who is also a vampire. The plot is off-beat. The female lead becomes a vampire and the hero goes crazy.

Fright Night (the original) - A teenager who watches too many horror movies realizes that his next door neighbor is a vampire. After the vampire notices him he goes to an aging horror actor for help.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Face-Off - Season 3

Face-Off is the one reality show that my wife and I really like. It is a contest to choose the best make-up artist.

There are several attractions. The principle one is the level of talent involved. These people create fantastic makeup-jobs.

One thing that my wife likes is the interaction between the contestants. They help each other. They offer each other advice. This happens every season. My wife watches some cooking contests and she says that in those shows they would probably disqualify a cook for helping someone else, even if it ever occurred to them.

Most of the show is about the creative process instead of the interaction between contestants. Previous seasons had a bit of friction between contestants but that was never the point of the show. Instead we get artists going confident to anxiety. They second guess themselves. There is obviously a lot of stress. Doing well on this show not only means a big cash prize, it can also open industry doors. This is their chance to move up from doing make-up for haunted houses to movies (the first season winner worked on Hunger Games).

The level of the guests has changed. In the first couple of seasons they had actors. Now they get producers and directors.

The judges seem to be spending more time mentoring the contestants.

The caliber of the contestants has improved, also. The first two seasons had several people whose makeup was bad. That happened very seldom in the third season (with the exception of the first episode).

The show is down to its finale. I had expected Roy and Laura to be finalists. I was close. Roy was the last to be eliminated before the final challenge.

Of the finalists, we have Laura who has the strongest track record of any of the artists, Derek who has won some competitions but has also come close to being eliminated, and Nichole who actually was eliminated and allowed to come back (I'd love to know how and why the producers decided to bring back someone). This is the first time a woman has made the finals and I will be surprised if one of the women does not win. Personally, I'm rooting for Laura since I picked her as the likely winner in the second episode.

The show will have a two-part finale starting on October 30 and ending with a live vote on Halloween.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lord of Light

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny has been one of my favorite novels since high school. I reread it a few months ago and found that I had forgotten several parts and had new insight on others. I also just discovered that the film adaptation of this novel was the basis for the events in the movie Argo which is about the rescue of several Americans by the CIA during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Zelazny wrote several novels putting mythological creatures in a science fiction setting. This one concerned the Hindu pantheon and the Buddha.

The back story is that a planet was colonized centuries before. When they arrived, the crew discovered that the planet was inhabited by creatures who had once had bodies. These are referred to as demons. The demons are powerful, bored, and amoral. They quickly discovered the delights of possessing the new human colonists.

The crew fought them and, in the process developed mutant abilities to aid them. These abilities made them god-like and eventually they began styling themselves after Hindu gods. When using their abilities, the gods can take on an aspect, sort of an aura that makes you know that this is a god, and attribute, the ability itself. Many of them also have technology which boosts their abilities. For example, the lord of fire can set things on fire with his glance but uses a wand that harnesses the Universal Fire. Using it he can burn anything within sight and he also has powerful telescopic goggles so he can see a very long way.

Reincarnation happens through body banks - bodies grown for this purpose. When you get old you submit to the Lords of Karma who use a probe to examine your life. If you have not been properly reverent to the gods you might be refused reincarnation or reincarnated as a lesser beast such as a monkey.

The gods' abilities follow them from body to body.

The gods live in a high-tech heaven and everyone else lives in low-tech. The gods actively suppress innovations such as the printing press.

The novel begins after most of the action has taken place and much of the action is an extended flashback.

Matasamatman (Sam), one of the original crew and a powerful force in the demon wars declares war on the gods. The novel follows his various attempts at opposing them. Among other things he recreates Buddhism, makes a pact with a group of demons he imprisoned centuries before, and fights the gods on the battlefield.

It is hard to see this as a movie. It is episodic. Each of Sam's attempts is different from the others. Many of the characters change bodies and one even changes genders. There are a couple of big battles that would have been prohibitively expensive to film in the 1970s.

Jack Kirby did some work on visuals for the proposed movie. There is a sample of his artwork in the story I linked to. The look is very "Kirby" and reminiscent of his New Gods comics. I am not sure how well it would mesh with Hindu gods in a movie. Also I hate to think of what 1970s producers would have done to the plot. The one book of his that was adopted, Damnation Alley, was unrecognizable.

If someone were to adapt one of Zelazny's works today I would suggest the HBO do his ten-volume Amber series although I would love to see the Stainless Steel Leech done as an animated short.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Vanished Genres

Several days ago I saw a list of reasons that writers seem to disappear. One of them is that their genre vanishes. I've seen some genres and sub-genres disappear in my lifetime. Here are some examples off of the top of my head.

The big one is gothic romance. In the 1960s and 1970s this was the biggest genre. Book displays in supermarkets and drug stores were usually evenly divided between gothic romance and everything else. Romance novels are still around but gothic romances are gone (I assume since I don't read romance novels). The gothic romance was basically retelling the classic novel Jane Eyre. The novels involved a young woman being introduced into a new environment. Often she was a governess or tutor (just like Jane Erye). the setting could be modern day or historic (especially the 19th century). Not long after her arrival mysterious and possibly supernatural things began happening. Along the way she met a handsome young bachelor who was unobtainable for some reason and often was the chief suspect for the mysterious occurrences. At the last minute everything would be explained and the heroine and the tragic hero would express undying love for each other.

Science fiction used to be divided into two camps. There is the hard science fiction and the space opera. In hard science fiction the plot was often inspired by the science itself. Larry Niven was a master at this and has survived the collapse of his genre. His short stories almost always revolve around a single idea like the tides caused by a neutron star. His novels have bigger ideas like exploring a world the size of the Earth's orbit.

In the 1950s through the 1980s, the space opera was a staple of science fiction. It always involved a young man leaving his home and discovering that because of luck, special knowledge, training, or genetics, he was the only person who could save his civilization or who could bring down a corrupt government. Where gothic romance was aimed at young women, space operas were aimed at young men. For all of George Lucas's talk about classic myth making, the original Star Wars was nothing but a space opera with good special effects.

A sub-genre of science fiction from the 1980s and 1990s was the shared universe. These were collections of short stories. the idea was that the editor would create the backstory then allow different writers to continue it from there. Each writer could use characters from previous stories. The main stipulation was that a character's creator was the only one who could kill off a character. The original shred universe was "Thieves World". One of the best implementations was George R. R. Martin's Wilds Cards. While most of the Wild Card collections were consecutive short stories, a few were novels where multiple writers followed different characters in overlapping events.

Horror novels were fairly popular in the 1980s and 1990s but have morphed. In a real horror novel, the vampire/werewolf/etc. is a monster who must be hunted down and killed to stop further deaths. Stephen King's Salem's Lot is a great example. His vampires are actually scary. Since then the monsters became domesticated. They can coexist with humanity.

One genre I really miss is the historic novel. This is not to be confused with the historic romance. Historic novels used to be fairly common and were a great way of absorbing history. I am including the historic adventure novel in this category. Think of Treasure Island or anything by Rafael Sabatini. Alexandre Dumas also counts although he changed history around to make his plots easier. There are a few of these still around but not many and you have to search for them.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Disney's Mermaids

As a follow-up to last week's post about a mermaid tv show, I thought I would say something about the two main mermaid movies. Both were Disney productions and both were important milestones.

The first one is Splash. This was director Ron Howard's third theatrical release and his biggest hit to date. It was the first staring role for Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah. Both Howard and Hanks went on to win Oscars.

This was a very important movie for Disney. at the time they were still known for producing family and kids movies. They wanted to expand but not under the Disney name. So, they created a new studio called Touchstone. This would produce movies aimed at adults. At the time, movies rated "G" were still being made for general audiences and PG could include brief nudity as long as it was above the waist or the butt. Splash was Touchstone's first release.

During the 1980s and early 90s, Touchstone made a fortune producing low-budget movies, mainly staring actors whose careers needed a boost.. It also produced some movies that were too scary for Disney. Nightmare Before Christmas was originally a Touchstone release.

Eventually the Touchstone formula began to fail. By that time Disney had bought other studios and no longe3r needed the Touchstone name.

Disney's other important mermaid was The Little Mermaid. This came out at an important time for Disney and hand-drawn animation in general. With Walt's death, Disney animation began a downward spiral. Each movie seemed less technically proficient than the last. Pallets were reduced to save costs which meant that the movies were less colorful.

Things began to change when a former Disney animator named Don Bluth released the Secret of NIMH. Bluth's goal was to recreate the days of classic animation. This started an arms race with Disney. Prior to this no studio had ever been able to touch Disney's quality. Here was a movie that was on par with anything Disney had ever done.

So Disney rebuilt its animation department and went about recreating the days of classic animation. The first movie they produced that got any real notice was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which came out in 1988 and was a huge hit. But it was a mixture of live action and animation.

The following year The Little Mermaid came out and proved that Disney could still make a classic. It also updated the Disney princess. This was the first Disney movie that had an actual courtship instead of a prince entering from stage left. It was also balanced - Ariel saved Eric the same number of times that Eric saved Ariel. Finally, it had a plot that adults could enjoy as well as kids.

For the next several years Disney's animated movies dominated the box office. The Little Mermaid was followed by Beauty and the Beast, the only animated movie to get a best picture nomination, Aladdin, and the Lion King, each setting box office records.

As with Touchstone, the formula finally wore thin and Disney had some outright flops. Regardless, their two mermaid movies each began a successful run.

Friday, October 05, 2012

H2O Just Add Water

A few months ago I was looking for something pirate-related to write about and decided to research the mermaid fad (women and girls are paying $100+ for mermaid tails to swim in). Along the way I discovered that there was an Australian TV show about three part-time mermaids. It ran for three years starting in 2006 and is still being shown on Nickelodeon's teen channel. It is also available on Hulu so I watched a couple of episodes. Usually shows aimed at teenagers with teenage casts are painful to watch (even the ads for most Disney teen shows are bad). This show turned out to be intelligently written. The principles are all a couple of years older than their characters which helps their acting. Anyway, a few episodes were enough to convince me to watch the rest of the season over a few weeks.

The show has a large cast. There are four regulars plus supporting characters who are in most episodes. There is low-level continuity. Main plot points are seldom mentioned from one episode to the next but several story arcs act as B-plots. There is also an amazing amount of back-story that figures into the series - much more than for most adult series. This is especially true with the supporting character Zane and his relationship with the principles.

I'm mainly going to talk about characterization, back-story, and story arcs because I suspect that most viewers do not notice this.

The premise is that three high-school girls happen to be in a pool of water in an extinct volcano on Mako Island when the moon strikes it. The next day they discover that they become mermaids whenever they get wet (hence the series title). They also gain water-related powers. One can freeze water, one can boil it, and the third can move it telekinetically. They can swim extremely fast and hold their breath for 15+ minutes (they do not breath underwater). They are also affected by the full moon in different ways.

The transformation happens around ten seconds after they get wet allowing enough time to dry off small splatters. Otherwise it is uncontrollable. When the girls transform, their clothes vanish but they get tops that match their tails. Also their hair is always loose when they are mermaids. This happens the other way, also. At one point Emma tries dying her hair but the process involves water so she is only a redhead when a Mermaid.

The mermaids are:

Cleo. She is the one who can shape water. She is the least mature. She fights with her younger sister constantly. Her father is a bit over-protective (although she is only 15 at the beginning of the series). Cleo finds school work difficult but works hard and is tutored by her long-time friend and would-be scientist, Lewis. She is deeply interested in sea life, possibly because her father is a commercial fisherman. Her room has a wall-sized mural of sea life and she has some fish. Eventually she gets a job at the local marine park (Sea World but the name is never mentioned). Ironically, Cleo does not swim. At first she sees transforming into a mermaid as a curse and refuses to even try swimming as a mermaid. Eventually she comes to love being a mermaid.

Emma. She can freeze things. She attempts to be the perfect daughter and student. She gets along with her brother much better than Cleo and her sister. Emma often tells the others how hell her family gets along because they are perfectly honest with each other. Of course, keeping a secret like being a mermaid from her family causes rifts. Before becoming a mermaid, Cleo was a champion swimmer and had to drop out of the swim team. This was difficult for her but she was quick to embrace her mermaid abilities. At times she is obsessive/compulsive about planning (seriously, if she was my daughter we would be seeing a councilor about this).

Rikki. She heats things. She is the least "girly". She has a sharp tongue and often lacks tact. She is a slacker who doesn't bother to study but can is very capable when she applies herself. She is also good in a crisis. Rikki is a blank slate in the first season. With the other girls we see their parents and siblings. It takes until the second season before we learn much about Rikki. We never hear her talk about herself to the other girls but she tells Emma's brother that she has never had any close friends and that friendship scares her. Later she tells Zane that her parents divorced over money. She is the most enthusiastic about their transformation. After her first swim as a mermaid, she tells Emma that it was the greatest experience of her life. Before her powers manifested she berated the other two for complaining while they were using their powers.

The final principal is Lewis, Cleo's long-time friend and eventual boyfriend. The girls confide in him early on and he spends a lot of time and effort trying to help them understand their transformation. He is absolutely under-appreciated.

There are four story arcs. The first is pretty subtle and involves Rikki's relationship with the other girls (and intersects with Zane's story arc). The first time we see Rikki, she doesn't know the other girls. Zane had offended her somehow and she got back at him by stealing the spark plug from his boat's motor. For some reason he blames Cleo and sets her adrift (remember, she can't swim). Rikki jumps on board, replaces the spark plug and takes Cleo for a joy ride. It is briefly mentioned that the two have never talked before. Rikki is the new girl and is surprised that Cleo even knows her name. They pick up Emma and end up on Mako Island. Had they not become mermaids Rikki would probably never have become friends with the others. Instead she bonds with Emma after the two of them take their first swim as mermaids. In an early episode Emma is having a party and has to add Rikki to the guest list. even by the end of the season, Rikki is still more private than the others and more likely to keep secrets from them. This includes dating Zane and the fact that she lives in a trailer park (which does not come out until the second season).

The next involves the back-story of the 1950s mermaids. While swimming in the Moon Pool on Mako Island, Emma discovers a silver locket. She keeps it for a while then gives it to Cleo who wears it constantly. An old lady recognizes it and immediately knows where it came from. She begins dropping hints that she knows about mermaids and later warns the girls about the full moon. It eventually turns out that her name is Louise Chatham and she was a mermaid in the 1950s along with two friends. The other two have died and Mrs. Chatham is a widow living on an old houseboat and a bit of a hippy. Each of the 1950s mermaids had a locket. They had them made to remind them of their friendship after a failed romance broke them apart. There is some concern that Rikki is going to repeat the mistakes of the 1950s mermaid. Instead she ends up with the final locket. Mrs. Chatham gives her locket to Emma so that they will be a set again. After that, the girls wear the lockets constantly.

The main story arc involves Zane. His family has been friends with Emma's for years and they knew each other since they were two. Recently Emma and Zane had a falling out. Zane is tall, handsome, and rich. He comes across as a spoiled rich boy and is often rude and derogatory. At first he is mainly comic relief with the point of some plots seeing him humiliated.

Things begin to change when we meet his father, a plastic surgeon and land developer. He regards Zane as a disappointment and borders on verbal abuse. Zane tries to win his father's approval by wind-surfing around Mako Island and breaking his father's speed record. He arranges for Lewis to record it for a video contest but Lewis has boat trouble and falls behind. A shark knocks Zane off of his board and he is surrounded. Rikki happens to be in the area taping sharks for the same contest and drives the sharks away. Lewis ends up with footage of Zane calling for help from sharks in an empty ocean. Zane becomes a laughing stock but Rikki tells him that she believes him.

Later, Mrs. Chatham's houseboat is confiscated as unsafe after it breaks loose and sinks Zane's jet ski. She sneaks off with the boat, damaging Zane's jet ski further. He confronts her, demanding that she pay for the damages. She collapses (she has heart problems if she doesn't take her medicine). Emma and Lewis take her to get medical. Zane heard her say something about her "treasure" and looks for it. The boat's fuel line springs a leak and catches fire and Zane is caught in the sinking boat. Before he loses consciousness he glimpses Emma's tail as she smashes the cabin door open and rescues him. She also recovers the "treasure" which is Mrs. Chatham's locket.

After that Zane is convinced that there is some sort of sea monster in the area and begins searching for it. He finds an old news footage showing a very young Mrs. Chatham being interviewed after saving someone from drowning. There is also a drawing of a fin that matches one Zane made. Zane plans on searching Mrs. Chatham's sunken boat for clues. Emma removes a picture of the three mermaids but Zane catches sight of her and narrows his search to a mermaid instead of a sea monster.

The full moon always affects one or more of the girls. This time it affected Rikki, causing her powers to go out of control. She flees to Mako Island where her presence sets trees on fire. Zane, out looking for a sea monster, sees the flames and finds Rikki distraught. He kisses her and her powers knock them both unconscious and gives Zane what appears to be a sunburn.

Later Rikki attends an investment seminar that Zane's father is conducting. He offers her lunch in the hospitality suite but they end up locked out on the balcony. They discover that they have a lot in common (both live with a divorced father and both use a sharp tongue to keep people at a distance). After that they begin dating and Zane acquires the third locket for her.

Zane's father has plans to develop Mako Island and, in a surprisingly adult response, Rikki files a protest because of the endangered species that the island houses.

The final story arc is a quick one. Lewis takes a job with a marine biologist, Dr. Denman, in order to use advanced equipment to study the girls. The marine biologist turns out to be young, pretty, and amoral. She examines a slide that Lewis left behind and discovers total cellular metamorphosis in the presence of water. This could make her career and she tries to use Lewis to find out more but he refuses.

Later Dr. Denman returns. She been hired by Zane's father to do an environmental impact study of the island - he still plans to develop it. First she discovers a mermaid scale that transforms into skin when dry. Then she gets a picture of the mermaids.

In the season finale, Denman and Zane's father capture the mermaids in the moon pool. The mermaids threaten to use their powers but Denman is holding Lewis hostage elsewhere. Zane discovers what is going on and sides with the mermaids over his father. He frees Lewis and the two of them release the mermaids. He then walks out on his father. Zane's father decides that his son is more important than the mermaids and the two begin a healthier relationship.

Mrs. Chatham reveals that the next full moon will include an eclipse that will remove their powers. They decide that this is the only way they can be safe and, in front of Denman, they transform back into normal girls.

Except that the effect was only temporary and the season ends as it began with the girls transforming unexpectedly as they come into contact with water.

About the only other thing I can add is that, while Zane's story arc continues through most of the season, the first few and the last few are the ones that feature the most special effects and use of mermaids. There are several episodes in the middle that could have come from any teen-comedy, things like Cleo's family thinking that she was dating when she was only working with a sick dolphin at work. The special effects budget was handled similarly. Most of the CGI went into episodes early or late in the season and in several episodes the girls did not spend any time in their tails.

There are several situations that could have gone over the top. Lewis tries waterproofing the girls but they have an allergic reaction. From the title (Love Potion #9) and the premise I was expecting something major. Instead Lewis's spray only made them look like a bad sunburn. They flee the school dance until the effect wears off and are afraid that their dates will not wait.

One final note, this is a kids show and the A-plots are usually light-weight. While Rikki and Zane are bonding on a balcony, the A-plot involves the other two helping Lewis in a fishing contest and having things go wrong when they put a deep-water fish on his hook.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Jack Kirby

During a q&A session with Niel Adams, someone started to compare him to Jack Kirby. Adams stopped him, saying that no one is like Jack Kirby. He made some other points about Kirby being a "learning artist" which got me to thinking.

Adams entered the field with a polished style which has has kept his entire career. In contrast, Jack Kirby's style developed over many years. If you look at his work during the 1940s you would never guess that he would go on to be a major influence.

Part of this was the phenomena of the house style. Each comic company had its own style. They encouraged their artists to match this style. This requirement was stronger for some companies than others. When Adams got his first job it was drawing Archie comics so he had to match their house style. While it has been modernized a bit, Archie comics are still drawn with the same house style.

Marvel had a house style into the 1960s. Some people claimed that it had one in the 1970s and 1980s but, if so it was not enforced.

During Marvel's monster comics days (when it was still called Timely Comics), an artist would come to Stan's office for a monthly story conference. He would he given a plot and talk it over with Stan for a few minutes. An artist never knew what he would be working on from one month to the next and the house style made them interchangeable. This continued into the early days of Marvel. If you look over early issues of Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man, and the Avengers, they all look like they were done by the same artist. Jack Kirby did several of these but sometimes he only did breakdowns and another artist finished the art. Other times a different artist would do an entire issue.

Around three or four years into the Marvel age, this changed. Artists were given long-term assignments and allowed to show some individual style. Look at the Avengers. When the original team (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Ant Man and the Wasp) was switched for a new team (Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch), Don Heck took over as the regular artist and changed his style. Suddenly pages were no longer broken down into six panels.

Looking at the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby made his big leap in style during the issues between #40 and #50. He finally established a distinctive style. This is when he went cosmic with the introduction of the Inhumans, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer. He had already experimented with combining characters and photographs but he expanded on this. When people talk about Jack Kirby's style, this is what they mean. This is also when Kirby was at his creative peak.

Neil Adams made a point of saying that no one has matched Kirby's creative output. He casually created major characters. For FF #50, Stan suggested that they have a really powerful villain, someone who eats planets. When he got the first pages back he called Kirby and asked, "Who's the guy on the surfboard?" Kirby replied, "I figured someone that powerful needed a herald."

Over in Thor, Asgard got grander every time Kirby drew it.

Kirby had a falling out with Stan and jumped over to DC where he wrote and drew. His big creation was his "Fourth World", the New Gods. This was an ambitious set of three titles with overlapping plots (plus some overlap with Jimmy Olsen, Superman's Pal which Kirby also took over). He followed this with the Demon and Kamandi, a post-apocalypses world with intelligent animals.

Returning to Marvel, he created the Celestials and the Eternals.

Unfortunately, none of his creations sold very well. Kamandi was the longest-running, lasting four years and outlasting Kirby's run at DC. At least one of his attempts (The Sandman) died after a single issue. It didn't help that this was a bad time for comic books in general. Inflation and paper shortages made them more expensive and the traditional outlets, supermarkets and newsstands, stopped carrying comics. Specialty comic book stores were just beginning. This meant that any title that was not a runaway hit was cancelled.

Kirby seemed to be running out of ideas. It didn't help that his style seemed tired and dated. This was partly because he was so associated with the late 1960s and early 1970s and partly because so many other artists were imitating Neil Adams. He did two Super Powers mini-series for DC staring multiple heroes. These were overshadowed by Marvel's Secret Wars. After that he mainly did work for independent labels.

Kirby's legacy is immense. He had a hand in creating most of the early Marvel characters. He created all four of the primary heroes in the Avengers plus Nick Fury and Loki. Of course, at the time no one ever thought that the characters would be worth any real money so his estate did not profit from the multi-billion-dollar franchise he created.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Neil Adams and DC

Over the weekend I heard a talk by Neil Adams. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was the face of DC comics meaning that he did a lot of covers.

DC was gong through a rough patch at the time. At the beginning of the 1960s, they owned the superhero franchise. Superman alone accounted for a half dozen titles. What is now Marvel was still called "Timely" and was mainly doing monster comics. by the end of the 1960s, Marvel was the dominant comic book publisher and DC was reworking its titles to make them relevant.

Neil Adams started with DC in the mid-60s with Deadman and The Specter. While both were about ghosts, the tone of the two couldn't have been more different. Deadman was done realistically. It followed the ghost of a circus performer as he tried to find his killer. He had no powers except for being able to posses people. The Specter was the exact opposite. He had vast, undefined powers. Sometimes it seemed like he could do nearly anything. Despite this, Adams handled both characters easily.

While the Batman TV show was running, the comic added a lot of camp and over-the-top elements. After the TV show ended, the character needed a redefinition. Most of this happened under Neil Adams and writer Denny O'Neil. The flamboyant villains and gadgets were dropped in favor of real detective work. The pair also made major changes to Superman, moving him from newspaper reporter to broadcaster and doing away with kryptonite. Their magnum opus was Green Lantern who they teamed with Green Arrow and sent off to find America.

All of that was well and good. It had a huge fan following but not all of it found a market. Deadman, the Specter, and Green Lanter/Green Arrow were all cancelled.

While I remember a number of very good Batman stories from that period I also remember a lot of bad Batman and Superman stories. One problem was that a Neil Adams cover did not mean that he was the artist on the inside. More often it was Dick Giordano whose work looked similar (partly because he inked Adams) but was not as good a story-teller. The biggest problem was that the books often read like Adams did an interesting cover then O'Neil wrote a story to go with it. A prime example is a cover showing Batman being thrown out of an airplane. In the story, he stopped a skyjacking then ejected his costume.

Basically Neil Adams' work stood out as a bight spot in the rest of the DC line and an Adams cover was no assurance of quality inside.