“They're Rewriting History. But They Forgot About Me.” VIDEO GAMES! Sometimes I Think After Manic Miner It Was All Downhill.

Geeze Louise, it's a regular content tailback you can see from space we got going on here. Below this is Brian "Two Shops" Hibbs' Shipping List and under that is Abhay Khosla's typically effervescent take on the TV pitch comic Fatale. Me, I let the side down and do a good impression of a middle aged man who doesn't understand what he is looking at or why it is doing those things. Yes! I played a video game and I didn't have to go to an Arcade to do it. It was in my own home. Food in pill form next. I'm tellin' ya! IT'S PEOPLE! photo WolfNOTitleB_zps57242c0f.jpg Oh, be warned; I have no idea how to get pictures off my XBox 360 so I just scanned in some images. What do you want, jam on it? Anyway, this... As age sets in I think it helps keep you fresh to find new things to fail at, so here’s my latest attempt to avoid staleness setting in. (Too late, John!) This one’s about a video game. Now, I am horrifically old (face wrinkled  like a bat’s anus; side parted nasal hair) so some of the terms I’ll use might be a bit out of date (modem; joystick; decency; socialism) but hopefully I’ll make myself understood plainly enough. Hey now, hey now, now, put down your Rubik’s Cubes and let’s slap that cassette into the tape player, adjust the volume infinitesimally and bask in a high pitched shrieking (not unlike I imagine a mass slaughter of ghosts might sound) because this thing is LOADING….LOADING….shit…let’s try that again…LOADING….LOADING….hang on…LOADING…LOADING…LOADING…

WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER Bethesda/Id/Machine Games (2014) XBox 360 £25.99 and up (shop around - it's what Capitalism wants!)

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Right, video games then; not got a lot of time for them these days, I fear. I do still get to go on them though but thanks to the child, “Gil”, I’m mostly limited to those (entertaining) LEGO©® games but sometimes, maybe once a year, I sneak a Bad Dad one in. This year I have chosen to indulge myself with WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER. Tediously, I do remember the original WOLFENSTEIN 3-D (1992) maze and Shoot ‘em In The Face game because in my first Real Job someone had installed it on the network. Being only human  I’d go in early and play it every week day before clocking on, except  Friday when I’d also finish early and stay and play it (while perhaps not being entirely rigorous about the whole clocking on and  off thing. That place is gone now so I doubt they care at this late date.)  I was never a big fan of work but I liked WOLFENSTEIN 3-D; I liked it a lot and I think that’s when I first got the taste for Shoot ‘Em In The Face games. QUAKE (1996) was a big moment for me (Shoot ‘Em In The Face AND Nine Inch Nails!) but QUAKE II (1997) was pretty much my Breakfast Club, my Back To The Future, my Weekend At Bernie’s, My Color of Night; it was a big deal for me that game. I think QUAKE III: ARENA went on-line multi-play which I didn’t follow it into because I have, quite rightly, always loathed human contact. I still don’t do the whole on line thing because human contact? Nope, still not a fan. I like you though; you have pretty teeth. I’m all about the single player campaign and so is WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER. It's a single player game and that's probably the end of any useful information in this tripe.

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It’s a Shoot ‘Em In The Face game and we all know how that works right? Everything’s experienced from your character’s viewpoint and they run about acquiring a ridiculously powerful array of armaments. Armaments which can turn people into blood fondue and bring down robots the size of Canary Wharf but still can’t open doors or break windows. There are usually some banal objectives (doors; levers; codes; Universal Health Care) but mostly it is tacitly understood that your main objective is to kill the enemy in such a way that your tinkler feels a bit sparkly and you giggle like a creepy freak. It’s basically murder as play, and there’s an interesting conversation to be had about whether that’s helpful or harmful. We won’t be having that conversation here, but I will say that I’ve played a lot of these games and I haven’t murdered anyone in real life. Anecdotal perhaps but it’s still true. All Shoot ‘Em In The Face games are basically this: playing at murder. Only two things set them apart from each other: some technological leap in graphics/gameplay or the setting. While WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER was a step up to me with its leaning around corners and neat graphics (last Bad Dad Game was Doom III BIG FRIENDLY GIANT EDITION (2012); fun but graphically dated at a rate of knots) For the hardened gamer it’s all probably all par for the course and I think the main selling point will be the setting. Because the setting lets you kill Nazis.

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According to the blurb it is 1960 and the Nazis have won World War II which, with the best will in the world, is just factually incorrect. What kind of schooling do kids get these days? It’s all very well and good being smart at programming or becoming a multi-millionaire before your testes descend but where is your basic grasp of history, pal. Oh wait; it’s an alternate timeline where the Nazis won. I take it all back. And it’s a nicely realised one at that. You don’t see all of the world but you see some of it. You do get around a bit and there’s a marked emphasis on concrete, grandeur of scale and durability; as one would imagine there might be in everything from the buildings to the cars had the Nazis won. Although to be fair I can’t think about what would have happened had the Nazis won for any length of time without falling into a proper slough of despond. I’m sorry, I just have these issues with Nazis; I’m sure it won’t take over the latter half of this piece to the extent that I look like a rubber room candidate. There are documents scattered throughout which you can read to find out all the history you missed (America? Folded like a jumper after a nuke) and there was a booklet with stuff in. One of the things in it was a map of the UK showing mainland Britain as "safe" but areas of resistance in Ireland and Scotland. Which I think is just blatant pandering to our Celtic cousins. Everyone plays at having roots in Oirland or Scootland but no one ever wants to be English, do they? Um, they've done a good job on the world-building front is what I'm getting at. But, yeah, having a coffee maker that looks like it could take RPG fire  seems quite Nazi and their loveable way with  rocket science would probably have sent them where you end up briefly (no spoilers). I think the designers do a good job on the Nazi-ness of it all, so good in fact that they even acknowledge the nastiness of it all. And this is what threw me; WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER is really nasty and not just for Nazis.

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We'll get to that but first, is it any cop gameplay wise? Well, bags don't come much more mixed than this, I think. There are some absolute crackers of levels; the absolute best of which can be completed either by stealth and shivving or via brutish full automatic fire-ageddon. Your choice; which is nice. Visually there's quite a bit of variation and there's logic in the way your environments are limited. Unfortunately there are a couple of levels which are real momentum killers. There's one in the sewers where I swear nothing happened at all that I noticed , but the absolute worst offenders are the couple of occasions where you have to search for items in the Resistance HQ. It seems like a complete waste of all this technology and programming brain power to put it to use in flawlessly recreating the experience of '90s me in my shared student house hunting fruitlessly and increasingly sweatily for an unsmoked fag. The rule of thumb, I guess, is that if shooting is involved then the levels are pretty good, and most of the time shooting's on the cards so mostly it's a fun time. The AI ain't too shabby neither, but it's hardly likely to be turning on humanity and turning us into batteries while we sleep. The Nazis duck, seek cover, roll and even lunge from side to side. This was all quite marvellous to me and I had a few cool fire fights complete with concrete decaying in front of my face as I leaned out and popped back in trying to take some luckless bastard's head off. Good times. But then I am a bit shit at games so you may be a little less impressed. People like to know about the range of weapons don't they? There's a spread, but not a wild one. Knives are good muck and lead to some repellent takedowns which are even more gooshy if you double wield the knives. Because, yes, double wielding is a thing here. It's a bit Liberace for realistic warfare but still fun. Succumbing to the temptation to double-wield means you will, however, go through ammo like piss through a horse's urethra. Most weapons have a dual mode as well; your SMG can fire rockets, your pistol has a silencer and your knife can slice cheese if you stumble into a soiree etc.. The big thing weapons wise, I guess, is the laser cutter which gains mods as you go along but it can only be used on certain things, which, honestly, I don't think is how a laser cutter with mods would work. The anti-gravity-throw-stuff-back-in-their-face thing in DOOM BFG was more entertaining, to be honest.

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There were a goodly amount but not an amazing amount of levels. When you open the case there are four disks and your malignant little heart skips a beat at the hours of fun ahead. Turns out one disc is an installation disk and the rest are mostly occupied by cut scenes. (Are they still called "cut scenes"? Eye Captchas?) These are kind of weird. It took a while to sink in because I was skipping them (because my playing time was limited) but after a bit I realised something; I realised the game was supposed to be serious. Now, early on you see some awful stuff but I thought this was just outrage bait or something. Nope. Now, I don’t know why you play video games (I’m not entirely sure I know why I do) but I’m fairly sure that feeling as cheerful as if you’d just woken up to find you’d strangled your cat is probably pretty low on the list. Early on there are ashes, an emaciated corpse, mental patients being permanently discharged via pillow and pistol, and (a real crowd pleaser this) you have to make a kind of Sophie’s Choice. And all that’s just horrific hor d’oeuvres for what's to come. By the end of the game when the screen finally goes black you’ll wish you’d had the foresight to ask someone to stand by to rub balloons in your face and sing show tunes. It's a game about killing people but it's like they don't want you to enjoy it or something. It's like they don’t want you to have your cake and eat it but rather; you can have your cake but only if you remember that we all die alone. Fun.

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I can see their point though. I mean, now I can. Initially I was just bummed out and wished I'd gone for one of those drive'n'rape games; something a bit more upbeat. But looking at this thing while I was playing it over again (it has replay value; that's what people like to hear, right? That and, you'll find someone someday), I can see now that maybe these games have got to the point where they are a little too realistic for comfort. It's not just a case of blowing away a bunch of pixels you're humouring in its belief that it resembles a real person; now it looks quite a lot like you just stabbed some guy through both ears with your adroitly wielded daggers. As a form of compensation or pleasure penance then everything's really downbeat in presentation; people sacrifice themselves but they do it like they are adjusting their tie; the people you kill have conversations about their kids interrupted by you lasering their arms off; no one's happy; the people in charge are all mad as a bag of cats; Britt Eckland has let herself go and everything's turning to shit and that's the good news; the only rays of sunshine are the hilariously ill-judged sex scenes (think Team America) and the fact that the Scots dude has to have subtitles throughout. There are Nazis in this game who don't get subtitles but the Scots dude always does. And quite right too; you have no idea how much technical jiggery pokery Jeff Lester has to submit Graeme McMillan's voice to every week before anyone can understand it. Lesser men than Jeff would weep.

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Or maybe, maybe, this snatching of laughter away from the recreational charnel pit has another purpose. Because I know you're out there thinking, "Christ, John, again with the Nazis. It was a long time ago, man. Let it go. It's all over.  Enjoy the smile of your child." And I know this also: you are wrong. Now hear my song:

"...in the Baltic states, where SS veterans are hailed as "freedom fighters" against the Russians and are allowed to parade unhindered through the streets of Tallinn. In this view, the war fought by the western allies against Nazi Germany was a gigantic mistake; all it achieved was the enslavement of eastern Europe under the Soviet yoke." (Richard J Evans, The Guardian, 6 August 2014)

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We were fighting the wrong enemy! Who had that ticket in the raffle? How many of you would ever have thought there could ever have been any doubt that the Nazis were the bad guys? Humanity is many things but it is always full of surprises! Look, no one (i.e. I'm not) is suggesting for one second that Stalin was not a monster whose actions shame history but I think we can all agree (Nazis excluded, natch)  that this is taking The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend a bit far. If the Enemy of your Enemy Is a Nazi I'd suggest you get used to your own company. WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER does a few things wrong, or just plain weirdly, but the thing it never stops doing is reminding you that there's just no excuse for Nazism; no excuse at all. Sure, it may be confused and straining under the weight of its inherent contradictions but I enjoyed it and I couldn't work out why until I finally nailed what WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER resembled more than anything else. As ever a whole load of time, money and effort has been spent trying to capture that feeling of being in an interactive movie but really what WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER reminded me of with its odd blend of adventure and dour solemnity was a bunch of old comics. The old comics specifically brought to mind being the magnificent  Gerry Talaoc & David Michelinie 1970s issues of STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES Featuring THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER. So, yeah, I don't know what a young whippersnapper would make of this game but this elderly gent thought it was VERY GOOD! Just a word of advice though; next time if seriousness is on the agenda it might be an idea not to have a main character called B. J. Blazkowicz.

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So in the end we learned nothing except I like video games, but not as much as I like - COMICS!!!

All comic panels taken from various battered copies of STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES FEATURING THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (DC Comics, 1970s). All art by Gerry Talaoc All words by David Michelinie

"I Want To Be That Man!" Comics! Sometimes A Little Melodrama Doesn't Hurt!

Happy New Year and I do so hope you all had a very Merry Season of Cheer! Sadly I read some more DC war comics from the '70s and then wrote about 'em! Photobucket

I think you'll find I can and, worse, I did!

SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER By Joe Kubert, Irv Novick, Doug Wildey, Dan Spiegle, Jack Sparling, Gerry Talaoc (Art) with  Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Robert Kanigher, Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins and David Michelinie (Words) (DC Comics, $16.99, 2006)


Art by Joe Kubert

(N.B. All images are taken from original copies of the comics on loan from the Kane Archive. The book under discussion itself is B&W. However the guy who wrote this was unable to satisfactorily wrestle his SHOWCASE onto the scanner and achieve pleasing results. The images in the book are excellent but THEY ARE IN BLACK AND WHITE!)

1. The Twice Born Man: Origin(s) of A Living Legend

It sounds like something Steve Allen might drone as he extended a limp arm in welcome to his next guest; “And now…the man no one knows yet is known by everyone…!” but it isn't rather it’s the tag line for the Immortal G.I. himself  - The Unknown Soldier. This SHOWCASE PRESENTS volume collects his first 38 issues in the form a big B&W brick of crisply reproduced pages. The Soldier (as I shall for brevity’s sake refer to him hereafter) was created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert in OUR ARMY AT WAR #168 (June 1966). In 1970 The Soldier took over the lead in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES with #151. Judging by the letter columns (not reproduced) it seems the then lead Enemy Ace feature while popular wasn't popular enough, so The Soldier’s appearance was intended to find a lead feature which would engage with enough readers to prevent cancellation. The concept seems to have been an attempt to create a super-hero for WW2 but one with at least some realistic grounding.

In his first appearance The Soldier is presented as the latest in a family in which the males are bred to serve the US in times of war as troubleshooting masters of disguise. They have been doing this since The Revolutionary War. Don’t worry if this is news to you because someone clearly had an attack of sense and this silliness was redacted in #154 with a second origin. According to the second, more popular, and better, origin The Immortal G.I. was originally a (never named) grunt who lost both his brother (Harry) and his face in a Japanese attack.  Just before death and disfigurement visit the pair Harry tells the Legend-to-be that “one guy can affect the outcome of a whole war! One guy in the right place…at the right...time…”  It’s lucky for comics that Harry didn't choose to that moment regale his sibling with tales of which cheerleaders he wished he’d banged back home or how he was shipping machine gun parts back piece by piece to settle scores when he got Stateside; lucky because it’s these words that lead the defaced survivor to dedicate his life to being that “one guy in the right place…” and in being such a man to become a Legend. The Legend of The Unknown Soldier.


Art by Gerry Talaoc

Following his training the Soldier is a dab hand at creating an accurate mask of a person, impeccable at intuiting their body language and mannerisms and very convincing when it comes to replicating vocal inflections. And he can usually do all that from just a photograph. Look, it’s a ‘70s WW2 war comic dreamt up on the fly about a guy with a bandaged face who can impersonate anyone; a comic largely intended to entertain; a series that ends with The Soldier making Hitler die like a dog in his bunker while on a mission to stop vampiric octopi being unleashed (note: not in this volume as it is a couple of decades later).  It’s just one of those series where the dumb and the excessive combine to create a flavour of awesome only some palates will savour. Most of the time.

Sometimes the comic goes off-mission and starts to stray into more realistic areas.  And it’s when the realism starts to chafe at the entertainment that I find the series at its most interesting. So, those are the aspects I’ll be concentrating on as I drivel on about a select few issues of STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES Featuring: THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER.

2. Unrealistic Realism: Joe Kubert

The first phase of The Soldier’s adventures in this book are dominated by Joe Kubert. Kubert’s tales typically place The Soldier in a real event (The Doolittle raid on Tokyo, the July 20th bomb plot against Hitler) or make broad points about heroism and sacrifice in at least marginally realistic scenarios. On the whole the comic booky nature of the hero and Kubert’s obvious brief to entertain work against his more serious intentions and so I've picked an issue which demonstrates this tension between the real and the fantastic more than most:

The Unknown Soldier in TOTENTANZ By Joe Kubert (a) and Bob Haney (w) Originally appeared in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #158 (DC Comics, $0.25, 1971) Reprinted in black & white in SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (DC Comics, $16.99, 2006)

 Totentanz is German for “dance of death” and it is used here as the name of the concentration camp setting for the latest mission for The Soldier. Unlike most concentration camp stories it starts with a joke:


Art by Joe Kubert

Threatening the inmates of a Concentration Camp with death may very well be the very definition of black humour. Beyond black even; anthracitic humour. It’s not a nice joke, but it is a joke. Beyond the gallows humour it’s pretty much the usual Joe Kubert war comic cover (which is to say it is a piece of excellence in and of itself, never mind the pages it is stapled to) in form at least. But in content it’s far from usual. There are children staring out from behind the wire. If you think that’s funny, congratulations, you’re really transgressive.


Art by Joe Kubert

Joe Kubert edited and drew this story so I’m going to assume he was the driving force behind the result.  Now, given his decades of excellence in and influence upon comics I doubt I have to tell anyone that Joe Kubert is Jewish. He also appears to be quite serious about this Jewishness. ( If the dryly amusing introduction to THE ADVENTURES OF YAAKOV AND JOSEF (2004) is to be believed Kubert only did the series of faith based stories after being browbeaten by a Rabbi.) Also, Kubert hasn't been one to shirk from documenting man’s inhumanity to man as the OGN FAX FROM SARAJEVO (1996) attests. Then there’s the OGN YOSSEL:APRIL 19, 1943 (2003). Basically if you read a decent proportion of Joe Kubert’ work you will soon start to see recurring themes and interests; Jewishness, The Holocaust, man's inhumanity to man and Tor. (Christ, Joe Kubert will never give up on Tor.) There’s all that stuff and more but essentially there’s this:  Joe Kubert’s family fled Poland to America to escape the Nazis. At least those of Joe Kubert’s family who survived the Nazis did so.


Art by Joe Kubert

I’ll not lie; Totentanz is as silly a story as most Unknown Soldier tales. The actual plot doesn't even make much sense. It’s very Bob Haney (1926 – 2004); which is to say his brio and level of craft manage to keep you reading despite all the increasing inconsistencies and illogicalities. That’s okay because Joe Kubert just wants a story set in a concentration camp and Bob Haney gives him that. And Joe Kubert wants a story set in a concentration camp so that he can at least suggest some of the inhuman foulness of such a place. And Joe Kubert gives us that. He gives us that right from the off with an opening splash that looks like this:


Art by Joe Kubert

And the whole story is basically an excused to present a series of terrible images of terrible things, a succession of suffering. Sadly for Joe Kubert this comic was made in 1971 and I don’t believe there was a writer working in comics then who could provide a text able to completely vanquish any qualms concerning tastelessness or, perhaps worse to today's audience, obviousness. Haney has a good go though with stuff like “testifying to the awful “fuel” within!” but he’s still effectively hamstrung by the fact that he’s writing what is essentially a children’s comic and his own limitations as a writer. Which is to say; he’s a fine ‘70s comic book writer but this tale’s a bit out of his reach. By their very nature Comics have always lagged in the writing department (and they still do despite what the writers say) but the Kubert's horrifically arresting art here is sufficient to achieve his purpose but it has to do it bluntly; so bluntly it might repel modern sensibilities. Also, maybe a subject like The Holocaust can’t be finessed. Once you get behind the wire things get primitive real fast and maybe intellectualizing this stuff just serves to dilute the impact. If a comic about Concentration camps doesn't leave you feeling sick that’s probably a worse comic about concentration camps than one that’s got a silly plot but does, at least, leave you feeling like someone’s hit you in the face with a shovel a few times. So yeah, like most of these stories in the Kubert part of the book Totentanz is hampered by the limits of mainstream genre comics of its time but is still pretty entertaining due to the strengths such comics had (compression, momentum, clarity of purpose). Unlike the other Kubert tales it aims a bit higher and, alas, fails a bit more but it gets its point across alright which isn't too shabby an achievement.


Art by Joe Kubert

3. Ruddy Good Fun And Race Hate: Archie Goodwin & Frank Robbins

Phew! Industrialised genocide sure puts a damper on things doesn't it? Let’s try and fill that uncomfortable silence and get the party mood going again with some race hate! It’s surprising to find such a subject in the next section of the book which I have designated as being The Goodwin/Robbins Bit. Archie Goodwin (1937-1998) was, of course, possibly the greatest Editor in comics. He’s certainly one of my favourites (along with Andrew Helfer in case anyone gave a toss) and back when Editors did Editing Stuff rather than whatever they do now he was The Best. I suppose you want some kind of supporting evidence because you have mistaken this for some kind of disciplined text instead of the rambling nonsense it so clearly is. Well, do you know how Archie Goodwin edited STARSTRUCK? By doing nothing to it. Clearly Archie Goodwin knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. He was also a pretty good writer but his work in the BLAZING COMBAT collection is better evidence of that than anything here. Here Goodwin has clearly been asked to provide espionage capers and he does so. They are okay, they are entertaining but they aren't as good as Frank Robbins’ (1917 – 1994) stories. Or at least one of Frank Robbins’ stories. This one:

The Unknown Soldier in A TOWN CALLED HATE! By Jack Sparling(a) and Frank Robbins(w) Originally appeared in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #179 (DC Comics, $0.20, 1974) Reprinted in black & white in SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (DC Comics, $16.99, 2006)


Art by Joe Kubert

Unlike Totentanz this tale succeeds on the strength of the writing rather than the art. Jack Sparling was, I’m sure, a lovely man and a joy to all he met but his art here is functional; this being no small praise in the days when they had to chuck this stuff out at a rate of knots. But it’s the writing that makes this one worthy of attention. Which is a bit of a shocker I can tell you. Prior to this issue Frank Robbins has seemed content to provide capers in the style of Goodwin bur with the pulp ridiculousness turned up to Purple. Entertainment is the name of the game with these and as a result they haven’t aged too well although I’m sure any 7 year olds were thrilled to bits which, let’s be fair, was pretty much the point of this stuff. Following tales in which shaven headed Nazis torture young Belgian girls while leering over the contents of their straining sweaters and flicking fag ash in their desperate eyes to have Robbins suddenly get all serious is certainly arresting. It’s just not what you expect from someone who has committed “What—What does an apprentice cheese-maker know of…DEATH DEVICES?” to posterity. I mean I’m glad he did because I like a laugh too but I’m more grateful for A Town Called Hate.


Art by Jack Sparling

In “a small French town near the Malmedy area” (which probably isn't really called "Hate") an all-black engineers corps are greeted by a white soldier with some racist banter. That night several of them are machine gunned in their bunks. The survivors immediately blame “Those dirty, muther-lovin’ WHITE TRASH...!” and toss a grenade into a bunkhouse of their sleeping Caucasian comrades. The town is now a battleground with sides divided on racial grounds. Enter The Soldier. Except...The Soldier is unavailable so the task falls to his comrade Chat Noir. As is explained by the man himself “..it means “Black Cat!” I AM black …and PROUD of it!” Robbins’ does a nice job in the conversation between Chat and a General of showing how racism exists in less overt forms than the violence we have seen. Chat picks him up on the use of “your people” and seethes over being addressed as “boy”. If the current conflict can be ceased that isn't going to mean the end of racism and the beginning of a bold new dawn but first things first and off Chat trots.

Luckily The Soldier ends up in the same town (it’s a comic!) but he’s posing as a German and then joins some Germans disguised as Americans which makes him an American posing as a German who is posing as an American. This is confusing but accurate what with the Germans actually using such tactics during the Battle of The Bulge. So there are German wandering around disguised as G.I.s and…oh, you've figured it out! Clearly the black soldiers were killed by a German posing as a Yank!  And, yes, so the evidence indicates and the plucky G.I.s team back up and start fighting the right war again. How neat and quaint except…it isn't. Robbins has The Soldier and Chat realize that in fact the violence was sparked by a racist G.I. but the obvious, yet wrong, solution was used to get the guys back together and pointing their guns in the right direction. I like that a lot. I like the fact Robbins doesn't take the easy way out, in fact I like it so much I brought it to your attention. Robbins takes a pretty big subject dresses it in genre trappings without losing sight of the fact the subject is bigger than the tale he’s telling. He does a good job. There’s not a lot of nuance, y’know. But again, how much nuance do you really need? Racism isn't right. It’s not open to debate. That’s it. End of.


Art by Jack Sparling

4. Subterfuge And (Sub)Text: Michelenie & Talaoc

I am a great fan of the Michelinie/Talaoc stories. This may be because this is where I came in when I was a kid but it may also be because they are very good. For me Michelinie seems to be the first writer to really nail the concept. Given the evidence in this book his stories take the form of morality plays spliced with espionage thrillers. There’s always a more personal, more human conflict being addressed within the wider conflict of WW2 in which the stories take place. Again, they aren't big on nuance (today's word is: nuance!); there is never any doubt what the stories are supposed to be demonstrating but they are big on characterisation and entertainment. They never forget that they are pulp and this together with a pretty dark sense of humour saves them from becoming preachy. No one likes preachiness! Except preachers, I guess.

The Unknown Soldier in 8,000 To One By Gerry Talaoc(a) and David Michelinie(w) Originally appeared in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #183 (DC Comics, $0.20, 1974) Reprinted in black & white in SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (DC Comics, $16.99, 2006)


Art by Joe Kubert

Did you know that Hitler had a “hands off” policy regarding Jews in Denmark? Well in 1943 it appeared Der Fuhrer regretted his largesse and changed his nasty mind. In this tale plans have been made to ship 8,000 Jews to safety , but this plan has been compromised – enter The Soldier! Posing as a Kommando The Soldier hits an early roadblock when upon reporting to his superior the Colonel orders his men to “Kill Him!” Naturally The Soldier goes Mortal Kombat on them and it turns out that this was only “a test!”. This is awesome pulpness but Michelinie slips in the caption, “…no time to think of the lives hanging in the balance. I had only time to – REACT!” A caption which appears redundant but is important later. Shortly thereafter The Soldier meets Inger.


Art by Gerry Talaoc

Inger’s a real piece of work. Inger is a Jew working with the Nazis who will do “anything” to stay alive. That’s what Inger’s about – staying alive. Like The Bee Gees. She knows what the Nazis are all about when it comes to The Jews (what the Nazis are all about with The Jews is bad). A failed attempt is made on Inger’s life and she recognises the dead assassin as her brother. She weeps but doesn't recant. This is pretty good stuff. I mean, I don’t want to die and I also don’t want to help Nazis and I know I’d like to make the right choice but…hey, you never know do you? I don’t like Inger but I understand Inger. A couple of pages later in fine pulp tradition Inger has outlived her usefulness and become “expendable!” As a final test of loyalty (the Germans still have suspicions what with The Soldier getting up to all kinds of stuff I haven’t told you about) The Soldier is ordered to shoot her.

Does he:

a) Shoot her. b) Turn his weapon on the Germans, escape with her and sail off with The 8,000 Jews. c) Disarm everyone with laughter by doing an impression of a drunk monkey.

The correct answer is:


Art by Gerry Talaoc

I mean he isn't happy about it or anything. In fact he even has a caption: “Like the trembling girl before me the War left me no choice…Remember Soldier, one slip-up…and 8,000 innocent people…will die!”” Hey, maybe this can usefully be juxtaposed with the earlier caption where he didn't have time to think. Here he has time to think, but in the end he still has to do the same thing: kill. One more time in case anyone missed it: “Like the trembling girl before me the war left me no choice…” Because isn't that the point of the whole story? Inger made a choice but in the end she might as well not have done: she still ended up dead. She just betrayed 8,000 people for a couple more weeks of life. It’s pretty sad really. What? Oh, The 8,000 Jews get away but it wasn't really about them it was about one Jew who should have been hateful but ended up being tragic. As ever there’s not a lot of nuance (!) but there is a lot of excitement, action and heart. And I guess that’s why, despite the formidable talent preceding them Michelinie and Talaoc’s Unknown Soldier stories are the best in this book. Or maybe it’s just because I read them when I was a kid. This stuff really did a number on your head as a kid, y’know?

5. Gerry’s Vase

Alright! Stop shuffling about in your seats this is the last bit. I just wanted to draw attention to the work of Gerry Talaoc in this book. Gerry Talaoc was never better than here. Which is a stupid thing to say since I haven’t seen everything Gerry Talaoc’s ever done. But since the stuff here is so freaking awesome it’s hard to believe he did better stuff and everyone’s just keeping quiet about it when I enter the room. People aren't exactly shouting about this stuff after all are they? Talaoc’s art on these Unknown Soldier stories is fantastic. Everything has a really grubby look to it. Absolutely no one looks like a movie star, everyone looks human and by “human” I mean a bit weird, a bit like life’s had a good go at them. He does have a tendency to make his figures gangly but that just works out really well too because when he cracks out the action it has a unique flailing look. Have you ever been in a fight? It isn't like a Bourne film (I’m assuming you’re a normal person not a professional cage fighter or something) it’s like a Gerry Talaoc comic. Lots of flailing, gnarled face pulling, shabby desperation, yeah, Gerry Talaoc’s fighting is pretty convincing. Best of all though is what I’m calling, in an attempt to get in The Comics Journal, Gerry’s Vase. In 8,000 To One there’s this bit of business with a vase. It’s totally inconsequential to the action but its beautiful. Look:


Art by Gerry Talaoc

I bet that vase wasn’t in the script he just did it. Physical objects in the drawn environment reacting to the actions within that environment. Should be standard stuff but it isn’t. After all when was the last time you saw Gerry’s Vase?

Hopefully I’ve managed to give some indication of why SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER is VERY GOOD! If I haven’t, well, that’s on me because it is. That’s it. Well done, thanks for coming. Don’t forget to collect your coats.

Have a good weekend everyone!

More Cowbell: Jeff on Things and Stuff.

At first, I was just going to write about Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's Gingerbread Girl, but I'm still trying to figure out what I'm going to say about it.  (Uh, things?  And, uh, stuff?) So, after the jump, Gingerbread Girl, X-Men: First Class (the movie), Star Wars Omnibus (Vol. 3), and more...things and stuff.

(oh, and don't forget to scroll down for the shipping list...and John's reviews...and Graeme's reviews?!  Holy shit. We need to learn how to pace ourselves.)

GINGERBREAD GIRL GN:  In an age where comics are taking their cue from movie and cinema, it's delightful to read Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's Gingerbread Girl, a graphic novel about a mysterious twenty-something in Portland, OR and her odd affliction:  it's comics shot through with a big ol' dose of live theater, as every character breaks the fourth wall to address the reader about what they know about Annah Billips.  (I'm not much of a live theater guy at all, but more than once I was reminded of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (basis for Hello, Dolly?  I did not know that.  Thanks, Wikipedia!).)  Tobin's speeches are shot through with high-end whimsy -- "But of course that's all we really we want from someone," Annah's reluctantly smitten date says at one point, "Destroy a lover's mystery and they're less glimmering.  Throw breadcrumbs at pigeons and they'll flock to you in droves.  Throw a bread loaf at them and they'll scatter.  Crumbs of a mystique are just right. A loaf of explanation is too much." -- but they've still got nothing on Coover's delicious art, able to invest seemingly anyone and anything with charm and clarity.

Gingerbread Girl is a mystery of sorts, with the lead character believing she has a twin created from her own stripped away Penfield Homunculus, and everyone else trying to figure out if she's crazy or not.  As the above speech suggests, the graphic novel decides not to solve that mystery, but rather leave us tantalized on the edge of realization.  It's a fun choice, but one that left me feeling more than a little cheated.  I'm sure the idea is to make me look from the book's plot to its possible theme -- I'll take "narratives about narrative strategies" for $500, Alex! -- but I can't help but feel we could've gotten that and a more traditional nod toward conventional narrative climax.  One of the things this gorgeous looking book repeatedly reminds us about its main  character is that she's a tease.  It's a reminder the reader would do well to take to heart about Gingerbread Girl itself. Being teased is much more fun when there's little to lose, and $12.95 doesn't exactly grow on trees these days.  GOOD stuff,  I think?  Or maybe just at the very highest end of OK?  I still can't decide.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS:  The last thing I expected from this movie was to be reminded of Mario Bava, and yet as the film hit hour 35 of lovely visuals, paper-thin characters and a boredom that teetered on the edge of hypnotic, it was the reference point I came back to.  Of course, I expected a movie about a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Something-Or-Other-Because He's-Still-Magneto-To-Me (Michael Fassbender) recruiting mutants to fight Sebastian Shaw's Hellfire Club to have more than a dash of Brian Singeresque touches to it, so I figured there would be the usual queer subtext (tearful speeches by young teenagers about how they wish they could be like everyone else, young men with full lips and big eyes rubbing their bare arms).  But Matthew Vaughn turns X-Men: First Class into a sensual free-for-all, with ladies walking about in excessively cumbersome lingerie, diamond girls being tied to beds by the rails of the bed itself, excessively nude exploding female mannequins, and I'm not even getting into the whole Xavier/Magneto/Mystique triangle.

More than that, though, Vaughn's tremendous sense of visual flair and attention to detail makes the movie just visually sensuous: it sounds goofy, but there's a scene where Magneto plucks a submarine out of the water, and the way the droplets spun off the propellers had me transfixed. There were at least a dozen more moments like that and I savored each one of them.

Unfortunately, the movie has just too much fucking stuff in it -- it's sodden, is what it is -- showing us not just the opening of the first X-Men movie where a young Erik pries at the gates of Auschwitz, but also the scene that comes after that, as well as what Charles Xavier was doing at that point.  We not only get their meeting in mid-action scene, but the CIA's decision to help them recruit mutants, a long recruitment sequence, Hank McCoy as both versions of the Beast, a long sequence introducing the Hellfire Club...none of it is bad, exactly (except for January Jones, who in her inability to smile, talk, drink or even walk convincingly I now believe to be the genuine embodiment of  the Martian Spy Girl from Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!) but there's just no fucking room for anything to breathe.  It's three good movies jammed into one exasperatingly long and dull one, with every dramatic conflict boiled down so much they might as well been bullet points on a Powerpoint presentation.

I think if I'd seen this movie while hopped up on prescription pain medication, I would've loved its horny languor. (If it turns out that Vaughn knocked up January Jones as the rumors have it, it won't be surprising at all.  In fact, what would be surprising would be if he didn't also impregnate the script girl, Zoe Kravitz, Rose Byrne's slip, and that kid who played The Beast.) But it was a slog and a chore to make it to the end of this movie and it really didn't have to be.  Somewhere between EH and AWFUL.

STAR WARS OMNIBUS, VOL. 3:  At Graeme's suggestion, I picked up a copy of this from the library way-too-long ago and have been poking through it at the rate of a few stories a week.  These are the Marvel comics from the early '80s reprinted, covering the period immediately following The Empire Strikes Back.  As I told Graeme on the podcast, the ESB is exactly where I jumped off the Star Wars comic wagon, in no small part because it became obvious that none of it really mattered:  nothing says "we've told the creators of our licensed product nothing" like a romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia and the infamous "Luke, I am your father" speech.

Did I say "nothing"?  That is a lie, I admit it -- what really says "we've told the creators of our licensed product nothing" is reading this volume in light of the events of Return of the Jedi.  The subtitle for this volume is "A Long Time Ago..." but it really should've been "George Lucas' Galactic Twincest Follies." There are no less than half-a-dozen disquieting scenes where Luke and Leia almost kiss or spend quiet moments pondering their unspoken, but strongly felt feelings for one another.  If only V.C. Andrews could've written that "Splinter of the Mind's Eye" sequel!

But Graeme is right in a lot of ways -- these stories, the majority of them by David Michelinie and Walt Simonson, with Simonson plotting and doing layouts with Tom Palmer doing heavy finishes, are a lot like watching the original trilogy over and over again.  Curiously, even though this takes place after Empire, the only real bits the talent take from that movie are Lando and the idea of a rebellion always on the run from a seemingly all-powerful Empire. Otherwise, it's a lot of impervious imperial bases that need exploding, blasters that need blasting, feelings that need trusting, and possible romantic triangles where two of the participants are siblings.  There's probably a good reason why Marvel's creative teams continued to treat Luke Skywalker as the untarnishable focal point -- my guess is Luke, young and orphaned and full of questions and potential, was much closer to the '70s Marvel hero archetype than awesome, dashing (kinda assholey) Han Solo -- even as Lucas threw a whole bunch of cold water on the idea of Luke as hero in Empire.

Ultimately, the story I enjoyed the best was the weirdest one -- the two-parter by Chris Claremont, Simonson and Carmine Infantino where an inventoried John Carter of Mars story is shoehorned into a Star Wars story.  I've always enjoyed Claremont's infrequent work on Star Wars (pre-teen Jeff would've told you that his favorite Marvel Star Wars issues were #17, co-plotted by Claremont, Star Wars Annual #1 with art by Mike Vosburg...and also Star Wars #38 with that awesome Michael Golden art, Claremont be damned) and here he gets a chance to let his ham actor instincts dig into a story in which Princess Leia crash-lands on a world suspiciously like Barsoom, and the swashbuckling hero suspiciously like John Carter gets something suspiciously like a space boner for her.  Strong, courageous, and the survivor of brutal torture, Princess Leia is Chris Claremont's idea of a hot chick and he makes the most of the first person narration by the Carter pastiche to talk about her brave resourcefulness and sad eyes.  In its way, the story is a better acknowledgment of Star Wars' roots than what Lucas went on to do in The Phantom Menace, though the airships here show a marked similarity to what is done there.  However, because these stories were written in simpler, far less ambitious times, there's not the thorough airing out of influences there could be, where we can really get the sense of just how much Star Wars owes to Burroughs' desert landscapes, exotic princesses, alien pals and low-gravity swashbuckling.  There's just a repurposing of art, a light feeling out of topics that will later become fetish (for Claremont, anyway) and then it's on to the next.

I thought this stuff was highly OK, and in some places quite GOOD, but I guess I prefer more Cosmic Twincest Follies far more intentional and far less accidental.  It was fun revisiting what so many of us thought Star Wars was, instead of what it actually turned out to be.

FLASHPOINT: LEGION OF DOOM #1:  "My name's Heatwave.  I've got a hunger... burning in my gut.  The only way to stop it... is to satisfy my appetite."

So begins the dumbest, most inept comic I've read in a while.  It's so bad I'm shocked Hibbs passed it over for his ever-increasing number of "I Have Read The Worst Comic I Have Ever Read" columns.  Here, Adam Glass and Rodney Buchemi treat us to a tale of  non-starter supervillain Heat Wave, who starts off the book incinerating one-half of Firestorm's secret identity because he wants to fight a guy whose head is on fire.  Then Cyborg shows up and awesome dialogue like "Didn't your mommy ever tell you not to play with matches, Heatwave?" "Sure did! So I burned her to death."  Then Heat Wave makes a train run out of control by...shooting it with flames?  Then Heat Wave ends up in prison where he proves himself to be a bad-ass by breaking the leg of a dude who must have shins made out of breadsticks.  Then Heat Wave gets manhandled by prison guard Amazo, which totally makes sense because Amazo is a robot with all the powers of the Justice League in an alternate universe where there never was a Justice League.  Then there's a Hostess cupcake ad, just like we had back in the '70s, except it's eight pages long and it's about Subway.  Then the awesome Legion of  Doom headquarters shows up but here in the Flashpoint universe it's a prison for super-tough criminals but for some reason Heat Wave is put in there, too.  Then Zsasz threatens Heat Wave. Then Clue Master turns up.  Then Heat Wave kicks a dude in the nuts.  Then, later in their cell, Clue Master clutches his stomach, coughs up blood, and then Plastic Man pulls himself out of Clue Master's mouth.  Yes, Clue Master was a mule used to smuggle in Plastic Man who on the last page is standing there grinning evilly, saying "Okay, you ready to blow this popsicle stand?" as one bloody arm still juts from Clue Master's mouth.  The next issue caption helpfully says, "NEXT ISSUE:  PLASTIC MAN!"

(Finally, I know why Jack Cole killed himself. Poor precognitive bastard.)

If you're the fan of the noise that's made when someone scrapes the very bottom of the barrel, this is the book for you. I actually hope this book has 100% sell-through for retailers, because I worry it will otherwise end up being donated to a hospital somewhere and make ill and injured children lose the will to live.  This book gets the seldom-used ASS rating which is actually overrating it by just a tad.  Please don't tell me you bought it and enjoyed it.