Wait, What? Ep. 48.2: Men of Brickbats

Photobucket Yes, a bit later but still better than never, and maybe a good way to beat the San Diego blues? That's certainly one way to describe our conclusion to Wait, What? Episode 48. Another way to describe it might be to mention that it's almost 70 minutes long, and in it Graeme McMillan and I talking Batman, Inc. #7, Dark Horse Presents #1 and #2, Witch Doctor #1, The Creeper Omnibus, the founders of continuity and their later careers, Marvel's Iron Age miniseries, and Firestorm: The Nuclear Man, along with all the usual digressions and what-have-yous you might expect from us.

The episode should've hit iTunes by now, but you are also welcome to listen to it here, if that's your kind of thing:

Wait, What? Ep. 48.2: Men of Brickbats

As always, we thank you for listening and hope you enjoy!

Burble Burble Burble, Hibbs fufills a promise to review

I said I was going to review, so here's a few quick hits. I've been spending a lot of time this week on the back end of the site, you'll notice some of the real estate has changed. That "uncategorized" number will shrink over the year as I go through the older, blogger-era posts (sheesh, we have nearly 2000 posts here at this point!), but the tag cloud will really only be utilized properly going forward from here.  

If you have any mechanical/aesthetic suggestions for the site, now is the time to do so.


Putting that aside, what stuck with me in the last two weeks?


PUNISHERMAX #14: I wrote up #13, but #14 compels me to speak again. Jason Aaron has found this astonishing sweet spot to tell the origin of the Punisher that neither directly involves 'nam nor that fateful day in Central Park. I had thought that all veins of the Punisher were as mined out as could be, but Aaron has found a genuinely new place to get us into Frank's head that feels resoundingly realistic to this reader. What's great is just how well Aaron has mastered the language of comics here (ably aided and abetted by Steve Dillon) -- at least I'm assuming that all of the awesome scene transitions and juxtapositions are in Aaron's script. The story is centered around what must be Stock Punisher Cliche Story #1: Frank's in Jail! and yet at no point am I thinking "Damn, been here before". This is possibly the weirdest recommendation coming from MY lips, but I think that this book is one of the five best appearing on the stands "monthly" these days, and, certainly and BY FAR the single best title that Marvel is publishing today from a perspective of craft. This is seriously bravura work on this storyline -- Eisner level work, in spite of the character -- and should be selling 4 or 5 times what it is currently. Flat out EXCELLENT.


FEAR ITSELF: FEARSOME FOUR #1: Is really everything that Graeme said in his review, but, damn it, he didn't bring up the fact that half (or so) of the issue is drawn by two wicked awesome illustrators: Michael Kaluta, and Simon Bisley. And each of those sections are gorgeous looking (for wholly different reasons). I mean, talk about two tastes that don't even remotely go together -- soaring, delicate fine linesmanship of Kaluta bouncing against the explosive putrid grunge (and, hm, I mean that in a good way) of Bisley. There's a third artist involved (Ryan Bodenheim) who looks like the same artist that drew the last Howard mini (or was it a one shot? It blurs) in that strange small-bill version, but Kaluta and Bisley are drawing the "real" Howard (mostly). I wonder if it is now more important or less important at Disney HQ that HTD properly looks like Donald? Serously, there could not be a more jarring looking book that makes no visual sense of any kind, but you have to admire the king size stones of an editor that's commissioning pages from such disparate sources and thinking for a second that it might work. It's really and truly an AWFUL comic to try and read, but as a curious-ass artifact of how comics are made? I'll say GOOD. This is something ten years from now you'll kick yourself for not having this issue.


GHOST RIDER #0.1: For a "and this is how Ghosty becomes a chick!" comic, I thought this was remarkably entertaining (even though the chick-ing comes in #1, I think, and this is just a way to get Johnny Blaze to not be Ghosty any longer) (is it just me, or is this a really short second run for JB?) -- even though I wouldn't want to hazard a guess if the series to follow this might be any good or not, since it won't be about these characters. I had low-to-no expectations here, and, yeah, I thought it was a low GOOD.


KIRBY GENESIS #1: As you will recall I was so-so on #0, but I thought this one was a tremendous comic. Part of it is that the Kurt Busiek that is writing it is the "Astro City Kurt", and the choice is made to squarely focus on the human character. I know that Jack Kirby's worst ideas are probably more compelling that many guy's best ideas, but I'd generally suggest there's a reason that most of these concepts on display didn't go anywhere. I mean, the market has had a few chances to decide it didn't want Silver Star, right? I really didn't care much about the JK characters running around, and yet I still thought that KIRBY GENESIS #1 was the best comic I read the week of 6/15 because of the human heart centering it. So, yeah, a strong GOOD.


AVENGERS #14: plot-wise, I dunno, it's really just a bunch of punching, but I thought that Bendis was really smart here by counter-pointing the big stuff with the little-insets-of-oral-history-interview technique that I've previously thought was kind of cloying. This time it worked pretty well, as Romita JR really does excel at the two-big-guys-punching stuff -- it is just wonderfully kinetic -- while the insets let the pacing to work out so that it isn't a 30-second read. I don't find a Worthy-fied Thing nor a Red Hulk at all compelling, and I kinda moaned when the new Avengers Tower came crashing down (plus, like, how does it have force fields that can protect the people inside, but not protect the building itself? Buh?) since that just seemed so cliche, but this was a rare issue of AVENGERS that I thought was (if on the lower end of) GOOD.


OK, I have to get back to editing old posts, and getting ready to go into work... what did YOU think?




Wait, What? Ep. 11.2: The Podcast With The Jaws of Steel!

Photobucket A podcast cut brutally short: oh sure, Graeme and I talk about Jack Kirby's Losers Omnibus, and The Hunger Dogs (and Graeme, like the last podcast, is pretty much firing on all guns), Jimmy Olsen and Superman, and then Skype decides Jeff needs a timeout...whether I like it or not. (I didn't.)

Anyway, it should probably be longer, but it's on Itunes and you can listen to it right here:

Wait, What?, Ep. 11.2

(Also, if you could pretend I didn't refer to it in the recorded intro as "The Loser Omnibus," I'd appreciate it. Believe it or not, that intro was the best I could do.) By next week, we should have two generous portions--and hopefully I won't blow their intros---to make up for it.

The Suppleness of Shame: Jeff Looks at Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 4

The fourth and final volume of Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus suggests the editorial staff at DC are either far ballsier, craftier, or more ignorant of the material than I thought: although printing four titles in the order of their publication (instead of grouping them by title) did a superb job of initially highlighting Kirby's protean imagination, reading the first 250 pages of the fourth volume is like watching the weakening death throes of a formerly-powerful animal: it's awesome in a truly depressing way. The schema had been problematic before Volume Four: the arrangement strips the first seven issues of Forever People--basically one sprawling epic on its own--of any momentum, putting seventy pages of material between one cliffhanger and another. But considering the second volume, where this frustrated the most, also showcased a creator working at arguably the highest and final peak of his long career, the frustration was easier to dismiss. And although the problem disappears entirely in the final volume--both the Forever People and New Gods end in the first seventy-eight pages, leaving the final six issues of Mister Miracle to run consecutively--a far worse one takes its place: I would rank those final six issues of Mister Miracle as among some of the worst things Kirby's done.


Now, a statement like that requires a buttload of caveats--not only is there a ton of Kirby material I haven't read, but I'd rank the worst Kirby material as far above the worst material other writers and artists have produced in the field. Indeed, taken on their own, the issues reprinted consecutively in this Omnibus have a ton of charm. One of the pleasures of late-period Kirby is recognizing the familiar formulas while still being surprised by whatever crazy-ass shit the man decides to throw in there--it's a lot like watching a great blues guitarist tackle a classic piece. So, for example, I initially was delighted by Mister Miracle #14 where Mister Miracle and Oberon go walking in the woods and randomly encounter a crazed Satanic cult. It follows a standard pulp plot of "high-tech crooks posing as supernatural forces to scare off trespassers" but Kirby cranks the whole thing up past 11: Satan gets mentioned as often as three times a page in the first half of the book, the cultists wear impressively grotesque masks, and until Mister Miracle does his patented next-to-last page reveal of his face (and a panel or two of P.R. man Ted Brown smoking a pipe), the most normal looking person in the book is Oberon the dwarf. The whole thing is a bit like someone had tricked Fellini into directing an episode of Scooby-Doo.


Unfortunately, just three issues later, Mister Miracle, Big Barda, and protege-in-tow Shilo Norman check into a mysterious hotel after their car breaks down and what follows hits most of the same beats as issue #14. Considering that issue comes on the heels of a story where Jack uses the infamous "it was all a dream--or was it?" cliche, the middle stretch of Omnibus Vol. 4 reads like a talented but inattentive creator running out the clock. And even before then, I'll admit Kirby had already turned Mister Miracle into pretty rote stuff, despite tossing in first Big Barda and then the rest of the Female Furies as a supporting cast. Every issue opens up with Mister Miracle performing a trick while everyone around him freaks out, and nearly every fight scene features a moment focusing on on a villain performing a can't-miss killing move on M.M. only to then look around in dismay when the smoke has cleared and there's no body to be seen. (And later issues have variations on the same panel where Scott Free removes his mask at the end and we see the circuitry he's built into it--it actually looks more like Scott has sneezed up pieces of a mother board to me). In my long-ago review of Vol. 1, I'd suggested that Mister Miracle represented a dream image of Kirby himself as creator and freelancer--"a man raised in the violent war-state of Darkseid's brutal society who is not himself violent or brutal and who supports himself and enlightens others by freeing himself again and again" is the way I put in my review. If so, perhaps it's not wrong to see in those final issues a frustration on Kirby's part with the Mister Miracle concept as the cancellation of his other Fourth World books revealed that self-image for the dream it was: in each issue Mister Miracle's victory feels a little more hollow and far-fetched ("I suppose you that you have a gimmick that opened a slit in its hull!" is one of the more detailed explanations given for a deathtrap escape, to which Mister Miracle helpfully clarifies, "That's how I escaped!") until in the last issue he doesn't really win at all. The last issue of Mister Miracle--and what Kirby must've thought was to be the last issue of the Fourth World Saga--ends with Darkseid summing up (the issue and perhaps the entire saga), "It had deep sentiment--yet little joy. But--life at best is bittersweet!" All things considered, it's actually a pretty cheery take on things from a man helpless to stop his epic vision from being cut short. And if that had been the end of things, the end of the Omnibus, this review would go on to chastise DC for cynically choosing the publication format they did, for frontloading the great stuff at the beginning and sticking the bad stuff at the end and keeping readers from having a real choice as to what material they could buy.


But, of course, that wasn't the end for the Fourth World Saga. In 1984 and '85, Kirby was given the chance to come back and create an ending in the form of The Hunger Dogs, an original graphic novel, along a forty-seven page prelude titled "Even Gods Must Die!" that bridged the original stories and the graphic novels. We get apologies for the material both in the front with Paul Levitz's intro ("[F]or if the Hunger Dogs is neither the ending Jack originally hoped to do nor crafted with the same sure hand as had a decade earlier, it is still noble to try[.]") and Mark Evanier's afterword ("Jack gave it his all. Jack gave everything he did his all but he really put his heart and soul into this one, and ordinarily it would have been more than enough...but with all the problems, especially the short page count, it wasn't enough," as well as "Finally, The Hunger Dogs was published. I wish I could tell you that it was everything Kirby fans had been expecting by way of a Fourth World conclusion, but it really wasn't that. For one thing, the Fourth World wasn't concluding. For another, Jack still didn't have the thousand or so more pages it might have taken for him to build his story to the kind of climax he'd imagined.") It's safe to say the current take on this final work is not favorable.


And that's a shame. Because I found those final hundred-plus pages to be absolutely brilliant, some of the most stunning stuff Kirby's ever done. I've had The Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 4 for maybe three weeks now, and every night for the first two I'd read those last 100-plus pages again and again.


It's probably because I didn't follow Kirby after he left Marvel in the late '70s, but "Even Gods Must Die!" shocks me in its departure from earlier Kirby work: It's brasher, bolder, nearly a caricature of itself, but Kirby reframes action in ways I hadn't seen in his work since the '40s and '50s: circular inset panels, arrhythmic action scenes with arrows, confrontations where the panel borders run diagonally, making the tension of the scene literally explicit. Months ago, when reading Tezuka's Buddha, I found myself in awe of Tezuka's willingness to experiment with a page so late in his career and wondered if doing so made him a better artist than Kirby. Here, if only for a few pages, is Kirby breaking his patterns, moving finally from the blues to jazz.


Even better, the change suits the story: the circular panels reinforce the circularity of the story as Orion finally brings the battle to Darkseid, and father and son battle as a prophecy has foretold. The characters themselves are encased in circular panels, at many points appearing trapped, just as they're stuck in the cyclical nature of myth. This is something Kirby nicely underlines in his writing--in the early chapters of the New Gods, Darkseid is likened to a tiger, but in "Even Gods Must Die," that same comparison is made about Orion. If Mister Miracle was Kirby as he imagined himself to be in the '70s, the Orion of the Omnibus' final pages is the man Kirby finally realized himself to be: a man incapable of giving up, powered by a terrifying, inexhaustible anger, an anger that allows him to claw his way to the truth.


What really killed me was the scene in which Darkseid, after watching the behavior of the revivified men he's gained the power to resurrect, says to a lackey, "They don't fully return...do they?" If you think about it, that's a tremendously ballsy thing for an author to put in a story he's finishing after a decade-long absence. Kirby is speaking to the audience through Darkseid and openly telling them: "You know what? This doesn't work." In that regard, what seems like every other faux-Stan Lee title you've ever read, "Even Gods Must Die!" is in fact an apt summation of the story's point: Things are supposed to end. For most of us, that's a hard-earned truth. For a superhero comic, that's heresy.


Like "Even Gods Must Die!", The Hunger Dogs is a victory stolen from the jaws of defeat and loss, and the irony is this victory is accomplished by open acknowledging defeat and loss. In The Hunger Dogs, Darkseid sees his coming obsolescence in the face of The Micro-Mark, the digitized destroyer that is the brutal male successor to the kindly Mother Box. In a staggering page, Darkseid listens to the Micro-Mark's inventor crow about the passing of Himon and wordlessly realizes that his own time has also passed. "His day is over, great Darkseid!" the collaborator boasts. "Regard him as a pitiful, harmless object! This is Micro-Mark's hour! There's no need for intrigue or great strivings--the cosmos lies open to button-pushing babes!"


(Oh, and by the way? Holy. Fucking. Shit. It's one thing for writers, artists, photographers, and musicians these days to complain about the digital age having opened doors in their fields at the cost of lowered standards. It's another thing entirely to do it in nineteen-eighty-fucking-five. Fans of the prescient will also appreciate how both Darkseid and Lightray use suicide bombers to take out their enemies, the planet-destroying dirty bombs planted surreptitiously on New Genesis, and how Highfather turns such a terrorist attack back in on itself.)


I was raving to Graeme about all this the other day and he put it best: The Hunger Dogs is the work of an old man, possessing an old man's wisdom and an old man's sorrow. (I don't want to give away the identity of the Micro-Mark's creator, but I will say it's pretty easy to see past the origin presented and infer disgust on Kirby's part at the way the baby boomers--his beloved New Gods--grew up and sold out.) And while Kirby may have dreamed of an epic finish to his epic saga (the conclusion he sketches out here has to settle for evoking Moses leading his people out of Egypt), I found the climax to The Hunger Dogs more satisfying, truer to life: some things change, and many things don't. Although we're told Darkseid takes control of Apokolips again, our last glimpse of him is a figure made lonely and small by distance and time: even through the anger, the scorn, and the violence, Kirby evinces pity for the most horrible of his characters.


It's a good lesson to take from the Fourth World Omnibus, for although these four volumes are a tremendous achievement and will occupy a prized place on my bookshelf, it's meaningful they sit below Buddha, the three thousand page epic Tezuka created at roughly the same time in the manner the artist wanted, at the pace he preferred (collected in hardcover in America, it should be pointed out, before The Omnibus). It achieves very little to focus only on the shame of such a thing. And yet, to look at the whole of Kirby's achievement and see only the wonder, and not the warning, would only compound the shamefulness further: the compromises presented in the final volume of The Fourth World Omnibus mirror the compromises a reader must suffer in seeing such Excellent work simultaneously transcend, and fall victim to, the paucity of its era.

A Plug, A Random Observation and A Question From Jeff...

Happy New Year, everyone! Kinda got a couple things on my plate but I did want to direct your attention, in case you missed it, to the recent launch of io9.com, a sci-fi blog run by some of CE's favorite people--Annalee Newitz, Charlie Anders, and Wassisname McMillan covering comics. Mr. Ellis didn't like it too much, nor did Mojo, but I think it's a fun little nerd culture blog that promises to feed me some thoughtful stuff to go along with my fix of "wait, Tyler Perry is in the new Star Trek?!" news.

In other news, I'm just getting over that stomach flu that's been going around, and recommend if you get a chance to watch the first season of Dexter while reading Tezuka's Buddha and running a mild fever, I totally recommend you do so. The completely fucked up dreams make it more than worth it.

And finally, while shopping the other day in a Target, I came across this relatively amazing Marvel shirt:

As a Kirby fan and an old-school Marvel dude, I was pretty impressed. I mean, there are *four* Inhumans on there, as well as...is that Sgt. Fury or Wyatt Wingfoot? To say nothing of the Kirby Falcon...

And there's something in the layout that kinda rings a bell for me: didn't Foom come with a sheet of stickers or something, that might've been the original template for this? I doubt it's an exact match since Foom was finished by the time Byrne was drawing Wolverine, but it still seems awfully familiar.

Anyway, I was hoping someone might know something about this shirt, because I'm sorta mystified by it. Feel free to drop any info and/or crazed conspiracy theories into the comments...

The Secret History: Jeff Returns to Blab About Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus

The mind is a strange machine. After three (very busy) weeks where my thinking about comics consisted of litte more than "I bet Bill Finger wrote this story" (my reading before bed has been that very enjoyable third volume of Superman Showcase), the brain kicked right in this morning as I ran my quasi-ecstatic hands over JACK KIRBYS FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS VOL 1 HC. And since Brian just had his birthday, and Graeme is (I hope) whacked out on pain pills and watching Gilmore Girls, I figured it might be worth sharing those thoughts with you oh-so-briefly. (I'd like to post the few remaining items on my to-do list too, but that probably won't be happening anytime soon, alas.)

So, the Omnibus. Lemme start by confessing that I own the Marvel Visionaries hardcovers of both Kirby books, the Romita Sr. volume, as well as a slightly beat up Ditko volume that I bought on the cheap, and one of the things that bums me out about them is when I peel off the lovely looking bookjackets and see nothing underneath but a very generic title engraved on the cover. And yet, like some strange version of "peek-a-boo," I've continued to pull aside that jacket in the hopes I was mistaken and some wondrous image will yet appear.

With that in mind, you can imagine my delight when I peeled off the wonderful Omnibus bookjacket and found underneath a gigantic close-up of Orion's face, with the Kirby credit box underneath. For a Kirby fan, the cover and the endpapers--more outsized excerpts of Kirby panels--are perfection. And, interestingly, it's this strain of perfection that led me, the longer I flipped through the version, into a spongy emotional morass.

The book exists, you see, in a very strange state--caught between high and low production values--that seems, unfortunately, fitting for Kirby's Fourth World titles. There's lovely, spongy blue cotton paper separating the cover from the innards that feels pleasingly swank to the fingertips, but the paper on which the stories themselves reside is barely a few steps up from newsprint. Weirdly, that's initially satisfying--reading Grant Morrison's introduction, or the ending essay by Mark Evanier, it seems eerily so, catching the odd tingle one gets from reading Kirby's books now as they manage to be timelessly futuristic and charmingly anachronistic simultaneously--and gives you the feeling that you really are reading (to badly paraphrase Morrison) a pulp gnostic text. But that feeling quickly fades: it works in the beginning- and end-papers because the graphics are carefully crafted to show the tiny dots of the long-abandoned coloring process. But the stories themselves have been carefully recolored so there are no dots to be found anywhere, which would be fine if the paper was as glossy as the coloring but it's not. The effect makes the book into an odd literary design sandwich--two thick slices of design-savvy nostalgia in which a power-point presentation of Kirby's Fourth World stories is only semi-comfortably nestled. If someone at DC had the moxie (and let's face it, the budget--the Jimmy Olsen issues herein are presumably just the innards from the already digitially recolored trades from a year or two ago), they would've had the whole thing done in a loving dot-heavy coloring style of the originals: it would've been thrilling, and, again, a fine tribute to that futurism/anachronism duality in Kirby's work.

Thinking about it, though, this odd sandwich unfortunately--but fittingly--highlights some of the other dualities in Kirby's work. After all, Kirby's Fourth World saga wasn't a success, but a failure: all of Kirby's plans for the Fourth World were destroyed, more or less to the letter, by the machinations of a large comic book company with a commitment to both the bottom line and seeing a return on the sizeable investment it had made in Kirby. So I think the sting I feel when I see (book title aside) Kirby share equal billing with company man and deadline king Vince Coletta everywhere throughout the book (including the inside back bookflap bios) is altogether fitting. Being unable to find the name of the book designer anywhere but being able to easily find the name of DC's VP of Business Development, Jeff Trojan, is entirely fitting in a book reprinting stories where DC hired Al Plastino and Curt Swan to draw over the faces Kirby drew for Superman and Jimmy Olsen. Even in an expensive hardcover devoted to his work, Kirby is just one more cog in the machine, the way he was when DC cancelled his titles and put him on other books that they thought would sell better--a very important cog, to be sure, but a cog nonetheless.

You might think it silly to spend so much time on the trappings of this collection and not on the stories themselves, and I'm inclined to agree. However, the stories themselves were written and drawn long ago; it's only the context that's changed and will continue to change from this point on. And in this context, I found the emergence of Mister Miracle from toward the end of this volume to be both touching and incredibly apt. I think it's Mark Evanier who's pointed out that Mr. Miracle is, of all the Fourth World heroes, the one closest to Kirby himself. Thanks to the help of a strong and devoted partner, his years of training and his own divine heritage, Scott Free escapes again and again from a succession of brutal deathtraps that may or may not represent the threatening straitjacket commercial expectation poses to the creator. Mr. Miracle/Scott Free is Kirby's idealized version of himself--a man raised in the violent war-state of Darkseid's brutal society who is not himself violent or brutal and who supports himself and enlightens others by freeing himself again and again--but Free is, ultimately, just a dream, a fantasy, dreamt by a man who worked for The Man and who had to do, ultimately, what the people signing the checks asked for. Those dreams may not seem as sweetly poignant--may risk, in fact, not speaking to us at all--without that bitter context, a context lurking, like yet another cover, underneath the sumptiousness of JACK KIRBYS FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS VOL 1.

Whether you have or haven't read Kirby's Fourth World material, this is Excellent material and well worth getting. But on the weekend where Kirby's dreams seem at their most successful (what with Silver Surfer premiering on the big screen and this hardcover on the shelves), it's probably prudent to consider that the yoke from which the King dreamt of freedom is not altogether absent.