Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Best of Milligan & McCarthy

Required Reading!
  On September 11th, Dark Horse Books released the long awaited collection of classic collaborations from the creative team of Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy. Branded THE BEST OF MILLIGAN & MCCARTHY, and produced under the Dark Horse Originals imprint for great creators and original visions, this omnibus remasters stories that stretch back as far as 1978's The Electric Hoax comic strip from UK music paper Sounds. This deluxe hardcover contains the complete Paradax, Rogan Gosh, and Strange Days–including not just Freakwave, but all the interstitial strips and Eclipse titles that predate Vertigo like Mirkin the Mystic and the supplements to the Paradax Remix. One of the most indisputably unnerving sequential tales of all time, Skin, is here complete as well. So are Summer of Love and Sooner or Later, which have been whispered rumors to most American comics enthusiasts until now. At only $24.95 it's quite a bargain, too.

The really wonderful thing about this collection is the succession of reminiscences that precedes each story, which helps to give context to the content. Without it, the sheer importance of the work might be lost on the masses. This was groundbreaking stuff, and actually would still be groundbreaking if it were all brand new. Most of the work produced in American comics in the late 1990s and forward owes a great debt to the work of these two Brits, whose bravery was seldom rewarded as much as those who followed. Milligan & McCarthy weren't just contemporaries of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, they were influencers.

Not for sale, so don't even ask!
Included, perhaps, as a preview of an omnibus to come, are several covers and interior pages from their Shade, The Changing Man reboot, too. Long overlooked, this was an engrossing, dramatic series that delivered on every level in issue after issue as it got less and less commercial, losing many an award to the predominantly anthologized Sandman. And the page with which they chose to end this tome just happens to be the color version of the page I've had in my own collection since April 1992.  It is the page that–more than any other, inspired the Pop Sequentialism exhibition and catalog, and therefore this very blog. The grounded surrealism of Brendan's illustrations and the deep melancholy of Pete's words embodied pop in the new context of narrative art. As a lifelong collector of original comic art, I've at one time or another owned multiple Jack Kirby, Neil Adams, Simon Bisley, and Todd McFarlane pages that I had to let go for one reason or another, but I kept my Shade page. 

I am greatly honored to be included in this omnibus, as Brendan saw fit to run a quote from me on the back cover, alongside incredibly important people like Gorillaz & Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, Vertigo Editor Karen Berger, and Marvel editor in chief Alex Alonso. I have been lucky enough to meet my idols on a handful of occasions, and by some miracle of fate I now call some of them colleagues and some of them friends. I am humbled by Brendan's friendship and proud to have presented his work in a gallery setting more than once. Both of the men presented in this book are a credit to the industry they choose as their own, and both continue to produce mature, relevant work that defies classification even within their genre assignments. So don't be surprised if THE BEST OF MILLIGAN & MCCARTHY turns out to be only Volume One...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Death of Gwen Stacy (a Personal Continuity)

Like a lot of kids who grew up in the 70s, I read comics. Quite often I had no idea from where they had come or how I came to possess them, but they always seemed to be there. Being the youngest of six, a lot of them were hand-me-downs. I honestly can't picture any of my sisters reading The Incredible Hulk, Werewolf by Night, or Giant-Size Man-Thing, however, so I must have pestered my mom to buy them for me in the checkout line at Stop & Shop or via the mysterious grab bags that local grocer Merty Bligh put together. 

Those grab bags were a very mixed bag indeed. They generally featured two Marvel or DC comics, an odd Charlton and Gold Key title, and inevitably the dreaded Harvey publication. The cost? Thirty-five cents or three grab bags for a dollar. They were the predecessor of the modern blind-box, and came wrapped in nondescript brown paper. There was no continuity in these bundles, so following a specific title was near impossible. Such infuriating, uncontrollable randomness lead me to appreciate anthologies and stand alone titles like DC's House of Mystery, or Marvel's Team-Up books. Once, when the cashier at Bligh's gave me back too much change for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, I was given an 80 Page Giant as a reward for returning the money. Life changing moment, right there.

When I think back about the comics I read when I was very young I invariably remember getting them at the newsstand, but upon checking the street dates (thank you, internet), it turns out that some of those comics were published far before I was old enough to read. My next door neighbor and childhood best friend, Tommy Morley, also read comics and (like me) he had a small collection of back issues that were slightly too old for him to have picked up brand new, too. So, while I'm unsure of the precise circumstances surrounding it, it could have been forty years ago that The Amazing Spider-Man #122 found it's way into my life. It bore a street date of July 1973, but I couldn't have gotten around to reading it until at least August 1975 (the same month I received the first appearance of Moon Knight), so it was very likely 38 years ago this month that Gwen Stacy died in my own, personal continuity.

In this day and age where heroes, villains and supporting cast routinely die only to be resurrected a few years (or a few issues) later, it's easy to take the death of Gwen Stacy for granted. But back then it was a very big deal. I know from personal experience that there are a lot of guys in their mid forties who first learned about mortality via that comic. I had never known anyone who died at that point in my life, and I had a lot of questions for my parents about it. I had also never paid much attention to the creative teams that wrote, drew, inked or colored the comics I read up until then. I did, however, commit Gerry Conway's name to memory. Even at that young age I understood that it had been he, not Spider-Man or the Green Goblin, that killed Gwen Stacy.

It's perhaps fitting then, that August should also mark the occasion that The Death of Gwen Stacy should re-enter my life. While investigating a completely unrelated matter, I found myself on Ebay last week. A private collector had listed a large assortment of color guide proofs and digital production proof sheets and among them was one of the all-time best Amazing Spider-Man pages. Anyone who collects original comic book art knows that almost all of the key pages from the great comics have found their way into private collections and only ever re-enter the marketplace when a collector dies. It's impossible to look for specific pages because they're long gone. And if you inquire about a specific page you'll generally stir up more interest that will make it much harder for you (or at least much more expensive) should that page ever surface.

Page 5 of issue #122 of The Amazing Spider-Man is a half-splash that captures the grief of a superhero–powerless to prevent the death of a loved one and engulfed by guilt for his role in it. A montage of the supporting cast plays in his head as the narration pronounces the death of a main character. It's actually difficult not to get a little choked up by it now as I write this. John Romita and Gil Kane were true masters of the form and there are few pages more important in the history of the medium. This event signaled the end of the Silver Age of comics. The page (pictured at left) isn't the original pencil and ink artwork from 1973, but for less than ten percent of what the original comic book routinely fetches, I won the digital proof sheet created by Marvel and remastered from the original pages for their series of omnibus reprint collections. It features the digitally perfected black and white art on paper stock with a mylar overlay of the lettering.

High quality digital printing is relatively new, so this this type of production art is fairly recent, but already almost obsolete. Previously, bound editions were little more than newsprint collections with art shot directly from the published books. The old proof sheets were generally just xerox copies and they looked terrible, guaranteeing that nobody would collect them. Production art (including original hand-painted color proofs) has historically been overlooked by collectors and undervalued in the hobby, with much of it even being discarded by the editorial staff or art department after being approved for print.

These new, digital match-prints are a whole other thing. They often go back to the original art files or photographic records and painstakingly clean up the images to grant the greatest integrity to the original art work, which is often in pretty bad shape from poor storage before entering the collectibles market. The original film is often in the condition of public library microfiche: worn, possibly blurry and covered in scratches, so the effort that goes into the clean-up is often extraordinary because the match-prints are pristine and gorgeous. And most importantly for collectors, these production proofs, like the original hand-drawn pages, are unique: there is only one final proof. Publishers never hold onto this stuff, making it in many ways more rare than original pencils or blue-line sheets. Now, with production budgets even more limited than before, most digital remastering jobs are approved via pdf, so match-prints are rarely produced. That makes pieces like this one artifacts of era-specific comic history; they are an anecdote in the overall legend.

Just as digital is only now finding its footing alongside analog in the fine art world, many comic art collectors are just now becoming aware of these genuine treasures. In the last few years, pre-digital-era color proofs have skyrocketed in value with the realization that they are original paintings that just happen to have been rendered over photocopies of the original, inked art pages. With key moments from comic book history few and far between, these pieces provide a second bite at the apple for collectors who can't afford the tens of thousands (to hundreds of thousands) of dollars that original John Romita and Gil Kane pages inevitably command–especially from Gerry Conway's tenure as writer under editor Roy Thomas. The price gap between color proofs and pencil pages is rapidly narrowing, and so, in time, will the price gap between analog and unique digital production art. I have to imagine that the popularity of a digitally produced series like Saga will really move the needle in the demand and escalated pricing of digital proof pages. At least as long as such pages are produced, since Saga is definitely a product of the pdf approval era. Will today's readers feel in forty years as I do now about Spider-Man, Daredevil, Teen Titans or Watchmen? I hope so. 

As I remember now how the Death of Gwen Stacy affected me in my youth, there is a poignant mix of nostalgia for adolescent grief and pride of acquisition that reminds me why the true art of this medium is its unique blend of visuals and story. Comics are figurative and narrative art at the very nexus of their being. The two forms are indivisible and more satisfying for it.

'Nuff said.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

One more Comicon Anecdote

On the Sunday before Comicon, we hosted Harlan Ellison for a book signing at La Luz de Jesus Gallery. I wasn't able to attend because I was extremely ill (and got my relapse immediately after Comicon), so I missed one of the few opportunities I'll ever have again to spend time with Harlan. When I went through the gallery of pictures taken by our publicist, Lee Joseph, I saw a sequence of images featuring Bill Sienkiewicz–compounding my disappointment at not being able to host the event in person.

The following Saturday at Comicon, I found Bill at his table. After catching up a bit and discussing some upcoming gallery business I relayed to him my apologies for not being at the Ellison signing, but told him I had a great couple of pics of him with Harlan. As we were about to part company, Brian Michael Bendis walked over and told Bill that they (and Klaus Jansen and my friend David Mack) had just topped the New York Times Best Seller List with the hard-bound, collected Daredevil: End of Days.

Bill re-introduced me to Bendis and said, "Well I guess you get to share in this victory, too!" which just about made my day.

Below are those two great pics of Bill with Harlan.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Get Cape Conscious–Join the Hero Inititative!

The 1986 shame campaign
Most comic collectors are familiar with the royalty battles that the creators of their favorite characters have had to fight against the megacorporations that now own DC and Marvel (not to mention EC, Fawcett, Gold Key, National, Timely and Atlas). If coverage of the recent Iron Man 3 or Man of Steel films seemed noticeably absent from this column it's because I was in an ethical dillemna regarding coverage of content directly related to this column and the recent court rulings that gave copyright of Superman to Warner Brothers over the estates of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and barred Jack Kirby's estate from any piece of future Marvel product. I knew that I was going to see these movies, and therefore calling for a boycott would have been hypocritical, so I decided to not further add to the publicity machine by reviewing them whilst they were still in theaters.

For the record, I really enjoyed Iron Man 3 and can't believe how implausible Man of Steel was.

Most comic fans are completely unaware, however, of the hardships faced by virtually all comics professionals in their later years. I can't call them retirement years because very few comic artists actually get to retire. Working as freelancers in an industry without a union has left very little in the way of a nest egg or retirement fund for most of the people that wrote, drew, inked, colored or lettered the best comics of the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages. When considering that most of those creators toiled for low page rates with no chance at ownership and no royalties while building a multi-billion-dollar industry, it's especially despicable. And even contemporary artists were likely to be uninsured until Obamacare went into legislation, which meant bankruptcy and premature death in the face of any serious medical issues. Natural disasters or any other unexpected expense can mean instant unemployment for them just as it can for the rest of us.

Pang-ju: created in Korea,
but manufactured in Japan
This past weekend at the annual San Diego Comic Con International, I made it a point to avoid the big entertainment company booths completely. It was my wife's first Comicon experience and she had a blast weaving through the artist alley tables and the small press aisles, and discovering the latest toys from her native Japan to make a splash here in the USA (Pullip and Pang-ju especially). We embraced the bump-into factor inherent in an event of this size, and enjoyed seeing friends from all walks of life (and parts of the world) as we navigated the convention room floor. We checked out panels for my friend Huston Huddleston's Star Trek Bridge Restoration project and Ryan Ridley's new gig writing Rick and Morty for Adult Swim. Most of the art reps whose collections of amazing original comic art helped me to launch Pop Sequentialism are all gathered in the same area, and this year I was happy to see the Hero Initiative's booth among them.

The Hero Initiative is the first ever federally chartered not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping comic book veterans. Through Hero Initiative, financial aid is available for comic creators who may need assistance with the necessities of life or simply a helping hand back into the comics industry. It's a chance to give back to the people who have given us so much enjoyment. The fund disbursement committee includes Hall of Fame creators Howard Chaykin, Denny O'Neil, John Romita, Sr., Walt Simonson, Roy Thomas, Jim Valentino, and George Perez–who drew me this awesome Robin portrait. The suggested donation for sketches was $40.00, but I tossed a Franklin in the bowl to guilt the crowd around me into giving more than just the minimum for such a worthy cause. George has done well and given back to those less fortunate. He's gregarious and still enthusiastic about comics, fans, & life in general, and his run on New Teen Titans has much to do with Robin / Nightwing being my favorite character of all time. He called me a "Graysonite" with a smile and I nodded proudly.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Wolverine on the New York Times Best Seller List?

In a brilliant marketing move anticipating the release of the new Hugh Jackman movie that hits theaters at the end of this month, Marvel has collected Mark Millar's run on Wolverine into an Omnibus. This 576 page deluxe edition contains Wolverine 20-32, 66-72, and the Giant-Size Old Man Logan special–and it currently ranks fifth on the New York Times Best Sellers list of Hardcover Graphic Books.

The first half is the "Enemy of the State" story-line illustrated by Millar's Kick-Ass colleague John Romita Jr. which pits a rabid and brain-washed Wolverine against the entire Marvel Universe. It was a blood-thirsty romp, considered the ultimate Wolverine tale by fans. After a four-year absence from the title, Millar returned with a post-apocalyptic vision of tragic pathos that followed an elderly, retired, and pacifistic Wolverine, and it doesn’t get any better than this. Millar’s Civil War penciler Steve McNiven enhanced his usual adrenaline-rush theatrics with a rougher edge that captures archetypal Clint Eastwood at his wild-western best via Mad Max.

by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven
Issue #71, Cover Rough (gore cover)
Graphite on paper
Signed by Steve McNiven
8.5" x 11"

Foreign orders please add an additional $20 for postage.

The page above is a cover study for issue #71; the rough, pencil outline of the cover that would eventually be published. An extreme close-up of the titular hero’s face (with bullet wounds exposing the adamantium skull beneath his flesh before his mutant healing factor can repair the damage) reveals the quiet rage that has long been building in Old Man Logan, who long ago vowed to sheath his mighty claws. It’s one of the goriest superhero comic covers ever, and it epitomizes the best of Millar and McNiven’s work together: tough, gritty and barely containing the violence that percolates just beneath the surface. The team that shattered the status quo with the mega-hit Civil War reunited to tell the greatest Wolverine tale of them all –a sort of Unforgiven meets Dark Knight. This page was included in the Pop Sequentialism exhibition and the accompanying published catalog.

Wolverine has been a fan favorite ever since his introduction in the Incredible Hulk back in 1974, but it was the Frank Miller mini-series by Uncanny X-Men scribe Chris Claremont that established the character as a genuine, marquee name. And ever since Frank Miller's back-to-back prestige format books Ronin and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, fanboys have been praying that he would do a retirement age tale of the most savage mutant in all of comicdom. As the years stretched on and Miller's output became more erratic and less satisfying, Mark Millar became the go-to guy for well-written machismo.

Mark Millar has been one of the key figures of 21st century comics. Following a series of well-received collaborations with fellow Scotsman Grant Morrison at DC, Millar went solo in 2000 replacing powerhouse writer Warren Ellis on Wildstorm’s hit series The Authority. His controversial, over-the-top approach to the already dynamic superhero action garnered a heap of awards in the UK and America, but caused a bit of friction with publisher DC and Warner Bros, who greatly censored his scripts in an era of post 9/11 sensitivity. This led to his departure from DC, and offers of lucrative work at Marvel. In 2001, following the success of Brian Michael BendisUltimate Spider-Man, he launched Ultimate X-Men. It was huge. The following year he rebooted The Avengers via the title The Ultimates, which proved more popular than the X-Men. It became something of a phenomenon and the brass at Marvel’s film division used it as the source template for no less than four films, including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. He’s also had two big-budget, big-screen blockbusters adapted from his creator-owned titles Wanted and Kick-Ass–with a Kick-Ass sequel set for release next month.

So congrats to Mark Millar, John Romita Jr., and Steve McNiven for their continued success with a classic tale from the modern age. And congrats also to Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner who nabbed the New York Times Best Seller list's top spot with their Before Watchmen: Minutemen / Silk Spectre split hardcover collection, which represents the best of an otherwise mixed endeavor in telling new stories with characters created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons*. Cooke's New Frontier treatment of the Watchmen's under-represented characters is classy, reverent and enriching, while Conner's decidedly female perspective was fresh, light and endearing.

*scroll back through this blog for my take on the entire Before Watchmen line.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why Do Critics Suck?

Leonard Schader
When I was a slightly younger man, Leonard Schrader was a friend of mine. We didn't hang out and smoke cigars, or go bowling or buy each other lunch, but we were most definitely friendly and conversed a lot. While most people are undoubtedly familiar with his brother Paul's cinematic resumé (writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, directing American Gigolo and Cat People), Leonard's contributions include co-developing the films The Yakuza, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, as well as adapting the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Kiss of the Spider Woman. I met Lenny when I worked at Hollywood Book and Poster, and our conversations spanned many subjects as I sold him classic lobby cards and screenplay reprints from the shop's massive archive (which he would implement in his screenwriting classes at AFI, Chapman and USC). Despite the massive age difference, we had a few things in common: we were both married to Japanese women, shared an affection for wolves and wolf-like dogs, and were more fond of silent comedies than contemporary ones. He was a friendly unassuming guy with a lot of knowledge and I learned a lot from him.

I was a fan of his writing and having noticed the long periods of absence between produced projects in his IMDB credits, asked him why his output was so minimal. He told me that the artistic freedom of the 1970s had become a corporate nightmare in the 1980s when, as a rewrite scribe, he would commonly get notes from executives to "dumb down" the material. The studio bosses at this time weren't filmmakers like the generation that preceded them. They were financiers: junk bondsmen appointed by stockholders who would just as soon invest in fudge as in film. In Leonard's estimation, these guys had about as much entitlement to critique writing as a cat had a need for pajamas. His interest in taking thankless writing assignments waned as his original pitches were routinely turned down. In actuality, he had remained quite busy though his resumé didn't reflect it. Many writers wind up pounding out numerous transitional drafts in the nebulous grey area between script inception and filmed realization. Most folks not glued to the trades just aren't aware of how much time is spent on projects that change direction, swap genre midstream or go nowhere. Development can swallow a decade or more of a writer, director, or producer's time as studios greenlight and cancel projects without shooting a single scene–with the biggest casualty often being originality.

Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer & Michael Bay
The cocaine fueled 1980s were certainly no high water mark for intelligent decisions, and major big-budget misfires helped to limit the freedom allotted to the auteurs that changed cinema in the 1970s. The decline of the mavericks coincided with the birth of the event film, and the summer blockbuster became the goal of literally every major studio in Hollywood. Over time, the heightened craft, dazzling special effects and compelling stories that made the early blockbusters successful (Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) were simplified into a formula that consisted only of special effects and marquee names, so that star-driven vehicles, sequels and remakes out-trumped the tried-and-true equation of good story + good acting = hit.

I'm not telling you anything new here. You've seen it in Easy Riders and Raging Bulls and the chronological follow-up, The Blockbuster Imperative. What drives me crazy is that so few of the theater-going public have learned anything from those films or from their own movie-hopping experience.

Eligible in 16 award categories, nominated for 1, winner of 0

Cloud Atlas was released on DVD and BluRay last week. It was a hundred million dollar, independently financed film faithfully adapted from a critically acclaimed novel featuring a cast of household names, directed by billionaire franchise creators and an arthouse god. It was an incredibly original story that tackled complicated themes in an entertaining way via powerhouse performances and stunning special effects and, of course, it flopped miserably. Apparently, the public has become accustomed to "dumbed-down" entertainment, because this was a thinking man's sci-fi adventure and audiences avoided it like the plague.

Roger Ebert
Many critics had at least a few nice things to say about the movie, but seemed more interested in predicting failure than championing quality. The first three reviews I read, which were quite lengthy, seemed completely incapable of describing the plot and left very little indication of whether they liked it or not. As with far too many syndicated review columns, the ego of the writer and the need to use interesting and uncommon verbiage trumped the actual purpose of the review: to make a case either for or against the film based on what is on screen. Instead, confused readers were treated to nit-picky non-specifics by armchair directors flexing their thesauruses in a series of paid-by-the-syllable word mills. The same critics that champion every single befuddling film from David Lynch or Werner Herzog were (incredibly) incapable of comprehending a fairly straight-forward and universal tale of the thirst for freedom, the value of integrity and the immortality of love. If only a real critic like Pauline Kael had been around to champion Cloud Atlas, it might have gained traction and then word of mouth. Even Roger Ebert (who gave the film a four star review) tap-danced around the plot and injected enough doubt in the first paragraphs of his review that it basically ensured on-the-fence film fans would skip it. What a disservice!

Of course the lack of studio support should become a case study in movie marketing failure for decades to come. Warner Brothers dropped the ball on this like they did with Iron Giant, My Dog Skip and A Little Princess. Because of the massive box office failure, Cloud Atlas has all the earmarks of becoming a legitimate cult classic, but the film's poor performance virtually insures that nobody will ever take a chance like this again. That is a pox on all of our houses, and all of you who didn't go see it on the big screen are to blame. Shame on you. It's because of you that we'll all be served Paranormal Activity Part Fuck You until the end of time. Thank you also for guaranteeing sequels to Silent Hill and Resident Evil and every other shitty video game adaptation that comes down the pike until the dead actually do rise and kill us all.

So... yes, this is a bit of an I Told You So. You screwed up by not supporting visionary filmmakers in a grand experiment, but you've got the chance to make up for it by buying the DVD, Bluray or Ultraviolet download. Add the film to your Netflix cue and request it on Red Box. When you finally do see it (and love it) post about it on facebook, twitter, instagram, tumblr, and in your blog. Cloud Atlas finally will get it's due, but please do me a favor: don't claim that you saw it on the big screen because I saved my ticket stubs and I will absolutely call bullshit on you.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

All Hail Patton Oswalt!

Patton Oswalt is the closest thing we have to a Geek Treasure.

First, he gave the single greatest improv performance on television since John Belushi was on Saturday Night Live. In his recurring role as Garth Blundin on NBC's Parks and Recreation, Patton gave the filibuster of the century in a speech that outlined his pitch for the plot of the next Star Wars movie, which features Thanos, the Avengers, and other wonderful surprises–uniting the two recently acquired Disney franchises of Marvel and Lucasfilm. This is pure comic brilliance:

And now, Mr. Oswalt has participated in a great Batman parody as The Penguin. After you see this, you'll be begging Christopher Nolan to do another film with Patton Oswalt as The Penguin.
All hail Patton Oswalt!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Iron Man 3's Comic Book Origins

This weekend in America, one of the most highly anticipated film sequels in comicdom history will open. IRON MAN 3 has already taken the rest of the world by storm, earning 195.3 million US dollars in 42 countries, crossing the $185.1 million opening threshold set by AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (the worldwide title) and breaking a number of records for the biggest opening weekend ever in countries throughout Asia and South America as well as the UK. The film opens state-side this coming weekend and looks to replicate the ambition of the last Marvel film–if on a far less cosmic scale.

You'll notice in the UK trailer above the appearance of longtime Iron Man antagonist, The Mandarin, whose existence was hinted in the first IRON MAN film via the terrorist group "The Ten Rings," referencing the source of the super villain's power. It's great to see Sir Ben Kingsley entering the Marvel Universe after a false start in the aborted original SPIDER-MAN 3, which would have seen him in the role of The Vulture. Producer Avi Arad in a textbook example of poor judgment chose to swap The Vulture for Venom and then mysteriously added Gwen Stacy as well, which helped make a mess of things even if the massive box-office didn't reflect it. Future disagreements between production and original series director Sam Raimi led to a parting of company and the unfortunate reboot of the series by director Marc Webb. The moral of the story: don't swap an Oscar winner for a sitcom star. Ever.

by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca
Issue #18, Page 22: Splash
Graphite and ink on board
11" x 17"
You may also notice another mobile, armored, and militarized suit from the comics, The Iron Patriot. In this incarnation, which is reportedly adapted from the Warren Ellis "Extremis" story arc, The Iron Patriot is an upgrade to the War Machine armor, rather than an enemy (as originally depicted in the Matt Fraction / Salvador Larroca series Invincible Iron Man), which may arise from Sony holding the rights to the Norman Osbourne character as part of their Spider-Man deal, and this franchise is part of Walt Disney Studios' Marvel Cinematic Universe. So in IRON MAN 3, Iron Patriot will be the new armor of Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes, used to put a patriotic face on America's super soldiers following the events of THE AVENGERS. Regardless, it's nice to see a great costume gracing the big screen, and personally gratifying because the first appearance of the Iron Patriot (from Invincible Iron Man #18) was featured in the first Pop-Sequentialism exhibition and show catalog. It's still available, too. Contact me for purchase details.

I've begun negotiations to curate a museum exhibition in Southern California of the next incarnation of Pop-Sequentialism, so look for details here soon.

Another trailer to hit the world of fandom with a great, big bang is THOR: DARK WORLD, which will be the eighth film in the Disney/Marvel Universe. Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor helms a script from Saving Private Ryan writer Robert Rodat. And it looks appropriately badass:

THOR (2009)
by J. Michael Straczynski & Olivier Coipel
Issue #10, Page 9: Splash Page
Graphite and ink on board
17" x 11"
There doesn't seem to be a direct connection to a specific run of the comics–but the movie rights to the Fantastic Four have reverted to Marvel Studios, so a post-credit Doctor Doom sequence can't be ruled out just yet. With CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AVENGERS 2 all forthcoming and leading up to a Thanos Infinity Gauntlet War, it wouldn't be quite right in my book if everybody's favorite Latverian dictator wasn't involved. If so, it's possible that this new Thor film may take some more incidental points from J. Michael Straczynski's great run in the comics. Among my favorites is this splash page of Balder confronting his brother Thor over his rightful claim to the throne of Asgard. Since Marvel hasn't divulged plans for a third Thor film, and industry insiders speculate that team films will be the preferred format following AVENGERS 2, Ragnarok could be a big plot point in THOR: DARK WORLD, and if so, this event which helps to kick-off those events may be featured prominently. With Brian Michael Bendis calling most of the shots at Marvel these days, and with so many opportunities to work some of his own plots into the cinematic timeline, it would seem like a grave mistake to not try to weave the likely looming FF reboot into the box office megablockbusters already on schedule.

Since Siege is unlikely to come to fruition as long as Sony holds the rights to all X-MEN properties, the Loki and Doctor Doom team-up in the MJS run on THOR seems like the most transitionable storyline.

And owning an Olivier Coipel page from one of the all time great collaborations is its own reward.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Great Influence of the Late Margaret Thatcher on Modern Comics

Maggie bought the farm yesterday, and I doubt that Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Brendan McCarthy, or any of the UK comic writers who emerged in the mainstream in the 1980s are doing much grieving. In fact, a great deal of those writer's early work is a direct result of living under Margaret Thatcher's rule, a contentious era of upheaval which helped earn her nickname of "The Iron Lady." When sifting through the sanctimonious epitaphs that are sure to appear in newspapers and news programs between now and her funeral remember that Prime Minister Thatcher called Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela "a terrorist."

Here in the USA, Thatcher's allegiance to Ronald Reagan earned her much higher praise than she received in her own country. Of course the nightly American newscast didn't feature the constant hunger strikes, worker strikes, public rioting and general dissent that festered in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and throughout the British Isles in response to her poll tax, union busting, state-supported terror tactics and racially and economically divisive politics. While American punks blasted anti-Thatcher anthems from their Japanese boom boxes, comprehension of the British condition remained nearly non-existent. While the Clash, Elvis Costello, and U2 penned song after song attacking The Baroness to the wider pop audience, the severity of British austerity was largely lost on Americans. Her deregulation of the markets, privatization of the dockyards, and general lack of sympathy for the working class left a legacy of unemployment and heroin addiction.

But comic book fans got the straight dope from the source.

Readers of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta got a stark dose of anti-thatcherism. Moore exposed the homophobic Section 28 Law that vaguely forbade the publication or presentation of any materials that promote homosexuality. V's Larkhill Resettlement Camp is a fascistic, nightmare scenario of what many feared would be the next step. The totalitarian government presented in his groundbreaking anarchists tale is very much modeled on Thatcher's Tory party. The extent of terror-state interrogation techniques allowed by British Police remains mostly unknown to the majority of Americans–even those who read about them in V, who perhaps thought it part of the fictional aspects of the story. The anti-establishment aspects of V for Vendetta would become more prominent and more polarized in Moore's Watchmen, which featured graffiti silhouettes like Banksy's long before most people were aware of him. Banksy's most popular image of a scarfed man throwing a tear gas cannister is, itself,  straight out of the era of the Brixton Riots.  

Moore also wrote Maggie into his Miracleman/Marvelman series in issue 16, where she scoffs at the idea of market interference. It's hard to believe after the economic collapse of 2008 that the dangers of deregulation had been outlined in a superhero comic book released back in December 1989. The hero's sympathy for the aged leader in spite of her obtuse uncompromising nature is prophetic of what many Brits and most Americans saw on their televisions last night. Moore foresaw the pending candy-coating over two decades ago, not that it was so difficult to predict. The visibly shaken Thatcher depicted by American artist John Totleben in the sixth panel on the page appears moved to tears, which is consistent with reports of her state upon exiting Downing Street almost a year later following her resignation from office on November, 22 1990. Moore completists will note that Thatcher's resignation took place a mere seventeen days after Guy Fawkes Night.

Grant Morrison's visionary and rarely seen St. Swithin's Day features an assassination publicity stunt with Thatcher as the intended target. In the UK, it is illegal to depict the assassination of any actual politician in any form–satire included, so Morrison had to be very clever about the motive of his young protagonist, who in the final frame threatens her with... his finger. Morrison's Scotland was the most heavily hit by Thatch, who swept like a wrecking ball through the mines, the steel industry, the car factories, shipbuilding and engineering and oversaw the demise of the communities which had built their livelihoods around them. The poverty there was rivaled only by Northern Ireland, which held a particular Ire for the PM. Morrison would also present an unfavorable vision of Margaret in his Dare, in which Gloria Monday colludes with the Mekon for a karmic demise.

Jamie Delano criticized Thatcher's "Help yourself society" amidst satanic stockbrokers in the third issue of Hellblazer. I remember reading that series as a teen, thinking, "Wow, this is really British!" Years later while reading Canadian author Dave Sim's Cerebus: Jaka's Story I realized just how disliked Margaret Thatcher was everywhere but in the USA. By the time the Spitting Image puppeteers lampooned her, her poll numbers were so low that they might have actually helped her image. When rock band Genesis utilized the puppets in their Land of Confusion video, it succeeded in creating a buffoonery that undercut the reality of nuclear catastrophe that warhawks Reagan and Thatcher almost led us into.

So when I say "influence," I mean it in the same way that Adolph Hitler influenced Art Spiegelman's Maus. Go on, Maggie–and good riddance!

Special acknowledgment to Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool for some of the images featured on this page.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Catalog available for purchase at
I set up this blog as an extension of the Pop Sequentialism exhibition I first curated back in May, 2011. That show was the culmination of a lifetime of collecting comic books and original comic book art. It was made possible through my position as gallery director at La Luz de Jesus Gallery, the influential birthplace of lowbrow art in the 1980s, pop surrealism in the 1990s, and an early promoter of street art in the 2000s. Since the target demographic of my Pop Sequentialism show was collectors of fine art, I had to write detailed descriptions of each page outlining what made each of them important. Unlike, say, oil paintings, comic book art is made valuable not only through the quality of the technique or a particular artist's fame, but also by the popularity and fame of the writer, the characters illustrated on each page, and the chronology and importance within the canon of each of them (artist, writer and characters). The regard and acclaim for the story and the era from whence it comes can add to or detract from the value derived from key composition, as can the word balloons (or lack thereof) that punctuate the action.

In that regard, comic book art is burdened with the most complex criteria for evaluation of any artistic media. Perhaps because of that, it has been difficult to attract fine art patrons into collecting it. And that (to me) is madness.

The great benefit to figurative, narrative work is that its aesthetic value need not hinge on bullshit. Any reasonable person can look at a well rendered drawing or painting and conclude that a high degree of ability went into creating it. Whether or not they've been educated on the importance of composition or have any knowledge or inclination toward understanding allegory or symbolism, as human beings they will pick-up on the fact that these other things make the work in question great. They may not be able to tell you why it's a masterpiece, but their appreciation of what elevates it beyond average is intrinsically embedded in their DNA. We, as people, are born with an understanding of such things. We recognize faces in inanimate objects, because our eyes are trained by our brains to do so. Certain colors elicit certain responses, and shapes behind or incorporating the figure in the foreground are collected and appreciated based on our need to find them–sometimes consciously, and sometimes subconsciously. The truly great works of antiquity are hailed as such because they tap into all of these stimuli. So tell me, how is an abstract conceptual piece more legit than a published illustration of the modern mythology?

Because a few people with a lot of money had a dog in that fight and decided it should be so.

The most important work of the 1990s. Really?
Let me go on record by saying I'm not a hater. There is plenty of worthwhile and important contemporary art. I respect Jeff Koons for his tireless dedication to high craft and perfection. Last year alone I got to see an installation (Ed Keinholtz), video art (Christian Marclay), and a performance piece (Marina Abramovic) that moved me as much as a Beethoven Symphony or a Caravaggio oil. That said, what was true in Hans Christian Andersen's day is still true now–there are just a lot more naked emperors. Damien Hirst's prices are slipping not only because of the dozen or so charges of plagiarism, but because there's not a lot of craft to what he's created. I've seen the taxidermy pieces up close and they are very poorly made. Hirst also got caught manipulating his own market, and at the end of the day, nobody likes a cheater. But for the past twenty years, paying millions of dollars for dead sharks has been big business. There has been a cabal of artists, critics, auctioneers, and billionaire collectors who have conspired to attribute astronomical value upon art that the overwhelming majority of people–that includes artists, gallerists and the general public– think is total shite.

Because sometimes ownership just isn't enough...
Whether good or bad, a lot of very recently produced art has been appraised in the tens of millions of dollars for the solitary purpose of spending and hiding money. The more it costs, the better, because it's a tax shelter for the impossibly rich. Some collectors have donated millions of dollars toward museum expansion budgets, bid and won on the building contracts, and then filled the new spaces with their own art collections. They received a tax break and a key to the city for their donations, they then got that money back as the contractor, and ultimately they get to house their collections for free while getting another tax break on lending the art. The experts hired to appraise the value of the pieces in these collections are often the auction houses that sold them. If that's not insider trading, I don't know what is. When that newly expanded museum loans the collection to another museum, the insurance required to move that collection is raised 10 to 20 percent above the most recently appraised value, raising the actual value to the most recently insured amount. When those museums fall into financial trouble, key donors are able to purchase pieces from the institution's permanent collections at tasty discounts and open their own museums–where you can be sure the directors will be more aware of budget than they were in the public sector.

So, as you can see, discussing the art is as relevant as discussing the weather, because the former has the staying power of the latter in most cases.

A Fine Art Hedge Fund Group
The truth is that many of the top end buyers of contemporary, conceptual art are merely investors with little or no opinion about what they're buying. They buy it because it's been occasionally profitable in resale, but majorly profitable as a tax shelter. Since art is only taxed on resale, owning expensive, blue-chip art is like having a tax-free savings account. It's better than hedge fund investing because art is not subject to capital gains tax. At that level, the art stops the clock on the IRS until it is sold, and if it is sold at a loss (like real-estate) the seller can claim that loss as a deduction without having paid a property tax.

There are teams of accountants who ensure that this system stays in place.

The people who actually do enjoy abstract expressionism tend to be academics or big thinkers who may find comfort in the presence of a big idea piece that delivers on a single promise (the concept). Maybe they use their brains all day long, focusing on minutiae and such and don't want to be overwhelmed by complicated brush strokes or even the easily recognizable. Like most other art, it boils down to personal taste. Sometimes it's a design motif, sometimes it's bragging rights. I'm not judging them for what they collect, but I'd be lying if I said I don't judge them for what they pay for it. There are brilliant, high-concept pieces out there; I'm not denying that. It's the assumption of brilliance in the lack of either concept or craft with which I take umbrage. Add cost to that concern and you've got the makings of class war.

Warhol's "Burning Green Car 1" sold for $71.7 million in 2007
Cost is relevant. The amount paid for a thing is justification of its perceived value, and there's not much difference between perceived value and actual value in the art world. So when an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein piece sells for thirty to fifty million dollars more than the comic art it homages, it send the message that the parody or the tribute is more valuable than that which inspired it. I love Mural with Blue Brushstroke, but I'd much rather have the cover illustration of Fantastic Four #51 hanging on my wall. That's true Pop Art.

Jack "King" Kirby. 'Nuff Said!
I've often posited that comic art is more than just an illustration or painting on a board. It's nostalgia as well, and not just of the page that was printed from it. A single comic book page activates a time machine that transports an entire span of time all at once. The adventure captured on that page is symbolic of every adventure depicted in comic books. It's a functionary of fandom that the individual items within a collection represent the collection as a whole. This may be why I've always held onto a handful of comics each time I've sold or donated my collections: by keeping two or three books, I'm retaining the right to remember everything I once, owned along with all the memories that those items which were dear to me embodied. So it's rewarding that such blatant sentimentality should also be enormously profitable.

What's that he said about enormous profit?

Take note, would be investors: it turns out that comic book art is a far better investment than just about any other kind of art.

It's true. Before sitting down to write this column a few weeks ago I decided to do some research. I looked at thousands of realized auction prices for contemporary and post-war paintings and sculptures, called and wrote a few dozen galleries, and poured through twenty years of purchase receipts. After addressing anomalies, such as the sudden spike in sales an artist's death will cause, and comparing market inflation with economic bubbles I discovered that in the world of fine art there are frequent cycles of appreciation and decline. They are invariably connected to wall street, and art market bubbles tend to mirror the late 1980s hedge fund explosion, the 1990s stock market rise, the dot com bubble and the recent real-estate collapse.

This is what $140 million looks like
Art Net and Daily Beast both predict an imminent Art Bubble Bursting as fears of the fiscal cliff became fears over sequester. Auction houses are still reporting record sales, but the staying power of the current all stars is being called into question. Since the 1980s, blue chip artworks by John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picaso, Andy Warhol and Richard Prince have been ascending dramatically. But resale of several pieces purchased during the bubbles at absolute peak pricing have been resold at dramatic losses, showing that (like the real estate market), when you buy is just as important as what you buy. In between these New York Times headlines of record, realized prices are a lot of unpublicized flops.

Raymond Parker
, Mary Frank, Ernie Trova and Damien Hirst, who were each the most important artists of their day, are all seeing their prices fall far below peak sales figures. Some have fallen back into obscurity. 

Now let's take a look at comic book art.

Available now from Albert Moy
I'm not even going to address the heightened price tags that currently accompany the Silver Age works of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or Jim Steranko. I'm also going to leave out the recent sky high auction sales of Frank Miller or Todd McFarlane (for now). Let's look at lesser known Bronze Age comic art, like that of Don Heck, Sal Buscema, Jim Aparo, and Dave Cockrum. Journeyman comic artists all, but I think it's safe to say that none of these names was ever considered the best in industry (at least not in the way that their contemporaries Carmine Infantino, John Buscema, Neal Adams, or John Byrne might have been). In 1995, there were literal stacks of Jim Aparo and Sal Buscema pages on multiple tables at Comicon for $5-10 each. Phantom Stranger pages, Spectre pages from the Michael Fleischer run in Adventure Comics, and Brave and the Bold pages, next to Marvel Team-Up, Two-in-One, and even Defenders pages which were also a sawbuck each. At minimum, they have increased fifteen times in value over twenty years. Not key pages, not splash pages, just run of the mill pages have increased in value by 1500%. And there were semi-splash pages in those stacks. In researching this article, the cheapest Jim Aparo Bronze Age art I could find was $1,100.00 (above, left).

Pretty much every single title from the Bronze Age has followed this pattern, so a George Perez Teen Titans cover, which might have been $400 in 1993 is now $7,000 or more. A John Byrne interior Iron Fist page which might have been $200 could now be $3,000. Cockrum's Uncanny X-Men pages were never as high demand as Byrne's, so back in the 90s a really great non-splash page with Wolverine and Nightcrawler could've been obtained for a few hundred dollars. Now it's an auction piece.

And what about comic art that was new back then?

Now in the Felix Lu collection
In 1996 I bought five key pages from Preacher #1, including the first appearance of main supporting character Cassidy (right), a page of the titular hero using his powers, and several pages featuring all three main characters for $60 each. Steve Dillon signed them all, right there at the table, as did writer Garth Ennis. I sold two of those pages four years ago for a thousand dollars, and the guy who bought them flipped them an hour later for two thousand dollars.

I'm not claiming that this is a standard scenario, but none of the comic book art I've bought has ever gone down in value. In my own personal experience, in a decade case study, not only has nothing ever decreased, but the minimum return on investment has been 150%, with the maximum being over 2000%. In other words, if you hold onto comic book art for ten years, it is virtually guaranteed to increase in value–even if you buy unwisely. Often times, comic book shops will have original comic art for sale that was priced when it originally came into the shop, but has not been adjusted since. So while prices and demand may have increased elsewhere, a savvy buyer can score a bargain and obtain art priced years behind the current market. Even in this age of heavy online sales and ebay, shops aren't keeping up on these things.

What's the buyer premium on $657,000?
Unlike most other artforms, comics are basically a never-ending enterprise. Characters have outlived their creators and even their fans, but with reprints and blogs and professional reassessments, the interest is constantly renewed, creating newer generations interested in yesterday's comic books. Every new artist and writer brings something new to the mix and the inevitable reference to what has come before revitalizes the entire brand. An educated buyer can still get blue chip comic art for mere fractions (if not percentages) of what they might pay for other types of contemporary art. A Frank Miller & Klaus Jansen  page from The Dark Knight Returns (#3) sold for $448,125 two years ago. Last year a Todd McFarlane Amazing Spiderman (#328) cover sold for $657,250–and it wasn't even Todd's best. Those two pieces, as awesome as they are, would still only be Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" and Takashi Murakami's "My Lonesome Cowboy" each valued above $18 million. So what about the comic book Mona Lisa? The guy that owns the Joe Shuster cover to Action Comics #1 probably got it for under $50,000.00. The global record holder of highest price paid for original comic art is the cover to Herge's 1932 Tintin in America which fetched $1.6 million in June, 2012, which serves as a case point how much more elevated the esteem given comic books in Europe is.

My retirement fund?
I recently acquired a double-sided, unpublished page from the original 1940 Batman series penciled by Jerry Robinson and possibly inked by George Roussos that tells an alternate origin for Robin, implicating the Joker in his parent's murder. This Joker is much more like the original playing-card character than the Conrad Veidt "Man Who Laughs" likeness often credited to Bill Finger. In a way, this page may help prove Bob Kane's disputed recollection of how both characters (Joker & Robin) were developed. I'm currently working on the provenance and can only speculate what it might actually be worth. An alternate origin of the original teen sidekick featuring the greatest comic book villain of all-time drawn by the artists who created them at the time they were new. That's got to be worth more than a Todd McFarlane Spiderman cover.

I won't tell you what I paid for it until it sells, but it's looking to be a very, very good return on investment.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Resurrecting Immortality

Inevitably, even the most die-hard comic fans stop buying them. They get married, have kids, move far away or into smaller, shared spaces, or get downsized, sick or otherwise preoccupied and let go of their collections. I have done this, myself, on several occasions. But after each move, separation, career change and spiritual cleansing there is always a handful of comics I just can't let go and Brendan McCarthy’s art has been in most of them. An original, four-way-folded Revolver promo poster has survived a dozen relocations for twenty years, and at some point I made the conscious decision to trash almost every photograph from my childhood, but kept several beat-up issues of the British punk newspaper SOUNDS because of the Electrick Hoax comics in them. I lost my social security card ages ago, but I know that my Skin graphic novel, the disturbing tale of a thalidomide baby cum angry adolescent skinhead, is between my high school yearbook and the manuscript of my first novel. 

Why? Well, for one, Brendan McCarthy is a genius.

Most of the innovations in comicdom’s past twenty-five years can be directly traced to his and writer Peter Milligan’s experimental forays into sequential storytelling, which stretch back to the late 1970s. The first person to suggest that superhero costumes were silly and toss a jacket on them, McCarthy has also been far ahead of the curve on superhero sexuality and post-modern narrative devices. McCarthy not only incorporated dadaic psychedelia and surrealism before it was cool, he helped design (and redesign) many of the characters that ushered those concepts into the mainstream. Brendan’s groundbreaking work at 2000 AD, Crisis, and Revolver paved the way for DC’s Vertigo imprint by either influencing, introducing or collaborating with the writers who helped launch it. His penchant for over-the-top (albeit, tongue-in-cheek) excess was also humorlessly co-opted by Image Comics, but we won’t blame him for that.

As important and as often overlooked as Steve Ditko was before him, Brendan McCarthy is a revolutionary. He’s an innovator’s innovator. He’s a modern day Jim Steranko with a better sense of story. He’s a visionary stylist who hasn’t sacrificed awareness for aesthetics. He’s exceptional but unassuming.

A collected volume of Brendan’s long out-of-print comics is not just way overdue; it’s essential.

I’m proud to confess that Brendan McCarthy’s work has highlighted some of the most pivotal events of my own, actual life. When I kissed my very first girlfriend at the age of thirteen, I had a copy of Strange Days #1 in my left hand. For the life of me as I write this I can’t remember that girl’s name, but I remember the comic and how awkward it was holding onto it and her, too; trying not to roll it up or drop it, but ultimately losing on both counts–losing on three, technically, if we include the girl.

When I was nineteen and jobless, fresh to Los Angeles from the northern Boston suburbs, I sold my first comic book collection to a shop sporting a sun-faded Rogan Gosh poster (“He’s Hot, He’s Hindu… In Revolver!”). I told the owner I’d price all ten boxes and run his sports card operation if he gave me a job, which he did. That shop’s manager was a sharp Chilean named Gaston Dominguez who shared my interest in dystopian British comic strips and grindcore. We became best pals, roommates, and I even helped physically build his fledgling shop. Meltdown Comics and Collectibles was at least partially financed by our joint, original comic book art sales–including most of the 25 pages of Shade the Changing Man #22. I say “most,” because I kept page 24, the full, psychedelic splash, which was also the first interior page featured in my Pop Sequentialism exhibit and book. To me it's the epitome of the British New Wave influence on modern comics: great style and great substance.

Peter Milligan
’s text, “What’s left when you’ve left too soon,” resonates with greater poignancy as I grow older. McCarthy integrated the text as pop art, perhaps as a gentle reminder that we are only immortal for a limited time, but our work lives on.

When I curated my first massive, multi-artist exhibition as director of La Luz de Jesus Gallery I had the pleasure of including not one, but two Brendan McCarthy pastel drawings. It was at a later incarnation of that same show that I met my wife. I don’t think these events are unrelated. There is a string that runs through the entire body of Brendan’s work that draws people to it. Those people respond and bring something additional to the narrative, which manifests in creative ways. For evidence, one need look no further than the work of Grant Morrison, whose vast canon of meta-fiction is in many ways an extension of Milligan & McCarthy’s work on Paradax. It’s serious fun, and I mean that nonironically: it’s both intelligent and satirical, but above all, the work is significant. Dark Horse recently announced that they plan to release an omnibus including all of Brendan McCarthy’s work with writer Peter Milligan. This will preserve for future generations, one of comics’ all-time, greatest collaborations.

Hopefully that's what's left when we've all left too soon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Help Lift the USA Ban on Moebius

In just under a month (on March 10th), it will mark one year that we've all lived in a world without Moebius. And with his passing, American comic book fans have been virtually assured that none of his works yet published in English will ever be.

It's even possible that currently available titles from Humanoids (the US branch of the company founded by Moebius himself, and the original publishers of Metal Hurlant) will disappear once their current contract expires. Why? The rights reside with artist's estate, who seem unwilling to negotiate the licensing. That means no Blueberry, no Arzach, and possibly no more Incal (so snatch these up while you can!)

Moebius was born Jean Henri Gaston Giraud in the suburbs of Paris on May 8, 1938. By the time he was three, his parents would divorce amidst the Nazi occupation of France and an indelible rift of country and family would contribute to his penchant for pseudonyms later in life. Giraud studied art at age 15, and within a year he was drawing his own cowboy strips. After completing military service in Algeria 1961, Giraud apprenticed with famed French comics pioneer, Joseph "Jijé" Gillain. By 1962, he partnered with writer Jean-Michel Charlier to create Blueberry.

Superheroes didn't catch on in France like they did in America. In French comics (or, la bande desinée) it was Western adventure stories that were king, and Blueberry had the impact of Spiderman and Batman combined. It's since been translated into 16 languages, and helped launch a cottage industry of genre adventures.  His famous nom de plum was borne in 1963, as a means to produce darker, sci-fi works without carrying his more experimental style over into the Blueberry strip. By 1964, Giraud had abandoned the Moebius identity as censorship loosened in France, allowing him to  bring explicit and esoteric themes into Blueberry as well–mirroring the freedom of the new French cinema. It would be ten years until he revived it, forming the "Les Humanoides Associes" collective and launching Metal Hurlant magazine. When the magazine launched in the US as Heavy Metal, it introduced an entire generation (myself included) to French creators of la bande desinée and Italian masters of fumetti. Moebius' partnership with cult film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky would yield the internationally acclaimed L'Incal series which became a huge influence on filmmakers and helped Jean embark on a lucrative career as a storyboard artist and visual futurist, and later a concept designer and animation director. The films include Alien, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, The Fifth Element, and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.

Effective as he was in these other capacities, none could hold a candle to his comics. If you've been lucky enough to see his work in Heavy Metal or the Dark Horse and Humanoids reprints, you know what a loss it this ban is to English speaking audiences. So how can we change this?

There's a facebook petition

There you will find an archive of facts and testimony by publishers, creators and influential fans, all of which plead for Moebius' widow (his second wife, Isabelle Giraud) to allow Humanoids to negotiate the English language rights (primarily in the US) for all of his unlicensed titles to a competitive marketplace, insuring that his heirs receive free market compensation, and preserving the artist's legacy among the largest consumer base of sequential art. The world's second largest market, Japan, is also annexed currently, so I hope someone will take charge there also.

But as it stands, even Casterman, the original French publisher of most of Giraud's pre-Humanoids output is at the mercy of his heirs, who seem indifferent to his published legacy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My Comic Book Dream Come True!

Sixteen months ago, my friend David Mack (on one of his frequent trips to Los Angeles) almost spent his birthday alone. He was a guest in a house without a host in a week when almost everyone else he knew was out of town. Luckily, his temporary residence was square between the gallery where I work and the apartment I used to rent. So my roommate and I (who both share birthdays within a month of David's) demanded that he let us take him out for a celebratory meal. That evening proved quite pivotal, not only in a friendship that has since included an art exhibition and a future publishing project, but in realizing that regardless of where you are from, as you progress through life you'll find other people from completely different backgrounds who are just like you.

In the course of a conversation that eclipsed the operating hours of a pretty great little gastropub in Silverlake, Mack mentioned that he was working on a script with Brian Michael Bendis for the final Daredevil story–a sort-of The Dark Knight Returns for old horn head. It's no secret that I share the opinion of most comic book academics that Daredevil is perhaps the best written character in superhero fiction. From Frank Miller's two incredible and groundbreaking stints on the title, through many high-calibre stories (including a run by David Mack) to Bendis' who-thought-it-would-be-possible-to-unseat-Frank-Miller-as-the-best-writer-of-Daredevil run, to the holy-shit-I-can't-believe-Ed-Brubaker-improved-upon-the-Bendis run, to the current series which won yet another Eisner Award for Mark Waid & Paolo Rivera, Daredevil has been in some very capable hands.

As a strawberry-blonde teenager named Matt with aspirations to attend law school, and whose dad had been an amateur boxer (long before retiring from a lifetime of government service), I had more than a little in common with blind attorney, Matt Murdoch. I, too, got very into martial arts at a young age, and even did a little pee-wee boxing; I dabbled in non-competitive kick-boxing in my twenties, but I never became a ninja. I got to keep my eyesight, though, so I guess it's a fair trade. Almost as a joke, I told David to feel free to write me in as a shit-bag mob lawyer in whatever story he was writing.

Deadly serious, he looked at me and said, "Are you sure? I'm working on a character right now who doesn't have a name yet."
I was floored. "Hell yeah! That would be awesome!" It was like it was my birthday, not David's.

A few months later I got this text: Just got done proofing your page at Bill Sienkiewicz's place!
I replied: Sin-KEV-itch! Drawing me?
Mack texted back: Bill's inking. Klaus Jansen drew you :)

The man who collaborated with Miller on the original Daredevil run and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was in turn collaborating with the artist on Miller's way-outside-the-box Elektra: Assassin, only this time their roles are reversed, with Klaus penciling and Bill inking. And they were illustrating the words of talented Kabuki scribe and Echo creator David Mack in conjunction with Brian Michael Bendis, whose achievements are too lengthy to list, so I'll just call him the King of Marvel Comics. Somewhere (probably on facebook), there are a few pictures from that night, and hilariously, my silver suit jacket and striped tie have made it onto the page.

I'm not sure if colorist Matt Hollingsworth (Death: The High Cost of Living) is aware, but he nailed it.

In a gracious turn, the lads made me much taller and instead of making me a mob lawyer, I'm the guy that replaces Matt Murdoch as Foggy's business partner.

The law firm of Nelson & Kennedy is referenced no less than three times in the first panel at left. In a bit of unforeseen coincidence, my next door neighbors growing up on Western Ave. in Lynn, MA were The Nelsons. No lawyers there, though.

I wrote about this series last October, when the first issue hit the shops, and I'm happy to say it remains as strong as that initial promise portended. I'd say it's the most engaging masked series out there, probably because of the freedom that tackling a story outside the regular continuity affords. The work is worth the collective talents of the names attached, which is above and beyond any number of manufactured marketing ploys or subpar vanity projects. When the omnibus is finally released it will be great to have all the alternate covers collected in a single volume with the individual issues–especially since both David Mack and Alex Maleev have produced their own versions. Since Michael Lark wasn't a collaborator on either Mack or Bendis' stints at the helm (Lark penciled the Ed Brubaker series apex), I doubt they'll call him in for a cover, but it would be the cherry on top of a pretty sweet series. 

Of course I got my dessert early. Thanks David!