O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
It’s been a while since I hunkered down and reviewed some graphic novel-type thingies. It’s probably because I haven’t been buying many recently. It seems like it’s kind of a fallow period right now. But what the heck – I’ll still review the stuff I do have!
First: Mexican wrestlers! Only someone with a cold, black heart (like Dan) could hate Mexican wrestlers! Okay, I’m a bit sick of them, but there can still be some good stories starring luchadores, right? Right? That brings us to Strongman by Charles Soule and Allan Gladfelter, which is published by SLG and costs a measly $9.95. How can you not buy it?
Strongman is, a bit unfortunately, not a revolutionary comic book. With an odd exception, it’s a standard plot, as Tigre, a washed-up wrestler drinking himself to death in New York, is persuaded to help the downtrodden once again. I write “once again” because some of the book is in flashback, as we see Tigre in the late 1960s and early ’70s, winning match after match and fighting crime in the “real” world with his two compatriots, Conejo and Bujo. In 1973, a tragedy occurred, and Tigre left Mexico and went to New York, where he started drinking and acting the “bad guy” in matches to pay for his habit. One night a young lady begs him to return to crime-fighting, as she tells him of an organ-selling scheme that is crippling the Hispanic community in the city. Of course Tigre returns. Of course we find out, through flashbacks, what happened to drive him away from Mexico. And of course things are not what they seem. Even if the plot is rather transparent, I’m not going to give any of it away. It’s at least fun to get through it.
I can still recommend the book, for a few reasons. First, it’s 10 bucks. I know that if something is brilliant, price shouldn’t matter, and if something sucks, it doesn’t matter if it’s free. But still – this is an exciting story with some nice touches, and it’s only 10 dollars. But let’s move beyond that. Another thing that makes this better than it should be is Gladfelter’s art. It’s very good. It’s very detailed, quite “realistic,” meaning that nothing is too exaggerated and the fact that Tigre wanders through the comic with a wrestling mask on doesn’t seem too outlandish. Gladfelter doesn’t fall into any stylistic traps, simply telling the story well, and he does a nice job with the big splash pages introducing the characters. Gladfelter explains his process with some of the trickier parts of the book in the back, and it’s nifty to find out how he pulls it off.
Soule’s story, while nothing surprising, still has its charms. The idea of luchadores never taking off their masks is here, of course, but Soule makes it more of a burden than I’ve seen before. When Tigre does take the mask off, it feels like a relief to him, but he knows that it’s part of his life, and therefore even if he wants to take it off, he must keep it on. The woman who appeals to him brings this into focus at one point in the book, and it’s a very nice moment. Later, we realize that wearing the mask is a much more complex idea that simply hiding one’s identity. Soule does a good job showing, without being too obvious about it, how Tigre’s mask becomes a symbol for something greater than he is, and we can’t imagine him doing what he does without the mask, even if it’s the same man. In that way, this becomes a superhero comic without superheroes, and Soule does a more subtle job with showing the power of the mask than most writers.
The odd plot point is dropped rather quickly, and it’s too bad, as unpleasant as it is (and it is). When it’s explained, the book goes from being a somewhat horrific story that could easily have been an allegory for the way the rich treat the poor to a story about a “super-villain,” even if the bad guy isn’t superpowered. Soule misses an opportunity to make this a bit more than just a tale of an old hero coming back to regain his dignity, and while there’s nothing wrong with the story he does tell, the fact that he adds this disturbing plot point and then drops it almost as quickly is disappointing. Just don’t bring it up!
Ultimately, this is a fairly typical “good guy-versus-bad guy” comic. It has very good art, some nice character moments, and it’s never boring. If it fails to rise above its roots, that’s fine – sometimes you just want to read an adventure. It tantalizes us with more, however, and that’s frustrating. Still – luchadores, and classical sculptures re-imagined as porn! That might be worth the price right there!
Up next is The New Brighton Archeological Society, which is written by Mark Andrew Smith and drawn by Matthew Weldon. Image published this bad bear and charges $17.99 for it.
This graphic novel follows the short story in the first volume of Popgun, Image’s anthology series. I remember loving the story and the concept, so when Smith and Weldon expanded this to a full-length graphic novel (and part one of a series to boot), I was all over it. And here it is!
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as good when it’s expanded. It’s not that it’s bad, really, but it’s disappointing. First of all, the stuff from the anthology is included, but it’s kind of shoe-horned in there, after a prologue that sets up the main story. For the first 30 pages or so, the story kind of flails around, until the kids find their parents’ secret underground lair (okay, it’s more like a library, but “lair” sounds cooler) and decide to follow their legacy. The parents were famous archeaologists who died years earlier, and the kids (two pairs of siblings) decide to find out what happened to them. This leads into the main story, which takes them to a goblin city and into a creepy castle searching for a library of books that … well, I’ve been looking through the book, and I can’t really figure out what the books are. But they’re important! Seriously, the parents talk about the books in a flashback, but it’s really not clear why they’re important. I mean, they have something to do with mythological creatures, but again, there’s not a ton of information about them.
Smith keeps things humming, even if the book feels largely unfocused. It’s exciting, certainly, but it still meanders. There’s a long set piece in the middle of the book, where the goblins are attacked by fairies and it’s a big battle, and then a set piece at the end, when the kids infiltrate the bad guy’s castle to steal back some of the stuff he’s stolen, and while the first one goes on a bit too long, the second works well. There is no actual archeaology in the book, which is why it bugs me a bit. It’s a kids’ comic, so I’m not expecting a comic about actual archeaologists, but it seems that there’s a good vein to be mined here, and Smith detours into goblins and fairies too quickly and too easily. The weird, “mythological” stuff being real is fine (the story in Popgun centered around ghosts, after all), but it seems like the book’s premise is different from where Smith goes with it. It’s his comic, so I shouldn’t presume to say where he ought to go with it, but the shift from a mystery to a fantasy story and then back to a weird mystery feels forced and stiff. Each discrete portion of the book isn’t bad, but together it doesn’t flow well at all.
Weldon is the real star of the show, as the art is magnificent. The one problem I have is the fact that he draws almost everyone the same “age,” meaning they all look like children. It’s slightly disconcerting when you see adults who look the same age as the kids. But that’s such a minor criticism I only mention it because it’s so odd. Otherwise, Weldon draws the heck out of this. He’s great at the fantastical and the action elements of the book, but he also has a nice sense of atmosphere, so the “creepier” parts of the book work well too (I put it in quotes because nothing is really all that creepy in the book). His monsters are neat, impressively big and threatening, but goofy enough that we get a good chuckle out of them. The two vampires that show up (I’d say more about them, but that would be giving things away) are actually a bit scary. Weldon does a great job with facial expressions in this book, as the kids interact very well with each other as they move through the book. Six colorists are credited, and they all do a great job helping the art pop off the page. It’s a beautiful book to look at.
I do wish it read better. I’ve only read two comics by Smith – this and Amazing Joy Buzzards – and he seems to have this kind of problem; namely, that he throws everything onto the page and doesn’t worry about structuring the story too much. That’s a shame, because this (which is better than AJB) has a wonderful hook and some very nice moments. It’s not an entirely successful book, but it has a lot of energy, beautiful art, and once Smith finds his footing, it does move along nicely. I don’t know when and if the second volume is coming out, but it’s the kind of thing I’d like to read more of, if only because it seems like Smith begins to figure it out late in the comic. It doesn’t quite save this, but it bodes well for the future.
Shifting gears a bit, we come to The Bun Field by Amanda Vähämäki. It’s published by Drawn & Quarterly and costs $12.95.
This is, to put it mildly, a surreal comic in the truest sense of the word. A young girl moves through an utterly bizarre landscape, populated by talking animals, sentient bread rolls (there is, quite literally, a bun field in this comic), and insane amateur dentists. There is no story to speak of, as we begin with the girl dreaming of Donald Duck and either Huey, Duey, or Louie (there’s only one of them) getting eaten by a herbivorous dinosaur. She then wakes up and simply walks through her day, an almost completely passive observer to the weirdness of her world. There’s a strange houseguest in her kitchen, there’s a bear who drives her around town for a bit, and there’s an obligation to plow the bun field, which becomes much more traumatic than you might expect (as the rolls are, after all, alive).
The question is, of course, what’s the point? Well, perhaps Vähämäki doesn’t have one. The one theme that seems to be prevalent (although I could be wrong, of course) is that this girl is experiencing adolescence, and it’s a terrifying time. Life has become stranger and stranger, adults have become more and more sinister, and the only way she can make any sense of it is to retreat into a fantasy world. This clashes with the brutal reality of the world, exemplified by the bun field, where the rolls cry out as the girls slaughters them. Although the girl fits perfectly into this world and doesn’t think anything is strange about it (when the bear calls on her to go for a ride, she goes willingly), it’s still a world in which she is out of place, and no one bothers to explain it to her. It’s an eerie comic, but even if it’s not about puberty, it’s still an unsettling look at someone out of joint with reality.
Vähämäki’s art fits the story well, even if it’s not extremely accomplished. In two panels, it’s even obvious that a previous illustration was erased and drawn again. The intent is probably not to add a ghostly layer of reality to the art, but it feels that way. The art is extremely rough, but certain panels have a delicate beauty to them – usually the ones that show only landscape. It’s as if Vähämäki has peopled this world with such unusual creatures that she needs to balance it with a world that is hauntingly beautiful. The art isn’t perfect, but it works in the context of the book.
It’s difficult to recommend The Bun Field, mainly because it’s such a raw work and the neither aspect of the story (the writing or the art) is so brilliant that it deserves a look. It’s a very unusual comic, obviously, and there’s even passion in it, but ultimately, it’s somewhat slight. I’m not sorry I read it, but I don’t think it’s good enough for you to run out and read, either.
Man, I’m ambivalent about these comics, aren’t I? Luckily, our next selection is a blast of pure, concentrated awesome from Fantagraphics. Of what do I speak? Why, it’s Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, which costs 25 bucks and is worth ten times that!
Supermen! features several stories of superheroes who have been largely lost to history. Well, they would have been if Alex Ross hadn’t resurrected some of them for Project: Superpowers. But mainly these are superheroes that bubbled up in the early flush of creativity that marked the Golden Age and then, for any number of reasons, disappeared. This kind of thing happens all the time, of course, but what makes these comics special is that even today, they are largely unknown, unlike the characters in the DC and Marvel stables, who are always showing up in odd places and are never completely forgotten. Most comics fans have never even heard of the characters that show up in Supermen!, or if they have, they’ve never read their adventures. That’s a shame, because this was a time when comics creators were experimenting with the form and often had no idea what they were doing, but also felt no need to restrict themselves. In other words, when you read these, you have to suspend your disbelief even more than you usually do in comics, because unlike comics we read today, which have developed some kind of internal logic, there’s nothing logical about many of these stories. They exist simply to entertain the hell out of us, and they succeed admirably.
The stories are by some of the great creators of comics, too. The book opens with a character called Dr. Mystic, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. There’s Dirk the Demon and Sub Zero by Bill Everett; The Flame, Samson, and Yarko the Great by Will Eisner (who only writes the first two stories); Cosmic Carson by Jack Kirby; The Comet, Silver Streak, and The Claw fighting the Daredevil by Jack Cole; Marvelo, Monarch of Magicians, The Face, and The Skyman by Gardner Fox; Spacehawk by Basil Wolverton; and Blue Bolt by Joe Simon and Kirby. Fletcher Hanks has two stories in the volume, both completely insane. Obviously, the creators weren’t quite as sharp as they were when they worked on the comics for which we know them, but it’s interesting to see how they’re honing their craft on these stories.
Of course, we laugh at the stories, mainly because they’re quite primitive (awesome, but still primitive) and also because of our recognition of so many comics conventions that became clichés through the years. It’s nice to see them before they became hackneyed. This volume, for instance, features what has to be the very first fight between two heroes, as Dr. Mystic fights an old ally, Zator, in the story that was first published in May 1936. A giant apparition stalks the city, and Dr. Mystic, “foe of super-natural evil, increases his size and renders himself semi-material thru an old, mystic ritual.” He and the ghostly giant grapple until Dr. Mystic rips his foe’s mask off, revealing Zator, who says, “I knew this would be the easiest way to locate you, that you would wage battle with me if I appeared as a menace.” Hey, um, Zator – have you ever heard of a telephone? Sheesh. All of the stories are, like that, gripping and exciting, but still charmingly goofy to modern eyes.
The Fletcher Hanks stories might be the most awesome in the volume, although they have plenty of competition. In “Stardust the Super Wizard,” the titular hero discovers that the “fiendish Kaos” is planning to use “the gigantic vultures of Venus in some criminal way!” Kaos hypnotizes them and sends them to Earth, and Stardust must intervene! Unfortunately, his “private star is much further from the Earth than Venus is,” so the vultures have a head start. Luckily, he has a “tubular spacial,” which allows him to travel at “terrific speed on accelerated supersolar light waves,” so he can make up some time. As the vultures terrorize the Earth, Stardust gets onto Kaos’s spaceship, grabs the villain, and begins fighting the birds. One vulture has grabbed a girl (to be Kaos’s empress), so Stardust rescues her. He asks if he should take her back home, and she nonchalantly replies, “Oh, please don’t take me back! Those birds have wrecked our home and killed my parents!” She wants to hang with Stardust, so he “releases his anti-gravity ray and leaves the girl floating in mid-air” while he goes back to fighting the vultures. He turns Kaos into a worm so the vultures will eat him, then puts the moves on the girl by saying, “Would you like to come to my private star for a while? It’s very restful there.” She responds, “Oh, Stardust, I’d be crazy about it!” So off they go! Let me repeat that: He turns Kaos into a worm so the vultures will eat him. And guess what? Hanks’s second story in the volume, “Fantomah: Mystery Woman of the Jungle,” is even awesomer. An evil scientist concocts a “serum of great power,” which he plans to use on gorillas to “give them brains superior to any man’s” and thereby conquer the world. He captures a few gorillas, but Fantomah shows up and warns him off. The scientist, undaunted, tells the one gorilla he’s managed to inject with the serum to round up the others, and the gorilla responds by speaking English. That’s one powerful serum! The gorillas begin to attack the villages in the area, but Fantomah grabs the scientist and drops him into the path of the mindless army, which leads to perhaps the best panel in the entire book:
Awesome. Geoff Johns must have read this comic when he was but a youth.
I could go on and on about the pure brilliance of this book. One last bit, I promise, and then I’m done. “Fero: Planet Detective” by Al Bryant (credited as “Allison Brant”) begins with the best short introduction you can hope for: “Fero, scientist of the occult, super-detective of the nether world, is the one man who can thwart the evil doings of vampires and werewolves, that have invaded the Earth from Pluto.” I just love that it’s not enough to thwart the evil doings of vampires and werewolves. No, they’re vampires and werewolves … from Pluto! Fero turns out to be kind of dick, too, but I won’t spoil it.
Seriously – this book contains Silver Streak fighting giant insects, the Comet melting a dude with his eye rays (the Comet is like a hard core Cyclops), the Flame getting a good flogging, and the sheer insanity of the Claw battling the Daredevil, in which the Claw can change his size at will and burrows underneath the Atlantic to New York to destroy America while the Daredevil tries to stop him. Here is one panel per story. With just one panel, you can see how awesome these stories are:
(1. “Dr. Mystic” by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. 2. “Murder by Proxy” (starring Alias the Clock) by George E. Brenner. 3. “Dan Hastings” by Ken Fitch and Fred Guardineer. 4. “Dirk the Demon” by Bill Everett. 5. “The Flame” by Will Eisner and Lou Fine. 6. “Yarko the Great” by Will Eisner. 7. “Rex Dexter of Mars” by Dick Briefer. 8. “Cosmic Carson” by Jack Kirby. 9. “Stardust the Super Wizard” by Fletcher Hanks. 10. “The Comet” by Jack Cole. 11. “Fero, Planet Detective” by Al Bryant. 12. “Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle” by Fletcher Hanks. 13. “Marvelo, Monarch of Magicians” by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer. 14. “The Face” by Gardner Fox and Mart Bailey. 15. “The Skyman” by Gardner Fox and Ogden Whitney. 16. “Silver Streak” by Jack Cole. 17. “The Claw Battles the Daredevil” by Jack Cole. 18. “Spacehawk” by Basil Wolverton. 19. “Sub Zero” by Jack Cole. 20. “Blue Bolt” by Joe Simon and Kirby.)
I can’t recommend this book enough, people! Run, don’t walk, to your nearest purveyor of comics awesomeness and pick it up. You will not be disappointed.
Well, I can’t top Supermen!, so I’ll just call it a post. The first three books are okay but flawed in some ways, but the last one … you could not buy another comic this year and be happy if you pick it up. Would I lie to you?
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