Monthly archives: October, 2005

The West needs midgets (“Loveless”)

Spaghetti Westerns and their American counterparts brought much to a genre that was nearing irrelevance by the mid-60s, when Sergio Leone released “A Fistfull of Dollars.” They dispensed with the silly white hat/black hat view of morality for a much more ambiguous, and bloody, take on the most romantically perceived segment of American history, instead favoring badasses with twin revolvers and a badassier gimmick. Sergio Corbucci’s “Django” has Franco Nero lugging a machine gun around in a coffin. “The Great Silence” features a mute bounty hunter who hunts bounty hunters. “The Wild Bunch” has Ernest Borgnine, and perhaps most notably, “High Plains Drifter” has rapist/Spectre-esque agent of vengeance Clint Eastwood force a town at gunpoint to make a midget both mayor and sheriff.

“Loveless” is Brian Azzarello and Marcello Frusin’s take on nihlistic, super-violent spaghetti westerns, and for a team that first did nihlistic, super-violent John Constatine in “Hellblazer,” that kinda makes sense.

Azzarello’s big time into genre, as anybody who’s ever read “100 Bullets,” especially “the Hard Way” or “The Counterfifth Detective” arcs on that book could tell you, and his love for the Revisionist Western in “Loveless” is clear. Wes Cutter is an ex-confederate soldier returning home from the Civil War (think John Wayne in “The Searchers” but with less hygeine and racism). Cutter’s land has annexed by corrupt Union soldiers, most likely sold out by his greedy, shady friends. Meanwhile, across town more corrupt Union soldiers seize more land that isn’t theirs.

Cutter’s situation may be awkward, but it isn’t supposed to be sympathetic. By taking away his land/pride/friends/etc. Azzarello doesn’t want us to feel for Cutter, he just wants us to know that Cutter doesn’t really have a place to call home, which hopefully means he’ll just end up shooting a lot of people in every issue.

Cutter does have some great gimmicks, though.Aside from having the requsite crack-shot pistol talents, a buzzard, nature’s vulture, follows Cutter around, knowing he’ll leave plenty of delicious lead-riddled corpses behind. And his wife dresses like a man.

“Loveless” captures the pacing and cinematography of the Leone Westerns with Frusin’s careful panel sequences. The opening shootout features pages of dialogue with more build-up to the brief violence than panels spent portraying the violence itself, smaller panels pulling in for tight detail close-ups of grizzled faces and hands reaching patiently for revolvers. It’s pretty much the closest comic equivalent to Leone-style showdowns in “Once Upon a Time in the West” or “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” where, literally, five minutes of extreme close-ups climax in about three seconds of shooting while a melodramatic yet unbelievable awesome Ennio Morricone score swells in the background. In fact, “Loveless” would probably be better if it came with a miniature device that played Morricone as you read it. Oh yeah, and Cutter says “Fucksticks.” When was the last time you heard John Wayne say that? (not counting the deleted scenes from “Cahill”).

But “Loveless” introduces so many characters in one issue that it’s partly disorienting. Townspeople, and especially a crusty old saloon patron seem only like props instead of multi-dimensional characters, but then with any luck they’ll get a little more multi-dimensional in future issues. Or shot. Either way, really.

Aside from creating tons of sweet movies, Revisionist Westerns also provided two additional stellar contributions to pop culture: more film roles for crazed German Klaus Kinski, and in-joke fodder for “Back to the Future III,” so clearly “Loveless” has big boots to fill.

They’re playin us on both screens…

There are certain things that should go unsaid. One of them is “I love Longshot.” But see below for an example of me violating this very protocol. But the other, more heinous, one is “somewhere I have the Nick Fury movie starring David Hasselhoff recorded off TV.” My skin crawls at the very thought that once upon a time, I had faith in such a thing. I remember that I didn’t even record “Generation X” when it became a television movie, and it wasn’t as bad. No really. I caught the last half of it, and it was a made-for-Fox movie – exactly what it promised to be.

It’s funny … these two films, one released in 1996 (Gen X), the other in 1998 (Fury), harkened back to a certain era in Marvel history. Aside from the 1986 infamous flop “Howard the Duck” – which somehow still survives as a punchline – Marvel never really had a theatrical release of any of its properties, right up until “Blade” in 1998. This is bearing in mind the fact that “The Punisher” and “Captain America”, while intended for theatrical release, soared into shelves in the nice little Twilight Zone of direct-to-video.

This did not prevent Marvel from making television movies. No, it probably should have, but it didn’t. It all started with “The Incredible Hulk,” the two-hour pilot to the television show of the same name. Of course, they couldn’t have Gamma bombs and the like – this was a television budget, after all. Instead, David Banner (they don’t call him Bruce?) was a clinical psychologist studying the affects of adrenaline and flight-or-fight on human beings. Somehow, mothers lifting cars to save their sons segued into Banner shooting himself with gamma radiation and turning into Lou Ferrigno in green body paint. I kid, a lot, but this really wasn’t bad, or at least not “Captain America” bad.

And when I say “Captain America” bad, I only wish I was talking about Matt Salinger’s 1990 flop. No, kids, in a much stranger time, a time we’ll call 1979, someone thought a Captain America television movie, or maybe even two, was the best course of action. But instead of Steve Rogers, just make him some clod. Oh, and instead of a skull cap, give him a blue and white motorcycle helmet with a visor on the front. And if he has the helmet, he should have a motorcycle too. Also, he should drive it into over a shark pit while Richie and Potsie cheer him on and Mrs. Cunningham fears that he won’t make it.

Just the previous year, Marvel had used soap-opera production values to propel “Dr. Strange” to the small screen, an interesting property given that this was in a time of “Dark Shadows,” bar none the best soap opera of all time. This potentially interesting franchise was never picked up, however, and the only time I’ve seen it on video was 12 years ago in a Sun Coast Video in Denver. Sometimes I regret not plopping down my allowance for that, other times I remember this kind of impulse shopping is the reason I keep a copy of “Strange Brew” hidden out of sight in my apartment.

With “The Incredible Hulk” rising in popularity in the late 1970s, it was inevitable that the TV series would spin off into a few other movies. The series was eventually cancelled, but in the late 80s three movies were released that marked big screen appearances for some Marvel characters. “Trial of the Incredible Hulk” featured Daredevil AND the Kingpin, while “The Incredible Hulk Returns” had an appearance by everyone’s favorite long haired blonde outside of Fabio, Thor.

Sam Raimi’s films may have been awe-aspiring, or at least entertaining, but they weren’t the first foray into the web slinger’s celluloid world. Capitalizing off the success of “Hulk,” Marvel licensed Spider-Man out. CBS responded with an out of shape and pushing 30 man named Nicholas Hammond, gave him some spandex and web shooters and ensured him a corner in Hell, a corner reserved for Sci-Fi Channel filler series. Jerry O’Connell and the rest of the “Sliders” will be there soon enough. Yes, there was the TV series – but like “Hulk,” there was the pilot. Unlike “Hulk,” the pilot was ridiculously bad. This is not just in 1970s-to-2005 hindsight. This is in the kind of way that emblazens Nick Hammond’s love-handles into your head where they can never truly be washed out. Yes, he looked the part of Peter, kind of, but what he lacked was Peter’s personality – or any trace of personality, for that matter. Uncle Ben was nowhere to be seen. So basically, that made this spidey all power, no responsibility, the same dry motivation of the blandest character in comics, Superman. Then they followed it up with two other television movies, and Marvel set themselves back 20 years.

“Power Pack” were never a particuarly popular franchise, try as Marvel might. Maybe it was the dull origin; maybe it was that when their buddy Franklin Richards joined them, his codename was Tattletale, or maybe it was the heinous horse thing they hung out with. Whatever it was, it’s shocking that at least five years after the Power Pack weren’t popular, NBC opted to release a “Power Pack” movie. They spared us the horse thing or Tattletale, though.

The trend hasn’t really ended. Let’s not forget the fate of “Man-Thing,” another potentially interesting project turned into murky z-film.

So complain if you will about Brett Hackner directing the third X-Men, or Topher Grace playing Venom. Just keep in mind the way things were for Marvel before “Blade” or “X-Men.”

A lunch for the Golden Ages

A few weekends ago I sat down for a quick bite at a Little Rock diner with a large table full of some of the biggest names in comics history. I should rephrase that: the biggest historians in comics.

Among them, Ed Zeno, who has published a few high quality books on the personal histories of some comic creators of years past; Bill Jones, who compiled the history “Classics Illustrated,” available at Amazon; Hames Ware, a thorough collector of Golden Age books and art as well as a professional voice artist; and Stephen Charla, who now works at the Clinton Presidential Library and previously worked at a comic art museum.

Others were there as well, though it was a challenge to get everyone’s name and history.

I felt like a bit of a nobody, as my only claim to any fame is that I’ve been reading comics off and on since the late 80s and I’m starting to write a comics column for the local newspaper.

Strangely, I was put onstage as a lot of the men present had quit reading new comics some time ago. They were very curious about good new books, authors, etc. And in what I read regularly. I told them what I could, but still felt a little strange. I guess it was like explaining the physical aspects of sports to a Nobel-winning physicist.

I hope I can spend more time with them in the future, and get a chance to read their books thoroughly and see some of the incredible stores of old comics they have.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

I hate to admit, but I had gone most of my comic-reading life without checking out Marv Wolfman’s “classic” tale that set the DC universe (multiverse? anti-matterverse?) straight. After plowing through the lead-up to Infinite Crisis, I decided to pick up the newest TPB and get caught up.
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It’s a little unfair to write about something so long after it came out, so I’ll get the context out of the way. CoIE was the first of the huge comics events. This is a bit of a bad comparison, but it was sort of like World War I. It was the first time that every player was brought into a fight of proportions never before seen. And also like the war, because it was something so new, those involved made the mistakes that inevitably come with treading in uncharted waters. OK, bad metaphors now tossed aside.

Looking at it today, CoIE is an interesting story that takes a very complicated universe or universes of characters, throws it in a garlic press and squeezes out one simple universe for readers. The main problem is that the story itself suffers from the complexity of the DCU it sought to redefine. It jumps into the action immediately (a method employed effectively in Avengers: Disassembled and Infinite Crisis) but never stops to take a breath and explain much of what’s going on until midway through the 12-part series. But when an explanation does come, it doesn’t make much sense.

Wolfman has written since about the lack of any kind of real reality to CoIE. Matter and Anti-Matter existing together? Um, better just ignore that high-school physics education. And check out Wolfman’s Web site, under the Q & A section, for the explanation of how the Barry Allen Flash could have survived CoIE ( He admits it’s comic-booky. How about ridiculous?

I assume that if I had been reading DC titles at the time, CoIE would make much more sense. But even with that, it’s just a weak story that spends so much time on cosmic complexity, it hardly fleshes out the characters (aside from Allen and Psycho Pirate, to a degree) that bring readers to comics.

It was supposed to be the best huge comics event ever. But, of course, WWI was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.”

It’s a long shot (and a bad joke), but…

I’m tired of it all, kids. Amongst the multitudes of X-Men jibber-jabber and ballyhoo about Wolverine and Gambit (blech!), there’s always the characters that get pushed by the wayside. If I mention to anyone that Cyclops is my favorite X-Man, I get 1) blank stares (mostly from non-comic readers) or 2) guffaws (mostly from mouth-breathing nerds). Do I champion the bores and the constant underdogs? It would seem so. You see kids, once upon a time, I admitted to my friends a love for one X-Man in particular, and was laughed at. According to them, his powers, costume, haircut and essentially everything about him were lame. Sure, he was the ultimate byproduct of the 80s, as evidenced by his resemblance to my brother. That’s right, the blond hair, the hollow bones, I love it all. I have the lamest X-Man obsession of all….

Calm your laughter, please. This is a serious matter, or as serious as discussing comic characters with mullets and luck powers could be. But in an age when the X-Men were forced into the outback and things were looking increasingly rough, there was one X-Man who didn’t take a turn for the darker. It was somebody of a good nature, a transplant from another world entirely. The jaded and cynical may have found him a mere accessory to the rough edged X-Men, but here was the Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling boy with a heart of gold who was magnetic by and of his good nature.

It’s hard to defend this love. It’s like getting caught in bed with a transvestite…by a priest. But much like my love for transvestites, I feel no comic digressions would be complete without my admonition of my love for this X-Man.

Plus, he’s not Marrow.

Batman: A Death in the Family

Image hosted by Photobucket.comRecently, a local used bookstore came upon a big shipment of Batman trades. With all the “Jason Todd is back” hysteria going on, I thought picking up “A Death in the Family,” “A Lonely Place in Dying” and “Hush” volumes 1 & 2 would serve as a good Robin retrospective.

I remember reading these “A Death in the Family” issues back in the ’80s when I visited my cousins, but this was my first exposure to that story in however many years it has been since it came out.

Reading ADITF all these years later, it’s a shame that a storyline as important as that is so embarrassingly rooted in ’80s middle-east paranoia. I had no recollection of the driving theme of middle east terrorists, arms-for-hostages, and the Ayatollah. As far as I could remember, Jason Todd died in a warehouse explosion in Gotham City, not Ethiopia.

It’s not that the setting of the story is necessarily bad, it just really cries out “I AM A PRODUCT OF THE REAGAN ERA!” It’s nice when stories are a little more timeless.

It’s not all bad. One thing ADITF does well is to cleanly present the tension between Jason Todd and Batman before the big clang-and-bang. I did also enjoy the “confession,” if you will, from the DC editors on how they decided to put the decision in the readers’ hands.

But when it comes to looking back on important stories of the ’80s, there are the classics, like “Year One,” that should be kept on the shelf to be read, loaned out, and re-read. Then there are those others, best left in their respective longbox, summarized in a sentence or two when needed.

In “A Death in the Family,” the Joker kills Robin.

The Uncanny Physics of Superheroes

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI went to see James Kakalios from the University of Minnesota speak at the Union tonight, and man, it was a fun presentation. He was really funny, in a good comic-book-nerd kind of way. I tried to write down funny things he said, which might not be that great out of context, but maybe they’ll work.

  • (a crook is using physics to find the batcave) “It’s not really explained why he wanted to find the Bat cave; it’s just understood – if you’re a criminal, you want that address.”
  • “When I used to teach physics using levers, inclined planes and pullies, my students would always complain, ‘When am I going to actually use this in real life?’ But now that I teach using superhero comics as examples, nobody ever complains. Apparently, they all have plans after graduation that involve spandex and late nights out.”
  • (referring to Krypton’s density, and how Earth’s relatively weaker gravity gives Superman his strength and jumping ability) “That’s why, when we go to the moon, we can jump over moon buildings and lift moon cars to astound the moon people.”
  • (talking about how he uses Electro and Magneto when discussing electicity and magnetism) “You’ll have to buy my book to find out which one was associated with electricy and which with magnetism.”
  • (talking about how a lot of people got their powers) “You’ll have to forgive children in the 60s if getting hit by a lightning bolt seemed like the greatest thing ever, second only to getting exposed to massive amounts of radiation.”
  • “We know he’s robbing a bank because of the large brown bag with the dollar sign on it.”
  • (referring to how two people in the crowd are explaining how Electro can climb up the side of a building) “Looking at this gives you a sense of nostalgia for the bygone era when bystanders used to routinely narrate nearby events.”
  • I picked up a copy of the book, and what I’ve read so far has been great (available on Amazon). Way better than The Science of Superheroes by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, a real dud that seemed to involve no research whatsoever, expressing the same level of depth any casual comic reader would have.