Life (And Death) With Archie, Part 2

Here is part two of my look at the excellent Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg and published by Archie Comics.  Click here to read part one.

Before continuing on to the final two issues, I first wanted to point out something that I forgot to discuss last time.  One aspect of Kupperberg’s writing that I appreciated was that in neither reality was there any sort of fairy tale ending.  Both the “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty” worlds showed that once Archie and his true love were wed they was still plenty of drama and tension and relationship problems.  One marriage was not any better than the other.  Rather, both realities were far from perfect, each with good and bad, with hurdles to overcome.

Kupperberg did an excellent job at developing the characters through various dramatic plot twists, very much making them come alive.  I became quite attached to the cast in both realities, and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.  I would definitely say that Life With Archie was on a par with the superb work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez on Love and Rockets.

Life With Archie 36 Francesco Francavilla variant cover

And so we now come to the final two issues of Life With Archie, featuring the death of Archie Andrews.  That’s not much of a spoiler, given the huge media coverage, plus the somber, atmospheric variant cover to issue #36 by Francesco Francavilla.  Wow, I tell you, that guy is prolific!  He seems to be doing work for nearly every comic book company in existence.

Previously in Life With Archie, Kevin Keller’s husband Clay Walker was shot during an attempted robbery.  Fortunately he survived, but Kevin learned that the weapon used by the holdup man had been purchased at a gun show, circumventing background checks.  Kevin decides to run for the United States Senate on a gun control platform.  He is elected, but his controversial stance, plus the fact that he is gay, leads a deranged gunman to begin targeting gay victims.

As issue #36 opens, Kevin is preparing for a fundraiser at the Chocklit Shoppe, despite the urgings of the FBI to postpone the event until the shooter is caught.  Meanwhile, Archie is taking a jog through Riverdale, his thoughts also running through memories of his childhood & teenage years, as well as pondering the possible future he might have if he and his wife might one day have children.

Life With Archie 36 pg 3

Looking back on his past, Archie reflects on how he was always trying to decide between Betty and Veronica.  And, yes, they were the two girls who always meant the most to him.  There was the other occasional relationship, such as Cheryl Blossom or Valerie from The Pussycats.  But in the end, for Archie, it always came back to Betty and Veronica.  Those two were central to his life.  Kupperberg, via a flashback to a young Archie and school principal Mr. Wetherbee, implies that it was finally making a choice between the two that was necessary for him to grow up and become an adult.

That night, at the Chocklit Shoppe, waiting for the fundraiser to being, Archie and his old pals Jughead and Reggie are pondering how much things have changed, and the possibilities of the future.  It’s an interesting look at how, on one hand, these three have grown & matured over the course of the series and, on the other, how in certain respects they are still the same three goofballs that they’ve always been.

And then Kevin arrives, only for the gunman to reveal himself as the dishwasher at the Chocklit Shoppe.  The FBI agents attempt to grab him, but are hindered by the large crowd.  At which point Archie selflessly throws himself in front of Kevn, taking a bullet for him.  Lying on the floor, bleeding, surrounded by Betty and Veronica, Archie gasps out “I’ve always loved you” before succumbing to his injuries.

Life With Archie 36 pg 39

Issue #36 is supposed to be set in both the “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty” realities, and Kupperberg does a good job at writing it in such a way that the events fit into each seamlessly.  Archie’s demise, even though we know it is coming, is nevertheless still very effectively scripted, a very tragic moment.  The artwork by pencilers Pat & Tim Kennedy and inker Jim Amash is very well done, giving Archie’s contemplations on life, and then the scene of his death, genuine drama and emotion.

Life With Archie #37, the final issue, is set one year later.  Kevin Keller is preparing for a ceremony memorializing Archie.  Since Kevin didn’t move to Riverdale until he was a teenager, he is speaking with those who knew him all his life, asking them to relate what sort of person he was.  Principal Wetherbee, Hiram Lodge, Reggie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica reminisce on various times in the past Archie was someone who helped out people and was there as a friend when you needed him.  We see that going all the way back to his childhood Archie, despite his moments of silliness and mischief, underneath it all was a stand-up guy.

Life With Archie 37 pg 15

Kupperberg’s script is simultaneously wistful and optimistic.  Despite the sadness, his story is at heart a celebration of the joy of life, the importance of friendship, and the possibilities of the future.  As Wetherbee himself comments at the memorial, “The order of the day is not to dwell on tragedy, but to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.”

Once again, the team of Pat & Tim Kennedy and Jim Amash, this time working alongside penciler Fernando Ruiz and inker Gary Martin, do great work.  They all superbly bring the characters to life, expertly telling the story and imbuing it with emotion and poignancy, as well as moments of real fun and hilarity.

Life With Archie 37 pg 35

Some might wonder why Archie Comics decided to bring Life With Archie to an end at the height of its success.  But I think it was a good choice.  There is something to be said with going out on a high note.  After all, there are numerous long-running comic book characters who’ve had decades of continuous, unending stories without any resolution or closure that eventually end up retreading old ground.  Additionally, in the “mainstream” Archie Comics titles, the Riverdale gang will always be teenagers.  So it is nice to be able to find out what could happen to Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and the rest of the cast as they grew up, a storyline that has a definitive ending.

As with the previous issue, Life With Archie #37 had several variant covers, all of which I liked.  Of course I couldn’t pick up every single one.  I decided to go with the cover by Jill Thompson .  The creator of Scary Godmother drew a beautifully nostalgic piece that recreates some of the classic, iconic images of Archie Andrews’ life.

Life With Archie 37 Jill Thompson variant cover

For those who missed out on Life With Archie during its original monthly run, the entire series is being collected in the Archie: The Married Life trade paperbacks. Archie Comics has four volumes out so far, which collects the series up to issue #24.  According to Amazon, book five will be coming out at the end of August.  I definitely recommend picking these up.  The stories by Paul Kupperberg and his various artistic collaborators are well worth experiencing.

Life (And Death) With Archie, Part 1

I’m sure that most everyone has heard the news that Archie Andrews, the popular redheaded star of the line of Archie Comics, has died… sort of.  That is to say, one version of Archie (okay, technically speaking two versions) is killed in the conclusion to the three year epic Life With Archie.  Running monthly since 2010, Life With Archie, written by Paul Kupperberg, chronicled two possible near future realities, one where Archie married Veronica and another where he married Betty.

The series actually spun out of a six issue run by writer Michael Uslan and artists Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith in Archie #s 600 to 605.  Uslan postulated two possible scenarios where Archie finally chose between his rival teenage sweethearts.  In the first one, which ran through #600 to 602, Archie proposed to and married sophisticated raven-haired socialite Veronica Lodge.  In the second one, in #602-605, Archie pledged his heart to sweet blonde girl-next-door Betty Cooper.  The entire storyline was collected in the trade paperback The Archie Wedding.

The Archie Wedding cover

Following the success of this storyline, Archie Comics decided to publish an ongoing title set in these two alternate worlds.  In the pages of Life With Archie, Kupperberg and a line-up of talented artists chronicled the dual paths that Archie took in “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty.”  Kupperburg’s two tales were sprawling and ambitious.  He revealed how that one simple decision impacted the entire town of Riverdale and its much-loved inhabitants as they grew older, setting everyone on very different paths in these two realities.  It brings to mind the old saying about how a small pebble dropped in a lake will cause ripples that will emanate outwards and bounce off the shores in various directions.  By choosing Veronica in one world and Betty in another, Archie creates two very different sets of ripples that affect the rest of the cast in dramatic & unexpected ways.

My girlfriend Michele has been a fan of Archie Comics since she was a little girl.  She picked up the collection The Archie Wedding and enjoyed it.  When Life With Archie began shortly afterwards, she became a regular reader, only missing a handful of the issues over the next three years.  I read a number of these and I also enjoyed them.  Truthfully, I sometimes had some trouble following the story and character arcs in the two parallel worlds, and more than once I wondered aloud at how Kupperberg kept everything straight in his head.  Maybe he had some flowcharts or diagrams that he drew up?

A good example of how events could be both similar and different in these two worlds is with the character of Jughead Jones.  In each of them, not surprisingly, he ended up becoming the proprietor of his favorite hangout, the Chocklit Shoppe.  However, in one reality circumstances eventually lead Jughead to wed Ethel, and in the other he and Midge are married.

Life With Archie 16 coverOne event that took place in both realities was Kevin Keller, now a military veteran, married his boyfriend Clay Walker in Life With Archie #16.  The two had met after Kevin had been wounded on the battlefield and Clay was his physical therapist.  There was, unfortunately, somewhat of an uproar in the real world among certain “conservative” segments when the news of this was announced.  However, to their credit, Archie Comics still went through with it.  I certainly do not agree with every business decision that the company has made over the years.  But at least they seemingly do have an approach that can be considered “progressive,” and they recognize they possess a diverse readership.  In any case, it was a very nicely done issue, topped off with a lovely cover by Fernando Ruiz & Bob Smith.

An aspect of the series that I found intriguing was the role of Archie’s former rival Reggie Mantle.  In the “Archie marries Veronica” reality Reggie begins dating Betty.  In the “Archie marries Betty” world Reggie becomes involved with Veronica.  It is a bit sad to think that Reggie, who in both storylines is seen growing & maturing beyond his former snooty, sarcastic self, is left with the girl who Archie let get away.  The four of them really do have something of a bizarre love quadrangle going on.

There were also some odd shenanigans going on with scientific genius Dilton Doiley traveling back and forth between the two realities.  I really didn’t follow the series close enough month-to-month to fully understand precisely what was going on.  However, aside from that one subplot, Kupperberg eschewed from fantastical elements and stuck to events that were grounded in reality.

Life With Archie 12 cover

Art-wise, it was interesting and cool to see Norm Breyfogle’s work on a number of issues of Life With Archie.  Breyfogle is generally considered to be the best Batman artist of the late 1980s through the mid 1990s.  He did really amazing work on the various ongoing titles and specials of that time.  Unfortunately since then Breyfogle’s work has been somewhat sporadic, as he has not really had too many ongoing books to work on.  More recently he’s once again been doing great work for DC Comics on Batman Beyond.  Before that gig finally came his way, Breyfogle was working at Archie Comics.  I really enjoyed his art on Life With Archie.  It was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.

The last several issues of Life With Archie have boasted some really great variant covers by several great artists, including Stephanie Buscema, Dean Haspiel and Robert Hack.  One of my favorites was Chad Thomas’ “sci fi variant” for #35, which depicts Jughead as “The Beast That Won’t Stop Eating!”

Life With Archie 35 variant cover

Having taken a cursory overview of the entire Life With Archie series, in my next installment I will be looking at Paul Kupperberg’s two part conclusion to his dual sagas, and the tragic demise of Archie Andrews, as featured in issue #s 36 and 37.  Stay tuned!

 

The Young Ones: a bunch of complete bastards

After hearing of the recent untimely death of British comedian Rik Mayall last month at the age of 56, Michele and I re-watched the television series that he was most associated with: The Young Ones.  Originally running for two six-episode seasons in 1982 and 1984 on the BBC, The Young Ones became an influential cult classic.  Michele likes to say that it is her all time favorite television series.  She first saw it when it aired here in the States in 1985 on MTV.  Myself, I caught a few of the episodes in the mid-1990s when it was on Comedy Central.  While I enjoyed them somewhat back then, watching the series in its entirety on DVD definitely gave me a real appreciation for it.

The Young Ones DVD

The Young Ones was co-written by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer, with additional material by Alexi Sayle.  It featured the bizarre, nonsensical, and grotesquely over-the-top misadventures of four university students from Scumbag College who were rooming together in North London:

Rick (played by Rik Mayall) was a would-be anarchist revolutionary who would go on endlessly about the evils of Margaret Thatcher and the oppression of the people, while treating everyone else about him with disdain.  He regarded himself as “the people’s poet,” the so-called “voice of a generation,” although in reality he was a self-important egotist who was full of crap.

Vyvyan (Adrian Edmonton) was a loud, psychotic, alcoholic punk metal-head who considered Rick “a complete bastard.”  Despite being an ultra-violent imbecile, Vyvyan was studying medicine at Scumbag College.  I suppose the blood & guts appealed to him.

Neil (Nigel Planer) was a perpetually depressed hippy pacifist who had constant verbal & physical abuse heaped upon him, and who was always expected by the other three to cook dinner, even if they were too broke to buy groceries.  Neil alternated between preaching the virtues of such causes as vegetarianism & environmentalism, and moping about bemoaning the fact that everyone hated him.

Mike (Christopher Ryan) was a suave con artist who was always scheming to make money.  On several occasions referring to himself as “the cool person,” Mike believed he was a real ladies’ man, although on various instances he was spotted sleeping with an inflatable sex doll.

Rounding out the regular cast was Alexi Sayle, who portrayed a variety of characters, including the various members of the Balowski Family.  Sayle’s performances were often a satire on British societal stereotypes, with him sending up the popular image of the working class, or merely rambling on in a stream of consciousness manner, via some cleverly nonsensical monologues.

The Young Ones

There were appearances on The Young Ones by a number of talented actors and comedians.  Some of them were already established at that time, and others were up-and-coming.  Among the various guest stars to appear on the show were Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Frost, Terry Jones, Patrick Newell, Helen Lederer, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson.

Each of the episodes featured a musical performance, which was always worked into the plot somehow or another, even it was just that week’s band just standing around the living room or out in the street while the action unfolded about them.  Some of the musical guests were definitely on the obscure side, such as Amazulu and Rip Rig + Panic.  Others were better known, as in Motorhead, The Damned, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Madness (who appeared twice).  There was one episode, “Flood,” that instead of music had a lion tamer performing in Mike’s room, and that incongruous appearance ended up being a key aspect to the resolution of the plot, such as it was.

Of course, that was the thing about The Young Ones.  The episodes did not have much in the way of straightforward plots, but were rather more like a series of jokes and gags that were somewhat loosely strung together.  There were also a number of random asides tossed in that had little or nothing to do with the rest of the episode.

The humor ranged from sophisticated and intellectual to crass, vulgar, gross, tacky and utterly lowbrow.  Copious amounts of cartoonish violence were regularly inflicted upon the characters.  The Young Ones was the sort of anarchic mish-mash of comedic insanity that could have easily collapsed into an incomprehensible, unfunny heap.  But the talent, energy, and enthusiasm of the performers and writers instead resulted in a set of a dozen episodes which were hysterical and laugh-out-loud funny.

The series often broke the fourth wall, with characters directly addressing the audience to deliver jokes or monologues.  The most extended example of this was in the episode “Sick.”  Halfway through the episode the quartet are alarmed to learn that Neil’s parents will be coming to visit, and they desperately start attempting to clean up the house, hoping to look at least somewhat more respectable.  The audience’s expectation is that Neil’s middle class parents are going to be upset that he is living with a trio of disreputable individuals in a shithole of a building.  Instead, we quickly find out that they are furious Neil is starring in such a shameful, trashy television show as The Young Ones, with his father critically commenting “It’s a waste of a licensing fee! Pardon my French, but why can’t you be in one of those decent situation comedies that your mother likes?”

Re-watching The Young Ones, Michele began to suspect that it could have been a major influence on Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy.  She has a good point there, and I would not be surprised to learn that she’s correct.

The Young Ones Vyvyan

Our favorite episode of The Young Ones is undoubtedly “Bambi.”  I really enjoyed that one even back when I first saw it in the mid-90s.  Seeing it again on DVD, it was hilarious.  The housemates attempt to wash their laundry for the first time in over three years, leading to the anthropomorphic machine at the launderette to violently spit out the load, loudly proclaiming “No way!”  Vyvyan then utters one of my favorite lines of dialogue from the series: “This calls for a very special blend of psychology and extreme violence.”  Fooling a lecherous washing machine into thinking they have actress Felicity Kendall’s underwear, the four of them stuff their clothes into it, only to belatedly realize that they don’t have any money to put into it.  Returning home, they vow to never wash their clothes again and become the dirtiest students in the whole world.  When Mike comments “Hey, now there’s a challenge,” Neil suddenly remembers that the four of them have been selected to represent Scumbag College on the television game show University Challenge.  Cue a mad dash to the railway station, with Motorhead providing incidental music.  I won’t say any more about the episode.  Trust me, if you haven’t seen the it, it’s well worth watching.

It might seem odd, at least to an American audience, that The Young Ones was so influential while only lasting a mere 12 episodes.  But actually I think the British method of producing television, with shorter seasons, is a good one.  I really think that too many American shows stretch their resources thin making 24 episodes a year.  The end result is that you usually end up with several really good installments, a number of merely average ones, and at least a few stinkers.  But if you have half that number, or less, the writers can really focus their energy on crafting several high-quality scripts, the various members of the production team can better allocate their time & resources into filming them, and the actors aren’t overworked.  Looking at the run of The Young Ones, not a single one of the episodes is a dud.

The Young Ones Rick

It certainly is a shame that co-star and co-writer Rik Mayall died so young.  Michelle posted a nice tribute to Mayall on her own blog.  Looking at his work on The Young Ones, as well as other projects he was involved with over the years, it is apparent that he was extremely talented.  Mayall had a genuine gift for comedy, delivering lines in just the right way, offering up the most insane facial expressions, and excelling in dynamically bizarre physical comedy.  Yeah, I would go so far as to say that he was a genius.

If you aren’t familiar with The Young Ones, check it out.  There are plenty of clips from the series posted on the internet, as well as the actors’ appearances in the 1980s reprising their roles elsewhere.  For all twelve episodes, plus some informative extras, The Young Ones: Extra Stoopid Edition DVD set came out in 2007 and is still available.

C.J. Henderson: 1951 – 2014

I was very sorry to hear that author C.J. Henderson had passed away on July 4th at the age of 62.  I knew that he wasn’t well.  About a month ago I had run into a mutual acquaintance, writer James Chambers, for the first time in several years.  I asked Jim if he was still in touch with C.J. and had learned that he was suffering from cancer.  So while his passing is not unexpected, it is still sad.  C.J was a talented writer, as well as a nice, friendly fellow with a distinctive, wry sense of humor.  It was always a pleasure to see him.

CJ Henderson

C.J. Henderson with some of the numerous books that he worked on. Photo courtesy of John Paul.

While I wasn’t close friends with C.J. he was someone who I had encountered numerous times over the years, both socially and at comic book conventions, where he was often a guest.  I first met C.J. back in the mid-1990s, at one of the parties that artist Fred Harper threw at his loft in Brooklyn.  I know I’d read a handful of C.J. Henderson’s stories previously, and afterwards I acquired quite a bit of his work.  In 2003 I hitched a ride to the Pittsburgh Comic Con with C.J., Jim Chambers, and a few other people.  That was a lot of fun.  Fred and I also once spent New Year’s Eve with C.J. and his family, which was a nice, relaxing evening.

C.J.  Henderson was a very prolific author who was extremely fond of both hardboiled detective and horror fiction.  He wrote a number of excellent novels and short stories in those two genres, often deftly mixing the two.  One of Henderson’s ongoing characters was private eye Jack Hagee.  The various Jack Hagee short stories, written throughout the 1980s, were collected together in What You Pay For in 1990.

The Things That Are Not There

Henderson’s other signature P.I. was Teddy London.  Whereas Hagee’s cases were very much grounded in gritty noir, London’s investigations took him into the strange, dark world of the supernatural.  Henderson was a self-avowed fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror,” and London’s debut novel The Things That Are Not There saw the detective encountering malevolent entities summoned up from another dimension.  Originally published in 1992, the book returned to print a decade later, which is when I finally had an opportunity to read it.  The Things That Are Not There was definitely a riveting book, and I highly recommend it.

C.J.’s fondness for Lovecraft extended through much of his work, including his more humorous writing.  Baby’s First Mythos was a tongue-in-cheek faux children’s book that offered an overview of Lovecraft’s writings from A to Z, i.e. “N is for Necronomicon, That horrid flesh-bound book of magic, The reading of which by mere mortals brings their damned souls, To ends both terrifying and tragic.”  C.J. collaborated on Baby’s First Mythos with his daughter Erica Henderson, who provided the excellent illustrations.

Baby's First Mythos

C.J.’s short fiction appeared in numerous anthologies over the years.  These included Horrors Beyond, Dark Furies, Return To Lovecraft Country and Weird Trails.  Henderson also contributed to X-Men: Legends.  Published in 2000 and starring the mutants of Marvel Comics, the book was a collection of original prose stories set throughout the team’s history.  Henderson penned “The Worst Prison of All,” which featured Professor Xavier encountering a Lovecraftian elder god on the psychic plane.

Henderson was also a non-fiction writer & reviewer.  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, clocking in at a mammoth 500 pages, featured hundreds of reviews of sci-fi films.  Henderson’s write-ups were very interesting & insightful.  Even though I must have disagreed with half of his opinions, I found his analyses to nevertheless be thought-provoking and extremely well articulated.

X-Men Legends

C.J. did quite a bit of work in comic books over the years.  In the mid-1990s he wrote several issues of Neil Gaiman’s Lady Justice from Tekno Comix.  Henderson also was quite a prolific contributor to Moonstone Books.  He wrote and edited several Kolchak: The Night Stalker specials (he was a long-time  fan of the character).  Henderson adapted some of his own characters from prose to comic books at Moonstone, as well.  Paired with artist Richard Clark, he wrote a Jack Hagee: Private Eye graphic novel that was published in 2003.  Henderson also wrote two issues of Lai Wan: Tales of the Dreamwalker, featuring the lovely Asian “psychometrist” who assisted Teddy London in the pages of The Things That Are Not There.

In 2004 Moonstone published Slamm! The Hardboiled Fiction of C.J. Henderson, a trade paperback collection of mystery, suspense, and horror stories illustrated by Fred Harper, Richard Clark, Trevor Von Eeden and Ben Fogletto.  I really wish I could locate my copy of that book, because it’s really good.  Unfortunately it’s probably packed up in storage with the majority of my comics.

Batman Joker's Apprentice

I once asked C.J. who his favorite artist had been to work with in comic books.  He stated that Trevor Von Eeden was probably the artist he had most enjoyed collaborating with.  In addition to their time at Moonstone, C.J. and Trevor had worked together on a pair of stories at DC Comics, the two part “Duty” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #105-106, and Batman: Joker’s Apprentice, with inks by Josef Rubinstein.  Both stories featured Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker.  “Duty” focused on James Gordon having to thwart the Clown Prince of Crime without the assistance of the Dark Knight.  The Joker’s Apprentice special had Henderson placing the Joker in a Hannibal Lector-esque role, manipulating from within the walls of Arkham Asylum a serial killer protégé who he aims at Batman as a twisted “present.”  It was an extremely dark, macabre, gruesome tale much in the vein of Criminal Minds, although Henderson’s story preceded that television series by several years.

C.J. Henderson was undoubtedly an extremely talented writer who crafted some amazing, entertaining, engaging stories during his lifetime.  He will definitely be missed.

Captain America #130: a message for July 4th

A very happy Fourth of July to all of my fellow Americans.  Today I am going to take a look at a comic book story that I feel exemplifies the principles which this country was founded upon.  Yes, too often we have all fallen short of those lofty ideals, but they still remain as goals for us to continually strive towards.  And so, I am going to write about Captain America #130, published by Marvel Comics in 1970.

Captain America 130 cover

Right now those comic book fans out there with a more than passing knowledge of the Captain America series are probably saying to themselves “WTF?!?”  Yeah, it’s not really an obvious choice, but bear with me.

The issue is topped off by a cover which according to both the Grand Comics Database and the Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators was drawn by Marie Severin & Joe Sinnott.  I will have to take their word for it.  That drawing of the Hulk’s face does look very much like Severin’s work, so the credits are probably accurate.

Opening up the book, we find ourselves in the midst of a ferocious battle between Cap and the Hulk, on a splash page that offers the following declaration via Artie Simek’s exciting engraving:

“This one has to be seen to be believed! Based on an original theme by Stan the Man, Genial Gene got so wound up in the artwork that he tossed in everything but the kitchen sink! Hence, what follows is like a wild and wacky build-up to the startling surprise that awaits you next ish! It may not make much sense – but we guarantee you won’t be bored! So, settle back, relax, and enjoy it, culture-lover – (and if you can figure it out – explain it to us!)”

Captain America 130 pg 1

After three pages of Cap versus Hulk action, it is revealed that this is actually a movie playing in a theater, with none other than Steve Rogers himself sitting in the audience.  It’s never made clear if this is supposed to be a documentary with actual newsreel footage of the two super-humans slugging it out, or a fictional production (perhaps starring Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo?) but whatever the case Steve isn’t too thrilled when a fellow cinemagoer declares “Who cares about that clown? He’s just not relevant in today’s world!”

This issue falls right in the middle of a period when the Captain America series was struggling somewhat with its identity.  It’s important to keep in mind the context of when this was published.  In 1970 the Vietnam War was raging, and the controversy over it was tearing America apart.  The Civil Rights movement was still being fought.  Distrust of the government was beginning to become widespread.  In this environment, the character of Cap, a super patriot who originated during World War II, must have been an awkward figure to write.  Stan Lee was trying to touch upon this with an Easy Rider-inspired arc, as Steve Rogers travels about the country on a motorcycle, attempting to figure out his place in modern American society.

Departing the movie theater, Steve rides his chopper into a “sleepy little college town” which is anything but.  The students are rioting, attempting to reach the Dean, who has barricaded himself in his office, and the police are attempting to quell the disturbance.  Steve changes into his uniform and, as Cap, swings into action, hoping to bring a halt to the violence before anyone is hurt.  The students, though, think that Cap is “in league with the fuzz” and attack him.  Cap leaps away from the crowd and climbs up the side of the administrative building to the Dean’s office, rescuing him before the students can batter down the door.

Captain America 130 pg 7

I’m curious about the timeline to the production of this issue.  With a cover-date of October 1970, the issue would actually have been on sale sometime around July, which meant that it must have been written & drawn a few months before.  The Kent State Shootings took place on May 4th.  I wonder if “Up Against The Wall” was in production during that time, and if that tragic event might have been on Stan Lee & Gene Colan’s minds.  Even if it wasn’t, there was certainly was a great deal of unrest on college campuses throughout this time period.

A figure observes Cap’s rescue of the Dean and approaches him, stating “It’s a pleasure finding someone who still stands for law and order!”  The man, a television producer, asks Cap to make an appearance.  However, it turns out that this producer is actually in the employ of a mysterious hooded figure known as, um, The Hood.  In any case, the masked mastermind gives his servant explicit instructions:

“Write his speech most carefully! In standing for law and order, he must make Americans distrust their own younger generation! The more we can divide this country, and the more we stifle dissent – the better it will be – for The Hood!”

It’s interesting that Lee scripts the villain in this manner.  It brings to mind Sinclair Lewis’ warning “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”  Lee is addressing the idea that agents of oppression and injustice will assume the trappings of patriotism, throw about terms such as “law and order” to disguise their subversive efforts to undermine liberty & freedom.  What Lee was observing in this scene is undoubtedly just as true today as it was four decades ago, if not more so.

Captain America 130 pg 15

Cap later arrives at the television station.  Addressing the camera, he makes the following speech:

“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be! I don’t believe in using force – or violence – because they can be the weapons of those who would enslave us – but, nor do I believe in an establishment that remains so aloof – so distant – that the people are driven to desperate measures – as in the case of a college dean who isolates himself from his student body!”

This is obviously not what The Hood had planned, and he orders his lackey to silence Cap.  The producer telephones the mercenary Batroc the Leaper, who declares “Just give us sixty seconds!”  Batroc and his comrades, Whirlwind and The Porcupine, hop into a fancy roadster and literally one minute later arrive at the TV studio to attack Cap.  I guess that Batroc’s Brigade just conveniently happen to have their headquarters right down the block.  They probably could have saved on gas by just walking from there.

Captain America 130 pg 16

Cap fights Batroc, Whirlwind, and The Porcupine to a standstill.  Once the police arrive, the three costumed criminals flee, leaving Cap to wonder who hired them.  But that is a story for another time… okay, okay, I’ll tell you!  Next issue Cap unmasks The Hood, who turns out to be Baron Strucker, who attempts to kill Cap with the long-lost Bucky, who ends up being revealed as a robot duplicate.  And then a decade or so later we would find out that The Hood / Strucker himself was also a robot.  Yeah, it’s really weird, so don’t think too closely about it.  Aren’t you sorry you asked?

The somewhat choppy feel of this story, and other issues of Captain America from around this time, is due to the working relationship between Lee and Colan.  Lee was phoning it in… and I mean that literally!  In an excellent interview conducted by Roy Thomas published in Alter Ego #6, Colan explained “Actually, the fun of working on comics with Stan was that, although he put in all the dialogue, he allowed the artists to take a very small plot he’d give them and build it into a 20-page story. There was nothing to the plot — it was maybe just a few sentences — but the beginning was there, and you could do anything you wanted.”  Thomas then asked “Did Stan write out plots then, or was it mostly just over the phone?”  Colan answered “I recorded our phone conversations, and then I would go by the recording. Other times, he’d send me a letter of a few paragraphs.”  So Colan would pencil an entire 20 page story from that brief description, in effect serving as a co-plotter, and Lee would write his script from the artwork.

Colan admitted that at times this method would have unintended results.  Sometimes his pacing of the story would be off, and he would then realize that he had very little space left to wrap the issue up, leading him to cram as much as possible into the final three or four pages.  On one particular occasion Lee had included a car chase in his plot, expecting that Colan would devote a page to it.  Lee was subsequently surprised to find that in Colan’s penciled art the car chase took up almost half of the issue!

Even under these circumstances we see that Lee, who is undoubtedly a great scripter, could still craft some superb dialogue.  True, I’ve never been overly enamored with aspects of Lee’s approach to Cap, as he repeatedly showed him agonizing about Bucky’s death, moping over his relationship with Sharon Carter, and wringing his hands at his role as a man out of time.  But when Lee wasn’t busy having Steve Rogers doing his pity pot routine, he wrote the character very well.  The speech he gives Cap in this issue is, in my opinion, one of the quintessential moments in the character’s existence.  It sums up everything that Steve Rogers is about.  He is not an unquestioning patriot or a militant hawk who seeks out conflict.  Cap believes in the American Dream, the potential for greatness that this country and its people can be capable of if they are willing to embrace equality & diversity and attempt to strive for a better future.

Captain America 130 pg 18

The artwork by Colan on this issue is quite good.  It is a bit odd that many people have cited Colan as one of their favorite Captain America artists.  If you actually look at his run on the title from 1969 to 1971 on issue #s 116 to 137, the stories he drew are a mixed bag, uneven in quality, undoubtedly due to Lee’s minimal role in the plotting stages.  Nevertheless, Colan’s work during that two year run is of a high quality.  That said, I do think that he did rather better work on other titles where the writers gave him slightly more comprehensive plots to work from, which resulted in him doing a better job pacing out his art.  On a few occasions in later years Colan would return to draw stand-alone issues of Captain America.  I feel that those are stronger efforts by Colan, quite simply because he was given better stories to illustrate.

Dick Ayers inked Colan’s pencils on Captain America #s 128 to 134.  I’ve observed in the past that Colan was a difficult artist to ink, and that only a handful of embellishers did extremely well at finishing his art.  Ayers was definitely was a talented artist, but he was probably not the best fit to ink Colan.  But it certainly wasn’t a disaster, either.  Most of the issues that Ayers inked fell during the “Cap on the road” arc.  The combination of Colan and Ayers’ styles was actually appropriate, as the plots were slightly less of the conventional superhero type.  Colan’s pencils helped to put that mood across some, whereas a more Kirby-esque art style could have been too traditional.   Likewise Ayers’ style of inking, which was well suited to the many war and Western stories he illustrated over the years, was also a good match to these stories.

Besides, I own a page of original artwork from issue #133 drawn by Colan & Ayers.  So I do have a certain fondness for their work together.

While at first glance Captain America #130 is an offbeat issue, it certainly has its strong points, and an important message.  As we all celebrate July 4th, let’s try to remember Cap’s words to the American people in this story.

Godzilla 2014

I was watching Godzilla 2000 on the DVD early this afternoon.  As I was sitting through it, I recalled how much I’d enjoyed seeing it in the theater back when it first came out.  I’ve only been able to go to a few of the Godzilla films on the big screen, which is a very different experience from seeing them on a television set.  I started thinking that it was unfortunate that I’d missed out on the opportunity to catch the 2014 version of Godzilla on the theater.

And then, in a strange coincidence, maybe half an hour later, Michele was checking online to see what movies were playing in the area tonight.  It turned out Godzilla was actually still playing at Cinemart Cinemas on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills.  Cue a quick hop into the shower and then a rush by the two of us to take the Q54 bus over there!

First things first: the 2014 remake of Godzilla is far and away a major improvement over the first  time an American studio attempted to adapt the property, back in 1998.  This time around, Godzilla is NOT a giant iguana who runs away from the military while laying eggs all over the place.  Nope, once again Godzilla is a titanic, city-smashing prehistoric reptile reawakened by atomic testing, a nigh-unstoppable force.  Yes, the design of the creature is tweaked somewhat, but it still recognizable, still a being that you will look at and say “Yep, that’s Godzilla.”

Godzilla 2014 movie poster

The movie opens with an extended prologue set in 1999.  In the Philippines, a mining expedition has unearthed a cavern containing an enormous dinosaur skeleton.  Exploring the cave, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) also discovers two mysterious egg pods, one of which has hatched.  Soon after, at the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, a sudden & mysterious earthquake causes the entire facility to collapse, rendering the area radioactive, and causing the death of plant manager Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston)’s wife.

Fifteen years later, Joe’s now grown son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is returning home to San Francisco after a tour of duty abroad as an ordinance disposal technician with the U.S. Navy.  Ford’s reunion with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and their young son is cut short when he finds out his father has been arrested for attempting to enter the quarantined Janjira area.  Joe is obsessed with the nuclear meltdown that killed his wife.  He is convinced that it was not caused by a natural disaster, and that the government is covering up the true reason.  Joe once again heads back to sneak into the quarantine zone, with Ford reluctantly accompanying him.  Investigating, they find the area mysteriously empty of radioactivity, but are eventually arrested for trespassing.  Taken to the site of the former reactor, they discover that a giant cocoon is in the center of the complex guarded by Project Monarch, a joint Japanese and American endeavor headed by Serizawa.

Unfortunately, shortly after their arrival, the cocoon begins to hatch.  An EMP wave knocks out all electronics in the vicinity, and a creature called a Muto, which looks across between a praying mantis and a reptile, emerges.  It demolishes the Monarch facility, fatally injuring Joe Brody, and then heads east.  Serizawa explains to Ford that the Muto is a prehistoric creature, a parasitic entity that feeds off radiation.  After hatching in the Philippines a decade and a half before, it destroyed the nuclear plant and spent the next 15 years soaking up the nuclear fallout.  Serizawa gets Ford to recount the information his father told him before he died, and he deduces that the Muto is now homing in on a signal from another of its kind.  Indeed, Serizawa learns that the other egg found in the Philippines, long stored away in the Nevada desert, has hatched, and that the second Muto, a female, is moving west in search of its mate.

The activity of the Mutos has also revived Godzilla, another prehistoric creature, one originally awakened back in 1954 which the American military attempted to covertly destroy under the cover of the testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.  Serizawa now believes that Godzilla is the mortal enemy of the Mutos, and that the creature’s role is to destroy the parasites and restore balance to the natural world.

As the two Mutos converge, causing tremendous destruction and horrific losses of life, Godzilla finally emerges from the sea to fight them, with all three finally meeting in the heart of San Francisco.  All the while Ford attempts to make it home to his wife and son, while aiding the military’s efforts against the monsters along the way.

Godzilla 2014

The movie definitely has a very slow build to it, with the Mutos first appearing about thirty minutes in, and Godzilla himself not receiving a full reveal until an hour in, the halfway point of the film.  The story is very much concerned with developing the characters, probably to a degree not seen since the original Gojira back in 1954.  I think it does a decent enough job of that.  Yes, while the characters at times are still somewhat thinly drawn, on the whole they do fell rather more fleshed out than in the majority of big budget, special effects extravaganzas.  Elle Brody is probably the least-developed of the group, mostly standing around fretting about her son or running away from danger, serving primarily as Ford’s reason to make his way home.  But I guess Elizabeth Olson does her best with the material.

At least the script doesn’t attempt to hammer home its messages.  You might think that it is awfully convenient that Ford is an expert at ordinance disposal, which conveniently enables him to be inserted into most of the action.  But it actually does make sense that someone who lost his mother in a nuclear meltdown when he was just a child would grow up to want to save lives by rendering similar devices harmless.  A lot of other movies would have just come right out and said that, but here is just a possible subtext for a viewer to pick up upon.  Likewise, Serizawa carries around a broken pocket watch from Hiroshima that his father gave him, but it is commented upon in such a way that the audience isn’t bludgeoned over the head with the notion that humanity is warlike and destructive to the natural world, that we created an environment where Godzilla and the Mutos would thrive.

The movie also places the protagonists very much in the center of the action.  Typically, in most Godzilla films, the humans are off at a safe distance, watching the monster battles and resulting destruction unfold with a minimum of risk.  Here, the characters are right at the heart of the carnage, with buildings crashing down right on top of them, the threat of injury or death very much present.  The death of Joe Brody very much drives that home.  Though it is a real shame that Bryan Cranston’s character is killed off so early in the movie, this demonstrates that it is not just unnamed extras who are in danger.

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Michele and I did agree that the movie could have used more of one thing: Godzilla himself.  After all, the big guy is absent from half the movie.  His confrontations with the Mutos are only seen very briefly right up until the last 15 or so minutes, mostly because they are all being witnessed by people fleeing from the monsters.

Director Gareth Edwards appears to have made this movie with as much of an eye for realism as he could without sacrificing the undeniably fantastical elements of gigantic prehistoric creatures beating each other up.  Edwards obviously wanted a movie that told most of the story from the POV of the civilians on the ground and the soldiers in the trenches.  That means that we get a great many chaotic glimpses of giant monster feet or swinging limbs or swishing tails, buildings tumbling down, and crowds of people rushing about.  Oh, yes, and smoke… lots and lots of smoke!  Because, yes, if Godzilla and a couple of his rivals started tearing up a major metropolitan area it probably would cause poor visibility due to the fires and debris.  But as a moviegoer I wanted to be able to see the monsters much more clearly and not struggle to figure out what was taking place at times.

Nevertheless, I do appreciate that Edwards wanted to craft a movie that wasn’t mere disaster porn.  There are definitely too many of those, long on SFX & explosions and short on plot & characterization, with no real consequences.  Edwards went a bit too far in the other direction, focusing too much on the humans and not enough on the monsters.  But I cannot fault his intentions.

Certainly the depiction of Godzilla was well done.  The creature is not a villain, but neither is it heroic.  Rather, Godzilla is a force of nature.  Edwards also draws a certain parallel between Ford Brody and Godzilla.  Ford wants to get home safely to his wife & son, and to save people.  Godzilla, while he doesn’t appear particularly concerned with protecting humans, is seemingly not attempting to harm them, either.  Well, at least not deliberately, but if he has to demolish a few buildings in order to stop the Mutos, then that’s a small price to pay.  But, in the end, both Ford and Godzilla are willing to lay down their lives, the former to protect his family, the later a planet.

So, while not without flaws, the new Godzilla is nevertheless entertaining, thoughtful, and well-made.  I’m glad I had an opportunity to see it on the big screen.

New York Comic Fest 2014 Convention Report

As I mentioned in my previous post, Michele and I went to the New York Comic Fest last Saturday, which was held at the Westchester County Center in White Plains.  It’s interesting that there was a three-way duel of sorts between comic cons in the NY metro area that weekend.  In addition to the Comic Fest, there was also a mini-version of the NY Comic Con at the Javits Center, as well as a decent-sized show out on Long Island.

Michele and I hadn’t been out of the City since last year, so we chose to go to the White Plains show.  I actually grew up in different parts of Westchester, and it was nice to be back for a day.  Michele and I took the Metro North train up.  The County Center was about a 15 minute walk from the train station.  It was a nice day, sunny but not too hot, the perfect weather to walk around.

Fred and Lynn Hembeck New York Comic Fest

The first guest whose table I went up to at the show was Fred Hembeck.  I’ve been a fan of Hembeck’s work for many years.  I’ve corresponded with him by e-mail and Facebook, and I got a cool re-interpretation of the cover to Captain America #291 done by him a few years ago.  But except for one time years back when I ran into him for about 30 seconds walking around a comic show in Upstate New York, I’ve never really met him.  It was great talking with Fred and his wife Lynn, who are both nice people.  Fred autographed my Spectacular Spider-Ham trade paperback, and he drew a cool piece in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.

While I was at Fred’s table, Michele was nearby chatting with underground artist John Holmstrom.  The founding editor of Punk Magazine in 1975, Holmstrom’s has also worked on The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, High Times and a number of album covers.  Michele is a big fan of Holmstrom’s art, so she was thrilled to meet him.  He was nice enough to do a sketch for her.  Michele surprised me by buying me a vintage issue of Punk Magazine as a present.  It was issue #17, which featured the Singing Pimple comic strip.

Rudy Nebres New York Comic Fest

Also at the show was Filipino-born artist Rudy Nebres.  I am a huge fan of his amazingly detailed, superbly rendered art, especially his work on Vampirella over the years.  I brought along several books to get signed, including the two issue horror miniseries Maura that was published by Berserker Comics in 2009.  Nebres’ pencils for it were exquisite, some of the best work of his entire career.  I was really happy to get those autographed.  I wish I’d had the funds to get one of his amazing sketches.  Fortunately I’ve obtained a couple of pieces by him in the past.

I was thrilled to see Steve Mannion and Una McGurk again at the convention.  The two of them recently tied the knot.  It was nice to be able to congratulate them in person.  I finally picked up a copy of Steve’s Fearless Dawn: Jurassic Jungle Boogie Nights special, which I missed finding in the stores when it came out last December.  I just wished I’d remembered to bring him a bag of Pirates Booty Popcorn as a present!

Steve Mannion and Una McGurk New York Comic Fest

Another creator at the show who I’d never met before was Paul Kupperberg.  Michele has really been enjoying the Life With Archie series that Kupperberg has been writing for the last three years.  That’s the great magazine-sized publication from Archie Comics that has the two possible futures where Archie marries Veronica and Betty, and we see what happens to the inhabitants of Riverdale as a result of each of those choices.  I’ve also read Life With Archie from time to time, and it is really well written.  Michele had Kupperberg autograph some of those for her.   He also signed my copy of the first issue of The Charlton Arrow, as well as Action Comics #598, the first appearance of Checkmate, the covert ops organization he co-created at DC Comics in the late 1980s.

Paul Kupperberg New York Comic Fest

I also had the opportunity to meet Peter Gillis, who wrote some great stories in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s.  I’m a fan of his work and so, once again, it was cool to get a few things autographed.  I also saw Don McGregor and, as I mentioned before, bought a copy of the Sable 30th Anniversary Edition from him.  Other creators at the show were Josh Neufeld, David Gallaher, Steve Ellis, Bill Sienkiewicz, Basil Gogos and Joe Martino.  I got to see Bronze Age legend Herb Trimpe once again.  It’s odd, in that I’ve met him at a number of conventions in the past, but I didn’t have a single issue of Incredible Hulk signed by him, even though that’s the character he is most identified with.  So this time I remembered to bring my copy of Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which Trimpe autographed for me.

Longtime Batman writer and editor Denny O’Neil was at Comic Fest.  For most of the day he was on different panel discussion.  I did manage to catch him after the “Batman at 75: Then and Now” panel, when he was signing at his table for a little while.  There was a looooong line, and the person waiting in front of me looked and acted almost exactly like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.  Yeah, just the sort who gives comic book fans a bad name!  But I finally got to the front of the line and had a couple of Batman trade paperbacks signed by O’Neil.  I really wanted to ask him some questions, but I didn’t want to hold up the line.  At least I got a photo with him.

Ben and Denny O'Neil New York Comic Fest

All in all, New York Comic Fest was a nice convention.  Michele and I both had fun there.  It was very casual and laid-back, with some great guests and panel discussions.  It did appear that attendance was a bit low, probably due to those other competing two shows in the tri-state area.  I hope that the organizers had a successful convention, because I would certainly like to see New York Comic Fest return in 2015.

My only original art acquisition that day was the cool Beautiful Dreamer sketch by Fred Hembeck.  Well, I was on a budget, and also shooting for quality over quantity.  I was certainly happy to have obtained it and, as I said, to have finally met Fred.

Beautiful Dreamer Fred Hembeck

Mid-afternoon Michele and I left the County Center.  We took a walk down Central Avenue, and went to visit my grandparents, who live in White Plains.  Again, the weather was pleasant, so even though it was a bit of a long walk, it was good to get some fresh air.  I’m happy that I was able to see my grandparents, since they’re up there in years nowadays.

And then it was back to the train station to catch the train home.  We didn’t want to stay too late in White Plains.  After all, we had to get home to feed the cats.  Nettie and Squeaky can be quite demanding when it comes to food, you know.  Never keep a cat waiting if you can avoid it!

All photos courtesy of Michele Witchipoo.  Thanks, hon.