Fury of Firestorm #9 and the problem of making comic books accessible to new readers

There are two things that I really do not like about current mainstream superhero comic books, both of which I’ve mentioned in the past.  The first is decompressed plotting.  The second, which I am going to go into more detail today, is that the scripting on many series is simply not “new reader friendly.”

On more than one occasion, former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter has commented that every issue of a comic book series is someone’s first.  Therefore each issue should contain enough information so that a new reader can quickly get up to speed.  Whatever you may think of Shooter, his is a valid point, one I firmly agree with.  I do not necessarily think you need two or three pages recapping previous issues, as typically was done in the past.  But a few narrative captions or lines of dialogue certainly would not hurt matters.  Regrettably, very few writers currently utilize this technique, and most editors do little to encourage them.

In other words, if someone were to randomly pick up an issue of any title currently published by DC or Marvel that they had never read before, there is a good chance that it would be difficult for that person to figure out what exactly is going on.  This problem really presented itself in The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #9, which came out last week.

I picked up Fury of Firestorm #9 due to it crossing over with Justice League International #9, a title I have been reading regularly.  Firestorm, in contrast, is a character I’ve never been especially interested in.  The only time I ever followed the series was when Jamal Igle was penciling it several years ago.  So I was coming to this new Fury of Firestorm series without any knowledge about the characters’ current status quo post-Flashpoint.  In other words, FOF #9 really needed to be one of those “new reader friendly” books that I’m talking about.  Unfortunately, it was not.

Fury of Firestorm #9: at least it has a nice cover

FOF #9 is co-plotted by Ethan Van Sciver & Joe Harris, with the script by Harris.  Considering that the story was continued from the pages of JLI #9, I feel that Van Sciver & Harris, in writing this issue, should have kept in mind that some brand-new readers, such as myself, would be picking up FOF for the first time.  The script by Harris could have  informed readers who these characters are, given some background information, perhaps briefly recapped their origins.  This would not have been unduly awkward exposition, because the members of the Justice League have never met the Firestorms before.  So it would make perfect sense for Booster Gold and Batman to be asking these guys to explain who they were.

Harris, however, passed up this chance to introduce the book’s cast via the device of explaining it to the League.  So we have a group of atomic-powered superhumans fighting it out in Paris, and I am not really sure who any of them are.  In addition, there were a couple of brief scenes that took place somewhere in the Middle East involving two characters.  One was apparently Ronnie Raymond, who I remember as the original Firestorm from way back when.  The other…. well, he is not named.  I was totally in the dark about what was going on with them.

I feel Van Sciver & Harris missed a perfect opportunity to make Fury of Firestorm #9 a jumping-on point for the series.  Instead, I found much of the story to be confusing.  That’s too bad, because I was open to trying the series.  After all, I recall that when I picked up Blackhawks mid-run, I was in the dark about what was going on, but the writing by Mike Costa was both interesting and comprehensible enough to hook me, which led to me picking up the entire eight issue run.  Paul Levitz always does an excellent job at introducing the large cast and multiple subplots of Legion of Super-Heroes each issue.  In contrast, at least as far as the writing goes, there wasn’t anything in FOF #9 that made me especially intrigued to continue following the book.

Trust me, I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews like this.  Ethan Van Sciver is an incredible artist (also, I’ve also met him at conventions on a few occasions, and he seems like a nice guy).  Indeed, his cover artwork for FOF #9 is stunning.  Likewise, the interior artwork from Yildiray Cinar, Marlo Alquiza, and Norm Rapmund is equally good.  So it’s a real shame that the writing by Van Sciver & Harris did not match that high standard.

Not to single out Fury of Firestorm #9.  This particular comic book just seems to epitomize for me a problem emblematic of much of the industry.  I really feel it is one of the major reasons why comic book sales have continued to decline year after year.

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Comic books I’m reading, part two: trade paperbacks

After I wrote my post about what I was reading from Marvel and DC, I realized that I had left out something crucial: trade paperbacks.

Trade paperbacks have the advantage of containing a complete story or, in the case of the black & white Marvel Essential and DC Showcase Presents volumes, several hundred pages of reprints for twenty dollars or less.  TPBs often give you a lot more value for your money than a single issue “pamphlet” which only contains 22 pages, and they are much more durable.  I find it easier to take a TPB on the train or bus to read, because if it gets knocked around a bit, it won’t end up being destroyed.

I recently picked up a pair of trades published by DC which both featured the artwork of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  The first one, JLA: The Hypothetical Woman, was written by Gail Simone.  It has to be one of the best Justice League stories that I have read in years.  Simone absolutely understands  how to write the JLA’s team dynamics, highlighting the particular strengths of each member while still showing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And she gives the team a truly worthy adversary in General Tuzik, a ruthless Machiavellian dictator who seems to spend the majority of the story one step ahead of the League.  You really are left wondering how the JLA is going to get through this one.

JLA: The Hypothetical Woman

JLA: The Hypothetical Woman

The artwork is stunning.  This is some of the finest penciling by Garcia-Lopez in his entire career.  He draws a story on a truly epic scale, with both superhuman spectacles and intimate personal moments.  And his Wonder Woman… she is absolutely breathtaking, especially in the story’s second half, when we see her on the field of battle, a commanding portrait of beauty & strength.  Garcia-Lopez is very ably complemented by inkers Klaus Janson and Sean Phillips on this book.

I believe that JLA: The Hypothetical Woman is out of print, but a number of copies are still available on Amazon.com.  I definitely recommend picking it up.

The other TPB with Garcia-Lopez’s pencils is Batman: King Tut’s Tomb, which reprints “A New Dawn” from Batman Confidential #s 26-28.  Yes, the comic books actually use the television bad guy King Tut, but he is completely revamped into a credible, dangerous criminal by writers Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir.  Batman is forced to team up with his long-time foe the Riddler to track down Tut.  DeFilippis & Weir do a great job with that character, making him a very mischievous, devil-may-care rogue.  In a way, you have to admire their version of the Riddler.  Unlike most of Batman’s foes, he isn’t a homicidal maniac.  Instead, the Riddler’s goal is to commit clever crimes and outwit Batman, proving his the superior intellect.

Again, Garcia-Lopez’s artwork is of a high quality.  He is inked by Kevin Nolan, who has an extremely slick, polished style.  I think Nolan can often overwhelm other artists with his inks, but he works very well with Garcia-Lopez.  The finished artwork is a pleasant blending of their styles.  Additionally, I liked the vibrant coloring by David Baron.

Batman: King Tut’s Tomb also contains a trio of Batman stories Garcia-Lopez drew in the early 1980s.  I don’t have any of those issues, so they were a nice bonus.

I purchased Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier back in December of last year.  I read the book when I had to stay in the hospital for a few days.  I’m re-reading it now, and thoroughly enjoying it once again.  It contains the character’s appearances from Star Spangled War Stories #s 151 to 188, which were originally printed in the 1970s.

Who is the Unknown Soldier?  He is an unnamed American soldier who, in the early days of World War II, was horribly disfigured in combat during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.  Trained as an expert at infiltration and a master of disguise, he is dispatched on missions behind enemy lines to sabotage the Axis war effort.  When not wearing one of his lifelike masks, the Soldier is typically clad in trench coat & fedora, his face completely covered in bandages.

Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier

Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier

When I first read this collection of Unknown Soldier stories, it occurred to me that the concept was very similar to the Sam Raimi movie Darkman… except that film came out a good twenty years later.  Coincidence or influence?  I don’t know.  I recall that when I saw Darkman in the theater in 1990, I thought to myself that it would make a great ongoing comic book series, and I was right.  What I did not know then was that such a series already existed in the adventures of the Unknown Soldier.

This Showcase Presents volume contains work by a number of talented writers & artists.  The Unknown Soldier was created by the legendary Joe Kubert, and he collaborated with writers Bob Haney and Robert Kanigher on the first several stories.  After the first dozen or so stories, Kubert slips into the role of cover artist, also providing many of the very striking opening splash pages which combine his artwork with photo montages.  Jack Sparling takes over art chores for a time, before Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc becomes the regular artist for the remainder of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  Other writers who worked on the book are Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins and David Michelinie.

(It is a bit of a pity that Robbins does not also provide any artwork.  He is one of those artists who when I was much younger I could not stand his work, considering it weird and rubbery.  But over time I’ve grown to greatly appreciate his immense talents.  Nowadays, when I come across a story he has illustrated, it is a real treat.)

I am not generally a fan of war comics, but I instantly became a fan of the Unknown Soldier.  I think a major reason for this is the fact that, at his core, the Unknown Soldier is really an anti-war figure.  His origin is the personification of the horror of war.  There is nothing glamorous about what he does.  Really, the Soldier’s whole reason for being is to bring an end to the conflict that destroyed his life.

I hope that one of these days DC releases a second Showcase Presents collection of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  The final half-dozen tales in the first volume are written by Michelinie, who really ramped up the dark moral ambiguity.  His first story, “8,000 to One,” very much drives home just what a grim, horrific role the Soldier has had to take on to carry out his mission.  And the superb artwork by Talaoc is a perfect fit for the tone of Michelinie’s writing.  I definitely want to read the rest of their work on the character.

Before I close out this blog, I would be remiss if I did not mention a magazine that I regularly follow, Back Issue from TwoMorrows Publishing.  Superbly edited by Michael Eury, Back Issue has featured a diverse selection of articles on the comic books of the 1970s and 80s, and occasionally beyond.  The current issue spotlights the Avengers (just in time for the movie) and has some fascinating, informative interviews & commentary from Roger Stern, Steve Englehart, George Perez, Al Milgrom, Brett Breeding, and Mike Carlin, among many others.

Back Issue #56

Back Issue #56

The reason why I had to bring up Back Issue is that many of the articles that have appeared in it have led me to pick up trade paperbacks or, in the absence of collected editions, actual back issues themselves.  I’ve learned about a number of characters, series, and creators of whom I previously only had a passing knowledge.  The Unknown Soldier is one of those.  There was a pair of articles authored by Michael Aushenker in Back Issue #s 37 and 52, the first on the character of the Soldier, the second on artist Gerry Talaoc.  Thanks to these, I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier collection.  So, the magazine has definitely broadened my interests & horizons as a comic book reader.

BI #52, incidentally, covered DC Comics’ horror titles from the 1970s, and also got me to buy one of the Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery volumes. Going back to BI #25, Aushenker conducted an interview with Deathlok creator Rich Buckler which helped motivate me to purchase the Marvel Masterworks collection of that series.  Really, I think both DC and Marvel ought to be paying Eury and Aushenker a small commission for helping to drum up their sales!

Back Issue is definitely worth picking up.  It’s an entertaining, informative read, and you never know what else it might lead you to discover.

Anyway, next time I do one of these “comic books I’m reading” posts, I will definitely be talking about independent (i.e. non-DC and Marvel) titles.  I just need to really collect my thoughts together on what is going to be a very diverse selection of material.

Stop-and-frisk in New York City

If you live in the New York City area, you are undoubtedly aware of the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy.  In the last decade, the police, acting on “reasonable suspicion,” have been randomly stopping and searching hundreds of thousands of individuals on the streets on NYC.  According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the number of stops carried out by the NYPD has skyrocketed in the last decade.  In 2002, the police stopped 97,296 people under stop-and-frisk.  Nine years later in 2011, that number had leaped up to 685,742 stops, a 600 percent increase.  Of those stopped, approximately 89 percent were found to be innocent of any wrongdoing.

The major reason for the controversy over stop-and-frisk is that more than 90 percent of those searched have been black or Latino.  Accusations of racial profiling have been leveled at the NYPD.  In addition, there are numerous persistent rumors that police officers have been given stop-and-frisk quotas to meet each month, that they are under explicit orders to search as many pedestrians as possible.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg and NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly have both steadfastly and unflinchingly defended stop-and-frisk.  They have argued that it has led to a significant drop in crime throughout the city.

The problem, critics contend, is that, decreases in crime or not, the policy has caused tremendous rifts between African American & Hispanic communities and the NYPD.  Minority groups who are traditionally suspicious & fearful of the police have become even more so.  One can argue that any short-term gains in combating crime are being undermined by the deep mistrust being planted through the widespread use of stop-and-frisk.

It is also worth noting that decreases in crime are generally complex in nature.  Most experts will tell you that lower crime rates are attributable to numerous factors, and one single policy such as stop-and-frisk cannot solely be credited for a downturn in illegal activities.

On May 16, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin granted class-action status to a lawsuit against the city for the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk.  In response, Ray Kelly has finally agreed to modify his department’s practices, enacting certain “policy changes.”  Obviously, it is too soon to see if he will follow through on his promises, and in what manner, if any, it affects the usage of stop-and-frisk.

Most critics of stop-and-frisk will readily admit that the practice does have its time & place, but it has been overused and directed almost exclusively at minorities.  More than one local politician has made the analogy that stop-and-frisk ought to be used selectively like a finely-tuned instrument instead of repeatedly as a blunt object.

I think this is a very well articulated argument.  There is a legitimate time & place for stop-and-frisk when there is justifiable cause.  I realize that “reasonable suspicion” is a term that can be broadly interpreted.  But the police are supposed to be trained to look for genuine suspicious activity that needs to be investigated.  They should not be receiving orders to carry out blanket searches of minority areas to fulfill some quota dreamed up by their supervisors in an empty effort to make Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly appear tough on crime.  In addition to the previously cited counterproductive effect on relations with the general public, this overuse of stop-and-frisk is a tremendous waste of the time and resources of the NYPD.

I am not at all surprised that it has taken so long for Kelly to offer even the slightest hint of compromise on this issue.  Both he and Bloomberg have been in power in too long.  They believe that they are above any sort of criticism, and that attitude has definitely manifested itself in their abuse of the stop-and-frisk policy.  Hopefully the current lawsuit, as well as continued pressure from the City Council, will eventually result in some sort of tangible change in the NYPD’s practices.  However, I suspect that any significant alterations to the policy will have to wait until the next mayor and police commissioner are in office.

Comic books I’m reading, part one: DC and Marvel

Back when I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read a lot of books published by DC and Marvel Comics.  I was very much into the mainstream superhero titles.  Over the last several years, though, my tastes have gradually changed.  Additionally, comic books have become more and more expensive, now costing around $2.99 to $3.99.  I don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, so I cannot afford to buy as many books.  Additionally, a lot of titles have become very decompressed and long form in their story arcs.  That means it takes more issues to tell a story while, conversely, much less time to read each actual issue.  I don’t see the point in spending three to four bucks for a ten minute read.

So, what ongoing series am I picking up?  From DC, I’ve been following Justice League International, Wonder Woman, and Blackhawks, and the last of those three was just canceled.  That leaves just two.

JLI is a pretty decent book.  I decided to give it a try because I liked the creative team of Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti.  Also, the cast of the book contained Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and various other so-called “second-stringers” who do not have their own solo titles, enabling Jurgens to engage in character development.  I also enjoy the interaction between Booster and Batman, which is almost of a student/mentor relationship.  So far, it’s been pretty entertaining.  The main ongoing subplot concerns a group of superhuman anarchists.  I’ll be sticking with JLI for the immediate future, to see what happens.  Lopresti’s art is very nicely done.  I just wish that he was also drawing the covers, but I guess David Finch is a hotter creator.

Justice League International #8

(I am somewhat curious about the main Justice League title, but seeing as it’s penciled by Jim Lee it is inevitably going to end up collected in trade paperbacks, so I can always check it out later.)

On Wonder Woman, the major draw, so to speak, has been Cliff Chiang’s stunning artwork.  It really is beautiful.  I am not nearly as much sold by Brian Azzarello’s writing.  Something about it doesn’t quite click with me.  He is one of those writers who play a very long game, so the plotlines he’s set up could take years to resolve.  I’m not sure I want to stick around that long to see it all pan out.  The major distinction for the Wonder Woman revamp has been Azzarello & Chiang re-imagining the Greek gods.  Instead of a bunch of people in white togas standing around spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, they are a dysfunctional group of freaks with murky motivations.  They really feel like mysterious, dangerous deities who could do some serious damage with their manipulations.

For me, the two best books DC has released lately have been miniseries.  I absolutely loved The Ray, which I initially picked up for Jamal Igle’s artwork.  Igle is an incredibly talented creator, and his artwork on this four issue miniseries is stunning.  What made The Ray such a great book was that the writing by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti was of an equally high standard.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend tracking down back issues of this series.  I don’t know if there is going to be a TPB collection of this, but if DC has any sense, they will collect it.

The Ray #1

The other miniseries I enjoyed was Legion: Secret Origin written by Paul Levitz.  He does an excellent job setting down the post-Flashpoint origin of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Levitz introduces the characters and the world of the 31st Century in a manner that will please long-time Legion fans such as myself, yet is accommodating to newer readers.  Legion: Secret Origin is also an excellent example of how to set up a miniseries in such a way that it is self-contained and stands on its own, but at the same time plants the seeds for future storylines elsewhere.  Also, the series boosts superb artwork by Chris Batista & Marc Deering.

Over at Marvel, well, there’s not much I’m picking up, either.  I used to be such a HUGE fan of both Captain America and the Avengers.  Nowadays, they are hotter than they have ever been but, ironically, I’m just not as interested.  Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers just never did much for me, so it has been several years since I followed any of the titles regularly.  (I did really enjoy Mighty Avengers when Dan Slott was writing it.)  As for Captain America, well, Ed Brubaker has been doing excellent work but, like Azzarello, he sets up storylines that take a long time to pan out, plus his writing style is definitely decompressed.  When the Captain America: The First Avenger movie came out last year, Marvel re-started the book with a new issue #1.  I was sort of underwhelmed by the first five issue arc, “American Dreamers.”  I’ve bought the next five issues, the “Powerless” arc, and read the first two chapters, but just haven’t gotten around to finishing it, despite some gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  The thing is, I’ve religiously bought every issue of Captain America since 1989, but now I’m actually wondering if I want to continue with it.

I’ve been somewhat more entertained by the original Captain America volume one, which continued the original series numbering, but was re-titled Captain America & Bucky for nine issues, before switching over the second spot to a rotating co-star.  Right now it’s Hawkeye sharing the spotlight with the Sentinel of Liberty.  The two Bucky-related stories were both very good. Part of that had to do with them being self-contained.  I wish Brubaker would write more stories of that nature.  A new creative team came on-board with Hawkeye.  So far, I’m not especially impressed, but I will wait to see how the entire story plays out.  But again, I am uncertain if I will stick around after that.

After a very long time away, I have started picking up Avengers, at least for a few issues.  The legendary Walter Simonson is penciling a six issue arc that ties in with the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.  I am a huge fan of Simonson, and I have long wanted to see him draw Avengers.  He is doing an absolutely stunning job.  I was blown away by the first two issues out, #s 25 & 26.  In the later, we see Thor in combat with the Phoenix Force out in space.  It is just beautiful work.

Avengers #26 page 17: Thor vs the Phoenix Force!

Mention definitely has to be made of Scott Hanna’s contribution.  He is one of the absolute best inkers in the comic book biz today.  I often think he does not receive anywhere near the credit that is due him.  This is his first time inking Simonson, and the results look fantastic.  I also have to point out the vibrant coloring by Jason Keith, which really stood out in that sequence with the Phoenix.

The writing by Bendis is pretty good, but he could do a bit of a better job making this portion stand on its own.  I realize this is part of a huge crossover, but in the middle of #26, there’s a sudden jump forward in the action, with the explanatory caption “For details, see Secret Avengers #26-28 on sale now!”  That was jarring.

Anyway, despite this, Bendis does have a nice scene earlier between the Protector (not familiar with the character, but I think he’s a Kree agent and a new Avengers recruit) and his cute punk rock girlfriend.  Bendis is usually better at penning more personal character moments like this than monumental superhero spectacles, so it plays to his strengths.  That said, if you are going to do big & cosmic, Walter Simonson is your go-to guy, and Bendis gives him plenty to play with in the issue’s second half.  I would complain that it only took ten minutes each to read Avengers #s 25 & 26, but they both look so amazing thanks to Simonson & Hanna.  So I’m on-board for the next four issues, which they are also illustrating.

Other than that, the only Marvel book I’m following right now is the five issue limited series Hulk Smash Avengers.  It takes place during different eras of the team’s history, and examines their contentious relationship with the Hulk.  Topped off by beautiful covers from Lee Weeks, each issue has a different creative team.

The main reason why I decided to get this miniseries is because the first issue is by Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema.  I have really enjoyed DeFalco & Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, A-Next, and Spider-Girl.  Buscema is one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Nowadays mostly retired, he still breaks out the old pen & brush to ink Frenz on various projects.  They go together extremely well.

Their issue is an homage to the early Avengers stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.  In it, the Masters of Evil join forces with the Hulk against the original Avengers team.  DeFalco is very much going for a Silver Age vibe with his scripting, which makes it a bit goofy, but a lot of fun.  It was fun seeing DeFalco & Frenz do a story with Thor once again.  And, yay, it actually took longer than ten minutes to read this issue!  DeFalco, like Paul Levitz, really knows how to script a story full of substance.

Hulk Smash Avengers #1 page 3

I haven’t had an opportunity to read the next two issues of Hulk Smash Avengers yet, but they’re written by Joe Casey and Roger Stern, so I have high expectations.  And I’ll be buying the final two installments when they come out.

That’s really about it.  Aside from picking up an occasional issue of a title here or there, right now I’m not really committed to any other specific series from either DC or Marvel.  My interest has been shifting more and more over to releases from “independent” companies such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and others.  I will be discussing those in an upcoming post on this blog.  Keep an eye out for it.

Capital punishment and the September 11th trial

There was an interesting article in the New York Post on May 14th (I don’t normally read the Post, since I think it’s a sensationalistic rag full of right wing propaganda, but a co-worker of mine buys it for the Sports section, so I occasionally glance through his copy when I’m bored).  The headline read “Husband of 9/11 victim goes to Gitmo to spare plotters from death sentence.”

On September 11, 2001 Blake Allison lost his wife Anna in the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center.  Mr. Allison has a long-held opposition to the death penalty.  Despite his deeply tragic loss, he has chosen adhere to those principles.  He has traveled to Guantanamo Bay to ask the military tribunal to spare the lives of the al-Qaeda conspirators who are on trial.

Keep in mind, Allison is under no illusions that the six defendants now indicted as the 9/11 masterminds have in any way reformed or will ever express remorse.  He recognizes that they are extremely dangerous fanatics who would repeat their actions in a heartbeat.  He very much wishes to see them brought to justice for their crimes.  But he feels that it is wrong to take another human being’s life, and that the terrorists should instead be sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole.

I have long been opposed to capital punishment.  This has not been out of any particular sympathy for convicted murderers.  Rather, my opposition is two-fold:

First, I believe that a close examination will reveal that there are deep flaws in the criminal justice system that have led to numerous individuals who were innocent being falsely convicted and sentenced to death.  It was only through lengthy appeals that the majority of these injustices have come to light.  And we have no way of knowing with complete certainty that not a single innocent person has ever been executed in the United States.

Second, the aforementioned appeals process is expensive and time-consuming, a waste of taxpayer money and court resources.  Some might argue that the simplest solution is to eliminate all of those costly appeals.  But doing that leads right back to the first problem, namely that innocent people are sometimes convicted of crimes they did not commit.  And without appeals, these errors would most likely never be uncovered.

Capital punishment is irreversible.  If a mistake is made, it is impossible to return a person to life once their innocence is established two or three decades later.  No, they are obviously gone for good.  That is, in my mind, a very good reason to abolish the death penalty.

But can you make an exception?  What if a crime is so horribly depraved, the guilt of the defendant established beyond a shadow of a doubt, the gleeful lack of remorse on the part of the criminal an absolute affront to society?  What then?

It is a virtual certainty that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-defendants are guilty of planning the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of nearly three thousand innocent people.  They have never denied it, instead embracing their horrible crimes.  They have asked to be executed, to be made martyrs to their twisted cause.  One could easily make a passionate, compelling argument that if anyone in this world deserves to die, it is these men.

I keep thinking, though, that once you make one exception, you slowly but surely start edging towards the proverbial slippery slope.  Where do you draw the line, define the point when a crime becomes so horrible that the culprit is deserving of the death penalty?  Is it even possible to make that distinction?

I recall when Timothy McVeigh was executed in June 2001, for carrying out the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, murdering 168 people.  On the one hand, I certainly did not mourn his death.  On the other, I could not help but wonder if it might have been better to have given him a life sentence, because of that aforementioned slippery slope.  In addition, when you think about it, to have left him to live out the rest of his days in a tiny cell, never again to know freedom is, in a way, a fate that can be seen as a fate worse than death.

Some might also argue that we should not extend any sort of mercy to the terrorists who are on trial because, if the tables were turned, they would gladly see us dead without a second thought.  I keep thinking, though, that it is not enough merely to defeat an enemy.  We also must show that we are better them them, that we aspire to higher moral standards.

Another question to ponder, and it has already been raised by others: by executing Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his associates, are we not giving them what they want, turning them into martyrs whose deaths will emblazon their followers throughout the globe?  Perhaps it is better to give them a life sentence in a maximum security prison.  That way, they are deprived of their freedom for the rest of their natural lives, society is protected from them, and they are denied the chance to posthumously rally supporters to their cause.

All of that said, I do have to acknowledge one thing, though.  I really admire Blake Allison for maintaining his stance against the death penalty even after the horrible loss of his wife.  It could have been so very easy for him to give in to grief and hate.  So I honestly cannot say how I myself would feel, how much my opinion on capital punishment might change, if someone close to me was murdered.  There but for the grace of God go I.

Not all futures are created equal

“Oh, our old future.” – Crow T. Robot, Mystery Science Theater 3000

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow blogger posted the cover to an old science fiction paperback short story collection (I finally located that post again, and it can be viewed at this link).  The art was what you might regard as your typical mid-20th Century vision of the future: an image of a gleaming metallic cityscape with flying cars darting back & forth above it.  The blogger made a comment along the lines of it isn’t the future unless you have some flying cars in it.

This got me thinking about how popular culture has conceived of the future playing out.  Growing up in the early 1980s, the 21st Century still seemed far enough away that all of the images of personal jetpacks, robots in every household, and traveling to other planets being just a few short decades away still seemed at least semi-plausible.  Whether in a cartoon series like The Jetsons or more serious fare such as Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was a commonplace prediction that some sort of hi-tech, shiny future was just around the corner.

Where's my flying car?

Dude, where’s my flying car?

I remember when 2001, that is to say, the real year 2001 rolled around, I half-jokingly commented to some friends “What the hell is this? Shouldn’t we have flying cars by now?  Where are the colonies on the Moon?  Why aren’t we flying back & forth in outer space in rocket ships, fighting aliens with ray guns?”  I say half-jokingly, because there was still that part of me that was just the tiniest bit disappointed that none of this had come to pass.  Well, okay, I can do without the bug-eyed monsters packing heat.  And if we really did have flying cars, I’d probably drive one just as poorly as I do a regular automobile.  But, still, the future just seemed like it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

And most speculative fiction from forty or fifty years ago really did miss the mark as far as what kind of technology we would have in the early 21st Century.  Instead of teleportation and time travel, what we got was the microchip revolution, the Internet, MP3s, iPads, flash drives, etc.  We’re still stuck on Earth, unable to colonize the galaxy, but the ability to spread information across the globe has grown in astonishing leaps & bounds.  Perhaps some of the disappointment lies in the fact that these developments, as incredible as they are, were not what we were led to expect.  And there is also that lingering disappointment left over from the previous century that technological advancement would eventually lead to the betterment of humanity.

Of course, it’s not like most fictional conceptions of the future were totally utopian.  George Jetson had his flying car and his home in a floating city, but he still had to deal with a douchebag boss, nagging wife, and spoiled kids.  Kubrick & Clarke’s vision of 2001 saw humans traveling to the other side of the solar system, but we still did a half-ass job at programming computers, to the point where HAL 9000 wanted to kill off its entire crew.

So I guess it wasn’t so much that those visions of the future were perfect, because they weren’t.  It’s just that they had such cool stuff.

Mind you, for every romanticized prediction of the 21st Century, there were also plenty of conjectures that the future might turn out to be a much darker place.  On one hand, the mid-20th Century rise of both the Axis powers and Communism begat visions of the all-encompassing totalitarian dystopia, best exemplified in the George Orwell novel 1984.  On the other hand, nuclear proliferation led to forecasts of ragged survivors roaming radiation-ravaged post-apocalyptic wastelands, as seen in such films as The Road Warrior.

The Lost World: a nice future to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there

The Lost World: a nice future to visit, but you certainly wouldn’t want to live there

And if you want a really pessimistic outlook on the day after tomorrow, you should consider the so-bad-it’s-good David Worth film Warrior of the Lost World, which I would have to describe as “1984 meets The Road Warrior.”  In that future scenario, you would face the prospect of having both fascist stormtroopers and mutant cannibal biker gangs simultaneously chasing after your rear end.  Not a pretty picture!

(Incidentally, Warrior of the Lost World was screened on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which brings us back to quote that opened this blog post.)

So, considering all of the options, the real future that we have right now isn’t nearly as bad as it could be.  Yeah, it isn’t The Jetsons, but at least we haven’t had to live through World War III yet.

That said, I’m still holding out for flying cars.  But knowing how things work out, we’d probably still have traffic jams.

Free Comic Book Day 2012 at Jim Hanley’s Universe

As you may have noticed, I go back & forth in terms of topics.  Most of the time I write about comic books & sci-fi, but occasionally I will share my thoughts on political or societal issues.  I hope the shifting of gears isn’t too disconcerting!  In any case, today I’ll be going back to the lighter side of things, and talking about Free Comic Book Day 2012, which this year was on May 5th.

I went to the big event that was held at Jim Hanley’s Universe, a comic shop on 33rd Street in Manhattan by the Empire State Building.  The store was giving away the Free Comic Book Day special issues released by Marvel, DC, and a variety of independent publishers.  I decided to go with the “indies” this year, and got the spotlight books from Image, IDW, and Valiant, plus The Censored Howard Cruise published by Boom! Town.  The books were understandably of a promotional nature, with mostly excerpts from upcoming comics and interviews with creators.  I was disappointed that the IDW volume was nothing but a big catalog, but looking through it, they do publish a diverse range of titles and graphic novels.

In addition to the give-away books, Jim Hanley’s Universe had several comic book creators as guests: Robert Venditti, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Dan Slott, and ChrisCross.

Venditti is the writer helming the re-launch of X-O Manowar from Valiant Comics.  I read a lot of the original Valiant titles back when I was in high school and college.  For a while, they had some good books.  Hopefully the company’s revival will bring about some quality titles.  Venditti was signing copies of the first issue of X-O Manowar.  I bought a copy, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  But skimming through it, the artwork by Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano looks amazing.

What can I say about Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez?  He is just an amazing artist who has worked at DC Comics for several decades.  The thing is, he is not what you would regard as a “household name,” because he’s never had a lengthy stint drawing any particular series.  But the odds are very, very good that you have seen his work without realizing it.  In the 1980s and 90s, he was the main licensing & style guide artist for DC, producing hundreds of pieces of artwork that were used on all manner of products: t-shirts, cups & mugs, posters, toy packaging, etc, etc.  Of the work he has done which is credited, Garcia-Lopez illustrated some amazing stories, working on characters such as Superman, Batman, Jonah Hex, and Deadman.  I am especially fond of his depictions of Wonder Woman.  He draws the Amazon princess as a stunningly beautiful yet strong and confident figure.  In addition to getting several books signed by him, I was fortunate enough to get a quick sketch of Wonder Woman from Garcia-Lopez.

It was cool meeting Dan Slott again.  He is probably one of the nicest guys in the comic book biz.  Slott’s been writing Amazing Spider-Man for the last few years.  I brought along my copy of Justice League Adventures #11, which was a very moving, emotional issue, to get autographed.  It turns out that was one of Slott’s favorite comics that he’s worked on, and he explained the background behind how he came to write that particular story.

Finally, I ended up waiting on line a while to get ChrisCross’s signature on a few books.  He was generously doing free, detailed sketches for everyone who wanted one, and there were a bunch of teenagers in front of me getting drawings by him.  Considering that the last time ChrisCross was at JHU he took the time to do a nice Batman sketch from him, I figured that I ought to be patient and let some other people have their turns.  Besides, ChrisCross is an amazing artist, so I definitely wanted to get a few things autographed.  I asked him if he was working on any new projects, and he said he is, but the details are top-secret.  I’ll just have to keep my eye out for his work in the future.

So that was Free Comic Book Day at JHU.  As you can imagine, it was really crowded & hectic, but a lot of fun.  It looked like the staff was ready to drop from exhaustion, though, and I don’t blame them!

I took a few photos at JHU which I posted on Flickr.  Here’s a link:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bh123/sets/72157629626265134/

Anyway, if you happen to be in the New York City area, Jim Hanley’s Universe is a cool comic shop that’s well worth checking out.