Comic book reviews: Neal Adams Monsters

With the hurricane having shut down a lot of NYC, and the subways out of service for the next few days, it looks like my Halloween is pretty much going to be confined to watching horror movies and reading graphic novels at home.  So here’s another good spooky read:

Neal Adams Monsters is, of course, the work of legendary comic book artist Neal Adams.  Here he also takes on the role of writer.  Originally serialized in the Echo of Future Past anthology published in the mid-1980s by Continuity, the material in Neal Adams Monsters was collected together in English for the first time in 1993 by Vanguard Productions.

Neal Adams Monsters
Neal Adams Monsters

In his introduction to the volume, Adams writes of his childhood fondness for monsters, stemming back to the old Universal Studios films.  One of the things Adams speaks of is his disappointment that there never was a genuine all-out battle between Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Werewolf in any of these movies.  He cites Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as a half-hearted attempt that ultimately failed to deliver. 

I have to admit I agree with him on that point.  I watched that movie on television years ago.  I don’t remember very much about it, but I do recall the promised grudge match between the two creatures did not materialize until the very end of the movie, when the pair sort of grappled around for about two minutes, only to be interrupted when the villagers blew up the local dam, flooding them away.  It was quite disappointing.  So I can certainly understand how a young Neal Adams, watching this, thought to himself that he could do better.

What Adams has set out to do in Monsters is to deliver a story in the tradition of the Universal and Hammer Studios films, yet one that is unencumbered by budgetary and special effects limitations.  One of the extraordinary strengths of the medium of sequential illustration is its potential to depict literally anything, no matter how fantastical or ambitious.  The only limits are the imagination & the abilities of the artist.  Adams clearly recognized that when he originally wrote & illustrated the Monsters story.

The writing on Monsters is, admittedly, not nearly up to par with the art.  I have always felt that Adams was a much stronger artist than writer.  That is not to say his writing on Monsters was bad, though.  It was just that I felt certain elements did not come together nearly as well as they might have.  Nevertheless, Adams’ plotting on Monsters achieves the requisite task of putting all of the characters & elements into place for a huge, cataclysmic confrontation.

Whatever any weaknesses of his writing might be, Adams artwork is absolutely magnificent.  He is such an amazing storyteller, utilizing dramatic layouts & panel designs.  His eye for detail is superb.  There are a number of intricately illustrated sequences that are simply breathtaking.

The aforementioned climax is spectacular.  There is perhaps the problem of the Werewolf being sidelined for most of this sequence, but I can forgive Adams this oversight, as the struggle between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature is incredibly dramatic, a brutally stunning action sequence.  As Adams no doubt intended, he very much achieved his childhood goal of having the classic monsters of Gothic literature and horror movies meet up in an unforgettable battle to end all battles.

I would be remiss if I did not cite the vivid coloring by Louis Douzepis, Cory Adams & Zeea Adams.  The colorists’ work is extremely effective & vibrant.  It really helps to bring Neal Adams’ line work to full, dynamic life.

There are several extra pages to the Monsters collection, featuring concept designs that Adams produced for several movies, as well as his work as a cover illustrator on Marvel Comics’ horror magazines in the 1970s.  I would have liked to have seen more of this bonus material.  What I found most fascinating were Adams’ designs for an unrealized film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End.  Viewing these, this is one project that I’m sorry never materialized.

Neal Adams is almost exclusively thought of for his work on such superhero titles as Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Avengers, and X-Men.  What is often forgotten is just what a great horror artist he is.  He did a superb job in the early 1990s for an issue of Now Comics’ Twilight Zone series, illustrating the Harlan Ellison story “Crazy as a Soup Sandwich.”  That was a great issue.  And, of course, with Monsters now collected and available from Vanguard, one can see another fantastic example of Adams’ work in this genre.  It’s a fun, brilliantly illustrated read, and I highly recommend it.

Comic book reviews: Faust / 777 The Wrath

With Halloween right around the corner, I wanted to do a horror-themed post. And, as I’m stuck at home this morning with a hurricane bearing down on the area, now is the perfect time to sit down and write.  I am going to be discussing Faust/777 The Wrath: Darkness in Collision, a graphic novel written by David Quinn and illustrated by Tim Vigil.

Faust/777 The Wrath is a side project to the main series that Quinn & Vigil have been producing on and off since 1989, Faust: Love of the Damned, published by Rebel Studios.  A modern-day reinterpretation of Christopher Marlow’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Quinn & Vigil’s series can be described as a cocktail of ultra-violence and explicit sex laced with extreme profanity.  It concerns how John Jaspers sells his soul to a diabolical figure known as M (as in Mephistopheles), in the process becoming a brutal, bloodthirsty vigilante.

Faust/777 The Wrath, which was released through Avatar Press, was actually my first exposure to the entire Faust “universe.”  I purchased a copy of the trade paperback from Quinn and Vigil at one of the old Big Apple Comic Cons (ironically this was in the basement of a church) back around 2001.  The first time I read it, I was in the dark about the back story of Jaspers and M, so I struggled to comprehend exactly what was taking place.  Even though it was a difficult read because of this, I nevertheless enjoyed it, and found the characters & situations intriguing enough that I subsequently read a handful of issues of Love of the Damned, as well as another tie-in miniseries, Singha’s Talons.  I also have on DVD the movie adaptation directed by Bryan Yuzna.  That said, it has been a number of years since I’ve read those comics, and my memory of them has sort of faded.  So it was interesting to re-read Faust/777 The Wrath last night for the first time in a decade.  Knowing the basic background of Quinn & Vigil’s story arc made for a much more informed experience.

I am not certain if Faust/777 The Wrath takes place contemporary to the events of Love of the Damned, or subsequent.  But as it opens, M has been reduced to an un-substantive spirit, and John Jaspers is “lost in a purgatory of [his] own rage and pain.”  In order to regain corporeal form M needs the blood of the undead vigilante known as the Wrath, as well as the sexual energies of the Wrath’s lover/mistress, the twisted fallen angel Kia.  M dispatches his sadistic wife, the satanic seductress Claire, to capture the pair and bring them to his mansion.  The abduction is observed by Joanna Tan, a woman who, much like Jaspers, sold her soul to M in exchange for a pair of lethal blades (the eponymous Singha’s Talons) and a set of superhuman abilities.  Joanna is out to revenge herself on M, and follows Claire back to his domicile.  She sets about freeing the Wrath.  Meanwhile, Claire has used that undying vigilante’s blood to begin to restore M to physicality, and to complete the process she seduces Kia.  While Joanna and the Wrath are busy cutting a bloody swath through M’s followers, the revived tempter takes his turn having sex with Kia, giving him access to the energies he needs to return Jaspers to this plane of existence.

Faust / 777 The Wrath: Darkness in Collision

As you can undoubtedly tell from my summation of events, Faust/777 The Wrath is an extremely brutal tale rife with hard-core sex.  It could be easy to dismiss it as exploitive crap, except for the fact is that it is so very well written and illustrated.  David Quinn’s scripting is magnificent.  He gives all the best lines to M, a twisted philosopher who remarks that “the desires we deny find us as fate.”  M is the quintessential figure of the tempter, deftly mixing truth and lies to confuse & ensnare his victims.  His relationship with those whose souls he has bought, such as Joanna Tan and John Jaspers, is complex.  In one respect he uses them as pawns, manipulating them; in another he regards them as his children, taking perverse pride & joy in their bloody actions.

Joana Tan is an intriguing figure, and much about her past is tantalizingly alluded to throughout Faust/777 The Wrath.  She is extremely conflicted, unsure if her deal with M was a gift or a curse.  I believe that her origins are delved into in the aforementioned Singha’s Talons miniseries.  I really wish I could recall what took place in that story arc.  If I could, I’d re-read it now, but I believe those issues are buried (along with most of my collection) amongst a huge pile of boxes in my parents’ basement in their house up in Connecticut.  So those books are unfortunately out of reach for the time being.  In any case, in many ways Joanna is the protagonist of Faust/777 The Wrath, and after reading this arc, she is a character I would be happy to see again.

Kia and the Wrath are also intriguing.  They are an extremely dysfunctional couple, engaged in the ultimate love/hate relationship, their drugs of choice sex and violence.  As I later found out, they originated in a separate series by Quinn & Vigil, published by Avatar in 1998.  So that makes Faust/777 The Wrath something of a crossover.  The book ends with Kia observing to the Wrath “I don’t know whether you’re sliding towards life, or death. We’re changing.”  It left me interested to see where the characters went after this.

The artwork on Faust/777 The Wrath is absolutely gorgeous.  Tim Vigil, aided & abetted by inkers Tim Tyler & Johnny B, delivers exquisitely detailed work.  Vigil is an artist whose style can be simultaneously beautiful and grotesque.  His women are sexy, his violence visceral.  Claire, the “artist of sexual violence,” is rendered in a stunning coalescence of eroticism and savagery.  I’d like to describe Vigil’s artwork as a fusion of gothic horror and black metal, if that makes any sort of sense.  The soundtrack to his illustrations, and to Quinn’s writing, that I’d chose would have to be the album Sinthetic by Shade Empire.

I think it was timely to take a look back at this as, after a nearly quarter century stretch, the flagship title in Quinn & Vigil’s dark universe, Faust: Love of the Damned, is finally coming to completion.  The penultimate installment, Act 14, was released this month, with the final chapter, Act 15, due out before the end of the year.  With the conclusion of Love of the Damned, I hope that Rebel Studios will now be able to publish a compilation volume of the entire series.  After that, ideally it would be fantastic for them to collect all of the now out-of-print tie-in series published by Avatar, among them Faust/777 The Wrath and Singha’s Talons.

And looking to the future?  I would enjoy seeing Quinn & Vigil continue their long-time partnership, and have them return to the stories of Joanna Tan and Kia & the Wrath.  As I observed in looking at Faust/777 The Wrath, there is a great deal of potential to these characters, and I would be very much enthused if Quinn & Vigil were to continue chronicling their bizarre, twisted adventures.

Doctor Who reviews: Kinda

Since I met Peter Davison, who starred in Doctor Who from 1982 to 1984, at the New York Comic Con last weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to do a blog entry on one of his stories.

I first happened to start watching Doctor Who regularly at the tail end of Tom Baker’s era, and soon after the Doctor regenerated into his Fifth incarnation, played by Davison.  So, really, for me some of the earliest episodes that I had the opportunity to see were from Davison’s time on the series.  Because of this, I’m rather fond of his era.  Even if Davison didn’t always get the best stories, I enjoyed his portrayal of the Doctor.

The story I’m taking a look at today, “Kinda,” is, I think, one of Davison’s better ones.  I actually wrote a review of it on Associated Content a couple of years ago, and this is a revised version.  But, hey, if the giant Mara snake can get a CGI makeover on the DVD, then I think I’m entitled to do a special edition of one of my old columns!

The serial “Kinda,” written by Christopher Bailey, was originally broadcast by the BBC in February 1982.  The first time I saw it was a couple of years later when it aired on PBS here in the States.  I was eight years old, and, to be honest, it left me totally confused.  About a decade later, I saw “Kinda” on PBS again, and this time I taped it on the VCR.  So over the years, I had the opportunity to re-watch it several more times.  As I got older, and my knowledge of world cultures and spirituality broadened, I gradually came to have a better understanding of “Kinda” with each subsequent viewing.  The course I took in Comparative Religions in college helped.  More recently, I’ve had discussions with my girlfriend, who is very well read on religion & spirituality, and I’ve learned a lot from her.  So it is an interesting, and different, experience watching “Kinda” again as an adult now that it is out on DVD.

Doctor Who: Kinda DVD
Doctor Who: Kinda DVD

“Kinda” is set on Deva Loka, a tranquil tropical forest world that is described as a literal paradise.  An expeditionary force of humans has arrived to determine if the planet is suitable for colonization.  The occupants of Deva Loka, the Kinda, appear to be a very primitive people, but the expedition’s scientist Doctor Todd is convinced there is much more to the natives than meets the eye.  And then three of the six expedition members vanish under mysterious circumstances.

By the time the Doctor and his companions arrive on Deva Loka, tensions are beginning to fray in the expedition Dome.  Security officer Hindle, due to the disappearances of half the team, as well as the aggressive attitude of the expedition’s commander Sanders towards him, is becoming unhinged.  The Doctor and Adric are taken into custody at the Dome.  After Sanders departs to search for the missing members of the team, Hindle snaps, threatening the Doctor, Adric, and Todd at gunpoint.

Meanwhile, Tegan has been left behind by a set of mysterious giant wind chimes.  Falling into a trance-like dream state, her consciousness is projected into a strange black void populated by a trio of sinister-looking pale figures with snake tattoos on their forearms.  One of them, a sneering young man, attempts to coerce Tegan into allowing him to take control of her physical form, utilizing a variety of mental tortures.  Under this psychic assault, Tegan finally relents.  She awakens back on Deva Loka, the snake symbol now on her arm, possessed by an evil entity known as the Mara.

As I learned in the years subsequent to my early viewings of “Kinda,” Christopher Bailey invested his scripts with a number of Buddhist symbols and concepts.  For example, “Deva Loka” in the Sanskrit language means heaven or paradise.  In Hinduism (which has certain parallel beliefs to Buddhism) there are three paths that the human soul can take after death, and one of these is a path of light into a heavenly plane of existence known as Deva Loka.  Buddhism itself regards a Deva Loka as the habitat of Devas, or divine beings.  Likewise, “Mara” is Sanskrit for death or evil.  Buddhism regards the Mara as an entity of temptation that draws individuals away from spiritual enlightenment.

Of course, there is also Judeo-Christian imagery present in “Kinda.”  The Mara’s true form is a giant snake, making it the serpent in paradise.  When the Mara possesses Tegan, she takes on the mannerisms of an aggressive seductress.  To ensnare Aris, one of the Kinda tribe whose brother is being held captive in the Dome, Tegan first gets his attention by sitting in a tree and dropping apples on him, an allusion to the temptation in the Garden of Eden.  There is also an almost sexual connotation to the moment when Tegan and Aris’ hands entwine, and the Mara transfers over to his body.

One of the primary strengths of “Kinda” is the high quality of performances by the actors.  First of all, Peter Davison turns a great performance as the Doctor.  Davison grew up watching Doctor Who in the late 1960s, and has said that he drew a certain amount of inspiration from the Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton.  Some of the cadence, mannerisms, and personality that Davison invests in his Doctor in “Kinda” are reminiscent of Troughton’s incarnation.  Obviously this is something that I did not pick up on when I was younger, but subsequently having seen many of Troughton’s surviving Doctor Who episodes, I can now see how he influenced Davison.  I think that quality works very well in this story.  At the same time, Davison also gives the Doctor his own individual spin, making it much more than just an imitation of Troughton.

Janet Fielding, who plays Tegan, is given a chance to shine in “Kinda.”  Instead of just being the bossy, argumentative “mouth on legs” that many of the writers pigeonholed the character as, here we see a very frightened, bewildered, vulnerable individual suffering at the hands of the Mara in the black void.  During the brief period when Tegan is possessed by the Mara, she is a genuinely creepy, unsettling figure.  At the end of the serial, when the Mara’s true form is revealed, and she realizes that thing was in her head, you can see hints of what might be post-traumatic stress disorder.

(I was usually not very keen that Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner had a lot of his serials flow from one into another.  But it was a good decision on his part to have “The Visitation,” the story immediately following “Kinda” in broadcast order, contain a scene early on where Tegan is shown to be still unsettled by her possession a short while before.  I think it has become easy for fans of the revived Doctor Who series to take it for granted that the Doctor’s companions will grow & develop as a season progresses.  The majority of the time on the original series, this was not the case, and this was one of the rare instances it demonstrated that events could have lasting effects on a regular character.)

Tegan in the black void
Tegan in the black void

The most outstanding performance in “Kinda” is Simon Rouse as Hindle, an emotionally unstable individual experiencing a mental breakdown.  It would have been easy and tempting to turn in a totally over-the-top performance, making Hindle a figure of melodrama.  Instead, Rouse plays it totally straight, giving an utterly convincing depiction of a man unhinged, vacillating across the emotional spectrum, going from violent and threatening to paranoid and neurotic to childlike and innocent.  Hindle is a pitiable figure, but at the same time he is very scary, because you have absolutely no idea what he is going to do next.  The cliffhanger ending to episode one has Hindle leveling a gun at the Doctor, Adric, and Todd, declaring to them “I have the power of life and death over all of you!”  It’s a riveting moment because Rouse delivers what could have been a daft line with such conviction, and you can just hear the insanity in his taut voice.  And, at the story’s end, after Hindle has been exposed to the Kinda’s Box of Jhana, and his insanity banished, we see him in a quiet, contemplative state.  Rouse really gives a three-dimensional performance.

Also noteworthy is Nerys Hughes as Doctor Todd.  A noted actress, Hughes turns in a solid performance, and for much of the story she fulfills the role of a temporary companion.  A scientist, Todd has both the intelligence and wit to match the Doctor.  Hughes and Davison have very good chemistry.  At the end of the story, when the Doctor and his companions depart, I was left wishing that Todd could have gone with them, because she could have made a great regular cast member.

The music for “Kinda” was composed by Peter Howell, who did excellent work on a number of Doctor Who stories in the 1980s.  His incidental music on the surreal “Warriors’ Gate” the previous season was an especially effective and memorable.  For “Kinda,” Howell turns in another eerie, ethereal score that suits the serial perfectly.

This serial was directed by Peter Grimwade, and he does a superb job at translating a very dreamlike, cerebral script into a television program.  Grimwade was one of the best directors Doctor Who had during this time period.  An extra feature on the DVD is a retrospective on Grimwade, who unfortunately passed away at a relatively young age in 1990.  Present-day reminiscences and commentary by former colleagues are interspersed with clips from a 1987 interview of Grimwade.

Speaking of DVD features, “Kinda” has an Optional CGI Effects Sequence.  In other words, the giant cardboard snake at the end of the story that is supposed to be the Mara in its true form can be substituted by a computer generated replacement.  When I first saw “Kinda” in the mid-1980s, I honestly didn’t think the giant snake looked too bad.  That was probably because A) I was an eight-year-old kid in an era before realistic CGI was possible and B) after four confusing episodes that went totally over my head, I was probably just relieved to see a monster, any monster, even if it didn’t appear completely realistic!  Of course, when I re-watched “Kinda” a decade or so later, yeah, by that point the giant snake was beginning to look rather less believable to my older, more cynical eyes.  In any case, on the DVD that rather goofy-looking serpent has been seamlessly substituted for a CGI depiction of the Mara.  And it looks great.  Seriously, you might almost think there really was a malevolently hissing twenty-foot-tall snake with razor-sharp fangs writhing and coiling about on the BBC studio floor.

The Mara revisited
The Mara revisited

As I mentioned earlier, when I was eight years old, I found “Kinda” to be almost impenetrable.  Now, at age 36, what is my reaction?  Well, while I have a much better comprehension of Christopher Bailey’s serial, there are still elements of the story that are somewhat befuddling.

My main query deals with whether or not the “A Plot” of Hindle going insane actually even connects with the “B Plot” of the Mara possessing Tegan and then Aris.  I can only see one possible point of intersection.  We are told by the Kinda priestess Panna that “Our suffering is the Mara’s delight, our madness the Mara’s meat & drink.”  Perhaps the Mara, which is telepathic, learned that Hindle had wired the Dome with enough explosives to destroy everything in a thirty-mile radius.  The Mara, controlling Aris, might have been leading the Kinda to attack the Dome in order to provoke Hindle into detonating the bombs, causing widespread death and destruction.  Then again, it could all have been a huge coincidence.

I’ve heard theories by other people that the three figures in the black void are based upon Tegan’s memories of the story’s opening scene, stolen from her mind by the Mara and twisted into grotesque parodies: the ancient couple playing chess is Adric and Nyssa, the sadistic young man is the Doctor, and the abstract metal sculpture next to them is the TARDIS.  It’s an interesting idea.

The Kinda themselves are an enigma.  At first glance, they do appear to be a very primitive people.  Yet they are actually telepathic.  They wear necklaces that represent the double helix of DNA, indicating knowledge of molecular biology.  They constructed the giant wind chimes, something the Doctor observes would have required a high degree of technical skill.  And they utilize the Box of Jhana, which appears to be a simple wooden container, but which is actually a healing device capable of restoring balance to individuals with severe mental instability.

The Box of Jhana, mental projections of events that are simultaneously past and future occurrences, and the ability of the wind chimes to allow the Kinda to share their dreams: all seem to be examples of Clarke’s Law, i.e. any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  In fact, one could hypothesize that the Kinda are so incredibly advanced that they long ago passed the point where they needed to rely on conventional technology.  They are now at a point of mental and spiritual development that they live in perfect harmony with Deva Loka, negating any need for houses, mass transportation, weapons, electrical power, or anything else resembling the mechanical devices which we are dependent upon in our daily lives.  Even the Mara, which appears to be some kind of demon or evil god, is probably a powerful alien entity originating from another dimension or plane of existence.

(As I understand it, the Mara’s origins are explored in Bailey’s sequel “Snakedance,” but I haven’t seen that one in a couple of decades so offhand I don’t recall.  I really should to pick it up on DVD one of these days.)

Kinda novelization
Kinda novelization by Terrance Dicks

The one gaping plot hole in “Kinda” is that, when all is said and done, we never do learn what happened to the missing members of the expedition!  In his novelization of the serial, Terrance Dicks has the Doctor hypothesizing that the lost members of the team had each been possessed by the Mara but, unlike Tegan, they resisted giving up control of their forms and were killed.  Dicks was always good at spotting plot holes in Doctor Who stories and coming up with explanations for them in his books, the sort of exposition that there unfortunately wasn’t enough time to delve into within the actual television programs.

Watching the “making of” feature on the DVD, it was at first surprising to learn that Christopher H. Bidmead, the script editor on the previous season of Doctor Who, was the one who first commissioned Christopher Bailey to write “Kinda.”  After all, one of Bidmead goals as script editor was to bring back “hard science” to the series.  In contrast, “Kinda” is a very mystical, metaphysical story.  And many people unfortunately regard science and spirituality as mutually exclusive concepts (although I personally believe that there is room for both in our understanding of the universe).  Of course, “Kinda” is also a very cerebral story, and Bidmead wanted to produce stories that challenged viewers and made them think.  In this respect, “Kinda” is successful.

I think “Kinda” was slightly ahead of its time.  It is a story that is very suited to the age of VHS and DVD, when it can be viewed more than once. “Kinda” is a complex story with a number of layers, and each time I watch it I come away with a little bit more.

New York Comic Con 2012: a convention report

Last Sunday I went to the New York Comic Con held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.  Even though the Comic Con was a four day-long event, I decided to just attend it the final day.  Every year I do very much look forward to going to the show.  Conversely, every year it gets bigger and bigger, and so the prospect of having to compete with a gigantic crowd of people is somewhat daunting.  Because of that, and since I’m on a pretty slim budget, for the second year in a row I made the decision to just go on Sunday.

My main objective this time around was that I wanted to obtain a commission from artist Joe Staton.  You see, one of my all time favorite Batman stories is “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne,” written by Alan Brennert and illustrated by Joe Staton & George Freeman. It featured the wedding of Batman and Catwoman on Earth Two, and appeared in The Brave and the Bold #197, published in 1983.  I first had the opportunity to read the story in the early 1990s when it was collected in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told trade paperback. I must have read it at least a dozen times, probably more. Years later, I found a copy of the original issue, and got it autographed by Joe Staton. I think it has some of the finest artwork of his career.

In any case, for a long time now, because The Brave and the Bold #197 is such a favorite of mine, I’ve hoped to get an illustration of the Golden Age Catwoman from Staton. As I mentioned before, I was really on a limited budget this year, so this was going to be my one big purchase of the entire convention.  So as soon as I got to the show on Sunday morning, I made my way right to Artist Alley and headed to Staton’s table.  Turns out I was in the nick of time; his sketch list was almost completely filled up, and he had just one single spot left on it.  I dropped off my sketchbook at Joe table, paid him for the sketch, and then headed out to explore the rest of the convention, since I knew it would be a few hours before he’d get up to my piece.

I mostly stuck to Artist Alley this year, since that was a relatively less crowded area than the main convention floor.  I decided that since I wasn’t going to be able to buy too much, I’d bring along books that I already have to get autographed.  Luckily, most of the creators I hoped to see were there, although a few had unfortunately decided to skip Sunday.  I was bummed out to miss Erik Larsen, since I am a huge fan of Savage Dragon.

One of the few books I picked up was the Starstruck trade paperback by Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta.  Starstruck began life as an Off-Off-Broadway play in 1980, a comedic space opera written by Lee, with costume & set designs by Kaluta.  A few years later, Lee and Kaluta adapted Starstruck into a series of comic book stories which appeared through a number of publishers.  The pair had the ambition to eventually compile the entirety of the comic book material into one massive volume, and after a couple of false starts, they were finally able to achieve that recently at IDW.  Elaine Lee was at the NYCC this year, and so I purchased the collected edition from her.  She also autographed my copy of the Starstruck stage play which I acquired via Amazon.Com many moons ago.  I’m looking forward to reading this one.

An acquaintance of mine, artist Steve Ellis, had at table at NYCC.  Steve’s a cool guy, so it was nice to see him again.  We caught up on old times.  He was generous enough to do a quick drawing for me in one of my sketchbooks.  I asked him to sketch Stiletto, one of the characters from the superhero crime noir series The Silencers that he co-created with Fred Van Lente several years back.  I always enjoyed that book, and I hope one day Steve & Fred have the opportunity to bring it back.

Shaking hands with Peter Davison

There were a number of actors at NYCC doing signings & panel discussions.  I was very interested in meeting two of them.  The first was Peter Davison, who portrayed the Fifth Doctor on Doctor Who in the early 1980s.  As anyone who reads this blog will know, I am a huge Doctor Who fan.  That and it is very rare that you get to meet someone who you literally grew up watching on television.  So I was a bit tongue-tied when I got his autograph.  I think Davison was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned that I had been in London back in 1999 and seen him perform in the musical Chicago.  Currently he is appearing in Law & Order UK as Henry Sharpe, Director of the London Crown Prosecution Service (the equivalent of the District Attorney).  The show is scheduled to begin filming a new season shortly.

The other actor I really wanted to meet was Ian McDiarmid, who so memorably played the diabolical Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films.  It may sound strange, considering the Emperor is a figure of pure evil, but he is one of my favorite character from the series.  He got so many great lines of dialogue, and McDiarmid brought him to vile life so wonderfully.  Unfortunately, it turned out that McDiarmid was asking a whopping $125 for an autograph!  Obviously I had to pass on that.  But there apparently are a lot of people who are willing to fork over that kind of money, because I saw there was a very long line at his table (I wonder if some comic book and sci-fi fans eat Ramen noodles 365 days a year so they can save up their money for events like Comic Con).  Fortunately, McDiarmid was doing an hour-long panel discussion that afternoon.  It was quite entertaining, as McDiarmid really knows how to work a room & spin a yarn, so I’m glad I was at least able to attend that.

I only went up to the main floor of the show once.  I was going to the Doctor Who Store table, because I wanted to purchase one of the Big Finish audio plays for Peter Davison to autograph.  It was a total madhouse, wall-to-wall people, and it took me fifteen minutes just to get to where I wanted to go.  When I finally arrived at the Doctor Who Store, it was packed.  As someone who grew up watching the series in the 1980s, when it was very much a cult phenomenon here in the States, it still amazes me that now, with the revival of the show, it is now this huge hit, and millions of people watch it on BBC America.  So seeing this gigantic crowd around the booth was unexpected, because I still half-expect people to give me a blank look when I tell them I watch Doctor Who.  But, as one of the people working at the Who Store table responded when I told him that, “Those days are long gone.”

Joe and Hilarie Staton

After the Ian McDiarmid panel, I headed back to Artist Alley.  Walking up and down the aisles, I was somewhat disappointed that I was on such a tiny budget, because there were so many artists doing such amazing sketches, and selling some really nice published comic book pages.  But once I got to Joe Staton’s table, my regrets vanished.  Staton did an absolutely stunning drawing of Catwoman in my sketchbook.  It has to be one of the best pieces I’ve gotten in the book.  I decided it was better to have gotten one really outstanding sketch than a handful of average pieces.  So I know I made the right choice.

As always, there were some fans wearing amazing costumes at the Comic Con.  I took photographs of several of them.  You can view them on Flickr:

All in all, it was a pretty fun convention.  I enjoyed myself.  Hopefully next year, though, I’ll have a bigger budget and be able to attend more than one day, because I’d like to be able to see more of the show, and also pace myself instead of rushing all over the place!

Comic book reviews: Love and Rockets New Stories #5

This year’s edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories, written & drawn by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics, came out a few weeks ago.  Here are my thoughts on the 2012 installment of the Hernandez Brothers’ long-running series.

First off: a year is a long time to wait!  Yeah, I realize that each edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories clocks in at one hundred pages each.  But both Jaime and Gilbert have such amazingly well-written (and large) casts of characters, that there’s only so much each of them can cover in even that amount of space.  And each issue of New Stories always leaves me wanting more.  Especially last year’s New Stories #4, which Jaime Hernandez ended with Ray tragically suffering from brain damage after Maggie’s mentally-disturbed brother Calvin hit him over the head with a brick.  As a reader who has been invested in the relationship between Maggie & Ray for years, I desperately wanted to see what happened next.

In his half of New Stories #5, though, Jaime shifts the focus to the infamous Vivian “Frogmouth” Solis and her teenage half-sister Tonta.  The reason for Vivian’s nickname is that, despite looking absolutely gorgeous, she has a mouth like a sailor, and a personality to match.  Vivian is a tough character to get a read on.  I’d really need to re-read her appearances in Love and Rockets volume two in order to jog my memory, but she strikes me as the type who thinks she’s much more competent and invulnerable than she really is.  This leads her getting involved with all manner of people who are no good for her, including some genuinely dangerous individuals.  Especially in this issue, when she’s flirting with a married gangster.  She’s also hiding a handgun in her lingerie drawer as a favor for a street gang who want to murder the aforementioned mobster.  As a result, Vivian really gets in over her head, but she never seems to realize the seriousness of her circumstances, wandering around with self-centered blinders.

Her sister Tonta is presumably part of Jaime’s intention to introduce a new, younger cast of characters.  Since Love and Rockets takes place in real time, the characters age accordingly.  Maggie, Hopey, Ray, and their compatriots are now in their forties, I believe, so Jaime has been introducing a newer generation, first with Maggie’s young friend Angel (who I would love to see more of) and now Tonta.  It’s difficult from this one story to get a feel for Tonta.  In certain respects she reminds me a bit of a young Maggie, living the punk lifestyle, coming from what appears to be a dysfunctional family.  Tonta appears to be a bit more on the naïve side, though.  It did take several years for Jaime to develop Maggie into the multi-faceted character that she would become, so I don’t expect Tonta to blossom fully overnight.  Hopefully we will see more of her in the future, perhaps have her meeting Angel.  I have no idea if they’d become friends, but it would be interesting to see Jaime have his two new young female protagonists get to know each other.

The most heartbreaking part of Jaime’s half of New Stories #5 is a brief three page segment which sees Ray reflecting back on his long friendship with Doyle.  The story is literally drawn from Ray’s point of view, and periodically we get these black panels when his mind goes blank due to his brain damage.  As sad as it is, I’m glad that Jaime did briefly check in with Ray, Maggie and Doyle in this year’s issue, so that we could get a glimpse of what is going on with them.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #5

Over in Gilbert Hernandez’s side of New Stories #5, we have another look at the younger generation, as the sexy Killer takes a vacation in the Central American town of Palomar.  And at long last I’ve finally figured out who exactly Killer is related to.  Her grandmother is Luba, and her grandfather is Heraclio, and so Killer’s mother is Guadalupe, the daughter Luba had after a one-time seduction of a then-teenage Heraclio.  Glad we have that sorted out, although my girlfriend, who has been a Love and Rockets fan for a lot longer than me, claims she knew it all along!  In any case, it was great to see all of the rich back story of Gilbert’s Palomar stories alluded to, and to catch up on the current state of the town & its residents, through the perspective of Killer.  The whole trip had a poignant quality to it.  It also offered Gilbert the opportunity to explore a different side of Killer, as we see her discovering her heritage.  Before this, she seemed a rather aloof, indifferent individual to me, but New Stories #5 shows a warmer, sentimental side to her personality.

Interspaced between Killer’s explorations of Palomar are scenes from one of her great-aunt Fritz’s B-movie art-house films, “Proof That the Devil Loves You.”  Set in a fictionalized version of Palomar, Fritz plays a character that is across between Luba and Tonantzin, the fried babosa vendor who killed herself in an act of self-immolation at the end of Blood of Palomar.  “Proof That the Devil Loves You” is actually produced by Pipo, who seems to be using the film to express her feeling for Palomar.  She holds a lot of ire towards town sheriff Chelo, who in the film is portrayed as a dictatorial brat who marches about barking orders and abusing her authority.

As with many of Gilbert’s movie-within-the-story sequences, there is a certain amount to “Proof That the Devil Loves You” that is nebulous and open to interpretation.  I sometime have an ambivalent relationship with Gilbert’s adaptations of Fritz’s movies.  They can be very thought-provoking and atmospheric works, and Gilbert often excels at exercising his illustrative & storytelling abilities in them.  On the other hand, attempting to discern the meanings of the surreal events of those narratives can be very frustrating.  The difference this time around in New Stories #5 is that Gilbert is drawing clear parallels between the “real” events of his story and the “fictional” occurrences of his film, making its meaning somewhat less obscured.  That said, I still feel that there is plenty that is open to interpretation, and (as always) additional readings may reveal further layers.

In any case, New Stories #5 has certainly made me more interested in the character of Killer, and I look forward to Gilbert exploring her further in future volumes of the series.

All in all, Love and Rockets: New Stories #5 was a solid read, with quality writing & artwork from both Jaime and Gilbert.  This time around, Gilbert’s contributions slightly edged out Jaime’s as my favorites, but I was satisfied with each of their efforts.  I’m looking forward to re-reading New Stories #5 again soon, to get a different perspective on it, and maybe I’ll take a look at the preceding editions of the New Stories beforehand, as well.  With both Gilbert and Jaime, often the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and reading several issues together will give you a much clearer focus on characters & events.

So, once again I now have to wait yet another year for the next edition of Love and Rockets.  Torture, I tell you, sheer torture!