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Return of the Knave
Drink It Black
Monday, 3 January 2005
So if every half-baked concept, and every strong idea that was ruined in the execution, can't just be lodged under fantasy and hope for the best, what does it get called then? Crap, certainly. But this covers such a wide field: derivative storylines, hackneyed characterisations, plot contrivances...

I will visit the bad in comics soon enough but let's look at this question of where fantasy falls down and becomes something less. Two of the most extensively used powers for characters, apart from superstrength, are the powers of speed and flight. And it's the old sawhorses that get brought out to explain why a hero has wings or can zip round and disarm the baddies before they have a chance to draw: mutation, exposure to chemicals, alien beginnings. These can be taken as given since they are so broad. Who knows what chemicals were struck by lightning, splashing Barry Allen, and who cares?
So it strikes me as particularly inept that there should be characters with these abilities who lack any believability. Step up Red Raven and The Whizzer.

The trouble with Red Raven isn't so much his costume but the notion that he got it and its strange powers from a race of bird people who live in the clouds. Nobody was expecting Aristophanes' The Clouds but still, clouds change, they move, they dissipate. How can you live in them in anything but a metaphorical sense?

Compare this with the Fantasticar. It's supposed to be fantastic, it was intended that way; the fantasy works because all the reader has to accept is that Reed Richards the scientific genius has invented it. And that's sufficient. Nothing can make those bird people stay in the air the way the Fantasticar does.

Similarly no science can make mongoose blood give you superspeed. It's like imagining that a skink would hand you holy scriptures written on copper plate. And who believes that?!

Posted by berko_wills at 3:12 AM EADT
Updated: Friday, 7 January 2005 1:59 PM EADT
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Sunday, 26 December 2004
Still out there somewhere
Science fiction and fantasy bookshops are a good source of new readers to comics,usually stocking the better or more popular graphic novels if not the regular 'floppies'. It's a natural enough fit; though I don't know whether they've been known to include such titles as Batlash, Sgt Rock of Easy Co, or Korak Son of Tarzan, which reside outside both genres.

At first even the alliance of science fiction with fantasy seems a strange one; one always uses empirical evidence as its starting point, the other uses a different base altogether.
Well, these genres are profoundly affected by linear time - the more humans discover new things about their past and their future, the more an idea is seen as first fanciful, then possible, then probable, and finally concrete and actualised. Any exploration of this idea in a story will be seen in a different light correspondingly; what may start out as fantasy could end up as science fiction (or even science fact), while the reverse could happen where something that seemed plausible when it was first posited now contradicts too greatly what we now know to be true.

Not that writing fantasy allows you to put down the first thing that comes into your head. Fabricating a world, peopling it, making sure there are no inconsistencies within the fabulation, constructing stories that are authentic to the setting but still identifiable to the reader out there 'in the real world', all of this is potentially more work rather than less. You can potentially fudge the details when placing a character or event in a 'real setting' - use your research and some markers to suggest geography and you're away. But write fantasy and you need to understand for yourself what the motivation is for entire tribes and lands. You need to invest them with a language and sociology that makes sense, given the natural environment and the particular threats and challenges they must face.

[this year's quiz is late and over at the general blog]

Posted by berko_wills at 8:18 PM EADT
Updated: Tuesday, 28 December 2004 8:14 PM EADT
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Monday, 29 November 2004
Out of it
Alan and Ted's excellent adventure
Comics newbies may be wondering why, if there is so much crossover between comics fans and SF fans, and mainstream hero books draw so heavily on sci-fi themes, the earliest science fiction comics were so out of the loop.

Well, the college kids in their blazers roaring into space were doing so at a time when cleancut was the buzzword for the stuffy arbiters of morality in kid lit. But, more importantly, comics pre-date the staples of scientifiction
with the first comic book appearing fifty years before a real life heavier-than-air craft left the ground and a century earlier than the first steps we took on our own moon.

Regardless, the medium found ready use for robots, androids and cyborgs;consider that an offshoot of one of the most popular comics franchises is a clone of a superhuman alien (a literal take on something the former National Periodicals Inc already did)

I think the comic publishing world finds it convenient to warp the space-time continuum for its own purposes; that is, to preserve their A list heroes into perpetuity while, by turn clumsily and astutely, explaining to anal retentive fanboys'n'girls the reason that a hero who fought in World War 2 is still around and still fighting tyranny with as much verve and good looks. And to compound their dashed off deus ex machina, the company concerned will usually spin the whole farago into a bestselling mini-series.

When comics does speculative fiction - and Marvel's "What If..?" series is silver age-style tinkering with DC's 'imaginary stories' idea - the SF underpinnings are close to the surface: 'What if Conan the Barbarian walked the Earth today?', 'What if Sgt Fury fought WWII in Outer Space?'

The medium comes into its own in spectacular fashion as the depiction of futuristic weaponry and advanced technology are only limited by the skill and imagination of the artist. As with SF in all its forms, the passing of time trips the obvious - machines don't become more marvellous by becoming ever larger and imposing but by becoming ever smaller and more accessible. This requires quite the paradigm shift but then the King's best work contains that clutter of Big Machinery; a more streamlined art style might suit microtechnology.

Posted by berko_wills at 1:47 PM EADT
Updated: Monday, 13 December 2004 3:09 PM EADT
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Tuesday, 9 November 2004
If there's one genre or branch of comics book that is intrinsic to the medium then it's Funny Animal. And with the idea of cartoon still linked to 2D penlines and brushstrokes, there was little to shift this perception.

As we've seen with the recent Scooby Doo movies, CGI doesn't quite cut it in convincing us that this is an old favourite brought to life.

And funny animal comics bring as much inventiveness and inspiration to the table as their more prosaically rendered fellows in the comic book publishing world
  • they effortlessly roam through the other genres with their own advantage: a sherriff is conflated with a horse; his deputy a burro; a real bloodhound detective is on the case. You can roll up allegory and association as tight as you like.
  • politically incorrect comic depictions are rendered acceptable: I mean, would you have laughed at a short Mexican gent named Speedy Gonzales travelling at supersonic speed and crying "Areeba areeba!"?
  • considered as a genre - though funny animals cut across genres like crazy - Funny Animal comics (or their terrific Terrytoon equivalent) have an advantage in showing ideas at once absurd and hysterically funny viz a skunk trying to romance a distressed kitty.
  • Funny Animal comics can work in any mix of anthropomorphic and humanoid characters: in Mowser the Priceless Puss and His Enemy James the Butler there is a particularly scraggly looking cat, who always gets the best of the mansion's human butler. We can see the 'priceless puss's' thought balloons and what made it a funny strip is that Mowser was a nuisance but always in (feline) character.
    There's the land where bears wear hat and tie but still (more or less) do what the park ranger says. Then there is the mix of dog and proto-dog as with the Disney Goofy and Pluto. There's worlds where talking ducks and rabbits mix and others where the range of beasts is as limited as smurfing multiculturalism.
  • After delivering perfunctory DD storylines, Steve Gerber found his ouvre in Howard the Duck... trapped in a world he never made! i.e. the human world - or Marvel world if you like. This proved that even with a done-to-death funny animal like the mallard, there is a whole new lease of life to be found when you thrust one of these quacksters 'amongst us'. It makes for brilliant satire.

    Posted by berko_wills at 1:52 PM EADT
    Updated: Sunday, 21 November 2004 3:38 PM EADT
  • Sunday, 24 October 2004
    Teat and retreat
    "But aren't comics for children?" Let's put that boorish question to rest shall we?

    Yes they are. And they're also for truckers and goths.

    As this thread demonstrates, nineteenth century comics weren't aimed exclusively at children and later comics were created for children just as films, books, television programs, plays are created for children; there was no inextricable link between the medium and its intended audience.

    The chief thing that has muddied the waters is the whole skerfuffle over censorship that resulted in the Comics Code Authority and a couple of decades of insipid storytelling. The 'villain of the piece' was one Dr Frederic Wertham; his concerns were well-intentioned and not unfounded but his actions did result in a comic book wasteland where even the most enduring characters became shadows of their former selves.

    Normal service has been resumed and the CCA is now a toothless tiger but, with both adult-oriented and children's comics being published, how does the skinhead comic book fan avoid the embarassing spectacle of being caught reading something brought to him by the letter e?!

    Here are some telltale features of comics produced for the kiddie market:

  • Characters called 'Little' something or other.
  • Anthropomorphic characters appearing in a nursery setting
  • School boys and girls
  • Kiddie-ish language or moral lessons
  • Juvenile humour
  • Mention of 'kids' or strip showing kids as the protagonists.

    Now this won't, and can't, provide a guarantee that you won't end up buying something not meant for mature eyes - any more than the more usual reverse concerns can be addressed absolutely. There was a 'boy's own' feel to all the British comics, even though some stories could be enjoyed by adult readers. But, with the growth of a fandom that continues to seek out the back issues they missed when they were first collecting, it is inevitable that there will also be more 'sophisticated' newer books produced to capture the market.

    Posted by berko_wills at 3:43 AM NZT
    Updated: Thursday, 28 October 2004 3:43 PM NZT
  • Monday, 27 September 2004
    Yo ho ho
    Another broad category next to Action is Adventure and comics found a natural home for titles like Adventure, Amazing Adventures and Bizarre Adventures. Not to mention Adventures of Tintin.

    There are certain limitations to the 2D medium; Meryl Streep can take a break from funny accents to go whitewater rafting and make that the whole movie, but try going on for even a couple of pages of the protagonists doing nothing but hurtling through rapids. It doesn't work. But we should all have such limitations because comics show adventure:

    in prehistoric times
    in the jungle
    on the western plains
    on the battlefield
    in outer space

    though there are problems with the adventure tag here. There is no risk if you can bend rifles and bullets bounce off you, and adventure implies risk.
    No matter how exotic the locale there comes a time when the threat of a corrupt cattle baron becomes de rigeur to a western and not at all a feature of adventure.

    Even a character like Dr Mid-nite, who can only see wearing night vision goggles; once the reader is used to seeing him out with his fellow mystery men, the adventure aspect is blunted.

    Challengers of the Unknown, by their name alone, are tailor-made for adventure. And Carl Barks' run on the Disney ducks is graphic adventure par excellence.

    Posted by berko_wills at 3:50 AM NZT
    Updated: Monday, 4 October 2004 12:47 AM NZT
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    Saturday, 4 September 2004
    Jim, Jack and Johnny
    There is no doubt that this passage from Joseph Andrews [pp.200-201]is full of action so why does it lack the immediacy we normally associate with the genre? There are a number of reasons:

    • it's in past tense. It's natural that storytelling would have evolved this way, tales told around the campfire of the day's hunt and a brush with danger. But it does put the reader at one remove from the action; and the printed page lacks the nuances that a seasoned orator could bring

    • it's in third person. Now I don't know that this impeded the immediacy of Edge...a new kind of western hero but where the characters are more mannered, it only adds to the stilted effect

    • oh those conjunctions! The fogging index put a stop to this sort of thing. Putting a whole string of thoughts or actions into the one sentence makes it harder to grasp the detail of what is going on

    • here, the novelist's stylistic quirk. He follows a superb clause: 'The poet, who was the nimblest, entering the chamber first, searched the bed, and every other part, but to no purpose; the bird was flown with a rather lesser one: as the impatient reader, who might otherwise have been in pain for her, was before advertised.' In 2004 this just looks clumsy. And the 'postmodern already' (I didn't say that)nod to the reader may not detract from the story in some reader's eyes, but it does distract from the action

      Now the purpose of all this is not to hang shit on Fielding. A non-fiction book I read had the proposition that kings and queens would have given up their cold draughty castles - and all the land that went with it - for a modest suburban home with air conditioning and central heating. Similarly the novelisation of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is less awkward in its humble construction than this seminal work.

      And this is not action for action's sake; other elements such as comedy and drama, plot and characterisation, are factors. The narrator is too reflective to have action as the central focus. There is much to appreciate:

      • the iconic characters ('the captain, the poet, the player, and three servants') presage their extensive use in the graphic medium and they are well used here as well as well 'drawn'

      • the long-winded way of having the host reveal that they possess no fire-arms adds to the comic effect

      • Joseph, despite a relatively brief part in this passage, makes his presence felt in such a way that we are left in no doubt that he is the protagonist. Having him be the only one with a proper name helps too

      • The captain and the poet - but not the player (perhaps he wasn't such a player after all) - lead the action, even if the poet does bow out at the first sign of violence


      Apart from appearing two centuries later in the development of storytelling and action, comic books have an advantage when it comes to showing action. The panel showing a picture of Captain America encased in a block of ice as Cap recaps, makes the fact it is told in past tense, less distancing.

      Whether a story is in first, second, or third person narrative is rendered moot by the fact that we can see the actions as they unfold. Even in wordless narratives

      Ditto long conjunctions. Unless you make the mistake of filling your comic with blowhard word balloons and excessive commentary, everything is straight to the point. Sometimes the only word at the top of the panel is 'Suddenly..'

      Posted by berko_wills at 5:26 AM NZT
      Updated: Saturday, 4 September 2004 7:20 PM NZT
    Tuesday, 10 August 2004
    Bending the elbow
    Atom, a short guy punching above his weight, is an action hero, as is the Cheyenne Kid; Adam Strange is action (and romance) at the other side of the galaxy, courtesy of a zeta beam; Captain Savage is action at sea and so it goes. Action comics have also featured prominently in Central and South America.

    Superman started out in a series called Action Comics and seventy-five years later is still there.

    Those figurines bearing the likenesses and attributes of the comic character they're molded on are not dolls, toys, or even replicas - they're action figures. And they remain so even if you paint over them.

    Maybe it would be easier to define a comic that wasn't predominantly action-oriented, like Little Audrey.


    For those used to walking into their local video store and poring over the large Action section, this may seem puzzling. Westerns and Martial Arts and War all have their sections. Perhaps we recognise Action by its generic title convention, its wooden acting, its threadbare plot. It is harder to gauge these things when we move to a more static medium, which carries titles like War Is Hell. The tip-off that characters are not being fully nuanced is only evidenced when, for example, the crop of hacks that Tom de Falco brought to Marvel showed every character with teeth gritted.
    And underdeveloped stories are those where the fight scene goes on a tad long and we barely see the main character interacting on other levels.


    "He swung a punch but missed completely" so the oldest comics tell us. And there's Captain Dependable doing just as the caption says.
    But there is a sense that the early writers were feeling their way in a new medium. Novels - especially airport novels and spy thrillers - contain action aplenty but look at this passage from one of the very earliest novels (Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding, 1742):

    Adams had soon put on all his clothes but his breeches, which, in his hurry, he forgot; however, they were pretty well supplied by the length of his other garments; and now, the house-door being opened, the captain, the poet, the player, and three servants came in. The captain told the host that two fellows, who were in his house, had run away with a young woman, and desired to know in which room she lay. The host, who presently believed the story, directed them, and instantly the captain and the poet, jostling one another, ran up. The poet, who was the nimblest, entering the chamber first, searched the bed, and every other part, but to no purpose; the bird was flown, as the impatient reader, who might otherwise have been in pain for her, was before advertised. They then enquired where the men lay, and were approaching the chamber, when Joseph roared out, in a loud voice, that he would shoot the first man who offered to attack the door. The captain enquired what fire-arms they had; to which the host answered, he believed they had none; nay, he was almost convinced of it, for he had heard one ask the other in the evening what they should have done if they had been overtaken, when they had no arms; to which the other answered, they would have defended themselves with their sticks as long as they were able, and God would assist a just cause. This satisfied the captain, but not the poet, who prudently retreated downstairs, saying, it was his business to record great actions, and not to do them. [...]

    Posted by berko_wills at 4:05 PM NZT
    Updated: Saturday, 4 September 2004 7:43 AM NZT
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    Wednesday, 4 August 2004
    For those wondering where all the social commentary went, my socio-political side has a new home called Touched By The Son.

    For those only interested in comics, stay right here.

    Posted by berko_wills at 3:43 PM NZT
    Post Comment | Permalink
    Sunday, 1 August 2004
    Magic potion
    I've always been attracted to magic and fiction is a good place to indulge this fascination without risking offence to other denominations. Reading nonsense incantations will neither extend your life nor blight the neighbour's crops, but it does entertain.

    There's no way of explaining a character like Johnny Thunder and his magical Thunderbolt without these full flights of fancy.

    Posted by berko_wills at 10:22 PM NZT
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