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Return of the Knave
Drink It Black
Friday, 20 May 2005
Do monsters really belong in horror? Sure if you were being swooped on by Mothra or had Godzilla stomping on your apartment building, it might have you issuing the odd bloodcurdling shriek, but the chances of some more mundane terror or madness occuring are greater. Monsters (the fictional kind) are fun - they're just big lumbering lummoxes and don't have the unpleasant association that any of our cavalcade of animated cadavers possess.
Plus they'd be fun to draw. Jack Kirby thought so and, indeed, one of the more noteworthy runs of monster comics were created by Lee-Kirby, with them weaving monsters into their superhero tales as well.
Between Kirby's pulse-pounding pencilling and Lee's claim to the cornball (who else would come up with a title like "ZZZutak the thing that shouldn't exist"), they all but cornered the market on fun monsters.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:52 PM NZT
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Sunday, 15 May 2005
Here's an interesting fact I only discovered when I was looking up postal charges to England: you can't send horror comics in the mail to the UK.

Fine, I thought, I've been wanting to write the piece on horror comics for this long so here's the sign. I can't imagine why there should be a one-sided traffic in horrific storylines (or if the restriction applies to not competing with the retail importation of The Many Ghosts of Dr Graves) but I'll leave that for others to ponder.

Harlan Ellison doesn't like the term 'horror' when applied to fiction as he feels it should be reserved for real life events. He prefers macabre and so do I; but I'd say we're stuck with horror now.

Given that horror creators have an unpleasant tendency to want to involve we, the reader, in the impact, yea the fear, of the monstrous tableaux unfolding, perhaps it suits their purpose to have the horror that happens and the horror one only imagines, intertwined.

Though there is the counterclaim that we have the fictional horror played out so we don't have to experience the real thing. We have vampires and werewolves to give us the creeps instead of homicidal burglars and people sneaking things that can get us into deadly peril, into our luggage or into our drink. They, along with mummies and an assortment of other undead are more readily depicted in comic book form in any case.

Monsters proved irresistible to both creators and readers alike since the imagination can run wild without (necessarily)riling the censors or breaking with tradition. They're the all purpose creature of the genre, shambling, stomping, slithering their way through allegory and cheap gory thrills with equal abandon. And they're 'easier to deal with' than the monster who suffocates a small child and rapes the corpse, then pleads leniency on the grounds of diminished responsibility. We can watch the stake being driven through the heart of fictional monsters and know that this does nothing to combat the thrill killer or the serial sadist in real life.

Perhaps this is a furphy and it is as relevant to say we have never fired a handgun but read Dick Tracy and the Lone Ranger, never had powers of any kind but still 'identify' with Blue Bolt.

Perhaps, too, horror stories play on our fear of the unknown. We are repelled by the work of cruel despots but we read about them in newspapers and current affairs magazines. They have no business hiding waiting for us in some dark corner like a dark creature will. They cannot seep through our walls and enter our dreams the way demons and ghosts can.

Posted by berko_wills at 10:45 PM NZT
Updated: Monday, 16 May 2005 12:50 AM NZT
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Saturday, 30 April 2005
From the mentions of Golden Age characters in this blog you might get the impression that the best you could say* for the Golden Age with its crude exposition was that it was a primer for what was to follow. Even looking at Golden Age characters given a second (or third) run through magic or suspended animation or an elixir of youth or just to coach the younguns, there's something vaguely ridiculous about them.

My favourite golden age gonzo is actually a male adult/boy ward (so suspiciously prevalent in comic books of that time), The Eagle and Eagle Boy. Considering many of the misconceived flapping furies that have inhabited comics, what's so special about these guys?
Well, here's the thing, The Eagle gets his power of flight by drinking a potion - more convenient than inspired from a plotting point of view - but, and here's the clincher, Eagle Boy accompanies him by riding on his back!!!

But before we get carried away, I'd maintain that Doctor Fate is best realised in his very earliest incarnation, living in a tower that only he can mystically enter.

The correlative to this is Red Tornado. A rather embarrassing character viewed in these pc times, she was originally Ma Hunkel, a joke character with a one-shot appearance in the Justice Society of America. In the Silver Age revamp, though, the character becomes a male android with a lower half literally like a tornado. The character's never taken off, as it were, and that's because it really shows the way in which there was a little too much sheen applied in the streamlining of these character properties. It would probably have been better to simply leave Red Tornado out of the picture.

In case you're wondering, the Ages pretty much stop there. Nobody can decide whether subsequent periods in sequential art history should be dubbed the Nickel Age or Cadmium Age and really it's superfluous. The groundwork has been done. This is not to say that there were not significant episodes like the grim'n'gritty redefining of origins that was the eighties, they just don't have a name.

Posted by berko_wills at 6:39 AM NZT
Updated: Friday, 6 May 2005 4:02 PM NZT
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Sunday, 24 April 2005
Belchin' was a gas
Is 'the other Dan Brown' right - are we not an exclusive club anymore? While I'm talking about comics only being available in a paper bag, there's new movies being released featuring an ever widening array of characters from the comic books, the collectors market is ever burgeoning - and will pay for the near mint. Great writers and inspired cover artists flourish. Editors display a canny knack for producing the kind of stories we fans are clamouring for. Characters that once seemed irredeemibly lame, got a makeover by artistic teams from across the pond in a way that nobody could have hoped for. And they're still doing it.
Writers and artists are crisscrossing from indie to mainstream to alternate to underground and finding an audience and a market where'ere they go.

The doomsayers weren't completely wrong: whole companies imploded, with some characters like the prize-winning Nexus moving more than once. The black and white boom died out and the 'satire of a satire is weakened in the attempt' that was the bad clones of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, deservedly carked it to unsportsmanlikely like cries as to who was homage, who was humour, and who was cheesy low grade rip-off not fit for a bog roll.

There was scandal threatening to creep into (or seep out of) bullpen bulletins and there was, and continues to be, creative misfires until the cows come home.

But that's all in the nature of the beast.

Posted by berko_wills at 5:04 AM NZT
Updated: Friday, 29 April 2005 3:50 PM NZT
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Tuesday, 19 April 2005
A mistake perhaps people make is that they expect comics to satisfy the same demands of fiction that other forms of reading material do. As a product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it must needs have an equivalent to the kind of book you'd take hot air ballooning, or an airport novel.

Disregarding any discussion on the relative worth of different media, our discussion thusfar has highlighted the degree to which certain stories, or the telling of certain stories, differs across platforms. I can appreciate the criticism of comic books being dominated by superheroes to such a degree that walking into a comic store is sometimes like looking through a roadhouse video selection - where the choice is Action or Thriller with some mainstream Drama as a sop. The only way to break this down, of course, is for a wider readership to start reading some comics (as they do in Japan) along with their Dan Brown, and for fanboys to vary their diet with the current variety available.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:55 PM NZT
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Tuesday, 5 April 2005
Cracked lip
If this seems indeterminate then that's because fiction includes the things we've been discussing:
Maybe the life of John Paul II isn't fiction if the writer sticks to the known facts but the comic personae of bob hope and jerry lewis are.

It also includes genres not identified with the medium, such as murder mystery and spy thriller.

I may also have confused matters by applying the same yardstick for measuring what is fantasy and what is fiction i.e. a location in time preceding the advent of heavier-than-air craft taking flight. Any depiction of such in a story published then would necessarily be both. But consider two fisted tales, where the objective (in addition to being entertaining and captivating) is to show the raw blood and guts brutality of the battlefront - any element of fantasy, such as a haunted tank, would run counter to that purpose. But they could still be fiction.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:53 PM NZT
Updated: Friday, 15 April 2005 3:35 PM NZT
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Monday, 4 April 2005
Altar wine, alter time
But is this really an examination of fictional constructs? What about real life exploits captured between the pages of a comic book?

Wouldn't any exploration of the life of Pope John Paul II centre around how to portray that beatific expression of love and peace? Wouldn't the comic book biographer find a different set of challenges to the print biographer?

Literary theory now, by and large, gives us an out for this consideration by claiming that representations of reality are as prone to distortion and misrememberings as any fictional treatment. The other point here is that much fiction attempts to provide a familiarisation with the events it depicts - even if this is teleportation or transubstantiation.

Posted by berko_wills at 12:41 AM NZT
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Wednesday, 30 March 2005
In order to look at fiction in comics and comics in fiction it is necessary to obtain some distance. It isn't particularly helpful to say that the Rawhide Kid is more or less realistic compared to the so-called 'science heroes', or that Red Sonja is a character who works across different media.

No, what we need to do is go back in time to 1905.

Plenty of things were fiction then: heavier-than-air craft carrying people across the world being one startling example. Imagine a world where one cannot get anywhere in a hurry! The task one hundred years on, in interpreting a work of fiction from that era, is to imagine a world that no longer exists and where the characters have yet to imagine space travel and lebensraum - past history to us.

Our specimen text is a short story in a series of such featuring the same main characters; just as in Sherlock Holmes, only with a twist

"A Thief in the Night: Hornung's third book about Raffles, the gentleman burglar. (Short Stories, 1905, 182 pages)"

2. The Chest of Silver
Like all the tribe of which I held him head, Raffles professed the liveliest disdain for unwieldy plunder of any description; it might be old Sheffield, or it might be solid silver or gold, but if the thing was not to be concealed about the person, he would none whatever of it. Unlike the rest of us, however, in this as in all else, Raffles would not infrequently allow the acquisitive spirit of the mere collector to silence the dictates of professional prudence. The old oak chests, and even the mahogany wine-cooler, for which he had doubtless paid like an honest citizen, were thus immovable with pieces of crested plate, which he had neither the temerity to use nor the hardihood to melt or sell. He could but gloat over them behind locked doors, as I used to tell him, and at last one afternoon I caught him at it. It was in the year after that of my novitiate, a halcyon period at the Albany, when Raffles left no crib uncracked, and I played second-murderer every time. I had called in response to a telegram in which he stated that he was going out of town, and must say good-by to me before he went. And I could only think that he was inspired by the same impulse toward the bronzed salvers and the tarnished teapots with which I found him surrounded, until my eyes lit upon the enormous silver-chest into which he was fitting them one by one.

"Allow me, Bunny! I shall take the liberty of locking both doors behind you and putting the key in my pocket," said Raffles, when he had let me in. "Not that I mean to take you prisoner, my dear fellow; but there are those of us who can turn keys from the outside, though it was never an accomplishment of mine."

"Not Crawshay again?" I cried, standing still in my hat.

Raffles regarded me with that tantalizing smile of his which might mean nothing, yet which often meant so much; and in a flash I was convinced that our most jealous enemy and dangerous rival, the doyen of an older school, had paid him yet another visit.

"That remains to be seen," was the measured reply; "and I for one have not set naked eye on the fellow since I saw him off through that window and left myself for dead on this very spot. In fact, I imagined him comfortably back in jail."

Even though this has moments of high dudgeon and fabulous protagonists, it proves difficult to adapt. How would this slice of story work visually?

The second paragraph would work better in sequential art narrative as you could show not tell the whole exchange of Raffles explaining the locking of doors behind him as he does it. You could do it well in two or three panels.

Why not the third paragraph as well? Only because of the quaint expression "..., standing still in my hat" Maybe the waning popularity of headgear sent this vernacular out of vogue some time back. Were I the artist for this exercise (we're making believe the whole way here), I'd have the twin problem of not knowing how to render someone crying, standing still in their hat; and of not wanting to lose so quickly the novel archaism. But how to have 'Bunny' crying "Not Crawshay again?" and have it obvious by his poise or position that he is standing still in his hat when he does so?

Paragraph four poses the same dilemma as my formal screenwriting training covered: how the hell do you convey in performance (or graphically) that 'tantalizing smile'of Raffles'? I mean, look at it, it's not only tantalising, it's enigmatic; sometimes signifying nothing, other times being highly significant. Aaaand, we have to convey on this occasion that Watson - I mean, Bunny - knows instantly which it is. Through nothing but penny dreadful ink on paper we will find ourselves envisioning something phenomenologically as though we were Bunny. It's a popular method of writing fiction - to use the offsider's first person narrative to relay events. But we don't need his intercession in a comic book, we can see what's going on. And we have no way of showing him, unless he appears in narrator pose a la The Watcher, and that's naff.

Serialised short stories rely as much on dialogue as scene description and so the challenge is to include this without crowding panels with word balloons.
I might have good characters but will they have much to do that I can show in pen and ink? Or will it be an awkward marriage where Raffles' 'measured reply' takes up too much space and slows the story.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:01 PM EADT
Updated: Saturday, 2 April 2005 6:20 AM EADT
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Tuesday, 15 February 2005
Stay tuned for my dissertation on fiction in comics and comics in fiction. In the meantime:

This is a break from my usual focus on genre but I wanted to pay tribute to one of the comic book greats. You may have heard that Will Eisner passed away recently. He may well be THE giant of comic book publishing as he possessed the combined skill of Lee and Kirby in his storytelling, was an innovative and groundbreaking artist (Spirit splashpages alone are testament to this), had a regular comic strip in the dailies, was a publisher of renown, and produced the first graphic novel: A Contract With God. Not only does it have the significance of being the first set of comic stories created specifically for collection in one volume, it is also a true work of art. The stories detail everyday folk (mainly Jewish) in vignettes as charming and chockfull of literary goodness as anything produced by, say, Bernard Malamud or Saul Bellow.

In short, Eisner was a behemoth of the comics world but also a pre-eminent storyteller in any medium. He died aged 89.

Posted by berko_wills at 2:15 PM EADT
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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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