Monday, July 18, 2016

Read Yukio Mishima. His words were magic.

“We are not wounded so deeply when betrayed by the things we hope for as when betrayed by things we try our best to despise.  In such betrayal comes the dagger in the back.”

"My "act" has ended by becoming an integral part of my nature, I told myself. It's no longer an act. My knowledge that I am masquerading as a normal person has even corroded whatever of normality I originally possessed, ending by making me tell myself over and over again that it too was nothing but a pretense of normality. To say it another way, I'm becoming the sort of person who can't believe in anything except the counterfeit."

“What transforms this world is — knowledge. Do you see what I mean? Nothing else can change anything in this world. Knowledge alone is capable of transforming the world, while at the same time leaving it exactly as it is. When you look at the world with knowledge, you realize that things are unchangeable and at the same time are constantly being transformed.”

“What I wanted was to die among strangers, untroubled, beneath a cloudless sky. And yet my desire differed from the sentiments of that ancient Greek who wanted to die under the brilliant sun. What I wanted was some natural, spontaneous suicide. I wanted a death like that of a fox, not yet well versed in cunning, that walks carelessly along a mountain path and is shot by a hunter because of its own stupidity…”

“Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”

Saturday, July 9, 2016


Hi, Alex Ness here.  The question I have asked here, was the Alan Moore/SRBissette Swamp Thing run the best run of length ever.  I asked it to numerous people, including comic book writers and artists, and two of the respondents are former Vertigo stars… so I am excited to present the answers.  But before everyone else answers and I wrap up, I want to answer first, because if I answer last it seems, to some people, as if I am having the final and authoritative word.  I am by no means suggesting that, so here it is.

I think there were good and even great runs of comics prior to the Swamp Thing run.  But I don’t think there was one run that was so earth changing.  I would point to Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams on Batman, or Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen on Daredevil for runs of superb quality.  There have been long runs by talented people, Dave Sim and Erik Larson for instance, constantly produce/produced quality work and have done so for almost ever.

But, this, to me, wasn’t about length of run, or the fact that it was great, but, that it was to me a comic run that changed how we think about what comic books could do.  I think Swamp Thing did that for me.  I have many comics that I like more than it, but had I not picked it up in the 7-11 on the way home from college, and my buddy and I read it two dozen times, awestruck, I might not have moved on to more great work.  For me, Swamp Thing by Moore, Bissette, Totleben and Veitch changed comics.

I asked the question, and I think this Swamp Thing run qualifies for the title.

Jamie Delano

It was being close to Alan Moore while he was writing these stories that first persuaded me that comics could be a medium through which I might also find an opportunity for uncompromised self-expression.  As I write this, I am looking at a framed original Bissette/Totelben page from the ‘menstrual werewolf’ story, whose published title escapes me- a generous gift from the artists in acknowledgement of some small hospitality offered when they visited Northampton more than twenty-five years ago.  It has been on my study wall since, overseeing my own haphazard efforts to live up to the example it represents.  I wrote an introduction to a volume of the collected editions of these stories in which I, no doubt clumsily, attempt express my thanks for the inspiration they gave me, and the resultant change in the course of my life.

Things change.  Moore and I are no longer close.  But my gratitude, and admiration for this seminal work remain undiminished.

Mike Carey

I think this was a defining run in its time. It was very bold and innovative storytelling, more ambitious than most ongoing titles of the time and - in terms of its style - more self-consciously literary.

"The best ever", though, is always going to be a tendentious claim when applied to anything. There are too many contenders. Is this better than Morrison's run on Doom Patrol or Animal Man. Gaiman's on Sandman? Vaughan's on Saga? You could make a case, especially if you exclude self-contained series with a single writer, but I'm not sure it's an argument that needs to be had. There isn't a single unarguable best in any category. It would be pretty sad if there were. What's the best Shakespeare play? The best sonnet? The best horror movie?

Neil Ottenstein

This Saga of the Swamp Thing run is definitely one of the best long runs of a series. They did some amazingly creative works with highlights in both writing and art.

Other contenders that come right to mind - The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists; The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez; The Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Then there is what may be the ultimate long run - Cerebus by Dave Sim and Gerhard.

Peter Urkowitz

I don't like to tie myself down to "best" or other hard rankings, but it's definitely in the pantheon of among the very best.   I love that whole series inordinately!

Kurt Wilcken

Hm. I'll have to think about that. There's a distinction between the best long run in history and the best long run I've read.  And by 'long run' do you mean run of a title, or run of a specific creative team on that title? Well, limiting it to runs that I have read and enjoyed, because I can't really judge some titles that I know only from individual issues...

The first title that comes to mind is the Giffen/DeMatties era JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL; which was a fun comic in an era where things were starting to get overly serious. Which isn't to say that JLI couldn't be serious too; but both the drama and the goofiness was rooted in characterization.

COMICO's version of JONNY QUEST, written by William Messner-Loebs was also very good. Old School adventure with good characterization.

I enjoyed Epic's ALIEN LEGION when it first came out, and Lute has collected most of it in trade paperbacks, but somehow I've never gone back to it. I'm not sure why.

DC's rebooting of CAPTAIN ATOM in the '80s is maybe not a great run, but I have the complete run and it did some interesting things in the early issues. I never cared a whole lot for the art, though.

MAZE AGENCY by Mike W. Barr, again from COMICO, was a good "little comic" in a genre comics haven't done much in our lifetimes: a mystery series with some nice romantic chemistry between the two lead characters. This was where I first discovered the art of Adam Hughes

You only wanted one, didn't you.

Then there's BLUE DEVIL. That was one I started reading near the end of its run and actually went back to buy the back issues. Once again, a fun, mostly light-hearted series that came out just as the skies were about to turn red and the last vestiges of the Silver Age turn to grit.

Alex back here...

Thank you first to Jamie Delano and Mike Carey, for their time and insights into the question, particularly due to their proximity in many different ways to the subject.

Visit Jamie at LEPUS Books.

Visit Mike at MikeandPeter.

Thank you to Kurt, Peter, and Neil as well.  I had a number of people who were invited to join us, but sadly, a large number of people under 40 years old reported not having read Swamp Thing, nor even heard of the stellar run in question.

For my part, I will do better next time to define my question.  With so many long runs on comics, a 3 year run doesn't seem so a limiting factor.  Calling it a long run causes distractions from the main question, which is, was Swamp Thing's Alan Moore run* being more than a mini series, the best run of a regularly appearing comic.  *And, I should say, Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben made the run very special as well. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Zod Is Dead

A lot of fans like to gripe about the recent depictions of Superman in the movies. I know I do, and I haven't even seen them. Which in a rational universe would preclude me from having an opinion on the subject, but this is the Internet. One of the biggest gripes is how the Cinematic Superman is now a murderer. He defeats General Zod, the Kryptonian criminal escaped from the Phantom Zone, by killing him.

In Superman's defense, he did this as a last resort to save the lives of millions. And it's not like there hasn't been any precedent. Supeman has also killed in the comics. Not often, it's true, and always with a goodly amount of controversy, but he has on occasion done it. He's even had justification sometimes.

Let me tell you about the first time Superman killed Zod.

I suppose we'd better start with the Crisis. In the mid-'80s, DC Comics published CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, a ground-breaking, and reality-breaking maxi-series, the very first Company-Wide Crossover Event. Its purpose was no less than to re-structure the entire DC Universe, condensing the myriad alternate earths into a single, more manageable one. That was the plan, anyway. As the slogan said, “Earths will live; Earths will die; And the DC Universe will never be the same!”

Since they were re-organizing everything anyway, they decided to do the same to a couple of its most iconic character, stripping away decades of accumulated backstory and getting down to the essentials. To do this for Superman, DC scored a coup comparable to Jack Kirby's defection from Marvel a decade earlier. To redefine the biggest star in the DCU, they hired one of the biggest stars at that time at Marvel, John Byrne.

Byrne was probably most famous for his artwork on the All-New, All-Different X-MEN with writer Chris Claremont. He had gone on to draw and write other titles for Marvel, including ALPHA FLIGHT, which he created, AVENGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and a well-regarded run on FANTASTIC FOUR. And I think he came from Marvel with a certain amount of snobbishness. A lot of Marvel fans had the opinion that DC comics were stodgy and unrealistic, while Marvel comics were more believable. Comparatively speaking, at least.

They had a point. During the era when Mort Weisinger edited the SUPERMAN comics, the character had accumulated what could be charitably called a Rich Mythology; (and less-charitably as a Lot of Goofy Stuff): Krypto the Superdog, the Bottle City of Kandor, Red Kryptonite and the broad spectrum of other colors, Clark's Mermaid Girlfriend Lori Lemaris.

Byrne had a mandate from DC to dich all the Weisinger Era stuff and rebuild the Man of Steel from the ground up; starting with a six-issue limited series titled, naturally enough, MAN OF STEEL, which retold Superman's origin and established key pints of his early career: the Destruction of Krypton, his adoption by the Kents; his first encounters with Lois Lane, with Batman, and of course, with Lex Luthor.

He made several changes. Some were trivial: Superman's cape was no longer indestructible. Some were beneficial: Ma and Pa Kent were still alive and able to give him advice from time to time and help keep him grounded. Some were significant: the Planet Krypton was altered from a world of scientific wonders to a cold, sterile dystopia; and Lex Luthor was changed from a criminal scientist to a corrupt zillionaire industrialist. And two of the changes caused severe complication further down the line.

For one thing, it was decreed that in the Post-Crisis Univers, Superman would be the sole survivor of the destruction of Krypton. No more Phantom Zone Criminals; no more Bottle City of Kandor; no more Krypto; and no more Kara Zor-El, better known as Supergirl. This last made a little narrative sense, because Supergirl had been killed during the Crisis, so there was some justification for saying that she had been retroactively deleted from existence. It was still a disappointment for fans of heroines in mini-skirts, though.

The other change seemed more trivial but had far from trivial repercussions. Back during the Silver Age, DC had expanded the Super-Franchise with SUPERBOY, the adventures of Superman, when he was a boy. With the Byrne reboot, it was decided that Post-Crisis, Clark Kent did not don the Big Red “S” costume and begin a public career as a super-hero until he was an adult. Superboy and all his wacky teen super-exploits in Smallville, were chucked down the memory hole, along with Supergirl, Krypto and the Legion of Super-Pets.

Ah, the Legion. There was the rub.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, a team of super-powered teens from the 30th Century, first appeared in a Superboy story in ADVENTURE COMICS. They had been inspired by the example of the Boy of Steel's legend, and so traveled back to the 20th Century to invite young Clark to join their super-club. Superboy became an integral part of Legion history; but with Superboy gone, where did that leave the Legion?

The explanation the writers came up with involved an old Legion villain called the Time Trapper who lived at the End of the Universe. Not the geographic end; the chronological end. It turns out the the Trapper had created a Pocket Universe, similar to our universe in many respects, except that it only contains two inhabited planets: Earth and Krypton. Oh, and the pocket universe has a Superboy. And it turns out that every time the Legion traveled back in time to visit the 20th Century, the Time Trapper was shunting them off into this pocket dimension. Why? He lives at the End of Time, a place almost as boring as Des Moines. He has to do something for amusement.

Superman finds out about the Pocket Universe when that world's Superboy crosses over to his world (along with Krypto!) and appears in Smallville. After some initial confusion, (including a panel which rivals anything in the Weisinger Era for goofiness, in which Krypto tries to stop Superman by pulling on his cape. Superman comments on how odd it is that the flying dog seems surprised that his cape ripped), the Time Trapper's role in this is revealed, and Superboy is returned to the Pocket Universe.

This explanation for the continued existence of Superboy was ingenious, but inelegant. The whole point of the Crisis was to do away with all those extraneous universes. Superboy's Earth was a loose end; and calling it a “Pocket Universe” did not make it any neater.

I don't know if John Byrne received an editorial mandate to eliminate the Pocket Universe, or if he decided to do it on his own initiative; but within a year of the Superboy cross-over, he began a multi-part storyline to ensure that Superman was once again the Last Son of Krypton – any Krypton.
It begins with the appearance of a mysterious new Supergirl. She is not from Krypton, nor from the other Krypton either. Her name is Matrix and she is an artificial life-form created by the Lex Luthor of the Pocket Universe. In her natural state, Matrix looks like an anthropomorphic wad of bubble gum, but she is a shape-shifter and at first appears in the form of Lana Lang, Clark Kent's high school crush, because John Byrne has a thing for redheads.

Matrix has been sent to this world because the Pocket Universe needs Superman's help. Her Earth has been attacked by the three Phantom Zone Criminals led by General Zod and all but conquered.

A quick digression about the Phantom Zone. As old-timers who remember the Christopher Reeves SUPERMAN will recall, the Phantom Zone is an other-dimensional limbo where the Kryptonians used to exile their worst criminals. Superman's father, Jor-El, devised a means of sending criminals to the Phantom Zone as a humane alternative to execution. The idea was that the Kryptonian parole board would periodically check in on the Zone to release those who had served their sentence. Then Krypton blew up. Oops. No parole for you, Zod.

In the Pocket Universe, Zod and some of his followers have escaped from the Phantom Zone and have laid waste to the Earth. By the time Superman gets there, they have wiped out all life on the planet, except for a small enclave built by Luthor, who is a good guy in the Pocket Universe. Superman is just in time to participate in their desperate last stand.

And it is their last stand. In that final battle, pretty much everybody dies: Luthor, Superboy, the works. Zod and his cohorts are defeated, but apart from Matrix, who is badly wounded, only Superman survives on the good guy's side.

And here is where it comes. Zod is captured, at Superman's mercy. Zod has just killed the entire population of the Pocket Universe's Earth; (which, since Krypton has already blown up, is the entire population of the Pocket Universe). It falls to Superman to decide what to do with these criminals.

He goes into Luthor's lab and gets out the kryptonite.

It had been previously established that the kryptonite of the Pocket Universe did not affect Superman any, but it would affect Kryptonians of that universe. Superman takes the kryptonite out of its lead container and exposes Zod and his companions to it until the radiation from the kryptonite kills them. The last survivors of the Pocket Universe are dead.

And Superman broke his most sacred oath; to protect life and to never kill.

But surely, could he be blamed? These criminals had just killed an entire planet full of people; billions of them. Surely they deserved death. You could even make the argument that the relatively quick, if excruciating, death by kryptonite poisoning Superman gave them was more merciful than they deserved. But did Superman have to do it that way?

He could have just banished them to the Phantom Zone again, like Jor-El did years ago. It's not like there was anybody in the Pocket Universe who could bring them back anymore. They would spend the rest of eternity in a dimensional limbo as bodiless phantoms.

Perhaps crueler still, Superman could have just walked away. He could have just gone back to his home universe and left Zod to be emperor of a ruined, lifeless planet. Of course, Superman would want to make sure that Zod couldn't use Luthor's technology to follow him back to Earth, but that wouldn't be all that hard. Or so you would think.

No, comic book narrative logic insists that Zod would find a way out of the Pocket Universe eventually, just as soon as some other writer wanted to use him. Which is why he had to die. The whole point of the story was to get rid of the Pocket Universe, and eliminate all those pesky loose ends.

Byrne could have had Zod killed by a twist of fate; by an act of hubris that proved fatal. He could have had Superman kill him in the heat of battle, as Superman later did with Doomsday. Instead, he chose to have Superman execute Zod, with cold-blooded deliberation. I think that's what stuck in the craw of many fans. I know it bugged me.

And then Byrne left and went back to Marvel. The issue in which Superman kills Zod was the last one John Byrne wrote on his run of SUPERMAN; his farewell to the Last Son of Krypton. Later on he did other stories for DC, such as a decent WONDER WOMAN run during the '90s, and the Green Lantern graphic novel GANTHET'S TALE, written by Larry Niven; but his re-defining of the Post-Crisis Superman, and the bitter ending to his reign, marks a significant era in Superman history.

Afterwards, the Legion of Super-Heroes dealt with the Time Trapper, which wound up retroactively messing up their history further.

One character from the Pocket Universe survived: Matrix, who now formally adopted the identity of Supergirl, because DC has to keep the trademark active so that they can continue to license Supergirl Underoos; and who adopted the Supergirl look and hair color the fans knew and loved, because parents aren't going to buy their daughters Lana Lang Underoos. Supergirl dated Lex Luthor Jr. for a while, until she learned that he was actually Lex Luthor Sr. in a cloned body. Gross. Then she merged with an angel, (which was not as doofy as that sounds) and after a while faded away to be replaced by a more traditional version of Supergirl in a later DC re-boot.

And what about Super-Judge, Jury and Executioner? The writing team that replaced Byrne had Clark grapple with an enormous amount of guilt after killing Zod. He killed one dangerous enemy. What would he do the next time he was in such a situation? Would it become the easy way out? Troubled by his conscience, Clark began unconsciously fighting crime in his sleep, taking on the identity of a non-powered street-level hero because he was afraid of misusing his powers. Finally, worrying that he might become a danger to the public, he left Earth for a time, wandering space in a self-imposed penance. It was a while before he regained his equilibrium.

I guess at heart I'm a bit like Jim Kirk. I've never liked the Kobiyashi Maru, the “No-Win” situation, ever since the time in a college writing class we were given such a situation to write about. (I came up with a third option which the instructor hadn't given us; I had the option fail because under the premise we were given it couldn't work, but by Crumb I insisted on making a third option).

I can understand a writer wanting to challenge his hero by putting him in a situation where he has to make hard choices that test his ethical principles. And you can argue that allowing the hero to come up with an escape that lets him out of those choices is contrived and unrealistic. But it seems to me that the situations some writers come up with to force heroes like Superman into these choices is just as contrived.

And that's how I felt about the First Death of Zod.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Alex Schomburg and the fire it lit in Roy Thomas

The world went to war in the late 1930s, and early to mid 1940s.  The comic book world reflected that.  Artist Alex Schomburg was a comic book artist utilized on comic covers for his ability to use the assembled featured characters in a scene on the cover, regardless of whether they'd be together inside the pages.  All Winners comics provided the prototype eventually for the comic book team of the Invaders, in issue 19 and 21.  However, Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema, and later Frank Robbins created a team composed of the characters featured, usually, by Alex Schomburg.

The Invaders fought in WW II in Roy Thomas's Marvel Universe, and later, he committed the same love and attention in the DC Comics universe.  The Justice Society and All Star Squadron played a similar role as the Invaders.  Without the covers stirring the imagination of Roy Thomas, who knows how vital a role the Invaders would play in the eventual Marvel Universe?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Renaissance Man Clark Ashton Smith, Poet, Artist, Writer, Cthulhuist

It may never occur to you to read anyone other than HP Lovecraft when reading Cthulhu tales.  And it might never occur to you to read Cthulhu at all.  But if you do read Cthulhu Clark Ashton Smith is a writer who you will want to add to your list.  He was skilled more as a poet and some say as a sculptor than as a long form prose writer, but this is not to say he was at all anything but great as a prose writer.  His work was creepy, dark, evocative of horror, and made other writers of Cthulhu tales pale in comparison.

Smith's work was considered by his peers to be superlative.  His critics, however, were often unrelenting in their criticism with issues of taste and issues of what should and should not be in a horror tale.  Despite the fact that his work was not prurient or lurid, the language use was so vivid and powerful, people suggested that Smith was in love with rotting flesh, and the corrupted corpse.  His work was more popular during his lifetime, and pursuing it now is expensive.  But the pursuit of it is well worth the cost.

His poetry, for me, is even more worthy, and has power to evoke in ways no one presently can imagine.  So be open minded, expand your search, and inhale Clark Ashton Smith's work.