First dip

Dave over on Dave's Long Box (and across Elliott Bay from me) today reviewed an issue of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. I took this, like a bat flying through an open window as I sit my smoking jacket, as an omen. So, here's a comic that is actually in my last shortbox:

Directory to a Nonexistent Universe, December 1987. Created by Kerry Callen; published by Independent Comics Group.

The 1980s were rife with superhero universe directories. Marvel had the OHMU; DC published Who's Who: A Definitive Guide to the DC Universe and both soft and hardcover versions of a History of the DC Universe; I'm sure there were others. In the midst of this came this parody directory, and it was right on target.

Callen faithfully imitated the traditional directory format: each page had a pin-up style illustration of the character alongside a text box detailing his or her origin and powers. A horizontal panel ran across the bottom of each page, showing the hero (or villain, or oddball character -there were some of those, too) in action. A closer look reveals the loving mockery in each entry.

Speaking of omens, here's the full text for The Envelope:
Origin: During a breezy afternoon in June, Wayne Allen emerged from the local store with his newly bought sack of groceries. Suddenly realizing he had forgotten his checkbook, Allen set the groceries on his car hood and went back inside. When he returned to his car, his bag of groceries had vanished!
Infuriated by the event, Allen vowed to avenge himself by waging war on most criminals. He spent the next three and a half days training himself to the peak of physical and mental perfection.
That night, as Allen sat at the desk in study, a strong breeze blew through his window, causing an envelope to fly off his desk and flutter onto the floor. Seeing this event as an omen, Allen put on a tightly fitting costume and set out into the darkness to find his groceries.
Powers: The Envelope has no actual super-powers, but he is still a darn good athlete. Probably better than you are.

I think we have Christian Bale's next role.

The book is clearly written for fans, readers who know the conventions and tropes of superhero comics - well, for people like me.

Take the entry for Macho Ma'am: Callen relates how Tulip Overton built a device to increase her strength after losing an arm-wrestling tournament, and, of course, now fights crime. Her powers section says "However, since the machine which increased her strength was built in anger (catch this irony), the madder she gets, the weaker she becomes." Isn't that just perfect silver-age silly-science? I wouldn't be surprised if that concept had been used seriously somewhere.

Or this entry for Grow-Arm-Hair Lad: After relating how mutant Harry Kidd discovered his, er, amazing power, stole his dad's razor, and told his mother he was in a play in order to get her to sew his costume, the text concludes "Then this lying little thief had the gall to want to fight crime."

Callen includes twenty-three characters --heroes, villains, freaks, some cheesecake, and a dog-- as well as three super-groups and a bonus story that parodies the grand, every-hero-in-sight epics of the time such as Secret Wars and Cosmic Odyssey. Not all of the entries are home runs: Night Knight looks like he was intended to be a "serious" hero at one time, and Osborn the Unicorn seems a little too much of a riff on Cerebus, but overall the comedy is consistent and clever.

The art adds a great deal to the success of humor; with substandard illustration, the book would have been much flatter, but Callen shows competent draftsmanship for the pin-ups and a good sense of design in action panels and the short story. I just loved the detail he put into his characters; check out the stamp motif on The Envelope's chest emblem.

I have always felt that creators satirize those things they don't like and parody those things they love. D2NU is a loving parody that captures all the silliness of the conventions of superheroes and yet maintains that spirit of fun and joy that superhero comics can have. At the same time, it is mocking the exagerrated importance of these kinds of directories and the trend toward continuity-uber-alles that they seemed to be part of.

Special bonus: Kerry Callen is apparently still at work! His Halo and Sprocket series features clever writing and even better art than 18 years ago. Check it out here and go pick up his stuff - I know I will be.

Season's greetings

Hanukkah began this year on December 25. For those unfamiliar with the holiday, it commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem after the victory of the Maccabees over the Sellucid Empire (a successor remnant of Alexander the Great's empire). During the dedication ceremonies, a one-day supply of oil kept the temple lamps burning for eight days; this was the Miracle of the Lights.

In keeping with all the Christmas-special comics that have been highlighted here and there recently, I would like to present what might be the only Hanukkah-special comic:

Yeah, I know it doesn't scream "Let's light the menorah" at you, and it can't hold a candle to the Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer, but at least the caption mentions a miracle.

This cover for JLA (dated March 1981) actually represents the backup story in the book. The 14-pager opens with Ray Palmer visiting a Jewish friend and clumsily explaining that he doesn't know much about Judaism; this is all a set-up so that Ray's friend can tell him (and the reader) all about the Maccabees and the miracle, foreshadowing the upcoming comic book irony.

Something happens that requires the Atom to go to the Justice League satellite, where there is an emergency that breaches the station and compromises life support (important, since it's non-powered Leaguers who are all there); there's one of those scenes where Elongated Man has to "stretch further than he ever has before" to rescue (I believe) the unconscious Hawkman floating out in space. So the Leaguers are all doing stuff to fix the station and Atom is trying to keep some jerry-rigged life support going. The heroes save the day and thank Atom as he comes back out of the whatsis he was shrunk into; he tells them that whatever he was trying didn't work, and that the life support systems should have run out minutes earlier.

See?! It was just like the oil lasting longer that it possibly could have! It was a Hanukkah miracle, right there in the JLA headquarters! And if you didn't get it, that's all right, because Atom explains it to everyone.

It was no worse than lots of star-from-out-of-nowhere or last-minute-melting-of-a-cold-heart Christmas stories; it was certainly no better, either. I guess I treasure it for its uniqueness. Of course, if there have been other Hanukkah stories since then that I have missed, I'd love to hear of it!

Happy holidays, everyone.

(Full disclosure: This comic isn't in the Last Shortbox either. I had two copies; I sold one with rest of the collection and gave one to a friend. My comments were based mostly on memory, although I did look up the date of the issue. I'll start the scanning and reviewing soon. Promise.)

The real first post - contextualizing

This isn't a comic that is actually in the shortbox (there I go, breaking my own rules already). It is, however, the first specific comic that I have a memory of.

I can remember being given comic books, along with my cousins, to keep me busy while the family was keeping vigil, waiting for my grandmother to die; that must have been when I was about six or so. This comic is from a few years later, in late 1966 or 1967 (the book is dated March 1967). While it is not the first comic I ever read, for some reason the cover image has stayed with me all these years; when I found an image just a week or so ago, I was amazed at how accurate my memory had been.

Let's leave aside all the wonderful siver age goofiness: the DC go-go checks, the crowns on the heroes (Superman sorta looks like Jughead, doesn't he?), the yellow-oval batsuit, and so on, and look at just two things that made this cover memorable for me.

The first element that appeals to me about this cover is the use of the dramatic gesture of slicing the globe. These guys are dividing up the world between them, and they're not just making lists or drawing lines on maps: they are slicing up a globe with swords. I think that gets a real multi-layered point across about power and greed and force; it did to me when I was a kid. I remember just studying this cover and all it had to say.

The other thing that I have never forgotten about this cover is that it is where I learned the idiom "lion's share." I was an avid reader as a child - not just comics, but all kinds of "real" books - and I have to say I learned as much from silver age comics as I did from any other source of entertainment reading. It wasn't just the PSAs and the
Science Says You're Wrong features presenting unusual facts; it was the subtly sophisticated language of the stories themsleves, the allusions to historical and literary figures, the use of real science and law in plots. Later, I figured that this content must have been the result of the comics' being written by people who actually had had full lives and experiences outside of comics, and who brought to them a complex sensibility. (I can remember how astonished I was when I learned that Gardner Fox had been a lawyer.)

Anyway, that's where I am coming from: I'm a guy whose comics taste may have been determined by thinking for 39 years that the cover of World's Finest 165 is great. We'll see how far that takes us.

First post

Just to have something here