So, the other day I was off at the local library and decided to check out their graphic novel collection*. I haven't made a habit of regularly getting my comics from the library, but I think I will start - the collection is getting broader and the practice would be a nice corollary to my "wait for the trades" policy.

One book I borrowed from the library was Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Superman For All Seasons (DC Comics: 1998). This was a book I had seen in its original single-issue format and decided to wait for the collection; once the TPB came out, I looked at it a few times but never picked it up. Having a chance to read it at my leisure for free was all it took!

In the end, I'm glad I waited and waited, because I don't think I would have been satisfied with this purchase. I know there has been a lot of praise heaped upon this work, but I didn't think it was all that successful a piece.

I think I got what Loeb was trying to do - the whole Norman Rockwellization of Kal-El, if you will - and I can appreciate where that approach comes from - showing that Superman might have started as an alien, but has become a naturalized American, through and through. I just think the presentation was a bit heavy-handed, and inaccurate, to boot.

Clark Kent's homespun beginnings and influences - delivered mostly through Pa Kent's ruminations and amplified by the LLs' caption boxes - are just too saccharine and simplistic; I can't imagine getting the moral grounding to deal with near-infinite power from such homely truisms and conventional wisdom. "We each do what we're able to, Clark, some less, some more," Pastor Lindquist tells him. Is that empty homily supposed to help a superman make decisions?

It also bothered me that the Kents seemed so middle-of-the-road; I liked the early, left-leaning, fatcat-bashing Superman of the Golden Age, and always imagined Pa Kent as an old Wobblie with some shady anarchist connections from his early days, who moved to Kansas from West Virginia after the Matewan Massacre or something. And maybe Ma was a suffragette and a socialist. I mean, Clark had to have gotten those political leanings from somewhere. I didn't see any populist or progressive attitudes on display in Smallville.

Sale's art follows along with the story themes very closely - which is to say, a bit over-the-top. I liked the cartoony style and the bulky Clark; that was cool. The Kents teetered on the edge of gnomish, however, and the art direction was all over the map: the faux-forties in Smallville and retro-future in Metropolis I can see, but the seventies Luthor-suits, the oh-so-nineties Toxin (puh-lease), and the contemporary (ballcap-backwards) kid seemed jarringly out-of-place as a result.

Which is not to say Sale didn't do some great stuff anyway and try to develop a consistent visual vocabulary: for example, the composition in this panel, repeated several times, was a great artistic device linking the boy from Smallville to the man in Metropolis.

In any case, the book wasn't bad, I just didn't think it was great. It was certainly several orders of magnitude better then the execrable World of Metropolis, which it resembles structurally.

I'm glad the library had it.

*Way back in the dark ages of 1994 or so, I was instrumental in developing the first specific comics collection in the Seattle Public Library. My branch managing librarian got an allocation for a special collection and let me spend it on comics: I remember buying Maus and Barefoot Gen, but can't recall what the rest of that initial collection comprised.

Have a cuppa coffee with me - at the comic shop!

I needed to get out of the house tonight to make room for an all-girl book club meeting; this being Seattle, of course, I headed for some coffee and wi-fi. However, you won't find me in any S***bucks -- tonight, I'm mixing caffeine and comics books:

Coffee and Comics
1408 NE 45th Street
Seattle, WA

Apparently, this place has been here for over a year, but it just hit my radar recently. With Seattle as coffee-centric as it is and comics-savvy to boot (Fantagraphics is just down the road a piece), I wonder why I didn't figure that we would have a coffee shop focused on comic books.

You could easily overlook this small, hole-in-the-wall joint -- of the kind that usually has the best coffee (they serve good Vivace here). Inside, the wooden bistro tables look to seat ten comfortably, with plenty of power outlets for laptops, and near the front two cushy chairs invite lingering and reading. The menu includes all the usual coffee drinks, tea (including chai), and a very limited selection of muffiny stuff. They also default to ceramic cups for service, and only use paper for to-go orders. Yay, green!

A bookcase of graphic novels and trade paperbacks sits in the corner near the big window, serving as a library and back-issue rack both.

One interior wall is covered with "artist wanted" notices, posters, and local art samples.

Yeah, that's one of Jeph Jacques's Questionable Content cast posters hanging there; here's the detail of a cool sketch that is under it:

(She is saying "knitty gritty.")

Up front near the service counter, a sales rack holds new releases; the shop also does weekly pulls (you might not notice the pull shelves behind the rack -- I didn't -- but the friendly barista, Lola, pointed them out to me.)

The usual phalanx of action figures and figurines stands watch over the comics:

So, I don't know if this will give the Mike Sterling any ideas to start serving espresso, but I'm having a grand time here. Now, if you'll excuse me, my coffee's getting cold.

(Yes, this was real-time blogging. I took all the photos just now and uploaded them here to my laptop. As I press publish, it's 7:55 pm.)

Legion of substitute posts

I like to post once a week, over the weekend, and since it's already Monday night, it appears I am a little behind schedule. So, in lieu of a real post, here's a miscellaneous tidbit that might be of interest.

I often read a blog called The Cartoonist, which covers lots of art-stuff, usually not including comics. A recent post comprised a link to a Flickr photo set called "Retro Sexy," which featured what looked like the set-up shots from seventies soft-core porn. Here's a sample photo, with a little twist:

Now, I don't know how sexy you think the photo is, but look at what the woman on the bed is reading - is that a Donald Duck comic? It looks to me we can clearly see Huey, Dewey, and Louie in the page facing the camera. Seems a bit of an odd choice for pre-makeout reading, no?

Staff, Jack and dis-types

Jack Staff, Vol. 2: Soldiers
By Paul Grist and Phil Elliot
Image Comics: 2004

I read and reviewed Paul Grist's first Jack Staff collection a few weeks ago, so it's probably not surprising that I have devoured the second volume. Soldiers is a bit of a change from Everything Used to be Black and White in a specific way: it is in color. I don't want to say the color is bad, because Phil Elliott did a great job doing whatever all the things are that colorists actually do in this digital age, and the book looks great, but after reading a collection of twelve issues in black and white, it was a bit jarring, and Grist's illustrations are so strong they don't seem to need colors anyway.

The story itself continues to backfill Jack's history, filling us in on why (at the start of the first volume) he had been absent from heroing for twenty years. It features the now-familiar cast of reporters, cops, agents, robots, and supervillains, most of whom would be as comfortable on an ITC television series as in a comic book. Grist continues to develop his mastery of the multi-layered narrative and provides us with another ripping yarn, fraught with portent and hidden depth, but it is on three of those supporting characters whom I would like to focus today.

Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter

A modern Nellie Bly in Annie Hall's castoffs, Becky is driven, dedicated, and competent; young, but no ingenue, and a decidedly non-nosferatic vampire, she is a professional whose agenda sometimes parallels and sometimes conflicts with Jack's. There might be the slimmest hints of the beginnings of some sort of romantic entanglement in their relationship, but mostly they find themselves circumstantial allies trying to survive the same catastrophes.

I have noticed that twice so far, Jack has responded to requests for assistance from Becky by saying he was too busy to help; Becky has gotten herself out of the situation anyway: so much for the damsel in distress trope. Jack had better be careful, or she'll stop letting him tag along on her adventures.

Helen Morgan, Q Branch

Morgan is the enigmatic lead agent of Q Branch, an X-Files-like unit that kicks a bit more ass than Fox and Scully ever did. She puts me in mind of what the Phantom Stranger might be like if he joined the civil service; mysterious and powerful, but in a mundane and quotidian way, a George Smiley of the paranormal. Her quiet presence drives and directs the efforts of the splashier coppers and super-cops, but she's not at all hesitant to get down and dirty when she needs to.

How tough is she? Well, in Soldiers, Detective Inspector Maveryk, consumed by a mysterious rage effect plaguing the community, surprises her and beats her to death with his police baton in an interrogation room, and then drunkenly awaits his discovery and arrest in the squad room. Here's the upshot:

Now that's tough - not a word, not even a look. Don't mess with Helen Morgan.

Liz Stewart, Special Military Intelligence, Lethal Executive

Were Bruce Willis a woman, he might be able to play Commander Stewart, if he could reign in his soft side. This hard-as-gravel military operative is strong, single-minded, and smart. Whether facing up to an out-of-control superior officer or fighting her way through a town of enraged killers, she is in control, and puts the "no" in no-nonsense. Here she is mixing it up with The Claw, a Q agent who is invisible except for his electric hand:

Stewart was introduced only this volume, but I am looking forward to seeing more of her - as long as she's not after me.

What do these three characters have in common? Besides being cool, they are all women. I know I recently read a post somewhere that argued against praising writers for writing strong female characters because, after all, that's just what they ought to be doing, and we shouldn't praise people for merely doing the right thing. I find myself forced to disagree with this position; sometimes doing what we should do, in the face of peer pressure or tradition or temptation or even just ease and inertia, is noteworthy, at least to the degree that such attention would encourage further good work. It is in that spirit that I single out Paul Grist for this particular praise.

Becky Burdock, Helen Morgan, and Liz Stewart are all fascinating and colorful characters and could have - and likely would have - been written as typical male characters by a lesser talent; I call this progress, of a sort. Each of them is a woman, but none is The Woman: each has a purpose, role, and a nature beyond her gender alone.

Yet, we get the sense that each one is fully-fleshed-out character whose gender is part and parcel of her makeup, not just a random characteristic chosen from a character-generation program for an RPG, or a checkmark on a diversity quota list. There is no T&A in this book, but if women are your fancy, I defy you to read this without falling a little bit in love with at least one of these characters, because they are all real and wonderful.

And that, my friends, is worthy of note.

Bonus Strong Female Lead: Patti Smith

This is the cover of the "What's Happening" section of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of those inserts that come out on Fridays with arts and events calendars. The cover story features Patti Smith, who was having a show in town, and the story applauded her neverending battle against the commercialization of rock.

As soon as I looked at the cover, I got it, but to be test it out, I showed it to my partner, a non-comics-reading female person, and asked her what she saw. She almost immediately said "She's supposed to be Wonder Woman." I asked what made Patti Smith into Wonder Woman; she pointed at the tiara, and then noticed the wristbands as well.

Now, if that's not iconic status, I don't know what is. I don't care what anyone says, for pop culture reasons alone, Wonder Woman is, and always will be,one of the big three.

Now, if they could only get her comic right...


Sorry there was no post last week - I flew from Seattle to JFK on the Thursday night redeye in order to attend a wedding in Connecticut, and came back to Seattle in time to teach on Monday morning. It was a great wedding, but that's a lot of miles to cover in one weekend.

Not quite comics: Book "review"

Bradbury: An Illustrated Life (A Journey to Far Metaphor)

By Jerry Weist; William Morrow (2002)

As I was leaving school last week, a colleague handed me this book, saying his wife had picked it up at a sale and he thought I might be interested in it. I was a pretty big fan of Ray Bradbury back in the day, and a look at the graphics associated with his books seemed at least mildly interesting. And it was a big book (which is why I had to take a picture of it on my sidewalk - it was too big for the scanner), so the illustrations were high quality.

Imagine my delight when I found that in the midst of chapters such as "From pulps to slicks" and "The Theater and Ray Bradbury" that chapter four was "EC Comics and Ray Bradbury: The Untold Story..."

I haven't had a chance to read the chapter thoroughly, but it describes the association between Bradbury and Bill Gaines, EC's publisher, that grew after Bradbury discovered some plagiarized material in the comic books Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, and Weird Fantasy. Instead of the litigation that would probably follow today, Bradbury both got his due for the "stolen" work and pitched some future ideas in charming correspondence with the EC offices. Once a cordial relationship had been established, EC adapted several Bradbury works over the course of the following few years.

The book contains some great samples of artwork from those adaptations; the roster of creators read like a list of nominees for the Comics Hall of Fame.

This is the Wally Wood splash page for the unauthorized adaptation of "Rocket Man" and "Kaleidescope" from Weird Fantasy #13 in 1952, the story that started it all. The book contains the following samples of work from Jack Davis and Al Williamson, as well as work from Bernard Krigstein and John Severin.

I guess I was dimly aware the Bradbury stories had been adapted to comics in various forms, but I had no idea of the extent of his relationship with EC.

Not quite comics: Movie "Review"

Comic Book Pajama Party: Women Who Love Comic Books!
Latitude X - 2005

The Netflix envelope for this movie reads, in part: Meet eight beautiful, intelligent and fun young women who also happen to be huge comic book fans. Gathering together one evening to talk about the comic books they love -- and hate -- these gals lounge, eat chocolate, guzzle wine, and give you the low-down [...] Be a fly on the wall as these smart, savvy and outspoken chicks dish about more than just pop culture.

I wish that I could recommend this documentary; it would be nice to have a decent resource in the ongoing discussion of "women and comics" that seems to be part and parcel of the comicsweblogosphere these days. Unfortunately, this is a really crappy film.

It begins with a self-introduction by each of the participants, filmed in a comics store; each woman gives a quick thumbnail of her interests and (for some undisclosed reason) answers the question "Are ninjas cool?"

After all the players are introduced, the scene shifts to an apartment. All the women are there, in various sorts of jammies*, doing what passes for pajama party stuff when all the attendees are strangers to each other and there is a camera crew in the room. They show each other comics, play with action figures, have earnest discussions with polite disagreements, eat, drink, and so on. About halfway through the film, a splinter group separates and goes upstairs to a bedroom to talk about anime and manga while the main crew stays in the living room to talk about American comics (but not just the big two). And then the film closes with a game of Twister.

The production values are awful. Besides shaky and undistinguished camera work, the sound is all out of balance and the volume level changes randomly. More importantly, there is no artfulness or even coherent design to the editing; conversations are captured in all their rambling and incoherent glory, and there is no arc to the discussion or apparent intent to the film. Other than some narration at the beginning, the documentarians' efforts are seen only in the on-screen captions, which either elaborate on information given or give superfluous scene summaries; otherwise, this could have been random scraps of film from a home video found on a subway platform.

Try as I could to glean some data from this mess, I felt it was pretty much a waste. Here's what I learned:

  • The filmmakers think that girls didn't use to read comics, but that now they do. (This contradicts some readership figures I have seen about comics readers in the forties.)
  • Almost all of the women thought that huge-breasted comics women were stupid, silly, and juvenile; I don't think any of them called the images "offensive." (They spent some time discussing the topic.)
  • Many of the women expressed an enjoyment of the action or violence that is part of the superhero genre, but only one seemed to really like gore.
  • Most of the women said it was well-written stories that kept them reading comics.

Not much silver for so much dross. Unless you are a real completist on the subject, I don't think that Pajama Party is worth seeking out.

*The one thing I can categorically state about the film is that, beyond choosing the conceit of a slumber party as the backdrop for the discussion (I mean, couldn't it have been a luncheon or something?), I didn't see a lot of sexism or sexuality in the film. The women are all dressed modestly and appropriately in comfy clothes (sweatpants, what we used to call "hostess pajamas," and the like), there is no cheesecake or gratuitous camera work, and even the Twister game is more sisterly than sexy. In fact, the best thing about the film is the women - I wish I could actually get to meet them and hear what they have to say, instead of seeing them through the muddy lens of this movie, because they all seemed like "intelligent and fun young women."

Last note: While watching this, my partner (before she left the room out of boredom and annoyance) asked me if any of the women were bloggers I read. I have to say, that after seeing the names and capsule bios, I don't think so, but who knows? As the New Yorker cartoon said, on the internet, no one knows you're a dog.

Czech your passports before you leave...

It's official - more Britons lose their passports, get arrested and are taken to hospital in the Czech Republic than other more popular countries. The British Behaviour Abroad Report report commissioned by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office claims that British tourists require an unusually high amount of consular assistance. They do have a theory for this though - the unusually high amount of people having stag and hen nights in the region. Top of the list of countries where British travellers sought consular assistance is Spain but proportionately, there were a total of 13.8m Britons visiting Spain in 2005/6; as you guessed correctly, it is the most popular holiday destination. The FCO advises holidaymakers to thoroughly research their destination, obtain comprehensive travel insurance, take photocopies of important documents, leave copies at home and to keep copies with them whilst out and about and of course, they advise us to visit their website before heading off. The FCO have made numerous useful publications available for those planning to travel abroad. These include country profiles, latest news and legislation, advice on UK visas, foreign embassies in the UK and overseas and international priorities.

ISPAL - Latest Issue

The latest issue of ISPAL's ezine is now available - includes latest news relating to sport, parks and leisure; a diary of courses and events is available. Also contains details of jobs in the recreation industry, professional development and tenders. more...