Monday, November 20, 2017

Justice League And The Fourth World!

Like many folks I guess, I went to see the Justice League movie in the theaters and I admit I was entertained. Though far from a perfect movie, this flick did do what a Justice League movie is supposed to do, put together recognizable heroes of the DC Universe and have them battle a menace of world-conquering proportions, one that none of them could battle and defeat alone. This movie went one step further and took the concepts of the Jack Kirby's Fourth World and fused them into a flick for all the world to wonder at.

More after these SPOILER WARNINGS.

We enter a world we've visited a few times now -- a world in which Superman's appearance some years before rocked the philosophical underpinnings of how mankind saw itself. This is a world in despair after the fall of its newest messiah and a world in which Bruce Wayne as Batman is plumbing the shadows of the cities looking for the vestiges of a new threat which has appeared in the wake of Superman's passing. This is threat is the one Luthor invoked at the end of the last movie, the fell threat of Darkseid. But it's not Darkseid we meet, but rather his uncle and agent Steppenwolf. Spread around the Earth are three "Mother Boxes" which when joined together will form a "Unity" which bodes poorly for the survival of mankind as we know it. The threat is vague but it's a threat which was beaten back thousands of years before by the combined might of the Amazons, the Atlanteans, the Olympian Gods, and even some Green Lanterns, in addition to mankind itself. Then in a Tolkienesque touch the tokens of the deadly menace which they had beaten back were distributed to the various populations and hidden. The Atlanteans guard one, the Amazons guard one and mankind has hidden one somewhere. In the role of Frodo is Victor Stone who has become a superhero because his life was saved by using Mother Box technology to make him a Cyborg. And now Steppenwolf has returned with an army of deadly Parademons to do his bidding. Batman knows that he and Wonder Woman will not be sufficient to face the threat and despite getting help from Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman, still knows they need to resurrect Superman. They do and combined into a fighting unit they confront the enemy and as we know they must defeat the threat for now.

That's the story, straightforward enough, but alas still filled with lots of unknowns, so many that in the final analysis feeling good about the defeat of Steppenwolf is difficult to do. He is always a proxy for Darkseid and any victory against him is a small and temporary one. It is in establishing the villain that the movie fails most thoroughly. Steppenwolf is a CGI creation and unfortunately not a very compelling one. Despite a dandy actor (Cirian Hinds) we get little from him beside the obligatory bluster and contempt all such villains bray. And in failing to define the threat, the movie makers fail to give the League menace which can define them. They all rise to the occasion, but beyond marking their bravery, the attacks on Steppenwolf demands little of them. As nifty as it was to see Parademons they never rise above cannon fodder and so are not unlike the rocks and cement which falls, dangerous but without wit or any sense of will.

As for the heroes, I found Cyborg to be a pleasant surprise. He had much more screen presence than I anticipated and the way his technological origin was folded into the menace made much of the story make more sense as there was instantly less reliance on coincidence to make events cohere. Fortunately there is very little inkling that the Mother Boxes exert a malign control on Cyborg or the Frodo comparison would be even more profound. The Flash was a nice alternative to the generally dour heroes, his lack of battle experience becoming a neat entry for the viewer as the war begins to rage with a hectic abandon. Batman and Wonder Woman are fighting machines, giving over to it so efficiently that there's no inner sense of danger for the viewer to latch onto. It is only in the Flash that we feel the weight of what they do. Aquaman was a ton of fun to watch and listen to, his sarcasm a worthy counterpoint to Batman's grim pronouncements and Wonder Woman's aged wisdom. It is in these heroes and their interactions that the film finds vitality.

I've read a lot of beef with Batman. But the Batman here is a generation removed from any we've seen before. This is the Batman after decades of battling crime in Gotham who faces a deadly menace beyond his ability to cope if not to understand. He knows he's a small fish now in a world filled with Supermen and Wonder Women and only his wits and his tech are going to allow him any chance to compete. I found him fun to watch, brutal and direct and canny. He's Wildcat with money, the grizzled boxer who wants to  give the new kids a sense of the danger they face and to simultaneously feed off some of that eagerness to wage the fight. Wonder Woman feels, Superman understands, but it's Batman who knows and that knowledge weighs on him like years which separate him from his prime.

The mutation of the "Mother Boxes' into engines of destruction and not as they are represented in the Kirby comics as delicate devices of encouragement and comfort was hard to understand. I hope we learn more eventually about their nature and how they fit into worlds at the the end of the Boom Tubes. And that is my biggest gripe with this movie, the lack of any sense of a world beyond the Boom Tube. They appear to deliver Steppenwolf and eventually to suck him up but we never get any sense of the locale on the other side. That failing makes his menace less potent and turns all of the hectic battling into just spectacle and not a heartfelt war for survival it continually purports to be. There is no sacrifice in the end which makes the viewer feel the weight of the war. Amazons die when Steppenwolf first appears but in Atlantis the battle seems underwhelming and the finale was too much video game to really be that compelling.

The "Justice League" itself was wonderful see. Sadly the enemy was not up to the task. As the second tag ending showcased though, maybe next time Luthor and The Exterminator can round up some baddies that do answer the call. We'll have to hope and see.


The sad truth is I only liked the movie and I wanted to love Justice League. I don't. Alas, the movie failed to achieve the depth of theme that its predecessors reached.  That's largely because the villainy is incoherent. The threat of Darkseid and of Apokolips is the loss of free will and the resultant souless domination of man. Steppenwolf's threat appears much more a menace to the body and not to the spirit. Because he's just a big and very strong opponent, his defeat means less in the narrative and required less of the heroes. In the last movie we lost a hero who sacrificed himself for our sakes and in this one we gain heroes who battle on our behalf. The latter is noble and deserving of praise, but doesn't strike at the heart in the same way or make the same impression. Justice League is about a group of heroes who assemble to stop a villain from taking over the world. You'd think that would be enough, but as it turns out it wasn't quite.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Blackmark Of Kane!

Gil Kane is one of those artists who left his mark on comics in a most specific way. He developed a style quite unlike anyone else, immediately recognizable and full of a vibrant kinetic energy which rippled across the page and leaped off the page at the reader.

A working artist who served well and reliably on early DC efforts like Rex the Wonder DogThe Atom and Green Lantern, he tumbled across the field to work for Marvel on Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and the Hulk among many others. He was the go-to cover for Marvel for many years. He worked for Tower Comics on the beloved THUNDER Agents. He was considered for a brief time to be the replacement artist for Barry Windsor Smith when he stepped away from Conan the Barbarian. I would have to imagine that  notion came in no small part because of Blackmark.

Blackmark was the brawny and visceral hero of  a distinctively "primitive world of the future" as presented in a proposed series of paperback comics scheduled to to be published by Bantam Books. Alas despite a scheme for three tomes, only one ever graced the stands and that one apparently failed to find the kinds of sales that Bantam craved or anticipated. Blackmark, not unlike its independent magazine cousin His Name Is...Savage disappeared after only a single issue. And that was it.

The came Roy Thomas, a booster for many artists and a friend and colleague of Gil Kane. The two seemed to find a wonderful balance working together and when Barry Smith wanted off his hit Conan the Barbarian, it was Gil Kane that Thomas considered as his replacement.

Kane did two issues of the regular Conan run and then had to beg off as Smith returned briefly. When Smith left again soon thereafter John Buscema (the original choice) was tapped and comics history was well and truly made.

Kane went on to become a durable part of the Bullpen and worked on a number of comics including the giant-size version of Conan which adapted Robert E. Howard's The Hour of the Dragon. When Thomas pushed out The Savage Sword of Conan in 1974 to take full advantage of the craving for more barbarians, he clearly was hungry for content which might fill the pages and Blackmark came to mind. The pages from the Bantam paperback were re-pasted for the new format and in the first four issues of the successful magazine Kane's singular swordsman appeared in the back pages, never rating a cover but getting several mentions.

Later still, the second unpublished Blackmark graphic novel was adapted from the format designed for publication in a Bantam paperback and published in its entirety by Marvel in Marvel Preview. This time Blackmark rated a cover appearance in a painting by an artist named Romas.

And that was it for the benighted saga of Blackmark for many years. Eventually however the folks at Fantagraphics saw fit to finally publish the material all together for the first time in a format which followed the pattern of the original Bantam books but somewhat larger to allow the artwork to be better appreciated. This volume from the early years of this century remains the definitive edition of Gil Kane's great epic, an epic which sadly like so many wonderful concepts of that era remained unfinished, though far from unsatisfying.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Weird Western Tales Of Jonah Hex!

The cowboy comic book was fading away. Superheroes were once again ascendant in the early 70's, despite a bout of horror which goosed the marketplace for a few years. The future of comics was generally dim as the newsstand distribution system was creaking and wheezing, but if editors knew anything, it was that superheroes sold.

So it was most remarkable that in All-Star Western #11 that a new western star debuted. Jonah Hex owed much to the "Spaghetti Western", the weird alternate-universe variation on westerns streaming in from the European continent. TV stars were kick-starting careers in gritty downbeat misadventures purporting to tell tales of the old west.

Among these was one Clint Eastwood who became literally iconic in the role of "The Man with No Name" in movies like A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (I've always been fascinated by these Italian movies which adapt the Japanese Yojimbo by Kurosawa which itself adapted the American Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett -- it's a small world)So the folks at DC took the visual zest of Eastwood and messed up the face to avoid outright theft and came up with a  compelling and dangerous character named "Jonah Hex".

Hex was a bounty hunter, and he was one like few in western comics before. Not unlike the western heroes of the small screen and the big screen before them, the cowboy hero was often reluctant to deal death. Instead there was a lot of shooting guns from stinging fingers and wounding in legs and whatnot. None of that rot for Hex, he shot to kill. And he wasn't any too nice about it either. Hex was positively unlikable, even craven in his earliest appearances. He was the title character, but he wasn't always the hero by any means.

In the earliest days of Weird Western Tales (the beautifully re-titled All-Star Western) Hex was not always the cover feature, having to share that role with Gray Morrow's El Diablo. And in those issues which cost a quarter we get some reprints of past DC westerns like Bat Lash and Pow-Wow Smith.

But he came to cominate the comic and even more so when the comic shifted to a twenty cent price and a smaller size.

Tony DeZuniga was the artist slated to bring the story of Hex to the comics page and his exquisite blend of imagination and reality was frankly ideal for Hex's harsh world.

Writer John Albano was the man who created Hex, and who along with DeZuniga guided his earlies forays into the west, looking for desperados and finding both villainy and betrayal in a harsh landscape with meted out death with grisly regularity. Albano reveals very little about his rugged protagonist, and aside from the visual evidence of his having taken a role in the Civil War, there's not much back story for readers to digest. We just get potent stories from Albano, alluring and attractive art from DeZuniga and some compelling covers from Luis Dominguez.

Then with the twenty-second issue writer Michael Fleischer steps in as writer and immediately a new sense of continuity develops. Hex had before been an enigma, a man of mystery and a past, but the focus was on the present. New the stories begin to explore that past. There's a mysterious powerful man who has a grudge against Hex and sends men to find and kill him. This mysterious man, identified by the cane he always carries is clearly a man of influence and means.

The stories wind along until we learn the secret of the mysterious man and we get an origin of sorts for Jonah Hex. His early days frankly reveal very little to set him apart, but he is a man set at odds with the world and so his skills, learned to no small extent during the war, are put to good use finding and stopping outlaws.

The artwork on the series becomes less regular with a number of talents stepping to fill the shoes left when DeZuniga moved on. Noly Panaligan and George Moliterni, did several issues between them. Doug Wildey even did one stellar story, wished there'd been more by him.

But eventually the awesome Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez comes aboard and the Jonah Hex I'm most familiar with is showcased at long last.

The stories of Hex are grim and gritty at a time when those descriptors were not necessarily a dismissive critique. Jonah Hex, set in a violent west reflected the times, which cried out for a tad more realism in the storytelling. The gallant heroes of yesteryear had to give way to heroes with feet of definite clay. Jonah Hex found his niche and despite the avalanche of superheroes found an audience which buoyed him for years to come.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Out In A Blaze Of Glory!

To be honest I almost forgot about this revisionist history of the Marvel wild west from the turn of the century. John Ostrander and Leonardo Manco came to the western heroes of Marvel and they found a story with some unusual depth. Blaze of Glory tells a tale of a tiny town named Wonderment which was the home for former slaves seeking to find some sort of life on the frontier.

The town is put upon by night riders, a gang of white racists who are not satisfied with the outcome of the Civil War.  To protect against these gangs, the people of Wonderment, one Reno Jones (of Gunhawks fame) in particular seek out gunslingers to help protect the people.

What they find are not the shining heroes we're familiar with from scores of Marvel Comics. Those adventures were apparently the stuff of dime novels. The real men known as Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt are less heroic and more gritty and bit more murderous than the legends relate.

This stark presentation makes the story sting with a realistic violence that often the vintage Marvel westerns, limited by the rigors of the Comics Code could not indulge in.

These are not "good guys", only better guys than the villains who seek to pillage the homes of innocent folks and murder them to boot.

There are twists and turns and all kinds of doing, including the appearances of lots more vintage Marvel heroes as well as some real world variations of famous western names. It's a rousing tale of revisionist history, by the slippery standards of the 90's not bad at all.

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