Saturday, July 22, 2006

OF GOOFS AND GROVERS

Putting the Soup in Super, the Uh in Ultra, and the HAI! In Hyper

But... before all that... I have to apologize to George Perez.

(NOTE: This article was originally written as a column to be published in the Comic Book Electronic Magazine, which was at the time, and for all I know still is, edited and published electronically by a guy named Dave LeBlanc. Keep that in mind as you read it; it will hopefully help you avoid being confused by otherwise inexplicable references.)

George sent me a nice letter... well, he sent DAVE a nice letter, actually, and Dave forwarded it to me with his usual professionalism... anyway, George sent someone a letter and I read it... saying that actually, Jim Shooter had never given him a full script to work with but instead wrote out these very detailed plots longhand on yellow legal tablets for him to work from, and then scripted the Perez pencils later. So I am wrong, wrong WRONG, which will come as no surprise to Bob Hughes, whom you will doubtless find in this issue's letter column, taking me to task for erroneously describing Mac Raboy and C.C. Beck as writer/artists. So, to George and Bob and those others who wrote in to cheerfully correct my lapses in actual accuracy, I apologize, and express my sincerest gratitude for their unsleeping vigilance on somebody's behalf. (And they're just the guys to do it, too.)

(That's a reference to dialogue from ANIMAL HOUSE, not an obscure attempt to insult anybody. Just to keep things clear.)

Mr. Perez mentioned in HIS letter that any perceived inadequacies in his art under Jim Shooter were all his fault, and not to be blamed on Jim, but geez louise, I think he's just being a very nice and thoroughly professional guy, which he has always seemed to be. If Shooter didn't work full script with George then hesh mah mouf', but I gotta say that SOMETHING was sure different between the artwork Perez gave up under Shooter, which was often cramped and had a zillion panels on every page and just generally looked kinda muddy, and the astoundingly beautiful stuff he had done much earlier in his career under Steve Engelhart, or would do slightly later in his career with Dave Michelinie and Marv Wolfman. So I sincerely apologize, Mr. Perez, but given how truly lousy Bob Hall looked on AVENGERS under Shooter, as compared to how generally... well... adequate... he'd been on CHAMPIONS under Mantlo, I just kinda naturally put the blame on the Jimster. But we all do that. Sometimes, I think... too much. But only sometimes.

On a more serious note... probably the last one for this particular column, anyway... I want to reiterate that I love to get all email and/or comments, even the stuff from people who tell me that I have no right to criticize Image Comics' impact on the industry because either (a) I haven't read any of their comics in which case shame on me for having an opinion about something I haven't read or (b) I bought some of their comics, in which case, I have contributed to the problem and therefore am a hypocrite for excoriating it.

Yeah. That one had me talking to myself too, until I decided the writer was just... differently abled... and deleted it. But, for the record, I bought WILDC.A.T.s #1 because I did not know at the time that Jim Lee couldn't write, which is the same reason for which I bought that awful Dale Keown PITT thing too. I have read several issues of SPAWN and SAVAGE DRAGON and even tried to force myself to read an issue of TEAM YOUNGBLOOD once but honestly, I'd rather just pound nails into my forehead because its easier and less painful. I didn't BUY any of them. Friends... if you want to call them that... loaned them to me. But I have read some Image Comics, and yes, I even contributed somewhat to the Image frenzy, at least to the tune of two discounted cover prices, mostly because I didn't want to just ASSUME that Jim Lee or Dale Keown couldn't write without giving them a chance.

But I love my email and/or comments, and I love knowing that someone out there is reading my column and thinking about what I've said, even if all they actually think about is that Mac Raboy and C.C. Beck were not really writer/artists. Good business is where you find it. I sincerely thank everyone who has ever written to me, especially those of you who actually make sense for several sentences in a row.

(Those were obscure attempts to insult some people, not references to dialogue from ANIMAL HOUSE. In the interests of lucidity.)

(Well, there was a line from ROBOCOP tossed into the middle of that paragraph, but actually, it was mostly the insult thing.)

On with our regularly scheduled column.

Many would say that the true inception of four dimensional tetraculture in the graphic artform we call superhero comics occurred in the late 1970s, with the relatively obscure work of a few comics sweatshop toilers whose names have long since been lost to posterity, along with the names of the titles they worked on and the publisher they worked for. Others insist that the roots of this fundamental element in long-underwear literature can be traced back to an entirely different Greek named Homer.

Whatever the case, the presence of the discolloidal, almost Sartianesque overtures and subtleties we now take for granted in every published comic book of the so called modern era clearly began at some earlier point in history. Narrowing that point down, dipping it in chloroform, and pinning it neatly to a cork bulletin board next to the refrigerator may well be a labor worthy of Odysseus. Since the pizza is all gone and I'm too lazy to get up right now and make myself a sandwich, we may as well get started.

The early 60s may be the place it all began. Certainly, DC Comics editor in chief Reg "The Guv'nor" Bartholomew encouraged what he called 'didactic conservatism' throughout his creative stable, and this was a trend quickly picked up on and exploited by graphic arts ubermensch Lumpy Gladstrong at the relatively new Marvel Publishing Group.

Titles like BLIND ADVENTURE COMICS and BOVINE FANTASY gave us stories revealing that Superman had worn a toupee for years and Captain Comet was secretly a zoophile, while FANTASTIC FOURWAY #17 clearly displayed Reed Richard's unusual proclivity for monstrously enlarged single celled life forms.

Experimental cranium enhancing drugs became a year long fad at both major companies soon after, leading to 10 or 12 issues of every major title at that time becoming what have since been designated as "the Big Head stories". (Don't look for these in the back issue bins, as the few copies that survived the massive, frenzied Satanic Comics Burning fad of the mid 60s are treasured and hoarded by fanatical collectors across America, most or all of whom, it must be admitted, have probably gone off their meds quite some time ago. Probably at roughly the same time I did.)

Despite all this, though, and ignoring such blatant cries for help as Marco "Cheekie" Balaban's insistence on drawing Perry White in evening gowns and matching satin pumps for every single one of his appearances from 1959 to 1967, the keen analytical eye can quickly discern that these were merely scattered chords in a symphony that had not yet been written, or, at most, had only been hastily scrawled across the insides of crumpled Hershey's chocolate bar wrappers and had not yet been decently typed up, photocopied, and disseminated to the usual corporate mailing lists via interoffice delivery.

No, the coherence and grandeur of the Reverend Roy Whipple's seminal "Death of a Superdog" story arc, or Kevin Bacon & Ed McMahon's brilliant HEROES OF THE CRISS-CROSSING CHEST STRAPS mini-series, were still decades away. First would have to come the nascent stirrings of hyperluminosity, and the first clearly evident manifestations of this came under the pen of Silver Age creative powerhouse S. Morganstern in late 1973.

Duality was everywhere in comics in 1973, and had been since classic rock guitarist Carlos Santana had taken over DC Comics in late 1969 as editor in chief and declared that every single superhero must be immediately teamed up with at least one other superhero in their regular title.

Some of these pairings, such as Aquaman and Metamorpho, were a bit absurd (although it's worth noting that old time DC scribe Hadar "The Manatee" Gruppenfuehrer, who had cut his authorial teeth writing OSTRICH MAN and WAYWARD GIRLS ACADEMY for the late, lamented Basset Hound Comics Publishing Company, managed to script a good two years worth of adventures for the unlikely duo of Sea King and Elemental Man that were always snappy and fun, if never particularly sensible) but others, like Batman and Bouncing Boy, Jimmy Olsen and Rip Hunter, the Flash and Brother Power the Geek, and Green Lantern and Thelonius Monk, set new standards for four color melodrama. When then rookie Morganstern was assigned to both write and draw the floundering NEW DADS title, he set about to remake the entire Fourteenth Ward into something that even young kids could completely fail to appreciate, or even dimly comprehend.

EIC Santana's... or, the "Carlmeister", as he preferred to be called... duality directive had forced the scions of New Dialysis to share space on an ongoing basis with an obscure Golden Age team called The Seven Soldiers of Hickory, and a lesser man than Morganstern might have quailed at the thought of drawing Orion, his omni-cycle, the Shining Knight, his horse Winged Victory, and the astonishingly well endowed Crimson Avenger all in the same tiny panel for years on end.

Morganstern took it all in stride, though, and his creative decision to make each and every character visually interchangeable by quickly transferring all their minds into identical android bodies was the first clear example of actual retrograde hyperluminosity in superhero comics at that time.

Many will argue with that interpretation, saying that in fact, this isn't true tetraculture, but is, actually, merely a logical extension of Floggin' Fred Flanders previously well established (on endless issues of FRICKIN WEIRD MASTERPIECES apparently written while staggeringly drunk and pencilled while severely hungover) freewheeling carbonized colloidalism.

I say bah and I say feh. It's retrograde hyperluminosity, or, if you prefer, 4-D tetraculture, albeit in its most primitive, elemental state, and anyone who says differently stinks of the lamp. (I have no idea what that means, but Dr. Lecter once insulted Clarice Starling with the phrase, and if it's good enough for the delectable Clarice - who, by the way, looks NOTHING like Jodie Foster, and let's have that CLEAR -- it's good enough for you lot.)

Obviously, the world of superhero comics was never the same after this. Even the return from retirement of the legendary Hans "Kobyashi Maru" Cheesehiney to take over as letterer/colorist on Marvel's flagship SPIDER-GOLEM title has to pale in significance compared to the massive sea-change that washed over comics like a great big coffee colored comber following the publication of S. Morganstern's classic tales of true love and high adventure.

Suddenly tetraculture and hyperluminosity were everywhere. The Avengers became amorphous pond sludge beings only differentiated by their superhero names printed in bold Bookman Oldstyle text across their chests. The Justice League of America, in a sweeping interdimensional story arc written by a surly, disillusioned Feodor Dostoevsky and drawn by internationally famed Trans Am driver Bobby Uncer, all gained the ability to shrink down to subatomic size, allowing Uncer to dress them all in bulky, concealing coveralls distinguished only by big rectangular name badges declaring "Hi! My name is..." while drawing them all very very small.

TEEN TROLLOPS scribe Ralph Wiggum went to the next level in tetraculture by having all members of the group give up their individual hero names, adopting instead the labels TEEN TROLLOP 1 through 7.

Even Marvel's best selling XAVIER'S ANGELS book "Went Tet", as the in-crowd liked to put it, in a big way, with each team member bleaching their hair blond and adopting identical armadillo sidekicks which were all named Hornswoggle.

It was an exciting time for comics, and no title was more invigorating than THE INCREDULOUS HERK, where the gamma-mutated Greek demi-God found himself fissioning ameoba-like into a seven person superteam, all of whom were indistinguishable from each other in every discernable way.

So high were the quality of Stranded Stu Angelman's scripts that former child star Donny Osmond wrote in to wistfully request an issue in which the entire team of Incredulous Herks simply stayed inside the Herk Hovel and interacted, although the Prince of Puppy Love then spoiled the effect of his earnest entreaty by demanding a Nope-Prize for pointing out that in an issue of THUNDERJUG published nine years previously, Volstagg had been drawn with four hands in several panels, and Jane Foster had been depicted as having the mutant power to create and control psychic palmetto bugs, even though in previous issues, she had been clearly established as being terrified of insects.

It was around this time that Miguel Ferrer's astonishing interpretation of a corporate bastard in ROBOCOP took the world by storm, and while that had no discernable effect on superhero comics at all, I just thought I'd mention it. Ron somebody or other, who used to be the father in APPLE'S WAY, and Kurtwood Smith, who now plays the father on THAT '70s SHOW, were also excellent in the movie, and you have to wonder if that's a coincidence. Well, you do if you drink as much cough syrup every morning as I do, anyway. La la la la. I actually suspect ROBOCOP wasn't even made until the late 80s or early 90s, now that I stop and think. But it's worth noting that Peter Weller just absolutely stunk up the place in every other film he ever did, except BUCKAROO BANZAI. And that, of course, is the point I'm trying to make. I'm pretty sure.

While not harshing my buzz severely in various freshman creative writing courses, up and coming comics artist Mahatma "Ugly Purple Jesus Shoes" Gandhi was setting the world on fire, or at least trying to, although it must be ruefully admitted that much of the world does not burn well, even when subjected to frankly extravagant amounts of kerosene first. In all honesty, about the best you can do with the average loamy surface or asphalt paving is to get a kind of sullen, fragile, on and off, sputtering blaze going which can be put out by nearly anything, although it does give off a lot of nasty oily smoke, which is at least some compensation when you've spent all day at it, anyway. But as to Mahatma's work in comics, the less said the better, especially since he never actually worked in comics, because he was too busy fasting and getting clapped in irons all over bloody India after lying down in front of buses. BUSES, for God's sake. I ask you.

But, back to imperialist elemental surrealism, and how it affected the burgeoning superheroic artform. In the early 80s, noted philanthropist and former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who may well have actually been dead by then for all I know, bought up Marvel Comics and made sweeping editorial changes. (No, he didn't, but you've read this far so what the hell, right?)

Hyperluminosity was out, arcane necromantic rituals were in. Every individual title was changed to incorporate the phrase "living dead" in some way, and when virtually the entire creative Bullpen at that time staged a hunger strike in protest, Rockefeller had them rubbed with cobra sauce and hurled into a pit of slavering mongeese, after which he hired ten young Javanese bamboo farmers named KoKo to do all the pencilling, scripting, and editing across the entire Marvel line. This doubtless explains GIANT SIZE XAVIER'S ANGELS #1 and the entire Spider Clone saga, although I'm still baffled as to exactly how the heck the Vision both is and isn't the Golden Age Human Torch at the same time.

Meanwhile, over at DC, giant... radioactive... squirrels... or something... were... eating Chinese food in all the conference rooms. Sure. Harrison Ford, fresh off his cinematic triumphs in STAR WARS and various Indiana Jones movies, had moved into the top slot at the Original Universe, only to be kicked brutally out the window when Jeff "Sumo" Wattaceti came back from lunch early and found Ford in his office going through his desk drawers in a desperate search for something to drink. Creative stagnation had settled on DC like a fat lady sitting on its corporate chest, but Marvelous Marno's revelational mini series, CROESUS AND HIS INFINITE APES, was just about to be torn up and thrown away by millions of appalled fanboy fingers all across the nation.

No one knew what was going on, but everyone agreed that there was a lot more money to be made writing for television, or growing bamboo in Java.

Innovation stood at a near standstill in superhero comics until more than a decade later, when Image Comics, in a fit of stimulant induced madness, launched the revolutionary WHACKING DAY limited series.

A 24 issue publishing event that cut across their entire continuity, the genius of WHACKING DAY lay in its requirement that every single panel portray some sort of graphic, gratuitous violence. Hyper-heroes throttled ultravillains, superwomen high kicked uberlords right in the super-jahoobies, mega-men cold cocked science-scions, wrenched their robot arms off, and beat them into bloody jam with said cybernetic appendages beneath a cold, uncaring starscape.

Massively muscled mesomorphs hurtled through buildings eyebrows first, city skylines crumbled, continents careened like drunkenly driven mini-vans in their magmic beds, planets shuddered in their orbital shells, entire subterranean races perished screaming in gruesome, horrible agony, millions of dollars changed hands, and nobody could tell one character from the other without buying foil-stamped hologram scorecards that explained who everybody was.

It was the ultimate triumph of four dimensional tetraculture, and the world would never be the same.

I can actually keep writing this sort of scurrilous nonsense for hours and hours, which is pretty darned scary if you think about it, but right now I can see that nearly all of you are about ready to reach through your modems and beat me into an insensate stupor with your keyboards, so I'll stop.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He is quite mad. Anyone nearly as crazy as he is can find nearly all his superhero articles to date posted somewhere on this page, or elsewhere on the Internet, or nowhere, depending on circumanstances that are largely unpredictable and beyond his control. Help him. Or at least, send him money.

1 Comments:

Blogger MJ Norton said...

General comment, having just been alerted you've created this archive in progress: A fine idea! It'll be interesting to see which of these will find a new audience, be it appreciative or scandalized.

8:21 PM  

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