Comics

Mouse Goes to War!: Jungle Drums (1943)

Hi guys! We are now halfway there to getting Mauricio safely out of Venzuela and, as promised, here is the second of the war era animated short reviews. Because you’re all superheroes, and because I thought it might be particularly cathartic right now to watch some Nazis get punched in the face, today we’re looking at one of the Superman shorts from the 1940s.  Enjoy, and please consider donating if you haven’t already.

***

Studio: Famous Studios

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: March 26, 1943

Recently, the internet came down with a case of the vapours when it was announced by the BBC that the next Doctor would be played by Jodie Whittaker, who has lady bits.

Jolly good, quite right, good idea, quite right, jolly good and not before time. Now, when it comes to Who I haven’t really had skin in the game since Ecclestone left but I’m sure she’ll kill in the part. There have been bad Who writers, bad Who directors and even bad Who seasons but they have never cast a bad actor in the lead role (no, not even him) and I doubt very much they’ve started here. But Whittaker’s casting does raise some interesting questions. How will people in the past react to a character whose main defining trait is showing up out of nowhere and bossing everyone around when it’s a woman doing the bossing? How will, say, the Puritans react to this trouser wearing lady with a mysterious blue box and what can only be described as a magic wand? Will every episode of Doctor Who consist of angry peasants trying to ascertain if Jodie Whitaker weighs as much as a duck? It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it.

Of course, the status of women in society has swung wildly upwards and downwards over the millennia depending on the era and society in question. Progress is not a hill, but a rollercoaster. Consider Lois Lane, who, as the perennial love interest of one of the most famous pop-culture icons of the last century has had an unbroken presence in various media for almost eight decades now, and so represents a useful yardstick for the portrayal and status of women in American culture. In the Silver Age, this was Lois Lane.

The fifties saw Lois’ role as a daring and accomplished journalist minimised to almost nothing so that she could engage in an unending spiteful love rivalry with Lana Lang over who could dupe Superman into marrying her first. It was a terrible time to be a woman in America, and it was a terrible time to be Lois Lane.

Contrast this with a decade earlier, where we find Lois Lane wasting bitches with an uzi.

“Take that ya rat bastards! When you get to hell, tell em Lois sent ya!”

World War 2 brought huge advances both for women and minorities because America had to either make the most use of every available person regardless of race or gender or risk total defeat to the forces of fascism and America was all “Ugh, fine.” You see this in the Fleischer (later Famous) studios Superman shorts with their depiction of Lois Lane, still one of the finest interpretations of the character three quarters of a century later. And possibly the character’s finest hour is today’s short, Jungle Drums.

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“Dormammu! I’ve come to bargain!”

Back in my Ant-Man review I had some pretty harsh things to say about Ant-Man as a superhero concept. But you shouldn’t take that to mean that I don’t like the character. To tell the truth, I’ve always found Hank Pym to be oddly compelling. There’s something about the guy who is good but will never be the best and the gnawing insecurity that brings that I think a lot of writers can empathise with.

Conversely, for this review I re-read some classic Doctor Strange stories and have had to come to terms with something deeply troubling about myself.

I, straight up, do not like Doctor Strange.

I love silver age Marvel comics. I love the aesthetic, the corny jokes, the ridiculous villain names, the artwork, the snarky editorial captions from Stan Lee, all of it. It be my jam. But my God, reading Doctor Strange is a slog.

And I think my issue with him is this; Doctor Strange is a character who rewards bad writing. Characters should challenge their writers. Superman and Captain America challenge their writers to portray them as morally pure and incorruptible while still being human and relateable. Spider-man is a challenge because he requires funny dialogue. Wolverine is a challenge because he requires almost no dialogue.

But Doctor Strange’s whole schtick requires him to recite turgid, purple prose at every problem he comes across and it is just such a grind. Even a phrase of such magnificent silliness as “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” starts to lose its appeal after the twentieth time reading it. But ultimately, it comes down to this: Wizards should not be main characters.

Glad you brought him up, we shall return to him presently.

When you have a main character who is a wizard it is almost impossible to generate real drama. So many Doctor Strange stories boil down to this:

EVIL WIZARD: I will do this bad magic thing!

DR STRANGE: I will cast a spell that stops you from doing this bad magic thing!

EVIL WIZARD: Aha! I have cast a spell that means your spell doesn’t work!

DR STRANGE: But I use my magic forcefield to block your spell!

EVIL WIZARD: But my spell is too powerful for your forcefield!

DR STRANGE: Nuh uh! My forcefield has infinity power!

And then the bell sounds and they have to go back to class. It’s basically the same problem as technobabble in bad episodes of Star Trek; artificial problems solved by an artificial solution. It’s never concretely stated what Strange’s magic can and cannot do, so there’s no reason to think that he won’t just pull a random spell out of his ass to deal with whatever the problem is. It’s why wizards are usually relegated to supporting roles. We follow Arthur and Frodo, not Merlin and Gandalf. Harry Potter gets around this problem by clearly establishing the rules of how magic works in its universe. Yes, Harry can use magic, but he never uses a spell that we don’t see him learn in class. So the audience is never in doubt as to his abilities and what the real odds are in any given confrontation.

Strange can be great when used as a supporting character, a kind of consultant brought in to help other characters when they run afoul of the supernatural. But as a lead character he just does not work for me. Can the second live-action Doctor Strange movie change my mind? Oh yes. I said “second”.

You have questions.
1) Yes, it’s a real movie.
2) No, it’s not a porno.
3) Yes, that’s the legendary Jessica Walter, star of Arrested Development and Archer.
4) No, it’s really not a porno.
5) It’s terrible, but also wonderful.

Let’s take a look.

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“You shaped the century. And I need you to do it one more time…”

Okay.

You know what? This year has been pretty fucking awful and we all need, nay deserve, a break. The world is a lot scarier and more uncertain than it was before (and it was already pretty damn scary and uncertain) and there  wasn’t much I could do about it then and there certainly isn’t much I can do about it now. But I can write something that hopefully you’ll find funny and interesting and maybe brighten your day a little  and I categorically refuse to believe that that’s nothing. So how about this? No more talking about politics and America and we just enjoy a review of The Winter Soldier, a political thriller starring Captain America OH GODDAMNIT!!!

Anyone want to skip ahead to Guardians? Anyone?

Anyone want to skip ahead to Guardians? Anyone?

Sigh. Okay. Let’s review the movie where the living exemplar of all that is best in America defeats the forces of tyranny and hatred.

Y’know. Escapism.

***

I remember when it was announced over a decade ago that Marvel were bringing Bucky Barnes back to life and I was opposed to the whole thing. Damn opposed!

Bucky Barnes is one of Marvel’s oldest characters, debuting all the way back in 1941. Bucky and Captain America were introduced as a twofer in the very first issue of Captain America Comics because, ever since Robin had been introduced in Batman the previous year, superheroes had to have kid sidekicks.  It was non-negotiable. In his origin story, Bucky is a kid who likes hanging around a military base and one day sees Steve Rogers changing into his Captain America costume. Bucky tells Steve that the only way to protect his secret identity is to let him be his crime fighting partner and Cap of course has the kid sent to a military lock up as a threat to national security agrees.  This, incidentally, is how Steve Rogers deals with anyone who walks in on him changing, which is how you got such storied superheroes as Clothing Store Assistant Girl and the Incredible Mom. So anyway, Bucky was a pretty blatant Robin rip-off and not even a particularly interesting one and the character was eventually replaced by the female sidekick Golden Girl, before then being brought back for the fifties “commie smasher” version of Captain America in the fifties. When that comic failed, both Cap and Bucky were retired by Marvel.

Then came the sixties, and with superheroes popular again, Stan Lee decided to bring back Marvel’s most popular character from the war era, Captain America, to take his place alongside the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Spider-Man and all the other classic characters that Stan Lee and his collaborators had been minting at a rate of around three a second.

But Stan did. Not. Want. Bucky.

At all.

Why? Well, sidekicks from Robin onwards had been conceived as surrogates for their young, mostly male audience. But Stan found the whole idea of kid sidekicks to be condescending, and so instead had created teen superheroes like Spider-Man and the new Human Torch who were teenagers but also the stars of their own stories rather than playing second fiddle. Then there was the issue of the comics industry’s brush with death in the early fifties thanks to the publication of Seduction of the Innocent  by Doctor Frederic Wertham which made the case that comics were a dangerous influence on the minds of America’s youth. Now the bulk of Wertham’s argument was against horror and crime comics but he also took aim at superheroes, claiming that Batman and Robin were clearly in a sexual relationship. Which, of course, if he had actually bothered to read the comics he would have realised that he was absolutely, totally, 100% percent correct.

batman

So yeah, Stan rather wisely decided that the last thing the newly revived superhero genre needed was little boys in tight shorts running around so when Cap was revived in Avengers #4 he revealed that Bucky had died at the end of the war trying to stop a bomb from destroying London and that they were totally just friends, you guys.

winter-soldier-bucky-barnes-death

This change gave the fairly one-dimensional character of Steve Rogers some much needed emotional shading. Steve was no longer a smiling, lantern jawed, shield-slinger but a grieving, troubled hero out of time and wholly unsure of his role and place in the world. In fact, it worked so well that Bucky was one of a Holy Trinity of dead comic book characters who it was implicitly understood would never, ever be brought back to life; Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes. So when Marvel actually did the unthinkable and brought Backy buck…um, brought Bucky back as a grim and gritty assassin with a robot arm called “The Winter Soldier”, I just rolled my eyes and decried it as another lazy stunt that would be undone in a few months at most. But, credit where credit is due, Cap writer Ed Brubaker made the damn thing work and it’s already considered one of the best and most seminal Captain America stories. In fact, it was chosen as the plot for the second Captain America movie despite being so recent, thereby skipping decades of older, classic Captain America storylines.

What I'm trying to say is; WHERE THE FUCK IS MY WEREWOLF CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE, MARVEL?

What I’m trying to say is; WHERE THE FUCK IS MY WEREWOLF CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE, MARVEL?

What I find weird about the Captain America trilogy is that, while you often get movie series where instalments are vastly different from each other, it’s pretty damn rare to find a series of movies that hops between genres. This time around, Marvel followed Joe Johnston’s glorious, retro, Indiana Jones homage with a gritty political thriller that would have been perfectly at home in the seventies. How did that work out? Let’s take a look

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“It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just… I don’t love them.”

By now we are thirteen films into the MCU and the question of which movie is the “worst” feels more and more moot. Sure, we all love ranking things from best to worst because this is the future and the internet has turned us all mildly autistic but really, what’s the point? There have been so many of these things, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become less like a series of stand alone movies and more like a single, ongoing epic to the point that calling one movie “the worst” is almost like singling out a single chapter of Lord of the Rings for scorn and derision. Why bother?

Although, I think we can all agree that with Chapter VII, In The House of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien utterly shat the bed.

Although, I think we can all agree that with Chapter VII, In The House of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien utterly shat the bed.

I bring this up not because I think Thor 2: The Dark World is the worst MCU movie but because it sure does pop up a lot in that particular conversation. Part of that, of course, is just blatant Thor-prejudice. Lotta people just can’t grok with the character. But there’s no denying that this is a flawed movie, and while it certainly wasn’t the most troubled Marvel production (Ant Man sits on that throne and will not be vacating for a good long time) it was, by all accounts a rather unfun experience for all involved. After the original director, Patty Jenkins (who’s now helming Wonder Woman) was axed over “creative differences” Natalie Portman almost walked out in solidarity. Jamie Alexander was injured on set and was out of commission for a month. Replacement director Alan Taylor hated the final product. Screenwriter Don Payne died of bone cancer during production. Idris Elba described the shoot as “torture”. And plagues of locusts and boils befell the production and the catering table ran with blood. Probably. In fact, it seems that only one of the principals involved actually had a good time.

He brings the party with him.

He brings the party with him.

But just because almost everyone spent every waking minute wishing for the sweet release of death, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie sucks. Apocalypse Now had a hellish shoot after all. Then again, so did The Island of Doctor Moreau. Which example does Thor 2 follow? Let’s take a look.

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“Nothing’s been the same since New York.”

Before we get into the Iron Man 3 review, I should probably address the elephant in the room.
Dammit Francine, if I mean you I’ll use your name. Sit down.

Dammit Francine, if I mean you I’ll use your name. Sit down.

You may have noticed that the ads that were here for a few weeks have now vanished. The reason for that is that I was kindly informed by one of my American readers that the Trump Campaign had been advertising on my blog.
*CLICK*

*CLICK*

And good thing I acted quickly right? I mean, what more fertile pro-Trump ground than Unshaved Mouse? That’s the kind of savvy ad buy that gets you a 10% chance of winning the presidency. Unfortunately this loss of revenue has meant that I’ve had to turn to alternative sources of funding.
“Whoah. Wait a minute, you make MONEY of this?!”

“Whoah. Wait a minute, you make MONEY off this?!”

“No hablo Ingles.”

“No hablo Ingles.”

Thankfully, I’ve been able to secure investment from a less morally compromised source. Which is why I am proud to announce Unshaved Mouse’s new partner, the People’s Republic of China! Please give it up for new recurring character Fan Bing Bing!
“Hello decadent Westerners!”

“Hello decadent Westerners!”

It’s a rapidly emerging market, guys. We gotta move with the times. Anyway, review of movie.

 ***
Here’s a fun game to play with the MCU. Take each movie and imagine what would have happened if the villain had won.
  • Thor: Loki becomes King of Asgard and commits genocide against the Frost Giants.
  • Captain America:  Red Skull wipes out every major city on Earth and most likely ushers in an era of global HYDRA rule.
  • The Avengers: Aliens take over the world.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Whole alien planet gets wiped out and that’s just for starters.
  • Thor 2: Ummmmmm…something bad? With…elves? It’s bad, though.

Play the game with the Iron Man movies though and you always get the same result: “Evil rich guy becomes slightly richer.” These movies are actually kinda low-stakes when compared to other entries in the canon. That’s not a criticism. The Iron Man trilogy has always been less interested in “Can Iron Man save the day?” than “Can Tony Stark save his life from being immolated by the army of obsessions, personal demons and character flaws he has jumping around in the moshpit that is his brain?” That’s fine. Refreshing even. I just think it might help explain why this movie is had possibly the least impact on the larger Marvel universe than any other instalment. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of any elements that were introduced in this movie that got carried over into the larger MCU. Extremis? Aldridge Killian? AIM? Never so much as mentioned again in any of the movies (I am waaaay behind on Agents of SHIELD so apologies if I missed anything that showed up there). The Mandarin? Mentioned in a one-shot to keep the fanboys happy. Iron Patriot? Back as War Machine by Age of Ultron. Tony Stark destroying all his suits and giving up being Iron Man? Did not exactly take. This movie is practically in quarantine, and it’s kind of weird that it’s such a dead end at the front because it is deeply wedded to what’s gone on before, to the point that it’s kinda historic in a way I don’t think people necesarrily realise.

See, this is the fourth movie to feature Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark, and that’s pretty exceptional. Christopher Reeves played Superman across four movies of course, but by the third installment that series was running on negative continuity. There is no character arc for Superman from Superman I to Quest for Peace, they are just four movies with Christopher Reeves playing Superman. Again, with the Burton/Schumacher Batman movies you get a little bit of character continuity (tiny references to events in previous movies mostly), but by the time you have George Clooney resplendent in Bat-nipples it’s clear that Batman has drifted considerably from Tim Burton’s original vision. This is different. We have now had four movies featuring Tony Stark where the creators are clearly intent on holding to a consistent vision for the character. Iron Man 3 is one of the most polarising movies in the canon for reasons I will get into, but personally it’s my favourite of the trilogy because it asks a question that had never really been asked in a superhero movie before now. What happens to the superhero after he saves the world?

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Eleventh Hour (1942)

As Buzz Aldrin once noted “second comes right after first” and the Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, seem to have been cursed to always be the Buzz Aldrin to Walt Disney’s Neil Armstrong. A mere year after Snow WhiteParamount pictures released Gulliver’s Travels, the second cel-animated feature film ever, directed by Dave and produced by Max. Of course, just because Buzz Aldrin went second, does that mean he was somehow an inferior astronaut to Armstrong? Course not, but while Gulliver’s Travels was a fantastically animated feature, it just didn’t create the same sensation that Snow White did and while it certainly was a success at the box office, the Fleischer’s studio quickly found itself treading water financially. Smarting from the financial strain of Gulliver’s Travels, mired in the production hell of their second feature Mr Bug Goes to Town and with Max and Dave’s relationship having degenerated to Cain and Abel levels and with all parties coming to the realisation that animation is a demon bitch that burns alive all who dare love her, now was really not the time to take on an ambitious new project. So when Paramount approached the Fleischers asking them to make shorts featuring this new Superman character all the kids were going cuckoo over, Max and Dave told them that they could only do it with a budget of $100,000 an episode (or, around four times the cost of the most expensive Disney shorts). In 1940s dollars that was equal to “Holly Hannah! That’s a lotta scratch!” and Max and Dave expected Paramount to tell them to screw off, so they were stunned when the execs made them a counter offer of $50,000 and episode (equal to “Nice little pile. Goddamn, that’s a nice little pile”). Unable to turn down that kind of money, the Flesichers started work on what is still, adjusted for inflation, the biggest budgeted series of animated shorts ever made. And I cannot overstate how amazing these shorts are.
Look.

Look.

Look at this.

Look at this.

Here is some more.

Here is some more.

Do you see?

Do you see?

Do you see?

Do you see?

Look at this.

Look at this.

Do you understand?

Do you understand?

Do you?

Do you?

DO YOU?!

DO YOU?!

This series had it all, the cast of the Superman radio show doing the voices, rotoscoping used to set a new standard for realistic animation of human figures, an epic score, one of THE all-time great Lois Lanes and the art design YE GODS! There’s a reason Bruce Timm cites this as one of the major influences on Batman the Animated Series.  This series is the reason that Superman flies instead of just jumping everywhere like a grasshopper.

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Fritz the Cat (1972)

“Heeey everyone.”

“Heeey everyone.”

“Oh look guys, it’s Spouse of Mouse!”

“Oh look guys, it’s Spouse of Mouse!”

250px-Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001

“Heeey everyone. I was just hoping we could have a little chat before Mouse starts the review. Just us.”

“Heeey everyone. I was just hoping we could have a little chat before Mouse starts the review. Just us.”

“I know you all think it’s really funny that you got Mouse to review Fritz the Cat. I’m sure you’re all having a big laugh. “Ha” you might say, and also “Ha.”

“I know you all think it’s really funny that you got Mouse to review Fritz the Cat. I’m sure you’re all having a big laugh. “Ha” you might say, and also “Ha.”

“But here’s the thing. This movie messed him up so badly that I don’t know if he’ll ever recover. And I’m a simple mouse who lives by a simple rule. You hurt the ones I love?”

“But here’s the thing. This movie messed him up so badly that I don’t know if he’ll ever recover. And I’m a simple mouse who lives by a simple rule: You hurt the ones I love?”

"I WILL FUCK YOUR FUCKING SHIT RIGHT THE FUCK UP."

“I WILL FUCK YOUR FUCKING SHIT RIGHT THE FUCK UP. IF YOU EVER PULL ANYTHING LIKE THAT AGAIN I WILL TRACK YOU DOWN THERE IS NOWHERE YOU CAN HIDE. PAIN? I WILL MAKE YOU LONG FOR SOMETHING AS SWEET AS PAIN.”

“’Kay? Enjoy the review.”

“’Kay? Enjoy the review.”

***

 Do you know what it’s like to review Fritz the Cat? To sit in the dark watching that cat fuck everything that moves, to feel your brain slowly coming apart from the constant assault of surreal, messed up, toked out, crazy shit? No. You don’t. Because you’ve never been out there, man. Out in the real deep shit. This movie man. You don’t know, man. It’s like, you think you have a handle on things, man, like life and art and truth and beauty man like they’re all just packaged and sold in these neat little Styrofoam boxes, man, and then this movie comes along and it’s like, you know man? Like, what does it all mean, man? I…I…I shouldn’t be doing this man, I should be a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas, man…
“Mouse, relax. You’re going crazy over there, man.”

“Mouse, relax. You’re going crazy over there, man.”

"YOU WERENT THERE MAN!"

“YOU WEREN’T THERE, MAN!”

 Sorry. Sorry. I’m alright. Okay. Let’s do this.
For as long as there have been comics there have been “underground” comics, the kind of comics that aren’t read in a newspaper at the breakfast table on a lazy Sunday morning but are more usually read at night. Under the covers. With a flashlight.
Jerkin’ it.
Pornographic comic books or “Tijuana Bibles” were especially popular in the Great Depression and usually featured well known comic book characters or public figures engaging in what scripture calls “the hard fuckin’”. No one was safe. Popeye, Betty Boop, Superman you name it, someone drew them doin’ it.
Trust me, just be glad it’s Minnie and not Pluto.

Trust me, just be glad it’s Minnie and not Pluto.

By the 1960s the underground comics (or “comix”) scene had merged with the broader counter culture movement. In contrast to mainstream comics which had to abide by the Comics Code Authority, comix were uncensored and didn’t abide by jack shit. These books were absolutely steeped in sixties drug and music culture, often politically radical and transgressive and extreme in their depictions of sex and violence. They also, it must be said, frequently had a streak of misogyny a mile wide. But at its best, the comix scene produced some of the finest American sequential art of the twentieth century (Art Spiegelman, for example, honed his craft in indie magazines in the seventies).
The one creator who is probably more associated with the comix scene than any other is Robert Crumb and his most famous creation is almost certainly Fritz the Cat, an anthropomorphised cat who’s kinda like Felix crossed with Roosh V. The Fritz strips first appeared in the magazine Help! where the editors famously responded to his submission with a letter saying; “Dear R. Crumb, we think the little pussycat drawings you sent us were just great. Question is, how do we print them without going to jail?” The comic became a genuine breakout hit and was read by many a long-haired hippie degenerate, one of whom was our old friend Ralph Bakshi.
Bakshi had set up his own animation studio and was looking to create animation for adults. He came across one of Crumb’s books and bought the rights to the strip. Warner Bros originally were going to fund it but then they saw Bakshi’s early shoots.
Vapors
Instead, the movie ended up being funded by Cinemation Industries, purveyor of such highbrow classics as The Black Godfather, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and The Eighteen Year Old Cheerleaders.
It’s important to remember that there was a weird period from the late sixties to around the mid-eighties where porn was pretty much mainstream, and you could just go to the cinema and watch a big budget porno made and financed by a large studio as opposed to some dude with a camera and a couch. Fritz the Cat is very much a part of that. It’s not solely a porno but it’s got relatives who are pornos if you catch me. So before we get into this review please take note that this is a movie with sex and nudity, pretty grotesque ethnic caricatures, frequent homophobic and racial slurs and some generally fucked up shit.
What I’m trying to say is…
“This review ain’t NSFW for nothin’ baby.”

“This review ain’t NSFW for nothin’ baby.”

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Justice League: New Frontier (2008)

Comic Book historians divide the history of superhero comics into “ages”. The Golden Age lasted from the late thirties to the end of the second world war. It began with the creation of Superman and saw the births of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captains America and Marvel, the original incarnations of the Green Lantern and the Flash as well as a host of others. Owing to the ongoing unpleasantness at the time, many of these characters were patriotic, Japanazi fighting do-gooders like the greatest superhero for all time, the Original Human Torch.
“Mouse, stop showing that panel of the Original Human torch calling Hitler a liar while burning him a…” “NEVER!”

“Mouse, stop showing that panel of the Original Human torch calling Hitler a liar while burning him a…”
“NEVER!”

Also, owing to the fact that this was a brand new genre and folks were still figuring out the rules these comics tended to be absolutely batshit insane.
In the forties we had a superhero who was a giant flying eyeball. How’s that for diversity?

In the forties we had a superhero who was a giant flying eyeball. How’s that for diversity?

And then, with the war over, the superhero fad died about as quickly as it had ignited and superheroes pretty much vanished from the shelves with the exception of a few stubborn holdouts like Superman.
Now, I want you to imagine that you wake up tomorrow and everyone is playing POGs. Like, POGS are suddenly huge again. Kids are playing POGs, college students are playing POGs,  journalists are writing long earnest think pieces about the cultural ramifications of the POGsurgance instead of doing actual work. This weird fad from fifteen or twenty years back suddenly comes roaring to prominence again and never leaves and before you know it movie studios are making massive-budget spectacle movies with inter-connected continuity and people are lining down the street to watch Pog versus Pog: Dawn of Pog.  That’s kind of what happened with the dawn of the Silver Age of comics in the late fifties/early sixties. So what happened?
“Two words. Sput! Nik!”

“Two words. Sput! Nik!”

With the dawn of the space race, America became obsessed with science and its wild, stoner little sister science fiction. Whereas Golden Age heroes tended to have magical or mythical based powers, the new crop of superheroes belonged firmly in the realm of science fiction. Instead of getting his powers from an old magic lantern, the new Green Lantern was a space cop gifted with fabulous technology by a race of all powerful aliens. The new Flash was police scientist Barry Allen who eschewed the Roman mythology inspired look of his predecessor, Jay Garrick. Even the few surviving Golden Age heroes adapted to the times; I mean look at what poor Batman had to deal with for chrissakes:
“I AM THE NIGHT!”

“I AM THE NIGHT!”

Over at Marvel, the hottest new properties were Spider-man, a science student turned superhero, and the Fantastic Four, a quartet of astronauts who literally got their powers as a result of the space race.
Much like “the sixties” doesn’t simply mean the years between 1960 and 1969 but refers to an entire cultural…thing, “silver age” has come to represent a specific attitude and aesthetic in comics. The comics of this period tended to be bright, optimistic, occasionally goofy as hell and suffused with a spirit of Moon Shot era can-do. New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke’s classic  2004 love letter to that whole era, simultaneously interrogates the period in which those stories were written while simultaneously celebrating what made them great. In 2008, Cooke teamed up with his old partner Bruce Timm (Batman the Animated Series) to adapt this story as part of Warner’s line of direct to to DVD animations. Did Cooke’s work make the transition unscathed? Let’s take a look.
Blucatt ad

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Darwyn Cooke: 1962-2016

Man, 2016 can eat a big one.

News has broken today that Darwyn Cooke, probably one of the most skilled and distinctive comic book artists of his generation lost his battle with cancer in the early hours of this morning.

He was 53.

Despite his phenomenal talent, Cooke had a hard time breaking into the comics industry. He submitted work to the major publishing houses in the early nineties because his work was simple, elegant and utterly beautiful and that’s just not what the nineties were about.

He did however, work as a storyboard artist on Batman The Animated Series, Superman the Animated series and Batman Beyond, animating the main title of the latter. He finally found success in comics in the early 21st century, with a notable run on Catwoman, creating a new visual look for the character that was instantly iconic.  He is probably most famous for New Frontier, a story featuring most of the DC comics stable set in the late fifties/early sixties which ranks with Watchmen and Kingdom Come as one of the all-time great superhero stories.

He was also, from what I hear from my friends in the comics industry, a thoroughly wonderful bloke.

I was originally planning to review The Avengers  on the 26th. However, in light of today’s news I have decided to review a movie that I’ve been meaning to for quite some time. To commemorate the life of this remarkable artist, I will be reviewing the 2008 animated adaptation of New Frontier.

Ar dheis Dé a anam. RIP, Mr Cooke.

“I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.”

True story. A few years ago now when I was getting ready to move out of my parents’ house, I was clearing out my stuff from my bedroom, the bulk of which was pretty much every issue of SFX magazine published between 1997 and 2004. And I found myself with two copies in my hand, one from August 2001 and the other from October 2001. I idly flicked through the August issue and found myself reading the comic reviews, one of which was a little quarter-page panning of Captain America # Fifty Bajillion drawn by Who Knows and written by Who Cares. The review was scathing; the art’s terrible, the writing’s appalling and worst of all, the main character’s just not interesting or relevant anymore. The review finished by noting that Marvel had been dropping hints that one of their oldest characters was going to be killed off and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Cap was not long for this world. I then flicked through the October 2001 issue and again turned to the comics section. And there was a full page review of the new Captain America #1, with a top tier art and script team and a story about Steve Rogers defending Muslim New Yorkers from racist attackers while trying to track down an Al Qaeda cell.

Cometh the hour. Cometh the man.

For a character whose entire schtick is being a man out of time, when he was originally created Captain America was actually ahead of his time. In America in 1940 public opinion was firmly against become involved in another European war. In New York however, many of the men working in the comic book industry were  the children of Jewish immigrants who often still had family back in Europe and felt a personal connection to the horrors being committed by the Nazis. One of those men was Joe Simon who conceived of a patriotic, Nazi-battling character named “Super American”. Deciding that the name was a little too similar to a certain other superhero, he changed it to “Captain America”, a name so instantly iconic that nowadays you just have to put the word “captain” in front of any random noun and it sounds like a superhero name. Simon pitched the idea to his editor Martin Goodman who liked it so much that he ordered him to create a solo Captain America series, a big gamble to take on an untested character. Simon’s usual partner was artist Jack Kirby but Simon wanted to bring in two additional artists to deal with the workload of creating an entire book’s worth of stories based on one character. But Kirby was so invested in the character of Captain America that he insisted on drawing the entire book himself, which he did, and on time.

The first issue sold as well as any comic that features Hitler getting punched in the face should. The character was an immediate hit, becoming the first genuine superstar character of Timely comics (which would later become Marvel). Not all the attention was positive, however. American Nazis began sending threatening letters and one time even called the offices of Timely challenging Jack Kirby to come down and fight them in the foyer. Kirby ran down only to find they’d run off because it was Jack Frickin’ Kirby and they may have been Nazis but they weren’t crazy. Regardless, for a while the city of New York actually had to provide police protection to the building. After Pearl Harbour, Captain America became even more popular, with his comics distributed to American service men to boost morale. Many of the Timely artists and writers were drafted during this period. Stan Lee, for example, who got his break in Timely writing Captain America prose stories (he was the one who came up with the whole “throwing the shield as a weapon” thing) was put to work making propaganda. One day he was found breaking into the army post office, trying to mail a script off to Timely. He was told he’d be court-martialed, only to be released the next day when the editor of Timely rang his commanding officer to point out that jailing the writer of Captain Frickin’ America might be bad for the army’s morale.

Jack Kirby also joined the army but opted to serve on the front lines, becoming one of the few American soldiers who had experience fighting Nazis as a hobby before going pro.

Unfortunately, America won the war…I mean obviously not “unfortunately” in the grand scheme of things but unfortunate for Captain America. You see, Captain America was very much a reaction to the Nazi menace, which is what made the character so timely (pun!) and important. But of course, once that menace was defeated, Captain America didn’t really have a purpose anymore. In fact, the same could be said for the vast majority of superheroes who had followed in his wake. The superhero boom pretty much died with Hitler, with only a few characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman surviving the decade. Timely tried repurposing Cap as a commie fighter, but it just wasn’t the same. Timely changed its name to Atlas, dropped the superhero genre entirely and started focusing on sci-fi and monster tales.

It wasn’t until the sixties that Cpatain America got his second origin story. The third issue of The Avengers had the newly formed team finding Captain America floating in the Arctic Sea in a block of ice having gone missing near the end of WW2 (all the stuff about him fighting communists was retconned as actually having…you know what, fuck it, no time). Captain America then joined the team as a man out of time, a morally pure Rip Van Winkle trying to adapt to a confusing and complex modern world, and that’s pretty much been his niche ever since.

Since then, Captain America has had his share of classic runs and great stories, but there’s no denying that he’s a tricky character to do right. Like Superman and Wonder Woman, it takes a writer with skill to make him work (though it’s a truly wonderful thing when he does). For a long stretches of the twentieth century it often seemed like Marvel didn’t know what to do with Captain America, often giving him to creators who really had no business writing the character, which is how we got Rob Liefeld’s godawful Heroes Reborn Captain America.

I'd say "We do not speak of the Sentinel of Libertitty" but let's be real. We never stopped.

I’d say “We do not speak of the Sentinel of Libertitty” but let’s be real. We never stopped.

 Since the beginning of the 21st century however, Cap has once again become one Marvel’s top tier characters, attracting industry leading talent and the kind of popularity he hasn’t really known since the time of his creation. Part of that is, well, yeah, obviously…

"9/11 changed EVERYTHING Brian!"

“9/11 changed EVERYTHING Brian!”

But as well as the natural impulse to rally around such a patriotic symbol in troubling times, Captain America is simply a character whose time has come again. In the forties, Cap was popular but he was by no means unique. The stands were overflowing with patriotic, square jawed do-gooders. Hell, Captain America wasn’t even the first superhero to wear the American flag and carry a shield. But the superhero genre has changed so utterly since those days that what once made Captain America almost generic now makes him almost unique. Nowadays, a superhero who’s just a genuinely decent person is refreshing and almost edgy. He may be old fashioned, but these day? Like the man said, people need a little old fashioned.

2011’s Captain America, the first movie featuring the character that fans will actually acknowledge exists, works and works so damn well, because it gets that.

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