Sunday, June 20, 2010

Top Ten Most Adorable Tokage

Now that I've become a fan of Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, I've really taken a shine to his tokage. The tokage are lizards who serve as a sort-of all-purpose animal in Usagi Yojimbo stories. There are other animals seen throughout the series, but the tokage have a particular usefulness as a stand-in for pets. Their behavior is usually modeled after dogs, and just like dogs, sometimes this means they have an unpleasant personality.

But usually, tokage appear in the background, not impacting the story. There are only a few who make a genuine presence in the stories, but they're always delightful to see. Here's my ten favorite tokage appearances so far:

#10: Tokage as load-bearer

#9: Tokage running for his life

#8: Tokage eating rice

#7: Tokage frightened

#6: Tokage as shower

#5: Tokage shivering

#4: Tokage stealing food

#3: Tokage yawning

#2: Tokage flying a kite

#1: Tokage being hugged by Jotaro

If you don't get what makes these tokage cute...you must not be an animal person.

Friday, June 18, 2010

RIP Rik Levins, 1950-2010

Word is in that artist Richard "Rik Levins" passed away days ago from cancer.

Levins drew a good portion of Mark Gruenwald's Captain America from #387-422. He was the artist who replaced Ron Lim, my personal favorite Captain America artist. While I felt that Levins' worked lacked the dynamic style of Lim and that his faces fell short on depicting emotion, I still appreciated his work. I particularly enjoyed his tie-ins to the Operation: Galactic Storm crossover where he rendered the full Avengers lineup.

As a gesture of respect, those of us at the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe dubbed his version of the villain Jack O' Lantern after him: Steven Levins.

Kudos for all your work Mr. Levins.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Heroic Age: Heroes heads your way this September!

Check out that beautiful Tom Raney cover!

HEROIC AGE: HEROES #1

Cover by TOM RANEY

Enter the Heroic Age! In the aftermath of SIEGE, Steve Rogers assesses the state of Earth's heroes in this 64-page extravaganza of character files! From old friends like Thor to newcomers such as Reptil, Steve asks this question: what makes them heroes? Find out how he really feels, and see how your favorite hero ranks in this ultimate countdown! 64 PGS./One-Shot/Rated T+ …$3.99

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New Official Handbook tomorrow!

This Wednesday is the release day for Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe A to Z Update #2, 2010 edition! We have some neat entries for this book and more of that great new Gus Vazquez artwork. You can check out the solicitation here!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Celebrity endorsement

Here we see Robert Downey Jr. buying a few comic books, evidently as research for his ongoing role as Tony Stark in Marvel Studios' films.

Say, what's that on top of the stack? Could it be...?

Oh yes. It's the Iron Manual Mark 3, the book I headed up a few months ago. this one here.

This is pretty cool, not only that my book is being read by a movie star, but that some of the research me and my writers developed for that book might influence the movies.

Thanks to Mark O'English for pointing it out and Just Jared for the pictures.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Captain America #445-446

In my last installment I talked about my early days as a "Marvel Zombie" and how Mark Gruenwald's run on Captain America made me a dedicated fan. Today, I'm here to talk about how I shrugged my shoulders and left comics behind. It has a bit to do with Gruenwald.

Although in the early 90s I bought comics at an alarming rate - not only grabbing about two dozen Marvel titles per month, but easily matching or exceeding that in back issue purchases - by the mid-90s I wasn't feeling as strongly connected to the hobby as I once was. It's not as though some other hobby had come along to distract me, nor did I feel that I had "outgrown" comics (though I often feared that I should have been outgrowing them yet wasn't). Perhaps it was simply the state of Marvel Comics itself. Because I was devoted solely to Marvel's line of titles, I had blinded myself to what options might have existed in other publishers' stock.

For all the flak I've seen the X-Men receive as a supposedly new reader-unfriendly title, the X-Men titles circa 1995 were actually some of the friendliest titles on the stands; they had a generally high standard of art, they used familiar characters, nearly every place that carried comics had copies on sale and even if you didn't read the titles for a few months (and I often wouldn't), you could get caught up quickly. Even by 1994, I was down to following just two comic books on a monthly basis: John Francis Moore's X-Men 2099 and Mark Gruenwald's Captain America.

I had wavered on Gruenwald's Cap a few times, but always came back to the series because I was invested in the continued development of the characters. No matter how I felt about the story or art, I still cared enough about Diamondback and I still wanted another great Crossbones story. But 1995 was Gruenwald's last year on the title, bringing it all to an end with #443.

I knew that the end was nigh thanks to the Captain America Collector's Preview special, which helpfully interviewed the imminent new writer Mark Waid. As I said above, I was blind to what was going on at other publishers and this was Waid's big break at Marvel. The Preview made mention of him being a renowned Flash author, but that gave me no idea of whether he would impress me or not. I was disappointed that Gruenwald was leaving, but he gave Waid his blessing in the Preview, which was actually a better endorsement than "this guy writes Flash" in my book.

I bought Waid's first issue, #444, but it wasn't especially helpful at convincing me that Waid was the scribe I hoped he would be. #444 barely features Cap, instead focusing on the Avengers defusing a terrorist attack and talking about how great Cap is. It demonstrated that Waid had some respect for Captain America, but not whether he could write said character.

So, this finally leads me to the issues at hand: Captain America#445-446.

Writer: Mark Waid. Art: Ron Garney, Scott Koblish, Danis Rodier.

I bought these issues simultaneously from a department store (K Mart?). This is where Waid's run on Captain America began in earnest, reintroducing Cap's former-dead former-love interest Sharon Carter, and teaming Cap with the Red Skull to face the greater threat of a Cosmic Cube imbued with the mind of Adolf Hitler.

It sucked.

That was my reaction then, and it's still hard to divorce myself from my initial emotions. Waid and Garney's Captain America run is looked on favorably by fandom - it's often ranked higher than Gruenwald, in spite (or because?) of Waid writing little more than 30 issues versus Gruenwald's 130+.

Although Waid did resolve Cap's recurring health problems from Gruenwald's run (which had consumed the series for the past twenty issues) and picked up the Red Skull from where Gruenwald had left him, he jettisoned all of Cap's supporting cast, bringing in just Sharon Carter to replace them.

I think everything I disliked about these two comics - and what kept me disassociated from Cap for the rest of Waid's run - was his use of Sharon Carter. I wasn't reading Cap back when she was alive, seeing that she died when I was one year old. Having been nurtured for years by Gruenwald's stories and essays, I firmly agreed with his statement "Every character's rebirth diminishes the Marvel Universe by robbing the concept of death of its dramatic impact" (see it here). I knew of Sharon because Gruenwald's own Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe introduced her to me as "the dead girlfriend."

Waid's means of restoring Sharon to life were as plausible as the average resurrection, but while the person appearing in Cap#445-446 may have called herself Sharon Carter...she certainly didn't act like her. Throughout the story Sharon is...how to put it...an ice-cold bitch? She never drops her guard around Cap and let her emotions show, instead seemingly resenting him for believing she was dead. Well, fair enough, but this was not the way to warm me up to this character. I was already apprehensive of the very notion of resurrecting Sharon; making her an acid-tongued harpy who renders dismissive, disparaging remarks to Cap (my hero! the star of the book!) angered me. Cap's relationship with the Red Skull was actually warmer and more human than his relationship with Sharon. You know where you sit with Johann Shmidt*. I felt that Waid had unnecessarily resurrected an old forgotten character and transplanted an entirely new personality into her, to the extent that he was using her just for the name value, because he could take advantage of Cap's pre-existing emotional connection to Sharon, rather than inventing a new sardonic, bilious shrew that Cap would have to learn to like. So this Waid was the great wunderkind of DC Comics? Fah!** This was surely an example of why I had given up on DC six years earlier (I convinced myself I had actually disliked DC; the "Marvel Zombie" days were very emotional).

As Gruenwald observed, just as every issue can be someone's first, each issue can also be their last. This was where I called it quits***, not only on Captain America but on X-Men 2099 as well, since there seemed to be little point in scouting comic shops to find just one title. Consequently, I had given up on comics. In short order, I began cutting immense swaths of titles from my collection, only retaining series I didn't want to break up and issues that held an emotional connection with me. Cap#445-446 stayed in, but only because they were part of my Captain America collection. I was resigned to my course: I was finally done with comics.

In my next installment: the heartbreak of coming back to comics. * Under his heel. ** I did eventually warm up to Waid on Fantastic Four and succeeding titles like Empire, Potter's Field and the Unknown. I still don't like re-reading his Cap, yet found myself writing a piece for one of the collections anyway. *** Not to return as a monthly customer until Brubaker's 2004 relaunch. Sharon Carter was still around, but had long since repented her Joan Collins-esque ways.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Captain America #355

I've already referred to how peer pressure from my cousins led me to conclude that Marvel Comics were the best comic book publisher. If I had to pinpoint the precise comic book that made me a Marvel fan - a "Marvel Zombie," as was the self-disparaging nickname used at the time - it would have to be Captain America#355.

Writer: Mark Gruenwald Artist: Al Milgrom

Well, where to begin?

As described in the 1st installment, I was primarily a DC fan as a child. I've heard it said that Gruenwald was himself more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan and the concept behind this particular story of his - Captain America becomes a teenager - sounds like something from DC's Silver Age. But that wasn't why I bought it.

I attempted to avoid the X-Men because they were the most popular characters(according to my cousins). Instead, I sought out Captain America because I knew he was on the verge of becoming the next most popular super hero. Oh, I may have been eleven, but I knew Captain America's big theatrical debut was in the works*! And that cover...whatever you may think, it really stood out on the spinner rack of the Alpine Drug Store.

This was the start of a three-part story which fandom ultimately dubbed "Teen Cap." Some call it a (or the) low point of Gruenwald's lengthy Captain America run, but it's not quite what you'd expect. Ron Frenz's pseudo-Kirby cover promises some Silver Age-like escapades, but in the actual story Cap has himself transformed into a teenager so that he can go undercover and find out what's been happening to teenage runaways. He winds up at the "Camp of Hate," an indoctrination site where teenagers are being wired into killers and he's without all the advantages of his shield and strength. It's actually a pretty good dilemma (when you're eleven) in that you fear for Cap's life.

This was not the first Marvel comic book I purchased, but it was where the trend began. I came back the next month for #356. Then next month for #357. Pretty soon, I was buying as many Marvel comics as my meager resources would allocate; I invested so much into Marvel's fictional universe that I couldn't be bothered to focus on DC's; gradually I stopped buying DC (even from the old Swap Shop's 25 cent bin) until within a few years I actually held DC in contempt, as was the fashion of the time (and still is). By 1991, I was buying dozens of new comic books every month. Captain America #355 set me on the path to becoming an ├╝ber fan!

More than that, this was where Captain America became my new favorite hero. He had the morality and courage of Superman, but I quickly began to appreciate that without superhuman powers, his achievements were actually more impressive. Truth be told, I developed some disdain for Superman as a result. Cap was a natural leader who would never give up in a fight, tried his best against impossible odds and genuinely cared about both innocents and criminals.

This was also where I became a fan of Mark Gruenwald's work. He wrote Captain America for most of the next 100 issues and I never enjoyed Cap so much as I did under his pen. From the never-ending Red Skull plots to the Diamondback storyarcs, this was the first time a series grabbed me, made me care about the characters instead of simply the resolution to fights. Coupled with this were Gruenwald's editorials in Marvel Age magazine, which exposed the writing/production side of comic books in a frank, open manner that quickly educated me on the process and realities of storytelling and shared universes. Finally, Gruenwald had already developed the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe by the time I became a Marvel Zombie. From 1989 onwards, I thought I would be a comic book fan for life.

So I thought.

Join me next installment for the story of how I gave up on comic books.

*Twenty-one years later, it still is.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Uncanny X-Men Annual#12

Today's Comics That Changed Me is a special PSA for young comic book readers about the dangers of peer pressure. It could turn you into a Marvel Zombie. To frame this story properly, I need to explain my comic book buying habits circa 1988. Being a ten year old whose only monetary resources were a tiny allowance and the occasional birthday gift, I had to spend my comic book money responsibly. To me, that meant I only followed the comic books I really liked. Back then, my single favorite comic book was Superman. By extension, I read primarily from DC Comics, especially if Superman was in any way involved. I did have quite a few Marvel comics but most of them were presents; the only Marvel book I truly enjoyed was Star Wars, which had been cancelled by '88.
The second important piece of information involves my cousins, James and Andrew. These two were each born within a year of me, roughly the year before and after. Not only were they nearer in age to me than any of my other cousins, they were nearer than my own siblings. I always looked forward to (all too infrequent) visits with James and Andrew. We had very similar tastes as children, notably our shared love of Star Wars.
There was a period of time where I would see James and Andrew once a year, always in the summer. It seemed like each summer the boys had a new mania they wanted to share with their fellow cousins. That summer of '88, at least part of the mania was the X-Men.
Writer: Chris Claremont Artists: Art Adams & Bob Wiacek.
I knew the X-Men from various gifts and such items that had wandered into my collection, but I didn't think much of it. The X-Men were just another super hero team, so far as I was concerned. Being a Marvel super hero team, I didn't invest a lot of time thinking about them.
But then there was James and Andrew with that annual. And they made the hard sell, employing peer pressure whether they knew it or not. They raved about that gorgeous Art Adams artwork a little, but mostly they extolled X-Men because it was the most popular comic book. I certainly had no idea which comics were more popular than others, but my respected cousins assured me that the X-Men were number one; moreover, Marvel was the number one publisher. "Everyone's doing it," to coin a phrase.
I read my cousins' copy of this annual a few times, trying to grasp what made it so great. This was the comic that introduced the X-Babies, for crying out loud! Its greatness escaped me at the time, but my cousins' peer pressure had begun to take some effect. If Marvel Comics really were the coolest comics, why wasn't I reading them?
Now, I had enough willpower of my own that I wasn't willing to simply become an X-Men fan, but how I began my Marvel Zombie phase is a story for the third installment. Suffice to say, I avoided the X-Men at first just to show I wasn't copying everything my cousins promoted.
In summers to follow, James and Andrew would sing the praises of Turbo Grafix 16, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Magic: the Gathering. I held out against them as best as I was able to, but as late as 2002 they were still able to sway me into Heroclix. James & Andrew: I love you guys, but you have so much to answer for...







Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Justice League International#11

When I say that a certain comic book changed me, I don't want to sound like I'm indulging in hyperbole. I enjoy many forms of entertainment and there are fictional works in many mediums which can excite me, unsettle me, make me laugh or bring me to tears. But I would never say that any such work "changed my life." So when I say that a comic book changed me, I mean that it changed the way I approached the medium of comic books, from casual reader to devoted fan to part-time professional, with various stages of waning interest sprinkled throughout.

There are several signposts along my journey as a reader that I've thought about on the occasion; this post is the first in a series (planned to run 10 installments) in which I'll be processing those thoughts.

Operating from chronological order, I begin with Justice League International#11.

Written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis; art by Kevin Maguire and Al Gordon.

JLI#11 was not my first comic book, but it is the earliest comic where I can recall criticizing what I was experiencing. I was nine years old at the time and while most of my knowledge of the Justice League of America was based on the Super Friends animated program, I had read a few issues of JLA earlier on. They really didn't prepare me for the JLI.

Giffen & DeMatteis' JLI is looked on rather favorably by today's fans, but I can only imagine what regular readers of the JLA thought at the time.* There were two things about JLI that I recognized as being very different:

  1. The absence of big names; Batman, Black Canary & Martian Manhunter were all in this issue, but the remainder were heroes I had never heard of; Rocket Red? Booster Gold? Captain Atom? Mr. Miracle? Blue Beetle? And their Green Lantern (Guy Gardner) wasn't the one I had seen before; he had a stupid haircut and a goofy personality. Who were these people and what happened to the real Justice League?**
  2. The humour. I was accustomed to finding humour in Archie or Star comics, not in my super hero books.

The second point was the one I felt most strongly about. As a childhood Star Wars fan I accepted comic relief characters existing side-by-side an otherwise serious story, but JLI#11 was levity through-and-through. Everyone, with the exception of Batman, was there to crack or be the foil of jokes. I think Guy Gardner was the one I loathed the most; I learned many years later that this issue came during a subplot where Guy's personality had been altered to (it says here) humourous effect, rendering him docile as an inversion of his customary obnoxious behavior. Knowing none of this, as my introduction to the character I was immediately put off. In JLI#11, Guy is incompetant, Booster Gold is airsick, Rocket Red talks in a "humourous" dialect. I cringed. This is the Justice League? The greatest super heroes in comics?

I couldn't fully articulate what upset me about JLI#11 at the age of nine, but on some level it offended me. I felt that the creators were mocking the super hero comics that I loved, portraying super heroes as bumbling idiots existing just to set up gags. It made me feel as though my taste in reading material was being ridiculed by the very people who fabricated it.*** About a decade later I would become a huge fan of the Tick which did a similar thing to super heroes; the difference being that the Tick himself was created as an act of satire. The presence of the words "Justice League" on the cover severely tested my tolerance for the buffoonery.

And so, my critical faculties were unleashed on a comic book for the first time. The result? Before long I abandoned DC Comics wholesale, throwing all my dollars to Marvel Comics. I'll get more into that during the next two installments, but for years afterward I would spy the JLI (or Justice League Europe) on the stands and sigh, seeing that nothing had changed; JLI#11 informed my opinion of DC Comics for the next decade and it wasn't the least bit favourable.

My concerns as a nine year old probably seem small to you if you have some knowledge of the comic book market today. There can't be that many nine year olds reading comic books in 2010 and reverence toward the protagonists isn't the biggest issue keeping kids away.

Some years ago I revisited Giffen**** & DeMatteis' work as an adult and found it more palatable, but I wonder how many kids in my age range were driven away from the League - or comics - by this creative direction. I have not purchased a Justice League comic since the 1980s.

*"Well, it still beats the Detroit League!"

**In fact, the opening scene has the JLI's company man Maxwell Lord becoming upset that none of the heroes who aided the JLI in a recent crossover were sticking around. Max, we were on the same page.

***I felt that way again the following year when I watched the Superman 50th Anniversary special on television, which made ten year old me grind his teeth and fluster, "Don't they know Superman is fictional?" In retrospect, I think the makers of the special were hoping to produce a riff on This is Spinal Tap.

****Not long after JLI#11 I discovered Giffen's Ambush Bug and enjoyed it immensely - that series, where the humour was completely off-the-wall mental, didn't seem to hold its audience in contempt. Would that I felt the same way about the recent Ambush Bug: Year None mini-series, which brought back JLI#11 flashbacks in the worst way.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Marvel Handbook, Index and Avengers Spotlight all in stores tomorrow!

Three great books arrive in stores this Wednesday - one is issue #2 of the newly-relaunched Official Index to the Marvel Universe (learn more here); another is the 14th and final volume of the hardcover Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe series (learn more here). Additionally, you may be interested in the following:

AVENGERS SPOTLIGHT

Marvel begins a new Heroic Age of Avengers action in May, with the first issues of Brian Michael Bendis' AVENGERS and Ed Brubaker's SECRET AVENGERS leading the way! To celebrate this new Heroic Age for Earth's Mightiest Heroes, we want all SPOTLIGHT faithful to assemble for a double-sized extravaganza jam-packed with inside information, interviews, preview art and some very special surprises. This month's SPOTLIGHT is all things Avengers: Who survived SIEGE? Which heroes passed the Initiative? What's up with Luke Cage and his renegade Avengers? What's life like in a post-Dark Reign world? And where doe Steve Rogers fit into all of this? If you are a fan of the Avengers -- old school or new -- this is a must-buy piece of Marvel memorabilia! One-Shot/Rated T …$3.99

There, I've just figured out how to spend all of your money for you. You're welcome!