Saturday, April 28, 2007

Separated at Birth: What you see and what you will hear/Will last you for the rest of your life

Uncanny X-Men #111 and Excalibur #-1

L: Uncanny X-Men #111 (June 1978), art by Dave Cockrum and Terry Austin
R: Excalibur #-1 (July 1997), art by Rob Haynes and Casey Jones
(Click picture to Big Top-size)




Friday, April 27, 2007

Ben Grimm Totally Rocks! #15/Friday Night Fights, Round 7/Most Fun Comics Ever #2

Marvel Two-in-One #50Marvel Triple Action! It's not merely the title of a 1970s reprint series from Marvel, it's also the sheer force and the powerhouse that is tonight's post! Because this little stuffed bull is going to pull off a triple—that's right, folks, not a mere puny mild-mannered post that fits one category of comics fandom, not even a tricky double spanning a twin range of interests and obsessions among those of us who are four-color fans, but watch and gape in amazement as at no point do my hooves leave my hands while I present to you a sheer megalith of a tri-cornered post that spans the globe to bring you the constant variety of comics! In other words, sit back, grab yourself a frosty root beer, and prepare to be hammered between the eyes with the triple threat of a new edition of Ben Grimm Totally Rocks, a little stuffed bull's entry into tonight's seventh round of Bahlactus's Friday Night Fights, and One of the Most Fun Comics Ever! Can you stand it, true believer? Can you stand it as we flip open the cover of Marvel Two-in-One #50 in which The Thing battles...The Thing!

As our story opens, it's just another ordinary day at the Baxter Building: Susan Richards is out shopping for new additions to the Wig Room, Johnny Storm is off on his date with seventies supervixen Susan Anton, and Ben Grimm and Reed Richards are doing what they do best: verbally sparring! (No, folks, this ain't the Friday Night Fights portion...just you wait!):
MTIO #50 panel
All panels in this post are from Marvel Two-in-One #50 (April 1979),
written and pencilled by John Byrne, inks by Joe Sinnott


Reed is once again trying to cure Ben of his rock-star life by turning him back from the Thing into just plain Grimm. Again? But that trick never works! Reed explains it all for you using his PowerPoint slides, allowing John Byrne to show off with his Thing timeline: the evolution of Ben Grimm from the early dinosaur-hide Thing drawn by Jack Kirby in FF #1 to modern-day. Whoa, change-y! (Can you identify the various issues of Fantastic Four Mister Byrne is referring to in each of his drawings? And can you find the blonde-haired Latina in each one of those issues?):
MTIO #50 panel


Mr. Fantastic's latest Thing-Be-Gone magic potion doesn't work, however—Ben's evolution as the Thing has just gone on for far too long. Displaying the quick-thinking wit we all love Aunt Petunia's li'l nephew Benjy for, the Thing decides to steal the keys to Doctor Doom's Time Machine (seriously, Reed, put The Club on that thing, for Pete's sake!) and heads back to the future! Oh, no, wait...he's going forward into the past!...back to administer the potion to his past self in the first few weeks after his transformation! Whoa, there's all sortsa wacky shenanigans with the time-space continuum about to happen, ain't there! (Hey, why are you crying up there on the moon, Uatu?...I'm sure things will all sort themselves out!) Incidently, note Jaunty John's clever positioning of the Thing's paw to cover up the date he's going to. We all know that FF #1 was published in '61, and MTIO #50 was published in '79. But at the time in the Marvel Universe only about seven years had passed between point A and point B, and Byrne cleverly does the only thing you should do with addressing the passage of years in the Marvel Universe: ignore it:
MTIO #50 panel


What happens next happens fast, and can be pretty much summed up this way: Ben Grimm '79 meets Ben Grimm '61:
MTIO #50 panel


Do they throw a tea party? They do not:
MTIO #50 panel


They fight!
MTIO #50 panel


And fight!
MTIO #50 panel


And fight and fight and fight!
MTIO #50 panel


Fight fight fight!
MTIO #50 panel


Fight fight fight!
MTIO #50 panel


The Benjy and Benjy Show...oh wait, sorry, I went off on a tangent there.
MTIO #50 panel


As everybody knows, the seventies always beat the sixties! The big orange guy beats the slightly smaller big orange guy! John Byrne beats Jack Kirby...hey, wait a second, Mister Byrne...that's kinda arrogant, ain't it? Anyway, let's all ask the musical question: what time is it?:
MTIO #50 panel


Older Ben beats young Ben and pours the serum down his craggy gullet, causing the sixty-one model to revert to human form.
MTIO #50 panel


Hooray! That means when Ben gets back to present times he'll be smooth and squishy instead of...dagnabbit!:
MTIO #50 panel


Reed explains that Ben didn't change history, he simply created an alternative universe that is now forever without The Thing...in this universe, he remains The Thing. If I were Reed, I woulda whalloped him across the nose with a rolled-up copy of What If? to teach him the lesson of chronogical-spatial cause-and-effect. Ben would see the effect of his actions some time later in the sequel: Marvel Two-in-One #100 showed the catastrophes that befell a World Without a Thing. (Short version: Galactus wins.)
MTIO #50 panel


With several pages of orange-punchin' action and that final haymaker that blasts young Ben right off the page, there's no doubt that this story brings the power to Friday Night Fights. And far as I'm concerned, it's also one of the most fun comics ever: an early test-run for John Byrne's groundbreaking yet "back to the basics" FF and especially The Thing. (Byrne even regressed The Thing back to that early dinosaur-hide form for several issues before Franklin magicked him back.) Despite Byrne Thing beating Kirby Thing, it's a wonderfully reverent homage to the power and energy of Jack's designs, complete with the trademark "embittered monster" dialogue of the young Grimm ("Bah!") It's probably the best way to do a fanboy homage to old stories: utterly accessible to new readers picking up the character the first time (this book was one of my first exposures to my favorite comic book superhero character) and to longtime fans who would appreciate the references and tips of the hat to Stan 'n' Jack's mighty creation. (There's even an Iron Fist reference for modern fans!) It's a fairly simple story—really not much more than an extended fight scene with three, count 'em, three full page splashes...and yet we don't feel cheated at the story. I love this comic. Say what you will about John Byrne's crackpot public persona today, but you can't deny his love and care for the grand history of Marvel resulted in more than a few wonderfully entertaining sagas.

And by the way...how cool is Mister Grimm? Well, were you or I faced with the prospect of remaining a monstrous pile of craggy orange rocks for the rest of our lives, we'd rant and tantrum and smash a few things. Ben Grimm, on the other hand?...coolly lights up a cheroot and cracks a joke comparing himself to a Hollywood sex symbol:
MTIO #50 panel


Now you know...yet another reason why Ben Grimm totally rocks.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

It was the Law of the Sea, they said. Civilization ends at the waterline.

AquamanGreetings, ocean dwellers, and welcome to the Sub Diego Sheraton for this afternoon's seminar: Law for Atlanteans! I'm your guest speaker, Aquaman. Thanks for coming today. In today's hectic submerged world, it's more important than ever to understand the workings of the modern courts and the law, and to prepare yourself for every eventuality in unexpected circumstances where may find yourself needing to understand the law, no matter which side of it you're on. Whether it's beating that SUI rap or suing the dry pants off that snake of an agent Ari Gold for not cutting you in on the movie deal he pitched you, the law is your super friend. Here in Atlantis we have a little joke: what's the difference between a shark and a lawyer? Give up? The answer is: one is an attorney at law, and the other is a Selachimorpha with a full cartilaginous skeleton. Heh heh heh. That's just a little lawyer humor.

Law for Atlanteans

Now, everybody out there in the audience: reach under your seat and you'll find a copy of your free book, Law for Atlanteans. That's just another perk we give you for attending this seminar—extra value for you smart info-hungry attendees...no, everybody has a copy...look, it's over there, it floated away...there you go. We're giving this book to you at no extra cost, but if you were to buy this at your local bookstore, this thing'd run you twenty-two clams. Heh heh heh. That's another joke, folks. Can you all hear me there in the back? Um, sir, if you are leaving the seminar, can you please return your book...sir? Sir? Sir?...Well, folks, I guess we know now who's a little shellfish there in the back. Heh. Okay, look up here at the big screen...no, past the walrus...and let's take a look at an ordinary typical Atlantean everyman and how he copes with a mild brush with the law. While I give you some handy tips, see if you can spot any mistakes he might make in dealing with legal matters!



Daredevil #7 panel
Sooner or later you'll need a lawyer! Remember to engage the services of a professional attorney to get the job done efficiently and expeditiously!
All panels in this post are from Daredevil #7 (April 1965),
written by Stan Lee, art by Wally Wood



Daredevil #7 panel
You can locate lawyers in your Yellow Pages or check with the local Bar Association! Don't be impetuous when you hire legal help—do your research first at home with phone or internet.


Daredevil #7 panel
Choose your lawyer carefully! Not any lawyer will do—there are hundreds of different specialties among attorneys. Don't simply waltz into a building from off the street and pick one at random!


Daredevil #7 panel
Be patient! Many top attorneys have packed schedules and may not be able to see you swiftly. Set up an appointment and wait patiently for your meeting!


Daredevil #7 panel
Show up punctually for your appointment! Don't be late for your meeting with your lawyer. It's best to arrive slightly earlier and relax quietly in the waiting room...they'll be out to see you swiftly!


Daredevil #7 panel
Want to sue someone? Keep the lawsuit simple! It may be tempting to go for the grand, precedent-breaking legal suit, but simple and to the point wins your case more often than complicated and grandiose!


Daredevil #7 panel
Listen to your lawyer! He's your educated and trained advocate in the field of law—pay attention to his ideas and take his advice!


Daredevil #7 panel
Politeness counts! Keep your lawyer on your good side by explaining your case calmly and thorough. Don't lose your temper—that won't help your case!


Daredevil #7 panel
Treat your lawyer's offices with respect! Keep your feet off the furniture and use that coaster, bucko! Show your attorney you're a cultured and refined person by acting the civilized Atlantean that you are!


Daredevil #7 panel
When arrested, you have the right to remain silent! Remember, anything you say can be used against you. Don't jeopardize yourself or antagonize the police by blabbing...keep your trap shut until your lawyer arrives!


Daredevil #7 panel
Never resist arrest! It's humiliating, but keep well within the limits of the law if you're handcuffed or put in restraints. They'll be removed at the station house, so keep calm and don't startle the police with sudden moves!


Daredevil #7 panel
Dress smartly for your court appearance! A jacket is always proper attire for the courtroom.


Daredevil #7 panel
Let your lawyer do the talking! You may have seen plenty of movies in which the defendant says, "I object," but remember your lawyer is a trained and paid professional: leave the legal stuff to him!


Daredevil #7 panel
Wait out your time in lock-up patiently! A cell is no fun, but don't antagonize the police or jeopardize your court case by rattling the bars or making a fuss! As they say in the big house, just "do your own time!"


Daredevil #7 panel
Never skip bail! Professional bail bondsmen have put up money to ensure you show up for your court case in time. If released into your own custody, follow their instructions and return to the court when ordered. Your bail bondsman will thank you!


Daredevil #7 panel
Co-operate with paid officials of the law! If you accidentally or mistakenly miss your court appearance, the bail bondsman will send a paid bounty hunter to escort you to the court. Don't be misled by mass media portrayals like Dog The Bounty Hunter, Domino or Janet Evanovich novels: bounty hunters will attempt to coax you into returning with a minimum of fuss. Real-life bounty hunters don't use extreme force on their skips...it's not good business!


Daredevil #7 panel
Above all, never leave the state while under parole! Doing so may seem like a quick solution, but the long arm of the law will follow you everywhere! It's your duty as a good citizen of Atlantis to face the music and the judgment of the courts, so stay in touch with your assigned parole officer. He's there to help you!



Lights, please...? Thanks! I hope all of you have learned from and find useful these tips on Law for Atlanteans! Let's take a quick kale break—everybody be back here at two-thirty for the section on historical legal court cases. We'll be starting with Roe. v. Wade.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

All we are is ducks in the wind

Funny animal comics. They're easy to define by their three separate words: they're funny. They've got animals in 'em. And they're comics. Simple enough, ain't it? When you pick up one, you pretty much know what to expect: gags, chases, cats darting after mice, mice hitting cats with hammers, everybody has a good laugh and nobody ever gets really hurt. That's another definition, isn't it? Even in the most violent...say, Itchy & Scratchy Comics...Scratchy can get his head chopped off with a lawnmower but we larf and larf and larf because there's no sense of permanence in there. You think superhero comics with their revolving doors of mortality defy the inevitability of death more than any other genre of comic? You think a genre where only Bucky Jason Todd Uncle Ben Gwen Stacy remains dead is the extreme? Well, remember this, bucko: it's all good fun 'n' games in funny animal comics, and the best thing is, nobody ever shuffles off their mortal coil.

Well, not always. As another funny animal once quipped, "Not all animals are created equal." And I'm not specifically talking about more adult-oriented funny animal comics like Critters or Usagi Yojimbo or The Adventures of Captain Jack or even the original Eastman/Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No, I'm talking about as deathproof as you can get: Disney comics. Black Pete or the Phantom Blot may have threatened Mickey or kidnapped Minnie but nobody ever got worse than a punch in the snout. Magica da Spell or the Beagle Boys have it in for Uncle Scrooge's money bin, not for his life. Sure, Bambi's mom and Simba's dad...I'll give you those. But good old-fashioned fun-for-all-ages Disney comics don't feature discussions of mortality.

Except...

Top Comics: Uncle Scrooge #2I wrote in some length here about my collection of late sixties Top Comics, which, as helpful Martin Allen points me to in the comments, re-published three issues of Gold Key's Uncle Scrooge comic, two of which I've already covered ("The Great Steamboat Race" in issue #3 in that link above, and "The Doom Diamond" in issue #1 here. Both wonderful, wonderful Carl Barks stories: certainly not the stories he's best-known for or even where he was absolutely on top of his game, but they hold a special, dear place in my little red satin heart because they were my first exposure to Uncle Scrooge. But I have all three of the Top Comics Scrooge issues...what of issue #2? Well, as I mentioned before, even in those days before Disney/Gold Key/Top Comics printed credits in their books, I could clearly tell which stories were the work of the Good Duck Artist, even though I didn't know his name. "The Great Steamboat Race" and "The Doom Diamond" were clearly the work of that same genius I only much later came to know as Carl Barks. But issue #2, "King Scrooge the First" (originally published in Gold Key's Uncle Scrooge #71)...that one puzzled me. The artwork was very clearly not that of the Good Duck Artist, but the story was weird and mystical and oddly compelling, oddly unsettling in a way, and I kept returning to it as a tiny stuffed bull to read it again and again. Why did it compel me? And more to the point, why was it so vaguely disturbing to me? To give you the full effect, let me recap the story in an extreme abridgement, with the magic of Blogger, a scanner, and some IMG SRC tags. Be certain you're sitting down: I have not one but two startling twist endings for you at the end of this story.

As "King Scrooge the First" begins, McDuck and his posse of nephews are out for a walk and encounter a fortune teller:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel
All panels in this post are from Top Comics: Uncle Scrooge #2 (1967, originally published in
Uncle Scrooge #71, October 1967), art by Tony Strobl and Steve Steere


Scrooge scoffs, but the Swami knows how to pique the canny old duck's interest:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


But, as another sentient water-animal might opine, "It's a trap!" The fortune teller hypnotizes Scrooge, Donald and the boys and whisks them away to a ghost town in the middle of the Saharan Desert, deserted for almost four thousand years:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


Clearly, those webbed feet aren't taking our favorite ganders home:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


Abandoning Scrooge and the others, the Swami spies on them from a distance. (Hey, how can he remember a town that hasn't buzzed with life since 2033 B.C.?)...
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


...and again hypnotizes them, making them believe they are living in the age the city in the desert boomed and bloomed:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


In their Shirley Maclaine-flavored past-life recall, of course even an ancient Donald is pretty much still Donald:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


...and so, rather disturbingly for a funny animal comic, so are Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Warning: duck bondage. (Ding ding ding go my Google referral hits!) Where are when we need you, Doctor Wertham?
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


Slaveducks can wait, because the city is being attacked!:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


...all as part of a cunning plan by the Swami to make Scrooge, Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie re-enact a specific battle in history. But what's so important about this battle?:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


Wait a minute! Does this invading vandalduck look familiar?
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


Of course he does: it's the Swami as he existed back in ancient times! Ah, now it starts to come together...the Swami is thousands of years old! That's not the twist I promised you, but it's a good one. But how did he become immortal?
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


Back in ancient times, the Swami demands one chest from King Scrooge's treasure trove to bargain for their safety. What's in that chest? Not jewels, not coins, but two small urns filled with powder. Whoa, that's a lot of work just for some paprika, isn't it? Another piece of the puzzle comes together when the ancient Swami reveals he just swallowed a powder of immortality:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


Back in the present, after several pages of running about, ancient fortunes shuffled back and forth, and lots more hyp-mo-tizing, the Swami uses Scrooge's buried memories to rediscover the hidden cache of treasure. Scrooge, of course, turns the tables and the Swami is soon tied up, no doubt using an unbreakable Junior Woodchuck knot. He bargains for his freedom, asking for only one item from the treasure trove—Scrooge can keep the rest. It is, of course, that same chest that once held the two urns and now only holds one:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


Before baffled duck eyes, the Swami turns into his true age: an ancient, weary duck four thousand years old:
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


...a duck long tired of immortality in an age when his comrades and slave girls long ago died...
Top Comics Uncle Scrooge #2 panel


W-w-w-wait a minute. That's how it ends? That's how this story ends? The story ends with the ancient swami wandering off into the desert to die? Whoa. Whoa. That's heavy stuff for a funny animal comic. Even though it doesn't come right out and portray the scene or say the D-word, the four-thousand year old duck is likely dead, dissolved into dust, before Scrooge can even dive into his new treasure. Now I remember why this comic book gave tiny, tiny me a bit of the heebie-jeebies—that's a heady and adult theme to pull off so effectively in a Disney comic book, not simply the concept of death, but the idea of a man duck so weary of life that he effectively commits suicide to head into the afterlife. Two years later in 1969's "Requiem for Methuselah," Star Trek would cover much the same ground, but this is deep, deep stuff for Disney in 1967, isn't it?

But the ending of this comic book story is only the first of the twists I promised you waaaaaay up there. The second one had a much longer pay-off because until tonight when I was researching the story on the web, I had it firmly fixed in my head as one of the lesser Uncle Scrooge stories by one of Carl Barks's successors—because even a casual comic book fan can glance at that art by Tony Strobl and Steve Steere and note that, while competent, that ain't Unca Carl. And yet, the scope and grandeur of the original story, the deep theme above and beyond the usual limits of Disney comics...well, that's a very good imitation Barks, isn't it? Almost uncanny...

Unless you're a Duck scholar or historian, maybe you didn't see this twist coming any more than I did, but I did not realize until tonight that "King Scrooge the First" was created by Carl Barks: it is a script he wrote before he retired in 1966, leaving the artwork for the story to be drawn by Strobl. In other words, I've been scratching my head over this story for years, thinking it was the next best thing to a Barks story...and it is a Barks story.

I love serendipitous discoveries like that, where your preconceptions suddenly turn on their head and something you never knew in dozens of readings of a favorite comic book suddenly becomes obvious. I have no idea whether "King Scrooge the First" was Barks's meditation on growing old (he'd have a very long career painting the Ducks following his retirement), but even if it was simply a story he never got around to finishing himself, "King Scrooge the First" suddenly sparkles and shines in a different light in my collection: a story I loved despite its apparent non-Barksness now shines with a new significance. The man who brought action, danger and adventure—and even the hint of mortality—to a buncha cartoon ducks continues to surprise me even forty years after this book was published. That's yet another reason I love old comic books I have a personal attachment or connection to: there's always some facet of the gem waiting to be discovered even long years after I first read 'em.

I hope you do the same. Take your lesson from Scrooge: comics are not meant to be sealed away and never read. Pull your comics out of their longboxes and their Mylar sleeves and give 'em another look. Dive around in them like a porpoise. Burrow through them like a gopher. Toss them up and let them hit you on the head. But most of all, read 'em. That's where the fun is.