Saturday, October 13, 2007

Separated at Birth: We gonna rock down to Electric Superman/And then we'll take it higher

Superman #123 and #149
L: Superman v.2 #123 (May 1997), art by Ron Frenz and Joe Rubinstein
R: Superman v.2 #149 (October 1999), art by Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema
(Click picture to electri-size)

Saturday Morning Cartoon: Felix the Cat Switches Witches

"Felix the Cat Switches Witches" (1927), directed by Otto Messmer
(More about Felix)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Friday Night Fracks: Starbuckin'

Battlestar Galactica #20It's true, folks: media tie-in comic books really do work as gateway comics, and I'm the little stuffed proof. No, I wasn't brought to the fandom of four-color adventure by Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter or Stephen King's The Dark Tower or even 30 Rock: The Comic Book, but you can blame my obsessive love for comic books on a licensed comic: my first non-kiddie comic was Marvel's Star Wars #21, which I picked up on the newsstand solely because a freakin' huge Darth Vader was on the cover, and by flipping through it I decided that it didn't look as lame as some of the previous Star Wars comics I'd briefly scanned. Before then I had taken once look at Star Wars #9 and scoffed at the silly and ridiculous green character on the cover. Wrong I was, of course (to quote a later green Star Wars character), Giant Green Star Wars Rabbit was not only not lame, he was, as I well know now, utterly totally awesome. But all of that was a false start easily rectified with Star Wars #21, and I was hooked on that comic, that story, and very soon, Marvel comics as a whole.

Star Wars #21 was cover-dated March 1979, so it's entirely possible that the second comic I ever bought was yet another space-media tie-in, Marvel's Battlestar Galactica #1, which was published the same month. For the next few years or so I bought both these comics regularly, eventually adding to my collection my first superhero comic (Avengers #197 the following summer). Back in those days I didn't bag or board or box my comics: my collection was slim enough that I kept them in a green paper envelope and pulled them out frequently to re-read 'em all. A couple years later I experienced my first of a long series of comics being cancelled out from under my nose when Marvel pulled the plug on Battlestar Galactica with issue #23—just when it was getting pretty good.

What? The 70s Marvel Battlestar Galactica...pretty good? Well, yeah, towards the end, really, it wasn't bad. After a lengthy and extended set of issues that were nothing but pre-series flashbacks (Adama was trapped in a "Memory Machine" replaying his past life as everyone around him pretty much just stood around, wrung their hands and worried for a half-dozen issues), the series kicked into high gear with the arrival of Walt Simsonson...yes, that Walt Simonson: pre-Thor but still plenty ass-kickin'. Unca Walt came on board as a penciller and co-plotter around about issue #11, and the next few issues featured a mild upswing in skill and excitement in what had been a fairly pedestrian series until then. Number 16, with Apollo battling an ultra-advanced super-Cylon on a desolate planet, was one of the standout issues and well-worth checking out.

But it wasn't until issue #19 that Walt took full reins, both writing and penciling Galactica (Klaus Janson did the inks) and suddenly the series became pretty cool. For the first time I realized that different creative teams on a comic book could mean an increase in quality of the story and art. It would take a few years (the post-Empire issues) for the Star Wars series to get to the point where I could point at 'em and say, "Yeah, those are pretty good comics," but Galactica got that way fast with Simonson's take-over, and although the series wouldn't' last much longer, it was still a fun final ride. And, you have to hand it to Walt: he brought back Starbuck.

What's that? "Brought back Starbuck? Where the heck was he?" you ask, amazed. Roger McKenzie wrote Starbuck out of the series in issue #14. Yes, you read that correctly: the most popular character did not appear in issues #14-18. Why...that's just insane! What kind of Galactica storyline doesn't have Starbuck front and center as much as possible? Why, they surely wouldn't write Starbuck out of the show if it was still on today, would they? Oh, I bet they wouldn't.

Battlestar Galactica #19"Not that you missed him but...Starbuck's back!!" crowed the lovely stylized Simonson cover to issue #19, and you can guess who crash-lands in the Galactica's landing bar a few pages into the story. We then catch up on what ABC's Top Sunday Night Colonial Warrior had been up to while Apollo and Boxey and the gang has been sitting around twiddling their space-thumbs since ish #14. It's a wonderful tale in and of itself which explains how Starbuck conned and blasted his way out of a deal to remain forever with the lovely but bat-crazy space pirate Eurayle (Empress of Scavenge World). One of these days I'll devote a column to this issue, which has a great four-page sequence where Starbuck narrates his adventure (while we see what really happened). But this is Friday, after all, and it's time for Friday Night Fights, isn't it? That's why I'm turning instead to look at the following ish, Battlestar Galactica #20, when Eurayle finally catches up with Starbuck.

And boy, is she ticked off.

Eurayle controls minds (did I mention that? No? Well, she controls minds.) Starbuck remaining behind with her on Scavenge World was the price she exacted for letting the Galactica and the ragtag human fleet free back in issue #14, so she's understandably a little peeved that the starbuckin' one broke that promise and escaped.
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel
All panels are from Battlestar Galactica #20 (October 1980), written and penciled by Walt Simonson, inks by Klaus Janson, coloring by Steve Oliff, lettering by Diana Albers

She attempts to mind-control Apollo (really, who doesn't try that trick?), but with the help of some handy space-rope, Starbuck's prepared for that emergency:
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

It's a space-stalemate! In the show this would be a great moment for a commercial break and then that dramatic bum-bum-ba-bum ba-ba-bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum music accompanied by special effects we've seen one bazillion times since the pilot, but Simonson zips us right along to a parlay on one of the shuttles where Eurayle tries to play the same card as before: surrender or die:
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

Apollo, of course, has a plan. He always does, doesn't he? It would be several years after Battlestar Galactica disappeared from the airwaves before British pop duo Pet Shop Boys made their first appearance on the charts, but the crackerjack team of Apollo and Starbuck neatly anticipate the lyrics of one of their most famous songs: I've got the brains, you've got the looks. Yes, Apollo and Starbuck are the Tennant and Lowe of the space lanes, and don't let anyone tell you any different. Oh, and that plan? Why, only a little eeny-weeny fight...
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel the death!

Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about.

So here at last is the fight portion of Friday Night, and if it helps you to get out your Stu Phillips LP of the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack and cue it up to the track "Cylon Freighter/The Trap," why, you're in a perfect mood to see Starbuck and Eurayle, in spacesuits, tied together, bashing each other's brains out with space-hammers:
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

Just like a retired Musketeer, Starbuck draws first, air...
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

...while Apollo and Eurayle's hulking green henchman watch...
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

Oh, and then, Eurayle wins.
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

But Starbuck's okay, right? This isn't the end of the fight...?
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel


Starbuck dead and her honor satisfied, Eurayle prepares to leave, but not before pitchin' a little woo at Commander Adama's favorite (surviving) boy:
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

So. That's a bummer, isn't it? Walt Simonson works hard to get Starbuck back, and inside 17 pages, he's dead and...
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

Ah ha! Starbuck and Apollo have been watching "Amok Time!" Clever, clever little leather-clad Colonial Warriors, ain't they? Walt leaves us with the suggestion that Eurayle was in on the con all the time, going along with the battle just to save face in front of her people:
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

There's a lovely little funny moment just at the end that's pure Dirk Benedict/Richard Hatch:
Battlestar Galactica #20 panel

And then, cue the Stu Phillips orchestra, bring up the special effects, and Lorne Greene fruitily intones in the dulcet voice that sold a billion cans of Alpo: "Fleeing the Cylon tyranny, the last Battlestar, Galactica, leads a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest: a shining planet Earth." (Bum bum bum BUM!)

Nowadays you kids have it so good: your Warriors with first names and your sexy, sexy Cylons: we had Jonathan Harris and socialators and comic-relief robot dogs daggits and Brit Ekland and we liked it that way. You know, it's true: it's sometimes hard to watch the original Galactica and not giggle or guffaw at it. I loved it a lot, but even back then I knew how silly and insubstantial it was, and I was sorry to see it go away after a single season (especially considering Galactica 1980 replaced it the following year). But as we now know, the basic concept of the ragtag fleet fleeing the Cylons is a solid one and has led to excellent and acclaimed entertainment over the past few years—and that's not even categorizing it as "one of the best sci-fi TV shows"...but rather one of the best TV shows, period. It all goes to show you: stripped of the seventies camp and velour, the basic concept was solid, sound, and full of excitement and energy. Walt Simonson saw that first, I think: transforming a pretty pedestrian tie-in comic into a half-dozen pretty cool comics by any standards. Battlestar Galactica oughta be fun. And in the hands of Unca Walt, it sure was.

(Bahlactus believes that that life here...began out there.)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

To Boldly Go Where No Screen Capture Has Gone Before

The 41(!)-year-old Star Trek franchise has had a lot of comic book tie-ins from many varied publishers: Gold Key, Marvel, DC, Wildstorm, IDW have all published four-color adventures of Kirk, Spock, Picard, the guy with the bumpy head, A Man Called Hawk, Hooty McBorg and all the gang. Some have been pretty bad, others not too bad at all (I'm partial myself to some of the DC runs and the Marvel books like Starfleet Academy and The Early Voyages that weren't based on the same old characters), but by far the most faithful and accurate of all Star Trek comics were Bantam's series of "Fotonovels" published in 1977 and '78.

But are these comics, even tho' they're photos and not drawn? Why, sure, they are. While it never caught in in America to the extent of Europe and Latin America, photo comics (fumetti) are a popular subsection of the graphic novel medium. Yes, long before the days when Greg Horn traced photos, you could get comics made up of photos, thus cutting out the middleman!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

And that's how a little bull got a free hotel room.

Your won't pay

Another simple post for an exceptionally stressfilled week, which I shan't apologize for. But I do hope to have a real post for you tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Great Sound Effects of Our Time

FF #324 panel
Panels from Fantastic Four #324 (March 1989), written by Steve Englehart, art by Keith Pollard and Romeo Tanghal

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #24: Ukridge

A Wodehouse a Week banner

'I've been reading your book, old man,' said Ukridge, breaking a pregnant silence with an overdone carelessness. He brandished winningly the only novel I had ever written, and I can offer no better proof of the black hostility of my soul than the statement that even this did not soften me. 'It's immense, laddie. No other word for it. Immense. Damme, I've been crying like a child.'

'It is supposed to be a humorous novel," I pointed out, coldly.

'Crying with laughter,' explained Ukridge, hurriedly.

I eyed him with loathing.
—from Ukridge by P. G. Wodehouse

Almost a quarter of the way through the Wodehouse Canon and I've introduced you to very nearly all the major series characters: Bertie and Jeeves, Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings, Mr. Mulliner, The Oldest Member, Psmith, Monty Bodkin, Galahad've been acquainted with them all and I'll continue to keep you spot up to date on their adventures as I work my way through the next year-and-a-half's worth of Wodehouseiana. But could it be possible that nearly half a year into the Canon and we still haven't met all the major players? Why yes...yes, it is! Curiously enough, we've yet to meet my favorite Wodehouse character, Uncle Fred, Earl of Ickenham: in my view the epitome of the mischievous and wild-lived elderly peer that Wodehouse brought so well to life, and an especial favorite of mine because I had an Uncle Fred of my own. We won't meet Uncle Fred this week (soon, I promise you), but instead, meet another leading player in several Wodehouse works: Stanley Featherstonehaugh (pronounced 'Fanshaw,' in that delightful British way) Ukridge.

Ukridge is his name, and Ukridge (1924) is his book, although it was renamed He Rather Enjoyed It when it was re-published in the US in 1926. And that's an apt description and summary of my whole review of this book: this little stuffed bull rather enjoyed it. Ukridge debuted in an earlier work of Wodehouse's, the 1906 novel Love Among the Chickens), but in my little button eyes, Ukridge is his finest moment—or, to be precise, ten finest moments, as these are ten Ukridge short stories, originally published separately in The Strand magazine (worth picking up even after Mister Sherlock Holmes retired, you see!). Though the stories can be read separately and are all amusing, they gain a strong sweep and strength when read as a whole, situations in later stories building upon those from earlier to a comic climax in the final chapter, much like the separate but interconnected stories in The Inimitable Jeeves from the same period.

Ukridge and the narrator of the tales, professional writer James "Corky" Corcoran (what a fine, fine name!) are no Jeeves and Wooster, and Ukridge might even be described as an anti-Jeeves: he ensnares Corky in his plans and plots to make quick money, all of which fail spectacularly (or at least financially and socially inconvenience Corky). Corky and Ukridge were at Wrykyn together (the boarding school that features in Wodehouse's earliest school stories, and my favorite of the Wodehouse schools), so Ukridge's tendencies to borrow without repaying are not new, but so charming are his ways, Corky falls into the same trap every time:
'I was told to give you this letter, sir.'

I took it and opened the envelope with a sigh. I had recognized the handwriting of Ukridge, and for the hundredth time in our close acquaintance there smote me like a blow the sad suspicion that this man had once more gone and wished upon me some frightful thing.

It's not often I ask you to do anything for me...

I laughed hollowly.
Ukridge isn't so much a criminal or a swindler, but he is a rogue and a con man, always ready to touch his friends for a fast pound note, ever-ready to entangle them in his newest outlandish get-rich-quick scheme. Although he has the best of intentions, Ukridge isn't above misdirection, white lies, or even a spot of petty theft to fund his endeavors:
'Gentlemen,' said Ukridge, 'it would seem that the company requires more capital. How about it, old horses? Let's get together in a frank, business-like cards-on-the-table spirit, and see what can be done. I can raise ten bob.'

'What!" cried the entire assembled company, amazed. 'How?'

'I'll pawn a banjo.'

'You haven't got a banjo.'

'No, but George Tupper has, and I know where he keeps it.'
Thus begins an elaborate scheme to defraud insurance companies by funding Teddy Weeks, one of Ukridge's circle who has drawn the short straw, to have a disastrous accident and collecting on several insurance claims to be split among the investors. Ukridge then spends the rest of the story attempting to convince Teddy to willingly break his leg for the good of the conglomerate, to no avail, as Wodehouse informs us, in a rather macabrely gleeful paragraph that I can imagine Gomez Addams cackling at as he reads:
All over the inhabited globe, so the well-informed sheet gave one to understand, every kind of accident was happening every day to practically everybody in existence except Teddy Weeks. Farmers in Minnesota were getting mixed up with reaping-machines, peasants in India we being bisected by crocodiles; iron girders from skyscrapers were falling hourly on the heads of citizens in every town from Philadelphia to San Francisco; and the only people who were not down with ptomaine poisoning were those who had walked over cliffs, driven motors into walls, tripped over manholes, or assumed on too slight evidence that the gun was not loaded. In a crippled world, it seemed, Teddy Weeks walked alone, whole and glowing with health. It was one of those grim, ironical, hopeless, grey, despairful situations which the Russian novelists love to write about...
When happenstance fails to injure Teddy, Ukridge then resorts to elbowing or shoving or pushing Teddy in harm's way, each attempt resulting in the injury of some other (non-insured) friend. When at last Teddy drunkenly and accidentally steps on a banana peel and breaks two ribs and his arm, Ukridge is delighted: time to collect the money at last. It would be, that is, if Teddy hadn't suffered amnesia from his fall and refuses to parcel out his substantial insurance benefits.

The same O. Henry-esque twists complicate each one of Ukridge's end schemes in every story, leaving him as penniless as ever, whether he's attempting to raise trained dogs (stolen from his imposing aunt), train and fight a prize boxer (the burly but sensitive Battling Billson (who appears later, behind the scenes, in Something Fishy), or, most hopeless of all, attempting a scheme to put one over on his wealthy, sweet-faced but sour-demeanored Aunt Julia, a writer:
'Does your aunt write novels?'

'The world's worst, laddie, the world's worst. She's been steeped to the gills in literature ever since I can remember. They've just made her president of the Pen and Ink Club. As a matter of fact, it was her novels that did me in when I lived with her. She used to send me to bed with the beastly things and ask me questions about them at breakfast. It was a dog's life, and I'm glad it's over. Flesh and blood couldn't stand the strain.'
One of Ukridge's rare successes is oversubscribing his aunt's literary dance by selling tickets to an entirely different group and pocketing the proceeds, but for the most part his plans are doomed to failure., and it's off again on another attempt at the easy ready when the next story begins: Ukridge is undaunted and ever-clever, often working harder to gain a few illegal pounds than he would if he actually worked for a living. He's an excellent example of the frustrated confidence rogue in literature: a lovable scoundrel, not quite a crook, but never on the straight-and-narrow: a spiritual brother to Sergeant Bilko, Harold Hill, Johnny Hooker, The Duke and the Dauphin, Lyle Lanley and Jack of Fables. As Stevie Nicks would sing, "Will you ever win?" Nope. Not a chance.

Except...well, at the end, Ukridge does kinda win: he falls in love and swindles his way into the hearts of his girl Millie's family by stealing a beloved family pet—a parrot—and then becoming the hero by returning it. And Millie helps him do it. Typical to the last, they stash the parrot at Corky's and entangle him in a plot to keep Aunt Julia away from Millie's family. At last, our con man hero has met a girl with as duplicitous a heart as his, and it's love for Ukridge and when the final page of the last story is turned. Their tumultuous but good-humored marriage is recounted in the (earlier) novel Love Among the Chickens, which I have yet to re-read in the Wodehouse a Week project. It's difficult to imagine this rogue in a domestic setting, but I'm looking forward to dropping in on him at home later on.

For what's a relatively minor Wodehouse book I was surprised to find I have on the old PGW bookshelf several editions from different eras: the recent Everyman Wodehouse hardcover reprint, of course; a battered but lovely Herbert Jenkins fourth printing hardcover edition from 1930 featuring a Li'l Abneresque Battling Billson on the cover (purchased for ten quid at the late lamented Gloucester Road Book Shop on my London trip of 1997); a late-eighties uniform Hutchinson UK reprint edition with a dustjacket that looks like tweed; but my favorite edition is the one I've been reading this week: a paperback Penguin reprint from the 1960s, the era when Penguin had abandoned the Jan Tschichold-designed all-typography covers they were most famous for and began experimenting with different typographical and art elements on their covers. This one has a lovely energetic cartoon of Ukridge being chased by Aunt Julia's vicious Pekes. It's a book very dear to me as I purchased it on my very first trip to London (in 1983) for what the pencil marks on the inside page tell me was a whopping 90p. (The original price on the cover? 3 shillings and sixpence.) It also features one of my favorite short and dry descriptions of any Wodehouse book on the back cover:
The leading incidents of easy-money Ukridge's disreputable career—from dog-training, fight-management, and bookmaking down to politics—now presented to the public, and not, as some might prefer, decently hushed up.
Below that, the cover declares in bold letters: For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A. But lucky, lucky you: Ukridge is at last actually available to you here in the States, and in the lovely Overlook hardcover reprint edition, complete with Pekes on the cover. (Cheaper used paperback copies can also be found on Amazon by clicking through to 'other editions' if you're as short on the ready money as Ukridge.) Please take my advice, order one up today, and enjoy your time with Mister Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge: but keep your hand on your wallet and don't lend him a single quid.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.