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» Comic books

Category ArchiveComic books

Books & Comic books 31 Jan 2015 01:29 am

An American original

Depending on whom you ask, America is the birthplace of only a small number of original art forms, anywhere from one to five.

Jazz is often at the forefront of a list that also includes the banjo, the mystery novel — and the lowly comic book. Regular readers of this column know I often wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to comics. I credit them with nurturing my love of reading and with keeping my imagination alive during my formative years.

I can say with all earnestness that if not for the Incredible Hulk, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Donald Duck, and dozens of others, I would not have majored in English or become a teacher. Moreover, if not for artists and writers such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Carl Barks and Frank Miller, I would not have been inspired to put my own thoughts on paper.

Like any art form, comics have grown and changed. Some of the earliest comic books were merely collections of newspaper comic strips. Later, when the concept had proven its profitability, companies began to commission original material. Decades later, publishers began to collect individual comic books into more permanent form — paperbacks and hardbacks. From this innovation came the modern graphic novel, a mixture of words and pictures designed to tell a longer story.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical work with various artists stretched the boundaries of what comics could do. Pekar recognized that many Americans still viewed comics as essentially kids’ stuff, a judgment that was somewhat justified by the industry’s fixation with superheroes.

“Comics are as good an art form as any other,” Pekar told me. “You can use any word in the dictionary … you’ve got the same choices as Shakespeare.”

Perhaps a similar sentiment ran through Tom Batiuk’s head as he decided to steer his “Funky Winkerbean” comic strip in a more serious direction in 1999. By giving one of the characters cancer, he was announcing that comic strips, like comic books, need not be restricted to gag-a-day formats and juvenile subjects. This was even more apparent when the same character’s cancer returned with a vengeance in 2007.

That story line has been collected in “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe,” this year’s One Book One Community collection in Alliance. As my teaching colleagues Ron Hill and Jim Christine noted in a presentation at Rodman Public Library last week as part of the OBOC programming, “Lisa’s Story” is not technically a graphic novel, as it was not originally created to be published between two covers. Still, as a collection of strips that work together thematically to tell one long story, it fits the important part of the definition.

As a member of the OBOC committee, I have long hoped that we would one day select a graphic novel or compilation for the community to enjoy. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better representation of the power of words and pictures, each contributing to a story in a medium that is related to, but different from, movies and novels, than “Lisa’s Story.”

The main character’s journey — her reactions to her diagnosis, her relationship with her husband, her battles with insurance companies and her advocacy on behalf of additional research — is as poignant, and as appropriate, in comics format as it would be anywhere else.

Just as jazz, mystery novels, and even the twangy banjo evolved from their earliest conceptions, so too have comics. I hope readers will keep an open mind as they consider diving into this year’s OBOC selection and not dismiss it out of hand because it uses pictures to help carry its narrative weight.

Pekar was right: Comics creators have all the same choices as the Bard or any other literary luminary. The proof can be found in “Lisa’s Story.”

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Jan. 29, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary 13 Nov 2014 01:01 pm

Batman: blue or red?


Just before the midterm elections, Entertainment Weekly released a list of television shows that skewed strongly Democrat or Republican.

As the article noted, few surprises are to be found. Dems favor liberal snark, putting “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Community” among their favorites. Staunch GOP members, on the other hand, are drawn to HGTV, “Duck Dynasty” and various crime dramas.

The results had me thinking about a topic that is occasional fodder for conversation among the only real party affiliation I lay claim to: comic book geeks. The subject is the political leanings of various superheroes and other comic book characters.

For example, it’s a fairly safe bet that Superman, as originally envisioned by Clevelanders Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is a Democrat. Some of his earliest adventures show him crusading against wife-beaters and breaking down the governor’s door to secure a pardon for an innocent man in the electric chair. Both of those activities sound spot-on Democrat to me.

Batman, however, is clearly a card-carrying member of the GOP.

First of all, he’s an uber-rich dude who hides his identity and is convinced he knows better than the rest of us what the little people need. Secondly, he is willing to trample individual freedoms with little compunction. Waterboarding? Check. Warrantless phone tapping? No problem.

The only aspect of the character that doesn’t radiate Republican is the fact that he refuses to use guns. But in some of his earliest appearances in the late ’30s and ’40s he can be seen blasting away at bad guys — excuse me, alleged bad guys — with various firearms, so it’s safe to say he’s a clandestine NRA member, making him quintessentially Republican.

Superman always seems like the kind of hero who would fly an unmarried young woman to the Planned Parenthood clinic and let her make her own decision. Batman, however, would climb up on his Bat-soapbox and lecture her about responsibility, after he beat her boyfriend senseless.

If nothing else, you know that Superman and Batman are political opposites because they tend to fight every time they cross paths. After a good mutual drubbing, they decide to try to work together, at least until tomorrow. Sounds a lot like the federal government.

Also in the Democratic camp are Spider-Man, a newspaper photographer trying to make enough money to pay the rent in between all that web-slinging; Mickey Mouse, who stands up to bullies who pick on smaller folks; and Wonder Woman, if only because the Republicans would prefer to see her barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, a woman’s natural domain.

The pickings are a little slimmer on the GOP side. Of course, we have Iron Man, a war profiteer who tries to assuage the guilt he feels over making billions on the backs of innocent people by flying around in a red-and-yellow garbage can; Scrooge McDuck, who swims through his money like a porpoise through water yet begrudges his nephew Donald even a few dollars to buy toys and food for the less fortunate; and various super-spy types like Nick Fury and the Black Widow.

The game gets even more raucous if you start thinking about comic strip and animated characters. The Peanuts gang are likely all Democrats, except for Lucy, who’s red through and through. Garfield doesn’t work but expects to be taken care of, so I’d guess many people would mark him blue.

An interesting mix is the gang from Scooby-Doo. Driving around in a beat-up old van fairly screams Democrat, but I’d guess at least some of these teen sleuths — Fred and Daphne come to mind — are Republican. Scooby himself strikes me as apolitical.

As for Shaggy, that distressed green shirt, loping walk, and hipster slang put him firmly in the Democratic oeuvre. But word has it he’s not even voting these days.

Instead, he’s moved to Colorado and is growing legal weed. Hopefully, he’ll sell some to Batman. That dude’s waaaay too uptight.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Nov. 20, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary 24 Jul 2014 07:54 pm

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes in comics


Marvel Comics beat the news-cycle rush of the San Diego Comic Con International by announcing two major character changes last week: Thor will be a woman and Captain America will be black.

The news didn’t quite trump the last week’s other big comic-related news, the death of an adult Archie Andrews, but it came close.

Thor, whose godlike powers in the Marvel Universe are contained within the hammer Mjolnir, will apparently lose his worthiness to lift the mystical weapon. Then, it will be a woman — possibly his sister, if the scuttle I hear at my local comic shop, where gossip flows more freely than at a hair salon, is correct — who will inherit the mantle.

Steve Rogers, the current Captain America, who has been sojourning on another plane of existence where he has aged faster than normal, is now too old to continue an active superhero lifestyle. (I feel his pain.) The role of Captain America will pass to Samuel Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, Cap’s longtime partner and friend, who is African-American.

The announcements were enough to shatter the psyches of misogynistic and racist fanboys, respectively, if Internet feedback is any indication. The easiest way to gauge America’s progress or lack of progress in the rights of women and minorities is to check what people will say anonymously online.

I think the character changes are positive ones, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they lend themselves to good stories. When dealing with characters who have been in existence for decades — and, yes, I know that the mythological Thor has been around for centuries, but we’re talking about the Marvel version here — it’s sometimes difficult to find ways to keep readers excited. Both a female Thor and a black Captain America have stirred up interest, and that’s seldom bad.

Secondly, the changes reflect sensitivity to a racial diversity that didn’t exist in the 1940s, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America, or in the 1960s, when the Marvel Universe was born. In both eras, movie and comic characters were predominantly WASP males. Stan Lee, the writer of most of Marvel’s books in the ’60s, broke racial barriers by introducing the Black Panther in the pages of “The Fantastic Four,” but it was years before the character had his own book.

If the Marvel pantheon were being assembled today, Lee and primary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko would have introduced a much more diverse cast. The Invisible Girl would have been the Invisible Woman and would have been much more visual. The Avengers would have better reflected the colors and creeds of America.

And now they do. However.

The rubber-band nature of serial comics means that, eventually, characters snap back into place. In other words, Marvel will likely restore the status quo at some point in the future: the original Thor will again be worthy to hold the hammer and Steve Rogers will find a way to reverse his aging and resume the role of Captain America. I have no insider information, just decades of experience as a comics reader who recognizes that change is not the goal of continuing characters. Rather, the illusion of change is.

If that’s what is happening here, then many readers who for the first time are seeing themselves reflected in their favorite heroes are in for a disappointment. They may even feel betrayed.

Marvel’s twin goals appear to be to get new mileage out of old concepts and diversify its line. I hope the company can find a way to do both. If it plans to leave a female Thor and a black Captain America in place indefinitely, good. I hope The Powers That Be also allow creators the opportunity to create strong original characters, ones that need not piggyback on past concepts but that can stand on their own as worthy heroes and heroines of different colors, beliefs and nationalities.

But if the plan is to eventually remake Thor as a man and Captain America as a caucasian, the company is opening itself up to the wrong kind of headlines.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 24, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Movies 11 Apr 2014 08:38 pm

Shake it like a Paramount picture

I saw the new Captain America movie last weekend.

It’s big and loud and everything you’d want in a summer popcorn movie subtitled “The Winter Soldier” that comes out after winter and more than two months before summer. It’s subtle and thoughtful in places, but you’re always just a few minutes away from an explosion, if that sort of thing is important to you.

Twenty years ago, “Captain America” would have been the kind of movie that Marvel Comics fans could only dream of. Back then, DC had successful Superman and Batman franchises to crow about, but the best that Marvel fans could do was remember the ’70s “Incredible Hulk” TV show where Lou Ferrigno’s green body paint dripped whenever it came into contact with water and some old Spider-Man cartoons that used the same animation over and over.

So I feel like a curmudgeon for mentioning even one little flaw in the new Captain America film, especially because it’s a shortcoming in many other films as well: shaky-camera syndrome.

If you’ve been to the movies at any time since “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, you’ve likely come into contact with shaky-cam. Cinephiles know the technique as “subjective camera,” meant to replicate queasy, stomach-churning motion, all the better to invest a movie or sequence with a sense of reality.

“Blair Witch” uses it to good effect, although the media was filled with stories about people who claimed to become violently ill from watching jiggling footage of kids running around in the woods. Other memorable shaky-cam productions include “Cloverfield” (about a giant monster) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (a modern-day spy flick with Matt Damon).

The latter is what made me question shaky-cam. When a filmmaker uses the technique in something like “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield,” where one or more characters carry handheld cameras and the audience is supposed to be watching “found” footage, it works, albeit nauseatingly. It’s similar to the epistolary technique in literature, where an entire book is made up of one character’s letters or journal entries; or to the stream-of-consciousness technique in some modernist novels that purport to get deep inside a character’s head, usually at the expense of plot.

But when shaky-cam started to invade big-budget movies, I cried foul. Why wouldn’t audiences want to see clearly the meticulous action sequences and stunts in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or the expensive sets and costuming in the first “Hunger Games” film?

Instead of pulling me deeper into movies, shaky-cam now takes me right out. And the more that follow-the-bouncing-frame is overused — in sci-fi and horror and westerns and all over TV, especially in action and adventure shows — the more egregious it becomes.

Used (very) sparingly, shaky-cam still can be effective, but it’s seldom used sparingly. Instead, fans are subjected to entire sequences and sometimes whole films that look as though the camera operator had been attacked by a swarm of killer bees when the director yelled “Action!” and was intent on killing each and every one by swatting them with his lens.

In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” I had hoped to spot some Cleveland backgrounds here and there. Forget that. I was too busy figuring out who was hitting whom in one-second microclips and avoiding motion sickness.

Maybe movie tickets these days should come with complimentary Dramamine. Either that or directions on how to empty your popcorn on the floor and use the empty tub as a barf bag.

And with Spider-Man, the X-Men, Godzilla and many others waiting in the wings, we might need fewer reminders to silence our cellphones and more signs that say, “Fasten your seat belts.” It’s going to be a long, turbulent summer.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published April 10, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun


If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Television 24 Jan 2014 09:36 am

Forgotten figures of pop


Did you know there was once a fourth Rice Krispies elf?

His name was Pow! (exclamation point mandatory) and he joined Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for two television commercials in the 1950s. In a recent article for, a Kellogg’s spokesman explains to writer K. Annabelle Smith that Pow! was never intended to be an ongoing character, but rather a guest-elf of sorts.

This minor deity in the animated pitchmen pantheon got me thinking about other erased or marginal characters in long-running concerns, whether they were TV shows or comic books or commercials.

Does anybody remember:

Castor Oyl — brother to Olive, the string-beaned girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor. When most of us think of Popeye, we imagine the classic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. But Popeye made his first appearance in the “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in 1929, after the strip had been in existence for 10 years with Castor as the main character.

These days, Castor is a pop-culture relic, although he did have a role in the “Popeye” movie starring Robin Williams and, more recently, appeared in new Popeye comic book adventures. Yet I doubt most people could identify him today. (Visit my blog, for a visual.)

John Doggett and Monica Reyes — These two characters replaced FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on seasons eight and nine of “The X-Files,” also known as “X-Files: The Seasons Nobody Talks About.” Played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, respectively, Doggett and Reyes faded into obscurity when Duchovny and Anderson returned for the series’ swan song and two successful films. Patrick’s biggest claim to cinematic fame remains his portrayal of the T-1000 Terminator that bedeviled Ah-nold in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

Mycroft Holmes — the older, smarter, fatter and lazier brother of Sherlock Holmes. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle used or mentioned him only a handful of times in four novels and 56 short stories about the famous detective. He is said to exert great influence over decisions of state, but otherwise just sits around the Diogenes Club, smoking and eating. There are worse ways to live, I suppose.

Chuck Cunningham — Ritchie’s older brother on “Happy Days.” At some point in the second season, he was written out of the series, never to return, and the Cunninghams went from having three kids to only two. His disappearance has even inspired a term, “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” used for any characters unceremoniously erased from continuity.

Uncle O’Grimacey — In the world of McDonald’s advertising, O’Grimacey is the uncle of Grimace, the purple, milkshake-loving companion of Ronald. Unlike his nephew, O’Grimacey is green, befitting his role as head huckster for Shamrock Shakes. He last appeared in the mid-1980s and has presumably retired to a small cottage in Ireland.

An Internet search for “McDonald’s characters” will reveal dozens of oddities, such as the Griddler, Iam Hungry and CosMc, an alien who spoke in surfer lingo. I believe all the McDonald’s characters, with the exception of the head clown, have been quietly phased out, relics of a more innocent time when it was acceptable to use cartoon characters to coax children to eat fattening, processed foods.

Word has it the McDonaldland gang rode off into the sunset on the back of Joe Camel, guided by the Budweiser frogs.

Let’s hope they all say hello to Pop!, Chuck, Castor and all the other retirees in the Forgotten Hallows Retirement Center out in Obscuria, Oregon.

Send any other obscure

pop-culture characters to or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media 03 Jan 2013 10:49 pm

Spidey, we hardly knew ye


I forgot.

Dan Slott, the writer of Spider-Man’s adventures, warned readers earlier in December to avoid the Internet on Dec. 26 until they’d read “Amazing Spider-Man No. 700,” which went on sale that day.

Something big was happening in the Marvel superhero’s world, and Slott didn’t want it spoiled by a careless headline or an overzealous fan. In November, fans learned that Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis — OK, one of his arch-nemeses — Doctor Octopus, had switched minds with Peter Parker, Spidey’s alter-ego. This left Parker’s consciousness trapped inside Doc Ock’s failing body while Ock went off and played Spider-Man, even kissing Parker’s former wife, who didn’t remember she had married Spider-Man because a demon erased her memories.

(I can hear you snickering. It’s no sillier than anything on “Glee” or an afternoon soap opera, so cut me some slack.)

Marvel Comics had been crowing about a further game-changer coming in issue 700, so I told myself to take Slott’s advice and not peek on any comic book websites until after I’d read the story.

But I forgot about Twitter. There I was in the middle of the Pittsburgh airport, waiting for my daughter’s flight to depart, carelessly scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw the headline from the Hollywood Reporter (spoiler alert for anybody who has not yet read the comic book): “Peter Parker Dies in ‘Amazing Spider-Man No. 700′ Comic.”

I lifted my head and, to quote Walt Whitman, sounded my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

I wasn’t angry that Parker had died, although plenty of fans were (Slott even received death threats). This is, after all, comics, where heroes pass all the time, only to return a month, a year, or even 10 years later, restored by some deus ex machina to full health. Superman and Captain America are two relatively recent examples of superheroes who have gone on to an everlasting reward — and received lots of media coverage along the way — only to find that it wasn’t as everlasting as they thought.

Peter Parker — the nebbish science major without friends, raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, whose life became only more complicated after a radioactive arachnid gave him all the powers of a spider — will be back, if for no other reason than Marvel needs the status quo restored in time for the next Spider-Man movie.

I can’t even say that news of Parker’s death was a complete surprise — although the mind-swapping with Doc Ock was a shocker — because by warning fans to go incommunicado on the day after Christmas, Slott was foreshadowing that something big was brewing, and death is the biggest brew (or brouhaha) of all.

No, I guess my barbaric yawp was because, in this interconnected world of ours, it’s difficult to be caught totally off-guard by a pop culture event, any pop-culture event. Once upon a time, the world was shocked to learn who killed J.R., but these days, the guilty party’s name would be all over Entertainment Tonight weeks ahead of the episode.

Darth Vader is really Luke Skywalker’s father? That blew my mind in 1980, but if it happened now, somebody would leak the script to TMZ, and we’d sit in theaters and wait for the exact moment when the paternal relationship is announced (1:51:18 in “The Empire Strikes Back,” if you care).

We live in the Golden Age of Pop Culture — or Geek Culture, if you prefer. Not only is an awesome array of contemporary entertainment (and a considerable amount of junk — Sturgeon’s Law still applies) available, but also a vast storehouse of past entertainment, more accessible than ever before.

Want to watch all six seasons of “I Love Lucy,” all nine seasons of “The X-Files” and every extant piece of concert footage from Led Zeppelin? Readily available. How about read the classic science-fiction novels of H.G. Wells or watch one of “The Thin Man” films from the 1940s? Hard copies or digital downloads exist for them all, some as close as your local library. Want to talk about any of the above plus tens of thousands more? Go online and start typing.

But this embarrassment of riches comes with a price: Rare is the book or movie or TV show that we watch “cold,” without spoiled plot points or preexisting opinions sullying the experience.

Just last week, in the middle of the comedy “This Is 40,” I sat horrified as a character gave away the ending to the television show “Lost.” I’ve watched only three of the six seasons. Now I’m not so sure I’ll finish.

Maybe I should be thankful. After all, the revelation saved me a lot of time. And maybe I should take a cue from eastern culture, where endings are less important than the paths characters take to get there.

Regardless, I sometimes wish I had Spider-Man’s powers, if only so I could web up my eyes and ears and avoid the next comic book spoiler — the one that explains how Peter Parker cheated death yet again.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Jan. 3, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Comic books 05 Aug 2011 11:14 am

The Life and Times of Savior 28

Layout 1

Superhero stories have become a genre all their own, with a set of standard ingredients that are easily recognized. Strong-jawed hero. Heightened mental or physical prowess. Colorful costume. Secret identity. Youthful sidekick. Villains bent on world domination.

It’s how these elements are mixed and the approach taken by the creators that determine if the final product is just one more standard morality play or something unique. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Cavallaro have opted for the latter with “The Life and Times of Savior 28.”

In the introduction to the trade paperback, Dean Haspiel notes that a version of this story has been floating around for 25 years, originally pitched by DeMatteis for Marvel’s Captain America. In the intervening years, it morphed into the present tale. While the story’s Captain America roots are still evident, it’s clear that the writer incorporated chunks of Superman’s mythology here, as well.

Boiled down to its essence, this is the story of what would happen if a hero — in this case, Savior 28 (so named because 27 earlier attempts to give man super powers failed) — decided to stop thinking with his fists and embraced peace. The answer, of course, is that the government would have to kill him.

DeMatteis gives narration duties to Savior 28’s former sidekick, the Daring Disciple, so we see Savior 28’s mission from the Disciple’s cynical, jaded perspective. It’s a story told in flashback, beginning with Savior 28’s assassination and then taking us through various phases of his 100-plus years of life. (Immortality is one of the side effects of Savior’s super powers.)

It’s not exactly a fun story, but it is a good one. Savior 28 is greeted with approbation when he’s whaling on bad guys and promoting a culture of thoughtless violence, and with scorn and derision when he opts to stop fighting and start talking. The Savior doesn’t understand how his well-intentioned meetings with world leaders — including heads of countries that the U.S. does not agree with ideologically — could be perceived as a threat, and he is genuinely baffled when other costumed heroes (including Blackrat, a wicked send-up of Batman) bring him down.

When DeMatteis focuses on Savior 28 and Daring Disciple, he’s on sure ground. The book meanders a bit when other costumed heroes come to the forefront. The concept works better, I think, in a world where the only super-powered wild card is Savior 28; the introduction of a whole group of send-ups for the Avengers or the Justice League lessens his impact slightly.

At first, I thought Cavallaro was an unusual choice of artist. He draws with a highly stylized line that is intentionally informed by the seminal work of Jack “King” Kirby. My initial thought was that this book needed a more realistic style to complement its serious nature. But I soon changed my mind when I saw how cleanly Cavallaro told the story and how expressively he illustrated it. The Kirby homage is wholly warranted for a character inspired by Jack’s work on Captain America, and as the story begins to veer in directions that Kirby never traveled, the presence of his style feels intentionally incongruous, and I mean that as a compliment.

DeMatteis covers a lot of ground here — our celebrity-obsessed culture, the 24/7 news cycle, the addictive nature of violence and its pervasiveness in modern society — but he never once succumbs to the temptation to sermonize. “The Life and Times of Savior 28″ is an entertaining deconstruction of the superhero genre. Captain America and Marvel’s loss is independent publisher IDW’s gain with this winner of a book. Grade: A.

Comic books & Movies 25 Jul 2011 07:50 am

Captain America: The First Avenger


Spoiler alert: I spill a few details about the movie below.

Director Joe Johnston has made two of my favorite period-piece movies, separated by 20 years. In 1991, it was The Rocketeer. In 2011, it is Captain America: The First Avenger.

Almost everything about Captain America is pitch-perfect. It nails the character, it nails the time period. It makes the audience cheer about things like patriotism and sacrifice, two ideals that don’t get nearly enough play these days.

Chris Evans is excellent as Steve Rogers, the skinny 4F who desperately wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and serve in the military. His performance is augmented by CGI effects to make him look especially scrawny, and it works, but it’s Evans who sells it through old-fashioned acting chops.

Stanley Tucci plays Dr. Abraham Erskine, a German expatriate in charge of a top-secret American government program to create super soldiers. He is the film’s humane heart, the perfect paternal stand-in, reminding Rogers that no matter how he may change physically, he must never forget what it feels like to be the underdog.

The great Tommy Lee Jones is on hand as gruff Colonel Chester Phillips, initially dismissive of Rogers in both his skinny-guy persona and, later, as a military PR tool to boost enlistment numbers. His scene near the end, with captured scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), is pure Tommy Lee; it feels as though he is channeling his past performance as Phillip Gerard, the federal agent obsessed with finding Harrison Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

Of course, what’s a super-hero movie without a villain? Captain America has a doozy in the Red Skull, played by Hugo Weaving. The Skull is an uber-Nazi who has transcended even the gonzo politics of Adolph Hitler to become the head of Hydra, a name familiar to comics fans as the catch-all Evil Empire organization of the Marvel Universe. His goal is, of course, to take over the world and remake it in his own twisted image. As such, he’s the perfect foil for freedom-loving Cap.

The movie offers a number of Easter eggs for comics fans. At an World’s Fair/exhibition scene in the early going, the android Human Torch is prominently on display. Later, once Captain America becomes a sensation with schoolkids nationwide, the first issue of his comic book is actually Captain America Comics #1, the book by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby that started it all. Cap’s promo costume is an exact replica from that comic, filtered through the 1940s chapter serial that was Cap’s first big-screen exposure. Johnston manages to work in the triangular shield, the circular shield, the motorcycle, a terrific song-and-dance number, and even the obligatory Stan Lee cameo without anything feeling rushed.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely change some of the particulars. Bucky Barnes, Cap’s costumed kid partner from the comics, is now Roger’s own age and a fellow enlistee, which makes sense. The details surrounding Barnes’ death are different, but it still involves a fall from great heights. What counts is that they get the spirit of the story just right, including a bittersweet romance with Peggy Carter  (Hayley Atwell) that is the emotional pulse of the entire film.

Johnston even gives us a nod to The Rocketeer in the last 1940s scene: a little kids playing with a garbage can lid painted like Captain America’s shield. In the finale of The Rocketeer, a kid runs around with a homemade helmet shaped like the one worn by the title character. Just like that earlier scene, the one in Captain America gives me a lump in my throat.

Of course, as good as the movie is, it’s really just a warm-up to next May’s Avengers movie, which brings together Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America, along with a few others. The last scene of Captain America sets up the man-out-of-time shtick that is essential to the character working in the modern age. I’m still pessimistic about this; it reminds me of nothing so much as the monster-rally films House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, made when Universal Studios had run out of ideas for the monsters and lost faith that they could headline their own features. I’d like to be proven wrong.

But no matter how The Avengers turns out, Captain America: The First Avenger is still a winner, one of the few films I’ve seen in recent years that was so good, I immediately wanted to see again.

Comic books & Commentary & Movies 21 Jul 2011 07:55 am

Captain America represents country’s spirit, ideals


Here is a retrospective piece I wrote for The Alliance Review on July 21, the eve of the new “Captain America: The First Avenger” film debut. Thanks to Tony Isabella and Steve Englehart, who agreed to email interviews for the story.

Captain America’s story is, not surprisingly, quintessentially American.

Born of equal parts patriotic fervor and shrewd marketing, the character — who jumps into action in a big-budget movie from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment beginning Friday — originated in the pages of Timely Publications’ “Captain America Comics” in late 1940. There he was on the front cover, one year before the U.S. officially entered World War II, socking Adolph Hitler square in the mouth.

“Cap,” as he is affectionately known to his fellow superheroes, is the brainchild of creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who built the character squarely on the Horatio Alger “Luck and Pluck” template. Scrawny Steve Rogers desperately wants to serve his country, yet is labeled 4F, unfit for duty. Thanks to a “strange seething liquid” serum administered through a secret government program, he is imbued with extra-normal strength and intellect, the first of a proposed new breed of super-soldiers. Alas, a spy destroys the serum before more soldiers can be created, leaving Rogers, newly christened Captain America, as the program’s only graduate.

Simon and Kirby had hoped for a patriotic character to compete with The Shield, the brainchild of another publishing company. They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.

“Captain America represents the American Dream and our finest ideals,” says Tony Isabella, a Medina-based comic-book writer and novelist (”Captain America: Liberty’s Torch,” with Bob Ingersoll). “His politics are often determined by whoever is writing his adventures at the moment, but, looking at the historical record, he’s most likely a liberal. He was an FDR guy in the 1940s, a supporter of civil rights in the 1960s … supported gay rights in the 1980s, and opposed government intrusion on the civil liberties of super-heroes in the new Millennium.”

A hero is only as good as his villain, and Captain America has a doozy. The Red Skull appeared in that same first issue, a homicidal American businessman in a crimson mask who killed for the Führer and dies at the end of the story. But like most villains, and many heroes, death was only a minor setback, and in subsequent appearances his American roots were forgotten and his demonic Nazi persona emphasized.

The new film focuses on Captain America’s World War II adventures versus the Red Skull, but in the comic-book world, he fights evil in contemporary America. Even with the wonky relationship between time and comics, that’s quite a stretch. How did it happen?

When writer Stan Lee worked with Cap co-creator Kirby at Marvel Comics (the successor to Timely) in the 1960s, they froze the WWII-era Cap in a block of ice and had him discovered by the Avengers, a group of costumed super-heroes (a movie version of which is now filming in Cleveland). Now, he’s a man out of time, fighting to reconcile his Mom-and-apple-pie values in a more complex age.

One of the most memorable clashes between Cap’s values and contemporary America came in the 1970s, when writer Steve Englehart had Steve Rogers forgo his red, white and blue alter-ego and become Nomad, the Man Without a Country.

“When Watergate unfolded, it seemed impossible to me that Captain America could not react to that,” said Englehart, today a novelist (”The Plain Man” and “The Long Man”) in California. “I did a thinly-veiled story about Watergate and then had Cap, who believed in America’s ideals — the ones they taught us in school — decide he could no longer be a poster boy for those ideals when the president was ordering burglaries. So he gave up the Cap identity for Nomad. But in time, he came to realize that the ideals transcended any one man or era, and took up the Cap identity again.”

In the 21st century, creators continue to put the character through his paces. When the press caught wind of Cap’s impending death (he was shot by a sniper) in 2007, it became a bona fide media event. Cap’s job was filled for a time by the adult version of sidekick Bucky, who was also introduced in that first 1941 issue. But now the original Steve Rogers/Captain America is back, just in time for his latest silver screen iteration, still fighting the good fight and holding tight to the timeless values of his country.

“At his core, Captain America is the citizen next door,” says Isabella. “Despite his amazing skills and strength, he’s one of us. He believes in America and always strives to do what’s right and not what’s politically expedient.”

“Captain America: The First Avenger,” starring Chris Evans as Captain America and Hugo Weaving as The Red Skull, opens at 12:15 a.m. Friday at Cinemark Carnation Cinema 5. It is rated PG-13.

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