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The first time I encountered the idea of the multiverse was reading a Flash comic book. I was a kid in school and a recent graduate to superhero comics, which were more challenging reading than the Harvey and Archie comics that I was used to. It was also my first step away from the Batman and Superman comic books I was already reading, which were easier to read because they featured characters that were familiar to me from television.

Cover of The Flash #237I had been attracted to this particular Flash comic by it dramatic cover, featuring contrasting suits worn by the Flash and the Reverse-Flash, also known as Professor Zoom. Although people often look down on comics as simple reading material, they do not always make for easy reading. In this case, I had jumped into a serial story in progress, with characters I was not familiar with and a complex plot dealing with time-travel.

Although aspects of The Flash were difficult for me to comprehend, I stuck with the comic series because the characters were compelling, especially the villainous Professor Zoom. The art added a tremendous amount to my understanding of the plot. In fact, at that age I'm not sure I would have grasped the idea of parallel worlds or branching realities without illustrations of Earth-One and Earth-Two. Editorial asides filled me in on back story that I had missed. The comics format also allowed me to flip comfortably back and forth through pages and issues, which helped me keep track of the story as it wove through time and across worlds.

Skip ahead to the present day, where I'm following a story of multiple worlds on the television show, Fringe. I want to say that it's the most complicated multiverse story I've been exposed to, but that's probably not true--I think DC's Infinite Crisis and the year-long 52 saga probably take that title. Fringe is, nonetheless, an extremely intricate story of multiple worlds. (In the season two finale, Fringe acknowledged a debt to DC comics and its multiverse mythos.)

This season, several of the main actors on Fringe, including Anna Torv, John Noble and Jasika Nicole, play as many as four different versions of themselves. Although there are sometimes visual indicators to distinguish among versions--for example, one Olivia is blonde while another is redhead--the burden is on the actors to show their characters' differences. The cast does an incredible job making us believe in their characters' lives across multiple worlds.

Unfortunately, the broadcast television format is not always supportive of Fringe's complex storyline. Long season and mid-season breaks make it difficult to keep track of past and present in the show's multiple universes. While earlier seasons were light on commercials, more commercials in the current season mean less time to explain the action and flesh out story arcs. In an interview, series creator J.J. Abrams claims Fringe was intended to be a serialized show, but that "we were instructed by the network, at the beginning of Season 3, to stop that." (Note: Corrected based on commenter input.)

While part of creating a successfully TV series involves working within the commercial demands of the medium, I can't help but feel that the power of "Fringe's" multiverse storytelling is being lost to narrow programming requirements. I hope Fringe gets renewed for a fifth season, but I hope it also receives license to develop the serialized storytelling that it's multiverse drama needs, and which have made the show such a standout in past seasons.

The friend who is not a friend

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I recently finished a non-fiction book on a heavy topic and decided I wanted to read something that could serve as a literary palate cleanser. I turned to my stack of unread graphic novels and bound comics collections and picked up Shrimpy and Paul and Friends, by Marc Bell. It seemed like just the thing.

When I first saw Shrimpy and Paul and Friends sitting on a shelf at Giant Robot, I was immediately attracted by the artwork's playful busyness. I was also drawn to a story described on the back cover as "the Catastrophic Tale of the LOSS of Paul's TWO NIPPLES."

My curiousity stemmed from the unease I've long felt regarding the rumored uselessness of men's nipples. While my friend Joe has disabused me of this widespread belief, I still feel a certain sadness inside when I think of men's nipples. They conjure up the same feeling I might get seeing brown petals falling off a fading rose in the late afternoon sunlight.

Shrimpy and Paul are indeed the stars of this collection of comics, along with a long line of characters--Blimpy, Saul, Taco, Miss Polly, Brosse the Goose, Mushroom Heddy, Sue the Tooth, Kevin, and others--who appear spontaneously as the story requires. I was surprised to read a review in Time Magazine that called out "Bell's sure hand at story structure." I bet these stories' structure came less from the author's sure hand than from whatever drugs may have been available to him at the moment.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's several well done episodes that capture a druggy feel, like when Paul lies down on the floor on his back and pretends the ceiling is the floor, or when a creature called the Ib-Ub gives birth to tiny versions of itself that obsessively build towers over every inch of Paul and Shrimpy's apartment. In general, the stories wander and weave in aimless reverie.

Shrimpy wacks Paul with a utensilWhat gives life to the stories is the dynamic between the two main characters, the kind and helpful Paul, and his friend and apartment-mate, the charismatic and chaos-inducing Shrimpy. Most of the stories go something like this: Shrimpy does something godawful, and Paul tries to set things right again.

For example, in the case of Paul's lost nipples, Shrimpy steals the nipples while Paul is sleeping. The unforeseen result is that Paul's life force begins to slip away through the holes where his nipples were. Paul's friends must then help corral Paul's soul and replug his nipple holes.

As I read through these adventures, I began to recognize in Shrimpy a familiar type: the friend who is not a friend. Although Paul and Shrimpy spend most of their time together, Shrimpy can never be depended on to act in Paul's interest. In one affecting story, Paul gently tries to persuade Shrimpy not to give away his favorite things. Shrimpy ignores him.

Safely confined to the pages of literature, Shrimpy is nonetheless a fascinating figure. Because Shrimpy doesn't appear to act according to self-interest or any other rationale, his actions carry the allure of mystery. He doesn't care about consequences to himself or anyone else.

I have known many Shrimpys in the past. When I was younger, I would consider at length the pros and cons of their amoral actions. Now that I'm older, I can recognize the profile of a born psychopath more easily and take the appropriate action, namely, to run in the other direction as fast as possible.

Special Delivery

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Based on a few positive words from Dorian over at (postmodernbarney), I decided to pick up several volumes of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, a Japanese manga title translated into English. The books revolve around a group of students at a Buddhist university who are having difficulty transferring their recently acquired knowledge into steady employment. The likeable Kuru Karatsu, who possesses an inexplicable ability to communicate with the deceased, is the leader of the group. Other members include a skilled embalmer and a shy young man with a sock puppet more or less permanently attached to his arm. The sock puppet claims to be channeling the voice and thoughts of a space alien.

Kuru Karatsu and friends

The group half-stumbles into a line of business tracking down and identifying dead bodies and relocating them to their final resting place. Kuru Karatsu is the key member of the group in this effort, as his task is to communicate with the corpses and find out what events lead up to death and where the body wants to be lain. There's not a lot of money to be made from this work because the group's "clients" are usually deceased, though the group does manage to come into some money sporadically. The downbeat nature of their work and their continuing economic dilemma are offset by the group's camaraderie, the charm of the characters themselves, and cleverly-written dialogue.

I was sometimes thrown off-balance by the mixture of horror content with an overall narrative tone that reminded me of children's fare. My mind frequently flashed back to memories of watching the original Scooby-Doo series while reading about the group's attempts to solve a new paranormal mystery. Although Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is labeled for adults, it seems like there's plenty of horror-inspired material for children these days, from Harry Potter to the Series of Unfortunate Events books to the Twilight series. Some of the drawings are gory, but are kids really scared by reanimated corpses these days?

I don't have regular contact with children, so I don't have much perspective on how deeply horror has penetrated kids media. I was surprised to discover while watching an episode of FlashForward this year that children's play after 9/11 included acting out the planes' crashes and their aftermath. Considering how horrific events have come to be interwoven in our daily lives over the last decade, it makes sense that even children would become desensitized to their depiction. Horror is simply the new realism.

Carried Away

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While reading Wonder Woman #25 I became lost in these two panels, showing Wonder Woman carrying a woman to safety.
Wonder Woman flying with a woman in her arms

It's a common superhero pose, flying through the air supporting another person. Something about this rendering, though, struck me as being really romantic. Maybe it's the soft look on the face of the woman being saved, or maybe it's Wonder Woman's matter-of-factness and the strength of that supporting hip. There's nothing lesbian or subtexty about the story here. It's just a pose that captured my imagination.

A wounded Wonder Woman carried by Donna Troy.In Wonder Woman #27, my eye was caught by the image of Donna Troy carrying a wounded Diana. While this image is more pitiful, the moment of rescue depicted also appeals to my sense of romance. Here, one woman exhibits strength and fortitude as she tends to the well-being of another.

Flying gives the upper image an otherworldly aspect. The feet-on-the-ground pose in the lower image makes the act of one woman carrying another appear real. It's unusual to see one woman carry another, in real life or in art, but certainly not impossible. But because it is so uncommon, these pictures leapt out at me.

Woman versus Wolf

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I guess it's inevitable that any woman who approaches the U.S. executive office is going to be called Wonder Woman, including Sarah Palin. However, many people, including Lynda Carter, have expressed dismay that Palin is being compared to Wonder Woman and see her as undeserving of the name and what it represents.

I thought I would offer some recent textual evidence from Wonder Woman #20 to highlight the differences between Palin and Wonder Woman on one issue in particular: the treatment of wolves. Without getting too graphic about it, Palin supports the aerial killing of wolves within her own state, Alaska. The practice is said to be inhumane because it can extend the animals' suffering in death.

Wonder Woman talks to attacking wolves

In the story "Ends of the Earth," written by Gail Simone, Wonder Woman is first stalked and then attacked by wolves. Wonder Woman addresses the wolves directly in the above panel, saying, "Hunters of the claw and fang, I beseech thee. Do not die this night. Go. Leave!"

When Wonder Woman realizes the wolves are diseased and unable to respond according to their instincts, or "animal reason" as she calls it, she uses her lasso to calm them. In response to the wolves' request to be released from their agony, Wonder Woman regretfully kills the pack with her sword out of mercy.

I like this part of Simone's story because it illustrates Wonder Woman's beliefs and, to my mind at least, makes them plausibly consistent with an all-female culture such as the Amazons. Of course, that doesn't mean that men can't love animals or that some woman aren't barracudas.

Batman handcuffsAlthough she does not speak Yiddish, the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend knows quite a few Yiddish words and phrases. If I ask her to speak Yiddish, I get nothing. Then, when I least expect it, she'll pop out a new phrase or word I've never heard before.

Watching TV with the Girlfriend often presents an opportunity for me to learn the nuances of Yiddish word meaning and usage. Because the Girlfriend always becomes very irate when Yiddish words are used incorrectly on television, which apparently is often. She will rail at the television set, "Such a person is not a putz! I would never call such a person a putz!" Then she will explain to me what the correct term for such a person would be.

One of the Yiddish sayings the Girlfriend kicks around quite a bit translates to "for every pot, there's a lid." It basically means that for every desire out there in the world, one can find a corresponding person or object that meets that desire. You can say it approvingly or with a wondering "who knew?" type of meaning.

Which brings me to the JLA Trophy Room Batman Bat-cuffs Replica, which I originally noticed on Geek Alerts. You may wish to note that if purchased, there's no reason for this replica to hang unused in a Trophy Room, for as the description makes clear, these are "life-sized, fully functioning Bat-Cuffs – the same size as regulation police handcuffs!"

Batpervs, may I present: your lid.

Tagged, I'm It

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Johnny Bacardi tagged me with a comics meme, which I've found challenging to answer--but that's made it fun, too.

Post the questions below and three covers that answer to these questions; no need to comment unless you want to:

What was the first comic you remember reading?
I'm not sure I can remember that far back! I started reading comics pretty young, starting with Harvey, Archie and Disney comics. My best guess is that I started out with a Casper comic. With some online research, I was able to find out during which years Casper comics were being printed. I visually scanned the lines from the early 70s to see if there were any covers I remembered. I came up with Casper and Wendy #2, from November 1972 as the best candidate for my first comic.

Cover of Casper and Wendy comicI think it may have been the image of a female character on the cover--the girl witch, Wendy--that attracted my attention. But Casper was also a very relatable character. One of Casper's chief story problems is figuring out how to deal with his frustrating and scary relatives, a dilemma that is nearly universal and well understood by children.

Dark Horse has published a collection of Casper comics from the 50s and 60s, and I've read in The Comics Journal and elsewhere that the volume is quite good. I look forward seeing to the next collected Casper volume, which should cover the years of my childhood.

What was the first comic that made you realize that you might be in this for the long haul?
Cover of Uncle Scrooge comicI think it was an Uncle Scrooge comic book. The first time that I can remember dwelling over the language in a comic was in the Uncle Scrooge books. Everything about them was so clever and carefully constructed. For example, I loved it that Scrooge's enemies, the Beagle Boys, called each other by their former prison numbers, rather than by name.

At the age when I would have been reading Uncle Scrooge, I didn't yet know anything about comics collecting as a hobby. But, perhaps inspired by Scrooge McDuck's own avarice, I discovered within me the desire to own every Uncle Scrooge comic in existence. And so it began...

If you had to make a snap decision to take one comic or one comic run to a desert island, what would it be? Don't think too hard!
Cover of Marvel Conan comicMarvel's Conan the Barbarian run. It's long. And I didn't think too hard. I figure if I chose wrong, I can use the rest of my time on the island to beat myself up over my decision.

Link to at least five other people to continue the meme--and they need to link back to your post when doing it.

Five is a lot, but okay. I choose: Joe, Rose, Sleestak, GayProf and kalinara.

Wandering Around Wonder Woman

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Captain America in feminine costumeI've been following the discussion regarding the representation of Wonder Woman on the cover of Playboy Magazine since it first appeared on Pink Raygun and then reverberated throughout various blogging circles.

When I saw the pictures from Playboy for myself, I found myself thinking about a male equivalent for the Wonder Woman imagery. My first thought was of Margaret Harrison's images of Captain Marvel in drag, which were included in the WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibit in Los Angeles. It, too, appropriates a superhero figure that symbolizes a gendered ideal of patriotic agency and submits it to a sexualized gaze.

I'd also recently browsed some of Nicole Eisenman's work when it appeared at a gallery here in Los Angeles. I love her work and have written about her several times on In Sequence. One of the works I saw included an image of the knowledge-seeking Alice from Alice in Wonderland with her head nearly consumed by Wonder Woman's exposed snatch. Wonder Woman's heavy legs, her stance, and the "missing head" as a byproduct of sex remind me of R. Crumb's depictions of headless women having sex.

Alice dwarfed by Diana's legsI imagine that as a lesbian, Eisenman identifies with both figures in this work: the big, triumphant Amazon woman and the one who seeks knowledge by way of a woman's body. Here, it looks like little Alice, with her penchant for looking into holes, is following the instruction to "Feed your head."

While we're discussing the phantasmic worlds of Alice, I might as well mention one of the most discussed comments regarding the Playboy issue, Greg Rucka's statement linking the appearance of an undressed Wonder Woman with anti-Hilary sentiment:

Do you really think it's a coincidence that Playboy chose this year, the issue for the month containing "Tsunami Tuesday," to run this particular pictorial? Do you really?

I really couldn't believe how many people were completely freaked out at this statement. But people also took it very literally. It seems obvious to me that there will be many strange permutations of and challenges to the theme of "a powerful woman in charge" in our culture over the next few months, and maybe longer. (For an excellent analysis of Hillary hatred, read Stanley Fish's recent essay for the New York Times, "All You Need Is Hate.")

A vaginal whorl in Wonder Woman's wakeI like the haughty side of Wonder Woman, which seems to be more in evidence recent issues. Her expressions of disdain, whether they occur when she's fighting a weak opponent or brushing off a would-be admirer, make me feel like the character is in charge of her sexuality. The other visual element of Wonder Woman that makes me feel incredibly empowered as a woman are, of course, her vaginal speed trails, on fabulous display in the picture at left.

Does the Pope read Ex Machina?

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The Mayor undergoes exorcismSpecifically, has the Pope read Ex Machina numbers 32 and 33? I wonder, because the very day after I had put down issue #33, in which the man-machine hybrid Mayor Hundred undergoes a forced exorcism by the Pope, I read the news that Pope Palpatine--or whatever his name is--will be introducing new "exorcism squads" to fight the rise of godlessness and the occult.

This "Say No to Satan" campaign will be led by the Chief Exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth. It's too bad that the AMPTP is allowing the writers' strike to drag on; I think these exorcism squads could be the subject of a S.W.A.T.-style drama, with special guest targets like Christopher Hitchens and J.K. Rowling.

Perhaps the timing of Ex Machina's storyline and the Pope's announcement was just synchronicity (a godless concept, I'm sure), since I just encountered an instance of exorcism in the novel I'm currently reading as well. The novel, Trance by Christopher Sorrentino, is set in the 70s and includes a passing reference to the bestselling book, The Exorcist, which it describes as being about authority figures trying to change a young girl's personality.

I mention this third instance of exorcism because it dates from a time period, the early 70s, that has many interesting similarities to the current period in U.S. culture and politics. Why is this significant? Well, as Fr. Gabriele Amorth states in an excerpt from his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story, there are times in history that are more oppressed by Satan. I find it fascinating that Amorth points to another period often compared to our own, the period of Rome's decline:

Even if this battle against Satan concerns all men and all times, there is no doubt that Satan's power is felt more keenly in periods of history when the sinfulness of the community is more evident. For example, when I view the decadence of the Roman Empire, I can see the moral disintegration of that period in history.

Amorth sees "decadence" as the point of connection between today and the end of the Roman empire. I'm sure he'd find the early 70s, once dubbed the "me decade" for its individualistic (or narcissistic) concern with human potential, were morally decadent, although Amorth is quite approving of both the book and movie versions of The Exorcist, artifacts of that era. So there is one conservative interpretation of a connecting thread between these three periods.

One doesn't have to stretch to see political connections between the 70s in the U.S., the U.S. present, and the late Roman empire. The continuing debate over presidential impeachment, the comparisons between Nixon's and Bush's approval ratings, and the presence of former Nixon administration officials within the Bush White House make that part of the equation a no-brainer.

The last several years have seen a profusion of dramas and documentaries about the rise and fall of Rome in which comparison to the present is implicit. The HBO series Rome, which recently covered this subject matter, took its inspiration from the famous 70s series, I, Claudius. One of the most pointed documentaries I have seen linking the Roman empire to present day designs on empire is the four-part BBC series billed as "an alternative history of Rome," Terry Jones' Barbarians.

A mashup of these three periods in history results in quite a vision of the powerful under pressure: Pope Benedict XVI herding the diminishing faithful under increasingly authoritarian doctrines; the Romans deploying their army and an arsenal of rarefied torture techniques to subjugate the far-flung nations and peoples under their rule; Nixon's stonewalling under the scrutiny of the press; U.S. neoconservatives' brute use of propaganda to deflect and contain criticism.

But now let's turn away from the powerful and towards the voice that must be silenced, exorcised, disciplined, or reprogrammed. There's Regan, of course, the possessed girl of the Exorcist. Women often stand in for the demonic in patriarchal religions; she is a demon's most conducive host. (And a casting natural: women played the role of the devil in the Catholic horror films The Exorcist and in The Passion of the Christ.)

But more importantly, women are the voice of hysteria, and it is their image in popular culture that the voice of society's hysteria can be heard. Women like Linda Blair's character, Regan, who are seized and possessed by the public. Women who are, to be sure, interesting in their own right, but become sensations for their ability to stage the public's fear and anger, to vomit the culture's resentment and loathing into the face of unjust power and authority.

There are other women in 70s popular culture who serve as vehicles for public hysteria: kidnapped and converted Patty Hearst, whose free will became a national obsession; abused Sybil, whose shockingly multiple personalities seemed to mirror the emergence of variant and controversial lifestyles existing outside the confines of the traditional and fragmenting family unit.

Rome in its decline had many female virgin martyrs--thousands, according to legend--whose crimes of declaration inspired many creative applications of torture. Today, we have Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, celebrities whose main role appears to be acting out the culture's embrace of and revulsion towards material excess. It is a cycle of hysteria that, like Regan's head, spins round to look you right in the eye.

I've been reading DC Comics's series Simon Dark and like the way it's shaping up. I was wary about picking this title up when I first saw it on the stands. I can be squeamish and wasn't sure how gory the series was going to be. But I was swayed by the positive comments of other bloggers, like Rack Raids, and gave it a try.

I was so impressed by my ability to steel myself and get through whatever frights I might encounter in issue #1 that I made the mistake of trying to share my enthusiasm for the title with the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend. I described Simon to her, and how he lived on the streets and served as a neighborhood protector, albeit a violent one. I also made some guesses about Simon's mysterious origins--who he had been as a boy, how he came to be on his own, and how he taught himself to survive.

I was trying to make Simon Dark sound like a gritty horror story. So I felt pretty deflated when the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend responded derisively, "Sounds like a very romantic story to me. People who are hurt like that don't usually wind up helping people."

That is so completely typical. Whenever I try to interest the Girlfriend in my comics I almost always wind up feeling like a fool. The worst is when I try to get her interested in a comic book about a female superhero. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: "...doesn't that sound like a great story? Wouldn't you like to read it?"

CLRHG: "Yes, she sounds really strong. Like a warrior character. What kind of costume does she have, though? Don't tell me it's one of those dinky outfits that doesn't provide any protection and has her tits hanging out to here."

Me: "Um, well, okay. (Sigh.) Just...never mind."

So anyway, the point is that the Girlfriend is right and that Simon Dark is not really that dark, even though the character is billed on the cover as "the grotesque guardian of Gotham City."

I was reminded of Simon Dark the other day when I ran across a news story that got linked in many places across the blogosphere. The news story was headlined "'Werewolf boy' - who snarls and bites - on the run from police after escaping Moscow clinic. It was about a child purportedly raised by wolves, with animal-like habits and some gnarly-looking foot claws. The part of the story that really got to me though was this:

Such cases are not uncommon in Russia where there have been regular reports of 'Mowgli' children abandoned by their parents who are cared for by animals.

Really?

I got this image in my head of children scampering around Moscow on all fours while jaded city dwellers turned their heads and walked on. It seemed to me like the wolf boy story could be a hoax, but it seemed equally plausible that it could just be another disquieting but emergent condition of city living. I decided to investigate, just in case I needed to prepare myself for coyote- and cougar-children roaming Los Angeles in the near future.

I came across a very well-organized web site called FeralChildren.com. There I discovered that there are different types of feral children. In the terms used by the site, Simon Dark would be considered an isolated child because he lived on his own.

The section on children raised by animals is quite informative. The text points out that many stories of children raised by wild animals lack documentation, and may in fact be folklore. There's also a table that summarizes data from these stories, indicating the child's name, sex, age when found, location, the animal that served as parent, and available source material, including photos.

In addition to wolf adoption, the site lists a few cases of bears and gazelles acting as adoptive parents. The most unusual, I thought, were a case of ostrich parents and a herd of cows that were reported to have served as family. Although the web site seems to have more of a social science bent to it, there is also a section on feral children in literature and the arts. That's where the phrase "Mowgli children" comes from, after all.

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