Monday, September 28, 2009

In Which I Draw the Batman Creature!


Your friendly neighborhood web blogger has more up his sleeve than obsessing in print over obscure old comic books. I recently treated myself to some art supplies and took up drawing again. My son and I have been having a lot of drawing time together lately, and in the spirit of Covered, I came up with this wacky take on the cover of Batman #162 featuring the Bizarre Batman Creature! The logo and background are computer colored on this, but otherwise it's all hand drawn and mostly hand-colored. Whaddya Think?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Chris Ware’s Floyd Farland: Citizen of the Future

I’ve been following the work of Chris Ware for many years now, beginning with the second issue of Acme Novelty Library, which I purchased on sight at a small Florida convention back in 1993. His precise, diagrammatic art style is a perfect complement to his incisive narratives of personal failure and alienation. His graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) looks at a grandfather's miserable childhood to examine the events that shaped the titular man-child and his empty, unfulfilled life. Ware continues to amaze with once-yearly installments of Acme Novelty Library, and is currently dissecting the life of belligerent man-child collector Rusty Brown, via digressions into the past histories of Rusty’s Father and his best friend Chalky White. Regardless of the subject, no one else makes comics quite like Chris Ware, which leads one to wonder where all that talent came from.

Floyd Farland: Citizen of the Future is Ware's first published work, originally serialized as a weekly strip in The Daily Texan - the campus newspaper of the University of Texas - from 1986 and to 1987. The black and white comics boom of 1987 encouraged publisher Eclipse Comics to expand their line and seek out new talent, and Ware benefited from their success, as an Eclipse editor recommended Floyd Farland for reprinting. Once the reprint was arranged, Ware reformatted and partially redrew the story, but it still reads like the serialization that it originally was.

The story takes place in “the future” where technology and overpopulation have ruined society. A totalitarian state rules over all, and is constantly at odds with pretty much everybody. The rather shaky premise of the story is that everyone is in rebellion the government, except Floyd, which makes him especially suspicious and dangerous in the government’s eyes.

In the course of the story, Floyd is captured tortured, brainwashed, rescued, captured again, and mind-wiped. The punch line is that Floyd is so compliant, so unquestioning, that he can’t be brainwashed or beaten down, as he believes the whole ordeal is a silly misunderstanding. In the end, He himself becomes the new template and figurehead for this Dystopian society. At least, I think that’s what happens – the ending is pretty vague.

I've been running this blog for over three years, and have so far hesitated to run a feature about this comic. I understand that he now considers this work an embarrassment, but I respectfully disagree. It is really not that bad for a first work by a young artist and is easily one of the most interesting books to come out of the black and white glut mentioned earlier. An artist's early failings inform his later successes, and Chris Ware has nothing to be ashamed of here. That said, Ware’s work on “Farland” is a far, far cry from what he would evolve into.

The writing is very “Angry Young Man” circa 1987, what with the “Thought Police” and the “Totalitarian Government” slant. The art style is almost the exact opposite of his current style: crude, stark, and unpolished. Ware now applies an architectural precision to each page, but his early work is thick–lined, blocky, and chaotic. Background detail is abstract, when it appears at all, and human faces are blob-and-line cartoons. It is fortunate that most of the story is driven by exposition, because figuring out the action on some pages is nearly impossible.

Ware did bring a similar ironic detachment to the milieu and characters in Floyd Farland as he would to later works. As with those later works, I don’t get the sense that they are supposed to care about or “root” for anyone in particular. Floyd is not a hero, or even a good guy, merely a tool to be used by other players in the story.

Note that as the story ends, the last page of the story reverses the first, only now it is now Floyd Farland who guides the witless masses.

I was reading Acme Novelty Library for years before I realized that this oddball little black and white comic I had picked up in a quarter bin years before was created by the same guy. A few years ago, while filing comics, I pulled out Floyd Farland, flipped through it, and went running to the Internet to see if this was indeed that Chris Ware. This is not a great comic, but it was an important first step in the career of one of America’s premier graphic novelists, and as such is well worth examining.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Know Your X-Villains

Here's another piece from Marvel: Year in Review '93, What could have been a throwaway promo magazine from Marvel's worst creative era ever ended up full of humorous hidden gems openly mocking some of those selfsame awful comics. The following Guide to Life in the Mutant '90s by Clay Griffith was one of the funniest things in the book, skewering the homogeneity of the generic Mutant warlords, Yakuza fancy lads, Magneto groupies, leather fetishists, and spiky-armored ponytail enthusiasts who made up the X-Men's rogue's gallery in the '90s And does it all using comparative charts. See for yourself:

Fifteen years, and the words "No hot tub data" still crack me up, startling and annoying my wife. Lest you think all this irrelevant, keep in mind: How long can it be before Marvel signs Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch up to bring all of these guys back, anyway? Before you know it, Shinobi Shaw and Stryfe could be playing chess in silk robes while warring for control of the Upstarts, and where will you be then? Best to print this and laminate it, I'd say.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The REAL First Appearance of the Red Hulk

Well, okay not really. But it is the first appearance of a Red Hulk in a Marvel publication, predating the "Rulk's" first appearance by fifteen years. I was going through some old magazines earlier, and look at what I found in Marvel:Year in Review "93:

The page is from the article "Bring on the Bad Guys!" by Tom Brevoort and Mike Kanterovich, which concerns itself even then with the darkening of the Superheroes. Running with the article were lighter sidebar illustrations of the "Good" "Better" and "Best" versions of various Marvel chracters, with the best in each case being a wacky made-up version that was even more extreme than the most extreme version. You can imagine the character progressions that lead to "Bile", "the Patriot Missile", and "Clawjaw". Anyway, the "Red Hulk" pictured above is a red-colored Hulk 2099, if you didn't know.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Bitter Irony Alert: "Disney's Howard the Duck"

So yeah, this Marvel/Disney thing. They were going to get bought up by a corporate monolith sooner or later; Disney is as good as any, I suppose. I guess they have my permission.

One thing that kept coming up in articles about this were comments along the lines of: "Finally! Howard can team up with Donald!" "Howard the Duck and Mickey Mouse! It has to happen!" or "Maybe Pixar can do a Howard the Duck movie that works!"

Ugh. With all due respect to Pixar, who are great, no they fucking can't. And they shouldn't.

I'm fairly certain Howard the Duck hasn't even come up in corporate conversation yet, but before someone does get the bright idea to "strategically re-position Howard the Duck's branding paradigm" or whatever, let me remind everyone that Disney already has a family of Ducks, many of whom are cranky and irascible. One More or less won't make any difference. In fact, Disney actively worked to crush Howard back in the late 1970's.

Howard the Duck's popularity flared brightly and briefly after his debut in Adventure Into Fear #19 (1973). The book's idiosyncratic satire hit a nerve at the time, and the was quite popular for a time, thanks to the scripting of his creator, Steve Gerber. Gerber was Howard, basically, and the oddity-infested world he walked in reflected Gerber's unique mindset and worldview. Gerber was abruptly dismissed by Marvel over a number of issues, not the least of which was Disney's 1979 legal bullying of Marvel comics over Howard's alleged resemblance to Donald Duck.

Years later, Gerber was approached by Marvel to try a Howard relaunch under the newly minted, adult-slanted Marvel MAX imprint. Gerber was eager to try his hand at scripting the duck again, only to find that the Disney action was more than mere bullying. Here's the story in Gerber's words, from a 2001 Newsarama interview by Michael Doran (archived at Steve

SG: "Back in 1979 or so - I don't have the exact date handy - the Walt Disney Company threatened to sue Marvel Comics, claiming that Howard the Duck infringed on their Donald Duck trademark. To avoid a legal battle, Marvel's old management signed an unbelievably stupid agreement with Disney regarding the design of Howard the Duck. Under the terms of that agreement, Howard must conform to a set of designs that Disney provided for the character. It's the version with the beady eyes, the hideous swollen beak, and the baggy trousers, the one that appeared in the black-and-white Howard magazine and in the movie. The way the agreement is worded, Marvel isn't even allowed to come up with an entirely different design, even if that design bore no resemblance to Donald.

"Over the past couple of decades, I've done a lot of complaining about the idiocy of Marvel's old management, and if ever there was proof of my argument, this is it. They literally let another company redesign their own character for them. As best I can tell, Marvel never even attempted to negotiate the matter, never even submitted any alternate designs for Disney's consideration. I can just picture the Disney artists, hunched over their drawing boards, cackling like hyenas, as they designed the ugliest duck they could possibly imagine. Disney's lawyers and management must have had a real belly laugh, too, when Marvel accepted their design without balking.

"Now, I wasn't even aware that such an agreement existed on paper. I thought Marvel had simply agreed on a 'handshake' basis with Disney that Howard wouldn't look like Donald. We were in the process of redesigning Howard - Glenn Fabry had done some terrific sketches - when Stuart Moore checked with Marvel's legal department and turned up the written agreement. Needless to say, everyone concerned was horrified. None of us, least of all myself, wanted to do a character that had to look like that appalling Disney design."

Gerber went on to explain that he eventually devised a workaround for the issue, by mutating Howard into a MOUSE for the new series, and they moved ahead. The series came out, and as a Howard fan, I enjoyed it, but it never did feel quite right. They say you can't go home again, and all that. Further, the story suffered for having to shoehorn in the mutation storyline, so the whole thing landed with a thud. More recently Marvel tried redesigning Howard yet again, under different creators, to deafening indifference.

The bitter irony is that Disney now owns the character they helped to make unusable. Steve Gerber died in 2008, silencing Howard's only convincing voice. Any Howard that remains is an empty, corporate shell; indistinguishable from the denizens of Duckburg, and pointless in today's world. So no, Donald Duck should not meet Howard the Duck. And no, Howard doesn't need to show up in Dark Reign either. Now, more than ever, Marvel should let sleeping ducks lie.

Howard the Duck is Dead. Let him rest in peace.