Sunday, November 19, 2006

Another Kirby meme

Longtime contributor to The Jack Kirby Collector Sean Kleefeld has launched a Kirby character design meme, and that meddling Canadian plok has not only joined in with his choice but roped me into participating as well.

I couldn't pick just one single character as being Jack Kirby's single best visual design: there are so many of them that have become iconic and stood the test of time, as demonstrated by the fact that every subsequent artist to draw the character has followed Kirby's original design faithfully. Galactus is one of those characters who will always look like the Kirby original no matter who draws him. So is the cult favorite villain Modok. In design terms these guys are like the original Volkswagen Beetle or the first iMac, with its white-and-Bondi-blue case -- they came seemingly out of nowhere and instantly defined an idea space so completely that other designers couldn't improve on them or even evolve them much.

I could very easily pick Galactus as my choice here, but I have another "dark horse" candidate in mind: another character who has never been improved or altered, but worked perfectly on his first appearance and looks as striking today as he did back then:

Even in repose Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans, is dynamic. The ribbed glider wings and flaring gloves (the latter a bit underplayed on this cover) mean there are always lines radiating from his figure, and as a result he dominates any panel in which he appears, the way his character dominates his subjects. By contrast it seems as if two of his Inhuman subjects, Karnak and Gorgon, are almost always drawn in a slight crouch, lower than their monarch.

The electron-gathering antenna on his forehead is primarily there to look cool -- though Lee and Kirby gave it some rationale so that we could see it crackle with Kirby dots -- and the ziggurat trim on his uniform is solely decorative. Basically, he's the best-known Art Deco character ever in comics.

It's interesting that although Black Bolt is not a superhero per se, Kirby designed him with superhero tights and mask. A number of the Inhumans -- among the leads, Medusa and Karnak as well as Black Bolt -- always wear tights and masks. The Inhumans were Kirby's first use of an idea he'd return to with the New Gods and the Eternals: characters who were not crime fighters with secret identities, but who borrowed the trappings and design elements of superhero comics simply for their visual appeal as sheer ornamentation. I don't think the continuing primacy of superheroes in comics can solely be laid at stunted development and innate conservatism on the part of creators and readers. Superheroes (or at least characters with a lot of the features of superheroes) are one of the ideas that just work really well in comics and use the distinctive traits of the medium. But with the Inhumans -- with Black Bolt especially -- Kirby started exploring how the visual conventions of the superhero could be applied to other sorts of characters who could be used to tell other sorts of stories.

When other creators have taken Kirby characters like these and just used them as slightly more outre and unusual superheroes, they've totally missed the point. We didn't need Orion and Big Barda and Mister Miracle in the JLA or Sersi in the Avengers, putting the smack down on super-villains. These characters represent a new genre. Yes, I know Medusa got her start as a member of the Frightful Four...but even in the original Lee-Kirby issues of FF she shucked that off quickly for a more interesting role.

And a side note on Black Bolt: it's well known among Kirby fans that Jack had a lot of trouble drawing Spider-Man. He managed it for the cover of Spidey's first appearance...but once Steve Ditko defined how the costume and the character's body language worked, Kirby could never do it that well again. This always struck me as odd considering the way Joe Simon and Kirby owned the "slim athletic superhero in tights" all the way back in the Forties with characters like Manhunter. Look at how well Kirby handled the yellow-and-purple-tights version of Sandman, swinging across the city skyline with his wirepoon gun, and explain why he could never do Spidey well. I suspect that when another artist had defined a character in Kirby's mind, he became inhibited...and Kirby was the antithesis of inhibition.

By the same token, Kirby never drew a persuasive Batman...but his Black Bolt looks more like Batman than any drawing of Batman Kirby ever did. If he'd drawn Black Bolt instead and merely altered the costume afterward, we might have seen a very different result.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The mind of a crank

Radar has been following the story of Chad Conrad Castagana, who was arrested Monday on suspicion of sending venomous hate mail in envelopes filled with white powder (the recipients were meant to think it was anthrax) to such left-wing icons Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, Sumner Redstone, David Letterman, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer. Keith Olbermann has been covering this story (and his personal connection to it) on Countdown, but omitted some details that may be of interest.

One story on Radar Online offered the additional detail that he was a b-movie buff who once sent a letter to Joe Bob Briggs. (Curiously, Briggs was previously a contributor to The Daily Show in his other identity as John Bloom, host of the "God Stuff" segment. I expect this guy didn't know that.) The text of the letter to Briggs can be found at the preceding link, and also here if you scroll halfway down the page.

Turns out this wasn't the limit of this guy's science fiction-related correspondence. Check out the batty e-mail he sent to

With the passing away of Lexx ends an intriguing albeit smarmy experiment in sci-fantasy. One that breaks with conventions, or should I say, cliches of TV sci-fi of the '90s. The politically correct pabulum, the multicultural indoctrination, the Bladerunner motifs, and not the least—the steroid mutated superbabes that can punch the lights out of men, but never get punched back in return!?

How about creating a new sci-fi anthology with none of the puerile baggage of Rod Serling, Gene Roddenberry, Rockne O' Bannon, etc., etc. It is time to end their reign of Left-wing innuendo, their anti-American, anti-mankind cynicism and fatalism.

There's more of the same to be found at the link above. I'm kind of guessing this means he wasn't a big fan of Farscape, which is a source of great personal comfort to me.

Entertainingly, although the culprit was caught by the FBI in the act of mailing still more threatening letters in powder-filled envelopes, a few of the posters at Olbermann Watch are still insisting that Olbermann made the whole thing up.

Friday, November 10, 2006

My head won't wrap around this

I know this exchange got a lot of play in the media yesterday, but did it really get enough play?

Let's try to look at this objectively for a moment. The President of the United States casually admits that he lied solely to affect the outcome of an election and doesn't seem to think it's any big deal. What shocks me is not that he lied for partisan reasons or that he subsequently admitted it...but the fact that he describes this as if it's a perfectly reasonable justification for lying, and the reporters present seem to accept it as such.

Leave aside anything else you or I may have thought about this President over the past six years, favorable or otherwise; even if he were the greatest President in American history I'd still say the same thing. The President of the United States just said "I boldly lied to the American people about my plans for the defense of our nation because I wanted my party to win the election."

How is this not scandalous all by itself? Are we so accustomed to his insincerity and the naked partisanship which allows not even a pretense of being the President of the entire nation -- not merely the percentage that voted for him or his party -- that we just take this in stride as "more of the same"?

If only real life was like this

Belly dancers and a comics convention in one place.

So...does this mean every bizarre fantasy I had as a boy is going to come true? Please note that I write these words on a computer inside my home which is connected to a worldwide information network of some sort. I can only assume that my personal jet pack is coming soon. And after my torrid affair with Barbara Feldon, I will be married to Kate Bush. And I will be able to read minds.

Photos from the 2004 event can be found here.

Monday, November 06, 2006

This post is so gay

Salon offers a look at New Life Church in Colorado Springs following the dismissal of Ted Haggard, with special emphasis on how very gay Haggard's ministry was all along. And this leads me to a thought which is not especially original, but always bears repeating:

By definition, every homophobe is either a closet case or desperately afraid he or she might be one.

I'm not saying that every gay-basher has actually had gay sex with a male prostitute while hyped up on methamphetamines. Of those who have done this, we might define two categories: those who are cynically hiding in the anti-gay ranks because they think "they'll never look for me here" (hello, Mark Foley) and those who are genuinely so full of self-loathing at their own same-sex impulses that they take an anti-gay position out of a misplaced penance and self-punishment. But even those who rail against the nefarious evil of homosexuality and have never had a gay experience themselves still live in constant terror that they might.

You do not fear something unless you believe it has greater power than you do. These people think of gayness as something that overpowering and overwhelming, something waiting to seize them and convert them, something that if they allow it to merely exist will be so tempting and attractive that no one will be able to resist it. Their vision of human sexuality must be something like the end of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This is the logic by which such people decide that gay marriage is a threat to straight marriage, and allowing it would debase the whole institution...because if you could get gay married, who would ever want to be straight married? The whole practice would die out! For these people, heterosexuality isn't something that a person might simply prefer -- much less a trait beyond conscious choice -- but something that must be enforced and protected. Who thinks like that unless they first believe gayness is more attractive and offers more pleasure than boring old straightness?

I think this pattern holds true even for the many decent and compassionate people who make up the congregations of churches like New Life across the country. Many of these people wouldn't hurt a fly, let alone lynch a gay man or lesbian. But they've been taught all their lives that these things are abominations that will spread unchecked and claim them too if they aren't stopped...and who teaches them this? Closeted bullies and hypocrites like Haggard.

In case I haven't made the point clear enough: it is not just coincidence or some ironic twist that so many gay-bashers are outed as closet gays -- believing that homosexuality is more powerful and tempting than heterosexuality is an absolutely necessary precursor to being homophobic. And once we recognize this, it's easier to see that if you've been taught all your life that being gay is something evil and loathesome, you have to smash and destroy that thing you must never ever be allowed to express in yourself.

Now, I have lived in the heart of Greenwich Village since I was eleven years old, and all this open gayness all around me for all these years has never cured me of my obsessive fixation on having sex with women. This is not to say I've emerged completely unscathed: I spend an immoderate amount of time thinking about hair care products, I have a weakness for certain Broadway musicals, and though I wish I could deny it, I think Liza Minelli is actually a very interesting person. These are all worrisome traits. But as to the man-sex, not so much. And I never liked Doogie Houser.

All this said, I will not tolerate or support any efort to legalize interspecies love between humans and dogs or cats. Because I know I'm not strong enough to resist that temptation. My next door neighbors have a pretty Wheaten terrier and a positively flirtatious Bichon Frise, and if it were legal I'd totally tap that.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Seven Soldiers in six words

The six words are at the end of this post. Before I get there, some musings that will make no sense at all if you haven't read the comics in question.

On first reading Seven Soldiers #1 my immediate reaction was mild disappointment. The promotional copy leading up to this denouement had been pretty specific about what to expect. The seven lead characters were all coming at the threat of the Sheeda from different directions and held different pieces of the puzzle, which might have something to do with the seven imperishable treasures; two of the seven would cross paths; one would betray the others; and one, as every issue reminded us until we were sick of hearing it, would die.

The issue delivered each of those plot points as promised. (With the slight fudge that while only two of the seven met per se, we also saw one of the remaining soldiers, Bulleteer, walk right past the Manhattan Guardian...though they didn't meet..) We got the betrayal and the death from the most logical candidates for each. Can something count as a surprise if you believed it was too obvious a choice and expected the author to surprise you with another choice, but he didn't? That death turned out to be pretty anticlimactic. And one of the seven lead characters disappears more or less between panels; we never find out what ultimately happens to him.

Beyond that, the supposed "main event" -- the attempted Harrowing of modern civilization by the time-traveling Sheeda -- seemed to be treated as merely a background to the stories of the lead characters. The Sheeda were much more vivid and in focus when they were introduced in Morrison's preliminary three-part story for JLA Classified. Here at their big finish, they were just sort of...around. No armies of normal humans turned to zombies by Sheeda spine-riders, nothing to rival the subversion of the Ultramarines in that earlier story. They might as well have been a swarm of mosquitoes.

The whole thing was elegantly written -- structurally, it leaves Watchmen in the dust, and it's about time -- but on the surface it delivered only what was expected in terms of plot mechanics, and I was hoping for something more. Something that would stun me and make me look at everything which preceded it in a different light. Not something that merely fulfilled my expectations...

...But then there was that crossword puzzle. At first glance it looks like a simple joke, along with the scene between Carla and her mom rendered as a newspaper gag strip. But there was this:

ACROSS 1 - One of dead Suzi's twins, hidden in the whole name at Guardian Heights

The answer is "Lena" -- literally hidden in the "whole name" but also hidden at Guardian Heights, where Lena works with her twin brother Lars as gun-toting assistants to Ed Stargard, formerly Baby Brain of the Newsboys of Nowhere Street. There was nothing in the Guardian miniseries suggesting that Lena was anything more than a minor supporting character, certainly nothing to indicate she was another supporting character's daughter. But it had to have been mentioned here for a reason. More than merely being mentioned, it was hidden in a crossword clue...and hiding something is a way of saying it's important.

So Lena and Lars were the twins born to Chop Suzi before she died in childbirth. The other Newsboys blamed poor Captain 7 for her death -- he would be guilty of statutory rape, an 18 year old boy having sex with a 14 year old girl -- and they beat him into Ali Ka Zoom's magic cabinet, never to be seen again. But as Cameron Stewart, the artist on the Guardian miniseries, pointed out here...there's something odd about that. Lars and Lena are blond and blue-eyed Nordic types; certainly not the children you'd expect from the pairing of Suzi with the African-American Captain 7. Whatever else Captain 7 did or didn't do, he did not impregnate Suzi. Ed, the Baby Brain, knows this all too well. He takes in Suzi's twins and shelters them...and as adults they care for their father in his old age.

(Yeah, ick, right?)

And since this was hidden, and must be of some import to be mentioned at all, it made me start teasing out what else might be going on here.

Here's my best guess: Morrison writes in the Zatanna miniseries about the essential role of misdirection in magic. What if that's the best description of Seven Soldiers itself? What if the story that's supposedly being told -- seven superheroes versus time-traveling evil fairies, with its preordained, almost mechanistic conclusion -- is itself sleight-of-hand to conceal the actual story he's telling beneath the surface?

Who's really to blame for the murder of Captain 7? Zor, the Terrible Time Tailor, who weaves ugly destinies and forces children to wear them. Suzi was already pregnant when the Newsboys went to the old Gold place in Slaughter Swamp, looking for an explanation to the Sheeda mystery many years ago...but Zor created her tragic fate.

The whole series is full of bad or absent parental figures. Melmoth is the literal father of Misty, the blood progenitor of Frankenstein, and the father of Klarion's whole race. Glorianna is a wicked stepmother to Misty and corrupts knights to serve her. Klarion is betrayed by his long-lost runaway father. Sally Sonic is driven mad by her mistreatment at the hands of Vitaman, an older man who exploits her. Alix Harrower is the descendant of Auracles, driven mad by captivity. Auracles is a human son of absent Gods, and a vanished god to the people of Limbo Town. Shiloh Norman is scarred by the loss of his older brother, a parental surrogate and authority figure. Jake Jordan's father-in-law, a good parent, is killed. Zatanna seeks her lost good father, Zatara, while Zor impersonates him and literally tries to make her his evil daughter.

There are bad children as well. The people of Limbo Town raise up their dead fathers to serve them as unliving Grundy-Men. Klarion is amoral at best, and falls in with the exploited Billy Beezer and the Deviants. Nepton gets back at his overbearing mermaid mother Suli Stellamaris. Sally Sonic is meant to be a Lolita-esque seductress (though the art in Bulleteer obscures that). Frankenstein meets Uglyhead, a boy who works with the Sheeda. The Sheeda themselves are the ultimate bad children: they're our degenerate heirs, reduced to periodically looting the riches we create and unable to make any wealth of their own.

Good adults (such as Giovanni Zatara, Larry Marcus, Aaron Norman, even Metron) nurture and guide the young, creating heroes. Bad adults (such as Zor, Melmoth, Gloriana, Ebeneezer Badde, Vitaman) use and exploit the young, creating villains.

So maybe all this stuff about time-traveling evil fairies at the end of the world was a ruse. The real story is about child victims of psychological abuse by a bad adult manipulating people and events to bring down their abuser. The wronged children, grown to be neurotic and guilt-ridden adults, finally redeem themselves for their past crime of killing one of their own.

And when Zor faces his final punishment, it comes in the form of being made into a simulacrum of the miser Cyrus Gold -- significantly described as an old pervert who murdered some children -- and being sent out to face a 19th Century lynch mob in Gold's place. (Even that won't be the end of it: Zor-as-Gold is fated to rise up from Slaughter Swamp as the undead Solomon Grundy...)

Adults have the power to do terrible things to the innocence of childhood -- not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps even in the way adults use or misuse the fairy tales and comic book characters of childhood -- but sometimes the memory of childhood idealism has enough power to fight back and win in the end. Morrison never puts this into the foreground, but I think that's what the real story was. Or, to condense all of the above into six words:

"Adults mess children up: favor returned."