Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2 (2010) - Blake Bell, ed.

Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2 (2010) - Blake Bell, ed. 
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN 9781606993804
Hardcover, 240 pages
$39.99 retail
$30.39 Amazon

Back in the 1950s (and for a long time afterward), Charlton paid the lowest rates in comic book publishing, about half of what everyone else was paying. But working for Charlton carried two advantages: although they paid little, they paid on time and you could always count on plenty of work. 

Work was exactly what Steve Ditko needed in 1955. After being out of commission with tuberculosis for nearly a year, Ditko was eager to get the creative juices flowing once more. To say that he did so is putting it mildly: Ditko produced over 450 pages of comics for Charlton in 1957 alone (some of which is reproduced in the 240 pages of Unexplored Worlds). 

Again, work was plentiful at Charlton, but you had to work fast. Since the rates were so low, you had to produce twice as much material to make a decent wage. And Charlton didn’t really care that much about the quality of what their comic book writers and artists produced; Charlton published comics primarily to keep the printing presses moving so they could produce their real breadwinner: song lyrics magazines. 

You could write anything you wanted: westerns, sf, fantasy, horror, romance, war stories, crime stories, suspense, anything. Many of their comics were anthology titles featuring short tales from various writers and artists, usually with no unifying theme. Charlton didn’t care as long as they had enough pages of something to call it a comic book. That being the case, and since work was cranked out quickly, quality suffered. 


Most of the stories in Unexplored Worlds are not very good. Many are bad. Some are truly awful. Most of these stories were probably written by Joe Gill, but are uncredited. It’s easy to blast Gill; several of these stories start strong, only to fizzle out with weak endings, such as “The Conquered Earth” and “Mystery Planet.” Some of them simply stop with no resolution whatsoever. Others are truly lousy from start to finish, but most at least begin well. Yet don’t criticize Gill too harshly; he was simply trying to crank out enough pages to earn a living.

But it was different for Ditko. He also was trying to earn a living, but he didn’t cut corners. While he no doubt practiced his craft while he was recovering from tuberculosis, once back at Charlton, Ditko began exploring, learning, stretching his skills and expanding his artistic dimensions, at least as much as the newly-formed comics code would allow. 

While the stories in Bell’s first volume, Strange Suspense, The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 contains better stories overall, Ditko’s work was clearly still a bit rough around the edges. With Unexplored Worlds, we see an artist breaking out of his comfort zone, trying new things, taking stylistic gambles. Ditko’s suspense stories are creepier, with more mood and shadow coming into play, his sf stories more ethereal, his characters more expressive with their emotions through the drawing of their hands and eyes. In short, Unexplored Worlds shows Ditko’s imagination running wild, which is, despite some less-than-average stories, a wonder to behold. 

Despite the lesser quality stories, the artwork makes Unexplored Worlds a must for any Steve Ditko fan. Those new to Ditko might prefer to start with his work on The Amazing Spider-Man or his run on Doctor Strange before encountering these archives. (Your local library might have them.) But no matter where you start, be prepared for a unique artistic experience.     


Unexplored Worlds, The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2 is part of an ongoing collection of books beginning with Strange Suspense, The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 (2009), which unfortunately is out of print and difficult to find. (If you do find it, expect to pay a lot for it.) Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 3 was released in 2012 and the next installment, Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 4 will be released in May, 2013.   

Monday, January 21, 2013

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume One: 1929-1930

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume One: 1929-1930 (2009)
Philip Francis Nowlan, writer
Richard “Dick” Calkins, artist
Hardcover, 320 pages
Hermes Press
ISBN 1932563199

First, you MUST consider when this work was originally published: the late 1920s, early 1930s. Think about what the world was like, with all its prejudices, worries and fears. Realize also that you’ve got the literature of the time looking back on the horrors of World War I, with novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. You’ve got the beginning of the end of the silent film era. And, of course, you’ve got the Great Depression. Understand that these influences (and many more) are all significant. Once you’ve understood those things, THEN read these newspaper strips. 

Yes, the stories are silly, but they're also quite amazing. If you feel like you’ve been here before, you have. Your favorite science fiction stories and comics probably borrowed (or stole) a lot from Buck Rogers. This strip was and is an important part of science fiction and comic book culture. There’s no getting around that. 

The stories are simply all over the place, nowhere near as consistently good as the artwork, but the sense of wonder here is infectious and makes you want to keep reading. You’ll encounter more gadgets than logic, more improbable science than fact, and plot points that make no sense at all. You’ll wonder if Nowlan and Calkins had ADHD. (Maybe they did.) If you’re like me, you’ll wish Nowlan and Calkins had developed these stories more. I mean, c’mon, you’ve got a guy that falls asleep for 500 years and wakes up in a totally different world, one in which America has been conquered by the Red Mongols. Just the political nature of this situation alone could’ve been explored for years. (And, to be fair, it sometimes is.) 

Yet I found myself fascinated by these stories. Their imagination and creativity are boundless, their energy unstoppable. The book starts with an introduction (which is rather more of a cultural history) of Buck Rogers by Ron Goulart, followed by seven “chapters” of stories, some of which follow immediately upon the heels of the previous ones, some of which start brand new stories. The final two chapters, “Land of the Golden People” and “Synthetic Gold Plot” are the weakest, stooping mostly to rescue melodrama as Buck Rogers seeks to find and reconcile with his missing girlfriend Wilma. 

A word about the printing is in order. Most pages contain two daily strips (all in black and white), apparently the same size as they appeared in newspapers. This makes for some pretty large pages, but I’d rather have them in their original size than shrunk down to fit more strips onto a page.

Some of the printing is not completely uniform. At times, letters don’t print correctly or they print very dimly. This doesn’t happen all that often, but it is annoying when it does. A bigger problem, at least for me, is the tendency of the letterer to make the letter P look very much like the letter D. This drove me crazy. Also a problem, but not quite as offensive, is the letterer’s tendency to have the letter T take a slight dip at the top, making it resemble a lazy Y. 

Of course, these annoyances are just part of the ways that comics and comic strips have evolved over the years. In more modern comics, we’re used to having  the narration portion appear at the top of the panel before the characters speak. Here, it’s usually at the bottom. We’re also used to reading thought and speech balloons from left to right, top to bottom. Sometimes that happens here, sometimes not. So, once again, remember, you’re reading a comic strip that’s more than 80 years old.  

For all its faults, Buck Rogers is filled with grand escapism and wonder, and as such, it’s not only an wonderful read, but an important one in the history of both sf and comics. While it’s not my favorite newspaper comic strip (That would be Terry and the Pirates), and not one I’ll probably read beyond this volume, I very much appreciate it and am glad to have read it. 


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 01 - Greg Rucka, et al.

Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 01 (2001/2007)
Greg Rucka, artist
Steve Rolston, Brian Hurtt, Leandro Fernandez, artists
Trade paperback, 382 pages
Oni Press
ISBN 9781932664874

First things first: Thanks to my good friend John for recommending this series to me years ago.

Here are a few things you need to know about Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 01 in the order you’ll encounter them:

This is a compact, thick, solid trade paperback that looks and feels “right” when you hold it, almost like holding a trade paperback novel in your hands, but with more weight. (On the negative side, the way the book is bound sometimes creates the challenge of reading text printed too close to the binding. Hate that.) 

Tim Sale’s cover art is not representative of the inside of the book, which is to take nothing away from either the work that is inside or Sale’s art. Sure, his covers are reproduced inside, but Sale does not draw any of the stories. That task falls to Steve Rolston, Brian Hurtt, and Leandro Fernandez, each of whom is part of an artistic creative team that takes on one of the three missions included here. (More on these guys in a minute.)

The book is in black and white. 

The writing is superb. If you enjoy intelligent, suspenseful espionage tales, you’ll love Queen & Country. Writer Greg Rucka not only creates a great real-world espionage thriller, but also manages to convey information in a way that doesn't insult the segment of his audience who knows world events as well as providing essential information to those who don't, all without stooping to "As you know, Bob..." tactics. 

The story takes place in the early 2000s, focusing mainly on Tara Chace, a Minder with the Special Ops division of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service and the missions she undertakes. Tara is tough, independent, and knows how to get things done on and away from missions. She sort of reminds me of Battlestar Galactica’s Kara Thrace. Tara Chace. Kara Thrace. Similar name, similar appearance, similar characteristics.... Hmmm.....

Going into the plots and missions would not only be pointless, but would take away half the fun. I will say that readers who are used to gunfire and explosions on every page will no doubt be disappointed. Rather, readers who want to know about the ins and outs of Special Ops decisions and missions (although fictionalized), the tension of the missions, the reliance on what the SIS hopes to be reliable intelligence, and the challenges of the unknown - those readers will love Queen & Country.

The art style takes a pretty drastic turn in the last third of the book, as Fernandez’s exaggerated character features come close to being a serious distraction. Tara, previously drawn as a tough, unremarkable-looking fighter, in Fernandez’s hands becomes a provocative buxom bombshell. The other characters, good and bad, become almost grotesque in their facial features. This is a radical departure from what Rolsoton and Hurtt have established, yet Rucka's storytelling is rock solid and remains the driving force. Don't let the fact that the art changes drastically keep you from picking this one up. Highly recommended.  


Friday, January 11, 2013

Adopt a Character or Creator in 2013

Chris Marshall over at the Collected Comics Library has a great idea for the new year: adopt a comic book character or creator in 2013 and explore their universe. This year, Chris is taking a journey through the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby years of the Fantastic Four, which I hope will be a wonderful experience for him. (It certainly was - and is - for me.)

My main comics plan for 2013 is to explore the work and life of artist Joe Kubert. I never read many DC comics as a kid, and although Kubert didn't work only for DC, much of his work can be found there. Kubert passed away last year, leaving an enormous legacy of great work, only part of which I experienced in a DC Archives edition of The Enemy Ace, which knocked me out.  

I plan to start with The Art of Joe Kubert, followed by Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert and the new Weird Horrors & Daring Adventures: The Joe Kubert Archives Vol. 1, all three of which are authored/edited by Bill Schelly and published by Fantagraphics Books

I also plan to spend some time with more comic strip reprints in 2013. I had a great time with IDW's first volume of The Complete Terry and the Pirates and hope to explore IDW's Steve Canyon. Right now I'm in the middle of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Newspaper Dallies: Volume One 1929-1931 and am loving it. 

So.... Let me know your comics plans for 2013.....

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mind Mgmt - Matt Kindt

Last May I bought and read the first issue of Mind Mgmt by Matt Kindt and was tempted to reread it immediately. I resisted, knowing that I’d have to wait 30 days for the next installment, then 30 more, etc. I tried to put it out of my mind (no pun intended). When I learned that the first story arc was planned to run for six issues, I bought each issue for the next five months, refusing to read them until Mind Mgmt #6 was securely in my hands. 

I recently read all six issues back to back. If I hadn’t, the suspense would’ve been excruciating. Now you don’t have to wait. Well, actually you do: Dark Horse will release a hardcover edition of Mind Mgmt on April 16, collecting issues #1-6. But it’ll be worth the wait. Here’s why:

Mind Mgmt begins with a simple scene: a man and a woman, drawn and painted in watercolors, stand on a balcony, calmly looking at each other. In the pages that follow, we see violence, murder, anarchy, arson, and more murder. None of it makes any sense.

Cut to Meru, a young woman who has written a fairly successful true crime book, now looking for inspiration for her next project. (Most of her inspiration comes from mail stamped with words like “Past Due” and “Final Notice.”) She sees a news story on TV about the two-year anniversary of “Amnesia Flight 815,” a plane full of passengers safely arriving at an airport, yet none of them have any memory of who they are or what they were doing before the plane landed. Only one passenger was unaffected: a seven-year-old boy. Why was he unaffected? Was he responsible? Oh, and then there’s this: one of the passengers on the flight manifest has disappeared.

Meru has found her next project.

Or so she thinks. After coaxing her editor to green-light the project, Meru begins an investigative journey to find out what happened on Amnesia Flight 815. But she soon discovers the story is filled with layers, and the layers have layers. It doesn’t take long before she’s being chased by assassins through a labyrinth of mysterious darkness. 

And you can’t put it down. And I won’t tell you any more about it.  

So pick up the collected hardcover edition in April. On the other hand, maybe you’ll want to buy Mind Mgmt in single issues. Each issue contains a separate, yet integral black and white story printed on the inside covers. (UPDATE: Kindt has stated that these inside cover stories will not be included in the collected editions.) Also Kindt has printed a Mind Mgmt Field Guide in the margins of nearly every page, statements that shed light on what’s happening in the comic itself. Plus each issue’s back cover holds further clues.   

Kindt has said that he has a three-year plan for the series, producing six issues at a time. It’s gonna be an interesting three years... 

(More on Kindt's thoughts on the series here, but know that the article includes some minor spoilers.)