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Friday, Jun 12, 2009
In the Wildstorm universe there will be no Silver Age of superheroes. "Mystery archaeologist" for Planetary, Elijah Snow confronts three remarkably familiar objects, with no ability to explain or even recognize them.

The Wildstorm Universe is just the obvious shiny surface of an Earth with superheroes, Warren Ellis writes in the original 1997 proposal for Planetary. What if, underneath all that, there was an entire classic old superhero world? What if there were huge Jack Kirby temples underground built by old gods or new, and ghostly cowboys riding the highways of the West for justice, and superspies in natty suits and 360-degree-vision shades fighting cold wars in the dark, and strange laughing killers kept in old Lovecraftian asylums… what if you had a hundred years of superhero history just slowly leaking out into this young and modern superhero world of the Wildstorm Universe? What if you could take everything old and make it new again?


In a surprise reversal of over-hyped emotions on the cusp of the new millennium, Ellis would offer Planetary as a meditation on the promise of tomorrow by delving into the history that prepared the world for things just about to come. Planetary was about the future of the Wildstorm Universe, but only in that it was an exploration of a past that shaped that future. Over the course of 26 issues, Ellis and artist John Cassaday would treat readers to a heady mixture of hard sci-fi, superhero archaeology and strange, but also familiar analogs of pop-culture. Ellis would draw a continuous narrative thread through a century of superheroes, laying down his own vision of Golden and Silver Age for the Wildstorm universe. Doc Savage, Tarzan, the Shadow, Ellis offers a near-exhaustive list of pop-culture icons. “It’s a strange world,” the series blurb reads, “Let’s keep it that way”.


In perhaps the most heart-rending of twists, Ellis offers the Fantastic Four as a template for group of villainous scientists who secretly dominate the globe. Simply known as The Four, these scientist-explorers have withheld technology that could have supercharged human advancement. Although the “mystery archaeologists” of Planetary have already skirmished with The Four in issue #6, it is here in “Magic & Loss” that readers discover exactly how The Four have made themselves a true adversary to human growth.


In the issue’s framing device, protagonist Elijah Snow crouches over three artifacts in an abandoned Four laboratory. Unable to explain them, but awash in a deep sense of loss, Snow finds his resolve to dethrone The Four strengthened. The artifacts themselves, a blue lantern, a red birthing blanket and a pair of magical wristbands are emblematic of the DC superheroes Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman. The current Planetary issue tells the stories of how these artifacts’ owners were assassinated by The Four.


Encountering these very familiar objects through the eyes of character wholly unable to recognize them, explains the sense of loss felt by the Wildstorm universe. These three characters, Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman would have been the vanguard of a Silver Age of superheroes. Because of The Four, the Wildstorm universe would never know a world where superheroism is legacy passed from one generation to the next.


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Friday, Jun 12, 2009
Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee

Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee


One of the highlights of my visit to the MoCCA convention was attending the ‘AH, HUMBUG!’ panel that featured cartoonists and comedic geniuses Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee in conversation with Fantagraphics editor Gary Groth.  Roth is well-known for his broadly published illustrations and cartoons, and his comic strip Poor Arnold’s Almanac.  Jaffee is renowned for his foundational work on MAD magazine and his signature MAD ‘fold-ins’, illustrations that fold together to reveal another picture that gives a second meaning to the caption. 


The subject of the panel was a satirical humor magazine called Humbug that ran for eleven issues from 1957 to 1958.  Together with comics giants Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jack Davis, Roth and Jaffee pooled their money to put together a creator owned and run magazine.  Roth said that they were such a talented group of people that when Kurtzman suggested they do an issue that parodied New Yorker cartoons by drawing in its style and making the cartoons not funny, they all came back and said, “I can’t think of anything that’s not funny”.


Part of the discussion focused on why the magazine folded, since it is widely agreed that it represents some of these respected cartoonists’ best work.  Roth pointed out that Kurtzman always wanted to do things different, so he made Humbug a smaller dimension than other magazines to stand out.  It would have stood out more if it were taller than other magazines, because its small dimensions meant it was lost behind the other books.  Jaffee made a note that their distributors were a little shady.  They were using the same people to print and distribute and he always felt like the sales figures they were giving them were off.  They always came back just below breaking even.  He implored the audience to take control of the publishing process of their work as much as possible. 


The complete run of Humbug was recently reprinted as a two volume set by Fantagraphics.


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Thursday, Jun 11, 2009
The Devil stalks the Old West, luring the souls of evil men into committing bad deeds, thus ensuring Hell's claim upon them. Finally in the town of Halo, Sheriff Moses Stone traps el Diablo in the town cemetery. Having led a posse to track down a killer he believes to be no more than an ordinary man, Moses just about gets the drop on his bounty.

It began slowly enough, but over the course of four issues Sheriff Moses Stone proves to be the most seductive of untrustworthy narrators. “I’m not a killer, but I have killed”, Moses reminds readers in captioned narration. At the opening of the story, “Holy” Moses Stone is a man in search of redemption. A retired bounty hunter now working to keep the peace in Bollas Raton, Moses hopes to bury the past that brought him to this point. But within pages of establishing Moses’ well-intentioned nature and his only-too-human search for inner peace, writer Brian Azzarello begins chipping away at his fictional creation.


Azzarello forces readers into one fork of morality after the next. Immersing his audience in the mystery of what originally brought Moses to Bollas Raton, Azzarello writes a piece of noir fiction set in the Old West. When Stone uncharacteristically agrees to pursue el Diablo for a bounty, readers’ interest remains piqued. Why would Stone jeopardize the life he built for himself in Bollas Raton? And why would el Diablo leave only Stone alive after a bloody shootout on Main Street? Why mark Stone with the word “Halo”, rather than kill him?


As the questions mount, Stone’s moral descent becomes ever more clear. From pursuit of money, to lying, to outright murder, Azzarello’s talent lies in animating Stone in such a way that readers ultimately excuse the violence in hopes of finding answers. All the while, Stone and his ever-thinning posse hunt down the elusive el Diablo who seems to continually circle back and chase down his pursuers.


In this short sequence of panels, artist Daniel Zezelj plays visually on the idea that el Diablo can never be surrounded. Unarmed and with his back turned to Stone, el Diablo seems finally to be at the mercy of his last remaining pursuer. But rather than having entered a trap he is unable to escape, el Diablo has played out his final ruse. Just as Stone lowers his gun to el Diablo’s neck so too Stone finds a gun pointed at his own. Cal Chaney, the Halo sheriff, has finally put the pieces to together, and Holy Moses must now answer for a trail of bodies.


No devil, only you.

No devil, only you.



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Thursday, Jun 11, 2009
Nate Doyle and Julia Wertz at MoCCA 2009,

Nate Doyle and Julia Wertz at MoCCA 2009, “Look at these cartoonists”


Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art 2009 festival. The annual event is a comic convention that focuses on small press and self-published comics artists and enthusiasts. People from all over the world come to mill about the many booths where creators showcase their works, attend panels on subjects that vary from alternative histories of comics to the current state of the small press publishing economy, and to meet like minded members of the underground comics community. This year the event was housed in the Lexington Armory, a behemoth military structure in Manhattan, originally built in 1906 for the 69th regiment, who shared the halls with this year’s convention attendees.

As I made my way up from the train, I came upon a line of well over a hundred people waiting to get inside. Finding the end of the line down the block and around the corner, I spoke casually with a woman who gave me a self-published mini-comic about her childhood relationships, while another comics artist who was a recent Pratt University graduate showed us his comics about a race of cannibalistic Cyclops. Pretty soon we drew another MoCCA attendee into our conversations, and she told us of her intent of making friends with (or stalking) Randall Munroe, the author of the webcomic xkcd


Once inside, I systematically made my way through the large room of around 200 booths searching out friends to say hello and see their new works before hitting up some panels and lunch. I found most everyone to be sweaty but happy beneath the cavernous and flaking army green ceiling. A lot of people I met up with had finished their work just in time to get it printed for the fest, and their ‘stay up all night for three days’ dedication left me inspired. 


The picture above is one such source of inspiration.  In it we see the always positive Nate Doyle who just put out the fourth issue of his comic Crooked Teeth with a limited run of 200 screen-printed covers and Julia Wertz of The Fart Party, who, like an ‘Eazy E’ of comics, is renowned for her quick temper and street fighting insults. Wertz said, “Don’t take my picture, I look like I was just punched in the face.” When I asked her if she had actually been punched, she responded, “No, not really. Fine, take the picture. Have the caption say, ‘Just look at these shitheads’”.  After drawing an unflattering picture of Nate, she signed my book with the same words.


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Wednesday, Jun 10, 2009
Combing through the wreckage of the just-decimated Flash Museum, Wally West (current super-speedster and nephew to former Flash, Barry Allen) stirs up old ghosts of his family and his superhero lineage. In an effort to console Wally, Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick utters words that will prove pivotal to the denouement of Blitz, and offer Barry Allen one last chance for heroism.

Even though bearing the mantle of the Scarlet Speedster, Wally West was always reluctant to associate himself with the Flash Museum. For Wally the Museum was a debt of honor, paid to his uncle, mentor and Flash before him, Barry Allen who died saving the universe. The Flash Museum, at least to Wally, was a shrine he would forever remain distanced from. Struggling to keep his own achievements from rivaling those of Barry’s (and to Wally’s mind, thereby replacing his mentor), Wally would continually fail to appreciate the full legacy of the Flash and his role as icon for a new generation of Central City residents.


Memories never die

Memories never die


But with the destruction of the Flash Museum, Wally turns a corner. The physical objects that connected him with both his youth and his mentor have now been decimated. Palpably, a connection with Wally’s legacy has been severed. It is in his state of distress that Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (whose boots and tin helmet are modeled on the Roman god of swiftness, Mercury) offers Wally some comfort. “Memories never die”, he reminds Wally, “They were just statutes”.


Jay’s words will prove prescient. By the end of events detailed in Blitz, Wally will confront possibly his greatest mistake; revealing his secret identity to the world. It was this decision that would ultimately cost him the lives’ of his unborn twins, at the hands of supervillain Professor Zoom. In an attempt to protect his family, Wally will forego his alter ego as the Flash. It is at this point that Barry Allen returns from the distant future. Here to offer Wally one last piece of advice, Barry will then travel back even farther in time to sacrifice himself while saving the universe. “But that’s ok, my race is run”, he admits to Wally, underlining his own heroism.


There should always be a Flash, Barry reminds Wally. The Flash stands as a symbol that people are worth saving, time and again. And with the Spectre at his side, Barry offers Wally a way to continue being the Flash, yet reclaim his secret identity. The world will forget the identity of the Flash. And along with it, forget the heroism of Barry Allen. In his final moments, Barry Allen makes an impassioned plea for the ideals of heroism. Geoff Johns writes a single panel that offers Barry Allen a final act of heroism, one perhaps even greater than saving the whole world.


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