Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Monday, Jul 27, 2009
Heroes are heroes for a reason, Brubaker reminds us

James Buchanan Barnes, Captain America’s former kid sidekick ‘Bucky’, glowers at the tribute erected to fallen Captain America Steve Rogers. From this view Barnes remains unseen, but his reflection expresses both his intensity and his distress. The only ‘actual’ object appearing in this panel, Cap’s empty costume and shield fully convey the sense of loss experienced with the demise of a legend.


Barnes will shortly, after reading a letter from Steve Rogers requesting he do so, take up the mantle of Captain America. For the moment however, the icon remains out of reach. Ironically an awareness of the shield and costume as fake, do nothing to alleviate the burden of memory. However close Bucky may once have been, the icon of Captain America has now become interminable.


The construction of the panel, the hero of the story remaining off-panel, while separated from an iconic role by a panel of glass offers the briefest of essays on the superhero. In a common-sense understanding, it is the icon, and not the hero that endures. Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting however provide a careful criticism of this notion, the same one that underpins generational superheroes like Lee Falks’ the Phantom or the modern Flash lineage. While the icon, Cap’s costume and shield, at first glance seem substantial and enduring beyond Steve Rogers, it is ultimately the absence of both Rogers and Barnes (whose emotion animates this panel) that has the greatest effect.


Heroes are heroes for a reason, Brubaker seems to be saying. Without them the icons they drape themselves in, are just empty suits.


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Sunday, Jul 26, 2009

When I was younger and just getting back to comics I had no real appreciation for Golden and Silver Age characters. I was a Batman fanatic and I had very little time, or money, for series like the JSA or Starman. I started reading the Justice League because my hero was part of the team but my forays into the DCU and its iconic history ended there. I erroneously believed that the JLA represented the full manifestation of the superhero genre (gimme a break, I was young!), and that old characters like Jay Garrick and Alan Scott were prototypes whose appeal had been replaced by cooler and more modern incarnations. It was through the help of more enlightened friends and gifted comic creators that I was able to learn the error of my ways and appreciate the legacies of the heroes that had come before and their continued relevance today.


One of the various books that accomplished my change in heart and perspective was James Robinson’s Starman, which at the insistence of my friend John I finally agreed to read. This series elegantly captures the beauty and the history of the superhero mythos in a way that is almost painful. Superheroes cannot thrive in a microcosm and this series brought new levels of enjoyment and awe as it broke open insular storylines and brought them into a larger more realized universe. While the series has many excellent examples of this feat, I think the best, and my favorite, is still Starman’s first team-up…


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Friday, Jul 24, 2009
When the drama of the moment ends in Ultimate Secret, the human adventure begins.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, the sky is ours’. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic way to end the scene. Writer Warren Ellis immediately taps our collective hopes of launching at an escape velocity and slipping free of the bond of Earth’s gravity. This scene from Ultimate Secret ends on a moment of high drama, reminding readers that planetary escape velocity is just the beginning. The sky, is literally the limit.


Imagining a more dramatic ending becomes even harder after three pages of dialogue. It is possibly the challenge that accomplished artists most regularly dread. How would you move the story forward visually during narrative phases of nothing but conversation? Artist Steve McNiven responds admirably to the challenge.


Instead of a simplistic shot/reverse-shot mode of storytelling, he deploys a highly animated array of visual techniques. Close-ups morph into worms-eye views, promoting a sense of intimacy. Back-of-the-head shots of protagonist Philip Lawson framing others at the conference table place the audience in the proverbial hot-seat, creating a sense that they themselves are making the presentation. Birds-eye views provide an abstract and visual distance from the imposing scientific detail at just the right moments.


Equal to the visualization, Ellis’ dialogue provides a unique drama of its own. Hard science concepts like zero point energy and breakthrough propulsion systems are driven home in clear and concise language. As lead character Lawson explains these concepts, the drama of scientific endeavor exploration unfolds.


But everything leads back to the spaceship Asis. And the beginning of the human adventure in outer space. As Lawson guides both the supporting characters and audience through the science, the dream of deep space travel is stirred once more.


Our calculations show that the Asis could will develop a speed of some twenty percent of the speed of light. This puts the Moon just hours away. Mars, days away. It puts a return trip to the nearest star within a human lifetime.


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Thursday, Jul 23, 2009
Why I support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund enough to go to a not-so-great convention.

As I mentioned in my last post, I attended Wizard World Philly 2009 to volunteer at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund table.  So, I thought I’d tell you a little about that organization and why I chose to support it in this way (other than I didn’t have the resources to give money myself).


Since 1986, the CBLDF has been working to protect the First Amendment within the comic book industry.  Historically, comics have been associated with youth.  Even as they have become mainstream and more adults are reading them, they remain an easy target for people who would censor a writer’s work, because it’s one of the few industries in which it’s still easy to do so in the name of the children.


As a writer, I understand how important it is to be allowed to express yourself in a way that makes your story successful, or allows non-fiction to get your point across.  As an adult comic fan, I want to be allowed the choice to read what I want and when, and I firmly believe that it is up to parents to keep objectionable material away from their children.  More than that, I think that parents should be willing and prepared to discuss objectionable material with their children.  Children armed with information are less vulnerable than those who are not.


So, I spent two days shilling a variety of signed collectibles for a good cause.  Creators like Neil Gaiman, Brian K. Vaughan, and Frank Miller all donated books.  Artists like Jeff Smith, Amanda Conner, and Matt Wagner donated prints.  Then there were unique items exclusive to the CBLDF, like the fragrances inspired by Neil Gaiman’s novels!  All of these items are also available at their website.  Visit www.cbldf.org.


I’ll leave you with a word from Neil Gaiman, who provides a unique perspective regarding the First Amendment:


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Thursday, Jul 23, 2009
When you reach for the stars, who knows what dreams may come?

Two men of very different destinies. Artist Craig Hamilton makes a compelling visual statement about writer James Robinson’s project of an art deco city in comics evolving from the lives of great men.


For writer James Robinson, the dream of an art deco comics has been a long, slow project. By issue 54 of Starman it had taken nearly five years. Winding its way through a passing exchange between characters, and on to being visualized by the series’ regular artists, Starman’s home of Opal eventually became as much a character as any other. But it is with issue 54, and with guest illustrator Hamilton, that the art deco theme finally transcends the visualization of Opal and influences the medium of comics itself. Ironically, issue 54 is set in the nineteenth century, long before the art deco movement properly took hold.


Hamilton depicts two men whose contribution to Opal live on for longer than a century. In doing so he opposes their individual characters, but also the fabric of the city’s life.


To the left is legendary blood-and-guts lawman, Sheriff Brian Savage, the Scalphunter. To the right stands Herman Moll reclusive (and by the close of the twentieth century, little-remembered) visionary, the fictive inventor of the first spaceship. Contrasted as looking down on their achievements, both remain unaware of the full impact they will have on the future of Opal.


The vibrancy and warmth of the palette used to depict Savage in the Chinese parlor differs sharply from the cold, clinical hues of Moll’s hangar. Yet for all its warmth, Savage’s world will require of Opal defenders prepared to spill blood. While for all the apparent cold of Moll’s panel, it is his work that will nurture the dreams of Ted Knight, the first Starman and provide Jack Knight a means to the stars.


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