Edgar Allan Poe: Comics of Mystery and Imagination

Edgar Allan Poe Portrait

Edgar Allan Poe

I’m listening to The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination as I’m writing this. The album is a favourite of mine and I consider it to be one of their finest works. The songs are all based on the works of one of the giants of American literature, Edgar Allan Poe, who died on this day, Oct 7th in 1849. Credited with inventing the detective story with his tale Murders in the Rue Morgue, Poe was best known for melancholic short stories and poetry, that, if not outright horror, were certainly gothic in style and filled with macabre themes and imagery.

The most common theme, which Poe returned to frequently, was that of premature burial. Apparently this was a common fear in the nineteenth century. Comas and cases of unconsciousness being misdiagnosed were more frequent because medical science wasn’t as advanced and autopsies were rarely performed or required. Poe’s most direct treatment of the subject was in the story The Premature Burial.

To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?

A Corben Special cover image

The cover to A Corben Special: House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe

Other examples of premature burial appearing in Poe’s stories are: The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat and The Fall of the House of Usher. House of Usher was my first encounter with reading Poe, I remember my grade nine English teacher introducing it to us by suggesting that it had one of the longest first sentences of any story in the English language.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Page of Richard Corben's House of Usher

The opening scene by Corben silently introduces the main character of Poe's House of Usher.

Of all Poe’s work I would not have thought of Usher, with its additional themes of incest and madness, as the most readily adaptable to comic books; but Richard Corben did a fantastic job with it for Pacific Comics in 1984. Until reading it, I was only familiar with Corben’s Den Saga from Heavy Metal magazine and never really thought of him as anything other than a fantasy artist. However, his style was well-suited to producing a gothic horror piece and his mastery of page layout was on display right from the start. The opening panels in which the story’s narrator, Edgar Arnold, silently rides into the scene are nicely juxtaposed with the opening line from the story.

Corben not only adapts Poe’s work, he also pays tribute to the author by penciling a decent rendering of Poe in the role of the main character. Sprinkling Poe’s text throughout the piece as separate snippets not only moves the story along, but also gives the sense of Poe and Corben working together as collaborators. A nice touch.

Interior Art: Corben Special Edgar Allan Poe

One of the dream scenes. The total absence of speech balloons renders this scene frighteningly silent.

The heavy use of blacks is appropriate, given the subject matter and the fact that much of the story takes place at night in the darkened rooms and catacombs of a mouldering old mansion. Although the colouring is at times almost garishly neon, it is effective at suggesting dreamlike states, paranormal events and states of decay and putrefaction. Giving whole pages to long, narrow multiple panels without any text or word balloons gives a sense of the action being slowed down leaving the reader to absorb the scene as it unfolds without commentary or distraction. I’m always tempted to linger over these pages, allowing the scene to loop and play out endlessly. Corben’s use of expression on his character’s faces, as well as gesture helps convey such plot points as Roderick Usher’s descent into madness, Edgar’s astonishment and moments of terror as he witnesses events unfold within the house.

Richard Corben's House of Usher

Richard Corben's rendering of Poe's House of Usher doesn't disappoint.

Naturally, the house itself is not ignored and Corben does an excellent job of bringing it to life with detailed exteriors and moody interior shots. Again, colouring helps to realize the sense of decay and imminent collapse so present throughout the story. The ending brings the reader back almost to where things began: a lone figure alongside Poe’s words and Corben’s art.

Corben went on to adapt more of Poe’s works. Of course, there have been a great many other adaptations of Poe in comic books by companies such as Classics Illustrated, EC Comics, Warren Publishing’s Creepy and Eerie magazines and others. DC comics did an Elseworlds Tale: Batman Nevermore which sees Gotham’s caped crusader as a nineteenth century vigilante sleuth partnering up with Edgar Allan Poe himself. Not something probably Poe himself could ever possibly have imagined in all his wildest nightmares. With Halloween approaching, Poe’s work is certainly appropriate reading whether in text or graphic form.

Next stop, the Twilight Zone

Twilight Zone Title Card

One of television's most recognizable logos

October 2nd, 1959 saw the debut of one of television’s undeniable classics, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Dealing with the supernatural and paranormal, the anthology show would run for five seasons, receive numerous awards and set a standard for creepiness on late night television. Intelligent and well-written, Twilight Zone attracted an impressive roster of known and up and coming actors such as: Art Carney, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Montgomery, Julie Newmar, Cliff Robertson, Telly Savalas, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, to name but a few. With such talent involved, Twilight Zone understandably makes top television and cult television “best of” lists on a regular basis.

Twilight Zone issue #10

The moody atmosphere for Twilight Zone comics was established thanks largely due to Gold Key's house practice of using painted artwork on their covers.

Although the show ended in 1964, it still appears in syndication to this day. There have been two attempted television revivals of the program (1985-89, 2002-03) and a theatrically released film (1983) produced by Stephen Spielberg starring Dan Akroyd, Albert Brooks, Vic Morrow, John Lithgow and Scatman Crothers. Current rumours suggest that another film may be in the works with participation from Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCapprio.

The Twilight Zone’s popularity, short story anthology format, and frequent use of surprise or twist endings made it a natural for adaptation into comic books. It was first released in 1961 by Western Publishing through their Dell comics line. Four issues were printed, two under Dell’s Four Color comic title and the other two as The Twilight Zone before being switched to Gold Key comics, also owned by Western. The series ran successfully for 91 issues until 1979 with one final issue being published in 1982 by another Western company, Whitman.

 Gold Key were no strangers to licensed product producing comic lines for such television adaptations as The Addams Family, The Munsters, Adam-12, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and most famously, the original series Star Trek. Gold Key’s forays into spooky-themed comics included: Boris Karloff: Tales of Mystery, Grimm’s Ghost Stories, and The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor as well as other, shorter-lived series.
Twilight Zone issue 84

Issue #84 of The Twilight Zone marked the pro debut by none other than modern comic icon Frank Miller.

Each Twilight Zone issue contained several stories, some as short as a single page, others as long as eight or eleven pages. Like the television series, the comic featured the work of top talent such as former EC comics artists: Reed Crandall, George Evans, Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson. Other now-familiar names also included: Len Wein, Alex Toth, Joe Orlando, Walt Simonson, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez along with many others. The Twilight Zone comic also has the distinction of having provided Frank Miller his first professional credit, long before his successful work on Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City and 300.

Although the Twilight Zone comic enjoyed a long run, it eventually came to an end. Like the television show, however, The Twilight Zone enjoyed a few attempted revivals in comic book form as well. NOW comics revived the series with sporadic printings through the early 90′s including one issue written by Harlan Ellison and pencilled by comics great, Neal Adams. In recent years Walker Books have published a series of graphic novel adaptations of original Twilight Zone episodes. These books are aimed at younger readers, but have been met with lukewarm reception.

The greatest difficulty in adapting a series like Twilight Zone lies in capturing the moody atmosphere of the show. As mediums go, television and film have a lot of tricks up their sleeves: lighting, extreme camera angles, fast panning and jump cuts which can all be attempted in comics with varying degrees of success depending on the skills of the artist. But there are other aspects which cannot be so easily translated: music, sound effects and, most notably, the abilities of the actors to be convincing in their roles. This is not to say that one shouldn’t attempt adapting such material, if that were so, suspense or horror comics wouldn’t exist.

Who knows, if the rumours are correct, and a successful film adaption of Twilight Zone hits the screen, comics might get another chance to go traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

Of things that go bump, pow, crash! and ar-woooooo in the night

Batboy in the Halloween sky

A little something I drew. Halloween is a time of full moons, bats in the sky and other spooky delights!

I woke up to a cold house this morning. Outside, a strong north wind gusted and howled, causing a tree branch to tap and scratch forlornly at our bedroom window. Fallen leaves swirled about, dancing through withered flower-beds. The sky was ominous and grey, populated with grim-looking clouds. October had arrived, bringing the Halloween season with it.

Very soon the landscape will be littered with jack-o-lanterns, fake tombstones will spring up on front lawns, phony cobwebs will support giant, plastic spiders and paper bats, ghosts and skeletons will decorate window panes along with orange and black crêpe ribbons. Horror movie marathons will flicker across late night television screens and we’ll all sit back and enjoy being scared out of our wits for a few hours.

For as long as there have been campfires mankind has indulged in telling tales of terror. Whether to explain, to moralise, or to entertain, these stories tap into our universal sub-conscious with themes exploring life, death, and life after death. As a genre, horror has played a big part in comic books and there is a rich history of fantastic story-telling in the four colour world, all of it dedicated to sending chills up readers’ spines.

Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror covers

EC comics set the standard for horror comic art and storytelling in the 50's with such titles as Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.

As with every entertainment medium there have been trends in fan interest and taste which have dictated the level of popularity for horror comics during different periods of time. Both Marvel and DC have put out horror-themed books, but they have not been the only comic publishers to tap into readers’ fears. Nor have they been the most successful. I think that title would unarguably go to EC Comics, which set the standard for horror comics in the 50′s with their three main books: Haunt of Fear, Vault of Terror and, of course, Tales from the Crypt. Employing some of the best writers and artists of the day, EC’s huge success inspired more than a little jealousy and mimicry from the other comic companies. Eventually the other companies virtually black-balled EC from publishing with the formation of the Comics Code Authority. (This story will be explored in a later post.) The CCA was a self-regulating body created in response to increasing parental anger and fear over comic books’ influence over youth at the time. The prohibition of super-natural creatures such as vampires, werewolves and zombies from comics pretty much ended the horror renaissance of the 50′s.

In the late 60′s and through the 70′s Warren Publishing went outside the CCA and unleashed its black and white comic magazines Eerrie, Creepy and Vampirella on a horror-starved fandom. Soon after, Marvel and DC both followed suit with black and white magazines of their own as well as comic books that pushed the boundaries set by the comics code.

No single comic company dominated the horror genre in the 80′s but a number of independent comic publishers kept the flame alive such as Pacific Comics, with its Twisted Tales.

In the 90′s DC introduced its Vertigo line where darker, more mature subject matter such as Hellblazer, found a home. Although Warren Publishing had ceased to exist, its most popular character Vampirella was revived by Harris Comics. Independent publisher Chaos Comics burst onto the scene with its violent characters Evil Ernie and Lady Death which also inspired an explosion of imitators.

Walking Dead vol.1 Days Gone Bye cover

Robert Kirkman's phenomenally successful zombie comic The Walking Dead has been adapted for television on AMC.

Over the past ten years the horror comics scene has had its core of loyal followers and comic companies big and small have fed on various trends such as the zombie resurgence with popular books like Image Publishing’s Walking Dead.

As with any sort of genre there are plenty of examples of dreck which drag the artform down into the muck, but for the time being horror seems to be trading on a wave of popularity. What’s the key to this revival? Strong storytelling. It puts the fun into being scared by giving us characters we want to care about and stories that interest us.

In the spirit of the Halloween season, for the month of October, I will be digging a little deeper into those comics that go bump in the night. Follow along… if you dare!

The Doctor is in! Cartoon Art and Life Collide in the World of Gonzo Journalism

Hunter S Thompson Cartoon

My version of Hunter S. Thompson, which I pencilled while recently watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Hunter S. Thompson understood this universal truth and took it as his mantra for flying the freak power flag higher than anyone around. In doing so, he developed a caustic, take-no-prisoners style of writing ultimately known and revered as Gonzo Journalism. No matter what aspect of modern living Hunter covered in his lengthy career as a Doctor of Journalism, he never failed to expose the naked, awful truth. Even if he had to make it up.

That, above all else, was Hunter’s charm. You just never knew whether he was telling the whole truth, wrapping the truth in some form of allegory, or shining you on with something so outrageous that the true, mind-blowing reality of what he really had to say wouldn’t seem so odd.

Hunter lived hard and fast. Drugs and alcohol were as much tools to him as were his tape recorder, typewriter and mojo wire. As much as possible, in true gonzo fashion, Hunter would insert himself into the story. He started by riding with the Hell’s Angels in the mid-sixties when he was gathering material to write his exposé of them. It worked so well, he never looked back and worked that trick to such success that he even managed to get to ride along in a limo with Nixon to talk football during coverage of the presidential election. Hunter’s year-long odyssey within the American political machine found its way regularly into Rolling Stone magazine before being packaged in book form as Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter's grand opus.

Hunter’s most famous piece of writing is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was adapted for film by Terry Gilliam and starred Johnny Depp in the role of HST/Raoul Duke. Depp’s portrayal is regarded as the most true to form, usually favoured over Bill Murray’s turn as Hunter in the bio-pic Where the Buffalo Roam. I find both films have their strengths. Fear and Loathing sticks strictly to the source material, whereas Buffalo gives us more of a glimpse of the circus which Hunter’s life became as he was increasingly hamstrung by the public’s expectations of him as a gonzo writer.

Hunter chafed at the legend which had grown around him. He often expressed how, as the legend grew to have a life of its own, he himself had become largely unnecessary. Perhaps in some respect this was true. Certainly he was aware that too many aspects of his life/legend were beyond his control. The gonzo style, which had at one time brought him recognition and success, inevitably became a drawback. It had the effect of creating a larger than life persona which turned into a caricature. Worst of all, the caricature was what people clamoured for Hunter to be. There was no escaping his fate.

action figure cover

Doonesbury's Uncle Duke in a collected volume complete with vinyl action figure.

Hunter’s role as a cartoonish counter-culture icon was cemented by his portrayal in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. Like Hunter, Trudeau took aim at modern American life often satirizing many of the same targets. Trudeau’s character Uncle Duke may not have impressed Hunter, but readers the world over responded and the good doctor returned as a constantly recurring character over the years. My personal favourite storyline was when Duke gets hired as the manager for the Washington Redskins. Player doping, gambling, greed and corruption ensues to hilarious effect. Eventually Trudeau had enough material for a collected version of Uncle Duke’s adventures to be published. Action Figure came with it’s own vinyl figure complete with such accessories as a martini glass and a sub-machine gun.

curse-of-lono-coverOf course, the caricature studies of Hunter all started much earlier than Doonesbury. Hunter was paired with British illustrator Ralph Steadman whose own frenetic pen and ink style easily matched Hunter’s vitriolic prose, capturing the hyper-kinetic energy so prevalent in Hunter’s best writing. They met on assignment for Scanlan’s Monthly producing an article called “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. The pair became friends and Steadman came to illustrate many of Hunter’s antics over the years (including Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas), with one final collaboration on a book/adventure: The Curse of Lono.

Eventually Hunter wrote his own ending, committing suicide on February 20, 2005. He left a suicide note titled “Football Season is Over” and, true to gonzo form, had his ashes shot out of a canon at his funeral.

Look who’s talking about the DC Comics relaunch

DC Comics Justice League Re-launch

DC Comics kicked off its New 52 re-launch with the release of Justice League #1

This past Wednesday, the big moment finally came and went. Justice League #1 hit the racks, with many stores hosting well-attended midnight release parties. It’s still too early to determine if DC Comics’ new 52 relaunch will be a success at gaining new fans while holding on to the old ones. From a public relations point of view, however, I think it’s safe to say that DC Comics has scored a big win.

Everybody, and I do mean EVERYBODY, has been talking about DC’s move to reboot their existing lines with 52 new number 1 issues. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the reboot/relaunch is not simply a matter of re-numbering books. It also involves changes to characters, costumes, and plotlines. This caused a lot of chatter amongst comics fans on blogs, podcasts, and in comic shops everywhere. With the beginning of the relaunch (New 52 debut comics will be released over the next 4 weeks) major media players began adding their voices to the discussion with featured articles, reviews and interviews with key figures within DC Comics.

Media heavyweights such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times and National Public Radio ran stories covering the event. Magazines including Fast Company, PC Magazine, Wired and Christian Science Monitor gave space to discussions of DC Comics’ bold move. MTV and Entertainment Weekly shoe-horned in some coverage and ABC News ran an interview with two of the major archiects of the realunch, DC Comics’ creators/executives Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. Even non-comic websites such as Mashable, Salon and Marketplace gave their take on how the relaunch would impact DC Comics’ sales of print and digital copies.

The media coverage isn’t the only place where DC have scored a win. Not only has Justice League #1 sold out, but many of the remaining New 52 titles are also selling out before their release through pre-orders. This event has been a huge boost for DC both in sales and share of mind with consumers. A keyword search through Google revealed that “DC Comics” came up 673,000 times in online searches versus 368,000 for “Marvel Comics”.

So it seems that a lot of people are talking about DC Comics right now. Will this translate into fan interest and loyalty beyond the debut issues? It will be fascinating to see what sort of impact all this attention has both on DC Comics and the comic industry as a whole.

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FanExpo, my day in images

As I mentioned in my last blog I was headed to this past weekend’s FanExpo in Toronto. This, despite my dislike of large crowds and waiting in seemingly endless line-ups. Although the day proved to be exhausting, I managed to enjoy a wide range of activities: shopping, spotting celebrities (Larry Hagman butted past me on his way to the washroom as I stood in an ATM line) attending a few panels, and chatting with folks about comics. Here are a few photos which capture a little of my experience at FanExpo.

FanExpo 2011 ticket lineup

The lineup for tickets. I told you... didn't I tell you? I haven't even gotten inside FanExpo and already I'm waiting in line. Actually there are 2 lines here, the one on the left which I'm standing in is for cash payments. The one on the right is for debit and credit card payments, and moved considerably slower than the cash line.


FanExpo 2011 Star Wars Family

Star Wars was well represented at FanExpo. Here, a whole family from Tatooine visit the show and pose for photos.


FanExpo 2011 R2D2 models

Some people have too much time on their hands. Not ony did these guys have time to build life-size models of R2D2, but they also organized themselves into a club as well.


FanExpo 2011 C3P0 and R2D2 costumes

These might not be as realistic as the models above, but these girls (yes there's a girl inside the R2) certainly deserve full marks for inventiveness.


FanExpo 2011 Futurama Zoidberg costume

What's fun is when you find people in costume taking photos of other people in costume.


FanExpo 2011 Cosplay Girls

There were plenty of cosplay girls (and guys) dressed up as their favourite anime characters.


FanExpo 2011 Mario Costumes

People even dressed up as their favourite video games, like Super Mario.


FanExpo 2011 Monty Python Knights

These Knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail were on their way to the Saturday evening Masquerade. Such great costumes, the servant even has coconut shells to do the galloping horse sound effects. I hope these guys won a prize!


FanExpo 2011 Main Floor

The main floor of FanExpo as seen from one of the panel conference rooms above.


FanExpo 2011 vintage Archie, Human Torch and Detective comics

Of course, there were comics at FanExpo! These vintage Archie, Human Torch and Detective comics were some of the rarer finds, kept in a display case. The Detective comic is issue #33 from 1939. The grade for it was 3.0 (10.0 being perfect) and it was valued at $950.00.


FanExpo 2011 Reid Fleming Dennis the Menace books

Some of the haul I brought home. I found these books at the Silver Snail booth for 50% off the U.S. cover price. Couldn't resist the Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman collection as I have 2 of the issues tucked away in a longbox.


FanExpo 2011 Joker action figure

I found a great deal on this Joker action figure.


FanExpo 2011 Joker and Batman action figures

As you can see, my new Joker figure will complement this Batman statue I got at a comic show last year.


FanExpo 2011 All New Comics swag

Of course, I stopped by the All New Comics booth to pick up my regular comic shipment and have a chat with Peter. He and Brian (sorry I missed him) are great! They had generous gifts for their customers who stopped by their booth at FanExpo. My gift pack included all the books pictured as well as an All New Comics t-shirt and lanyard. Easily $100 worth of gear. Thanks guys!


Five things to do at FanExpo

2011 FanExpo Floorplan

FanExpo is a very BIG show. Plenty of room for line-ups and a crowd here.

I’m not really good in crowds. Oh, I’m not phobic about it or anything, I can still function. Let’s just say that I prefer smaller groups to larger ones. My chief complaint is that I have little patience for waiting in lines. It’s unlikely you’ll ever find me camping out for the next Apple store opening or even the final acts in George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy of trilogies.

So why would I go to one of the ultimate geekfest calendar events like this weekend’s FanExpo in Toronto? Opening today, this four day pop-cult extravaganza is a comic book, sci fi, horror, anime and gaming expo all rolled into one enormous, awkward mass of humanity. The event has grown into the third largest of its kind in North America and boasts of hosting Canada’s largest masquerade.

Past guests have included: Stan Lee, John Romita Jr. and Sr., Alex Ross, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Carrie Fisher, Malcolm McDowell, Edward James Olmos, Alice Cooper, Clive Barker, George Romero, Wes Craven, Bruce Campbell, Margot Kidder, Elvira and many more. And, guess what? People… Line… Up… That’s right, when they’re not jostling one another around the 700 retail booths, thousands of people will stand patiently (mostly) in line to meet their idols, speak with them for a moment or two, maybe have a photo taken and get their gear autographed.

To be honest, I haven’t really had much experience with comic cons, having only gone to some of the smaller shows. FanExpo will be the biggest show I’ve gone to. So what should I look forward to doing? Here’s five things:

Shopping? Of course!

The vendor booths are one of the largest components of any con. There’s always deals to be had and you never know what gems from yesteryear you might find if you take the time to dig through a few longboxes. All New Comics, the online comic mailing service I use will be there so in addition to being able to chat face to face with Peter and Brian, I’ll also be able to pick up my most recent orders along with a special gift. Thanks guys!

Attend a panel

Historically, this is one of the most important parts of the con experience, the opportunity to see your favourite writers, pencillers, inkers and industry execs discussing what’s hot, new and important in the industry. DC Comics will be there to roll out more teasers about their New 52 relaunch. Marvel Comics will be there to make certain DC doesn’t score too many points as the topic de jour amongst comic fandom.

Check out all the Exhibitors (similar to vendors, only not)

The major companies will be there, so will all the indy companies. They’ll all be introducing their new books, characters, storylines and merchandise. This is a great opportunity to find out what’s coming up in the world of comics through sneak previews, giveaways and deals, deals, deals.

Stroll down Artist’s Alley

I may not line up for much, due to that crowd/standing in line thing, but still, it’s worth a look and a lot of big names in the industry will be there including: Joe Kubert, Andy Kubert, Adam Kubert, Jeff Smith, Chris Claremont, Tony Moore, Matt Fraction, Steve McNiven, Brian Azzarello, Jill Thompson, Ethan Van Sciver, Francis Manapul, Dale Eaglesham, Fred Van Lente, to name only a few.

Try to stare without staring

One of the most enduring clichés surrounding comic cons is that of the over-the-top fan. You know what I’m talking about. The nutters who take their hobby to the next level of extremes and attend events dressed as their favourite characters. The anime and manga crowd are really big on this, to the point of having coined a word to describe this activity: cosplay. This sort of activity is not only encouraged, but also rewarded at such events as the Saturday evening masquerade. If masquerade isn’t enough there’s also the Teletoon Retro Costume Contest.

There’s lots of other things I could do. Take in a sketching duel, go to a portfolio review or have my picture taken with all my favourite costumed characters. But hey! There’s only so many hours in a day and if I have the time I wouldn’t mind catching some of the activity at the sci fi, horror and anime expo portions of the show.

In spite of the crowds, it should be a good day.

Critics. What would Conan the Barbarian do?

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan

Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first acting role as Conan the Barbarian

What is best in life? To crush your enemies. To see them driven before you. And to hear the lamentations of their women…

Okay, so maybe those wouldn’t be your first thoughts in response to such a question, but those lines helped propel a much younger Arnold Schwarzenegger to fame in 1982′s Conan the Barbarian. Despite the governator’s halting delivery of his lines, limited acting skills, the film’s cheesy humour and Harryhausen-style special effects Conan succeeded well enough to rate a sequel, Conan the Destroyer.

Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian

Barry Windsor-Smith's cover for Marvel Comic's first Conan the Barbarian

Nearly thirty years later Robert E. Howard’s most famous pulp fiction creation returns to the big screen this Friday. I don’t know whether to be excited or anxious for this movie. There have been several trailers released and each of them demonstrates to me a movie which has done an admirable job of capturing the sights, sounds and feel of Howard’s Hyborian age. John Milius did an adequate enough job of it with his version, and certainly in comic books several artists (Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Alfredo Alcala, Richard Corben, Cary Nord) have drawn remarkable versions of the famous barbarian’s adventures for popular runs published by both Marvel and Dark Horse Comics. Of course, the most famous Conan artist was Frank Frazetta whose painted covers for the Lancer paperback collections set the standard for fantasy art.

Everyone’s a critic!

While it’s encouraging to see that one reviewer compares the new film’s look to Frazetta’s Conan art, unfortunately it seems there are more reviews (several, in fact) panning the film.

“Fight, talk, fight, talk, fight, talk, then an enormous throwdown followed by a denouement that dangles the possibility of a sequel (dear God, no) — that’s the basic structure here.”
- Christy Lemire AP Movie Critic

Really? What problem could there be with this basic structure? Too much talking? Dammit, this is Conan the Barbarian! Not Conan the Interior Decorator or Conan the Florist. If you wanted less fighting, less bloody violence and less nudity then maybe you’re at the wrong film. Yes, I know, critics don’t have any choice in what they review, but give it some context. Read the stories or the comics at least and write with an understanding of the genre.

“…you can spend all you want on 3D, locations and topless extras, but Conan isn’t Conan without the lyrical words that capture the barbarian and his barbaric age.”
- Movies with Roger Moore

Okay, so maybe some of the critics are going to the source material and attempting to demonstrate a working knowledge of what makes Conan so popular.

“First Impression: Conan the Barbarian – If original had epic pretensions, this is the shameless grindhouse version.”
- @LarsenOnFilm

So what’s wrong with grindhouse? It’s a legitimate style of film-making, just like film noir, cinema vérité or dogme. Still, it’s just an opinion, right?

Of course there is other baggage attached to this film apart from the critics’ opinions. Director Marcus Nispel is also responsibile for directing remakes of The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre and Friday the 13th. That’s good from the point of view of being able to pour on tension and violence, but did those films really need to be remade? Does Conan?

Re-done or Re-worked?

Jason Momoa as Conan

Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa as Conan the Barbarian

Well, technically this film isn’t a remake, it’s a reboot, much in the same way as was done with Christopher Nolan’s Batman. The elements of Conan’s origin and his motivation in seeking vengance are similar, but otherwise, Jason Momoa’s Conan gets there via a different path from Schwarzengger’s Conan. Also, if you ask any of the countless fans who still follow the character nearly 70 years after he was first created their response is one of anticipation to see their hero in action again. I know I do.

As I said, I’ve been looking forward to this newest version of Conan based on the trailers I’ve seen. Then I began reading the reviews. However, when I first saw Conan the Barbarian at a Drive-In theatre in ’82, I seem to recall that it wasn’t getting a lot of love from critics back then. It was no work of cinematic mastery. Despite that, I enjoyed the movie and have both it and its sequel in my DVD collection.

Who knows? Maybe this time the critics could be right and I might not like this Conan the Barbarian. There’s only one way to find out. I know what Conan himself would do. What is best in life? To crush your critics. To see them driven before you. To hear the lamentations of…

…well, you get the picture.

How many of you have ever been swayed by the thumbs up or down of a film critic? What films have you gone to or stayed away from based on a review? Were you glad about your choice?

Will the DC reboot kickstart their comic line?

Justice League New 52

The New 52 Justice League. There are some slight variations to costumes, but nothing so outrageous as to drastically excite or infuriate fans.

It was the announcement that launched a thousand blog posts, podcasts, forum threads, Facebook musings, tweets, drive-by Google plus-ings and comic shop conversations. DC comics were going to renumber their mainstream comic lines starting everything back at issue #1. A re-boot, re-launch, comics event, call it what you will, but at the end of the day DC would have a “New 52″ comic line-up.

A simple renumbering of existing books is not the only change in the works. Many of the affected characters will receive costume changes, although these appear to be mostly minor, based on images released thus far. Storylines will also be tweaked and re-set, and this is where fans sat up and began to howl.

What’s All The Noise About?

Comic book companies have a habit of re-writing their canon whenever it suits them. Like the old Soviet practice of “disappearing” someone by cutting them out of photographs, comic companies will on occasion reboot their storylines at the expense of prior history. Some characters get killed off, others get brought back from the dead. Sometimes fans like this, sometimes not. For DC comics the opportunity to enrage and engage fans is fast approaching as the August 31st launch date for the “epic” renumbering of their comic book line gets closer.

Why do comic companies risk such wrath from their base of longtime fans? What could possibly motivate a publisher to tinker with beloved characters by making such wholesale changes? DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio explained it this way to US Today:

This was a chance to start, not at the beginning, but at a point where our characters are younger and the stories are being told for today’s audience.

“Today’s audience”? I don’t know who Dan DiDio thinks his comics have been aimed at these past few years, but if you pick up a comic you’ll see they’re not the “biff”, “bam”, “pow” Lichtenstein-style, ben-day dot-covered joyful free-for-all from a bygone age. By “today’s audience” I guess we’re to understand they mean a younger demographic. There was a time when comics were thought of as a medium aimed for kids, but this hasn’t been the case in the last twenty or so years even though the myth of that perception persists. Today’s audience is largely male, and skews to an older demographic of guys in their 20′s, and even 30′s and 40′s. That’s right, guys like me. (No surprise that I’m writing a blog) Kids? Not so much.

If the intention was to go after kids and get them hooked into reading comics at a younger age, then you would think the solution would be to create more comics aimed at their reading level with content that is a little lighter in tone and subject matter. But as Phil Hampton discusses in his recent blog post “How Marvel, DC and You Can Save the Comic Industry” this isn’t the case. None of the New 52 books by DC are going to be all-ages books. In fact, DC are only publishing 6 comic books which will be all-ages (these are non-New 52 titles). So, while perhaps the reboot will attract the interest of non-comic book fans, there’s little to indicate that they will be from among the under 12 set.

But who can blame DC for trying? They have do something and so far, there’s a lot competing for the attention of “today’s audience”: video games in the form of Xbox, Playstation and Wii, online games, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. There are too many things to distract kids from the simple pleasures of reading a comic. With that in mind, DC’s reboot announcement also detailed plans to offer same-day digital versions of the comics.

Jump On, Jump Off?

DC are selling the entire package as a jumping-on point for new fans to follow the DC line of Super-Heroes. Cynics are seeing it as a desperate attempt to prop up the number two publisher in a struggling industry.

Struggling? Yes. Despite the massive success in recent years of comic-based movie adaptations, the glory days in which comic books could sell in the millions on a monthly basis are long over. Not since the forties, in fact. Will these new moves benefit DC and comics in general? Maybe.

I’ll admit to being skeptical when I first heard DC’s announcement, and I even wondered if their jumping-on point might not also be a good jumping-off point. I’ve felt burned too often by “event” comics such as Bloodlines, Zero Hour, Batman RIP, the list goes on and on and on, but that’s all for another post. I wondered, like many, if the New 52 with all of its precious #1 issues wasn’t simply another way of reaching into my wallet.

Okay, So Here’s My Wallet

Last week I finally started looking at DC’s New 52 and began making some choices through All New Comics, my online comic ordering service. The creative teams on some of the books have piqued my interest and despite my skepticism I’ll give a few a try.

I’ll keep up my Batman and Detective comics even though I’ll miss the current storyline which has Dick Grayson in the role of Batman mentoring Bruce Wayne’s bastard love-child Damian as Robin. I’ll continue on with Batgirl, although I was enjoying Stephanie Brown in that role and will find it odd to see  Barbara Gordon freed from the wheelchair she has been confined to since being shot by the Joker in 1988′s Killing Joke. And I’ve been waiting ever so patiently for Batwoman because the first mini-series by J.H. Williams was beyond awesome and I want to see more.

I’m looking forward to the DCU Presents‘ anthology series which will start out with the recently revived Deadman. And despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of Moritat’s art from his run on The Spirit, I’ll give him a chance on All Star Western (another anthology series) because I like what Gray and Palmiotti have done so far with Jonah Hex over 50 or so issues and I see that Jordi Bernet will return as artist in the second issue.

I’ll keep up with The Flash, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps and Legion of Super-Heroes. And I’ll check out Justice League, Justice League Dark, Swamp Thing and Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E (because, as bizarre as the title sounds, Jeff Lemire is writing it).

I’m sure there are other titles that I might give a try for an issue or two. All of the books are on probation as far I’m concerned. In the end, I guess that’s all that DC wants, is to get the chance at more of my dollars. For all the insane chatter their reboot has generated, there’s got to be some potential upside for them. The question is, will they continue to earn fans’ dollars after the #1′s? And more importantly, will the consequences from these changes remain in place, or will DC begin switching things back if the tinkering proves to be an unpopular failure?

It remains to be seen. All the New 52 books roll out starting on August 31 and for the next five Wednesdays.

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Comics. You never forget your first time!

When I was younger, long before I could read, I discovered a magical kind of picture book. It was thin, flimsy, brightly-coloured and printed on coarse newsprint. It was not at all like the glossy nursery rhyme books I had or the school primers my older brother brought home from his grade one classes.


It was battered, worn and missing it's cover but had Spidey, and 3 of his villains: Sandman, Doc Ock and the Vulture. (4 villains if you count an out-of-costume Mysterio)

I was visiting a neighbour’s house and was given a tattered, old picture book to keep me occupied. Flipping through it, I encountered a world of men in funny costumes. One man wore a green outfit and had wings. Another man wore dark glasses and had steel arms snaking out from his body. A third man wore a striped shirt and could turn his hands into blocks as he dissolved into the floor. The main character, dressed in a blue and red costume, could walk on walls and ceilings.

Although I didn’t know it then, I was being introduced to the world of comic books courtesy of Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics. I’ve since learned that the comic I first cut my teeth on was Amazing Spider-Man #24.

Looking at this comic now, I’m surprised at how much text there is in it. You might think Stan Lee was a “talky” kind of writer, filling the book with lots of dialogue, but any study of comics from that era reveals the same tendency towards wordiness.


Too "talky"? So much dialogue you'd think Stan Lee was being paid by the word.

Despite my rudimentary reading level I was able to move past all the verbiage and into the story. Ditko’s artwork gave enough in action and gesture to tell his tale and get me hooked. Titled “Spider-Man Goes Mad!” the story follows Spider-Man through a series of troubling hallucinations that are pushing him towards a break-down. Along the way, Spider-Man must also deal with the usual teenage angst which he faces as Peter Parker. The image I connected with most strongly was that of Spider-Man entering a room which had been flipped upside down. My pre-school self could “read” Spider-Man’s reaction and see that he was freaked out by what was going on and so was I, but in a good way. Spider-Man’s world was utterly fantastic and I wanted more.

As a kid, I had to contend with my mom’s back and forth acceptance over comics in the house. Sometimes she saw no harm in comics and other times she regarded them as junk that would rot our minds. As a result, my collecting wasn’t as concentrated or organized as it might have been. Over the years I’ve picked up the odd comic or two, drifting in and out of my hobby, but never straying too far from it. In recent years I’ve developed a more academic interest in comics, almost preferring to read about them as much as I enjoy actually reading them.

In future posts I’ll share my other reminiscences and experiences with comics touching on such things as: independent comics; underground comix; black and white horror magazines with EC-like stories; comic adaptations of licensed properties such as tv shows and movies; cross-overs and major event comics; plus cartoons and the like. Of course, I’ll also be talking about what’s coming up in comics, since I’m still buying the odd comic or two, even now.

In the mean time, feel free to share below about your own “first time” with comics. Go ahead, it won’t hurt!

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