Thursday, September 27, 2012

Missed Chances: "The House With a Clock in its Walls"

When I was a kid I often rode my bike a few miles to the little library in the town where I lived.  There I perused the stacks for hours before coming home with a nice selection of books.  I can still remember often seeing John Bellairs' The House With a Clock in its Walls on the shelf and I recall reading the summation of the story on the back of the book but for some reason I never took it home... until now.

It's never too late to have a happy childhood so I decided to take a look at the story and see how it read to an adult... and the results were quite surprising...

The basic plot is that young Lewis Barnavelt's parents are killed and so he is sent to live with his uncle, Jonathan, in the town of New Zebedee.  Lewis also meets Jonathan's best friend and next-door-neighbor Mrs. Florence Zimmerman.  The boy quickly finds himself adjusting not just to a new home but also to the discovery that his uncle Jonathan is a minor wizard and Mrs. Zimmerman a much more powerful witch!

To complicate matters Jonathan's house once belonged to an evil wizard and witch and the faint ticking of a clock can be heard throughout the house but the clock it belongs to cannot be found!  Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman believe this clock is a final curse left behind by it's former owners -- a curse that could spell the end of everything!  Lewis must learn a few hard life lessons along the way to solving the mystery and saving the day before the clock strikes doomsday!

One of the first things that strikes you in reading this book is how straightforward everything is.  Bellairs presents his characters with a kind of frankness and honesty that makes them feel real.  They have certain quirks and eccentricities but nothing that makes them seem any more off-beat than that aunt or uncle every family seems to have who is the 'odd' member of the family (and usually the one who is the life of the family get-togethers).   Lewis's Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are also, unlike most adults in children's literature, not useless, or completely stupid.  Certainly they try to disguise some of the truth from Lewis but only in an attempt to keep him from being frightened.  They act out of caring and love not idiocy or selfishness.  And Lewis himself is believably shy, insecure, and desperate for friendship in his new situation.

Even magic in the story is presented rather matter-of-factly which transforms it from the realm of the mystical into something that seems everyday -- of no more matter than flicking on a television set or booting up a computer.  It is surprisingly refreshing in this post-Harry Potter realm of youth literature.

On the whole, if you've never introduced this book to the kids in your life (be they yours or someone else's) then do so.  Have no fears about the book reading as something out of time or out of touch with modern life.  There is an honesty here as well as a really solid adventure that moves at a measured pace and builds to a climax.  With all of the youth literature now being committed to film it does make me wonder why no one has placed this story in front of a camera yet.  The House With a Clock in its Walls is tailor-made for the big screen.  As it is, set it loose on the big screen of imagination and watch the whole thing play out.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Showcase Presents: The Brave and The Bold, vol. 1

Okay... this one is going to require a little bit more of a history lesson than my last review.  And you know how much I love history...  No.  Really.  I love this stuff.  If you don't, skip down below the cover image where I will get into the volume proper.  Otherwise settle in.

Remember a couple of posts back when I said I'd get into the reason why DC called their black and white reprint line Showcase Presents?  Well, here's where I make good on that promise.

In 1956 DC Comics launched a title called Showcase which was a 'try out' book.  The title would feature new characters or old characters with a new spin put on them.  DC would then gauge reader reaction to these characters and if they did well enough they were then launched into their own solo titles.  It should be made clear that this wasn't a one-shot deal -- a character often appeared several times in Showcase before DC made a decision on whether they would go on to solo stardom or disappear into the archives.

Showcase was essentially *the* comic that launched the Silver Age.  Most comic book historians (yes, such people exist) date the start of the Silver Age to the first appearance of the revamped Flash in 1956.  And where did the Flash premiere in 1956?  On the pages of Showcase.  So DC choosing to call their black and white Silver Age reprint series Showcase Presents has a significance to both the history of DC and the history of comic books in general.  It's a nice touch that, to be honest, I like a little better than Marvel's comparatively bland Essential title (which is also a little disingenuous now that I think about it.  I mean, "Essential" implies that it's the kind of 'best-of-the-best' or the stuff that's vital to understanding a character and, really, every character out there has some long stretches of stuff that was kind of the comic book equivalent of jogging in place.  And I would hardly call that "Essential"... but I'm getting off track)...  What, I'm an historian I like it when people tip their hats to history!

Now, if you're expecting this series to be like the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon you'll be sadly disappointed... or happy depending on how you felt about that particular cartoon.

That animated series was inspired by this comic book series but the two are really polar opposites... as you will soon see...

The Brave and the Bold as a title originally began in 1955.  At the time of it's launch, however, it was used to tell stories about non-superhero characters.  Over the next decade or so The Brave and the Bold went from stories about knights and Robin Hood to another try-out book for new characters to finally being a 'team-up' book.

For the first few issues of it's team-up days writers basically mashed together any two heroes in the DC stable at that time.  For example, Green Arrow could team up with the Atom or Aquaman could team up with the Flash if the writer had a good story to tell.  That, however, quickly changed as the popularity of Batman, thanks to the 1960's TV series, swept the country.  The Brave and the Bold suddenly and pretty much irrevocably changed to being a "Batman and...." team-up book as each issue Batman teamed up with another DC hero.  So what DC is here calling Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 is actually only those issues of the series where they started featuring Batman.

So how is it?...... a little weird, and a slice of history.

The writer responsible for most of the content in those days was Bob Haney.  Haney was one of those 'work horse writers' who populated the Silver Age.  Guys like Gardner Fox and Haney churned out story after story.  They were often simplistic, thin on characterization, and started and finished in a single issue, but guys from this era really cranked the stuff out.

Haney created a number of characters but the ones he would probably be most familiar for today were Sgt. Rock and the Teen Titans.  Of course, he didn't create the individual characters who made up the early Titans -- Robin, Speedy (Green Arrow's side-kick), Aqualad (Aquaman's sidekick), Kid Flash (guess who's sidekick), and Wonder Girl (again, guess who's sidekick) -- but it was his idea to put them together in a team-up story and the idea took off to the point where they soon had their own title which Haney was scripting.

But we're here to talk about the stories in this volume.

If nothing else you have to give Haney his due in the difficulty in scripting these stories.  Think about it, you have Batman -- a basically normal guy with no real superpowers and only a beltful of gadgets -- and he's often teaming up with heroes who far outpower him.  For example, Wonder Woman -- who has super strength, super speed, and the ability of flight.  In trying to put these two together in a story you have to come up with a villain and a situation which is powerful enough to cause difficulties for Wonder Woman but yet vulnerable enough that it would be believable for Batman to be helping out instead of just getting swatted out of the way like an ant.  It can be a delicate balancing act and it's one that Haney mostly manages well.


I mentioned that the stories here are "a little weird" and I mean it.  I'm a fan of Silver Age stuff.  The wacky pseudo-science gives me a chuckle and the clunky dialogue and bad attempts at topical stories and teen angst and street slang are hilarious but that stuff here, in these stories, just never quite clicks.  There is a bit too much silly science and bad slang that it just pulls you too far out of the story.  In addition, there are some examples of the casual misogyny of the times that makes me cringe.  One story in particular in which Batman tries to lure the villain Copperhead into stealing a priceless artifact by making Copperhead think he's too distracted by Wonder Woman and Batgirl fighting for his affections to guard the city.  The twist being that while Wonder Woman and Batgirl were at first pretending in order to help Batman flush out Copperhead at the worst possible moment they really fall for him!... And then just as suddenly fall back out of love with him at the end... for no good reason... except that they're women and that's just what women do don't you know.  Ugh!

Anyway, as I was saying, not only are the stories a little too silly but they also tend to have plot holes you could drive a tractor-trailer through... sideways.  Take, for example, a story featuring Batman teaming up with WW II soldier Sgt. Rock.  The story mostly takes place during WW II where Bruce Wayne is acting as a secret agent on a mission to find and destroy a mysterious Nazi secret weapon.  The problem is that Bruce is recounting the story in the then present day of the 1960's -- where even if he had been in his early 20's during WWII it would now put him over 40 -- and he is drawn in the comic as not looking a day over 35.  Not only that but Bruce has never been allowed to age over about 37 except in the case of the version of him on the parallel world of Earth-2 but this story never says it's and Earth-2 story so....  I'm confused!....

And you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.  Suffice it to say the timelines just don't work here.

So, you might be asking after I've rambled on this long, is there anything GOOD about these stories?  Well, yes... and here's where the 'slice of history' thing comes in.

After the Silver Age came what most comics historians call the Bronze Age.  There are some arguments over where it officially starts and ends but it's roughly the 1970's through the mid-1980's.  As the 1970's saw a lot of social changes and a lot of pop culture changes as well comic books followed suit.

For example, the 1970's saw a rise in a new breed of horror movies.  There was a fascination with the occult in pop culture and we see those influences start to creep in amongst these stories.  And here Haney managed the change rather well.  We see him begin the volume with bright, very Silver Age stories with silly, gimmick-y villains and we see him finish with more weighty stories about evil and family and villains who blend in with everyday life -- as well as some who wear the mask of upstanding citizens. 

We also see reflected the changes wrought in characters -- Early on we see the more Golden Age version of Green Arrow but towards the end of the volume we meet a new, more modern GA with a new look, a new costume, and a new attitude which includes questions and doubts about his superhero career.  Likewise, we have that rather stereotypical story with Wonder Woman acting a bit like a 'silly female' but later we run into the 'new Wonder Woman'...  I guess I have to explain again...  At one point The Powers That Be felt that Wonder Woman should be depowered in order to relate more to 'ordinary women'.  It was a move that, reportedly, editorial thought would go over well with the women's movement in the country at that time.  It didn't.  Still, it lasted for quite a few years.  During this period Wonder Woman renounced her Amazon heritage and with it all her powers -- no more super-strength, speed, flight, nor even bullet-deflecting bracelets.  Instead Wonder Woman learned martial arts from a blind mentor named.... (I can't believe I'm writing this)... I Ching.  I wish I was kidding.  Wonder Woman was even given a new, white, 'action costume' that had more than a nod to Emma Peel of the British Avengers fame.  Anyway, we see that change in the character reflected in the stories in this volume.

In shortwith The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 you can actually see the Silver Age turning into the Bronze Age of comics and I, for one, find the changes and they way they happen here, to be fascinating.

The other thing to mention is some of the artwork.  There are some big names here like Ramona Fradon and Gil Kane and Mike Sekowsky but the biggest deal is the swath of stories toward the end of the volume featuring the art of Neal Adams.  Moody, heavily shaded, dynamic, at times creepy and at times psychedelic, Adams' work heralded a new art style which would soon sweep the comic book world and kind of reflect the Bronze Age as well.  This is some of Adams' first work for DC but he would go on to become regular artist for Batman for quite some time and is still considered one of the premiere Batman artists.  His style has become classic and almost remarkably you can see here that, despite only just getting started at DC, his style is already almost fully formed.  Even with the color stripped out his stuff is gorgeous to look at.  Heck, with the color stripped out it looks in some ways even better as it emphasizes the noir touches to his work.

So, enough is enough and it's time for a roundup...  The first time I read this volume I loved it.  I loved all the strangeness and the wildness of seeing Batman team up with characters who were not necessarily a natural fit for him -- like Plastic Man or the Metal Men.  On a recent re-reading though the flaws hit me and I found myself all-too-willing to put the volume down and not come back to it for a few days.  It didn't drag me in and compel me to read the stories.  The silliness and the plot holes were just too front-and-center and they disturbed my reading enjoyment too much.

The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 is probably worth a purchase if you're an amateur comic book historian like me.  It is still worth a look though so if you can pick it up at a discount or better yet at your local library go ahead and then skim through it hitting the better stories and the Neal Adams art.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Essential Captain America, Vol. 1

And after a brief delay, here we go...

First up is Essential Captain America, vol. 1.

A little background before we begin...

Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, published by Marvel's predecessor Timely Comics.

With the dawn of WW II Cap was not alone in the patriotic style heroes who graced the pages of various comics from various publishers and, like most of those heroes, he didn't survive much past the end of the war -- disappearing by the early 1950's.  There was a brief revival of the character in 1953, refashioned into a patriotic Commie Basher to try to appeal to the 'Red Scare' days but this not only didn't work it provided a hiccup in the character's history which Marvel eventually had to deal with... but that is for another day.

In 1964 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby dusted the character off and gave him a prominent place with Marvel's still-rather-young superteam The Avengers.  With Cap seemingly catching on with readers it was time to give him his own title... sort of... which is also where we come in with this volume.

Cap actually began appearing in a title called Tales of Suspense which was a kind of two-in-one comic at that time.  Half of the comic was devoted to stories featuring Iron Man and the other half to Captain America stories.  The two heroes traded off monthly on getting the cover image and lead position in the comic.  Eventually, both Cap and Iron Man proved popular enough to be launched into their own series'.  The stories in this volume cover the years 1964-1968 and cover the transition from Tales of  Suspense to Cap's solo title with all of them being written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby.

So how is it actually?

Not bad.  There are a lot of Silver Age conventions here -- villains who give big monologuing speeches and insist on keeping the hero alive and around in order to 'gloat over their victory', clunky dialogue, and really, really, seriously bad pseudo-science (really).  At the same time, the stories are action-packed and move along at breakneck speed without any padding or long, drawn out, story arcs. 

On the flip side, that breakneck speed doesn't really allow for too much character development -- particularly for the villains.  The villains are villainous and we may get an origin story for them but they don't really become fully rounded characters here.

The other thing that sets these stories apart is a clear view of what was called "the Marvel style" at that time.  Marvel is credited with giving it's heroes faults, failings, and foibles and also with giving them soap opera style stories in the Silver Age.  With Cap this is manifest by him brooding about being a "man out of time", and feeling responsible for the death of his partner, Bucky, and also losing the love of his life in WW II and then in the modern era being drawn to a woman who resembled his lost love only for them to be kept apart due to him being a superhero and her being a S.H.E.I.L.D. Agent.

The problem is that, to a modern reader, these elements are a bit overdone.  Cap remarks on his "age" and how he should be an "old man" like other WW II vets are but at the time this comic was written WW II was only about 20 years in the rear view mirror!  The "old men" who were his fellow vets were likely only in their early 40's through their early 50's!  About half the cast of the recent Avengers movie were over 40 and I doubt any of those actors would have thought of themselves as "old men"!  Modern, changed attitudes about age have made a lot of Cap's meditations on the subject seem whiny.

And speaking of whiny... Cap's brooding about his past probably seemed novel and invoked sympathy in readers of the time but here the dialogue comes across as kind of emo.  This is exacerbated by the fact that, in the 1960's, comic books were almost exclusively sold at newspaper stands and on drugstore spinner racks.  As such, comic book fandom was seen as a bit more casual thing and writers felt like they couldn't take it for granted that a reader picking up a comic book may be that familiar with Cap's backstory.  As such, the issue of Cap's lost partner, Bucky, had to be brought up again, and again, and again.  This makes Cap seem as though he's wallowing in the tragedy... particularly if one reads a big block of these stories in one sitting. 

I will say this, though -- when Lee and Kirby began writing Captain America stories in the Silver Age they set those stories during WW II -- allowing them to write all-new tales of Cap and Bucky as a team for readers who were probably not old enough to have read the original stories in the 1940's.  This had the benefit of allowing readers to get to know the character of Bucky and thereby possibly feel the tragedy of his death a bit more.

Interestingly, in reading through this Essential volume you see Lee and Kirby dropping the WW II era stories suddenly in favor of writing stories of Cap's adventures set in the 'modern era'.  In fact, they drop this right in the middle of a story arc and simply hand wave away the end of the arc.  Apparently the WW II era stories were not striking a chord with readers and Marvel was receiving requests that they write stories about Cap in the then current time.  To a modern reader this change is kind of jarring and not extremely well done.

And any discussion of this thick tome would not be complete without a discussion of the artwork.  Jack Kirby was not nicknamed "the King" for nothing.  His artistic style would become justifiably famous and would go on to influence any number of other artists.  With the color stripped out of the Essential line it allows us to see and appreciate Kirby's line work.  Unfortunately, this volume features Kirby's work before he had quite reached the apex of his style.  You can see an evolution throughout the four years of comics backed into this volume but by the end he's still not quite where he would be.  Also, the more prosaic, superhero-style stories do not give him much chance to cut loose with some of his more imaginative designs.

As you can see in the panel above, taken from towards the end of the volume, Kirby is starting to branch out and the dynamism of his figural work is growing as well, but he's not quite there yet.  Wait till we get to the Thor stories... Kirby's work is gonna blow your socks off...

So, after this long, rambling post what's the final verdict?

If you want to see the roots of Captain America this is a pretty good place to start.  Since Marvel has never really had a company-wide reboot as DC Comics has most of these stories are all still in continuity with only a few little changes over the years. 

The WW II era stories are interesting but I have to admit that the modern era stories have a bit more weight as they start moving Cap forward in character development.  The tales, however, tend to be kind of bog-standard superhero fare with nothing terribly groundbreaking... yet.  The 'soap-opera' elements are also a bit clunky and corny by modern standards.  One can also use the volume to trace the evolution of Jack Kirby's influential art style.

On the whole, if you can tolerate some old-fashioned comic book writing styles and some ludicrous pseudo-science there are some good things to be gained from Essential Captain America, vol. 1.  Although I would, perhaps, recommend that you read it in bite-sized chunks rather than in marathon reading sessions.  I think some of the problems of plotting and writing do not become as annoying that way.  And hey, if nothing else, it's over 300 pages of comics for $20.  That's a pretty good bargain for several weeks' worth or more of reading entertainment.