Monday, 30 April 2007

Review: Justice League of America and Justice Society of America

Justice League of America issue 8: “The Lightning Saga”, Chapter 1 by Brad Meltzer (writer), Shane Davis (penciller), Matt Banning (inker), Rob Leigh (letterer), Alex Sinclair (colourist) and Eddie Berganza (editor), cover by Michael Turner and Peter Steigerwald, DC Comics, June 2007, 23 pages of strip, US$2.99

Justice Society of America issue 5: “The Lightning Saga”, Chapter 2 by Geoff Johns (writer), Fernando Pasarin (artist), Jeromy Cox (colourist), Rob Leigh (letterer) and Eddie Berganza (editor), cover by Alex Ross, DC Comics, June 2007, 22 pages of strip, US$2.99

Here are two types of fan-fiction.

For Brad Meltzer, super-heroes are his imaginary friends. He wants to hang out at their clubhouse, playing games. They can call him “Brad”, and he can call them “Bruce” and “Clark” and “Hal”. Grudgingly, he fits in a few shards of plot. But his heart’s not in it.

Penciller Shane Davis seems to have learned to draw entirely from other comics and from copying photos in lad mags. Either he or inker Matt Banning has a bad infestation of early 1990s Image comics random hatching. Davis has an odd predilection for showing chests talking to each other.

The art often fails to tell the story clearly. For example, it took me a couple of reads to work out what was going on here.

I think that Black Lightning has zapped Karate Kid from behind while Batman distracts him. So shouldn’t there have been a lightning zap in the second panel? This isn’t a development where subtlety and mystery are appropriate.

In places, Meltzer and Davis bring out the worst in each other. Here on the final page, we not only have Davis’s peculiar idea of how women in authority should look, we have Meltzer's belief that “splitting into teams” is a suitably dramatic close to his chapter of the story.

That story picks up again in Justice Society of America issue 5. Not that DC wants you to know that. There is no indication on the cover, or at the start of the story inside (the credits appear at the bottom of the last page).

Geoff Johns is a different sort of fan. You can picture him holding a comic in one hand while frantically making notes with the other about the “facts” the issue contains. He seems determined that the school notebooks he filled with screeds of information about the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1970s and 1980s should not go to waste. Now, it is in the nature of the DC Universe these days that writers have to make choices about which versions of past continuity to adhere to. But it is foolish to draw attention to this unavoidable weakness, and downright perverse to base your whole story on asserting your preferred version of continuity over all the others. Johns is interested in exerting control over an imagined world more than in telling stories that can stand up on their own. Fortunately, he includes rather more incident than Meltzer does, and his dialogue is not so jarringly out-of-character.

Fernando Pasarin’s art is attractive. His figure work is a little stiff, and musculatures too geometrical and over-defined, but his characters have realistic expressions and proportions. His layouts are clean and easily followed, and he copes well with a potentially-confusing fight scene involving multiple versions of Batman.

I bought these two comics mainly out of nostalgia. It was a JLA/JSA team-up that got me started reading super-hero stories. But these comics don’t even satisfy me as a nostalgic fan, so caught up are they in pleasing their writers above all else. I feel like a child who has arrived at a play group to find that the supervisors are hogging the toys for themselves. And this is my tantrum.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Review: Amazons Attack!

Amazons Attack! issue 1: “Chapter 1: The Last Full Measure of Devotion” by Will Pfeifer (writer), Pete Woods (artist), Brad Anderson (colourist), Travis Lanham (letterer) and Matt Idelson (editor), DC Comics, June 2007, 22 pages of strip, US$2.99

Yes, it’s a swizz. The cover says “first issue of six”. It’s only when you get inside that you find that it is a continuation of a story already begun in Wonder Woman and that the next issue is not Amazons Attack! 2 but Wonder Woman 9.

Having said that, the story is not as incomprehensible as some have made out. The Amazons seize Washington DC in reaction to the capture, torture and interrogation of Wonder Woman by the Americans. They are being goaded on by Circe the Enchantress, who has a confederate impersonating Sarge Steel, Director of the Department of Metahuman Affairs. It seems reasonable to infer that it was this false Sarge Steel who captured Wonder Woman, but this is not spelled out. Nor is it clear how it comes to be, given that her captivity was the trigger of the invasion, that Wonder Woman is walking around freely on the last page. Had this been a self-contained mini-series, I wouldn’t have been too worried by these omissions, but now I can't assume that they will be dealt with in issue 2, which is annoying.

Will Pfeifer keeps events bowling along at a fair old clip, and lays hints about the motivations of various characters adeptly enough. If this were the 1950s, we might expect the continued emphasis on how much the Amazons hate men to lead to a resolution in which they discover the joys of heterosexual love; but surely not in the 21st century?

Pete Woods is the star here, handling, as deftly as he manages character interaction, the spectacle of vast Amazon armies, huge Cyclopes (clearly influenced by the trolls in the Lord of the Rings films), the destruction of Washington landmarks and flights of both winged horses and USAF jets.

Overall, an entertaining enough issue, but part of an irritating publishing strategy.

Amazon Atrocities
The Amazons’ behaviour in this issue has been controversial – particularly the callous killing of a small boy and his father at the beginning. Ragtime, for one, thinks they are acting completely out of character. And they are certainly different from the society that William Moulton Marston dreamed up all those years ago. Compare and contrast:

On the other hand, this is the first appearance by the Amazons since Infinite Crisis rewired the DC Universe, so past continuity is presumably not binding.

Ragnell, on the other hand, thinks that Amazons are primarily warriors and would behave this way, and Steven Padnick agrees, reminding us that the Amazons “learned their combat strategy and tactics three thousand years before the Geneva Conventions”.

True enough, but even if they didn’t think they needed international treaties to enforce them, all societies have had rules about what conduct is acceptable in war. The DC Universe Amazons have generally been characterised as Greek in civilisation, and worship Greek gods. The Hellenistic writer Polybius, idealising his ancestors somewhat, wrote that they thought “that there was nothing glorious or even secure in military successes unless one side killed the enemy drawn up in open battle … For that reason, they made public announcements to each other about wars and battles in advance …”

When the Athenian army sacked the city of Melos in the Peloponesian war and slaughtered the civilian population, it caused uproar back in Athens. Thucydides believed that the generals were justified, because the city had refused to surrender before the Athenians began their siege, and it was necessary to punish that defiance. But the demand to surrender had to be made first.

It seems fair to say that, if an Ancient Greek heard that an army had appeared in a city and killed unarmed non-combatants, including children, with no declaration of war and no chance for the city to submit, he would have regarded that as an act both immoral and impious – that is, likely to incur the retribution of the gods. But if he was then told that it was an Amazon army that had committed this atrocity, he would have been less surprised – the Ancient Greeks were dreadful misogynists and had, after all, dreamed up the Amazons in part to (literally) embody non-Greek behaviour.

So my carefully considered conclusion about whether Amazon brutality is appropriate to this comic is: I dunno, guv. Let’s see if it makes sense in the context of the story

Random thought
When Black Lightning first appeared, he wore a false afro as part of his super-hero disguise, presumably also intending to look more “street.”

So is it too much to hope that this …

… is a bald wig?

From the comic under review plus
Wonder Woman “Villainy Incorporated” by William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G Peter (artist), Wonder Woman issue 28, March/April 1948, reprinted in Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, DC Comics, 2007

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Doctor Who Comic Maker

The BBC’s Doctor Who web-site now includes a “Comic Maker”, which apparently allows you to use a library of page layouts and Doctor Who images and a balloon editor to create your own comics.

I type “apparently” because I can’t get it to work with Safari for the Mac. But you might have better luck with more mainstream browser software.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Tune In! Turn On! Exterminate!

For this week’s Doctor Who-related post, I had planned to bodge together a brief history of the Daleks in comics. But the fine fellows at Altered Vistas have already done that – and a much more thorough job than I could have managed, too. They also have a history of Cybermen in comics.

The greatest of all these comic strips was, without a doubt, The Daleks from TV21. The strip was written by David Whitaker, who was the first script editor for the Doctor Who TV series – a much more important post then than now. As a freelance, he wrote two of the best Dalek TV serials ever for Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, and a whole wodge of ancillary fiction, including the novelisations Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Crusaders, the stage play Curse of the Daleks and The Dalek Book.

In the comic strip, Whitaker and his artistic collaborators, Richard Jennings, Eric Eden and Ron Turner, traced the history of the Daleks from their original war with the Thals, which mutated them from small blue smurf-like humanoids into nasty green blobs in armour, through to their discovery of the Earth. Along the way, they delineated a richer and more detailed Dalek society than anything we ever saw on screen – and they did it in just a page a week.

As a boy, I preferred Richard Jennings’ artwork, because his Daleks were more faithful to the appearance of those on TV, and such things mattered a lot to me then. Now I am swept away by Ron Turner’s dynamic layouts, lush colours and smooth chromed finish.

Turner was a veteran comic strip and cover artist. There is a splendid gallery of his book and magazine covers here.

By the mid-1960s, Whitaker and Turner were both middle-aged, and must have been as bemused as any by developments in popular culture. But they did the sensible thing and built it into their comic strip. Obviously, Daleks couldn’t grow their hair, smoke dope or listen to rock music. But flower power? Now, that was a possibility.

One day, the Dalek Emperor is giving orders for a new construction project when the unthinkable happens – a Dalek questions him.

Unsure of which Dalek questioned the order, the Emperor has their “rest-compartments” searched (and I just love the idea that Daleks have bedrooms, don’t you?).

But the rogue Dalek has been gathering followers as well as flowers.

He tries to stage a coup.

But his support literally wilts away.

So there you have it: a culturally relevant political thriller, all done in four pages. And it carries a point that is relevant to the 2007 TV series of Doctor Who. At the end of last week’s episode, we saw the Daleks apparently abandon their age-old mission of racial domination. But as Whitaker and Turner remind us, it doesn’t matter what Daleks are trying to achieve, if they remain devious, murderous conformists. If the means are bad enough, the ends are irrelevant.

The Daleks by David Whitaker (story) and Ron Turner (art), TV Century 21, 1966, reprinted in The Dalek Chronicles, Marvel Comics UK, 1994

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Moments of Pleasure

As you might expect (nay, demand) from an art-comics anthology, Mome issue 7, Spring 2007, is a mixed bag. But even if it sometimes seems that contributors are just sending in their failed art-school assignments (“today, class, I want you to transcribe your dreams in a faux-naïf style”), it is still the case that almost all of them are trying to make full use of comics as a medium; to do things that can’t be done as well, if at all, in other media. Here are three examples from strips I liked.

Eleanor Davis’s “Seven Sacks” builds mounting disquiet as a succession of even larger and more menacing creatures hire a ferryman to take them across a river. In this panel, Davis conveys both the looming presence of one of the creatures, its bulk threatening to unbalance the ferry, and the nervousness that is building in the ferryman.

There is no need, here in comics, to break away from the narrative to describe the creature and its effects, as would be necessary in prose. And, unlike in film or video, the picture can be focused on the elements the author wants to get across, with no distractions from movement or sound.

In this sequence from “Now Then”, Paul Hornschemeier makes use of the way that we see both the page and the individual elements of the page at the same time. In a play by Beckett or Pinter, long silences tend to be tense because the audience does not know when they will end and how. Here, though, the reader cannot help but be aware that the initial space will soon give way to ordered panels with clean colours, even if we have yet to learn the details of what those panels contain. The effect is a calm, clean sort of pause.

Hornschemeier also makes use of comics’ ability to present multiple strands of narration at once. Here he undercuts his somewhat pretentious caption boxes with humorous ballooned dialogue. Video and audio media can attempt this, as in the overlapping dialogue of Robert Altman films, but they risk disruption or confusion. In comics, the reader can hold several registers in mind without mixing them.

Lewis Trondheim uses a similar effect. The role that the comics form plays in his “At Loose Ends” is, to a large extent, that of sugaring the pill. Want to read a disquisition on ageing as illustrated by the unhappy lives of Franco-Belgian cartoonists? Probably not. But wait! It is told by a cute anthropomorhic parrot. And our interest is held by the introduction of a diversity of images, and even of styles of narration (at times, we get transcipts of e-mails, at others, the monologue becomes a conversation) in a way that would seem forced or distracting in another medium, but is entirely natural to comics.

“Seven Sacks” by Eleanor Davis

“Now Then” by Paul Hornschemeier

“At Loose Ends”, part 2, by Lewis Trondheim

All published in Mome issue 7, Spring 2007, Fantagraphics Books

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Review: Wonder Woman – The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, 187 pages of strip, DC Comics, 2007, US$19.99
Features: “The Origin of Wonder Woman” by Paul Dini (writer) and Alex Ross (artist)
“Wonder Woman Comes to America” by William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G Peter (artist)
“Villainy Incorporated” by William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G Peter (artist)
“Top Secret” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (inker)
“Wanted – Wonder Woman” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (inker)
“Giganta the Gorilla Girl” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (inker)
“Wonder Woman’s Rival” by Denny O’Neil (writer), Mike Sekowsky (penciller) and Dick Giordano (inker)
“Wish Upon a Star” by Elliot Maggin (writer), Curt Swan (penciller) and Phil Zupa (inker)
“Be Wonder Woman … and Die!” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Jose Delbo (penciller) and Dave Hunt (inker)
“Who Killed Myndi Mayer?” by George Pérez (writer and penciller) and Bob McLeod (inker)
“She’s a Wonder!” by Phil Jimenez (writer and penciller) and Andy Lanning (inker)
Cover by Alex Ross

DC’s post-Infinite Crisis relaunch of Wonder Woman has been faltering badly. In such circumstances, creators often try to reconnect with some earlier, definitive version of the character in question. Want to get the Fantastic Four right? Go and read some Stan and Jack. For Batman, the basic vision created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson can be filtered through lenses provided by O’Neil and Adams, Englehart and Rogers or Miller and Mazzuchelli, but it remains consistent. For Superman, the version of choice at present is the one overseen by Mort Weisinger, rather than Siegel and Shuster’s original, but the principle is much the same.

So what do past versions of Wonder Woman have to offer the present? The latest volume in DC’s presumptuously titled Greatest Stories Ever Told series might hold some clues.

Under the deeply boring cover by Alex Ross (a particular disappointment after two decades of fine and often iconic covers by the likes of Brian Bolland and Adam Hughes) lies a rather erratic selection of stories. We get almost 50 pages by the character’s creators, William Moulton Marston and Harry G Peter, but there is way too much Robert Kanigher. True, he was a very long-serving writer, but the inclusion of four of his stories means that there is no room for anything by, for example, Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, who provided the last remotely successful version of Wonder Woman before the 1980s reboot. The O’Neil/Sekowsky story features a conventionally super-powered version of the character, rather than the depowered Emmapeeled Diana Prince who followed shortly after. There are only two stories from the last twenty years, with nothing by Greg Rucka, who seems to be the best-regarded writer the series has had in recent times.

The eccentricity goes beyond the choice of creators to the choice of specific stories. For example, we get two versions of how Wonder Woman came to adopt her Diana Prince identity, but the rest of her origin is treated only in a few panels by Dini and Ross culled from a much longer story.

The earliest stories, by Marston and Peter, are, of course, quite batty, with a fairy tale logic and Marston’s strange belief in improving society through bondage and “loving submission” to authority. It is hard to see how they could be used as the basis of a mainstream DC superhero comic book nowadays. But they are more purely entertaining than anything else in this book, and, stripped of their BDSM elements, might form the basis of an all-ages read of similar tone to Jeff Smith’s Shazam!, or alternatively something akin to “magical princess” manga.

Kanigher and Andru’s stories are at the dull end of typical silver age superhero fodder. They are also marked by an increased sexism. Marston had written Wonder Woman in the days when Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell were playing witty independent women on screen and Rosie the Riveter was heading to the factories. Kanigher was working in the age of Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe and happy homemakers. Little wonder that he assumes that, if Diana were to marry Steve Trevor, she’d have to give up her super-hero career. After all, she’d be too busy cooking his meals and ironing his shirts.

Mind you, it is almost tempting to envisage Wonder Woman in a comics version of Bewitched, trying to keep Steve and the neighbours from learning that she has been using her powers surreptitiously to defeat those pesky super-villains. With Agnes Moorhead as Queen Hippolyta.

The O’Neil/Sekowsky story is worse. Steve Trevor is tried for murder. Here’s what happens in court.

From here on, Steve’s conviction for the crime is blamed on Wonder Woman: it’s her fault because she’s so emasculating and had the presumption to tell the truth under oath. This isn’t just the view of the prosecutor, it’s the view given throughout by Steve Trevor and even by Wonder Woman herself, so it was presumably Denny O’Neil’s opinion at the time too. Wonder Woman makes no criticism of Steve’s neanderthal behaviour, or even of the reason his alibi is so flimsy – at the time of the killing, with Wonder Woman off fighting criminals, he was busy chatting up the first available blonde, whose name he didn’t bother to get. Perhaps O’Neil thought that was Wonder Woman’s fault, too, for not being on 24-hour call for sex. Vile stuff, and definitely an approach to be avoided by modern creators.

The Maggin/Swan story is so forgettable that, even though I looked it up before starting this sentence, I can remember nothing about it now that I reach the end.

Wonder Woman was completely restarted after Crisis on Infinite Earths. The two post-reboot stories here are decent enough, and “Who Killed Myndi Mayer?” is quite a good little single-issue mystery story. But both Pérez and Jimenez make the mistake of trying to convince us that Wonder Woman is a paragon by having their narrators – Detective Indelicato and Lois Lane respectively – tell us so. The result is that their lead character is remote and uninvolving. Virtue need not be boring, but we need to understand and internalise the difficult decisions and choices that a virtuous character has to take. That is missing here. But, to be fair, with modern soap-operatic superhero comics it is hard to find stand-alone stories, so these two might not be representative.

All in all, this book suggests the rather bleak conclusion that there are no prior versions of Wonder Woman that could provide a solid grounding for a new one. Alternatively, before Gail Simone takes over Wonder Woman and Adam Hughes launches All-Star Wonder Woman, they might need to take inspiration from a completely different set of stories from those presented here.

Wonder Woman “Villainy Incorporated” by William Moulton Marston (writer) and Harry G Peter (artist), Wonder Woman issue 28, March/April 1948
Wonder Woman “Top Secret” by Robert Kanigher (writer), Ross Andru (penciller) and Mike Esposito (inker), Wonder Woman issue 99, July 1958
Wonder Woman “Wonder Woman’s Rival” by Denny O’Neil (writer), Mike Sekowsky (penciller) and Dick Giordano (inker), Wonder Woman issue 178, September/October 1968
Wonder Woman “She’s a Wonder!” by Phil Jimenez (writer and penciller) and Andy Lanning (inker), Wonder Woman (second series) issue 170, July 2001

All reprinted in the volume under review

Who Does Mary Love?

Sleestak wants to know.

Zirk likes what he likes, and it isn’t Mary. Still, I’m sure they’ll thrash it out.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Review: The Salon

The Salon by Nick Bertozzi, 179 pages of strip, St Martin’s Griffin, 2007, US$19.95

There was quite a fad, a few years ago, for detective stories starring historical figures. People as diverse as Edward VII and Leonardo da Vinci were made to don their metaphorical deerstalkers. Some brave souls even pressed the likes of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson into detective service, requiring the writers to tell first-person whodunnits in the ventriloquised voices of some of the finest and subtlest of English prose stylists. It was not a pretty sight.

Nick Bertozzi’s The Salon is a supernatural murder story involving the members of Gertrude Stein’s salon in 1907 Paris: her brother Leo, her lover Alice B Toklas, the poet and pornographer Guillaume Apollinaire, the composer Erik Satie and the painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Thankfully, the only attempt Bertozzi makes to mimic any of these artists is on the cover. Although the sinuous bulk of his figure work has traces of Gauguin, whose paintings feature heavily in the plot, it resembles Paul Pope rather more, so that is probably just coincidence.

The storytelling, though it deals with fantastic events, is linear and straightforwardly chronological, using a rigid four-panel grid on landscape-format pages. The artwork supports and supplements the story. For example, one of the motors of the plot is Leo Stein’s hatred for Alice B Toklas. To judge by her words and actions, this is under-motivated. But just look at the creepy face and body language Bertozzi gives her (she's the blonde woman, right of centre in this panel).

Would you want to share a house with those eyes?

The plot begins with the murders of several modernist painters, all apparently decapitated by a blue-skinned woman. This is linked to the use by the Steins’ circle of a special brand of absinthe that allows them to enter paintings – and, it later transpires, to allow the images in paintings to acquire real existence.

While these macabre events unfold, Braque and Picasso invent cubism. This is handled a little clumsily, in the manner of a Hollywood bio-pic, with “Eureka!” moments inspired by a picture of Braque in front of a mirror, or by a drawing crumpled up without thinking.

As in real life, according to most accounts, it is Braque who does all the thinking and most of the hard mental work, and Picasso whose grasp is instinctual and opportunistic.

Indeed, the whole story can be read as discussing the roots of creativity: native talent, the artificial inspiration of drugs, and rationality. At the climax of the story, the absinthe threatens to overwhelm everything, but is finally trumped by Picasso’s flamboyant, instinctive skill. That his efforts would have been impossible without the intellectual underpinnings provided by Braque is completely overlooked by most of the characters, but not by the reader. Indeed, it is impossible not to put down the book feeling a little sorry for Braque.

There are lots of incidental pleasures to reading The Salon. I liked the sequence in which Apollinaire assesses the pioneering photography of motion brought to him by Eadweard Muybridge for its value as pornography – in reality, it would be a significant source of inspiration to the cubists, because it showed a subject simultaneously at multiple points in time - rather like a comic strip does. And, indeed, Bertozzi shows us Picasso enthusing over the comics.

So perhaps the comic strip form of this book is not so far from the modernist painters’ intent after all, without requiring slavish imitation of technique.

Overall, this a cracking adventure story, with plenty to engage the brain too.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Sequential George

Before it became economical to distribute printed comic strips in the eighteenth, and more especially nineteenth, centuries, the best way to get a lot of people to read stories told in sequences of pictures was to put them on display in a public place.

Many of those public places were owned by the Church, and in Western Europe the Catholic Church had a rich tradition of using, to borrow Will Eisner’s preferred expression, “sequential art” to tell stories from the Bible and the lives of the Saints.

Today is the Saint’s day of England’s favourite Anatolian (or Libyan, or whatever), St George. There are lots of tellings of St George’s story in pictures, and some of them are collected in Samantha Riches’s book St George: Hero, Martyr and Myth.

Over the centuries, the St George legend accumulated a number of apparently incompatible elements, requiring him, in some versions, to be killed twice. In these first three panels (of six) from the La Selle Retable, an English alabaster altarpiece now to be found in Normandy, St George is brought back to life by the Virgin Mary after his first death, armed and sent off to fight the dragon.

In the subsequent three panels, George is put on trial by the Emperor Dacian for refusing to worship the old Roman gods, tortured, and executed. It was this martyrdom, rather than his wyrm-slaying heroism, that earned George his sainthood. Many sequential artists seem to have dwelled lovingly on the torture scenes, as in the fifteenth-century stained glass windows of St George’s Church, Stamford, Lincolnshire, recorded here in the sketches made by William Sedgwick around 1641.

The windows themselves no longer exist, for if the artists worked with the glee of an Al Feldstein or Graham Ingels, then the seventeenth century equivalents of Dr Wertham were a lot more thorough and successful than he ever was.

from Samantha Riches St George: Hero, Martyr and Myth, Sutton Publishing, 2000

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Groin Strain

Alex Ross’s cover for an upcoming issue of Justice Society of America has caused a bit of a kerfuffle because of the bulge in Citizen Steel’s pants. As Dick Hyacinth says, there have been “several arguments that Ross painted [Citizen] Steel with a bulge only because his model had one.”

Piffle. Let’s start with another Ross painting, done for the animator JJ Sedelmaier, and reproduced in Comic Book Artist.

I trust that no-one doubts that that composition was designed to draw attention to the foreground figure’s package. Ross has placed us, as we look at the picture, below groin level, looking up, so that bulge is almost literally “in your face”. Now let’s look at the Citizen Steel painting.

The whole composition seems designed to draw the eye down to Steel’s dick. The raised arms make his torso a triangle pointing down to it. This is reinforced by the way the musculature has been painted, emphasising diagonals converging on the groin, by the folds in Steel’s strained pants, and by the “Y”-shaped design on the costume, which acts as a pointer. None of that is accidental, surely.

So what is Ross up to? Perhaps he’s just having a joke. Perhaps it’s a plot point, and the Citizen’s steely erection will save the day from Star Sapphire’s radioactive vagina. Perhaps it’s tit-for-tat (as it were) for all those cheesecake covers of DC superheroines – so common that DC has just put out a 200-page hardcover book of them. Perhaps, after 70 years of homoerotic superhero comics featuring scantily dressed musclemen wrestling with each other, Ross feels that it is time to move one stage closer to the money shot.

I wonder how it will sell?

I assume that, for American readers, the name Citizen Steel brings to mind Citizen Kane or Citizen Robespierre or some such.

But I’m a middle-aged Englishman, so I just think of Citizen Smith. Freedom for Tooting! (Or wherever Steel hails from.)

Ambiguously Gay Duo Comics, cover by Alex Ross, JJ Sedelmaier Productions, 2003, reprinted in Comic Book Artist volume 2 issue 2, October 2003

Justice Society of America issue 7, solicitation image by Alex Ross, DC Comics, 2007

Saturday, 21 April 2007

The Spirit Goes Manga

Well, not quite. But look at the difference between these two pictures.

The first is the cover image that DC Comics used to solicit orders for The Spirit issue 5.

The second is the cover on the issue as it actually appeared this week.

So why the change? I’ve got no inside information, but I’d guess something like this: Darwyn Cooke probably finished the first version of the cover before he completed the interior art of the comic. The story revolves around Mr Carrion marketing ex-Russian army rations to children under the “Spirit Pork & Beans” brand. At some point, Cooke must have realised that, if it was supposed to appeal to children, then the label shouldn’t look like traditional American cartooning and lettering, but like that manga and anime stuff the kids love. Note, too, that the second version of the cover makes more use of non-black outlines than the first: this is a characteristic of a lot of recent children’s animation.

It’s a shame, in a way. The first cover not only showed you that there was a “Spirit Pork & Beans” product, but also told you the Spirit’s reaction to it, in a humourous way. The revised version is still an entertaining and striking cover, but there are fewer layers to it.

I wonder if anyone bought this issue expecting the story to be drawn in a manga style, and if so, what their reactions were.

Friday, 20 April 2007

The Bellamy of the Daleks

The Daleks are back again on Doctor Who on Saturday. Their appearances are now so frequent that they are in danger of overexposure.

They hadn’t been on screen for the best part of six years when “Day of the Daleks” aired in 1972. The Radio Times marked the event by putting this Frank Bellamy drawing on the front cover. It is, perhaps, my favourite piece of Doctor Who artwork ever.

(In case you're wondering, the band around the Doctor’s head is part of the mind probe the Daleks used to establish that this Doctor was the same person as the others they had met.)

I wasn’t the only one to be impressed. A year later, Target Books acquired the rights to reprint three Doctor Who novelisations written in the 1960s, and they chose to copy Bellamy’s design for their covers. They couldn’t get Bellamy himself to do the work, so they hired the younger Greek artist, Christos Achilleos, to impersonate him. The reprints were a hit, and Achilleos went on to draw a couple of dozen more covers in the same style, as Target started commissioning new novelisations. But here is that first cover.

Frank Bellamy wasn’t Achilleos’s only inspiration. He must have lacked photo-reference, because those two Daleks are swiped from Ron Turner’s 1966 artwork for The Daleks comic strip in TV Century 21.

The Radio Times commissioned a good deal of Doctor Who art from Frank Bellamy in the 1970s. The listing for each Saturday’s episode was accompanied by a small, postage-stamp sized, illustration, like these from the six-part “Planet of the Daleks”.

The most striking of Radio Times’s commissions from Bellamy was a four-page comic strip adaptation of the opening of part 1 of “Colony in Space”. The page layouts were startling even by Bellamy’s standards.

After Jon Pertwee left the part, Radio Times cooled on Doctor Who, and the show was only given the cover once in the last fifteen years of its original run. So this terrific illustration for “Terror of the Zygons” appeared on an inside page.

By the time of the 1996 TV movie with Paul McGann, attitudes had changed again. Not only did it make the cover, but Radio Times commissioned a half-page comic strip, written by Gary Russell and drawn by Lee Sullivan, which ran for the best part of a year. The strips can be found at the Doctor Who Cuttings Archive.

Today, Doctor Who can count on being on the RT cover several times each series. But it’s all photographs nowadays, inside and out.

Pictures and Panels:
Doctor Who illustrations by Frank Bellamy, Radio Times, 1971-1975, reprinted in Timeview: The Complete Doctor Who Illustrations of Frank Bellamy, Who Dares Publishing, 1985

Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks by David Whitaker, 1964, cover illustration by Christos Achilleos, Target Books edition, 1973

The Daleks by David Whitaker (script) and Ron Turner (art), TV Century 21, 1966, reprinted in The Dalek Chronicles, Marvel Comics UK, 1994