Thursday, April 26, 2012

Playing in the World's Largest Trivia Contest in the 21st Century

Last weekend, the World's Largest Trivia Contest was played in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, the place I consider my hometown. I just happened to be updating an old spreadsheet with all the teams I had played with in that illustrious contest over the years and discovered this was my 20th Trivia contest.

For the uninitiated, the contest is sponsored annually by WWSP 90FM, the local college radio station. The contest is broadcast on the radio and, for the past five years or so, been simulcast on the internet. The basic gist of the game is this: Questions are asked and people call in to answer them. The contest lasts for 54 straight hours, from 6pm on Friday to midnight on Sunday. Each question is worth a certain number of points, dependent on how many teams answer it correctly. The top ten teams get trophies and bragging rights for the next year.

And the questions aren't something you'd find in Trivial Pursuit. A working knowledge of that game doesn't help for Trivia. If you can remember what poker hand the robot in Silent Running had, or what TV show starred an actor playing both himself and his own father, or what country once made Porky Pig president, then you've got the mentality for Trivia. And for players, it is always Trivia with a capital "T".

The difficulty of the contest has varied over the years, as the people who write the questions, Jim Oliva (a.k.a. the Oz) and John Eckendorf, have had a difficult time of making the contest both entertaining and reachable in the era of Google and internet search engines. Before the advent of the net, Stevens Point was a city of stenographers, as teams that hoped to contend for a trophy would be taking notes in movie theaters, while watching TV, while listening to the radio, and anywhere that an interesting little fact might raise it's head and be fodder for a question. I personally have notes on nearly 3,000 movies, 5,000 TV episodes and 3,000 old-time radio shows.

Most people play on teams of two or more people; the more people usually being better, at least up to a point. I played on one team for eleven years, before deciding to branch out and start my own. There's just only so much you can do; Most teams don't even consider the possibility of winning. One year we came in 4th place. The last question of the contest used to be noted for a high difficulty factor, and when I got that answer correct that same year, I decided it was time to move on and see what I could do on my own. The four years I ran a team, it was a solid Top 25 team. It was a fun experience, but when I moved to Pennsylvania in 1998, that was pretty much the end of my career as a Trivia player.

Then 2008 comes along and with the streaming of the contest, I was able to give it a try again. I played remotely (and still do) for a team called the Collective (now called Collective Foole, after merging with a long-time team). The first few years was hard. We only had dial-up internet available in our town, or at least in the two-block area at the end of town here. I was always lagging about thirty seconds to a minute behind everyone else, and that became tiresome at times, missing answers I knew but couldn't express properly to the team. Luckily, they soon figured out I wasn't just an old crazy guy. Well, I hope they have, anyway. 

This year, however, the wife and I finally got tired of the slow speed of dial-up and invested in a wi-fi hotspot. Playing this year was a joy, as that 30 second to a minute of lag became five seconds at the most. And I could actually contribute a lot more, since I could help with looking answers up on the net rather than just relying on my notes. To keep myself interested in previous years, I always had a little game of "get the answer before anyone else" going, but this year, that wasn't really necessary.

Collective Foole placed 12th in the contest this time around. We had placed 6th last year, so the finish was a bit disappointing, but I think we've actually made great strides on organization and utilizing our resources. Top 10 would've been better, but Top 20 is definitely respectable. 

It is early Thursday morning as I write this, and I've finally started to recover mentally from playing; 54 hours, even with a few hours of sleep here and there, wears you down. Soon the preparations for next year will start. There's always more movies to see and more TV to watch. Most people don't understand the obsession people in Stevens Point have with Trivia. I can't even begin to explain it myself. I think it's just something that's in a person's blood. Or I've been doing it so long that the meaning itself has lost any definition.

But I know that the strains of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" next year will once again begin the culmination of another year of feverishly hopeful preparations, when we are again told "Let's play some trivia, Fast Eddie!"

By the way, if you want to really get a feel for what this contest is like, without waiting to play, try to find a copy of the movie Triviatown. This documentary does a very good job of relating the insanity makes a college town double in size for a weekend.

For those wanting information on the contest, please check out for more information.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

We're taking a break, folks!

Hey folks!

Rich's Random Reviews is taking a two-week hiatus, as the siren call of Trivia is upon us. The World's Largest Trivia Contest, broadcast on the air and internet from 90FM WWSP in Stevens Point, Wisconsin starts on April 20th-22nd, with 54 straight hours of trivia mayhem. 

I gots to get my information, books, pets and all that sort of stuff organized, so no blogging til Wednesday, April 25th. 

If anyone cares to listen into the contest through the link on the 90fm website, I'll be playing with a team called Collective Foole. 

See youse folks in the funny papers until then!


Monday, April 9, 2012

Week of Good Stuff Day 2: Nextwave Agents of H.A.T.E.

For my second entry for my "Weekof Good Stuff" theme, I've picked a short-lived comic book that I found to be damn fun: Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. This was a rather strange Marvel Comic from the team of Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen. It was strange in that it was funny, didn't really care about continuity and was very enjoyable, which was a strange thing to say about a Marvel Comic in 2006. Or even now for that matter.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the book, Nextwave was about a group of renegade heroes who were working for an anti-terrorist organization along the lines of S.H.I.E.L.D. They discovered the group had different aims than what was told to them, so they stole a high-tech aircraft and went off on their own to destroy selfsame organization.

The group includes some long-running Marvel Comics characters. Monica Rambeau, former Avenger and Captain Marvel, was the leader, adopting her Photon identity. Aaron Stack, also known as Machine Man was the ship's pilot and beer and sex-obsessed android. Boom-Boom was a former New Mutant and X-Man, and could create explosions.

Eliza Bloodstone and the Captain rounded out the team. Eliza was the latest in a hereditary line of nigh-immortal monster hunters. The Captain was the powerhouse of the group, as he had received amazing abilities from aliens one night when he was drunk. His actual name was Captain #!%&@, but he doesn't use it much, after Captain America beat the crap out of him and washed his mouth out with soap.

The series lasted for a year. Most of the stories had Nextwave trying to stop the Beyond Corporation, the evil group behind H.A.T.E., while avoiding the former commander, Dirk Anger. Along the way, Fin Fang Foom, Devil Dinosaur and even Forbush Man battled our heroes.

The characterizations were what was the highlight of the book. Just seeing Machine Man annoy the hell out of his teammates was worth the price of the whole series. I'm really hoping that someday Marvel decides to remember that there was a time when comic books were a joy to read and not just a soap opera chore with bad plots, characters and crossover schemes. Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. was one of the last entertaining series that Marvel created. It is collected in a couple of different trade formats, and is definitely worth the time and money to procure.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Week of Good Stuff begins: Starman Volume 9 - Grand Guignol

I've decided to make it easy on myself. This is a week of reviewing stuff that I like. No, stuff I LOVE. This is the Week of Good Stuff.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned this here, but James Robinson's Starman was the single greatest comic book in the history of the medium.

Big claim, huh? Not really. This was the only truly wonderful thing that has ever come out of a major crossover event at either DC or Marvel. Or anywhere for that matter. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison deconstructed heroes in Watchmen, Doom Patrol and Animal Man. James Robinson built them back up into true heroes and human beings in the pages of Starman.

Robinson has a special flare for writing comic books that shows his love and respect for the medium. A throwaway line here mentioning Commando Yank or Codename: Assassin, a picture of the original Justice Society in a background there, all the while pacing what was really an 84-issue story of a single man in the fictional world of Opal City.

This tale begins with the abrupt murder of David Knight, who had just taken the hereditary identity of Starman from his father. His brother Jack, a tattooed slacker and collectibles nut, is forced to take up the mantle. But he does it reluctantly and does it his own way. No costume, just a leather jacket and goggles and a long golden Cosmic Staff.

It is no spoiler to tell readers that Jack grows into his role as a hero and defender of the city. It also is no spoiler to say that he eventually gives it all up for the love of a woman and his newborn son. It would be a spoiler to reveal many of the twists and turns that got him there, and which opened up a new world to readers.

My favorite story line is encapsulated in Starman Volume 9: Grand Guignol. This trade paperback features a yearlong adventure that has Jack returning from a trip to outer space to find Opal City besieged by almost every major villain that had been featured in the series so far, led by a villainous version of the Shade, the erudite anti-hero who had become one of Jack's friends. Luckily, Jack has friends, such as the Elongated Man and his wife, Adam Strange, another Starman, Black Condor, Phantom Lady, the Black Pirate and a family of policemen dedicated to protecting their city. He also has the help of his own father, the original Starman.

This is one of those perfect stories. Triumph and tragedy, life and death. It is all here, on as mythic scale as we have in today's world. There's a realism amid the flying capes and elastic fists and radioactive men that draws you into Opal City on a level that's hard to explain. You cheer the triumphs and you weep for the lost as if they were real people.

And not to forget the other contributor: Peter Snejbjerg provides some atmospheric art. His style if very reminiscent of the Brothers Hernandez in Love and Rockets, and is a perfect compliment to Robinson's story.

The series has recently been recollected into the Starman Omnibus series, so it is very easy to find all of the series.  You can jump right in anywhere, or start from the beginning. It doesn't matter. Each volume in the trade paperback series has everything you would want in a great comic book.

This series is one of the very few things in the planet that I would label inspiring.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Forgotten Comics: Dell Comics' Drift Marlo

Dell Publications is perhaps best remembered for the many, many licensed properties it adapted into comic book form; from Walt Disney to Woody Woodpecker, from The Rebel to Dinosaurus!. It was very successful at doing that for at least twenty-five years. However, when it came to original material, Dell was usually way out of its depth.

Drift Marlo was one of Dell's attempts at a regular, new material comic book. While it was unsuccessful, lasting two issues, I've always thought that it was a well-written series. It was a combination of science fact and detective thriller. The splash page of the first comic book read "Drift Marlo, Space Detective". Those first two issues reminded me of the movie Gog or The Satan Bug a little in plot and theme, since both were technology (and ideology) driven films. Drift was responsible for security on various US aerospace projects, the first being a space-borne anti-missile missile, and the second being to protect and prevent the kidnapping of an important chimpanzee test pilot ... in space. Naturally, the specter of the Cold War is in the background of the tales.

The stories were both interesting, a lot of care and time was given to getting all the technological aspects of the tales correct. Drift does come off as a likeable, dependable investigator, his girlfriend Claire not quite a harpy, and most of the supporting cast are not simple cardboard cut-outs.

The artwork is also good, for the era and for Dell. Tom Cooke handles it ably and does a fine job in his draftsmanship of the various then-high tech spacecraft, including cut-away pin-ups of space stations and rockets, both currently in use and prototypes. His art reminds me a lot of Mike Sekowsky's non-super-hero work: Good detail and good story flow.

Drift Marlo was originally published in 1962, but the stories could easily have been used a decade later, too. There is a certain style to them that I find appealing. If you want to try reading one, you'll probably shell out between $5 and $25 for each one, but you can find them both on-line as well, at The Comic Reading Library.

Friday, April 6, 2012

E-Book Round-Up: Quickie reviews of The Good, the Mediocre and the Ugly.


Since I haven't did any e-book reviews here lately, I thought I'd collect my thoughts on a bunch o' e-books that I've read over the past month or so. As always, we begin with..

The Good:

Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip by David Antrobus.
So far, this is the best book I've read all year. The book chronicles David's pilgrimage (of sorts) from Canada to New York City in the days following the 9/11 attacks. I think the book manages to encapsulate a lot of my own feelings about those dark days, and does so in a much more uplifting than depressing way. Highly Recommended.

Japan's Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World by Mark Pendergrast.
This is an excellent book on what's really going on in Japan after their 3/11 tragedies (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown). Well-researched and very enthralling read for a non-fiction title. Recommended.

Write a Book ... and Make it a Bestseller by Ruben Amberson.
I was surprised to actually find some interesting information and ideas for writing in this book, as usually this kind of tome with this kind of title are usually completely useless from a creative standpoint. I do have to say there are some concepts and work-throughs that I may give a try myself.

An analysis of the Comic Book Industry's Business Issues by Shawn James.
With a title like that, I was expecting a snoozefest, but Shawn James' book is actually a very good analysis of what the comic book medium is doing to make itself fail. I would love to send a copy of this to TPTB at DC and Marvel Comics so they can get their heads out of their butts and start making good comic books again. Recommended to any comic book geek.

The Serial Killer Compendium by R. J. Parker.
This is a compendium of several books by the author about serial killers. It's actually fairly well-researched and contains a lot of good information on the methodology of both the criminals and the authorities who hunt them.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by J. L. Murray.
Excellent paranormal private detective mystery, with a heavy emphasis on the hard-boiled end of it. Recommended.

The St. Petersburg Confessions by Ty Hutchinson.
A rare prequel to another book that is actually very good. I haven't read the book it precedes, but I'll be on the lookout for it. Very well-written, down-to-Earth thriller set in the years before the Berlin Wall came down.

The Mediocre:

KKXG: King Kong Vs Gigantosaurus: The Adventures of Yuriko Kumage During the Greatest War On Earth by Alan Colossi.
With a title like that, I had such high hopes for this book, being the giant rampaging monster fan that I am. Unfortunately, the story falls a little flat - about the only thing we know for sure about the main character is that she has "beautiful bowl shaped eyes", because it is mentioned on almost every page of this novel. The story is a melange of bits and pieces of various monster movies, primarily King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes. It is an okay book, but it could've been so much better.

Hilda Hopkins: Murder, She Knit by Vivienne Fagan.
I hadn't expected much of this one, so I wasn't too surprised. Again, it was an okay book, using the viewpoints of a opportunistic serial killer-by-happenstance, and the officer who accidentally let her get away.

Pretense for Murder by Karen L. Abrahamson.
This had a bit of promise, but being a short prequel of sorts to another book, it doesn't really explain the framework of this particular paranormal-inhabited world to enough extent to make the reader care about any of it. Other than some asides to Doctor Who, this book is a bit of a letdown.

Classical Music Hall of Fame by Barry Krush.
This was a fairly good book, centering on the best individual compact discs to make a good beginning classical music library. There are some formatting issues and it gets a bit long-winding on things not really pertaining to the quality of the music in question. Otherwise, it does give a lot of good selection, including some modern composers (but no Varese, Webern or Zappa mentioned anywhere).

Machine-Breath Bridge by C. J. Cala.
This very short piece of prose (or is it a long poem?) doesn't really go anywhere. But maybe a second reading will shed some light on it. Cala does, for lack of anything else, put words together in a very intriguing manner.

Sherlock Holmes and the Mutilated Cattle by Philip Duke.
I'm always a sucker for a new interpretation of Holmes. The actual characterizations and basic plot was pretty dead on to the world's most famous consulting detective, but this story is a sequel to another story, and kind of falters because of that relationship.

The Ugly:

From the Ice Incarnate and Decision LZ1527 by Joe Vasicek.
Two attempts at short-form science fiction that almost works. If this were 1960, it might be a decent story. The first story is not much more than a chapter to open a much bigger novel, and the second tries way too hard to be quaint.

The Unbitten Onion by Kevin Kierstead.
One little problem with topical humor is that it often doesn't age well. The Onion is always funny, but most of these articles fall kind of flat on their faces for some reason.

Don't Come Back by James Butler.
Exceedingly routine psycho killer story, with a one-joke pony that's run into the ground. Not worth the five minutes it takes to read it.

Dumb White Husband Vs. the Grocery Store by Benjamin Wallace.
Dull not droll humor. Very boring, predictable story.

Solar Flares 2012: How to Prepare for and Survive Solar Flares by R. C. Cutler.
Your standard "Oh My Lord! The Mayans say the world is ending so it must be true!" book. Not quite as sensational as most of them, but the guy has obviously watching Knowing once too often.

Nikola Tesla's Death Ray and the Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster by Sean Casteel and "Commander X". (Get a real name, kid. You ain't a super-hero.)
Complete ludicrous speculation that the Columbia was taken down by a variant on a legendary death ray device. It also speculates that the Kobe, Japan earthquake was a terrorist attack using an earthquake ray. The only redeeming point of the book is that it is well researched on the life of Tesla, though only covering his "death ray" research.  No photos, though the text refers to them quite often, and some really poor OCR work by whoever scanned this disaster into the computer.

The Dark Hunger: A Paranormal Erotic Compendium by Amanda Browning, et. al.
Not my favorite genre, but it was free. The two stories that are in it are fairly well-written, but the two stories do not a compendium make. Failing grade for not having been finished - the book is like a half-finished template for a complete work. Apparently, the wrong copy was uploaded to Amazon. Hopefully, when the book is uploaded properly, it might make it up to one of my other standards.

Th-th-th-th-th-that's all for today folks! Back to geekdom tomorrow!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: Marvel Essential Tales of the Zombie

Once again were venturing a bit far from the truth-in-advertising. Tales of the Zombie was never an "essential" Marvel Comics series by any stretch of the imagination. Heck, they were just happy to use the word in a magazine-size book so they could get past the
Comics Code Authority ban on even using the word "zombie" in a comic book.

Marvel Comics took a liking to horror comics back in the seventies, after two decades of making do with giant monsters, aliens and, of course, super-heroes, after the Seduction of the Innocent controversy that took the teeth and artistic flair out of EC Comics and pretty much banned straight forward horror comics that weren't adaptations from literature. Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, Tomb of Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster were just the most visible of this onslaught of creatures of legend.

The black-and-white magazine line that Marvel started allowed their creators to do more adult-oriented stories. Savage Tales, Vampire Tales, Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu and the like were all fairly popular, especially where people could actually find them. I know I rarely every saw and issue of any Marvel magazine except for Crazy on any of the newsstands near my hometown. One bookstore seemed to stock them infrequently, but since they usually had a full line of four-color comics, I didn't really care much at the time. I didn't really start reading many horror comics until I was a lot older.

This Marvel Essentials volume reprints all ten issues of Tales of the Zombie, along with some related stories from the first two issues of Dracula Lives. Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella and Chris Claremont all provide scripting for this volume, and John Buscema, Gene Colan, Bill Everett and Pablo Marcos are among the many artists in it. Most of this was in black-and-white to begin with, and is properly atmospheric.

The titular zombie in these tales is Simon Garth, a businessman who caught his gardener trying to have his way with Garth's wife. The gardener got his revenge in a voodoo ceremony, where he killed Garth and later brought him back to serve him as a zombie. Naturally, he lost control of the zombie and Simon Garth started wandering from one situation to the next, serving whoever had the twin of a voodoo amulet that he wore.

Besides a Simon Garth story, each issue of Tales of the Zombie usually had a fairly good reprint from the fifties or sixties, along with several other new horror tales, usually voodoo-themed. Brother Voodoo made a few appearances, both in stories and in text features. The long text features are also reprinted, including one on the movie Night of the Living Dead. The two Dracula Lives stories feature the Lord of the Undead against the voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

Simon Garth actually got his final rest in issue number nine, following the sacrifice of his former secretary and voodoo initiate. He reverted to a living human being for 24 hours, getting the chance to set his affairs in order and get some revenge for closure. The following issue was to have had another story about Garth, but scheduling problems prevented it (the artwork was stuck in Guam), so the final issue of Tales of the Zombie was filled with tales of other zombies, along with Brother Voodoo.

Essential Tales of the Zombie is, I have to say, an enjoyable read. A current reader will have to remember that these are tales of classic zombies, not the Romero-inspired, brain-eating undead of current cinema. Simon Garth is a character more along the lines of the Frankenstein Monster, with almost as much pathos as that legendary figure. The artwork is good, the stories are fairly well written for the genre, and the price tag ($16.99) is not too dear for a volume of decent horror stories, if you're a fan of that genre, that is.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review: Showcase Presents Bat Lash

You don't see a lot of western comics anymore. DC Comics' made a bold move with All-Star Western in the "New 52" revamping, and a few years ago Marvel had a fifth-week even that showcased some of their westerns. DC also had a few series of Jonah Hex under their Vertigo imprint. Marvel also put out the excellent limited series Blaze of Glory, which featured nearly all of their name western characters. But that's about it. But you don't see a lot of straight, old-fashioned western comics.

The genre once outsold super-heroes by a wide margin. Back in the fifties and early sixties, especially when TV westerns were the rage, publishing a western comic was money in the bank for a publisher. But times and tastes change. The character of Bat Lash was one of the attempts to try to move along with those changes.

"Will he save the West ... or ruin it?" was the promotional line used in advertisements for Bat Lash's first appearance, in the original Showcase #76. It was also on every single cover of his short-lived comic book. It was a bit over-reaching, no matter how you looked at it. Bat Lash was not out to save or ruin the West. He was out to make a comfortable living doing the least he could. Bat Lash was Bret Maverick and Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name rolled together with a dash of Don Diego. Bartholomew Lash was raised by an authoritarian father and a very educated other, becoming a smart and resourceful individual as an adult. He was by trade, most of the time anyway, a gambler. Most of his recorded adventures have him also playing the role of the dilettante; Bat Lash enjoyed the finer things in life and did his best to get them when he could. Almost every story has the seemingly foppish cowboy picking a flower for his hat, which was a symbol of life and what he was struggling for.

Bat Lash was created by the odd partnership of artist Nick Cardy and cartoonist Sergio Aragones. You probably have never heard of Nick Cardy, but Sergio Aragones came to the spotlight by his many humor pieces in Mad Magazine - he's the guy who draws the "Mad Marginals", those little cartoons in the margins of the pages. He also became known in comic books for Groo the Wanderer.  Nick Cardy was one of those artists you've probably seen the work of, but never knew who he was. He did a lot of work for DC in the sixties and seventies, having particularly long runs on Teen Titans and Aquaman. He drew the covers for almost every DC comics series in that period at one time or another. For Bat Lash's short-lived comic book, Denny O'Neil, best known for his award-winning work with Neal Adams on Batman, Detective Comics and Green Lantern-Green Arrow handled the scripts. The book also has a Bat Lash story from the omnibus title DC Super-Stars and the three-issue back-up feature from Jonah Hex.

Bat Lash was a character cut from the cloth of TV's Maverick. He was the quick-witted, flowery-talking not-quite-a-con-man who tried to do right when the situation presented itself, but remembered that his own survival was at stake as well. "A guy's gotta eat" he often thought to himself, and that bit of the scoundrel was always part of him.

I think most comic book readers would enjoy Showcase Presents Bat Lash. It is one of the cheaper volumes in that series at under ten bucks, and the black-and-white reprinting really allows the great ink work of Nick Cardy to shine. I've always thought the mark of a good comic book artist was if he work looked just as good when printed without color. Nick Cardy's definitely does so, and I think the stories, which are only slightly dated, are worth a good read as well.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review: Marvel Essential Super-Villain Team-Up

I hate to say it, but this has to be one of the least "essential" volumes of the Marvel Essentials reprint series, followed only by any Essential X-Men after volume three and any Essential Wolverine. This was an average series with a fun concept, but it is hardly a necessary read by any standard. It does have some interesting moments though.

The series itself began in the final two months of Marvel's "Giant-Size" era. For about a year and a half in the mid-seventies, every title had a monthly or bi-monthly giant-size counterpart. While quite a few of them featured new material, such as in Giant-Size Spider-Man or Giant-Size Avengers or unfortunately Giant-Size Man-Thing, a good number of them were just reprints. Doc Savage, a book that had been cancelled almost a year earlier got a giant-size title, as did the perennial reprint title Marvel Triple Action.  

Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up lasted two issues. The premise, at the beginning, was that Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner were teaming up to take on all comers. Naturally, Doom had his own agenda on the side. The first issue had some new story pages framing a lot of reprinted material. The second issue was more notable to me, simply because it was the first time that I'd ever seen Mike Sekowsky work on a Marvel Comics title. Sekowsky is best remembered for his work on various Dell and Gold Key licensed properties, and as the first artist on Justice League of America. Sam Grainger provided some very good inking and the artwork was very enjoyable to read. The story itself was all-new material, as Doom and Namor battled an android unimaginatively called Andro, who was formerly the Doomsman, and had been created by Doom and revolted against his control.
The regular Super-Villain Team-Up series started off being almost an extension of the Sub-Mariner's recently cancelled comic book. Namor ended up fighting some his most powerful enemies in the first few issues, with Doom along for the ride as he tried to win the Avenging Son's trust. Naturally, that didn't get very far, and Namor sought out the help of the Fantastic Four. Eventually the mysterious Shroud is brought into the battle, as is Henry Kissinger of all people. After that story arc, there was a multi-issue crossover with the Avengers, which also saw the Red Skull replace Namor on the cover as the team-up partner with Doom for a couple of issues, followed closely by a crossover with the Champions and Magneto. The final two issues of the series featured the Red Skull and the Hatemonger.

The artwork on the series varied from issue to issue. George Tuska and Herb Trimpe did the majority of it, both artists known for being able to draw powerful characters convincingly. Carmine Infantino did the final two stories, but he had Bruce Patterson and Arvell Jones inking him, so even it looked pretty good for Infantino's later output. The series had a regular plethora of writers: Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Jim Shooter, Len Wein, Bill Mantlo, and Gerry Conway all took turns on the title. The book was readable, but there was too much inconsistency and way too many crossovers for the era.

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up also includes all of the crossover issues to the series. Since it ties in to two of the story lines, the book also reprints Doctor Doom's short-lived solo feature in Astonishing Tales. Those stories are delights to read, as Tuska, Gene Colan and Wally Wood provided the artwork. Those eight stories have never been reprinted before (at least to my knowledge) in one book, and I would consider that one of the main reasons for picking up this book.

If you can get Essential Super-Villain Team-Up off of Amazon Marketplace for a substantial savings, I would say go ahead and grab this one. It's a fairly good read, but I don't think it's worth that full $17 price point.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: The Shield, America's 1st Patriotic Comic Book Hero

Captain America may still be getting all the good press, but what the cover of this book says is true: The Shield was the first patriotic comic book hero. And oddly enough, he was created by the same company that created that lovable teenager, Archie Andrews.

Pep Comics was the second title put out by MLJ Publications, which would later become Archie Comics. Riding the wave of super-heroes that started with Superman in Action Comics and Batman in Detective Comics, the star of this comic book was a little bit of both. Joe Higgins used a scientific process and a star-spangled costume to make himself nearly invulnerable and took to the streets as the Shield, the "G-Man Extraordinary" who battled gangsters, mad men an Fifth Columnists alike.

The trade paperback reprints the first six appearances of this character, from Pep Comics #1-5 and Shield-Wizard Comics #1. The reproduction on these seventy-year-old stories are excellent; the colors are bright and the original artwork is very clear. There are even reproductions of advertisements for the Shield G-Men Club and its descendant, the Archie Fan Club.

The stories themselves are full of pre-war excitement, as the Shield battle svarious espionage agents and dictators trying to deprive America of valuable defenses and embroil it in the war currently ravaging Europe. There were apparently quite a lot of tin-plated despots with their own armies back in those days. By modern standards, these stories are definitely a few steps below the norm, but as pioneering Golden Age tales, they really shine. The artwork easily equals the output of DC Comics during the same period.

This particular trade retails for $12.95, but I'm certain you can find it for much less on eBay or Amazon Marketplace. I picked mine up at a flea market for five bucks. If you aren't a fan of golden age heroes, I would avoid it, because you probably won't enjoy reading it. But this is a great book for any fan of old super-heroes comics.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Comic books and stereotypes

Don't worry - we'll be back to half-assed reviews tomorrow. But a good friend of mine made a remark on Facebook last week that got me thinking. He posted a link to a Cracked article that reminded him that "comic books are not (as) warm as fuzzy as I recall." He went on to say that there was a lot of racist, sexist and creepy stuff written for "young, accepting minds." That got me to thinking about my own way of dealing with that sort of material.

Comic books have been around since the middle 1930s. And in that eighty-plus years,we can see that they have evolved steadily into an art form. As with any art, throughout that evolution they were a mirror of our times, or at least our times through the eyes of their creators. The majority of comic book creators had been, let's face facts, white males. The genesis of popular comics came during the troubled days of World War II, and those white male artists and writers did their part to help their country's propaganda machine. Germans were almost always brutish and murderous killers. The Japanese were depicted as "the Yellow Peril", drawn as barbarous animals whose only thoughts were to kill Americans. This "Yellow Peril" aspect clouded the origins of a whole continent of people: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans. there was only one brush for the Orient, and the racist writings of Sax Rohmer certainly provided the paint. Considering that the next two major conflicts the US was involved in were set in Southeast Asia, just those wartime-inspired stereotypes persisted for nearly thirty-five years.

It wasn't all just war propaganda. Native Americans were depicted in comic books in similarly racist ways. Unless a the comic book was about a white man raised by "Indians", Tonto was the closest we really came to a positive Native American role model. And as noble a character as he was, he was still usually relegated to the role of getting the beatings and getting captured instead of the Lone Ranger, just like any kid sidekick would do for a super-hero. To my knowledge, Tonto and Turok, Son of Stone were the only Native Americans to star in comics in the decades following World War II. I suppose this was all for simplicity's sake; after all, the stilted history that children were taught back then (and in many places still are taught) completely ignore the Red Man's contributions to the world and the White Man's shame at his own conduct toward them. It was always much more easy, and profitable, for things to be simply cowboys versus Indians.

African-Americans had it just as bad, or even worse. Even in comic books of that era, they were relegated to the subservient Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best roles that dominated motion pictures and television. African-Americans in comic book of the forties and fifties were always depicted as lazy, easily scared, and rather low-brow. For every noble African chieftain you read about, there were a hundred stereotypical "booga-booga" natives. Luckily as sensibilities changed in the sixties, this sort of racist garbage disappeared. The strange exception to that statement came in the form of  legendary comic book creator Will Eisner, who insisted for some moronic reason in continuing drawing the Spirit's sidekick, Ebony Blake, as a caricature, as shown in the corner of the Spirit cover I've posted to the left. He used this depiction all the way into the nineties.

I don't think I really need to go into the many disservices the medium did to women, since they paralleled what was happening in every other medium. Sex sold comics much as it did other things. And women were meant to be window dressing in most comics. When one of the most powerful beings on the planet, Wonder Woman, is relegated to the role of secretary in the mighty Justice Society of America, and a guy in a gas mask and a bumbling kid with a pet genie get sent to the front lines ... well, that didn't even make sense to me back when I was reading reprints in the early seventies. Did Phantom Lady have to be in bondage on EVERY single cover she was on?  And Lois Lane? An independent woman who is so confident her boyfriend will save her, she falls out of skyscraper windows with an alarming regularity just to get his attention? Did no one think to tell her that there were maybe some safer ways to get a date with Superman? Comic books up until the late sixties pretty much thought that a woman's role was in the kitchen, following her man's orders and looking pretty.

Racism and sexism are obviously more evil than anything a super-hero will ever go up against, and I suppose to many in today's more multicultural society, it begs to wonder how someone can even read those dated stories. Comic books are both art and a living chronicle of the changes that have happened in our modern society. You can't, and I firmly believe you shouldn't, hide that chronicle. The old saying that those who forget their history are doomed to relive it comes into play here.

Being pasty-white and I hope open-minded, I only have my own viewpoint to work from; I can't imagine how seeing something like Ebony would affect an African-American, or how an Asian-American would feel reading a comic advertisement on how Wheaties helped American soldiers "slap a Jap". I'm quite certain the ones who were imprisoned in camps on the West Coast would not feel too kindly toward that.

I like to think, and ardently hope that the Japanese soldiers Captain America and the Sub-Mariner fought were depicted in that inhuman way because the creative forces were trying to inspire young people during a long and costly war. A common enemy is easier to hate if they look different from you, especially when they act evil.  Back then, it was easy to categorize one's enemies by pointless criteria like skin color. The complexities of the modern world don't allow that anymore, at least in mass media. I'd love to say that the creators who caricatured African-Americans didn't know any better, but let's face it, they quite obviously did. They were going for lowest common denominator humor and easy, one-panel jokes.  We still haven't come close to doing anything about the sexism angle. Wonder Woman and Phantom Lady are still around. The latter is even more scantily-clad but at least she's usually not engaged with the ropes and chains anymore. Lois Lane ... well, at least her latest incarnation so far has had a lot more common sense.

I've loved reading comic books since I could focus my eyes, and I love reading comics from every era. As I've gotten older and my sensibilities have developed, I've learned to read old comic books - along with listening to old-time radio shows and the like - by remembering that they are products of their own era, and have to be viewed with those sensibilities, and not the politically-correct lenses everyone has to wear now.