Friday, November 19, 2010

"Detective" Clues

More and more rare vintage comic books seem to be turning up lately, and getting high prices on auction sites. A San Francisco man recently discovered a copy of Detective Comics #27, the first appearance of Batman, that he bought for a dime in 1939. He sold it to a collector in Dallas for $492,000.

In August, I wrote a post on how to tell a genuine copy of Action Comics #1, the 1938 debut of Superman, from the near-identical Famous First Edition reprint from 1974. Since Detective #27 was also reprinted in that series, I'll now tell you how to pick it out of a line-up.

Again, the most obvious difference is size. The original 1939 comic book measured about 10 by 7.5 inches, slightly smaller than a sheet of letter-sized paper; the 1974 reprint was 13.5 by 10 inches, a little bigger than a modern tabloid newspaper.

But if you don't have a ruler or a newspaper handy, there were a couple of minor changes made to the cover to make it stand out. The original issue had creator Bob Kane's signature in the lower right corner. It also showed the corner of a neighboring building along the right side. And Batman's rope extended all the way to the upper right corner of the cover. All of these details were removed from the reprinted version. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

The Famous First Edition series was a great gift to young collectors who never knew what comics were like in the early days. But they can also be a gift to thieves and con men. Don't get taken in by a defective Detective.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: City of Fever

From the cover, one might think that City of Fever is another entry in a never-ending line of post-apocalyptic-zombie stories that I try my best to avoid. But something made me take a closer look when I spotted it at a MoCCA Festival. Part of it was creator Kalman Spigel's sales pitch, that this was a "hard science fiction" story in the tradition of Isaac Asimov and William Gibson. I've never read any Gibson, but I'm a huge Asimov fan from way back, so my curiosity was piqued. When I noticed that a major character's name was only two letters different from mine, I was amused enough to buy the book.

City of Fever is a hardboiled detective story masquerading as science fiction. "Hard science fiction," in this context, means that there's nothing that's too far outside the boundaries of current technology. There's no time travel, teleportation, faster-than-light spacecraft, aliens, or psionics; but there's plenty of cybernetics, AI, and genetic engineering. I detected no Asimov influence at all. Asimov's writing was heavy on technical details, and his heroes were usually armchair detectives rather than men of action. Spigel's story is quite the opposite.

The setting is Wave City, colloquially known as the Big Rot. A thinly-veiled analogue of New Orleans, it's hot, humid, and one of the few habitable regions on the moon of Gehenna, a distant world reached by Earth colonists an unspecified number of decades ago. Wave City is controlled by an uneasy troika: corrupt mayor Robert "The Shrimp" Bulette, religious leader "Big Daddy Été," and Fraise, an artificial intelligence who controls the city's news and entertainment media.

One of these three is planning a crime that will drastically alter the balance of power in the Big Rot, but he needs a fall guy. That's where the hero comes in. The story's protagonist and narrator is Rast, a cyborg private eye with a mysterious past. His partner, Jazmin, is an AI who resides in Rast's software, and appears as a woman only he can see and hear. When Rast learns that he's been set up, he and Jazmin have to decide whether to go into hiding or strike back. It's not hard to guess which option they choose.

The art is exceptionally slick and professional for an independent publication. The coloring enhances it nicely, mostly dark without getting muddy, turning bright and electric where the plot requires it.

In the 1950s, DC Comics published a feature called Star Hawkins in the science fiction anthology title, Strange Adventures. It was a tongue-in-cheek series about a tough, semi-competent private detective, and his robot secretary Ilda, who was pretty much the brains of the operation. Rast and Jazmin seemed very much like an edgier version of Star Hawkins and Ilda, upgraded for the 21st century.

City of Fever is only 52 pages long (not including the forward). It was published as a thin hardcover book, which I thought was an odd decision, but that's just me. I found it a very entertaining read. Violent action abounds, but there's little gore and no explicit language. It's available from Mad Ink Press.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Why Comics?

A few years ago, I attended the opening of a new Barnes & Noble bookstore. Naturally, my priority was to see if the Comics and Graphic Novels section was well-stocked. As I was scanning the shelves, I noticed a young man, about 14 or 15, sitting on the floor reading a Batman book. After a while, a woman about my age, apparently his mother, came over and whispered a few words to him. As she stood up, she saw me standing nearby -- reading a Batman book. She walked up to me and said, "So what you're telling me is, he's not going to grow out of this."

The relative merits of Batman notwithstanding, the attitude that comics are for children and the semi-literate pervades American society. Many critics feel that the worst insult they can give to a book or film is to say it has a "comic book" sensibility. I enjoy poking fun at comics from time to time, but as for the attitude on the whole, I object.

If you're a parent, or if you've ever had a parent, then you're familiar with the struggle of trying to get a kid who's glued to the TV interested in reading books. Sure, there are exceptions, but overall, the video screen has the stronger allure. Why is this? I believe it's because reading a book is an active pastime. It's a partnership between the author and the reader, and requires an effort on both parts to tell an effective story. Watching a movie or TV show, on the other hand, is almost completely passive.

With a book, the author has placed words on a page, and it's up to the reader to interpret those words and create images in his or her own mind. Though the creator offers descriptions and suggestions, it's the reader who ultimately decides what the characters look and sound like, how they're dressed, and how detailed the background is. In a movie, all of these decisions are already made, and the audience just sits back to watch.

Also, when reading a book, you follow the story at your own pace. If you're a fast reader, you might finish a book in a day, while a slower reader may take a couple of weeks. You can skim through the sections that don't interest you, and linger over the more fascinating passages. You can go back and reread earlier sections to pick up on more details, and you can even read the end first and work your way backwards, if you're into that sort of thing. With a film, on the other hand, the story unfolds at a predetermined speed. If you miss an important detail, you can't go back again. (I'm ignoring DVDs and VCRs for the sake of this discussion. Yes, they exist, but most filmmakers still expect their stories to be watched linearly, and not with a remote control in hand.)

But "active" versus "passive" isn't an either/or proposition. They're the extreme ends of a storytelling spectrum. Suppose an author wants to control the pacing of the story, but let the audience's imagination provide the imagery? This can be a powerful combination for building suspense. The best medium for that storyteller is the spoken word, which can take several forms: monologues, radio plays, songs, or the telling of stories around a campfire.

On the other hand, a creator may want to control the images, but allow the audience to set the pace. What medium allows this? Comics.

The written word; the motion picture; the spoken word; and comics. Four different media for telling stories, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and level of audience participation. There's nothing inherent in any of them that limits it to a particular age group, education level, or economic level. Each of them can be, and has been, used to tell a children's bedtime story or a Shakespearean play; a lighthearted comedy or a deep philosophical parable; a mindbending science fiction odyssey, a tearjerking romantic melodrama, a vast historical epic, or a Batman story.

Theater and film were once considered entertainment for the illiterate. Over the past thirty years, comics creators have been struggling to dispel a similar image, with noteworthy works like Eisner's A Contract With God; Spiegelman's Maus; Satrapi's Persepolis; and Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp achieving critical respect and admiration. Even superhero comics have taken a more serious turn, with Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Moore's Watchmen. But there are still many people who think of these as aberrations, and that comic books always were and always should be written for kids. There's still a long way to go to change that attitude.

** UPDATE 04/06/2011 **
I just came across this excellent essay by Conor McCreery on the same subject.