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.


Friday, October 29, 2010

"Take Us Out of Orbit, Mr. Sulu, and Don't Spare the Horses"

From Star Trek #9 (Gold Key Comics, February 1971):

"Imagine, Mr. Spock -- a computer capable of attracting and recording the brainwaves -- the very thoughts of every famous person in Earth's history! It has recorded all of that history on these punch cards."

Punch cards? PUNCH CARDS??


The future just ain't what it used to be.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where's Wein?

Once upon a time, there was Fantasy Kingdom, a little comic book store in a town called East Meadow, NY. It was run by a jolly old soul named Keith Mallow. It was my main source of comics when I was a student at Hofstra University. It was there that I got one of the more unusual items in my collection.

Fantasy Kingdom was a frequent host of book signing events. One bright, sunny day in 1980, the guests of honor were DC Comics writers Marv Wolfman, Bob Rozakis, and Len Wein, and artist Alex Saviuk. It was a fun afternoon. My most vivid memory of it is Marv tossing a pen in the air with an exasperated look on his face when I mentioned that Ultra the Multi-Alien was one of my favorite superheroes.

As a regular customer, I got a special souvenir of that day, which I am sharing with you. Keith had Alex illustrate the event on a ditto master. (Remember dittos? If you were a student before 1980, before bulk photocopying was affordable, then you ought to recall their weird purple ink and intoxicating alcoholic scent.) He ran off several copies, and the next week gave them out to people who had been there. After thirty years, my copy is a bit faded and yellowed, but I cleaned it up to show it to you here. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

The store window didn't really say "Free -- Cheap -- Easy" and the guy at the register wasn't napping, but other than that, most of the scene is as I remember it. There were several customers who showed up in costume, including a skinny Superman (who did resemble a young Christopher Reeve), a senior Lone Ranger, a pretty cute Storm, Moon Knight, and a guy in a gorilla suit. I don't remember if there were any extraterrestrials there, or if they were a product of Alex's imagination.

I don't remember seeing Plastic Man, but there was a minor debate over who was the better character, him or the Elongated Man. Marv settled the issue by declaring that the two aren't really comparable. Elongated Man only stretches, while Plas is primarily a shape-changer.

Len Wein arrived late, so Alex squeezed him in under the table between Marv and Bob, anticipating the "Where's Waldo?" books by seven years. In the real world, they found him a chair.

The bearded chap in the dark suit on the left is Keith Mallow himself. Keith was probably dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, but Bob and Alex had recently used him as the model for a character named "Mallo, Keeper of the Cosmic Balance" in a two-part Atom story in Action Comics #515 and DC Comics Presents #30, so Alex drew him as Mallo here. He looks a bit like Abel from House of Secrets.

Like many other comic shops of the 1980s, Fantasy Kingdom is long gone. There's now a hair salon in its old location. But it was a fun place to hang out while it lasted.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Museum With Character

Last week, I had the long-overdue pleasure of visiting the Barker Character, Comic, and Cartoon Museum in Cheshire, CT. The museum has been in existence since 1997, but I only learned about it a few months ago.

The Museum consists of two buildings: the Gallery, where hundreds of animation cels and cartoon-themed paintings are on display; and the Museum itself, which contains two stories of glass-enclosed toys, books, magazines, lunchboxes, Pez dispensers, and other products that should have anyone over the age of thirty muttering "I used to have one of those" more than once.

No photography is allowed inside either building, but the grounds outside are decorated with over two dozen murals and life-sized cutouts of cartoon characters that you can pose alongside.

I used to enjoy visiting the National Cartoon Museum in Rye Brook, NY, before it relocated to Boca Raton, FL, and later closed. The Barker Museum is a different, though equally enjoyable, experience. The NCM was comic strip and comic book oriented, with a huge collection of original artwork. The Barker Museum focuses more on toys and products based on comic and cartoon characters. It has no original comic-strip or -book artwork on display, though the Gallery does include a few framed prints of Peanuts strips by Charles Schulz. There are perhaps a half-dozen comic books on display in the Museum, notably a Famous First Edition reprint of Action Comics #1, which I discussed in a previous post.

Not only fictional characters are recognized here. There is also a large number of toys and items depicting real-life characters, like George Burns, Carol Channing, Dean Martin, and others. The Museum also boasts of its exhibits on the California Raisins and Celebriducks (a line of rubber ducks caricaturing familar faces from show business and politics), which I'd never heard of before.

I especially enjoyed seeing a corner devoted to Myron Waldman, an animator for the Fleischer Studios in the 1930s and '40s, who worked on the Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons, as well as a newspaper comic strip called Happy the Humbug. Myron used to live three miles away from me on Long Island, and was the subject of my first column in Hogan's Alley Magazine #12 in 2004.

The closest thing that I have to a criticism of the Barker Museum is that it's too tightly packed. Herb and Gloria Barker could spread their collection over twice the floor space, and it would still feel crowded. The story I was told is that Herb was a nostalgia buff whose collection grew too big for the house, so at Gloria's urging, he moved it out and put it on display. (Now I have an idea about what to do with my collection when it outgrows the basement.) The Barkers also own a company that manufactures promotional products. My friend, Merrill, works for a company that does business with them, and I found out about the Museum from her.

The museum is located on 1188 Highland Ave. in Cheshire, CT, about midway between Hartford and New Haven, six miles west of Route 91. You can take a virtual tour by watching the video on their website, but it's not as good as being there.

On the right, Bugs Bunny faces down Yosemite Sam; on the left, Baba Looey watches as Quick Draw McGraw faces down himself.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto, with their horses, Silver and Scout

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remember the Real Heroes

Ground Zero, 10/17/2008
Let's spend today remembering and thanking the real-life heroes of September 11, 2001, all of whom risked their lives, and many of whom lost them, at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and onboard UA Flight 93.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Some Heroes Have Silly Names, Too

I don't know who Doctor Hormone was, or what his gimmick was. I don't think I even want to know.

Maybe he can do something to help alleviate Perisphere Payne. It certainly sounds uncomfortable.

Okay, the gags are pretty lame. What can I say to apologize?


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Newsday Adds Comics

In an age when newspaper comics sections are quickly shrinking, Long Island Newsday has announced that it's adding a page to its Sunday comics section. In addition, it's asking readers to select the three comics that will appear there.

If you're a Newsday or Optimum Online subscriber, go here to cast your vote, and to comment on what your favorite and least favorite comic strips are in Newsday's current lineup.

The candidates for the new page are: Bizarro; Daddy's Home; Dustin; Pearls Before Swine; Prickly City; and Tundra. Personally, I wanted to vote for Frazz, Brewster Rockit, and 9 Chickweed Lane, none of which are in any NYC-area papers. But, the choices are what they are.

The poll closes on midnight, August 29. Vote now!

** UPDATE **

The voting is over, and the winners were: Pearls Before Swine, Dustin, and Tundra. All three were added to Newsday's Sunday comics section on September 5. The last one took me by surprise. I didn't think New Yorkers would go for a panel about the Great Northwest.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

What's In a Name?

Darth Vader! Doctor Doom! Luthor! Darkseid! Names that strike terror into the very depths of your heart. Well, maybe not. But at least they have an impact. You can tell from the sound of the name that this is supposed to be a really bad guy.

Unfortunately, not all villains were lucky enough to be gifted with such evil-sounding names. I was reading a Doctor Fate story from More Fun Comics #57 (Jul 1940) (reprinted in 2007's Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives Vol.1) in which the heroic Fate encountered a sinister sorcerer who was summoning fire-spirits to threaten wealthy victims into paying him protection money. The scoundrel's name? Mango the Mighty.

It's possible that, in 1940, most Americans outside of Florida didn't know what a mango is. Heck, I was in my twenties before I saw my first mango. But today, with half the restaurants in the country listing some sort of mango-enhanced dish on the menu, the name doesn't seem quite as eerie and mysterious as it may have back then.

In "The Mad Planet," a science fiction story in Mystery in Space #19 (Apr-May 1954) (reprinted in 1999's Pulp Fiction Library: Mystery in Space), a young married couple vacationing in space (in the distant future year of 1989) land on an uncharted world ruled by an escaped convict named Thong -- King Thong. Even in the real 1989, Thong was not exactly a name that would inspire fear and respect among prison inmates. No wonder he escaped from Sing Sing.

In 1980, DC Comics began a series called "The Creature Commandos" in Weird War Tales #93. (The panel on the left is from issue #97.) It starred a squad of monstrous soldiers recruited to fight for the USA in World War 2. The vampiric member of the team was named Velcro -- Sgt. Vincent Velcro. At that time, the product called Velcro wasn't yet a household word. I'm not even sure whether Velcro fasteners on sneakers had been introduced yet. But the product was around, and the name seemed kind of silly for a vampire. (The character has since been rechristened -- if that's an appropriate thing to do to a vampire -- Vincent Velcoro.)

So there you have them. Three characters intended to inspire terror, who ended up taking a ribbing because of their less-than-impressive names. Maybe there was a time when the names Velcro, Thong, and Mango could have sent a chill down the spine. But today, what sort of reaction do they evoke? I don't know about you, but there's only one thing they make me want to do:


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cathy Calls It Quits

AAACK! After 34 years in syndication, cartoonist Cathy Guisewite is retiring. Unlike many of her colleagues, she's chosen to retire her comic strip, Cathy, as well, instead of continuing it in reruns or turning the reins over to another cartoonist. The final strip will appear on Sunday, October 3.

I haven't read Cathy in years, since the New York newspapers stopped carrying it. Nonetheless, I hate to see a strip with such a history behind it fade away. But on the other hand, I applaud the fact that this opens a gap for an up-and-coming cartoonist to fill. Let's hope they give us something as new and different as Cathy was when it debuted in 1976, instead of the 30,000th suburban-family strip. (Some of them can be pretty funny, true, but enough is enough.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Real Deal on the Man of Steel

Last week, the news carried the story of a family somewhere in the southern United States whose home was saved by Superman. The family, who understandably choose to remain anonymous at present, was evicted from the house that they have lived in since the 1950s. While packing up their belongings, they discovered an object in the basement that must have been left by the previous occupants: a copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman from 1938.

Action #1 has been in the news a lot lately. In the past two years, three copies have sold for $317,000, $1 million, and $1.5 million, respectively. The family contacted and had their copy appraised. It is expected to bring in a quarter of a million at auction next month, and the bank has agreed to hold off on foreclosure until then.

[UPDATE: The issue sold at auction for $436,000 -- almost twice what was estimated. I haven't read any more about the family who sold it, but I assume that they saved their house -- or maybe bought a better one -- and are now living in comfort.]

Only about 100 copies of Action #1 are known to exist. Seven copies have turned up since all the publicity began. Though there’s been no publicity about it, I suspect that a number of counterfeits have turned up as well. As such a landmark in comic book history, the magazine has been reprinted several times. A speculator might try to pass off one of these reprints as the original, intentionally or otherwise. Here are a few tips to help you tell the difference between the real debut of the Man of Steel and the many imperfect duplicates.

In most cases, the easiest way to tell a fake is by thickness. The original 1938 issue was 64 pages long (not including the cover), 13 of which were taken up by the Superman story. Most of the duplicates have reprinted only the Superman story. The original also included Chuck Dawson (a Western), Zatara (a crimefighting magician), South Sea Strategy (a two-page text story), Sticky-Mitt Stimson (a humor strip), The Adventures of Marco Polo (the 13th century explorer), Pep Morgan (a boxer), Scoop Scanlon (a crusading reporter), Tex Thomson (a world-traveling adventurer), Stardust (a page of Hollywood trivia) and Odds ‘N Ends (a page of sports trivia).

There is one notable exception. In 1974, DC Comics reprinted several classic comic books from the 1930s and ‘40s under the blanket title, Famous First Edition. These issues were exact copies of the originals, right down to the advertisements, wrapped in a protective cardboard cover. An unscrupulous con man could remove the outer cover and claim that he had a copy of the original magazine.

But there are two keys to identifying a Famous First Edition reprint. The first is size. Our hypothetical con man will tell you that comic books in the 1930s and ‘40s were larger than today’s comics, which is true. They were the same height, and about ¾ of an inch wider. The typical Golden Age comic book is about 10 inches high by 7.5 inches wide, a little smaller than a sheet of letter-size paper. But the FFE reprint measured 13.5” by 10”, a little larger than a modern tabloid newspaper.
A modern comic book on top of a Golden Age comic. Both are the same height, but notice the small difference in width.
A genuine Golden Age comic book next to a significantly larger Famous First Edition reprint.
A Famous First Edition reprint, with the outer cardboard cover, next to a tabloid-sized newspaper.

It’s impossible to judge the size of a book from a photograph, though, if there’s nothing else in the picture to compare it to. But there's another giveaway clue. On the cover of the real Action #1, there’s a streak of reflected light on the fender of the car that Superman is lifting. In the reprint, the fender is solid green.

Ironically, if our con man had left the cardboard cover stapled to his Famous First Edition, he might have been able to get up to $10 for it from a collector. But with the cover removed, it’s not even worth a dollar.