Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Continuity Comics Part 3: Cover Story

Continuity Comics is a strange traveler in comics history; its roots are with its creator Neal Adams in the exceptionally mainstream 1970s, its origins date back to the first big indie boom of the 1980s, its heyday was in the tumultuous market-driven 1990s and, today, it sort of gamely pokes at motion comics and licensed properties via its internet hub.

If there were a particular era, however, where Continuity most seemed at home, it would definitely be in the Nineties: Bloodier and grimmer than the average super-hero or adventure comic, loaded with terse codenames and stabby knife-hands and the like, muddily colored, utterly unedited, and – most importantly – ultimately subscribing to the gimmick cover phenomenon.

Some day I will light this fucking thing
on fire, I swear ...
There was a time, not so long ago, when every new comics day meant a rainbow of gimmick covers spread out across your local shop’s “Latest Releases” rack: gold foil, silver foil, platinum foil and holograms, glow-in-the-dark, embossed and die-cut, drilled-through and sweetly made love to in the men’s bathroom at Brenner Printing by the weird guy who works the night shift (not to mention a plethora of polybagged cards, pogs and – in the exceptionally grim case of the Death of Superman issue – a black armband).

Continuity certainly couldn’t resist the allure of the gimmick cover, so a decent number of their own stock came out with bells and whistles.

During its Deathwatch 2000 crossover - stay tuned for Deathwatches 2001 through 2011, we’re due! – Continuity invested heavily in the stereogrammatic process, which was a process requiring the viewer to stand staring cross-eyed at a dorm room wall until the pot leaf became visible.

As amusing an idea as it is to picture hundreds of comic book readers staring cross-eyed at inside covers, the pay-off was less than ambitious – you had revealed to you the Deathwatch 2000 logo, which was plastered over all the front of the comic and across a bazillion pages of advertising besides.

Here’s a quick run-down of some of Continuity’s other gimmick covers:
  • Crazyman – or, as I like to call it, “The most sensitive portrayal of mental illness in the history of everything” – joined the die-cut fervor with a Golden Book-style shaped book featuring Crazyman getting his head molested by the hand of an unseen assailant. If that don’t sell a book, I don’t know what will.
  • Hybrids had one of the most annoying cover gimmicks ever – a thermodynamic patch which was supposed to change color under the heat of your hand to reveal the primary villain of the series. I own this goddamn book and I can promise you that it DOES. NOT. WORK. I literally even dropped freshly dried laundry on it once, hoping to generate some result, but no juice. Evidently, the enemy of the series was an indistinct orange blob. Next up, I’m going to light this thing on fire.
  • Ms.Mystic, who typically wore zip-a-tone body stockings in her appearances, was portrayed statically dishabille on one cover of her own comic via stereogrammatic printing, capitalizing on the idea that a teenage boy will stare cross-eyed at something for hours providing it vaguely resembles tits in some fashion.
  • The Hybrids and Megalith also had some common-or-garden foil covers while Cyberrad has a hologram card insert. Booo! Bring on the mulch and phosphorus covers! Where’s the imagination?

There are probably twenty thousand
copies of this thing floating in that swirling
plastic mass in the Pacific Ocean ...
The best of all of them, however, was Continuity’s love affair with TYVEK, a space-age polymer out of which the company’s later covers were uniformly made, and which Continuity advertised as “INDESTRUCTIBLE”. I have not yet put this to the test, although I bet I probably could. I could always huck it on the fire with that thermodynamic issue of Hybrids.

Tyvek is a material used in environmental hazard suits and those wristbands you get at street fairs which allow you to drink beer (by which I mean they identify you as old enough to drink beer and that you’ve shown ID to the right people, not that it physically allows you to drink beer. I expect you knew that. Sorry, I’ve been drinking beers. Probably because of all the Tyvek I have lying around now) and which are impossible to remove without a blowtorch or Wolverine.

Additionally, Tyvek is meant to be recyclable BUT you can’t just huck it in your blue bin and wait for the nice garbage collector to take it away. It has to be specially disposed of in a dedicated facility. Which makes it additionally hilarious that the Tyvek was used on the covers of Ms Mystic and URTH 4, two books whose heroes were meant to be super-powered protectors of the environment…

Yeah, see what I mean?
Bucky O’Hare
Continuity’s entry into the world of anthropomorphic action-adventure, and arguably the one title least messed with by Adams in his role as enthusiastic editorial overseer. Produced by Larry Hama and Michael Golden, the series started in the Continuity anthology Echoes of Futurepast and ended up in its own graphic novel, video game, cartoon series and toy line. So, arguably the most successful of the Continuity properties, providing there hasn’t been a Cable ACE Award-winning Crazyman miniseries I’ve missed running over on HBO. Larry David’s Cyberrad. Something like that.

Bucky O’Hare got a lot of credit for its serious and violent tone, and to this day a lot of fans of the series praise it for its maturity. I’m gonna get some mail from those folks but – it’s a shoot-em-up about a green rabbit in space fighting robot toads with help from a displaced tweenie human pal. There’s only so much maturity you can cram into such a thing, this ain’t Usagi Yojimbo exactly…

Rockstar Simon Peak awakens one day to find his memory wiped, parts of his body replaced with cybernetic weapons and implants, and some dumb robot pursuing him for whatever reason. I don’t know from any of that, except that – having read several dozen assorted Continuity offerings - I envied Cyberrad for having his mind wiped.

Everything in the Continuity line at this point is relatively bog-standard Continuity-brand yelling and half-swears, but Cyberrad takes it to a whole new dimension with: MOTION COMICS! Never letting a property die a dignified death – or live a dignified life, I suppose – modern Continuity studios has put together a Cyberrad motion comic, complete with live action and oh-let’s-say slightly substandard cgi sequences to create something that looks like an even more adolescent version of Cool World or A-Ha’s Take On Me Pt2: The Reckoning:

You could certainly read a whole series like this, right?
Ms Mystic and URTH 4
Urth! Ayre! Fyre! Watr! I’m clearly having a stroke!

Urth 4 had debuted back in Ms.Mystic’s Pacific Comics series as The Elementals, but then were sat on for a decade and whoopsie Bill Willingham came along and claimed the name for his excellent-at-the-time-but-have-you-tried-rereading-it-since title of that specific name (i.e. The Elementals, not “excellent-at-the … “ etc etc). Anyway, I’ll give you a dollar if you can guess the super-powers of each of the individual members of URTH 4, and then I’ll take the dollar away because, for Christs sake, look at ‘em.

Ms Mystic herself was a victim of 17th century witch-trials, except she was also apparently actually a witch, so … score one for the witch-trials. She returned as a heavy investor in zip-a-tone with a bend for environmental issues and for staggering out a publishing schedule over a decade or so.

Special insider knowledge for you aficionados of Urth 4: The guy who turned into Urth would suddenly find himself speaking in a Thor-ful pidgin Elizabethan dialect whenever he transformed and also, believe it or not, his name was Dwight Godd. Of the Pennsylvania Godds. Here’s some more special insider knowledge for you aficionados of Urth 4: There are no aficionados of Urth 4.

Hint: It's the one with claws.
The Hybrids – or “Highbreeds”, enh – consisted of seven half-human/half-alien super-people from a baker’s half-dozen of alien worlds in this half-baked half-witted geegaw. See what I did there? Half jokes is what I did there.

The Hybrids consisted of Cyclone, Gymcrack, Horror, Hyperion, Mite, Sheath and Sprang, and if you say them all out loud in a row without pausing then you sound like a maniac.

The plot of the comic centered around the fact that all seven of the Hybrids shared a psychic link, despite the vast intergalactic distance between their homeworlds. United by their common Earthling heritage, they all came here to crash on our couch while shooting raybeams at robots and monsters and stuff.

You recall how incomprehensible your average Continuity Comic was with just ONE protagonist? How jumbled and impossible-to-follow Toyboy was, or Armor, or Samuree? Okay, try seven protagonists in one book. It’s like tuning all the televisions in Sears’ electronics department to a different channel and blasting the volume. PS Guess which one of these guys was their Wolverine…

Valeria The She-Bat
Okay. Valeria the She-Bat was legitimately so lame a character that I had her conflated with another company’s incredibly lame she-bat superhero.

Valeria is a hybrid, specifically a were-bred, more specifically a were-bat, and also somehow a fashion model. More famously, though, Valeria was intended to enjoy a crossover with Todd Mcfarlane’s Spawn – a crossover on which McFarlane voted with his feet, pulling out for reasons of his own. The Spawn appearances were redrawn to involve Knighthawk. That right there accounts for pretty much everything I know about Valeria the She-Bat, except this was the one Continuity/Windjammer comic that finally got to get the female lead almost raped. A RED-LETTER DAY!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Many Foes of Luke Cage, Power Man (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

On the other hand, I
think it's a shame when
people DON'T go out
of their way to make
Christmas festive.
#6 This Freaking Maniac
Debuting in a Steve Engelhart story delightfully titled "Jingle BOMBS", I hesitate to mention - but can't see any way around it - that this villain very likely may have been intended to have been called "The Schizo". Luke off-handedly refers to him by that moniker on two occasions, and we get no alternate sobriquet from this highly theatrical loomakick, so "Schizo" it is. My apologies to America's mental health professionals and its many full-blown street-legal wackadoos.

Schizo pops up in a story taking place on Christmas Eve - supposedly a year after Luke Cage escaped from Seagate Prison and took up the identity of Harlem's Hero for Hire - which means that our hero gets to partake in the weirdest pastiche of A Christmas Carol ever committed to paper.

Dressed like Ebeneezer Scrooge, Schizo is first encountered by Luke Cage on accounta the yuletide yobbo is taking his play acting too seriously and is beating the tar out of a little kid. Cage breaks it up, and Schizo returns later dressed as a legless vet begging on a streetcorner, and also shooting at Luke Cage with a machine gun from a street corner. And lastly, he returns as a law enforcement officer from the distant year of 1984 and threatens Cage with a laser pistol. Ta-Da!

In the end, Jingle BOMBS ends as do most Christmas stories - Schizo dresses up as a medieval executioner, is revealed to have an atomic bomb with which he plans to blow up "Manhatten" (sic, and there's clearly no excuse for that), and then a cat burglar falls down the chimney and distracts him so Luke can slap him on the face real hard. God bless us, every one!

This is amazing.
#7 Hass du geseht in deine leben? The schwartze wants I should giff him ein bische geld!
Doctor Doom - Tyrant, Genius, Anti-Hero, magical Momma's Boy, backup repository for fridge magnets, and - most importantly of all - welsher.

You've seen this one already, but just for the record, here it goes: Over the course of a two-issue story arc, Doctor Doom hires Luke Cage to beat the tar out of some rogue Latverian robots of his who've disguised themselves as black men. He specifically hires Cage because, as he says, "I needed a black, and I needed to hire him". You've just described the central premise of the book, Doom, well done!

Hilariously, Doom then defaults on Cage's $200 fee for no reason and returns to Latveria, so Cage basically jacks the Fantasticar and flies there to demand his check. There's a big throwdown, an assassination attempt on Doom which Cage stops, and a grateful Victor von Doom whipping two hundred bucks in American cash from his funky European man-purse. I'm barely kidding about that.

I was actually disappointed that there weren't more collections-based storylines in the book: Luke is hired to repossess The Wizard's Camaro. Luke is tipped off that the Red Skull is stealing cable. Luke gets a contract gig with Rent-A-Center and has to get the couches and washing machine from The Masters of Evil headquarters. The stories write themselves!

"It's a real bear to
try and rub one out,
I must confess ..."
#8 Mister Men and Little Misses
Gambling czar of New York, Ramon Garcia was known in his legitimate business as "Senor Suerte" - Mister Luck - and to the criminal underworld of which he was a part as "Senor Muerte" - Mister Death. Oh, but also he was known to the criminal underworld as Senor Suerte, because his whole gimmick was that he wore a roulette wheel on his chest and as he spun it, one of his gloves became electrified and the other didn't and if it didn't and you touched that glove then everyone was all "Oh hey Senor Suerte, 'sup?"

It's almost exactly like that old nursery rhyme: "Senor Suerte / Senor Muerte / When he spins his chest roulette / If one hand's electric his name is Senor Muerte / If one hand's not electric his name is Senor Suerte / He wasn't that smart and he electrocuted himself /  Awww Suffragette."

There is a prescient moment in the comic when, in a single panel flashback, Senor S(M)uerte regales a flunky with an anecdote about how he once scored a perfect 100% on an intelligence test - not because he was smart but because he was lucky. I've never before seen a master villain admit that he was a dunderhead, but then I've never seen a master villain who'd accidentally electrocute himself if he was trying to dig his keys out of the wrong pocket.

One of the very few villains to wear a working gambling device on his outfit, and yet he bore no relation to the villain I just made up, Pachinko Pants Pat. Damn shame that.

That's not skin-colored, man.
#9 The foot-shootin'est villain of them all!
Repeat-villain (sort-of) Chemistro was super-scientist research flunky Curtis Carr - a man who somehow not only invented a gun which could turn anything it hit into another element, but also made it so simple that he'd later on be able to just describe the process to a cellmate and that uneducated slob could build one of his own. Yet, did he realize that he'd invented a thing which could make gold out of loose gravel and coffee grounds and so he had no real incentive to become a super-villain? No, he did not.
Chemistro and Cage tumble in an battle which ends with Chemistro wisely deciding to give himself an advantage over Cage's terrific strength and steel-hard skin by transmuting his own foot into solid steel. And then it disintegrates, which even if it didn't, it was still not smart to turn one's own foot to solid steel.

Unrelatedly, the first appearance of Chemistro was reprinted a few years after it originally run in the pages of the very same magazine. This was evidence that Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, was SO poor he couldn't even afford inventory material. Snap!

"But at least I acknowledge my limitations. That
is the first step towards real emotional growth, no?"
#10 Rawr!
Easily my favorite Power Man villain, and of course he up and died at the end of his first appearance.
Dig it: Alejandro Cortez, schoolteacher, invents a machine capable of giving students the knowledge of their professors. When the educational community for some reason turns down the device, Alejandro uses it to teach a bunch of jungle cats how to speak Spanish and to kill on command,and then he dresses himself up in an admirably crazy-ass costume and also has gloves that shoot electricity because he loves the circus. Which is why he wears leopard-print undies.

Oh, and he can do trapeze stuff. Guys, this is the greatest comic book villain ever. I'll trade you two Magnetos and all my spare Red Skulls if we can just elevate Lionfang back to the peak of Marvel's villain heap.

Stay tuned for The Many Foes of Luke Cage, Power Man parts three through whatever, I still haven't counted all these guys.

I think that might be Will Elder's mom.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Solson Comics - Gary & Al:How To Draw Sexy Women (The Comic)

I've never been able to precisely put my finger on the reason, but this is a fact: Above and beyond all other comic companies, I hate Solson Publications.

Your Humble Editor's relationship with many of the comics covered on this blog is complex and may contain multitudes of contradictions. There's the feeling to be had, as a for instance, about companies like Continuity and Atlas/Seaboard, where the potential was great but the execution was club-footed. Likewise, there are series like Secret Wars II and Kitty Pryde and Wolverine where a simple premise was overwhelmed by escalating pretensions, or you've got stories like "Krypto-Mouse" which are so enthusiastically stupid that they grab the reader's sense of distaste and aggressively flip them over to pure love. Solson is none of these.

This looks like a manual for some-
thing the cops would frown on you
doing to a stranger.
My feelings towards Solson don't even mirror my distaste towards the execution-style editing oversight of Dan Didio or the institutionalized misogyny, passive racism and hypocritical class boosterism of comics in general; Solson doesn't register that level of offensiveness, even in a book legitimately titled "How to Draw Sexy Women" - far from it, in fact. Solson is just so godawfully mediocre.

The backstory of Solson is brief: Founded by Gary Brodsky, son of Marvel exec and onetime Fantastic Four member Sol Brodsky (thus "Sol's Son" comics), artistic elements largely (man)handled by Rich Buckler, the most dynamic artist in comics assuming all the other artists are taking the day off.

I shouldn't take potshots at Buckler, who is a longtime comics vet on a bazillion titles, but who is unfortunately also possibly one of the most boring artists in ZZZZZZZZ. Sorry about that. I was finishing that sentence and found myself thinking about Buckler's art, and it put me to sleZZZZZZZZZZZ.

Therein lies the real problem with Solson: Buckler had dozens of titles under his belt, Brodsky was the son of a founding Marvel artist and production manager - Brodsky's dad was Stan Lee's right-hand man and Buckler's collaborations were with some of Marvel's most daring writers, and yet the whole endeavor was a mish-mosh of dull. The Solson properties fell into three camps:
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles swipes, ranging all the way from The Bushido Blade of Zaitoichi Walrus to an instructional guide on ninjitsu taught by an actual Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (where better to learn?)
  • Dumb girly books which barely qualified as stroke material, such as Sultry Teenage Super-Foxes and Iron Maidens.
  • Gory pop-culture pastiches, e.g.Texas Chainsaw Samurai, a footnote in the complicated publishing history of the THUNDER Agents, and most notably their biggest hit Reagan's Raiders, a book where a Rambo-ic Ronnie and three of his top staffers machine gun America's enemies in a story too tame to be satire and too stupid to be good.

That's really all there is to it!
If Reagan's Raiders wasn't off-putting enough, then prepare to be sufficiently put off by Solson's How To Draw Comics Comic series. The title is drawn from the fact that it is, you see, a comic about how to draw comics, except a book isn't a comic book just because it's comic-sized and printed on comic paper. If I printed a comic book and inside it was wallpaper samples and a shopping list ("Pick up more wallpaper samples"), then it isn't a comic book. A comic book has conventions of storytelling which make it a comic book. The Solson How To Draw series were illustrated instructional pamphlets, and also they were lousy at it.

I only ever found the first and third issues of the series, so I can only speak to those installments, but I can at the very least attest to a pretty significant drop in quality between the unbelievably shitty third issue and the first, which was merely a rotten-as-hell ripoff.

To its credit, the first volume boasted some legitimate bad girl comics cred by way of including artists Buzz and Louis Small Jr, both of whom had acquired some fame for their contributions to Harris Comics' Vampirella at the time and also neither of whom you've thought about since 1992 until I mentioned them. You're welcome.

Likewise, the first issue had the elder John Romita providing several pages of basic but essential information regarding anatomical structure. Keep in mind that it wasn't explicitly information on how to draw sexy women, and it was certainly in there in order to justify the book's labeling as an art instructional, but ... wait, I'm not sure what my point was. Keep that in mind, though.

By and large, the remainder of the book was shy on actual instruction, and it became pretty clear pretty quickly that this was a cynical attempt to throw together a pinup book and fill spare pages with assorted sketchbook doodles (each issue also included blank pages in the front and back, I guess so aspiring artists could practice their pen techniques or chronic masturbators could tear something out of the book to clean up the mess, one'a the two).

Come to the third issue, the gig is up, and all the production values - inside and outside of the book - fall apart. Far from the color cover of the first issue, the third ish is two-color on white and even uses freakin' Hobo as one of the fonts. I mean, I love Morris Fuller Benton and the American Type Foundry and all, but ... Hobo?* (Those last two sentences may be invisible to people who are not typography nerds)

A Nazi uniform, for instance. A
Hazmat suit. Anything, really
As for the interior art, it's now been cut back to a single illustration per page AND the same illustration shown in different stages over multiple pages, the end result being altogether as erotic as a tire fire in a sewage treatment facility. Even as far as wank material goes, that's pushing it.

The only possible high point is, at this point, the obvious desperation in the captioning, insisting that these hasty sketches of ladies with one boob showing is the ultimate in sexuality. "This is raw sexuality jumping off the page" insists the caption accompanying an illustration which resembles as topographic map of Arkansas in thigh high boots. "Sexy shoes add the touch sometimes!" Sometimes. "Fishnet stockings always accentuate sexuality!" Not if you're a fish.

As an aside, a good way to determine if an artist has a future in the erotic side of art is to take a look at whether he's willing to draw a lady's private parts or her legs below the thigh. If she's as smooth as a dolphin's muzzle and needs a boost to get into the booth at Round Table Pizza, then you're probably dealing with an artist who doesn't really belong in the biz of the lady drawin's.

Yeah, I couldn't be more turned on.
In the end, what makes How To Draw Sexy Women The Comic so awful is just that it's such a blatantly cynical attempt to cash in on what was already the most cynically marketed period in comics history. Before this book, you could almost believe that Solson was merely a collection of unremarkable, unimaginative comic fans running a vanity press simply because they wanted to produce comics, no matter how ineptly and pointlessly. After this book, it couldn't be clearer that they were in it for the cash, but couldn't even bother their asses to put some real effort into it. In the end, that's the real crime - it's one thing to crash and burn, it's another thing to deserve to crash and burn, but it's altogether wrong to deserve to crash and burn and to do it small.

And now: Your How To Draw Sexy Women (The Comic) instructional art gallery! Tell me if you figure out which of these ladies is Gary and which is Al.

(Behind the cut for possible NSFW-ness)

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