Wednesday, January 30, 2008

THE MIGHTY THOR #432 Marvel Comics, 1991

The Mighty Thor #432 is, as the cover informs us, the 350th appearance of Thor, one of the greatest comic book characters ever made. EVER.

It's sort of a strange milestone, because it's not technically the 350th appearance of the character in print, it's the 350th comic book published by Marvel starring Thor. They're not counting the Thunder God's appearances in The Avengers or What If? or Godzilla or even in Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe, so it's probably more like the 1,213th appearance of Thor. But really, who wants to tally all those comics up? Not I.

As you might imagine, an "anniversary" issue like this one has a certain musky nostalgic odor, a quality present in all the comics of the DeFalco/Frenz/Milgrom run on The Mighty Thor. These guys tried - and usually succeeded - to capture the pomp and majesty and epic scope of those early Thor issues they clearly loved. This particular creative team didn't just drink from the creative wellspring of the first Lee/Kirby Thor comics, they chugged it greedily from a beer bong. One could fault them for not taking the character in new directions, but I prefer to be gracious and think of this era of the comic as Thor Done Right. But then, I am old. Old and bald.

To be fair, writer Tom DeFalco, a Marvel Bullpen veteran, did have a slightly different take on the Thor paradigm. Instead of using Thor's traditional human alter-ego Dr. Donald Blake, DeFalco introduced Erik Masterson as the new human host of Asgardian godliness. In this issue, Masterson's scrappy little son Kevin is held hostage by Thor's evil half-brother Loki, the Norse god of mischief (I named one of my dogs Loki, BTW), which really pisses Thor off. The two mortal, er, immortal enemies face off in a New York skyscraper in a final duel that only one god is walking or flying away from. At least until Marvel brought Loki back, that is.

The big brother vs brother fight that takes up the entire issue is suitably operatic and grandiose. Loki and Thor are evenly matched, and both are experts at Shakespearian trash-talking. Loki relies on cunning, magic, and a total lack of scruples, while Thor relies on his ability to hit things really hard, including Loki's face (see greatest panel ever, right).

But Thor's no idiot, regardless of what people say. In the sequence below he exploits his bro's greed and power lust by tossing him mjolnir, his enchanted mallet. Of course, only the truly worthy can wield mjolnir, a fact that Loki forgets. He catches the hammer - and promptly plunges through thirty-odd stories of skyscraper.


Thrown into the mix is Code: Blue, the NYPD's special anti-supervillain SWAT team who were regular supporting characters in the DeFalco/Frenz era. I loved these guys and have always been disappointed that they never caught on and became permanent fixtures of the Marvel Universe. Led by the stoic Lt. Marcus Stone, Code: Blue was a team of bad-ass misfits with names like Fireworks, Mad Dog, and Rigger. Maybe they were a little corny, but I'd pit Code: Blue against Hardcase and the Harriers any day of the week.

Here's the team leaping into action. Now either their SWAT van has a custom siren or they are all yelling "YA-HOO!!" as they bail out the back - I can't tell which. And look out, Lt. Stone! You're about to step on that very small woman and her very small car!

Incidentally, my wife and I often refer to toddler potty and poo incidents as Code: Yellow and Code: Brown. I don't even want to think what Code: Blue would denote.

Anyway, the happy-go-lucky cops remove young Kevin Masterson from harm's way so Thor can kick the shit out of his rival without stressing about the lil' youngster getting hit by a stray blast of Asgardian voodoo. The Code: Blue guys also attempt to arrest Loki, which doesn't go so well. I'm not sure what kind of procedures NYPD has for detaining evil Norse gods, but I imagine flexi-cuffs and a paddy wagon wouldn't be adequate.

Thor finally gets to cut loose, verbally and physically:

"I'd like to dedicate this act of violence to innocents everywhere - to children all around the world." Thor is a class act, I'm telling ya.

Long story short: Loki zaps one of the more expendable supporting characters, which is just one evil act too many for Thor. In defiance of some stupid Asgardian law, Thor sucks all the life energy out of Loki with mjolnir, killing him (for now.) For some reason, this upsets both Lt. Stone and Thor's dad Odin, although I can't imagine why. You'd think slaying the God of Evil would get him a pat on the back at least, but no.

After the dust clears, Thor and Stone have a heart-to-heart over some coffee outside the battle zone. "You did wrong, Thor!" Stone tells him. "No one should take the law into his own hands! Not even a thunder god!"

That's some bullshit right there. What charges would the District Attorney's office file against Thor, exactly? "Your honor, the accused um, he sucked the victim's soul into his magic hammer and the victim, um, exploded we believe. What kind of world do we live in if we allow people to blow up evil gods? The accused is a flight risk, literally, and we ask that bail be set at two million gold pieces."

In the end, Thor faces the justice of the gods and gets his own soul sucked out of him, or something. Because if there's one thing ancient Viking gods cannot condone, it's killing. Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me, either.

However! That doesn't diminish the awesomeness of Thor #432. Well, maybe a little. But as an added bonus, they reprint Journey into Mystery #83, by Stan and Jack, the first appearance of Thor. In this story, Stan Lee establishes the time-honored tradition of smack-talking that continues to this day in Thor comics:

"I have proven the power of the hammer and the might of the thunder god are invincible! Nothing can conquer Thor! Nothing!! "

Aye, verily.

Monday, January 28, 2008

My new gig

Next week I begin working for my new Corporate Overlords, ABC television, and let me tell you, I'm pretty darn excited about the whole thing. I will be the resident blogger at, commenting on ABC's prime-time programming on a little blog-within-a-huge-website called "Live from L.A." I'll post a link on the sidebar when the blog formally launches next week.

FAQ time!

Q: "Why is it called 'Live from L.A.', Dave? Don't you live in Seattle?"
A: Yes, but the servers are located in L.A. Okay, the servers are located in Burbank. Actually, I have no clue where the servers are located - they won't tell me. Besides, I could get fired at a moment's notice and be replaced by somebody from Nova Scotia, so ABC is playing it safe. Nobody wants to read a blog called "Live from Bainbridge Island" anyway.

Q: "Have you sold out, Dave?"
A: Yes, happily. Next question.

Q: "They're going to fire you, aren't they?"
A: After reading this, probably.

Q: "Are you shutting down Dave's Long Box?"
A: No, I'll still be updating Dave's Long Box every two months or so just like I'm doing now. Ha! My Corporate Masters have agreed to let me keep blogging, but since Disney owns ABC, I have to go back and retroactively edit all profanity and references to Power Girl. Ha ha! I kid. I can write whatever the heck I want, darn it. I have agreed not to appear nude on DLB, however.

Q: "Will they let you write whatever you want, or are you just a P.R. shill for The Man?"
A: I'm pretty much just a P.R. shill for The Man, yes. Actually, they've given me a free hand to write whatever I want pretty much, which includes being a smart ass. However, I unconditionally love every show on ABC already, so I see no problems. Why yes, I AM a huge Desperate Housewives fan - thank you for asking.

Q: "How did you get the job?"
A: I'm not sure, I think they have me confused with somebody else. They keep asking me to sing "Mack the Knife" so they may think I am this guy.

Q: "Who is going to win Dance War?"
A: Please. Bruno all the way.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Friday Night Fights: Batman vs Deacon Blackfire

The mighty Bahlactus has spoken, and the word is: FIGHT!

For too long Dave's Long Box has sat out the fisticuffs of Bahlactus' Friday Night Fights, but no longer!

Images from Batman: The Cult #4 by Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Lost in Translation: From Script to Page

Mainstream comic books are rarely the product of one fertile imagination and talent. They are, to one degree or another, created by a team of motley individuals who band together for a common cause - much like the A-Team, but often much fatter.

Sure, you got your Matt Wagners and Erik Larsens out there* who have often single-handedly created entire comic books, doing all the writing, penciling, inking, coloring, and lettering themselves, but for the most part comics from the big publishers are produced by a team of creators who may never even meet each other face-to-face. A writer turns in his script, which is then passed on to a series of artists who pencil, ink, color, and letter the book, all under the all-knowing guidance of The Editor. (Editors have such important positions that their job title is capitalized, much like Realtors.)

The most crucial, fragile, and often dysfunctional relationship in this whole matrix is the creative bond between the writer and the penciler. These are the cats who are responsible for telling the actual story in the comic book, and if the two are not in simpatico, your comic book can get fucked up real bad.

A brief and likely unnecessary word on the process: These days, comic book writers create a detailed script for artists to illustrate. The script is broken down page by page and panel by panel, with dialogue and scene directions that describe the action. A good example of a standard format can be found here on the Dark Horse Comics website, but there is no real industry standard format.

The artist responsible for the pencils and layouts gets this script and then interprets it visually. If he or she is lucky, the writer doesn't get crazy with "camera directions" in the script and allows enough room for the artist to do what he or she theoretically does best, telling a story with pictures. Sometimes the writer and artist have a great relationship and work really well together, and sometimes they don't. And sometimes the artist just does whatever the hell they want regardless of what the damn script says.

I first noticed this disconnect in Batman: Year Two, a four-part series by writer Mike Barr that chronicles a young Batman's encounter with The Reaper, a spooky masked vigilante with no qualms about using his big-ass scythes on bad guys. The Reaper happens to be the father of a woman that Bruce Wayne has fallen in love with - how's that for shitty luck? Oh, umm, SPOILER! Sorry. Anyway, the first issue was drawn by Alan Davis, a modern legend and master of comic book art. For whatever reason, the rest of the series was drawn by this up-and-coming artist named Todd McFarlane. This pissed Young Dave off.

Despite being disappointed in the lack of Alan Davis Goodness for the rest of the storyline, it was interesting to see two different artists interpret different parts of the same script. Clearly Davis was the more accomplished sequential artist. Few living comic book artists could follow Alan Davis on a book and not suffer by comparison, and that was definitely the case with Year Two.

In the last chapter, drawn by McFarlane, Batman and The Reaper duel in a construction site under the moonlight, as superheroes often do. The climax of the story comes when Batman unmasks his foe and holy shit, it's his future father-in-law! But the big reveal is crammed into a few tiny panels at the bottom of a page. (see scan on left) A throw-away shot of Jim Gordon gets more page space than the climactic panel! Young Dave scratched his head, confused. How weird. Why would they jam this major story component into a few panels, almost as an afterthought.

The answer comes a few pages later, in a big full-page shot of Batman swinging over Gotham (see scan on right). Now here's my theory (and I could be totally wrong): McFarlane really wanted to end with a full-page shot of Batman, but it wasn't in Mike Barr's script. He's only got 22 pages to work with, so in order to make space for his pin-up shot he decides to move some other panels around. Maybe he draws the pages out of order, I don't know. But he gets in trouble and has to cram two pages worth of script into one page - and that one page just happens to be the most important page in the whole book. I could be totally off-base, but I would lay money that Barr's Year Two script didn't call for a pin-up page at the end and it was all McFarlane's doing. And as a result, what could have been a classic Batman comic is... not.

If anybody has insight into the making of Year Two, email me and let me know - if I'm mistaken I'll gladly eat my invisible hat and post a retraction of these slanderous lies.

Sure, there's got to be some give and take, some room for the artist to play around with the script. But it seems like the farther an artist deviates from the script, the more the story suffers.

Captain America and The Falcon is a good example. The kick-off storyline of this ill-fated title was written by Christopher Priest with Bart Sears on art. For whatever reason, Sears decided to get a little experimental and injected these huge pin-ups of Cap and Falcon as framing devices for the story panels. The result is an odd and unsatisfying read.

Take a look at a typical page:

Priest himself was baffled and kind of pissed about the end product, as he explains on his website:

"...Bart chose a page layout design that utterly confused even the most basic storytelling ... Ignoring instructions and warnings abut how important it was to keep the lines straight and clear, Bart chose to insert—for no apparent reason—poster-shot images of Captain America and the Falcon on most every page. Accommodating these required the other panels to be modified, reduced or eliminated altogether, making the pages very hard to follow. I wrote the thing and didn’t have an earthly clue what was going on."

Me either, Christopher.

Sometimes language differences between writer and artist(s) leads to disastrous and hilarious results, as in the case of Thor #499, The Worst Comic Book Ever Made Ever (which I discussed here and here.) The script, by one of my favorite writers Bill Messner-Loebs, is not great - and that's a nice way of saying it sucks. However, matters were made worse because the art chores were handled by an unknown number of Brazilian artists from Deodato Studios who didn't follow the not-great script very closely at all. Aside from the rushed art and hideous coloring, the costumes of certain characters change from panel to panel and a character who is supposed to get kidnapped in the beginning of the comic keeps popping up in the background of panels.

Here's a good example of what happens when a script truly gets lost in translation:

How exactly does Heimdall or whoever he is utter those lines when his mouth is gagged? Magic.

Sometimes even the most faithful interpretation of the writer's script can have unintended consequences, as in the case of New Avengers #35 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Leinl Yu. This is the moderately infamous issue where superhero Tigra gets ambushed in her apartment and beaten by the demonic Hood while one of his cronies videotapes the attack. Some readers (and non-readers) were upset because they felt the scene had a creepy, sexualized subtext and many accused Bendis of misogyny. In response to some of the criticism, Bendis did an interview with Newsarama and posted a portion of his script so people could read how the scene was described. Check it out, it's interesting reading.

One of the things that made the scene particularly unpalatable for some was the panel above, where one of Tigra's breasts is popping out of her blouse as she's pistol-whipped. The juxtaposition of sex and violence in this panel in particular is a little creepy. But as you can read for yourself, Bendis' script doesn't call for breast-poppage or describe the beating in titillating terms - that's all a decision made by Yu, who interpreted the script.

I think it's fair to find the scene upsetting because Tigra's beating is videotaped and later shown to The Hood's crew as a morale booster - that alone is loaded with enough connotations to make it extra-creepy. Bendis wrote that scene. But you can't really blame Bendis if the art seems disturbingly lascivious - he didn't draw the thing and didn't ask that it be drawn that way.

Augie over at Comic Book Resources is running an excellent feature, a "commentary track" from comic book creators that offers a behind the scenes look at the creation of a particular issue. I particularly enjoyed this commentary track from writer Peter David about the first issue of his new Dark Horse comic The Scream.

In the piece, David details with a sort of bemused resignation the frustrating and inevitable changes to the story as defined in his script. It's pretty funny and very illuminating, because you get the impression from David's commentary that shit like this happens all the time in comics.

The artist who interpreted David's script happens to be Bart Sears, who I swear I'm not trying to pick on. Take a look at this page from The Scream:

Here's Peter David's SPOILERY explanation of how just a little change to one panel can completely derail the entire story:

"Here's the thing--the reader is supposed to believe that Danny has transformed into the Scream. Except he hasn't, because the Scream is actually an illusion that everyone else is seeing but actually isn't there. Unfortunately the effect is undercut by the fact that Danny is visibly lying there in the lower left. He shouldn't be, nor is there anything in the script that indicates he should be. If this series is collected in trade, I'd really like it if Dark Horse could go back in and remove Danny from the art in that page."

Let's face it: Comic books often suck or just make no damn sense. But the reason why a book sucks ass is not always obvious. Sometimes the art is horrible, or the script is hackneyed and unoriginal. But sometimes, through circumstances beyond the control of the writer, the comic that reaches the shelves is not quite what he or she had in mind - something just gets lost in translation.

*I know that a huge number of small press comics are the creations of a single dedicated individual, and I tip my invisible hat to them, but I'm limiting the discussion to mainstream spandex fly/hit/explode comics.

Monday, January 21, 2008

MARVEL KNIGHTS #3 Marvel Comics, 2000

I've always enjoyed comics where The Punisher interacts with the rest of the costumed Marvel Universe. Usually The Punisher spends his nights aerating, defenestrating, and disintegrating street-level criminals, but on occasion he runs afoul or teams up with a superhero like Spider-Man or Daredevil. Because let's face it, The Punisher is sort of a superhero himself. Purists might take issue with that description, but the guy wears a spandex costume with a big skull logo. If you're wearing spandex with a logo, that makes you a superhero in my book - with the possible exception being Olympic downhill skiiers.

Sure, The Punisher would seem a little out of place teaming up with The Silver Surfer or (ugh) Quasar, but there are certain superheroes who gel nicely with the Man in Black. Therein lies the premise of Marvel Knights, the 2000 flagship title ofJoe Quesada's Marvel Knights imprint. This book and other MK titles like Daredevil sold very well - so well in fact that they gave Joey Q the keys to the proverbial kingdom and made him Marvel Editor-in-Chief, and then he totally fucked up Spider-Man and there was much vex and wroth in the land.

But we're not here to bitch about Spider-Man, much as I'd like to. Others have done so at greater length and more eloquently than I could. (Although what's up with the guy on YouTube who burned his copy of One More Day? Burning books is creepy, even comic books. You're not in good company if you burn books.)

Anyway, back to Marvel Knights. Chuck Dixon wrote this three-parter in which The Punisher assembles a gang of "do-gooders" to help him take down a mysterious new underworld menace in New York City. He ropes in Daredevil, The Black Widow, Motherfuckin' Shang-Chi, and Dagger (of Cloak & ...) to help him crush these new players in the NYC mob scene.

Turns out the bad guys are Asgardian monstroids led by Ulik the Troll, Thor's old sparring partner. The Punisher's ad hoc team quickly come to blow with these otherworldly creatures - and that means...


In this final issue of the storyline, the heroes have broken into three groups, more or less. The Punisher and his seemingly endless supply of weaponry take on Ulik in a suicidal battle before he can chop down a skyscraper with his bare hands. For reals, yo. Ulik is a Thor-level bad ass who can shrug off anything The Punisher can throw at him. Things don't look good for Frank Castle.

Meanwhile The Black Widow, Dagger, and Shang Chi defend a subway car from wave after wave of giant cockroach things. Oh, wait. That's Mimic. They defend a subway car from generic mindless Asgardian troll-things who all shop at the same tattered loincloth store. Things look bad for our heroes.

Here, the Widow supplies one of the civilians with a sidearm before the three heroes march out into the tunnel to bust some monster heads. The panels on this page overlay a big picture of The Black Widow in the background, but since I only scanned the bottom part of the page it looks a little odd: Panel 1, Panel 2, Panel 3, CLEAVAGE SHOT! You can't go wrong with out-of-context cleavage, no sir.

Unless I'm mistaken, there's a slight spelling error in the second panel, above. I think the phrase they were looking for was "repel boarders" and not "rebel boarders," unless The Widow is talking about Confederates in a hotel.

Moving on, Daredevil gets to the bottom of this whole Ulik Kraziness. The trolls are in town to recover a magic Asgardian horn, which an effete mobster has aquired as part of his art collection. I'm not sure what the signifigance of the horn is. Perhaps it contains the ashes of Waggy, Ulik's beloved and deceased troll dog. Regardless, Ulik is so pissed about the horn that he's willing to chop the whole frickin' building down. I'm not sure why he has to destroy the building to get the horn - Ulik has evidently never heard of elevators.

Thankfully, Daredevil kicks some mobster ass (off panel) and gets the horn just in time to stop The Punisher from getting crushed. Everybody's happy and goes on their merry way.

Inker Klaus Janson classes up the joint - it's great to see him drawing DD again. Dixon's Daredevil dialogue seemed out of character, but overall this first Marvel Knights arc was some decent plot-driven slugfest fun. It ends a little too abruptly, though - I would have liked to see a panel of misty-eyed Ulik hugging his horn and remembering better times when he frolicked in the spring meadows of Jotunheim with Waggy.

"Ulik will always love Waggy."


OK, we're back.
Sorry about the month-long hiatus. I had to take a break for health and family reasons, plus I had a few paying writing gigs that took priority over non-paying blogging. I'll try to avoid such lengthy absences in the future and I appreciate everyone being so patient. Sorry pals!
Many thanks to the DLB reader who supplied me with exploding teeth Midgard Serpent action!