Online Stash of Goverment Commissioned Comics

A while ago I posted some scans of what I called "Public Service Comics."
The comics included topics on

They're pretty cool, but I was completely blown away by a post from Cartoon Brew. They've found an online stash of 183 comic books commissioned by the US Government to educate and inform the general public!
Charlie Brown, Yogi, Dagwood and many other well known characters show up in these booklets, as well as obscure work by Walt Kelly, Dr. Seuss, Will Eisner, Al Capp, etc. All of it is downloadable via PDF files.

Click here to browse the comics.
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The titles include "Li'l Abner Joins the Navy!", "Komrad Ivan", "You've Had it: The story of Basic Training", "Eat Right to Work and Win", "Ricky and Debbie in Sardineland" (sponsored by the Sardine Council) and "Dennis The Menace takes a Poke at Poison".

My favorite title so far? "Foxhole on Your Lawn" by Charles Biro (creator of Crime Does Not Pay, Daredevil). The summary says: "Shares ideas on how to conserve spending and lend support to the troops overseas."


Recommended Comic Book Stores in Portland

Here's my map of recommended comic book stores in Portland, Oregon.

View Portland Comic Book Stores in a larger map
There are more than this, but I haven't been to them.
If you have more recommendations, or suggestions for other cities, please email me!


"Was Superman a Spy?" by Brian Cronin

One of the things that most fascinated me about comics when I was a kids were the secret origins of the superheroes. Every well-developed character had one: Barry Allen was struck by lightning and a mix of chemicals and became The Flash; Billy Batson was selected by the ancient Shazam to receive the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, et. al; the orphaned Bruce Wayne vowed to spend his money and skills fighting crime to avenge his parents' death. It filled in the motivation and gave depth to the story, but it also opened up avenues for exploring "what if?", and frankly, gave us kids something to gossip about. "Man, if I had Spider-man's powers I would have saved Uncle Ben..." The secret origin led to the humanity of the heroes, which let me identify more closely with them. Now for Christmas I got two books which tell, not the secret origins of the heroes, but of the creators and artists behind the comics.

"Was Superman A Spy?" by Brian Cronin is a collection of 130 bite-sized essays that explore the urban legends around comics and their creators, bursting some and supporting others. Some of the essays are culled from Cronin's blog "Comics Should Be Good!" (also here: legendsrevealed.com) while others are new for the book. Cronin started writing his blog when he was "caught" in an urban legend how Walt Simonson made a list of all the appearances of Doctor Doom in comics that he disagreed with and declared them to be Doom-bots (you can read more about this story here)

I was instantly hooked. I know quite a bit of comic lore, but I still found rich veins of gold in this book. One question I always had: Why change Bruce Banner's first name for the Incredible Hulk TV show? In the section on the Hulk it's explained that the producer of the series, Kenneth Johnson, felt that alliterative names were immature, and dubbed him "David." Moreover, Johnson felt that red would be a better color to express rage than green, but luckily Marvel drew the line there, and we had to wait until 2008 for the Red Hulk. Another example of the research explains how the Batman TV show production played havoc with the plotting of the Batman comic, ending in Alfred's resurrection and the birth of Batgirl. The story is that Gardner Fox had killed off Alfred in Detective Comics #328, but William Dozier, the producer of the TV show demanded they bring him back in the comic so there would be continuity with the show. For a number of months Batman had been battling the Outsider, but no one knew his true identity. Since Fox was in a bind he made Alfred the Outsider. He explained that a scientist had taken Alfred's corpse and attempted a regeneration on it, which revived the butler, but left him with amnesia, hideously unrecognizable, and a hatred for Batman. Eventually Batman reversed the effects of the regeneration just in time for the TV series.

"Was Superman a Spy?" is in three parts DC (consisting of Superman, Batman and then other DC comics), Marvel (Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk, Captain America, X-Men, and various) and then "Other Comic Book Companies" (Walt Disney, "and the rest."), which makes it easy to browse, or read straight through. There's also an extensive list of sources, and an index by artist that makes it a great starting point for your own research. I ate it up like potato chips -- I couldn't stop with just one.

Harvey Kurtzman's origin may not have been secret, but his career was certainly mercurial, and it would take an impressive book to capture the length and breadth of his work and the people he influenced. Lucky for you, "The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics" by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle is now available. Yes, I know Kurtzman's work: I read my dad's old Mad comics, I have reprints of most his EC comics, and I've even been bamboozled by the humor in "Help!" (ok, I'll admit it, I even read Little Annie Fanny, although I didn't "get it."). But Kitchen and Buhle have brought all the parts of Kurtzman's life together, linking his pinball career with the tremendous output of art and humor. They include such facts as: Kurtzman was a part-time orphan (after his father died his mom gave up Harvey and his brother to the orphanage, but retrieved them when she remarried), he tried to set up a blind date with Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner (she was working as Kurtzman's assistant at the time), and he brought John Cleese and Terry Gilliam together for the first time to work on his magazine Help!

The book is in five sections, approximating Kurtzman's professional life. The first chapter includes his World War II experience, brushes with Timely and Stan Lee, and his first comic strip "Hey Look!" The next two parts examine his work at EC comics, which segues into editing Mad. Act four of his life covers a series of attempts to create his own magazine, failing commercially, and ultimately finding a steady success with Little Annie Fanny in Playboy. It also includes "The Essential Harvey Kurtzman" index. The art in the book is stunning, with many drawings reproduced intact for the first time ever. There are plenty of covers and excerpts from comics and Mad to give you a feel for the timing and composition of of Kurtzman's stories, or just to bring you back to the first time you ever saw any work by Kurtzman. It's a wonderful book, and I'll read it and re-read it for years to come.

Both books brought me closer to understanding the comic creators, filling in the back story just like a secret origin. Just as with the superheroes, while I like to imagine what I'd do in their places, it makes me realize that great comic artists are both human, and super in their own way.


Review: Astro Boy Movie

The cover for Astro Boy volume 8 from the Osam...Image via Wikipedia
I felt [after the war] that existing comics were limiting. Most were drawn as if seated in an audience viewing from a stage, where the actors emerge from the wings and interact. This made it impossible to create dramatic or psychological effects, so I began to use cinematic techniques. - Osamu Tezuka

This quote is almost ironic in view of the new Astro Boy movie where Tezuka's cinematic drawings are turned into a slightly disappointing, limited movie.

I don't mean the movie is bad -- it has many good points. The computer animation does a valiant effort to capture Tezuka's style. I also liked the archaeology of robots, described both in a movie-within-a-movie at the beginning, and further illustrated by example with the robot circus, and cast-offs such as the aging Zog. And Tezuka himself appears in an animated cameo as one of Dr. Tenma's lab assistants. Best of all, I could sense the spirit and philosophy of Tezuka in the story, although it had problems emerging. The Astro Boy manga have a consistent theme of exploring class and racial equality, and what it means to be human. This movie touches on that, but not in an overt way.

Tezuka in his trademark beret, and as he drew himself in Astro Boy.

Here's the weakness of the movie: it tries to be all things to all kids, and loses focus in the process. For example, what's with the "floating city" story line? That went nowhere. In the story there's a girl who used to live in the city, but ran away. Later they're reunited without any explanation of why she left, or why her parents couldn't find her.

Another problem is the so-called star actors hired for the voices. If I ever make any animated movie remind me to strike Donald Sutherland and Nicholas Cage from the casting call. They plod through their lines like two mush mouths. Cage has the same hairdo as Dr. Tenma, but I picture the scientist as more fiery and passionate. Cage limps where he should leap.

Long-time Astro Boy fans might have problems with the blue core/red core MacGuffin, it's definitely not canon, but it helps "explain" to the uninitiated how and why Astro was different, something that's never touched on in the books (it's assumed that Tenma's genius made Astro special). And other than the armed guards, there aren't a lot of robots that show up in the city. I would have liked to have more variety in robots in the city.

Of course there are other missed opportunities, like barely showing Mr. Mustachio (aka Shunsuke Ban), but my main disappointment is reflected in Tezuka's quote: the movie was too limiting. Why do comic-book adaptations have to always focus on the origin story? I'd like to see some comic books made into movies where we start with a life-changing problem that isn't the birth of the hero, but is still an interesting arc. True, most comics don't offer too much in terms of character arc: Wolverine is still an Adamantium-laced killing machine at the end of nearly every issue of X-Men. But that doesn't preclude a movie where the character can change -- even if it's a moment of self-realization. That's what's what I wanted Astro Boy to be: a movie with Astro that takes me on a 90 minute trip where I forget myself, and learn something about the character. I don't need another origin -- I want a story I haven't heard before. And that's what Tezuka brought to the table in his manga.

Post script: I thought it was interesting they renamed Professor Ochanomizu to Dr. Albert Elefun (voiced by Bill Nighy). In Japanese "Ochanamizu" translates as "tea water", but it's also a neighborhood of Tokyo. Quite a few Astro Boy characters are named after Tokyo neighborhoods. But, I looked on Wikipedia, and apparently Elefun is also a common translation of his name, I guess because he's got a big nose like an elephant. "In various English translations of Astro Boy, he is also known as Dr. Packadermus Elefun, Professor Peabody, and Dr. O'Shay." So, I guess I learned something after all from the Astro Boy movie.

Now, looking forward to the Tintin movie.

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Portland Cartoonist "Comic Strip Superstar" Finalist

Willamette Week pointed out that Portland cartoonist Josh Shalek is a finalist in the third round of the Amazon.com "Comic Strip Superstar" contest.
Shalek will find out Wednesday, Oct. 28, whether his comic will be selected as one of 10 finalists to be showcased on Amazon.com, where voters will decide the winner. The top vote-getter will receive a $5,000 advance on a book featuring their daily comic strip and have their work syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate, which picks two to four new comics each year for syndication out of a submissions pile of about 5,000.

His submission is a previously unpublished strip called "Tortilla Flat." "Unpublished" is really unpublished, so don't look for it on the internet or in bookstores. But, when I was at the Stumptown Comics Fest I spoke with Josh and picked up his previous effort, a series he called "Falling Rock National Park," which he combined into a couple of self-published books. I bought the one called "Owl and Other Comics" because of the the visual pun from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." My son and I both read it and we thought it was consistently funny and drawn in an interesting way.
Josh said that he quit his job for a year to focus on drawing comics in the hope that he could make it a full-time job. So far it looks like he's gone a long way toward that goal!
Click here to see more of his work.

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Captain Marvel Battles the Television Terror

In Captain Marvel Adventures # 115 from December, 1950 there's a story titled "Captain Marvel Battles the Television Terror", which in retrospect is a weird harbinger of the future. Although TV was invented and available in some parts of the country before World War II, due to the war the FCC suspended television programming in 1942. It wasn't until 1948 that the networks formed, and by 1950 TV was gaining popularity as a mass medium.

(click on any of the images to view them larger)

So, just as CMA had real people in the stories, it also showed the aspects of every day life impacting the superhero Captain Marvel. This particular issue seems steeped in TV. First there's the story where a conniving inventor creates a machine that emits a ray to reverse civilization. Via his machine he "un-invents" things so that people will give them up. Toward the end of the story we learn that the professor is selling the technology to a medieval civilization in another dimension, whereupon Captain Marvel captures the bad guys, smashes the backward ray, and saves all the technology. Notice how Professor Swope lists the technological advancements: fire, iron, the wheel, cars, airplanes...culminating with TV as the obvious pinnacle of civilization.

This page showing the piles of discarded TVs reminded me of the recent switchover to digital TV.

In the same issue is a small ad for "Don Winslow" which claims to be "Directly from television to you." This is funny because "Don Winslow" was a Fawcett comic which spawned popular movie serials. The ad is full-circle, with the TV show advertising the comic.

Prior to 1950 Billy Batson had been a reporter for the WHIZ radio station. In this issue he moves into TV, as WHIZ tries to start up their television station. Unfortunately, mysterious technical problems plaque their efforts, and Captain Marvel has to get involved. What gets me about "Captain Marvel Battles the Television Terror" is that the criminal mastermind behind the plot is so blind: with his technology he could have started his own TV station and gotten rich that way.



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"The Beats: A Graphic History" by Ed Piskor and Harvey Pekar

When I met William S Burroughs during a reading at Powell's books in Portland circa 1995 he was an old, hunched-over man, hardly distinctive except for the entourage and reverence that followed him. Reading "The Beats: A Graphic History" gives a completely different view of Burroughs. Harvey Pekar's script and Ed Piskor's clean black and white art distill the man's life into a series of marginal, crazy and often violent episodes, including a drunken "William Tell" stunt that ended with his wife's death and jail time for Burroughs. The sparse script hits all the key points that explain why Burroughs is now firmly ingrained in popular and literary culture.

"The Beats" is split into two sections. The first 100 pages focus on the trinity of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Burroughs and is cleanly written and drawn by Pekar and Piskor. Together the three segments on these three icons of the Beat writers cover the length and breadth, highs and lows of their lives with surprising clarity and brevity. Pekar lays out Kerouac's pinball lifestyle, Burroughs' self-destructive line-drive, and Ginsberg's ever-expanding drive for everyone to get along and love each other. The clean black and white drawings of Piskor remind me of a religious tract a la Chick publications or an anti-drug comic, warning you what will happen to your soul if you become a Beat poet.

The second part, called "The Beats: Perspectives" includes details on the San Francisco poetry renaissance, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey, Beatnik Chicks, and other lesser known Beat figures such as Ken Rexroth. In the second section Pekar & Pisko still contribute quite a bit of work, but they also step aside for other writers and artists such as Nancy J. Peters, Trina Robbins, and others. I especially enjoyed the counter-point to the counter-culture in the essay "Beatnik Chicks" by Joyce Brabner and Summer McClinton. I was also captured by the Tuli Kupferberg segment drawn by Jeffrey Lewis in a Crumb-like style.

The essays also have the ability to condense and shift time in a way that makes it easier to gain perspective. I had never really thought of Kerouac as a product of WWII, but the concise biography helped. Another significant event was October 7, 1955 -- the "big bang" of Beatniks. Known as "The Six Gallery Reading," it brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation and was also the first public reading of Ginberg's "Howl". All the essays in the book hover around this day in a Rashomon-like manner. And finally another important year mentioned in "The Beats" is 1961, the "upside down year." It's the same year when read upside down, but it's also the year teenagers began to have more influence than their parents. It's also the year that Beatniks invaded popular culture in the form of Maynard from "Dobie Gillis," or Buz from "Route 66".

In my opinion "The Beats" should be required reading for any high-school or college student who's been assigned to read the works of these authors. I've read "On The Road," "Junkie," and "Howl," along with other books from the canon ("Subterraneans", "Naked Lunch", the list goes on...) but as semi-autobiographical as their works may be, the lens is still screwed up by their own visions. It takes someone as cynical and bitter as Pekar to lay out the facts panel by panel, including Kerouac's middle-class aspirations to buy his mom a house and reject his radical younger days right next to a panel describing his gaining popularity. He also contrasts Ginsberg's failure to address violence at the Naropa school (co-founded by Ginsberg) with his ant-war protests. Never one to shy from being "drawn out" (pun intended) Pekar occasionally includes himself and his own comments in the narrative.

After I read "The Beats" I had a new inspiration to re-read "On The Road" and the other books and poems mentioned in the essays. It's an inspiring book -- give it a try!

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Life During Wartime: Comic Ads 1943

These two ads are the outside and inside covers to Captain Marvel Adventures #28 from 1943. Since they're from during WWII, it's not unusual they mention the war, but I was struck by the difference in attitudes & advertising regarding the war in the 40's and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, the X-acto Knives proclaim: "Help Uncle Sam - Make official Plane Models". I have no idea how making plane models helped the US war effort, but they explain how you can use your X-acto Knives to start building for Uncle Sam right away. The cartoon shows one kid saying "I want to make Navy models too. I'll ask Dad for a set (of knives)." Dad, being patriotic completely agrees: "Sure, son, here's the money. You're serving Uncle Sam right now!" They also have an offer for a booklet: "How to Build Scale Models - Defense" which claims to be "profusely illustrated. Chuck full of information."

Try indoctrinating school-age kids into fighting the war nowadays and see how far that'll fly. "Hey, kids! Learn how to differentiate between Al Qaida and Al-Shabab" (Hmmm, I don't see it).

The war also invaded Christmas Card sales. This ad asks kids to sell cards and get "swell prizes." The set of toys you can get includes a U.S. Army outfit with "a snappy officer's belt and cap outfit with an automatic-type pistol". Also an "American Craft So. Cal Raider" machine gun that "...operates on a swivel or dismounted, like army guns." There's the "pre-flight training set - exactly like regular airplane cockpit...gunsight and cannon trigger too." Other prizes include War Games and an Army Suit alongside more traditional prizes such as the "Old Spice" Toilet Kit and a Gene Autry Guitar.

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Captain Marvel Adventures #28 (October 1943)

Excalibur Comics had a 1/2 price sale this weekend, and I picked up a ragged copy of Captain Marvel Adventures #28 from October, 1943 on the cheap. It's in poor condition, but readable and quite a bit of fun.

This issue is a time capsule in itself. It's hard to believe CMA was more popular than Superman, but even in 1943 they boast right on the front cover: "Largest Circulation of Any Comic Magazine." The war-time Capt. Marvel stories had a certain cachet to them: he fought against the Nazis, the stories often included actual locales and real public figures, and they still had a sense of humor to them. In this issue Hitler sends a cadre of Nazi agents to San Francisco where a mysterious character called the Fog Phantom helps them to take over the city and establish a base at Coit Tower.

The real people in the story include mayor Joseph Rossi, KPO radio announcer Archie Presby, and columnist Prescott Sullivan from the SF Examiner.

Also, the locations include Alcatraz Prison, Coit Tower, Chinatown, even the Smith Wholesale office, who apparently distributed Fawcett comics in SF in the 40's. Note the Capt. Marvel posters in the background of the distribution office.

Since the comic came out smack in the midst of WWII, it's hard not to notice that everything in this issue shows the mentality of the times. Hitler appears in two of the stories. Also the masthead shows that Eleanor B. Roosevelt (past president of the Girl Scouts council for New York) and Rear Admiral Richard E Byrd are on the Editorial Advisory Board. Of course C.C. Beck is the "Chief Artist," but it doesn't say who wrote the stories. They contain so much open propaganda I wonder if the writer was in earnest, or was the patriotic content dictated by a higher authority? Anyone know?

Even the inside front cover advertises a book "Fun for Boys" which includes topics such as Spotting Planes to recognize enemy vs friendly planes and how to protecting yourself with Jiu Jitsu, just like the Marines, Soldiers and G-Men do!

This issue also includes Chapter VII of the serial popularly called "The Monster Society of Evil." In this chapter, "The Lost Sunrise," Mr. Mind wants to stop the Earth's revolution, giving Nazi Germany eternal sunlight while leaving America in the dark. Mr. Mind first meets the Nazis as he falls into a shipment of black market meat while escaping from the Big Red Cheese. The meat is shipped to Herman Goering, who brings the worm to Hitler, and together the three evil-doers plot to destroy America. Capt. Marvel foils the plot but in the process has to let Mr. Mind and Hitler escape.

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"Asterios Polyp" by David Mazzuchelli

What three things would you grab if your house were burning and you had to leave immediately? That's the question posed, both real and theoretically, to Asterios Polyp, the title character of David Mazzuchelli's new graphic novel. This question poses more of a problem for Asterios than for most people because he prefers to use dichotomy to structure his life, dividing everything cleanly into two opposing pieces. He proceeds to chop his world into pieces until he meets a woman named Hana, who is more comfortable with uncertainty and shades of gray. She's the one that asks him the question hypothetically, and it's clearly in his head at the beginning of the book as we watch lightning strike and burn down his New York apartment. But even Occam's razor can't explain why he eventually gives away the three items he's rescued from the burning building. For that answer you have to read the book.

The book is narrated by Asterios' twin Ignatz, who died in childbirth. He tells the story of Asterios, an over-educated architect who has never designed anything actually built, and who teaches college and moves through life with a purpose, but without direction. He constructs rules for dealing with life and quotes them to his students as if they were the bible. As his star is rising he meets a sculptor and artist named Hana, who appreciates and loves his world, but also brings fuzziness to his life, complicating things.

For some reason as I read the story the word 'erudite' kept popping into my head ("characterized by learning"). Asterios is someone who's interesting to be with because he makes you feel smart. At least until he uses his analytical mind on you, at which point the dissection can become uncomfortable, but makes for compelling reading. Mazzuchelli isn't afraid to take side trips while telling the story, and I appreciated that. It reinforces theme: here's an intelligent guy, but he still has a lot to learn. This is reflected in a scene with one character who pontificates that after the 60's the goverment realized that an educated people were too hard to govern, so that why they've cut school funding for the past 30 years. There are also numerous allusions to the question of God vs gods vs free will; what makes a relationship work (the answer is shown with 3 beer coasters); and even a retelling of the Orpheus legend.

To enrich his storytelling efforts Mazzuchelli throws in tons of literal and graphical puns. The character's name, for example: Asterios, meaning a star, perhaps the star of the book and his life. But then adds 'polyp' to the name: an abnormal growth of tissue projecting from a mucous membrane, reflecting Asterios' feelings that he should have died instead of Ignatz.

Another example is that the story is illustrated in monochrome shades of primary colors. The flashbacks are blue when it's Asterios alone, and red when they include Hana, while the present-day story is told in shades of yellow. As the story concludes, and moves into the immediate present it suddenly combines the three colors, bringing both the narrative and the color scheme into harmony. Similarly he draws Asterios with strong, bold outlines, often including his ghostly brother as a dotted line, while Hana and her life is sketched in uncertainty. I especially liked the mysterious spotlight that comes and goes out of frame in synch with Hana's self-esteem.

If I had one complaint about the story, it's that the resolution felt hurried, and the final pages throw in a curveball that feels like a beanball. I would have preferred an ending that stretched out the resolution by another 20 or 30 pages, maybe adding some internal hurdles for Asterios to leap. And while the final page isn't completely out of the blue, it was too contrived for me. Just let me say that they lived happily ever after.

My 12 year-old son read the book as well, and his comment was: "Ok, a bit heavy on the philosophizin' and art theory." I'd put the book down as a PG-13 rating. The graphics and story are great, as well as the printing. This book has been on everyone's top 10 list for 2009 graphic novels, and I'd say it's a good bet it will stay there. Mazzuchelli's previous work City of Glass (with writer Paul Karasik) was chosen as the quintessential New York graphic novel. You can buy this book online at Amazon through the links below, or at Powell's Books.

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Astro Boy Movie trailer now online

The trailer for the new Astro Boy movie is online. It looks a lot better than the disappointing four-issue movie prequel from IDW Publishing. The animation is in the same vein as Jimmy Neutron, although it looks less annoying, more aesthetically pleasing. The movie comes out 10/23/09.

From the trailer it looks like they tried to continue with the themes Osamu Tezuka's often addressed in the original Astro Boy manga, questions such as: "What makes us human?", "Where is the soul?" and whether the human race can reconcile differences and live in harmony rather than continually fight for power and control over others?
When I was a kid I only got a small glimpse into the Astro Boy world because most of the stories had never been translated, but thanks to Dark Horse Comics you can now get the full suite of Tezuka's books in English.
Purchase them online at Amazon.com, or Powell's books.

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