12/30/09

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."

12/29/09

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!

12/28/09

"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.

12/1/09

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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