OBA Graphic Literature Award

For the first time ever the Oregon Book Awards are including a category for comic books. Ok, so the actual category is "Graphic Literature" (neatly avoiding the overused term "graphic novel"), but in my mind they're comics.  But, as Doug Wolk successfully argues in "Reading Comics," they aren't just a genre, like superhero stories, but a medium, like film.  In any case, it seems that the literati of Oregon, which includes the illustrious Strunk & White society, feel that comics have arrived as a literary art.

So, which works are in the running for the 2012 award?

From this short list, I've only read "Stumptown" and "Ivy", and I think I'll have to re-read those.  The others look good, although "The Whale" is the biggest unknown to me.  So, I'm setting a goal to read all five books before the Oregon Book Awards ceremony on Monday, April 23rd.

Incidentally, there's a "Reader's Choice" award, so you can vote for you favorite book.  Cast your vote here before April 23rd.

Some other links of note: if you're already a fan of Greg Rucka's work, you can also become a fan on Facebook.  Oleksyk's Ivy is available online for free here.
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Phantom Lady Gets Tough

The first time I learned about Phantom Lady was in the Justice League / Justice Society / Freedom Fighters crossover in Justice League of America #107, published in 1973.  She was similar to the Black Canary, and her only "power" was a black light projector used for blinding criminals. As a kid I thought that was a little weak, and the editors at DC must have thought so too, since in subsequent issues of The Freedom Fighters in the late 70's she gained the power to become immaterial - a true phantom.

In this story from Phantom Lady Comics #5, from 1955, however, our heroine gets a chance to show how tough she  really is. A thug snags her black light project, and she thinks she's sunk, until the pool balls give her an idea. Yowch!  The dialog oddly encapsulates some sort of proto-feminism. PL loses her weapon and her confidence, then falls back on self-reliance.
Thug: "No dame is going to scare me! Go back to your knitting, babe, before you get hurt!"
PL: "My black ray! I'm sunk without it! Should have been so confident in myself..."

Interestingly, the indicia lists this comic as "Phantom Lady Comics (formerly Linda)."  I wonder what happened to Linda?

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"Reading Comics" by Douglas Wolk

"There’s a problem with the way a lot of people talk about comics: it’s very hard to talk about them as comics," explains Douglas Wolk, in his book "Reading Comics."  He continues: "as cartoonists and their longtime admirers are getting a little tired of explaining, comics are not a genre; they’re a medium."

With that sentence Wolk neatly presents the crisis and salvation that comics face today.  In the past thirty years comics have established a foothold in American culture as an acceptable serious medium, yet they’re still mostly thought of as fantasy-fulfilling superhero stories.  Instead we should open our eyes to see them as a vein of the media, like film, art, music or literature, while the stories themselves will fall into genres, superhero or otherwise.  He then takes this thesis and explains how comics are a unique art form.

"Reading Comics" is split into two sections, with the first third comprising an essay called "Theory and History" that covers the aspects that make comic books a unique medium, and the remainder a survey of comic examples that Wolk feels push the edges of the form.  During the essay he puts up a straw man discussion, probably well-tempered from various flame wars on the Internet, of his basic tenets of the comic book medium.  These include his definition of comics (which boils down to "don’t we already know what comics are?"), a brief struggle with the existence of superheroes ("not a week goes by that I don’t read, with pleasure, some glossy corporate superhero comics"), and the gist of his thesis, which is that comics can be read on multiple levels, and hey, some auteurs are putting together comics that need to be read on multiple levels.

Although Wolk tends toward a vocabulary that reminds me of an art history class I once had, he does it lightly enough that the pace moves along.  I also appreciated his burst of things that he loves about comics which he presented without much context. I have a shared experience in many items on his list.  Paul Gambi, the "crime tailor" who made costumes for some of the DC villains in the 60’s, for example. The ones I didn’t recognize were presented in a way that made me want to seek them out.

The latter half of the book, where he reviews a range of the most influential artists and works of the past forty years in comics, is more casual, but still just as insightful.  He bounces from Chester Brown to Steve Ditko to the Hernandez Brothers.  Of course he can’t ignore the 300 pound gorilla in the comics world, and so 30 pages are devoted to Alan Moore and the Watchmen series. Unlike Grant Morrison’s chapter in his book on comics history, which turned out to be an autobiography, Wolk presents an organized dissection of the ideas in the Watchmen.  For example, he pulls out the thread of the "The Black Freighter" in the graphic novel, and looks at it from all sides, including a slice of EC Comics history.
"Just as ‘Black Freighter’ is a metaphorical representation of the world of Watchmen, that world is a metaphorical representation of our own, a simplified and caricatured mirror image. Our New York is theirs, without the pretty plug-in electric cars; the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 chillingly recalled the one in Watchmen; most of all, the "destroy it to save it" calculus of Watchmen is the same one it readers face in the atomic era."
Wolk has a way of finding and clarifying the defining characteristic in a work.  His essay on Craig Thompson, for example, put into words the feelings I had after reading Thompson’s "Blankets."
"Where Raina is concerned, though, Blankets is almost as starry-eyed and self-important as Thompson apparently was at the time. He never gives her anything like interiority or suggests that she might have had any significance other than being a perfect, stainless Celia for his work…none of this is as irritating on a first reading as it becomes with later reflection, though, because Thompson is so gifted at sweeping the reader along with him. His drawing has an incredible sense of flow."
When I first saw "Reading Comics" on the shelf at the book store, I thought it was just an imitation of the work already covered in Scott McCloud’s work "Understanding Comics."  Luckily, I overcame that preconception and found instead an insightful book whose goal is to rearrange the way you read comics.  I’ll have to admit, even as a lifelong comic-book reader, this "Reading Comics" opened up my brain to some new ways of seeing, and some new avenues to explore.

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The Boy Champions, and other Golden Age Gangs

I don’t know whether Jack Kirby got the idea for a comic book about a gang of kids in a tough neighborhood from The Bowery Boys, the Dead-End Kids, from Doc Savage’s team of experts, or even Our Gang, but it seems that there were plenty of examples of street gangs in popular culture when he created his sidekicks for the Guardian.  Nevertheless, Kirby seems to have taken this idea and run with it, spawning multiple examples in his comics: The Newsboy Legion appeared in Star-Spangled Comics, the Boy Commandos fought in the European theatre, later the unseen Yancy Street Gang bedeviled The Thing in the Fantastic Four comics, and even into the ‘70s a 1st Issue Special debuted the “Dingbats of Danger Street.” 

I was always interested in the kid gang stories, especially when they were set in distant or sci-fi locations, or when they were from the golden age comics, which had an otherworldliness about them.  The kid gangs seemed the next step in the evolution of the sidekick.  As mentioned in this Wikipedia entry, "kid gangs seemed to be the way to go. Teenage sidekicks (Batman's RobinCaptain America's Bucky, etc.) were fast becoming a comics staple, intended to provide young characters with whom the youthful readers could identify.” What’s more natural than to provide a whole entourage of characters as a foil to the hero?   

Kirby wasn’t the only one to create comic-book gangs.  The Golden Age Daredevil had his own following called The Little Wise Guys.  I also have a Thrilling Comic that showcases the Commando Cubs. Commando Cubs were originally group of American kids who were originally sent to England as part of a study of "the effects of the old-world culture on kids of different backgrounds." But when the World War II reached the shores of the British Isles, the kids found themselves stranded. This blog author has put together a nice survey of some of the other gangs, both from the Golden Age, and later years

And recently I was reading The Green Lama and found a gang previously undiscovered (by me).  The Boy Champions look a lot like an imitation of Kirby’s Newsboy Legion.  Tuffy is an amalgamation of Scrapper and Gabby, while Mickey could be Tommy without the leadership skills, and Wellington wears the glasses, standing in for Big Words. The time frame, from 1944 to 1946, corresponds closely with the output from Kirby.  The characters are so similar in style, I was curious whether the art was cribbed from Kirby. That is, until I noticed it was Jerry Robinson (best known as the creator of the Joker ) drawing the Boy Champions.  Side-by-side you can see that these aren’t the best examples of Kirby’s work, while the art from Robinson has been cleaned up so it’s almost cartoony.  Mort Meskin wrote the Boy Champions stories, and they appeared in all eight issues of The Green Lama when it was published by Spark Publications.

A typical story is where the Boy Champions are hired by a rich woman to take her spoiled brat of a son out with them and see to it that he engages in good, clean fun. They head for the circus, just in time to spot a robbery in progress.  In a different issue the boys, after being denied the chance to give blood because they are too young, decide to try and get a Red Cross nurse's fiancĂ© to donate himself.  Most of the stories involve being hired for a task, and then accidentally uncovering a robbery and solving it.