Tuesday, 13 November 2018

STAN LEE 1922 - 2018 my opinion...

STAN LEE 1922 – 2018 – A CREATIVE LIFE IN CONTEXT
by John A. Short

If you are an aspiring writer you probably have the dream that you can be successful enough to just make your living from it. If you are particularly ambitious you may hope to create something that will be famous enough to be a household name. We know the name of Ian Fleming because he created the ‘James Bond’ books. We know of Conan Doyle because he created the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series. Most people would be hard pressed to name other things written by those very well known authors. Agatha Christie is exceptional because we can lay two very famous characters (Poirot and Marple) and some other globally-famed stories at her doorstep.

How much more successful would a writer have to be to have a dozen or more household-name series credited to them?

Stan Lee co-created THE FANTASTIC FOUR, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, ANTMAN & THE WASP, THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, THE UNCANNY X-MEN, NICK FURY, SHIELD, DOCTOR STRANGE, THE MIGHTY AVENGERS, MARVEL’S THE MIGHTY THOR, BLACK PANTHER, GROOT, BLACK WIDOW, HAWKEYE, DAREDEVIL and many, many more. I think we can predict that some of these characters will continue to be world famous for decades and (yes) centuries to come. That kind of creative achievement is almost unique. That’s why I think in future Lee’s name will be spoken (with respect) in the same breathe as someone like William Shakespeare.

Perhaps that might sound over-the-top to you? I don’t think it is. Look at the similarities between them…

They both worked in mediums that were (or are) looked down upon by those who think of themselves as the elite. Theatre in Shakespeare’s time was thought of as something for the illiterate masses… A low form of art… Just as some might characterise comics today.

Both used their stories to talk about human emotions and the human condition in morality tales deeper than they might first appear. (The first Spider-Man strip for example, where Spidey refuses to help stop a robber who he could easily have caught, only for the same thief go onto kill his own beloved uncle – so teaching Peter Parker a lesson in responsibility… Who says Americans don’t understand irony?)

Shakespeare and Lee both redefined the mediums in which they worked. Both spread their influence to every kind of storytelling genre. Both created so many famous ‘franchises’ that it’s difficult to name them all.

The extraordinary thing about Lee is that most (perhaps all) of his really famous, really successful creations happened in one five year period from 1961 through to 1966. Strange for a man who wrote from when he was a teenager through to his 90s? He was around 40 when he finally found that successful streak. Perhaps it says something about being in the right place at the right time?

Part of the success was no-doubt due to what a shameless self-publicist Lee was. You could see it in him every time he was interviewed even in recent years with every well practised anecdote and quip. In the 1960s through editorial pages and even the caption boxes in the strips themselves Lee would tell his ‘True Believers’ how great the characters and stories they were reading were. It has an amazing effect on your audience if they can see that even the creators are enthused about their creations. Confidence breeds success.

It has to be said that Lee’s prose-style on those early strips hasn’t dated well. His chummy attitude is as unique to Lee as Shakespeare’s flowery dialogue is to him.

But of course, Lee is only a co-creator of his most famous titles. He is only the writer and collaborated with many comics artists without whom his works would have been nothing. Some people give more credit to such pencillers as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko with whom he worked in the early 1960s. As with any creative collaboration it is difficult to know where one person’s contribution starts and another ends.

Because of the way that Lee developed in the 60s for working with his artists, it’s even more complicated to unpack in the case of Marvel Comics. Lee instigated the ‘Marvel Method’ of writing comics, where he would only provide a rough plot and leave it to the artists themselves to breakdown the comic into a blow-by-blow structure as they drew it… He would only start scripting the dialogue once he had the final pages in his hands. This was necessary because as Marvel took off in the early 60s he was practically the only writer working there.

Some have it that some of his greatest plots and characters were invented by the artists on the page as they pencilled. There maybe some truth in the idea. Opinions vary.

But what we can credit Lee with, without much doubt, is the way that he changed the way that American comics were telling stories. Up until 1961 your average superhero story would return to a baseline status quo at the end. Lee broke that mould with the introduction of soap-opera-style subplots in his titles. So if Spidey’s girl friend was mad at him at the end of one story… she still would be at the start of the next.

Also he added a simple, but unheard of, level of realism in his stories. What if Spider-man’s costume gets torn? Can he afford a new one? Has he got the needle-skills to sow it up himself? Superman never had to worry about such things.

All this meant that his comics could be consumed by an older age group than superhero titles had up until that point. Before Lee American comics were mostly aimed at the under tens. In the early 60s Marvel Comics began to be aimed at young teenagers, by the end of the 60s they were being read by college-agers.

The Distinguish Competition (as Lee called DC Comics) had no choice but to follow his lead and they have been telling stories in the Lee-style ever since.

There are controversies that surround him. Lee went onto be a millionaire through Marvel Comics while some of his co-creators got nothing. Perhaps this wasn’t completely intentional on Lee’s part? He had a foot in the door to the management of Marvel by being related to their owner. And he stuck with the company on the production side long enough to get himself in a position of power (allowing him to secure a legacy for himself) while his artists tended to stay as freelancers? But I have no wish to excuse the undoubtedly shabby treatment that many creators had at Marvel (perhaps even to this day.) There is no excuse for the comics industry not to work like any other other field of the creative arts, where the author owns their own work.

Of course, in recent years Marvel Studios have made Lee’s creations (and the man himself) more famous than ever. As Hollywood special effects have caught up with what Kirby and Ditko could do on the comic page the whole world now marvels at the concepts and characters that only comic readers enjoyed only a decade ago.

Lee was one of a kind. We have amazing stories and characters thanks to his involvement. Was he a great human being? There are stories and opinions that he wasn’t. That I can’t say. I can only address his work… and that is marvellous.

John A. Short

Saturday, 10 November 2018

COMIC REVIEW: BLOOD BLOKES!

Title: BLOOD BLOKES
Format: AMERICAN COMIC SIZED. COLOUR COVERS B/W INTERIORS
Length: 6 ISSUES
Price: £17.50
Publisher: GREAT BEAST
Creators: ADAM CADWELL
Review:
An everyday tale of slacker vampires in the early noughties… in Manchester.
Vince is a twenty-something dropout from university, who loses his job and his girl and then his life all on the same day. He wakes to find himself all vamperised and wearing a gingham dress on a coffee table in the local vampire den. His new housemates, Mike, Ari and Douglas do there best to explain his new non-life to him (and why he’s wearing that dress.) They introduce him to the thriving vampire underground and hierarchy and rules as he struggles with adjusting.
Cadwell’s art is pretty impressive. Clear-cut and simple, but never lazy. Obviously influenced by Jamie Hernandez, while not being as accomplished (yet.) He takes full advantage to the stark black and white areas to satisfying effect. His backgrounds are full of well rendered detail and in-jokes.
Those references tucked away in the art are a lovely touch in themselves and I’m sure that I only clocked 75% of these vampire and horror related Easter Eggs. There’s even some great ‘Young Ones’ references that I enjoyed!
Cadwell has a good handle on how to best tell a story through pictures… with only a couple of missteps in the whole story.
Vince himself comes across as a lovable loser character much like Simon Pegg’s character from ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and it’s nice to see him actually having a proper character growth during the course of the six issues.
The style of this reminded me quite strongly of the early episodes of the British version of the TV series ‘Being Human’, since it portrays the main monstrous cast trying to keep their heads down and lead (what for them is) a normal life. It has a similar mix of unsettling horror and humour.
I loved the set-up here and would love to see more of the Blood Blokes. Who knew Manchester had such a thriving vampire scene?

John A. Short

Saturday, 27 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - MAGICAL NOPE!

Title: MAGICAL NOPE!
Format: A5 FULL COLOUR
Length: 20 pages
Price: £5.00
Publisher: HARMFULRAES
Creators: RACHEL WOOTTON
Available from: http://Harmfulraes.com
Review:
  This is a brilliant, crazy, glossy little indie comic from writer/artist Rachel Wootton. She has a simple, cutesy, cartoony style of art which is a fantastic contrast to the humorous, but brutally blunt style of the story here.  
 It’s hard to talk about the plot of this comic for two reasons. It’s a fairly short and sweet read at only twenty pages and I don’t really want to ruin this for you, if you would like to read it yourself. Let’s just put it this way… A fairy-godmother-type turns up to proclaim that young Kat is the Chosen One and prepares to grant her magical powers to fight the forces of evil…   And then… Let’s just say - things don’t go at all to plan.
  It’s easier to talk about the style of this comic. Rachel’s art might have you thinking that this is a cuddly comic for small girls… But she’s just lulling you into a false sense of security. There is a big manga-influence in the art. Simple line work, unaugmented by the computer-colour that gives it more dimensionality and texture.
  Perhaps this comic isn’t one for you youngest kids (no matter how appealing the cover might look to them) as this does contain plenty of swearing!
  I picked this up from Rachel last year and I must apologise to her for taking so long to read and review it. My only excuse is that it got buried under tons of other comics and it’s only just come back into the light. Better late than never?
  Well worth picking up! Support UK indie comics and have a great laugh at the same time.

John A. Short

Sunday, 21 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - COMBAT COLIN 2!

Title: COMBAT COLIN 2
Format: AMERICAN COMIC SIZED. COLOUR COVERS B/W INTERIORS
Length: 40 pages
Price: £3.50
Publisher: LEW STRINGER COMICS
Creators: PLOTTED, SCRIPTED, PENCILLED, INKED, LETTERED & COLOURED BY LEW STRINGER
Review:
Colin and his sidekick (Semi-Automatic Steve) are back for a second issue! This time it’s reprinting many of the half-page comic strips from when ‘Action Force’ (in which the strip started) merged with UK Marvel’s ‘Transformers’ weekly from 1988 and 1989.
Lew manages the reduced size of the strip well by mixing in more simple self-contained stories with longer episodic adventures. I’m always impressed by a creator’s ability to tell stories in very small spaces and some of these strips are only five panels long. But I’m glad to be able to read the strips altogether like this as some are so brief as to not allow you time to blink while reading them!
It is the invention in these strips that makes me smile the most. Colin’s Combat Kilt is a particular stroke of genius, along with such concepts as the Crusher Tank and Propellor Hat!
This issue sees the introduction of some new on-going characters such as Professor Madprof! I’m unsure which university he lectures at (to get his Professorship), but perhaps that will come up in a later strip!
As the strips progress you can see an evolution in Lew’s writing style on Colin’s tales, with an increased use of puns in the final panels of many strips. And anyone who know my own writing will know how much I love this kind of word-play!
I never read these strips at the time as I wasn’t a Transformers fan. However, I later worked in a comic shop and UK’s ‘Transformer’ comic back-issues were a huge seller. There was a larger amount of UK originated material in these Marvel UK comics because the demand for strips for a weekly comic far out-paced the speed with which Marvel USA was producing the source-pages. It was clear that many people had not kept their collections and were now keen to relive their youth by re-buying these issues. So I’m sure that many of you reading this will get a warm glow of nostalgia from rereading these bonkers comic strips.
I’m a little behind with this review as ‘Combat Colin’ 3 has just been released, but copies of issues 1 and 2 are still available. Retired to the Combat Shed and get reading!

John A. Short

Sunday, 14 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - THE SIGNAL MAN

Title: THE SIGNAL MAN
Format: A4 B/W
Length: 32 PAGES
Price: £8 UK - £12 US
Publisher: BLACK BOAR PRESS
Creators: WRITTEN BY JASON COBLEY & ILLUSTRATED BY DAVID HITCHCOCK
Available from: black_boar1@yahoo.com
Review:
This wonderful comic is adapted from the spooky short prose story by Charles Dickens. Although not Dickens’ most famous work, it may well be his most well known short story. You might know it (as I did) from the excellent BBC dramatised version from the early 1970s, or various radio readings if not from the original source.
If you don’t know the story, I won’t spoil it for you here, save to say that it involves the creepy goings on at a manned signal box in a lonely railway cutting in the early Victorian period. It has that brilliant quality that all the best ghost stories have, of keeping it unclear how much is supernatural and how much is in the characters’ own heads. It walks a fine line between nailing down the rules of this haunting and nothing being certain at all.
What is important about this tale is that Dickens was exploring something about the human mind that hadn’t at that time even been given a name. It’s clear from the subtext of this story that Dickens was writing about post-traumatic stress disorder. It would be over fifty years after this before it would even be given the name ‘shell-shock’.
Cobley and Hitchcock give this version full room to breath and take it’s own time. Some comic adaptations of prose can be terribly rushed, but not here. This uncomplicated, but never boring tales unwinds itself at it’s own pace. Building tension and atmosphere as it goes.
Of course Hitchcock is the master of Victorian horror and so this story is a perfect project for him. His beautifully rendered pencil art surrounds the characters (and so the reader) with an oppressive mood. His characters look terrified and so we are unsettled. The shining eyes of his rats with their dark coats gnaw at the edges of our vision. The cold breath of the characters against the shadows chills our blood. There is a naturalness to his art. Unlike some others nothing seems forced and he seems able to drawn anything the story asks him to very well indeed.
Well worth a look.

John A. Short

Thursday, 11 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - CLOSELY

Title: CLOSELY
Format: A4. SQUARE BOUND. B/W WITH SOME COLOUR
Length: 112 PAGES
Price: £5
Publisher: GRAYHAM PUTTOCK
Creators: WRITTEN & ILLUSTRATED BY GRAYHAM PUTTOCK
Review:
We tend to call any comic with a spine a ‘graphic novel’ these days (I’ve done it myself) but rarely do I come across anything with the length and complexity of an actual novel, but this… At over a hundred pages, some of them with as many as fifteen pictures on them, this is no brief funny book. You need to either read this in instalments or set aside a couple of hours to consume ‘Closely’.
On the surface Detective Inspector Closely is investigating a murder in an off-season seaside town – But this isn’t really a whodunnit. This is an examination of the landscape of protagonist's mind. When I began reading I thought this might be a comic like ‘Harker’ (by Gibson and Danks) aping the format of Sunday night ITV cop shows… But it isn’t. Then I thought we might be into the territory of ‘Twin Peaks’ and that is closer to the truth… but not quite.
Closely’ is nearer an unsettling psychological-horror film than any surreal cop drama. It’s claustrophobic and disorientating and original. Those are all pluses if you are aiming to disturb your audience and Puttock succeeds in that here.
This is a story much more concerned with character, mood and questions than it is with answers and plotting. With more space than many comics have, Puttock is able to experiment and indulge with his storytelling techniques. Cutting between reality, TV, dreams and differing time-frames, this isn’t your bog-standard comic.
And be sure that this is an adult comic too. Not just full of strong language, but strong concepts and difficult images.
His scratchy, detailed, photo-realistic art suits the project to a tee. Accomplished at likenesses he populates his story with famous actors… From Kevin Eldon for his main character, through to Tilda Swinton and Leo Mckern. Not everything quite comes off, but it mostly does.
The nights are closing in. What better time to have your dreams disturbed by ‘Closely’?

John A. Short

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

COMIC REVIEW - FRANKENSTEIN TEXAS

Title: FRANKENSTEIN TEXAS
Format: AMERICAN COMICS FORMAT. COLOUR COVER, B/W INTERIORS
Length: 64 PAGES
Price: $10
Publisher: DAN WHITEHEAD
Creators: DAN WHITEHEAD & DAVID HITCHCOCK
Review:
It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus’ this year and so there’s never been a better time for publishing a Frankenstein tribute comic! (I should know… My one - ‘Reverend Cross’ 005 came out in 2018 too!) But we’re here to talk about writer Dan Whitehead and artist David Hitchcock’s fantastic graphic novel that brings the monster and his creator to the early wild west!
In my book, anything drawn by David Hitchcock is worth picking up, but even among his projects this is a bit special. Hitchcock is the king of 19th century British comics (and did a wonderful job on my own ‘The Sixpenny Murder’ comic) but here he gets to cross the pond and give his authentic cowboy Victoriana.
David’s art gets better with every passing project. Here he dwells deeply in the dirty and dusty end of his scale (he is as equally good when called upon to portray the wealth of period.)
Whitehead’s story maybe be relatively simple, but he tells it well and gives Hitchcock a real chance to shine. His dialogue evokes the setting wonderfully. Dripping with period colour and atmosphere. The moment I enjoyed the most was the way that he saved the first reveal of the creature until the turn of a page, so springing it on the reader as a surprise. That’s good storytelling, right there.
I could quibble that I’m not sure how this ties up with Mary Shelly’s novel. In the book Victor Frankenstein crashed out of university before qualifying as a doctor, while here he is at least claiming to have got his diploma. Also in the book it is the creature who has to encourage Victor to continue his work, while here the monster is trying to stop him with his life creating sciences? I’ve just put this down to a missing chapter of their lives which bridges the gap between novel and graphic novel (room for a prequel?)
I would encourage you to pick this up if you have any love of horror, gothic cowboys, Victoriana and the Modern Prometheus… You are in for a real treat.

John A. Short