Monday, 19 January 2009

Archie Goodwin's Sinner

And talking of the late, great Archie Goodwin, here's one of the few strips he both wrote AND drew. A little gem that's been reprinted loads of times, but It's always worth seeing again.
I love the art style on this: It reeks of the late '60's / early '70's. A kind of style you just don't see anymore.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Manhunter-He Stalks The World's Most Dangerous Game!

Manhunter is one of those comics that just seems to get better with age. Written by Archie Goodwin ( one of comics' greatest writer's ) and with art by Walt Simonson ( almost at the start of his professional career ), it broke new ground in storytelling and art techniques, won six major awards ( for a series that ran only seven episodes ), is still talked about over 30 years after it's original publication, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, might just be the only series in comics where the lead character dies, and stays dead.
In comics, sooner or later, every character comes back, is revamped or retconned, or otherwise ruined by people other than the original creator's. You say Captain America's dead? Stick around, pal, he'll be back. ( If he isn't already. )
Not so Manhunter. No one's ever brought this guy back.
Now, you could be unkind and say, well, why would they? These days, who cares enough about this guy to bother? Maybe. But I don't think so.

Manhunter was introduced in July of 1973 in the pages of Detective Comics, as a back-up for the lead Batman strip, a simple little 8-page serial to fill some pages and maybe hawk a few extra copies. But pretty much from the first episode, it was clear something special was going on.

It's the story of Paul Kirk, a minor character from '40's comics thrust into the '70's.
A big-game hunter, spy & occasional superhero, Kirk is mortally wounded, presumed dead, in the african jungle. In fact, he's rescued, and put into suspended animation by a mysterious organization calling itself The Council, and eventually re-awakened in the modern day for what, at first, seems the best of reasons.

The Council, originally, was dedicated to helping mankind, but, natch, time & power has corrupted them , and now they figure, hey, who's better placed to run the world than us?
Meanwhile, while Kirk has been on ice, they've cloned him, hundreds of times, into an unbeatable army of assassins. The Council then wake him up, and suggest he might like to use his skills to lead their deadly cadre of killers on murder missions.
To the surprise of absolutely no one at all, Paul Kirk is not impressed.

Pretty soon, he's broken out of Council HQ, hitched up with sexy Interpol agent Cristine St. Clair & ninja Asano Nitobe, and is leading a world wide war against his former rescuers, blocking The Council's attempted political assassinations, and wiping out the clone army, one by one.

So we have an intriguing plot, a tortured hero, a cool heroine, and a global threat. Classic pulp adventure stuff.
BUT it's not the plot per se that makes Manhunter such a great strip, it's how Goodwin & Simonson told the story.
Firstly, Archie knew he only had 8 pages per issue to hook the reader and move the story forward. So, like Quentin Tarantino did decades later ( and far less skillfully ) he moved the narrative onwards by jumping backwards and forwards in time, delivering important information through various characters & various viewpoints, even to the point of occasionally making Manhunter / Kirk a secondary character in his own story.
Simonson too, reciprocated, by stretching the boundaries of what was possible on the comic page, sometimes placing as many as 20 panels on a page, and making it all not just coherent ( a feat in itself ), but making it interesting & exciting.
I can't stress enough how difficult it is to achieve what Goodwin & Simonson did on this strip, and how easy they made it look.
Plenty of people have told epic saga's in a miniscule amount of pages since, but no one had really tried it before, and no one's done it as well.

And it's the little things that add to Manhunter too: Like the completely impractical costume, that would never work in reality, but looks so cool on the printed page: Or the fact that Simonson clearly based Kirk on James Coburn, with that long, lean face & lanky frame ( wonder if Coburn ever knew he was a superhero? )

And as much as I'd like a sequel, I'm also kind of glad it'll never happen. Archie Goodwin sadly passed away in 1998, just as a fresh reprint of Manhunter was being readied. There was talk of an epilogue by the original team, but it came too late for Archie. So Walt did Paul Kirk's last appearance as a 'silent' strip, in honour of his friend. That story, along with the rest of the saga, is in this reprint:

But, whichever one you manage to get your hands on, do get it. It really is one of the great comic strips, and more than lives up to it's rep.

My All-Time Favourite Comic Book Ever

Hey, thanks for asking. Well, this may appall some of you, but it's not one of the 'classics'. It's not Manhunter, or Swamp Thing, or even Brother Power The Geek. (All of which we'll get to, don't worry.)
My favourite comic isn't thought of as one of the greats, or even thought of at all. In fact, I doubt more than a handful of people even remember it. And here it is:

Marvel what? Presents who?? Well, hang on...
Marvel Preview was what's known as a 'try-out' book, where those busy armadillo's up at The House of Ideas would launch a new character in each issue, in the hope that we Merry Marvelites would like said character enough to bless them with their own regular strip.
You never knew what you were gonna get when you picked up a copy of Preview. One month it'd be Blade in his first solo adventure, the next Satana, The Devil's Daughter would rear her non-Comics Code approved head. They even tried Sherlock Holmes, but nobody went for that one.

Anyway, in the halcyon year of 1976, my family and I had just moved from my childhood home of Haverhill, Suffolk all the way down to the city of Wells in Somerset.
This was a bit of a shock to my 11 year old self, to say the least.
Wells seemed to be full of strange, new, odd people. People who talked in a bizarre, country accent, and spent far too much time gazing at the sky than seemed healthy.
Still, much to my relief, they did sell comics here, so it wasn't all bad.
I ended up getting my monthly fix in a newsagents right at the top of Wells high street. If you've seen the movie 'Hot Fuzz' you've been in there too. In the film Simon Pegg goes in there a couple of times to buy ice cream. The magazines are shelved all along the left hand side of the shop.
What's astounding to me is that, in the film, the shop looks exactly the same as it did in '76.
But, hey, that's Somerset, I s'pose.

So there I am, in a strange new world, desperate for entertainment, when I walk into the newsagents, and see that cover.
" He stalks the galaxies! One man...On a mission of cosmic vengeance! "I defy any kid not to grab that puppy off the shelf, fling your money at the counter, and run all the way home.
So who is Star-Lord? Well, he was created by ace scripter Steve Englehart, and I know everybody raves about Stainless Steve's work on Dr. Strange & Batman, and rightly so, but this is the best of his '70's work for me.
The art is by Steve Gan, a criminally under-appreciated artist who was part of the Phillipines brain drain both Marvel & DC brought us during this period.

Star-Lord himself is Peter Quill, and we first meet him on the night of his birth, when his father, convinced that the child isn't his, carries the newborn out to the woodpile, intending to put an axe through baby Pete's head.
Luckily, dear ol' dad suffers a fatal heart attack before committing the foul deed, and young Peter is left on the ground, gazing up at....the stars.
Cue opening credits & dramatic music.

Peter grows up, but he grows up weird. It's suggested that his mum is, if not insane, then at least slightly disturbed:

Still, Meredith & Peter continue along in their dysfunctional way, until, one day, while walking in the woods, THIS happens:

Pete tries to tell people what happened, but, natch, no one believes him. That weird Quill kid?
He's always off in his own world, no wonder he sees spacemen.

So, our angry as hell hero goes through life in a rage, his sole purpose to become an astronaut, and get out there into the universe and find those lizard faced bastards who murdered his mum.
Really, this guy's so single minded, he makes Batman look like a wishy washy ditherer. Along the way, he makes few friends. ( Ok, no friends. ) Case in point:

Remember that guy Harrelson. He's not a guy you wanna cross. Anyway, prickly young Mr. Quill ( see what they did there? ) continues to rise in the ranks of the space force, until the historic day when Earth's first space station is to be manned. The lucky astronauts are named, but:

After dealing with this disappointment in his usual, calm manner ( ie. getting blind drunk and smashing up his apartment ), Pete knuckles down, and, after only a year or so of apologizing, finally gets to go the space station, where, in front of the assembled dignitaries of Earth, THIS happens:

Clearly, somebody needs to get out there and accept all the power in the universe. Guess who volunteers? Unfortunately, the saps in charge don't know a good thing when they see it, and, anyway, they're sure as hell not gonna send somebody like Peter Quill as the best representative of humanity. Dealing with this rejection in his usual, mature manner ( ie. throwing a hissy fit ), Pete is soon shoved in a prison cell, along with a one way ticket back to Earth. To add insult to injury, that goon Harrelson is chosen to go on the mission. Would you stand for that? Pete neither:

Just when all seems lost for our ( let's face it ) fairly disagreeable hero, he promptly vanishes into thin air, only to find himself a universe away from earth, on an unnamed planet, in the company of ( are you ready for this? ) GOD himself.

God promptly outfits Pete with a weapon that draws it's energy from the four elements, and, transporting him across the universe again, Pete takes his revenge against the loathsome alien's who killed his Mum. Or does he?
The ending is ambiguous, promising redemption for Pete, but also leaving a whole ton of questions to be answered. Unfortunately, they never were. At least not satisfactorily.
Steve Englehart left Marvel soon after publication of this epic, leaving Star-Lord in the hands of lesser writer's ( Yes, Chris Claremont, I mean you ), who changed the character beyond all recognition, and came up with an incredibly lame explanation for the back story.
A shame, as it was a unique origin story, and could've been a unique series.

For me at the time, plonked in a strange new environment, it was obviously helpful to read about a hero that was even more alienated and annoyed than I was. And, as any psychiatrist'll tell you, your favourite things are all about when in your life you first experienced them. Both very big reasons why this is my favourite comic. But all I know is that I've kept this comic since 1976, and reread it more times than any other I own. Even with an unprejudiced eye, I still think it's a stunning piece of characterization, with superb, understated art.
Alas, it'll probably never be reprinted, unless Marvel do an Essential Marvel Sci-Fi or something. But if you see this issue on ebay, grab yourself a copy. You won't regret it.

A bronze age welcome

Yeah, I know, I know, we're living in an unprecedented time for comics. Bookshops actually have graphic novel sections. There are actual, real movies of our favourite characters. When you tell people that you're into comics, they no longer look at you as if you've grown antlers. Our medium is discussed & evaluated as a serious artform, just like we always hoped it would be.
All of this is obviously a good thing, and I'm not one of those people who thinks that modern comics aren't as good as the old stuff.....BUT, BUT, BUT... I love Bronze Age comics, me.

( Just in case any of my non-comic reading buddies are reading this, here's a quick explanation. The rest of you, meet me at the next paragraph. ) The Bronze Age Of Comics is really just a fancy way of saying anything that was released in the '70's, which was, natch, the period I grew up in.
Fans refer to the 1930's & '40's as The Golden Age ( which is when Superman, Batman and most of the big guns were created ), the'50's & '60's were The Silver Age ( Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk & so on ), and The Bronze Age brought us pretty much everything else.
No one can agree on what age we're in now, and, if you ask any comic fan, they'll most likely give an embarrassed cough and change the subject as quickly as possible.
All this naming and cataloguing is something all fans do, no matter what they're fans of, be it football, old TV shows or beermats.
In all honesty, it's just a way of saying "comics were better when I was a kid".

So I love The Bronze Age, the great, wild, experimental comics of my youth, and on this blog, I'm gonna talk about them. If your favourites are in here, or if all you know about comics is The Dark Knight, why not join me? Where shall we start? How about....