Doom Patrol

In the marvelous HBO miniseries, The Outsider, one of my favorite characters is Holly Gibney, a borderline autistic investigator, who clearly operates in a slightly different reality than most of us. In one of the last scenes, after defeating the Big Bad, it asks Holly how she recognized it. To paraphrase (because, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’m remembering it right) her answer, she replied, “An outsider can always recognize another outsider.” I’m not sure that one needs to be an outsider to enjoy Doom Patrol, but the feeling it gives me, of maybe there is somewhere I belong, is why this show brings me so much joy. It is ostensibly a superhero show, but the majority of obstacles that this misfit band of odd balls must overcome are internal. Sure there are superpowers, but there’s also family, mental illness, lost loves and plenty of self-loathing to go around. There are punches aplenty thrown at bad guys, but the hardest punch they pack is right in the feels.

The show involves the wheelchair bound scientist, Niles Caulder (Timothy Daulton of The Living Daylights and Flash Gordon), whose questionable experiments, not to mention ethics, created most of Doom Patrol to begin with. The earliest member is Rita Farr (April Bowlby of Slammin’ Salmon and Two and a Half Men), a former star of the silver screen changed, by a toxic gas, into a stretchy, elastic mutant. Next to join would be Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer of White Collar and Will & Grace), a former test pilot who, during an experimental flight absorbed an entity made of “negative energy” that now dwells within him. Oh, yeah, and he’s horribly disfigured and emits so much radiation that no one can ever physically get close to him again. Possibly the most powerful member of the team is Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero of Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin), a disturbed woman with multiple personality disorder (MPD), each different personality possessing their own superpower. This can range from her persona, Baby Doll, who believes “everything is lovely”, to Lucy Fugue, who has radioactive bones and see-through skin, to Sun Daddy, who is a huge figure with a sun for a head and can throw fireballs. With a current tally of 64 separate personalities, she’s like a slightly less together Legion. There’s the unimaginatively named Robot Man (Brendan Fraser of Encino Man and George of the Jungle. Yeah, that Brendan Fraser.), a former race car driver that suffered what would have ordinarily been a fatal accident, were it not for Niles Caulder placing his brain into a nearly indestructible robot body. Last to the party is Victor Stone, AKA Cyborg (Joivan Wade of Youngers and Doctor Who), the only member to not be created by Niles Caulder. Normally associated with the Teen Titans, or the Justice League for those Snider cut fans out there, he is a former football star who, after a horrible accident, is recreated with cybernetic parts. Boo-ya!

All of these people are very, very flawed, and that’s what makes them all so goddamn beautiful. Jane grew with an abusive father and was subjected to years of sexual abuse. Leading to the development of her MPD, she spent years institutionalized and indulging in excessive drug use, both psychiatric and illegal. Despite having incredible powers, she has absolutely no control over them, often arguing with herself to even get anything done. Robot Man, being super strong and close to invulnerable, is a bitter, angry man who mourns his former life, an empty life previously lived carelessly. Likewise, Cyborg misses being a popular football star, but an otherwise normal person. His bitterness is mostly aimed at his father, for turning him into something more machine than man and, in stark contrast to how Cyborg is usually portrayed, is less superhero and more soul searching, self-doubting kid. Rita, once used to fawning adoration, now cloisters herself, uncertain of when her body will betray her. She has the ability to stretch and bend like Plastic Man, but, much like Jane and her erratic powers, it takes all of Rita’s concentration to even just keep her body from oozing everywhere. Larry Trainor, AKA The Negative Man, may be my favorite of them all. He lost it all. Once a virile man in his prime, a decorated pilot, with a wife, a child and a gay lover on the side, his body is now covered in scars from head to toe, the amount of radiation coming off of him requires that he always cover himself in specially designed bandages, Invisible Man style. Oh, and his super power? The entity inside him may also be indestructible, can fly and made of pure energy, but it is not under his control and, once unleashed, leaves Larry helpless.

Niles Caulder may be the most tragic figure of all. A man of exceptional intelligence, it seems he leads the Doom Patrol more out of his feelings of guilt over the failed experiments that he views them as. In various flashbacks during the show we see him as he interviews Crazy Jane or fiddles with the inner workings of Robot Man. He isn’t the cause of their current condition, but, in his hubris, he saw fit to use their conditions to play God and tamper about with them as if they were nothing more than lab rats. Much like the rest of Doom Patrol, we are torn between looking up to him as their ingenuous leader and hating him for turning them into freaks for his own curiosity. His history gets more complicated and more tragic as the show goes on, but I don’t want to give away too much.

Equally as fun are the villains of the show. One of the first we meet is Mr. Nobody (played by the amazing Alan Tudyk of Firefly and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil), a reality bending entity that breaks the fourth wall like a less sane Deadpool. Yes, LESS sane. He can control the action on the screen just by his narration. There is a government agency, The Bureau of Normalicy, dedicated to eliminating aberrations just like the members of Doom Patrol. There are Nazis, a Ghostbusters-like team, known as the Sex-Men and Beard Hunter, a serial killer who hunts down men with beards. Lest we think that the entire world is out to get Doom Patrol, their allies are equally as weird. There’s Flex Mentallo, The Muscle Man of Mystery. Imagine Charles Atlas come to life, but his actions, instead of being feats of brawn, are more like magic spells cast by flexing his muscles. I loved him in the comic books, and was dubious when I heard he’d be in the live action Doom Patrol, but they got a fantastic actor to play him (Devan Chandler Long of Runaways and Bosch). And then there’s possibly the most surreal character of all, Danny the Street. What Danny is is a little hard to describe, so I’ll just plagiarize Wikipedia. They say, “Danny is a living and sentient piece of urban geography who can magically and seamlessly place himself in any urban landscape at will, without any disruption to his surroundings.” It is mentioned that he identifies as gender queer and he is usually lined with dance clubs, gun shops and drag cabarets.

Did I mention this was originally a comic book? Maybe I should have said that up front, which would explain my effusive praise of the show. But I’ve been reading Doom Patrol from so long ago, that it’s just common knowledge to me. I sometimes forget my audience, mainly because I’m not sure if I have an audience. The original Doom Patrol was published in My Greatest Adventure #80 in 1963, created by Arnold Drake and Bob Haney. It’s actually had several different incarnations, but I’m relatively sure that the heart of the television show is based off of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Writing the title from issues #19 to #63, he is the one who introduces Crazy Jane and Danny the Street. He injected a level of surrealism to the comic that overshadowed anything it had previously been. In fact, it was so…I don’t know …different, I guess, that I didn’t know how the show could even be pulled off, but under the creative command of Geoff Johns, it truly shines. As with most things I review, this show isn’t for everyone. If you want non-stop action or a clearly demarcated fight of good vs. evil, then this isn’t that show. Doom Patrol is that ugly, orphaned puppy who is just so scrappy and adorable in his own way that you can’t help but love him. It’s the show that makes you feel that no matter how strange or different or broken you are, you are still worth something and that you can still find a place you belong. And I absolutely love it for that.

Pontypool

This is a film that doesn’t get nearly enough love. I get it; it might not be for everyone. It’s a zombie movie with no undead, flesh-eating zombies. It’s a horror movie with little blood and the secret weapon against the apocalypse is poetry. It’s weird. It’s unique. Dare I say, it’s a thinking man’s zombie movie. And the threat isn’t a monster or a virus or a demon; it’s language, it’s a meme. I would say that Pontypool is way ahead of its time in demonstrating how dangerous the wrong meme can be. I actually feel a little bad about calling this a zombie movie, in that the producer has explicitly said that this is not a zombie movie, referring to the infected, instead, as conversationalists. That being said, the infected were once normal humans who have been turned into mindless creatures bent on violence and everyone else calls them zombies, too.

I don’t think many people have seen this movie, so I’ll give a brief description. It’s a bottle movie, almost the entire movie takes place at a small radio station in the town of Pontypool, Ontario, reminiscent of 10 Cloverfield Lane. We soon meet shock jock DJ, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie of Watchmen and Come to Daddy), a grizzled renegade, abrasive and slightly arrogant due to being a big fish in a little pond. He comes into the station to do his show on a cold and snowy day, assisted by the station manager, Sydney (Lisa Houle of Cold Squad and Scene of the Crime). Given that it’s talk radio, his show involves taking calls from listeners, but the first call is from their “eye in the sky” traffic reporter. He describes an odd scene in which a group of people seem to be attacking another and then he gets cut off. That sets off a series of calls, each one more bizarre and frightening than the last, the story of a zombie apocalypse told in snippets. Finally, the infection and the infected arrive at the studio and death enters the bottle.

It feels like a radio show, almost more so than it does a movie. There’s a good reason for that, in that, not only was the production inspired by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, but it was also made into a radio play at the same time it was filmed. Based on a book, Pontypool Changes Everything, written by Tony Burgess, who also adapted it for the movie, it is part of a trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Hellmouths of Brewdley, followed by Pontypool Changes Everything and finally, Caesarea. I say trilogy, because that’s what’s on the Wikipedia page. Reading the descriptions of the three books , however, I have no idea how they are related. In addition to writing the screenplay for Pontypool, Burgess has written 7 other screen plays, including Septic Man and Hellmouth. He has even been in a number of his own movies, including Pontypool (he played Tony Lawrence).

In order to be complete in my research, I started tracking down these other movies. Septic Man involves a sewerage worker who gets trapped in a septic tank and becomes mutated by toxic sewage. It addition to sounding too much like The Toxic Avenger, it just sounded incredibly disgusting. Ejecta got horrible reviews, scoring a 4.6 on IMDB and sounded like it might be tortuous to watch. So, Hellmouth it was. Much like Pontypool, it seemed as if were made on a show string budget. Filmed in black and white and making liberal use of cheap editing tricks, it has the feel of the movie, Sin City. It’s the story of Sydney, an old and dying cemetery caretaker. He receives a box that contains a key and a mysterious map. Hellmouth was …okay. Watchable, but not too compelling. Somewhat disappointing, really. I’m writing this post because I LOVED Pontypool. I though it was amazing enough that I’ve seen it three times and I would see it again in an instant, and I rarely see movies more than once.

At the start of this post, I mentioned the word meme. While I have never heard anyone else associate Pontypool with memes, the connection seems obvious. A meme is defined as an idea, behavior or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person. Many of these are merely humorous, like Bad Luck Brian and Business Cat, but memes can be weaponized. In 2015, The journal, Defense Strategic Communications published an article by Jeff Giesea titled, It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare, urging that, as countries prepare for cyber warfare, they should also be preparing for memetic warfare. One passage reads:

Cyber warfare is about taking control of data. Memetic warfare is about taking control of the dialogue, narrative, and psychological space. It’s about denigrating, disrupting, and subverting the enemy’s effort to do the same. Like cyber warfare, memetic warfare is asymmetrical in impact. It can be highly effective relative to cost. The attack surface can be large or small. Memetic warfare can be used in conjunction with troops, ships, aircraft, and missiles, or it can be employed without any kinetic military force at all. It operates in the communications battlespace.

Anyone who has been online in the last few years knows how pervasive a good meme can be, influencing large segments of society. I believe that Pontypool mimics this effect, though pushed to nightmarish conclusions.

This movie isn’t for everyone. The monsters in it are less monsterish than in most horror movies, and the deadly infection is somewhat conceptual in nature. Still, I feel that the actors are excellent and that the director does a fantastic job of slowly dialing up the tension until the viewer feels just as trapped and threatened as the people inside the tiny, small town, radio studio. The nature of the infection itself is so esoteric that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. The best horror movies are the ones that won’t let go. That hold onto one’s psyche. And, for me, Pontypool is exactly that. I may just have to watch it again.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Superman

Superman statue

Image by Joseph Lee Novak

As a new reader, growing up, I was never that into Superman. He was the ultimate Mary Sue. Super strong, super fast, nearly invulnerable, Kryptonite his only weakness; what’s the fun in that? He truly earned his nickname of the big, blue boy scout. Good and altruistic to the core, there seemed to be no darkness in him, no conflict and few shades of gray. Besides, I was a Marvel guy. Spiderman and Iron Man, the X-Men and Conan the Barbarian, they were the one’s I followed month to month. Even when I started buying comics on my own, my first purchase was Ghost Rider. I always wondered what that said about me, that my first choice for a comic book was a vengeance demon from Hell. Even when I started branching out, it was years before I even looked twice at a DC comic. It was their Vertigo line that caught my attention with titles like Preacher and Hellblazer. Even then, I was attracted to the dark and edgy titles; Superman sure as hell wasn’t on my radar. But then a few titles caught my eye and I took the plunge. Now I’ve found a few stories that write Superman in such a complex and vulnerable way that I was sold. These are the stories that convinced me to love Superman.

All-Star Superman

Holy shit, this comic book miniseries is frickin’ awesome. It helps that it was created by the power duo of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly. I’ve waxed poetic about Quietly earlier, so you know my fan boy man crush on his art, but Morrison really outdoes himself with the story telling in this one. It begins with Superman dying. He has absorbed so much solar radiation, the yellow sun being the very source of his power, that it is breaking him apart. It also has supercharged him, so that during his last few days, he is stronger, faster, smarter, etc. than ever before. He’s always felt responsible for, well, the entire planet, so he knows he needs to get his affairs in order. What follows is a 12 issue tale that pens the Kryptonian with such warmth, such humanity, that I was completely won over.

Does he fly? Does he use his heat vision and bend steel with his bare hands? He does, but many of the challenges he overcomes take far more than brawn or powers. He shows compassion to his enemies and love for his friends. His father’s funeral will break your heart and his date with Lois Lane will make your heart swell. You will be introduced to novel aspects of his story, like black Kryptonite and Bizarro World and a super-powered Lex Luther. Yeah, I’ll be talking about other great Superman stories, but this is the one. This is the story that overcame my disinterest in Superman.

What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way

Written by Joe Kelly, this story appeared in Action Comics #775 in the March of 2001 and was called “the single best issue of a comic book written in the year 2001”. Wizard Magazine called it the “Greatest Superman story of all time”, which should prove that I am far from alone in my praise. It was also developed into an animated feature in 2012, called Superman vs. The Elite, which is worth seeing. As the name would imply, Superman encounters a new “superhero” team called the Elite. They clash in their methods in that, while Superman does not kill, the Elite have no qualms about it. This escalates into an all-out brawl where the Elite basically mop the floor with the Big Blue Boy Scout. Then things get interesting.

Seeing Superman turn bad-ass is always a treat. The juxtaposition between someone who is so morally good that it’s almost sickening and an alien being with nearly god-like power and no sense of restraint has been a winning recipe in a number of different stories. That’s what Bright Burn banked on, but What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way may be one of the earliest stories to lean into it. It was written at a time when superhero comics were getting grittier, more violent and central to the plot is the question, “Has Superman’s time passed?” Let’s just say that Superman convinces the Elite, and the world at large, to be happy with the way he is. Cause they won’t like the alternative.

Irredeemable

I’ve already talked about the storyline of Superman going bad , but I don’t believe anyone takes it as far as Irredeemable. Written by Mark Waid, for Boom Comics, and spanning an impressive 37 issue run, it featured a Superman copy called, the Plutonian. Superman, being one of the most powerful and idolized superheroes on Earth, has always had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he had the mental stability to handle it. The Plutonian does not. He cracks under the pressure and lashes out at both his superhero team mates and the entire world. As I said, there are other stories like this, but none have a 3 year time span to explore the concept as fully. The title is completely appropriate, as well; this character does reprehensible things. I should mention that Boom comics put out a related comic called Incorruptible, also by Mark Waid, but it doesn’t live up to Irredeemable. In it, one of the Plutonian’s enemies, Max Damage, is so shaken by the Plutonian’s turn to evil, that he becomes good. It’s a good concept, but it just doesn’t read as well.

So, why am I including this Superman knock-off in a piece specifically about Superman? A few reasons. In addition to the blatant similarities, it is revealed that the Plutonian’s powers are mentally related, or psionic, rather than physical. This is a reference to a research paper published back in 2009 that stated that, with the breadth of Superman’s powers, it would break the laws of physics if they were physically based and, therefore, they had to be supernatural in nature. Also, at the end of Irredeemable, the very last issue, Waid makes it perfectly clear that the entire thing is a gorgeous homage to Superman.

Kingdom Come

Conceived and illustrated by Alex Ross and written by Mark Waid, Kingdom Come presents Earth on the brink of disaster from the multitude of vigilante superheroes that have populated the planet. Much like What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way, a younger breed of superhero, one who doesn’t mind the use of lethal force, has come into favor and the public has turned away from Superman. As a result, he has sequestered himself in a holographic Kansas, away from the world. But with violence spiraling out of control, a militant Wonder Woman convinces him to return to the fight. There begins a battle of the wills, with Superman determined to stick to his ethical refusal to kill and nearly everyone else screaming for blood. As if this weren’t enough, mankind has generally grown sick of all these living weapons running around and generally, making the world a dangerous place to live in, so they’re planning to take drastic action on all the capes, both good and bad.

I’ve already written about how much I love Ross’ artwork and that is one of the best parts of this graphic novel. The story itself is told through the eyes of a minister who feels as if God is showing him all the events unfolding so that he can save the world. There is great comic book action here, but also complex ethical struggles that are rarely seen in the superhero world. My copy of this graphic novel is almost as well read and tattered as my copy of the Watchmen, which, by the way, is falling apart.

Grounded

In 2010, J. Michael Straczynski took over as writer for Superman and DC’s Dan Dido wanted him to re-invigorate the character. What emerged was a 14 issue run called, “Grounded”. The events of the previous run,” New Krypton“, finds Superman feeling disconnected from Earthlings and wondering if he can truly be the planet’s protector any longer. Disillusioned and lost, he decides that in order to get back in touch with the common man, he’s going to travel across America. And since he can’t connect with them from 20,000 feet in the air, looking down on them from above, he decides to walk the length of the country.

It’s a great look into Superman’s psyche, a god among men, trying to understand their experience as mortals. Once again, this is a story that in which his powers are useless. There’s no enemy to defeat nor disaster to overcome, while the run isn’t devoid of action, its main theme is Superman’s soul searching. My main complaint about the character Superman is that he can’t be beat, but this story shows that he isn’t immune to self-doubt. During his walk across America, he encounters very human problems. People with life-work issues, loneliness, domestic abuse, joblessness and poverty. Problems for which super strength and heat vision are useless. Grounded was a great run that showed a side of Superman that has rarely been explored and it’s written amazingly well.

Runner Up: The Incident

In 2011, DC published Action Comics #900, a title primarily featuring Superman, and ran a story called “The Incident” written by Paul Cornell. While not as deep or meaningful as the stories I have discussed above, nonetheless, I feel that it’s a story that deserves to be mentioned. It’s set in Iran, where a group of peaceful protesters are being attacked by Iranian soldiers and Superman swoops in to save the day. While, on the face of it, this is a straight up heroic act, it angers both the Iranian and American governments. Basically, this is because both governments consider Superman an exclusively American asset. As such, Superman’s actions could be considered an act of American aggression, maybe even a declaration of war. Realizing his duty is to protect the entire planet, not just the U.S., he publicly renounces his American citizenship.

While this was a nifty development for Superman’s story, what was really amazing was how much of a fervor this caused. The news story that Superman had renounced his citizenship was carried by everyone from Fox news to the New York Times and it caused such an uproar that DC comics back tracked on the story, labeling it a “What if” story. It goes to show what an icon Superman is, that a 70 year old comic book character is still so important to so many people.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Part 1

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I’m reluctant to even write this post. Buffy looms so large in the history of television, particularly for the sci-fi, fantasy nerd set which is me, that I feel inadequate to do it justice. Even so, it’s been such a love of mine, and the metric by which I judge so many other shows, that I feel compelled to try and pray my humble words are worthy. If you’ve been living under a rock, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) is a Joss Whedon creation, based on the movie of the same name, and claimed by some to be the greatest television show ever. The movie was so abysmally disappointing that I didn’t even watch the television show until season three, and even then, grudgingly. Soon after, Tuesday nights became Buffy nights and few things would keep me away from my TV at the appointed hour. I don’t usually get emotionally attached to television shows, or, hell, most people for that matter, but I’m unashamed to say that I did with this one. It had a worthy ending, but I was sad to see it go and miss it to this very day.

The show was so fresh and stood out in a sea of TV banality. It was the origin of so many terms that I use, such as “Big Bad” and “Scoobies” and, as I will talk about ad nauseum, gave birth to many, many imitators. Like many works of art, I can’t quite pinpoint what, exactly, made the show so amazing. I can only guess that the combination of Whedon’s vision and the cast’s chemistry and the crazy number of talented people that worked with them created some magic television alchemy that countless others have tried to repeat.

I probably don’t need to tell anyone what BtVS is about, but for completeness sake, and to stay with the form of the blog, here it goes. The show follows the titular character, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller of Ringer and Scooby-Doo), who happens to be imbued with special powers to fight evil, also known as a Vampire Slayer. They have existed since prehistoric times, are always women and only one exists at a time, another being chosen when one dies. The Slayer has heightened strength and agility and instinctive fighting skills. The Slayer is assisted in her duties by a group of individuals known as Watchers, who act as repositories of knowledge of the creatures she finds herself fighting against. They also serve as the straight man to the flippant, high school girl that is Buffy. In this case, that man is Rupert Giles ( Anthony Stewart Head of Merlin, Dominion and The Stranger), who is specifically responsible for the support and training of Buffy. Also helping her fight against evil are her friends, or scoobies, as they came to be called, Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan of How I Met Your Mother and American Pie), Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon of Criminal Minds and Coherence), Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter of Angel and Charmed) and Daniel “Oz” Osbourne (Seth Green of Austin Powers and That 70’s Show). They all exist in the fictional, idyllic, California town of Sunnydale.

The show followed the Monster of the Week format, with larger story arcs layered over that, some spanning multiple seasons. True to her name, vampires were Buffy’s primary enemies, but over 7 seasons, she fought mummies, demons, cyborgs and even a god or two. The tone of the show skillfully mixed a gothy angst feeling with humor and witty banter. It is this back and forth play of emotions that sinks those barbs of pathos deep into your heart strings and gets you right in the feels. The victories make you want to cheer, but they are companions to devastating losses. Relationships loom large in BtVS and you can be sure that any happy couples are going to, at some point, become painfully heartbroken. It’s not uncommon for an episode to have you laughing in one scene and have you close to tears in another.

Even with this this level of emotionality injected into a well written, supernatural action drama, the show trailblazed in so many other ways. In season 4, the episode, Hush, gained recognition for having only 17 minutes of dialog in its entire 44 minute run time. Whedon had heard a claim that the only reason the show was as sucessful as it was was because of the back and forth banter between the characters. He took this as a challenge and wrote an episode in which the Big Bad were a group of creatures known as The Gentlemen that steal everyone’s voices. In season 6, Whedon wrote a musical episode called, Once More With Feeling. In this episode, a demon arrives in Sunnydale and compels everyone to break into song at random moments. With a run time of 50 minutes, roughly 8 minutes more than a standard episode, the cast sings a variety of song that were collected into a soundtrack with over 20 separate tracks. Called the “greatest television soundtrack of all time” it rose to 49 in the US Billboard 200. Once More with Feeling is still considered one of the most popular episodes of the entire series and has been shown in theaters to sing-a-long audiences.

There’s a lot to talk about, when talking about this show. In addition to the soundtrack I mentioned above, there have been several books, a role-playing game, video games, a collectible card game and a few podcasts dedicated to BtVS. After the television show ended, Buffy’s stories lived on as a comic book, writers churning out three more seasons. There’s been one spin-off, Angel, two others proposed, but never developed (Buffy: The Animated Series and Ripper), and a potential re-boot (but don’t call it a re-boot) currently in the works. Even this might not be surprising for a popular television show, but if we want to fully comprehend the cultural significance of BtVS, we need only to look at academia. Since 2001, there has been a quarterly publication called Slayage: The Online Journal of Buffy Studies. There are multiple colleges that offer classes based off of BtVS, touching on topics from media to gender studies. Meet-Up groups, Buffy focused conventions and other references to the show continue to this day. Buffy remains a force to be reckoned with and there is more to be said, but I’m going to wait for another day. I knew this subject would be too much for one post, so I’ll continue this next week. Until then, stay 5 by 5.

Stumptown

This is not what I thought I’d be writing about. So much of what I write, or draw or paint for that matter, is driven by what has “sparked my joy” in the moment. With my last post about the TV show, Reaper, I was all excited to write about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with just having watched the season finale of Stumptown, a show I’ve been enjoying way more than I expected, I’ve decided that it will be my topic for today. Stumptown, by the way, is a crime drama on ABC based on a comic book created by Oregon writer, Greg Rucka. Obviously, that is where my interest began.

Given my interest in comic books, I’ve been aware of Rucka for some time. He’s written for several titles, such as Batman and The Punisher, in addition to putting out a few mystery novels. A number of years ago, I saw him talk at the Jack London Lounge. It’s a jazz club now, but back then it was an eclectic space, hosting everything from bands to lectures to monthly comic book events. I was at one of these events on a night Rucka was there talking about his (at that time) new title, Lazarus. It’s a great comic, but that’s not the point. He was so excited to talk about this title, he displayed such passion about his work, I’ve been a fan ever since. He started writing Stumptown in 2009, the title being a reference to a nickname of Portland, OR, where the story is set. The homage to this fine city certainly boosted my estimation of the comic. You might think my appreciation for Stumptown, the comic, would color my opinion of the TV show in a favorable light, but, on the contrary, it made me more critical of it.

Which is why I am surprised at how much I like it. Cobie Smulders is perfect as the main character, Dex Parios, a Marine back from Afghanistan, turned private investigator. I remember enjoying her range as she shifted from comedy (How I Met Your Mother) to action (The Avengers), but she works surprisingly well as the abrasive, hard drinking Dex. She lives with her younger brother, Ansel (Cole Sibus, the Spare Room being his only other acting credit), who has Downs Syndrome and works at the bar, The Bad Alibi. This bar is owned by Dex’s best friend, Grey McConnell (Jake Johnson of New Girl and Get Him to the Greek), an ex-con trying to go straight. Occasionally assisting Dex in her investigations is Detective Miles Hoffman (Michael Ealy of Barbershop and Almost Human) of the Portland PD and his boss, Lieutenant Cosgrove (Camryn Manheim of The Magicians and Person of Interest). Then there’s Tookie (Adrian Martinez of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Focus), Portland food truck owner whose purpose of the show is something of a mystery to me, but he is amusing as the passionate chef.

The show is fun, which, now that I’m writing a (near) weekly blog about television shows, I’m realizing is a major factor in whether I like a show or not. I find the mysteries that Dex is tasked with to be well written, the winding path to her solving them to be exciting joyrides. The cast has great chemistry with each other and there is a fair amount of character development, even in just the first season. I like the show’s use of music and the running gag of Dex’s car stereo playing random songs at random times, that can’t be turned off, is effective and, thankfully, not overused. There’s a nice combination of mystery of the week and longer story arcs. As comic book turned TV show, it’s not the usual fare. I’m not saying that this is the best TV show I’ve ever seen, but I do like it, more than I thought I would. I’m really hoping for a season 2, but, as of this writing, I’ve heard no news about whether it’s been renewed or not.

My biggest complaint is that, as Portland-centric as the comic was, and the show claims to be, it’s clearly not filmed in Portland, and it shows. It’s filmed in Los Angeles, which is about as far from Portland as you can get, setting-wise. I have a real connection to place and, even though I wasn’t born in Portland, I immediately fell in love with it. There is no easier way for me to be interested in a show than to set it in Portland. Shows like Leverage, Grimm and the Librarians used Portland like a cast member and I would tune in just to see shots of my adopted hometown. One episode of Grimm was filmed at a house across the street from where I was living and it was a blast to watch. Stumptown will have the occasional shot where a Portland landmark can be seen, but for a show that’s named after the freakin’ city, I want more. Heck, even when Leverage was supposed to be set in Boston, they showed more of Portland than Stumptown does.

But, really, that’s my only complaint about the show. I’m sad to see it end, but I have high hopes that it will come back for another season. Not that I’ll be surprised, particularly after writing about the all-too-short run of Reaper last week. Whiskey Cavalier, Pushing Up Daisies and, while we’re on the subject, we have to mention Firefly, which has become the patron saint for shows that ended too soon. So be it. It’s not like there’s any shortage of programming, especially when everyone and their uncle is coming out with a new streaming service every other week. Still, when it comes to Stumptown, I’ve got my fingers crossed for another helping of Dex and friends.

How Nick Fury Became Black

 

Battle Scars #1

I’ve been reading comics for a long time and I’m pretty familiar with most of the big players and even a few of the minor ones. Few comic book characters are bigger than Nick Fury. For one thing, he has been around longer than most. Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Nick Fury first appeared in Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos #1 in 1963, so he’s been around since the Silver Age of comics. Starting out as a grade-A military badass, his character morphed into the super secret agent leader of SHIELD. Secondly, through his involvement with SHIELD, he has, at one time or another, played some role in nearly every Marvel comic book title I can think of, from Iron Man to the Punisher. For a character so under-powered in the Marvel universe, he has been written as a shadowy puppet master, pulling the strings behind a veil of secrecy. Then, in 2002, Nick Fury shows up once more in the title, The Ultimates, but with some notable differences. In that comic, he’s black.

Before I go further, I want to say that my issue with this change is not about race. I know there are some comic/movie fans out there that throw a fit when there’s some white-washing, or race changing, or virtue signalling, or any one of a number of bullshit things these people want to whine about. I don’t give a good Goddamn if they want to write Nick Fury as a black man, an Asian woman or a nonbinary Latinix with breast augmentation and a big dick. What does matter to me, however, is continuity. I was actually pretty shocked I didn’t hear more complaints about a character that has been white for four decades suddenly becoming a black man with no explanation. I believe the short answer that was given at the time was that this was merely an alternate dimension, which is the lamest writer cop out that I have heard. Then came Battle Scars.

A six issue limited run written by Chris Yost, Cullen Bunn and Matt Fraction, this lukewarm story actually addressed this race change perfectly, albeit somewhat weakly. So well, in fact, that I have always wondered why I have heard little mention of it in comic book discussions. I don’t think I’ve even met someone who has read it. It was such a mandatory retcon, in my opinion, that I’ve wanted to write about it for a while now. I had forgotten about it until I started rearranging my comic book collection and ran across it and reread all six of the comics in a day. This is where I must put a spoiler warning. Spoiler alert, spoilers ahead, if you at all care then you already know what I am talking about. This may be overkill, because I have a feeling that no one cares, that this little bit of comics history is so insignificant (not to mention, this blog itself) that it is but a forgotten footnote in Marvel lore. That being said, I know some people can get pretty testy out there when any sort of spoiler comes along, so you’ve been warned. If you want to read this series for yourself, without foreknowledge of the plot, then read no further.

Battle Scars #5

In the start of the series, we are introduced to Sgt. Marcus Johnson, a tough and savvy army ranger who returns to the states from his tour in Afghanistan. The return is not a happy one, since it is for his mother’s funeral, but he barely has time to mourn before he gets attacked by Task Master and his henchmen. Given that he’s outnumbered and that Task Master has fought the likes of Captain American and Spiderman, Johnson holds his own pretty well, but still has to be rescued by the Avengers. They hand him over to SHIELD who immediately take him into custody and, oddly enough, treat him like a prisoner. He does the obvious thing and escapes, determined to find out who killed his mom. Along the way, he meets up with his comrade-in-arms, Cheese. I shit you not, his nickname is Cheese and I don’t want to imagine what happened to award him that nom de guerre. What follows is a circuitous mess of a plot that I won’t bore you with.

I know I warned you about spoilers, and they’re here, but the story itself is not great. It feels like the sort of thing that could’ve been fit into a single comic, but they padded it to make a short run series. Shit, even Deadpool couldn’t make this entertaining. Yep, Deadpool is in it, but he doesn’t help that much. Long story short, it turns out that Nick Fury was up to some hanky-panky with a fellow agent on one of his missions. That agent turns out to be Marcus’s mom and, deciding to keep the baby, assumes a secret identity to keep the child safe.

Fury reveals all this just before he and Marcus get captured by Some super baddie by the name of Orion. He’s an arch nemesis of Fury’s, but he wants Marcus because his body produces something called the Infinity Formula. This is the stuff that has kept Fury alive for so long and makes Marcus just a little stronger/faster/tougher than the average human. They ultimately escape and, in the process, Marcus gets an eye taken out, hence the eye patch that Fury is known for. Once the battle is over, Fury announces his retirement from SHEILD and asks Marcus to take his place. Not only does Marcus agree to that, but it’s also discovered that the name on his actual birth certificate just so happens to be Nick Fury. Isn’t that convenient. Oh, and his buddy Cheese? He just happens to be Phil Coulson.

So, there you have it. The story of how Nick Fury became black. Again, not the best story in the world, but at least Marvel did give some explanation about the change. I rarely care what is cannon or not, but that race change was too big not to have some reason offered, no matter how thin. I’m sure you were all dying to know. Until next time, True Believers, happy reading.

Top 10 Comic Book Artists (according to me)

First of all, let me make it very clear that this list is only my opinion. I don’t mean to say others artists are bad or that I’m even some sort of expert on the subject. I’m just another starry eyed fan boy gushing to the masses. It nearly killed me trying to pick a top ten and to fudge it a little, I’ve dumped a bunch of names into an “honorable mention” category. This is a very personal list, with inclusion determined by not only artistic talent, but by how deeply their art affected me as I was developing my own style. Without further ado, let’s begin.

Juan Jose Ryp

My first peek at Juan Jose Ryp’s art was the Warren Ellis comic, Black Summer. This was followed up by No Hero, also by Warren Ellis and just as dark. His art was perfect for these stories. So detailed you don’t know where to look first and filled with an intense energy that makes one feel that everything on the page is in constant motion. He’s one of the few artists that could make me overlook bad writing in a comic, though I have yet to put that to the test. Warren Ellis is one of my favorite writers and, though I have read very little of Charlie Huston’s work, I thought that the limited series, Wolverine: The Best There Is, is excellent.

Alex Ross

The first time I saw Alex Ross’s work, I never would have considered him a comic book artist. His style is so painterly that I just thought his superhero pieces were fan art, a side line to what he normally produces. Then, Kingdom Come proved me wrong. Quite simply, his art is gorgeous. If you’ve seen his work, you know what I’m talking about and if you haven’t, then go, right now, and look at his art.

Robert Crumb

Probably one of the earliest of my influences, Robert Crumb attained fame from his work in the underground comix realm, with characters like Fritz the Cat and titles like American Splendor. His work was immediately accessible to me, mostly simple black and white pen and ink drawings. He is a master of cross hatching and I did my best to emulate him in my teenage years. His penchant for drawing rubenesque women was also a factor in my appreciation of his work. I won’t go on about Crumb; so much has already been written about him (he’s even got a freakin’ documentary for frickin’ sakes!) and I just wanted to share my love.

John Byrne

Another early influence, I became acquainted with Byrne’s work when he was drawing the X-Men. Part of my love for his art was because of the Dark Phoenix saga, but I followed him onto Alpha Flight, as well. Alpha Flight never garnered much attention, but there’s something I love about the idea of a Canadian superhero team. It always struck me as odd how American centric superhero comics are. Some titles have included superheroes from other countries, heck, Captain Britain had his own comic for a while, but, overall, the scene has been North American dominated.

I’ll include a link to John Byrne’s website, but let me warn you in advance, it’s nearly overwhelming in how busy it is and just how much art and information is amassed there.

Frank Frazetta

I feel a little guilty about including Frazetta on this list, because my experience with his art was not through comics. So, while, technically he is considered a comic book artist, I will forever associate him with Molly Hatchet. Frazetta did the art for their first three albums, all of them featuring bad-ass barbarian dudes.

As a comic book fan, whose art is usually rendered in inks, it’s always striking to me when I see a painter in the mix. Frank Frazetta trained at the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts and, while there, trained under a celebrated, Italian painter, Michele Falanga. Falanga was so impressed with Frazetta’s talent, he was going to send him to Italy, on his own dime, for further study, but he died before that could happen. He began drawing for comics when he was 16 and later worked with both movie studios and book publishers doing posters and covers. He did one animated feature called Fire & Ice, with Ralph Bakshi, which was released in 1983. There’s nothing overly original about the story itself (IMO), but the art is gorgeous. In later life, he suffered a series of strokes that affected his ability to do art, forcing him to switch to his left hand. He died of a stroke in 2010.

Frank Quitely (AKA Vincent Deighan)

Words cannot express how much I love Frank Quietly’s work (I say as I write these words). The first time I saw his work was in a comic called, Gangland, a crime-themed rag of short stories that was dark enough to scratch my itch. He has worked on The Authority, Flex Mentallo, Jupiter’s Legacy and All-Star Superman. His art is gloriously detailed and intricate. He won the “Best Artist” Harvey Award in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
The is one of the few artists I am envious of. There are many, many artists whose work I appreciate, but, being an artist myself, which brings a certain amount of arrogance about one’s own art, I don’t usually consider them better than myself. Their styles are either so different from mine that there is no way to compare, or the artist has a style that I enjoy, but would never want to do myself. You hear stories such as the tales about blues singer, Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to become the greatest blues musician. If the devil asked for my soul in exchange for Mr. Quitely’s level of talent, I’d say ‘no’, but there would be one hell of a long pause before I did.

Rick Griffin

A true child of the 60’s, Griffin was in the heart of San Francisco during the summer of love. He was part of Ken Kesey’s Acid Test and created a number of posters for psychedelic bands. His first art exhibition was at the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street. In the early 70’s, he started doing some work for Zap comix. I’m not sure where I got them, but I have a number of “underground” comix, which, incidentally, is where I also got into Robert Crumb, and I would literally study the pages illustrated by Griffin. I consider his style to be quintessential 60’s psychedelia.
He died at the age of 47 in a motorcycle accident. Prior to his death, he found God and became a christian. I have seen a few articles that commented on how this entirely changed his style, but I did not find this to be true. His illustrations of biblical scenes seem just as trippy to me as his drug-centered work, but then some consider religion a drug itself, so that doesn’t really seem that strange to me.

Richard Corben

I don’t know how he gets the look he does in his art, but the first word that comes to mind, to describe his work, is lush. There is almost a 3D look to it. One can practically feel the flesh of his characters, smell the hot, foul breath of the fanged maws of the creatures he draws. The very first piece I saw by him was the album cover for Meat Loaf’s 1977 album, Bat Out of Hell, but he also had numerous contributions to the magazine, Heavy Metal. His art does not shy away from some rather extreme sex and violence, which I confess a slight weakness for.

Bill Sienkiewicz

In the late 80’s, I got my hands on a four issue series called, Stray Toasters. It was an incredibly surreal piece that I fell completely in love with. Without giving any spoilers, it reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. The story was certainly strange and convoluted, but I don’t believe it would have had the effect it did on me without the art of Bill Sienkiewicz. Rendered in subdued pastels, the art is phrenetic, having no respect for the neat boxes that usually make up the panels of a comic book, the sequential nature of the story delightfully uncertain and bound only by the page itself. Oh, and he wrote the comic, too.
I’ve read those comics time and time again, and I still consider the work to be one of the finest stories I’ve ever read. This sounds like hyperbole, I know, but I have a rather unusual taste in the stories I like and they’re not easy to find. Stray Toasters checked all the boxes for me. After more than 30 years, he is still very active in the comics scene, drawing for titles such as Batman, The Hulk, 30 Days of Night and the like. He has also done album art for RZA, Roger Waters and Kid Cudi, and even illustrated cards for Magic the Gathering.

Will Eisner

You don’t claim to be a comic books fan without knowing Will Eisner. Born the child of Jewish immigrants, he began drawing illustrations for pulp magazines in the 30’s. His most famous creation, The Spirit, an urban crime-fighting comic, ran from 1940 to 1952 and profoundly influenced comic book artists for years to come. He did work for the U.S. Army during WW2, his illustrations used for educational purposes, training soldiers in vehicle maintenance and ordinance usage.
His career spanned about 40 years and he even formally taught comic book creation, writing two books on the subject, Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. Truly one of the greats!

Honorable Mention

As I said earlier, I can’t really realistically only name the top 10 artists. There are so many awesome inkers and painters and illustrators, that to ignore them would be criminal. The likes of Frank Miller, Steve Dillon, Bruce Timm, Dave Mack, Mobeus, Mike Mignola, Milo Manara, Jim Lee and countless others have inspired me to be a better artist. In building my technique and style, I have borrowed much from them and I am eternally grateful for their art.