Monthly Archives: June 2009

Comics we can believe in

Ooh, so many interesting things happening in comics right now, but I want to highlight just three fun things that give me hope for a brighter, better future. If you’re thinking about whether or not you should deign to enter your Friendly Local Comics Shop, let these titles lure you in to seek more of the same!

Barack the Barbarian

(Larry Hama, writer; Christopher Schons, artist)

There's the Grand Vizier (Cheney) shaking his gnarly fist in the background. Look at him snarl!Ever since our Commander in Chief admitted that he kinda liked comics — and that when he read one, he made it “Conan the Barbarian” — a parody of this sort was probably inevitable. The only subject more ripe for mockery than Robert E. Howard’s muscle-bound barbarian is the entire political arena itself, and this comic from Devil’s Due Press combines them with more wit than I could have hoped.

On one level, it’s as silly as it sounds, though I think many people might have suspected that the joke stops with the front cover. (Click to embiggen that thumbnail image.) Even more outrageous than mega-ripped Obama is the alternate cover with the sultry wolfskin-wrapped “Red Sarah” — the warrior princess of the north lounging about in the snow looking deadly and hawt. But I was surprised to find out that jokes inside those covers went beyond base and obvious, all the way to wry and clever.

For starters there’s the straight up Conan-ization of this story. Like the classic Marvel comics of the ’70s (and the superb Kurt Busiek/ Cary Nord retelling of a few years back), this tale begins as an already-ancient legend being told around a campfire in some primitive, Arctic village. This is funny stuff: the storyteller embellishes his tale with details of old Washington, such as chariots pulled by dead dinosaurs and “enchanted berries” that let men speak across great distances. The quick-witted audience of children are skeptical of this mystic hokum, and warn the old storyteller not to end this tale with divine intervention — a “Malcom X. Machina.” These are not easy jokes slopped out by a lazy writer on a deadline. This is damn clever.

The lore of the original Conan also gives this story a boost: “The Tower of the Elephant” isn’t just one of the most famous Howard-penned tales of the barbarian, but in this story it’s obviously the bastion of Republican power that must be stormed to save the day.

The politcal jibes are fast and furious, of course. Hilaria is the grizzled Amazonian who joins Barack in his quest; evil tyrant “Boosh” and Grand Vizier are joined by a chain at the knee, and John McCain gets the fairest portrayal of a Republican warrior I can imagine coming in an arena like this:

<i>Click to embiggen.</i>

Click to embiggen.

I mean, look at those pythons! Of course, “Red” Sarah Palin (a riff on Conan’s regular she-devil, Red Sonja) gets reduced, in true comic barbarian fashion, to a pair of chainmail distractions and a sword.

The left isn’t safe from parody either, lest mouth-foaming conservatives try to go all Cimmerian on this project. Take this early scene as the barbarian orders a meal at the tavern:

Barack: I’ll have the tamale, kielbasa and schnitzel burger combo with Dijon mustard, and cheese grits on the side. A wonton soup with extra matzo balls to start.

Waitress wench: Wow, stranger! Your order is so inclusive and proletarian — except for the Dijon.

A little later, the domineering Hilaria introduces Barack to her followers, enticing them to join his fight. Her fair-weather feminist friends have none of it:

Amazon 1: Not all of us are so loyal anymore, Hilaria! We signed on to put a woman in the tower, not another set of gonads!

Amazon 2: We are so out of here.

Amazon 3: Let’s go see what Red Sarah is up to!

I can’t wait for more issues in this series. I’m on board for as long as Hama will have me. Just as long as we get to see this match-up some time soon:

Ann Coulter as the "Screechng Enchantress"? Get that harpy, B!

Cursed Pirate Girl #1

(Jeremy Bastian, writer & artist)

Like all pirates, she has great hair.I’ve carried on at length already about the inaugural issue of this comic, which looked almost like an art exhibit catalog. And now that issue 1 is here, looking a bit more like a traditional comic, my enthusiasm hasn’t waned a bit.

Bastian delivers 34 pages of intricate, craftsmanlike art that looks to be channeled directly from another century. With heavy paper stock, pristine printing and nary an advertisement in sight, this is a visual (and storytelling) treat that can’t be missed.


The city illustration is as much of a joy as the panel borders.


Eat this piratey verisimilitude, Verbinski!


Eat a sandwich, Keira Knightley!


Cursed Pirate Girl, #1 by Jeremy Bastian

Bastian’s story is a fun complement to the art, an inventive fish-out-of-water tale of a Jamaican governor’s daughter fascinated with (but forbidden to acknowledge) pirates, and a mysterious pirate girl haunting the shadows of Port Elisabeth. Bastian adds nice characterization by making the cursed girl in question the loyal daughter of a dark pirate captain whom she’s seen only in dreams. When she proves to be a bad influence on Appollonia, the governor’s impressionable daughter, Cursed Pirate Girl finds herself in the clutches of a right rum customer — with only spooky supernatural providence to look out for her.

Bastian’s art is painstaking, which is why it’ll be months before another issue of this miniseries sees the light of day. Unlike other comics, though, the wait is bearable because one can always crack open the latest installment and find something new to enjoy.

Detective Comics #854

(Greg Rucka, writer;  J.H. Williams III, artist)

Detective Comics #854Mainstream comics always have something interesting going on, but occasionally they’ve got something truly exciting, and this is it. If the first 853 issues of Detective Comics didn’t wow you , I’d suggest giving this one a shot.

Perhaps you’ll find it interesting because Detective regular Batman has been pushed aside — you may know he is both a.) dead, and b.) currently being portrayed by Bruce Wayne’s ward and best chum Dick Grayson in all other Batman titles.

Perhaps you’re intrigued by the new central figure, Katherine Kane, who is famous for being a.) a lesbian and b.) a recent creation meant to gay up the ranks of the DC Comics Universe, and thereby grab all comics-related headlines of 2006.

But what’ll really stick is the art. You’ll want to savor it. Swish it around in your mouth like an aged Grand Cru. Artist J.H. Wiliams III absolutely roars into comics history with some of the most lovingly drawn pages of superheroism I’ve ever seen. Williams switches styles and graphic design effortlessly to fit the flow of the story: when Batwoman is in action, she gets intense red-and-black, all textured and painterly, in lightning-jagged panels; when alter-ego Kate takes over, she garners reserved, flat penwork in orderly, right-angled boxes.

Here’s how he opens:

<i>Click to embiggen.</i>

Click to embiggen.

And here’s how he transitions:

<i> Totally worth it to click this one.<i>

Totally worth it to click this one.

And here’s how he rolls when it’s just regular old Kate Kane, lovelorn lesbian:

Funny, Batman had love problems, too. If he had gone with a stallion motif would he have had more luck?

At one point in Kane’s out-of-latex segment, Williams pulls back on a two-page spread so we can see a Sims-view floorplan of her entire apartment. At the same time, he overlays eight panels of talky-talk over the spread that follow two characters moving through the environment. The details in the smaller panels, taken at different angles like a moving camera sweeping through the space, match the details of big-picture view with architect’s accuracy. It’s a neat trick of design that can only be accomplished by a guy who knows what he is doing, and who can take the time to get it right.

As for the story? There’s not much I can say. Rucka’s writing is swell, though I have no idea what Kane’s backstory is, who her antagonists are (apparently a literal-minded group of baddies who worship the Religion of Crime; true!), or what her relationship with the Bat family is. So what? I find it simple to slough off such unanswered questions when the art is carrying me along like a dinghy in a riptide. Either further illumination will come in future stories, or the story will simply flow on, and I’ll bob along with it.

Looking at Williams’ Mucha-like covers of what’s to come, I don’t care what the story is about. Keep dropping art like this, Mr. Williams III, and comics will be worth waking up for!

<i>Detective Comics 855; clicky! </i>

Detective Comics 855; clicky!

<i> Detective Comics 857; click it for transportation to Paris circa 1909! </i>

Detective Comics 857; click it for transportation to Paris circa 1909!


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Because everyone has *something* to say about Michael Jackson

It’s not that the death of the King of Pop had been particularly impactful to me. I listened to his music back in the day, enjoyed the videos, the dancing, the ever-growing freakshow around his personal life. Didn’t own the glove. Can’t relate to fans who now say they’ve lost a “family member.” (Really? A family member? Like, a family member who makes you uncomfortable at Christmas gatherings and whom you and your siblings are staging an intervention for?)

And the coverage! Wow — I mean I know it’s SOP for major media outlets to put celebrity deaths at the top of the news report, but haven’t these last few days felt out of all proportion? As funny, funny Web cartoonist Justin Pierce said:

Since this has happened, I have not seen any news about the brutal post-election violence in Iran, the intense bombings in Baghdad or the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan.

Thank you Michael Jackson, for finally bringing peace to the Mideast.

‘Zactly. But I’ve discovered some interesting things in the wake of this media brouhaha. First, my children had never heard tell of Popmusica Rex, and wanted to know who this odd-looking boyman was. Thanks to YouTube, we were able to have an educational evening revisiting all the old music videos. (The face-morphing “Black or White” got the most requests for repeat viewings.)

I was surprised at how evergreen Michael Jackson remains. The tunes, the dancing, the imagery — it all held up, and was just as enjoyable all these years later, for me and the kids.”Thriller,” still rocks, sure, but “Bad”? “Billie Jean”? Good grief, “Remember the Time”?

But here’s something else: Our evening of media intake opened Pandora’s box of parody for my children. Because right alongside all those Michael Jackson vids on YouTube were the Weird Al Yankovic spoofs of “Bad” and “Beat It” (“Fat” and “Eat It”).

Also features "I Think I'm a Clone Now"

Me and the kiddies howled in tandem, a four-part harmony of hilarity. “He’s … he’s making fun of it!” cried Oldest Boy, who apparently has lived nine years without satirical influence. I know, I’m ashamed of me, too. I mean, come on, you’re living a cloistered, unlivable life if you’ve never encountered and appreciated:

How come you’re always such a fussy young man
Don’t want no Captain Crunch, don’t want no Raisin Bran
Well, don’t you know that other kids are starving in Japan
So eat it!

When watched back to back, real video and spoof video, the experience couldn’t be any more fun. The kids were picking up on all the details of the originals (the ripped-off grate that spews air, the solo dance on a diner counter) that got riffed in the spoofs. They couldn’t believe someone was allowed to make fun of someone else this way. They’ve been drilled for years on treating other kids right, having manners, making other people feel bigger, not smaller — and here’s this guy earning a living making fun of people. His parents are not yelling at him. He is not in jail.

I think my children all grew up a bit that day. They may never be able to moonwalk, but they sure as shootin’ will grow up knowing how to find the ridiculous in the sublime.


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Things That Make Me Absurdly Happy V

I like how Wolverine also wears bling. It's for the ladies.

It’s not just that Wolverine is wearing the Cubs helmet. I’m pretty sure that this decorating flourish on the part of Second Son is the result of me making a big deal over Older Boy’s similar display.

No, what’s awesome about this is that I am raising an unabashed, unwavering, unrepentant Cubs fan. I didn’t try to; in fact, we taught a strict “we cheer all Chicago teams, Cubs and Sox” policy during their youth, but our sons — particularly Second — wised up to that hippy-dippy egalitarianism, and are now all about picking a side and standing by it, dammit. Unfortunately for Second, even though he is Chicago born and bred, that upbringing hasn’t given him an appreciation for that famous Chicago axiom: “Don’t back no losers.”

And so, Second just has to grant his loyalty to the Lovable Losers of Wrigleyville. He’s nuts for ’em. Absolutley barmy. Keeps the season schedule posted in his room, tracks each final score, win-loss records (season-to-date and month-to-month) as well as road vs. home records. Hates the White Sox beyond all sense. Always knows how many games behind his Cubbies are.

And they are behind. This is where I can’t tell if I am being a supportive dad (by encouraging a healthy love of team sports), or an abusive dad (by enabling an obsession that perenially breaks the hearts of those afflicted with it). For certain, Second is learning a great deal about perseverance, stuggle, and the seven stages of grief.

On Tuesday, we stayed up past bedtime to watch the Cubs play Detroit, a close game that teetered toward a Cubs victory until a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 9th sealed their doom. The next day, Second said in a quiet voice, “Daddy, I don’t want to watch the Cubs game tonight. I don’t want to listen to it on the radio or look at it on the computer.”

“I understand,” I said. It hurt to see him hurt. “Let’s play a game instead or something.”

But ten minutes before game time, he reversed himself. He wanted to watch. And they lost again. They lost the next day, too, for a complete sweep by the Tigers.

How did he heal? By rushing home from camp today, dialing up WGN on the tube and hanging on his seat until the final pitch against the White Sox, with a questionable strike call for a 5-4 Cubs victory. We danced and hooted like we knew it all along.

I hope being Cubs fans prompts my boys to live an examined life. With grief comes joy. With victory comes loss. With the hanging breaking ball comes the high, hard heat. We must be really livin’.

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Any Which Way But ‘North’

I feel so naughty. So subversive. I can’t believe I’m about to confess this in public, but:

We watched “North by Northwest” for the first time and … it was OK.

I mean just OK. It’s Hitchcock, and Hitchcock is a god of cinema, I know, I know. Believe me, there’s plenty to love about this movie. Here’s the thing, though: Watching a “classic movie” brings up the perennial problem of having to put on your “classic-movie glasses,” which filter the images and remind you that “back in the day, this was something new” and “for its time, this was considered pretty great.”

I certainly can’t knock Hitchcock as a storyteller, nor a trailblazing moviemaker. Heck, “N by NW” is on the AFI 100 Greatest American Movies list. And for some great reasons: It slams into its “wrong man” spy plot quickly, it pulses with snappy dialog and sexy characters, its caffeinated soundtrack gets the heart going, and several suspenseful scenes show that masterful Hitchcock hand. My favorite is one where Cary Grant is trying to toss an urgent matchbook message to Eve Marie Saint …

You can tell it's a tense moment: Lookit that shadow!

… but she turns at the wrong moment, missing its fall …

Perhaps her flippy hair obscured her view.

… now creepy Martin Landau may find it first!

Seriously, Landau's got this Norman Bates ree!-ree!-ree! vibe going on in this movie. He weirded me out.

See? I can appreciate this movie. It really is quite great.

As long as you’re wearing those classic-movie glasses. Because if you don’t keep reminding yourself to forgive that 1959 aesthetic, you’ll find yourself bursting out laughing for the wrong reasons. Take, for example, the early scene where Creepy Landau force feeds a bottle of Scotch to Cary Grant before shoving him behind the wheel and sending him to certain doom off a cliff. Thanks to Cary’s high tolerance, he manages to swerve the vehicle back on the road, and for the next minute he careens downhill, inches from danger, while mugging a series of increasingly awesome “drunk faces”:

Look out! You'll hit the green screen!

It’s that second to last face that had my wife and me howling. We’re so bad, right? This is one of Hitch’s masterpieces, and we’re nitpicking over some silly faces, right? Right. We got it back together and forgave him the scenery chewing — after all, Hitchcock may have meant to deliver some deliberate goofiness to break the tension. Just because we were yanked so hard out of the movie was no reason to give up now.

And largely we were rewarded. Cary Grant is fun to watch, even when he inexplicably brings his mother along to investigate a crime scene. Or to a breaking-and-entering in a hotel. But then, to get the “wrong man” ball really rolling, he had to go and do this:

Stabby stab stab!

Let’s go down the list of what’s been asked of my incredulity:

1. A gloved assailant hurls a deadly knife into the back of his victim in the middle of a crowded United Nations lounge. No one sees him.

2. Cary Grant grabs the knife and pulls it out. He will stand around with it in his hand for several seconds.

3. A photographer (see him conveniently placed in the background?) whirls around and gets a snapshot of Cary looking all menacing and deadly. Instant media conviction!

After this series of events conspires to turn Cary into a wrongly accused man on the run, my wife turned to me and said, “What a dumbass.” I had to agree. But if I thought Cary was dumb to fall victim to that series of contrivances, then clearly he’s the perfect match for a villain who chooses this method of dispatching his foes:

This post will lose me friends, I just know it.

I know! I know! One of the most iconic images in cinema history, and here I am cracking wise about it. But come on, this is how James Mason conspires to off a guy? Trick him into taking a bus for an hour and half into deepest Indiana, hire a crop duster, and hope for the best? This may make for a surprising twist in 1959, but in 2009 it merits a tired “Really?” Death-by-crop-duster seems a particularly clumsy method, especially when the pilot you’ve chosen can’t tell the difference between the sky and the gas-filled tanker truck.

Aw, man, how did that truck get in the way?

Whoops. Here’s how I imagine the original call going:

James Mason: Now, Clive, in a couple hours, there’s going to be a man standing at the turn-off for Highway 41. It’s a real middle-of-nowhere place. I want you to get in that plane of yours, fly over him and shoot him.

Clive: You sure about that? I could drive there instead and be waiting with a gun. Get real good and close. Shoot him in the head.

James Mason: No, no, no, that will never do. Lacks drama. It’s got to be a crop duster, or it’s just no good.

Clive: Well, you’ve got that smooth James Mason voice and I just can’t say no to that …

This method of assassination is just one step removed from Dr. Evil’s “Ridiculously Slow Lowering Device.”

And just who is the U.S. government’s mysterious agent “working right under the villain’s nose”? Well, in 1959, Hitchcock was counting on his audience to be amazed by the big reveal … but since modern consumers of media have already ingested thousands of hours of story by an early age, let’s just say a Suprising Twist in 1959 may rate no more than a Well, Duh in 2009.

Years ago, we rented another classic, “The Maltese Falcon,” and had a similar reaction: Though that 1941 movie may represent a formative moment in film noir, from a more modern perch it looked like a parody of film noir. I had a debate with noted cinéaste Rick Carton at the time, who could not believe I would view the seminal noir movie through the lens of the movies that came after.

“How could you fault it for being cliched?” he asked. “It’s where the noir cliches evolved from!”

Had I known about the special goggles, the classic-movie glasses, I would have known better than to stir him up. Just strap those babies on, and remind yourself that the hammy acting, the unconvincing patter, and broad fake punches are all part of a period piece, like a time capsule from a more innocent age. Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll forgive Hitch for pushing in for the dramatic reaction shot when Cary finds out … Eve Marie Saint is the mysterious agent.

Oh, uh, spoiler alert.

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Paper view: More op-ed craftwork in the Trib

No time to write posts on Father’s Day —bad Daddy, bad! — but I keep forgetting to comment on the return of the Joe Fournier papercraft to the Tribune’s op-ed page.This time, a jab at Hizzoner Richie Daley and his rather unpopular privatization of parking meters:

Is Meterhead a "meathead" joke or a Mötorhead joke?

(Print your own copy here: )

I like this trend (the first iteration being a Roland Burris-Pinocchio riff), first of all because even when unbuilt, the artwork is complicated and beautiful to behold, like a blueprint or a celestial map. Second, as political commentary goes, it’s almost more effective than the venerable old political cartoon. I love political cartoons, but too often their creators go for low-hanging jokes, and that can be tiresome. Tiresome things lose their flavor quickly.

But papercraft as vox populi surprises and delights.


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Every yard needs a watchdog; or, Thank you, Mainstream Newspapers

I didn’t expect to blog so much about the Tribune when I started this thing, but I realize it is just one more medium I ingest, and has just as much relevance to our common culture (especially as newspapers try to be more like entertainment). So when Sunday’s Trib really wowed me, it was time to say something.

Saying “newspapers are dying” is kind of like saying “the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.” It’s always a little true, but neer quite completely. It’s neither more nor less true for one generation as for the previous one. Lately, though, it really seems like the Future Is Now for my dear old fishwraps. Ad revenue is dwindling, page count is shrinking (not to mention page size!), and thanks to a shrinking “news hole,” the paper feels more jumbled and spare. (The Trib’s Op-Ed page was *always* the last two inside pages of the front section; now it’s a nomadic feature that wanders the newsprint wastelands, never sleeping in the same place twice…)

Then there’s old RedEye, the creek-deep insta-paper for Generation Zzzz. When the Tribune introduced this daily short-form paper in 2002, it was an invigorating moment in journalism: Stuffy, entrenched suburban paper reinvents itself with brevity and zip to compete for the dwindling market of young readers. The Chicago Sun Times launched its Red Streak at the same time, and with rival newspaper hawkers hustling on opposite corners, the competition gave downtown Chicago a turn-of-the-century feel. The only things missing were newsboys shouting “Extry! Extry!” about the latest on McKinley’s assassination.(Chicago Business has an interesting summary of the rivalry here.)

But RedEye quickly became an entertainment and joke paper, with wafer-thin coverage of actual world news, and excessive space given to sports prognostications and celebrity hook-ups. Whatever it earns the Tribune in ad revenue, RedEye likely has done little to renew the shrinking ranks of Big Paper subscribers with newly converted young commuters waking up to their need to know more. Nah, RedEye is free and it’s got sudoku.

It’s been painful to watch the mainstream press wriggle like this. So it gave me a boost of J-school pride to see Sunday’s Tribune come with a half-wrap “house ad” around the front page, aggressively touting its services as a government watchdog.

Sadly, that story touted about the title plate about Cubs fans and Sox fans tries to make much hay out of rotten non-news. "More Cubs fans have cats, 24.1% to 21.3%" Thanks, Watchdog!

Note that wrinkle to the wraparound: For a brief moment I assumed it was the typical advertisement wrap, which often girds the funny pages to tell me of deals on toner at Office Max. Halfway through the annoyed crumple, I realized my mistake, and soothed it out lovingly.

I couldn’t beleive it. Like Howard Beale telling us he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore, the Tribune is standing up and shouting on its front page, “We’re relevant, dammit. You need us!”

The wrapround features brief summaries of recent investigative reporting success the paper has enjoyed, from busting Gov. Blago’s senate auction to whistleblowing the poisoned well scandal of Crestwood, Ill. In all, eight in-depth investigations in the last year (or so; the timeframe is unspecified). What the editors are saying without saying is: “Who’s gonna nail these perps? Local TV? Bloggers? Twitterers? Pound sand, digerati — it’s mainstream muckrakers all the way!”

Other recently raked muck: Clout-based admissions into University of Illinois, shady doctors promoting miracle cures for autism, Chicago's poor track record for elevator inspection, and aysmal test results for infant car seats that never got reported to manufacturers.

Other recently raked muck: Clout-based admissions into University of Illinois, shady doctors promoting miracle cures for autism, Chicago's poor track record for elevator inspection, and abysmal test results for infant car seats that never got reported to manufacturers.

Who else has the resources, the training and the trustworthiness to do long-form investigative reporting? Without this major daily paper, we may have never known that a loved one’s rape had gone unsolved because the police department failed to test DNA data they had on hand (which is the front page watchdog story you see in the photo at top).

The back page of the wrap is a “Meet the Watchdogs” photo album identifying, by name and picture, all the staff writer and editors who specialize in the reporting and investigation that led to those stories. If you ever thought newspapers were faceless and monolithic, this sort of puts the kibosh on that.

If I understand correctly, this wrap is just one in a series of five that seem to be making arguments why the Tribune should be your newspaper of choice (Entertainment& Sports, Local Economy, Commnity Issues and the “Chicago Experience” being the others). But with this Watchdog example, I think it’s a far more persuasive a tool for why newspapers should be your choice for all news.

Media, lawyers, cops — some people find it easy to blame society’s ill on these things. But no matter their flaws, they’re essential for freedom and justice. If major daily papers die off, we lose that big sibling who looks out for us on the playground, and we’ll be even more subject to the bullies who hang out behind the bike rack.


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‘Miranda Mercury’ gets second chance to raise your temperature

Writer Brandon Thomas announced today that his original comic, “The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury” is going to get a second chance at life, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

This book got and held my attention when it debuted from comics publisher Archaia Studios last year. But “Mercury” only saw two (I believe) of its planned six issues published before Archaia went through some kind of restructuring that — poof! —caused a number of their projects to go into cold storage.

On Mercury’s debut, Thomas and penciller Lee Ferguson hooked me in with one supremely clever cover:

Miranda Mercury by Brandon Thomas and Lee Ferguson

It may seem like just one more action-bloated funnybook cover at first until you realize, with the flip of a page, that the cover is the first panel of the book. See? Pages 2 and 3:

All good action comics must feature a foot to the face.I like how the gun has a floodlight mounted on top.

This innovative cover is significant to me because the concept of getting a story “off and running” is one every writer struggles with. When your cover is actually pulling its weight from a storytelling standpoint, that’s a kind of efficiency akin to making votive candles out of spent egg shells and closet deodorizer from used coffee grounds. Except more useful.

Another reason why this cover is particulalry brilliant? It’s a comics tradition to put something salacious and tantalizing on the cover, even if that something never actually occurs in the book itself. Such as this recent example, the “alternate cover” for the comic adaptation of Laurenn J. Framingham’s “Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter” books:

Who taught Wolverine how to punch? Or is he trying to hit someone on the other side of Anita?

You can be damn sure that Wolverine does not show up to fight Anita Blake in her romance-vampire-thriller universe. (He does not even show up to run past her, which is what looks like is happening here.) Not to pick on ol’ Anita, but the regular, non-variant cover for the very next issue issue may look rather exciting…:

Knock knock! Who's there? Braaaaaaaains....

…but comics gadfly Chris Sims analyzes this issue and reports that the scene actually concludes like this:

Well, this is actually more in line with how *I* would resolve a zombie attack.

With a word, not a fist. Not exactly the tense wrestling match we see on the cover, is it? So you can see why I’m so excited when “Mercury’s” cover is so much more than a bait-and-switch teaser.

One more thing about that cover: that “# 295,” a cute gimmick that wink-winks the notion that Miranda is a popular comics heroine with a long-running title. As you can tell, cleverness buys my loyalty (or at least my $4). But when it comes to a relaunch from scratch, I think Thomas and Archaia make a wise move: This fall, the first issue will be solicted as “#1.” The whole mini-series will be packaged in three, double-sized issues that comprise all six installments (priced at $6 a pop, this actually makes a nice price break; $3 per issue is better than the $4 most indie publishers charge for their color books, and what the major publishers ask for their higher-profile hero books).

Oh, and by the way: The rest of the first issue is pretty great, too, delivering on that opening promise of wit with pages and pages of more just like it.

The comics industry is a mixed-up ball of neuroses, and the way its central distributing company, Diamond, gets funnybooks into the hands of comics purveyors is an arcane system of pifalls and flaming hoops. I know each comics shop has its own challenges figuring out which (and how much) inventory to order, all without the benefit of being able to see it first or to return anything.

So when I see a worthy indie comic swimming upstream like a desperate salmon, I try to help it get past the hungry bear waiting on the rock. Give “Miranda Mercury” a chance this October, won’t you?

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Eats shoots & robots: Why the Panda trumps Wall-E

Dreamworks recently released their upcoming slate of movies for the next several years, and I notice that Master Po makes a return: “Kung-Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom” is, as Industry toppers say, skedded to bow June 2011.

Reportedly, this sequel will return the original cast to face a new villain who “has emerged with a mysterious weapon so powerful it threatens the very existence of kung fu, but Po must also confront his long lost past.” Original helmers Mark Osborne and John Stevenson are replaced by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, though scribers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger seem to be back for the second round.

No matter how much fun Variety slang makes it sound, the news fills me with neither optimism nor skepticism, but a sort of ambivalence. No matter what pieces of the original they retain, Dreamworks is unlikely to repeat the perfection they achieved with “Kung Fu Panda,” a movie that is, to me, so beyond itself it needs no reprise.

I’ve mentioned here before my somewhat lonely opinion that KFP was a far more Oscar-worthy movie than “Wall-E,” which took the 2008 Best Animated Picture award. Fresh in the flush of my post-“Up” euphoria, it seems like blasphemy to say an ill word about Pixar. They know their stuff, and I know they know their stuff. Heck, Wall-E director Andrew Stanton gave the world “Finding Nemo,” another particularly perfect piece of moviemaking that will still be watched and discussed in 100 years.

But the fam and I, inspired by the fun of “Up,” re-watched KFP this weekend, and I was reminded why my candle of enthusiasm burned at both ends for this flick. I have to get this out of my system. Here’s why the Panda mauls the Robot:

1. Simple story. Kung fu tales tend to be straightforward: “You killed my master. Prepare to die.” That excessive simplicity is one reason fu movies are so easy to dismiss. Even though KFP’s plot isn’t much more complex, it delivers so much more depth: “A very unlikely hero dreams of being a kung fu master. Destiny gives him a chance to be the hero of his fantasy.”

Compare this to “Wall-E.” It began like a wordless dream, with indelible loneliness and yearning, and all the makings of an eternal questing tale for the ages. Then about halfway through, these folks showed up:

"Ray, what did you do?" "I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us...Mr. Sta-Puft."

Our future fat selves brought layers of preachy plot with their layers of flesh. They don’t know what Earth is? Fred Willard originally wanted them to return home but now he doesn’t? And the machines agree with the second Fred Willard, not the first? And if the robots put the seedling in a special Good Machine, that will make the Bad Machines go bye-bye? Bah. Muddy.

2. Theme of lasting value. Kung Fu Panda: “To make something special, you just have to believe it is special.” This gives us a way to cheer our hero —and ourselves —on to our various victories.

Wall-E: “Don’t be lazy, or you’ll get fat. Don’t consume so much stuff; recycle if you can. Also, love is good.” If it had just been a story of love conquering all in its way, maybe this movie would resonate with me more. But as I said: Muddy.

3. Hero’s depth of character. Whatever you think of Jack Black’s goofy man-boy persona, he’s a perfect match for the enthusiastic Po, an outsider who wants inside so very desperately. Black brings Po to life with spirit and spunk, and for all his verbal “hiyaah”s and hijinx, it’s actually quite a nuanced performance. Po is capable of great joy, but also of great disapppointment when he can’t please himself, his master or his persnickety father. Black’s delivery isn’t comedy, it’s just true: He’s the nerdy hero with infectious enthusiasm, but little hope of seeing it pay off. And we all want our enthusiasm rewarded.

Po is a character to believe in, because he’s a character we want to be.

4. Superior action. If KFP’s kung fu choreography were simply a matter of jabbing fists and sweeping legs, it might not be so remarkable. But this movie plays it so much smarter than that. The action makes brilliant use of animal physicality, realistic environment and comedic gags to deliver sequences that are mesmerizing, funny, and memorable.

Mesmerizing like Tai-Lung’s escape from prison (a treat to have seen in Imax)…

When you use flying crossbow bolts to fashion a ladder for your escape, you are officially a member in good standing of the Badass Club.

… funny like a battle for a dumpling using mere fingers and chopsticks …

Battle of the bao bun.

… memorable like a villain completely stymied by his foe’s inelegance and inexperience …

Yes, the panda actually sits on the leopard's face, qualifying for what would normally be an Inexcusable Butt Joke; HOWEVER, this butt joke actually fits its context and fulfills a pretty good joke set-up: "What are you gonna do, Big Guy, sit on me?"

… and for my money, the most satisfying defeat of a villain ever. Without giving anything away, I’ll say I found the defeat of Tai-Lung to be the perfect solution to every overblown, uber-aggressive Act Three Shootout, the ones that set themselves up for so much slambang they can’t possibly live up to their own hype at the final moment of the antagonist’s fall. KFP may be an archetype movie, but it turns the archetype on its ear with a final, funny, fulfilling “ska-doosh.”

The Wuxi Finger Hold is like the kung-fu version of 52 Card Pick-Up.

5. Superior music. Hans Zimmer and John Powell provide a score of subtle beauty and power that moves me as surely as any John Williams march. The songs evoke Eastern melodies without being grating (no Peking Opera gongs!), hokey (no Peking Opera gongs!) or too much like Peking Opera. Instead, the boppy zither tunes and joyful festival-like dances swirl us up in some moments, calm us down in others, and generally place an indelible king’s-signet seal over the whole package of this film. Hummable ditties, all.

Dreamworks had big success pairing modern rock hits with its “Shrek” franchise, but they wisely relegated the obligatory “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” remake to the credit sequence where, incredibly, it matches well with the silly, bouncy visuals.


In other words, “Kung Fu Panda” was the Complete Package, delivering all the heart, all the wish-fulfillment and all the action I could have hoped. It’s so much more than just another kung fu movie … and more than just another talking-animals movie. (Yes, there IS one shot-to-the-nuts joke, but it’s short and not too odious; plus, in a Hollywood first, not one talking animal farts.)

I get some solace knowing that I wasn’t the only one who preferred Po to the trash-compacting andriod. “Kung Fu Panda” shut out its chief competish at the  2008 Annie Awards. Those awards are handed out by an international conglom of animators — specialists who know their stuff — and they saw through these two movies better than anyone. But raise your hand if you tuned into the Annie telecast. And your other hand, if you remember who wore the daring gold lame sausage casing on the red carpet.

Exactly. Everyone remembers the Oscars. Which leaves me to evangelize to the wilderness.


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Three-word review of “Up”

Pixar’s perfect picture.

Captions don't count: Seriously staggering. The best movies, as always, are more than one kind. Action, comedy, drama, romance, tragedy, documentary, mockumentary, snuff — whatever genres you combine, the sum of their parts exceeds the whole shootin' match when artfully combined, and man ... MAN, does Pixar know how to do this in spades. This movie ranks up there with "Ratatouille" as a story so inventive and original and *true* that I can't believe Hollywood made it at all. Only if we see it by the millions will we ensure that more movies like this get made. (Plus, I submit that the early sequence showing the courtship of Carl and Ellie is the best romance Tinsel Town has *ever* conceived.) Up with "Up!"

Captions don't count: Seriously staggering. The best movies, as always, are more than one kind. Action, comedy, drama, romance, tragedy, documentary, mockumentary, snuff — whatever genres you combine, the sum of their parts can exceed the whole when artfully combined, and man ... MAN, does Pixar know how to do this in spades. This movie ranks up there with "Ratatouille" as a story so inventive and original and *true* that I can't believe Hollywood made it at all. Only if we see it by the millions will we ensure that more movies like this get made. (Plus, I submit that the early sequence showing the courtship of Carl and Ellie is the best romance Tinsel Town has *ever* conceived.) Up with "Up!"


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Newspapers, meet papercraft

I’m about to hand it to the Chicago Tribune twice in as many months. This time, on the Wednesday, June 3, op-ed page, they ran a quarter-page commentary on Sen. Roland Burris, that used not reasoned argument or stuffy rhetoric, but cut-out paper dolls to ridicule the less-than-honest toady who sucked up to power.

Check this:

Aw, look at his wittle hat!

Yes, you’re seeing Roland Burris melded with Pinocchio, right down to a nose that grows. And if this pattern hadn’t been printed on flimsy newspaper, I’m pretty sure you could make this guy. (Fortunately, the Tribune site had a downloadable version; I’m not sure it will always be in the location I found it, so I’ve replicated the download below.)

DOWNLOAD:  BurrisPinocchio by Joe Fournier

See more stuff by Joe Fournier, the designer, here.

I was genuinely stunned, not only because this was a pretty clever use of space on an op-ed page (really, what else can you say about a guy who swears he didn’t talk to backscratchers to get his appointment, before he’s caught on a tape talking to the chief backscratcher’s gatekeeper). Even better than a fresh surprise on a historically humdrum op-ed page, I think it’s just neat that papercraft is coming into the mainstream. As a guy who has publically admitted making miniature superheros out of paper, I can say with authority that I’m excited for the trend.

In fact, CW4Kids (the channel my kids generally watch on Saturday mornings —man, the pickings are slim for Saturday cartoons these days) recently made room for on-air interstitials promoting papercraft versions of their main characters. My kids, who have seen me cut a paper or two, went a little nuts, and suddently we had a family activity for about three weeks. Thanks to the good folks at, we had scads of 4Kids characters (and a little more):

Oldest Boy could have a job in window dressing some day. Notice the artfully arranged "chaos emeralds" around Sonic.

Oldest Boy's choices include selections from Gogoriki, Chaotic, Dinosaur King, Marvel comics, and that videogame hedgehog.

Note Second Son's beloved Wrigley Field (pattern courtesy

Note Second Son's beloved Wrigley Field (pattern courtesy

Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Boo, the Princess Buttercup!

What else for Only Daughter? Girls and pinks and kitties.

Between and, there must be a paper-cutting project you’d be interested in. All you need is a printer and an X-Acto blade. Try it, before Hollywood swoops in with “Papercraft: The Movie” and kills the trend once and for all.

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