We are our own worst gatekeepers: Showing off the Shelves

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It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

I have an odd relationship with my trade paperback collection. It often grows faster than I can read, I have no illusions about that. There are numerous great deals out there if you know where to look, and after years of collecting I know where to look. It spans from 1924 to 2017, though the New Year means that I technically have nothing current. Yet. But for a long time, I have been bothered by my inability to feel comfortable as a collector and reader in relation to other fans. To use a term I hate, I felt as though I was not connected with the zeitgeist, that the works I loved were not in step with the material so many adore.

But I have fifteen trades in the mail this month, covering a wide range of times and styles. Spanning from Mickey Mouse’s newspaper strips from the 50s, the creator-owned Sirens from George Perez, 90s comics with Superboy and Robin, X-Men Classic, the first run of Michelinie and Layton’s Iron Man, New Teen Titans, the 1989 printing of Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Knights of the Dinner Table, all the way to DuckTales… and it occurred to me as I wrote this that I can’t be the only person reading these. Maybe the people who are reading them aren’t talking about it as much, maybe they’re in circles I don’t travel in, I don’t know. But if I’m to review things I love, I have to be comfortable with what I love – and what I do not. There is a presumption of inexperience in not appreciating a nebulous canon, a strange form of elitism perpetuated to allow for ‘true fans’ – gatekeepers even amongst ourselves, when what I care about is opening the medium up to as many people as possible.

Continue reading “We are our own worst gatekeepers: Showing off the Shelves”

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Comics, Barriers to Entry, and Ultimate Spider-Man

D - Omnibus (Barnes and Noble)

News of Brian Michael Bendis signing an exclusive contract with DC had me thinking about Ultimate Spider-Man, arguably the best thing he’s ever written. The voice of the series is singular and unique, and the consistency of Peter Parker’s characterization and writing makes him a lot more like Jack Knight than the original Spider-Man. As part of a separate continuity (which I would explain to a layman as ‘Like how the movies aren’t the same as the comics’) known as the Ultimate Universe, it’s also incredibly accessible to new readers. So when I was at a used book store talking to a guy who wanted to start reading comics, I recommended a copy of Volume 1 – Power and Responsibility without hesitation.

And my appreciation is precisely why it is so frustrating to deal with the way that Marvel has collected this series. Not just for me, but for the potential millions of readers for whom picking up the title is a horrific amount of work. That might seem dramatic, but one sentence alone can illustrate where prospective (and experienced) fans can and will get stuck:

There are eight Volume 1s of Ultimate Spider-Man.

Continue reading “Comics, Barriers to Entry, and Ultimate Spider-Man”

Showing off the Shelves – 484, for my Dad

This column has been in the works for awhile. It was originally intended to be a lighthearted thing, a regular Showing off the Shelves. But much like writing as a whole, like life as a whole, it has been difficult in recent months due to the sudden passing of my dad. I’m dealing with that now, as much and as well as a person ever really can – but I wanted to share a piece of what and why I collect, because it is perhaps the most enduring part of what he left me. Perhaps letting this out raw and unrefined is for the better.

I’ve often described myself as a second-generation nerd. My mom collected Star Trek fanzines and novels, and was annoyed by the 2009 reboot of the series for failing to take the EU in to account (my delight in watching her act like I do when I’m annoyed by something nerdy was also what had me start watching TOS in earnest). My dad, however, was the first person to tell me that a season of television was bad – the third season of Trek, to be precise, and the budgetary issues that caused it. It was the first time I was aware that television had seasons, and would set the stage for my interest in the behind-the-scenes aspect of television. Not for the sake of knowing, but to better understand the art form that would spur me to become a writer. I am, at heart, someone who will always enjoy serial media more than a standalone piece, and it is comics and television that made it so.

Continue reading “Showing off the Shelves – 484, for my Dad”

Don Rosa In Review – Return to Duckburg Place

So… there were some delays since my last Don Rosa in Review came out! I’m sorry about that. You can thank Dr. GeoX for inspiring me to put out this little birthday present to myself. I had waited for two Don Rosa books to come out to allow me to better discuss the material in relationship to his development as an artist, one being the Fantagraphics release, the other being the third volume of the Don Rosa Classics. I’m not holding my breath on that last one coming out any time soon, more’s the pity, but I do have the Fantagraphics releases. With them, I finally, finally have an opportunity to go through Don Rosa’s Duck stories the way I had intended!

Well. Except for one. Return to Duckburg Place was written in 1970 with Ray Foushee, who also collaborated on ‘a handful of [Pertwillaby Papers] episodes’, and is technically the first Disney Duck comic Rosa ever worked on. I say technically because it was produced as an underground comic, starts with Huey Dewey and Louie smoking pot, and actually gets more messed up from there. While this comic was published in European territories as part of various Don Rosa collections, the more uptight Disney of America wouldn’t allow publication of this story in the Don Rosa Library. I was fortunate enough to find a copy from an acquaintance to work with for this column. Funny what happens when Disney tells him not to publish things he worked on that fans want to read: somehow, it gets out there anyway.

This is one of only three Duck comics he did in black and white, all of which were unofficial productions. This is why you see Zip-A-Tone on most of the characters, later used to remarkable effect on The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky. It is also easily the darkest thing he’s ever done, outdoing even his “Casper the Dead Baby” jokes made during conventions and interviews.

I really, really hope he’s joking. It makes sense the more you think about it, just look at that head… but anyway. I couldn’t think of a better way to return to Don Rosa in Review than this, with Return to Duckburg Place.

Summary: Don Rosa holds nothing back in a dark, satirical, amateur production that slams the Disney Duck world and its characters, and I laugh hysterically at the thought of this same guy being most well known for his heart wrenching, brilliant stories that thrive on extreme pathos. Everyone has a dark side, and this is definitely his.

The rest:

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Darkwing Duck – The Definitively Dangerous Edition in Review

0Darkwing Duck – The Definitively Dangerous Edition is an odd duck, to say the least. Collecting the 2010-2011 BOOM! comic book series, at first blush it commits cardinal sins against how trade paperbacks should be collected. The seventeen issue collection has been given the Lucas-esque Special Edition treatment, with new dialogue, art and lettering. The final four issue story arc, “Dangerous Currency”, wasn’t reprinted. In any other situation, I’d be yelling “Off with their heads!”

But I’m not.

That’s because the new collection wasn’t treated like Star Wars, with a lack of respect or understanding of the source material that was hacked apart by a dictatorial lunatic. It’s been treated like Blade Runner, where the omnibus fixed the problems that were imposed upon the original series by outside circumstances, and turned the mixed bag of the original in to something truly great. But to understand why that happened at all, we have to discuss the issue of credit.

Aaron Sparrow is credited as the sole writer on the omnibus, though Ian Brill is credited as writer for the original series. According to Sparrow, as well as Darkwing artist James Silvani, he and Silvani ghostwrote rewrites of the series even after Sparrow was fired from his position as editor, and BOOM! as a whole. Brill insists that he was the sole writer for the comic and that Sparrow’s input was limited to the first three issues. When word of the rewrite came out for the omnibus he asked for his name to be removed from the book (as well as Sparrow’s replacement editor, Christopher Burns). The request was honored, which was a shame as it seems they were both responsible for the structure, if not the plots, of a fair amount of the book.

But I’m moving forward with the assumption that Sparrow and Silvani’s assertions are truthful, and clearly so are the people at Joe Books. While there are a number of reasons to believe it and numerous claims have been made on both sides, I only needed one fact to convince me: An examination of the rewrites shows a tone consistent with the first three issues which originally credited Sparrow as editor. There’s a greater focus on distinctive character voices, stronger comic timing, and more of an effort to have an identity that matched the TV show, rather than just a “funny superhero book.” While I enjoyed the original run, and adore Silvani’s art, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the definitive version of this series, and that it is Sparrow’s vision in the omnibus. Mostly.

Which brings us to the stories themselves. They comprise the first four story arcs and the annual, forming an overarcing story about the character of Drake Mallard, aka Darkwing Duck, and the point of taking up the mantle of the terror that flaps in the night.

I’m going to go over each story arc, then discuss the book as a whole.

Continue reading “Darkwing Duck – The Definitively Dangerous Edition in Review”

Showing off the Shelves

Comics have been a part of my life since I was young. I learned the proper way to read a Silver Age comic book (soap, hot water, dry your hands, find a clean space, don’t bend the cover back, dog-ear nothing, the grading system works like this and I only want you handling Fine Minus or less, and here’s how we keep reversible tape from getting on the cover…), I learned how to follow an ongoing plot from “Sonic the Hedgehog”, I learned what the concept of sarcasm was from “Garfield”, and that’s all before the age of eight.

The 90s weren’t a kind time for comics aimed at kids, at least not with the superhero material I liked to read. I busied myself with the DC and Marvel’s animated projects, anime, and my passion for television, but comics were always important to me. Discovering “Calvin and Hobbes” from trade paperbacks at a relative’s house was like drinking clean water for the first time.

But getting back in to comics over the last five years has been a godsend for me as a reader and a person, and a big part of why I’ve been able to do that is thanks to being pushed towards Disney comics. The stories and artists that I enjoyed most from Disney were collected in trade paperbacks, which were easier to find than scouring garage sales, conventions, eBay and Craigslist for back issues (though I do that too: I’m looking at you, Gladstone’s Disney comics. See you at FallCon!) When reading the forwards/making of sections, I could see the where the influence of specific writers and artists that I admired came from, and in turn, who they influenced.

Add to that my own love for superheroes, an impulse purchase or two, and the recommendations of friends, my collection grew from a Christmas present of “Batman: Year One” and a few “Knights of the Dinner Table” trades (not pictured, as the now 50+ volume collection is current stored in a box), to something that has my shelves bending from the weight. I’ve had more fun going back in to comics than I have with… well, just about anything I’ve done the past few years.

I’d like to share the five shelves of books I’ve managed to get a hold of as of 09/15/14, with the arrival of the last volumes of “Dragon Ball”, the first four “Knuckles the Echidna Archives”, and the Palmiotti/Conner run of “Power Girl.”

09-15-14 A 09-15-14 B 09-15-14 C 09-15-14 D

Are you my mummy?
Are you my mummy?

Naturally, this doesn’t properly represent the size of the books in question, as they’ve been pushed flush with the edge of the shelf for this post.

The disparate sizes in printing for newspaper comics astounds me: “Wednesday Comics” (not pictured above because it doesn’t even fit on the shelf) is my tallest vertical format book, while “Terry and the Pirates by George Wunder Volume One” is the largest horizontal format that I own. The source material being drawn and printed in a different size has a lot to do with it, but it’s just how different they are that baffles me. Just take a look:

Vertical format
Vertical format
Horizontal format
Horizontal format

The oversized editions of comic books, which you can see with the Absolute Edition of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” up above, are generally what I shoot for when I shop. They tend to have the most bonus materials, and allow you to see the detail of the art much more clearly – especially with someone as wonderful as Perez.

Incidentally, if you ever need a pick-me up, try and explain the plot to Crisis on Infinite Earths in depth to someone who has never read comics. Just watch their expression and you’ll get a real clear picture about why DC and Marvel have trouble finding new readers… and a good laugh in the process.

I am probably the bane of publishers when it comes to my shopping habits – bargains, deals and sales are what I shoot for virtually without exception, and since I’m on a budget, Amazon is my go-to for purchases. But if you’re willing to dig and be patient, you can find even better deals in person. I was able to obtain ten volumes of the out of print “The Spirit Archives” for 15 dollars apiece, so long as I bought them on the spot. It was Eisner’s post-war work and the books were in top-notch condition. How could I say no? (Mostly by ignoring the screams of my wallet)

But this brings me to a less rhetorical question. I have waited for the Fantagraphics Don Rosa box set before I continue Don Rosa in Review, so things have stalled a bit on that front until its publication. So looking at this collection, do you have a particular thought as to what I should take a look at in the meantime? Kindly leave a comment and let me know, and I’ll make that a priority.

And of course, any suggestions as to comics I should pick up are GREATLY appreciated! I know no matter how many comics I read, there will always be more to enjoy, but that’s half the fun.

Don Rosa in Review – The Complete Pertwillaby Papers

When I look at The Pertwillaby Papers, I can’t help but think of Aaron Sorkin. Aaron Sorkin created and wrote The West Wing, one of my favorite shows, and is well known for packing every episode with wall-to-wall dialogue. Upon finishing the show for the first time, I was eager for more of his work, and found his first show: Sports Night. It was a critically acclaimed sitcom from the same creative team of Thomas Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin, but cut short two seasons in to its run. And when I popped it in, I was shocked!

Exchanges I saw on The West Wing had originally appeared in Sports Night, having been re-purposed in a different context. Scenes, speeches, subplots, all lifted from The West Wing’s predecessor, as though Sports Night had only been a rough draft. Sometimes Sports Night had the better take, though more often The West Wing did. But whenever I saw that kind of lift, I couldn’t help but marvel, not just at the brazenness of stealing from yourself, but the way context and execution can completely alter an idea even from the same author.

You can see why The Pertwillaby Papers is fascinating from that perspective alone. Don Rosa has openly admitted that Lost in (an alternative section of) the Andes was at heart an Uncle Scrooge story, and later rewrote it as Son of the Sun, his very first Duck story. Stories, characters and jokes from The Pertwillaby Papers are shamelessly used for his Duck stories, sometimes made better, sometimes made worse. I purchased the books as a matter of curiosity, and much of my joy reading it was playing the same game I do when I watch Sports Night.

But there are many who adored The Pertwillaby Papers before Rosa ever did Son of the Sun, and I think it’s worth examining from that perspective. For that reason, I won’t be comparing it to his Duck work in this review. It deserves that.

So let’s talk about the collection of this beloved adventure comic by my favorite comic book creator.

(Episode #1-65) Untitled: This story (not even retroactively given a title) introduces the main cast, with a storytelling style closer to the traditional four panel gag-a-day newspaper comic than the adventure series it would become. Based around the premise that Lance is trying to make his way through college without official enrollment or tuition, and villains Smyte and Roatch attempting to expose him through petty revenge, the college setting allowed for a great cast of characters and humorous scenarios.

Episode 11

What’s particularly notable about this section for me are some of the different ways Rosa told the story. Some strips didn’t feature the main cast at all, instead allowing side characters to get a ‘scene’ to themselves. This created a more fully populated world, rather than the barren vacuum world most newspaper casts exist in. The vertical recap panel for each strip was a genius way of conserving space and minimizing “As you know”s in the dialogue, and of course, the use of personalized speech bubbles helped to give more personality to the characters in this limited space.

Episode 43

While the art may have been a more amateurish Rosa, it is still Rosa, best evidenced by the anti-abrasium sequence. It may not be Rosa’s favorite, but I think this is the funniest of the Pertwillaby Papers tales.

(Episode #66-127) Lost in (an alternative section of) the Andes: In this second story, most famous for its adaptation to The Son of the Sun, Lance Pertwillaby seeks out the temple of Manco Copac. And wow, what a difference from the first story! Not only was the focus changed to action/adventure, everything, from the art, the lettering, the layouts, the pacing, even the recap panels were elevated far beyond that first story. Take a look at this plane crash to see what I mean:

Episode 86

All that in the span of a four-panel sized newspaper strip. Brilliant.

One of the great advantages of the four-panel format is its brevity. There’s a sequence at the beginning which is entirely exposition, but beyond that, the story keeps moving forward, with each strip admirably attempting to stand alone while still building towards the iconic climax. And at 61 strips, the story never feels like it’s wearing out its welcome. It is an extremely well-executed piece of comic storytelling. And despite my affection for the later tales, I believe that this is the best story of the Pertwillaby Papers, devoid of filler or over-complication. Why the comic didn’t end up in syndication upon Rosa’s graduation I will never, ever know, because I would love to have seen Rosa progress as an artist in this medium.

(Episode #128-133) Sub-Zero: After leaving college, The Pertwillaby Papers was revived in a serialized comic book format. The episodes (as he titles each strip/installment) became 10-15 pages, and he clearly relished the opportunity to cram as much as humanly possible in to every panel. The dialogue, character designs, set pieces, sequences all became far more elaborate and detailed, showing what Rosa could really do if he had a chance. And seeing the difference blew me away.

Episode 130, Page 5

The story was a three-way race through the Arctic, with murder, betrayal, Nazis, and the occasional poop joke. Sub-Zero marked the comic’s first stabs towards suspense, and pushing more towards black comedy. Each episode moved the story towards a grand climax, reading like a story broken up in to six installments, while still being a largely readable entity on its own. No easy feat in the short span of time he had to tell the story in each episode! But while I might be a fanboy, I’m not a blind fanboy, and I did see problems with the story.

Episode 131, Page 1

Episode 131, Page 2

The first being what you see above: The recaps at the beginning of each installment. They’re delivered by the characters rather than captions, and it is a frustrating reading experience: this method makes an effort to treat every reader as though it were the first time they’d ever picked up the magazine, which I understand, but it wastes space on the page and is tedious to read. No new information, story elements, or character information are revealed within these recaps, and I had to stop myself from skimming over them the first time through. While the one you see above made an effort to inject humor in to the process, it’s still a daunting read. With careful application of caption boxes, it would have read more smoothy and allowed for more of the story to be included in each installment.

The second, and I’m hesitant to say this because of the time it was written, is that the characters are not particularly well developed. I can’t tell you very much about them or their personalities, and this is especially problematic with Lance – the main character. There’s very little about him outside of his obliviousness, verbosity and preference for milk, which makes him a more flat and reactive character. This isn’t a great way to get jokes out of a character, or draw in the audience.

Episode 132, Page 1

The comic isn’t designed to delve in to the psyche of the characters it’s portraying, and that’s fine, but without some character motivation it’s very easy to feel disconnected from Lance. Sub-Zero is still a quality piece of storytelling, especially for its time, managing to take a complex story better suited to a movie and make it play in a comic book format. There are a number of great, memorable moments throughout, and it ends just as it should.

(Episode #134-138) Vortex: I’m going to take a minute here to just show you a page of Sub-Zero

Episode 131, Page 6

And a page from Vortex.

Episode 137, Page 8

I can only assume that during the writing of Sub-Zero, Rosa was saving up to buy the gallons of black ink he’d end up using in his take on a journey to the center of the earth. Vortex is gorgeous, and my mouth was hanging open from the painstakingly detailed artwork. For me, that alone would have been worth the price of purchase.

While Sub-Zero was telling one story across six installments, Vortex better utilized the serial format by writing each episode as a distinct entity in and of itself, lending a uniqueness to each installment that made the comic more varied and interesting. Each episode still advanced the overall plot, was enjoyable as a piece of storytelling taken by itself, and ended with a cliffhanger for the next episode. While that may not sound like much of a difference compared to Sub-Zero, it’s actually much closer to the newspaper format The Pertwillaby Papers was born from, extrapolated to comic book form to great effect.

And you have no idea how much better Vortex reads because of these changes. It can still feel its length sometimes, but no one ever said you have to read the whole thing in one sitting. If there are any comic writers reading this, I suggest you steal liberally from the way he tells this story.

(Episode #139-141) Knighttime: Moving away from the varied format of Vortex, Lance and company find their way to the time of King Arthur. Knighttime is an unfinished tale (though he reveals how it would have ended in an interview), spanning only three episodes, and it’s a real shame. The Pertwillaby Papers had the option of continuing through Fantagraphics in the form of graphic novels, but it appears Rosa chose to work on Captain Kentucky instead (why he didn’t ask to do The Pertwillaby Papers as a newspaper comic is a question I ask myself every time I read that collection). That said, Knighttime has great scenes, better characterization for Lance, better staging and layouts… and is oppressively difficult to read.

Episode 139, Page 5

The sheer amount of text in this story makes me cringe. I can forgive some of Rosa’s quirks from earlier installments, which tended to be text-heavy to keep the plot moving in this short space, but he went way over the line with this last tale. As long as you prepare and pace yourself throughout the story you should be fine, because once you get past the inelegantly written dialogue Knighttime is truly a spectacle. It never stops bringing the funny, and some of the best moments of the series come from these last three episodes. And I have to say, the best cliffhanger Rosa’s ever done was the last panel of the whole series.

Extras

Khulan: This fantasy comic, written by Rich Fay, is pretty weak. It’s Rosa art, which is something, but it’s not very good Rosa art: unsurprising for content produced by two high school juniors/seniors. With the use of prose panels in the vein of Prince Valiant, Khulan proves that not all experiments are successful.

Khulan, Page 2

Tagdenah: These two fantasy stories written by Patty Payne, starring the mysterious roaming wizard Tagdenah, are a serious departure from the typical Rosa style of art and storytelling. They are a fascinating look at what might have been if he’d ever developed a permanent partnership with someone. Even the strange style of captions for dialogue works to fit the story’s mood, and I’ve never seen that used correctly before: as much as Rosa bemoans his lettering, the story would have fallen apart with a lesser letterer. Fitting a complete story in to such a small page count, especially a more serious one, is no small feat: I am truly impressed. I would love to have seen more from her.

Tagdenah, Page 1

Bonus Features: Now, I’m in the bonus features, so I’m a little biased. But my interview with Rosa isn’t the only thing there: there’s a cover gallery, an interview with David Campiti, newspaper clippings, convention drawings, previous introductions and other great miscellaneous Pertwillaby content. It’s as complete a collection for The Pertwillaby Papers as anyone could realistically hope to achieve. The only thing missing for me is that Rosa didn’t write new, individual introductions for his Pertwillaby Papers stories, but rather an introduction for the book as a whole, and another for the non-Pertwillaby Papers comics.

Presentation: Absolutely amazing. At an oversized 12.75″ by 9″ and printed on thick, beautiful glossy paper, the artwork is presented with in its full glory, with all the detail as it deserves to be seen. The actual layout of the book by Jano Rohleder is excellent, tucking in as much content as possible. However, I would have preferred the covers be placed at the beginning of each story, and for episodes to be marked by page number in the table of contents. There are also a couple of very minor typographical issues in the text that I’m sure will be corrected in the next printing.

There are, however, some printing errors. The first panel of Sub-Zero has been clipped, possibly from improper scanning, as seen in the comparison between the Fantagraphics and Don Rosa Classics printing.

Episode 128, Page 1 (Fantagraphics)
Fantagraphics
Episode 128, Page 1
Don Rosa Classics

There’s also a printing error I can’t explain, seen below, though it only occurs in this one spot. Episode 40

Unfortunately… one thing absolutely does interfere with the reading. 2/3rds of a page from Tagdenah are missing. Editor Jano Rohleder has promised to include a sticker that you can use to re-insert the missing panels, and the error is not present in the digital copy. Despite how it may sound, The Don Rosa Classics are still the most beautifully put together comic compilations I own, and the little faults don’t detract from my undeniable pleasure reading the book.

Final Thoughts: For those of you who know Don Rosa as someone with a talent for Duck comics, you’re right. But he is more than that. He is a comic book writer, penciller, inker, letterer, and cover artist, and whether it’s with Scrooge McDuck or Lance Pertwillaby, he knows how to create great comics. If that’s what you love, this is the book for you.

And if you’re going to get anything out of this review, let it be this: meticulously researched, obsessively detailed in its art and writing, funny, and verbose just shy of a fault, The Pertwillaby Papers is Don Rosa to the bone, and I love it.

The Complete Pertwillaby Papers can be purchased at http://www.danibooks.de with a little help from Google Translate, with digital copies available from Amazon.com.