Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bill Clinton vs. Captain America: The Road to Victory

Book:

The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions by H.P. Lovecraft and others: H.P. Lovecraft made a portion of his meagre living editing other people's stories. This Del Rey edition of the revised Arkham House volume collects 'primary' revisions -- in which there's very little of the original writer's work left in the finished story -- and 'secondary' revisions, which are closer to being collaborations. While some of the stories here are pretty minor, there are also some solid stories ("The Night Ocean" is an evocative and subtle secondary revision) and works as good as many of Lovecraft's 'own' ("The Mound" and "The Horror in the Museum" are fine additions to the Cthulhu Mythos, while "The Loved Dead" is a creepy bit of Poesque necrofetishism). Technically, the oft-collected "Abandoned with the Pharoahs" could be included here for the sake of completism -- it's the novella Lovecraft ghost-wrote for Harry Houdini -- but this is such a giant collection that it's hard to fault any omissions. Highly recommended for Lovecraftians; recommended for anyone else.


Comics:


Unknown Soldier: Haunted House, Between Here and There, Easy Kill and The Way Home by Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli and Pat Masioni (2008-2009; collections ongoing): The original Unknown Soldier was a Silver Age DC World War II hero who was a master of disguise, his real face always covered by Invisible-Man-type bandages. That hero's adventures ended in the early 1980's with the cancellation of most of DC's war titles. Subsequent attempts to resurrect the character have usually erred on the side of almost self-parodic grim-and-grittiness.

In this adult-oriented Vertigo title, Dysart and Ponticelli wisely throw out pretty much everything of the original character, keeping only the bandages and the overarching idea of 'one man's war.' The primary setting is now Uganda in the early oughts, where an African-born, American-raised doctor and his wife are attempting to raise global awareness of the terrible violence of Uganda's civil war. But the doctor's having nightmares about becoming violent himself, about something or someone living inside his own brain who's pretty much an expert at killing. And pretty soon, the doctor's part of the conflict, his self-scarred face hidden behind a mask of bandages.

Reductively speaking, the new Unknown Soldier is part Jason Bourne, part Jeckyll and Hyde. However, the setting for the series -- war-torn, divided Uganda -- gives us a milieu for a war comic that's rarely been even nodded at, ravaged post-colonial Africa. The stories and sub-stories are heart-breaking, and Ponticelli's art stands firmly in the tradition of Harvey Kurtzman's great war comics for EC in the 1950's, meticulously realistic and realistically bloody. There aren't many works in any medium that manage to make violence both thrilling and nauseating, sometimes at the same time. One of the things that highlights the quality of the series for me is that after 15 issues, we still know very little of what's made the doctor into some sort of pre-programmed killing machine with a conscience, and the slow pace of the revelations seems perfectly natural to the story. We aren't dealing with a puzzle piece. A great on-going title that deserves all the accolades it's getting. Highest recommendation.


The Greatest Shazam! Stories Ever Told by Bill Parker, Otto Binder, Denny O'Neil, Martin Pasko, Jerry Ordway, C.C. Beck, Kurt Schaffenberger, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Curt Swan and others (1940-2008; collected 2008): DC's editorial policy on its line of 'Greatest...' collections has never seemed more political and less quality-oriented than on this volume. Fawcett published the original Captain Marvel of the 1940's and early 1950's -- he who said Shazam! to change from young teen Billy Batson to Captain Marvel and back again.

For a time in the early 1940's, Captain Marvel outsold Superman. Why? Because it was the best superhero book in a still-young sub-genre, with crisp art and lively, fantasy-heavy stories pitting Captain Marvel against a terrific rogue's gallery of such weirdos and grotesques and Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, IBAC, King Kull the Beast-man and Mr. Mind, a hyper-intelligent worm (though he was drawn to look more like a fuzzy green caterpillar with eyeglasses and a little mechanical voicebox to translate his worm-language rantings into audible English). These were comics for children that an adult can read and enjoy now, and the imminent DC collection of the +20-part WWII Captain Marvel epic, The Monster Society of Evil, makes me feel all tingly inside.

DC would eventually exhaust Fawcett in court over similarities between Marvel and Superman, with Fawcett ceasing publication pretty much contemporaneous with the near-death of super-hero comics in the 1950's. Marvel would eventually publish its own Captain Marvel in the 1960's, hence DC's use of Shazam! on covers and promotional literature, despite the fact that their hero is still called Captain Marvel within. DC relaunched the good Captain in his own book in 1974, originally with pivotal original artist CC Beck drawing the book. But Beck would soon leave, and the book would soon become most notable for the reprints it ran of vintage Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel Family stories during a period when Shazam! was a 100-page Giant. Once DC decided that Marvel should exist within the same universe as their other super-hero titles, most post-1980 attempts to revive the title either made the character far too realistic or, somewhat bizarrely, oafishly and naively dim.

And so what we get here are about 80 pages of original Captain Marvel goodness, somewhat compromised by a lengthy 1940's Joe Simon/Jack Kirby Captain Marvel story that is, frankly, not all that good. Then we get about 120 pages of various Captain Marvel stories spanning the various DC reboots of the character up to the present day. The best of those reboots, Jeff Smith's recent Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil, can't be included here because of length. A Jerry Ordway/Peter Krause story from the most recent ongoing Shazam title, Power of Shazam from the 1990's, is nice and earnest and heart-warming and pretty much entirely lacking in the zing and zip of the character at its 1940's best. The other recent stories are also exceedingly minor.

The one stand-out from the post-1950's material doesn't technically star Captain Marvel at all. "Make Way for Captain Thunder!" is a standalone story from the early 1970's Superman title by Martin Pasko and Curt Swan. DC was already publishing Shazam by this time, so I assume having Thunder stand in for Marvel was either a rights issue or an editorial decision related to when and where DC wanted an official crossover between the Marvel Family and DC's mainline universe of heroes. In any case, this story -- in which a dimension-lost Captain Thunder and Superman battle before the Man of Steel figures out how to cure Thunder of his villain-created madness and send him on his way back home again -- is a fairly light-hearted delight. It also demonstrates that Curt Swan drew the best-looking 'realistic' Captain Marvel of them all, regardless of name. Alex Ross's hyper-realistic Captain Marvel, so creepily effective in Kingdom Come and used for the cover here, has always looked sinister and not a little bonkers to me. Cartooning doesn't necessarily translate to more realistic forms of representation without a lot of reworking.

In any case, my recommendation of this volume is highly qualified -- you do get some vintage 1940's and 1950's Captain Marvel along with the Pasko/Swan story, but that's still less than half the volume. If you ever see the Harmony hardcover Shazam! from the 40's to the 70's, snap it up. Well, unless it's $200, which is what it sometimes goes for. But you'll also find equally good or better selections of vintage Shazam! reprints in back issues of those 1970's 100-page giants. So hit the back-issue bins!


Captain America: Operation Rebirth (2nd edition) by Mark Waid and Ron Garney (1995-96; coll. 2008): Marvel re-reprints the mid-1990's 'Death of Captain America' storyline with six more issues of context before and after that storyline (entitled 'Operation Rebirth'). Writer Waid and penciller Garney are one of the three or four great Captain America creative teams, and this storyline is a lot of fun. Not only do we get the Red Skull and the Cosmic Cube, staples of Captain America stories for decades, but we also get what must be the lengthiest appearance of a real-world American president in a super-hero comic prior to Marvel's various Obama projects. Seriously, Bill Clinton appears in multiple issues here. It's like some bizarre Marvel sequel to "Superman's Secret Mission for President Kennedy." Highly recommended.


Sebastian O by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell (1993; coll. 2004): Zany postmodern shenanigans from Morrison and Yeowell. In a high-tech, fin de seicle Victorian England, dandy assassin/aesthete Sebastian O battles to discover a sinister conspiracy while remaining witty and impeccably dressed. Weird fun. Highly recommended.

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