Sunday, November 22, 2009

I've Always Liked This Cover

First in Jack Kirby's stellar run on "Thor" in Journey into Mystery.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Some good old fashioned linkblogging on a Sunday afternoon...

First, I wanted to point out the newest addition to my sidebar, the excellent comics blog Hooded Utilitarian. I hadn't paid much attention to these guys until it was announced that The Comics Journal would be incorporating them into their upcoming relaunch of the magazine's increased online presence. The HU blog features a group of talented writers discussing a variety of comics related topics (Wonder Woman, reviews of Yaoi manga, and a great roundtable on race in comics have been recently featured), and if it is any indication of the quality and type of approach the Journal intends to bring to it's revamped website, I'm very optimistic about that endeavor.

Elsewhere in the comics blogosphere, I greatly enjoyed this post by Jeet Heer at the Comics Comics blog, featuring Dave Sim dissing Jack Kirby's work in a '70s fanzine. I'm really interested in Kirby's work from this period, as well as fandom's reaction to same at that time, so this post really hit a sweet spot for me.

Not comics, but this essay by Tom LeClair at the Barnes & Noble review examining the nominees for this year's National Book Award was a great read. I particularly liked that LeClair focused his essay on the books' style, rather than on their substance.

Finally, been confused about which version of the new Star Trek movie to buy when it's released on November 17th? No? Well, I have, and it's my blog so I'm linking to this helpful IGN page which breaks down the differences between all of the DVD and Blue-Ray versions.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up

1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, edited by Julia Eccleshare, is the latest in the "1001" series that also includes books on "Albums You Must Hear," "Books You Must Read," "Foods You Must Taste," and others. I've really been enjoying it. The 960 page brick of a book is divided first by age categories (0-3, 3+, 5+, 8+, and 12+), and chronologically by publication date within those categories. There is a short essay for each of the books featured. Many feature sample artwork or covers, and some include suggestions for further reading.

One of the great joys/frustrations of books like these is the inevitable fact that some of your favorites are not featured. I'll leave the debate over omissions to others, though, and say that, generally speaking, Eccleshare and her contributors have done a fine job of selecting a wide range of great children's books from around the globe. Some of the people who I've discussed the book with seem frustrated by the fact that some of the selections seem deliberately obscure, but I actually enjoy this aspect of the book. I think it's fair to say that Eccleshare, children's book editor at The Guardian, is perhaps more interested in sketching a history of children's book publishing than she is in providing a useful reading list that must be got through. I don't know that your child really needs to read a collection of Traditional Chinese Folktales dating from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.), or Charles and Mary Lamb's 1807 adaptation of Tales from Shakespeare, but it was interesting to learn that the former "is considered the earliest children's book on record," or that the latter "was written mainly for girls because boys tended to have access to the original plays at an earlier age. Boys are asked to explain the difficult passages and select suitable sections from the originals for their sisters to read." As someone interested in children's books and their history, I found these sorts of insights fascinating.

The best feature of the book, though, has got to be the terrific artwork on display. Wherever possible, Eccleshare has attempted to locate artwork featured on the covers of the original editions of the books, even as they appeared prior to English language translation in the cases of works from other countries. There is great pleasure to be had in flipping through this book and marveling at the gorgeous, vintage children's book art on display, and noticing how the aesthetics of children's books has changed over the years.

Lest my enthusiasm for the historical insights provided by the book make it seem useless as a practical reading guide, rest assured that, though I believe the book's aims to be more than that, Peter Rabbit, Max and his Wild Things, the Hungry Caterpillar, Harry Potter, the Cat in the Hat, Frog and Toad, are all here. If you're looking for great recommendations for you own children or students, they're here. The book can certainly be used as a useful resource for parents, teachers, students, librarians, and booksellers, and those readers will also be rewarded with a glimpse into a history of children's literature that is richer and deeper than they may have imagined.

For those interested in a more focused attempt at building a cannon of great children's books, I highly recommend Anita Silvey's 100 Best Books for Children. Less interested in providing a history of children's publishing or showcasing artwork (only a few black and white spot illustrations appear in the book), I have nevertheless found it to be a valuable resource.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Kid Stuff

One of my favorite things about the end of the year is all of the "best of" lists that start popping up. A particular favorite is the New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Books list, just posted to their website.

You may have to register to see it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Savage Dragon

I've wanted to write about Erik Larsen's long-running comic book series Savage Dragon for quite some time, in part because I never see anyone else discussing it, and also because my own relationship with the series is somewhat unique among my comics reading, and has changed over the years I've been following it. I wanted to sketch my own history as a Savage Dragon reader, and in doing so, sort out those elements of the series that continue to make it, for me, one of the most entertaining and unique comic books currently published.

I picked up the first issue of Savage Dragon when it was first published, in 1992. I was twelve. Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, I believe it was my brother, two years my junior, who actually purchased the comic, but we both read it, and loved it. This was the first issue of the initial three issue mini-series that preceded the ongoing series. For a while I think I read my brother's copies, and then we both purchased our own copies of every issue. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As I'm sure was the case with the majority of Savage Dragon and early Image Comics readers, my brother and I had been primarily fans of mainstream Marvel and DC comics. Mostly Marvel. I think I had been reading superhero comics for a year or maybe a couple of years when Image Comics happened, and I was just beginning to differentiate between artists and writers. I had my favorites, particularly John Byrne (whose excellent run on Fantastic Four I was then discovering via back issues), a major influence on Erik Larsen. We knew Larsen's work, too, from an excellent run on Spider-Man following Todd McFarlane and featuring the Sinister Six. I remember thinking Larsen's art on that storyline was some of the best I had ever seen in comics. It looked so sleek and modern to my eyes, and the story contained everything a twelve-year-old could want out of a Spider-Man story. All of the major villains, cyborgs, monsters, big-name guest stars from across the Marvel Universe, lots of action. Lots of violence. The Sandman was turned into glass at one point, shattered, and then he came back as a guy made of glass shards. It was that kind of comic.

We hadn't seen anything yet.

We were vaguely aware of the behind-the-scenes drama that would lead to the formation of Image Comics around this time. Mostly these glossy new books that began appearing were understood to be new creations by many of the "hot" Marvel artists. They were edgier, darker, more "grown-up" somehow. Savage Dragon was pretty much a more violent version of the type of superhero story Larsen had done for Marvel. There was a lot of blood. The women were more voluptuous and more scantily clad. I think there was some swearing. The pages were glossier. It felt a little dangerous.

The story and characters were tremendously appealing. Larsen had a real knack for impactful character design, and the heroes and (especially) villains he filled the book with were so cool looking, so original, so unlike what you would see in a Marvel comic of the time. Another great feature of Savage Dragon was the letters pages. These were often very lengthy, and Larsen would answer fans' questions with a frankness that was completely unlike anything I had encountered in comics letters pages up to that time. This was pre-internet (at least for us), and I was just beginning to read Wizard, so the kind of all-access, behind-the-scenes quality of the Savage Dragon letters pages was a revelation. I remember Larsen talking once about that Spider-Man story I mentioned earlier. He spoke about how he had thought Doctor Octopus had been coming across as a goofy weakling in his recent appearances, so he had the idea to change that by updating his look and giving him adamantium arms. It sounds simple and obvious now, but I remember being really delighted by an artist discussing the ideas and intentions behind his work, and then being able to see that work realized on the printed page. Amazing! These comics were made by real people!

One of the signature qualities of Savage Dragon is Larsen's commitment to his project. He has stated numerous times that working on a series like Savage Dragon had always been his goal (indeed he had created the character as a teenager), and his intention was to continue to chronicle Dragon's adventures in the series for the rest of his life. The characters would age in real time, marry, have children, grow old, die. I think it was this quality of the series that lead me to at one time consider it "the ultimate comic book." It just seemed kind of perfect, you know? A talented creator working on a creator-owned series, utterly committed to the long term development of the characters and their world. It seemed to me in those early years as though Savage Dragon encompassed all of the best qualities of comics.

Okay, so here's where the changing nature of my relationship to the series comes in. Obviously, I no longer consider it "the ultimate comic book." If I had to apply that goofy, adolescent designation to something, it might be to something like Los Bros. Hernandez's Love and Rockets. Basically, what happened was, I discovered comics beyond superheroes. I discovered, as so many others have, the wider world of comics, and all of the different ways artistic expression can be filtered through them. I discovered artists like the Hernandez brothers, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, others. I started looking seriously at comic strips. I stopped reading Wizard and started reading The Comics Journal. You know this story. You've heard it a million times before, and, if you're reading this blog, have probably lived some variation of it yourself. I grew up.

I kept reading Savage Dragon, though, even though Larsen's work no longer looked the same to me. I began to see his influences more clearly, and understand that some of the qualities I had once considered so original were not that original at all. Larsen is an artist who wears his influences on his sleeve, and doesn't always synthesize those artists he admires (Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, John Byrne, Walter Simonson, Frank Miller), into a cohesive style of his own. Larsen, an artist I once revered, began to seem to me to be a little naive. It was an odd period of adjustment for me, but I kept reading, I kept buying the new issue every month.

The thing is, I think I enjoy the book now more than I did then, if not as much as I did when I was twelve years old. I've often wondered if the primary reason I keep reading the book is habit or nostalgia. Certainly, I am still very attracted to the idea of Larsen's total commitment to the series. I love the fact that Dragon's son, who I remember being born, is now a teenager. I don't think, though, that nostalgia/habit/loyalty/whatever is the primary reason I am still a Savage Dragon reader. I know it's not. There's a lot that Larsen does really, really well. The kind of things I can't really find anywhere else. What once seemed cutting edge now has a delightful, "retro" quality. There is a pure joy to be had in reading Savage Dragon, the joy of a superhero comic that aspires to be nothing more than a really, really good superhero comic. I still love those character designs. Larsen does action very well, moving his bulky characters across the pages with a kind of grace and energy that a lot of current mainstream artists would do well to emulate. He is not a great writer, but he is a gifted cartoonist and a capable storyteller. He does great covers. I still enjoy the violence. While his ideas are not as unique as I once perceived them to be, he continues to combine familiar comic book story elements in surprising and sometimes thrilling ways. It is, perhaps, the ultimate superhero comic.

I particularly enjoyed a recent storyline, the latest "Death of Dragon" sequence (yeah, there've been a few at this point), wherein Dragon fought a monster capable of absorbing people's appearances, powers, and some aspects of their personalities and memories, leaving his victims lifeless husks. Dragon's memories and powers were absorbed by the creature, and the skull of his lifeless body was crushed. However, because of Dragon's healing factor (something Larsen has taken full advantage of over the years), his personality was able to dominate that of the creature, and the creature effectively transformed into a new Dragon, with all of Dragon's powers, memories, and personality, and no evidence of the monster left intact. Dragon's dead and decimated body was put in stasis, just in case. Then, the "new" Dragon was "killed" by the villain Overlord. The remains of that Dragon's body reassembled as a monstrous version of Dragon, while the original Dragon's body was brought back to life via a blood transfusion from his son, albeit without his memories since his brain had been destroyed. Pretty cool. I mean, I'm glad there's a place I can still read stuff like this, you know?

That's the cover to the latest issue up above. I'm looking forward to reading it, and whatever comes next.