Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Two weeks until SPX!

I'll be a "special guest" at the incredible Small Press Expo in DC, Sept. 13 &14. This is my favorite comix fest in the US. Well worth a trip to DC for the weekend.

SPX is held at the Bethesda Marriot Convention Center. A bit of a soulless stripmall part of the city, but easy access off the Beltway. Here's (above) where I'm located in the Grand Ballroom. Aisle I, table 13.

I'll have all my books, including the fresh-off-the-press True Stories: Volume One. I'm also bringing a shitload of original art, and a variety of other goodies. Or just stop by and say hello.

I"ll be easy to find. Just look for the 8-foot-tall Joey Ramone.

And WHAT a line-up this year! Lynda Barry, Tom Tomorrow, Ben Katchnor, Mimi Pond, Drew Friedman, Shannon Wheeler, etc etc.  

The main theme this year is a celebration of the Alt-weekly Comic Strip. Well, more like a wake for the Alt-weekly Comic Strip. But it's a topic (obviously) near and dear to my heart, and it's about time comix historians started to appreciate the era of alt-comix from 1980-2000 as the incredible period it was. I think it was a period unmatched in terms of experimentation, stylistic revolution and just outright excellence.  We strip guys were always kind of the bastard stepchildren of indy comix.  Those in and around the industry never really embraced us as part of the club. I jumped the fence some time ago, of course, and have been lobbying hard for my alt-weekly colleagues to finally get their due.

SPX. Be there or be square!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

In defense of Howard the Duck

So the comicdork world is a-buzz with the cameo of Howard the Duck in the after-credits scene at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. Could it be Disney-Marvel is planning to relaunch the great comix icon of the Seventies? The blood chills.

I loved Howard back when he was first a cult, then a bonafide, smash hit. Not only was he the first "superhero" who lived here in Cleveland, he was the creation of Steve Gerber, the funniest, weirdest, druggiest, most perceptive writer in mainstream comix.  Most in fandom hate the character. I guess they regard him as somehow besmirching "real" comic book characters. Many older fans are still pissed that Howard ruined comic book movies for a decade. Maybe he just doesn't fit the tiresome, uber-violent, dystopian  dreck that is popular now with what's left of mainstream comic book readership.

Howard the Duck was Marvel's first big cult hit. He debuted in 1973 in one of Gerber's bizarre storylines in the Man-Thing series, inexplicably walking out of the underbrush (above). Val Mayerick was the artist. Man-thing was a mindless swamp creature who couldn't talk or think or had any personality whatsoever. Mostly he just stood around in swamp water. Only Gerber could make such a book interesting.... and did! Howard quickly met an untimely end, plunging through a dimensional hole. But then comics fandom flooded Marvel with letters. We want more Howard!  

Fandom was still in its infancy then and comic book publishers not only didn't cowtow to it like they do now, they really didn't consider it at all when making decisions. Comic books were all about the 11-year-old audience then, those millions of sticky-fingered brats who grabbed a copy of Spider-man along with a handful of candy bars at the corner drugstore. For Howard to get his own title in this era, to placate adult fans, was unprecedented. He was re-introduced as a back-up feature in 1975, in the most hilariously titled book in the history of comics, Giant-size Man-Thing. One of Marvel's young stars, Frank Brunner,  took over the art assignment. That only increased fan fervor. Finally, in 1976, Howard was granted his own title.

Howard the Duck #1 was a smash hit. It was a glimpse of the future of the comic book business, in more ways than one. It was the first big speculative book in the collectors market. The distribution of #1 was spotty, and, of course, it wasn't printed in the numbers of, say, Spider-man, which sold 500,000 a month. My corner drug store in my hometown didn't have it, but I found my copies at one of my back-up suppliers, Gray Drug in the Summit Mall (where Dahmer's Command Performance later took place!). Dealers sniffed a profit and bought up boxes of #1, illegally, right off the loading dock at the local distributor warehouses. The price of #1 on the back-issue market immediately shot up to an unheard-of $20. For a regular 20-cent comic book that just came out? The two great forces that would alter comic book history– fandom and dealers– had emerged. 

Purely as a comic, that first issue is great, a true Bronze Age classic. The story is a societal satire mixed with a bizarre sorcery tale. It was a template for everything Gerber wrote after it. Marvel and DC weren't big on satire, and god forbid they would make anything more than the most mild political statement. When they tried to be "deep," it invariably came off as laughable soap opera. Howard the Duck owed more to underground comix, minus the sex and foul language. That may have made it even more subversive! Edgy satire passed off as a funny animal comic book. It really is great stuff.

The art is beautiful, too. Just look at the detail in that page! Unfortunately, that was it for Brunner. He did one more issue, then left the biz, never to return, outside of a cover or poster here and there. Marvel fished around for a suitable replacement artist, before settling on old hand Gene Colan. I loved Colan on Iron Man, Daredevil and Dracula, but this wasn't a choice I was pleased with. His loosey-goosey style lacked the impressive detail of Brunner. Colan drew Howard virtually to the end.

Over the next couple years, Howard was one of Marvel's biggest hits. He got the kind of media attention mere long-underwear comic books simply weren't getting then. Imagine! An intelligent satire aimed at adults! Gerber mounted a Howard for President campaign in the 1976 election that got quite a bit of press. The button (above) drawn by Bernie Wrightson was a frequent sight pinned to lapels of twentysomethings  

Howard was the first successful title aimed at an older audience. Previous efforts to tap a college-age audience, like Green Lantern/ Green Arrow or The Silver Surfer, had bombed. Howard the Duck, on the other hand, was, for a time, one of Marvel's top sellers. The tide had turned. Five years later with the debut of video games the 11-year-old readers would vanish en masse and all that was left were older readers, but that's another tale.

Marvel's head gasbag, Stan Lee, was, of course, caught completely by surprise by all of this. He had stopped writing, if you could call what he did, filling in word balloons, "writing" and was by then Marvel's president, mainly stumping for tv and film deals out in Hollywood and shamelessly stealing credit from Kirby and Ditko. Stan had never even heard of Howard the Duck until fans started babbling about it to him at the many comicons he attended. He, of course, quickly took credit for Howard, as he did for everything. Funky Flashman to the end! 

In 1977, Howard got his own newspaper strip, also by Gerber and with art by  Colan and then Val Mayerick, once again returning to his most famous creation. Howard was even more revolutionary on the staid newspaper comics page, then home to little but corpse strips like Blondie and lame joke-a-day dreck like Garfield. It only lasted a year, but it was great! The Cleveland Press picked it up. I begged my parents to subscribe to the paper, but was turned down. Pay for a paper just for one comic strip? Further proof to my old man that I was an alien from space! A neighbor was a subscriber and passed on the comic pages to me. I picked up her Press copies at the end of each week and added the clips to my collection.

Howard also became one of the first skirmishes in the creator-rights battle. Gerber's relationship with Marvel soured, especially when tyrannical editor Jim Shooter assumed control in 1978. Gerber was sacked, first from the strip, then the from the book he created. "Missed deadlines" was the officially reason, but Gerber demanding a greater cut of a lucrative character was the real one.  He then sued Marvel for the rights to Howard and eventually won a settlement in 1982, which was also unprecedented. In the meantime, he published some Howard spoofs in the emerging indy comix market. Destroyer Duck featured legend Jack Kirby, also then embroiled in a rights battle with Marvel (one that continues to this day). Frank Brunner also returned briefly to comics with Quack, featuring a unnamed Howard-like character. Marvel couldn't stop these efforts, mainly because Howard, of course, was a riff of Donald Duck! In fact, Disney had moved against Marvel for copyright violation, too! So Gerber's later efforts were just spoofs of a spoof. Presented quite an interesting copyright question. 

Stan Lee signed the termination letter (above) to Gerber, "effective immediately."

Above: Marvel's Howard redesign from 1977, to placate Disney. Draw the bill this way, don't make the eyes too large.... groan.

Howard the Duck was cancelled with #33, shortly after Gerber was fired. Marvel spun him off in a magazine aimed at an older audience, one of their strategies as the Eighties dawned, but that failed, too. Bill Mantlo, a fine writer and one of the creators of Guardians of the Galaxy, wrote those, but following Gerber was an impossible chore. Howard the Duck was a creature of the Seventies. His time was past.

The Howard phenomenon came to an ugly end with the release of one of the worst blockbuster films ever made, George Lucas' Howard the Duck in 1986. Lucas was a huge Howard fan and first pitched the film in 1976, right after American Grafitti. The studios turned him down, so he made Star Wars instead! Never in film history should a director have LESS of a complaint against studio decisions! Ten years later, when he used his fortune to start Lucasfilms, Howard the Duck was inexplicably his first project. What the hell was he thinking? It cost a then staggering $80M to make, mainly thanks to the disturbing mechanical duck costume (no CGI back then), and it bombed. It's on every critics' list as one of the worst films ever made. It was the dog that drove home that Lucas had lost it as a filmmaker. 

It was also the first major adaption of a Marvel character! The $1B hits of today can trace their lineage directly back to Lucas' stinker.

No one talks about Howard in Cleveland btw. Most locals at the time regarded it as just another shot from the New York intelligensia. There's some truth in that. Marvel was rumored to have approached Harvey Pekar to write a Howard re-launch. He turned them down. I was younger than Harvey by 25 years, but I never viewed Howard as a put-down, just as another failed Marvel title doomed by corporate meddling and politics. I certainly could have written Howard, not that I was ever on the Marvel radar. 

We in Cleveland don't view him as our own, because he wasn't, really. Most Clevelanders would be surprised to learn his story was set here. Howard's heyday was the Seventies, the low point in our fair city's history. Everyone was laughing about our burning river, our mayor's burning hair, the city's default, Mayor Dennis Kucinich and what a dump this sprawling Rustbelt town was. Every night Johnny Carson was cutting on Cleveland. Howard the Duck was just more piling on. It was also painfully obvious Gerber had never set foot in the city. It was Cleveland in name only. There were no local landmarks. The buildings didn't even look right. And Gene Colan was never much known for his attention to detail! Readers in Milwaukee or Portland couldn't tell the difference, but we could.

Today, with the intertube, it's easy to fill a story with visual references of a place you've never been. Joseph Remnant, artist of Harvey Pekar's Cleveland, for example, never visited Cleveland to research what he drew. He simply worked off photos, and did a great job capturing most of what he saw. I've done the same thing. But back in 1975, it was a very different thing, especially for low-paid comic book creators. Marvel certainly wasn't going to pay for a research excursion. I don't even remember Gerber attending a comic convention here!

Howard the Duck is today the most reviled Marvel character among fans. Mainly thanks to Lucas, and the "shame" he brought on comic book characters. Unfairly hated, in my view. I guess the animosity comes from the fans' belief that the Howard film ruined any chance of a superhero film ever being made. That's no longer the case. Seems that's all that's being made now! But the books themselves are still great. Dated, yes, and very much period pieces, as are, say, episodes of Saturday Night Live from 1976. But I'd like to see Gerber and Howard get their due. The books been out of print for years, although an omnibus will be at last released this Fall. I've no doubt Marvel would love to revive the character.... and I'm just as certain that without Gerber's genius, they'd muck him up completely. Let's remember Howard as he was. Historically, there aren't many modern characters as important as the duck. The first hit mainstream title targeted at adults, the first successful satire in mainstream comics,  the first book launched to placate fandom, the first Marvel character made into a major film and the first big skirmish in the ongoing creator-rights struggle. That's quite a resume.

Give the duck his due!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Here's your chance, patriots!

So where are all the patriot gun-toters? How come they're not flocking to Fergusen like they did to Bundy's Ranch or when they paraded around sleepy Medina, Ohio, on a Saturday morning, with ARs slung over their shoulders, terrifying shoppers and soccer moms? This is the REAL deal here, government thugs bringing the jackboot down on citizens asserting their rights! It's not some wealthy old racist trying to wheedle out of grazing fees. Here's your big chance, boys, to face down the guv'mint and cast off tyranny, just like them Founding Fathers planned!

But no. Instead, the gun toters are making a panic run on St. Looie gun shops and stocking up on ammo, and joking on local news sites about what THEY'D use to gun down the protestors.

Gosh. What's the difference between Bundy's Ranch and Fergusen? What could it be? Don't tell me, I'll figure it out in a minute....

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Nixon

Yeah I remember Nixon. He became president when I was 8 years old, and resigned when I was 14. I really have no memories of politics before him. I very clearly remember  his resignation speech. I was sleeping over at my friend Dale's house, as another languid summer vacation drifted by. It was a Friday evening and we were vegging to the back-to-back lineup of Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man and Kolchak, the Night Stalker, when the networks cut away to the White House. 

I don't recall feeling much of anything. Surprise, maybe. After all, Nixon had been president pretty much my entire cognizant life. Seemed like he'd always be president! I'd heard of Watergate, but didn't understand it. My parents never talked about politics in front of me. I didn't even know their party affiliation!

Hunter Thompson, as always, described Nixon best. His obit for Tricky Dick is essential reading on this anniversary.

"If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin."

As usual, the news channels are spewing out pieces about what happened 40 years ago. It's mostly shit, and I can confidently write that having seen none of it. 

My wife and I celebrated the 40th anniversary of Nixon and Watergate by watching ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN. It's a great film, if you haven't seen it in awhile, and the type of major movie Hollywood simply doesn't make anymore. There's little action, no enhanced drama, no Oliver Stone-esque fabrications. But it's brilliantly written and directed, with outstanding performances throughout. For teenagers like us in 1976 who were thinking about careers in newspapers, it was (and is) inspiring.

You can make the argument that ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN was the last big film of the post-studio Hollywood Era. Maybe ANNIE HALL, although that was really the first big indy hit. ATPM was a major studio release.   All those grungy, realistic, anti-heroic films from the late Sixties to late Seventies. A year later came the phenomenon of STAR WARS and movies changed forever. There's no way ATPM would be made today. It'd be an HBO series.

But I digress.

All these years later, it amazes me that such an immoral, petty sociopath like Nixon could be elected President. And it fills me with dread, that if Watergate happened today, it would not be reported at all by the downsized, dumbed-down, modern press. Two reporters spending years on an investigation, with no end in sight and an uncertain resolution? Where's the slideshow and click bait in that? Not to mention that today's corporate media crumbles under pressure from political powers. There's no profit in being a watchdog.

Even if by some miracle it was reported in the same way, it would all be suppressed or chewed up in partisan politics and grandstanding. The Rightwing Noise Machine would swing into action and the truth would be obliterated under an avalanche of bellows and bile. Nixon would survive were he in the White House in 2014! The great lesson of Watergate wasn't: don't do illegal things. It was: don't get caught... and if you do, muddy the investigation to the point know one can be sure and deny, deny, deny. Dick Cheney is the hideous mutant offspring of Richard Nixon.

Here's a few recommendation for you history buffs. 

Woodward & Bernstein are still at it, and this piece, a look back at the paranoia and vindictiveness that drove Nixon, is excellent. In it they discuss the Five Wars of Richard Nixon. Not Vietnam, but the wars Nixon waged solely on his own behalf: against his Democrat opponents, against the press, against the antiwar movement, against justice and, finally, against history itself, as he spent the rest of his life subversively trying to repair his image and his place in history. 

My other recommendation is a rather bizarre episode of PBS' Secrets of the Dead. Dick Cavett's Watergate recounts how an amiable talkshow host became one of the major players in Nixon's plummeting fortunes, perhaps the first time a television figure inserted himself into politics in a big way. Cavett had such an effect on popular discourse and opinion, that he and his staff became targets of the White House's infamous dirty tricks. All were audited by the IRS!

Not surprisingly, what I remember best about Watergate are the cartoons. My first memory were the ones in Mad magazine, not exactly known for it's hard-hitting political humor back then. Hey, we all gotta start somewhere!

Then I began to notice the cartoons in the local newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal, particularly those of Herbert Block and Paul Conrad. Watergate was the high-water mark of political cartooning in this country. It's been a long, sad slide down to total irrelevancy since.

Conrad, drawing for the otherwise conservative LA Times, was particularly devastating. Nixon pressured the Chandler family, owners of the paper and faithfully arch-conservative and longtime Nixon supporters, to sack the cartoonist, but publisher Otis Chandler, a blacksheep who ran the news operation, held firm. Paul Conrad was the only cartoonist on Nixon's Enemies List.

And finally, it was Nixon's crimes that inspired me to try my hand at political cartoons. I'm pretty sure this is my first stab at the genre, from the text I'm guessing it was during the 1972 campaign, so I would have been 12 years old! 

That's not a bad Nixon. No doubt I copped it from someone. The Ghoul in the background there was a popular Cleveland monster movie host. Combining psychotronic pop culture with politics would later become my trademark. Guess I was wired for that!

So here's to you, Dick. Forty years and politics... and journalism... and cartoons... haven't been the same without you.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Why I don't give a shit about Guardians of the Galaxy

You'd think from reading the intertube.... or maybe just my Facebook and Twitter feeds... that Guardians of the Galaxy is the single greatest film every made, that a mere two scenes in the viewer will be transported to a geek nirvana unmatched since the iconic opening scene of Star Wars.

Don't care. I won't see this film.

From Disney's standpoint, Guardians is the perfect movie franchise. Not only is it the big hit of the summer, but the history of its creation has so many hands on it that no one guy can claim he's being ripped off, like, say Ditko can with every Spider-man blockbuster. That argument doesn't hold up, of course, but you can understand why Disney is attracted to such a property.

The Guardians first appeared in Marvel's short-lived showcase title, Marvel Super-heroes, way back in 1969. Marvel, freed after a decade from an onerous distribution deal it was forced to sign with DC, its biggest competitor, was putting out as many new titles as it could in an effort to flood the spinner rack and win the comic book war. Those concepts it didn't feel were worthy of solo titles, it tossed into Marvel-Superheroes: Dr. Doom, Phantom Eagle, Ka-zar, that sort of thing. The debut story was written by Arnold Drake, a third-string scripter who got whatever Stan Lee and Roy Thomas didn't want. The art was provided by Silver Age stalwart Gene Colan. It's a cool book, with a great cover. I stumbled across it a year later when I began my comix obsession. Only the Guardians name survived in later incarnations. The original characters were all chucked.

The team appeared sporadically in various titles throughout the Seventies.  It didn't get a regular title until 1990. The characters in the movie are pieced together from the various incarnations. Writer-artist Jim Starlin, who made some of the trippiest sci-fi superhero comix of the Seventies, created Gamora and Drax, the latter with an assist from writer Mike Freidrich, in 1975 and 1973 respectively. Steve Englehart and Steve Gan created Star-Lord, who bears little resemblance to the wise-cracking Hollywood stereotype in the film. Rocket Raccoon was created in 1976 by Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen. All have been molded, mangled and abused by lesser writers and artists over the years, as only mainstream comics companies can.

Word is– and it's only a rumor, and the details are being kept secret by all parties, for reasons I'll explain– is that Disney is very quietly cutting some...SOME...of the creators in on a piece of the profits. Disney made a big PR splash by giving Mantlo, left an invalid after a horrific traffic accident, a private screening of Guardians and a big settlement. That's great, and good for Disney for doing the right thing, although the cynic in me suspects their marketing wing red-flagged and headed off a potential public relations calamity there. 

Starlin, who famously had to purchase his own ticket to The Avengers film, even though his character, Thanos, appeared in the after-credit scene, has announced he's doing more books for Marvel, but it's unclear whether he got a similar deal. No word on the rest.

The exception, as always with anything Marvel, is Jack Kirby. He is the creator or co-creator of virtually every major character Marvel has. He was such a genius, even his toss-away bullshit characters have incredible value. Groot, the alien CGI tree, voiced by that great thespian Vin Diesel, was created by Kirby in 1960 during Marvel's pre-superhero, space monster era. Oh, but the Marvel apologists say, so much backstory has been added to Groot over the decades, that there's very little of the Kirby character left. What horseshit. The look is basically the same.  You don't "improve" a Kirby design. Besides, he's a violent, talking tree from space. What's to add?

What can't be debated is Ronan the Accuser, the villain of Guardians, and a Kirby creation from his epic Silver Age peak in Fantastic Four. For decades, of course, scripter Stan Lee shamelessly hogged the credit for all these characters, which is now revealed as bullshit. Kirby dreamed up the plots, designed the characters, drew the story and passed it on to Lee to fill in the word balloons, based on notes Kirby wrote on the outer margins of the artwork.  Sound like Lee "created" anything at all in that process? I've ranted about this before, so I won't bore you again.

So here's my beef with Disney-Marvel and with Guardians. As the credits roll, the film gives credit to the original creators Mantlo, Giffen and Starlin. After the credits for IT support and security, as you'll note! 

Kirby? Creator of two of the films major characters? He's gets a "special thanks"..... TEN NAMES IN!!!!! 

Jee-zus Ker-rhist.

Marvel screwed him when he was alive and Disney-Marvel continues to roger him long after he's dead. This is minor compared to The Avengers, true. Kirby is the creator of The Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America (with Joe Simon) and Nick Fury and SHIELD. The film took in a record $1 billion in sales and didn't give the Kirby Estate... one... single... penny. Disney execs, of course, envision a nightmare where the Kirby heirs successfully seize the rights to all the characters Kirby created, rendering virtually all of Marvel worthless. No Hulk, no Captain America, no X-men, no Avengers, no Iron Man, no Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Ant Man, on and on. It likely won't happen, of course, and even if it miraculously does, Disney will simply order its allies in Congress to re-write copyright law. It's done so before.

The financial crime aside.... "special thanks"?

Fuck. You. Disney.

And THAT'S why I won't see this film.

PS-- the after credit scene stars Howard the Duck, created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerick. Gerber was also screwed by Marvel, who was sacked by infamous tyrant editor Jim Shooter. He sued for rights to the then hit character (yes, believe it or not, Howard was once a huge hit) and eventually reached a confidential settlement. Gerber's was one of the first ever victories for creators. It never ends.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A glimpse of the TRASHED pencils

My next book, which will drop in Fall 2015 if I can miraculously make this deadline, is the most ambitious installment yet of my ongoing Trashed project. I started this with a thin 50-page floppy back in 2001, my first attempt at long-form storytelling. It got me my first Eisner nomination. I returned to it as a webcomic experiment in 2010 and again in 2011. And this is the big one, a 250-page (or thereabouts) sprawling Rustbelt epic about crap jobs, crazy co-workers, nutso small towns full of creeps and weirdos, and garbage, garbage and more garbage. I'm having a lot of fun with it. The fine folks at Abrams, publishers of My Friend Dahmer, will put it out.

Three of the four chapters are written and penciled. I'll wrap up the pencils on the final chapter by the beginning of September. Then it's a mad inking sprint to deliver the completed book by the end of the year.

Thought you'd all like a peek at a work in progress.