Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Friday, April 29, 2005

The Laws of Fiction?

What are the laws of fiction?

I've come up with a few on my own:

First law: Never bore the reader.

Fourth law: Monkeys are funny. (Corollary to the fourth law: Talking monkeys are hilarious.)

Fifth law: When in doubt, have one character kick another in the nuts.

Eighth law (Chekhov's Law): "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." --A. Chekhov*

Ninth law: Immature writers create "homages." Mature writers steal.

Fourteenth law: Any character can be improved by making the character talk like a pirate.

Nineteeth law (Steve Martin's Axiom): "I believe entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art, you are an idiot." --S. Martin

Twenty-second law: Any story can be improved by the addition of monkeys, ninjas, or both.

These aren't just the fevered workings of a dorkish mind. I can prove their validity. Take the twenty-second law, for example. Wouldn't Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day be vastly improved by the addition of a fiddle-playing monkey and a small army of ninjas? Of course it would.

I appeal to you folks out there in Internet-Land. What are other Laws of Fiction?

*Edited to fix the spelling of Chekhov's name. Apparently, the more common transliteration schemes spell it with an "h." Whoops. Dang Cyrillic writing system...

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Look, kids! Links!

I finally got off my ass and figured out how to add links to this page.

How about that.

For a change of pace, I recommend checking out a well-written blog about higher education in America among the links: "Confessions of a Community College Dean." I come from a line of academics, so I'm familiar with the problems faced by colleges. A joy to see someone approach the issues without resorting to pre-chewed opinions and ossified views. Plus the occasional tales of his family life are charming.

And for those who dig Blogland, there's "Delenda Est Carthago," a sometimes-comic blog by Greg. The man be good. His other blog, "The Daughter Chronicles," where he talks about raising his darlin' daughters, is even better. Less spandex, more humanity. Dig it.

Edited to put the links in this post as well as the sidebar.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

An Eleven-Panel Master Course in Comics

Bernard Krigstein was the first and most influential “fine artist” in the comics field. He produced work through the late forties and fifties, leaving behind hundreds of pages of innovative comics. Krigstein pushed harder against the boundaries of the medium than just about anybody, and he developed techniques to exploit its strengths.

Only once in his career was he allowed to lay out a story as he saw fit: an eight-page story in EC Comics’ Impact #1, published in 1955, called “Master Race.” This story is a brilliant example of comics.

A memory-haunted concentration-camp refugee, Carl Reissman, enters a subway car. Shortly, he recognizes a cadaverous stranger who sits across from him. He flashes back to the horrors of the camps until the story reveals that Reissman was in fact the commandant of the death camp. The stranger who recognizes him is a survivor of Reissman’s camp. The stranger chases him down an empty platform. Reissman slips and is crushed by an arriving train. The stranger leaves the station.

Not a great plot, but serviceable. What makes it worth study is how Krigstein told the story.

Here’s the wordless climax of “Master Race.”

Krigstein uses a number of tools specific to comics in this sequence.

The first panel is a well-designed drawing using the strong perspectives one would find in a typical subway station. The two characters and the train, along with the tracks and the receding lines of the ceiling, give a depth to the scene. The flat black of the stranger contrasts with the light figure of the fleeing Reissman, who is flanked on his left by the blackness of the train and tunnel.

Now it gets interesting.

The second panel shifts perspective to below the platform. Reissman’s foot is visible as well as his hat, which now floats above the track. Notice now the lines across the ceiling of the station are gone, as are the shades of gray. What was a detailed scene becomes a more primal image of white and black, with the hint of peril to come: a foot, a hat, and two small “motion lines.” The paper blown in the foreground suggests the rising menace of the train. This transition from detail in panel one to simplicity in panel two draws the reader’s attention on the few elements of importance.

Panels three through six show Reissman’s fall onto the tracks. Aside from the superb draftmanship of the drawings and the sense of reality gained by using such an awkward series of poses, look at the shapes of the panels and the transitions Krigstein uses.

Panel width suggests lengths of time. A wide panel, which takes the eye a few seconds to traverse, usually is meant to depict a longer span than a narrow one, which the reader can absorb in a fraction of a second. The narrowness of these panels therefore imply that each one shows only a short moment of time. The uniformity of the panels suggests that each panel also depicts the same amount of time.

Reissman’s form shows an increasing change in each panel. The transition from panels three to four is much less dramatic than between four and five, or five and six. The man’s fall “speeds up,” reflecting his increasing momentum and the horror of the event.

Breaking the fall up into four panels slows the action down for the reader. Rather than a single panel, the reader must let her eyes travel over the four distinct panels of Reissman’s fall.

Putting these effects together, Krigstein achieves an effect similar to, but different from, cinematic slow motion. An action that the reader can tell took only a second or two, due to the careful depiction of a human body falling, feels as though it took place over a much longer time, due to panel shapes and transitions.

The point of view of these four panels is fixed and distant. Rather than close in on the terror in Reissman’s face or follow the man down to the tracks, the perspective does not shift. This creates an effect of dispassionate observation, rather than identification. The reader maintains a distance from the man, rather than directly sharing in his plight.

Panel seven puts us roughly at Reissman’s point of view. The train is coming, filling the panel. The mechanisms of the train are now visible, and the train is no longer just a black and white abstraction, but a detailed machine in varying shades of black, gray, and white. It’s suddenly become very concrete to the reader.

Panel eight shows Reissman’s fall onto the track, again from a dispassionate perspective and in keeping with the tempo and structure of the previous panels.

Panels seven and eight are the same width and shape as the falling panels, again suggesting brief moments in time. Panel nine grows a bit wider. The reader sees under the train now, where Reissman now lies. Details of the train’s lower front and undercarriage fill the panel.

Reissman shares the panel with the train at last, in panel ten: the last split-second before impact. Again, the panel is narrow. The colors grow more varied, particularly in the background, giving the panel a sense of increased chaos.

Finally comes panel eleven, what Art Spiegelman called a “visual onomatopoeia.”

The stranger watches the train roll past, the faces of the subway passengers dashing by. By employing the Futurist technique of “dynamism,” drawing portions of an image again and again in different places to suggest motion, Krigstein depicts the blur of a rapidly-passing train.* The solid black of the stranger contrasts the motion by its stillness. The width of the panel is greater, showing the reader this is not a fraction of a second, but a longer span.

Beyond the Futurist touch in the repeating faces, panel eleven also has a sly homage to Mondrian. Not wholly relevant to this essay, but cool nevertheless.

Many refer to comics as “movies on paper.” These eleven panels put the lie to such a claim. They can be something else, something unique; a movie could not achieve these effects. Slow-motion photography could not capture the exact effect of panels three through six. A camera could not duplicate panel eleven, with its sophisticated art homages and sense of motion-in-stasis.

The medium is much more than the poor cousin of film.

God, I love comics.

*Edited to correct terminology, replace the linked picture with a better example, and clean up the wording. For some reason, my brain locked up and couldn't remember the term "dynamism," and the only dynamist painting I could remember was Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase #1," which isn't good for my purposes here. The new link is to a more amusing and less abstract picture.

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dare I call myself genius? Of course I dare.

You know what would rule?

Miniature bowling. Not "bowling with a tiny ball and wee pins," but a counterpart to miniature golf. Full-scale equipment employed in a more -ahem- colorful way.

Picture it:

Get the bowling ball through the hole in the windmill!

Imagine a short bowling lane with obstructions and a fiberglass cow in the middle!

How about adding bank shots? Waterfalls? Tunnels?

Aim for the hippo's mouth!

Yea verily, it would rule.

Outdoor miniature bowling: wave of the future.

I am a man of vision.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A Lake of Hot Chocolate: Stan Freberg Shows the Way

Oni Press recently put out an original graphic novel about a heist in the old west, entitled The Long Haul. It’s not bad, it’s not great. The story, by Antony Johnson, is nothing spectacular or original. The art, by Eduardo Barreto, is attractive and well-done. I don’t regret buying it, though I wish the story were richer or less predictable.

More than anything, the book was a let-down. The novel didn't justify its existence as a graphic novel very well.

The Long Haul’s shortcomings reinforce the wisdom of Stan Freberg.

Freberg loved the medium of radio. The Stan Freberg Show (1957) experimented with the possibilities of the radio show. He knew the medium was endangered by the growth of television, and that to capture the public’s attention, he had to play to his medium's strengths.

In an early episode of the series, Freberg demonstrated the advantage radio holds over television. He began a segment by draining Lake Michigan and filling it with hot chocolate. Dump trucks pulled up to the shore and dumped whipped cream onto the lake. Finally, the Royal Canadian Air Force dropped a cherry onto the top of the lake, to the cheers of 25,000 observers.

He ended the segment with a challenge: “Let’s see them do that on television.”

The Long Haul, like a lot of original graphic novels, doesn’t take Freberg’s wisdom to heart. It never employs the unique tools and charms of the comic medium.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why it was published as a graphic novel instead of a prose one. The story would not have lost any of its effect had it been only words on a page.

Flipping through the many original graphic novels stacked in my local comic shop, I see this same problem over and over. Why bother? Why go to the hassle of illustrating the story if it would be just as well served by prose, and cost a fraction as much to produce or buy?

This isn’t to say that comics need to be filled with astonishing visuals of breakdancing dinosaurs or jive-talking robots (though yes, both would be welcome additions to most graphic novels). Movies can show even more spectacular sights now, due to computer graphics.

Beyond the ability to cheaply portray the fantastic, comics have unique capacities.

Take, for example, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Boy on Earth, by Chris Ware. Jimmy Corrigan tells the story of a pathetic middle-aged man meeting his long-lost father. Ware created the story in a way that cannot be translated into another medium without crippling it. The positioning of panels, the parallel flows on a single page, the distinct art style, all add depth and richness to the story. Snazzy.*

Then there's a unique capacity that’s so commonly accepted nobody talks about it anymore: no medium can pace like comics.

Take a typical super-hero comic. Page one: six panels of Captain Spiffy in his apartment, playing canasta with his talking cockatiel, Buford. Page two: a splash page of the dreaded Rear Admiral bursting through the apartment wall, cackling madly and throwing wedgie-bombs.

No other medium can do this shift of pace and visual impact. None. The sudden shift from lots of small panels to large ones; the addition or removal of backgrounds; the addition or removal of panel borders; all are unique to the medium.

The Long Haul didn’t take much advantage of these tools. Couple that with a lack of arresting visuals, and you get a book that may as well have been a prose novel.

I keep wanting to find good original graphic novels. Novels that justify the price tag. If the book doesn’t use the medium’s strengths, why pay the extra ten bucks to have the story printed with useless or redundant pictures?

Listen to Stan Freberg, kids.

Stan shows us the way.

*Though I must admit that Jimmy Corrigan is not a book I either enjoy or recommend. As a guide to the mechanics of comic storytelling, it’s invaluable. Technically, it’s brilliant. As a story, it’s akin to being cornered by a depressive cousin at a family gathering and having to stand by the punch bowl as he yammers for hours about the bleakness of his life and the despair that haunts his days. Dude, shut up. Say something insightful about your despair or go away.

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Monday, April 18, 2005

Clichés and Quotations Ready for Retirement

“There are no second acts in American lives.” --Fitzgerald
Whenever anybody makes a successful comeback in the arts or business, count on this one to be hauled out for refutation. Again.

“[In the near future,] everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” --Warhol
When Andy Warhol said this, it was perceptive, amusing, and entirely in keeping with his approach to art. When people say it now, the “in the near future” part of the quote is removed, because it’s assumed we’ve arrived. Kyrie eleison.

“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” --Fitzgerald
Yeah, Scotty loved epigrams. Gore Vidal wrote an essay on him that noted how Fitzgerald was always pining for an imaginary perfect past. When he was in college, he pined for his high school days. When he was in Paris, he pined for college. When he was in Hollywood, he pined for Paris. To him, the past was always better. Poor bastard.

Any variation on “comedy is serious business.”
Journalists who employ any version of this cliché should be confronted, chastised, and then given open-handed slaps across the face for fifteen minutes.

“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” –Orwell
A popular online quote by men in (or recently out of) the military to puff themselves up. If you press your ear against the monitor, you can almost hear the bluster.* Fittingly, Orwell never wrote this. It’s an inaccurate paraphrase taken from an essay he wrote about Rudyard Kipling. That just adds to the irritation.

*Not to pick on soldiers in particular. My tolerance for bluster is so low it cannot be measured by scientific instruments. I don’t care who’s puffing himself up; I’ll call him an ass. This misquote gets a lot of use by those seeking to feel important, so it gets the caning today.

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This’ll Generate Some Hate Mail

First, an admission: I don’t like J.R.R. Tolkien. I enjoyed The Hobbit as a slight entertainment, but the Lord of the Rings puts me right to sleep. I've tried to read The Fellowship of the Ring a few times, and end up losing the will to live at page 150 or so. Richly-appointed fantasy worlds and elaborate backstories just don’t interest me as much as a well-crafted plot or interesting characters. Worse, his prose style makes me cringe.

With that out of the way, I do admit that there’s something appealing about delving into the backstory of his fantasy world. It’s like examining the H-O scale trainset of an obsessive old crank. While I have no interest in sitting in his basement to watch the train go round-and-round for hours, it’s pretty cool to lean in and see how he painted the wee trees and houses.

When the movies came out, I got interested in the world and poked around the web to learn the backstory of Middle Earth. As you might expect, it didn’t take long to hit giant troves of the stuff. I learned about Balrogs and Numenor and Dunlendings and whatall.

Through the thousands of years of history of Tolkien’s fictional world, one powerful motif seems to underline it all: “mommy, mommy, please don’t go.”

Tolkien split the history of Middle Earth into “years” and “ages.” At the end of each era, the most powerful beings in the world at that time depart, leaving the world progressively more barren of magic and the touch of the divine. This happens a couple of times. First the demigods leave, then the angels, and in the end of the Lord of the Rings, the elves pack up and go. Whoever’s on top of the “mystical pecking order” gets up and leaves.

Granted, the motif of decay from a golden age is a common one in mythology. Beyond the Abrahamic tradition of the fall from Eden, there’s the Hindu and Buddhist idea of the cyclical rise and decline of the world (we’re on a downslide now, of course) and the traditional trope of Chinese historiography: relentless decay (“The Shang dynasty was pure, not like the corrupt T’ang court of today,” etc.).

What makes Tolkien’s mythology of perpetual decay different is the motif of abandonment. The world isn’t just sliding into the crapper, he says, we’re being left behind by the divine. The world grows filthier, and the uppermost beings of the world choose to leave it, and us. As time advances, the world of the spirit moves farther and farther away from the world of matter.

The dimestore Freud in me links this to his upbringing. The American in me, brought up to believe that history is the story of progress rather than decay, finds it silly.

I was never much for Lost Golden Ages and the Irreversible Decline of Man.

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Mary Sue, Mary Sue, Pretty Pretty Pretty Mary Sue

Mary Sue has been bothering me lately. And I want to throw her under a bus.

You may not recognize the name, but you recognize the type. That most annoying of characters.

Who is she? She’s easy to spot. She's the idealized stand-in for the author of the story. The naked fantasy figure.

The name came from a Star Trek fan fiction story written back in yonder days. The character of “Lieutenant Mary Sue” arrives on the Starship Enterprise, and is so beautiful, brilliant, and so forth that she not only saves the day, but one (or more, I’m not sure) of the regular Trek menfolk fall madly in love with her.

Badly-written “fan fiction” is jammed with Mary Sues, as you’d expect. What’s worse is when published fiction is marred by these authorial stand-ins. Just thinking about them makes my eyes roll back in my head.

The biggest Mary Sue producer in comicdom who leaps to mind is Matt Wagner. Take, for example, his character Grendel. Grendel was a prodigy, gifted with superhuman intelligence and physical grace. He becomes a world-class fencer in his teens, seethes with resentment at the idiots around him, is seduced by an older woman (who promptly dies), and in his late teens/early twenties, he becomes a best-selling novelist of great artistic merit in his public face as "Hunter Rose" and a masked crimelord known as "Grendel."

If this isn’t a teenage boy’s id splashed on paper, I don’t know what is. Wish fulfillment doesn’t get a lot more naked.

To his credit, Wagner took this teenage daydream character and transformed the Grendel story into something much, much more interesting. Hunter Rose died in his first story, and the subsequent Grendel stories were about different folks. It went from a Mary Sue story to a damn fine series.

Then there’s Wagner’s Mage. Perhaps Mage also evolved, but I just couldn’t read it long enough to find out. I opened the first collection of the first series and couldn’t take it.

The protagonist, Kevin Matchstick, begins as a regular guy. For no readily apparent reason, in the beginning of the first issue, he sits on a stoop and begins answering personal questions to another guy sitting on the stoop. The answers are standard-issue “I’m alone and nobody gets me” horsecrap, that watered-down Byronic self-pitying wanna-be-sensitive-tough-guy knucklehead stuff common among those who consider themselves intelligent because they read the occasional book, get their feelings hurt sometimes, and wear their hair funny.

I put the book down and walked away. Hunter Rose died right away and was replaced by more nuanced characters. Kevin Matchstick is still stomping around the pages of Mage, swinging his magic baseball bat and probably still acting the watered-down Byronic self-pitying wanna-be-sensitive-tough-guy knucklehead. No, thank you.

Wagner’s a talented creator. I actively seek out his work. But I don’t buy anything he’s done until I give it an examination first.

In the world of prose fiction, the King of Mary Sue is Elmore Leonard.

Leonard’s work has been praised so much that a few years ago, I felt I had to check it out. Most mystery and thriller writers bore me senseless. I keep hoping to find a truly good one. Thus far, the only truly good authors in the genre appear to be Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. If Leonard’s work matched the praise, he’d fit right on that short list. Sweet.*

Oh man.

I’d never run across a middle-aged white guy Mary Sue before. Mr. Leonard introduced me to several. Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, the title character in Stick, um…that guy whose name I can’t remember in that book that bored me...

Leonard’s protagonists are middle-aged white guys with criminal ties who just so happen to be the most cunning, clever, lucky, and seductive middle-aged white guys around. Not that they broadcast this, oh no. The world just bows down to their inherent coolness. Manipulating the swirling madness around them with swagger, they get the best of everyone, win the (younger) girl, and make a sack of money.


I figure that the Leonard Mary Sues probably match the fantasy lives of most critics. Thus, they love it. Pandering is harder to spot when it’s in your direction.**

(Me, my fantasy life involves less gangsters and more donuts. Mmmm…donuts.)

Mary Sue-ism is a problem of degree, not type. Fictional characters are extensions of the author. Many of them are wish-fulfillment types.

What distinguishes the Mary Sue is the purity of the wish-fulfillment and the author’s over-identification with the character. She's always right, she's impossible to relate to, and you always know where a Mary Sue story is going. Yawn. Mary Sue-ism places the main character of a story in direct violation of the First Law of Fiction: "Don't Bore the Reader."

Is Superman a Mary Sue? He’s supremely powerful and always saves the day. Not a lot of flaws in the Man of Tomorrow. Wish-fulfillment doesn’t get a lot more direct than him. So, is he?

No, because his personality is vague and bland enough to allow millions to share in the story. Nobody who wrote the character over-identified with him. One or two writers may have tried to make him their personal Mary Sue, but if so, it didn’t stick.

How about the polar opposite? The protagonist of Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog was based on Bellow himself to such a degree that it angered a whole lot of his friends and family. Was Moses Herzog a Mary Sue?

No, because Herzog wasn’t a fantasy figure. Bellow gave the character deep flaws and provided enough distance that readers who weren’t Saul Bellow could identify with and relate to him.

...oh man. Having just put Superman and Saul Bellow side-by-side in a blog essay, I now feel dirty and wrong. I must shower now.

*I’ve tried a couple of highly-praised mystery/thriller/crime novelists and they all suck ass. George P. Pelecanos? Walter Mosely? Awful. I couldn’t finish Pelecanos’s Hell to Pay with a gun to my head, and Devil in a Blue Dress was deeply, profoundly underwhelming.

**This is why movie critics can hate Forrest Gump for pandering to normal folks, but adore Wings of Desire or Blue Velvet, movies that pander to the self-designated "arty" crowd. Folks have a much harder time noticing pandering when it’s directed at them. I certainly have that problem. Dammit.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

This also needs to be said

"You know, though today was the worst day of my life, I learned many things. First, the world looks a lot different when you're six inches tall and covered with feathers. Second, two heads are definitely not better than one. And finally, you can lay eggs and still feel like a man."

--The Tick

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Because today it needs to be said, that's why.

"Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord."

--John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle

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Friday, April 01, 2005

Hittin' the Juke Joint

Comics are like rock music: bastardized forms of art, laden with potential, often bogged down by pretension, and, sadly, often derivative and stupid. And believe me, self-publishing is a lot like putting together your own band.*

I’ve been making good headway on writing my anthology comic, which may someday actually see production. Metaphorically speaking, right now I’m in my garage, screwing with the whammy bar on my Stratocaster, working on lyrics, and trying not to put out the four millionth retread of Led Zeppelin.

Between sessions, I’ve been breaking out the old stuff to get in the mood and pick up some inspiration. So yeah, I’ve been marinating in Kirby, Eisner, Moore, all sorts of folks. The pioneers and giants of rock. It’s been great.

But even the earliest and most primal of rock had its predecessor. Out of curiosity, I’ve been getting into the ancestor of the soopa-hero comic, the blues to comic’s rock: the pulps.**

Pulp novels are, by and large, friggin’ awful. Written under hideous deadlines with prose so inept and characters so broad it makes one’s eyes water, they are consummate trash. They’re simple, crude, and violent. They’re also bursting with action, adventure, and wild happenings.

Traditionally, the father of the comic book is said to be the comic strip, and yes, it’s true. Pulps are not comics’ father. They are comics’ bad-boy uncle, who gave the wee medium its first sips of beer, taught it swear words, and gave it fireworks to play with when mom wasn’t looking. Comic strips gave comic books their form and vocabulary; pulps gave comics their speed and heat.

The iconic adventure comic strips, such as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, look more than a little like modern comics, and many comic artists list them as influences. The pace and flavor of the classic adventure strips, however, is entirely different. Those stories would stretch for months, sometimes meandering, sometimes even dull.

Pulps didn’t slow down for anything. They came out monthly and had to tell complete stories. They tore across the page like the authors’ shoes were on fire. Killer robots, cackling madmen, clouds of vampire bats attacking cities, all could be found in the crappy prose of the pulps. Pulp novels were the place to find the insane velocity and sheer imagination that would fill superhero comics.

They were also the birthplace of much of the superhero idea. Compare the dull and staid heroes of comic strips (e.g., Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Steve Canyon—each one essentially “The Square-Jawed Hero”***) to the main heroes of the pulps:

The Shadow, a mysterious vigilante who was a master of disguise and hypnotism. His true name and origins a mystery for years, he travelled the world disguised as the millionaire Lamont Cranston (the real Cranston was hiding in East Asia) and meted out justice to villains large and small.****

Doc Savage, the original übermench. Doctor Clark W. Savage, Jr., was a six-foot-six bronzed muscleman and all-around genius, trained from birth by his crusading father to be the ultimate weapon in the war against eeeevil. Doc was joined by five assistants, each one an expert in a particular field. Time and again, Doc fought would-be world conquerors and super-science menaces.

And how about The Spider? Dick Wentworth was a vigilante who stalked the night disguised in a black suit, accessorized with a black mask, a hunchback, and fangs. Yes, a hunchback and fangs. The Spider was a sadomasochistic psychopath dedicated to his vision of justice, and rare was the story where only a handful of people died. His stories were the most overheated in the pulp oeuvre, and had delirious titles like “Death Reign of the Vampire King” and “The Pain Emperor.”

The descendents of Flash Gordon are hard to spot in comics. The sons of Doc Savage and the Shadow are everywhere. The most famous pulp hero of all time is still selling comics in big numbers.

The hero pulps aren’t good. Oh, lord no. But as a would-be comic writer, I’m fascinated by them and recommend them to my fellow comiccenti. Tasty morsels of weirdness and fun can be found hiding in the thickets of their purple prose.

Plus, the history they present is fun by itself. Reading the hero pulps as a comic fan is like opening a family album and realizing that your great-uncle Bjorn had the same damn uni-brow you do.

Harvey Jerkwater says check ‘em out.

*I’ve had many musician roomates and seen bands rise and fall. The parallels between comic publishing and small-time music are many and strong. Though comic guys tend not to get quite so many groupies. Alas.

**I’m restricting myself here to the “hero pulps,” the ones with recurring lead characters. There was well-written pulp fiction published, such as the detective magazine Black Mask, that gave the world Dashiell Hammett. I’m sticking to the hero crap for this essay.

***With Dick Tracy being the ultimate “Square-Jawed Hero.” Wotta chin. You could open letters with his face.

****Ten points to the first person who can give me the Shadow’s true name and background. (Not the radio version of the Shadow, but the pulp version.) Twenty points if you can get the name without using the internet to find it.

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Pull The Trigger: Why Walt Simonson Rocketh

The artist/writer Walt Simonson has long been a fan favorite. He made a name for himself by turning around the usually dull Marvel comic Thor, producing one of the great comic runs ever.

His "Thor, the Thunder Frog" story is a personal favorite. Turning the Norse God of Thunder into a frog was clever. Then came...oh man...

Let's just say it was a Bold New Direction. Heh.

My own collection has two much-beloved Simonson runs: his late eighties hitch on Fantastic Four, and his recent series Orion. Rereading both, it hit me why I love this guy.

He pulls the trigger.

Comics, like all serial fiction, depend on sustained tension. Frequently, they resort to plots that leave the reader hanging. They love foreboding.

Walt doesn’t.

In the FF run, Walt brought back the (okay, mostly forgotten) plot seed of The Dreaming Celestial. Long story short: Jack Kirby created a pantheon of unknowable “Space Gods” for his late seventies series The Eternals. These giant doofuses, the Celestials, showed up on Earth from time to time for unknown reasons. One of them, again for reasons unknown, was imprisoned by his brothers in the mountains of California and put in a neverending sleep. The implication was that the Dreaming Celestial was dangerous beyond belief, and that someday he would awaken! Ooooh…scary!

The Dreaming Celestial was introduced in the late seventies. The Celestials were referenced many times since then, with the Dreamer as the ever-present threat that loomed but never did much.

Walt woke him up.

The resulting story was a riot.

Better still came in Orion. The title character was the apostate son of the evil god Darkseid.* Hanging over both characters was the prophesy that one day Orion and Darkseid would fight “in the fire-pits of Apokolips” and that the son would kill the father. Drama, drama.

Walt held that fight in issue #5. Issue number five. The series ran for twenty more ass-kicking issues, and never lost steam.

God bless that man.

Walter understands that the elephant in the room sometimes needs to be fed a peanut. You can almost hear him:

“G’wan and fulfill the foreboding prophesy! You can always make another one later. Don’t leave the story seeds fallow on the ground! Use ‘em! Don’t be afraid! Live a little!”

He’s a great writer/artist for other reasons as well, but to me, he’ll always be The Man With the Stones to Pull the Trigger. Which won’t look good on a business card, but hey.

*Yes, Walt likes to truck in gods. Like the Celestials, these are Kirby characters. With dumbass names. Don’t get me started on the Fourth World names. Scott Free? Big Barda? Vermin Vundabar? Vermin Vundabar? Vermin Vundabar? Ye gods.

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