Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Cool Moments in Comic Book History: Ambush Bug Punches Continuity in the Nuts

The Beast known as Continuity sits atop mainstream comics like a sweaty European crimelord, ordering the murders of those who defy him and injecting pineal gland extract from endangered marmosets into his buttocks.

Picture an audience with him. "What went before must be respected," he wheezes to you, "and all that follows must logically mesh with earlier tales." He coughs up a phlegm ball. "We will make all actions coherent! We will force rationality! Even if we have to rewrite history to do so!" He then asks you to please swab away the streams of sweat that trickle into the folds of his nine chins.

To oppose this monster came a hero: Ambush Bug.

The Bug didn’t care much for continuity, mostly because he knew he was a comic book character. Das Bugg, through his handful of miniseries and one-shots, extended his middle finger towards the very idea of comic book continuity.

He punched that fat man right in the sack. And for that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.

Irwin Schwab, Ambush Bug, began as a minor pest to Superman in the early eighties, a gift to all comicdom from Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming. Quickly the Bug grew to become the patron saint of Not Taking Superhero Funnybooks Seriously, and one of comics’ true Pillars of Awesomeness.*

The Bug's tales were many and strange. He battled against Quantis, the Koala that Walks Like a Man. His most formidible foe was a living sock named Argh!yle. One of the many times the Bug died, he was sent to hell and damned to dance the jitterbug with fat people for eternity. (He later returned to life when he noticed that a door marked “Exit” was right next to him. It opened into downtown Metropolis. Thus was the Bug reborn. Again.)

Then came The Event. In a moment of supreme comic coolness, Ambush Bug, gave comic continuity the greatest nut-punch it ever received.

In the Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer (1986), AB was on a mission. His partner, adopted son, and inanimate object, Cheeks the Toy Wonder, had come back from the dead as a zombie.** AB hunted for the wee bugger as Cheeks tore a swath through the city, devouring other stuffed animals for sustenance. Suddenly, the Bug appeared out of nowhere, grabbed Cheeks and disappeared.

Then the story continued as though that one page had never happened.

Until…we found out the horrible truth!

Late in the book, AB found out that Cheeks could be found on page eighteen*** (“Oh boy! That’s when the book was still funny!” he noted). Using a time machine, he hurled himself backwards in pages. He went back to page eighteen, grabbed the cannibal zombie toy he’d adopted as his son, and returned to the later pages of the comic.


He violated not only between-issue continuity and internal story continuity, Ambush Bug shoved a sharp stick in the eye of storytelling continuity itself.

A great moment in comics.

Jonni DC, Continuity Cop and frequent Bug nemesis, had a stroke.

And it was sweet.

(The Bug’s action, not the stroke.)

(Strokes aren’t funny.)

(Unless they’re metaphorical.)

(Like “oh man, my boyfriend had a stroke when he saw what Steinbrenner’d done!”)

(Those are hilarious.)

(Granted, not as hilarious as a giant jelly doughnut that embarks upon a career as a country singing star and makes it to the big time, only to realize just as he takes the stage for his first night at the Grand Ole Opry that he’s not wearing any pants.)

(Which is funny even though a giant jelly doughnut doesn’t have legs, because we’ve all had that dream about being a fried cake in Nashville and realizing that we forgot our pants just as the curtain to “Newcomer Nite” opens, and we're afraid that our vocal stylings will be overshadowed by our status sans pantalons.)

(You know the dream. Some of you probably dreamed it last night.)

(I did.)

(I managed to get through a set of Willie Nelson songs before the hot lights melted my glazed topping into a sticky sweet syrup.)

(Because I’m a professional, dammit.)

Anyway, to sum up: Ambush Bug was the greatest, and that was one of his finest hours.

*The other Pillars of Awesomeness will be revealed in later blog entries, as I get around to making up a halfassed list. The only slam-dunk beyond the Bug: The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius. Barry’s staggering awesome-osity makes the angels weep. It is upon these mighty Pillars that all that is good in comicdom stands. Or some crap like that.

**Cheeks died a lot too.

***I think it was page eighteen. I’m too lazy to rummage in the closet and check. My comic longboxes are stacked five high in a closet and poorly labeled.

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Cool Moments in Comic Book History: The Thunderbolt’s Prophesy

Peter Cannon- Thunderbolt was an unsuccessful superhero comic put out by DC in the early nineties. It revived the Charlton Comics hero of the same name, based him in London, and tried to establish him as a new hero in the DC universe.

The series tanked, dying after twelve decent but unexceptional issues. Not more than a footnote in comic history, except for one very cool plot element.

First, an explanation: Peter Cannon was the reincarnation of a warrior, the Vajra (Sanskrit for “Thunderbolt”), who protected a Tibetan temple against danger over his many lifetimes. The latest incarnation of the Vajra had been killed by Chinese soldiers just as two American doctors arrived at the temple seeking sanctuary. The doctors died shortly thereafter, the woman just after giving birth to their son, Peter.

The monks raised and trained Peter in the temple, along with assorted other local moppets, to see which child was the reincarnation of the Vajra. As a result, Peter learned all sorts of snazzy whoop-ass skills, and of course, proved to be the newest incarnation of the Thunderbolt.

Due to a chain of events not worth relating, the Thunderbolt journeys to the outside world and gets into superhero adventures.

Yeah, a none-too-original setup: an American raised abroad to study mystic disciplines, a Chosen One, hidden temples, yadda yadda. Aside from the funny red and blue suit, he could be straight from the pulps.

Then...came coolness. Late in the series we find out…the Vajra who died before Peter’s birth was still alive.


Peter was not the reincarnation of the ancient hero. He was not “the Chosen One.” And the original Vajra had come back to cave in the skull of the pretender.

For once, the hackneyed phrase “everything you know is wrong” was true.

Now that’s a friggin’ cool idea. It came as a genuine shock to readers,* since Peter’s status as the reincarnated hero was unquestioned until that point. The comfortable myths and stories he had believed his entire life had shattered, and he had to face the world without the comfort of a prefabricated destiny. Neato-keen, sez I.

That series was so damn close to being excellent. Alas.

*By "readers," I mean "me."

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A Step to the Side

Recently I have begun to experience the strange thrill of lawn care. The front yard of Jerkwater Estates was patchy and weed-ridden when we bought the place. This spring, I reseeded and fertilized the area a couple of times, and recent rains have brought forth new grass.

I've caught myself standing on my porch, reveling in the sight. I'm so old.

Though I must admit, my inner monologue is digging it. "Behold, new life springs forth from the mud, at my desire! I have made the earth bountiful! Ho ho ho! Now bring me a plate of your finest meats and cheeses!"

My inner monologue sounds a lot like Brian Blessed, in case you're wondering.

Back to comics with my next post. Really.

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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Eisenstein, Cheese Fries, and the Joys of Bloviation

Once in a while, the universe reaches out to you, as if to say, "hey stupid, take this opportunity I offer you now or be a feeb forever." The wedgie of fate has pulled the underwear of destiny deep into the crack of my future.

Turns out there's a good-sized group of comic creators that holds its regular meetings in a bar about a mile and a half from my house. Well, honk my hooter.

They're the DC Conspiracy. I'm hoping that my charming manner, insights and ideas about comics, and my inhuman capacity to consume cheese fries will win them over.* Like a lot of guys perched on the edge between "wanna-be" and "guy who actually got off his ass and did something," I've got theories and ideas out the kazoo. Meeting with a bunch of folks who actually have put pencil to paper should be interesting. A few scripts and a lot of developed proposals sit on my hard drive.

If it goes well, I'll have a new set of comic folks to talk to and possibly work with. If it goes poorly, I'll probably get wasted on wheat beer, yell at the top of my lungs about the relevance of early Soviet film theory, then get into a fistfight with a coat rack.

*Don't laugh until you've seen it. I'm told that my gorging on cheese fries begins as impressive, then becomes disturbing, and finally achieves a perverse grandeur.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Googled Into Greatness

I use an internet tool to see how people find this site. Most come from the Comic Weblog update site, Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin, Neilalien, or Confessions of a Community College Dean.

Some arrive via Google search.

As I am both vain and curious, I dug around to see what search terms lead folks to this page.

Thus did I learn something. Something beautiful.

Filing Cabinet of the Damned is Google's #2 result for the words flatulent guys.

To quote the great philosopher, statesman, and man of letters, Ali G: "Booyakasha!"

Edited to add: Okay, I just found some more interesting search terms that led here.

onomatopoeia - The Remains of The Day by Kazuo

what does brimstone smell like

real zombie stories

types of slurpee

You gotta love the Internet.

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The Website Says It, Not Me

Probably the best comic book website ever is Superman Is a Dick. Great stuff.

My apologies to the rest of the comic-focused internet, but let’s be serious. No other site can even approach its overwhelming awesome-osity. We are but pale shadows of Superdickery's majesty.

Jimmy Olsen marrying the gorilla? Magic.

There was an obscure miniseries* (originally by Slave Labor Graphics in the late eighties, later redone and reprinted by DC in 1991) that took the idea of “Dickhead Superman” and ran with it. It was The Griffin, by Dan Vado, Norman Felchle, and Mark McKenna.

Matt Williams, high school football star and self-impressed jerkwad, is looking forward to a football scholarship to USC and a future with his girlfriend Janet. While out driving alone, a spaceship lands in front of him and makes him an offer: come with us and we’ll make you a superman, and you'll be a big war hero. (Their “super-man” process only works on humans, not their own kind.) He goes.

The story resumes twenty years later. Williams has gone AWOL from the alien army to visit Earth and his family. Upon his return, he’s shocked to discover that his family thinks he’s dead and his girlfriend married another man. Just because he disappeared. Without a trace. Twenty years prior.

Yep, he’s a dick. Everyone tells him as much. And he doesn't take it well.

The aliens, loathe to allow insubordination, especially from a prominent officer and super-weapon like Williams, try to get him back. First they send another super-man to capture or kill him. Their battle destroys San Jose and kills hundreds. Later the aliens dispatch a fleet to the Earth and threaten to destroy the whole planet to either recover or kill Williams.

The story splits time between Williams trying to get his head out of his ass and the politics of the alien empire that created him. Earth becomes a pawn in a power struggle between a ruling council and a figurehead emperor who wants to regain control.

The Griffin is that rarest of birds, an intelligent and adult comic book. Character motivations are complex, the politics of the alien empire and the ramifications of a threatened invasion of Earth are played out in a believable and interesting fashion, and yeah, stuff goes boom real good.

You might be able to find The Griffin in quarter bins. Slave Labor Graphics has also collected it into a trade paperback. It’s some fine, fine stuff.

*I didn’t hear about it until five or six years after it came out, and I haven’t heard it mentioned in the comics blog-o-sphere either. So I’m guessing this was a minor book. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong here.

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How to Tell a True War Story

War comics are usually among the sillier books published. Not that men in tight spandex punching each other isn’t silly, but war books stand in a difficult position that can lead to strange things.

Superhero comics have no need to adhere to reality. They can if they want, but hey. Giant robots, laser-guided waterfowl, a bowling ball named “Ted” that has mastered Tuvan throat-singing, it’s all possible. After all, what can we compare it to?

War comics must deal with reality. There are plenty of folks who know what war is like. Moreover, the stories must balance the need to respect the truth with the needs of entertainment and the likelihood of pissing off readers and parents’ groups.

Usually this conflict results in sentimental works that try to massage reality, like the long-running series Sgt. Rock, or works that chuck reality out the window, like the out-and-out loopiness like Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes.

But once it led to something truly astonishing: the EC Korean War comics.
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
--“How to Tell a True War Story,” by Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried

In the early fifties, EC Comics produced a title called Two-Fisted Tales. Its first issues featured the expected stories of pirates, spies, and old-timey battles. Within a few more issues, things changed.
You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.

Harvey Kurtzman, editor and writer of Two-Fisted Tales, decided to tell true war stories. At least, as true as could be managed in a commercial comic publishing enterprise. The heroes of his stories weren’t necessarily all that heroic, and some were downright bastards. Most soldiers just wanted to survive.

Often the characters were civilians trapped in war zones. Inexplicable and lunatic occurrences were the norm.
In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible crazyness.

For a handful of issues of Two-Fisted Tales and its spinoff book, Frontline Combat, Kurtzman’s war stories were unlike anything else on the stands. Basing the tales not only on solid research and his own war experiences but also interviews with returning veterans from Korea, they were powerful and moving in ways that no other war comics were.
You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever.

EC Comics never told issue-length stories. Kurtzman’s war stories were never longer than eight pages, and characters never recurred. Thus each story carried the possibility of total disaster.

Everybody knows Batman will be back next month, but PFC McCallister on page nine had no guarantee.

This short story approach gave the comics the capacity to tell sweeping stories. Two-Fisted Tales #26 told the story of the battle of the Changjin (Chosin) Reservoir, when a large group of US and British soldiers, trapped by the Chinese army deep in North Korea in November-December 1950, fought a long-running battle to escape. Their retreat to South Korea was told from the perspective of several different Marines, Korean civilians, and a stray dog.

This astonishing approach didn’t last more than a few years. Kurtzman’s attention to detail exhausted him, and sales weren’t overwhelming.
In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.”

The stories aren’t masterpieces. Not really. They do fall into clichés at times, or dip into sentimentality.

But the core was right. They feel like the truth.
True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.

For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my gut. Nothing turns inside.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

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Monday, May 02, 2005

"Mister President, You're All...Scaly!"

For no other reason than it’s Monday, here are three great appearances by real-life political figures in super-hero comics.

Henry Kissinger Punches Out Cavemen

In Super-Team Family Giant #8 (Dec/Jan 1976-1977), Henry Kissinger’s plane, en route to unspecified peace talks, goes missing in the Bermuda Triangle.

(In this story, the Bermuda Triangle was called the “Devil’s Triangle.” So it wouldn’t sue, I guess. Presumably, DC wasn’t as worried about ol’ Henry suing.)

President Ford declares that Big Kissy needs to be rescued, and only one group can do it. He calls upon the Challengers of the Unknown!

The Challengers: Ace, the Pilot Guy! Red, the Mountain Climber Guy! Prof, the Smart Guy! Rocky, the Big Strong Guy! June, the Token Woman Guy!

Since it’s the Seventies, the Bermuda Triangle is actually a time-warp. (During that decade, "Bermuda Triangle = Time Warp" was as regular a part of popular culture as "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" and Archie Bunker.) The Challengers' plane gets sucked into the time warp, and the team ends up on the same “Lost Island” that trapped Henry. The Lost Island is filled with dinosaurs, cave men, Mongol warriors…you know, the usual Lost Island crowd.

The Challengers find Hank and bust free. Kissinger takes a dude out by smacking him mightily with his briefcase. The Challs and Henry escape.

Deeply weird.

Ronald Reagan: Cold Hearted Snake

Reagan turned up in comics a great deal. For example, he was a semi-regular in the early days of the Suicide Squad. But this was his finest moment.

The villain Viper and her Serpent Society tainted the Washington DC water supply in Captain America #344. Folks drinking the water would slowly mutate into snake-people.

(God, I love comics.)

Captain America saves the day and thwarts the Viper’s schemes, though not before fighting a highly-mutated Ronald Reagan.

Yes, Captain America fought Ronald Reagan, Mutant Snake Man.

Now that’s good comics.

Emperor Nixon

The story they would never, ever dare write today.

In 1974, Captain America battled against an evil organization named the Secret Empire. At the same time, Cap found himself opposed by a smear campaign against him masterminded by "the Committee to Regain America’s Principles."* The committee proved to be a part of the Empire’s plot against the Captain, of course. The Empire was, as you'd expect, out to seize control of the United States and turn it into a despotism.

For several issues, Captain America fought the Secret Empire. Finally, in issue #175 (July 1974), he won. He smashed the organization and unmasked its leader:

The President of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon.**

Upon capture, Richard Nixon killed himself in front of the Captain. The White House replaced him with a lookalike, who “resigned” shortly thereafter.

Thus, Marvel Comics gives us the secret history of Watergate.

Captain America, disgusted by what had become of his country, quit his superhero identity and left his own comic.

(Comics being what they are, he came back eventually.)

*The Committee to Regain America’s Principles (CRAP) was headed by a man named "Harderman." I know funny. And that’s funny. Harderman even looked like ol' H.R.

**Nixon’s isn’t named or shown explicitly, it’s clear from context that the supervillain was the Big Dick himself. The writer, Steve Englehart, has said as much.

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