Archive for the ‘Comics’ category

Two Cool New Comics Sites

April 9, 2010

As you may have noticed, dear readers, I’m a fan of comics. I try to keep my eyes peeled for really cool comics related sites. Here are two of my recent discoveries.

First up is Digital Comic Museum, an online repository of downloadable, scanned versions of comic books from the Golden Age of Comics, the 1940s and ’50s. The site is a successor to the “Golden Age Comics” site that was down more often than not and plagued with technical problems. The new site has been significantly redesigned and appears to be working smoothly. Simply create a user name and password, log in, and start downloading issues from the days when comic books were really comic books. Check the site’s FAQ list and message boards for links to free reader software for viewing the comics you’ve downloaded. You can also chat with other fans and collectors on the forums and upload your own vintage comics. You won’t find Action Comics #1 (Superman’s first appearance), but you will find comics from many lesser known and defunct publishers in every conceivable genre: superhero, adventure, Western, detective, horror, romance, juvenile, and more. The Ace Comics titles “Atomic War” and “World War III,” for example, play on Cold War era fears of a nuclear sneak attack on America by the Soviet Union. In today’s cynical, ironic, detached pop culture, the deadly earnest, gee whiz writing style of these comics may come across as campy and unintentionally hilarious, but it’s all part of the fun. Many issues come complete with ads for impossible products (for only 25 cents and three boxtops! Get yours today!) and pulp short stories as filler. Whatever your taste in comics, you should find something entertaining here.

My other recent find is Project: Rooftop, a blog run by a team of comics writers, illustrators, and fans who are constantly re-imagining and redesigning the costumes of famous (and not so famous) superheroes from yesterday and today. The blog accepts submissions from both professional artists and fans, and the artwork, in a wide variety of styles and approaches, is sometimes stunning and always entertaining. Each week of posts at Project: Rooftop has a theme, and this week it’s Kate Kane, aka Batwoman, from DC Comics. In the immortal words of Mark Shea, “Check thou it out.”

Celts, Pagans, and Superheroes, Oh My!

February 25, 2010

A few entries ago, I told you about my idea for the Celtic League of Superheroes, a team of costumed crime-fighters originating in the Celtic countries and saving the world from various nasties found in Celtic mythology and folklore. It seems I’m not the only one to think of such a thing, because now Pendant Audio. is producing its own original Celtic-themed superhero show, “Genesis Avalon” that has a good many similarities to my Celtic League concept. What’s more, in the director’s commentary for the first episode, the show’s creator, Kathryn Pryde, says she has the first three seasons of the show, 36 episodes, plotted and scripted. After two years, I’m still floundering around with the first draft of my main character’s origin story.

I didn’t listen to the first few episodes of “Genesis Avalon,” first of all, because I didn’t want them to influence my development of the Celtic League of Superheroes concept. I reconsidered my decision because I decided I needed to see how others are developing similar material. After all, if you’re developing a product, you have to know what the competition is up to. The second reason I chose not to listen to the show, however, was that I feared it would devolve into what was essentially a commercial for neo-paganism and its contemporary incarnations such as Wicca—something that, as an author, a practicing Catholic, and a person of Celtic ancestry, I did not want to happen with my Celtic League concept.

Let me make two things perfectly clear. First, I love Pendant Audio. I listen regularly to many of their shows, especially the “fanfic” type shows based on DC Comics characters, and wouldn’t have known about Genesis Avalon at all if I didn’t. They are an extremely talented group of people who do a lot of hard work of very high quality solely because they love it.

Second, I realize that there have been elements of mythology, mysticism, magic, and mumbo-jumbo in superhero comics probably ever since Billy Batson learned to say “Shazam!” and become Captain Marvel. That, in and of itself, does not bother me. What bothers me, both as a Celt and a Catholic, is that certain modern neo-pagan occultists have appropriated names and terms from Celtic mythology and folklore (including the word “Celt” itself) to fabricate a modern religion for themselves and to promote that religion and its ideology—a religion and ideology that are directly and deliberately opposed to my Catholic faith.

My original nickname or handle when I first ventured out onto the internet via AOL was MrCelt (“Mr. Celt”). My user profile listed Catholicism as one of my interests. I was told by some grossly misinformed person in a chatroom, “You can’t be a Celt and be a Christian.” I am wearing a Celtic cross around my neck that says otherwise. Irish, Scottish, and Welsh converts to Christianity brought the gospel to much of the rest of Europe, thank you very much, founding churches, monasteries, and schools that are in existence to this day. I daresay that millions of Celtic Christians in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales today, both Catholic and Protestant, would also disagree with that statement. I resent the fact that the mythology and culture of my ancestral countries is being used to promote an agenda contrary to my faith, which once brought there, took deep root in those ancestral countries.

It’s not hard for me to wonder if there’s an agenda behind “Genesis Avalon.” The pilot episode begins with a prayer to “The Goddess” (to which goddess I’m not sure) and, six episodes in, there have already been numerous direct references to Wicca, and rituals of “The Craft.” The story begins when a young woman finds a mysterious amulet that enables her to become the superhero Avalon, endowed with the powers of the ancient Celtic gods. She invokes these powers by speaking the names of the gods aloud. That in itself wouldn’t bother me so much if the protagonist and other characters didn’t toss the name of Jesus around as if it were a garden variety interjection, a curse, or an insult. I realize that in real life and in fiction, people can and do say the name of Jesus in vain. Regrettably I’ve done it myself on more than a few occasions. However, in a work of fiction, when characters speak the names of pagan gods and receive or invoke great power, and then utter the name of Christ with little or no result, you can’t help wondering if this betrays the author’s bias.

I realize much of what I’ve just said may sound like so much sour grapes because an author has successfully developed a concept similar to mine, while so far I’ve failed miserably to develop my own work. The folks behind “Genesis Avalon” may not have any agenda beyond the desire to tell a good story. Judged purely as an action adventure or a work of audio drama, the show isn’t bad, and it may be possible to take all the New Age, neo-pagan woo-woo with several grains of salt.

Looking critically at my own work, I worried that it too could be construed as promoting a particular theological agenda, which would be the opposite of what I intended and believed, and that’s perhaps one reason that the writing has gone so slowly. I wanted to borrow bits, pieces, and motifs from Celtic mythology and tell cool stories of costumed superheroes slugging it out with evil druids on the streets of Dublin (and other places), not to advocate for a false or fabricated religion. I fretted over this problem with my blog buddy D. G. D. Davidson at Sci-Fi Catholic, and he told me not to worry because, as he astutely pointed out, Christians have been borrowing from pagan mythology to tell stories for centuries.

Will the Celtic League of Superheroes ever be anything more than a vague idea in my head? Should I listen to “Genesis Avalon” or avoid it? I don’t know the answers to either one of those questions. But I’ll let you know when I find the answers.

"Beware My Power . . ."

February 16, 2010
In brightest day
Or darkest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil’s might
Beware my power . . . GREEN LANTERN’S LIGHT!

Hey everybody! Happy Mardi Gras! Because nothing says “Mardi Gras” and “Last chance to blow it out before Lent begins” like costumed superheroes, I give you my latest super team: Green Lantern Corps, The New Recruits. Except for John Stewart, I made them up on the spur of the moment last night (Please don’t sue me, DC!) As usual, click on the image to see a larger version. Also as usual, I used HeroMachine v. 2.5, HeroMachine v. 3.0, and Paint.NET 3.5.3 to create the images. I like the idea of a band of costumed interplanetary do-gooders, and I like the way the GLC uses just three colors (green, black, and white) to produce nearly endless variations in the Green Lantern costume. Anyway, enjoy, and leave feedback.

Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, ©DC Comics.

I Won Again!

September 9, 2009

Yes, Dear Readers, it has happened again.

More than a year after my first victory in the HeroMachine Caption Contest, I have won again!

Jeff Hebert, creator of the fantabulous HeroMachine software, website, and blog has recently revived his much beloved caption contest. Every couple of weeks, Jeff searches through his vast library of comics, finds a single panel rich with comedic possibilities, removes the dialogue, and invites readers to submit their own. The reader with the funniest dialogue (in this case, that would be me) wins a prize drawn by Jeff. Since he is currently hard at work on the next major upgrade of the software, the prize will be an item of my choice to be included in the next version of HeroMachine or (shudder) a caricature of my face, an item too horrible to be contemplated.

Here is this week’s panel with the original dialogue removed:

Here’s the same panel with my dialogue inserted, which I hope, Dear Readers, you will find appropriately hilarious:

I have an idea of what I would like for my prize, but I haven’t made a final decision. I’ll keep you posted.

What The . . .?

September 5, 2009

Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) know that two of my interests are the Catholic faith and comics. These two things came together in a rather bizarre way when I looked in on Jeff Hebert’s Heromachine Blog on Friday and found the following item:

As I commented on Jeff’s blog:

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Bats in the altogether except for his cape and cowl? With his batboys discreetly covered by the undulations of Joker, aka the Serpent in the Garden of Eden? This is not just whacked out comics, folks. This is some SERIOUSLY whacked out theology.

(Darned Episcopalians!) 🙂

The meaning of this one confounds both Christians and comic book fans. Never let it be said that It’s All Straw does not broaden your educational, cultural, and theological horizons, dear readers.

The Next Generation of Heroes . . .

April 14, 2009

is coming.

Jeff Hebert, the creator of HeroMachine v. 2.5, one of the coolest websites and software packages ever, has been hard at work on the next major upgrade to HeroMachine since early in January. HeroMachine v. 3.0 will have a huge number of new features, including a larger color palette, greatly expanded layering capabilities, new accessories for characters, and the ability to mark characters and equipment with patterns, including camouflage, tartan, and metallic. But that’s not all. With version 3.0, aspiring artists and creators of superheroes will have the opportunity to select individual body parts for the characters, and have the ability to move, scale, and rotate those body parts and accessories, in effect, customizing the look of each character.

Jeff has set up an “alpha” test version of HM 3 (even earlier in the development process than a beta version) and is actively seeking comments, suggestions for improvement, feedback, and bug reports from users. He’s been gradually adding and enabling features and components and hopes to have the site completed by some time this summer. Here’s a sample character that I created on the new site, Red Hawk:

This looks like it will be really cool when it gets all done. If you like comic books or superheroes or have dreamed of creating your own characters, head on over. In the immortal words of Mark Shea, “Check thou it out.”

Who Watches the Watchmen? Not I

March 20, 2009

Watchmen / Alan Moore, writer; Dave Gibbons, illustrator /letterer; John Higgins, colorist. New York: DC Comics, © 1986-1987.

I finally found something to rouse me out of my torpor and motivate me to start blogging again. I recently finished reading Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, which, judging from the adulation heaped on it and the hype and ballyhoo surrounding the release of the movie version, is the biggest thing to hit comics since colored ink. Here’s a sample of the blurbs on the back cover:

“A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium,” says Time Magazine. They rate it as one of the 100 best novels (not just graphic novels, but novels, period) since 1923. Why 1923, I don’t know.

Watchmen is peerless,” says Rolling Stone.

“Remarkable . . . The would-be heroes of Watchmen have staggeringly complex psychological profiles, says the New York Times Book Review.

“A brilliant piece of fiction,” says The Village Voice.

“Groundbreaking,” says USA Today.

“A masterwork representing the apex of artistry,” says Entertainment Weekly.

“The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced,” says Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost.

Most of the reader reviews on Amazon.com are similarly glowing, but a significant number are not. I beg to differ with the majority view and firmly register with the minority.

My opinion? Somewhere between “Meh,” and “Yuck,” leaning heavily toward the latter. I found Watchmen a grim, joyless, dispiriting work with an atheistic, nihilistic, and pessimistic worldview that deliberately and consistently inverts, subverts, and perverts everything that makes reading superhero comics fun and enjoyable in the first place. The book’s title is based on a quotation from the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) that was used as the epigraph for the Tower Commission’s report on the Iran-Contra affair in 1987. Like the Tower Commission, questions about the abuse of power and authority and the nature of good and evil are clearly on Moore’s mind here. He uses the conventions of the superhero story to try to make points about larger issues, but I disagree about as profoundly as I possibly can with his point of view and his conclusions.

Nevertheless, I wanted to read the book because about a year ago, as a relative newcomer to the world of comics, I created some superhero characters myself and started trying to create a fictional universe for them to live in. I wanted to see if the kinds of stories I had in mind for these characters would sell, so I set out to do a little unsystematic market research. I wanted to read titles that seemed representative of the market for superhero stories as a whole, and I wanted to read books that were considered essential and highly influential in the comics industry. Watchmen was a name that kept coming up on both counts.

Before reading the book, I knew Watchmen had a reputation for being much grimmer and grittier than the average mainstream superhero comic, and was something of a landmark for having largely introduced this element of darkness and grit into comics as a whole. I knew the journey into the world of Watchmen might not always be fun, but I thought it would at least be interesting and instructive. It was not. I started reading the book before Christmas but gave up about halfway through because I found it so relentlessly bleak and depressing. When I heard about the release of the movie version I decided to dig out the book again and push through to the end before making a final decision about it. I thought perhaps I had misjudged or misunderstood the work. I had not. My initial assessment still stands. I did not enjoy this book and cannot recommend it. I don’t get the hype. What makes it so wonderful?

The story begins in 1985 as someone is murdering or otherwise eliminating the members of a defunct and discredited team of masked amateur crime fighters, the Minute Men. The latest victim is Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, a thug and a rapist every bit as brutal as the criminals he fought against. Another former member of the group, the paranoid and psychotic Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach, who plainly enjoys intimidating and torturing real or perceived enemies, is conducting his own investigation into The Comedian’s death. With the reluctant help of two other former vigilantes, Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl, and Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Silk Spectre, Rorschach follows the conspiracy to its source: Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, another former masked adventurer who has given up crime fighting, become a multimillionaire, and established a reputation as “the smartest man in the world.”

Veidt has concluded that simply fighting crime isn’t enough. He concocts an insane plan to remake the world in his own image by fabricating the appearance of an alien invasion, destroying half the population of New York City in the process, and forcing humanity to put aside its internal conflicts and unite in the face of the supposed alien threat. Ironically, Veidt’s plan works to perfection. Not even the godlike abilities of Dr. Manhattan, the only member of the team with “superpowers” in the traditional comic book sense, can prevent the catastrophe; in fact, Dr. Manhattan refuses to intervene, for his own reasons.

The messages behind the book seem abundantly, almost unmistakably clear to me. Chapter VI, Rorschach’s horrific origin story, ends with this declaration by his psychiatrist:

Why do we argue? Life’s so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud suspended in endless nothing . . . . The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.

None of the subsequent events of the book do anything to challenge the psychiatrist’s pronouncement. The power of God will not save the world because there is no God. If Dr. Manhattan is meant to symbolize God in any way, he will not intervene to save humanity; in fact, he destroys Rorschach for refusing to go along with Veidt’s plans and decides to leave Earth forever to visit other “less complicated” galaxies. When Veidt points out that Dr. Manhattan has regained an interest in human life, the doctor replies, “Yes I have. I think perhaps I’ll create some,” and vanishes.

Moore also seems to imply that conventional heroism will not save humanity because in the end there is no moral difference between the so-called heroes and so-called villains. The Comedian and Rorschach are just as brutal and sadistic as their alleged enemies. The US government recruits The Comedian for all manner of despicable “black ops” missions that the government can later deny. The only “supervillain” we actually see, the former Moloch the Magician, is no longer a master criminal; when Rorschach terrorizes him in order to gain information, Moloch is just a sick old man dying of cancer who wants only to be left alone. Nite Owl, the character most like a conventional superhero, with a genuine desire to do good, is literally and figuratively impotent, both in the sense of being unable to affect the story’s outcome and in the sense of being unable to consummate his desire for Silk Spectre–unless he is wearing his Nite Owl costume.

In his essay, A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls, written more than a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton argued that popular fiction, ranging from fairy tales to the epic adventures of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and even the “penny dreadfuls,” or mass-produced sensational fiction of his time, served two purposes. It fulfilled a basic human longing for stories of heroism and adventure and it taught a basic moral code. Chesterton responded to the so-called intellectual sophisticates of his time who looked down their noses at “penny dreadfuls” even as they looked down their noses at the moral codes contained therein:

And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all. At the very instant that we curse the Penny Dreadful for encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the proposition that all property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it (quite unjustly) of lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading philosophies which glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant that we charge it with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are placidly discussing whether life is worth preserving.

Chesterton argued that in many respects he preferred the simple morality of the “penny dreadful” and the people of the lower classes who read them to the fashionable despair of the intellectual elites:

So long as the coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it will never he vitally immoral. It is always on the side of life. The poor–the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life– have often been mad, scatter-brained, and cruel, but never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling literature will always be a “blood and thunder” literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men.

I would suggest that the pulp novel, the old time radio show, and the Golden Age comic book of the 1930s and ’40s were the successors to the “penny dreadfuls” of Chesterton’s day. No one could possibly confuse the high-mindedness of Superman or the Shadow’s stern warning: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay!” with the nihilism and brutality of Rorschach and The Comedian. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Superman. Some days I still wish I could be. Who would want to be Rorschach?

I would also suggest that in Watchmen, however, we have what Chesterton might have regarded as the worst of both worlds: a work of popular fiction infected with the nihilism and cruelty of the intellectual elites. It’s the product of a “paltry culture” indeed, if reviewers think that such a thing qualifies as high art. Watchmen is not “on the side of life;” it is, at its heart, on the side of death. It reeks of hopelessness and despair. It holds that the thunder of heaven is merely thunder and never the voice of heaven; and that men and women never spill their blood for any good purpose, even to save their country, their family, or each other.

Who watches the watchmen? Not I.