Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Detective Comics #19 (#900) (DC)

writer: John Layman
artist: various

Well, we now know how far DC's commitment to the new numbering in the New 52, at least at this point, goes.  Detective Comics, which is the title that is the namesake of the entire company, has hit 900 issues, and aside from being reflected in the lead story of this special issue, remains numbered with the new numbering, without any overt reference in the issue of the milestone.

Sure, the New 52 is still less than two years old.  There's been a concerted commitment to keep the integrity of the relaunch intact.  Although long-time fans are still annoyed by the new concept, it's a more or less a proven fact at this point that fans in general are supporting it and having a hard time reconciling material that doesn't reflect it, notably James Robinson's The Shade, a mini-series launched a few months after the start of the relaunch, unrelated to it and in fact concerned with Starman, a milestone of what has become an entirely different era.  Fans pretty much ignored it.

It's true that Batman and Green Lantern mythology has remained linked to prior continuity, although with the coming end of Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated and Geoff Johns' Green Lantern, the last vestiges may finally be gone.

So clinging to new numbering even at the expense of something like Detective Comics #900 will likely be the thing for the foreseeable future (we'll see if this is still true if the numbering is still around when Action Comics will have hit #1000; we'll know in 2019 or so).

Now, what about the issue itself?  This is the first issue of Detective Comics I've read since the first of the relaunch, when it was still under the auspices of Tony Daniel (I'd enjoyed his Batman run, so hoped he'd remain prominent to some extent, a dream that probably ended after he was allowed to introduce the Joker's new relationship with his face but nothing else about that arc).  It was surprisingly good.  I only say "surprisingly" because sometimes it's a big question as to whether or not the third most prominent creator working on a character (after Morrison and Scott Snyder, and arguably fourth after Peter Tomasi) is worth reading.  The creator in question is John Layman, best known for his delightful Image series Chew.

The lead story is all about a different kind of 900, a reference to a Gotham neighborhood.  But it's really about Kirk Langstrom, the introduction of Man-Bat into the New 52.  "Man-Bat" is one of the goofiest names in comics (perhaps second only to "Catman," but that one was redeemed in Secret Six), clearly an inversion of Batman.  The character himself is also a pretty literal interpretation of "Batman" itself (hence the name), as Langstrom becomes a man-shaped bat (like a were-bat, basically).  His has long been described as a tragic story, and Layman does a good job of relaying that for a new generation.  It's good stuff, even as Layman navigates around current continuity issues.  It also introduces a new villain, the Emperor Penguin (mostly unrelated to Oswald Cobblepot), who could very well make future issues worth checking out as well.  (The character is similar to the Penguin Geoff Johns featured in Batman: Earth One.)

The next story does the Man-Bat origin from the perspective of Man-Bat (the lead is from Batman's, naturally).  Then there's a Bane story from James Tynion IV (who apprenticed under Snyder and currently writes Talon, where this story continues).  I'm not a fan of the brute version of Bane, so I wasn't so much interested in this one.  Layman is back in the next one, which features a bunch of interesting villains and continues the Man-Bat/Emperor Penguin intrigue (and incidentally does feature Cobblepot).  Finally the original Man-Bat incident from the lead is explored again by Layman from the perspective of ordinary beat cops.  I know everyone who remembers Gotham Central loved that comic, but I think I'd love to read a John Layman revival, should readers not be as intrigued by his Batman in Detective Comics as I am.

And that's that.  There are also pin-ups.  I'm glad I decided to have a look at this one.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Batman Incorporated #8 (DC)

writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Chris Burnham

Frankly, when this was released I was more surprised to learn that most people weren't reading Batman Incorporated already.  Then again, not so surprised.  Most people only care about something when it's been proven that lots of other people already do.

Anyway, this is "the" issue.  You know, the one where Morrison kills off Damian Wayne.  (Oh, wait!  SPOILER ALERT!)

The really interesting part about all of this is that there are five issues (originally four, but like Action Comics another one was added, to be released this July) to go and this event came about well before the end.  Technically, this second run of the title has been the end from the very start.  Batman Incorporated began as a series before the New 52 was launched, and ended with a Leviathan Strikes! special issue.  The second one launched last summer, months after the New 52 debuted, and because everyone was focused on Scott Snyder's Batman (because of his Detective Comics in previous continuity) apparently the last of Morrison was easy to overlook.  An issue of Batman Incorporated was delayed because of the Aurora shootings at a premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, and that was the last time anyone talked about the series before this one.

The fact that Damian has been put back into the box (as Morrison has been saying) is only appropriate, especially with this timing.  The majority of Morrison's Batman has in fact been about Batman, naturally, including the "R.I.P." arc and The Return of Bruce Wayne.  Damian really only entered the discussion with the launch of the original Batman and Robin, in which it was Dick Grayson and not Bruce Wayne who wore the cowl.  When Wayne returned, Batman Incorporated 1.0 launched, but Damian wasn't important until 2.0, when suddenly his father grew concerned about a future we'd previously seen in the landmark Batman #666.  Damian's mother is Talia Head, daughter of Ra's al Ghul, and also the Big Bad at the end of Morrison's run.  In the New 52, Damian also starred in the rebooted Batman and Robin, receiving some excellent character work from Peter J. Tomasi (working alongside artist Patrick Gleason).

This has been Morrison's plan all along, and he has been teasing it since the start of the reboot.  Perhaps ironically, the title of the issue is "The Boy Wonder Returns," possibly an ode to Frank Miller's classic, which featured the concept of Robin as a kind of afterthought (though Carrie Kelley in fact saves Batman's life in that story to earn the role, which she could very well assume again in New 52 continuity).  Anyone who was already reading the series would have seen this coming.

The issue features a reunion between Damian and Dick Grayson, another appropriate nod, this time to Morrison's own work.  When Damian meets his ultimate opponent, it's an alternate version of himself.  It was probably easy to assume his brash personality and seeming answer to everything meant he could survive any challenge...but he was still a boy, and Robin basically exists in a zero sum game, which is why there have been so many of them.  If you survive the experience, you move on to another role.  Batman doesn't have adult allies in his regular beat.  There's a reason for that.  His very nature negates the basic need.  He only needs support, but the trick is to always know when that support is needed and when you've become cannon fodder.  Batman knew that Damian should stay out of this fight.  Damian's hubris refused to believe that.

Anyway, it should be interesting to see how Batman deals with this for the remaining issues.  Morrison's whole arc was about Batman trying to convince himself that he didn't need to work alone, that he could amass all the allies he wanted.  It seemed like such an affirmative, positive development.  Turns out Morrison's own conclusions are very much different.  There may be a reason why he's always been presented the way he's been.

That's what you get if you have an idea what was going on the whole time.  I wonder what everyone else thought about the issue...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Action Comics #18 (DC)

writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Rags Morales

Well, this was it!  The grand finale of Grant Morrison's run on the New 52's Action Comics reboot.  This issue was originally supposed to be the first of the new team's run, but Morrison got himself an extra one.

Morrison has made no bones about how he approaches superheroes.  He wrote a whole book about them called Super Gods, after all.  The phrase "nothing less than a new American mythology" appears on the first page of this issue.  With the latest trailers for Man of Steel having everyone losing their kits, it's not hard to see the idea resonating lately, certainly not after the huge success of The Avengers last summer solidifying the place of this genre in the movies.

I somehow doubt that anyone will take the bulk of this run as an iconic take on Superman.  Morrison used elements of this particular mythology that don't tend to translate into other mediums.  Mxyzptlk appeared in Lois & Clark, but in the form of Howie Mandel.  I happen to think this material was brilliant, how Morrison used the 5th dimension and its imps (as he previously did when concluding his run on JLA) to reflect on the overall legacy of Superman, including his inspiring of the Legion of Super-Heroes in a thousand years.  When I talk about Superman's iconic legacy outside of comics, it shouldn't be that hard to understand.  In six movies now his adventures have simply been trying to figure out his relationship with humanity, let alone the greater impact a whole career has.  In Superman Returns, thought to have taken on a backlash because it hewed too closely to films that ended like the Schumacher Batman era, it briefly reflects on this concept, with Lois Lane, formerly Superman's greatest champion, now more famous for writing an article wondering if the world still needed him.

Action Comics #18 itself takes the form of one massive fight with the villains who have been assembling around Superman since the start of the story, none of them particularly memorable except for being characters who defined themselves as being diametrically opposed to him.  Previously it was really only Lex Luthor who filled that bill.  Superman's enemies are said to be his real weakness, that they aren't as memorable as Batman's or Spider-Man's.  The movies keep doing Luthor and Zod because once you go past them...?

Morrison is famous for embracing high concept.  He writes his scripts in language that is so distinctly his own that it can sometimes seem impenetrable.  That's the vibe that's very much on display here.  He's fully capable of reversing this instinct, by going sublimely simplistic, but that's just not how this story ends.

Still, there's a clever moment when Superman says, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."  Basic physics, right?  Yet it's something infinitely clever to hear in a comic book called Action Comics, like the punchline seventy-five years in the making.  Was that Morrison's whole point?

The best moment of the issue, however, is Superman's last statement: "You should see the other guy."  It's the pitfall of being the icon of all superhero icons.  He can sometimes seem completely remote, unapproachable.  Most of what Morrison was trying to do in the early issues was reverse that perception.  Sure it gets crazy along the way, but it boils down to exactly that, in as many words a fight, just another fight.  He won.  And he has something funny to say about it afterward.  Is that what you should really take away from the issue?

The traditional Sholly Fisch backup follows, this time with art from Chris Sprouse, who first rose to prominence in collaboration with Alan Moore on Tom Strong and of course Supreme, which at that time was Moore's obvious pastiche on Superman.  This association is only appropriate.  The story itself is mostly wordless, set sometime in the future in a museum exhibit.  An alien boy stands up to bullies (who happen to be human), earning the respect of his peers in the process.  The Superman statue winks at the end.  Superman winks on the last panel of every era's close these days, all thanks to what Moore himself did the last time he did superheroes for the big publishers.

By now you've also heard that Andy Diggle opted out of continuing his commitment of following Morrison in this title, probably for similar editorial concerns that have riddled the New 52 pretty much since its inception.  I can't pretend to understand why so many writers have had such a problem with editors, but it's almost become as memorable a story as anything that the writers have been telling themselves.

Anyway, so long Grant Morrison, and thanks for all the greatness!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Reading Comics #111 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #20"

The final issue in The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 is here!

We're talking about Sandman #20, the final issue included in the original Dream Country collection.  Like Dream/Morpheus/Sandman himself, it's a story about someone who in some other life was a superhero, in this instance Element Girl, a one-time sidekick of Metamorpho (whom Grant Morrison famously killed off in his initial issues on JLA, although the redoubtable Rex Mason eventually got better).

Before we go much further, it's worth noting that Element Girl recently resurfaced in the rebooted continuity of the New 52 within DC proper thanks to Geoff Johns and Justice League.  Neil Gaiman later wrote a Metamorpho story for the Wednesday Comics experiment (basically a twelve week comic book version of the cartoon section from your Sunday paper).  The latter Leslie Klinger might have referenced in his notes, but he neglects to, while the former occurred after publication of Annotated Sandman.

Anyway, it's just interesting that the collection begins and ends on Gaiman's particular interpretation of superheroes.  Hardly anyone will ever confuse Dream with a typical comic book superhero (although Death made a mainstream appearance a few years ago in Paul Cornell's Action Comics), but as his most basic level he's indeed linked to the Golden Age Sandman tradition, Wesley Dodds and his gas mask that is reflected in Dream's warrior helm.  Martian Manhunter appeared, Doctor Destiny ran a whole arc, the Jack Kirby Sandman helped inform another one.  Then we reach Element Girl.  The difference between a Neil Gaiman and a Garth Ennis is that Gaiman isn't rejecting the mainstream, he's looking beyond it.  Ennis, well, he's rejecting and subverting it every chance he gets, but try as he might he never quite influences the landscape.  Gaiman did.  Oh, did he.

The basic story of the issue is that Element Girl is clinically depressed, retired from the superhero game and everything else that used to define her life.  She no longer sees a point in anything, because she no longer recognizes herself, has lost nearly all connection to the outside world.  She's what Ben Grimm might have become if he were, well, grim, didn't have a Fantastic family around him.  Unlike the other women to have been featured in the series so far, she fits a fairly typical feminine psychology, which has been shattered by her altered appearance.

If there's anything to criticize in Sandman it's when Gaiman doesn't trust himself.  He doesn't trust himself in this issue.  He admits in notes Klinger reveals that he feared he'd go too far in depicting Element Girl's state of mind.  He saw only dark corners, and was afraid of the depression that might overtake him if he pursued them.

Because this is the last one and also because I played fast and loose with my formula with the last issue, I will omit checking in with specific pages and notes for this final look.

By the way, Gaiman achieves something pretty spectacular in the issue in managing to finally completely avoid employing Dream in his own narrative.  Instead it's Death who appears, having a little chat with Element Girl, making sure she's absolutely sure that she wants to die.  It's like Calliope a few issues ago, but because it's Dream who answers the call, there's no evasion.  There's a lot to love about Dream, and this is one of them.  Everyone else interprets Death to be pretty lifeless, and they think that makes perfect sense.  I think Gaiman has it right, seeing that Death would be the one who most understands what life really means.  I mean, if not her who?

And because it's Death who shows up, Element Girl's story ends with a kind of redemption, again a nice little bow on the top of this present to conclude Dream Country and The Annotated Sandman Volume 1.  The first issue was bleak through and through, and the stories that followed weren't much better.  I keep trying to figure out what Gaiman was trying to say about Shakespeare, why he thought the Bard needed some kind of agreement with Dream.  He has two plays to present Dream, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is the first. The Tempest, meanwhile, is the last, which informs the conclusion of the series as well.  Does this mean that Gaiman envisions Shakespeare as owing a debt to Dream?  Does this cheapen Shakespeare's legacy?

I guess it's a little like Death and Element Girl.  Death isn't in the habit of unscheduled collections.  She visits Element Girl because she happened to be in the area (and explains that she's in a lot of areas, actually), and has to be convinced that concluding the transaction is a good thing.  She also lets the reader know that the whole Metamorpho story is a lot more complicated than an archaeologist accidentally unleashing an Egyptian god's safety net (in so many words).  Gaiman could very easily have run with that.  He didn't even particularly run with it in Wednesday Comics.  That was a fairly straightforward superhero action adventure.

So instead of talking about Klinger's notes, which in the end I can only describe as invaluable and therefore I hope I serve as testament to the worth of the whole idea of The Annotated Sandman, I will simply say that the whole experience has helped guide me along in ways that I wouldn't have expected when I started out.  The more I meditated on each individual issue, the more I got from reading Sandman.  Finding the connections was one way of helping me make my own connections, getting me involved.  This is the end of the road for now, but the story continues...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading Comics #110 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #19"

This penultimate issue in The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 is all about Shakespeare!  Want to know how it's obvious Leslie Klinger is a fan of the Bard?  He fairly vomits trivia all over the issue!  (It can't hurt that Gaiman is part of this obsession as well.)

We're talking about Sandman #19, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in fact titled as such.  The play is being performed throughout the issue, as the actual fairy creatures serve as audience, making comments about how weird people are (wait, is this all some sort of meta observation about people making notes?!?).  All of this is possible because Neil Gaiman previously had Dream converse with Shakespeare during the Hob Gadling episode making a still-undetermined bargain, possibly linked in Gaiman's mind to the Madoc episode a few issues back.  It's still odd to me that there must be some sort of explanation to the genius of Shakespeare outside of his own abilities.  As this presentation of Midsummer more or less proves, it's not so different from Much Ado About Nothing.  All great artists are aware of the variations and patterns in their work, and know how to use them to their advantage.  You can see that in the strands of the Bard's work, whether in the tragedies or the comedies or histories.

I think I'll be sparing you an extended look for a change.  Plenty of people have talked about Shakespeare, and I'm not really up to do much of that myself.  I am but a poor player upon the stage.  A couple things worth noting, however, are Gaiman's presentation of Shakespeare's son Hamnet (which makes me wonder if a story however fictional like Shakespeare in Love about the Bard himself won't always be almost as fascinating as his plays) and the fact that his version of the "real" Puck later becomes a major player within the Sandman narrative (although of course not in this volume).

It's pretty funny, though, that of all the anxieties I've been detecting in previous issues it's this one where Gaiman discusses in his script (as related by Klinger) apprehension about how well a particular story works. I think it works well enough, certainly nothing that could possibly embarrass him (to be read about on the twelfth page, for the record).

One other thing that was pretty interesting to read about was the Long Man of Wilmington, details of which are explained on the third page (an actual image appears on the fifth page).

That's it for this issue.  Amusingly, it concludes with the sort of these-people-ended-up-this-way notes that movies based on (or sometimes if they just want to be clever) real events include just before the credits.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Reading Comics #109 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #18"

After this there are only two issues to go in this extended look at The Annotated Sandman Volume 1...

The great thing about this installment, looking at Sandman #18, is that it's all about cats.  People who don't like cats are obviously bad people.

It's not only about cats but strictly from a cat's perspective.  The storytelling here is a little tricky, balancing one cat with their recollections of another cat's call to revolution.  It's a little trickier without color, I think.  Still, it's like Neil Gaiman's We3 (the great comic from Grant Morrison), with art again by Kelley Jones.  Considering I've previously referenced Jones as best known for his human figures, it's quite a revelation to think he could just as easily have made a career of doing stories with animals.  Apparently this is not his last work in Sandman, but it is in this volume.

I wrote a story (or two) myself that involved dialogue from animals, although it was in prose (you can read it in Monorama), but I sympathize with Gaiman's desire to distinguish it from human speech and not particularly wanting it to be considered thought, as Leslie Klinger's notes explain on the first page.

On the sixth page is a wonderful rendering of a cat's head in close-up from Jones.  Klinger makes reference on a later page to Gaiman's instructions to Jones about making a standout portrait that will make other artists jealous.  To my mind, this one's more striking.  Perhaps owing to the black and white nature of my edition's depiction, it looks like woodcut art.

There's a spare amount of notes in this issue.  It's funny that notes meant for the thirteenth page are printed on the twelfth's.  The twelfth page is also noteworthy for the beginning of a travel narrative that works exceptionally well, with variations on the phrase "and I walked on" concluding the captions in most panels.  I tend to be a reader who appreciates a writer's grasp of distinctive storytelling.  This is the sort of thing I eat up.

This sequence leads us to Dream, who in this story naturally is a cat (as discussed before he tends to take the form expected of him).

Another terrific sequence from the issue involves a vision of the past where cats were large and men were small, a complete inverse of their present relationship.  This is what the issue is all about, since it was a dream of men that reversed it, and subsequently the vision of the cat I mentioned earlier to cause another dream to reverse it again.  Not only did man's dream reshape reality, but it caused the previous one to no longer exist at all, like it never happened.  This I think is a pretty big idea on Gaiman's part.  I wonder if he explores it more in Sandman.  It's metaphysical and glorious.  Yes, we have a hard enough time convincing people to believe the same things about science and religion.  To through something like this in the mix?  I guess that's what great fiction like this is all about.

The twentieth page, for the record, references Gaiman's directions to Jones about the cat rendering.

The end of the story is the main cat sleeping, and its owners wondering what it can possibly dream about.  I should explain that the big development that causes the cat to go on its quest is having kittens and the humans cavalierly taking them away, like the cat can't possibly have any real concern about that (much like what Madoc does to Calliope when he gains possession of her in the previous issue).  The cat I know is usually pretty discreet when she sleeps, hidden away from public consumption as it were.  My sister's dog, however, regularly twitches in his sleep, so it's not hard to imagine that he's dreaming about something.  In Gaiman's view it must be profound indeed...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reading Comics #108 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #17"

The final issues included in The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 collect what originally appeared in the volume titled Dream Country, starting with Sandman #17.

The first page introduces the concept of the magical hairball.  I should say introduces to me, because apparently that's a thing that for some reason I'd never heard about.  My sister's cat has been giving her these things all along and never told us?  Its official term is "bezoar," and "trichinobezoar" when derived from "Rapunzel syndrome," which is to say a bezoar that is made of hair.  People in crazier and more gullible days thought they were magical.  In fact, the famous Latin phrase caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") is derived from the purchase of a magical hairball.

I will also take this opportunity to reference Tangled, the rare Disney animated movie not to feature its typical fairy tale heroine in the title.  This one, of course, is about Rapunzel.

Anyway, Leslie Klinger is quick with a reference to another movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which Neil Gaiman cleverly disguises as The Cabaret of Dr. Caligari.  These opening pages are introducing us to frustrated writer Richard Madoc in his desperate bid for some fresh inspiration.  The magical hairball he's acquiring will soon be exchanged for a far shadier transaction.  It may or may not be relevant (Klinger apparently didn't think so) that a Welshman named Madoc sailed to America three centuries before Columbus.  It may be the inverse of his meeting with Erasmus Fry on the third page.  The magical hairball is for Erasmus.  Klinger doesn't mention this either, but the historical Erasmus was a famous figure in the Reformation and was known for his arguments about free will.

Which is funny, because the point of the magical hairball exchange is the Muse he's been using to make his literary reputation.  I have no idea if Gaiman thought much about that.  His chief interest in the character seems to be the fact that he likes hearing the sound of his own voice, a replacement for a lonely writer just wanting to hear anyone's.

On the fourth page John Dee, the Elizabethan spy and magician, is referenced.  Klinger omits an explanation or at least reiteration, but the name evokes Doctor Destiny as featured previously in Sandman.  I'm also reminded of Detective Dee as depicted in the movie Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame.  He's based on a historical figure from the Tang Dynasty.

By the fifth page, we learn about the Muses from both Gaiman and Klinger.  Aside from specific details, I'm sure you know about them.  In Star Trek, a parasitic muse in an episode called "The Muse" helped Jake Sisko finally write the book the earlier episode "The Visitor" claimed would be his lasting legacy, while another episode called simply "Muse" echoed the more traditional Greek approach.  They were from different series.  Anyway, Klinger references the main character from Homer's Odyssey as Ulysses.  Yes, and that would be the Roman form, just as the more famous Hercules was of the less famous Heracles original. If you call it The Odyssey, then the character's name is Odysseus.  Dude was played by Sean Bean in Troy. Show respect.  Ulysses is known as Grant's first name and the title of a James Joyce book.

But I promise not to snip at Klinger again for the remainder of this survey.  Although if I do get a chance to read the other volumes, who knows?

Anyway, the sixth page gives me a chance to talk about the art.  It looks like it was the inspiration for Frank Miller's Sin City, known as much for its hard-boiled storytelling as for the silhouetted forms of naked women.  Naturally this page features the latter.  The artist for the issue, interestingly enough, is Kelley Jones, who would make his name as a Batman cover artist and illustrator of several Dark Knight vampire tales.  The earliest pages in the issue are the clearest ones to identify the distinctive Jones style (giant muscles, usually, but also the faces and a generally Gothic outlook).  He's a natural fit for Sandman.  I wonder if it was this page that inspired Miller's work for the Dark Horse comics.  I had a similar epiphany when I first saw Andy Helfer's Shadow, when evokes the later Challengers of the Unknown from the budding partnership of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.

Back to Sandman, however.  Klinger's notes for the page for some reason speak about more immediately relevant things like the identity of the naked woman, Calliope, who is the Muse in question.

On the seventh page he relates the British nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons," which Gaiman references.  I'd never heard it before.

Once in possession of Calliope, Madoc proves to be an ass.  He also gets busy writing.

The ninth page delves deeply back into Greek lore, but it also features another (this time acknowledged) appearance of the Triple Goddess seen repeatedly in Sandman.  They typically take the appearance of a Crone, a Maiden, and a Mother.  I'll just say now that it's a little weird that the oldest of them must be considered so ugly, but I guess the whole point is stereotypes, and crones are the stereotype of old women.  Maybe that's why the Hecate weren't so prominent in the arc that just concluded, because Gaiman was trying to be nice about the fairer sex.

On the tenth page we get our first reference to Dream in the issue, known as Oneiros in this particular context.  The relevant tale of Orpheus is apparently the subject of Sandman Special #1 (not in this collection).

For whatever reason, both the writers in this story take their ridiculously elaborate book titles from things Klinger gets to explain.

Like Hob Gadling before him, Madoc becomes the subject of a hopping through the timeline, seeing how his fortunes change.

It's worth speculating that how Madoc learns of Fry's death (different but in a way not completely unrelated to the time in Futurama another Fry died, from a bee sting; it might be argued that if you want another Sandman experience, that would not be a bad place to look) may tell you what Gaiman really thinks of all this artificial inspiration.  Though Fry was successful just as Madoc is shown as successful with big giant epic stories, he died in what appears to be obscurity, with the book he considered his best already out of the public's mind.  Perhaps that's the reason for the ridiculous titles?  Gaiman may be saying that flashy success doesn't always mean that it was earned, which of course in these instances it wasn't.

Dream shows up, pwns Madoc, exits.  Pretty standard Sandman at this point.  Through Klinger's notes in previous issues we've already had a glimpse of Gaiman's mindset at this point in the series.  At times he appears cocky and others frightened that he's already losing his own muse.  It's not hard to view this issue as a way of exploring the topic in the story itself.  Not to worry, though, as there are sixty-odd-and-counting stories in the future, Neil.

Happy 75th Birthday, Superman

Action Comics #1 was released on this day in 1938, seventy-five years ago.  From being the superhero everyone most identified with comics to the one everyone said was too powerful to take seriously; from the pioneer in radio, serials, animation, television, and movies to the guy once again poised to make history with this summer's Man of Steel; from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to Scott Snyder and Jim Lee...Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!  Look, in the sky!  It's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's Superman!  Fighting for truth, justice, and the American way!

My personal experience with the icon of all comic book characters in his original medium began shortly before the infamous "Doomsday" event of 1992.  From there I was able to track his adventures for the rest of the decade, when Action Comics was joined by The Adventures of Superman, Superman, and Superman: The Man of Steel with the shield sequencing keeping his activities conveniently in order each month.  Dan Jurgens was the definitive creator of that period, having handled the chores on Superman #75, in which he died, and Superman #82, in which he came back.  He was surrounded by giants, though, Roger Stern and Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett and Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove, just to name the ones I personally fondly remember.  By the end of the decade Stuart Immonen had more than ably joined those ranks.  Superman survived a lot of things, including a reprise of the classic Superman Red and Superman Blue arc that was a spinoff of the rare cosmetic change-up known as Electric Superman.  Metropolis had a crisis.  Clark Kent had a crisis.  And Superman finally married Lois Lane.

I grew up with the Christopher Reeve movies, and then enjoyed Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and then Smallville.  I lost track of reading comics in the early years of the new millennium, but caught up with them again to witness creators like Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns work their magic on Superman.

2006 was a particularly memorable year.  Superman Returns was released (I'm one of its few unabashed fans), and so was Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (as memorable as the original version is, this one's better), as well as Hollywoodland (part of Ben Affleck's road to cinematic redemption, playing out the mystery of classic Superman actor George Reeves' unsolved death).  Morrison's All Star Superman was in publication.  Geoff Johns was working on Superman.  This year isn't so bad, either.  Man of Steel, obviously, is coming out.  Morrison's Action Comics run has concluded.  Snyder and Lee's collaboration, Superman Unchained, is coming up, too.

What do you get for the man who has everything?  A day off would be nice

(By sheer coincidence, this was my 75th post at Comics Reader this year.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reading Comics #107 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #16"

Stories originally collected in the first printed Sandman collection (secondly chronologically) The Doll's House come to an end in this latest installment in our look at The Annotated Sandman...

Dream takes center stage, which is a tad unusual really, as he confronts the vortex, Rose Walker.  He's just informed her that he is going to have to eliminate her, which is to say murder her.  She's not happy about it.

Much of the issue doesn't feature any notes from Leslie Klinger, mostly because it's very much a matter of resolving elements that have already been introduced and discussed by himself and Neil Gaiman, the author of this rich tragedy.

On the second page Rose tries to convince herself that because the subject matter is dreams she can't really be in any trouble.  All she has to do is wake up.  Well, normally.  But she is in fact dealing with the king of dreams.

On the fourth page we catch back up with Fiddler's Green, who was pretending to be an ordinary human named Gilbert when we first meet him.  He's talking to Matthew the raven, who was once a human (but not in this series).  He confesses that prior to assuming the Gilbert identity (which did not, alas, grant him awesome fighting ability, like Jason Bourne), he wasn't a person but a place, within Dream's realm.  It only makes sense.  Gaiman patterned Gilbert after G.K. Chesterton, who as discussed in prior installments wrote about paradoxes of faith.

Dream rambles a bit about what a vortex of dreams is supposed to be, but it's never really clear, then Gilbert/Fiddler's Green (naturally he's still got the Gilbert form at this point) appears, offering to replace Rose.  He's not an adequate substitute.  Of course, then the story cuts to Rose's mother Miranda, who is holding vigil over Rose's grandmother Unity Kinkaid.  Again, this is only fitting, but we'll explain that in a bit.

Gilbert says goodbye to Rose and becomes, once again, Fiddler's Green, sort of like a Sandman version of the Elysian Fields from Greek mythology.  As far as I remember, Klinger never explained where Gaiman got the term from, but the somewhat inadequate Wikipedia page suggests that it came from 19th century America, sailors and soldiers.

On the eleventh page, Unity shows up and begins the argument that she's going to replace Rose as the sacrifice.  She makes a solid argument.  During the time she was sleeping, which is also during the time Dream was imprisoned, as depicted in the very first issue, she was prevented from becoming the vortex herself, and thus her fate was passed on to her granddaughter.

Anyway, on the fourteenth page Klinger gets to reference something nifty, an artistic allusion to Sandman #9, in which Dream pursued his one and only love interest, which may be the origin of the whole concept of the vortex, an unconscious desire on his part to reunite with Nada.

Once Rose is deposited, she picks up her life, and for the next few pages explains how she reclaims it.  Klinger helpfully explains some of the books she begins to read, some of it recently published at the time of the issue's original release.  There's Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker, Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll (which sounds fascinating, so I'll have to track it down at some point), and a few that the artist didn't depict: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (which directly reflects what Rose herself is like in the first six months following her adventure), Ghosts of an Antiquary by M.R. James (which was quoted in the previous issue), and A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman (which I've read, and you can read my thoughts here).

Klinger further explains that Carroll reassured Gaiman to write what became the A Game of You arc after he'd initially decided against it because it was so similar to Carroll's story.  "Go for it, man.  Ezra Pound said that every story has already been written.  The purpose of a good writer is to write it new.  I would very much like to see a Gaiman approach to that kind of story."  That's exactly my philosophy, even directly retelling specific narratives.

Last issue there was a reference to the classic "It was a dark and stormy night" opening line.  Rose concludes her story with "And then she woke up," how she makes that phrase her own.  I wrote a story last year that evoked the "stormy night" line, and was reamed in part because I dared use it, because it was a trope those readers kind of automatically assumed must be the work of a hack.  It's not the words but the intent.  It's the emotion but the act.

Anyway, Dream ends the issue talking about or rather with Desire, part of his family in the Endless.  He's not so happy because he's realized that it was meddling from within the family that caused all of his recent troubles.  Part of this is picked up in a later issue.  This one, however, ends on a meditation of the nature of dolls.  It may be a little on the nose, but then there's probably a good deal of depth that has already sailed over a lot of heads in the preceding pages.  The whole intent of the arc was Gaiman's exploration of being manipulated and not having any real control or say, often associated with the plight of women.  If this is to be reduced to the concept of playing with toys (and it's curious that none of the issues featured toys, or perhaps he left it to Bill Watterson, beloved cartoonist behind Calvin & Hobbes) then perhaps it's better to be shocked worse than Sid in Toy Story, the way we casually manipulate those in our own lives, which is something you can't do without reversing the metaphor.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Reading Comics #106 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #15"

Continuing our series on The Annotated Sandman...

Sandman #15 is a little odd.  Not unusually odd, because Neil Gaiman specialized in odd for this series, but odd in the sense that it's really only our second look at the residents in the place where Rose Walker has been staying while she tracks down her lost brother Jed.  It's odd because the issue is an exploration of these characters and their psyches.  Technically speaking, this is as much the first time we meet any of them.  Gaiman hadn't really bothered doing much more than introducing them previously.  So everything here is like doing that all over again.  It's worth noting that he already indicated that each of them was strange enough in their waking lives.

So they only seem weirder now.

Leslie S. Klinger includes a confession Gaiman made in his script that he had begun finding it difficult to sustain a continuing arc.  Not to worry, Neil.  Most of this one could very easily be read individually.  He then goes into detail about the nature of the dreams we'll be experiencing.  Whether the reader, then or now, chooses to adhere to his interpretations is still very much open.

On the second page Klinger references a famous Christian poem that Gaiman references, but doesn't really go into detail as to what that poem is.  It's another of his odd oversights.  Anyway: a man is walking along a beach and talking to Jesus, who explains that the extra set of footprints that the man observes belonged to him, and when the man notices one particular period, which was a dark one for him, only features one set he asks why he was abandoned in his hour of greatest need.  Jesus replies that during that time he was carrying the man.

The dreams commence on the fourth page.  Ken, as in the couple who are named Ken & Barbie and are meant to represent exactly the archetype embodied by their namesake dolls, apparently dreams of having great power, while Barbie has a fantasy dreamland very reminiscent of the fantasy movies of the 1980s (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth).  Apparently Gaiman found the concept so fascinating that he based an entire later arc around it, though it cannot be found, alas, in this volume.

The so-called Spider Women, one of them evokes Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, while the other looks far more conventionally feminine (although in their waking lives both sport veils, so it's hard to judge them on that score), and as described by Gaiman is having a relationship with a sentence (whatever that means).  I assume it's about trying to make a connection, the way some people only find solace in literature about people whose lives reflect their own.

Klinger, thanks to Gaiman's script, also gets to reference Gothic literature like The Castle of Otranto, which I only learned existed thanks to a free book listing in an e-reader I hawked for a bookseller.

On the eight page, Klinger also misses a chance (perhaps because it also didn't occur to Gaiman) that there's another reference to the Hecate, the trilogy of women who've been appearing throughout the series, mostly because he's busy identifying the faces as being derived from the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz.

Rose is a vortex.  She intersects dreams.  That's as much as why there's been a whole arc about her, and why this particular story is about dreams.  That's how Dream himself appears, because he's finally getting around to addressing the matter.  Yet it's Matthew the raven, and Gilbert, Rose's protector who also happens to be Fiddler's Green, escaped from Dream's realm, who inform the ending of the story.  Apparently there was a whole alternate conversation between the two compared to the one they share in the issue.  I know this because of Klinger.  I appreciated seeing that one, but the one in the issue is probably better.

Klinger's other notes for the twenty-third page are more compelling.  He explains where exactly Matthew came from.  As with a lot of what Gaiman was doing with the series, he came from what others had been doing, and this time once again from the adventures of Swamp Thing, the character Alan Moore helped shape into the formative Vertigo aesthetic.  Moore is known for a lot of things these days, but by the time Sandman and Vertigo came around he'd moved on from that kind of storytelling.  A lot of his later stories are far more evocative of incredibly traditional superhero storytelling, ironically enough.

I'll conclude my discussion of this issue with a reference to G. Willow Wilson's Air.  I twice named it the top comic in my annual QB50 list, and the first year it was in publication at the bottom only because I'd only just become acquainted with it.  In a lot of ways it's a series that's very familiar to Gaiman's dream work in Sandman, with a main character who often had to wonder if what was happening to her was real or an allusion (which has also been a theme in Paul Cornell's Saucer Country, and even Mike Carey's The Unwritten), only to learn that there was great significance indeed to what was happening to her.  I still have no idea why I seem to have been in an extreme minority appreciating it.  If there was ever to be a new Sandman at Vertigo, that would have been it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Reading Comics #105 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #14"

We continue our series on The Annotated Sandman!

Sandman #14 is thirty-eight pages long.  That's how I'm going to start this reading post.  This is not usual, for an extended issue to appear in a series for a fairly random reason.  That would be an indication of the growing significance of the series at that time for DC (it wasn't until 1993 that the Vertigo imprint existed), and Neil Gaiman's growing ability to do exactly what he wanted.

For instance, this issue is all about serial killers.  The "Cereal Convention" mentioned previously is held.  We know about it because Rose Walker and Gilbert have stumbled into the middle of it, which ends up being something of a problem during the issue.  Part of the reason the issue happens at all is because Gaiman noted even in 1990 (or I guess 1989 when he would have written it) that serial killers were becoming a fairly uniquely American phenomenon.  Sure, Jack the Ripper was British, but that was a hundred years in the past.  Well before the rest of us really started to appreciate it, Gaiman was writing about it in an issue of Sandman.

These days, every other TV show is dedicated to crime and some of them serial killers, including Criminal Minds, which is fascinating but also follows the formula of solving the crime and capturing the killer by the end of each episode.  A lot of people also seem to be fascinated by Dexter, subject of a TV show and series of books.  There's also Hannibal Lecter, the most famous serial killer in American fiction and the screen, now in his first TV show.  Clearly serial killers fascinate us, their unique psychology.

The creepiest thing about the issue is that it doesn't judge serial killers, at least not outright.  You could read most of it and not even realize that you're reading about serial killers.  They're referred to as "collectors" more than serial killers throughout the story.  They're odd personalities with quirky interests and opinions.  They, uh, also kill people.

Leslie S. Klinger's notes, as always, provide insight into Gaiman's mindset, right from the first page, transcribing from the script.  Gaiman appears to be one of those writers who analyzes his own story as he explains to the artist what's supposed to be happening.  He also explains how the issue delves into a certain horror type, the way a few select other issues have, including the Doctor Dee diner episode in the sixth issue, which is the first instance where Gaiman is creating his own horror genre, including this one.  Sandman is sometimes very easily defined as horror, but not in the Stephen King way, or even Edgar Allen Poe.  It's very much existentialism, which I guess is why it became so easily associated with the emerging Goth culture, because Goths like to think they're existentialists.  But the South Park episode pretty much exposed that for what it really was, a lot of posers just looking for an alternative social group.  Sandman is the real deal.

It's funny that Klinger keeps identifying a singing serial killer as not intending irony in his song selections, because it's really only Klinger who can make that distinction.  It doesn't read one way or the other on the page.  Maybe Gaiman said something about it in the script?  Or we're just supposed to assume that serial killers really don't connect with even a basic level of reality as most of us know it?  In notes on another page, he muses on the nature of psychopaths, which is a type that exists outside of the serial killer framework.  Psychopaths, I might add, who are not as awesome as the ones featured in the movie Seven Psychopaths.  I'm talking the controlling kind who dominate every bureaucratic structure.  But we're here to talk about Sandman.

On the third page we have our first reference to the absence of a particular serial killer, the Family Man (unrelated to an underrated Nicolas Cage film, although Nic might be considered an entirely different kind of psychopath).  The Family Man is absent, as Klinger notes, because he was dispatched in an extended storyline from Hellblazer, the series that featured John Constantine.  We also meet convention organizer Nimrod for the first time.  Klinger never explains the significance behind Nimrod's name, but it comes from the Bible.  He was a great-grandson of Noah who was known as a mighty hunter.  There are ironies there.

There's also a character who refers to Nimrod as "bub" on the fourth page.  Klinger doesn't make a note about that, either, but clearly in comics that's a reference to Wolverine, another version of the classic psychopath archetype.

Rose, the girl who's unwittingly here because she's looking for her brother, who was being held by humans of other despicable characteristics, makes her first appearance in the issue on the fifth page.  It's funny that her companion, Gilbert (whom Gaiman modeled on G.K. Chesterton, remember), is casually referenced by Klinger on a later page as Fiddler's Green, the final monster Dream will have to recover, even though as far as I know this hasn't been revealed yet in the comic, even by the end of the issue.  The others include Brute and Glob, dispatched last issue and the ones who were holding Jed, Rose's brother, and of course the Corinthian, who becomes the showcase of this issue.

As Klinger notes without spoilerage on the sixth page, Chesterton was known for theological paradoxes.  Apparently he was known for indicating that a paradox is the truth getting attention by standing on its head.  That's true of all the best fiction.  If you stare at a Christopher Nolan movie long enough, you realize that this is exactly what he does with all of them.

Anyway, Rose doesn't want a paradox.  She wants a story.  Gilbert obliges her with an original version of Little Red Riding Hood.  Before the Brothers Grimm there was Charles Perrault, who restated classic morality tales a century before them.  If you know anything about the Brothers Grimm, you'll know that the stories you know from them are very much Disneyfied, and Perrault is even more grim than Grimm.  The seventh and eighth pages are grim indeed, though recognizable enough.  The dirty details are hid in words, like the rest of the issue.

We've already met the character whose presence will match this story, by the way, signified by a shirt with a wolf on it.  His name is Funland.  He appears again on the eighth page.  The Corinthian, meanwhile, finally arrives on the tenth page.  The shades he's wearing kind of look similar to the ones Jack Knight sports throughout James Robinson's Starman (to bring that up again), or can also be found in the underrated indy comic The Victorian.  Like most of the characters in the issue, then, he looks like anything but a serial killer, or maybe exactly like a serial killer.

Nimrod, in case you were wondering, is definitely a serial killer himself, as the twelfth page makes clear.  He just seems like he isn't.  But again, that's how they all are.  He tells a bad joke.  On the thirteenth page he continues the opening address of the convention by making it clear that the assembly will not pursue its shared activities during the convention.  It would risk drawing attention, which these guys probably shouldn't do when they're all gathered together like this.  Naturally, I don't mind spoiling, killings are eventually done.

For movie fans, Klinger provides explanations for the film festival mentioned on the fourteenth page.  Thankfully, I'm not familiar with most of the films that appeal to this crowd.  Although one of them, Compulsion, stars Orson Welles.  Manhunter, the original film version of Red Dragon, the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter, is among them.

The page also includes the first appearance of the Bogeyman.  Klinger soft-spoils that his fate in the issue reflects the fact that he's a fake in a collection of very real psychopaths.  Unlike other conventions, this one's definitely not for fans.

Rose's experiences at the convention begin on the sixteenth page.  Gilbert is careful that he isn't identified by the Corinthian.  He becomes skittish enough as a result to abandon Rose, which is not a good thing.

The eighteenth through twentieth pages are the only ones besides a sequence that follows them to feature the serial killers engaging in their natural behavior.  If you believe serial killing can somehow be considered natural.  It's the fake Bogeyman getting his due from his idols.  The real Bogeyman was dispatched in an issue of Swamp Thing some five years earlier.

Funland enters the spotlight as it were on the twenty-first and -second pages when he runs into Rose.  Klinger notes that Gaiman originally scripted him as Disneyland.  It's just as well that the name had to be changed, because otherwise it would have made the character very stupid rather than simply very disturbed, because he explains that he has a very special secret place where he "collects," that would just have been obvious to anyone if he went around calling himself Disneyland.

Klinger explains the insanity defense on the twenty-sixth page.  This and the following page are Gaiman's only real attempt to explore the psychology of his subjects for the issue.

On the twenty-eighth page, Funland's real name is revealed to be Nathan Diskin.  Now, I know I could extrapolate from that name.  Klinger is either discreet or doesn't see its significance.  He does, however, realize that Funland is finally acting out the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

For mainstream comic book fans, a version of Little Red Riding Hood might be said to exist in the Red Hood persona, in some versions the original criminal identity of the Joker and in recent comics the current heroic identity of Jason Todd, the second Robin and the one murdered by Joker in the classic "Death in the Family" story arc.  I don't think anyone's explored the psychology of this, or the connection to Little Red Riding Hood.  Consider this some food for thought, as it were.

Gilbert at least left Rose with a calling card, the name Morpheus, which of course is one of the ones Dream uses.  The title character makes his appearance in the issue by rescuing Rose and disarming Funland, which as detailed on the thirty-first page and as explained by Klinger involves an allusion to an Oscar Wilde story.

The Corinthian, who has replaced the absent Family Man as the keynote speaker of the convention, has his real moment following this, but when he sees Dream, who has stuck around, he knows as well as we do that this particular nightmare is finally coming to an end (in more ways than one, as the length of the issue that I previously indicated would have been something readers even then would have found remarkable).

The conclusion makes Dream into very much a deus ex machina, who magically undoes the horror of the lives of all those serial killers.  Klinger lets us in on Gaiman's direction for the faces of these maniacs as they realize what's happened on the thirty-sixth page, though the artist didn't really pull it off.  For whatever reason, when Klinger explains what Gaiman's script was supposed to indicate, the artist rarely pulls it off.

This page also sees Gilbert return, with the body of Jed.  Jed is not dead, by the way.  But the issue is finally done soon enough.

Very entertaining in a very Sandman way, though.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Reading Comics #104 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #13"

My series exploring The Annotated Sandman continues!

Before we get into the actual issue, Sandman #13, to be discussed today, let me just drop some of my own emerging thoughts.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman is very close to a modern Canterbury Tales, or 1001 Arabian Nights if you will.  It's a story about stories.  As long as there are readers, there will always be an audience for this kind of material.

It also strikes me for the first time that The Shade, the mini-series concluded last year by James Robinson from his own Starman, is very similar to Gaiman's Sandman, almost a twelve issue condensation of the series.  I've been wondering why more people didn't care as much about The Shade as I did.  I loved it, and I started loving it even more.  I haven't read the complete Starman.  I've gotten a comment here at Comics Reader before when I talked about The Shade that reiterated the emerging opinion that Robinson may after all be more miss than hit.  (Although Earth 2 seems like another hit.)  It's a shame, really, because when he's on, Robinson is undoubtedly among the best writers in comics, and The Shade as with Starman was very much Robinson at his best.  Maybe it's a testament to the fact that Starman was not only not at all relevant to the New 52 that had just launched when The Shade debuted, and that Starman was in nearly a decade in the past at that point.  Comics fans typically have a long memory, but they can also be a little "what have you done for me lately" as a crowd.  But time will be more kind.

I mention all this because Sandman #13 is all about time.  It concerns Dream's visits with Hob Gadling every hundred years, starting in 1389.  It has nothing to do with the arc that's been going on the last few issues except maybe a metaphorical connection.

Leslie S. Klinger's notes are at their most extensive in the issue as they explain what was going on circa 1389, Black Death and such.

Hob is conversing with Geoffrey Chaucer when we first meet him.  Not the Chaucer of A Knight's Tale, in which the brilliant Paul Bettany portrays him as a lively individual who frequently ends up nude, but the guy getting ready to write, well, The Canterbury Tales.  Hob is less concerned with the flux that's about to take place in the general spread of reading than with his notion that people only die because it's what they expect to happen.  He argues that if he refutes that concept, he won't.  Dream decides on a lark to allow him to do just that, stating simply that he'll see him in a hundred years.

Gaiman associates the result with the Wandering Jew, a figure of legend who denied Christ and was thus condemned to wander the earth until the Second Coming.

Some of the story is a commentary on how the old adage, "the more things change the more they stay the same."  Still, things are different with each visit.  The 1489 visit is mostly about the cosmetic differences.  The 1589 is Gaiman's chance to talk about Shakespeare.  In fact, Shakespeare himself appears prominently in this sequence.  It's curious that Gaiman suggests Dream is somehow responsible for the great works that follow this early period in Shakespeare's career.  We all know it was really Gwyneth Paltrow and her "bibbies."

By the way, Dream looks awesome in this sequence.  The issue is a little like the Sandman version of Blackadder, the great Rowan Atkinson sitcom not called Mr. Bean.

It's also worth noting that it's very possible for a greater artist to be inspired by great art.  Critics in the Shakespeare Identity debate don't seem to take that into consideration.  Christopher Marlowe wrote The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus.  Putting aside whether or not he might have done something better had he not met an untimely end, it's still fairly obvious and not just because the culture has since gravitated toward Shakespeare that his best doesn't compare to Hamlet.

Klinger cleverly notes on the twelfth page that Gaiman references the famous summary of Fred Astaire from early in the Hollywood icon's career: "Can't act.  Slightly bald.  Also dances."

In 1689, Hob has fallen in fortune.

In 1789, Hob and Dream have been identified as the Wandering Jew and the Devil by locals who've caught on to the fact that they meet each century.  It's Lady Johanna Constantine who dares to call them out.  Apparently she comes back, but not in this volume.

She's also one of several oblique references to John Constantine, who himself previously appeared in Sandman.  Also referenced is Jason Blood, human counterpart to Etrigan the Demon, who has also himself appeared in the series.  Blood is one of several DC characters who don't age.  Vandal Savage is another famous example.  A slightly less orthodox version of this type is Resurrection Man.  He's had a few chances in the past twenty years to have an ongoing series.

In 1889, the obligatory Jack the Ripper reference is made.  Klinger has remarkable restraint concerning this. He instead speaks at some length about a famous whore.

Hob at this point has assumed the real point of these encounters is that Dream is in fact lonely.  In 1989, he doesn't exactly refute the idea.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Reading Comics #103 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #12"

My scholarly look at The Annotated Sandman continues!

The twelfth issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman is all about the woman's burden, following Lyta, short for Hippolyta, not the version of the character who later emerged as Wonder Woman's mother-who-looks-so-much-like-her-that-she-replaced-her-for-a-while, but tied up in previous continuity that involved what was at one point considered Wonder Woman's daughter.

Yeah, so continuity is a peculiarly comic book problem.

Anyway, Lyta is tied up in the concept of lineage no matter where she falls.  This version was married to Hector Hall, the son of Carter Hall, better known as Hawkman in any continuity.  Lyta and Hector were part of the original Infinity Inc., which was composed of the offspring of the original Justice Society of America.  (Later, Geoff Johns absorbed that concept into the Society itself.)

Leslie S. Klinger transcribes a lot of Gaiman's notes about Lyta and her role, and how women tend to be sidelined, even when they aren't pregnant.  Lyta's been pregnant in the story context for three years.

The Sandman Hector Hall became is a merry idiot, referenced at one point in the notes as Gaiman's pastiche on Adam West's Batman.  For the record, I'd love to read the original Jack Kirby Sandman comics.  Then again, I'd love to read all the old Jack Kirby comics.  The man was a genius.

The issue has a more direct focus on Jed, the hapless brother of Rose Walker who's been held captive by "benefactors" for the past half decade or so.  The sixth page is particularly grim about how this arrangement "works" for everyone involved.

I should note for the record that the art for this issue is from Chris Bachalo.  Bachalo actually made his name on Sandman (specifically on two mini-series featuring Death, The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life), but by the time I was old enough to appreciate the names of comic book creators, I knew him best in association with the X-Men.  His best-known work in that regard was Generation X with Scott Lobdell, which he helped create.  Sandman #12 was actually Bachalo's first professional comics work.  It's the best-looking issue of the series so far.

The eleventh page has a humorous explanation from Klinger on one of the visual elements of the story, an apparently throwaway gag about a Cereal Convention that's actually geared toward serial killers.  There's a partial transcription of the guest list visible.  Klinger provides the rest of it.

The twelfth page includes a reference to Watchmen that's harder for readers of a black and white edition to decipher, so I'm glad there's a note about it.

The Corinthian's eye mouths eat someone's fingers who's trying to attack him.

When Dream refers to the Kirby Sandman as "Little Ghost," I can't help but think of the White Stripes song.  I love the song anyway, and so chances were equally good that I would have been thinking about it anyway, but it's nice to see a connection in the ether.

The whole idea of Brute and Glob being so easily caught is a little disappointing, but it gets Kirby Sandman a story in Gaiman's Sandman, so I won't complain too much.  Although yes, he comes off as ridiculous, a little odd, because of all the traditional heroes Gaiman could have chosen to use, this was one he could have very easily taken seriously.  Still, it's not offensively dismissive like Garth Ennis, so again, I won't complain too much.  It's an interesting counterpoint to Doctor Destiny.

It's interesting how Lyta's story ends, however.  Her dream life, which was something of a nightmare, is removed, but her real life may actually be more nightmarish.

And another issue ends with the Corinthian.  This time with added Jed!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reading Comics #102 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #11"

The second issue of "The Doll's House" is an opportunity to see a Sandman arc that doesn't involve obscure comic book villains at work.  Following the events of last issue, it's Rose Walker we get to explore as her story continues.

She's settling into a new home, in Florida as the notes for the second page carefully explain.  Like the entire series before it, the issue digs into a scenario filled with weird characters, though Rose initially believes her new landlord to be perfectly normal.  It's the so-called Spider Women who appear to be most peculiar, and Leslie S. Klinger's notes allow us to see how Neil Gaiman envisioned them.  It amounts to a lot of thought for characters who are perhaps the least significant in the issue.

Klinger points out the raven in Rose's window on the third page, though the issue does explain what that's about.

It's the fourth page where Gaiman arguably reaches completely beyond anything he's done in the series so far, introducing Rose's brother Jed into the story by way of an allegorical sequence Klinger gets to helpfully explain is derived from the classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.  Stuff like that is absolutely helpful.  Little Nemo is pretty legendary but his legacy becomes more and more distant, so that he's all but a footnote at this point.  It's also the same, alas, of Bill Watterson's chief inspiration for Calvin & Hobbes.  Would you be able to recognize the name Pogo?

It may be worth noting that Gaiman originally didn't have very kind things to say about previous incarnations of Sandman.  He said they weren't particularly important to him.  Yet in this sequence, and in the whole story of Jed, he's drawing from the 1970s Jack Kirby incarnation.  It's easy to assume that Gaiman found new inspiration from and respect for his title's predecessors as he was developing his own version.  It would be nice if his publishers did the same.

Astute readers will also note that Jed's tormentors aren't directly related to the creepy Corinthian, the mouth-eyed monster who closed out the last issue, but fellow escapees from Dream's realm, Brute and Glob.  Gaiman doesn't look to be dragging that particular arc out.  It's a sign that he's got much fancier ideas in mind.

It's also worth adding to Klinger's notes from the fifth page that the character of Fury was at one point directly considered to be the daughter of Wonder Woman, a point of continuity that I figure could use a little attention.

The sixth page begins the issue's exploration of another resident of Rose's new home, Gilbert.  Klinger keeps it a secret for now that Gaiman bases this character on writer G.K. Chesterton, a noted literary figure of the early 20th century.  I first became aware of Chesterton as a noted religious writer, and yet the name continues to pop up.  He's at least revered by other writers, and is all but one step removed from C.S. Lewis.  His reputation these days is a little like Little Nemo's, although as long as anyone keeps bringing them up, there's always the chance that their work can be popularly revived.  After all, Melville went through a long process before anyone thought he was worth talking about again.

On the seventh page we learn that the landlord is a drag queen.  Whatever you think of the LGBT community, it's a little odd that Gaiman associates it with the eccentrics of Rose's new home.  Although Gilbert soon enough redeems all of them, so maybe there's less to worry about that.  Klinger explains in the notes that cross-dressing has an extensive history in British culture, concluding with the ever-curious distinction that Peter Pan used to be played by women.  It's true.

Klinger spends two pages of notes trying to clarify the exact family history behind Rose and Jed and why and how they haven't seen each other in seven years.  It's fascinating scholarship that's concluded by admitting Gaiman himself...didn't particularly care.  Anyway, on the second of these pages is Gaiman's own explanation within Sandman itself of just who that raven was from earlier.  It's just as well!

Sometimes Klinger will also transpose the lyrics of a random song Gaiman has had someone sing, and that happens on the eleventh page.

On the twelfth and thirteenth pages, Rose is rescued from would-be attackers by...the mysterious Gilbert!  He turns out to look exactly like G.K. Chesterton.  The "G" of course stands for Gilbert.

It's odd, and perhaps a quirk of Gaiman's own emerging writing style, that the mystery of Gilbert would be so quickly explained.  It took the entirety of Jane Eyre to accomplish the same, for instance.  That Gilbert turns out to be such a capable ally for Rose is another pleasant development.  We've been following both Rose and Jed throughout the issue.  Jed's been in the worse predicament, and Rose's whole reason for coming to Florida was to discover his fate.  Some of the successful results by the end of the issue are to her own sleuthing work.

It's also worth noting that Gaiman was apparently pretty rude in his script for the eighteenth page, whether jokingly or not I don't know.  I don't know how Gaiman tends to behave, or if he's changed over the years, but it was certainly interesting for Klinger to bring that to light.

Klinger notes when Corinthian again appears, on the nineteenth pages, very helpfully, that he's eating the whole time he's talking.  Because he's eating with his eye mouths!

Gaiman's very impressed with Dream preparing to go to war on the final page.  But he's also careful to instruct the artist not to present him like a typical comic book superhero.  It's Klinger's notes that continue to enlighten Gaiman's attitude in these early issues.  Clearly he knows he's on to something, and that he's already got devoted fans, yet there's also...a touch of ego?  And maybe that's not such a bad thing?