Sunday, November 20, 2005

Off the Newsstand --

A couple of recent newsstand purchases worth seeking out:

* The annual Bongo Comics' Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror special is thankfully still malingering on some newsstands, though Halloween has come and gone. Rush out and snag a copy, quick! My friend Dan Barlow luckily pushed me just in time, and I found it last night on one of the few comic spinner racks still left in Brattleboro, VT (thanks, Dan!), though it had just been pulled from some locations, like, yesterday. Per usual, the parodies of known genre chestnuts are knowing and amusing, with an equal quotient of inspired concepts and dialogue and groaners. This year's bumper crop promises more than it delivers, though, by lining up a stellar lineup of guest vet horror/sf cartoonists -- Berni(e) Wrightson, Gene Colan, Mark Schultz, Al Williamson, John Severin, Angelo Torres -- whose work (with the very notable exception of Colan's inspired pencils) is barely recognizable as their work! Pros all, and the stories themselves are perfectly told, but the Groening/Morrison covers (particularly the EC riff) are truer mergers of the Simpsons universe with traditional horror comics stylings.

No insult intended to the artists -- but it's a puzzlement: did editor Bill Morrison and/or Bongo Comics insist upon the artists submerging their styles so completely in the Simpsons template as to smother their distinctive styles? Did the artists assume they were to subsume their work to fit the template?

Whatever the case, it's a disappointment to find Len Wein and Wrightson's satire of their own classic House of Secrets origin of Swamp Thing so neatly revamp that 1970 gem to the world of Homer (transmuted into Squish Thing by failed attempts to create a new flavor mixing Squishies and beer and the fateful intrusion of a time bomb set by Moe, who covets Marge), only to find Wrightson's pastiche of his own past persona reduced to vague stylistic variations (primarily, use of side-lighting to render forms) sans flavor, authenticity or finesse. A few panels are lovely -- page 19's fourth panel (I know it looks inconsequential, but that panel works: there's flow, grace, and weight to the figures, Bart's legs look both "right" and "Wrightson") and final 'collision' panel (ditto); page 20's first two panels (particularly Homer strangling Bart), and best of all the fateful explosion and hilarious "Ow ow ow ow ow [etc.]" immediately following, etc. -- but weakest of all are the "money shots," if you will, Squish Thing's appearances primary amongst those. It looks like a lesser artist's attempt to cop the basics of Wrightson's 1970s work, sans the richness and supple brushwork Berni brought to his stylish "big foot" work on Captain Sternn, the Howard the Duck Presidential campaign poster, or his occasional National Lampoon efforts. In fact, prior year's Treehouse of Horrors stories sported more distinctive Wrightsonesque stylings -- particularly from Hilary Barta, one of this generation's great humorists and all-around cartoonists -- and that leaves me simply befuddled. Still, it's a hoot to find Len and Bernie goofing on their own historic moment in comics history (just one of many, I hasten to add), and we'll take what we can get of such rare rematches when and as they emerge.

The same is true of the Severin, Torres and Mark Schultz/Al Williamson stories: if you held a revolver to my temple, I wouldn't have guessed they had personally executed these gigs (save for the tell-tale Severin portrait of some of his old EC compatriots in the "Shock! Suspense! Simpsons!" splash panel, the only component of the two Severin stories that unmistakably radiates Severin's distinctive style). The Schultz/Williamson story hinges on recreations of the famous EC sf "Squa Tront? Spa Fon!" panels and pages, featuring Al's thick-lipped lizard humanoid aliens rendered as they were in 1953. It looks like someone other than Mark Schultz and Al Williamson clumsily copping Williamson's EC classic: only a few of the backgrounds carry the illusion.

Again, I intend no slight to the artists, all of whom are not just incredible artists but great guys -- I'm just wondering what happened here. Maybe the deadlines were inordinately tight, but one would think that would bring instinctive stylistic approaches to the fore. The fact that all but one of the teamups seem to have been smothered by some sort of 'house template' leads me to think this was an imposition from Bongo, but one can never assume such things: it may actually be that the veterans assumed they were to work as closely as possible to the Simpsons style, and thus avoided their own instincts to meet that perceived job spec. Had I been in the editor's shoes, though, I'd have insisted otherwise: I mean, you don't hire this amazing cosmic aligning-of-the-stars and ask them to not work in their own styles -- or do you?

(One other caveat, and one I have to chalk up to editor Bill Morrison: the Schultz/Williamson EC sf parody "Blast from the Future Past!" at one point hinges on the conceit of Bart and Lisa reading the comic we're reading, culminating in what should have been a great "Turn the page!" gag -- but damn it, the real page layouts don't match those in the 'comic inside the comic,' the page doesn't turn over to the revelatory page, and this sadly blows the joke completely! "D'oh!")

To pull together no less than a half-dozen of horror and sf comics greatest stylists to draw satires of their iconic works -- in effect, "recreate" their own styles -- only to end up with this half-hearted showcase is a disappointment. As Harvey Kurtzman and his Mad stable of artists knew (particularly Wally Wood and Will Elder), and National Lampoon understood and proved time-and-time-again in their 1970s heyday, the best comic parodies sing when they are almost indistinguishable from their sources. In this case, it's hard to fathom how adopting not only the styles of the wellsprings, but hiring the original cartoonists themselves who drew the seminal EC and Swamp Thing stories being satirized, ended up looking like such pallid imitations of the real McCoys.

For that matter, only John Costanza's lettering (on the Tomb of Dracula and Swamp Thing parodies) "plays ball" here. Once more, no slight intended to letterer Karen Bates, but the faux-"Leroy lettering" for the entirity of "Two Tickets to Heck!" and its component quintet of EC pastiche stories doesn't sufficiently emulate the emblematic look and feel of the true EC house lettering style. Like the art, it's all a dim, shallow echo. One can see what was intended, but it rings hollow from stem to stern.

Only Gene Colan comes through in spades: his triumphant, distinctively Colanesque fusion of his eye-popping "straight-no-chaser" Tomb of Dracula visuals with the Simpsons universe is the one absolutely on-the-money wedding of concept and creators in the book, sweetened all the more by the reuniting of Colan with his ol' Tomb of Dracula writer/editor Marv Wolfman. Colan also stays true to his own remarkable sense of page design, panel flow, and action (note page 11's layout in particular), and this lends the story a kinetic charge nothing else in the comic has. It works as beautifully as The Simpsons TV Halloween episode in which Homer entered the three-dimensional world (via inspired CGI renditions of a three-dimensional Homer). The jolting incongruity of seeing the familiar Simpsons characters rendered in Colan's style (reproduced directly from his energetic, atmospheric pencils) is part and parcel of 'the joke,' lending invigorating energy and startling life to Wolfman's confectionary script. The fun both creators bring to the job is contagious, and as with the best of prior year's Treehouse of Horrors tricks-and-treats, the shoehorning of Simpsons stars into classic horror roles (e.g., Smithers as Renfield, Homer, Bart and Lisa as the Van Helsing clan of Tomb of Dracula, etc.) works like a charm. Kudos to Marv and Gene, and I hope there was some sweet retribution in "reclaiming" Blade via this parody!

If only the rest of this annual event had been as inspired.

For the third time, I stress that these are not personalized comments or meant as attacks on any of the creators involved or the Bongo staff -- I'm just flummoxed as a reader who loves the work of all involved, loves the concept of wedding these artists and writers with parodies of their own work, and then wonders upon eye contact with the published work, "Wha' happened?"

* BTW, Berni(e) Wrightson fans take note: This is the weekend the Showtime Network's current Masters of Horror anthology series is broadcasting Dario Argento's adaptation of the classic Bruce Jones/Berni Wrightson Warren horror comics tale "Jenifer". The original comics story remains among Bernie's greatest comics accomplishments, and among Bruce Jones's finest hours as a writer, a high-water mark for horror comics as a genre, and a classic of the genre in any medium. Here's hoping Argento does it justice; it certainly seems like an ideal match of filmmaker and source material.

Note, too, this is arguably the second adaptation of one of Bruce Jones's marvelously heartfelt fusions of horror and romance that so elevated the Warren zines (Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella) they appeared in. Last year's celebrated "you are there" shark movie, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's Open Water,
essentially lifted its premise and some particulars from Jones and Richard Corben's full-color (with black-and-white framing pages) "In Deep". In fact, harrowing as Open Water was, it emulated only the first half of Jones/Corben's truly horrific and heartbreaking story, which pushed the situation to nigh-on-unbearable extremes (I've written a full article comparing the comic tale to the unauthorized/unacknowledged film "adaptation," which will see print in 2006 in one of the Gooseflesh volumes.)

Jones went on write for television, including The Hitchhiker TV anthology series, but his best work to my mind remains his horror/love scripts for Warren -- prominent among those the shattering "Jenifer".

I don't get Showtime, so alas, it'll be a while until I see it, but my amigo and vet Video Watchdog writer/editor/co-publisher Tim Lucas has been highly complimentary of the series thus far. His Saturday, November 19th "Video Watchblog" posting on "Jenifer" is heartening, and with a click and a scroll-down to Tim's November 19th posting, you can find it
  • here.

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    * The latest issue of Filmfax Plus is on the stands -- #108 -- and it's as usual a grand jam-packed read.

    Prominent among this issue's delights (from various retrospective War of the Worlds articles to the usual great mix of interviews and articles with/on everyone from Richard Dix to Tiny Tim) is Part Two of Dan Johnson's marvelous interview with William Stout, this time focusing on Stout's early years working in Hollywood. They cover a lot of ground, from his poster artist work (e.g., Wizards, etc.) to his production design work (on Conan the Barbarian, Return of the Living Dead, Invaders from Mars, etc.), which no doubt continues into the upcoming third installment. Dan and Bill carry the conversation into turf Stout has never before gotten into -- including how he stumbled on his first production design gig, a confessional moment Stout selflessly offers up as "a lesson for someone else out there" -- which shines light into previously unexposed connective corners between Stout's incredibly multi-faceted career. This is essential reading, and per usual Filmfax sweetens the interview with a stunning array of the interview subject's work -- in this case, everything from Stout's seminal bootleg record cover art to never-before-seen storyboard and production design work (including Conan boards that were, at director John Milius's insistence, drawn as full comic pages). Highly recommended!

    By the way, I urge you to get your hands on some of Stout's self-published sketchbooks and collections, and pronto! The two comics collections, Mickey at 60: Volume Two and Motor Mania! -- the latter collecting, for the first time anywhere, Stout's comics for CARtoons magazine, which counts as some of his first comics work -- are particularly recommended. These are just $15 each (plus only $6 total shipping), as are all of Bill's sketchbooks -- with the single exception of his splendid Tribute to Ray Harryhausen, which is a fat 70 pages featuring every one of Ray's stop-motion creations rendered in Stout's distinctive style!

    No, you can't order online -- you gotta write a letter, write a check, and mail it snail-mail to:

    William Stout, Inc.
    1466 Loma Vista Street
    Pasadena, CA 91104-4709

    As a matter of fact, I'm going to check the checklist out (on page 27 of Filmfax Plus #108) against my stash of Stout books, and rush a check out to Bill in the AM for the ones I'm missing. A Merry Christmas gift to myself -- why don't you do the same for yourself?

    Besides, it'll sweeten Bill's Christmas, too!