Thursday, November 23, 2017

Western Marvel Firsts - Two-Gun Kid!

Marvel was thrumming with energy when they pushed out a revised Two-Gun Kid onto the comic book marketplace. This Kid was a western variation on the superhero tropes which was working so well for the company at that moment -- the revised Rawhide Kid had been a big hit, so the duo of Lee and Kirby tried it again. Greenhorn lawyer Matt Hawk took over the comic with its sixtieth issue.

Before Hawk, there had been Clay Harder introduced way back in 1948. But his kind of western heroics felt somewhat tired compared to the more Kirby-infused energy of this new hero. Coming to the west to bring law and order to the chaos of the wild west, Matt quickly learns he is up against a more vicious foe than he'd anticipated. He runs across old gunslinger Ben Dancer who trains the eager Hawk in the ways of the west and Matt takes on the masked identity of the Two-Gun Kid while keeping his own self hidden behind the milquetoast veneer of the timid lawyer from the east. It was a pretty nifty premise, time-tested and it held its own for several years.

Here are some choice covers featuring the new and improved Two-Gun Kid.

I came to fully appreciate the Two-Gun Kid when Steve Englehart brought him and many other Marvel western stars into a time-twisting Avengers epic. Two-Gun liked the 20th Century and came forward with Hawkeye as his amigo and the two traveled around together for a time. They even had a one-shot adventure together in the one hundredth issue of Marvel Tales. (Check out this Groovy Link for that story and hang around for a Thanksgiving feast while you're at it.)  Eventually he returned to his time, but certainly this proved he was in many ways Marvel's most modern western star.

Only the debut issue of Matt's adventures have been collected as part of Marvel Firsts - The 1960s. I'd buy more if they put them out in a handy format.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Alternate Mark Of Kane!

Take this vintage 1969 fanzine Alter Ego cover with typically energetic Gil Kane images surrounding a Marie Severin portrait.

Add one vintage 1963 Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson Green Lantern cover from that classic DC run, in which the artist cleverly bends, if not breaks the Fourth Wall.

And you get the most recent  2017 Alter-Ego pro-zine cover for issue #149 from Roy Thomas and the gang at Twomorrows! Love this one boys. Some books you buy because of the covers. I'd have bought this one anyway, but I'd have bought for the cover too.

And for good measure, here is the interview from that long ago issue of Alter Ego.

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Dojo Classics - Jonah Hex!

Blockbuster is running a special this month, one free movie everyday (if it's not too new). Since I live right next to a Blockbuster, I've been taking advantage of that and yesterday I took a gander at the Jonah Hex movie from last year. It left the theaters so quickly I didn't get a chance to see it, and frankly I'd forgotten about it until I saw it on the racks.

It's sure a short movie, the whole thing like just over eighty minutes long including some lengthy credits. The movie got almost universal pans, but I have to say I found virtues in it.

Josh Brolin is a worthy Hex, his grumbly exterior suits the character well. I read that Thomas Jane wanted the part, and frankly I think he would have been better, at least in looks. He's got a great glare too.

Megan Fox is a lovely girl, but she has almost no part in this movie other than being eye candy. They want to suggest otherwise, but frankly she has little to do and her contributions at the end seem forced.

John Malkovich does one of his usual baddie jobs, but it's become rather typical for him.

Michael Fassbender as the psychotic Burke is interesting and was worthy of more screen time. His demise was easily the most interesting of any of the characters in the movie.

This movie seems to have been a tight flick with the back story melded in to the main plot through flashbacks, but clearly someone thought that wasn't going to be clear enough so they added an odd partially animated "origin" at the beginning which frankly took away from the impact of the movie.
I could almost see where those scenes were supposed to go originally and it would've been best to leave them there. Hex is supposed to be a mystery at first, one that we unravel, but someone didn't have confidence in our ability to do that.

This isn't a great movie by any stretch, but it was entertaining enough with just enough occult and Wild West moments to keep it fresh. You sure can't say it drags, because it is a brisk adventure with some wild violence, for those who must have violence.

I paid nothing to see it, and I didn't feel cheated.

UPDATE: The detail that dates this review is simply that it mentions Blockbuster, a company which died off many years ago now due to the advent of streaming and whatnot. For me the advent of DVDs feels like yesterday, but it's a fast-paced world we live in. As for the movie itself, time has not been kind to Jonah Hex, it's regarded as a dud. I can't disagree, but it's no worse than the dimwitted Lone Ranger we got a few years ago. Why can't Hollywood make a decent western from these kinds of heroes. Jonah Hex could've and should've been a movie on par with the Blade series, a snappy sidebar character with a rich universe in which to play. Missed chance for sure.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Gil Goes West!

Once upon a time Gil "Sugar Lips" Kane was the main cover artist for Marvel Comics. His images dominated the newsstands as he cranked out cover after cover for the "House of Ideas". While not all of them are gems, they are all full of the particular energy Kane could bring to his imagery. He seemed able to find that singular moment when the potential action was at its most compressed.  Something about the westerns though seemed to bring out his best dramatic work as evidenced by this score of covers from that vintage Kane era. Enjoy!

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Justice League And The Fourth World!

Like many folks I guess, I went to see the Justice League movie in the theaters and I admit I was entertained. Though far from a perfect movie, this flick did do what a Justice League movie is supposed to do, put together recognizable heroes of the DC Universe and have them battle a menace of world-conquering proportions, one that none of them could battle and defeat alone. This movie went one step further and took the concepts of the Jack Kirby's Fourth World and fused them into a flick for all the world to wonder at.

More after these SPOILER WARNINGS.

We enter a world we've visited a few times now -- a world in which Superman's appearance some years before rocked the philosophical underpinnings of how mankind saw itself. This is a world in despair after the fall of its newest messiah and a world in which Bruce Wayne as Batman is plumbing the shadows of the cities looking for the vestiges of a new threat which has appeared in the wake of Superman's passing. This is threat is the one Luthor invoked at the end of the last movie, the fell threat of Darkseid. But it's not Darkseid we meet, but rather his uncle and agent Steppenwolf. Spread around the Earth are three "Mother Boxes" which when joined together will form a "Unity" which bodes poorly for the survival of mankind as we know it. The threat is vague but it's a threat which was beaten back thousands of years before by the combined might of the Amazons, the Atlanteans, the Olympian Gods, and even some Green Lanterns, in addition to mankind itself. Then in a Tolkienesque touch the tokens of the deadly menace which they had beaten back were distributed to the various populations and hidden. The Atlanteans guard one, the Amazons guard one and mankind has hidden one somewhere. In the role of Frodo is Victor Stone who has become a superhero because his life was saved by using Mother Box technology to make him a Cyborg. And now Steppenwolf has returned with an army of deadly Parademons to do his bidding. Batman knows that he and Wonder Woman will not be sufficient to face the threat and despite getting help from Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman, still knows they need to resurrect Superman. They do and combined into a fighting unit they confront the enemy and as we know they must defeat the threat for now.

That's the story, straightforward enough, but alas still filled with lots of unknowns, so many that in the final analysis feeling good about the defeat of Steppenwolf is difficult to do. He is always a proxy for Darkseid and any victory against him is a small and temporary one. It is in establishing the villain that the movie fails most thoroughly. Steppenwolf is a CGI creation and unfortunately not a very compelling one. Despite a dandy actor (Cirian Hinds) we get little from him beside the obligatory bluster and contempt all such villains bray. And in failing to define the threat, the movie makers fail to give the League menace which can define them. They all rise to the occasion, but beyond marking their bravery, the attacks on Steppenwolf demands little of them. As nifty as it was to see Parademons they never rise above cannon fodder and so are not unlike the rocks and cement which falls, dangerous but without wit or any sense of will.

As for the heroes, I found Cyborg to be a pleasant surprise. He had much more screen presence than I anticipated and the way his technological origin was folded into the menace made much of the story make more sense as there was instantly less reliance on coincidence to make events cohere. Fortunately there is very little inkling that the Mother Boxes exert a malign control on Cyborg or the Frodo comparison would be even more profound. The Flash was a nice alternative to the generally dour heroes, his lack of battle experience becoming a neat entry for the viewer as the war begins to rage with a hectic abandon. Batman and Wonder Woman are fighting machines, giving over to it so efficiently that there's no inner sense of danger for the viewer to latch onto. It is only in the Flash that we feel the weight of what they do. Aquaman was a ton of fun to watch and listen to, his sarcasm a worthy counterpoint to Batman's grim pronouncements and Wonder Woman's aged wisdom. It is in these heroes and their interactions that the film finds vitality.

I've read a lot of beef with Batman. But the Batman here is a generation removed from any we've seen before. This is the Batman after decades of battling crime in Gotham who faces a deadly menace beyond his ability to cope if not to understand. He knows he's a small fish now in a world filled with Supermen and Wonder Women and only his wits and his tech are going to allow him any chance to compete. I found him fun to watch, brutal and direct and canny. He's Wildcat with money, the grizzled boxer who wants to  give the new kids a sense of the danger they face and to simultaneously feed off some of that eagerness to wage the fight. Wonder Woman feels, Superman understands, but it's Batman who knows and that knowledge weighs on him like years which separate him from his prime.

The mutation of the "Mother Boxes' into engines of destruction and not as they are represented in the Kirby comics as delicate devices of encouragement and comfort was hard to understand. I hope we learn more eventually about their nature and how they fit into worlds at the the end of the Boom Tubes. And that is my biggest gripe with this movie, the lack of any sense of a world beyond the Boom Tube. They appear to deliver Steppenwolf and eventually to suck him up but we never get any sense of the locale on the other side. That failing makes his menace less potent and turns all of the hectic battling into just spectacle and not a heartfelt war for survival it continually purports to be. There is no sacrifice in the end which makes the viewer feel the weight of the war. Amazons die when Steppenwolf first appears but in Atlantis the battle seems underwhelming and the finale was too much video game to really be that compelling.

The "Justice League" itself was wonderful see. Sadly the enemy was not up to the task. As the second tag ending showcased though, maybe next time Luthor and The Exterminator can round up some baddies that do answer the call. We'll have to hope and see.


The sad truth is I only liked the movie and I wanted to love Justice League. I don't. Alas, the movie failed to achieve the depth of theme that its predecessors reached.  That's largely because the villainy is incoherent. The threat of Darkseid and of Apokolips is the loss of free will and the resultant souless domination of man. Steppenwolf's threat appears much more a menace to the body and not to the spirit. Because he's just a big and very strong opponent, his defeat means less in the narrative and required less of the heroes. In the last movie we lost a hero who sacrificed himself for our sakes and in this one we gain heroes who battle on our behalf. The latter is noble and deserving of praise, but doesn't strike at the heart in the same way or make the same impression. Justice League is about a group of heroes who assemble to stop a villain from taking over the world. You'd think that would be enough, but as it turns out it wasn't quite.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Blackmark Of Kane!

Gil Kane is one of those artists who left his mark on comics in a most specific way. He developed a style quite unlike anyone else, immediately recognizable and full of a vibrant kinetic energy which rippled across the page and leaped off the page at the reader.

A working artist who served well and reliably on early DC efforts like Rex the Wonder DogThe Atom and Green Lantern, he tumbled across the field to work for Marvel on Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and the Hulk among many others. He was the go-to cover for Marvel for many years. He worked for Tower Comics on the beloved THUNDER Agents. He was considered for a brief time to be the replacement artist for Barry Windsor Smith when he stepped away from Conan the Barbarian. I would have to imagine that  notion came in no small part because of Blackmark.

Blackmark was the brawny and visceral hero of  a distinctively "primitive world of the future" as presented in a proposed series of paperback comics scheduled to to be published by Bantam Books. Alas despite a scheme for three tomes, only one ever graced the stands and that one apparently failed to find the kinds of sales that Bantam craved or anticipated. Blackmark, not unlike its independent magazine cousin His Name Is...Savage disappeared after only a single issue. And that was it.

The came Roy Thomas, a booster for many artists and a friend and colleague of Gil Kane. The two seemed to find a wonderful balance working together and when Barry Smith wanted off his hit Conan the Barbarian, it was Gil Kane that Thomas considered as his replacement.

Kane did two issues of the regular Conan run and then had to beg off as Smith returned briefly. When Smith left again soon thereafter John Buscema (the original choice) was tapped and comics history was well and truly made.

Kane went on to become a durable part of the Bullpen and worked on a number of comics including the giant-size version of Conan which adapted Robert E. Howard's The Hour of the Dragon. When Thomas pushed out The Savage Sword of Conan in 1974 to take full advantage of the craving for more barbarians, he clearly was hungry for content which might fill the pages and Blackmark came to mind. The pages from the Bantam paperback were re-pasted for the new format and in the first four issues of the successful magazine Kane's singular swordsman appeared in the back pages, never rating a cover but getting several mentions.

Later still, the second unpublished Blackmark graphic novel was adapted from the format designed for publication in a Bantam paperback and published in its entirety by Marvel in Marvel Preview. This time Blackmark rated a cover appearance in a painting by an artist named Romas.

And that was it for the benighted saga of Blackmark for many years. Eventually however the folks at Fantagraphics saw fit to finally publish the material all together for the first time in a format which followed the pattern of the original Bantam books but somewhat larger to allow the artwork to be better appreciated. This volume from the early years of this century remains the definitive edition of Gil Kane's great epic, an epic which sadly like so many wonderful concepts of that era remained unfinished, though far from unsatisfying.

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