How Much Do I Love Arnim Zola?
Let me count the ways...
Actually, I think that one way say it all.
- Because it's too small to read — the word balloon says "My eyes are down here."
Let me count the ways...
Actually, I think that one way say it all.
Written by Jack C. Harris (#2-3) and Rich Buckler (#3)
Illustrated by Steve Ditko (#2-4), Rich Buckler (#2), Bill Draut (#3) & Adrian Gonzalez (#4)
Lettered by Bill Yoshida (#2,4) & Rod Ollerenshaw (#3)
Colored by Barry Grossman (#2), Ked Feduniewicz (#3) & John Wilcox (#4)
Let's talk about Red Circle Comics, shall we?
For those of you who don't remember, MLJ Productions (that's Archie Comics to you) has a stable of superheroes that they trot out every decade or so. They never last long, though it's not for lack of trying — various incarnations have used top talent like Charles Biro, Jack Cole, Jack Kirby, Irv Novick, Joe Simon, Jerry Siegel, Rich Buckler, Bob Kanigher, Rudy Nebres, Jim Steranko and, of course, Steve Ditko. So why do they keep failing?
Simple. Archie's superheroes are lame.
To see why, let's look at the Fly. By day, he's Thomas Troy, ace attorney, but when he rubs his magic ring he's magically transformed into... the Fly, mystic emisarry of the Fly-People! His powers include flight and super-strength, and he carries a "buzz-gun" that can fire tranquilizer darts or sonic waves. His powers fade in bright light. He's got a sidekick by the name of Fly-Girl (who is secretly his fiancée Kim Brand), and a charter membership in the Mighty Crusaders (for all that's worth).
Now, there's nothing too terribly lame about all of that — okay, the magic ring and the Fly-People are totally lame, as is his weakness to bright light, but we can work around those. The sad thing is, none of this stuff ever comes into play. We never see Tom Troy in court. The Fly-People only exist to explain where the magic ring comes from, and to deus ex machina the Fly out of any corners the writers have placed him in. The "buzz-gun", his only potentially unique power, is unholstered once (to taze an aggressive driver, no less). His weakness to bright light is conveniently forgotten whenever he needs to operate in bright light. Fly-Girl is only in issue #3, and could easily be replaced by a one-shot character with little difficulty.
All the Fly really does over the course of these three issues is fight supervillains. And what supervillains they are — a mugger, a deformed special-effects artist, and a guy so powerful that he essentially has to defeat himself (no, the Fly doesn't even have to trick him).
This is just not a workable status quo. Any moron can fight supervillains. What makes a series stand or fall is, quite simply, interesting characters. And the Fly is a cipher. Why is he a lawyer? Why does he fight crime? What's his unique approach to fighting crime? Why does he take the woman he loves into battle? You'll need to read between the lines for explanations — assuming that explanations are there to be found.1
Fortunately, one thing the Fly does have going for him is Steve Ditko, drawing his heart out.
Here's the dynamite splash page from issue #2. It's a nice, economical image — there's nothing here that isn't immediately relevant to the scene. We've got the Fly himself, grabbing our attention in the middle ground. We've got police officers in the foreground and background, helping to establish that our location is the precinct house. The criminal in the foreground has his back go us, partly because he's not important but mostly because he'd be too distracting with his face turned towards us. And you have to love the iconic "superhero casts a big scary shadow" motif, which also lets us know that the man on the steps is secretly Tom Troy, the Fly.
The coloring here is quite nice. The background and the cops are a cool blue, which makes Tom Troy immediately leap out at us with his warm color scheme. Even the criminal's green suit fits in — green's a transitional color that meshes well with the cool blues of the background and the warm yellow of the steps. The warm colors are situated on the right side of the page, which helps draw our eyes across the chain of narration and word balloons at the top.
While we're at it, here's a nice use of some standard Ditko motifs from issue #4....
That "tsunami" in the second panel has those weird, unnatural Ditko curves, but they're nicely used here to suggest a massive wave of water. You're immediately struck by their oddness but at the same time you have no doubt what they're supposed to represent.
Written by Steve Ditko & Robin Snyder
Illustrated by Steve Ditko
Lettered by Bill Yoshida
Colored by Tom Ziuko (#5), Barry Grossman (#6-7)
For those of you wondering why the first four issues of The Fly bit hard, editor Robin Snyder offers an explanation in the letter column of issue #7 — apparently the first four issues consisted of old inventory stories.1 Why anyone at Archie would think that launching a new line of superhero comics with decades-old inventory stories would be a good idea is beyond me. Is it any wonder that their superheroes consistently fail?
With issue #5, the inventory stories are gone and Snyder and Ditko are writing all the stories. And you know what? There's a marked improvement. Tom Troy starts to develop an actual personality — too proud to accept the help of others, too optimistic to turn his back on a world that hates him, clever and quick witted but also overeager and impulsive. Not the most original set-up, really, but it's well done and the stories are engaging.
Artistically, Ditko starts off the first issue with an amazing splash page...
That's a lovely type of image that you don't see a lot in comics any more — a nice, high-perspective shot that's an actual story page rather than a space-wasting pin-up image. The Fly's pose is a bit awkward but forms a concave basket that directs you to the real point of interest, the two figures standing in the street light at the bottom of the picture. The Fly and the street light are the only splashes of bright color on the page, with everything else being draped in dark, cool or neutral colors. The word balloons are artfully placed, starting in the upper left-hand corner with the next one being placed under the Fly's legs, where your attention is naturally drawn by the curve of his body. Ditko's drawing is also amazing — the Fly's musculature is superbly defined and exquisitely shadowed, and those undulating waves are obtained with some wonderfully textured inking.
The story for this issue is serviceable — Tom Troy is involved in a patent law case2 when a supervillain (with the lame-o power of extensible arms) starts intimidating witnesses and the Fly needs to get involved. What's more interesting is a left-field plot development — Tom Troy is disbarred for attempting to bribe a witness. Now, we all know that he isn't guilty, but unfortunately the only potential witness accidentally dies and Tom's got no way to prove it.
The next issue sets up a new status quo for the Fly — Tom Troy set up show as a professional problem solver, using the Fly's abilities to help . Not really the most heroic set-up, but it's one that allows plots to come to the Fly rather than vice-versa. It's also becomes clear that Ditko's using the Fly as a mouthpiece for his own brand of Objectivist morality. Here's a few panels of Objectivism-tinted dialogue from issue #6...
This is actually pretty toned-down for Ditko — when he's in Objectivist mode he usually lays it on with a trowel. This may be Objectivism, but he's still couching it in terms of standard superhero tropes which helps it go down smoothly.
But enough of that. So we've got an exciting new status quo and actual personality for the Fly, some stellar art and a new take on superhero morality, all of which are injecting some life into the series. So what's next?
You got it. The Fly was cancelled with issue #9.
Fly-Girl doesn't get a lot of respect. In the letter column to issue #7, Robin Snyder calls her a hopeless anachronism, a piece of clutter that needs to be swept away. And yet, in a couple of ways, she's a lot more interesting character than the Fly.
First, like a lot of derivative superheroines she looks a lot better in costume than her male counterpart. So you can see what I'm talking about, here's a lovely pin-up of the two of them by Rudy Nebres...
Note that while they're wearing roughly the same uniform, Fly-Girl looks a lot better in it than the Fly does. Scaling back the cowl and goggles to a partial face-mask and removing the awkward-looking forepart of the wings makes for a much more elegant and streamlined look. The Fly's uniform looks clumsy and thrown-together by comparison.
And it doesn't help that, as Rudy Nebres draws her, she's smokin' hot.
Second, unlike the Fly, she actually shows some character in her brief appearances. While she's clearly Tom's love interest, she's also got a strong, independent streak and is trying to prove that she's more than just arm candy — she's moved halfway across the country to pursue a career on her own. And she seems to have a bit more grounded than the Fly, realizing in one issue that there are people with problems bigger than hers. She even reaches out to those who are obviously in need, even those who mean her harm. But she's still not afraid to charge into a room full of mobsters and fling them about.
This is a female character I could read about. So of course she gets written out in issue #4 when she dumps Tom. We don't even get to see the guy she's flipped over — she literally announces that she's fallen in love with someone else and gets an amicable send-off in two pages of issue #5. While it's refreshing to see two people acting like adults and breaking up amicably, it really hurts Fly-Girl's character by making her seem flighty (and it also makes the Fly seem somewhat emotionally stunted).
Concept and story by Satoru Akahori
Art by Yukimari Katsura
Character design by Sukune Inugami
School uniform design by COSPA, Inc.
Translated by Adrienne Beck & Janet Houck
Lettering/Retouch by Nicky Lim & Cheese
Edited by Adam Arnold
Shunned by the girl of his dreams, Hazumu lost himself in the mountains and was promptly squashed by an alien spaceship. The aliens, feeling bad for what they did, remade Hazumu's body... but they got it wrong!
Okay, in case you can't tell from the huge list of credits above (concept? character design? uniform design?), this isn't so much an original manga as a media property created to be unleashed on several fronts at once. In addition to the manga and the inevitable anime, there's also a light novel series, a visual novel for the PS2, a straight-to-video movie, a radio play... You get the drift.
At this point those of you who know me are wondering why I even picked up this series in the first place. Well, to be honest, the gorgeous color covers and frontispieces were what did it. They're simply beautiful. Here's the frontispiece from volume 2...
You can see why I'd find this appealing — it's got a nice soft look that's bright and inviting, and even somewhat wistful. And this scan doesn't even capture the luminous, ethereal color of the original.
But is it any good?
Yeah, actually, it is.
The basic plot is this: Hazumu gets squashed by aliens, and rebuilt as a girl. As you can imagine, this makes his life very complicated. He/she/it has difficulty adjusting to life as a woman. Hir parents are inexplicably overjoyed to have a daughter instead of a son. The press keeps hounding xem. The aliens smooshed tem have moved in, and keeps asking shem strange questions about love. Mer overly-hormonal best friend keeps interpreting all of xyr actions as come-ons. Eir other childhood friend, Tomari, has become strangely distant as she tries to reconcile Hazumu's new body with her long-time crush. And for some strange reason Yasuna, the girl who dumped thon, now claims to be in love with zir!1
That's the real thrust of the series — the love triangle between girly-boy-turned-girl Hazumu, the delicately feminine Yasuna, and the tomboyish Tomari. Hazumu and Tomari have more gender-normative roles — at first, they both declare that it's not right for a girl to love another girl, though gradually they realize that they can't deny the strength of their feelings. Yasuna's on the other side — she's only capable of loving Hazumu because he's a girl, as she seems to be suffering from a crippling androphobia. The three of them dance around each other in a sort of love stalemate, occasionally interrupted when the aliens pop up to try and bring the whole thing to a head.
So what sets something like this apart from, say, Pretty Face? Well, for starters, it's not merely a set-up for fan service2. Kashimashi is more interested in exploring the personalities of its characters, and it does a great job of that. Hazumu comes across as a typical pubescent kid, confused by the changes in his body and gripped by the terrible indecisiveness of youth. Tomari's state of denial and her attempts to cling to a Hazumu that no longer exist are explored in fascinating detail. And Yasuna's perfectly feminine facade crumbles a bit to show the creepy awkwardness and petty jealousy that lurk beneath.
If there's a flaw in the writing, it's that the whole enterprise comes off as a too calculated, too artificial. There are moments that just don't play well in the comic, but seem tailor-made for the inevitable anime and video game adaptations. There are tons of extraneous minor characters who exist only for comic relief. The aliens only seem interested in to constructinh plot-driven stories that'll for TV episodes. Aspects of Yasuna's personality are glossed over so that you don't think about them.
Even so, what's here is very well constructed and the "flaws" aren't much more than nitpicks.
Okay, so it's an entertaining read. You really want to know about the art, right?
Well, the art is a bit of a mixed bag. Those color pieces are simply gorgeous, as I've mentioned, but the sequential pages are not as strong. Let's take a look at a sample sequence from the first volume...
The first thing you'll note is that Hazumu and Tomari have the exact same face — the only thing that distinguishes them from each other is the hairstyle.3 They also look way too young — they're supposed to be high school students, but they look like they're barely out of elementary school. The line weight isn't varied enough to create a real sense of dimensionality (though that's partly a matter of personal preference, and is countered somewhat by the sensitive toning).
The storytelling's is solid, though, even if it's straight from Shojo 101 — swirling POV shots on a sparkly background, tight close-ups, exquisitely-detailed clothing, etc. At the same time, though, the figure construction, spotting of detail, and toning are all excellent. What really makes artist Yukimaru Katsura stand out, though, is her gift for body language and facial expressions. Check out this sequence from the second volume...
Note the emotional journey Hazumu goes through in these two pages. First, she's zoned out, indecisive, unable to commit to answering Tomari's phone call, as emphasized by her empty pupils and the open position of her hands. Then she snaps shut the phone in relief, but her anxious, inward posture and mussed hair betray feelings of shame and self-doubt. Next, mild embarassment, followed by a full-blown cartoon freak-out whose exaggerated poses underscore the overly-theatrical histrionics. Then Hazumu reverts to an appropriately neutral face, as she gathers her thoughts and the focus of the scene changes.
Our focus shifts to Hazumu's mental image of Yasuna. At first, she's an object, with a stock smile and a stock pose. A blooming flower, as Hazumu says, but one glimpsed from afar and not in fine detail. But as Hazumu talks to her, she opens up, the expression becomes a bit more particular, though still not completely free from artifice. And then those penetrating eyes, with a delicate tilt and an alluring blackness that suggests wistful longing, but still neutral enough that you wonder whether there's true desire there or if you're just projecting. And then, back to two panels of Hazumu, whose flushed face covered by clenched hands betrays a combination of full-blown desire and slight confusion, even as his distant eyes suggest that he thoughts have turned completely inward.
Now that's some effective body language.
Overall, Kashimashi is a highly entertaining read. Sure, there's some pandering to the audience, and it's not exactly literature, but there are some flashes of brilliance that deserve your attention.
To commemorate the release of the new Rambo here are some sketches of John Rambo by Sam Hiti, from his Ghoulash. sketchbook. They do a great job of capturing the tone, if not the literal reality, of Rambo.
I've never really liked the "PirateFest" event that the Pittsburgh Pirates throw every January. It costs $10 to get in, and about the only "free" events are the autograph and Q&A sessions. Everything else in the hall is a crass attempt to separate you from even more of your money, whether it's on overpriced Pirates merchandise or the same sort of carny games they have at every lame-o street festival. About the only good thing they have is the chance to have some of the gourmet concession options without having to watch the Pirates blow a late inning lead.1.
But I go anyway, because it's a good place to take photos. And they give season ticket holders free passes.2
Afterwards, I had planned to walk right back to Steel Plaza and take the T home, but the ice floes on the Allegheny River caught my eye. So I decided to pop over and see if I could get a few quick shots of those before heading home. Long story short, I wound up spending about an hour walking along the banks of the Allegheny, snapping photos.
Every now and then, I get really annoyed by Pittsburgh. It's a city that desperately needs to change in order to survive, but the establishment spends more time trying to cling to the fleeting. The people who live here are often depressingly parochial, rarely leaving their tiny comfort zones. People tend to think that nothing goes on here, but there are always tons of things to do if you expend even the tiniest modicum of effort.
A quiet hour along the banks of the Allegheny, admiring the hidden beauty of the river and the bridges and the city, helped remind me of the hidden wonders that drew me to this town in the first place. To paraphrase Linus, it's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.
So. Perhaps not the most fun-filled time, but good for the soul.
And then off to BladeRunners' in Harmarville for some roller derby!3
My buddy Sam and I went to see this inter-league clash between the Steel City Derby Demons "Steel Hurtin'" all-star team and the DC Rollergirls "Commanders in Briefs." It was a lot more fun than I'd expected, in both ironic and un-ironic ways. A lot of that was due to the highly entertaining announcing team of Tony Dormont (from Delmont) and Sharon Fluids.
The Steel Hurtin' crushed DC 156-106, but the DC gals won the most important contest — they had better names. Sure, no one would want to mess with to mess with Attaxl Rose, Scary Schiavo, 'Snot Rocket Science or Sugar Plum Scary (Pittsburgh). But those names are nothing when compared to Hellena Handbag, Condoleeza Slice, Deja Bruise, or Guantanamo Babe (DC). We even got an odd "battle of the foodstuffs" moment when Meatball (DC) was jamming against Cheeseburger (Pittsburgh).
So anway. Photos.
And after that was over, Sam and I went downtown to Pegasus and watched the goth kiddies dance until last call.
So yeah, I had a busy day. How 'bout you?