Sunday, October 24, 2010

The EC Archives: Tales From the Crypt, Vol. 1

Writers: Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Artists: Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Jack Kamen, and George Roussos
Collects: The Crypt of Terror #17-19 and Tales From the Crypt #20-22 (EC Comics, 1950-51)
Published: Gemstone Publishing, 2006; $49.95

Hard as it may be to believe today, there was a time in comic book history when horror reigned supreme. That time was the first half of the 1950s, when EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines and his top editor, Al Feldstein, set out to create a completely different kind of comic. With what was surely the most talented stable of artists working in the comics industry, and with almost every story written by Feldstein (with Gaines’s frequent input), EC’s bimonthly horror anthology Tales From the Crypt quickly became one of the best and most consistently beautiful-looking comics being published at the time. This first volume in Gemstone’s series of Tales from the Crypt archives collects the comic’s first six issues, which contain some of the greatest and most influential horror stories ever conceived.

The history of EC Comics is so intertwined with the actual content of its comic books that it’s worth dwelling on, at least for a moment more. Gaines was more than just an idea man; he was also a shrewd businessman. He inherited the company (then called Educational Comics) from his father, who had published a range of wholesome, but utterly bland, comic books, including Picture Stories from the Bible. Within three years of his father’s death, Gaines had transformed the newly-christened “Entertaining Comics” – EC, for short – into something altogether different, not to mention exponentially more successful. Originally called The Crypt of Terror, the company’s flagship title (along with Weird Science, a science-fiction comic) began with issue 17, inheriting its numbering from another EC title, Crime Patrol. At the time, it would have cost an additional fee to start a new comic magazine with a new first issue, although ironically, the U.S. Post Office grew wise to EC’s scheme and made the company pay the fee anyway. With its fourth issue, the series changed its name again, this time to Tales From the Crypt, the title it would retain until its untimely end in 1955.

Each issue contains four stories, which are typically six to eight pages in length apiece. The first story (and sometimes the second) is narrated by the Crypt Keeper, who basically acts as the comic’s “host.” The Crypt Keeper is a creepy old man whose exaggerated dialogue is filled with morbid puns that are so ridiculously campy it’s hard not to chuckle along with him. The actual stories take themselves a bit more seriously. What’s really interesting is that, at least in the early issues, the stories rarely delve into supernatural territory. While some of the characters do seem to encounter ghosts and werewolves and what not, the strange things they see are usually explained as being the manifestations of their inner guilt rather than actual paranormal activity.

This has a great deal to do with one of the defining traits not just of Tales From the Crypt, but of EC’s comic book line in general. In fact, a better way of describing the company’s comics, rather than calling them horror or science-fiction comics, might be to call them morality tale anthologies with a horror or science-fiction twist. Most stories, in the end, involve the meting out of karmic justice, while even those that don’t still achieve their rhetorical effect from the very absence of that justice. Each story also ends with a twist of some kind. Sometimes the twists are obvious and can be seen a mile away; other times, they come totally out of left field. Even in the former case, though, the stories for the most part end satisfyingly and leave you excited for the next one.

So exactly what kinds of stories can you expect to see in this volume? First of all, there are graves and dead bodies – lots of them. In “The Hungry Grave,” for example, a case of mistaken identity leads a man to bury his mistress alive, rather than her husband; in another story, a graveyard prank by a group of rich, spoiled, and bored students leads to tragedy. And then there’s the excellent “The Thing from the Grave” – the ending, in which a dead man seemingly pulls his killer with him into the grave, is pictured on this collection’s cover.

In several stories, men kill their closest friends in order to steal their wives, only to meet horrible and fitting ends themselves. Others are more unique – in “Terror Ride,” a couple of newlyweds find themselves on a death-filled Tunnel of Love ride. That’s not the only story to feature an amusement park, either; in “Death’s Turn,” two greedy amusement park owners cut corners while building the fastest roller coaster ever, leading to predictably ghastly results. Many of the stories reach backward in time to play on common folklore and urban legend, while others lay the groundwork for horror classics that would come many years later. One of my favorite stories in the book, “The Maestro’s Hand,” anticipates Sam Raimi’s brilliant Evil Dead 2 (one of my favorite horror movies) in its depiction of a disembodied hand that skitters about almost comically before achieving its chilling, murderous end.

There is one major problem with this collection, one that, admittedly, may not bother other people as much as it bothers me – every story in this collection has been re-colored using modern technology. In general, the argument for re-coloring older comics is that the original creators simply weren’t able to produce the range and quality of colors they wanted due to technical or budgetary limitations at the time. On the final page of this collection, Gemstone publisher Russ Cochran tries to justify the re-coloring process by arguing that coloring in comic books prior to 1950 was primitive and generally handled by non-artists. The problem with this argument, though, is that Tales From the Crypt was published after 1950, and was in fact colored by Marie Severin, one of the single best colorists in the industry’s history. The new coloring does a huge disservice to the original artists, whose beautiful linework looks strange and unnatural at times in this book.

Another minor complaint is that this book is interspersed with advertisements for other books published by Gemstone, including other EC Archive editions. This comes off as a pretty tacky move, especially for a book that costs as much as this one does. I find it unlikely that most people who buy this book would be unaware that other EC Archives exist, and even in that case, it’s not a problem that a one-page list of other Archives at the end of the book wouldn’t solve.

While the presentation isn’t ideal, the fact still remains that this is the only way to see these stories in print without buying the original issues, which can be quite expensive these days. Perhaps one day another company will gain access to this material and present it in a better format – I certainly hope so. But until then, if you’re a fan of horror stories or even of great storytelling in general, this collection of Tales From the Crypt is, even despite its flaws, a must-read.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Melvin Monster, Vol. 1

Writer/Artist: John Stanley
Collects: Melvin Monster #1-3 (Dell Comics, 1965-66)
Published: Drawn and Quarterly, 2009; $19.95

John Stanley will almost certainly be forever celebrated as one of the greatest and most prolific creators in the history of children’s comics. He’s best known for Little Lulu (one of my favorite comic book series from the 1950s), but he created comics based on a wide range of other well-known characters too, including Alvin and the Chipmunks, Krazy Kat, Nancy, and Woody Woodpecker. One of his most original efforts, Melvin Monster was a short-lived series – ten issues long, the last issue being a reprint of the first – but also one of the creator’s most critically-acclaimed. This first installment in Drawn and Quarterly’s “John Stanley Library” collects the series’ first three issues, reprinted on nice, thick paper from high-quality scans of the original comics.

The concept of the series is essentially that Melvin is a little boy monster who looks and acts like a cross between Frankenstein’s Monster and Tubby from Little Lulu. He lives in Monsterville with his parents “Mummy” and “Baddy,” whose physical appearances (as you might imagine, since this is a fairly humorous children’s comic) are reflective of their names. The overall tone is in keeping with the comically inverted moral sensibility of shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters – both of which were popular at the time Melvin Monster was being published – in which behavior that we would think of as “good” or “normal” is considered strange and unnatural by the characters. As a result, Melvin’s parents encourage him to play hooky, throw rocks at windows, and generally cause mischief whenever and wherever possible.

Melvin is an interesting case, though, in that he would rather go to school and be nice to people than get into trouble. He doesn’t have quite the same sense of moral uprightness as a character like Casper the Friendly Ghost, but he’s just as charming in his naiveté. This comes through most clearly when he’s transported, on several different occasions, to our own world (which is alternately called “Human Being Land” and “Humanbeanville”). Despite the best of intentions, Melvin manages to annoy quite a few people through such peculiar activities as running across the middle of a busy street and eating a man’s shoe right off his foot. When the people he’s offended attempt to do him harm (one man actually tries to run him over with a car), the always-innocent Melvin believes they know he is a young monster and that they’re simply trying their best to make him feel at home.

The first two issues each tell a full story from start to finish. The first sees Melvin unintentionally blowing up the monster schoolhouse, getting lost in the human world, and being captured by a duplicitous old man for display in a zoo; the second has Melvin discovering that a door in his parents’ basement leads into a subway tunnel, leading him into even more misadventures in the human world. The plots unfold much like they do in Little Lulu, beginning with a fairly straightforward situation (Melvin wanting to go to school in the first issue, for example) which quickly spirals into ridiculous (and hilarious) territory. The third and final issue is the weakest of the group, being composed of a series of shorter stories of about three to five pages each. It does have some of the most hilariously bizarre imagery in the book, though, including a corpulent French mouse armed with a meat cleaver.

Aside from Melvin and his parents, other recurring characters include Damon the Demon (Melvin’s useless and negligent “guardian demon”) and the family’s pet crocodile Cleopatra, who mirrors the frenzy of the crocodile in Peter Pan in her constant attempts to eat Melvin. The main character’s utter obliviousness to the fact that everyone else seems to have it in for him is a near-constant source of humor – at one point, for instance, a witch feeds him an entire barrel of poisoned apples, to no avail – although if you read enough in one stretch, his stupidity can get a bit tiring. That small disclaimer aside, Melvin Monster is pretty enjoyable reading.

I do have a fairly significant complaint about the actual collected edition itself, though, which is that it lacks any kind of introduction or afterword explaining the material’s significance or context. In archival volumes like these (see anything published by Fantagraphics, or under IDW’s “Library of American Comics” banner), it’s become customary for book editors to present at least some information about a comic and its author(s). Books like this one present the opportunity for seriously investigating the cultural and historical significance of comics, and it’s sad to see that squandered in this case.

That’s not necessarily a reason to avoid Melvin Monster, but for those approaching it in the hopes of learning more about John Stanley and his work, it’s something to keep in mind. If you’re really interested in Stanley, or in children’s comics from this era in general, Little Lulu is a much better bet; but if you’ve already familiarized yourself with Lulu and her pals, or you’re simply looking for classic comics more in the Halloween spirit, this isn’t a bad book to look into either.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Torso

Writers: Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko
Artist: Brian Michael Bendis
Collects: Jinx: Torso #1-6 (1998-99)
Published: Image, 2000; $24.95

Torso is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. It seemed like a perfect fit for me since I find a lot of Brian Michael Bendis’s early work pretty enjoyable, and since the story is tangentially related to one of my favorite movies, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. The movie follows federal agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) in his efforts to bring down the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, and ends with Capone being convicted of tax evasion, the only charge Ness and his team could get to stick. Torso is based on the actual story of what Ness did afterward, which was to take over as Safety Director for the city of Cleveland. Before long, though, the city is struck by a series of bizarre murders committed by a serial killer known as the “Torso Killer.”

The real-life story here is pretty fascinating, and it’s clear that Bendis and co-writer Marc Andreyko did a lot of research for the book. Unfortunately, an interesting concept and solid research don’t necessarily make for good writing or artwork, neither of which are to be found with any consistency in Torso. The story follows not just Ness, but two detectives who have been assigned to the Torso Killer case. None of the characters are very easy to sympathize with – the detectives are interchangeable and bland, and Ness comes off most of the time as little more than an arrogant jerk. The writing is pure Bendis, and if you’re at all familiar with his recent work then you know exactly what I mean: the book is full of ridiculously talkative characters who ask and answer far too many rhetorical questions in as choppy and stilted a fashion as humanly possible.

But what kills the book more than anything else is the art, which is quite possibly the laziest I have ever seen in a comic book. Each character has no more than five different facial expressions, which Bendis simply copies and pastes for every single panel, changing their sizes and their positions in relation to each other as the situation warrants. Think of it like trying to tell a story with an industrial-sized box of the same five stickers. Perhaps in an effort to make the book “dark and gritty,” almost every expression in Bendis’s limited repertoire is heavily shadowed, even when the characters appear in settings that should be considerably brighter. For scenes in which something other than an extreme close-up is needed, the characters usually appear simply in silhouette. It’s worth noting too that text at the beginning of each of the book’s six chapters claims that Torso was “created and written” by Bendis and Andreyko, and “executed” by Bendis. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a pun; if it is, I’m not laughing.

If the book were only 30 or 50 pages, I probably wouldn’t have minded the repetition in the art so much – but at nearly 300 pages, I was sick of even looking at Torso about a third of the way into it. In fact, I think it was around that point that I realized I would rather have just read the actual script than the comic itself. It’s not just that the art is boring; it’s that it actively works against the story. The ending in particular is an incomprehensible mess, due mostly to the fact that everything and everyone in the last few pages looks exactly the same. I honestly have no idea what happens in the final scenes, although I’ve determined that it involves multiple decapitations (with one character somehow being decapitated twice, as far as I can tell) and at least one character being alive for some reason after having died in a fire just minutes earlier. Does that sound confusing? It should, because it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. In fact, in the process of writing it down I very well may have actually made it sound more coherent than it really is.

As I’ve already mentioned, the true story that Torso is based on is undoubtedly an interesting one. Don’t let that fool you into reading this disappointing comic, though – it will only frustrate you and leave you with more questions than you had before you started. If you’re really that interested in the subject matter, picking up a history book seems to me like it would be a much better bet.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Deadpool Classic, Vol. 2

Writer: Joe Kelly
Artists: Ed McGuinness, Kevin Lau, Aaron Lopresti, Bernard Chang, Shannon Denton, and John Fang
Collects: Deadpool #2-8 and #-1, and Daredevil/Deadpool Annual 1997
Published: Marvel, 2009; $29.99

Now this is more like it. While the first trade in the Deadpool Classic series was an odd hodgepodge of some of the title character’s earliest appearances, the second one, thankfully, is a much more cohesive package. It begins where the first volume left off, with the second issue of Deadpool’s 1997 ongoing series – and while I still think not including the first issue in this book is a cheap ploy on Marvel’s part to sucker readers into spending more money on these trades than they reasonably should, it’s hard to fault the actual stories for what’s clearly a boneheaded decision on Marvel’s part.

The issues collected in Deadpool Classic, Vol. 2 are all written by Joe Kelly, whose Deadpool run I had heard a great deal about but never encountered personally until I read this book. Many people consider his work with the character to be better than anyone else’s by far, and even having only read these early issues, I’m inclined to agree. Tonally, Kelly strikes the perfect chord: Deadpool’s dialogue and the situations he finds himself in are often funny, but at the same time Kelly presents the character (and the reader) with moral dilemmas that one simply won’t find in the majority of superhero comics. My favorite moments in this book came when Deadpool’s sense of humor fell completely away and we were able to see something of the man behind the mask – a deeply disturbed man whose actions and worldview heart-wrenchingly reveal to us the real depths of human existence.

In the book’s first story arc, we learn from Killbrew, the scientist who essentially “created” Deadpool (and who I could have sworn was referred to as “Killebrew” in the first trade), that Deadpool is dying. The search for a cure leads our main character to team up with on-again/off-again love interest Siryn, come face-to-face for the first time with future rivals T-Ray and Taskmaster, tear things up in a surprisingly brutal fight with the Hulk, and even work reluctantly with Killbrew, the one man he despises above all else. Seeing as Deadpool is still around today, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that he doesn’t actually die in this story, although Kelly does take the opportunity to permanently weaken the character – in the years since his initial appearance, he had grown to be ridiculously powerful and virtually un-killable.

Rather than a life-and-death struggle, then, Deadpool is faced with one of those poignant existential dilemmas I mentioned above: does Killbrew really deserve to die, and even if he does, is Deadpool the man who should kill him? Siryn, acting as the proverbial angel on his shoulder, doesn’t think so – but then again, can she ever truly understand someone like Deadpool? The ending to this story is one of the best endings I’ve read in a superhero comic in quite a while, as it really makes the reader think about who the main character is and why he does the things he does. It also sets the record straight (well, straighter) on Deadpool’s relationship with Siryn, who quickly grew on me as a character over the course of these issues. She doesn’t feature much in the trade’s second half, unfortunately, but I definitely hope to see more of her in future volumes.

The first story arc is followed by a “Minus One” issue starring Zoe Culloden, a woman last seen at the end of the first Deadpool Classic trade, who has been monitoring the mercenary Wade Wilson as a potential recruit for some sort of mysterious program. The story takes place long before Wade ever became Deadpool, and in fact we barely even see him at all; Kelly focuses instead on the character’s then-girlfriend, who Zoe befriends in an effort to learn more about him. It’s an adequate story, and I’m sure its events will play an important role as the series goes on, but its serious tone feels a little removed from the quirky nature of most of the rest of the book.

The book’s second big story arc has Deadpool taking on two new jobs: one being to break a woman out of a mental asylum, and the other being to kill her. Making things even more confusing, the two jobs were ordered by the same person – the mental patient herself, who turns out to be Typhoid Mary. All of this leads directly into the extra-sized Daredevil/Deadpool Annual 1997, which ends up being little more than an excuse to throw those two characters into the same comic while retconning some details from Frank Miller’s Man Without Fear miniseries, in order to tie the origins of Daredevil and Typhoid Mary more closely together.

I wasn’t too hot on these issues, to be honest. It’s not that they’re poorly written or anything, they just didn’t draw me in like the first few issues did. Typhoid Mary just isn’t one of my favorite villains – I’m much more interested in characters like Magneto and Dr. Doom, who are often misguided but firmly believe that their actions will ultimately benefit the world in some way. Straightforward psychopaths like Mary (and, to a lesser extent, Bullseye) who simply kill people for the sake of killing just aren’t as compelling to me, since there’s no bigger moral, social, or political issue at stake in their actions.

But while the final part of Deadpool Classic, Vol. 2 isn’t much to write home about, the trade’s strong first half more than makes up for it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the story that begins in the final issue of the first Deadpool Classic trade and continues into the first four issues of this collection is one of the best Deadpool stories I’ve ever read. If you even think you might be a Deadpool fan, this is a book well worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Friday, October 1, 2010

Streams of Consciousness – 9/30/2010

Hey everyone, just a few things to share with you today. First of all, I’ve done quite a bit of work on the Marvel Trade Paperback Timeline over the last couple of weeks. When I first posted it, the reading order covered the years 1998 through 2001. It now covers 1998 through 2004 – or, in terms of Marvel continuity, from Heroes Return through Avengers Disassembled. Furthermore, from what I can tell the timeline is totally complete for those years, even including a number of trades that haven’t been solicited yet. But if you think I’m missing something or that I need to shuffle anything around, please let me know! And if you have any other feedback at all, feel free to leave a comment or email me at marveltimeline@gmail.com. (And speaking of reading orders, Ian at Trade Reading Order is back to working on his site after a brief hiatus, so head over there and leave him a comment!)

That aside, this blog reached two other milestones recently. The first is that Gambit Classic, Vol. 1 marked the blog’s 25th review, and while I’m not sure the honor should have gone to such a terrible book, I’m really happy to have been able to keep this going for so long. And that brings me to the second milestone, which is that yesterday marked the blog’s six-month anniversary! So thanks to everyone who’s been following the blog, either in terms of commenting, being an actual “follower” on Blogger, or even just reading my ramblings every week; your comments and feedback are what keep this enjoyable for me.

So I think that’s about it for now. There should be a new review either Friday or Saturday – see you then!