The Art of the Sell: Moon Knight

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

moon knight

I’ve long held an affection for Moon Knight, both the character and the nineteen-eighties comic book series preside over by writer Doug Moench and artist Bill Sienkiewicz. And yet every time I’ve gone back and perused an issue or two — with an entry in the “My Misspent Youth” feature in mind — I’ve found it to be difficult sledding. Even though I read a bunch of those comics back in my heavy-duty collecting days, the old panels stir few real memories.

Strange as it seems, I wonder if my recollection of the amazing coolness of Moon Knight stemmed less from the comics themselves and more from the advertising that probably drove me to them in the first place. Just look at that copy. “CIVILIZATION ITSELF SEEMS TO BE ONE LONG, AGONIZED SCREAM.” How could that not rattle my young brain. And then there’s the promise at the bottom: “FIFTY CENTS. WORTH IT.” Of course I felt like the coolest kid at the comic spinner when I grabbed my copy of Moon Knight. Who wouldn’t?

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

My Misspent Youth: Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I must on occasion, let me preface what follows by conceding that I am about to abuse the word “youth” in the title of this feature. Stumptown, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Matthew Southworth, debuted in 2009, well past the point that I could claim any dewy upon mine eyes. My mild justification for highlighting it under this regular banner is that the series — while hardly a throwback — strongly reminded me of the independent comics I read while in high school, during the initial boom of upstart publishers challenging the so-called Big Two and their near pathological insistence that only superhero adventures could sustain a monthly publishing schedule.

The more accurate justification is that I just wanted to write about Stumptown today. So here we go.

Stumptown 1

The series follows Dex Parios, a privavte investigator in Portland, Oregon. In the manner of countless pulp paperback gumshoes before, Dex is beset by rough-edged flaws. She has a gambling problem, a way of blundering into trouble, and a tendency to hit the bottle hard enough that it is inclined to hit back. Rucka, who’s earned plentiful praise for his female characters over the years, doesn’t write Dex as particular remarkable of tragic. She’s not some facile “strong female character,” in place to prove something about post-feminist feminism or to upend genre norms or anything like that. Instead, she is just a complex person made up of fascinating layers — so the stuff of fine fiction.

While the fundamentals of the character and the storyline — involving a missing young woman, a batch of shifty individuals, and, of course, money that must be followed — are often deployed to fill up a lean detective novel, Rucka isn’t just transporting a story suited for a different format over to the funny pages. He knows full well that he’s writing a comic, which opens him up to other storytelling tactics in terms of staging. In particular, he and Southworth demonstrate an impeccable sense of timing throughout, taking advantage of the static progression of panels to deliver wryly humorous moments.

Stumptown 2

In addition to the jointly impressive commitments to character and plot, Stumptown is notable for its setting. More specifically, in placing the action in Portland, Oregon — Rucka’s home base — the creators deliberately tried to avoid any sort of generic rendering of the Pacific Northwest city, which would be inherently wobbly in its accuracy. As with everything other element, they wanted to get it right.

“It’s always a big disappointment to watch a movie shot in your hometown and find they’ve gotten it all wrong, that’s there’s no way that character can step outside that building and see that bridge or whatever,” Southworth noted in an essay printed in the first issue.

That conviction led him — a resident of nearby Seattle, at least at the time — to do meticulous research on the places Rucka spelled out in his scripts. There’s a general directness to Southworth’s art that can tip over into visuals that are thrilling into their detail and beauty.

stumptown 5

I had never ventured to Portland when I original read the series, but it didn’t matter. The verisimilitude of the storytelling — visually and narrative — carried its own weight that made the whole piece feel more authentic. Especially in an era in which superheroes rule the movie screen, the immediate cultural association with comic book stories is of the wild, the wondrous, the fantastical. Stumptown is a fine reminder that comic books are a medium and not a genre. There are a lot of different kinds of stories to tell in those stepping stone panels, including stories that feel as real as a gun barrel smacked across the bridge of one’s nose.

stumptown 4

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“Barbara used to say that he didn’t phrase things strongly enough when he visited his doctor. She’d ask, ‘Did you tell him about your back? Did you tell him you were in agony?’ and Liam would say, ‘Well, I mentioned I was experiencing some discomfort.’ Barbara would roll her eyes. So now he leaned forward in his chair. ‘I have a very, very serious concern,’ he said. ‘I really need to talk about this. I feel I’m going crazy.’”

Anne Tyler, Noah’s Compass, 2009

“CONFUSION CURLS LIKE A VISCOUS FOG ABOUT THE REINSTATED MIND OF DR. ALEC HOLLAND — HE KNOWS NOT HOW HIS HAPLESS FRIENDS HAVE COME TO JOIN HIM IN THIS DANK AND DARKLING CHAMBER — HE KNOWS NOT THE NATURE OF THE SCABBED AND SCALY HORROR THAT CONFRONTS THEM — HE KNOWS ONLY THAT THE ONE THING THAT CAN HOPE TO STAND BETWEEN THE TWO IS — HIMSELF…

–David Michelinie, SWAMP THING, Vol. 4, No. 15, “The Soul-Spell of Father Bliss!” 1975

My Misspent Youth: Doomsday by Marv Wolfman

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

ff doomsday

I can’t overstate how magical it was the first time I walked into a comic book shop. My age was barely into double-digits and it was an era when most comics were sold at supermarkets and drug stores, given plenty of real estate over by the magazines, so it was a strange notion, this whole storefront devoted to nothing but these colorful periodicals populated by super-powered beings.

Thrilling as it was to see the new comic books meticulous arranged alphabetically (as opposed to shoveled randomly into a spinner rack) and the piles upon piles of old issues, I think what impressed me most was the array of ancillary products decorated with popular superheroes. At the time, it was a humble lot. There were no bankbook-breaking statues or life-size replica character accouterments. Still, these were items that I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else.

On one of those first trips to the comic book shop, I picked up a slender and enticing paperback featuring my favorite characters: the Fantastic Four. It was part of the Marvel Novel Series, which gave some of the most prominent writers employed by the publisher an opportunity to try out some straight prose rendering of the wildly imaginative adventures that set the fictional universe churning. Written by Marv Wolfman, the book was entitled Doomsday. I can see with a slightly mortifying level of certainty that is the one novel that I have read repeatedly in my lifetime.

johnny

The story pitted Marvel’s first family against their chief adversary, the malevolent, megalomaniacal Victor Von Doom. The ruler of Latveria was known the world over by his shorter, more pointed moniker: Doctor Doom.

Wolfman’s tale was filled with details I loved from the Fantastic Four comics, including a pronounced sense of the shared fictional history (Doctor Doom’s staging of a college reunion figures into the plot, as does his fierce desire to retrieve his deceased mother from the netherworld) and a crackling commitment to the well-developed character, particular the familial foursome with a penchant for saving the planet from evildoers.

grimm

Wolfman was writing the Fantastic Four monthly title when this novel was published, in 1979. He structures the story with a welcome commitment to honoring who these characters are, teasing out what made them foundational to Marvel, even if they’d long since been overtaken in popularity by other denizens of the wondrous world.

As I noted, the Fantastic Four were my favorite characters, so the fully recognizable depiction of them was important to me. It gave me another avenue to connect with them, to revel in their heroics. And there was the added benefit that it was the written word rather than dialogue and narration layered atop drawn images. I’d get grouched at if I opened up a comic book in class, but this little paperback — simply by virtue of its format — represented acceptable recreational reading.

And read it I did. I lost count of the number of times I returned to the book, rereading and savoring every last bit of it. I eventually picked up other entries in the Marvel Novel Series from that same comic book shop, but none of the others commanded my attention — fully and repeatedly — like Doomsday.

back cover

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

From the Archive: Flashback Friday — 1985

calvin right

I should really find more excuses to write about Calvin and Hobbes. This piece was posted in my former online home as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.

1985: Calvin and Hobbes debuts

It’s about a young boy with a shock of yellow hair that looks like the teeth of an upturned saw blade, one of the big ones that requires two men to use. And it’s about his best friend in the world, a stuffed toy tiger. Or maybe he’s not stuffed. Maybe he’s a real tiger that the boy ensnared from the wild, rigging a trap with tuna fish as bait. He certainly seems real to the boy, serving as his conscious, sparring partner, confidante, supporter and stalwart partner. The boy is impetuous and a little wild, carried along by the force of his own id in a way that reflects the doctrine of predestination posited by his namesake. The tiger is inherently skeptical about the ways of humanity, thoroughly in line with his namesake. Together they move through the world, finding balance and adventure.

Calvin and Hobbes first appeared on November 18, 1985, added to the funny pages of approximately thirty-five newspapers. It was funny and smart from the very beginning, building a loyal following with remarkable speed. Eventually creator Bill Watterson found that the characters were adaptable enough to shoulder storylines that still fit nicely within the structure of daily strip, but had greater emotional possibilities. As Watterson allowed the narrative of the strip to become more far-ranging, he equally stretched the parameters of the art itself, most notably restructuring the layout and format of the Sunday strips from the rigid march of panels to image configuration that better suited his needs and allowed for bolder visuals. He saw his strip as not just a mild diversion amidst the rumble and grumble of the daily news, but as a genuine opportunity to create something that could be its own distinct work of art, something that was worth preserving.

Blessedly, he also saw the strip as something that had it’s own value that required no lucrative spin-offs. While Charles Shultz’s Peanuts was one of Watterson’s self-admitted greatest influences (the others were Walt Kelly’s Pogo and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat), the cartoonist couldn’t be further away from Schultz’s view of licensing run amok. Despite undoubtedly lucrative offers, Watterson never acquiesced to his characters appearing on coffee mugs or mouse pads. There were no animated TV specials, and it’s highly unlikely that Hobbes will ever come to life in some disastrously garish CGI feature, at least in Watterson’s lifetime. The comic strip is what matters. It was never the means to building a fortune-fueling greeting card empire. No matter what, the characters always belonged to him.

And, of course, there a bit of an ownership stake held by those who believe in Watterson’s vision and the way he chose to share it. Calvin and Hobbes tributes abound, many of them as sweet and warm-hearted (and rambunctious and happily inspired) as the strip itself. They’re expressions of the affection for the strip, for the characters, for the contemplative worldview that Watterson brought to the comics page on a daily basis for several years. Yes, there’s an entire cottage industry based upon decals of Calvin urinating on an astounding wide abundance of items, but I’m always amazed at how much of the appropriation of the characters is respectful and even loving.

It’s an impressively long shadow for a comic strip that lasted only ten years, and has now been defunct for longer than it ran. The final strip appeared on the last day of 1995, the boy and his tiger joyously greeting the blank page of a fresh snowfall with the pledge to “go exploring.” It’s nice to think of those two still out there, bounding down the slopes. As Calvin said on that last day, “It’s a magical world.” It’s just a little more magical with those two in it.

My Misspent Youth: The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I’ve occasionally acknowledged, it took me a bit of time before I plunged into the world of superhero comics. As was my wont at that age, I clung to the kiddie material I loved longer than I probably should have. At different times, I’ve probably retrospectively tagged various comics as my gateway into the supposedly more mature fare populated by the costumed do-gooders of the Marvel Universe, but it’s probably fair to say my most robust initial exposure to the characters came from a somewhat unlikely source: The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book.

fun book

Published by Fireside Books, these were big floppy slab of books, with page after page of relatively easy puzzles themed around the various colorful characters who populated Marvel’s magnificent monthly mags. I was already a sucker for crosswords, mazes, and other mental challenges designed to wear pencils down to nubs. It only made them a little more dynamic when they were themed around super-powered beings soaring through the sky.

nova

“The answer called correct on page 116.”

Some of the puzzles were only tangentially related to the Marvel comics, but others ostensibly required a working knowledge of the four-color adventures that kept spinner racks handsomely stocked. The complete the Nova maze, I only needed to know how mazes worked. Playing fill-in-the-blank with Daily Bugle headlines was a different matter.

bugle

There’s no real reason to believe these sorts of exercises would have stirred my interest in the actual comics, but they did. I genuinely wanted to know the particulars of the story that would have gotten Daredevil identified as a killer by a major metropolitan newspaper, for example. There were similar head-scratchers that pulled panels straight from the comics or teased bygone storylines (back when there was a mere fifteen years of history to draw upon).

I know I wasn’t fully, properly connect to the Marvel Universe through these books, but the osmosis of my time lingering over the pages did its job. I wasn’t transformed into a devoted Marvel reader by these books, but, strangely, I can credit these books into priming me for the helpless fandom to come.

forbush

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“Barrett watched the wrangling without pleasure. It all seemed impossibly dull and dreary to him, this quibbling over the phraseology of a manifesto. That was essentially what he had expected to find here; a bunch of futilitarian hairsplitters in a draft basement room, battling furiously over minute semantic differences. Were these the revolutionaries who would hold back the world from chaos? Hardly. Hardly.”

–Robert Silverberg, Hawksbill Station, 1968

SEA-BLUE AND BLOOD RED: THESE ARE THE COLORS THAT WASH PAST THE GOLDEN AVENGER’S EYES AS HE STRUGGLES, DESPERATELY, AGAINST HIS OWN ARMOR! FOR MERE HEARTBEATS AGO, BENEATH THE CHILL WATERS OF THE ATLANTIC, THAT ARMOR HAD MALFUNCTIONED — ITS EYE AND MOUTH SLITS JAMMING INEXPLICABLY OPEN! AND UNLESS IRON MAN CAN STEM THE SUDDEN FLOW OF INRUSHING BRINE, OR QUELL THE PANIC THAT IT ENGENDERS, THE NEXT COLOR HE SEES MAY WELL BE — DEATH BLACK!

–David Michelinie, IRON MAN, Vol. 1, No. 121, “A Ruse By Any Other Name…” 1979