Monthly Archive: June 2015

Censorship and Choice

Some months back I wrote of my growing ambivalence towards the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.  On one hand there is no question that their dedication to the comics community, in general, and to creators, specifically, is needed.  One need only look at the incidents surrounding the Charlie Hebdo incident to understand the value of protecting free speech.  On the other hand, there is a growing concern in my mind about the methods that CBLDF uses to makes it point.

A case in point arose this past May when I journeyed out on Free Comic Book Day to generally shop local businesses, stimulate the hometown economy, and indulge my comic book appetite by acquiring some back issues missing from my collection and to sample some of the new stuff out there.

This year, the CBLDF offered for as a free comic the first issue of their ongoing publication Defender.


The issue covered free speech concerns and talked about some important and, at times, troubling developments concerning the freedom to express oneself.  These included the joint brief filed by CBLDF and the Cato institute urging SCOTUS to protect First Amendment liberties; a blurb about a cartoonist by the name of Zunar who was arrested in Malaysia for ‘offensive speech’ on Twitter; and a discussion of the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo attacks.

What troubled me was there coverage of the dust up in the Chicago Public School (CPS) district over the exclusion of the graphic novel Peresopolis.

It began with the front cover of Defender boasting a provocative splash “Chicago vs. Persepolis: Conspiracy and Cover-up”.  The inside of the issue sports a one page story entitled “Lies My School Administration Told Me”.



The main paragraph reads like the typical movie trailer melodrama ‘In a world they didn’t make…’ with an all too common use of the logical fallacy of the strawman in to boot.  The article implies that someone in the CPS had judged that a book had ‘content that is inappropriate for children’ and then goes on to ask “What sort of filthy, degenerate book could draw demands for removal?” CBLDF doesn’t produce a single email from the CPS that claims the book is ‘filthy’ and ‘degenerate’.  These terms are simply examples of emotional hyperbole added by the writer to provide an extra dash of saucy flavor.

The article then goes on to say

Top administrators of the third-largest school district in the United States really did think they could remove a modern classic from schools without regard for their own policies, their teacher’s and librarian’s professional expertise, or even basic First Amendment principles.


My question to the CBLDF is simply why shouldn’t CPS officials have the authority to take Persepolis off the shelf?  There are at least two good reasons why CPS officials should and do exercise their discretion when it comes to any book.

The first reason is that these officials have a responsibility to educate the students of the Chicago Public Schools according to how the citizens of Chicago want their children educated.  In that capacity they make decisions daily about what curriculum to teach to the children in their care and to pick and choose which ideas they expose and which they keep quiet.  Ask yourself if any reasonable person should harass the CPS to promote hardcore pornography as suitable material?  How about propaganda from the Ku Klux Klan or the Neo Nazis?  What about a display of the Confederate flag? If your answer to any of these questions (or any other material you judge to be inappropriate or controversial) is no then you support the notion that some material should be excluded.  At this point, the argument is not one of principle but of degree – just where should the line be drawn.  That is a healthy argument to have but it is not one that should be swayed by emotional language like ‘conspiracy’, ‘cover-up’, or ‘lies’.  And these terms were used as emotional triggers on the cover and in the headline of the piece as nothing in the narrative of what CPS officials did indicated that any of these terms applied.  It may be true that they do apply, but there is no evidence provided to support that claim.  Fundamentally, it is up to school officials to decide what is and is not appropriate based on their entire demographic and in conjunction with school boards, parents, and the like.  Every community has the right and the obligation to set its own standards of decency.

The second reason is not rooted in questions of a moral aesthetic but in economics.  School systems, like any other human agency, are limited by scarcity.  Simply put, there is only a finite amount of money to be used to purchase materials.  The district is under a fiduciary responsibility to make the most of its money.  That means that they always ‘censor based on finite resources’ – that is to say that they don’t and can’t purchase every book out there.  Often, they don’t even consider material because it is inappropriate for their students.  I’m not speaking of material which may be morally questionable but rather material that is simply not appropriate by reason of age.  I doubt that one would find books on advance quantum field theory or Neo-Platonist philosophy on the CPS shelves.  I actually find the omissions of these types of works much more severe than omissions driven by morals or taste as the former limit the intellectual achievement and the world view of students.  Controversial material can always be found on the internet because its very controversy draws attention.  But important material associated with deep intellectual achievements is rarely discussed in the media.  So how is a student going to be exposed to the finest offerings of human thought if no record of it can even be found on a library shelf?  But I recognize that in a world of finite resources hard choices have to be made.

The final point worth noting is that CPS is not engaged in censorship in any real fashion.  They are not stopping students from owning it; stopping the publisher from selling it; stopping the author from writing or profiting from it, or locking any of these up in jail.  If CPS had the power to indulge in any or all these actions then their conduct would certainly rise to actual examples of censorship.   They would then constitute a government that infringes on the rights of its citizens by force.  What CPS did may offend our sensibilities or make us question their judgement, but it doesn’t rise to level of government led book burning.  Equating real censorship with the actions of a community deciding its own standard of decency is akin to the use of the word ‘Nazi’ when talking about someone who you don’t like – it conflates real evil with annoyance.

Real evil was portrayed in Persepolis with the author’s narrative.


Whether that is worth discussing in the Chicago Public Schools is a matter for the citizens of Chicago to decide and to choose – a right that was denied the people of Iran in the fashion described in Persepolis.  I certainly support CBLDF’s right to advise, persuade, and even coax the district to reconsider its actions.  I also understand their concern that the CPS are invested with a lot of power and authority and that power must be held in check.  But the rhetoric rises to the level where CBLDF is using propaganda to bully, then I say that they are engaging in exactly the same heavy handed techniques they deplore.

A Lost Format

When I was a young man, comics were not as main stream as they are today and yet, in some real sense, they were more pervasive.  To flesh that out a bit, comics were considered a young kid pursuit and their presentation and marketing were treated as such.  I can still recall, with vividness, the comics rack in the local Kroger grocery store.  It was to left of the teen magazine (Seventeen, Tiger Beat, and the like), which were to the left of the serious magazines that all grownups should be reading – things like Time, and US New and World Distort.  Almost every store had a rack of this kind, supposedly as a pacifier for the stressed mother who simply could not deal with her precious little snowflakes while shopping.

This was the age before direct marketing, Previews, online ordering, and certainly reprints in the trade paperback or glossy hardbound form.  Little care was given to the treatment or care of the issues and the release to and duration on the news stand was completely unknowable.  Sometime consecutive issues showed up, sometimes there was a gap.

As an avid collector, I had limited ways to find or afford the older material from which many of the comics of my formative years drew upon.  I remember being perplexed by such questions as “Who was Gwen Stacy?” and “Why did she die?” and having no real way to find out the answers.

Then finally, there was an attempt by the marketing wizards to fill in some of the gaps by bring affordable reprints to a hungry audience.  How they actually decided what to reprint remains a mystery to this day but the format they chose was perhaps even more puzzling.  It was common to find reprints in the form of a regular paperback book.

The very first example that came into my hands was a Pocket Book, Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts #1.Doctor Strange Book 1


Published in 1978 and sporting a Frank Brunner cover, this collection of reprints actually takes material from Strange Tales #110-111, #114-#129.  Measuring about 4¼ x 7 inches, each page bore a photo-reduced facsimile of one of the original pages in published in comic form on a page of about 7¾ x 10½ inches – reduction to about 37% the original size.  Below is a scan of two facing pages from the Pocket Book reprinting a material from the story “Return to the Nightmare World”, from Strange Tales #116.

Doctor Strange and Nightmare

Despite the reduction, the art is clear, the text readable, and the colors vibrant.

Also, the original material was tersely sourced, with only a brief one page preface by Stan Lee telling the reader that this volume contained the first eighteen stories featuring Doctor Strange. There was no way for an aspiring collector to know that there was a sequence break between issues #111 and #114.

Shortly thereafter, a second edition followed in 1979.

Doctor Strange Book 2

The stories reprinted here picked up immediately after the original run, spanning Strange Tales #130-144, but were of a different character entirely.  In the first volume, most stories were self-contained within one issue, with only one run of stories lasting three whole issues.  Almost the entirety of the second volume concerns itself with multi-issue confrontation between Doctor Strange and Dormammu, including the first appearance of the entity known as Eternity.

Doctor Strange stands before Infinity

About that same time in 1979, the paperback book entitled Star Hawks came out.

Star Hawks Book 1

This volume reprinted the daily comic strip by Gil Kane and Ron Goulart that ran from October of 1977 through May 1981.  Since the original publication was sized and layout for the ordinary newspaper, the staff at Tempo Books choose to layout the panels in landscape rather than portrait mode.

Star Hawks Interior

The panels remained at their original size, although their relative orientation changed. One simply read the book ‘sideways’.  Because the original strip was in black-and-white, the reprinted strip was also monochrome.

This approach was a really convenient way to consume a daily strip all at one go, without fear of interruption due to a missed delivery or, as was my case, without access to the original as it wasn’t carried in my local paper.

A companion volume, entitled Star Hawks II, followed in 1981 that brought the reader up to about October of 1978.

Star Hawks Book 2


Taken together, the two books brought about one year of a really good comic strip to the reader for a total investment of $3.50, which is cheaper than many comics on the market today. (Even adjusting for inflation, the price of about $10 was still a bargain).

In 1982, DC Comics offered a reprint paperback for The New Teen Titans.

Teen Titans Book

This volume picked yet a third way to present the original source material.  Like Star Hawks, the staff at Tor Books chose not to photo-reduce the pages.  Instead, they rearranged the panels so that they fit on the smaller page.  In 226 pages they were able to reproduce only the first three issues of The New Teen Titans.  However, they also chose to make the reprint in black-and-white.

Teen Ttans Brawl

So there you have it: three different approaches for reprinting three different series and two different types of source material.  In spite of the drawbacks, these small paperback opened a whole vista of reading excitement.  Here were unbroken runs of original stories that I wouldn’t have been able to afford then and still can’t now, printed in a fairly durable format that could be easily transported and, if the truth be known, read during school hours when the teacher was particular dull and unobservant.  All things considered, I wish they would bring it back.

Big Trouble Equals Big Fun – Act 3: Jack’s Back?

Well this week was supposed to be the finale of the review of the first story arc of Big Trouble in Little China, the comic.  But due to a production delay, as of this writing, I don’t have Issue #12, which seems to tie it all up.  I make that last comment based on the descriptions of Issue #13 in Previews that states that a new creative team is taking over and Jack Burton is being brought into the 21st century.

Perhaps it’s all for the best as this review will end with a bit of a cliff hanger that may whet the reader’s appetite even more.

Anyway, of all the three acts, the last one is the poorest.  While still fun, it lacks some of the originality found in the first two.  At times, it seems that one is reading the same set of panels as in the previous issue.  In addition, the narrative is confusing in places and there is still a strange interaction that I haven’t yet figured out.

At the end of Act 2, Lo Pan was once again defeated and killed but at the expense of Jack’s death being thrown into the bargain.  Where Act 2 was darker and more grim, Act 3 captures more of the light heartedness of the first set of issues.  Perhaps this explains the lapses in storytelling.

In any event, the action starts in the Hell of No Escape, where we find the spirit of Mr. Burton consigned with his arch-enemy, David Lo Pan.  Since Jack can’t suffer any bodily harm at the hands of Lo Pan, he is even cheekier with the ancient Chinese sorcerer and much of the humor in this act comes from the back and forth between the two.

As an example, shortly after their arrival in the underworld, Lo Pan turns his frustration on Jack and laments the fact that he will not be able to have his earthly pleasures with Miao Yin.  When Jack points out that Miao Yin was never into Dave, Lo Pan begins a pouty ‘yes she was’ back-and-forth with Jack responding in turn with a ‘no she wasn’t’.  Finally Jack asks

Jack and Lo Pan talk love

further confirming Lo Pan as a total nut job.

Their argument is soon interrupted when a demon cohort comes to torture them.  Captured and soon to be ravaged, Lo Pan convinces the demons to free him and, in return, he will show them where a martyr can be found to make their ‘games’ all the more fun.  The demons agree and Lo Pan explains Jack’s situation.  As he leaves the Hell of No Escape (come on there is a way in there must be a way out), Lo Pan is quite happy at the thought of Jack’s imminent suffering.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Egg has Wang Chi dump Jack’s body into a pickle barrel and off they go to find someone who can help restore Jack to the land of the living.  The pair soon arrives at the home of Tai Sui Laohu

Tai Sui Laohu

who is chowing down on some rice as he’s kicked back in an easy chair with his bunny slippers.  Tai Sui Laohu thinks there is a way to get Jack back but says that all of them are going to have to consult a guy who rides a turtle.  More on this later.

Back in hell, things don’t work out quite the way Lo Pan hopes and soon Jack has the demons ponying up their stuff in an all-out game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

Texas hold em in hell

Whether demons are stupid or whether these ones had an sinister plan is never quite clear, but Jack wins a way of the Hell of No Escapes with all their stuff by cheating them in a manner reminiscent to the classic episode of Star Trek called ‘Piece of the Action’.  As Jack leaves hell, he makes an interesting observation about marriage which is best consumed straight from the horses mouth.

Jack leaves hell

Note the amulet around Jack’s neck, for reasons I can’t explain, it plays a critical role in some later events.   As Jack leaves the Hell of No Escape behind, he finds himself in the spaces between and then soon in a new hell where he meets a reptilian demon whom Jack dubs Slinky.  Jack tells Slinky he could really go for a trip to a bar and is amazed when Slinky points out that there is one handy.  Jack offers to buy Slinky a round

Jack offers Slinky a beer

and almost immediately Jack has a new demon BFF. Another inexplicable item is worth mentioned here (as seen from the advantage of hind sight).  Note the curious hole in Slinky’s breast plate.  It looks like something round and amulet-sized might fit in there. Hmmm….

Well off they go to get some brew and no sooner do they enter the gin joint then what do theirs eye behold?  None other than David Lo Pan, belly up to the bar with a face that could curdle fresh milk.

Jack and Lo Pan get into a fracas.  In the commotion, Jack loses the amulet and Slinky (who is much smaller than his armor implies, finds himself able to seize it as a prize.

Slinky grabs a prize

He flees with the amulet while Jack and Lo Pan are cuffed by the owner and forced to pay of the damages by washing dishes.

Jack and Lo Pan wash dishes

Some while later, Slinky returns to liberate Jack, sporting the amulet in his breast plate, sort of like Iron Man’s main repulsor ray on his chest.  Why Slinky took the amulet and why he comes back are quite a mystery to me – and one I don’t believe will be explained in the final issue of this arc.

Slinky and Jack face overwhelming odds in their attempt to escape but, at the last minute, a giant flying demon, like something out of the demented mind of H. P. Lovecraft, swoops in to kill all their pursuers.  And you thought deus ex machina was dead and gone.

Unfortunately, Lo Pan also escapes and threatens them with a horrible revenge as soon as he retrieves something called the Black Serpents Tongue.  Playing the role of Captain Obvious (or a Cistercian Monk for those who get that reference), Slinky steps in with a handy explanation of why they should be worried.  He tells of the god Yama defeating the Black God of Chaos by ripping the beast’s tongue from its mouth. Somehow, Yama forged it into a sword of great power but he soon lost it

Ancient legend

In order to get the power to retrieve the blade from the Hell of Ice and Sorrow, Lo Pan makes a particular evil deal with the Dark Gods of the East

Lo Pan makes a deal

who consent to give Lo Pan the power of the Breathe of Green Flame.

While Slinky and Jack pursue Lo Pan in the hopes of preventing him from retrieving the sword, Egg, Wang, and Tai Sui find the man on the turtle

Is it Master Roshi


whose name is P’an Ku (although it should be Master Roshi).

And this were it ends.  As explained above, Issue #12 looks like it should draw this story arc to a close.  If I had to guess, I imagine that Lo Pan is lost forever in the Hell of Ice and Sorrow.  Jack returns to the land of the living but somehow 28 years into the future, probably due to some spell cast by P’an Ku.  And what about Slinky?  I think he’ll open his own bar in the Hell of a Thousand Hangovers.

Big Trouble Equals Big Fun – Act 2: Lo Pan Returns

Okay, Lo Pan is back, and he is particularly annoyed with Jack for not only having killed him in their last encounter but for consigning him to torment in the Hell of Those Killed by Idiots.  And his renewed presence on our plane means yet another demise of a relationship between our mullet-sporting hero and a loved one.  This time it is Pete, who once more under Lo Pan’s control, turns on Jack.  Even all the good times traveling in the Pork Chop Express aren’t enough to save marriage number five


Fortunately for our adventurous band, the Chang Sing show up just as things get hairy, allowing Egg Shen and company to use the old ‘vanish in a cloud of smoke’ routine to get out from under Lo Pan and his twisted boy band.

Despite their narrow escape, things aren’t rosy.  Egg reminds them that Lo Pan has vast resources and all of those will be bent towards revenge.  As a spirit, Egg is unable to harm Lo Pan and the only way to make him flesh again is rather unpleasant.

Sacrifice Needed

And so a quick plan is put together off panel.  Not one to be daunted by tales of death and destruction, Jack leaves in a conspicuous fashion with Wang disguised as Miao Yin to lure everyone away – including the Lords of Death.

Once on the road together, Burton takes a few opportunities to tease Wang about how good a a women Wang makes.  These comedic observations must be pretty accurate, though, because when Wang and Jack stop at a biker’s bar for some food, Wang comes under some unwanted attention

Jack and Chang in a biker bar

Feeling sexually harassed, Wang reacts in the only way he knows how – with his feet of fury.  He is in the process of taking the whole bar down when the burrito he just ate drives home a bad case of Montezuma’s revenge.

Green to the gills, Wang sinks to his feet, about to get stomped, when he and Jack are saved by an old acquaintance by the name Moonie Joe, who also happens to be the big man at the biker bar.

Meanwhile, the real Miao Yin walks the Midnight Road with Egg Shen under the assumption that this would be the last place where Lo Pan and company would look for them.  Like her husband, it seems that Miao is having a hard time keeping her temper, perhaps due to the ‘coitus interuptus’ events surrounding her wedding.  Whatever the reason, she goes off in hilarious fashion over the smallest of slights leaving Egg to wonder what exactly has happened

Miao explains

Back at the biker bar, Moonie Joe, Jack, and Wang confer about the next steps unaware that two men in black, the Zhang Brothers, are on their trail

Zhang Brothers

Jack unveils his master plan to take Boot Nail Highway, a mostly abandoned and scenic stretch of highway.  Much to his surprise, Moonie Joe freaks out and begins to tell a story of a dead alien whose ghost haunts Boot Nail Highway looking for people to eat.

Jack dismisses the warnings and soon he and Wang are camped out on the side of the cursed road, drinking beer and slurring their speech.  They look like sitting ducks and indeed the Zhang brothers are quite sure that they will be able to bring Jack back to Lo Pan, although perhaps not in one piece,

MIB with a bag

Before the campers are caught unawares by the Zhang Brothers, the ghost alien that Moonie Joe warned them about shows up and eats the assassins, putting an end to a brilliant mayhem career.

While these events are happening on the earthly plain, Egg and Miao continue their journey in the spirit realm.  As they climb through the bizarre, other-worldly scenery, they discuss what it means to be a hero

Egg and Miao discuss

What they don’t realize is that agents of the Seven-Faced Widow are tracking them and they are soon subdued and brought to face the lady with seven faces and five hundred pounds of flesh for each one.

Jack and Wang continue eastward, stopping for lunch at a truck stop in Nashville.  It seems everywhere he goes, Jack is known by the locals, and this truck stop is no different, and the pair are waited on by a giant, slow-witted country cook by the name of Bert.  And what a good thing that turns out to be, for when Wang and Jack head back to the Pork Chop Express, who do you think is waiting for them?  None other than the Lords of Death.

The Lords start taking a bite out of Jack and things look bad when Bert gets involved and levels a beat-down on the Chinese street gang.

Bert has at it

Sadly, before he can finish the job, his ma shows up and scolds him and drags him away.  But by this time the locals have joined Jack and Wang in the free-for-all.  The cops show up shortly thereafter and propose a southern-styled solution to the ‘disagreement’ between the two sides

Southern Justice

The Lords of Death pick their leader, Black Knife, to represent them and the rednecks pick Jack (mostly because of his hair).  Facing off in the pig pit, Jack looks grossly overmatched and it seems certain that he’ll be the one the pigs dine on that night.  However,  fate seems to be on the side of our hero as she so often is, and when Black Knife rushes forward he slips in the muck and accidently impales himself on a broken shovel handle.  In typical style, Jack greats the sudden victory with a “It’s all in the reflexes” response.

Having defeated their leader, the Lords of Death now swear their allegiance to Jack.  With a small army now under his command, Jack resolves to head back to San Francisco and confront Lo Pan.

Back in San Francisco, we find Egg and Miao prisoners, after the Seven-Faced Widow had turned them over to Lo Pan.  Her asking price is that Lo Pan whacks Jack – something he’s already itching to do.  Egg is tied up while Lo Pan prepares Miao Yin for his pleasure.  Qiang Wu pays a visit to Egg but is doesn’t end too well for Qiang’s ego

Egg gets a barb in

Jack soon launches his offensive and lots of action takes place with Wing Kong, Chang Sing, Lords of Death, and demon combatants all going at it in the subterranean lair of Lo Pan. Egg takes down Qiang but is exhausted.  As Jack joins his side, Egg asks if Jack is ready

Jack is ready

Jack allows himself to get captured and Lo Pan stabs him through with a sword.  Gleeful that he is finally going to have some ‘earthly pleasure’

Lo Pan mortal again

Lo Pan is heedless of the fact that now that he is flesh he can be killed and Egg runs him through, thus ending the threat, at least for now.

Egg consoles a grieving Wang Chi suggesting that there may be a way to bring Jack back – after all Lo Pan didn’t seem to stay dead long.  And Jack, as he journeys to the afterlife, decides that it isn’t too bad.  Not what he imagined but not too bad – that is until he finds that he and Lo Pan are sharing a common hell.

So ends Act 2; a little darker and less humorous than Act 1 but certainly a lot of fun.

Next time act 3.