Monthly Archive: October 2015

Halloween ComicFest

I suppose that this post could be considered as an entry in the ‘back in my day’ category but I’ll take my chances because my aim is to celebrate progress rather than decry the easy time people have now.  Front-and-center in my celebration is the annual Halloween ComicFest (HCF) taking place tomorrow.


I look forward to seeing parents take their kids to HCF tomorrow.  Things have changed substantially since I was a kid begging my mom to take me in search of comics.  Back in that day comic books were considered the fare for the young, the weak-minded, and the emotionally stunted.  All the cool kids played football and found a way to get beers for a night of underage drinking.  Reading comics was more of an underground activity that one hid, or at least down-played, if one knew what was good for one.  The idea of things fantastic as a reasonable pursuit either as a hobby or as a vocation was frowned upon.

Somehow Halloween broke this otherwise inflexible rule.  One day a year where the all things fantastic were in bounds and people indulged in dress-up fantasies.  This was allowed but not much more.

Over the years, I’ve seen comics wax and wane but little had prepared me for the growth of the Free Comic Book Day in the spring that started in 2002.  Suddenly, not only were comics tolerated or acceptable, they were main stream.  Parents, people my age, were raising their kids on comics as accepted art form and not as a poor substitute for adult fare.

The pinnacle of this total transformation was reached in 2012 when comics came full circle with the creation of Halloween ComicFest by Diamond Distributors.  Comics had somehow grown, matured, and returned to its ‘roots’ in a respectable fashion.  Quite a story.

Negative Space

Negative Space is a new limited series from Dark Horse comics and the creative team of Ryan K. Lindsay, the writer, and Owen GieniI, the illustrator.

Issue #1’s cover bears a Lovecraftian-type monster in the classic, menacing pose – open mouth equipped with rows of razor-sharp teeth; tentacles thrown akimbo and writhing to and fro; an unnatural, sicken hue to its hide – lurking in the ruins of a vast, ancient, and abandoned city.


Dark Horse’s billing is no less striking. Bearing the melodramatic lead-in “They feed on your fear”, the rest of the teaser reads:

When one man’s writer’s block gets in the way of his suicide note, he goes for a walk to clear his head and soon uncovers a century-old conspiracy dedicated to creating and mining the worst lows of human desperation.

– Dark Horse Comics

And just who is this one man whose writer’s block interferes with his goal of self-destruction?  Our hero is a dumpy writer who is about as depressed as depressed can be.  Down on his luck, Guy (yes, that’s his name) would end it all if only he could get past the ironic obstacle that prevents him from completing what should have been the easiest set of words he ever put down on paper.  One wonders whether his already deep despair can fall even deeper as he realizes how impotent he is.


True to the advertising copy, Guy’s situation takes a turn into the bizarre when his walk brings him into direct contact with a resistance group seeking to free mankind from the forces that feed on human misery.

As the tale unfolds, Guy learns that the Lovecraftian monster emblazoned on the cover is a representative of a race of extraterrestrial beings who apparently feed off of human emotions.  These ‘Evorah’ had invaded the Earth centuries (perhaps millennia) earlier and, after some period of time, had developed a working relationship with some of us to exploit all the others.


As Guy learns this dark history he also learns that he has some role to play in the quest to liberate mankind from the scourge of emotional slavery.  After falling into orbit of resistance, this down-on-his-luck hero soon finds himself in the position to strike a blow for freedom.

My enthusiasm for this book was quite high when it was solicited but after reading the first two issues I was mildly disappointed.  The writing was adequate but somewhat incoherent in places and the art was reasonably well-conceived and possessed a style that meshed well with the nature of the story.  But what bothered me was that I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of been-there-done-that.

It took a while to pinpoint the origin of this feeling but when it finally clicked it was clear that despite superficial changes Negative Space is fundamentally a retelling of the classic 1988 John Carpenter film They Live.

They Live, which is set in Los Angeles, follows the down-on-his-luck character Nada played by Roddy Piper of pro wrestling fame.  Nada has come to L.A. after having lost his job in a city in the interior of the country (possibly Detroit) and subsequently being abandoned, in short order, by his wife, his children, and society in general.

Nada manages to convince a construction foreman to let him work as a day laborer on a new building project.  The work is hard and the foreman demanding but Nada holds out hope that he may be able to get on his feet again. Since the pay is meager, he stays in a transient community near the work site – a set of shacks, shanties, and hovels centered on a missionary church, which tries to feed and care for the hundreds of homeless who find themselves on the fringes of society, both geographically and politically.

After an arduous week of work, Nada finally has a day off and he begins to explore the church.  Once he’s inside, he begins to get his first hint that the church may be more than a place of worship.  His discoveries are cut short when the scores of police, sporting body armor and tear gas, move in on the settlement. During all the din and confusion, Nada slips through their fingers taking with him nothing more than an ordinary-looking pair of sunglasses from a supply that the church’s leaders were desperate to protect.

Wandering into the heart of the city, Nada soon discovers that the sunglasses reveal an inner-world of messages designed to keep the human cattle in line

Continuing to scratch beneath the surface, he soon discovers the truth – aliens have infiltrated society and subverted it to their goals.  They and their human allies have the positions of power and luxury while the majority are kept in line with subliminal messages, economic manipulation, and, when necessary, naked force.

Nada soon goes from a down-on-his-luck loser to freedom fighter leading the resistance in throwing off the alien invaders and beating back their human collaborators. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

And so there you have it – Negative Space is They Live, with minor changes to disguise the obvious influence that the latter has on the former.  Even the They Live ‘subliminal messages’ are evident in the front cover of Negative Space #2 where strategically darkened and illuminated letters from many signs spell out a sinister message for Guy.


Whether the subsequent execution of Negative Space will be strong enough to allow the series to stand on its own remains to be seen.  I doubt it but I wish them luck.


The High Cost of Magic

One the most interesting things about the recent reboot the Big Two have just completed is the reestablishment of their premiere magicians in new, ongoing monthly series.  More interesting is how the ad copy reads when the books are solicited in Previews.  The description of each rebooted title included a common theme, expressed in almost the exact same words – the idea that the use of magic comes with a cost.

The quote that Marvel offers in their online description of the new Doctor Strange series


Who do you call when things are coming out of your dreams and trying to kill you? Or when your daughter is cursing in Latin and walking like a spider? Or when your dog keeps screaming at you to strangle your neighbors? Doctor Strange, of course. He’s the only person standing between us and the forces of darkness, but has he been paying his tab? Every act of magic has a cost and Jason Aaron (THOR, ORIGINAL SIN) and Chris Bachalo (UNCANNY X-MEN) are going to put Stephen Strange through hell to even the scales.

– Marvel Comics Description for Doctor Strange (2015)

Similar phrasing was used in the solicitation for the New 52 reboot of Constantine the Hellblazer and that sentiment has been at least spoken of in the new book.  Below is a single panel from issue #4, in which a drunken Constantine, haunted by both ghosts of his memory and real ghosts from his past, reflects on a time as a young man where he had a special relationship with a young girl who he had pulled into his magical lifestyle.


The interesting question to consider is why should the relaunches of both of these titles go out of their way to emphasize that magic has a cost?  The answer lies in the observation that magic as a storytelling device is a disaster waiting to happen.  All too often, the use of magic, unless used sparingly, becomes an unworkable deus ex machina.  Since neither of these series can ‘use magic sparingly’,  another mechanism must be sought in the form of a ‘cost’ or ‘price’ that limits magic use and codifies its rules.

One need only look at the turbulent publication history of these two characters to see the pattern that indicates that portraying them as unfettered users of magic causes problems and that they work better as characters the less that they actually appear.

Consider first the twisted publication history of Stephen Strange.  In the roughly 50 years since his introduction in Strange Tales as a main character, no less than seven separate titles have been devoted to him as the lead (Strange Tales (1951), Doctor Strange (1968), Marvel Premiere (1972), Doctor Strange (1974), Strange Tales (1987), Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme (1988), Doctor Strange (1999)).  In each of these short-lived runs, he’s been redesigned and rebooted.  He’s been portrayed variously as a reserved and aloof conjurer with the self-control of a Tibetan monk, a masked-crusader complete with super-hero poses and accompanying melodrama, an emotionally conflicted soul with a gnawing darkness at its root, and an aimless womanizer with insecurities a mile long.  His most memorable stories have more to do with him as a bystander, witnessing the grandeur of the universe (e.g. Eternity & the Living Tribunal from Strange Tales (1951), the Sise-Neg story from Marvel Premiere, or the psychedelic brush with Death in the Doctor Strange (1973)) than they do with him as the lead.

The publication history of John Constantine has done better, at least in terms of the number of books.  His tally is only three (Hellblazer (1988), Constantine (2013), and Constantine: The Hellblazer (2015)), although he’s actually on pace to have as many restarts when adjusting for the fact that he’s only been around since 1985.  In addition, the recent television series Constantine, failed to find an audience and was cancelled after 13 episodes.

What makes magic appealing in small doses but unappealing as the main course centers on what magic actually represents.  While there is no exact, universal characterization, magic, as used in literature, tends to embody the certain vaguely facets in the human existence:

  • Undefined faculties of the human being (e.g. insight and intuition)
  • Non-rational mode of human existence (e.g. feeling and emotions)
  • Wish fulfillment
  • Mysticism and the desire for spiritual connection with something bigger

The much larger success of John Constantine as a magician compared with Stephen Strange is attributable to the fact that the Vertigo imprint, as a whole, tends to emphasize emotions and feelings over logic and reason. But emotion and feelings can only take a story so far, there still needs to be a consistent and logical progression of events precisely because the world in which we live is subjected to those very constraints.  We may indulge in a fantasy about wish fulfillment but we must still eat.  We may have insight into a particular situation but we still express it using logic.  We might explore our spirituality but we still need to go to work, pay the bills, and all the other things living in a material world with well-defined rules forces us into.

So this time around, the creative teams are trying to address these issues by placing limitations on the magic.  In effect, they are trying to turn magic use into a different type of science, complete with a new set of rules that are consistent even if they are initially unknown to the reader.  I suspect the creative teams and the powers-that-be at the big two have paid attention to and have been influenced by the success of the anime and manga entitled Full Metal Alchemist (FMA).  FMA uses a rule-based magic as a vehicle to explore questions about war, love, and ethics in a way that has engaged audiences.  The magic is merely the vehicle it uses as a means to ask deep and philosophical questions.   Whether these two reboots can succeed remains to be seen.

A View From a Con

This week’s column is a departure from the ordinary thread on comics creation that had been the focus for the last few months and, instead, deals with that once-a-year happening of attending the Baltimore Comic Con.

Last weekend, I headed north to the Baltimore Comic-Con with three friends to check out the lay of the land.  Despite the fact that the usual state of the average Maryland driver sits somewhere between distracted and negligent, the trip on the highways and byways of the Free State was accomplished without incident or even a close call.  Parking was also fairly easily settled at the lot just behind the Days Inn.  A short walk later found our party just outside the Convention Center.

Surprisingly, there really wasn’t anything in the way of lines and it was only a matter of few minutes before we received our wrist bands and were heading in.  The majority of the action at Comic Con happens in the lower level of the convention center where the vendors, comic creators, and independent artists, creators, and associated personnel have their tables set up.  The upper levels are setup for panels.

In the course of wandering through the crowd that showed up I came away with a variety of impressions; most good, a few bad.

First off, the overall state of the con had a real family feel.  The number of small children present was amazing to me after the usual state of affairs at Anime conventions, where the target demographic is more focused on the slice of our population from older high-school students, to college-age attendees, and the proverbial young adults.  It was a common sight to see parents and children cosplaying together and that was also stood in sharp contrast with the usual Anime program.   There were several Raven cosplayers who were in their earlier teens at about the time many kids get shy these girls felt that they could express themselves.  In addition, there was a kid’s area in the lower level where the attendees could do some arts and crafts led by a comics creator.  I didn’t really see much of this but I sat in on Andy Runton’s drawing lesson and it was nice to see his interaction with the kids and his encouragement and coaching about drawing.

Another really nice observation was that the quality of the cosplay was quite splendid.  I didn’t take many photos but there was a nice couple who came dressed as Hawkeye and Black Widow


They were really friendly and chatted with my wife and me for a while about how they assembled their costumes, where they found their props, and how long it took for them to get it all together.  The repurposing of common household items that ‘Hawkeye’ did to make his quiver was impressive.

Equally impressive was the fellow who came dressed as the Man of Steel version of Superman.


It was uncanny how well he ‘nailed it’ in costume, look, and overall how he carried himself.  He was also very friendly.

In the vendor’s area, there were the typical wheely-toting fanboys carrying their latest prized-find in large suitcases from setup to setup.  Despite the lack of social graces, generally they were well-behaved and tried to avoid running you over with their rolling treasure chests.  The vendors were engaging and quite a few went out of the way to find or search for things.  So overall, a real plus there.

The most unusual table was manned by a guy who works full time at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia.  His table, which boasted screen snaps from his 3-dimensional renderings of some of NASA’s most experimental aircraft, was actually devoted to his doctoral research.  I’m not sure what degree he was pursuing but it clearly was in one of the psychology-related fields based on the questionnaire that he asked con-goers to fill out.  The subject of the questions was the responder’s attitude to the mental state of Bruce Wayne versus Batman.  Is Batman the dominant role and Bruce Wayne a mask?  Is it the other way around? Is Bruce crazy?  Things like that.

This guy wasn’t the only NASA presence at the convention.  Numerous people had NASA paraphernalia on – NASA tee-shirts, NASA pins, etc.  I wonder if the agency knows its reach?

Only one thing rubbed me the wrong way the whole day.  Unfortunately, it came at the end of the con and there really wasn’t enough time to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.  My wife and I intended to go to the last panel of the day and, being a bit tired, decided to stop in at the end of the panel prior to it and grab a seat.  This was a mistake.  A group of creators, mostly from DC comics I believe, were indulging a raunch-fest.  The program clearly said the panel was 16+ so that fact that there was adult material wasn’t so disturbing.  Rather it was the mean way that most of the panelists interacted with each other and with the audience.  It was akin to watching Don Rickles in his old Las Vegas shtick without any of the cleverness and charm – just the vulgarities.  I wasn’t so much offended and embarrassed.  Not for myself but for the creative guys who formed the panel.  These guys hold dream jobs, getting paid to create art in a fashion that makes them admired by others and only bitterness seemed to come forth.  True each line had a laugh surrounding it but still there seemed to be no graciousness from most of them (the one panelist who tried to be gracious was roundly mocked…sigh).

Overall, it was a good experience but I should have stayed in the kid’s area surrounded by people who still see the charm and wonder of the medium and stayed away from the older ones who hang onto the edginess of teenage rebellion and corresponding shock value that just never quits.