Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Life in Four Colors (Part Thirty-Three)

Everyone has childhood friends, but by the time I was in the 7th grade, my circle of friends began to change. I had my school friends--those with whom I hung out at school, swapped stories, shared in-jokes, commiserated over homework assignments... you know, all the usual junior high school things that kids do. For me, that group of friends included Greg Carter, Jamie Cook, Ken Barton, and Pam Astin--one of the few girls in school with whom I felt comfortable. You'll notice there's an alphabetical theme here--and there's good reason for that.

Most junior high school teachers sat students in alphabetical order. As a result, the students who sat around me, last-name-beginning-with-B, would be the A, B & C last-name students. So I got to know Greg and Jamie and Ken and Pam very well. We also shared many of the same classes, which meant that we spent most of our day together.

When I wasn't at school, however, I spent most of my time with Gary Steele. Our comics-buddy friendship had grown stronger at the same time that my friendships with Phil Patterson and John Ball had begun to wane. Gary and I gradually settled into a routine: every weekend, we would spent Friday night at either my house or Gary's house, and then on Saturday we were at the other's house. We would occasionally mix things up by spending the night at Gary's grandmother's house--she lived at the corner of Conn Street and Burnett Ferry Road, just a short walk away from my house, and she was more than willing to dote over two young boys who loved her stories, her color television, and her seemingly-bottomless baskets of french fries, made from fresh cut potatoes at our request.

When I discovered fanzines, Gary was as interested in them as I was. Both of us began perusing the fanzines we saw, writing our own comic book reviews and short stories--and more importantly, both of began to talk about publishing our own fanzine. We knew that there were both ditto machines and mimeographs at school, and we learned how to use them. We even bought color ditto masters at a local office supply store so that we could prepare our own multi-color artwork for reproduction.  Every now and then, we'd find a teacher who would give in to the pleadings of two junior high boys and run off a few copies on the school ditto machine--or even better, give us access to the machine so that we could run off our own copies.

Our material was crude and juvenile--but of course, we were twelve years old at the time. It would be a few more years before we'd begin doing fanzines for anyone other than our school friends to see.

So if Gary and I got along so well, then why didn't we hang out at school? The structure of junior high scheduling had a lot to do with that. I was in advanced classes, and Gary was in general level classes. I never really understood why; I talked to Gary a great deal, and I never believed that I was smarter than he was. But school scheduling was very rigid: once you were slotted into advanced classes, you had an entire schedule built around those classes, and your electives were shoehorned in afterwards. It seemed that when I had an elective class period available, Gary was in one of his core classes. So we rarely saw each other during school hours, outside of lunch periods, assemblies, and pep rallies.

As for my school friends--well, I really enjoyed the company of Greg and Jamie and Ken and Pam, but I rarely saw them outside of school because they didn't really share my core interests in comic books, pulp/adventure/science fiction, monster movies, model kits, and James Bond. There were times when I paid a visit to the homes of each of those friends, usually for some school-related project, but even at the age of twelve, comics in particular had become important enough to me that I chose to spend most of my out-of-school time with Gary, who shared those interests. In some ways, I regret now that I let my developing interests so dominate my life that I didn't pursue those friendships more fervently; to this day, I have fond memories of those friends.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Road to Nowhere

Here's a clue for the masterful meteorologists who write the warnings for the National Weather Service: you might want to use towns that someone has heard of when you're giving us landmarks. When your landmark locations include such major 'burgs as Ephesus, Homer, Watkinsville, Winterville, Blackwells, Chattahoochee Hill Country, White, and Aragon, most people are no more informed than they would be if you had cited Camelot, Xanadu, Shangri La, or El Dorado as geographical reference points. And if people don't know what you're referencing, that means that they won't know if they're in the path of the storm warning or not...

Just an observation for future reference, guys...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Dark Spider-Knight

Think you know Batman's origins? Here, from the back of a Chinese toy, is the truth. (Thanks to Janice Gelb for sharing this!)

Friday, April 01, 2011

A Life in Four Colors (Part Thirty-Two)

1965 was a year in which I learned that not all comic book writers and artists were created equal—at least, not in talent.

Prior to this year, I was pretty much a comic book omnivore. While there were some characters I liked more than others, I'd rarely pass up the opportunity to read any comic book, and I seemed to enjoy the mediocre and second-rate books every bit as much as the great stuff. But I had become more and more aware of styles as my comic book collection grew, and by 1965, I had begun to recognize a few favorites even without seeing their signatures or the credits.

The first artist whose distinctive style really appealed to me was  Steve Ditko. Ditko's art was quirky, his characters were often dismally plain and ordinary, and his action scenes lacked the raw vitality of Jack Kirby's or Gil Kane's. But the emotion, the moodiness, and the normality of his world vision appealed to me. Artistically, I came to love his heavy ink lines, his bold black shadows and accents, and his flexibly distorted anatomy. I came to recognize those distinctive Ditko hands, those contortiionist poses, those striking angles. I soon realized that I could even spot Ditko's inkwork over Jack Kirby's pencils, as in the remarkable Fantastic Four #13.

At the same time, I realized that some of my favorite war comics were drawn by the same guy who had drawn those great Hawkman stories in Brave and Bold (alas, he didn't stick with the book when Hawkman got his own series--and as much as I like Murphy Anderson's work, it never captivated me the same way). That artist was Joe Kubert, and he was the primary reason I fell in love with DC's war books.

Then there was Wally Wood--perhaps one of the best "linemen" in comics. His bold inks, his remarkably cinematic backgrounds, his alluring women--there was no one like him. Daredevil went from a second-string hero to one of Marvel's best when Wood signed on for a few issues. He made T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents every bit as exciting as the best Marvel or DC titles.

Carmine Infantino's clean, angular linework and distinctive architecture was every bit as distinctive as Ditko's, but in a totally different way. Where Ditko's art was rounded and fluid, Infantino's was angular and sharp-edged.  His Adam Strange epitomized all that was science fictional in comics, as far as I was concerned.

And then there was Jack Kirby. No artist captured more explosive energy on every page than Kirby. He truly defined the Marvel look in the mid-1960s, which was probably why Marvel brought Kirby in to illustrate the early issues of virtually every series they launched. If anyone could make a book a hit, it was Kirby. And I came to love his art.

And those were the artists I loved... but they weren't the only artists I came to recognize. Once I realized that not everyone drew the same way, I started looking for other defining styles, and I realized that there were other artists whose work was identifiable just by the way they drew. Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson, Russ Heath, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito (I didn't know who did what, but I recognized their collaborative work), Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Curt Swan, Jim Mooney, Mike Sekowsky--I could spot their work the minute I flipped through the book.

That was a real eye-opener for me. Until then, I had thought of comics as almost an assembly-line production; it never really occurred to me that different people might draw the same characters in different ways. But once I realized that there was a reason that Superman looked different in Justice League than in Superman, for instance,  I made my first significant move towards appreciating comics as an art form, not merely as entertainment.

And that awareness changed my life, believe it or not. Once I recognized the people behind my favorite comics, I wanted to know about those people. As I merged that awareness with my recent discovery of fanzines,  I was laying the groundwork for my future without even realizing it.