Wallace Wood, the best darn comic book artist there ever was

Image (17)Who’s my favourite comic book artist of all time?

It’s a hard choice to make. Of course, there’s Jack “King” Kirby, dynamic and passionate and the founding father of modern superheroes. There’s Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, nervy and intense and inventive, or the loose, energetic war and fantasy comics genius Joe Kubert, Robert Crumb’s neurotic creations, Herge’s elegant Tintin, and about a million more. 

But on most days, I’ll tell you that I think the best comic book artist of all time was WallaceWally’ Wood. 

Wood is one of the grand pillars of American comics – able to draw glorious science-fiction, chilling crime and horror and glamourous superheroes, all with a dense, classical sense of style that makes every panel of Wood at his peak seem like a museum piece.

I’ll look at a Wood panel for ages, drinking in the dense chiaroscuro of light and depth he created. Nobody drew gloopier, creepier aliens than Wood, more lantern-jawed spacemen, more gorgeous damsels. He’s one of the few comics artists whose work often looks best in the original black and white, without colouring.

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His greatest work was in the 1950s with the legendary EC Comics, on titles including Shock SuspensStories, Vault of Horror, and my personal favourites, the sci-fi duo of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy.

Wood illustrated many of the greatest science fiction comic stories of all time, singlehandedly crafting the images many of us think of when we imagine aliens and flying saucers (the creepy aliens of Mars Attacks? A Wood design). 

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He’d go on to projects like Marvel’s Daredevil (that iconic red costume? Wood), the Justice Society, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, his pioneering magazine witzend, classic war and horror comics for Creepy, his amazing Mad magazine strips and much more. 

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Wood lived a tragic life, working himself far too hard, embittered by the way the industry treated him, suffering alcoholism, poor health and diabetes. He shot himself in 1981 at just 54 years old. 

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But man, those dreams from Wally Wood’s pen. They live forever. 

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Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, a brief post to make it clear I am neither dead not maimed, but I have been working on a few other non-blog writing assignments of late I should plug here.

Did you know that yours truly was a 13-year-old American lad during the summer of 1985, the same time that the new season of “Stranger Things” is set in? Head on over to Radio New Zealand to read my take on “Stranger Things 3” and what it was really like in the far-off mystical ’80s. 

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Also over at the excellent website The Spinoff, I’ve crafted a somewhat expanded and possibly even improved version of my piece on the end of Mad magazine, and how it influenced the culture that’s all around us – even here in little ol’ New Zealand.

Go forth and read my extracurricular wordage, and new content shall appear here in another day or so!

MAD magazine: RIP to the biggest wise guy in the room

257What, me sorry? The rumours are flying fast and furious that MAD magazine, warping young minds ever since 1952, is closing up shop soon and ending its 67-year run. It’s reportedly going to switch to just reprint material to fulfil its subscription responsibilities and then end publication entirely soon.

While MAD has been past its peak for a while, it’s still truly the end of something great. MAD was once a cultural milestone that’s hard to put into context now. Pre-meme culture, pre-internet snark, hell, even pre-Seinfeld age of irony, MAD was a dissenting voice of doubt and disdain of prevailing institutions. It cracked the 1950s wide open and in some ways the world never looked back. It was never strident about it, but instead it was the voice of the wiseacre kid perched in the back of class interrupting the teacher’s lectures. Without MAD, there’d be no Bart Simpson. 

I first became “aware” of MAD in the early ‘80s toward the end of its heyday. I picked it up for the classic Mort Drucker-drawn movie parodies of stuff like “Rocky III” and “Superman II,” and stayed for the crazed cartooning and wit it was packed with – Sergio Aragones’ teeny-tiny toons, Dave Berger’s exploration of the creepy suburban underbelly in “The Lighter Side Of”, the kinetic “Spy Vs. Spy,” and much more. 

DIG007378_1._SX360_QL80_TTD_Soon I also discovered “classic” MAD, the Harvey Kurtzman-edited comic book that the magazine originally began as in 1952. It remained the last gasp of EC Comics itself after the great comics-will-warp-you scare of the ‘50s shut the rest of the line down. I got a massive volume collecting #1-6 of the series, packed with Kurtzman wit, Will Elder’s insanely detailed art, Wally Wood’s gorgeous spacemen and girls, and much more. I still have that somewhat battered gorgeous big volume of MAD’s first 6 issues, along with several other volumes collecting the original series, plus scattered around the house a battered stack of issues dating back to the ‘70s, all well-read and mangled as they should properly be. 

MAD carried on, and had a good run. One of the great joys of parenthood for me was my son discovering a huge stack of old MADs out at our beach house and becoming addicted to them. There’s nothing like seeing the next generation discover the pleasures of Don Martin’s FLAPPPS and THWITZZIPPTS, of Sergio Aragones’ amazing doodles, of the mysterious intricate pleasures of Al Jaffee’s fold-ins. I’d pick up the occasional “newer” MADs for the boy, too, and while I personally never found them quite as fresh or funny, I also knew that at 40-something I wasn’t quite the audience anymore. Unfortunately, people like me not buying MAD and younger folks not even knowing about it probably spelled the end a while ago. 

768711._SX360_QL80_TTD_MAD ended its 550-issue run and “relaunched” like pretty much every other long-running comic book publication about a year ago, and the writing was on the wall then. But to be honest, in the age of Trump, isn’t everything feeling a little satirical? When Trump himself made fun of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg by saying he ‘looked like Alfred E. Neuman,” nobody under 40 really seemed to get the the joke, including the candidate himself. 

For its 60 years of poking fun at sacred cows, of mocking everything from Star Wars to Nixon to John Travolta to Trump with an unblinking eye, MAD deserves a salute. I’m sad about its imminent end, but I also know the spirit of mockery – all the good and bad things about it – is still alive and scattered all over the internet and today’s pop culture. Alfred E. Neuman will never die. 

Batman mania revisited, 30 years on

2008_CSK_05425_0129_000()Thirty years ago today, I was standing in a line. A bunch of us were all queued up for what was then the biggest comic book movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman. Nobody quite knew what to expect.

There’s a lot of thinkpieces lately about what an event Batman was. You couldn’t escape that symbol, on T-shirts and lunchboxes and gum wrappers. It was the first superhero movie marketing event (the original Superman movies were a lot less pimped out by industry, to be honest). We’ve grown pretty used to that in the years since, but at the time it was dazzling. Good or bad, you HAD to see this movie.

As a kid who’d already been reading comic books for years before “Batman” hit the screen, I was hopeful. I remember painstakingly clipping out newspaper articles about the casting in the months before release – Jack Nicholson as the Joker, well, everybody knew that was perfect, but Michael Keaton as Batman was a bigger question mark. If there was an internet back then, casting “Mr Mom” as Bats would’ve cracked it in half. 

s3-BatmanWaikiki3It’s hard to explain to fans of today’s slick, streamlined and gorgeous Marvel Universe movies that seeing a comic book movie in the ‘80s and ‘90s was mostly a matter of lowering expectations, of accepting flaws and looking for the bits that worked.

Sure, Superman IV was godawful, but hey, the scene where Christopher Reeve tells the UN he’s taking away the world’s nukes was cool. Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey shred the screen as the most overacting villains of all time in Batman Forever, but I kinda dug Val Kilmer. OK, Howard The Duck might not have quite worked, but… well…. the puppet was interesting….

“Batman 1989” isn’t perfect either, but seen decades on, it’s still a remarkably intense, dynamic vision, one that shaped the portrayal of Batman in the comics for years to come. The late Anton Furst’s designs of a haunted, impressionist Gotham City are still remarkable – while the Marvel movies are pretty great, they’ve rarely created as bold a sense of place as Burton’s Gotham is. It’s a WEIRD town, explored further in the sequels, where gangs dress like clowns and oppressive architecture overwhelms humanity at every turn. 

Jack Nicholson’s Joker, which received the lion’s share of press going in, has dated a lot worse than Keaton’s Batman. It’s never a bad performance, but it’s hard not to just see it as “Jack doing his Jack thing”. Recently I’ve been rewatching a few of Nicholson’s classic ‘70s films like “The Last Detail” and “Five Easy Pieces,” where you see what a fiery talent he was, and compared to those years, his “Batman” role is more reminiscent of when actors like Vincent Price would appear on the old ‘60s Batman TV show – amusing, yet not all that deep. 

84-ogBut Keaton’s Batman has only grown in strength over the years. He never quite has the classic physical profile – seen in a tuxedo in an early scene, his Bruce Wayne’s shoulders would barely fill half the Bat-suit – but acting is often concentrated in the eyes, and Keaton’s eyes hold a balance of resolve and regret. His Bruce Wayne seems closer to the edge than some – look at the scene where he takes on the Joker in his civilian clothes: “You want nuts? Let’s get nuts!” In contrast, his Batman is more of a blank, grim slate, a mask that wipes out Wayne’s humanity and focuses his mission. 

I’d argue that Christian Bale and even Val Kilmer (who I think is kinda underrated in the Bat-acting pantheon) better represent the Batman character from the comics, but Keaton’s Batman still has a mysterious haunted power that makes him unforgettable. 

Standing in that line outside the theatre 30 years ago, I never would’ve imagined as a middle-aged dude I’d still be lining up for movies featuring characters like Ant-Man, Aquaman and Dr. Strange, but I’m glad I am. There’s a lot of movies given credit as ‘ground zero’ for the current superhero explosion, from “X-Men” to “Blade,” but as a phenomenon, there’s still no touching the craziness that Batman inspired three decades ago. 

It’s the end of the world and I like it: The Doom Patrol

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I didn’t have high hopes for a Doom Patrol TV series. We’re living in an age where comics as obscure as bloody Cloak And Dagger are getting a show, and I was afraid I’d see one of my favourite comic books of all time churned up and turned into mediocre, forgettable content for the masses.

I’m glad I gave it a shot, because so far Doom Patrol is living up to the surreal, crazed and humane comics it’s inspired by. It’s superheroes for those who are actually getting a little sick of superheroes. 

dp94Doom Patrol have always been weird, a team of misfits and outcasts kind of like the X-Men, but more so. Their original 1960s comic adventures are a bizarro Silver Age blast, but “my” Doom Patrol really burst into being with Grant Morrison’s seminal late 1980s reinvention of the concept. Morrison’s twin masterpieces of Doom Patrol and Animal Man back in the day blew my teenage mind. 

Drawing on dadaism, obscure German fairy tales, psychology, philosophy and mythology, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol was unlike any other comic book. Hermaphrodite superhero? Check. Sentient transvestite street? Check. Paintings that come to life and eat people? Check. Gorillas and disembodied human brains falling in love? Check!

The Doom Patrol are broken people – “Robotman” Cliff Steele (terrifically voiced by Brendan Fraser) is a human brain in a robot’s body, “Negative Man” Larry Trainor is a crash victim inhabited by a bizarre ‘negative spirit,’ “Elastic Girl” Rita Farr is a Hollywood star left trying to cover up her disfigured plastic flesh, “Crazy” Jane is an abuse victim split into multiple personalities, each with its own superpower. Even more than the X-Men, they’re freaks of nature. The “X-Men” movies long ago lost their primary theme of outcasts and prejudice in a muddle of tangled continuity and Magneto blowing shit up. 

The TV show doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and pathos of their conditions, and makes them the perfect foils for a world of escalating weirdness and threats. The TV show also adds the character Cyborg, last seen played with incredible dullness in the muddled “Justice League” movie a year or two back. Cyborg is far better here, a voice of relative normality, albeit still damaged, with Joivan Wade giving an excellent performance. 

53811008_402606643871269_5458107167754158080_nOne of the newer of the approximately 419 streaming services out there, DC Universe premiered last year with Titans, which was a mixed success for me – I dug seeing the “Teen Titans” come to life and there were some great parts, but the show had very scattered storytelling and a self-consciously adult tone that felt forced (Unless you really thought we needed to have a blood-soaked Robin muttering “F—- Batman” to make the character work better). Doom Patrol is more adult by nature, so the swearing and mature themes work better (I’ll never get tired of hearing Cliff Steele aka Robotman saying, “What the F—-!?!?” in response to Doom Patrol’s never-ending parade of weirdness). 

Doom Patrol stands out among a sea of super heroism because it embraces the comics’ fundamental strangeness rather than rejecting it with a veneer of gritty ‘realism’. No other big-budget superhero show this year will feature a donkey that doubles as a dimensional portal, unless Avengers: Endgame is hiding some major secrets.

Doom Patrol reminds us of how gloriously wacky comics can be, and how the most damaged and deformed of us can still find a way to save the world sometimes. 

The greatest comic books of all time. Seriously.

The comic book medium has had lots of highs in its nearly 100-year history. We’ve had Maus, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, Sandman, and much, much more. 

But if I had to choose one comic book to send to Mars as the true pinnacle of the comic art form, I’d pick the adventures of Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. 

Superman was so darned popular in the 1950s and 1960s that even second-bananas got their spin-off titles. Hence we have Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, which both managed respectable 100+ issue runs up into the 1970s.

For me, these comics are the pure crack cocaine all other comics aspire to. They’re the pop-art manic energy of Jack Kirby wrapped in suburban clothing, they’re everything Grant Morrison has homaged throughout his career. 

The insanely goofy adventures of Lois and Jimmy typically follow one pattern – hapless Jimmy and Lois get into far-out trouble, and their pal Superman has to rescue them. But in this simple pattern a world of utter insanity is kept. Jimmy Olsen becomes a werewolf, a giant Turtle-Man, a human flamethrower, a Bizarro version of himself. Lois Lane becomes a witch, a mermaid, even a black woman in a misguided attempt at relevance in the early 1970s. 


I’d argue these lowly spin-off comics in some ways serve Superman even better than his own solo adventures did – there’s rarely a fistfight or a cosmic clash, and instead the world’s most powerful superhero is often pictured as a kind of benign goofball god constantly at the beck and call of his irritating friends. 

There’s something very primal about these adventures, which all take place in a Daily Planet newspaper that seems to have about five staff, where human bodies are twisted like putty and genies, aliens and magic potions are around every corner, but everything will be back to normal by the end of the story. 

These comics are a product of their time – Lois is too often portrayed as a scheming meddler with marriage to a man (usually Superman) the only thing on her mind; but by the same token Jimmy Olsen is a gibbering goon who’s constantly getting himself into trouble as well. Yet I’d take a single Jimmy Olsen comic with their endless invention and amiable good cheer over a dozen of comic books’ latest attempts to strip-mine their past and reinvent the wheel. 

You’ll never, ever see a Jimmy Olsen movie that captures a tenth of the insanity and colour of these comics. And that’s why they’re quite possibly the peak of the comic book form. 

Marvel’s What If … why not?

kodf8yfigrevel4wiivsOne of my favourite comics from the ‘80s into the early ‘90s was Marvel’s What If? Each month, a different alternate reality would be explored – What If The Hulk were blue? What if the Fantastic Four were five? What if Wolverine was really even-tempered? 

What If? was my gateway drug into how wackily vast and imaginative the comics cosmos could be. The first issues I remember getting were ones like “What If Wolverine Killed The Hulk?” and “What If Conan Walked The Earth Today?” (which is solid GOLD). 

cleanThe biggest geek-appeal of What Ifs were that in retelling classic stories with a twist, characters could die – hell, everybody could die. “What if The Hulk Went Berserk?” was an issue that scarred the heck out of teenage me because I walked in expecting a typical Hulk story and then characters like Iron Man and The Thing started dropping like flies… oh, and it ended with Thor snapping the Hulk’s NECK which is pretty darned grimdark, ain’t it? 

The original What If? series lasted 47 issues up until 1984, most of which are pretty darned fun. The second series started in 1989 and ground on until the late 1990s but it got to be pretty darned bad by the end, going full-1990s with utterly horrible art and stories that were less grimdark and more straight-out nihilism. 

Since then, alternate realities have become pretty damned boring, mostly because they’re way overused in comics. We saw it with the X-Men “Age of Apocalypse” crossover in the mid-1990s and Jim Lee’s “Heroes Reborn” event, and now you can’t go five minutes without some other dark/doomed/daring reimagining of an existing character. I’ll take a battered 1980s issue of What If? any time where the tragic story of Spider-Man’s marriage is done and over in one issue rather than yet another all-encompassing comics event any day. 

What_If_Vol_2_41A cursory look at comics from the last few months turns up “Infinity Wars” (Marvel characters like Captain America/Dr. Strange mashed up, again!), “The Batman Who Laughs” (what if Batman was REALLY dark?), “Spider-Gwen,” “Spider-Noir” and a hundred more variations of Spider-Man. Not saying these are all terrible stories (although a lot are), but the main thing is that the novelty is gone. Whoa, you just showed me an alternative world where Superman is DEAD? I’ve seen that six times this week already, son. 

Amusingly, at least half of the stories in the old 1980s What If? series have actually “happened” in comics in the years since then, to varying returns. Marvel brushes off the What If? brand every few years with a few one-shots but they’re never as memorable as the old issues in my mind. When everything’s an alternate reality in a multiverse of characters, asking What If? isn’t as fun a question as it once was.