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Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Many Styles of Rich Buckler

Rich Buckler has been called many things, notably a swiper of other artists' work or ideas. I'd prefer to call him a talent, able to produce whatever style the job demanded or his editors asked of him. For many Bronze Age Babies, we cut our teeth on Buckler's Fantastic Four. When I came to that mag, Buckler was just coming out of his phase where he aped Jack Kirby. One could do worse. But just before Buckler left the book (turning it over to a young George Perez), his style had changed, coming into a bit more distinct look.

Of course, Buckler was virtually omnipresent on Marvel's 1970s covers, competing with Gil Kane and Kirby for ubiquity. As the 70s gave way to the 80s, Buckler landed at DC where he again turned in stellar work. While Rich Buckler will most likely never be mentioned among the masters, he must be considered one of the Bronze Age greats, for sheer output alone. And if you dig deep, you may be surprised at just how much he put his hands on - corner boxes, covers on mags you'd least expect (the All-New, All-Different X-Men, for example), and big projects like DC's Limited Collectors' Edition treasuries.

Samples of Buckler's work (below) include:

Avengers 104 (1972), inked by Joe Sinnott
Fantastic Four 150 (1974), inked by Sinnott
Saga of the Original Human Torch 2 (1990), inked by Danny Bulanadi
All-New Collectors' Edition C-58 (1978), inked by Dick Giordano
Action Comics 486 (cover)(1978), inked by Frank Giacoia
Tarzan 25 (cover)(1979), inked by Bob McLeod

Monday, January 28, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History, Chapter 1 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History (1986)
"The Shiek" - Volume 1, Chapter 1
Art Spiegelman

Were you a buyer of so-called "underground" comics... or comix, if you will? Not me. If you've been with me since Thanksgiving, you're probably thinking "what on earth did you read when you were a kid?" Four-color superhero comics, friends - and that is all. That's the main reason I opened this space: to share what I am experiencing for the first time as a middle-aged adult. But this book today... with it, I have a bit of a history.

I vividly recall walking through the Follett's bookstore in the Bone Student Center on the campus of Illinois State University back in 1986. My fiancee had recently transferred to ISU, and I was attending nearby Eureka College. We were together on a Saturday, strolling around Normal, IL. I'd recently resumed my collecting of comics when I spied a copy of Maus at the bookstore. As a history major, that cover's combination of anthropomorphic animals and a large swastika was a magnet. I picked up the book, thumbed through it quickly, and plunked down the $8.95 (can you imagine that today - less than $10 for a 160-page tpb??). Once back at Eureka, I cracked it open and began to read. And read. And read. The whole book, straight through. It was spellbinding. I'm about to say something that probably doesn't reflect well on the high school I went to, or on Eureka: Maus was my introduction to the Holocaust. And upon the completion of my degree in 1988, Maus was far and away the most pivotal piece of history to which I'd by that time been exposed. Fast forward to the early 1990s, after the second Maus compilation had been published. I'd purchased a copy asap, and had it with me on a weekend with a few of my athletes at the state track meet. The coaches stay in the dorms at Eastern Illinois University, and I was in for the evening. As I had several years earlier, I devoured Maus II in one sitting.

Upon landing my first full-time teaching position in 1990, I was mandated by Illinois state law to teach the Holocaust. I did so dutifully through our various world- and US history textbooks. But a few years into my tenure I persuaded a couple of colleagues to join me in using Maus to expand our Holocaust unit. And expand it we did, eventually adding Spiegelman's second volume to create a 4-week unit of study for our freshmen world history students. The kids really took to this resource, and would often head to the local Barnes & Noble to read ahead in the evenings. To this day, with literally thousands of my students exposed to this book, I've yet to have a teen tell me they didn't love reading this book. It is part biography, part autobiography, psychology, sociology, history - a tour of the social sciences. But most of all it is human. And can't we all relate to that?

In 2001, I began a relationship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that continues to the present. I'd like to think Maus was responsible for my interest in the Holocaust, and even the impetus that encouraged me to go deeper in my study of the subject, eventually honored by being asked to facilitate teacher trainings around the country. Today I'd like to begin a series of short reviews (one for each chapter), exploring this important story.

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the date (1-27-1945) the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz.

100-Word Review:

We open with a slice-of-life scene from 1958, three boys roller skating. When one falls and hurts his ankle, his friends laugh and speed away. Finding his father at home, the little boy remarks what his friends had done – “Friends?” exclaims his father. And we are introduced to Art and Vladek Spiegelman, the cartoonist son who will interview his Holocaust-surviving father for use in a biography of his life and wartime experiences. We will see Vladek’s pre-War days, and his engagement to Art’s mother, Anja. Through these years, we’ll also get a sense of Vladek’s resourcefulness, and his tenacious personality.

The Good: I love Maus. I really do. I think what I like best about it is that Art Spiegelman crafts this comprehensive and horrific tale of his parents' downward spiral into the whims of Nazism, with anthropomorphic animals no less, and it comes across as poetically beautiful. The metaphors make sense, and are never presented as flip or inappropriate. Honestly, I think by the time my students have hit the 4th or 5th page, they've forgotten that the characters are not depicted as people.

When I facilitate teacher trainings through the USHMM, we at some point stress to the teachers that it's not healthy for students, nor is it appropriate toward memory, if Jews are only shown as victims in the Holocaust narrative. As the child of survivors, Art Spiegelman was wholly aware of that. I can recall as a first-time reader enjoying the backstory of the Spiegelmans and Zylberbergs and their friends and extended families. I also recall finding it unexpected. Again, with little Holocaust background in 1986, I assumed I'd see concentration camps from the beginning. But Spiegelman shows what a vibrant life existed for Polish Jews ahead of the September 1939 German invasion. This serves, as the tale progresses, to heighten the loss as these "characters" to whom we've been introduced begin to be affected by the changes to their lives.

In spite of Vladek's plea to keep the romance portions of his verbal memoir out of the book, I'm glad Art included it. Does it truly serve any purpose once the events of the pre-War years begin to escalate? Perhaps, perhaps not. I enjoyed those vignettes because they give us a look into what makes Vladek tick - his OCD, his meddling, his concern about his financial situation. We also to some extent see his conceit, and I really think that it's his heightened self-worth that will benefit him later. There was no quit in Vladek Spiegelman, in large part because he saw himself as a winner. 

Although taking place 50 years before I'd have experienced such things, the chronicling of Vladek's love life also brought an "everyman" feel to the reader. While I don't know that I've ever been likened to Rudolf Valentino (or any other movie star, for that matter), situationally Vladek found himself in tough spots as well as heartwarming places. Art Spiegelman humanizes his father through the presentation of all the little vignettes of his young adulthood.

Before I leave this section for other thoughts, I want to heap one more praise on Spiegelman's organization of the story. That he leads the book with a throwaway incident from his own childhood is perfect. In a single scuffed ankle, Art allows us to look deep inside Vladek's personality and also peel back the curtain on the history that will be revealed later. What a table setting.

The Bad: Every time I read Maus, which is often since we use it with high school students each year, I find myself getting a little stressed whenever the "present" of Vladek's and Mala's home is the setting. There is so much tension in those scenes - arguing, mistrust, accusations, discontent. Really - it raises my stress level! It's sad, pathetic, and like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It's no wonder Art suffered emotional duress. All that being said, those portions of the story are again necessary in the formation of the gestalt that is Vladek Spiegelman. I really think it helps to provide surprises as further personality traits of Vladek are revealed as his life's events and circumstances unfold. But I always find myself longing for a return to Vladek's historical narrative - certainly the telling of stressful events in themselves!

The Ugly: Near the beginning of the second volume of Maus, Art remarks to his wife, Francoise Mouly, that in many regards Vladek is the stereotype of the "miserly old Jew". The reader might get this sense early, as Vladek often refers to money both in the present as well as in his relating of his biographical events. In one particular instance, he remarks that he would not have married Lucia Greenberg, as her father did not have enough for a respectable dowry. We'll see this sort of thing as we march along. 

And no explanation is given toward any background of that stereotype of the Jew and money. It actually stems from the Middle Ages, when Jews were forbidden to be employed in any work other than moneylending or money changing; or tax collecting. As both Christianity and Islam had prohibitions against believers lending money to other believers at interest, it didn't take long to come to the conclusion that a 3rd party could be used to circumvent religious law. Hence, the Jew - unable to provide for himself or his family through medicine, law, academics, etc. - became forever tied to money. It's an ugly stereotype that persists to the present, throughout the world.

I'd love to revisit Maus once a month for the duration of writing these reviews. With 11 chapters to deal with, this should take us right up to just about the one year anniversary of this blog. That certainly won't be a bad way to spend part of our time. And please leave a comment on today's post, or if you've read the book and want to even tell of something you're looking forward to discussing, by all means...

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Super Blog Team-Up: The Redemption of Red Sonja - a Review from SSoC 1

Savage Sword of Conan #1 (August 1974)
"Curse of the Undead-Man"
Roy Thomas-John Buscema/Pablo Marcos

Welcome to the first Super Blog Team-Up of 2019. I'm somewhat of a seasoned veteran of these interweb collaborations, but this is my first appearance as a solo act on this blog. I'd encourage you to check out my previous participation as one half of the Bronze Age Babies. This time around we're discussing Redemption. When Charlton Hero of the Superhero Satellite approached me about joining today's fun, and of course knowing my focus on black & white comics, it didn't take long to choose today's topic.

Several years ago on the Bronze Age Babies blog I'd reviewed Conan the Barbarian #24, "The Song of Red Sonja". That post, as well as quite a bit of reading of Savage Sword of Conan mags, made this almost obvious. Here's a snippet from the end of that Conan post:
Doug: Sonja explains that the wizard of Pah-Dishah had given her an incantation to keep the serpent tiara an actual crown. However, she forgot what to say as she first held the precious bauble. Sonja offers Conan to take as many jewels as he can carry - he declines, saying he has to live yet in the city. Then he tells her that he fought tonight, after all, for other rewards. Leaving the tower, Sonja rappels quickly downward, far faster than the Cimmerian. He calls to her to slow down, but as she hits the ground she quickly lights the rope afire. It literally burns through Conan's hands, and he falls hard to the ground. Stunned, with legs that won't work quite right, Conan nonetheless reaches Sonja - who is not atop her mount. He tells her that she'll pay him now with kisses aplenty.  She explains that no man shall have her, lest he first best her in battle. And that is something (as she rides away, knocking Conan down yet again) he shall not do this night.  Beyond angry, Conan smoulders as he limps back into town - vowing to have that woman, even if she least expects it.
Today I want to delve into Sonja's next appearance, her 3rd overall. This would come in the pages of Savage Sword of Conan #1, of course in the black & white format. It's worth noting that the shift from the color monthly to the B&W mag also brought a change in artist, but perhaps more notably a completely revamped look. And what a look! Designed by Esteban Maroto and approved by Roy Thomas, John Buscema brought the chain-mail bikini to the masses - and in the first full-panel reveal, an iconic image. Let's look then, at a 100-Word Review:

Zamora’s “Maul” finds a certain Cimmerian in search of debauchery. Approached by a trio of ladies of the evening, Conan contends that he has no money for… drinking. Enticed, Conan strides deeper into the Maul in search of “skulls to crack”. However, a cacophony of screeching, fleeing priests draws our barbarian into adventure. Soon overwhelmed in a brawl of swordplay, Conan’s would-be murderer is himself run through – by Red Sonja. Renewing grudges, our Hyborian heroes set off to solve the mystery of a severed-but-bejeweled finger. Sonja tells of a wizard executed and a curse – the Curse of the Undead Man, upon the head of Berthidla the Brythunian.
As is my general habit in writing reviews, let's examine this 18-page tale in a 3-tiered judgment.

The Good: I think it's appropriate whenever reading a John Buscema-penciled story to heap praises on the art. This story would be no exception! I'm not always the biggest fan of Pablo Marcos's inks, but his performance is pretty solid over Buscema here. On Savage Sword, I've generally preferred Alfredo Alcala and sometimes Tony DeZuniga over Buscema. But Marcos doesn't fail Buscema or the readers in this story. Anyway, the panel layouts are typical Buscema - no barriers broken, but a nice double-page spread in the midst of the action. Red Sonja is suitably sexy, although with little left to the imagination in her new "outfit". I preferred her in her original Barry Smith-designed garments (regardless of how impractical the hotpants were).

John Buscema excelled at two things in the sword and sorcery genre - beautiful women, and ugly bad guys. There is no shortage of either here. From the prostitutes who greet Conan on page 2 to the thugs overpowering him in the first battle, Buscema just turns it loose. The choreography of the execution of the wizard Costranno was also top shelf. Another excellent scene that turns up time and again in Buscema-illustrated Conan yarns is the bar brawl. We get that, and are better for it. This one is especially fun, as it's Sonja who deals out lessons.

I enjoyed the interplay between Conan and Red Sonja. Conan was of course still smarting from her treatment (and besting) of him in their previous adventure, and her rescue of him near the beginning of this story only poured salt in that wound. But Roy Thomas writes some effective banter, the two mercenaries support each other in battle, and the last panels of the story leave just enough open to the reader's imagination to believe that all previous transgressions are forgiven and that a flagon of wine will indeed be shared. Red Sonja had redeemed herself in the eyes of the barbarian. Now, whether or not he got that kiss is another matter...

The Bad: I'm really waffling on the plot here. I've read this story three times, and each time I just feel that my cup's not quite full. Don't get me wrong - I like it. It's just different from a lot of Conan stories. Conan himself wasn't wronged, no one is out to get him, he's not after some treasure of any sort, he isn't seeking to protect a female "friend" (although he does venture deeper than he needs to out of a sense of honor). This one is a sort of mystery. Again, that's not bad... just different. I didn't mind that Conan and Sonja had a chance encounter - those things can always be explained away. See what I'm doing here? Waffling. To firmly put my finger on it, I guess I'll say that there was nothing new here. Wizard, thugs, monster, tons of swordplay... just a solid Conan story. There was a slight twist at the end - that Berthidla the Brythunian wasn't all that thankful toward our heroes for the rescuing. But even that seemed to be easily written off by Conan and Sonja.

But you know what this really was? A vehicle. A vehicle to launch Red Sonja into a solo color book and further appearances in the B&W mags. Granted, it would take a little over a year for her Marvel Feature series to begin, but in the interim she showed up seven times in various barbarian-themed periodicals. If that's the worst thing that could happen, then my concerns are misplaced.

The Ugly: I think I always put a character's countenance in this section when I review a John Buscema tale. No human stood out to me, so I'll just mention the big hairy arm that rose out of the pit in an effort to pull Sonja below. That had to be scary, and what was on the other end of that limb must certainly have been unpleasant.

Please patronize the other blogs and podcasts in today's event. You won't be sorry to have invested a bit of time along the way!

Coffee and Comics: Green Lantern #100

Two Staple Gold: Just a Pilgrim

Comic Reviews By Walt: Shredder 

The Superhero Satellite: The Walking Dead - “Redeeming Negan”

Comics Comics Blog : Elfquest - Cutters Redemption

Longbox Review: Nightwing's Redemption

Between The Pages Blog:  The Secret Origin Of Spider-Man

The Unspoken Decade: What If V2 #46 and #47

The Daily Rios:

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: The Pied-Piper Reforms! Flash (vol.2) #31

Crapbox Son Of Cthulu:

In My Not So Humble Opinion - The Other Side of the Wind - The Redemption of Orson Welles

The Retroist Via Vic Sage

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Penance - The Redemption of Speedball

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