Friday, August 12, 2011

Angst is Back!

So Spider-man has decided to change race, change name, change preferences - well, in short create an identity crisis to rediscover his teenage angst!

For those who came in late, here is the latest: Spider-man will now be the secret identity of Miles Morales, who is half-black and half-hispanic!

This is bigger than Spider-man’s death itself (which Stan Lee had been threatening us with since the swinging sixties) as killing a superhero is nothing but a different way of going about the reboot. Ask superman. And Batman and Robin and Captain America and Asterix! (Just Kidding)

Killing a superhero doesn't really help as most of them are under the mask; a situation which the Joker famously referred to as “the Killing Joke”. Besides you have to bring them back sooner or later.

On one level a Superhero is like a business. Once you create it, you just can't kill the beast. Stab it with the steely knife all you like!

Getting back to the point, altering Spider-man’s identity is bigger than death itself. Apart from creating a bit of hype, killing a character doesn’t do much good. But when you change the identity, in Spider-man’s case the name, race and preferences, you are actually bringing the character back to the original idea: Teenage Angst!

Teenage Angst! It was the web-slinger’s biggest arsenal and did Peter Parker use it to the last ounce! But honestly, it was a bit of a joke. I mean a science genius cum superhero with not one but two girls hitting on him talking about teenage angst while sitting in his own pad!

But with Miles Morales, it’s bound to be too real. Race change is gonna bring a whole new level to Spidey’s character. There is a lot more than just hype.

But those who are outraged, don’t worry, Peter Parker will continue to play the part in the Original Amazing Spider-man. Miles Morales takes over only in the more contemporary Ultimate Spider-man Series.

So far so good! But what bothers me is the dissolution of those wonderful characters over the time. For want of a better narrative, characters after characters have suffered. Universes multiplied, came together, exploded… to what end? Another series that will promise a lot and end up in the trash can?

Friday, November 26, 2010

How To Become A Superhero!

The not-first recorded instance of this was in Detective comics # 27 where the Wayne family got mugged and in the process got killed by a local hoodlum. They were returning after watching the film Zorro, though this doesn’t seem to have instigated the crime. The upshot, Batman.
He should have gotten out of the car when the mugger had the Luger thrust up his mug. But he was proud, too damned proud. Old values and stuff like that. So the mugger shot him down and took off in his car. Too bad! He had a nephew; a potential entertainer who tried to go by the name of the Human Spider. The kid changed his name and cleaned up the act.

A beautiful family. But always nosing around. The mob didn’t like that and punished them. The mob, always punishing. Frank Castle didn’t like that and punished them, them and all the others. But just don’t seem to go kaput. He continues to punish!

No point in doing this if you already have had your dear and near ones shot on the mug (as there is no one to protect). But could come in handy if you have a girlfriend or an old aunt or some foster folks living in some Farmville. Not to mention lots of nail biting moments when someone almost catches you with your pants off!

The masked ones are no longer in fashion. A recent study has found out that you cannot create a mask without stepping on somebody’s intellectual property rights (he could be living in Guantanamo Bay for all you know). So show your mug! As you have no dear or near ones, there is no dire need to keep a secret identity. Then again, it might come in handy if you want to take up a social life. Ask the Fantastic Four. Couldn’t even get married in peace!
The Psychologically troubled ones were fad in the 80s. But this would mean a lot of killing and mutilation. Not for the faint of heart. Or like the Batman, you could act all mad and intractable. But no killings, just good old spanking.
Antiheroes still have a lot of gas left in them. Misunderstood and always on the run! Good fun.

If all else fails, be a superman in which case you can do away with all the killings. Congenital superheros have a natural inclination to put ‘em right!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How to create a Superhero!

Step 1: Create a super human.
Step 2: Turn his alter ego into a boy.
Step 3: Turn the superhero himself into a boy!

Captian Marvel. For those who’ve heard about him, he is just another one of those superheroes. For those who’ve seen him, he is better known as Shazam. But for those who knew him, he was the man who beat Superman!

Superman must have been the grand daddy of superheroes. But then Superman was a flawed superhero even though the world wouldn’t know about this until Fawcett Comics exploited it. The flaw was that Clark Kent was a man!

Fawcett's circulation director Roscoe Kent Fawcett reportedly said: "Give me a Superman, only let his alter ego be a boy!” And that, my friends, would have been a bigger marketing adage than “Bottle it!” had Fawcett continued with the hero. (But with the Golden Age coppering out and the DC lawsuit looming large, lightning struck its last!)

It was a very simple strategy. Don’t make the boy wait till he is a grown up to thwart the criminals. Grant him the wish even as he is in his underpants! Don’t worry if gaining magical powers from a wizard was as outdated as fairy tales. After all, no one fell for the extra terrestrial origins either.

But there was a trick that even Fawcett missed. The trick was that, if the alter ego can be a boy, why can’t the superhero be a boy as well? It’s always easy to be wise after the event. Nevertheless I daresay had Captain Marvel been a boy instead of the ‘big red cheese’, he would have been even a bigger hit that even the dwindling fortunes of the industry post WWII couldn’t have stopped him. Even though Captain Marvel Jr was ushered in to look into the matter, he was after all, well, a Junior! (But he had the best hairdo in the business!)

This is perhaps the reason why Stan ‘the man’Lee turned out to be the real Captain Marvel. It did not matter that his superhero was as unimaginative as the ‘Amazing Spideman’. What if he was a webbed version of Bat-Man and lost his uncle like Bruce Wayne had lost his parents? What if he liberally borrowed the Blue and Red from Superman and like Clark Kent, worked for a newspaper? Only one thing mattered. “The reader must identify with the character”. He realized that he might not be able to put three young lads and a lass on a space ship or even convert a young lad into a hulking monster. But when it comes to taking a little spider venom, a young lad is never out of place.

But Spidey was not just about the reader identifying with teen angst, it was also about Stan’s spectacular storytelling, Romita Sr’s amazing artwork and plenty of word balloons that left one with the feeling that one’s read something than look at a lot of ‘lettering’. Like, reading a short novel. Financial crisis, identity crisis, girlfriend crisis and on top of it a city swarming with all sorts of radicals. Science fiction at its best!

Post Scriptum: But unfortunately Spidey turned out to be the last action hero. Changing times demanded attitude and grit. A certain mutant by the name of Wolverine who nearly got erased out of the comic panels became a sold out star (much like a certain Steve Austin). But times were changing too fast even for him. Other washouts like Batman and Daredevil reinvented themselves. The biggest loser was the all time unidimensional do-gooder Superman who paid with his life. With independent players entering the market bringing with them all sorts of titles and characters, the second flood since the days of Noah inundated the Universe. Amidst numerous reboots and other cheap gimmicks envisioned to resurrect an art form that was once considered esoteric, one wonders if they all mustn’t be booted out than rebooted!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lucky Luke

Ah Lucky Luke! What can one say about Lucky Luke, that lonesome cowboy who couldn’t quite ride into the sunset of comic book glory? It’s a bit unfortunate! But well, that’s how the cookie has crumbled for him.

Lucky Luke is the tragic hero of European Comics, a potential main-eventer who never got the push so much so that he had to contend himself with his name being mentioned in passing

by those who doesn’t want to stop with just Asterix and Tintin while talking about European Comics; but sadly not mentioned in the same vein. A raw deal for one of the most flamboyant comic book characters ever created. Heck, I can’t remember anyone more flamboyant!

Luke may not have been as imaginative as Asterix used to be, or as ingenious as Tintin was; but heaven knows, Luke was brilliant! The very genius that catapulted the Gaul to superstardom was at work on Luke as well (to say nothing of Morris’s art work which was as distinct as that of Uderzo’s or Herge’s, if not aesthetically clean.) Imagine re-imagining Billy ‘the Kid’ as actually a kid!

So what’s he ain’t got that they got?

Any attempt at drawing comparisons with Tintin must be discouraged as they belong to entirely two different sub-genres. Tintin is ‘adolescent fiction narrated and illustrated in the style of comic books where as Lucky Luke is, just like Asterix, head to toe a pure comic book as in it doesn’t lend itself to other media. (Please refer the article Asterix Vs Tintin for more on this.)

That leaves us with the Gaul. Yet notwithstanding the similarities, even this might be gently prevented. You can write about as many cowboy heroes as you want, but a Gaul, that’s trespassing!

In Europe, the Gun-totter was immensely successful. But world over, the reception was as low as that of a cowboy flick in the 30s. Was it the due to the lack of exposure on account of being a European comic? One might argue! But I am not certain if the inherent lack of exposure on account of Luke’s European roots can be blamed for this misfortune. Brilliance outshines the setting!

Perhaps it was the creators’ presumption that the world was au fait with the Wild West that worked against Lucky Luke. As one can clearly see, the indigenous elements play far too crucial a role in the development of the plot. And one can’t appreciate the series and its subtle and sometimes ostentatious humour unless one has a working knowledge of the Wild West legends like the cattle ranchers, the gold miners, the ghost towns and names like Billy ‘the Kid’, Calamity Jane, Jesse James and the ilk.

So would it have worked for Luke had the world been familiar with the exploits of the West? I don’t think so! If being familiar was the requisite, one might have seen a huge market for Luke in US. So why did he miss out?

My reckoning is that Luke didn’t make it big in US (and subsequently in the World) due to what could be termed as “Bringingcoaltonewcastle Syndrome”. Trying to sell Westerns to Americans? That’s a laugh!

For a country that has produced more Wild West novels and comics and movies than the rest of the world put together or can ever put together, Luke was just another wannabe! That he comes in Album format doesn’t make any difference as the themes, the characters, the history were all done to standoff!

So I guess…. well, Luke was never destined for greatness. What seems like his strength seems like his weakness too.

By the way, did I tell you, I like the name Buck Bingo better!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tintin & Asterix - Trivia

I think even as I try to sound serious about comics, I shouldn’t desist from posting a bit of interesting observations. Even though in one of my earlier posts, I had said that Tintin and Asterix are as different as chalk and cheese in the sense that they don’t fall into the same genre in comics, I cannot help notice a lot of similarity between the main stars of both the comics. Maybe it’s because they are from the same backyard, or maybe it’s accidental, or maybe certain things inspire certain other things. But as the Boy Reporter appeared almost 30 years before the Gaul, I guess the onus is on the latter to vindicate his name that I am about to sully a bit.

Tintin & Asterix

All right, protagonists first! No comments on the funny nature of names. That happens with every single comic book hero. But couldn’t help notice the lack of height! Well yeah, Tintin is a boy (though he often gives the impression that he is at least a 20 year old). So he has to be short! But being the first kid on the block, he owes no one no explanation. But what about Asterix? Why does he have to be a midget? So that he’ll look cute? Or is it that before he debuted in the comic book he was part of a stock character team along with Obelix as shortso and fatso?

Haddock & Obelix

Both the protagonists got companions who are not as brilliant as them and are there mostly for comic relief! One drinks like a fish and one eats like a pig!

Snowy & Dogmatix

The dogs! The only difference here is that the latter belong to the sidekick. There is a huge mystery here. How did Dogmatix end up on Obelix’s lap instead of on Asterix’s lap, as is usually the case? I mean it’s the hero, who always has a dog, isn’t it? I mean the hero does all the adventuring, doesn’t he? I mean the hero deserves the dog, doesn’t he? So was it rather deliberate?

Calculus & Getafix

When you are in fix, get a fix! That’s what the Druid is for. Lack of technology meant that he had to fool around with potions and mistletoes. But his earlier Belgian counterpart, a certain Professor Calculus has the 20th century at his disposal and dabbles in modern day inventions. Not as potent as the magic potion, nevertheless his inventions can take you all the way to the moon. Bottom line is, both are inventors in the their own right.

Castafiore & Cacofonix

Now it’s a mere question of gender! The ladyhood and 20th century snobbery might have saved Madam Castafiore a lot of blushes, but for the poor old Cacofonix, it was tough life indeed. But then you can’t expect a bunch of bashing barbarians to have an ear for music, can you?

Apart from the main stars I can only think of one other character similarity off hand, but this one is even more striking.

Abdulla and Pepe

Aha! Both of them are spoiled brats and irritate the hell out of the readers themselves that you want to enter into the comic book just to spank the hell out them. But that’s beside the point. The point is that both of them are there for diplomatic reasons and their protection is top priority. Besides both look similar. Coincidence?

But well, even though one can point out all these similarities proudly like Thomson and Thompson, I am not going to argue that the creators of Asterix liberally helped themselves to the characters from Tintin except perhaps in the case of Pepe and to a certain extent in the case of Cacofonix. It was perhaps merely a question of creating a wide array of characters and besides in Asterix some of the stories revolve entirely around these characters, which is not the case with Tintin.

But then at the end of the day it is quite interesting to note these little similarities that add a lot of colour and breadth to the two great comic book series ever written!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Phantom & Batman

Phantom Vs Batman! Now if both the vigilantes were to lock cowls, who would win?

Oh, yes, it’s a silly question indeed. It would be the Dark Knight all the way! The Grey Ghost (or should we say, the Purple Ghost?) would be voted out by comic book lovers all across the world. Even critics, who usually bail out the underdogs, would swear by the Dark Knight. Indeed, an unfortunate state of affairs for the grand daddy of Masked Vigilantes and ‘underpants-over-the-pants’ crime fighters.

Reminds one of the Superman Vs Captain Marvel sales war way back in the 40s where the public chose the ‘Inspired’ over the Original forcing National (now DC) to sue Fawcett over intellectual property rights violation.

Just like it was plain and acknowledged that Captain Marvel was a verbatim copy of Superman, (so were all the subsequent super heroes) so was Batman a reinterpretation of The Phantom, though never really acknowledged.

Yes that is indeed a serious allegation, no doubt. But let me see if I can convince the jury. Here are the three key points of discussion.

1) Raison d'ĂȘtre – What made Christopher Standish (later Christopher Walker) to become the Phantom and what made Bruce Wayne to become the Batman were the gruesome killings of their parents. Coincidence?

2) Fear – Now this is the most telling aspect of the Phantom that was appropriated into the Batman character. One of the underlying Ideas in both the comics is the play on Fear and Superstitions. The very look of the Phantom is to induce fear among the criminals, an Idea that was liberally borrowed by Kane while creating the Batman. But neither Kane’s artwork nor the writers’ story telling ever managed to create that feeling on the pages of Batman comic. The only time I’ve seen this motif effectively captured was when Chris Nolan came out with the movie, Batman Begins.

3) The Territory – Even though the Phantom operates in the city occasionally on account of his numerous visits to meet Diana Palmer, his ladylove, Phantom’s territory is usually the Jungle. And so is Batman’s! Practically it may not be, for Gotham is a city with a Mayor and all that bureaucracy. But metaphorically even the Batman operates in the jungle. Unlike in Superman or Spiderman, the city plays a far more important role in Batman Comics. You don’t speak about Metropolis or (oops, I can’t even remember where Peter Parker lives!) in the same breath as you would speak of Gotham! Gotham plays far too critical a role in Batman comics. Just like the Phantom who cannot exist without the Jungle, so can’t Batman without the City! Just like the Phantom who needs the cover of the jungle to operate, so does the Batman, the City. In Batman, the city is a metaphor! A metaphor for the jungle where all the dangerous species take refuge. And when the night falls, the city behaves no differently from a Jungle. From the alleys, isolated buildings and dark corners, criminals crawl out for the kill. But don’t worry, Batman to the rescue!

Now before the jury retire to the chamber to make up their minds, here are a few minor points to chew upon:

4) The Mask – The Phantom may not be the first in popular fiction to wear a mask, but he certainly was the first to in comics (even though there was a fella by the name of the Clock who was masquerading around the same time). True, Batman’s mask is more of a Cowl, but just like in the case of the Phantom, the whole get up is part of the character (thanks to Bill Finger who convinced Bob Kane that a Domino mask wouldn’t just do the trick!) Yes, this is rather debatable on account of the fact that a character based on a Bat has to resemble a bat at least aesthetically and I am sure that the die-hard fans of Batman won’t just give up easily on this topic. So let’s leave it there and move on to …

5) The pupil – This was purely Lee Falk’s genius. Inspired by the Greek busts that were devoid of pupils, Falk employed the same idea on the Phantom with great result. The result, masks without pupils become a superhero standard!

6) Skin-tight costume – Yet another superhero standard, thanks to the Phantom.

7) Colours – Indeed, the Phantom wears a Purple costume where as Batman is dressed in Grey. But then the original colour of the Phantom’s costume as mentioned in the comics was Grey!

8) Underpants-Over-The-Pants – To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t Superman who introduced this standout feature of the superhero culture. It was the Phantom!

9) The Cave – This doesn’t need much explaining, does it? Both the characters use a cave as their bases.

10) Wealth – Both the characters are rich beyond one can imagine.

11) Generations – Looks like Batman will soon incorporate this aspect of the Phantom (even though to generate reader interest). Dick Grayson is touted to don the cape and in a few decades time one can expect to see Dicky retiring or giving up the cape to err, what is the name of the incumbent Robin?

I rest my case. But originality seldom sells, does it? As we all know it’s all about bottling the product! And that is what made Batman the figure that he is today and the Phantom more of a one-dimensional stock character. Again one’s attention is brought towards three decisive factors:

1) Aesthetics - There is no denying the fact that the Batman has much more appeal than the Phantom. A Masked Vigilante in a purple suit! And to say nothing of the striped overwear! Come on, gimme a break! The ideal colour could have been a deeper shade of grey as Falk had initially mentioned in the early comic strips or even black! Such a character has not even a snowball’s chance in hell against the Crusader decked up in shades of grey, with his face covered in a stunning dark mask (with bat like ears) and shrouded in a cape. Ah the cape!

2) Art – There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the artwork in the Phantom. As a matter of fact, Sy Barry’s more than 3 decades long artwork is immaculate, consistent and flawless to say the least. But as opposed to the artwork in Batman, the artwork in the Phantom lacked the edge. It’s seldom inspirational. You don’t find yourself lost in a particular panel or the use of shadows and colours. No, you can’t defend by saying that the Phantom is not much into staying awake in the night to allow shadows to play across the face. It’s about understanding the possibilities of a character. This can easily be understood if one compares Superman and Batman comics of the 60s and 70s. While Batman comics looked exciting in terms of artwork, Superman comics looked dispirited. This was because the same artists who worked on Batman comics found making Superman look respectable a bit difficult and ended up presenting a beefy hunk instead. So unlike Batman who could often take the comic book to the level of a graphic novel luring older audiences ensuring longevity, Phantom could never grow beyond the definition of a comic strip character. Nevertheless its heart warming to note that the newer artists are doing some commendable job on Phantom. Well, better late than never!

3) Villains – A hero is only as good as a villain. So one can imagine what villains like the Joker, the Two-Faces, The Penguin, The Riddler and The Catwoman (the list is endless) among others can do to Batman’s resume. One aspect that made the Phantom, the poor man’s Batman!

But even if all these aspects had been favourable, the Phantom still wouldn’t have made the cut. Because the single most important factor that can decide a character’s popularity is exposure. And that brings us to the Medium.

The Medium – This was perhaps the single most important factor that shunned the Phantom’s emergence as an internationally relevant superhero. Phantom made his appearance in comic strips instead of in a comic book. The trouble with comic strips is the fact that it doesn’t really lend itself to feature length stories, as it would take at least a few months to finish a story. And reading an adventure story, 3 panels a day doesn’t really work unless you are a die-hard fan of that particular strip. Even though the Phantom stories did get collected and were presented in the form of a comic Book, well unless the medium gets carte blanche command over a character they can’t really do much, can they? On the other hand Batman had the perfect launch pad in the form of Detective Comics. Finish the story in one go and just hope that there is some mischief brewing in Gotham so that Batty can put it right! Besides Batman often got reprieves in the form of highly successful TV Serials and Movies.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bill Watterson & Kieran Meehan

 Watterson and Meehan are the two names that come to my mind when I think of comic strips. Though there are so many successful strips and artists, to me none perform at the highest level as Watterson did and Meehan does. There is no need to wax eloquent about Watterson. I mean, what can you say about Calvin and Hobbes that has not been already stated? Well it's funny, it's witty, it's thought provoking, it's addictive, it's blah-de-blah! So i will talk about Meehan instead.

 Meehan is not Watterson. His claim to fame - A lawyer, a doctor and a cop (now called Pros & Cons) may take some more time before it might draw comparisons with Calvin. But to me Meehan is Watterson!

 (1) While Watterson created a boy who thinks, talks and acts like a grown up, ever dwelling on life and fate, Meehan created a bunch of grown ups who think, talk and act like children.

 Sample this: 

 & (2), Both Calvin and LDC are rather formulaic. 

 Well, the formulaic bit is true for almost all the strips. There is a set of stock characters, who operate in a particular environment and who deal with certain recurring situations.  But more often than not, most of these strips suffer from lack of consistency in humour. So maybe i should have said: (2) Both Calvin and LDC are overly formulaic. 

 While other strips tend to be wary of recreating similar situations, both Calvin and LDC seem over-enthusiatic about it. As a matter of fact both the strips thrive on being highly formulaic. Yet we love it. Look forward eagerly to the next strip. That leaves us with the most obvious question to ponder about: is being formulaic the key to producing the most funniest of strips? 

Perhaps. But i think the success of these two strips stem from three different factors. Three factors that can be considered so unique to these two strips. 1) The Simplicity 2) The Artwork & 3) The Smile!

 1) The Simplicity

While strip artists tend to think clever with the result that it becomes rather contrived,  both Watterson and Meehan think simple (sometimes outrageously so!) in that they look at real life situations and try to appropriate them into their respective worlds and thus create a contrast resulting in a sense of ludicrousity but more often than not, clever!

2) The Artwork

For most of the artists, artwork is to a large extent representaional. The artwork is there cause the medium demands it; to turn a joke into a comic strip. This is where Watterson and Meehan again scores over the rest of the pack. Instead of confining the artwork to communicate emotions, Watterson and Meehan take emotions beyond their generic form resulting in more subtle expressions. 

Spare a glance on the poise of most of the LDC characters. It requires incredible artistic skills to synchronise the emotions and body language so well especially when you portray them as having kiddish personalities.

To understand the brilliant artwork that Watterson is bestowed with, all you need to do is look at this one strip.

But having said that if you strip both the strips off its artwork, then you are left with a few lines that won’t even make any sense. A few of them would, i am sure, those that are cleverly written like the LDC example above. But look at the other examples contained in this article, especially the one involving the cadet. Most of the LDC strips are in that vein.  So if it's not the words that generate humour as is in the case of the first example,  then where does the humour come from?

It stems from the smile that never takes leave of the characters. 

3) The Smile

As far as I am concerned, this is the trump. Both Calvin and the characters of LDC always have a smile on their face - a wide optimistic, self-indulgent smile. In the case of LDC you can add the words, ethereal and kiddish! And without those smiles, the humour in most of the strips would just be lost.

 For most of you Meehan maynot be quite as familiar as Watterson is. So for all those uninitiated, here is the link to Meehan’s website -

(all the strips presented in this article have been used for illustrational purpose only)